His phone rang for the umpteenth time in the last hour. He ignored it. Just like he had the last time. And the time before that. He knew who was calling and he was neither in the mood nor in the correct frame of mind to have a conversation with his mother right now. She was probably calling to nag him about why he hadn’t answered her calls last night. And she would probably call him tomorrow to nag him about why he was missing her calls today. It was her way. Had been for the last 18 months, since he had introduced Emike to her as his girlfriend. For some reason, she didn’t like Emike and this was the cause of the ever-growing rift between himself and his mum, because he had refused to give in to her request of not having anything to do with her.
When he had asked her why she was so hostile towards the woman he loved, all his mum could say was “I don’t think she’s a good girl. My spirit does not agree with her.” Despite his insistence that this was an insufficient explanation and not enough reason for her refusal to warm to the girl, Korede’s mum had chosen to be steadfast in her dislike and disapproval of their relationship. He had continued with the relationship anyway because he loved Emike. She made him happy and she encouraged him to be a better man every day. And now, it was Valentine’s Day, and he was planning to propose to her because he knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.
Nevertheless, he was very unhappy about the situation with his mum. He was an only child, and had been very close to her until she decided to harangue him every opportunity she got about why he should find another girl to be with. His phone rang again. It was as if she was calling every minute to make sure that she interrupted any time he was spending with his fiancée to be. Unfortunately for her, he wasn’t with Emike at the moment. He had just returned from the jewellery store where he had gone to make the final payment for and pick up the engagement ring he’d selected for her. He stuck his hand in his pocket as if reassuring himself of the presence of the little box. Everything was going to be alright. Once he married the love of his life and they started having children, he was sure his mum would relax and focus on being a grandma.
He stopped postponing the inevitable and answered the phone.
“I’ve been calling you for two days now, Korede.” She scolded on the other end of the line. “This is what that girl does to you. She makes you disrespect me. Once you’re with her, you don’t have any regard for your mother. I’ve told you, she is not a good girl. You don’t want to listen. They say that what the old man sees sitting down, a boy cannot see even atop a tree. I’m sure she’s there with you now and she can hear me.”
“She’s not here mum. And I really don’t appreciate you speaking about her that way. That woman is very important to me and I would very much prefer if you stopped saying unsavory things about her. You don’t even know her, for goodness sake! You haven’t even tried to get to know her. What did she ever do to you?”
“Hmmm. Korede, listen to me. I’m still your mother and you should accord me that respect. If I say I have a problem with someone you’re dating, then you should stop dating her.”
“Really? You do realize I’m not a baby right? I’m 35 years old, going on 36. I certainly am capable of making my own decisions, which coincidentally, you have let me make since I was a boy. So why now? Why all this hostility? The last time she came with me to visit you and dad, you were very rude to her. How do you want her to feel, knowing that her mother-in-law absolutely loathes her?”
“Ha! Korede! Olorun ma je! Mother-in-law ke? God forbid! You cannot marry that girl o. You must not!”
“Well, sorry to disappoint you mum. She’ll be here in a few minutes and I’m going to propose to her. I don’t really need your approval anymore, since I’m clear on the fact that you have no genuine reasons for your objections.”
For a few seconds, Korede thought the line had been disconnected because his mum had suddenly gone quiet. But then, she spoke again, with a calmer, quieter tone this time.
“You mean you actually want to marry this girl?” Korede thought he detected something akin to fear in his mum’s voice, but he couldn’t be sure. He dismissed it and answered her question firmly.
“Yes, mummy. I want to marry her. I love her very much and I need her in my life. And it would make me very happy if the two most important women in my life could coexist in peace and harmony.”
There was nothing from the other end of the line but quiet breathing. Then…
“No!” His mum said firmly, forcefully. And then the line went dead for sure this time.
Korede shook his head and continued with preparations for Emike’s arrival. He had invited her to dinner, which he had made himself and he was sure she didn’t suspect he was going to propose, because dinner at his house had been a usual occurrence for the last few weeks. The doorbell rang and he went to open the door. As always she looked beautiful, even in the simplest of attires. He couldn’t believe how lucky he was to have met her. They hugged and kissed hello, wished each other a Happy Valentine’s Day for the second time that day and caught up on what had happened during the week over a glass of wine. Then he served dinner and they talked some more, laughing a lot as they always did. Conversation with Emike was easy and light-hearted, and they seldom disagreed. Even when they did, they were both secure in the fact that it didn’t come from a bad place, which made it easy for them to repair things quickly.
Dinner done, they both moved to the living room couch, where Korede took her hand.
“You mean the world to me. I hope you know that.”
“Yes, I do hun.” She replied, smiling.
His heart pounded as he tried to figure out the next set of words to say. He had been very sure a few hours ago about how he would propose, even down to the last word and gesture. But somehow, all his carefully rehearsed lines seemed to have disappeared. He jumped right to it.
“Marry me, Emike, and make me complete. I never want to contemplate life without you and I certainly don’t want to try living it. I promise to love you with my entire being and take good care of you, and our children when we have them. I will dedicate the rest of my life to making you as happy as you make me. Just say you’ll be my wife.”
He watched her face light up and widen with a smile. Then she leaned forward and kissed him, put her forehead against his and whispered.
“I thought you’d never ask. My answer is yes. I would love to be your wife.”
They hugged then, holding onto each other for a long time, each visualizing the road ahead of them. Then Emike pulled back, concern etched on her face.
“What’s wrong, love?” Korede asked
“What about your mum? She doesn’t like me much. How are we ever going to get her blessing?”
“She’ll come around eventually. Don’t worry.”
Two Saturday mornings later, Korede got dressed with trepidation, praying fervently that his mum would come through and not cause any scenes at the Uwagbai home. The parents were ‘officially’ meeting today, now that their children were engaged. He and Emike had decided not to mention his mum’s objections to her own parents so that it wouldn’t colour their impression and affect the meeting. He wondered now if that had been a good idea. What if his mum came and behaved irrationally? He would be terribly embarrassed. He also didn’t want anything to jeopardize his relationship with Emike or with her parents. They liked him and he got along with them very well. His father absolutely loved her and had in fact, encouraged him to ask for her hand if he was sure she was the one. He wished things were as easy with his mum.
He slipped on his shoes, picked up the gift basket he had bought for the occasion, grabbed his car keys and set out. His parents would meet him at the ‘in-laws’ house. He smiled at the thought, he was going to have in-laws. And they were in-laws he didn’t mind one bit. He had always been worried about that, hoping that he wouldn’t have to deal with a difficult pair; it seemed like God had been listening to him. He didn’t count on his mum being the demon in-law though. He shook off the thought and continued his drive.
That same Saturday morning in the Olaniyans’ house was a tad louder.
“For goodness sake, Funmi, what is wrong with you?” Kayode Olaniyan boomed at his wife. “We are expected to be there at 11am. It’s now 10 o’clock and you’re still moping unbathed and undressed in the corner. This is our son’s life and happiness that is hanging in the balance. Be a good mother and get dressed. Let’s go and show this boy our support.”
Funmi said nothing. She had been quiet for the last three days, only saying what was needed to get stuff going in the house. She couldn’t understand why her son was hell-bent on marrying this girl. It would kill her if he did. There was no way she could let it happen. And yet, if she didn’t let it happen, she would create all kinds of other problems. She had been debating with herself all week on whether or not to go with her husband today. Refusing to go would make her a bad mother. But going would have irreversible consequences. She was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t.
She could hear her husband shuffling around the way he did when he was impatient and getting annoyed. She didn’t like to let him get that way because of his hypertensive condition. She loved her husband. And she loved her son. And right now, they both thought she was acting crazy. She knew she was. She decided then that she would go. That was the only viable option she had. She sighed and got up. By the next time her husband came into their bedroom, she was dressed and ready. They barely made it to their hosts’ home on time.
She stepped out of the car and took in the surroundings. It was a beautiful property. He had done well for himself, she thought. She saw Korede’s car parked in the lot and smiled. That boy was always early, just as he had been when he was born. As they approached the door, she fell in line behind her husband, telling herself that she was doing it as a sign of respect, and not trying to hide. Just as her husband reached for the bell, the door was pulled open by a smart young man, who turned out to be the ‘butler’. Funmi smiled and shook her head. Typical, she thought.
They were shown into a spacious ‘lobby’; that was the only word that came to Funmi’s mind as she took in the size of the space. A wide staircase rose up to the far right and a huge chandelier hung from the center of the room. She followed the butler to the left, into a sitting room with tall windows looking out onto a well-kept lawn.
“Have your seats and make yourselves comfortable, while I go get Mr and Mrs.” The butler said, and bowed almost imperceptibly before he turned around and left.
Funmi watched her husband take in the opulence surrounding them and knew that he was starting to get intimidated. But she couldn’t dwell on her husband’s inferiority complex now; she had problems of her own. She remained standing, backing the door, knowing that they were being kept waiting on purpose. It was to make sure that they had enough time to marvel at how affluent their hosts were. She saw Korede and Emike through one of the windows, walking hand in hand, and it seemed, barefooted in the grass. They looked so happy together, it brought a wistful smile to her face.
Father in heaven, she prayed. Give us all the strength to survive today. Amen.
“Hello there!” a too loud male voice boomed from somewhere behind her. She would recognize that voice anywhere, she thought. She stood rooted to the spot and took a deep breath, turning around just as she heard a female voice say “It’s very nice to meet you two finally.” She saw her husband’s back and could tell from his movements that he was shaking Emike’s dad’s hand emphatically. She mentally rolled her eyes.
Mrs. Uwagbai on the other hand was gliding towards her, albeit to give her a few of those air kisses. Funmi pasted a smile on her face, said a perfunctory hello, and air-kissed as expected, barely hearing her introduce herself as Gladys. And then she looked in his direction. He looked up at her then and stopped in his tracks.
“Funmi!” Charles Uwagbai exclaimed, his mouth hanging ajar for more than a few seconds.
“Hello Charles. It’s been a long time. You should close your mouth now. I’m not a ghost.”
She noticed the looks pass between Charles and his wife, and between her husband and Gladys. She refused to look at her husband, knowing the exact expression he would have on his face.
“I didn’t know you two knew each other.” Kayode Olaniyan said, laughing uneasily.
At the same moment, Korede and Emike walked into the sitting room, surprised smiles at the prospect of peace lighting up their faces as they shared a look. Things just might turn out fine in the end.
Charles found his voice. “Ah! Funmi and I served in Ibadan. She was my very good friend. But she just disappeared after we passed out and I never heard from her again.”
All the faces in the room turned toward her expectantly, waiting for her corroboration of the story.
“Well, I didn’t see any point keeping in touch. We all meet to part. And apparently, we part to meet again.” She couldn’t quite meet Charles’s eyes as she made this statement.
“Yes, and under such joyful circumstances!” chimed Gladys.
“What a coincidence that our children are to be married. It definitely calls for celebration! Bassey! Bassey!” Charles called loudly for the butler.
“At your service sir!”
“Champagne please. We are celebrating.”
“I wouldn’t do that just yet Charles. My son will not marry your daughter.”
An ominous silence fell across the room and Bassey stood a little uncertainly in the doorway, waiting for further instructions. He thought better about that decision and exited the room hurriedly. Then Korede piped up.
“Mum, we’ve been through this already. Can you just put aside your personal feelings and let me be happy?”
“Unfortunately, I cannot Korede. And I’m sorry for what I’m about to say.” She exhaled. “You cannot marry Emike because Charles is your father.”
The blood collectively drained from all their faces.
Emike let out a shrill cry and ran from the room.
Korede took a few hesitant steps towards his mother, not sure whether to chase after Emike instead. He was too slow, and got intercepted by his father, who he had just found out wasn’t really his father.
“What do you mean by that Funmi?” Kayode asked facing his wife, disbelief etched on his face.
“You haven’t fathered any children, Kayode. Korede is not your son, and we haven’t had any other children no matter how much we tried, because something might be wrong with you.”
The butler walked in with two bottles of champagne at that moment, took in the scene unfolding and turned around, champagne in hand.
Charles found his way to a sofa and sat down heavily.
“Charles, this cannot be true.” Gladys said in a shrill voice. “You cannot let this woman come here and say these crazy things.”
“This is arrant nonsense! Absolute rubbish!” yelled Kayode. “You mean to embarrass me like this, here and now? Your pettiness knows no bounds Funmi. You’ve outdone yourself this time.” With that, he pulled together the flaps of his agbada and stormed out of the room. A few seconds later, they heard the engine of a car fire up and Funmi knew her husband had left her, probably for good.
Korede closed the gap between himself and his mum and shook her violently. “Why didn’t you tell me this before? Why?”
“I tried to. You wouldn’t listen.”
“No! No you did not! You never explained why you didn’t like her. You had no reason not to like her. You should have told me as soon as you met her. Hell! You should have not carried on with the deceit in the first place. Now you leave me here to contemplate the fact that the man whom I have always regarded as my father really isn’t, and that I have been sleeping with my half-sister?”
“Hey! God forbid!” Gladys exclaimed and slapped her palms on her thighs. “Charles! Charles! You’re not saying anything. What has become of your voice?”
Funmi started to cry as she watched her entire life crumble around her. She knew it would come to this, but no matter how prepared she had thought she was, this was hard to bear. She looked at her son’s face, now filled with hatred for her, and her heart broke. He had been a product of love and she had held that secret close to her heart so that it wouldn’t be tainted or taken from her.
She had met Charles during her service year in Ibadan. At the time, she was dating Kayode and their parents had made clear their expectations that they should get married. Kayode loved her, she knew. And she loved him too, very much. Until she ran into Charles one day at the bank, dressed in his corper uniform like she was. He had sat next to her and said hello, and they had had a long, interesting conversation while waiting for the tellers to call them and let them know that their corper accounts had been opened and operative. When they left the bank that day, they had gone to lunch and talked some more.
She had been enthralled by this Delta boy, as she had started to call him and soon they began spending a lot of time together. When feelings developed between them, she had told him that she was ‘betrothed’ to someone who was waiting for her in Lagos. He had laughed it off, saying nothing was permanent until the ring was on her finger. He told her he was going to marry her and that there was nothing she would be able to do about it. He threatened to go to her parents’ house and ask for her hand, telling them that he loved her more than her Yoruba boyfriend ever would. She had found his words very flattering; they made her feel very special.
She still made her monthly trips to Lagos to visit her boyfriend, and he also came around often enough, since Ibadan was not too long a drive from Lagos. Whenever he was around, she begged Charles not to show up at her house, even though he always teased that he would. And so, their relationship progressed that way up until their service year was over.
On the night before the passing out parade, she had gone against her better judgement and had let him make love to her. They had gone on for most of the night, she because she knew in her heart that she would never see him again after they left. He, because he had waited all of the ten months they were in Ibadan together, restraining himself because he loved her so much. For him, this gave him hope that she would change her mind and decide to be with him. He had asked her again that night to marry him, producing a cheap engagement ring he had bought off a roadside salesman, and promising that he would get her a proper one as soon as he earned his first salary. She had said yes, joyfully stretching her hand out to let him put the ring on her finger. It was a size too big, but she used her other fingers to hold it in place and hugged him.
She said good bye to him the following day and promised to send him her address once she got home. She said she wanted to talk to her parents first, to get them to understand that she had met someone else. But she never did. She couldn’t go through with it. She was afraid of what her parents would say, first about ‘leading’ Kayode on for so long, and then about wanting to marry a non-Yoruba person. So she had gone home and let her parents plan the formal introduction between herself and Kayode.
When she had realized that her period was two weeks late, she had gone to visit Kayode and coaxed him into intercourse, brushing aside his protest against not using protection with the argument that they were to be married soon anyway and this could help hurry the process. Kayode had thought nothing of it, and had even been a good sport when she told him a month later that she was pregnant. Both sides of the family had received the news with joy, and plans were made in earnest for a wedding three months later. When Korede was born, she wrestled with the idea of finding Charles and telling him that he had a son. But it was too late for that. She had already made her choice when she decided to cut him off after Ibadan.
As the years went by, and she didn’t have any more children, she knew that Kayode probably had a fertility problem. But every time he tried to convince her that they should go see a doctor, she told him it wasn’t necessary and that if they were destined to have another child, they would. She was worried that a visit to the hospital would unearth the fact that Korede was another man’s son, so it just seemed easier to let it be. If she had known that this was how her Karma would come for her, she would never have done what she did.
When Korede had brought Emike home, Funmi had liked her on sight. She was a warm, respectful girl, and from the way Korede looked at her, she knew he was smitten. She had asked for more information about her then, spending the better part of an hour talking with her, which is when she had found out exactly who her father was. It had been an exercise in restraint for Funmi not to react to the news and once Emike and her son had left, she decided that her best strategy would be to stand firmly against the union, rather than tell the truth. She’d thought she would be able to discourage the young couple; if not her son, then Emike, who surely wouldn’t want a ‘demon’ mother-in-law. But the girl had surprised her with her resilience. She had dealt with whatever new insult or ill treatment Funmi had given her with grace and a quiet determination not to quit. In truth, that was the kind of woman Funmi wanted her son to marry. Except she was his half-sister.
And today, that cat had been let out of the bag, forced out really, if she was being honest with herself. She looked at Charles, a man she had loved for the better part of her life. He would never believe her if she told him now that she loved him, and always had. She looked at her son, who was now standing with his back to her, staring out one of the windows. From the droop in his shoulders, she could tell he was hurting. Gladys had left the room, probably to look for her daughter and find a way to comfort her. She, Funmi, was the villain in all of this, she knew that. But couldn’t anyone see that she was hurting too?