|Jan/Feb 2004 spotlight|
When Angel died, her parents had her body cremated and the ashes spread over their back garden. Nobody could believe it.
When Oge's mother heard, she said she always knew Angel's mother was "disturbed." She liked to use words like disturbed, psychotic, split personality. She felt the words showed she was a psychiatric's wife. When she was with her friend, Mrs.Okeke, who was also a member of the Psychiatrists' Wives Association, they bandied such words around, serving them to each other like they were taking turns in a game. They also made fun of the Engineers' Wives Association women who could not possibly be expected to show off in kind by using words like "oil" or "rig" or "drill."
"I always knew that woman was disturbed," she said, hardly looking up from the carrots she was slicing for lunch. "Poor girl, to be sent off like that! Burnt! Who burns bodies? Who scatters a human being, mmadu Chukwu kelu eke, in their garden, to mix with the tomatoes and spinach growing there?" she asked no one in particular as she poured the sliced carrots into a boiling pot of water. The water splashed on her face, and she cursed Angel's mother.
Oge's father's reaction was typical of him. He said, "What a waste. Life is short." He always spoke like he was reading out car bumper stickers. The listener was left to unravel the sense in his words. Oge and her mother were used to him, but they thought differently of his style. While the daughter thought her father was ridiculous, the mother said he was just careful with words. She would often declare, "Your father is an intelligent man. Every word he says is worth ten of the normal person's own. You do not dole out such words carelessly, but weigh them and serve them out in small doses."
Nobody was allowed at Angel's funeral. Not even her friends, Oge, Stella and Odin. Angel's mother had forbidden them from showing their faces, accusing them of leading her daughter astray. Even though Angel's mother claimed that Angel was killed by someone's evil eye, everybody knew that it was AIDS that had taken her. Stella's mother said that was why they had burnt her. They were ashamed of her and did not want any reminder that she had existed. After all, you could not distinguish human ash from the garden soil. Oge's mother said it did not matter whether she had died of AIDS or leprosy, it was only a disturbed person who would burn their daughter and throw her into the garden to mix with the chicken dung used to fertilise the crops.
On the night that Angel died, neighbours said that her mother had run out into the street, a scarf around her waist like a woman readying for a fight, and in a voice as clear as an ogene, had shouted for the entire neighbourhood to hear:
She's gone ooo.
Angel nwa m is gone.
They have taken her.
Those that know the way to Ijebuode have taken her.
My hands are clean.
Angel's hands are clean.
My God will fight for me.
Somebody had finally persuaded her to go back into her house, leading her like a blind woman into her living room, where Angel lay stretched out on a mat, looking like a stick drawing that had been given human flesh.
Nobody could lead Angel astray. She was the head of the gang, entering where the others feared to tread.
The day Angel lost her virginity, she had told her friends matter of factly, chewing gum, that she had "done it." Like it was no big deal. Oge still remembered it like it was yesterday. They had inundated her with questions, questions they did not dare ask their mothers. And Angel had obliged them.
"Did it hurt?" (Oge wanted to know)
"A bit. Not too much." Angel blew a raspberry with the gum she was chewing and gazed into the distance, the ultimate picture of cool.
"Was there blood?" (Odin could not stand the sight of blood)
"Just a bit. It wasn't like a goat being slaughtered. It wasn't even like period blood. It was less."
"Did you use a condom?" Stella asked.
"No. Sam said it was not necessary. We were careful, so I shan't get pregnant."
Oge does not like to think of her dead. But she has been thinking about her lately. It has become worse since Oge saw Dr. Suikerbuik. She thinks of Angel all the time. She thinks of Angel entering the one way tunnel of death, and the thought fills her with a dread that starts like a cold embrace in her stomach and reaches up to somewhere above her chest. She wonders if Angel felt like this before she died.
Oge's mother always said that memories were like pots. If there were ones one did not like, one treated them like dirty pots. One took them out, put them under a tap, and scrubbed them out.
"I think that is what I shall do to my memories of Angel. I shall wash out the ones of when she became ill, when she no longer looked like the Angel I knew, and keep only the ones that do not make me want to cry. I do not want to think of her blown into nothingness when the wind carried her ashes," Oge tells herself, pushing her thoughts to a different memory of Angel. She thinks of the Saturday morning when she and Angel sat cross-legged on her bed, fantasising about their future husbands. They giggled as they made their lists on little sheets of lined paper:
must look like Harrison Ford
Dark, the colour of roast coffee bean
young (about my age)
They were going to be each other's Maids of Honour. They would have two children each, one of each sex, and their children would be best friends. They would watch each other grow old and entertain their children with tales of when they were young.
"Fantasies die. Realities Live." That was what Oge's father told her the day she woke up to find him trying to push a twenty kobo coin under her pillow. She had just lost a tooth and had thrown it on top of the roof for the tooth-fairy to find. Her father had come to hide the coin before she had fallen properly asleep, shattering her tooth-fairy fantasy. When Oge cried in disappointment and mourned the loss of the beautiful fairy she had believed in, her father had delivered his bumper sticker speech in a dry scientific voice. Then he put the cold coin in her palm and walked out of the room.
Angel died before she could get married, and Oge married Gunther, a man more the colour of mayonnaise than that of a coffee bean. Angel had been dead for just over two years.
Oge had been dating Gunther for about a year when he proposed to her. She had no hesitations at all about accepting it. She wanted to be married to him. She loved him more than she thought it was possible for one to love another. But she worried about her parents. Would they welcome a foreign son-in-law? Oge was not sure. They had met Gunther, and her mother had even remarked on his perfect manners, but his colouring was very wrong. She knew that they expected her to marry someone from their town, she being their oldest daughter after all. Her mother was an Ada as well, and sticking to tradition had married a man from Onitsha, the same town as she was from. Oge would not give in to them without a fight. She armed herself with words, ammunition to defend herself against their objections:
I love him.
It's my life.
It is myopic to think that only a man from the same town as you can make you happy.
Times are changing.
I am twenty-one, old enough to know my mind.
But as it turned out, she did not need to fight her parents. Her mother simply asked for confirmation that he was Belgian.
"You say he is Belgian?"
At the confirmation, her parents smiled at each other, then extended the smile to Oge.
"Belgium. Quaint little country," her father said.
"Loads of cathedrals," her mother added, smiling reverentially at memories she was reliving in her mind. They had gone to Belgium for a weekend many years ago when her father was a medical student in the United Kingdom.
"Churches at every corner," her father added.
It was then that Eby understood why her prepared speech of rebellion would not be necessary. Her parents, being devout Catholics, were eager for her to marry a man who came from a country with Catholic churches dotting every street corner. A country, her mother told her, where the King abdicated for a day because he did not want to be responsible for signing in the law legalising abortion. Oge did not tell her parents that Gunther was an atheist. There was no need to detonate a dormant landmine.
Every month, Oge sends glossy postcards and pictures to her parents. Her postcards lie. They say that she is fine. That Gunther is fine. That both of them are fine. She sends pictures that will make her parents happy. She finishes a roll of film on the Onze Lieve Vrouw Cathedral in Antwerp. She leans against the sculptures outside the cathedral, forcing a smile to stay on her face as the camera flashes. She tells them of the Heilige van Hasselt, the Belgian priest who has just been canonised in Rome. She sustains their fantasies of a country untainted by immorality. She does not show them Schipperskwartier with its girls in display cases, stomachs as flat as ironing-boards, ready to sell men their fantasies for a price. She says nothing of Emeka, the forty year old from Awka who belonged to the Igbo People's Union and whose body was found in a black bin liner near the train station in Liege. She does not say anything about the empty seats beside her in the train. She gathers words to fill the cards, but they are empty of the truth. They do not reveal the secrets that weigh on her back, heavy as a sack of cocoa.
She says nothing especially of her visits to Dr. Suikerbuik.
She has to start chemotherapy soon, and she still has not told Gunther that she has cancer. Dr. Suikerbuik encourages her to tell him. "Mevrouw, you cannot deal with this on your own. You should tell your man."
She does not know why she does not want to tell him. "Is it because I know that we are falling apart? That our relationship is tearing at the seams?" she asks herself silently. She does not want pity to be the thread with which he repairs their relationship. She could not live like that. Perhaps, she thinks, she does not tell him because they do not talk to each other these days. They no longer have conversations. They speak to each other, but their words play blindman's bluff. The blindfolded never gets a grasp of the other.
When she gets in from the Centrum loaded with paper bags from the Carrefour super markert, Gunther is eating lunch already. He has frietjes soaked in goulash and mayonnaise. Oge takes a chip from his plate and dips it in the mayonnaise.
"The streets were so full today. People shopping for Sinterklaas tomorrow. I was lucky I got some tangerines," she says, sitting beside him at the table.
"The dishwasher is kaput. You should have someone from Hugo Van Praag come and take a look at it," he says.
"Did you hear of the Belgian pilot that died in the UK today?" she asks.
"Have you seen my red shirt?" he asks as he wipes some sauce off his lips.
They used to enjoy talking to each other, their words bouncing off the walls of their apartment, playing sweet music to their ears. They sought to find out things about each other. Gunther inundated her with questions about her youth, questions that covered her life before he became a part of it. Oge used to think of him as a magician, willing her answers to conjure up images for him. Images that would show him the little girl that had become the woman he had fallen in love with. It was like he wanted to feel like he had known her for as long as she had known herself. She had liked that.
"Now, he no longer hears what I say," Oge grumbles as she peels a tangerine. "I only talk because I do not want to go crazy from keeping words in my head. I talk, but I do not say any of the things I really want to say. "
She wants to cry. She has no physical proof that Gunther is seeing another woman, yet she is certain that he is. Women always know when their partners are cheating on them. It is an instinct that women are born with, her mother always said. Oge does not want to imagine what the other woman looks like. She is sure that calling up an image of her will only exacerbate the pain of knowing that she is losing her husband. She knows that if she thinks hard, her head will conjure up a picture of a woman who is nothing like her. A woman more like Gunther, with a colour that tans in the sun. A woman who does not send out the aroma of egusi soup when she cooks.
Gunther never used to mind Oge making Igbo food. In fact, he used to enjoy it. And when they had European guests especially, he liked to show off his ability to roll fufu into perfect balls with his fingers. He liked to see the awe jump in their eyes as he ate fufu and soup. He invariably got asked if the soup was not too hot for him, te pikant, and he always shook his head, "No. Not at all." He said you got used to the food, living with an African woman. Now, he complains that it is hard to get rid of the smell of Igbo soup. He says the smell stays in the house, soaking the cushions and the rug, making it impossible for him to stay indoors.
Oge does not want to drive him away, so she puts all her Igbo spices in plastic boxes with lids and locks them in a kitchen cupboard. She satisfies her hunger for egusi and ogbono soup in her dreams. She teaches her palate to appreciate other food, to find favourites among foods which do not annoy her husband: potatoes and rice, bread and cheese, pasta and sauce. She tries to please him by making a different dish each day. She spends her afternoons trying out stoofvlees, witloof rolled in ham and cheese, macaroni and cheese with boiled eggs and sausages, aubergines fried in olive oil.
Angel used to say that the way to keep a man was to cater to his stomach. Given that she was a veteran of sorts when it came to relationships, her friends believed her. Gunther would be a disappointment to her. He eats Oge's food, but they make no difference to him. Oge can see that, even as he wolfs his way down her carefully prepared dishes, his mind is on the woman who is taking him from her. "I wish I were more like Angel," she chants. It is a mantra that does nothing to empower her. Or calm her.
Angel's friends were in awe of her. Oge, in particular, was jealous of her.
Angel lacked the awkwardness the other girls had around the opposite sex.
She had a vitality that sucked men in, making them hang around her. When she spoke, her eyes glittered like stars.
Her friends wanted to be like her, to have that kind of confidence around men, to have the kind of aura that kept them close to you.
Angel could have any man she wanted, and she knew it.
When she tired of a relationship, she simply walked into another.
Her friends teased her that she shed men the way snakes shed skin.
Angel also used to say that there were two kinds of women: those who loved once but deeply, and those who had a roller-coaster of emotions and could love and love again. Oge supposes she belongs to the first group. Gunther is the only man she has ever loved, the only one she is capable of loving. Sometimes, she wishes she could be like the women she sees in movies, who shout and scream and force their errant lovers to come back to them. But all she does is wait. Wait for Gunther to tire of his new woman and come back to her. She knows that she is the type of woman Angel would have called pathetic.
She misses Angel.
She misses having friends. At the beginning, Gunther had pushed her, telling her to go out and make friends, like people were lining up at her door-front waiting for her to come out and invite them in. After a while he gave up, muttering that she could not be happy without friends. "Heimwee will eat you up," he cautioned. Oge had told him that she could never get homesick. He was enough for her. She remembers telling him, "People here are too proprietary for me to make friends. They mark their boundaries, and it is difficult for an outsider to penetrate: husbands hold wives across their waists as they stroll, parents hold on to children, dogs are leashed or carried. There is nothing communal." She remembers telling him of when she was growing up in Enugu, how there was a dog called nkita anyi, our dog, simply because at least eleven children from three different families claimed ownership of it. It played with all of them and at night, slept in one of their houses; it did not matter whose. When nkita anyi disappeared (rumour had it that Cyril, the security man who guarded the supermarket three blocks away from Oge's house, had stolen it and turned it into Sunday dinner), all the children had shed tears for it.
She was never lonely in Enugu. Here, loneliness is a way of life. Every guest is expected, every visit planned. She cannot get used to it. Her father-in-law calls a week in advance to arrange a visit. Gunther notes it in his diary. He tells her, "Schat, Pa is coming on Saturday. I have asked him to stay for supper." When Pa comes, he brings a bottle of wine. He comments on the food (excellent). He leads the conversation at the table, his face alive. Much later, he thanks them for the hospitality. Then he gets up to go. His face is scrunched up, like a crumpled paper bag. He takes short heavy steps, as if he has ivory anklets around his ankles. His back is stooped. Already, there is an aura of the stillness he is going home to. It shrouds him like an over-sized mantle.
Pa lives alone.
Lisa tells Oge that many people in Belgium live alone. She shows her the figures in the latest issue of Knack lying on her coffee table: "1,5 Mijloen Mensen Wonen Alleen in Belgie." It is written in bold black ink so that nobody misses it. "Loneliness is one of the many reasons people commit suicide here. Especially in the winter." Lisa looks appropriately sad as she tells her this. Oge wonders if she read it in Knack, or if it is something she has deduced all by herself. "I never get lonely," she continues, smiling and kissing Pipo, her black Labrador which has just walked into the kitchen. "Pipo keeps me company, don't you schatje? I would go mad, gek, if I had to live all alone." She rubs her nose on Pipo's nose, and the dog brings out a long pink tongue and licks her face. Oge does not tell Lisa that were her mother to see her kissing a dog, talking to a dog, she would classify her as "disturbed." And even her father, who is not so liberal with psychobabble, would agree.
Lisa. The closest thing to a friend she has here. They have known each other for about a year. They have shared a year of drinking coffee in each other's kitchens. Oge is as familiar with the tiles on Lisa's kitchen floor as she is with her own. Yet they are not friends enough to delve into each other's lives. They are not friends enough to go beyond teach other's kitchens. She is a constant reminder to Oge that the parameters of friendship are different here:
Lisa = friend
friend = (coffee) drinking partner
Oge writes that out on a sheet of yellow post-it, but it does not induce the laughter she expects. She looks at it, and the equation brings tears to her eyes.
In the days following Angel's death, Oge's mother insisted that Oge sleep with a kitchen knife under her pillow and a rosary around her neck. She was worried that having been best friends on earth, Angel might miss her friend enough to come back for her. "It has been known to happen," she told Oge when the younger woman rolled her eyes in mock exasperation at her. "You and Angel shadowed each other. It is going to be difficult for her to let go. Ghosts are scared of knives. And if she is hardy enough to come despite the knife, the rosary will send her running, piam!"
Oge slept with the knife under her pillow and the rosary around her neck. She did not believe her mother's story about ghosts coming out to recruit company for the hereafter, but Angel's death had drained her of energy to fight her mother.
One day when they were nine, Oge and Angel had pricked their middle fingers with a needle, mingling their blood and swearing to be best friends until they were really old, like forty-five.
That was their fantasy. Reality set in and spirited Angel away.
Oge does not realise what she is doing until she feels Lisa's hand on her shoulder. The hand smells of Palmolive. "Why are you crying?" Lisa asks. Her voice sounds like a concerned mother's. Oge looks at her. Her eyes are soft. If Oge touched them, they might feel like cotton wool.
She wants to tell her about Angel. About Gunther. About her cancer. She feels like her head is bursting, holding all the things she has not talked to anybody about. She is relieved that Lisa is giving her a chance to say them, an opportunity to confide in someone. She shakes her head in an attempt to arrange her thoughts. Lisa misunderstands. She thinks that she is shaking her head to say, "No, nothing is wrong." Before Oge can say anything, Lisa briskly stands, picks up their empty cups, and says, "I am glad you're okay. Some more coffee?"
Oge does not answer.