Work begins for me when Madam Florence Aso returns from Tuscany. The word Tuscany is very sweet in my mouth. I wake up some mornings to wiggle it in my mouth the way Madam wiggles expensive Tuscan wine after a toast in the presence of her rich friends. At mornings, I toss and catch my three-year-old daughter, Simisola, and I say, Tuscany. Tooshcana, she says after me, giggling. Her mother and I think she will be good at words. She often asks why I have a car and her mama doesn’t, why I don’t always stay in Ajegunle, why I have another house in Ikoyi, and why I never let her nor her mama sleep in that house. What she doesn’t know is that I don’t have a car of my own, that the car I drive belongs to a woman who hops in and out of planes between Lagos and Tuscany, and that I am only a chauffeur to this woman. But I do not tell her.
In my seven years of driving Madam Florence about in Lagos, I have had many dreams in which I was the architect of her misfortunes. I have dreams of car crashes, of roads splitting in two because of me, of wild animals in forests smelling me out and attacking us. In one dream, I am Madam’s worst swindler. In another, I plunge a hand into her ribcage and rip her heart out. I wake up from the dream, shrieking in my house in Ajegunle, alarming the neighbours.
“We must see Prophet,” Temini says.
Temini and I are Muslims, but she has an uncle who is a Christian beach prophet in Tarkwa Bay, Prophet Ashkelon, known for chasing out spirit spouses and other bad spirits that swarm the land of dreams. But with small blandishments, I steer her thoughts away from Tarkwa Bay.
By eavesdropping on Madam’s conversations with women of her social class – ex-governors’ wives, senators, commissioners, Nollywood stars – I know enough to fill a pamphlet or two on Tuscany. Tuscany is in the north of Italy. I’ve seen an expensive handbag of Madam’s that has gold handles and whose body is an off-white fabric with the map of Tuscany. Tuscany is like a triangle sketched by a sleepy person. Tuscany has gorgeous pastures and great wines. Madam urges her rich friends to visit Tuscany.
“Tuscany was the seat of Italian renaissance,” she says, turning her wide orange-coloured hand fan with ‘Made in France’ printed on it.
I know about a city in Tuscany – Prato. Prato is fifteen miles northwest of Florence, which is where Madam got the name she answers now. Madam loves Florence a lot. If not for her business interests in Prato, she would have loved to marinate her soul in the beauty of Florence, she tells her confidante, the widowed and retired permanent secretary, Mrs. Ifeoma Cole, who Madam asks me to drop off in Ikeja, and who then asks me to come in to her house for a drink, and when I come in, she grabs my crotch and says, “You’re so handsome I can’t get you off my crazy mind, Kunle.”
Madam tells her protégée, Amaka, who now owns a big boutique in Victoria Island, about the Chinese. “The Chinese people revolutionized the textile industry in Tuscany, Amaka,” she says, and Amaka laces her fingers on her knees, smiling like a picture. “Those people never cease to amaze me, nwanne. They came to Prato in the eighties with nothing and worked hard. You see hard work, nwanne, it makes a big difference in one’s life. Lazy people have no business in this life of ours except to be working for the devil.”
“Eziokwu,” Amaka says, agreeing. “It is so.”
“Do you know that Prato has the largest concentration of Chinese people in the whole of Europe?” she says, her fat arms working her body into sweat that defied the droning air conditioner in the drawing room.
Amaka shakes her head.
“OK, now you know,” Madam continues. “They are Chinatowns. The two biggest Chinatowns in Italy are in Milan and Prato. Prato is in Tuscany. It is like having a small China in Prato. A Chinatown. So, the Chinese learnt their craft from the Italians.”
I walk in and out of the room lifting boxes of clothes that Madam brought from Tuscany.
“The Chinese offered cheap labor and the Italians offered their secrets. You know the Italians make the best clothes and shoes in the world, nwanne?”
“True,” Amaka says, nodding her head.
“The Chinese mastered their craft and started making affordable clothes and handbags and accessories for low-end retailers and markets around the world. When they make anything in Tuscany, they put the label ‘Made in Italy’ on them. And when fashionistas see Made-in-Italy labels, nwanne, they dobale for you. People bow for Italians.”
“Exactly, ma,” Amaka says.
“Look at this one, for example,” Madam says, fishing out a gold-coloured Gucci gown with tasseled sleeves. “Look at the label.”
She shows it to Amaka.
“Eziokwu,” Amaka says, nodding her head. “It is so true. Made in Italy.”
“Chinese people made it. The best of the Chinese artisans in Tuscany. And they now make clothes and bags and accessories for many of the fashion powerhouses of the world. That is the secret of my business. And that is why I go to Tuscany. That is why I do business with the Chinese. The best Chinese. Almost all the Chinese entrepreneurs in Tuscany know me. They used to call me Mama Nigeria, but I told them, aaaah no o!, Mama Nigeria is too small for a woman of my caliber. So they started calling me Mama Africa. I said, good! I buy and distribute designer goods all over Africa – Lagos, Cotonou, Dakar, Banjul, Nairobi, Johannesburg … you name it.”
“Ma, you deserve the name.”
So that is the secret of my boss’s trade. The Chinese are all behind it. But she doesn’t say the Chinese are behind her success to everybody. Not to the likes of Otumba Akanbi’s wife, Bolanle. Young and desirous of almost anything from Tuscany, she comes driven in her white BMW, dressed in a splendid lace gown and high gele as if to an owambe feast. Nor does Madam reveal her secret to Chief M.D. Kosoko, the oil billionaire, who, on learning of Madam’s arrival from Tuscany, comes on a shopping spree for his retinue of petite girlfriends.
“I don’t do China,” Madam will say, shaking her head, wagging her right finger with a beryl-studded ring. “I do Italy. I don’t do those cheap Chinese stuff crowding Balogun Market nowadays. I do Italy.”
“Ah, yes, I know, ma,” Bolanle will say.
“Bee ni,” the oil billionaire will say.
And they never haggle like Temini does at stalls in Ajegunle. No, rich people do things as if they live in a different world from ours.
When Madam Florence is in town, my life changes. I become busier and happier. I have lesser tiffs with Temini, because I’m rarely at home to give ground for our disagreements. I sleep in my outhouse in Madam’s compound, behind her big, old, art deco-style colonial building that her father had built in the thirties before he died from natural causes, one of which was a bad heart. And Madam inherited his bad heart. She complains of palpitations. And angina. Sometimes she says her heart is acting a blockbuster movie on her, her way of saying she has irregular heartbeat and shortness of breath. She slumps sometimes, and I carry her to her cardiologist. Each of these times, memories of my bad dreams assail me. Although she is a Christian and I am a Muslim, I pace in the waiting room or outside, muttering prayers to Allah to spare her life. And she survives. She always survives. I am happy to take her home, to look in the rearview mirror and catch her smiling in the back of the car, asking after Simisola and Temini. And when we reach the house, she squeezes a hundred Euros into my palms and says, “Buy akara and biscuits for Simisola.”
I retire to my outhouse these special nights, thinking about her and about myself. There are things in my life that compare with Madam’s life. I never saw my dad. Madam didn’t see hers either; he died on the eve of Nigeria’s Independence. My siblings are far away from me, in different African countries struggling to survive. Madam’s siblings, the ones alive now, are scattered around the globe – in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the US. One of the dead ones, Uncle Einstein, died recently in Dubai on a skydiving expedition. He didn’t make it to the ground alive. People said unkind things about him: Why did he dare his god? Didn’t he know a bad heart ran in his family? Didn’t he know a better way to spend his money? And then his brother, Chike, died, too, in a plane crash in Nigeria. The remainder of Madam’s siblings alive now are in foreign countries and in their old years. But she has no child. And she has no husband. But there are rumours that she is divorced from an Italian artist, who did some of the framed paintings in her house.
One September after Madam survives a mild heart attack in Tuscany, she decides to throw a big owambe in Lagos. She flies into Lagos early December and work resumes for me. We drive in and out of Lagos Mainland, distributing her gilded invitation cards to her friends and clients. They are the high and mighty in Lagos. I cannot have dreamed of setting foot on the property of these people if fortune did not put me in Madam’s good graces. We visit the governor. We visit the Oba’s palace. I see posh houses in Lekki, and there is one that I enter, bearing Madam’s gifts of Tuscan wine for our host, and I am almost dazed by the opulence of the house. That night, I return to my outhouse thinking about that gold-crowded interior of that house: the plush curtains and ornate sofas, the gold and sparkle of the crystalline chandeliers hanging from the snow white of the roof, the near-cinema-size television with all its colour and light, the delicateness of glass and china and figurines and framed pictures, the coolness of the air of the room, the fragrance floating in the air like the smell of angels. I think about these things and I burst into tears. I realise that I’m crying for Temini. And for Simisola. And for being such a poor dad and husband.
One of the things I have learned in my career as a driver is to never invite my family to my boss’s events. I am to never assume that for distributing Madam’s cards all over Lagos, my family deserves an invitation to the party. I have tried so hard to keep the news of Madam’s party from Temini, but since I have been too busy to afford myself a weekend in Ajegunle with my family, I sortie into Ajegunle to explain things to my wife:
“Madam is throwing owambe at her place,” I say. “For her friends. And it is big.”
“We are going,” she says, in a brash, happy voice.
“No,” I say.
“She didn’t invite us.”
“But you are her driver.”
“I can be there, at the fringes…”
“Rara o, you are not at any fringes,” Temini blurts out, shaking her head, just the way she does when she haggles in the market. “As her driver we should get front seats at the party, Lakunle.”
“I will bring food from the party.”
“Food ke,” she hisses reproachfully. “What about music and the dance? Can you bring them, too?”
I say nothing.
“Just tell her we are coming,” Temini says.
“I can’t do that, Temini.”
We quarrel about this and I leave Ajegunle that night, bitter. In the distance I can hear Temini’s voice hurling abuses at me.
The next morning, Madam Florence calls me to her large drawing room cluttered with the portraits of her family and hands me an invitation card. On it is written in Madam’s heavy, squiggly handwriting: For Lakunle, Temini & Simisola.
I am beside myself with happiness. I prostrate myself before her. “E se, ma,” I say. “Thank you, ma. God will bless you, ma.”
“Ah, stand up o, Lakunle, it is nothing,” she says. “You know you are like a son to me.”
“Make sure you bring Temini and Simisola. I don’t want to look for them at the party, you hear me?”
“I will bring them, ma,” I assure her, smiling as if I had won a house.
Temini screams when I hold out the invitation card like a prize. “You see, I told you so,” she says, dancing with the card.
But we soon start to quarrel over the clothes that she and Simisola will wear to the party. She has a maroon aso oke outfit in mind, but I don’t like that. It is too old and worn to my mind and she has worn it to many parties. I tell her that it makes her look old-fashioned.
“The orange lace gown will be just perfect,” I say.
“You like to condemn anything I wear,” Temini blurts out. “And it’s not as if you spare any bit of your salary for good clothes.”
“You can wear whatever you want,” I say, grab the car key and stand up. “What is Simisola wearing?”
“Clothes,” she says, turning the clothes in her iron trunk.
“What do you mean clothes?”
We quarrel over that until, by good fortune, we settle on Simisola’s sky-blue gown with sunflowers and a rhinestone buckle on the waist.
That afternoon before the party, Madam looks different. She looks fatter and languorous. But she turns out gorgeous after the makeup artist coats her face with layers of colours and gobs of mascara. Her fingers are full of the colours of her signet rings and her neck is splendid with the sparkle of pearl beads. But her eyes are dark. Perhaps it’s the same smoky eyes that Temini likes to have, eyes which she calls Lady Gaga’s eyes.
Madam’s breath is unsteady. It is her heart again, I think, and I start to mutter prayers for her. Every now and then she places a hand on her chest and takes a deep breath.
“Madam, are you all right?” I ask.
“Lakunle, do you know that I can’t smell anything in the air,” she said, fishing out a flamboyant red hand fan out of her Versace handbag. “How can one do a party and not enjoy the smells of the party, eh?”
“Do you have catarrh, ma?” I ask.
“It is it, Lakunle.”
“Can I buy you medicines, ma?”
“No,” she says, rising heavily from her sofa. “I am fine.”
The party is everything I hope for in grandeur. Although the Oba does not come – he has more important things to do with his time, no doubt – nobody seems to care. All of Madam’s friends that I know, her rich friends and clients, her protégée and the friends of her protégée. And they have wads of cash to throw on her, freshly minted notes that make me wonder if they have minting machines in their houses. Madam’s favorite juju band – Amotekun Band – entertains us with hip-crushing songs. I stay on the fringes of the party, looking happily at the musicians in striped babanriga, thrilling us with their clanging guitars, talking drums and hilarious voices. I am ecstatic when Madam stoops to dance. Her rich friends huddle around her, tear paper bands off bundles of naira notes, and start spraying their wealth on the sweaty face of the woman from Tuscany. Chief M. D. Kosoko cocooned in oxblood agbada advances with a girl wearing one of the Balenciaga bags that I saw him buy the last time he came. The girl, petite but with enormous breasts, opens the Balenciaga bag and takes out two bundles of cash, shoving the notes off on Madam resplendent clothes. Otumba Akanbi, a squat personage with a face like a bulldog’s, walks up with his staff, his wife Bolanle behind him. The Otumba does not waste time at all. Bolanle takes out a bundle of money from her Burberry bag and hands over to him to spray. But he throws the bundle at once into the air. The notes flutter like butterflies and the crowd cheers him loudly. He does not laugh. He does not greet people. He whispers into Madam’s ear, turns and walks to his BMW.
I feel no envy for Madam now. Part of me wishes that every naira note falling on her forehead or rouged cheeks or gorgeous lace gown or crisp gele or the striped brown aso oke draping her left shoulder, or the notes beneath her gold-coloured Dolce & Gabbana shoes like fallen leaves at harmattan – all belong to me.
I look randomly into the crowd and spot Temini with Simisola dancing. Temini is dancing as if she has forgotten our poverty and quarrels. I look at her maroon aso oke, and I think it’s splendid on her. Her face glistens with sweat and I’m happy she’s here. I look at Simisola smiling and dancing in zigzags. She has almost outgrown her gown. She dances now as if it’s her birthday. Two of Madam’s rich friends stick two clean five hundred naira notes on her forehead. As I look on at my family with happiness, someone nudges me. I turn and see Mrs. Ifeoma Cole, her cheeks bunched up below red butterfly-shaped glasses. She is chewing gum and sweat glistens on her forehead. I can’t help admitting that this widowed retiree from the civil service has a secret elixir behind her charm.
“Good afternoon, ma,” I greet.
“Oh, Kunle, will you please stop the ma thing,” she says, looking away from me. “Florence says you are a graduate. Is that so?”
“Stop that ma thing, please.”
“What did you study?”
“Perfect, then. There are politicians here. Look around. You can work as a speech writer to one,” she says, her eyes roving the place. “The high and mighty are here.” She spots a commissioner walking into the event, a squat woman with a rouged fat face, accompanied by a policeman toting a Kalashnikov. “May I put in a word on your behalf? I used to help her a lot when I was permanent secretary. She won’t dare refuse.”
I don’t know what to say really.
“Your silence means consent,” she says and drifts away, her arms stretched out towards the commissioner. They touch their shoulders, lean towards each other’s ears and kiss and mutter words like diplomats do. They talk briefly and the commissioner reaches into her purse and fishes out a card. Mrs. Cole takes it, smiles, mouths some words and they go their separate ways.
Mrs. Cole returns to me a moment later. “I told you she won’t say no,” she says, taking my hand and slipping the card in it. “She will make you her speech writer. Call her.” She leans over, her lips grazing my ears, and whispers: “I want you so badly that I’m doing these crazy favors for you, Lak.”
She pulls away, her cheeks bunched up in a smile again. I look at the commissioner’s card and I feel a desire to run after Mrs. Cole, fling the card at her face and say, take your card, ma. I don’t need your crazy favors. But I turn away towards the musicians and my eyes meet Temini’s. I start. She is still, like a tree, and her eyes are sad. I make up my mind to go now and explain everything to her.
Amotekun Band segues into a popular song “Bend Down.” That throws nearly everyone at the party into wilder fits of dance and happiness. The latest of the rich guests exhaust their wallets and purses of money and stoop to dance, bobbing bottoms, grinding waists, quivering shoulders, scooping air with palms. The crowd cheers my Madam. She is drenched in sweat now and her eyes appear to me from my distance as two black smudges on a pale eggshell.
“Bend down, big Italian Madame!” a voice cheers her on.
“Yes, go down low, go down low,” another voice cries.
And then more and more voices cheer her on as she further dwarfs herself. It is as if everyone wants her to turn herself into a midget. She thrusts out her fat arms this way and that, shakes her torso, drawing shouts from her spectators and the music band.
But I am looking for my Temini and Simisola now. I can’t see them where they had stood dancing to the music. When I ask two or three persons who had been with them a while ago, they say she just grabbed her child and left with a sad face. I hurry out of the gate, searching for my family. Making a megaphone with my hands around my mouth, I yell: “Temini! Temini! Temini!”
But she is not there. I find only beggars and ice cream sellers and a group of buskers droning away on brass instruments. They stare at me as people do to a madman. “Did you see a dark, slim lady with a little girl walk out of this gate?” I ask the buskers. They say no.
There is a loud roar of commotion back from the party now. I leave the buskers and hurry back in the crowd and see Temini clobbering Mrs. Cole with her shoe. “Leave him alone!” she screams. “Sugar mommy, husband snatcher, reaper where she never sows! What is not yours is not yours…!” Some men grab and hold her in leash before I reach her, clutch her arms and beg her to stop. But she lashes out at me with her shoe.
Mrs. Cole is cooped up under a table now, without her butterfly sunglasses, staring out like one whose senses have been knocked out of order, blood dribbling from her chin.
“Please stop it, Temini,” I plead softly. “Stop!”
But she flings her shoe aside, grabs a bowl of amala and ewedu on a nearby table and hurls it in my direction. I duck and the food falls on someone else. Madam Florence. I feel as if someone struck me with a living rigor mortis.
There are muted cries from the crowd. “Look what she has done.” “Why did she do that?” “Is she crazy?”
Temini looks at what she has done now. A look of dread fills her big, beautiful eyes and her body starts to shake now.
Madam Florence looks languidly down on her clothes, at the dollop of brown, red and green crawling down her heaving chest like an octopus. Her face festers like a wound and she slumps.
The crowd roars at her fall. I scurry towards her, grabbing her face in my palms, shaking her languorous face, shrieking at her to stay with us. She gasps for breath now. She is heavy like a corpse and some of the musicians help to carry her into the drawing room.
“Make space! Get out of the way!” I yell. “Hurry!”
But I am only wondering now if this owambe is the meaning of all the bad dreams I have had, the dreams on account of which Temini wanted us to see her beach prophet uncle in Tarkwa Bay.