Keeping Up with the Joneses – Fiyin Akinsiku
By Fiyinfoluwa Akinsiku
Mrs Jones almost choked. She felt like slapping some sense into this little wretch she called her daughter, and pinching her, pushing her out, then crushing her. This girl, whom she gave birth to, whose life, gleaming at every hinge, had no rustiness of lack, who had turned out to be this ungrateful stranger. She remembered Tunji, felt a stab of anguish and told herself to breathe; giving herself another excuse for Semiloore’s misbehaviour. The alcohol in the cake was a little too much and Semiloore was high. They were both eating their own share of Kunle Olawole’s graduation cake. And Mrs Jones concluded that that was the reason Semiloore said that gibberish, even though her daughter was reading a book, Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel, and eating the cake and fried meat at the same time. They were in their large dining area and since they sat at both extremes, she thought she did not hear well, so she told Semiloore to repeat herself. Semiloore said it now, a little slowly, mouthing the th and rolling her tongue in the r of arts. Her mother dropped her piece of cake, paused and suddenly, could not talk; neither could her tongue remove the pieces of meat stuck between her teeth. She felt a sudden urge to poo but did not have the strength to stand. But Semiloore felt perfect, whipping her million braids back and forth, pulling away a strand that fell across her face, reading with undivided attention, running her tongue over her lips, dancing to imaginary music, applying a new layer of lip gloss, checking it out in a small mirror, typing something on her iPhone6 as though she had just said something so normal. Semiloore’s phonetics was right, but her words were wrong.
Semiloore had told her she wanted to study Theatre Arts in the University. Mrs Jones’s friends’ children were studying Medicine, Law and Engineering, so why would hers be different? Did her child want to disgrace her ni? The cake and meat were from Mrs Olawole’s son, Kunle’s oath taking ceremony as a Medical Doctor in the University of Ibadan. Mrs Jones felt doomed. Where did she miss it? Where did she go wrong in bringing up this child? Yes, she always wanted her child to read novels. Yes, Semiloore had read more than her peers. Yes, she had brought a library into Semiloore’s life. But not Theatre Arts, Holy Moses and his dividing rod, not Theatre Arts, please. Could Semiloore not follow in Kunle’s footsteps and be a doctor and write by the side? Yes, Kunle could write! Well, even though she had never seen him write anything. She knew she needed to tread with caution. Stubbornness and inflexibility were two traits she was double sure passed from Chief Jones to Semiloore.
Mrs Jones turned to her daughter and asked if she was okay. Semiloore raised her face, arched her well-trimmed and drawn brows and said everything was fine in that British accent that made every kobo her mother paid to the most expensive private school in Abuja worth it.Her pronunciations and inflexions were so on point that her mother smiled a broad smile to herself, her soul drinking Guinness, her favourite bottle, anytime Semiloore spoke. Mrs Jones, as a personal rule, made it a point of duty to flaunt this opulence she had, in the form of a daughter at any given opportunity. At Kunle’s oath-taking ceremony, Mrs Olawole was impressed, and even though she did not want to show it, Mrs Jones saw that jealousy had scrawled its ugly fingers over her face. And when the after party – of which Semiloore was co-MC – was over, Mrs Olawole had come to ask her for the name of the school Semiloore went to. And Mrs Jones had written the name on a paper and added that it was not one of those schools from where a child would come back with an indigenous accent. And she knew she made indigenous sound like dirty. She knew Mrs Olawole realised that she was trying to ridicule her and her children’s H-factor. ‘I am going home to go and eat’ was High ham going ome to go hand Heat. Was ‘I am going home to go and eat’ even correct English?
But it seemed, as much as her daughter sounded polished and foreign and glorious and all, Mrs Jones feared that Semiloore had been brainwashed. Mrs Jones felt she might have got more than she bargained for in this British school. She liked the school, because they allowed girls make their hair, wear make-up on special occasions, use their iPhones, and several other liberties cheap schools would stick their noses in the air and call indiscipline.
When Mrs Jones finally got herself back, she asked why she chose Theatre Arts. Semiloore said it was a very good course, as she wanted to be a Stage Actress and Dancer in future. At that point, her mother felt a sharp pain in her neck as though she swallowed a razor.
Did Semiloore not know that Theatre Arts was for the never-do-wells? Did she expect to make a living from it? Did Kunle not look majestic in his graduation gown and cap with tassel complete with the University of Ibadan customized navy blue muffler flowing down his neck? Semiloore looked like she felt an earthquake when she shook her head and no, there was nothing wrong with Theatre Arts and her mother should never use those words, never-do-well again and she would be happy and fulfilled on stage and they were going to act The Lion and the Jewel by the end of the school year and she was directing the play and playing the role of Sidi and she was so excited and her mother needed to see the play, because they had done several rehearsals and the dress rehearsal would be wow and her Literature Teacher, Miss Ladehin had said there was scholarship to the London School of Dramatic Arts for the overall best student in Literature and even if she did not get the scholarship, she would study Theatre Arts in the University of Ibadan and she was going into that profession to make her mother proud and her mother would not regret it.
Mrs Jones nearly passed out. She looked at the fourteen-year-old alien almost jumping up and down, excited to the core in her seat and knew that it was that woman, eyelids drooping like a constantly somnolent being who spoke through her thin and pointed nose that would say something about a nonsensical school of drama. Born and bred over there, Miss Ladehin, like the proverbial child using her left hand to describe her father’s house, had been brainwashed by the West and she needed to realise she was in Nigeria and professional courses were still the in thing. Even if Semiloore could not study Medicine, could she not study Law? Semiloore said she did not like Law. Lawyers were liars and her mother should excuse her because it was ten o’clock already and she was going next door to see Bolanle and did mummy know that Adele had a new album? She kissed her dazed mother goodbye and skipped off.
Mrs Jones called Orebe, her maid, to help clear her table. She had lost appetite. Adele ko, Adeniji Adeleni. She saw baffled Orebe look at the heap of tantalizing meat on her plate. Madam was not surprised when Orebe asked if she really was not eating again and shouted at her to pack it and throw everything away. Mrs Jones saw her ears at attention. That was the code Orebe was waiting for. Throw everything away. A light grin almost strayed to her face but for Madam’s stern look, it would have been fully blown. She knew Orebe would not give all to Tunji but her mouth and stomach were in for a treat that day.
Mrs Jones looked at the face-down Lion and the Jewel book and Wole Soyinka in a black afro smiling, and wondered if he was laughing at her, as though saying, ehen, Ogunlaka aye osimole don catch you.
There was something not right about Theatre Arts that Mrs Jones felt. Maybe Semiloore should not have gone to that British school. But she had the money and was anything too much for one’s only child? Even if she allowed her become a dancer or stage actress like she wanted to, she had no other child to become a doctor or lawyer – what she desperately wanted. Something diced her heart. Semiloore was not her only child. Though, she had tried as much as possible, to dispel his presence from her life, and had even announced his obituary and people had come to mourn with her, she knew Tunji was still a force in her world. Perhaps it was God’s way of punishing her for what she did to him.
She had done everything on her bucket list – getting two masters degrees, riding her choice cars, building her own house, going for several conferences abroad, taking several vacations in choice parts of the world, and she had been to forty five countries in all. Yet it seemed that one thing was lacking. She was marinated in loneliness, swimming against its tide, struggling against the emotional bankruptcy left in its wake. She got married at thirty eight to her boss, the chairman of the multinational oil company where she worked, a cute geriatric, Chief Jones, old enough to be her father, with those grey beards she loved to stroke, who could not stop playing footsie during board meetings and winking, taking her out for lunch, having the delirious urge to do anything that would make her teeth flash in a smile. He found her opinion important and always asked for what she thought before he took any decision. He made her alive. He kindled the kind of fire she never knew existed in her. He stirred something in her.To her surprise, she found Tinuke- after he began to show that she mattered, that her views mattered, that he noticed her like a man would notice a woman -trying to make herself more presentable for Chief Jones. Seeing his face in the mirror anytime she wanted to dress, she thought about what he would like, where and how he would like it; her weaves flowing down her back, her make-up flawless, nails well-manicured, all complete with a smile which he claimed, unhooked the cage of butterflies inside him and stunned him to stupor. She had worked with this man for nearly ten years. How come she was just noticing him?
Finally, she married him, but refused to live in his large house, insisting it was too full, built her second house, and resigned, against his wish, to start up her own company. He had told her later that, he was not surprised that she resigned, he had half-expected it. It was one of the things he liked about her: she was strong and hardworking and showed that stubbornness was not always a bad thing. And she had not been surprised too, that after she left, he married another lady, Aarinola, also a staff of the company. He had had four wives before her, so why would she be shocked?
Her first baby was Tunji and she was excited. His cries drove out the suicidal silence in the foundation stone of her house. Her second pregnancy was a stillbirth and the third was Semiloore. She had all her children through caesarean section and had her tubes tied after Semiloore, as her doctor told her any other pregnancy could endanger her life.
Should she inform Semiloore’s father about this her decision? No. He would say she should let her be. Afterall, he already had three medical doctors, a chemical engineer, a civil engineer, two lawyers, four PhD holders who were university lecturers including an associate professor, two Bank CEOs, a popular music producer and a national athlete from his older wives. He never needed any of his other children to be any quality thing again. She married him because he was the available man at that time. The other men were younger, and were pursuing her because of her money. But shortly after she married Chief Jones, she met a man, devastatingly handsome, same age as she, who had never been married, but it was too late.
She opened the door to his boysquarters room and stepped inside, watching him, this same child she had carried in her womb, felt excited at his first movement inside her, sat upright on the operating table as the anaesthetist drove the long needle into her back at the start of the caesarean section. And after it was over, after he was brought out and cleaned,she placed her black swollen nipple into his mouth and cried when milk did not come out the day rain made a drum-line on the hospital window. Four years later, she declared him dead. She had starved him, hoping that he would die and end his cerebral palsy life; this life of his, which meant nothing and amounted to nothing, a life that could only eat and sleep and poo and urinate at the same spot. Before she announced that he was dead, and wore black clothes and stayed at home, sighing continuously, blinking because she rubbed mild Robb on her eyelids, and people came to visit from her workplace, something had happened that made her severe the mother-child bond she felt for him. One day, she had found him eating his excrement and, it was the end. She almost threw him down the stairs, but for Gimba, the night-guard who rescued him and kept him in the boysquarters, feeding him.
He was sprawled out, sleeping, blobs of saliva drooled down his thick lips, flies loving him up. His plate was surrounded by crumbs of food. She remembered those days, she’d hit him, asking him, if his mouth was leaking. And she knew it was fruitless; the belt she raised before she brought it down on his bare back, her knuckles that came down painfully on his head, those kicks, for every little thing. She knew she was only transferring the aggression she felt for having to be the one to bear the shame of carrying this child with an insulted brain.
She surprised herself by crying hot tears, the type she shed when she went for multiple fibroid surgeries and wishing and praying menopause away and going for functions and seeing her friends’ children and listening to her friends whine about how expensive school fees was, and being a godmother to all of them. She had never shed those tears since that day the paediatrician, in his immaculately white wardcoat, expensive tie clutching his throat, and his Paediatricians Association of Nigeria lapel pin, had told her, as he carried Tunji in his laps and played with him, in his air-conditioned office about the cerebral palsy. She had mouthed, for the first time, this strange condition that was to be an integral part of her life in subsequent years. Again, she had wished and cried this disturbing condition away, when she saw other children, Tunji’s agemates, doing fine in school, looking together in their small happy state, their tiny palms clasped round a pencil, scribbling a falling A there, a tumbling B there, picking superman toy here, giving out a toy train there. She had bound and cast the condition, mouthed positive confessions, declaring it was not his portion, forcing holy water down his throat, at times choking him in the process. She came to the clinic religiously, buying all his drugs, as if by so doing, the debonair consultant paediatrician could change his mind and say, in that glossy British accent of his, that we have now found a cure even though, the there is no cure still rang an alarm in her head. Tunji was almost two then and could not crawl, walk and had no neck control.
It was there she wanted her daughter, Semiloore, to be a medical doctor and with a British accent too.
The mother in her was screaming, ripping her apart. She wanted to go, wash him up, clean him, bring him into the duplex, treat him like her child that he really was and shock Semiloore with the news of a brother. A school had opened in Abuja now, for kids like hers. During their last open day, she went to see what the children were up to and she had gone to a corner to cry when she saw the artistry and their energy and zeal and their fantastic teachers and proud parents. Some of the children even went for the Special Olympics, and came back with gold medals. Her own son could have been there but do the dead come back to life?
She could not control the deafening howls that made its way from deep beneath her throat when she slammed the door. The paediatrician was right. Tunji was a special gift from God, a unique breed who needed care and attention. She turned to flee upstairs but Orebe was there, holding the door ajar, frightened, mouth agape as to seeing Madam, crying, and at that door for the first time in the over three years she had been working with her.
The next day, in her swivel chair, as she signed the multimillion naira contract forms they won after they had hoped for it, her secretary bursting into unknown multi-syllabic tongues, tahpahkahrahtahpahkahrahtahpahkahrah during the operation grab the contract fasting and prayer sessions in the office, she felt her joy snatched from her at gunpoint; as if she was signing off her daughter’s life. She should have nipped this in the bud. When in SS1, her daughter told her she wanted to be in the Arts class, she should have insisted that she wanted science class for her. If only she knew that it would come to this, she should have insisted her daughter was put in Mr Charles’ class; the man who made a first class in Physics from Imperial College, London.
She thought of Mrs Olawole, her fellow Abuja Proper Ladies Club member. Since they knew each other, they had felt this silent but urgent need to outdo each other, surpass each other’s feat, show to each other how much money they could throw away, without batting an eyelid. Once Mrs Olawole was there, Mrs Jones suddenly had this overbearing urge to brandish it, throw it all in her face, show that she’s got it.
Mrs Olawole had once taken her children for holidays in Australia. Mrs Jones took her daughter, thereafter, for a holiday in New Zealand. She now fixed the latest Peruvian weaves, donned the latest designer labels, because she could not afford to feel plebeian beside Mrs Olawole. And when Mr Olawole vowed that his son Kunle would attend medical school in Nigeria, as against the London his mother wanted, Mrs Olawole had bought him an SUV and sworn that her son could never stay in Kuti or Sultan Bello in UI or spend his clinical years in Alexander Brown hall in UCH. She furnished a three bedroom apartment for him in Bodija Estate and told everyone that cared to listen that it was his father who maintained that it was University of Ibadan or nothing. She chartered a plane for Kunle’s oath-taking ceremony from Abuja to Ibadan. And to assert her own patrician authority, Mrs Jones had told her she wanted Semiloore to be co-MC of the afterparty and Mrs Olawole had protested weakly, with a wave of her designed glass fingernails, telling her not to stress the poor girl just back on midterm break while giving the 24-karat gold around her neck a pat. Mrs Jones took it as a yes. She must show off her own daughter too, jo.
The whole house was noisy when she got back from work. Semiloore had begun again with her obsessions. A while ago, it was Dido’s sultry Life for Rent on repeat. Now, it was Adele. In her room, Semiloore and Bolanle were fast asleep with Adele’s hello blasting from the twin speakers. She disconnected the hot phone from the speakers and hoped that, as fleeting as her love affair with Dido was, her love affair with Theatre Arts would also pass. In their sleep, with the expansion and descent of chests, she found a similarity in the two of them, and felt Semiloore’s face had not changed much since she was a baby.
She had taken a shower and stretched out on her bed when her phone beeped. It was a text message. Mrs Olawole, again, was inviting her for her second son’s call to bar in the Law School Auditorium in Bwari, not too far away. Mrs Jones sighed. This Mrs Olawole sef, only you waka come?
Mrs Jones was still anguished by the smallness of her daughter’s prospective profession, and undecided on what to do when the big day came. Her daughter was acting Sidi’s role and thereafter staying behind the scene directing. She had asked Semiloore if she could cope with the two roles and she had said, yes, why not, with bright, sparkling eyes and her mother had felt, for Semiloore, it was like a fairy-tale; this play she was going to direct, this Sidi she was going to role-play. She had never seen her daughter’s eyes so brilliant. When she gave her one last hug before her performance, she felt her tiny heart, kicking. She could see a light through her; a new energy and new warmth that rose inside her daughter. This was different; finishing her final exams and leaving secondary school this week had nothing to do with it.
At the end, the play went well, with Semiloore getting the prizes as best student in Literature in English, English Language, Economics, Government and Fine Arts. She was best director and best actress in the play and won the London School of Dramatic Arts Award, and overall best graduating student. Mrs Jones rose up at each round of applause – at every neck that turned in her direction with awe and wonder – to receive her daughter’s prize with her.
After the programme, parents walked up to her to congratulate her, the mother of such a brilliant girl. She was waiting in her car for Semiloore to join her when Mrs Olawole appeared from nowhere, walked smugly towards her car, her maroon lips lifted up,her kohl-lined eyes rolling, her brows rising with pain soaked in green envy, and said, in a tone that wished Semiloore was hers:Tinuke, congratulations, mama theatre artiste.
Fiyinfoluwa trained as a Medical Doctor in the University of Benin. She is an alumnus of the Ebedi International Writers Residency where she completed work on her first full-length manuscript.
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