06 December 2009

The Visit by Jude Dibia

Six feet of polished oak separated them. Nduesoh’s eyes travelled the length of the oval dining table, marvelling at the sheen, the way young lovers marvel at the contours of their naked limbs. She knew all too well that the housemaid would have polished every inch of the surface repeatedly so that the result would be the flawlessness that her eyes now beheld. The floral arrangement at the middle of the table was almost an intrusion—tulips and golden daffodils. No matter how much she tried to focus on the endless flourish of rich dark wood, her eyes kept cutting away to the crystal vase at the centre of the table. Tulips and daffodils were Edward’s favourite flowers and he always assumed they were hers, so night after night, when they dined at home, she had to contend with the presence of those damned flowers in their white and golden beauty. In a way, she was jealous of their splendour because she always felt they mocked her, much the same way a prettier and younger wife would taunt the older wife without having to say a thing.

Nduesoh was pleased, however, by the little distractions that kept her eyes from observing Edward’s mouth. His thin lips repulsed her, more so now, as they remained sealed while he chewed on his dinner. The movement of his lips and jaws reminded her of a programmed robot. His eating was so controlled, almost orchestrated… fork in left hand pinning down a piece of meat still dripping a faint red, knife cutting through the meat and piling on some vegetables, roast potato and horseradish sauce in measured chunks. Each forkful had to be a certain size. Left hand lifts fork up and then thin lips part to reveal tobacco-stained teeth with dark grooves and then—chomp. His eyes always squint when he takes the first bite. His lips become a sealed envelope, sheltering its contents like a virgin’s secret… and then begins the repeated motion…circular…up and down.

“Darling, you are not eating,” Edward said. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” Nduesoh answered. She gently followed his actions, cutting a few chunks of beef and potatoes and placing them in her mouth.

She noticed a morsel clinging to the corner of his lips and she could not refocus her attention on anything else. The morsel just sat there, wedged between the cracks. Nduesoh found staring at him for an extended period gave her no joy because she invariably began to see layers of him that she found unpleasant. The gap in years that told many that he was already a man when she was still a child had become visible. Over time, like an ancient tree acquiring new rings, he seemed to have added new layers to his ever expanding torso. And why did all these matter now? Why was she so distracted? Why did she not just allow herself to enjoy dinner and not think about anything?

Edward used his napkin to dab at the sides of his mouth. Finally, the morsel was gone and he smiled at her. She smiled back at him. They continued eating. The cling and clang of cutlery on fine china was melody enough to discourage any further attempt at conversation. Nduesoh lowered her eyes to her plate without slouching or altering her posture.

She had not felt this tense or anxious in a long time. The last occasion was after she had heard a passing comment at the Country Club about the old English tycoon who had left a generous tip for one of the barmaids. Old. English. Tycoon. Those words were like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that, when put together, suggested her husband, in all his sordid grandeur. She’d never confronted him about it, though. She only had her suspicions. Yet when, days later, she found Edward had left her a velvet case containing a pearl necklace on the dresser, her colourful imagination reeled out clips of rancid infidelity.

What she’d done then had surprised her. She’d sought out the barmaid on her next visit to the Country Club and found herself stealing peeks from behind a menu card at the heavily made-up eyes, lips and caked-up face. What could Edward possibly have seen in her?

Nduesoh recalled how she had stood up from her table and walked to the ladies' room. She’d locked herself inside one of the stalls and turned over the contents of her handbag. Using her compact mirror, she applied foundation and then some lipstick and then eye shadow. She looked at her reflection in the mirror. She had not liked what stared back at her. Before leaving the stall, she had cleaned off all traces of the make-up.

“The embassies have all been put on medium level security alert,” Edward said. “We’ve also had a notice from the Chief of Police.”

“I wonder what the trouble is this time,” Nduesoh said distractedly. She was not interested, but she felt obliged to show some concern.

“There are so many things happening at the moment,” Edward responded. “Riots in town, protests in front of government offices. They say that the crime rate has gone up over fifty percent.”

“That is poor people’s problem,” Nduesoh said. “Always fighting when they don’t have things their way.”

“I’d hardly call it poor people’s problem, my dear,” Edward said. “Are you OK?”

Nduesoh smiled. “Yes, Edward.” She said. “I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just that these issues don’t really affect us now. We have the best of security and everything we need, don’t we?”

“Well,” Edward said. “We shouldn't forget what happened to Katherine. That could have been any of us.”

“Of course, Edward,” she agreed. “We shouldn’t forget Katherine. How is the beef?”

“Really good, thank you. Stephen is a fine cook.”

She smiled at him again before taking a sip from her glass. He would stop talking now, she hoped. This was so different from the home she came from. When they sat down for meals, someone was always talking. If it was not Idara, then it would be her other sister, Uwem, or one of her brothers—Mfoniso or Eno. How they loved talking over their food. This was strange, this sudden thought of home and her siblings. She never usually allowed herself to think about them, but this suspicion of Edward’s interest in the singer at the Deputy High Commissioner’s party was so strong it made her remember how much she had secretly envied and loathed her siblings.

She hated their good looks and the names they’d been given. She had often imagined what it must have been like at their births: the joy there must have been when their mother was delivered of them. Did she look at her creations and then, with their father’s consent, name them accordingly? Idara was short for Idarafom, which meant ‘Happiness is free’; Uwem meant ‘Life is enjoyment’; Mfoniso translated to ‘Good luck’ and Eno-Obong, Eno for short, meant ‘Gift from God.’ Such beautiful names! So why did they stop when it came to her turn? Had her mother looked at her in shock when she was flushed out? Did she exclaim "What have I done wrong?" This was what Nduesoh meant—‘What have I done wrong?'. Why had there been a break in giving out the good names? Why? However, the valid question would be: why had she put up with being called Nduesoh for so long? She had asked once what other names she had and her mother told her that actually her first name was Idobe—it meant 'Endurance'—but no-one called her that. It had always been Nduesoh from the very first moment she sucked a breast and the name had stuck like a bad habit. Besides, Idobe was hardly a joyful name. It too, made her resentful of whatever it was her parents felt they had had to endure when regarding her as one of their own.

She was glad dinner was nearly over so that she could retire to the bedroom and read some more of The Waves by Virginia Woolf. She had first read it at university and liked the interior monologues; she liked being carried into the world of high minded people, cut off from the vulgarities of the world.

Edward would place one final call to the on-duty manager at the hotel, as he did every night, to make sure everything was all right and then he would either watch some cable news or join her in the bedroom. She really preferred these quiet nights when they were not compelled to attend one function or another. She did not see the reason why she should constantly be on display like one of Edward’s Kenyan warrior masks hanging on the walls of the living room and bedroom.

Two uniformed maids entered the dining area with a trolley. One of them started clearing up the dishes while the other hovered near Nduesoh. From the look in her eyes, Nduesoh knew she had something to say.

“Yes,” she said, prompting her. “What is it?”

“You have a visitor at the lobby, Ma.” The maid quivered as she spoke.

“A visitor. At this time?” Edward said and instinctively glanced at his wristwatch. “Who is it?”

“She said her name is Idara, Ma,” the maid answered.

Was this sheer coincidence? Only moments ago, she had thought about her sister and now she was at the hotel’s lobby, waiting to see her.

Nduesoh had had as little possible to do with her family after her marriage to Edward and that had been her choice. She would never forget the embarrassment they’d caused in the weeks that led to her wedding, not to mention the wedding day itself. She closed her eyes and the images flooded her head like water from a broken dam. Could it have been her imagination or had her entire village turned up for the wedding? Her father’s brother Edet, who never left the village, was there; so were Edidem, the town chief; Emaobong, her mother’s twin sister and many others. They had all come, dressed in their old, carefully preserved best clothes. But these were more like rags when compared to those of the guests who sat on Edward's side. Her people looked like puppets and caricatures. And then––even more embarrassing––they had argued about everything during the reception, in particular, about the food and drink. In their eyes, there was either not enough or it was not to their liking. Before the day was over, many of them were drunk and acting inappropriately. And finally, there was her mother. She was dressed up like a peacock, carrying herself with the dignity of a pauper queen, and bragging to all who cared to listen about how her daughter would send her to the white man’s land and build a big house for her in the village. The shame and embarrassment of it all still haunted her.

“Well,” Edward said. “I think we should invite her up.”

“No,” Nduesoh said, too sharply. It made Edward turn and look at her. “There will be no need for that. I will go down and meet her. I’m sure she is in a hurry and it is late.”

She got up before Edward could insist otherwise and made her way out of the dining room. She stopped briefly at the bedroom, where she stared at her handbag on the dresser for a long minute before she reluctantly grabbed it. She walked briskly along the hallway, keeping her head straight and focused on the elevator door at the end of it. There were only two other suites on this penthouse floor of the hotel and not many could afford them, so they were usually empty for most of the year, or booked far in advance for visiting dignitaries or top foreign executives as holiday homes, or official residences when they were in the country.

Nduesoh liked being without neighbours. She hated sharing the elevator with strangers or being forced to exchange pleasantries with people who would not, in the normal run of things, pay her any attention. She pushed the black button of the elevator and waited for the doors to open. It was not a long wait. Inside, gold framed mirrors replicating her image, encased her. Everywhere she turned, she was confronted by herself. These damned elevators! Every single one in the hotel was fitted with mirrored walls. Why couldn’t she escape staring at herself?

In the lobby, opulence, luxury, and their accompanying sounds greeted her, from the fountain shimmering in the centre––a mesmerising focal point––to the restaurant and adjoining French bistro in the west wing and the piano bar opposite, with its dimmed lights and assortment of customers, mainly men, perched on stools. The air down there wore its own distinct cloak of varying fabrics—cigar and cigarette fumes, perfumes, human fumes and traces of alcohol and exotic spices, all sewn together to create a miasma that had great appeal to its regulars.

The heels of Nduesoh’s shoes landed on the soft cushion of the carpet that covered most parts of the lobby. The security guard who operated the intercom phone by the elevator seemed to add a few more inches to his height on seeing her. With his chest thrust out in attention, he greeted her and she acknowledged him with a slight nod of her head. She scanned the separate collections of people gathered in different areas of the lobby: her eyes moved from the concierge’s desk to the revolving glass doors at the entrance of the hotel down to the sitting area that formed a circle round the fountain. Then she spotted her sister—she was on one of the seats designed for a couple—and she stuck out like a vulture in the midst of flamingos.

Idara, dark and lean with a long neck, resembled an impala. Nduesoh could not help but flinch at the dress she was in—a red and black polyester number that had become quite common for young women of a certain class and meagre purse to wear. It had a low cut front that revealed more than was necessary and a hem that stopped just above the knee.

“Nduesoh,” Idara said and she stood up to embrace her sister but Nduesoh backed away on reflex.

“Please sit down,” Nduesoh said. Her eyes did a quick search to see if anyone was observing them. “Just sit down.”

Idara shrank back into her seat like a deflated balloon.

“Is this how you greet your sister after such a long time? You don’t even make any effort to see us and know how we are surviving.”

Nduesoh sat opposite her.

“No-one is sick,” she remarked. “And no-one is dead either, so I am sure all is well.”

“All is not well,” Idara said bitterly. “You no know wetin dey happen for this country?”

Nduesoh rolled her eyes at her sister and again glanced around to make sure no-one was listening.

“I would prefer it if you spoke proper English.”

“Sorry-o,” Idara said, her tone dripping with the sarcasm that was intended. “Mrs. Wood, did I offend your ears with my pidgin? I no blame you.”

“What do you want, Idara?” Nduesoh asked. Her patience was already spent.

Idara opened her mouth to respond but then closed it. She had wanted to say something scathing that would have caused further embarrassment and pain to her sister but she checked herself on time. She had not come to pick a fight.

“Papa sent me to you,” Idara said. “We need some money.”

“What do you people think I am?” Nduesoh asked with a sigh. “A bank?”

Idara looked at her younger sister pointedly. “No-one thinks you are a bank my sister. We only need your help.”

“I have sent money for the month,” Nduesoh said. “You work, don’t you? Why don’t you help them with money?”

“I do the best I can for the family,” Idara said. “I’m only a typist and I am not even married yet.”

“I do not have a job,” Nduesoh said.

“But you have a rich husband,” Idara countered.

“What has that got to do with anything?” Nduesoh asked.

“Is this what marrying a white man has done to you?” Idara asked. “Is this what his culture tells you to do to your family, my sister?”

Nduesoh chose to remain silent. It was better for her family to blame her indifference towards them on Edward and his English ways than to know the truth.

“Nduesoh, answer me,” Idara nudged her for an answer.

“I have told you that I don’t work,” Nduesoh said.

“Have you had time in your busy life to step out of this hotel and see what is happening in the real world?” Idara asked. “Things are getting harder and many people are losing their jobs…I am lucky to still have a job.”

Nduesoh was getting tired of this guilt trip her sister was trying to force on her. She could have avoided this entirely if she had just given Idara some money and sent her off, but she had to stop herself from doing that or else she would only encourage her in thinking she could breeze in here any time and demand money from her. This story of things getting harder in town was unnecessary information as far as she was concerned.

“Anyway,” Idara continued. “There was a mass retrenchment at Papa’s office and Papa was affected and we are short on Eno’s school fees. He has been at home for the last two weeks since he was chased away from the university and…”

“How much do you want?” Nduesoh asked briskly.

“Nduesoh,” Idara said. “When did you become like this? So cold!”

“How much?” Nduesoh pressed, impatiently.

Idara shook her head sadly. “Five thousand naira,” she whispered.

Without flinching, Nduesoh searched her handbag for her chequebook. She remained expressionless as she wrote out a cheque, signed it and tore it off from the booklet.

“Take,” she said, thrusting the cheque at her sister. “You can cash that tomorrow at the bank.”

When Idara looked up to meet the eyes of her sister, she was shocked at the contempt she saw and she felt small, smaller than anyone had ever made her feel. A part of her wanted to stand up and rip the cheque up, but another part of her told her that she would indeed be stupid to let pride overtake her, making her forget what was important and foremost, which was family. She took the cheque from Nduesoh and carefully placed it in her purse.

“Thank you,” she said humbly.

Nduesoh stood up without acknowledging her gratitude. She looked around once more to check if anyone had been looking at them. She saw with satisfaction that the patrons at the bar were busily engaged in drinking and trying to impress the women who laughed at their every whim. Diners flocked in and out of the restaurant and the bistro, shoppers filed past the small, exquisite boutiques—some entering, some merely stopping to admire the window displays––and others drifted past the fountain which rustled in accompaniment to the jazzy number the piano player belted out. He had a croaky voice, Nduesoh noted. She would need to tell Edward to ensure either he did not sing when he played at the bar, or to change him if necessary.

“You can go now,” Nduesoh said. “You have what you came for.”

Idara stood up, without saying anything further, turned and walked away from her sister.

Nduesoh watched her stumble out of the lobby, like a poisoned rat, to the revolving doors that would swivel her out to a world appropriate for her kind, and she felt herself exhale with gentle relief.

The Visit was written by Jude Dibia and is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel.

Copyright Jude Dibia 2009.

Jude Dibia is the author of three novels; Walking with Shadows (2005), Unbridled (2007), and Blackbird (2011). Dibia’s novels have been described as daring and controversial by readers and critics in and out of Africa. Walking with Shadows is said to be the first Nigerian novel that has a gay man as its central character and that treats his experience with great insight, inviting a positive response to his situation. Unbridled, too, stirred some controversy on its publication; a story that tackled the emancipation of its female protagonist who had suffered from incest and abuse from men. Unbridled was awarded the 2007 Ken Saro-Wiwa Prize for Prose (sponsored by NDDC/ANA) and was a finalist in the 2008 Nigeria Prize for Literature (sponsored by NLNG).

Dibia’s short stories have been featured in the Caine Prize Anthology, One World: A global anthology of short stories and various literary journals. Dibia was a recipient of a Commonwealth Highly Commended Award for his short story Somewhere in 2010.


Myne Whitman said...

This is great, I've always liked Jude's writing style and look forward to the novel.

Jude Dibia said...

Thank you, Myne Whitman! You are too kind. I hope the novel delivers when it is out!


Anonymous said...

This is a great teaser excerpt Mr. Dibia, I love your descriptions "...marvelling at the sheen, the way young lovers marvel at the contours of their naked limbs" :) Haven't read Unbridled or Walking with shadows yet, but I sure am going to now and this one when it comes out. -Chiz

Anengiyefa said...

Wonderful stuff Jude, well done. My simple mind however found itself struggling sometimes. It was analogous to having a mouth full of delicious food and struggling to chew it all.. Richly poetic and enjoyable, but I almost had to study it as I would an academic text. Would prefer it if the reading was lighter.. But it is beautiful nevertheless.

Jude Dibia said...

@ Anon, thank you very much. I'm glad you like this 'teaser'.

@ Anengiyefa, thanks as well! You know it is a part of a more larger work and I can imagine anyone struggling with all the salient hints and questions. Lol @ study it as I would an academic text... I take that as a compliment kind of! Big smiles... I hope I am not turning into a technical writer/stylist!

Jude Dibia said...

Anengiyefa, are you familiar with the stream-of-consciousness technique? I employed that largely in this small section.

sylva nze ifedigbo said...

Nice Nce Jude just like everything you've written that i have had the previlege of reading...thanx to d internet. However i permit me to say that in one does not get a clear pix of this story by reading this. Guess cos it is becuase this is just an excerpt. I look 4wad to getting the bigger picture when the book is done. Da'alu

Jude Dibia said...

Sylva thanks for the comment. I agree, there's no way anyone can get a full picture of the novel from this excerpt and that was deliberate! Fingers crossed, it should be out sometime next year.

Sarudzai Mubvakure said...

I love the richness of your writing style. When you read each line, it seems that there is more to what you are reading on the surface. In other words there is something profound or a hidden meaning/secret. From the first instance my thought was -What does Nduesoh mean? As i sensed there must be a significance to her name. And then sure enough the meaning came forth. Brilliant. I look forward to reading the book.

Jude Dibia said...

Sarudzai thank you. Your comment was so generous. Thank you!

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma said...

First encountered your story on Zoetrope Jude, loved it then and love it now; particularly the themes here- I do look forward to reading the novel;I am curious as to really understand the psyche of the intriguing Nduesoh, she reeks with rancour and resentment. One does feel sorry for Nduesoh at first; but then as you read and Idara comes into play, she robs Nduesoh of our sympathies and her rancour no longer comes across as attractive but really distasteful! Like that interplay of emotions, I always think it is not an easy thing that, to invoke within a reader feelings for and simultaneously against the protagonist, particularly in the precise pages of a short story. Nice one here, will reserve further comments for the novel!

NoViolet Mkha Bulawayo said...

i'm loving the interiority. elegant writing, as usual, your style has a wicked "sensuousness" to it Jude, as if the language is conscious of the reader. lol, in fact i'd totally date your writing ha-ha. ahem... i apologize in advance for the inappropriate comments storytime! :)

Jude Dibia said...

@ Novuyo - thank you so much. I remember your first encounter with an earlier version of this writing. Nduesoh is one of those characters I have written that still fascinates me... her issues and 'coldness'. The question is, will she get what's coming to her??? We'll see... And, can we still find space within us to empathize with her once we are better acquainted with her issues?

@ NoViolet - Thanks for the encouraging albeit sensuous words. Wow, you are the first to want to date a piece of writing... way to go!

Ozioma Izuora said...

Finally read your story, Jude. I'm glad it's an excerpt; like a first course that heightens the hunger for the main dish. I look forward to the full work. I like your attention to details. Well done. Ozioma

Jude Dibia said...

Ozioma, thank you so much! Happy Holidays and New Year!

Ifesinachi Okoli said...

I absolutely love the fluidity in your writing. Great piece. Look forward to reading the entire novel.

Ifesinachi Okoli said...

I absolutely love the fluidity in your writing. Great piece. Look forward to reading the entire novel.

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