Outside, the weather is changing. Autumn is coloring leaves red and purple and gold. It is cold but not yet cold enough for the heaters to come on. Inside, it is sweltering. Añuli’s guests have peeled off their scarves and their coats and their sweaters. Only Añuli is still in a thick sweater, despite how high she has set the heating. The three women are huddled around a table, a large tray of unshelled melon seeds in the centre of it, and beside it, a bowl for the shelled seeds. Nina Simone is playing on the stereo:
You took my teeth . . .
But it is finished because I’m too wise . . .
The thing about this place, Añuli says above the music, is that there are too many options. It gets people confused. Even ordinary bread: there are so many types to choose from! I just stood there like a zombie!
This is not really what she wants to say. She wants to say something else but it is easier, at the moment, to speak of being bombarded with options in Europe, to speak of standing in front of the bread aisle in Carrefour and not knowing which of the different types to pick. She does not tell them that she has never had this problem before, befuddled by bread, or that these days, her morning begins in the middle of the night when she gets up and can no longer sleep. Or that all this started with the incident on the train (of which they know nothing about).
True, her friends nod, helping her to shell the melon seeds her aunt sent from Nigeria through someone who returned recently.
Why did this woman send you unshelled egusi sef? Oge complains. She could have had it shelled and ground at so little cost. Who sends unshelled egusi to someone abroad?
See? Añuli says. This place spoils you. Back home, we wouldn’t have thought anything of shelling melon seeds. This is a place of choice and convenience. You want pounded yam? You buy it powdered. You want spinach? You buy it washed and chopped.
She scooped up a handful of egusi. This isn’t so bad. Sitting here, doing this together . . . . community. This–she stops because her voice is already breaking.
Yes, we would have shelled them—Oge presses on.
Or our maids would have, Prosperous interrupts.
And back home we would have handpicked the stones out of rice, Oge continues. But this is not back home, is it? Back home you’d have many hands to help. You’d have had a multitude of maids. If we hadn’t come, you’d have had to do this all alone.
Take religion, Añuli continues. She is glad her friends do not notice that she was, just then, on the verge of tears. She has not really been paying attention to Oge. It is hard enough for her to concentrate on not letting the wrong words rush out. Back home, people are either believers or heathen. Believers or infidels, if one is in the north.
Before they came here, she did not know it was possible to be anything other than those, she says. Here, she has met humanists and atheists (who she has been told are different from unbelievers, but she can no longer remember how). There are witches, not like the witches of back home, who were to be feared and who turned to bats at night, but normal-looking women who pose for photographs in lifestyle magazines like Flair and Libelle. You can be anything, but not heathen.
You know my friend, Lies? I asked her once, How come there are no heathens here?
Heathen? What is that? Is that African? She responded.
The women laugh.
Lies’s name na wah! Añuli says and her friends laugh again. They know where this is going. The first time I saw it spelled, I said, That’s English. Laaiz! I was joking but Lies said, No. It’s pronounced leez. Very Flemish. That is how Lies explains everything. It’s very Flemish.
Macaroni with ham and cheese, which she encourages Añuli to try, is very Flemish. The rice pudding she offers her, which Añuli thinks is a travesty, is very Flemish. Her loneliness is very Flemish. What would Lies say, she wonders now, about the incident on the train?
Lies is a humanist, which means she believes in the human spirit. And what if the human spirit is evil? Añuli asked her once.
The human spirit is essentially good, Lies replied. Circumstances make them bad. She did not understand what Lies meant, nor was she sure Lies completely understood what she meant either.
Some people were born bad and neither circumstance nor environment could account for their badness. That’s what her mother always said. How else could you account for some of the wicked things people did? The mother who strangled her own baby? The slave trade? Colonisation? King Leopold in the Congo who had his men chop off the limbs of workers who underperformed? Those young men yesterday on the train from Herentals who violated her? She feels her hands shake still as she grabs another handful of egusi to peel.
Did you hear about the Belgian woman who was under house arrest in Cuba? Oge asks. She was on TV yesterday. With her Cuban husband and their son.
No, Añuli says. She drags her mind back from the train.
Well, so this woman was sentenced to house arrest for manslaughter. Who did she kill? Añuli asks.
I don’t know. I think a cyclist. Anyway, she comes back to Belgium after three years and talks about how she missed her parents, and her country and her frietjes met mayo!
Three years only? Añuli asks and the women burst into laughter. Añuli has not been back in eight years. Prosperous in five, during which time her father died. Three years does not sound long enough to miss anything. Three years is not a long enough sentence for killing anyone. It’s not a long enough sentence for any kind of violation. Añuli feels a clamping in her chest. If she cries, she has to tell her friends everything and she is not yet ready to. She has not even told her husband. When she came home last night and made straight for the bathroom, she had told him she ate something which upset her stomach. He had rubbed her back while she threw up, brought her ginger tea in bed to soothe her stomach and yet, every time she began to talk to him about it, other words came out. Like now. The heavy words refuse to roll off her tongue. When she sent for Oge and Prosperous, her two best friends, she thought she would be able to tell them about it, get the mountain off her chest so that she could breathe better. But once they arrived, the unholy trifecta of fear, humiliation, and shame blocked the words. Instead, she had brought out the melon seeds and told them, Ngwa, we have an egusi peeling party here!
She wants them to keep talking, anything to keep her from reliving the events: the carriage that stank of beer that should have warned her, the half a dozen young men, young enough that she could have given birth to them, singing riotously in it, waving to her as she got in and seated herself near an older white woman. They appeared to be university students going home for the weekend to have their laundry done. The woman she was seated beside teased them about it. In Tielen, the woman got off. No one else got in.
Come sit with us! Have a beer on us, one of the men waved her over as the train doors closed and the train hurtled off towards Turnhout, The end station. Station Turnhout.
No, thank you. She had sent a smile their way, touched by their friendliness. She might have thought, to be young again. To be carefree and happy. Not to have to think about bills or house rent or holidays back to your country which you can’t afford. She and her husband, Ifedi have been saving to be able to move back to Nigeria once their twins, still in third grade, enter secondary school. They cannot save and go back on holidays as well. Her job making alterations for a small boutique in Turnhout and Ifedi’s as a packaging operator with Astra Sweets give them enough to feed their dreams of a triumphant return to Nigeria: the fashion house she wants to set up, the eight bedroom mansion they are building in Owerri which is almost ready, Ifedi’s dream of building a church of which he will become the bishop.
You’re too good for us? The one who had offered the beer was now sitting opposite her, his voice no longer as friendly. He slammed the beer on the table between them. Drink! His mates laughed and began chanting, Drink! Drink! Drink!
Añuli ignored him and brought out her phone. She hoped he would go back to his seat. That his friends would stop egging him on. She was starting to feel uncomfortable. She wished the conductor would pass through but she knew from experience, that at that time of the night and with under nine minutes to the train’s final destination, it was unlikely to happen. The train was almost empty and she had chosen this carriage precisely because there were other people in it. It was common sense, she always thought, to sit in a carriage with other passengers, people who could help you if you needed help, strength in numbers.
What happened next, happened quickly. She remembers the phone falling from her hands. She remembers standing up and heading for the door. She remembers being blocked from reaching the door. She remembers her shouting swallowed up by the men’s chanting. She remembers hands grabbing her breasts. Feeling under her skirt. She remembers screaming. She remembers the men, beer cans in hand disappearing into the night once the train stopped in Turnhout. She remembers their laughter still haunting her long after they’d left the train and she had begun to make the walk home from the station.
You know Joke, the woman I clean for? She thinks people should not kill animals. Prosperous says.
Oge hisses. That Joke has never known hunger. Only people who have never known hunger can talk like that.Each time those men on the train touched her, it felt as if they were lacerating her.
She says it’s immoral. Prosperous says. We had a neighbor in Enugu who had a dog called Spaniel. They thought they were oyibo, the way they spoilt this animal, eh! The daughter of the woman told me once that Spaniel would not eat any food left for it on the floor; it had to be in its bowl. She told me how they had dog biscuits and powdered milk especially for the dog. One day, Spaniel bit a visitor, someone important, a chief or something, who had come to see the man of the house. Ha! The woman gave Spaniel to their gateman.
Ah ah? What did they want the gateman to do with the dog? Oge pours all the shelled egusi into a tray.
Ha! Prosperous says. The gateman was Calabar. Spaniel went into his pepper soup that night.
A 404 special! Oge says.
Do you blame the poor man? Añuli asks. It would be like giving an Igbo man a goat and asking him to keep it as a pet!
The woman regretted it later sha. Her daughter said the woman cried for many days that she missed Spaniel. She even fired the gateman for eating the dog!
That’s unfair, Oge hisses. What did she want the man to do? Hang onto the dog as a pet?
But that’s how the rich treat the poor. There’s nothing fair about it, Añuli says. There are many other things that are not fair, she thinks. She is cold and cannot stop the shivering. Her friends have asked her if she has a fever. Coming down with a little something, she lied. Her skin is raw from her scrubbing it in the tub, wanting to leave nothing of the old behind. She recollects Lies telling her that in Belgium, rape is not considered a violent crime but a moral one. Yet each time those men on the train touched her, it felt as if they were lacerating her. What happened to her on the train was violent. She had come home and locked herself in the bathroom.
She thinks of all the ways that it’s her fault. She shouldn’t have stayed out so late, she shouldn’t have smiled at the men when they waved at her, she shouldn’t have stayed on in the carriage once the other woman left. She thinks of Nwadiuto, her school mate at the University of Ilorin who killed herself after the rumor went round that she was raped in the male hostel. Añuli wasn’t friends with Nwadiuto but she knew her well enough to say hello when they bumped into each other, which was often as they were in the same hall. Yet, when the news broke about the rape, she remembers asking, like so many others, why the girl had gone to the male hostel. And at night! What was she expecting? The student who raped her had a reputation, apparently for sexually assaulting women, so why did Nwadiuto agree to meet him in his room? She should have known better! Everyone knows this, never meet a guy in his room alone unless you’re asking for wahala! A few weeks later when the news of Nwadiuto’s suicide spread, Añuli had not understood why, had not understood the depth of despair that anyone could get to, to tie a scarf around their neck and hang themselves. She heard later that Nwadiuto’s parents had been too ashamed of how their daughter died to have a proper funeral for her, No guests, just a quick service with their family only. And who can blame them? Añuli recalls asking now. In the olden days, another student said, suicide victims were thrown away. They weren’t even buried! Añuli remembers her days at school carrying on as normal. She remembers keeping away from the male hostel (any male student who wanted to see her could come to her own hostel, or to her class), refusing to drink at parties (that guys spiked drinks was common knowledge), not leaving her hostel alone at night (female students walking the campus alone at night ran the risk of being assaulted), wearing clothes that covered her enough as not to give the ‘wrong’ impression (no skirts or shorts that were too short, no blouse with very low necklines) believing that she could keep safe by doing the ‘right’ things, as if life were a multiple choice exam women got through by studying for and ticking the right answers. The memory of Nwadiuto that she has buried so deep inside her, so deep that in all the years since her suicide, she never thought of the girl once, excavates itself and she can remember the girl in startling detail. The remembrance brings her pain. Her body is heating up. She pulls off her sweater.
What’s wrong? Oge and Prosperous ask almost in unison.
Añuli opens her mouth and the words that could not come out before begin to spill out, spreading out in the room, mingling with her pool of tears, releasing the clamp in her chest, relieving her of that unholy trifecta. And from her stereo, Simone is still belting out But it is finished because I’m too wise.
Excerpted from Better Never Than Late by Chika Unigwe. Used with permission of the publisher, Cassava Republic Press. Copyright © by Chika Unigwe.