For everyone who asked for a marathon…
Don’t come and ask me again o 😀
My office is quiet. The usual noisemakers whose cubicles are separated from mine by thin glass partitions have all stepped out to celebrate a colleague’s birthday. Normally, I would be there with them, heading the throng, my voice being the loudest. But I give the birthday colleague a gift and apologize for not going with them.
As they leave, I recline my back on my chair and lift my eyes to the ceiling, spinning in a slow circle. The calm, white lighting and the soothing sound of soul music playing somewhere in the hall soon lulls me and I fall into a catnap. My weekend had been awful, beset with tears and insomnia. This isn’t exactly rest but it’s the closest thing to peace of mind in more than twenty-four hours.
I am beginning to get deeper into my nap when I feel a ticklish sensation on my upper arm that has me slapping myself and jolting up in hysterics.
“Relax.” Laughter comes from a voice, throaty and masculine.
When my glare falls on the male specimen that has just dragged me out of my rest, I reach for my jacket which I had kept aside and slip into it as I rise to my feet for no reason.
“You think it’s funny to scare people like that?” I ask, avoiding his eyes. He stands before me, tall and daunting, handsome in a way that is too good to be true. The scent of his perfume is as dark and domineering as he is. His unwelcome appearance has literally taken the little peace I have managed to conjure.
“Paul…” I try not to look up at him. I fear that one gaze from his eyes would melt my resolve. “Saturday night was…”
“A mistake. I know. I didn’t expect it would be anything else.”
He thrusts his hands into his pockets, shifting the flaps of his suit behind his arms and exposing a sparkling white shirt that rests snugly on his toned torso.
“But I’m hoping that maybe, one day soon, we’d have a repeat.”
“It’s never going to happen. I’m getting married.”
“A date hasn’t been fixed. Your guy doesn’t have feelings for you…”
I shift backwards and rest my bum on my desk. Paul withdraws his right hand from his pocket, taking out a gold bracelet. “You forgot this in my car.”
When I stick out my hand to grab it, he holds it back. “Look at me.”
I throw my head up and take his eyes. It’s an act done with exaggerated cheekiness which falls apart when I meet an affectionate gaze from him. His full brows gather together as if he is thinking hard about a thing, but then they relax immediately as he takes my hand and places the bracelet on my palm.
He lets go just as voices break the quiet of the hall. He turns away, exiting my cubicle in haste.
My phone rings. I snatch it off my desk and see that it’s Eben calling. There’s a moment’s hesitation before I answer.
“A big bird told me that you had an awful weekend and you were in a mood this morning.”
“Big bird being Aunty Ada, right?”
“Says you’re on your period.”
I shake my head, recalling last night when Aunty Ada sat on my bed for almost an hour, prodding me in all ways to get me to tell her why I was down. When she was tired of doing so, she let me know that my self-designed wedding gown was going to be replaced by a Vera Wang soon.
“I’m not on my period, Ebee,” I respond to Eben.
“That’s good to know.”
“What does that mean?” I ask, almost laughing.
“Can I do anything to make you feel better? Kiss you maybe? Tickle you till you cry because it’s hard to imagine a Halim in a sad mood?”
I’m taken aback by his words. Normally, I’d be the one asking for kisses, seeking for his laughter. We’re opposites. He is the quiet one. I am the one who’ll hop on my bed in the middle of the night just because I can.
“So, is it okay to come steal you away?”
I look around me. The clatter my colleagues returned with has not died down, the white walls remain uninspiring and the day promises to be long and saddled with boredom. Plus, there is Paul who has decided to be a nuisance.
“I can take the day off,” I tell Eben.
“Great. Look outside your window.”
I leave my desk and dash towards the window nearest to me. It faces the entrance of the building, and there, I see Eben waiting outside his car.
The picture is perfect from where I stand—young, rich, successful and dapper. What woman wouldn’t want that?
“If you don’t want to get married to him, it’s fine,” Aunty Ada had told me last night, although I could see that she didn’t mean it. “I’ll just tell Bisi and we’ll call the whole thing off. Marriage is not the greatest achievement in life. Look at me, I got on fine.”
And I looked at her, remembering nights when she left me alone at home as a little girl, just because she was with someone else’s husband in some hotel. I remembered the forlorn look on her face whenever she saw couples that were smitten by each other. I remembered the night she had gotten drunk and ended up on my bed, wailing and asking why no man would love her and make her his wife.
No, she hasn’t gotten on fine. And I don’t want to be her. Not even if I ended up in the arms of a new Paul every night and experienced the exciting feeling of falling in love endlessly.
There’s no waterfall to chase here. Ebenezer Nosakhare would be my husband and I would figure out the love part later.
“Hey, it’s time to go home.”
Halim burrows deep into the covers as my hand touches her back. She groans.
“Can I sleep some more?”
I understand exactly how she feels, as I also have no desire to do anything today. However, I have a meeting by eleven and I have to get to the Abeokuta office on time, Lagos traffic and all.
“We have to go.”
I gently pull the covers away from Halim and I’m met with the smoothness of her body, clad only in a thong. This is the closest I’m seeing her nude and the sheer beauty of her skin and contours make me swallow hard. She is not the curviest woman, but she is curved perfectly for me, nothing in excess. Keeping my hands away from her these past two years has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. But I have made it look so easy that she has expressed worry a few times over my ‘coldness’ towards her. Last night, out of what I’m guessing was frustration, she invited me to lie in bed with her and initiated a session of dry-humping, which became more than I could bear. When I couldn’t handle the heat, I left the room and took one of the other rooms.
I’m not a saint, and I can’t say I’ve been faithful; I only want to honor her desire to remain celibate until marriage.
Halim is spirited, by the way. Energetic and always on a high. But she is tamed by her faith in God. Dedicated and totally invested in Christ. However, I see a girl inside that wants to be let out. The same girl I went crazy over on a rainy night when we were both drunk and had wild sex in the back of my car. No one knows that history. Not even Halim herself. And I know it’s crazy to crush on someone after one night of senseless sex that lasted barely three minutes, but I did.
It’s not that I’m senselessly in love with her. Rather, it’s a quiet sort of feeling that never goes away, no matter whom I find myself with. And then there’s fate that literally took over the direction of my life and lumped me together with Halim.
Here’s how it began.
The year is 2011. A good year for me, but made crappy by my parents. I have just returned to Nigeria after acquiring an MBA in the prestigious Dartmouth College in Connecticut, USA. My dad and I sit with the managers and lawyers of the family company and iron out modalities on me taking over from him. He is retiring at a good age of fifty-six. And I, having expertly executed his duties every holiday I was home over the past couple of years, am now ready to be in charge. I have convinced him that the company needs change; it needs the digital age.
The handover goes without hitches. A big celebration is thrown by my mom, and as these things go, the cream of the crop is invited. Mothers come along with their daughters who are of marriageable age, thrusting them at me at every chance. There are enough cleavages, willing smiles and pouty lips to go around for my friends and I. When the adults retire and the party goes into full blast, the girls abandon their fine airs and go wild. All except for one.
Halim is seated by a window, looking out, a glass of wine in her hand. Extracting myself from some girl who smells of coconut and has too much glitter on her eyelids, I walk to my childhood friend and whisper in her ear that I think she looks lost.
“Eben.” She turns, smiling. Her brazen eyes hold me like they have done over the years. They are daring and passionate at the same time.
“Congratulations,” she says.
“The party is dope.”
“But you aren’t dancing.”
She smiles again.
“I don’t know you not to dance at parties, or just sit quietly, staring. You are always so pumped up.”
“I love your accent, Eben.”
I know she is being evasive.
“Is it true that you no longer attend parties?” I ask.
She laughs, throwing her head back.
“Aunty Ada told me,” I reveal. “She’s frustrated over it.”
Halim lowers her head, dabbing at eyes which have now gone wet. She always gets tears in her eyes each time she laughs.
“Aunty Ada is a case.”
I nod. We all know that. I have never met a mother who so badly wants her daughter to be wild. Halim was once carefree and loved the good life, but she turned a new leaf and became a standard case of the apple falling a million miles away from the tree. Once in a while, she falls into her past and compromises her principles to please her mother, but she always finds her way back to the cross on which she clings. Aunty Ada’s present frustration is that she is clinging too tightly and may never enjoy her youth.
“Can you spoil her for me?” she had begged. “I don’t care what you do. Marry her, even! As long as she stops being that perfect, little church girl.”
I had laughed and replied, “I’m a good boy o, Aunty Ada.”
And she gave me a look that cut through my exterior, right into the place where I hid my inner wildling. That look still gives me the creeps.
“I’m happy for you,” Halim says loudly, as if noticing that I have gone off in my head. “You now have an Ivy League education and you’ve taken over your dad’s company… I’m impressed.”
“All you need now is a wife.”
“Seriously? I’m just twenty-six.”
“And you can run your father’s company.”
“That’s different. I have a whole team with experience to guide me. Besides, my intellectual maturity exceeds my emotional capacity.”
She sniggers. “Why do you like to use big words? You could have simply said ‘I’m not mature enough to handle a woman.’”
“Do you have a girlfriend?” She gives me an up and down stare.
“Business first, pleasure later.”
“Of course, you’re the most serious guy I ever came across. I’m even surprised that you can dance sef.”
I chuckle. Her words are simply an echo of what everyone else thinks of me. No one knows me except those whom I choose to reveal myself to. And of course, Aunty Ada. Creepy woman.
“Well, I guess my Yoruba side came out today,” I tell Halim.
I follow her eyes and catch them staring at a couple that is giving a dirty dance in the middle of the hall. I sense that she wants this life. She wants to break through and do all the things her mates do, but because of fear of being seen the way her mom is seen, she holds back a lot. I recall the drunken Halim that had no inhibitions when she let loose in the back of my car. I had intimately known that side of her for only a few minutes, yet I miss her. As Lekan would say, Jesus always takes the best ones.
“You want to dance?” I ask.
She shakes her head and rises. “Actually, I’m on my way.”
I stare at my watch. “It’s only eleven. Aunty Ada will send you back here if you go home now.”
She laughs. “Goodnight, Eben.”
“Let me take you home then.”
“Don’t worry. I already called my cab guy.”
“I’ll walk you out?”
“Your girlfriend is looking for you.” Halim directs her gaze over my shoulder. I turn. The girl with the coconut smell and glittery eyelids is calling me over.
Halim hugs me, hands me her glass of wine and leaves. After she is gone, I return to the girl but noticing she is drunk, I switch to someone else who ends up in my bed three hours after. When morning comes, I am awoken by my ringing phone and soft fingers caressing my privates. I choose to attend to the phone.
“Hey, mom,” I greet.
“What happened to ‘good morning, ma’?”
Not in the mood to argue, I greet her properly. “Good morning, ma.”
“Bawo ni? Are you just waking up?”
“It’s past eight, Delomo. Are you not going to church?”
“Shit,” I cuss.
“Shit to yourself too. Get off that bed and hurry to church. We’re giving thanks today.”
“And better rehearse the testimony you’ll give. None of that wanna, gonna and talking through your nose. Everyone has to hear clearly how God has blessed you.”
She hangs up. I fall back in bed. My one-night stand begins to touch me again but I push her hand away and roll off the bed. An hour later, I am in church, shepherded in by the delectable Halim herself, who is an usher. My eyes fall on her outfit which makes her stand out from her colleagues. She is wearing a black dress cinched at the waist with a silver belt; over it is a floral blazer. Strutting around in six-inch heels, she moves about with ease and flare. I use her as a distraction to get through the service. Once the closing prayers are said, I leave the church to my apartment and turn off my phone to have a good rest.
I wake up when it’s dark. I hear a knock on my door and drag my feet to it. When I open the door, my mom walks in with a basket of food. I mumble a greeting.
“Did you rest well?” she asks me, patting my cheek.
“Yeah.” I yawn and retreat to my bedroom to slip a t-shirt on. I return to find a meal set on the dining table for me. Dressed in a yellow, lacy buba and iro, donning enough jewelry for an outing, I realize she has lost some weight since the last time I was home. It doesn’t stop her body from jiggling as she strolls to the living room, though.
I pick my food, follow her and place it on the center table. When I have the first taste, I give her a compliment. She is the best. She dotes on all her children like she is afraid of losing them at any minute. Growing up, my siblings and I were spoiled rotten. Spoiled but well-behaved. Where our mother failed in disciplining us, the old man more than compensated. Conrad and I had partly attended the Nigerian Military School in Kaduna. That, in some measure, explains why so many people consider me unsocial and cold.
I attack my meal as if I haven’t eaten in days. But after the first few bites, I get bored. It’s a habit of mine the old woman hates. Even now she eyes me as I drop my fork and pick my chicken. I tell her to get on with the reason for her visit. Finding her uncharacteristically quiet unnerves me.
“I’m waiting for your father to come.”
“I hope I’m safe though?” I ask in Yoruba. She smiles in response.
Just then, the door barges open and the old man dashes in. It is drizzling outside.
“Good evening, dad.”
“Evening!” He seems more in a genial mood than his wife.
I lean back on my sofa and start tearing apart the piece of sautéed chicken in my hand. There is still a heap of rice on my plate but I am going to finish every last bit of the chicken before I continue with the meal. When I was a child, I used to get spanked a lot for doing this.
“Ebenezer.” My dad rubs his hands together. If he has a hanky with him right now, he would wipe off every last trace of whatever he’s trying to get rid of. I got a bit of my orderliness from his obsessive neatness. From his clothes to his moustache, every bit of him is always in place.
“Ebenezer,” he calls again, having recovered from rubbing his hands. “We would have invited you over to the main house for this discussion but your younger ones are there and we don’t want any audience.”
There’s silence on his end. Long seconds go by before he speaks again. I can tell that whatever he wants to say is difficult to let out. I am patient, eating and waiting. He eventually opens his mouth and when the words begin to come out, I lose my appetite.
He starts with a long tale, about how he had worked under Halim’s dad who was a wealthy businessman back then in Lagos. The man, Diobi, was much older than my dad but had married a younger wife who lost her life in a fire accident. Her friend, Ada, who was living with them then had barely escaped the fire. It was alleged that before Diobi’s wife died, he was engaged in an affair with Ada. Not long after her death, Ada became pregnant with Halim. To hide the pregnancy from family members, Diobi flew Ada to the UK and had her stay there for a year, in which time, Halim was born.
She was originally named Ngozi by her father, but was later christened Halimnye which meant ‘leave me alone’. Ada had so renamed her because of the threats she received from Diobi’s in-laws, who upon getting word of Halim’s birth, accused her of being responsible for Diobi’s wife’s death and promised to enact revenge on her. The only way she was to escape their wrath was to return to Nigeria to swear in a shrine that she had not murdered her friend. But Ada made it clear to Diobi that she had no intentions of leaving the UK. Unfortunately for her, her nightmare had only begun. Diobi developed a strange illness and became bedridden after a brief visit to his hometown. My dad was the only person he trusted, and thus, Diobi assigned his entire business into his hands, pending his recovery. But he never improved. When it became clear that he was going to pass away, he invited my dad over and handed all he had to him. This included landed property, cash in the bank and businesses across the country. He claimed that there was going to be a tug of war between his family and his wife’s over his money and he didn’t want Ada and Halim caught in the middle. If there was no trace of the money, there would be nothing to shed blood over.
In the presence of a lawyer and Ada who had flown back to Nigeria secretly to nurse him on his deathbed, Diobi signed over his wealth to my old man, under the condition that when Halim became of age, she was to get married to me. Agreeing to the deal, my dad appended his signature and swore on his life that Halim would become a Nosakhare when the time was right. Hours after the deal, Diobi passed away in his Lagos home.
Stunned at the information revealed to me just now, I interrupt my dad’s chronicle at this point.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying, dad. You mean all we have, the entire company, everything, belongs to Halim?”
“Yes. And if she gets to the age of twenty-six and you don’t get married to her, she can take over the company by the virtue of the document signed.”
“I don’t…I don’t understand. Take over the company? How?”
“She can hijack your present position as CEO and all the accounts will fall under her name. Meaning, everything will belong to her.”
I start to laugh. I am stunned, furious, confused, but all I can do is laugh.
He continues his story, telling me how Ada faced more threats after Diobi’s death.
“She was thrown out of the house with seven-month old Halim and that night she disappeared, returning only three years later. We provided her with a house and everything she needed. By then, Diobi’s family had given up trying to harass me into revealing where he had hidden his money because I had shut down the main office in Lagos, sold all the goods there and given them the proceeds to appease them. I subsequently started what we have today from scratch.”
“I thought our wealth was from Grandma, from the royal family.”
“Eben, your grandmother fell in love with a poor Edo trader and eloped with him. She was disowned and cursed by her father, your great grandfather. The curse was lifted only twenty years ago on his dying bed, and after he had seen how blessed I had become.”
The information I’m getting becomes too much to handle. I stand up and amble about in thought.
“So I’m supposed to marry Halim? That’s what you’re saying?”
“Because of a stupid agreement you didn’t think through?”
“Ebenezer?” my mom scolds.
“It’s stupid! Dad, how could you have sold your soul like that over money?!”
“Delomo, I will not warn you again!”
“It’s fine, Bisi,” my dad says. “He has every right to be upset.”
“I am not getting married to Halim. Period!”
“Delomo,” my mom changes her tone, “please, think about it. We stand to lose everything if you don’t.”
“Do you realize what you are asking me to do?”
“Wait.” I stop moving. “Does Halim even know about this whole thing?”
My parents exchange glances.
“She doesn’t know at all?”
“Only Ada knows, and she’s brought it up now so that neither of you would choose life partners other than each other. You know Halim just finished her accounting course and is about to do her NYSC. We’re worried that she might get serious with her current boyfriend…”
I stop my mom with a rude grunt. She sighs.
“Son, Halim is a wonderful girl,” my dad points out. “You grew up with her. She’s like a daughter to us. If you marry her, this drama aside, we’ll be happy.”
“Dad, I have no feelings for Halim. I will not marry her! Let anything happen, I will not! And let me make it clear to two of you, if she wakes up on her twenty-sixth birthday and thinks she can take us to court, I will fight her with everything I’ve got! Tell that to Aunty Ada. We will find a way out!”
“I have my signature on those documents, son. I gave my word…”
“And now, I have to pay for it?! How is that even fair?!”
“Halim is a wonderful girl, Eben,” my mom repeats.
“Mommy, leave that thing abeg. Good girl or not, I am not interested in getting married to her! Or anyone else for that matter! Allow me build my life and set my priorities straight! Ah! Kilode!”
“You’re not even listening, Delomo. Halim is twenty-two. It may seem like you have a long time left but time flies…”
“I am not getting married to her!”
I storm into my bedroom, cussing. The anger I feel is not something I have felt in a while. It instantly pushes my mind into overdrive and a jumble of thoughts take over. I don’t even know when my parents leave. I remain in the room until some sense of calm hits me. I go through the whole thing again and try my best to understand my parents’ rationale but nothing goes down well with me.
There has to be a way out of this. I will not get married to Halim.