Josephine lives on Ikwerre Road, in a single room squeezed into the corner of a crooked little yard in a narrow compound beside a cement factory. Through the mornings fine white dust drifts down into the yard and is spun into looping whorls and eddies by breezes and draughts which weave and dip through the gaps between the cinderblock houses. When the rain comes, as it does most afternoons, the dust is washed away, runs before the deluge like thin milk off glossy leaves, off the steps round the yard, out of the rusty troughs of the corrugated zinc roofs overhead.
Her friends, most particularly her church pals and one or two of the old gang from UniPort who still address her as Miss Jo, will tell you that Josephine is a humble girl, devout in worship, who is always happy to listen, to offer advice and a helping hand whenever she can. And certainly you are familiar by now with her beauty, not least of which the wide almond eyes, unusual, she once assured me, in a Cross River gal. And her skin, save for the frets of tiny pebbled blemishes which encircle her neck, always so clear and cool and sweet no matter the heat of the day. You know these things but do you know how? I mean, the scars?
Well then, something for you, so go on down through the alley, away from the clatter and honk of Ikwerre Road into the evening quiet of her yard, and chances are good you’ll find Miss Jo, that time of the day, squatting barefoot on the narrow stoop behind the bars of her protector cracking periwinkles and preparing soup on her camp stove by candlelight, NEPA, as usual, nowhere to be found. Step up into the smoky yellow light to perch on the doorstep at her back with your bottle of Star beer and ask.
Go ahead. A woman will always appreciate a man who wants to discuss the flaws in her beauty, the devastation in her life.
By the way, did you bring something for her? A gift? Humble it may be but it is her home and she has invited you, via handwritten note to your driver, to spend the evening. Such formal invitation requires response in kind and…Ok, of course, you did and you’ve set it, properly wrapped and with a card too, inside her door for later. For after. Might I ask what it is? I surely hope something expensive. Tell me it isn’t a last minute grab from duty free or, worse, something off the flight’s trolley; one of those clinky cheap tri-color gold-plated bracelets or a sad little multi-drawer make up tray. But listen, really, it doesn’t matter does it? She’ll be thrilled with whatever you give her. That’s her way, to make everyone, even losers, feel good. So go ahead, take a slug of warm beer and ask your question. She’s not going to mind. She’s happy. She’s got food to eat and she’s got company.
First thing, she’ll chuckle while she cracks and sorts and stirs and tastes, her voice sleepy deep and husky from dozing through the warm afternoon, but then she’ll say, Well, alright dear, if you want to know it’s ok. I don’t mind. She’ll shuffle a little on her haunches, tending the pot, and she’ll begin
She was young, she’ll tell you, and went with her family to visit her father’s people in the village. This was the first time the entire family had made the journey from the coast into the countryside and the reason was a newborn first son. They set off early in the morning in a dilapidated Five-Four taxi. Josephine and her sister with the frog eyes and their baby brother and their mother squeezed into the back seat while her father sat up front beside the driver. When the road ended they climbed down, one heat into another, and trekked single file, Josephine carrying the infant, past fields of cassava and corn, along the banks of creeks and streams, to reach her grandfather’s house late in the afternoon. The whole village was waiting for them. Her father’s family had prepared huge pots of food for the visit and everyone sat outside in sparkly wrappers and head scarves, shiny suits, to eat and gossip, renew acquaintances, marvel at the baby, everything that families do when they get together following a long time apart. After the children were put to bed, the adults continued the party with hot drinks and beer, laughing and shouting and talking long into the night. The next morning she ran with the other girls of the village down to the stream to wash and stood waist deep in a pool to splash water over her body. She was shy about being naked in front of the other children but such was the custom and she had no choice. Perhaps drawn by new scent, the whiff of fresh blood, a swarm of bees came out from the forest and attacked her. She had no idea what to do. She had never seen so many bees all at once. The sky itself turned black with them. She screamed for help but the other girls laughed and ran off, pattering barefoot in a clattering huddle up the mud path to the huts and houses, the smoky fires along the green shadowed back lanes under the trees. She did not think to immerse herself in the stream and wait until the bees were gone but stood in the water and suffered their stings until one of her cousins came to rescue her and she fainted into his arms.
When she’s finished she’ll lift the braids from her neck to allow you to run your fingertips once again over the marks, as though reading a chapter from her life written in living Braille.
When I knew Josephine her room contained a thin yellow foam mattress, a small refrigerator bereft of power, a long narrow mirror, which leaned against the wall beside the door and a pale green carpet, rolled up at the edges to fit the uneven walls, the rolls speckled with camphor balls.
Sometimes, if a friend stopped by, she’d flop the mattress out onto the step so that they might gist together quietly, lying side by side under the stars, long into the night.
Inside the refrigerator, she kept bread and garri, stockfish, bottles of palm oil, hot pepper, one or two bottles of Ragolis water. On top of it were her things, knickknacks arranged on a flimsy tatter of fringed cloth: joyful blue and gold dolphins, a pair of amorous red cardinals, a diminutive posy of yellow flowers in a pale pink basket. She bought her things at the Oil Mill market or Mile One whenever she could find spare money. One day, I remember, she acquired a new piece, a small round green and silver vase, which she carefully placed behind the dolphins so that they looked then as though they might be leaping across the moon.
Josephine is house-proud and thorough. Bent at the waist, with one hand behind her back in the traditional manner, she sweeps her room in short sharp strokes across the carpet, one wall to another, with a thick straw whisk, her narrow feet slapping lightly back and forth while she hums quietly to herself, face hidden behind her veil of braids. She pokes and jabs, scratches round the edges of the mattress, behind her mirror, behind and under the refrigerator, up into the corners at the ceiling chasing cobwebs and mites. She works in ever decreasing arcs towards the door and then, when everything is swept out, stands straight and stretches before leaning out to call through the bars of the protector for one of the children in the yard to come so that she can give money to fetch mineral and soup.
I go chop, she will say to you. You want chop?
Josephine is married.
Ok, hold on a minute, hold up and take a breath. You’re in her house, yes? Well that means something because Josephine does not allow just anyone, particularly a man, even more particularly oyinbo, into her world. She must care something for you, so don’t fuss when there really is no cause. Enjoy it while you can because you know it will not last forever and, if you don’t know then I’m the one to tell you. Lie back on that weary foam – that’s her furniture, by the way; what sort of furniture do you have in your house? – and take a moment before you go plunging into heartache and disappointment. Take a breath and, while you’re doing that, tell me what you can see outside Josephine’s door.
Her yard, though small, was always a busy place. From the back of her room, as though from the throat of a cave, I could look out over the doorstep, through the bars of the protector, and see children, scooped backs and pot bellies, jumping and shouting, chasing chickens and lizards in and out of sight, in and out of the shadows and the rain all through the day. Occasionally, their peripheral vision pricked by something, they might pause mid chase to lean backward at comical angles and peer with huge eyes at oyinbo prostrate on auntie’s floor.
Could see women sitting, leaning, stooping, sweeping, washing, singing, glancing outside their doors morning till night.
Yellow eyed, shaven headed area boys lounging in doorways listening to reggae and highlife music from cheap, tinny blasters perched on planks across full to the brim rain barrels standing in sour, green tinted mud. Stumbling, clanking guitars over sleepy, distracted rhythms.
A stoop shouldered boy trundling a rickety box cart into the yard every couple of days heaped high with gaudy bouquets of flip-flop sandals, plastic bowls and pails, polyethylene bags full of clothes pegs, toy windmills, cassettes and compact discs. Gangly legged; he would step up beside his cart and shout at the house fronts, Patch rubbah! Patch rubbah!
A tailor, a small hunched man with a head like a wrinkled apple, squatting on a crushed cardboard box in the mouth of the close beside Josephine’s door to wait for business, his ancient Singer sewing machine nestled between his wide-splayed knees.
His friend the cobbler, arthritic, claw-fingered, lugging a flimsy foldable workbench, a shoehorn and a leather bag with nails and clamps and hammers into the same narrow space.
Miss Jo’s neighbour. Her name was Apapa and she was, according to Jo, a bush girl, nothing more, simple in her head and pregnant almost to full term. Nobody, Jo would solemnly state, could say who made her pregnant. Perhaps a local man, possibly someone from the country, from the back of one of the big trucks which delivered vegetables to the markets. Nobody knew where the baby had come from, but they would all keep an eye to see where it went.
I asked her what she meant but she just waved her hand.
Never mind. Is not our business to know such things. But wait, wait now and see because something is not correct in that house, in that neighboring house. Gel sing too much, too much by fah.
Maybe, I asked, she will attempt to, what, get rid of it?
And so yes, Josephine is married.
First of all she will tell you straight that she met her husband in a club.
Will I hide such a thing? I will not. It was my life. His name is Milojko. We agree to marry and we went together to the Marriage Registry which was an office without air conditioner inside one of the government compounds in Diobo, in the old part of the city, nearby Rainbow Town beside the lagoon. A woman help us to fill the forms for legal court marriage and we gave her fee, three hundred, and two pictures, one of him and one of me, for posting on a board under the archway between the office and the car park by the street. Pictures going to hang there under glass for three weeks so that anyone carrying objection or grievance can raise their hand and make trouble. Many other couples were posted on the board and plenty mix. Then Milojko take me out for celebration in town and afterward allow me to sleep over the weekend at the camp, which was in fact against the rules.
Two days out of the week are available for weddings at the courthouse. Thursdays and Saturdays, Saturday being more expensive. Milojko chose the Saturday session and arrange for his friend to be witness for the day. My own friend Tessy stand for me. I wore a white dress and a white hat and carry small beaded purse on a long thin strap. My shoes were white. I still have everything in a box at my mum’s house. That particular day I was very beautiful. So beautiful. Milojko wore a white shirt and good trouser, a tie someone find for him. He had no jacket. Plenty of his friends join us for the ceremony. We waited outside for everyone to arrive so that we can all walk in together like a proper wedding party, into the hall where the ceremony was to take place. Inside we had to wait for our turn. The rows of seats all the way to the front were all full of families waiting to see their own people marry. Two or three hundred people sitting in the room and it was very hot. Everybody was sweating under such heat. The judge and his assistant, the fat lady who had taken our booking, lead us through the ceremony after which stand by while we sign the register and the certificate of marriage. Outside again, we stood for photographs before going to make party at the camp. That was my wedding. The celebration was a big success, lot of food and drinking and my mum was there and my younger ones and some friends. I was very happy.
We travelled to the capital to apply for my visa. We stayed at the Eko Hotel beside the ocean and Milojko gave me small money for shopping while he remain and sit by the pool, drink beer and make his plans. At first everything pass well at the interview in the embassy but in the end the officer was concerned about the validity of the marriage so they demand to see photographs of the event which we had, by my own insistence, carry with us. They ask a hundred questions and even took Milojko into another office to speak with him separately. I think they want to try to talk him out of doing something, which they believe to be stupid or wrong. He told me afterward that they ask him, Is there any reason you are being forced into this marriage? He tell them, No. Is this girl pregnant? No. Is there anything else you should tell us? No. When we came out of that building, we had the visa in our hand and go straight to buy the tickets and get ready to leave.
Me. Leaving. I was a happy girl. I was shining.
Before we travel I went round to all my friends to thank them and let them be jealous. It was not the UK or the US but it was something. I was going to see a new place and a new life. I would have to learn a new language. At the camp, the night before we left, there was another big party, this time at the bar by the pool, which continued through the night. Lots of drink and laughing and slapping and singing and dancing. We flew back to the capital and from there to Milano.
International gal. Na wa for me-o.
Milojko inform me, because he think I cannot read my own ticket, that from Milan it would be a very short flight to his place. We arrive in Milan early in the morning. The soldiers at the barrier at the top of steps from the bus, which bring us from the flight, check my papers quick and allow me to pass. So easy. There I was inside the world at last. Even it was nothing more than a transit visa, still, I wanted to dance right there in the airport beside all the people coming and going, out from the checkpoints and arrival gates. And I wanted to shop. I wanted immediately to go round all the boutiques, looking at all the other ladies travelling to see what they were wearing, what such women wear, what might be reigning in the real world. I wanted to buy a silk scarf and a watch. I was such a fool. Milojko told me to go and look around but he warned me to be careful. He tell me don’t get lost. Watch for thieves. Our flight was for ten o’clock. He would sit by the windows near the gate for our flight, he told me, and sleep for some time. He kiss me and congratulate me, tell me, Welcome to the world!
I knew immediately and completely when I came back to where he had been sitting that he was gone for good and not just to the toilet or to stretch his legs, look for coffee, but I walked round the whole terminal two times searching before I approach the airline desk, thinking that they would help me. Cruel people. Eventually, after two days of stubbornness, of shouting and weeping and pushing my useless transit visa at everyone, I was put on a flight back to my own country. I was hungry and tired and broken down and even my suitcase was lost and when I arrived I was mistakenly taken off the flight with the prostitutes and beaten by soldiers. They took all my money, what remain, and I did not think that I would survive to reach my own side. I went to my mother’s house and stay hiding from everyone for many weeks before I went back to the camp and start asking for where is my husband. Of course his friends refuse to come to the gate to see me, to explain for me what happen and, without their sign, the manager of the camp refuse to allow me inside. Every day, every blessed day for over one month, even Sundays after church, I trek from my house to Oil Mill. And from there take bus to the petrochemical and stand under the rain, under the sun, listen to the other girls’ laughter and whispers, and each time the security refuse to allow me to pass so that I can talk to this man’s people and receive even small help. This man was gone and I no longer had business in that place. It’s ok. I will manage. By God’s grace, I will survive and, for the rest of his miserable life, wherever he is, he will see me in the corner of his eye and know what he has done, what pain he has caused.
After sex Josephine cleans herself with water from the rain barrel on her stoop. She fills a silver bowl, the same one she uses for washing her hands when she eats ochre soup, and kneels astride it to scoop the water into the folds of her genitals with a cupped hand, raising each knee in turn while she balances her weight with the other hand, knuckles pressed into the floor. Then she ties her braids up into a plastic shopping bag, wraps a towel round under her arms, and steps outside in flip-flops to the communal shower. When she returns she will shed the towel and stand in front of the mirror to apply her lotions, the Topifram and Skin Success, the Black Orchid, upon which she relies to care for and lighten her skin. A serious undertaking this, perhaps the most important of her day after her prayers. She carefully taps measured dollops from each pot into both palms and stirs them together with a fingertip before applying dabs all the way up her legs from her ankles onto her stomach, her breasts and over her shoulders, twisting to reach round to her back and her buttocks and finishing at her neck and throat. Rubbing follows application, again starting at her ankles and the tops of her feet, but this time moving more slowly and thoroughly in strokes and looping circles up along and around her entire body.
When she’s finished with the creams, having worked the last traces from her fingernails and the creases in her palms, she will dress. Josephine maintains a modest and tidy stack of clothes in the corner of her room, at the end of the mattress there by your feet. She will find something to wear, something simple, something right, and then, after brushing the faintest hint of color over her eyes and pulling on a pair of sandals, untying her braids to let them fall over her shoulders, she will be ready.
When I think of her now, standing here in this cold empty house watching snow falling outside the window, I see her stepping out from her door to cross the yard in the last of the day’s light. She pauses to talk to the ladies and laugh with the little children, to wag her finger and chide the lazy boys listening to their music, and then strides purposefully, straight-backed, into the shadows of the narrow lane leading up to the road, into the night.
My friend, I begrudge you nothing but please, whatever you do, do this much for me: while you are with her, take good care of Josephine.