Chidinma bustled past 2 tables to pass down 4 plates of food on the 3rd. Her customers peered at their plates.
“Chidinma this soup is small o, you know me I like soup” One of them said. She was already hurrying away.
“I’ll bring more, Alhaji”
“Chidinma, I need water!” A customer in the far corner demanded.
”How much is my change?” Another asked, in front of the counter where she dished out food.
“Chidinma, do you have plantain??” A woman asked. “There’s too much pepper in your stew today o!”
“Where’s my food now?!”
She worked deftly, taking note of every complaint and order, as well which customer made which. Her helpers were at the back frying meats and sauces for Monday’s menu. It wasn’t rush hour: she hadn’t expected this many customers, but it wasn’t anything she hadn’t handled before.
“Oga no vex, na because I wan give una better food” she implored as she set down loaded plates in front of impatient customers “I will bring you water”
“Aunty, pepper too much?” She said in Igbo “I will do better, please forgive me” she smiled placating as she took the dishes away.
Her movements were calculated, mechanical; she served water here, packed plates there, and collected her money. She surveyed her canteen and went to rest her feet behind the counter. She checked for the time. 5o’clock. It was almost over. She smiled as they paid her, asking them if the food was good, bidding them a good evening in Igbo, English and sometimes, Yoruba. One of them apologized and explained that his department had had a meeting that had only just ended 20 minutes ago, which was why they had come by late. She ignored his evident admiration and waved his apology away, willing him to leave.
Alhaji trudged over and thumped his money on the counter. He never asked how much; he always over-paid. “Chidinma, its Friday. Let me take you out” He gave his best leer.
Only it was not a leer. It was a grin tainted by tobacco and irremovable grime. Chidinma grinned back. He was obviously teasing.
“Another time, Alhaji” she said.
She went to the back of the canteen to mobilize her helpers. They packed the meat and sauces into bowls, did the dishes and cleaned up the backyard while Chidinma made space in the freezer to store her bowls. She cleaned up inside the canteen, keeping her ear open for a phone call; the one that always took her home. Her helpers came in to say goodnight, and she gave them 1000 naira notes. She always did this on weekends, but they always feigned surprise and thanked her profusely.
As she locked up, her phone rang.
“I’m outside” Tony said.
In a few minutes, she was on her way home. He asked how her day was, she said it was fine and asked about his. The radio churned out popular tunes and he hummed along. She rested her eyes. He asked if she was hungry, she said she wasn’t and asked if he was. He said he was, but that the help would warm something for him to eat. He said she looked tired and massaged her thigh. She smiled with her eyes closed. He was such a good actor.
They had been married for 6 years, and they had never had a fight. They argued every now and then, but it was never violent or passionate. They weren’t confrontational. They handled conflict the same way; by discussing and coming to a compromise or ignoring it altogether. It was the maturity ideal they both shared; to take the high road, to not let their reactions be determined by people or situations.
They also did not have children. So when Tony’s mother paid them a month long visit 2 years ago, Chidinma pretended not to notice her hostility. She pretended not to hear her telling Tony that she could find him someone fertile. And though she heard Tony explain that infertility wasn’t always the woman’s fault, she pretended not to be angry that he let his mother interrupt their marriage with her selfishness in the first place. She was grateful back then, that Tony himself did not seem to mind their childlessness.
Chidinma stood in front of the mirror, surveying her stretch marks. When she was 25 her mother had said that she looked like a mother of 2. Women needed to look their age and Chidinma needed to lose weight, her mother had insisted. “By the time you are 30 you will be looking 50 with those chubby arms”. Now she was 32, and as she stared in the mirror, she decided she looked 32 and pretended to wash away the impact of her mother’s words as she showered.
She smelt his perfume before his arm cupped her breasts from behind, and sighed at his determination; if they didn’t do it in the shower, they wouldn’t do it at all. She always slept off before he could eat and take a bath. She wondered why he bothered, why she let him touch her at all.
At first, she would open her eyes anytime Tony so much as turned in bed. Now that she knew what sound meant what, only the creaking door of their bedroom at 2am meant it was going to happen. At 4am the door would creak again and the bed would press down with his weight. On nights where she stayed up late watching TV, he would toss and turn, insisting she reduce the volume or turn it off, because the light was preventing him from sleeping. On those nights he could go nowhere, because he couldn’t be sure she was awake or asleep. And she knew this.
But all that would end. Soon enough, he would have nowhere to go at 2am in the morning.
The next day, she made an early breakfast of toasted bread, eggs and sausages. She made 2 servings; one for Tony, one for the help. She packed them accordingly, stacking them in the microwave. Then she made a 3rd serving using the pot they used to cook for Rex, their dog. She packed it up and kept it in the oven.
Ali opened the gate before she could blow her horn. He had always seemed earnest to her. As she drove out, she handed him his breakfast and instructed him in Hausa, her heart pounding.
When Chidinma returned 4 hours later, it was the help who ran out to open the gate.
“Where is Ali?” she feigned annoyance.
“Oga carry am go hospital. E say belle dey pain am.”
She didn’t know whether to be happy that Ali was out of her home, or be angry that Tony had shouldered the responsibility of taking him to the hospital. She didn’t feign concern. She carried some bags of foodstuff into the house, and the help followed her with the rest.
She wondered if she would have done the same thing if it was Eme, their house help. At first, she had thought it was her. And prior to that, she had thought that perhaps he was leaving their bedroom at 2am on most nights, to pray. But one did not vividly creep out so often to pray, and after many fights with herself, she had followed him a few minutes after he left the bedroom on one of those nights. She had stopped at Eme’s door. It was too quiet for him to be in there but she had opened the door with her heart in her mouth, only to find the help snoring softly, oblivious to her suspicions.
Her relief did not last however, so she searched the house for him. A wedding gift from his father, they were fortunate to live in the privacy of a fenced bungalow with 3 bedrooms and a boys quarters. She panicked when she did not found him in the house. She should just ask him where he went at night, she had thought. No. She wanted to find out on her own. It felt like a bad thing and she wanted to catch him. Because why, in all of the 4 months he had been creeping out, hadn’t he mentioned where he went, or that he left at all?
A few weeks later Chidinma decided to search the compound. She had left the kitchen’s back door open, but when she went back there, it was locked from outside. Her heart thumped wildly as she quietly opened the front door and stepped out barefooted. Their cars were still in the driveway. She felt hopeless as she walked steadily around back, towards the boys’ quarters.
She stood in front of the little house, imagining that she had married Alhaji, and was living in a pretty apartment in Dubai with 2 fair skinned children. She imagined that she was a 32 year old spinster living by herself, cooking meals for a living. She wondered if that was better than the sound of her husband’s guttural grunts, intertwined with Ali’s, muted by the walls that separated them both from eternal devastation.
It had been a year since Chidinma had had a full night’s rest. She had spent her waking moments deciding whether to stay or leave. And he gave nothing away. He followed her to the fertility clinic, picked her up on his way from work every day, and made love to her as often as possible. When he drove out, she would peep through the window searching for shared moments of intimacy. Up close, all she could see was Ali’s adoration. She wondered if Tony loved him, but knew that he didn’t. He couldn’t.
She could not tell her mother. She did not want to taint Tony’s image in her eyes. She could not tell anyone; one simply did not share such news. But she had told Alhaji. She was never good enough for anyone, she had raged. She had been too fat for her mother, too lower-class for Tony’s family, and now, not man enough for Tony? He had picked an illiterate man over her, with her ample bosom, her wide hips, her humility, her degree and her fluency in over 6 languages? How?
When she told Alhaji her plans there was no shock in his face, no surprise in his eyes, like she had expected. He had simply asked her to wait.
When Tony came home later that Saturday night, Chidinma pretended to be sleeping. Eventually, she did sleep. There were no creaking door sounds at 2am and 4am. But she didn’t rejoice yet; Tony had not touched his dinner. He did not eat breakfast. He wanted her to accompany him to the hospital to see Ali. He had worked with them for 3 years, Tony insisted. They owed him that much. She wondered if he was genuinely oblivious to how much he seemed to care for the man, or if he simply didn’t care that his affections showed.
Ali died before they got there, and Chidinma was too busy gauging Tony’s reaction to react herself. He seemed sad enough, but not too sad. She wouldn’t concern herself with how he felt. She didn’t cajole him to eat, she listened patiently as he talked about calling Ali’s family members and contributing to the cost of his burial. He did not touch her that night but she did not care.
As she walked to her pristine little canteen at 6 am on Monday morning, she couldn’t stop herself from smiling. Alhaji was waiting at the door, smiling too.
“Did it work?” He asked in a whisper.
“Come inside, let me make you breakfast.”