Gentlemen of the Bar – 5
Some days I keep my resentment against the male species hidden under layers of civility. Other days, I let it run free.
As I watch tears fill Amina’s eyes, I find another reason not to like men. Today Amina is an emotional mess, her face a macabre portrait of many colours – black running into brown, red sitting side by side with pink, shimmering gold smudged by overflowing ivory.
Pressing the sodden tissue against her tear streaked face, Amina sniffs into the phone.
“Mai ya sa?”
An intense frown on her face, she listens to whatever her fiance of three years is saying. I see a slight tremor run through the hand holding the wad of tissue in her hand. She lowers the tissue to the table and runs the free hand through black wavy hair made possible by her Arab genes. Her mother, a Tunisian who had met and married her father in London and had settled in a five bedroom duplex in Ennasr city, an upscale area of Tunis with Amina’s sister, still pressed Amina about finding a suitor among her Berber relatives but Amina’s ties to her Hausa heritage had meant she chose Nigeria instead of her mother’s birth country.
“Ba zan zo Sokoto ba,” Amina says after a while with a shake of head.
I sigh. Even though my understanding of Hausa is practically non-existent, the mention of Sokoto gives me an insight into the conversation Amina is having with her fiance. The argument about moving back to Sokoto had been the bone of contention between Amina and Aminu for the past year. Aminu favoured a move to Sokoto to perform his princely duties at palace of the Sultan, a place he had not been since he was five years old after his grandfather, the last Sultan died in a plane crash at Abuja while on his way back to Sokoto from a meeting with a former president in Lagos.
Amina pulls the phone from her ear and drops it without much ceremony on the table. I react with alarm as the black and gold damask patterned iPhone lands with a clatter and skids dangerously to the edge of my desk. Oblivious to my reaction, Amina reaches for a tissue from the box of Kleenex beside my laptop. She blows her nose noisily and aims the tissue in the direction of the metal waste basket beside her with precision.
“I am so tired,” she says, slumping into her chair. “I want out of this relationship. This back and forth is killing me.”
I am angry for Amina’s sake. Her decision to return to Nigeria was because of Aminu who is also a lawyer. They had made plans while studying together in London, some of which I was privy to and one of such plans included making a home in Lagos, but this was not to be. Aminu had changed the moment he visited Sokoto for his Uncle’s burial. His dreams with Amina had taken a backseat. There were even rumours of an affair with the daughter of a serving Senator. A part of me is itching to tell Amina to move on with her life but I know that will never happen. Aminu is Amina’s life, the first man she had ever known and the only love of her life.
I fiddle with the pen on my desk and bite my tongue to keep from interfering with Amina’s relationship.
“What do you think I should do?”
I look up from the pen. Her face restored to its natural state with the help of the tissue in her hand, Amina is a picture of innocence and dejection.
“You know how I am with these things Amina. You shouldn’t be asking me that sort of question.”
Amina slumps deeper in her chair, her face contorted in pain.
“It is just so hard. Why does he keep doing this….coming back and then giving me hope…only for the fighting to start again.”
I return to my fiddling.
“I think I should break off the engagement.”
My tongue properly restrained under my teeth, I hold on to my resolution not to interfere. I look towards the door.
Where is Agatha when you need her?
Moderate in her worldview, Agatha always took the middle ground on matters of love. I maintained my position on the extreme left while Amina suffered lack of will and emotional dependence on the far right.
“I think you should talk to Agatha.”
Her eyes lighting up at my suggestion, Amina nods and drags herself up in her chair.
Amina remembers a case review she is working on and repairs her make-up with the help of my make-up kit. Looking like a high-powered lawyer once again, she leaves my office, her steps quick and assured. As she closes the door, taking her emotional baggage with her, I remember my own mother’s struggles and the early morning conversation with Fausat who had once again crept into my bed while I slept. Her nose almost touching my own, Fausat had been concerned about the constant fighting between my parents while I struggled with wakefulness.
“I hear Aunty and Unk…uncle fight all the time. That’s not good.”
“Are they gonna get a divorce?”
“I don’t know.”
“Divorces are bad. I still miss my dad. He is married again. Her name is Martha and I hate her.”
“She is from Mexee…Mexico.”
“Not great. She makes great Tacos though.”
“You keep saying okay.”
“Maybe they ah…argue so much ‘cause they like each other…”
I remember my lips twisting in a sardonic smile.
“Do you think they are having sex?”
My smile had slipped. I had closed my eyes and pretended the question was never asked but Fausat was determined to add an amorous quality to the squabbling that has characterized my parents’ marriage since I was a child.
“So they are having sex then ‘cause my friend Tanya says oh…only people having sex fight that way.
I continued to ignore Fausat who was by then happy to continue the conversation with herself.
“Eewww old people sex…..gross.”
Hours later, I met my mother on my way out of the house. She was dressed in a simple cream lace layered dress, her purse tucked under her arm as she chatted with my grandmother. I learned from our five minute conversation that she had an early morning meeting with a lawyer. Keeping her lips sealed about the purpose of the meeting, she left me standing with my grandmother in the living room and drawing conclusions.
My parents are getting a divorce. Finally.
I drive through the gates of the compound in my new car, a gift from my boss. The steering of the BMW X5 moves smoothly in my hand as I steer the car towards the parking space beside Angela’s car, a white Audi A6.
I grab my jacket from the passenger seat and leave the car. I am expecting a call from him by ten thirty and all I have is fifteen minutes left, no thanks to unexpected traffic caused by a broken down fuel tanker on the expressway that led to the office.
My jacket slung over my right hand, I walk into the office and right into the path of an argument between two lawyers, male and female. The argument stops and the lawyers nod at me in greeting. I respond and begin to walk past them when the female raises her finger to stop me.
I look down at my wristwatch. Twelve minutes left. I look at the female lawyer who has now walked to meet me, a small smile on her face.
“Sorry sir to disturb you sir but Lekan and I were just arguing….”
I wince inwardly. Not now.
“…About one of our cases. Our client is supposed to have defaulted in his Mortgage payment and the bank….the Plaintiff has applied for Summary judgment….”
“Under Order eleven of the Lagos State High Court Rules,” Lekan adds unnecessarily, a smirk on his face. The female lawyer whose name I have not quite grasped does something that resembles an eye roll, and then continues.
“Apart from the mortgage payment, he is claiming legal fees for his lawyer as special damages…Lekan thinks the judge might rule in his favour because of the client’s default.”
I forget my time constraint and turn to Lekan.
“Is it explicitly stated in the contract that in the event of a default in Mortgage payment, the client is expected to pay the legal fees of the lawyer representing the bank?”
Lekan’s face squeezes in a thoughtful frown and he shakes his head.
“No sir. I can’t remember seeing it in the contract.”
I nod. “Okay, are you aware that special damages must be strictly proved and that such damages cannot be automatically made into liquidated money claims?”
Lekan adjusts his collar and appears to think about his answer.
“Fortune International Bank versus City Express. You might want to look that up.”
“So, legal fees unless previously agreed upon cannot be claimed in an action brought against the defaulting Mortgagee.”
The two lawyers murmur their thanks and turn away in the direction of their office while I resume my journey to my office with the longest strides I can manage. I am putting up my jacket on the coat rail when the intercom rings.
“Good morning sir.”
“You will be getting a call from the Inspector General of Police after I drop this call.”
His call drops almost immediately and the phone rings again. The voice of the Inspector General is gruff but very warm.
“How are you young man?”
“I am great sir.”
“I guess you are familiar with our case.”
“Yes sir, I am.”
“So what do you make of it?”
I begin to answer but pause as I suffer a conscience attack.
Naden, this is wrong.
“Hello? Young man?”
I silence my inner turmoil.
“Yes sir, I am. Sorry about that. The case…we can win it with the right witnesses.”
“We have some witnesses….the officers involved.”
“We will need more. Civilian witnesses probably.”
“I see. Let me see what I can arrange. I will get back to you soon.”
“And you should be getting ready for a trip to Kano. I need you to meet with the officers.”
I am suffering another bout of conscience attack when someone knocks on the door. It is Rueben. I remember his message as he quickly makes himself comfortable opposite me.
“So how is everything going?”
I listen to my gut tell me all sort of things about the man seated before me as I prepare to give him a single word answer. He is nodding now, his pencil think mustache curling with his lips as he smiles.
“So what did you want to tell me about Angela?”
“Ah that,” Reuben says, straightening the lapels of his suit jacket and leaning forward. “I think she wants you out of this place.”
I find myself smiling at the earnest frown on his face.
Leaning back in his chair, Reuben wears a surprised look.
“Did you know?”
“Know about her not wanting me out of this place?”
I shrug. “Well, I know nothing about Angela’s plans but whatever she is cooking up is her headache. I am not bothered by it.”
Reuben frowns some more, elbow retracting from my desk as he leans back again into his seat.
“I don’t think you should brush this off as nothing. She is a very manipulative and ambitious woman, even dangerous to an extent. She will do anything to get you out of that chair….and did you know she was actually made senior partner for only a few days?”
Reuben twists in his chair and looks at the door as if expecting the subject of our discussion to come charging into the office. When he looks at me, his eyes face is full of loathing. He wriggles to the edge of his seat, fingers settling on my desk.
“She wants me to help her get you out of this place. She called me some days ago and asked me to watch you.”
Reuben’s admission is unexpected. I want to ask questions but something restrains me from doing so. I sit and wait for more revelations. Reuben taps his fingers on the table and obliges me.
“She asked me to get close to you. She thinks you are here for something.” His expression turning somber, Reuben stops his tapping on my desk. “Women like Angela…they will do anything for power. You should watch your back in this place.”
I adjust my chair and lean forward.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I think you should know.”
I nod slowly. “Okay.”
Reuben begins to say something but my phone rings that instant, causing his lower jaw to snap back in place. I nod at him.
Henry is loud and cheerful.
“Ol’ boy how far na?”
“Good morning Henry.”
“You dey work?”
“You dey close early today?”
I look at Reuben. His unflinching gaze is direct and unabashedly curious. Even though he is settled back in his seat, his body is tilted sideways as if straining to hear the conversation between me and Henry. I lean back in my chair and increase the distance between us.
“You suppose close early na. You don forget say we suppose do washing for your new house and your new car this night?”
“Ah that, I have forgotten.”
“No forget o. We go leave Surulere for four, so dey expect us.”
“Text me the address abeg.”
I remember my lack of furnishings and means of entertainment. I look at Reuben again. He is still watching me closely. I sigh inwardly and give up trying to be discrete in my conversation with Henry.
“Don’t forget the place is kind of new and the fridge is practically empty.”
Henry tells me he and his friends will be bringing beer along with them. We end the conversation on the agreement to meet at my new apartment by four in the evening.
“So you are having a party tonight,” Reuben says, a smile on his face as one leg crosses over the other.
I cross my own leg. “Yes.”
“Great. So can I come?”
Everywhere is silent, except inside my head. I am in the same position I have been since my meeting with Mr. Hassan. I massage the back of my neck and push away from my desk after putting the papers I had been studying to the left hand corner of the table. I think about Mr. Hassan’s revelations.
Why would my father give Naden a new house?
What kind of deal did they have?
I leave my chair and walk barefoot to the door, determined to find the missing piece to the puzzle that Naden’s ties to my father presented. I make a U-turn at the door and march back to my desk.
Something…something. What is it?
Think Angela. Think.
Ten minutes and a hundred possibilities later, there is no plausible answer for my questions. I am frustrated and a little upset when I slump into my chair in defeat. I think of Reuben and our plan, and as if reading my thoughts, the intercom buzzes with his call.
“How far? Gotten anything on him yet?”
“Not really. The dude is elusive but I will be studying him. Don’t worry. Leave him to me.”
I am disappointed by Reuben’s answer. I had expected more. His visits to Naden’s office had been growing in frequency these days. How could he not have gotten information on Naden?
“So you haven’t even gotten where he is from.”
Reuben’s sigh is long and exasperated.
“Angela, I said leave him to me.”
It is my turn to sigh and I take my time.
“Are you angry with me?”
“Good, don’t be.”
Left with nothing to say, I plead a headache and hang up the receiver. I sit down with my thoughts for a long time, vaguely aware of the rapidly darkening sky outside my blind covered windows. I am jolted out of my reverie by a knock on the door. It is Agatha and she is here to deliver her goodbyes. I wave her forward in excitement. Pushing my chair closer to the desk as she approaches me, a frown of curiousity on her face, I lean my elbows on my desk and smile.
“What if I get close to him to find out things about him myself?”
Agatha is aghast at my question. She does not ask me who. She just stands there like statue and stares at me like I have lost my mind.
THE OYELOWO MANSION
Martin Oyelowo was lost for words for the first time since his marriage. He did not know what to make of his wife’s recent announcement. They stared at each other, two strangers sharing the same name.
“You want a what?” Martin asked, incredulous as his eyes followed the new creature in short white silk nightdress floating towards the bed, left hand massaging lotion into her right arm.
“A divorce,” Damilola Oyelowo, his wife, said calmly as she curled among her several pillows.
Martin looked for the usual tears but he found none. The determination on his wife’s face caused him to experience unusual panic.
“A divorce for what?” Martin heard himself ask even as he tried to appear unaffected by the change that had come over his wife.
Damilola did not hear her husband’s panic. She heard arrogance and reacted to it by shooting Martin a withering look.
“Am I supposed to answer that question?”
“Yes,” Martin said, crossing his arms against his chest. “I expect you to answer it. What do you want a divorce for?”
Damilola was quiet for a while and then decided that Martin deserved an answer. She tossed back her head.
“To be free of you Martin…to be free of this marriage. I told you I would leave.”
Martin wanted to laugh, to call her bluff but found that his tongue would not move. He felt his blood pressure rise. He said the only thing he could manage.
“You are out of your mind.”
Damilola shrugged. “I don’t care what you think. I am leaving you so you can chase after every woman that catches your fancy. My lawyer will contact you tomorrow.”
Martin glowered at his wife for some minutes and then turned to stomp out of the room. He slammed the door forcefully on his way out, causing the sound to echo around the house. His absence gave Damilola a chance to massage the painful spot on the left side of her chest. She was not supposed to hurt. She was leaving the man who had caused her pain for many years. So why did she feel pain?
DOWNSTAIRS THE OYELOWO MANSION
Martin Oyelowo searched for his drugs in the upper drawer of his study desk. There were several white plastic containers scattered at the bottom of the drawer. He picked and uncapped one of the containers with Atenolol written on it and then shook a single tablet into the palm of his right hand. He dragged weary feet to the water dispenser just a few steps away and fetched cold water in a brown mug. He downed his drugs quickly and walked back to his chair. He sat still for a while, felt his back begin to ache. Releasing a short sigh, he pressed the button on the arm rest of the chair and the chair became a recliner. He closed his eyes and the memories came back.
It was the 2nd of January, 1985. The sky was overcast and hanging with rain soaked clouds. The mood in the living room of the four bedroom duplex Martin Oyelowo had just purchased in Keffi Street, a quiet street off Awolowo Way Ikoyi, was sad and the adults sitting on camel back chairs with velvet upholstery avoided each other’s eyes. A little girl, aged three was tucked in a corner of the room, a colourful book about gnomes and wizard shielding her from the pervading gloom in the room. The middle aged woman in green kaftan reached for the limp right hand of the beautiful young woman sitting beside her.
“Damilola, you will have others. Your life is more important to us.”
The young woman’s lips quivered and her eyes filled with tears.
“I want this baby,” she said, left hand moving to cradle her slightly bulging belly. “I really do.”
“Be reasonable. The doctor said it is dangerous. Do you want to lose your life? Who will take care of Ranti?”
The young woman lifted her head and looked in the direction of the little girl and then her eyes sought those of the man sitting across her. He looked at her, his feelings hidden behind the mask he always wore around the older woman. She knew what he wanted. He wanted the baby. The trip to London would save her life and the baby’s. Why had she seen this new doctor against his wishes? Why was she consulting his mother?
“I don’t…don’t know,” the young woman told her mother in law, downcast and afraid of her husband’s wrath. He wanted her to keep the baby. His son. But her life was in danger.
Acute Aortic Dissection.
That was the diagnosis for the pain that crippled her for days and left her bedridden. She was in danger of a rupture. Only an abortion could save her.
“Tolu,” the older woman said, turning to the young man. “Won’t you say something? You heard Doctor Timothy. Damilola cannot have this baby.”
The young man had stood up without a word, his head held high and his eyes avoiding those of the women in the room. He knew he would lose against his mother’s persuasion.
The abortion was done in the expensive clinic Doctor Timothy operated just a few streets away from his house. The day his wife came back without the bulge under her flower patterned dress, Martin Oyelowo went out and got his first prostitute. The next morning, he moved his things to the guest room, ignoring his mother’s entreaties. He would never forgive Damilola for killing his son. He found a way to kill the love he had for her.
Martin opened his eyes.
She wants a divorce.
His hand reached for the button beside him and he brought himself forward again. Head bowed over his desk, he tried to reach a decision. It wasn’t long when he raised his head up again and pulled the phone on his desk towards him. The fear was gone from his eyes and his heart had settled down nicely in his chest. Oozing some of his old confidence, Martin Oyelowo called Naden Tare George.
Laughter bounces off the walls and voices reverberate in the empty space. A few cans lie scattered at our feet as we make ourselves comfortable on empty buckets of paints and two old Coca-cola crates. Reuben has blended into the crowd and is enjoying a laugh with Itohen. He seems to sense my eyes on him and turns to me.
“May you enjoy many passionate nights in this place,” he toasts, raising his can of Star.
“Yes o,” Itohen hoots, raising his can to join the toast. “Make all the beds for this place experience plenty action.”
I laugh and then raise my own can. “Thanks guys.”
“Wait o, chicks suppose dey this party na,” Henry says, a suggestive smile on his face. “Make we arrange something abeg.”
Everyone in the room subscribes to Henry’s idea before I can make my misgivings known. Reuben’s tie is slack and he raises his voice in tipsy support for Henry. The picture is funny. I take a mental picture of his revelry and store it away in a mental compartment for future retrieval. Somewhere in the middle of loud laughing and phone calls with would be female company, my phone rings and I escape the chaos to answer the call from my boss.
“Naden,” he says without much ceremony. “As you know you will be going to Kano very soon. You will be going with Angela. The two of you will work together on this case.”
As usual, he does not wait for an answer. The dial tone shrills loudly in my ear. I pull the phone away and look up at sky. A few stars wink playfully at me. Inside my barely furnished apartment, my friends continue to cackle drunkenly. I stand under the skeet of darkness and think of the trip to Kano. I had collected the gifts. It was now time to pay for them.
I receive the call from my father just before I close my eyes.
“You will be leaving soon to Kano with Naden.”
His brusqueness did not fill me with annoyance this time. I sit up in bed, dragging the covers with me and reach for the leather bound book on the bed stand. I open the pages and draw a plan.
UPSTAIRS THE OYELOWO MANSION
Damilola Oyelowo woke up before midnight to answer nature’s call. She switched on the lamp on the table beside her and began to push the covers aside to leave the bed but she froze for a second at the sight in the room. Her eyes locked to the thing that held her attention, she left the bed quietly and walked to the sofa across the bed. She stood there and watched the form collapsed on the chair, its arms hanging lifelessly beside its body. She watched the form for several minutes.
He was not dead but asleep.
The husband she wanted to divorce. He was here in her room and it wasn’t because she summoned him like the other times.
MEANING OF HAUSA WORDS IN STORY
Mai ya sa – Why?
Ba zan zo Sokoto ba – I will not come to Sokoto
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.