Flora forever (2)

By this time, the rain had reduced to a slight drizzle and it was nearly sunset. We couldn't sit in the car all day talking so I started the engine and drove to an eatery not too far away from my home at Ikeja. I ordered for a drink while Flora, who said she was hungry asked for some food. 
"You are sure your head is ok? You are not feeling any pain?" I enquired glancing at her head which was covered in a headscarf.
"I'm fine. Stop worrying," she said looking up at the waiter who had brought the food.
I watched her closely as she ate. She looked up then, saw me looking at her and smiled.
"Want some?" she asked, offering me a piece of chicken. 
I shook my head.
"I'm ok. I ate at my friend's place," I told her. 
"Is she a girlfriend? she enquired. "I see you are not married," she added, glancing at my left hand.
"You are right. I'm still single. But she's just a friend," I stated. That was not the whole truth but more about that later...
"Anyway," I began. "We are not here to talk about my love life. You were supposed to tell me about your husband," I pointed out.
The animated look on her face disappeared then and she sat, staring gloomily into her plate.
Seeing the sad look on her face and fearing she might start crying again, I said softly:
"It's ok if you don't want to talk about it. I'll understand."
"No. I'm fine," she stated, looking calmly at me.
Then after taking a sip of water, she began to speak. And this was her story:
She was in her second year at the university when her father died. Her mother had passed away some years earlier during childbirth. The baby, Patricia had lived and the bereaved family had tried to raise the little motherless child as best it could. "My dad really tried. He refused to remarry though there were opportunities for him to do so. He said he didn't want another woman to come and spoil the love and unity in the family. You see, we were a very close-knit family, my siblings- four of us- and our dad. I have an older brother Michael who lives abroad, though we don't know if he's still alive as we've not heard from him for some years now."
She said after her dad died, things became tough for the family. "Michael and I were at Uni then," she explained. "Though my elder sister, Janet had left school, she had not started working as she was planning to go for her Masters degree. With our dad's death, everything was affected- our education, lifestyle and other things. My dad worked as a senior manager in a big manufacturing company and though we were not swimming in money, we were at least comfortable.
We had inherited some money from him but that ran out in no time. When things became really tough, we had to seek help from relatives. None was willing to help except for an aunt, one of my mother's sisters. She had a successful business and was doing quite well. 
"She agreed to pay my school fees and that of Michael who was by then in his third year. She kept to her promise and helped with our education. Among her various businesses was a restaurant. During the holidays, due to my aunty's promptings, I began helping out there. If I had known, I should have stayed away from that place because of what happened later."
At this point, she stopped speaking and took a drink of water.
"Do you want anything else? Let me order for some soft drinks..." I stated but she shook her head.
"I'm ok," she said and began to speak once more.
The restaurant, she stated was a fairly large one and quite popular. "It was always filled with customers, especially male ones who often came in expensive-looking cars which they parked across the road in an undeveloped plot of land. Initially, I thought they came just for the food which was quite good. It was later I discovered it was for something else as well. A lot of girls worked at the place and most times, some just hung around doing nothing. They would be in one of the rooms in the building, chatting, fixing their make-up or doing their hair. Whenever I told my aunty how they were lazing around doing nothing, she would tell me to ignore them and face my duties.
"I helped with the accounts as my aunt said I was good with figures. Then one night, I had to help out serving the customers as we were short of waitresses. That opened my eyes to the other aspect of the business. After their meals, some of the male customers would leave with a girl or even two and they would not return. I observed this most nights and I began to have my suspicions which were confirmed by one of the girls who worked in the kitchen. "They take the girls out to sleep with them after paying Madam. It has been going on for years," she whispered to me.
In other words, my aunt was running a prostitution ring, using the restaurant as a front! I was shocked because I had always seen her as a decent person who would never be involved in something so shoddy. But you could never tell with people. Later, she tried to involve me in her evil deeds. After serving them, some of the customers would ask for me, saying: "Where is that fine girl? Call her for me!"
"They made all kinds of offers- lots of money, trips abroad, any car of my choice. But I wasn't interested and I made it clear to them. When it came to my aunty's notice that I was rejecting her customers, she was not happy. She accused me of being stubborn and trying to ruin her business. 
"Mind you, its from this business that I pay your school fees and that of your siblings. So, you better cooperate or you will have to look for another sponsor," she threatened. I still refused the men's advances. But something happened one day to change all that. There was this man who was really persistent. Larry was his name and he was a regular customer who came nearly everyday. The more he pestered me, the more I turned him down. Then one day, I heard he gave a very large sum of money to my aunt so he could have me. 
My aunt told me I either complied or she would no longer have anything to do with our education. I was more concerned about my brother who was already in his final year then. What if he was forced to drop out of school due to lack of sponsorship at that stage in his education? It would be my fault. I could never forgive myself for that. So, because of my aunty's threats and maybe my age then- I was just 18- I succumbed. I began to date Larry and to be fair to him, he treated me well at the beginning. 
He was a rich businessman and was unmarried. Larry became responsible for my education and upkeep. The only condition was that I was not to date any other person as long as we were together as he loved me too much to share me with any other man. 
About six months later, I found out I was pregnant and when I told Larry, he said we should get married. I was against it as I was still in school and I felt my education would be disrupted if I had a baby. But he assured me that I could always return to school after the baby was born. My aunt and even my sister Janet said the same thing. "School will always be there but good men like Larry are hard to find," they told me. I took their advice and married Larry. I had my daughter Ivy soon after that. And before I could think of returning to school, I was pregnant again with my second child. 
I had to put my education on hold so I could take care of my children. Besides, by this time, I was having problems in my marriage. Larry, to my shock changed from the loving, caring man I dated. He began to drink heavily, often came home late and would beat me without provocation. I tried to reason with him but it was no use. There was a night he beat me so hard, I became unconscious and it was the neighbours who had to take me to the hospital. 
When I recovered and returned home, I found another woman in the house. Larry threw me out, stating he had married someone else who would give him sons as I had only female children in my womb! I had to move in with my sister with my children. He took everything away including the car he bought for me, though we had been together for eight years.
That was six months ago. He doesn't even care about the children's welfare or their education. That morning of the accident, I had gone to see him at home concerning Ivy's school fees as she attends an expensive private school. He chased me out, saying he didn't have money to train 'those brats' as he called his own kids. I was really upset. I just walked along the road not really seeing where I was going, thinking about my life and how badly things had turned out for me when you hit me."
She stopped speaking then and just sat staring glumly down at the table. I felt really sorry for her after listening to her tale. 'What kind of man would do this to a beautiful lady like this, his own wife?' I thought as I gazed at her.
"It's really sad that such things happened to you at such a young age," I told her softly, reaching across the table to take her hand in mine.
She looked up then and shrugged.
"That's life. Full of ups and downs," she noted. "My main concern now are my children. I've been looking for a job so I can earn some money to take care of them. But it's been tough as they always ask for qualifications and I didn't finish school."
I thought about what she said.
"If it's a job you want, I have something in mind. Can you...?

To be continued

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