Yemisi grimaces. Nigerians don’t always RSVP and sometimes show up with extra guests.
She would rather not be here tonight. For her, a dinner party at a hotel – especially a five-star hotel like this in London – is research work. She might notice a seating-card design, a flower arrangement or some other catering idea she can use when she returns to Lagos. She will study the menu from hors d’oeuvres to desserts. As for the company, she knows what to expect; rich Nigerians, all connected to each other.
The hotel, Greek Revival style, is in Knightsbridge. It is cold for May, so she and her husband, Akin, wear coats, which they leave at the cloakroom near the lobby. The cloakroom attendant hands her a ticket and she puts it in her clutch bag.
She is conscious of her heels clip-clopping along the marble- floored corridor that leads to the bar. At the entrance of the bar, a waiter lifts a silver tray with flutes of champagne and Buck’s Fizz. She goes for the champagne, as does Akin. They thank the waiter, a woman.
The bar resembles a candle-lit library in a stately home. It has shelves of old, leather-bound books and maroon patterned wallpaper. Cocktails are at 7 p.m., dinner is at 7.45 p.m., followed by dancing. Carriages are at 1 a.m. The dress code is black tie. Akin has decided that means he can get away with wearing a tie that is black.
She took the time and trouble to go from their flat in West Kensington to Kensington High Street to buy a new dress the day before. It was typical of Akin to forget he needed a bow tie until the last moment, yet he was the one who insisted that she come.
Other guests are on time. All are appropriately turned out, a few in colourful traditional Nigerian wear. She and Akin return their smiles and waves as they approach their host, Saheed Balogun.
“How now, my brother?” Saheed asks.
“Hey,” Akin says, shaking Saheed’s hand.
“Saheed,” she says, with a nod.
Saheed looks as if he has only just recognised her. “Yemisi! Long time no see!”
She winces involuntarily as he hugs her. She has become used to seeing his face under newspaper headlines since his fraud investigation began a month ago. He was also recently listed in an online magazine as one of Nigeria’s top ten billionaires. He is remarkably slight in person and sports a grey goatee. His bow tie is not quite as symmetrical after he hugs her. She was not expecting him to welcome her that way. Feeling hijacked, she looks around the bar and asks, “Where is Funke?”
“She’s taking care of last-minute seating arrangements,” Saheed says.
Yemisi grimaces. Nigerians don’t always RSVP and sometimes show up with extra guests. Funke is Saheed’s wife. Yemisi might call her an old friend, though she is more accurately someone Yemisi socialised with when they were both law undergrads. Funke was at the University of Lagos while she was at University College London. Their paths often crossed in Lagos and London. For reasons she can’t explain, she doesn’t mind Funke, but she absolutely cannot stand Saheed.
She leaves Akin with him. She told Akin she intended to stay as far away from Saheed as possible. That was the condition on which she came.
The Baloguns’ dinner party is one in a series of fiftieth birthday parties that she and Akin have attended outside Nigeria, given by Nigerians. There have been several in London, and destination parties elsewhere. One in Cape Town, another in Dubai, and yet another, much talked about and blogged about, on the French Riviera, which they missed.
At the end of May, Funke is having a more intimate party in St Kitts. They will skip that as well. On Funke’s actual birthday, which is at the end of June, she will finish with a masked ball in Lagos, in the Civic Centre Grand Banquet Hall. Saheed is flying in a seventies American funk band for that. Why such a blatant display of wealth when he is being investigated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Yemisi cannot understand.
She circulates, champagne flute in one hand, clutch bag in the other, greeting friends, curtseying for elders and laughing. She is astonished at her capacity to look as if she is enjoying herself. She can’t believe the people who have shown up, despite Saheed’s investigation – legal people, church people.
There is a former state attorney general she attended law school with, and a Pentecostal church pastor she had a crush on in her teens, one summer in Lagos when they took tennis lessons at Ikoyi Club. Funke is a member of his church. Saheed is Muslim, but he attends church services now and then. Through Funke, the pastor apparently receives a fee for praying for Saheed’s business, and ten per cent of his profits.
Yemisi doesn’t have any clients in the bar. She usually gets work through her connections with the banking crowd in Lagos. Akin has a private equity firm and his clients are senators, governors and government ministers, former and incumbent. Only to her would he admit they are a bunch of thieves. His wealthiest clients, like Saheed, are in the petroleum industry. He sometimes refers to them as oil money.
A waiter approaches her with a tray of vol-au-vents and she tucks her bag under her arm. She chooses one with chicken and mushroom filling and thanks him. Most of the waiters are English, but some look as if they are from other countries in Europe.
They are friendly yet unobtrusive and poised without being snooty. They go about their business as if they’re with their regular clientele. They’ve probably been briefed on how to handle the Nigerian function. She thinks of her waiters back home, who would be timid around Nigerians like these. She often tells them they are working, not asking for favours, but they ignore her or laugh at her.
Written by Sefi Atta
Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1964 and currently divides her time between the United States, England and Nigeria. An award winning writer and playwright, she qualified as a Chartered Accountant in England and a Certified Public Accountant in the United States. She is the author of Everything Good Will Come, News from Home, Swallow, A Bit of Difference and Sefi Atta: Selected Plays.