Bye Bye to B’ẹ́lẹ́ja yán

Temitope Owolabi

I still pick up my husband’s laundry every Friday, even match his socks for him, so he’s not running around like a headless chicken in the mornings trying to get ready for work. But these are mere gestures, actions fetched from a shallower well than the one I draw from for Chief. I am aware that our marriage as I know it ended about a year ago. In the spring.

My husband is trying his best, fighting to get through this wall that stands between us, to scale it if he has to. But how can he know that he can’t?

How can he know that I built the wall brick by brick, layer by layer?  That it was I who took the key to our marriage door and flung it away the moment I let Chief take me to a restaurant that sold better fish and allowed myself be convinced that I was all he needed in his old age?

*

Sixty-five is a tricky age. Old enough to get a bus pass but not old enough to need help getting onto a bus. Chief looked well at sixty-five. He played golf, had a slightly protruding belly, a stubby patch of greying beard and lots of money. He did not need to tell Mosunmola that he had lots of it. His fresh skin like a baby’s gave him away – supple and smooth, and his reading glasses were Tom Fords. He was agile, but his grey hair made Mosunmola mindful and cautious around him.

“I’m elderly, not old,” he would say, a gentle rebuke whenever she gave loose advice like: “Be careful on the stairs” or “You should stop driving.”

“Even in my 80’s, nothing will stop me from driving o.”

It was that authority in his speech whenever he spoke that grazed Mosunmola when they first met, but not anymore.

He had seen her standing in front of a restaurant on the short and lively Rue de Buci as she struggled to make out unfamiliar words on the French menu. Something about her body language – perhaps the way her eyes widened at the overwhelming number of restaurants or the way she gawked stupidly at the beauty of Paris – must have given her away as a newbie.

“What is Poisson?” she had asked one of the waiters cleaning a vacant table in the outside sitting area. She pronounced it almost like ‘poison’ but stressed the double s as a z.

“Fish,” he said quickly, stacking dirty cups and plates in one hand and wiping the table with the other. The sun was setting, and from the corner of her eye to the left, Mosunmola could see the Eiffel Tower; like a rocket launching into the clouds. Lots of people sat outside soaking in the evening sun, their chatter loud over depleting bottles of wine.

When she heard the waiter continue to speak, she was amused by the familiarity of his accent and turned around to let him know. But it was not the waiter standing before her. It was a man who wore thin sunshades that did nothing to actually shade his eyes. His cologne was strong and heady, his eyebrows distinct, bushy – grey and black in equal measure.

“You are Nigerian?”

 It was a question, but he said it with a finality that meant he was certain.

“Naija, àbí?” he pestered as he walked closer.

When Mosunmola shook her head in the negative and looked back at the menu, he did not apologise for his error of intrusion. Instead, he continued—

“You are sure?”

“Ok! Naija, sir,” she responded sharply, managing to keep her irritation at bare minimum.

“Their fish here is good o, but come, let’s walk further down. Let me take you to another restaurant where the fish is even better.”

Let’s? Let’s who?

*

Every time I sit alone enjoying five-star restaurant meals or trying on expensive dainty shoes in plush designer stores, spending cash that Chief insists on embarrassing me with, questions plague my mind about what I have gotten myself into with him. I force my mind to draw a line to the exact point when I stopped being irritated by him and his imposing nature. Was it the peculiar comfort and familiarity of seeing a typical Nigerian man while in a foreign land? I hated his invasive, almost creepy behaviour, the audacity of his words and actions; his insistence to continue after I expressed displeasure, offering explanation even when not solicited. Like the first time I met him in Paris, I found myself eventually looking away from the menu, irritated but listening to him, engaging in small talk.

“I’m on a quick weekend visit here…How do you know the fish is good?…Why should I walk with you?”

“So that I can show you the restaurant with better fish,” he said with arrogance.

“I’ve been coming to France since ’77. Were you even born?”

The question annoyed me, the condescending nature of it, but I cooled my temper with my own emphatic statements.

“I should walk with you…so that you can kidnap me?”

He laughed, loud, and perhaps it was at this point that my irritation seeped away gently.

“Nobody can kidnap anybody here. This is not Port Harcourt…camera máa gbé ẹ.”

“What if you plan on using juju?” And then, even I laughed at my silly question.

“Juju needs local atmosphere to be potent. This is oyinbo land.”

Then we began walking, as if on cue, further down and off the street to Rue St. Andre, as the Eiffel dipped behind us.

*

The lies that Mosunmola began telling her husband didn’t start after she met Chief, they began shortly before – little omissions that filled her with guilt but expanded into intentional forgetfulness. Like when she met up with friends from university one day after work. Her ex-boyfriend, Toks, had been among the group of four; all of them in the same campus fellowship at the University of Ibadan, living in the same house in a compound just outside the University gate. They would usually pool money to buy fuel to fill the small generator which Toks had brought from his home in Lagos. Sometimes, at the beginning of a new semester when they were all still financially buoyant, they put money together for the TV subscription too, so that they could watch CSI Miami on Friday nights and argue over which version of Horatio they liked – reserved and emotionally withdrawn Horatio or intense and dark Horatio – or watch omnibus editions of Tinsel after church on Sundays.

She and Toks had dated briefly, sneaking into each other’s rooms when everyone had gone to bed, cautious to avoid doing so on Saturday nights because they all woke up early for church on Sundays. If the others suspected their shenanigans, they never mentioned it. Two girls and two boys navigating young adulthood. They had all gone their separate ways right after university, none of them lucky enough to get posted to the same city for youth service. Somehow, after seven years of WhatsApp text and Instagram likes, the four had managed to end up in London: Toks, engaged to be married in a few weeks and in London shopping for a suit; James, working at a job he didn’t like but had to endure because he didn’t want to go back home; Delore was completing her frustrating PhD at Imperial; and Mosunmola had married Olaoye after meeting him at JP Morgan where she worked since right after university after getting a summer internship.

Olaoye, on the other hand, left shortly after to concentrate on his housing start-up. “I want to make renting and buying property simple and transparent enough for new immigrants in the UK.” This was his mantra. He said it to Mosunmola the first time they met and in the middle of every meal they had whenever they went restaurant hopping across central London. He was always developing a feature or building an App, always looking to get investors. It tired Mosunmola, this continuous buzz about his passion, but she enjoyed his company. She enjoyed how they woke up at the same time, got ready and took the same train to work and back every day. Standing together opposite each other in the rush hour district line service, holding on to her waist to steady her as the jam-packed train noisily jerked at each stop. They didn’t have that anymore as their schedules now clashed. On some mornings, he was out before her and on others, he didn’t leave the bed until lunch time when she called to check up on him. When she returned home on some evenings, he was only just starting his day, glued to his computer screen till long after midnight. “This entrepreneur life is not for the faint at heart,” he would say to her across the room as she wiped her face with cotton wool and micellar water. She didn’t think he should have left JP Morgan just yet. Deep down, she felt like he resented the fact that they were both associates making the same amount of money.

Mosunmola loved her job as an Associate and the team she worked with. She loved the thrill of transactions and closing deals, especially when successful ones triggered random rewards and perks from their impressed MD. Like her trip to France. With the more than enough Starwood points her MD had, it was easy to book heavily discounted Eiffel Tower view rooms at The Westin.

They could bring a plus one even, but Mosunmola never mentioned this to her husband; just like she never mentioned meeting up with her friends from university. It was this disconnection that worried her at first. How she could be married but so detached, resisting efforts by her husband to remedy it. She was often busy when he was free or already made plans whenever he requested lunch time meet ups in the city for a quick bite, unlike before when they rode the elevator down together and walked to a pop-up truck to buy food, catching up on their day in the quick moving queue.

Mosunmola didn’t have much to update her friends about the last seven years other than the fact that she had gotten married, but she was eager to meet up for drinks at a bar in Shoreditch that Toks, visiting all the way from Nigeria, had chosen. When she arrived home that evening at half past ten, Olaoye had asked if she was able to tidy up everything she said she wanted to tidy up at work and she had said yes, without thinking about it, without mentioning how full of laughter and food she was, how she bubbled gently with happy memories, like champagne in a glass, and how she had been giddy one minute with her old friends and sunken as soon as she sat in the Uber home. There was no enthusiasm in coming home to him. It surprised her that the excitement of being rewarded with a trip or getting together with old friends could fuzz and swell inside her and she would have no use for telling him, no use for transferring some of the happiness layered in the corner of her belly to him by virtue of their oneness, their unity, which the priest had called sacred and ordained at their wedding ceremony. Their lives had slowly fallen into an arduous routine and by the time she returned from her trip to Paris, they were flatmates at best. Ones who remembered to leave pizza slices in the box and placed mail on the mantel piece where they could both see it. Flatmates who hung around till the other came back in safely but went to bed right afterwards. Something had gone silent in their marriage, like a tired rat in a trap, but it hadn’t died yet.

*

I keep everything Chief buys me in his apartment. Perfumes from Abu Dhabi, shoes from New York, art from Rome. Souvenirs from everywhere in the world that represent the life he wants me to engage with. Chief’s money is like decadent icing on a cake, the staggering difference between flying business-class and flying in a private jet. It feels surreal to me that just one day after meeting him, the kind of hurdle my mind needs to cross is whether to cancel my return ticket and fly back home to London with him in his own jet.

I find myself enjoying Chief’s company, soaking in the beautiful ambience of a perfectly tucked away restaurant, listening to him gist me for hours about his travels, mindlessly hesitant and evasive whenever going to Nigeria came up. Could he be a disgraced politician ashamed to go home? My mind would wonder as Fondue Savoyarde melted in my mouth. But I also know that disgraced and shamed are not adjectives that frazzle Nigerian politicians, because one cannot shame the already shameless. In between arguments over which wine tastes better with which food, I find out he’s been married twice and has seven children in total. We chat for really long, drinking till his low voice becomes high and the second wine bottle empties.

It seems as though every single hour spent with him endears me to this old man who made it clear already in our short time that he would do anything to keep me. By 9am the next day, a taxi waits outside my hotel to pick me up and without arguing about Chief’s encroaching behaviour too much, I sit in it and watch Paris whizz past me as I’m driven to another exclusive restaurant like a posh Lagos madam. My heavily contoured face disguises my lack of sleep. Hidden behind it, tales of a long evening of casual flirting, and a night of staying up wondering about this sudden thing I have going on with Chief – Romance? Connection? Love? This thing I have no name for. I don’t know what it is, but it is real to me, and I can’t reject it because it excites me so much. It feels terribly wrong but I’m desperate to protect it. It is vile but I crave it.

When Chief longingly kisses my cheek on arrival, I convince myself that it is an endearment, a French thing to do. By late afternoon, I am laughing ridiculously at the idea that Chief had thought me as someone he could attend parties with and show off to his possibly-fallen-out-with political cohort in Ikoyi Club, like a prize. Someone he named boats and aircrafts after because what’s more precious than a legacy of narcissism in old age? It feels like being elevated to an unnamed status, but I am unable to stop thinking about the lie I have to manufacture for Olaoye about why he shouldn’t pick me from the airport on Sunday night. Thankfully, but not surprisingly, he doesn’t question me when I text him. He doesn’t ask why my plans have changed. It is as if I have relieved him of a burden. So, I seal my secret inside me and don’t tell him about my grand arrival into Heathrow in the comfort of a lush, gold trimmed, chestnut leather interior jet, fifty minutes after my originally scheduled arrival.

*

By Autumn, the trees burst into a splash of burnt orange, fall and eventually dry up. With January comes a thin layer of snow and by March, fresh green stubs in the ground and the cycle repeats, but for Mosunmola, time passed slowly and her marriage continued to feel stagnant while she and Chief became a proper item. She missed him terribly when he went away on trips, waiting in his luxury apartment in Chelsea with freshly cooked food on his return date. Whenever he was around, she soaked up his presence as if it might be the last time, learning the birthdays of his grandchildren in different parts of the world as he spoke to them in his phoney grandpa voice over Facetime, hazy details of Nigeria under the Buhari administration filtering into her ears when he had his hour-long phone calls with friends. Boring political stuff.

It was as if her heart had been ripped in near equal parts because, while she spent hours missing Chief, counting the days till she could catch a whiff of his perfume from behind his ears again, she cooked for her husband too. Weekly Jollof rice and fiery red chicken stew, stacked dutifully in the freezer, so that she could persuade herself that she was still trying, still putting in effort into her marriage even as she took portions in tupperware to store in Chief’s fridge before he returned from a trip. She did not care that his fridge was always full of food already. Elegantly packed but unsatisfying food from Harrods food hall, bought by Betty, his housekeeper.

It was Betty who opened the door for Mosunmola the first day she visited Chief’s house weeks after returning from France. A half smile was plastered on her face and she looked like a doctor on call in her light blue blouse and trouser with crocs. The only thing missing was a name badge above her breast and a stethoscope hanging on her neck. She was polite always. But apart from greetings and occasional chit chat when their paths crossed in the kitchen, they both had no use for friendship. Once, when Betty went on a long weekend holiday, she had left Mosunmola a message after getting her phone number from Chief to let her know she had left the key to the house inside the lavender pot by the front entrance if she needed entry. They did not have any need to communicate after this as Chief had handed her own keys to her shortly after, dramatically, nestled inside a velvety box and wrapped in sugar paper as though it were a proposal. The box remained in Chief’s house but she hooked the key to her keyring and often imagined how her house key and Chief’s house key collided, dangling together like reckless lovers. So, when she received a frantic message on the morning of 26th September from Betty-Chief, she was scared shitless. That early autumn morning, as trees began to empty of their leaves and a leftover summer sun pierced through the curtains, sleep cleared from Mosunmola’s eyes as she read – Mr Peter slumped. Ambulance on the way. Come ASAP.

*

By the time I arrived at the hospital, Chief had died. Betty had texted me back with the address of the hospital the ambulance had taken him. She’d not responded to my what and why and how questions making me all the more agitated. It had taken me a few odd seconds to realise that Mr Peter was Chief. Except for guests from Nigeria, I was the only one in London who called him Chief, who didn’t need Mr to regard his grey hair, because Chief was already more than enough.

I sat up in bed contemplating my messy life, wondering how I arrived at the point where I had a loved one dying but had to keep it secret. And as I stood up from beside my husband — quiet as a mouse — I walked into the bathroom praying silently in my heart for Chief. Even though my heart chastised me, I prayed.

I had wondered when I would run out of lies, when my husband would finally see past my bullshit and call me out, tell me that he knew all along the sneaky witch I was. Apart from the fear of something drastic happening to Chief, I feared that the day my husband would find out I had been unfaithful to him for over a year had finally come.

In the safety of the tub, I sat breathing yoga breaths as water poured from my head and ran down my spine. Before calling an Uber, I had texted Betty back to ask if there was anything I needed to bring. No reply from her until I got to the hospital address and saw it for myself. A sudden weakness and imbalance – Chief had collapsed to his knees with a stroke and Betty had found him early in the morning face sunk into the sofa, a glass of water on the stool and his phone on the floor vibrating.

Sadness enveloped me in that moment; it curled up my spine gently and spread across my back entangling my chest.

All the lies I told in the last year looked like they had piled on a shaky ladder that was going to fall apart completely any moment.

*

Sorrow is private thing. But even in the comfort of her own home, Mosunmola lays in bed unable to grieve the loss of Chief – her inability to is a worse pain. How do you love someone but don’t get the chance to say goodbye when they die, because you don’t even know what they are to you or what you are to them? A sugar daddy, a user? She wants to die too. But what will be written in her obituary as the cause of death? A frail heart?

So, throughout October, she learns to suspend her grief, to find places to hide it. Dousing it with perfume and alcohol, hiding it behind the art pieces she begins to hang up in her home after a quick visit to Chief’s now empty house. The grief is sealed off at the base of her tongue when she announces to her husband that she is redecorating the house in preparation for the dread of winter. He wouldn’t mind either way as the house looks no different to him than it was in July.

Winter would arrive with days mysteriously short and nights painfully long, wind whistling through cracks in the doors and windows, as if singing her a dirge. Mosunmola would remember how vehemently she disagreed with Chief on many things but how passionately she liked him. How their paths collided and how he went quickly from stranger to lover. How he was present even when abroad and how he made her laugh so loud. By the end of November, Betty’s text from back home in Spain would let her know about the plans for Chief’s body to be flown to Nigeria in preparation for a big burial after Christmas festivities, when all his family and friends from all over the world would travel home. She feels like a stranger, a lifeless body ridden with dementia as her mind pretends like the last year had somehow not happened.

She knows nothing about Chief’s burial plans, about aso ebi, or how many members of his family will be at the funeral. She wonders if Chief ever mentioned her to anyone, if his second wife, whom he parted ways with more than twenty years before, would attend or if the children of the first wife would take time out of their busy American schedules. She knows all the family members, some even by name but nobody knows her. She wonders if to consider herself family, but she’s not; merely a stranger looking in. She would not even know his final resting place.

Throughout December, she feels empty, unsatisfied, the way one feels after waking from a pleasant dream with details you are unable to remember. All the extravagant Christmas décor and lights on the streets don’t conjure any festive cheer in her. On the morning of the 23rd, she sits up in bed to inform Olaoye that she is planning a trip back home at the end of the year?

“Which year. This one or next?” He is still able to make jokes despite the fact that they now argue everyday over the smallest things and oftentimes ride in complete silence when in the same car.

“This year,” she answers, her eyes staring blankly at the bottom of the bed.

“Hopefully, in my time in Nigeria, I can find answers to questions bugging me, and I will let you know if I am proceeding with us…with this thing…We can both agree it hasn’t been a marriage in a long time.”

Her voice comes out as serenely as one reads out an easy puff puff recipe.

He wants to begin responding, tell her he’s been wondering too how they found themselves in this unhappy place but he can see that she has slid right back under the duvet as if she never sat up before. He stares at her turned back, shock and wonder in his eyes, in that moment realising he has been living with a zombie, a sculpture, beautiful but lifeless.

*

As the plane prepares for descent into Lagos five days later, I enter into the toilet and wail profusely into the tiny sink for five minutes. When the seat belt sign comes on, I return to my seat, and it is not obvious that bits of the secret shut tight in my belly have gently pooled behind my eyes, un-trapped profusely into wads and wads of tissue and wiped off into the metal bin. Before, I thought sorrow was the most exhausting emotion. Now, I know it is anger. I am angry at Chief for leaving me stranded. I don’t know if I can even visit his apartment, if someone has come to change the locks, if someone might come in to claim the house while I’m there inhaling what’s left of the smell of him. His house key still hangs off my key ring, a reminder of what once was. I’m angry at Olaoye, at the complacent husband he has become, unable to see. Angry that he has never asked questions of me. Neither questions that erased trust, nor questions about my safety.     

It seems like I have been living in a strange body, detached from the one I know, and I’m looking from a distance, trying to help but unable to.

I am aware of my impertinence to arrive quickly at anger, the selfishness of it, but I am looking for closure, hoping that in Lagos, I can find my way to Chief’s funeral and it will be the beginning of unravelling this knot I have peculiarly tied myself in. As the plane hits the ground forcefully, roaring fast into a taxi, it seems like I suddenly fall back into my body, an acceptance of the last year.

Temitope Owolabi has experience writing fiction and essays with themes that typically explore the delicateness of love and effects of loss on people. She was shortlisted for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship 2020 and her short story Luggage made the Royal Society of Literature longlist. She won second place in the Mo Siewcharran Prize for her first manuscript Alien go Home in 2019 and was also shortlisted for the Brittle Paper Award for Creative non-fiction for her essay The Smell of Oxford in the same year. In 2015, she was one of twenty-five selected to participate in the keenly contested yearly Farafina creative writing workshop hosted by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Lagos Nigeria for her story Iyeye.

 

*Image by Shutterbouy Photography on Unsplash