Unsuitable Ties by Sefi Atta

She would rather not be here tonight. For her, a dinner party at a hotel – especially a five-star hotel like this in London – is research work. She might notice a seating-card design, a flower arrangement or some other catering idea she can use when she returns to Lagos. She will study the menu from hors d’oeuvres to desserts. As for the company, she knows what to expect; rich Nigerians, all connected to each other.

The hotel, Greek Revival style, is in Knightsbridge. It is cold for May, so she and her husband, Akin, wear coats, which they leave at the cloakroom near the lobby. The cloakroom attendant hands her a ticket and she puts it in her clutch bag. She is conscious of her heels clip-clopping along the marble- floored corridor that leads to the bar. At the entrance of the bar, a waiter lifts a silver tray with flutes of champagne and Buck’s Fizz. She goes for the champagne, as does Akin. They thank the waiter, a woman.

The bar resembles a candle-lit library in a stately home. It has shelves of old, leather-bound books and maroon patterned wallpaper. Cocktails are at 7 p.m., dinner is at 7.45 p.m., followed by dancing. Carriages are at 1 a.m. The dress code is black tie. Akin has decided that means he can get away with wearing a tie that is black.

She took the time and trouble to go from their flat in West Kensington to Kensington High Street to buy a new dress the day before. It was typical of Akin to forget he needed a bow tie until the last moment, yet he was the one who insisted that she come.

Other guests are on time. All are appropriately turned out, a few in colourful traditional Nigerian wear. She and Akin return their smiles and waves as they approach their host, Saheed Balogun.

“How now, my brother?” Saheed asks.

“Hey,” Akin says, shaking Saheed’s hand.

“Saheed,” she says, with a nod.

Saheed looks as if he has only just recognised her. “Yemisi! Long time no see!”

She winces involuntarily as he hugs her. She has become used to seeing his face under newspaper headlines since his fraud investigation began a month ago. He was also recently listed in an online magazine as one of Nigeria’s top ten billionaires. He is remarkably slight in person and sports a grey goatee. His bow tie is not quite as symmetrical after he hugs her. She was not expecting him to welcome her that way. Feeling hijacked, she looks around the bar and asks, “Where is Funke?”

“She’s taking care of last-minute seating arrangements,” Saheed says.

Yemisi grimaces. Nigerians don’t always RSVP and sometimes show up with extra guests. Funke is Saheed’s wife. Yemisi might call her an old friend, though she is more accurately someone Yemisi socialised with when they were both law undergrads. Funke was at the University of Lagos while she was at University College London. Their paths often crossed in Lagos and London. For reasons she can’t explain, she doesn’t mind Funke, but she absolutely cannot stand Saheed.

She leaves Akin with him. She told Akin she intended to stay as far away from Saheed as possible. That was the condition on which she came.

The Baloguns’ dinner party is one in a series of fiftieth birthday parties that she and Akin have attended outside Nigeria, given by Nigerians. There have been several in London, and destination parties elsewhere. One in Cape Town, another in Dubai, and yet another, much talked about and blogged about, on the French Riviera, which they missed. At the end of May, Funke is having a more intimate party in St Kitts. They will skip that as well. On Funke’s actual birthday, which is at the end of June, she will finish with a masked ball in Lagos, in the Civic Centre Grand Banquet Hall. Saheed is flying in a seventies American funk band for that. Why such a blatant display of wealth when he is being investigated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Yemisi cannot understand.

She circulates, champagne flute in one hand, clutch bag in the other, greeting friends, curtseying for elders and laughing. She is astonished at her capacity to look as if she is enjoying herself. She can’t believe the people who have shown up, despite Saheed’s investigation – legal people, church people. There is a former state attorney general she attended law school with, and a Pentecostal church pastor she had a crush on in her teens, one summer in Lagos when they took tennis lessons at Ikoyi Club. Funke is a member of his church. Saheed is Muslim, but he attends church services now and then. Through Funke, the pastor apparently receives a fee for praying for Saheed’s business, and ten per cent of his profits.

Yemisi doesn’t have any clients in the bar. She usually gets work through her connections with the banking crowd in Lagos. Akin has a private equity firm and his clients are senators, governors and government ministers, former and incumbent. Only to her would he admit they are a bunch of thieves. His wealthiest clients, like Saheed, are in the petroleum industry. He sometimes refers to them as oil money.

A waiter approaches her with a tray of vol-au-vents and she tucks her bag under her arm. She chooses one with chicken and mushroom filling and thanks him. Most of the waiters are English, but some look as if they are from other countries in Europe. They are friendly yet unobtrusive and poised without being snooty. They go about their business as if they’re with their regular clientele. They’ve probably been briefed on how to handle the Nigerian function. She thinks of her waiters back home, who would be timid around Nigerians like these. She often tells them they are working, not asking for favours, but they ignore her or laugh at her.

 

The vol-au-vent is perfectly light. She is eating it when Oyinda and her husband, Oliver, walk in.

“Hello, darling,” Oyinda says.

“Sorry,” Yemisi mumbles. “My…mouth…is…full.”

She dabs the corner of her mouth with her napkin in a mock-ladylike manner.

Oyinda is in a short, black dress and her hair is cropped and natural. She wears no make-up, as usual, but her nails are painted lilac.

She points at Akin. “I see we’re not the only ones wearing unsuitable ties.”

“It was a struggle,” Yemisi says.

“Mine thinks bow ties are silly,” Oyinda says.

“Bow ties are silly,” Oliver says.

His English accent makes him sound ruder. He is blond with thick-rimmed glasses and an overly serious expression. His suit and tie are mod. Yemisi remembers when Nigerians, out of laziness, described him as “that punk rocker guy”. She has never known if Oyinda drifted away from other Nigerians, or if it was the other way around, because she married Oliver.

“How are your parents coping with retirement?” Oyinda asks.

“Quite well,” Yemisi says. “And yours?”

“Oh, my mother’s still working. Yes, she’s still going strong. She’s not as active as she used to be, but she will attend a conference when she can. My father, on the other hand…” Oyinda pulls a face. “He’s busy golfing or doing whatever else he does. What about your kids? They must be out of their teens now.”

“My daughter is,” Yemisi says. “My son’s eighteen.”

She and Oyinda met when they were thirteen. There were not many Nigerian students in English boarding schools back then. Her school was in Canterbury, Kent, and Oyinda’s was somewhere in Dorset. Their parents made them go to the cinema together during an Easter holiday in London. Oyinda was one of those students who just never returned to Nigeria. She is a paediatrician now, and a Fellow of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. Oliver is a photographer, and brilliant, apparently. They have no children. They ski and hike together. Their last trip was a sponsored climb up Kilimanjaro to raise money for a medical cause that benefited African children.

“How’s Lagos treating you these days?” Oyinda asks.

“You don’t want to know,” Yemisi says.

“Go on,” Oyinda urges. “Tell me.”

Yemisi rambles on about her life on Lekki Peninsula. Armed robberies are rare, the main streets are fairly clean, but the side streets get waterlogged during the rainy season. The traffic is getting worse, there was a petrol shortage before she travelled and still no regular electricity. She had to buy a new electricity generator for her catering kitchen because her old one broke down.

Oyinda exclaims, “Oh no,” over and over, her voice getting higher, until it drops in a confession: “That’s why I can’t live there.”

“We’re luckier than most,” Yemisi says. “And at least we get to escape once in a while.”

She can’t complain further. She and Akin live in a serviced estate, so they have constant electricity and running water. Their home is a four-bedroom house with boys’ quarters, where their house help stay during the week. Their drivers live elsewhere.

Oyinda widens her eyes. “Did you read the article in which Saheed was mentioned?”

“What article?”

“The one about the one percentile in Lagos.”

“Oh, that.”

Oyinda shakes her head. “So embarrassing. So, so embarrassing.”

“Yes, it was.”

For a moment Yemisi thought Oyinda was referring to Saheed’s EFCC investigation. Nigeria itself has been in the international news of late, and not in flattering ways. There was the article about the one percentile in Lagos, which appeared in an American newspaper, followed by another in a British glossy magazine about spoiled, rich Nigerian students in London. Two Christmases ago there was the underwear bomber, who was ridiculed back home for being privileged, above all else. For years there have been reports on Boko Haram attacks in Northern Nigeria, and this January there was the Occupy Nigeria movement.

“It was a hatchet job,” Oyinda says. “I mean, some of us work hard for a living. We’re not all flying around in private jets and lounging on yachts.”

“I know, I know,” Yemisi says.

She would say the article lacked perspective, but foreign press coverage of Nigeria often does. She dismissed the article. It wasn’t worth her energy to take umbrage as a Nigerian who lived overseas might.

“Mind you,” Oyinda whispers, “some of this lot here…”

Yemisi blinks slowly. She gossips only at home. Oyinda has a reputation for gossiping anywhere and without discretion.

She can see why Oyinda thinks she is part of the one percentile in Lagos, even though Oyinda doesn’t live there. Oyinda would think she belongs because she comes from what Yemisi’s mother would call “a good family”, based there. Fathers’ illustrious careers count, mothers’ less so. Oyinda’s father was a First Republic health minister and one of the top gynaecologists in Lagos of his time. He was also notorious for having affairs with his nurses, for which Oyinda has never forgiven him. But Lagos has since changed. Talking about backgrounds will only get laughs. All it takes to belong to the one percentile is money. The Baloguns belong by virtue of the billions of naira Saheed receives from the government as fuel-subsidy payments to import petroleum products. The EFCC investigation is to determine if his company actually does import petroleum products or if it exists solely to collect the subsidy payments.

“This party must be costing a fortune,” Oyinda says.

Yemisi raises her hand. “I’m not saying a word.”

People trust her as if she were a doctor. She and Akin could easily be mistaken for being part of the one percentile in Lagos, but she would say they live off them, by providing services, that they have to be useful to belong, and they also have to be loyal.

Oliver finally smiles, though conspiratorially. Perhaps he takes a while to warm up in company, as she does. Or perhaps he feels outnumbered. So far he is the only foreign guest. Whatever the reason, Yemisi has seen his photos of their Kilimanjaro trip on Facebook, and Oyinda, the only African besides their guide, was smiling away.

She excuses herself, trying to figure out how Oyinda knows the Baloguns. They are definitely not Oyinda’s friends, but she would come to their party anyway, out of homesickness or curiosity. They would invite Oyinda because she is the sort of Nigerian they admire. Her mother, a public-health specialist, is a descendant of Lagos royalty. Her mother’s father was a lawyer, her paternal grandfather was a politician, and his father was a publisher. She has generations of family history on both sides, recorded history, which is uncommon. The Baloguns would approve of her as a guest. They don’t have social functions; they have social agendas.

 

Akin is still with Saheed. He leans in to listen to whatever Saheed is saying. Yemisi can tell from his discreet expression that they are discussing business. Could Saheed possibly be trying to invest more money with him at a time like this? She would have to find out. She would have to put a stop to that.

A waiter approaches her with a tray of canapés and she again tucks her bag under her arm. She chooses one with smoked salmon and cream cheese, eats it and finishes her champagne.

She met Akin at Cambridge. They got their master’s degrees in law there. They gave up law for banking when the banking sector was privatised in the eighties. Akin joined a commercial bank in Lagos where everyone went by their first names. She joined a merchant bank as a company secretary. They got married after Akin was appointed managing director. She left banking before he did to start her catering business; their children were in primary school and she could no longer cope with her long working hours. Akin’s parents were retired high court judges. They lived in Lagos, so they would sometimes babysit. She was never comfortable with relying on his parents. Her parents lived in the federal capital, Abuja. Her father was a retired diplomat and her mother, who throughout her father’s career had hosted cocktail parties and dinner parties in Bonn, Paris and London, on a Nigerian budget, would describe herself as a housewife.

She and Akin were children of civil servants whose net worth shrank during the Structural Adjustment Programme of the eighties, so they had to be ambitious. She has her father to thank for not turning out like other diplomats’ children, who ended up shell-shocked in Nigeria after their fathers retired from the service, going on about the lives they used to have overseas. Whenever she asked her father for money, no matter how little, he would reply, “You think I’m rich?” She credits her mother for getting her into catering. As a girl, she would sulk whenever her mother called her to help in the kitchen. Her brothers never had to help. Her mother, worried Yemisi would turn out to be a useless wife, encouraged her to take a cordon bleu cookery course during her father’s posting to London, which she unexpectedly enjoyed. That was when she realised she didn’t actually hate cooking; she just wanted to get paid for it.

Akin earns more than she does. He always has. Their daughter is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying economics. Their son wants to go to Imperial College London to study engineering. With foreign-student fees to pay, and a house in Lagos and flat in London to maintain, what else is Akin supposed to do but keep the money coming?

He is talking to Saheed now and she is sure he is making a pitch. After twenty-two years of marriage, she is past arguing about matters they can’t resolve. There was a time they argued about his habit of procrastinating, his reluctance to do his small share of chores at home and his presumption that he was in charge of their children’s education. These days, they have more than enough help at home and they are lucky if their children listen to them. Akin still procrastinates, but he has that pitiful look good men develop when they’ve been nagged too long, not that different from the expression of a knackered horse. She is trying to be a nicer wife now, so she gives him breaks, but this is one quarrel they revisit as they go from one function to the next: his financial dealings with dubious clients like Saheed.

 

“Happy birthday to you,” she sings, as Funke walks into the bar with Biola.

Funke feigns shyness. “None of that, please!”

“I beg you,” Yemisi says to Biola. “Let me hug the celebrant first. I’ll get to you next.”

She hugs Funke and tells her she looks radiant because she can’t think of a more suitable word. Funke is in a gold-lamé maxi dress, which must be custom-made. She is all diamonds from her décolletage up. She has a long hairweave and a thick layer of bronze eyeshadow that suggests she hired a make-up artist and dictated exactly how she wanted to look. She is pretty – much prettier without make-up.

“I’ve lost weight, haven’t I?” Funke asks, posing.

“You never needed to,” Yemisi says.

Funke often claims she is on a diet, though her appetite secretly remains healthy. Twice a year she disappears to a health spa in Spain for liquid detoxes and colonic irrigations. She bleaches her skin. That she can’t hide. She also claims her complexion is the same as it has always been, but she was much darker before.

Metallic fabrics must be in. Biola is in a pewter-coloured dress. Her black-pearl earrings match her dress, her short, bob wig is flattering and her make-up colours are neutral. She is naturally skinny, but may have had Botox work on her forehead. Yemisi suspects she deliberately tones down her appearance to make Funke look as if she is trying too hard.

“The lovely Mrs Lawal,” she says, hugging Biola tighter than she hugged Funke to make up for temporarily bypassing her. Biola is a family friend. Their mothers were childhood friends. Their fathers are diehard Metropolitan Club men: any talk of allowing women to become members rubs them up the wrong way.

“How are Auntie and Uncle?” Biola asks.

“Very well,” Yemisi says. “How’s Chairman?”

“Chairman’s fine,” Biola says.

Everyone calls Biola’s father Chairman. Biola’s father calls himself an industrialist, to set himself apart from ordinary businessmen in Lagos. He has never manufactured a single product. He is chairman of several companies he acquired shares in before they became old and established.

Yemisi doesn’t ask after Biola’s stepmother. Biola’s mother died when Biola was just ten and Chairman remarried – a glamorous Liberian divorcee, whom Biola refused to obey. Biola called her “the refugee” behind her back. When their rows got too much for Chairman, he sent Biola off to Le Rosey in Switzerland and gave her whatever she wanted to compensate for abandoning her. By the age of thirteen she was shopping on Bond Street. Chairman’s only rule was that she study and pass her exams. Her stepmother hoped she might fail. Biola got into the London School of Economics to study law. After she graduated, she returned to Lagos for law school.

“So,” Biola says, accusingly. “We only meet in London these days.”

“Where else?” Yemisi says.

“You’re a real socialite caterer, are you?”

“If you really mean I cater for socialites like you? Yes.”

Biola laughs. She can’t help but put another woman down, even in the course of saying hello.

The last place they met was in Lagos. They were at a barbecue on New Year’s Day at Funke’s house. Funke had waiters walking up and down with trays of jerk chicken, shrimp kebab and grilled tilapia. There were bottles of Moët rosé dripping on every table. Yemisi asked Funke who her caterer was and Funke said, “I flew in a chef from Senegal.”

Biola arrived late that day with her ladies-in-waiting, a group of women who started the Birkin-bag trend in Lagos. Funke was also one of them. Yemisi would never cater for any of them. They would be too demanding. They would try to bully discounts out of her. They would never bother to return her phone calls or texts. If she persisted in trying to contact them, they would refer her to their personal assistants. They could end up mistreating her waiters, which would drive her up the wall. After the job was done, they would pay her in their own sweet time.

She looks forward to seeing Biola and Funke at functions anyway, knowing they will entertain her. She is particularly amused when they carry on as if Lagos and London are neighbouring cities. “I’m going to London next week,” Biola might say. “After which I come back to Lagos for a day, then I’m off again.” Lagos is a mere six hours away by plane. They travel first class or business class.

The code of loyalty applies to them as well. Biola is married to Tunji Lawal, a senator who took a ten-billion-naira bank loan he never repaid. The EFCC investigated him, too. Funke said any rumours of financial impropriety on his part were a political vendetta. The EFCC eventually dropped their investigation. Funke again stood by Biola when Tunji’s affair with a Lagos publicist was exposed. There were lewd text messages, which were quoted in the tabloids. There was a sex tape, which was posted online. Funke said the footage wasn’t clear. The whole scandal made Yemisi more sympathetic towards Biola, who is now involved in eradicating poverty in Africa. She is invited around the world to give speeches. She is photographed with international celebrities and posts her photos on Facebook to spite her enemies.

Tunji is in Nigeria, attending a senators’ forum. He is with the People’s Democratic Party and still hopes to be president. Biola probably wouldn’t mind being first lady, but meanwhile won’t associate with the new crop of Third Republic politicians Tunji mixes with. She calls them bush people.

“Love your dress,” Biola says. “Whose is it?”

“Who knows?” Yemisi says.

It is a pastel-blue maxi dress she bought on sale.

“She always looks good,” Biola says to Funke.

“Where did you get it?” Funke asks.

“High Street Ken,” Yemisi says.

“The colour suits her,” Biola says to Funke.

Yemisi wonders if her dress is worthy of this much attention or if it is just their acquisitive nature that gets the better of them. Perhaps they are mocking her, she thinks in amusement.

“It looks like a lawn van,” Funke says.

“It doesn’t look anything like a Lanvin,” Biola says.

“It does. It looks like a lawn van dress I have.”

“Lanvin is understated. You, my dear, are never understated.”

“Have you seen their latest collection?”

“Excuse me,” Yemisi says.

She hurries as if someone is calling her. There is only so much she can take when Funke and Biola begin to spar. Funke is the challenger here and Biola is the undefeated and undisputed champion.

Biola has always been the champ. Funke may have had her moments of local glory: a fashion show, she is there in the front row; a Nollywood film premiere, she is on the red carpet as a producer. She is named in best-dressed lists. But only recently has she had international recognition, for building a world-class boutique hotel in Lagos. Saheed hired an American PR company to cover the opening and flew in the architect who designed the hotel, a Somali, highly celebrated in London. Saheed’s billionaire status is most likely another PR stunt. Yet Biola wins every time because she gets Funke to up the ante. Biola has been making women feel small since she was a girl: her stepmother, her stepmother’s friends, her friends’ disapproving mothers. For her, this is sport.

Yemisi heads for the other end of the bar. She rarely sees either of them these days. She hears about them. Funke is considered a social climber and Biola an outright fraud. People get furious about her photos with international celebrities. Yemisi just wishes she could pull the celebrities aside and say, as her mother would, “Know the calibre of Nigerian you fraternise with.”

They will pose with any African for a photo op. The gossip about Funke and Biola so far only makes her in awe of their ability to withstand it, though she imagines that, in private, they are just as brutal about people who talk about them.

 

The bar empties a little after 7.45 p.m. Yemisi guesses there are about a hundred guests in all. Oliver is no longer the only foreign guest. She passes a couple of men who sound German or Austrian. They must be Saheed’s business partners.

On the pilgrimage to the dining room, she sidles up to Akin and whispers, “What were you and Saheed talking about?”

“When?” Akin asks.

“Keep your voice down, please.”

“My voice is down.”

“Lower it.”

“Is this low enough?”

“For God’s sake.”

She walks ahead of Akin as he watches her with a bemused expression. His whispers are loud. Everyone around them will hear what he is saying.

Perhaps he has sold his soul to Saheed. Perhaps this is the man she married. Her clients are no different from his. She had one who bankrupted a finance house using an expense account before fleeing the country. She had another, a lovely woman, who would send her flowers after every catering job. The woman was frogmarched out of a bank when she was caught doing illegal foreign-exchange deals. But she no longer caters for them.

 

She remembers when Saheed’s became the name to drop in Lagos. She asked Akin how Saheed made his money and Akin said, “Why are you asking me?” Then Saheed became Akin’s client and Akin told her how and she said, “Here we go again.” There was oil in Nigeria, plenty of oil. In a normal country, there would probably be no need to import petroleum products. But the refineries in Nigeria didn’t work, so the bulk of the oil was exported overseas and people like Saheed were in business.

She and Akin believed Saheed’s business was bona fide back then, so she wasn’t surprised Saheed had made his money overnight. She was just put off by how much he spent. When Akin told her Saheed was thinking of buying a yacht, she said she hoped Saheed could swim. When Akin mentioned that Saheed travelled to Monaco to watch the Grand Prix, she said if Saheed was interested in watching drivers trying to kill everyone in their way he should have stayed in Lagos. Akin called her a snob. She didn’t deny that. She got her snobbery from her mother. “He’s so nouveau,” she said. “We’re all nouveau,” Akin said.

The dining room has a marble fireplace, above which is a gilt-framed mirror. There are crystal chandeliers and period paintings of horses. The tables are beautifully set, but so far nothing inspires her. The designs are old and staid. Her clients want cutting-edge modern. She finds her name on the seating chart. She is on the same table as Funke and Biola. Shit, she thinks.

Akin is on Saheed’s table. She doesn’t want to be separated from him. Why would Funke switch seats with him? Why would Funke want to be on a different table from Saheed? Her clients in general want to sit next to their spouses, even when they’re not in the mood to speak to them. They don’t mind being miserable as they eat. After dinner, women will gather together, so will men, separately.

She usually avoids getting involved in planning her clients’ seating arrangements because of the sheer drudgery of considering the relationships between people at any given table in Lagos, their alliances, rivalries and politics. She finds her way to Funke’s table, which is nearest to the dance floor. Funke has probably done the best she can with her last-minute seating arrangements but, on Saheed’s table, Funke has Saheed’s business partner, Mustapha, next to the pastor who blames emirs like Mustapha’s father for Boko Haram attacks. If Mustapha’s father had his way, Nigeria would be an Islamic country. He lobbied for the right to adopt sharia law in Northern Nigeria. Mustapha prefers to play polo there. He founded the first polo-cum-country club in his home state. Saheed, a one-leg-in-one-leg-out Muslim, courted his friendship for years, inviting him to the polo club in Lagos whenever he was in town. The club veterans made fun of Saheed behind his back. He had only just started taking riding lessons. He barely knew how to mount a horse. They said he would never succeed in aligning himself with a Northern aristocrat like Mustapha. But he did. He and Mustapha teamed up to invest in an Islamic banking scheme. How they separated Islam from banking, God only knew.

On the elders’ table, Funke has her father, Professor Akande, a hardcore Yoruba secessionist who believes the South West of Nigeria would be better off as a country in its own right, next to a chief who sits on the board of Saheed’s company. The chief is from the South-South region of Nigeria and is too financially shrewd to be a secessionist. He understands what secessionists don’t; that it makes more sense to do business with Nigerians from ethnic groups he can’t stand, than to demand the partitioning of Nigeria. Still, as an elderly statesman of the South-South, he attends meetings in his home state to discuss how Nigeria’s oil, which is drilled there and has polluted the land, doesn’t benefit his people. He assures his people that any concerns they have will be fully addressed whenever the president decides to convene a national conference.

Yemisi remembers her father saying there were no divisions amongst rich Nigerians, but they created divisions so poor Nigerians could kill each other off. She has had moments of panic at parties in Lagos, when she imagines a suicide bomber gatecrashing, followed by a bloody aftermath with food and blood splattered everywhere, followed by a thought that terrifies her so much she immediately suppresses it: one bomb at a party like this and half of Nigeria’s problems will disappear.

 

She finds her seating card on the table. She is next to Funke and Biola. She is beginning to think Funke switched seats so their husbands can discuss business without interference. She and Funke are the only wives separated from their husbands on the table. Oyinda and Oliver are together across from them. Akin is right next to Saheed on Saheed’s table. She imagines herself running over there and yelling, “What is wrong with you? How could you even consider doing business with him at a time like this? Have you no shame?”

The menu distracts her for a while. The first course is salad with goat’s cheese or lobster bisque. She goes for the bisque, which turns out to be bland. The main meal is chicken breast in a béchamel-based sauce with steamed vegetables. Her clients are usually not keen on white meat or any meat mixed with dairy. They don’t appreciate al dente vegetables. Or vegetarian meals. The vegetarian meal is a risotto. Oliver is the only one who has requested it.

She is not a food or wine connoisseur, or a conversationalist. Her favourite way to pass time at dinner parties is to listen to other people talking. She avoids looking at them to decode their conversations. Her father taught her how to: he fancied himself an expert on espionage.

“That country is useless. Useless, I tell you.”

Biola complaining to Funke about mobile-phone services in Nigeria. Yemisi has heard Nigerians call Nigeria a useless country for more trivial problems, a bad pedicure, a shirt button lost at the dry cleaner’s. She calls Nigeria a useless country whenever she gets stuck in traffic.

“They don’t practise medicine there. They practise business. Any doctor who wants to practise medicine has left the country and the newly qualified ones are just badly trained…”

A man telling Oyinda why she is better off practising paediatrics in England. His mother was misdiagnosed with malaria in Nigeria, when she had pancreatitis. He is managing director of a cable-television company. Yemisi holds him personally responsible for the latest trend of theme parties in Lagos. Because of E! Entertainment Television and other such networks, her clients want menus to match their themes. They ask for cupcakes and cake pops.

For a moment, she panics over her parents. She must call them in the morning to find out if her mother has had her blood pressure tested, and if her father has seen a doctor about his lower back pain.

“She carries herself well. She dresses conservatively. What I like most about her is that she is not trying to upstage her husband. She came into that family knowing her place.”

Funke talking about Prince William and Kate and making them sound awfully Nigerian.

What is it with clothes? Yemisi thinks. What is it with Nigerians and clothes? It’s not as if there is a designer in Paris, looking at his collection and saying, “C’est parfait pour mes clientes Nigériennes!”

“I still don’t understand the fuss about Pippa.”

Biola, doing what she does best.

“Of course I’m against free education!”

The same man who said newly qualified Nigerian doctors were badly trained.

“How can anyone be against free education?”

Oyinda, who laughs even though she’s outraged.

“Don’t mind him. He’s talking rubbish.”

The man’s wife. Her bluntness is unusual. She may be upset with him over an unrelated matter. She is an interior decorator – a real one, not just an attractive woman who has an eye for colour and knows how to put a room together. These days, in Lagos, any woman who can put a meal together can call herself a caterer.

“Free education ruined the school system in Lagos. We used to have good schools before they opened them up to the masses. I went to Saint Greg’s. People like us can’t send our sons to Saint Greg’s any more.”

The man, ignoring his wife.

“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”

Oyinda, disagreeing.

“Don’t mind him. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

His wife, refusing to be ignored.

“Did anyone read that article about the Lagos elite?”

Oyinda.

“What article?”

Funke.

“Saheed was mentioned.”

Oyinda, soliciting gossip.

“Not that article again.”

Funke, pretending to be embarrassed.

“They were just upper-middle-class Nigerians. You can’t compare them to the global elite.”

Biola, an authority on class since her early schooling in Switzerland.

“It made us look bad to the rest of the world, though. We don’t all live lavishly.”

Oyinda, who still doesn’t realise she is not part of the one percentile in Lagos.

“Anyone can live lavishly in Nigeria if they have money. That doesn’t mean they have class.”

Biola, taking a jab.

“Some elite Nigerians do.”

Funke, blocking.

Elite at what? Yemisi thinks. Shopping? What does class mean in Nigeria anyway? Nigerians call themselves upper middle class if they manage to buy a house on a mortgage. Akin once called her high class because she made spaghetti alla puttanesca. English classes cause confusion. American percentiles are better suited to Nigeria. Besides, who in the world would take seriously an article about people who are of no consequence to anyone but themselves?

“It was shocking to me, actually.”

Oliver.

“Really? Why?”

Biola, attempting to bully him.

“That people can be so excessive in the midst of so much poverty.”

Oliver, with First World indignation.

“There’s poverty in Europe. That’s why half of Europe is here.”

Biola, with Third World defensiveness.

“Not the kind of poverty you have in Africa, surely.”

Oliver, laughing cautiously.

“You look like a world traveller. Which African countries have you been to?”

Biola, condescendingly.

“Oyinda and I went on holiday to Kenya. We hiked up Kilimanjaro for charity.”

Oliver, humbly.

“He took photos.”

Funke, bored with the conversation. She is an intelligent woman. She may not be as intelligent as Biola, but she practised law for many years, which was more than Biola did. Biola had a one-year stint at her uncle’s firm, then she worked for her father, which amounted to attending boardroom meetings on his behalf. The problem with Funke was that as soon as Saheed made money, she had new concerns. She got involved with a group of women who had similar concerns. Now, if a conversation isn’t about their concerns, she is not interested. Biola has to stay on top of issues outside their circle to run her foundation.

“Kenya is very different from Nigeria, economically.”

Biola, professorially.

“Yes, I know Nigeria is oil rich, but there is that gap between the rich and the poor, isn’t there?”

Oliver, earnestly.

“There is, there is.”

Oyinda, who sounds as if she’s rocking back and forth.

Yemisi has heard Nigerians refer to themselves as poor because they can’t afford to send their children to schools abroad. She would say her house help and catering staff are poor. If they stopped working for a month, they might starve, unless they were prepared to beg. Yet they might say beggars on the streets are poor. She gives leftover food to her catering staff after jobs. She pays her house help’s hospital bills. Akin thinks they take advantage of her. “They’re always sick,” he once said. He is polite to them because he is a polite person, but he doesn’t trust them. He has the usual anxieties about theft and that other unspoken fear, that no matter how well he treats them, come a revolution, they would turn around and slit his throat.

“I imagine that affluent Nigerians are sufficiently well-placed to do something about the economic divide.”

Oliver, who doesn’t know the calibre of Nigerian he is fraternising with. He thinks he can shift their consciences. He cannot. He thinks they’re capitalists. Poor Nigerians are the capitalists. They have to be. They don’t depend on the government for deals; they don’t get to dip their hands in state treasuries or commit bank fraud; they don’t even get to smell oil money.

“I think every Nigerian should do what they can. I run a foundation. I’m an advocate for the eradication of poverty in Nigeria. I’ve been invited to the UN to give a talk. It may not be as arduous as a trek up Kilimanjaro, but it’s a start.”

Biola.

Knockout, Yemisi thinks.

The dessert options are chocolate gateau or tiramisu. She goes for the gateau, which has a glutinous filling that sticks to the roof of her mouth.

 

After dinner, Funke’s mother stands up to lead the room in a prayer. A dignified woman in a vintage aso oke outfit with matching stole and head tie, she seems unlikely to tolerate extravagance. “Lord,” she says, “we ask that You grant Funke wisdom and humility with age.”

Saheed makes the toast between pauses, as guests respond to him.

“She is the love of my life.”

“Ah!”

“I am for ever indebted to her.”

“Ah!”

“And to my in-laws, Professor and Mrs Akande.”

Where are his parents? Yemisi thinks. He flies everyone else around the globe. Why couldn’t he fly them here? All she’s ever heard about Saheed’s parents is that they live in their home town.

The guests stand up to clink glasses. They sing “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and sit down.

“Well,” Oyinda says afterwards. “That was more like an anniversary toast. You know, I’d much prefer to celebrate my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary than my fiftieth birthday.”

Oyinda knows full well that given a choice, Nigerian women will celebrate their birthdays before any wedding anniversary.

“It’s envy,” Biola says, out of nowhere. “It’s all envy at the end of the day.”

“Yes,” Funke murmurs. “It is.”

Yemisi can’t decide if they are talking about Oyinda or Oliver. Then she guesses from Funke’s sober expression that Biola may have been referring to someone else. She reconsiders a rumour, which she initially ignored, that Saheed has several girlfriends in Lagos he is supporting financially, including one who has a son by him. That could explain why Funke is not sitting with him.

The DJ, who has been setting up his equipment on the dance floor, begins to play Afro hip-hop music. Oyinda and Oliver get up to dance, followed by Funke and Biola and other couples on their table. Women take over the dance floor. Akin won’t dance in public. He thinks it emasculates him. Yemisi, a self-confessed lousy dancer, stays in her chair and watches. Oyinda and Oliver do a calypso dance as Funke and Biola point at each other and sing, “I’m hot and you’re not,” to a D’banj song.

The men on Saheed’s table finally disperse and head for the dance floor to join their wives. Only then does Akin remember her. He smiles as he approaches her, sits in the chair next to hers and then frowns.

“What’s wrong?” he asks.

“Nothing,” she says.

“Sure?”

“Sure.”

“Having a good time?”

“Yeah.”

He rubs her knee. They watch other couples on the dance floor. Funke is dancing with Saheed, side by side rather than face to face.

“What were you and Saheed talking about?”

“He wanted my advice.”

“On?”

“Some business idea.”

“I knew it! That’s why they separated us!”

“Who separated us? Why?”

She softens her voice. He might retreat back to Saheed’s table.

“What business idea?”

“He wants to invest in a country club.”

“Where?”

“Somewhere off Lekki Expressway, past our estate. Mustapha is involved.”

“Are you involved?”

“You think I’m stupid?”

“It’s not about being stupid.”

“What is it about?”

What is it about? she thinks. Saheed has not been charged. The EFCC may never even charge him. This is his chance to play country clubs with Mustapha.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Akin asks, narrowing his eyes.

“Why do you keep asking?”

“I mean, I thought it worked out well that we were on separate tables. You said you wanted to stay as far away as possible.”

“I know, I know.”

She has also said he shouldn’t take her literally.

He laughs. “Or are we still on the matter of my choice of tie?”

She smiles. “Of course not.”

 

 

 

 

 

Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1964 and currently divides her time between the United States, England and Nigeria. She qualified as a Chartered Accountant in England, a Certified Public Accountant in the United States, and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She is the author of Everything Good Will ComeSwallowNews from Home and A Bit of Difference. Atta was a juror for the 2010 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and has received several literary awards, including the 2006 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and the 2009 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. In 2015, a critical study of her novels and short stories, Writing Contemporary Nigeria: How Sefi Atta Illuminates African Culture and Tradition, was published by Cambria Press. Also a playwright, her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC and her stage plays have been performed and published internationally. Her collection of plays, Sefi Atta: Selected Plays, is forthcoming in 2017.

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