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Thorns and Roses

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Thorns and Roses

By Amaka Azie

Copyright © 2017 Amaka Azie

Shakespir Edition

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be used, reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the authors except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews. Any person who commits any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

Amaka Azie has asserted her moral right to be identified as the author of this book.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.

Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

First published in 2017

Cover Design: Love Bites and Silk

Contents

A Note to My Readers

Do I Disappoint You?

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Also by Amaka Azie

[]A Note to My Readers

Many thanks for sharing this journey with me. In Nigeria, a few friends and relatives of mine often expressed to me, feelings of unhappiness growing up in a home where there was no male child— “An heir”.

Their emotions of discontentment when they spoke of their experiences, often tugged at my heart strings. I feel strongly about this and I’m optimistic that as a community, we can evolve past this.

Girls deserve equal opportunities as boys. Equal education, equal respect and rights. I hope that Ifeoma and her sisters’ experience shed some light to this, and that somewhere, someone reading this is touched and motivated by this story.

Best wishes,

Amaka Azie.

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[]Do I Disappoint You?

A poem by Amaka Azie

Do I disappoint you?

Born on a rainy Monday morning.

Early hours, I screeched my way into existence, eager to see your face.

My eyes were met with mourning.

For born a girl, not what you hoped for, I’m a disillusionment to you, a disgrace.

Do I disappoint you?

You had another one, I’m your fifth sorrow.

Your eyes cloud with regret because what you want is a boy.

I’m never going to carry your name forever, no future for you, no tomorrow.

No matter what I do, I’m never going to bring you joy.

Do I disappoint you?

I grow up wishing I was a boy, I try to gain your trust, your respect.

I can do it dad, I’m a girl, but I can, I’ll make you proud.

Time and time again, my efforts are met with suspect.

I hate myself, I hide myself, wishing I could be buried in the ground.

Do I disappoint you?

After years of shame, I meet a man, he loves me and I love him too.

Yet, deep inside, I feel myself under pressure to produce an heir, a son.

I can’t disappoint him, I need to give him a boy, surely, I do.

The cycle continues for though I have three lovely daughters, I’m despondent, I feel like a con.

PART ONE

LIFE BEFORE LOVE – Running Away from Ghosts

[]Chapter One

Ifeoma was sitting under the small canopy behind the canteen stirring the large pot of onubgu soup she had settled on top of heated pieces of firewood. It was nearly noon and almost time for workers to begin arriving for lunch. She had already finished pounding yam and making egusi soup. The onubgu soup was the last thing on the menu to prepare before the canteen opened for the day. People were always very surprised when they observed her pounding yam. For someone so slim with not a lot of body mass, she handled the mortar and pestle with surprising strength.

Being the first of four daughters whom her father despised solely because of their gender, Ifeoma had tried desperately to gain his respect and win his approval. She had fought that constant battle of trying to show her father that her gender did not prevent her from doing anything.

It never worked. Her father detested that he had no sons, so he made belittling her and her sisters a daily sport designed to make him feel less responsible for the fact that he had been unable to bear sons. But his personal attacks only shaped Ifeoma into developing quite a strong and independent personality.

Swiping the tip of the ladle over the back of her hand, Ifeoma tasted the soup. Perfect, she thought to herself with a smile. She lifted the heavy pot with ease attained from years of practice and carried it to the serving area.

“Oluchi, have the customers started to arrive?” Ifeoma asked Oluchi, who was staring at her reflection in a compact mirror.

“Yes, three are already seated,” Oluchi replied, nonchalantly.

“So why are you sitting here admiring yourself? Go and take their orders!” Ifeoma shook her head. Loretta, her other waitress, was already taking orders from one of the customers. She could only afford to employ Oluchi and Loretta as waitresses, although sometimes her two youngest sisters also helped in the canteen after school whenever they could.

Ifeoma hated it when women relied on their looks to get ahead in life. Oluchi for instance. She frequently wore heavy makeup and skimpy clothes. She was a pretty and curvy woman in her twenties with honey brown skin, who always bragged about her beauty and how it was bound to attract a rich husband for her.

“Okay, but have you finished cooking everything?” Oluchi asked.

“Yes!” Ifeoma snapped, wiping her hands on her faded apron.

This canteen was a source of pride for Ifeoma. After running away from her hometown, Awka to Lagos, eighteen months ago, she and her sisters had been stranded, with barely enough money to survive. Anytime Ifeoma thought about what she had to do to get the loan for this small canteen, she cringed. Nevertheless, that was all in the past now, and, though she still had a massive debt, she was determined to pay it back.

After securing that loan, she’d found a cheap semi-completed duplex and rented a room on the ground floor. She had worked tirelessly, with the help of her sisters, to renovate the room, which she had then turned into a canteen. Out of necessity for survival, Ifeoma had even developed skills in carpentry and had made the wooden tables and chairs herself.

Ifeoma’s eyes scanned the canteen from behind the serving counter. Three customers had already started their meal, and they seemed happy with the service and food.

“Mr Frown-face has arrived,” Oluchi announced coming to stand beside Ifeoma behind the serving counter. Ifeoma’s heart rate quickened. She hid further behind the fridge and peered at Mr Frown-face. That’s what they had all named him, for the obvious reason that he never smiled. He always came in for lunch and dinner and sat at the far end corner where he ate silently while working on his laptop. Ifeoma knew just by looking at his expensive suits, shoes, and wristwatches, that he was wealthy. So, why didn’t he just go to one of those luxurious restaurants in the city instead of coming here, to this little canteen where he sat on wooden chairs?

“Go take his order then, and stop standing here,” Ifeoma said to Oluchi, nudging her forward.

“You should serve him sometimes, Ify, he gives great tips.” Oluchi rubbed her thumb against the tip of her fingers to emphasise her point.

“No, I’m okay right here, thanks.” Ifeoma watched Oluchi as she walked away towards the customer to take his order.

That man scared her. There was something about him that made her feel weak and she hated feeling weak. Mr Frown-face was almost six feet tall with broad shoulders made prominent by his well-fitting suits. Today he was wearing a navy-blue suit and a red tie that emphasised his muscular athletic build. His toned physique suggested that he worked out religiously. His head was shaved bald, and thin sideburns framed his oblong face. A faint moustache and beard stubble covered his jaw and surrounded his mouth. His face was handsome in a rugged way that reminded Ifeoma of the Nigerian actor Desmond Elliot. He had dark large piercing eyes that were evenly spaced and sitting below thick eyebrows and right above a broad long nose. There was an aura about him that attracted attention and he looked like a man always in control. The type of man that made her wary.

She continued to watch him from her well-hidden safe corner as he talked to Oluchi. She watched his mouth move and could not help but notice how full and luscious his lips were. Unexpectedly pink lips for someone with dark brown skin. Yes, he definitely terrified her. She would never be bold enough to wait his table herself. If he affected her as much as he did from afar, she did not want to go anywhere near him.

“What kind of man orders soup without pounded yam or even garri?” Oluchi asked Ifeoma after letting her know what Mr Frown-face had ordered.

“Only rich men,” Ifeoma answered with a chuckle. She spooned out rich egusi soup into a bowl and searched the pot with the spoon for beef, which she then added to the soup.

“You are giving him all the huge pieces of meat,” Oluchi said.

“Of course, so that he will keep coming back. We need his business.”

“Are you sure that it’s not because you want to keep staring at him?”

“I don’t stare at him.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” Oluchi glanced quickly at Mr Frown-face before turning back to Ifeoma. “I wish he would look up from his computer and notice me,” she added with a sigh. An uneasy sensation settled in Ifeoma’s tummy. For some strange reason, she did not want Mr Frown-face noticing Oluchi.

“I know what to do with him, I’ll show him what this does,” Oluchi continued, grabbing her own ass.

“The way you have shown many men abi?”

“Don’t hate, appreciate,” Oluchi said, taking the tray of food and swaying her hips as she made her way towards his table.

Ifeoma watched Mr Frown-face eat, as she had done often for the past four months since he had started patronising her canteen. She was drawn to him like metal to a magnet. He had even intruded on her dreams. Much to her irritation, she had woken up in the middle of the night a few times sweating after having erotic dreams of him. Sometimes, in those dreams, she was running away from him and he was chasing her with a chain intending to tie her to him. Never would she allow herself to be tied to any man, Never! She never wanted to be under any man’s control. She despised men. And weak women like her mother who gave up their entire lives for men.

Ifeoma was twenty-five years old and lived life on her own terms. She had never been in a relationship and never wanted to be in one. Although, sometimes, she did wish that she had the courage to have flings with men without any strings attached. After a failed attempt at that during her first year in University, she decided to steer clear of the opposite sex for good, they could not be trusted. Her main focus had always been to look after her younger siblings. She wanted to ensure that they finished their education. And she worked very hard to do so, paying their university fees and rent for the one-bedroom apartment that the three of them shared. After monthly expenses, there was barely any money left at the end of each month with which to pay off her own loan, the one she had acquired to get the canteen up and running. And it worried her that soon, her creditor would come visiting her with his ugly potbelly. She shuddered with disgust at the memory of the ordeal she went through when she didn’t have enough money to pay him four months ago. Ifeoma vowed it would never happen again.

Her creditor’s actions made her hate men even more. She hated her father, she hated all the men she had ever dealt with and would rather die than let any man treat her the way her father had treated her, her sisters, and her mother, his own wife.

[]Chapter Two

Awka, Anambra State,

Nigeria, West Africa.

April- June 2007

“Useless woman! You are not worth the bride price I paid!” Papa Ify shouted, shoving his wife out of his way.

Nna anyi, please don’t go out like this, you are drunk!” his wife cried, falling on her knees and pleading with him.

“Shut up, foolish woman! How dare you tell me what to do? eh?” He staggered towards the front door. Mama Ify stood and made her way towards him, holding on to his arm.

Biko, my husband, I don’t want you to fall into the gutter again,” she pleaded, tears streaming down her face. “You almost died last time!”

“I said, shut up! Stupid woman! You can never do anything right!” Papa Ify swung his hand and struck Mama Ify across the face. She staggered, falling backwards from the force of the slap. Ifeoma ran out from her hiding place and helped her mother up.

“Let him go out drunk!” Ifeoma cried, holding her mother. “Better that than he beats you, mummy.”

Her sisters were curled up in a corner, observing the scene that was playing out before them; they did not dare to make a sound.

“Shut up too! Useless girl!” Papa Ify cried, glancing around, his gaze unfocused. “You are all useless!” he added, waving his hand around.

“God cursed me by giving me a useless wife who could only produce useless girls!” He shook his head. “I am wasting money paying your university fees!”

“You don’t even pay my school fees,” Ifeoma retorted. “Uncle Emeka does.” Even though she knew it was pointless arguing with her drunken father, she could not help herself. He always boasted that he paid her university fees, but it was actually her mother’s brother who sent money for that. Her father never brought out money to support them. He believed any money spent on his daughters was a waste. He believed that only sons deserved to complete their education. So, he squandered whatever meagre salary he received from working in a shoe factory, on alcohol and snuffing tobacco.

The rest of the family barely got by on their mother’s earnings from working as a seamstress and from the money that she got from selling their home-grown vegetables and eggs gathered from rearing poultry.

“Your mother is a prostitute; she is sleeping with her brother!” Papa Ify shouted. Then he turned towards Ifeoma and yelled, “you are not my child!” Some saliva emitted from his mouth as he spoke and landed on Ifeoma’s face. Repulsed, she wiped it off with the back of her hand.

“You are all not mine! My sperm is strong and produces boys, not useless girls like you!”

“I wish I were not your daughter!” Ifeoma cried, causing her father to raise his hand to strike her, but the look in Ifeoma’s eyes made him pause. Her father had never struck her; he was too afraid of her. He called her a devil child because she never cowered before him.

Her father dropped his hand and clumsily made his way to the front door. This time, no one stopped him. Ifeoma held her mother’s trembling body and sighed. Another night, another episode of drama. She sometimes wished that her father would fall into a ditch and die. But it was the thought of knowing just how devastating his death would be to her mother that stopped her wishful thinking.

Lying in bed later that night, Ifeoma found it hard to sleep. Uncle Emeka who sent money to them regularly had suffered a stroke the week before. The stroke had left him unable to work, which meant that he could no longer help them financially.

Uncle Emeka was her mother’s only sibling. He worked as a carpenter producing furniture for small-scale businesses. Although he did not make much, he was generous with his money and sent a small amount to them each month. Now, partially paralyzed from the stroke and unable to work, Uncle Emeka had informed them that he could no longer continue to support them.

Ifeoma was in her final year at the University of Awka studying business administration. She was lucky. As the first born, she had the advantage of being the one to go to university. Her younger sister, the one who came directly after her, had completed secondary school and was waiting for financial support to go on to university. But the family plan was that Ifeoma would help her sister with her university fees when she herself finished her education and got a job. That was the custom in many poor families in their neighbourhood. The first child got the benefit of being taken care of, in the hopes that they would themselves graduate, get a job, and help the ones who were next in line.

Ifeoma did not want to get a job; she wanted to own a restaurant. She loved to cook. She was known to make delicious meals out of limited ingredients. However, it seemed that now she would have to find a job. She intended to visit her uncle the next day and ask for his help in securing one. Ifeoma resolved to do her best to support her younger sister’s education. Fortunately for her, her two other sisters were still attending a secondary school that was being funded by the government.

“I wish we could run away!” Ifeoma’s youngest sister Chioma whispered. The four of them shared one room, and Chioma slept in the same bed with Ifeoma most nights. Her other sisters shared the other bed.

“No such talk, we will survive this,” Ifeoma responded, rubbing Chioma’s back gently. She was six years older than Chioma and was very protective of her. Their mother had given birth virtually every two years, hoping to produce a male child for their father. The only reason she had stopped trying was because she had needed to have a hysterectomy to save her life during Chioma’s birth. This had angered their father. He particularly blamed Chioma for denying him the chance to have had a male child. As a result, he tended to ignore her completely.

“Seriously, Ify, I have been dreaming about running away.”

“Don’t say that, please. I will work something out.”

“I hate him! I wish he was dead.”

“Don’t say that, Chioma, he is our father.”

“I wish he wasn’t.” Chioma’s voice cracked and Ifeoma embraced her.

“Sleep my sister. Tomorrow I will start searching for a job and begin saving money. I will take care of all my sisters or die trying to.”

The next week, Ifeoma convinced her uncle to allow her to work for him. She became an apprentice in his furniture shop. To begin, Uncle Emeka did not pay her while she learnt carpentry. However, Ifeoma was a fast learner and began to work independently after a few weeks, so Uncle Emeka put her on his payroll. The money, although insufficient, was better than nothing. She saved every Naira, hiding it under her mattress so that her father could not get to it. Many times, when he was broke, he had tried to extort money from their mother to buy more alcohol.

One evening, Ifeoma returned home from University to find her sisters crying.

“What is it?” Ifeoma asked, her stomach twisting with apprehension. “Has something happened to mummy?”

“No, daddy says he wants me to marry Mr Chibundu,” Chioma said, her voice shaky from tears.

“What?” Ifeoma felt sudden rage heating up her blood. Mr Chibundu was one of her father’s drinking friends. An old treacherous man who liked to leer at young girls. Whenever he came to visit, his eyes would continuously follow her sisters, making them all uncomfortable.

“He has already come to pay my bride price,” Chioma cried.

“I can’t believe this. Where is daddy?” Ifeoma snarled. “Where?”

Chioma pointed towards the wooden front door to their two-bedroom bungalow. “He has gone out to the beer parlour,” she replied, quivering. “He told me the traditional marriage is this weekend.”

“What did mummy say about this?” Ifeoma questioned her sisters, dropping her bag on the small stool in front of her.

“She is in her room, sewing the traditional wedding dress I am to wear—”

Before she could finish talking, Ifeoma marched to their mother’s room and swung the door open.

“Mummy, why? How can you let daddy do this?”

“Ify, biko, we need the money, he paid a huge sum for her—”

“I don’t care! She is only sixteen!”

Ifeoma shook. Never would she allow this to happen. Her sister was only a child for goodness’ sake. She knew her mother was too weak to stop this, so she would have to put an end to this madness herself. Whatever it took.

Shaking her head with disgust at her mother, Ifeoma walked out of the room slamming the door.

“Don’t worry, Chioma,” she said with an oddly calm voice. “I will never let it happen! I give you my word!”

“You can’t stop it…. he has already paid my bride price, Ify, Chai!” Chioma wailed loudly. Ifeoma took her in her arms.

“I promise you, Chioma, I will not let it happen.”

Ifeoma led her three sisters into the small kitchen. There, she prepared egusi soup and garri for them. After dinner, she stayed with them in their little room until they fell asleep, but she stayed awake so that she could confront their father when he returned from his night out.

Sitting on a stool facing the front door, Ifeoma waited. As soon as she heard her father stagger in, she stood up.

“Daddy, biko, stop this nonsense about Chioma getting married, biko!” Ifeoma pleaded, rubbing her palms together.

“Shut your mouth! Foolish girl! At least she is now worth something!” he roared, his speech slightly slurred from being drunk.

“How much did Mr Chibundu pay? I will give you that exact amount. Please, daddy!”

“Do you have ten thousand Naira with you?” Ifeoma flinched. She had not yet saved that much.

“No, but I promise, if you stop this, I will give you ten thousand Naira!”

“If you don’t have it now, get out of my way!”

“Daddy, please….” Ifeoma’s tone was desperate. She got on her knees, a sign of humility she had never shown towards her father. “Let Mr Chibundu marry me instead…. biko.”

Papa Ify broke into a drunken fit of laughter. “Get up, stupid girl!” he spat. “Do you think he wants a skinny girl like you?” He seemed very amused by this. Ifeoma had to wait for his laughter to die down.

“Nobody wants a girl as thin as you. You are completely useless. You can’t even fetch me bride price!” He paused, clearing his throat. “At least Chioma has shown some use in this house!”

Tears escaped Ifeoma’s eyes. She knew it was futile talking her father out of this. He had already seen the money and his greed was worse than his laziness. “Get out of my way! Useless girl!” he muttered as he staggered towards his bedroom, knocking his knee against the edge of a stool on his way.

Ifeoma remained kneeling on the floor and crying. She knew that her mother was pretending to be asleep and had heard the entire conversation. Wiping her tears angrily because she considered tears a sign of weakness, Ifeoma pondered what to do next. She would have to visit Mr Chibundu tomorrow and plead with him. The only way Chioma married that disgusting pig would be over my dead body.

Ifeoma had a fitful sleep that night. She woke up before everyone in the house. A glimpse at the clock told her it was six in the morning. She had a quick bath and dressed hurriedly. Lifting the mattress, careful not to wake Chioma, Ifeoma pulled out an envelope containing six thousand Naira. Her entire savings for the two months she had been working for Uncle Emeka. She took the first bus to Mr Chibundu’s house. She knew where he lived because on a few occasions, they had needed to carry their drunken father out of his home. Mr Chibundu was a widower with no children, who spent most of his time drinking and smoking.

Standing by the front door of his unpainted bungalow, Ifeoma waited for Mr Chibundu to open the door. She was about to walk around the side of the house to check and see if he was home through the open window when the wooden door swung open.

“My future in-law,” he said, grinning. Ifeoma recoiled. His grin exposed tobacco-stained teeth. He was a short, wide, balding man in his late fifties, who reminded Ifeoma of a turtle. “How can I help?”

“Please, can I come in?” Ifeoma asked him with a forced smile.

“Of course, my dear, we will soon be related.”

Resisting the impulse to say, “over my dead body,” Ifeoma followed him inside the house.

He offered her a seat which she accepted.

“Mr Chibundu I know you have come to marry my sister, but I have a better offer for you,” Ifeoma said as soon as she had settled on the wooden chair in his sitting room. There was no need for pleasantries.

“What offer could be better?” he snickered, looking at Ifeoma as if she was crazy.

“You marry me instead,” Ifeoma said calmly.

Mba nu! You are too thin!” he said, shaking his head vehemently. “I need a woman with meat on her bones.” His eyes shone as he spoke. You would have thought he won a prize.

“But Chioma is still a child, I am a woman—”

“She may be young, but she looks more of a woman than you.”

“What if you marry me, and I give you six thousand Naira back from the bride price?” Ifeoma persuaded, watching him closely for a response. Mr Chibundu contemplated the offer for a moment then shook his head. “Mba,” he declined. “I still don’t want a stick for a wife.”

Standing up with determination in her eyes, Ifeoma gradually took off her clothes and the strapping she tied over her chest every day. Mr Chibundu’s eyes widened with shock as her breasts sprang free from their confinement. Although Ifeoma was slim, with long legs, she had beautiful large breasts. They were round and firm, and very perky. Her dark nipples, also large, were surrounded by a paler areola. But because she hated the negative attention that came with being female, she had done everything in her power to hide her femininity. Consequently, nobody ever took notice of her, including men. Ifeoma’s main disappointment, however, was that her breasts continued to grow. She wore a size D cup, and she detested it, so she had resorted to repeatedly strapping down her chest with a heavy bandage ever since she turned sixteen.

Mr Chibundu had begun to sweat by this time and was licking his lips. Ifeoma smirked. All men are predictable and disgusting, she thought to herself.

“So, what do you have to say about my offer?” she asked him.

“Eh…. eh… And do I also get the six thousand back?” His voice was unsteady, his eyes fixated on her breasts.

“Yes, but only if you call off the wedding with my sister.”

“And you will marry me also?” His pupils were dilated with lust. Ifeoma nodded in agreement.

“Okay, then it is settled,” he agreed, rubbing his left hand over his round belly. The way he stared lustfully at her made her feel nauseated. Ifeoma could taste the bile that had risen from her throat at his obscene perusal.

Turning her head to the side so that he would not see the tears that clouded her eyes, she speedily got dressed. Then just as quickly as she had come, she was gone.

Once she was sure there was a safe distance between her and Mr Chibundu, she threw up in the gutter. She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and turned to look at the house. And there, staring at her through the window with a wicked glint in his eyes and his hand on his groin was Mr Chibundu. Dread traveled down her spine as she turned and walked away.

[]Chapter Three

The sound of heavy rain and thunder muffled the sound of glass shattering on the floor.

“How dare you tell me it is over!” Chuma heard the woman he’d been seeing for three months, scream, as she held on to another tumbler ready to throw it on the ground.

“Tonia, calm down!”

“Don’t tell me to calm down!” She smashed the contents in her hand against the terrazzo floor. Chuma jumped backwards, attempting to dodge the pieces of glass that flew across the floor. How he had ever found Tonia attractive, he couldn’t understand. Okay, he could, she had a big fat ass and large breasts. But that was all she had.

“Tonia, listen; we don’t want the same things—”

“Oh, Chuma, trust me, we do. I want you, you want me. We’ll make it work.” She picked up the third tumbler, and that was when Chuma lunged forward and grabbed her wrist.

“Drop it now, or I’ll have you arrested!” His voice was a low growl, but it was the look in Chuma’s eyes that made her pause. With shaky hands, Tonia put the glass down on the kitchen table.

“Please, Chuma, I love you.”

“No, you don’t,” Chuma replied, shaking his head. Looking at the glass shattered all over the floor, he realised what a terrible idea it had been to break up with Tonia in his house. There was always some damage done, but he never seemed to learn his lesson. His ex-girlfriend had stolen two Rolex watches of his, and he had never gotten them back.

“I do baby, I do,” Tonia said, unbuttoning her blouse. “I’ll show you how much.” Chuma stopped her.

“Listen, I will put money into your account—”

“I’m not a prostitute!” she cried with indignation. “That’s your answer to everything, money!” Her chest heaved as she spoke, the top of her breasts visible through the gap left by the undone buttons of her blouse.

“What do you want me to say, Tonia? I am being honest with you here. I want out,” Chuma said, his voice calm even though the mess on the floor was getting to him.

Borderline OCD, he liked his life organised and hated seeing things out of place. He also hated weakness or any show of it and now as he looked at the tears in Tonia’s eyes, he became even more confident about his decision. She wanted more from him than he could offer her.

When he came back from work and found her in his apartment, he was livid. He had never given her a key. And to find out that she had stolen his and made a copy was even more infuriating. But that was not the main reason why he wanted out, although, it had been the igniting factor.

After three months of wild sex and nothing else in common, he knew it was time to end things because she’d wanted more out of the relationship. Chuma knew he was a cad, but he’d never led her or anyone else on. Right from the time they met at a political party, he’d told Tonia that he was not interested in a commitment. And she had accepted his terms, until recently.

“I want you to love me, Chuma … I love you.” He was getting tired of hearing that. He had never believed any woman who told him that they loved him. After all, all they saw was his money and the expensive things he could buy them.

“Well, I’m sorry Tonia, I don’t love you.”

“Asshole!”

“Won’t argue with you there. But I told you from the start that I was an asshole, remember?”

“I hope you die a lonely man!”

“I probably will,” he replied. Chuma knew Karma would get to him at some point. Similar ugly break-up scenes had played in his life many times already.

“Fuck you, I hate you!” He almost laughed at that statement, and fought back the words, make up your mind, woman. After a few seconds of deliberation, Tonia turned to pick up her purse from the kitchen table.

“Okay, send the money to my account,” she said, giving him an acid look. “Nothing less than two hundred thousand or I’ll mess you up!”

He laughed. Now, this was the Tonia he knew. All that talk about love was just so insincere.

“I will do that, Tonia, but not because of your threats. I am a man of my word.”

“Just tell me this before I leave, is it another woman?”

“No, Tonia, I just want out, and I’m choosing to be honest about it. You deserve that.”

“Don’t tell me what I deserve, asshole! I hope someone breaks your heart!”

And with those words left hanging in the air, she stormed out. Chuma sighed. He hoped that was the last time he ever saw her.

Glancing at the pieces of broken glass all over the kitchen floor, he scratched his clean-shaven head. Why do women have to be so dramatic? He sometimes wished he were more like his twin brother Nnamdi, who hated confrontation.

Nnamdi always played games to make women angry with him so that they would break up with him first. He told Chuma that using reverse psychology was the most efficient way of breaking up with women. But Chuma did not have a scheming bone in his body. He was painfully direct and honest even if it meant an unpleasant scene like the one he had just experienced.

Stepping carefully around the shattered pieces of glass, he picked up a broom and gathered the glass pieces into a dustpan. As he bent down to do this, he vowed to be a little more discriminating in his choices when it came to picking his next sexual partner. Never again would he date a woman just for the size of her ass or breasts. He would have to pick someone who was on the same page with him. Someone who wanted nothing from him but a good time, and someone he could break up with, without causing a scene. At thirty-three, his focus was on building an empire. He did not want to be under his father’s shadow. He wanted to make a name for himself.

Chuma’s father, Chief Obi, accumulated his wealth by importing and exporting cars. A few years ago, he had expanded the business to include transportation. He owned a fleet of luxurious buses that connected major cities in Nigeria. Chuma and his brother, Nnamdi, having both attained master’s degrees in business administration and finance, had further expanded their brand to now include an investment firm and mortgage banking. Chuma headed the investment firm while Nnamdi managed the mortgage bank. Their younger sister and last-born of the family, Adaora, had recently started working with them in the investment firm and was pulling her own weight. So, yes, he and his siblings were on their way to expanding their family fortune and to Chuma, no woman was worth the distraction.

Satisfied that his kitchen was back in order, he searched the fridge for something to eat. He found a bowl of leftover chicken salad hidden in the last layer of the fridge. Picking it up and opening the bowl, he sniffed it and twitched his nose from the putrid smell. Spoilt, he thought, throwing it into the bin. He was hungry and wanted a proper meal. He thought about his favourite canteen, Eastern Delight, and decided to go and eat there. From the first day he had tasted the food from that restaurant, he was hooked. The food there was so authentically delicious that it reminded Chuma of his late mother’s cooking. His mother Angelina Obi had died when he was only ten years old. They had been very close, and he remembered sitting in the kitchen many times while she cooked. Though many years had passed since her death, those memories were still very special to him.

Chuma showered and changed into a pair of jeans and a black and blue jersey. He usually stopped at the restaurant on his way home from work, but today for some reason, he had driven straight home. And he was glad he had, because seeing Tonia in his home uninvited had been the perfect excuse he needed to break things off with her. Whistling, he grabbed his car keys and left his three-bedroom penthouse suite.

He enjoyed the evening breeze and the sultry sound of Sade’s smooth operator as he drove to Eastern Delight. He parked his imported jeep Cherokee under a tree hoping that it wouldn’t be vandalised or broken into. The canteen was in the slums of Ikoyi and he always worried that he would be robbed or attacked whilst there. So far, nothing untoward had happened.

He settled in his usual seat at the back of the room and pulled out his laptop from the carrier bag. He wanted to go over the financial plan he had worked on earlier during the day, once again. His need for perfection meant that he revised his work repeatedly, sometimes to the annoyance of his secretary, Sandra, who was left to retype each report many times. Subconsciously bobbing his head to the soft traditional music playing in the background, Chuma waited patiently for a waiter to attend to him.

With a quick sweep of his gaze, Chuma noticed three other customers in the canteen. They were ordinarily dressed, as opposed to his suaveness. He knew that he looked out of place here. He was also aware that this was not the type of place where people expected to see someone of his stature dining, but he loved this place. There was just something about the food and the atmosphere that reminded him of his mother and his younger years. He felt calm and relaxed here. Nnamdi, his twin brother, had once joked that his food had been laced with juju, which bound him spiritually to the canteen. It sure felt like it, even though Chuma did not believe in juju or mystical paraphernalia.

Feeling slightly irritated that a waiter hadn’t shown up yet, Chuma rose from his seat intending to find out why. However, before he could take a step forward, a slender light-skinned lady he’d never seen there before, rushed out from behind the partitioned serving counter.

“I’m sorry for keeping you waiting, sir,” she muttered. “We are short staffed today.” She appeared nervous and fidgety. Chuma sat back down.

“What can I get you?” she asked, rubbing her hands on her apron. He couldn’t see her face clearly because of the way she had positioned her body while she talked to him. She appeared to be avoiding eye contact with him.

Oha soup, please,” Chuma replied and then added, “some garri as well.

She turned her face towards him abruptly as if his order had surprised her. A series of rapid emotions registered in her expressive eyes. First, surprise, then panic, and finally fear. She was afraid of him. He caught his breath, caught off guard by her reaction. He was sure that he had never met her before, so why was she frightened of him? Did she think he was upset about the delay in attending to him?

His need to assure her of his state of mind was immediate and unexplainable. He reached for her hand.

“I’m not upset—” he began, but she snatched her hand away swiftly. The dim lightening in the room made it difficult for him to see her facial features distinctively, but she looked young. A colourful scarf covered her hair, and baggy clothes and a faded blue apron enveloped her slim frame.

“I’m sorry for the delay again, I’ll get your food now, sir,” she replied, scurrying away.

Chuma shook his head swiftly to clear his mind of that strange encounter, although he did wonder about that expression of fear that he had seen in her eyes. He searched the inner recesses of his memory trying to recollect if there was any possibility that he had met her before today, but he kept coming up empty. No, he had certainly not met her before. Maybe she thought I was someone else, he concluded within himself.

But soon, wondering led to intrigue, and he waited with anticipation for her to return with his meal. For some odd reason, he wanted to talk with her some more, to see the colour of her eyes, to find out what frightened her about him. He felt a flutter in his tummy. He could not remember being this excited about the prospect of discovering more about anyone in a long time.

Ifeoma’s heart was beating at a manic pace when she retreated into the serving area of the canteen. Damn Oluchi and Loretta for disappointing me by calling in sick today, she thought as she picked up a glass bowl to serve Mr Frown-face. Just when she had begun to relax because he had not shown up at his usual time, Ifeoma had seen his tall frame walking through the door. She’d frozen on the spot and waited there as if transfixed. She’d been spurred into action only when she noticed him standing up with a curious expression and a scowl. Realising he intended to walk towards the serving counter, she had rushed out to his table.

Standing near him had rained all kinds of havoc on her body, and when he had touched her, her heart had almost exploded in her chest. She was used to only having feelings of repulsion and hatred towards men, so Ifeoma did not know what to do with the strange feelings this man evoked within her.

Ifeoma took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and exhaled to calm her nerves. She could do this; serve him and walk away. She was a big girl who had overcome years of emotional abuse from her father. Facing this man was nothing compared to what she’d been through.

Ifeoma strolled out towards Mr Frown-face, trying to balance the tray of food in her shaky hands.

“Here is your food, sir,” she said, as she set the tray down before him.

“Chuma,” he said, his face breaking into a bright smile.

“What?” Ifeoma was startled by the brilliance of his grin, which revealed beautiful white teeth that the dim lightening of the canteen could not conceal. Mr Frown-face’s first smile. And it was a gorgeous one. Wow, this ought to be immortalised in a frame.

“My name is Chuma.”

“Oh, okay, I hope you enjoy your food … Chuma.”

Chuma sensed that she was going to slip away from him, and for some peculiar reason that he did not want to analyse yet, he panicked.

“You haven’t told me your name,” he said quickly, before she could hurry away again.

“It’s Ifeoma, sir … I mean Chuma,” He liked her name immediately. In the Igbo language, it meant “good thing”. Chuma noticed her discomfort as she stood at the side of his table. This was not the reaction he usually got from women. Why was she so uncomfortable around him? Feeling baffled, he asked, “I have not seen you before, are you newly employed here?”

“No, I own the canteen, my waitresses are off sick today, so—”

“Madam, I want to pay o,” a customer who had finished his meal, announced from the other side of the room. Chuma noted the look of relief that came over Ifeoma.

“I’ll be with you shortly,” she said to the customer and then to Chuma, “I have to go. And once again, sorry about the delay.” With that, she left to attend to the other customer.

Chuma felt his insides twisting as he watched her walk away. He’d really wanted to continue the conversation and find out more about this mystery girl-woman. She looked like a teenager, but he sensed that she was much older. Maybe in her early twenties. And she owned her own restaurant. Impressive. Chuma wondered if she was also the chef. Her flawless grammar suggested to him that she was educated, and her slight accent hinted that she grew up in Eastern Nigeria.

Chuma shoved a forkful of garri into his mouth after swirling it around in the soup. Delicious, he thought. If she cooked this, she deserves a successful restaurant in the most prominent area in Lagos. And just as easily as that thought crossed his mind, Chuma easily resolved to find out more about her and possibly help her expand this restaurant, then he settled down to enjoy his meal.

Butterflies fluttered in Ifeoma’s tummy as she watched Chuma eat. She was safely hidden in her usual hiding spot. He was no longer Mr Frown-face to her because she had witnessed his dazzling smile. He was the last one left in the canteen and for the thousandth time this evening, she silently cursed her waitresses for abandoning her. Ifeoma did not worry about being in any physical danger; she had the strength of a horse and could defend herself in any fight. Years of trying to prove to her father that as a female child, she was not worthless, had made her learn how to fight.

Her eyes lowered to his mouth as he chewed beef from the soup that he had saved for last. Because she loved cooking, she enjoyed watching people eat. She believed the way people ate revealed a lot about their character. Chuma ate slowly but decisively, and from that, she deduced that he was meticulous yet bold. From weeks of observing him, she also noticed that he could carve away most of the meat from the bone with his fork and knife. A skill, which she believed, spoke about his patience because she always needed to use her hands to enjoy meat.

Ifeoma moved towards him when she saw he had finished his meal, packed up his laptop and pulled out his wallet from his pocket.

“I hope you enjoyed your food?” she asked him with a nervous smile.

“I did as always, Ifeoma.” The way her name sounded on his lips made her heart lurch in her chest. The cost of the meal was written down on the menu. Ifeoma knew she did not have to show him the bill; she simply stood there and waited for him to open his wallet.

With another dazzling smile, Chuma handed Ifeoma a thousand Naira note. Two smiles in one night? She couldn’t wait to tell Oluchi and Loretta tomorrow.

“Let me get your change—”

“No, you don’t have to—”

“I’m sorry I can’t accept that. The food only costs three hundred—”

“I know, but that’s what I always give your waitresses.”

Ifeoma couldn’t help the startled gasp that escaped her lips. When Oluchi and Loretta told her that he was a great tipper, she’d never asked them how much he gave.

“It’s still too much,” she protested, shaking her head.

“Did you cook this meal?” he asked her. And even though she felt it was an odd question to ask, Ifeoma nodded her head.

“It is the best soup I have tasted,” his voice was deep, his tone candid. Ifeoma felt heat flood her face at the compliment.

“If I went to a posh restaurant, I would have paid almost three thousand Naira for soup not as delicious.” His words made her heart soar.

“Thanks very much, sir … I mean Chuma.” She accepted the money. After all, she needed it to pay off her loan.

Chuma watched her put the money in a purse tucked into the pocket of her apron. He knew it was time for him to stand up and leave, but he did not move.

“Are you expecting any more customers?” he questioned, wanting to spend more time with her. Looking at her in the dim light, he couldn’t comprehend his intense interest in her. She was physically not his type; he liked curvy women. And she was way too young. He liked his women mature—preferably over thirty, and experienced. Yet he felt inexplicably protective of her ever since he had noticed the fear in her eyes.

“No, I am about to lock up and head back home.” He glanced at his wristwatch. It was ten o’clock. Way too late for a young woman to be by herself in a restaurant with a strange man.

“How are you getting home?”

“I take the bus like everyone else,” she answered, sounding irritated.

Sighing, Chuma scratched his head at his blunder. Sometimes he forgot that not everyone owned a car.

“It’s not safe for you—” Her sudden laughter interrupted him.

“Now, you know what is safe for me?” she said, shaking her head. “You give me money and suddenly you know what’s best for me?” Reaching into her apron pocket, she pulled out the thousand Naira note and shoved it towards him.

“I don’t need your money, and I don’t need any man telling me what is safe for me.”

Astonished by her vehemence and unexpected response, Chuma was speechless. She held her hand towards him for a few more seconds.

“I’m sorry,” Chuma apologised, rising from his seat and placing his hand over hers. “It’s not my place to tell you what’s safe for you.” His apology surprised him because he rarely apologised to anyone. But then again, in the few minutes of meeting this strange lady standing before him, he’d done things he rarely did. Touching her now, a jolt of awareness passed through his skin from hers. This was not him; he did not believe in mushy feelings. Needing to clear his head, he exhaled before saying, “Keep the money, Ifeoma.” He paused briefly. “Be careful when going home, okay?”

Immobilised by his touch, Ifeoma could only nod her head in response.

“See you tomorrow, and please cook your lovely egusi soup,” he added with a small smile as he withdrew his hand from hers.

Ifeoma watched him leave the canteen, her hands trembling and her heart racing. Three smiles from Mr Frown-face in one night? Overwhelmed by the warm emotions flooding her body and mind, she sat down in the seat he had just vacated. The woodsy scent of his cologne still lingered in the air. She inhaled deeply and sighed.

What had just happened, what was that all about? Why had he even bothered to chat with her, why was he kind to her? He was rich and good-looking, so it couldn’t be that he found her attractive. No, it can’t be, she decided. She was not as conceited as Oluchi to believe that a man as sophisticated as he would notice her. Ifeoma knew she had a pretty face, but she also knew that she lacked the curves many men desired. Plus, with her baggy clothes and her chest strapped, no one had ever looked at her twice. What’s the end game here Mr Frown-face Chuma? she mused, puzzled by the entire evening. With a deep sigh, Ifeoma stood and got ready to close the canteen.

[]Chapter Four

“Chuma, you can’t just fire people like that, he is a friend’s son.” Chuma swallowed the angry retort that sprang to his throat because he didn’t want to disrespect his father.

“Dad, I can fire whomever I want, especially if that person is not doing a good job!” He tried to keep an even tone but some of his irritation was expressed in his voice.

“You never give people room to make mistakes and that’s not fair,” his father came again.

Chuma sighed, holding the phone away from his ears. He glanced idly through the ceiling-to-floor window of his office, located at the third floor of a four-storey building, into the busy Lagos streets. The traffic was still thick despite it being almost noon. Sucking his teeth, he brought the phone back to his ear.

“If that mistake cost me a million Naira, No!”

“Life is not only about money—”

“Which world do you live in dad?”

“You need a woman—”

“Like you have Mama Uzo?” Mama Uzo was a widow and mother of five who was a close friend of Chief Obi’s. Everyone in the family knew they were more just than friends and wondered why their father wouldn’t just admit it.

“Why bring her into this?”

Chuma sighed again. He had crossed that line into being disrespectful, but he hated his father telling him that he needed a woman. Chuma remembered vividly how his mother’s death had nearly destroyed his father who spent the next few years after that, having a drinking problem. Does he not remember what loving a woman had done to him?

“I apologise,” Chuma said, toying with his beard. “Dad, I needed to fire him because he was not good at his job.”

“I know, Chuma. But sometimes, patience and second chances are also okay too,” Chief Obi’s voice was solemn over the phone. A brief pause ensued before he added, “I’m not saying you should re-hire him, I’m just saying burning bridges is not always what’s best.”

“Thanks, dad, I’ve heard what you’ve said.”

“Oh, Chuma, you are as stubborn as a mule. Just like your mother.” His father sounded amused. “I swear sometimes when I hear you talk, it’s as if she never left us.” Chuma’s heart expanded at those words. He loved hearing stories about his mother.

“Okay dad, I know you are retired but I’m not, and more money needs to be made,” he said, and heard his father laugh in response.

“Some things will never change,” Chief Obi replied. “All right son, enjoy the rest of your day.”

After hanging up, Chuma thought about his father’s words. He knew that his penchant for expecting perfection made him unforgiving and he had often fired people without giving them a second chance. Was that so bad? To expect people to put forward their best? To expect excellence? His mind drifted to Ifeoma, the slim canteen owner. His mind had been wandering to thoughts of her since the night before. He respected her excellence. With the limited funds that she had, she still managed to make her food taste exceptional. This morning, following his restless sleep, he had admitted to himself that apart from an odd feeling of protectiveness, he had also developed an admiration for her.

After leaving her restaurant last night, he had waited in his car for her to close the canteen, and then he had followed her discreetly to the bus stop where he parked and waited till she got on the bus. Never having trailed anyone in his life, he did not want to analyse his decision to do so last night. What he knew was that he could not leave her to walk to the bus stop alone at night. Her poise and independence struck a chord in him. The way she carried herself reminded him of a peacock. Head held high and determined. A crooked smile twisted the corner of his lips as he recalled the way she had thrust his money back at him. It was a first for him—a woman rejecting his money. Excitement bubbled up within him at the thought of seeing her again during lunchtime.

Glancing at the mirror as she dragged a brush through her soft curls, Ifeoma’s eyes connected with her sister’s in the mirror.

“When last did you speak to Nene?” Chioma asked her.

“I don’t condone what she is doing,” Ifeoma replied.

“But she is still your sister,” Chioma shook her head.

“So what? Is having an affair with a married man something to be proud of?” Ifeoma turned towards Chioma. “I won’t support it!”

“I’m not saying that you should support what she is doing. All I am saying is you should be there for her.”

“She knows where to find me when she wants to,” Ifeoma said, turning back to the mirror.

“Not everyone can be like you, Ify; strong and independent—”

“Is that what you think this is? Wanting her to be like me?”

Ifeoma hated talking about Nene. She missed her, but she was also disappointed in her. She did not respect the fact that after leaving the control of their father, after watching what it did to their mother, Nene had only transferred that control to another man. A married politician who used her like a prostitute. He was in control of her life, never allowed her to have friends or work for herself. He had made Nene a modern-day sex slave.

“I am devastated that rather than work hard like we all do to break out of poverty, she would rather subject herself to….” Ifeoma’s voice broke.

“I’m sorry for bringing it up, Ify … It’s just that I miss her.”

“You and Ngozi can always go and visit her if you want to, I just don’t want you to ever consider her lifestyle acceptable.” Ifeoma packed her thick hair into a bun. “I want you and Ngozi to complete your university education. I am working hard to make sure that you do. I never got a chance to.” Chioma nodded, tears glistening in her eyes.

Ifeoma put on an oversized red T-shirt over her baggy jeans. Satisfied that her chest looked as flat as she wanted it to be, she put some Vaseline on her lips. “Education is the key to open doors of opportunity,” Ifeoma continued, sitting down to put on her sneakers. “With it, you can make your own decisions and no man can dictate to you how to live your life.”

She was alone at home with Chioma. Ngozi their other sister had left early for a morning lecture because she took three buses to get to the university every day. It was already nine o’clock and Ifeoma needed to get to the canteen to prepare food so she could be ready for the lunch hour.

Chioma did not have any lectures until noon, so she decided to sit and chat with Ifeoma while Ifeoma got ready.

“I admire you, Ify,” she said with a shaky voice. “You are always so strong.”

“Not always, Chioma,” Ifeoma muttered, as she pushed back images of the horrifying incident she had hidden deep in her mind. Sometimes, that memory tried to resurface and drag her into a pit of despair, but months of practice had made her able to fight it back. She walked towards Chioma and placed a kiss on her forehead.

“I admire you too, Chioma. We all went through a lot and survived,” Ifeoma said, picking up her handbag. “We all grew up in that terrible home and survived.

[]Chapter Five

Awka, Anambra State,

Nigeria, West Africa.

August 2007.

“I don’t know how you managed to convince Mr Chibundu to marry you instead of Chioma,” Ifeoma’s father muttered, nursing a bottle of beer. It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, and he had already started with his drinking. Ifeoma ignored him. She was in the kitchen chopping the vegetables she’d fetched from the garden. She was getting ready to cook dinner. Her father perched on a wooden stool close by.

“What did you say to him that made him pick you over a real woman—”

“Chioma is not a woman, she’s still a child!” Ifeoma spat, annoyed with herself for still allowing her father to get to her.

“She looks like a woman. You, on the other hand, are just a stick.”

Ifeoma sighed. Why did he insist on talking to her with the intent of taunting her? She could never understand that.

“Did you give him money? That’s the only reason any man would want you,” he continued, taking another gulp from the bottle of beer. Ifeoma continued to chop the vegetables, determined not to respond.

“I’ve asked him, but he refused to tell me why he has agreed to marry you instead.” Her father seemed lost in his thoughts for a few seconds, and then his lips twisted. “I really don’t care which one of you he marries.” He stopped to take another swig from his bottle. “Now that someone has finally agreed to marry you, I have three more bride prices awaiting me.”

“Daddy, please stop with this bride price issue; we don’t only exist to get married,” Ifeoma said, her tone low.

She thought offering to marry Mr Chibundu in place of her sister would end this madness. But knowing her father, he was already looking for other suitors for her sisters. There would never be an end to this. Bitterness rose from her stomach to her chest, making her chop the vegetables with more force. There was no escape from this life, from her father’s greed and abuse. They were all stuck.

“Shut up, stupid girl! Women have no other purpose in this life other than to get married and bear sons!” Her father’s aggressive tone made Ifeoma realise that his alcohol had started to kick in. There was no longer any point in this discussion. Resolving to ignore him as he continued to rant about how their mother had failed him as a woman by not producing a son, Ifeoma let her mind drift off to a place where she heard nothing.

In an almost fugue state, Ifeoma allowed herself to go through the motions of preparing for her traditional wedding to Mr Chibundu. The wedding was scheduled to take place that weekend. Her mother was excited and had sewn Ifeoma a dress to match the outfit Mr Chibundu would wear. Every time she thought about her wedding in a few days, Ifeoma felt nauseated. However, she tried to put on a brave facade so that her sisters wouldn’t suspect her anguish.

“Ify, I feel very bad that you are taking my place… It’s all my fault…” Chioma broke down sobbing as they lay in bed three days before the wedding.

“Don’t ever say that, it’s not your fault. I agreed to marry him,” she murmured, holding on to her sister.

“It’s my fault!” she disagreed vehemently. “I wish I would die.”

“My sister, never say that again!” Ifeoma took Chioma’s face in her hands and forced a smile.

“I am excited about marrying Mr Chibundu,” she lied. “At least I will finally have a husband. No one has ever even looked at me twice.” Chioma looked sceptical, but Ifeoma was not deterred. She wanted no feelings of responsibility to linger in Chioma’s mind about the situation.

“I’m too skinny for any other man anyway, at least, now, I will have a husband,” she joked and forced herself to laugh at her own dry humor. Chioma also laughed.

“You are not skinny, Ify, I love your breasts, they are perfect.” Ifeoma’s mouth fell open from shock. She always hid from her sisters when getting undressed because she never wanted them to know what she did to hide her breasts.

“That’s right, Ify, I have seen them,” Chioma continued, curving her hands over her chest to reinforce her point. “They are big and round like watermelons.” They soon both began to giggle uncontrollably trying to stifle the sound so they didn’t wake their sisters.

The evening before the wedding, Ifeoma was alone at home because everyone else had gone to the market. They were buying foodstuffs for the ceremony. Although the bride price given to her father was ten thousand Naira, he had only offered them five hundred Naira to shop with for the ceremony. Ifeoma’s mother had supplemented with her own money to provide what was needed to cook a decent meal for intended guests. Left with the duty of cleaning up the small front yard planned as the venue, Ifeoma picked up a broom and began her task.

After using the broom to sweep the fallen leaves together, she strolled into the house in search of a dustpan. A sudden sound inside the sitting room startled her.

“Who is there?” she called as she made her way towards the source of the noise. Ifeoma exhaled with relief. It was only Mr Chibundu.

“My father is not here, he went to the market,” she said.

“I haven’t come to see him but my future bride,” he said, rising to his feet. There was a strange look in his eyes as he walked towards her. Ifeoma backed away slowly.

“What is it, Mr Chibundu?” she asked, but her gut already knew what he wanted. She saw it in the darkening of his eyes and the way he licked his lips.

“I have come to taste my bride,” he murmured as he continued to advance towards her. Ifeoma took a step back again.

“We will be married tomorrow, there is no need for—”

“I can’t wait. There is no difference between today and tomorrow, is there?” He licked his lips again. “I can’t stop thinking about you. Your breasts. I want you now!”

Nausea churned Ifeoma’s stomach. “Mr Chibundu biko, tomorrow you can have me, let me have this last night—”

Before she could continue, he grabbed her and tried to force his mouth on hers. Ifeoma turned her head away. He was much shorter than her and he kept trying to pull her head down. Pushing him away, she made a dash for the door. He followed her swiftly and grabbed her by the waist.

“You don’t have to do this,” Ifeoma pleaded. But Mr Chibundu was not listening; his eyes shinned with determination as he dragged her to the centre of the sitting room. He tried to kiss her again and Ifeoma evaded his mouth.

Grunting with rage he slapped her hard across the face. “I have already paid the bride price, do as you are told!” he barked, grabbing the edge of her blouse and ripping it apart. He raised his hands to strike Ifeoma again and that was when Ifeoma’s self-preservation kicked in. With all the force she could muster, she blocked his raised hand with her own and kneed him right in the centre of his groin.

“Ahhhhh!” he groaned loudly, falling to the ground. “I will kill you! You hear me, I will kill you!” He continued to hold onto his groin groaning with pain. He made a move to get up again but Ifeoma kicked him on his side.

“You will pay for this!” he wailed as he fell to the ground. High on adrenalin, Ifeoma raced out of the house as fast as her legs could carry her.

“It is all my fault!” she cried as she ran. “I showed him my body and now, it is all my fault!”

When her legs finally gave way from exhaustion, Ifeoma crumbled to the floor wailing. “It is all my fault! If I didn’t show him my body, he wouldn’t have tried to rape me!”

She remained sprawled on the ground at the sidewalk of an unknown deserted road till dark. The chirping sounds of crickets and the distant rumble of faraway chatter from pedestrians at the far end of the road kept Ifeoma company. A plan began to form in her head as she lay in the dirt, holding her torn blouse together with her hands and tears streaming down her face. There was no way in the world she could be married to that devil. There was no way she would allow her sisters to carry on with this life. She would run away with her sisters tonight. There had to be a better life for them somewhere.

[]Chapter Six

Sitting in the back corner of Eastern Delight, Chuma glanced eagerly at the serving counter. This corner was his favourite spot in the restaurant because it was hidden and far away from the door. From there he could work quietly while enjoying his lunch or dinner. Another reason why he liked that particular spot was thanks to the ceiling fan swirling directly above him. Fortunately for him, nobody else seemed interested in that seat because it was never occupied when he came in. Today, he’d not even bothered to bring his laptop. The way his heart was beating now, he knew that working would have been almost impossible.

Chuma’s gut tightened in anticipation as he peered through the slightly opened door of the partition separating the serving counter from the rest of the canteen. He couldn’t see anything. Groaning inwardly, he twisted his lips. He hated that damned partition. Where was Ifeoma? Although he had just arrived five minutes ago, he was eager to see her. Five other customers were already seated and enjoying their meals. A waitress was attending to a sixth customer who came in seconds before him. Disappointment washed over Chuma when he saw the other waitress strolling towards him. He always ignored the way she sashayed towards him and bent forward thrusting her breasts in his face when she served him.

“What can I get you, sir? There is egusi, Oha, and onubgu. Also, jollof rice, beef, fish and chicken,” she said with a practiced smile. Chuma could not help the irritated look he threw at her. I can read the damned menu, he thought, irked. Where the hell is Ifeoma?

“Ifeoma!” he snapped. “Tell Ifeoma to come out and attend to me,” he added, noting the surprised expression on the waitress’s face. She did not move.

“Sir, I don’t understand—”

“It’s simple. I know Ifeoma is in there, so tell her to come out.”

“Oh…oh, okay, sir.” She scurried away.

Settling back in his seat, his heartbeat not bothering to slow down, Chuma waited a few more seconds before he saw Ifeoma emerge from the serving counter and his heart stopped.

Last night he had not seen her clearly. Now he could see her in all her beautiful angelic perfection. Her face was the prettiest face he’d ever seen. She looked almost angelic. Ifeoma’s complexion was very fair and reminded Chuma of smooth creamy butter. Engulfed in baggy clothes and an ugly apron with no makeup on, she looked like a teenager. Yet the beautiful brown fierce glare that was directed at him was not that of a teen but of an annoyed woman. He suddenly felt his chest tighten and his throat go dry. He took a sip of his bottled water to soothe his throat as she approached his table.

“Can I take your order, sir?” she asked, her tone low, her eyes flashing. He spotted an irritated red flush creep up her face. Chuma knew he’d infuriated her. Gazing into her soft brown eyes, which had an angry spark to it, Chuma smiled.

“Chuma,” he said. She ignored him and continued to glare at him, waiting for him to order. He took that opportunity to study her small oval-shaped face.

Thick perfectly arched eyebrows sat above her large expressive eyes. She had a small cute nose and full succulent lips. Her hair was partly covered with a scarf but Chuma could see from the tendrils hanging out that it was full and curly.

“How old are you?” he blurted out before he could stop himself.

“What?” Her eyes widened at his audacity.

“How old are you, Ifeoma?” he asked again because he could not seem to prevent his inexplicable curiosity about the woman standing in front of him.

“What do you want from me?” she snapped, her voice slightly raised, causing a few glances their way. Noticing them, she lowered her voice.

“Twenty-five,” she answered his question. “So, what can I get for you, sir?”

Deciding this was neither the time nor place to satisfy his curiosity, he ordered egusi soup and beef. Watching her walk away from him, he pondered her question, what do you want from me? He honestly did not know. One thing he was absolutely sure of was that she had awakened in him an awareness he had never experienced in his life. There was no going back now. Not until he found out what he wanted from her. He would only return later this evening, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, weeks and months after until he knew exactly what.

Fuming, Ifeoma scooped soup into a ceramic bowl. She had seen Chuma arrive. Actually, she had spent the entire morning tied up in knots, anticipating his appearance. He’d intruded into her dreams last night too. Carrying her in his strong arms over his wide shoulder as they ran from strange creatures together. She’d woken up sweating and aroused. And it had taken her a long time to drift back to sleep. It was bad enough that he was taking over her dreams; now he was here demanding her presence. No, demanding that she serve him. Like he was a King of some sort. Who the hell did he think he was?

Peering through the partition at Chuma, Ifeoma observed him scowl while he waited to be served, and she twisted her lips. He did look like a king. Like a warrior, tall, handsome and sturdy. Like someone I should stay away from, she mused. He would dominate her and she was determined that no man ever would. I am not my mother; I am a strong woman, she told herself.

Na wa o, Mr Frown-face is something else; very rude,” Oluchi who had just walked in, commented, bringing Ifeoma out of her reveries.

“I know,” Ifeoma answered placing the bowl she held on a tray. “Very arrogant,” she added.

“But you told me that he was nice yesterday, that he even smiled three times.” Oluchi stuck out three fingers.

Ifeoma laughed. She’d probably spoken too soon. Glancing in his direction again, she noticed that his scowl remained unchanged.

“My dear, I guess his name will revert to Mr Frown-face.” They both laughed.

After serving Chuma herself because she never wanted to be summoned by him ever again, Ifeoma continued with business as usual. However, she could not prevent her mind and her eyes from wandering to him every now and then. Her breath shortened when she watched him walk up to the serving counter after his meal.

“Thanks for another delicious meal, Ify,” he murmured, handing her a thousand Naira note. “Ify?” When had she become “Ify” to him? What was going on here? He ignored her gasp. The look in Chuma’s eyes dared her to refuse the money he was holding out in front of her in the presence of her waitresses; who were both regarding them with astonished expressions.

Ifeoma accepted the money. He seemed satisfied by her acceptance.

“See you later this evening,” he said flashing her a brilliant smile. With that final statement, he turned and walked away, leaving Ifeoma, Oluchi and Loretta gaping after him.

[]Chapter Seven

Ifeoma whistled as she cleaned the tables and rearranged the chairs. Another day had come to a successful end. She had made a profit of one thousand Naira. It was not much, but she had saved ten thousand Naira this month. And since she was paying back the loan for the restaurant in ten thousand a month installments, she considered this a good profit. Only about eight thousand more and she would be able to make the rent this month as well. Oh, but she needed to pay Oluchi and Loretta. She needed about twelve thousand more. Sighing, she shook those worries away. She was alive and could work. The money would come as long as she worked hard.

Thanks to the three thousand Naira that Mr Frown-face Chuma had paid since yesterday, she was a lot closer to her goal now. Thinking about this, she determined that she would no longer refuse his tips. If he insisted that she alone served him, then so be it. She would take the tips from that service. It was all fair and good. A smile played on her lips as she thought about him. He’d come in as late as he’d done yesterday and sat at his usual spot. Not waiting to have him demand her service, she attended to him herself. It had been more peaceful between them because he’d simply eaten and left.

Sweeping her eyes around the canteen, Ifeoma nodded in satisfaction. It was ready to be closed now. She was usually the last one to leave because she liked to tidy up and do the inventory herself. Pulling together the burglary proof metal gates and securing them with a large padlock, she continued to whistle. Just as she was about to turn around, Ifeoma noticed a shadow on the ground beside her and paused. Then with stealth and agility, she swung a hand around throwing a heavy punch at the intruder.

“Fuck!” she heard a male voice curse. She raised her hand to attack again, but he grabbed it. “Ify!” he yelled. “It’s me, damn it!”

“What the hell—” she gasped. It was Chuma.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, breathing heavily from the adrenaline coursing through her veins.

“Jesus!” Chuma muttered, cupping his face. “Here I am thinking I would look out for you. Not even considering I was the one in danger.”

Ifeoma burst into laughter.

“I’m sorry,” she said reaching out to touch the part of his face where her fist had met his flesh.

“Did I hurt you?” She was still laughing.

“Yes, damn it!” he spat, and then joined her laughter.

When their laughter faded, a short silence ensued as they found themselves locked in each other’s gazes. The streetlights and the moonlight were their only sources of illumination, causing the atmosphere to feel suddenly warm and magical to Ifeoma.

“What are you doing here, Chuma?” she asked again, wiping away tears of laughter from her eyes.

“I don’t know, Ify,” he answered honestly. “I just wanted to make sure that you got home safely.”

“But why? You don’t even know me, I—”

“I’m aware of that fact, Ify, And I want to rectify it.”

“Why? What do you want from me?”

Ifeoma did not believe good men existed. They always wanted something. Except for Uncle Emeka, all men had ever done was to disappoint her.

“I don’t know,” was his answer. Another moment of silence followed. “I don’t know why, but I like you.”

Ifeoma’s heart thudded heavily within her rib cage. She felt a lump in her throat and had to swallow hard before she could speak again.

“I won’t sleep with you,” Ifeoma murmured, lowering her long eyelashes. “I need your patronage, but I won’t sleep with you for that.”

A disarming smile spread across his luscious lips.

“I am not asking you to sleep with me, Ify.” He regarded her as if she was a puzzle he needed to fix. “I don’t know what it is about you, but I like being around you.”

Ifeoma had mixed feelings about his response. While she felt relieved that he wasn’t interested in having sex with her, it irked her all the same. He was just like all the other men who didn’t find her sexually attractive because she was skinny.

“Please let me drive you home,” he requested, interrupting her thoughts.

“Why?” she asked, then realising that she was beginning to sound like a broken record, she smiled.

“I think my honest answer to all the whys you will ask tonight is; I don’t know.” He sounded amused.

Taking a deep breath in and exhaling deeply, Ifeoma nodded her agreement. As she followed him into his jeep, she felt like she was falling into a deep pit.

“So, what part of the East are you from?” Chuma asked her as soon as she settled in the front seat.

“Awka,” she replied. Chuma started the car engine and pulled out of the parking spot.

“You?” Ifeoma questioned, pointing the directions leading to her home with her finger.

“Abia state, but I grew up in Enugu.” He glanced sideways at her.

“I went to DMGS at Onitsha, so I know Awka quite well.”

“Ah, DMGS! People from that secondary school are so annoyingly proud of that school… it’s almost like a cult!”

Chuma threw his head back and laughed. It was true. His grandfather and father had attended DMGS and made sure that both he and his twin had attended too. He told her that and she smiled.

“So, you are a twin, do you look alike?” Chuma shook his head. “No, he is yellow pawpaw like you,” he replied, referring to their fair complexion.

“Do you have any sisters or brothers?” He noticed her hesitation.

“Three sisters,” she answered after a few seconds. “No brother.”

“Are your parents in Lagos or do they still live in Awka?”

“They are dead,” she replied, turning her face towards the window. A clear sign to him that she did not want to continue the conversation.

“Sorry,” he murmured and decided not to push it any further. There was obviously some painful history there. The silence that followed was strained.

“Do you have any sisters?” She turned back towards him after a few minutes of silence.

“Yes,” he answered. “Ada, the baby of the house. She hates being called that; but, no matter how old she gets, she is our baby.” He chuckled, and she smiled. The atmosphere lightened again.

They continued in silence only broken by Ifeoma’s directions. The further he drove, the more Chuma realised that she lived in the slums and quite far away from the canteen. A sense of admiration struck him about her again. Did she have to take many buses to get to work? His mind spun with thoughts about ways to make life easier for her. He could buy a small car for her and teach her how to drive. Or maybe hire a driver to take her around.

“Turn left and park at the end of the road please,” her soft voice brought him back from his thoughts. He did as she directed.

Killing the engine, he looked at the building where she lived. It was unfinished and unpainted. The street was lined with similar dilapidated houses. With no electricity, the noise of generators disturbed the silence of the night. It was the worst housing he’d ever seen. A fierce protectiveness sprung within him.

“I’ll walk you to the—”

“No,” she refused sharply. The look she gave him, told him not to fight her on this. He nodded.

“Thank you… Chuma.” Her voice sounded cracked.

“See you tomorrow,” he said in a low tone. She gave him a crooked smile and got down from the jeep. Chuma waited in the jeep till she got into her building before driving away.

That was the beginning of their unlikely friendship. For the next two weeks, Chuma spent his evenings in the canteen with Ifeoma. He went in late so that he could drop her off at home at the end of the day. She still refused to allow him to pick her up in the mornings, just as she refused any other offer of help to arrange her transportation to work. It infuriated and impressed him at the same time.

“I’ve been curious to know how you stumbled upon my humble canteen,” Ifeoma commented one night as they sat eating in the canteen. They were the only ones there because the waitresses had long gone and he’d stayed back to drive her home.

“After a business trip, I was very hungry and I was stuck in traffic,” he answered, taking a spoonful of Oha soup. Ifeoma waited while he swallowed. Her eyes following the movement of his throat and the bob of his Adam’s apple. A sudden need to kiss his Adam’s apple overwhelmed her. She shifted her eyes away from the source of her temptation. He appeared oblivious to her plight. “So, I saw your sign Eastern Delight,” he continued. “I’m usually picky about where I eat, but I had no choice. I sent the company driver in to buy soup to take away.” Ifeoma suddenly remembered the strange man in a hurry to buy food a few months ago.

“Ify, I swear, after eating the onubgu soup, it felt like I had died and gone to heaven.” Heat warmed her cheeks. Chuma noticed the colouring of her face. His throat tightened.

“Have you ever thought about expanding?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

“I’m trying to stay out of debt and pay my loans first,” she murmured.

“Let me help you—”

“No,” she sighed. “Stop asking Chuma, the answer is still no.”

“Why won’t you let me? I don’t want anything back in return; I’ll even give you a loan if you insist.”

“No!” Her tone was sharp now. “Drop this conversation please.”

They scowled at each other for a few seconds.

“Okay, but don’t expect me to stop asking,” Chuma muttered, breaking the silence.

They resumed their meal in silence. “I want to take you out this Saturday,” Chuma broke the silence again. Ifeoma held her breath, waiting for him to continue.

“I have a boat in Lagos Marina. I love to sail on Saturday sometimes.” Still speechless, Ifeoma dared not say anything, dared not move.

“The weather appears promising, no rain. We can have—”

“I have to work on Saturday … I work on Saturdays, remember?” Her voice suddenly returned, cutting him off. She could not allow him to continue, to paint a picture in her mind. It was hard enough not to reach out across the table and touch him. Keeping her desire for him in check was torture. She did not need him painting this perfect fairy-tale picture in her head. Especially when it was obvious that he wasn’t attracted to her. She was just a hobby to him. A problem to fix. Something interesting to occupy his bored rich mind. No, she won’t encourage this.

Chuma’s dark eyes flashed with anger. He took in a deep breath as if trying to calm himself. He didn’t succeed.

“I know you work Saturdays, damn it!” His voice came out harshly. “I know you worked last Saturday, and the Saturday before that and Sundays too!”

Taking a gulp of water as if he needed that to finally calm down, he swallowed slowly. “I just want you to have one Saturday off! Just one! And relax! Stop fighting the world!”

Ifeoma’s pulse jerked at the intensity she saw in his eyes. This was all too much. She felt like she was drowning. To spend a whole Saturday relaxing on a boat with him? How could she do that and not fall at his feet? Or beg him never to leave her? No, she couldn’t. He made her weak, she had to fight him, preserve herself. I am not my mother; I am a strong woman.

***

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Thorns and Roses

Many thanks for sharing this journey with me. In Nigeria, a few friends and relatives of mine often expressed to me, feelings of unhappiness growing up in a home where there was no male child— “An heir”. Their emotions of discontentment when they spoke of their experiences, often tugged at my heart strings. I feel strongly about this and I’m optimistic that as a community, we can evolve past this.

  • Author: PETRU DUMITRU
  • Published: 2017-02-04 01:05:12
  • Words: 76450
Thorns and Roses Thorns and Roses