The first time Jamal and Nabila were pronounced husband and wife, he was chatting on his Blackberry and she was pushing the food around her plate with a sterling silver fork.
The French Impressionist table legs groaned heavily under his weight as Uncle Dauda hoisted his large frame to its feet. He then raised a glass of non-alcoholic wine although his slurred speech would make Nabila’s mother suspect otherwise. Clearing his throat roughly, his baritone drowned out the festivities of clinking glasses and high laughter that dominated the surrounding tables. Looking at the 20meter high photograph of the happy couple displayed in the Grand Foyer of the Hilton Hotel, Alhaji Dauda adjusted his emerald green baba-riga and began
“It seems like yesterday my niece informed me that she had met a young man who she wished to marry and now I am pleased to introduce to you the newest Ango da Amariyya in town, Jamal and Nabila Mujahid.”
The applause stunned the bride and groom out of their respective reveries and looking to Rabi, Nabila merely reflected the expression her little sister wore. She strained her fake smile as far as it would go and waved till her wrist was sore, she was tired and just wanted to go home. Then she glanced at her husband and realised that she would never return again to her brightly lit bedroom with its lilac walls and large view of the garden. She would never again have her own bathroom. She would never again walk Didi, her Black English Spaniel, while sipping on the zobo that Oda, their chief cook of 14years, brewed specially for her.
Nabila wanted to cry; Rabi rushed forward and hugged her, rubbing her back “It’s almost over Nabsy. Then you and Jamal can go away and be alone ok.” Nabila looked at Jamal as his second cousin Mahmoud pumped his shoulder and slapped his back in congratulations.
Jamal’s lanky frame shook and he rolled his eyes at her barely containing his exasperated smile. Nabila giggled and it stopped to matter that she had been up since dawn, her jewellery weighed her down, or her gold lace itched, or her makeup was so heavy she was sweating even in the air conditioned hall, even the theme of green stooped making her feel nauseous. She stopped resenting her mother for turning her wedding into a circus, it was okay that her wedding idea had been used to spun an Ovation photo opportunity; the constant flash of cameras no longer gave her headaches, not even the stupid reporter who kept trying to shove his microphone under her nose. Rabi pulled away to look at her sister’s tired face just in time to see genuine warmth sneak across it.
At a quarter past midnight, the couple finally managed to pull away from the still strong festivities, and they slowly trudged to their bedroom upstairs, one they had secretly booked in a fake name for privacy. Nabila was fatigued. Her husband freed her skinny frame of the heavy garment, unadorned her of the family heirlooms at her ears, throat, fingers, wrists and ankles and laid her on the bed gently. He kissed her eyelids goodnight, and sprawled beside her fully clothed not caring that her makeup soiled his silk kaftan and they both fell into exhausted sleep.
FOUR YEARS LATER…
It was a hot Wednesday afternoon in Asokoro district but Nabila turned down the air conditioning in her Grand Cherokee; it was so easy for this huge car to turn into an ice box. The stereo played her Usher CD in monotonous annoyance; if it could talk it would beg for variety. She already knew the exact point in ‘How do I say’ to expect a skip and she adjusted her vocal chords accordingly. She had the most horrible singing voice as she managed to be faster than the record and still miss every note but her stone white jeep and her beloved Usher loved her nonetheless. The mai-guard opened the black metal gates with a gap toothed smile
“Ina mijinki?” he asked like he expected Jamal to be glued to her side
“Ya na aiki” Nabila replied her mood already soured
He waved her in and she drove up to the white mansion that was her family home. Taking up a large chunk of Iro Dan Musa street, the home she had lived in from age 8 still looked as imposing as when her family first moved in from Kano. The capital city of Abuja was merely a town then; and Nabila and her sister cried for days on end missing their old friends and old life. She parked her car and made the leap from her driver’s seat to the ground, it was true what was said about petite people in big cars. It is all about compensating. Nabila adjusted her cream abayah and made her way through the marble hallway to her mother’s parlour. She became even more annoyed as the sound of her mother’s entourage greeted her when she came into view. The loud sound of forced laughter and gossip irked Nabila to no end, especially as she had booked this slot to speak to her mother; she had even called to verify mama would be available. Farida Bello looked up from the woman entertaining her and saw her daughter walk in. That child never had a smile on her face, and her sulk worsened as she took in the women who she should be half way greeting by now.
“Ya Jamal ne?” almost all the women seemed to ask Nabila at once. Ask him yourself she wanted to respond but she nodded and smiled instead.
“Lafia” she answered over and over again.
“Mama I want to speak to you” she turned her direction to her mother
“Mene ne?” her mother responded
“Alone” Nabila replied
“La!” the gossipers echoed. Nabila did not budge. Eventually her mother ushered the women out, saying they could reconvene their ‘meeting’ after lunch. Nabila arranged herself on a large cushion and stared at her mother, the woman had refused to age over the past five years, and it was strange. Nabila canvassed her mother’s features and wondered again why she took after her father. It would have been lovely to have a Fulani nose like her sister instead of the Hausa one she got from her father, or the dark complexion, or the gaunt cheeks. The only resemblance she bore to beautiful Mama was her height; they were both 5’5in with size 4 feet. Papa’s long frame was bestowed on Rabi.
If she did not love her sister so much she would be incurably jealous of her. Her mother retied her yellow scarf and waited for Nabila to begin, probably with an apology for her curt behaviour but Nabila did not have time for that. Mama was so busy nowadays chairing her Government wives’ meetings, running Women Affairs conferences and the like, that she cut straight to the chase…
“I want a divorce from Jamal”
“Astaghfirullah” mama exclaimed letting the scarf fall to her lap
“No child of mine will ever be returned to her father’s house” she declared
“I am not being returned. I am leaving” Nabila repeated for emphasis.
“Kiyishuru! Shut up and do not say any more. What is the meaning of this?” Her mother put her hands in her thick plaits and shook her head “Ya yi me? Eh? What did he do, that you want to leave?”
Nabila began to answer as carefully as she could but her mother would not let her. She looked afraid that it was something she would not want to know. “He is not hitting me and I do not think he is cheating on me, although I cannot be sure about that” Nabila responded sadly, she could feel the tears coming on. She looked down and played with the hem of her dress. Mama visibly relaxed, it was not some horrible thought, her child was merely being her child. Jamal had probably not showered Nabila with enough attention and now she was rebelling. Threatening to leave her husband’s house was just another tantrum.
“You are no longer in Baba’s house. Making wild promises will soon force Jamal to insist you see them through. Do you understand?”
Nabila looked at her mother and knew why she took so long to come to her in the first place, how Mama could think that is all it would take for her to leave her matrimonial home. Nabila could not go through with it. She made to get up without saying the main thing that brought her home. Mama pulled her back down
“If you really feel you are being mistreated talk to Jamal’s family, tell them to speak with him”
“I have already done that. Nothing has changed”
“Domme ka ke kuka?” Mama used the back of her scented palm to wipe away Nabila’s tears. “What are you crying for?” she asked again. “You are a lucky woman! Allah! The sooner you start to see that the more content you will be, and then…” she patted Nabila’s flat tummy “Insha Allah”.
Only mama had the power to make a bad visit even worse, instead of consoling, she reminded her of the one area she had no success in. The herd of women began to clamour outside the large glass bi-fold doors that lead into the North-East wing of the garden, their necks straining for a piece of news. Nabila wrestled her wrist from her mother’s strong grip and excused herself. Her mother did not ask for a hug, they had never been emotionally expressive, she and mama, and never pretended to be so. Nabila made her way through the 7 bedroom, 5 bathroom architecture of her home. The walls lining the stairs were covered in framed pictures of her and Rabi; running free in the garden, bathing their dogs with water hoses, coiled around Mama, with her mother’s eyes fixed only on Rabi, her favourite child.
Every parent has a favourite and Nabila was her father’s; they both felt awkward in social situations and much preferred being alone, with books or music, alone with no one else around to disturb their thoughts. Rabi managed to move between both extremes of their family, tolerating mama’s love of the spotlight and consoling Baba out of his study.
Nabila missed her sister then and began to regret scheduling her visit when she knew Rabi would be at the hospital, fulfilling recommended hours for her Residency. She knew if Rabi saw her now she would be unable to hide her unhappiness, she did not want to disappoint her little sister by being a divorcee at only 26years of age. She was not the smart one, or the pretty one, or even the friendly one. The least she could do was make a marriage work. Oda called her name then and Nabila turned to see their beloved housekeeper at the bottom of the stairs, she beckoned and Nabila followed to give her a big hug. She could tell what was for lunch because Oda smelled of daddawa. Her grey apron was stained with the green leaves of spinach and she tried to keep Nabila at arm’s length to prevent soiling her outfit as well. They walked hand in hand down the long corridor to the kitchen
“Menene ka ke so?” Oda inquired as she opened the fridge. Nabila smiled at her Hausa which after nearly 20years of living with Northerners still bore an Igala accent. Nabila remembered the first time she saw Oda, the family was driving in through those black iron gates for the first time and a plump woman with wild hair ran in front of the car offering her services as a maid. She explained she had come down from Kogi State looking for work and saw the sign outside this house that it had been bought. She would work for any amount offered as long as accommodation was provided.
This was not new to the Bello family; the streets of Kano were littered with people continuously offering their services in return for next to nothing pay. It was a walking, breathing Job Centre. They approached luxury cars and flashy house estates, optimistic with the assumption that rich families would always need more staff. Citing local Imams as references and pledging prayers for the kindness prospective employees will display. Apart from cattle owners herding their flock across the desert, this was the first recognisable image of home they had witnessed on the 4 hour drive from Kano to Abuja.
The driver tried to shoo her away but Mama in her usual display of charity beckoned Oda forward
“What is your name?”
“My children back home call me Oda”
“Oda, this is Rabi” Mama handed Oda a crying 6year old girl and pointed to Nabila who stared bored, “her older sister Nabila”. “This is your Oga,” she pointed to Baba who merely nodded. Oda, cradling a restless Rabi, genuflected to all three and walked in through the gates, beside the car. She never left.
“Kokaka” Nabila replied. “However”
Oda merely smiled and unearthed a jug of Zobo with large chunks of pineapple in it. She served it in a glass containing 6 ice cubes and handed it to Nabila. “Extra honey” she said. Nabila sipped the delicious beverage with a smile on her face, she missed this.
“Jamal is missing” she said cheekily
“You could make it for your husband” Oda said slicing onions
“If he wants, he should come and get his own” Nabila smiled
“You would be surprised at how men feel when their wife prepares a meal” Oda gave Nabila a side-glance
“Like I said. He should come and get his own” Nabila left the kitchen then walked out into the grounds. She didn’t mind the heat and strolled through the compound till she got to the sunken swimming pool. Taking of her fake snake skin sandals, Nabila hiked up her dress and dipped her toes into the cold water staring at nothing. She heard the bark of dogs, the trainer Mama hired tried to house break the new puppies she had acquired, she heard the whish of the garden hose as Babayaro, their gardener watered the red hibiscus, she saw the mai-guard gearing up to the mosque to begin the call to prayers for Asr. She missed home.
Nabila got in her car and drove home to Wuse II. Ademola Adetokunbo Street was not as secluded as Asokoro so her neighbours honked their cars in greeting as she drove into the twin duplex. The security guard greeted her and offered to park the car in the garage because she hated doing that herself. On her way in, Nabila stopped to admire her aloe vera plants in the garden when her phone rang; it was Amaka.
“Nabsy” she shrieked
“Maka baby” Nabila responded affectionately “How goes it?”
The sound of the twins drowned out her friends initial reply until the curt “Mommy is ON the phone” was issued out
“I said how you are my dear” Amaka repeated tired. Nabila was not a good liar so asked instead of her Goddaughter and Godson.
“Well Chibuzo woke up today and decided that he was one of the X-men and ChiAmaka is upset that she cannot fly” Amaka responded annoyed
Nabila began to laugh
“Please do not tell me I am blessed. Not today” Amaka begged
Nabila was going to say exactly that. She looked up at her empty, quiet home, at least her mother’s crew injected life into her old home plus it had Rabi. This was too silent, she could go in and blast Usher from the living room speakers or she could offer her ever needed babysitting services to Amaka and escape her drowning marriage.
“I miss them, let me come over”
“Isn’t Jay due back soon?” Amaka asked
Nabila walked into her house, and dropped her keys in the little silver tray by the door “What will my being here do for him? He’ll just walk upstairs to his room and stay there.” She hissed
“So your mother had no advice for you?” Amaka asked
“She told me to stop throwing tantrums before my husband decided he would rather let me see them through”
“Oh” Amaka responded
“I am so sick of this sham called a marriage Maka. This is not what I signed up for, I feel like I am being punished but he will not tell me what I did” Nabila heard the guard close the gate
“You know marriage is a two-way street Nabsy. Stop waiting for him to snap out of it or relatives to help. Get up and fix your marriage”
“Why do I have to do all the work? It’s his marriage too. I don’t see him trying” Nabsy was tearing up. “He should go back to the house of whoever he’s being loving towards because it is definitely not me.”
“Who are you discussing our marriage with?” Jamal asked her as he leaned on the still ajar front door.
Her husband was home.