Story: Lurking in the Shadows
By: Obinna Ozoigbo
A laconic cigarette dangled from the corner of Grandpa’s mouth, smoldering, as he parked his sleek Ferrari near the river. A trilby hat sat on his head, concealing his hairless crown, but revealing wispy tufts of grey at his temples.
As we trudged along the clay path that led to the old bamboo pier, I looked out at the tranquil landscape. The river was always out of the glare of the blazing African sun. It was shrouded in several large, spreading, shady trees—old trees with trunks of varying girths. Their leaves, rustling, showed a great variety of greens.
In the silence between the two of us, I peered at the water and, to my surprise, saw a group of fingerlings schooling. With my mind’s eye, I saw another group shoaling. It could be possible, I guessed. Somewhere, just somewhere. “Grandpa,” I said with a grin, “the fish are not scared of swimming to the surface!”
Yes, Grandpa replied. They felt no heat, all thanks to the shadows cast by the grove.
I shook my head slowly, in wonder.
In fact, Grandpa continued, fishing could be done here from dawn to dusk, not necessarily in the dead of night.
And, lo and behold, they were here—the peasants. With bewildering taciturnity, they pulled their fishing canoes up on the bank, their bare backs shining with the sheen of perspiration. They were done for the day. I gawked at their big catch, several silvery tilapias, as they squirmed incessantly in the weather-beaten nets.
We crossed the churning river, our sturdy boots clattering on the pier. I marveled at Grandpa’s strong frame. Then I wondered why, at seventy-nine, it had not yet dwindled into frailty. Clutching a chiller picnic hamper for two, I maintained my rapid strides. As Grandpa followed in my wake, I thanked God for making his life tick over like a well-oiled engine whose rhythm is disturbed by nothing. I turned nonetheless to make sure he was all right. (I didn’t want anything to spoil our day, neither did the good old man.)
We sat on the grassy riverbank, a canopy of tinted leaves thrown over us by a spreading tree. The familiar scent of grass filled my breath, almost dousing the pungent smell of my grandfather’s tobacco. The luxurious warmth of the invigorating air engendered a sense of wellbeing in us.
Grandpa was so glad, he said, that he had finally said goodbye to all the quandary of corporate life at Cole Constructions, his brainchild.
I looked around. Exotic birds twittered and chased one another, basking in the setting sun, like a bunch of jolly children having abundant fun. Then I turned and looked at Grandpa. “You’ve not only given Mom the stake you have in Cole Constructions, but have also given her your seat as chairman of the board?”
“C’mon, Siji,” Grandpa said. “Does that bother you? Cole Constructions isn’t the only place in which I have interest.” He paused to take a deep breath and snorted: “In any case, I’m no longer keen about such things as gathering wealth. I have a few years left on this shitting earth.”
Did he trust Mom, I wanted to know, to occupy that kind of space created by his retirement?
Grandpa shook his head, perhaps wondering why I was prodding. “In fact, Maggie is much more professional than I in handling corporate matters. She’s been my backbone, my mouthpiece—my everything in Cole Constructions.”
Although I was a schoolboy of seventeen, battling with my A’ Levels, I knew how to run a company. Nothing in the corporate world was strange to me. It was fine for Mom to take the corporate baton from Grandpa and continue the corporate race. “But, Grandpa . . . with Mom’s heart of stone and autocratic lifestyle, things might go haywire—or so I suspect.”
My grandfather gave me a reassuring pat at the back. “I get you, Son. I admire your concern—and your astonishing sense of precocity. But whatever may be the case, it’s all for posterity.” He ruffled my silky chestnut curls fondly, warming my curious heart with his smile.
I relaxed my features and broke into a wide grin.
Sooner than later, Grandpa said, the baton would be placed in my hand.
I simply shrugged, opened the hamper and admired the glossy red skins of the apples inside. I reached out for an apple and sank my teeth into the juicy flesh. Effiong, Grandpa’s middle-aged cook, had done a great job, I think. (Effiong had once said he had a catering certificate and had spent donkey years in Protea working as chief chef.)
Grandpa took a deep pull at his cigarette. The acrid tobacco tang attempted to hang on my nose. It teased my nostrils all right but drifted away with the river-side zephyr.
“Now tell me about school,” Grandpa broke the silence between us, giving me a hearty punch. His weathered face crinkled as he stretched his smile wider.
I swallowed. “School is a bore, Grandpa—a drudge.”
He shot me a disbelieving glance. School shouldn’t be boring to me, he said. It should be fun, real fun, like those chattering canaries flying about. “If you don’t see fun now, you may never see it when you get to Harvard.”
“They call me bastard, Grandpa.”
The old man flickered his eyes at me.
“Well, except one girl. She’s . . .” My lips trembled. “She’s my girlfriend. Her name is Cindy . . . Cindy Ludendorff.” I exhaled nervously, expecting a verbal lashing for saying I had a girlfriend when I wasn’t twenty-one yet. Or eighteen, at least.
To my surprise, a smile instead unfurled itself across Grandpa’s face. He took another long drag on his cigarette and blew out a cloud. His face crinkled deeper as he kept the smile going. Then he dug a forefinger into my chest, like I just made him proud. A great light, he said, was breaking beyond a new horizon.
A wave of relief surged through me. Nonetheless, I gave him a puzzled look.
“Girlfriend . . . Mmh . . . That’s good news, boy. But you just have to zip up, though. Perhaps until you enter Harvard and graduate in peace.” His eyes twinkled. “How did it happen, anyway? I mean, the attraction.”
My eyes regarded him with sincerity as I began: I would sit in my classroom, oppressed by gloom and an awful sense of doom. Unlike all my classmates, I had no father, no siblings. I had a mother all right. But I felt motherless since she was hardly there for me. She—
“Don’t say that, Son,” Grandpa cut me short. “Your mother loves you, just that she’s a very busy woman and is hardly in the country.”
My mother? She loves me? I worked up a sarcastic scowl and continued: All alone at break time, I would stare down at the floor, yet seeing nothing. Like a man turned to stone, I made no movement. Tears would course down my ashen face. I drowned in despair. Then one day, as I was sloshing around in my trough of self-pity, Cindy glided to me. She looked into my eyes with that gesture that said so much, then put her head on one side, beaming at me like I was the most enchanting thing she had ever seen. Then she gave me her clean, crisp handkerchief. I regarded her appreciatively, with undisguised admiration, taking in the small compact figure, the healthy cheeks, the wide, brilliant eyes—and the luxurious Afro-German hair pulled tightly away from her oblong face and tied to a shiny ponytail. Her school uniform made her look like a stunted mystic tree standing alone in the sun, in full bloom—the flawlessly pleated pink skirt, the sparkling white shirt, the pink tie, the snow-white socks, the polished black shoes. Cheer up, she said, her face creasing magically into a luminous smile. Then, for some reason, she suddenly burst into an infectious bubbling laugh. I joined her, and a warm glow of joy rippled through every crack and crevice of my being. She was, and would always be, a beaming light that spills sunshine into my dark lonely world.
Grandpa’s eyes widened.
I stopped in mid-chew as a cold, malevolent hand suddenly clutched at my heart, draining away the color from my face. “Grandpa?”
“What happened to the man who’s supposed to be my father? I’ve never set my eyes on him.”
The old man said not a word. He narrowed his eyes instead as he fixed me with an intent look, seemingly confused. His brow furrowing, he puffed, and I stared in the edgy silence at the delicate tendrils of the expansive smoke.
Well, the only thing I knew—needless to ask or imagine—was that my father was a member of the Caucasoid race. The color of my skin, and the texture of my hair, said it all. But I didn’t know him at all. Cindy’s father was German, and she knew everything about him. She never ceased prattling about him whenever we were together during break. Dr. Wolfric Ludendorff played with his daughter whenever he was home. He took Cindy to the zoo, or to the cinema, together with his Nigerian wife, Cindy’s mom.
I gave my grandfather a distressing, helpless look. “I don’t know a thing about my own father. I don’t even know whether he’s dead or alive. If he’s alive, where on earth is he?”
In another tense silence, Grandpa stubbed out his cigarette and regarded me for a poignant moment, certainly deep in thought. “Have you ever asked your mother about your dad?”
A million times, I said. She never gave me a definite answer. Whenever I complained she talked unintelligible gibberish—just to dismiss me. But now that I was quite of age, I never relented in putting forward my query. One day, as I brought it up again, she shut me up and finally spilled the beans by snapping that she went to a sperm bank in America. Then, with fire in her eyes, she asked if that had finally put to route my pesky curiosity. Also she warned me sternly never to broach this again. My father’s identity, she hollered, was never revealed to her by the sperm bank people. Period!
Grandpa removed his hat and draped his grizzled arm around my shoulder. He gave me an assuring pump, and I half-closed my eyes as though trying to discern, precisely, the ingredients used to create the exotic mélange of his expensive perfume. He cleared his throat and said in a low, faltering tone: “She told me the same thing, my dear. Sperm bank. She was so point-blank and plain. Sperm bank—just like that.”
I gasped and shot my grandfather an incredulous glance. “Could it be true, Grandpa?”
He shrugged his shoulders and pouted. As a young woman back then in the U.S., he said, Margaret Omobolanle Cole (whom he fondly called Maggie) always yearned to have a child. One to call her own, a child from her own womb. “But she never wanted a man in her life, as she clung tenaciously, and still does, to the delusion that every man takes undue advantage of marriage to manhandle and subdue his woman.”
I adjusted myself as I listened in rapt attention.
Shortly after graduating from Yale, Grandpa said, Maggie came back pregnant. Strangely, she was so proud of it. She would stroke it every now and again, whispering endearments to the baby. “Looking at her in wide-eyed alarm, naturally, I persistently demanded to know the man responsible. But she refused to budge.”
I cringed, the disdain I had for my mother growing inside me like some monstrous beast.
“Being a man who never sweeps undesirable things under the carpet,” Grandpa said, “I was relentless until she told me one day it was A. I.”
“A. I.? What’s that?”
“Artificial Insemination. She went to a sperm bank—with my hard-earned money, the money I sent to her regularly. I was devastated, so much so that I almost disowned her.”
A gush of emotion welled in me, and I felt a little breathless. I had been harboring a suspicion that Mom had lied to me, so I trusted Grandpa to, at least, give me a morsel of the whole truth. And here he was, knowing as little as I did, knowing just the much my mother had allowed both of us to.
Grandpa shook his head and heaved a sigh. Maggie, he said, was his only child for whom he wanted the best of life. “But the unfortunate thing is that she’s so impossible, highly incorrigible, and extremely overbearing, with never a trace of remorse in her rebellious soul.”
“But why, Grandpa? Why should Mom do such a horrible thing?”
Grandpa glowered at me. “Horrible? Don’t let America hear that, Son.”
“Then, for crying out loud, she’d have given birth to me in America!” I said with a glare. “She’d have also raised me in America. Their culture is not, and will never be, the same as ours!” Maybe, I grumbled, I wouldn’t be living so miserably if I had been born and raised over there.
Putting his hat back on, Grandpa gave me a sidelong look with a nod. Oh, Maggie, he said, shaking his head slowly, thoughtfully. Oh, Maggie, he reiterated. “She’s such a mystery—like her mother. Yes, she’s such a mystery. Obtaining a laudable Master’s in architecture from Yale and, subsequently, getting relentlessly devoted to everything about bricks and mortar at Cole Constructions are the only good things she’s ever done for me. Even at that, I still find it hard to understand her.”
“She’s a devil!”
Grandpa scowled at me. “Be careful what you call your mother, Son.” If she were a devil, he said, maintaining his puckered brow, she wouldn’t have yearned for a baby, an innocent child, to take care of in the first place.
My eyes began to spit fire, a fire that could not be doused by even the gathering of my tears. I swallowed hard, tore my eyes away from Grandpa’s, and strengthened to my full height. “She never took care of that baby!” I shrieked, looking elsewhere, throwing my arms around in utter exasperation and hopelessness. “She abandoned the innocent child in the hands of numerous nannies whom she fired and fired at every whim, flying very high, feeling chuffed with herself—all in the name of busyness!” I began to shake my head, hoping it would drive home my point. “No, Grandpa, she never took care of that baby!”
I turned and, towering above my grandfather, met two dumbfounded eyes looking up in a sympathetic countenance, regarding me from under the hat that sat precariously on his head. I calmed down a bit and stifled as tears began to roll down my screwed-up cheeks. Then, before I knew it, my eyes began to blaze again as I bore my eyes into the old man’s. “And she still never takes care of the baby!”
Grandpa’s eyes sputtered at me in hushed consternation. He was obviously bowed down by a crushing weight of pity, and I knew he had never seen me overwhelmed with so much exasperation.
Calming down again, I stared at him through the mist of tears and almost whispered: “So I’m truly a bastard, Grandpa.”
There was a moment’s silence before he nodded and finally said, still in that low, faltering tone: “Being a bastard may be a social stigma, Son—especially in Africa. But, needless to say, it’s no vice.”
“But they boo me at school,” I yelled. “Cindy has been quite helpful. But then how am I going to live with it for the rest of life?”
Grandpa heaved a perplexed sigh. How on earth, he wanted to know, did they get to know about my paternity?
It didn’t start today, I said, more tears rushing to my eyes, my heart thudding painfully. It started when we were all in primary school, the same set of kids between the ages of nine and ten. Mom was never there for PTA meetings. Never.
Grandpa pushed his lips in a pout of concentration, his eyes fastened on mine.
One bright and sunny Monday afternoon, I began, the school director stomped into our classroom. Immediately, a deathly silence descended on all of us. At fifty-something, Mrs. Okafor was a no-nonsense short, plump woman. She was as round as a ball, with short rotund legs sticking out from beneath an almost knee-length skirt. Through her thick glasses, she panned her owlish eyes along the second row of juvenile faces. Once she spotted me, she pointed at me. ‘Yes, that’s Siji! Now stand up, Siji!’ I quickly obeyed and my legs began to wobble with nervous apprehension. ‘Siji,’ she said, boring her eyes into mine, wagging a stumpy ruby-ringed finger at me, her soprano voice rising to a crescendo, ‘since you always say your mom is a busy woman, your dad should be at the PTA meetings! Neither of them has ever been in attendance!’ My whole body began to shake with an utterly abandoned weeping as I said between sobs: ‘My mom doesn’t want to tell me where my dad is. I ask her everyday, but she says nothing.’ Suddenly, one ridiculous child, a diplomat’s son with a terrible Arabian accent, sprang up behind me and said mockingly, at the top of his lungs: ‘Maybe Siji is not only a motherless scallywag, he may also be a bombastic bastard!’ To my mortification, the rest of the kids howled with laughter—and I was shocked to see Mrs. Okafor laughing, too, like a mother hen!
Grandpa sighed, shaking his head.
What was worse, I said, everybody to this day started calling me bastard, save Cindy.
“Look, Son,” Grandpa said, patting me at the back most solemnly, “that doesn’t matter. It really does not. What matters is learning to brace yourself to surmount any kind of obstacle. You’re the one to paint the life in front of you. God has given you the canvas, and you must paint a beautiful life, a life to be reckoned with, bastard or no bastard.”
The apple in my mouth now tasted like shit. I took a long, lugubrious look at the left-over in my hand and hurled it into the river. “Let’s go home, Grandpa.”
His face jerked up towards me, brow creasing. “Go home? But we just arrived and have hardly begun to eat. We have to—”
Politely, I held up a restraining hand. “I’m going to walk up to the road to wait for a taxi. I have some change in my pocket.”
He reminded me we had come to relax. It was supposed to be a merry picnic, he implored, after which we took a stroll.
But what was important to me right now, I protested further, was go home and be alone for a while.
I knew that Grandpa, obviously quailed at the thought of having stirred the anger in me, was at a loss as to what else to say. With his compassionate eyes fastened on me in the ensuing silence, I turned and walked closer to the river, backing him, still feeling the tightening of that anger in my throat. Staring hard at the river, I dug my hands into my pockets and took a deep breath. The water eddied and scoured mildly, its slow currents flowing unhindered under the pier. The fishing peasants had all departed with their sumptuous catch. Their worn-out canoes now rested like a couple of tired amphibious beasts under the dark shadow of yet another spreading tree.
As sunset was about to be finally drowned in twilight, we left in practical silence, my face a doleful mask.
We gather round the mahogany table in the boardroom, the swivel chairs groaning under our weights. Long and polished, the table is laden with an assortment of stationery, piles of classified documents, a wonderful variety of smartphones and i-pads, and the paraphernalia of tea and coffee for the thirteen of us. There is also a small cute projector facing a spotless wall upon which hung a snow-white screen.
My mother, seated at the head of the table, presides over the meeting as both Chairman and CEO. Hers is a sixty-nine-year-old face, with wrinkles concealed beneath a layer of pancake. It is set above a flabby neck around which hang several strings of expensive pearls. Upon her pointed nose rests a pair of steel-rimmed reading glasses, and round some of her fingers are imposing rings of silver and diamond and burnished gold. We nudge and whisper to ourselves as she prattles on—to our stifled displeasure.
Hanging on the wall behind Mom is Grandpa’s portrait. The aged man’s face is wreathed in his eternal smile. Nostalgia overwhelms me and holds me in its spell for a few moments. Morning, noon, and night, the memory of the great old man wraps itself around me like a warm quilt. Cole Constructions, I muse, is an enduring legacy from this late sage. We cannot afford to toy with it.
But our debtors are now hard nuts to crack. The debts have, in fact, become controversial. It sends an unpleasant chill through us. The debtors are certainly not ready to budge. Our creditors, on the other hand, are on our necks. When Grandpa was chairman, I did gather, the company battled on like a ship butting her way through the tempest. But today it has collided, or so it seems, with an iceberg. I recoil as the grim realization drives into my brain. I struggle to banish behind my mind the heart-wrenching truth that the fate of Cole Constructions was no different from that of the Titanic. I think of all my grandfather worked so hard to build in his lifetime, all that he handed over to his daughter, my mother, with profound faith in her judgment.
“I suggest we institute a legal battle against our obstinate debtors,” one of us says. His name is Tamuno Briggs. “We’re low on cash, all right—but we can’t afford to be continually seen in that light by our creditors.”
“The reputation Pa Cole built in his lifetime,” another says, “cannot be allowed to come crumbling under our noses like a pack of cards. We must get our monies by hook or by crook. In fact, Mr. Briggs is right; the best way to do so is wage a legal battle against those stiff-necked bastards.”
“We don’t need the court here,” Mom says, her masculine voice resounding in the room. “Don’t sound like whimpering dogs with tails between their legs. I can’t condone cowards around me. Lawsuit is out-of-the-question . . . at least, for now.”
“But, ma,” another says, “we’re headed for deep water if we don’t take an immediate legal action. Let’s stop delaying. We have a number of big projects to execute, after all—and we don’t have ample time left.”
“Our bankers are about to call in our collaterals,” I venture. “We know the implications. Lawsuit may bring about the declaration of bankruptcy by some of our debtors—and once they liquidate, we get our monies—or some of them, at least.”
Mom turns sharply to look at me. She peels off her glasses and fixes me with a stunned stare as though I were some strange freak. “We need cash now. I mean now. Lawsuit is a process and costs time and money. Liquidation is a process, too. They take time.”
“Siji,” she continues as her glare intensifies, “if I were you I’d wisely keep quiet. You’re not an accountant. You’re a civil engineer.”
As the embarrassing minutes tick away, I dig my nails into my palms and squirm with an indignant mortification and a muted loathing for my mother. The rest in the room, I suppose, must be wondering why this feisty woman always talks to her son, her only child, so sarcastically, so dishonorably.
“Guys,” she says with brazen cynicism, “don’t you have the boldness and stamina to recover debts without litigation? Each one of you must shake off that chicken heart and get it replaced with a lion’s. I refuse to believe that one debt figure alone is a whopping one-point-three billion! From the presentation of the executive director of finance, it has lingered for a startlingly long time, like a festering wound. Absolutely unacceptable!”
We all fall silent, looking downright deflated.
I furtively look around and become aware of an agitation growing silently among the medley of screwed-up faces. Doesn’t Mom know that we have all put in our best in recovering what our clients and associates owe us? In fact, I reckon, we don’t meet with her without getting our wings singed.
She takes a deep breath. “I understand we have run out of bank credit, and, even more sadly, none of our bankers is willing to compromise. They’re bent on calling in the collaterals.”
We all nod our agreement, not in the least surprised.
Somberly, Mom sips her tea and clears her throat again. “I inherited this company, just like Alice Walton did Wal-Mart,” she says. “But it’s presently swaying under the enormous weight of debts—and almost all its assets have been charged as collateral.” She begins to shake her head slowly. “My father would surely stir in his grave if Cole Constructions died a shameful death—which I’d certainly not allow.”
The ensuing silence is now heavy with indefinable trepidation. It’s hard to believe that we’ve hit an iceberg, like the Titanic. If, and only if, Mom will choose to be on our side by taking the viable option of litigation.
“Well,” she says, “I’ve decided to sell my personal title-owned real estate, especially those houses in Lekki Peninsular and Ikoyi and Banana Island, since all the company’s title documents are in the hands of our bankers. We all can afford to suspend receiving our dividends until further notice. Secretary, don’t fail to add that to the minutes.”
The silence descends again.
I avert my gaze and look at the portrait, a jumble of thoughts buzzing in my brain. My eyes meet Grandpa’s as he stares at me from the depths of the canvas as if to say: Siji, this cannot be happening. It seems Maggie inadvertently wants to reduce my empire to rubble—with good intentions, though. My eyes flicker, like I just woke up with a start.
Mom downs the remaining tea in one gulp and thuds the china on the saucer. “I know the redemption of debentures is a pressing business on hand,” she says, daintily dabbing a white handkerchief at her reddened, pouting lips. “All debenture-holders must also wait. No cash. Plain and simple. Secretary, also note it down.”
“Hold it there, young man,” she says with a condescending grunt, shooting me a withering glance, before looking the other directors in the eye, one after the other. “Look, let me repeat myself: I’m selling my property, since seeking further credit from our bankers isn’t going to fly. My company has never ever faced this challenge before.”
My company. No one says a word. I stare hard at Mom and look across at the painting again. Siji, this cannot be happening . . .
Without warning, Ms Margaret Omobolanle Cole brings her hand flailing down on the table with a crash that startles us and makes the pens and the phones dance, the mugs and teacups rattling in their saucers. “Gentlemen,” she says, her eyes twinkling uncannily, “I’ll arrange with a broker to sell the better part of my real estate to the highest bidder in order to raise the cash urgently needed to take us out of this disgraceful snare. And when our debtors pay in the long run, whether by means of litigation or not—well, I leave it to your own devices—I’ll get my money back. Gentlemen, my decision is final, and we have to call it a day.”
Immediately, an alarmed hush falls on the boardroom. Our jaws drop, and our eyes widen, as we furtively scowl at her, feeling a stab of frustration and dismay. Mom’s words, in fact, don’t only come like a slap in our faces whenever we meet here. They’re like a mournful knell; they hit badly.
“Did you have to end the meeting so abruptly?” I nonetheless say, mustering all the courage in me. As I work hard to train my eyes on her with an inescapable glare, a quiet scorn churns my stomach, and I wish I could also ask: Ain’t you being too rash, bitch?
She fixes my eyes with a baleful glare, like she doesn’t have a care in the world. “Meet me in my office right away, Siji,” she says instead, brusquely as always, raising her penciled brows eloquently. Then she straightens herself to her full height of five-feet-two.
Pulling at the lobe of my ear thoughtfully, I regard her petite frame as she marches towards the door, her skirt suit clean and crisp, her strides on stilettos small but purposeful.
Once she’s out of sight, chairs start pushing back. But it seems my butt is glued to mine as my co-directors amble to the door in disgruntled silence. They’re almost in a single file, like a herd of cattle lumbering across the road, hard-beaten by both their nomadic owners and the brazenly scorching sun.
Dry-mouthed, I rise to my feet, staring morosely at the door as the last executive director in the file clicks it shut. Then, all alone, I pull the knot from my silk tie and undo the stiff collar of my sparkling white shirt, overwhelmed by a weight of stifled disdain and animosity. Mom will never change, I think, clenching my teeth. As my mind beats about like a trapped robin, I reach out for a left-over bagel in my saucer, sink my teeth into the soft wedge, and begin to munch apprehensively.
Savoring the aroma of coffee that still wafts from the coffee mixer, I grab my mug and take a long draught of the tepid left-over. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I draw a long breath, then take the last glance at Grandpa’s wrinkly face and march to the door.
Mom’s secretary, Amaka, is a young, pimply woman who always wears long braids. She glances up at me and mutters a greeting as I step into my mother’s roomy office.
As Mom rises to her feet and tremblingly lights her cigarette, she looks quite vulnerable. (Yes, she does but her heart, I suppose, is made of steel.)
I stare at her incredulously. “Did you say your company?”
With lack-luster eyes, she fixes me with a long, appraising stare. “I hold sixty percent of the equity, Siji,” she says quietly but firmly, shoulders squared. “Or have you forgotten the fifty-five your grandpa added to my five?”
Narrowing my eyes in utter exasperation, I don’t care whether or not I’m being rude her. “You can’t sell my Grandpa’s houses for crying out loud!” I say, flailing. “That is the same as kicking him in the crotch!”
Mom gives a scathing giggle. “Kicking my father in the crotch? But he’s dead and buried.”
“Look, Siji, your own inheritance is being held in trust by your grandfather’s bankers until you clock thirty or thereabouts. Good news is, you’ll soon get it since you getting close to that.” She begins to clasp her hands, now giving me a matter-of-fact look. Unfortunately, she says, my inheritance doesn’t include any part of Grandpa’s real estate, except his mansion where I presently live with my wife, Cindy, and my one-year-old daughter, Wunmi.
She walks over to me and draws to a standstill. Fixing a stern eye on me with unruffled dignity, she pushes her weathered face within inches of mine. (We often stand this way, eyeball-to-eyeball, whenever we disagree on issues, corporate or civil.) “I’m not kicking my father in the crotch. I’m putting a smile on his face. I’m making him proud.”
I tear my eyes away from her flinty stare and give a couple of grumpy nods, my face set in its usual cast of melancholy.
“Have I made myself clear, Siji?”
I glower at her. “No, you haven’t. You never do make yourself clear to me, Mom. Never, never.”
In the ensuing silence, she turns and ambles behind her paper-strewn desk, her stilettos clattering on the marbled floor. Then she sits straight-backed as always and takes a deep breath. I know there is the usual touch of steel glinting in her eyes as she cracks a sardonic smile. “That’s fine. Now, let me finally make myself abundantly clear to you. Those houses are legally mine, and I have sold them already, bless my ever-proficient Broad-Street broker.”
Stunned, I scowl. “Is that why you asked me to come over?”
She gives a nod, pursing her lips.
“But why, Mom?” Why on earth is she doing this? She obviously wants to fritter away all Grandpa’s fortune by such a rash decision—which, to me, is crass recklessness.
Cole Constructions is a sinking ship, she says behind a haze of smoke. A drastic action must be taken to save it from hitting the seabed. Lawsuits will not save it from drowning, because with the debtors’ bankruptcies as a lifeline, chances are slim. Some Americans and their legal reps will be here sooner than later to sign the papers. They’re representing a U.S.-based real estate investment company with branches in some major African cities, including Lagos, Cairo, Nairobi, and Johannesburg. “We negotiated the deal a couple of weeks ago. Thank goodness, my lawyers are equal to the task. I’m not afraid of selling all those houses in those idyllic places, so long as I’m not gambling with the proceeds.”
Resisting the urge to walk out on this pigheaded woman and crash the door behind me, I stare at my shoes. My brow furrows more and more as bewilderment roll over me in a gathering flood, the color draining rapidly from my face. Then I look up, and my eyes lock with hers. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mom! Why didn’t you say exactly this in the meeting, anyway? Why did you give us the impression that it’s what you want to embark upon when you’ve actually had the deal brokered long ago?”
She rises to her feet, and the smile continues to play around the corners of her lips. Then she takes a long steady breath and begins to pace up and down. “I was careful to downplay expectations. Besides, this is my company, Siji. I do whatever I please with it.”
Sighing, I wipe my confounded face with my palm as if I am fast losing my sight and want it fully restored immediately. Of course, it won’t surprise me if Cole Constructions is truly slipping away from my mother’s grip. Ultimately, it is my vision. If I lose it, I lose my sight.
She comes to a halt and turns to face me, looking at me like she’s some coquettish mistress of mine. “Don’t worry, Siji,” she says. “Everything will be fine. I promise you. This is your grandfather’s dream. I won’t allow it to die. I will hold it until I hand it over to you at the appropriate time—and I expect you to do better than he did, and even much better than I’m doing.”
I look across at her calmly, concern creasing my forehead. Then I thank her for speaking with such profound confidence and assurance. “But it may backfire, Mom.”
“How do you mean?”
“What if the debtors don’t pay, since you’ve overruled litigation? What if those banks call in those title documents, as numerous as they are, and take possession of Grandpa’s empire? What if Cole Constructions, incidentally, never gets the money with which to reimburse you?”
Mom frowns. “Why d’you say that, Siji? Those events won’t happen.” The proceeds from the sale of those stately houses, she says, will not only cover the redeemable debentures but will also cause those bank credit facilities to plummet appreciably—
The intercom buzzes and she picks the receiver.
“Yes, Amaka?” Pause. “A group of white men from the U.S.?” Pause. “Did you say they’re seven?” Pause “Please, ask them in.”
I do not need a diviner to tell me my mother’s heart has suddenly begun to jump, that her blood is now racing with profound exhilaration.
She looks at me, beaming in undisguised excitement. “They’re here, Siji,” she says and an unaccustomed giggle spills from her lips. Then she quickly stubs out her cigarette, tosses it into the ashtray, and primly adjusts the collar of her suit coat and smoothes her wispy hair which she always ties to a bun.
“Then I have to leave.”
“No, wait. I want you to witness the signing—the entire documentation process.”
The door clicks open, and, as Amaka shepherds the Americans to a row of sleek leather couches in a far corner, one of them stares at me with undisguised admiration. He is tall and svelte, and immensely likeable, with an aristocratic face that bears a long nose. He is undoubtedly a man of formidable presence and, I reckon, must be the leader of the delegates. Immediately, he warms me with his smile, his sea-blue eyes, with their almost mystic depths, cuddling my blood, causing my skin to crawl beneath a blanket of goose-pimples. Though he looks about the same age as my mother, and his hair is full of gray, he is sprightly and must have been a dashing, debonair blond in his prime. I steer my eyes to the other men as Amaka steps out, but they don’t strike me the way the tall one does. But in all, they are dark-suited, exuding natural charm and commanding personality—and I can sniff the sweet scent of success as I gawk at them, all the seven of them.
Then I give Mom a furtive look. Perhaps her blood has stopped racing. Words turn constantly in my head as I try to conjure up sentences or phrases that will describe how she feels at the moment. It is hard to pinpoint, quite hard. But one baffling thing is that her eyes lock with those of the tall man as they keep staring at each other with undisguised bewilderment—like they have met somewhere before.
“Miguel Vaughn?” Mom whispers, peering at him over the rim of her glasses. “Are you—?”
“Splendid! You do recognize me, in spite of the gray all over,” he says confidently, his deep-chested voice rumbling like thunder. “Good to see you again, my dear Maggie Cole.” He thrusts out his hand for a handshake. Receiving no positive response, he turns and gives me a long, probing stare. “This handsome young man here must be your son, our son?”
He must have noticed a fleeting doubt in my eyes as I subject him under a skeptical scrutiny and then swivel two puzzled eyes in Mom’s direction. “Who is he, Mom?” I refuse to mince words.
Looking like she is in the middle of a bad dream, she says nothing. She falls limply into the couch right behind her instead, covering her deathly pale face with her quivering hands, like she has suddenly caught a fever.
I wait for the other men to start shooting enquiring glances at Mom, at their colleague, at me, and back. But they don’t look surprised at all. Instead they are seated, mute, like they already know what this is all about. Perhaps, I think, they are waiting for the melodrama to be done with before finally getting down to business with my mother.
The man chuckles, staring at Mom. “Far more than two decades ago, Maggie. How time flies. Yale did us a lot of good indeed. Didn’t she? Oh Margaret, come off it. Before I got you pregnant, you never ceased to tell me you’d follow me to the ends of the earth . . . C’mon, girl, your eyes should be sparkling at the memory right now.”
I glare at the American. “I demand to know who you are, sir. And stop hurting my mother!”
His unwavering eyes nonetheless dance with mirth as they still probe mine from beneath well-lined brows, hands in pockets. He came closer, and, as his tall form hovers over me, he sweeps me again with his smiling gaze, his eyes shimmering like a calm turquoise sea in the evening sun. “I am Miguel Vaughn,” he says, “the CEO of Hanover Realty Incorporated.” He thrusts out his hand.
As a tense silence descends, I dig my quavering hands into my pockets instead and give him a cold stare, refusing to be startled by the depth of his gaze.
“I am Miguel Vaughn,” he reiterates, hand still stretched out. “Your mother ditched me forever upon finding out she was carrying my unborn child. She stole you from me, perhaps safe in the belief that our paths would never cross again.” The smile wanes as he pushes the hand back into his pocket and takes another posture, tilting his head. “Sorry for being so blunt; I hate nibbling around the edges in all my business and personal dealings. It runs in the family; we don’t beat about the bush . . . You must be Siji Cole.”
I swallow a lump that is swiftly climbing up my windpipe. “Who told you my name?” I ask, calmly but firmly, maintaining my flinty stare, struggling with the emotions that have begun to whirl my insides.
The website of Cole Constructions is a beautiful one, he says after a moment’s silence, with due respect to Google. In fact, it’s a lot more beautiful than that of Hanover Realty. “I wasn’t surprised to find out all the accomplishments of your mother. All the tours around the world. All the seminars and courses—and conferences. All the essays and papers and speeches—professional! All the accolades. All the awards. It’s very, very heartening that hers is a household name in the world of bricks and mortar. And then I felt good when I saw you as the latest admission to the board. Since then, I’ve been following all of the company’s milestones, bless the Internet, until I bumped into the name of your real-estate broker.”
His words send a chill through me, almost turning my voice to ice. “Look, Mr. Vaughn,” I say, narrowing my eyes, with the hope that this will finally exhume what I feel should be the truth, and nothing but the truth, “I wasn’t conceived naturally. My mother opted for A. I., and my father’s identity was never revealed to her—or to anybody else. You see, I don’t beat about the bush either.”
He throws back his head and bursts into an incredulous peal of laughter. “She told you that?” He turns and gives Mom a sober look, and I notice a kind of restrained fury in his booming voice. “How could you be so cruel, Maggie? How could you?”
In the hush of the room, I turn sharply to my mother and catch her looking at the man with what I suspect to be a silent appeal. I give her a long, withering look. She takes out a white handkerchief. As she blows her nose, I see the unmistakable hot blush of shame on her cheeks. Then she seemingly shrivels within herself, weeping like a schoolgirl who has just woken up and discovers she’s truly a hapless victim of date rape.
A gush of indignation wells in me as I stare at her with deep disdain, sunk in utter disappointment. “Ain’t you gonna say something, Mom?” I cry. “Or do I simply take it that this meeting has finally exposed your silly ruse and broken to pieces that iron stuff in your unbending heart?”
Still weeping, no longer in command of her universe, she pays no attention to me—not even to my unexpected boorishness. I’m sure the mere sight of this man has broken the dam of her reserve.
“Is he my father?” I roar like a lion, reddening. “Tell me the truth!”
Slowly, she turns to give me a rueful look, groping for a word or two. Not able to find any, she gives a quivering nod and heaves her small frame. As her shoulders convulse, unabated tears stream down her cheeks. (This is a woman whom I have always thought has nerves of steel. But now, to my surprise, all I see is that huge, menacing facade of her imperious strong will crumbling—right under my nose.)
Miguel Vaughn. My father? For real? I can’t believe my eyes. Even so, as the reality of this encounter sears my throat and stings my eyes, I take another look at him. He and his team, I think, are waiting patiently for my mother to gather her wits about her. No, it’s not real; he can’t be my flesh and blood. No, he’s not . . . Is he? Maybe I just can’t swallow it hook, line and sinker. It will take a DNA test result to completely erase my doubt, I decide.
But as the memory of Mom’s vicious lies—to me and, sadly, to Grandpa—lances at my miserable heart, my hatred for her becomes a living thing, rolling off me in waves. I feel like screaming and railing against fate. But, bathed in tears, I stomp out, flailing like a dervish, trying in vain to catch my breath, knowing well that both Margaret Cole and Miguel Vaughn are staring at my receding back with immense understanding.