Hello Yarners, it’s another beautiful Saturday and like we promised, we have something scintillating from our very own Olajumoke Omisore. It’s specially prepared for your delight. Enjoy.
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‘‘Put a smile on your face darling, the directors will be arriving soon.” My friend, Steph said as soon as she sauntered into my office. “You want them to think, beautiful single woman when they see you, not married secretary with nine children.’’
“Steph, I am too busy for this.’’ I was searching the filing cabinet for a file I needed to work on for Mrs Johnson, our boss. But I wasn’t that busy.
Steph watched me for a while. Without studying her face, I knew her lips were in a sulking pout, eyes narrowed.
‘‘Well, I know you still miss him.” She tapped my table with painted nails. They are always painted. The same way her face appears covered in make-up, even at night.
“Chioma abeg, it’s about time you moved on. I know you don’t like talking about it but I am your friend. I can’t watch you mope about anymore. If Mr Williams really loved you, he wouldn’t have skipped the country.’’
She stopped when my eyes begged her to stop, planting a smile on her face as if that would undo the harshness of her tongue. Flicking her hair back, she picked up the meeting plan on my table and left for her office.
Steph’s words hurt. But she knew me too well. Hosting the board of directors’ quarterly meeting at our branch office had brought back all those memories of David Williams.
When I started work at the HR branch of a multinational oil company in Lagos, working as a trainee secretary and told my mother my English boss seemed to be interested in me, her response was not unexpected.
“Chioma, you are too young. Besides, he is your boss. Please just keep your head down and concentrate on your job.” My mother urged whilst twisting my curls into plaits that evening, her grip on my curls firmer than usual.
My mother left for London a year before the Nigerian Civil War with my Black British father. His name was Lincoln, a gas engineer working for a big oil and gas company based in the Niger Delta where she was a student. She returned to Nigeria, with me in 1970, having been made a widow by a car crash. I was two.
She told me how she spent ages combing hospitals and refugee centres with me in her arms, searching for her brother and father. The last time her cousins saw them, they were heading to Asaba. Tired of the war but physically well, in search of my mother’s uncle that had gone missing.
She travelled with me strapped to her back, determined to find them. They were the only family she had left. Her mother had died giving birth to her and grandfather refused to remarry.
Shortly before I turned three, she decided to stop searching for them and to accept it would just be the two of us from then on.
It was on the day of my twenty second birthday that David asked if I would like to come to dinner with him. I had said, no. This was what I described to mother as ‘a bit of interest.’ It was more. Evident in the way his gaze always seemed to hold mine even when he was talking to other people, his insistence on bringing lunch up for me and his secretary and the smiles he reserved for me.
Later on that evening, as mother and I watched a British film, I started to wonder what it would be like to have David’s arms around me, leading me in a waltz dance at the Christmas party. I didn’t know a thing about ballroom dancing. If people shoved a fist in the air to start or shook their rear to finish. In the films, the girls held their necks and heads high like a lizard frozen in mid head nodding action.
I couldn’t help thinking about him. Especially, after he saved me from Mrs Ogbutu at work. I had mailed her correspondence to our branch in Abuja when it was supposed to go to the research centre in Abidjan.
“What sort of child is this? Do you not know the difference between Abuja and Abidjan?” Mrs Ogbutu screamed, untying her headgear and dropping it on the floor of the office I shared then with David’s secretary, Miss Lloyd. She watched as Mrs Ogbutu launched into a tirade. The American woman was the size of a little teenager. Each thigh of Mrs Ogbutu was five times Miss Lloyd’s whole body. I knew no one could save me from Mrs Ogbutu’s grasp. Not when Miss Lloyd had started to tremble.
“Can we help you Mrs Ogbut?”
“It is Mrs Ogbutu,” the woman’s voice became scarily louder. “I want this girl fired. The post she sent for me to Abidjan has landed in Abuja!”
“I’m sorry…” I began.
“You are the only one who will lose her job. On your way, tell my enemies that sent you that you didn’t find me. My pastor is greater than their herbalist. Their weapons have failed.”
“I’m sorry, ma…”
“Shut up. Keep quiet.”
I kept quiet. It would have been rude to remind her that she had put Abj on the PO and failing to find her in her department, I had assumed Abj meant Abuja.
“This child should be sent back home.” She was addressing Miss Lloyd who had taken refuge in a corner of the room now. “Let her go and cook draw and afang for a few years.”
“What’s going on?” David had opened the door to his office.
His eyes were on me whilst Mrs Ogbutu explained what had happened. Her tone unsurprisingly quieter, she gestured with her hands, smiling the affectionate smiles she doled out for her western male colleagues and managers.
“Don’t worry Mrs Ogbutu,” David returned her smile. “The lead scientists rarely come on shore. You have time to sort their post out before they realise.”
“Mr Williams, sir, I like my department to do their best at all times. Chioma needs to be reprimanded.”
“Last time I checked, she doesn’t work for you. So she was only doing you a favour, right?”
“So, you should be thanking her not shouting at her.”
Mrs Ogbutu bowed her head like an errant child in front of their teacher.
“Show my staff the same respect you accord me. That’s all I ask for.”
“Thank you sir.” She picked up her headgear and hurried out of our office.
David continued to be friendly towards me at work, showering me with praise that added fuel to the rumours started by Mrs Ogbutu whilst I prayed that he would ask me out again.
When Miss Lloyd took some time off, we became closer, eating lunch together. He told me about his parents and upbringing whilst I shared my knowledge of Lagos.
My mother accompanied me to the company’s Christmas party that year and David introduced himself to her.
As we headed home later, my mother gestured for me to move nearer to her in the back of the car. The driver was not listening to us, anyway. His head had been stolen by the lyrics of Victor Olaiya.
“Mr Williams has asked if he can come and see us at home this Saturday. He really likes you.’’
“Did you say yes?” My heart and stomach churned at the same time.
“Yes, I did.” She placed one hand on mine and rearranged her gold necklaces with the other. “I am happy that David has clearly enquired about the way things are done in our culture. For that reason alone, he deserves a listening ear. Plus, your father’s friend … Mike the DG, remember him?”
“Yes. He helped me get this job. How can I forget him?”
“Well, he said really nice things about him.”
The phone rang and forced my mind back to the room. I picked it up and found out that it was the surveyor from our Abuja office. I transferred the call to my boss and tried to concentrate on the file in front of me. But I couldn’t.
I knew what it was. It was the caller’s accent. He had a Northern accent. David had learnt a bit of Hausa whilst living and working in the North. He’d promised to learn Igbo too.
The Saturday afternoon he came to our house he greeted mother in Igbo before confessing that was all he knew. David had turned up at our modest residence as planned with a Northern man he introduced as his friend. I served them the palm wine that mother had refrigerated earlier, dressed in my best blouse matched with a flowing crimson skirt. Rigid with shyness, I barely met David’s eyes.
“You look beautiful Chioma.’’ He said before tilting his head, so mother could hear him, as she came out of the kitchen with a tray of plated jolof rice and meat. ‘‘I hope you don’t mind me saying ma.’’
He looked rather fetching too, well-groomed – the way he attended to dignitaries at work. After they had eaten, David thanked mother. I thought his attitude and values had won mother over completely but then, she started gathering her English words daintily like her stylish lace wrapper, studying her red painted finger nails and all I could do was to watch helplessly as she sliced my desires with each word.
“Mr Williams, you seem like a very nice man. I have friends that work for you, who have said you are a pleasant man and a wonderful boss. I am not bothered about the age difference or the ….the cultural differences.’’ She paused before continuing tentatively, her face now avoiding mine.
“I just don’t want my only child living in a different country from me. Or can you promise me Mr Williams that you will live in Nigeria forever?” She lowered her gaze to her wrapper. She’d crossed her legs underneath the expensive lace material.
“I am here in Nigeria for a while. Even if I got transferred, I wouldn’t take Chioma away from you forever,’’ David replied.
His eyes, the colour of rare sapphire were on me then. Despite mother’s questions, a smile lingered on his face. That smile was electric. It had a way of jolting me and calming my anxiety at the same time.
“Things are different now. We can fly back often to see you.”
“That was what Florence’s American son-in-law said to her when he married her daughter. She hasn’t seen her daughter since the day she left Lagos with her husband fifteen years ago. I can’t let that happen to me Mr Williams. I don’t know if Chioma has told you she is the only family I have.’’ Her voice trailed off. She stared out of the window, watching rain thrash the pawpaw tree in our compound.
David didn’t say anything else. He seemed his age of thirty eight years for those few minutes in our sitting room. I had never seen him look so aggrieved before.
When he left with his friend, shortly after, I begged mother lavishly to reconsider, knowing I could do nothing else but to seek her blessing.
Mother’s words still resonate in my head, as if we had sat on our mattress in the humid heat of Lagos, days ago, not two years ago.
“Chioma, why do you want to leave me all alone by myself? Mr Williams is a very nice man but one day he is going to want to go back to his parents, and his own country. He will grow tired of our boiling weather and unusable roads.’’
Her chest was rising and falling. Her eyes, wet.
“Nna tried to warn me when I met your father. He said, ‘I can’t give my daughter away to a man we can’t trek to his village.’ I was his favourite so my pleas wore him down. He soon accepted your father’s gifts, ignoring what our ndichie said during our family meeting. And so I married Lincoln. We were happy my dear girl. We were and I didn’t miss home. Your grandfather came to visit and he teased me. I was no more the skinny girl that left the shores of Nigeria with bones that jutted out. On my once tiny body now sat curves. Lincoln promised Nna that he would continue to look after me the night before he travelled back to Nigeria. And he did, oh he did.”
“You say that all the time. So, marrying a foreigner worked well for you.”
“Until your father died and his parents said they preferred their own company. I would take you all the way to Lewisham to see them and they wouldn’t let us in. His friends were mostly working away from the country so I couldn’t turn to them. Our neighbour was a foul mouthed man that called us monkeys and spat at us every time he saw us. Although the war was just coming to an end, I got in touch with Lincoln’s friends in Lagos to get me a job, a house and packed up our things. I had never felt more alone in my life.”
Weeks later, David called me into his office. His almost permanent grin had disappeared; in its place was unhappiness.
“I am so sorry Chioma but I have to go back home. My father has been involved in a car accident. Don’t worry, he is stable now, but he is not out of the woods yet.’’
“I am sorry about your father. Is there anything I can do?”
He shook his head and came to the side of the table where I was perched. Grasping my hands in his, he held my gaze.
“I know I haven’t said this before but you need to know I am in love with you. But I need to go. Mum needs me. She won’t be able to cope without me. You understand, that I have to go, don’t you?’’
I nodded, trying to be supportive. His palm was on my right cheek. I think, my heart forgot how to breathe when he tilted my chin forward. He kissed me, parting my lips with his. He was tender and yet skilful. And warm at the same time.
Afterwards, he held me in his arms. Something told me I would never see him again. I wanted to remember everything about him; his aftershave scent, those hypnotising blue eyes and his dark lustrous hair. It was the first time I had ever been kissed and as I left his office for mine, I knew it would be the last time.
It had started to rain. I walked to the window and looked at the rows of recently trimmed green plants with the bougainvillea and pink and bright orange amaryllis flowers sprouting beside them.
The rain reminded me of what it felt like when he left. On the rainy days, I would try not to cry. I would lose the battle to be strong the minute my head hit my pillow at night. The hot days passed so slowly like cold, rainy ones. The streets were agog with civil unrest after the annulment of the June 12 election. Pictures of battered innocent protesters on hospital beds were enough to clear the fogginess of my head for a while.
Last year, I received a letter from him, informing me his father was in a wheelchair. He said he had decided to stay in England to help his mother care for his father. Apologies followed. His lopsided writing blurred into the blueness of the Airmail page after that and tearing the letter up, I scolded myself for daring to mourn something that didn’t belong to me.
The days rolled on and mother started to ask if no prospective suitors were looking my way at work. It was unheard of, according to her, to have a young woman my age, unwed and not courting. She pleaded with me to plaster a smile on my face, so that men would notice me.
Sure enough, three months later, we were planning a low key wedding. Our family was getting bigger. Our widower neighbour had asked mother to marry him. We moved in with him and his five daughters after the wedding.
Perhaps because mother now had six other people to think of, somehow, we drifted apart.
I languished at our new home on Saturdays doing chores with my new stepsisters when I didn’t work and went to church on Sundays. The double promotions at Shell in the space of two years helped make my week days slightly bearable. Mother did not see that her happiness had somehow led to my own discontent.
I shunned men at work. As soon as I noticed them paying me attention, I would go out of my way to avoid them. I remember eating my lunch at my desk when the lofty, Urhobo accountant kept sitting next to me in the canteen.
Steph was the receptionist at the Lagos branch and she often teased me. “They are men not snakes Chioma. They don’t bite.”
When Mrs Johnson – who I now worked for as her secretary – asked if I and Steph would like to transfer to our branch with her in Port Harcourt, we both said yes. We were to move the following month.
At the motor park, Mother’s tears flowed freely. My stepsisters did the waving for her whilst their father held her. I had to turn my head round to hide my own tears, telling myself the time had come for me to let go of mother’s wrapper.
“You need to come to the conference room now Chioma,” Steph was standing in front of my office. “Right now.”
I followed her, wondering what the drama was about this time. It wasn’t unlike her to have a melt-down over the flowers in the conference room. She was pulling me along the hallway. The last time she did this was when she discovered she’d written on the conference board with permanent marker.
“Steph, calm down, I have already checked the conference room after you asked poor Adam to clean it for the seventh time.’’
Steph grunted something muffled as we walked into the conference room.
I saw the back of a man in a black suit by the window. I had no idea any of the directors had arrived. Mrs Johnson always insisted on doing the welcoming herself. Her red copper hair in a big bulldog clip. Shoulder padded arms and back held straight.
The man turned around and the polite greeting at the tip of my tongue vanished. It was David. He was saying something that sounded like ‘hey.’ He laughed a quiet laughter that resembled a nervous one. It went well with the broad smile on his face.
He came over to me because suddenly I had forgotten how to use my legs. We hugged. My mouth was opening and closing but nothing tangible came out of it.
“I have missed you, Chioma love.” I had forgotten the excitement that coursed through me every time I heard that voice. “Sorry, for landing here without a warning.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’m back. Back for good.”
I didn’t know what to say. I’d prayed to have him back in my life for two years. But there he was, standing beside me, looking as dishy as ever and I just couldn’t gather my thoughts into words. He wasn’t the light brown tanned man he was the last time I saw him. His natural olive skin suited his black hair better. But he was still the same David.
I hugged him again. He held me and murmured something I can’t remember now. I kept my face on his chest because I didn’t want him to see I was losing my fight with my eyelids to keep the tears in.
Not too long after, I heard the door and then Steph’s voice. I hadn’t heard her leave the room.
“I am sorry Chioma. Alhaji Sankara has arrived in reception. Mrs Johnson needs you. She would also like to talk to the new Rivers director.’’
I withdrew from David. “Has he arrived?”
“I am the new director,” David said. “Danladi Sankara will be announcing that today. I hope I haven’t shocked you too much?”
“It is great news. Congrats.”
“Meet me later at the staff club. I will be there around two. Please come, we need to talk.’’
I was about to tell him that I would , when I saw the gold engagement ring on the ring finger of his left hand.
The pain I had felt all those years not knowing if he would come back, multiplied that instant. It felt like a physical blow to every part of my body, except, it was suffocating me from the inside too.
To be continued…
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