Nenka is getting married. This is what she tells her cousin, Faith, as they sit side by side on a leather sofa in her living room in Parkview Estate, Ikoyi. The décor is monochrome with chic white furniture contrasting with a gleaming black marble floor. A black wall faces a white one. A grand piano sits in the corner. Books lean casually against each other on an angular bookshelf. Two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice rest on a side stool in front of them. Nenka’s eyes are bright with helpless emotion. She dangles her engagement ring in front of Faith who says “beautiful, very beautiful.” And as she takes tiny, practised sips of orange juice, Faith admires her doe-like eyes and yellow skin and thinks that she is a lucky girl. She does not realise that she has spoken out loud until Nenka says “you eh, when will you stop talking to yourself?” They begin to plan the wedding. Nenka is certain about what she wants. A strapless corseted ivory ballroom gown. Bouquets of exotic fresh-cut flowers in different shades of burgundy. Burgundy, not maroon, she insists because she does not understand why some people often mistake one for the other. Faith, despite being one of the said people, nods in acquiescence. Peach will make the bridesmaids’ dresses mundane; coral will give them a retro feel. Faith agrees although she is not quite sure of what “retro” means. Monaco or Rio de Janeiro for the honeymoon, Nenka says. Not Dubai or London, because everybody in Nigeria has been there. She laughs and Faith laughs too, forgetting that she has never been to Dubai or London.
They talk until the sky becomes a mass of crimson streaked with gold. Nenka claps her hands, saying “tres bien” like she does whenever she is excited. Faith pretends to be smoothening out the creases on her skirt while she glances at her wristwatch. But she does not tell Nenka that it is late. She does not remind her that she came over from Mafoluku as soon as Nenka called and said there was something she couldn’t say on the phone. Soon, Temisan, Nenka’s fiancé comes in; dapper in a well cut suit and she runs into his open arms. “Welcome home, daaarrling” she says. He finds this amusing. They stand together with foreheads touching; a perfect fit – six feet four to five feet ten. Something stirs inside Faith as she watches them. Temisan looks up and says “hello”, looking straight into her eyes in that odd way of his. She says “hi yourself” because anything more formal will be unbefitting. She congratulates him, and notices that crooked lines have begun to appear at the corners of his eyes. Nenka blushes prettily and looks at Temisan the way a mother would at her only son.
Finally, Faith has to leave. Temisan asks her to spend the night, because of an article he read in the paper about one chance buses. Nenka chuckles and says that Faith can take care of herself. They talk about Faith as if she is not there. And agree that the driver will take her up to the estate gate; from where she will take an okada to Obalende and board a bus to Oshodi.
Before Nenka sees Faith off to the car, she gives her a hand bag. Faith runs her hands wondrously over the quilted black leather and the logo with white interlocking Cs. Nenka tells her to dare not refuse it, because nothing but Chanel is good enough for her maid of honour. They laugh and dab tears. Tears that have begun to flow for no apparent reason other than this uncommon display of ingenuous affection.
As she rides by the tidy hedges of ixora and the high fences covered with bougainvillea, Faith reclines languidly on the plush car seat and savours the pleasant smell of the interior. Later in the danfo, sitting on the hard-bitten bench and inhaling the rancid odour of sweaty underarms; she still thinks that Nenka is indeed, a lucky girl.
The wedding must be perfect. The groomsmen must be the same height, pesky relatives must not attend. Purchases are made; of Swiss lace and damask, silverware and stainless steel. Invitations are sent; with silver lettering embossed on pink alabaster paper. Attention must be paid to every single finicky detail; like the 5 man orchestra, the 4 tiered wedding cake and the 3 course wedding dinner. It is Faith who is given the arduous task of ensuring that everything is done by the book.
Today she has an appointment with a man in Ikeja GRA who makes the most divine cakes. The words of Nenka who sends Faith in her place, claiming she can’t cope with the rowdiness on the mainland.
Under the bridge in Ikeja, Faith walks past the jumbled row of stalls selling weave on, past the area boys who call out to girls lewdly. Usually, she stops to price the chunks of costume jewellery on the tables by the road side. But today she walks past all of it; past the women who pull her and say “fine girl, come and make your hair”, past the election posters with faded faces of politicians staring at her. Around her, bus conductors chant the names of bus stops in quick succession. Passengers listen attentively; in fear they will miss their routes.
“Faith, Faith” someone calls.
She turns and sees Feyinsola, her room mate for a semester back at the University of Lagos.
“It’s a lie!” Feyinsola says.
“You have not changed at all” she says, which is not true because Feyinsola is several shades lighter.
“I heard Nenka is getting married.”
“Chei! And to think you were the good one. Anyway, that is how life is” she laughs loudly and a passer by looks back in alarm.
Faith is quiet because really, she doesn’t know what to say.
“Nenka is just too sharp. I know her aso ebi will be expensive, so that people like me won’t come” she slaps her curly afro wig repeatedly as she talks, showing off a green-veined hand with black knuckles. She promises to call soon and Faith says she will greet Nenka for her. But she won’t, of course, because Nenka will only say “that little witch.”
Minutes later, she is at the shop. The name Delicate Delights is engraved in front. The interior is done up in subtle colours and an abstract painting runs from the floor to the ceiling. The man who makes the most divine cakes is short and stout. There is a bow tie on his striped shirt which is tucked into a hideous pair of red pants. He arranges pastry of different shapes and sizes in dainty, silver trays; and hands them to her one after the other saying “I’m thinking dark forest gateau for dessert”, “try the sponge cake, absolutely yummy”, “maybe we could have side plates of caramel cheese cake?” Faith listens as she nibbles and tries hard not to lick her fingers. Truly, the cakes are divine.
She tells him she will get back to him. She says this because it is the kind of thing Nenka would say – vague but promising.
Back home in her bedroom, she drops her bag on the dresser. A calendar of inspirational quotes rests on it and a photograph is stuck on the tattered wall paper behind. It is one of her and Nenka; her eyes are wide open in it and Nenka’s are amused. She remembers that she did not want to be in the picture; but Nenka had begged her, pushed her, until she said yes. Things have always been that way between them; one leading, the other following. Nenka came to live with Faith and her mother after her parents were killed in a car accident in Calabar. People said it was such a terribly unfortunate thing to have happened, yet none of them wanted to have anything to do with “that Pius and Beatrice’s daughter whose eyes have turned to the back of her head”. Faith’s mother, being a good Christian woman, took her in. People said what a kind thing it was to do. The same people also said that it was only a mad woman who would put her hand into a cobra’s mouth. They were not surprised anyway, because they knew she hadn’t been quite the same ever since her husband went to Belgium and never came back.
Everyone said how radiant Nenka was. One of their neighbours said she must be a mammy water – a mermaid – because in his entire life he had never seen a creature as perfect as her. Nenka was only two months older, but Faith hung on to her every word. Never one to call herself beautiful, she grew up conscious of her knocked knees and the gap between her front teeth that made her seem happy even when she was not. Nenka, on the other hand, wore push-up bras and dabbed perfume in her cleavage because she believed a woman’s power was below her neck, not above it. It was Nenka who told her to stop wearing eyeliner on her lips; to stop wearing red because she couldn’t pull it off; to stop dipping Agege bread inside tea because only razz people did that. In university, Nenka was the one who got all the male attention. There was Timi, the bank manager who bought her a car and moved her from Moremi Hall into a one bedroom apartment off campus. Saheed, the senator who left his wife in Abuja and took her shopping in Paris. Chris, the Briton expatriate who bought perfume and chocolates for both of them whenever he travelled. Chris did not last long.
Back then, Nenka would badger her for being single. “Even girls who are uglier than you have boyfriends” she’d say and then threaten to pin her down and remove her hymen with a pair of pliers one day. Even though she had an apartment of her own, she was in Faith’s room more often than not; keeping her away from lectures with frequent dramatic bouts of menstrual pain. It was Nenka whom Faith had run to when her econometrics lecturer pinched her on the bum. Nenka told her “welcome to the real world.”
When, at long last, Faith started dating Osagie, Nenka asked her what she was doing with a small boy. But even though he was a bit shorter than her and had a silly smile that made her just want to slap him sometimes; he never raised his voice at her or called her “baby girl”, “angel” or any other irritating name. For Faith, that was enough.
On the day of the dress fitting, the housegirl ushers Faith into the small parlour in Nenka’s house. The small parlour in question is the size of her entire apartment. Nenka stands on a raised podium inside, preening in an exquisite dress while a thin, bespectacled woman does up the buttons. There are piles of Wedding Planner and Ovation on a coffee table in the centre of the room.
“Faith! Come and meet Lisa” Nenka says.
Faith looks at the other woman, expecting her to be Lisa. But Nenka drags her, dress trailing behind, towards a divan. A girl is sprawled across it, watching The Style Network on a huge plasma screen television. She has blue contact lenses in her eyes and a mohawk on her head.
“Lisa, this is my cousin, Faith. The one I’m always talking about.”
She looks puzzled as she says hello with a smile that stops at her lips. Faith’s smile is a replica of hers. Lisa speaks with a clumsy accent, the way some people do in false hope of sounding foreign. Back in the small parlour as the bespectacled woman takes their measurements, Nenka tells her to keep it simple. Lisa concurs, saying anything other than that would be risqué. She pronounces it like “risk”.
When Nenka says she is so lucky to have two maids of honour, Faith thinks she must have left her ears at home. But Nenka says it is old fashioned to have only one, and besides Faith is her dearest cousin and Lisa is her dearest friend, so they will both share the honour. Her eyes do not meet Faith’s when she says this. Lisa’s expression is beatific, as she basks in the rays of her new found relevance.
When they are through, she goes upstairs to rest, pleading a headache. Nenka and Faith go into the kitchen. The housegirl scurries about serving iced tea which they drink, seating on matching stools covered with green vinyl; surrounded by chrome and glass.
Then Nenka says “I hope this doesn’t upset the baby”
At Faith’s shocked expression she says “close your mouth. Didn’t you notice that I’ve added weight?”
Faith pauses. When she speaks her tone is strained, accusatory even.
“So you are pregnant?”
“Yes. I hope you’re not mad at me for not telling you. You know I’ve been very busy.”
She does not look pregnant. Her midriff is as flat as a board, her bust line no different.
“Does Temisan know?”
“Of course. He even wanted to hire a wedding planner. Men!” she scoffs “I had to ask him what a wedding planner will do that i haven’t done already.”
The steady hum of the air conditioning is the only sound in the kitchen. Faith is lost in thought, recalling something she would rather not. She remembers a time when Osagie said he wasn’t ready for marriage, another when he called it a conspiracy of women. A month later, he left to study for a Masters Degree in the UK.
Nenka is oblivious of her pain. She talks about how happy Temisan’s mother is about the baby; how she often calls from New Jersey to remind her to eat wholesome meals and take multivitamins. Maybe she will apply for an American visa so that she can go and have the baby there. Nenka is thrilled about this last bit; but she says it offhandedly as if it isn’t a big deal.
Faith stands in front of the bathroom mirror in her self contained apartment, turning this way and that. It is a tiny room, with a constructed rectangular partition that houses a shower. The toilet is decorated by several jagged cracks like the lines on the palm of the hand. A black nylon bag knotted around the rusty tap tries but fails to prevent drops of water from seeping through. Nenka’s friends are throwing her a bridal shower today; which is ironic considering that she openly claims to not get along with women. Faith studies her reflection passively. Her skin is the colour of dark chocolate and her high cheekbones are the most prominent feature on her bare face. She applies a coat of lip gloss and smoothens out a non-existent crease on her green dress; which has white polka dots all over it. On her way out, she picks a half eaten loaf of Agege bread resting on top of the fridge and stuffs it inside her bag.
There is something about the guests at the bridal shower that makes her uneasy. Perhaps it is their exaggerated air kisses or their blatant affectation. She isn’t quite sure about what it is, but she decides that she doesn’t like it. They are on the terrace in Nenka’s house. Fresh flowers are neatly arranged inside vases placed in strategic corners. A waiter walks about serving glasses of Amarula discreetly. A large and rather unnecessary banner with the inscription “Nenka’s Big Day” floats above. The door swings open now and again; and the wind chases in yet another guest in a cloud of designer perfume.
Nenka looks around and tries to read the minds of everyone. If any of them, like her, wonders what they are doing here, they show no sign of it. They are few in number, these supposed friends of Nenka. One has an open, pleasant face and wears her hair in long dread locks with tips that have been dyed brown. Another totters about in six inch heels. A woman with enough love handles for three people to hold on to says hello to Nenka, before going after the waiter. A dark skinned woman towers above everyone else, speaking with a British public school accent to a select few. Lisa walks up and down, for some reason Faith cannot fathom. Nenka, not to be upstaged at her own soiree, dazzles in a purple shift with elevated sleeves. A bump, now clearly visible, rises against her middle. She has flat sandals on; because of her swollen feet, she says.
Soon it is time for lunch and the inevitable small talk. Faith’s expression sours when she tastes something suitably called sweet and sour soup. They take generous sips of Amarula while Nenka sticks to bottled water; because of the baby, she says. Conversation punctuated with giggles flows around the table. Dreadlocks is saying something about a fashion-for-charity auction. Lisa concurs, saying that 80 percent of the proceeds will go to charity. Faith wonders what will happen to the remaining 20 percent. Dark Skin tells Nenka “oh surely, you must use baby friendly colours for the nursery” and Faith wonders if colours, like humans, can be friendly. High Heels is suggesting wedding themes to Nenka. Moroccan or Indian, she says, with a faraway look in her eyes.
Someone hits a glass with a spoon repeatedly and there is silence. Then Nenka gets up and makes a long speech about how very thankful she is to everyone, especially her dear friend, Lisa. And her cousin, Faith, she adds after a pause. There is applause afterwards, and when Love Handles shouts “bravo, bravo!” Faith wonders if perhaps, she missed anything.
Nenka takes them upstairs, to show them the nursery which she has begun to decorate. Faith thinks that the bright spacious room is a bit too much for one child, but like everyone else, she says it is lovely. Nenka titters and says that the last thing she wants is to raise an olodo, which is why jazz and classical music will play softly in the background while the baby sleeps. Her friends agree wholeheartedly.
Back at the terrace, there is a lot of laughter with voices raised louder than before. Possibly because of the bottle of Chardonnay that materializes from somewhere. Faith, not trusting herself, declines a drink. The others don’t share the same reservation and indulge themselves freely. Nenka lounges on a couch with her feet propped up on a stool. To calm her jittery nerves, she says.
Dreadlocks asks Nenka why she has two maids of honours. It’s implausible, not in our society, she says. And so is the term “maid of honour”. Whatever happened to “chief bridesmaid”? She asks. Lisa says that Nenka has always been a non-conformist, so she should let her be. Besides, it’s her wedding and she’s free to do anything she likes. Everyone laughs. High Heels says that certainly there must be a reason why this is so. And would Nenka be kind enough to share? Nenka contemplates for a moment then says that well, Lisa has always been her first choice because she is quite photogenic. But on the other hand, she didn’t want anyone to take the spotlight at her own wedding; and that’s where Faith came in handy. There is an awkward moment afterwards when everyone avoids the next person’s eyes. Then someone starts to giggle, and someone else joins in until there is a harmonious avalanche of laughter from everyone, except Faith. There is always an excuse for everything Nenka says. When she says something unkind to anyone, the person should have known better than ask for her legendary sharp tongue. When she is rude to anyone, it is because anyone with her kind of beauty is an enigma of sorts. But now, Faith is sick and tired of tiptoeing on eggshells that have long gone soft.
She makes her way out of the room unnoticed, bag in tow. Her hand is already on the knob of the front door when she turns back. Making her way up the curvy staircase behind her, she goes into an open bedroom with a panelled ceiling and shuts the door. Tears stand in her eyes but she doesn’t let them fall. She places her head in her hands as Nenka’s words replay themselves over and over again like a stubborn wound that refuses to heal. For how long she sits here, she doesn’t know; for time and space seem to have merged into one indiscernible void.
The voices downstairs are not audible anymore. But in their place, a lazy shuffling as a pair of feet approaches the landing. Faith pauses for a minute and then, quickly, goes into the adjoining bathroom and closes the door, taking care to not make any noise. Through the keyhole, she watches, even as a part of her wonders why she is doing this. Nenka is inside the bedroom, standing in front of the wardrobe with her back to Faith. She removes her slippers, and her dress soon follows. Underneath her bra strap, four additional straps are clasped. They appear to be supporting a distended appendage on her stomach, which is puzzling, until she turns around and then it isn’t anymore. Opening the door, Faith walks out and watches a myriad of expressions run across Nenka’s face. First surprise, then relief, followed by supplication. There is no righteous indignation, no theatrical confrontation; just a steady calm that belies the gravity of the moment.
“I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t know how” Nenka says.
A dressing gown is hanging in the closet. Nenka puts it on and sits at the foot of the bed “I didn’t have a choice.”
“That’s no excuse for this. Good God!” the force of the charade hits Faith fully “Temisan is a good man. He doesn’t deserve this…” her voice trails off as she gestures at the prosthetic belly on Nenka’s stomach. In another situation, it would have been funny.
“I know he’s a good man. And that’s exactly why I’m doing this.”
“Don’t you have a conscience?”
“A conscience?” Nenka repeats and laughs “You know me, Faith. Which man in his right senses would want to marry me?”
Faith doesn’t say anything; because frankly, men have always drifted in and out of Nenka’s life like butterflies drawn to a flower in full bloom. But once they drink deeply of her nectar, they move on quickly; for she is only good as long as she wears expensive clothes and keeps mute beside them in First Class cabins.
Temisan is different. He buys her flowers and pretty cards. He sticks post-it notes with “I love you” scribbled on them on mirrors in her house. He discusses football and politics with her and takes her to unlikely places like business dinners and church bazaars; introducing her proudly to everyone as his girlfriend, unmindful of whose ox is gored in the process.
“Do you blame me for wanting more? I had to fucking do something, Faith. I just fucking had to.”
Wincing at her colourful choice of words, Faith says “so that’s what you call all of this? The big wedding, the unnecessary demands…you’re just a liar.”
Nenka curls her bottom lip petulantly “call me what you like. I can’t continue drinking pure water after tasting Moët. Surely you can’t blame me, dear cousin.”
“For how long do you think you can keep this game up? Temisan will find out.”
“No, he won’t” Nenka’s voice carries the weight of confidence “because you’re going to help me.”
Faith shakes her head and looks away. Nenka touches her upper arm and says in a voice that quivers slightly “please Faith, I need you.”
Faith holds herself straight like a well-starched shirt and doesn’t look at her.
Finally, without speaking, she sits on the bed. When she says “no more put downs”, Nenka looks at her as though seeing her with new eyes, before nodding. A comfortable silence descends over them.
The sound of a car driving into the compound floats in through the open window, breaking the still. Faith opens her bag and brings out the almost forgotten loaf of bread. She puts a piece into her mouth and begins to chew unhurriedly. Again, a sound drifts up from outside. It is Temisan, speaking to someone on his phone. Soon the front door closes and there is silence again. Faith cuts another piece and holds it out to Nenka who hesitates, but only for an instant, before she collects it and puts it into her mouth, chewing tentatively. She swallows, and then reaches for more; chewing boldly this time, looking Faith straight in the eye. Faith smiles at her and slowly, she smiles back. A look of understanding passes between them. This is how Temisan finds them when he enters the room.
Copyright May 2010.