Edward trudged along the linoleum floor of the hospital corridor—past the familiar wailing of the bereaved, past sunken people propped up in wheelchairs, past a cleaner swabbing a mop over the floor, through the terminal reek that hung in the air. His heart clenched at the thought that he was no longer married to Marvy.
Death had ended his first marriage, too. Was this a curse or a coincidence? His eyes stung with held back tears.
He hated to make the call, but courtesy—or was it necessity?—demanded that he reach out to AY, who should call his father, Sanya. How he wished he was phoning Marvy herself, as he had every day, telling her about the deliveries to her stores or something else, before she’d entered the hospital.
Marvy had endured her marriage to Sanya for eight years before she’d mustered the courage to defy her family—who’d always implored her to persevere for her children’s sake—and free herself from his violence. Edward had met him only once, when he’d accompanied Marvy to the christening of AY’s child a year before. On that day, Sanya had smelled partly of weed and partly of schnapps. When Edward had congratulated the man, their hands barely grazed each other’s in a handshake.
People had sat at round, white tables under a big tent, and Sanya glided from one end to the other, beaming with a pride that made Edward envious. It made Edward wish it were for his grandchild’s christening that people had gathered to celebrate. But he would have to wait at least seven years or so for his two teenage daughters to reach the child-rearing stage of their lives.
AY had often been present at his mother’s bedside in the hospital. He would help her sit up and tuck pillows behind her back. When she vomited, he held a basin beneath her chin, and when she retched, he rubbed slow circles on her back and then wiped the spittle from her lips. Could a son have done less? He had two sisters who lived outside Lagos—the elder, Shikemi, was with her family in Port Harcourt; the younger, Mosun, was studying at the Federal University of Technology in Akure. Unlike his sisters, AY had been a constant in Marvy’s life ever since he’d been deported from Warsaw, visiting her regularly at their Festac Town apartment.
Whenever AY breezed into their home without as much as an acknowledgment of his stepfather, Edward had to excuse himself. It seemed an unspoken rule that the two wanted to talk without him, leaving him to suck in breath through clenched teeth. Sometimes, Marvy would take her son into the bedroom for their discussion, as if AY were the real husband, the husband on whose behalf Edward had been acting all the while. Edward knew it wasn’t because mother and son both lived in Lagos. It was because AY couldn’t get over the hurt of seeing another man being his mother’s husband—a man eleven years younger than her, at that. And it was also because AY depended on Marvy for his meal ticket.
AY’s conceit burned Edward’s stomach; he wanted nothing to do with his stepson. However, ever since Marvy had been admitted to the hospital for what was diagnosed as pancreas eruption, the fog of aloofness between Edward and AY had somewhat cleared. They’d found a common ground to dash through the small talk and share a hope of seeing her back on her feet.
Now Edward walked to the red-brick-paved parking lot. He felt sweat seep through the back of his shirt. It had always seemed like the hospital was another planet, with a different system of time that passed either too fast or too slow, depending on the complexity of what had brought him there. After leaving, a person either rejoiced in their life or walked back into the world with a burden that made life a darker place. The rose may have lost its bloom, the verdant field may have turned brown, the fountain may have dried up, the barn may have collapsed, or a favorite song may have lost its melody.
A mass of clouds clustered in the sky, snuffing out the light from the sun, bringing an early twilight. Edward’s phone felt heavy. He stood beside his Sienna—Marvy had bought it, really—and, with a trembling hand, dialed AY’s line. A car beside him inched out of the lot while he listened to the melody from his stepson’s phone.
Finally, AY answered. “Hello, Mr. Abioye.”
In the background, Edward could hear a comingling of noises—an orchestra of car horns, hawkers selling minerals, and the voice of a muezzin calling Muslims to the four-o’-clock prayer.
Ever since Marvy had been admitted, Edward had no reason to call his stepson, not even on the night she had gasped for breath and was hooked up to oxygen. AY had been the one to call him, twice before he came over each day, to ask how his mother was faring. So Edward wasn’t surprised when his stepson said, in a sharp voice quivering with anxiety, “Mr. Abioye, is something wrong? Please don’t tell me it’s . . .”
“AY . . .” Edward’s voice tremored, his blood pulsing against his cheeks. “My wife is…” He choked on his words. “Your mother has passed away. I’m very sorry.” It was tough to pull those words through the tunnel of his throat.
“Oh my God. Oh my God!” AY cried above the noise, which seemed to have taken on a cruel decibel.
Edward couldn’t summon the words—the kind of balm he needed for his own wound—to console his stepson.
The note of the muezzin’s call dipped as though to allow AY’s wailing to be heard. He sniffed over the other line. “Where is she now?”
Edward bit his lower lip. He couldn’t bring himself to say that Marvy’s body had been deposited at the mortuary. They both fell into a miserable silence, more deafening to Edward than the cacophony in the street.
“I’ll call my father,” AY said. But the voice belonged to someone else. It was small and spread out slowly to fill the moment.
It was his issue to tell his father about his mother’s death. Edward wouldn’t ask for Sanya’s phone number or call him for any reason. They weren’t friends, not even now when Edward needed one. It appalled him that AY’s father hadn’t visited Marvy on her sickbed, not even once.
Edward got into the car, leaned back against the driver’s seat, and sucked in a horrified breath. He imagined AY sinking onto a bench, his head drooping like a wilted flower in the harmattan, processing the reality that he’d become motherless. For the first time, Edward conceded that he’d been jealous whenever AY had visited his mother at home. He’d been angry seeing his stepson leave the house with a check or a bundle of cash. There was no doubt that AY had flaunted the money to mock and tell him that he wasn’t capable of stopping him from obtaining from his mother. Once, his sex with Marvy after AY had visited had been rough and revengeful, and Marvy had slapped him and tried to push him away for hurting her.
The guilt of his anger and jealousy pushed on him. He released the wipers to clean off a gray film of dust that had blurred the windshield. He didn’t move. There was nowhere to go.
Marvy’s image, her eyes shut in death and her body on the gurney and covered with a white cloth, flashed before Edward. It came with a stab of pain that caused him to groan. He let his tears flow.
* * *
At 7:00 A.M. on the Friday of Marvy’s burial, Edward and his daughters, Damilola and Sade, together with AY, Shikemi and Mosun, got into the Sienna and drove to the mortuary. Edward wore a white caftan and matching trousers that had hung in his closet for the past year. AY was in a white Atiku fabric that had looked tailor-fit on previous occasions, but today the long-sleeved buba looked big on him and seemed to harbor a secret. Shikemi and Mosun wore matching newly sewn skirts and blouses of white lace, their faces coated with thick makeup that looked like cake frosting. It dazed Edward that while Marvy’s daughters had grieved to soreness and hiccupped profound sobs until their voices croaked, their minds could still process the idea of buying stylish new clothes. He sighed.
The morning had emerged with a trough of sunlight parting the sky. Later, the sun came out in bursts, emitting white-hot fire on Festac Town that would have made hell envious. Reaching the mortuary, they saw the idling hearse—a white Toyota Hiace with the red inscription “Adonai Services”—out front. The driver, a lean man with three vertical ethnic marks on each cheek, had boasted he would be there before seven. Mr. Sharp-Sharp granted the dead the honor of conveying them to their final home on time.
A few steps to the mortuary’s entrance, Shikemi and Mosun stopped dead in their tracks. Perhaps the bold placard above the doorpost—“WE WERE ONCE LIKE YOU. SOONER OR LATER, YOU WILL JOIN US”—stopped them. Three weeks had passed since Marvy’s death. In the first two days after her demise, grief was a viper biting Edward and spitting its venom into his soul. As more days passed, however, he got hold of the snake and defanged it. As he now entered the long room, with AY tagging behind, he felt the viper strike him again. Bodies were arrayed on a row of steel tables and even on the floor. The hair on the nape of his neck stood on end. Despite wearing a mask, he could still smell the embalming fluids that tainted the air. The reek grew sickening. But then, who could help feeling sick just being here? No one except the two attendants, who were used to the environment, their faces blank and flat like wooden sculptures.
As the attendants brought Marvy’s body to the dressing table, a shadow slipped over AY’s face. Something like a rush of water filled and inflated Edward’s head. He shut his eyes and swallowed hard. For the first time, he appreciated the luxury of grief he’d enjoyed when his first wife was buried. Gbemi’s family had arranged the removal of her remains from the mortuary to the cemetery. Marvy’s siblings, however, had shown indifference to the arrangements for her funeral. They’d accused Edward of marrying their sister for her money and milking her dry without considering their welfare. Therefore, he alone should bear the burden of her burial. AY carried a similar cynicism about Edward’s motives—the false notion that he was in control of his wife’s accounts.
Marvy had been a plump, curvy, light-skinned woman whose imposing statuesque presence made her the center of attention wherever she went. Even a sightless man would have sensed her basking in the stares she drew. But Edward’s throat clamped tight at the sight of her now, her shrunken body and darkened skin. It struck him that he hadn’t paid attention to Gbemi’s body in death, hadn’t noticed the deformation death might have done her. Perhaps, if he’d looked intently at her powdered face during the brief lying-in-state, he would have seen one or two distortions, but he hadn’t cared enough. A pang of guilt made him catch his breath.
Marvy, bedecked in a white, sequined dress, was carefully placed in a brown dome-shaped polished hardwood casket with gold stripe and pink velvet interior. Edward hadn’t thought twice about picking the dress as her final adornment. Among all her clothes, she’d adored it the most. She wore it to church—mostly on special Sundays—with her fair complexion glossed by her lavender body cream and set off by the fabric’s immaculate whiteness. Her spicy perfume, a beatific allure in itself, would enchant the bedroom.
On such Sundays, he could tell that she felt celestial, floating across the floor—making imperceptible the usual limp in her gait—as though God were about to take her, like Enoch, into heaven. Once, he’d wanted to tell her that she couldn’t ascend into the sky because the Bible didn’t record any woman who had. He held his tongue, however. The joke might sour her mood, which in turn could scar the house. As the church sang, worshippers dancing and waving their hands above their heads, she would fall to the glittering marble floor in ecstatic weeping and rolling. Her theatrics embarrassed Edward, but who was he to complain? When she got up, long after the worship had ended, her eyes red-rimmed, she’d grin at him, a mischievous smile that seemed to mock him for not experiencing God the way she just had. The perk of it all was that on those Sundays, he didn’t need to plead with her for sex—she’d offer it to him. And on those nights, he’d feel her girlishness, seeing her cry as she came—a sort of consolation and triumph for him.
Edward’s friends and other mourners had joined them for the procession to Badagry, the touristy coastal town where Marvy had been born and where the funeral would be held. Once the pallbearers dressed in aso oke had carried the casket into the hearse, Edward sat beside it as though he wanted to have a final conversation with Marvy. Green lacy curtains covered the windows that framed the whole length of the hearse. An air freshener hanging in a top corner bestowed the air with a floral scent. It reminded him of Obsession, the new perfume AY had spewed on Marvy’s body. He hadn’t let go of the opaque bottle afterward (even when the tallest of the attendants had reached for it), as though the body spray was his inheritance. He hadn’t been a perfume person, which made Edward wonder about his stepson’s sudden longing for Obsession.
The driver pulled away but halted before he reached the main gate, causing Edward to lurch forward a little. What could have made Mr. Sharp-Sharp stop? The door swung open, and AY climbed in. Sanya, reeking like schnapps, followed. Edward’s stomach clenched as he shifted uncomfortably in the seat. He hadn’t imagined Sanya would come to the mortuary, and none of his stepchildren had told him that their father would meet them here. Both father and son sat across from him, the casket lying between them. They shared bloodshot, hooded eyes—the father’s red from age-long boozing, the son’s from the grief he’d worn like agbada.
Sanya wore a colorful, floppy cap and a lavishly embroidered, sky-blue agbada that gave his wiry body an illusion of bigness. From the long chain on his neck dangled a fake diamond cross nestling on his chest. He crossed his legs and entwined his hands on his knees, revealing a silver bracelet on his right wrist and faded cocktail and skull rings on both middle fingers. How could he bejewel himself on a day like this? It seemed he’d come to do eye-service, saving himself from condemnations if he hadn’t appeared. After all, he hadn’t visited her at the hospital. He must have prevailed on his son to alight from the Sienna, where he’d rejoined his sisters, and come over to sit in the hearse.
Edward said, “Good morning,” and Sanya muttered the words back, as though to remind him that there was nothing good about the morning. It was the first time they’d all shared this proximity together. Edward would have done anything—gone without food for thirty days, traded his political science certificate from the University of Lagos—to avoid sharing space with these people, who were strangers but also familiar in such a burdensome way. Although he loathed Sanya now, he couldn’t order him to leave; he shouldn’t create a scene. But he could bang on the side of the hearse and make the driver stop to get out himself. When he gazed at the casket, Marvy seemed to say, “Would it be good of you to concede this last honor to my ex-husband?” in the clipped tone that always underlined her denouncing stare.
As the hearse proceeded through the gate and into the road, Edward felt small and odd. AY was Marvy’s son. Sanya was his father. All of Marvy’s children were Sanya’s. It pained Edward that he didn’t have that kind of triangular connection with her. She hadn’t reached menopause when they’d met, but they’d decided it would be a marriage for companionship and not procreation. She’d raised the proposal and he’d concurred. Why wouldn’t he consent when he already had two daughters with Gbemi? Which woman in her late forties would want to be pregnant, anyway, unless she’d birthed no child at all? His only consolation now was that she’d borne his surname—Abioye—till death, which appeared in the press releases of her funeral, and should be enough to make Sanya mad.
Glorious Home Call
Marvy Pentho Abioye
April 11, 1965–January 14, 2022
The hearse halted. Edward lifted the curtain and peered out. A queue of cars from a gas station around Trade Fair had stretched into the road, which in turn pressed the vehicles into bumper-to-bumper intimacy. Fuel scarcity had struck the country again over the past week. People gathered around the fuel pumps, tearing into one another. A shirtless man clutching a machete hunted a limping man, who ran between the cars through the gridlock. A uniformed man poked a finger into the face of a towering woman. Once again, the country had turned its citizens against each other. At times like this, Marvy would never go to a gas station. It was Edward’s job to queue for fuel for Marvy’s two cars and the house generator. When he returned with the fuel, she would thank him in the matronly effusive voice a headmistress would use on a pupil who’d pleased her.
Mr. Sharp-Sharp switched on the ambulance’s klaxon, which howled like a coyote in a trap. A dissonance of car horns and chants that could rattle a baby in the womb rent the air, but the din wasn’t as disturbing as the menacing silence that hung between Edward and his unwanted companions. AY, who seemed fragile, nothing like the swaggering conceited young man Edward had known, sat slump-shouldered. In the days after his mother’s death, his words came out in a soft moan. It seemed he’d suffered mouth ulcers that made talking painful. When Edward had told him Marvy should be buried in her hometown, he’d simply stared ahead—perhaps at the image he’d created in front of him—and nodded in agreement.
The silence bloated like a balloon in Edward’s throat, which itched with the urge to prick it. AY gave a sharp sigh. His mouth moved; perhaps he wanted to utter something the ulcers prevented from flowing. He wiped his palms down his face. Sanya glanced at his son, then hung his head, tapping his feet on the floor. It was apparent something was on his mind; maybe something he wanted to confront Edward about. Was a showdown imminent—father and son versus him? What else could have made Sanya ride in the hearse with his son?
“She shouldn’t have died,” AY said, finally, in the voice of someone rousing from sleep.
Edward felt a prickle of irritation in his gut. What nonsense was this boy spilling? Marvy hadn’t been given a choice between dying and living. If she had, would she have chosen the former? This boy had better defang his grief before it made him lose his bearings.
The hearse shuddered as if it were running out of gas, almost throwing them out of their seats. Edward had never seen or heard an ambulance break down on the road. He hadn’t for once seen any at a gas station, and he wondered, with a chuckle he didn’t mean to give, whether it was a taboo for an ambulance to drive into a gas station for a refill. The hearse picked up speed.
AY planted himself firmly on his seat again. “My mother wouldn’t have died if she hadn’t remarried.”
The words cracked the air. Edward looked from the casket to AY and then to Sanya, who pulled his lips into a sardonic, knowing grin. Edward clenched his teeth. How much had father and son discussed him? Had they seen him as their common enemy, who’d come to reap where he hadn’t sowed? What they didn’t know was that Marvy had wooed him. He’d been the dark-skinned, handsomely built man with neatly trimmed beard the street loved, the man they called “The Prof.” He’d swaggered about, the scent of his jasmine cologne mixing with the pomposity of one whose opinions on politics and global affairs others treated as sacred. Despite being a widower and a single father of two girls who wasn’t gainfully employed, who made ends meet betting on sports, women still flocked toward him. He didn’t have to spend a dime on them, and he’d dated more than a few before Marvy approached him.
Her supermarket, Marvy’s Place, had moved to his neighborhood around August, occupying the first and second floor of a three-story building. He’d patronized the store week in, week out with Damilola and Sade in tow. Marvy had been generous, giving them additional items as gifts: a packet of chocolate, a bowl of ice cream, a bottle of wine. Then, in December, she handed his daughters red chiffon frocks and matching pumps as Christmas gifts, which turned Edward’s tongue into an unmovable boulder. He hadn’t recovered from the shock when she shepherded him to her second-floor office adorned with a rainbow of ribbons and garlands and ablaze with candle tree lights. She may not have had a senior secondary school education, but the artworks in the cool, air-conditioned office—chrome-framed drawings on the walls, rose-painted antique vases, and Lucite sculptures on the mahogany shelf—exuded a cosmopolitan air. He’d wondered how she’d had an eye for such exquisite pieces. He later learned she’d been to Dubai and Milan several times to order goods for import.
She sat at her glass-topped desk while he sat across from her. “I understand how difficult it must have been for you to raise your daughters alone.” He confessed it hadn’t been easy since his wife had died four years before, then thanked her for her thoughtfulness. She held his gaze with softness in her brown eyes. His girls needed a mother figure in their lives, she added, especially when they were on the verge of puberty. Could he teach them about cramps and menses?
A smile threaded her plump lips. “I could be a mother to your lovely girls. I’m capable of being the mother they’ve been secretly hoping for,” she said in a measured, self-assured voice that made Edward’s cheeks radiate heat. “My daughters were once like them. I successfully navigated my daughters through their teenage years. I could do the same with Damilola and Sade.” A tone of ownership underscored her mention of their names. She’d been observing him for some time, she told him, and her heart had expanded to love him and his girls. Since she was single and he was too, they could all be a family. He dropped his gaze to the tiled floor, her words unfolding inside him.
“Maybe if the first man she married hadn’t abused her,” Edward said now, “she wouldn’t have been Marvy Abioye.”
Sanya’s blackened, chapped lips lost their smug smile. “Do you have to drag me into it?” His voice had a nasal cast his son shared. He jerked a thumb toward AY. “Why don’t you face him?”
“Tell me how I’ve dragged you into it? Have I mentioned anyone’s name?”
“Isn’t your meaning clear enough?”
Edward’s jaw tightened. He would dish out subtle affront for subtle affront with equal animosity as far as Sanya and his son could go. It pleased him to see his reply had jabbed AY back into silence—a poked centipede provoked into curling into itself. The traffic had loosened up, and now the hearse cruised down the fresh asphalt of the Badagry Expressway, its siren still blaring.
AY’s look grew remote, as if he was recalling something hurtful. “Edward isn’t wrong.” He eyed his father with misgivings. “I grew up watching you make her a punching bag, seeing her nose broken and lips bruised and face swollen. When I heard her cries, even as a six-year-old boy, I shivered, wondering what she’d done to deserve the beatings.”
Sanya’s brows dipped low. Hadn’t the boy confronted his father about the violence before now? Edward considered telling him that it was too late to raise the issue, but then, Marvy’s blood might as well still be crusted under Sanya’s fingernails for the damage he’d done. Those yesteryears felt like yesterdays. She’d been eighteen, about to finish her hairdressing apprenticeship, when she met Sanya, who was nine years her senior. He would start and end his day binging on gin; he would beat her and yell at her over trivial issues. But she’d ignored his bad behavior—she’d told Edward when he’d visited her house the first time, her hands clasped on her dining table—because he gave her money every day for food. The sixth time he’d pummeled her—complaining she’d added too much salt to his stew—she left his house. When he showed up at her guardian’s house two weeks later to seek forgiveness—terming his action as devil’s orchestration, which he’d overcome—she’d found that she’d conceived. The pregnancy cemented her marriage to him. Two months after she’d given birth to AY, the abuse resumed. The year Mosun turned five, Sanya broke Marvy’s femur. She had her leg wrapped in a cast and hung on a bed at an orthopedic clinic. By the time she left the hospital, she’d had enough of him and had to leave to live.
Marvy’s voice had carried rough edges, which bespoke unvarnished horrors as she narrated her ordeals. Edward had imagined the pain of the brutality still coagulated deep in her soul. He’d felt pity for her more than he’d ever felt for anyone else. It was at that point—when he was too emotional to eat the rice and spinach fish stew she’d served him—that he tucked his chair in deeper against the lip of the table. He reached for her hands, and she stroked his fingers. The furrows on her brow disappeared, and a smile brightened her face. She touched his hand to her cheek. His daughters had already fallen in love with Marvy. When he told them she’d proposed to be their new mom, they leaped from their seats and danced round the house.
“I don’t think you ever apologized to her,” AY grumbled. “Not even once.”
“I wasn’t as bad as you painted me.” Sanya leaned his head against the window. “Your mother was problematic as well.”
Edward shot him a piercing look. What nonsense was he spewing?
“You say that because she’s no more alive,” AY barked, finally overcoming his ulcers. Sanya quivered. “Because she can no longer defend herself. Look at her”—he gestured toward the casket—“she isn’t useful for us anymore. Do you know what she meant to me, to—?”
“Your mother,” Sanya said.
“To Shikemi and Mosun?” AY scowled. “To her grandchildren? She meant much more to me than you’ve ever been.”
AY couldn’t have exalted Marvy more. Since his deportation from abroad four years before—after ten years of crossing from one border to another with nothing to show for his sojourn—Marvy had found herself paying his rent and supporting his family. It had sickened Edward to overhear Marvy on the phone condemning AY for being a spendthrift. Once, she’d berated him for wasting three hundred thousand naira. Another time, it had been five hundred thousand. She hadn’t told Edward she’d given her son such substantial amounts, which left a knot in his throat. But the little tumor had grown malignant the night he’d eavesdropped on a mother-son discussion and heard AY whine he suspected Edward had hardened Marvy’s heart against him.
“I don’t want to be a man who beats his wife,” AY said to his father. “I can’t be you.”
Sanya’s head flopped as if he were slumbering. When the mortuary attendants had washed Marvy’s body, an amoeba-like scar on her shoulder blade from Sanya’s beating had stared back at Edward. The image assailed him right now. Perhaps he would grab Sanya’s chain and twist it around his neck. But then he considered the animal not worthy of his attack.
“I can’t be you,” AY repeated.
Sanya jerked up his head. “Would you stop insulting me? You can’t be me, fine. But what have you made out of your life? You were a fugitive in Europe for ten years.” He held out ten fingers at his son. “You came back home empty-handed. You took a wife you couldn’t care for, had a child you couldn’t afford to buy Pampers for. You depended on Marvy for everything—”
“She was my mother,” AY said. “My pillar of support.”
“That’s why you crumbled the pillar with your financial recklessness like an accursed child. Or do you think no one was aware of how you wasted the hundreds of thousands of naira she gave you on many occasions?” Sanya glanced at Edward as though wanting him to validate his claims. Edward averted his gaze.
“When I was your age, I wasn’t living off my mother,” Sanya continued.
AY’s mouth curled into a sneer. “But you could shamelessly return to my mother who you traumatized to solicit for money.”
“We still had a connection,” Sanya said. “I’m the father of the three children she birthed in this world—something no one can take away. I commend myself for the feat.” He darted a mischievous grin at Edward. “Is anything wrong with seeking help from the mother of my children?”
Edward’s stomach hardened as though it were lined with concrete. He wanted to hit this foul he-goat for mocking his childless marriage to Marvy. For bragging as if nothing trumped the fathering of her children. He unclenched his fist. A thought sneaked up on him, as if to compound Sanya’s scorn: When Marvy was lowered into her grave, the children Sanya had boasted of as his achievements would perform the dust-to-dust rite before him. The thought seared Edward’s chest, and he cursed whoever had decreed the tradition.
“Nothing was wrong until you defaulted in paying back the loans.” AY’s voice had risen. “Until you told her lies to avoid repayment.”
Sanya pulled off his agbada and unfastened the buttons of his sweat-darkened buba.
“Because she refused to loan you another three hundred thousand naira before she fell sick,” AY continued, “you didn’t visit her at the hospital.”
Sanya wiped his brow with the agbada. “You think that was the reason I didn’t come to the hospital?”
“I don’t have ears to listen to your excuses.”
“I did call her then, didn’t I?” Sanya said.
AY hissed, flapping his hand at his father. Sanya’s eyes sank deep into his face. He opened his mouth, closed it, and hung his head. Sanya’s humiliation spurred a warm glow in Edward’s heart, and he felt briefly triumphant. But then it hurt to realize that he’d been more on the periphery of Marvy’s life than he’d known. She’d given Sanya several loans he wasn’t aware of, whereas her son was. She’d compartmentalized the triangular connection and locked it with a key she’d given him no chance to access. What else had she done that he didn’t know about? How many loans to how many people now rendered irredeemable? A spigot of rage opened inside him. The anger frothed from his stomach, worked a path through his gut and up to his chest.
“You didn’t have any excuse,” Edward said in a condescending tone meant to bite Sanya. “It’s a shame you didn’t visit her even once. If you didn’t consider any other thing, you should’ve at least considered the kindness she’d shown you—the loans she gave you which you aren’t going to repay.”
“How dare you insult me, fraudulent husband?” Sanya snapped. His eyes narrowed to slits. “He who judges others must be clean. Are you clean? Do you think no one knows of your house at Isashi?”
The words came like fiery darts, piercing Edward and disorientating him. AY turned a stunned face at him. Edward felt weightless and disembodied, as though he were hovering in the air, watching Sanya uncovering the secret of some other person.
“Do you think no one knows that you robbed Marvy to build it? You must be delusional to think Marvy didn’t know of the shady deals you carried out as the manager of her stores.”
Sanya stared hard at him, daring him to counter the revelation. But Edward had no shield to defend himself against the darts. His face burned. The damp patches under his armpits grew larger, and his undershirt was sticky with sweat. He might as well have been in a furnace. He pulled off his buba and folded it on his lap. Sanya cackled, the shoulder-shaking but dry laugh of someone who’d outwitted his enemy. Edward’s tongue grew arid.
How had Marvy found out about the two-story house? Edward had been the manager of Marvy’s Place and its two branches. His monthly salary was a little over what he would have earned in another store. He hadn’t intended to skim from her until the second time he’d overheard Marvy rebuke AY for wasting the five hundred thousand naira she’d given him. It galled him to work for Marvy, while her useless son strutted in every month to collect sums of money four times what he was paid. Besides, she’d never granted any of his own requests for money.
“What do you want to do with it?” she’d ask. “I take care of the expenses incurred by your daughters. Have I ever bothered you to foot any bills in this house? Why do you lack contentment?” Those words, spoken in a quiet but arrogant tone, stung him.
He’d connived with suppliers to overbill the stores. Then he and the vendors split the difference between the inflated price and the actual price seventy-thirty. He’d run this arrangement for two years before the construction of the Isashi two-story building commenced. As the carpenters roofed the house, he assured himself that he wasn’t a crook or an unfaithful manager and husband. The house was also Marvy’s. When construction was finished, he would tell her one night, perhaps on the eve of her birthday, that he had a surprise for her. Then he’d drive her to the house. He’d have added her to the title—sworn to a court affidavit—to make the documents bear her name. Mr. and Mrs. Edward and Marvy Abioye. He’d received the first rents, yet he hadn’t told her anything before she fell sick and died.
The ensuing guilt had been a flame blistering his heart. How could he quench the fire and be at peace with himself? As reparation, he’d bought her the imported gold-striped casket—so expensive at five hundred thousand naira—that had drawn stares as the pallbearers carried Marvy’s body to the hearse. He’d arranged that the inside of her grave be tiled and the outside be built of the finest of marbles. She’d be happy to have a final home as elegant and prominent as her physique.
But here he was feeling the peace stagger and fall—the peace he thought he’d restored buying the imported casket and arranging the marble-finished grave which anticipated elegance he now saw as vain—and he was helpless to yank it up. He queried the righteousness of his grief. If grief were a burnt offering, would his and that of these two men be acceptable when they’d drained Marvy before she died? They all sunk into a separate silence that had humiliation as the common denominator. Hadn’t they successfully ripped off the shrouds of each other’s swaddled scams and lies?
A hard clot grew inside Edward. Had any of his collaborator vendors gone to Marvy and snitched on him? Perhaps Gbenguse, whom he’d denied a five-percent increase. He would deal with the bespectacled idiot when the funeral was over. The hearse had driven past Agbara, Ilogbo and Comforter, and was cruising on Mowo Road. The trip was faster than he’d expected. Within the next fifteen minutes, they would be in Marvy’s family home. The blaring klaxon must have freed the road for Mr. Sharp-Sharp, who sped past a couple of vehicles.
Tears streamed from AY’s eyes. Sanya fiddled with his ring, sliding it up and down his knuckle. It could have been Edward too, twisting his own ring to distract himself. But his ring had faded eight months after his wedding, just like Marvy’s, and he’d thrown it away. Marvy had accused the jewelry merchant who’d sold them the rings of scamming them. Later, she’d bought a new one, which she’d used till she died.
It unnerved him to realize now that Marvy had changed to a different woman after his ring had lost its luster. When they’d been newly married, he’d felt sheltered in the suite of her affection and joys. She’d carried him along in all her endeavors. Then she began to treat him like a character with a cameo in her life—someone whose opinions didn’t matter. She stopped him from holding her hand in public as though they’d become Hasidic. When he voiced out his concern, she said, with a glimpse of exasperation in her eyes, that it was his imagination, that he was wrong.
She’d been a wonderful stepmother to his daughters, pampering them the way Gbemi mightn’t have, going into their bedroom every night for what she’d called “girls-only talk.” When he’d eavesdropped on them and heard Marvy tell the girls not to allow any man to abuse them, he’d felt she was seeking revenge on him for the trauma of her days with Sanya. In his first marriage, he’d been the alpha and omega of the home. Gbemi had deferred to him and apologized profusely even when he’d been at fault. In his second marriage, however, he’d succumbed to Marvy’s wills. The voice she’d lost in her first marriage, she’d regained in her second, which turned out to be the wrinkle in the fabric of their home. She’d had the iron to smoothen it. But she hadn’t—for her ego.
A riotous blend of emotions convulsed through Edward: the guilt of his fraud, the anger of losing his manly voice, and the embarrassment of being a doormat in Marvy’s house. The weight of it all pressed down on him. He cast misted eyes on the casket.
“Mommy Marvy, I’m sorry,” he said under breath, calling her the way church members had addressed her, as if that would be enough as propitiation for her.
The casket blurred. Not wanting the men to see his tears, he peered out the window.
* * *
The hearse glided down the Marina Road and past the old Akran Palace. It slowed to a stop in front of a cherubim and seraphim church, and mourners—mostly women—crowded round it and picked up wailing from where the klaxon had stopped. A symphony of drums and trumpets hectored the air. The trumpeters announced, “Mama has gone to her heavenly home.” A funeral wasn’t complete without their performance; they must play to let the world know that a wonderful mother or father had gone to meet their Creator.
Edward slipped into his buba. As he rose, a spike of pain shot through his back. His breath tightened in his throat, and he flopped back down on his seat.
Sanya leaned toward him. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ll be fine.” The last thing he wanted was help from these men.
AY and Sanya climbed out. The pallbearers climbed in and carried the casket out. The drumming and trumpeting grew louder. Edward stood again, pushing his palm against his back. At the door, Sanya held out his hand as though he knew Edward’s legs couldn’t bear his weight. Edward hesitated. But when another arrow of pain hit him, he accepted Sanya’s hand. Climbing down, he rested his weight on Sanya, who guided him to a chair under a fruitless mango tree luxuriant with green leaves. Damilola approached them, her features creased. Edward waved off his daughter. He would be fine.
The houses on the street overlooked the lagoon. Speedboats rumbled as they arrived and left the jetty. Marvy had been popular on the beach, selling pap and stew to picnickers before she’d moved to Lagos at fifteen to learn hairdressing. The pallbearers bore the casket on their shoulders as they danced toward Marvy’s family home, the mourners following. Sanya left to join the horde. Canopies and white chairs had been set out on the sandy yard of the house, where a short funeral service would be held.
Two days before, Edward had met with Reverend Kojah again to finalize preparations. Marvy would be laid to rest at Badagry cemetery—a stretch of earth with crusted hardpan, surrounded by a low fence with an iron gate dotted with rust. When he’d inspected Marvy’s vault, he was stunned to find that it didn’t look even six feet deep. “That’s the depth of graves these days,” said the chief workman, who’d been coordinating two other laborers to tile the inside of the grave. The concrete tombs that had sunk into the earth and broken headstones screamed of neglect from the deceased’s families. Edward’s throat clogged. He wasn’t different from any of the deceased’s families. He hadn’t visited Gbemi’s grave since she was buried. Might it not have sunk into the earth, too?
He closed his eyes now, trying to visualize his first wife’s grave, and was shamed to realize he couldn’t picture the spot where she’d been buried. The sap of guilt soured his tongue. His lips trembled as he saw two caskets side by side, Gbemi’s white and Marvy’s brown. His tear-filled eyes snapped open at the sound of feet shuffling toward him. Damilola had brought him a bottle of water. He drank it and washed his face, then thanked his daughter.
“The reverends were asking for you,” she said.
“You may go.” He tightened his grasp on the empty bottle as though he wanted to crush it. “I’ll join them shortly.”
She strode back to the house. He couldn’t help marveling at how many of Marvy’s mannerisms his daughter had adopted—the modulation of her voice, the shrapnel gesture of her hands as she spoke, the way she unloaded complaints as if unpacking a suitcase, the unflinching stare she gave, the arching of her eyebrows. Wasn’t it surreal that a woman could reincarnate even when she hadn’t died?
A voice boomed “Shout hallelujah” on the speakers. The wind blew at him, carrying the smell of wet leaves that reminded him of Marvy’s marinated African spinach that she’d made a delicious fish stew he wouldn’t have again. He went to meet her for the last time. ■
About the author
Olusola Akinwale grew up in Ibadan, Nigeria. His works have appeared in the Hamilton Stone Review, Silk Road Review, Prole, Western Post, the Monarch Review, the Cardiff Review and elsewhere. He was a winner of two national essay contests in Nigeria and a finalist for the 2017 Galtellì Literary Prize in Sardinia, Italy. An alumnus of the Fidelity Bank Creative Writing workshop, he can be tracked on twitter.com@olusolaakinwale