The receiver, clicking back into its cradle, sliced through the sudden silence like breaking ice.
‘Ah, Dr. Olukoya,’ Steve feigned ignorance of the earlier moment between the other two occupants in the room with him. ‘Good of you to join us!’
He walked towards his friend and colleague with an outstretched hand. The ensuing handshake led both men to Naji, rigid with shock, by the treatment table; an inscrutable expression on her face.
In contrast, Tayo’s smile was warm as both men faced her. ‘Hello Enajiomo.’ He spoke first. ‘It’s good to see you again.’
She extended her hand. ‘Hi Tayo.’ He took it in a gentle grasp, unwilling to relinquish immediately. ‘This is a surprise.’
‘You know each other?’ Steve looked from one to the other, a puzzling expression forming on his face.
The other man nodded. ‘We were in school together.’
‘Splendid. I’ll leave you two to get on with it then,’ said Steve, noticing Naji wringing her hand free of Tayo’s.
‘Thank you, Dr. Mebitaghan,’ she uttered, as he turned to go.
‘Call me Steve, please,’ he told her, ‘and the pleasure is all mine.’ Looking at his friend. ‘Later, Tayo.’
‘Right. Thanks again, Steve.’ Both men pumped palms briefly.
The door was swinging shut behind the departing man when, shoving a hand in his pocket, eyes gleaming through glasses and smile widening, Tayo said: ‘Enajiomo! Fancy seeing you here. How long has it been?’
Three days earlier
Tayo sipped slowly from a glass of steaming milk and, through blue, horn-rimmed frames, scanned headlines in the morning papers. The iPad jutted out of the edge of the table. He tapped the link to another national daily and a noise succeeded his action.
A girl, about 21, petite, angelic like features, light-skinned, emerged from within the house. Despite her dishevelled hair and hungover look, they did little to obscure her comeliness. Wrapped around her small stature, accentuating it, was an oversized brown housecoat. Tayo’s.
Running a hand through her hair, she joined him at the table as he looked up. ‘ekaaro.’ Her voice still sullen from sleep, both her knees alert enough to graze the ground accompanying her greeting.
‘Morning, sweetheart.’ Laughing brown eyes swept over her; his voice a combination of rustic and raspy with a hint of bass simmering beneath. ‘You look…’ he continued.
‘Like hell,’ she finished for him, resting her head on the table ‘I feel like it too.’
‘You came in quite late last night, Kemi.’ He placed the half-empty glass on the table. ‘That was not our deal.’
‘I know and I’m sorry. ma binu. It wasn’t my fault. The car was giving problems and the guy who was supposed to drop me off got into a fight,’ she explained.
‘Some party it was,’ he muttered. ‘I trust you had a good time?’ His gaze was back on the screen again.
She let out a smile then. ‘Yeah, I did. Thanks a lot for letting me go and watching over Deji.’
She watched him alternately drain the milk and tap the screen.
”So what plans do you have for today?’ A glance at her before back to the headlines.
‘None yet,’ she answered. ‘After I’ve gotten hold of myself, maybe I’ll think up something.’
‘Have you thought seriously about going back to school?’ Now he focussed on her.
She hesitated before answering. ‘Yes.’
‘Why? A new session’s beginning next week.’
‘I want Deji to be two years old before I leave him in someone else’s care.’
He let out a sigh. ‘Whatever you say. Just don’t change your mind when you get there.’ And with that, he heaved his frame out of the chair he had been sitting on.
Tayo Olukoya measured 6’ 1 of toned, fair-skinned muscle. Eyes flecked with brown, a smattering of beard and moustache met to frame sulky lips easily forming a smile and spectacles suited to his face, gave off the picture of a Van Jones look-alike but in lighter skin colour. Strong shoulders and a solid wall of a chest hid beneath the starched white, long-sleeved shirt he had on tucked into a pair of navy-blue trousers and a dark red tie; the jacket hung casually on the backrest of the chair. ‘So, I’ll see you when I return from work, ok?’ He reached for the jacket. Slipping it on and completing the look, he exuded virility that was both raw and arresting.
Kemi stood up too. ‘Yeah, I suppose so too.’
‘And be good while I’m away.’ He turned and made for the front door.
She trailed behind him. ‘I thought you and Ada were onto something good?’
A beat. ‘Yeah.’
‘I’m not her biggest fan but…’ she went on, following him out of the house and stopping by the three-step staircase at the front door while he moved to the left where an ox-blood range rover was parked, gleaming in the rising sun rays. ‘Last week, a new family moved into the estate.’ She switched topics after one look at the closed expression which had taken over his face at her mention of Ada; he didn’t want to discuss his recent breakup.
‘And as the head of the estate grapevine, you’ll be leading the welcoming committee?’ His voice teased lightly now, showing a change in mood as he threw her a backwards glance.
Her face sagged, saying nothing.
He chuckled, changing his features to something quite striking. ‘What did I say?’
She eyed him playfully. ‘I’m looking out for you,’ she said in sepulchral tones
Unlocking the car on the front passenger’s side, he emptied his hands of devices, then peered at her over the rooftop. ‘How?’
‘Since you’re single and free-living again,’ she continued, a sly smile taking shape, ‘it might interest you to know that the family is made up of three people – a widowed mother and two kids.’
‘A widow, Kemi? Get real!’
‘I hear she’s pretty young.’
‘You hear? You mean you haven’t seen her personally? You’re slipping on your grapevine duties.’
‘My sources are reliable enough. And what’s more, I just want to see you married and happy with a family.’
‘Even to a widow?’
‘And a dazzling one too.’
Shaking his head, he half circled the car and slid into it. ‘Thanks but I’m quite capable of finding my wife myself.’ He let her know through the window whose glass disappeared into the car door. Then he kicked the car to life, deliberately drowning Kemi’s next words, revving the engine. Chuckling again at her annoyed expression, he blew her a kiss and backed out onto the road.
It showed 4.00 pm on the dashboard when Tayo guided his car through the gates of the estate. Mondays always ended early for him because the next three days promised hectic clinical activities. To prepare ahead, he made it a habit of leaving the office in time to get adequate rest. Children could be as unpredictable as the wea…screeeech! He slammed on his brakes suddenly and brought the car to a shuddering halt as a moving object crossed the lonely road unhurriedly.
His first thought of a stray animal was shattered as, heart thundering, he exited the car to come face-to-face with a little girl of three years retrieving a miniature colourful ball, quite unaware of the accident she had almost caused.
As he drew close, she seemed to sense his presence for she suddenly looked up then. Light tan-skinned and pretty, her incredibly long, woolly black hair held in two buns littered with different coloured hair clips, she had on jeans dungarees and an orange T-shirt. Pink pair of knee-length socks and pink sneakers completed her outfit. He looked around, half expecting to see an adult about. What was she doing here all by herself?
‘What’s your name, sweetheart?’ He sat on his heels as she continued to stare at him, ball in her hand, with big bright brown eyes which took Tayo’s breath away. Gosh! Was she adorable!
A female voice rang in the air at that moment. ‘Aisha!’ It called. ‘Aisha! Oh God, where are you? Aisha!’
Picking up the little girl who, of course, had to be Aisha, he turned around. A young lady in a scandalously short black skirt and a sweatshirt had emerged from one of the houses, backing them, and walking towards the next. From his position, Tayo saw incredibly long hair like Aisha’s left loose, and endless legs of a much darker shade than the girl’s complexion, and a curvy body. She had to be the mother, no doubt. ‘Over here,’ his voice called out, as he walked towards the house.
And the woman swirled around. Like her daughter, she was stunning. Black bright pair of eyes slanting slightly at the edges, a little too large nose and soft lips set in a heart-shaped face. Hair, straight, dark and lovely, was all over her face. ‘Oh my God! Her lazy, high-pitched tone shot up a notch when she saw Aisha in his arms; she rushed towards them. ‘What happened?’
‘Whatever it is didn’t happen,’ he assured her, realising how young she was. Maybe a few years older than Kemi if she was too old or probably the same age. ‘You should watch her more carefully,’ he continued, handing the little girl to her. ‘Next time, she might not be this lucky.’
‘Thank you! She probably slipped away while I wasn’t looking. I was so busy arranging…,’ her voice trailed off, sighing with slight fatigue. ‘Y’see, we just moved in here and – ‘
‘You’re new in the estate?’
She nodded. ‘Moving houses is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to deal with. Thanks again for driving so carefully, Mr…’ she broke off.
‘Tayo. My name’s Tayo,’ he offered. ‘And you’re welcome, Mrs…?’
She smiled then. ‘Call me Ruona.’
‘Sure.’ One more look at mother and daughter, and he was saying his goodbyes. ‘See you some other time, and Aisha be good.’ With that, he walked away.
Once back in his car, he waved to the two females who remained where he had left them, and they waved back. As he drove away, he adjusted his mirror and was just in time to see them turn and walk towards the house.
So that was the widow Kemi had talked about that morning. Some widow! And much too young too! How had Kemi put it? Ah yes, a dazzling widow. She was and more! But phew! at her age! Surely Kemi didn’t expect him to have anything to do with someone like that, even if she had been married once.
Ruona posed by the door until the range rover disappeared around a bend before she entered the house. Now that was a masculine feature worth knowing, she thought, setting Aisha on the floor. A hunk, to be precise. Who on earth was he? She wondered if he lived in the estate. She fervently hoped he did, and was single too!
Looking down at the little girl, she bestowed on her one of her brightest smiles. ‘Thanks for running across the road, honey.’
Ruona walked into the sitting room the next morning. Dressed in another gloriously short red skirt, a flowing sleeveless turquoise blouse almost covering the skirt, and her hair falling to the side of her face, she looked set to conquer whatever she put her mind to. Dragging quite unsuccessfully along with her in one hand was a small, caramel-skinned boy of around six years, sniffing. ‘Look here,’ she began, her voice low-grade threatening, ‘if you don’t stop crying, no breakfast before you go to school. And you know what that means? Hunger will strike you from all angles.’
‘Then I won’t go to school.’ His tiny tones tear–filled as she stomped on, dragging him towards the dining area. Quite tall for his age, he was lean and somewhat frail looking. Cute in a babyish way with a thin line of a mouth. A crew cut which fitted like a glove complimented his facial features. Big black shorts, white long–sleeved shirt, a brown waistcoat, white socks and black boots made up his outfit.
A frying sound made background noise from the kitchen as they reached the table, where Aisha was already seated sipping from a plastic cup.
‘Hi Aisha,’ Ruona mouthed to the little girl.
‘Hi Aty Roona,’ the little girl’s voice came from behind the cup, as the little boy climbed onto a chair still crying annoyingly.
‘Oh shut up!’ Ruona snapped, shooting him a scalding glance.
And he did just the opposite. His scream pierced the once quiet scene.
Cutlery clattering to the ground preceded heels hurrying out moments after. ‘What’s the matter?’ The tone registered low, very low on the voice scale as though suggesting sexual desire, but it belonged to a female and had a trace of anxiety as she joined the trio at the table.
Ruona, who was now spreading butter on a slice of bread with total indifference, looked up. ‘Good morning,’ she greeted cheerfully before returning to her job.
‘Morning Ruona,’ the woman answered. ‘Now can someone tell me what is going on?’
‘Mummy, Aunty Ruona beat me,’ the little boy informed her, and continued wailing.
‘Rasheed,’ his mum called, and he turned towards her. ‘Rasheed, stop crying.’ He did. ‘Good boy.’ She gave him a smile as he wiped his eyes. ‘Ruona, why did you beat him?’ She turned and returned to the kitchen, Ruona at her heels.
‘He annoyed me.’ She bit into her slice.
‘What or who doesn’t annoy you in this house, Ruona?’ The other woman spooned sausages and eggs into a wide dish.
‘Y’know how your son behaves,’ Ruona uttered, trailing her out of the kitchen again. ‘Beats me how you don’t get mad at him.’
‘Maybe you should learn to check your temper. It’s getting out of control too often.’ The woman set the dish on the table before looking at the young lady. ‘And I’m beginning not to like it.’
‘Check my temper and Rasheed’s going to drive everyone bunkers. I’m trying to keep him in line. He’s spoilt rotten already. You know that, Naji!’
‘Ruona!’ The other woman’s low tones rose fractionally. ‘He’s my son, not yours. You’ll do as I say.’ And with that she pulled out a chair, letting her frame onto it.
‘Mummy, can I have a sausage?’ Now that he had stopped crying, Rasheed’s voice was a childish, high-pitched drawl.
‘Sure you can,’ his mum answered, as she placed Aisha on her laps.
‘But Naji, you’re not – ,’ Ruona began in fuming tones.
‘Do you mind, little sister?’ The other woman cut her off.
Ruona’s gaze remained on her elder sister for a moment before she settled down to her breakfast. A slight tensed air hovered as they all tucked into their food; the only sound was the clash of cutlery with dishes.
‘Are you still meeting Mr. Ayodele this morning?’ Ruona dropped her fork and picked up a napkin.
The younger woman shrugged. ‘But you don’t have to work. Why are you pushing it? Abdul’s father is part owner of the company.’
Naji sighed. ‘I want to. Alhaji knew that when he suggested we move here. Holiday’s over.’
‘Are there any vacancies? And what does the company do again?’
Naji set her daughter down and stood up. ‘Sugar, cement, salt, barley, wheat. That’s why I am meeting Mr. Ayodele. To discuss my chances with a diploma.’
‘Hmmm?’ A physiotherapist in a production company?’ Ruona’s eyes widened measurably.
‘They have a company hospital, little sis.’
‘What if they don’t need a physiotherapist?’
‘Be positive, Ruona.’ And Naji linked fingers with her daughter’s. ‘Come on, baby.’
Her sister got up too. ‘You be positive, I’ll be realistic.’ She began gathering up the dishes.
Naji led the way to the sitting room and Aisha climbed onto the couch. She looked around, her gaze searching for car keys.
At first glance, Naji Fawaz could be mistaken for a mulatto. Butter coloured and butter smooth skin shimmering over a 5’ 11’ hourglass figure. The matured version of her son – babyish features of grey, wide-set eyes flecked with green, high cheekbones and a sensuous strip of a mouth. Her looks failed to acquire the striking quality of Ruona’s, instead they hinted at exotic, and were cool and controlled like her voice. In her tresses only, she resembled her sister and her daughter. Having bestowed the little girl with a family heirloom of long, luxurious hair, hers were caught in a doughnut bun at the nape of her neck, failing to hide its length by the size of the ball it formed. Her voice, that low low register, crowned her physical looks.
For her movements that morning, sorting out Rasheed’s new school and the meeting with Mr. Ayodele, she chose a fitted, black lace dress, high necked and short sleeved, reaching to her calves; the colour flattering her skin tone elegantly. She found her keys the moment Ruona and Rasheed walked into the living–room.
‘Naji, did I tell you about the guy I met yesterday?’ Ruona burst out in excitement.
‘No, you did not,’ her sister answered. ‘Rasheed, go and get your school bag.’ She watched him with undisguised warmth as he ran off. ‘Some outfit for the first day of school, Ruona,’ she continued to her sister.
‘Well, y’know, tell the other kids that you’re no ordinary kid.’
They both giggled.
‘As I was saying, the guy drives a range rover, I think,’ Ruona continued. ‘Well, one of those cars, sha. You need to see him, Naji, he is – ’
‘What are you and Aisha doing today?’ Her sister broke in, as she smoothed stray hair strands from Aisha’s forehead.
Ruona stared at her sister in surprise. ‘You weren’t listening to me at all!’
‘Of course, I was. He is a fantastic fair guy, drives a range rover, his name is Tayo, thought you were married, waved to you before he drove off and you think he’s pretty thrilled by you.’
‘How did you know all that?’ The girl’s voice was filled with astonishment.
‘You told me last night – twice! Can’t you remember?’
Rasheed joined them, a knapsack strapped across his back.
‘So what’s happening to Aisha and you?’ Naji repeated, as they all moved towards the front door.
‘We are out to discover,’ her sister replied. ‘We’re going to explore the estate. I hope I see that guy again.’
‘Do whatever but don’t get lost in your exploration, ok?’
Naji and the kids walked towards a white Honda Civic Hatchback while Ruona locked the front door. ‘What about Tosan back in school?’ She asked her when her sister joined them.
‘First of all, Tosan’s a small boy.’ She slid into the passenger’s seat; the children were already strapped and noisy at the back. ‘This guy’s a man. And secondly, school’s a week away and so is Tosan. For now, until school re-opens, I’m not seeing anyone.’
Naji chuckled, kicking the car to life. ‘Tosani should hear this, little sis.’ She checked on the kids before driving away. ‘Be sure to find your way back home, ok?’ She uttered a while later as Ruona and Aisha alighted by the gate of Rasheed’s new school.
‘Even if we don’t, my short skirt and Aisha’s colours will flag down any right–thinking Nigerian male driver,’ Ruona told her.
Naji’s laughter rang out as she drove off.
Naji paced up and down the sitting room for the umpteenth time that evening. Still clothed in the outfit of that morning – she hadn’t bothered to take it off – she spared her wristwatch a glance; 7:02 pm, and for the life of her, she had not the slightest idea of Ruona and Aisha’s whereabouts.
Three hours earlier, she had returned to the house with Rasheed who, thankfully, seemed to like his new school and may have made a friend or two, and thought the girls would be back any moment from then. Her anxiety began to set in 30 minutes ago. No calls. No word from Ruona. She had tried her sister’s line with no success. Where were they?!
Rasheed and her only just returned from a directionless drive around the estate, in vain hope of catching a glimpse of the girls walking back home. No such luck. No sign of Ruona and Aisha. Twilight mixed with solar powered streetlights saw Naji slowing down for every duo on the road resembling the girls and apologising each time.
Besides Mr. Ayodele, she knew no one in the estate and he lived in the opposite estate. If she called him now, what exactly was she going to tell him? She had no clue whatsoever where the girls could be. Nothing to go on with, and Ruona’s mobile had been off for the last three hours. She’d tried it several times.
It was too frightening for comfort. They were new in the estate and knew practically no one. It was not safe to be out of one’s house in strange surroundings by this time. Oh Lord, please bring them home safely, she prayed silently, as her gaze fell on Rasheed stretched out on the rug with his gaze glued to the TV screen. The little boy had been asking for his little sister all afternoon – he had stories about his first day at his new school. And all she could offer was his sister would be home soon.
She stopped pacing and walked towards the phone, an intercom actually. All residences were fitted out with one, apparently, and had three unique numbers. She had no choice; Mr. Ayodele was her only hope. She picked up the thick, yellow book that was the estates’ directory.
‘Mummy, is everything all right?’ Rasheed’s voice filtered through as she flipped past pages.
She looked up, noticing concern slightly mirrored on his young face. She forced out a tiny smile, smoothing any worry lines. ‘Yes dear, everything is just fine.’ He turned back to the TV screen and the dull buzz of the intercom went. Snatching up the receiver, she spoke into it. ‘Hello?’
‘Naji, it’s Ruona,’ her sister’s voice came on from the other end.
The older woman heaved a heavy sigh of relief. ‘Where are you?’ With emphasis on each word. ‘Is Aisha all right?’
‘Yes, she is, and we’re at a friend’s – ,’
‘Who do you know in this estate, Ruona?’ Low tones deadly quiet.
‘A girl I just met today. Kemi’s her name.’
‘And you’re still out by this time, Ruona? Do you know what has been going through my mind, young lady?’ Naji asked, tones edging upwards. ‘I’ve been in this house since half past four, worrying sick about your whereabouts. You couldn’t even call! I was almost going mad with worry. Ruona, I don’t need -’
‘I’m sorry. My battery died. Then I lost track of time -,’ Her sister attempted to explain.
‘And you stayed all day in a total stranger’s house?’ The older woman’s voice bit out. ‘With my daughter? Having a good time? This is gross irr -,’
‘Irresponsibility,’ her sister concluded, and tossed her long hair to the side sadly. She was in deep shit! she thought.
Tayo walked into the sitting room then, in time to overhear Ruona’s words.
‘I’m sorry. I promise not to do something like this again.’ Her voice dull with guilt. He felt pity for her.
Kemi, perched beside her, showed sympathy and mirrored her new friend’s drawn expression for she could make out Naji’s voice faintly.
‘Are you coming home now?’ Naji wanted to know.
‘Yes,’ her sister answered. ‘Kemi’s brother is going to drop me off. I’m on my way.’
‘You had better.’
Before she could speak again, Tayo was signalling that he wanted to talk to her sister.
‘Hello?’ Rustic, raspy tones replaced her sister’s in Naji’s ears; strange tones yet sounding vaguely familiar. ‘What’s your sister’s name?’ He asked Ruona in a whisper.
‘Who is this?’ Naji inquired, the change in voices affecting her mood, sending her anger to begin to recede.
‘Mrs. Fawaz.’ Ruona mouthed back to him.
‘Mrs. Fawaz?’ He spoke again into the receiver.
‘Who is this?’ She repeated, cautious now, trying and failing to place the voice.
‘I’m Kemi’s brother,’ he informed her. ‘And I just wanted you to know that -, ’
‘This is unnecessary.’ she cut him off abruptly, frustrated the voice still eluded her. ‘Just get that young lady safely back home.’ And the line went dead.
Tayo stared at the mouthpiece, face screwed in amusement. ‘Yes ma,’ he uttered, and replaced it. Where had he heard that voice before? Where? Maybe if they had talked for longer…
‘What did she say?’ Ruona asked, in a little more than a whisper.
‘Nothing.’ He looked thoughtful for a while. ‘Mrs. Fawaz? Any relation to Alhaji Ahmed Fawaz?’ He turned to her.
She nodded. ‘Her father-in-law.’
‘Hmm…come on, let’s get you home.’ And he strode towards the door while she stopped by the couch where Aisha slept peacefully by the side of Deji.
Tayo tugged his big, white golf bag through the door and kicked it shut behind him. Golf was a game he played every Sunday evening at the estate’s club house with his friends. If he could, he hardly missed it. ‘Kemi!’ He called out, fiddling with his mobile. The house was unnaturally quiet. ‘Kemi!’ Discovered he had, unknowingly, put his phone on silent; he adjusted the volume. The screen lit up: eight missed calls, three voice messages. Whoa! He looked up. There was no one in this house, he concluded.
The first two messages were from friends reminding him about a previous engagement slated for next weekend. The third was from his friend and colleague, Steve, from the other estate, and someone who had been scheduled to play with him on the fairway, but upcoming wedding plans got in the way. Tayo had resumed lugging the bag when Steve’s pip squeaky voice floated in.
‘Hey man, it’s Steve. Sorry about this. Clumsy of me, should have told you on Friday. Simply slipped my mind. You’re meeting with a certain Mrs. Fawaz tomorrow morning. At about 9:30am. Mr. Ayodele’s instructions. Think it’s about giving her a job in the hospital or something. Yeah, the name does ring a bell. I hear she’s oga’s daughter–in-law and those who have seen her say she’s a broad. Anyway, we’ll be seeing her tomorrow, won’t we? So I’ll see you tomorrow, ok? And hey, look good. Ha! ha! Ciao!’
Tayo replayed the message a second time to be certain of what he had just heard. Hmm! So he’d be coming face-to-face with the Mrs. Fawaz in a few hours. Well, well, well. He wondered what sort of job Mr. Ayodele had in mind.
With that thought in mind, he hauled the bag into a passageway.
All dressed up in a decent length yellow skirt suit and black soundless heels, Ruona slowly and defocusedly walked into the sitting room; her beautiful face a mask of solemnity as she reflected on the events of the last two days.
She hadn’t seen or heard from Kemi since Friday night when she’d accompanied Tayo to drop them off at home. And she [Ruona] could understand why. On arrival at the house that night, Tayo and Kemi had come in hoping to talk to Ruona’s elder sister. But Naji hadn’t left her room where she had been, instead she’d curtly told her younger sister to dispose of her new-found friends for she needed to say a few things to her. That was when Ruona had realized how angry Naji had been. And the lecture that had followed after had been one she’d always remember. It hadn’t been only what her sister had said but the delivery in a barely concealed angry tone. Naji had concluded with a definitive statement: once schools commenced, Ruona would leave the house for good because she [Naji] couldn’t roof such heights of irresponsibility.
Naji had been so furious that during her speech Ruona had been quite certain she would receive a well-deserved slap, but none had come.
Clasping perfectly manicured fingers together, Ruona let out a sigh and wondered if her sister had meant the last of her words. She fervently hoped not! She couldn’t go back to her mother’s – she just couldn’t! She didn’t have as much freedom there as she did here. Oh no! She had just gone and messed things up for herself.
There and then she resolved to talk to Naji and appeal to her kind heart – one she tried to shield with her strict attitude. She might just let her stay on.
She made a mental note also to give Kemi a call on her return from the church.
The sound of the front door creaking open brought her back from her retrospection and she turned to see Rasheed and Aisha walking hand-in-hand through it while Naji regarded her with expressionless grey/green eyes. Both mother and children were all dressed up for church.
‘Well, are you ready?’ Her voice was quiet.
Ruona just nodded.
‘Can we go then?’ She walked away to join the children outside.
Ruona was walking in the direction of her mobile on a stool when the doorbell went. Sparing the phone a glance, she pirouetted and faced the front door.
Kemi and Deji both beamed broadly at her from the other side of an opened door. As the two young ladies hugged each other, Aisha marched purposefully into the sitting-room.
‘Do you know I was just about to call you?’ Ruona uttered, relieving Deji from this mum, as they both moved towards the couch.
‘I will live long then,’ the other girl laughingly told her. ‘Aisha, how are you?’ She addressed the little girl.
‘Fine, thank,’ Aisha replied, reaching out towards Deji. ‘Aty Roona, carri babi.’
Ruona stared at the little girl. ‘Carry who? So that the hospital will have two casualties. Who will be carrying who?’
Kemi laughed, picking Aisha up and setting her on her knees, joining Ruona and Deji. ‘She’s so adorable, Ruona. Y’know, she looks more like your daughter than your sister’s.’
‘Yeah, so your brother thought too. By the way, how is he?’
‘Fine, I suppose. He was out when I left.’
‘Does he – ?’ Rasheed, bounding into the sitting room and calling out to his sister, cut her short. He halted abruptly on seeing Kemi. ‘Good evening,’ he greeted, after getting a grip of himself.
He received a smile in return. ‘Hello handsome. And this must be Rasheed, I suppose.’ Kemi turned to her friend, who nodded. ‘Your sister has lovely kids. Is she around?’
‘Uh hu,’ her friend muttered.
‘Aisha, mummy’s calling you,’ her brother supplied then.
Setting the little girl on the ground, Kemi watched with unmasked admiration as both brother and sister disappeared through an opening in a hallway. ‘Your sister’s so lucky, I mean, I’d give any …,’ she stopped abruptly, swivelling slowly in Ruona’s direction. ‘If Alhaji Fawaz is her father–in-law, is her husband the…’
‘Dead son?’ Ruona finished for her and nodded. ‘Yes.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry. She must miss him.’
‘She’s getting over it.’
‘Is she thinking of getting married again?’
‘I don’t know. Not something she talks about. I can’t ask.’
Rasheed reappeared, this time with an offer to carry Deji which Ruona granted, and both males disappeared.
‘You want to tell me your sister’s reaction to Friday night’s event?’ Kemi inquired.
‘Bloody,’ the other girl replied, standing up and slowly walking towards the electronic devices and the wide sliding doors next to them. She proceeded to recount all that took place upon her return that fateful night. ‘I just hope she’s not serious about my leaving here immediately when school reopens,’ she concluded, facing her friend with a sad expression.
‘Oh Ruona, this is all my fault. If I hadn’t persuaded you to see that movie maybe all this -,’
‘I take part blame too, Kemi. I couldn’t believe I was seeing Tayo again, and he recognized me!’’
‘You do like him, don’t you?’ Switching the subject, Kemi’s voice held a sly note.
Looking at her, her friend smiled and remained mute.
‘I’m not a motor mouth, Ruona,’ Kemi continued. ‘You can trust me, y’know.’
The other girl heaved a sigh. ‘Your brother’s a hunk!’
Kemi clasped her palms together, laughing out loud.
‘And yes, I do like him a lot,’ Ruona continued. ‘But I don’t think the feeling’s mutual, do you?’
‘He hasn’t mentioned you at all, but you know he’s almost 40?’
‘He looks goooood for that age! Didn’t know he was that old!’
‘Uh hu. And I don’t honestly think he’d like the idea of having anything to do with someone the same age as his younger sister.’
‘Do you go out with older men?’
‘I’ve never tried it.’
‘Are you seeing anyone right now?’
A little hesitation. ‘Tosan, a guy in my school. Is Tayo seeing – ?’
‘He broke off with his girl recently.’
‘And what about you, Kemi?’
Kemi avoided her friend’s direct gaze. ‘Nobody wants a girl with a kid already, a single mother, a dropout, even if it’s temporarily.’ Her voice was quiet and low.
‘So what’s Deji? A mistake? How did he happen?’
The other girl was silent.
‘Look, if you don’t want to talk about…,’ Ruona began.
‘I was raped,’ the other girl broke in, her voice harshly quiet. ‘My boyfriend, at the time, raped me because I wouldn’t sleep with him two months into our relationship.’
‘Oh Kemi! Kemi!’ Ruona flew to her friend’s side, hugging her. ‘I shouldn’t have asked. Sorry, sorry.’
‘It’s all right. You were bound to know anyway.’ Kemi’s voice came out in unsteady gasps.
‘Look, you don’t have to go on – ’
‘You’ve heard the beginning. You’d want to hear the rest of it.’
‘Don’t Kemi! Don’t torture yourself. I’d – ’
‘He wanted me to remove Deji when I told him about the pregnancy,’ Kemi continued tonelessly. ‘I threw Timi’s money back in his face and told him I never wanted anything to do with him again, let alone take money from him. Tayo was so furious. He would have killed Timi with his bare hands had it not been for the timely intervention of my relatives.’ She paused and drew in a harsh breath. ‘So it was decided that I keep the baby with Timi’s people paying for its welfare; I still didn’t want anything from him. But his parents insisted since their son was at fault. All they asked for was continuous contact with Deji and a hand in his upbringing. I couldn’t refuse when I looked into his mother’s eyes that day. I had to drop out of school for the time being until I was ready to come back.’ Her voice adopted a gay tone. ‘So here I am, a single mother.’
‘He shows up now and then to see Deji. He is remorseful and has apologised several times. He wants us back together again.’
‘Do you want that?’
‘Honestly speaking Ruona, I don’t know.’
‘Do you still love him like you used to?’
Kemi was silent, staring unseeingly ahead of her. ‘In spite of everything he has done, the pain, the shame, humiliation he has caused me, I’m in love with him but he won’t know until I want him to.’
Ejiro, the staff nurse at the reception counter, took less than a minute to disappear and retrieve her fallen pen when a woman materialized in front of it.
‘Good morning.’ Low tones unusual for a woman greeted her. She merely nodded and managed a little smile. ‘Could you be so kind as to point me in the direction of the head of paediatrics’ office?’ the woman continued. ‘I have a 9.30am with him.’
The other woman spoke for the first time. ‘He’s not in yet, ma.’ ’
‘Oh.’ Naji seemed to think some before speaking again. ‘Isn’t there any other doctor I can see while I wait – like one of the physiotherapists perhaps?’ She wanted to know.
Ejiro nodded again. ‘Yes. The head of that department came in a few minutes ago. Go through any of those doors,’ she pointed to her left side, ‘turn left and ask the security to take you to the doctors’ offices upstairs. His own is the first on the passage of that floor. You can’t miss it. His name is Dr. Mebitaghan. I will call him before you get there.’
‘Thank you.’ She turned to go then stopped. ‘And just in case he arrives while I’m gone, the head of paediatrics I mean, could you tell him where I’ll be? I’m Mrs. Fawaz.’
‘Who was that?’ A second female voice asked, as Naji walked out of earshot.
Ejiro, unconsciously smoothing her weave, half twisted to see one of her colleagues leaning on the counter, also staring at the departing lady. ‘Mrs. Fawaz.’
Jane, the other nurse, frowned slightly. ‘Fawaz? Alhaji’s wife?’
‘Which one of them? Are they not all as old as time?’
‘Or did he get a new one?’
Ejiro shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Even if he did, what will she be doing here looking for a doctor?’
‘Was she really? Which one?’
‘Who else? Oga pakapata himself, the most eligible!’
Ejiro sighed. ‘Who else? I can faint for that man any day!’
‘Believe it or not, there are so many of us who could do worse things!’
Steve frowned into a sheaf of papers in his hand, failing to hear his intercom buzz until the third time. Swirling his chair round to face his desk, he answered it absently. ‘Yes?’
‘A Mrs. Fawaz to see you, sir,’ Ejiro’s voice floated in. It took a while to digest her words which prompted her to speak again. ‘Sir, should I – ?’
‘No, it’s all right. Send her in.’ He dropped the papers and rose to his feet. Barely having time enough to straighten his tie before a knock and his door silently admitted nothing he had imagined of the boss’s daughter-in-law. He struggled to find the exact words but whatever they were propelled him around his desk and towards her.
‘Good morning,’ she greeted.
The voice was a shock, momentarily faltering his steps. ‘‘Good morning, Mrs. Fawaz.’ He took her outstretched arm and felt the soft female one in his clasp. So this was the Mrs. Fawaz! Who would have thought it? This was one of Alhaji’s daughters-in-law?! Good thing her husband was gone, it would… she was talking. Be attentive! He scolded himself.
‘……. you’re not the person I ought to be seeing’, she was saying. ‘But I hoped I could look around the place, if you’re not too busy and do not mind, while I await his arrival?’
‘Not at all.’ He let go of her hand. ‘I’d be glad to be at the service of the boss’s daughter-in-law.’
She smiled then but said nothing.
‘And where exactly would you like to see?’ He wanted to know.
‘The lab…. the physiotherapy section.’
Before they left the office, he called the reception to inform them of their whereabouts when Dr. Olukoya, the head of paediatrics, arrived.
‘This place is beautifully simple,’ Naji breathed moments later, referring to the physiotherapy room with its numerous treatment beds, carefully arranged in three rows the racks of white towels, white wash tubs collectively stacked in a corner, and exercise & rehabilitation equipment lining the back of the room. A telephone was by the one and only French window occupying the east wall in the room.
‘Thank you.’ Steve, hands shoved deep in his pockets, was staring at her.
‘Dr. Mebitaghan…’, she continued.
‘Steve’, he interrupted gently.
She turned to look at the man beside her. In his pip squeak voice, he was hard to ignore; his towering, light-skinned, athletic form and his good looking bore a faint resemblance to someone she found difficult to recall. But that was where the similarity ended. Conscious of his looks, she concluded he used them to his advantage with his roving eye. ‘Steve,’ she repeated his name. ‘How many patients do you get in a week?’
‘An average of five.’ His eyes dropped to her legs as she took hesitant steps further into the room. ‘And we have regulars of about 22.’
‘You have a full house then. You must be on your feet all the time.’
‘Yes. Orthopedic physio more than geriatric.’ He paused as he continued to watch her. ‘Excuse my prying… you have qualifications in IT?’
She met his gaze then. ‘I suppose Mr. Ayodele told you that?’
He nodded. ‘Then why…?’
‘Do I want a job as a physiotherapist with just a diploma in it?’ She finished for him.
He nodded again.
‘Because I enjoy working with my hands and punching the buttons of the computer isn’t my idea of -’ The shrill sound of the phone bell took the rest of her words out of her mouth.
‘Excuse me.’ He strolled towards the device and she turned to continue her walk around the room. She stopped by a machine, a tentative step on it.
Steve deliberately prolonged the call so that he could allow her time enough to do whatever pleased her, but actually to watch her unnoticed. To him, she was something else entirely. Someone he definitely didn’t think needed to work for the company to earn her keep. Not with her father-in-law as one those at the helm of affairs! But then, he was impressed. She wasn’t the idle, rich housewife.
She moved towards a treatment table to take a closer look as he hung up and the door flew open. As one, both of them swirled at the sound.
Steve watched as Tayo and Mrs. Fawaz’s eyes met and locked – hers widening measurably, fingers stiffening at the edge of the table while his, behind the glasses, bulged with ill-concealed shock, his stethoscope, once clasped in his palms, clattering unnoticed onto the floor.