Kelechi had never seen so many white walls in one house. In fact, she wondered how these people kept the place stainless. Kelechi was not someone to leave her questions unanswered, and that was why she came. The woman of the house, Madam Ibeneme, motioned one of the servant girls to bring Kelechi a drink. When the servant girl came, she asked, “Mummy, is it zobo or Ribena?”
Madam Ibeneme sized up Kelechi, and her eyes landed on her burgeoning stomach. “Bring her some zobo.”
Kelechi struggled to hide her displeasure. The zobo arrived – thank God it was cold because the air conditioning was barely touching her skin – and Kelechi found her answer. Since Madam Ibeneme’s boys were sent off to boarding houses since JSS 1, she must have repainted the walls white and never let the servant girls lean on them. Even when their five boys returned for holidays, they must have visited the sitting room for a few hours, and retired to their rooms to study. Kelechi had heard the rumours — how Madam Ibeneme and her husband never spared their boys. During the holidays when Kelechi and her sisters with their neighbours cooked in clay pots on the sand and caught lice in their hair, Madam Ibeneme’s boys were shut up in their rooms and forced to read for hours. No wonder they all secured fully funded scholarships abroad and became the only topic their Nigerian parents talked about. If her own parents had been that strict, Kelechi wouldn’t be sitting in this woman’s parlour, drinking her gingered zobo with caution.
“We will be going now, nne.” Mummy announced. “Sorry for the wait. My suppliers in the market must be waiting for me.”
“No problem ma.”
“Pauline, bring those market bags.” Mummy called out. “Tell Dairu to start the car.”
When the woman rose, Kelechi jerked up also. It was reflex, something she would regret doing later, because she never wanted this woman to feel she was doing her a favour. But inside this white house, Kelechi felt powerless, and that was a feeling she was desperate to shed. Inside the chauffeured car, Mummy held her phone out, punching the touch screen with her first finger, one step at a time.
“Do you know how to cook utazi soup?” Mummy eyed Kelechi.
“That is white soup, is it not?”
“The leaves are bitter. White soup doesn’t have leaves in it.”
“Oh.” Kelechi smiled sheepishly. Was she failing the test, already? If only she had paid attention while her own mother cooked. But they didn’t cook too many soups. All Kelechi knew was egusi, okro, ogbono, and ofe onugbu.
“White soup is the one we call ofe nsala.” Mummy continued, not lifting her eyes from the phone. “My husband loves it with catfish, but the boys prefer chicken.”
“Okay ma.” Kelechi nodded like this information was critical to passing the bar exam she had in a few weeks. The woman just hinted that her son, the one Kelechi would be getting married to, loved ofe nsala with chicken.
“I will teach you how to make the utazi, and I will watch you make ofe nsala. So, we will get fresh catfish and some kilos of chicken at the market. Let me see whether your barrister brain can still cook a pot of soup.” Mummy was laughing, but Kelechi looked away.
Kelechi dreaded markets. It reminded her so much of hardship because she never understood why people loved to make the trip to Sabo when they could go to the local street stalls to buy foodstuff. Sabo Market was hell, brimming with all kinds of people – Hausa load-pushers with their smelly bodies, little children shoving their wares in your faces, beggars clamouring for the money in your pockets, and even thieves trying to sell you spoilt foodstuff. She struggled to keep up with Mummy who was many steps ahead, despite her average height, and who seemed to know everyone in the market. They stopped in front of people’s stalls too many times because Mummy needed to greet and remind the market women to attend fellowship sometime. This was the Christian fellowship Mummy pioneered some fifteen years ago, the one Kelechi’s mother said she used to bring women in the neighbourhood to under subjection. Nobody who attended fellowship could defy Madam Ibeneme, and Kelechi noted when her own mother started avoiding the fellowship. Now that she would be marrying their son, her mother had no choice. She might not like the Ibeneme family, but she couldn’t deny that they were one of the most influential families in their neighbourhood. Kelechi would be joined to a dynasty – and her mother ought to be proud.
“Pack these ones for me. I don’t need anymore.” Mummy haggled with the sellers. The price of catfish was outrageous. Kelechi wondered why the woman bothered.
Soon, all the market bags were loaded on wheelbarrows owned by muscled Hausa boys. Mummy looked at her list and back at the market. She squinted at Kelechi. “I think we got everything.”
Kelechi smiled. She had no idea what was on the list.
“Oh, One more thing. Thank you, Jesus,” Mummy piped.
“What is it?” Kelechi’s legs were on fire. She wanted so badly to return home and return to her own house quick.
“Dog food. We need to get some dog food.”
Fortunately, Mummy haggled quickly this time. It was past two in the afternoon, and the sun was having a good time dealing with their skins. They bought two large bags of dog food and loaded them onto the carriers.
“Madam, your money na seven hundred oh.” One of the two Hausa boys spoke.
“Which kain seven hundred?” Mummy retorted. “Come on, carry this thing for me. Let’s go. See your black head like seven hundred.”
And that settled it. Mummy had this silencer effect on people. It was the reason she was so powerful. On the ride back home, Kelechi worried if this was going to be a problem in her marriage. She had not given this much thought. Yes, her fiancé, Mummy’s son, was the only son who moved back to Nigeria to reside, and that meant they would be closer to the family. Not that Mummy would make the trip to their home every week, but didn’t she control her son as well? So far, Mummy was the one who introduced both of them, who insisted that Kelechi was a perfectly good-natured fit for her son. Kelechi was not sure that her son cared for her, as much as he cared for his mother’s words, but after some months, he asked her to marry him.
“How does your mother make oha soup?” Mummy slashed through her thoughts. “Does she use uziza or what leaves?”
“She uses uziza and oha leaves. Both of them together.” Kelechi was happy the woman was smiling. So, she added, “Oha soup is my favourite soup.”
“Eh hehn! I thought all you children of nowadays only like egusi.”
“I am not an egusi person oh.” Kelechi chuckled. “It’s my sisters that will finish egusi soup in one sitting. Me, I like to eat it slowly. I think it’s too sweet.”
Mummy laughed. “It’s good. Not all these shawarma generation. The boys, when they were younger, they only wanted egusi and rice and bread. I had to force them to eat all kinds of soups.”
Madam Ibeneme only understood force. Kelechi noted this somewhere in her head. She must be prepared for moments when Mummy would attempt to force her son against her wishes. Right now, she was forcing him towards her, Kelechi knew it – she wasn’t stupid.
“Ezenduka will be coming this evening. Did he tell you?”
“Oh.” Kelechi went pink. She had not gotten comfortable with talking about one of Madam Ibeneme’s boys as her husband-to-be with anyone. Not even with his mother.
“Have you guys finalized the wedding date?” He asked.
That piece of information was the reason Kelechi wanted some time alone with Ezenduka. It wasn’t supposed to be a discussion between his parents and hers. But theirs. So, she asked him to come pick her up at the market – she was going to cook him dinner. She wanted him to look her in the eye and tell her he was as excited to get married to her, the same way she was. He was an accomplished and good-looking man, and she was lucky to have him. But Kelechi wasn’t roadside food herself – she was a full spec. She needed him to see this.
“We’re supposed to pick our wedding date. Both of us.” She looked at him, as he started to reverse out of Sabo market.
“Kele, I told you that I am fine with any date you choose.” He pushed up his glasses – one habit Kelechi found very charming. Was there anything she hated about him?
“Where do you want to spend the honeymoon?”
“Paris.” She said without thinking.
He chuckled. “Stereotypical. But I thought you’d have chosen Florence.”
“It’s Florence that’s more cliché. Why do we need to go to the city of love if we’ve already found love?”
“Fair point. So, you said you wanted to cook for me?”
“Yes. Let me be sure I know what I am doing.”
Ezenduka laughed some more. “I really don’t mind. I do all my cooking. But the gesture is nice. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Kelechi smiled. She looked out the window. Hawkers were brandishing kilishi, suya, drinks, and bread at her.
“You want to buy anything?”
He was being polite, too polite. Kelechi knew he was trying to be nice to her – but she was willing to be patient. She also planned to sleep over at his place today, something she didn’t discuss with Mummy.
“Not really. But this bread looks fresh. And maybe some kilishi too.”
Ezenduka tossed her his wallet and kept his eyes on the road. “I don’t trust Lagos kilishi but buy if you must.”
She had already wound down the windows and started selecting food. Impatient drivers honked from behind, forcing Ezenduka to move the car, and the hawkers started chasing their car. Kelechi threw some money at them, only after they’d given her the correct change.
“I can’t wait to see where you live. I’ve been curious,” she said when they were many miles on the highway.
“Really. It’s nothing special. If the space is not enough for us, we’ll move to a bigger place.”
“How many rooms?” Kelechi asked.
“Sounds okay to me.”
Ezenduka’s apartment smelled of lavender. The walls were stained white, and it was clean. Ezenduka moved all her market bags to the kitchen. She wanted to empty her bladder, so she found the restroom. She washed her face, ears, and hands before returning to the kitchen. She noticed how it was devoid of foodstuff, and she smiled at the opportunity. She wanted to make plantain porridge and some ofe nsala. If she had time in the morning, she would make some egusi.
“Your kitchen is naked.” Kelechi remarked.
He shrugged. The space in the kitchen suddenly felt small. “I cook all my meals; I told you that.”
“Oh. I imagined you ate mostly takeouts in school.”
His phone buzzed. He looked at it and ignored it.
“My brother was my flat mate, and he insisted we cook on weekends. It was our way of keeping up with African food. Courtesy of my mum who loaded us with supplies.”
Kelechi laughed. “I can imagine her transporting produce from Sabo to Europe.”
“Yes, she went to those lengths. At first, it was annoying, But I soon started to appreciate it. Because we ate Nigerian food, well, it was easy for me to come back here. I really missed the culture here.”
“Won’t you take the call?” Kelechi was already poised like a proper wife, peeling the plantains and arranging spices for the porridge.
“Oh, it’s work stuff. How can I help?”
Kelechi smiled. “As if you can.”
“Yes oh. Look at this woman, I can cook.”
“Okay. Peel some onions. Later you’ll pound fresh peppers.”
“Tough job for the tough man, right? Give me a minute. We need some music here.”
He left the kitchen, and soon, The Cavemen boomed from the speakers in the living room.
When he came inside the kitchen, he was swinging to the Afrocentric highlife fusion. Kelechi watched him move this way and that – he had some moves. She started laughing, cheering him as he moved. He stretched his hands to her, and Kelechi dropped the plantain, and planted her hands in his. They moved in rhythm, their bodies syncing into the highlife beats, as if The Cavemen were a private band playing in Ezenduka’s kitchen.
“Wow. You are a dancer,” Ezenduka commented, with sweat soaking his face and shirt.
“If the mood is right, yes.” Kelechi was ecstatic – she never wanted the moment to end.
But it did end, because someone appeared in the hallway and screamed. The strange woman was taller than Kelechi, with fuller breasts. She must have had a house key, because Kelechi was sure that Ezenduka locked the house when they came in. The intruder kept screaming, “this is why you didn’t take my calls?” And she had a heavy British accent.
Kelechi felt the walls closing in on her, the plantains, and her foodstuff bags, so she left the kitchen and disappeared into the bathroom. The Cavemen was still playing, yet it was easy for Kelechi to hear their brawling. He was asking her to leave, pleading that he would call her tomorrow, but the woman wouldn’t budge.
Kelechi tried to forgive herself for being stupid. Of course, she didn’t expect him to be single. That was too high an expectation for a successful man living in Lagos. But she expected him to be cutting off his side girlfriends since he was soon to be married. She paced in the bathroom and was tempted to call Mummy. But she thought against it – and then she remembered her cooking. She would go out there and enter her husband-to-be’s kitchen and cook him dinner. If the bloody woman decided to stay, she was welcome. But Kelechi would not exchange words with a prostitute. At the end of the day, Ezenduka would be indebted to her. Perhaps, Kelechi could finally have some of that power that Mummy had acquired for herself.
Favour Iruoma Chukwuemeka is a creative writer from Eastern Nigeria. Her writing has appeared in Afritondo, Conscio, Cypress Journal, Lolwe, The Shallow Tales Review, Kalahari Review, and African Writer. She is an alumnus of the 2021 Creative Writing Cohort with Chigozie Obioma. She can be found on twitter at @heeruomah.