More than a little fagged out, Valerie leaned back against her seat. Relieved to be back at the office after the Lunch hour send-forth party held at the Victoria Island office of the Alcon Group of Companies. She’d been the one in-charge of the entire catering job.
Heaving to her feet, she managed to slog to the water dispenser. As she sipped the water, she slipped into Kike’s seat, too tired to get back to her own. Laying down the disposal cup, she picked up the pure black naked wooden man on the desk, studying it with a frown.
It wasn’t really something one should place on an office desk. It was a naked man, albeit a distinctly muscled man, but still a naked man. But of course Kike being her naughty mischievous self, just enjoyed having it there.
She raised her head as the door creaked open and Kike strolled in.
“And what are you doing, dilly-dallying with my exquisitely-toned and well-proportioned African man?” Kike asked, leaning against Valerie’s desk.
“I wasn’t dilly-dallying with it.” Valerie denied, replacing it on the table. “I still consider it vulgar and unsuitable for an office table.”
“Ah, but suitable for the bedside table?” Kike smirked, recalling that Valerie had asked her to go keep it in her bedroom.
“Only if you get a kick out of such perverse displays… which I know you do.”
Kike chuckled. “Well, we are not all lucky to have the real thing… so we make do.”
“The real thing isn’t standing on my bedside table. Or in my bed for that matter.”
“Almost five months of dating and not yet in your bed?” Kike rolled her eyes dramatically. “Damn, I don’t know how you manage it. If I had a hottie like Nathan Abayomi-Phillips drooling all over me and firing up my insides, I hardly think I’d be able to resist dragging him into my bed.”
“Nathan doesn’t drool.”
“Ha, just fires up your insides then.”
As Valerie didn’t appear to be in any hurry to get up from her seat, she slid into hers. “I’d suggest a cry of distress while wearing the flimsiest, sexiest silk nightie.” She continued in a conspiratorial voice. “It will get him in there… and get you some.”
Valerie shook her head, her expression full of worry. “I’m beginning to worry about the state of your mind, Kike. You do know there’s more to life than…sex?”
“I know… I just can’t remember what else there is.”
Valerie laughed at the lustful, dreamy look. “You need Jesus.” She told her.
“I have Him.” She retorted with a petulant smile. “What I need is a man. A real man for a wild, hot night.”
Valerie chuckled in amusement as Kike fanned herself with her right hand, feigning hotness.
The door opened again and Mama Bee walked in. Their quick adjustments to appear serious and busy didn’t fool her a bit.
“You two do know that there’s more to life than talking about men and sex?” She asked matter-of-factly.
“Yes, having both.” Kike responded with a sassy wink.
Mama Bee shook her head at Kike. “One of these days, my girl, that mischief-making mouth of yours is going to put you in big trouble.” Turning to Valerie she asked. “I’m sure the send-forth party went well?”
“Splendid. Everyone was taken care of and we packaged and handed over left-over chops and chicken to the Admin manager.” Valerie replied with a nod. “She sent her compliments.”
“Hmm, good.” Mama Bee inclined her head. “The compliments are for you, Valerie. And by the way, there’s someone here to see you.” She added, her gaze steady.
“Yes.” She paused. “Your Aunt Maryanne.” She saw the flash of shock, and sighed. “She actually called me requesting to see you; I believe she thought you still stayed with me.” Mama Bee shrugged. “Anyway I asked her to come here instead.”
“I didn’t know both of you were in touch.” Valerie said quietly, eyes accusing.
“We are not. At least not until yesterday when she called.” Mama Bee rejoined calmly. “Said she still had my number from her last visit six years ago.”
“And what does she want?” Valerie could feel a slight bitter taste rising in her throat.
“I don’t know. But she’s waiting for you at the top dining hall and I suggest you see her.”
Valerie turned to Kike, her dark eyes were worried and sympathetic. “Have you been talking with her too?”
Kike shook her head. “No. I don’t even have her number. And I don’t think…”
“No one has been talking to her behind your back, Valerie.” Mama Bee cut in firmly. “I know how much these people hurt you, how much she hurt you, but… she’s here now and I think you should see her, listen to her.”
“After six years of no word?” Valerie frowned darkly. “After thirteen years of abandonment?”
Mama Bee sighed. “Go see her, Valerie, and hear what she has to say.”
Valerie looked from Mama Bee to Kike. Fine, they wanted her to go listen, why not, she can do that. Getting to her feet, she marched to the door and stalked out without another word.
“Mama Bee, what is going on?” Kike asked the second the door clicked shut. “Why is her Aunty here?”
Mama Bee exhaled deeply. “Her uncle – her father’s only brother died. Burial is this weekend.”
“And her Aunty is here to tell her because?”
“Because she should be there.”
“What!” Kike stared at her mother in disbelief. “This same man watched his wife maltreat his niece and throw her out of the house, and did nothing.” She protested vehemently. “And the prophet-of-doom Aunty out there, turned her back on her own niece because of her philandering husband.”
“Exactly why I think she needs to see these people and confront these issues. Look at your best friend, Kike, do you think that she can ever have a happy life unless she truly resolves all these issues and let go of all these bitterness?”
Kike opened her mouth to tell her that Valerie didn’t need those traitors in her life, she had them. But a recollection of the angry, bitter look she’d seen in Valerie’s eyes earlier stopped her.
Raising worried eyes to her mother, she said instead. “You may be right. I guess she needs to confront these issues, to confront them. But I fear that this might hurt her all over again, push her back into the mire of bitterness, she’s trying so hard to get out of.”
“That’s why we are here for her.” Mama Bee smiled, giving her daughter a little squeeze on the shoulder. “We are here and will always be here for her.”
Valerie wasn’t exactly sure what she was feeling, but pleasant surprise wasn’t one of them, neither was anger or bitterness, to her surprise.
She’d felt the anger at first, that knee-jerk reaction when her past rears up its ugly head. But as she marched toward the restaurant’s dining hall, the anger was slowly being replaced by cold, steel strength.
She made her way toward the woman in Ankara skirt and blouse. Her light-brown eyes, so like her own, held hers… washed in guilt, and pleading.
Valerie watched as her Aunty, flustered and unsure, got to her feet. Something clenched inside her as she noted the fair skin, so like her mother’s. But it gave her perverse joy to see that the woman before her was looking way older than she should and somewhat haggard.
Maryanne Okonkwo, a little nervous under her niece’s stony stare, forced a bright smile. “Valerie, it’s been such a long time… how are you?”
Valerie slid into the burgundy coloured sofa. “I’m fine, thank you.” Her voice like her eyes, was stony. “And how are you and your family?”
Maryanne gave a nervous laugh as she resumed her seat. “The kids… em, they are fine.” She stammered. “Nonso just rounded off with his JSSCE. And Eva, her Common Entrance Exams. Annabel is still just in primary four.” She babbled, toying nervously with the glass of juice in front of her.
Valerie gave a stiff nod. She didn’t really know her cousins. Just met the first child, Nonso, seven years ago when he’d visited their restaurant at Surulere in the company of his mother.
Maryanne bit her lips. “Wow, this place is very different from the other place at Surulere – much bigger, classier.” She lifted up her glass, her hand shook as she took a sip. “You guys must be doing well.”
“You don’t still have the restaurant at Surulere, do you?”
“No we don’t.”
Maryanne nodded. Expelled a shaky breath, striving to calm her nerves. Valerie’s cold, short responses didn’t surprise her at all, she’d expected it. It was no less than she deserved.
She tried again. “You must wonder why I’m here.” She gave a tentative smile.
“You mean you are not just here to discuss the beauty and progress of the restaurant?” Valerie’s voice was cool and sarcastic.
Maryanne laughed nervously. “God, you sound so like your mother just now – when she’s being sarcastic.” Shuddering, she looked at the beautiful woman sitting in front of her – cold, hard, unrelenting.
And she remembered the laughing, eager child who’d looked up to her, the shattered, wounded teenager who’d needed her. God, what had she done?
“I am so sorry.” She whispered, eyes misty as they implored. “I am so very sorry.”
Valerie stiffened. Something hard twisted within her. “You are sorry? For what?”
She saw the tears swim in her aunt’s eyes, and somehow she felt betrayed. Now she can cry? Plead? Hadn’t she done the same thirteen years ago? Begged her to believe her and not her evil, perverted husband?
Now she wants to play the victim with her crocodile tears. Boiling anger drove through her like a rampaging volcano.
“Tell me… Aunty, what are you sorry for? – For choosing to believe your husband instead of your seventeen year old niece, hmm? Her eyes blazed with fury. “For accusing her of seduction, instead of protecting her from abuse? For throwing her out of your home with no hope of where else to go?” Her lips curled in disdain. “What are you sorry for, dear Aunty?”
“For all of those and more.” Maryanne replied, tears slipping down her cheeks. “For allowing my weak love, my self-centeredness, shallow pride blind me to my responsibility toward my own niece.”
Maryanne’s voice was low and anguished. But the bitter anger and malice that squeezed Valerie’s heart hardened against any form of compassion.
“I begged you to believe in me, to defend me.” She spat out through clenched teeth. “But you ignored me. You chose to believe a man you saw trying to force himself on me.”
“And I will never forgive myself for that despicable, weak judgement.” Maryanne’s voice was filled with self-contempt. “I saw the signs and yet denied them. Refused to believe them because I was too scared to believe what I’d really seen. Too afraid to be left alone.”
“You were scared of being left alone?” Valerie demanded, her tone contemptuous. “And what about me? I was left alone to fend for myself on the streets of Lagos – a seventeen year old teenager! I had to beg to feed and survive, until a woman saw me and hired me as her shopkeeper. I had to save every dime I made, to buy a form and apply for admission.”
Maryanne allowed the contempt and condemnation to sear through her, wound her, punish her. She deserved even worse.
Valerie pushed back into the sofa, drew a deep breath to stop her tirade. “Anyway, all that is water under bridge. I’m just surprised he permitted you to come see me? Or did you steal away from home… lie so as to come here?”
Like her contemptuous tone, her sneering voice cut deep. But Maryanne merely laughed. “No.” She shook her head. “I didn’t have to hide or lie… I didn’t need his permission. I’ve left him.”
Valerie sat up, surprise clearing the disdain in her eyes. “Oh.”
“Yes, I finally found the courage to do what I should have done years ago.”
Maryanne’s hoarse laugh was short and derisive. “He impregnated my maid and was accused of abusing my neighbour’s teenage daughter.”
She shook her head in self-derision. “It wasn’t the first of such accusations. He’d been accused of molesting teenage girls in the neighbourhood, but it was the first time any of the girls had been just thirteen.” She picked up her juice with shaky hands and gulped.
Valerie wasn’t entirely surprised – a leopard never changes its colours – she wasn’t surprised… but she was hurt.
“It took him abusing and impregnating a thirteen year old to convince you he was a paedophile? So what if she’d been sixteen, or maybe seventeen, you’d have ignored it and continued living with him?”
“I don’t know.” Maryanne replied in a weary voice. “I don’t know. I don’t excuse my actions or try to justify them… I failed you. I was weak and stupid.” She met her scornful gaze.
“But after the Easter celebrations last year, when this happened, I just knew I couldn’t lie to myself anymore or expose the kids to such behaviour… so I left.”
She stretched out her hand to take Valerie’s, but if her quick withdrawal hurt her, she didn’t show, only simply smiled. “And in the past one year I’ve been seeking the courage to come ask your forgiveness.”
“I see.” Valerie sat up straight, cold aloofness returning to her eyes. “Well, I see you finally found that courage. If you don’t mind, I’ve a lot of work on my table and would like to get back to it.” She made to get up.
“Your Uncle Emeka’s death gave me the opportunity and the courage I’ve been seeking.”
“Uncle Emeka is dead?” Her eyes widened in shock.
“Yes. He’d been sick – cancer I was told – he died three weeks ago and his wake-keep and interment is billed for this weekend.”
Valerie stared at her aunt for a minute without a word.
Then rising to her feet, she strode stiffly out of the slowly filling hall, oblivious to the pain and remorse that filled Maryanne’s eyes as she watched her walk away.
To be continued…