They stood side by side on the stairs leading to the first floor, deep in a conversation. They stood quite close, shoulder to shoulder, like a pair desperate to confirm their 2-inch height difference. When a group of students had emerged, in haste to use the stairs on which they stood, the duo had momentarily created a path, wide enough for just one student at a time.
“Miss Onuorah, ọbu chukwu zọputara anyị—it was God that saved us. My sister, it would have been a fatal accident oh!” Mrs. Ibekwe exclaimed. “If not for God’s mercy, it would have been a totally different story. A whole family of seven, consumed, just like that?!”
“Chukwu agaghị ekwe—God will not permit such.” Miss Onuorah, the English language teacher, said. “Our God protects His own.”
“I am a witness oh!”
A student showed up on the stairs, standing a reasonable distance away from the teachers. It took a little less of a minute before they recognised her presence.
“Ah, Imabong! Have you been standing there?” Mrs. Ibekwe asked. “Come my dear, there’s enough space for you.” Both teachers moved a bit, to opposite sides, to create room for Imabong. “Imabong,” Mrs. Ibekwe continued, “you are getting more fleshy these days. Eh, everywhere is just shaking.” Imabong smiled, while Miss Onuorah laughed. “What special food have you been eating?”
“No special food, ma.”
“Her mother must be taking good care of her.” Miss Onuorah offered. “You know these south-south people, they like their daughters to be plump, especially when a suitor is at hand.”
Imabong had a shy smile when she said, “Ma, there’s no suitor.”
“Don’t worry, God will bring one soon.” Mrs. Ibekwe said.
Imabong smiled and continued her descent on the stairs. The teachers maintained their positions, but their eyes proved to be faithful escorts. They resumed their conversation, though favouring a new line, after Imabong had gone a reasonable distance.
“Oh!” Mrs. Ibekwe exclaimed.
“What is it?”
“As if you don’t have eyes to see. Or will you say you have not noticed anything?”
“My sister, it beats me oh!”
“I wonder if Mrs. Bassey is the only one remaining who has not noticed that her daughter is pregnant.”
“Will she carry the pregnancy for Imabong?”
“Is her mother a novice?”
“She is a born-again, a deaconess too. She won’t do such.”
“Nsogbu adịghị. Mgbe ada ya nwanyi turu ime nke abụo, ọga ahọta—there is no problem. When her daughter gets pregnant a second time, then she will understand.”
Evans sat on a single seater sofa in the living room, holding the novel he had found in Jerry’s bag, the one marked severally with yellow ink.
Evans had been in the same spot for a little above an hour: reading the paragraphs that highlighted the sexual escapades of Marcus, a rich Colombian drug dealer; and occasionally drifting in thought to the recent events his family had been plagued with, mainly, the revelations that were ushered in when Charles and his friend, Lanre, came to visit. Lanre had not measured up to the image Evans had painted of him, though he had not been too far from the mark.
Evans still held the novel, but his thoughts had drifted again.
“Ma, it was a surprise when I got Evans’ call,” Charles had said, shortly after a conversation had started between the visitors and his mother. “I was surprised because Jerry did not show up at the party.”
“Party?” Nneoma had said. She had turned towards Evans. Evans, who had kept his gaze on his mother, and occasionally on Lanre, had looked away.
Charles had continued, much to Evans’ delight. “Evans told me that Jerry had mentioned a vigil. There was no vigil. And I did not come with any flyer when I visited that afternoon.”
Lanre who had been quiet had spoken next. To Evans, Lanre’s voice sounded better in person. “Lately Jerry had repeatedly mentioned a name, one Mr. Ray, saying the man was willing to help him travel abroad.
We did not take him seriously, because his claim seemed far-fetched. But, who knows, Jerry may have been serious about it. We just felt you should know.”
“We called last night, early this morning actually, to find out if anything had been discovered to be missing. Evans said nothing was missing.
Nneoma had nodded repeatedly.
“After the call ended, I noticed that one of his bag was missing.”
“And you did not tell me.” his mother had said softly. She had continued before Evans could respond. “Well, it all seem to fall in place now. My money, three hundred thousand naira is also missing.”
Evans heaved, flipping unto a new page in the novel he held, unwilling to continue with his thoughts. He began to read again, the first paragraph marked with yellow ink in the page he had just flipped open.
Evans heard a knock and he stirred from his sleep. He sprang to his feet, surprised he had drifted off to sleep while reading the novel. He heard the knock again, and he turned towards the clock on the wall—3:22 pm.
He guessed it was a classmate who had bothered to check on him, as he had been absent from school. Evans had complained of a headache, and his mother had not raised any objection when he told her he wanted to stay at home. Evans walked towards the door. He pulled its bolts when he got to it, and the door opened. And in front of him stood Walter.
“You did not come to school today, what happened?” Walter had said, even before the door had fully opened.
Evans merely stood, unsure if he wanted Walter in the house or not. His thoughts immediately got free rein: I lied to aid Jerry’s exit, because of you; not long after I got close to you, I get a funny note in my locker; and, what if the same person who dropped the note shows up now, and finds me alone with you?
“Hello . . . ” Walter said, waving his hand before Evans’ eyes. He made an attempt to walk past Evans, into the living room. Evans surprised both himself and Walter when he stood in Walter’s way. He knew he had to say something convincing enough.
“My mother is at home. She’s sick,” Evans lied. “and—she’s sleeping.”
“Oh, sorry about that.”
“I hope you will be in school tomorrow?”
“Yes. Sure, I will.”
“Good. Because I don’t understand what Mr. Hassan taught today, not even a bit of it.”
Evans did not bother to ask him the topic, he only said, “Ok, till tomorrow.”
“Bye. See you in school.”
“And my regards to your mum.”
Even before he had closed the door, Evans had already started to think of an excuse he would give to avoid spending time with Walter in school the next day.
Jerry sat on the bed in the hotel room he had rented, remote control in hand, watching a foreign movie. The call he had made to Mr. Ray had ended on a bright note, with the assurance that his travel documents would be due in a few days, and he would be leaving for Canada a day or two later. He had prayed that all Mr. Ray had said would follow through, because the hotel bill was fast depleting the money he had left.
Jerry thought of his mother, and he sighed. He had promised himself that he would make her proud when he became rich in Canada.
*****Ten years earlier*****
Nneoma stirred on the bed. Then she welcomed the new day with a quiet ‘thank you, Jesus’. She counted herself lucky, being a nursing mother, yet being able to sleep through the night, without a cry from her baby. The first six days after her baby was born had been, as anticipated, challenging. But the little girl was quick to make up for all the trouble, adopting a new routine that Nneoma readily welcomed. Six months after, Nneoma was grateful her baby had maintained same pattern: sleep early, remain asleep all night, and wake once the morning prayer began in a mosque nearby. Nneoma was sure God had blessed her with a good child. Her previous experience, raising her sons, had not been that easy. It had even taken her a longer time to completely wean her boys off her breasts.
Nneoma moved her husband’s hand, rubbing it gently, before placing it on the bed. Chukwuma’s hand had been on her stomach. As Nneoma sat up, she noticed the beads of sweat on her husband’s forehead; and with the loose end of her wrapper she dabbed at them. Nneoma smiled as she peered at her husband’s face. Chukwuma rarely smiled, except when he slept. She loved the smile; she also loved the playful look Chukwuma would put up each time she teased him about it. Nneoma wished she had a means to capture that look, because most times Chukwuma did not believe her claim; other times he would raise a defence: I’m sure I was dreaming about you, he would say. Nneoma touched his hand again, pressed with the desire to feel his hands touch her, to take in the strong scent of his muscular body, to surrender to his thrusts and finally his strength. Nneoma wished that she could wake Chukwuma and openly express her need. But it had not been so with them. She was his wife. She was there to respond to his needs, not the other way round. Nneoma eased her frame from the bed, recognizing other pressing needs. She tied her loose wrapper firmly as she walked towards the door. She had a full bladder to ease, and a six year old son whose temperature she had to check.
Nneoma knocked on the door for the second time. She had waited a while after the first knock, but when no response seemed to be forthcoming, she had knocked again. The second knock lasted a little longer. Nneoma heard footsteps, and she restrained herself from knocking the third time.
“Who is that?” she heard.
“It’s Mama Jerry.” Nneoma answered.
Nneoma heard the sound the door bolt made, then she adjusted the baby tied to her back. Evans who had been standing by her side she pulled close. Evans tightened his grip on the food flask he held.
“Good morning.” he greeted, his voice croaky. The sixteen year old boy looked very handsome, though he had just woken up from sleep. Nneoma was sure Steve would be of help that morning.
“Good morning dear,” Nneoma began. “I’m sorry for disturbing your sleep, but I want to ask for your assistance.” The worried look Steve put up did not tamper his handsome face, neither did it discourage Nneoma from making her request. “Evans has been sick all weekend, though he is better now. But he’s still not strong enough to go to school this morning.
Please, I will like him to stay with you. I don’t want Evans to go with me to my shop, the market is usually rowdy on Monday.” She quickly added, “But I’ll come back early, in the afternoon.”
“No problem. He will be fine with me.”
Though Nneoma had not expected a contrary response, still she heaved to show her relief. “Thank you.”
Evans roused, opened his eyes, then he looked around. He was quick to recognise the unfamiliarity of the room. Evans sat up quickly, fear written on his face. Then he remembered: his mother had left him with a neighbour; Steve had led the way to a room, asking him a few questions as they walked; Steve had taken the food flask from him when they got there, placing it on a table; Evans had found a pack of cards which he played with, after Steve had crawled back to bed, covering himself with a thick blanket. Evans also remembered that he had felt drowsy after a while; he had snuggled beside Steve, feeling the warmth the thick blanket provided.
The room was close to the living room, and Evans was sure he could hear low sounds from a television set. He ushered himself off the bed. He saw the food flask on the table, but he continued his walk. Steve’s flat was similar to his, so it was quite easy locating the living room, and locating Steve too. Evans had never seen a matured naked body before. But, as he stepped into the living room, he was welcomed by three naked bodies—two, male and female, from the television set; and one in front of him, Steve.
Steve promptly switched the television off, immediately he recognized Evans’ presence. He did not do much to cover his own nakedness.
“Hey, you are awake.”
Evans nodded, a bit confused by all the images he had seen.
“Are you scared?” Steve asked.
Evans shook his head, indicating he was not. He turned slowly, heading back to the room, still dazed.
“Hey, Evans,” Steve called. “it’s quite a challenge getting this thing down fully.” Steve said, pointing at his near flaccid penis. “Can you help me out?”
Evans did not know what to do, or say. His look revealed his ignorance. Steve recognised it; he seized the opportunity too. “Come. Let me show you.” As Evans walked towards him, Steve’s penis made a slow progression unto an erect state.
The duo were robbed off words: Steve allowed only occasional moans; while Evans had a mouthful, inhaling the musky smell of pubic hair.
“Swallow it.” Steve instructed.
Evans complied. He was not sure what he had swallowed, but he was sure he had noticed a white fluid on the tip of Steve’s penis when Steve took steps away from him. Steve had kissed him briefly on his cheek to show his appreciation—Evans’ first kiss.