As I stood in line, waiting for my turn, I heard someone yell:
Without turning around, I had a very good idea who the name yeller was.
She was the only girl in my class who lived in the same neighborhood, about three streets from mine.
Now, Tina was not my friend by any means. In fact, I made a conscious effort to avoid her. My reluctance to talk to her and my general body language should have made it clear to anyone with eyes that befriending Tina was not on my to-do list.
Either Tina had eyes and used them for decoration, or else she deliberately turned a blind eye to all my efforts to discourage her from being friendly towards me because she refused to let me be. She constantly thrust herself into my social circle, and it just baffled me.
Without leaving the queue, to avoid losing my place, I poked my head out of the line and towards the direction of the voice. The person I saw standing about five people behind me confirmed to my eyes what my ears had heard: tall, plain faced with bright, twinkling eyes.
It was indeed Tina, waving enthusiastically at me, as if we were long lost friends.
What happened next was not a figment of my imagination. In fact, it is best narrated in stages.
Stage One was initiated when I made eye contact with Tina. Instead of speaking audibly, Tina held her tongue and decided that it would be best to proceed with non-verbal cues. So, she began to gesticulate wildly, letting her hands do all the talking for her.
The puzzled look on my face was an outward display of the confusing questions that Tina’s actions had triggered in my head. If there was anyone who did not know the meaning of the words, “shy,” “quiet,” or “timid,” it was Tina. So why on earth was she motioning to me like this? Stage Two provided the answer to this very question.
Stage Two commenced with Tina pointing at me, and then later, she switched it up and began pointing at herself and mouthing words that apparently only she understood. After doing this back-and-forth pointing about four times, a miracle happened: the power of speech returned to Tina and she shouted from where she stood.
“You said? I should come abi? Okay, I’m coming!”
As I looked in utter confusion, wondering if perhaps my shadow had just carried on a conversation with Tina without my knowledge, it suddenly dawned on me that Stage Three was already under way.
Stage Three saw Tina walking over briskly to where I stood, clutching a basket with a plastic bowl with a metal handle and lid similar to the one I was holding. I concluded that she had come to grind something. Whether it was pepper or beans, was still a mystery. I did not have to wonder long and in fact, did not have to say anything at all. Tina did the talking for both of us with enviable ease.
“Ah! Enitan! Babe, you just jabborred me that time. It’s not fair o!” she started, rolling her eyes.
I recalled the incident she was complaining about because it had taken place the day before. We were both standing at the bus-top, and she had been talking my ear off about a party she had attended. We were supposed to take the same bus, but I could not endure the thought of sitting through a bus ride with Tina for company, talking about things that did not interest me.
So, the moment a Danfo bus pulled close and I heard the conductor shout the name of our destination, coupled with “One Chance!” I leapt onto the bus with all the strength I could gather and gratefully sank into the last available seat, even though it was so close to the conductor’s armpit, I could count the tangled hairs if he would let me.
Tina was left at the bus-stop, standing there, flabbergasted.
I could tell she had neither forgotten the incident nor forgiven me, but I didn’t care. If I had not left when I did, I would never have made it back home in time to meet Tokunbo’s father and receive his letter.
Even though that meeting had left me with the burden of delivering a letter, there was also a positive effect: I had met Tokunbo’s father who had somehow humanized Tokunbo in my eyes.
Tina did not even wait for me to say anything, but immediately continued at neck breaking speed.
“But I forgive you sha!”
Ah! Forgiveness! Sweet forgiveness from Tina! I was indeed very grateful. So grateful in fact that the expression of aloofness that I wore on my face pre-forgiveness still remained post-forgiveness.
But as I have already mentioned, Tina had a knack for ignoring my facial expressions and proceeded guided by her own internal compass.
Opening her mouth and pouring out unsolicited information into my ears, Tina explained.
“See ehn, my mother just woke up this morning and said, ‘It’s akara and pap we’re going to eat.’ I don’t even know what her problem is. Who even likes akara sef? With pap again? Anyway sha, I told her, ‘Mummy, you know I don’t like akara. Moi-moi is better and we can eat it for our night food.’ Thank God she saw eye-to-eye with me. That’s how we ate yam and egg this morning and she said we will eat moi-moi and garri this night. And you know, Helen that my stupid sister, just used corner-corner to say she’s going to her friend’s house. Next thing, my mother now said, ‘Ehen, Tina. It’s you that will go and grind this beans for me.’ Can you imagine? And I’m the older one,” she finally concluded with a hiss.
I was about to tell Tina that being older meant she had to be the responsible one, but I did not want to give her any opportunity to unduly prolong the conversation.
So, I just shook my head in sympathy and muttered a patronizing “Eia!”
As it turned out, that show of solidarity for Tina’s plight was enough to encourage her to keep talking.
“Abi o. See, I knew you would understand. So, what are you doing here? Are you people also eating moi-moi or akara today?”
I shook my head and gave her a single answer:
“Oh, Pepper abi?” said Tina, letting her eyes fall carelessly on the white plastic bowl, originally containing ice-cream bucket, which I clutched tightly in my hand. I am not sure whether it was the color of the bowl or the piece of paper with someone’s handwriting which drifted past us driven forward by a slight breeze. Whatever it was, it must have triggered Tina’s next statement, which I did not see coming at all.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I almost dropped the bowl in my hand. Where did that come from? And why was this silly girl asking me this question?
Apart from the fact that I particularly did not like discussing personal or sensitive topics in public, I also resented the fact that it was Tina, who was a well-known amebo who I was supposed to be having this discussion with. How was this her business exactly?
It was at this point that my eyes opened and I suddenly noticed what Tina had done. The entire time she was talking, right after she invited herself over to my side of the queue, she had slowly inched her way in, bit by bit, so that now, she was not just part of the queue, but she was ahead of me. Tina had just promoted herself from maybe No. 10 to No. 2.
I wanted to slap her.
So did the people behind me who asked her repeatedly what she thought she was doing when she planted herself in front of me. Tina did not answer them but continued talking to me. She was lucky they were not more boisterous, or like one of them threatened, they would have bundled her out of there and thrown her outside Mama Alero’s compound.
But by then, it did not even matter. The person ahead of us got attended to quickly and then it was Tina’s turn. Because the person ahead of us also came to grind beans, the worker operating the grinding machine did not have to rinse it thoroughly before up-turning Tina’s bowl of white, peeled beans, dried pepper, onions, tatashe and even crayfish into the grinder.
Between pushing this combination into the grinder with a long wooden stick, and Tina constantly yelling over the noise of machine to the attendant to add very little water because it was for moi-moi not akara, the beans were eventually transformed into a creamy paste, and Tina stepped aside.
As the attendant vigorously dismantled the machine and flushed it with water to avoid mixing beans with my own pepper, Tina stood nearby, waiting for me.
I was surprised.
I had expected her to leave as soon as she was done, but for whatever reason – guilt at having chanced me, perhaps – she waited patiently until my own pepper too had been ground to a red, smooth seedless paste.
Then, we left Mama Alero’s place.
As we walked down the street, Tina told me in no uncertain terms:
“If I wanted a boyfriend, I would tell the boy myself I like him. It doesn’t even matter how I do it: call or write. I wouldn’t wait for him to ask me out.”
I just looked at her, wondering if Tina would grow up to be the sort of woman who proposed to a man, ring in hand and everything. Or maybe she was a traditionalist at heart and this was just a phase. I did not know for sure.
By the time we reached the junction, we parted ways and I kept thinking about what Tina had said.
It was just as I turned into my street that the idea struck me: how I would deliver that letter to Tokunbo on Sunday.
A smile spread across my face.
“Thank you Tina,” I whispered as I completed the last leg of my journey home.
“Tokunbo will have a secret admirer.”