Cheta regretted parking her car within the church premises. She had enjoyed her time at the service, though, especially when Rere led the choir. She had almost forgotten how beautifully she sang. Back then, she had been Cheta’s music tutor. Cheta marveled at how much she was still dedicated to her talent and calling. But how could she still be in the same environment that covered up her abuse?
“Can we not do this again?” Naza was in the front passenger’s seat, making multiple popping sounds with the bubble gum in her mouth.
“Church. Never again. I so want to go home and sleep. It’s a bad idea to club the night before and come to church the morning after.”
“I didn’t ask you to go clubbing.”
“But you asked me here, and look, we’re stuck.”
“Be patient, Chinaza. Ah.”
Due to human and vehicular traffic outside the building, they had been asked by the security guards to wait until the exit was free.
“The choir was cracking, though. What was that song again?”
“Famous For by Tauren Wells.”
“No, the other one.”
“Settle For Less by Khaya Mthethwa.”
“Yes! Will you sing it for me?”
“Just a bit.”
“No. The song is online. Find it and play it.”
Naza grunted. “You’re a cheeky cunt. And I’m still mad at you for last night.”
“Right now, I’m supposed to be having my ears filled with all the juicy details of how you and Nero fucked. How exactly do you get into a relationship, and few hours later, you come home and abandon your man?”
“Can we not have this talk right now?”
“You’re not planning on abstaining, are you? Wait a minute… Is that why you came to church? You’re trying to suddenly become born again or something?”
Cheta snorted as she burst into laughter.
“Nobody does that shit anymore, sis.”
“Chinaza, people abstain from sex for good reasons. The type of reasons you would never understand.”
“That’s nonsense. Genitals are supposed to be in a constant state of coitus. That’s what they’re there for.”
“My friend, rest abeg.”
Last night, Nero invited Cheta and everyone in her house to see a movie. They went with two cars, but returned home with only one, because Nero took Obi to his house, leaving Cheta with family members.
“You’re even supposed to be fucking him right now.”
“Here’s something that would piss you off more…”
“Nero is in Abuja as we speak. He left first thing this morning.”
“To be back when?”
“Are you crazy, Chichetaram? Don’t you want this guy?”
Cheta laughed some more. “I’m not that horny. Relax!”
Cheta wanted Nero more than she let on, but she wasn’t ready. At least, not when she hadn’t waxed her pubes. Secondly, having been alone for so long, jumping into a relationship was a huge deal to her. She needed to take it all in. Nero had been disappointed last night, especially since he was going to be away for some days, but he understood her unspoken reasons.
Another purpose for holding back was that he was yet to express how her deception seventeen years ago made him feel.
“Will you be horny any time soon?” Naza barged into her thoughts.
“Yes. First, Nero and I agreed to run STD tests.”
Naza wasn’t impressed by her response. “Did you hear what that fine pastor said? Until God opens the next door, praise him in the hallway.”
“Wow, Naza. You actually learnt something in church today. Where were your resident demons while this was happening?”
“Fuck you. As I was saying, use condoms.”
“Why are you so interested in my sex life?”
“Because I don’t have any,” she confessed in a fading tone. Cheta squinted at her, a little surprised.
“I don’t believe you. You’ve been going out on dates…”
“And not getting laid. I think I’m getting old, Cheta. I don’t enjoy sex like before. I’ve done everything there is to do in sex. Everything you can imagine…”
Cheta tried not to conjure up imageries.
“And now, I’m bored stiff. Emphasis on stiff. I can’t cum anymore.”
“I kid you not. Not even when I wank.”
“It’s call anorgasmia, I think. Oh God, Cheta, I’m going to die from not cumming!”
“You’re not. You just need to see a sex therapist…”
“Or fuck that fine pastor? He’ll bring me back to life…”
“Abstinence is not so bad, Naz. Your body is probably telling you to chill and look for something meaningful in the opposite sex.”
Naza frowned. “Like what?”
“Their minds, their heart…”
“I don’t have time for emotional and intellectual connections, please.”
“Your body needs a higher love.”
“I’m not falling in love.”
“I’m not asking you to. I’m asking that you look at a man for once in your life and not think about his genitals.”
“Cheta, have I told you about my almost back-creaming boyfriend?”
“So, last year, I was seeing this bloke. He’s bev, so cute, and I was absolutely chuffed. It was good sex, nothing serious.”
“So, he came to my place for the weekend and started doing this thing where he let the shower run or he wouldn’t turn off the lights and stuff. So, I say, ‘Listen, boo. You’re not financially backing my lifestyle. Don’t come here and stack up my energy bill.’ He doesn’t say anything, but he gets quiet. I know he’s upset, but I don’t give a fuck. Later on, he comes to me after he’s had a shower and he says, ‘Hey, babe, cream my back.’ And I’m like… How? He tosses some ashy lotion at me and repeats, ‘Cream my back.’ So I ask him, ‘Can’t you cream your own back?’ He says, ‘I can’t.’ And I say, ‘Who’s been doing it for you then?’ And he starts to throw a wobbly, talking about how selfish and mean I am. I tell him I know that already. Even God knows that and understands me. But what God and I don’t understand is why I have to cream your back. Uncle, why? He says that it’s what people in love do. I’m like…what? Seeing the expression on my face, he stops fighting me, because he knows that I’ll lose the plot if he keeps at it. After some time, he leaves.”
Cheta was tickled by the story, but she held her mirth as Naza continued.
“Now, about two weeks later, he buzzes me and tells me he wants to come over. I’m very horny, I need that Nigerian dick, so I…”
“Wait, he’s Nigerian?”
“As fuck. So, I tell him to come over. He comes, we shag a lot. The morning after, he’s telling me how he’s in love with me. I say to him, ‘Oga, stop right there, biko. Are you ready to get married this year or next?” He says, ‘No.’ I ask, ‘Are you going to be paying my bills and making sure I’m chuffed financially?’ He says, ‘No.’ Then why the fuck do you want to be in my life, oga mi?”
Unable to hold herself any longer, Cheta let out laughter.
“Like, I don’t get it. You want to come to my house, chat shit about love, get my head all fuzzy emotionally, fuck my pussy senseless, eat my food, stack up my bills, and make me cream your back? Brova, you’ve got some balls!”
Cheta almost peed in her pants.
“But you won’t put a ring on my finger or try to be my sugar daddy. Then one day, you disappear when you’re so done with me? What do these men take me for, Chichetaram?”
“I taya o!”
“Imagine the nonsense! I told him that there are many twenty-something-year-olds out there who would foolishly fall for him and his muscles. He should carry his lotion to them, let them cream his back. I’m too old for shit like that. Cheta, these men keep trying me, I swear. They have this fantastic image of how they want their women to be.”
“Don’t even get me started.”
“They want an independent woman who won’t need them financially but would fall for them and care for them, forsaking all others.”
“In a relationship that is not guaranteed o!”
“Chukwu ekwekwala ihe ojoo!” Naza circled her head with her fingers and snapped them. “From that day, I swore off men.”
“Yeah, right. You that swore off men since the beginning of time.”
“Okay, true. But that guy was the last. I will never settle for less.”
“No relationship, no pseudo-relationship, no friends-with-benefits, and no shagging more than two nights in a row. We fuck and you get the hell out. How did Shyne put it again?”
“Get out, I don’t wanna hug you,” Cheta rapped. “Get out, bitch I don’t love you. Get out, whatcha talkin’ bout?”
“Put your shoes on and start walkin’ out!” Naza yelled.
“You’re a fool, I swear!” Cheta screamed in laughter.
Cheta was going to say something, but someone tapped on her window, making her almost jump. She turned and saw a woman standing outside the car, dressed in a conservative but chic outfit. Cheta let down the window a little and observed her more. She was dark-skinned and curvy, but her eyes were what made her stand out. They were the most beautiful cat eyes Cheta had ever seen. The woman was stunning.
“Good afternoon, Sister Cheta.”
“I’m Sister Abeni. May I speak with you in private, please?”
Cheta stepped down from the car and followed the woman who walked out of earshot.
“You were the last person I expected to see in church this morning,” she said. “Coincidentally, I was going to reach out to you today.”
“Sorry, have we met before? What’s your name again?”
“Abeni. You can call me Beni. I was a member of the Alabaster Circle at the headquarters church.”
“I don’t think you remember me.”
The Alabaster Circle at the Gateway Church was a clan of single women that specifically catered to the personal needs of their pastors and their families. The circle was often headed by a team of married women who stood as spiritual counsel to the younger women and helped them in their daily walk with God. To become an Alabaster sister, one must have served as a worker in the church for five years, be spiritually approved by one of the pastors, and could not be below the age of thirty. Even with those conditions, it was almost impossible to become a member by just sheer aspiration. One had to be connected to one of the senior pastors to make it in. On the outside, the members were seen as an elite group of godly women, admired by other single women that aspired to be like them. But Cheta had heard the stories and scandals from the inside. Some of the women were there to honor their leaders as a service to God. Others were there for selfish reasons.
“I’ve been in Gateway for thirteen years now,” Abeni continued.
“Long enough to know that not everything is as it seems.”
Cheta lowered her brows a little.
“Long enough to have been raped by your father.”
Her brows went up again as she looked into Abeni’s eyes. Abeni rested a hand on her shoulder.
“Hadiza says it’s time to reach out to you.”
Cheta pushed Abeni’s hand off. They both held their stares, as if sizing each other up. Cheta tried to read the woman, but she saw nothing.
“I’ve gathered enough information that we can use to nail him. I have victims that are willing to tell their stories. Are you ready to play your part?”
Abeni looked away, in the direction of Cheta’s car. Cheta’s eyes followed her and she saw a guard standing by her door. It was time for the cars within the premises to move.
“I’ll tell you more when we talk,” Abeni said. “But we have to move fast. Your dad is onto us.”
“Me, rather. I don’t think my life is safe right now.”
Cheta was confused.
“I’ll call you.” She touched her shoulder again. “What you’re about to do is going to turn your life right on its head. Are you ready?”
Naza honked at Cheta.
“I’ll call you.”
Cheta watched Abeni walk away. The brief interaction had left her stunned. She returned to her car.
Mazino, standing in front of his mirror, wondered if he was taking his weight loss too seriously. He looked too thin… Or was it the mirror?
He picked his glasses from his bed, wore them, and stared at the mirror again.
What did Hadiza want? She said that the matter was urgent. What could make her call him from nowhere and ask to see him?
He picked his car key next. He slipped the hand holding the key into his pocket and left his bedroom. As he walked down the hallway, the scent of Hadiza’s favorite perfume accompanied him. For years, after they separated, he used the perfume as a reed diffuser to recreate the nostalgic feeling of walking down the hallway and being welcomed by her scent, following a long day at work. He still missed her. He missed the children too. The house was too empty for him these days, and although he had a younger woman who occupied his bed now and then, it was not the same.
Leaving the house, Mazino dropped instructions with his cook on what he wanted for dinner. He then got into his car and drove to Hadiza’s home. When he arrived, he saw Kadiri outside, speaking on the phone. Both men sized each other up as they had always done along the years. Mazino walked up to the front door and knocked. Hadiza’s maid let him in, ushering him to the living room where Hadiza was seated. Their youngest child, Hajara, was also there.
“Good afternoon, Daddy,” she greeted, rising up. She hugged him, resting her head on his chest. She was the most expressive of their children, the one not ashamed to be herself.
“How are you, sweetheart?” Mazino inquired. She was with him two days ago; he wished she had stayed longer.
“Alhamdulillah, I’m good.”
She clung to him as he faced Hadiza. “Good afternoon.”
Today, she didn’t look like she might swallow him. She also looked beautiful. Her lips were without lipstick, bare and pink in the way he had always loved them. They reminded him of Elvish honey from Turkey, his favorite. These days, he associated aspects of her with his favorite things in the world.
“Please, sit,” Hadiza pointed at a sofa. Hajara sat with him, still clinging to his body. It wasn’t a strange thing for her to do, as she had always been referred to as ‘gum body’. But Mazino suspected that something was off. Hadiza’s eyes couldn’t hide it.
“Would you like something to drink?” she asked.
“No, I’m good. I’m just curious as to why I’m here.”
Dusting off invisible elements from her palazzo pants, Hadiza cleared her throat. “Your daughter, sitting right there with you, is pregnant.”
Mazino didn’t react to the breaking news immediately. He took it in slowly, feeling instant disappointment rise in him. He also felt Hajara’s arms tighten around him. He looked at her.
“Is this true?”
Hajara loosened her grip. “Yes.”
“Yes?” Mazino frowned. He pushed her off his body. “Look at the causal manner in which you answered me.”
“Did you get married in the US during your last trip and we did not know?”
“So, how come you’re pregnant, Hajara?”
Hajara placed her hands on her lap.
“Answer me right now!”
“I had sex?”
Hadiza gave a tired shake of her head. “That is the attitude I’ve been dealing with since yesterday. This girl is nonchalant over what she’s done. She has no idea the enormity.”
“You want me to cry?”
“My friend, shut your stinking mouth!” Hadiza scolded. “You’re supposed to be remorseful…”
“I’m remorseful, Mommy. Trust me, I never planned to have a child at this point in my life.”
“So, what happened?” Mazino asked, annoyed.
“It was a mistake, Daddy.”
Mazino rested his forehead on his hand, sighing. He blamed himself for her present condition. If he had raised her half as strictly as he had raised her siblings, she would have been like her sister. The divorce had also affected her upbringing. She was only ten when he and Hadiza separated. She was then tossed between them, often used as a weapon to get on each other’s nerves.
“I’m very sorry,” Hajara muttered. “I didn’t set out to disgrace you people this way. It just happened.”
“And what are you going to do about it?” Hadiza asked.
“Mommy, I’m keeping it.”
From her reply, Mazino could tell that they had had this conversation already.
“She wants to keep a child she’s not ready for,” Hadiza spat.
“Who is the father?” Mazino questioned Hajara.
“Daddy, he’s not someone you know,” Hajara answered.
“We don’t know his family or parents?”
“He’s not Nigerian. He’s Polish.”
“Ya Allah,” Mazino mumbled.
“He’s a cool guy, but he doesn’t want to get married. So, there’s that—”
“Have you no shame, Hajara? No commonsense at all? How did you allow some Polish idiot mess you up like this?”
“Mess me up?” Hajara asked. “It was my choice to have sex—”
“Count your words, young lady! I am not that liberal!”
“Okay, Daddy. I’m sorry. All I’m saying is that he didn’t twist my head or anything. What we did was mutual. Unfortunately, we were careless.”
“And now, you’re going to be a mother out of wedlock…”
“Or not,” Hadiza said. Mazino looked at her. “She doesn’t have to keep it.”
“You know what I mean, Mazino.”
“What sort of talk is that?”
“Daddy, help me ask her.”
“I said shut up your mouth and don’t speak again until I tell you to!” He returned to Hadiza. “What are you talking about?”
“Hajara and the Polish idiot are not ready to get married. She just got her dream job and is living her best life. She doesn’t need a baby to ruin everything.”
“You’re suggesting an abortion?”
“Yes.” Hadiza looked at Hajara. “Get rid of it.”
Mazino wasn’t surprised at this. Hadiza had terminated two pregnancies without his consent while they were married. She believed that a woman’s body ultimately belonged to her, and she could do with it as she so desired.
He glanced at Hajara. “Your mom and I need to talk. Leave.”
Hajara walked out of the living room. Mazino faced Hadiza again. He was angry, but she had nothing to do with it. Yet, he wanted to fight with her, get her to show her emotions.
“Why would you suggest such an evil thing to your child?” he asked.
“Yes, it’s a sin. It’s murder.”
“Don’t bring religion into this, please. That girl has her whole life ahead of her. A child will slow her down and cut her off from her dreams. We have to tell ourselves the truth, Mazino. Do you want your daughter to be a single mom?”
“Is it such a terrible thing to be one?”
“I don’t want her to go through what I went through.”
“But you met me and I married you.”
“Mazino, that pregnancy has to go. Period.”
“Not as long as I can help it, Diza. Hajara is an adult, and she can make her own decisions. She is keeping the baby. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Hadiza smiled from one side of her lips. “I think you underestimate my influence over our children.”
“I think you overestimate it. In fact, you know they’ve outgrown you. That is why you constantly monitor them. You can’t help but be controlling.”
Hadiza tapered her eyes at him. “I think we’re done with this conversation, Mazino. You can leave now.”
“Done?” He laughed. “No, we’re not, Hadiza. This is the day we talk about us. The day I finally get the chance to say all I’ve wanted to say without you shutting me down. Forget Hajara, we’ll sort her issues later. Right now, we will deal with ours.”
Hadiza smiled again. “Looks like you came here for trouble.” She reached for a glass of wine on a stool beside her. “I won’t stop you. You need that closure. By all means, vent.”
Her words and calm killed the fight in him. It infuriated him more to know that, again, he felt helpless around her.
“You never gave me the chance to explain myself. All these years, Diza.”
“There was nothing you would have said that could have sufficed.”
“I knew that, but all I wanted was to let you know why I did it.”
“You were pressured by your family, Zino. You had never had the backbone to stand up to them. I know they pushed you into doing what you did. I understood that. I was even ready to forgive you for it and for the affair. But you, going behind my back and taking my place in the party and running my race?”
“I was only trying to keep your candle burning, Diza. You were in a coma for three months, and the party dropped your ticket. Everything you sweated over for decades was about to go up in smoke. I couldn’t let that happen. So, I ran in your place. I ran for you. I did it for you, Hadiza, and to defy them…”
“And if you had won, dear husband?”
The mention of ‘husband’ weakened him. He sighed, burying his face in his hands.
“You thought I would have lived happily in your shadow? I’d have been the loving, supportive wife, watching you live my dream while I rotted away in a wheelchair? You thought that our marriage would have survived that sort of treachery?”
“I was hoping it would. I was hoping that you’d somehow find a way to forgive me—”
“If I had woken up, Mazino! You wanted me to die in that hospital!”
“And If I had died, you would have gone ahead and married Ireyi!”
Hadiza downed her wine and refilled the glass.
“You cut my heart in pieces after you ripped it out of me. You broke me in more ways than you could ever imagine. How was I supposed to forgive that?”
Mazino couldn’t speak.
“You had no idea how much I loved you, Zino.” Her voice went low. “In all my life, I had loved only one person the way I loved you. And just like you did, that person treated me treacherously. You ripped open old scars they left in me, and then you buried me.” Her eyes were faraway, filled with unshed tears.
“Hadiza, you know me more than anyone in this word. You know I’m deeply sorry. Words would never be enough to express my regrets and disappointment in myself. I would crawl on my knees right now…”
“That ship has sailed,” she responded coldly as her detached manner returned. Mazino could see the tender moment they’d just shared slipping away. He got off his seat and went to where she sat, perching on the stool beside her.
“Diza…” He tried to touch her hand, but she recoiled, tightening her grip on her glass of wine. “Seventeen years is a long time. I’m a changed man. A humbled man. It kills me that you hate me so much…”
“I don’t.” Hadiza looked at him, losing her coldness again. “I…” The tears spilled in a rush. “I just can’t be around you anymore. You remind me of a life I could have had, a life I lost.”
“I’m very sorry.”
She sniffled and wiped off all trace of her tears. “It gives me pleasure that you live with your regret.”
“Immense, orgasmic pleasure.” She drank more wine. “Go back to your seat, please.”
He stared at her, but she kept her face forward, ignoring him.
“Is there any chance that…?”
Hajara burst in. Mazino glared at her.
“Didn’t I tell you to give us some privacy?”
“It’s Muhammed,” she said, voice shaking.
“And what happened to him?”
“Fajr has been calling you guys, but you’re not picking your calls.”
Mazino tapped his pockets for his phone and realized that he had left it in the car.
“Mine is on silent,” Hadiza said, picking her phone from beside her. “Speak, child. What’s going on?”
“Fajr rushed Muhammed to the hospital. He’s having breathing problems. It’s serious. She thinks he’s dying. Hurry up, please.”
Hadiza got on her feet with the help of her crutch. “What hospital?”
“She sent me a location pin. It’s at Wuse…”
“Tell Kadiri to get the car.”
“Or we could all go together in my car,” Mazino suggested.
They hurried out, and Mazino helped Hadiza into the front passenger seat. He didn’t miss the curious frown on Kadiri’s face once they came out of the house. As they drove out of the compound, Hadiza called Fajr, putting her on speakerphone. They could hardly pick out anything she said as her words came in sobs. Fortunately, Nero, who was with her, took over. He explained that she had noted that her newborn, Muhammed, struggled with breathing a few times since his birth. Her doctor had assured her that everything was fine, pinning her complaints to her typical manner of panicking over her babies. But this morning, she noticed his color turning gray-like, just after she bathed him. Before long, he was struggling to breathe. Not trusting her doctor, she called a friend who directed her to a pediatric hospital in Wuse. Muhammed was presently in the emergency room. They were waiting for the doctors to step out anytime soon.
“We’ll be there in a bit,” Hadiza assured Fajr over the phone. “Be strong, Muhammed will be fine.”
But Hadiza wasn’t so certain when she ended the call.
“He’ll be fine, right?” she asked Mazino in a whisper. “She complained about his breathing, and I checked him. He was okay when I took a look. Maryam confirmed that he was fine too. We both teased her about her constant jumpiness over her babies…”
“The boy is all right,” Mazino said in confidence. “Just pray for him.”
Hadiza gripped the beads of her tasbih, wrapped around her wrist. When Mazino took a peep at her, he didn’t like what he saw in her eyes.
“Where is this Alhaji sef?” Hajara asked from the backseat. “He just popped in for the naming ceremony and he’s already gone? I never really liked that guy.”
“This is not the time, Haja,” Mazino said.
“Of course, it’s never the time to talk about Alhaji’s long absences. Nobody wants to look at the elephant in the room until it poops all over the place.”
The tenseness in the car continued until they arrived at the hospital. A nurse directed them towards the ER. There was an outer room where they could wait. Seated on a couch was Maryam, Alhaji’s aged mother. She was in quiet tears. Mazino and Hadiza walked to her and inquired about Fajr and Nero. The woman pointed in the direction of a door that was not the ER.
“They went that way.” She explained that a team of medical personnel had come out from the ER with Muhammed and asked Fajr and Nero to follow them.
“They didn’t give you any information?” Hadiza asked.
“No. They said I should wait.”
They thanked the woman and sat on another couch where a man was already seated. Hadiza was restless. She had never done well with illnesses in children. Hospitals were traumatizing for her. He still felt bad that she had had to be in one for months, despite her phobia, because of his foolishness.
Her fingers tapped her knees nonstop, as she took heavy breaths. “Call Nero again,” she said to Hajara who stood nearby.
“I just did. He’s still not picking up.”
She sighed loudly and muttered a prayer. She looked at Mazino. “I should have listened to her when she complained.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“You know she wasn’t going for antenatal as she should have? She had this midwife who always checked on her. I knew about it, but I did nothing.”
“Fajr is stubborn, and you know how she sticks to her traditional views and natural life, disliking anything Western. Then there were those new friends she made… I warned her about them. Their views were too radical, too extreme…”
Hadiza looked at him, puzzled. “What are you talking about? What friends?”
“She met them in her last Umrah, the one in which she traveled with Basim. He was worried about how deeply she bonded with them. He told me about it but I thought he was being his usual self, so I didn’t give it a thought. But she began to change…”
“I noticed the change too. I felt, well, this is Fajr. She’s always been devout…”
“It was beyond that. She got in deeper than any of us knew.”
“You knew, Basim knew, but I…” Hadiza was disappointed in herself. “What type of mother am I?”
“A good one.”
“No. I did a bad job raising her. Hajara too. They’re two extremes…”
“Can you stop?” Mazino whispered. “You’re the best mother our daughters could ever have. They’re both adults and they chose their paths. This is not on you.”
“If Muhammed dies…”
“He is not going to die. Have faith. He’ll be fine.”
Hadiza sniffled. “He’s too little to go through pain…”
Mazino took her hand. “He will be fine.”
She didn’t withdraw her hand from his. Instead, she curled her fingers around his in intervals, drawing strength from him. It took more than an hour before Nero showed up. Hadiza stood up with Mazino’s help as Nero approached them.
“How is Muhammed? Where’s Fajr?” Hadiza asked.
“Muhammed is fine, for now.”
“What happened to him? What did the doctors say?”
“He has two congenital heart defects.”
Hadiza shut her eyes and leaned on Mazino for support.
“Congenital heart defects?” Mazino repeated.
“Coarctation of the aorta and bicuspid something…”
“What are you talking about, Son?”
“The doctors will explain better. What I know for now is that he’ll need surgery. They just ran a couple of scans and they’re still examining him, to be certain. But he will need surgery. I don’t have all the details. I want to go and pay some bills.”
“Don’t go yet…” Hadiza held him. “Is he going to be fine?”
“I don’t know, Mom. We just have to pray.”
“Do we need to fly him out?”
“Mom, relax. The doctors seem to know what they’re doing, unlike whatever hospital she went to give birth. They should have seen that Muhammed had these issues.”
“He’s too fragile for surgery.”
“Let me rush and make these payments. I’ll be back.”
“They should let us see him na.”
“They will,” Nero said, walking away. Hajara followed him.
“They should let us see him,” Hadiza repeated to Mazino. He helped her back onto the couch.
“Do you want a drink of water?”
He hooked his arm in hers and felt a little guilty for doing so. It was as if she was drunk and he was taking advantage of her. He knew that once she felt better, things would go back to default.
They waited another hour before Nero and Hajara returned. They had been delayed because of network issues concerning bank transfers.
“I’ll check on them and get back to you.” Nero disappeared once again, but he came back with Fajr who broke away from him and went to Mazino, throwing her body into his comfort. She cried, blaming herself for her baby’s condition. Mazino would not hear of it. He strengthened her with soothing words and recited healing scriptures from the Quran. When she was calm, she asked them to go home.
“The doctors won’t let anyone see him today, until tomorrow.”
“But you need someone to stay with you,” Hadiza said.
“I’ll be fine.” Fajr stared at Maryam and gave her mother an apologetic look. Mazino wanted to say something about Maryam needing to rest more than they did, but he didn’t want to put Fajr in a difficult situation.
“Can we, at least, speak to a doctor?”
“I’ll get one of them,” Nero replied and hurried off. Fajr sat with Maryam, putting an arm around her shoulder.
Hadiza took her seat once more. “I don’t want to sound selfish, being that this is not about me, but do I exist to my own daughter at all?”
“Think nothing of it. You know Fajr loves you. She has always longed for Maryam’s approval. This is their chance to bond.”
Hadiza was quiet, head bent. Soon, Nero returned with a doctor, who was a pediatric surgeon. She explained Muhammed’s heart conditions in detail, the implications, and treatment.
“We would need to transfer him to a better equipped hospital outside Nigeria. This all depends on you, if you can afford it.”
“We can,” Mazino and Hadiza said together.
“Great. We have a partner hospital in Dubai. I will contact them and keep in touch with you. For now, we will manage his condition as best we can. Don’t worry. He’s in good hands.”
The doctor took their phone numbers and asked them to go home.
“We can’t see him?” Hadiza pleaded.
“No. Until we’re ready to transfer him, he remains under strict care. His mother alone is allowed into the ICU.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
As the doctor walked away, Hadiza took both of Fajr’s hands. “Call me every chance you get. Keep me updated. Send pictures. We’ll be praying for him.”
She hugged her. “I’m so sorry you have to go through this. Please, be strong for Muhammed.”
“I will. Mommy?”
“Will you pick the girls from the house for me? Can they stay with you?”
Mazino looked at Hadiza. Over the years, Fajr had complained about Hadiza’s coldness towards her daughters each time she took them to see her.
“Of course, they can.”
“And Daddy, you’ll always go and check on them, right?”
“We’ll come check on you too, and always bring you and Maryam food.” Hadiza assured her. She smiled. “Kadiri and Hajara will come back with clothes and lunch for you in a bit.”
As they turned to leave, Hadiza lingered, staring at Fajr.
“Let’s go.” Mazino held her hand, tugging her away.
“Why do I have a bad feeling about this?”
“Everything will be okay.”
Seated in Hadiza’s garden, Mazino watched his granddaughters play. The sun had begun to set when Hadiza came out with a tray, holding two cups of tea. He hid his surprise at the fact that she recalled how he used to take tea at odd hours of the day.
“They said you don’t do tea anymore,” she mentioned.
Putting her crutch to rest on the table, she sat on a chair that faced his. “I feel really embarrassed over how I behaved in the hospital today.”
Mazino knew where she was heading with her speech. He wished she would pretend like that moment at the hospital never happened. Then they wouldn’t have to talk about it and she wouldn’t make excuses for her behavior.
“I was being unnecessarily panicky.”
“You have a phobia for hospitals.”
“I know, but I relied on you too much—”
“Diza, it is very okay to be vulnerable. You were scared for your grandson, worried about your daughter…”
“Jealous of my in-law, hurt that my daughter chose her over me.”
“Your daughter spared you the stress, because she knew that hospitals traumatize you.”
“Why do you always have a way of explaining away people’s troubles?”
“Because the world needs some positivity, Hadiza. I’m too old to let the darkness eat me up.”
Hadiza held her teacup in both hands and sipped from it. “You’re trying to show me that you’re better than me.”
“You’re judging me, saying to me that I’m bitter and unforgiving and angry.”
“Hadiza,” he called her gently, in a manner he hadn’t done in years. “I’m not in the position to judge you after what I did. I just don’t want the air to keep getting sucked out of every room both of us find ourselves in. The distance between us shouldn’t be broken. I will not cross any lines you draw between us, but I will no longer be a stranger. Whether we like it or not, we’re a family. Muhammed has reminded us of that. We have to stay connected for his sake, for Fajr’s sake.”
Hadiza kept her teacup on the table and pulled herself up. “I appreciate you being there when I needed you earlier. It was soothing. Don’t do it again.”
“There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you.”
“How did your uncle, Ramon, die?”
“I don’t know. They said he died in his sleep. He was an old man.”
“There’s this rumor that he was murdered. Poisoned.”
Mazino had an expressionless face. “Never heard that version.”
“But I’m sure you were happy that he died. You were so convinced then that he was responsible for my accident.”
“Hmm.” She turned around, arm spread out to their grandchildren. “Come on, girls! Time to shower!”
Mazino picked his teacup and took a long, satisfying drink. She had made his favorite herbal tea of lemon balm, chamomile, passionflower, and rose petals. He smiled again, although he was aware that this act of kindness on her part meant nothing serious. She had always been a thoughtful and kind woman; the same way she could be ruthless.
He finished his tea and began to count the minutes before he went home. He was too lazy to drive. He had a dull ache in his big toe.
“You’ve not eaten all day.” Nero entered the garden. “Mom says I should ask if you want to take something.”
“Tell her I’m good. I have dinner waiting at home. I need to go and rest.”
“Are you okay, though? I saw you limping earlier.”
“I think this gout thing is acting up again. I feel like I retired from work too early. Maybe I should move to Lagos and play an advisory role to Basim every now and then.”
“But a trip to Lagos is pending. I need to see Obi. His mom, too.”
“I wanted to bring him for the New Year’s but we’ll have to give it some time.”
“Yeah. But you kids surprise me. First, it is you with an entire teenage son. Then, it’s Hajara with an unplanned pregnancy.”
“We’re sorry,” Nero said unapologetically.
“Your mom wants her to have an abortion. What are your thoughts?”
“I’m against abortions, but I understand that it’s her life and she alone can make that decision. So, I try not to think about such things.”
“Hmm… Heard from Bas?”
“He’s coming in tomorrow.”
Nero stared at the house. “So, you’re not having dinner here?”
“Let me take you home then. I’ll come and pick you up tomorrow morning.”
“I don’t think your mom would want me hanging around…”
“Dad, it’s neither about you nor her. I told her the same thing just now. It’s about Fajr. She needs us.”
Mazino was silent.
“Let me take you home.”
On their way to Mazino’s house, they talked about Obi. Nero’s excitement and pride each time he mentioned things Obi had done was something Mazino understood too well. He was proud of Nero himself. They had shared a special bond from the moment Mazino walked into Hadiza’s life. He had always called him as his first son. For Nero, there had never been any confusion as to whom he saw as his father. People often made comments about them having comparable personalities. His biological father, Oliver Okiemute, had always been more of a friend to him than a Dad.
“I think you and your girlfriend are really doing a good job with Obi,” Mazino said in approval.
“Do you plan on getting married soon?”
“Well, we just started seeing each other… We’ll see how things go.”
Nero slowed the car outside Mazino’s gate and honked the horn.
“I’ve been particularly worried about your brother,” Mazino said.
“We are supposed to be making arrangements towards his marriage to Radwah by now, but from all indication, he’s no longer interested.”
Nero was quiet. He drove into the compound and parked the car near an almost-empty parking space. There was a time the place was filled with cars owned by most members of the family. Mazino missed the old days.
“I’m beginning to feel like marriage is the last thing on his mind. I’m not that crazy about him tying the knot, though. I’m just worried that something broke in him when that first girl did him dirty.”
Nero agreed with a nod.
“He used to be so pious. I envied his faith then. I wanted to be like him.”
“Well, I’m afraid that that version of Bas is gone, Dad.”
“I don’t even recognize him these days. But he’s a great businessman, so that seems to cover his transgressions.”
“Just let Basim be, Dad. He’ll come around—if he needs to.”
Mazino opened his door. “You want to come in and have dinner?”
“I promised Mom that I’d try her vegetable soup tonight.”
“With unripe plantain?”
Mazino lit up in a reminiscent smile.
“Do you miss her cooking?” Nero asked.
“All the time.”
“Maybe you could join us for dinner tomorrow?”
“I don’t want to push it, Son.”
“Check in with her first.”
“Good night, Oghenero.” Mazino came down from the car and went into the house. His cook served him a bland version of Hadiza’s boiled plantain and vegetable soup. The dining table never felt as empty as it did today. Portrait photos of family members could not make up for their absence. Years had passed and he still could not get used to the loneliness. He was beginning to consider adopting children. He wasn’t sure he had the strength to raise them, but it seemed a good idea to fantasize over whenever the blues came.
While he ate, he watched the evening news. Back then, no one dared suggest that a television be kept in the dining room. Dinner was always a family affair. Sometimes, they used the table. Other times, they sat on the antique Persian rug Hadiza had made him buy during a leisure trip to Jordan. He remembered complaining about how expensive the rug was, but Hadiza had been insistent; same way she had compelled the architect who designed the house to make the dining room almost as big as the living room. She had believed in family above all else, and despite her full schedule, she always made time for Mazino and the children. Meal times were always the best in the Husseini house. These days, all Mazino got was echoing walls and memories that lingered in every corner.
His phone vibrated on the table in front of him. A text came in from a cousin who often visited him.
Benson died this morning. They said it was a heart attack.
Mazino stopped chewing for a second. He picked up his phone and replied his cousin.
I hope he finds peace eternal.
Mazino didn’t like thinking about Benson and the dirty deals they had in the past. Benson had been a distant relative. One of those guys he grew up with that wasn’t quite part of his circle of friends but was always hanging around them. In their teenage years, while Mazino made plans to get into the university, Benson got involved in petty crime. As time passed, Mazino saw less of him but heard rumors of his criminal exploits. Benson came to him a few times to ask for a job, and each time, he turned him away, giving him money instead. He sought for him, however, when one of his warehouses got burnt by thugs, paid by his competition. Benson tracked down the criminals, had his boys beat them half to death, went after the man that sent them, and burnt down every structure he ever built or bought.
Thus began the forbidden relationship between Mazino and Benson that spanned across the years. When Mazino succumbed to his uncle’s pressure on him to scare Hadiza off the gubernatorial race, it was Benson he sought to do the job. Things didn’t go as they had planned, and the news of what happened to Hadiza was too much for Mazino to bear. He suffered a cardiac arrest and was rushed to the family hospital. Benson’s face was the first he saw when he woke up on his hospital bed. Not minding his condition, Mazino reached for his neck to choke him. Benson, extracting his hands from him, explained to him with much patience that he hadn’t been responsible for Hadiza’s unfortunate accident.
“Then who was?”
“I don’t know. There were five of them and it would have complicated things if my boys had gone after them. Trust me, I’m angry as hell that we had to leave all that money. I didn’t want then to complicate issues, because I didn’t know what they were dealing with. I asked them to leave the place immediately—”
“You fool!” Mazino tightened his hands around his neck. “You think the money is my problem? We’re talking about my wife’s life here! Find out who tried to kill her! Find those five fuckers! Don’t stand there telling me shit, you bastard!” He let go and shoved him backwards. “Find them! Oh, and pray to God that she makes it! You don’t want to know what I’m capable of!”
Months passed and Benson didn’t come up with a name. Benson had one suspect—Mazino’s uncle, Ramon. But each time Benson mentioned his name, Mazino shut him down.
“You know in your heart that he is guilty,” Benson told him one evening in his car. “He never liked her, he never wanted you to marry her, he always openly showed his hatred for her, and he was the one that told you to get her out of the way.”
“All that doesn’t mean he’s guilty.”
“What are you talking about, Chief? You and I know that the reason you agreed to scare your wife off was because you were afraid of what your uncle would do if he handled her himself.”
Mazino didn’t argue with his logic.
“So, why are you in denial? Doesn’t Hadiza deserve justice?”
Mazino was scared of what Benson was suggesting. They hadn’t said the words, but he knew the man was talking about murder.
“Give me time,” he said.
Benson nodded, and just before he opened the door, he added, “Don’t run Hadiza’s race. It’s a slap on her face.”
But Mazino did what he felt was noble, and lost, not just Hadiza alone but his backbone as well. He walked into the marriage with Ireyi as a zombie, controlled by Ramon. It took four years for him to wake up. He divorced Ireyi, got his life organized, and confronted Ramon over Hadiza’s accident.
That morning, he drove to Lokoja and visited the man in his mansion. He was forced to go through two body searches before he was let in. Ramon’s megalomania had always been so hard to deal with. If his elder brother, Mazino’s late father, had been half this dictatorial, he wouldn’t have been the man he was before he died. He had been the man of the people, loved by many and a father to them. Ramon Husseini, on the other hand, was that typical spoilt younger brother who existed, simply to squander the family wealth and walk all over people’s heads while at it. He was not worth the Husseini name and legacy.
Mazino walked in on him having a late breakfast. He greeted him and pulled out a chair at the table. He could never get used to the excessive luxury of the house. The décor was too expensive and in bad taste. It felt like someone with zero design sense visited interior décor shops in Saudi Arabia and Europe to buy expensive orient and Victoria era furnishings, so that they could fill the house with them. Mazino’s mother had always described Ramon as behaving like a pauper who had just recently come into wealth.
“Zino! Zino! How is your bachelor life?” Ramon asked as Mazino sat.
“I am well, as you can see.”
“You call being in a wheelchair survival?”
Mazino gave him an unpleasant stare.
“Looks like you didn’t come here for small talk.”
“I came because I want to know if you have a hand in what happened to her.”
Ramon displayed no reaction to the question. It wasn’t new for Mazino to speak to him in that manner or vice versa. They had long accepted that they would never get along. Hence, pretenses were not allowed in their interactions. Lies were allowed, though, and Mazino was certain that Ramon would lie to him.
The man was chewing a carrot and staring ahead of him through thick glasses. “Any more stupid questions?” he asked.
“Just tell me if you did it.”
“Why don’t you ask Benson?” Ramon drank from his glass of water. “I was told that you were responsible for Hadiza’s bastard’s kidnap and Benson did the job for you.”
“Why would I ask Benson to do something for me and then come here to accuse you?”
“You’re accusing me?” Ramon laughed in silence. “Son, I may be many things, but a murderer is not one of them.”
That was the biggest lie Ramon had ever told Mazino. Everyone in Kogi state knew he was a murderer.
“I seriously want to believe that you haven’t come all the way from Abuja to ask me that stupid question you just did?”
Mazino stood. “I did, actually.”
“I didn’t try to kill her. I know you don’t believe me, but I don’t care. Just letting you know that I’m innocent.”
“I’ll be on my way…”
“Wait.” Ramon wiped his mouth and hands with a napkin. “Have you considered the possibility of her not ever walking again?”
“It’s none of your business what I consider.”
“Well, I feel sorry for her. I pray that Almighty Allah would…”
“Yeah, yeah,” Mazino muttered, walking off. He marched to his car outside the house and dialed Benson’s number.
“Long time, Chief,” Benson said. “You finally woke up from your coma. How does it feel to be free?”
“I didn’t call you for you to make fun of me.”
“What do you want, Chief?”
“I want you to do something for me one last time. That car…”
The sigh on the other end of the line showed that Benson knew what he was talking about.
“Chief, I already told you that I didn’t get any information on that car and the people who drove it. They were five of them. Three guys, two young women. That was all I was told. The license plate of that car had been deregistered. Nobody at the VIO or Road Safety or even the police knew anything. No records of it anywhere.”
“Are you sure your boys got the exact number that night?”
“They are very sure that they did. But what do you want me to do now? This is a cold case that made me lose two-hundred-and-twenty-five thousand dollars. You think I didn’t want to catch those guys? But they were too good, Chief, and it points to only one person who can pull that off so well.”
Mazino didn’t speak for a long time. He sat, staring at the magnificence of Ramon’s home, built with his father’s money.
“Chief?” Benson called.
“You know what to do.”
Three nights later, Mazino’s mother called him while he was asleep.
“I just got word that your uncle died an hour ago.”
“Did he die in pain?”
“They said he couldn’t breathe. His airway was blocked, I think.”
“So, he suffered.”
“You’re now the patriarch of the family, just as your father wanted. Congratulations.”
Mazino felt neither happy nor relieved.
“May he rest in peace.” She hung up.
“Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un,” Mazino recited, put off his phone and went back to sleep.
®Sally Kenneth Dadzie @moskedapages
Chukwu ekwekwala ihe ojoo – God Forbid! (Igbo)