Chika Unigwe

Their life in Belgium already seemed like something that happened to someone else. Sometimes, Agu and Prosperous spoke of it, not of cleaning homes (which she had done) or of unloading bread (which he had done) but of their friends, who sometimes called them on the phone with news of each other or of Conrad who had died and had been given a Muslim burial because it said so on his asylum papers, even though everyone knew he was Christian. In the early days, being back in Nigeria, having a good job had left Prosperous triumphant and dizzy as if she had been drinking on an empty stomach. Now, their life in their duplex in Lagos with the terrazzo floor and the big backyard (with a swing and slide set for Hope) and wide staircase, glamorously insulated from everything that was wrong with Nigeria - they had a 24 hour power supply, thanks to a generator; they had regular water supply and attacks by Boko Haram seemed to be happening in another country.

Four days to Hope’s third birthday, Prosperous had a day off and was watching TV at home, stretched out languidly on the sofa, hopping from one channel to the other until she found something that kept her attention when she suddenly realized that something was wrong. Every single channel – whether Nigerian or international- seemed to be showing the same thing. All the reporters had the same identical frenzied look, as cameras zoomed in on them speaking quickly into microphones. In whatever language they spoke: French, English, German, Dutch, the sense of a world that had shifted weighed down their words. At the bottom of the screen pictures of two young men flashed. Prosperous knew, from all the frenetic activity on the screen, from the fact that the pictures of the young men looked like mug shots, that it could only be bad news. Something terribly bad had happened.

Agu was at work. When Agu came back a few hours later, Prosperous asked him, “Did you hear?” Agu had already heard. “Awful,” he said. Three gunmen had brought Paris to its knees. The way he said it in Igbo, it was as if Paris was a woman who had been hurled off a height, perhaps a balcony, to lie splayed, helpless and hurt on the concrete courtyard below. “Unbelievable, that such a thing could happen to Paris,” she said. “They forced their way in to the Charlie Hebdo office and began firing at the workers.” He said this as if he knew Charlie Hebdo. As if he had ever read the satirical magazine, infamous for their sacrilegious lampooning of everyone from the Prophet Mohammed to the Catholic Pope. Details he had only learned today. The TV was still on, announcing that the gunmen were still at large. People were being asked to stay in. To keep away from windows. On NTA, President Goodluck Jonathan, looking grave and suitably presidential, announced that he was joining “other Nigerians in condoling with the French President and his citizens for this barbaric attack. I condemn this attack in the strongest terms possible…”

“It took him at least three months before he even said a word on the Chibok girls who are still missing!” Prosperous said. “Unbelievable that he’s on TV condemning this attack when he’s doing nothing about the 240 school girls Boko Haram kidnapped!” Prosperous had tweeted #BringBackOurGirls for several days when the hashtag trended, but then, that effort seemed fruitless and so she had stopped. She did not even think of those girls as much as she used to and this made her feel slightly guilty.

“Everything is politicized in this country,” Agu said. “Playing politics with the lives of citizens! PDP, APC, they are the same. I won’t vote for either a former dictator or for a present incompetent head of state.”

He complained often of how irresponsible the government was. Of how there were no real options for change. Of the lack of infrastructure. But he did the complaining with a sense of awareness that he and Prosperous had options. That Hope could grow up in a Nigeria where she would be shielded from the consequences of bad government. Prosperous’ good job and Agu’s flourishing car business would immunize her against the Nigeria of street hawkers and people who lived on less than $1 a day. Already, she went to a daycare on their estate where fees were paid in foreign currency, and the children got apples cored and sliced for them to eat as snack.

But this life came at a price too. Just as it had been in Belgium, they were hardly home at the same time, and when they were, they focused on Hope. “Hope, show Daddy what you drew at school today.” “Hope, show Mommy how high you can fly.” And when Hope was not there, they talked about her. Maybe this was what it meant to be a parent, Prosperous told Oge on the phone. This separation, only to meet to talk about your child. She enjoyed being a parent, but she also wanted to be a wife. Sometimes, she wondered- but never for too long- if they had made the right choice.

“It could so easily have been Turnhout,” Prosperous said when they heard the next day that another gunman, related to the other two held people hostage in a Jewish supermarket. There was a Jewish supermarket on Van Mechelenstraat, not too far from where Agu and Prosperous had lived. If it could be Paris, why not Turnhout? Belgium is not so far away, after all.

“How can they do this to Paris?” she asked now, as if Paris were her possession. As if she had been personally attacked. As if Paris was her pet, a dog, one of those Chihuahua puppies she liked and used to say, when they lived in Turnhout, she would get once she became wealthy. “I’ll carry it in my arms all day like a proper rich woman,” she would say, to which Agu would remind her that she did not even like dogs. “I’ve never even seen you pet a dog!” I don't have to like dogs to want a chihuahua. It's not a dog. It’s a statement.” And then they would both laugh.

They had only been to Paris once, years ago, when they had just arrived Belgium, and the prospect of being somewhere close to London (London Bridge is falling down was one of the earliest nursery rhymes Prosperous learned) and Paris (Eiffel Tower! We must go see it! Agu whispered in her ears when they made love in those early days) excited them. Belgium, so snugly set in the middle of the two countries they wanted to visit the most, as to make them expect to be happy there. They had gone to Paris, taking the TGV to the center of Paris, and checking into a hotel with rooms so small, they could have been cupboards. But this did not diminish their thrill of being in the city. With the enthusiastic curiosity of children, they set out to see Paris. To see the spots they had read about and dreamed of all those years they lived in Nigeria. Agu said he had always wanted to see Paris ever since he saw a T-shirt with the inscription, See Paris and Die. Prosperous said Agu had infected her with his dreams. They walked along the Champs de Mars and bought souvenir key rings for friends from Malian men who called Prosperous “sister” and asked her if she was American. They took photos in the shadow of the undeniable magnificence of the Eiffel Tower. They kissed long and hard and tenderly like new lovers as the tourist bus guide pointed out the Arc de Triomphe. That night, when they got back to their hotel room, it had been as if they were on honeymoon. Whenever they talked of that trip, of that night in a hotel room in Paris, Agu would say that he was shocked they had not burned down the hotel with the fire of their passion. It was even more intense than the lovemaking had been at their honeymoon. They had spoken many times of going back, especially now that they could afford to. Of staying in a five star hotel this time, ordering room service so they could be waited upon like stars.

The next day, after the Paris gunmen had been killed, it was Agu’s turn to ask Prosperous if she’d heard. “Heard what?” she asked, muting the television, sitting up and picking up the cushion that had slipped to the floor. She had been watching a movie on African magic TV and she wondered if that was a ploy to distract her. If there was anything worth hearing, surely it would have been on the news. Regular programming would have been interrupted to announce it like it had been with the attack in Paris. She tried to listen to Agu but her concentration tilted in the favor of the movie. It was not until she heard Agu say “2000 dead” that she began to pay attention. She switched off the television because by now, Agu was sobbing. The sight was what alarmed her, at first, and then the sound that came from Agu’s anguished lips. It was the wail of a trapped animal and she could not bear to listen to it. She had never seen Agu cry. What had happened? Where did 2000 people die and how did that concern him? How come the news had to come to her via Agu and not on the news? Had there been another attack in Paris? She got up from the sofa and held him, her husband who never cried, he had not even cried at his own mother’s funeral. The caterwauling hurt her ears. She held him, and he stooping, buried his head in her chest, his tears puddling on her blouse.

It scared her, to see her husband like this, and worse, not knowing the reason why. She wished now that she had paid better attention. There was of course, no way, she could ask him now. Not while he was in this state. She rubbed his head as if he were a child, and said “shhh. Shhh don’t cry. It will be fine. It’ll be fine.” He lifted his head from her blouse, wiped his eyes with the back of one hand and said in an exhausted voice, “How? How? 2000 people killed in Baga. What’s our government doing about Boko Haram? What’s the world doing? Nothing! It didn’t even make the news!”

He had got a call from Dogo. She remembered Dogo. She had never met him but his name was as familiar to her as her friends’ names were to Agu. He very often spoke of how he had roomed with this man who cooked better than any woman he knew and who had a sister, Hauwa, who had had a huge crush on him. He and Dogo had spent their Youth Service year after graduating from university, teaching at the same school. They had been colleagues at Government Girls Secondary School in Baga. Prosperous had never been to Baga but Agu spoke often of his time there. His shame at having failed to learn Hausa. He teased Prosperous sometimes that he had almost returned home with a Hausa wife. Hauwa, whenever she came to visit her brother, could not keep her eyes off him. Now, Baga was destroyed. His memories of Baga have been destroyed, he said, refusing to eat the fufu and egusi soup Prosperous ladled out for him. He began to tell the story again, without her prompting. It was as if he had to rid himself of the words, of the images Dogo had inserted into his head.

“Dogo said his neighbour, a woman who was in labor, was shot while giving birth! Can you imagine that? The baby was half out when his mother was shot. They are not humans! Whoever did this! They are not human beings! How can people be so evil?” He asked Prosperous. She had no answer. She was imagining it. She wanted to ask what happened to the baby, but she knew it was a useless question to ask. Instead she asked, “how did Dogo escape?”

“I told you before. He escaped by running and hiding in a bush. As he was running, they were shooting. He said he trampled over a lot of dead bodies. They set Baga on fire, he said. Houses. Schools. People. Nothing remains.”

“Everything will be fine,” she said rubbing Agu’s head, noticing with new eyes, the interloping gray on his otherwise dark black hair. When did he get this old? How had she not noticed? Is it normal, she wondered for a minute, for men to gray before they turned forty? Maybe she was starting to go gray too. It used to scare her, the idea of aging, the idea of aging before she had done anything really worthwhile with her time. Four, five years ago, she would have thought the life they lived now beyond their reach. And now, see. All the more reason not to doubt that things could turn around.

“Everything will be fine,” she said to Agu, aware of how ineffective, how hollow it sounded but she believed it. Agu did not cry again. But for the first time in many months, they went to bed at the same time. Prosperous slipping in beside Agu. In bed, he held her close, closer than he had held her in many months, so close that she could hear his heartbeat. That night, he sought refuge in her breasts, in the folds of her skin. When they made love, it was with the intensity, the passion of that night in Paris. It was as if he was seeking to reassure himself that he was alive, that he was not alone. There was a desperation in his neediness. But it was a neediness she welcomed. She cradled his head as he fell asleep, his head buried between her breasts. “Everything will be fine.”

Chika Unigwe was born and raised in Enugu, Nigeria. She was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2004. Her writing awards include a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, a UNESCO Ashberg Fellowship, a BBC short story award and a Commonwealth short story award. In 2012, she won the Nigeria Literature Prize for her novel On Black Sisters Street (Random House). She now lives and works in Atlanta, Georgia. Twitter @chikaunigwe