Gentlemen of the Bar – 3
I open one eye to thick darkness as a small squeak jolts me from the comforting depths of sleep and tosses me rudely to the conscious world of phantom images that creep stealthily towards me like ghosts with malicious intents. Rendered immobile by horror and surprise, I can only watch as the ghosts in the room come together, expand grotesquely before falling back into a compact, single form. The solitary ghost climbs into my bed, presses against me and inhales.
“I think they are fighting again.”
I try to stretch but the ghost which has now become the warm flesh of my cousin has attached itself by my side. I give up my bid to loosen my muscles and yawn instead.
“Aunty and uncle.”
I sigh. “Oh okay.”
Fully awake now, I listen to the soft whirring of the air conditioner in the room. The shadows have now cleared and I make out the small square shapes of the recessed lights in the ceiling. I think of my parents, of the many times I had woken up as a child to their loud arguments and my mother’s keening cries. Then my heart solidifies into that unfeeling mass of revenge and resentment. I hear myself swear in that wide living room with velvet chairs and pictures of old women wearing giant red beads on their neck.
I will be a lawyer. I will put men who fight with their wives in prison.
It was 1998 and my grandmother had been impressed by my solemn declaration as the white of the sky turned to burnt orange over the town of Oshogbo.
Beeni oo omo mi, you will be a lawyer, a very big lawyer.
I had been awarded the sugary treat of coconut chips covered with brown crusty sugar.
Oya wa gba Sisi Pelebe.
“They kinda argue a lot.”
I rub an itchy spot on the tip of my nose.
Fausat says nothing after that. She tightens her crushing grip on me and breathes noisily.
“I love your perfume.”
I wince and begin to pry Fausat’s fingers loose from my side.
Free from Fausat, I pull myself to a sitting position and push to the edge of the bed. I pad barefoot to the bathroom with a full bladder and the sudden reminder of a court case at eleven this morning. I close the door behind me and commence my early morning rituals.
A FEW ROOMS DOWN THE HALLWAY
The man stood a few steps away from the double size bed in the white painted room with ornate drawers and heavy red velvet curtains, a dark scowl on his face as he looked down at the silk covered figure glowering at him with equal dislike from the bed.
“And so what?” he fumed, lips twisting in anger. “What right do you have to ask me about her?”
They had been like this for the past thirty minutes, arguing about his recent friendship with the president of the boat club in Ikoyi where they were both members. The woman on the bed shook her head.
“You are a shameless man Martin Oyelowo,” the woman hissed at her husband, nose turning in contempt, “A useless man.”
The man approached the bed with threatening steps.
“Watch your tongue. Don’t make me lose my temper.”
The woman sprang to her knees, her eyes blazing in fury, neckline plunging awkwardly to one side and exposing the creamy swell of full D cup breasts weighed down by gravity.
“Or you will do what Martin?” she challenged, body shaking with anger. “Or you will do what?”
The man said nothing, his jaw working as he exchanged angry looks with his wife. The woman sank back on her haunches but her eyes still glittered with fury.
“You never get tired. If it is not that your secretary, it is the president’s wife.”
The man’s look became one of scorn.
“You are petty.”
“And you are stupid.”
“I have warned you…”
His wife was not listening.
“Just keep doing your nonsense you hear. Just continue. At least Ranti is grown now. I don’t have any reason to stay in this house.”
A sneer appeared on the man’s face.
“Oh you want to go? What are you waiting for? Do you think I care what you do with yourself?”
The woman hissed, drawing a serpentine sound that conveyed all of the disgust she was feeling at that moment.
“I am sure there are countless men standing outside your father’s house to ask for the hand of a fifty two year old woman in marriage,” the man continued, his tone derisive as his sneer transformed into a mocking grin.
The woman laughed bitterly.
“Oh is it because I have not been telling you? You just wait. Wait and see Martin. Let me just leave your house first.”
The man scoffed and then turned on his heels. He was at the door in seconds, yanking the handle and stomping into the hallway. His progress was halted by the sight of his mother leaning on the wall opposite the door. He drew himself to his full height, against the disapproval on the older woman’s face. Mother and son said nothing. She glared, eyes reminding him of past family meetings and lengthy advice sessions. He shrugged, forcing the material of his cotton pyjamas top to rise and fall on his shoulders, and then walked away to his study downstairs.
Inside the room, his wife sank back on the bed, eyes brimming with unshed tears.
The man settled into his study, flipping light switches, remote controls and anything he could lay his hands on. When lights burned brightly above him and the television hummed with advert jingles, he stood in the middle of his study, eyes on the small framed Polaroid portrait of his wife in her twenties that sat on his desk. He remembered.
Ooo ah Tolu fimile.
Okay, I’ll let you go if you kiss me just this once.
Ah ooo (giggling) why do you like kissing so much? Is that the latest thing in London?
Okay fine, let me take you back to Surulere. I am sure your mother is expecting you back now.
Are you angry? Are you sure? Oya, come and kiss.
Some of the darkness left his face but he turned the photo face down anyway.
I massage the back of my neck as I read the report of the case on my desk.
The matter was set down today for definite hearing. Tobi Ezekiel and Sumbo Ayeni appeared for Plaintiff/Applicant. Okon Bassey appeared for the Defendant/Respondent.
Tobi moved motion to amend statement of claim as fresh facts had arisen since pleadings were first filed. Counsel to Defendant/Respondent opposed the application, stating that he was not aware of the latest developments and that the motion was only filed on him this morning. He asked the Honourable Court to dismiss the application, stating that several frivolous applications had been brought in the past. He asked for costs to be awarded in his favour.
The Learned Judge asked Tobi why he was just serving the amended statement of claim on the Counsel to the Defendant and Tobi informed the Honourable Court that he had served the amended statement of claim at Defendant Counsel’s office since last week Friday. Tobi thereafter proceeded to provide the Court with evidence of receipt by another Counsel at Counsel to Defendant’s firm.
Citing Order 24, rule 1 of the Lagos High Court Civil Procedure Rules, the Learned Judge in his ruling granted Tobi leave to amend the Statement of Claim.
Consequently, the matter was adjourned to January 24 for Hearing.
Counsel – Sumbo Ayeni
I close the white arch folder with a snap, straighten and push back from my desk. I fetch my jacket from the coat rack beside the desk and push my hands into the sleeves. The door opens and the secretary I had inherited from my boss pokes her head through the door.
“Sir, the meeting you asked me to remind you about. It is about to start.”
“Thank you Ugonna.”
The woman gives me a red lipsticked smile and closes the door so quietly, it barely makes a sound. I pick the file from the desk and leave the office.
Our eyes meet as he walks towards me. I stop short of rolling my eyes and turn to David who is brimming over with curiousity at the moment.
“I have two questions actually,” David continues before breaking off to bob his head at the intruder approaching from the opposite direction. I keep my eyes fastened on David, refusing to give him any more attention.
“Good morning sir.”
His voice is deep and when he answers David, it is with a slow drawl that rolls into my ears with ease.
“Good morning…David, right?”
I scoff inwardly at his drawl.
David bops again, grinning from ear to ear.
I become impatient with the bobbing.
“Oh sorry,” David apologizes, even though his eyes are still fixed adoringly on the man I know is standing at my shoulder. “What I wanted to know is if there is a defence to an action brought years after it occurred?”
I smile and begin to answer David’s question but I never make it.
“You are asking about the limitation law and if there are defences, exceptions when an action becomes statute barred as a result of being instituted years after it occurred, am I right?”
“Yes,” David says, nodding vigorously.
“Actually, there are various limitation periods for different subject matter claims. For actions based on simple contracts….debt recovery, you have six years, twenty years for land recovery by a state authority, twelve years for claims on a deceased person’s personal estate. As for defences and exceptions, the time at which the party became aware of the injury can be a defence. Fraud, the existence of a legal right, unsoundness of mind are also defences.”
“Wow, thank you,” David says, taking his hero worshiping a notch higher. “I am sorry to impose but I have another question…” Pausing to consult the note pad in his right hand, David raises his head to beam brightly at the man behind me. I am completely forgotten but I stand bravely in the shadow of David’s object of worship. “I am trying to review a case and one of the documents attached to pleadings is an unsigned resignation letter. In the university and law school, we were taught that unsigned documents have no value as admissible evidence in the courts of law, so…I don’t know,” David’s grin is sheepish as he attacks an itchy spot at the side of his side which I think is more from anxiousness to please than from a scalp infection. “I wonder why the counsel to the other party attached it to the pleadings.”
“Well, you have answered your question yourself. The law is quite settled on the probative value of unsigned documents. It is useless as a means of proving the claim of its contents. You can look up the case of A.G of Kwara State versus Alao.”
David grins widely, bombarding me with soft pink tissue coated with the fine silver of saliva and rows and rows of milk white teeth.
“Thank you sir.”
Suddenly remembering me, he turns to me and nods.
“And you too An…Angela.”
I clear my throat to clear hoarseness formed by irritation and smile as brightly as I can manage.
“It’s okay. I am sure he has managed to teach you something.”
David bows before turning away to walk to his office. As soon as the door closes behind him, I turn and then take a step back when I find him-who-is-my-nemesis standing too close to me. His eyes are cool as they appraise me.
I lift my chin up.
“Yes, I believe I said that.”
His eyes narrow and he steps away from me before I can ask him to.
“Okay Angela. I won’t take away your right to pass thinly veiled insults.”
I watch coolly as he looks sideways at the door of the boardroom.
“I believe we are supposed to have a brief meeting here.”
I raise my right eyebrow at him.
“I have a meeting with our lawyers. I am not sure about we.”
He smiles but it is humourless. I replicate his smile.
“Your meeting is cancelled.”
I stop smiling.
“You heard me.”
I scoff. “Like you have a right to. Like I am going to take someone who has only been here for two minutes serious.”
He shrugs. “You don’t have to but the fact remains that I am the senior partner in this firm now and my word stays.”
Anger shoots up in my veins and blinds me to fear of titles and fathers with tricks up their sleeves. I close the distance between us and jab a finger at his chest.
“Listen, I don’t know what game you and my father are playing but no one…I mean, no one orders me around in this firm, okay.”
He says nothing, does nothing, except to push one hand into the pocket of his trouser.
“Have you finished?”
I am too angry to answer. I lower my hand to my side and glare at him. Seconds tick and I suddenly become aware of the loud tap tap of keys and our single audience. I look back at Laide and find that she is staring with wide eyed concentration at her computer screen. When I turn back to him, his spot is empty and the door of the boardroom is now open. I hurry into the boardroom. I am just in time to hear him announce to Agatha and Aisha who are sitting behind the circular conference table, sheets of papers scattered in front of them.
“Good morning ladies. I am afraid there has been a change in plans. Angela and I will be representing the firm in this case. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
As my friends walk past me to the door with questions in their eyes, I realize for the first time in my life that I am capable of murder.
The judge, a no nonsense man with zero tolerance for adjournment seeking lawyers is breathing down the neck of my opponent, a tall stooping young man with an apologetic smile hanging awkwardly on his face.
“You think I am here to waste my time?” he explodes, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Rifling through papers and sending a few across the dias, he scowls at my opponent as the court clerk to scampers in pursuit of the papers.
“This case was brought into this court last year and all you have done is ask for adjournments the moment the case is set down for hearing.”
“Sir,” my opponent splutters, adjusting his stiffly starched collar and looking down at his papers in his hand. “From what I have here…as I have been briefed by the counsel that appeared for the defendant the last time, it was the counsel to the plaintiff that delayed the case by asking for more time to amend their statement of claim.”
I start to rise from my seat but the judge is already answering my opponent.
“I know exactly what happened at the last adjourned date but you people have been responsible for the delays in this case. Listen young man, this is the last adjournment I am granting in this case. If you are not ready at the next adjourned date, I am striking this case off the cause list.”
“Yes sir. Thank you sir.”
The judge orders the court clerk to find a suitable date for the next hearing. We get a date and the judge makes reads his ruling in a gruff voice.
Somewhere behind me, a soft chorus is taken up. I add my voice to it.
As the court pleases.
We leave the court, Angela and I. Outside the court premises, the driver is slouching behind the wheel of the white Mitsubishi Pajero Jeep that is the firm’s official car. He rushes out of the car, reaches for the handle of the attaché case in my hand and pushes it into the boot of the Pajero. We sit far from each other in the backseat. Her face is turned to window the entire length of the drive to the office, exposing the harsh lines of a jaw clenched too tight. I smile.
I dump the file on my desk with more force than is necessary.
“I am so pissed right now.”
Agatha and Amina sit on the leather sofa at the end of the office and shake their heads in sympathy.
“Eyah. Sorry,” Amina says, crossing long smooth legs. “I would be pissed too if I were you.”
“Can’t you talk to your father about this?”
I shake my head at Agatha.
“I can’t and I won’t. I am not going to beg him to be senior partner. I don’t even know what he is up to.”
Her face squeezing in a thoughtful frown, Amina cocks her head to the side.
“Do you think he is trying to set you up with him like he tried to do with Rueben?”
I kick off my shoes and lower into my swivel chair. I think about Amina’s question for some minutes. Was there a plan by my father to get me together with him? I summon his face in my mind’s eye and study the proud tilt in his jaw and the coldness in his eyes. I shake my head.
“I don’t think so.”
“Me too,” Agatha says with a nod. “He is nothing like Rueben. He reminds me of your father in a way. Maybe he is here for something else. We have to watch him.”
We agree that the man who had somehow usurped my position in the firm had an ulterior motive that went beyond navigating the confines of my skirt and make a pact to study his every move. I am still incensed when my friends leave for lunch. I reach for my phone and dial a number.
“Hello,” says the voice of the man who provided occasional intimacy when I needed it.
“Hi. Can we meet later?”
“Hmm, this is a nice surprise and it is not even my birthday yet.”
I roll my eyes.
“You know me Angie, later…now…tomorrow…I am always at your beck and call.”
“Fine then. See you at six.”
I end the call, breathe out my frustration and look forward to a passionate night with my occasional boyfriend.
Her car is parked outside the gate of the compound when I get to the house. I slow down to a crawl and battle with myself for some minutes. Finally, I make my decision and press down on the accelerator. My destination is Henry’s place at Animashaun. He is lounging outside the gray and white building with his usual group of friends. I get rid of my jacket and tie and join them. The mood is mellow and the language informal.
“Guy, how far na?”
“How that your job?”
“Fine babes dey for the office?”
I deflect the questions and merge with the crowd until I no longer stand out. Soon, talk shifts to the hordes of women patrolling the street. A particularly curvy one with a quite sizeable behind obscenely outlined in a tight fitted blue dress is the center of attention.
“Chei, this babe no go kill persin,” Abbey, one of Henry’s friends says, his eyes bulging as he watches the girl swing past us with provocative steps. “Na which kain nyansh be this?”
“That one no be nyansh again o,” Itohen, another of Henry’s friends adds, his head shaking as he too follows the girl’s movement down the street. “Na persin. You no see say the thing get mind of im own? Check am….look am well. See as she dey go left, the nyansh dey go right. Na persin the thing be abeg.”
I join the raucous laughter but it is not long before my individuality wins and I begin to feel out of place again. I drag Henry to the side to discuss privately.
“How work today?”
“It was okay.”
“Your oga…you talk to am today?”
“No, not yet.”
“Okay. The chick nko?”
I smile at the memory of my face off with Angela.
“She hates me.”
Henry is not interested in Angela’s feelings towards me. His overall interest in women usually hinged on whatever aesthetic qualities they possessed.
“Yes, she is.”
“She fine reach Esiri?”
I look away to the dull yellow headlights of an approaching car.
“They are different.”
Henry smiles and winks at me.
“E be like say you don like the girl.”
I smile and shake my head.
“Not really. I feel nothing actually. She is a little rude but that’s okay.”
We stand together and watch cars whizz past us. Henry asks about Boma. My heart sinks.
“Not good. I spoke with one of the officers in charge of the situation. He gave me somebody’s number I Abuja.”
Henry shakes his head in sympathy.
“Na wa. Boma never change.”
I hang out with Henry for thirty minutes, listening to dirty jokes and ignoring my ringing phone. When night falls and I know she would have gone home to her husband, I leave Henry and his friends, and head home again.
We are on his bed, caught between sheets as we kiss deeply. I should be enjoying his groping, the tongue pushing relentlessly into my mouth and the knee finding its way roughly between my legs but I am not.
“Wait,” I gasp, coming up for air. His face is passion inflamed and very worried.
“Did I hurt you?”
I sigh and try to sit up. He retrieves the barricade that is his leg and helps me up. I give him an apologetic smile.
“I am sorry. I don’t know what is wrong with me.”
Disappointment clouds his face immediately. He knows he will not be sleeping with me tonight. I know it too. I pick up my discarded skirt and wriggle into it. I walk to his bathroom to reassemble whatever dignity had been dismantled by our fifteen minute foreplay.
“Sorry,” I try again when I return back to the room.
Fully aroused and still lying on his back, he gives me a weak smile.
“It’s okay Angela. I know there will be other days.”
I blow him a kiss and lock myself out his apartment. As I drive back to Lekki, I can’t help but replay my time with him in my head.
What happened to me back there?
I allow the phone ring for a while before I pick it.
“How did it go?”
“It went well sir.”
“Did you have any difficulty with her?”
“Good. Have you started looking at the file?”
The phone clicks his goodbye. I sigh and return it to the bed. I reach for the file on my bed, separate the metal clips and lift up the papers inside. I read into the night, my conscience pricking with each turned page. The evidence is damning and the conclusion clear. I harden myself against my conscience. This is just a job.
I pace the room, unsettled and a little angry with myself.
“Think Angela, think. He is there for something. Find out what.”
Thirty minutes later, I am still blank. I sink into my bed in disappointment and scroll mindlessly through my phone. My finger stops at a name and flirt with a thought.
I call Rueben.
“Hi Angela. I missed you at work today. When did you leave?”
“Four thirty. Listen Rueben, I need you to do something for me. Please.”
I tell Rueben about him and share my suspicions with him. I hatch a plan with him and listen as he hails my intelligence. I enjoy the flattery and forgive Rueben his past sins. We talk easily as we bury the hatchet. We have a common enemy now.
Meaning of Yoruba words used.
Ooo ah Tolu fimile. – Ooo ah Tolu, leave me alone
Beeni oo omo mi – Yes oo my child
Oya wa gba Sisi Pelebe – Okay, come and take Sisi Pelebe (coconut chips roasted with sugar)
Bio: Umari Ayim is a lawyer, writer and a poet. Her books ‘Twilight at Terracotta Indigo’ and ‘Inside My Head’ won the ANA women prize for fiction and ANA poetry prize respectively. Her works have been featured on new and traditional media platforms. She shares weekly series on her blog www.umariayim.com.