By Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Six a.m. on Valentine’s Day, and Shanumi stands at her office window to watch Lagos jump and sizzle like an electric spark. Familiar sounds of the city awakening filter through the double jalousie–engine grunts, horn blares, unnecessary yelling–and commingle with those of her business rousing: the roar of the generator, iron sponges scouring steel pots, Enitan yelling in the kitchen down the hall. In the room, the air conditioner inhales dawn’s humidity and spits chilled smoke, crinkling the edges of papers, squeezing the tips of her fingers, building goosebumps on her neck.
She begins running through different scenarios of who’s going to step into her restaurant at seven-thirty tonight. The tension in her chest heightens; she hugs her arms trying to lose herself in the maze of Lagos lights. More goosebumps rise on her skin, independent of the AC, reacting instead to her disquiet. She shakes her head, tries to focus once again on the lights. No change. Soon, her legs grow weary from standing in heels, and her pantsuit jacket no longer keeps out the cold. It takes mental strength to pull at the blind cord, slowly, until the shutters close and her distractions are prised away.
She sighs and sits down at her desk. On the half of the table not packed with small potted plants, she opens up her MacBook and begins to work on the day’s special menu.
She’s stuck on item number three when Gboyega, still in his biker suit, bursts into the room all adrenaline and sweat.
“Are you seeing this, Boss?” he says between breaths. His round cheeks dimple as he grins. He shoves an iPad under her chin.
“Good morning to you too,” she says and waves away the tablet. “What’s that?”
“We’re on top! We’re on top!” He bounces from foot to foot, shoving the iPad at her again. She closes her Mac and peers at the tablet’s screen. There’s a spreadsheet with numbers and charts and stuff.
“The top ten food blogs in Nigeria all recommended us as number one place to book Valentine’s Day dinner,” he says, pointing to a table. “And on Instagram, see here? Our menus have been trending since January. Look at our list for the night. Fully booked since Friday. With top society people and shit.” He steps back, spreads his hands. “Everybody is coming here for Valentine’s Day dinner.”
Shanumi gives a wan nod and regards her business development executive with a sting of envy. If only I could be so cheery. Gboyega notices her hesitation. He frowns.
“Why aren’t you over the moon? Even the governor’s family is dining here tonight!”
“That’s exactly the problem,” she says. She rises and walks over to the window again. She grips the cord, but does not pull it. “Everybody is coming here.”
“So, you’re worried that, what, we’ll mess it up?” Gboyega asks, and chortles. “I don’t even see how we can do that.”
“Oh, I can think of many ways,” Shanumi says, rolling the cord in her palm. “Anything from not washing the plates properly to choosing a menu they won’t like, or too many people and therefore poor service. Then there’s allergies, food poisoning–”
“Ha, see what you’re saying!” Gboyega says with a frown. “It’s like you want it to get messed up.”
Shanumi breathes. “Well, I…”
“You nothing,” Gboyega says, and comes over to pull her hand from the cord. He might be only twenty-nine, but sometimes Shanumi feels like she’s the younger of both of them, though she’s forty-five. “You’ve not been sleeping well. See your eyes. You think this makeup will hide it, eh?”
“I’ve been at Shanny’s three years, and not one day have I seen you mess shit up,” he ushers her back into her chair and flips open the Mac. “So you get in that chair, do what you do every day, and I’ll be out there believing in you like I’ve always done.” He flashes his grin and retrieves his iPad. “I didn’t quit McKinsey and London life to come work for you for nothing.”
He shuts the door softly on his way out. In the corridor beyond, there’s the muffled sound of boisterous hailing and high fives.
Shanumi lets his words sift into her brain. She lifts the Mac lid and picks up at menu item number four. Goat meat suya sauce on white rice with banana bread, she types, suddenly inspired. Five: groundnut ginger soup on sweet potatoes. And six. And ten. And desserts. And shakes.
Maybe I’m being paranoid for nothing, she thinks. Of course no one will ask what my secret is.
By 11 a.m., Shanumi swings open the kitchen’s double-hinged doors and is greeted by the clacking of pots, cutlery and workspaces. Enitan, the burly chef hired out of Ghana High, has her back to the entrance, screaming obscenities as her boys scuttle, scrape, carry, and wipe. The heat in the kitchen is stifling and sweat runs down the chef’s thick arms in streaks. Shanumi knows well to leave the jacket behind when coming down here.
“Rounds!” Enitan announces. She gives her boss an open-toothed smile when she notices Shanumi standing over her shoulder, then proceeds to the kitchen island. The boys stop what they’re doing and fall in line, a row of white shirts and black trousers behind her, their boots ringing against the floor. Shanumi joins in, her arm over Enitan’s shoulder.
“Everything, perfect,” Enitan is saying. “From the smell, sef, you go know. Smell am.” She drags a huge intake of hot air and giggles it out. Shanumi laughs.
The procession arrives in the middle of the kitchen. On the island, the ten dishes from the morning’s menu are lined up in two rows, desserts and shakes included. The staff step back, as usual, to allow their boss do her thing.
Shanumi stands in front of the island and blinks, eyes on the meals. Her gaze flits from dish to dish as she studies them. She scrutinizes, watches, waits.
“There’s too much paprika in the goat meat,” she announces finally. “Make it half a teaspoon.” She points to another dish. “For that gizzard dodo, use onions instead of garlic. Or maybe mix it seventy-thirty, more onions. Just garlic doesn’t feel right.” She picks up a mango tart and studies it. “It’s like you used only two tablespoons of honey for this filling. Add another one. Or half. It’ll be perfect.”
She replaces it and claps her hands together, smiling. “We’re doing it, my people,” she says. “We’re going to show the state governor what we’re made of, and once he endorses this place, we’ll be number one in the country.” She smiles and clasps Enitan on the shoulder. “All hail Nigeria’s best chef.”
Enitan snickers. “I hear you. Like say no be you show me everything.”
Shanumi crinkles her nose and whispers to the boys, “She’s humble like that,” but they’re already shuffling back to their scraping and washing.
“But seriously, how you dey do am?” Enitan asks once the boys have dispersed.
Shanumi knows exactly what she’s getting at, and starts to back away, heading out. “Do what?”
“How you take dey know?” Enitan persists, following her. “You no even need taste am or smell am or anything. You just know.”
Shanumi laughs, one that doesn’t come from her chest. “I’ll be in my office.”
Enitan gives up the chase and wags a thick finger at Shanumi. “You go show me one day, seriously. I go find out.”
“Show you what?” Shanumi flashes a too-wide grin at her chef, and backs out the kitchen door.
Once outside, the grin vanishes.
Across the street from Shanny’s, on the corner of Ligali and Ajose in Victoria Island, a small, stocky man in black trousers, boots, a white shirt and a disposable stretch cap waits for the lights. Once the red pops up, he crosses and walks to a black 2013 Pathfinder with tinted windows that has pulled over by the roadside. He gets in and shuts the door.
“Take.” He hands an envelope to the light-skinned woman with long, delicate fingers sitting in the driver’s seat.
“Everything?” she asks.
“Everything,” he replies.
She nods. “You’ll receive your credit alert soon.”
The man gets out and the Pathfinder pulls away.
Back at her office, Itunu reclines in her swivel chair, studying the PVC pattern of the ceiling above. Behind her slim lenses, she traces the plastic grooves with her eyes. Her fingers drum a steady rhythm on the table’s polished surface as her mind ticks and tocks.
Finally, she stops drumming, sits up and picks up the two menus on her table. In one hand is Shanny’s signature menu for Valentine’s Day dinner. In the other hand is the menu for her own restaurant, Itunu Grande — slightly larger with twelve items. She studies both for the umpteenth time.
There are no similarities. Every dish on the Shanny’s menu is different, fresh, nothing at all like Itunu’s intercontinental and local mashups. No matter how she twists her dishes, re-names them, updates the photos in the menu, the whole of Lagos still chooses to scurry over to Shanny’s. She has tried to copy the items, but they’re so new and experimental and only Shanny’s proprietor knows whatever the hell she puts in them. There are combos like jollof rice with guavas and avocados, yam bolognese using shredded chicken, and tilapia over beef. Even before she tries, Itunu already knows she can’t recreate those combos.
“But I have everything she has,” she says to herself, and flings the two menus across the table. She rises and starts to pace.
She has finally gotten someone on the inside and yet look what he brings her, petty info she can’t use. Giving me useless menus.
Okay, well, not completely useless. She has to give him credit. In his time, she’s learnt some things about the quiet woman who waltzed into Victoria Island two years ago and stole all her customers. Widow, one child– a son. Creates all the recipes, has the chef execute them to the last grain, inspects all dishes herself. So far, no secret ingredient of note. Just a really good knack for perfectly mixing odd combos.
Itunu paces and her mind circles back to the only thing her spy revealed that still strikes her as off.
“What kind of cook doesn’t bother to taste her own recipes?” she asks the empty room. The quiet drone of the split unit is her response.
Maybe she already knows what it would taste like. But, no. The chef cooks, she just writes recipes, so that’s impossible. Unless…
Unless she puts something in the food.
Itunu laughs at herself, places a hand over her mouth. Don’t be silly, this isn’t Harry Potter.
Then she stops, a light bulb pinging in her head.
But what if she IS putting something in her food? What if that’s why she won’t taste it herself?
“My God,” she says to the empty room, realization smacking her. That’s what the governor is eating tonight!
Itunu returns to her desk, and settles into her swivel chair, a plan assembling in her head. If she exposes Shanny’s, brings to light her dark deeds, she will be the hero. Then the governor will eat at her place instead. And Itunu Grande will reclaim top spot in Victoria Island.
The office feels colder when Shanumi returns, locks the door and collapses at her desk. She snatches the remote and turns off the air conditioner. The room’s temperature rises immediately, but the ice in her chest does not melt.
It has never melted. Not since that weekend in 2009 when Teju had swerved to avoid the Sienna going 180km/hr against traffic on the Ikoyi Bridge and their SUV had smacked the parapet. Had theirs been a smaller car, they would have stayed on the road, but it was a dwarf parapet — easy to tip over.
Shanumi shivers, remembering the splash when their SUV hit the water — the impact like a brick wall reverberating in her skull — and the shock wave of cold that came with it. She remembered thinking at the time that she should’ve taken her swimming lessons more seriously. She remembered thinking that her son, Benny, wouldn’t get those gummy bears he had asked for when they had dropped him off at Mrs Alli’s. She remembered everything going dark.
She woke up. Teju didn’t.
She didn’t even notice anything was wrong until she realized she couldn’t smell hospital’s disinfectant. Especially when they put it right in front of her nose.
Anosmia, the ENT called it.
The bank gave her an indefinite leave because her constant crying frightened her coworkers. A termination letter followed a month later. She shut down the cake ordering service she ran because she could no longer taste the flavours. For three whole months she buried herself in cooking. Teju had loved funny dishes, mixing the oddest things, so she would cook his favourite combos and set the dinner table for three. Then she would sit and stare at the food for hours. Benny would eye the dishes, eye her, then ask for bread instead. She would throw everything out at the day’s end, and repeat it the next day. Finally, Benny exploded to Mrs Alli in frustration. The neighbour came by to see for herself, and forced her to see a psychologist.
Dr. Wunmi Ajayi was this thin, dark lady with a bulbous forehead, kind eyes and the patience of Job.
“Shanumi,” she’d say. “It’s not the end. It’s a new beginning.”
Shanumi wipes her cheeks with the back of her hand, surprised they’re wet. She absentmindedly leans forward, plucks a leaf off one of the potted plants on her table. It’s the Vernonia, the bitter-leaf. She squeezes it.
The leaf pulses a smoky cloud of the deepest seafoam green, interspersed with thin tendrils of piercing black. She watches it throb, throb, throb. The smoke melds with air, never rising. She lays down the leaf and plucks another, a long blade off a citronella lemongrass. She folds the grass in her palm and watches it shine with a wild, gamy green, carrying lemony wisps of smoke for tentacles.
She first noticed it during those early days of cooking. One day, her ginger nuts pulsed with a cloud of tangy burnt amber, her garlic with a piquant opal, and her plantains with a savoury orange. She had run out of the house, screaming, only to be blinded by a kaleidoscope of pulsing smoke the minute she stepped out the front door. She had slammed the door shut and run into the wardrobe, where she took refuge between the summer green of freshly laundered clothes and the musky, leather-boot-brown of Teju’s old suits. Benny had found her there when he returned from school.
Shanumi had tried to tell Dr. Wumi about it, but the woman just hadn’t understood.
“You should be ecstatic!” The doctor had said, clapping and her clipboard with one hand. “You can smell again.”
“No, I…it’s not really smelling.”
“Oh. What’s it like?”
Dr. Wunmi had looked at her, made some notes in her clipboard, and asked nothing more about it during that session.
Another time: “So, smell this,” Dr Wumi said, holding out her pen, studying Shanumi over her glasses.
“No…it’s not like that,” Shanumi said. “It’s…it has to be strong.”
“So you choose the smells you can see?”
“No, I don’t–you think I choose them?”
The doctor shrugged. “Don’t you think you were in the wardrobe that day to remember what your husband smelled like?”
Shanumi stopped going after that. The ENT had said she’d hit her head in that accident, hard enough to damage most receptors in the mucous lining of her nose. He had said it was the end of smelling for her. The end.
But it wasn’t. It was a new beginning. She had lost one precious thing, yes, but she’d gained something much better. She could tell how much salt was needed in a meal just by looking at it. And that was something no one else in the Lagos restaurant business had.
The restaurant is full at 7:30 p.m., but no one will order until the governor arrives. He comes in at exactly eight, a balding dark-skinned man in glasses, but tall and strong in gait, evidence of the acclaimed lawyer that he once was. His wife is just as dark-skinned, but rounder, and wearing the same thin glasses. They come in with their two teenage sons. The whole family is dressed in white attires of different designs, fashioned from local atiku fabric. There’s a splash of red wherever they can—a cap for the governor, jewellery for his wife, pocket squares for the sons—to celebrate the day of love.
Shanumi, now changed into an ankle-length red velvet gown, floats over as they step in.
“Welcome, your Excellency,” she says with a slight bend of the knee. “We have your table.”
She leads them to the large centrepiece table in the middle of the room. Shanny’s is a simple restaurant with large windows; a tad cramped but meticulously arranged. The tables for two are along the windows, for four in an arc around the centrepiece, and the singles are at the bar island. Red lights have been strung from the ceiling. Every seat is booked or occupied, with the overspill outside being held off by the governor’s goons– most of whom are cameramen and media gatecrashers trying to pick up something for the blogs in the morning.
Shanumi blinks between camera flashes as the governor waves to his people and shakes a few hands before settling in. Three of Enitan’s boys line up by the table with the pre-ordered starters: plantain cupcakes capped with sardines, eggs and basil. Shanumi squints at each cake as it is served, checking that the pulse is right. She asks for one to be returned, the one with the thin tendrils of darkish-gray smoke that comes with slightly-burnt food.
As expected, the orders pour in now, and the night is on its way to becoming a blur. Shanumi checks with the DJ in the far corner, fusses over the whiteness of tablecloths, inspects the cutlery wrappings. There’s a smattering of high society people in the room, but she doesn’t recognise them enough to stop by and greet. Terrible. Maybe Gboyega will know them.
Gboyega is in the corner opposite the DJ, laughing his head off with a couple of spindly ladies. He waves an apology when he spots Shanumi.
“See?” he says, leaning to whisper in her ear. He’s dressed in a sharp tuxedo that he ruins by not wearing a bow tie. “Nothing to be afraid of. It’s already happening.” He motions with his chin to the crowd outside. “That’s success right there.”
She’s looking at the window so it takes her a while to notice the woman who’s stepped up to her. The woman is slim and light-skinned with long fingers and long hair. She is dressed in a red blouse on white trousers and heels. There’s a hint of recognition behind her contact lenses when she spots Shanumi, and Shanumi thinks she recognises the woman too, but the memory is evasive.
“Mrs Teleola,” the woman says. Her teeth are bleached white. “Your place is so lovely.” She wriggles the manicured fingers of one hand in accompaniment. In her other hand is a mango tart, which is weird because that’s not a starter.
Shanumi smiles. “Thank you. I try.” She points to the tart. “You’re at dessert already?”
“I start anywhere,” the woman says, “because your menus are so unique, so distinct. Your own recipes?”
Shanumi nods, noticing the tart has no bite marks. “Signature menus.”
“Fantastic. Just fantastic. You must have well-guarded secrets.”
Shanumi frowns. Immediately, she knows where she’s seen this woman before.
“You’re Itunu Grande at Sanusi Street,” she says.
The woman shrugs. Alarms begin to sound in Shanumi’s head.
“I’m surprised you’re eating here on Val’s. I’d expect your place to be full tonight.”
Itunu steps closer, gritting her teeth in a whisper, “Be gloating, you hear? You think because you’ve taken my customers, you’ve ruined me?”
“Taken your cus–excuse me?”
“I’ve caught you,” she says, stepping closer, so her nose is almost touching Shanumi’s. “I’ve found out your secret. I know you put something in these meals.” She waves the tart in front of Shanumi’s face. “You can’t catch me too, see? I’m not eating one bite of it. You can hypnotise everyone into loving your food, but not me, you hear?”
Shanumi’s stomach clenches.
“This is your last chance,” Itunu says in a whisper. “Confess now. Say it yourself in front of everyone, and I won’t have to disgrace you.”
“Are you alright?”
“Fine!” Itunu spits, and spins on a heel. “Your Excellency!”
The governor’s head snaps up. So does that of everyone in the restaurant. Even those outside. All eyes zoom in on the two ladies.
Itunu points a long finger at Shanumi. “Whatever it is you’re eating, I have it on good authority that this woman has put something in it.” She swings her eyes around to take in the entire room. “All of you. She’s hypnotized you.”
Murmurs arise in the room, all eyes on Itunu. Even the DJ has turned the music to zero.
“Have you ever asked yourselves?” Itunu continues, “Why you love this food so much? You can’t cook it at home. It’s not made anywhere else in the world. Yet every single day you step in here and order a dish–any dish!—and it becomes the best thing you’ve ever tasted in your entire life. You think that’s normal? You think there’s nothing supernatural about it?”
She holds the tart up in the air. “I’m sure you think I’m crazy or something, but here’s proof. Ask her to eat her own poison, see if it’s true.” She stretches the tart in front of Shanumi’s mouth. “Eat it. Show us we’re wrong.”
The air in the room is paused, static. Waiting.
“Eat it,” Itunu repeats.
Shanumi’s legs quake, unable to hold her weight. Her eyes shift to every customer in the room, stopping at the governor’s. His calm, crestfallen gaze says the same thing as everyone’s.
Shanumi picks the tart from Itunu’s outstretched hand and takes a huge bite.
The mixture of chilled mango puree, vanilla and honey, pulsing a funky triple-dye of sweet magenta, royal blue and lemon, clings to her tongue. She massages it around her mouth, pushing it up against her hard palate, sucking the tang into her cheeks and…
Many eyes have moved to convey their annoyance on Itunu, and so they don’t notice it, but the Governor’s eyes are right on Shanumi, sharp, acute, taking in the lack of a slight frown to acknowledge the sucrose, or pursed lips to the citric acid. They linger, watching her tabula rasa face, until the tart goes down.
“What…no, no,” Itunu says. “You have to finish it, finish it…”
She grabs Shanumi’s wrist and shoves the rest of the tart towards her mouth. In seconds, the governor’s goons are on her, dragging her out of the restaurant. She kicks, sends her heels flying, screaming curses.
“No! She’s deceiving us!” Her hair is disheveled, her eyes feral. “She didn’t swallow it. Check her mouth! Check her mouth!”
She’s still screaming incomprehensibles when they dump her outside.
The murmurs rise and are about to take over the night, but then the DJ turns the music up again and, slowly, conversations resume, the episode shrugged off as another random altercation, a staple of everyday Lagos life. Gboyega walks over and retrieves the remainder of the tart from Shanumi’s hand.
“Crazy woman, eh?” he says, and goes to dump it in the kitchen.
The governor’s eyes have not left Shanumi, and his fork has not returned to his baked yams under ata dindin, even though his family is oblivious to his change in countenance. She cowers under his glare and waddles away, her dress catching at her legs in her haste, to attend to the army of sweat attacking her forehead and armpits.
When she returns, the governor and his family are no longer in the restaurant.
Valentine’s night ends before 11pm, and Shanumi is back at her window, watching the fading embers of a weary city shutting down. The usual Val’s Day traffic has built up, and brake lights line up in rows like strings of Christmas blinkers. Gboyega is sprawled in the visitor’s chair with his feet on her desk, fumbling with his iPad.
“Ah, too bad that endorsement’s out the window now, yeah? Them bloggers all ranting about the lack of it, postulating theories on why the gov left. Wish he’d given an explanation, though,” he looks up. “What’s your guess? State matters? Running stomach?”
When Shanumi does not reply, he snorts. “Doesn’t matter, anyway. We’re still number one in Victoria Island.”
There’s quiet. She tries to lose herself in the lights.
“We’ll probably be top for a long time, too. Once Itunu Grande’s customers realise their proprietor is wacko.” He laughs.
Shanumi dares to chuckle along, her eyes fixed on the lights, grateful.
For another day, at least.