‘Our husbands are the cloth with which we hide our nakedness.’
I do not reply. It’s usually better not to, when she talks like this. Anyway, I know she’s not finished yet.
‘Our husbands are the cloth with which we hide our nakedness,’ she repeats. ‘No matter who you are, no matter what you have, when you don’t have that cloth, people will point at you and say, ‘there she goes again, naked.’ And you? You will be ashamed’
I drop the melon seeds I’ve shelled into the jar on the table, the husks I leave on a wide blue tray, which, I believe, is much older than I am. It’s been present in the family ritual of shelling melon seeds since I can remember. We are seated at the kitchen table, my mother and I, shelling melon seeds for egusi soup.
My mother insists on doing it at home, even though like me and thousands of other women in Lagos, she could get them already shelled from the markets. Her mother, who still farms them, brings them to her from the village. My mother then dries them in the backyard spread out on wide plastic trays under the sun, until she is satisfied with them. Then the shelling begins.
We are all out of the house now, married. My sisters, my brothers, and me. These days my mother shells melon seeds alone. Last year, my youngest brother finally got married. His first child is due in a month, and my mother wants to shell melon seeds enough to cook the soup for the big, baby dedication party she has planned. Has my brother consented to this party? I wonder.
‘No matter what a woman is, she has to realise that the most important thing she came to this world to do, is to nurture.’ My mother pauses and drops the clean melon seeds into the jar. ‘She nurtures her husband and her children because their success is a measure of her success.’
I stare out of the window over the kitchen sink. The air conditioning is on, so the glass is shut tight. Outside, it is sunny and the clothes my mother insists cannot be trusted to the washer and dryer are hanging on the line, the whites so bright they seem to flash as they move in the breeze. Maybe she’s right, I think. My whites are not as white as hers, and I use an ultra modern washer and dryer.
‘Whatever your man does, no matter how dirty he gets himself, dust him, clean him up, raise and keep him. Do you know why?’ She pauses and looks at me. ‘Because even if you could have done better, you didn’t and now he is the one you have.’ She pauses again ‘and believe me having him will shield you from what the world has to say about you.’
What does the world have to say about me now, I wonder, that my husband of eight years told me that he was going on a business trip, but instead was in a hotel with the woman he used to go out with ages before we met, who dumped him for a richer man, who was now a gay divorcee, who had only crooked her finger for him to go running to her.
What if I hadn’t been invited to redo the interior decoration of the dining room at the Mayflower Hotel? What if I hadn’t gone there to take a look at the place? What if I hadn’t seen my husband having dinner with this woman when he was supposed to have been miles away in South Africa? What if I hadn’t asked the hotel manager who the couple were and had been told that they had been staying there for a week? Then I wouldn’t know. I’d still be missing my man and he’d still be in the hotel with her, not in the house waiting for me to come home so he could follow me around with ‘I’m sorry eyes’, waiting for me to say something, or do something.
I haven’t said anything, I don’t know yet what to say. Have I ever known of a man who didn’t cheat on his wife? I’m not sure. Did I really expect different from my husband? I don’t know. I can’t believe how much it hurts though, now that what I know I have been dreading for years has finally happened. I can’t believe how angry I am. I want to hurt him. But what can I do?
‘If every woman should leave her husband when he does the things that very likely all men do’ My mother continues, ‘there will be no marriages.’ She sighs. ‘I know how much you love your Daddy, but he wasn’t a perfect husband. If I had done some of the things you’re contemplating now, you wouldn’t have had a daddy to love.’
When I get home I am told by the gateman that my husband has taken the children to the club. I don’t mind, I do so want to be alone, I take all my white linen and put them through the washer and dryer. I want them to come out as white as my mothers, maybe because more than anything I want to prove to myself that her way is not always the right way, that sometimes I can do things my own way and not be wrong.
I hear the car in the driveway. I hear the children’s voices. I come out into the dining room and watch as the twins run into the house, at six and a half they are as active as fire crackers and as noisy. Sophia sees me first and hurls herself at me, Daniel follows immediately. I swear they compete in everything. John runs in after them and grabs hold of my legs, he is a quiet boy, my Johnny and very sensitive, he is only three.
My husband comes in last, carrying Daisy, our baby. I can’t believe how looking at him hurts me. Daisy coos at me, I smile back. Then I disentangle the forest of arms and legs around me and go upstairs. I am suddenly so sad and so tired.
He follows me upstairs. Did I know he would? I am standing by the window in our bedroom, when he enters.
‘What do you want me to do’ he asks, he is sorry, he has said over and over again. He has been sorry since I walked up to that table and said, ‘I didn’t realise that this was the business you had to do in South Africa?’
He had been so shocked. I almost smile as I think about it.
I haven’t replied him. He walks up behind me. I move away before he can touch me.
‘I’m sorry’ he says. I know if I turn around I’ll see tears in his eyes. ‘Men!’ I think. ‘How pathetic they are! How they can grovel to get what they want but how quickly they go out of their way to lose it again.’
I touch the window curtains; they are very good cotton, from Italy, my mother-in-law gave them to me. ‘I should wash them’ I think. ‘They are slightly dirty.’
My husband goes to sit on the bed and holds his head in his bands, he is crying. I ignore him for a while before I go to sit beside him. I know I will forgive him. I know I won’t leave him. Not because of my mother or what she said. I am not afraid to be a woman alone. Not because of the children even though they would seem to be the obvious reason, not because of anything people will say about me. No, I am going to stay with this man because I have made my choice. And that choice is to love him.