The Truly Married Woman by Abioseh Nicol
People who live together get used to each other. They have daily routines, and the usual patterns of life go on without much change.
Ajayi and Ayo have been together for twelve years. They are not married; Ajayi had meant to marry Ayo but somehow the right moment never came. He is quite comfortable with things as they are, maybe a little too comfortable…
Ajayi sat up and looked at the cheap alarm clock on the chair by his bedside. It was six fifteen, and light outside already; the African town was slowly waking to life. The night watchmen, hurriedly shaking themselves out of sleep, were busily banging the locks of shops and houses, to prove to their employers that they were at work. Village women were walking through the streets to the market place, arguing and gossiping.
Ajayi tasted his cup of morning tea. It was as he liked it, weak and sugary, without milk. He got up and walked to the window, and took six deep breaths. Doing this daily, he believed, would prevent diseases of the chest. Then he took a quick bath, taking water from a bucket with a metal cup.
By then Ayo had laid out his breakfast. Ayo was his wife. Not really a wife, he would explain to close friends, but a mistress. A good one. She had given him three children and was now pregnant with another. They had been together for twelve years. She was a patient, handsome woman, very dark with very white teeth and open honest eyes. Her hair was always neat and tidy. When she first came to him – against her parents’ wishes – he had truly meant to marry her as soon as she had had their first child, but he had never quite found time to do it. In the first year or so she would tell him in detail about the marriages of her friends, looking at him with hopeful eyes, but he would attack her friends’ wild spending and the huge cost of the ceremony, and soon she stopped.
Ajayi and Ayo went to church regularly, and two or three times a year the priest would speak out violently against unmarried couples living together. Then their friends would feel sorry for them, and the men would say that the church should keep out of people’s private lives. Ajayi would stay away from church for a few weeks, but would go back after a while because he liked the singing and he knew secretly that the priest was right.
Ayo was a good mistress. Her father had hoped she would marry a high-school teacher at least, but instead she had chosen a government clerk. But Ayo loved Ajayi, and was happy in her own slow, private way. She cooked his meals and bore him children. In what free time she had she did a little buying and selling, or visited friends, or gossiped with Omo, the woman next door.
With his towel round his waist, Ajayi marched back to the bedroom, dried himself and dressed quickly in his pink silk suit. He got down the new bottle of medicine which one of his friends had suggested to him. Ajayi believed that to keep healthy, a man must regularly take medicine. On the bottle were listed about twenty very different diseases and illnesses. All of these conditions would disappear if the patient took this medicine daily. Ajayi believed that he had, or was about to have, at least six of these diseases. It also said on the bottle that a teaspoonful of the medicine should be taken three times a day. But Ajayi only remembered to take it in the morning, so he took a big drink from the bottle. The medicine had a bitter taste, and Ajayi was pleased – that obviously meant that it was good strong medicine.
He went in to breakfast. When he had finished, he beat his eldest son, a ten-year-old boy, for wetting his sleeping-mat in the night. Ayo came in after the boy had run screaming out of the door.
Ajayi, you beat Oju too much,’ she said.
‘He should stop wetting the sleeping-mat, he is a big boy,’ he replied. ‘Anyway, no one is going to tell me how to bring up my son.’
‘He is mine too,’ Ayo said. She did not often disagree with him unless she felt strongly about something. ‘He has not stopped wetting although you beat him every time he does. In fact, he is doing it more and more now. Perhaps if you stopped beating him, he would get better.’
‘Did I beat him to begin doing it?’ Ajayi asked.
‘Well, if I stop beating him, how will that stop him doing it?’ Ajayi said, pleased with his own cleverness.
‘You may have your own opinion,’ Ayo said, ‘but our own countrywoman Bimbola, who has studied nursing in England and America, told us in a women’s group meeting that it was wrong to punish children for such things.’
‘All right, I’ll see,’ he said, reaching for his sun hat.
All that day at the office he thought about this. So Ayo had been attending women’s meetings. That was a surprise. Always looking so quiet, and then telling him about the modern ideas of overseas doctors. He smiled. Yes, Ayo was certainly a woman to be proud of. Perhaps it was wrong to beat the boy. He decided not to do so again.
Towards closing time the chief clerk sent for him. Wondering what trouble he was in, he hurried along to the office. There were three white men sitting on chairs by the chief clerk, who was an older African man dressed very correctly. Ajayi’s heart started to beat loudly. The police, he thought; oh God, what have I done?
‘Mr Ajayi, these gentlemen have asked for you,’ the chief clerk said.
‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Ajayi,’ the tallest said, with a smile. ‘We belong to the World Gospel Crusading Alliance from Minnesota in the USA. My name is Jonathan Olsen.’ Ajayi shook hands and the other two men were introduced.
‘You expressed an interest in our work a year ago and we have not forgotten. We are on our way to India and we thought we would come and see you personally.’
The boat on which the men were travelling had stopped for a few hours near Ajayi’s town. The chief clerk looked at Ajayi with new respect. Ajayi tried desperately to remember any contact with WGCA (as Olsen now called it) while he made polite conversation with them. Then suddenly he remembered. Some time ago a friend who worked at the United States Information Service had given him a magazine which contained an invitation to join the WGCA. He had written to the WGCA asking for information, but really hoping that they would send free Bibles which he could give away or sell. He hoped at least for large religious pictures which he could put up on his bedroom wall. But nothing had happened and he had forgotten about it. Now here was WGCA in person. Three persons. At once he invited all three and the chief clerk to come to his house for a cold drink. They all agreed.
Olsen suggested a taxi, but Ajayi quickly told him that the roads were too bad. He had already whispered to another clerk to hurry home on a bicycle and warn Ayo. ‘Tell her I’m coming in half an hour with white men, and she should clean up and get fruit drinks.’
Ayo was confused by this message, as she believed all white men drank only whisky and iced beer. But the messenger said the visitors were friendly, religious-looking men, and he suspected that perhaps they were missionaries. Also, they were walking instead of being in a car.
That explained everything to Ayo, and she started work at once. Oju was sent with a basket on his head to buy fruit drinks. Quickly she took down the calendars with pictures of lightly clothed women, and put up the family photographs instead. She removed the magazines and put out religious books, and hid the wine glasses under the sofa. She just had time to change to her Sunday dress and borrow a wedding ring from her neighbour when Ajayi and the visitors arrived.
The chief clerk was rather surprised at the change in the room – which he had visited before – and in Ayo’s dress and ring. But he hid his feelings. Ayo was introduced and made a little conversation in English. This pleased Ajayi greatly. The children too had been changed into Sunday suits, faces washed and hair brushed. Olsen was delighted and took photographs for the WGCA magazine. Ayo served drinks and then left the room, leaving the men to discuss serious matters. Olsen began to talk enthusiastically about Ajayi’s future as a missionary.
The visit went well and soon the missionaries left to catch their boat. Ajayi had been saved from a life as a missionary by the chief clerk, who explained that it was against the rules for government workers. Ajayi could even be sent to prison, he said. The missionaries were saddened but not surprised by this news.
The next day Ajayi took the chief clerk a carefully wrapped bottle of beer as a present for his help with the visitors. They discussed happily the friendliness and interest the white men had shown.
This visit, and Ayo’s protest about the beating, made Ajayi very thoughtful for a week. He decided to marry Ayo. Another reason was the photo that Olsen had taken for his magazine. In some strange way Ajayi felt he and Ayo should marry, as millions of Americans would see their picture as ‘one god-loving and happy African family’. He told Ayo about his marriage intentions one evening after a particularly good meal. Ayo at once became worried about him. Was he ill? she asked. Was there anything wrong at the office? No, he answered, there was nothing wrong with wanting to get married, was there? Or was she thinking of marrying somebody else? Ayo laughed. ‘As you like,’ she said; ‘let us get married, but do not say I made you do it.’
They discussed the wedding that night. Ajayi wanted Ayo to have a traditional white wedding dress, with a veil, and flowers, but Ayo decided, sadly, that it was not right for a mother of three to wear white at her wedding. They agreed on grey. Ayo particularly wanted a corset because she did not want to look too huge; Ajayi gave in on this. But there would be no holiday after the wedding; he said they could not afford it, and one bed was as good as another. Ayo gave in on that. But they agreed on a church wedding.
That evening Ajayi, excited by the idea and the talk about the wedding, pulled Ayo to him as they lay in bed.
‘No,’ said Ayo shyly, pushing him back gently, ‘you mustn’t. Wait until after the marriage.’
‘Why?’ said Ajayi, rather surprised, but obedient. ‘Because it will not be right,’ Ayo replied seriously.
When Ayo’s father heard of the coming marriage, he made Ayo move herself and everything she owned back to his house. The children were sent to Ayo’s married sister. Most of Ajayi’s family welcomed the idea, except his sister, who was worried that Ayo would become more important in the family than she was. She advised Ajayi to ask a soothsayer to look into the future. As Ayo heard about this from friends in the market, she saw the soothsayer first and fixed things. When Ajayi and his sister called at night to see him, the soothsayer looked into Ajayi’s future and saw a happy marriage, but avoided the sister’s eye. She smiled bitterly and accepted defeat.
The only other problem was Ayo’s neighbour Omo, who had always lent Ayo her wedding ring when Ayo needed one in a hurry. She had suddenly turned cold, particularly when Ayo showed her the wedding presents Ajayi was going to give her. Omo’s face was both jealous and angry as she touched the silky, see-through material.
‘Do you mean you are going to wear these?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ Ayo replied simply.
‘But, my sister,’ she protested, ‘suppose you had an accident and all those doctors lifted your clothes in hospital. They will see everything through these.’
‘I never have accidents,’ Ayo answered, and added, ‘Ajayi says all the Hollywood cinema women wear these.’
‘These are awful; they hide nothing, you should be ashamed to wear them,’ the jealous girl said, pushing them angrily back over the wall to Ayo.
‘Why should I want to hide anything from my husband when we are married?’ Ayo said, winning the argument and moving happily back to her own kitchen.
The arrangements had to be made quickly, since time and the tightness of the corset were both against them. Ajayi missed his normal life, particularly his morning cup of tea. He borrowed a lot of money to pay for the music, the food, and the dresses that Ayo and her sisters would wear on the wedding day.
The day before the wedding, Ajayi’s uncle and other relations took a Bible and a ring to Ayo’s father. They took with them two small girls carrying on their heads large gourds, which contained things like pins, small coins, fruit, and nuts. These were traditional gifts to the bride from the bridegroom, so that in future arguments Ayo could not say, ‘This terrible man has given me neither a pin nor a coin since we got married.’
On arrival at Ayo’s father’s house, the small group passed it first, pretending to be uncertain, then returned to it. Ajayi’s uncle then knocked several times. Voices from inside asked for his name, the name of his family, and his reason for coming. He told them. Half an hour of discussion and argument followed. Was Ajayi’s family good enough? Ajayi himself was waiting at home, but his relations enjoyed the argument and pretended to be frightened. At last Ayo’s father opened the door. It should now be clear to Ajayi’s relations that this was a family that was proud, difficult, and above the ordinary.
‘Why have you come here?’ asked Ayo’s father.
Ajayi’s uncle answered:
‘We have come to pick a red, red rose
That in your beautiful garden grows,
Which never has been picked before,
So lovelier than any other.’
‘Will you be able to take good care of our lovely rose?’ asked another relation.
Ajayi’s family replied:
‘Such good care shall we take of your rose That many others will grow from it.’
They were finally allowed into the house; drinks were served, the gifts were accepted, and others given. For thirty minutes they talked about everything except the wedding. All through this, Ayo and her sisters and some other young women were kept hidden in a bedroom. Finally Ayo’s father asked what brought Ajayi’s family to his house.
‘We have heard of a beautiful, obedient woman known as Ayo,’ said Ajayi’s uncle. ‘We ask for her as a wife for Ajayi.’
Ayo’s father opened the bedroom door and brought out Ayo’s sister.
‘Is this the one?’ he asked.
Ajayi’s relations looked at her carefully.
‘No, this one is too short to be Ayo.’
Then a cousin was brought out.
‘Is this the right woman?’
‘No, this one is too fat.’
About ten women were brought out, but none was the right one.
‘It was a good thing we asked to see her,’ said Ajayi’s uncle, turning to his relations, ‘or we could get the wrong woman.’ The relations agreed.
‘All right,’ said Ayo’s father. ‘Don’t be impatient; I wanted to be sure that you knew who you wanted.’ With tears in his eyes he called Ayo out from the bedroom, kissed her, and showed her to Ajayi’s family.
‘Is this the girl you want?’ he asked.
‘This is the very one,’ Ajayi’s uncle replied with joy.
‘Hip, hip, hooray,’ everyone shouted, dancing in a circle round Ayo as the music started. And as she stood in the center, a woman in her mid-thirties with slightly grey hair, in a ceremony that she had often seen but had stopped dreaming of for herself, Ayo cried with joy, and her unborn child moved inside her for the first time.
The next morning the women of her family helped her to wash and dress. Her father gave her. away at the marriage ceremony in church, a quiet wedding with about sixty people present. Afterwards they went to Ayo’s family home for the wedding meal. At the door one of Ayo’s old aunts met them and gave them a glass of water to drink from – first Ajayi, then Ayo.
‘Do not be too friendly with other women,’ she told Ayo, ‘because they will steal your husband. Live peaceably together, and do not let the sun go down on an argument between you. And you, Ajayi, remember that a wife can be just as exciting as a mistress! And do not use violence against our daughter, who is now your wife.’
By now everyone had arrived, and they went into the house for the European part of the ceremony. The wedding cake (which Ayo had made) was cut, and then Ajayi left for his own family home. Later he returned for Ayo. The women cried as they said goodbye to her.
‘When it comes to the true work of a woman – having children – nobody can say that you are not enthusiastic,’ said Ayo’s mother through her tears.
Ajayi and Ayo visited various relations on both sides of the family and at last they were home. Ayo seemed different in Ajayi’s eyes. He had never really looked at her carefully before. Now he saw her proud head, her long neck, her handsome shoulders, and he held her to him lovingly.
The next morning, as his alarm clock went off, he reached for his morning cup of tea. It was not there. He sat up quickly and looked. Nothing. He listened for Ayo’s footsteps outside in the kitchen. Nothing. He turned to look beside him. Ayo was there. She must be ill, he thought, all that excitement yesterday.
‘Ayo, Ayo,’ he cried, ‘are you ill?’
She turned round slowly, still lying down, and looked at him. She moved her feet under the cotton bedcover, getting comfortable. There was a terrible calm about her.
‘No, Ajayi,’ she replied, ‘are you? Is something wrong with your legs?’
‘No,’ he said. He was alarmed, thinking that all the excitement had made her go a little crazy.
‘Ajayi, my husband,’ she said, ‘for twelve years I have got up every morning at five to make tea for you and breakfast. Now I am a truly married woman, you must behave towards me with a little more respect. You are now a husband and not a lover. Get up and make yourself a cup of tea.’
– THE END –