“I think you will like it ma.” The makeup artist tried again, a repeated attempt to convince Akudo to get faux eyelashes.
“No. If you cannot make me look pretty with the lashes that God gave me, then maybe you are not very good at this.” Akudo said, giving her an accompanying look that meant the lady needed to let the matter be.
“Ah-ahn ma.” The lady chuckled. “It’s not like that oh.”
“Mummy, why do you have paint all over your face?” Odera piped, appearing out of nowhere.
The foundation had been applied in strokes that could be likened to war paint – this usually happened before it was blended in; but of course her six-year-old had no way of knowing that.
“Don’t worry, you will see it when I’m done.” Akudo said, trying hard not to snap at him. It was the fifth time he had come peeking. Each time he came with a question…or five.
“Have you done your homework?” Akudo asked, looking for a way to keep him preoccupied for longer.
“Yes.” He quipped.
“Have you eaten?”
“You have eaten and you did not come to thank Mummy afterwards?” Akudo asked, an eyebrow going up.
“Well, everytime I thank you, you say ‘thank God’; so I decided to thank God directly.” Odera said matter-of-factly.
Akudo’s eyes grew wide.
The makeup artist chuckled.
“Young man, you must always thank me and God whenever you finish a meal. Do I make myself clear?” Akudo warned.
“But-” Odera protested, then went silent once he saw the look his mother sent his way.
“You can either join Nnamdi in my room to watch TV, read a book, or play with your toys. You are disturbing me.” Akudo said, using the opportunity to send him on his way; hopefully for longer this time.
Odera sighed really loudly then trotted off.
Akudo would have shook her head if she didn’t have to keep still for the makeup application.
That child always said the craziest things.
She sighed, and looked down at her dress. It was mostly covered by the protective cape the makeup artist had cinched around her neck to prevent makeup from getting on it.
It was red.
Red would not have been her first or second choice, but she stepped out of her comfort zone on that choice – just like she had done for everything surrounding this reunion.
She was a silent member of her alma mater WhatsApp group; the wider group at least. She was a little more vocal on the group that was made up of only people in her graduating class.
Each graduating class usually took it upon themselves to meet once a year – a mini reunion of sorts. She had missed every one since she joined the group because she was either not available on the specified day, or she just was not in the mood to socialize. The latter was usually the case; especially after her husband died. She did not want to deal with the pity, and the endless questions about how she was coping.
When the executive committee of the bigger alumni group suggested a bigger, all-inclusive reunion to mark the golden jubilee celebrations of their school, Ronke had let her know that her standard excuse no longer held water.
This was a bigger group – which would include people who either did not know, or could not remember her. That meant she would not have to field so many of those questions she despised. Besides, she was quite eager to see her old classmates. It had been a really long time.
Now that Onyinye Okoronkwo was dead, and she did not have to think of what she may or may not have done to the lady that had been so cruel to her in school, she felt even better about her decision to attend. It had been one of the reasons she had tried to talk herself out of it.
She had briefly changed her mind after the altercation with Ronke over a month ago though. She knew Femi would be attending the reunion, and Ronke’s insecurities guaranteed she would be present.
She had written Ronke a text message the day after their big fight saying she wanted to talk, but no reply had come. Since she was hell bent on not apologizing, she made no further contact.
I think a small part of her had made peace with the fact that their friendship would be permanently altered after that.
She missed her though.
Ronke filled a lot of roles in her life. Friend, confidant, sounding board, escape, source of entertainment, motivator, and most of all, gossip mate. She could talk to her about almost anything.
She especially missed her now that she found herself growing fond of Timeyin. Not in a sexual or romantic way of course, but in that “I have finally found another person that gets me” way.
Of course the Ronke she knew would have encouraged her to do more than just talk with Timeyin, but alas; Timeyin was the very reason their friendship was what it was at the moment. Well, if she were being honest, Timeyin was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Ronke herself was the reason their friendship was in the pits.
She could have done without the inevitable awkwardness of running into Ronke at the reunion, but Timeyin reminded her that her original decision to attend was for herself, and not for anybody else.
He was right.
He was right about a lot of things.
In the weeks that followed after he helped her centre her painting, they had been in constant communication.
Mostly by WhatsApp, then the occasional phone call when she had a chunk of spare time or needed his opinion on something. It was great to have a male friend again. She had forgotten how refreshing the male perspective could be.
She used to have that kind of relationship with Nonso Anidiobi, but their friendship had died a harsh death the day she threw him out of her house for professing love to her while he was in a long-term relationship with someone else – among other reasons.
Anyway, the day was here and she was getting her makeup done.
The group had chosen Lagos for the celebrations because it was central for most people. It was a three-day event, but she was only going to attend the gala. The other activities were more for the benefit of those that came from out of town, and those that were very active in the group.
When Ronke had tried to talk her into attending all those months ago, she talked about how Akudo had to dress to the nines. After all, she would be seeing people she had not seen in about sixteen years; she had to make an effort.
“Instead of being worried about what they will say, give them something to talk about.” Ronke had said, a devious twinkle in her eyes.
Of course she followed it up with how, if she were in Akudo’s shoes, she would walk in there dressed to kill; and walk out with people’s husbands ogling her.
Akudo smiled sadly.
Ronke was a lot of things but ‘boring’ was not one of them.
“You like it?” The makeup artist asked, thinking Akudo had smiled because she was looking at her reflection in the mirror behind her.
“Hmn? Oh, yes. It looks nice.” Akudo said, tilting her head to the right to look behind the makeup artist at the mirror. “Please keep the lips light. Nude actually. The dress is already dramatic.”
“Ma, the dress is only red. It’s not that dramatic actually.” The lady said, obviously amused at Akudo for referring to what looked like a plain red dress as ‘dramatic’.
“Well, dramatic does not necessarily mean bedazzled-” Akudo began, then stopped herself.
There was no point.
In her line of work, the makeup artist had definitely seen more vibrant and flamboyant outfits. She was likely a flamboyant person herself, but Akudo knew what she was talking about.
Red was a colour that flattered her complexion. She did not need a lot of effort to look striking in it. If she added a vibrant or dark lip colour, she would definitely draw attention.
She wanted to look hot, there was no question about it; but she did not particularly want a lot of attention.
Her phone beeped.
“I’m done ma.” The makeup artist said. She went around Akudo to remove the protective cape that was held together with a thin strip of velcro.
“Thank you.” Akudo said, standing up and going closer to her mirror. “Wow, not bad at all.”
“I wish you had let me do more. You have beautiful eyes, and your cheekbones-” the lady gushed.
“I know you wanted to make me your canvas but I like looking like myself – even with makeup on.” Akudo said, cutting her off.
The lady only smiled and shook her head. She knew she was not going to win that argument.
Akudo opened her mobile banking app, and transferred the lady’s balance payment.
There was a chime, the lady glanced at her phone and thanked Akudo before taking her leave.
“Woooooow!” Odera exclaimed, appearing out of nowhere as he always did. “Mummy! You look beautiful!”
Akudo struck a pose playfully and said “thank you.”
Roselyn simply grinned at her like a proud sister.
Nnamdi, her older son, stuck his head out from behind his baby brother. “Wow. You look really really pretty Mummy.”
“Thank you baby.” She said, tickling his chin.
“You two be good okay? Don’t give aunty Roselyn any trouble alright?” She added, squeezing her flats into her rectangular clutch.
A smaller clutch may have suited her dress better, but she was quite sure that by the end of the night, she would be eager to ditch her heels.
She repeated the last question and the boys echoed a “we won’t.”
She wore her gold-coloured heeled sandals, gold drop earrings, a single studded gold bangle on her right hand and a gold wristwatch on her left.
She smoothed out the beautiful long red dress that hung slightly off her shoulder, exposing her décolletage.
She adjusted the neckline a bit. Even though she had chosen to step out of her norm and go full glam, it did not mean she was comfortable showing cleavage.
She finished her adjustments, stood tall in front of the full-length mirror, and let out a breath.
She almost cried at the reflection that stared back at her.
In University, she was that girl who was most comfortable in a shirt and jeans with sneakers or flats. However, when she needed to, she could dress to the nines. She actually enjoyed dressing up because the look of disbelief on her friends’ faces kept her entertained for weeks!
Then she got married, and the same thing would happen with her husband Edozie. Whenever she would dress up for an occasion, he used to say “I did not think you could get more beautiful.”
Then he died, and there was simply nowhere to dress up to; she was too preoccupied with fending for two boys.
As she stared at her reflection in the mirror, she remembered that girl who had little to worry about, and her whole life ahead of her. That girl who knew she was a little easy on the eyes, but did not have an overinflated sense of self. That girl who had grown into a confident woman that could hold her own in any situation. That woman who death, loss, and the trials that followed had shrivelled into a woman she barely recognized.
Now as she gazed upon her reflection, she saw a little bit of that girl once more, and the woman she was before death took her beloved.
Her eyes welled up.
She reached for the pack of cotton buds that still lay where the makeup artist had left it, and took a single stick. She dabbed at the inner corners of her eyes, until the cotton had absorbed the wetness.
She was not going to cry today.
She was going to enjoy herself, reconnect with old friends, laugh until her sides hurt, and grin until her cheeks ached.
Today, she was going to live.
Akudo scooped up her dress as she ascended the brief flight of stairs that led to the hall in the hotel where the gala was taking place. When she rounded the corner and came upon the doors, she was not sure she was in the right place, but the faint sound of music coming from the door ahead of her gave her some hope.
There were two people at the door: a woman and a man.
She walked up, greeted them and confirmed that she was at the right location. She offered her name and the year of her graduation. They ticked her name off a list, put a red wristband on her wrist, and the man opened one of the double-doors for her.
The sound that boomed out almost knocked her off her feet. Those were the most soundproof doors she had ever encountered.
When she recovered, she looked up and let out a gasp.
The hall was beautifully decorated in balloons and streamers. At the far wall, there was a big banner that held the name of her secondary school and the words “Golden Jubilee Celebration” underneath.
There was a DJ booth off to the far right corner, with large speakers blaring music that spread throughout the hall.
There were people hurdled in clusters, some were screaming in glee upon recognizing old classmates. There was a lot of hugging and smiling.
She paused by the door and scanned the room, looking for faces she recognized.
“Senior Akudo?” A voice shrieked to her left.
Nobody had called her that since…well, since Secondary school. She turned and saw a face she vaguely remembered approaching her in hurried steps.
She braced herself for the impact of the hug just as the young lady pounced on her, and wrapped her arms around her.
“Wow! You look beautiful, and exactly the same!” The lady let out.
“Thank you.” Akudo chuckled.
“You may not recognize me because I am fatter now but it’s Iyabo, your school daughter!” She beamed up at her.
Akudo’s eyes grew wide. “Iyabo Damilola Margaret Oyinloye?” She asked in disbelief, before wrapping her arms around her.
When Iyabo had arrived at their school as a Junior Secondary one student, she was vibrant, full of life, and a little loud – a fantastic target for senior girls who enjoyed tormenting juniors.
She saw Secondary School as an adventure, and knew nothing of the challenges that lay ahead. When she was shown to her dorm room, she went around to each person, seniors included, introducing herself. Each time, she mentioned her full name and ended with “but you can call me ‘Dami’.” Unfortunately, nobody did. She was mocked, and it became a running joke.
News spread far and wide of the obnoxious new student who needed everyone to know she had three names, but Akudo did not think much of it until the day they met.
Akudo had gone to Iyabo’s dorm room to visit her friend who resided in that same room, and walked in on the poor girl kneeling in the middle of a circle of senior students, tears streaming down her face as they took turns ridiculing her.
It was one of the most heartbreaking things she had ever witnessed. She burst into the circle instinctively, pulled her into a standing position and warned all present not to mess with her. Akudo took her back to her room, washed her face with water, gave her some food and told her to come to Akudo if anybody bothered her.
The girl had hugged her, thanked her, and returned the next day, the assistant Headmistress in tow. The Assistant Headmistress politely ordered Akudo to play the role of School Mother to the girl, so she did.
The day Akudo graduated, Iyabo had cried so much. She was so sure her life was going to turn miserable after Akudo’s departure. Akudo had assured her that she would be fine.
The fact that she had blossomed into a beautiful young woman, and had not lost her bubbly nature meant that Akudo had been right.
Unfortunately though, she was, and will forever more be known as “Iyabo Damilola Margaret Oyinloye.”
Iyabo chuckled. “Everybody that has recognised me today has called me that. I don’t know what I was thinking introducing myself like that.”
“You were not thinking, you were just being you; and that was not a bad thing. It’s so good to see you. You look beautiful.” Akudo said, hugging her once more.
“Me ke? You look hot! I know you got married and have children. How did you keep your figure?” Iyabo queried, gesturing towards Akudo’s body.
“Leave that matter abeg. Have you seen anybody from my set?” Akudo asked, changing the topic.
Iyabo pointed out a few to her, and explained that the wristbands given at the door not only had each person’s graduating year on it, but was colour-coded. All she had to do was find people with red wristbands, and she would find her classmates.
After the third round of shrieking, hugging, greeting, and fielding questions about her figure; Akudo was ready for some solitude – just enough to catch her breath. She was very happy she had come. She reconnected with people she never thought she would see again, and discovered that quite a few of them resided in Lagos.
Now that she was making a conscious effort not to be a hermit, she needed to expand her pool of friends.
The Master of Ceremony tapped on the microphone and asked for everyone’s attention. There was a brief speech about old classmates, teachers, and other school staff that had passed on. The speech was followed by a projected slide of pictures of the deceased, as everyone observed a moment of silence.
A few of the faces surprised her, mostly those whose deaths had not been announced on the WhatsApp group.
Her mind wandered as she was reminded of how fickle life was.
Suddenly, her purse vibrated.
She opened it up and pulled out her phone.
Akudo smiled. The man had impeccable timing.
She slid her phone back in her purse, lifted her head back up to the screen, then felt an odd shiver course through her body.
She looked at her arm, and as she suspected, the hairs were standing straight.
It usually happened when someone was staring at her.
She slowly looked to her left.
She turned her head to the right and froze.
Standing about ten feet away, and staring right at her was Nonso Anidiobi.
He gave her a quick once-over, before bringing his eyes back to hers. He thought he had been slick about it, but Akudo caught it.
She looked away and focused her attention on the projector screen ahead of her, but she could feel his eyes on her.
There was a woman on his arm, no doubt his long-suffering girlfriend.
What was he doing here? He had not attended her secondary school; and if his girlfriend had, it would have certainly come up in conversation.
Unless this was a different girl. Perhaps he had done the decent thing, and finally set the other one free.
Akudo stopped a waiter that passed by her with a tray. She did not really need a drink, but she wanted an excuse to look towards her right so that she could take a peek in Nonso’s direction.
The lady on his arm whispered something to Nonso, and excused herself.
Crap. Akudo thought to herself.
With the way Nonso had looked at her, she knew it was only a matter of time before he found his way over to her.
She ignored Ronke’s rule of taking slow, measured, steps when on full glam mode as she walked briskly to a table filled with familiar faces. She was never much of a slow walker anyway. Besides, she had received enough compliments to last her a lifetime, and was perfectly content to call less attention to herself.
“Is this seat taken?” Came the familiar voice, as he pulled out the seat beside her.
Why had she thought this would work?
“Actually,” She began, standing up. “You can have mine.”
A look passed between them, but Akudo did not let hers linger.
“Let me go catch up with some folks over there.” Akudo said to the other people at the table, as she tilted her head towards no table in particular.
She had only made it as far as the bar a few feet away before she felt a hand on her arm.
“Akudo, wait.” Nonso pleaded.
Akudo looked at the hand on her arm, then slowly followed his arm to his face.
Nonso understood, and removed his hand.
“I promise I won’t take much of your time.” He tried again.
Akudo blew out a breath.
There were other activities on the agenda for the night that she was looking forward to, so she did not want to leave. Besides, she was enjoying herself; she was not going to let Nonso ruin it for her.
She turned her body so that she faced him completely. She placed her purse on the bar, leaned her hips against a bar stool, folded her arms and fixed him with a stare.
“You look beautiful.” He began.
Akudo rolled her eyes. She knew he meant it, but it did nothing to thaw the ice wall she had built against him in her heart.
“How have you been?” He ventured.
He sighed, but continued. “I wish things weren’t this way between us.”
“How is your girlfriend?” Akudo asked sharply, her stare so intense he had to look away.
“She is fine. She is around here somewhere.” He said, his discomfort obvious.
Akudo blinked. So he had not broken up with her after all. But what were they doing there?
“What are you guys doing here? I don’t remember you saying she went to my secondary school.” Akudo asked, her curiousity making her sound softer than she had intended.
“She did not. She planned the event. She is an Events Planner. I merely tagged along as her plus one.”
Akudo’s eyes grew wide.
She knew who he was talking about. She had been buzzing about the entire room making sure that everybody was taken care of and satisfied. She even spared some moments to chat up a few people, and get ideas for some games she had planned for later.
She was intelligent, beautiful, very good at what she did, and sweet.
He was a bastard.
“Perhaps I could introduce you two.” Nonso said, scratching his head and looking around.
“As what?” Akudo asked, the scowl returning to her face.
“I’m sorry?” Nonso asked, confused.
“What will you introduce me as? The lady you were happy to break her heart for? The lady you coveted when she was married to your best friend? The lady you could still dump her for?”
Nonso looked away, when he looked back at her, his expression was one of annoyance.
“Look, you made it very clear that you wanted nothing to do with me so in fairness, it is none of your business what I choose to do, and who I choose to do it with.” He let out.
“I don’t care what you do!” Akudo huffed, trying to keep her voice low despite the music.
“Apparently you do. I only came up to you to see if our friendship can be salvaged, but you are standing on some high moral ground turning your nose down at me. You know nothing of my relationship with her, so you have no right to make judgments.” He fired back.
“I actually know of your relationship with her because you have told me about your feelings for her, but what I am upset at is that you thought it was okay to use me to shatter her heart.” Akudo spat, leaning in so that she did not need to raise her voice.
“Akudo-” He began, softening a little.
“Save it.” She said, raising up a hand.
She was in no mood to go down this path with him; but since he was making an effort, it would have been too cruel to snap at him and turn away. However, she needed him to know their journey had come to an end.
She sighed, a bit of the anger melting. “You were good to me, especially when I needed it the most; and for that, I will always be grateful to you. But, we cannot be friends.”
Nonso opened his mouth, and Akudo raised a hand to stop him.
“I know your feelings for me have not changed. They can’t possibly change overnight. Every moment being friends with you is a moment of hope for you. I don’t want to send you mixed signals. There is no hope. I will never have a romantic relationship with you, and even though you think it is none of my business, I refuse to be the direct cause of that young lady’s heartbreak. If you are not man enough to come clean and set her free, then that is your cross to bear. I want no part of it.”
Nonso opened his mouth again.
“There is nothing you can say Nonso, my mind is made up.” Her voice was quieter now, but firm.
Nonso closed his mouth, the sadness in his eyes unmistakable.
She squeezed his shoulder for good measure, grabbed her purse from the bar and walked away.
Two hours later, she had completely forgotten about Nonso. His girlfriend and the Alumni group planning committee had done a fantastic job.
Of course they had to sit through speeches from the current and past serving principals, but after that it was nothing but fun.
There were several games and activities that kept everyone engaged and most times, toppling over in laughter. Everything from the most memorable grammatical blunders that were permanently etched on the walls of the SS 3 block, to crazy things most did just to survive in school. Her favourite was by far the revelations of scandals and juicy gist. That one was consolidated, and reeled out by graduating class.
The graduating class two sets ahead of hers currently had the floor, and the person assigned to read out the scandals was none other than Femi – social prefect and bona fide ‘bad boy’ of his graduating class.
She had not seen him enter the hall, and in all of her mixing and socialising, she had not encountered him. He must have arrived after she did.
She instinctively looked around for Ronke but there was no sign of her.
That was odd.
Femi wore a tailored suit that fit his frame perfectly. Akudo noticed, with amusement, that a lot of women did not bother to hide their attraction to him. Some fanned themselves dramatically, a few broke into catcalls the minute he got on stage, and one pretended to faint when he said his first words into the microphone.
She could not blame them, the man was gorgeous.
Perhaps it was a good thing that Ronke was not here.
When Femi was done going through the scandals of his set, and made to leave the stage, there was an uproar.
Most people, Akudo included, expected most of the scandals to be about Femi; but he had only mentioned one involving him.
Slowly the crowd began singing “we no go gree oh, we no go gree”; the popular chant that was sang back in school when a team wanted to make it clear that they were not going to be intimidated by another.
Femi’s shoulder vibrated in laughter as he turned and backed the crowd, not wanting them to see how hard he was laughing.
The MC, who happened to be in the same set as Femi, took it upon himself to appease the crowd.
He reeled out as much of Femi’s escapades as he could remember. Occasionally leaning into the crowd to be reminded of any he had forgotten.
Femi interjected from time to time, trying to defend his actions but he was always drowned out by the crowd.
He finally gave up, crossed his arms at the wrist in front of him, and listened. He chuckled occasionally, but shook his head a lot as he looked at the MC – his eyes playfully promising revenge.
“Guys, I think we have entered this guy enough. Can we release him?” The MC finally said.
“Yes!” Came the crowd’s loud response.
Just as Femi turned to leave, his path down the stage was blocked by a familiar-looking woman. Akudo knew the face, but the name evaded her.
The woman guided Femi back up the stage, and took his microphone from him.
“Hello ladies and gentlemen. I know we all just agreed to let him go but we cannot do that without one more gist.” She announced.
The crowd went wild with excitement.
“This one was a secret, but a few of us knew about it.” The woman continued. “Does anybody here remember that that there was a brief period in school when Femi seemed to change from his bad boy ways a bit?”
The crowd went a little quiet, loud murmurs going around.
“We were in SS2 at the time, and for some strange reason, he had stopped giving most of us girls face because there was one fine junior that he was fixated with.”
Akudo’s breath caught. This was not happening. She could not possibly mean-
“I think I even saw her here tonight. Femi, do you know who I am talking about?” She said, a mischievous gleam in her eyes as she handed him the microphone.
Femi mouthed the words “I will get you for this” to the woman, before bringing the microphone to his lips.
“Yes I do, and I don’t think it was that much of a secret. Her name was Akudo Nnamani, and I did not change jo.” Femi said, adding the last part a little defensively.
The woman snatched the microphone back, and said “you fell mugu for this girl don’t even lie. That is why my dear friend of blessed memory, Onyi Okoronkwo, made her life miserable until we graduated.”
The surprise on Femi’s face distracted Akudo from the horror that had engulfed her only moments prior.
Had Femi really not known what Onyinye Okoronkwo had been doing to her?
Why did he think she had burst into tears all those years ago, and begged him to leave her alone?
Had he thought she was scared of the scandal? Or of him?
All the people that sat at Akudo’s table turned to her, and one exclaimed “oh my goodness, that’s true! I had forgotten about that.”
Another one said “I remember Onyinye Okoronkwo maltreating you, but I did not know that was why!”
“Oh come on, that’s not true. Now I wish Akudo was here so that she can dispel this rumour.” Femi said, making a face at the woman.
“She is here!” One voice shouted.
Akudo’s eyes followed the voice but before she could say anything, almost everyone at her table stood up and pointed at her.
“Oya, Akudo come and tell us the truth.” The MC called out. “Now I want to see this chic that supposedly had my guy falling mugu.”
Femi gave him a look, and he shrugged. “I remember you changing a bit in SS2, but I no know say na because of woman.”
The crowd erupted in laughter.
The laughter eased the knot that had formed in Akudo’s stomach when she realised that she had no choice but to go up the stage. The alternative would put even more attention on her.
Don’t fall. She repeated to herself as she managed to gracefully walk all the way to the stage despite the eyes watching her.
Ronke would have been proud.
She saw Femi’s eyes grow wide as she approached him where he stood at the centre of the stage.
Her cheeks heated.
“You look beautiful.” He said, as he gave her a light hug and kissed her on one cheek.
It was innocent, but he meant every word.
“Aaaaw.” The MC cooed. “Is there some rekindling going on here?”
“You are just a cow.” Femi said into his microphone, addressing the MC.
The MC laughed, along with the crowd. “Don’t change the topic oh.” He said, walking over to where they stood and planting himself in between Femi and Akudo.
“So Akudo, hi.” The MC began.
“Hello.” Akudo responded, trying not to sound as nervous as she felt.
“Omo the babe na fine babe oh.” The MC said, turning to Femi.
Femi rolled his eyes.
“You sure say this mugu thing no be true?” He continued, turning his attention back to Akudo.
She could not help but chuckle – which was good because it helped with her nerves.
The woman, who had been observing from a corner of the stage, walked over and took Femi’s microphone.
“You people should stop wasting time.” She said, feigning annoyance before turning to Akudo. “Hello Akudo. It’s good to see you. You look beautiful tonight. Maybe after this you will tell me how you have kept that figure.”
A few catcalls went up, and some clapping.
If Akudo was a fairer complexion, she would have gone red in the face.
Nonetheless, it was a compliment, so she took a deep breath, smiled and said “no problem.”
The woman put one arm around Akudo, and continued. “So tell us, did Femi hopelessly fall for you when we were in SS2 or not?”
“Hopelessly” was not the word Akudo would have used, but Femi was definitely enamored with her. He sought her out often, and even offered her gifts. When she had begged him to leave her be, he had begged her to reconsider. It was safe to say he was taken with her.
Akudo glanced at Femi. His expression was…strange. He kept his face lightly amused, no indication that he wanted her to lie; but his eyes kept darting to the right – towards the audience.
Akudo followed his eyes and understood.
Ronke was sitting at one of the tables directly in front of the stage, staring right at her.
Her expression was unreadable. Something like sadness flashed briefly in her eyes, but it was gone almost as quickly as it had come.
There were remnants of fine lines around the corners of her lips – that meant she had been laughing at some point. Perhaps she had taken everything in good faith, as the harmless fun that it was.
Considering that Akudo was not a threat to her relationship, and Ronke had not given any indication that she was; it felt silly to lie. What difference did it make? This was an old story, and it had no bearing on who they were now.
Nonetheless, Akudo was not going to take any chances. Their friendship was already strained, she was not going to risk making it worse.
“I don’t know about ‘hopelessly’ sha, but there was a time he showed interest.” Akudo said, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
“However,” Akudo continued, pulling the microphone back to her lips and taking her volume up a notch. “I was in JS2, and was terrified so I begged him to leave me alone. The speed with which the guy moved on showed me that the spirit of Playerhood was strong in him.”
She glanced back at Femi, who nodded in gratitude ever-so-slightly, before rolling his eyes at the MC who appeared at his side, threw an arm around his shoulder and hailed him as the Robin Hood of Playerhood.
Akudo made to leave the stage, but Femi spoke. “But Akudo, the thing about Onyi Okoronkwo; that wasn’t true right?”
The woman hurriedly brought the microphone to Akudo’s mouth, a knowing grin on her face – eager to see Femi’s face when he realised he was wrong.
“It’s true.” Akudo said. “And you did nothing to stop her.” She added, turning to the woman.
The woman had not seen that coming, and the grin on her face wavered a bit.
Akudo remembered her, but could not remember her name. She had been present a lot of the time when Onyinye Okoronkwo had tortured and humiliated her. If she had not been on the stage longer than she wanted to be, Akudo would have continued to make the woman squirm. Instead, she spread her lips into a warm smile and said “but that’s all in the past. All I want from you is one thing: please help me tell Femi to gan marry.”
She turned away with a grin on her face, and stepped off the stage just as the crowd erupted in laughter and agreement.
“Akudo-two, Femi-zero.” She heard Femi say.
She turned around long enough to stick her tongue out at him.
He had already handed the microphone back to the MC, and was trailing behind her. He likely used the opportunity to escape before the woman and the MC found more things to unearth from his past.
He caught up to her when she was halfway to her seat, and gently guided her towards the bar.
“I know it’s ancient history, but I had no idea.” His face was more serious now.
Akudo only smiled.
“Was it bad?” He asked.
“What difference does it make?” Akudo said lightheartedly.
Femi’s eyes grew wide. “That bad? Wow.”
“Why do you think I got on my knees and begged you to stay away from me?” Akudo asked, when she realised Femi was not going to let up.
“I just thought you were terrified of getting into a relationship, and did not want the attention that would come with dating a senior.” Femi said, his surprise genuine.
“Fair assumption.” Akudo said thoughtfully. “Anyway, it is all in the past.”
Femi shook his head, still reeling from the news.
She smiled. It was sweet of him to still care even though it happened a lifetime ago.
Akudo suddenly remembered. “You should go join Ronke. She probably doesn’t know anybody here, and would likely not enjoy being left alone.”
“Yeah…sure.” Femi said absent-mindedly. He glanced towards the table where Ronke sat, and Akudo did the same. They could not see her from where they stood, but they both suspected she likely had a scowl on her face at that very moment.
Femi took one of her hands and squeezed. “You really do look beautiful tonight. You should let your hair down more often.”
He let go of her hand, and gave her a smile that said what he had not: You deserve to have a life again.
She smiled back, and nodded.
He left her, and headed to the table where Ronke was waiting for him.
The festivities lasted for two more hours. By the time they had opened the floor for dancing, Akudo was yawning.
She looked at her watch and sighed. There was a time when she could stay awake till 3:00AM, but apparently those days were long behind her.
She remained where she sat and bobbed her head to the music, as people stood up to dance.
She would give it maybe 30 minutes, before calling for a taxi.
It was good music and there was no reason she should not enjoy it. No reason not to keep this Cinderella act going for half an hour more before returning to her life as a single mother of two.
A man she only vaguely remembered approached her where she sat, and asked her to dance.
She politely turned him down.
Soon after, another came and she did the same but this one was persistent. When she finally got rid of him, she made eye contact with another man that had been stealing glances her way most of the night.
He turned in her direction, and she swore under her breath.
She pulled out her phone and dialed Timeyin’s number before she could really think about it.
“Hello there!” Came Timeyin’s cheery voice on the other end of the receiver.
“Hi.” Akudo said, a little too quickly.
“Having fun?” He asked.
“I did. It’s winding down now.” Akudo said, turning in the direction of where the man was standing.
He was making his way towards her.
“Hey! I thought you did not use…how did you say it? ‘Crude’ words?” Timeyin teased.
“Sorry. Give me a minute.” Akudo said, too annoyed to be flustered.
She got to her feet, picked up her purse, and walked towards the exit.
The man had already made it to where she was, so she gestured to him to give her a moment as she needed to take the call; but she had no intentions of returning.
Halfway to the exit, she realised she had not said her goodbyes; especially to Femi and Ronke.
Femi was likely aware that her relationship with Ronke was strained, but she was willing to bet good money that Ronke had not told him why it was. This meant he did not know how bad it was and if she left without saying goodbye, it would look worse.
“Please stay on the line Timeyin.” Akudo breathed.
“No problem. I’m here.” He responded.
Akudo made her way towards the tables lined closest to the stage, navigating all the people gyrating their hips to the music.
When Ronke and Femi came into view, Akudo’s steps faltered. Things did not look so good from where she stood.
Femi was standing, an arm outstretched towards Ronke – an invitation to dance. Ronke remained seated, and from what Akudo could see from her face, she looked none-too-pleased.
Femi only lingered for a moment, before turning towards a lady that had been gyrating her hips in his direction.
He let her lead him to the dance floor, while Ronke crossed her arms and averted her eyes.
Akudo sighed, and turned back towards the exit.
Femi was undoubtedly the most popular boy in his graduating class. Most handsome too. His good-looks had improved over the years, and he was yet unmarried. Akudo did not doubt for a second that women had shamelessly flirted with him all night.
Unfortunately, Ronke got a front seat viewing of all of that. These women were Femi’s old friends and classmates; there was no way she would have been able to ward them off without coming across as a jealous, crazy person.
“What’s wrong?” Timeyin asked, concern filling his tone.
“Oh nothing.” Akudo said, sliding the receiver back up to her lips. “I just saw something that made me sad that’s all.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” Timeyin asked, meaning it.
“No. It has been a good night. I want to keep it that way.” Akudo said.
Once she made it outside the hall, she heaved a sigh of relief.
“What is it?” Timeyin chuckled.
“So I am sitting there right, trying to enjoy a few minutes of music by myself before I return back to the reality of my life; and people kept walking up to me and asking me to dance!” Akudo said, lifting one hand for emphasis.
“Music was playing, and the dance floor was open. Is that not normal behaviour?” Timeyin quipped, chuckling some more.
“Very funny. I just wanted to enjoy the music in solitude. I was getting ready to leave anyway, but this one guy just wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” She finished.
“So you called me?” Timeyin laughed.
“Yes. My hand dialed you before my brain processed it. Don’t gloat.” Akudo shot back.
Timeyin went quiet.
When he spoke again, the humour was still there, but not as it was before.
“Need me to come get you?” He asked.
“No.” Akudo said sighing. “I’ll call for a taxi. Thanks though.”
“You didn’t drive?” He asked.
“I don’t like driving to places I am not familiar with – especially at night.” Came Akudo’s response.
“It’s okay. I’ll come. I’m actually visiting a friend close by so it’s no trouble at all. I’ll see you in ten minutes.”
Akudo tried to protest but he hung up.
Akudo was exchanging numbers with Iyabo when Timeyin’s text came in.
He was outside the hotel.
She said her goodbyes to her former school daughter, and walked towards the hotel exit.
She stepped outside and looked to either side of the hotel double-doors before descending the stairs. The parking inside of the hotel premises was full so he was likely parked outside.
She made to take a step and felt the hairs on her hand stand.
She tilted her head upwards, and looked towards the hotel gate and saw him.
That part of the hotel premises was dimly-lit so she could not make out his facial features but she knew it was him.
She walked towards him and as she approached, she caught the look on his face and her steps faltered.
He was looking at her like…like he had never seen anything, anyone so beautiful.
The air around her suddenly felt warm.
“Hi.” She said, coming to a stop in front of him and flashing him as bright of a smile as her warm cheeks would allow.
It seemed to jolt Timeyin out of a trance, and that made Akudo’s cheeks warmer.
“Hi! Wow.” Timeyin let out, getting his wits about him. “You look…” he trailed off.
“Thank you.” Akudo said, averting her eyes.
“…and you were wondering why so many people kept asking you to dance?” He teased.
“Lemme jo!” She said, eyes still averted as she used her shoes to rub at an imaginary speck on the ground.
She suddenly realised she still had her heels on.
“One second let me take these things off.” She said, gesturing with her finger then stepping aside to sit on the bench near the security gate.
“Tee!” A familiar voice shrieked.
Akudo turned in the direction of the voice as Ronke flew past her and flung herself into Timeyin’s arms.
A confused Timeyin stuck an arm out, and braced himself with the gate behind him to keep from falling.
Akudo was not sure what to make of the scene she beheld.
Ronke made a sound that was a cross between humming and moaning as she sqeezed Timeyin.
When she finally pulled away, she left her hands on his shoulders.
“What are you doing here?” She asked.
“I swung by to pick Akudo.” Timeyin said slowly, pushing off the gate and gesturing to where Akudo sat unstrapping her heels.
Ronke yanked her hands off his shoulder so fast that he tilted a little.
“Oh.” Was all that came out of her mouth, as she made eye contact with Akudo, then looked away.
“Hello.” Akudo said, standing to her feet as she slipped on her flats. “You look beautiful by the way.”
Even more confusing than Ronke being unusually touchy with Timeyin, was Ronke pulling away when she saw Akudo. And what was that look on her face? Was it…shame?
Ronke grunted a response, just as Femi appeared behind her.
“Guy how far?” he said, extending a hand to Timeyin for a bro-hug.
“I dey jare.” Timeyin responded, coming in for the embrace. “I hope you guys had fun.”
“Sure did. How far? Wetin carry you come here?” Femi asked.
Ronke huffed and squeezed past them, making sure to bump into Femi’s shoulder as she did.
Femi simply glanced in Ronke’s direction briefly, a bemused look on his face, before gesturing for Timeyin to continue.
“Akudo needed a ride so I swung by.” Timeyin said, his eyes following Ronke as she stormed out of the hotel premises.
“You drove all the way from Yaba to the island to give her a ride?” Femi said, an eyebrow going up.
Akudo rolled her eyes at the insinuation.
“Go jo!” Timeyin groaned, punching his friend lightly on the arm. “I was leaving Osas’ place, and called to ask her how it was going. She said you guys had wrapped up so I offered to come get her.”
“Oh okay.” Femi said. “See you later bro.” He added, extending a hand.
“Sure.” Timeyin said, taking it.
“Goodnight beautiful.” Femi winked at Akudo.
Akudo rolled her eyes, then shook her head as she smiled at him.
“Ready to go?” Timeyin asked, sticking out his arm.
Akudo smiled, and interlocked her free hand with his.
“Actually,” Akudo began when they got to Timeyin’s car. “I really do want to take a taxi.”
“Why?” Timeyin asked, genuinely surprised.
“Promise you won’t make fun of me or argue with me?”
“Promise!” Akudo insisted.
Timeyin looked at her.
The way he looked at her made her a little uncomfortable, but she stood her ground.
“Fine! I promise.” He said, rolling his eyes and throwing his hands up in surrender.
“Well,” she began, resting her back against his car beside him. “My flat is in a compound with other tenants as you know, and I like to respect myself and keep my nose out of people’s business. Same way I prefer for people to keep their noses out of mine.”
“Oookaaaay.” Timeyin said, puzzled.
“So, I moved into that house a widow; and as far as my landlord and neighbours know, I keep to myself and mind my business.” Akudo continued, struggling to get the words out and hoping Timeyin would get the gist.
“Still not seeing what that has got to do with me giving you a ride home.” Timeyin said, still puzzled.
“I…please don’t take this the wrong way, I…just don’t want them to see men coming in and out of my house. I don’t want to be the topic of compound gossip.” She ended, venturing a glance in his direction.
“Oh, I see.” Timeyin said, his expression unreadable.
“I hope you understand.” Akudo said, praying he would. He was a good man, but she had a clean reputation that she wanted to maintain.
“Of course I do.” He said, then added as he looked towards her. “Exactly how many men come and go from your place?
Akudo spun her head to face him, then noticed the sarcasm in his expression.
She whacked him with her purse.
“Ouch.” He yelped in mock pain, a smile spreading across his face.
“You are lucky I don’t have rocks in here.” She said, waving her purse in his face.
“On a more serious note though, you cannot tell me you keep all men at bay because you don’t want your neighbours to get the wrong impression.” He said, glancing at her.
“Of course not. I have a male mechanic, and male relatives that swing by once in a blue moon. What I am saying is that a lot of those faces are one-off and it’s easy to tell what business they have with me. Outside of that, I don’t have male friends that come to the house often.” Akudo said, looking straight ahead.
As she spoke, she realised how ridiculous she sounded. If she were really concerned about what her neighbours thought, then she would have been paranoid every time a man visited her. Hell, she had not even been paranoid when Nonso Anidiobi used to visit frequently. So what was it about Timeyin?
“Oh I see.” Timeyin said, nodding. “I get you now.”
“Sorry. I hope you don’t mind. I really appreciate the offer though.” Akudo said, feeling a little terrible.
“It’s okay.” Timeyin said, reassuring her.
They remained silent for a little while.
Akudo was not quite ready to go home, and she suspected Timeyin was not either.
“So…Ronke just now.” Akudo said, bringing up the topic of the encounter from before.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. That was awkward.” Timeyin said, realising what Akudo was talking about.
“It was obviously to make Femi jealous.” Akudo said quietly.
“Yep! Though I doubt she accomplished that.” Timeyin said simply.
“You sound so sure.” Akudo said, even though she suspected Timeyin was right. If anything, Femi was amused by it.
“Well, aside from the fact that I did not play along, I am pretty sure his reaction would have been different if it had worked. Truth be told, that hug was probably more uncomfortable for me than it was for Femi.” He finished.
Akudo was quiet for a beat.
“I don’t even know what she is so insecure about. She is gorgeous.” Akudo said, exasperated.
“So are you, but I highly doubt that you would be in good spirits if your guy had spent a good chunk of the night socializing and flirting.”
“Oh come on, how do you know he did that? You weren’t even there!” Akudo said, not sure why she was defending Femi.
“I have known Femi for the better part of fourteen years. He is a flirt in a room filled with strangers, I can only imagine what went down tonight.” Timeyin said, looking at Akudo in a manner that implied he wanted her to prove him wrong.
Akudo rolled her eyes and looked away. “In fairness to him, the women were doing most of the flirting, not him.”
“Yeah, but I’m sure he did not push them away. Femi is my guy and I know him. It’s just who he is. He knows where the lines are, and can keep from crossing them if he wants; but he sees absolutely nothing wrong with flirting. Unfortunately, most women in committed relationships don’t share that view.”
“True. Quite frankly I think it’s disrespectful to who you are with.” Akudo conceded.
“I agree.” Timeyin said.
Akudo regarded him, a look of surprise on her face. She looked away before he could notice, and smiled to herself.
He was unlike any man she had ever encountered. His views and thoughts on certain matters, they always seemed to surprise her – in a good way.
“Would you ever have considered dating Ronke?” Akudo asked, not sure where the question had come from and what possessed her to ask it.
“Nope!” Timeyin said without hesitation.
Akudo snapped her head to him. “Not even if things had gone differently that first night?”
“Nope!” He repeated.
Akudo felt oddly relieved, though a part of her felt she should be upset at him for implying her friend was not good enough for him.
“There is nothing wrong with her, don’t get me wrong.” Timeyin began, as though reading her thoughts. “She is just not my type.”
Akudo let out the breath she did not realise she had been holding in.
“You have a ‘type’?” She said, wrinkling her nose at him in jest.
“Yes I do.” He said pointedly. “As do you – if you will let yourself admit it.”
“I would not say I have a type, but I know what I want.” Akudo said defensively.
“Akudo, that’s the definition of having a type!” Timeyin said, chuckling.
She smacked him on the arm.
“It’s getting late.” Akudo sighed. “I need to get going.”
“Yeah. Let’s go get you a taxi.” He offered, then gestured towards the taxi park a few feet away.
Timeyin negotiated with the cab driver, and paid him immediately.
Akudo gasped in surprise, then her features relaxed as he gave her a look that showed that he had always planned to pay for it.
“You really shouldn’t have.” She said, resting her hand atop the open passenger door.
“I know.” He said.
There it was again. That factual way he responded. Not trying to please, not trying to flirt; just saying it as it was.
She did not know why she found it utterly sexy.
She smiled up at him.
“Get in, I’ll see you later.” He said, smiling and gesturing with a tilt of his head.
Akudo was not sure who controlled her legs as she walked around the door, stood on her toes and pressed a kiss to his cheek.
“Thank you.” She whispered as she pulled away.
“You are welcome.” He responded.
She slid into the taxi, scooped up her dress, and he closed the door for her.
She waved to him as the taxi pulled away. He waved back, and looked at her a while before turning back to his car.
Akudo looked away shortly after, then brought her fingertips to her lips.
Heaven help her.
She rummaged around in her bag for her phone. Her smart phone was low on battery; she could not risk it dying while she was mid-conversation, and she needed to talk to somebody.
She pulled out her other phone, grateful that she had taken a purse that could fit both phones. She hurriedly scrolled through her address book, found the name she was looking for and dialed.
“Ifunanya, hi. Can you talk?”
“Sure.” Came her sister’s response. “What’s up?”
“Remember the guy I told you about? The one Ronke was planning to mess with? Timeyin?”
“Yes, I do. What about him?”
“I think I like him. Like, like him like him.”