An African Sunset

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 11 (v.1) - Chapter 11

Submitted: February 08, 2018

Reads: 21

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Submitted: February 08, 2018

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The International Conference Centre, Abuja was the centre of great activity that Wednesday. The premises of the centre and most of the pedestrian crossing by the Express-road were filled with excited people. Whole communities of villages and small towns besieged the Centre. Picnics were set up beside numerous buses with the unpronounceable names of the villages where they hail from written on them. Restaurants and bars raised canopies, arranged plastic tables and chairs by the roadside. People waited with shouts, screaming and fanfare to congratulate one of their own who was about to be called to the Nigerian Bar. Rich families huddled around SUVs wearing black spectacles against the sunlight and straining their faces as if the sun was an unexpected nuisance. Traders spread their wares on the pedestrian crossing displaying wigs and gowns at outrageous prices and stickers for cars with ‘My son is a Lawyer’ inscribed on them. The Police, Civil Defence Corps and Private Security personnel dug deep within themselves to bring out an uncommon professionalism when they deal with the crowd. Mustapha heard for the first time a police officer say: ‘Please, don’t step on the grasses Ma’am.’ He would have been less surprised at a rude order like ‘Comot from there!’

It is remarkable how a man often remembers minute details surrounding important events in his life as much as he remembers the event itself. Mustapha could remember every second of that day from going through the happenings over and over again in his thoughts and also because he had tried in vain to forget them but something in him had reacted in the reverse. The Call-to-Bar was the pinnacle of his academic career but festivals and graduations did not excite him. He could feel the joy of celebrants around him and he liked it but he could not feel his own. He was excited at the thought of Furairah. Things have changed between them since the evening Salman disgusted her. She returned to him several weeks after and she was resolved, he could see, to keep him and the fact that he was desirable to other women only strengthened her resolve to keep him for herself. The Call-to-Bar was a cornerstone that will determine the future of their relationship. It would tell whether they are ready to face the world with their relationship. It would tell whether any of them was untrue to the other. It was a launch pad into adulthood and its inconvenience. Lovers will be torn apart and it would take considerable effort to come together again. Resolutions would be made and promises would be tested. He was excited. He was ready to grow up.

Kamal was called on the previous day and he called Mustapha at every step of the way to tell him what just happened and what he thought about what just happened. He met Femi’s mother outside the premises. She was a big woman despite her average height. He greeted her and she answered with greater enthusiasm, and in the Yoruba fashion of physical courtesy in greeting, she curtseyed, reducing her height by bending her knees in a ‘girls’ bow’ and called him sir. She turned to Femi immediately and talked him down for a long time while he kept his head down. Mustapha could not tell what she was saying. He had tried to learn the Yoruba Language from his roommate in the University Hostel and after two semesters and several lessons, he only learnt two words: kini kan!-what is it! He suspected she was chiding her son for his choice of association. He stood there and waited and after several minutes and she haven’t finished, he nodded at Femi and walked away.

He sat under one of the canopies and ordered a plate of white rice and fish. He wasn’t hungry but he felt that it will be rude to sit under her canopy for an hour without doing business with the young woman. He wasn’t prepared to talk her into a friendship either. A frail girl, one of the candidates, came and sat opposite him soon afterwards as if waiting for someone to sit first on the inviting plastic chairs without consequences. He concentrated on his food. She greeted him and adjusted her white camisole up. He had seen some of the Muslim girls wear a camisole under their suit and seemed to realise when they come out that it was a bad idea.

His sketchy beard may have created the effect.  The beard has become a symbol of radical Sunni youth with religious zeal and consequently some of them are judgmental against the sinning folk. She was waiting for the afternoon Call-to-Bar batch too and he decided to start a conversation to make her feel at ease. They had to wait for an hour facing each other and he knew he may soon begin to feel the urge to leave his rightly earned spot on the plastic chairs and under the canopy if the silence between them conjured more awkwardness than the awkwardness of him leaving abruptly to join the inexhaustible standing celebrants. She talked to him before he could think of what to say.

“When I was leaving my son asked me, where is my hijab?”

“How old is he?” He asked.

“Three years,” she said.

“He must be really smart to know that at his age.”

“Yes, I left him with my relatives…and he is just not used to seeing me without the hijab. So he was asking, ‘Mummy where’s your hijab’?”

She was wearing a little head covering sewn into a cap-looking veil approved by the Law School. Her suit does not suggest she is used to immodest dressing and he understood her discomfort with the camisole that appeared to be naturally sliding down her slender frame. He understood also, why she would want to announce her marital status by telling him about her child. He wished she will stop getting uneasy about herself and be quiet but seeing no judgment or disappointment in him, she continued eagerly about how schools played a role in bringing out the genius in children. Her child was in Nursery school already, she told him. She lamented the high cost of living in the FCT and he told her that Kano is more affordable. Soon Salman came to the canopy with a girl in his arms. He was understandably noisier on that day and Mustapha feared that he may ruin his reputation to the other extreme before the eyes of the woman who thought he was a ‘holy man’.

“Bro” Salman screamed in his ears to startle him,“ I’d like you to meet my girl, Hadiza,” he said and he presented the girl in his arms to Mustapha. Before Mustapha could say ‘please to meet you’ Salman turned to her:

“Baby, let me have a word with my bro.”

She smiled, waved and walked off to her friends.

“I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, ‘hey, what the fuck? The Presido is in love’. Well, Musty, you are right,” Salman said. He was beaming and breathing into his face. At the last statement he stood straight and suavely adjusted his suit.

“Actually, that wasn’t what I was thinking at all but now that you say so, which one is Hadiza in your classification of women, a queen or a doormat?”

Salman bent down again and scratched his head grinning surprisingly thoughtfully.

“I don’t know bro; all I know is that she is a nice girl with a big arse.”

The boys smiled and the girl pulled at her camisole and pretended she didn’t hear any of it. Salman left the two to find Hadiza and another student came and sat with them. He joined the conversation after ordering an arrogant meal of a plate of rice and a ‘full chicken’. He shook Mustapha’s hands and smiled at her. Mustapha pulled away from the conversation gradually and let them talk until the lady pulled him back in. She asked him of his number on the Call-to-Bar magazine and when he answered, she replied with admiration that he will be called before her and would not have to stand on his feet for long.

Finally, afternoon approached and the afternoon batch entered the premises where they waited again for the morning batch to come out from their last dinner. He collected his invitation cards and gave his ID card to an angry cat-faced woman. She perforated it with an angry cat-like attitude. The main hall was awash in red, with red seats and soft red carpet. The candidates’ parents, relatives and village well-wishers sat on the gallery above while the new Lawyers sat on the arena. A woman took the Microphone and warned the audience.

“This is the Call-to-Bar ceremony. Nothing is expected from you but sobriety and quiet. There should be no shouts of Allahu-Akbar or Hallelujah, please.”

After a while, the Chief Justice of Nigeria came in with his troupe of Supreme Court Justices, the President and Judges of the Court of Appeal and some Senior Advocates of Nigeria. The members marched in in red and black gowns while a short man holding the mace of Justice led the way. Mr Emeka once joked in class about how some parents withdrew their children from the Law School or refuse to let them be called after graduation because they suspect the elaborate red and black gowns, the mace and the stiff and sober ceremony are all part of an audacious initiation into a secret cult, a blood-drinking cult of devil worshippers. The bar is actually a cult of sorts, he explained, where one does not get admitted by right of academic excellence only but also by ‘good character’ and after all, the English Bar has the word ‘Temple’ included in its three parts. Mustapha wondered whether the man carrying the mace was chosen for his height. He could be about the same height as the mace, probably a few inches to no inches above five feet. Soon it was time for the call. The Applicants were introduced by the Director-General of the Nigerian Law School and the Chief Justice rose and declared:

 “By the powers conferred on the Body of Benchers by section 3 (1) of the Legal Practitioners Act and by the powers conferred on me as Chairman of the Body of Benchers by Regulation 16 of the Body of Benchers Regulations 1983, I hereby admit each and every one of 927 Applicants herein present severally to the Bar as Barristers and Solicitors. You may now put on your wigs.”

Everyone cheered and there was applause from the gallery as the Applicants put on their wigs. Despite the warning earlier given, a few shouts of ‘to God be the glory’ in raucous accents tore through the air.

“You may now go forth in your new wigs from this day forward to serve Nigeria and serve humanity in Justice, without fear or favour, affection or ill will,” The old man said.

He shook the hands of the first class and the second class upper graduates before the next Supreme Court Justice took over from him, shook the next class of graduates until everyone had walked the stage and collected his Law School and Call-to-Bar certificates. The old man smiled and made an inaudible remark about Mustapha’s wig which rested at a capricious angle on his head before he shook his hand. It was the largest size he could find but it still didn’t fit him. Since he was young, his head had always been the object of wonder. It looked quite normal but few caps could fit him. Whilst buying a cap for him for the Eid celebration, his uncle said that he wore the cap at the traders to measure the size and wondering whether it will fit Mustapha, he had spun it around his head and only bought it when he was satisfied that the cap spins on his head without any hindrance. Since his uncle’s head was quite small, he believed the story is true.

Through the ceremonies, Mustapha thought of Furairah. She was called to the Bar in the morning and she called him to say that she will wait for him to be called. She had joked that her family will occupy a third of the hall. It turned out that only two guests were allowed per student. He collected his two invitation cards and gave them to her. She took them and she told him she is sorry that his parents were not there to celebrate with him. He smiled and told her he didn’t want them to come. She smiled her sadness away and told him that now that she has four invitation cards her father will be able to fulfil the divine injunction of equality between his wives while he himself stays outside with her siblings and wait. She was excited about the Call-to-Bar. Becoming a Lawyer had always been her dream and on that day she will present him to her family. She will present him to her father and then to each of her four mothers. That was the plan. It was a school graduation that determines the fate of school romances. It was a critical juncture that decides whether lovers part ways or take the next stages of their life together. She had kept all forty-three individual strong family waiting until late into the evening for him. He was elated and apprehensive at the thought.

As he stood outside the hall, he saw a girl walk towards him. She was almost indistinguishable from the crowd of new Lawyers who were all wearing a black gown that resembled an ugly black cape because she wore a black ‘after-dress’ and a dark lace gown underneath. She was different only because of  her lack of gaiety. Her posture spoke business and her direction purpose. As she approached him, he saw that her head was covered in a white designer veil with ‘Gucci’ boldly etched on it. Her smile was easy. Mustapha watched her approach and he vaguely assumed she was Furairah coming to him. He stood akimbo with the hand holding his wig and without ceremony she put her arm into his and smiled again. She was dark with a precisely cut face.

He wanted to ask but decided it was better to let her explain who she was. He put his questions into his eyes and looked at her.

“I’m Fadima, your girlfriend,” she said.

“It’s strange I don’t remember you,” he replied.

“Samir sent me, it's time.” She said and nodded.

She said that with resolution. He didn’t know what to say so he adjusted his gown, wrapping it around him. He gently pulled her towards the dinner hall where the new Lawyers are going for the last compulsory dinner. His phone rang suddenly. It was Furairah. His heart missed a beat and he almost let out a gasp.

‘Wait up, I’m behind you,’ she said on the phone.

They turned around and Furairah walked up to them. In the descending darkness, Mustapha saw her approached and he watched her slowly disappearing smile. By the time she reached them, she appeared to be slightly frozen. In her eyes, Mustapha saw a thousand flickers of emotion. There was astonishment, a hint of controlled despair and some momentary confusion. The confusion could have been of the questions to ask him and a fear of the possible answers. She made an effort to assure herself and said.

“Congratulations, I knew you will be in the Second Class upper category.”

“Thank you and congratulations you too,” he replied.

 His voice was husky and it choked him. A pause ensued and then Fadima tapped him severally on the back urging him to go ahead. He let the silence linger. Fadima kept smiling and leaning into him while Furairah watched stupefied. She extended her hand for a handshake and Furairah took it slowly in hers. Mustapha felt his heart pound faster and then a shrill feeling of excitement tore out within him. He had thought that it will be an easy thing when he first agreed to it. When he knew her, he had hoped that by some miracle it will not come to this, but he never contemplated the overwhelming feeling he now felt. Furairah turned around and staggered away, her gown flying in the air, with an obvious effort not to turn her head back.

He turned to look at Fadima and he saw a smiling approval. She understood the need to heighten the tension too and that the job had almost been done. She let go of his arm and with the familiarity of family she took his certificate and gift of books from his hands, and walked away towards the car park.

“I will be waiting by the gate with your certificate and something that I was asked to give you,” she said and she cat-walked away.

Mustapha walked towards the dinner hall with what felt like his pounding heart lodged in his throat. The evening sky was giving way fast to the early night and he felt something of himself detach itself from him. He found a table and sat by the door where he hoped will be blessed by the incoming breeze but it wasn’t necessary. The air conditioning and fans worked perfectly in the dinner hall and the weather was cold. The excitement soared with his heartbeats. He had accomplished what he set out to. He has been aided by a lot of coincidences and luck. He tried to focus on his victories, afraid that he may soon get overwhelmed by the feeling deep within him that made his heart heavy and made him barely aware of the brown-labelled bottles of wine on the table that needed to be ignored, the sealed plate of rice and fried chicken that needed to be devoured and the little containers of God-knows-what that needed to be explored. The food at the Law Dinners was English and the students had a hard time trying to scoop mouthfuls of rice with forks using the left hand, and eat chicken with a blunt knife and a fork.

The Benchers filed in into the dinner hall this time without much ceremony. They said a prayer and proclaim the dinner to begin. Mustapha watched as the Honourable justices attacked the fried chicken before them and took sips of red wine. He tried to make out the Muslims among them but all seem to be busy with the rice, the fried chicken and the wine.

He remembered the event of the second dinner at the Kano Campus. Na’imah sat with him on one of the long tables and Furairah and Kamal sat opposite to them. At a point there was to be a toast proposed by the Chairman of the Benchers. They have been taught, before the dinner, about how to have a dinner. The dinner was unlike any dinner. It was an English dinner with English dinner decorum. Everyone must drink a mysterious ‘soup’ with a ‘regular spoon’ as an appetizer, eat little pieces of a very small bun-like bread which must not be swallowed at once under any circumstances, eat rice with a fork (and using the left hand) and assault the chicken with a fork and a very blunt knife. There was non-alcoholic wine that must be left for the toast (and some alcoholic ones) and then there was juice and little jars of fruit that must be eaten with a teaspoon. The process must be carried out noiselessly and seamlessly. There must be no accidental dropping of spoons or leaving the dinner hall (not even to urinate) until it’s over. Na’imah decided to lead a protest, a day after they were schooled on the details of the Dinner. Mustapha asked her to state the demands she will make and she explained: Fried rice is alright, the silly and unnecessary ‘soup’ is not. The concept of an appetizer ridicules African culinary values, she said. Using a fork instead of a spoon to scoop the rice is stupid. Using the left hand to eat is not acceptable too because the left hand is, to a Muslim, meant for toilet hygiene. The introduction of wine on the tables, she said, is an assault to the religious values of more than half of the students. Mustapha convinced her not to carry-out the protest. On the day of the dinner, half way through the excruciating ceremony, the Presiding Bencher proposed a toast and Mustapha looked at Na’imah. He was not disappointed. Her radical glow was in her eyes and as soon as they sat, he urged her with an expression she understood to say it out.

“What is a toast?” She asked.

“You know what a toast is I’m sure,” he replied.

“What is a toast?” She repeated.

“It’s an English tradition. The English drink to people and places, to health and fortune, to hopes and aspirations,” he said.

“Assuming we are English (which we are not), proposing a toast is just a subtle way to mask a societies’ drinking problem and introduce respectability to drinking,” she said.

“She has a problem with this profession,” Furairah chirped in with a teasing smile at Na’imah.

Na’imah does not smile or return smiles when the radical glow is in her eyes.

When the dinner was over and the ceremony completed, he rushed out with everyone to the door and scrambled out through the double doors. The energy for celebration in everyone was overpowering. Outside the hall, Furairah stood outside like a rock, parting the flood of excited people pouring out from the hall, smoothened with wine and a good dinner, the last of the Law Dinners. She searched for him with her eyes and when she saw him she dashed forward and gripped his gown. She pulled him out of the crowd with a surprisingly powerful pull that doesn’t agree with her size. She dragged him to a less dense spot outside the hall.

“Furairah,” he said.

 “Yes, Mustapha,” she answered with a voice full of love and hope.

He again let the silence linger and she hijacked it.

“Who was that girl?”

“That was my fiancée, Fadima,” he answered.

 His voice became husky again and some organ, now from his bowels rose up to his throat and choked him. This time it felt like the chicken he ate come alive.

“Did you say your fiancée?” She asked with a voice dazed with surprise and anger.

“Yes”

Furairah raised her head squarely to his face and in the moonlight of the full moon, her face shone with cinder and ash and the emotion flared up like larva out of a volcano. He saw anger and hate. He saw a grievous disappointment and utter disbelief. He saw sadness and grief and for a long time to come, he will always remember that night, that day and the look on her face when he broke her heart. He will remember the slightly parted lips, the wide unblinking eyes and the despair and anguish in them illuminated by the moonlight. Her eyes accused his of betrayal and expressed some hope for its denial but none came. Her lips clipped together in a tight embrace as if resolving not to part again. Her chest shuddered with fury, then with dejection. Before he opened his mouth to betray his task, he walked away and she stood there transfixed, looking at him and urging with her eyes to bring him back. From the edge of his eyes, he saw her swoon into the arms of one of the new Lawyers. The girls quickly surrounded her and scream and calls for help were made. He walked on towards the gate and he felt his limbs turned into something formless like cotton wool. Still they carried him. His phone rang and Samir’s picture showed on the screen.

“Musty”

“It’s done.”

“I know.”

“So what now, Samir? Is all these worth it? All these trouble just to get back at an ex-girlfriend?”

“Have you ever had your heart broken, Musty?”

“Yes”

“Then you will know that nothing is worth anything when everything is done, but when your heart refuses to let go, you will do anything to distract it and keep it going until all that matters is that little part that refuse to go away. Call it what you want, a cure, revenge, whatever you will, brother,” he said.

Mustapha felt the pain in Samir’s voice. He told him the story of how Furairah broke his heart at the American University of Nigeria. She dumped him without warning at their graduation.

“You know, Musty, I thought you will betray me and walk away with her,” Samir said.

“You sound like you were hoping for that to happen,” he replied.

“Maybe, perhaps just a little.  You have a taste for fine women and Furairah is a fine woman. You having her would have meant sadly that she is not lost to me completely…,” Samir said.

“You didn’t make this clear at first. I certainly would have weighed my options better,” he interrupted.

Samir chuckled.

“Fadima has something for you at the gate. I would have said thank you, but I know you enjoyed it. Goodbye, Musty.”

Mustapha ended the call and resisted the urge to look back. He walked on towards the gate and he found Fadima sitting on the driver seat of her Honda Prado. Her face was radiant in the moonlight and she smiled.

“Congratulations,” she said.

“Thank you,” he answered.

They stood quietly for a while. Fadima looked searchingly into his eyes and he now wondered what her ‘congratulations’ was for. He wished she will just hand him the certificates so he can go back to the hotel.

“I know that this is a stupid thing to ask, but do you think we did the right thing there?”  He asked.

“Firstly, as a woman, it is good to know that even ruthless heartbreakers-for-hire like you have a guilty conscience. Secondly, you didn’t do anything right and I hate having to be on your side,” she said.

She handed him an envelope and a folder that held his certificates and the gifts of Law Journals.

“Look, for what it’s worth, we never said the 'I love you' words to one another throughout this,” he said.

“You may not have but there must be something either of you said somewhere somehow that leaves you feeling this way today. In relationships and what leads to it, and especially in this part of the world, men tend to speak in exaggerations and women speak in understatements. Our ‘I don’t know’ said in a certain way with a certain tilt of the shoulder may well turn out more sincere and genuine than your ‘I-L-O-V-E-U’. And more so, you know the saying is true, that the desire of a man is in the woman but the desire of the woman is in the desire of the man,” she said.

“Did Samir pay you too to help with this?” He asked.

“No, she said and after a pause, added, “I’m his girlfriend.”

“You are his girlfriend and you agreed to do this? You helped him get back at an ex-girlfriend?” He asked.

“You did agree to it too. Stop acting like it’s a strange thing to do. That is what love is. Sometimes it’s betraying yourself and everything you believe in for what you love and in this case, to make your partner whole,” she said and added, “Samir told me so much about you and what you meant to him. Thank you.”

She stepped back into the car and blew him a mock kiss.

“Bye, hope to see you sometime in Yola,” she said.

For the first time after leaving the dinner hall, Mustapha turned to look back. Fadima sped away into the night. He walked down the Trunk road where the village Lawyers’ families had partied and where the littered plates of food, cutlery and bottles of beer lay scattered on the ground, a testament to the day’s celebration. He hurried towards the junction with his hands in his suit pockets. The night wind blew heavy wafts of cold air to his face and arms and in the light drenched metropolis of strange people and strange noises and strange feelings, he felt cold and lonely. His heart pounded steadily and raced into delirium. In the span of an evening, he had become a Lawyer; he had listened wholeheartedly to a woman he had just met and ruthlessly broken a heart that he loved. He hoped to find a taxi that will take him to the hotel as quickly as possible. He wanted to walk away even as something in him wants him to stay. He had betrayed himself when he could have betrayed his friend. He could have walked away with Furairah and dwell with her in her eternal happiness, to revel in her infectious smile, to drown in her delightful eyes and admire her charming gait. He could have betrayed his promise to make his heart whole, but he didn’t. He realised that that is what he meant when he asked Fadima if he did the right thing. He had asked her that out of a vain desire, that if he will live to condemn himself for eternity, let there be someone who doesn’t. He was paid to break a heart and he knew he did certainly broke one, his.

 

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His NYSC year came and went fast. He went to the camp in Bauchi, wrote a play, directed and played a role in it. It was ruined by his star actor who appeared drunk on the night his platoon was to act its drama. He experimented with extroversion and NYSC community development politics and made many friends and then thoroughly exhausted, he soon relapsed back into introversion. In the year after the service, his father got him an appointment from a friend to manage his company as a member of a transitory committee to oversee its conversion into a Public Company. He remembered that year he spent at the company and the bouts of unhappiness he spread upon himself like a monk undergoing penance. He regressed deeper into himself and disciplined his charms with a perpetual frown that has since become a permanent feature of his face. A frown that was carved to convey the sadness in his heart rather than rebuke or disapproval against anyone. He ignored the women he found attractive and watched with disinterest how the detachment made him more attractive to them. He constantly thought about Furairah. He became a workaholic, working tirelessly with the staff that they mistook it for a humble and down-to earth quality. That worked to counter the possibility of been assumed arrogant. Only Jane seemed to think otherwise. He noticed in Jane’s eyes a countenance of average intelligence. She cannot disguise her attraction to him. She was attractive and wore tight little skirts that stifle her walk. She had confronted him several times with fiery arguments when he refused to shake her hand, apparently assuming he was a religious conservative and in the same eyes, he saw a hopeful contemplation that he was not. The rich beard he maintained helped to complicate the assumptions.

Mr Adam who managed the Accounts department made a complaint about her dressing and Mustapha called her.

“Jane, there’s been a complaint about your dressing,” he said.

“What is wrong with my dressing?” She asked.

“Well, I’m not sure but it seems you are making it less easy for the male staff to focus,” he said.

“I dress to please myself and I don’t care what any pervert thinks,” she said angrily.

“We have a dress code, Jane. This is a formal setting and we pretty much don’t do as we like. Please, try to do something about it,” he said.

“Why would a woman’s dress define who she is? Why is it so difficult for men to respect women?

Jane raised her voice to show a not quite sincere anger. He remembered Na’imah. He interrupted Jane with an intense stare he has not used for a long time.

“I do respect you, more than you think,” he said.

 He untied the scarf from his neck and delicately knotted it on hers.

“Will you keep this for me?” He asked.

 She smiled. She put her hand and stroked the soft scarf which now partly covered her chest. Mustapha walked into his office and the staff looked on.

Since that incident, Jane stopped the arguments and became more agreeable like he intended. She took the friendship further by bringing him lunch she had cooked and came to his office to sit with him during the lunch break. She endured the silence with him until the lunch break was over. Mustapha quietly yearned for the end of the year when his contract expires so he can walk away from the company and the awkwardness he felt with her around which was not apparent to her. Things changed the day Sani got married.

Congratulations were flying all around. Sani, unlike most other days was in high spirits. As Mustapha looked at him, he wondered how genuine Sani’s happiness was. He liked Sani. Unlike many of the employees, Sani was a hard worker and a friendly colleague which was a rare combination in the company. The hard workers are usually withdrawn, a category he knew he belonged to. He rebuked himself silently for being self-centred, and urged himself silently to congratulate Sani like normal people would. He would carefully steer away from the accompanying teases. That will be too indulging even if he was capable of doing it. Besides, if he does that he will place himself in an unhealthy position where he had to start being friends with Sani or plunge both of them into an uncomfortable awkwardness henceforth. If there was something he cannot handle, it was awkwardness with anyone. To do away with that, he was prepared to be the first to talk.

“Congratulations, Sani,” he said.

 Sani turned swiftly, answered with a ‘thank you’ and turned away with the smile on his face that had been on it since morning, inviting everyone to tease him with ‘ango ka sha kanshi’. He expected the reaction from the more articulate staff: a brief and slightly formal friendliness, in response to his own measured friendliness. He took his pen and was ready to ‘go back into himself’ and so he wasn’t expecting the question. “When are you getting married, boss?” It came from Mrs Khadeejah.

He looked at her with a polite look, his hands clasped together and the pen stuck in them. He should have seen that coming. Sani was one of the youngest staff members in the company and one of few male employees nearest to his age. It was after all an African thing to expect one to be married or be getting ready to marry when his age mates are getting married or getting ready to be married. But how could she? Has he been too polite to make her so audacious? Or perhaps she was trying to win some points with her colleagues. Whatever it was, they cautiously turned their attention to him. He felt the eyes boring into him like a dozen nails. Suddenly all the attention was now on Mustapha.

“Well, Mrs Khadeejah,” he said, “I haven’t really considered an answer to that question yet.”

“Are you not in love with anyone?” She persisted.

He raised his eyes slowly up until they stared back at her. He saw the girl from the restaurant drop, quite loudly, the take-away package that contained his lunch. She stood with her hands akimbo, her elbow almost touching the hair on his head, half wondering what the conversation was about that left the workers staring at their boss and half trying to steal some of the attention from him. He felt grateful to her for the distraction and he slipped his hands into his pocket for his wallet.

“There is no such thing as love,” he said flatly.

“What! How can you say that? Love is the most beautiful thing in this world. What is wrong with you?” Mrs Khadeejah said with disbelief as if correcting a mischievous child.

Holding a one-thousand Naira note with both hands as if inviting her to admire the grey coloured note, he said: “Wrong. This is the most beautiful thing in the world.”

He handed the note to the girl and she was disappointed. She did not want to be dismissed so quickly before she knew what they were talking about. All the same, she didn’t look like she was going anywhere anytime soon. He told her to keep the change.

The look on Mrs Khadeejah’s face was that of horror, the kind of look to expect from someone who grew up on a few fundamental truths and never had reason to doubt them. The fact that someone could say something so horrible left her stunned. Her expression was mixed with pity and rebuke. She was surprised. The other staff had the same look on their faces. Their faces all seemed to be asking him for clarifications.

“Money cannot buy you happiness,” Mrs Khadeejah said panting with the effort.

“It can. Money can buy you everything. It can buy you happiness, it can purchase you grief. It can buy you a place in paradise or a pit in hell. It can purchase you affection and for a lesser price, hate. You just need the right amount,” he said.

He has had enough conversation for one afternoon or more probably for a whole week. Already, he felt the painful lump that block his throat when he talked suddenly and too much. He stood up, grabbed his food and walked back to his office. He felt the stares from the staff piercing his back as he walked. The girl from the restaurant looked more confused.

Jane began to lose her obsession gradually. At first, she started the old reliable technic of trying to get him jealous and when he didn’t budge, she told him that she had always had a boyfriend and she bloomed in her renewed commitment. Months later, he walked by the office hall that was shared by twenty-six employees and he saw Jane in the middle of a consoling group of friends. She sobbed and dabbed tissue paper on her eyes. The effort made not to mess up her make-up seemed to be not working. Mascara was smeared around her eyes and the tears flowed down her cheeks.

“He doesn’t deserve you, he is nothing but a dog,” said Mrs Farida.

“Why are men incapable of genuine love and sincerity? Mrs Khadeejah lamented.

“Give it time, Darling. It will go away,” Miss Abimbola consoled.

“It doesn’t go away,” Mustapha said as he walked pass.

The ladies raised their heads away from their friend to stare at him with varying degrees of shock. Mrs Khadeejah’s eyes held a silent scolding. He had heard the barrage of consolations the ladies were offering and the nauseating selection of insincere niceties so he impulsively gave his own in his flat out way. It was what he thought could end it. For a brief moment he thought he did Jane a favour by telling her the cruel truth but she’d rather be comforted with hugs and whispers of ‘it’s okay darling’. There was something accusatory in her eyes too that seemed to suggest that what happened was partly his fault. He understood that.

As the year came to a close, he began to recognize a look the staff gave him bothering on the mystery of his being and pity for whatever it was that made him what he was: a sad and mysterious 24 year old Acting MD with a doleful face. He heard rumour breeding in hushed whispers behind him and the ladies’ eyes glared with inquisitive curiosity. Whilst Jane was occupied with dealing with her heartbreak, Fa’iza, a new employee with a Cambridge degree took her place. When he thought of it, he remembered that the attraction started the day he interviewed her. She had a referral later from a Minister and Mustapha knew from the confidence in her countenance and the letter in her hands, she already had the job without any need for the interview or the existence of a vacancy to fill. She was a graduate of Business Management and her education was suitable for work in the company. He hoped that her wealthy upbringing won’t interfere with her work ethic but it did. She still did work and scored high in interpersonal relationship with the staff. Her experience in England gave her a clear insight into her tribally fragmented country of origin. She had seen the Nigerian tribes in diaspora hold meetings, huddle together as students, workers or successful businessmen and even persons whose only clear career was living in London. She declared herself as belonging to a new tribe called detribalised Nigerians.

When he interviewed her, he sought to find out which particular place he could place her without causing problems to the place; where he could place her without the risk of making her feel belittled and risk receiving a call from her humiliated referee. When her referee did call, he came in person and Fa’iza proudly introduced him to Mustapha and the staff. The Minister was her uncle and he came and shook hands with everyone and left. Everyone stood up to welcome him, Mustapha didn’t.

At the interview, Fa’iza entered the MD’s office with a formal air of composure and a little of the usual air of jitter until she realised that the lone interviewer was somewhere close to her age. She was a little surprised. She sat on the interviewee seat without asking, and then she stood up quickly with an apology and sought permission to sit. He told her to sit without raising his head and when he raised his head to see her looking, he asked her what she knew of the company.

Like he suspected, she hasn’t any specific knowledge of the company but she had a lot to say and she did define a lot of management terms through most of the fifteen minutes. By the time she finished, Mustapha bore on his face an expression that was only a little short of dismay. He sent her to the Department of Communications and Procurement. To his surprise, she was disappointed at the short interview and seemed disappointed that it ended without the questions she was expecting. He suspected she wanted to talk about her education. He stared at her with the same straight expression and she stood up and left without further curtsey.

She was browned from the use of expensive body creams and the effect of staying for years in the temperate regions away from the tropical sun. She was thin in the face, her stomach and legs. Her traditional outfit was sewn somewhere that was certainly not Africa, cutting a cross between modernism and Islam. Her face was beautiful and indulging. Mustapha resisted the urge to admire other outfits she wore henceforth. He stayed away from the C and P Departments whenever he could. He explained that to himself in terms of etiquette. He stayed away from her as much as possible until the day, a few months before he was set to retire, when she came to the Control Section to have a chat and while playing with a razor blade, injured her hand. Not knowing what to say immediately, he went into his office and brought out from under his desk the First Aid Box. He had once opened it and knew that it has what is needed to tie a cut.

“Sit,” he said.

She sat and coyly crossed her legs.

Having nothing to sit on, he knelt down with one knee and took the injured index finger in his hand and applied iodine. He bandaged it and through the procedure, he could feel the eyes of the staff gathered around him once again but they stares felt kinder. Fa’iza’s were on him and darting across his face to find his pupils. He concentrated on the cut and when he finished dressing it, he looked up to her with a barely visible smile and said: “You will survive.”

She smiled too. The staff dispersed and he noticed a remarkable increase in their affection. Mrs Khadeejah smiled with approval and forgiveness, forgiveness for the offence of denying love exists. He walked past her with the steady frown back in place and the First Aid Box in his hand. The weeks passed and he knew the affection grew with every conversation. It became harder for him to be at the office when he has no work to do. Dealing with Jane was easy. She could sit in the silence and let the moments linger in stillness, Fa’iza will question the quiet. She does not mind talking to the staff about him and his good sense of dressing even when he was within hearing distance. He called her to the office one Monday and asked:

“I sometimes overhear you talk about me; do I want to know what the discussion is all about?

“No. It’s not that important. It’s just a little image control for the boss,” she said.

“Why do I need that?”  He asked.

“Image control is portraying a good image of one’s product. In this case, it is the image of someone the organization looks up too. You are given to silence so you need someone to talk about you. Talking about little things like your sleek suits helps do the job,” she said and smiled.

“Are you sure you are not selling me out in a certain way I may not approve?” He asked.

“It’s hard to say what you approve of when you don’t talk about it,” she continued.

He resolved to withdraw further and he did. He came to work at a little past eight and while in the office busied himself typing his book of poetry. When he came early, he sat back in the car and listened to the sad trail of Passenger’s voice in Let her go.

 

You only know you’ve been high when you feeling low

You only miss the sun when it starts to snow

You only hate the road when you missing home

You only know you love her when you let her go…

 

He published his poems, A book of verses in the month of January of that year. For several months, there was a lull and he thought as he feared that the book will be a flop. The publisher had told him that that was a book for a former generation; no one reads poetry any longer, then he called and asked to publish it with his modifications. When Mustapha disagreed, he called again and agreed to publish it. Then suddenly in the sixth month, a flurry of reactions came back. The Daily Trumpet published a column on ‘The renaissance of poetry’ with a picture of him at the top dedicated to the emotion stirred in the book. The Savannah Herald listed him first in a chart of rising young writers. A few weeks later, he was nominated for African writer of the Year. That week he began to arrange for his resignation from the company. Letters began to arrive from published poets and readers. On a Tuesday evening, he received a letter marked: ‘Mustapha’.

The letters from readers was often carefully addressed. This one came in a blue envelope. It was addressed simply to ‘Mustapha’ in a familiar indelicate handwriting. He tore the envelope and inside was a piece of paper and on it was inscribed a poem and below the poem was the initial F. J. Esq. His heart raced into tremendous activity.

He held the paper and his sight got blurry. The writing faded away in the blur of paper and ink. He folded the letter and put it in his pocket. He walked out of the office into the busy street. He watched the blurred faces of people pass by, the blurred colours of the traffic lights. The cars zoomed past and time seemed to stop in a standstill. He felt the world spin into delirium. He walked farther into the crowds and disappeared into the chaos of Ahmadu Bello way.

***


© Copyright 2018 Elradico. All rights reserved.

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