Hadiza received her visa to Dubai in her email at exactly 10:00 a.m. A minute later, Fajr walked into her bedroom. “Good morning, Mommy.”
Hadiza looked closely at her, worried about how much weight she had lost over the past few days. Her eyes appeared as if they might shut down any minute. “How are you, Faj?”
“I’m fine. The visas just came in.”
“Yeah, I got mine.”
“Alhaji has confirmed our flight for tomorrow at 4pm. He and Daddy are making arrangements with the airline for Muhammed.”
“That’s great. I told you everything would be fine, didn’t I? The delay at the embassy is a blessing in disguise.”
“Mommy, Alhaji paid for express visas. We were supposed to get them in twenty-four hours, but it took two days.”
“What if it’s a sign?”
“That what, Fajr?”
“Alhaji feels that maybe Allah wants us to just put our faith in him and hope for the best instead of going through all this stress?”
“What does that mean, Fajr?”
Tears broke from Fajr’s eyes. She sat on Hadiza’s bed. “The boy is getting worse!”
“The boy?” Hadiza moved away from the pillow on which her back was resting. “Muhammed, you mean?”
“What if he’s not supposed to…?” Fajr choked.
“He’s not supposed to what, Fajr?”
“La samah Allah!” Hadiza exclaimed. Covering her face, Fajr wept. “Ohunene, what is wrong with you? What shaytan has possessed you to think of your child in that manner?”
Hadiza was mad at Alhaji. Being a runaway father and husband was one thing, but planting seeds of doubt in Fajr about their son was not something Hadiza would take lightly.
She looked at her daughter compassionately and extended her hands to her. “Come here.”
“Mommy, I have to go to the hospital.”
“Muhammed is with Maryam, and he’ll be fine without you for a few hours. You need your own mother. Come here.”
Fajr crawled towards Hadiza, who put an arm around her and comforted her until she stopped crying.
“No mother deserves what you’re going through, but life happens to the best of us. Growing up, I didn’t have half of what you and your siblings grew up having, but my parents loved me to death. And it’s that love I’ve passed down to you children. That same love I want you to give your kids, especially Muhammed. I need you to continue to be strong for him. Okay?”
“Allah wills that we should do everything within our power to see that he gets better. He will answer our prayers and crown our efforts with Muhammed’s healing.”
“Now, go and have breakfast. Then, take your bath and sleep…”
“Will be fine. You need to eat and rest for tomorrow’s trip.”
Hadiza hugged her and left a peck on her forehead. “Please, call Hajara in for me.”
As Fajr left, Hadiza took her morning pills. She then got out of bed and parted open her curtains, letting sunshine in. She spied Kadiri walking about in circles as he talked to someone on the phone. When he looked her way, she kept her stare. Last night, lying in bed with her, he asked why he wasn’t allowed to accompany her to Dubai.
“Because you’re jealous of Mazino. And he’s going to be there. I don’t want any drama.”
“Drama?” Kadiri laughed, tracing the surgery scars on her lower back. “I don’t know how old he is, but I’m sure we’re both too old to misbehave over you.”
“Men are never too old to fight for the women they want.”
“Love,” Kadiri corrected. She looked at his face in the dark. “Women they love.”
“You think Mazino still loves me?”
“I wasn’t talking about him.”
She went silent. Seconds later, she asked him to leave. In his typical manner, he didn’t question her. He wore his clothes and walked to the balcony.
“You should allow your heart feel something again, Hadiza.”
If he had been hurt by her actions last night, she didn’t care. She would still need him tonight, though. She loved his company more than what was between his legs. Loneliness would have made a fine mess of her, if it weren’t for him.
She turned away from the balcony and answered Hajara who was knocking on the door.
She walked in, face drawn in a cheeky scowl.
“When are you planning to go back?”
“In a few days. My flight is already booked.”
“Good. You need to concentrate on your work, this time, and not on men.”
“So that I’ll become a lesbian too?”
Hadiza smiled, unperturbed by her words. “I didn’t tell you about my past so that you’ll use it against me whenever you feel like.”
“Yeah, you told me while taking me for an abortion, so that I’ll not feel like I’m the worse sinner on earth.”
“It’s called bonding.”
“Mommy, what do you want?” Hajara crossed her arms.
“To ask how you’re feeling. Are you still faint? Has the bleeding stopped?”
“How can you ask me that question, Mommy?” Hajara’s eyes went dark with resentment. “What do you care?”
“For God’s sake, Haja! It was an abortion, not a genocide. And if I recall, I never forced you—”
“No, I simply told you the benefits of not being a mom. All on your own, you decided to take your baby out.”
“No, you manipulated me!”
“Yes! To show you how easily you get manipulated. Your parents gave you education from one of the finest universities in the world and you allowed some Polish scum get in-between your legs and twist your head into carrying a white baby for him. What is he going to ask you to do next? Move to the North Pole with him?”
“Mommy, Polish people don’t stay in the North Pole, and that’s totally irrelevant!”
“Exactly. What is relevant is your future. Now, you can live fully without a child holding you down.”
“It’s not fair, Mommy. You’re doing everything to make sure Fajr’s baby lives, but mine didn’t get a fighting chance.”
Hadiza walked to her and placed both palms on her cheeks. “You will have babies at the right time. For now, your future deserves a fighting chance. Don’t make the same mistake I made.”
“Nero is a mistake?”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Wow, Mommy.” Hajara dropped Hadiza’s hands from her face. “Sometimes, I wonder who you really are.”
She turned away. “Hajara, please…”
Hajara walked out of the bedroom, leaving the door open. Hadiza sighed. As she made to shut the door, she saw Alhaji walking down the hallway.
He turned. “Good morning, Mom.”
“We need to talk.”
“Fajr’s marriage was arranged?”
Mazino gave Hadiza a welcoming smile. Seconds ago, she barged into his house, after informing him over the phone that she was on her way. Of course, she had not asked if he was home or not. He was expected to be there when she arrived.
“Good morning, Hadiza,” he greeted with the ease only familiarity could bring. “Would you love to sit first?”
“I demand answers, Mazino. Was Fajr’s marriage to Alhaji an arranged one? Did you use our daughter to secure a business deal with the Danlamis?”
Her tone wasn’t harsh, even though it was severe. They had spent the past few days together, being supportive to Fajr, checking in on her and Muhammed at the hospital. This, to some extent had stripped off Hadiza’s coldness towards Mazino. It often made him muse over how years of animosity on her side had been easily done away with in a short time. He, however, did not mistake her civility for weakness. He could still see the fire dancing in those eyes.
“Do you love what I did with the parlor?” he asked. “I didn’t change much, but I’m sure you love the color. I had the painters add a dash of purple in the white paint, and that’s why you have this very, very off-white color. Do you like it?”
Settling into a sofa, Hadiza was forced to follow him at his pace. He was surprised that his old tricks still worked on her.
“How are you?” he inquired. She responded with an unimpressed stare. He sat, facing her. “Now, to answer your question… I don’t know what you mean by arranged marriage. Please, break it down.”
“I had a conversation with Alhaji just before I came here. I was trying to tell him to shape up and be the man his wife and children deserved. Well, he became quite irate while we spoke and let slip that Fajr was never his choice for a wife. When I asked him to explain further, he said that you and Isa came into some sort of business agreement that involved seeing him get married to Fajr.
“Well, if you put it that way…”
“If I put it that way?”
“First of all, everyone who is in the financial market knows that Isa holds the balls of the top investors. As an investment banker, you cannot break into that market without Isa’s blessings. The M&H Group needed to get bigger, naturally. We needed the big boys on our table, we needed Isa.”
“And so, you sold our daughter to his son.”
“Diza, it was a business deal for the good of M&H, a company that has your name on it, of which you’re a majority shareholder.”
“Then why was I not involved in this so-called business deal?”
“You were not interested, as usual.”
“She is my daughter, Mazino. Whether I was interested or not in M&H wasn’t reason enough for you to go behind my back and trade her for profit.”
“You weren’t even speaking to me then. Would you have listened if I had broached the subject with you?”
“No. And that’s my point. I would have stopped you from making such a stupid decision.”
“A stupid decision that has secured a legacy for generations to come and has given us a name as one of the top financial companies in the country. Diza, I’d do it all over again.”
“At the expense of your daughter’s happiness?”
“She and Alhaji were seeing each other at the time.”
“But she didn’t love him. If she had been given the opportunity to choose, she wouldn’t have picked him.”
“Well, she didn’t have any other options, so I nudged her in the right direction.”
“And look at her today. Alhaji is hardly present in her life or that of their children’s. Now, he’s letting her know that taking Muhammed to Dubai would be a total waste of their time. I hope you’re happy, Mazino.”
“I’ll have a talk with the boy.”
“The boy does not deserve our daughter. She needs someone who would treat her right.”
“I will talk to him. If he doesn’t behave, I’ll extend the matter to Isa.”
Hadiza glared at him as if she were looking at a stranger doing things she couldn’t understand. “What happened to you, Zino?” she asked, almost whispering. “You believed in love, in being with someone because of what you felt for them. You fought your family for me. I had nothing to my name, and I came to you with a son from an affair I had with a married man. Even when your family threatened to cut you off financially if you didn’t get married to Ireyi, you stood your ground. How have you become this person that doesn’t care about his daughter’s happiness?”
Mazino was weakened by her words. “Love isn’t everything, Diza. Please, let’s not have this pedestrian argument. People marry for other reasons.”
“Well, I married you because I loved you, Mazino.”
“Are you sure?”
“As you stated, I was the one crazy in love with you. As for you, I was never always a hundred percent sure, because it was hard for you to express how you felt for me. Correct me if I’m wrong, Diza. Didn’t you marry me because of my name and wealth?”
Hadiza’s stare dropped.
“Wasn’t I just a ladder you used to climb up your political ambitions?”
“I loved you, Mazino.”
“Sometimes, you did. Other times…?” He gave his head a shake. “You were just not there with me.”
“And Ireyi was?”
Mazino looked into her eyes. “Always. But I avoided her for as long as I could…”
“No need to explain yourself, Zino.”
“You became a senator and I lost you, Diza. In fact, I lost you before then. I seemed to stop existing. No matter how much I inserted myself into your political life, I just couldn’t find enough room for two of us. My affair with Ireyi was one of pain. I needed somewhere to offload all that anger and resentment. I didn’t want to be a reason you gave up your dreams, because I witnessed how hard you worked, how much you fought to get there. I just needed to be wanted by someone.”
Hadiza was quiet, but her eyes were still in his. There was a time she would have apologized for causing him pain, but he wasn’t sure she was that person anymore.
“I was dead inside when I made the arrangements with Isa. Yes, that’s my excuse for what I did to our daughter. And trust me, I regret it. I am not unaware of all she’s going through with Alhaji. In fact, she and I have been talking about it. I have blatantly told her to walk away from the marriage, but you know Fajr… She’s aghast that I would even suggest such a thing. She says she’s stuck with him because it’s the proper thing to do. She doesn’t want to be a single mother or pass on the responsibility of her kids to another man. She is even willing to let him have another wife if it makes him happy.”
“She said that?”
Mazino nodded, recalling how guilty he had felt hearing Fajr say those words to his face.
“I mean, Alhaji can marry another wife, as is within his right. And she can be fine with it, if it’s something she accepts willingly. But it’s hard to stomach that my daughter has to endure polygamy because it’s all she can do to escape her reality. I hate that she sank so deeply into religion just to cover up the fact that she is not happy. I feel guilty over it and I am terribly sorry.”
“What is the solution now?”
“As I said, I’ll speak to Alhaji, and if he doesn’t change, I’ll go to Isa.”
“Oh come on, Mazino! Isa has four wives! What do you think his response would be?”
“It’s worth a try, isn’t it?”
“And if it doesn’t work?”
Mazino had pondered on the answer to this question a good number of times. If speaking to Isa made no difference on the way Alhaji treated Fajr, would he keep nudging her in the direction of a divorce or just let her be?
“Mazino, you’re not answering me. Or do you want me to step in?”
“Like you did with Hajara?” He accused her with a hard stare.
“I did what needed to be done as a mother. And again, it seems I have to step in and save Fajr.”
“Diza, when does it become too much?” he asked, leaning forward. “And this is not me judging you. I’m asking myself as well. When do we draw the line and stop interfering? We’re talking about adults here. They are no longer children.”
He didn’t expect an answer from her. She was a firm believer in parenting adults.
She lifted up her eyes at a framed photo of their children on the wall behind him. It was one of the things they fought over during their divorce settlements. Money hadn’t been an issue; it had been the little things that held precious memories.
“I should have kept that photo,” she said. “I took it, after all.”
Mazino gazed at the photo with a smile. The four children, quite young, were lying prostrate over a small puddle of water in the backyard of their old house, staring at their reflections.
“You can have it,” he said. “I actually have an extra copy.”
“And you made me fight you like a mad woman over it?”
“Do you remember the day you took it, though?”
“Yes. We visited the Kalus over the birth of their baby. They told us his name was Christian…” Hadiza burst into a laugh. “And Fajr told them that the baby I was carrying would be named Muslim.”
They both laughed.
“It was the way she said it,” Hadiza continued, laughing still. “As if it were some competition. She had actually poked my tummy when saying it. ‘My baby brother’s name is going to be Muslim.’”
“That girl had always been so religiously conscious,” Mazino added, shaking his head. “Kai! Sometimes I feel like we overdid it with her.”
“You were the one that insisted on her spending a lot of time with your mom, the religious nut.”
“Yeah, Mama was extreme.”
“But on her own, Fajr is spiritual. You know she somewhat predicted what would happen to the baby when I was in labor and about to leave to the hospital?”
Hadiza bopped her head slowly, having a faraway look. “She said, ‘Mommy, please bring Muslim home with you. He doesn’t want to come back.’”
“Fajr said that?”
“That explains why she took the loss harder than her siblings. I mean, she even knew it was a boy.”
“She was mad at me for not bringing him home as she instructed me to.” Hadiza gave a sad smile. “I didn’t know how to explain it to her that he didn’t even make it out alive. It was the hardest thing to do…”
Mazino observed the masked grief in Hadiza’s eyes. “We never named him,” he said.
“It was unnecessary.”
“And you never wanted to talk about him.”
“It was pointless, Mazino. He was gone.”
“You think that maybe you needed to see a grief counselor then?”
“No. If you recall, he was never planned. If I hadn’t taken out two previous pregnancies, I would have done the same with him. I never wanted him, Mazino. You did. He was a delay in my career…”
“Yet you stored his things in a box. A box, which I have been told, you still keep.”
“I…” Hadiza exhaled and displayed what looked like a smile. “Mazino, I have to go.”
“I think I lost you completely then. Yes, you knew how to be the perfect wife. You said and did the right things, and you were an amazing mother… In short, losing that baby seemed like a bump on the road that you simply drove over and continued moving. But I lost the woman who loved me. My best friend.”
Hadiza lifted her weight off the sofa. “I really have to go.”
Mazino stood as well. “So, our flight is for 4pm tomorrow. I’ll come get you at 1pm. Alhaji and Fajr would be responsible for transporting Muhammed to the airport. We already have everything sorted out with the airline.”
“Let me walk you to your car.”
Hadiza gave the living room a sweeping stare with a nostalgic look. “The color on the walls is nice.”
At the door, she stopped and said, “I wish you didn’t have to come along to Dubai. Is there a way you could stay back?”
He didn’t ask her why. He knew she was worried about how much more of her defenses she was already letting down.
“Fajr needs me.”
He walked her to her car where Kadiri was waiting.
Lunch was Basmati rice and stir-fried vegetables, prepared by Nnedinma, in the manner he liked it. Seated in the regional overseer’s office of the Lagos church, Julius attended to important emails as he had his lunch. His flight to Abuja was leaving in a few hours, but he had a few issues to sort out. Right now, he was perusing the result of a biopsy he underwent a few days ago at a cancer treatment center in Ikeja. The email had just arrived, and for the third time, he was assured that his cancer was in remission. It didn’t make him feel any better, because he knew that it could return at any time, and it would be deadlier than before.
Turning his eyes away from his laptop, he responded to an incoming call from Roselle.
“I missed your call,” she said.
“How are you?”
“Julius, I shouldn’t be speaking to you right now. I saw the money you sent to Chioke. Is that what I asked for?”
Julius hissed. “Is Chioke a baby? Every time, my son’s upkeep, my son’s upkeep… One would think we’re talking about a two-year old here. Isn’t that an entire man in his thirties?”
“A man you never cared about. How many times have you seen your son, Julius?”
“I give him everything he wants. I don’t need to see him for him to know I care.”
“Abeg, let’s forget this talk. Why were you calling?”
“Well…” He inclined backwards, resting his hand on what used to be a potbelly. “I have this engagement in India towards the end of January. I wanted to know if you’d be interested in coming along.”
“Julius, I am too old to do these things with you. I already told you the other day that I’m done. You can’t keep calling me to follow you wherever. Spare me, please. I know you still have the strength of a bull. Me, I don’t.”
“But you still excite me, Rose.”
“Pick one of your younger girls.”
“Roselle,” he called firmly. He didn’t have the time for her nonsense. “You will go with me to India, and that’s that.”
He ended the call. He knew she would throw a tantrum, but in the end, she would succumb.
Roselle was trouble. From that first evening in his office in Abuja, many years ago, he knew she was going to give him hell. Before then, he had approached her, asked her to be his mistress, in not so many words. He had never been the type to ask a woman for companionship; they constantly threw themselves at him, something that greatly irritated him. He loved it when they resisted him. It was always rewarding in the end when he got them where he wanted them.
Roselle was one of such conquests. After successfully evading him, following his sparse proposals for an affair with him, he finally got her to give in to him. Naturally, she cried, like the others. But unlike them, she tried to attack him with a paper cutter on his table when he wasn’t paying attention. He subdued her, pinning her underneath him a second time on the couch. The hate in her eyes turned him on.
“Hit me, if you want to,” he said. She spat on him instead. He smiled. “That’s good.”
She thrashed underneath him until he freed her. With shaking hands, she tried to button her blouse. He stopped her, taking her hands.
“I’m so sorry, Sister Roselle. I didn’t mean to do it. I don’t know what came over me. It was the devil—”
“You’re the devil!” she shouted.
She pushed him away, rising up. Her long, pleated skirt didn’t do a great job of hiding her ample backside, which had always been a major distraction to him at church. Now that he had tasted her, he wanted more and all the violence she brought.
“I’ll send Brother Jonah to you with some cash. I heard you need funds for your mother’s hospital bill?”
Roselle was silent. By now, she was done with her buttons. Her head was bowed low, tears spilling on her hands as they clutched the collar of her blouse. He stood and moved towards her. She shifted away.
“Roselle, please forgive me. What just happened here was something I’ve been struggling with. We all have weaknesses, and that was mine.”
“Can I go now?”
“Don’t you want me to drop you at home?” He touched her, she flinched.
“Okay. Let me give you transport fare then.”
“No.” Roselle hurried to the door.
“I hope you’re wise enough to keep this between us, right? Nobody would take it kindly with you if they heard that you walked in here and seduced me.”
Roselle gave him a wide stare.
“Let’s make it our little secret.”
She opened the door and bolted out. He hadn’t been able to keep his hands off her since then. She would demand for the heavens and starry hosts, and he would give them to her, just to see her happy. She went from hating him to accepting to be his mistress after being shamed in church for getting pregnant out of wedlock. The only other people who knew that the baby belonged to him, asides both of them, were Nnedinma and a young man, named Jonah.
Many years later, the church leaders found out about Julius’ ‘indiscretions’ after the Rereloluwa incident. They invited him for a leadership meeting, which he attended with Nnedinma. The allegations were laid before him, and he was asked to defend himself. He broke down, instead, asking them to pray for him, explaining that he had struggled with lust for years. Nnedinma, as he had instructed her to do, went on her knees on his behalf and cried as well. In the end, the leaders forced him to promote Rere’s father to the regional overseer of the Lagos branch. Secondly, they asked Julius to take a short vacation to cleanse himself. By the time he returned, every female member of his team had been replaced with a male.
This wasn’t a cause of concern for Julius, because he had Jonah. Jonah had been in his early twenties then and was a university student. Young, calm, and eager to please, he followed Julius around like a tail. Julius had taken Jonah under his mentorship when Jonah’s spiritual leader, who was a prominent Abuja pastor and close friend to Julius, passed away. He soon discovered that the young man was smart, business savvy, and could make things happened that seemed impossible. He was also good at keeping secrets and pretending not to see things. His features made it easy for people to overlook him. He seemed plain with a lackluster face, one that bore almost no expression. Even his fashion sense was commonplace. Everyone knew he was there, but nobody remembered him. This was perfect for the clandestine acts he carried out for Julius—acts like paying off rape victims, setting up people to threaten the ones that were stubborn, and arranging getaways and short-time appointments for Julius and his women. He traveled everywhere with him and knew more about his other business than Nnedinma did. It could be said that Julius trusted him more than he trusted anyone else. Their liaison never waned, even as both men got older. Even now that Jonah was in his fifties, he still remained loyal to Julius.
Last night, Jonah called him to inform him about Abeni’s latest act of contacting Cheta. A mole he had planted to follow Abeni around, after discovering that she was communicating with Julius’ victims, informed Jonah that Abeni had been seen with Cheta the previous Sunday and the day after. Jonah hadn’t informed Julius immediately, as he had thought it best to get more information first before notifying him. When he eventually told him about it last night, Julius sought his counsel.
“I think we should have a word with the ladies Abeni has been speaking with, remind them what they’re up against if they speak.”
“Those ones are not my concern,” Julius answered in annoyance. “This stupid girl has contacted my daughter. Do you know what that means?”
“What do we do to stop her from speaking to her again?”
“I will come up with a plan, sir.”
“Do it quickly!”
This morning, Jonah walked into the church office with said plan.
“We’ve tried bribing her off before,” he said of Abeni, “But she took the money and refused to back down. So, money is out of the question.”
“We just haven’t given her the appropriate amount yet,” Julius stated. “Everyone has a price.”
“She would still take it and do what she wants to do. That woman is on a revenge mission.”
“So, what did you come up with?”
“I think we should look for a way to keep her silent.”
Julius didn’t understand the import of Jonah’s words at first until he looked into his expressionless eyes and saw what he meant.
“Are you out of your damn mind, Jonah?”
“Sir, do you remember that girl from Togo? What was her name again? Cadence or something like that?”
Julius recalled the girl in question. He never forgot his victims. Many times, he dreamt about them. Cadence, especially. She had taken her life, hanging herself in her aunt’s one-room apartment. He had refused to accept that what he did to her had pushed her to take her life. There had been a traumatic version of why she hung herself. It was said that she was gang-raped by some boys, hence pushing her to her tragic end.
“Yes, I remember Cadence.”
“Well, you asked me to make her go away. So, I sent her back to Togo. I can make Abeni go away too.”
A bad taste crawled up Julius’ throat. “I didn’t ask you to kill her.”
“Kill?” Jonah looked confused. “Who said anything about killing? She took her life, after being raped by a bunch of hoodlums. You had no hand in her death, sir.”
“So, why are you bringing her up?”
“I just want to let you know that we can arrange for Abeni to go away too.”
Julius was against his suggestion. “No, Jonah. We will do no such thing. What we have to do, instead, is find dirt on her, and do so quickly.”
“And if we find nothing?”
“Plant one on her… Just do something.”
“Sir, I have a very bad feeling about that woman. She’s hell bent on revenge.”
“I know.” Julius tapped his finger on the table, going into thought.
“Please, allow me handle the situation as best as I can.”
Julius stopped tapping the table and looked at Jonah. Sometimes, he didn’t know the man. Jonah had made himself almost mysterious. He had refused to get married or have children. His story, as was told to Julius by his late friend, was that Jonah lost his entire family—his younger brothers and parents—when assassins walked into their home one night, murdered them, and set the house on fire. Jonah was in school then, or he would have been killed too. His father had been a politician before his death, and it was said that he had several enemies. But a police investigation months later revealed that the person behind the murders were Jonah’s stepmother and her lover, who was also the late man’s financial officer at his bank. The couple cleared the man’s account, sold off his estate, and vanished from sight. Jonah became a troubled teenager, making it hard for relatives that took him in to raise him. They eventually handed him over to Julius’ late friend who succeeded in making something out of him.
Julius was certain that something had died in Jonah when he lost his family. It left him indifferent to life and largely amoral. He neither cared to be religious nor atheist. He simply existed for his selfish purposes. His loyalty to Julius was on the ground that Julius fulfilled his own end of the bargain.
“Sir?” Jonah called. Julius nodded.
“Yeah, do whatever you must.”
Jonah opened the door. “Rereloluwa is here to see you, as you requested.”
“Ask her to wait.”
Julius covered his lunch and picked up his phone. He scrolled through his phonebook for a contact. As the line began to ring, he cleared his throat.
“What do you want?” the person he called answered.
“Hello Hadiza. It’s been a while.”
“Julius, I have better use for my time right now. Make it quick.”
“I see that you still don’t like pleasantries…”
The line went dead. Julius stared at his phone, amused. Hadiza was a mad woman. He dialed her number again. She picked the call.
“I just want to tell you that I’m impressed. I ruin your life, you turn around and bite me in the back by inserting your son into my daughter’s existence.”
“You flatter yourself, Julius, to think that you ever had the power to ruin my life. You also think too highly of yourself if you feel that I orchestrated Nero and Cheta’s relationship to spite you. Why don’t you ask God whom you claim to be so close to? He brought them together behind our backs, because he loves a good twist. Weren’t you the one who cursed me and said you’d die first before letting anyone in my bloodline have anything to do with yours? Well, what do we call Obiedika now? Your nemesis? Your curse? A reminder that you would indeed soon die?”
Julius hated the glee in her voice. “Are you planning to have me murdered?”
“I wouldn’t stoop so low, Julius. I have better plans.”
“Plans that include sending Abeni to have secret meetings with my daughter? What are you up to, Hadiza?”
“You’ll soon know, Julius. I hope you’re ready for the tsunami that’s about to hit you.”
“You can’t do anything.”
“We all know you have highly-placed people that would fall over themselves to protect your image. It’s like you’re almost untouchable…”
“But the best way to eat an elephant in your path is to cut him up in little pieces.”
“We speak in parables now.”
“Yes, we do, and before I hang up, I have another one. Not everyone who chased the zebra caught it, but he who caught it, chased it.”
“I won’t tell you to watch you back this time, Julius. No. I’m coming for you, right up in your face.”
She hung up again. Julius kept his phone aside, unamused but unbothered. It wouldn’t be the first time she would threaten him. The earliest threat came after he got her thrown out of the university, following his discovery of her relationship with Nnedinma. He had returned to Abuja with Nnedinma shortly after, and Hadiza went looking for him in his office. Weeping on her knees, she begged him to remove the ban he placed on her academic life. Her education was important to her, she had said. She was just a poor girl, seeking to make something out of an empty life.
“Come back tomorrow,” was his response. She returned the next day, and he repeated his actions. This went on for four days until quite worn-out, Hadiza asked him what he wanted from her.
“Now, you’re talking.” Crossing his fingers, he pushed his chair backwards and regarded her, stripping the clothes off her body with his eyes. “What are you willing to do to get back on your feet?”
The strangest thing happened next. In place of a pathetic demeanor, hatred like he had never seen before filled Hadiza’s eyes. She switched so fast that he had to sit upright for fear that she had a weapon with her.
“What do you want, Julius?”
The fact that she called his name was enough reason for him to let her be, but his lust was legendary for being triggered by hate. Suppressing his fear, he left his seat and went to where she sat, poring over every bit of her. Normal women typically shrank whenever he did this, but not Hadiza. She stared back, from his head to his groin. And hers was not a look of desire. It carried condescension and irritation. Still, Julius refused to backpedal.
“You know what I want, but for the sake of clarity, let’s have a meeting, somewhere more… private? Just one night and I get you back into school.”
“And Dinma?” she asked.
“Dinma is a wife. She should do what wives do. I can only secure your education, not hers.”
“And if I give you more than one night?”
“I still won’t let her back within the four walls of that school.” An idea hit him and he smiled. “Well, unless, of course, you agree to be part of our marriage bed whenever I so desire. You get your Dinma, and I have you both.”
Hadiza smiled back, and he took it to mean that he had finally gotten through to her. But when he reached out to touch her cheek, she struck his hand off, held it, and got on her feet until she was standing in his face. He was only realizing then how tall she was.
“I will grace your bed when pigs begin to fly,” she told him slowly and let his hand go. “You irritate me to my bones, Julius.”
His face became steel. “You do not want to get back to school then.”
“Oh, I will, and there would be nothing you’d do to stop me, Julius. With your eyes, you will watch me become everything a woman with no name can attain to be.”
Returning to his seat, he said, “Get out of my office.” As she turned to leave, he stopped her. “You do know who I am, right?”
“I am a man of God. And anything I say or declare must surely come to pass!”
“Okay, man of God, go ahead. Declare!” She crossed her arms defiantly as he began to curse her.
“Are you through?” she asked when he was done.
“Look, I can have Dinma, if I wanted to. You are not man enough to keep her—”
“May I die if Dinma or anyone in my family has anything to do with you and yours! Get out of here!”
“Watch your back, Julius. I’m coming for you.” With that, she opened the door.
“You can only tell me to watch my back because you will always be behind me where you rightly belong! Get out!”
For a long time, Julius wasn’t able to erase the memory of that day, especially after he found out that she had gotten admitted into University of Benin. Further investigations revealed that she was the mistress of a man who was related to the vice chancellor of the school. Years later, as she had predicted, he watched her make something of her life, climbing all the way to a senatorial seat. He might not have admitted it to himself, but he knew that Hadiza was not a woman to mess with. This, and the fact that her son was now in Cheta’s life, was reason for him to be on the alert.
Last night, Nnedinma had whispered words of wisdom to him while they lay in bed.
“If Hadiza has come this far, don’t you think she could turn Chichetaram into your enemy?”
“The child already hates me.”
“Trust me, if Cheta hated you, she wouldn’t have taken this house or the car. But we don’t want to rely on luck, Julius. Call your daughter, make peace with her, and give her a substantial amount as inheritance. Do the same for Obi. That way, you win her over.”
“If she were married by now, I wouldn’t be bothering about any inheritance.”
“She is your daughter, Julius. Your only daughter. Why do you keep treating her like she doesn’t exist?”
“That child gave us headache, Dinma! Don’t even remind me. From endless hospital visits to destroying things in the house and getting into trouble in school, beating up boys, stealing from us and whatnot! Don’t lie down there and act like you gave birth to a saint. She was a troubled, possessed child from the start, and it was all your fault! You and your vile lesbian soul hated her from the womb!”
He knew he had struck a nerve. Nnedinma didn’t like discussing the fact that she never wanted to have Cheta in the first place—or that the reason she didn’t abort her was because she was tired of being shamed for her so-called barrenness.
“All I’m saying is that you can do better by her.”
“Fine! I will! Just prepare the way, butter her up, so that her coconut head becomes willing to accept my benevolence. That girl is too proud for my liking.”
“I’ll talk to her. And then, Nero…”
“What about him?”
“You have to bless that relationship, Julius.”
“Over my dead body!”
“If you don’t, you’ll only make an enemy of both of them, and you don’t want Hadiza to win.”
“I will not endorse, not to even talk of, blessing that relationship. They can elope for all I care!”
“Okay, fine. But how about Hadiza? What do you intend to do to her?”
“None of your business! Now, go to sleep, and don’t snore this night, biko.”
Julius stayed awake, not because Nenedinma snored through the night, but because Hadiza continued to buzz in his head. Even now, she wouldn’t let him think properly.
There was a knock on the office door.
“Come in,” he answered irately. The door opened and Rere walked in. At the sight of her, Julius felt some sort of calm come over him. She had dressed the way he liked—in a fitted dress that followed the perfection of her curves. He wished they were somewhere more private, so that he could ask her to move about in the nude until his eyes were satisfied.
With this one, he enjoyed the simple pleasure of just watching her. He had watched her for a long time as a young girl back then, always playing in the swimming pool with Cheta, dressed in a tiny swimming trunk that seemed not to be aware that she was no longer a child.
“Why the long face?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Rere answered.
“Lock the door.”
“My dad could be here any minute,” she said in apprehension, twisting her fingers.
“Your dad is on his way to Ibadan. I sent him on an errand. Now, lock the door and take off your dress.”
Tears gathered in her eyes as she turned around to lock the door.
Yes, he liked this one. She was still scared of him, still so submissive, still so chaste.
Nero kept his promise about making Cheta’s day, first by taking her to an upscale, plant-based Mediterranean café for a late breakfast, after dropping Obi off at church.
The café had an intimate and tranquil setting, with a zen-inspired garden, cobbled pathways, and flowery décor. Nero explained to Cheta that this was one of his favorite spots whenever he wanted to hide away and catch up with some reading. Sometimes, he relaxed with a friend over a cup of freshly-brewed Arabian coffee. The food was gluten and sugar free, without compromising on taste.
“You should try their crepes,” he said. “They’re to die for.” His hand caressed Cheta’s thigh underneath the table as he spoke. It had been difficult to get his hands off her body all morning. She wasn’t protesting, though. She had longed for this sort of attention for a long time. It hadn’t been the fault of the men she had been involved with in the past that they never gave her the time; she by no means allowed them to love her the way she so desired to be loved.
“Have you ever been on a construction site before?” Nero asked as their breakfast arrived.
“I’ll take you to one when we leave here.”
“That’s not exactly my idea of a romantic date.”
“I didn’t promise you romance this morning, sweetheart. But trust me, you’ll love it.”
The food was better than Nero had described it. So good that Cheta requested for some takeout. On their way to the construction site, she asked Nero if he had plans to have more children.
“I want a girl,” he said. “But only with you.”
“You don’t want any more kids?”
“No… I don’t know. On the one hand, I really want to have a baby and go through that whole bonding time with her and all, because I missed that with Obi.”
“On the other hand?”
“It is a wrong reason to have a baby.”
“Yeah. But I want to build a family with you, and Obi is going away, so…”
Cheta laughed at his pouty face. “You’re so not going to emotionally wring my arms into getting pregnant for you with that expression, Nero.”
He released a smile. “At least, I tried.” His hand was on her thigh again. “I’m so crazy about you, Eden. If you break my heart…”
“I don’t intend to. Not now, at least.”
He pinched her cheek, causing her to giggle.
With the roads free of traffic congestion, they arrived at the site in less than ten minutes. Being that it was a Sunday, there was no one around, save for the guards. Nero took Cheta past a story building under construction to an older one with more floors that was marked for demolition. On the ground floor, there were rooms that looked like abandoned offices. Nero unlocked one with a key he got from his pocket and took out protective gear for himself and Cheta. This included helmets, safety jackets, boots, goggles, and protective gloves.
“What’s all this for?” she asked.
They put on the protective gear and he led her up a long flight of stairs. They came to the last floor, which had several door-less and windowless rooms. The roof was also absent.
“So, here we are,” he said, helping her set her goggles right as she panted hard, trying to catch her breath. “You don’t exercise, do you?”
Cheta shook her head.
“That’s bad. You need to get fit.”
But he was patient with her until her breathing normalized.
“Great.” He walked to a corner and picked a sledgehammer.
“What is that for?”
“Some years ago, I watched an episode of some show on TV… I can’t recall the name. It was about people expending their anger and frustration on buildings like this. All you have to do is pick up the harmer and break a wall. You just keep swinging and letting go of all the anger and pain until you’re spent.”
“Have you ever done it before?”
“Does it work?”
“It’s very therapeutic. It’s a better alternative to breaking somebody’s head, although it’s best to do it while angry.”
“I’m happy right now, but I want to try it.” Cheta grabbed the sledgehammer from him. “Ooooh, it’s heavy.”
“Where do I start?”
He laughed. “So, it’s like this. You first have to visualize who or what is causing you that bad emotion on the wall you want to break.”
“Trust me, I have the right candidate in mind. Show me the wall.”
“I already marked a few of them on this entire floor. The building itself is going down, but not any time soon because the owner hasn’t balanced me my cash. Anyways, this place is always open for you if you ever want to vent. For now, let’s do this room.” He pointed at two adjacent walls with both hands, and then dropped his right hand. “Let’s start with this.”
He showed her how to use the sledgehammer before allowing her have a go at the wall. Cheta went closer, took a deep breath and swung her arms, ramming the hammer into the wall. The first hit surprised her, making her realize how bent-out of shape she was. It sent tremors into her arms and shook her entire body.
“Bend just a little,” Nero instructed. “That’s good. Now, give it all you’ve got.”
The second slam was better than the first and caused more damage.
Cheta tried a couple of more swings before her arms became accustomed to the heaviness and power of the hammer. Only then did she replace the shattering wall with her father’s face. She began to strike with all her might as she recalled the words he spoke in Igbo about Nero to her mother the evening before. Other words from her past filled her head, coming from every corner, clashing into the wall and inserting themselves there. Her anger came to her fast, as if it had been waiting for this moment to happen. With each swing of her arms, she shattered a period in the past, a word spoken that had cut too deep, a hurt she had never expressed to anyone.
Cheta wasn’t counting the blows; she wasn’t even looking at the damage done. She knew she had begun to shout at some point, or maybe she was cussing, she wasn’t sure. She stopped only when it became too hard to breathe. When she tried to lift her arms again, she discovered that the hammer had become too heavy. She felt Nero’s body behind her as he reached for the hammer and freed it from her hands.
“I’m in pain,” she whispered, panting.
She took off the goggles and faced him. Her eyes bristled with tears.
“Did that feel good?”
“Yeah. I have more anger to let go of, though. Can we do it again?”
“Any time you want.”
“In the next ten minutes?”
He laughed. “No, let’s get out of here.”
Cheta stared at the damage she had done and laughed. “That wall is finished.”
“Yeah.” He took her hand, dragging her out of the place. Their next destination was a spa where they were treated to relaxing massages. Cheta’s aching arms, shoulders, and upper back were concentrated on by her masseur. As her eyelids fluttered in sleep, she heard Nero asked if she had ever had a yoni massage before.
“No,” she answered.
“I’ll book one for you.”
She opened her eyes an hour later, awakened by Nero, who told her that the room was to be used by other clients. He took her home and she continued sleeping until sunset. Her phone was ringing beside her as her eyelids flapped open. Hadiza’s face showed on her screen, indicating that it was a video call. She had forgotten that the woman promised to call her at six.
Rising up, she arranged a pair of pillows on which she would rest her back. When she was comfortable, she answered her phone.
“Good evening, ma,” she greeted.
“Were you sleeping?” Hadiza asked.
“Do you want to go back to sleep and we can talk at a better time tonight?”
“No, I’m up. This is fine.”
“Okay. How are you, dear?”
“All right. So, I promised that I’d tell you what I want from you concerning bringing your father to book for all his atrocities.”
“Being that you’ve spoken to Beni and she’s sent you all the information you need on your father’s victims, I think we can now move to the next phase. Cheta, have you watched the documentaries, Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland?”
Cheta felt something unpleasant in her tummy. “Yes, I’ve seen both.”
“Good. You’re going to produce the Nigerian equivalent. We are going to expose your father to the whole world.”
“That’s the role you’re going to play, Cheta. You will produce that documentary.”
“What?” Cheta’s voice rose.
“I know this is going to be hard to take in, but I don’t see anybody better suited for it than you.”
“Excuse me?” Cheta abandoned the pillows and leaned out. “Do you know what you’re asking me to do?”
“Yes, I understand the weight of producing such a documentary.”
“Against my own father?”
“He is a serial rapist, Cheta.”
“I know that, but why do I have to be the one to expose him?”
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
“I can’t do it.”
“Think about what it does for your career, for your business. Sunflux Entertainment is just starting out. Imagine how far you’re going to take it from where it is now to international acclaim.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t. I just can’t. You’re asking me to destroy my father.”
“Yes, Chichetaram. It’s the best justice to all his victims.”
“No.” Cheta shook her head. “No, no, no, no, no.” She got off the bed. “I can’t, ma. I will not!”
“I am sorry, ma. Yes, I owe you, but I think I’ve paid my dues. You can go ahead and do whatever, I don’t care anymore. I’m done with you.”
“Cheta, listen to me, please…”
“I can’t! Bye, ma!”
She hung up and flung her phone on the bed. Just then, Nero walked in. He saw the distress on her face.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. I was having a nightmare. Nothing serious.
“Are you sure?”
“Okay. I want to run to a store nearby and get a couple of things,” he said, going for a t-shirt on the bed. “Do you want to come along?”
“See you in a bit.” He kissed her cheek and left the room. Cheta picked up her phone. Hadiza hadn’t called back. She sat on the bed, still reeling from their conversation.
A text came in from Hadiza.
If I convince Dinma to come on camera and speak up against him, would you still do it?
Cheta felt familiar heaviness and pain in her eyes as tears burned them. She picked a pillow, pushed it to the end of the bed, and hid her face in it.
“I can’t do it,” she blubbered. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t…”
®Sally Kenneth Dadzie @moskedapages
La samah Allah – God Forbid (Arabic)