“What is this one?” I grimace, looking up at Nneamaka.
“Toasted bread in chili sauce,” she throws back at me, bustling over her cooker in a bid to finish up the main course and serve before the expiration of her time.
I pick up a piece of the tiny squares of bread, and dipping it into the sauce, I gingerly touch it to my tongue. The taste of the chili sauce bursts pleasantly in my tongue. Encouraged, I pop the bread into my mouth, and reach for another.
“Mmm… How did you make the bread toast in such cute little squares without the interference of the toaster’s diagonal line?” I ask between mouthfuls.
“Can you not disturb me while you taste?” she snaps.
“Chef has bad attitude,” I mutter audibly enough for her to hear.
“I’m grading you now!” I say, grinning.
“Yeye!” she says, laughing.
“Sorry, I’m a bit late,” Nneamaka says breathlessly as she tosses her poly bag, which contains several carefully-folded rice bags, to the back of my car. Then she proceeds to strap Nuella in, after which she comes round to the passenger’s side and gets in. “I had to pack food and some snacks for Nuella,” she explains.
“Ha! NK won’t be happy o! She doesn’t like it when I pack food for Gabby before bringing him over to her house to for babysitting,” I say, starting up the car.
“Really?” Nneamaka exclaims, impressed. “That lady is too nice o!”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“As in eh, it’s as if she doesn’t live in this our world. Human beings haven’t bitten her yet. Or perhaps they have, and it doesn’t pain her?”
“Nne, amarom oh! She’s just the kind of person that makes every other person feel inadequate.”
We do the rest of the trip to Nkaiso’s house in silence. When we get there, we meet Nkaiso’s house-help, who is just coming home from the market. She tells us that Nkaiso is sleeping, but had asked to be awakened when I arrive. I decide not to disturb her, preferring to see her when I return for Gabby. Nneamaka and I hand our children over to the help, and then, set off for Ahia Idodo.
I find the smell of the market and the nyama-nyama on the earth caused by the rains nauseating.
“Nne, do fast now!” I whine impatiently for the hundredth time, as Nneamaka prices a pile of potatoes.
“What’s your problem now? How many minutes have we spent here, and you’re already itching to go home!” she snaps at me, before returning to her business with the trader.
I bite my tongue, clamping down at a wave of nausea, and trying to make up my mind if it will really make me a bad person if I left Nneamaka in this market to find her way home.
Just then, she turns to me. “How much potatoes are you buying… Are you ok?” She looks concerned.
“I feel like throwing up,” I say, grimacing.
“Sorry. Do you want to go and stay in the car? I’ll shop for you.” She stretches out her hand for my shopping list.
“Thank you,” I simply say. I hand her the list and money, inwardly giving thanks that I’d made my list comprehensive this time.
I walk briskly back to my car and get in. I immediately reach for the bubble gum I usually keep in the dashboard’s pigeonhole. I pop one of the sugary sticks into my mouth and begin chewing, feeling an instant relief from my nausea in the process.
The thumbing sound of someone tapping on my wound-up car window draws my face round to see the smiling face of Uncle Donatus’ wife staring back at me.
“Aunty Esther!” I exclaim, my face mirroring her pleasant smile. I pull down the window to hear her better. The smell of the market hits me again. Grimacing a little, I unwrap another stick of the chewing gum and pop into my mouth.
“Are you just coming?” she asks.
“Not really,” I answer. “But, aunty, keezi ihe i na-eme ebea?” I take in her corporate dressing. It is obvious she isn’t here to shop.
Esther walks over to the passenger’s side, opens the door, and gets in. I take a mental note of how fabulous her shoes are.
“One of our clients, a politician, lives here in Idodo. Well, not really… He just comes to his mansion here to relax every once in a while. So, I went up there for some banking transaction.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Where did you park?”
“The company driver brought me. I finished with the client faster than we envisaged, and I didn’t want to stay in his house a second more. So, I decided to walk down.”
We lapse into silence, which is a little awkward. I find myself thinking about how I had just acted as host to her loathsome husband last night and this morning. Seeing her here now feels like a reinforcement of who my sympathies lie with when it comes to this couple.
Just then, she bursts out in quiet vehemence. “I am so stupid!”
“Huh?” I say, taken aback by the outburst.
She lets out a long hiss.
“Aunty, did you forget anything?”
“My dear, don’t mind me. It’s nothing.” She turns away to face her window, the fingers of her right hand steepling her chin.
I get the impression that she wants to talk, in spite of her negation. I am dallying within me on whether to prod further or mind my business, when she turns to me.
“Can I have gum?”
“Of course!” I say, offering her the pack.
She peels one stick open and pops into her mouth, and then carefully, she folds the wrapper into a tiny square. She continues folding it until the square becomes too little to fold any further. Then, she tosses it out the window.
“Sorry about my outburst,” she starts. “But, you already know about me and my husband.”
I nod her on, not knowing what to say.
“Would you believe I’m still touting myself as a married woman, when I haven’t co-habited with my husband for a good five years! I haven’t spoken to, nor touched my children for five years! Can you imagine seeing Gabby once in a while but not touching or hugging him for that long?”
Fresh horror at the woman’s predicament slams into me as I try to imagine the scenario that she has just called up. A tiny clutch of panic sends my heart into a small jog at the thought, and I realize that what is just my panicked thinking has been Esther’s reality for five years. A surge of emotions compress my heart.
“I want to divorce him,” she husks. “I met a lawyer, and she told me that I cannot fight him for my children except I do so legally, so…” She lets her words trail off and looks away again.
I take a very close look at her. Even without makeup, she’s still beautiful, although the laughter lines around her eyes are starting to show. She has a great figure, well, thanks to all that weight she lost in her distress when Uncle Donatus sent her packing. She is very successful in her career. What else does a man want? I am sure there are men out there who would want to marry her once she gets rid of the albatross around her neck, named Donatus.
No woman deserves to suffer like this for no good reason! I fume inwardly, hating Uncle Donatus some more.
As I contemplate whether to reach out to take her trembling hands in mine or not, she turns to me again.
“I heard he has started seeing one of his old girlfriends again. In fact, the very one that finally caused him to throw me out of the house. People are rumoring that she has a child for him. She has been like a constant in his life. He sees her, stops for a while to see other women, and then goes back to her. Even though she’s about to get married now, it hasn’t stopped him.”
She shakes her head, blinking rapidly to forestall the tears that I think is threatening. Her hands clench on her laps, and her expression takes on a fire as she bursts out again, “That man is just an insufferable mistake of a man! I just wish… I just wish…” Her voice breaks.
I make a quick decision to hold her hand anyway. I am reaching out to clasp one of the clenched fists when –
“Oh, look! Our driver is here!” she exclaims in a voice that seems to have swiftly reacquired strength. “Chike!” she calls out, waving to get the driver’s attention, while opening the car door.
Startled by the swiftness with which her demeanor changed, I watch as Chike maneuvers the car to a parking spot, four cars away from us.
“Thanks for everything.” Esther turns to me.
I didn’t do anything, I think as I look back at her, still in awe as I notice how she no longer looks like she is teetering on the brink of abject misery. The woman’s apparent strength is amazing, and I suddenly realize how she can have survived five years without her children.
“Not a problem, aunty,” I reply as she slides out of the car and closes the door gently.
I watch as she gracefully walks in those fabulous stilettos towards the car.
“Some men can mumu sha,” I say to the empty vehicle.
Chinwe is being discharged today, and we, her friends, have decided to visit Chinwe at the hospital and accompany her home in grand style.
Mimi is waiting for me at Nkaiso’s place, where I will drop off Gabby to be watched by Nkaiso’s help, together with her children. Mercy says she is coming on her own, which is perfectly fine by me. I don’t have the strength for her nonsense today… Well, except for the ones she’ll spout while we are together in the hospital, and probably the while I’m giving her a lift, part of the way to her house.
I sigh, realizing that I have to put up with her anyway.
Nkaiso and Mimi were all set to go when I get to Nkaiso’s house. And so, without wasting much time, we file out of her door, with Nkaiso bringing up the rear as she gives her help instructions.
“Weeell…” Mimi draws out from the back of the car when we are well on our way. “Is no one going to ask what my good news is?”
“You have good news?” I say.
“It’s no news,” Nkaiso says at the same time.
I turn and give her a quizzical look. “What’s no news?” I ask.
“Yes, what are you talking about?” Mimi echoes.
“You’re pregnant now!” Nkaiso states matter-of-factly, causing Mimi to gasp.
“Oh really?” I glance briefly back at Mimi. “Congrats o,” I say, not wanting to break my own news yet.
“Seriously? That’s all you have to say?” Nkaiso asks, leveling a straight look at me.
“How did you know?” Mimi interjects.
“I know you now! Your body has changed,” Nkaiso says with some authority. “Yours too.” She nods at me.
“No!” Mimi gasps again. “Oh my God! Isselai!”
“Hian! All this excitement on top pregnancy kwa, mgbo Mimi?” I say, glancing again at her, as I brake to let a car precede me into the hospital gate.
But she is staring straight ahead, an expression of shock and mounting exhilaration stamped on her face, as she points to the vehicle pulling in through the hospital gate in front of us.
I turn and observe the car. It is a sweet red Nissan Murano, one of the newer models, and it has an ‘L’ behind it, signifying that the driver of the car is a learner.
“Oh! Your dream car?” I direct at Mimi, while slowly following the car as it creeps along towards the parking lot.
“That’s Mercy!” Mimi shrieks, finally finding her voice in the midst of her excitement. “That’s Mercy ooo!”
“Are you serious?” I say, squinting at the car’s tinted rear windshield, as though I can somehow make out the person in the driver’s seat.
“She’s the one! I saw her before she drove in through the gate! It’s her!” Mimi hollers again.
“No one is contesting that with you nah,” I say with a small laugh.
“You sef, calm down,” Nkaiso admonishes. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
“I’m sure of what I saw,” Mimi maintains.
Just as I pull into the space beside the Murano, the door opens and Mercy steps out of the car.
“MERCY!” Mimi screams, flinging open my car door and jumping out.
“Yo baby! That’s me!” Mercy answers exuberantly as they hug.
“I said it! I know what I saw!” Mimi exclaims once more, breaking off the hug to walk around the car, gingerly touching the body.
“Wow!” I say to Nkaiso, as I look the car over through the window. “Let’s go and rejoice with those that rejoiceth o!” I kill my car engine and open the door. Nkaiso follows suit.
“Babe, congrats o,” I say, beaming at Mercy as Nkaiso and I join the other two.
“You can say that again!” she says, doing a little jig with her body.
“This is cool! Your guy got it –”
“Oh please!” she cuts me off, her pleased countenance changing to annoyance. “It’s all mine! He got it for me.” She flicks a finger at her chest for emphasis. “In fact, let me show you the papers, all in my name!” She opens her car door to get the said papers.
“No, no, no, no! No need for that! If you had let me finish, you would have heard me asking if he was the one that got it for you,” I explain, not wanting to get her started.
“Ehen? Before nko? Is it my late father that will get it for me?” she counters, apparently stung by the censure in my words.
“Oh, sorry o,” I return, stifling the urge to roll my eyes.
“I just don’t like nonsense questions, biko!” she carries on.
Instantly bristling, I open my mouth to offer a scathing retort, but shuts it again, my words unsaid, when I feel a squeeze on my hand from Nkaiso.
“Please, no fighting oh!” Mimi says. “Not in front of this awesomeness.” She splays her hands in a sweeping gesture over Mercy’s car.
“Yes oh!” Mercy crows before proceeding to high-five Mimi.
“Let’s take it for a short drive?” Mimi suggests.
“Chinwe should be waiting,” I intone. “The short drive can come later.”
“Do you ever take a leave?” Mercy queries, her eyes narrowing at me.
“A leave from what?”
“From being a wet blanket,” she says, chuckling as though pleased with her jibe.
Mimi laughs too.
“Whatever! If you want to take a drive, be my guest. I’m out of here!” I turn and walk away.
By the time I get to the hospital reception, I realize that all three of them are following me.
“Ah, right on time!” Chinwe says as she comes through the doors of one of the consulting rooms, hobbling just a little. Ebuka is beside her, holding her bag on one hand and Chinwe’s elbow on the other.
We all automatically move toward her.
“Wow! You’re walking! Praise God!” I exclaim.
“How are you doing, dear?” Nkaiso asks.
“Shey you’re no longer in pain?” Mimi enquires.
“Who is this?” Mercy blurts, referring to Ebuka.
Her question earns her a glare from everyone, excluding Ebuka, who smiles down at her.
We walk out to the car park in silence.
“Well, good news,” Mercy begins, directing her smug exuberance to Chinwe. “I’ve gotten my car. Better news, you and Mr. Cute Guy can ride with me. But you’ll have to stay in the back, since you have to relax your leg –”
“We’ll go in his car,” Chinwe says, cutting off Mercy’s prattle.
I let out a snort of mocking laughter, pleased when Mercy hears it enough to shoot a scowl in my direction.
“Well, in that case,” she fires up again, her aplomb regained, “I won’t be going to your house, seeing as I have some errands to run. As you all know, my birthday is next week, and there’ll be a grand party at my boyfriend’s house.” She reaches into her hand bag and comes up with some colourful invitation cards, which she proceeds to hand out to us all. “You are all invited, if you wish. Trust me though, you’ll be very unhappy with yourself if you don’t come.” She dips her hand back into her handbag and comes up with her car key this time.
“Blue jean and white top?” Mimi says, looking into the card.
“Yeah, that’s the dress code. See y’all there!” She raises her hand and presses a button on the key. A short beep comes from her car. “Or not.” She saunters to the car, opens the door and slides in, ever the vision of poshness. The car’s engine thrums smoothly to live. She engages a gear, and moments later, sweeps out of the parking lot.
There is about three seconds of silent immobility that ensues in the wake of Mercy’s dramatic exit. Then Chinwe bursts into a delirious laughter, rousing us from our stupefaction and causing us to join in her mirth.
“Wow!” Mimi exclaims as I drive into the open gate of the GRA address written on Mercy’s birthday invitation card.
We admire the imposing structure of the duplex, and the well manicured lawn with a burst of flowers surrounding it, the little shaded booth on the lawn with two chairs and a table, and the potted plants flanking the driveway leading up to the building’s porch.
“Ah! The guy hol pepper no be small o!” Ebuka says.
“So, you see? You can’t measure up,” Chinwe returns, ribbing him once more over Mercy’s obvious flirtation at the hospital last week.
He guffaws, bestowing a tender look on her.
“Shall we?” I say, after filling my vision with the beauty of the house and compound, and my olfaction with the smell of money sunk into making the house the way it is and maintaining such elegance.
“HURRAY!” Cheering voices greet us as we walk to the brightly-illuminated lawn where the celebration is already underway.
There was Mercy, resplendent in a silver sequined little gown, standing before a huge elaborate cake, and smiling into the eyes of a man on her left, who I guess is the boyfriend. I size up the man in a glance. He looks like he is in his early thirties, tall, dark and well-built, with this manner of a sleek, smooth type. There is simply everything attractive about him.
I am watching the couple, when a second man leans into my line of vision, from Mercy’s right. He has a slight build, and possesses the kind of boyish good looks you find in upscale fashion catalogs. He murmurs something to Mercy, and the birthday girl throws her head back laughter. The three of them beam as camera flashes go off from every direction.
“Wait, which one is the boyfriend?” Mimi asks.
“Duh,” I say, gesturing at the proprietary hand the taller man has on Mercy’s waist.
“He is handsome, has a fancy house,” Mimi is saying, “looks made of money, has a beautiful girlfriend” – Chinwe and I make a scoffing sound in unison at this – “this guy really has it all.”
Well, it’s not by appearances, I think to myself.
“Cocktails?” a waiter says, drawing my attention away from Mercy and her good fortune.
“Oh yes!” I say, and the four of us lift flutes of the multi-coloured drink from the tray balanced in the server’s hands.
“Something is off about that guy,” Chinwe says as we return to observing the celebrant and the solar system surrounding her.
“What guy?” Mimi asks.
“Ibiakwa!” I say, laughing. “What is off, biko?”
“I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out,” she says, her Nancy Drew expression set.
“How? By going to flirt with him?” Ebuka says with a twinkle in his eyes.
I can’t help but notice that he has eyes only for Chinwe.
“You guys, let’s be happy for her joor!” Mimi protests. “I accept, I feel jealous of her too, but it’s her luck –”
“Hey! Wait a minute!” Chinwe cuts her off. “Who said anything about jealousy? You are on your own there, biko.”
“Hellooo!” Mercy coos as she glides towards us, champagne flute in hand. Her boyfriend trails behind her, while idly conversing with the second man who is walking beside him.
“You guys… Meet my boyfriend, Chidubem,” Mercy announces, stretching out a hand to gently pull the taller man away from his conversation and toward us. “Dubby, this is Mimi, Chinwe, Ada and…erm…” She falters, as her hand hovers in Ebuka’s direction. She hadn’t been introduced to him the day we went to the hospital to pick Chinwe.
“Ebuka,” he supplies with a small grin, shooting out his arm for a handshake with Chidubem.
“Nice to meet you all, hope you’re having a good time?” Chidubem says, dividing an expansive smile between us.
We chorus our affirmation.
“Wait, Chetanna?” Ebuka suddenly says in a tentative tone, causing the boyish-looking man, who had been lurking behind Mercy and Chidubem since Mercy separated them from their conversation, to look up.
“Chetanna Okoroigwe?” Ebuka repeats, this time bolder and with some excitement.
“Ebuka Igbokwe!” the man replies in apparent surprise, moving closer to hug Ebuka. “Guy! Longest time!”
“You guys know each other?” Mercy asks.
“Wow! Aren’t you just full of smarts today?” Chinwe interjects caustically, and then chuckling to make light of her biting words.
“Of course they know each other,” Chidubem says. “The question is from where?”
“From secondary school oh!” Chetanna answers.
“You went to a seminary school too?” Chidubem directs at Ebuka.
“Yes oh! I thought I wanted to be a Reverend Father. Then, I realized that God wasn’t calling me,” he quips to everybody’s laughter.
“Onye uwa!” Chinwe teases him. “Even if God calls you, will worldly things allow you to hear?”
We all laugh again.
“Nice meeting you again,” Chetanna says to Ebuka, shaking his hand. “See you around.”
And the trio leaves us to go greet another group of guests.
“That guy looks gay,” Chinwe blurts, her eyes on their departing backs.
“Chinwe!” Mimi and I chorus in collective shock.
“Wait, which guy?” Mimi asks. “Chetanna?”
“No, Mercy’s man. That’s what I think is off about him.” Her eyes are narrowed on them. “He has this…this…” – she flicks her wrist in the air – “feminine thing about him.”
As though to buttress her point, Chidubem chooses that moment to make a limp-wristed gesture in the air, much like Chinwe’s two seconds before.
“See?” she bursts out.
I am laughing as I say, “Come on, Chinwe, don’t be ridiculous.”
“Actually, she might be right,” Ebuka says. “Chetanna had quite a reputation back in secondary school. There were a few whispered stories trailing him in those days.”
“Chinwe is talking about Chidubem, not Chetanna,” I said, the tone of my voice just shy of being snappish. I don’t understand it, but I suddenly feel like I should defend Chidubem – a man I just met five seconds ago.
“Yes, but Chidubem and Chetanna are friends, no?” Chinwe says. “Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
“Mercy appears chummy with Chetanna too,” I counter. “If we are following that logic, does that mean she’s a lesbian as well?”
A laugh erupts from Mimi and Ebuka, as Chinwe shoots me a tiny scowl.
“The sheer idea of Mercy as a lesbian though,” Mimi says in between chuckles.
“And besides,” I continue, not done with making my point, “Secondary school was how many years ago? On Chetanna’s part, whatever he was up to might just have been borne out of the curiosity of a teenager.”
“Well, you’re right,” Ebuka concedes.
“Ada, no vex oh, but I’m not with you on this one,” Chinwe maintains, unwilling to budge from her conviction. “Those two guys reek of homosexuality.”
“You say that like it’s a bad smell,” Mimi says.
“Is it not?” Chinwe returns, quirking her eyebrows up at her.
“Attention, everybody!” the master of ceremony chooses that moment to announce, as the loud volume of the music slowly reduces. “The buffet is ready! There are four serving points, so that everyone can get served as soon as possible. Enjoy!”
And the deejay ramps up the music again.
“I feel pressed,” I say to Chinwe as we make our way to the buffet table closest to us.
“Tell the host now!” she says. “Or should I say ‘hostess’?” She chuckles.
“I hope you’re referring to Mercy…” I warn, chuckling and looking around for either Chidubem or Mercy.
I do not spot either of them right away, I decide to just walk into the house and look for a restroom. I walk up and down the vast passageway on the ground floor. All the doors are shut. Nothing gives away which one is the restroom. So, I decide to open all the doors and peek into the rooms to find out which one is the toilet. Starting from the one right before me, I lay my hand on the door knob and twist. The door gives way and I look in.
A choked scream escapes my mouth and I stagger back, feeling my eyesight and mind branded with the image of the two men I’d just seen locked in a passionate kiss.
Amarom – I don’t know
Keezi ihe i na-eme ebea – What are you doing here?
Onye uwa – Man of the world
Written by Adaku J