The knocking intensified and Edwin was forced to stand up and answer the door. He pulled the curtains aside and peeped through the window. Stella stood outside.
‘My key does not work,’ she declared.
Edwin nodded. ‘That is because I changed the lock.’
‘Why on earth would you do a thing like that? Listen, I am sorry for coming home late again. But please let me in, I have great news for you.’
‘Forget your news. I do not want to hear it. Actually, I suggest you organize another tour with that mentor of yours and this time, do not bother coming back!’
Stella banged on the door. Things had been tense on the home front for a while, but she had not realized it would come to this. ‘Edwin, open this door and stop behaving crazy!’
He opened the door, but stepped out and blocked the doorway so she could not enter. ‘No Stella,’ he said to her. ‘You are the crazy one. Carrying on with this Minister like a woman possessed. The rumors are everywhere. You do not need to pretend anymore.’
She tried to peep through the opening. ‘Are you going to let me in so we can talk about this?’
He shook his head. ‘I wonder why you bothered getting married,’ he replied. ‘You were never ready for this. You should have just married your wild ambitions, seeing that you are so obsessed with them.’
He stepped back into the house and shut the door. ‘Goodnight Stella.’
Ruth, Orobosa’s personal assistant, heard about the fight a little late. She and Stella had worked closely together for the past few months and had become friends. Stella was always busy at Orobosa’s office which had recently become her favorite hangout spot. She was always there, discussing the new phase of their projects. But Ruth knew their discussion was not always about business. The two were growing uncomfortably close. That evening, she popped in to Stella’s studio and sat her down for a discussion, eager to help anyway she could.
‘What has been going on with you?’ she asked.
‘My marriage has been tense ever since I began working at the bureau,’ Stella lamented. ‘Edwin has become so jealous that he even accused me of having an affair with Orobosa.’
‘And are you?’ Ruth enquired bluntly.
Stella shrugged off the question. ‘Do you know that Orobosa’s wife has finally left him and their divorce has been finalized?’ she asked.
Ruth frowned at the obvious digression. ‘It was not her choice to leave,’ she corrected. Her voice was accusing. ‘He sent her and their two children packing when you came on the scene.’
‘She left him,’ her friend insisted. ‘That is the way it was reported by the press and that is the way we are going to take it.’ She paused. ‘I am not a home breaker, Ruth. They had their troubles long before I came into the picture.’
‘Yes, but if a house is burning, you do not throw flammable materials into it.’
‘Oh?’ Stella gave a mock whistle. ‘Where did you learn to speak like that?’
Taking a deep breath, Ruth pointed at the painting, which hung on the wall. ‘From her,’ she replied.
Stella’s eyes followed the direction she was pointing. It was the gift which Orobosa had given her. ‘You knew her?’ she asked, eyeing the painting in surprise.
‘I know her,’ Ruth corrected. ‘She is still very much alive. She lives in a cream colored bungalow not too far from my aunt’s place. They are good friends and we go to visit her every now and then.’
Gingerly, Stella walked over to the wall and lifted the plaque which she had hung up a few months earlier.
‘Then you must tell me how I can meet her. I love this painting so much,’ she commented, turning back to look at Ruth. ‘Don’t you?’
‘Sure. When I resumed work at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, she was so excited. She passed the painting to me and asked that it be donated to the bureau. But somehow it has become yours.’
Stella shrugged. ‘I don’t know, but I just feel drawn to her in a strange way.’ She turned the painting round and read aloud. Though she was not overly religious, she had always admired the character described in the excerpt, who had both the praise of her family and such entrepreneurial exploits that she had no fear for her household and could laugh at days to come. But she wondered if such a virtuous woman even existed or if she was just a utopian target whose perfect blend of virtues one could only hope to achieve.
Right now, Stella was not laughing and Edwin had never called her blessed. He called her self-centered and declared that her obsessive character was a far cry from the epitome of womanly excellence. She herself had called him some equally harsh names, claiming that he loved his work more than he loved her. They quarreled often and she was fed up with it. Finally, she placed the painting back on the wall and went to sit by Ruth.
‘Orobosa’s wife got the good end of the deal,’ she said. ‘She took a fair portion of his estate. Orobosa told me he sends her and the children their monthly upkeep and they are quite comfortable. So do not try and make me feel guilty.’
Ruth frowned. ‘Guilty of what? Tell me what exactly is going on between you and my boss.’
In reply, Stella let out a long sigh. ‘It does not matter anymore. I think it is time we brought this out into the open anyway. The truth is that Edwin and I were a wrong match from day one. Orobosa and I have found solace in each other. He has taken my business to heights which I never expected. Now, we are set to move our partnership to a new level. He is suggesting a court wedding, given the present circumstances.’
In that day and age, it would be uncouth for a man of the Minister’s standing to take more than one wife and the media would scream blue murder if he did. But Orobosa had successfully adapted the polygamist tradition of the patriarchs to fit his modern lifestyle. Now, few would bat an eyelid when, after years of frolicking with other women, he broke out of the confines of his first marriage through a divorce and settled with another spouse.
‘A court wedding? That is ridiculous!’ Ruth exclaimed. She was so surprised that she let out a loud laugh. ‘You are still married, you know.’
Stella eyed her sternly. ‘This is not a joke,’ she scolded. She paused and her voice fell to a softer tone. ‘I had meant to tell you this earlier. When Orobosa recounted the problems that led to his bitter divorce, I took a long, hard look at my life. I discovered that the same issues that had slowly crept in at the early stages of his marriage and eventually developed into irreconcilable differences; are now confronting mine. Edwin and I used to be inseparable but for some reason, we have wandered apart. We now move with different crowds and take delight in different things. We have been tolerating each other for months. Despite being in the same profession, we hardly have anything to talk about and when we are together, all we do is quarrel. Rather than allow things to fester, we have decided to nip it in the bud.’
‘Things only fester if left unattended.’ Ruth challenged. She did not need to explain where she had got that from. Her friend already had a good idea.
‘Edwin was the one who threw me out of his house, remember?’ Stella replied with a shrug. ‘It is his loss.’
It was Edede’s turn to cut Stella short. ‘So you and Edwin nipped your marital issues in the bud by getting a divorce?’ she asked.
‘That is right. But why do you look so surprised?’ Stella defended. ‘It is nothing new, you know. Ours is a contemporary society and we like to think liberally rather than force what is not working.’
Before Stella could go on, Edede broke into a surreal giggle. Her shrunken frame heaved up and down as she let out short bursts of laughter. Stella stared at her, initially at a loss as to the cause of her amusement and then a little hurt that the old woman could be laughing at her.
‘Grandmother, is something amusing you?’
‘Let me laugh, my daughter,’ she said. ‘They say that laughter is good medicine and in my old age, I barely find cause for amusement any more. But do not think that it is at you I laugh. I am laughing at the paradox of our two worlds. I laugh, my dear, because the plantain is getting rotten, and we say it is getting ripe.’ She stopped and the laughter lines across her face rearranged themselves. ‘Do not get me wrong. In between all my laughter, I am still confused. Did Uwase’s ghost appear out of his foreboding shrine and bundle you to this young man’s house without your consent?’ She paused. ‘Or is it that these days, there are so many fish in the sea that when the catfish starts getting too costly, one loses appetite for it?’
Falling silent, Edede fought the heaviness that formed over her eyes. The old woman had laughed so hard that she was beginning to feel tired. Yet, when the nurse checked in to inform them that lunch would soon be served, Edede informed her that she would skip her siesta afterwards. She was not done with her tale. Her life had not always been tragic. In fact, the latter part was much more blissful than the earlier days. And the sweetest side of her story was yet to be told to her young guest...