Gentlemen of the Bar – 4
The boardroom is full when I walk in. They are about twelve in number. She sits further down the square end of the table with the two women I have come to realize are her best friends. The others are strange faces apart from David, the new lawyer who has mastered the art of appearing magically at every corner, demanding to know the intricacies of the law. I nod at him. He smiles and bows slightly. I am trying to get used to the deference…to the sheepish grins. I am senior partner.
I square my shoulders and fill every space in my dark gray suit jacket with authority, just as he would want me to. Lowering my Blackberry and the file in my hand to the table, I pull the black all important leather swivel chair at the head of the table and sit down.
They chorus their greetings, their voices rising and falling in a disharmonious chant.
Good morning sir.
I look at her. She does not join in the chant. Her eyes are fixed on the stack of papers she holds to her face. We sit through several minutes of chair squeaking and paper rustling until the room finally settles down. I look at the oddity in the room, the figure covered in pale blue Danshiki. The blue stands out in a sea of overbearing black and whites, its owner stiff in the midst of lawyers wearing serious frowns. I smile at the owner of the Danshiki, already acquainted with him through nights of studying his case file.
“Sorry about the wait Mr. Hassan.”
Mr. Hassan nods.
I open the file before me and flip through the papers inside.
“So, I have been briefed by Agatha,” I turn to nod at one of her friends, the one with an identical frown on her oval face and a halo of tight stringy curls sitting comfortably on her head. Agatha acknowledges my mention with a curt nod. I turn back to the file before me. “From what I learned, the processes were served on you two days ago.”
I move my attention to Agatha again.
“I don’t think I have the Statement of Defence here. Do you have it there with you?”
Agatha picks up the papers before her and passes it to the male lawyer beside her and he repeats the action with the lawyer beside him. The papers touch several hands before they get to me. I receive them from a female lawyer with a syrupy sweet smile. I thank her and then read through the documents in my hand, pausing to note each fact with painstaking care. I finish my perusal and look up at Mr. Hassan again.
“Let’s go through the facts of this case again.”
We discuss the case. Mr. Hassan has nothing good to say about the Plaintiff, a lawyer with a thriving practice in one of the properties managed by his company. He lambasts her for being troublesome, counting on the tips of lean fingers, how many times his company has suffered from what he called her excesses. He digresses at some point, raising inconsequential matters designed to layer the tenant with more guilt and improvidence. I let him vent.
“We were tired and so we decided to sell the property,” he says at last, coming to the end of his rambling.
I rustle through the papers with me.
“In the Plaintiff’s statement of claim, she says your firm continued to receive money from her despite issuing her the quit notice.”
“We already told her that there are no records to support her claim,” Mr. Hassan says with a frown.
“Copies of the receipt of the payment are attached to her statement of claim.”
Mr. Hassan shrugs.
“I don’t know, like I said, we have no official records to show that anybody received money from her on behalf of the company.”
I nod. “I see.”
I move through the documents on the table and get to the last page, a dull black and white copy of a photograph showing a detached burglary proof, a shattered sliding door glass and an office in the background that had papers strewn all over the floor. I place the stapled papers on the table and push them towards Mr. Hassan. He picks it up and turns his nose up at it.
“That was done by the officers of your company?”
“Yes,” he says, returning the paper to the table with a shrug and then pushing it back to me again.
A chair squeaks and I turn to her to find a frown of impatience on her face.
“What is the point in all this?”
Heads turn this way and that as the other lawyers forget to slouch in their chairs. I am conscious of the eyes watching me, waiting for my reaction. I breathe deeply and edit her from my field of vision. I nod at the client.
“Sorry about that interruption. So back to our discussion, I think we have to settle this out of court.”
Mr. Hassan blinks at me in confusion.
“Out of court?”
He turns to her with a help-me-here-I-am-lost look. She pushes towards the table and responds to his visual plea.
“What he is trying to say is that we should abandon the case.”
A sneer twisting her face, she cocks an expertly lined brow at me.
“What we don’t know are his reasons for that decision.”
I fight mounting irritation and fix my undivided attention on Mr. Hassan.
“Well, there is evidence that someone in your company has been receiving money from the Plaintiff. This should not be the case. The moment a tenancy agreement has been repudiated through the issuance of an eviction notice, the contract between your company and the tenant is terminated. Your company has no reason to benefit from a repudiated contract.”
“Receipts can be forged,” she says, attacking me from the other end of the table again. “There are no records in the company to back the Plaintiff’s claim of payment. I don’t see how that is a big deal.”
I ignore her.
“Secondly, the law frowns against the destruction of tenants’ properties. By removing her burglary proof and breaking her door, you have contravened that law. I don’t see the judge ruling in our favour.”
“Are we forgetting one little detail?”
I summon an imperturbable expression and face her.
“What could that be?”
Another brow shoots up at me.
“That the Plaintiff had constituted a nuisance throughout the tenancy period.”
“Is that a defence?”
“The Plaintiff operates a law practice on the premises and nothing in this interview has been able to prove that she was indeed a nuisance. Don’t forget we are dealing with a lawyer here who understands the position of the law on these things. We have more to lose if we continue with this case.”
“I agree,” a voice to my right says, causing me to turn to find its source. It is the male lawyer beside her. His eyes are cool but friendly. “I think we should settle out of court.”
The support is unexpected. I try to smile my thanks but something holds me back. I give him a nod instead and return to a squirming Mr. Hassan who has a pained expression on his face. I lecture him about the law, throwing out sections and subsections in dizzying succession until he raises his hands in surrender.
“Okay fine, I guess we will do what you advised.”
The meeting ends as I distribute tasks among the lawyers and arrange a meeting with Mr. Hassan’s tenant. The room soon empties. I sit and wait for her. She is behind Mr. Hassan when she begins to walk past me. I catch her eyes and hold them.
“I need to talk to you now.”
She frowns, adjusts the papers in her hands.
“You need to talk to me about what?”
I heave off my chair and reach for the only thing before me – my phone. The file has long been returned to Agatha who had marched out of the office with military-like efficiency a few minutes ago. I walk to the door and turn to her.
“So your office?”
I drop the papers to my desk and turn to him. He is standing behind one of the chairs across my desk, his face impassive as he watches me.
“Your behaviour in the boardroom….can you try not to repeat it again?”
I simmer and boil.
“Are you gagging me?”
“Listen Angela, I am here to work and as it stands, I am your boss. Talking down at me or attempting to ridicule me before the other lawyers will not be tolerated as from today.”
I fold my arms against my chest.
“Aren’t you unraveling rather nicely? Who would have thought you had such dictatorial tendencies?”
He says nothing, just stands there watching. I drop my arms from my chest.
“Listen, I am not even going to pretend I know why you are here, but please don’t come here and order me around or ask me to like you.”
A smirk breaks through the blank slate that is his face.
“I don’t care about your feelings Angela. What you like or don’t like is none of my business. All I am asking you to do is recognize who has the final say here.”
A cutting remark settles on my tongue but he is already walking away. He stops at the door, one hand on the hand and turns to me.
“And you should really take out time to study the Lagos Tenancy Law. I am afraid your knowledge of the law is a little bit obsolete.”
The door closes after him. I see red. I pick the expensive jotter I had gotten from my mother as a birthday gift and fling it hard at the door. It hits the door with a defeated thump and falls lazily to the floor.
THE OYELOWO MANSION
The woman primed her make-up and checked her reflection again for flaws. Satisfied that she had hidden ten years under her water based foundation, she left her vanity mirror and grabbed her purse. Her short black scoop neck dress hugged her cinched waist and wide hips without exposing the lace corset she wore under it. She slipped her feet into gold strappy sandals with glittering stones and tucked a stray curl behind her ear. Her phone started to blink on the bed and she picked it.
“Have you left home now?”
“Okay, see you soon.”
She grabbed her purse and her car keys from the bed. She was going on a date and it wasn’t with her husband. For the first time in her fifty two years, Damilola Oyelowo nee Adesoga felt truly free.
DOWNSTAIRS THE OYELOWO MANSION
Fausat continued to badger her grandmother.
“Please grandma, say…say yes. Pea…please.”
The old woman laughed at the frustration on her granddaughter’s face.
“I should say say yes to what?”
The frown cleared from Fausat’s face and she buried her face into her grandmother’s laps and giggled at the imitation of her stutter. When she raised her head again, her grandmother was smiling.
“It’s just a date.”
“A date with somebody you met on Facebook ehn Fausat. You want your mother to start shouting abi?”
Fausat made a face.
“She doesn’t have to know.”
“Ehen, so you want me to lie?”
Fausat shook her head and cosied up to her grandmother. “If you don’t teh…tell her, she won’t know. Don’t tell her and you won’t hah…have to lie. Please.”
Her grandmother inclined her head and studied her for some minutes.
“But you are too young to have a boyfriend.”
Fausat drew back with a gasp.
“Huh what? I’m almost seventeen.”
“Ehen? Seventeen is still very young. You are a baby.”
“I’m not,” Fausat said with an incredulous laugh. “I had my first boyfriend in fourth grade.”
“Yeah….urm….I don’t know what it’s called here but it’s what we do after kindergarten.”
Understanding shone in the old woman’s eyes.
“Ah, like Primary school.”
Shock replaced comprehension.
“Ah, so you started having a boyfriend from Primary school. Fausat!”
Fausat clamped a hand over her mouth and dissolved into wild fits of laughter.
“Grand….grandma,” she spluttered at the end of her laughter. “Your so…so funny.”
They were interrupted by the loud clicking of heels against Marble. They turned at the same time to smile at the woman coming down the stairs. They greeted her. The old woman expressed surprise at her elegant ensemble while Fausat overwhelmed her with colourful teenage language.
“Wow, aunty…you look so bad. Your…your outfit is sick.”
The woman smiled demurely and told the old woman she had a meeting with a friend. They watched her cross the living room to the door. There was a frown of concern on the old woman’s face as her daughter in law disappeared from sight.
“So grandma, please?”
The old woman pushed disturbing thoughts from her mind and looked away from the door to her granddaughter’s earnest face.
“Okay but you must come back home on time o.”
They reached a compromise. Fausat would be home from her movie date before nine. A driver was assigned to her. He would wait until the date was over and ferry her home. Fausat tried to negotiate the terms of her deal with her grandmother but got obstinate head shaking instead. She settled for what her grandmother offered, enveloping the old woman in a tight hug.
“Love you grandma.”
As she bounded up the stairs to prepare for her date, her grandmother watched her, a nostalgic smile on her face. How she reminded her of her late husband, that one. She turned again to the door and remembered her daughter in law. She sighed. There was still so much to do.
I am weary and drained of energy when I lean away from my desk. The familiar darkness weighs down on my shoulders and makes my world gray and colourless. I forget work concerns and her sneering face, and remember my conversation this morning with my mother.
Naden, Boma don run o. Ai, why Boma dey do me this kain thing?
What?! How? When did this happen?
I no know o Naden. I go Opolo go find am. When I reach there, dem tell me say im don run.
Knocking at the door makes me sit upright again.
The door opens and a lawyer strolls in with brisk steps. A smile decorates his face, making him almost unrecognizable, but I remember him. He is the one who had supported my decision to settle Mr. Hassan’s case out of court.
“Good evening,” he says.
He looks at the empty chairs beside him.
“Can I sit down?”
He sits down, making sure to arrange this suit jacket around him before looking up at me again.
“Sorry about what happened this morning.”
I give a careless shrug.
“I am not bothered by it.”
He mulls over my answer, stroking his jaw.
“I think that is the right thing to do. There is no need to respond to all that negativity.”
A curious thought occurs to me but I have no time to dwell on it.
“Listen,” he says, leaning forward and propping his elbows on my desk. “I am on your side in this place. If anyone opposes you, be rest assured that they have me to answer to.”
Even though his face is open and friendly, I am slow to react to his show of loyalty. He leans back in his seat, eyes expectant. I exhale and nod slightly.
“Thank you Mr…”
“Rueben,” he supplies, jumping to the edge of his seat and extending his right hand across the table. I take it and give it a perfunctory pump.
I suddenly begin to crave for privacy, for space to analyze the man before me. I flick my wrist and eye my wristwatch. Done with that, I concern myself with looking for nothing under the files on my table. He gets the message and stands up from his chair. I ditch my search and look up at him.
“I guess we’ll see then.”
“Great. Can I have your number?”
I fish out a newly printed card from the leather card holder on my desk and hand it over to him.
His body language is confident when he leaves the office. I watch the door long after he has left and replay his words until I reach a logical conclusion.
He is up to something.
IKOYI BOAT CLUB
The breeze from the Atlantic gathered momentum before forcing its way into the enclosed space, whipping strands of hair loose from tightly wrapped buns on the heads of stylishly dressed women and causing the shirts on the men to cling to their frames and then balloon out again. The man sat alone and watched the sea froth and throw up stormy waves. His eyes were distant and thoughtful as one hand reached to pick up his phone from the table. He tore his gaze away from the sea and looked down at the phone in his hand. He dialed a number and waited for the call to be picked. He did not wait for long.
“Good evening sir.”
“How is it going?”
“So far, so good.”
“Well, there was something this morning but I worked through it.”
The man was about to end the call but he hesitated for a second.
“Where do you live?”
The man’s eyes grew distant again.
“Ah Surulere. What part of Surulere?”
The man’s eyes narrow and the colourful surroundings fade into the sepia of the past. In his mind, he sees a stately white building with a wide balcony and a young woman leaning down from the balcony, a coy smile on her face.
He fought the past with a shake of his head and the sounds of the Atlantic brought him back to the present again.
“I have spoken to Hassan. He will get back to you.”
He didn’t wait for an answer. He never did. He lowered the phone to the table and waited for the man who was now making his way through the throng of sophisticated revelers to him. Yinusa Ali soon met him.
“Boko,” he greeted, his eyes lighting with rare pleasure.
His friend, Yinusa Ali, current Inspector General of Police laughed, adjusting the silver buttons of his long sleeved native shirt.
“Martin, you better stop calling me that. God help you that you don’t make this mistake when somebody who knows somebody in Punch or Guardian carries the wrong news.”
The man laughed. The sound was a rich throaty one. Years fell from his face.
“I’d like to see that happen. It will be an interesting story, I tell you.”
Yinusa Ali laughed.
“You know these days, every Hausa man is seen as Boko Haram. One has to be careful with you Southerners o!”
“Is that why you are looking like the President now?”
“Oh, I am beginning to like this attire,” Yinusa Ali said with a smile before excusing himself to motion to a passing waiter. After placing his order of whiskey and coke, he became businesslike.
“So how is it going with the case?”
Martin Oyelowo reached for his own drink on the table.
“So far, so good. I am sure we will be ready at the next hearing date.”
Yinusa Ali nodded.
They talked about the case for only a few minutes, the Inspector General of Police deciding that his friend was more capable to dealing with an issue that had threatened his career and cordial relationship with the president. It was a beneficial arrangement. Martin Oyelowo stood to gain a lot if everything went according to plan. They sipped their drinks and talked about women. A teasing smile on his face, Yinusa Ali sought to know Martin Oyelowo’s progress with the wife of the president of their club, a Russian beauty with a flirty eye and hordes of lovers from the club’s patrons. He leaned and whispered to Martin.
“So have you….you know?”
A mischievous wink finished his statement. Martin laughed.
“Hmmm,” Yinusa Ali said, leaning back into his seat. “So what are you waiting for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it madam?”
“Since when did she start controlling me?”
Just then, Yinusa Ali’s eyes caught those of a beautiful woman in a group of two female friends sitting three tables away from them. Her skin was flawless and her full chest distracting. He feasted on her beauty until something struck him and he called his friend’s attention to the woman.
“Martin, is that not your wife?”
Martin Oyelowo turned in his seat and stared at the strange vision before him. His mind was filled with one thought.
What is she doing here dressed like that?
I walk back to join Henry and his friends, still reeling from the call from Mr. Hassan.
He has asked us to get you a four bedroom apartment in Lekki. I am coming to your office tomorrow so that we can go and see the houses I have selected.
I claim my other former seat, a lumpy chair at the edge of the haphazard arrangement in Henry’s living room. Henry and his friends are still discussing my issue with Angela. I had let my guard down today and shared the story of her animosity with them and they had latched on to it, sharing stories of similar experiences with women.
“Women ehn, if you follow their behaviour, you fit just confuse,” Itohen says, shaking his head, one leg stretched out before him and the other bent at the knee. “Na so my girlfriend been dey do before we begin dey date. I been hate am before ehn. That time, we dey work for the same office…for GT Bank. Any small thing, the girl go just dey attack me. Before I talk one, she don talk fifty.”
Itohen changes his voice to a high pitched imitation of a female.
“Is it because I am a woman….is it because I am a woman?”
There is a general laughter and Itohen goes back to his voice.
“I go just dey vex. Who dey struggle your womanhood with you? Comot make person see road abeg.”
I smile and the others guffaw.
“So how una take settle?” Henry asks, slugging beer from the Star bottle in his hand.
“I no even remember,” Itohen says with a shrug, “I just find myself with am.”
“E be like say na so them dey take show love,” Abbey quips, a grin on his face. “Fight before surrender.”
“So maybe this Naden babe sef like am.”
I shake my head.
“Nah, we really don’t like each other.”
I get a message alert and pull my phone from the breast pocket of my shirt when I had dropped it after returning back to the living room. The number is strange until I read the message.
Hi, hope you are having a great weekend. I will need to talk to you on Monday about Angela. I have something I think might interest you.
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.