Writings / Fiction

Opening Eyes

Chika Unigwe

The new man was tall and lanky. He came with his wife, Rapu, a nervous, small woman with startled eyes and a stutter. She sat at the edge of the sofa as if she were afraid, ready to flee at the slightest sound. She was new. But not in the same way the man, Gwachi, was. She was new to Europe. He was just new to Belgium and therefore relatively new to the group of men who met regularly at Agu’s to drink and talk. Prosperous had only seen him a few times.

“He moved from Germany a few months ago”, Agu told Prosperous the first time Gwachi came with Elisabet, his German wife. “He said Germany is very hard for black men.”

“Harder than here?”, She asked, raising her eyebrows as if she did not believe her husband.

“Yes. Harder than here. Can you imagine? His wife suggested Belgium. She gave up her life in Germany for him. Oyibo women and love! They’d give up everything for the person they love!”

But the wife he had with him now and whom he brought every time he came afterwards was Igbo, like everyone else in the house. She was his “sister-wife”, the wife he would introduce to Elisabet and their Belgian friends as his “sister.” His sister-wife did not live with him. She lived with a Nigerian man called Shylock. Whatever his real name was, nobody seemed to know. He was nicknamed Shylock for the exorbitant fees he charged for whatever service he provided, even to his countrymen. Shylock drove an Audi, had a gold tooth and always wore a beret and dark Ray Ban sunglasses. In the winter, he wore a long black leather jacket.

“Do you know how much Shylock is charging Gwachi for his wife? Forty thousand! And they are from the same village. That man loves money too much!”

“But at least he knows Shylock won’t be dipping in his pot of soup. You remember the story about that Ogwashi man?”

 

The Ogwashi man had been paid a huge amount to “marry” a certain Ogwashi girl whose husband was already in the country but who could not bring her in because he was married to a Belgian woman. The poor man – very much like Gwachi – missed his “real” wife too much to wait and bring her in himself once he got his papers and divorced his white wife. But The Ogwashi man not only took the money, he also took the “real” wife so that what had started out as an arrangee marriage became marriage proper. Neither the Ogwashi girl nor her real husband could do anything about it without getting into trouble. No one knew who the Ogwashi man was but his story had become an anecdote, told and re-told in the Nigerian circle as a reminder of the covetous nature of human beings. Shylock, whatever else he might be, had an untarnished reputation for honesty and professionalism. ‘If he said he’d sell you his mother, he would,’ was how he was described. He was also a man with lots of connections. No one knew the exact nature of those connections but they were said to be expansive and useful. Not a nice man but one you wanted to know if you were after an arrangee marriage. . As it turned out, when Gwachi asked, Shylock said he would go one better than recommending someone. He would do it. He asked for a down payment of Four thousand Euros. The rest could be paid in monthly installments.

Shylock married Rapu and brought her into the country. Every evening after work, Gwachi went to Shylock’s to see Rapu for a few minutes before rushing home to Elisabet. On Sunday afternoons or evenings, he made excuses to Elisabet, and went to see Rapu. It was only then, on Sunday, that he took Rapu out like a proper husband would and they went and visited his friends, or drove down to Antwerp where they checked into gritty motels and kept an eye on the clock while they made love. It would not do to get Elisabet suspicious.

“How long still”? Rapu asked every night when he dropped her off at Shylock’s

“Not long now, not long now”, he said to her each time. “Then we can be a proper family.”

 

“Wh…Wh…what does m…m…m…my. What does thee…..thee….this wo..wo..wo…woman loo…loo….look like, my hus…hus..husband’s wife”? She asked Prosperous one day, her voice low and soft, her eyes like a frightened animal’s. She was sitting on a kitchen stool, stirring the rice and stew in her plate with a spoon.

“I’ve only ever seen her once”, Prosperous replied. “Gwachi does not go out with her much. He brought her here once.” Then, because she knew what the woman, the real wife wanted to hear added: “It’s almost as if he were ashamed of her. She’s muscular in a very mannish way. She’s not beautiful. She has a beard like a man’s own. Gwachi should ask her to shave.”

 

Rapu’s lips turned upwards in a smile. Her eyes brightened. Very softly, she said, “Thank you”, without stuttering. Then she began to eat, shoveling the rice into her spoon in huge heaps like a starving labourer. There was nothing shy and reserved about her when she ate. She ate like she was on a mission, chewing with determined movements of her jaws, hardly raising her head from the plate until she had emptied the plate.

“We…we have a child ba…ba…ba…back home, you know that”? She asked Prosperous, as she washed out her plate. “We ha…ha..have a child. Si….si..six years old.”

“Boy or girl”?

“Boy. Nkonye.” She smiled at Prosperous as she said the name.

“Where’s he now”?

“With my, my , my si…si…sister. When Gwa….Gwa…Gwa…When Gwachi’s papers are ready and…;and…and..and we can li….live together, we’ll get, we’ll get him. He was one when Gwachi left.” She dried her hands on a kitchen towel and sat down again.

“First Gwa..Gwa…First he was in…he was in…he was in Lebanon. Then Holland. Then Ger…Germany. Now he says hee hee hee he ’s settled. Once he divorces Elisabet, and I divorce Shy..Shylock we’ll be together again. I’m tired of sleeping oooooon the…the…the sofa. My…my neck hurts. Every day. Ann…Another man might have gi..gi…given the woman the bed but…but…but not Shylock.” She cracked her knuckles starting with the little finger on each hand and then working up to the thumb, alternating the hand with each successful crack.

“Oh well, Shylock doesn’t joke with business. It’s always strictly business with him. If he gave up his bed for you, he won’t be Shylock. That’s why your husband trusts him. No funny business with him. You know where you stand.”

“Yes.”

 

For two weeks, Gwachi did not come to Prosperous’. Instead Rapu came with Shylock.

“I be..be…begged him to b… to bring me”, she told Prosperous. Gwachi and Elisabet ha…have gone to Turkey on holiday. To…to..together.” She sounded like she was about to cry or had been crying, Prosperous could not decide which. “She sleeps with my hus…hus..husband every night. She’s got my husband and wha…wha…wha..what have I got?” She wrung her hands as she spoke.

“In a way, he is her husband too,” Prosperous said gently. She wondered if this life was worth the sacrifice they were all making for it. She and Agu working in jobs they could not stand. Rapu and Gwachi. Tapped in a marriage they did not want. Their son left behind with an aunt in Nigeria. And Elisabet? She did not want to think of the childish-looking woman with a high laugh whom Gwachi had brought along to their home once. The woman had mock-complained that rather than taking her to Nigeria to see his home country, meet his people, Gwachi was taking her on a round of Nigerian homes in Belgium. “It’s not the same you know. darling?” She had asked laughing in that high way of hers, kissing him on the nose.

“Tell her,” Gwachi said, appealing to the room. “Tell her how dangerous Nigeria is. It’s not a country to visit. It’s not like Kenya or something where you can go on safaris. Why do you think I left? Ah, tell her about our country!”

Prosperous had said nothing, unwilling to be complicit. But the men had complied. They knew what performance was expected of them. They spoke about kidnappings at gunpoint; of policemen who sold their uniforms and rifles to armed robbers; of a constant power outage and of air that was so thick with the exhaust fumes of rickety old cars that it was impossible to breathe. As they piled one gory story on top of another, Prosperous saw Elisabet’s smile become thinner and thinner and her eyes grow wider and wider. When she shrieked, “I never want to go to Nigeria! What a horrible country!”, Prosperous ran out of the room as if she had been personally affronted.

 

When Gwachi returned from Turkey at the end of August, his visits with Rapu continued. He had bought her a small leather purse, which Rapu showed off happily.

“How was your holiday?” Prosperous asked him and he complained of how he hated holidays.

“What is there to do on holiday? I missed my wife”, he said, rubbing Rapu’s back. “I can’t wait for this damn marriage to be over. White women give too much wahala. Elisabet wanted to see museums. To shop; to walk. Every morning she dragged me out to walk.”

“Walk to where?,” Agu asked laughing in anticipation of the response

“To nowhere! Just Oyibo walk. Hand-in-hand. Like school children.”
Rapu angrily shook his hand off her back and walked away into the kitchen. Prosperous followed.

“You know that he has to do these things”, she said to Rapu

“Yes. yes. But it’s not easy, my…my sister. He’s my husband. Hee…hee…he’s the father of my son.”

“How is he?”

“My son? He’s fine.Every…every..day I talk to him, he wants to know whe…whee..when he can come and and…and.. join us. I can’t even tell him that his father and I don’t live together. How do I begin to tell him that, eh? My sister, tell me how .”
Prosperous felt like holding her, hugging her and telling her that it was only a matter of time.

“It’ll be okay”, she said instead.

“You know, you know, you know I kept asking him to bring me. Bring me over. B…Bring me, I said. I could haan…handle it. My parents were tired. They were tie…tie..tired of answering que…que…questions about the ree…ree….relationship. I was tired of answering questions. People wondered why my husband had left me for so long in Nigeria. There were ma…ma…malicious rumours. They said he had abandoned me. He had fled. Can you ima….ima…imagine the shame, my sister, eh? They laughed behind my back. They….they… spread rumours. So…so my pe…my pe… my parents said he must…must come aaaand get me. Now, I…I…I don’t know.”

“The problem with Gwachi”, Agu said, “is that he married a good white woman. Elisabet has been so nice to him that he’s finding it hard to just do the deed. The house he’s building in the village, Elisabet bankrolled it. She doesn’t stop him from going out and hanging with his friend like so many Oyibo women do.”

“What a pity, for such a nice woman to be used like this.”

“Circumstances,” Agu said, yawning.

Prosperous did not know how to interpret that. She felt bad for Elisabet, but she felt bad for Rapu too. The only person who seemed to be getting the best of both worlds, she told Agu, was Gwachi.

“But what do you want the man to do?”
She said nothing at first. Then, “He could have left Rapu back home until he was ready.”

 

The day Rapu told Prosperous that Elisabet was pregnant, she cried. It was the first time Prosperous had ever seen her cry. She had seen her close to tears several times and had imagined for some reason that if she eventually did cry, it would be soft sobs with lots of sniffing. Rapu moaned when she cried.

“He wooon’t leave her now, my…my….sister, will he?”

“Is that what he’s said?”
“No. No. But…but… but…” The words refused to dislodge and she gave up and wept into her palms.

 

“You know Elisabet is pregnant?”, Prosperous asked Agu after the visitors left with Gwachi walking ahead of Rapu, who dragged her feet like a heavily pregnant woman.

“Yes. He told me.”

“Is he going to leave her with a baby?”

“And doesn’t Rapu have his baby too?”

“She’s worried. She cried. Poor girl.”

“Rapu is his wife, is she not? She’s the one recognized back home. She’s got nothing to fear.”

 

It was Prosperous who noticed that Rapu was adding weight. She joked to Gwachi that Shylock was feeding his wife well.

“It’s this…this… country”, Rapu said. “Too…too… many sugary things to…to…to…eat.” She took a large bite of the cake Prosperous served and sipped some coke.

Her eyes had lost their startled look and acquired a certain calmness. When she spoke she no longer wrung her hands or cracked her knuckles. She settled into chairs as If she owned the house.

“She’s becoming a proper madam”, Prosperous told Agu.

“What do you expect? She’s no longer a Johnny-just-come. She has opened eyes.”

 

Rapu added weight steadily so that whenever Prosperous saw her she had piled on some more. The weight was spread evenly through her body, as if it had taken a conscious decision to be fair, so Prosperous never really noticed until Rapu announced her pregnancy to her, rubbing her stomach contently with a palm.

“And what does Gwachi think of it?”

“He…he…he is happy”, she said, burying her head in her glass of cola as if she were afraid of looking into Prosperous’ eyes.

“Gwachi doesn’t know how he’s going to deal with it”, Agu told Prosperous later that night. “Two babies coming within months of each other. His papers are in order now but he thinks it’d be very cruel to leave Elisabet now she’s almost due. But he wants to be able to be with Rapu properly. He doesn’t know what to do. She’s been very kind to him. He said that her parents were totally against them getting married, you know? She married him against their will and her father is still not talking to her. She hopes that the grandchild will help bring her parents round.”

 

“Wahala”, Prosperous said. “He’s got to find a way to resolve this.”

She thought of Elisabet fighting her parents for the man she loved. She thought of her own father and how she could not imagine not ever talking to him. She thought of Rapu and her growing stomach. She thought of Nkonye in Nigeria waiting to join his parents. She did not know who to feel sorry for. Who should she be rooting for? Elisabet or Rapu?

 

In May, as the weather became warmer, Elisabet had her baby. A girl with her father’s nose, bigger than the average baby girl.

“She was 54 centimetres at birth”, Elisabet announced proudly as she handed the baby over to Prosperous to see when she and Agu visited. “Guhwashi has been very good with her”, she said, splitting Gwachi’s name into three syllables and mispronouncing the “chi”. “He hasn’t dropped her once!” She laughed loudly.

“Ah! Me I’m good with babies”, Gwachi responded getting up to get drinks for Prosperous and Agu.

“Yes. Like a pro. You wouldn’t tell that this is his first. He impressed the nurses at the hospital.”

Gwachi smiled and kissed her on the forehead. He asked her if she wanted something else to drink as her tea had gone cold.

Prosperous watched Gwachi fuss over Elisabet, holding her hands and kissing her repeatedly on the back of one hand, and she wondered if his exaggerated kindness was to compensate for the fact that he would soon be leaving her. He no longer spent Sunday evenings with Rapu. He had to be on hand, Rapu told Prosperous, to help out with the baby.

“He…hee…he says once the bay…bay...baby is six months old, he’ll lee…lee…lee…lee…leave her.” She sounded like she no longer cared. Poor girl, Prosperous thought. It must be hard for her.

 

One Friday morning in July with a stomach looking like it was about to explode, even though she still had three months to go, Rapu came to visit Prosperous. It was the first time she was coming on a weekday. Agu was still sleeping and Rapu looked relieved to hear that.

“My...my…sister. I…I…I doo...don’t want you to hear, to…to..to hear this from someone else. So I’ll tell you. My baby’s faaa…ther waaants to maaary me. For real.”
“Baby’s father? What are you talking about?” Oh no! She thought about the untarnished reputation of Shylock. She thought about how everyone respected the fact that he was business-like.

“Shylock?” She asked, afraid of the answer, already feeling sorry for Rapu whose story would become anecdotal too like the Ogwashi man’s own. Had he forced her? Raped her?

“Shy…Shylock? No!” Rapu said, laughing in a way Prosperous had never seen her laugh before. “I me...t someone. He…he is Oyibo. So now Gwachi can keeeeep his oh…oh…Oyibo wife. I haa…ve my own Oyibo too.”

“Does Gwachi know?”

Rapu shook her head.

“But I’ll tel…tell him I just don’t know how. He woon’t be too sad my…my..sister. He does not loo…loo….look too unhappy with…with…with…. Elisabet. Every…Every time I ah…asked him, When? Ho….how much lon….lon…longer? He..he told me, ‘Soon. I….I don’t wa….ant to be nasty to her. She ha….ha…has been very good, very good to..very good to me.’ ”

On Sunday, Gwachi came to visit. He had gone to Shylock’s but neither Rapu nor Shylock was home. He could not stand it any longer, he said. He could not stand it that soon, his wife, his real wife would have a baby and he would not be able to be with her, help out like he had done with Nkonye.

“I told Elisabet today that I wanted a divorce”, Prosperous heard him say from the kitchen where she had gone to fetch some beers. She held on to the fridge and began silently to cry, unsure for whom her tears were meant.

About The Author

Author

Chika Unigwe was born and raised in Nigeria and now lives in Belgium. she was a 2008 UNESCO-aschberg Fellow and a 2009 Rockefeller Foundation Fellow (at the Bellagio centre), and holds a PhD from the University of Leiden. She is the recipient of several awards for her writing, including first prize in the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition and a Comonwealth Short Story Award. In 2004 she was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Her stories have been broadcast on BBC World Service and Radio Nigeria. Her first novel, de Feniks, ws published in Dutch in 2005. On Black Sisters Street, (Jonathan Cape) her second novel  was named by the Telegraph as one of its  books of 2009. It will be published by Random House, NY in April 2011.

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