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Short story – “Quality Street”

Exclusive fiction for the New Statesman by the award-winning Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

They were drinking tea. One of the few things that Mrs Njoku and her daughter Sochienne could still do together without acrimony was drink tea, because when Mrs Njoku suggested they go to the new boutique on Victoria Island, or Titi's Place for a facial - things they used to do together in Lagos before Sochienne went away to university in America - Sochienne called her a "fat bourgeois", a dilettante dancing while Nigeria was failing, as though she could somehow solve the country's problems by depriving herself of a manicure. But this, drinking tea, was neutral - as long as it was without fresh milk. The first week of Sochienne's return, Mrs Njoku had bought a carton of fresh milk, excited to be able to offer her daughter something different from the usual condensed or powdered milk, but Sochienne said she would not touch that imported thing from Shoprite which most Nigerians did not even know existed, and she would drink only the locally made condensed milk. Mrs Njoku said, trying not to sound as sour as she felt, that the condensed milk was only locally assembled, since the companies imported milk powder and added water to it in Nigeria. Sochienne looked surprised by this news, but she insisted on calling it the local milk with a tone that made "local" sound pious. And so Mrs Njoku put away the fresh milk and bought tins of Peak condensed milk, which they poured, in a thin stream, into their tea.

They were on their second cups when Sochienne said she wanted to have her wedding at Amarachi, the country house where she had spent childhood holidays, because she preferred a venue of emotional significance to an overpriced gilded hall. Mrs Njoku choked on her tea. She had already hired the famous wedding planner, already booked St Mary's Catholic Church and the grand convention centre for the reception. But more importantly, Amarachi was decrepit, the grounds sloped, this was rainy season and the mud would ruin women's shoes, and nobody would take a wedding seriously if it was held in that backwater. Indeed, nobody would come. And she would, of course, be a subject of mockery in homes and hair salons all over Lagos. She could already imagine Mrs Fernandez-Cole, lips curled, saying "village wedding". Sochienne added, between leisurely sips, that her fiancé, Mwangi, had first suggested it after she told him about Amarachi, and she had then wondered why she had not thought of it herself. Mrs Njoku put her teacup down. Of course it had to be that dull-eyed Kenyan with an unpronounceable name who would bring up such an idea. She very nearly said, in her new distress, that she still did not know why Sochienne wanted to get married so young and why she could not have met a young man in America who was Igbo, or at least Nigerian. But she held herself back in time and instead said that there was not enough room at Amarachi to fit all their guests. Sochienne smiled, as though Mrs Njoku were the child and she the mother, and said that only about 20 guests would be hers; the other 400 were people she did not know and would not miss if they did not attend. So Mrs Njoku poured hot water on a new teabag and agreed to her only child's wedding in an ordinary village house because she feared the next suggestion would be a ceremony on Bar Beach, with everybody wearing second-hand clothes.

Perhaps Sochienne should never have been sent to college in America. But who knew a private university in Ohio would mean that Sochienne would return six years later, announcing that she was engaged to a Kenyan, refusing to eat meat, asking the baffled houseboys about fair wages, and wearing her hair in long rubbery dreadlocks? What should have alerted Mrs Njoku, she realised now, was discovering, on her first visit to her daughter's university, that the students wore bathroom slippers to their lectures. "Oh, Mummy, they are wearing sandals because of this rare blast of warm weather," Sochienne said when she pointed it out, as though giving bathroom slippers the American label of sandals would make them more respectable.

There was also a certain alarming sloppiness to the students. Mrs Njoku had been assured that wealthy Americans sent their children there - the outrageous tuition certainly suggested that - but here were young people in slouchy T-shirts and discoloured beads around their necks. Still, she had not worried too much about her daughter then, nor did she in the following years, because she assumed that the child she raised would retain her good sense. She had wanted Sochienne to be educated in England after completing primary school, and had suggested that they send her to Cheltenham Ladies' College, where many of their friends sent their daughters. But her husband said Sochienne would not go abroad until university because he did not want her to turn out like those Akindele children who had spent so long in England that they referred to fellow Nigerians as "those people". He wanted his daughter to attend secondary school in Nigeria so that she would know who she was. Most of all, he wanted her to get an American university education. America was the future. It was time for Nigerians to get over their colonial clinging. Mrs Njoku should have resisted more. If only her husband were alive now to see what Sochienne had become; so much for knowing who she was.

When they first met, there was something about the wedding planner's knowing manner, yellow skin and fussy, expensive handbag that irritated Mrs Njoku. But she was determined to use the same wedding planner as Mrs Fernandez-Cole, whose daughter's wedding Mrs Njoku had attended with the hope of finding something to deride; but it had been flawless. Mrs Fernandez-Cole came from one of those old Lagos families that sniffed at people who did not, like them, have "Brazilian" great-grandfathers. Mrs Njoku thought it silly that anybody could feel superior about having forebears who were slaves in South America, yet she always felt plebeian in Mrs Fernandez-Cole's presence, always fought the urge to smooth her hair and straighten her clothes. They were strenuously warm with each other when they met at Ikoyi Club, as they often did, but it was clear that Mrs Fernandez-Cole thought the Njokus were parvenus to be tolerated with amusement, while Mrs Njoku felt a helpless, enraging need to prove herself an equal. And so when she told the wedding planner that the wedding would now be held in their country home in the east, her main worry was that the wedding planner would call Mrs Fernandez-Cole right away to gossip and giggle. But the wedding planner said, in a matter-of-fact tone, that she needed cash right away to book a new caterer, since Yinka's Foods & Events only worked in the Lagos area.

So Mrs Njoku went with Sochienne to the bank. In the lobby, she saw the Osazes' daughters, who now had British accents after schooling in England: their "Good afternoon, aunty" sounded so polished. They had never been half as pretty as her daughter, but in their fitted jeans and high heels, with their straight weaves that hung down to their shoulders, they were normal. Sochienne hardly noticed the Osaze girls. She was watching the bank worker - his name tag read John - as he fed wads of naira notes into the counting machine, packed the cash in a brown paper bag and handed it to Mrs Njoku with a slight bow. Mrs Njoku gave him two thousand naira and nodded to acknow­ledge his "Madam, thank you very much".

Later, as they climbed into Mrs Njoku's Range Rover, Sochienne said it was unethical of Mrs Njoku to have given money to John. Mrs Njoku clicked her seat belt and told the driver they were going to Lekki, before turning to her daughter to say that it was a tip, a simple tip, and hadn't Sochienne accused her of being out of touch? And yet now she had given a tip to an underpaid bank worker, it was unethical? Sochienne mumbled something about tipping a chronically underfed waiter with a roast chicken, all the while looking at the beggars who made their way from car window to car window in the traffic, their skin tight over bony faces, their eyes hopeful, saying "God bless you, God bless you, God bless you".
Mrs Njoku thought that perhaps she had been too harsh in her own defence. She asked Sochienne if the air conditioner was too cold. Sochienne said no. She asked what changes they would ask the wedding planner to make to the decor now that the wedding was at Amarachi. Sochienne said she did not know and shrugged, as if the wedding planner was a ­special indulgence of her mother's that she had to humour. Mrs Njoku watched a hawker running after a car in the now-moving traffic. She had a headache. She asked if Sochienne wanted to stop at Chicken Republic; they had salads that Sochienne could eat. Sochienne nodded, somewhat reluctantly, still looking out of the window, and when they pulled into the restaurant, she asked the driver to come in with them, turning to her mother to say that the man had not eaten anything all day. Mrs Njoku said she would get him something to take away. Sochienne sat still and said she wanted the driver to come with them. Mrs Njoku looked at her daughter and wanted to slap her, push her out of the car, trample her. She asked the driver, who looked both confused and terrified, to stop the engine and step out of the car. Then she leaned back on her seat and called her daughter a self-righteous ingrate. She was getting sweaty because the windows were up as these words tumbled out of her mouth.

“You think if you take the driver into Chicken Republic to eat at the same table as you then you have done a good thing for him, but you have not because it is not about his own well-being but about your own well-being, and you are too self-righteous to see that you will only make him uncomfortable if he sits with you and you will change nothing in his life, and just in case you don't know it, your father is lying in his grave, looking at this person you have become and he is tearing his hair out and eating it!"

Sochienne looked stunned. Then she called her mother a "fat bourgeois", an ostrich who wanted to pretend that all was well, and Mrs Njoku opened the door and beckoned for the driver to come take them home. They did not speak to each other during the drive. They did not have dinner together. They did not drink tea. And they barely spoke to each other until the wedding at Amarachi.

Mrs Njoku was, on the wedding day at Amarachi, making calls on both her cellphones, shouting at people, and inspecting the chairs tied with cream-and-blue ribbons, the newly trimmed bushes of ixora and hibiscus, the gravel spread on the muddy ground. The gazebo was tilting slightly and needed to be adjusted, but the man who set it up had disappeared. The wedding planner was complaining about the buffet tables. The clouds were darkening. Mrs Njoku was aware that her breathing was shallow. Mrs Fernandez-Cole had already called her to say she was at Enugu airport and how nice it was to be in this part of the country, in the tone of a person who was lying and wanted you to know that they were lying. Sochienne was upstairs chatting with the bridesmaids, stringing together some wilting flowers she had insisted on plucking from the frangipani tree. It was only an hour before she would have to get dressed but she was supremely calm, which annoyed Mrs Njoku, because the least she expected from her daughter, after all she had gone through for this wedding, was some bridal jitteriness. When the hairdresser arrived, flown in from Lagos, Mrs Njoku worried about Sochienne's hair: what were the options for dreadlocks really? Sochienne said at least her hair actually grew on her head, while her mother's curly weave was just sewn-on plastic. Her tone was the same as when she said "fat bourgeois" and so Mrs Njoku went to her room to take a bath. The wedding planner knocked on her door moments later to say that the clouds were even darker now and that Sochienne had suggested a traditional rain-holder. Mrs Njoku thought this - a man preventing rainfall - a silly superstition. She said no. If the rain really started, then they would move indoors and even though it would be cramped, it was doable, since the verandas were roofed. But Sochienne came into her room without knocking and said, with that tone that had begun to gravely irritate her mother, that rain-holders were just as superstitious as Catholic rosaries, and that faith was like a tin of Quality Street - she selected what to believe just as she chose only the nut-free chocolates. Her faith selections were: guardian ancestors, rain-holding, a happy God. Mrs Njoku found this listing of her daughter's beliefs disconcerting. It reminded her of her late husband, an agnostic who had nevertheless called his country house Amarachi: "God's Grace". But it was the image of Quality Street - the purple tin of sweets she and her husband had first bought their daughter when she was eight, giving it to her downstairs in this very house, watching as she pored over the different shiny-wrapped toffees - that made her send for a rain-holder. The wizened man arrived and sat in the backyard tending a huge fire, drinking gin, and assuring everyone that there would be no rain.

Guests were being seated. The bridesmaids were ready, lips glistening with gloss. The Kenyan arrived with his family from the hotel in Onitsha. His Senegalese kaftan, delicately embroidered at the collar, was perhaps the closest he would ever come to looking elegant, Mrs Njoku thought, but she still wished he had worn a suit. She fingered the diamond on her throat and felt a dizzying sense of displacement; it was as if she had been written into a story that was not hers. She found Sochienne on the veranda, standing by the crumbling banisters, dreadlocks swept up, eyes kohl-rimmed, dress a simple calf-length sheath. Mrs Njoku felt wounded by the smallness of this day and by the plainness of her daughter's face. She suggested a little more make-up, but Sochienne shook her head and asked if her mother remembered when her father climbed up the frangipani tree with her to help conquer her fear of climbing, when it was so sticky-hot the toilet seat stuck to her bottom, when her father nearly burned down the house while making a fire to roast cashew nuts, when she threw up after eating a boiled snail? Mrs Njoku had hated those holidays because their friends were in London, while her husband insisted they stay at Amarachi. Now, she moved closer to her daughter, silent, and thought that, for the first time, Sochienne looked familiar, with that expression of wonder she had often had as a child.

The wedding planner came in to say that it was time. Sochienne raised her bouquet. She had combined the expensive silk flowers the wedding planner had ordered from somewhere in Europe with the frangipani flowers whose petals now drooped in the moist heat. She asked if her mother liked the bouquet and Mrs Njoku said no, following her daugh-ter downstairs. In the end, it did not rain. It did drizzle, a fresh light shower, the clouds parting just before the reception started, when the wedding planner came up to whisper to Mrs Njoku that Sochienne had changed the first dance selection from P-Square's "No One Like You" to Nico Mbarga's highlife classic "Sweet Mother".

© 2010, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of two novels, "Purple Hibiscus" (Harper Perennial, £7.99) and "Half of a Yellow Sun" (Harper Perennial, £7.99)


This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD