Thanks Naija readers, Bola has made his decision.
I thumbed the green button on the left side of the panel and put it against my ear. “Hello?”
“HI. You went to the chemist, right?” My wife’s voice came out in a rush. I could just imagine her flipping through files in her cubicle, waiting for me to say yes.
I squeezed my eyes shut. “Yes.”
“Oh, thank God. I was so worried about that this morning-“
“I mean…no. I haven’t gone yet.”
I rubbed the back of my head and stared round me. Miss P was staring at me from across the supermarket, her hand on one hip. I looked away. “I’m sorry, sweet heart. We were late. All I have to do is get to the chemist, and then I’ll speak to the school nurse.”
“That’s…that’s okay. I’ll call the nurse. I think I have the number somewhere.”
“No. I’ll take care of it.”
“You said you’d take care of it. You said you’d handle it, Bola. That was why I left you to do it.”
“I’m still going to do it.”
“I’ll call the school nurse too.”
The phone went dead and I think part of my left knee died along with it. I could just see the look on Nene’s face, the way she’d take a deep breath and flick a strand of hair from her face. ( Her hair’s Brazilian by the way). Then she’d look down at her shoes for the next few minutes. When Nene got like that it was best to leave her be, it was best just to make everything right again.
“Is anything wrong?”
I looked up and there was Miss P, just a few feet away, her eyes screwed up in concern. “I’m sorry. I have to go.”
Her face fell almost immediately. “Oh no.”
“I have some urgent things to attend to.”
“Oh, that’s a shame.”
I pushed past her, brushing against some shopping carts as I did so. The chemist…which street was it? Maybe I could ask the girl at the counter.
“Maybe another time,” I heard her call from behind me, but I didn’t stop. I was pushing back memories of my little girl sitting in the nursery, pus running down her forehead and shaking with fever while I considered playing hooky with my beautiful neighbor.
As I slid into my car and slammed the door after me, I thought again on how irresponsible I had been, how yet again I had disappointed my wife. How I always disappointed my wife.
I always disappointed everyone.
She did it to punish me.
It had been later that evening, and thankfully, thankfully, there had been light. The low voltage kind that made all the bulbs glow a low burnished yellow. I had looked out the window at the small parking lot outside our building and seen our neighbors congregated outside, talking in groups. Bad light meant fans sputtered instead of whirred and air-conditioning-be it a window units or split unit- didn’t work. So the only way to get any kind of fresh air was the mosquito-ridden outdoors.
But I had learned the hard way that being unemployed meant avoiding those same small groups. If mistakenly you wandered in, you’d have to steel yourself against small awkward silences and the sweep of faces that ranged from pity to unveiled contempt. Even in today’s harsh climate, nobody forgave you for sitting on your butt while your wife paid the bills. They just didn’t.
I went in to the kitchen and took a deep breath, watching my wife standing over the dishes. I opened my mouth to say something, to stop that endless motion of dunking dishes in the sink, rinsing, scrubbing at plates with a scouring sponge. But I didn’t. I’d wait for her to turn around.
Nene didn’t turn around. Didn’t even look at me.
“The kids are asleep,” I said hurriedly. “And I’ve given Amanda the cream. Rubbed just a little so she doesn’t gag on the smell.”
Nene didn’t look back. “It’s not supposed to smell.”
“Well…it does. It’s not strong but it’s there.”
Nene shrugged. I stared at her back, her shoulders narrow and small under her knee-length night-shirt. The one with the faded picture of Tom and Jerry in front. The one I’d bought her last Christmas.
Maybe it was the job with all its stress that kept her weight down, her waistline not yet out of control like her aunt’s, her jaw still tight and free of jowls, the back of her neck a smooth walnut black like the rest of her. She used to laugh more.
I walked up beside her, pretending not to care that the plates were being clanged every which way or that soap suds popped up in my face. But I stood by her anyway and forced a smile. “It’s my fault,” I said slowly. “It won’t happen again. I promise.”
She didn’t say anything at first, instead rinsing out a cup in record time. Then she turned to me, her eyes wide, no glint of anger in them anymore. Something else. Something worse. Regret.
I bit back a breath as she placed a plate on the draining board. “We need to be in this together. You know how Amanda gets. That thing could spread and she’d get sick again.”
“That was two years ago.”
“She was in the hospital for over a week and I had take time off work to stay with her. I can’t afford to do that. Not right now.”
“You’re talking as if I can’t take care of her.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“I can’t be the only adult in this house.”
I winced. “I would never do anything to hurt my…our child.”
“I didn’t say that. I just need you to be more responsible.”
“Responsible…” I said again and stared down at my slippered feet. Pink slippers. I can’t believe I wore pink.
“No. Maybe responsible is the wrong word.”
“No. You’re right. I need to pull my weight.”
“You are pulling your weight. I just…”
I slunk back against the draining board and avoided her eyes. I couldn’t look at her when she was like this. She was right. She was always right.
Suddenly I felt her hands grab mine, wet soapy fingers sliding against my knuckles. I didn’t look up at her. Then I felt her lift my chin and position my face until I was looking straight at her. She was smiling this time and this time it reached her eyes. “I’m sorry. I won’t talk about this again.”
I nodded and waited as she let go off my face and turned her attention back to the sink, squirting dish washing fluid on ceramic bowls, flicking hair out of her eyes.
I took a deep breath. I wanted her to touch me again. “Nene-”
“Aunty Grace is coming to Lagos day after tomorrow,” she said quickly. Too quickly.
I froze. “What?”
“It’s her teeth. You know…like last time.”
“Her teeth?” I repeated. Instead I stared at my wife as she dunked a plate into the sink, a wide white plate with red flowers and a bright white surface. One of Aunty Grace’s many gifts. I remembered her words as she’d handed her step-daughter the set. If that your yeye Britico husband no fit buy you plate, me… I go buy for you.
“They’ve got dentists in Abuja,” I could feel a burning sensation at the back of my neck. “She doesn’t need to come here.”
Nene shook her head, like she was talking to a child, to one of our children. Amanda or Deji. Like I was one of them tugging at her skirt, asking for something that wasn’t good for me. “This can’t be because of what happened last time.”
“I don’t want her in this house.”
“She apologized.” Nene said her voice suddenly sharp even though she was still not looking at me. “Twice.”
“She didn’t mean it.”
Another plate swirling in soap. “She’s coming in at ten. I suppose I’m the one going to pick her up.”
“You suppose right.”
Nene whirled round toward me, no mistaking the stiffness in her posture now, her lips squeezed tight. More stands of her hair falling over her forehead, her walnut-dark skin glowing in the bad light. “Your mother can’t stand me,” she snapped. ” I tolerate her, don’t I? I pick her up, I drive her back here. I cook the meals she throws in the dustbin,”
I blinked at her. “My mother adores you,” I lied.
Nene laughed a dry sort of laugh and slid a plate back on the draining board. “And here we are back to our original conversation. Like I said, I cannot be the only one in this house that acts like an adult.”
I took a deep breath. Then another. “Are you trying to punish me? Is that what this is about? About Amanda?”
As if in response and before Nene had any time to answer, the lights sputtered again. And again we were plunged in darkness. There was an answering moan from our neighbors through our walls as Nene hissed and a plate clattered onto the draining board.
Somebody was trying to punish me. That was for damn sure.
The lights sputtered on again.
I headed for the door, walking in the familiar zigzags I’d learned to navigate during frequent power outages. So I found the door easily, grabbed the door knob. Nene hissed again.
It was going to be a long night.
I made my way down the narrow stairwell, stopping at the first floor, all the noises from the flats mingling with smell of food being cooked, the sounds of the television, some generators churning on defiant in the face of the bad lighting.
I thought about going outside, but then I thought about it again. Maybe I shouldn’t go outside. Or I’d find more of my neighbors gathered around in little groups, some laughing, others discussing their day. And then I’d walk past and the discussion would dip, and they’d make their polite hellos as I passed by. Then a few seconds later the conversation would continue in hushed tones. And I’d pretend I didn’t hear those words…, poor wife, poor kids, lazy husband.
I’d stay in the stairwell for a while, get my mind clear and think about things. Then I’d go back and –
I’d recognize that breathless voice anywhere.
I turned round just in time to see Miss P clambering up the stairs toward me, her voluptuous form squeezed into stone-wash jeans and bright-red top with the plunging cleavage. Then with all the jewelry dripping from her neck and wrists and ears, just a little shake and I suspected I’d be pelted with gold.
She waved at me in that coy way of hers pushed her hair from face with both hands as she clambered up the stairs. “Mr. Makinde…I’m surprised to see you here.”
I slipped my hands into my pockets and took a deep breath. Trying to look like I was the confident man she’d met this morning, not the breathless mumu standing in front of her now. “I just thought I’d step out for a few moments. Why is that surprising?”
She smiled. “Oh you know. This time most of you family men stay indoors flopped in front of the TV watching football while their wives slave over a hot stove.”
“Ah. You know me too well.”
She giggled and nearly tittered toward the railing, then righted herself almost immediately. Though I couldn’t smell any booze, I suspected Miss P was a little tipsy. “I see you enjoyed your day off.”
She nodded and walked jerkily toward me, clutching her sequined bag, her jeans in the narrow stairwell light much tighter than I first thought. I turned away. “I should be going back.”
“Oh,” she said. She looked genuinely disappointed. “Why so soon?”
“Just came out for a little fresh air. Our air-conditioning won’t work with this current. And the fans keep making these strange chugging sounds.”
I stepped back and gave a her little wave of my own. “I’m glad you had a nice time at the…theater was it?”
“No. I met up with some friends. After you dumped me of course,” she added with a pout.
I nodded and looked up at the stairwell, deliberately this time. The last thing I wanted was to be found in the stairwell talking to my beautiful, single neighbor. I was being churned through the rumor mill enough already.
I jerked a thumb behind me. “So, I’ll be going.”
“I like the way you talk.”
“The way you talk. It’s so precise. So well thought out. So polite.”
I froze. No. Don’t stay here. Go home to you wife and kids and the fact that Aunty Grace, the wicked witch, was coming here the day after tomorrow shouldn’t worry you at all. After all, she’d already snipped off my privates, what else could she do? “Thank you. You can put that down to working in advertising for seven years.”
“But you don’t work in advertising anymore do you?”
I shook my head, ignoring the pinch in my chest. “I really have to-“
“You don’t work anywhere right now, either?”
I cleared my throat, the pinch in my chest getting more intense. “Not at the moment. ”
She slid her purse from under her arm and held it instead, and walked toward me. I noticed immediately how her walk was different, her back stiffer. The girlish gleam in her eyes had been replaced by something I couldn’t recognize. “I’m sorry, Mr. Makinde. I’m afraid I haven’t been completely honest with you.”
“When I met you this morning…when I met you at the supermarket, it wasn’t some chance meeting. I followed you.”
I took a step back. Then another. “Why would you do that?”
“Because I need your help. And until just now I wasn’t sure you were the right one.” She tilted her head up and looked straight at me. “Now I know you are.”
I looked back at the stairwell. I could hear footsteps, somebody was coming down. Maybe Nene coming to look for me. Maybe one of our neighbors. I should go back home.
“How would you like to earn six million naira, Mr. Makinde?”
I whirled back toward her. Miss P was smiling at me, her eyes hawk-like. She was drunk. I should go back upstairs.
“You don’t believe me.”
“I really have to go. It was nice seeing you.”
“If I give you a check for five hundred thousand right now, would you believe me then?”
“Miss P, if this is a joke-”
“A show of good faith if you will.”
I took a deep breath. The unbelievable thing was happening. I was sure every man that lived in this building would give his right arm to be where I was right now, a few inches from Miss P, her perfume swirling round the both of us, so close you could hear her breathing. But right now instead of being weak at the knees or shuddering at the mere thought of her coming closer, Miss P was beginning to annoy me. “Goodnight.”
But she wasn’t paying any attention to me; instead she was fumbling in her purse for something. She whipped out a slip of paper and handed it to me.
I took it from her. Blinked and then squinted at the writing on it. I recognized my name in big, bold print and in even bigger print, the sum of five hundred thousand naira only. Payable to me. To Bola Makinde.
I looked up. Miss P. had folded her arms, her purse folded in a tight embrace. ”Good faith.”
I froze while she walked past me; her hands slipped into the tight pockets of her stonewashed jeans, her bracelets jangling. This was insane. Crazy. She was crazy. She was drunk and had just given me a check for five hundred thousand naira. Five hundred thousand. Five hundred thousand-
“Wait,” I managed to squeak and whirled round toward her.
“Wait…how? I mean…why?”
She turned back toward me, a coy smile surfacing on her lips.
Miss P shook her head, her smile replaced by another mock pout. I should be getting used to those by now. “That’s no way to talk to the woman you’re about to marry.”
“What? Wait…come back!”
But she didn’t wait, she continued up the stairwell, her laughter and perfume lingering long after I heard go up to her floor. I stopped calling after her when I heard the sounds of a key jiggling into the lock and a door closing shut.
What the hell just happened?
What does Bola do?
Does he go up to her room and demand an explanation?
Does he go back to his flat and tell his wife what just happened?