Start reading Wahala by Nikki May and enter to win!
A page-turning debut novel following three Anglo-Nigerian best friends and the lethally glamorous fourth woman who infiltrates their group.
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.
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 climbs 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
ONE – Ronke
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 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 burnt 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 effectually 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. 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 realised 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 better be a sharer.
Simi poured her a glass of champagne 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 moved her knee to touch Ronke’s 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 over-excited PR. ‘But I 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.
Isobel and Simi picked at their food – they were too busy chatting about the good old days. Their Nigerian childhoods were filled with swimming pools, beach clubs, air-conditioning, drivers and maids. Ronke’s memories were of noisy family gatherings, power cuts, spicy street food, the car breaking down and playing clapping games with her cousins in the dusty courtyard.
Ronke listened as she ate. Simi was wearing a single oversized earring, it made her look lopsided. Isobel on the other hand was perfectly balanced – shoulders back, head held high, blond fringe perfectly straight.
Isobel pushed her plate away after three tiny bites. Don’t stare, Ronke told herself, fighting the temptation to spear a piece of shaki off her plate. Her jollof had been so-so – she should have ordered the yam. Thank god she was getting a takeaway.
The waiter dragged himself away from the TV and sauntered over to clear their table. Ronke watched as he slammed her empty plate on top of Isobel’s, squishing the black pillow of amala. What a waste.
Isobel’s phone buzzed. ‘Got to go,’ she said. ‘My driver’s here. I’ll get this, my treat.’ She went to the bar to pay the bill, sashaying past the rowdy men.
One of them, eating eba and egusi with his hands in the traditional way, paused, licked his fingers and called out to her, ‘Hello, luscious yellow baby, why don’t you come and greet us ehn?’
Ronke froze. Simi tutted. But Isobel was unfazed; she winked and put even more swagger into her walk as she came back to the table. She bent to give Simi a hug, air kissed Ronke, and then she was gone, the door slamming behind her.
‘Na wa o!’ said Ronke.
‘That’s Iso,’ said Simi.
‘She has a driver? In London?’
‘Her dad’s loaded. I mean proper rich. He was in the government and in business. Legalised corruption – you know the type. My dad used to be his lawyer, but they had a big falling out. She’s been through hell so he’s being ultra-protective.’
‘What sort of hell?’
‘A dodgy ex-husband. The controlling sort. He told her what to wear, who to see, how to spend her own money. Fucked her over. I’m guessing he was violent, but I didn’t want to pry.’
‘That’s not like you,’ said Ronke.
Simi held her hands up in protest. ‘She was close to tears. I couldn’t keep pushing her to talk.’
Ronke tried to imagine Isobel crying, but couldn’t. ‘But she seems so confident, so self-assured, so... shiny.’
‘Ronks. You know how it is. We all have faces we put on. I think her dad came to the rescue, saved her from him. Hence Boris. The driver-cum-bodyguard.’
‘Boris? You are joking?’
‘Okay, I made that up. But Boris suits him – he’s massive and Russian.’ Simi said the last bit in a bad Russian accent and they both burst into giggles.
‘I need to order a takeaway for Boo,’ said Ronke. ‘She’s having a major strop with Didier. I’m going to hers after. Come – it’ll be fun.’
‘I’ll pass. I had the oh-poor-me, I-do-everything spiel on the phone this morning.’
Ronke managed to get the waiter’s attention and reeled off her order. ‘Jollof rice with chicken stew, no chilli. Jollof rice with fried beef. Pounded yam with seafood okra, extra hot please. Beef suya. Chicken suya. Two portions of dodo. One moin-moin please. Oh, and a Buka fish special.’
‘And one espresso.’ Simi gave him one of her high-watt smiles. He almost smiled back, remembered himself and went back to surly.
‘So, what’s new?’ asked Simi. ‘How’s Kayode?’
‘My dodgy boyfriend?’ Ronke narrowed her eyes. ‘I can’t believe you said that to someone I don’t know.’
‘Relax. Iso’s one of us. She gets it.’
‘Well, Kayode is fine. Tomorrow we’re going to look at a flat in Clapham.’ Ronke had been waiting for this, she was careful to keep her voice level, slipped it in as if it was idle chit-chat.
Simi took the bait. ‘What? You’re flat hunting? Together?’
Ronke wanted to stay deadpan but it was too exciting. ‘I know. And it’s his idea. We spent hours on PrimeLocation last night and he called the agent to book the viewing. I’m seeing batik curtains, lots of raffia baskets, wooden floors just like Boo’s – and a cot.’
‘A cot?’ said Simi.
‘Cat. I meant cat.’ Ronke blushed. ‘But yes, I want kids. You and Boo aren’t the only ones allowed happy ever after.’
‘Of course not. But come on, Ronks. We’re talking about Kayode! He can’t even commit to a weekend in Paris.’
Ronke blinked at the peeling ceiling paint. This was the downside of telling your friends everything: It meant they knew everything. Yes, Kayode had left her standing like a saddo at St. Pancras, watching the train pull out without them. Yes, she’d been in bits. But if Ronke could get over it, why couldn’t Simi? ‘It wasn’t completely his fault,’ she said. ‘I know he didn’t handle it well. But we’re fine now. Can’t you just pretend to be pleased for me?’
‘I’m sorry. I just want you to be happy. Let’s start again. Show me the flat.’ Simi shuffled her chair closer. ‘Please?’
Ronke tapped her phone with a short, unpainted nail. ‘It needs a lot of work, but that’s fine, good even. Like a blank canvas. I can move into his flat while the builders fix it up. I thought we could make it more open plan.’ She jabbed at the phone, scrolling through the images. ‘It has a yard, south facing, we can have loads of pots. It’s at the top of our budget and we won’t get it, but…’
‘I love it,’ said Simi. ‘You can do a Kirsty, knock all the walls down and fill it with scatter cushions.’
Ronke laughed. She did have a scatter cushion problem. There were twenty-six in her little flat. Kayode had counted once. All in similar shades of cream and silver. With tassels. With sequins. With pompoms. And one extra special one with tassels, sequins and pompoms. Kayode called her the mad cushion lady. But in a nice way. He’d bought her the extra special cushion. It was the only one that didn’t get thrown on the floor at bedtime.
Simi chatted with her about houses and builders until Ronke’s takeaway arrived. ‘Give Martin my love,’ said Ronke as she wound her scarf round her neck. No lurid comments from the loud men as they left. Simi hopped into her Uber and Ronke, weighed down with her takeaway, walked to the tube. She hoped Boo would be a bit more positive about her news.