- Published: 5 January 2022
- ISBN: 9780857527790
- Imprint: Doubleday
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $37.00
The hottest debut of 2022
Am I strong enough?
The woman sits huddled in the corner of her bedroom. Her dress is ruined – the button missing, the belt ripped. One seam has come apart, exposing her bare shoulder.
She’s clutching a sculpture in both hands. It’s a head, a little under life-size. She stares into its unblinking eyes, willing it to come to life. She wants it to tell her that this is not her fault. That there’s nothing she could have done differently.
That she’s the victim here.
But it’s made of leaded brass. It can’t speak.
With trembling hands, she places it gently on the carpet. Then, holding the split halves of her wrap dress together, she clambers to her feet.
Am I strong enough?
She knows the answer. Justice must be done.
She picks up the phone.
‘Help me. Please . . .’
Four Months Earlier
Pounded yam and egusi? Eba with okra? No, it had to be pounded yam. But maybe with efo riro. Ronke ran through the menu in her head as she walked up the hill to Buka. She knew it by heart but that didn’t make choosing any easier. As usual she wanted it all.
And as usual she was running late. She stopped at the cashpoint anyway and withdrew a hundred pounds. The girls teased her, told her it was an urban myth, but ever since Ronke had heard the story about Simi’s cousin’s friend getting her card cloned at Buka, she’d paid in cash.
Ronke had been looking forward to their Naija lunch all week. And not just because of the food. For the first time in ages, when Simi asked, ‘So what’s new?’, the answer wouldn’t be, ‘Nothing.’
She hustled past the Sainsbury’s Local, the Turkish grocery and the Thai nail bar. The Nigerian flag outside Buka was looking a little tatty, frayed at the edges. The green was still vibrant but the white was a dirty beige. Ronke studied her reflection in the shiny mirrored door, yanked at her hair to fluff up some of the curls, patted to flatten some down. As good as it gets. At least once a day someone said to her, ‘I wish I had curly hair,’ but Ronke knew better – curls meant frizz, knots and chaos. She pushed open the door and stepped out of suburban London and into downtown Lagos.
The smell hit her first. Smoky burned palm oil, fried peppers and musty stockfish. Next came the noise: Fela Kuti blared out of the speakers, struggling to compete with the group of three men at a corner table, talking over each other. And because this was effectively Nigeria, their voices were louder, accents stronger, gesticulations wilder.
The waiter looked up with a scowl. As Ronke turned to shut the door, she knew his eyes would linger on her arse. It felt like home.
She spotted Simi deep in conversation with a striking woman and felt a spike of irritation. ‘Just us two,’ Simi had said. The stranger had long toned limbs and glossy brown skin; she looked almost sculpted. Something about her profile was familiar and for one heartbeat Ronke was sure she knew her from somewhere. She blinked and the feeling disappeared. She didn’t know anyone who showed side-boob at lunch. Or had such an over-the-top blonde weave.
Ronke tried to tamp down her annoyance as she wove between the tables towards them. The men stopped talking and turned to watch her and she realized she was holding in her tummy.
Simi stood and beamed at Ronke. It was easy to love Simi. When she looked at you she made you believe you were the only person in the world she wanted to see. Simi had given Ronke the same grin the first time they met, seventeen years ago, at freshers’ week in Bristol. Teeth, dimples, sunshine, joy.
‘Ronks! This is Isobel – you’re going to love her.’ Simi spread her arms out in welcome.
I wouldn’t bet on it, thought Ronke. She leaned into Simi’s hug and fixed a smile on her face before turning to say hello to the interloper. Still, three people meant three starters.
This Isobel had better be a sharer.
Simi poured her a glass of fizz as Ronke unwound her scarf. ‘Champagne?’ Ronke asked. ‘We always have rosé at Buka.’ It’s not forty pounds a bottle, she didn’t add.
Simi nudged Ronke with her knee under the table. ‘Iso’s allergic to cheap wine,’ she said, ‘and we’re celebrating.’
‘Here’s to my divorce,’ said Isobel, holding her glass aloft, ‘and to friends – old and new.’
Ronke thought divorce was a strange thing to celebrate but she smiled and clinked glasses.
The waiter plonked three massive menus on the table. Pages and pages of laminated sheets nestled in faux leather folders. Ronke adored the old-fashioned, over-long menu,
the notable absence of words like seasonal, local and sustainable, the bad spelling and dodgy typography. She stroked her menu and a rush of nostalgia flooded through her, echoes of long family lunches at Apapa Club.
‘Wetin you people want?’ the waiter asked, glowering down at them.
‘Another bottle of this.’ Isobel gestured at the empty champagne bottle. The waiter’s frown deepened.
‘Thank you!’ called Ronke to his retreating back. She tended to overcompensate with waiters. Even rude ones.
‘Isobel is embarrassingly rich,’ said Simi, ‘but she loves throwing her money around, so I forgive her.’
Ronke laughed in spite of herself. ‘How do you two know each other?’
‘We met when we were five,’ said Simi. ‘The only half-caste kids in our class . . .’
‘Simi! You can’t use that word,’ said Ronke.
‘Oh, come on, this is us. Everybody called us half-caste in Lagos.’
‘You can’t even think it in LA, unless you want to be sent on a race awareness course.’ Isobel stroked Simi’s arm. ‘It’s so good to have my alobam back.’
‘We clocked each other straight away. You know how it is when you spot another mixed-race person in Lagos.’ Simi made exaggerated air quotes as she said ‘mixed-race’. ‘Isobel beat up a boy on our first day. After that we were inseparable.’
‘He deserved it,’ said Isobel. ‘The little shit called you a mongrel. It was only a little tap.’
‘You knocked two of his teeth out,’ said Simi.
‘He insulted us. Anyway, it worked.’ Isobel smiled. ‘No one messed with us after that.’
Ronke tried and failed to place her accent. ‘Is your mum American?’
‘Russian. My dad was working in Moscow, that’s where they met.’ Isobel placed her hand on Ronke’s arm. Her nails were electric blue, long and pointy. ‘What about you? I want to know everything.’
Ronke fiddled with her scarf and glanced around for the waiter. She hated talking about herself. ‘My mum’s English. I was born in Lagos, but we moved here when I was eleven. Have you looked at the menu?’
‘Ronke is the best dentist in London,’ Simi said. ‘And an amazing cook.’
‘I’m not.’ Ronke wished Simi would stop jabbering like an overexcited PR. ‘But I do love food. We should order – they’re so slow here.’
Simi ignored her. ‘She’s practically perfect. Apart from her dodgy taste in men.’
Ronke clenched her jaw and looked around for the waiter.
Isobel clapped her hands together and beamed. ‘Me too! I knew we’d get on. I always go for the bad boy.’
‘Kayode isn’t a bad boy.’ Ronke glared at Simi and yanked at a curl.
‘I love your hair,’ said Isobel. ‘How do you get it to spiral like that? Is it real?’
Ronke gave Simi one more hard look, then turned to Isobel. ‘Yes, it’s real.’
‘This isn’t.’ Isobel flicked her blonde mane from side to side.
No kidding, thought Ronke. She didn’t want to be mollified.
‘Let’s order, I’m starving.’
‘Quick,’ Simi said. ‘If Ronke gets hangry, we’re in for it. She’ll bitch-slap us with these tacky menus.’
Ronke patted her menu as she swallowed down another twinge of annoyance. Hanger was a real thing; she’d read an article about it in the Sunday Times just last week.
‘I’m not doing carbs – well, apart from wine,’ said Simi.
‘Fish pepper soup.’
‘No carbing in a Naija restaurant?’ Isobel’s laugh was high-pitched and jangly. ‘You’re such a coconut. I’ll have amala with ogbono and assorted meat.’
‘Jollof rice with chicken for me,’ said Ronke. She couldn’t bring herself to order pounded yam in front of skinny, glamorous Isobel. ‘Are we having starters?’ she added hopefully.
There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t.
Tommy Guptill had once owned a dairy farm, which he inherited from his father, and which was about two miles from the town of Amgash, Illinois.
Charlie’s ugly Crocs stuck to the mats on the floor behind the bar, making a sticky, squelching sound.
I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee.
The thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott rose before dawn every morning and felt certain of just one thing: her life was over.