The most important assignment I have handled in my whole life was finding my aging sister a befitting husband. Coming from my rich father, it was a fortune-changing job. My father had almost disowned me after I spent seven years in the university on a four-year course where I managed to earn a pass—not even third class—degree. He said I was a fool and not fit even to be employed as a driver in his company. I said I didn’t come home to work in any useless company. He ordered me to get out of his sight. To hell with the company, I said and left Enugu.
This was five years back; the longest and hardest years of my life. I started by squatting with friends in Port Harcourt and Asaba before settling for a one-room affair in a miserable suburb of Lagos, teaching in a backward secondary school with grumbling walls, and earning just enough to pay my house rent, eat twice a day and shave my seriously balding hair clean every week. I was now thirty-three with no savings, nor the dream of a wife.
Life wasn’t just rough; life was merciless, it opened its arms and poured a sea of rough stones on me with the faithfulness of a tax-collector. As I bled from my uneven bruises with life, I thought of suicide at least once and a career in crime over a dozen times. The shortage of brilliance which kept my grades low in school kept me from pursuing the latter, and the arrogant disgust that would cross my father’s face kept me away from a second thought of the noose.
Then came the phone call from my father.
‘Get the next flight to Enugu.’ And the call ended. It was an order. A royal call. A promise. I was still bitterly angry with the man. I thought of calling him back, no, he wouldn’t answer the call; I would send him a text message and ask him to go to hell. Such was my hatred that I would rather let poverty turn me over like gravels in a cement mixer than come an inch of my father’s patronising wealth. But when I lifted my long-suffering phone which was nearly a quarter of my age, I discovered the true reason for my anger! I was angry that my father hadn’t called me sooner!
Mercifully, my salary was paid into my account yesterday. It was enough to buy a clean shirt and a pair of ambitious-looking jeans; and to pay for my flight ticket. I had to leave that day so that the old man would know that I didn’t need to borrow for my flight or come by road. My attempt at appearing rich was as convincing as an insincere smile. My unfortunate circumstance shone through my new shirt like pregnancy in its third trimester.
In four hours’ time, I was flying to Enugu. I know I would never return to my job again so I hadn’t bothered asking for permission—I should have typed the disgusting foul-mouthed principal a degrading letter of resignation, a keep-your-fucking-job note packaged in cheap envelope. It hadn’t occurred to me, but never mind, Mrs Backward-School-With-Soon-to-Fall-of-Walls Principal, you shall read about me in the papers and hear my name in your rotten battery powered radio!
As our plane taxied over the Niger, a surge of panic stabbed my belly and I prayed—for the first time in months—that my father’s call turned out for good. The thought of borrowing money to return to my Lagos pig-house that was as accommodating as prison cells, sent chilled shivers caressing my spine.
It was my mother who opened the door to their opulent sitting room for me. She was in her early sixties but, besides the tail of grey hair that showed from her massive head-tie, looked forty-five and as graceful as a first-lady in a dictatorship. She hugged me tightly as I was sure the prodigal mother hugged the prodigal son at his return. Except that in my case, my mother had my phone number, knew people who had my address yet didn’t check on me for five years! Now, she wanted me to peck her and pretend I was gone for only five days. As she looked into my eyes, I summoned all my energy and remained civil.
‘You must be hungry,’ my mother said to me, she peered into my face as though expecting to find a hunger nest.
It was the understatement of my life. I had been starving for half a decade now. ‘I don’t feel like eating anything,’ I said, a little automatic.
‘Oh come on, my boy, you must be hungry.’ Even my hastily bought shirt couldn’t conceal the veins that spread generously like roots on my hands. My mother must have seen them. ‘Well, get me something, office work is killing.’ I said this in defence of my veins. I doubted if she bought the story. I didn’t care. But my father! I had come into the room just when I said ‘office work is killing’ and his firm nose fixed to the heavens told me to shut up and stop talking rubbish.
I walked to my father seated on his royal armchair and offered a handshake.
He pointed at the sofa. ‘Sit down.’
I nearly let the rebuffed hand fall on the old man’s heavily dyed head but quickly decided against it. It wasn’t wisdom to get oneself off a prison-like accommodation only to be taken into a proper prison. My father had enough money and stone-heart to send ten thousand of me into prison forever. I took a seat and relaxed my poverty-infested bones as though I had been sitting on this kind of chair all these past five years.
‘How is business doing?’ I asked with practised nonchalance.
He nodded. He was as he was before, ancient of his day. His mouth was as hard as brick and the moustache in his dark face, stubborn. The devil himself.
‘Go to the dinning; we will talk later.’ It wasn’t a suggestion, it was an order. I told my mother who was making my table that I needed to ease myself and she asked me to use the toilet in my younger brother’s room. I wondered what they had turned my room into. Perhaps chicken house.
My father had borne three sons and a daughter. The first son Ebuka headed his business in Abuja, the third, Uche assisted my father here while I, the second endured starvation in Lagos. It was Uche’s room I entered. His wardrobe could fill a small boutique with all manner of shirts, jackets, suits, ties, trousers and shoes. I made for the drawers, flung the top open and picked up a gold-chained wrist watch which I dropped into my pocket. This was necessary, in case I had to leave for Lagos without my father’s blessings. Whatever happens now, I wouldn’t trek back.
My sister was thirty-eight years old. She was older than we, her brothers and more determined in school. She had finished her Nursing degree at the age of twenty-three, took a midwifery course, a master’s degree in psychology and now lectured part-time at the Enugu state University of Technology and held a staff nurse position at the teaching hospital. Success. But no husband at thirty-eight.
Nigerians have now accepted the necessity of a woman’s education, but they still regard the matrimony as the acme of a woman’s accolades. They have little respect for a Miss Staff Nurse but for a Mrs Staff Nurse, they hold in high esteem.
It bothered my parents, their daughter’s spinsterhood. She had had strings of heart-breaks before she was thirty and had angrily shut her heart from love. Ebuka who was two years her junior was since married with three kids. My sister had now probably opened her heart for men, but no man had come near her. She was now really heart-broken.
Our men have always been intimidated by a more successful woman; they could grudgingly marry one, but having a more successful woman who was also older than them was unacceptable. And my sister wasn’t even a beauty. She was short, dark and possessed a long bitter mouth with a tongue that was as painful as the lash of a horsewhip. I equally had a sharp tongue but unlike her I didn’t take after my father’s accursed physic. I and my brothers took after my mother’s fair and lean athletic frame. It was bad luck that of all of his children, the one who needed good looks most was the one who took after the devil.
To add to the crises, my sister had zero sense of humour and a malicious mind. It was only my father she feared but with our mother and us, she could nurse a grudge and not talk to one for six months!
Last week she had approached my parents to announce that she was moving out of the house. She had gotten an apartment and as she was old enough to stay on her own, she would pack out at the end of this month. My parents asked that she wait and pack into her husband’s house, and she flared, ‘What nonsense husband? I am tired of waiting for some worthless man to come my way. I am educated and can live independent of men!’
She didn’t listen to entreaties nor reason with my parents that it was unheard of for a woman to live on her own when her parents were as rich as mine, that people would laugh at the family and call her names; she wouldn’t listen, so my father called me. After explaining the situation to me, he said, ‘I need you to find a befitting husband for your sister in three weeks.’
A minute silence passed. We were in his study and only the humming of the air-conditioner defiled the cemetery silence that followed.
‘Can you do that?’ my father’s voice cut through my thought like a sharp knife on ripe banana.
‘Gloria has attitude problem…’ I began.
‘I know all her problems and I say can you find her a befitting husband?’
He kept using the word ‘befitting’. ‘It is difficult but…’ I shrugged.
‘But it can be done.’ My father completed for me. Then he smiled at me for the first time in twelve years. ‘Do we have a deal?’
He wasn’t planning to let me do this for nothing, was he? ‘It will cost money,’ I said slowly. ‘You know I have to travel around and make contacts. And my job in Lagos, I can’t leave it for as long as three weeks, I will be sacked…’
‘Forget about the ‘‘job’’, I will fix you something at the company. We are opening a branch in Port Harcourt and you could fare good there with great monitoring.’
I would have choked with happiness if I had opened my mouth to speak. So I grunted as though I wouldn’t have killed to get the job.
‘But you must find her the husband in a way that doesn’t seem calculated. And if you tell anyone about this conversation, I will eat you alive!’
‘I have called my lawyers to rewrite my will. But if you fail in this assignment, don’t bother coming back for the job in Port Harcourt and forget about my will. Good night!’
Few days later, I sat facing my sister in a restaurant. It was the first time we were talking in seven years and the first time we were eating on the same table in twenty years! And she was my sister. We were as close as liked poles! Looking at how she kept sneering at her food and sulking, I thanked God my father didn’t ask me to marry her!
‘Father wants me to head his branch in Port Harcourt,’ I said.
I held my civility with all my might. The oil of my father’s wealth lubricated it, making it easier.
‘Should I take the job?’
‘Whatever you like. Am I the one to choose for you?’ her voice was loud, rough and undisciplined. And she said she had a master’s degree!
‘I am just seeking your advice.’ I said without opening my mouth. Idiot, I cursed her inwardly.
‘Oho, that is your own cup of tea.’
I smiled with hate. Fortunately, she wasn’t looking at me; she was hating her plate, her spoon, the food, the table, all! My father was mean but he was cunning enough to relegate it when he felt teeth-flashing would do. But this woman here! I sighed, my father took after her!
Trying to make conversation with her was as successful as trying to get a sculpture talking. I wasn’t getting any close but I didn’t give up. My future depended on it.
‘Chuka!’ someone shouted my name. It was Imeka.
‘Imeka!’ I shouted back. We hugged.
‘What are you doing in Enugu?’ I asked him.
‘I am an international businessman, remember.’ And we laughed.
‘Sit with us,’ I invited.
‘I thought you wanted to be independent.’ He sat down.
‘Yes, but my family wouldn’t stop begging. Gloria, meet Imeka my friend. I squatted with him when I was in Port. Imeka, my big sister.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ Imeka was saying.
‘It’s time to go,’ my lovely sister announced. She didn’t even look at Imeka.
‘I can’t marry that thing,’ Imeka shrilled. We were standing in his hotel room.
‘Calm down,’ I urged him. ‘She is not as bad as you think.’
‘Yes, she is not as bad, she is horrible, hopeless!’
My nose twitched with irritation. ‘Be careful what you say about my sister.’
‘I am going back to Port Harcourt right away. When you told me about her, you didn’t mention that she is forty, did you?’
‘She is thirty-seven,’ I lied.
‘Whatever! I am thirty-one! Do you expect me to spend the rest of my life with that thi—no, bro, I won’t throw my life away! If you love your friend, you won’t advice this.’
I sighed and felt great pity for my sister. Whatever it takes, I must make this work. ‘Man, nobody is talking about the rest of your life here. When you marry her, you may still see younger girls like all married men do. You may even remain in Port Harcourt and she only visits at weekends. And if you so wish, you may divorce her after two years or so.’ In my mind a divorcee with kids to take care of her old age was better than an old maid.
‘You want me to cheat on your sister?’
I was uncomfortable. ‘See, Imeka, I know you very well. You will cheat on the president’s sister! So don’t prick on my conscience for you have none!’
Imeka sighed. ‘And I could leave after two years?’
‘After two kids,’ I added.
He shook his head. ‘I won’t marry that woman for two days!’
‘You are a fool,’ I cursed. ‘My father is one of the richest men in Enugu. Many men will kill to be his in-law! Didn’t you complain that business is slow? I could talk to my father. He wouldn’t refuse to lend his son in-law who is also my friend two hundred thousand naira.’
The greedy idiot, I cursed inwardly. ‘My father is generous when dealing with family,’ I added.
‘He could just lend me one million, Chuka.’
I had won! ‘One million is robbery! Hey, my father is no Dangote!’
‘Your father is a very rich man.’
‘Yes, he will give you three hundred but you pay back after five years.’
‘I will be married to her for just two years.’
It was like bargaining a basket of onions. I shrugged, ‘Then take two hundred.’
Imeka’s hairy face was thoughtful for few moments, then he said. ‘I will take five hundred for three years.’
‘Five hundred for four years and three kids.’
He shook his head. ‘Five hundred for three years and two kids. I will not budge from this.’
‘Alright, alright we have a deal. How about we put it down in writing and sign it?’
Imeka glared at me. ‘If I renege will you take me to court?’
‘No, it’s just a manner of doing things.’
‘Man, you sound so desperate.’
‘Go to hell!’
‘My friend Imeka asked after you,’ I said to my sister. She had her thin back on me as she combed her hair before her mirror.
‘Is that why you entered a woman’s room?’ she asked.
‘It is my sister’s room,’ I said.
‘My friend Imeka asked after you.’
‘I have heard.’
‘He wants to take you out for dinner sometime.’
‘Tell him N.O. no!’
‘You are thirty-eight,’ I pointed out.
Her hand froze on her head. The word had cut her like sword. She turned and a tear rolled down her left cheek. ‘Who asked you to look for a husband for me?’
‘I beg your pardon.’
She rose to her feet. ‘Is it papa?’ She challenged me.
‘I don’t know what you are talking about—’
‘Answer yes or no. Did father send you to plant men on me?’
I sighed. ‘Father wants the best for you.’
‘Tell him to mind his business!’
‘But you are his business! You are our business! Look at you, growing into an old maid! You have worked so hard and still labour! But for what? Who are you labouring for?’
‘I work for myself.’
‘And when you grow old who will comfort you? Who will you leave your wealth when you die? See, my dear, everyone needs someone. You are a strong woman but even Gloria needs to experience womanhood. You need to carry a baby in your womb, to experience the pains of labour and to suckle your baby, and flog him when he misbehaves and play with him; and attend PTA meetings. And—’
‘Enough! I hate men.’
It was my finest moment with words. ‘They are not crazy about you either. But you can use them. I know you love your independence so you could just marry and divorce after two kids. It’s normal.’
She began to turn this over in her crude mind. A tear dropped down the right cheek. ‘What does Imeka get from this?’
I shrugged. ‘Imeka is a businessman; he probably needs papa’s connection!’
‘And you, what do you stand to gain from this?’
‘I love my sister.’ I winked.
It was hard convincing my father to part with half a million to his would be son in-law. ‘You are a criminal,’ he said to me. ‘Now, you bring a fellow criminal to swindle me and still take my daughter away.’
‘It is a loan,’ I said.
‘A loan, how much per cent interest?’
‘It is a soft loan.’
And the man guffawed. His laughter sounded like the bark of an aged dog. But I didn’t laugh. It was a matter of life and death. For Gloria. Especially for me.
My father sighed. ‘What does your criminal friend do?’
‘He is not a criminal,’ I said.
‘What does he do?’ the lion roared.
‘He sells timber in Port Harcourt.’
‘How long will he keep the money?’
It was a dangerous question. I treaded carefully. ‘Like two to three years. But as your son-in-law you may not ask him to pay back. But if he decides to misbehave and leave my sister he would pay back.’
My father didn’t like it. ‘So the money is like collateral? So my daughter is so un-marriable that I have to doll out half a million naira to get a punk marry her!’
I fought to maintain a straight face.
He fumed for a generation. Then, ‘I will give the money no deadline, but if he lays his criminal hand on my daughter he will pay back the next day.’
I breathed a silent sigh of relief. But my father wasn’t done. ‘I will give you a cheque of four hundred thousand tomorrow.’
‘Five hundred,’ I corrected.
‘Four hundred was what you said.’
‘Sir, he needs five hundred.’
‘I heard four hundred. Please shut the door after you.’ It was a dismissal. I watched, frustration burning me like hot stove.
‘Papa…’ The old man was already snoring.
The wedding took place after two weeks. It was a marriage of the mouse and the cat; each was a cat in their way; they were in the marriage for their personal goals, with each thinking they were slightly cheated and that the other was dubious and underserving. That was for them to solve; for me, I would no longer starve and my parents would no longer face the ignominy of raising an old maid.
I was, of course, the best man. I was the most accursed best man in history. During the service, Imeka kept whispering into my ear, ‘Old boy, you just have to get me the remaining one hundred by next month. I am not doing this for just four hundred…’ After doing this for the hundredth time, I whispered, ‘Boy, go to hell.’ The priest gave us a warning stare.
Doing the reception the couple fed each other and smiled like they were genuinely in love. Actors! When the time came for them to dance, Gloria could endure it no more. She wept. My mother wept with her.
‘Gloria would never have cried before a firing squad,’ my father told me where we sat.
I glowed with satisfaction. I was as cheerful as an acquainted coup plotter. And proud of myself for making this happen.
‘Maybe it was a good investment giving out that five hundred thousand,’ my father added.
I became alert. ‘It was four hundred you gave.’
‘It was five hundred you requested, wasn’t it?’
‘But you gave four hundred, didn’t you?’ I was in the blink of tears.
My father gave me his lion stare. ‘I gave five hundred because I said I gave five hundred. Is that clear?’
I shrugged, whatever he said. In this clime, we don’t argue with our benefactors, most especially when they were as rich and impatient as my father.
We watched the couple dance beautifully. I didn’t know my sister could dance so well. She could have practised so much in her dream.
‘…If he maltreats my daughter he will pay back the five hundred,’ my father was saying.
People were spreading the couple wads of naira note.
‘We have to spread them some money, papa.’
‘I have spoken to my lawyer,’ my father continued, ‘although I still bear grudges against you.’
I also bear grudges against you, in my heart. ‘Christian love,’ aloud.
‘You are a criminal,’ he said, ‘but for making this happen, I must agree, in cowardice of course, that you are a miracle worker!’
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