Sometimes… 16 – 20

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Previous chapters 8 – 15

16.

Two messages arrived at once, one after the other

Kemi: dn’t knw if anytin hpnd btw our siblings in d pst but sumtin’s hpng nw.

Ruona’s forehead creased mildly. Funny, she hadn’t thought much about Tayo since returning to school and meeting Maro who, every other day, called her. Lectures and Tosan had taken what was left of her attention, leaving nothing for her crush on the older man.

But, like Kemi, she was interested in the relationship or whatever it was brewing between both their siblings.

The next message came from Maro: In town for a B. Eve tomorrow night. Can I come see you? And would you like to accompany me to the party?

She chuckled. Besides Naji, he was the only other person whose text messages were long hand and grammatically correct (when he did send messages. Most times, he called). She found him refreshing and different. Who asked for permission to come visit a girl? Guys just showed up at your room door. Who wanted to know if you’d be interested in going for a party? Free food and drinks! Almost every student was hungry for both.

She sat up on her bed and her fingers flew over the keyboard, typing out replies to the messages. The first went to Kemi.

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For the last hour, Adaobi stayed by her side as her guide. She had signed several forms and filled out papers, taken a peep at her office on the 4th floor and the entire area occupied by the IT department and finally ushered into the conference room where the management meeting would take place in 30 minutes.

Naji fingered the sheaf of papers in front of her on the vast, oblong table. They were copies of resumes of every member of her team, inclusive of interns and contract staff. Upon her request, Adaobi had printed them out and had them waiting for her.

The name Nasiru Shettima jumped at her from the top of the pile. Less than a decade of being a Fawaz, she was yet to familiarize herself with all the many and varied members of the extended family. Could this Nasiru Shettima have any ties to Taofick? She picked it up, and the door opened.

The pudgy, freckled, smiling face of Mr. Ayodele’s personal assistant, Eme, looked in before her distended stomach followed suit. Besides Adaobi, she was the only other staff she’d met in the office. She was warm and welcoming and had a big smile during the brief introduction. Clutching a bundle of stapled papers which she carefully placed at one end of the table, she currently prepared the room for the impending meeting and disappeared again.

Naji continued her perusal of Nasiru’s resume and didn’t bother looking up when the door cracked open again, thinking it was Eme.

She did when it became apparent that there was more than one person entering the room.

Adaobi was the first leading two men and more still edging in. ‘Your team, ma.’ She announced as the last individual shut the door.

Naji’s attention was drawn to the last person for two reasons; he held a bouquet of yellow daffodils and made her eyebrow shoot up in mild surprise because he turned out to be Maro.

Adaobi had begun the introductions. ‘Nasiru Sertima,’ the young lady went on, indicating the sour-faced, balding, dark-skinned, bean pole of a man with facial marks at her side.

‘Welcome ma.’ His northern accent could suspend a newborn babe in the air comfortably. He neither looked nor sounded welcoming, and his expression, almost a fraction away from the beginning of a deep frown.

‘Eric Okoyei is next to him,’ Adaobi pointed to a light skinned, lanky, jolly faced man in his 20s.

Eric smiled. ‘Good morning ma. Welcome. ‘

Jide Attah, stocky, 30s, quiet-looking, serious faced man with a bulging gut and a guttural voice came after in the introductions.

Maro, among them all, looked like the non-IT personnel with his shaven head and clutching onto the bouquet. ‘Good morning ma.’ He was smiling and looked the least bit surprised to see her.

She pointed to the flowers. ‘Are those for me?’

He nodded and walked towards her to place them on the table in front of her. ‘They were delivered a few minutes ago.’

Tayo, she thought.

How sweet, Adaobi thought. Whoever sent Mrs. Fawaz the bouquet reminded her of her ex. Tayo had sent her flowers a handful of times. A careless statement about their uselessness from her ended their flow.  Now she’d give anything to receive a stalk from him.

‘Thank you,’ Naji looked at Adaobi. ‘Am I the only woman in the department?’

‘Yes ma, and frankly speaking, it needs a woman’s touch.’ Adaobi said.

A murmur of protests rose from the men and Naji found herself chuckling. ‘They don’t seem to agree with you, Adaobi.’ She rested her gaze on the men. ‘Thank you all for coming in. I’d see you after the meeting. Then we can talk.’

As they filed out of the room, Naji’s eyes followed Nasiru. Why did he look vaguely familiar? And why couldn’t she shake the uneasy feeling about him?

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17.

The elevator ride to the parking lot crawled. Adaobi willed it faster; she was more than anxious and beyond in a hurry. Her mind had arrived in the lot already.

Since noon when Mr. Ayodele had called from the meeting instructing that she send a copy of her resume to him, she’d wondered why. Suddenly. From out of the blue.  Moments after she’d done so via outlook, a message beeped into her mobile phone.

Eme: hv xprs gist abt mtg. tell u l8tr.

Still pondering Mr. Ayodele’s request, Eme’s text sent her thoughts into overdrive. Why had Mr. A. asked for her resume? To what end? And was the gist Eme had related to it? Trying to unravel it all without any information to go on derailed Adaobi from her work as she turned the issue every which way in her mind.

The meeting had ended by 2pm; both women had been too swamped to even meet up for lunch.

Now as the clock edged towards the half hour mark of four, past closing time, at least for Eme, Adaobi recently began putting in an extra hour to reduce her workload before the weekend and more so because her idly wanderings set her back from the day’s tasks.

Few minutes ago, another message from Eme asked that they meet in the parking garage on the ground floor.

Eme sat in the backseat, alone and swollen, doors wide open, in the car when Adaobi eventually showed up, her heels clicking lightly on the paved floor. She spied Eme’s wily driver five cars away, yapping away on his mobile.

Adaobi slid in from the other side of the car. The interior reeked of bananas and grapes as Eme binged on a handful of them extracted from a large, olive handbag beside her.

She popped a green, oblong grape into her mouth. ‘If this ever gets out, Adaobi, I’ll deny you to heaven and back,’ she began.

‘I’ll take it to my grave,’ her friend said, tucking dark, smooth legs under her skirt.

Eme brought out a rather large, juicy looking, yellow banana and proceeded to peel it. ‘Management is considering you for the head of HR position.’

Adaobi gasped, closed her eyes and opened them again almost at once, clasping and unclasping fingers with long scarlet nails as if trying to decide if to believe the news or not; it seemed impossible to hear, too good to be true.  Finally, she let out a breath. ‘I’m listening.’

Her friend halved the fruit in one big bite. ‘They were discussing the three candidates you updated them with when Mrs. Fawaz asked, out of nowhere: “What about Adaobi?”

The other woman sat up. ‘No way!’

‘My exact reaction, girl! It took a new staff to address what you’ve been hoping for nearly a year now.’

‘So what happened?’

‘FE & NE tried to dismiss her suggestion but all she did was ask questions: “How long has she worked here? Has she delivered on her KPIs? Why are we not looking inwards first? Or is there a rule against it?” Adaobi, I held my breath as she was talking.’ Eme bit into the banana flesh once more. ‘Then she talked about how, if you do get promoted, it would be a good moral boost for you and other staff – “

‘So that’s why Mr. A. asked for my resume. I wondered – ’

‘By the time Mrs. Fawaz was done, it looked like there was a vendetta against you.’

‘I liked that woman at our first meeting. Now I’m starting to love her.’

‘And do you know before the matter came up, she didn’t say much during the meeting? She took a lot of notes and asked a couple of questions for clarification. That’s all. Until the open head of HR position was raised.’

Adaobi smiled. ‘Who would have thought?!’

‘So, get ready. I’ll be scheduling chats for you next week. But first, Mr. A.’s going to talk to you about it. I don’t know if it’s still going to be today. Whenever, act surprised. If not…,’ she left it hanging and shifted uncomfortably. ‘Now I need to go home. Tired is my middle name.’ She turned aside and called out. ‘Okon! Let’s go.’

Adaobi lunged at her in a bear hug as she adjusted back, closing the door behind her.

‘Sister, careful naa.’ Eme’s voice had traces of a smile. ‘See how I am.’

‘Thank you, Eme.’ Adaobi’s voice failed to hide her excitement.

‘Keep me posted.’ Her friend said as the other woman alighted.

‘I will.’ Adaobi promised and acknowledged Okon’s greetings. The driver slid into his place and kicked the car to life. He waited for Adaobi to swing the door shut before he began to reverse, the two friends waving.

What a way to start the weekend! Ada thought. It was news such as this that she usually couldn’t wait to share with Tayo.

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‘I don’t understand. You’re going but not with me?’ Maro slid an arm into his jeans pocket and tried to catch Ruona’s eye. She looked everywhere else except right at him.

The large parking lot spanning and separating the two female hostels in the University of Benin was alive and aglow and awash with activities, a typical scene replayed every day and amplified during the start of almost every weekend when the school was in session.

Twilight had disappeared and headlights, of the ever-increasing number of vehicles arriving and departing, joined the array of flickering golden candles and makeshift lights of food vendors lined at the fringe to illuminate the parking lot.

‘Yes, I’m going with…’ Her voice trailed off as once again Maro was shown her lovely profile against a shadowy mix of lights springing all around them.

‘I know you have a boyfriend, Rona.’

She met his gaze then.

‘Kemi told me,’ he continued. ‘I’d be stupid to think a pretty girl like you didn’t have one. It would also mean the guys in this school were blind fools.’

Her mouth twitched in amusement.

‘And I’m just one of the many others who think you’re amazing and would like to know you better.’

She lowered her gaze again.

‘I leave town on Sunday,’ he went on. ‘Since I won’t have the pleasure of your company tonight, can I come by tomorrow evening perhaps?’

Nodding, she answered in a full sentence for the first time. ‘Yes, that’s fine.’

‘Okay then. Have fun tonight.’

‘You too.’

He nodded, turned and began to walk towards his car at the end of the corner of the lot.

‘Whoa Maro, she’s damn fine!’ Eric, leaning on the car, exclaimed and straightened. ‘Look at those eyes, those lips…and is all of that her hair?’ He asked Maro, who was strapping on his seat belt with eyes still glued to Ruona. She stood now at the lighted entrance of the hall, talking to a girl. No profile views this time around, Maro drank in her beauty in deep, satisfying gulps as she gestured, and a smile parted faintly stained pink lips. Then she tilted her head and long, full locks fell over one shoulder completing an image Maro froze in his mind.

‘You’ve got that right, man.’ His voice was low in response.

‘No wonder you’ve been driving to Benin every chance you get.’ Eric started the car. ‘For her, I go go Sokoto and back anytime!’

Maro chuckled. ‘I beg look your back o. This place is packed.’

‘I can see.’ Eric deftly reversed the car. ‘So are we coming back for her later? And does she have any friends?’

Maro shook his head. ‘She’s going with her boyfriend.’

‘Oh, he’s one lucky bugger.’

‘And like the vulture, I’m patient,’ Maro said, gaze trained on Ruona, who at the moment was striding into the hostel with her companion, for one last time before Eric zoomed off.

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Around 1am that night, Maro first set eyes on the man in Ruona’s life. When the DJ switched the music from R & B to ballad, the dance floor became a little more spacious for the first time that night in over three hours. Ruona and her man were one of the couples who remained. 

Earlier on when she arrived, Maro had seen her with two friends. The black, sparsely sequined dress whispering over her curves shimmered as she moved, attracting attention. Her long, luscious mane caught casually at her nape had errant strands dropping to her shoulders and cheeks on a face with minimal make-up. She didn’t need any, Maro thought, looking beyond her, expecting to see her boyfriend. He was unrewarded for his watch. No student-looking like male walked in after the trio of girls.

Somehow from across the room, in the middle of the noise present at a party, she caught his gaze and held it for a few seconds. He smiled and nodded; her scarlet lips curved in response before she looked away.

Not once did he try to approach her to chat or dance despite Eric’s countless urgings. His friend, on the other hand, has sidled up to one of her friends for a dance. But Maro did follow her every movement – her dances with different guys, her giggles and drinks with her friends, a brief disappearance (perhaps to the ladies’), her every move. At some point, he danced close enough to her and another of her numerous partners to exchange hellos and compliment her looks. Nothing more.

The man whose hands wrapped around her body like his property – well, wasn’t she? – wore aviator glasses on a geeky looking but handsome face. An air of seriousness swirled around him too. Not the kind one found in a rowdy party setting. He was a head taller than Ruona, dark and nearly stick thin. Maro stared in mild surprise; certainly not the image he had in his head about the boyfriend. Then again, Ruona and he were in the early stages of their friendship, hardly time enough to know her preferences in the opposite sex.

Her arms circled his neck and they danced, cheek to cheek, talking or he talked, and she giggled or moved her head appropriately now and again. When she threw her head back to laugh heartily, Maro averted his gaze and began to walk towards the exit, his forgotten drink in his hand. The room had suddenly become too stuffy; he needed some air.

She was cuddling close to Tosan again when Rouna saw Maro’s receding shaven head as he left the venue.

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18.

Her teenage years may have been behind her but Naji’s heart skipped a beat when Tayo emerged from his car. And were those butterflies in her stomach?!

Blue collared T shirt and fitted blue jeans trousers sat firmly on toned muscles. He adjusted his glasses at the dull glare of the mid-morning sun as he walked towards the front door, a small carrier bag swinging from his right hand.

There was no denying the latent feelings she knew she’d nursed over the years. Nothing prepared her for this rush of emotions that surged right after their first kiss. Or was it the constant thoughts of him plaguing her without warning? His calls, messages, music and flowers further ingrained him in her mind nearly every other waking minute.

Perhaps some truth laid in the first love myth; you may move on from it, but you never really forget it entirely. Those dormant feelings and random thoughts of him were evidence enough. In isolation, they proved harmless. She never imagined one day they’d be given the chance for expression. And so far, express themselves uninhibitedly, they have.

The doorbell pealed, slicing through the calm silence of the house. Naji left her spy post by the kitchen window and headed for the front door.

Rasheed and Aisha were with Kemi, who had turned out to be the babysitter. Naji had doubted Tayo would find one she’d be comfortable with at such short notice; she was impressed. She was beginning to think there was nothing he couldn’t sort out. What she didn’t know was that he’d offered to pay for his sister’s inconvenience for this date to happen. Always the romantic and matchmaker, Kemi had refused. It was her contribution towards her brother’s happiness. He’d transferred some money into her account anyway.

When Naji opened the door, Tayo fought the urge to take her in his arms in a tight, prolonged hug. The loose-fitting, plain, black jersey dress did little to diminish her blessings, stopping short of her knees. Her hair, that hair, like the dress was loose framing her face and giving those sharp features an even softer look.  He wanted to lose his fingers in the cascades of black strands, knowing he would encounter no obstacles in ridges and threads.

He smiled instead and held up the bag. ‘Hi. I wasn’t sure what to bring along.’ He stepped into the house when she moved back.

‘Hi yourself. Thanks. ‘ She took the bag, shut the door and peered inside. A bottle of red grape wine. ‘Those flowers caused a stir yesterday.’ She placed the bag and bottle on the dining table and turned to find him staring directly at her.

‘They did, didn’t they? I should send more then.’ He shoved both hands into his pockets. ‘How was your first day?’

She shook her head. ‘We won’t do this now, talk shop. There’s breakfast. Yam & pepper soup or what the children ate – pancakes?’

Food was the furthest thing from his mind, but he wasn’t about to alarm her with that thought. ‘Pepper soup sounds more like it. Thanks.’

‘Okay.’ She tapped the end of the table. ‘Make yourself at home and I’ll be right back.’

She stepped forward towards the kitchen. He did the same in a bid to do as she’d instructed. She didn’t see his foot in the way and stumbled into arms which flew out to steady her. ‘Easy now,’ he cautioned gently, hands at her waist.

‘Thanks.’ She glanced up at him as she straightened again.

The ensuing silence was anything but awkward. Before he drew her even closer and lowered his head to hers, for a moment he searched her eyes for resistance and found none. Her slightly parted lips said enough to close the gap and bury his in them.

He lost himself in the softness and sweetness he’d anticipated, pulling her body to fit his. When he rummaged her mouth with his tongue, one of his hands roved inside her hair lightly.

He heard her sigh. Then her hands against his chest, softly pushing away, brought it to an abrupt end. ‘This is crazy, Tay,’ she breathed into his shoulder, laying her head on it and trying to get her wind back.

He stroked her hair, one hand still wrapped around her. ‘It is, and so is calling me that.’

‘What are we doing?’ She disengaged completely, stepped back and glanced up at him.

Somewhat surprised, he stared back. ‘You didn’t stop me initially, Enajiomo. You kissed me right back.’

‘That’s the problem!’

‘You don’t like your reaction towards me, obviously.’ The rustic tones were calm, expertly hiding a rising disappointment.’

‘I don’t know you like I used to. A lot of time has passed since we were in school, yet I melt in your arms. It’s disconcerting.’

‘Fair enough.’

‘I need to know what I’m getting into and who I’m getting into it with. If I’m getting into anything at all.’

‘Fair enough,’ he repeated, and pulled out one of the chairs of the dining table, gesturing her towards it. ‘Sit down, please. What would you like to know about me?’

She delayed any tales of his life’s experiences until he was sated with a large helping of yams and pepper soup.

For five years, Tayo Olukoya had been a married man. To Sola Olukoya. He showed her the fading white mark on his ring finger. He had been divorced for close to two years now; they couldn’t have children. Countless tests and frayed nerves dogged their marital life. With every unsuccessful test, the tension between them spiralled. IVF failed twice too. And for the duration they were a couple, Sola blamed him for their childlessness. His perceived low sperm count disorder. His likely contract of mumps at childhood. His social smoking habit. His roving lifestyle as a young man. No mention of her part or past in their entire hopelessness. After the second IVF attempt flunked, Tayo insisted on a third opinion from a doctor of his choice.

The truth was as earth-shattering as it was sobering. Sola proved to be the problem. Multiple abortion procedures, before meeting Tayo, caused damage to her cervix and the lining becoming thinner and thinner after every pregnancy. There was also the possibility of an untreated pelvic inflammatory disease which caused her infertility.  Aware that she might never bring forth children from her womb, she withheld the information from Tayo for fear that he’d never solemnise their union. She planned to propose adoption once he believed he was at the centre of their childlessness. However, falsifying medical results could only hold sway for so long.

‘Imagine a paediatric surgeon without children.’ His laugh was short and cynical. ‘I’d seen mini-mes running around the house. Sola envisioned something else entirely.’

‘Surely, adoption isn’t such a bad idea,’ Naji put in quietly.

‘I’m not entirely averse to it, Enajiomo. It was the deception that got to me.’ He paused, a distant look jumped into his eyes. ‘She’d it all mapped out and I was her fool for five years.’

‘Love does that to us sometimes.’

‘Love is also honest and understanding. If she’d told me from the outset…I didn’t marry her just because of kids, I loved her.’

‘Perhaps she thought you wouldn’t have if you’d known.’

He shook his head as though dispersing unpleasant memories. ‘Apparently, my ex thought otherwise.’

The look of momentary confusion which appeared on her face made him continue hastily: ‘I broke up with someone some weeks ago. She faked a pregnancy to get a ring from me.’

Mild shock replaced confusion. ‘Oh. It must have seemed like history was repeating itself.’

‘You can say that again.’ He stood up then and strode into the living room. ‘I had to ask myself if I was attracted to this type of woman.’

‘Women who love and want to be with you, Tayo? Yes, you attract them and there’s nothing wrong with that.’ She reasoned, following his movements as he paused by the sliding doors at the other end of the room and stared out of it. ‘Weeks ago?’ She went on. ‘Shouldn’t you be healing? Taking time to breathe?’

He swung his gaze at her then. ‘I should be happy and that’s what I am with you.’

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Be happy. Life’s too short not to be.

Those words constituted Abdul’s mantra, and his life had been a living, breathing testament of his belief. Albeit a rollercoaster one that she got involved in. His unique condition made him adopt a carefree lifestyle; he had been one of the happiest men she’d known.

Never a day or hour or minute of worry. Or a moment to regret.  No time to waste. Life was moving forward rapidly, and he happily, spontaneously, effortlessly chased after it.

It took some getting used to, his way of living, Naji reflected as she half sat, half laid on the couch.  In the last four years, she’d slowed the pace of her life considerably, fitting back into the rhythm she was accustomed to before the advent of Abdul into her life. It explained why she only just made the move to this part of the country, to this estate; alhaji had suggested a change of environment immediately after Abdul’s demise.

During the period, she remembered giving little thought to her happiness quotient. If she recalled accurately, she spent each day in spurts of tears and gloom, mourning him. Better times meant being occupied with issues as they pertained to her children – adjusting to a life without their dad, dealing with schoolwork, facing growth challenges, raising them to be healthy and well-adjusted.

Even when she decided to finally make the move, her concerns were centred around the children once again, relegating her needs and wants to the background. Were there good schools around? What was the surrounding like – kid-friendly, safe, a good place to raise children? How would the change affect them? Positively (leaving every reminder of their father behind) or negatively (dislike for the place that would be their new home)? Her happiness hardly ever featured as one of the topics of concerns.

Now here was Tayo talking about happiness, reminding her of Abdul’s constant and very last words to her.

Be happy.

He made her promise to consider remarrying if the situation arose. He made her promise to continue her career even after he was gone. None of the promises included the children because he knew Naji would move heaven and earth for them. But he needed her to think of herself too.

‘You gave me some of the happiest years of my life,’ he said more than once. ‘You deserve that too for yourself, no matter what.’

Be happy.

She was happy with her children, her in-laws, her friends, her family.  She was happy being with Tayo …and nervous, uncertain and jittery

She looked at him by the sliding doors, his head bowed as he spoke into his mobile phone. One of his subordinates had called him for a consultation on a patient.

Medical jargon flew out of his mouth now and again as he asked questions and suggested possible prognosis. Occasionally, he lifted his head to briefly lock eyes with hers, then back to the person at the other end of the line.

She smiled faintly. He still practised that endearing habit, silently connecting with her even when his attention was needed elsewhere. It was reassuring: I haven’t forgotten about you. It said a lot in one single look. 

No doubt, she was happy with him right now and probably could be in the future, if that option was in the cards. And there laid the problem.

After listening to his account of past relationships, a big but hovered in the centre of any blossoming liaison between them.

This paediatric surgeon desired children of his own; he had said that much in no uncertain terms. Naji felt her childbearing days were behind her, like her teenage years.

While single, five had been the magic number of children. She’d wanted her marital home filled with the boisterous noise of five offspring; three girls and two boys. When she began dating Tayo in school, they had joked about children and the right number each wanted. Eventually, they had settled for four, two of each gender.

With Abdul, one child without his genotype would be a miracle. So when Rasheed came into the world, a healthy child with the AS marker, Naji sobbed with tremendous relief and was content to pour all her love upon him. But Abdul talked her into trying again, even thinking they could create up to three children possessing the carrier gene and none with the Sickler one.

Aisha’s arrival was like lightning striking twice in the same place – an act of God, another miracle. Abdul would have been over the moon, except he never got to know about her conception, let alone witness her birth. Naji was neck deep in grief over his passing away when unexpected morning sickness hit her.

Aisha’s pregnancy became both a blessing and a curse, sufficiently distracting her from her present predicament and a constant reminder of the person whom she’d made the baby with. She laughed and cried in turns; sometimes doubting her sanity, other times questioning her reality.

‘What’s on your mind?’ Rustic, bass tones broke into her thoughts.

She looked up with a start.

He towered directly above her, mobile phone dangling from his left hand. ‘If your face were a screen,’ he continued, ‘I wonder what pictures I’d have seen in the last couple of seconds.’

Had she been that transparent? She swung her legs off the couch. And when had he got off the phone?

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19.

‘Do these come every day?’ Adaobi asked, adjusting the strap of her bag on her shoulder.

Jide Attah shrugged and said nothing. He looked quite comfortable balancing the bouquet of white roses (the receptionist had handed him on the ground floor for his new boss) and his laptop bag strapped across his pristine white shirt, straining against the overflow of his gut.

His response was no surprise. Everyone knew Jide was not only quiet-looking but also a taciturn man who rarely engaged in discussions that were non-IT related. She didn’t expect him to start now; she had asked the question to make small talk, shatter the silence in the enclosed space. 

The elevator stopped and slid its doors open. She was the first out, throwing a ‘Have a good day’ over her shoulders, and promptly forgetting about the flowers and Jide. Other things took precedence in her mind besides Tayo and her regret at their failed relationship. She had a panel interview to attend; One she had prepared for all weekend after Mr. A had briefed her about it on Friday last week.

Consequently, the chief operating officer, the chief financial officer and the chief business officer made up the panellists for her interview this morning. She wondered why Mrs. Fawaz, the instigator of the idea, wasn’t included. Maybe because she was relatively new? She thought.

Bottomline, the interview was happening. Finally. And she planned to dazzle them with her brilliance, her experience, her expertise and her long-term strategies for the human resources department and SCW, if given the chance.

She fiddled with the lapel of the navy-blue skirt suit she had on and turned the handle of her office door. The line of feathers on the collar of the jacket fluttered in reaction to the blast of cool air from the office interior. It was her best suit, her most expensive and showed off her voluptuous figure. It had also been awkward retrieving it from Tayo’s on Saturday. Thankfully, he had been out when she arrived. She didn’t feel so confident confronting him after their last encounter and now that she suspected he was in a new relationship.

His sister, Kemi, was easier to deal with. She hadn’t made much conversation, leaving no opening for Adaobi to inquire about her brother’s whereabouts or his current relationship status. Kemi had been preoccupied with her child and the two other children she was babysitting.

Acknowledging her subordinates’ greetings as she strode past their desks, she made for her hers at the corner of the office. Away from the frost that was the air conditioner, she gently placed her laptop bag and handbag on the desk and began to unpack. Deliberately putting away thoughts of Tayo from her mind, she mentally began her final rehearsal for the interview of her life that, in her opinion, could make or break her career.

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7.58am and Jide walked into the communal office he shared with his other colleagues and the company’s enormous server, its constant humming a soundtrack to their working hours.

Naji, Eric and Maro, standing together in the middle, all looked up from the conversation they were having.

In a pitch-black trouser suit, fitting like a glove and setting off her colour, bright red pointed pumps, hair tucked severely in a bun and away from her face, Naji looked the part to solve the company’s IT issues, if any. With, of course, the help of her fellow IT whizz kids.

Jide bowed. ‘Good morning ma.’

She shot him a brief smile. ‘How are you, JA? Thanks for bringing those for me.’ She indicated the flowers, refraining in time from shaking her head at Tayo following through with his word. The entire office instinctively knew the only staff who received flowers in the building. ‘Please place them in my office.’

The place she referred to was cubicle-size, attached as an afterthought to the large communal space, with an equally tiny opening for entry and exit. It looked more suited for storage and was somewhere Nasiru claimed as his for months, creating distance from his colleagues, deluding himself that he would indeed become the head of the department one day.

That delusion ended abruptly on Friday last week. In between the end of the management meeting, becoming more acquainted with her team and the workings of the department & the company and waiting to meet the night shift team lead, Naji requested her office be relocated from the management staff floor above to the same space occupied by her team. Wherever the server was, there the action was too.

She didn’t miss the reaction her decision caused among the men. Displaced, Nasiru barely hid his displeasure. She had, invariably, put him firmly in his place. Eric, Maro and Jide, on the other hand, ensured the move was swift and smooth, even helping physically.

The next thing on her agenda was a one-on-one chat with each of them. It would help gauge their attitude towards work and the company, their perspectives on their positions and colleagues as well as an opportunity to air their grievances, if they were willing to share any with her. All of which they probably wouldn’t engage in during a routine departmental meeting.

As they arrived at the office one after the other, she scheduled the times accordingly. Maro was the first one in. 15 minutes later, Eric showed up. Jide walked in with her flowers two minutes shy of 8am, so he’d be up right after her talk with Eric. Now, she awaited Nasiru’s arrival. 8:15am and still no sign of him.

At 8:25am, she asked no one in particular: ‘What time does Nasiru get in?’

Half hidden behind the server, Maro pretended not to have heard her.

Eric was on the phone speaking to the sugar factory manager; she didn’t expect him to reply. Jide, squinting into his laptop at his desk in the communal space, couldn’t escape like his colleagues had. He was the obvious choice to respond.

He cleared his throat first, then looked up in her general direction. ‘He will soon come in any moment from now, ma.’ For some reason, Naji noticed he failed to meet her eyes as he spoke.

Any moment from now turned into 15 more minutes. Unwilling to wait any more, Naji beckoned to Maro. ‘Let’s go, MM.’ She was speaking as red pumps strode towards the door. ‘EO, be prepared when we return. You’re next.’

‘Yes ma.’

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It took Naji two days of her first week to fathom the character named Nasiru Shettima and exactly what she was dealing with when it concerned him.

For one, his resumption time barely coincided with 8am. He sauntered into the office, like he owned the place, anywhere from 8.45am. Breakfast topped his agenda and took close to an hour while he stank up the entire space with whatever he fancied as a meal that morning. Thereafter, he demanded reports from the company’s various sections – sugar, cement, wheat, barely – previously assigned to Maro, Eric and Jide prior to Naji’s assumption of duty.

He half listened to the oral reports, dividing his time between squinting into his laptop screen and grunting once in a while to encourage the speaker on. With that out of the way, his eyes riveted fully to his screen, occasionally tapping on the keyboard, until lunch time. He attended to no staff complaint or request, whether personally or via the intercom which stood within arm’s length on the desk. Any calls hitting the line went unanswered until one of the other men picked it up.

Naji pondered on his exact role as he silently (and sourly) marched out of the office for a lunch lasting the whole of two hours. She timed it. He returned to more screen staring and idleness until 3pm when he packed up his bags ready to leave, a full hour before the official closing time. He got up and was striding out when she spoke from her office. ‘Where are you going, NS?’ Her eyes flickering over his entire body, resting a while on his laptop bag before swinging back to his face.

It was her second day of observation and NS changed nothing about his routine nor attitude due to a new boss. In fact, he behaved as though she didn’t exist.

For a moment, he looked flustered. No one had questioned his movements before, or probably he hadn’t seen it coming from her. Naji couldn’t decide which as she calmly waited for an answer. After all, she hadn’t uttered a word the day before when he’d enacted the same sequence of actions. Because she’d thought, erroneously, he wouldn’t do them again.

Obviously, she’d been wrong.

‘Home.’ He made bold to respond, meeting her gaze head on.

She rose from her desk, a tall figure clothed in a black dress suit, and stepped away from it. ‘Is there an emergency?’ She inched forward. ‘It’s not Friday, is it?’

Jide, the only other staff in the communal space, hunched over his laptop, his back to them, maintained that stance throughout the exchange. Maro and Eric were out together on routine checks to the cement and wheat sections.

‘No…ma,’ NS looked uncomfortable, rooted to a spot in the middle of the room, bag in hand, a deer in the headlights.

‘So why are you leaving now?’ Naji reached the tiny exit and one hand grazed its lintel. ‘Don’t you have work to do?’

‘I…I…just wanted to…,’ NS found himself stuttering probably for the first time in his adult life, and probably embarrassed at it too.

She didn’t care. ‘Official closing hour is four o’ clock. Not that I need to remind you about that. You’ve been here longer than I have.’

He turned around and shuffled back to his desk.

‘And I take it you remember the official resumption hour as well?’ She went on as he collapsed onto his chair like a child sent to detention.

‘Yes…ma.’ There it was again, respect given grudgingly like an afterthought. She neither liked nor wanted it that way.

‘Good. I have a meeting with you at eight tomorrow morning. I don’t like being kept waiting.’

‘Yes…ma.’ A grunt of a reply.

pngegg.com

20.

The week crawled at snail’s pace.

It was still only Thursday. Or large helpings of impatience on his part. Notorious for their ability to occupy him entirely, his clinic days seemed to be losing their hold over him, freeing his mind for thoughts of Naji.

After his visit on Saturday, he vowed to himself to give her a space of one week to settle into her new position, and time for herself & family.

Two days left and he doubted just how much longer he could keep to his word. He was itching to see her, hold her, inhale her, spend time with her…

True, they talked on the phone most days and nights, exchanged messages too but it paled in comparison to a physical meeting where he could watch expressions flit across her face, notice and hear the smile in her voice, join in her laughter…

Technology fell short of imitating those human actions.

On impulse, Tayo drove through the estate gates and sharply swung left a few moments later. He put the gear to park and reached for his mobile, leaving the car idling.

Naji drained the last bit of warm, creamy cinnamon milk from her glass and set it down on the table in front of her.

The silence permeating the house at 8.30pm had as soothing an effect as her beverage did. An hour ago, the noise could wake the dead. Anyone listening from outside would have concluded an army of children were responsible. Thankfully, after their baths and supper, their yawns followed swiftly. There were no protests when she marched them off to bedtime stories, prayers and sleep in that order.

Though she revelled in the peace, it was moments such as these she craved adult company. Someone to talk to about the day, the weather, politics, news, anything that didn’t include children. Someone physically present.  She sighed. Loneliness was a one-way street.

Her mind drifted to Tayo. Could she impose on him especially when he faced long and hectic clinic days due to emergencies? The likelihood of him stopping by at night after an exhausting day was zero.

But he did well in the communication department, scoring high in his calls and messages tally daily, ensuring she had something to look forward to at night while preparing for bed. At least, she was.

She stood up, her grey night T-shirt falling to her knees, hair piled up and ready to be wrapped firmly in a scarf once she laid down to sleep. At least a book was in the cards before she finally called it a night, she thought.

She rinsed out the glass and was placing it upside down on the drain board when her mobile phone vibrated on the table and rang out. She swung around and reached for it.

‘Babe.’ Unmistakable rustic tones, tired and more bass, reached her ears when she answered. Think of the sun and you feel its rays!

‘Are you done for the day?’ She turned back to the sink to dry her hands with a napkin hanging nearby.

‘Yes, and I wanted to say hello before you turn in.’

Her lips curved upwards. ‘It’s good to hear your voice too.’ Idly she fingered the curtains covering the window behind her sink and parted them an inch. Her eyes expanded. ‘Are you in front of my house?!’

‘I know it’s late and…,’ he began in a rush and the line went dead.

He was still staring, confused, at his screen when the security lights at the porch went out and the front door opened. There was barely time enough to turn off his car and scuttle out before she dissolved into him in a haze of heady scents. His arms flew around her body, enveloping her. Her hand grazed his jaw, pulling him close, brushing her lips gently with his. He leaned into it, tilted his head to the side and parted warm lips with a restless tongue, drinking in cinnamon and her sweetness; a mix which reduced his senses to mush. 

He wasn’t alone, he thought, as her arms coiled around his neck. She’d missed him just as much. It was a heart-warming, reassuring feeling.

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‘Your sister’s gangster and we love her.’ Maro’s deep voice was faintly excited. 

Ruona laughed. ‘I know she can be a bit tough – ,’

‘A bit, Rona?’ He cut in. ‘She’s shaking things up and it’s about time.’

Rouna sat on her bed and swung her legs onto it. She’d been thinking of what to eat for supper when his call came in.

Two weeks had passed since his last trip to Benin for the bachelor’s eve party, after which he called her almost every day to chat. Sometimes he asked about Tosan; sometimes he didn’t.  Most times he wanted to know how she was faring, how her studies were coming, how her day went. Mundane, routine questions. Nothing deep or out of the ordinary.

Then one morning, she woke up to a message informing her phone had been topped with N10,000 worth of calling credit. It wiped away any trace of sleep from her eyes instantly. Who had done this? Giving her the most amount of credit ever, since she began using a mobile?

First on her list was her sister, Naji, who knew nothing about it. She ruled out Tosan and didn’t bother calling to ask.

After scrolling through possible family and friends’ options in her mind, she put a call to Maro.

‘I’ll call you back.’ Was the first thing she heard when he answered, and the line went dead.

Wrong timing, perhaps, she was thinking. Almost immediately, her phone rang. He was calling back.

‘Did you send me credit?’ She was the first to speak this time. No preamble or pleasantries.

‘Yes.’ Calm confirmation like it was a normal, everyday occurrence.

‘Thank you! Thank you! Oh my gosh. It’s so much!’ She couldn’t keep the surprise out of her high-pitched voice.

‘You’re welcome. I’ve got to run. Can I call you later?’

She’d forgotten; he might be at work. ‘Of course. Have a good day.’

‘You too. One as beautiful as you are. Bye.’ And the connection broke, leaving her to digest his compliment.

When she called him at night, it happened again. He told her he’d call her back and cut the connection, returning the call right away. Then it dawned her. Despite sending her that insane amount of credit to yap away for as long as she wanted, he’d rather do the calling. She found it thoughtful and sweet. She found him thoughtful and sweet and constantly in her thoughts recently.

We’re just friends, she told herself, which was true. Even if it appeared that she spoke to him twice as much as Tosan whom she saw nearly every day. Even if her pulse quickened once the name Maro showed up on the screen of her mobile. Even when they began and ended with a smile, those lengthy phone calls of theirs.

‘A beg, whish kain fren dey sen’ you 10k credit wey nor be boyfren’? Eh, Rona?’ One of her voluble roommates and friends, Ufuoma, queried. ‘If na so, a beg gimme make I marry. I dey luk for husban laik dat.’

Ufuoma’s words nagged at the back of her mind the way thoughts of Maro did.

We’re just friends, she reiterated firmly.

Besides his calls, visits and well-timed compliments, he was yet to say or imply anything suggestive or make whatever his intentions were known to her. He was aware of Tosan, had seen him even. So she was right to run with the assumption that he wanted no more than her friendship.

She stretched out on her bed. ‘So tell me what havoc my sister has been causing?

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