Nero hated funerals. They were all the same to him. Slow and depressing.
Just like this one. Almost everyone had something to say about the person who had passed away; even though he had made it known repeatedly that he didn’t want anybody washing him with head-swelling words.
“Dance in remembrance of me. Meet new people. Eat, drink, and get drunk. Then have one-night stands. All on me!”
The video was out there on Twitter. It had over a million views and was massively shared on Facebook and Instagram too. Yet, people showed up for the occasion with long faces and saggy shoulders.
“Who are all these people for fuck’s sake?” Nero asked his fiancée, Joy, who was standing beside him. She hushed him. So, he chose to stare at the coffin, instead. It was black, perfectly furnished. Nero thought to himself that if he were a vampire, he would likely be sleeping in something like this through the night. It appeared as if it was comfortable inside, and this made him happy for his late friend. The guy had suffered so much pain before he passed. He needed to rest in comfortable settings as he sojourned to the unknown.
Nero’s heart was suddenly pervaded by the heaviness he had fought not to feel over the past few days. Although he had watched his friend struggle with cancer for a while and accepted that it would end in death, he hadn’t been ready for it. He still wasn’t ready. It was crazy how someone you met in a short period could mean more to you than friends you had known for years. That was his story with the late Adelaja Adeyanju. The one every called Laja or fondly, Large.
They became friends three years ago when Laja’s company wanted to build two high-rise luxury apartments in Lagos. The gist had gotten to Nero’s ear and he jumped on the opportunity, sending a proposal for a possible contract. Laja’s office got back to Nero’s a week later. Documents were signed, and the project was implemented, lasting a total of two years. Good enough time for both men to become friends.
Unlike his siblings, Nero hadn’t relied on the Husseini wealth to make it. He had worked hard on his own, building relationships with the rich and famous along the way. Laja’s family, like the Husseinis, had a lot of money to throw around. Nero saw a future with the Adeyanjus. But his relationship with Laja went beyond business. Nero, at that time, was going through a frustrating divorce, and Laja was there for him, having just been divorced himself recently. In-between time spent at bars and workout sessions at a mutual friend’s gym, they bonded. When Laja was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, he told Nero first. The shame of having breast cancer as a man made it hard for him to share the news with anyone else. He commenced treatment in silence, with Nero supporting him through the difficult period. But word soon went round, especially after he began to lose so much weight.
Luckily for him, the treatment worked, and the cancer went into remission. Sadly, the cancer returned earlier this year, aggressively spreading to his lungs and liver. When it became imminent that nothing could be done for him, Laja took to his Twitter to document his remaining days with the hashtag #LajaThanLife. He passed away on Day 136, clinging to Nero’s hand because he had been in so much pain.
His last words to Nero were, “You have a son somewhere and his mother loves you.”
Nero pondered on the words later, concluding that Laja had said, “I have a son somewhere and his mother loves me.”
But when Joy broke the news to him that she was two months pregnant, he reverted to Laja’s original words and believed that they had been prophetic. Maybe in that brief moment that had him staring eternity in the eye, Laja saw Nero’s future. The plan, presently, was to start making arrangements to give Joy her dream wedding.
“I don’t feel so good,” she whispered to him now. This first trimester was hell for her. If she wasn’t puking out her guts all day, she was sleeping through it.
“Do you want to go and stay in the car?”
Nero stood. He stretched out his hand and Joy took it. They made their way out of the church. Outside the gate, a sleek car pulled up. The backdoor opened and out came a woman, dressed in white. Nero was going to stare elsewhere after glancing her way, but he did a double take and almost halted in his steps.
The woman wasn’t looking at him; she was speaking to the driver. And this was a good thing, because Nero wasn’t sure that he could control himself if she looked in his direction. He had loved this woman once, in a steamy, short-lived affair, but she had disappeared from his life as if she had never existed in it. Here she was now, older and more beautiful. She had aged like fine wine. Nero thought to himself that the world was a wonderful place. Who would have thought that she had known Laja as well?
Nero led Joy to the car, helped her in and turned on the engine to have the air conditioner running.
“I’ll be fine. Just go back in there,” Joy said. He hurried off, anticipating that his mystery woman hadn’t yet gone into the church. Luckily for him, she was just approaching the gate.
“Uzor!” he called. She did not respond. “Uzor!”
No response still.
She stopped, and he watched her shoulders go stiff. She did not turn around. He walked up to her and stood behind her, watching as the skin at the back of her neck was decorated by a spell of goosebumps.
He turned around and stood in front of her. They stared at each other for a while.
“You never said goodbye. You made me think that I had imagined you in my mind or something.”
“Can we talk about this later? I’m late for Laja’s funeral.”
“Let me walk you in.”
He longed to touch her, even if for a second. The memories from their time together were playing in his head. He knew that they had been too young then, but her body was nothing like he had ever had. No one had come close, and he would admit that he had looked for her in every fling and relationship he had had after she left. Now that she was here, he was not letting her go.
He led her to where he had previously sat and offered her Joy’s seat. The minister, who looked tired already, asked if one last person had something to say about Laja. It had been Laja’s mom’s wish that everyone with a kind tribute say a word or two.
“Anyone?” the minister repeated. Uzor rose to her feet. She walked up to the podium and stood behind it.
“I’m sorry I’m late. Lagos traffic will not be the end of me,” she said, borrowing some of Laja’s famous one-liners. “I don’t have much to say today.” She stared at Laja’s coffin. “Everyone who knows Laja knows that he was really larger than life. He lived each day like it was all he had in the world, like tomorrow was never going to come. On the night that he called me on the phone and broke the news about his health, he had done it so casually. ‘Baby girl,’ he had said. ‘Cancer wants to finish your crush o. Are you sure you will not come and marry me like this, so that I don’t go to the grave a miserable single man?’”
The mourners laughed but tears thronged Uzor’s eyes.
“I didn’t think he would go. I didn’t think that cancer would get him, you know. I thought, ‘hey, this is Laja nau. He will beat this. He will win. He always wins.’ But here we are today.” She sighed. “I know he doesn’t want me being sad for him and spoiling this glorious day, but it has to be said that he has created a void in this world and in my heart that nobody and nothing can fill. Men like Large, they come once in a century. Maybe even a millennium.”
She stared at the coffin again as she tried to control her tears. “I’ll miss you, fatso. No one will ever take your place. Soar with the angels, baby, but always remember to watch my back, because as you said, I don’t use to have sense.” She laughed a little. “Goodbye Adelaja Adeyanju. I love you so much.”
She stepped down from the dais and walked towards Laja’s mom. The woman spread out her arms and covered her in a hug. Together, they sobbed, as the minister ended the service.
The walk to the cemetery was a short one. Uzor had her arm around Laja’s mom, making Nero wonder where she had been the whole time that Nero was ill, seeing how close she was to the Adeyanjus. He had many other questions to ask her. He hoped that she would turn up for the after-party to celebrate Laja’s life later tonight. It was to hold in Laja’s home, as requested by him.
“I’d like to ask the Adeyanju family to step forward, please,” the minister announced. Uzor let go of Laja’s mom as his siblings held her on either side. They approached the gravesite and stood with the ministers. Nero was about to move closer to Uzor, but some lady beat him to it. He watched them hug and hold each other. They both wept as Laja was lowered to the ground.
The minister spoke some words and the family members, one after the other, poured earth over Laja’s coffin. A final prayer was made that ended the proceedings. People hung around to offer sympathies to the family. Nero observed that Uzor was quite familiar with some of them.
“Would you be going to his family house from here?” a friend, who had accompanied Nero and Joy, asked.
“No.” Nero shook his head. “Joy’s not feeling so well. I have to take her home. Plus, I have a meeting on the island in a bit.”
“Okay. Same here.”
Nero stared at his phone. He wanted a word with Uzor before he left, but she had deliberately refused to look his way. He walked up to her friend who had hugged her earlier and introduced himself.
“I know who you are,” she said, smiling.
“Oh.” Nero hated whenever anyone said that. The popularity of the Husseinis always robbed off on him.
“How may I help you, handsome?” she asked.
“I need your friend’s number, please.”
“My friend?” She looked Uzor’s way. “Oh. Um… Why don’t you ask her yourself?”
“I have a feeling that she won’t let me have it. I know this is creepy, but do me this one favor and let me owe you.”
“Hmm… You want to owe me?” She took out her phone from her purse. “Be careful what you wish for, handsome.”
He smiled. She gave him Uzor’s digits and he thanked her. It wasn’t until after he was quite a distance away that he remembered he hadn’t asked what her name was.
“Wow! Cheta, this is beautiful!”
Gold’s eyes widened in amazement at the beauty and grandness that was Cheta’s new home.
“What sugar daddy got this for you again?”
Cheta laughed. “Bitterleaf Daddy, my daddy.”
“I’m still finding this hard to believe, babe. Not your dad who disowned you and said he never wanted to see your face again.”
“Well, cancer is a bitch.”
Gold sighed. She had already told Cheta that cancer was not a word she wanted to hear again.
“Let’s take a tour round the house, jare.” Cheta moved away from the entryway and walked into the living room. The first thing that caught Gold’s eyes was a painting. She walked towards it as if beguiled. It was the painting of Obi, Cheta’s son. It was done when he was five years old. He was smiling with pudgy cheeks, laughing eyes, pink red lips…
As beautiful as the painting was, it reminded Cheta of a time in her life when everything was ugly and dark. She had thought then that her sadness would last forever.
“It’s a very cute painting,” Gold said. “Where’s Obi,by the way?”
“He’s coming in tomorrow.”
“Does he know yet?”
Cheta tore herself away from the artwork and shook her head.
“Cheta, you have to tell him.”
“Let’s not have this conversation right now, Gold.”
The rest of the living room had modern cozy furnishings. There was a deliberate mix of soft feminine edges with eye-catching décor alongside crisp masculine outlines and spacious bits. The sofas facing each other, divided by a glass table in the center, were black, large and inviting. Cheta could see herself curled on either of them, covered by a blanket on lonely nights, watching a movie. Mellow lighting coming from the tray ceiling above gave an overall feel of warmth and comfort.
“Let me show you to my room.”
She took Gold upstairs and opened the second door on their right. It led to a bedroom that was adorned with textures and shades that were mostly feminine.
“Who decorated this house abeg?”
Cheta had been drawn to the coziness of the bed when she first entered the room hours ago. It was a perfect queen-size ensemble of fluffy pillows and warm beddings. The bathroom was petite but large enough for her needs. It was marble, from floor to ceiling. There was a vanity countertop with shelves underneath; one of them held sparkling white towels, folded neatly. Just below the window was a claw-foot bathtub. There was also a corner shower cubicle with tinted glass.
Gold was drawn to the view of the balcony. On it was a three-sitter outdoor chair that held cushions and a folded blanket.
Cheta opened a door that revealed a walk-in closet. Not so large, but large enough for her needs. An acoustic guitar was resting on an ottoman. It had been a gift from Laja years ago, after he accidently heard her singing. He had encouraged her to pursue her music, but she knew then that it wasn’t what she wanted. Her dream had always been to become a movie producer.
“I’m so happy for you, Cheta,” Gold said, not sounding one bit happy.
Cheta looked at her. “What’s wrong?”
Gold sighed. “That money was cursed, Cheta. Every last dollar in that bag. It was cursed. Ozzy and I shouldn’t have touched it.”
“Why are you doing this to yourself nau, Goldie? I told you years ago, and I’ve always reminded you that Ozzy chose his path and there was nothing you could do about it. Forget the money…”
“How can you keep saying that?”
“The money was not responsible for the decisions both of you made. You guys should have done better. Don’t blame it on the money, especially not after what Ozzy did.”
“Two-hundred-and-twenty-five thousand dollars, Cheta.”
“Shit happens. See, let’s forget that talk. Today is about Laja. I’d rather talk about him than that fucking Ozzy.” Cheta shut her closet door.
“I want to ask a small favor.”
“Can I come and stay here for a while? My rent expired and I haven’t been able to…”
“Don’t explain anything, please. This is your house, Gold. When are you moving in?”
Gold burst into tears, covering her face. Cheta put her arms around her, feeling tears pool in her eyes as well. The years had been hard on them. Everything began after that fated night when she knocked Hadiza off the sidewalk. The woman had survived, but she was in a coma for three months, forcing her party to drop her gubernatorial ticket. Her husband, Mazino, then stood in for her, announcing his desire to run in her place. Gist had it that his family was as mad at him for that decision, as they had been at Hadiza. Their allegiance was to the ruling party, particularly to the acting governor that had taken the seat of the former governor who was then struggling with his health in a hospital outside Nigeria.
A couple of weeks before the elections, Hadiza woke up from her coma, but she was confined to a wheelchair and couldn’t do much. Things went messy from then on. Photos of her husband having sex with the younger sister of the acting governor got to the press. The party dumped him and picked his running mate, who had also been Hadiza’s running mate. This gave the opposition a landslide victory, reinstating their tenure for another four years, after an eighth-year rule. The Husseinis’ marriage didn’t survive the defeat. Hadiza filed for divorce and moved out of their Kogi home to live permanently in Abuja. Mazino married his ex from the affair a year later in a loud and extravagant wedding.
Cheta had followed their scandal as if she was keeping up with episodes of her favorite TV soap. This was because she blamed herself for all that had happened. If she hadn’t knocked Hadiza off that road that night, the woman would have won the election and become governor. Her marriage to her husband would have been saved.
Cheta carried the weight of her guilt for years, adding it to her personal afflictions.
Hers had begun when she tried to right the wrong of what she had done to Hadiza. Laja’s father who had helped them cover up the tragedy of that night had informed them that Hadiza had survived the accident and was moved from Gwagwalada Specialist Hospital to the National Hospital for better care. Cheta then decided to visit her mother who worked as a nurse at the National Hospital. She got information from her that Hadiza was in the intensive care unit, fighting for her life. Cheta then decided that she would sit outside the ICU every night, praying for her until she got better. It was the least she could do to pay penance.
But on one of those nights, Nero sat with her and told her that he had observed her constant presence around the premises. He asked if she was visiting a relative there, and she responded that she was. He also asked what her name was. For a second or two, she contemplated on what name to tell him. She settled for her other Igbo name, the one she had been initially christened at birth by her father, in honor of her late aunt.
“Uzor,” she said to Nero. “Uzoma.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked him.
“My mom is in there. We’re hoping she makes it.”
They spoke all night, and against Cheta’s better judgement, her heart was drawn to him. The following night, she was there again to pray for Hadiza. Nero was present as well. As they had done before, they spoke until morning. On the third night, he asked her if she was hungry, halfway into their conversation.
“We should have dinner.”
Cheta couldn’t say no to his offer. Nero was sweet and persuasive.
They drove to a fast food restaurant, bought food and sat in his car to eat. She discovered that he had a sense of humor. He made her laugh without effort. He took the edge off her pain. Funny thing, he told her that she did the same thing to him.
“Do you want to be my girlfriend?” he asked unexpectedly.
Cheta frowned. “Why?”
“Because I like you a lot already. I don’t want to lose you to some other guy out there. And if you already have a boyfriend, I don’t give a fuck.”
“Nero, I can’t be your girlfriend.”
“I just can’t.”
Before they left the car, he asked if he could kiss her. “I won’t ask again after tonight.”
She knew he was lying. It was one of those things boys said to have their way. But she let him kiss her, even though her conscience was screaming at her to stop. He was such a gentle kisser. There was no urgency in his lips. He was deliberate with every flick of his tongue and caress of her lips. When he let go, she knew she would come back for more.
The following night, he was absent. She met his younger brother, instead. He didn’t stay an hour. He left in the company of the bodyguard he had come with. Cheta was disappointed at Nero’s absence, but she stayed focus on her cause, praying for Hadiza the entire night, and adding that God take away every drop of feeling she had for Nero. It was getting out of hand the way she spent waking moments thinking about him.
In school, her little friendship circle was falling apart. Laja had just discovered that Gold and Ozzy were keeping a secret. He had happened upon Hadiza’s money, hidden under Ozzy’s bed.
To understand how this happened, we have to go back a little.
Remember when Cheta stopped the car, right after the accident that night? Well, everyone stepped out, except Gold. Now, what they didn’t know was that while they were all standing over an unconscious Hadiza, arguing over whether they should take her to the hospital or not, Gold’s eyes were on the black bag she had noticed in Hadiza’s hand seconds before Cheta knocked her off the sidewalk. Of course, nothing in her head had computed that it was a bag of money in those couple of seconds before the tragedy. Now that she saw the bag wedged behind a mass of bushes, she knew that there was something important about it.
Money, maybe? God, please, let it be money.
Well, those who always said he was a miracle-working God weren’t lying. Gold would testify to this in church if she were sure that the police wouldn’t come knocking on her door to arrest her and her friends. They would be found guilty of a hit and run, but she alone would be guilty of taking all that money, because while they were still doing whatever it was they were doing on that highway, Gold left the car, picked the bag and kept it on the floor of the front passenger side. Then, she sat there, certain that nobody would know what she had done. Not even Ozzy who took the wheel from Cheta and sat beside her as they continued towards Gwagwalada. But she told him about the money the following morning, after returning from Laja’s family home where they went to report themselves to his father. Ozzy then asked her not to let anyone else know it. He was honest to tell her that he had no plans for it, but he promised to come up with something in the near future.
This never happened, though, as Laja came across the money and insisted that they gave it away to charity.
“What nonsense charity?” Ozzy asked angrily. “You’ve started with this your nonsense! Was it not how you called your popsi and told on us?”
Laja glared at him. “Are you mad? What else should I have done? We’re talking about Hadiza Husseini, Ozzy! Hadiza fucking Husseini! Do you know what that means? If they had found out that we were behind what happened to her…”
“Who will find out? Who the hell, apart from us, knew what Cheta did? There was no one on that road! Nobody saw us! Even the idiot that caused the accident didn’t stop! If we had kept it to ourselves, we would have been good! But you went and told your dad!”
“I’m asking you for the second time, are you mad?”
“No, you’re the mad one! Always trying to shove your wealth in everyone’s face! Every time, my father this, my father that! What about you, man? When will you do your own shit and be a man for once, like right now?”
Laja was stupefied. “You’re a fool! It’s not my fault that your father abandoned you and your mother in this country! Unfortunate half-caste!”
“Yes, I accept that! I am not fortunate like you, Adelaja! I don’t have the Adeyanju money to bask under! And that is why I am taking every last cent of this money! Try and stop me and everybody will know what Cheta did and how your dad tried to cover it up!”
“Why would you do that, Ozzy?” Cheta asked.
“Shut up, my friend! You have no right to get into this discussion! Go somewhere and bury your head in shame for what you did!”
Laja threw his fist in Ozzy’s face without warning. Unfortunately, Ransome wasn’t there with them, so nobody stopped him when he went for Ozzy a second time. Gold screamed for him to stop and he did. Ozzy grabbed the bag of dollars and left the house. It was the last time Cheta saw him, although Gold would tell her a year later that she used to visit him at Sheraton where he stayed, squandering the money on girls and a lavish lifestyle. She would also admit that he gave her some of it, which she used for her father’s cancer treatment.
The pain of losing her friendship circle was what drove Cheta into Nero’s waiting arms. When he showed up the following night at the hospital with a smile and hash brownies, she felt like a little piece of heaven had fallen on her.
“You do eat hash brownies, right?” he asked as she was set to take a bite out of the first one.
They both consumed the brownies, all twelve of them. By the time they got to Nero’s car, they were laughing like idiots for no reason. They kissed for the second time. Again, he was deliberate, but the kiss lasted longer. He touched her too, in places she wanted him to. Afterward, he confessed that his head was not lucid enough to drive home.
“That’s why we’re here, right?” he asked, looking confused.
Cheta burst into laughter.
“We’re here because I said I’d take you to my house, right?”
She nodded. She was also just recalling why they had come to the car.
“Sheeeeet,” he laughed. “I’m so fucked. Remind me never to ask my sister for hash brownies again. So, back to why I was telling you that I can’t drive home… It’s because I really want to go all the way with you and if I drive, we might die on the road and I won’t get the chance to…”
“I’m a horny bastard right now, but I’m not doing anything without your permission.”
Cheta said nothing. That old, insatiable demon that she hadn’t been able to exorcise after the unfortunate incident with Hadiza was back to remind how wonderful car sex was.
I mean, this is a 2004 Mercedes E-Class. The car just came out the other day. Don’t you want to spread your legs for it?
“Unfortunately, I don’t have a condom,” Nero mentioned.
“We’re in a hospital. We could go get one.”
“Or we could just kiss and do everything else asides going all the way.”
Cheta nodded, but she knew that the devil was very much in the detail. If the night didn’t end with Nero between her legs, it would be a miracle.
Well, it happened the way she had predicted it would. They didn’t end things in the car; they went to Nero’s apartment and spent the entire night in more mindless sessions.
“I’m crazy about you, Uzor,” he said when he dropped her off at Area One in the morning. “Think about being my girlfriend. I know this isn’t the right time to ask you this, being that we both have loved ones in the ICU, but I feel like God brought us together to comfort each other.”
“I don’t know…”
“Think about it.”
“And let me have your number.”
They exchange numbers and she alighted from the car. Later that night, she was in his bed again. She didn’t feel like herself anymore; she was out of control. Nero was turning her strong will into nothing. She wanted to walk away from him, but she couldn’t find the guts to do so.
They spent three more nights together before she received sad news from home about the passing of her younger brother. He had been killed in an accident on his way back from school in Jos. Cheta sank into a hole so deep that nobody could pull her out. She blamed herself for her brother’s death, claiming that God was punishing her for what she did to Hadiza and her subsequent immoral acts with Nero.
She managed through the funeral rites, but couldn’t go through with her exams in school. Taking Ransome’s advice, she deferred the entire semester and took time off to grieve. During the period, Nero called and texted her, but she never responded. She had discovered, much to her shock, that her feelings for him were deeper than she had thought. Despite her grief, she couldn’t stop thinking about him. Hence, her decision to cut him off. He stopped trying to reach her eventually, and this pushed her further into her pain.
Three months went by and she was back in school. She wasn’t the Cheta her friends once knew. She was withdrawn and depressed. She had also just discovered that she was pregnant with Nero’s child. She confided in Gold who advised her to keep it.
“The baby is a Husseini.”
“It doesn’t matter if Nero is Hadiza’s son from another man. Any child that comes out of that family is freaking rich.”
“I’m rich too, Goldie.”
Cheta sighed. Gold was not exactly the friend from whom you got good advice. So, she went to Laja and Ransome.
“Take the baby out,” Laja advised.
“You have your whole life ahead of you, Cheta. You already deferred an entire semester. Think of what a baby would do to the rest of your stay in school. Let’s not even talk about what your parents would say.”
She shivered. Her dad would kill her. A baby would shame the family and bring disrepute to the church.
“You don’t need a baby right now.”
But she was already sixteen weeks gone. Having an abortion would mean taking a life. She did not want God’s wrath on her again. Her brother had paid dearly for her sins. If she had an abortion, who else would pay for it?
“Or you could just choose to let the father of the baby know, and two of you can make the decision together,” Ransome suggested.
“No. It’s her body,” Laja countered.
“I know, but…”
“How would you feel if your babe got pregnant and took it out, without you even knowing she was pregnant in the first place?”
“Dude, I don’t have a girlfriend, so I can’t relate to what you’re saying.”
“You know what I mean.”
“When I am able to stare down and see my dick, I will get a girlfriend, and then you can ask me this question. For now, this is Cheta’s choice alone to make.”
Cheta did make the choice, and she chose to tell her aunt, her father’s younger sister. Together, they broke the news to her parents. Just as Cheta had expected, her father attempted to kill her. He pounced on her from his seat, slamming his large, hard palms on her back. Helpless, her mother sat in a corner crying. Her aunt wasn’t able to save her as he dragged her to the floor and began kicking her. Luckily for Cheta, her elder brother had just driven in. He dashed in and saved her from the mad man. He rushed her to the hospital where a doctor confirmed that she and the baby were fine. Then he took her to his house and asked her to tell him whom the father of the baby was.
Cheta shook her head in response. “Nobody can get a name out of my mouth.”
The only person who knew that Nero was responsible for the pregnancy was Gold, and Cheta could trust her with her life to keep a secret.
“So, what do you want to do with the baby now? Abortion is out of the question.”
“Dera, I don’t know.”
“I’ll talk to Auntie and Momsi and we’ll come up with a plan. For the meantime, you’re staying here. No school, no going home. Your health is more important.”
This was the first time her brother was showing deep concern for her, and she was touched by it. Normally, he didn’t care. She guessed that the passing of their lastborn had affected them all in some way.
The following evening, their mother and aunt visited. They came with food and clothes for Cheta. They also came up with a plan for her and her baby.
“We will send you to your aunt in the UK,” her mother said. “You’ll have the baby there and we’ll bring it here, claiming that we adopted it.”
“You have to finish schooling, Chichetaram. I will not have you throw your education away.”
Cheta didn’t feel like she had a say in their decision. She went with the flow. Dera assisted her in the process of getting a visa. A month later, she was on her way to the UK. She had informed her friends before leaving and they organized a small party for four in her honor. Life in the UK was hard. Her aunt was always busy, never having time for her. Cheta fell into loneliness, struggling with depression, all through her pregnancy. When her son came, she didn’t feel any better. She wanted nothing to do with him, although he was the most beautiful baby she had ever seen. At that time, she had gotten admission into Leeds Beckett University to study filmmaking and she was looking forward to it.
She named her baby Obiedika, which meant that her heart had endured much. It was the most she could do to show her connection with him. Her mom had come for omugwo at his birth and had fallen in love with him. She begged Cheta to tell her who his father was, but Cheta would still not give her a name.
“Hian! You want this boy to grow up without a father?”
Cheta shrugged. She wasn’t ready for Obiedika yet. Her life needed to have its own bearing. Only then would she become the mother he deserved.
Five years later, she returned to Nigeria. But having a degree in filmmaking and a master’s degree in film business was not enough to start her own movie production company. She needed the funds for it, but she soon found out that getting into Nollywood was not as easy as she had anticipated. She struggled for two years without success before she decided that it was best to move back to the UK. During her stay in Nigeria, she bonded with Obi. He was intelligent and talented. He fell in love with her as she did with him, so much so that parting with him was one of the hardest things for her to do. She was tempted to take him along, but Dera advised her against doing so.
“Go back and get yourself sorted. Obi is not going anywhere.”
Her mother, however, didn’t want her to leave. She had arranged suitors for her, sons of her friends, who were eligible bachelors. Her father was in support of the plan too. But Cheta turned them down. Living in the UK all on her own had made her independent and stubborn. It was easy to say her mind to her parents and not feel bad afterwards.
She returned to the UK and stayed there for four more years, working with a popular production company as a producer of short films. Eventually, she decided to go out on a limb and made her first short film about African immigrants living in London. She submitted it for the Cannes Film Festival and it was selected. It didn’t win any of the categories for which it was chosen, but her name began to go round in circles that mattered. She began to get jobs, many of which she turned down. Cheta didn’t want to be just another immigrant doing something great outside Nigeria. She wanted a name in Nollywood, one that would be respected worldwide. So, she packed up shop and returned to Nigeria and to Obi. She got a place of her own and informed her parents that she was taking Obi to live with her in Lagos.
“So, you don’t want to get married?” her father asked. “You want to be known forever as a single mother, sleeping around with men?”
She had no answer for him. Wasn’t he the one that disowned her?
“Chichetaram, go and get married. How old are you again?”
“I’m thirty-one, and I’ve accomplished a lot, Daddy.”
“Without a husband.”
“I don’t need a husband.”
“You will get married, whether you like it or not.”
She rudely got on her feet and told her mother that she was leaving. She went into Obi’s bedroom, packed his clothes while her father shouted his head off, and took them to a waiting taxi.
“Aunty Cheta, where are we going?” Obi asked.
“We’re going home, baby boy.”
Cheta lowered herself to bring her face to his. “I’ll explain when we get to our new house, okay?”
He nodded. “Is Mommy coming with us?”
Cheta looked at her mother who was standing at the front door, watching them.
She took his hand, and together, they walked to the taxi. She would spend the next six years, shuttling between London, Abuja and Lagos. Sometimes, she went to South Africa or Ghana. Whenever Obi was on holidays, she took him along. On one of those trips, while in the plane, she told him the truth about his maternity. He had just turned fifteen then and she was giving him one of their sex talks when he asked her who she was to him.
“I’m your mom,” she answered, quite casually.
“I heard Daddy and Mommy saying something about it when I was ten. But I think I always suspected.”
Cheta looked at her son. She tried not to laugh. “Are you angry at me?”
“But I lied to you, Obi. I’m very sorry.”
“If you got pregnant without getting married and you’re Daddy’s daughter, then it means he was very pissed at you.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“That means that he made you lie to everybody because he didn’t want to be disgraced in church.”
Cheta spared him the part where she was disowned and cursed.
“That also means that you had no choice than to let me go.”
Cheta was touched. She looked at her son tenderly.
“Now, I know why he always hated me.”
Obi shrugged. “Thank God he’s not my dad.”
“I know, right. I wish I could say the same. But hey…” She tugged his chin up. “I don’t want you to hate him. He doesn’t know any better.”
“He’s sleeping with Rifkatu.”
Cheta dropped Obi’s chin and looked away. Rifkatu was the teenage daughter of the woman that had worked for them for years. In fact, Rifkatu had been born in Cheta’s bedroom with the help of her mother.
“That’s like rape, right?”
Cheta was weak. She couldn’t speak. She had always suspected her father of being inappropriate with teenage girls, but she had never seen anything tangible to support her suspicions.
“How did you find out?”
“I saw them in your room.”
“Good Lord.” Cheta unclipped her seatbelt and buried her face in her hands.
“I didn’t tell anybody, though. I know Mommy would be mad at him.”
Cheta wasn’t so sure about that. Her mother had always excused her husband’s madness. What’s to say that she wouldn’t excuse this as well? What if she had always known and covered up for it?
“Obi, I’m sorry that you had to see that.”
“It’s no big deal. It’s just sex.”
“Everybody in school is doing it.”
“Well, what you saw was rape.”
“I know. That’s what makes it bad. If it’s the act itself, I’m not grossed out by it.”
“Wait, are you still a virgin?”
He looked around as if he’d get shot for telling the truth. “Yes. And let’s not talk about this again.”
“About dad… My dad… What he did was wrong, and I’m going to address it.”
But Cheta never did. Instead, she spoke to Rifkatu’s mom. The woman smiled and thanked her, but said nothing further.
“Aunty Cheta, please, let us leave this matter, ehn? Leave it. You want me to go and fight your daddy? Your own daddy fa.”
Cheta apologized to her and left the matter, as she had requested. Her resentment for her father grew, and she kept away from him.
It was while she was somewhere in Dakar, shooting a documentary, that she got news from her mother about his renal cancer. She felt nothing for him. Not even a bit of pity.
“Will you come and see him? He’s been so sick, asking after you.”
“I’m busy, Mommy.”
“I can’t leave what I’m doing to see that man.”
“That man?” her mother asked in shock. “Chichetaram, he is your father.”
“He is a rapist!”
Members of the production crew who were standing close by, stared at her. She walked away from them.
“How dare you call your father that… That horrible, evil word!”
“He’s been raping Rifkatu, and I don’t think she’s the first, and I think you’ve always known! Come to think of it, why did you always bring in teenage girls to work for us when we already had enough hands? What was that thing you people constantly did in the name of sponsoring fatherless girls by keeping them in the house? Wasn’t that you aiding and abetting your husband?”
“God will judge you, Cheta! You and that your foul, demonic mouth, God will judge you for it!”
“Okay. Me, I have sha said mine.”
Her mother hung up. Angry, Cheta walked back to set and ordered her crew to get on with the shoot. She remained in Dakar two more months. After that, she traveled to the US for a short course in animation. It was there she learned of Laja’s illness. They spoke on the phone late one night.
“I’m not going to make it, baby girl.”
“Don’t talk like that,” she said to him, tears bathing her face. He had never sounded so weak.
“I’m dying. Right now, there’s a bag connected to a pipe that’s draining water from my lungs. I look like a skeleton had swallowed me whole and spat out all my fat.”
“Why are you just telling me this now, Laja? Why?”
“My burden is not your burden, darling.”
She wanted to be strong for him, but she couldn’t. She broke down and cried for a long time, but he told her that he had, at least, six months left. In the fifth month of her course, she hopped on a plane to Abuja. When she walked into his hospital room and saw him, she withdrew to a corner to weep. Subsequently, she wiped her face and returned with a sad smile.
“You this girl, you’re mad o. You left school because I’m dying?”
“You’re not dying on me, Large. Not today, not tomorrow, not this year. Not in twenty years.”
“My lungs are gone,” he said in a breathy tone. “My liver too. I’m not sure my dick works anymore.”
“You want to try sucking it for old time’s sake? Make this man happy for once in your life, Chichetaram.”
She couldn’t help but laugh .“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“How is your son?”
“When are you going to tell him about his dad?”
“When I’m ready. I’ve asked him to give me time.”
“This is not about you, Cheta. It stopped being about you a long time ago. This boy needs his father.”
“I know, but I’m not ready to see Nero again.”
“Aha. You finally let the truth out. See how you casually just said it. Something that I have been asking for years.”
Laja stopped to cough. Cheta stared helplessly as he did. It went on forever until she called a nurse.
“No, it’s fine,” he said, stopping her. “It comes and goes. As I was saying… Shebi you just told me the person’s name because I’m dying?”
“Why are you never serious in this life?”
“I’ll be serious in death.”
He coughed again, but briefly, this time.
“So, what is this Nero’s full name?” he probed.
Cheta frowned. “You don’t have to know.”
Laja rested his hand on hers, and said in a forced croak, “A dying man’s wish.”
Cheta laughed. “You’re a fool.”
“Why does that name ring a bell?”
“He’s Hadiza Abdullai’s son. Former Hadiza Husseini.”
“Wait, wait, wait… You were fucking her son after you almost killed her?”
“I hate you.”
“Omo, you bad o!”
“Let’s not talk about him, please.”
“Did you love him?”
“Answer the question.”
“I was in love with him.”
“How about now?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“Well, me I know that you do. The only reason you don’t want him in his son’s life is because of what you still feel for him. That wouldn’t have been a problem if you hadn’t knocked off his mother from the road and confined her to a wheelchair.”
“Are you done, Mr. Oversabi Psychologist?”
“No, you’re done. Let’s talk about you. Can’t we take you to India or somewhere else?”
“I just got back from India, honey. There’s nothing they can do for me. I’m done.”
Cheta was silent for a while.
“You’ll be fine. Know that I’ll always be watching over you.”
She spent the night by his side and stayed with him all through the next day. When it was time for her to leave, she couldn’t string the words together to tell him goodbye. She held his bony hand and washed it with her tears.
“The next time you see me, you’ll be saying something wonderful about me at my funeral.”
“Stop.” She sniffled.
“I love you so much, Chichetaram. Say a prayer for me, my darling.
“I will, and I’ll ask that he keep you longer. I’ll be done with my course in a month and I’ll be back.”
“No wahala. Just hurry up.”
She knew he would be gone by the time she returned. She touched her forehead with his, prayed for him and left the room. Outside, she slipped to the floor and wept until his mother pulled her up.
“He’s fought a good fight, my dear. You have to let him rest now.”
She said goodbye to the woman and left for the airport. The moment her flight touched down in LAX, she got a text from Laja, pleading with her to make peace her father.
“Nope,” she said loudly, and typed the same in response to the text.
The news of his death came three weeks later. They had spoken consistently via audio and video calls that hardly lasted five minutes because he always got tired or started groaning in pain. His death was a relief to her, as much as it broke her in bits. She tried her best to concentrate on her course, knowing he would have wanted that of her. The instant she was done and she received her certificate, she hurried to the airport to catch a flight to Abuja. It took more than a day for her to arrive. Her mother was waiting with Obi at the airport.
“I’m sorry,” Obi whispered to her as they hugged. “She really wanted to be here.”
“It’s fine.” She hugged the old woman. “I have to get on the next flight to Lagos, Mommy. I can’t miss Laja’s funeral. As you can see, I’m all dressed for it. I had to clean up and change in the plane’s restroom…”
“I’m just here to let you know that your father has furnished one of his houses in Lagos for you. With my help, of course. You’ll really like it.”
“Okay. Why, though?”
“Cheta, don’t be asking questions like this. You just lost your best friend. You know how sickness can change a person’s heart.”
Cheta raised her brows. “What else has sickness changed about your husband?”
“He’s going to empty one of his bank accounts for you. Trust me, that’s a lot of money…”
“After I have suffered all on my own?” Cheta laughed. “Mommy, please, I don’t have time for this.” She passed her luggage to Obi, kissed him on the cheek and started to walk away.
“You will accept that house, Cheta!” her mother said in a tone she had not heard in years. “And the car it comes with.”
Cheta turned. “Why?”
“Because it will make me happy.” The woman was misty-eyed. “You’ll also take the money. It’s for Obi, and for you. Biko, nwam. Don’t break my heart.”
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy…” She went to her and hugged her.
“Okay. But I don’t want to see him.”
“No, Mom. I have to go.”
She hurried away before she could convince her.
It had been nine hours since that moment at the airport. Now, the woman was calling, and Cheta suspected that her father would be on the other end of the phone. She declined the call, put her phone aside, and enjoyed the soothing warmth of her foamy bath. Gold was already dressed for the night and she was straightening out her wig in front of the mirror. In an hour, they would be on their way to Laja’s house for his party. It was strange to have a Lagos party without Laja.
Cheta shook her head in sadness. It was still hard to accept that he was really gone.
“I know, right?” Gold said, invading her thoughts as usual. “I’m expecting to walk into that house and see him there, welcoming us.”
“This life is so unfair.”
“Death, you mean. That’s the bitch. Not life.”
Cheta’s phone rang. She stared at the screen. She didn’t recognize the number. She hoped it was not her father calling, but she couldn’t help but pick the call. She was expecting some business phone calls in the days to come.
Cheta shut her eyes as she recognized the voice on the line. “Hi Nero.”
“So, what’s up with Uzor?”
“Am I going to hear at least half of it at the party tonight?”
“Maybe. But how did you find my real name?”
“There’s that pesky little thing called Trucaller. Sadly, we didn’t have that sixteen years ago.”
“You owe me a lot, Chiketaram.”
“You can just call me Cheta instead of fucking up my name.”
“Young lady, you owe me a lot. I’ll be waiting for you.”
He hung up. Cheta stared at her phone, laughing.
“Who was that?” Gold asked.
“Goldie?” Cheta sat up. “My sins have finally caught up with me.”
®Sally Kenneth Dadzie @moskedapages