Akudo frowned at her closet, her hands akimbo.
There was not going to be any time between her hair appointment and the Play, so she needed to wear something a little more dressy than the shapeless bubu or plain t-shirt on jeans she typically wore for hair appointments.
There was a knock at the front door.
Akudo waited, turning her head towards the direction of the living room and listened.
A few seconds later, she heard keys in the lock. She relaxed, and turned back to her closet.
“Aunty you dey?” Roselyn called out.
“Yes! I dey my room.” Akudo shouted back.
Roselyn appeared at her doorway moments later.
“Good morning ma.” She greeted, curtseying a little.
“Good morning. Welcome. How your holiday?” Akudo asked, not looking away from her closet.
“Fine. Thank you ma.” She beamed.
“You sef. You no even say make you return for evening. Shebi you know say your boys no go come back till tomorrow?” Akudo teased, turning back long enough to shake her head at the pleasant housekeeper before returning to her assessment of her closet.
“Eh, I say make I come dust, clean everywhere before dem return na.” Roselyn said, not missing a beat.
Akudo considered telling her that the harmattan season known for its fog and dust was long behind them, but she knew it would not make a difference.
Roselyn was unmarried and approaching her forties. She had no close family members in Lagos, and was a benefactor to the family she did have back in Benue. Akudo’s home was an escape of sorts for her, so no matter how many times Akudo offered her a holiday or a break, she always returned sooner than expected.
She had an aunt in Abeokuta, who Akudo expected her to visit whenever she was off work and not travelling to Benue, but Roselyn forwent a lot of her agreed time-off because her aunt constantly reminded her that she was unmarried.
Akudo’s heart had sank when Roselyn told her that.
After that, Akudo never pushed when she insisted on staying back. Instead, she found other ways to reward her; and constantly prayed for her to find happiness.
“No wahala. Welcome.” Akudo said finally.
“You dey comot?” Roselyn asked.
Akudo instinctively looked down at her body and realised she was still in her towel. Normally, she would still be in her pajamas at this time.
“Yes. I wan do my hair then from there, I go comot.” Akudo replied.
“E good.” Roselyn said, smiling.
Akudo turned to face her, a look that said “explain” written all over her face as she folded her arms.
“No vex madam, na just say I dey happy as I see you dey comot these days.” Roselyn said, suddenly fixated on an invisible spec on her right thumb.
Roselyn had been with her for four years, and seen her at her worst. It really did not surprise Akudo that Roselyn would be happy to finally see her do something other than work and tend to her sons. However, she only discussed matters that concerned her home and her sons with Roselyn, and she did not intend to change that.
“Thank you.” She said finally.
Roselyn smiled, and walked away.
Akudo glanced up at the clock in her bedroom. She had not made an appointment so it was imperative that she got in early before the usual Saturday crowd at the salon.
She noticed the sunlight bounce off some fabric that sat in a plastic bag at the bottom of her closet, and reached for it.
It was a studded ankara dress. A gift from Ronke that she had never worn.
She smiled as she remembered the day Ronke showed up to her house in a studded ankara dress of a different style. Of course Ronke’s was a lot shorter but it was beautiful nonetheless, and she had told Ronke as much.
Ronke said she would have her tailor make Akudo one, and kept to her word.
At the time, Akudo had nowhere to wear it to; so she thanked her friend, kept the bag in her closet and forgot all about it.
Akudo tried it on, and it was a perfect fit. It barely touched her knees – which was impressive considering that Ronke’s preference was for shorter dresses.
Akudo walked to her full-length mirror and took a better look. She turned to the side and groaned.
The dress had slits on either side. She should have known Ronke would add her own touch to it. The slits made it more risque than she was comfortable with.
She took one more look at the clock, and decided she was not going to waste any more time.
She quickly wore a pair of black leggings underneath the dress, grabbed a pair of her most comfortable heels, her handbag, and headed to the salon.
Akudo parked her car and pulled down the visor to check her make-up.
She had gone to the salon with the intent to do something quick that would still leave her with enough time to be early to the Play. However, by the time it dawned on her that she had neither seen nor spoken to Ronke since she decided not to give as much of a damn about her, she realized just how hard it was going to be to do just that.
Suddenly, she decided she wanted to colour her hair before getting it styled. The salon recently added make-up services to their menu, and she happened to be going to a fancy Play so she got her makeup done. Then, the manicurist seemed to appear out of nowhere and she figured why not? Of course one could not get a manicure without getting a pedicure as well – never mind that she would be changing into closed-toe heels afterwards.
She would have killed more time by buying hair products she did not need, but the large bill she had already racked up brought those thoughts to a screeching halt.
As she took a final glance at herself in the mirror, she convinced herself that it was money well spent. She took a chance with two things she had never done, and she was pleased with the results.
The auburn red that was dyed in an ombre style at the tips of her hair complimented her caramel skin beautifully.
The make-up artist had listened when she said to keep the make-up simple. Although it was professionally done, the make-up looked very much like something she could have applied herself. The lines and finishing were smoother of course, but she still looked like herself.
All in all, she was pleased.
She reached for her phone.
Akudo’s jaw hardened.
Though Ronke had not been a very good friend to her, Akudo had tried to talk herself out of her decision to keep Ronke at arm’s length by telling herself that Ronke was definitely joking when she said Timeyin was her backup plan. If it was a joke, that would mean that Ronke did care about Akudo after all; and that Ronke was not willing to toy with a man’s heart just so she can have a happily ever after.
Femi’s last text message only reinforced what she already knew.
Akudo did not want a husband, boyfriend, or any kind of romantic relationship; but if Ronke was going to play dirty, she was not going to make it easy for her.
Akudo reached under her dress and shimmied off the leggings.
She slid on her black pumps, reached for her purse, and got out of the car.
She stood tall and adjusted the dress as it had ridden up her thighs a little. With her current frame of mind, the slits on the sides of the dress did not seem so bad.
She slung her bag over her shoulder and made for the entrance.
Akudo nearly laughed at herself as she trailed behind Ronke when they entered the theatre room. Even with all of her efforts to kill time at the salon, she still made it before the lights dimmed.
Ronke’s jaws had dropped upon seeing her. She recovered soon after and said she was glad Akudo had finally worn the dress after so many years.
It had barely been a year since Ronke gave her the dress, but Akudo did not mind the exaggerated statement. She had made Ronke stunned enough that she had to fish for something to say – that was a victory in and of itself.
To Ronke’s benefit, the smile that followed was genuine; but Akudo’s walls were already up, so she filed that away somewhere in her mind and gestured for Ronke to lead the way.
“She’s finally here.” Ronke announced.
“Hi guys.” Akudo said, waving as she squeezed past a patron to where they sat.
Femi turned to acknowledge Akudo, then looked away; but his head snapped back almost immediately.
“Akudo!” He exclaimed. “Damn, you look hot.”
She knew she did, but she could not keep from smiling.
“Thank you.” She beamed.
“He’s right, you look stunning.” Timeyin said casually, standing up and giving her a side hug.
“Thanks.” She said, smiling at him.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ronke make a face. It was not a full scowl, but there was certainly envy there.
Akudo grinned inwardly.
She noticed the seating order. Femi, Ronke, a vacant seat, and then Timeyin. Either the men had assumed the best friends would want to sit beside each other, or Ronke had orchestrated that seating order.
The latter was more likely but it did not matter, she had no intentions to sit beside Ronke.
Akudo politely asked Timeyin if he did not mind moving over so she could sit to his right. He did not mind.
Ronke heard her, and turned in her direction in surprise.
Akudo pretended not to notice; thanked Timeyin, and took her seat.
“But Akudo, I cannot get over this your dress oh.” Femi said as they walked towards the parking lot when the Play was over.
“You did not think I was capable of wearing one?” Akudo asked playfully.
“Not that, but this is different.” Femi said, taking a step back as though to take in Akudo’s full frame.
“I think it’s the hair.” Akudo said with a wave of her hand. She enjoyed making Ronke squirm for once, but she did not particularly like the extra attention.
“That’s beautiful too.” Femi said.
“Thanks.” Akudo quipped, praying for someone to change the topic.
“Well, the dress is from me sha.” Ronke said, beaming.
She had spent a good part of the Play trying to get Akudo’s attention. She would tap her momentarily to share a joke about the play or make some comment.
At some point, Timeyin had asked Akudo if she was sure she did not want to swap seats.
Akudo felt bad that Ronke was constantly talking over his shoulder or making him bend forward so she could see Akudo’s face, but she fully intended to keep that physical distance between them.
Once they were outside though, Akudo could not stop Ronke from positioning herself beside her.
“See how pretty it looks on you. I am surprised you did not wear leggings with it.” Ronke added, tugging on the ends of the dress playfully.
“I did.” Akudo said, staring pointedly at her friend.
“Alright guys, I have to head home.” She added about two seconds later.
She knew Ronke was taken aback by her curt response, but she was not going to say any more.
She also knew she could have handled that a little better, but she did not know how.
When she loved, she loved fully. Acting like everything was okay while she had resolved to keep an emotional distance from Ronke was so much harder than she thought it would be.
She could not guard her heart without doing or saying things that would make Ronke notice.
Akudo had been seeing less of Ronke since she started dating Femi. She hoped that this would remain the case because keeping an emotional distance would be so much easier when there is a physical distance as well.
“Oh come on. The day is still young. We can do dinner or a lounge or something.” Femi offered.
“I can’t. I have to go pick up the boys from my mum’s tomorrow. I need to get some things done before they come. My time is no longer my own when they are around.” Akudo said, doing her best to sound regretful.
“How many boys do you have?” Timeyin asked.
“Two.”Akudo said, smiling as she responded.
“Really? How old are they?”
“Nnamdi is eight, and Odera is six.” Akudo replied. The smile lingering on her face. She realised long ago that she could never talk about her boys without smiling. She supposed it was a motherhood thing.
“Cool.” Timeyin said.
“You can spend the day taking care of your stuff, then pick the boys up in the evening.” Ronke said, bringing them back to the topic of hanging out.
“Yeah.” Femi added.
“I’d rather not. Besides, I’m a little tired.” Akudo threw in a smile for good measure, but she could still see the confusion in Ronke’s eyes.
“Alright, well, it was nice seeing you again.” Timeyin said to Akudo, reaching forward to give her a side hug.
“Same here.” She said, meaning it.
“I’m hungry, so I vote dinner!” Timeyin quipped, turning to Femi and Ronke.
“It would have been nice if you could hang, but I understand.” Femi said, giving Akudo a light hug.
“Have fun for both of us.” Akudo said, when she pulled away.
Instinctively she reached forward and gave Ronke a quick hug before she could stop herself. It was just as well because not doing so would have made it glaring that something was off.
The only way she was going to succeed at keeping Ronke at arm’s length was if Ronke thought nothing had changed.
Akudo walked back to her car replaying the events of the last few hours in her mind. By the time she made it into her car, she had a small smile on her face. All in all, it had been a good day.
As soon as she turned the ignition and heard silence, the smile vanished.
This could not be happening. School resumed in two days; this was not the time to have a faulty car.
She turned off the ignition and tried again. The lights on her dashboard flickered but there was still no sound.
A battery problem.
It was impossible. She had replaced the battery barely two months prior.
Akudo was thinking of all the ways she planned to chew off her mechanic’s head when she heard a knock on her window.
She looked up and saw Timeyin.
She opened the door.
“Is everything okay?” He asked, his brow creased.
“My car won’t start.” Akudo huffed. “I changed the battery barely two months ago. I will kill Jelili.”
“Before you consider murdering your mechanic, can you open the bonnet?” Timeyin said, mildly amused.
Akudo reached down and popped open her bonnet, before stepping out of the car.
Timeyin quickly inspected some things under the bonnet, then sat behind the wheel and turned the key.
“Definitely looks like your battery. Wait here.” He said, climbing out.
Akudo was about to ask how Timeyin had seen her, then noticed he unlocked the car parked right beside hers.
That would explain how he ended up where she was.
He grabbed jumper cables from his boot, came around and connected the two cars.
He tried again but her car still did not start.
“The good news,” he began “is that this parking lot is safe so you don’t have to worry about anything happening to your car. The bad news is that unless the battery is changed completely, this car will not move.”
Akudo groaned very loudly. “Em…I’ll have my mechanic come here and sort it out. He will explain to me how a seemingly new battery died so quickly.” She said, visibly upset.
“Thank you so much Timeyin. I’ll call for a taxi. You should join the others.” She added, sighing.
“No. It’s getting dark already and I don’t want to leave you here. What part of town do you live?” Timeyin asked.
“Surulere. I’m sure I can find a cab just outside the premises.” Akudo said distracted, as she scanned around her for a taxi.
“No need. I live in that direction.” Timeyin quipped.
Timeyin busied himself with his phone just as Akudo tried to protest.
“That’s not necessary, besides you have plans with Ronke and Femi.”
“Plans I just cancelled.” He said, putting away his phone. “Besides, trust me; I don’t particularly enjoy being a third wheel with those two.”
Akudo let out a small smile. She could imagine how annoying that was.
“Thank you. I really appreciate it.” Akudo said, accepting that Timeyin was not going to take “no” for an answer.
“You are welcome.” He said, disconnecting the cables and closing her bonnet.
Akudo struggled to keep her tone even as she let Jelili, her mechanic, have a piece of her mind. She was not beyond yelling, but she did not want to sound like a lunatic with Timeyin driving beside her.
She caught a movement out of the corner of her eyes. Timeyin squeezed some currency notes into the hands of the theatre security and pointed in the direction of Akudo’s car.
She sighed; the anger suddenly lifting.
“Just come collect key this night!” She finished, then hung up the phone.
“Feel better?” Timeyin said, not bothering to hide the amusement in his tone.
“I’m sorry. I’m just so livid. They give you speeches about how you should buy the original because the Tokunbo cannot always be predicted. Since I have two sons and a full-time job, and I cannot risk being without a car, I coughed up the money for a new supposedly original battery, only to have it suddenly go dead. You just never know whether they are robbing you blind or not.” Akudo finished, letting out a breath.
“Sometimes the fairly-used can be pocket friendly, but you just have to make sure that you are either dealing with an honest person, or you are very savvy with car parts. I find that I have no control over the former.” Timeyin said, still smiling.
“Valid point. Not sure when and how, but I certainly need to improve my knowledge of cars.” Akudo sighed.
“Yep!” Timeyin agreed.
They drove in silence for about a minute.
“So just out of curiousity, why don’t you do pretty girls? What’s the story there?” Akudo asked, turning towards Timeyin.
“What?” Timeyin asked confused, taking his eyes off the road for half a second to look at her.
“The night we quarreled. You said you don’t do pretty girls. There must be a story there. What was her name? If, you are comfortable discussing it that is.” Akudo added the last part out of sheer politeness. She had actually been dying to know the details after she had gotten over being mortified at herself for yelling at him and calling him a womanizer.
“What makes you think there was a particular girl?” Timeyin asked, a hesitant smile on his face.
“Well, part of the reason I felt so terrible after the fight is because I heard that you are quite the opposite of the heart-breaker I accused you of being.” Akudo said truthfully.
“What? Who told y-” Timeyin began, then went quiet as he rolled his eyes and tightened his grip on the steering wheel; realisation dawning on him. “I am going to kill Femi!”
“Oh come on, no. It wasn’t him.” Akudo said quickly.
“Of course it wasn’t; but if he had kept his mouth shut, Ronke would have had nothing to tell you.” Timeyin retorted.
Akudo said nothing. He had a point, and there was no use lying.
“You know,” she began moments later. “It’s not such a bad thing to be a good guy.”
“Not if it keeps leaving you heartbroken.” Timeyin said before he could stop himself.
He opened his mouth to speak, maybe take back the words but Akudo spoke faster.
“I’m sorry, I should not have pried.”
He let out a loud sigh. “It’s okay.”
They had made it into Surulere. Akudo spent the rest of the trip directing him to her house.
She felt more than a little guilty for bringing up a topic that was obviously a sore spot for him. Aside from the first night they met, he had proved himself to be nothing but a kind person. She was not going to let him go home in a sour mood; especially after he had helped her so much.
“Do you want to come in?” She asked, after thanking him for the ride.
“No, that’s not necessary.” He replied, allowing her a small smile.
She knew it was his attempt at reassuring her that he was not upset at her, but she still was not going to let him go like that.
“Okay, that was me trying to be polite. I insist you come in.” Akudo said.
Timeyin blinked. Clearly he had assumed her invitation was just a show of politeness, and not something she actually meant.
“Seriously. You have been incredibly helpful to me today and you did not need to be. I also remember you saying you were hungry. So please, let me feed you just to say thank you.” Akudo finished, a plea in her eyes.
Timeyin looked down and smiled a little before glancing back up at her. He did not believe her, and she knew it.
“Seriously, you really don’t have to. There are several eateries on my way home. I can sort myself out.” He said, his features relaxing a bit.
Akudo felt like she was having an out-of-body experience when she reached over, turned off his ignition and yanked his keys out of the steering wheel.
It was entirely unlike her, but she was not done surprising herself.
“You refused to let me take a taxi home, I refuse to let you leave on an empty stomach. I think that’s fair. If you disagree, you are welcome to collect your keys inside.” She said simply, then stepped out of his car.
She walked to her gate and instructed the gate man to let Timeyin in, keep an eye on his parked car, and direct him to her flat.
By the time Timeyin knocked on the door, Akudo had warmed up the stew Roselyn had prepared earlier, and put some yams to boil.
Roselyn peeped out of her room but Akudo shooed her back in, telling her that it was a guest and that she would get the door.
Akudo opened the door and stepped aside.
Timeyin shook his head, smiling as he stepped in. “Are you always this stubborn?”
“Sometimes.” Akudo replied, closing the door behind him. “Sit, please.”
“Thank you.” He said, taking in her decor as he sat on one of the couches.
“Lovely home.” He added moments later.
“No it’s not, but thank you.” She said, walking to the kitchen.
“Why do you say so?” He called after her.
“Because no matter what I do, it still feels…incomplete. I don’t know how to explain it.” She shouted back.
“I know what you mean actually.” He said, a little quieter.
She returned with two wine glasses. “Red or white?”
“Red, but after the meal please. Alcohol on an empty stomach is a bad idea; I still have to drive home remember?”
“True.” She said, setting the glasses down. “I hope you like yam? I should have asked but it was the quickest thing I could think of to cook.”
“I love yam.” He said.
“Salted or unsalted?” She asked.
“Unsalted. I don’t want the salt on the yam getting in the way of me enjoying the taste of the stew.”
“Wow, okay then. Unsalted it is.” Akudo said, mildly surprised. “Let me take these ladders in before somebody trips over them.” She added, picking up the heels she had kicked off immediately she walked into the house.
Timeyin chuckled. “My mother calls them that too.”
“That was really good.” Timeyin said, wiping the corners of his mouth with paper towel when he was done with his meal.
“Thank you. I’d like to take credit but the nanny made the stew, not me.” Akudo said, clearing the dishes.
“No, let me.” Timeyin said, standing up and taking the dishes from Akudo. “You boiled the yam; that counts.”
“I guess it does.” She said, smiling at him.
She took the water glasses, then led the way to the kitchen.
They returned to the sitting room where they had left the wine glasses.
Timeyin took a seat while Akudo reached into her mini bar for a bottle of red wine and an opener.
Her phone beeped.
She reached into her pocket and pulled it out, then groaned.
“Everything okay?” Timeyin asked, taking the wine and opener from her.
“Secondary school group. They are planning a reunion.” She said casually.
“You sound uninterested.” He said, not looking away from the wine bottle he was uncorking.
“I am. Secondary school was not particularly fun for me. Besides, I have so much going on right now.” She said, putting her phone away.
“Okay.” Timeyin said.
The cork popped out, and he filled both glasses halfway.
Akudo’s phone beeped again.
“Sorry, let me put it on silent.” Akudo apologized, reaching for her phone.
She saw a message pop onto the screen and gasped, covering her mouth with her free hand.
“Oh my goodness.” She let out, as she scrolled through other messages. She repeated the words two more times and each time, her volume reduced until it was a whisper.
“Is everything okay?” Timeyin said in a tone so loud it startled Akudo a little. Apparently he had asked several times before that but she had not heard.
She turned to look at him, her face blood-drained. “Onyinye Okoronkwo. She’s dead.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know who that is.” Timeyin said, confusion all over his face.
“Femi never told you about her?” Akudo asked, her voice still a whisper.
“Femi has told me about many women. I can’t keep track of all their names.” Timeyin said matter-of-factly.
Akudo looked at her phone again. “Oh my goodness.”
She looked back up at him.
“She was…” She closed her eyes and shook her head as if to clear her thoughts. “Just now when I said Secondary School was not particularly great for me, she was the reason.”
Timeyin stayed quiet, prompting her with his eyes to continue.
“She had a huge crush on Femi, back when we were in school. Rumour has it that they even had a fling at some point. They were in SS2, and I was in JS3 when Femi first took notice of me. He was not particularly subtle about his interest in me and she found out. She got jealous, and made it her mission to make my life miserable until she graduated. The crazy part was that I did not even date Femi, I was not interested in the least. But as long as Femi showed me attention and not her, she treated me like I was the enemy. She put me through hell. She called me a whore and humiliated me in the presence of her peers and mine, made me serve all manner of punishments. There were days I served back-to-back punishments and could not go for meals at the dining hall. It was terrible. I carried those scars with me till I graduated, and swore that I would find a way to get back at her after school.”
Akudo paused, then looked down at her phone.
“I had moved on and forgotten all about her and what she did to me. Or at least I thought I had; but when someone mentioned she was ill on the group last year, all I had felt for her, all I thought I had rid myself of came rushing back to the surface. I said to myself that the illness was probably nothing compared to what she deserved for being cruel to me all those years ago.”
She paused again.
“She died of cancer.” She whispered, looking up at Timeyin; her eyes glassy. “Cancer Timeyin. Everything feels so silly now. The anger, the hate, it all seems so incredibly stupid right now. She was somebody’s mother, and wife, and I wished her ill when she was fighting for her life and for what? For things she did when she was a child?”
A tear dropped, then another.
Akudo reached for a tissue, grateful that she had a tissue box in the living room.
Timeyin squeezed her left knee – a show of empathy.
She could not control the way her body trembled as she sobbed into her hands.
“Hey.” Timeyin said softly, tapping her on the knee. “First of all, she was not a child. It actually annoys me when people use ‘childhood’ as an excuse for some of the atrocities they committed in secondary school. In our time, most people were sixteen or seventeen years old at SS2 – that’s pretty close to adulthood. She was very aware of what she was doing. Second, you had no way of knowing she was terminally ill; and I know you are level-headed enough to realize that.” He paused briefly, then added “I get the get a sense that this is about more than just guilt.”
Akudo whimpered and sobbed a little more. If she was not currently crying her eyes out, she would have told him just how incredibly observant he was.
“Life is just so bloody fickle!” She finally said, raising her head and pulling out some more tissue.
“Just like Onyinye, one day my husband was alive; and another, he was gone. Just like that! We had plans, hopes, dreams; and in a flash, it was all gone. I became a widow at the age of twenty-seven! A single parent with two small boys. My life has been on autopilot ever since. The last five years have been so hard. I have had to suffer through rejection, suspicion, lost friendships, harassment, unwanted advances, financial struggle, parental challenges but I never let myself think of it because I had two boys looking up to me, and I had to be strong for them.”
She took some more tissue and dabbed at her face.
“Breaking down is not a luxury I can afford, and I know I have to suck it up and carry on but…” Akudo’s voice broke, and she lowered her head.
When she looked up and turned to him, fresh tears lined her cheeks.
“…but can I do that tomorrow? I’m just so so tired of being strong all the time.”
Timeyin slid closer, and put his arm around her.
She was so emotionally drained that she welcomed the embrace and sunk her face into his chest, sobbing as she allowed the weight of all she felt and had carried for the last five years finally consume her.