Dear Naija readers, the story’s title has changed from Married for five years, unemployed for three to Me and Miss P . Thanks .
Miss P’s apartment was something out of a modern-day reality TV show, you know the ones, where large lumbering rappers or stoned-out-of their minds rock stars thrust out their chests as the cameras panned their fantastical cribs. Wide rooms with paintings on the walls, with the occasional pool table and wall-to-wall aquariums. Large, extensive stereo systems and mini-rugs that made no sense. This, I expected to see on TV, not at number twenty-five Boyega street, somewhere in the middle of Lagos. Not in this building with the occasional smell of foofoo floating through the air or with its peeling plaster.
Miss P waved me in, her hair bouncing in large curls behind her, walking across the bare floor as she tossed off a shoe. “Make yourself comfortable,” she called over her shoulder, stopping on top of a small rug , letting out a low moan while she rubbed the back of her neck.
I closed the door behind me and looked around.
I recognized bits and pieces of my flat in hers. All our flats were clones of each other, but I noted the differences as well. Where side walls partitioned and cordoned off our living rooms into little square spaces, Miss P had a large space with an explosion of cushioned sofas and poufs and shag stools. Her curtains were thick and drooped from front and side windows. All a nice fluffy , creamy experience. The ceiling had been repainted, bright plasters gleaming.
There were two narrow arched opening , one that branched off to the right, to what I assumed to be the kitchen, another one that led straight down. Probably the bedroom.
I swiveled uncomfortably toward Miss P who at this moment was kicking off another one of her thick-heeled clogs. Then she leaned back with a sigh, her tomato-red tee shirt matching her red-rimmed eyes. Her breathing was a little bit more labored than before. She looked up at me and then swept a hand toward the pouf next to her.
I shook my head. “I’ll stand.”
She shrugged and leaned back on the sofa. Closed her eyes.
There was a time, just before Amanda, I’d made fun of our neighbors flats with their cramped living rooms and their box for a kitchen , fanning themselves and wiping their faces with sweat, gasping for air . Me and Nene weren’t going to be like them, we were moving somewhere bigger, nicer with three bathrooms. Somewhere nice for us and our kids, not like all the other stupid people that didn’t know better.
Anyway back to present. Back to Miss P.
I slipped my hands in my pocket and brought out the cheque. “I just came to return this.”
She smiled. “We went thought this downstairs and I’m too tired to go through this again. Please just sit.”
“Call me, Pamela.”
“I don’t want your money.”
“You came this far…aren’t you a little curious to hear what I have to say?”
I stared at her for a few seconds, she stared back, deliberately, her eyes wide till I can see the whites of her eyes, her fake eyelashes touching her perfectly arched brows. Then she stopped, giggling again. She was right. I’d come this far.
I walked up to one of the poufs and sat down. Slowly. Awkwardly. Trying to settle my legs into a cross-legged position.
She folded more of her form onto the sofa, rubbing her eyes as she did so. “I thought I’d be happy here.”
I took a deep breath, folded the cheque in my hands. Okay. Let’s play.
“Here. In this place. My flat. This building. This city….I thought I would love being on my own.”
“You seem to enjoy it.”
She let out a rough sigh and slapped her hands on the cushions on either side of her. “But I’m so bored. And lonely.”
“And broke,” she added with a slow smile.
I rubbed my chin and looked down at my name printed neatly on the cheque.
“Things aren’t’ what they seem, Mr. Makinde,” she said quickly.
“I think you’ll survive, Miss P.”
“Pamela…I came here to try and understand. I’m trying very hard to understand why…what’s happening-“
“You don’t seem too happy, yourself, Mr. Makinde.”
I straightened up. This was it. If she wasn’t going to answer my questions like an adult, then I wasn’t going to sit here and listen anymore. I had things to do. A wife to placate and a mother-in-law from hell to get ready for. “I’m perfectly happy.”
“No. you’re not. I’ve seen you.”
“Seen me do what exactly?”
“Skulking around this place. Down the stairs, out through the gates, your whining children by your side. You’ve got the look. “
“And what look would that be?”
“That look. The look of a man so down a hole there’s no way he would ever be able to pull himself out of it.”
“I don’t think so.”
“It’s a cry for help, Mr. Makinde. Do you know how I know this?” She leaned forward, her eyes narrowing to a squint. “Because I see that look in the mirror every day.”
I squirmed on the narrow pouf. I didn’t have to listen to this. I should leave this woman and whatever it is she wanted from me.
Six million naira.
I opened my mouth to say something, I don’t remember what now,but she held out a hand hushing me. I watched in some confusion as she pulled herself out of the chair as if with great effort and limp across the room. I held back a smile; I’d seen Amanda do that sometimes. Staying in one position too long, Then she’d get up and limp across the room toward me, stiffness from joints being locked in too long. She’d never cried, just the look of strain and surprise as she tried to stretch an ankle. I’d found it cute then. It was cute now.
“There you go.”
I turned to my left with a start; obviously I hadn’t noticed Miss P drop to a squat beside me. She smiled up at me with perfect teeth, her eyes animated now. I noticed the specks of grey in her eyes and the heart-shaped dimple in her chin.
“Take it silly.”
I looked down as she lugged a huge album onto my thighs, a white covered book with the gold edging along its edges. Its surface was scratched, old and frequently flipped through. “Should I open it?”
She let out an exasperated sound, then leaned closer to me as she flipped it open.
Pictures. Lots of them. Six by six inch, some a lot bigger, some black and whites, some color prints, some blurred, some razor sharp. Different people stared back at me, their outfits from a totally different time. Late seventies, early eighties. Before camera phones and digital prints. The time of Kodak.
I glanced at Miss P.
She let out another sound, but I don’t think it was directed at me this time, and flipped another page. I followed her gaze and stared at the page. There was only one picture this time, sepia-toned, medium shot of a man standing with two children on either side of him. The man’s skin was the color of roast coffee in contrast to his two children who were several shades lighter. Over six-feet, broad shouldered, barrel chested man. I felt a sudden chill.
Miss P stabbed the photograph with a fingernail. “My father. My brother. Me.”
I gave her a side-glance and looked back at the picture.Squinted.
There was no resemblance. Where the man’s face was hollowed and tense, the children’s faces were round-faced, their eyes wide and innocent. Where he looked tight and restrained, the children looked curious, angling toward the camera while holding onto their father. The way the children did when they tried to see past the lens to the magic inside.
I looked at the little girl, little Miss P, standing to the right of the man, her hair parted into two fuzzy Afro puffs. She couldn’t have been more than seven years old, narrow shoulders in a long t-shirt and shorts. I guess it was true. Some people were just born beautiful.
Another page was flipped, a thick page thudding on another. There were more pictures. More of the man, more recent pictures of him. His hair had been cut short in these ones, the weight around his face heavier and the clothes had changed. No more khaki, but shirts and trousers devoid of any creases. He stared pointedly into the camera, his eyes slants. There was something else. Dates of years had been scribbled at the bottom of the pictures. Addis Ababa, seventy-nine, Darfur, eighty-five, Morocco, eighty-six. “Was your father some kind of diplomat?”
“He was an ambassador. For fifteen years.” Her voice had no sense of pride in it. Instead it was flat and dull.
“He served on some committees, got involved in politics. Worked in the Presidency for a couple of years.”
“Your father was very fortunate man.”
“My father is a cruel, slithering snake, who’d do anything to get what he wants.”
I turned to look at her, but she didn’t return my gaze. Instead she flipped through more pages, and I saw more and more pictures of this man, sometimes with other people, sometimes alone. Never smiling, never doing more than glowering back at us. My father had been the exact opposite. Always jolly, smiling at the camera, the best dressed. Always with a different white woman under his arm. I’d never heard my mother refer to him as a slithering snake, she’d had other words. Woman wrapper, asawo, gutter rat, backstabber …I raked my memory. Never a snake.
“I don’t do what my father says,” Miss P said suddenly, startling me out of my reverie. “And he doesn’t like that.”
“Most parents don’t.”
“My father wants you to do exactly what he says. Like when he says he wants you to lead a life that he feels would be right for you. He feels his children should tow the line, listen to him because he’s always right.”
“Maybe your father is old-fashioned.”
“My father is dying. Prostate cancer.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
I let the album drift off my laps onto the ground, a jittery feeling climbing up my spine. “Okay…”
“My father believes that women should stay at home, be protected by their men, screw them whenever asked and squeeze babies out as soon as possible.”
“Most men think like that.”
“You don’t think like that.”
I swallowed hard and looked at my watch. Nene would be wondering where I was soon. When she discovered that I left my phone near the kitchen sink she’d start to panic. “I really need to go, Miss P.”
Her face became serious again. “Two years ago, Daddy dearest said I had two choices, I could stay at home, home being Uyo of course, marry the man he deemed suitable for the likes of me.” She cocked her head to the side. “What do you think I did instead?”
“I think you refused.”
“Oh I did a whole lot more than that. I rebelled. Said I was coming to Lagos and I was going to be a great success. I’d show him I didn’t need his money or whatever else he had to offer.” She slipped her hands in her pockets and shrugged. “A year later, I’m broke and living in this sty, receiving a pittance from my brother who hates doing it. He thinks I should grow up too.”
“Then my father calls me. Tells me that he loves me, he’s dying and he wants to come home. But only if I’m a good girl.”
“A good girl.”
“A good girl that listens to daddy and does what daddy wants.”
“I think you need to be more specific.”
“Convince him that I’ve changed my evil, evil ways and prove it by bringing home the right kind of man. Like you.”
“A serious, dependable, boring guy, guaranteed to keep me in line for the rest of my days.”
I swallowed hard. Dependable. Boring. “And what happens if you don’t?”
“What happens? He cuts me off without a kobo.”
“How do you know this?”
“Because he said so.” She giggled again. “And that’s where you come in, sweet thing.”
I took a deep breath. Suddenly in the wideness of that apartment, with its invisible connecting walls, high ceilings and bright walls,
Give me the cramped space of my kitchen. I leaned back,remembering just in time that I was sitting on a pouf not a cushioned seat. “You want me to be that boring and dependable guy.”
“ I want my father to think that you’re my boring and dependable guy.”
“Your dying father.”
She nodded vigorously. “Yes. That’s what makes it better. He has three, four months tops. So you don’t have to-“
“So what am I? Your boyfriend? Your fiancée?”
“Fiancée. Fiancée’s better.
I rubbed my face with my hands. How did I get here? Why did I wander into this crazy woman’s apartment? Why am I so stupid?
She leaned forward suddenly, grabbed my hand. “All I need you to do is come with me, back to my home, and convince my father that’s everything’s alright. I’m a changed woman. I’m ready to be shackled and chained to you for the rest of my days, like a good woman.”
I tugged my hand away from hers. “I’m a married man.”
“It’s all pretend, Mr. Makinde. I don’t really want to marry you.”
“So you want me to perpetuate a fraud instead.”
Her eyes widened slightly, but her smile didn’t waver. “I want you to help me. I need you to help me.”
The smile slipped as she pushed away from me, her eyes cold and flinty. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you like money?”
“I like money fine. It’s you I don’t like.”
I got up slowly. “You know this has been interesting. Hell, even intriguing. But I think it would be best if we stopped now. Us boring and dependable men need to go home.”
She giggled. I felt a bolt of anger flare through me.”Neither,” I continued. “…am I going to jeopardize my marriage or my family so you can have a boyfriend to show daddy.”
“Not my boyfriend. My fiancee.” She winked at me. “The devil’s in the details.”
I’d had enough, enough of Miss P…Pamela’s prancing and dipping and smiling and giggling. She’d thrown money in my face, and expected me to dive after it like a dog. Like a dog. The thing about the Miss P’s of this world, the Aunty Grace’s, they all felt they were entitled, that they could take whatever they wanted. They thought they’d crook their fingers and I’d come running. No.
I loved the expression on her face just before I whirled round to turn away. Shocked, surprised. Horrified. Good. “This has been fun,” I said, moving toward the door.
“Where are you going?” she said, her voice panicky.
“Away, “I replied, fumbling with the door knob.
“You’re going to throw away six million?”
I could hear the incredulity in her voice as I turned back toward the door. I almost forgot. I took the cheque from my pocket and tore in half; the two torn halves floated to the floor in little spirally waves.
“Goodnight,” I said, wrenching the door open and walking out into the stairwell, jogging quickly up the flight of stairs that would take me to my flat.
I should have known, Miss P was a great beauty and like all great things, hers was bought and paid for. She’d turned out to be a spoiled brat and/or a grade-A were. From now on there would be no conversations, no winks, no endless giggles. I wasn’t ever going think about her or her stupid offer again. Ever.
But I did.