“I’m not joking. You should totally go commercial with this, girlfriend!” Taiwo said through clenched teeth, hiding a mouthful of food. Then she closed her lips and released them to diligently masticate strips of vegetables and protein stir-fry made to palate-awakening perfection.
Misan, standing over and beside her friend, smirked a knowing smile. “You say that of all my recipes. Ah, won’t you leave for your hubby?”
Her low, playful tone changed as Taiwo leaned forward on the dining table to retrieve a transparent container in front of her and proceeded to empty what was left of its contents into her now empty plate. “He and his sons will eat from the other one.” Briefly, she turned black, mischievous eyes on her friend before wolfing down the food again.
“But it’s a different flavour. That’s why I brought both for you to sample.”
“Uh hu.” Mouth stuffed and working conscientiously, Taiwo nodded. “Nice.”
“And it’s supposed to be a side dish.”
“Side dish, ke?” A little cough.
Misan pushed a glass of water towards her. ” Pele“
Not much harm done by an opened epiglottis, Taiwo was articulating in no time again. “Did you add sweet sauce to this one?” She indicated her clean plate.
The other woman nodded. “Just to test it out.”
“Yummy.” Taiwo smacked her lips. “Goes divinely with the fish. The chicken nko?”
Misan shook her head. “Maybe next time.” And she gently slapped her friend’s hand as it sneaked across the table again towards an extra container bursting with the colourful stir-fry. “Leave some for your family!”
Taiwo let out a toothy smile. “See why you should sell this thing? I want more!”
“Sell only a side dish?” Her friend mused. “Who will buy it?”
“Me!” One of her friend’s hands went up in the air. “And other people who want to eat healthy. It’s taking root steadily now…a healthy lifestyle, exercises, all of that. “
“Oya , let’s do something about it.”
“I’m not sure.”
“Misan, I’ve known you for how long now? And it has been one recipe after the other you’ve introduced me to – all delicious, all healthy, all quick with easy-to-get ingredients.” She took a breath and gulped down some water. “I have been trying to get you to profit from your cooking skills forever. You can even bake too! Ha! See money! If only I was domesticated like you!”
As a financial consultant, Taiwo always thought and spoke in numerate terms. Half the time she was calculating profit margins and losses. The other half saw her injecting her career path into mundane life situations.
“And this time, I am not letting this one go. We will add all your other side dishes to your menu and make something out of all of them. I’m sure Gbugbemi would be pleased. You don’t have anyone to take care of any longer, so you won’t be distracted. Let’s do this!”
“Can I think about it?”
“Don’t take too long!”
And she promptly forgot about the conversation.
Until few days later during her morning walk.
Her subconscious slowed down her pace by a popular gym, its parking lot filled with cars.
The compound next to it contained at least three buildings standing completely empty. Exclusive of the small gatehouse at the far right of it.
Telltale signs of former commercial occupants could be gleaned through show glasses and wallpapers. But what drew Misan’s attention was the structure at the other end of the grounds. More than twice the size of the gatehouse. In a vibrant green shade. Half jutting out of the spiky fence surrounding the grounds.
She was oblivious of the early morning rush hour traffic. Of fellow individuals doing the same as her – walking, jogging, stretching on the sidewalk. Of the bustling gym right next door.
Folding arms across her bosom, she surveyed what stood before her, glass doors on every side allowing her gauge the space therein.
It seemed perfect for her purpose. She wasn’t planning on opening a full-fledged restaurant. More like a drive-through. A takeaway kind of place. Place an order. Wait a few minutes. Please come again.
She took two steps backwards, shaking her head, distorting her thought patterns. What was she doing? Why was she here? Was she actually considering Taiwo’s suggestion?
Her friend was right. Gbugbemi would have wanted this for her. Not only had he praised her culinary skills, he had urged her, time and again, to do something about them. After all, he’d been the consummate businessman, taking his eye for unique interior design to commercial heights, and leaving his lucrative banking job for personal satisfaction and setting his own hours.
Not her, the perpetual administrator, tolling daily at a desk job until she finally resigned last year after Toju’s departure in September.
“Come with me, mum.” Her son implored two weeks before he was due to leave. “It’s going to be lonely here. You by yourself…”
She smiled thinly, a hand caressing the side of his angular jaw, not seeing his but Gbugbemi’s face in her 17-year-old. “I’ll be fine. I have your dad’s memories to keep me company.” She assured him.
He sighed. “About that…” He paused. “Now that I’m leaving, are you going to live a little now?”
Misan feigned ignorance. “What do you mean?”
“Mum, it has been 10 years. Almost anyway.” He elaborated. “My friends think you’re hot! Can you imagine that!” He exclaimed suddenly. “Why do you think they are always here? To see me?!”
She fought to keep her face expressionless. “First Jemine, now you.”
“Because we love you and want to see you happy again, the way you were with dad.” His voice solemn now. “We’re both going into the world to live own lives now, if we were the ones holding you back all this time – “
She pulled his tall frame into her arms, only able to reach around his chest, cutting him off.
He was a replica of his father, a constant reminder of the man who’d been her love, her life, her everything.
To lose Gbugbemi, tragically, had been an unexpected blow. It had taken more than five years to get over. She basically survived by pouring all her love onto her two children – Jemine & Toju – and her job. It had also taken a long while to stare at her son without dissolving into pitiable tears. He was his father’s son, every day, in every way.
“Thank you for thinking of me.” She uttered into his chest.
He wrapped long arms around her petite frame. “Well, you put us first. That’s why you’re still single and sassy!”
She pulled away, pseudo annoyed expression on her face. “Hey!”
He grinned suddenly, in the same impish manner Gbugbemi used to.
Misan took two more steps as though backing into the present once again and turned simultaneously.
“Watch ou – !“ Breathless, modulated tone, like a pancake coming together nicely, rang out.
Too late. Against her bare arm, she encountered moisture, rock hard torso and the sensation of slipping down.
Hands shot out of nowhere to steady her. Quick, strong reflexes.
“I’m…so…sssorry.” She stuttered out, instantly embarrassed.
Kind eyes, strangely flecked grey, in a heavily bearded face and unsmiling mouth, looked her over with faint concern. “Are you all right?” A monolith of a man. A little over 6 ft. The colour of the setting sun. Long arms peeking out of a grey sleeveless t-shirt soaked around the neck, chest and shoulders.
She looked up, then away, nodding, still appalled. “Yes, thanks. I’m sorry again.”
Wordlessly he nodded, walked around her and slowly began to jog away. Grey pair of joggers. Grey and white converse. His colour coordination suitable for a well-thought out table setting.
For a man his size, he moved fluidly. No floundering to the sides. Straight backed, looking ahead, inspiring to watch.
Misan didn’t catch herself staring brazenly in time. She only realised when the stranger slowed down and turned back to, briefly, return the compliment.
Feeling the heat rising to her face, she looked away and began to stride quickly in the opposite direction.
“Yaaay!” Taiwo screeched down the line, stunning Misan’s ear drums. “But why won’t you start from your house?” She asked, suddenly sotto voce. “It’s cheaper. No movements. Almost all your tools of trade are there.” The accountant taking over, cataloguing all the money-saving pros of the future venture if located at her friend’s residence.
“This is sacred.” Misan’s tone matched her friend’s. “To Gbugbemi and I. I don’t want to taint the memories I made with him and the children.” She stood by the staircase leading to the upper part of the house and looked up at the quaint building that had been home for 20 years.
She still remembered the first time he brought her to it. A young corps member, fresh from university, totally taken with this older man whose attentions were unrelenting, flattering and deliberate.
He took her on a tour of the structure which required several finishing touches. “I wanted something bigger.” His deep tone rumbled beside her as they entered what seemed to be the master bedroom; his arm around her waist. “But the – “
“It’s lovely.” She told him. “Cosy. Intimate.” She faced him. “Is this one of your projects?”
Hazel eyes crinkled quietly. “It’s ours, and you’ll be the mistress of it.” He brought both of them to a stop, digging into his back pocket to extract a small, black box. He flipped it open between them. “Marry me, Temisanren.”
She was 23. He just turned 35.
Every item in the house had a story, a memory attached to it. The wallpaper by the staircase. A present from a client. The beige coloured leather furniture her brother-in-law kept hounding her to change. Gbugbemi had thrown it into a consignment for a project. The retractable floor boards with their 30-year warranty. Leftover material from a big estate job. The sagging left side of the bed frame in the master bedroom. An impatient, amorous activity from 11 years ago; Gbugbemi had been out of town for two weeks straight. The dining table whose four legs stood on the family’s initials – G, M, J, T. One of Gbugbemi’s inspirations. The children loved to point them out to their new friends.
This house was an ode to Gbugbemi, to the family they created, the love they shared. His spirit walked the walls. His talent reflected in the eclectic design and lively colour choices. Decorative pieces, elegant and delicate, reminiscent of his preference dotted the rooms. It was the one place she could still feel his warm breath on her face saying: “I love you, Mis.” She wasn’t going to turn it over to strangers to traipsed over.
“Okay.” It sounded like Taiwo wasn’t going to push. “No offence, girlfriend, but if the tables were turned, do you think Jemine and Toju wouldn’t have had a stepmother like, I don’t know, eight or nine years ago?”
“None taken.” Was all the reply Misan gave. “The place is on Admiralty by the gym. Looks abandoned. Do you want to check it out tomorrow? What’s your schedule like?” She moved into the dark sitting room, streaks of light from the stairwell falling on a small table festooned with framed family photographs.
“Yeah, sure. I don’t have anything until noon.” Taiwo said. “We can go together in the morning. Say 10am?”
“10am is fine. See you then. Good night.” Misan broke the connection as she snagged up a wedding photo with her free hand.
In it, Gbugbemi had scooped her up like a rag doll, both of them laughing heartily into the camera. 1998. She looked so young, naïve. Even then, there was a faint hint of grey hair behind his ears.
Her friends, Taiwo especially, thought she was insane. “Isn’t he old enough to be your father?” She blurted out.
“10/12 year difference?” Misan shrugged thin shoulders, unperturbed. “Maybe but who cares? We don’t.”
Her parents were quietly opposed to the union for the same reason. And why hadn’t he been married before? But the narrative changed once everyone got to know him better.
As she put the frame back in its place, Gbugbemi’s eyes seemed to alter from hazel to a pair of grey flecked, kind-looking eyes.
Misan blinked and looked again. Gbugbemi’s laughing eyes gazed back. Was it the trick of light?