She was quite easily the most beautiful girl I knew, but when I asked her out and she said ‘No’ to me, I was glad.
As I walked away from her right after, I heard her friends, clustering back about her, giggling, perhaps mocking; I ignored them – simply got into my car and drove home.
Big brother Odion met me, as I got through the door, with a practised confidence in his stance.
“How did it go?” He asked, his bearded face assuming the best poker look he could manage.
I stared at him blankly for a while, amused at his unnatural interest in my romances.
“It was okay, I guess.”
“She said ‘Yes’? She did?” Impatient curiosity…
I said nothing, just shook my head instead.
“What are you saying? He’d stepped closer to where I leant on a doorpost “You said it was Okay, now you are saying she said ‘No’. Which one is the truth?”
His face creased up, anger was seeping into a growing frustration with me.
“Both. She declined my offer, and that was okay because I was hoping she’d say so. I don’t like her, she’s too snooty and I already have a girlfriend!” I clarified.
“Abah, Don’t be stupid; you should understand what is at stake here.”
“Can’t we just give him another gold-plated crap like we did last year with the gold-plated iPhones, or any other…something? This guy always wants his gaudy rubble; let’s get it for him, now.”
“Have you not been listening? Our company is facing bankruptcy and it’s this contract that would really save us! Mummy and Daddy have tried all that they can with payoffs and all that to get us the bid, but we need a distinct advantage. The Ministerial briefing is a mere month away; we can’t waste time with this. You need to make her say yes.”
He spoke with controlled intensity, the earnestness beaming from his eyes and it made me feel ashamed; I had been given a simple task and was failing at it. Turning away, I started to walk up to my room.
“Abah!” My brother called me back.
I stopped. He came to me and threw an arm around my shoulders.
“This company we are trying to save is going to be ours when the parents retire. I know you have a thing on, but we are talking family and duty, ehn? Love will always come later, just make this girl your girlfriend for a month. Let her be totally into you and make her Father see this. She is his only daughter and he would want her to be happy. Once he meets you and you also drop the necessary hints, our chances of getting the contract increases. I know you can do this!”
“Yes brother, I understand. But how will I break-up with her at the end of all this?” I took a step forward, dragging Odion with me.
“See, the girl is fine, you said so yourself; her father is the minister of petroleum resources for the foreseeable future, her grandfather has been our nation’s President for twenty-eight years and I don’t think he plans to leave that post soon. So it’s a win-win-win all around and you will be patient about breaking-up. Maybe after a month, we will see how things are, really. If you want out from her, we’ll find a way to make it happen, eh?”
“I’ll have to break-up with Najite.” I mumbled “And she is the very best sort of girl. I think I even love her.”
A look of disgust flashed across Big Brother’s face, but he took my arms and turned me about to face him.
“My guy, I know how that is, but you are a man, you take care of business first; get in with this girl however way. If you do what you need to do and we get these oil blocks auctioned to us, I promise you that none of us will ever forget it. You get?”
I shrugged, turned around and took the stairs to my room.
As I left him, I heard him say, almost jesting: “She is just a girl o, so no fear; and with their fish brain, you as a man fit control am wella, you get?”
Half-turning back, I put up a thumb to him showing I did, although I wasn’t quite sure of that.
Once there, I reclined on the bed wondering how I’d break-up with Najite; telling the truth was out of the question, it would destroy me in her eyes; it was better if she saw me as just a regular jerk.
I picked up my phone and began to text her, “Dear Najite…”
Abah had always been a weakling, always needed to be protected.
He was lucky he came from a good home like ours or his life would have been a difficult one.
As he went upstairs to his room, I wondered if our family company was not doomed already, with its fate lying in Abah’s unsure hands. How could he even think failure was an option, can’t he realise what was at stake here?
I sighed, and went back towards the study to continue my work.
If I wasn’t so much older than the girl, I’d have handled this myself.
Moments like these make me wish Tandy was a boy; Tandy, our sister –younger than I was but older than Abah, was the ultra-opposite of Abah, She was smart, ruthlessly efficient and business savvy. She would never lose an advantage like this.
She’d even been the one to suggest that Abah did this, even though I’d told her I wasn’t sure he was capable of it, she’d insisted.
I cleared all of it with Daddy of course, but I was sure he wouldn’t have opposed us; after all the whole point of sending him to the elite school he attended was for him to network and be amongst people of equal status to us.
This was when he was should begin paying back.
Mother did not know though, she would have objected. She loved the dainty temperament of Abah, encouraged him to waste money on poor people who were too lazy to get themselves a job and would have foolishly thought to protect him by stopping us. The boy had to get grown and soon.
Tandy was at Wharton now, getting trained to run the company. I would help out in the running, but as things seem, we needed to have more political clout: meaning, I would be running for a parliamentary seat and use the position as a stepping stone to real power.
A team of me and Tandy would be unstoppable; we’d build a powerful dynasty that would last for a long time, longer even than this Ngbendu family of buffoons running the country now.
To think all this possibility now relied on the frail mind of Abah! I don’t trust myself to be able to tolerate him around me if he messed up this whole deal.
The task was simple enough: Date Barbara Ngbendu, daughter of the Minister for Petroleum resources.
I think if he does succeed at this, he would fit in snuggly with those Ngbendus, with their soft decadence; it’s a wonder they had even been in power this long. Despite their wealth, they had the manners of paupers –grubbers – and were in no real way better than the hordes of poverty-infected people who fill our country – same dense intellect, same weakness in character.
Take myself and Tandy, for example, even If we were not born into a rich family, we would still have made it in life, we both possess that strong character necessary. Like our father, conquering his indigent roots to make something of himself.
Abah was different; he had a naturally destitute mind-set.
Abah was different now; he had that haze about him the children of our country’s elite always have – as if they were lords of all they surveyed.
His smiles had rotted from the sharp, honest ones to the disdainful smirk of arrogance he was wearing, and he looked pleased with it.
He saw me as I sat at the opposite end of the room, representing an urban league of students at this year’s youth conference.
From his front-row seat at the other end – the end guarded with soldiers, where the faces appeared fresher- our eyes met; he let his eyes settle then drift about me, a shadow of his former self stepped out of his masque briefly, but he regained himself quickly and looked away.
His new beau whispered something to him, they chuckled in a rough uncaring way and he let her rub his lower right thigh affectionately.
(The carefree laughter used to be ours! Ours! didn’t he remember?!)
They looked adorable together, in that way that dross and debauchery makes you look adorable, that tabloidy way.
And they were the hottest item on the news circuit; she, the daughter of the most powerful government minister and granddaughter of the President, with him – an incredibly handsome, buff young man.
Those good looks that now seem to define him in the public eye were always there, but he never took it seriously, he’d been easy like that.
Now, he’d restyled his hair; his dress sense, that he’d deliberately neglected before all this, had gotten a huge uplift, he had become – strangely beautiful, a kind of black Adonis.
My eyes moistened. He should be with me now, by my side here; we should be sneaking out right in the middle of these boring, useless speeches, meandering towards the capital city’s downtown where the rest of us lived.
We’d sit in the filthy Central Park, banter with the touts that smoked marijuana there – get a sachet of gin for them; hustle up with the kids hawking, buy things, for buying sake, from them – divert to the local theatre, see some attenuated criticism of the government, masquerading as a stage play: then end up at my house.
My mum would fret to impress him. He will make a good husband for you someday; he is from a good home, good stock and well-behaved. So we must take care of him and not let those girls outside tempt him, men are weak and easily distracted.
Mum would make something delicious, call me into the kitchen to get the food out, while instructing me to curtsy to him when serving.
He would humour her by eating, but he’d serve himself, serve me too; he would often buy Mum the occasional lavish present. He’d be him – easy.
That easy thing about him, about us, may have been the problem, damned us to improbability; good things don’t come easy, they say – we were effortless.
Mum learnt of our break-up through the soft-sells, she cussed me out that day. Must you carry my unfortunate head into this world, your father left us and now you have let this good boy too leave, ehn! She cried more than I did; I did not cry myself, I wrote a poem – something silly, stupid and forgettable.
A voice whispers my name: Najite, a hand taps me, I snap awake; it’s my friend’s hand – Theodora’s, who is sitting by me. I turn towards her, see the almost imperceptible forward gesture with her head: time for my speech, as a designated youth delegate.
My throat is tight, I clear it. And dry my wet eyes with a handkerchief.
I stand, ready to speak – the speech will save me, for now, from grieving.
Abah saved me.
He climbed over the fence, snuck past the suspect security, made Mama let me go while she stayed to see what was happening in the city.
He’d implored me to wear plain clothes, stole me out of the family compound to his discreetly parked car outside the gates.
And brought me to this leper colony deep in the woods, in a forgotten village: we’d waded through the sounds of bullets, of riots in the streets, of Armageddon.
He guessed what would happen, before it happened and saved me. God bless his sweet soul.
Those guys will not think to look for you here, He said, as he drove rather erratically through the forest path; Our people are afraid of lepers – they say God cursed them and to be near to them is to invite that particular winze into your life.
‘Those guys’ were the cloying savages, the coup plotters I’d glimpsed on TV dragging Papa out, bloodied, from his office.
The ignorant radio people were calling it a popular revolt, popular my foot. The people loved grandpa and these bloody-minded usurpers were simply greedy and envious, keen to steal something that was not theirs.
We met Kiyasha, an albino woman who looked like she was in charge there. Abah seemed very familiar to her, because she’d embraced him like a long-lost brother when we drove into the colony. The miserable lepers had been ecstatic too, waving their disfigured limbs about in some happy, primal dance.
This was our second day here and I was ravenously hungry, like I had never been in my life, ever; but I couldn’t eat the food. They cooked in a small wood hut that looked like it was going to break down at the passing of any slight wind. It was dirty, filled with burnt wood, charcoal and the rancid smell of spoilt food.
Even the cooks, with their dour, melancholic faces, looked like they had just come out from cleaning a particularly messed up toilet; they had body odours, filthy clothes and no aprons.
The water I had to drink, I made sure they boiled it in the only near-decent pot they had. Kiyasha did this for me, she seemed nice. And she wasn’t leprous.
How could people be living like this?
Grandpa had been doing his best to eradicate poverty, even those goddamned killers who were trying to remove him knew that. Our country was getting less poor; after all I heard it somewhere that the World Bank recently said that our economic growth was one of the fastest in the whole, wide, world!
Abah was eating with the lepers and others, playing with them, he did not have enough time for me.
Was he not afraid of getting the many diseases these people- including the nice Kiyasha– would be carrying on their body and in their food?
When I asked Kiyasha how she came to be here, she told me she’d run here from her parents who had tried to sell her to ritualists for moneymaking rituals. She ran and stayed. She also told me Abah was no stranger here, he’d often visited with a girl – Najite, bringing essentials. I’d ask him later who Najite was.
I couldn’t sleep; the hunger and my fears kept me awake. The forest animals may come; the plotters may find me here; what had happened to Papa, Mama, the Grandparents and the rest of the family, the car radio did not work here. This place was hellishly hot.
I called Abah over to tell him we had to know what was happening in the country. He said he’d already sent someone to ask a friend to come up here.
Who? I asked, hoping it was someone I knew.
A female friend, her name’s Najite
That same name: How come she is your friend and I don’t know about her?
Distance, he said, she lives miles away from us, in the rougher part of town.
She came that afternoon, in a motorcycle, rode it herself. Pretty girl.
Bearer of bad news, too:
Papa was dead, alongside his three brothers. His sisters, his brothers’ wives, Mama, and their many children were under house arrest. A few of my cousins who were officers in the army tried to counter the criminals but were murdered cruelly. My favourite cousin, Nando, had been the ringleader of that bid and was dead. Grandma and Grandpa’s other wives were also shot dead but Grandpa had escaped, granted temporary asylum in nearby Nigeria.
I disliked Najite for not bringing better news, and when I noticed a tense awkwardness between her and Abah, a whispery clandestineness to their conversation, like they had a past together in which I could not share, I began to hate her.
That night, she guided us back to the city and I ate my first good meal in days. The most surprising thing about the city was how quiet it was- I felt the people ought to be fighting day and night in the streets to bring Grandpa back to his position, but they seemed docile – content maybe. That was wrong.
When we checked into a passable hotel, I asked Abah if he’d gotten word from his family.
He said he had. They were shocked by what happened but were not in danger; they were business people not politicians.
That was not fair, they had benefited from my family; a few months ago I’d helped persuade Papa to give his family company some contract, oil block or something. They ate from our table, they should drink from our cup, too.
In hope, I asked him if they were going to help bring back order and restore my family to its deserved place.
He sighed before answering.
His father and brother were not happy with his codling me about, they could not appear to oppose the vandals in power; it would ruin their business, as lucrative government deals would be revoked. They didn’t hate me or my family, just that they were businessmen before anything else.
Traitors, after their own bellies –
I guessed they’d have tried to tell him to leave me, but he isn’t the kind of person to do so. Without doubt, I was safe with him. Giving him a chance with me, despite my initial scepticism, had been the right thing to do.
Before I slept, two final thoughts crossed my mind:
I, Barbara Shelangi Ngbendu, would make these gasping villains who had attacked my family and the nation pay; and this Najite girl was dangerous, she had some hold over my Abah that was not right for ‘just a friend’, I would remove her from us, whatever it took.
 Standard English Translation: She is only a girl, so don’t be afraid of her; with the little brain (i.e.low intelligence) they (girls) possess, you as a man can easily control them, do you understand?