Mr Femi was a simple man, with a simple job. Every morning at 6am, he washed first the cars, then himself. After that, he had breakfast- fried yam and egg, washed down with hot milo- if Cook Oye was in a good mood.
At 8am, he put on his tie and sat in the car. Between 8.15 and 8.20, Madam and the children emerged from the big house and after a careful drive through Ikoyi’s leafy streets, he pulled into the parking lot of St Joseph’s Primary School by no later than 8.45. At 9.30am, Madam returned to the car and Mr Femi drove Madam to the gym.
After that, his time was his own until 3pm. Usually he would return home for lunch – garri and soup- but once a week, usually on Thursdays, he would drive to the local NNPC filling station and fill up the tank. At 3pm, he would pick Madam up from her friend’s house and they would be back outside the school gates at 3.30pm. Madam would gather the children, and by 4.15 his work day was over.
Sometimes he would have a little fish pepper soup, or boiled beans and stew for dinner, depending of course on Cook Oye. More often than not, he would carefully park the car and walk to his quarters where he would shower, rearrange his mosquito net and get into bed. He had received a small radio from Oga last Christmas, so he’d usually switch it on and listen to the BBC World Service in Hausa until sleep came, regularly, at no later than 9pm.
It was such a simple life, and Mr Femi was such a simple man, that it had never occurred to him to ask himself the sorts of questions that would occur to you and me.
I think I, for example, would wonder what exactly Oga did for a living. I would ask this as I watched Mr Femi wash all 7 of the cars in descending order of expense. He did this to make sure that his polishing cloth (he used a new one every day) was pristine when he started on the Rolls Royce, only very slightly creased when he worked on the Bentley, the Lexus, and both Mercedes and that it was still entirely serviceable by the time he got to the BMWs- what Madam called her ‘runaround’ cars. If I was there, I’d say to Mr Femi “What does your Oga do, that he can afford all these cars?”
I’d try again when Mr Femi took 10 minutes to walk from the carport to the back of the house, where his food was always heaped into a stainless steel plate set out on the floor- close but “not too close” to the dog bowls, on Madam’s orders. But Mr Femi would probably be preoccupied with his food- good food because Cook Oye had been sent to a cooking school in Cote D’Ivoire to learn how to cook from real French people, not all these nonsense Nigerian cooks. That’s what Madam had said on the phone to her friend Bunmi last year anyway, when she’d been deciding who to invite to a dinner party. Madam had asked Bunmi whether, now he was back, she should start calling Cook Oye, Chef Oye? Did Bunmi not think that sounded more French? The only problem, Madam had said, was how you pronounce the thing- she was always confused, was it chef with a shhhh sound? Or a hard ch sound, like chop? She had that problem with Givenchy too, she had told Bunmi, and then they had talked about handbags for a while.
When Mr Femi replaced his food plate- close but not too close to the dog bowls- and he walked back to the boys quarters to shower, I think, if you or I were there, another natural question would arise. Why, when the glimpse we had seen of the kitchen showed gleaming islands of Italian marble and appliances that could feed an army, did Mr Femi’s quarters look like a refugee camp? Why, I think we’d ask Mr Femi, did he have to fetch water in an old paint bucket to wash? And how, we would wonder at least to ourselves, did he manage to get himself looking as neat as a pin in a room almost as small as one? Mr Femi would be doing up his tie in the cracked mirror above his bed at this point, and he would be too distracted to answer.
I think you would be the one to point out that Madam was dressed rather oddly for a school run, at least to our eyes. She would come out of the house (into the second Mercedes, this week’s school run car according to the schedule) in a long flowing dress that would glitter in the sun. You’d look closely and see that the glimmer came from the real crystals and semi-precious jewels sewn into her dress. She would step daintily to the back door of the Mercedes, one hand lifting her skirts and the other crooked at the elbow, supporting an ostrich yellow handbag and holding her phone to her ear. She would be wearing a lot of makeup, and large jewelled sunglasses, and each of her wrists would be shackled with gold. You’d get even closer and the scent of her would hit you, like a hefty bill, and it would remind you of Dubai, even though you’ve never been there before.
The children would come after her, heads together, giggling and whispering as children do, in a secret language you’d imagine was the natural consequence of being twins. You wouldn’t have many questions about the children, and neither would I, because they’d be the only thing that made Mr Femi smile.
On the drive to school, however, I’d turn to you and ask “Does she not bother to speak to them at all?” I’d ask that because we would have been shocked to see that Madam spends the entire drive on her phone, talking again to Bunmi, about this season’s Gucci collection, and yesterday’s Bella Naija blogpost, and next week’s PTA meeting and whether she ought to wear “head to toe Chanel” to it. She would cackle as she said ‘Chanel gang!” in a way that made it clear Bunmi had said the same thing, in orchestral chorus, on the other end of the line. Madam would inadvertently answer our question- the little girl and her brother would both repeat “Chanel gang” and giggle and Madam would say “Will you shut up your dirty mouths!” and Mr Femi would grimace in sympathy at them in the rear view mirror. Yes, you would say, it seems she does speak to them.
At school, the questions would come thick and fast. Why did so many of the other mothers dress this way? Why were so few of them in suits, or jeans? Why did they ignore their children, offering air kisses to each other like sacrifices, shifting their manicured feet over the cobbles and calling each other ‘babes’? Who had taught them this language, which sounded like the slick slide of paper note on paper note, the clink of coin on coin, the glug of dark oil filling barrels, the pop-and-hiss of burst electoral promises? And where were the fathers?
Mr Femi would be keeping the car idling and cool for when Madam got back in it; he’d be too busy to answer.
On the drive to the gym, we’d be silent, listening to Madam talk. Bunmi would be on the phone again, and Madam would be advising her. “Better don’t allow any man to take advantage of you, Bunmi! Ah. Before my husband married me, I made sure he spent at least N4million Naira on me! 4 what? 4 Million! Yes! Yes! He had to know that I wasn’t cheap. And look at me today- there is nothing I want he doesn’t give me. Nothing! Just now those witches at St Joseph’s were dying because I carried my new Hermes today. AH, you trust me now! The ostrich one! $40,000! And I paid cash! So don’t let your husband tell you that from time to time you should contribute o. Ah. That’s how it starts. First contribute, next thing pay school fees, next thing he’s a useless man, doing nothing.”
Mr Femi would have arrived at the gym by now, but Madam would still be engrossed in her conversation.
“And don’t let these nonsense modern women deceive you o! I still make sure that no matter how busy I am, I am monitoring my kitchen. Che-She, em, Cook Oye knows me! He can’t try any nonsense! Just last week I missed one of my spa appointments so I could make sure he used the right kind of fish in my husband’s soup. That’s how you stay in a marriage o. That’s what you do.”
Mr Femi would be as calm and patient as a folded piece of paper. The gym’s gateman would approach, ready to assist Madam out of the car but Mr Femi would gently incline his head in a way that said yes she’s coming in, but no she isn’t ready yet. The gateman would return to his post by the gate.
Eventually Madam would get off the phone, and Mr Femi would have again inclined his head at just the right moment such that when Madam had gathered herself, the door would be opened by the gateman. He would reach into the boot for Madam’s gym bag, and Mr Femi would back carefully on to the road.
By now, we’d be hungrier for answers than lunch, but lunch would be all Mr Femi was interested in, back at home.
He’d eat quietly in the garden, sitting on the grass by the wicker chairs Oga had flown in from Spain because Oga had asked him not to dirty the chairs with his body. He would look at the trees, still as stones in the Lagos sun, and the dogs, snoozing in the heat, and he would occasionally scratch at a mosquito bite on the back of his neck. Hours would pass, and he wouldn’t answer any of our questions.
His phone would buzz and it would be back to the car- blessedly cool and purring along the roads like a sleek cat. We’d pick up Madam from another great house; the gates would open automatically and the Mercedes would be one of many in front of a three storey American style mansion. Mr Femi would have to take care as he parked, on account of the peacocks.
Madam would come out of the house in a different but no less bejewelled dress, and an attendant would be following her with her ‘gym bag’ in tow. She’d be escorted by a tall, well built man, also in dark glasses against the sun. He’d help her into the car, as if he were replacing a figurine on a shelf, and he would say “Ah, you tired me out o, Foluke! Tomorrow have pity, abeg, and remain small for that your husband o!”
Madam would laugh, a fat little trill, and she would accept the heavy brown envelope he gave her as if it were her due. “Segun, ah ah. You know I come here for fun. You don’t need to do this.” she would say, as she tucked the envelope into her handbag. They would say other things before the car door shut.
Mr Femi would ease the big car past the unafraid peacocks and ignore our stunned looks.
At school again, he would smile his second and last smile of the day watching the children emerge from the gate, holding hands and giggling. The drive home would be more of the same- Madam on the phone, this time telling Bunmi that Oga would be back “briefly, next week, then it’s back to that Latin American place, where his business partners are.”, the children pleased to be ignored, and Mr Femi, concerned only with the road before him.
We’d try again later, as Mr Femi got ready for bed, to piece it all together. But Mr Femi would stay silent, taking care to hang his uniform up and away from the dust on the floor before he switched on his radio, and fell asleep.