The first time I saw our new neighbour’s wife was the day she came to ask my mother for match-sticks to light her cooker.
‘Matches?’ my mother asked, with as much genuine surprise as I also expressed on the dining table, eating breakfast and occasionally turning my head towards the door to listen.
‘Yes ma, matches, to light our stove. Or can I also get some kerosene?’ she added, ‘When my husband comes back, we will restock and I will return them.’
I almost laughed, but I made sure I didn’t.
‘No, you don’t need to return anything, madam. Give me a few minutes.’ She shut the door carefully to quell any hope our new neighbour’s wife probably nursed of coming into our house. My mother was like that – very careful about letting strangers into our house. Even artisans who come to fix things in the house don’t get in except it becomes extremely necessary.
My mother went into the kitchen and then called out to my sister, Nkechi. I knew it was to help transfer some kerosene from the 50 litre keg into a smaller container so she could give to our new neighbour’s wife.
I thought my mother was always too nice, too generous, sometimes. She could give anyone anything, as long as she had it and she could find a genuine reason to give it out. Many times, she would ask us to gather clothes we no longer wore – shoes, bags and such – to give to ‘less privileged children’. I have never met them, these less-privileged-children, but almost every quarter, our used clothes disappear. But my mother always makes sure we get replacements. Better replacements. So I never complain whenever she says it is time to give out our clothes. And she always leads by example. She often gives out her own clothes, bags, shoes and jewellery to Madam Paulinus, her hairstylist who comes to the house on weekends, twice every month, to fix my mother’s hair. At least once in four visits, she would leave our house with a bag full of clothes.
Nkechi didn’t answer, so my mother called out again, louder, before Nkechi responded and then walked past me into the kitchen. I observed my sister as she walked sluggishly into the kitchen in her jumper shorts and spaghetti top, revealing her twelve year old breasts which I was sure were still forming. I couldn’t wait to see my sister grow into a woman. I would add my own list of items to whatever it was that would be demanded from the man who would eventually marry her.
I quickly ate what was left of my breakfast, picked up my plate and walked into the kitchen to drop the plate. Nkechi had bent over to pour the kerosene on my mother’s instructions. I was hoping she would ask me to give the items to our new neighbour’s wife, so I could at least put a face to the name. But my mother didn’t even notice that I was in the kitchen, because her back was turned to me as she searched the fridge for what I was sure was a cold drink, possibly soda water or bitter lemon. That is how my mother loves to start her Saturdays. I walked out of the kitchen and then decided to take a peep through the window to see the woman waiting behind the door. I changed my mind and decided to sit on one of the chairs in the living room, from where I could see the door, until Nkechi or my mother opened to give her the items.
‘Thank you ma, thank you very much ma,’ she said as I stretched out my neck to see through the space between the door and my mother’s body. She was bending her knees repeatedly as though she wanted to go to ground on her knees but something invisible was hindering her. I noticed her bulging tummy.
‘Please don’t mention,’ my mother said in her usual way when people said thank you to her. ‘My regards to your husband when he returns.’
The second time I saw our new neighbour’s wife was the evening my mother sent me upstairs to our new neighbour’s flat, to give them some food items. Rice, Vegetable oil, Salt, Onions and Smoked Fish.
‘How would a family not have had anything to eat all day?’ my mother queried no one in particular as she handed the items to me one after another, beginning with the rice in a black polythene bag. I placed the bottle of vegetable oil, the onions, fish and cup of salt inside the rice.
It seemed our new neighbour’s wife had been coming to visit my mother whenever Nkechi and I were not around, because these days my mother spoke of her with a wary familiarity and a deep sense of compassion.
‘Do you know that her husband was once a big man in Abuja?’ she once said while Nkechi and I watched TV with her one afternoon. ‘They had a house in G.R.A and at least three cars at every given time.’
‘So what happened to them,’ my sister asked with interest.
‘Well, from what she told me, I think he fell out with the Minister who gave him contracts regularly because he refused to give a kick-back on one occasion.’
Mother also said they had four children, and that our new neighbour’s wife was actually pregnant with a fifth child. We all kept quiet after that, a strange silence, as though anyone who spoke after that was committing an abomination. I searched my sister’s face, and I could tell that, just like my mother, she was pondering the implications of having so many children in such difficult times.
Our new neighbour’s wife was breast-feeding her youngest child when I got into their apartment, while another child cried beside her. The furniture, rug and accessories in their living room spoke of stale wealth, and a complementary inability of the occupants of the house to continue to keep things in pristine condition. Even her breasts echoed my thoughts. I looked up immediately she raised her head, hoping she didn’t notice where my eyes were.
‘My mother said I should give you, ma,’ I said, stretching the polythene forward.
‘Oh, please thank mummy for me. Thank her very much, o? Tell her that I will come downstairs to say thank you once I finish breast-feeding Elijah.’
I left their apartment in a hurry, even though I wanted to stay. I wanted to ask her questions, about their former life, about the new one and about her husband and children. I felt a bizarre need to be her friend, yet I also sensed a conflicting need to keep away from her. Maybe it was her pale eyes, her thin fallen shoulders that made her look subdued and the pity that swam out with her words. I didn’t tell mother that our new neighbour’s wife would be coming downstairs because I didn’t want to have to say that I met her breast-feeding. I don’t say such things to my mother.
That night, I heard a strange noise from our new neighbour’s apartment. I wondered if anyone else heard it. It was the voice of our new neighbour’s wife, just a few minutes after I had heard loud thuds on the main gate at close to midnight. I was sure it was our new neighbour at the gate. But the sounds that followed upstairs, I wasn’t sure if our new neighbour’s wife was weeping or merely performing her wifely duties in a rather wild way.
The last time I saw our new neighbour’s wife, was three weeks ago. She was in her casket, at her funeral.
Our new neighbour was there too. He wore dark sunglasses and frowned a lot. The other men and women cried. My mother also cried and I wondered why. I wanted to cry too, so as not to look out of place, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the noise I heard that night. I kept looking at our new neighbour’s face as though something in his face would tell me exactly how his wife died, but it said nothing, just a frank, stable glare.
I tried to remember how he came rushing downstairs and banging on our front door early that morning to ask for help, saying his wife was bleeding. I remembered how my mother had rushed in and out with her car keys and ordered me to go call the landlord and open the gate. The landlord didn’t answer, so my mother and our new neighbour had carried his wife into my mother’s car while I opened the gate for them. Our new neighbour’s wife was still alive then. My mother said she stopped breathing when they got to the hospital. She said she was confused because if it was just a fortuitous miscarriage, it shouldn’t really have led to death.
I never saw our new neighbour again after the funeral, till he moved out of our house with their four children. I had returned to the boarding house the day they moved. My mother still talks about them. How they now live in G.R.A, in a house not far from the one they had once lived in, during their first stint with wealth. How our new neighbour now drives a black Toyota Land Cruiser SUV and how they now shop on Allen Avenue and Opebi Road. But my mother never mentioned anything about another woman. I heard that from Nkechi. She said that she also heard that he originally hired the woman to take care of his four children, but that her own tummy too is now beginning to bulge, because they say it is the head of children that calls forth more children.
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