Insistent, three-lined mantra in the last four months was routine. He functioned on autopilot now. They pounded in his brain as he hurled himself, still half asleep, out the front door. What wouldn’t he give for one more hour in bed? His mind asked, but his body was in charge, accustomed to the morning activity.
The crescent laid unwelcoming in uneven distribution of lights illuminating it. Some houses with generating sets on beamed electricity on it unselfishly. While others without left dark patches every five steps or more.
Nnamdi trudged sluggishly, past the second patch of semidarkness, before flexing his dark arms and commandeering a towering figure into a trot. Cool air drifted in from the vast river taking up the entire other side of the crescent, urging him on, accompanying him.
By the next lighted residence, he picked up the pace, alert eyes darting in all directions as he clocked the end of the crescent opening into the major road with more patches of light and darkness, and gathering foot and vehicular traffic.
For a moment, he eyed the white, imposing structure of the bank looming opposite–his place of work–then veered left and jogged leisurely towards the bridge stationed at the landmark roundabout in the neighbourhood.
His adrenaline soared; heart beats suddenly fractionally faster than earlier. Not from the exertions. Instead in anticipation. An image in his mind quickened his pulses; one which would materialise physically, with any luck, in the next hour or less.
It had become his motivation, the image, for the last weeks in new surrounding and new practise grounds.
‘Is it true that you’re preparing for the bank’s race?’ His direct supervisor of three years asked, stopping by his desk.
Nnamdi looked up, failing to shield the surprise which sprang into his dark eyes. He’d told only two colleagues about his intentions. ‘Yes?’ He replied cautiously. What had that got to do with anything?
‘Well, I have good training area for you.’ A gleam entered his supervisor’s eyes as he spoke. ‘The Lekki/Ikoyi Link bridge.’
Nnamdi’s brows bunched. ‘My place at Anthony is just fine,’ he said, sitting upright on his chair. Where was this leading to?
‘That bridge na hunting ground!’ Taju, his colleague, said from two desks’ away.
The supervisor shot him a conspiratory smile. ‘Hunting, running, Nnamdi’s going to join them.’ He patted his shoulder lightly. ‘They need you at the Lekki branch for the next six weeks. Happy hunting…eh, running, I mean.’ And with a wicked wink, he strode away, leaving his subordinate far from pleased at the prospect of longer weekdays commute.
Then he remembered his godmother lived in Lekki Phase I, and called her up. He could bear her cuddling, probing and nagging if only it meant easier passage to and fro work.
First, she gave him grief for his inconsistent contact before asking he dropped in on Sunday to get a spare key to the house. She’d be away from Tuesday on her annual vacation and would spend it visiting children and grandchildren. Since he’d be staying, could he see that he revved up the cars every now and then?
Because of his daily commute from Anthony, waking up at 5am saw him preparing to set out in half an hour or less. In Lekki, it meant one more hour of sleep plus time enough to work up significant sweat for another hour before getting ready for work.
Five years of slugging it out at a bank’s desk had consumed him totally until he decided to enter for the year’s marathon. Competitive running was nothing new to him. His record in secondary school remained undefeated and every time during his four-year stint in the university, he’d represented the school in the NUGA games in the 4 x 100m & 4 x 400m races.
He needed to get back into form and kept telling himself someday. Until five years flew by. Until work began for the awareness campaign/promotion for the marathon.
He needed to get back in form. He felt heavy physically and was appalled at the beginning sprout of a paunch due to his sedentary lifestyle, chained to a desk for interminable hours of the days.
By November on alternate, less tiring weekends, he picked up jogging around his neighbourhood, losing a building routine during the weeks of the Christmas and New Year holidays.
To stay the course/commit himself further, he registered online. Proof that he worked towards a tangible goal with a timeline.
‘Oh boy, you serious sha!’ Over his shoulders, Taju commented in an amused tone as Nnamdi typed in his personal details in the selected spaces on his screen. ‘Whish babe you de run for?’
Nnamdi twisted long enough to bestow a barely veiled look of disgust. ‘Must a babe be the reason?’ He focused on the screen in front of him again. ‘I can’t do it for myself?’
If Taju were here, he’d have to swallow those words with a glass of agbo, Nnamdi thought in amusement and hurled his big, tall, dark figure onto the brightly lit cement structure spanning the river beneath.
Every morning he ran its length four times, sometimes six, by 7 am, shoring up sufficient training before distraction made its entrance.
Taju had been right. The bridge was ample hunting ground for some who frequented it. The first week Nnamdi had noticed more flesh than cloth, his eyes popped. When he saw breasts and butts vigorously straining against shorts and tights and leggings, he switched his timing to half an hour earlier. He observed the skinny ones covered up and ran or jogged while the voluptuous ones bared more in skin-tight outfits and walked to give their audience unhurried views. If he was to be confronted by free entertainment every morning, it might as well be reward for a complete work out. So at the end of his run, he feasted his eyes all the way back home.
During the weekends, he gave himself a treat, resumed on the bridge in daylight and had a ball jogging and ogling.
It was one of such weekends he saw her.
Panting at Lekki’s end of the bridge after another heart racing exertion, he stretched. One leg propped up just beneath the railing and his arms strained to meet it to test its elasticity. Bent over and pouring with sweat, the image of a poodle, with elegant dainty steps, entered his lowered field of vision.
He straightened, amused, for an obstructed look.
At the end of the black leash restraining the canine, he thought its mistress just as dainty. She was slight without appearing small. 5’5 or 5’6. He could scoop her into his pocket and trot off. Oval face with shiny, black weave scrapped back into a dangling ponytail. Focused on the dog. Clothed in a comfy, a size-too-big tracksuit set which did nothing for her shape. He wanted a glimpse of it. Did it fit her face and the straight-backed gait she executed? One thing was certain, she didn’t set herself up as prey. If anything, she tended to blend in with the bland grey concrete of the bridge. Chewing gum kept a full lipped mouth in quiet, constant, rhythmic mobility and hazel eyes peeled forward for the walk ahead. Her caramel coloured profile held him immobile as she strolled by.
He lost time watching her erect, receding back progressing down the sidewalk of the bridge, head slightly inclined as she talked to the dog.
The next day, he arrived a little earlier to finish off his routine before, he hoped, she appeared. He figured she was a weekend player on the bridge’s symphony.
He went home disappointed. She was a no-show. And for the next three days to his mounting expectations.
On Thursday, to his surprised delight, she appeared again. Same elegant, excited poodle. Same outfit. Chewing gum and serene expression, shattering his earlier deductions. He was almost late for work that day. Did she come out every third day then?
He started to count and stopped when the next time he saw her was on Sunday morning. There was no way to track her schedule. Apparently, she came out to talk the dog. Nothing more. Though she seemed neither to enjoy or detest the exercise. It could be an obligation she carried out religiously.
And when she did, it was like clockwork. Leash in hand, gum in place and right to the end of the bridge and back, and disappeared. Never lingering. Her focus inspiring. Idly, he wondered what she’d be like if she decided to do the same for her body. She’d achieve ample headway in no time with a dedication like that.
From what he could detect beneath the folds of the tracksuit though, her body looked tight enough to need no tedious workout routine.
Once, on an unexpected sighting, he tried to acknowledge her with a smile and a nod as they passed by each other, but his good intentions failed him at the very last minute when he neared her expressionless face, and he jogged on by. The thundering in his heart coming up to his ears; she must have heard it, he was sure. Perhaps next time he’d try with the dog. That would be a good conversation starter, he thought. He knew nothing about dogs and cared even less about them.
She became his motivation. When his body rebelled and craved extra sleep, the mere thought of seeing her again mixed with his mantra, sent him off the comfort of his bed and into the breezy, darkened streets. Many times that motivation went unrewarded by her absence. But he kept hope alive. There was always the next day, and his routine melted away fat, toned his big frame and notched up his stamina.
The marathon was a month away. And two more weeks went by before he saw here again. On a Sunday whose skies threatened rain, and when he’d began to curse himself for not talking to her when he had the chance. The overcast skies seemed to have cleared out the bridge on a day when it usually recorded heavy human traffic in its open-air gym. Only determined individuals ran, jogged, stretched and walked its length. Nnamdi was completing his final lap of the morning, and set to head back home, satisfied with his progress, disheartened at his muse’s absence.
He’d slow his pace soon, he thought, as the toll booths came into view. Sweat poured out of every orifice.
Two cars wheezed past him. The sparse stream of vehicular traffic indicated what day it was. Sunday mornings hardly saw the slow-crawling, snaking queues of hectic weekdays. Human presence on the bridge always stood in sharp contrast to it. Not today though. Few people braved it out for exercises.
And thank heavens, she was one of them! He didn’t fight the smile erupting his features as familiar items preceded her. Grinning white poodle. Long black leash. Grey tracksuit. Today, he would talk to her. His heartbeat raced where it should have been getting ready to slow its pace.
For a second, she stopped to dig into the pockets of her tracksuit top, ponytail swung with her lowered head. Somehow, in the process, her grip on the leash slackened, and everything went to hell.
The white poodle, feeling sudden freedom, dashed forward and veered right sharply, smack into oncoming motor traffic.
Screech of brakes like nails on a blackboard.
Unthinking, Nnamdi cleared the sidewalk and sprinted after the errant animal, awkwardly attempting to snap up the trailing leash.
Agonized howl from the female owner frozen to her spot.
He knew nothing about dogs. He knew now that tiny ones had incredible speed and hidden fire in them.
The cause of the road commotion had hightailed it to the other side of the bridge and was happily tearing down its length before Nnamdi amped up his speed and managed to grab the slipping end of the leash. Unfazed by its abrupt capture, the poodle leaped, yapped and hung out a pink tongue, totally pleased with itself.
Puffing even harder, Nnamdi bent low and scooped up the little tyrant. Much the same way he’d fancied doing to its owner. A pain shot through his left ankle then, slicing off his wild thought. Frowning, he glanced down. He picked out red and grey marks against dark skin. What the…? When? He’d look at them closer, later.
Then he turned around and winced, and almost dropped the dog. What had he done to himself now?! He still had to get the animal to the spot where the lady waited with relieved joy splattered all over a once horror-stricken expression.
He shifted most of his weight to his right leg and limped across to the other side of the bridge. After its riotous escape, the dog stayed calm in his arms, small pink tongue slavering in secret pleasure at its audacity.
‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ Taking her pet off him, her gratitude was effusive.
Despite growing pains, a couple of things registered on Nnamdi’s radar. Long curling lashes of bright hazel eyes. Strawberry breath wafting his way in warm gasps. Excitement transformed her customary serene countenance so much he didn’t want to leave her side. Expressive eyes that swung downwards to check his hurting ankle.
‘Are you okay?’ She asked, in a cool, worried tone, as he grabbed the bar of the bridge in an attempt to contain sharp slivers of pain rocketing up from his obviously bruised ankle.
He huffed in low spurts, overwhelmed by the combination of getting his wind back and dealing with unannounced injury.
‘You need to sit down.’ Her voice soothing and reading through his panting, painful barrier. ‘Can you make it over there?’ She pointed to the shoulder of the bridge where a lone man stretched his body, one of his legs propped up for the activity.
Every step registered acutely in Nnamdi’s brain as he dragged the weight of his 6’2 frame to join a fellow fitness buff.
He cursed silently and played back the moment when he blindly went after the exuberant puppy. He’d felt something then. Fleeting. Just before crossing the first of the wide, two-way lanes on the bridge. A minuscule of ache on one knee. But the adrenaline pumping through at that moment supplanted everything else. He’d had one goal in mind. Save the dog. Save the day…and get the girl. Razor sharp discomfort hadn’t been part of the plan. But descending the sidewalk in a rush, without time to think, had somehow tangled his ankles long enough to leave behind a reminder of the reckless mov-
‘Aaargh!’ He growled, his deep voice hollow. A bear in agony.
He was sat on the ground. The lady had secured her dog’s leash onto the bridge’s bar, and together with the lone man they’d met there, crouched down to examine his stinging ankle.
‘You may have sprained it.’ The man’s fingers looped around the ankle were careful and practised like he knew what he was about. He was also elderly with direct eyes and grey hairs intertwining black strands. ‘You can’t run for the next couple of weeks.’
‘What?!’ Nnamdi’s wail held more surprise than anguish. ‘I…I have to-,’ he began in a shaky tone, and yelled again as the man lifted and twisted the ankle for effect.
‘You were saying?’ The older man looked at Nnamdi with the eyes of one used to giving orders without hearing objections. ‘No running for the next two weeks, young man! If not you’re likely to damage the ankle or even have a permanent limp. Do you understand?’
Resigned, Nnamdi nodded. There went his marathon dream. He tuned out as the man directed his bossiness to the lady and began to fire her with instructions.
And he’d been so so close. One week close to getting back into fit form, into his university days. Perhaps he should have left the damn dog to run away to freedom or…into the next speeding car. Minded his bloody business.
Not as easy. Not with the terror on the lady’s face as she’d watched her precious puppy bound away to imminent death in a car crash or drowning. He wanted to wipe away that expression. Replace it with a happier look or the default serene one he’d grown accustomed to.
And he had. That was something, wasn’t it? Enough to destroy his chances at his first ever marathon? Now he wasn’t so s-.
‘Where do you stay?’ Her voice sliced smoothly through his thoughts, addressing him for the first time since the older man had inquired about his limp minutes ago.
A light shone through his melancholy and Nnamdi’s lips curved upwards as he met her steady, hazel gaze.
Saturday, February 11 met Nnamdi settled comfortably in a teak-brown three-seater, one of the two in his godmother’s living room. His left ankle, thinly bandaged, propped on a round, teak stool.
Infront of him on the 45-inch TV screen unfolded the starting line of the marathon, with a hoard of participants restless in uniform t-shirts and eager for the kick-off signal.
Well, he wasn’t among them. His ankle made sure of that. Or rather, his rescue efforts did him in.
The last two weeks could easily have been the worst of his life.
No longer could he stroll to work as usual with barely five minutes to spare. He drove now, grateful for automatic cars. He rested the affected leg.
He’d tried once to test out his jogging with the injured ankle, in defiance to the elderly man’s instructions, and he found himself cursing loudly and explicitly at the resulting stabbing spike of pain. He hated to admit it. The man had been right. No exertion for as long as it took to heal.
Painkillers became part of his daily diet too because unconsciously he stressed the ankle during his daily routine – waking and dressing up, driving to work, dragging the foot around the bank, returning home and repeating the process all over again at the break of dawn.
But time indeed was a healer.
14 days after, the ankle could bear a considerable amount of his body weight without shooting aches up his leg and vile words out of his mouth. His lumbering gait wasn’t as pronounced either, and he’d come to terms with missing out on the marathon he’d been fixated on and had trained hard for.
Perhaps the upside of the incident played a part in his acceptance.
Tiny yelps sounded louder as the white poodle wobbled into the living room from the kitchen area and leaped effortlessly onto Nnamdi’s stomach.
He grinned and smoothed white hairs on its small back. He didn’t like dogs. Never had. But this was…different.
He glanced up, and his grin spread. He liked its owner.
Simi. And she had eventually. Seen him, that is. Even if it had taken a near-death experience for it happen.
She stood before him, two sweating cans–Heineken & Malta Guinness–in her palms, a small smile hovering. ‘Which one do you want?’
He’d been right. Beneath the tracksuit was a banging body. No extra flesh…except the naturally endowed ones.
He reached up and grabbed the wrist holding the beer can, and they laughed together as she tumbled into the couch beside him.
The marathon could wait. There was always next year.