He let out a deep sigh.
He had heard her after all.
“Alemana, people will notice.”
“That doesn’t matter.” She said quietly but firmly. “It might be a little unusual but it is not uncommon.”
“Well,” he sighed. “If that is what you want. But I hope you don’t get offended if someone decides to fling the casket open during the lying-in-state.”
“Why would anyone do that?” She asked, temporarily forgetting that some people did not need a reason to be uncouth.
“I don’t know; grief, anger? Someone can just open it up and start wailing harder. Or a member of the kinsmen could decide they want it to stay open. These things happen.”
“Well then, we will have to have someone there to make sure it does not happen.” Alemana said solemnly.
She fully intended to have the coffin nailed shut, but her brother-in-law did not have to know that.
She watched him closely as he pondered the matter.
She knew he did not like it, but felt compelled to grant her wishes because she was a grieving widow.
“You bastard.” She thought to herself.
She looked around at all her husband’s relatives who busied themselves in different parts of the house.
“You wicked bastards.” She thought, as she struggled to contain the anger that threatened to burst out of her.
Her husband had died two weeks prior in a motor accident. He was hit by a vehicle while crossing the street to get to a food vendor he patronised daily. He died enroute to the hospital.
When Alemana joked that the local mama put would be the death of him, she had not realised her statement was a prophecy of sorts.
In the week following his death, her life had become a vicious cycle of tears, trying to explain to her children that daddy was not coming back from his “trip”, more tears, dealing with friends and family members who constantly reminded her that her husband had died, more tears, making funeral arrangements, more tears, the occasional denial and expecting him to walk through the door any minute, and even more tears when she realised he would not.
It was a nightmare, and she was in a perpetual state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion.
So when her younger sister brought her phone to her about a week later when she was seeking some quiet time away from the mob that had taken over her home, she was more than a little annoyed.
“Is it the mortuary or Sister Tule?” Alemana asked flatly.
“Then I am not interested.” She snapped, turning away and stretching herself out on the bed.
“But sister-” Ojoma began.
“The reason you are ‘manning’ my phone is so that you can tell whoever calls that I’m not disposed, and to receive their condolences or messages on my behalf.”
“I know but-” Ojoma tried again.
“Ojoma, I am tired. Take the message please!”
“I have tried, but she keeps insisting on speaking to you. This is the fourth time she has called, and I even tried to hang up on her but she said she has a message for you from your husband.”
At that, Alemana sat up. “What?”
“I know. I even told her he is dead and she said she knows, and that is why she needs to deliver the message.”
Alemana gestured for Ojoma to give her the phone.
She adjusted her blouse, cleared her throat, and put the phone to her ears. “Hello?”
The lady on the other end of the line introduced herself as Linda, and in less blunt terms, stated that she was Alemana’s husband’s mistress.
Before Alemana got a chance to react, or wrap her brain around what she was hearing, Linda spoke quickly.
She explained that she wanted nothing from Alemana, and was quite content to remain his dirty little secret until she received a call from his lawyer a few hours ago asking that she make herself available on a certain day for the reading of the deceased’s will.
She added that she had told the lawyer that she will not be present and wanted no part of the deceased’s estate, but the lawyer insisted that he was instructed by the deceased that the will must be read in her presence, and that if she refused, the will was not to be read at all.
It was then that she realised that the truth about her identity and that of her son would be revealed to Alemana whether she showed up or not. Since she deemed it unfair for Alemana to find out in such a manner, she wanted to call ahead of time and tell her.
“I am so sorry about all this, and I will gladly relinquish anything he bequeaths to me and my son; but I just felt that you did not deserve to find out in that manner.” She ended.
Alemana’s head was spinning.
Her initial reaction was confusion, then anger because she felt someone was playing a stupid trick on her at her lowest moment. But the more Linda spoke, the more panic rose in her chest.
She sounded educated, cultured; and not at all like a person who traded in expensive jokes.
She also sounded genuinely remorseful.
This could not be true; and if it was, it was all too much.
“Listen, I don’t know who you are or who you think you had an affair with, but I just lost my husband; and I am in absolutely no mood for sick jokes. Don’t call this number again!” She spat into the receiver, then hung up.
Her hands were shaking violently.
She gripped the phone tightly to steady them.
“Sister? Who was that? What was that about an affair? Was your husband cheating on you? Does he have a child outside?” Ojoma badgered.
Alemana had forgotten her sister was still in the room.
“Stop asking stupid questions. Just leave me so I can rest.” Alemana shouted, throwing the phone at Ojoma. She needed time to think but she had to sleep first. Her mind was definitely playing tricks on her.
Ojoma turned to leave, just as the alert for a WhatsApp message sounded.
Ojoma glanced at the phone, clicked on the message and gasped just as the second message dropped.
Another message dropped and she gasped again.
By the time the fourth message dropped, Alemana was by her side, yanking the phone from her grip.
The first message was a text: “I am not lying and this is not a joke.”
The second message was a picture with the caption “this is my son. He is 5.” Alemana stared, mouth ajar, at the spitting image of her husband.
The third message was a picture as well. It was a picture of her husband, a smile plastered across his face, and an arm draped around the little boy who had a smile exactly like his.
The fourth message was a picture of her husband squatting beside the little boy, as he blew the flames off the five candles atop his birthday cake.
A fifth message dropped. “Like I said, I want nothing from you; but I felt you did not deserve to find out during the reading of the will.”
Ojoma’s muffled gasp gave away the fact that she had been reading over Alemana’s shoulder.
When Alemana spun around to face her sister, eyes blazing and ready to chew her head off for being nosy, she saw that Ojoma’s eyes were filled with tears.
“I am so sorry sister. You don’t deserve this. Not right now.”
Alemana was still breathing heavily, trying hard to reconcile the anger she wanted to throw her sister’s way with the tears that fell freely from her sister’s eyes.
Ojoma rushed to her sister and hugged her tightly.
Alemana stiffened first, then her shoulders drooped. “This can’t be happening” she whispered into Ojoma’s shoulders. “This can’t be happening.” She repeated.
Suddenly, she jerked away from Ojoma. “It can’t be real.”
“Sister-” Ojoma began.
“No Ojoma, it can’t. It’s probably photoshopped. I think she is just a golddigger looking to get something.”
“It doesn’t looked photoshopped sister.” Ojoma whispered.
“It must be! Or there is some other explanation. It doesn’t make sense.” Alemana insisted.
“Sister-” Ojoma reached for her.
“No!” Alemana snapped, stepping out of her reach. “I refuse to believe it. I am not stupid. Only a stupid woman will not suspect, for five whole years, that her husband had an illegitimate child – or that he was even having an affair with one steady woman. There will always be a sign.”
Ojoma remained where she stood, crying.
Alemana flung the phone on the bed, and paced around the room.
After a moment, Ojoma picked up the phone and read the last message again. “Why will she be at the reading of the will?” She asked perplexed, wiping her tears.
Alemana stopped pacing and stared into the distance.
The room seemed to grow smaller as she gasped for air.
“Sister? Are you okay?” Ojoma asked, rushing to her.
“I’m fine.” She panted. “Give me the phone.”
She dialed a number and steadied her breath as she waited for the line to connect.
“Yes, good evening barrister. Thank you. I’m taking it one day at a time, thank you. Please, I wanted to ask. I know it is soon but I just need some clarity. Who are all the people that need to be present for the reading of the will? That’s a bit vague, I need names. ‘Family members and loved ones of the deceased’ is not specific. I need to know who exactly so I can tell them to make time on that day. Oh, you have already notified them? Okay, so let me be more specific; will there be a Linda present?”
The blood drained from Alemana’s face just as she loosened her grip on the phone; it slipped from her hands and fell to the floor. The lawyer’s stutter was all the answer she needed.
“Sister, what is it? What did he say?” Ojoma asked, but got no answer from her sister who had slid down the wall and now sat, legs spread out, on the floor.
“Hello?” Ojoma yelled into the receiver. “I’m her sister What did you say to her? What do you mean you are not at liberty to list the names? Do you think this is some kind of joke? Hello? Hello?”
Ojoma flung the phone aside, and grabbed her sister by either shoulder. “Sister, speak to me. Sister?”
Alemana just sat there like a rag doll, and stared into the open space before her, the tears and her occasional blinking the only signs that she was still conscious.
The next day, Alemana asked for her laptop. She did a Facebook search for Linda and clicked her tongue when she saw her picture.
She was not particularly beautiful, and though it gave her a small sense of triumph, it also felt like a punch to the gut. Why would he cheat on her with someone less attractive? Was it because she was Igbo and Alemana was not? Did he yearn to be with someone who could speak his native tongue?
Alemana shook her head free of the thoughts. It did not matter; he was not supposed to have cheated at all!
She returned to Linda’s profile page to learn more about her and stopped cold.
Her profile said she worked for one of the big four audit firms.
She opened up another window in a frenzy and searched for her on LinkedIn.
She stared in horror, at the detailed and impressive work history of the high-ranking Certified Audit Professional that her husband had been sleeping with.
Alemana Ochai was a first class honours graduate of Banking and Finance from a prestigious Nigerian university. She was as beautiful as she was brilliant. She was tall, with slender features reminiscent of the Shuwa Arabs of the North, but with full hips and curves prevalent in her native Kogi state.
Hers was a striking beauty such that she had begun to receive suitors as early as her senior secondary years.
Thankfully, her parents were particular about her finishing at least her first degree before marriage – which was just as well because she was prepared to run away from home if her parents pressured her to marry a minute sooner than she was ready.
She had goals and dreams that she wanted to accomplish, and she was not going to let the confines of marriage get in the way of them.
Then she met Tochukwu Ubani.
He was not particularly charismatic, nor was he exceptionally handsome; but he was brilliant and insightful. Those were features Alemana found incredibly attractive.
He was a deep thinker and had strong opinions and convictions on matters of policy, religion and governance.
He spoke to her very soul, and she constantly found herself yearning for his company.
They met on the second day of the National Youth Service Camp in Jos, and by the end of the three-week period, they were inseparable.
She was sure she had not only met her soulmate, but a man who would encourage and support her ambitions.
So she happily said “yes” when he proposed after their year of Youth Service.
She agreed with him when he said she did not need to go to a foreign country to further her education.
She saw reason with him when he suggested she defer her admission because managing a pregnancy, and subsequently an infant while trying to get a degree would be difficult.
She understood his concerns when he suggested she wait until their daughter was of school age, as he did not want a stranger tending to his child in her absence.
She could not argue when he said that the expense of feeding their growing family did not allow for any extra income with which to pay for her Master’s degree.
By the time he made her turn down a job offer from a multinational, the last piece of the scales had finally fallen from her eyes, and she realised that her husband had never intended for her to get another degree or a job.
She had applied for jobs with several companies but had exceeded the age cut-off for their trainee programs, and had no work experience that would warrant her getting an experienced role.
She got an offer for a contract role that could be converted to full time because the hiring manager was very impressed with her, but her husband said it was beneath her.
He knew it was a fantastic opportunity, but he had used an excuse he thought would resonate with her.
How can a lady with no work experience consider a good-paying job from a global organisation beneath her?
She considered taking the offer anyway, even if it meant the end of her marriage; but she had three children, no income of her own (yet), and she did not want to raise her children without their father. There was also the fact that she loved the man, a little too hopelessly. She felt betrayed by him, but she still loved him.
Slowly, she resigned herself to the life of a housewife. She knew she would still get her masters, and even if she could not get an office job, she would start a consultancy. However, she wanted the children to be old enough such that Tochukwu would have no more excuses to give her.
So she suppressed her dissatisfaction, and the depression that loomed; and made a conscious decision to be happy despite it all until the time was right.
Tochukwu had stifled her dreams and robbed her of the opportunity to build a corporate career, and then cheated on her with a woman who was on the upper echelons of the corporate world.
For two days, Alemana stayed in bed; refusing to see or talk to anyone. Not even her children.
Ojoma had watched over Alemana like a hawk. She kept watch at her bedroom door, keeping people out while constantly trying, but failing, to get her to eat or even speak.
On the third day, Alemana woke up before Ojoma. She showered, and made herself a cup of tea from the provisions Ojoma had permanently set up in her bedroom in a bid to get her to eat.
When Ojoma awoke, she saw her sister sipping tea quietly and staring at the opposite wall.
“Sister?” She called out cautiously.
“Good, you are awake. We have work to do.” Alemana answered, keeping her cold eyes on the wall.
It was all Alemana could do to keep from rolling her eyes as her brother-in-law sighed, then sighed some more in silent protest to her decision to have a closed casket at the lying-in-state.
She knew he knew about Linda and the boy; she knew most of his family knew. At some point she thought she was going to die all over again from the humiliation.
For keeping something of this magnitude from her, she would never forgive them.
She looked past him, at her locked bedroom door. A sly smile, quick and deadly, passed through her face as she thought of the small cupboard within that held an intricately decorated vase; a covered vase.
“A man should be one with the earth from whence he came.” Tochukwu had said once when they had argued about cremation. She thought it made sense and was a lot less tedious; he thought she was crazy to even think it.
He had gone on to talk about the significance of being buried in the land of his forefathers, but had been so bothered by her appreciation for cremation that he made her promise to give him a proper burial.
Well, he had broken his vows; that pretty much invalidated any promises she had made to him.
A coffin would certainly be buried in his hometown, but his body was not going to be in it.