Amaka Nwafor blinked in disbelief as she stared at Femi Coker. He shrugged his shoulders and gave a lopsided grin, “Surprise!” 1460 days since she last laid eyes on him and the best he could come up with was “surprise”?
Amaka unlocked the latch and turned away from a kiss he tried to plant on her mouth. Side-stepping her he said “where are the kids? Been dying to see them, Mom says the boy looks just like me.”
“Chibuzo” Amaka corrected
Femi walked ahead of her to the children and without the tact present in most adults he announced “I am your daddy. Ask mommy, it’s true”.
She could have murdered him for the confusion that spread on their little faces. She knelt beside her angels and pulling Chibuzo close whispered, “I always said you had daddy’s nose right?” he nodded his head, “well it looks a little bigger on him in real life, but if you squint your eye this way and turn your head this way and stamp your left foot twice” she had him chuckling by now.
“Big Mommy wanted to surprise you.” Chiamaka was lost in scrutiny, looking for features she shared with her father; Amaka held her hand, “do you remember what you said you would do when daddy came back? Huh? Go on and hug him. Go on”, she nudged till all three were in an awkward embrace.
“Femi Coker” Femi introduced himself with an outstretched arm, Ikenna walked from where he had observed this hasty reunion
“Ikenna Nwosu” a firm handshake followed
“Hey you’re the CBN guy right?”
There was a nod in response.
“Nice to meet you, I have heard a lot of great things about you. How do you know Amaka?”
The silence that settled screamed louder than the children’s play toys. Ikenna was clearly uncomfortable. Just like that, the family unit had reshaped and his piece did not fit as perfectly as it had 5 minutes ago.
“I should be leaving” Ikenna decided “Feel better” he pulled Chiamaka’s nose
Amaka wanted to walk him to the door, but what would she say? She focused instead on the children, rubbing her daughter’s back till she heard the door slam.
“Wow, you two tried really hard not to look at each other” Femi smiled knowingly
Amaka ignored him, concentrated instead on steady circles with her palms
“Kids, does uncle come here a lot?”
“Femi...” Amaka warned
“Yes” Chibuzo answered “he was here last time too, when Aunty Nabila was sick”
“He buys us nice toys, and he is very ticklish” Chiamaka laughed
“Ah” Femi turned his gaze to Amaka
“Go pick out what you want to wear today” she ushered the kids away
“Don’t use the children like that”
“Will you start being honest with me?” Femi asked, it softened to a smile, “four years is a long time, I understand if you had to get some company”
“You don’t understand anything” Amaka hissed and walked away.
Nabila Mujahid loved Kano. It was more of a home than Abuja, and was still the only place that offered her comfort simply by existing. The convoy had finally reached the end of its 4hour journey and one by one the luxury cars turned into the private driveway of the Balarabe estate. As the crest carved coral gates were wheeled apart,
Nabila’s heart thumped in joy at the thought of seeing her Kaka once again, the soothing hug from kurna scented skin that waited. Jamal’s scowl did not worry her, for one thing he was a marvellous actor so when the time came it would transform into a charming smile. And for another he was in awe of the power and influence her grandmother wielded. He coveted it for many years, so not only would he be on his best behaviour during their stay but he would worship the ground his wife walked on whenever Kaka was within hearing distance. This was set to be a wonderful weekend.
A servant opened her door bowing in greeting while another waited patiently for Jamal to pop the trunk so he could get the luggage out. At her emergence, her Kaka called. Nabila turned to the powerful voice that held such volume but sourced from such a tiny body. She ran to the arms that were always more welcoming than any she knew and breathed in the scent of Ginseng when she kissed her grandmother’s hair.
It was late night when Nabila lay down exhausted, her eyes involuntarily shut but she forced them wide awake again. She was here for four days and she intended to take in as much of Kano as she possibly could. Sleep is for later. Right now she wanted to walk around the gardens, look at the stars, and enjoy the hum that drove the city through the night. The guava and mango trees were blooming nicely, perhaps she should ask for another fruit bowl and some more zobo. Now that she was really getting into it Nabila was sure she was hungry again, she looked at the billowing smoke from the balcony where Jamal was smoking his cigarette. He had not had one since University days, but all of a sudden he was puffing away like a chimney. Honestly, she was shocked he still had use of his pout after he had spent all day and afternoon kissing her grandmother’s ass. Nabila thought to say that, but kept her witty banter to herself before she set him off.
A servant girl knocked, wearing her orange apron loosely about her waist. And apologised for the interruption
“Kaka na neman ki- Kaka is asking for you”
Nabila wrapped her night robe tighter against her tummy and informed an uninterested Jamal of her destination. All that replied her was a waft of smoke. Crossing the rectangular courtyard, Nabila looked up at her parents’ bedroom, noting the glow of a lamp. Baba was obviously reading, now that she thought about it, she was not sure Mama had ever fallen asleep in a completely darkened room. Just as was her routine from childhood holidays spent on the estate, Nabila measured her height against the bronze statue of the komo, a two string lute, and tossed fallen petals from the hibiscus shrubs into the scented fountain. Her arrival into Kaka’s quarters also remained child like, bouncing onto the bed and disrupting her instructions to a maid.
“Nabila” Kaka said smiling at her granddaughter; she stroked her hair
That was all she needed, Nabila’s eyes began to droop. Kaka nudged her awake.
“I wanted to talk to you” she said in Fulani
“I’m tired” Nabila responded in English
“It’s not my fault, I’m pregnant” she loved playing that card
“Yes” Kaka’s voice softened and she gently laid a hand on Nabila’s tummy. Uneventfully enough the baby didn’t kick. Nabila stretched her legs on the bed as Kaka began to oil her scalp, it smelt like delicious mint.
“Are you happy?” Kaka asked her.
“Yes” Nabila answered automatically. Of course she was.
“Do you think you could be happier?”
Nabila raised her head and met Kaka’s old eyes. She thought this would be another routine from childhood, in which she slept in her bed listening to old stories; however the atmosphere seemed too heavy for nostalgia. Shrugging off her robe, Nabila got up and swung the shutter doors wide open, inviting in more air. It still felt too stuffy for light-hearted magana- talk. Leaning out the balcony, she stared at the fish pond and wondered how big a splash she would make if she jumped off the railing.
“I am with my husband, where I should be. It is where I belong” she eventually replied
“Let me tell you a story” Kaka said pulling her back down “The Balarabe women have been blessed with good marriages. Not just stable and long but very happy. This is because all our women are stubborn and they make stupid decisions.”
Kaka shook her head and continued
“It was quite regular, almost expected even that a Balarabe daughter would fall in love with an irresponsible man and run away. Your mother did it. Her grandmother did it. So did her great grandmother.”
“Baba isn’t irresponsible”
“Not now. But back then, he had no money and no prospects. It also appeared he lacked the ambition to achieve”
“Mama helped him with that. He’s grateful for that”
Kaka smiled like Nabila had said something wise beyond her years
“Yes he is grateful to Farida” she nodded
“That is very important. The gratitude keeps the marriage strong;” Kaka made a tight fist, “reminds the husband that his wife is a gift. We may be known to make what look like stupid choices but our husbands are forever grateful to us that we did.”
“Kaka you are confu...”
“Why is Jamal not grateful?” Kaka put a stopper on the jar of oil and looked at her
“Kaka we are fine”
“Stop doing that. Making excuses for him. You are not happy Nabila, but until you admit it to yourself” Kaka pressed a finger on her chest “Till you believe you can be happier than this, your heart will not leave him”
“You have always loved that boy too much” Kaka sighed helplessly
“You never liked Jamal. He’s scared of you”
“Good. He needs to be scared of somebody because you worship him and Farida thinks he is the best thing to ever happen to you. You are carrying his child, yet he frowns like he would rather be somewhere else”
“Kaka he was just tired from the journey. We are happy”
“Nabila if you do not start taking better care of yourself, this deceit will harm you”
This talk of gratitude and loving too much was a roundabout discussion as far as Nabila was concerned. She was sleepy and Kaka was speculating for no reason, Nabila laid her head on a pillow and closed her eyes.
The next morning, Nabila was raised from sleep by her lark of a grandmother and had the chance to watch the sun rise as the procession moved from living quarters to the mosque. Breakfast was noisy and filled with clinking cutlery; more guests arrived as the day wore on. Final preparations were made as evening approached and there was even talk that Alhaji Tukur himself might show, with or without his sons remained uncertain. Musicians clamoured outside the gates and almost everyone with a komo and algaita and kakaki was let in. They would have their chance to earn a little by playing special musical pieces for politicians. It was money-making day in Kano especially as the engagement party was now a shadow of its former promise to be an informal gathering for family and friends. Mama was busy fretting over the presentation of the high table for the Sultan of Sokoto and the seating arrangement for the Emir of Zaria.
Bored with all the hullabaloo surrounding her, Nabila headed to the stables. Ibrahim, the stable boy offered to ride with her but Nabila brushed him off. She had been riding probably before she could walk properly. Instantly she was drawn to the chestnut coloured horse. She stroked the flank that resembled one of the tints in her husband’s hair asked that it be saddled up. Started off with a trot around the grounds to get the reacquainted with the feel of an equine, true to form it was like riding a bike. Nabila geared the pace up to a canter, giggling to her baby not to be inconvenienced by a little prodding. Confident enough she reached open clearing and got on to a steady gallop out the gates. Heat slapped her in the face, dust assaulted her eyes, settling nicely on her polo shirt and jeans, her scarf had become entangled around her neck and it flew behind like a red flame. Nabila was liberated and free so she rode the horse with her mouth open savouring the smell of her home town.
She raced past Kurmi market with symbols of the northern knot drawn everywhere. People in colourful robes and turbans stopped to let her pass and waved her by their stalls, at first Nabila assumed the whole of Kano was in a good mood but then she realised it was the ornate bridle and saddle on her horse that incited such custom. With each turn childhood memories came flooding back; of riding with Kaka, visiting the old dye pits with Baba, watching her male cousins join the procession during durbars and building up her spice tolerance with ever increasing portions of yaji.
Nabila returned from her exhilarating ride and read the text Ikenna sent her. He would be unable to make it this weekend. Something came up. He’s sorry to be cancelling so soon, and Nabila should take a picture of a milkmaid just for him.
Maybe it was the dust she undoubtedly inhaled but the text sounded weird, not a single mention of Amaka- which was all Ikenna could talk about lately- not even a ‘greet Jamal’ thrown in.
Nabila called Amaka to investigate but was given the same story: something came up. Talk to you later. Hope you have fun. After the abrupt hang up, Nabila spied Rabi surrounded by what seemed to be 20 women all talking at once, she waved to her sister and was shocked when she received a reply because Rabi had been cold to her of late, almost hostile. As she handed the horse back to Ibrahim who seemed very relieved she had returned in one piece,
Rabi tapped her shoulder
“I want to apologise for being a bitch to you these past few weeks”
“You haven’t been a bitch” Nabila shook her dust covered hair
“I have. I’m sorry. It was just taking me a while to come to terms with things”
“What things?” she asked as the horse drank from the bucket of water in Ibrahim’s hands.
“Just stuff from work. It’s over now. I have accepted what I need to do”
“You always do the right thing” Nabila said confidently
“You always believe I would”
Rabi hugged her briefly. It was awkward, like she had forgotten how. It lacked the intimacy they shared.
“Well I’m going to smoke shisha” Rabi announced turning to leave
“You’ll probably meet Jamal in the pool house. Could you talk to him about his renewed smoking? You guys are really close, he’ll listen to you. Just say it’s a health thing that his beauty will fade overnight. That should get his attention”
Rabi nodded painfully and tapped Nabila on the shoulder. A cloud of dust shifted
“I should go take a shower before the party- your party- starts”
“You smell like Kano”
“I know its wonderful fa”
“I’ll stick to Dior”
Amaka Nwafor bent her head and studied the innate pattern of the carpet in the Coker residence. Big Mommy had hugged and kissed her to the point of no return when they first got in the door and now she hoped by maintaining this posture she could ward of anymore “Ese o” (thank you), from her. Because she didn’t do anything, she was not the one that brought Femi home. He showed up out of his own free will, just like he left out of his own free will. She thought of Ikenna in Kano with Nabsy and Jay, having a blast. Playing polo and dancing. She imagined Ikenna buying milk from a calabash
“My dear what is so amusing?” Kunle Coker asked
Amaka didn’t realise she had been smiling “It’s what Femi said”
“About being deported?” Femi asked
“It doesn’t matter how he got here. He is here” Lade said with a voice raspy from overuse. She smiled admiringly at her son, and patted his back. Then looked at Amaka like she had cured cancer before fixing her gaze on her husband, with a “do you believe it” stare
Amaka wanted the silence that the Coker residence usually afforded her, so she could think. The past few days had been turmoil for her emotions, she had not called Ikenna because she had not yet processed this all. What she did know was she had to lead her children through this; although she needn’t worry because Femi was winning them over with funny stories from America and generally letting them have whatever they wanted. He suggested moving in, but Amaka squashed that plan before it even smelt the light of day. She could not have disruption to the children’s routine, instead they would spend the weekend with the Cokers’ and Femi could bond there. Most importantly, it was a two bedroom house; Femi was not sharing her bed.
The thought that if officials had not caught on to Femi’s immigration status, she would not have seen him for a while yet, remained at the back of her mind. She and the children were not his first choice. However, in true Femi style he made the best of the situation and everyone was reliant on his company. It was his gift, making you need him so much that the thought of his absence from your life would tear a hole in your heart. She knew, she had been there and she watched as her children threw around ‘daddy’ phrases. No longer a memory or an old picture, but a living thing that could smile back and hug them. Laughter brought Amaka back to the present and Lade was piling Femi with photo albums, it was labelled ‘What Femi Missed’ she had been preparing for this day. Amaka had never prayed for a weekend to be over till now, the rush of the school run beckoned to her.
The engagement party was in full swing; all the Emirs had arrived in zealous fanfare with big trumpeted entrances. Governors towed in large entourages and Ministers vied for Kaka’s attention. Normal folk enjoyed the abundance of food and drink present, Ibrahim was on hand to help ambitious riders onto horses and lead them around the compound. Rabi knelt before many dignitaries, her ivory adornments clacking with each hennaed step she made. Nabila recalling her emerald circus of a wedding did not envy her and was at hand with sympathetic smiles as her sister had been five years ago. Several women placed their hands on her belly to pray for her baby, reciting surahs from the Qur’an of prosperity and beauty. Nabila relished in that and agreed that pregnancy suited her; she basked in her glow occasionally flinching when the child kicked. They all advised her on what foods to avoid, each with their own remedy to cure dizziness, and fatigue. She was on her eighth glass of delicious zobo when she noticed Jamal staring -no glaring- at her. Nabila raised a quizzical brow, what had she done this time?
“Everyone keeps congratulating me”
“What would you rather they do Jamal?”
“Congratulate you. After all it’s your child”
Nabila nodded; it was about time his jibes made an appearance. He brushed past her and walked away, a few feet later he stopped and asked if she wanted anything from the fruits section of the food tent. Nabila assumed Kaka was within eye line
“Mangoes Jamal nagode- thank you” she smiled into her glass
Kaka waved away his elaborate greeting and putting an arm around Nabila’s expanding middle informed her Alhaji Tukur was present, with his two eldest sons, Umar and Usman.
They found Rabi’s future husband in the most secluded tent. Perched high on the grassy lawn, lamps lit the inside and armed guards stood in front looking menacing. Sat on purple and burgundy cushions, Alhaji Tukur conversed with Baba laughing loudly. They were discussing his army days, where he rose to the rank of Colonel. Gidado Tukur was loud and brash and had the knack for interrupting your story with a tale of his own. He used his hands when he spoke, making wide expansive gestures that seemed to span the width of the tent, he spotted Nabila and congratulated her on being pregnant. His two sons followed suit before returning to their private discussion.
She liked him enough as an eccentric uncle who spoilt her and her sister with chocolate when they were little. She remembered him pinning his medals and awards on her Laura Ashley dress. Rabi was allowed to hold his gun once. Nabila did not like that she had such memories of her soon to be brother-in-law, it felt intrusive, like she shared him with his wife, her sister. If she felt this way she could only imagine how his sons felt; decades ago they refused to let the Bello sisters play football with them. Nabila was pretty certain Usman had a crush on Rabi because he always threw sand in her hair, and now she was to marry his father. It was wrong. Both sons were in their thirties and already married but it would still have been better in Nabila’s eyes if Rabi was engaged to either of them. Baba helped Nabila sit down and she passed the remainder of her evening listening to stories from the barracks.
Rabi Bello sneaked a cigarette by the swimming pool. The crowd had gravitated to the fire breathers at the other side of the hill, so she could enjoy some quiet. Apart from a few snippets of conversation as guests walked by, barefooted, drink in hand, it was vacant space. She inhaled deeply on her first drag savouring the nicotine and trying desperately to keep ash away from her white silk and chiffon dress.
“You have no idea how funny you look” Jamal chuckled
“Not now” Rabi sighed. All she wanted was one moment to herself in this madhouse
Jamal raised his hands up “I came here to escape too,” he pulled out a cigarette and lit it. They both stood in the moonlight, by the rectangular blue water, puffing out smoke.
“You look very beautiful” Jamal said
Rabi feared to look down with a stick between her lips but she nodded her head, causing the gold combs in it to rattle. “I feel like a circus act, every time I move something makes a noise”
“You are the most beautiful circus act I’ve ever seen”
“Jamal don’t start”
“I wasn’t going to. I just really wish you weren’t getting married”
Rabi’s name was called out by the servants; her mother was summoning her to be presented to the guests alongside her husband. Rabi didn’t even know he was here. She took one last long drag before putting out the light with Oscar de la Renta satin bow shoes.
“Didn’t last long enough” Rabi adjusted her headgear, repaired her veil.
“We could meet again later tonight”
“A date?” Rabi laughed; pulling out a mint sweet she crushed it with her teeth
“No. A cigarette break. If you want”
Her name was screamed again. She turned around shouting “Ku ce mata ga ni nan zuwa- Tell her I’m coming”
“See you later” she whispered to Jamal
And she did. After the activities had wound down to an end, Rabi walked to the pool area to find Jamal already puffing away. Without a word he handed her his pack and they smoked in silence, staring at the water, the sky, anywhere but each other’s face. For some reason the awkwardness was comforting, a break from arguing and begging, it was tranquil.
“I love you”
Rabi stared at Jamal through a haze of smoke, he sat next to her. “If I am not allowed to tell you that what you are doing is a mistake and will make absolutely no difference at all. I will tell you that I love you. I will always tell you that”
“Okay” Rabi shrugged
“Do you love me?”
“I’m not playing this game”
“What difference will it make?”
“I have never heard you say it”
“I tell you a lot of things”
“Love has never been one of them. I want to hear you say it. So I know I’m not the only one that hurts”
“Why do you think I’m doing this Jamal?”
“Because you love Nabila. Not because you love me. I want you to say it Rabi”
“Well tough luck”
Jamal chuckled, resting his head on her shoulder for a brief moment. “You are seriously going to hold out on me? After giving me the most incredible months of my life, I can’t have this one thing”
“No” Rabi laughed
Jamal shook his head and lit another cigarette.
Baba sighed. He really wished he had taken a different route on returning to the courtyard......