Green Is the Colour

Shayera Dark

Apart from her parents, the first person Minna told she’d clinched the writer-slash-researcher job for a new talk show was her long-time friend, Zainab. They first met in primary school in Ibadan, separated when they moved to different states for secondary school before uniting again at the University of Ibadan. Life would intrude again on their friendship when Zainab moved to Lagos to work for a bank and later a tech start-up. This time, though, the friends seized the bolts of modern technology to tighten their bond, taking advantage of cheaper phone calls and social media. So when Minna broke the news of her imminent relocation to Lagos, Zainab was more than thrilled to host her for the show’s six-week trial period and protested Minna’s plan to spend weekends at her boyfriend Priye’s home in Lekki a 90-minute drive from the TV studio and her Ikeja apartment in a bid to give her some space.

“What space?” she quipped. “You can stay the entire week. I don’t mind at all.”

Three weeks later, Minna appeared at Zainab’s door looking like a vision from Lagos Fashion Week in a green, pinstripe short suit and cat-eye sunglasses with two bulging suitcases in tow, prompting Zainab to ask whether she’d gotten a job at a fashion house or behind the scenes of a TV show.

“Ah, Zainab, don’t you know who I am? Have you forgotten that I put the ‘A’ in vanity?” Minna said matter-of-factly, drawing laughter as the pair each rolled her suitcases into the bedroom.

“Kpele, no vex. I almost forgot. Thanks for the reminder.”

“You’re welcome.”

Another chuckle, then Zainab showed her the section of the wardrobe she’d cleared to make room for her clothes. “It’s tiny,” she said, “but that’s all you get.”

“That’s OK. I’m going to move most of my stuff to Priye’s anyway. Only outfits I’ll wear during the week will stay here.”

While Minna unpacked her suitcases, Zainab took to the bed, watching her select and match an eclectic collection of clothes, shoes and handbags for the upcoming week. She occasionally complimented her sartorial combinations, asking where she bought an unusual piece of jewellery, how much that beautiful palazzo trousers cost before exclaiming they were expensive. She then asked whether Priye had bought her those gorgeous, green Prada slingback pumps, escorting Minna’s answer with an exaggerated “Hmm,” her lips arched in playful yet disapproving envy. Most of the time, though, she watched in silence until Minna picked out her final outfits.

“You chose six outfits instead of five,” noted Zainab.

“Yes, I know. If I wake up one morning and decide I don’t care for a particular combo, I can switch.”

Zainab shook her head, snorting a laugh. “This my friend, eh, you are vain.”

Minna grinned. “You know me well.”

*

Minna awoke to Zainab performing overhead shoulder press curls, exhaling laboriously under the strain of 10kg dumbbells. Already, she’d endured 20 minutes on the stationary bicycle preceded by five minutes of lunges sandwiched between 20 minutes of skipping rope and sit-ups, all of which encompassed her five-days-a-week exercise routine. Though she found Zainab’s dedication to fitness admirable, she secretly worried about her unhealthy relationship with weight. The previous evening, she lied about the weight Zainab claimed to have lost since their last meeting in December out of fear of hurting her feelings with the truth, of inflaming an insecurity she’d borne like a well-hidden, suppurating sore since their university days, where it often manifested as barbed criticisms towards anyone she considered fatter or slimmer than her. She once chalked up her roommate’s irritability to the weight she had gained over the Christmas holidays, and nicknamed a fat classmate “frumpy dumpty” for her bold, unapologetic fashion style. In Minna’s own case, Zainab frequently mocked her figure, saying she resembled the letter “I” and that she should eat more before she disappeared. Initially, she laughed off the jibes that was until they took on the pesky whirring of a mosquito in her ears, provoking a potent jab of her own that included a formidable defence of her gamine physique. Then she told Zainab that if she spent less time denigrating other women’s bodies and fashion choices, she might find something to love about herself. That final KO punch forever ended the mordant comments about her body.

Minna said a short prayer before heading for the bathroom to start her day. She re-emerged just as Zainab was weighing herself on two different scales: first analogue, then digital.

“Hmm, this weigh-in is by fire by force” she quipped, walking over to the dressing table.   

“Minna, fi mi silẹ o,” she said, stepping off the digital scale. “Leave me alone.”

“Am I holding you?” Chuckled Minna, applying deodorant under each arm while Zainab wiped down and rolled her mat. “Where did you buy the yoga mat?”

“It’s an exercise mat, not a yoga mat. Got it from Game in Lekki.”

“It’s nice.”

An arch smile broke through the rivulets of sweat streaming down her heart-shaped face. “Why, because green is your favourite colour?”

“There’s that, but also it’s a nice colour for a yoga mat.”

Exercise,” she said before launching into a lecture about their differences as though that knowledge affected the price of garri in the market.

Minna let her drone on, busying herself instead with her moisturiser. In the past, long before epiphany’s flood lights illuminated the dirty chip on Zainab’s shoulders, she would engage in a drawn-out argument. But not anymore, not since locating the source of her incessant quibbling.

From their time as pupils at Omolewa Primary School through their secondary school years, Zainab bested her in exams, a streak that continued until university, where the tide turned with Minna finishing as UI’s best graduating student among their cohort. Meanwhile, Zainab finished with a second class lower and for months afterwards kvetched about her result, first citing departmental sabotage, then later settling on the narrative that she would definitely have graduated with top honours had she studied mass communications like her rather than the much tougher computer science. The truth, however, was far simpler: Instead of tending to her studies, Zainab spent the better part of her time on campus planning church activities, which eventually took a back seat in their final semester to her doomed, four-year romance, a bitter pill Minna kept tucked under her tongue for the sake of their friendship even as Zainab’s fulminations and warped sense of competition edged into something more sinister, like choosing to vacation in the exact same spots as her and Priye, no matter how off-beat, non-touristy or banal the location. Zainab even went as far as mimicking her Instagram photos, striking the same poses in nearly identical outfits. The not-so-subtle coincidences infuriated her to the point that she not only refrained from sharing her itinerary with Zainab but also changed the settings on her social media accounts to restrict her access to certain photos, something Zainab’s sensitive antennae picked up on before long. And when asked why she no longer posted vacation photos online, Minna had cited security reasons. 

Fully dressed, Minna settled on the hard, overstuffed couch in the living room. Taking five slices from the loaf of bread she bought from the mall yesterday, she promiscuously slathered marmalade on each of them. She was down to the last one when Zainab emerged from the room in distressed jeans and a cream, polka-dotted, pussy bow blouse, a tailor-made copy of the pret-a-porter version she owned, which Zainab had judged expensive with a disapproving tone after demanding the price.

Minna gestured towards the bread on the centre table after Zainab returned from the kitchen with a mug of tea. “You can have some.” 

Zainab scrunched her face as though she’d been offered shit. “I don’t eat bread from Shoprite. They leave them open on the shelf. It’s unhygienic.” Her voice carried an imperial air designed to convey some sort of sophisticated edge over Minna, who shot her a dry look.

“You do know that sealing hot bread will trap moisture and make it spoil faster, right?”  

Realising her ignorance, Zainab quickly retreated to the kitchen to ostensibly retrieve the boiled egg she’d left to cool in a bowl of water. But Minna wasn’t finished yet.

“And weren’t you in Paris last year, in 2017?” she called out, a snigger lurking just underneath her words. “If memory serves me well, baguettes are left exposed in bakeries and wrapped in scant paper when you buy them. Or you didn’t eat baguettes there?” 

It was Zainab’s wont to fire repartees when she had the upper hand, so when she returned to the parlour with nothing more than her egg and two slices of bread, Minna knew she’d been humbled and couldn’t resist taking another dig at her.

“This your Agege bread, you think it didn’t sit in the open before they packaged it?” prodded Minna as her friend reached over for the marmalade, “How many hands do you think handled your bread before you bought it from the shop?”

Zainab clicked her tongue in mild frustration. “Oooh, Minna, fi mi silẹ,” she groaned, drawing laughter from her sparring mate who, triumphant at having won their little battle of jeers that morning, polished the rest of her food with a conceited smile.   

*

The new show’s hosts were a diverse cast of women ranging from ages 27 to 73, of different religious persuasions that extended beyond the de facto Christian-Muslim binary, and boasted varying educational backgrounds and socio-political realities, with most hailing from minority ethnic groups. The show sold itself as Nigeria’s only female-led TV programme headed by women panellists well-versed in current affairs as in pop culture, but such history-making factoid was far from the team’s mind that morning, subsumed instead by questions of whether the show’s creator should cede her self-imposed moderator role to the oldest host as a mark of respect.

One side, consisting the producer alongside some writers and researchers like Minna, considered it ageist to suggest moderator duties automatically fall to anyone solely because of their chronological age rather than on the cold, hard objectivity of experience and ability. The other side countered their argument with claims that experience and ability came naturally with age. The debate dragged on for a while until two executives intervened, brokering a temporary deal that pleased neither the creator nor the elderly woman but placated the other co-hosts as each now had an opportunity to try out for the position in the course of the week before the team finally decided the moderator by ballot.

With that issue settled, the team moved on to the important task of naming the show. For 30 minutes, they batted ideas that mostly fell flat until Minna suggested Five Voices. Four of the five co-hosts, the producer and several others seconded it.

“I don’t like it,” said Tega, one of the writer-slash-researchers, who Minna later discovered got the writer job due to her familial connection to the TV station’s chairperson. 

“Why not?” asked Minna.

“I don’t know. It just doesn’t have a catchy ring to it.” She was tugging at the tips of her freshly locked, shoulder-length dreadlocks, her mouth curled in a sneer. “The name doesn’t inspire any excitement for me and certainly wouldn’t encourage me to tune in. Like, is it five voices from hell, from God? What?” she said, sniggering.

“Well, taste like humour is subjective.” Minna’s voice was flat, bankrupt of warmth.

“I think I speak for many here and outside.”

Something about her irked Minna. She regarded her as a common or garden contrarian convinced of their non-existent revolutionary wisdom, and for a split second fantasised about reaching over and pinching her lips closed for the rest of the meeting.

“We can take a vote to decide,” said Minna, having decided to swallow her riposte. 

Tega started to say they should brainstorm some more names but the producer cut her off. “We don’t have time. And I think we’ve brainstormed enough. We still have to create a guest list and work on the show’s format and writing.”

The team voted 16 to four in favour of Minna’s suggestion, then spent two hours discussing potential guests to invite for the show’s sneak peek. But as Minna began talking about one of her proposed guests, Tega interrupted her mid-sentence.     

“My mum is a feminist, too,” she said with that arrogant smirk Minna was growing to despise. “Should we invite her just because she’s a feminist?” 

Minna blinked at her in disbelief, unable to comprehend her unwavering snarkiness, her unwarranted rush to judgement, her delivery of humourless quips bereft of comic timing. Aside from the greeting they exchanged that morning, she hadn’t had cause to engage in direct conversation with Tega and couldn’t understand the basis for her understated yet concerted hostility towards her. Did she perceive her as a threat or crave her attention? Or was it a case of reverse psychology where admiration cloaked itself as animosity, where people pretended to loathe something they desired? Did she find her existence belittling? Whatever her issues, Minna’s patience for her attitude had thinned like a pair of over worn rubber slippers. She unlocked her cache of ripostes, speaking with the measured cadence of a mother lecturing their recalcitrant teenager.

“If you had allowed me to finish rather than jump in with your half-baked comments, you would have learnt that my proposed guest is an award-winning author who’s lectured in over 30 universities and institutions around the globe on the politics of care work and the corporatisation of women empowerment initiatives.”

“So has my mum,” retorted Tega, unconvincingly.

“Fine. Then feel free to propose your mummy when it’s your turn to speak, but until then, allow others recommend their own guests.”

“I haven’t stopped you from recommending anyone, though.” 

At that, Minna rolled her eyes and continued from where she left off, unwilling to engage any further with an adult juvenile. To her mind, Tega was a straggling sliver of weed who fancied herself a magnificent garden when she was, in fact, an unsightly cypher, one Minna vowed to treat accordingly.       

*

It was several minutes after seven in the evening when Minna got home. She was making her way down the corridor towards Zainab’s apartment when the door to the right of it swung open. A graceful giant of a woman with large, innocent eyes emerged. She muttered an unsmiling but intentional hello to Minna, who returned her greeting with a smile. Minna slotted her key in the lock but it didn’t yield as Zainab’s key was at the other end. She knocked on the door, and in the minute she waited, pondered the woman who had left a faint yet hypnotic trail of perfume in her wake, recalling the unseemly stories Zainab related to her that morning about her next-door neighbour. 

The door clicked open. Zainab stepped aside for her to walk in, announcing she’d cooked yam porridge if she was hungry. Minna thanked her, saying she’ll have some later. 

“So, how did your first meeting go?”

Minna plonked down on the bed with her handbag. “It went well. Five Voices, that’s the show’s name, by the way, courtesy of yours truly.” She touched her fingers to her chest and shimmied her shoulders, simultaneously drawing an eye roll and a chuckle from Zainab before detailing the rest of the day’s activities including the incident with Tega. 

“I don’t know how that dreadlocked twit even got on the show because she’s incredibly thick in the head but thinks she knows it all. She’s grotesque, and I don’t even mean her personality, which is equally repulsive. Imagine having to wake up next to that thing every morning.” Minna made a gagging sound denoting disgust. “And as for the staid 73-year-old, she’s my constant reminder to moisturise daily. Unlike her, I want to age gracefully.”

“What does that even mean, ‘age gracefully?’” countered Zainab. “Your obsession with physical appearance will do you in.”

 “You and me both.” Minna chuckled, slipping off her wedge, wriggled her toes. “Anyway, the good news is, there are more people on the team with sensible heads on their shoulders. Imagine if the reverse was true…” 

Just then, her phone went off in her handbag. She retrieved it, smiling at the caller ID. It was Priye.   

“Darling…” she drawled into the mouthpiece. “Yes, just got back… It went well. The show looks promising, the co-hosts sound learned. We’ll start learning to write for the show’s format tomorrow and begin shooting mock episodes from next week… There’s a potential to redirect public discourse if we’re allowed to be radical… Yes, I’ll be coming over Friday…” 

The conversation continued for a while as Minna elegantly manoeuvred out of her jeans and blouse into her nightdress. After they hung up, Zainab, who had remained a looming presence in the room during their chit-chat, asked matter-of-factly when to expect the wedding bells, causing Minna to erupt in a hearty laugh.

“Soon, I hope,” she said, retrieving the packet of face wipes from the dressing table. “He knows I’m wife material, not a live-in girlfriend. What about you?”

“What about me?” Zainab’s tone was flat and plain as paper.

Minna turned around to face her friend seated on the bed. “Yeah, what about you? Don’t you want to settle down?”

“What makes you think I’m not already settled,” she said wryly. 

“I mean marriage.”

“Then say that. In any case, marriage doesn’t necessarily mean settling down. Married people still have roving eyes, restless feet and loose zips.”

“Won’t argue with you on that. But aren’t you thinking of getting married or at least falling in love…”

She sniggered. ‘“Falling in love.’ Even the phrase speaks of a kind of self-inflicted cruelty, of a masochistic scam. I would rather stand with my two eyes shining bright like neon lights than fall head over heels for anyone.” 

Minna couldn’t remember the last time Zainab mentioned going on a date, not since her disastrous, decade-old breakup with Gogo, her university sweetheart until their final year, when she discovered he’d cheated on her with two other students. Minna remembered that day like the features of her own face. Zainab had burst into her room visibly distressed and almost inarticulate with grief and only after the tears stopped falling did Zainab manage to find the words to express her rage and shock. She told her about the explicit text messages she found on his phone, about his vehement denial when she confronted him, about how he’d called her crazy, insecure and a perfidious liar. But not even that amounted to her cavernous devastation, as Minna later found out from an acquaintance, a cousin of Zainab’s ex. What really cratered her spirits and appetite for romance was the fact that after having sex with Gogo for the first time, he’d run off and repeated the act in short order. 

For Minna, that crucial yet omitted detail in Zainab’s narrative explained her lingering anger and guilt for breaking her moral code that deemed sex before marriage sinful. Not only had she flouted it, she’d done so for and with a man who saw her virginity as nothing more than a trophy to be won and discarded. It was around this period Minna noticed a shift in her friend’s personality, the beginnings of an overzealous desire to sell herself as a saintly holdout in the realm of diabolic fornicators. She took great pains and greater pleasure in castigating those (mainly women) who engaged in pre-marital sex, as though one required a priest, a phalanx of well-dressed witnesses and a piece of paper from the government to sanctify and elevate the act from its bestial origins, as though sex between unmarried people could never transcend its primal hunger nor reach the summit of intimacy and love, as though sex was a Nobel Prize fro getting and staying married. 

It saddened Minna that Zainab had resolutely drawn the heavy curtains of distrust over her heart, shutting out even the thinnest glimmer of love and its life-affirming radiance.      

“I knew I’d fallen in love with Priye after he saved a man’s life,” she began quietly, hoping to stir the curtain, even if for a few seconds. “We were on our way back from our favourite restaurant in Ibadan when one of the cars ahead suddenly swerved off the road, somersaulting several times. Without thinking twice, Priye stopped the car, got the dazed, bloodied man out of his sedan and drove him to the nearest hospital. The hospital – and you know how hospitals love rejecting patients – refused to treat the man without payment, so Priye footed the initial bill and instructed them to call him if they needed to charge for extra procedures. To this day, that man sends Priye messages every New Year’s Eve, thanking him for saving his life.”

“I’m sure those trips abroad and the fancy clothes he buys you have also helped bolster your love.” Zainab’s barbed remark cast a shadow over Minna’s expression.

“Actually, I prefer the little, thoughtful gestures, like when he buys me flowers or cooks one of his experimental dishes,” she retorted.

“And you’re certain he loves you the same way, just as deeply?”

“Of course.”

“OK.”

Zainab’s gravid question and attendant shrug injected a dose of unease into Minna, leaving her slightly untethered from the mast of certainty. She loved Priye and knew Priye loved her without a doubt, so what had Zainab seen to make her question that truth? What did she know, what had she heard? 

“Oh, nothing. Was just asking,” she said breezily, not convincing Minna. “Anyway, how much did you say you’re being paid by the show?”

“I never told you,” Minna said flatly, recognising her sly attempt at retrieving information not previously divulged. She hated when people deployed such sneaky tactics assuming her memory was faulty, when she, in fact, possessed a sharp recollection of disclosed personal information and their recipients. “I’m being paid 450K a month, though.”

Minna saw something flicker over Zainab’s face, but it was gone before she could parse it for meaning.   

“And what about the co-hosts?”

“I think it’s 1M, one-point-two, there about.”

“And you’re here making noise,” replied Zainab with a snigger.

“I’m not making noise. You asked me a question and I answered you. Besides,” she added, walking over to the bathroom, face wash and wipes in her hand, “I don’t begrudge them their salary.”

By the time she returned fresh-faced and blinking from the mild sting of the astringent wipes, Zainab had relocated to the couch in the living room. Minna retrieved her laptop from its bag, laid down on the bed and turned it on. The screensaver image of her and Priye from their most recent holiday in the Namib Desert grinned at her. For a long time, Minna stared back at it, at them as Zainab’s earlier question buzzed across her mind with the furious pugnacity of a blue bottle fly. Eventually, she swatted it away to work on her research for Five Voices.

*

While the final mock show contained fewer rookie blunders of earlier episodes, it suffered from snippy comments and unequal speaking time among co-hosts due in part to the moderator’s deferential attitude towards the older women at the table. At one point during the taping, and after multiple interruptions, the 33-year-old co-host reproached her 40-year-old colleague for not allowing her to finish her point. Slighted by the supposed show of disrespect, the 40-year-old said with an imperious tone that she lacked knowledge of the topic and was “a girl” compared to her. The 33-year-old shot back, saying it behooved her to drop the secondary school mentality as they were all adults. Meanwhile, the 27-year-old moderator gazed helplessly at the producer to intercede in the heated exchange that only ended after the 59-year-old drummed the table with her palms, calling for calm. 

Later that afternoon, another quarrel broke out between Tega and Minna. Minna and the producer were discussing a movie director they wanted to bring on as a guest the following week. She was inquiring about their availability as Tega walked into the writers’ room.

“Yes, now,” said Tega with an incredulous tone that suggested her question was a foolish one. “If the director doesn’t show up, how do you think we would shoot?”  

Minna blinked at her, then at the producer, then back at Tega, stunned by the abrasive audacity with which she had intruded on their discussion without first confirming its basic parameters.

“Before barging into a conversation, try to listen so you don’t sound dumb,” she said finally. 

“Actually, the only one who sounds dumb here is the one asking whether the director will be available next week, when she’s an important component of the show.”

“Listen, why don’t you go learn how to wash and comb your hair before talking to me?”

“I’ll do so after you take that clump of stringy castoff off your head and learn to love the hair God gave you.” 

There was a tight ring of irritation and tightness around her voice that signalled to Minna she had pierced through Tega’s smug exterior with her strategy of feigned coolness. Realising this new advantage, a small, roguish smile graced her lips. 

“Oh, I love my hair, that’s why I take care of it—”        

“You pay for strands of hair swept off salon floors across India and elsewhere, then prance around here like you’re the epitome of sophistication.”

“But I am sophisticated. That’s why I know not to poke my nose in people’s conversations without knowledge of what they’re talking about in the first instance.”      

Their recriminations went on like this for a while, Tega’s steamy with temper, Minna’s measured with an air of barbed nonchalance, something that drove her interlocutor further into simmering anger until the producer stepped in, jocularly leading Minna by the arm out of the room. 

“That dreadlocked cretin is a certified, 24 Karat nuisance,” said Minna, recapping the day’s events to Zainab who chuckled at her rather colourful description. She had returned minutes earlier from having drinks with a friend and was packing the week’s worn wardrobe into the suitcase she was taking to Priye’s house that evening.

“Mediocre idiots always try to intrude on grownup conversation when they have nothing but hot air upstairs,” she scoffed, zipping and setting the suitcase on its wheels. “If she likes, let her try me again with her foolishness.”

Snorting a laugh, Zainab rolled to her side, propping her chin on a raised hand. “By the way, I didn’t know you’re friends with Urenna.” There was a note of judgement in her voice loud enough to rouse Minna’s curiosity.

“Yes, we’re friendly. Why?”  

“Well, her boyfriend was my next- door neighbour in uni, and whenever she visited, they would watch porn. And what do you think they did afterwards?”

Minna wasn’t sure what to make of this piece of junk information. That she watched porn and had sex said nothing about her interpersonal relationships, whether she deprived labourers of their wages, abused children or spat at beggars. And while porn wasn’t her glass of champagne, she harboured no ill feelings or judgement towards those who sort titillation from the comically exaggerated moans and tedious, mechanical thrusts of exhibitionists.

“Was it ethical porn?” asked Minna evenly.

Zainab’s expression creased into disgust. “What’s that? And how the hell would I know?” She sounded positively offended, but with Minna’s back to her, she didn’t notice the arch smile tugging at the corners of her friend’s lips. 

“Thought you would since you kept track of their scandalous activities.”

Minna? Minna? Minna? How many times have I called you?” she warned half in jest to the sound of laughter.

Minna was checking the location of her Uber when she received an email from an ex-colleague asking if she was interested in moderating a United Nations event in Abuja in the coming week. She read the email to Zainab, wondering aloud if she could breeze in and out of the capital without causing a ripple at Five Voices.

“Eh, you can quit now,” she quipped with a flippant tone that stalled Minna’s spirit and abruptly wiped the smile off her face. 

She turned her gaze back to her phone, sifting Zainab’s lame advice for a possible liberal explanation, an exercise cut short by the Uber driver’s phone call announcing his arrival.  

“You sure you don’t want to stay and leave tomorrow morning?” Zainab reiterated as they reached the ground floor. 

“Aww, you miss me already?”

“Mtchew. Please.” 

Minna’s laughter trailed Zainab as she swung open the main door of the apartment complex. With her suitcase in the boot, they hugged goodbye but not before Zainab stealthily captured the driver’s face and car number in a short video clip. 

“Call me when you get to Priye’s house,” she said after Minna got into the back seat. “And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Minna rolled her eyes at the joke that wasn’t really a joke, waving back at her friend as the dark blue Honda eased into the starless night.

*

Her stomach growled again in protest of something she’d eaten the previous day. Having used the toilet just before leaving work, Minna had been confident the next wave of diarrhoea wouldn’t hit until she got to Zainab’s place, an assumption that now seemed hollow as a politician’s campaign promise as she alighted from the Uber without waiting for her change. Clenching her anal sphincter, Minna walked with the stiff but urgent gait of someone attempting to stave off a humiliating catastrophe. She crossed the parking lot to the apartment complex, made her way up the two flights of stairs to Zainab’s flat while frantically digging into her handbag for the house key, only to realise as she approached the door she didn’t have it. 

“Oh shit,” she muttered, riffling through her bag again, cursing the gods for playing a cruel trick on her.

Once more, her stomach growled its desire to rid itself of the poison. Two unpalatable options faced her now but only one bore the sting of eternal embarrassment. She made her decision and knocked on the door to her right, praying someone was inside. She heaved a sigh of relief at the sound of approaching footsteps.

Omasan beamed an apologetic smile at the doe-eyed amazon. “Sorry to bother you but I forgot my key in my friend’s flat this morning and really, really need to use the toilet. Can I use yours?” As though to corroborate her story, her digestive system trumpeted a series of farts that drew laughter from both Minna and the woman, the former out of mortified embarrassment; the latter from a sense of genuine amusement. 

The woman waved off Minna’s meek apologies. “Please, we all have shitty days,” she said in a soft, melodious voice, leading her to the toilet. 

Minutes later, Minna emerged with the instant relief one got from emptying a bladder on the verge of threatening yellow menace. She found the woman on the couch working on a laptop. Her living room was tastefully done in the minimalist Nordic style of clean lines and muted shades that she interspersed with splashes of colour from the décor and bold, psychedelic curtains. A burning candle filled the room with the scent of jasmines, comforting and familiar as Priye’s hug. Everything seemed to defy the image of the woman she’d drawn up from Zainab’s narrative.    

Minna started to apologise for the intrusion, but the amazon dismissed her mid-sentence with a wave of her hand. She introduced herself as Dooshima.

“By the way, I have Imodium for the stooling if you need it.” She smiled, revealing well-aligned dentition.

“I wouldn’t mind the Imodium. Thanks.” 

Dooshima disappeared into a room, emerging seconds later with a packet of the medication. “You can have it all,” she said, offering Minna a glass of water.

Minna drank the required dose, thanked her once again for saving her from imminent disaster but as she turned to leave, Dooshima insisted she stay until Zainab returned from work. 

“Thanks, but I’ve already intruded enough. Besides, you’re working.”

“Not at all. And no, you haven’t intruded in my space.”

The candour in her eyes doused Minna’s reservations, prodding her towards the couch. At 36, Dooshima looked young for her age, an observation she herself made of Minna when she revealed she was four years her junior. Like Minna, she’d moved to Lagos for work, but unlike her, had once been married and didn’t envision a long future in the city. Too fake, chaotic and cutthroat, she explained. Minna found her an easy conversationalist and eager listener, something she demonstrated with a slight tilt of her head and narrowed gaze. When Minna began talking about the guest slated for the show that Friday, Dooshima interrupted her.  

“I know Eki. That woman is an angel, a refuge for abused women.” Her voice rippled with delight and excitement. “I wish there were more shelters like hers in Nigeria. They would save a lot of lives.”

Despite her bubbly enthusiasm, something undefined scratched beneath her words, lurked behind her otherwise ebullient eyes.

“I ran away from our home in Calabar,” she said finally. “Left in the middle of the night for Lagos. Had never visited the city prior but figured it was a good place to hide from the devil. But then I had no money and fell prey to another abusive relationship. Luckily, I found the Yellowbird Centre for Women, where I met Eki. They helped me claw my way back to life. Got a job working as a chambermaid and at night performed in strip clubs, where I was pretty popular with the clientele. Anyway, I managed to save enough money to enrol at YABATECH and now I’m a software developer with an OnlyFans account to boot,” Dooshima added with a laugh. 

That she’d eschewed the redemption arc demanded from a rag to riches story and never strayed into the well of self-pity or apologia over the set of cards life had dealt her felt refreshingly real and sincere to Minna. She also admired her self-possessed demeanour and spade-is-a-spade frankness, wishing she were just as bold to speak her mind. Indeed, Dooshima’s life was far more illuminating and interesting than Zainab’s scandalous retelling of her backstory so much so that Minna only noticed the sky had lost its lustre after Zainab called wanting to know her whereabouts. It was several minutes past nine when she returned to the apartment.

 “Your neighbour is actually really funny,” she said, recounting how Dooshima had shat in her ex-husband’s shoes as a parting gift for all the horrible things he did to her.

“Ummm,” bleated Zainab, decidedly uninterested in hearing more.                 

Minna set the pack of Imodium on the dressing table. “I wonder what I would have done with myself had she not answered the door.” 

“Reminds me of the time I travelled to India for training and contracted dysentery. It was terrible because we were at the airport when it started.” 

“So how did you cope with the diarrhoea?”

“I said dysentery, not diarrhoea.” 

“A bloody diarrhoea but diarrhoea nonetheless,” countered Minna, a glint of irritation sizzling in her voice. 

“Dysentery is blood or mucus in diarrhoea. So it could have been mucus in my case. Anyway, I asked the airhostess to let me occupy one of the seats next to the toilets…” 

Minna disengaged from the story the second Zainab descended into her sandbox of juvenile one-upmanship and pantomimed intelligence. Unclipping her necklace, she pondered how to confront Zainab over her irritating behaviour, whether she had the stomach for the conversation, whether their friendship could withstand the emotional fallout from splaying everything that was wrong about it like a goat’s bloody entrails on a butcher’s table. In the end, Minna grabbed her face wipes and walked off to the bathroom.  

*

 A box of cupcakes and a bouquet of jasmines arrived the following evening from Priye. From the couch, Zainab looked on intently as Minna set the cake on the centre table and started towards the bedroom with the flowers.

“Where are you going with that thing?” she said, her brow arched with a query.

The subtle yet unmistakable hostility in her voice stopped Minna in her tracks at the threshold between the bedroom and living area. Her face was a picture of mild bemusement.

“Why, I want to keep them in the room.”

“No, you can’t,” she continued curtly, as though they had had a prior conversation about the flowers and Minna was circumventing her rules. “I don’t do flowers.”

“OK. I’ll keep them here, on the table,” Minna said, backing away from the door.

Zainab’s face turned mutinous. “Where? No o, you can’t keep them in the living room either. I don’t do flowers. Don’t you understand?”

Minna saw Zainab’s combative reaction as less about her hatred for flowers and more as a ploy to stifle whatever enjoyment she might derive from Priye’s thoughtful gesture. She suspected Zainab would have asked her to get rid of the cupcakes if she could do so without appearing unhinged. But with the flowers – an allergen for some – she could easily fashion an excuse to chip away at her happiness without revealing her true motivations or courting public censure.

Without a word, Minna took three cupcakes from the box, put them in a plastic container and swept out of the apartment with the bouquet. She knocked on Dooshima’s door, forcing a smile when she emerged.

“I got the flowers from my boyfriend but my friend is allergic to jasmines,” she lied. “I thought you might like them. I also brought cupcakes.”

“Aww, these are beautiful,” she said, taking the bouquet. “It’s a pity you can’t keep them. But thank you. And for the cakes, too. Do you want to come in?”

She shook her head. “I have an assignment I need to finish for tomorrow’s show.”    

When she returned to the flat, Zainab flashed her a smile lacquered with the mirth of a sadist savouring the aftermath of their cruel handiwork. “I see both of you are becoming the best of friends, eh?”

Minna ignored the jibe without breaking her stride towards the bedroom, where she grabbed her laptop and hunkered down on the bed to work, her thin, angry fingers stabbing furiously at the keypad.

*

The rest of the week zipped by with the speed and bustle of a power bike. Viewership for Five Voices was up from the debut week and the co-hosts were leaning nicely into each other’s idiosyncrasies and rhythm. Even the older women had accepted the 33-year-old creator as moderator, albeit grudgingly. For Minna, though, the week’s highlight was the firestorm that broke out between Tega and the co-hosts, starting with the producer’s terse warning to Tega over her attempts to exploit her personal relationship with the chairperson and influence the show. 

“I would rather quit than take orders from you,” the producer said testily at the end of her long tirade. 

Then came a scolding from the 73-year-old, unamused by what she described as egoistical and underhanded tactics to scuttle the show’s democratic system, a surprising remark given her previous gripe over the decision to select the show’s moderator via ballot. 

 Dutifully chastised and sufficiently humbled, Tega slinked away for the rest of the day, not that anyone minded her absence. Minna wished her absence would edge into permanent exile, admitting that much to Zainab with a wicked glint in her eyes. She’d just finished packing for her weekend trip to Priye’s and reached for her phone to request an Uber. 

“Speaking of permanence, I’m dreading when I’d have to start commuting from Lekki to Ikeja every blessed day of the week.”

“You can always quit the show if you want. It’s not like anyone will put a gun to your head.”

Minna glanced up from the screen. “Quitting is not the solution to every minor problem.” The hardness in her voice caused Zainab to look up from her phone, stirred by the sudden shift in tone.

“I didn’t say it was.”

“Good, then stop proposing it.”

That night, Minna narrated the incident to Priye, recalling the time she’d complained about the TV executives’ proposal to water down the co-hosts’ criticisms of the president and certain politicians from the opposition party for fear of retribution.

“Zainab told me to quit if I didn’t like their suggestions. Can you imagine?” Minna was perched on the pouffe in front of the mirror, applying night cream on her face. “She also seemed quite pleased that I didn’t travel to Abuja to moderate that UN event.”

Priye had his back on the bed’s headboard, his long, lean legs sprawled across the king-size mattress. He was testing the features of his new phone and occasionally glanced at her to pose a question or make a remark. The pair made their acquaintance at Zainab’s cousin’s wedding, hitting it off six months later after he appeared on her radio show in Ibadan to launch a fintech product developed by his company. In fact, it was he who recognised her first, rattling off what she’d worn to the wedding – a long, green backless dress and an elegantly executed asymmetrical bob. His attention to detail and familiarity with women’s hairstyles in particular impressed her so much that when he asked for her number, she’d given it away without hesitation.  

“It’s like she’s been trying to get me to quit my job ever since I told her how much I make.”

“How much does she make?”

She shrugged. “I dunno.”

“You don’t know? You didn’t ask her?” Priye said incredulously, his brow raised in a manner that said she couldn’t be serious.

“No, I didn’t because I don’t care to know. You know why? Because money has no intrinsic value besides the irrational reverence and misplaced judgements we heap on it. Also, it is a pathetically inaccurate measure of success as it doesn’t account for the full raft of circumstances behind said achievements not to mention the fact that money is no substitute for virtue or character. So judging people or tying one’s self-worth to salaries and bank balances reflects a gravely limited mind bereft of principles. That said, I’ll say this about money: It can magnify pre-existing personality traits – good and ugly – when you really think about it.”

“Well, I can tell you for free that it has certainly coloured Zainab’s attitude towards you,” he said, gazing back at his phone, “Seems to me that she’s always been envious of you, and your salary has further highlighted that truth.”

Minna’s phone chimed. She reached for it on the dressing table.

“Speak of the devil,” she quipped, reading the WhatsApp message. It now made sense why Zainab had asked earlier in the week if she’d been paid. 

“What did she say?” asked Priye.

“She asked to borrow money.”

He gave a little snigger. “She’s seeking financial help from you while simultaneously wishing you quit your job. Isn’t it ironic?”

“Same question I just asked myself,” she muttered as she typed her reply, telling Zainab to send her bank account details.   

Long after Priye went to bed, Minna lay wide awake, parsing his words with the eagle-eye diligence of a lawyer perusing a contract line after line with a ruler so as not to miss a misplaced comma. Sure, Zainab tried to one-up her sometimes, but could she claim she did so out of envy, especially since she herself was a successful forensic computer analyst, a job she’d thanked God for gifting Zainab even though she languished in financial purgatory as a radio host and occasional wedding compere in Ibadan. In fact, she’d wished the torches of success would intensify their flare as Zainab ascended the rungs of her career, praying for the confetti of opportunity and luck to continuously find all her friends, especially those on the other side of midnight because it was the only way she knew to exist in a friendship. For her, cooperation and goodwill were the lifeblood of every real friendship, without which it would dry out like a desert’s ancient rivers. So how, then, could a friend secretly begrudge her just when the stars in her galaxy were starting to align? And if she blinked, would they blot out the sun and turn her joy to soot? Could she trust Zainab, her pal of over two decades? Was she a true blue friend or a cynical, green-eyed poseur?

*

Minna returned to Zainab’s flat with clashing thoughts and a slight shift in her spirit, preferring to spend most of her relatively free evenings with Dooshima, and going back to Zainab’s early in the morning. On nights she stayed put, she slept on the couch, eschewing the bedsheet and pillowcases that Zainab hadn’t changed in over two weeks. More importantly, though, she neither wished to witness nor hinder Zainab from pleasuring herself again, having awakened the previous Friday to her climaxing.

Zainab poked her head from the room into the living area, her expression sprinkled with saccharine interest. “What are you watching?”

 Looking up from her phone, Minna took out her earpiece. “The second season of Lagos City Girls. The creator-director will be a guest this week.”

Zainab scrunched her face. “Oh, that web series. I tried watching it when you first told me about it but never made it past the third episode. Couldn’t stand the sex scenes and fake American accents.”

Had Minna cared to correct her ignorant, sanctimonious assessment, she would have told her that had she watched the series with an open mind, she would have noticed from the get-go that the actresses were playing American returnees. She would have dissected the brilliant storyline and eclectic fashion pieces as testaments to the dynamism of young Nigerian creatives. She would have talked about the cast’s strong, controlled performance, how they put to shame the minstrel-esque acting typical of Nollywood productions. She would also have told her that sex was as natural an act as belching, and that they wouldn’t be standing here if not for it. But Minna didn’t care two kobo about Zainab’s mental droppings. 

“OK. Good for you,” she said drily, lifting the earphone back to her ear only pausing when Zainab spoke again, this time inviting her to a friend’s open house party in Lekki. 

 “It’s next Friday. I’ll drive us to the venue and you can go to Priye’s place from there. Even if you say no, I’ll bundle you,” she added with a chuckle.

More intrigued than suspicious about Zainab’s palpable enthusiasm to get her to the party, Minna accepted the invite without resistance.

“Perfect. So Friday, it is.” She beamed, disappearing back into the bedroom.

The house was situated in one of the gated estates not far from Phase One. Afrobeats music, audible from the gate, blared at head-splitting decibels that Minna and Zainab both feared for their eardrums as they turned the corner towards the bungalow. 

“I hope I don’t experience a migraine tonight because I’ve run out of my prescription,” yelled Zainab over the din as the pair walked across the yard to the front door.  

“There’s Panadol in my travelling bag.”

“I said migraine, not headache.”

Minna glared her annoyance. “I heard you. And you don’t have to be pedantic all the time. It’s tiresome.”

If Zainab heard her, she didn’t let on. 

The living room was a picture of varied activities and poses, with guests sitting, standing, talking, drinking and eating, and voices fighting the music in discordant harmony. Zainab introduced Minna to a group of women who quickly absorbed her in their conversation, and it wasn’t until someone approached to offer her a drink did she realise Zainab had disappeared. Another 20 minutes passed before she materialised, pumped with a mammoth sense of urgency.   

“There’s something you need to see,” she yelled in hurried notes to Minna, now nursing a chilled bottle of Guinness on a bar stool.

“What?”

“I can’t tell you. You need to see it to believe it.”

Reluctantly, Minna drained the rest of her drink, then followed her friend even as she battled the feeling of skulking around a stranger’s home. They stopped at a door at the end of the corridor. Zainab motioned for her to draw nearer, then she swung it open without knocking. It was a bedroom with a naked Priye hovering over a vaguely familiar woman in lingerie. He froze mid-action with an O for his mouth and a condom clamped between his fingers. Minna, for her part, stood still, soaking in the scandalous tableau with dead, unflinching eyes.  

For several seconds, no one moved until Zainab started to speak. Minna whipped around so quickly, causing her to jerk back in fright. Her expression was darker than a gathering rainstorm, her gaze crackling with thunderous rage. When she finally spoke, her voice was a rock of quiet indignation.  

“You know, Gogo was actually right about you,” she said through pained eyes. “You’re crazy, insecure and perfidious, and I hope you never find peace or joy in your life. You’re despicable, Zainab. Despicable.”

Minna didn’t wait to hear her response before streaking out of the room, through the crush of bodies and out of the house. She wandered the streets in a tangle of confusing emotions that tightened its grip around her throat with each step she took. Feeling faint, Minna stopped to take several gulps of air. She faced the starry sky, squeezing her eyes shut to staunch the tears. Do not cry. Do not cry. Do not cry, she whispered repeatedly like a mantra, unable to make sense of the world, of Zainab and Priye’s double treachery, both different yet equal in their depravity. What sins had she committed against them to warrant a million stabs to the back with daggers so meticulously sharpened on the whetstone of deceit?

And that woman? She combed her memory, finally identifying her as Priye’s old flame, a friend of Zainab’s cousin, the same cousin whose wedding she and Priye made their acquaintance. Suddenly, Zainab’s question from weeks ago flashed through her mind like an ill omen, inserting the missing piece of her riddle.

And you’re certain he loves you the same way, just as deeply? 

Minna let out a helpless groan that sounded like a desperate laugh, realising her two closest friends had played her for a sap. She felt her knees buckle and grasped the railings of the low fence bordering one of the houses, shaking her head several times as if to vehemently protest the will of a ludicrous universe. A tear slinked down her face, then another, and then the floodgates opened. She made no attempts to break the cascade, letting the tears sully her mascara and foundation. She let them streak her face as Zainab and Priye’s numerous calls vibrated her phone. She let them slide as she brought the phone to her ear, waiting for an answer at the other end of the line. 

“Hey.” 

The voice, sunny and carefree, sounded incongruous to Minna, almost like laughter in the midst of a massacre, or a well-intentioned yet tone-deaf message sent to the mourning. Worried the tears would leach into her voice, she shut her eyes tight. 

“Hi Dooshima, are you… are you home?”

“Yes, I am. Are you OK? … Hello? Hello? Minna, are you there?”

She remained quiet as a fresh batch of tears overwhelmed her, inundating the silence between them.

Shayera Dark is an independent writer and editor. Her work has appeared in various publications that include Wasafiri Magazine, Isele Magazine, Al Jazeera, CNN, Johannesburg Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, LitHub, and AFP.

 

*Image by FETHI BOUHAOUCHINE on Unsplash

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