“Nedu, give me back my Princess Fiona!” a child shrilled from somewhere in the bowels of the Anachunam family house. The girl’s outrage reached the three people on the threshold of the front doorway.
Cordelia shot out a hand and grabbed at her sister’s upper arm as she shut the front door. “Angelica, please tell me that was not Ebube!” she hissed, looking alarmed.
“Of course it was.” There was amusement on her younger sister’s face as she extricated her arm from her grasp. “What sort of mother would Sister be if she dumped her children on their grandparents just like that?”
“So Rebecca is here?”
“But Mommy told me that this lunch was going to be just us and the people currently living in this house.”
“Since when has Mommy ever told us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”
Cordelia groaned. “So this must mean that –”
“Yup,” Angelica cut in. “The entire family is here, except the in-laws. All Mommy had to do was let it slip in a phone conversation with Rebecca that you were coming over this Saturday to introduce your man” – here eyes flickered over Philip, who was standing beside Cordelia – “and shares were bought for the lunch table faster than Jumia sells on Black Friday.”
“So everyone is here? Everyone?” Cordelia looked distressed.
Angelica didn’t respond. She turned her amused expression to Philip, saying to him, “In case you didn’t get it, my sister is deathly afraid of her family.”
“Oh I get it alright. Why that is so, I wonder.”
Cordelia shot him a look. His lips were twitching, as though he was stifling the desire to laugh. He was evidently enjoying her discomfort. And she thought that ironic. After the disastrous dinner at his brother’s house last month, they were supposed to come see her parents the following week, but he’d been too tense and she feared another family meet so soon after might undo him. So she’d called her mother and rescheduled, suggesting to Philip that they wait awhile so the emotions running taut in him could relax. And yet, they were here and she was the one not relaxed.
“Well, wonder no more,” Angelica answered. “The Anachunam children are a damaged lot. Lea’s just the most damaged of us all, and being around us reminds her of that.”
Philip’s mirth rumbled from the back of his throat. “You guys sound fascinating. I can’t wait to meet the rest of your family.”
“Be careful what you wish for.” Angelica’s smile was super-bright. “Now, come on in, let’s stop standing around by the door.”
Cordelia turned to look pointedly at Philip. “Honey…”
“Hmmm?” he replied as he took a step forward, his hand on her lower back.
Cordelia didn’t move. She said, “Baby m…”
Philip started chuckling then, shaking his head as he said, “Oh no. No, no –”
“Osuofia,” Cordelia said primly.
“Osuofia,” she repeated.
“Osuofia?” Angelica interjected, her brows knitting in incomprehension.
Still smiling, Philip turned to her. “Your sister is seeking a lifeline. She just doesn’t know it yet that she’s not getting it.”
Cordelia had said that word just a few minutes ago, when Philip turned on his indicator as he prepared to make the turn to the right from Yaya Abatan Road in Ogba, into the uneven and untarred road of the thoroughfare that led to Harmony Estate, the Anachunams’ neighbourhood.
“Osuofia?” Philip had reiterated then, as he swerved to the right so that the okada attempting to overtake him had no choice but to bounce with a jarring bump through a rut on the road. The okada driver swore furiously in Yoruba, eliciting a self-satisfied smirk from Philip.
“What are you smiling for?” Cordelia said with a moue of peevishness. “It’s the perfect distress signal code.”
“But why Osuofia?”
“Have you not seen the man in action?” Philip was drawing close to a junction, and she pointed. “Take that left.” As he turned the steering wheel leftward, she continued, “Osuofia is the single most glib-tongued home video character who can talk his way out of any uncomfortable situation.” When Philip gave her a blank look, she scoffed. “Oh, I forgot, you’re a Nollywood snob.”
“I’m not a snob,” Philip protested with a laugh. “I’ve just got entertainment preferences. I’d rather sit through Dwayne Johnson saving the world –”
“Saving America, you mean.”
“Yes, saving America,” he conceded, “than endure the antics of…of…” He twirled his right fingers as he flailed for the name.
“Osuofia,” Cordelia supplied.
“Better remember the name.”
“We’ll not be renting his movies next, will we?”
“No, you this man!” Cordelia wailed. “Remember it because that’s the word I’ll call when I want you to get me out of my parents’ house fast. Osuofia is my lifeline.”
It apparently wasn’t proving to be much of anything presently, as Philip steered her after Angelica toward the living room.
“Angelica!” someone called from the room. “Who was that at the do – Oh my God, Lea!” A tall, fine-looking woman in her early thirties, well-coiffed and fashionably dressed in a high-necked jersey and white slacks, had stopped in her tracks. She rocked back on her feet, her widened eyes sweeping over the two people that had just followed Angelica into the room, before tilting her head backward and yelling, “Becky! Becky o!”
From somewhere in the house, a voice hollered back, “What!”
“Come, come, come! Lea is here! And she brought with her some sugar!” The woman wagged her plucked brows suggestively at Philip, her eyes dancing with merriment.
Angelica sniggered at this, moving away to leave the two new arrivals alone in the crosshairs of the coming storm.
“Oh my God, Francesca, you’re married,” Cordelia lamented.
“Yes, I know.” Francesca drew forward and hugged her sister. “But honey, God gave us eyes to see. And, good Lord Jesus, I can see!” She’d turned to Philip, and clasped her hands over his arms, sizing him up in the process. “Oh Lea, when you set your mind to get your man yourself, you get him good. In all of Rebecca’s matchmaking history, I don’t think she’d have ever done such a fine job.”
“I heard that.” Another woman had walked into the room.
“Yes. Plus Philip is not a job. Francesca, please, come on, show some respect.”
“Well I’m very respectfully telling you that you have yourself a respectably fine young man here.” She grinned unrepentantly at her sister.
“Hello, Lea.” Rebecca had walked up to them. She had the same features as Francesca, but while Francesca’s looks had the refined edge of a glamazon, Rebecca looked like she only dolled up for her husband’s office parties and the occasional date night. Both women, with their moon-shaped faces and piquant features, looked nothing like Cordelia.
“Hello, Sister.” Cordelia distractedly hugged Rebecca.
“And you must be Philip.” She held her hand out to the man, who shook it. “I’m Rebecca, the oldest daughter. And my sister is right. You’re a respectably fine young man.”
Philip smiled, clearly taking the attention in stride. “Thank you very much, Rebecca.”
“And I’m Francesca,” the other woman spoke up. “And you look like you’re loaded.”
“Francesca!” Cordelia gasped.
“What! You know I have an eye for these things. Let me guess.” She put her lacquered fingers to her chin in a demonstration of pedantic contemplation. “Old money, you know, that kind of wealth that goes way back to the days before Babangida. Am I right or am I right?”
“You are exactly right,” Philip said with a laugh.
“I knew it! Look, Lea, marry this one quick, or I’m divorcing Ben and snatching him from you.”
“Whichever one of you that wants to marry him should do so osiso, so I can come and dump my kids in the mansion you’ll be living in every weekend.”
“Just negodu,” Cordelia said, her lip curling. “You two are hell bent on embarrassing me today, aren’t you?”
“Yes!” Her two older sisters said in unison.
“My God will be watching you all with 3D glasses.”
“He should not look too closely,” Francesca said. Lowering her tone, she placed the back of her hand against the side of her mouth as she added, “I may or may not be wearing one or two items of underwear.”
“Oh my God, Francesca,” Cordelia sighed.
“Don’t ‘Francesca’ me with that tone joor, like you’ve never gotten that adventurous before. I have your story here, my dear.” She clapped one hand over the other. Turning to Philip, she began, “There was this one time when Lea –”
“Okay, okay, can we not open my life’s history just yet before the man who I’m trying to impress Mommy and Daddy with?”
“I’m already impressed.” Four pairs of eyes riveted to the matronly woman who’d just walked in. with her high cheekbones, bespectacled eyes and heavy shock of salt-and-pepper hair pulled back into a chignon, she cut a striking picture of how gracefully Cordelia would age. Her eyes were on Philip as she advanced into the living room. “For starters, he is –”
“A respectably fine young man,” Rebecca and Francesca chorused.
They broke out into a fit of giggles when their mother paused to give them a look.
“Well, Chinazaekpere, clearly your sisters have him all summed up.”
“Good afternoon, Mommy.” Cordelia stepped forward.
“Welcome home, my daughter.”
And the two women came together in a loving embrace.
“I’m telling you, it was a major shock, the kind of concussion that causes earthquakes,” Francesca was saying as she bit into a piece of fish she’d just picked up from her dish, “the day we realized that our mother’s superpowers were fading, all thanks to Lea.”
“That Mommy was not able to blackmail or guilt-trip Lea into not moving out,” Rebecca intoned, “something she’d been doing successfully for years to all of us… That was simply a period we had to mark on the calendar.”
“That battle was fought and won by Lea from April to May 2012,” Angelica piped up from her seat.
There was a response of good-natured laughter at the table.
The chatter at the lunch table was very boisterous, and Cordelia was struck anew by how noisome her family was. Everyone – but the in-laws – was present at the table. Her father sat at the head of the table, a bulky figure whose genes had been replicated in two of his daughters. Bruno, her oldest sibling and only brother, was on the other end of the table. The women and Philip faced each other on either sides of the table. Everyone was engorging themselves with the repast of pounded yam and ofe nsala, which her mother and Rebecca had prepared.
In between swallows and bites of the assortment of comestibles in the soup, every one of them was also trying to get in a word edgewise in the already unrestrained conversation.
“You know, Cordelia,” Philip leaned to his side to say sotto voce to her, “next to your family, your incorrigibility pales in comparison.”
Cordelia responded with a wan smile.
“Wait a minute, did you just call her ‘Cordelia’?” Francesca, who was seated on Philip’s other side, interjected in a voice that carried.
The din around the table began to recede as the attention was turned to them. Cordelia felt her cheeks heat up with her discomfiture as Philip replied, “Yes.”
“As in, she lets you call her ‘Cordelia’?” Francesca asked.
Philip gave an unselfconscious shrug. “Yes.”
The silence that befell the table was deliberate and dramatic, like the Anachunam family was the breathless audience to an unforeseen twist in a stage play.
It lasted a second, and then Angelica sighed, “Ah, it must be love.” Her hand fluttered over her chest.
“Love nwantinti is norray small thing o,” Francesca added.
Philip gave a short laugh. “That’s her name, isn’t it?”
“She introduced herself to me with it the first day we met.”
Bruno cocked his head to one side to give Cordelia a look of exaggerated quizzicalness, while speaking to Philip, “You mean, she – this woman – she said to you, ‘Hi, my name is Cordelia’?”
“Yes.” Philip was chuckling.
“Okay, guys, please –” Cordelia began.
“Point of correction, Francesca,” Rebecca interrupted. “It was love nwantinti at first sight.”
A chorus of laughter rippled across the room.
“Why do you think we all call her Lea in this house,” Francesca said to Philip, “with the exception of Mommy, who calls her Chinazaekpere? Another name she hates, by the way.”
“I don’t hate my name, Francesca,” Cordelia began hotly.
“No, you only just threatened to disown this family at thirteen,” her mother retorted, “when you came back from a class of Shakespeare, saying you didn’t want to be the sister that got banished from the land.”
For a moment, Philip looked blank. But just for a moment. Then his eyes lit up with comprehension as he said, “King Lear.”
“But Cordelia was the good daughter in that play.”
“Yes, but the version my daughter’s English teacher taught his class was the one where Edmund sent both father and daughter to prison, and ultimately hanged the princess.”
“Oh my God, Lea was hysterical,” Francesca said gleefully. “She wanted nothing to do with her name for days.”
“So of course, her mother offered for us all to call her Chinazaekpere,” the older male Anachunam said from the head of the table.
“But Lea thought about going back to school with her brand new lengthy identity,” Rebecca said, “and she balked.”
“Why wouldn’t she?” Francesca intoned. “School children can be ruthless with names that are not cool and short. I remember my first day in JSS3, and an exchange student was introduced in class as Kedukosidimma.” The woman effected a shudder. “Mbanu, that boy didn’t return to our school for SS1. The merciless ribbing had him hightailing it out of the school.”
The mirthful response to Francesca’s narrative lasted a few seconds. Then Rebecca said, “And that was how ‘Lea’ was born.”
“And Cordelia was never to be heard of again,” Bruno added.
“Until now that the name has clearly been resurrected because of you,” Francesca said. “Maybe you’re the antigen we need for our dear sweet sister.”
“Yes! Like getting rid of that her motorbike…”
“I know, right? Such an undignified mode of transport for a young woman…”
“And in this Lagos, with its well-established road rage…”
“Don’t worry, I’m working on it.” Philip looked from one member of the family to the other. “As a matter of principle, Cordelia’s safety is my primary concern, and that motorbike will be gone if I have anything to do with it.”
Cordelia oscillated a glower slowly toward him.
But before Philip could catch on to her outrage, Bruno interjected, “And while you’re on that, perhaps you could consider moving her out of my house?”
“Bruno!” his mother gasped.
“Relax, Mommy, I didn’t mean it like that. I’m just saying, Philip should do the due diligence of moving nwanne m nwanyi from my house to his house, if you know what I mean.”
Everyone knew what he meant, and there was a stir of delighted expectation as the collective attention was turned to Philip.
He took a deep inhalation and reached for the water bowl next to him.
“Actually” – he dipped his fingers into the bowl and began to wash lunch off his hands – “that is one of the reasons why I am here.”
Cordelia’s eyes sharpened on him. Her heart began palpitating as she watched Philip dry his hands on a hand towel, before turning in his seat to address her father.
“Sir, I have been dating your daughter for seven months now, and in all that time, I’ve come to realize that she’s the most remarkable woman I’ve ever known. And with your permission” – he turned to face Cordelia, and his eyes held the most candid expression she’d ever seen – “I would like to ask her something.
“Cordelia, I love you.”
A pin-drop silence avalanched over the room. Cordelia reflexively sucked in a breath as she stared at Philip.
He continued, “I know I’ve never said these words to you before. You know me, I like to be meticulous about things. I’m a man of very deliberate and rational mind, and love is none of those things. But there I was, ever since that dinner at my brother’s house, feeling all the things I wished I wouldn’t feel, and I spent every waking hour since then trying to rationalize my emotions, thinking them through and then thinking some more. But I’m done thinking now. I love you, and I have just two things to ask of you.”
He dipped his hand into the jacket he was wearing and retrieved a small black box that was too rectangular to be a ring box. When he snapped it open, the reason for the disproportionate length became apparent. Nestled on the velveteen interior was a key. A car key. And next to, a diamond glinted and twinkled in the afternoon light flooding the room. One solitary diamond on a thin band of gold.
“Let me take care of you,” Philip said, lifting out the key. “Marry me.” He held out the ring.
Cordelia sat there, transfixed by the turn the lunch had taken, and feeling her insides getting ravaged by emotions too primitive and too deeply rooted to allow her the luxury of outrightly giving her answer. She felt an expanding pressure inside her chest upon the sudden realization that she loved Philip too. When had that happened? How had she fallen in love with this man? The questions beat at her mind, but the fact remained undeniable. She loved Philip. He affected every aspect of her life, and she found herself affected by every aspect of his.
Perhaps a bit too much.
Philip clearly thought of her as someone who needed saving, and saw the proposal as the gateway for doing exactly that – saving her.
Let me take care of you.
The words lanced through her insides, disintegrating the constellation of warmth the knowledge of her love for Philip gave her. How did they get here seven months later and he still didn’t know her? She curled her fingers tightly on the table, the nails digging into her palms, as she felt the heat of her family’s stare on her. Why did he have to do this now, here? There was so much she wanted to say to him, to make him understand how loving each other was not enough.
You know what to do.
Her heart felt as if her blood had become tar as it struggled to keep a steady beat.
“Cordelia?” Philip said, uncertainty edging its way onto his countenance.
“This is entrapment,” she said in a whispery voice.
“This. It is entrapment,” she reiterated in a louder but hissed voice.
“You proposed to me here.”
“What were you afraid would happen? Why? Why did you do this?” She blinked rapidly over the pinpricks of angry tears stinging the back of her eyes.
“I can’t marry you, Philip. I’m sorry, my answer is no.”
Philip looked stunned as she shoved her seat forcefully back, causing the legs to scrape their protest on the parquet floor. She got to her feet. Philip made to stand as well, but she stayed the motion with a gesture.
“No, please stay,” she said coolly. “Stay. Get to know my family better. Give them the opportunity to discover all the ways you could be an antigen for their dear, sweet sister. In the meantime, I’ll find my own way home.”
And in the face of everybody’s stupefaction, she turned and walked out of the house.
To be continued tomorrow at www.wordsarework.com