Gentlemen of the Bar – 1
GENTLEMEN OF THE BAR 1
Slowly, very slowly the world spins, taking me with it, turning me in wild circles until I feel that familiar feeling – the feeling of being light and far away from the gold and black damask curtains hanging stiffly from the windows with the weight of over familiarity and dismissal, the gray and sometimes black rug I have not gotten around to changing no matter how many times I jot down neat and self-condemning reminders in my daily planner, the too large queen size double bed that seems to get bigger with each passing day, the forty nine inch Samsung black panel LCD television dutifully gathering dust on the black wood and glass television stand with steel legs, and the ceiling to floor mirror throwing fragments of my reflection back at me as I bask in one minute of magic and madness.
“It doesn’t matter if I am off the beat…”
I lift my shoulder up and pretend I am being controlled by the strings of a puppeteer – like they said in the belly dance video. I rotate my shoulders and try unsuccessfully to do a shoulder shimmy. I give up and go back to Dan Pearce.
“It doesn’t matter if I am snapping to the rhythm…”
I should be happy.
It is not every day that your father, a shrewd lawyer and unrepentant manipulator, one who has mastered the art of changing his mind as often as the won court cases, the one who hounded you for years about being single-minded and ambitious and …single would finally turn around and eat his words.
Yes, eat his words.
I smile, throw my head back and breathe.
“It doesn’t matter if I look like a complete goon when I dance…”
The walk to the mirror is slow and when I do it, I go with the fantasies – fantasies of me on that high backed chair, in the dark room where blinds were pulled tightly over the windows by workers permanently stooped from cowing before my father, a room you approached on the balls of your feet and grazed the door with a slight brush of your knuckle.
The dragon’s chamber.
The slaughter lab.
The room of he-who-must-be-obeyed.
A thousand words run through my mind, all reminders of my whispered taunts and the resentment that has been my companion for the past twenty year of my thirty one years. We are just in the eleventh day of the two thousand and fourteen but I am back in that office, in that white and blue corporate edifice here my father rules supreme. A place where lawyers shiver at his summon and wealthy clients whip out cheques to settle six figure fees at his persuasion.
“It is my dance. It is my moment. It is mine. And dance I will.
I know I should be sad, and maybe a little worried about his diabetes, about the doctors that visit him daily with their starched shirts and officious attitudes, but I am not. His health was being taken care of. My pride was still battered, broken and in pieces.
I should have had a son. You won’t give me a grandson. You have not done anything for me Angela. Nothing! You will not get the firm. I will never leave it to you until you at least have a son.
I close my eyes and stop the tears just in time. The earth rights itself and the sun breaks through the darkness caused by the memory of one of my father’s many tirades. I open my eyes, smile at the slim woman wearing a white tank top over blue cuffed shorts staring back at me from the mirror and summon a more recent and pleasing memory.
I am sick. The doctors say I should take time off work and concentrate on getting better…
You will be taking over…
Yes…as senior partner. I have asked Ugonna to prepare some files for you to look into.
There was the caveat of course.
You are not to take any decision without informing me. I will be telling you what to do…until I can trust you.
I shrug off the scathing end of the last statement and concentrate on the victory. I, Angela Ranti Oyelowo had made partner and that was the most important things this morning. The smile still on my face, I walk to the bed and sit at the edge. I throw one hand out to reach for my phone which is lying face down in the middle of the bed and it vibrates immediately with a call. I smile. Amina. She must have heard.
“Hey partner. Good morning.”
“Senior partner,” I gloat.
“Oh shut up. Congratulations anyway.”
“So tell me how it happened. How did you get him to change his mind?”
I tell Amina about the sickness. There are no secrets between us. Amina is sympathetic and says eyah and sorry after every pause.
“But at least he can rest now. We can rest.”
We laugh together.
“Yes we can.”
“Did I tell you, Amina called? We will talk when you come to work on Monday.”
Agatha is the next person I call. Like Amina, she makes happy noises and toasts to a Martin Oyelowo free workplace.
“Ah,” she says, breathing her relief and causing static to fill my ears. “If only you know how relieved I am. I am not happy about the sickness o, I am just happy we can work without all that tension.”
“Well, me too.”
“And to think that you are now my boss. The wonders of two thousand and fourteen.”’
“At least I know what to expect from you, so it is all good.”
“Maybe you can call me ma, no oga will do.”
“Ha, I am laughing. Later.”
“Ah oh, has he called you…Reuben?”
I smie. “No.”
“I am sure he will call you when he hears the news and when he congratulates you, just know that he is crying into his shirt.”
I laugh again. “You are crazy, Agatha.”
Agatha laughs and ends the call. I go back to my thoughts in the silence. Reuben. The tall, gangly divorcee who had immediately become my best friend and confidant from the very first day he walked into the firm. That was three years ago. A lot of things have changed since then. The truth has found its way past bright warming smiles, reassuring back pats and understanding eyes, and struck me raw like an unexpected blow. I had been devastated. I had ended the friendship and rebuilt the walls around my heart.
“I knew he was up to something. He is always with your father,” Agatha had told me that faithful morning when the truth came out. “I never liked him.”
Reuben stayed after the betrayal. I wondered why at the beginning, but in the end, I decided that it was not his ability for winning even in the most difficult cases that made my father to keep him. It was hope that I would change my mind that guaranteed Reuben the place of the most trusted junior partner in the firm. The realization was as unsettling as it was upsetting. I used the only weapon I had against Reuben. I kept a grudge.
We teach the girls to shrink themselves
To make themselves smaller
I look down at my phone. Reuben’s round face is staring up at me, his chin and supercilious.
We say to girls, you can have ambition but not too much
You should aim to be successful but not too successful
I press the answer button and cut Chimamanda’s voice off.
“Happy New Year.”
“Same to you.”
“You are taking your father’s place.”
Agatha’s words return and I relish the picture they conjure.
There is an awkward pause. I lower my phone from my ear and check the screen if he is still there. He is. I roll my eyes and go back to the call.
“So urm…I guess we’ll meet at the office…oga.”
Reuben’s accompanying laugh is dry and affected. I smile this time.
“Have a good day Ranti.”
I am jarred by his use of my other name. There is a suggestion of intimacy and I balk against it.
“I will appreciate it if you stick to Angela like everyone else.”
“I will do my best to remember that.”
I imagine his trademark snicker playing on his thin lips as he says those words. I cut the call and dump the phone on my bed.
My mood shifts again when I think of my good fortune. I push thoughts of Reuben to the back of my mind, lie back on the bed and dream of my new office
SOMEWHERE IN THE HOUSE
The man lifts a lazy finger and pushes down the button on his arm rest. A soft whirring fills the dark study as the recliner pushes backward and the footrest moves up, settling him in his favourite position. The ambience of the room is soft and meditative with low overhead lights casting soft shadows over the themes of black, burgundy red and cream tones. A spicy wood fragrance permeates the air, lifting the man’s pedigree and wealth from the soft leather recliner and flinging it against the walls, so that room and man become one. Framed canvases sit on the wall, some of them hold still life art and some hold images of the man frozen with governors, ministers and the powerful forces he called allies. Gleaming bookshelves made from dark mahogany hold volumes of law reports and autobiographies of men he admires. There is a large flat screen television at the far end of the room but it is silent. A Channels News Reporter mimes her words, her tight plaited hair exaggerating the height of her forehead.
The man shifts. Pensive eyes towards the high vaulted ceiling.
The stupid diabetes.
“The last thing I need.”
He sighs. His phone rings.
“Good morning sir.”
“Good morning Reuben.”
Shadows gather on the man’s brows.
“Heard what, Reuben?”
“That erm…Angela is taking over from you.”
You did not think I was going to give you the firm after failing the assignment, did you?
The words are unspoken but the man’s silence conveys them all the same. The younger man hems and haws and hurries off the phone. A small smile lifts the face of the man in the study and he returns the phone to the shiny surface of his table. He liked the game. Intimidation was the drug that kept him alive. It was the revenge against a God that refused to give him a son and had instead given him diabetes.
“There is still so much to do,” he complains to the empty room. “Nothing can stop me from becoming senior advocate.”
He reaches for the button on the arm rest again and pushes himself forward. The blue plastic file is still on his desk. He leans forward and caresses it with loving fingers.
“Nothing.” He swears quietly.
The intercom rings, interrupting his brooding. He reaches for the reaches for the receiver without taking his eyes off the file.
“Sir, there is a man here to see you. His name is Naden Tare George.”
“Send him in.”
The man straightens his spine and waits for his guest.
My privacy is violated by a plump, round faced woman with a gap toothed smile who just happens to be my grandmother.
“Aderanti, please come downstairs,” she says, standing in the doorway and bequeathing me with one of her cajoling smiles. “Prophet Jeremiah is asking for you.”
I sigh. Prophecy seeking was among my grandmother’s favourite pastimes. If she was not haranguing about my slim build, she was off seeking prophecies that claimed goodies in the future.
“I don’t want to see any prophet.”
Please now Omoluabi, my sweet darling. Don’t worry, this one will not take time. He is not like Prophet Femi.”
I want to complain but my grandmother’s gap toothed smile is a terrible thing. It is my Achilles heel. I make a face but pull myself from my bed and follow her downstairs to our unnecessarily large living room with gray marble floors, black leather sofas arranged in a U pattern and a television screen covering most of the wall opposite the sofas.
Prophet Jeremiah is a fat sweaty man with a dull white cassock and a red bible he keeps zipping open. My mother is sitting beside him, well-coiffed and perpetually nervous. Her small white container of blood pressure pills is sitting on the glass stool beside her. She gives me an apologetic smile. I cross the room and take the sofa next to her. True to my grandmother’s words, Prophet Jeremiah’s prayer session is shorter than that of the last prophet. He falls into a frenzy of Halleluyahs and the Lord-told-mes.
I nod stiffly and say a prayer for my neck.
“The Lord told me that you have met your husband.”
I quirk my eyebrow at him but lower it when I catch my grandmother’s eyes.
“Erm… I am single.”
“I mean, the Lord said that you will meet your husband.”
“The Lord told me to tell you to stop placing yourself higher than a man. The Lord told me to tell you that you must be humble. You must not be too proud. The devil uses pride to defeat many of our young women so that they can’t find husband. Halleluyah?”
I twist my lips and look at my grandmother. She is quick to avert her eyes away as the source of the prophet’s last prophect. I am glad when it all comes to an end. I escape upstairs but meet another interruption. Fausat, my cousin. A happy go lucky teenager with a pierced tongue and an occasional stutter. Fausat, who had just clocked one month with us after her irate mother, tired of her antics had flown in with her from America and dumped her with us for what she called ‘an African upbringing’. Fausat is leaning on her door frame when I walk past. She gives me a conspiratorial wink.
“The…the..pastor, has he…he gone?”
“Nope. He is still downstairs,” I answer Fausat, walking past her. The soft click of a door closing makes me happy until Fausat appears at my side. I give a start.
“Stop creeping, I told you I don’t like it.”
“Sorry,” Fausat says, sweeping past me and pushing my room door open. I walk behind her into the room and close the door as she dumps herself on my bed with a sigh.
“You are kinda uptight, why?”
I walk to the dark green loveseat in the corner of the room and sit facing Fausat. I watch her arrange herself in a lotus position and then defend myself.
“I am not uptight.”
Fausat smiles and then turns up her nose at me. “Yes, you are. Sorta…sno…snobbish too.”
I give a resigned shrug, “If you say so.”
“Do you have…urm…a boyfriend?”
I shrug. “No reason.”
Fausat makes a face.
Fausat toys with her earlobe for some minutes and cocks her head in my direction. Dark brown eyes study me under a microscope.
“Do you speak Yoruba?”
“Me too. Wai… , I’ll tell you a story.”
I hear through jumbled adjectives and drawled adverbs the story of my cousin’s rebellious not too distant high school years. We get to the climax in minutes.
“So my teacher gave me detention. You know what a detention is, right?”
I barely nod before Fausat continues her story.
“Well, I do it and when I leave the class in the end, I say wey rey niyen. Cool, right?”
I find myself smiling. “Okay?”
“So she asked me, Fausat…” Fausat pauses to do a shrill mimic of her teacher’s voice. “What did you say? Are you cursing me?” Fausat goes back to her voice. “I tell her no, no, I am not cursing at you. I just told you good day, wey rey niyen means good day in Africa and she buys it, can you believe it?”
I chuckle in amusement at Fausat’s story.
“And the next day she sees me, she says wey rey ni yen to you, Fausat, I hope you had a nice night. I say wey rey ni yen back.”
I laugh. Fausat beams at me.
“Okay now…now…I…I think you are cool.”
“My mum, she didn’t think it was cool. She kept saying I am bad and all, but I am not. My teacher was a meanie.”
The wall of communication torn down, Fausat looks at me with a new light in her eyes.
“And urm…did…did I tell you? There is a handsome man downstairs.”
“Ewww no. A tall dude in white shirt. I think he came to see uncle.”
Fausat untangles herself, pushes off my bed and walks to the window. She is disappointed to find the view of our shrub lined backyard.
“Let’s go to my room” she says, marching over to me and tugging my hand from my lap. “We’ll see him when he is leaving. Maybe he can be your boyfriend.”
I harrumph but let Fausat pull me to her room. I am surprised to see Fausat’s room is tidy and neatly arranged. There is no time to express my surprise to my cousin. Her hand clamped on my wrist, she drags me, determination all over her face, to the window.
OUTSIDE THE OYELOWO HOUSE
I nod at the man that holds the door open for me and step out into the harmattan. My car is still warm from the drive down here. The meeting had lasted only a few minutes. I had been rattled by the man’s terms but there had been nothing else but to accept them. I open my car and settle in the welcoming confines of worn black leather. A loud drumming begins in one of the consoles beside my gear box. I pick Henry’s call.
“He gave me the job.”
A shout of excitement, followed by effusive congratulating deafens me and makes me forget my foreboding for a minute.
“I know say im go give you the job. You get skills na.”
I throw my head back on the headrest of my seat.
“The job get as e be.”
“Don’t worry when I come we will talk.”
“Not really sha. E just dey somehow.”
“Okay na. I dey office now. I go drive come your house after work.”
The call with Henry over, I return the phone back to the console and lean back in my seat, my attention on the white brick style house outside. My eyes go up the building and stop at a window. Two pairs of eyes watch me with careful interest from the half open window. I breathe deeply and reach for my ignition. I turn my key and make my decision.
“Oh my God,” Fausat says, still under the window sill. “He saw us.”
I nod absentmindedly, my mind still churning out answers to the questions that had sprung up a minute ago. “I guess.”
“You guess?” Fausat asks, eyes round as she crawls on all fours on her deep blue rug to meet me on the bed.
“He saw us. He was looking at you…like…like he knew you.”
I shake my head. “I don’t know him.”
Fausat rises to her feet and sits beside me.
“See? He already likes you.”
I give Fausat an incredulous look and then sigh.
“You are ridiculous sometimes.”
“Now, you will have a boyfriend,” Fausat says, looking very pleased with herself. “I’m…gonna ask him if he can be your boyfriend.”
I storm out of Fausat’s room and head for my room. Inside, I turn the key in the lock and settle on the bed in deep thought.
What is my father up to?
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