“You may now come and pay your last respects to our brother and son, Albert” intoned the smallish bald headed pastor who looked like he was performing an overly rehearsed drama as though he needed to act as required to elicit the appropriate emotion from the congregation.
“Oya, go and see your husband for the last time” mama nudges me silently and I stand up from the hard mahogany chair that is reserved for “close relatives of the deceased” and walk monotonously to the large table where the shiny black lacquered coffin is laid. A solemn looking boy with an attire of a drab black two piece suit similar to that of the pastor’s comes forward and opens the top half of the coffin, baring my husband’s face with its deep creases and receeding hairline, you would think that in death, the thin lines that never seemed to smoothen out of his always sulky face would disappear, leaving it as a dead man’s face should be; peaceful and expressionless. Looking at his face now, the memories I tried hard to suppress burst free from the tightly locked vault that I buried them in. A hand crawls up my arm offering me the comfort I do not need and I look to my left to see Ruth’s beautiful face stained with tears and her eyes red and swollen, it takes my mind to those nights when Ruth would softly walk into the spacious bedroom I shared with Albert, find me cowered and crooning in pain beside the king sized bed and say to me “Madam let me help you”, I would look up, see her watery eyes, smile tightly and say “It’s okay Ruth, I can manage on my own”. Looking at her now, I absently wonder if those tears staining her coffee coloured plump cheeks were tears of pain or tears of guilt because she had been there that night and had witnessed all that happened.
As the memories become loose and free, they began to float and wander around, impelling me to revoke events that if I could, I would rather not recall. My ears still ring from how mama had yelled “Eeehhhhhh oo, God why have you taken my supporter?” that cold morning when I called and said to her tonelessly “Mama, Albert is dead”. I turn and look at her sad face and I remember how she said to me in that high pitched voice I seemed to fear when I was younger “A good African woman must never speak against her husband” when I narrated to her the story surrounding my bandage covered head while lying in the hospital bed. I turn back and mentally debate if it was biologically plausible to loathe one’s mother as I do mine.
“God ooo, where is my brother? Someone pinch me! Chineke oooo” Aunty Ije wails as she walks forward to also “pay her last respect”, held up by three women who take turns to say to her “N’do, take heart my sister”. I never liked the woman, whether it is because of how she would come to Albert’s house and speak igbo to him while making scornful eyes at me or it is because of the greedy way she always looked at the pricey pearls Albert bought for me whenever I wore them to the yearly celebration we had in the village, I am not sure. I remember how she trooped in dramatically with other family members, when they learnt of Albert’s death. They had requested to see his body and when they did, Aunty Ije had rushed at me with long fingernails threatening to tear the skin off my face. “You poisoned him, you witch, you killed my brother” she had said, sobbing. Her husband tore her away from me and said in a hushed tone “Behave yourself, Ije”. Till now, it is quite surprising to me how they did not accuse me further of Albert’s death or perform those rites they did for widows, I can not tell if it is because Albert’s death cleared the way for their greedy hands to latch on his several bank accounts and they did not mind his death or because they could never imagine that the timorous wife would kill her invincible husband. I look at Albert’s creasy face one last time and I am reminded of how he would scrunch up his face and pant in anger on those nights when he said in his gruff voice “Take off your clothes” and I would beg “Not tonight, please my husband”. Of course my begging would not deter him as he would raise his large arms and drop them heavily on my temple urging me to hastily scramble away from said clothes. He would thrust ardently between my thighs, his flaccid belly slapping my abdomen while I lie dispassionately under him and wait impatiently for when his thrusts would become frenzied and his lewd groans would fill my ears. I would endure his weight for thirty seconds till I could hear his loud snores and pull him off me, straightening and walking numbly to the bathroom to wash off the moist stickiness seeping down my thighs. I remember also, those days when I would stagger to his office after Yemisi, my female driver drops me off in front of the huge building that was his company and I would smile and tell the concerned workers “Oh, I fell on the slippery bathroom floor” when they asked about my unsteady gait and the bits of sore purple skin that my dark sunglasses failed to conceal.
“Ah ah, what were you doing there since” mama complains when I sit back down on the hard chair. The church is one of the ‘big men’s’ churches in Lagos and I wonder why they have chairs without cushions. “Sorry mama” I mutter, even though I do not know what I am sorry for. “I can’t believe that this man is dead, who will help us now eh? You refused to give him at least, one child, just one. Now all his selfish people will push you out of his house as if you never existed” Mama continued to complain. Albert and I had carried out several tests to find out why our seven years of marriage never yielded a child. When we leave the doctor’s office after he would try to console us by saying “There is absolutely nothing wrong with you, let us pray for God’s blessings”, I would quickly stop and tap my body dramatically, pretending to look for an item, then I would slap my forehead and look pleadingly at Albert, begging to return to the doctor’s office to retrieve my forgotten cellphone, he would look disapprovingly at me and say “Hurry” and I would quickly rush back and give Doctor Ade the brown envelope I always gave him while he looks at me with guilty eyes and say what he always said “Ma, I can’t keep on lying to your husband, if he finds out, he would destroy my career”. I would appreciate his discretion, stretch out my arms to receive the bottle of pills he held out to me and stuff them in my bra.
I still jolt with an alarming suddenness everytime I see my late husband’s face in my nightmares. I would wake up sweating and shivering recalling how frightened I was in the dark small room that I was locked in for two weeks, my stomach turning from the stench of my breath and from the odour oozing from the dried urine and faeces cohabiting with me. On the night after I had decided in my heart that I would die, Albert had come in, covering his nose from the smell and screwing up his face in disgust. He had carried me out, saying carelessly to whomever was standing there “Clean up the place” and dropped me in the hot tub downstairs, not wanting me to “soil the bathroom upstairs”, calling on Ruth to “assist me in washing off”. Ruth had come in and I saw how she struggled to keep from pinching her nose tight, I turned my face away from her, too weak to shed the tears prickling the back of my eyes. It was a punishment for smiling too wide at the young man who had visited Albert few weeks back and said that I had fine teeth.
Sitting there, in the big church where Albert’s funeral service is being held, it occurs to me sharply that I am free, free from the torment and anguish, from the broken bones and the blood, even though I would never see clearly from my left eyes, I am free. I reminisce with joy at how relaxed I held the bottle of methylated spirit, shaken at first I felt when I handed over to him his nightly glass of sour cream and pineapple juice, my heart beat loudly in euphoria and I started to laugh excitedly as I saw how fitfully he jerked and convulsed, I weeped in utter joy as I notice the tiny white bubbles that converged erratically and trailed down his cheek onto the soft oriental rug laid out in the sitting room. I looked on in delight as his trembling arms shivered up to touch my knee imploringly. His grunts of pain inciting my pleasured giggles and warming my insides with gratification. And at last, when a deep vacancy replaced the fright and terror in his eyes, I beamed, replete with tranquility. A soft whimper had touched my ears and I looked to where the sound came from, Ruth stood, hands covering her mouth tautly. “Your Oga is dead” I pronounced and she had come over, hugging me fervently while whispering “I won’t tell madam, I promise I won’t tell”
No one had questioned my cool manner as regards Albert’s death, I never cried or bawled. They all thought that I was still numb from the shock, I know that my mother suspects the true cause of Albert’s death and did not believe that he died from a heart attack as I had told them. I was scared at first that they would carry out an autopsy and see traces of the poison in his body but his family never seemed to care about that and amazingly accepted what I told them. Maybe one day the guilt would choke Ruth till she goes to the authorities and blurt out what she knows or tell someone who would in turn tell someone until the truth comes to light but till then I listen on with concealed glee as I sit and watch the travesty of a funeral.