By Babafemi Opeyemi Pamela
There must be something about rainfall that unfailingly awakens the monster in Toye, though this demon in him functioned readily at other times, too. The hot slap in the quiet of the dawn, when the sky was just gently brightening, the careless punch at noontime, when the sun was high up, and the temperature that made his blood simmer was somehow my fault, not the sun’s. Especially the cruel beatings very late at night (when the world is still and many are benumbed to the chirpings of crickets) were enough to prove this merciless beast indeed animated at the slightest provocation and had no regard for time. But it is the sound of heavy rain that seemed to excite him specially. It must be how, to the scattered rhythm of the downpour, his weighty blows landed on my frail body, and the rainstorm swallowed my piercing screams. Neighbours, too, could completely pretend they didn’t hear me cry for help. It didn’t even matter if they heard or not. Everyone minded their business when it came to a man and his wife. The gross vulnerability I often felt when Toye hit me at this time is why the sound of rain would always paralyze me from the inside, like chocolate melting inside its wrap.
Lara, my neighbour, a stay-at-home mother of two—and who I think too loquacious to be sane—told me one Saturday morning, as we did laundry at the end of our large compound, how it was sweeter to make love when it rained. I let her do all the talking, as usual. She wouldn’t just let me be: she always forgot to wash her clothes and those of her children and husband until she saw me carrying bowls and buckets to the central tap that served all the tenants of the two-story building belonging to ‘Old Soul-ja,’ a retired Army officer. The grumpy man lived on the topmost floor with his last son, Aliu, and once threatened to send his boys to deal with my husband the next time he laid his hands on me. He never made good on that promise, just like he never brought out his much-touted array of machine guns.
That morning, I let Lara talk while I smiled and nodded sporadically.
“Abi, what do you think, Iyawo?” She eventually tapped me with her wet hands, asking what I thought about the collection of numerous letters she must have believed were actual sentences, the ones that danced briefly in my soapy water before jumping out and over my head.
“You are right,” I said, hoping the basic reply would fit whatever she had uttered earlier. It did. She continued her chattering, not the least bothered by the fact that I was visibly not intent on the conversation—her conversation with herself.
The breeze is presently blustering the house draperies aggressively. I want to get up and shut the windows, but I close my eyes and welcome the intense feeling the fierce wind is arousing.
What a wedding I had! The songs played, the meals served, and the colorful attires of both families and friends were all exquisite. I was a beautiful bride. Everybody said so. I was the cynosure of all eyes.
My stepmother, elegantly dressed in a luxurious lace fabric—those really expensive ones with very intricate designs—seemed very happy for me. With her bold makeup, jewelry, heavily painted nails, and complementary bag and shoes, one would think the day was about her.
When I first brought Toye home to meet her, she had asked him to excuse us and pulled me into the kitchen under the laughable guise of getting soft drinks together. I mean, we had never gotten anything from the kitchen together for anyone. I knew she wanted to say something.
“So, you are tired of me in this house, and the next thing on your agenda is marriage? Abi, is that not why you have brought a man home? How old are you again?” Her arms were akimbo, and her neck extended forward. She looked like she truly wanted an answer.
“It’s not like that, ma,” I said, staring down at the tray I had just picked from the cabinet. My stepmother and I didn’t always get along.
“How is it like, eh?” She shifted her legs and folded her arms in front of her as though about to fight. I ignored her and went on to wipe the tray with a clean kitchen towel.
I had purposely not informed her until that afternoon, when Toye’s car was already parked outside our gate, and he was walking towards the house, that a male friend of mine was coming to see her. I told her he would like to discuss something important with her. I stressed the word important and thought I saw her growing boils all over her skin as she stood up and peered through the window. She asked me to let him in, and after exchanging pleasantries and excusing ourselves in the name of drinks, there we were, standing in the small and humid kitchen.
“Or are you pregnant, Jane? Are you already pregnant for him?” She demanded, startling me with a jab on my shoulder. Her voice had risen. We were taking more time than needed to get refreshments. I wondered what Toye must be thinking, sitting alone in the living room, my drunkard father’s portraiture staring vacantly at him. The old framed drawing was probably meant to make up for all the time he spent away from home. I saw him only every other day, mostly in the sitting room, either mumbling into his bottle of gin—sometimes I think he did see demons and spirits and talked to them glibly in his delirious state—or deeply asleep on the couch, snoring loudly.
“No. I’m not pregnant!” I retorted, walking past her to the fridge. We still had malt drinks. I picked up two bottles.
“Add some chin-chin in a saucer for him,” she said rather nicely. She must have been greatly relieved. People would fault her if I had gotten pregnant out of wedlock. It must be why she looked very pleased on my wedding day. It didn’t matter that I was getting married at nineteen and in my third year at the university. Let gossip say I went into marriage hastily because she was the wicked stepmother; as long as I was getting properly married, she had done well.
My father, after mulishly insisting we have a church wedding as well, eventually accepted Toye’s resolution to have a traditional ceremony only.
“I don’t want a church or court wedding, darling. All those are superfluous.” Toye had said on one of our dates.
“You are not missing anything by not following the status quo. Our ancestors married traditionally, and that was it. Love was all that mattered.” His voice was slightly tinged with emotion.
I agreed. I always agreed, welcoming his words like gold dust sprinkling before my face. He was fearless and daring. I liked how he challenged things and followed his own ways, and I admired him even more as he bragged about giving me the best traditional ceremony ever.
When the big day arrived, my father sat with complete abandon in his white agbada, donning a cap made of asooke—the same material as the audacious headdress of his wife, my stepmother. He looked as though he was telling God in his mind how he did his best to get us wedded by a priest as well—the established drunkard and womanizer that he was, fighting for God’s right to officiate a wedding in proxy. I never did understand him or his priority of morals and piety. Maybe a church wedding for his only daughter would have afforded him an excuse to nobly step into a church again after so long.
Barely four months after I married, my father earned himself a bed space at the hospital. He was suffering from some chronic liver problem, and my stepmother sent for me. Although I didn’t like him that much, I promptly went and spent a few hours at his bedside, tending to him. Toye was not home when I left but still managed to be very mad at me for not seeking his permission before going.
That night, I met the monster in my husband for the first time, and this monster aimed brutally at my stomach.
I got acquainted with Toye at the beginning of my second year at the university. We met at a bus terminus; afterwards, he was all over me. We went on surreptitious dates where he continually spoke of how beautiful I was and how I deserved the world. When I told my friends about my new love, they were bothered about the age difference, but I didn’t mind. Toye was, in fact, my ideal man—brawny and tall with a flawless complexion—and when he smiled, he immediately took on a youthful look which was enough for me to forget all about his balding head and the few greys that graced his beard.
“I am still unmarried because I loved the wrong women, baby. I gave my heart and all to people who eventually betrayed me.” He once said, with such sobriety, you could feel his broken heart behind his broad chest.
One had cheated him of a large sum of money and ran away. Another got pregnant for another man.
I saw the pain and disappointment in his eyes as he recounted these to me. He must have seen the same in mine as he repeatedly kicked my belly that night.
The monster in him was eventually pacified at the sight of the blood flowing down my thigh. He rushed me to the hospital where, after being cleaned up, I watched the day gradually dawn, mourning the loss of what would have been my first child — and the stranger Toye had suddenly become.
I sit on the floor, trying to steady my breath. I still have two weeks to go; two weeks for this to be over. I don’t know if it is the wind getting stronger or the gathering clouds turning the entire sky gray that is fueling my uneasiness. I feel the heavy breeze lick my body all over, but I am sweating still.
How I had fallen head over heels in love! We had just finished lectures for the day when I told my coursemate, Nkechi, I was getting married soon. She looked me straight in the eyes for what seemed like several minutes before self-consciously averting her gaze. It wasn’t envy I saw in her eyes, though I told myself it was. I don’t know how she made it to 28, unmarried, and still in the University. I was one of the privileged few in the class who knew her real age. She didn’t behave like she was a decade older than many of us. Thankfully, her stature didn’t betray her.
“Why don’t you finish your degree before considering marriage?” She asked softly, and I could swear her voice was quivering.
I didn’t reply. What would I say? Toye was quite older than me and eager to start a family. I didn’t want to delay him.
“What is rushing you, Jane? What?” Nkechi continued.
I thought of my dreams of being independent and self-reliant, getting a job after graduation, and having my own flat.
“I will get married when I find love, and I have,” I said calmly, fiddling with the chain of my handbag. I wasn’t sure that was the right answer, but I said it anyway.
My stepmother hugged me very tightly when I visited her at the house six months after my marriage to Toye. Talk about distance making the heart grow fonder. Then, releasing me from her embrace a moment later and looking at me studiously, she said:
“Oh my . . . you look like hell! Is everything alright, Jane?” I smiled and shrugged.
Going by positive confessions, I didn’t look like hell — or whatever that meant. I looked like heaven. We were taught to speak words like “I am wealthy” or “I am prosperous” if struggling with money or having financial issues. Or to say “I am healthy” when sick. Several times, my brain suggested to me, “My husband is not a beast,” but it didn’t feel very right in my mouth. It was living in denial, and living in denial was more painful to me than accepting the reality that my husband was indeed a wife-hitting beast. Positive affirmations were futile in my case.
I had always looked forward to a memorable first nuptial night. Just before she died two days later at the community hospital, my mother told me my virginity was my pride. I was twelve, and I understood. So, I stayed away from boys and sex.
Early in our relationship, Toye hinted he wanted some action down there, and I firmly declined. Soon after, he was talking about marriage. Mother was right in saying if a man loves you, don’t let him touch you, then he will marry you.
I didn’t think of anything else until thoughts that maybe Toye didn’t love me as much as I thought he did and had ample time to feast inside my head during what I had imagined would be a night of mutual pleasure and devoted consummation of our love. There he was, mindlessly grinding into me like a piece of cloth, an object. It wasn’t about us but him—his conquest, his victory.
Over the course of our honeymoon and well into our marriage, my body ceased to be mine. I would often recall my mother lying feebly on her hospital bed with a badly battered body and bruised lips. She forgot to tell me about finding worth in myself as a woman. Or about the kind of men who respect women.
My father told everyone my mother fell while scrubbing the bathroom. For years, I repeated that to myself till awful memories of her being beaten by him started to fade. I know her family knew who was responsible for the injuries that eventually led to her death. Despite his maltreatment and violence, they had advised her to stay with my father through the years. To them, she was fortunate to still be the only wife despite having just a child—and a female one at that. They rightly lost their voices to accuse him of anything when her corpse was released at the mortuary.
The giant air conditioner buzzing in the Faculty office did not help the extreme heat and restlessness I was feeling inside. I have visited the emergency room a number of times since my wedding. I had scars begging to be hidden, and I no longer visited my stepmother. To say I was a shadow of myself would be an understatement. Being married to Toye had marred me, and I was no longer the same.
My entire ribcage was in a state of continual ache from several blows and punches, and I always shuddered at the sound of anything close to Toye’s voice—my brain always checking to make sure I hadn’t done anything that could make him furious. Yet, that familiar unnerving feeling did not compare to the dread I felt sitting outside the Dean’s office, facing his secretary who looked like she had been very diligent typing a memo on her computer and wasn’t just announcing to a member of staff—a lecturer I was quite close to until I got married—over the phone, few seconds before I stepped in for the third time that week, that my case was hopeless, and there was nothing the Dean could do on the faculty level.
I had gone to the senate building, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, and the Student’s Affairs office. I had collected a letter from my Head of Department, with my medical reports attached, going back and forth, trying to justify my absence for a whole semester and subsequently missing all my assessments and examinations. I was told to come back at 11 AM that morning. By then, the Dean would be on seat. When I pulled open the half-closed door, the secretary put her phone down carefully on her desk, looked up, and feigned a quick smile.
“Good morning Miss . . . sorry, Mrs. Adumo.” I hated the sound of that. “The Dean just stepped out.” She continued.
“Okay. Will he be back soon?”
“Yes. You can have your seat.” She said, motioning to a seat.
Dr. Lawson was concerned about my situation and promised to call the Dean’s secretary on my behalf. Perhaps she could get privileged information that would hint at my fate. So there it was, still ringing in my ears. My case was hopeless, and there was nothing anybody could do.
An hour later, seated on a chair in front of the Dean, I heard how sorry he was to let me know what I did had resulted in automatic withdrawal from my undergraduate degree program.
I was at the hospital on admission, after yet another miscarriage, at the time of registration. When I was discharged, I should have immediately taken steps to officially defer my studies when Toye, who promised to take over the cost of my tuition fee after marriage, wasn’t forthcoming as well.
But I wasn’t thinking of anything except my failing marriage and lost babies. I wasn’t thinking about anything except rain: the depressing feeling it gave me as it hit the ground rapidly, wetting the soil and splattering mud; the chills it always sent down my spine and the colour black I saw on unlucky days when it all ended.
I walked out of the Dean’s office, past the secretary, and into the corridor, with a very big lump in my throat. My eyes were glazed in tears that would not fall: I blinked until my eyes were clear. I was not going to cry. I was going to save my tears for another day.
But I was wrong. I had barely opened the front door when I burst into tears. I wailed for the loss of my very life. Toye was not at home again. He hadn’t been for three days.
I spoke with my cousin, Kemisola, on a Monday. I had last seen her in person on my wedding day. She had left the wedding arena to relate to me while I dressed up, what she overheard some women saying about my father—that he was the wife and my stepmother the husband, that he couldn't dare hit her like he always hit my mother because my stepmother was the breadwinner, that my stepmother only married him to shut the mouth of those mocking her for not being in a man’s house in spite of her business success, and I wondered why she was being a tattletale on such an important occasion.
“And why do you think you must tell me this right now, Kemi?” I snapped. “You could have waited until later, or better still, let it stay with you!” I clipped my necklace firmly and arose. I threw my traditional bride veil over myself, picked my fancy hand fan, and left her in the room, dazed.
After the ceremony, we didn’t contact each other except twice over the phone.
As we spoke again that Monday, she told me she was leaving Nigeria soon to continue her studies.
“I need a place to hide for a while.” I pleaded after explaining my situation to her.
“You can stay in my house while I’m away.” She said, her voice laced with concern.
“This would be between us both, Kemi. Please.”
“Okay. . . Come over as soon as you can.”
When I arrived in Abuja two days later, on the wings of my meagre savings, a scent of peace greeted me in a way I knew was still far from me. Toye was not home when I left. He had returned from one of his unannounced absences and barked at me for daring to ask where he had been for days, so I never asked again.
I wasn’t sure if he would look for me when he came home to an empty house. Good riddance, he might say, since all his actions had been pointing to the silent truth he would like to dispose of me. I didn’t know how a man that claimed to love me to his last breath turned around to despise me so much.
Between Jebba and Minna, I sobbed quietly, thinking of my plight and why I was running away from what was supposed to be home. Then, I remembered Nkechi when the bus reached Abaji. I wanted to go back to that day, to give her a different reply.
Kemi came to the park to take me to her place in Bwari. I didn’t want to speak to anyone, so I broke my SIM card upon getting there. Kemi introduced me to her landlady, Mummy Joy, a Senior Nurse at a private hospital. The woman lives alone; her husband is late, and all her children are abroad. Before Kemi eventually left for further studies, she got me a new SIM card so we could keep in touch.
The last thing I ever thought I would do for money was wash. But I became a laundrywoman in Abuja after two months of sitting at home doing nothing aside from weeping and thinking. Though Kemi left me some money and filled the store with foodstuffs, I decided to work and save more for the baby I was expecting. There would be bills to pay and other expenses to cater to. I didn’t want to burden anyone; besides, no one, except Kemi, knew I was carrying a baby, not even the father.
When I found out I was pregnant again, I decided not to lose it like I did the others. It crossed my mind to wonder if it was intentional, maybe a kind of fetish for Toye, to get me pregnant and then kick the baby out of my womb. I don’t know why I still wanted to have his baby after all I suffered from him. But I was already pregnant, and if Toye got to know about it, the monster in him would find a reason—a stain on a shirt I laundered for him, a meal not as hot, or that he brought a friend home and I disrespected him by not being cheerful enough, to cause me one more miscarriage. I couldn’t bear that kind of pain again. It was why I ran far away from him.
As my pregnancy progressed, I went from house to house, washing dirty clothes for career women too busy to do their laundry themselves. On seeing my protruding belly, a few of them were reluctant to let me help them for a cost, but I pestered.
“Please, ma, I am doing this for the sake of my baby.”
“Let me help you, please. I need the money for when I deliver.”
“I am saving for delivery, ma. Help me.”
A few of them paid me even more than I had charged them for my services. A nursing mother I started to wash for twice a week gave me some baby clothes and told me things to expect as a first-time mum. We became friends, but I never told her anything else about me. The pain was easier to bear without eyes staring at me in pity. I didn’t tell Mummy Joy much, too, though I knew her questions were sincere and well-intentioned, and she often brought me home-cooked meals when she was off shift and registered me for antenatal at her workplace, all bills on her. I preferred to have that air of mystery about me, even with her.
I was in my 37th week when my stepmother called. Kemi, who had been ringing regularly from abroad to check on me, had been relaying to me:
“Your father and stepmother are worried about you.”
“My brother told me your father locked Toye up in a cell at the police station for a week before his friend came to bail him.”
“I learned there have been two family meetings already, discussing your being missing without a trace.”
And after months of filling me with the news:
“Don’t you think it’s time we let your stepmom know you are alive and in Abuja? For goodness’ sake, she is worried sick!”
So, I let Kemi give her my new contact on the condition she checked herself from revealing where I was or that I was pregnant.
My stepmother’s voice was heavy with grief and longing. I couldn’t believe she cared about me that much until she wept stridently while telling me she found out Toye was now married to another woman and had since moved out of our former residence.
“I am so sorry. I opened my eyes and allowed you to marry that stupid man. I have always known he is a devil,” she wailed.
How she knows who is or isn’t a devil is not my problem. How Toye's married is. He is married to another woman after wrecking my life for crying out loud! I don’t even have a certificate for my marriage to him. No legal paper to testify I ruined myself just by being married to him. What exactly did he tell his new bride?
“Your father is back in the hospital again,” she continued, saying, “His health is worsening. Please, come home, Jane. Let him see you before he dies, at least. . .” I pulled the phone away from my ear and bowed my head in a cruel mixture of shame, bitterness, and anger.
I wanted to weep so loud but felt a sharp pain in my tummy instead. I held my bulging stomach and winced.
It is about to rain, and I am in great distress. The baby in my abdomen is moving in a strange way. It is presently half past seven, and Mummy Joy has since left for her night shift. I want to tell her how I am feeling. I keep dialing her number; it is ringing but is not picked up. I send a text.
An hour is passed, and it is yet to rain. I feel a shiver run down my spine; I panic. I stand up slowly from the floor to see the wet ground; my water has broken. The baby is coming earlier than the EDD. I am home alone and afraid. Maybe this is the day I finally die, I think. My only neighbour is at work. She isn’t picking up her calls still. I try again and again. It is getting dark, and I feel too weak to seek help nearby. I think of what to do. I am feeling very terrible.
I struggle to spread a large towel in a dry, spacious corner of the room and lie there. I glance at the wall clock. Another hour has passed. A flash of lightning across the sky is swiftly followed by deafening thunder. I whisper a prayer amid tears.
My contractions are starting to come in quicker successions now. I looked around, and my heart pounded fiercely in my chest. I am about to welcome a new life on my own. Soon two heartbeats will grace this room, but this is the loneliest I have ever been. I remember my late mother. I wonder what bravery there was in choosing to die by choosing to stay. I wonder if she had had a choice. I try to steady my breath; I must be strong now. For my child, I need to be strong. I think of all I have suffered to get to this point. I wince in pain for all I have lost and for everything in me that has forever been broken into pieces. My clothes are wet with sweat and tears. I can feel the head of my baby beginning to pop out. I muster all the strength I have left. A sharp pain hits me; I scream. Another sharp pain; I groan loudly. As though looking for an outlet, countless sorrows and regrets buried deep within my bowels seem to have come up to the surface, mercilessly overwhelming me.
One fierce push and I feel a being leaving my body, along with all my strength. I feel weak, very weak. I am struggling for breath, too. In between my legs, it wriggled briefly and then stopped. I want to hold my newborn, but I don’t have the strength to reach out. I can’t hear it crying. I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl. Or if it’s still alive. All I know is that I am getting soaked in the pool of my own blood. My strength is leaving me. I look up, and before my eyes, the ceiling is receding. It seemed as though it would lift at any moment and disappear from my sight, revealing the dark clouds surrounding us all, though some more than others. From a distance, I can hear a siren. I exhale the breath I didn't know I was holding in. Mummy Joy might have seen my numerous missed calls and the text. An ambulance may be on the way, on the way for me.
Then it starts, not lightly and not in drizzles, but suddenly, loud and clear. I hear it now — the paralyzing sound of rain. But today, I am too weak to be paralyzed.