This year, Guernica celebrates its 10th anniversary as a free, online magazine of art & politics! As we prepare to launch into our second decade, we hope you'll consider making an end-of-year donation. Reader, you make this work possible.

Skip to Content

Share

Quality Street

By
February 1, 2010

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.

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.

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 center for the reception, but more importantly, Amarachi was a decrepit house, 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 twenty guests would be hers, the other four hundred 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 secondhand clothes.

Perhaps Sochienne should never have been sent to school 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 realized 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 discolored 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.

  *       *       *

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.

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 and 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 nametag 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 seatbelt 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 defense. 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 décor 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 humor. 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 cell phones, 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 rainholder. 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 rainholders were superstitious in the same way as Catholic rosaries, that faith was like a tin of Quality Street, she selected what to believe just as she chose only the nut-free chocolates, and 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 through the different shiny-wrapped toffees—that made her send for a rainholder. 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 caftan, 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 in 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 daughter 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 PSquare’s “No One Be Like You” to Nico Mbarga’s highlife classic: “Sweet Mother.”

G

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria. Her work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared in various publications, including The New Yorker; Granta; the Financial Times; and Zoetrope. Her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the Orange Broadband Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Her most recent book is The Thing Around Your Neck. A recipient of a 2008 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, she divides her time between the United States and Nigeria.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

Share on FacebookShare on TwitterAdd to BufferShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUpon
Submit to redditShare on App.netShare via email

You might also like

  • The Deer-Vehicle Collision Survivors Support GroupThe Deer-Vehicle Collision Survivors Support Group This is the storm right before the calm, she is letting it all out now, because she knows it’s coming. She wants to go home, even if it is what she used to call hell sweet hell.
  • The NorwegiansThe Norwegians The Norwegians were coming to dinner.
  • SuspensionSuspension The soft light of the flames made her face seem prettier than it really was. Younger. She was a fixture in his life, a neutral—at most, perhaps, a reflective surface.
  • ZalzalaZalzala His mother was about to say something, but all she could murmur was zalzala. Earthquake.

30 comments for Quality Street

  1. Comment by Patrick Nwadike on February 3, 2010 at 6:40 am

    Your a gem, you daughter of Ndigbo. Dalu rinne!

  2. Comment by Chizitere Ojiaka on February 3, 2010 at 8:00 am

    Oh dear Chimamanda (Aunty Mandy) you remain my Literature Heroine. This story is a really lovely one, with strands of humour intact too. Weldone!

  3. Comment by Bonface Nyolde on February 5, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Chimamanda still shows her brilliance in literature and doesnt disappoint. Kudos to this beautiful short story.

  4. Comment by Merimee Moffitt on February 5, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Ah, so vivid–I’m almost there–but my heart is touched by the daughter’s love for her aging mother. It isn’t fake, but in the moment, as it might happen if the daughter is honest with her own feelings–I love it.

  5. Comment by Mfonobong Nsehe on February 8, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Chimamanda is a storyteller from the gods.

  6. Comment by Suzanne Ushie on February 16, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Great story. I love the bits of humour in it.

  7. Comment by Solomon yohannah on February 16, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    …lacking words to describe this generous lump of genius…

  8. Comment by Azore Opio on February 18, 2010 at 6:14 am

    Oh, what a narrative, and the humour that cuts through steel. What I adore most, however, is the final twist when mother realises that daughter had stepped back into the lovely real past, and she accepted it…

  9. Comment by Ndubuisi Onyeso on February 25, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Chimamanda have always got my eyes stucked in books whenever i found her name.Chy,never drop your pen u make Igbos proud.

  10. Comment by Chinyere Azifuaku on March 1, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    I don’t know where u came from but wherever that is, I’d love to come from there too. I want to be like u when I grow up…

  11. Comment by Ifeanyi Nwachukwu on March 4, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Prodigiously talented! You rock, Chimamanda!

  12. Comment by Chinelo Orji on March 15, 2010 at 4:46 am

    Up Chimama!! U’re so good. Simply beautiful story with very complex Sochienne. I write too but my Bpharm keeps me busy, too busy for literary space n creative comfort. Ugh.

  13. Comment by nana adeniyi on March 20, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    This is really good.I look forward to knowing more Of your work.

  14. Comment by Tunji Bakare on March 25, 2010 at 6:13 am

    The story is succint with depth and precision.It is well managed despite the absence of dialogue and characterisation.It could do with a bit of dialogue and characterisation for pace and picturesque effect.However, it is evident that this is a piece from a gifted storyteller.

  15. Comment by Doreen McGann on March 28, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Your are brilliant, after reading your books I decide to give up writing and take up plumbing.

  16. Comment by Anonymous on April 7, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    lol

  17. Comment by Anonymous on April 16, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Wow!! Love it, such a beautiful story beautifully told.

  18. Comment by Chinelo Orji on April 20, 2010 at 3:59 am

    Dialogue that copies reality slows down a story, makes it lenghty. I cant submit my stories to guernica cos they’re all more than the 2,500 required max, even my dialogue absent stories! Adichie is good, her style, pacing, detail, use of language etc. That Harmattan Morning had no dialogue but is a Waow! Her anthology was diverse. Tunji, read The Thing Around your Neck if U want dialogue.

  19. Comment by Murenga Joseph Chikowero on April 28, 2010 at 11:02 am

    A fabulous story. The gin-sipping rainholder is my hero.

  20. Comment by Eremipagamo on May 28, 2010 at 8:40 am

    What a touching story. I had forgotten about that song. What a blast from childhood.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mecNrIaWOA&feature=player_embedded

  21. Comment by Oge Akwarandu on November 20, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    I was discussing with some friends some few weeks ago after our own Chinua Achebe was denied this years Nobel Prize for Literature, about who amongst our contemporary writers will take the place of the Emeritus Professor. Although we couldn’t agree on anyone, but i’ve come to realise that Achebe has ”reincarnated” in Chimamanda. The way she weaves her story,plays with words while adding humour, places her in Achebe’s footprints. Good job sis’. Proudly Nigerian!

  22. Comment by ricardo david on July 7, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Your posts are a real inspiration for people like me! ..

  23. Comment by Jillian Michaels on July 8, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    Very well done. I especially like the description, really sets the tone and scene for the reader. My only suggestions – long paragraphs tends to slow the pace of a story, and in one with some much description, you can give it more vitality and “motion” by using shorter paragraphs to imply more momentum.

  24. Comment by Articles on July 9, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Great story, but I do agree that the Dialogue draws the story out. There is great potiental there to explore the dynamic between the Nigerians and Kenyans.

  25. Comment by Cathy Black on July 11, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    I think Mrs. Njoku is a harsh character.

  26. Comment by David Ishaya Osu on September 4, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    Chimamanda… is indeed an ICON. Your voice is symbolic of Literary revival

  27. Comment by ene on January 17, 2012 at 3:38 am

    I love CN Adichie’s entire body of work. She hardly does write of emotion, yet i can feel exactly as the character feels. She doesn’t write her opinion, yet I can tell what it is.

    I like the dynamics of the mother- daughter relationship in this story. People like to write of perfect mothers, not everyone has that. But yet, you can feel the depth of their feelings for each other..

  28. Comment by Chukwuma on June 6, 2012 at 6:05 am

    Sochiene missed out one thing. She should have insisted on Akpu and Onugbu soup on the menu. I would have loved to see Mrs Fernandez’s curled up nose….as the village women pounded the akpu in the backyard….

  29. Comment by Tai on September 22, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    The ways of guilt…i’ld say

  30. Comment by Daisy on October 15, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    I now understand what ‘they’ mean by, “Chimamanda’s stories end at the beginning”. Just like in Purple Hibiscus, this story left me wanting to hear more… a mark of a true story teller that is Chimamanda. I take a bow!

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting