Sometimes one could wake up and see just about anyone pacing the corridors, trying to ascertain with their eyes what their confounded noses had divined. Was it not plantains frying? Was it not eggs frying? Was it not, or was it? Every morning was a feast with Maman Baby. Breakfast was an elaborate affair she took up before sunrise and usually couldn’t complete before 7:30 a.m. In fact, she mostly took her husband’s breakfast to him at the office, before lunch much later in the day.
They were newly-weds and new occupants of the two-bedroom apartment in Yaya Gana’s compound. The landlady and a very strict rule-giver, Yaya Gana ensured that Maman Baby took part in the sweeping and general cleaning of the premises, and watched her wifely virtues like an impassioned hawk. It was after weeks of being unyieldingly rigid towards the younger woman that Yaya Gana finally let up.
“You’re a blessed child, my daughter,” she’d said in surrender. “May God give you better baby girl like you.”
From that day, everyone took to calling the young woman Maman Baby Girl. She was very bashful when the trend began, but she grew to accept it as part of herself. After all, what’s in a name? But her husband could not forbear to see things the same way. No, sir! His new wife who was even yet to conceive, a publicly designated maman baby girl? Kai! Albarka! He told the confused young woman in outrage that he never wanted to hear her answer that name again. Why couldn’t she well be Maman Bomboy? Was a baby girl the peak of all blessings that Yaya Gana should wish it on them so early into their marriage?
Anyway, after she had barred people from calling her that with the good natured explanation that Frank, her husband, did not wish for a baby girl, they’d all laughed and shortened the name to Maman Baby. When Frank ventured to complain again, they answered him with the point that a baby was a sexless thing.
“Baby fit be boy, baby fit be girl,” Lara had rebuffed him victoriously.
Lara was a young university student renting a single room in the compound, from which she decided the most convenient times for her to attend classes or just party. She was beautiful and flighty in the way most young girls were, with alarmingly free manners – or at least Maman Baby found her odd. She’d thought that young unmarried women were supposed to guard their dignity, or failing that, protect a fierce impression of their dignity because nothing was more attractive than a beautiful young lady with a consciousness of her own class. Well, classy was not an adjective for Lara.
She wore bum shorts to roadside shops, used vulgar descriptions to say nice things about her boyfriends, exclaimed in hell-hailing monosyllables and always joked about the most private things. These things both repulsed and amused Maman Baby. She knew no one like Lara – simply shameless. One time during the eerie stillness of Saturday afternoons when the power abruptly went out, Lara had let out a loud, languishing scream.
“Wetin dey worry somebody?” Joe, Yaya Gana’s nephew loudly asked from his room a few doors across.
“My damn clitoris!” Lara had answered back to the chagrin of Maman Baby.
Frank laughed deeply and heartily, his eyes moist and alight with genuine amusement. Maman Baby did not quickly forget that look, that glint in his eyes. She determined in her heart right then that she was going to do her best to keep him away from Lara’s foolishness.
Some people would take the hint when they got brushed off twice by the same person, but not Lara. As hard as Maman Baby tried to show her that she cared nothing for being on friendly terms with her, that much harder did she give off the easy air of not noticing. So it had to go on. They had to chat like friends, and Lara had to come in sometimes and sit in her parlour.
One time she came and dumped herself face-down on the three-sitter couch.
“Have you done it here?” she asked without blinking.
The innocent brazenness of the question made it a little puzzling to Maman Baby at first, then the ensuing sense of shame when comprehension crept in prevented her from putting the little vixen in her place.
“You’re lucky o,” Lara continued, looking her over with mischievous appreciation.
The age difference between the two was not much. If anything, Lara seemed older and shrewder.
“Yes, I thank God,” Maman Baby did not wish to pursue the line of discussion.
It was just so many such unexpected, untoward appraisals of her marriage that made Maman Baby’s resolve to be as unflinching as solid tone in the discharge of her marital duties even stronger. After some rigourous thinking, she came to realise that tea and bread for breakfast was mediocre, and kosai and koko was slovenly at best. A good wife had to lay the table every morning with magic from Persia: fruits, juices, pastry, nuts, milk, something or other that was fried. She subscribed to some cooking sites online, downloaded some books, raided the more highbrow supermarkets, and got down to the business of perforating the whole compound with appetizing aromas every blessed morning.
Frank quite forgot simple things like tea and bread after a few weeks of this royal treatment. If he ate bread, it was an exotic sandwich, something no eatery would give and no person could devote the time to making who didn’t have to as a profession. If he drank tea, it was black or green and aromatic, with cinnamon and honey, or ginseng in a tiny English tea cup. If he ate an omelette, it wasn’t your regular whisk-and-fry affair. The variety regaled, astonished and fascinated him. What a wife! He stopped hankering after other people’s food. He didn’t frequent any more restaurants and his kitchen never ceased to amaze him.
This happy state of affairs lasted. There was mutual respect, mutual appreciation, mutual delight in home. He was very unsparing with the housekeeping allowance. Everything she asked he willingly gave. In fact, she stopped feeling threatened by the immodest and lecherous Lara. Because without such beauty and unadorned by that brazen vivacity, she had won her husband. Oh sweet joy!
She became quite the married woman, singing aka n maramma as she busied herself around the house, tapping her feet where unmarried girls would sway their hips, and clapping where they would wiggle their butts.
“You dey enjoy o,” Lara sized her up again. “To marry dey sweet like this I for don do am since,” her voice was filled with lighthearted teasing.
“Lara Lara!” Maman Baby laughed jovially. “May God give you a good man like my own,” she said with a sincere smile.
“Ehh-ehn!” Lara had worn that look that Maman Baby used to dread. “So he’s very good, eh?”
Try hard as she may, Maman Baby got the double meaning. Frank was good, eh?
Again, a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction crept up her throat. They were about eight months into the marriage and she was a housekeeper extraordinaire. Whatever could shine, she polished till it shone. Whatever could squeak, she cleaned till it squeaked. Everything she owned purred in its own way with satisfaction. Life was sweet, all was fine, but now thanks to Lara she couldn’t shirk the feeling that something else had been neglected.
That day, she didn’t have the requisite presence of mind to cook lunch. She locked all the windows, bolted the door and drew down the curtains. Then she lit candles because there was no power and stood naked before the mirror at her dresser. The wooden frame and the unmoving reflection, coupled with the dreamy glow of the candles made her look like an expert portrait. She stared hard at herself – every bulge, every curve, every contour. She’d lost all her angles in the bliss of married life and now she glowed with homeliness, but she did not bristle with the fierce defensiveness of youth. There was no trace of trying to prove anything, there was no happy-today-unhappy-tomorrow-but-can’t-tell-what’s-coming-next in her, there was no fight. All was still, holy quietness.
Frank called from work; why the delay in bringing him lunch? She said she was not feeling very well, but assured him it was nothing to worry about. She just didn’t feel okay. She didn’t quite know what to make of her situation. Was it something to be proud of that her marriage was completely peaceful and her husband completely content, or was it something to worry about that he treated her as the kitchen woman and made less and less amorous demands of her?
She didn’t know how the notion of culinary ease and efffortlessness came to be so popular, but she knew one thing for sure: cooking was hard work. Drudgery. And since she made a point of turning her little kitchen into la cuisine speciale, she saw less and less passion from him. He er…..loved her, yeah? He appreciated her, of course and who wouldn’t? He was proud of her, so proud that he had friends over a lot. But did that animal instinct drive him to desire her on sight? Did he find the smells that were so appealing in food and that clung to her after cooking appealing too? Did he ever let the food burn by keeping her one extra minute in the throes of passion? Hah. Wishes.
After a long time of staring inertly at herself, she blew the candles with gusty fury and slowly crept to bed. It was a while before she heard Frank’s key turning in the locks. The sight of his wife either asleep or unconscious with the shutters firmly in place and the arrangement of candles for which no device of the imagination could account and all those other things – well, he worried and he thought. When she woke up and confidently began to prepare to turn in for the night, the questions died unasked in his heart. She just greeted, and answered to his vague enquiry of how things were that everything was fine. She took some water in a bucket and went to the bathroom, had a long bath, put on her night wear and crawled back to bed.
The clatter of cooking utensils as Frank was most likely trying to feed himself was the only sound that interrupted the stillness of their apartment. Before, she’d have worried that her husband did not return to a happy home. But today she just let everything be, observing her own life from an emotionally disengaged vantage point. When he finally came into the bedroom, even the furniture knew that he had something to say. He shuffled about listlessly, sighed once, but decided to hold his peace. For her part, Maman Baby did not try to engage him in any form of conversation either.
She’d begun to fall asleep when she felt his hands groping her. She stirred in sleepy curiosity, gradually wakening to full awareness. Nothing about all he did moved her much. She heard her own lazy moans from a distance, an empty sound froman arid heart. He’d come slowly at first, but then he began madly to pound her so much she groaned in genuine pain.
Lara became to her something forbidden, that loose young woman seemed somehow to know just what to say to make her see the messiness of her life. Here was a girl who took nothing seriously, treated her academics with unbecoming laxity, treated men like disposable cups and was altogether an unfit contender for superiority against a married woman. But Maman Baby could not persuade herself to see hers as the better life; she both hated and was in awe of Lara, despised and admired her.
“What are you doing, Maman Baby?” Lara asked her on another occasion.
She was outside drying out some laundry.
“I dey dry cloth,” she answered disinterestedly.
“That’s not what I mean,” Lara’s large eyes x-rayed her, unabashed. “What are you doing with your life?” she asked truly according to character, without shame.
Maman Baby clapped one hand over the other slowly, maliciously. “See me see wahala!” anger had begun to stir within her. “Between me and you, who suppose dey ask dat question sef?”
The word ashawo kept wanting to frog out, but she kept it in. she carried her buckets into her apartment angrily and slumped into a soft cushioned chair in her very very clean palour and wept. Yes, there could only be one explanation to all this – Frank was sleeping with Lara! Why didn’t she get that earlier? She was the caterer and the maid, the one who kept everything smooth and clean – facilitator of her own husband’s affair. Her marriage had failed before it even saw a year.
Angrily, she stormed outside again, and on sighting Lara stung her over-softened, over-pampered cheek with a feisty slap.
“You’re sleeping with Frank,” she accused directly.
Lara rubbed the affected cheek and gave Maman Baby a very chilly look. But the entire lack of confrontation in her demeanour made the married stagger back in uncertainty.
“I’m not sleeping with him,” she said quietly.
The tears anger had held in check were released by abrupt surprise. No? Then what? Why would this daughter of Jezebel constantly afflict her so? Oh dear, dear sacred heart of Jesus!
“He’s not sleeping with anyone for now,” she said, her lips curled into a paradox of contempt, pity and haughtiness.
“He’s bored,” Maman Baby heard her own voice. It was light and hollow, a tired occupant of a distant vacuum.
Lara maintained a fixed gaze on her, and for the first time Maman Baby saw her with unambiguous clarity – they were friends. All that disturbance had been targeted at something queerer than mere disdain – concern. Who could have imagined that!
Of all the twists of marital life to the newly married bride that she was still, the weirdest feeling was to discover that you had mis-faced your most feared enemy.
“See,” Lara decided to break the pause, “you’re a good wife o. But a man is not just satisfied with a good wife. You suppose be both good and bad!”
For a while, Maman Baby blinked a flurry, then she began to nod, eyes wild with a pervading intelligence.