Mummy's gone. She died at 2:34pm. Call me.
You remember looking at that text and thinking what kind of psychopath would send such a nonchalant, abrasive text message. It was your sister, Rose. Who else could it be?
You were in the supermarket when you read the text, standing in the canned food aisle, gravity slipping away from beneath your feet. The world seemed perfectly still and you wanted to scream but instead you held the phone in your trembling palms and read the message over and over again.
Mummy's gone. She died at 2:34pm. Call me.
In the car, you sat with your forehead resting on the steering wheel. Your phone chimed and you ignored it, started the engine and began the drive to Abeokuta. You tried not to think about the 7:30am meeting you had in Ikeja tomorrow, about the PowerPoint presentation you were yet to send to the client, instead you focused on getting yourself to your mother's house in one piece.
You got to Abeokuta a few minutes past 9 in the evening. Rose and her two children, mummy's house boy, Dotun, and a few relatives, whose faces you barely recognized from what felt like a lifetime ago, were all on the veranda; sitting, standing, leaning against the wall and over the railing. The house looked like it belonged to a ghost, the lamp posts in the compound casting fuggy beams of light against the edifice where you grew up.
Your nieces rushed out to hug you.
"Aunty, aunty, grandmama is dead, do you know?" Nora asked.
You smiled down at her. The innocence and simplicity of children.
On the veranda you exchanged brief pleasantries with everyone and walked into the house. It smelled like your mother; of the shea butter she rubbed into her hair, of the calla lilies she kept in a vase on the dining table, of the locust beans she kept in a tray on the kitchen counter. Your heart felt like it weighed a thousand pounds.
Rose followed you in, asking what had taken you so long to get here, wasn’t Lagos just two hours away?
"Where's her body?" You asked.
"In the mortuary. Where else?" Her voice was too haughty, too loud for somebody whose mother had just died.
“I need to see her,” you said.
She rolled her eyes. “Oh. Now you want to see her.”
You walked past her, back unto the veranda and called for Dotun, who came rushing to you.
“Let’s go,” you said. “I’m going to the mortuary.”
He hesitated at first but quickly followed you down the stone steps, down the pathway and into the car.
Rose was calling after you, but you didn’t wait to hear what she was saying.
On the bumpy road out of the small estate, Dotun told you the mortuary closed at 6pm. You told him somebody might be there to show you where they’ve kept your mother.
The traffic was heavy on Oke-Mosan Road, tired commuters ambling along, piling into buses on the roadside.
Mothers and daughters always have issues, of course, but you should have gone to see her when she returned from India. Especially when she asked that you come. The cancer had eaten into her liver and the doctors had given her just a few weeks to live. She became bitter and angry, worse than you had ever known her to be, worse than after your brother’s death. She was angry at God and at the church; at God because he cursed her with the loss of a child and now with cancer; at the church because the stingy board of trustees couldn’t even cough up a flimsy million naira to send her to India for the operation, but they could keep expanding and adding annexes to that wretched building of theirs.
But you should have gone to see her anyway. She was still your mother.
You parked the car outside the gate of the mortuary and begged the security guard to let you in. The reception smelt like death and the defecation of rats. Another security guard sitting at a desk, listening to music playing from a small Nokia mobile phone, told you the coroner took the keys home with him so, no, you couldn’t see your mother tonight.
You and Dotun slept bent like crayfish on the plastic chairs. You drifted in and out of sleep, images of your mother – in the backyard, in the kitchen, sitting in front of the television – flashed behind your eyelids. You still hadn’t cried.
Your phone rang at 06:17am. It was Kelechi. You hadn’t sent in the client’s presentation and the meeting was in an hour.
“My mother is dead,” you said.
“God.” Her voice came back shaky after a while. “God. I’m so sorry.”
You hung up and switched your phone off.
Morning light filtered into the room. A cleaner, dragging his slippered feet, pulled bucket and mop across the floor, leaving droplets of water on the concrete. A boisterous receptionist walked in, greeting everyone, smelling like cheap perfume, the scent of akara emitting from a black nylon bag she was carrying. You remembered you hadn’t eaten since lunch time yesterday.
The coroner won’t come until 9am, the receptionist said, and only he has the keys to the room in which the bodies are kept.
You gave Dotun money so he could catch a bike back home. You folded yourself again and slept until the sound of a crying child stirred you awake. You opened your eyes to a room now filled with people. Your neck felt strained, a mild headache throbbed at your right temple.
You asked the receptionist if the coroner was around. She said he hadn’t arrived. It was a few minutes past 10.
You returned to your seat, turned your phone on and watched emails and text messages troop in. There were three from Rose:
Where are you? Where are you?? Iya Moji and her children are here to see us Hello?? Where are you???
The coroner strolled in at 11:39am. He was a short man with a graying goatee and tiny eyes set behind rimless bifocals. The entire reception erupted, people rushing to their feet to approach him. He put a hand out and warded them off.
“Hello. Hello. Excuse me,” he said, all the power in the world resting on his shoulders. “I will attend to everyone. Please.”
Your headache had by now become a migraine.
The coroner strolled down the corridor and the receptionist told you to follow her. He stopped outside a door, opened his leather bag and searched for keys. The receptionist told him that you had been here since the night before looking for your mother’s body.
The man barely acknowledged her. And then you spoke, reiterating what she had said.
“You can see that I am just coming,” he said, still searching in his bag. “Sit down. I will attend to everybody.”
You looked at him. It was always short men who felt as though they had something to prove to the world. Much like your ex-husband, Christopher.
You returned to the reception area, where your seat had been taken by a plump woman speaking noisily into a mobile phone. You leaned against the wall and scrolled through work emails. The client was unhappy you were a no-show. Your boss needed an explanation – this was a promising contract. Kelechi wanted to know if you needed anything; were you back in Abeokuta? Should she send the office driver? Were you okay?
“Madam,” said a now familiar voice.
You looked up and the coroner was beckoning you over.
You walked down the corridor and into the room filled with cadavers covered over with black polythene bags. Some were lying on the few tables available, others had been stacked one on top of the other, along the walls on the floor. They looked like piles of trash. The room smelt awful, unlike anything you had ever smelt before. You felt like throwing up.
The coroner showed you three corpses before he finally found your mother. He and an assistant made room on the table by the door and moved the body.
He pulled back the polythene bag and you looked down at your mother’s lifeless body. Her eyes were closed, the skin of her face discoloring to an ugly grey shade, the flesh around her nose and lips lax, already decaying. Her short grey hair twisted out from her crown in stubborn puffs. Her lips were scrunched up; she looked as though she hadn’t wanted to die just yet but, alas, death had come and taken her. You stood like that for long minutes.
You eventually looked away and the coroner asked you when she would be moved to a private mortuary. They were running out of space, as you could see.
You nodded and left.
In the car, you sat behind the steering wheel and stared into nothing. Your phone rang and you silenced it.
You wanted to drive back to Lagos. You had come. For God’s sake, you had finally come and now could you just return to Lagos and get on with your life?
The phone rang again and you glanced at it – it was Christopher. You silenced it and drove back to the house.
Nora and Stephanie rushed to the car as you drove into the compound. Their mother was on the veranda, drinking from a bottle of Coke, squinting at you in the sunlight.
Nora watched your hands as you climbed out of the car.
“Oh, you didn’t buy anything for us?” She asked.
You smiled. “No, dear, I’m sorry. Next time, okay?”
The two shuffled away, returning to their play, as you made your way to the house.
“Where have you been?” Rose asked.
“At the mortuary.”
Dotun approached you and asked if you would eat fried rice or yam. Before you could respond, Rose was speaking again.
“So, you’ve seen her. Are you happy now?”
You ignored her and walked into the house, sitting on the large sofa in front of the old television set. Dotun followed you and asked again about food. Rose stood at the doorway, a hand on her hip, watching you.
You settled for fried rice and Dotun hurried into the kitchen.
“So… Chris called,” Rose said, still by the doorway. “He said he’s been trying to reach you.”
You leaned into the sofa and rested the back of your head.
“At least he still cares.” She sighed heavily. “After everything.”
“When are we burying her?” You asked.
“That’s too far. Why the wait?”
Rose let out a dry laugh. “You’re in such a hurry to get back to your glamourous life, aren’t you?”
You wanted to retort with something spiteful, but you knew Rose well enough to know that’s exactly what she wanted.
Rose got pregnant half way through university and became angry at the world; angry at Nora’s father who vehemently denied responsibility, angry at your mother for not supporting her enough, angry at you for graduating and marrying who she thought at the time was a rich man who had it all together (she was very pleased with the divorce scandal that would hit you and Christopher years later).
Two years after Nora, and with her still pending bachelor's degree, Rose fell pregnant again, this time for a married man who lived in Lomé. You knew her well enough to step aside her snide remarks, which came from desperately wishing she was living another kind of life.
Dotun arrived with a tray of fried rice, dodo and a hefty chicken thigh. He placed it on a stool in front of you, left and returned with a bottle of water. You watched him move around the living room and wondered what would happen to him now that your mother was gone. He had lived with her for nearly two decades, since he was four years old, when he was found by her church women’s fellowship abandoned in Oje Market. Dotun was wiry and very strong. He could lift almost anything and worked round the clock.
Rose eventually returned to the veranda. The food tasted like plastic in your mouth. You could barely eat a quarter of the plate and had been dosing off when the house began to fill, a body at a time, with well-wishers; neighours, old colleagues, family friends, church members, relatives you like to avoid.
You began to feel claustrophobic, so you snuck out of the house through the back door and out of the side gate that led to the adjacent street. You switched your phone off and walked towards the main road.
The sun was high and your face and arms became slick with sweat. You were still in your work clothes and hadn’t had a shower since yesterday morning. You knew you were beginning to smell fetid.
You took an okada to Jibowu Crescent and checked into the Best Western Plus Hotel, paying for two nights. After a long, hot shower, you wrapped yourself in the fuzzy hotel bathrobe and lay on the bed.
You thought about your mother. You would never see her eyes again, or hear her voice, or have a useless argument with her. Your stomach turned on itself with grief, yet you still did not cry.
You turned your phone on and called him – “Guy Man” – ignoring Rose’s barrage of new text messages.
He picked up after the second ring, his voice deep and bleary.
“You in town?” He asked.
He arrived an hour later, sauntering into the hotel room as you held the door ajar, as though he owned the place. When you closed the door, he lifted you up and spun you around, dropping you on the bed softly. He took his shirt off and lay on top of you. He smelt like fresh mint and musk.
“Are you having me for an hour? Or the day?” He asked.
When you didn’t respond, his eyes narrowed.
“What’s wrong?” He asked.
It was then that you began to cry; heavy, loud, broken sobs. You buried your face in his chest. He cupped your head in his hands and rolled over, so that you were cradled on his chest.
“What happened? What happened?” He asked, over and over again.
When the tears had subsided, and you had blown out the catarrh clogging up your nostrils, you told him your mother had died.
His eyes widened. You had never seen him express so much emotion.
When you first started seeing him, fresh into the separation, he had strict rules. He made it very clear that he wasn’t an emotional crutch, he wasn’t your friend, he wasn’t to be fallen in love with and he, in return, did not fall in love. He didn’t enjoy small talk before or after, he didn’t care about your hectic day or your dysfunctional family. He showed up, you came, and he left. He was there to satisfy your sexual needs. That was his job; he was a prostitute, no strings attached.
But yet here he was, holding you like you were his baby, dabbing his handkerchief softly at your eyes, patting the side of your face. The lines had been blurred between the two of you over the years; you had borrowed him money when his brother needed his appendix removed, he had accompanied you to a wedding in Owerri, he had spent a few sensual nights at your apartment in Lagos when he came on a “business trip”.
Yet, he wanted to maintain professional boundaries, and you let him. You knew he had many women on his tab, some old enough to be his grandmother. He only did women; never a swinger or an experimenter. No threesomes, none of that kinky shit. And it was cash up-front, full payment, none of those stories that touch. This was how he paid his bills.
He was young and painfully gorgeous. He spent the first week of every other month detoxing; he spent his mornings at the gym, his days eating meticulously wholesome food, most Friday evenings at a spa getting waxed.
“Have you seen the body?” He asked.
“Yes,” you said. “She looks dead.”
He chuckled slightly and then stopped and you looked at him and you both giggled.
“Dear, I am so sorry,” he said, holding you again.
You stayed like that for a long moment.
His phone rang. He stood up to answer it, and loitered by the wide window, looking down unto Jibowu Crescent below. His chiseled back was turned to you, his voice was low and sultry. He looked like a god from where you were sitting.
When he got off the phone, he tossed it on the bed, stood akimbo and looked at you through kittenish eyes.
“So, what’s it going to be?” He asked.
“Who was that?” You already knew.
He climbed unto the bed on his knees and palms and crawled towards you.
“You’re not in the mood,” he said, his face an inch away from yours.
You shook your head. He sighed, reaching for his shirt.
“Tomorrow. Okay?” He stood up and put his shirt on. “It will help you relax. Take your mind off… stuff.” He winked. “And I’ll give you a discount. Just this time.”
You tried to smile. He gave you a peck and left.
When you heard the door click shut, you reached for your phone. There were several more calls and messages from Rose, a few from Kelechi and two calls from Christopher.
You contemplated calling Christopher back. But would he say? I am sorry for your loss. My deepest condolences. And then he would again vanish into the periphery of your life, a constant reminder of a mistake you made many years ago.
It had started off well with Christopher, as most things do. You met at university. You both took a course with Professor Nwoko, a wicked man who enjoyed reducing marks for innocuous errors. Despite Christopher’s briefness, you thought he was funny, intelligent and charming. He helped you study for Nwoko’s exam. He bought you palm wine at the bar where they played highlife music into the night every Friday. You both talked and talked, half-drunk, for hours during the weekends. You never wanted your conversations to end. He walked you back to the hostel when it was dark. He was lovely.
Young and bright-eyed, you thought that was all it would take to make a marriage work. You got engaged in school – which upset your mother very much because she couldn’t help but wonder what the rush was all about – and got married right after graduation.
He went to Aberdeen for his master’s degree and you stayed back in Lagos, working for the advertising agency you still work with. You didn’t know that his relationship with Preye had began back then, where she too was a student at the University of Aberdeen, but you would soon come to know the depth of his love for Preye when you found out the two had conceived three whole children, the oldest one almost as old of your marriage.
It floored you. It turned your world upside down, turned your days into a blur and your nights into hell. You stopped sleeping and eating. Your doctor put you on Prosom but it barely worked. Sleep evaded you. You began to look gaunt and sickly. Your blood pressure shot up. Your boss told you to take paid leave off work. Christopher was barely around to notice the change in your health.
You had been trying to conceive since the first year of your marriage. Your first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage and since then no other fetus had latched unto your uterine wall. You had been for test after test. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong. A gynecologist in UCH, Ibadan suggested you go to London for more tests. And there was Preye having child after child after child for your husband.
The effrontery! You became obsessed with her. You stalked her on Facebook. You knew her children’s names – Mark, Franklyn and Angela – and the school they attended – Holy Family Roman Catholic School. Those should have been your children. The obsession ate into your daily life. Everybody you saw looked like Preye. You would close your eyes and see her children. They tormented your dreams. And the best part? Christopher still did not know that you knew about his other family in Scotland.
You knew what had to be done if you didn’t want to lose what was left of your mind.
The next time he told you he was going to the UK “on a business trip”, you bade him farewell on the morning of his trip and left for work. On your way, you sent him the pictures of Preye and their children you had culled from Facebook and told him you were filing for a divorce on grounds of infidelity. You would take everything – the house, the cars, the land in Abuja.
He didn’t make his flight. He showed up at your office instead, disgruntled, trembling and pleading. You told him you had contacted a lawyer. There was nothing left to say. He nodded, Okay, okay, what do you want me to do? I’ll do anything.
But, really, what could be done?
You closed your eyes and fell asleep.