Gentlemen of the Bar – 2
My name is Naden Tare George. Today is the day I resume work at one of the most prestigious firms in Lagos. Oyelowo and Co. It is sometimes hard to take in, this unexpected stroke of good luck. In the past few days, I have tried to forget with the help of Henry and his rambunctious group of friends in bars where the lights hung low and football matches streamed live on small flat television screens on the walls, but this morning, there is no way to escape reality as orange rays of a waking sun slant on my bright green walls. I flip on my back and eye the mold lined ceiling. Some of the memories come back.
I think of the man. I think of the cold eyes that fixed you with a hard stare every time you answered one of the questions thrown at you in a toneless voice. I think of the thin lips that twisted in a sneer when you reeled out your academic feats. I remember the nose that appeared to turn in derision when you talked about your former job. In the end, only a nod, one so small that you think you imagined it, informs you of the decision to employ you. Then you hear the rules, the conditions and you try not to worry, because you see, moving from a small law firm in the rowdy and polluted area of Masha, Surulere to big law firm located in the posh environs in Lekki, is quite an achievement.
So this morning as a religious zealotry reached my ears through the unfriendly whine of a loudspeaker, damning all unbelievers to hell for not accepting the gospel, I stretch my stiff muscles, drag myself to the edge of the bed and throw my legs to the cold tiled floor. As I walk away from the bed, a voice from my past stops me dead in my tracks.
Tare you don pray this morning? Why you no dey pray for morning? Why you no dey thank God for morning?
I retrace my steps back to the bed with a sigh and drop on my knees beside it. I clasp my hands together, bow my head and rush through the Lord’s Prayer.
“Thank you and amen,” I cross myself and rise once again to my feet.
I refuse to think about my lack of religious conviction and I walk to the bathroom. In the narrow space of broken brown tiles and rusting railings, the taps splutter and hiss in defiance, denying me water. I shake my head and turn away from the bathroom to the kitchen where the hulking presence of the giant black drum Henry had recommended holds some of the water I had transferred into it from the kitchen tap yesterday. As I scoop out water from it into the waiting bucket beside it, I make a mental note to refill it when I return from work in the evening.
I leave the bathroom after my bath to find missed calls from my mother. I slip on my boxers, sit on the bed and call her.
“Good morning mama. I saw your calls. How far?”
My mother’s answer is cheerful. She talks about her health and her small retail business, peppering it with enthusiastic thank-Gods. She asks about my new job. I tell her I am resuming today. There is an outpouring of prayers and well wishes in Pidgin English. I smile and thank her. There is a pregnant pause after that. I can sense she has something on her mind.
“Is everything okay?”
There is a pause and then a denial.
“No. Nothing dey happen. Why you dey ask?”
“I don’t know. I am just wondering.”
My mother falls silent and I know my intuition is right. Something is wrong. Another thought is whispered into my mind.
“Is it Boma? Has he done something again?”
A long drawn out sigh makes my stomach fold into half. My younger brother Boma, black sheep extraordinaire, rebel without a cause and occasional law breaker is always the reason for the occasional hiccup in my mother’s voice.
“I dey here.”
I switch to pidgin out of frustration.
“Tell me if something don happen na. If na Boma, tell me.”
“Na Boma,” my mother confirms, her voice lowering with sadness.
I exhale and imagine the worst.
“Something don happen?”
“Police don arrest am again.”
I exhale again, but this time in relief. He was still alive. That fact was most important to me. Boma was the apple of my mother’s eyes. After my father’s death had denied her a male to pamper, she had turned her affection on Boma, accepting him as the center upon which her whole life revolved. Initially, I had felt alone and resentful, but like my mother, I loved Boma and wanted the best for him. However as we grew older and our lives took different turns, I had steadily grown into the arrogant distant elder brother with a career that made him think he was better than everyone else. Those were Boma’s words during a recent disagreement. They still rankled. Every now and then, I bristle at the memory of those scathing words and swear never to have anything to do with him, yet I know I must, because if Boma goes to an early grave, he is taking my mother with him and I love my mother too much to dream of a life without her.
“So wetin dem arrest am for?”
I look down at the hexagonal lines of the tiles under my feet. I think about my last trip to Bayelsa. I had been jarred out my orderly life by an SOS text from my mother about Boma. After a hurried explanation to my boss about family urgency, I had taken the next flight to Port Harcourt and boarded a bus to Bayelsa. It was the third of many of Boma’s brushes with the law but it had been serious enough to keep him behind bars for two days. The arrest had been over an armed robbery attack in the home of prominent local female politician who lived across the bar Boma and his gang of friends liked to visit.
The woman had decided that Boma’s dark brooding manner and his circle of neighbourhood misfits was threatening enough to make him an accomplice in the robbery that had seen her lose two of her cars, so she called the police on him. Boma was taken to the police station at Amarata. I had gone there with my mother the following day after arriving Yenogoa. Standing beside the DPO’s table, his blue long sleeve shirt torn at the left shoulder, Boma had been adamant that he was framed by the woman who he claimed bribed the police to arrest him because he rejected her amorous advances. He had chosen to glower at the DPO while I leaned heavily on criminal law, going back and forth with the DPO over the conditions for his bail. The decorous atmosphere would however prove too hard for Boma to maintain.
I don’t know why you are begging him. I did not do it! I don’t know anything. The woman is lying. Just because person no gree for am, na im make she carry my name come give una. Make I just comot for this place.
The DPO had threatened him with incarceration. Boma had stood his ground and dared the DPO as my mother wept into the edge of her wrapper in the stuffy office.
You wan lock me? Lock me na. The one wey una do never do. Lock me again.
The DPO had swelled in rage at Boma’s dare, the buttons around his swollen midriff threatening to burst free from the threads that held them in place as he hyperventilated. He had summoned one of his junior officers with a loud voice and ordered him to return Boma to his cell. Boma had shrugged and swaggered to the door, leaving my mother to wail as the door closed after him. It was then that I realized how little my legal posturing would help Boma’s case. I reached inside the inner pocket of my suit jacket for the bulky white envelope that contained most of my savings at that time. As my hand left my jacket and moved towards the DPO, the electricity in the air disappeared. The DPO’s dark frown was replaced by a very toothy smile. We would chat like old friends as minutes passed, talking about everything from football, to religion, to sport as he counted the money in the envelope with fingers wetted with gobs of saliva to make sure he wasn’t missing a note.
“So what do we do now? You know I cannot come to Yenagoa.”
My mother sighs. I feel the pressure.
“But you know,” I insist, doing my best not to let frustration win this time. “I am about to start a new job and this man….he is giving me an opportunity you know. I don’t want to misuse it.”
“No worry Tare. God go do something. I wan go meet Brother Josiah for Government House. Maybe im go do something for Boma.”
Brother Josiah was my mother’s elder brother and the Assistant Press Secretary to the Bayelsa Governor. He was a short bespectacled character as well as a miser who gave my mother more excuses than he gave her money. Brother Josiah lived with his three daughters in a five bedroom duplex in Baybridge, Yenogoa. Sometimes the gate men at the towering high gates of the duplex told you he was around, sometimes they told you he was not. It all depended on your call to Brother Josiah the day before your visit. If your request was money, you got the not-around answer.
I sigh and desist from discouraging my mother’s visit to her brother. There was no other alternative.
After another round of prayers, my mother ends the call. I lower the phone from my ear and hang my head for some minutes. My younger brother’s face flashes in my mind’s eye. I try to summon some angst to keep me aloof from his troubled existence but my efforts end in vain. There is a dull ache where anger should be. I lift my head up, prompted by my ringing phone. I see the name on the screen and sigh. Another burden in my life I was having difficulty shedding.
We wait. I wait actually. There is nothing to say. I have run out of words of discouragement for my married ex girlfriend. I rely on silence to convey my decision to end communication.
“Can I come and see you today?”
Erotic images play on the projector of my mind. Esiri’s butter yellow skin is soft and yielding again, her moans invoking lust and powerlessness as her ringed finger touches me in places that no woman has ever touched me. It had taken every shred of control in me to stop the adultery from happening. My body crying for release, I had opened the door of my living room and let a disappointed Esiri out of my apartment. I had sworn that that would be the last time and had done everything to avoid her since then.
“No Esiri, you can’t.”
“Nothing is not a good reason.”
“Esiri you are married. Let’s stop talking please.”
“You are saying this because you know I still love you.”
I let out a dry laugh.
“And you married someone else?”
“Are we going to do this again?”
I lean sideways and pick my gold wristwatch from the table beside the bed. Seven thirty. I return the watch back to the table.
“Do what Esiri?”
“This whole you married someone else routine?”
“Yes we are. I am not committing adultery with you.”
There is a short silence and I use the opportunity to walk to the built in wardrobe where I find my white button down short hanging among the cluster of dark brown suits. I pick a suit jacket and trouser, and also reach for the red tie hanging from the wooden peg of the wardrobe door. I drop them on the bed the same time Esiri finds her voice again.
“You weren’t ready.”
“And I said wait for me to get a better job, didn’t I?”
“But you know….Naden. My parents.”
I walk to the mirror and examine the sprout of new beard covering my face. I think of shaving but change my mind.
“Okay, your parents were on your case. They said you were not getting younger, right?”
“You have said this a thousand times Esiri. It changes nothing. You are still married.”
“Maybe I could get a divorce.”
I begin to laugh because Esiri’s words strike me as funny.
“Are you serious? You want to leave your husband after one month together?”
Esiri’s silence tells me she is serious.
“Wait, are you serious?”
“Maybe I am.”
I shake my head.
“No Esiri. I don’t want you to leave your husband. We should stop talking. It is not helping.”
Esiri is hard to shake off but after a series of warnings, I cut her plea for another visit off before emotions overwhelm reason. I wear my clothes and stand before the mirror, adjusting my tie, one eye on the phone sitting on my new leather laptop case as I expect his call. It is five minutes to eight when it comes.
“Meet me at the house before nine.”
I slip my phone into the pocket of my trouser, pick my laptop case off the bed and leave the room. It was time to pay my dues.
This morning I have decided to let my hair down. I left the house with Fausat’s praise trailing behind me like the enticing scent of an expensive perfume.
Wow, just loo…look at you. So pretty. I bet your gonna get a boyfriend today.
I nod my head and tap my fingers to the music coming from the car speakers. I don’t know the words but I am happy enough to dance to meaningless lyrics this morning. My first day as senior partner at Oyelowo and Co. I swing my head back and forth and wave an impatient motorist forward. No sweat. Life is easy.
The drive to the office is done in ten minutes. As I drive into the estate where my father had spent millions acquiring a stately two story white with impressive columns for his law practice, I smile and wave with youthful exuberance at the uniformed gate man that holds the gate open for me. I spy the old gate man exchange a baffled look with his colleague from the rear view mirror. I shrug and smile.
“Good morning ma,” David, our new lawyer with a round cherubic face a barely dry call to bar certificate greets when I walk into the cool reception of the firm.
“David, really. I have told you about calling me ma. I am Angela.”
“Sorry,” David apologizes, smiling awkwardly at me and reaching to adjust his too tight tie. I nod.
I look at the sturdy black attaché case beside him.
“Are you going to court?”
“Yes, High Court Igbosere.”
I nod. “Okay. What case?”
“Adegoke versus Marine Management. Court two.”
I nod again, the facts of the case coming back to me. It was one of the firm’s longest running cases. It has been ten years since it was first instituted and after several counter claims and further affidavits, we were nowhere near the end of the case.
“Yes ma…sorry,” David laughs and scratches the top of his head. “Ange…Angela.”
I smile. “Okay.”
I look away from David to nod in answer to the greeting of the receptionist, a petite light complexioned young woman in her twenties who wore ruffled blouses and sometimes spoke legalese.
“Good morning Laide.”
Three lawyers make their entry and another round of polite greetings ensues. The smiles are warm and the handshakes telling. It is clear that they know. They kiss the ring one after the other, complimenting my orange chiffon top and black skirt with colourful words and exaggerated deference. I thank them and watch them slink into their cubicles for early morning gossip. I turn to David again.
“So you know what to expect?”
David nods enthusiastically.
“What to say?”
“Yes, yes,” David says again, pushing his chest out. “May it please this Honourable Court, David Pam appearing for the first and second defendants, appearing here with me…..” David stops in time, eyes lowering in embarrassment again. “Sorry, I forgot I am going alone. I will not say appearing with me.”
Bowing with flourish, David grabs the retractable handle of the attaché case and wheels it out with him as he hurries out of the firm. I turn to my office and wait for my father’s secretary. A phone call to her thirty minutes ago had been fraught with communication difficulties.
I am not sure I understand you Angela. You said I should do what?
The office. My father’s office. Please come and clear it for me. I am moving there this morning.
I said clear the office Ugonna. Can you hear me?
I can hear you but I don’t understand.
I had understood with Angela, sympathized with her for being befuddled. I couldn’t blame her. My promotion still surprised me. I resolved to show more kindness.
I know you are surprised. Sorry Ugonna. I am surprised too. I hope you had a great time during the holidays. The thing is my father has made me senior partner and I will be taking over his office.
Oh…really? Erm I don’t know. Are you sure?
My kindness had dissolved under the heat of Ugonna’s scrutiny.
What do you mean am I sure? Am I supposed to lie about something like that?
I had put on my best senior partner voice.
I will expect you in the office before nine. Thank you.
I drop my car keys on the table, look around my soon to be former office with a smile. Yes.
I turn off the engine and look through the review mirror at the black tinted Mercedes as it draws to a stop before the tall white building. I see the door opening and grab my laptop bag from the passenger seat. I leave the car and lock it with a turn of my key from the driver’s side. He is immaculately dressed in charcoal black suit, a formidable frown on his face as he alights from the Mercedes. I keep my steps measured as I approach him.
I do not like idiots. Don’t be one.
His words control every step I take. I keep my shoulders straight and chin lifted. When I reach him, I find a shadow of a smile playing on his lips.
“Are you ready?”
We walk into the building together.
Agatha is visibly upset. Her case at the High Court had not gone as well as she had hoped. She swears and rants against a conspiracy she thinks has been formed against her. I listen to her vent against the lawyer that had represented the other parties in the case of a frustrated property recovery. We represented the owner of the property, a ten storey building behind Silverbird Galleria.
“The idiot just kept giving excuses for not showing up in court the last time. He said his father was sick and he had to travel to see him, can you imagine? And this was after he claimed to have gone home to bury his uncle.”
“Did you point it out to the judge?”
“I did and as I was speaking the goat kept saying I was pre-empting him.”
I almost ask Agatha who the goat is, but she swears softly under her breath and crosses her arms against her chest.
“The lawyer right?”
Agatha’s frown darkens.
“Sorry. So the case was adjourned then?”
“Yes, the fool asked for one and the judge gave him.”
“Did you ask for costs?”
“I did, but the judge refused.”
“He was just being a man. You know the male paddy paddy thing. A judge is supposed to be impartial but no o, not Agbalajobi. He must nod to everything the cow says. Agama.”
I can’t help laughing.
Agatha’s face softens.
“I hate men sometimes.”
“No you don’t. You just hate this particular man and I understand why. If someone frustrates me with adjournments, I would hate him too.”
A sudden flurry of activities in the hallway cuts our conversation short. Agatha and I walk to the door to see a surprising sight. I walk towards my father and the man with him.
My father nods.
I look at the man again and recognize him. The stranger from the house. What is he doing here?
“Why?” My father repeats, eyebrows drawing together. “What do you mean why?”
I retreat. “Sorry.”
Looking sideways, my father seeks a quivering Laide.
“Where is Ugonna?”
“She is in her office.”
Ugonna is already here? And she had not stopped at my office to let me know?
There is no time to worry about Ugonna’s disregard. I concentrate on working out a reason for my father’s surprise visit.
“Call her for me,” my father barks, marching down the marble floors of the hallway to his office. I watch the man follow closely at his heels. I stare in confusion at their rigid backs.
But he is supposed to be sick.
I stand stiffly beside the desk and try not to look at the slim figure in orange and black beside me. The man facing us could as well be a stranger. His eyes are cold and his demeanour aloof as he looks from me to the woman who is his daughter.
“So he will be here,” my new boss says, tapping the well polished surface of his desk lightly with his forefinger. “You will assist him from your office.”
“Not now Ranti. I don’t have time for this. Naden will take over for some time. I know what I said. Just work with Naden for now.”
“So I guess he is the new senior partner.”
Barrister Oyelowo seems to hesitate before adding.
“And you too.”
The woman laughs. The sound is dry and bitter.
“Me? Senior partner? From my office?”
“Yes Ranti from your office,” Barrister Oyelowo answers, pushing his hands deep into his pockets. “Do you have any objections to this?”
There is a sullen silence from the woman and I can’t help but steal a sideways glance at her. Beautiful with a detached air that seemed to be borrowed from her father, she is stone faced at the moment, her lips tight with anger.
“No,” she says at last, drawing her shoulders higher.
“Good,” Barrister Oyelowo says with a smirk. “Please sit down Naden,” he adds patting the black leather recliner behind his desk. “I expect you to start work immediately.”
I watch him turn to his daughter and nods curtly.
“Bye Ranti. See you at home.”
We are alone when he leaves. The woman Ranti glares at me as we face each other – me from an incredibly soft recliner that feels like heaven and she from the other side of the desk.
“Pleased to meet you Ranti.”
“Angela,” she spits, turning on her heels and leaving the office, the door slamming in her wake.
I lean back on the recliner and close my eyes. Barrister Oyelowo’s voice plays in my mind.
Now, let me tell you something about my daughter. She is very stubborn. Beautiful too but too stubborn, but this is my fault you see. I made her to be that way…taught her to have a mind of her own. Made her play chess at an early age. Don’t let your guard down around her. Keep the file from her. I don’t like idiots, Don’t be one.
I open my eyes.
The battle line is drawn.
Bio: Umari Ayim is a lawyer, writer and a poet. Her books ‘Twilight at Terracotta Indigo’ and ‘Inside My Head’ won the ANA women prize for fiction and ANA poetry prize respectively. Her works have been featured on new and traditional media platforms. She shares weekly series on her blog www.umariayim.com.