“Nengi? Nengi? Did you hear me?”
A hand roughly jerked her awake, pulling her slowly from the dark corners of her dream. She jumped, startled, her hands reaching out to the nearest thing to keep her from falling.
The ground was slippery…so slippery…so much blood…
The windscreen rose in front of her. She looked around and relaxed against the stiff leather seat of the car. The familiar scents of new leather and a strong musky perfume like the smoke from a stale cigar itched her nostrils, brought her back to reality as quickly as if a bucket of cold water had been poured on her.
“What? I am sorry. What did you say?” she asked in a sleepy voice.
“What’s wrong with you?” he snapped.
“Nothing,” she replied. She looked around and tried to guess where they were. She could not. “I am tired. Spent too many hours awake last night…”
The unspoken word hung between them adding to the heavy tension in the air. Tade regarded her with suspicious eyes but did not comment. He had enough on his mind already to add a case of bundled nerves to the list. His Cartier wristwatch caught the sunlight as he steered the powerful Jeep with the ease of someone who had been born behind the wheels. His frown deepened as he announced roughly, “we are here.”
It took her a few moments to gather her thoughts, for her mind to clear, to process that she had just had one of her ‘dreams’ and like the other times, she couldn’t quite remember everything except in bits and pieces. She forced her mind to the present, the task ahead.
Today, she was meeting with her in-laws for the first time.
Right now, she thought in panic as the gigantic intimidating gates swung open. A uniformed guard waved them through and she gazed in awe at the long winding path that led to the two storey mansion that rose from the gravelled grounds. The large compound, half the size of a football pitch, was fenced around with the walls rising as high as nine feet, coiled barbed wires encircled the top. Giant fruit trees flanked the sides of the winding gravelled path casting gloomy shadows on the ground, their lean branches waving gracefully in the air. She wound down the window and the citrusy fragrance of the round green fruits that hung solemnly on the trees rushed in. The car rolled on slowly, its tyres making crunching sounds as it moved over the gravels before it came to a stop by the entrance of the mansion.
As Tade killed the engine, Nengi dug her nails into the soft fleshy part of her palms to quell them from shaking. Her palms were white, cold as ice.
This is the worst decision I have ever made and he pushed me into this.
But the thought of the remuneration was too tempting to discard and she forced a smile on her face when he turned to stare idly at her. The amused expression on his face masked the scowl that had distorted his handsome dark features earlier. He could sense her fear and the knowledge didn’t make her feel better. She felt as if he was secretly enjoying her discomfort, as if he would pounce on it when she least expected it. But they both needed the meeting to go right, or at least, to go believably well.
The gold band on his ring finger, very much identical to the one on hers, winked dully in the sunlight, drawing attention to its simplistic beauty, a deception to its highly prized worth. It reminded her of the hurriedly arranged secret wedding and the agreement that had been signed barely two weeks ago.
One year seems like forever!
For ten million naira, I had better be ready.
“I think so,” she replied.
“Good.” He added, “Relax. I’ll handle this.”
She nodded and got out of the car. For a moment, she stood looking up at the beautiful house before her done in shades of grey and orange with potted plants arranged tastefully around the compound. The lazy breeze carried with it the sweet scent of oranges and tangerines and a vague familiar other-smell.
“It’s the pineapples. They are grown at the back and probably are now being blended for juice,” he said as he approached the entrance. She remembered that he had told her that his parents prided themselves in their orchard and homemade juice. She took slow steps after him, appreciating the finely sculpted lions with their frozen snarls positioned on either side of the entrance. She wanted to run her hands over their smooth mane down to their bronze lithe bodies.
The silence that hung in the air was not oppressive but serene, only sometimes disturbed by a bird or the faint sound of a passing vehicle. It was the perfect choice for a hide-away or as his parents used it, a vacation home, on the outskirts of the crazy city of Lagos, in Ikorodu, almost crossing the boundary into Ogun State.
“Where is everybody?” she whispered, fearful to break the sacred silence. Apart from the security man that had ushered them into the grounds, she had not spied anyone else.
“They should be behind the door, you know,” he replied.
Embarrassed she asked, “I mean, where are their cars? If everyone is around, where are their cars parked?”
“Round the back. Family members never park in front. Only visitors do. Unspoken rule number 1.” He winked and grinned at her.
Before she could reply, he raised his hand to knock on the door. She stared in puzzlement at his car defiantly parked facing the entrance and had to bite her lip to keep back the questions that rolled around in her mind.
Remember, no questions. Ask no questions…this is just business…
A maid in a red and white chequered shirt and red skirt answered the door. She was in her late teens, ebony skinned with short tribal marks running down her cheeks. She eyed Nengi in curiosity before she lowered her gaze, greeted them in Yoruba language and curtseyed demurely before letting them in.
“Aduke, how are you?” Tade asked her.
“Fine Oga.” The maid looked startled that he had remembered her name; Nengi was more amused than startled. He didn’t seem like the type of man to remember the names of a maid or even ask how she was faring. There were so many things she did not know about this temporary husband of hers. Once again, she felt a twinge of guilt that she was going to deceive so many people about something as important as the sacred agreement between two individuals, worse yet that it was a prominent family in the country – the Funsho-Daniels.
“You have grown so big,” he said and was rewarded with a shy smile. Nengi guessed that it had been quite a while since he visited home.
“Are my parents in?”
“Yes Oga. Them they wait you since,” she replied in vernacular.
Nengi detected the musical Yoruba accent in her speech. She wondered if Tade noticed the heroic gaze lavished upon him by the young maid. Her thoughts flew out of her head the second she left the foyer. She was struck at the exquisiteness of the hallway that led to the sitting room with its golden overhead lamps that cast soft sheens on the linoleum floors and the oval shaped mirrors that lined the walls on either side of her where her many reflections gazed back at her. The whites of her eyes seemed brighter like that of a pussycat at night, whiter with the fear that coursed through her body. The puffy bags under her eyes laid bare the truth that she had hardly slept at all the night before. Her yellow-brown heart shaped face looked drawn highlighting the sharp redness of the lipstick on her full lips. Their shoes made tap-click sounds as they kissed the smooth floors. Even before she went down the short flight of stairs that curved down to the sitting room, she could hear the murmur of disturbed voices. At that moment she felt the blood in her veins ice over; the beats of her heart were loud in her ears causing a sharp pain in her chest.
I want to be anywhere else but here…
As the three of them emerged at the sitting room, she froze behind Tade. The maid left them back the way she had come. The people gathered around the room stopped their conversations mid-sentence and looked up at them. They stood awkwardly. Later, she would remember the different looks on their faces and would try to analyse each one of them without success.
A smallish woman with greying hair pushed forward and grabbed Tade in a bear hug. She looked like she was in her early sixties though Nengi knew she was certainly older. She must have been handsome in her youth with fine lines webbed out around her eyes. She fit the description Tade had given earlier of his grandmother.
“Tade dear, look at you! Come and give me a hug. And this must be…”
“My wife, Nengi,” he answered curtly.
If she was shocked, she gave no indication. Smoothly she asked Nengi, touching her cheek lightly, “Nengi…what tribe is that?”
“Kalabari,” Nengi replied self consciously.
“Ah…I really know nothing about the Kalabaris except for that they live somewhere in Rivers State, right?”
“Hmm…Kalabari…,” she said slowly. “Oh well, you really are a beautiful Kalabari woman. Tade didn’t do justice to you when he was describing you.” She smiled exposing pearly white small teeth, too white to be true. On a closer look, Nengi could see that the smile did not reach her eyes but was not unfriendly either. It seemed she was genuinely trying to welcome her though difficult it must be.
“I am Tade’s grandmother. Everyone calls me Yaya. Come, let me introduce you to the rest of the family.” Her voice was bold and loud, almost masculine.
The hostile stares Nengi received did nothing to dissipate the uneasiness that gradually formed in her throat. She counted five of them; while four of them raked her over their noses, one of them shifted his feet restlessly. From his almost pretty features, she guessed the restless one was Dotun, the baby of the family and playboy extraordinaire except maybe for now that he was about to be married. Whenever Tade talked about Dotun, there was a genuine haunting fondness in his voice that bespoke a lost love he mourned alone.
“This is your…er…father-in-law, Honourable Olaolu Funsho-Daniels, I’m sure you must have heard a lot about him, your husband’s…your mother-in-law Kehinde, you must know about her too. This is Tade’s younger brother Biodun, his wife Kate and the last Funsho-Daniels child, Dotun. Dotun’s fiancée, Folake is in the kitchen. She will be out any minute.”
Silence returned. Nengi she felt awkward as she croaked, “nice to meet you, Sir, Ma.”
Biodun’s frosty stare met hers before she turned away. Tense seconds later, he spoke to Tade. “You’ve gone and done it again, you bastard!”
“Not that it isn’t giving you pleasure. Everyone knows you’ve been praying for one of my famous slips,” Tade returned, drawing Nengi closer to him.
“This is not about me. It has always been about you – only you! Why can’t you spare us a moment of your reckless mistakes?”
“I assure you that this is not a mistake and you better stay out of my face or I’ll deal with you. This is not the end of this, far from it…”
“Stop it, stop it both of you,” Yaya cautioned. “Aren’t you both ashamed of yourselves, behaving like this in front of our guest.”
Honourable Olaolu glowered at Nengi as if she was the cause of the dispute between both brothers. She was intimidated by his size. He seemed to fill the room with his broad shoulders and fleshy belly. He resembled an irate bear right down to the beard that covered half his face. She could see a similar resemblance in Tade’s immediate younger brother, Biodun who had the tendency to grow as large as his father. Tade and Dotun looked more like their mother both while Tade was dark skinned, Dotun was the opposite. Kehinde with her extraordinary smooth skin that was the colour of an over ripe pawpaw; her unlined face and toned body looked ten years younger than fifty two. Nengi knew that she had once contested in a beauty pageant as a teenager and had retained the striking body which she was quite famous for. Kate, Biodun’s wife was aloof, not quite pretty but had classic features and beautiful fingers, probably the first thing to notice about her. She seemed the sort of person who would never be caught behaving inappropriately not even in the privacy of her bedroom.
“Tade, I want to see you now, in my study,” his father growled. He was not pretending to be happy about the announcement and though Tade had warned her not to expect any pleasantries, she would not have expected that his anger would have been this blatant.
“Olaolu, this is not the time…” Kehinde started.
“I said NOW!” he retorted marching into the house.
As Tade followed, Nengi thought she caught a hint of a smile on his face – a rather queer smile that tilted the right corner of his lips. They brushed past a startled lady bearing a tray of fried meats who whirled about in confusion and bounded into the room full of energy.
“Hi there! You must be the reason for the fracas. I’ve never seen daddy that furious in all my time spent here. I’m Folake, your husband’s brother’s bride to be and proud supporter of your entry into this family,” she said with a flourish and set the tray down on a centre table. A huge grin was pasted on her face as she offered her hand. Nengi took it immediately, relieved that one person was actually genuinely glad to meet her. She liked the effervescent girl immediately. The multi coloured bangles on Folake’s right arm clanged recklessly; it would be impossible not to notice her presence with the grating sound that followed her about. Folake’s personality was not only the effervescent thing about her; her physical features were stunning. She was over six feet, slim, encased in low waist jeans and a brightly coloured singlet top. Her hair was done in short dreadlocks that dangled like limp earthworms allowing a full view of her face which was all eyes and sharp cheekbones. From her almost boyish gait, you would guess that this was no ordinary girl; she was someone who enjoyed being the rebel.
“Folake…watch your words.” Kate warned as she settled back on the seat tucking her legs carefully under her. Nengi was surprised to hear the British accent in her voice. She was so dark skinned that if Nengi had not heard from her lips, she would have thought the voice belonged to somebody else. Biodun hissed in irritation and sat down beside his wife. Together, they presented the image of the perfect society couple.
“What? This house needs some excitement. I can’t do it alone!” she said and picked up a piece of meat from the tray. She chewed with her eyes closed, savouring the taste. Nobody else joined her.
“I agree,” Yaya sighed solemnly casting worried glances over her shoulder in the direction of the rooms the two had just entered.
“Folake, that’s enough talk! We should get going,” Dotun announced and jumped to his feet. “Remember? Chichi’s party?”
Folake sighed dramatically. She gave Kate a cursory glance then Biodun who said nothing content to fiddle with his car keys before she went over to Yaya and whispered into her ears. Yaya chuckled and waved her away saying playfully, “naughty girl.”
“It was really nice talking…well, we didn’t exactly talk but…well, see you next time and get ready to be a bridesmaid at my wedding. You have almost a year to prepare for it so…” Folake hesitated then popped another piece of meat into her mouth. Nengi smiled weakly and allowed Folake to kiss her cheek. Her hair smelt of spices. She felt uncomfortable with the alien gesture. The departure of Folake and her fiancée left her feeling lonely though she was not alone. The others avoided her eyes especially when the silence was broken by the raised voices coming from within the house.
“You know my dear,” Yaya said to Nengi in an effort to direct attention away from the commotion inside the house. “The women of the family will be having lunch at my place next week Sunday and now that you are a part of the family, we would like you to come so that we can get to know you better.”
“But I don’t…”
“Just before you leave,” Yaya cut in, “I will write down the address for you. You have to be there, my dear. Is that okay?”
Nengi nodded. Kehinde Funsho-Daniels glared at Yaya but Yaya ignored her. Minutes later, Yaya stood up and began pacing the length of the room; she seemed ready to charge into the house at any minute while Kehinde sat with her hands clasped between her legs, studying the new comer under her lashes with a certain disdain that made Nengi uncomfortable.