Shadow

Her flight from Boston to New York has been cancelled. She looks up from the novel she is reading to hear the PA announce that a mechanical failure has caused the delay and eventual cancellation. Ranti will have to book a hotel room to pass the night. She has been traveling since the evening of the previous day and has one more flight before arriving in Lagos. The novel is one of those she picked up from the used bookstores when she visited her cousin, Darasimi, in Seattle. It is about a man who is running from the police because of fraud and has fallen for the manager of the obscure motel where he is hiding. She has tried to finish the book thrice in the past but has managed to get derailed each time.

Her sister, Aduke, the firstborn girl, is getting married and it is a big affair. Ranti has not returned home since she left and is ambivalent about the whole thing. Not her sister’s impending marriage, of course. She is happy about that but is not certain that home contains the measure of belonging it seems to hold for others. She isn’t sure it ever really has.

Growing up as the last child meant that her milestones were not really cause for celebration; as if her parents were saying ah, yes, we have seen this trick before. When she cried, there was no urgency to her being comforted. It seemed as is if they were crossing off all the legitimate reasons why she could be crying. Diaper changed at eight, fed at nine. Her toys and clothes were passed down from her sisters Aduke and Remi, both of whom were two years apart.

The only one who really saw her was Jaiye, her brother. He was eleven when she was born. When she wailed in her crib, he would gently knock at the door and come into her room, kneel, and look her in the eye. She would stop crying, start babbling, and reach for his cheeks. Jaiye would say something back; as if what she had babbled was absolutely true and of utmost importance. It was not that Aduke and Remi did not care; it was that they had each other and no real need for anyone else. Jaiye was her friend; the only one who knew what was wrong without her saying.

Once, Ranti put her arm between the narrow spaces of the staircase railing and could not get it out. She had tried and tried to pull it away, but it did not yield. Her parents were in their bedroom and she could hear Lagbaja’s Rock me Gentle playing while her sisters chased each other downstairs. They probably would not hear her if she called them. She crouched by the railing, placed her left hand on her knee, and hoped someone would walk by. She wanted to cry but crying for a problem she put herself in would mean more trouble. Jaiye was coming up the stairs and saw her. Then the tears came. He guided her hand free, told her sorry, and gave her cold Fanta.

Another time, she hid under the bed in the boys’ quarters just to see if anyone would notice she was gone. She was there for hours; laying on her belly and taking note of the cobwebs and dust that had gathered. It was not until her father returned from work early that evening and did a headcount that the search began. When they found her, her father asked why she hid herself. But her reason sounded so small and so accusatory of casual negligence that she said nothing. Don’t do that again, he said as he held her hand. She mattered to them. But she wanted more than to simply matter.

Jaiye was her person. His eyelashes were long and delicate, too beautiful to belong on a boy. He was graceful in his gait and took after her mother. His skin was a polished cocoa brown. But his personality was undeniably identical to her father’s. They had the same calm, measured manner. Never reacting in the heat of the moment, always saying the right things all the time. Even the way they smiled was appropriate for every time and place. They were elegant in a way that did not threaten. They had an ease, a fluidity to their mannerisms.

Jaiye was an obvious choice for head boy at their school. His uniform was neatly pressed and had gators running on either sleeve. His shoes never scuffed. He was not one of those senior boys whose appearance was contrived; combing their hair while rushing from one class period to the other. Their school was nestled in a quiet corner of Ikeja; with both the primary and secondary locations in one spot. The principal worked as a nurse in England in the 80s and returned with her family to find that the Nigerian curriculum had significant shortcomings. Ms Ajayi, a stately woman who barely spoke above a whisper started the school, which enjoyed a reputation for excellence in instruction and extracurricular activities.

Once, the boys in Jaiye’s set decided that they could go out since their final exams were over. One of the boys had a cousin who had just returned from Germany and was throwing a party. Girls from their set would be there. Best of all, Rolake was attending. She was the only girl Jaiye gave any attention. All the boys adored her and even the girls who tried to hate her could not. Even their mother said she was ‘just so lovely.’ She was light skinned because of her Greek mother but took after her petite father from Idanre.

Jaiye was the one least likely to be suspected of wrongdoing if the police were to wave them down and was appointed the driver for the night. He waited until the house was quiet, got up, and made his way downstairs. He convinced Baba Matthew, the security guard, that his parents knew that he was going out and picked up the rest in his mother’s old Volvo.

The trouble started when he did not return before their father was leaving for work in the morning. The car was missing and so was Jaiye. On the way back, they had been accosted by thieves who took the car at gun point. Jaiye, too ashamed to call for help, walked from Oniru to their house at GRA Ikeja. He was taller than their father, but he cleared the dining table, ordered Jaiye to climb on, and spanked his bare bottom. Everyone sat in the living room crying but afraid to beg because it was not like Jaiye to act like this. Her father spanked him not because of the car but because he was thoroughly disappointed.

When her father asked for water later in the evening, Ranti spat in it. After she gave him the glass, she lingered to watch him drink every drop. He said thank you and patted her head. It was retribution for Jaiye.

He now works as a banker in Geneva. Aduke returned from England seven years ago to start her own HR practice. Remi is a caterer in Lagos. After she studied economics at UCL, she decided that she had braved enough winters for one lifetime and returned to Nigeria. Her parents had contacts all over Lagos and with weddings every Saturday, decent food at a reasonable price would keep her busy with clients.

Her siblings are so painfully accomplished that having simpler lives is a choice they can make, not an existence they are confined too. For her, it seems that being ordinary is the only way to stand out. Her siblings obliterated, as her mother called it, their final exams. Her parents approached their education with the quiet assumption that they would study outside Nigeria in the name of global citizenship. They would study in England, but her father said they would not just take the IGCSE but the SAT alongside WAEC and JAMB. The rigour is good for you, he said. After her siblings graduated from university, London became unfamiliar to her. Even if she was not close with her sisters, she could at least say that she had family living in London.

Ranti is a victim of petty misfortunes; not those large enough to accuse fate of singling her out but ones small, constant, and sufficient for embarrassment. She has locked herself out of her car, knocked over a water glass at a job interview, pushed her shopping cart through a window, misread the dates for an exam, and tripped over her own foot. She is used to being looked over, so it does not immediately register that winter afternoon in her professor’s office that he has come onto her. It is something he says, and she does not remember what it is, and the way he says it, as if he knows that he is taking a chance and is cautious that it might not end well. She is first surprised and even embarrassed that he thinks of her in that way. But she says yes because he is the one with much to lose. He has someone. She has come up in their conversation a few times. As her research supervisor, he sometimes says that he cannot meet at so and so time because he is out of town with Jillian. He is easily ten years her senior and she admires him, likes him even. But he will not leave Jillian. He makes that clear from the beginning. Whatever they have exists outside reality. They spend time with each other and then retreat into their own worlds; he into the company of this woman he plans to marry and she into her insular life.

She takes the shuttle to a hotel with her bag since her luggage has gone ahead of her. The one she checks into is one of those nearby the airport. From her room, she can see the city’s layout. Tonight, red lights dot the people moving in their cars below the evening sky. It looks like a watercolour painting; some blue here, a dash of pink elsewhere. Ranti inspects the room, which has a king-sized bed, a reading area, and warm lighting. She might wish Sam slept over once in a while for the warmth of his body, but she is pleased when he leaves. Her bed becomes her territory once again. In a way, the arrangement with him is suitable. She might share her man, if she can call him that, but her bed is hers alone. Ranti lingers in the bathroom for a while; picking up the lotion to take a sniff, running her hands over the cold bathtub, and aligning the bathmat with the tiles. She places the lotion back on the sink and looks at herself in the mirror. She begins with the skin under her eyes then her breasts, cupping them in her hands. She travels with her gaze down her belly and then turns aside to look at the swell of her bottom. She is not ugly. But she will simply not show her colours to a world insistent on blinding itself to her. She remembers that she is hungry and that there is only about an hour before the hotel’s restaurant closes for the day. Ranti shuts her door and walks to the elevator, her footfalls sinking into the plush carpeting. The air feels perfumed and heavy and just then, she feels the urge to open a window.

She wants to have her meal at the bar and orders jambalaya and Chardonnay by the glass. As she waits, she plays Anita Baker’s Giving You the Best That I Got on her iPod. She looks around and thinks it best to move to a booth, since the restaurant is empty excluding a few patrons. She recognizes a few faces from the airport earlier in the day and averts her gaze save for one. Although his head is shaved, she can see that he is balding. She thinks it brave of him to scrape it off altogether. He has small wrinkles around his eyes and streaks of grey in his stubble, which looks five days old at most. He sees her looking at him and gives a small smile, but she turns away. He looks like a Babafemi or a Babatunde; aware of his charm but unintoxicated by it. Ranti downs the rest of her wine, tips the waiter, and heads to her room. She walks right in front of him, looking straight ahead until she exits the restaurant.

Her shower before bed is warm and languorous; complete with a concert for an audience of shampoo, body soap, and toothpaste. Afraid that she will oversleep and the plane will leave her behind, Ranti sets three alarms. Downstairs waiting for the shuttle to the airport, she does not find him from yesterday and chides herself for looking in the first place. Did he oversleep because someone kept him awake? He was working on his computer last night at the restaurant. Did he stay up to finish?

The final flight back to Lagos is filled with the regular sights; a woman praying loud enough for her entire row to hear, one man using his phone long after the cabin crew has asked them to put their phones away, and everybody clapping when the plane lands. Ranti is surprised by how little and how much of Lagos has changed and tears up when the woman at immigration hands her passport back and says, ‘Welcome home.’ Ranti questions the home bit but feels the genuine warmth in the woman’s voice.

The last time Ranti encountered a woman from immigration was when she was leaving Nigeria for school. She put her purse down for examination before boarding as others before her had done. Now that she thinks about it, why did they need another check before boarding? Hadn’t the X-ray machine done enough? But who could blame the airport authorities for not trusting their own people? Nigerians themselves did not trust each other.

The woman sifted through her purse, took five hundred naira, and looked at her as if to say you won’t be needing this one where you are going. Ranti almost said something but left it alone.

She sees Jaiye and their father standing together as they wait. They could pass for brothers. She often wonders if they ever speak of the spanking incident. The whole thing was out of character for their father as much as it was for Jaiye. He was not the one who spanked. His philosophy was that children were not animals and were capable of being reasoned with. Even animals can be trained, he said. But their mother was a different story. She spanked with a cane, or a belt, or a spatula. If she was too tired, she would wring their ears and say, ‘Raise up your hands and close your eyes.’ They would face the wall serving this punishment, but if their eyes opened or their hands drooped, their mother’s voice was in their ears. She knew. But they had it easy compared to some of their cousins. Folu dropped her mother’s tumbler and was made to kneel on the broken pieces. This had been the third one that week. Ire refused to cry after his father spanked him for burning his shirt and was denied food for a day.

She is in her father’s arms now. She has grown to be about as tall as he is, but he still has that fresh minty scent and is clean shaven as always. Jaiye pulls her from their father and wraps her in a warm hug. He takes her bag from her and comments that a zipper from her box is broken. They make their way through the crowds and into the car park. Louts don’t bother them as they approach.

‘You were supposed to come in yesterday, Ranti mi. Kilode?’

Ranti is certain that Jaiye told him what happened, but it is just like their father to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

‘My flight got cancelled, daddy. I had to spend the night in Boston.’

‘There were no direct flights to Lagos?’

‘They were quite expensive.’

She could easily have asked her parents or even Jaiye to pay but she didn’t want them to bother. She didn’t even confirm that she would be attending the wedding until a week before she booked her ticket.  

‘Your mother is picking up the last bit of things. Everybody is excited.’

‘You like him, daddy?’

‘Well, he seems like a respectful young man. Decent family. Thorough education. He is good for Aduke. He will balance her out very nicely.’

Her father has always been pragmatic about love. When aunties and uncles brought their intended, he would keep them in the living room quizzing them about their upbringing, their work, and current affairs. After one of such sessions, he announced that he was not confident in their decision to marry. To which her mother said that they would manage. It was such a Nigerian thing to say, that people would manage. Nigerians tolerated bad government, no light, bad hospitals, fake drugs, death traps called roads, police brutality, and corrupt clergy in the name of managing. Suffering and smiling, Fela called it.

They arrive at home and everyone is there. Aduke and her fiancé, her mother, and Remi. Her mother’s headscarf is pushed forward and balancing on her forehead and she has her feet up on a side stool. The television is on but Ranti is not sure what station it is tuned to. There is a man and a woman at the microphone stand giving a testimony. They have a baby on the way after eight years of marriage and after eating ‘Miracle Groundnut’ consecrated by their Papa, the pastor. The camera zooms in on the woman’s protruding belly and the congregation is applauding.

‘Ranti, omo mi.’ My child, she says as she rises to greet her.

‘Mummy, how are you?’

‘My dear, we thank God. Welcome home, my dear. This one and her husband have been disturbing me for months now.’

She may be stressed but she is happy. Beaming, actually. Ranti’s mother is the family’s party planner. She planned birthday parties and weddings people spoke of for years. But they are keeping this one low key. The service and reception will be held in their garden.

Aduke is five weeks gone and their parents seem to be fine with it. If she remembers correctly, her father called the fiancé ‘respectful.’ This is new.

Her mother begins to snore on the sofa and her father removes her scarf and fans her with it. This fresh inflow of air makes her mother stir. He wakes her and leads her to their bedroom.

Aduke and Remi stay up chatting with Jaiye while she takes a shower. She returns to find them at the same place and Remi pats on a spot for her to sit.

‘There’s moin-moin and eko that mummy made. Do you want some? It’s really tasty’, Aduke says. Ranti nods as Aduke enters the kitchen, rubbing her belly. Pregnancy looks good on her.

Remi puts an arm around her as they wait and Jaiye lays on the floor on his chest, with his two hands under his chin.

‘So, is anyone joining us from Boston on Friday?’

Jaiye is looking for trouble. He knows about Sam, but Remi and Aduke do not. Today is as good a day as any to tell them. Their parents are upstairs and Aduke has returned with a tray of food and cold water. They will have maybe one more day of rest before relatives descend upon them. It is quite a miracle that has not happened yet.

Ranti begins with her research and arrives Sam. They remain still like obedient schoolchildren. She tells them about Jillian too.

‘Are you happy?’ Remi asks.

‘Yes. But not for long.’

 ‘How do you know?’ Aduke asks.

‘He hides me. It has been over a year and he has not slept over. I cannot hold it against him. I have no right. Arguing with him over it would make me too much like the other woman, even though that is what I am.’

‘And a family of your own is something you want someday?’ Remi asks

‘Yes. It is a good thing.’

‘We miss you. We miss you a lot.’ Aduke says, holding her hand. Aduke’s hands are warm and clammy.

Ranti considers holding back and saying nothing. But this moment is one they have not had in years. It is worth it to take a chance and say something, she thinks. She tells them about that day on the stairs and moves to their time in London. She says that she never felt like she belonged and worried that she was an inconvenience; someone to drag along and look after. She tells them that she wanted to be seen and known, in the way Jaiye sees her.

Aduke squeezes her hand tight.

‘Ranti, we didn’t know you felt this way. Why didn’t you say? Remi asks tearfully.

‘I wanted you to notice something was not right and come after me.’

‘You know, we are close because you allow me. These two woke me up one night and asked me why it felt like you were pushing them away. They had just gotten in from some rave in Manchester and I wondered where all that depth was coming from. They wanted to try. Really. But they thought you did not care because you clung to only me. Does that make sense?’ Jaiye asks.

Ranti takes one deep breath, shuts her eyes, and shakes her head. They are misty when she opens them again. Two things are happening. First, she is realizing that the pain of rejection she carried all these years may have been self-inflicted. It would have been one thing to feel unwanted and truly be unwanted. But it appears this was never so. Next, it is becoming clear to Ranti that they have been waiting for a chance for a while. She closes her eyes again. All she feels is love. Aduke’s hands are sweating in hers now and Remi has been looking at her like she is a one-woman show. Jaiye is sitting up and waiting for her to say something. She is softening.

In the morning, the sound of the lawn mower wakes her. Sunday, the gardener is cutting the grass, singing to himself as always. The women downstairs have started frying meat and boiling pepper for the rice. She sees baskets of onions and tomatoes, a basin of frozen fish, and bags of rice and beans in the backyard. They are preparing as many ingredients as possible so that they have less to do on Friday. Two young men about her age are sharpening knives in the corner and someone else is setting up a charcoal fire. These are Remi’s people. Aunties have started arriving with their children to help.

‘Ranti, o ti dagba o!’ ‘Is this not Ranti of yesterday?’

‘How is Boston, my dear?’

‘Kabo, jare omo.’ ‘Very soon, it will be your turn in Jesus’ name.’

‘Ekule o! Greetings to this house!’ ‘Ahn ahn, iya iyawo, ekaro o!’

On Friday, her family will wear clothes from the same fabric sewn into different styles and sit on one side of the grass, while the groom’s family will do the same and sit on the opposite side. After dancing in from the gate with his friends, Banji will prostrate before her family and her parents will lay their hands on his head to pray for him. As the youngest female child, Ranti will read the letter the in-laws will write asking for Aduke’s hand; describing her with words like ‘delectable’, ‘hardworking’, and ‘respectful.’

Ranti finds Jaiye in the living room by the water dispenser.

‘Did you sleep well?’

‘In and out. Jet lag did a number on me.’

‘Pele. I have a friend joining us for the wedding. I’m surprised you didn’t run into him. He was supposed to be on your flight.’

‘Interesting. Is he meeting us at the house?’

‘We were classmates long time ago. He will drop by today and then stay for the wedding.’

Jaiye answers his phone.

‘He is here.’

She recognizes him when he walks into the living room in the manner of one used to things going as planned. It is Babafemi or Babatunde from the restaurant.

‘Ranti, meet Babafela. Fela, my sister Ranti,’ Jaiye says.

‘I remember you,’ he says as he takes her hand and squeezes it a little.

‘I didn’t realize you could sing. I would have come over,’ she says.

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