Nnedi finally realized why Ezinne’s oyibo madam winked when she mentioned that the Lugards might need a nanny soon. Mrs. Lugard was heavily pregnant and Nnedi wondered how the woman’s reed-like frame was able to support her bulging stomach. The Lugards were delighted when oyibo madam introduced Nnedi to them. It seemed oyibo madam had read their minds and Nnedi was asked to resume work immediately. Nnedi had a day off work once a week and on those days she made the trip from Ebutte-Metta to Oshodi. Though the face-me-I-face-you apartment she shared with Ezinne’s sister, the sister’s husband and their three children plus Ezinne was severely cramped, Nnedi relished whatever time she found to spend with them. First of all, she could speak Igbo freely after being subjected to speaking English with the Lugards all week. For Nnedi, being with Ezinne and her family was the closest she could be to Umuaku. Not a single day passed that she didn’t think of Chike and how he must have grown. She missed her mother, her father and grandfather.
The Lugards lived in a three-bedroom apartment and also had servants’ quarters at the back of the house. It appeared that the Lugards had developed a taste for Nigerian food and Mrs. Lugard liked to cook up a feast of Nigerian foods every other day; from pepper soup to nkwobi to yam pottage and her particular favourite of fried plantain also known as dodo.
Nnedi cleaned, washed, cooked, went to the market and ran errands for the Lugards. Most nights she plopped into bed exhausted, only to dash out of her room at the crack of dawn the following day; her apron strings trailing behind her as she struggled to tie them behind her back.
Mrs. Lugard liked everywhere to be spick and span. “I used to dust and clean the whole place myself while Dan is at work”, she said referring to her husband.
“But I can’t do that anymore”, she sighed patting her moon-shaped stomach
Nnedi returned to work after one of her ‘off’ days to discover that there was nobody in the Lugard residence. The gateman told her that Mrs. Lugard went into labour in the middle of the night and had to be rushed to the hospital. Mrs. Lugard returned in the company of her husband clutching the pinkest baby Nnedi had seen in her entire life. The babies back in Umuaku were chubby and full-haired but this one was wrinkled and bald. They named the baby Robert. Mrs. Lugard too looked worse for wear, like she had been dragged over a bed of nails.
A few days later Mrs. Lugard’s mother, a buxom white-haired matriarch came visiting which made Nnedi wonder where Mrs. Lugard inherited her slender build from.
As the days became weeks, it became obvious something was wrong. Nnedi thought that upon returning home, Mrs. Lugard would be revived by the maternal attention of her matronly mother but things only seemed to get worse. Mrs. Lugard receded into herself and would only speak unless spoken to. She lost weight drastically and the once-bubbly expectant mother transformed into a waif-like shadow of her former self. She refused to touch Robert; the baby would cry and cry and she often had to be cajoled by her husband and mother to breastfeed the child. During the day, Mrs. Lugard would sit at the front porch gazing into space and once her husband returned she retreated into her room where she ate dinner and would only emerge the following morning when Mr. Lugard had gone to work. Most nights, the entire house was kept awake by Mrs. Lugard’s loud sobs. When Mrs. Lugard’s mother sent her to the market to buy baby milk, Nnedi wondered what Mrs. Lugard had done with all the baby milk in her visibly engorged breasts.
That week when she got to Oshodi she narrated to Ezinne’s elder sister what was going on in the Lugard household. They wondered if it was some kind of demonic attack to have a baby and want nothing to do with it.
Ik wiped the sweat from his brow as his truck hurtled on the tarmac. It was his return trip from Umuaku to Onitsha. Since Nnedi’s disappearance months ago, he had run into her father twice at the center of the town. The third time, he sighted the man from afar and ducked behind a truck. He knew Nnedi had still not returned home to Umuaku, his neighbours told him they saw her boarding a motorcycle in the direction of the Lagos motor park that fateful day so he suspected that was where she went. When he left police custody, he returned to the waiting arms of Uchenna whom his mother had left behind in Onitsha. Three months after, his mother returned and told him that Uchenna was pregnant and he needed to go and see her people before she started showing. Despite his pleas that he didn’t have enough money for the bride price, Ik was railroaded into throwing a lavish ceremony with virtually all of his savings. He resented the fact that he had to spend so much money to marry a woman he wasn’t even in love with and he often took it out on Uchenna. Sometimes he felt guilty, like tonight when he returned to find her bent over the charcoal stove in the kitchen cooking his favourite ofe nsala soup and pounded yam. She straightened as she heard him approach to reveal her lumbering midsection. She enquired about his day and they made small talk before he went into the bathroom at the rear of the building to take his bath. When he returned to their one-room apartment, Uchena had set his tray of food beside the bed. She sat on the bed watching him as he gobbled up morsel after morsel of pounded yam. After she cleared the plates, he told her he was going to the next street to visit his friend. The minute he stepped out of the one room apartment, he dashed quickly to his old friend, the drug store owner and bought a pack of condoms before he headed to the brothel across the town. He sighed as he thought about why he had to dash across town twice every week to find sexual release. Ever since Uchenna took in, she had complained every time he tried to touch her. It also didn’t help that she was as big as an elephant now.
He walked into the dimly-lit passage and went straight to her room and found her lying on the bed. Everybody called her Sweetie, nobody knew her real name. Nobody cared. He didn’t care. His turgid member was threatening to burst out of his trousers if he didn’t do something about it soon enough. He brought out a wad of currency notes and counted some and handed it to Sweetie, she took it and placed it in a wooden box and slid it under the bed then she proceeded to take off the skimpy skirt and bra she had on. Ik moved to switch off the lights; he did this every time he was Sweetie. Though Sweetie may not know the reason why he always switched off the lights but the dark helped him fantasize that he was with Nnedi.
The mattress dipped as he lay down beside her, he could still make out her elfin features in the dark so he shut his eyes tightly. He slid his hands between her legs and touched her intimately. He imagined he heard Nnedi whimpering in delight at his tender ministrations and when Sweetie buckled under his touch, it only served to fuel his need for Nnedi. He smiled inwardly as he buried his head in her breasts and sucked on one rock-hard nipple while twirling the other between his fingers. Her cries of pleasure were like music to his ears. He imagined Nnedi’s hands all over him, rubbing his hair, his back. He felt her digging her heels into his butt, urging him on while he continued caressing her breasts. And when Sweetie guided him gently into her warmth, he groaned as he buried himself deeply inside her knowing that he had found his Nnedi once again. Suddenly, he felt Nnedi pushing her hips upward to meet him thrust for thrust as he screamed her name in climax. He wanted to hold on to Nnedi some more but his fantasy was cut short when Sweetie sprung out of the bed and switched on the light casting a red hue on the entire room. He silently put on his clothes and shuffled out of the dingy room into the night.
Sweetie was intrigued by this customer who always requested for the lights to be turned off, though she never asked him why. In her line of work, questions were quite unnecessary. She wondered who the woman was that she wielded so much power over him. The first time he called her Nnedi she was taken aback. But after four months of his bi-weekly visits, she was accustomed to his queerness. These days she even played along, asking him what he would like Nnedi to do for him. She however did not relish the fact that he always wanted to remain in bed and cuddle when she had other customers waiting to be serviced. As she wiped herself with tissue paper and sprayed some perfume she shook her head ruefully as she thought about how she had fled from home in Liberia when her mother’s new husband forced himself on her one night, only to end up as a sex worker in Onitsha.
When Ik got home, he found Uchenna in bed. He slid in quietly beside her so as not to wake her up. Guilt weighed on him like a bag of cement, pressing him into the tattered mattress. He closed his eyes and kept seeing Nnedi’s smiling face and her exquisite gap-tooth. Sleep eluded him.
“We are going home”, said Mr. Lugard
“As you already know, my wife has been very sick since she had Robert”, he continued
“She needs to be treated by a Psychiatrist in London”
Nnedi stared at him as if he had suddenly grown three heads. Were there no doctors in Nigeria that could treat Mrs. Lugard?
“What is a psychiatrist, sir”, she asked curiously
“A psychiatrist is a doctor who treats mental and emotional disorders”
Nnedi slowly nodded as comprehension dawned on her.
She shut her eyes struggling to hide the tears that were already stinging them.
She knew something was wrong when Mr. Lugard didn’t go to work that morning and when he asked to see her in the living room later, her anxiety snowballed into outright dread. He asked her to sit down and she selected a brightly coloured ottoman and perched on it. Mrs. Lugard’s mother was rocking the baby to sleep on the front porch while Mrs. Lugard was in her room.
“We leave tomorrow morning”
“I know this is all very sudden for you but here is two months’ salary”, he said and handed her an envelope. You can clear out whatever supplies are left in the fridge and take them.
Nnedi knelt down and thanked him. The tears flowed down freely this time. She bade them goodbye and plodded back to her room in the servant’s quarters to start packing.