The studio was tastefully furnished with locally fabricated stools and tables that had been made from treated Iroko wood and polished with a light brown finishing. The walls and floors were painstakingly adorned with strips of rare wallpaper and multi-colored dyed rugs. Soft, soothing songs proceeded from the radio in the background, which caused a relaxing sensation to permeate the atmosphere of the busy outlet and got the assistants swaying to the melody. The proprietress was too absorbed in what she was doing to pay attention to the catchy tune. Her heart beat at a more intense frequency than the smooth rhythm from the radio. It always beat that way whenever she worked. It was a beat of determination - indeed one of passion. One could call it ‘the entrepreneur’s pulse’ - felt only among those who were truly in love with their work.
She liked to wake up early. When an old friend once told her of the rejuvenation which the break of dawn brought, she never forgot. The morning of each day found her pouring herself into her love for clothing. Inside her fashion outlet, she created new styles, bringing yards of plain and patterned fabrics together to form her own label of seamless masterpieces. Her dexterity kept the customers coming and they in turn kept her occupied. There was no denying her sense of style. It was a rare and unique gift, which she had spared no pains to refine. Dressed in a simple, single-piece blue Ankara outfit, this woman had remained an epitome of beauty. Yet over the years, her artistry had helped to shift the spotlight from her personal life to her professional one.
Conversation flowed freely among her staff that morning. It was, in addition to the soft music, another of life’s little pleasures which they enjoyed at the studio. The proprietress caught only snippets of what they were saying. Sometimes she joined in their discourse, sharing with them fashion trends, her styles and plans for the future; while leaving out intimate details of her mistakes, pains and regrets of the past. Not even her assistants, who worked closely with her, could appreciate how much she had put in over the years - those long hours and near sleepless nights spent here in the studio, putting the designs that formed in her head on paper, refining and retouching them till she got a perfect picture.
There were times when she felt tired. But though her home - with its cozy bed - was only a flight of stairs away, it was the expectation of good reward for her labor that kept her down here. In the near future, she hoped to take a much needed vacation. She knew she deserved one, but she also knew this was probably not the right time to go. Her motto: ‘A designer’s work is never done,’ gave no room for slowing down. With her quarterly catalogue of ready-to-wear pieces already due for compilation and orders still pouring in after the release of the last edition, it was never the right time.
The loud shrill and accompanying vibrations that erupted from her bag jolted her out her concentration and she quickly retrieved the phone, smiling knowingly at the caller ID that appeared on the screen. The timing of Otas’ calls was almost predictable and she moved over to a quiet spot that was conducive for casual talk. They were sisters after all and worth taking time out of each other’s busy schedules for a regular chat. She answered the phone and prepared for the light hearted teasing that usually marked the start of their conversations.
‘Stella!’ Her junior sister’s voice was unexpectedly heavy. ‘Sis, I’m so sorry.’
Stella frowned as she pressed the phone to her ears. Otas had barely even said hello - and why on earth should she be sorry?
‘Sorry? What are you sorry about?’ She queried in bemusement.
There was a slight pause. ‘You haven’t heard then?’
‘It’s Orobosa,’ the voice on the other end replied. ‘He has passed away.’
Stella sucked in a deep breath - and then another one. ‘Oh my goodness, Otas!’ she exclaimed. ‘How? What happened?’
‘I hear he had been complaining of chest pains. They say he slumped in the early hours of the morning and before they could get him to the hospital, he was gone.’
Stella’s steady heartbeat was disrupted by the onset of some undesirable palpitations. She spent the next few moments trying to gather her nerves together.
‘It didn’t just happen though,’ Otas continued. ‘I heard the final rites are coming up in two days time. I only just received word of this and I decided to call you immediately.’
‘But, but how come I’m not aware. Did you say they are burying him in two days?’
There was another long pause, as Stella grappled with the news. She hadn’t spoken to Orobosa or anyone in his family, in ages. A lot of water had passed under the bridge since their last contact, yet the news was a hard pill to swallow.
‘Hello sis, are you okay?’ Across the line, Otas’ voice was laden with concern. ‘I didn’t mean to break it to you this way. Somehow I thought you already knew.’
Still holding unto the phone, Stella trembled. This was a doleful turn to what would otherwise have been a pleasant morning. Otas shared what little else she knew, which wasn’t very much - sketchy details about the funeral arrangements. After they hung up, Stella sat on one of her Iroko stools and winced in pain - an emotional pain that nearly felt physical. No one among her in-laws had reached out to her. That hurt. When exactly were they planning to let her know of Orobosa’s death? During the first anniversary? She tried to convince herself that it was probably because they did not know her whereabouts. In truth, she too had no idea who to reach out to now. Nevertheless, she made plans to attend the wake. If nothing else, she owed it to her estranged husband to pay her last respects.
The service of songs was set to be an elaborate affair. All the family members had gathered and occupied the front rows, in order of hierarchy. Stella arrived, accompanied by Otas, both of them out of place in this seemingly strange environment. Stella barely recognized anybody and no one seemed to recognize her either. They entered the hall through the back door, holding hands. But when her sister moved to take up a space somewhere in the middle, Stella let her go. Rejecting the seats which the smartly dressed ushers offered to her, she kept going closer to the front. Her steps were slow and unsure. The number one fear she had, coming here, was that she would stick out like a sore thumb in the midst of everyone else. But she did have a right to sit with the family, being after all, the deceased’s wife - though they had been estranged for many years. The empty seats were becoming sparser as she approached the front of the hall. Stella quickly scoured the first three rows and realized, to her disappointment, that they were all jam-packed with no allowance for her to squeeze in. Resigned, she retraced her steps and went to join Otas in the twelfth row, ignoring the irritated look on the usher’s face. It was as close to the front as she could get and she settled in quietly. From there, she could see her rival, Orobosa’s first wife, seated in the front row with her two children and some immediate family members. They were dressed in the same dark lace attire as the rest of the extended family. Sitting further back, Stella could not help feeling cheated. Considering that she had never been formally introduced to most of the family members who now graced the ceremony, she wanted her presence here to be as tranquil as possible. She had come intending to maintain a low profile, but she certainly did not want to be ignored and felt slighted that no one had bothered to contact her. They had excluded her from the family meetings that were held in preparation towards this day. If it had not been for her sister, she would probably still be in the dark about today’s proceedings and by the time she heard of her husband’s passing, the burial ceremony would have come and gone. They could have at least sent her the attire that was being worn that day. Like most, Stella was dressed in black lace, fitted more elegantly than the simple style she had on when Otas called two days ago - but it was a strikingly different fabric from what the rest of Orobosa’s family were wearing. Trying to suppress the anger that was building within her, she did a quick survey of her surroundings. Checking her watch and realizing they still had fifteen minutes before the ceremony began, she swiftly rose up from her seat, swallowing the lump that formed in her throat. There was a healthier way to handle her grievance and with just enough time to do so. Her steps light but determined, Stella again moved over to the front, where a few elderly family members stood in a small group, discussing quietly among themselves. After greeting each one in turn, she made her identity known. Perhaps if they knew who she was, they would accord her some due recognition. She was mistaken.
The group of elders showed deep displeasure at the interruption and even more at the ties which this unknown woman claimed to have with their family. With indignation written all over her, one of the women ordered Stella to introduce herself again.
‘Orobosa and I were legally married and have remained so all these years,’ she began to explain. But the oldest among them raised his hand to silence her.
‘Legally married by whose standards?’ he asked, shaking his head emphatically. ‘That is not our way. We don’t know you.’
With one accord, the group disowned her. She was not ‘their wife’. It was not that they held anything personal against Stella, or were opposed to their son taking her for a wife. But whoever wanted to enter their fold had to come in through the front door and not a back window. As he pointed out, Orobosa had never brought Stella home to them. He never even mentioned her name in their hearing. The two families had never met and no traditional ceremony was held for their union. There had been no declaration of intent or exchange of gifts. Two of his cousins had attended their court wedding. But as far as the family was concerned, a court wedding was incomplete. Without fulfilling the customary rites which included payment of dowry from the groom’s side and its subsequent return from the bride’s side, stating that their daughter was not for sale, the union was not recognized. Stella could therefore not claim to be Orobosa’s wife, let alone his widow. In unison, they passed their verdict; the marriage - if it ever took place - was nothing but a sham. It did not help Stella’s case that, in claiming to be Orobosa’s wife, she had borne him no children. How could she lay any claim to a man with whom she had no issue?
Orobosa’s first wife, on the other hand, held the privileged position. No one could contend her place in the family. With her, he had fulfilled all the laid down customs of matrimony and as such, the honor accorded to a legitimate wife of their town was hers. It was her they recognized as his widow and no one else. Plus, she had borne him two children. As for this woman, Stella, they could only describe her as a leech who had stuck herself to their son to suck him dry.
Stella shook her head. It was no use trying to explain to her in-laws, the complications that arose during her short lived marriage to their son. The sentimental details would bore them, anyway. It was imperative however, that she cleared the misconception which she sensed they held about her.
‘I don’t want anything from you,’ she tried to clarify amidst their skeptical gazes. ‘I only came to pay my last respects to my late husband.’
One of the guests, a plus-sized woman, noisily approached the group, temporarily distracting them and blocking out the sound of Stella’s defense. She walked to where they stood clustered together and stretched out her long neck, her eyes widened with curiosity.
‘Who is she?’ she enquired in a high pitched voice that was too loud for comfort.
‘She claims to be the second woman,’ one of the family members replied.
‘The second woman?’ the guest questioned. ‘And where did she surface from?’
‘Who knows?’ her informant continued. ‘Meanwhile, she is yet to tell us where she was when his health was declining and we tried nursing him to no avail. Where was she when we were making contributions towards this day?’
Armed with this information, the enquirer returned to her seat to give feedback to those around her. Stella watched in embarrassment, as the guests began to realize what was going on. Her eyes roaming through the crowd as people began to murmur and cast quick glances at her, she questioned the wisdom in her decision to venture out here in the first place. She noticed Otas beckoning to her. Annoyed, mostly with herself, she was just about to retreat to her obscure middle row seat, when the third woman arrived.
This mysterious mother of two burst in unabashedly into the hall and demanded an audience with the family of the deceased. Her appearance and manner were very strange. With her left hand, she pulled along a young boy who was sucking noisily on a lollipop, the lower part of his face smeared with the syrup. In her right hand, she carried his eight month old sister dressed in a pink checkered pinafore dress and nodding off to sleep in her mother’s arms.
‘No, it cannot wait,’ she asserted when the elders attempted to chide her for barging in on them this way. She had waited long enough and was not getting any younger. Now that it was certain that the father of her children was never to respond again, the family would have to stand in the gap for him, for she would not stand by and watch her kids suffer for one more day.
The group of elders watched her, perplexed. What exactly was this woman talking about; they asked each other for she made no sense to them at all. The strange woman wasted no time in explaining herself. She was referring to her now fatherless children of course, or to put it more clearly, Orobosa’s children by her. It turned out that Stella was not the only estranged companion of the late minister. This third woman, Rosaline, had been seeing him even before he separated from his second wife. Now, she stated to everyone who cared - and even those who did not care - to listen, that her offspring were entitled to a portion of their father’s inheritance - which she had now come to claim.
The gathering broke into a chaotic frenzy, as two members of the family attempted to pull the strange woman aside and reason with her. But she did not wish to be placated. All she wanted to know was what the family’s plans were for her children. The ceremony could not proceed until the matter was settled. Her eyes flashing, she dared anyone to lay a finger on her or attempt to brush her aside.
Yet one last woman arrived, while the former one was still making a scene. Much more advanced in years, this one walked into the hall with a teenage daughter in tow. Her claim was the same, only that she had met Orobosa in the early years of his first wedlock. They parted ways soon afterwards and had lost touch. It was unlikely that he knew about the daughter they had together.
This was almost unbelievable. What started out as a solemn ceremony was turning out to be a circus of sorts, with these strange women standing their ground against the bemused extended family who stared, in undisguised shock at the unfolding escapades of their son. No one was sure of what to make of this mix of wives and concubines. They could only shake their heads slowly. The two strange women barely looked at each other, but one could almost bet that they had met privately prior to that day and timed their respective arrivals, so that the second one would appear as soon as the first had finished stating her case. Rosaline, the younger one who had displaced Stella, rejected the term ‘concubine’, claiming she should be considered a wife for the sake of her posterity. Between the two of them, they held the deceased’s family, spellbound. A few eyes darted uncertainly towards the entrance of the hall, as though dreading the arrival of yet a fourth woman.
‘Are we expecting any others?’ someone shouted boldly from among the pool of guests, his voice laced with sarcasm. Sniggering sounds could be heard coming from others around him, while the more discrete ones tried to hush them up.
Through it all, Orobosa’s first wife - the one whom Stella had displaced - sat still and stony eyed in the front row, her face void of expression. The eldest member of the family, Orobosa’s uncle, could not address the women with the same hostility as he had earlier addressed Stella. Rather he seemed overwhelmed, maybe even a little afraid, of this double trouble. When he spoke, his voice was soft, and he appealed for calm. The choir; in their long flowing dark blue robes, prompted by the officiating clergy, stood up to sing the opening hymn: ‘O when the saints go marching in!’
As concerted efforts were made to restore some sanity to the gathering, Stella and her sister slipped away. She would later tell Otas that those other two women had made her look bad. Though she had been calmer and more mature in her approach, in the eyes of the family and guests, they were all birds of the same feather. Still, she was quick to admit that though thoroughly embarrassed, she was not overly shocked by the other women’s claims. The odds were that those youngsters, who had been dragged into the ceremony by their mothers, truly carried Orobosa’s genes. Unfortunately, it was their word against no-one else’s as the man in question was not there to speak on the alleged affairs.
‘Did you hear them?’ Stella asked. ‘They said I am a stranger to the family.’
Lips quivering, she lowered her eyes to ground. No wonder she never received any condolence visits. They never considered her to be his widow. She herself could not fathom being one. She was too young for widowhood - way too young, in fact, for the many things that had happened to her in the last decade.
‘I’m sorry, sis.’
Stella tried to look cheerful as Otas reached out and squeezed her hand. ‘Oh, don’t be. It’s not your fault, is it? I must admit though, I didn’t anticipate any of this.’ She shook her head in retrospect. ‘Had I known it would turn out that way, I would never have stepped foot into the ceremony. I should have just taken my much needed vacation. Now the press has plenty of fresh fodder to feed the public about this never ending drama.’
But Otas had other concerns. She was aware of many odd happenings that trailed incidents like this. She had once read of the passing of an elderly statesperson, in a far place. Being a prominent public figure, people had come from near and far to mourn him. But his remains had barely been committed to the earth, when the scramble for his estate began. How he acquired his wealth was not as much a subject of contention as how it ought to be apportioned. Worse still, he had left no will and the division of his vast estate was left to personal whims. Duplexes in prime locations at home and abroad, brand new cars, stocks and fat bank accounts were up for grabs. Family members cast off their mourning garbs only to take up weapons of avarice instead. The mourning period was barely over when exaggerated claims of unsettled debts and even a forged will began to fly. Offspring and siblings surfaced from nowhere to claim their share of the inheritance. The competition grew fierce and this was no glamour parade. It was a real life battle, with each player fighting to gather the most spoil. The more family members who stepped into the picture, the smaller the slice of the pie it would be, for all concerned. The shrewdest ones gained the most ground in taking possession of the man’s property, while others sought an easier way out. Though there was no love lost between the various parties in this duel, the underdogs among them soon realized their disadvantaged position and sought to put their differences aside. In attempting to pitch tents with those whom they hoped would compensate them fairly, they were met with rebuff. When the siege was over, family ties were severed and many were left to nurse psychological wounds. Otas still remembered being amazed about the fracas. She had a haunch that a similar conflict would erupt here, if care was not taken. Stella had to agree. She had heard from an insider within the bureau, who had been saddled with the responsibility of setting Orobosa’s office in order for the incoming administration, that there were many who were sniffing around and trying to get their noses into the late former minister’s books.
‘Consider it a blessing in disguise that you have been excluded before things get messy,’ Otas concluded. ‘You certainly don’t want to get caught in any brewing storm.’