It was exactly five in the morning when the alarm rudely roused her from a deep sleep. Nkiru cursed the damn alarm under her breath while she blindly searched for her smartphone which always lay on the dwarf bedside table, close enough to reach each time Ken called; his work was so demanding that his calls always came in late at night. Just out of school, he has always left a bad taste on her tongue each time they talked about starting a career: ‘Babe, brace yourself, for it is not an easy world out there.’ Obviously, his five to ten job has reduced his charms; his once fleshy full-face gave in to a more crooked looking bony face.
His soft voice now had this hasty undertone, like someone who had just finished a race; he was always in a hurry to get back to work each time they had a chance to talk in the afternoon, in between his busy schedules as an auditor for an oil company in Lagos. Most times, they talked while he was stuck in traffic jam; he would call earlier, afraid that she would be in bed by the time he got home. ‘Lagos is a crazy city, babe,’ he would say each time she picks up his calls late at night.
Their relationship took an awkward turn the minute he left Akure for Lagos, three years earlier, to work for an oil company: they no longer talked as often as they did, and she could not remember the last time he talked to her in a coherent manner without the loud blast of horns, noisy conductors screaming at the top of their voices, or in a noisy car while on his way home. Even while he was at home, he slept half-way through conversations, something was too obvious. She could not get enough of him. It was obvious that the move caused a big strain in their relationship, and both couldn’t agree less.
She lived in Lagos when she was a bit younger. Throughout her secondary school, she spent all her holidays in Lagos, living with her aunt, Esther, who was married for ten years without having a child. Nkiru staying over during the holidays was a great comfort to her family, especially her aunt whom she has grown to love ever since she was a little girl. It was at her aunt’s house, at Aguda, that she met Ken, a boy her age who lived in the same neighbourhood. Later, Ken’s parents, who were federal government workers, were transferred to the far north, and Ken had to leave with them.
Then was the early introduction of GSM into Nigeria and they communicated through emails when each of them was able to visit a cybercafé. Nkiru’s aunt later moved to the Island, closer to their work place. Few years down the line, news broke that Ken’s parents had divorced. Ken and his mother had to relocate to another state, while his father moved back to Lagos. Nkiru never got to know about the full details, but Ken wished to have nothing doing with his father, ever again.
Nkiru and Ken had lost touch with other for many years, but they were united at an NYSC camp in Akure where their relationship took on a more meaningful turn. After the one year service, Nkiru went back to Enugu to further her studies while Ken got an offer with one of the top oil companies in Lagos.
Nkiru rolled over and grabbed the phone by the bedside table. The lights flickered on, and as she worked through her last night messages, the light on the phone made the diamond engagement ring on her finger glow; Ken had given it to her on the day they met at the bus park. He had come personally to pick her up and drop her off at her aunt’s, after grabbing dinner at a restaurant close by. He said he owed her a lot as a result of his busy work schedules. Her fingers smoothed out the gems that ran right round the engagement ring as she thought of their first meeting after so many years. She smiled to herself, remembering the ache in his eyes as he popped the big question, or rather the statement:
‘Nkem, marry me.’
Everyone turned in their direction, waiting for her response. Nkiru remembered the smile that flickered all over her face as he gently narrowed the diamond ring round her slim finger.
The first message read:
‘All the best, babe. Today iz the gret day.’
She couldn’t help but notice the mistakes. He had obviously typed it in a bit of a hurry, probably while on his way to work, because the message came in one hour earlier.
The previous day, while out for dinner, his phone constantly interrupted them and she could not hide her disgust; couldn’t he at least put it on silence? She closely watched him as they talked and saw the years that had gone by without them seeing each other, and the moments they have missed staying apart. When he dropped her off, his lips on her cheek felt as cold as ice.
Aunty Esther, who was leaving for work, screamed her name downstairs. She was meant to join her go to a place called ‘Sand field’, before continuing her journey. Her interview was scheduled for nine, and her aunt leaves in less than forty-five minutes. Nkiru jumped off the bed. She hit her left foot against the bed as she made her way to the bathroom. ‘Ouch!’ she screamed out in pain, and answered:
“Come and have breakfast before we leave!” Her aunt called, not minding that her kids and husband were still fast asleep.
“I will be right there.”
Nkiru made for the bathroom, peeled off her night clothes and turned on the cold shower. She shivered while the water hit her hard and cold. She had little or no sleep the previous night because she kept awake to finish off with a revision for the interview. While she packed up her bags and smoothed out her bed cover, her phone began to ring. She looked at it and found out that it was her mum. Before she could answer the phone, her aunt screamed her name again, this time, impatiently. Nkiru made a mental note to call her mum while on her way out; she threw the rest of her stuffs into her bag, rushed down the staircase, grabbed the cup of beverage and a slice of bread her aunt had left on the table and rushed out to join her in the car.
“Is this your first time?”
A cool raspy voice stirred her up from sleep. Nkiru opened her eyes and found out that she had actually dozed off while they waited to be called in for the interview. When she opened her eyes, she noticed the skeptical manner in which the secretary looked at her.
The journey to Marina was another hell on its own. After they survived the traffic jam from Ajah to Sand field, her aunt left her at the bus stop. It was still past seven; people swam about, traffic jam already built by the corner, and bus conductors were busy haggling for passengers; they shouted on top of their voice:
“CMS! Law School! Oshodi!”
Their body odour and saliva raining, corroding the entire atmosphere. Nkiru looked by her left and right, and met a lineup of people in suits and dresses; they eagerly waited for buses that headed their destination while eyeing the traffic jam that built ahead. They could not hide the anxiety of getting to work late, being fired, or piles of work which must have accumulated from the previous day. This gave her cause to worry. At last, she made up her mind to be pressed in between sweaty bodies in one of the rusty buses.
At each point, the driver stopped to pick up passengers on the way, those around her rained curses on him. Nkiru shuddered at how civil-looking people turned aggressive within a twinkle of an eye.
When they got to the last bus stop, Nkiru formed the flood of people at CMS, who came out each morning, in search of their means of livelihood.
She turned to her left to scan through the line of people who sat beside her, waiting to be called in for an interview; they were just five in number: two other young ladies and two men. Ken had sent her the link and asked her to apply. When she applied for the position of Relationship manager, they sent her a form containing test questions which she quickly answered. After some weeks, she got an email, stating that she has been invited for an interview. She couldn’t believe that she would finally reunite with the man of her dreams.
During the exam, she noticed that the same confidence that each of them had walked in with suddenly peeled off. A glance at the questions would make any genius go blank. During the exam, she turned and met two of the interviewees who had walked in wearing British accents, busily fiddling with their phones. The questions had been lifted from a secondary school agriculture test on farm and animal management, which was assumed that each of them must have offered during their time in school. They simply intended to examine their level of understanding in the area of people management, with animal management as a case study.
Nkiru looked at the guy who woke her up from her sleep; she remembered he had engaged all of them in a political argument on the last election. He wanted to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the last election was rigged; it made Nkiru wonder if he actually studied Engineering. At that point, each of them kept quiet and brooded over the exam questions and how incompetent their university degrees would be made to look when the scores turned up.
She could barely look pass the young man in a cheap suit, which must have seen many years of washing and interview rooms such as this one; his eyes pleaded for something and he had this desperate look about him, so was the case with each of them. Their needs and wants were hidden right under their suits. The bones underneath his flushed chocolate skin protruded and his hairline receded a bit: he looked out of place. Nkiru remembered the job description, years of experience and age limit. It struck her that it could just be one person who was likely to be chosen out of all of them.
“Yes, this is my first time!”
She responded after a while, in a smooth quiet voice. When the man opened his mouth to ask his next question, her eyes met the green matter that ate up the roots of his teeth and whiteness of his tongue; she looked away in pity, not wanting to be like the rest of them, with little, or perhaps, no hopes at all.
“Miss Nkiru,” the secretary called. “This way, please.”
She got up and followed behind till they got to the door. When they entered, she said:
“Good day, ladies and gentlemen.”
She greeted the three-man panel who had been waiting to weigh her five years behind the four walls of an institution. Among them, a man raised an eyebrow; he was in his late fifties: dark, almost graying, and he had the facial structure of his son, whom she had known since she was a teenager. He recognised her the minute she stepped into the wide conference area. They shared the exact features that one wouldn’t have taken a long guess. When the door behind her closed, she knew that she would certainly remember that day.
Nkiru twisted and turned the ring round her fingers while she patiently waited to be called upon. During that time, people in expensive suits and women wearing alluring perfumes passed her by; some dropped one or two glances her way. She didn’t remember half of the interview but she remembered being told that they would get back to her in few months time. Does that mean she has gotten the job, or what? She was not a fan of waiting but she had no alternatives.
“Mam, his office is on the first corner by the right. You may go in now.”
The secretary, who seemed to be singing, rather than talking, addressed Nkiru. She stood up, strapped her bag on her shoulder and made her way through the long passageway. A lot has been on her mind since the last one hour; each step she took brought her closer to the end.
The door opened and the man’s face was still pressed to the sheets that were in front of him; he nearly didn’t hear the door open and close. Suddenly, a coral metal object was gently placed before him, right on the paper he held. He frowned and raised his face to meet her stern stare. She stood right in front of him in a short black gown with a three-quarter hand. The red scarf she formerly tied up in a bow, round her neck, had loosened, and now trailed the length of her short gown. She held on to her red shoulder bag with her two fists.
They both looked at each other straight in the eyes for the first time, and at that moment, time stood still. Nkiru for the first time realized what a stranger he has been and how far they have grown far apart. Ken didn’t know what question to ask first: the interview or why she had dropped her engagement ring right before him. For the first time in many years, he took in her full feminine form and appreciated every inch of her; he wondered how she has grown into a desirable woman within a space of three years. Nkiru could not help but pity Ken: his sunken eyes begged for sleep, and his shoulders stretched forward from too much bending and less relaxation. His face fell flat and he looked way older than what she could remember: he has lost all his charms.
The air in the room begged for words rather than their thoughts which suffocated the space they shared.
“I brought back your ring.”
It was as though someone smashed a glass close by and the room fell deeper into guts of silence. Nkiru’s heart began to beat faster when she decided to talk. She didn’t know what to say; she didn’t want to say the wrong things; she didn’t want to hurt him any further.
“Are you breaking up with me?”
He asked, but didn’t bother to get up. He made it seem as though there was nothing wrong and everything was perfect, almost making her feel guilty with his statement.
“We really need to take a break.”
“Why? What did I do wrong?”
Ken asked, innocently.
“We really need to know if this is what we want for each other.”
Nkiru tried to explain.
“But you are finally moving to Lagos, and everything will be alright.”
Ken said in a hurry.
He got up from his seat and walked towards her, but she moved back. He frowned, not impressed with her reaction.
“That’s what I am talking about. We have grown apart from each other so much that I don’t know…”
Her voice trailed off in cold silence.
“You don’t love me anymore? Are you seeing someone else?”
Ken asked desperately.
“No… Yes… What am I even saying?” she murmured to herself. “This is what I am talking about – I need to know if you still love me.”
“But I do!”
Ken said. He walked forward to hold her hands.
“We barely have time to talk. You barely have time for yourself. We just can’t start a family like this. No, Ken,” she looked him in the eye and moved back, farther away from him. “I can’t just do this.”
He moved back to the table and picked up the ring. Looking at it, he asked:
“How was the interview?”
“It went well. They said we would hear from them.” She said, and his image flashed before her very eyes: the familiar face which has always been Ken’s best friend since the time they were growing up.
She turned and started towards the door.
“Am I seeing you again?”
Ken stopped her.
“They said they will get back to us. I will send you a text. Will you come for me at the park?’
Nkiru asked. He didn’t say anything but just shrugged absentmindedly. Walking to the door was a great relief; she thought it would be worse or more difficult than this. It was painful giving him back his ring but they have to come to a crossroad together. They really need to know if this was what they both wanted.
When she got to the door, she turned and saw Ken watching her, dazed, and then she remembered him asking her:
“How is my son?”
He had asked her to wait behind at the end of the interview.
“Tell him that I love him and I can’t wait to see him again.”
Nkiru stepped back into Ken’s office. She dipped her hand into her small black bag, retrieved a small complimentary card and placed it right before him. Ken picked up the card and his face tightened into a frown, drawing blood to his pale face and eyes.
“It is high time you end all these. Your mother is no more and he is the only family you have.”
There was tension in the air and she knew it.
“You have no right to tell me what to do with him.”
Ken said through his clenched teeth. She understood that it was traumatic for him to watch his father leave when they needed him the most. He watched his mother suffer to take care of him and his younger ones. Nkiru turned and headed for the door; she turned the door knob, and for the last time, she turned and said:
“He said to tell you that he loves you.”
She didn’t wait to see his reaction, but stepped back into the quiet hallway with nothing but the memory of that day in her mind.
The bus park was packed with so many people waiting for their loved ones to come pick them up. Nkiru checked her phone over and over again, and as she did, she tried to pick out a familiar face in the crowd.
Aunty Esther screamed her name right from where she stood. Nkiru’s face fell: Ken did not come. Her aunt’s daughter circled Nkiru’s neck in a tight hug while her mother walked and stood before her niece. She gathered Nkiru into her arms and said:
“Welcome back. Your mother said they called you back after the interview. Nno.”
“Aunty, I missed you.”
Nkiru said when she realized that he would never come back for her.
“We miss you more.”
Her aunty held her hand just like she used to, fifteen years counting, and they all made their way to her car.
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