Christmas At The Johnson’s – Sister Sister
Friday, December 1st.
‘I will leave this man when we return from visiting his family’.
I made this decision as my husband drove us along Ozumba Mbadiwe to his father’s mansion in Lekki that humid Friday evening. The journey from our home in Surulere had been sluggish due to the expected Lagos traffic hold-up, but it looked like we would arrive before 7pm.
‘Maybe the Old Man has had a sex change and wants us to start calling him Mummy’, I thought.
It was such an absurd thing to think of my Father-in-Law that I almost laughed as I turned my head, but when I noticed the frown on my husband’s face, I swallowed my laughter.
Ayoade had been frowning since we got the phone call days ago that his father, Chief A. A. Johnson (nicknamed ‘Old Man’) wanted all of his children and their families to come to his mansion for an early Christmas weekend.
My husband usually had two frown lines across his forehead on any given day; now, athird line had appeared from nowhere. Since Christmas of 2015 when my husband and his siblings had said they had no interest in taking over his Oil and Gas firm, their father had stopped communicating regularly with his children.
The reassurance from Sarah, his Housekeeper that the Old Man wasn’t dying didn’t ease our worries; it only opened up our minds to wild speculations. None of my husband’s siblings knew the reason for our summons either.
‘Folasade, did you pack Dad’s gift?’ It got on my nerves when my husband called me by my full name, andhe had asked me this question already as we were leaving the house, but I answered him anyway. ‘Yes, dear, I packed his brandy’. He smiled at me briefly before returning his attention to the traffic ahead of us.
I studied Ayoade’s profile from the corner of my eye. My husband was growing out his beard and mustache which was a great relief to me. He had just gone through a phase of maintaining a tiny mustache; a small square patch of hair above his upper lip. I once joked that it made him look like the Nigerian Adolf Hitler. He had not been amused.He didn’t laugh at my jokes as much as he did when we first met.
We settled into a heavy silence. Aside from the Old Man’s gift, I had packed my ‘weekend-with-the-in-law’s’ survival kit: A small canister of powdered dry pepper (since Akpan, his Chef cooked his meals with very little pepper), a pack of Lipton teabags (Old Man drank only coffee and Milo-sometimes he drank both beverages together. I found it weird), a memorised catalogue of which English premier league teams each of my husband’s siblings supported, and my special fake smile and laughter which I used in response to dry jokes, never-ending family stories and prayers for me to have children soon. It wasn’t that I had never gotten pregnant; it was just that on three occasions, the pregnancies had poured out of me, what doctors called miscarriages.
The phone call which summoned us for the family gathering had interrupted my mid-week sex session with Ayoade (we were both bankers, and if we didn’t schedule sex, most likely nothing would happen until public holidays). Somehow we were no longer in the mood after the phone call, and the lack of sleep and sex made us short-tempered with each other over the days that followed.
I was anxious to know what the summons was for just like the rest of the family, but I was doubly on edge because I knew that there would also be no sex for me at my Father-in-Law’s house. Somehow having sex at the family mansion was in my mind like smoking marijuana in front of a Nun-it just felt wrong.
Also, I had seen my husband hugging a woman month’s ago when I had decided to leave my office for my lunch break for a change. I spotted them as I drove into the darkened basement car park of a shopping mall. The hug was a long, lingering one, like the hugs lovers exchanged when they didn’t want the other person to leave. I had watched them from where I was seated in my car as they went their separate ways, him to his car, and she back into the mall.
I hadn’t confronted him about it because I couldn’t find the words. Surely, my husband wouldn’t cheat. Surely, there had to be a logical explanation for what I had witnessed.
Still, the thought of taking a break from our marriage after the family weekend weighed heavily on my mind. I felt like a volcano getting ready to erupt but constrained by my wedding vows.
When we arrived at the Old Man’s mansion, I spotted the cars of my husband’s siblings parked beside his luxury cars. We were apparently the last to arrive.
As we stepped out of our car, I secured my box braids with a rubber band and smoothed down my pink Ankara tunic which I wore over black jeans. I glanced at my reflection in the car’s window and shrugged; I looked good enough. I wanted to linger outside to stare at the water fountain but Ayoade was already striding towards the front door. As I dragged my feet behind him, the door opened and there was Old Man.
His grey hair was well combed, and he was wearing a grey safari jacket with matching shorts, red socks and blue Nike sneakers. On a poor man, the outfit would have looked ridiculous. On him, it looked eccentric. Old Man’s skin was glowing-he looked positively healthy.
We greeted him and he smiled and hugged us both, which made me look at my husband in surprise- the hug was so out of character. ‘Come in, come in! Your brothers and sister are already here’. Despite being 84, Old Man turned and walked very briskly towards one of the living rooms.
‘Sade, good to see you!’ my Sister in-Law, Ayodele said as I hugged her. She had been my senior at Queens College and I always resisted the urge to call her ‘Senior Ayo’. Her husband, Babatunde, shook my hand firmly, as he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
There was a lot of back-thumping between my husband and his brothers before they eventually turned around.‘Our pretty wife!’my Brother-in-Law’s teased as they hugged me. Akintayo, the youngest sibling was a charming and talkative guy. Ayobami, the second youngest, was to me, the best-looking sibling and the one for whom I harbored a long-standing crush because of the way he looked at me. My husband often looked at me like he was wary of me, but Ayobami’s eyes lit up whenever he saw me. They say crushes do not last but after 6years of having these feelings, I beg to differ.
Ayobami was married to an American lady, Catherine ‘Call-Me-Cathy’, a Caucasian beauty with blonde hair and near-transparent skin with her veins peeking through her wrists like accessories. I hugged her gently as she seemed so delicate, and also because she was about 7 months pregnant. For a moment I forgot about my insecurities and marital issues and made small talk, asking about everyone’s health, families and work.
There was a lull in conversation as we all noticed that Old Man was sitting on his favourite chair, observing us.
‘Well Dad, here we are. What’s the big news?’ My husband asked. He was not one to beat around the bush.
Old Man smiled. ‘There’s no rush! After all, you guys are here until Sunday. Let’s enjoy each other’s company until then’.
There was a general shrug, and by unspoken consensus, we drifted to the dining room, where Akpan served us Jollof Rice with fried chicken.
Saturday, December 2nd.
I rose early to find myself alone in bed. I took a shower and put on black shorts and a grey t-shirt. I walked downstairs and headed towards the kitchen but stopped when I heard muted voices.
‘But you’re sure Dad is not ill?’ I heard my husband ask. ‘No, Uncle Ayoade, Sir is not sick. In fact, he has been very healthy lately’ replied Sarah, the housekeeper.
There was some more talking which I didn’t hear. ‘What’s the Old Man’s game?’ Ayoade asked. ‘We will just have to be patient’, said Ayobami.
I walked back to the room, leaving my husband and his siblings to solve the mystery that was their father.
Sunday, December 3rd.
We were all seated at the dining table, muttering that Akpan wanted to kill us with food, but not finding the will-power to stop eating the pounded yam and afang soup which he had served to us for lunch.
Old Man was telling us a rambling tale about a contract that he had gotten with the Nigerian Government in the 1970s. I nodded, my face showing deep interest when actually, I was mentally singing all of the songs from ‘The Sound of Music’ in chronological order.
Finally, after an eternity, Old Man decided to put us out of our misery. ‘Yes, now is the time to tell you all why I asked you all to come here’.
There was a tacit sigh of relief shared by all of the children and their spouses.
‘I have decided to rewrite my will because I am not getting any younger. And because…’ He coughed. ‘Your mother…my late wife…the love of my life…well, she had a child before I married her and I want to include that child in my will’.
There was silence around the table.
‘Mummy had another child?’ Ayodele asked; she looked as surprised as we all felt.
‘Yes. She had the child-a girl-when she was sixteen. In those days, families were very intolerant of children born out of wedlock. Her parents arranged for the child to be adopted, while your mother was sent out of the country to continue her studies’.
We all took a moment to process the information. Having a child out of wedlock was not exactly a new occurrence in the family. My Brother-in-Law, Akintayo, was after all the result of an affair Old Man had with his Secretary. It just seemed dramatic that there was yet another sibling somewhere in the world who no one had known about until that moment.
Out of the blue, however, Ayoade said, ‘I know’.
We all turned to look at my husband.
Old Man looked bemused. ‘How?’ he asked.
‘She found me on Facebook some months ago. My…our sister. Adetutu. She wasn’t ready to meet the entire family yet, so I didn’t put any pressure on her to do so. I’ve been keeping in touch with her’. Ayoade looked at me apologetically as he brought out his phone from his pocket. My mind felt suspended in space as I felt the wind knocked out of me.
He showed us the picture of a pretty woman with short grey hair who looked a lot like my late Mother-in-Law. The phone was passed around the table until it got back to me. I stared at the picture again for a moment before I returned the phone to my husband.
Old Man then asked his children to join him in his study to discuss further. I remained seated at the dining table with the spouses as I took a sip of my orange juice and tried to define how I felt at that moment.
The woman in the picture was in her 40s, light-skinned and tall-almost the same height as my husband. She was not the woman whom I had seen him holding delicately that day months ago. That woman had been petite with a medium complexion and a voluptuous figure.
I sighed. I would take a break from my marriage when we returned home.
I continued to sip my orange juice.