[Romance Story] Falling In Love With My Best Friend - 9jaflaver

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[Romance Story] Falling In Love With My Best Friend

[Romance Story] Falling In Love With My Best Friend

It all started with fire. The fire that burnt our neighbor’s house started in the middle of the day, the time when most people are at work. But there are those whose place of employment is the home, and thanks to one of such people, a major disaster was averted.

The first person to see smoke billowing from the visitor’s bedroom on the ground floor was the house help next door. The house that caught fire was between two houses: our house was on the left, and the house where this house help lived was on the right.

It was this house help, according to another neighbor, Mrs. Hassan, a retiree who lived further down the street, who began to shout:

“Fire! Fire! Somebody house dey burn o! Make una bring water!”

A flurry of security guards, gatemen, meyguards, houseboys from the neighboring houses, and other people who happened to be at home, pumped with adrenaline, scaled the fence on the side of the alarm-raising house help’s house, which thankfully did not have any barbed wire on it, and attacked the fire with a water hose and buckets of water.

Before they began, one of them had the sense to remove the “cut-out” for the house, turning off the electricity.

This, they later discovered, was a wise move, because the fire was caused by a faulty electronic appliance.

By the time they quenched the fire, it had already destroyed the visitor’s bedroom. However, the flames did not reach the kitchen, which had two large gas cylinders. A real blessing.

My family came home to hear the good news: the fire did not spread to our house. Even better, Mr. Martins, the unfortunate neighbor, and his family would be moving out of the damaged house permanently.

Their moving out brought an end to the nightmare that was Mr. Martins.

You see, while others were busy with family devotion at 5:00am in the morning, this man decided that reggae music was the best way to start his own day. And he would play it at eardrum-bursting levels. Neighbors had called meetings, begged him, and some had even threatened him to no avail.

“For the amount of money I pay as rent in this house, I can play anything I like, whenever I like.” That was his defense.

So when Mr. Martins and his family left our neighborhood, we celebrated. But if we had known who was coming in his stead, we might have been less jubilant.

For months, the house remained vacant and no effort was made to repair the damage.

However, one Saturday morning, we woke up to the noise of a bull-dozer knocking down the entire structure. As we later learned, someone was interested in that property, but that someone did not like the architecture of the house as it stood.

So, the house was knocked to the ground, and a new, ultra-modern, more-pleasing-to-the-eye structure was erected in its place.

One month after its completion, the new owners moved in.

It was the boy I saw first, a smallish, big-headed, weak-looking thing who was probably 9 years old. His name was Tokunbo, and I remember silently making another vow to myself never to marry a short man.

He was the first to climb out of the car, followed by his sister, who was taller than him but was far younger. Her name was Omoyele, and even then, I thought she was beautiful.

Lastly their mother stepped out of the car, but her voice had travelled ahead of her body as she harshly scolded the children for rushing out of the car before her. She climbed out of the passenger seat on the other side, while the driver waited in the car. We did not know they were the new owners until suitcases followed a few minutes later.

It was then we knew they had come to stay.

The owner of the house was Mrs. Kofoworola Williams, a successful business woman, but more so, a trouble maker who was used to getting what she wanted. Ever the social climber, she was the sort of woman whose feet rarely stayed at home.

Once we became aware of these facts, it came as no surprise to us to learn that within a week of moving into our neighborhood, this woman had joined a local Pentecostal church two streets away. Not too long afterwards, all sorts of reports, gist really, began to reach our ears about Mrs. Williams and the dust she was raising in her church.

To be clear, the gist first reached the ears of Rosemary our house help, who then fed the gist in juicy bite-sized morsels to my mother whose appetite for local gossip was legendary.

While they were seasoning the chicken for lunch on Sunday afternoon, Rosemary launched into a detailed account of the latest thing Mrs. Williams had done in church that very morning.

Apparently, after the church service, Mrs. Williams had marched to the Media Ministry’s booth at the back of the spacious church auditorium, and demanded to know why the camera man did not focus on her face, for even one minute, during the two-hour service.

Facing Mr. Lasisi, the head of the ministry, who happened to be the only person available at the time she arrived, she said:

“I pay my tithes and offerings here. So, why didn’t you show me on the telly?”

“I don’t understand Madam,” said Mr. Lasisi, clearly confused. “Is that what you’re here for? Didn’t you come to worship God?”

Waving away his questions, she said:

“Look at me well well.”

Mr. Lasisi who was already looking at her well well nodded his head and said:

“Madam?”

Then, she twirled around slowly, and repeated herself.

“Look at me well well.”

This time, Mr. Lasisi said nothing, but just stared. She continued.

“You see me so? Am I not fine?”

Mr. Lasisi was dumbfounded. Sensing that this was no ordinary church member, he decided to take a calmer approach.

Lowering his voice by several decibels, he swallowed a bit, and said:

“See, Madam, we are not here for–”

“Oga, I said check me well well. Am I not fine?”

At this point, Mr. Lasisi realized she was not trying to get an actual answer from him, but wanted him to listen to her.

“Okay, Madam. I am hearing you.”

A smile spread on her lips and then she said:

“God bless you. Now, as I was saying, I am a fine woman. I don’t need anybody to tell me that. If you look me up and down–” and here, she tilted the well-manicured hand clutching the fuchsia purse at an angle and slowly swiped the air upwards and then downwards, to match the words “up and down,” before proceeding.

“–You can see for yourself. See my dress. Is it not fine?” she asked, referring to the sleeveless shiny gray dress she wore, with its slight V-neck. It stopped slightly above the knee, showing off her long, toned legs.

“Yes, Madam. It’s fine,” said Mr. Lasisi, his eyes appreciating first God’s creation, and then acknowledging the elegance of her dress. He had figured out that she didn’t want him to argue with her. Just listen. The sooner he did, the faster she could finish and eventually, leave.

“Good. You get me,” she said with a smile before continuing. “Now, those people you show on the telly … or TV screen … Whatever you want to call it. Is their cloth finer than my own?”

Without waiting for a response from her only audience, she responded with a booming, “No.”

Then, she said:

“I bought this hat –” she began, pointing with her clutch-wielding hand towards the elaborate fuchsia, wide-brimmed Sinamay hat elegantly placed on her head, “–from London, this shoe–” and here, she pointed again at the matching, pointed-toe, pink leather sling backs that adorned her dainty feet, “–from Italy, and this dress from Paris. You know what? That makes me international. I-n-t-e-r-n-a-t-i-o-n-a-l.”

“So–” here she reverted to a little Yoruba for help, not caring whether or not the man who stood before he spoke or even understood a lick of Yoruba, “–e jowo, e dakun, show me on the telly. God bless you.”

Mr. Lasisi who thought he had seen it all, but apparently hadn’t, responded with:

“We will do our best, Madam. God bless you too.”

That was the story Rosemary told my mother that afternoon, and by the time she finished relating what Mrs. Williams said to other people that same day, the pressure pot containing the seasoned chicken was hissing, signaling that the chicken was cooked and ready for stage two: frying. Stage three, of course, was stewing.

By the time we sat down to lunch that afternoon, I decided one thing: I did not like Mrs. Williams, and I wanted nothing to do with her or her children.

I did not know, however, that life does not ask for your permission before thrusting people into your life.

And that is what happened.

Everywhere I turned, Tokunbo was there. It did not matter where. Whether I went down the road to buy bread for my mother, or to the Mallam on our street to buy sweets, he was there. It happened so many times in just one week that I was convinced that Olorinla was following me.

Yes, Olorinla. That was the nickname I gave Tokunbo, without his knowledge, of course. My younger brother, Yemi, called him “Head of State,” and my older brother, Temitayo called him Olori Ebi, meaning “Head of the family.”

All these aliases and nicknames for a boy we saw but never spoke to.

Until one day.

I was in our yard, one afternoon during the holidays, playing with a skipping rope when I heard a persistent and irritating noise.

Gbao! Gbao! Gbao!

It was so frequent that I knew it was deliberate and well-timed. To my ears, it sounded like a ball was being bounced against the wall, over and over again, and it came from my next-door neighbor, Tokunbo’s house.

My suspicions were confirmed when an object hit my head suddenly, and then landed on the floor, bouncing until it rolled all the way to the gate.

It was a football, one of those black and white, rubber, professional-looking footballs that kids play with when they graduate from soft, rubber balls.

“Yeeee! My head!” I screamed, my hands automatically reaching for my head.

As I massaged the point of impact, I scowled at the fence, and then decided to confiscate the ball. Once it was in my possession, I shouted back across the fence where everything was now quiet:

“Who threw this ball?”

No answer.

“So a ghost did it, ehn? If you don’t talk now, I will burst it.”

At the word, “burst,” I heard the shuffling of feet, and the sound of something being dragged across a short distance. Mild grunting coupled with heavy breathing came next, and then a large head appeared above the top of the fence.

It was Tokunbo.

“Give me back my ball!” he yelled at me, and even stretched out a hand towards me as if he was preparing to receive it.

I ignored the outstretched hand, and instead clutched the ball even more tightly, cradling it under my armpit. I was about to say something to him when a head poked out from a side door. It was my brother, Tayo.

He must have heard me scream when the ball hit my head, and he had come to find out what was going on. My parents had left him in charge of myself and Yemi, my younger brother, who was fast asleep.

“Everything okay?” he queried in a less-than-concerned voice.

“Yes, I’m fine,” I replied.

And then, he caught sight of Tokunbo’s head sticking out over the fence. In a startled voice, he shouted:

“What are you doing there? Get down now!”

Tokunbo did not move or obey Tayo. He simply shouted back:

“She took my ball.”

Suddenly, as if he had just remembered what he was doing indoors, Tayo left me to sort myself out. Clearly, he had no interest in getting involved in this “war” between the neighbor and his little sister.

As soon as he left, Tokunbo shouted again:

“Give me my ball!”

This time, I replied firmly:

“No! You hit me on my head with your stupid ball!”

That was when it clicked in Tokunbo’s head, the thing he had to do to get what he wanted. In a sulky tone, he said:

“Okay, sorry. I didn’t know. Now, give me my ball.”

I relaxed a bit, but still stood my ground.

“Please?” he pleaded.

I finally agreed and told him I would throw it back over the fence. As I was about to do so, I asked him:

“Why are you playing by yourself?”

“But you’re also playing by yourself,” he replied, without answering my question.

“Yes, but that’s because my small brother, Yemi is sleeping. He is the one that normally plays with me.”

After a little hesitation, Tokunbo finally spoke up.

“My daddy used to play ball with me too, but he’s not here. He … he travelled.”

“To where?”

“I don’t know,” replied Tokunbo shrugging his shoulders. But that’s what my mummy told me.”

“When is he coming back?”

“I don’t know.” This answer was accompanied with the same nonchalant shrug that had come with the first “I don’t know.”

“Will be bring you sweets?”

“Give me back my ball now!”

“You better answer!”

“Okay … I think so.”

“Make sure you bring me some or else I will come and take your ball away!” I said before throwing the football back over the fence. I heard it land on the ground in the yard next door, and almost immediately, Tokunbo jumped down from whatever it was he had been standing on, and pushed it back into place.

That was the first time I met a child my age, whose father was never at home. The answers Tokunbo gave to my questions were less than satisfactory. I found myself wondering how his father could have travelled without telling his own son where he was going or when he would be back.

So, I took my worries to the one person in the house who would have answers to my questions: my father.

I was certain he could never do what Tokunbo’s father had done.

I waited for my father to get back from work, take his bath, eat and then settle down to watch the 7 o’ clock news. After news time, the sacred hour when no one dared disturb him, not even Yemi who was two years younger than myself, I went to meet my father. He was wearing these gray fleece trousers and a blue sports jersey.

Even though the floor of our sitting room was heavily carpeted from wall to wall, he still wore his house slippers, something my mother hated and constantly complained about. I crept up to him, got down on my knees and pulled off his slippers. He saw what I was doing and smiled. Then he continued watching TV.

My mother who was sitting at the dining table mending a hole in an old blouse she had refused to give away, thanked me with her eyes. She looked at me approvingly when she saw me take the slippers and put them in a corner of the carpetless dining room.

Then, I went back to my father’s side.

When I was much smaller, I would climb into his lap and talk to him, play with his face, until I fell asleep. But as I grew older, and in his words, became a big girl, I saw those things as childish and left them for the likes of Yemi who was at that moment occupied with lego bricks in the room he shared with Tayo.

I sat down on the floor beside my father’s feet and tugged at his trousers to gain his attention.

“Yes, Enitan? What is it?” he asked, tearing his eyes away from the television screen where a commercial was playing.

“Daddy, I have a question,” I began, wringing my hands together, the way I did whenever I was anxious.

Sensing that my question would take longer than one minute, and deciding that the TV held no further interest for him since the news was over, he got up and turned off the television. Then, he resumed his former position on the single seater sofa.

“Oya, what was your question, Enitan?”

“Daddy, how long should a person travel before they come back?”

“Ahn ahn, Eni, where is this coming from?”

“The boy that lives in that house,” I began, pointing in the direction of our neighbor’s house, “he said his father travelled and hasn’t come back.”

“Why were you talking to him? Ehn? Did you go out without my permission?”

And without waiting for my response, he yelled:

“T-a-y-o! Tayo! Come here now!”

Turning to face my mother, he said:

“You see now, Asake, you see why I don’t like leaving these children alone in this house?”

“E jo, Baba Tayo, don’t drag my name into this matter o! They’re not babies, ke! And wasn’t Tayo supposed to be keeping an eye on them?” She too, called out:

“Tayo! Tayo!”

The sound of hurried feet filled the brief silence after my elder brother’s name left my mother’s lips. Then, Tayo showed up, shirtless.

“Sir? Ma?” he asked turning first to my father and then, my mother.

My father spoke first.

“Why are you not wearing a shirt? What have I said about walking about my house without a shirt?”

“Sorry, sir,” replied Tayo, biting his lower lip. “I was feeling hot. The fan in our room–”

My mother butted in.

“We’ve called the electrician. He’ll come and fix it tomorrow.”

Easing off Tayo’s shirtlessness for the time being, my father cooled off a bit and said to him:

“Weren’t you supposed to look after your younger ones this afternoon? Where were you?”

With surprise written in bold letters all over his face, Tayo replied:

“But I did, sir. I’ve been at home since morning.”

“Then, why was your sister talking to the boy next door?”

“I saw him over the fence! You can ask Enitan, Daddy. Abi am I lying?” he said throwing the ball back in my court.

“Over the fence ke?” my mother cried in alarm. “How did he climb? Where was he going? His mother nko? See, Baba Tayo, you see this is what I don’t like. I’ve been telling you that we should put barbed wire on this fence, but oti o, you will say my mouth is smelling! What if armed robbers had jumped the fence and entered our house?”

“Asake, will you calm down?! Nobody is jumping any fence. This is a safe neighborhood.”

“Safe ke? Nibo? Haven’t you been hearing gunshots? Sometimes even during the day gan-an …. Pa-pa-pa-pa! They will just be shooting as if they’re dashing them bullets in the market. Or will you say you haven’t heard them?”

“Yes,” my father admitted reluctantly, “but it was from other people’s streets, not our own.”

My mother took to mumbling something else, and eventually took her partly mended blouse to her bedroom to finish her sewing there.

Meanwhile, my father dismissed Tayo and once again, we were alone in the sitting room. I then ventured to explain what had really happened that afternoon in my own words.

“Why didn’t you say so since?! You just kept quiet while I was busy blaming your brother? Don’t do that again, Enitan. It’s not good. Silence is just as bad as opening your mouth to tell lies when the truth needs to be spoken.”

I apologized to my father, and he accepted my apology.

“What was it you wanted to ask me again?” he asked as he settled into his favorite chair.

“Daddy, that boy next door, he told me that his father has travelled and he doesn’t know when he is coming back. Why?”

My father sighed deeply. It was the sort of sigh that was a speech in itself, pregnant with meaning.

“I’m sure that’s what his mother told him. But she knows where he is. She does.”

“So why did she tell him that?”

“Because sometimes the truth is bitter. Too bitter. When that boy gets older, he will know the truth. And you know what?”

“What, Daddy?”

“He may actually prefer the lie to the truth.”

That last sentence threw me into further confusion. How could a person prefer a lie to the truth?

Unfortunately for me, my father had reached his question-and-answer quota for the day. He said so in plain terms when I tried to initiate another round of questions.

“That’s enough for today, Enitan. I’m going to my room. Good night.”

I decided to file that question under “Things Mummy and Daddy Cannot Tell Me,” and retired to my room too. As I walked past their bedroom, I heard my parents talking about how Rosemary the househelp had to leave because she had robbed my mother of her jewelry. They resolved never to hire another househelp again.

That day was the first time I spoke to Tokunbo. Or was it the first time he spoke to me?

I continued to run into him on our street, running errands for his mother. But on these occasions, just like before, he never spoke to me. Likewise, I pretended not to know him.

A few months later, I heard from my parents that Tokunbo had been accepted at Federal Government College, Ijanikin, right there in Lagos.

The day he left for Ijanikin, I saw him through the window of one of the bedrooms upstairs. I saw him and the gateman load a bucket, broom, hoe, cutlass, portmanteau and a few other curious-looking items into his mother’s Pajero. With all the farming implements that followed him to school, I imagined Ijanikin was a breeding ground for farmers.

Regardless of what I thought, I will never forget the bereft look on Tokunbo’s face as he dragged his feet into the back seat of his mother’s car.

Just before he got in, I saw his sister, Yele wearing a pink dress with blue roses, crying and hanging onto her mother’s expensive-looking lace wrapper, and saying:

“I don’t want him to go! Who will play with me? When will I see him again?”

“Don’t worry. Mummy will bring you for visiting day. Stop crying, you hear?” said Tokunbo, rubbing her head in a soothing manner.

Then, he got into the car, and was gone.

That was not the last time I would see Tokunbo Williams.

I saw him on and off over the next few years, whenever he was home for the holidays. It seemed like every time I laid eyes on him, he had grown a few inches taller and his head kept shrinking until it did not seem so disproportionate to the rest of his body.

Even my parents who saw him would comment on how they didn’t know what Tokunbo was eating because he just kept growing tall like an Iroko tree.

What else could they compare him to? As tall as a mango tree? No. It had to be the Iroko.

Unlike the other times before he went to boarding school, he started to say “Hello,” and sometimes, “Hi,” to me whenever we passed each other on our street. Every now and then, he would even throw in a smile with his brief greeting.

But sighting Tokunbo was so rare in the first place that these chance meetings did not seem important.

Not then.

But one day, everything changed.

On a Sunday afternoon, someone came knocking at our gate.

Unlike Tokunbo’s mum who had a full-time gateman on duty at her house, the duties of answering the gate were shared between me and Yemi, my younger brother, since Tayo had gone to boarding school at Federal Government College, Ogbomosho.

I was attending a secondary school in Lagos as a day student, and Yemi was just finishing up primary school.

That day, I answered the gate and was shocked to see who was standing in front of me. It was Mrs. Williams, Tokunbo’s mother.

I could not hide my surprise, and almost forgot my manners.

“Goo-Good Afternoon, ma,” I said to Mrs. Williams with a slight curtsy. If her presence at our gate was not enough shock for me, Mrs. Williams a.k.a Mama Tokunbo, shocked me even further when she returned my greeting with an exuberant,

“Ah, how are you my dear?” and actually tried to hug me. I took two steps backwards in fright.

Where on earth was the real Mrs. Williams and who was this impostor?

Two questions I would apparently never get answers to just gawking at her by the gate.

You see, Mrs. Williams was the selectively snobbish type. If you greeted her on an exceptionally good day, she might wave at you, manage a smile and go about her business.

On most days, she simply ignored my greeting altogether and pretended to be suffering from a temporary loss of hearing.

I had complained about Mrs. Williams’ bad habit to both parents on several occasions and the advice each parent gave me was unquestionable proof of the profound difference in their personalities.

My mother advised me to stop greeting her because respect was reciprocal and in her words, “it is not by force to greet people.”

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, my mother had suffered the same rubbish treatment from Mrs. Williams and had stopped greeting her. Her decision would be revised if and only if Mrs. Williams happened to greet her first.

That life-changing event was yet to happen.

But my father took a different approach.

“Just continue greeting her. It’s the way we raised you. You don’t want to get used to being disrespectful to your elders.”

“But Daddy, respect is reciprocal,” I protested. “Why should I bother greeting a woman who has no intention of returning my greeting? I might as well greet the broom, the dustpan and the rake in the yard!”

“No, Enitan you can’t do that. She’s older than you. Greeting an elder is not a suggestion. It’s a requirement. Remember you will also grow to be her age one day and you won’t like it if young people withhold their greeting from you.”

I did not argue with my father on the issue anymore, but my prevailing thought at the time was:

“Well, I won’t be a bitter 40-something year old who is too big to open her mouth and respond to the greeting that’s being offered to her.”

Without telling either parent, I took a decision and picked my mother’s advice. I resolved to greet Mrs. Williams, if and only if she greeted me first.

Or at least, until she snapped out of her selective deafness.

I had gotten used to this “Greet today, No answer tomorrow” relationship with this woman, with her lack of response to my greetings forming the majority of my experience.

But that Sunday afternoon was different.

This woman wanted something.

She did not fool me for even one second.

What that something was that had forced her to start acting all familiar, I was determined to find out by hook or crook.

“Mummy and Daddy nko? Are they around?” Mrs. Williams asked in a voice that suggested that like a good detective, she had made sure that whoever she was coming to see was at home and not out visiting or running errands.

But since she asked, I had to answer.

“Yes, ma. They’re both at home.”

“Oh, that’s great! I need to speak with them,” she said, stepping into our compound, and waiting for me to lock the gate before leading her indoors.

From the gate to the sitting room, Mrs. Williams fired questions at me, the kind of questions that adults seem to carry everywhere with them and reserve for anyone they categorize as a child who ought to be in school.

“How is school?”

“Your teachers nko?”

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“Are you facing your books?”

The last question was uttered in a tone that suggested that while a young girl was in school, she had only one option: face book, or face belle.

In case I doubted her, she made herself clear when she explicitly stated, just before we set foot on the threshold of the house:

“Don’t listen to all these small small boys. Face your books. Girls who don’t face their books will end up pregnant.”

I wondered if Mrs. Williams had offered the same unsolicited piece of advice to her own daughter who as young as she was, had started getting considerable male attention, mostly from the same pre-teen guys in her age group.

To all her questions, I gave her the briefest answers possible, speaking in monotones when I could help it. But nothing could dampen her mood.

Oh, Mrs. Williams was certainly on a mission. A small fry like me was not going to stand in her way.

As soon as I took her to the sitting room, I ran upstairs to inform my parents who were relaxing in their bedroom, that they had a visitor.

My father immediately sprung to action, getting up and wearing his leather slippers as he prepared to go downstairs. My mother, however, who until then had been gisting excitedly with my father, said in a crumpled tone:

“I’m not coming. Baba Yemi, you can go and talk to her.”

“Ahn ahn, Asake, don’t do that! Let’s go together. Whatever she has to say must be very important for her to come and see us like this,” said my father.

“Too bad. That woman doesn’t deserve the courtesy of my presence. She won’t greet or answer my greeting as if they have glued her lips together, but now, she knows how to carry her wogo wogo legs into my house when she needs something, abi? Baba Yemi, please attend to her. I’m not coming,” said my mother firmly.

“Okay. So … so what do I tell her? She knows you’re at home. I’m sure she will ask for you.”

“Tell her I’m sleeping, or don’t people sleep in their houses again?” said my mother, grabbing a magazine and propping herself up on a pillow as she flipped it open.

My father sighed and shook his head sadly before leaving the room.

He went to the sitting room and greeted Mrs. Williams who unsurprisingly returned his greeting. She refused all offers of drinks or any kind of refreshments, saying that she had something important to discuss with him.

While they were exchanging pleasantries, I had slipped out of the house and made my way quietly to the side of the house close to the window of the sitting room. I had brought a single companion with me: an apoti.

It was the same wooden stool my mother always sat on when she was plucking tete and soko. For some odd reason, she always plucked gbure standing on her feet.

With my apoti positioned strategically under the window, I sat on it and listened.

Mrs. Williams cleared her throat and said:

“What about Madam? Isn’t she around?”

“Oh, she’s sleeping,” said my father.

A brief silence followed and then, she went straight to the point.

“It’s Tokunbo I’ve come to see you about, Mr. Ladoja.”

Although I had had no idea why on earth Mrs. Williams would want to pay my parents such an unexpected visit, I was still very shocked when I heard the subject of her discussion with my father: Tokunbo.

What did he have to do with us?

I listened closely knowing the answer was forthcoming.

“Mr. Ladoja, it’s Tokunbo o,” she began in response to my father’s question, “What is it?” As she let out the third deep sigh in a row, I could imagine the strong scent of her perfume – a musky scent – filling our antiquated, yet comfortable sitting room.

As I listened, I heard my father in a low tone encouraging her to speak.

As if she needed any convincing!

However, she took his words to heart and spoke up.

“You know Tokunbo’s father and I are no longer together,” she began in Yoruba. In fact, the entire conversation was rendered mostly in Yoruba, with English playing a minor role.

“Oh, sorry to hear that, Madam. I didn’t know.”

“Ah, it’s okay,” continued Mrs. Williams, in a mournful tone, as if the man had just left her that very afternoon, when in fact, they had been divorced even before she and her children moved to our neighborhood.

I could almost have hissed from where I sat.

But I didn’t.

She continued.

“And I’ve been managing all these years with these children. I’m not complaining o, after all, they’re my own children. God gave them to me.”

“Right …” said my father, who had taken a seat opposite her, an observation I had made before taking my seat on the apoti.

“But you know Tokunbo is growing up … he’s growing fast and he’s a boy. He needs someone to … someone to look up to,” said Mrs. Williams, slowing down a bit, and choosing her words with added care. “He doesn’t have a father, but … You see, I thought of you–”

“How do you mean?” said my father, a ring of alarm in his voice.

I could have asked the same question. What was this woman driving at? What did my father have to do with Tokunbo’s upbringing?

“Yes, sir. I mean … When he came home for mid-term, Yele … She’s my daughter … She went with him to Iya Kafilat’s place and told me … I hope you don’t mind, sir–”

“No, no. Go on.”

“Okay, she told me that she saw you advising Tokunbo to stay away from the bad boys, those delinquents in this neighborhood. You know them, sir,” said Mrs. Williams, making as if she was about to start reeling off their names and vital statistics one by one.

But my father stopped her and said he remembered the day.

I had no idea of this meeting between my father and Tokunbo, but I made a mental note to somehow extract more details from him in a way that would not expose the fact that I had even overheard this conversation.

Meanwhile, my father took over the discussion briefly and re-capped exactly what he had told Tokunbo that day.

“Iya Tokunbo, you see, I was just strolling down the street that evening just to, you know, get some fresh air, when I saw a group of those boys, smoking and drinking at Iya Kafilat’s shop.”

Iya Kafilat was the owner of the convenience store which was closest to us. Hers was not the only one on our street or in our neighborhood. Not by any means.

But it was her shop that was closest to our own end of the street. In short, she put the “C” in convenience, at least for those who valued it and had no intention of traveling over any long distance to buy regular household commodities like soap, bread, sugar and toilet paper. Apart from these items, Iya Kafilat also sold soft drinks.

However, against the wishes of a few people in the neighborhood, she also sold beer and other “hot drinks”, which according to these dissenters, attracted the wrong crowd of people, mostly men, to our street.

When she started her business, she put a single bench outside her store for occasional patrons who wanted to relax and enjoy their beverage of choice. But as business picked up, Iya Kafilat’s shop got a face lift as she expanded. She rented the empty plot of land beside her shop, got the owner to cement a portion, which was better than his original plan to just add gravel to the lot. Then, she bought several white plastic chairs and tables, along with complimentary yellow umbrellas. These improvements essentially transformed her shop from a mere convenience store to a local hangout.

Eventually, when she started selling beer and hot drinks for the sake of extra profits, there was a steady trickle of shady-looking people, drop-outs and ruffians, the sort of people who parents usually warned impressionable young people to stay away from.

It was one these shady characters who was calling Tokunbo by name, the day my father happened to be passing by.

“I called him when I saw him going towards them,” my father continued, “and pulled him aside. I know you raised Tokunbo well because he greeted me so-o-o well. He almost prostrated for me and I said to myself, that boy has good home training.”

“Ah, Daddy, e se o,” said Mrs. Williams in a cheery tone. I imagined she was smiling as she thanked my father. “I’m really trying my best,” she said.

“But I told him that those boys are glorified criminals, awon omo jaku jaku, and he should never answer them again, no matter what they ask him to do. Iya Tokunbo, can you believe he did not even interrupt me? All he kept saying anytime I paused was “Yes sir, yes sir.” Oh, Tokunbo is such a good boy!”

I noticed that while my father was praising Tokunbo this time around, his mother was unusually quiet.

Something was wrong, and the next words that sprung from her lips confirmed my suspicion.

“Hmm … Daddy, wahala wa o!” said Mrs. Williams bringing my father’s praise train to a grinding halt. “The Tokunbo you met that day is no longer the same Tokunbo o.”

“Ehn? What do you mean? Between mid-term and now, you’re telling me he has changed?” said my father, disbelief coloring his voice.

“He has been that way since the beginning of this term. I don’t know why. He won’t tell me anything. Mr. Ladoja, Tokunbo’s grades have dropped, he has been fighting in school and has gotten into so much trouble I’m afraid the school will soon ask him to withdraw.”

“O ti o! It can’t be!” my father shouted. “Which Tokunbo? The same Tokunbo who was so respectful? No, it cannot be.”

“Daddy, it’s true o. You don’t know the children of nowadays. They can be very cunning. I am scared, Daddy … I am so scared for this boy. That is why I have come to see you, sir. Please don’t let this boy spoil in my care–”

And here, I heard some movement. I could not tell what was going on, until I heard my father vehemently insisting in loud tones:

“No, no, no! Please get up! Get up! You don’t have to do that, ke. E dide! What is so terrible that you have to do that?”

I knew I could picture what was going on, but curiosity got the better of me. Risking getting caught, I rose to my feet and peeped through the window into the sitting room.

What I saw was exactly what I had imagined.

Mrs. Williams was on her knees, both hands fiercely latched onto my father’s ankles, shaking with sobs, begging him to help her.

Over and over again, she pleaded:

“Daddy …. e jo o! E ran mi lowo. He’s my only son. Please, Daddy! I don’t know who else to turn to.”

I couldn’t believe it.

This was the same Mrs. Williams who, it seemed, drank a potent brew of pride, liberally mixed with snobbery, every day, and yet here she was in our sitting room, begging my father for help with her troubled and apparently, wayward son.

On her knees too!

Wonders shall never end.

Eventually, my father succeeded in convincing her to take her seat and calm down.

A white handkerchief mysteriously appeared from somewhere on Mrs. Williams’ person, and she began to dab furiously at her eyes. Then, she decided that maybe she should resume begging, but my father foresaw it and leaping to his feet, told her to stay seated.

At that point, I could tell my father was conflicted.

He would have wanted my mother to be there to support him, but she had already stated her position with respect to Mrs. Williams. This raw display of vulnerability and helplessness by Mrs. Williams completely disarmed my father, but it might not have had the same effect on my mother who was tougher to deal with than my father.

So, Mrs. Williams sat down and awaited my father’s verdict.

But not in silence. No.

She kept talking in spurts.

“Tokunbo … He has no father. I mean, his father left us. His uncles don’t care. They never liked me before I married their brother, Tokunbo’s father. And Tokunbo too … He doesn’t listen. Even if … e jo … Daddy, e ran mi lowo, sir! Look at your own sons. They listen to you.”

“Madam, it is by God’s special grace alone that me and my wife have raised these children. It’s not our doing.”

“Yes, sir. But you can help. Please don’t let my son lose his way. Don’t let this boy become a vagabond.”

Seeing that these words were the likely precursor to a fresh round of pleading coupled with heavy sobbing, my father preempted the emotional landslide by holding up his hands and telling her to calm down before saying:

“Alright, Madam. So, how do I help?”

That was all she had been waiting for. Her tearful voice suddenly became sharp and even retained some of the grit we had come to associate with Mrs. Williams.

“Yes, sir … I was wondering if maybe you could … could mentor him, sir.”

“Mentor? How? We’re not even related and how are you sure that’s all he needs?”

“He listens to you sir. Right now, that is plenty. And you live right next door to us.”

“But isn’t Tokunbo in Ijanikin? How will I mentor or advise him from here?”

“Emmm … You see, sir, this will be Tokunbo’s last term at Ijanikin. I have made arrangements to transfer him to a private school nearby.”

“Oh, so he won’t be in boarding house again?”

“No, sir. He’ll be a day student, going to school from home so that at least, I can keep an eye on him.”

“I see …. I see,” said my father. I could tell that he was weighing the options and processing what Mrs. Williams had just told him.

A long silence followed, punctuated every now and then with Mrs. Williams’ dry sniffles. Even if she was still dabbing at her eyes with that handkerchief, there were no more tears now.

“Okay, Madam. Here’s what we’ll do. I will need to discuss this with my wife–”

“O-Okay, sir,” said Mrs. Williams. I could hear more than a hint of glee in her voice.

“–And we’ll let you know our decision. I know it’s me you have asked to help, but I’m sure you know I can’t take this decision without my wife’s support. So, don’t worry,” said my father, exhaling as he rose to his feet. I suppose she took the hint and did the same, as she thanked my father profusely, showering blessings on him and my mother.

“No problem, Madam. Ma a ranse si yin. I’ll let you know before the middle of the week. Set your mind at ease, okay?”

“Daddy, e se gan-an o. God will continue to empower you and strengthen you, sir. You won’t use your eyes to shed tears over your children. God will continue to give you more and more wisdom, sir,” Mrs. Williams chirped sweetly. My father responded with “Amin,” at the end of each prayer.

As he walked her to the gate, he inquired after her daughter, Yele.

I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but I heard her say,

“–You know girls are easier. She tells me everything.”

And even then, I knew that couldn’t be true. No girl tells her mother everything especially girls of her age.

Still, Yele had gone through a lot of trouble to give her mother that impression.

However, I wasn’t concerned with Yele.

Tokunbo and the troubling news his mother had brought to us were foremost on my mind that afternoon.

Who would’ve thought? Quiet, supposedly shy Tokunbo was a terror in school.

“Looks can be deceiving,” I concluded.

After Mrs. Williams left, my father returned to his room, and the minute I heard the air-conditioner in their room come on, I knew he had started giving my mother the load-down of the Tokunbo-inspired gist.

Turning on the A/C was something my parents did whenever they wanted to have a truly private discussion in their room. The hum of the 2nd hand, Tokunbo A/C was usually effective at drowning their voices, especially since they had to shut the windows of their room for the cool air to circulate.

It did not occur to me to listen to my parents’ conversation. I knew what my father was going to tell my mother, anyway.

I sat downstairs, pretending to read a novel, waiting patiently for my mother’s reaction.

It came swiftly.

“Ki le wi?! Mentor tani? Nibo? Not in this house! Baba Yemi, I said not in this house!” she thundered.

I could hear my mother’s voice firing angry words at my father, blaming him, scolding him for even giving that woman audience.

“You should’ve driven her away with a stick! That’s how people drive away wild animals!”

“But Asake, aren’t you a mother? How can you talk like that?”

“Baba Yemi, yes, I am a mother. Abiyamo ni mi. But this woman is up to something. This is just a cover up for something else. Don’t you see it?”

“See what? You’re over-reacting, blowing things wayyy out of proportion, as usual. Thank God you stayed here.”

“What does that mean? Ehn, Baba Yemi? Or are you in cohorts with her? Are you planning to take a second wife? Abi, is that your plan? Like father, like son.”

“Asake, I’m not going to argue with you over this. I am tired of telling you that I’m nothing like my father.”

“So what is in this for you? Why don’t you just let her be? Doesn’t she have relatives who can mentor her own son? Don’t tell me she doesn’t have brothers or uncles or cousins or even pastors who can help her. Anyone else but you. Why must it be you, her neighbor?”

“There’s nothing in this for me. I have the opportunity to help re-direct and reform the life of a troubled young man and I will do it. You know me well, Asake. I will do it.”

“E pele o, Mr. Reform and Re-direct! Have you finished training your own sons?”

“Wo, Asake, leave this matter. I’m hungry. What are we going to eat this afternoon?”

“Food? With the matter on ground you still want to eat? See this man! Go and meet Mama Tokunbo to feed you, se gbo mi?” said my mother.

I heard the jingle of keys and the stomp of angry feet.

“Where are you going?” my father demanded.

“Oh, don’t you know? I’m going to the market, of course! I will go and buy a B-I-G sign board that says “Boys’ Reformatory Home” ehn … Then on my way back, I will call Rasaki, that useless carpenter who is a disgrace to his profession, to come and … Gbo! Gbo! Gbo!” said my mother imitating the sound of a hammer hitting a nail on wood, “–place the sign above our gate. And in a few days, that sign post will collapse like that rickety dining table Rasaki made for us. May it fall on your head and Iya Tokunbo’s head! Nonsense! E ka re o! Baba Reformatory.”

Then, she hissed and walked out.

As she neared the bottom of the stairs, she called my name and I responded. Glaring at me, she said:

“Oya you, come and open the gate for me. Do quick!”

I obeyed and watched her car disappear down the street in a fury of screeching wheels.

“E-n-i-t-a-n!” my father called.

“Sir!” I replied.

“Put water for eba on the fire for me. That efo your mother made three days ago, is it still remaining?” he called out from the top of the stairs.

“Yes, sir!”

“Warm it up for me, kia kia. Nobody will starve me in my own house.”

As I hurried to the kitchen to put my father’s meal together, there was only one person on my mind: Tokunbo.

By the time my mother returned to the house later that evening, the Tokunbo issue had shifted from the forefront to the back burner of my mind.

However, Tokunbo’s name came up increasingly in conversations in our household over the next couple of weeks. The irony was that we spoke about Tokunbo more times than we spoke to him.

Before Tokunbo’s return from boarding school, and in fact, the day before he was due to come back home, I witnessed something strange happen next door.

My final exams finished early on Friday afternoon. Because of this impromptu change in schedule, I arrived home two hours earlier than usual.

As I approached our house, happily munching on a strawberry wafer, I noticed a man standing outside the Williams’ residence. He was banging on the gate with so much fury that I expected his knuckles to crack open and bleed before I reached our house. Between bouts of frantic pounding, he shouted:

“Open this gate! I said, Open this gate now!”

My shock was on two levels: first, the Williams, as I have already mentioned, had a dedicated gateman, a forty-something year old man whose visible duties included tending to the gate and providing basic security for the house. Mr. Felix, as he was known, was a no-nonsense person, rarely seen away from his duty post. So, where was he while this visitor was making such a loud racket?

Second, as I walked past this man, my nose caught a very strong smell. The first thought that came to mind was “this man is hiding stacks of kpomo under his shirt.” But when I considered that he must have been pounding at that gate for several minutes, I quickly shredded that idea. Any hidden kpomo would have broken free and dropped to the ground by now.

No, that smell of raw cow hide had to be leather. This was the only conclusion that made sense. And my nose agreed with me.

But there was still something my nose could not handle: the intensity of the smell of leather. It was not the typical smell that greeted your nose when you walked past a person wearing apparel and accessories made from genuine leather.

No, this smell was far more intense, as if this person was a leather tanner by profession. Or perhaps, he worked at a leather factory. Whatever it was, I could not tell by looking at him which of these possibilities, if any, was correct.

As I walked past him to the gate of our house, I drank in his appearance with my eyes: tall, too thin, surprisingly clean shaven with shabby clothes that looked like they had not been bought brand new, and had seen too many buckets of soapy water.

He wore brown leather sandals, and even from the distance where I stood, I could see the hand of more than one cobbler, where they had struggled to patch and re-patch these shoes.

But perhaps, the most striking feature from my cursory inspection of this person, was his skin: smooth, dark and glistening with health in spite of his leanness, he had an even complexion from head to toe, a rich shade of dark chocolate that made his white teeth stand out and appear brighter.

Unfortunately, I could also smell fresh sweat mixed in there with the powerful scent of leather.

Nobody came to the gate and there was no answer from inside the house. I knew for a fact that the gateman and house help were indoors. So, why were they ignoring this man?

“They have to be acting on Mrs. Williams’ instructions,” I concluded.

When I got to our gate, I was going to pull out my key and let myself in, until I heard him say:

“Excuse me, do you live here?”

All this while, I had observed him sideways and from behind. But as I whipped around to respond to him, for the first time, I came face-to-face with this man. As soon as my eyes fell on him, a gasp escaped from my mouth. I held a hand over my mouth to hide my surprise, but my eyes betrayed me nonetheless.

“Tokunbo?”

My question was a whisper because my hand still covered my mouth. The man laughed as he wiped his brow with the back of his hand, shutting his eyes briefly. For a moment, I caught a glimpse of how he would look asleep. I couldn’t help thinking that this was how Tokunbo would look when he was sleeping. When he opened his eyes again, his lips parted and a soothing voice said:

“People say we look alike, but no, I’m not Tokunbo. I am Mr. Oladipupo Williams, Tokunbo’s father.”

That explained it!

I heaved a sigh of relief, breathing a little easier. Thank God this man spoke because I couldn’t imagine how Tokunbo could’ve aged 30-something years overnight. Granted, Mr. Williams did not have any wrinkles, but his age was written as plain as day on his face.

“So, Tokunbo’s father is back from wherever he travelled to,” I thought.

But the man who stood before me did not look like someone who had travelled and returned. In fact, he looked like a typical Lagosian, and his intonation did not suggest that he had spent a protracted period of time outside Lagos.

What was he doing here on a Friday afternoon? I had no idea, but I certainly wanted to know.

Seeing that my mind had wandered again, Mr. Williams repeated his question.

“Do you live here?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. “Isn’t there anyone at home?”

“I was just about to ask you the same question. Don’t they have a meyguard or house help? Why is nobody answering?” he said, before hopping nimbly back to the spot he had occupied for minutes before I arrived. Thankfully, he did not resume his noisy knocking. Instead, using his hand as a shade, he peered into the spacious compound through the narrow space between the concrete fence and the metal gate.

No sign of life.

“I’ve been standing here for almost 20 minutes and nobody has answered. But I can see cars parked inside,” he lamented.

“Don’t you have their phone number, sir? Maybe you can try calling them,” I offered.

“No, I don’t have it. Do you?” he said looking at me hopefully.

“No, sir,” I lied.

Of course, I had the Williams’ house phone number stored in my memory. I had memorized it the day my father asked me to write it down in his address book. That day pre-dated Mrs. Williams’ recent visit to our home.

But, I could foresee getting scolded for giving a complete stranger the phone number of our cantankerous neighbor. And also, I only had it on his word that he was Tokunbo’s father. I still had no proof beyond his testimony and the uncanny physical resemblance that he was indeed the father of my neighbor.

“Okay. I see,” he said, before pulling out a multi-colored stack of sticky notes from the back pocket of his trousers. A pen followed, extracted from the shirt pocket of his faded, cream-colored shirt. Having assembled his writing implements, he quickly scribbled a short note.

I waited, thinking he would hand it over when he had finished. But he didn’t. He just stuck the note which he had written on a bright green sticky note onto the gray gate of the Williams’ residence. I wondered if the wind would snatch it and carry it away, but that did not happen.

After completing this task, he came back quickly to where I stood and pulled out a crumpled brown envelope from the side pocket of his once black trousers. Now, they looked closer to dark gray.

It seemed odd to me that a man who looked like he struggled to eat three square meals a day was gallivanting all over Lagos with his pockets filled with stacks of colorful self-adhesive paper. He even had a pen to go with it, even if it was one of those Eleganza pens that often left ink stains on clothes.

There were no ink stains on Mr. Williams’ person. However, he held that brown envelope so delicately that it seemed like it was really his own heart that was wrapped in paper, tucked away in that envelope.

“You know Tokunbo, don’t you? Tokunbo Williams?” he said, although it sounded less like a question and more like the affirmation of a fact.

“Yes, sir. I do,” I replied. I should have added that I knew Tokunbo’s face and not his person but that would have been irrelevant.

“Can you please give this to him for me? It’s very important,” he said, pushing the envelope towards me.

I stood there, considering his offer, not wanting to get mixed up in what appeared to be a messy family affair. But the sorry state of this man moved me and against my better judgment, I agreed to help him.

As I stretched out my hand to collect the envelope from him, he withdrew his hand and said in a very serious tone:

“Please, this is very important. See to it that only Tokunbo gets it. No one else.”

“But sir,” I protested, “Tokunbo is not back from school. Can’t I just give it to your daughter, Yele, instead?”

He laughed a dry laugh and then said to me:

“So you too think she’s my daughter, abi? No way! Yele is not my daughter, though a lovely girl like that would make any father proud.”

I was confused.

Yele and Tokunbo had different fathers?

Unbelievable!

So, Yele is not Mr. Williams’ daughter? Is she even Tokunbo’s biological sister? Are they even related?

One thing was certain: the person who knew the answers to these questions was Mrs. Williams.

“Oh, I didn’t know, sir,” I said apologetically. “I just assumed–”

“That’s okay. Most people do. But don’t give this letter to Yele. Only Tokunbo.”

“But, sir–”

“Please promise me you’ll do it,” he said, grabbing my shoulders. For a moment, he had this wild look in his eyes that utterly terrified me. There was no way I could refuse him.

I nodded vigorously and that was when he released me.

A smile softened his haggard features and for a moment, I saw Tokunbo as a child in his face. I recalled the ball incident and how Tokunbo had told me that his father had traveled.

Was he back for good?

As he turned to leave, he whipped around suddenly and said:

“By the way, what’s your name?”

“Enitan, sir,” I replied.

“What a lovely name! If I had a daughter, I would name her Enitan,” he said, sealing the compliment with a smile.

As he turned to walk away, I called out after him:

“Sir, what if I can’t give it to Tokunbo?”

“Then, you’re free of your promise. I trust you to keep your word.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied, as he turned and left.

As he disappeared down the street, I gazed at the letter in my hand. In the man’s firm, impish handwriting were written two words:

For Tokunbo

And as I looked at it, the burden of the task ahead weighed me down. I had to deliver this letter, which contained Lord-knows-what to a boy I had barely spoken to, from his estranged father.

What on earth had I gotten myself into?

There was no doubt in my mind that two people existed on this earth who would not be hearing of my encounter with Tokunbo’s father: my own parents. They would thoroughly scold me for accepting to deliver a letter from a man who for all intents and purposes was a complete stranger.

Not only that, but this man had been absent from the life of his son until now.

Why all of a sudden was he trying to contact the son he had all but abandoned all these years? And who was Yele’s father? Was Mrs. Williams really Tokunbo or Yele’s mother?

I didn’t have answers. Just a myriad of questions.

And then there was that more pressing, more urgent issue, the problem Mr. Williams had left me to solve: how to deliver the letter from father to son.

“Oh-oh! Why did I agree to deliver this letter now?” I asked myself over and over again. The longer I stared at the envelope that had been entrusted to me, the more I wished I could physically kick myself for accepting this assignment.

“Na who send me message? Ta lo ran mi nise?”

By nightfall, the question still remained: how would I deliver this letter to Tokunbo, especially without anyone’s knowledge?

At the time, I was unaware that Tokunbo was due back home from school that same weekend. But that evening, fate laid that critical piece of information at my feet.

My mother who was still very touchy on the subject of Iya Tokunbo and Project “Save Tokunbo from Vagabondism” had thankfully decided to let peace reign for the time being.

After all, the said Tokunbo was still in school and everyone knows that it’s hard to mentor a person when you’re not in the same physical space with him.

Later that evening, as we ate dinner, my father startled us with his repeated coughing, possibly twenty-three in number, delivered in poorly-spaced intervals.

The culprit, judging from the many glasses of water he downed, was the rather high level of pepper in his meal. In spite of his discomfort, he refused to swallow my mother’s bait, wrapped in the form of questions such as:

“Is the salt in the stew too much?”

“Was it a bone?”

“Is there too much pepper in your food?”

All of those questions, regardless of how many times my mother asked them, were left hanging in the air. My father, who was quite well-versed in my mother’s cunning ways, knew that her supposedly “concern-ridden” questions were never to be answered.

Experience had taught him that mistakenly answering even one of those innocent-looking inquiries, would set off a chain reaction ending with him sleeping on the couch, or as it had happened on one occasion, sharing a bed with Yemi.

So, he stylishly dodged them, not responding per se, but instead, just demanding more water to be brought to him. After flushing the pepper down with water, he asked Yemi how school had gone that day.

As Yemi began sharing the censored, daddy-approved version of that day’s classroom adventures, the phone rang.

At first, we all ignored it.

Although we owned a landline for which my parents got a bill from NITEL every month, and which they constantly complained about, we rarely used it to make calls. Even more rarely, was the incoming call ever for us.

There happened to be a man called Mr. Ekanem whose number was a near-perfect match for ours, except that instead of an “8” at the end, his phone number ended with a “6.” We knew this simply because that information had been relayed by the people who called our landline asking to speak with Mr. Ekanem.

We also concluded that this Mr. Ekanem had a good number of people who loved him or at least, loved dialing his number, due to the sheer volume of calls that came through our phone for him alone.

Due to this less-than-ideal situation, the phrase “wrong number” was the standard response to most of the telephone calls we received.

But that evening, the call was not for Mr. Ekanem. The breezy female voice on the other end made this clear.

Instead, the phone call was for Mr. Ladoja, and it was from, of all people, Mrs. Williams, our neighbor.

The old handset my father kept in the parlor lacked speakerphone capabilities, so we were forced to listen to the one-sided conversation between Mrs. Williams and my father, hoping that he would fill in the missing details later.

By the time he dropped the receiver about five minutes later, it was clear that my father’s task at the dining table had exponentially increased beyond simply downloading the details of his discussion with Mrs. Williams.

Judging from the look of growing irritation on my mother’s face the minute she heard the name of the caller from Yemi who had initially answered the phone, my father knew that upon his return to the dinner table, his next words had to be uttered with care.

“And what did she want?” said my mother, who had cleared her plate of amala, gbegiri and ewedu with red beef stew, and had started licking the remnants of her meal which clung to each finger, one by one. The rest of us – Yemi and I really – kept quiet and watched.

“Nothing my dear,” said my father, downing the glass of cold water in front of him with such speed that I wondered if he would not get a brain freeze there and then.

Either his brain did not freeze or else it thawed pretty quickly because when my mother re-phrased and re-fired her question by asking “So why did she call?” my father responded with:

“The boy is coming home this weekend, Asake. She said I should greet you.”

He said all this without grabbing his head with both hands and grimacing, the way people do when they experience early stage brain freeze.

“Which boy?” my mother asked, washing her hand in the basin of water I had brought at her request. After wiping her mouth clean and dipping her hand in water for the last time, she told Yemi to go and bring her a toothpick.

Once he had disappeared into the kitchen to run this errand, my father said:

“Asake, Iya Tokunbo is called ‘Iya Tokunbo’ for a reason. Tokunbo is her son, and you know that’s the boy I am referring to.”

“Yes, we all know that,” said my mother, leaning back and wielding the toothpick between her teeth like a pro. “But what did she really want?”

At this point, she put her quest to dislodge stray shreds of meat from between her teeth on pause, and began to suck her teeth instead. Seeing that it was not as effective as the toothpick, she resumed picking her teeth with renewed gusto.

My father who watched her with tired eyes said:

“Yes, I know. You know I’m mentoring this boy. She wants me to start when he gets back.”

My mother didn’t say a word. She simply got up from the table and asked me to join her in the kitchen to cut some pawpaw for dessert.

The look of bewilderment on my father’s face was priceless.

Even without saying a word, I knew what he was thinking. His philosophy was that if a person was angry, it was better for that anger to find expression in spoken words. That way, you could tell what was in that person’s heart, instead of keeping everything bottled inside. But when a person was angry and said nothing, in his words:

“Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

Silent volcanoes, he called them.

But my mother did not fall into this category. She would speak out. Just not then.

I could tell that my father was considering pursuing the matter to try to get her to speak out, but judging from his silence, he thought better of it.

As we sat down to feast on orange slices of pawpaw, it was a wonder that my mother did not erupt when she heard my father’s last sentence on Tokunbo. If there was anything I knew about my mother, it was that her silence was more fearsome that her verbal outbursts.

“They’ll sort themselves out,” I reasoned as I retreated to my room to devour the Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon novels I had borrowed from a classmate, exclusively for the post-exam, pre-report card period.

But the moment I stepped into my room, the same old question came back to haunt me:

How would I deliver this letter to Tokunbo?

Now that I knew that Tokunbo would be coming home that weekend, it was clear to me that I could not postpone this event any further. Surely, I couldn’t hold onto this letter for a year without telling him.

Should I send Yemi?

No, that wouldn’t work. The possibility of Yemi ignoring my strict instructions and handing the letter to the wrong person was very high because he only fully obeyed my parents. To me, he gave “occasional obedience” almost out of pity.

The fear of Yemi giving the letter to the meyguard, who would probably read it and maybe even burn it, deterred me from turning him into an emissary.

I had to find another way to get this letter into Tokunbo’s hands.

By the end of the day, I had come to one conclusion, the one I dreaded and sincerely did not look forward to: I would have to deliver the letter directly to Tokunbo, and it had to be that weekend.

The thought of postponing it appealed to me somewhat, but my desire to procrastinate was overridden by my desire to put this episode behind me. So, I decided that come Sunday afternoon, Tokunbo would get his letter.

On Saturday morning, as I went to buy a loaf of bread from Iya Kafilat’s shop, I was startled to see the gate of the Williams’ residence flung wide open. As I walked by, I saw a car parked behind one of the other two cars in the yard.

But the car was not what held my attention.

It was the person who had just opened the trunk of the car and was pulling out an iron bucket and a traveling bag.

Tokunbo.

Despite the fact that he had his back turned to me, I knew it was him. I observed for the first time, how he held his shoulders with pride, just like his father.

I was tempted there and then to rush into the compound and thrust the letter in his hand, but I knew that it was the wrong time. With Mr. Williams’ warning still ringing in my ears, combined with the fear of Iya Tokunbo emerging from the house without any warning, I stayed away.

No, this was not the right time.

When exactly was the right time? That was still unclear to me. However, because I had imposed Sunday as the ultimate deadline to deliver the letter, I knew I would not have to wait much longer.

As I continued on my errand, I chuckled to myself as I thought about how much lighter Tokunbo’s end-of-term load was compared to what I had seen him travel to school with at the beginning of the term. I had a fairly good idea as to the fate that had befallen the provisions, goodies and other personal items that accompanied him when he started that term.

They were either stolen, had developed legs and walked away or they had been traded in for more valuable items, mostly contraband, or favors. Why? Because in the absence of money, or sometimes, in spite of money, provisions were the currency with which students got what they wanted in boarding school.

I was quite familiar with these tales, thanks to my older brother, Tayo, who was away at FGC Ogbomosho. Just like Tokunbo, Tayo was due back home that Saturday.

But since Ogbomosho was in Oyo State, which was at least four hours away from us, much farther than Ijanikin, my parents would be arriving back home with Tayo at night, even though they had left early that morning.

Later that afternoon, I had to go and grind pepper. Normally, I could get away with getting this done at Iya Kafilat’s place, being the Jill-of-all-trades that she was.

However, my morning visit to her shop to buy bread had put me on notice that her pepper grinding machine, or ero as we called it, had broken down and was out of service. This forced me to take a longer journey, by foot, to Mama Alero’s shop, which was two streets away.

Now, it was not that we lacked a capable blender at home, powerful enough to pulverize both the flesh and seeds of tomatoes, tatashe known in English as red bell peppers and ata rodo also known in English as scotch bonnet peppers, alongside onions, to form the red pepper base of most of our stews.

Far from it.

The fact was that my father was old-fashioned and picky with his food. He refused to eat any stew or soup that had been made with pepper blended in a blender. Only a mechanical ero would do. And my mother complied.

To her, it was a small price to pay for being the wife of Mr. Ladoja.

Whenever complaints sprang from our lips because of the inconvenience of blending pepper in an ero, my mother was quick to remind us of the man she used to date before she met my father.

This ex-boyfriend always insisted on eating food cooked with pepper ground by hand with a stone mortar and pestle, known in Yoruba as Olo and Omo Olo, respectively.

She often recalled with genuine gratitude how God had saved her from a life of grinding pepper by hand, yoked to a man who swallowed his “H” and slotted it in front of words that started with vowels. In the mouth of this man, ‘apple’ became ‘happle’ or on a good day with his thick accent, it became ‘hample.’

Conversely, when other people said, “Heaven is my home,” this man would say:

“Eaven is my ome.”

So anytime I started my own brand of grumbling, complete with angry foot stamping, when the task of grinding pepper fell upon me, my mother would break into song, belling out sweet notes, with the same lyrics:

You better thank God

You’re not the daughter of Mr. Hample

The lyrics were the same, but the tune changed from time to time. One day, it was an Apala tune, on another day, it was a church benediction.

As I neared Mama Alero’s shop, I chuckled to myself as I remembered my mother’s words, and began to count my blessings that I was not condemned to introduce myself to people as “Henitan.”

Unlike Iya Kafilat who dabbled in the buying and selling of dry goods, with grinding pepper as a side hustle, Mama Alero was more focused and single-minded. She owned several machines, which were dedicated to processing food such as grinding dried yam peels to yam flour, popularly known as elubo. She had about four machines exclusively dedicated to grinding pepper, which ensured that she was always in business.

That afternoon, there were several people milling around Mama Alero’s shop. Those of us who came to grind pepper had formed two neat lines in front of the machines that were in use. The other two machines, although in good working condition, as Mama Alero herself confirmed, stood unused as she was short-staffed that afternoon.

Two of her workers had quit that very morning, and so the typical speed people were accustomed to was absent. Several customers complained about the slow service, but waited in line because they knew Mama Alero was still the most efficient pepper grinder in our neighborhood.

As I stood in line, waiting for my turn, I heard someone yell:

“E-N-I-T-A-N!”

Without turning around, I had a very good idea who the name yeller was.

Tina.

She was the only girl in my class who lived in the same neighborhood, about three streets from mine.

Now, Tina was not my friend by any means. In fact, I made a conscious effort to avoid her. My reluctance to talk to her and my general body language should have made it clear to anyone with eyes that befriending Tina was not on my to-do list.

Either Tina had eyes and used them for decoration, or else she deliberately turned a blind eye to all my efforts to discourage her from being friendly towards me because she refused to let me be. She constantly thrust herself into my social circle, and it just baffled me.

Without leaving the queue, to avoid losing my place, I poked my head out of the line and towards the direction of the voice. The person I saw standing about five people behind me confirmed to my eyes what my ears had heard: tall, plain faced with bright, twinkling eyes.

It was indeed Tina, waving enthusiastically at me, as if we were long lost friends.

What happened next was not a figment of my imagination. In fact, it is best narrated in stages.

Stage One was initiated when I made eye contact with Tina. Instead of speaking audibly, Tina held her tongue and decided that it would be best to proceed with non-verbal cues. So, she began to gesticulate wildly, letting her hands do all the talking for her.

The puzzled look on my face was an outward display of the confusing questions that Tina’s actions had triggered in my head. If there was anyone who did not know the meaning of the words, “shy,” “quiet,” or “timid,” it was Tina. So why on earth was she motioning to me like this? Stage Two provided the answer to this very question.

Stage Two commenced with Tina pointing at me, and then later, she switched it up and began pointing at herself and mouthing words that apparently only she understood. After doing this back-and-forth pointing about four times, a miracle happened: the power of speech returned to Tina and she shouted from where she stood.

“You said? I should come abi? Okay, I’m coming!”

As I looked in utter confusion, wondering if perhaps my shadow had just carried on a conversation with Tina without my knowledge, it suddenly dawned on me that Stage Three was already under way.

Stage Three saw Tina walking over briskly to where I stood, clutching a basket with a plastic bowl with a metal handle and lid similar to the one I was holding. I concluded that she had come to grind something. Whether it was pepper or beans, was still a mystery. I did not have to wonder long and in fact, did not have to say anything at all. Tina did the talking for both of us with enviable ease.

“Ah! Enitan! Babe, you just jabborred me that time. It’s not fair o!” she started, rolling her eyes.

I recalled the incident she was complaining about because it had taken place the day before. We were both standing at the bus-top, and she had been talking my ear off about a party she had attended. We were supposed to take the same bus, but I could not endure the thought of sitting through a bus ride with Tina for company, talking about things that did not interest me.

So, the moment a Danfo bus pulled close and I heard the conductor shout the name of our destination, coupled with “One Chance!” I leapt onto the bus with all the strength I could gather and gratefully sank into the last available seat, even though it was so close to the conductor’s armpit, I could count the tangled hairs if he would let me.

Tina was left at the bus-stop, standing there, flabbergasted.

I could tell she had neither forgotten the incident nor forgiven me, but I didn’t care. If I had not left when I did, I would never have made it back home in time to meet Tokunbo’s father and receive his letter.

Even though that meeting had left me with the burden of delivering a letter, there was also a positive effect: I had met Tokunbo’s father who had somehow humanized Tokunbo in my eyes.

Tina did not even wait for me to say anything, but immediately continued at neck breaking speed.

“But I forgive you sha!”

Ah! Forgiveness! Sweet forgiveness from Tina! I was indeed very grateful. So grateful in fact that the expression of aloofness that I wore on my face pre-forgiveness still remained post-forgiveness.

But as I have already mentioned, Tina had a knack for ignoring my facial expressions and proceeded guided by her own internal compass.

Opening her mouth and pouring out unsolicited information into my ears, Tina explained.

“See ehn, my mother just woke up this morning and said, ‘It’s akara and pap we’re going to eat.’ I don’t even know what her problem is. Who even likes akara sef? With pap again? Anyway sha, I told her, ‘Mummy, you know I don’t like akara. Moi-moi is better and we can eat it for our night food.’ Thank God she saw eye-to-eye with me. That’s how we ate yam and egg this morning and she said we will eat moi-moi and garri this night. And you know, Helen that my stupid sister, just used corner-corner to say she’s going to her friend’s house. Next thing, my mother now said, ‘Ehen, Tina. It’s you that will go and grind this beans for me.’ Can you imagine? And I’m the older one,” she finally concluded with a hiss.

I was about to tell Tina that being older meant she had to be the responsible one, but I did not want to give her any opportunity to unduly prolong the conversation.

So, I just shook my head in sympathy and muttered a patronizing “Eia!”

As it turned out, that show of solidarity for Tina’s plight was enough to encourage her to keep talking.

“Abi o. See, I knew you would understand. So, what are you doing here? Are you people also eating moi-moi or akara today?”

I shook my head and gave her a single answer:

“Pepper.”

“Oh, Pepper abi?” said Tina, letting her eyes fall carelessly on the white plastic bowl, originally containing ice-cream bucket, which I clutched tightly in my hand. I am not sure whether it was the color of the bowl or the piece of paper with someone’s handwriting which drifted past us driven forward by a slight breeze. Whatever it was, it must have triggered Tina’s next statement, which I did not see coming at all.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

I almost dropped the bowl in my hand. Where did that come from? And why was this silly girl asking me this question?

Apart from the fact that I particularly did not like discussing personal or sensitive topics in public, I also resented the fact that it was Tina, who was a well-known amebo who I was supposed to be having this discussion with. How was this her business exactly?

It was at this point that my eyes opened and I suddenly noticed what Tina had done. The entire time she was talking, right after she invited herself over to my side of the queue, she had slowly inched her way in, bit by bit, so that now, she was not just part of the queue, but she was ahead of me. Tina had just promoted herself from maybe No. 10 to No. 2.

I wanted to slap her.

So did the people behind me who asked her repeatedly what she thought she was doing when she planted herself in front of me. Tina did not answer them but continued talking to me. She was lucky they were not more boisterous, or like one of them threatened, they would have bundled her out of there and thrown her outside Mama Alero’s compound.

But by then, it did not even matter. The person ahead of us got attended to quickly and then it was Tina’s turn. Because the person ahead of us also came to grind beans, the worker operating the grinding machine did not have to rinse it thoroughly before up-turning Tina’s bowl of white, peeled beans, dried pepper, onions, tatashe and even crayfish into the grinder.

Between pushing this combination into the grinder with a long wooden stick, and Tina constantly yelling over the noise of machine to the attendant to add very little water because it was for moi-moi not akara, the beans were eventually transformed into a creamy paste, and Tina stepped aside.

As the attendant vigorously dismantled the machine and flushed it with water to avoid mixing beans with my own pepper, Tina stood nearby, waiting for me. I was surprised. I had expected her to leave as soon as she was done, but for whatever reason – guilt at having chanced me, perhaps – she waited patiently until my own pepper too had been ground to a red, smooth seedless paste.

Then, we left Mama Alero’s place.

As we walked down the street, Tina told me in no uncertain terms:

“If I wanted a boyfriend, I would tell the boy myself I like him. It doesn’t even matter how I do it: call or write. I wouldn’t wait for him to ask me out.”

I just looked at her, wondering if Tina would grow up to be the sort of woman who proposed to a man, ring in hand and everything. Or maybe she was a traditionalist at heart and this was just a phase. I did not know for sure.

By the time we reached the junction, we parted ways and I kept thinking about what Tina had said.

It was just as I turned into my street that the idea struck me: how I would deliver that letter to Tokunbo on Sunday.

A smile spread across my face.

“Thank you Tina,” I whispered as I completed the last leg of my journey home.

“Tokunbo will have a secret admirer.”

The thought that Tokunbo would get a secret admirer kept me going all afternoon, even up till early evening.

Around 7:36pm, my parents arrived from Ogbomosho with Tayo. They were all exhausted and not very chatty, not even my mother who could talk anyone’s ear off. In spite of his tiredness, my father lamented bitterly about bad roads and heavy traffic.

Then, he carried on regretfully about the timing of their trip to Ogbomosho, something he constantly complained about every term since Tayo started attending FGC Ogbomosho.

“We should’ve picked up this boy on Monday,” he said laying his car keys on the dining table.

“No way!” said my mother in a voice that betrayed her fast waning energy. “My son can’t be the last one to leave. People will think his parents have forgotten him or we’re having problems at home.”

The look on my father’s face said “Those people can pick him up next time!” but the appeal of a warm bath waiting for him, followed by the promise of a hot, steaming meal was far stronger than any desire to contradict his wife’s theory.

For me, Tayo’s arrival at home was bitter-sweet. While I was glad to have someone who would take charge in the absence of my parents, Tayo’s return meant more chores for me. It seemed like whatever horrors he had suffered at the hands of seniors and teachers in boarding school, he tried to make up for it by dumping every possible chore on my shoulders whenever he came home for holidays.

Thankfully, that evening, he was too tired to boss me or Yemi around. He soon fell asleep on the couch in front of the TV, after vowing to make up for lost time by binge-watching as much television as he could manage before school resumed in January. But his body’s desire for rest superseded any promise Tayo had made to himself.

We ate the meal I had cooked that afternoon, after which, each person migrated to various parts of the house. Then, I got busy with planning the all-important event that would take place the following day.

After practicing my speech and contemplating Tokunbo’s reactions and counter-reactions as well as how I would handle further questions, I went to bed with a smile on my face and simply counted down the hours to the moment when my plan would be executed. If everything went as planned, I would never have to worry about Tokunbo again.

If not … well, I didn’t let myself consider failure as an option.

When I woke up the next day, a Sunday, I went with my family to church. Although we all typically attended a Methodist church that was about forty minutes from our house, that Sunday, my parents decided that they did not want to make that drive. Instead, they chose to attend a nearby church.

As there were several churches in our neighborhood that could easily fit the description of “nearby,” I had no reason to suspect that my parents would pick the one church that had a connection to our neighbors. In fact, I did not know the exact church we would attend that day until my father pulled up to the Pentecostal church where, according to our former house help, Rosemary, Mrs. Williams was a member.

This was not part of my plan, but it seemed that fate had taken the reins on this Tokunbo matter and all I could do was sit back and watch.

Throughout the service, my eyes searched frantically all over the church auditorium, scanning faces to see if I could spot the Williams family. In particular, of course, I wanted to know if Tokunbo was in church that morning.

But, it was all in vain.

I felt sure that women like Mrs. Williams were never content to sit at the back of any place and would have pulled strings, made a fuss, or done just about anything to ensure that she and her family got front-row seats.

Although my analysis of her character was spot on, I could not seem to find her or her family anywhere. No matter how hard I searched, it seemed that Mrs. Williams and her children had either decided to sleep at home, or else, they, like us, were visiting another church that Sunday.

“Well, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just do what I’ve planned anyway,” I thought to myself.

My plan was to go and knock on their gate and ask to speak with Tokunbo. When he emerged, I would tell him he had a secret admirer who had written him a letter, shove it into his hand and take to my heels.

A simple plan, right? Nothing could possibly go wrong.

So I sat through the rest of the service, not allowing myself to worry about the matter any further.

Right after the service, when we had all said “The Grace,” and the service came to an end, I started to gather my belongings. My father had turned around to face the back of the auditorium, offering a fresh perspective.

Without any warning, my father jabbed my mother with his right elbow, and as he pointed ahead with his left hand, he said to her:

“Asake, isn’t that Tokunbo?”

My mother looked in the direction in which he was pointing. I did the same, even though my name wasn’t Asake.

The spot my father had commanded my mother to turn her gaze towards was just two rows behind us. In the rightmost corner of the auditorium, standing close the wall and waiting for the pedestrian traffic to thin down before exiting through the main doors, was a tall, brooding young man wearing a bottle green buba with matching trousers.

It was Tokunbo.

From that distance and judging him purely by the dignified way he looked, I found myself wondering if this was the same boy who had become a trouble-maker in school. He certainly did not look like it. In fact, you would think he was the head boy or even a school prefect.

Yes, he certainly looked like the responsible type.

But with the little I knew about Mrs. Williams, I knew she couldn’t be lying about her son’s problems. I decided to trust what I had heard from her rather than what my own casual observation suggested, because as we all know, things aren’t always what they seem.

Tokunbo’s hair had grown thick, just like my brother Tayo, which made me think that in addition to under-feeding them, judging from how skinny they always appeared on their arrival from school, male boarders were also denied access to skilled barbers.

My father called out to him, after my mother had confirmed that it was indeed Tokunbo standing a few yards away from us. His mother and sister were nowhere in sight.

“T-o-k-u-n-b-o! Come, come!” my father cried excitedly, motioning for him to come to where we stood.

The mountain must come to Mohammed.

In the few seconds it took Tokunbo to arrive at the place where we stood, my mother had hurriedly gathered her things and pretending she had seen someone she knew but hadn’t seen in ages, she walked away from us. My brother, Tayo and Yemi, stood beside my father and said “Hello” in turn to Tokunbo, right after he had semi-prostrated respectfully to my father, who promptly extended a hand towards him for a solid handshake.

“Good Morning, sir,” said Tokunbo, smiling and being careful to display only the minimum amount of white teeth.

“How are you? So you’re back from school ehn? Your mother told me you would be coming back this weekend,” said my father cheerfully.

“Yes, sir. I just got back yesterday.”

“Is that right? Ehn, my wife and I went to pick eh …Tayo–” said my father, reaching out and planting a firm hand on Tayo’s shoulder as if between him and Yemi, anyone could doubt that Tayo was the one in secondary school. But since Yemi was almost as tall as Tayo, just younger-looking, maybe my father was right to make it clear who was who.

“–Yesterday, too. But we didn’t get back until night time. Heavy traffic. It was as if the whole world was heading to Ogbomosho yesterday. But you don’t have that problem. Your school is just in Ijanikin over there,” said my father, throwing his hand casually in the direction of the main entrance of the church, as if one could step out of church and find himself at the gate of FGC Ijanikin, just like that.

Tokunbo smiled politely. I could tell that he did not really care for whatever my father was content to ramble on and on about, but he did not interrupt him for one moment.

Maybe Mrs. Williams was right after all.

Maybe it was my father Tokunbo would really listen to in order to change his ways.

I just stood there, along with my brothers who wandered off after a few minutes, once they spotted one or two people (neighborhood kids) they knew, leaving me to bear silent witness to my father’s conversation with Tokunbo.

I noticed that at no point in this supposedly pointless conversation, did my father even mention the words “mentor” or “mentorship” to Tokunbo, which got me wondering: had it started already?

I got my answer when my father began to round off his conversation by telling Tokunbo to come to our house that afternoon because he had something important to share with him.

A look akin to surprise passed over Tokunbo’s face for a few seconds, but when I looked again, it was gone. It was as if it had never happened. All he told my father was that he would be at our house by 4:00pm.

Before they parted ways, my father asked Tokunbo where his mother and sister were. He explained that his mother had taken an early morning flight to Abuja and his sister had decided to sleep in since no one was there to drag her to church.

I marveled at Tokunbo’s honesty.

Here he had the perfect opportunity to tell a big fabu and paint his sister in a completely innocent light by cooking up a story about her being ill or a similar lie one would expect teenagers could concoct at such short notice.

Instead, he chose to expose the laxness of her spiritual convictions.

I began to consider for the first time the possibility that perhaps, my father’s task was much easier than we had all imagined. That perhaps, Tokunbo’s heart had not been completely corrupted by darkness, beyond the reach of hope or redemption and instead, he was one of those who had just a thin film of darkness covering his eyes, preventing the light of truth from flooding his soul.

I was inclined to lean towards the second, less stringent, less extreme, hope-friendly theory, rather than the other more extreme, bleaker version, the one I and even my mother had been so quick to accept.

Was it too early to tell?

I didn’t know.

Regardless, I began to see that there was hope for Tokunbo.

If I had brought that letter with me to church, I could easily have slipped it into the pocket of his buba and whispered into his ears while he was still reeling from shock:

“From your secret admirer.”

However, since I had foolishly left the letter at home, all I could do was stare at Tokunbo, making him increasingly uncomfortable, while I wondered at his reaction to the news I would have to bring him later that day.

Would he read it immediately, tear it up and yell obscenities at me? Would he break down crying? Was he one of those guys who behaved like women and resorted to giving people the silent treatment while anger burned like an inferno within their hearts?

That afternoon, I would know.

As we were about to leave, Tokunbo said, “Bye Enitan,” to me.

That threw me off.

Of course, I was aware that he knew my name, but to hear Tokunbo say it in that freshly-cracked voice, the one which my Integrated Science teacher with the pre-pubescent voice told us was a definite sign of puberty, made me giddy.

Why?

It’s not like he was the first teenage boy to say my name.

But this time, it was different. And I spent the rest of the morning trying to figure out why.

Hormones. That was my conclusion.

Meanwhile, by the time my father and I reached the car where it was parked, my brothers were nowhere to be found.

The first person to arrive hot on our trail was my mother, decked out in her Sunday finery.

Eye-poking, commotion-causing, rear-view blocking, paper-stiff gele… Check!

Envy-inspiring lace sewn into iro and buba … Check!

Matching shoe and bag which complimented her outfit … Check!

Freshly-painted nail polish on fingernails and toe nails, plus matching lipstick in the right shade of Christmas red … Check!

Perfected head-turning peacock strut, with every confident footstep screaming “Dem go take!” … Check!

Looking at my mother as she glided towards us, I knew she could never be the wife of a penny-pinching artisan in some small village with a hard-to-pronounce, jaw-breaking name. She suited my father, just fine.

Ladoja m’oju lo s’oja.

Indeed, my father took his eyes to the market when he married her.

As soon as she reached the car, she asked the same question my father had asked just moments before.

“Where are these boys?”

To which we answered:

“They’re coming!”

This must have been one of those “name it and claim it” opportunities or “you will have what you say” moments, unknown to us, because not quite long after me and my father had declared that my brothers were coming, I spotted two young men walking briskly in our direction, one lagging behind the other. Even in a crowd of people, I could easily have picked them out. They were my brothers: Tayo and Yemi.

After complaining that they had wasted his time, my father climbed into the driver’s seat, followed by my mother, who climbed into the front passenger seat with one hand on her gele to hold it steady, before settling into the cabin of the car.

As for me, I got squished between Tayo and Yemi on the back seat of our sedan, because I couldn’t bear to listen to another round of arguments between them over who would sit beside the only window that could still be wound down. The other window was jammed and had remained in that state for several months.

Once we got home, we ate a sumptuous breakfast, especially since we had attended an 8 o’ clock service and no one had eaten before we left.

There must have been something in the boiled yam and fried eggs with strong sedative properties because after eating, we all promptly fell asleep.

I was roused from my sleep at 3:40pm by a loud knock on the gate.

As I sat up in bed, wondering who it was, it suddenly hit me.

Tokunbo!

Of course!

My father had asked him to stop by that afternoon.

Till today, it is not clear to me if it was instinct or just clarity of thought brought on by a sweet Sunday afternoon nap, uninterrupted by NEPA.

Whatever it was, as soon as I got up from my bed, I grabbed Tokunbo’s father’s letter from my closet where I had kept it hidden and immediately stuffed it into the pocket of the long, jeans skirt I thereafter slipped into.

Then, I pulled my freshly relaxed hair into a ponytail behind my head, wore my house slippers and hurried to the gate.

“Forget any useless plan,” I told myself. “I’m giving him this letter now. If he likes, let him rip it apart and chew it like a goat!”

As I correctly calculated, neither of my brothers had stirred from their beds while the visitor knocked at the gate, even though I had heard my father call our names one by one, starting with the youngest.

“Yemi! Enitan! Tayo! Go and see who’s at the gate!”

I had responded with a loud “Yes, sir!” to reassure him that our visitor would not be forced to spend the rest of his existence, locked outside our gate, knocking till kingdom come.

As soon as I emerged from the house, a flood of peace washed over me. There was no rapidly-beating heart, no shaky nerves, no chattering teeth, and no racing pulse.

Just peace.

Na me be dis? How could I be so calm when I knew what was about to happen?

Eventually, I reached the gate and asked the question I already knew the answer to.

“Who is it?”

“It’s me, Tokunbo,” the husky voice behind the gate replied.

Having provided the password, I unlocked the gate from within and let it swing open.

Standing there, no longer clad in his Sunday best, was Tokunbo. He looked more relaxed and more his age in a dark blue pair of jeans and orange polo shirt.

But, his collar was popped up.

I gasped at the up-turned collar, which in my mind, was irrefutable proof of an unserious person. The collar seemed to say,

“I defy you!”

Tokunbo must have figured out that I was judging him based solely on his shirt collar because he quickly smoothed it down with both hands, all the time, chuckling aloud.

“It’s not a crime now,” he began in a defiant tone.

“Not yet … But I’m sure it’ll soon be,” I said cheekily.

I was convinced that as we spoke, Nigerian politicians in Abuja were diligently and tirelessly working on criminalizing the popping of collars. On the day that bill was passed, I was certain that the sagging of trousers would also be a jail able offense.

Tokunbo just laughed at my comment and said:

“Don’t be so up-tight. Live a little!”

“Okay o,” I said rolling my eyes.

“Is your dad around? He said I should come and see him.”

“Yes, he’s expecting you.”

I was about to put the padlock back in its place when Tokunbo gently took it from me and after sliding the metal lock back into place, he hung the unlocked padlock on the lock.

Then, he asked me where to go.

“Follow me,” I said as I led the way to the entrance of our house.

Enitan, it’s now or never!

I heard a voice in my head scream these words, and immediately I turned around to face Tokunbo who was walking a few paces behind me.

“Chill. I need to do this,” I said to him.

He looked uncertainly about him as if he was trying to make sure I was speaking to him.

“Do what?” he finally asked.

Dipping my hand into my jeans pocket, I pulled out the brown envelope that I had folded over three times to get it to fit in my narrow pocket.

I pushed it towards him and said:

“Take.”

“Why? What ‘s inside it?” asked Tokunbo with a distrustful look on his face.

“Why don’t you open it and see for yourself? It’s for you,” I said, pushing the envelope closer to him.

He looked like he didn’t believe me, until he collected the envelope from me and read his name scribbled across its face. Recognition lit up his countenance as soon as his eyes fell on the handwriting. His voice became harder, colder and his features hardened. The next thing he said was:

“Who gave you this?”

“The person who wrote it gave it to me,” I replied, being careful not to identify the writer of the letter to avoid any unpleasantness.

“Does this person have a name? Do I know this person?” asked Tokunbo in a frustrated voice.

“Tokunbo, just read the letter. It will answer all your questions,” I said, refusing to solve the mystery he was at liberty to uncover himself.

He must have had an inkling that I knew the letter was from his father, but he displayed an amazing mastery over his emotions when he simply said “Thank you,” and shoved it into his pocket.

I heaved a heavy sigh of relief that not only had I delivered the letter to Tokunbo, but had also managed to meet the stringent conditions of his father.

Making a mental note to myself to never put myself in such a situation ever again, I led Tokunbo into our sitting room and went to fetch my father. I would have stayed to listen to their discussion, but I had to leave for a hairdresser’s appointment.

When I came back home an hour and thirty minutes later with freshly curled hair, I was shocked to discover that Tokunbo was still there, laughing and talking freely with my father. I was even more shocked to find my mother, the person who had opposed this mentorship program, asking Tokunbo if he would like to join us for dinner, in the sincerest of tones.

What had changed in one hour and thirty minutes?

Tokunbo declined my mother’s invitation to stay for dinner, saying “Maybe some other time, ma” before leaving.

He left about twelve minutes after my return.

I had gone to the backyard to bring in the onions my mother had spread out in the sun, when Tokunbo accosted me.

Blocking my path, he said:

“I read the letter and I need to talk to you about it.”

“Why? Can’t you discuss it with my father? Isn’t that the point of–” I began.

“–Of mentoring me, abi? So you knew about it too?” he asked in a tone that did not suggest that he was even mildly offended, but I couldn’t be sure.

“Yes, I did. What does this letter have to do with me?” I asked.

“I can’t really talk now. Where will you be tomorrow afternoon?”

“Right here at home,” I replied.

“Okay. Can you meet me at the Mallam’s shop by say 2 o’clock tomorrow?”

“Which Mallam?” I asked, wondering if it was wise to agree to meet Tokunbo alone. But then, what could he possibly do to me in broad daylight?

Why not?

“The one at the junction that leads to Alhaji Gbadamosi Street,” he replied.

“Okay. I’ll be there.”

“I’m leaving. Please come and lock your gate,” he said without giving me a second look. I set down the basket of onions and followed him.

He marched to the gate, opened it and handed the padlock to me, before stepping out.

As I retired indoors, the thought that kept coming to me about the meeting we had scheduled for the following day was this:

I should have said No.

Regardless of what I should or shouldn’t have done, the fact remained that I had scheduled an appointment with Tokunbo Williams for Monday afternoon at 2:00pm.

Unlike the pre-delivery stage with the letter Tokunbo’s father had written, where I agonized for hours over what to say and how to react to what I imagined Tokunbo’s reaction would be, this time it was different.

This time, I realized that the ball was literally in his court, and my concern was what he had to discuss with me.

What was so important that Tokunbo wanted to tell me that had to be done out of the ear shot of both of our families? That was how I saw his choice of a venue: a convenient location, a neutral meeting place.

The Mallam at the junction of Alhaja Gbadamosi Street was what I would describe in general terms as a “sad sack.” He wasn’t bad-tempered, but he was certainly not jovial or friendly either. Most of us liked to patronize another Mallam farther up the street, who, in addition to selling conveniences, also had an infectious sense of humor.

However, the Mallam whose stall Tokunbo had chosen for our meeting, was different. He was very officious, did not laugh at jokes, at least while I was there by myself, and certainly did not make jokes. Ordinarily, this should have hurt his business, but as it turns out, humor is not necessary to succeed in business.

What this Mallam lacked in personality, he made up for it with business savvy. He had a tendency to stock items that were difficult to access locally or at convenience stores, and particular brands that people often had to travel to special markets to purchase.

Apart from stocking popular brands, he would have less popular yet durable brands of goods on hand, and would patiently explain why this other brand was justified in being ₦10 naira more than the one you came to purchase.

By the time you left his stall, he would have made a compelling argument for why you would be a complete fool to forego the opportunity to purchase a less popular, but in his opinion, better quality product.

For example, if you came to buy razor blades, and expressed surprise when he pulled out a pack of razor blades that was not the typical brand whose logo was a large, predatory cat, he would tell you something like:

“This one strong pass that one,” in a heavily accented voice, and proceed to demonstrate by attempting to slice a piece of leather with the brand of razor blades you came to buy. As the blades shattered to pieces before your very eyes, he would say:

“You see am! I talk say e no strong reach this one.”

Then, he would bring out another razor blade, the “this one” he was referring to, and attempt to slice through the same piece of leather. As it glided through the leather like a knife through butter, separating piece from piece, it was not unusual for the customer who watched the entire show with child-like wonder, to halt his demonstration, absolutely convinced, and buy more than the quantity of razor blades he needed.

But for those who were more brand-loyal, it did not matter if Mallam claimed that this new, less popular brand was the Swiss Army knife of razor blades. Once he did not have the specific brand they requested, they would simply walk away and hunt for it elsewhere.

So, his stall was a Mecca of sorts.

In addition, he was also a skilled cobbler. His stitching on leather was almost as neat as the machine-made stitches on commercially manufactured footwear.

But I did not learn his name, until that afternoon.

Having told my parents that I was going to buy something from the Mallam, which was partly true, I left the house wearing one of the few house wears I owned. It felt odd walking down the street on a week day dressed in mufti when normally I would have been wearing my school uniform.

The perks of holidays.

Inasmuch as the long, green floral short-sleeved dress, which stopped mid-calf, was indisputably mufti, it certainly did not qualify as a baff. In fact, if the dress was any longer I risked getting named “Mother Mary.” All that was missing was a scarf tied haphazardly on my head to complete the saintly look.

The Mallam’s stall was a good 10-minute stroll from my house, at a leisurely pace. A brisk walker would make the same journey in 8 minutes, with 2 minutes to simply chill.

So, when I turned the corner from our street and came upon the Mallam’s store at about 1:57pm, and found Tokunbo standing there, chatting with the Mallam, who we sometimes called aboki, the first thing that came to my mind was:

“He walks fast.”

I arrived at that conclusion because while Tokunbo was chatting with the Mallam, I could hear shallow panting, the kind that suggests that this person is trying to catch his breath.

And when I came close enough to Tokunbo to run my hands through his hair or graze his cheeks with my fingertips, neither of which I did in spite of the strong urge to do so, I saw a few drops of sweat gathered on his brow. Being that aboki‘s wooden stall was shaded from the sun, I concluded that Tokunbo was a brisk walker, and had arrived just minutes before I got there.

Turning to the Mallam who just moments before I arrived, had been chatting and laughing happily, but had clamped up and resumed his typical gloomy expression as soon as he saw me, I said:

“Aboki, Good afternoon o,” and then I added, “Well done,” when he nodded and picked up a shoe, whose sole he had been stitching. It was obvious that this shoe, part of a pair of lady’s peep toe shoes with clunky heels and made of cheap leather like the type typically purchased under the bridge at Apongbon, was brand new.

But the workmanship of shoes like these was such that just like a pregnant woman’s due date for delivery, one could predict with amazing accuracy, the date when the soles would separate from the shoes, making them resemble a reptile with a perpetually open mouth.

To preempt all of this, it was common practice for concerned shoe buyers to take brand new leather shoes to their local cobbler, who would then stitch the soles, thereby forestalling the wear and tear those shoes were guaranteed to suffer.

It appeared that Mallam was in the process of carrying out this preservation technique on somebody’s pair of shoes when I arrived.

Tokunbo smiled when he saw me, and after Mallam resumed his work, he said:

“You’re early.”

“Look who’s talking,” I said, looking at him with an expression that said, “You got here before me.”

Tokunbo must have been well-trained in reading women’s facial expressions, or at least, mine, because he responded with:

“I didn’t have anything else to do.”

Pointing to a bench in the shade, he said, “Come and sit down.”

I obeyed.

The part where we sat was set aside from the road, towards the back of the shade, so that people walking past could actually see us. A few people walked past. The adults gave us questioning looks until they saw Mallam, who acted as our chaperone. Two girls in particular came over, peered into the stall, and then giggled, as they pretended to buy some cheap eatables like chewing gum or candy (“Baba Dudu”). While Mallam was attending to them, they whispered to each other, eyes on us, and kept giggling.

Tokunbo acknowledged them with a “Wassup!” and nod, and when they left, I asked if he knew them personally, to which he responded in the negative.

“And yet, you greeted them? Why?” I asked, wondering if perhaps, the people in school were mistaken about this fellow.

Tokunbo just shrugged and offered no explanation.

Then, he went directly into the topic that had brought us into Mallam’s stall on a Monday afternoon.

“I wanted to tell you something,” he began, turning slightly to face me in the stall. Mallam turned on a small transistor radio that had to be battery-operated because I did not observe any electrical cord linking it to a hidden electrical outlet. The radio station, which was probably an AM station judging from the muffled sound coming from the speakers, played music sung in Hausa, by one man and several women in a call and response manner. Essentially, the man sang, and the women echoed his lyrics in chipmunk-like voices.

Every now and then, Mallam would sway and nod and sing along. I would have loved to know what they were saying, but at that particular moment, more pressing matters demanded my attention.

“Yes, I know that already,” I said impatiently.

Then, so that he wouldn’t think hanging out with teenage boys on weekday afternoons was something I was accustomed to or a hobby of sorts which I relished, I added:

“Can you hurry up please? I don’t want my parents to start asking for me.”

“Okay, okay,” said Tokunbo, leaning back against the wall of the wooden stall. It was the closest thing to a back rest, and he seemed to appreciate it, because he let out a relaxed sigh, before continuing.

“First of all, I wanted to say ‘Thank You’–” he began.

“For what?” I interjected.

“For giving me my father’s letter. Unopened.”

“How do you know I didn’t open it, read it and quickly glue it back, ehn?” I asked, mischief written all over my face.

“Because you wouldn’t have told me about it just now, if you did. You would’ve been careful to keep those details away from me.”

I looked at him in surprise. Where was this guy going with this analysis?

“Okay o, Mr. Analyzer. Since I didn’t read it nko, na wetin?” I asked.

“I wanted you to get a chance to read it yourself. It seems unfair that you would deliver a letter without knowing the contents,” said Tokunbo reaching into the pocket of his trousers and pulling out a folded piece of paper. He gently pushed it towards me, but I refused to take it from him.

I couldn’t believe what this boy had just said. What was my business with the contents of his father’s letter?

“See me see trouble o! Isn’t that what postmen do all the time?” I asked, my face matching the confusion in my voice.

“Are you a postman?” said Tokunbo.

Without waiting for my answer, he added, “If you are, then you’re the cutest postman I’ve ever seen.”

I blushed deeply. At the same time, I felt anger rising in my chest. Did this guy really think I was the sort of girl he could use to practice cheap lines like this?

“Ehn … Come, come, Tokunbo. Leave cuteness out of this o! I’m not interested in your letter. Whatever is inside it is your business!”

“Ahn, ahn! Why now?” said Tokunbo in an exasperated voice.

“It seems you’re just here to waste my time,” I said, making as if to get up and leave.

Of course, all of this was just shakara. I knew I was not going to leave without hearing him out. But at least, this way, he stayed on his toes, and would stop beating about the bush.

“Oya sorry. Sorry. Sit down. Please,” he said.

I obliged, pretending to still be annoyed. The truth was that I was itching to read that letter, but I didn’t want to look desperate. Instead, I wanted him to insist.

He did.

I took the letter from him and began to read it aloud.

“Dear Tokunbo, I–”

“To yourself, please,” he urged, hushing me. “Read it in your mind,” he added, with pleading eyes, before glancing sideways at Mallam, who regarded us with the same air of dismissal he gave the rolls of Baba Dudu, hanging from a nail on the wooden window.

I complied with Tokunbo’s request, and read the letter silently.

It was very short, but packed with enough details to spark more questions, questions whose answers could not be contained within the tight constraints of a single ruled page.

It read:

Dear Tokunbo:

You will probably hate me after this, but I promise, I am doing this for your own good.

I will be travelling back to Kaduna on Tuesday for business and I won’t be back for several months. I will try and call you at home, but I strongly suspect that your mother will ensure I don’t get to speak to you.

I wanted you to know that I enjoyed visiting you at Ijanikin. Those were some of the happiest moments of my life, some of the dearest memories I have with you.

I wish things were different and that your mother and I were still together, but I have spent too many years wishing for change to know that wishes don’t always come true. I will let you know exactly what I am up to in the coming days.

Tokunbo, listen to your mother. She wants the best for you. And face your studies. There is no substitute for a good education. The world is waiting for you. And so am I.

Be good.

Your Daddy,

Oladipupo Williams

As soon as I had finished reading the letter, I looked up from the spread out paper in front of me to come face-to-face with Tokunbo, who was looking right at me, a worried expression on his face.

“You’ve read it, abi?” he asked, as I handed the letter back to him. “What d’you think?”

“I think this is a private matter and you should sort it out between you and your father. Leave me out, please,” I insisted.

“But that’s the thing, Enitan. I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because whether you like it or not, you’re already involved.”

I could not hide my surprise. What on earth did this guy mean?

“Tokunbo, I don’t know what you’re driving at, but I don’t even want to know.”

“Don’t you see? My father has never written a letter to me before, and he would never leave it in the hands of someone he didn’t trust.”

“But I just saw him at the gate. It could’ve been someone else.”

“Yes, but it wasn’t. Look Enitan, if my father entrusted this letter to you, then it means I can trust you too.”

I laughed to expose just how ridiculous his notion was, but it didn’t shake him.

“You’re serious?” I asked, before bursting into another round of laughter.

“Yes. And why are you laughing?”

“Because you must be joking!” I shouted.

It was loud enough to startle Mallam who gave a 32-second speech about how we could not make noise if we chose to sit with him.

“No noise for here, you hear? No noise!” he said, finally ending his speech.

After we both apologized profusely and promised to be more discreet, we continued our conversation in quieter tones.

“I’m serious,” said Tokunbo launching the next round of our conversation. “Anyway, I couldn’t sleep last night after reading the letter at you people’s house, and I needed someone to talk to.”

“And that person is me?” I asked in an incredulous tone. “Why? Isn’t this the sort of thing you discuss with … I don’t know … An adult … Or at least, an older person?”

“How old are you?” asked Tokunbo.

“Old enough to know not to interfere in family matters. Besides, don’t you know you shouldn’t ever ask a woman her age?”

“You’re a girl, not a woman,” said Tokunbo in a matter of fact voice.

“I’m not a girl. I’m a … young woman,” I protested.

“Okay o, Young Woman Enitan, what if I’m not asking you to interfere? Just hear me out.”

I wanted to ask him why he didn’t discuss this with Yele or his mother or even their househelp or any other female relative, or acquaintance or friend.

In short, anyone but me.

But I could tell that it would be a colossal waste of time. I decided to just hear him out.

“Please, just listen. Ignore everything I’ve said. I just need someone to share this with and your name kept popping up,” he said, pleading with his eyes.

“Okay. I’m listening.”

He smiled, and began.

“My father and mother, separated when I was 5 years old. That was 10 years ago.”

In my mind, I was doing a mental calculation of his age.

Tokunbo was 15 years old.

“–Ever since then, my relationship with my father has been … in fact, just trouble.”

I looked at him with eyes that said, “This is not new information.” But he continued and said:

“Yes, but a few months ago … In fact, just some weeks after we started this first term in school, he just showed up in my school. After disappearing for two years. No phone calls, nothing,” said Tokunbo in an icy tone.

“Did your mother know about this? About his visit, I mean.”

“No. I didn’t tell her. He said I shouldn’t tell her, that she’s the one who has been keeping him from talking to me since.”

“And you believe him?” I asked.

“My father may be many things, Enitan, but he’s not a liar. Besides, shebi you know how my mother is–”

I nodded.

Mama Tokunbo was a drama queen, for sure, but I couldn’t figure out why she would want to keep her only son away from his own father.

“So you think your mother kept your father from having anything to do with you?” I asked.

“Yes. But, I just don’t know why.”

I paused and remembered a family friend whose parents had recently gone through a nasty divorce. The first lesson I had learnt from their story was this:

There are two sides to every story. Don’t be quick to believe or judge one party before hearing from the other party. The person you think is right may end up being the wrong one when you have all the facts.

Mr. Williams had given Tokunbo his own version, but none of us had heard his mother’s version. And there was no hope of hearing from her anytime soon. Certainly not that afternoon.

“Don’t draw any conclusions until you’ve spoken to your mother about it,” I advised.

“But that’s the thing. Should I even tell her? She won’t understand.”

“Try her,” I urged. “She’s your mother, and wants the best for you.”

“Doesn’t seem like it sometimes,” he shrugged. “Anyway, in school, when my dad would visit, I would have these–”

“Mixed feelings?” I offered.

“Emmm … Sure … Sort of … Mostly anger. I wanted to shout at him, abuse his life, but at the same time, I was happy to see him. Happy he was even alive. You know some people aren’t that lucky.”

“True.”

“So, we talked and I told him how I felt about him. And … he took it well. Said he would try to fix things. Patch things up with my mum.”

“Wait a minute, Tokunbo. Did you father re-marry?”

“Umm … No. No. But he lives with a woman in Kaduna.”

“They’re not married though?”

“No. They’re not,” he said firmly shaking his head.

“Does he have other children?”

“As far as I know … No.”

“And yet, he didn’t try to communicate with you for two years? You, his only son?”

“That’s what my mum led me to believe–”

“–Until he showed up again, abi?”

“Exactly.”

“You need to talk to your mother. I don’t think she’s telling you everything. Maybe she’s keeping some things from you.”

“But why? Why would she do that?” Tokunbo asked perplexed.

“To protect you, maybe. Just talk to her.”

“Okay.”

Then, we both fell silent. I believe Tokunbo was quietly turning over my advice in his mind, weighing it against the things he already knew, trying to decide if my advice was sound.

I didn’t blame him.

I myself wondered if I hadn’t gone too far. For heaven’s sakes, I had practically accused his mother of proactively trying to extinguish the smoldering wick that was the relationship between Tokunbo and his father.

“The thing is … He came to visit me just four times, and he said he’d make it more frequent, more regular. And then–” here, Tokunbo let out a deep sigh, “–He never showed up again, until I guess, the day he gave you that letter. I was angry … Waiting for him … I took out my anger on everyone … anyone,” he said clenching his fists subconsciously.

I watched him quietly, providing the listening ear he needed. In my own mind, I was connecting the dots. It had to be that it was when his father suddenly disappeared and failed at his promise to visit that Tokunbo got into fights in school, the fights which had stirred Mama Tokunbo into action, inciting her to recruit my own father to mentor her son.

I saw some of the missing links in the chain, sitting in the cool shade of Mallam’s stall.

Then, out of the blues, Tokunbo said:

“Sorry … I didn’t even offer you anything. Just pick anything–” he said nodding towards Mallam’s spread of sweets, biscuits, cheap chocolates, and other handy snacks. “I’ll pay for it.”

“No, thank you,” I began until I remembered what I had told my parents: that I was going down the road to buy something.

As at that moment, I had bought nothing, but my ears were full of plenty.

“I might as well execute the original plan,” I reasoned within myself, before accepting Tokunbo’s original offer.

Pointing to a pack of biscuits I had never seen before, I asked Mallam if they were any good.

He nodded.

That answer did not satisfy Tokunbo.

“Haba, Mallam Audu! You sure say this one sweet?” he asked in a voice that did not mask his doubt that those biscuits were worth eating.

That was the first time I heard the name of the Mallam I had visited several times.

Audu.

Somehow, knowing his name made him less of a stranger.

Mallam nodded in response to Tokunbo’s question, and added:

“Dis one sweet pass am,” he said pointing to another set of biscuits, not far from the ones I had initially picked.

“Enitan, you better buy the one Mallam recommended. You won’t regret it,” said Tokunbo assuredly. I looked at both of them wondering if perhaps Mallam personally sampled those biscuits before attesting to their sweetness. His tall, slender frame did not suggest that he was a heavy snacker, but then, a fast metabolism isn’t written on anyone’s face.

“Why not?” I said quietly, before asking Mallam to wrap two packets of biscuits for me.

Tokunbo was about to say something else to me when a stout, muscled man stepped into the shade and said he wanted to buy a particular brand of cigarettes. Mallam attended to this man after collecting Tokunbo’s payment and handing his change back to him. He also bought Tom-Tom, a local peppermint often used to mask the hard-to-miss smell of tobacco that was sure to follow his smoking session.

As we prepared to leave, Tokunbo spotted a friend strolling farther up the road, and called out to him. The said friend was headed towards us, but I didn’t wait for him to reach us. I just told Tokunbo I would see him later and walked away.

As I munched my biscuit on the journey home, I praised Mallam Audu’s good taste in my heart.

But far sweeter than the biscuit was the memory that now, I knew that Tokunbo and I were no longer strangers.

We were friends.

As soon as I entered the house, I prepared my excuse for my mother, but she did not even ask me where I had been or why it had taken me an hour to buy something down the road. The biscuit must have been my free pass to a “no questions asked” passage to the house. Aside from the regular household chores, no one bothered me all evening.

The following day, my mother informed me that she would be going to the market to buy a few items. I offered to come with her, but she refused, saying she wanted me to enjoy my holiday, and she could manage on her own.

Before she returned however, she wanted me to prepare Banga soup for dinner. The ingredients were already in the kitchen.

“No wonder she didn’t want me to come–” I grumbled. “She wants me to slave over this meal before she gets home. And these boys are just sitting there, doing nothing. So unfair!”

I grumbled and complained as I rinsed the fresh palm nuts and then boiled them for some minutes.

While they were on the fire, there was a knock on the gate. It was Tokunbo.

I knew this only because Yemi went to answer the gate and I heard Tokunbo tell him that he had come to see my father.

“He’s not around. But he should be back soon,” said Yemi as they walked from the gate. Tayo had taken a bathroom break when Yemi went to answer the gate. So, the sitting room was quiet for a few minutes.

Just a few minutes.

“Okay, I’ll wait for him,” Tokunbo said to Yemi.

I heard them enter the house and go to the sitting room where the sound of video game playing resumed.

Somehow, amidst the noise, Tokunbo must have asked, “Where is your sister?” and either Yemi or Tayo must have pointed in the direction of the kitchen.

That must have happened, even though I did not hear it happen.

But what did happen was that one minute, I had lifted the lid of the pot to look at the boiling palm nuts, and the next thing I knew, as I went to retrieve a wooden spoon, I came face-to-face with Tokunbo.

I screamed in fright.

“Oh, I’m sorry! Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he apologized, diving to the ground to pick up the spoon I had knocked down in my fright.

“You scared me!” I half-shouted, half-hissed at him. “I didn’t see you standing there,” I added, stating the obvious and increasing Tokunbo’s guilt from 60% to well over 90%.

“Sorry … Sorry,” he repeated, handing the newly-rescued spoon back to me. I felt a bit embarrassed because the kitchen was messy. I was in the process of assembling the ingredients for banga soup. The atariko seeds were in a dry blender. A wooden chopping board lay on the countertop, with raw beef, shaki and kpomo nearby.

Then, somewhere in the midst of this chaos was the onion I had peeled, but had not chopped, some garlic, maggi, salt, ground crayfish and those other ingredients that combine to make a delicious pot of banga soup.

Now, it was my turn to apologize.

“I was … I mean, I am cooking. That’s why this place is–” I began, my eyes wandering all over the kitchen, accusing it for not being perfect and orderly in anticipation of Tokunbo’s visit.

“Oh, no problem. What are you making?” said Tokunbo eyeing the assembly of ingredients with the curiosity of a child.

“Banga soup,” I replied hastily, as I walked over to the sink to wash the wooden spoon. Then, I went to stir the boiling palm nuts.

“Do you need any help?” Tokunbo asked, walking to where I stood, replacing the lid on the pot with the palm nuts. “It looks like a lot of work.”

“Really? You–” I began, pointing at him, “–want to help me?” I said, finally pointing back at myself as if Tokunbo needed any help distinguishing me from him.

“Of course. It should he fun.”

I laughed and almost snorted, amid pitiful head shaking.

“Only a person who doesn’t cook regularly would use the word “fun” in the kitchen,” I said rolling my eyes at him.

“But it is,” he insisted. “Change your perspective jo! Besides, it’s faster when two people are getting the food ready instead of just one person,” said Tokunbo.

“True. I’ll change my perspective when I see you spend endless hours in the kitchen. Alone. Every single day,” I said with a wicked grin.

“Emm … I don’t know about that o,” said Tokunbo, reconsidering his own advice. “But I can help you today sha.”

“Okay … Like my mother says, Make yourself useful.”

“I am at your service, my lady!” said Tokunbo, mock bowing.

I giggled.

“First of all, you will need to wear an apron,” I said, going to the cupboard where my mother stored aprons, napkins and linens. “We don’t want banga soup all over your fine shirt,” I said, grinning mischievously as I pulled my mother’s old apron from the cupboard.

It had a faded yellow and black flower pattern. As I tossed it to Tokunbo, I watched in satisfaction as the look on his face changed from enthusiasm to horror once he saw the ultra-feminine apron I had picked for him. His eyes widened in disbelief and he threw the apron on the kitchen table with such speed and disgust that for a moment, I thought it had caught fire.

“I’m not wearing that!” he protested shaking his head as he spoke. “And you’re not even wearing one so-o–”

I laughed again.

“Cool down jo … I was only testing you. You don’t need to, but it would look cute on you, bring out the color of your eyes and I could take a picture of you in the apron for your yearbook!” I added before cackling with laughter.

“Ha, ha, ha!” said Tokunbo, dryly. “It’s always funny until someone does it to you.”

“Okay … Oya, make yourself useful,” I said as I suddenly realized I was running behind schedule. My mother would not be pleased to enter her kitchen and see Tokunbo there. According to her, guests did not belong in her kitchen. And last time I checked, Tokunbo was not a member of our family. She would be even less pleased to see that dinner was nowhere near being ready. I had to hurry things up.

“Tokunbo, you can start by chopping those onions for me,” I instructed, waiting to hear if he would protest with “You’re not the boss of me,” like Yemi usually did.

No way.

Tokunbo got busy with a knife and chopping board. I wasn’t sure how much experience he had had with a knife, so I gave him a knife that was not particularly sharp. I certainly didn’t want to witness him chop off his fingers in our kitchen.

He managed quite well, slowly cutting the onions into medium-sized cubes, which told me that he at least knew how to chop an onion and was not a complete stranger to the kitchen.

As I cut the beef, shaki and kpomo, I looked over at Tokunbo every now and then, watching him work.

“So who taught you how to use a knife?” I asked as my own knife cut through the thick brown cow skin with zero nutritional value. The accusation in that question was deliberate and I waited eagerly to hear his overly-defensive answer.

He did not disappoint.

“Is that a joke?” he asked, looking up briefly to catch me looking at him. I looked away smiling, waiting for his answer.

“Yes now. You’re chopping it well. So, who taught you?” I asked again resuming my kpomo cutting.

“I didn’t learn it from one person, but between my mother, aunties and all our househelps, I’ve learnt how to use a knife without losing a finger.”

I turned around to look at him and caught him with a smirk on his face. He added:

“And this one you gave me–” he said holding up the brown plastic-handled knife, “–isn’t even sharp enough.”

“Ah, you noticed?” I asked with unsuppressed shock coloring my voice.

“Yes, I did. Reminds me of my mother. Always protecting me from God knows what.”

“Is that so?” I said, moving on to the shaki. Tokunbo had finished chopping the onion by now and stood waiting for the next set of instructions from me.

“Yes, she does it all the time. Speaking of which, remember what we discussed yesterday?” he said, walking over to where I stood cutting the tripe into pieces.

“Yes,” I said, turning off the heat and transferring the nuts to a bowl where I put them in water and started squeezing them with my hands until I had separated the soft flesh and husk from the hard shell of the palm kernel nut. The water was now a deep orange with the nuts now mostly black, exposing the hard shell.

Pausing his mother’s gist briefly, Tokunbo said:

“Ehn-ehn! You reserved the fun part for yourself ehn? Oya, me too I want to crush nuts!”

I almost knocked over the bowl holding the precious half-processed palm nuts submerged in orange-colored liquid, in my bid to hold my belly as I burst into laughter.

“Crush nuts? Really, Tokunbo?”

“Na you get bad mind o … I know what I was talking about.”

“Okay jo … Mr. Nut Crusher, come and do your work,” I said stepping aside.

But he said:

“No, let’s do it together. I’ll just join you.”

And so in a surreal moment, I dipped my hands in the bowl, grabbed a bunch of palm nuts and rubbed them against each other, pressing hard with my fingers till the flesh fell off the hard shell. Tokunbo did the same.

Unfortunately, he over-estimated the amount of aggression needed to rub the nuts together, and a few of them rolled out of his hands and scattered on the countertop.

After we retrieved them, he adjusted the level of pressure applied and between the two of us, we ended up with the palm nut base which we needed for the banga soup.

I got a sieve and separated the husk and nuts from the liquid after extracting even more concentrate with warm water.

“What do you do with the nuts?” he asked.

“You can pound them, break the shell and eat the nuts. But not now–”

“Later, abi?” asked Tokunbo expectantly.

“Right.”

Between the two of us, the meat, shaki and kpomo got seasoned and cooked. And within an hour and a half from Tokunbo’s arrival, the banga soup was ready.

“Now, you really must join us for dinner, since you helped cook the food,” I said as I tasted the soup for salt one last time before turning off the heat.

“That would be nice, but maybe another time. I think your parents should invite me.”

“You’re probably right on that one,” I agreed.

In all the time we were in the kitchen, my brothers took turns coming to peep at us and check out what we were up to. They did this a few times, and once or twice, they even enticed Tokunbo to come and join them in the parlor where they were playing Mortal Kombat.

But, on each occasion, Tokunbo declined their invitation.

Interestingly, they also declined my invitation to join us in the kitchen.

Meanwhile while we cooked the food, Tokunbo told me how he had confronted his mother, and how she admitted to keeping his father away from him for the past two years because he had announced his intention to marry another wife.

“We had a big argument. Right now, she’s not talking to me,” he said concluding his update.

“Is that why you came here?” I asked, wondering if I would always be listening to Tokunbo’s family woes, always caught in the middle, playing referee. At least as to Tokunbo, not to his parents.

“No, your dad asked me to see him today for another mentorship session. He said he wanted to share some lessons he learnt from his childhood with me. And I wanted to tell him that my mum has enrolled me in a new school, a private school. St. Patrick’s College.”

The name of the secondary school Tokunbo would start attending in January was completely unfamiliar to me. But at least, he would be a day student not a boarder.

“And she also said I’m to start JAMB lessons in January,” he added.

“But you’re just in SS1, right?”

“That’s what I told her, but she said the earlier the better. You know how people fail that exam.”

I nodded. The tales of re-taking JAMB were all too familiar, having heard them from just about everyone I knew: classmates, friends, complete strangers.

The fear of JAMB was real.

“That’s funny. I’m also attending JAMB lesson. And I’m also in SS1,” I said chuckling. “Which one will you be attending?” I asked.

“Future Champions Academy,” said Tokunbo.

I froze.

That was the name of the same JAMB lesson I attended.

I immediately told Tokunbo I was going to the exact same JAMB lesson.

His reaction shocked me.

“Yipee! Yes! Yes!” he shouted, punching the air with his fists in apparent joy.

“Why are you so happy?” I asked, unsure whether Tokunbo was thrilled that he would not be the only teenager on our street, suffering through JAMB classes after regular school classes, or whether he was pleased that I knew the lesson he referred to.

He wasted no time explaining what exactly he was celebrating.

“I know someone there. I won’t just walk in looking like a JJC … or mumu.”

In that moment, without saying much, Tokunbo had shared with me, his personal fear: that he would have to wander through life alone, a solitary traveler.

I had always thought it was just women who had this fear, but that day, Tokunbo opened my eyes to the fact that fear is fear. It knows no gender.

I also understood then the anxiety, which he had kept well-hidden, about being forcefully uprooted, without his approval, from a school where he had developed friendships, some of which were three-years strong, and then transplanted into a school where he knew no one.

I expressed my surprise with a “Wow!” and added, to poke fun at him, “I hope you’ll be this excited when you see the Further Maths questions for JAMB. They can make a grown man cry.”

Tokunbo chuckled.

“I’m not an Olodo you know, right? I’m sure I’ll manage fine. Besides, I chose this.”

I was puzzled.

“What did you choose?” I asked.

“To take JAMB instead of SAT or A-levels.”

“Why? Your parents can afford to send you to yankee or jand for uni, right?” I asked, silently wondering if maybe what they said about all that glittered not being gold was true.

“Of course they can,” he replied, “and my mum even wants me to go to the US for uni.”

“But?” I offered, encouraging him to continue.

“But I’ve always told her I didn’t like the idea.”

I stood back to look at Tokunbo properly. What was this guy saying? What person would get the opportunity to study abroad, all expenses paid, and choose instead to “suffer” as I saw it, through a Nigerian university?

I had to hear Tokunbo’s answers for myself.

The look of wonder and incredulity on my face must have told Tokunbo what my mind was saying, because he said:

“Ahn, ahn? Why are you looking at me like that? Is it because I said I don’t want to jand for school?”

“Of course! In my entire life, I’ve never heard anyone say such a thing!” I spat.

“Well, I guess I’m the first then. There’s a first time for everything, abi?”

I nodded. He continued.

“I’m not interested in going abroad for school,” he shrugged. “As it is, my parents are divorced and I barely see my dad. But at least, I know he’s in this country. If I leave, it means that I won’t only miss my dad, but my mum too. And I’d have to take a plane to see Yele.”

“–Or Yele can take a plane to see you,” I suggested.

Tokunbo laughed.

“You don’t know her. Trust me ehn, it’ll be me coming to visit her, not the other way round.”

“Okay o,” I said. “So it’s JAMB for you then … At least for now?”

“Yup! JAMB it is,” said Tokunbo.

I told Tokunbo what I knew about the JAMB lesson, that although it was open to anyone taking or re-taking JAMB, most of those who attended were secondary school students like us who were already trying out for the exam, years before graduation and years before we would need the results.

Certainly, a good number of people who attended were ‘post-secondary school takers,’ older folks and those who had taken GCE, but our own age group dominated this particular JAMB lesson.

Located in the Onike area of Yaba, Future Champions Academy was owned by a certain Mr. Durodola, who taught some of the Mathematics and Science classes himself.

Like many businesses in Nigeria, they did not focus exclusively on one product. In their case, they did not limit themselves to preparing students for just one exam. Rather, like the tentacles of an octopus, Future Champions had its hands in several pies, that is, the tutors helped students prepare for other tests including: JSCE, SSCE, NECO, GCE, A levels, SAT, GRE and GMAT. They, however, stayed away from professional exams like ICAN exams because they had decided earlier on that it was wise to focus on their strengths. Tutoring students for professional exams was definitely not their strong suit.

My father arrived shortly after the banga soup was ready, and as he spoke to Tokunbo, I prepared the eba for dinner.

In a small food flask, I stored five cellophane wraps of eba: two for my mother and two for me. The fifth one was jara: it could end up in either my mother’s stomach or mine.

Its fate was yet to be decided.

But I knew she was bound to arrive soon and would want to eat almost immediately.

I would have wanted to listen to the story my father was telling Tokunbo, but I had to go and pick up my father’s shoes from Mallam Audu, who had been asked to polish them.

By the time I got back, Tokunbo had left.

Not long afterwards, my mother came home.

We sat down and ate dinner together. After my mother had finished her food, she noticed that there was still one extra wrap of eba left in the flask.

Leaning back in her chair and rubbing her belly affectionately, she declared:

“If I eat any more eba, people will have to start calling me Asake Eleba! But it’s better than Asake Alamala, abi Enitan?”

I giggled before responding with:

“I’d rather call you ‘Mummy!’ ”

With a glance towards the food flask, I asked: “May I?”

She nodded and began her regular post-meal ritual of sucking her teeth while staring into space. Meanwhile, I effortlessly polished off the last wrap of eba. As it went to join the earlier bits of my dinner in my belly, I listened to my mother narrate how the okra seller had tried to cheat her at the market, and how she had miraculously outwitted the woman.

After our meal, I went to wash the dishes, assisted by Yemi, who happily announced that Tokunbo did not eat before he left. Listening to Yemi, it was clear that he and Tayo harbored the irrational fear that Tokunbo joining us for dinner that evening would have shortened their ration.

From that time onwards, anytime Tokunbo and I ran into each other, at home or outside, we would stand and gist for a while. The days of the casual “Hello-Hi” greeting were over.

Amid the dry chill of Harmattan and the noise of local firecrackers known as banger, which on some days, people confused with gunshots and hurriedly fled indoors, Christmas came and left.

Then, it was time to strip the walls of old calendars because a week after Christmas, the New Year came upon us, whether or not, we were ready for it.

The New Year brought with it the promise and expectation of new things, the hope that unpleasant experiences that had darkened our days in past years would be far from us in the New Year, and the hope that only the best of everything would come rushing into our lives.

I was not the only one for whom the New Year was full of new beginnings.

For my brother Tayo who had to go back to school in Ogbomosho the second week of January, it would be the first time he would be taking mock exams for his upcoming SSCE exams. For Yemi, it was the first time he would be getting a seatmate who was a girl.

And for me and Tokunbo, it was the first time we would be attending the same school-related activity together.

For that reason, and many more unspoken reasons, I waited for JAMB lesson to commence with nervous excitement.

My typical routine was to go to lesson after school ended. Because my school was also located in Yaba, off Herbert Macaulay road, I could walk to Onike or take a cheap-fare Danfo bus past Sabo and straight to Onike. Most times, however, I walked, for no other reason but to save the transport fare and add to the pocket money my parents gave me.

On most days, the heavy go slow in that area, due to the presence of several schools, which let out their students at around the same time, made walking a very sensible option.

Once I got to lesson, I would first eat the extra lunch I brought for lesson, or on days when the extra lunch had been consumed at school, I would buy snacks at one of the eateries or fast food restaurants that dotted the area. The snacks I bought were usually the ones I could afford on a student’s budget like puff puff, sausage rolls, donuts, meat pies, chicken pies and yam balls.

The more expensive, deliciously marinated chicken barbecue with French fries or fried rice was something I ate only in my dreams because my allowance did not allow for this treat.

Combining my snack of choice with a sugar-packed soft drink like Coca-Cola or Mirinda pumped me with enough glucose to keep my eyes from swimming when our Maths teacher decorated the blackboard with complicated equations that seemed to have been written in Morse Code or in an ancient language understood only by green aliens from another planet.

Then, after lessons, I would take two or sometimes, three buses back to our home in Surulere.

That was my typical routine.

Sometimes, on my journey to JAMB lesson, I would be accompanied by a few schoolmates who either attended Future Champions Academy or one of the similar lessons close by.

One of those schoolmates was Tina.

In January, JAMB lessons had started the week our own classes resumed. So, there was no buffer, no week of grace, no easing into the extra tutorials we needed to slay the beast that was JAMB.

The first day of school was light compared to regular school days. It was almost like the teachers were teasing us and saying, “Enjoy this happy moment now, because we’ll soon turn up the heat and roast you all term long like boli!”

After the last school bell rang signaling the end of classes, I hit the road with Tina as my walking companion, headed for JAMB lesson. As I trekked from my school to Onike, the combination of nervousness and excitement that had been simmering in my blood all day caused me to walk a little faster than usual.

If I didn’t notice the marked increase in my pace, Tina certainly did. She wasted no time in voicing her disapproval.

“Wait now!” she groaned, panting as she jogged a short distance, until she caught up with me.

That was the fifth time she had had to catch up with me that afternoon and we had only been walking for ten minutes.

Tina was not happy.

“I said wait!” she wailed again as I began to overtake her. Tina was not impressed with my power walking.

“What is chasing you?” she demanded as she caught up with me. “You’ve just been walking fast as if they’re dashing people free cars at lesson! Na wetin?!”

“I don’t want to be late,” I lied.

There was no way I would ever admit to Tina that Tokunbo was the reason I was power walking to Onike in the hot sun, with sweat pouring out of my pores.

“My mummy won’t like it if she hears I got to lesson late,” I added, hoping that would get Tina off my back.

It didn’t work.

Instead, like a stubborn hound dog that has smelt blood, Tina refused to back off. She did not believe any of the rational but completely bogus explanations I gave her.

“Liar!” she said accusingly. “We’ll get there on time and you’ll even have plenty time to eat and gist sef. So you better tell me what’s really chasing you.”

“Tina, please leave me alone. Stop pestering me!” I snarled.

“You call this pestering, ehn? You haven’t seen anything o. All dis one na grammar. You better talk or else … Why am I even wasting my time? You kuku know I will still find out.”

I stubbornly refused to tell Tina what was really responsible for my rush to JAMB lesson that afternoon. So, she temporarily abandoned the matter, and switched to gisting me, whether I wanted to hear it or not, about a Mexican soap opera she was following on television. My occasional “Um-hmm” and “Okay” and “Eia” uttered every now and then did not satisfy her, as she kept accusing me of not paying attention.

Of course, she was right, but I was acutely aware that Tina was a certified basket mouth, and therefore, no secret, not even the ones which appeared to be harmless on the surface, was safe with her.

But there’s only so much power walking one can do on a hot Monday afternoon after a full day of classes.

In no time, I was feeling drained, more so by Tina’s constant talking, than anything else.

And no matter how hard I wished, a large, man-sized bird did not swoop down and carry Tina away to drop her on a deserted island where she would have coconut trees and rushing waves for company.

It didn’t happen.

Neither did my wish for Tina to suddenly lose her voice. No such luck.

Tina kept talking until we reached our JAMB lesson in Onike.

As soon as we arrived, I was relieved that Tina instantly abandoned me as she found other people she knew and went to fraternize with them.

“Peace at least!” I sighed in relief.

I went to look through a few classrooms to see if Tokunbo had arrived. He would be easy to identify because just like me, he would be wearing his school uniform.

But no matter how hard I looked, there was no sign of Tokunbo anywhere.

Feeling more than a little disappointed, I crossed the street and went to a nearby fast food restaurant, which was very similar to Mama Cass. I was pointing to a particularly large, delicious looking meat pie while the female attendant tried to identify the snack my greed had settled on, when I heard someone say:

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

And that was how Tokunbo announced his presence.

I felt a surge of joy mingled with excitement, and it was all I could do to stop myself from cheesing as we greeted each other.

The female attendant who Tokunbo had addressed this statement to looked like she would have loved to mash one of the yam balls on Tokunbo’s head, but she behaved herself. Her eyes said:

“We don’t do that here.”

Meanwhile, as we stood there, I assessed Tokunbo, my partner-in-hunger.

As I had expected, he was wearing his school uniform. It was the first time I had seen him wearing a secondary school uniform. All the other times when he had returned home from Ijanikin, he was wearing his school house wear. In retrospect, that house wear looked like a prisoner’s outfit. But unlike prisoners, the students went home at the end of each term.

Secondary school was not a life sentence.

Tokunbo’s school uniform was a short-sleeved shirt with long trousers. The trousers were dark blue, and the check-patterned shirt with large sky blue and gray squares were covered with the school crest. A larger, more legible version of the school crest was slapped onto the single breast pocket.

I believe the students were also required to wear a matching blazer that was the same shade of blue as the trousers to complete the look, but it was not on Tokunbo’s person that afternoon. Besides, the heat which we had escaped briefly once we stepped into the restaurant made wearing a blazer outdoors a stupid choice.

While we were talking, I saw the attendant out of the corner of my eye, wear disposable, transparent nylon gloves and pick out two meat pies and put them into separate bags.

Meanwhile, Tokunbo said:

“My mother’s driver just dropped me off and when I got inside, I saw someone wearing your type of uniform.”

“Really?” I asked, wondering just how many people from my school went to this same lesson, and which of them Tokunbo was referring to. Short of asking him to attach his brain to a projector, and show me flashing images of all the people he had encountered at Future Champions Academy that afternoon, I had to wait for him to tell me exactly who it was he had seen.

“Her name is Justina, but she said I should call her ‘Tina’ for short. Something about Justina not being cool enough.”

“Crap!” I thought. Of all the people Tokunbo could have run into at JAMB lesson, it had to be amebo, gossip-central Tina.

By now, I was sure she had put two and two together and deduced that Tokunbo was the reason for my hurried steps towards Onike that afternoon.

Aloud to Tokunbo, who did not know who he had just innocently referred to, I said:

“Oh, Tina! I see–” and left it hanging while my eyes wandered back to the sausage rolls and other snacks behind the extensive glass display.

Tokunbo got the message.

“Why? What’s wrong with her?” he asked puzzled.

“Wrong? Oh, don’t worry, you’ll see. Just be careful what you say around her.”

“It’s a bit too late for that o. I already told her I was looking for my girlfriend,” said Tokunbo, hurriedly leaving me to pay for both our snacks.

“Wait! What?!” I shouted just before he left. He turned around briefly as he handed the money to the cashier, and I caught a wicked smirk on his face.

Was he just rattling my chains or was he telling the truth?

When he came back with our meat pies, I descended on him with a torrent of questions.

“Are you serious? Why? What did you that for? Do you know what she’s capable of? Why did you lie?”

I went on and on and on, and would have continued except that I noticed that the entire time I was torturing myself with all these questions, Tokunbo looked like he was trying hard to suppress a laugh.

“What’s so funny?” I demanded. “Is any of this funny?”

“Yes now. Now, I know what you look like when you’re upset. Even cuter than when you smile.”

I shook my head and hissed, angry at myself for falling for such a stupid ruse.

Tokunbo led the way to a chair and table in a corner, one of the few ones at the restaurant.

“Okay. Can I at least buy you a drink? Though maybe I shouldn’t ‘cos I like your face like this,” said Tokunbo, still grinning mischievously.

I tried to kick him under the table from where I sat, arms folded across my chest, frowning, but I missed and kicked one of the wooden legs of the table instead.

As I yowled in pain, Tokunbo half-laughed, half offered consolation, saying:

“See, that’s why you should only practice karate at home! Meat pie and karate don’t mix!”

In spite of myself, that last bit had me in stitches, and after a few laughs, I had forgiven him. And myself.

Meanwhile, we sat down to eat with bottles of soft drinks to wash down the snacks.

As we ate, Tokunbo gisted me about his first day at St. Patrick’s College.

He said the students at his school were obsessed with showy displays evidencing travel abroad for the Christmas holidays.

Apart from the mandatory pictures at exotic destinations many Nigerians only saw on TV, they brought back colorful mementos: pencil cases, posters, CDs and anything else that could be crammed into a suitcase and hauled miles across the Atlantic on an airplane. Anyone who had the misfortune of not traveling to a climate where a white Christmas was the tradition was deemed “local.”

“So, I guess I’m a local boy then,” said Tokunbo, before popping the last bit of his meat pie, the hard crusty edge, into his mouth. I had eaten that bit first, and was finishing off the softer meat-and-potato-filled bit stuffed into the flaky crust.

“Indeed, you are very local,” I said, chuckling. “But come o, haven’t you janded before?” I said, thinking to myself that Tokunbo fit the bill of a guy who travelled to those exotic destinations for the holidays. He certainly looked like his family could afford it.

“Yes, I have,” he confirmed. “We used to go several times a year when I was younger. Not so much now.”

“Why?”

“Money,” said Tokunbo with a frankness that caught me off guard. “At least, that’s what my mother told me. She says when business picks up, we’ll go to Atlanta. We went to New York when I was in JSS2.”

I nodded in understanding, and a part of me questioned whether it was wise for Tokunbo to share his family’s financial issues with me, a non-family member.

But then, it struck me: he probably saw in me someone who wouldn’t go about spilling secrets into hungry, listening ears.

Left to me, however, and if I was in his shoes, I would never have told anyone that my parents were struggling financially. That was our secret, not anyone else’s.

In my mother’s words, “It’s not all the clothes in your house that you hang outside to dry.”

“Lucky you. I’ve never janded,” I said. “The farthest I’ve ever travelled is Cotonou, and that was for one primary school excursion,” I added, after a brief pause.

“It’s not a big deal. I’m sure you’ll visit many more places when you’re older.”

“I guess,” I said, wondering why Tokunbo wasn’t pointing at me laughing and shouting, “Cotonou-bound,” like I had expected. He didn’t deride me or make jest of something I had no control over, which for me, was unusual. Even the girls in my class, if they knew the Cotonou story, would never let me rest because just like Tokunbo, I attended a private secondary school. However, as I had already learnt, private school get level.

In my own school, if you travelled out of Lagos for the holidays, to another city in Nigeria where your parents owned additional property, like Abuja for instance, you were envied. Those who went beyond mere intra-country travel and were lucky enough to vacation abroad, were looked upon with awe and wonder as if they were angels who had descended from heaven, come to walk among us pitiful mortals.

Travelling abroad was not even on my parent’s agenda. They had their hands full trying to pay the school fees for three children.

While we were still talking, I suddenly remembered the real purpose for our being at Onike that afternoon.

“Ah! It’s almost time for lesson to start,” I said after consulting my wristwatch. “That Mr. Ilesanmi will pick on us if we come late. Oya, let’s go,” I said jumping to my feet and pushing the empty bottles to the center of the table as if they would fall where they were before.

We both hurried back to the classroom where our book bags had been left in Tina’s care.

Mr. Ilesanmi, a pudgy-faced, serious-looking man had already entered the classroom and was scribbling the word, “Mathematics” on the blackboard.

We all pulled out our exercise books and textbooks, along with math sets and other learning materials to follow along. Many of the concepts he covered that day were not familiar to those of us in SS1, as we had not yet covered them in school. But, it was like an advance class for us and we had been assured that we did not need any school prep classes before conquering those JAMB questions.

That was the selling point the JAMB lesson organizers emphasized to the hearing of our parents as well as those who, like us, were taking the university entrance exam well in advance of the time when we needed to prepare for university admission.

That day, we covered two basic subjects: Mathematics and English Language. The other subjects on the exam had to be taken selectively, depending on the course the student was going to study in the university. Those other subjects included Literature-in-English, Geography, Economics, and the trifecta for most science courses: Physics, Chemistry and Biology, shortened to “Phy-Chem-Bi,” but pronounced “Fee-Kem-Ba.” All those additional subjects were covered on different days during the week.

It made me uneasy that in the same class as us teenagers were women and men who were 2 or 3 times our age, parents who themselves had children our age or even older, and other students, people in their 20s, 30s who had re-taken the exam many times, so that now, we their younger ones, who ought to call them “Brother” or “Sister” or even “Aunty” or “Uncle” before pronouncing their first names, were sitting in the same class with them, as they prepared to re-take the same exam we would be attempting the first time.

It made me uncomfortable, but that was the reality.

And if the stories I had heard about uni were to be believed, my course mates in the university would consist of this same demographic. So, I guess this JAMB lesson was a good training ground for life in the university.

After lesson, Tina who had been trying to get my attention during the classes, but who I had completely ignored, finally cornered me and asked me point-blank:

“Who is that guy?”

She had asked this question in a loud whisper before adding, “He was asking for you.”

“He’s my neighbor,” I said, refusing to feed her with any more information. But Tina was not so easily deterred.

“Okay. Does he have a girlfriend?” she said, loud enough for Tokunbo and anyone with two perfectly good ears to hear.

I was furious.

“Look Tina, I don’t have time for this, okay? You can ask him yourself.”

I knew that the thinly veiled disgust in my voice would annoy Tina, and mentally prepared myself to make the journey home alone.

But she made a face, eyed me and hissed viciously, before strutting to where Tokunbo stood, introducing himself to some other guys in our class. Somehow, she got him to excuse himself from them, and pulling him aside, I heard her ask:

“Are you Enitan’s neighbor? I mean, is that all there is between you two, ehn? Fine boy like you,” she said, eyeing him like a piece of moist chocolate cake.

I just shook my head where I stood watching everything.

Some girls have no shame.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” said Tina, without even waiting for him to answer the preceding questions.

“Well … that position is still vacant,” Tokunbo teased. “And yes, Enitan is my neighbor,” he added, glancing briefly in my direction.

I quickly averted my eyes and around the same time I heard Tina yell to Tokunbo who was standing right in front of her:

“Hey, face me jo! Don’t look at her!”

Tokunbo slipped his hands into his trouser pockets, standing at ease.

Tina continued.

“So … how can I apply? Me sef, I’m a fine girl o,” she said, tossing invisible long locks over her shoulders and striking a pose. Tokunbo laughed at Tina’s preening. She certainly kept him entertained.

“I have to go now,” he said nodding towards the door where his mother’s driver had just appeared.

They gave me a ride home, and Tina went home with her mother who was in the area that day.

At the time, I didn’t realize it, but that day marked the beginning of a new phase of our blossoming friendship.

For a while, that was my routine. Four days a week, I would go to JAMB lesson right after school, and Tokunbo would give me a ride home. Actually, it was his mother’s driver who did the driving, but I guess it’s the same thing.

During the car ride home, I could not speak as freely with Tokunbo as I did at lesson or where there wasn’t any adult around. But this had nothing to do with any strictness on the part of the driver.

No, Mr. Julius was very cool and would often joke about the things that had happened over the course of his day. It helped that he was in his early 20s, and was therefore easier to talk to than a middle-aged man, for example.

However, my “clamping up” and general reluctance to be chatty with Tokunbo in the presence of Mr. Julius owed to my own shyness.

But one day, all of this changed with the occurrence of a good problem.

That day, a Wednesday afternoon, we had finished JAMB lesson as usual. Tina had set her sights on another guy in our class who was feeling her, so she completely ignored us.

Usually, Mr. Julius arrived before lesson ended. That afternoon, however, he was nowhere to be found. Ten minutes after lesson, there was still no sign of Mr. Julius.

So, we waited for thirty more minutes.

Still no Mr. Julius.

Where was he?

At that point, it suddenly occurred to me that I knew how to get home. And that before Tokunbo started coming to lesson with me, I was able to find my way home alone.

Maybe this was a sign from heaven, that I needed to reclaim my independence, at least as it related to making the return trip home.

“Tokunbo, I’m going to take bus and be going home. My parents expect me back at a certain time, and it’s getting late,” I added, rather impatiently.

Tokunbo would arrive home to meet a house help, meyguard and possibly his sister, Yele. His mother would not arrive until it was really dark.

I, however, did not have the luxury of time.

“That’s true. Okay, just give me five minutes. Let me call my mum to find out what’s up. Then, you can go,” he said, rising to his feet.

That plan sounded fine to me. So, I waited in the classroom, while Tokunbo went to the main office to make a phone call to his mother.

He returned almost ten minutes later, looking dejected.

“What is it?” I asked, alarm rising in my voice. “Did something happen?”

“Well, yes,” Tokunbo replied with a large scowl on his face. “My mum said Mr. Julius is still at the mechanic’s shop and it might be another two hours before he gets to me. And she can’t pick me up because she has customers she’s attending to.”

“Ehen? Okay, bye-bye!” I said, rising hurriedly to my feet. The only thought on my mind was:

I must get home before Daddy, or else, I’m in soup.

As at then, my parents did not know that the Williams had been giving me rides home. And since my father usually got home just before nightfall, I would have to have a solid explanation to give him if I got home after dark.

Since telling my father that Iya Tokunbo’s car was held up at the mechanic’s did not sound to me like it belonged in the “solid explanation” category, I had to move fast.

“Enitan, is this life?” Tokunbo chided. “Just because there’s no car, and no driver, you want to jabbor me.”

He sounded quite hurt, and I quickly launched into a brief explanation of the sudden urgency to head home. Even while he was accusing me of disloyalty, I could see just how shallow I sounded when I initially voiced my decision to leave.

He saw the sense in what I told him. However, his next statement took me by surprise.

“Oya, let’s go,” said Tokunbo, picking up his school bag and strapping it to his shoulders.

“Go where? You and who?” I asked, more than a little apprehensive. “Aren’t you going to wait here for Mr. Julius?”

“Enitan, I might not have a father who will flog me for coming home late, but I refuse to wait here for any driver. If public transport is good enough for you, then it’s good enough for me.”

I stood there in shock, just staring at him. Was this guy serious?

“No, no, Tokunbo. You can’t come with me,” I insisted.

“Why?”

“Okay, have you ridden a Danfo before?”

“No, but there’s always a first time,” he replied with an air of dismissiveness.

“True, true,” I said, my mind searching in vain for another reason to discourage Tokunbo from what I deemed a foolish move.

I found one.

“Those agberos at the car park, they’re very rough o … I don’t want anything to happen to you, and then your mummy will start blaming me for–” I began.

“Hey, hey, Enitan. Calm down! You can’t protect me from every real or imagined danger. I’m a guy. I will be fine. And today today, whether you like it or not, I must enter bus!”

At that moment, I realized that any further protests were useless. Tokunbo had made up his mind, and there was nothing I could do to dissuade him.

To tell the truth, I was probably overreacting. I myself had taken public transport almost every day, to and from school, since I was in JS1. And here I was, still in one piece.

What could possibly happen to Tokunbo?

Besides, ours was a straightforward route. We had to catch a bus from Onike to Yaba, and from Yaba, which was a major bus terminus, we would catch another bus going to Masha-Kilo. Once we alighted at Masha, we would make the remaining journey by foot to our street in Surulere.

I explained this briefly to Tokunbo, as we walked to Onike bus stop where we would catch the first bus. As we walked, I told Tokunbo:

“Follow my lead. Don’t just enter any bus o. I don’t want them to show your face on NTA News, saying: This young boy was found wandering on the streets of Lagos. He can’t remember his house address, and as you can tell from the tears on his face, he is scared, confused and wants his mummy! ”

Tokunbo burst into laughter from the moment I mentioned “NTA News” to the point when I ended with “Mummy.”

“You!” he yelled, shaking a finger in my face. “You’re just a wicked girl sha! So that’s what you’re praying for me, abi? It won’t work o!”

I giggled, secretly hoping that none of the things I had jokingly referred to would ever happen to either of us. I certainly did not want to be responsible for Tokunbo’s “Lost in Lagos” experience.

By the time we got to Onike bus stop, twenty minutes had passed, and we started looking out for buses heading towards Yaba.

Usually, they were almost empty and had space for at least ten people.

But that afternoon, the conductors of all the Yaba-bound buses that came to Onike, all said the same thing:

One chance!

That meant that there was just one seat left on the bus.

Ordinarily, I would have had no qualms about hopping on the bus and claiming the last available seat, enduring any discomfort all the way to Yaba, especially because the Masha buses tended to be more comfortable and spacious.

But as I had a fellow traveler with me, a newbie for that matter, I had to be more considerate and more careful.

I remember telling Tokunbo that the next bus that had space for two or more would be the one we would board.

But he must not have heard me.

One minute, I had turned my face to the left to scan upcoming buses headed towards Yaba to gauge their occupancy and prepare to hop on. The next minute, I turned to my right just in time to see Tokunbo hop onto a Yaba bus yelling:

“Enitan, jump! Hurry!”

Too late!

I ran after the bus with all the strength I could muster, and that is taking into consideration the fact that I had a fairly heavy school bag on my back.

But as I ran, I became immediately aware of the fact that I could not outrun a four-wheeled moving vehicle. Certainly not a Danfo.

I heard the passengers urging the driver to stop, but he simply ignored them and drove away at full speed.

A regular occurrence at bus stops? Yes.

But that was not the day for this sort of rubbish to happen.

I finally stopped running, several yards from the bus stop, out of breath and overwhelmed. I almost burst into tears as the realization of what just happened hit me.

Why hadn’t this silly boy listened to me? Why did he take that bus? How would I find him in the chaos of Yaba bus stop, the congestion of human traffic that made Onike look like a toothless two-day old baby? What if Tokunbo got off at one of those other bus stops before Yaba? What if he got off at Yaba and then got on the wrong bus, going to Iyana Ipaja, for instance?

I was furious, scared and frustrated all at the same time.

What would I do now?

“And I told this boy o! Why didn’t he listen?” I repeated to myself over and over again, as I considered my next move. “I told him to wait.”

Then, a thought struck me.

“At least, he took the right bus,” I reasoned, “so maybe he has enough sense to wait for me at Yaba.”

It was that calming thought that I allowed my mind to dwell on as I boarded the next available bus to Yaba. This one had two free seats and I gratefully sank into one at the back near the window on the right.

As the bus got closer to Yaba, and at each bus stop, passengers got down, while others boarded our bus. Despite the conductor yelling “No change o!” at every bus stop, people still entered the bus without the exact change for their bus fare, sparking heated arguments with the conductor over whether or not their ears were working.

I had the exact bus fare and had given it to the conductor as soon as the bus left Onike, so I watched these squabbles with the eyes of a person whose thoughts are far, far away.

My mind was, of course, on Tokunbo.

That NTA News scenario, as funny as it had sounded at the time, had lost its appeal, and instead I had converted it into a prayer point, which I chanted in my heart, almost non-stop.

“Oh Lord, please don’t let Tokunbo get lost and appear on NTA News in Jesus name.”

I kept this silent prayer going until we reached Yaba.

Once the bus stopped at Yaba bus stop, across the street from the majestic Lagos Presbyterian Church, I alighted from the bus, my eyes searching frantically for a male teenager in a blue and gray school uniform.

After several wrong guesses, I finally heaved a sigh of relief and muttered, “Thank you Jesus!” as I made my way to where a boy stood engaged in conversation with a young hawker.

The hawker, a boy of school age himself, was shabbily dressed. Delicately balanced on his head, was a wooden box with a glass display, full of snacks.

Each of these snacks was a perfect replica of what would happen if a large puff-puff or bun, tried to swallow a hardboiled egg, and halfway through the exercise, decided that it (the puff-puff, not the egg) wanted to give the world proof of what it had attempted to do.

In other words, it was a large, golden brown, puff pastry, wrapped around an egg. At least twenty of these snacks were stacked on top of each other, so that the first things you saw through the glass were the eggs.

As I got closer, I heard Tokunbo asking the boy where he could get a bus going to Masha-Kilo. There was no fear, uncertainty or any of the emotions I had battled with when he abandoned me at Onike, in Tokunbo’s voice.

No, Tokunbo looked perfectly calm, like he did this sort of thing – negotiate his way through Lagos, unassisted – every single day.

I wanted to kick him.

As soon as I reached him, I tapped him angrily on the shoulder, not caring to know who was watching us or what people would think.

“Why did you leave me at Onike, ehn? Didn’t you hear me say, ‘Wait for me?!’ ” I practically screamed at Tokunbo.

After waving and thanking the boy who had pointed him in the right direction, and who promptly left us in search of customers who would give him money in exchange for his wares, Tokunbo turned to me with a calmness that further aggravated me, and said:

“I heard you, that’s why I took the bus to Yaba, but–” he began.

“Didn’t you know we were supposed to enter the same bus? Why don’t you ever listen?” I shouted.

“Hey, hey, hey! Don’t shout at me!” Tokunbo yelled back. And then, in a calmer voice, he said: “And what do you mean I never listen? I should be the one telling you that! I was telling you to jump on the bus and now you’re angry because you weren’t paying attention.”

I stood there astounded. How did this suddenly become my fault?

“You know what, Tokunbo? After today, just be going home by yourself, you hear? You cannot come and give me heart attack over jumping bus!” I stormed as I set my feet in the direction of Masha-Kilo buses. They were lined up in front of the section of Yaba bus stop where the public toilets were.

All the way till we reached the bus, Tokunbo begged and pleaded, but I just ignored him.

We rode the bus home in silence, and this time around, we got down at Masha together. On the bus, we sat at opposite ends on the back row, each hugging a window seat, two people separating us.

Then, once the bus dropped us at Masha, Tokunbo resumed his talking.

“You can’t go home like this. Talk to me now, even if it’s just–” he started.

“You scared me!” I blurted out. “I was so worried and I had no way of reaching you,” I added, feeling the pent-up anger oozing out of my pores with every word that came out of my mouth. Talking was certainly therapeutic.

“Okay, I’m sorry. Oya smile for me.”

I eyed him and said: “I’m not a puppet, you hear? You can’t just tell me to smile and I will come and start shinning teeth like a fowl.”

“Do you know that if you frown too much and the wind changes, your face will be stuck like that forever?” Tokunbo asked as we walked past a supermarket.

“Ehen, and so? Who told you that?” I mumbled.

“I read it in a book, Enitan. And you know what? I’ve been praying for the wind to change so your face will stay like this forever,” he added with a mischievous grin.

In my mind, I said: “Your fada!”

But aloud, I said: “You’re not serious at all, at all.”

“Oh, but I am,” he insisted. “I’ve already told you, you look extra cute when you frown like this. Keep frowning, you hear?”

Whatever Tokunbo was doing, it was working. I broke out of my foul mood, and slowly, a slight smile replaced the frown.

We kept talking until we got home.

Just before he stepped through the gate of his house, Tokunbo turned to me and said:

“Thank you, Enitan.”

“For what?” I asked, puzzled.

“For caring,” he said, with a smile before heading indoors.

I quickly went inside too, relieved that I had beat my father home.

As I washed my school uniform later that evening, I kept replaying Tokunbo’s words over and over in my mind.

“Thank you for caring.”

He was right.

I cared. About him.

That day was a turning point in our friendship because from that day onwards, every week day, except on Fridays when we had no JAMB lesson, Tokunbo and I rode public transport from Onike to Masha, completing the last leg of our journey by foot, gisting and talking, sometimes arguing all the way.

Once when I asked him why he had suddenly chosen to ride Danfo buses instead of waiting to be chauffeured in his mother’s air-conditioned car, he told me:

“I enjoy walking … and talking to you, Enitan, and this is the only chance I have to do this.”

That was quite true.

Although we lived right next to each other, that journey home from lesson was the number one activity we could do together without people asking too many questions. Our friendship was viewed with a bevy of mixed reactions: suspicion, envy, indifference, confusion, fear. Name it.

In these moments, these capsules of time, I learnt more about Tokunbo than I ever did before.

But, like they say, nothing lasts forever.

We didn’t know that something was about to happen to test our friendship. It was precipitated by, of all things, fuel scarcity.

One afternoon, around the middle of the term, we found our way to Yaba as usual.

As we walked from the spot where we got off the bus from Onike to where the Masha buses were, we noticed something unusual. There were long lines of people waiting in places where typically, there were long lines of buses. We had gotten a foretaste of this from Onike, but because we did not have to wait too long to get a bus from Onike to Yaba, we didn’t think much of it.

However, by the time we arrived at Yaba, it became glaringly obvious that something out of the ordinary was afoot. And we figured it out pretty quickly: fuel scarcity.

Our country whose main export was petroleum, suffered regularly, almost predictably, from shortage of the very product it sold to other countries. Lagos State, the densely-populated, commercial nerve center of the country, was often one of the hardest hit.

Pathetic was an understatement.

The look of frustration on the faces of passengers and people queuing up for buses was just pitiful. Riding public transportation was already stressful and filled with challenges, especially for those who lived farther away from the city center and more towards the outskirts of the city of Lagos.

Throwing fuel scarcity into the mix made it seem like the leaders were punishing people for even having a government.

However, the crowd of people at Yaba that afternoon, did not only consist of those who usually rode public transportation.

On this special occasion, included in that crowd, were those who owned private vehicles. The shortage of fuel had forced them to ditch their cars and throw themselves at the mercy of public bus drivers and conductors who, since this was the source of their daily bread, were adept at sniffing out petrol sold on the black market.

It was at times like this, that adulterated fuel would find its way into people’s car tanks and wreck their engines, forcing them to seek out the services of crooked mechanics.

A vicious cycle, typical of life in Lagos.

That afternoon fell on a Tuesday. My father had dropped me off in school that morning as he had a meeting close to Yaba. On the way, we drove past long queues of cars at filling stations. The lines were so long that they spilled into the streets.

As Tokunbo and I returned home that afternoon, those lines were much longer. More people had run out of petrol and had no choice but to keep vigil at petrol stations in the hopes of buying a few gallons.

Noticeably, the pedestrian traffic on the roads had increased by at least 50% as those who did not have to travel far were walking to their destinations or to places where they were more likely to find buses, taxis or okadas to take them to their destinations.

When Tokunbo and I saw people queueing for buses at Yaba, we wondered if the same fate awaited us.

Just before we got the section where the Masha-Kilo buses were parked, sweet music greeted our ears.

It was so strange to hear that song amidst the dissonant sounds that rose from Yaba: traders calling out their wares, people talking in loud voices, cars passing by with horns blaring, music blasting from loud speakers, by those who dealt in pirated cassette tapes and CDs.

The song that was playing that afternoon, took me by surprise. It was one of the soundtracks of my childhood:

Can I have a dance, Rosie?

Ah-Ah, Me friends are watching me

Rosie ah-ah

They will laugh laugh at me

Rosie ah-ah

So can I have a dance, Rosie?

Lord have mercy!

A smile crept on my face as I recognized Blackky’s smooth voice singing his most famous hit song of the 90s: Rosie. It was delivered in dancehall style, which was not a genre I was particularly fond of, but there were good memories attached to that song, including dancing at birthday parties and winning musical chairs with that song playing in the background.

With that history at the back of your mind, you can see why it was weird to hear that same song on a day when romance was far from anyone’s mind. There was nothing romantic or remotely alluring about a busy bus terminus where fuel scarcity had made public road travel a living nightmare.

I did not realize that I had been smiling, at first, and then it had grown into a sheepish grin.

But Tokunbo noticed and spoke up.

“Ahn ahn! Sister Enitan, share your testimony with us, ke?” he teased.

The grin got wider and the sheepishness swelled to dangerous proportions, constrained only by the bones and skin on my face.

“What do you mean?” I asked, as my sudden self-consciousness toned down the grin by several degrees.

“You’ve been smiling and shinning your teeth, s-i-n-c-e–” and here, he snapped his fingers, and looked back meaningfully at the large black speakers which were blasting the song, before he concluded with, “–you heard that song.”

It was then I made the connection and realized what had happened.

Smiling, I replied:

“Yes, I haven’t heard that song in ages.”

“You mean Rosie? That song is cheesy jo!” Tokunbo scoffed.

But, the way he said it, I knew even he did not completely agree with that statement. It seemed like he felt that he had to somehow distance himself from that song, for whatever reason.

I remained unconvinced and told him so.

“So, are you a Blackky fan?” asked Tokunbo.

“I’m a fan of music that takes me to a good place. So, yes!” I replied.

Tokunbo reached out his right hand, pulled something out of the air and tucked it away into the pocket of his trousers.

“What was that for?” I asked, wondering if perhaps, collecting microscopic organisms was something Tokunbo enjoyed doing. But, he explained himself.

“I just filed your music comment under Things I Now Know about Enitan Ladoja.”

I blushed.

But I almost shouted in horror, the next minute, as we reached the place where the Masha-Kilo buses were usually parked.

Not only was there no single bus in sight, but to make matters worse, the queue was long and winding. In fact, it took us another two minutes to find the back of the queue and join it. The entire time, I had my mouth ajar, unable to believe my eyes.

Was the whole world going to Masha-Kilo today?

As soon as we joined the queue, I began to scan the road to see if I would, by some miracle, see someone in a car, who I knew, or knew me, to give us a ride home or, as close to home as possible. I did not see myself spending the whole afternoon on one queue.

Tokunbo noticed what I was doing and asked for an explanation. While I spoke, three more people joined the queue behind us, grumbling and complaining, not just about the length of the queue, but the fact that the buses they had taken to get to Yaba had doubled the usual fare, and they could expect the same to happen here.

It was like getting robbed twice: of time and money.

Time na money …

“Don’t you wish Mr. Julius had picked us up today?” I asked, turning to Tokunbo who stood behind me. He shook his head sadly and said:

“Even Mr. Julius couldn’t have saved us from this mess. My mum sent him to queue at a petrol station this morning. She drove herself to work.”

With that explanation, any hope of being delivered from this nightmarish queue by Mr. Julius or anyone for that matter, evaporated.

Out of the blues, Tokunbo asked:

“Is there another place where we can get a bus to Masha? It’s our last bus, and we’ve been here for 20 minutes. Not a single bus has come.”

I thought about it and remembered that the Masha-Kilo buses usually passed through Ojuelegba, which was another place where buses converged.

“Yes,” I replied. “At Ojuelegba. But–”

“But what?” asked Tokunbo.

“That place is rough,” I cautioned.

“Oh, Enitan, you’ve come again. Am I not here with you? Let’s go jare.”

Even as we spoke, some people had abandoned the queue and joined the heavy foot traffic in the direction of Ojuelegba.

Seeing nothing wrong with the idea, especially since no bus had arrived since we got to Yaba, I agreed.

That was how we began the long trek from Yaba to Ojuelegba.

To tell the truth, it was not that far, but when you’re already tired, any kind of extra work looks daunting. That afternoon, thankfully, I had Tokunbo to keep me company.

So, we walked, and with each step, we put Yaba farther and farther behind us.

We walked past aggressive male traders who held over-sized underwear in front of women’s eyes, including myself, shouting:

“Sister, sister, check am! Na your size!”

Unbelievable!

Even if I swallowed Tokunbo for lunch, none of those pants could possibly be my size.

But there it was: Hustling 101.

We walked past rows of shops on the right including bookstores and shops selling an array of clothes, knapsacks, handbags, video cassettes, video CDs and similar merchandise.

On the left was the famous Tejuosho market, an expansive, multi-storey, gated shopping center, with clusters of traders lining the periphery, selling mostly food items. In the years to come, that market would burn down more than once, and have to be rebuilt each time.

We walked past churches, banks and commercial buildings, all the while part of the human traffic that seemed to be headed in one direction: Ojuelegba.

On the way, we stopped to buy Fan yoghurt from a man who carried a cooler hitched to the anterior of his bicycle.

The empty cardboard packets of yoghurt from past customers were flattened and threaded through vertical metal pins, so that they stood like twin towers, suspended above the cooler. It was almost like they bore silent witness to the number of people who had patronized this trader that afternoon.

Or maybe that month.

Or year.

Or never.

Who knew if he did not just go about picking up discarded wrappers of Fan yoghurt, which people often dumped on the floor after they were done enjoying the contents?

Regardless of the origin of those empty packets, the yoghurt helped keep our journey interesting. We continued gisting, avoiding okadas and pick-pockets every now and then, walking at a leisurely pace, with tart yoghurt to refuel us as we walked.

Eventually, in about 20 minutes, we reached Ojuelegba, which had a well-deserved bad reputation for crime. It was crawling with hoodlums and ruffians, exactly the sort of place where no sane person wanted to be caught after dark.

On a normal day, long lines of yellow and black danfo buses were usually parked under the bridge.

However, when we got to Ojuelegba that afternoon, Tokunbo and I wondered if perhaps we ought to have stayed at Yaba. The same queues we met at Yaba were present at Ojuelegba. There was a long queue for the Masha-Kilo / Pako-Aguda buses, and these buses were much smaller than the ones at Yaba, meaning they could only take about 14 people at once.

Unlike Yaba however, there were more buses at Ojuelegba, so the queue moved faster.

About 10 minutes after we arrived at Ojuelegba, we were closer to the front of the queue than we had ever been at Yaba. In fact, we recognized a few of the people who had been on the Masha-Kilo queue at Yaba, our allies in this fuel scarcity mess. There was a certain camaraderie present because we were going in the same direction, even if some of them were headed to other places beyond Kilo.

Eventually, a bus came that we were likely to board since we were close to the front of the line. For a moment, it seemed like everyone would be orderly and file into the bus like civilized human beings.

But people’s patience had run thin, and have I mentioned that this was Ojuelegba?

What happened next, however, could easily have happened at any other bus stop.

Tokunbo was in front of me on this queue, and just before it got to his turn, I heard a commotion behind me. When I turned back, I saw people pushing and shoving each other, as they raced to enter the bus.

Oh no! They’re rushing the bus.

The nightmare did not end there though.

I saw people fall, including a woman carrying a toddler, and I heard the ripping of clothes.

The victim was a man wearing a black suit and green tie. We had seen him at Yaba with two perfect sleeves.

But, it was there at Ojuelegba that one sleeve of the same black suit was literally torn off in the mad struggle to enter that bus. It wasn’t clear whether the suit tore because of poor workmanship or tailoring, or simply because of the amount of force whoever the ripper was, had applied on his arm to yank him out of the way.

This was not the time to ask him stupid questions such as:

“Sir, can you categorically say whether or not your tailor sewed this suit well?”

“Will he or she give you a refund?”

“Do you think more men should opt for sleeveless suits instead of waistcoats?”

Stupid questions, bad timing.

Moreover, these questions were guaranteed to earn the asker a dirty slap, the kind that was guaranteed to make the recipient of the slap see yellow canaries singing and clapping in circles right above his head.

I remember being stunned, as I looked at his sweat-stained, not-so-white shirt, exposed under the now sleeveless suit, which had been torn at the shoulder.

“Enitan! E-n-i-t-a-n!”

Tokunbo’s voice smacked me out of my reverie and to my amazement, I saw him sitting inside the bus, one row behind the driver’s seat.

How did … When did …? Huh?!

My mouth was still trying to form the right words when I heard him shout:

“Come!”

I didn’t even question the logic of where I would sit, as that row was already full. I just knew that I didn’t want to be left at another bus stop.

Certainly not at Ojuelegba.

I leapt into the bus, and pushed my way past three other people until I reached Tokunbo. It was at that moment that I saw his, no our plan:

Tokunbo was going to lap me.

Ordinarily, I would have refused. Tokunbo was a boy, a teenager for that matter, and the only people I had ever seen lapping each other on public buses were parents or older people lapping young children, and people of the same sex lapping each other, such as school girls, who either did not have enough bus fare for two, or as in our case, who needed to get to their destinations in the face of a glaring shortage of buses.

But, I had never seen a man lapping a woman, or a boy lapping a girl, and I had never participated in such strange lapping.

So naturally, I hesitated.

Then, Tokunbo asked a ridiculous question:

“Abi, do you want to lap me instead?”

The idea was so opprobrious to me that I quickly unstrapped my school bag and sat on Tokunbo’s laps, without giving it another thought.

It wasn’t like sitting on a plush leather cushion. No, Tokunbo was way too lanky for that. But, it was slightly better than sitting on a wooden plank.

“Enitan, relax,” Tokunbo cooed. “It’s just till we reach Masha.”

He must have felt my uneasiness, felt me mentally resisting what was already happening. I tried to obey him, taking deep breaths and telling myself exactly what he had just said:

It’s only till we reach Masha.

Looking around briefly, I noticed that the bus was full. Two people sat in front beside the driver, and four people sat on each of the three rows of chairs. These chairs were, of course, not the original, upholstered chairs that came with the bus before it started its life as a danfo.

No, those original chairs had been removed.

They had been replaced with black, metal chairs with minimal cushion, covered with cheap black leather, which was cracked and torn in some places, exposing the yellow foam stuffing. This foam looked eerily similar to the yellow foam in mattresses.

One look at the chairs in a typical danfo bus was enough to pass a single message from both driver and conductor to their passengers: your comfort is not our concern.

Our bus was no different.

The bus was packed and the driver was in his seat, ready to drive off. Before we left, the conductor popped his head into the cavity of the bus, and performing a delicate balancing act perfected by years of practice, he stood in one spot, while his hands reached into all corners of the bus to collect the fare.

The moment he saw us – me perched delicately on Tokunbo’s laps – he lost his mind. Jumping down from the bus, he screamed in anger while banging violently on the outside roof of the bus with his fists.

“No lapping! E bo le! Mo ni ke bo le! Now, now! Get down! I say, no lapping for this bus!”

I could feel my heart thumping violently in my chest. What were we going to do?

But Tokunbo was way ahead of me.

“Oga, I beg! Please, sir, she’s my sister. Please! Na our last bus be dis! Please!”

But the conductor vehemently refused.

He kept shouting about being cheated of the bus fare and how we were putting their bus in danger of getting a flat tire. The bus driver, who was perhaps, used to this behavior, did not even involve himself in the matter.

Instead, he sorted through a stack of radio cassette tapes, trying to decide which one to play on the bus ride.

Meanwhile, the other passengers raised their voices: some of them abused the conductor, some blamed the government for the horrible situation caused by fuel scarcity, and a few pleaded with the conductor to let us stay on the bus so we could be on our way.

But the conductor stubbornly refused to accept any pleas on our behalf.

Then, Tokunbo had a bright idea. He gave the bus conductor the fare for two seats, even though we occupied just one.

That did the trick!

In one minute flat, the bus sped away from Ojuelegba.

I looked accusingly at Tokunbo from where I sat, even though craning my head to dagger him properly with my eyes, was not really an option in the cramped bus.

Why did he do that? Did he really think that money solved everything?

If he had just held out a little longer, I was certain the conductor would have caved in to the mounting pressure from the passengers, and let us stay on the bus.

Same outcome, different methods.

I wasn’t happy with Tokunbo’s method at all. He had willingly let himself get ripped off by dashing the conductor extra money for our transport fare.

At each of the next bus-stops, including Stadium, which was right in front of Teslim Balogun Stadium in Surulere, and Shitta, we saw crowds of people with no visible queue present, rush our bus.

Only one or two seats were vacant at each bus-stop, but we could not sit down on any empty seat because the conductor, like a hawk, watched the vacant spots and made sure we kept lapping until we got to Masha.

As soon as we got to Masha, we both got down and my tongue came loose.

“Why did you dash the conductor extra money when we were lapping, ehn?” I challenged Tokunbo furiously.

“Enitan, did you want me to leave you at Ojuelegba? There was a problem, and I solved it. End of story. You should be grateful instead of all this–” he said frowning, and stopped mid-sentence to focus on massaging his thighs with his hands. “You’re not the one who lapped me. I can’t even feel my legs.”

I saw that he was in pain, and he kicked the air, trying to get blood flowing again.

As I watched him, I calmed down. Maybe he was right. After all, this time, he didn’t leave me stranded at a bus-stop by myself.

“Okay. Sorry,” I said, reluctantly.

“And?” Tokunbo asked, head cocked to one side, waiting for a response.

“Thank you,” I added. “But are you saying I’m heavy?”

“No, no. Trust me, you’ve got curves in the right places,” said Tokunbo, letting his eyes dance all over my body, as he rubbed his hairless chin.

I blushed. Again.

“Oh-oh! Stop it, Tokunbo!” I said, walking off. He joined me and we walked off to our street.

We had survived one more day of fuel scarcity.

The following day, it got worse and because Tokunbo’s mother’s driver, Mr. Julius, still didn’t get fuel, not even in jerry cans, we had to find our way to school and back.

This continued till the end of the week.

Eventually, over the weekend, by some miracle, fuel became available again, and relative sanity was restored to the streets of Lagos.

The following week, which happened to be the last week of JAMB lessons, I came to lesson earlier than Tokunbo, as usual. The entire time, Tina had not been walking with me to lesson, and had been following someone else home.

I, of course, did not complain, neither did I particularly seek out her company before, during or after lesson.

However, that Thursday afternoon, Tina approached me just after I had returned from my solo lunch at the restaurant across the street.

Tina was wearing the same red and white check short-sleeved blouse, which each girl in our school was required to tuck into a dark gray skirt. She had ditched the wine-colored, wool beret, which completed the monstrous ensemble that was our school uniform.

But in typical Tina fashion, her skirt was hiked a good 2 inches above her knees, in direct contravention of the school rules. She must have pulled the skirt all the way up to just below her bust, but I could not prove it, because she had un-tucked her blouse and let it hang discreetly over her skirt.

Definitely, a double violation of our school rules.

But, like me, she had her hair braided in a hairstyle called police cap, which was a jacked-up version of good, old-fashioned corn rows, except that the tips of the braids, conjugated in one corner of a girl’s head, possibly to resemble a tassel.

But even I have to admit that this hairstyle fit Tina’s oblong face more than mine. This was just one of the consequences of going to a secondary school where the hairstyles for girls were prescribed weekly.

As soon as I saw Tina walking towards me where I sat, I started pulling out my lesson books from my school bag. I could tell from the look on her face that she was just itching to tell me something. Subtlety was not Tina’s forte, but that was probably a function of habit, rather than nature.

She plopped herself on the seat beside me, with my school bag separating us from each other. After letting out a short sigh, she said:

“Where is lover boy? Abi, won’t he come to lesson today?”

“His name is not lover boy, and we’re just friends,” I replied, rolling my eyes at Tina.

“Whatever!” said Tina, spreading her palms in my face in typical “speak-to-the-hands” fashion. I carried my school bag, put it on the floor to my right, and continued bringing out my learning materials.

But Tina was not done.

Rising to her feet, she strode to where my school bag was. Planting herself in front of my face, she announced:

“If I were you, I would stop hanging out with that boy o!”

She stood there, chewing gum noisily and occasionally blowing bubbles, which she then punctured with her teeth, before repeating the annoying process all over again.

I should have ignored her, but a part of me was curious.

Why was she warning me off Tokunbo?

“And why?” I asked, pretending to be more interested in my books than in whatever she had to say. But I listened closely.

“No be me talk am o, before you say it’s Tina that told me,” she said, issuing a useless disclaimer, before spilling the beans. “But somebody told me … In fact … No. I heard from somebody that you got pregnant for that Tokunbo guy, and you aborted it. That’s why you’ve been walking funny since Tuesday.”

“Are you mad?!” I shouted, jumping to my feet. “Where did you hear this rubbish? Which abortion? Me, preg … what?!” I asked, my anger rising as I saw the look of satisfaction on Tina’s face. Whatever her mission was, watching me get upset was part of the package, and she didn’t bother hiding her glee.

“Why are you shouting at me, ehn?” said Tina, still chewing that gum.

I wanted to slap her back into the 19th Century. Or at least, all the way back to her village. What an idiot!

“Isn’t it because I’m your friend, that I said, let me come and tell you? Stop it o! Don’t call my name!”

“Tina, come back here! T-i-n-a!”

But, the stupid girl had walked away leaving me to seethe with anger. I saw her walk to two girls in our class and talk to them. The entire time she was speaking to them, she pointed at me, and clapped her hands together, while they all put their hands over their mouths, and laughed in mockery.

I wanted to cry.

Almost immediately, as if the wind had carried the news to him, Tokunbo appeared, sweating and out of breath and said:

“Sorry, I’m late. Our Maths teacher told us to stay back after school for extra–”

And then, he stopped abruptly. Hot tears were streaming down my face. I didn’t even realize it till they landed on my hand, burning my skin.

“Enitan, what’s wrong? What happened?” Tokunbo asked, a worried expression on his face.

“Nothing!” I said, in a muffled voice, sniffling as I wiped the tears with the back of my hand.

A blue handkerchief appeared, but I refused to take it. I realized that people were watching us and I didn’t want any more negative attention.

I simply packed up my things and moved to the back of the class. I sat in front, most of the time, but this afternoon, the last thing I wanted was to get picked on, by our literature teacher. Ideally, I should even have skipped lesson altogether, but I realized it was pointless since it was the last day.

A concerned and bewildered Tokunbo looked like he was going to come after me. But, he was prevented from doing so by two things that happened at about the same time: Mrs. Onikoyi, our literature teacher walked into the class, and someone, a guy, took the empty seat beside me.

So, Tokunbo had to sit put and he didn’t move anymore till the class was over.

As soon as lesson was over, during which time I barely paid attention to anything Mrs. Onikoyi said, I picked up my school bag and was heading out of the door when the two girls Tina had been talking to, deliberately bumped into me and chorused:

“E ku ewu omo o!”

Ordinarily, that greeting would have been music to the ears of a woman who had just given birth to a child. But in my ears, a teenage girl who was rumored to have gotten pregnant and aborted the pregnancy, it was a slap in the face.

And it stung.

That did it for me.

Tina was officially my enemy, and she had managed to soil the memory of this JAMB lesson for me.

The girls bumping into me had delayed my exit from the class, giving a chance to the one person I was avoiding to catch up with me.

“Wait now!” said Tokunbo, grabbing my arm. “Shebi we’re going home together?”

“Look, Tokunbo. I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think you should find your way home,” I said struggling to free my arm and leave. But, his grip was strong, and the more I struggled, the more painful it became.

“Please, let go of my arm!” I pleaded.

He released me.

Then, he blocked my exit.

“You’re not leaving this place until you tell me what’s going on,” he insisted.

In a softer tone, he continued.

“Come on, Enitan. It’s me, Tokunbo. We’re friends, remember? You were crying earlier for goodness sakes! What’s wrong?”

It occurred to me that the walls of our lesson had ears.

“I’ll tell you when we get to Masha,” I said, and we went home in silence.

There was no chatting, no gisting, no words.

We understood the silence, that even though words did not pass between us, we were saving them for later, when they would flow in abundance.

The fuel scarcity had already ended, but unfortunately, the absence of one thing in Lagos, does not automatically mean the absence of others. Yes, there was petrol being sold at filling stations, but there was still a lot of traffic.

Eventually, we arrived at Masha bus-stop.

From the moment our feet touched the ground, Tokunbo pelted me with questions.

“What is going on, Enitan?”

That was the introductory question. On the heels of that one, came another. This other question was more pointed.

“Did somebody do something to you?”

And more questions still.

“What happened? Why aren’t you talking to me? Is it me? Did I do something wrong? Did I offend you?”

And on and on. Tokunbo asked me questions non-stop for one full minute. I did not answer him until we crossed the road to a less busy side, which was more pedestrian-friendly.

“It’s about you … us,” I finally responded, without looking at him. I could feel his shock, but I knew the worst was still coming. He didn’t and prodded me to continue.

“People think … people are talking about us,” I said, stepping out of the way of an okada, who had decided to turn our makeshift sidewalk to his own turf.

The air was damp, full of moisture, as heavy rain had fallen the day before, as well as that morning. As we walked, we tried to avoid numerous puddles. Before the rain, they were just cracks in the road, but now, they were filled with water.

At the same time, cars driving past were doing the same thing: trying to avoid bigger cracks in the road: potholes. They failed over and over again, because that road was riddled with potholes.

The only way to avoid them would have been to ride in some sort of hovercraft, which floated inches above the road, having no physical contact with the road. In the absence of hovercrafts, we had cars, SUVs, motorcycles, buses and the occasional 18-wheeler trailer, for which these roads were not constructed.

Those trailers, with their heavy, over-sized cargo, were partly responsible for the potholes which were as ubiquitous as road side hawkers selling roasted corn or boli.

“Enitan, please be direct,” Tokunbo pleaded as we skipped over yet another puddle. “Tell me exactly what is going on.”

It was not that I wanted to withhold the koko of the matter from him. Rather, I felt a certain measure of embarrassment about this particular issue that was eating away at me. How could I tell Tokunbo that people thought he had impregnated me and convinced me to get an abortion?

How?

But Tokunbo’s persistent nagging did not allow me time to figure out how to properly package the issue.

Not like there was any need for packaging anyway.

“Tina said she heard that I got pregnant for you and aborted it,” I finally blurted out and waited for Tokunbo’s reaction.

We were standing near a group of fruit sellers with fruits that were in season laid out in organized piles on wooden tables. Pineapples that did not look sweet, green, sometimes yellow pawpaws, and of course oranges were stacked on top of each other.

A few of them were cut into consumer-friendly portions for immediate consumption.

The news I had just given Tokunbo made him stop abruptly. One of the women selling the fruits rose to her feet and asked in a cajoling manner if we wanted to buy pawpaw.

“No, Madam. Not today,” Tokunbo replied shaking his head and walking away quickly before she could convince him to try a slice of pineapple.

I followed him and was shocked to hear his reaction to the Tina gist.

I had expected rage, anger, foaming at the mouth or something similar.

Anything but laughter.

He burst into raucous laughter, and even stopped to hold his belly as if the laughter that was still stored in that pouch needed some encouragement to ease itself out.

“I knew it would be rubbish once you started with “Tina said.” Why do you even take that girl seriously?” said Tokunbo, looking like he was about to burst into another round of laughter if I added one more sentence to the bad gist Tina had been propagating.

How was this funny?

“What do you mean? Aren’t you even angry?” I questioned him, confused.

“Angry? At a blatant, flat out lie?! Enitan, shebi we both take Biology, abi?” said Tokunbo.

“Yes. And?”

“Wouldn’t we have to actually have sex first before you get pregnant?”

“Yes?”

“So, why are you crying over obvious lies?”

“Because I … We did nothing wrong, and my reputation … My rep is in the gutter,” I whined.

“Enitan, your rep is intact,” said Tokunbo, clasping his hands together in case I didn’t know what intact meant. “That’s the only reason why anyone would bother spreading bad gist like this about you. No one would waste time smearing the name of a person with bad rep.”

I looked at him quizzically and shook my head. I certainly didn’t agree with his logic and told him as much.

“They’ve been watching us, seeing us go home together, hanging out at lesson, that’s why,” I said. “There’s no smoke without fire.”

“So where’s the fire, Enitan? Show me, because I don’t see it. Besides, last time I checked, people didn’t get pregnant from handshakes and side hugs. That’s the most we’ve ever done.”

In that moment, I completely lost track of everything Tokunbo said after that and I zoomed in on the only word that mattered to me: we.

He might as well have said “us.”

So, there was an “us.” He just acknowledged it. But what were the terms of this friendship?

We were naïve to think that society would let us be “just friends” and leave us alone.

No, our friendship could not blossom in peace, not when everyone knows that two teenagers of the opposite sex cannot just be friends.

Because puberty is in full bloom and common sense has been discarded like used toilet paper, these two teenagers must constantly indulge in the nasty, use no protection because, of course, they’re young, reckless and complete knuckle heads, and unfailingly, the girl must get pregnant while the boy is free as a bird.

But that’s not where the story ends.

No.

The boy, like fellow comrades of his gender who have found themselves in this sticky situation, must vehemently deny the pregnancy and call the girl a slut.

As if spirits father children …

“Enitan, did you hear me?”

That was Tokunbo. Apparently, he had been talking the entire time and I missed it.

“Sorry. Repeat yourself.”

“I said,” he began, “why do you care so much about your rep or what people think? Isn’t the truth all that matters?”

“And what is the truth, Tokunbo, because I just don’t know anymore. Is the truth what we know is true or what they say is true?” I asked realizing that more people would believe Tina’s fibs rather than our story.

“What d’you mean, Enitan? Stop over-thinking this thing!”

“But maybe that’s the problem. We’ve not been thinking hard enough about what we’re doing. Yes, we’re just friends, but you’re a guy and I’m a girl, so people will talk. We both know I haven’t been sleeping with you … or anyone else for that matter, but who’s going to tell them that? How does one purify a poisoned well?”

“Enitan, jo listen,” said Tokunbo, stopping suddenly. We stood facing each other on the side of a street where there was very little traffic, pedestrian or vehicular.

Placing his hand on my right shoulder, his left hand gesticulated as he spoke. Just having his hand there, on my shoulder, was strangely calming and made the words that followed more reassuring.

“Forget the well, and forget the poison. The fact is that whatever people are saying is a lie. Just ignore it and move on.”

For a moment, I believed him.

Then, he took his hand off my shoulder, and all those negative emotions came rushing back.

“No!” I spat. “That’s not a good answer. How can? Is this how you confront problems? Just turn your back on them and hope they disappear?”

“Who said anything about hope?” said Tokunbo in surprise. “They will disappear, Enitan. In fact, I’m tired of this yeye talk. The more we talk about it, the more we make a big deal out of nothing. Stop making a mountain out of a mole hill. Talking about these rumors only gives them more life, even if they are about us.”

“Wasn’t it you that asked me to talk, ehn? I kept my mouth shut and was jejely suffering in silence when you came and pushed me to tell you what was wrong. Now, I’ve told you, and you’re saying we shouldn’t talk again,” I spoke out in frustration.

We walked for one full minute in complete silence. Then, it started to drizzle. We quickened our pace and Tokunbo spoke.

“What I don’t understand is why you’re so concerned with your rep?”

“Because I’m a girl. My rep is everything!” I cried. “And I can’t stand anyone, especially not that useless Tina, spoiling my rep all over the place.”

“You’re sure it’s Tina who started this gist?”

“Absolutely. There was something about the way she said it. This was her idea.”

I recalled how Tina had said “quack doctor.” She said it with so much conviction that one would assume that they were now handing out medical degrees and licenses to flappy-footed ducks in long, white coats, with stethoscopes perpetually hanging round their drooping necks.

“And maybe you’re saying this because you’re a guy. For a girl, getting pregnant ruins her life. But for you guys, your rep doesn’t suffer. In fact, you can go and boast to your friends about how you don’t shoot blanks and they’ll be hailing you, calling you Okunrin meta!”

“Me, Enitan?” asked Tokunbo, pointing to himself with his fingers touching his chest. “Is that the type of guy you think I am?”

He looked and sounded hurt, and for the first time that afternoon, I regretted what I had said to Tokunbo.

“Listen, Enitan, we’re not all like that. It’s unfair to say that something only irresponsible guys do is what all guys do. What if I told you that I believed Tina, and that because of girls like her, all girls are gossips, slutty and–”

“Hey … Watch your language!” I cautioned, holding up my hand.

“You see! This is what I’m saying. Now, that I’m chooking my mouth in your matter, you can’t take it. But you just said I’d be the bad guy, boasting about this rubbish to his friends. That’s not me, Enitan, and if you don’t know me by now, I wonder why we still call ourselves friends.”

I saw the error of my ways and apologized immediately.

“I would feel a lot better if you pecked me, right …. here!” he said, tapping his cheek, and simultaneously lowering his face to my level, so that my lips were directly in front of his right cheek.

“Go away jo!” I shouted laughing and pushed him away gently.

He laughed and added:

“You’re just fronting. Stop all this shakara and do the needful, ehn! Fresh face like this, I’m giving you for free, you say you don’t want. You better take it now o, or else, it’s going, going … gone!”

I laughed, he laughed and we put all the bad blood behind us.

With every laugh, every giggle, every chuckle, the rumors Tina was spreading faded out of our minds.

By now, we were about ten minutes from home. But we had taken a short cut through a neighboring street. And we came face-to-face with a major problem.

A large pool of water stood in front of us. The road was tarred, but the drainage was clogged up and on that street, there was no way forward, without crossing that large expanse of water. And it was beginning to drizzle again.

We stood there looking at the water, perhaps wishing that like the Red Sea, we could lift the t-square from our Technical Drawing class, and the waters would part so that we could cross over on fairly dry land.

Unfortunately, neither of us had a t-square on hand and so we could not immediately test out that theory.

More importantly, Tokunbo was not Moses, and even though I had been grumbling and complaining, I did not consider myself to be an Israelite.

So, how would we cross this Red Sea?

“This water was not here yesterday,” I observed, as if talking about it would solve the problem.

“No, it wasn’t,” agreed Tokunbo. “But it’s been raining all night and throughout this morning. I’m surprised we didn’t even need an umbrella since.”

We didn’t because it was just drizzling. And it was intermittent, like a light spray from heaven every now and then. That definitely did not warrant an umbrella, which each of us carried in our bags.

But, the water stood between us and the final leg of our journey home. There was no sidewalk, no visible concrete island where we could plant our feet, between where we stood and where the water ended.

As we stood contemplating what to do, a middle-aged man came to where we stood, and joked about needing a canoe to cross this river.

But instead of constructing one from scratch, he simply bent down, rolled the hem of his trousers all the way up, past his knees and then, pulled off his black leather shoes.

Holding his shoes firmly in one hand, he stuck his bare feet into the cloudy water and began to walk slowly and carefully, until he got to the other side. Then, he wore his shoes and continued his journey.

While we stood there gawking, another person arrived.

This time, it was a woman with a baby tied to her back. She carried a large black nylon bag, probably full of groceries, as we could see a head of leafy green vegetables peeking from the top of the bag.

The baby, a boy, was strapped to her back with a yellow and black ankara wrapper, different from the faded lemon green lace iro and buba she wore.

To make sure he was properly held in place, and to reinforce the wrapper was a thick, dark brown strip of aso oke, which was the oja. She tied it on top of the ankara so that the baby who kept wriggling, was firmly secured to her back.

The baby kept stretching out his little hands to touch the rain, which was just a drizzle, and when he couldn’t catch the water, he resorted to opening his mouth towards the heavens.

When water fell into his eyes and nose, in addition to his mouth, he would sputter and cough, and the woman would reach out her hand to the back of the oja and gently pat his bum.

And then, he would repeat the process all over again.

The woman took off her rubber slippers, held it in the same hand that held the bag, and with her free hand, lifted her green wrapper high enough to where it was above her knees before wading in the water, all the way to the other side.

When she reached the other side, she let go of the hem of her wrapper. It fell to its original level. After wearing her slippers, she continued on her way.

“Tokunbo, we can’t stand here watching people pass us like say na film show. Are we going to cross or find another way home?” I asked.

“You mean we should turn back and take that long route home?” asked Tokunbo, his face betraying the words that would spew out of his mouth next. “No way! We will cross this river!”

I giggled at the word, “river.” This was more like a lake because as far as we could see, the water was not moving. It was just sitting there.

“Let me start removing my shoes,” I said, bending down to pull off my shoes and socks. But Tokunbo stopped me.

“You want to carry your leg and enter this dirty water?” he asked, eyebrows raised.

“No-o! I want to fly and land on top of our roof,” I replied sarcastically.

“You can’t, Enitan. Can’t you see how dirty this water is?”

The water certainly looked dirty, and murky, probably teeming with micro-organisms just waiting to latch themselves to a person’s feet.

But it wasn’t orange-colored or muddy. Just a large pool of rainy, stagnant water.

“Ehn, but we have to cross now. I will take a hot bath with Dettol when I get home,” I said.

“That’s not the point. Isn’t your leg still paining you?” he said, pointing at my foot. “You’ve been walking funny since you knocked your leg, abi?”

“Yes,” I replied, unsure why Tokunbo was just bringing this up. I had been walking with a slight limp since Tuesday due to a minor injury I had sustained on Monday night.

I went to bed around 10:00pm, but while I was asleep, Yemi, my younger brother, had decided that was the best time to re-arrange his room. He had pulled out an old wooden desk from the room he shared with Tayo, because one of the legs was faulty.

However, he had left it beside the entrance to the bathroom all three of us shared.

I had woken up in pitch darkness because NEPA had struck as usual, and as I was familiar with the house, even in darkness, I used my hands to feel my way to the bathroom.

Unfortunately, no one had warned me about the desk. My right foot collided with it and my big toe burst open, bleeding.

My parents who had woken up when I screamed loudly in pain, hurriedly lit candles and gave me cotton wool soaked in iodine, which increased my pain, but was necessary to disinfect the wound. Yemi was chastised by my parents.

My mother’s reprimand came with her own peculiar brand of commentary. She said:

“You better be careful with your sister’s leg. Don’t you know that is what she will use to dance into her husband’s home?”

I had covered the wound with a brown strip of plaster, and had been walking with a slight limp since then.

I didn’t even realize I was actively limping. I just knew, somewhere in my brain, that I didn’t want to put pressure on that toe.

Nearly impossible.

With all the walking I had done since then, I had almost forgotten that underneath my white socks, an open wound wrapped in plaster was still in the process of healing.

Tokunbo had just presented me with one more reason why sticking my feet in dirty water was a very bad idea.

He bent down and started pulling off his black leather shoes, followed by navy blue socks.

As he stored this footwear ensemble in his bag, he explained to me:

“I will carry you on my back.”

“Ehn?! You and who? When I have two perfectly good legs? No, thank you!” I refused.

“Enitan, do I need to remind you that you have an open wound on your leg? You want to catch Tetanus or Guinea worm?”

“Ehn ehn! No be only guinea worm o! Na foot and mouth disease you for talk. Why didn’t you add sleeping sickness too, since I’m sure you’ve spotted a teh-seh, teh-seh fly flying around here?!”

Tokunbo chuckled.

“Is that what they call it in your village, ehn ehn, Enitan? It is tsetse fly. The “T” is silent.”

“Good. So, from now on, I will be calling you “Okunbo,” since the “T” is silent, abi? Oya, ‘Okunbo, cross ehn. Me too, I will cross. Don’t carry me.”

“You don’t have a choice, Enitan! Wait, is this about your rep again? See, it’s just from here to there,” he said, pointing first at the point where the water started to a distant point where we could see solid ground.

“What if someone sees us?” I wailed, seeing the sense in his proposal, but still unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong.

“On this street? Nobody knows us here. This is not our street.”

As if it mattered.

If only I had paid attention to the nagging feeling that something was off.

But to my detriment, I didn’t.

Maybe I confused it with my understandable reluctance to let a guy, or anybody for that matter, carry me on his back across even a short distance. Whatever it was, my resistance was thrust aside and I agreed.

“It’s just a short distance,” I reasoned inwardly.

Tokunbo had pulled off his school bag, and gave it to me to hold. So, I carried my own school bag on my back, and slung his bag on my shoulder. It was heavy, carrying two bags, but I couldn’t complain, as Tokunbo was bearing that heavy load and me on his back.

So, I climbed on his back. Slipping my hands below his arm pits, I knotted my hands across his chest. He got a firm grip grabbing my knees for balance, and I wrapped my legs round his torso.

“Hold me tight o! Don’t fall in water!” he warned and I voiced my comprehension.

In retrospect, falling into a pool of dirty, stagnant water, would have been better than what was about to happen.

But, of course, youth lack foresight. It’s the preserve of the aged, more experienced of humans.

And so, we both carried out this foolish plan, me hanging onto Tokunbo for dear life, and he wading carefully through what started out as ankle-deep water, but reached up to Tokunbo’s calves mid-way.

We saw a few tadpoles swim right in front us, but as long as it wasn’t a deadly reptile, I was fine.

Besides, it wasn’t my feet in that water. I was getting a first-class piggy back ride, ferried across a “river” aboard The Tokunbo. I wondered what Air Tokunbo would be like.

It was not as romantic as it sounds, and it was a very bumpy ride, but I was touched. This guy cared about me enough to worry about exposing me to the risk of catching diseases, and chose to take that upon himself instead.

And apart from the micro-organisms which formed part of the biological and health hazard of crossing this dirty water barefooted, there were physical and material risks as well: broken pieces of glass, sharp stones, uneven surfaces with jagged edges.

And did I mention tadpoles?

These were all risks, and Tokunbo bore them with little grumbling.

In fact, the grumbling was partly my fault.

I had started counting silently each step Tokunbo took from the moment he stepped into the water, to take my mind off what was happening. This stretch of road was in the middle of a residential neighborhood, with no signs of commerce, or places where people converged to take shelter from the rain.

I had been counting aloud, “One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight–” until Tokunbo, panting, begged me, “Enitan, please … in your mind. Let me concentrate.”

“Sorry.”

I continued to count in my mind.

Tokunbo had just taken Step 59, and was about to take maybe twelve more steps, which would bring us to a waterless stretch of road, when we heard the labored hum of an approaching vehicle from behind us.

Our immediate concern was to avoid getting mowed down by the car as we were in the middle of the road. Tokunbo had made that tactical decision because he was worried that the stagnant water was hiding open gutters on either side of the road.

“I don’t want to be Aluwe and jabo sinu gutter,” he had explained with a chuckle, before setting out. And I saw the sense in the decision then.

But now, with an oncoming vehicle, drawing closer, it suddenly dawned on us that even if this was a river, or large lake, it was one that was usually traversed by noisy cars, not boats or canoes. And definitely not teenagers giving or receiving piggy back rides.

Cars are the kings of Lagos roads, and we had to make way for this king.

As Tokunbo began to move towards the left, we could hear the car slowing down and driving closer behind us. I turned my head to get a good look at it and saw a silver Toyota sedan. Wasn’t the driver concerned that water could seep into the engine?

Just as Tokunbo was about three steps from solid ground, the dark tinted windows on the driver’s side rolled down. I heard her voice before I saw her face.

“Omo Mrs. Ladoja! Abi, isn’t this Asake’s daughter?” she asked in Yoruba.

I was still on Tokunbo’s back, but when I heard her voice, I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. It wasn’t just that this woman knew me. It was who she was.

It was Mrs. Ishola, the woman my mother privately referred to as Iya Insurance. A meddlesome poke noser, Mrs. Ishola was one of those women my mother tolerated, but behind her back, wondered aloud why she had suffered the misfortune of meeting this woman.

Mrs. Ishola, and my mother had met while they were working at the Ministry of Education more than a decade before. That was in the early days after Tayo was born, but before I was born. By the time I arrived, Mrs. Ishola was a part of our lives, especially since she lived in the same neighborhood.

But when things got better, she and her family moved to the house her husband had built in Iyana Ipaja. And we saw less of Iya Insurance.

And in fact, we had seen very little of her that year, until that fateful day, when she showed up with me on Tokunbo’s back.

Fate had just given me a nasty kick in the derriere.

Why, of all the people on the planet, did it have to be Mrs. Ishola, who turned up that afternoon? I was convinced that I was being punished for something I had done in my past.

As soon as I saw her, I hurried Tokunbo up to reach solid ground, and quickly jumped off his back. His school bag slipped down my arm and landed with a thud on the floor.

Tokunbo started stretching and prostrated slightly, greeting her with:

“Good Afternoon, ma.”

“Will you shut up?!” shouted Mrs. Ishola, unconcealed rage dancing in her eyes, her face caked with brown powder, eyebrows drawn like windshield wipers. How did she manage to draw them like that? They looked like slanted exclamation marks without the dot underneath.

Addressing me, she charged on.

“And you? What do you think you’re doing? Climbing a boy’s back? Oniranu! Omo komo!” she said, before tacking on a long string of Yoruba words that had two things in common: they were not designed to boost my self-esteem in any way, and they accused me of lacking good home training.

Yes, she dragged my parents into it.

To finish off that tasteless round of abusing, she patted her hand over her mouth repeatedly, making this shameful, “Woo-woo-woo-woo!” sound.

“Sorry, ma. It’s not like that, ma,” I began, brows furrowed, clasping my hands together in agitation. “It’s my leg, ma. I can’t … I couldn’t–”

“Your leg? This same leg I’m seeing with my two koro koro eyes? The one you’re standing on?” spat Mrs. Ishola, pointing at my feet, as if perhaps she need to confirm that I didn’t have an extra pair of legs tucked away behind me.

“Yes, ma. I have–”

“Ehn, ehn!” she said, raising her hands abruptly to silence me. “Tell that to your parents. You’re lucky you’re not my daughter. I would’ve stripped you naked and beat you senseless. Just wait. I’m on my way to your house and I will report you to your mother. Nonsense!”

And with that threat ringing in my ears, she sped off.

Mrs. Ishola didn’t realize that it went both ways: I, too, was glad she was not my mother. Who wanted this meddlesome, busy body for a mother?

But her words had done their evil work, and I felt the cold grip of fear on my heart. She had seen us and I knew she wasn’t bluffing when she said she would report me to my parents.

Why on earth had I agreed to let Tokunbo ferry me across this water? Bad idea. Very bad idea.

“Oh, I’m in trouble!” I said, doing an exasperated dance, marching in one spot. “That woman is a troublemaker. She’ll tell my mummy what we did and … Oh, my mummy will finish me today!”

“Calm down, Enitan!” said Tokunbo. He remained incredibly calm, and at the time, I assumed it was because he was not in trouble. Just me.

But, that, as I found out, was not the case.

“What am I going to do?” I wailed over and over again, as we continued the journey home. My steps were shaky, powered by nervousness and fear.

“You … We did nothing wrong,” Tokunbo insisted, but I was having none of his rationalizing at that point.

“Of course we did! Why else would that … that woman have threatened to tell my parents? How many boys and girls do you see backing themselves in public? In school uniform for that matter?” I asked eyeing him accusingly. “And I said No. Why did I listen to you?”

Even if I never said that last bit aloud, Tokunbo must have known that thought plagued my mind.

“Just explain what happened,” suggested Tokunbo. “I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“Look, just stop talking!” I snapped. “You’re making it worse. Understand kini? If you want to help, abeg volunteer yourself to chop half … What am I saying sef? No … chop 90 percent of the cane my mummy is preparing for me at home,” I said caustically.

As we neared the house, I saw the same silver Toyota that had pulled up beside us earlier, parked in front of our gate. The sharp-tongued occupant who had accosted us earlier was noticeably absent. No doubt, she was inside the house, feeding my mother with her own version of events.

I slowed down my steps as we approached our gate.

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“Tokunbo, don’t make it worse, you hear? If it was my Daddy at home, I could’ve talked to him and explained myself. But my mother … Hmm, hmmm! There’s no judge you can appeal your case to. Just pray for me, ehn…”

“Good luck, Enitan,” said Tokunbo sadly. “I’m sorry about this.”

I just nodded and knocked on the gate. Yemi appeared dressed in mufti, and let me in.

“That woman, the one with the big, black mole on her nose, she’s here o,” he reported, a disgusted expression on his face. “And she has been telling Mummy things.” Yemi seemed to be more disgusted by Mrs. Ishola’s infamous mole, than whatever tale she was relaying to my mother.

“Mummy offered her that sweet chin-chin, and she finished it,” Yemi lamented.

I ignored that last part. My problems were much bigger than chin-chin or the lack of it.

As we walked to the front door, I decided to gauge what had happened so far. So, I snuck into the house, and hid my school bag in the pantry near the kitchen. My mother was with Mrs. Ishola in the parlor, and from the tone of their voices, I could tell that one person was enjoying the conversation far more than the other.

I slipped out and carried the apoti to the side of the house, under the sitting room window, the exact same spot where I had sat when Iya Tokunbo asked my father to mentor her son.

It seemed like such a long time ago, but it had happened just the year before.

I could hear Mrs. Ishola crunching on the last bits of chin-chin from the batch we made that past weekend. She must have been sipping on something too: water or a soft drink, because she paused every now and then, and I heard a low slurp, followed by a deep gulp before she continued speaking.

She must have already reported me to my mother, who was saying:

“Ehn! You know how these children are. E ma worry. I’ll talk to her.”

“Talk ke?” asked Mrs. Ishola in a voice that suggested that she had just heard my mother promise to reward rather than punish me. “That is mild ke! If it had been my daughter, Adenike, I would’ve pulled her aside and beat her till she bled. Then, I would’ve put freshly ground pepper in her wounds. Oh yes! In her life, ehn, she’ll never forget it. When she sees boys like this, she’ll run!”

“Ah! You can’t be too harsh with these children. You still want them to be able to approach you and share things with you,” said my mother with a chuckle.

“I prefer for my children to fear me,” said Mrs. Ishola firmly. “I am not their friend.”

Then, Mrs. Ishola took a sip from her drink, and my mother excused herself to check on something in the kitchen.

That chuckle. It was unsettling.

I knew my mother well. That particular chuckle, light, airy and deceptively carefree was just a thin gloss to mask the true intentions of her heart.

For some reason, she was acting the part of the cool, understanding and possibly over-indulgent mother. But, I knew her well and had picked up on that bite of anger in her voice, the thing she kept well-hidden.

I was in soup alright, but my mother refused to let Mrs. Ishola see her distress. As I listened, the reason for this emotional masking came to light.

It was Adenike, Mrs. Ishola’s only daughter. She had two other children, both boys, but Nike was her pride and joy.

Nike was very brilliant. Everyone knew this. She excelled in her academics, consistently clinching 1st, 2nd or 3rd place in each class. She was also on track to attend Medical School and become the first surgeon in her family.

All of this was public knowledge.

What most people, did not know, was that Nike had a thing for boys. Only a few people knew about her promiscuousness because it was all done “under G.”

She had a very clean, public image, but her private life, was another story. I knew about it because I was in the same class with her, and we participated in a few extracurricular activities together.

However, from Mrs. Ishola’s words and the way she spoke, I had a reasonable suspicion that she did not know this other aspect of her daughter’s life.

As usual, Mrs. Ishola had come to brag about her daughter to my mother, and when I heard the latest Nike-related news, I saw why my mother was playing it cool.

“Nike took first position in a science competition. She’ll be going to Abuja for the award ceremony next month,” Mrs. Ishola chirped.

“Oh, Congratulations! We’re all so proud of her accomplishments,” said my mother, offering plastic compliments to a woman she could barely stand.

“We thank God.”

And here Mrs. Ishola began to preach.

Maybe it dawned on her that she was a guest in our home and as such, she ought to watch her tongue. Or perhaps, the tiny shred of decency in her led her to opt for abstract speech.

“Parents should really keep an eye on their daughters. They shouldn’t let them be following boys up and down, all over the place. For those who don’t pay attention, ehn … Pregnancy and STDs are common nowadays.”

My mother got the message, but gave her a diplomatic answer.

“God will give us all wisdom to raise our children well.”

And then to preempt further unsought after advice, she added:

“Baba Tayo will soon be back. Let me go and finish preparing his meal.”

My mother must have risen to her feet because I heard Mrs. Ishola hurriedly gulp down the rest of her drink. Then, she thanked my mother for her hospitality and after promising to visit again, she left.

I forgot to retrieve my bag from the pantry and snuck to my room upstairs. But when my mother went there in search of beans, she must have seen my bag.

Next thing, I heard her call my name.

“Enitan! Come down now! Go to the sitting room and kneel down. Wait there for me.”

I was definitely in for it.

From the sound of my mother’s voice, she had certainly been waiting for me. And by waiting, I mean, she had been patiently letting my sins pile up, waiting expectantly for the day of judgement.

She, of course, was both Judge and Jury, and with my father absent from the house, she was free to lash out at me any way she liked.

So, I obeyed. I went to the parlor, trembling with fear, and knelt down, waiting for the storm of my mother’s anger to strike.

But, she didn’t come immediately. She was making ikokore for my father, which was certainly not his favorite meal, but as long as there was enough meat, shrimp and smoked fish, specifically, eja yiyan, he was less likely to complain.

So, I had to wait another twenty minutes on my knees, while she got the food ready.

I was surprised that she did not ask me to help her. No, she singlehandedly tackled the cooking, while I stewed in my own guilty thoughts.

What will she do to me? Oh-oh, let her just do it already! What is taking her so long?

I didn’t realize it, but slowly and surely, as I knelt down there, I began to pray for punishment. I prayed that it would be swift and relatively painless, not long drawn out and torturous. But, like I’ve already mentioned, that was totally up to Asake Ladoja.

I had no idea what she was planning. As I knelt there, fending off thoughts of grievous bodily harm, I could hear her hustling and bustling in the kitchen.

I heard the grating of water yam on the metal grate, the chop-chop sound of a knife landing on the wooden chopping board as it reduced meat, shrimp and other ingredients into even smaller pieces.

Every now and then, I also heard the energetic hum of the blender turning fingers of dry pepper and possibly crayfish, into powder, which would be sprinkled and eventually merge into the flavorful soupy base. Once that base was thick enough, the grated yam would go and join the party in the pot.

All of these sounds I heard, as my eyes roved from the white ceiling to the ceiling fan rotating at a medium pace right above my head, to the family portraits hanging on the wall, to the soft brown rug where I rested my knees, and then back to the ceiling.

But I was sweating in spite of the fact that the fan provided steady cooling, mostly because above the noise of kitchen implements clashing and complimenting each other to churn out our dinner, I could hear the sweet melody of my mother’s voice singing a few of Ebenezer Obey’s “pre-conversion” songs.

Never did my mother’s voice ring so loud and clear, never did her voice sound as sweet as it did in those moments.

Knowing what I knew, I was terrified. I wanted to just rush into the kitchen, and hand her a belt, or cane, and yell:

“Just do it!”

But since my full name was not Enitan “You-Dey-Find-Trouble” Ladoja, I decided not to add to my list of trespasses by further disrespecting and enraging my mother.

So, I waited.

Once, I suppose, all the ingredients were nicely tossed into the pot, and the heat had been reduced to let the pot simmer, I heard the slap-slap of my mother’s rubber slippers coming from the direction of the kitchen.

From where I knelt, I heard her feet enter the dining room and then they travelled into a certain corner of the dining room. Instinctively, and because I was familiar with every nook and cranny of the house, including the treasures they held, I knew what was going on, even though an entire wall, blocked that corner from my view.

In a corner of the dining room, my mother kept a stack of canes. They varied in terms of length and thickness. The thickest one was as wide as two fingers rolled into one, and the thinnest one, was wiry, more flexible and bendable, and made an awful whipping sound when it was used to beat the air.

From my experience, the thinner canes were the worst, and once they hit your skin, it felt like a thousand soldier ants had decided to turn your body to their battle ground.

It peppered like crazy!

Without seeing my mother, I could only judge from the sounds I heard, what her choice was. Another song, this time around by King Sunny Ade, played on her lips, just before I heard the dreaded whipping sound of a thin wooden stick zipping through the air.

She had chosen the thin one, the cane she knew I hated the most.

I was definitely in soup.

Then, I heard her feet march towards the sitting room, and after pausing briefly to leave her slippers at the edge where the rug started, I turned around to see her feet land heavily on the carpeted floor of the parlor.

Although she was still humming, her eyes were blazing. Then, she took a seat directly opposite me with a louvered window behind her, net curtains blowing in the wind.

She leaned back with a sigh, while her hand dangled the cane aimlessly.

For a moment, I thought I was safe. I was still out of her reach, as I had picked the very center of the room to kneel down.

Then, suddenly, as if she had just remembered her mission, she sat up, and perched at the edge of her seat.

“Iwo, sun mo bi,” she said, in a low, clear voice, motioning with her cane for me to move closer to her.

“Ma? Me?” I asked, pointing to myself, while my eyes searched the room to see if perhaps, I had a sister I had never met before, who had decided to make an appearance at that very moment, just to chop cane in my place.

No such luck.

It was just me and my mother.

All of a sudden, she looked up and shouted:

“Yemi! Yemi! I know you’re standing there. If you don’t vamoose and go to your room right now, wa j’egba!”

How my mother knew or had heard Yemi creep to the entrance of the dining room to listen to her confront me, I don’t know. I certainly hadn’t heard him come, but once she threatened to flog him too, I heard the scampering of bare feet on the terrazzo floor, following by panting and thumping as Yemi ran upstairs.

Satisfied that we were now truly alone, my mother repeated her command, this time in English.

“Are you deaf, Enitan?”

I shook my head.

“Thank God I didn’t give birth to deaf children,” she said, momentarily raising her hands to the heavens in thanksgiving. I wondered if heaven would save me from her wrath.

Only time would tell.

“I said move closer!” she shouted.

I dragged my knees, just an inch closer to her. Clearly, I was testing her patience.

“Closer!” she yelled furiously. And then, she slammed the cane on a spot on the ground, which was perpendicular to her nose.

I came as close to that spot as I could, but certainly not close enough to feel her hot breath on my skin. Then, I heard her say these words:

“What were you doing with a boy?”

“Ma?”

“Were you not with a boy this afternoon?”

“Y-e-e-s-s, ma. But we’re just friends, Mummy. Nothing ha–”

“Did I ask you?” my mother bellowed. Looking confused, I wondered if perhaps I had misunderstood my mother’s question. Not to worry. She fired another round of questions at me.

Keeping my eyes on the cane, which she held firmly in her right hand, my mother said:

“What have I told you about boys?”

“That I shouldn’t get pregnant?”

“Oh! So, you even know about pregnancy?! And yet you were climbing on top of a boy’s back, ehn?” my mother roared jumping to her feet.

I also jumped to my own feet, unwilling to get beaten on the floor.

“Kneel down there!” my mother yelled.

“Please Mummy,” I said, rubbing my palms together in my plea for mercy.

“I said kneel down! Don’t mummy me!” she shouted.

I obeyed.

“Were you or were you not letting a boy fondle you? In public? Laarin titi? Ehn? Open your mouth and talk.”

“Yes … No … Yes … Mummy, please I can explain.”

“Explain what? That my daughter wants to disgrace me and spoil my name in this community? Haven’t we raised you well? What were you looking for with a boy? What were you doing on his back? You people have been doing love ehn? Love in Tokyo?! Answer me!” she yelled, slamming the cane on the ground again.

“No, Mummy. Remember my leg? Remember on … on Monday, I injured it and yes … Mummy, remember you and Daddy gave me plaster and iodine?”

“Ehen?” said my mother, arms akimbo, still holding that cane, but looking less furious. “I’m listening.”

“Yes, ma. So, when we … When I got to that junction–” I continued, pointing wildly towards the ceiling fan, as if the junction was right above our heads, “–there was plenty water.”

“Ehen? And so?” my mother said, glaring at me, and stamping her foot impatiently.

“So, because of my wound I didn’t want to put my leg inside the water.”

“Who asked you to put your leg anywhere?”

“Nobody, Mummy. It’s just that it was a short cut and the other road is too long and–”

“And? Go on.”

“So, my friend … he offered to … to carry me over the water …. on … on his back, so–”

“So-o-o, so-o-o, you as a big mumu, you now agreed. No be so?” said my mother in a mocking tone. “If your friend tells you to put your hand inside fire, you’ll kuku throw your whole body inside abi?”

“But mummy, it was just because of the water. It’s not like that every day,” I protested.

“Ehn? Ki lo wi? Every day ke? E gba mi! So, you’ve been going home with this boy every day? You didn’t think your parents should know, ehn? And you were living in this house? Under this roof?” my mother asked incredulously.

“He lives around here, ma. We go to the same lesson, so from there, we take bus and come home together. That’s all.”

From the expression of horror on my mother’s face, I might as well have confessed to joining a gang of armed robbers who only robbed people of portable musical instruments.

Goje, Cello, Oboe, Saxophone, Flute, Recorder …

“Eh! And you’re stupid enough to say, that’s all. You used your own mouth to confirm that I have warned you about boys and pregnancy. Yet, you carried your two legs, jumped on a boy’s back, shinning your teeth like an idiot, and let him carry you nita gbangba. In public. You, my own daughter! Wait, let me even ask you: did you leave your commonsense at home? Is it under your bed? Is that why you’re busy exposing us to ridicule like this?”

“No, ma.”

“So, why did you–” she began, and then, sniffing the air, she realized that the food was almost burning.

“Yemi! Yemi! Come and put off the fire under the food I’m cooking!”

She could just as easily have walked over to the kitchen to turn it off herself, but she refused to abandon this interrogation, choosing instead, to risk burning my father’s dinner.

Yemi promptly came bounding down the stairs, turned off the heat, and at her further command, yelled all the way from the parlor to the kitchen, he moved the pot to a cold burner. Then, he returned to exile in his room.

We heard the thump of his feet on the staircase as he ran to his room. After she heard him shut the door of his room, my mother continued from where she left off.

“Now, this boy you were displaying this mumu behavior with, who is he? What’s his name?”

“You know him, ma,” I replied, reluctantly. I knew my mother’s reservations about Tokunbo and his family. She wouldn’t be pleased to learn that Tokunbo was the giver of piggy back rides.

“Oh, is there more than one? Ehn? Are there so many boys that you can’t even remember their names?” my mother demanded angrily.

“No, ma,” I replied, angry that I was being accused of promiscuity. No, that was Tina’s forte, not mine.

In that moment, in fact, I wondered:

What Would Tina Do?

I couldn’t picture Tina divulging sensitive information like the names and addresses of her male friends, even under pressure, to her mother, so I did the unthinkable.

I lied.

“His name is Ola, ma.”

Technically, it wasn’t a lie. That’s what I told myself.

Tokunbo’s full name was Olatokunbo, so I just provided my mother with the lesser known, and ultimately, lesser used part of his name.

My mother clapped her hands together in amusement.

“Eh-hen, Enitan, I didn’t know that you’ve now joined the league of liars too. Ola? Hehe! You must think I was born yesterday,” she scoffed.

How did she know?

“What’s his real name?” she demanded.

I kept my mouth shut as my brain worked overtime, trying hard to figure out what to do next. However, before my brain could present a plausible and realistic answer, my mother had decided her own next course of action.

“Oya, since it’s taking you too long to remember his name, let me help you. In fact, why should I bother? It is you who will help yourself,” she chuckled.

“Ma?”

“Now, slap yourself!” she commanded.

I blinked in confusion at her command. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to slap myself or that the command was unfamiliar to me.

No.

I just couldn’t understand why she chose the “slap yourself” route. Would she ever use that cane?

Let me explain.

You see, with “slap yourelf,” there was multiple humiliation and pain served up at one blow. If I didn’t slap my own self to her satisfaction, she would threaten to do it for me. In an effort to avoid her taking over, I would keep increasing the force and intensity with which my own hands struck my face, tortured by the fact that I was both punisher and victim.

And, my mother even after repeatedly slapping myself, would still slap and beat me.

Double whammy!

So, in an effort to end this extensive punishment and just go straight for the kill, I rebelled.

“No, I won’t. I can’t,” I mumbled, shaking my head and looking away.

My mother did a double take. She looked like I had just spat in her face.

“Come again?” she asked, eyebrows raised.

Deciding to temper rebellion with a bit of sense and respect, I said:

“Please ma, don’t make me do it. I didn’t do anything wrong. But if I did, I’m sorry.”

“So you’re calling me a liar, ehn?” she asked. I could almost see smoke streaming from her nostrils.

That did it.

My mother descended on me with the fury of a wounded lioness, and I felt both the cane and her hands, land on several parts of my body in no particular order. Notably, my arms, legs, back and buttocks were not spared. But even in her rage, she was careful not to touch my face.

With each smack and lash, she shouted almost breathlessly in interspaced batches:

“In-your-life-never-ever-ever-talk-back-to-your-mother-Leave-boys-alone-Face-your-books.”

She would have continued till she was satisfied that I got the message and that the urge to rebel had been thoroughly expelled from my body, but by the special mercies of God, a minute and a half into her flogging session, I heard the horn of my father’s car, followed quite surprisingly by his voice:

“Mama Tayo! E duro o! Leave that girl alone!”

Could my father hear my screams of terror and cries for mercy all the way from the gate? Did the whole neighborhood know that I was getting disciplined by my mother? Did Tokunbo know, since he lived right next door?

My mother relented and told me to go and open the gate for my father. Through tear-stained eyes, and with snort pouring out of my nose, not to mention the pain that radiated through my body, I hobbled out of the house, grateful to feel the sun on my face, even though the sun had already begun its slow descent.

I went to open the gate and saw my father standing outside his car. For a moment, I thought I was dreaming or that maybe my mother’s beating had brought on a temporary set of hallucinations. Standing beside my father, still dressed in school uniform, was Tokunbo. His eyes widened in disbelief and his mouth hung open when he saw my sorry state.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Enitan. Sorry,” he said, his voice conveying the guilt I had read in his eyes. And then, as if he just realized that we were not alone, he added:

“I just told your father everything. He understands what happened. Sorry.”

I nodded, unable to speak. My father pulled me close to his side, rubbing my arm affectionately, and I began to sob again.

“It’s okay. Wipe your eyes. Clean your face and go to your room. I’ll talk to your mother.”

I obeyed, but not before I saw my father turn to Tokunbo and say, “I’ll handle it from here.”

I left Tokunbo standing there, while my father drove his car into the compound. I heard the clang of metal and iron as he locked the gate after himself.

I slunk to my room, where I cried even harder. My father’s planned rescue had come too late. Yes, Tokunbo had reported the entire incident to my father who seemed to be more understanding than my mother, but there was no escaping that punishment.

What was done was done.

Even as I lay on my bed, drenching my pillow with tears, I plotted in my heart to take my mother’s advice and stay away from boys. Except that in my case, there was just that one boy: Tokunbo.

As my mind weighed this option, I felt a sharp pain in my chest. With each resolve to put Tokunbo behind me, the pain only grew worse, and I didn’t understand it.

Weren’t we just friends? Why was it so difficult to let go?

I didn’t have a name for this feeling, and in fact, I didn’t even realize it was a “thing” until later.

However, before I made a final decision on whether or not to continue this friendship with Tokunbo, I overheard a loud argument between my parents on the issue of disciplining me.

From the moment my father stepped into the house, I heard him and my mother arguing. Their voices almost shook the house, with my father’s voice ringing louder and clearer than my mother’s. And because from the words that filtered through the walls to my bedroom I could tell that this discussion concerned me, I did what I usually did: I went to eavesdrop.

But this time, there was no apoti under any window. Rather, I crept to the top of the stairs and listened.

My parents were in the sitting room, and I could hear my father accusing my mother of flouting his instructions.

“I am the head of this family. You do what I say!” he yelled.

“Only if you say it on time, Baba Tayo!” my mother shouted back. “I might be your wife, but I don’t read minds. After I’ve finished beating her, you tell me not to touch her? Too bad!”

“Asake, why are you like this? Isn’t Enitan also my daughter?”

“I’m beginning to wonder too, because I don’t know why you, as her father, should object to me disciplining our daughter. Did she tell you what she did?”

“She didn’t need to. He did,” said my father.

“Who? Tani?” asked my mother.

“Tokunbo, of course,” my father replied.

I heard a loud cackle from my mother.

“Why am I not surprised?” she said finally. “Kokoro to n j’efo inu efo l’owa.* This is a prime example.”

“Mama Tayo, there’s no kokoro anywhere. You’re over-reacting as usual. Must you always flog these children, ehn? Didn’t we agree that once they became teenagers, we wouldn’t beat them again?”

“I don’t know who you had that agreement with, but it was certainly not with me,” my mother spat.

Truly, my parents had agreed to abandon corporal punishment once each child turned 13 years old, but even my father had broken that rule with Tayo the day he broke the night time curfew. He went to play video games with a friend who lived in the street adjacent to ours. However, instead of coming home before 8:00 pm per my father’s instructions, he had wandered in slightly before 9:30pm with apologies, saying that he had lost track of time.

My father had whipped out his belt from nowhere and gave Tayo a thorough lashing, mostly out of fear, because that night in particular, armed robbers were looting houses on a nearby street, and on hearing the gunshots, people in our neighborhood were huddled indoors shivering in fear.

Even Iya Kafilat whose convenience store was usually open till 10:00pm had closed her store before 8:00pm. That night, the streets were clear.

My parents had later revised that rule to state that they would not cane or flog us once we got into the university.

Clearly, my father had forgotten that revision. My mother whose memory remained as sharp as a razor reminded him of the revision, but he claimed to remember only the original agreement.

Referring to Tayo’s unforgettable flogging, and waving my mother’s objections aside, he said:

“That was a one-time thing. I haven’t laid a hand on him since.”

“No, because he doesn’t really live here. He’s in school most of the time,” my mother retorted. “So you don’t want me to discipline our children, abi? Is that what you’re telling me? You want them to spoil before our very eyes? Not on my watch, you hear me, Baba Tayo?! I said, not on my watch!”

I heard my father take a deep breath and continue.

“Nobody has said you should let these children spoil, Asake. All I’m asking is that you consult me first. What you have done today is overkill. You don’t use a hammer to kill a fly.”

“Look, Baba Tayo, discipline your children the way you see fit, and I’ll do the same. How can I be consulting you every time I want to correct a child? That’s unreasonable!”

“No, it’s not, Asake. No, it’s not. Tayo and Enitan are teenagers. I can understand caning Yemi. But Enitan? No. If you keep going like this, she’ll never open up to you. And this is the time when she needs to be able to open up to you and tell you things.”

“Okay o, Dr. Ladoja. Thanks for your diagnosis. Mo ti gbo. E se gidi gidi gan, Dokita Ladoja. Next time, I won’t only consult you, I will write a l-o-o-o-o-n-g letter asking you how to handle these children. And you can write an even longer recommendation. You can even turn it into a dissertation gan-an, se ti gbo? It’s not your fault. It’s me who even bothers,” said my mother. Although I couldn’t see her, I could picture her unfurling an invisible tape rule to demonstrate how long the letter would be, and I could picture my father just staring at her.

“Ahn ahn Asake, come–” he began.

“No, Baba Tayo. Leave me alone. Your food is in the kitchen. Serve yourself. I’ll be in the bedroom, writing that letter. I’m going, abi do I need your permission to go and rest again?”

This time, my father held his tongue, and as soon as I heard my mother’s feet hurriedly wearing her slippers, about to head upstairs, I crept quietly back to my room.

Now, my mother knew it was Tokunbo who was at the center of this “disgrace” that Mrs.Ishola had reported to her.

And she was not happy.

She was very cold to me over the next few days, and she began to pressure my father again to stop mentoring Tokunbo because, according to her, he was a bad influence on me. My father resisted her Anti-Tokunbo Campaign, insisting that everything that had happened made an even stronger case for Tokunbo needing a solid male role model, who would teach him appropriate behavior to girls and eventually women.

My father’s stubbornness outlasted my mother’s dissatisfaction.

However, I knew my mother well.

Once I saw her return to her same old bubbly self, complete with singing and dancing around the house for no apparent reason, even though my father had refused to comply with her demands, I began to worry.

That woman was up to something.

She was not one to give up so easily. The thought that she might do anything to harm Tokunbo, just to keep him away from me, was erased by the understanding that Mrs. Williams, Tokunbo’s mother, was herself not someone to be trifled with, and would certainly not let any harm come to her only son without fighting back.

Besides, my mother was a sensible woman.

Maiming or causing physical harm to Tokunbo, or anyone for that matter, was not her style. But what exactly her agenda was, remained a mystery to me, and not knowing, made me uneasy.

The week after this incident was the JAMB exam. Tokunbo and I did not have the same JAMB center, so we did not see each other on the day of the exam. Furthermore, because JAMB lesson had ended, we stopped going home together.

But our friendship continued.

From the moment I heard my father voice his dissent as to how my mother handled the whole piggy back ride palaver, I knew our friendship stood a chance. I decided that in spite of my mother’s flogging, I would continue to be friends with Tokunbo because we had the support of my father.

And that was enough.

Every now and then, I would see Tokunbo whenever I went to run errands down the street. We still talked, but I could tell that there was still that guilt that his own actions had caused me pain. Any attempt on my part to establish my own culpability for that incident, was met with the same response:

“I should’ve listened to you.”

The second term ended, and we had a month-long vacation before we had to return to school for the third and final term.

During the first week of our holiday, Tokunbo sent a message through Yemi, for us to meet at Mallam Audu’s shop. That shop had become our safe haven to chat and talk freely, and since Mallam Audu’s attitude towards us never changed in spite of what he must have overheard, it was a judgment-free zone.

As we sat down to talk that afternoon, a Thursday, Tokunbo made an announcement:

“I’ll be going to Kaduna for two weeks.”

“Why?” I asked, racking my brain for a solid reason why a good portion of Tokunbo’s holiday would be spent in Kaduna, instead of Lagos. The answer must have come to me about the same time he decided to provide an explanation, because what happened was that we both blurted out similar words.

“Your father!”

“My dad!”

That was the reason for the trip to Kaduna.

And who could blame him?

While I had the luxury of seeing my father every single day, whether I wanted it or not, Tokunbo had to make plans to see or speak with his father. I couldn’t imagine how that felt. The same fellowship I enjoyed with my father and even took for granted was not easy to come by for my friend.

“I’ll be back before you know it,” he teased, nudging me with his elbow, probably because of the look of sadness that had passed briefly over my face once I understood that I wouldn’t see him for two whole weeks.

“Come on, admit it. Shebi you’ll miss me?” Tokunbo asked.

“I blushed.

Should I front? No way. Why bother?

“Of course now,” I admitted, and quickly added. “Don’t come back empty-handed o. Bring me some kilishi and kuli-kuli.”

“Chei See dis pikin!” said Tokunbo in jest. “Is that all they have in Kaduna?”

“Ehn, whatever you can carry and put in your bag, bring some for me,” I insisted.

“What exactly do you want me to bring back?” he asked, a serious look plastered on his face.

“Whatever is good for you, or you think I’ll like,” I replied casually.

“Right. So, how are we spending our birthday?” he said.

I was dumbfounded for a minute. Tokunbo actually remembered my birthday, and even knew that it would be coming up in less than two weeks, around the time he would be in Kaduna.

“Yup. I did. You told me in Yaba the other day, remember?”

“Oh yes, I do,” I said smiling as I recalled the day he was referring to.

We had just arrived in Yaba, after boarding a bus at Onike, as usual. Shortly after our arrival, I had spotted an agbalumo seller with a tray of the tart, seeded, fleshy golden yellow-skinned fruit. Those ones looked particularly fresh and ripe. So, we stopped over and I started haggling over prices with the seller, trying to convince her to throw in two not-so-ripe and much smaller ones as jara. Out of the blues, Tokunbo asked:

“When is your birthday?”

Because he hadn’t addressed the question to either of us, the agbalumo seller, a woman who looked to be in her early to mid-20s responded with:

“May 29, just like Democracy Day.”

A little embarrassed, Tokunbo explained that she was not the one his questions was directed to. Feeling awkward, I answered:

“April 11.”

“And you’ll be?” he pressed.

“15 years old.”

“Are you going to have a party?”

“No, not this year. But next year, maybe.”

“Customer, she na baiday you come talk? You no go buy agbalumo again?” said the seller who looked ready to shoo both of us away from her corner.

“Sorry, Madam,” I apologized.

She did not give me the jara I asked for, but I still got a fair price for the juicy agbalumos I eventually bought.

Once we had settled into the Masha-Kilo bus, Tokunbo pulled out a black leather pocket-sized diary, with the current year, “2001,” engraved on the cover in gold letters.

“So I won’t forget your birthday,” he replied when I asked what he was writing in the diary.

In the shade of Mallam Audu’s stall, I remembered all these events.

“I definitely remember,” I said with a sheepish smile. “And I hope you also remember I said no party this year.”

“Ehn, but you’ll still mark it, abi?” said Tokunbo.

I nodded.

“So, what do you want for your birthday?” he asked, looking at me intently with that penetrating gaze he had whenever he was taking mental notes, even though no physical pen appeared in his hand.

I decided to be honest, and said:

“I’m used to not getting gifts, but if you insist, here’s what I like: I like gifts that are thoughtful, preferably handmade, and … and just show that you put some care into it. It’s not about the money. It’s the thought that counts.”

“That’s what you girls say, then you’ll now come and be vexing if a guy just gives you a card. Or you’ll call him stingy koko,” said Tokunbo.

“A card would be plenty,” I said, resting my cheek on my palm.

“But what do you mean by handmade?” he asked, puzzled. “You want me to knit you a scarf?”

“Yes! And a bandana! And they both have to pink. Baby pink,” I teased.

“Oh, be serious, Enitan,” Tokunbo chided.

“Okay, I won’t tell you exactly what I want. It’s your job to take what I have told you and bring what you think fits that description,” I said, sitting up and folding my arms across my chest, a smug look on my face.

“Me and my big mouth!” Tokunbo grumbled. “I should have stuck with kilishi. It’s definitely handmade.”

I giggled.

We parted ways on this note, and Tokunbo promised to gist me about his Kaduna trip when he got back.

It was only after he left, that I realized that I had, once again, forgotten to ask him why his father smelt of leather. I made another mental note, one of many, to broach this subject with him, when he got back.

Meanwhile, in his absence, I began to examine my heart, and take account of my feelings for Tokunbo.

It was a crush. It had to be.

I was infatuated with this guy, and it was unavoidable. We had been spending lots of time together and clearly enjoyed each other’s company. A crush was inevitable.

At the same time, I began to ask myself if I was really just infatuated, or if there was something deeper. By its very definition, a crush struck me as very shallow, like something that was fleeting, just passing by. I didn’t think there was anything fleeting about my friendship with Tokunbo or the feelings I had for him. But what I really wanted to know was if Tokunbo himself felt the same way. I wasn’t about to waste my time on unrequited anything.

The days passed, and then one week, and then my birthday came during the second week after Tokunbo’s departure. It fell on a Wednesday, and was very dry, mostly because it was a week day. But my parents took us out for a small birthday treat at Tastee Fried Chicken on Adeniran Ogunsanya Street. Yemi tried to convince my father to buy another plate of rice and chicken for Tayo, who was spending some of his own vacation with our uncle in Ibadan, and would be back home at the end of the week. My father denied his request, seeing through Yemi’s ploy to secure a double portion for himself.

Later that evening, when we got back from our outing, Yemi came to tell me that I had a visitor at the gate.

Who could it be?

Standing at the gate in jeans and a gray t-shirt with yellow chunky letters, was Tokunbo. I had to put my hand over my mouth to stifle a scream of joy. The resultant sound that came out of my mouth was a muffled squeal.

“Happy Birthday, Enitan,” he said, beaming before leaning in to give me a warm hug.

“Oh my gosh!” I gushed, grinning. “When did you get back? I didn’t even think–”

“About two hours ago. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” he said with a big grin. From the shadows behind him, a small gift bag materialized and he handed it to me.

“For me?” I asked in surprise, as I took the bag from him.

“Yes now. It’s not my birthday,” he teased. “Open it. Hope it meets your … emm … requirements,” he chuckled nervously.

“Yeah, me too,” I said, as my hand disappeared into the bag. My fingers struck something hard and plastic first, so I grabbed it and pulled it out.

At first, I was confused, and turned it over and over in my hand.

It was a radio cassette tape, in a clear case, with a handwritten list of songs on the lined paper insert. There were seven songs on Side A, and another seven songs on Side B. There was also an additional track on Side B, tagged “Bonus track.”

I would have to listen to it to know what that song was.

But there was no mystery as to fourteen of the songs on both sides as they were clearly labelled.

Side A had the following songs:

Seyi Sodimu – Love Me Jeje
Nel Oliver – Baby Girl
Felix Liberty – Ifeoma
Evi Edna Ogholi – Happy Birthday
Blackky – Rosie
Junior & Pretty – Monika
Mike Okri – Omoge

Side B had these songs:

Onyeka Onwenu & King Sunny Ade – Wait for Me
Mike Okri – Rumba Dance
Daniel Wilson – Mr. Raggamuffin
Alex Zitto – Walakolombo
Junior & Pretty – Bolanle
Daddy Showkey – Somebody Call My Name
Ras Kimono – Rhumba Stylee

*Bonus Track

I ran through the list, stopping every now and then to sing the songs whose lyrics easily came to mind.

“I couldn’t decide if you were a Bolanle or Monika, so I put both,” he explained, as I chuckled at each item.

“I’m a Rosie, and no, you can’t have a dance,” I teased.

“All this shakara sef,” said Tokunbo, clearly amused.

Tokunbo’s 90s Naija Mix, as it became known, was a compilation of songs that were popular in Nigeria in the ’90s. Granted, a few tracks were from the ’80s and some artistes were from other West African countries, but in Nigeria, many of these songs ruled the ’90s.

By the time I got to the end, I gave Tokunbo another big hug. This gift definitely ticked all the boxes: it was thoughtful, handmade and showed care. Not that Tokunbo had suddenly become a cassette tape manufacturer, but with this gift, he showed that he was a good listener.

I had told him in the course of our many conversations, that although CD players and DVD players were increasingly prevalent in many homes, my parents did not own one. The boom box I owned had two cassette slots: one side to play tapes and the other side to dub tapes.

Tokunbo had taken note also of the kind of music that touched my heart: full of nostalgia, good memories, and culturally sound.

“That’s not all,” he said, nodding towards the bag in my hand. “Check the bag.”

So, I did.

I pulled out an expensive-looking bottle of floral perfume by an Italian designer, and finally, a card which was sealed in a cream-colored envelope. I didn’t pay much attention to the card at the time, as I had pulled it out of the bag with the back flap facing me. I didn’t see what was written across the face.

As I was about to turn it over before ripping it open, Tokunbo stopped me.

“Please, read it in your room. And we’ll talk later,” he pleaded.

And then, he chuckled nervously. Again.

I agreed.

“I’ll bring your kilishi tomorrow. I’ll be at Mallam’s place at 2:00pm.”

“I won’t miss it,” I said, with a big grin.

“Happy Birthday again, Enitan,” said Tokunbo, touching my shoulder with a tenderness that sent ripples down my back. In that moment, my mind went to the card. What was so special about it that it had to be read in private?

I was curious.

I thanked Tokunbo again for every single gift, and we bade each other “Good Night.” I floated back to my room, giddy with joy.

Although I wanted to open the card, I was curious to know what the bonus track on Side B was. So, I went straight for my tape player and slotted in the tape with Side B facing me.

I started by rewinding all the way to the beginning. Then, I pressed fast forward, listening by trial and error, until I got to the last labelled song on Side B, which was Ras Kimono’s reggae hit, Rhumba Stylee, just before the bonus track.

As that song faded out, I waited with bated breath for the bonus track to start.

I almost fell off my bed in laughter when I heard the signature instrumental intro to the Yoruba gospel song that was the soundtrack to most of my mornings as I got ready for school in the ’90s.

It was the Ibadan-based C.A.C. Good Women Choir, led by Mrs. Fasoyin, singing Odun nlo sopin.

“You nailed it, Tokunbo,” I said under my breath, as I chuckled and reached for the gift bag where the card lay.

I pulled out the card and caught my breath when I saw the two words written across the face of the envelope in Tokunbo’s flowing handwriting:

I caught my breath, once my eyes fell on those words. I knew that once I opened that envelope, whether I was ready for it or not, our friendship would enter another realm.

I hesitated.

Should I open this envelope? Will the contents keep me up all night?

But it was from Tokunbo, and for that reason alone, I tore the envelope open, my heart beating faster than before.

The envelope contained a card.

No surprises there.

It was one of those typical birthday cards sold in supermarkets all over Lagos, made of thick, hard paper, with the printed words inside, written on another softer, smaller leaf of paper, barely hanging onto the inside of the card. The face of the card bore the words “Birthday Wishes for a Special Person,” written in gold cursive letters.

No surprises there.

Inside the card, on the softer paper, were cookie-cutter type, impersonal words plastered on the right hand side in black ink:

A Special Person

Deserves a Special Birthday

May all your wishes come true

Happy Birthday

No surprises there either.

But on the left hand side, there were carefully picked words, written in fine-tipped blue ink, the dark blue of Eleganza biros, not the lighter blue of Bic biros. I assumed those were Tokunbo’s only choices being a student like me.

Now, those words came as a surprise to me, not just because they contrasted with the black, machine-printed words on the right hand side, or even because they were written in blue.

No.

They stood out because despite the writer’s best intentions, they were not perfect.

At first glance, I noticed that a few words were crossed out and the replacement words were written right above them. I was interested in both: the words which had been hurriedly scribbled, and then erased, as well as the replacements, that is, the ones he wanted me to see.

Tokunbo had penned down a short poem, but it looked like a letter at the same time. I concluded that it was both because I didn’t know any poem that followed almost all the same rules of letter writing. It read:

My Dearest Enitan,

Birthdays come yearly, just once

But this year day, I want you to pause

Consider our friendship, you must

Truly see that I like love you very much

My passionate plea embedded in these sincere words

Is that you’ll give me a chance

And please SAY YES TO ME US.

Sincerely,

Your Tokunbo

The following words had been crossed out and replaced:

“Year” with “Day”

“Like” with “Love”

“Me” with “Us”

“Tokunbo, you’re definitely not Shakespeare–” I mused, after reading the poem-slash-letter, “–but this is so lovely.”

But the absolute icing on the cake, like he didn’t want me to miss the message he had so diligently put down in writing, was the sketch at the bottom of his verse.

Two stick figures, heads touching with a series of hearts floating in the space above their heads.

An arrow pointed from the person on the left at the word, “Me,” and another arrow pointed from the figure on the right to the word, “You.” I had no doubt that “you” referred to myself, not because the picture bore even the slightest resemblance to me (for one, I didn’t have blue skin), but because unlike the person on the left who was glaringly bald, the one on the right had several strands of hair on her head.

Judging from the pronounced indentation on the paper where each strand was painstakingly attached to the head, I could tell that this additional detail was deliberately included. So, I counted the strands: one, two, three, four, five.

Five strands of hair.

“Why five?” I wondered. “Shouldn’t there be fifteen?” I asked, wandering back to the cassette tape, which had fifteen songs in total recorded on it.

“Why five?” I asked myself over and over again. But no matter how many times I asked myself that question, I couldn’t arrive at a logical answer.

Is he going to give me ₦ 5 naira? Does he only have five fingers? Do we have five days of holiday left? Did he write this at 5:00 am? 5:00 pm maybe? Did the journey to Kaduna take five hours? Does he only have five real teeth? Am I over-thinking this?

I wondered and wondered. Finally, I decided I would ask him when I saw him the following day. Just thinking of meeting him after reading his heartfelt declaration of love, made me nervous. How would I react to him? How would he react to me? Would we just go back to being friends or would this change our friendship forever?

I didn’t know, but as I sprayed the perfume whose bottle was shaped like the body of a woman, first on my neck, then dabbed liberally behind my ears, and on my wrists, I thought of Tokunbo. I knew that we were creating strong memories.

That every time my nose smelt the alluring fragrance, Tokunbo’s image would come alive in my mind. That every time I heard any of those songs on that tape, I would remember Tokunbo, and that regardless of what happened to the card, the words written in it were forever imprinted in my heart.

I would never forget them.

Say Yes to Us …

That was the first time anyone had ever considered me special enough to lovingly craft beautiful words for my eyes only.

But as I set the bottle of perfume down, I began to worry about Tokunbo’s request.

Yes, he was asking me to be his girlfriend. That much was clear. But I also wondered at the timing.

I had just turned 15 and if that wasn’t a problem, my being in secondary school was.

By the end of that year, I would have completed the first term of SS2, but I was still in secondary school. I had made a promise to myself, not even to my parents that I would never go into any relationship with any man, or boy, until I was in the university. And even then, not when I was a Jambite (1st year).

Would I break this promise to myself, this self-imposed rule, and face the consequences?

Even as I thought of Tokunbo, I reached for the envelope and the card. I placed the card on the bed beside me as I lay my head on my pillow, facing the ceiling.

Holding the envelope above my head, I read those words again.

My Enitan …

At that moment, with the envelope above me, light streaming through, I saw a little dark rectangle in the right corner.

I sat up quickly.

“Kai! And I almost threw this envelope away. I didn’t even know there was something else inside.”

My fingers were busy as I spoke to myself, freeing the rectangle from the envelope.

It was a small picture of a younger-looking Tokunbo in a white studio. But he had the same calm expression on his face. The picture had a certain quality to it, very different from the ones we took in Nigeria.

My suspicions were confirmed when I flipped to the back, and saw the words, “Tokunbo Williams. San Antonio, Texas. 1998,” scribbled on the back.

I smiled as I looked at that picture. But that smile quickly vanished when I heard my mother calling me, followed by Yemi’s hurried footsteps coming towards my room. I knew it was him because he called out my name as he approached. True to habit, he didn’t knock before barging into my room.

“Mummy is calling you, Enitan!” he shouted, sounding rather irritated as he entered my room. Either he didn’t notice the items on my bed and on the nearby table, or else, he didn’t care, because as soon as I acknowledged his message, he left. But he returned almost immediately, full of questions.

“So, did he give you biscuits or anything to eat?” asked Yemi, eyeing the now empty gift bag lying on the table, as if it looked edible.

Once I responded in the negative, there was a shocked silence. But it was very brief. He promptly launched a follow-up question.

“Money, nko?”

“No, Yemi,” I replied firmly, shaking my head.

“So, what did he bring then?”

“Perfume and music,” I said in summary.

Yemi squeezed his face the way babies do when bitter medicine is put in their mouths. Clearly, he wasn’t impressed by Tokunbo’s choice of gifts. I might as well have said Tokunbo gave me a ruler or an abacus for my birthday. The items I had mentioned were useless to Yemi, who was clearly expecting something edible, so he could demand a bribe for keeping my secret from our parents.

“Next time, tell him to bring Digestives or TUC, at least. Man must wack now! No be music we go chop!” he grumbled before leaving me in peace.

I chuckled at his comment.

“Thank God I didn’t even mention the card. He’d have said it belonged in the dustbin.”

And then, when I recalled that my mother wanted me to come downstairs, I quickly sprang into action, gathering the envelope, card and perfume into the gift bag. The cassette tape was a harmless gift, but the others were more incriminating. I had to find a safe place to hide them away, and I had to move fast.

I had learnt never to keep anything I didn’t want my mother to find, anywhere near, around, or under my bed. Not even underneath my mattress. Lifting up that mouka foam to see Tokunbo’s poem-slash-letter would be too easy for my mother, and I refused to play into her hands.

Again.

You see, after what happened almost three years earlier, I learnt that my bed was an easy target for my mother to find items that were forbidden.

I had borrowed a couple of Hearts and Hints magazines from a classmate, who always had the latest issues of each magazine. Because of the steamy, “definitely-not-PG-13” stories that filled these magazines, especially Hearts, my mother had explicitly banned them from our house.

But, I had foolishly hidden them under my pillow. My mother had come to my room while I was away at school, looking for a pair of scissors I had taken from her, but never returned.

Because she knew I never made my bed before rushing off to school, her suspicions must have been aroused when she saw a neatly-made bed, with the old Ankara wrapper that doubled as my “cover cloth” gently laid over my bed, tucked in around the edges.

That day, because I had a lot to hide, I had taken the extra precaution of extending this makeshift blanket to cover the pillow, which was the only thing hiding those magazines from view.

My mother must have seen this cozy scene, and following her trusty instincts, had pulled back the cover cloth and swiped the pillow aside to discover the contraband items, lying in all their glossy glory on my bed.

All of this must have happened before I got home, because as soon as I got back from school that day, my mother was waiting for me at the gate. Shaking the magazines in my face, she confronted me with my crime. Because I was unable to give her a good explanation for disobeying her, she dragged me by my left ear, until we were indoors.

As soon as we entered the house, she slapped me so hard that for a few seconds, I thought I was in an alternate universe, where the floor was the ceiling and vice versa.

When I arrived at school the next day, I explained what had happened to Patricia, the owner of the magazines. She was not interested in listening to my story. I had to pay her ₦ 20 naira almost every day out of my meagre allowance for three weeks, until I had repaid the cost of the magazines.

That was the last time I read Hearts and Hints, and it was also the last time I hid anything important close to my bed.

I looked around my room. It was sparsely furnished with just one wooden wardrobe, a table, and a plastic chair which stood beside my wooden bed.

Then, a thought flashed across my mind:

What if I hide it up, above my head?

My eyes looked up. No, I couldn’t hide the gift bag in the ceiling. Impossible.

But what is the next best thing?

Yes. I saw it and decided that was a good hiding place.

Each window in our house had two sets of curtains: a white net curtain, and a heavier green curtain made from a blend of cotton and polyester. The green was a dark shade that complimented the brown rug and cream-colored walls.

During the day, the green curtains were drawn back to let in natural sunlight, but at night, they were closed for privacy. However, the net curtains always stayed in place, unless of course, it was so hot that they also had to be drawn back to let in fresh air through the windows.

Above the wires with hooks on each end, which held the curtains in place, was a wooden panel. This served one important purpose: it hid all the back-end construction work that showed the nails in the wall attached to the hooked wires holding up the curtains.

In short, it hid all the ugly business out of sight.

However, because of the design of this wooden contraption, there was a fairly shallow recess at the very top, which was deep enough to hide small objects.

In some people’s homes, that recess was occupied by large, framed family portraits, pictures of the couple in that home, dressed in gaudy wedding attire with both husband and wife wearing white, lace gloves, graduation pictures displaying the acquisition of advanced academic degrees (only Master’s and PhDs counted, not SSCE), and occasionally, laminated and framed copies of the said degrees.

Visitors could see all these items in the living room from any angle.

But in our home, that recess was where Yemi and Tayo, in their younger days, frequently hid Lego bricks and other toys they did not want to share with others.

Tayo, at some point, used that spot to hide some of my mother’s canes, until she discovered them and gave him a generous serving of what he was missing: a thorough flogging.

But, that was such a long time ago, that I believed my mother would not think of searching that place for any reason.

I climbed onto the top of my table, and put the gift bag in the recess above my window. But, like I had already suspected, it was too big to fit there and remain hidden from sight.

So, I had to split up the goodies.

I hid the bottle of perfume above my window, and I stashed the card, which was back in the envelope, in an old, bulky Business Studies textbook I had used in junior secondary school.

The particular chapter where I hid it was an introduction to Shorthand. The symbols looked then, just as they did in junior school, like ancient Greek to me.

“–And they expected us to memorize all these things?” I said aloud, rolling my eyes. “They were just jones-ing!”

It was already hard enough trying to decode the gibberish that was some of my classmates’ handwriting when copying notes dictated in class. But asking us to learn shorthand was like telling us to learn a dead language.

Besides, some of the symbols looked like oversimplified picture depictions of popular swimming techniques.

Backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke …

As for the others, there was only one explanation that made sense: they were written solely to communicate with extraterrestrials.

“Only people on Mars can read this,” I concluded. There was no way it was intended for a human audience.

After hearing my name one more time, I quickly ditched the gift bag under a pile of dirty laundry, and went to answer my mother.

I came downstairs to find that my mother had baked a cake using the only baking tin she had, which was shaped like a Number 5.

For a moment, I wondered if this had anything to do with Tokunbo’s poem-slash-letter. But I quickly decided that it didn’t.

The cake was as spongy as could be expected, taking into consideration that the batter was mixed by hand for just a few minutes before it was thrown into the oven. Of course, it had no icing, but we didn’t mind. We enjoyed it with grateful hearts.

My father took a few pictures using the digital camera a friend who lived abroad had given him as a gift, and even Tayo called me on the phone from Ibadan to wish me a Happy Birthday.

I went to bed that night quite content, but also quite apprehensive, as each ticking of the clock brought me closer to my much anticipated meeting with Tokunbo. From his scribbled message, it was clear he wanted more than friendship.

Before I went to sleep that night, I pulled out Tokunbo’s wallet-sized picture from my brown leather purse where I had stored behind my school ID card. I looked at it again. There was Tokunbo grinning at me in a white studio, sitting on something that was completely hidden from view.

But I have said I won’t date anyone till I get to uni.

“This is the guy who can make me change my mind,” I said to myself as I stared at the picture in my hand.

And with that thought, I promptly fell asleep.

The next day, I woke up and was filled with fear when I discovered that I had fallen asleep clutching Tokunbo’s picture in my hand. What if my mother had seen it?

“There’s no way she could’ve entered my room without my knowledge,” I croaked and set my mind at ease.

Comforted by this reassuring thought, I sluggishly rose to my feet and started my day.

My mother left the house around 11:00am, to run a few errands, and I had no idea when she would return. But since we were on holiday, it didn’t matter if I stepped out for a while. I could claim I was visiting a friend down the road, which was technically correct, except that this friend was a boy.

The “I’m-visiting-a-friend-down-the-street” excuse was what I told Yemi who was in the early stages of a long afternoon nap. He lay on a couch in the sitting room, the only one long enough to accommodate his long limbs. He nodded, and turned over to make himself more comfortable before slipping into deeper sleep.

I knew he would ignore me if I asked him to come and lock the gate after me, so I took my key, padlocking the gate from the outside.

Then, after adjusting my skirt and blouse for perhaps the hundredth time that afternoon, I used an old toothbrush to tame the unruly strands of hair at my hairline. After applying an extra coat of Vaseline to my lips, I stepped out.

Although I was both nervous and excited at the same time, the over-arching thought in my mind was:

What will I say to Tokunbo?

I had not yet decided what my answer would be, but I knew that once I reached Mallam Audu’s stall, it was show-time.

So, I put one foot in front of the other and tried to calm myself. As I got closer, I could feel my heart pounding faster and faster.

Gbim, Gbim, Gbim!

And then my palms got sweaty. My legs turned to jelly, and I was surprised that they still moved in the direction of the Mallam’s stall.

I expected Tokunbo to be sitting down on the bench waiting for me, but as I got nearer, I saw him standing beside the stall, in the hot sun. In his right hand, he held a small black nylon bag. But what really startled me was the look of worry on his face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked frowning. He nodded in the direction of the stall. I peeped inside and saw Mallam Audu first. I greeted him. Then, I saw that the bench where Tokunbo and I usually sat to have our heart-to-heart was occupied by a stranger.

It was a customer who was sitting there, a freshly lit cigarette balanced between two fingers. He was engrossed in reading a newspaper spread on his laps, and didn’t even notice me staring at him.

“We can’t talk here,” said Tokunbo in a matter-of-fact voice. And he was right. That man had no intention of leaving anytime soon.

I nodded in agreement.

We stood there for another five minutes deliberating on where we could sit down and talk privately without interruptions.

Tokunbo was the first to come up with the winning pick.

“How about Iya Kafilat’s place?” he asked.

“I was just thinking the same thing,” I responded with a smile. “Let’s go there.”

And we did.

On our way, Tokunbo gisted me about his trip to Kaduna, the places he visited, including various markets, and one of his father’s relatives who lived in Kaduna.

“I saw somebody who looked like you,” said Tokunbo, rounding off his gist.

“Really?” I asked surprised. “You mean like my carbon copy or just the same shape of face?”

“Enitan, she could’ve passed for you. I even thought it was you. She was selling watermelons with her brothers at Railway Market. I had to go and ask her what her name was, just to be sure,” said Tokunbo.

“And?”

“Her name was Mariam.”

I chuckled and said, “It was definitely not me you saw o! I’ve been here in Lagos this whole time. But maybe if I travel to Kogi, I might see your look alike there too.”

We both laughed, not really because what I said was funny, but to ease the tension and nervousness we could feel between us. Words we needed to say weighed heavy on our hearts.

“You know what they say: God makes people in twos,” said Tokunbo, chuckling nervously.

“I believe you.”

By now, we had arrived at Iya Kafilat’s shop, which was relatively busy for a Thursday afternoon. We selected the spot farthest from other chatting customers.

No sooner had we settled down, than Iya Kafilat herself just materialized in front of us.

“Na wetin you go buy today? Malt, Coke, Fanta, even pure water sef, we get am,” she said.

I turned a questioning gaze to Tokunbo. We had not planned to buy anything, and I was certainly not carrying any cash on me. I was just about to decline Iya Kafilat’s offer when Tokunbo quickly answered her.

“One bottle of Fanta for her, and a bottle of Limca for me, ma.”

Quite pleased, Iya Kafilat disappeared into her shop to fill our order. As soon as she left, Tokunbo said:

“You know she wasn’t going to just let us sit here without buying anything.”

He could tell I was about to start arguing about spending money unnecessarily, and he quelled the argument before it even started.

This guy knows me so well …

Within two minutes, a young girl arrived with two bottles of soft drinks. She couldn’t have been more than nine years old, but I knew she wasn’t Kafilat. Kafilat was in her early 20s and was a student in a university outside Lagos. This was public knowledge.

We saw her occasionally when she came home to visit.

This little girl was one of her three siblings. Her name was Kafayat.

As soon as she set the bottles on the table, she asked for payment. Only when Tokunbo handed her the money, did she open the bottles with an opener, which up until then, was tucked away in an oversized apron. Then, she disappeared into the shop to bring back Tokunbo’s change.

After giving him the change, Tokunbo detained her briefly to ask her where her older sister was.

Folding her hands behind her back, Kafayat chanted:

“Egbon mi, Sister Kafilat, won ti lo si ile-iwe giga (My big sister, Sister Kafilat, has gone to the university).”

“Alright, greet her for me when she comes back, okay?” said Tokunbo cheerfully.

“Yes, sir,” she replied, with a little curtsy before returning to the shop.

I waited for Kafayat to go before asking Tokunbo:

“Do you know her sister personally?”

“No. Not more than you probably do,” he replied, looking a little embarrassed.

“So, why the interrogation?”

“I was just being friendly,” said Tokunbo, smiling weakly.

Then, he handed the black nylon bag to me, and said:

“Sorry, there should have been more kilishi in there, but Yele ate her own, and started on this one too.”

“It means it’s really good. Thank you,” I said grinning.

Ordinarily, I would have opened the bag to take a few bites of the thinly-sliced, well-seasoned, sun-dried, roasted beef, but I knew that kilishi had a longer shelf life than its juicier, more succulent cousin, suya. So there was no rush.

“Jos Road isn’t round the corner, or else, I’d have bought you some more,” said Tokunbo apologetically.

“No qualms. This one will do,” I reassured him.

And then, an awkward silence followed during which time we each watched the bubbles form in the carbonated drinks that sat in front of us. Funny enough, neither of us took as much as a sip from the drinks. We had more than soft drinks on our minds.

Then, Tokunbo spoke up.

After pulling his chair close to mine, so that we were literally sitting side-by-side, rather than across from each other, he spoke in a soft, well-controlled voice.

“So, have you had a chance to … you know, read the card?” he asked, gazing steadily into my eyes.

I smiled and nodded before looking away shyly. The graveled ground suddenly held a mild fascination for me and I fixed my gaze on it.

Then, I felt Tokunbo hold my hand, and I was forced to look again into his eyes. Taking my right hand in both of his hands, he said:

“I know we’re friends, Enitan. But I want more than that. I’m sure of what my heart is telling me, but I want you to tell me if you feel the same way too.”

I withdrew my hand quietly and sighed deeply.

“I really like you too, Tokunbo–” I began.

“–And I love you, Enitan,” he said, with a certainty that rattled me. How could he be so sure? Love, to me was such a deep, heavy word, not the sort of thing teenagers like us were supposed to understand and profess to each other. But here was Tokunbo, in public, telling me he loved me. Sincerely. How could this be?

“Are you sure, Tokunbo?” I asked, uncertainly, “Because it takes a lifetime to love somebody.”

“I know it, Enitan,” he said genuinely. “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I think about you all the time.”

“Malaria will do that to you,” I said grinning mischievously. “Oh yes! Abi, are you saying I’m responsible for your insomnia?”

Tokunbo laughed. It was the careless laughter of a drunk man.

“See, this is why I love you,” he said.

“Because I can detect Malaria just by looking at a person?” I asked, the same wicked grin still on my face.

“No!” said Tokunbo laughing again. “Because you, Enitan, you know the value of laughter.”

I blushed.

“So, what do you say, Enitan? Will you say yes to us?” said Tokunbo, repeating the words he had penned down in the birthday card.

I swallowed hard, leaned towards him and spoke my mind.

“I’m scared Tokunbo. It’s not that you’re a bad person or I don’t want to go into a relationship with you. It’s just that I can’t shake this feeling that this is not the right time. I’m scared that if we do this now, we’ll destroy what we have, and honestly, I don’t want to lose you. Your friendship matters to me, but–”

“So what’s your answer?” said Tokunbo anxiously.

“My answer is … No,” I replied, and felt a part of my heart breaking as I saw Tokunbo’s face fall. Then, I added, “For now.”

He didn’t say anything, just kept looking straight ahead. So, I put my hand under his chin and raised his face towards me. I saw sadness there, unshrouded disappointment. And the worst part was I felt the sadness too.

“I said No for now,” I repeated, looking into his eyes. “Ask me again in uni.”

“You’re telling me to wait till we leave secondary school?” he asked incredulously, and then withdrew his chin from my hand. “What if we end up going to different schools?”

If you love me, you go wait for me …

“Does that matter if we truly love each other?” I asked. “If what we feel for each other is real, then distance won’t be a barrier. Love will build a bridge from me to you.”

“Hmm … I hear you,” he grunted.

I knew Tokunbo didn’t like being friend zoned, but I had to follow my heart. Ignoring my personal convictions was not something I wanted to trifle with, especially where relationships were concerned. And I was convinced that the timing of Tokunbo’s request was not right.

I nudged him playfully.

“Okay, if that is what you want, I’ll wait for you,” he finally agreed. “But promise me one thing.”

“What?”

“Promise me that no matter what happens between us, we’ll always be friends.”

“I promise, with all my heart.”

Somehow, the promise I made to Tokunbo that afternoon left him satisfied. Slowly, as we talked, we almost forgot the heavy matter we had just discussed. After finishing our drinks, we went back home.

As we walked, I asked Tokunbo about the strands of hair.

“You noticed, huh?” he chuckled.

“Of course I did. I’d say you left out like 10 extra strands,” I replied jokingly.

“Nah! It’s complete. Only five. One for each year we’re supposed to spend in uni.”

“Really? Tokunbo, you are one weird guy!” I said incredulously.

“Different? Yes. Weird? No. You’re going to read Law, no be so?”

I nodded.

“And I’m going in for Engineering. Both courses take 5 years.”

I looked at him, amazed at the clarity of his thoughts, at how sure he was.

“Let’s pray JAMB doesn’t jamb us,” I said cautiously. “And you should have added one more strand of hair.”

“Why?”

“Because with all these strikes, you know it’s really 5 years plus X.”

“That’s true. Nobody knows tomorrow,” said Tokunbo thoughtfully.

“Tomorrow is Friday, Tokunbo,” I said, winking at him.

As I was about to open the gate and go inside, he grabbed my hand and said:

“We’re still friends, right?”

“Yes. Definitely friends,” I replied.

“I was hoping I’d be able to call you my girlfriend now, but friend will still work,” he said, sticking his hands in his pockets.

“Good things come to those who wait, ehn,” I said. “Bye-bye, friend.”

“Bye-bye, friend,” he echoed.

And we parted ways.

Perhaps, if I had known what was coming, I would have said “Yes” to Tokunbo that day.

As I had feared, my decision to put a halt to any romantic relationship with Tokunbo changed many things. Surprisingly, it was me who manifested these changes.

In the days after our memorable conversation, my heart was in turmoil. Saying ‘No’ to Tokunbo was much easier than dealing with the conflicting emotions that overwhelmed me. Every time I saw him or thought of him, I was deeply conflicted and a war raged in my heart.

On one hand, I knew I had made a wise choice, but on the other hand, I felt like I had put a pause on something that was natural and was already happening. Exercising this painful restraint, forced my head to rule my heart.

And my heart was fighting back.

I began to have what I termed “Tokunbo Withdrawal Symptoms” or “TWS” for short. Not to be confused with dehydration from long bouts of trekking in the hot sun, no pure water seller in sight, or early signs of puberty, which thankfully, I had survived, TWS had four distinct characteristics:

1. Shortness of breath around the object of one’s affection, which in my case, was Tokunbo.

2. Long spans of staring into empty space (or “LoSSES”). In certain circles, this conditions is known by its more user-friendly name, Daydreaming.

3. Mistakenly calling close family members, “Tokunbo” instead of their proper names. Tayo and Yemi got the brunt of this. Remarkably, my parents never did.

4. Plucking flowers, petal by petal, sighing, “He loves me, he loves me not.

The fourth and last symptom manifested itself in other ways too. If I ate fruits that turned out to be sweet, it meant “he loved me.” But, if they were closer to the bitter side of the scale, it meant he was definitely vexing for me.

But all these things must have been worry-driven, because truthfully, Tokunbo’s attitude towards me never changed. On several occasions, I would catch him in these moments when it seemed, he desperately wanted to repeat his passionate request, but mastered by a great strength of will, he would let the moment pass and go back to being what he had always been: a friend.

A special friend.

Plus, there was no real reason to doubt Tokunbo’s love and affection for me. He had said so plainly himself, on paper and in person. But, I had said “No,” and still felt bad.

However, all these symptoms lasted only seven days, so I did not need to consult a doctor. What happened, however, was that the holidays ended, and the third and final term, which was also the most important, began. As we all know, nothing smacks a sharp dose of reality into the head of a daydreaming teenager like school.

Possibly, there was no greater reminder for me that some things had changed, than my post-school ritual. With JAMB completed, there was no need for JAMB lesson anymore. Rather, after school, I returned home, alone. Tokunbo was noticeably and painfully absent.

Later, he told me that he had decided to let his mother’s driver, Mr. Rufus, pick him up from school and take him home. In his words,

“Enitan, you were the only reason I took public transport in the first place.”

Because of the rigors of travelling by public transportation versus being chauffeured across Lagos in an air-conditioned car, I arrived much later than Tokunbo, and we barely saw each other on weekdays.

But weekends were different. We tried to hang out at Mallam Audu’s place every Saturday and Sunday for some minutes. Considering that in the previous term, we had spent hours in each other’s company almost every day, this was a drastic reduction, a major downgrade. And we both felt it.

Meanwhile, I made up, or rather, tried to make up for it in different ways. I made out time to listen to that tape every evening while I was in my room studying, reading, and loosening my braids before washing my hair and going to the salon to get it re-braided for the new school week. That tape was constantly playing in the background.

In the mornings, I would go to school practically drenched in Tokunbo’s perfume. My usage was strategic. I would use my Sure roll-on deodorant, the one with the white cover which smelt like liquid apples, before coming downstairs to eat breakfast. When I returned upstairs to fetch my school bag, I would douse liberal amounts of perfume on myself, and then rush off to school, being careful to avoid my mother before leaving the house.

My father, who usually gave me rides to school, had noticed this, but what he told my mother was,

“It seems Enitan prefers to go to school by herself. That girl wants to be independent.”

Since he saw this as a good thing, he didn’t inquire further. But my mother took note of my new habit, and approached me one Tuesday evening.

I was in my room, playing that tape and working on my English homework. My mother knocked on the door, quite unusually, and then let herself in, once I said, “Come in.”

“Enitan, suspend your homework, and come and sit here,” she said, patting a spot beside her on my bed. Had I known what was coming, I might have stayed put at my desk.

But when she said, “Closer,” I began to worry.

What could she possibly have to say to me that couldn’t be said from where she sat?

She was not carrying a cane, and even though she was wearing a colorful adire boubou, I didn’t think she had any flogging instrument hidden away from sight.

But, since when has that stopped any determined parent? A beating delivered by hand can be just as painful as any cane.

However, because of the air of tranquility that hovered around my mother like a halo, I obeyed and sat very close beside her.

Her first question shocked me, and almost sent me running to the door.

“Ta lo fun e ni perfume? (Who gave you perfume?)”

How did she … Who told her? Had Yemi snitched on me?

Somehow, I didn’t think Yemi had anything to do with this. My mother repeated her question. I finally responded with:

“Mummy, I didn’t–”

“Fem!” said my mother, before using two fingers to clamp her own lips shut.

She wants me to keep quiet? But, she just asked me a question.

“You just wait,” she added. Rising swiftly from the bed, my mother climbed on top of my desk, with the nimbleness of a fox, reached into the recess above my window, and felt her way until she found what she was looking for.

After climbing down carefully, she beamed triumphantly, and with a casual motion, she placed the bottle of perfume I thought I had squirreled away, on my desk. The bottle was only about three-quarters full. Needless to say, I had been busy spraying away mercilessly.

Once I saw my mother climb the desk, nobody needed to tell me what she was looking for. I knew the game was up. So, when her back was turned to me, I quietly got up from my bed, and stood beside my door, hand on the handle, ready to escape.

My mother, on returning from her mission above the window, with her feet planted again on solid ground, saw my new position and gave a deep chuckle.

Clapping her hands free from the dust that had accumulated in that recess, she spoke.

“If you know what is good for you, come back here, and sit down.”

“Mummy, please let me explain,” I pleaded.

“Oh, I know. I want you to explain, that’s why I’m asking you to sit down.”

I stood my ground.

“Enitan, I didn’t come here to beat you. Just sit down!” she ordered.

Oh, how reassuring! Why should I trust you now? You’ve only flogged me for what … 15 years of my life!

Those were the thoughts dancing in my head as I stared at my mother. Still, there was something in my mother’s voice that convinced me that she was serious about not flogging me.

So, I reluctantly obeyed.

Once I sat down, she wrapped an arm around me. I was terrified. Was she trying to get a good grip so she could sit on me and beat me? I had heard of mothers who did this: sat on their children so they couldn’t escape, while they flogged them mercilessly.

But, the grip my mother had on my shoulder did not suggest an upcoming beating.

Maybe she was right. No flogging today.

“You know I love you, right?” said my mother, concern written all over her face.

“Yes, ma.”

“And when I tell you not to do certain things, it’s just to protect you.”

“Yes, ma.”

“So, I’ve decided to try your daddy’s method. I won’t flog you. We’ll just talk, okay?”

I frowned. Since when did she change strategies? Was this a trick?

She laughed a very dry laugh.

“See your face? Don’t worry. I said I just want us to talk. After all, you’re my only daughter. You should be able to talk to me about anything, abi?”

“Okay, Mummy,” I replied uncertainly.

She nodded and continued.

Pointing with her free hand, the left one, at the perfume on the table, she said:

“You see that perfume over there? Tell me who gave it to you.”

“A friend, ma.”

“Okay, is this friend a boy or a girl?”

I paused. My mother already knew about Tokunbo and the piggy back ride. Had she made the connection between Tokunbo and this gift or was she just winding me up?

She charged on.

“Enitan, obinrin o kin f’obinrin ni perfume. (Women don’t give other women perfume).”

Right there and then, I thought to myself:

“That can’t be right.”

I could think of at least two separate occasions when my mother had not only received perfumes as gifts from female friends, but had also given them to relatives as gifts.

I saw through her ruse: she was working to the answer.

At that point, I had two choices: admit the perfume came from a boy, or deny it and incur her wrath.

I wasn’t quite sure I liked the new and improved Asake Ladoja.

So, I studied her body language and face for a brief moment before making my decision.

Her body was tense, but her face was impassive. That poker face showed no signs of anger. Unsettling. I would have been a lot happier with the “hands on hips” pose. In that mode, if I aggravated her further, by adding another lie to the one that was hanging in the air, her right hand would swing, without warning, from its position and decorate my face with painful slaps. If her hands had been more relaxed, swinging from her sides, I might have had a fighting chance.

I decided to confess, even though my mother’s new approach qualified as “untested waters.”

I told her the perfume had come from a guy, careful not to mention a name.

Her reaction took me by surprise. She launched into a deep conversation.

“You see this nose–” my mother began, lightly touching her nose with her right forefinger, “–it wasn’t like this before. It used to be more pointed and fine, not squashed like a mound of amala that many fingers have attacked.”

I had never seen my mother’s nose in that light, but after the picture she painted, I knew I wouldn’t look at it the same way again.

She continued.

“When I had Tayo, my nose was still fine, but when I got pregnant with you … Ay-ya-ya–” she said, shaking her head slowly and clicking her tongue, “–you can see it. Round like Olumo rock. It just started spreading, spreading like okra that has poured on the ground. With Yemi, it continued spreading. My point is this, Enitan: giving birth to you and your brothers changed my body dramatically. It hasn’t been the same since.”

With questioning eyes, I wondered where she was going with this.

“Mummy, I don’t understand.”

“Ah, don’t worry. You will understand!” she said sarcastically. “Wo, you will over-understand gan-an. Mo n bo (I’m coming).”

“Okay, ma.”

“How old are you now?” my mother asked all of a sudden.

“Fifteen, ma,” I replied. Had she forgotten I celebrated my birthday not too long ago?

“Good. And how old am I?”

“You’re going to be …. 43 this year, ma.”

“So, I’m 42 right now, abi?”

“Yes, ma.”

“Good. Do I look like a 42-year old to you?”

Trick question!

“You look very good for your age ma,” I replied chuckling.

“Omo dada! That’s what I wanted to hear,” she said, beaming with joy. All of a sudden, that pleasant expression vanished from her face, and a more serious look darkened her brow.

“Now, do you want to look like me at your age?” my mother asked.

“Ma?”

“I said, do you want to look like a 40-something year old, at age 15?” she roared. I jumped up in fright.

“N-n-n-o-o-o, ma,” I stuttered.

“How many ears do you have?”

“Two, ma.”

“Are you sure? Because from where I am sitting, I can only see one, and the way you’ve been behaving, it’s like you’re only using half an ear.”

“Sorry, ma.”

“Sorry for yourself, so ti gbo? Hear me well.”

By now, she was on her feet. The veil masking her anger was torn so that it clearly showed in her eyes, and was pronounced in every word she spoke.

“Don’t bring any useless pregnancy to this house, you hear? I am not ready to be a grandmother. The boy who gave you this perfume, was he the one carrying you on his back?”

I hesitated.

“Answer me!”

“Yes, ma.”

She clapped her hands together incredulously. “Eh-hen, I knew it! The same deception that thrives in the mother is already manifesting in the son. I am not surprised.”

I looked away. I didn’t like what she was insinuating especially since I, acting on my own accord, and without being coerced by either parent, had decided not to enter into a relationship with this same Tokunbo. Would that knowledge change my mother’s opinion of me? Of him?

“I’d just be wasting my time,” I thought to myself and kept mum. “Why volunteer personal information nobody asked for?”

Not a wise move at all.

My mother wasn’t done though.

“That boy that gave you this perfume, Tokunbo abi? In fact, I don’t care whether his name is Tokunbo o, or Tokewa o, or Torunwa. That’s not my concern. Shebi you people talk? Tell him that your mummy said if he doesn’t want to spend his next birthday, dancing with crutches, he better leave you alone. You’re just 15! What does a 15-year old girl have to offer any man? Nothing. You want guys to use you and throw you away like chewing gum? Let me tell you, if you let any useless boy yeye you, don’t come back to this house shedding crocodile tears. I won’t chase you up and down, monitoring your movements like alangba (lizard). But if I catch you talking to any boy ehn … You know me now. You know your mother. I’ve said my own!”

As she turned to leave, she added:

“A word is enough for the wise.”

I wanted to tell her that she must have churned out at least twenty words, not just “a word,” in her long speech, but that would’ve been risky behavior. More foolish than risky.

She left abruptly, with thinly veiled threats hanging in the air like a foul odor.

I stood there, ruminating on her words.

Then, she called my name. I didn’t hear her the first time, and so I didn’t answer. But when she called out the second time, I heard her and responded. She was furious.

“Why didn’t you answer when I called you the first time?” she asked when I went to join her in the dining room.

“I’m sorry, ma. I didn’t hear you,” I replied truthfully.

“How will you hear ehn? When you’re busy collecting gifts from boys. Go and bring that perfume,” she commanded.

I obeyed.

“I’m seizing it. A 15-year old girl does not need perfume. Has your deodorant finished?”

“No, ma.”

“Good. That’s all you need.”

In the coming months, I would smell the fragrance of the “seized” perfume on my mother. But, I was comforted by the thought that I still had my music.

That night, she reported me to my father, who supported her decision. As Tokunbo later informed me, my father had decided to change the venue of their mentorship sessions to neutral places like the nearby church Tokunbo attended with his mother. Rarely did they meet in Mrs. Williams’ home.

My mother, predictably, frowned on my father’s visits to the Williams’ house, but piped down when she realized it meant it was all done out of her sight.

Out of sight, out of mind …

Meanwhile, the third term seemed to drag on. After my mother’s reprimand and perfume-related rant, I began to avoid Tokunbo. And even when I would see him, I was very brusque with him. I thought I was doing the right thing, finally obeying my parents.

After repeating this change of behavior a couple of times, Tokunbo accosted me one day, demanding an explanation.

“Enitan, I thought we agreed that we would continue to be friends,” he began, one Saturday afternoon at Mallam Audu’s stall.

“Shebi we’re talking right now. Abi, are we enemies?” I asked, looking away. I knew exactly what he meant, but I didn’t want to tell him about the persecution I had faced at home because of our friendship. Telling him about it, I felt, would make me seem weak in his eyes, and I couldn’t bear it.

“Ehn … Yes, we’re talking, but Enitan, something has changed. I can feel it,” Tokunbo insisted.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, refusing to look him in the eye, as I told a blatant lie.

Undeterred, Tokunbo launched into a specific account of what he meant when he referred to what had changed between us.

“Nowadays, you’re very late to our meetings, even though I know you’re not doing anything at home. Sometimes, I feel like you don’t want to be here, around me. Your mind wanders while we’re talking and I have to keep repeating myself because you’re not paying attention. You push me away when I try to hug you … Hug, Enitan! Ordinary side hug, you won’t let me. And you keep behaving like I’m disturbing you. Am I disturbing you, Enitan?”

“If I say yes, will you leave me alone?” I asked, a mean grittiness to my voice.

“No, I won’t. You won’t get rid of me so easily,” Tokunbo scoffed. “I know there’s a reason for all this shakara you’re doing. But I don’t understand why you won’t tell me what’s wrong,” he said, pain clouding his voice. “Isn’t that what friends do? Talk?”

Still looking away, and rolling my eyes, a sullen look on my face, I replied:

“Yes, we’re still friends.”

“That’s not what I asked you,” said Tokunbo, gently grabbing my shoulders and trying to turn my body to face him. I resisted.

“What is wrong, Enitan?” he asked.

Finally, I decided to speak up.

“Look, Tokunbo, I’m conflicted. My parents don’t want me talking to boys and–” I began.

“–You mean your mum, right?” said Tokunbo, cutting in.

“Yes. Her. And it’s becoming an issue.”

“Why? Since when has that ever stopped you?” he asked.

“They’re afraid I’ll get pregnant.”

Tokunbo laughed. “Is that all?”

“See, that’s why I didn’t want to tell you. You just treat these things like non-issues, but you’re not the one living in that house,” I hissed.

“Enitan, I laughed because I don’t see how us talking and hanging out can lead to you carrying belle. Did you tell your mum and dad that that’s all we do? Talk?”

“Which liver do I have to be explaining to them that the friendship they’ve said ‘No’ to is really harmless? Not everybody can be open like you … and your mum.”

“Leave my mum out of this,” Tokunbo snapped.

“You see! And yet, my own parents are up for discussion, ehn?” I smirked.

“Ehen, because they’re the opposition party now!” said Tokunbo scowling.

“So, you’re telling me now that your mother supports us?” I asked in disbelief.

“I haven’t said that. She’s just … not part of the opposition party,” said Tokunbo.

“Look, I’m tired of this back and forth thing we’re doing, and I’m tired of doubting myself, of having to choose between you and my parents,” I said, shrugging my shoulders.

“So, what are you saying?” Tokunbo asked.

“I think … for the sake of peace, let us just go our separate ways for now,” I said quietly.

Tokunbo got up and stood in front of me. Ignoring a customer who came to buy Tom-Tom, Tokunbo spoke up.

“First, you said ‘No for now’ when I asked you out. Now, you’re saying we should go our separate ways? I’ve put up with all this your shakara because I said, ‘Maybe she has a good explanation, a good reason.’ But who asked you to choose? Why would I ever tell you to choose between your parents and me? I have chosen you, and you alone. Always. And for me, the choice has always been clear. But it seems you need to make up your mind. So, I will give you space to r-e-a-l-l-y think about what you’re asking.”

He sighed deeply, and then continued in a much softer tone.

“My father told me this: you can’t cure a headache by chopping off a person’s head. A simple problem needs a simple solution. What you’re asking me, asking us to do is drastic. And for that reason, I hereby reject your proposal!”

“What?!” I managed to say. I was stunned.

“I said ‘Yes’ to waiting for you. No problem. But, I’m saying ‘No,’ a big fat ‘No’ to this going separate ways suggestion.”

This time I was speechless. I sat staring at him with eyes widened in surprise at what he had just said. For about two minutes, I said nothing. He stood there, looking at me, not saying a word either.

When I finally spoke, my voice was a stutter.

“Na by force?” I asked.

“No, Enitan. Friendship is not by force. And Enitan, you’re the last person I’d ever want to drag into anything. But I want you to make up your mind. I can’t stand this dilly-dallying. But … But, if there’s anything I’ve learned from my parents, it’s never to make rash decisions. That’s why I’m giving you time. If by this time next week, you stand by your ‘No to our friendship’ answer, then–” and here, his voice broke a little, “–then, I’ll leave you alone.”

“Really?”

“Yes. And now, let me leave with my dignity intact. When you’re ready, you know where to find me.”

And with this, he walked away, without uttering another word, or casting another look at me.

Mallam Audu gave me a judgmental stare, leaving me in no doubt as to whose side he was on.

Tokunbo’s.

One week to make a choice on my friendship with Tokunbo.

As I walked back home, I struggled with a myriad of emotions.

“I should’ve told him, ‘Who are you to give me an ultimatum?’ or ‘I’m not doing shakara; I’m just protecting myself’ or ‘If some guy was trying to date your own sister, Yele, you go gree?’ ” I thought to myself as my feet neared our house.

Even as I chided myself for not raising each of these potential retorts when Tokunbo stood before me, speaking his mind, I congratulated myself inwardly.

“Enitan, so even you, small you, who no guy ever approached … So you can stir up emotions like this in the heart of a man, abi boy, like this?”

But then, I remembered it was Tokunbo who was tortured by my so-called shakara and waves of regret and sadness washed over me.

“What if I lose him?”

That fearful thought made me stop abruptly on the road.

For a moment, I pictured a world where my friendship with Tokunbo did not exist. A world where we looked at each other with the eyes of strangers, no longer vested in celebrating significant milestones, the yardsticks of memory, marking the passage of time.

It was then, that pain came.

But once I heard my mother’s voice in my head, issuing warnings and threats, thrown in with advice, I began to seriously consider the possibility of finally, saying ‘No’ to Tokunbo.

“If I do this, we’ll just be neighbors. The world won’t come to an end,” I reasoned.

As we entered a new week, I began to lean towards the ‘No’ answer. At least, I would no longer have to hide anything from my parents.

During that waiting period, whenever I ran into Tokunbo, we would stare at each other, no words passing between us, and like ships sailing past each other, continue our journey in opposite directions.

These brief encounters often left me shaken. I would feel the rush of blood to my face, heart thumping like a crazy drummer had been let loose in my chest. In Tokunbo’s eyes, I read desire. There was so much he wanted to say, but demonstrating a solid mastery over his emotions, he never uttered a word, and simply walked away. Even though only our eyes spoke, I deeply felt the burden of unspoken words.

It was during this period when he had asked me to make up my mind that two important events happened that had no connection to each other.

The first one came in the form of expected news wrapped in an envelope delivered by the postman. It was my father who read it first and announced the news to me: my JAMB results were out, and I didn’t score anywhere close to the cut-off mark for Law at the University of Lagos. I received this news with a mix of joy and regret. I was glad I didn’t pass because I didn’t have the requisite SSCE, NECO or GCE results to back a university application. But, I regretted going to JAMB lesson and putting in all the time, work and energy, only to emerge with a worthless result.

Was this a preview of my performance on the actual JAMB exam, the one I would have to take officially? I didn’t know. But, I was happy that even if JAMB hadn’t panned out, I had derived at least one benefit from those lessons: my friendship with Tokunbo had deepened considerably. And for that alone, I was grateful.

But, my parents were less impressed by my results. For them, it was a waste of money and time to attend a JAMB lesson and bring home results they felt I could’ve achieved through self-study.

Their decision was clear: there was no JAMB lesson in my future.

I wondered if Tokunbo’s results were better than mine. Although we picked different courses, he too must have received his results, and I wondered if he had fared better than me on the exam.

“It’ll be one more thing to ask when we meet again,” I mused.

The second, unrelated event, involved an errand. On Tuesday evening, NEPA struck around 7:10pm and unfortunately, we had no diesel in the generator, and were almost out of candles.

So, I was sent to the nearest store to buy the long, white candles we always used. My mother also wanted me to buy a green bar of Canoe soap to wash clothes, and a tin of Corned beef for breakfast. There was only one person who would have all these items on hand: Iya Kafilat.

I walked to her shop, which unlike most houses on the street, was not shrouded in darkness. A small portable petrol-powered generator stood outside supplying her shop with enough power for the fridge, freezer and a few other appliances.

But, I wasn’t the only one who had decided to make a pit stop at the convenience store that evening. There were five people ahead of me, so I had to wait.

Meanwhile, two girls in front of me, who I recognized from our neighborhood, were engrossed in their conversation. As I unwittingly listened to snippets of their discussion, I realized they were talking about relationships.

Girl 1: You know her mother said ‘No’ to the guy sha.

Girl 2: You don’t mean it!

Girl 1: I’m telling you! So, they just ran away together, and got married. Now, they have twin boys, and the same mother who said over her dead body will he marry her daughter, is the one gallivanting all over the place, parading her grandchildren everywhere.

Girl 2: Imagine! See this woman! Men, fogerrit! Just live your life jare.

It was then that Iya Kafilat attended to them, so their conversation ended there.

I would have loved to hear more or even know the identity of the parties involved, but that was just wishful thinking. However, the last part struck me:

Live your life …

By the time I had purchased the required items and returned home, my heart was almost settled on what to do.

Friday rolled around, and I was ready to meet Tokunbo. But something had changed. I was in a different frame of mind then than I had been at our last encounter. This time around, I got there first, and even helped Mallam attend to some of his customers just to work off the nervousness that seemed to have followed me around all day long like a cloud.

I had barely sat down when Tokunbo’s shadow darkened the entrance to Mallam’s stall. He was at least thirty minutes late.

“Were you deliberately wasting my time?” I blurted out. The long speech I had prepared flew out of my head and my emotions took over again.

Tokunbo shrugged.

“You don’t like the taste of your own medicine, ehn?” he said with a smirk on his face. In spite of myself, I could see through his actions. The fact that we had to have a meeting at all to decide if we were still friends really hurt his feelings more than mine. If he didn’t say so, he didn’t have to. I read it in his demeanor.

I softened a bit and was more careful in my approach.

“Oya, I’m sorry. Sit down and let’s talk,” I said, resting a hand on his shoulder, which he promptly removed. “Kai, Tokunbo! I didn’t know you too were capable of so much shakara.”

He sat down stiffly, managing a reluctant smile at my teasing, but still kept quiet. Mallam interrupted us to tell us he had to go out in ten minutes, and would be locking up his stall at that time. That put our conversation on a time crunch. No time to ramble.

So, as soon as we were comfortably seated, I went straight to the point.

“Tokunbo, I have thought this thing through, and Yes, I still want us to be friends. I know my parents don’t approve, especially my mum, but I’ve decided that I’m entitled to my own happiness. Everyone is entitled to their own secrets.”

Tokunbo smiled and relaxed, but he kept looking straight ahead. I was puzzled. Wasn’t he listening to me?

I pressed on.

“You know, sometimes, you don’t realize how much you cherish something … Or someone, until they’re no longer there. I got a preview these past days, of how my life would be if our friendship was missing, and I didn’t like it. There’s an emptiness there. I don’t want to know that feeling again. Besides, passing each other in public and just staring is just plain creepy.”

“Yes … With a capital ‘C’,” said Tokunbo, turning to face me for the first time since I started talking. I smiled in relief as I saw the peace, the calm, the tranquility on the face of my friend.

“You know something, Enitan? We can call what we have a friendship from today till tomorrow, but as far as I’m concerned, we’re already in a relationship,” said Tokunbo.

“For you mind o, bros!” I said giggling.

Tokunbo chuckled, eyes sparkling.

“It’s not official, but it’s there,” he insisted.

“I shall deny it from now till Kingdom come,” I said, rising to my feet. I had spied Mallam putting items away in carton boxes and I knew he was already closing down his stall. Tokunbo also stood up.

“You and this shakara! Is this what I have to look forward to?” he teased.

“Shebi, you’re the one asking for friendship. Friends have baggage o! My own baggage might just be shakara.”

We both laughed and began to walk away from the stall after bidding Mallam farewell. Our laughter was light-hearted, refreshing, and full of relief. It was the laughter of friends.

On our way back home, I told Tokunbo about my JAMB results, and he told me he had scored higher than I did, but it was still not high enough to reach the cut-off mark for Mechanical Engineering at the University of Lagos.

I turned down Tokunbo’s offer to go and get ice-cream from a supermarket on Adelabu Street. But, I promised I would take him up on that offer soon.

In the months that passed, although we still saw less of each other on weekdays, there was a contentment we enjoyed in each other’s company. I could hardly believe that I had actually considered letting Tokunbo go.

The third term ended, and thankfully, we were both promoted to SS2. Then came the long holidays. Apart from a week-long visit to my cousins in Ibadan, and another two-week visit to my grandparents’ home in Ikorodu, I spent the majority of my long holidays at home doing what idle teenagers do best: eating and sleeping with long stretches of TV watching and staying up late thrown into the mix.

Tokunbo went with Omoyele and his mother to the UK, and brought a few items as gifts for me, including a disc man, which I promptly returned to him.

“My mum found the perfume and she’s been using it since. If you want to dash her a whole disc man, then you can give it to me,” I said to Tokunbo.

He saw the sense in my refusal, and held onto the disc man. I was content with the chocolates and candy he brought back. I didn’t share them with either Tayo or Yemi. Tayo was even more protective than Yemi, and Yemi was quite careless with things like snacks. A shiny purple wrapper was all my mother needed to see to start asking questions starting with “who,” “when” and “where.” Anything to avoid her close scrutiny, I did.

By mid-September, our holidays were over, and it was back to school again. This time we were SS2 students.

I would have been content to simply go to school and come home to study alone if not for the intervention of one of my father’s friends, Mr. Osagie.

Mr. Osagie owned and operated a private secondary school on the outskirts of Lagos. He informed my father that while JAMB was dicey, SSCE and NECO were not. According to him if I waited till SS3 to start studying for those critical exams, I would be severely shortchanging myself.

My father reasoned that since he could not help Tayo, who was already in SS3, study for those exams since he was all the way in Ogbomosho, he could help me.

Taking Mr. Osagie’s advice, my father enrolled me in after-school tutorials specifically geared towards SSCE and NECO. It was called Thompson Tutors and run by a certain Mr. Jide Thompson. Located in a quiet close off Adelabu Street, it was relatively near our house.

By the fourth week of school, once again, I had to attend lesson after school. This time around, I was the newcomer. I knew literally nobody there, even though it was in our neighborhood. As far as I was concerned, all these kids had been imported from other parts of town like Idi-Araba and Somolu to our lesson. But, that was far from the truth.

Unlike JAMB lesson, I didn’t go straight to Thompson Tutors straight from school. Rather, I had time to go home, take a shower and change my clothes into mufti before going to lesson, which started at 5:00pm. Most of the students who attended were around my age, give or take, one or two years older. Rarely did any student come to lesson dressed in school uniform.

Because of the unofficial dress code, for perhaps the first time in my life, I began to feel the pinch of having very few casual clothes. I kept repeating the same outfits to lesson: skirts, blouses, dresses. And eventually, people noticed and began to talk.

I took my complaints to Tokunbo, and his advice was simple and straightforward.

“Wear school uniform to lesson. It’s called ‘uniform’ for a reason.”

So, I took his advice, and started wearing my school uniform to lesson.

But, things got progressively worse.

Before the switch to school uniform, the boys at lesson had made comments about an ankle-length faded blue jeans skirt with a back slit, which I wore at least three times a week to lesson, saying:

“Pity these jeans na! Release it, let it go and fulfill its destiny as an akisa (a rag).”

At first, it was funny. But then, they started making jokes about my jeans skirt not being designer-brand. Instead, they started calling it “akisa jeans.”

When I switched back to school uniform, the girls decided to chime in.

“I’m sure she wears her uniform to sleep,” said one girl.

“–And to church sef,” said another.

“Binta, don’t invite her to your party o. It’s uniform she’ll wear.”

Not that I cared about parties, but constantly hearing those comments every time I went to lesson began to erode my self-esteem. I tried ignoring them, but the problem persisted with the army of teasers growing daily.

I began to hate going to lesson, and it showed. I felt like for ₦ 2,000 per month, I was just going there to collect insults.

The more I whined to Tokunbo, the more childish I sounded. Until one day, he asked:

“Can’t you just ignore them?”

“That’s what I’ve been doing since, and it’s beginning to get to me,” I wailed.

“Well, next time they start making fun of your clothes, tell them if they’re so concerned, they can buy plenty baffs and use it to do Christmas for you,” he said in an irritated voice.

That didn’t sound so bad. Until I pictured the girls and guys taunting me, and calling me “Desperado.”

“Have you told your folks?” asked Tokunbo.

“Of course! They said I already wasted their money on JAMB lesson, that I better bring better results for this WAEC and NECO.”

Around this time, Tokunbo and Omoyele had a private tutor who taught them for a couple of hours a day and got paid per hour.

One day, as I was about to tell Tokunbo about the drama at Thompson Tutors, he stopped me. Trembling with excitement, he announced:

“I’ve found the solution to this rubbish at your lesson.”

“Leave and never go back?” I suggested hopefully.

“No, Enitan. Sometimes, you have to fight and not run from people like this. But we won’t do it with fists,” he replied cheerfully.

“So, what do you suggest?” I asked puzzled.

With twinkling eyes, and a mischievous smile, Tokunbo replied:

“Enitan, we’ll give them something to really talk about.”

I looked at Tokunbo puzzled. That was certainly not the answer I was expecting.

“Something to talk about?” I repeated aloud, looking at Tokunbo with a look of utter confusion on my face. “How does that solve the problem, Tokunbo?”

A slight smile curled up his lips, as he responded.

“Hear me out first, Enitan. Promise me you’ll at least consider my proposal.”

That word, “promise” put me on guard. How could I make a promise without knowing what on earth Tokunbo was about to ask me to participate in?

“Promise wetin? No-o. I don’t roll like that. Tell me your plan, then we can agree on promises later,” I said.

“Enitan, this is ojoro o, and you know it,” said Tokunbo, pretending to sulk.

“Emi? Ojoro? Na you be the one wey wan do me wayo now. I’m just an innocent participant jare!” I chuckled.

“Come on Enitan. You can trust me. I would never do anything to put you in danger. You know this,” he said, laying his hand casually on my shoulder.

Removing the hand with the same disdain one might apply when picking off a stray bit of thread from a garment on one’s person, I cast Tokunbo’s hand aside, and said:

“Oya talk. I’m listening.”

And he did.

“Since the main issue you have with these bullies or amebos at lesson is with your outfit, we’ll make some adjustments in that department,” he began.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Okay, if you had a whole new wardrobe of brand new clothes, would they still talk?” asked Tokunbo.

“Well … Yes, they would. But it wouldn’t be about my lack of baffs. It would probably be something along the lines of me being an oppressor.”

“Enitan, it’s better to be an oppressor, than to be the oppressed. Besides, remember our plan is to give them something to talk about. We’re not trying to completely silence them. That’s impossible.”

“True, true,” I said. “Okay, so where am I getting this brand new wardrobe of clothes from?”

“Me, of course!” said Tokunbo, puffing his chest. “Let me be your sugar daddy, Enitan,” he added with a wink and a sly smile.

I jumped to my feet, clapping my hands dramatically.

“You and who? Sugar what? Sugar daddy ko, Salty mummy ni. I no want o, Tokunbo. You can’t buy me clothes. That’s what my parents are there for. And definitely not an entire wardrobe of clothes. How can I hide such things from my parents? No, Tokunbo. Besides, I didn’t tell you I lacked clothes, did I? I have clothes. Shebi I’m standing here wearing clothes. But they’re not baffs. That’s the problem, and this yeye teasing about my baff-less clothes is getting on my last nerves.”

Tokunbo gave a very long sigh and muttered:

“There goes ‘Plan A’!”

“Yes o,” I said. “Flush ‘Plan A’ down the toilet quick quick.”

After a short pause, I asked cautiously:

“So, what is ‘Plan B’?”

“Since you’ve knocked down ‘Plan A,’ I don’t know how you’ll feel about ‘Plan B.’ For the record, ‘Plan C,’ which will involve no input from me, and which I had already told you from Day One, is to completely and utterly ignore them.”

“Dude, that didn’t work. Let’s hear ‘Plan B’ abeg. Don’t write it off before presenting it, ke!”

“Okay o. If you insist. Here’s Plan B … though you have a specific role to play. Now, what I think we can do is act, pretend. How do you feel about wearing someone else’s clothes?” said Tokunbo.

“It’s what actors do,” he added.

I scrunched up my nose. I didn’t have any sisters and hardly ever wore clothes belonging to another person, except in the most exacting circumstances. Was this one of them?

“If it’s for a good cause … maybe,” I replied, my face betraying my reluctance to go that route.

“It’s for your sake, Enitan. I consider that a good cause,” said Tokunbo.

“But you’re not the one borrowing clothes, so–” I began.

“True,” said Tokunbo. Then, he continued. “If you have no objections to the borrowing part of our plan, then the rest should be easy because I’m the one handling the rest.”

I was alarmed. How did solving my problem become Tokunbo’s burden?

“What do you mean?” I asked, unsure of where he was going with this ‘Plan B,’ and simultaneously wondering if ‘Plan C’ wasn’t the best option, after all.

He continued.

“Here’s the plan: you will borrow baffs, just for one day. That day must be the last day of lesson, and you must be ready to convince your parents to move you to another lesson. I obviously can’t do that for you.”

I nodded in comprehension. I knew what I could say to my parents to change the tide, to finally convince them that I needed to switch lessons.

Tokunbo continued.

“On the last day of lesson, you’ll show up wearing some hot baffs … or at least baffs better than the ones you own. You know the type: straight from yankee and all that. By the time lesson is over, I’ll show up to pick you up from lesson, posing as your janded boyfriend. Of course, I won’t come empty-handed. I’ll come bearing gifts. Then we’ll ride into the sunset together. That’s it.”

I giggled. “You mean into Adelabu traffic because it’ll be way past sunset,” I said.

“Ehn … That too,” he said with a grin.

I looked at Tokunbo in wonder. What benefit could be possibly derive from all this wahala? And why such a far-fetched idea? Wasn’t there a simpler solution?

“I don’t know, Tokunbo,” I said uncomfortably. “This idea seems silly and far-fetched.”

“Do you have a better one? If you do, oya let’s hear it,” he said in a tone that reeked of annoyance, and more than a hint of anger.

I shook my head. I certainly did not have a better plan, but this one seemed so error-prone that I just couldn’t see us pulling it off without a hitch.

“Okay, okay … Supposing we choose this plan,” I began, “where will I get these awe-inspiring baffs from? My friends?” I asked, mentally perusing the list of friends who could do such a favor for me. Very few.

“They don’t have to be awe-inspiring, Enitan. Just better than what you have now. And yes, why can’t your friends help? Abi don’t they have baffs?”

“They do, but honestly, the ones with the baffs will want to know what I need them for, and the less people who know about this, the better,” I whined.

Tokunbo thought about it for a few minutes, and then suddenly asked:

“What size of clothes do you wear?”

“I don’t know … UK Size 8 when I’m in school and closer to Size 10 during long holidays. Why?”

“I think Yele is about the same size,” he replied.

“You want me to borrow your younger sister’s clothes? She’s my junior for goodness sakes!” I cried, my face contorted into a look of disbelief.

“Enitan, the end justifies the means. Let me handle Yele.”

I made no response.

Omoyele, Tokunbo’s younger, and only sister, was someone I had barely spoken to. She remained a mystery to me, keeping to herself a lot, and I hardly ever saw her.

But now, I was going to be wearing her clothes? I felt weird even talking about it.

Tokunbo noticed the discomfort written on my face.

“What is it? You don’t like Yele?” he asked eyeing me with suspicion.

“Tokunbo, I don’t even know her,” I replied reluctantly.

“But that’s not all, is it? There’s more,” said Tokunbo with a knowing look, urging me to continue.

“Well … Yes. How can I be borrowing clothes from your sister? We hardly talk and she’s my junior. It’s embarrassing. And the way you’re talking, it’s like you’ll be the one asking her. I just feel somehow–” I concluded with a shrug.

Tokunbo laughed. “Is that all? Yele is my sister and I know her better than you do. If I tell you she’ll help, it’s because I know she will. So, don’t worry. I’ll handle it. And if she says no, then–” here, Tokunbo shrugged his shoulders, “–then, we’ll adjust our plans accordingly. Nothing is set in stone yet. Let’s start with this, and call it ‘Plan B, Version 1.0.’ ”

I chuckled at the version number Tokunbo had assigned to our plan, and I wondered how many upgrades we would have to implement, as well as what version we would end up executing.

“No upgrades without consulting me though,” I insisted.

“Agreed.”

Somehow, Tokunbo’s words had given me hope, and we parted ways on that note.

For the next few weeks, we ironed out all the kinks in our plan. I could change my clothes at the bathroom at Tantalizers on Alhaji Masha Road, which was out of my way, but not too far from my lesson. According to Tokunbo, we could buy a meat pie or donut while I quickly changed into my baffs in the bathroom. Then he could arrange with Mr. Rufus, his mother’s driver, to drop me off about a mile away from lesson so I could complete the journey on foot.

In the alternative, I could opt to change in the church he attended with his family, which was actually closer to my lesson than Tantalizers. Then, I could simply walk to lesson on my own. This option appealed to me because Thursday, which was the last day of lesson happened to be one of the least busy days for church activities at that particular church.

I myself had no idea what these baffs would be, but I left that to Tokunbo and Yele. I had no reason yet to question Yele’s taste in clothes.

Eventually, the D-day arrived.

The day before, Tokunbo had handed me a nylon bag with the name of a popular UK clothing store on it. He told me that Yele had given me three sets of clothing to choose from. I was both shocked and excited.

However, it was only when everyone had gone to sleep, when I knew I would not be interrupted, only then did I proceed to try on the outfits.

The first one was a bright yellow cotton spaghetti strap top, with a built-in bra. I did not own a strapless bra, and I felt that wearing a top that would show my bra straps was the very definition of tacky. Most importantly, I was deeply biased against “spag tops” like we called them, because they showed off too much skin.

The second item of clothing in the bag was a pair of dark blue, bell-bottomed jeans, concrete proof that in the world of fashion, recycling trends was completely natural.

The third and fourth items were both skirts: one was a very long, black and white skirt with diagonal stripes, almost sweeping the floor and hugging my derriere so much that panty lines were clearly visible a mile away. It also had a long slit that stopped mid-thigh. If I sat down, the slit would ride even higher up my thighs. As I tried that skirt on, a vivid image of a financial chart with a downward-pointing arrow, flashed before my mind’s eyes, depicting my bride price plunging to dangerously low levels.

I hurriedly took it off. That skirt was a definite no-no for me.

The other skirt was knee-length with a slight flare around the hem. It was the same shade of yellow as the spag top, suggesting that they were to be paired together.

The final two outfits were what we called “body hugs,” but were essentially figure-hugging t-shirts. One was a black, quarter-sleeved, plain blouse, made of mostly lycra, and the other was a fuchsia-colored t-shirt with some spandex. It had the words “DKNY” printed across the front in gold, chunky letters.

I quickly settled on a single outfit I would be comfortable wearing. That, of course, eliminated the spag top and long skirt. Even the short, flared skirt didn’t make the cut. Neither did the black lycra blouse.

Instead, I picked the dark blue bell bottoms and the fuchsia t-shirt.

It was at around 11:00pm while I was trying on this particular outfit – the winning combination – that it suddenly struck me:

I forgot the shoes.

“Crap!” I hissed. I had to choose either the red score slippers which were made from faux leather, and essentially clashed with my chosen outfit, or my even simpler Made in Nigeria, brown leather palm slippers.

“There’s no perfect plan,” I told myself, kicking myself inwardly for forgetting this important detail. I decided that I would either have to wear the newer score slippers or the palm slippers which had seen better days.

I was quite restless all night long as I went over the sequence of events that Tokunbo and I had agreed on. What if something went wrong? Would I have to improvise?

Curiously enough, the single thought that never, for one minute crossed my mind was, “What if Tokunbo doesn’t show up?” or “Will Tokunbo chicken out on me?”

No, the Tokunbo I knew was a person who followed through once he had made up his mind to do something. I didn’t doubt his loyalty to our cause for one second.

In retrospect, and as I reflect on this particular adventure in my adult years, I realize just how foolish, how childish we were, not being able to look beyond what we considered to be “problems” and how we would solve them.

But that’s the beauty of youth: foolish risks co-exist with lofty dreams. We lived in hope, and it drove us forward and onwards.

Hope, and the promise of change, filled my heart when I finally opened my eyes that Thursday morning. The way I saw it, we had nothing to lose if we tried. And if we didn’t succeed, if this somehow failed to “solve” the problem, at least, we tried.

Comforted by these thoughts, I got up and got ready for school. Time passed quickly. It was as if daytime was part of our conspiracy, hurrying the hours forward towards nighttime. I went through the motions of school work with mechanical passiveness. I couldn’t even remember taking the buses that brought me to Surulere. My legs seemed to have mastered the route home, and guided the rest of my body while my mind was elsewhere. Eventually, I was on that long stretch, walking home from Masha bus-stop. Only when I stood in front of our gate, did it hit me:

“This is really happening. Plan B is about to start.”

That was when the nervousness kicked in. As I took a quick bath that afternoon, and watched the day’s grease and grime disappear down the drain, I began to have second thoughts.

“Maybe the teasing isn’t so bad. Abi, am I over-reacting, taking this thing too seriously? Shebi it’s only sticks and stones that can break my bones. Words can’t do me nada.”

But as soon as I stepped out of the bathroom, the squeaky sound coming from my water-logged bathroom slippers interfered with my momentary bliss, threatening my peace of mind. It seemed to say:

“You’ll never know what’s on the other side of the mountain, until you climb it.”

By the time I stood in front of my bed, my mind was made up: I was going to climb this mountain and use my two koro-koro eyes to see what was on the other side.

Not willing to risk my mother discovering Yele’s clothes in my wardrobe, I had smuggled them in my bag to school. During the journey to and from school, I ignored the sharp protests from my shoulders and back, which had to bear the extra weight. They had to cooperate.

As if they had a choice …

Lying on my bed was that same floral dress I had already worn to lesson twice that week. I had resumed wearing mufti that week in preparation for our plan. I pulled out the chosen outfit provided by Yele, and laid it beside my dress.

“It’s going to be worth it,” I told myself.

The glaring difference between the two outfits struck me. My dress was bought in Balogun market, certainly not trendy, but it was brand new when my mother bought it for me. Yele’s outfit was, in my own eyes, trendier, more modern, and didn’t make me look like I was wearing hand-me-downs from a great-grandmother who had lived through the 1920s. Yes, they were reigning, but they had been worn by, and in fact, belonged to another person.

For a moment, I reflected on what I was about to do: to get people to see me in a different light, I was pretending to own clothes that did not belong to me. Why did their opinion matter anyway? I understood that by participating in what was essentially an orchestrated deception, I was agreeing with them, telling these people that these things mattered, and that I cared about what they said or thought about me.

Did this somehow make me a materialistic, wannabe? I decided in the negative. I wanted something better for myself, I reasoned. Nobody had the right to call me names simply because of material possessions I apparently lacked, and for once in my life, I was not prepared to simply roll over and let it go.

“Tokunbo is right,” I told myself. “Sometimes in life, you have to fight back. In my case, I’m just borrowing the tools to fight. But I’m not a borrow-borrow. This is a one-time thing. If they ever talk about me again, it won’t be because of my lack of baffs.”

That last part was the whole point of this elaborate enterprise. It made sense at the time.

So, I wore the floral dress, and my palm slippers, praying that the lesson students would be so mesmerized by my “new outfit” that my old, worn out slippers wouldn’t concern them.

I stuffed the chosen outfit into my bag, carefully separating it from the rejects. But, my bag was now lighter because I had removed my school books and only included my lesson books.

After rubbing white talcum powder on my face to reduce the shine, and hopefully, obliterate the smudge of guilt that remained, I moisturized my lips with a dab of Vaseline, swung my bag onto my shoulders, and left the house.

I knew I would not see Tokunbo until later that evening. Till then, I was basically on my own.

I decided before leaving the house that it would be better to go to church on my way to lesson to change, and then, on my way back, I could either use the same venue or Tantalizers as planned.

So, I went to the church the Williams attended, which unlike the church I attended with my family, did not have any hang-ups over women wearing trousers within the premises. I greeted the security guard at the gate, and found my way to the women’s restroom, where I quickly transformed from my drab outfit to Yele’s own.

“I look good, if I do say so myself,” I quipped as I admired my reflection in the mirror. I had to restrain myself from blowing kisses at myself. Yes, I loved the way my body looked in that outfit. There was a clear demarcation between bust and waist, and between waist and hips.

As I was about to leave, it suddenly occurred to me:

That security guard knows my parents. What if he starts asking me why I changed my clothes?

After deliberating for a few minutes, I decided that I would just use bold face for him. I had not come this far to let anyone wield questions like a hammer, shattering my careful plans into smithereens.

So, I stepped out boldly, prepared to meet the security guard’s inquisitiveness with brashness.

Fortunately, when I stepped out, he was no longer at the security post. A quick scan of the church yard answered the single question that had formed in my head.

Where is this man?

He was not far from the security post. With his back turned to me, he was busy with the task of pouring diesel into the tank of the generator. He was so engrossed in what he was doing that I doubt he even heard the gate creak as I let myself out, and quickly dashed into the street.

I almost skipped for joy!

That was certainly my first recorded victory that afternoon.

Because of my short detour, I arrived at lesson ten minutes late, and could not slip into the back row as I had planned. Rather, Mr. Jide Thompson, our Maths teacher, and the owner of the lesson, singled me out as I entered the class.

“Enitan, come and sit here,” he said, pointing to an empty seat on the front row. I did not have a choice.

As I walked slowly to the front of the class where the seat was located, I heard hushes and scattered whispers. A few words landed in my ears.

“Fine top.”

“See new clothes!”

“Correct baffs!”

“Akisa, get thee behind me!”

“Did she jand?”

“Akisa begone!”

“Is today her birthday?”

“Transformation!”

All the fear and apprehension I had fought off as I approached lesson simply melted away. I felt like I was walking on air. By the time I reached my seat, a bashful smile had replaced the glum look on my face.

As I sank gratefully into my seat, I blessed Tokunbo in my heart. Not even Mr. Thompson’s reprimand, delivered in a no-nonsense voice in front of the whole class, for coming late to lesson, could dampen my joy. As far as I was concerned, I had already won. But I trembled with excitement, and could hardly sit still for the rest of the evening, as I realized what was coming next.

During the short breaks at the end of each hour between 5:00pm and 8:00pm, a few of the girls clustered around me, demanding to know where and how I had acquired new clothes. Their questions were met with multiple hisses, blank looks and this over-used expression: “Stop disturbing me!”

No one would get an answer out of me.

“Let them continue to wonder,” I thought to myself, and chuckled inwardly as I realized that ‘Plan C’ – ignore them – was already in motion.

A few minutes after 8:00pm, as I gathered my books together after lesson, the noise of a commotion outside startled those of us who were still in the classroom.

Before I could even rise to my feet, a girl ran up to me excited. It was the same girl who had told Binta not to invite me to her party.

“Enitan!” she began, squealing in delight, as she danced on the same spot. Proceeding in a voice that would make one think we were long-lost friends, she announced:

“There’s a guy outside looking for you o! His name is Richie, and he has just come back from Germany.”

It took a few seconds to decode what she had just told me.

Richie? Germany?

And then, it hit me.

Tokunbo!

That was the name he had said he would use. But why Germany? I would have to ask him on the way home.

I grabbed my bag, and shot outside like an arrow.

As soon as I stepped outside, an incredible scene met my eyes. My fellow lesson-mates, including the guys, had crowded round a silver Mercedes Benz, which was parked in front of the house directly across the street from our lesson.

Standing in front of the passenger side of the car, leaning against it slightly, with an air of ease and a tranquil look on his face, was a tall, young man wearing dark shades, hands stuck in his pockets.

He wore a wine-colored velvet jacket, with a white collared shirt, on top of indigo dark jeans. Even from where I stood, I admired Tokunbo’s taste as I caught sight of the tan leather derby shoes and the matching tan leather belt peeking through the little arch where the jacket met the jeans. I had imagined him wearing sneakers or loafers, but those derbies were the classier choice.

If he had not told me in advance that he was coming, I would never have recognized this confident stranger as my Tokunbo.

His shoulders looked broader, and he stood taller, more dignified than I remembered. I was amazed at how a few clothes and a pair of sunshades could transform a person, and even make him look older.

The guys were asking him about the specs of the car, and the girls were asking all sorts of questions, none of which he was responding to.

But as soon as I came outside, I heard him say:

“Eni baby! Oh, how I’ve missed yew!”

In a few strides, he had crossed the street, and wrapped me in a warm embrace.

As he hugged me, I was tickled by the way the few words he spoke landed on my ears. Tokunbo spoke with a crisp American accent. How come? From where to where?

When he pulled away from me, he pushed down his shades to the tip of his nose, and gave me a quick, mischievous wink. The grin I flashed back at him was so wide, I was sure he could see the molars on my lower jaw.

“Baby, I just came from the airport, and I just had to see yew,” he gushed, as he led me to the car. The crowd cleared a path for both of us as we approached the car. Once we reached the car, he opened the door to the passenger’s side, and re-appeared with four large bags bearing the names of boutiques, filled with goodies. I did not even bother to inspect them closely, but collected them from him, one after the other, with loud remarks:

“Oh, thank you sweerie!”

“You shouldn’t have!”

“All this for me?!”

“Oh, honey you’re the best!”

Then, he helped me put them back into the car, before opening the front passenger door for me.

I slid into the black leather seat, and sat still until he came to the driver’s side.

As soon as he had entered and shut the door, we heard the tap of fingernails on the window. I pushed a button, and as the dark-tinted window descended, the face of Binta appeared before me.

“Please, Enitan, can you give me … us–,” she corrected, pointing to an indeterminate number of girls behind her, “–a ride to that junction over there?”

I looked her straight in the eye, and said:

“Sorry. No Perchers Allowed.”

Then, I watched in satisfaction as the look of hope on her face changed to anger, as the windows went back up.

“Ahn ahn, Enitan, that was mean now,” Tokunbo chided.

“Nope. She was their ring leader,” I said firmly.

Not even Tokunbo was going to make me feel bad about my revenge. I was sure Binta would have done the same thing, or worse even, in my shoes.

As the car pulled away from the lesson, I thought to myself that if Tokunbo had showed up on a white horse, and we had ridden off into the night, I couldn’t have been any more elated than I felt at that moment.

As long as it isn’t one of those malnourished horses at the beach sha …

As we approached Adelabu Street, I began to ask Tokunbo questions.

“Since when do you drive?”

“About a year now, but my mum only lets me drive around the neighborhood. So, technically, I haven’t broken any rules,” he said with a grin.

“And where did Richie come from? I know you told me you were using that name, but I almost called you Tokunbo!”

He laughed.

“It’s one of the many names that never made it to my birth certificate. Donated by my father.”

“And why Germany? I thought we agreed on the UK.”

“Omo, as I reach your lesson, fear catch me small … I saw the Benz and for whatever reason, Germany was the first name that came to mind. Does it even matter?”

“Not in the least!” I shouted, whooping for joy. “Bros, with that your American accent, Jim Iyke ain’t gat nothing on yew!”

“–Or Bob-Manuel sef!” Tokunbo added with a chuckle.

We both burst into laughter.

As we drove to the church, I reflected on the fact that nobody seemed to have noticed or questioned the fact that even though “Richie” claimed to have just arrived from Germany, he had a solid American accent. Or that the names of the clothing stores on the goodie bags he supposedly brought from Germany, were actually the names of boutiques on Adeniran Ogunsanya street, which was right there in Surulere. Or that the items in the bags were the food items he had purchased for his mother that very afternoon at a supermarket off Adeniran Ogunsanya Street.

“But you know the best part of today for me, Enitan?” Tokunbo asked as he parked in front of the church I had visited that afternoon.

“What? Wearing shades at night? Driving the Benz?” I asked uncertainly.

“Nope. Posing as your boyfriend for one day.”

I blushed.

“Actually, it was just a few minutes, but–” I began, correcting him.

“Same feeling,” he said smiling.

After changing at church, I handed all Omoyele’s clothes back to Tokunbo.

“Please thank her for me, and tell her I’m sorry I couldn’t wash them before returning them,” I said apologetically.

“It’s okay,” said Tokunbo. “She’ll toss them into the washing machine anyway.”

I recorded that day in my heart as one of the most enjoyable days of my teenage years, and Tokunbo had made it happen.

As we parted ways that night, neither of us had any inkling that the very next month, December precisely, the Williams would once again spark controversy in my home.

On a bright Saturday morning, controversy landed in our house, in the form of a lovely Christmas hamper from Mrs. Williams, which was delivered by her driver, Mr. Rufus.

It was a large wicker basket full of imported eatables, surrounded by a clear, plastic wrap, which was in turn, tied with a massive red bow to match the festive season.

But it was not the hamper itself that caused wahala. It was the enclosed, equally lovely card, from Mrs. Williams, which read:

To a Loving Husband

This card was addressed to only one person:

Mr. Akinola Ladoja, my father.

Unfortunately for Mrs. Williams, the person who received the hamper, and in fact, inspected the card, was the one person who should never have seen it.

My mother. The Mrs. Ladoja.

As the rest of the world knows, except Mrs. Williams apparently, only a wife has any business sending a card with the words, “Loving” and “Husband” bound together in such close proximity, or in this case, on the same line.

Maybe she didn’t get that memo.

It was when Mr. Rufus had delivered the hamper and left that my mother began to examine each item, one by one.

All of a sudden, I heard a loud scream from the parlor downstairs.

My first thought was:

“Mummy has cut herself with a knife. Again.”

That was the only logical explanation for the pained and fearful scream I heard.

My father was out. He had gone to play lawn tennis with some friends in Ikoyi. Yemi and I were the only other people at home as Tayo had not yet returned home for the holidays.

We heard our mother’s scream at the same time, and with each of us, tortured in our minds, by our individual versions of the calamity we believed had befallen our mother, we tore downstairs, skipping steps in our rush.

I jumped two or three steps at a time, but I still got to the bottom of the stairs after Yemi who had skipped the stairs altogether. He slid down the metal banisters, yelping in pain when the law of friction set his derriere on fire.

But there was no time for first aid.

Almost falling over each other, we rushed into the parlor, bracing ourselves for the worst.

What we didn’t, or at least, I didn’t expect, was to find our mother standing on her two feet, her entire body tense and stiff, eyes fixed on something in her hand. The half-opened hamper sat on the dining table, the bow and plastic wrapping cast aside like the F9 every student rejects with unreserved vehemence.

I looked at Yemi. He had the same disgusted, yet relieved look on his face. I was sure my face bore an identical expression.

“Mummy, what is it?” I said, unable to hide the alarm I had carried from my bedroom to the parlor.

“Yes, Mummy. We heard you scream,” said Yemi, approaching her cautiously. “Are you okay?”

For a moment, she ignored us, and began talking to herself. It was as if there was no one else in the room.

“Ah … Kofo. So you tried it? Didn’t they tell you this type of thing is not done? Least of all, to me, Asake,” she began, beating her chest with the fury one might employ after swallowing too much pepper, accompanied by heavy coughing.

“Mummy, who is–” I began, planting myself directly in front of her.

“Mi-si-si-wee-lee-yem-zi! Iya Tokunbo!” said my mother finally, with exaggerated emphasis, shedding some light on the mystery Yemi and I still hadn’t solved.

“Mrs. Williams? Mummy, what did she do?” I asked.

“No, Enitan. The real question is what did she not do,” said my mother, handing the card she had attempted, and failed, to crumple up, to me. The uneven, bunched-up sections of a card that had been, at a point in its life, as flat as a sheet of paper, was what led me to that conclusion. I took the card from her, and read it with Yemi standing over my shoulder, doing the same.

I read the first line out loud.

The cover read: “To a Loving Husband.” Then, after flipping it open, the brief words inscribed in the inner page read:

Forever is not enough

To show what you mean to me

But forever is all we have

And there’s no one else I’d rather spend it with

Below these words, in green ink, in a clear, legible handwriting were the only words in the entire card that told us who it was meant for:

To Akinola Ladoja

I had stopped reading aloud after the first line (“Forever is not enough”) because before I got to the end of that line, my mother shouted in Yoruba:

“Don’t let my ears hear it! Read it to yourself!”

I completed reading the words to myself and turned around to look at Yemi who just shook his head slowly, and said:

“Trouble is knocking …”

And he simply left it at that. Patting me on the shoulder, he whispered:

“This is women’s stuff, ehn and you’re the older one. Carry go!”

While I was still gaping at him in disbelief, he shot a glance that said, “Solidarity forever!” at my mother, whose glare could have instantly transformed a block of ice to a puddle of water. Then, he disappeared from her presence.

I knew I didn’t have the luxury of simply vamoosing from my mother’s presence like Yemi had just done, but in that moment, I wished I did. My mother did not even call him back. It seemed she expected me to understand her predicament, see how she was wronged, and somehow fix it.

I didn’t know what to make of the entire affair, but I felt like there was some great mystery behind all this, which could only be solved by the instigator herself: Mrs. Williams.

But how would we ever get her to explain herself?

“Mummy, there has to be an explanation for this–” I began, my voice conveying the level of doubt I had about that very statement.

“Yes. The explanation is that Mrs. Williams is a brazen-faced husband snatcher! And she has dared to send this useless piece of evidence to me in my own house. Ah! Some people will roast o! They will roast,” my mother sang in a bitter voice.

And in a louder voice, loud enough for people at least four streets away to hear her voice, she shouted:

“Eni keni, I say, anybody, who says I will not enjoy peace in my husband’s house, iro l’epa! You’re lying!”

After sounding that note of warning to her enemies, uttered of course, while facing the direction of the Williams’ house, forefinger shaken vigorously, full of meaning, she turned to me and said:

“When your daddy gets back, tell him I’m waiting for him upstairs,” said my mother, eyes red like someone who had been weeping, except that if she had, there were no tears to show for it.

“Upstairs, ma?” I asked again, more to myself than to my mother.

“Ehn ehn o … On the roof! Jo move out of my way!” she said, before marching upstairs. Once I heard her door slam shut, I knew she was safe and sound in her room.

I peeped into the kitchen. There was nothing cooking.

Good!

I decided that it was in my best interest to go and stay in my room until my parents settled this matter.

So, I went back to my room and continued what I had been doing before: loosening my braids. Except that, this time, I had a new matter to analyze and occupy my thoughts while my hands were otherwise employed.

As I used the ilarun to loosen one row of braided hair, I wondered at the card.

Why would Mrs. Williams send such a card to my father? No doubt it was an insult. But, why? What could she hope to gain?

And why a birthday card? Yes, my father’s birthday was in January. But, how could she have known that? And if she knew, why was she sending him a birthday card one month in advance?

“None of this makes any sense,” I said to myself over and over again, casting glances at the Williams’ house every now and then, as if I expected the wind blowing from that direction to whisper answers in my ears.

Eventually, I finished loosening my braids and took an hour-long nap, before washing my hair.

I was in the bathroom, working a rich lather into my hair, nostrils welcoming the sweet scent of strawberries, when I heard a loud horn at our gate. I knew it had to be my father. No sane visitor would come blasting his car horn at our gate like that. Knowing the wahala that was already on ground, I decided I didn’t want to hear the gist of what happened. I had to see or hear it for myself.

So, I hurried up my shampooing, skipping my usual second wash, rinsed off my hair and toweled it dry. There would be no need for any apoti this time. My parents’ room was the venue of the imminent show down, and my room was not far from theirs.

I stood massaging some leave-in conditioner into my hair near the slightly open door of my bedroom. From where I stood, I strained my ears to hear what was going on downstairs. My father had entered the house after Yemi opened the gate for him.

It was the voice of Yemi, like the voice of an objective third party reciting standard facts, that I heard telling my father where the surprise package sitting on our dining table had come from.

I heard my father say in a sincere tone, “That’s very nice of her,” and I chuckled as I thought to myself:

“I bet it is. You have no idea what else came with that precious hamper.”

It was at that moment that I recalled with horror, that I had absent-mindedly taken the incriminating card upstairs to my room. It was lying on my table, where I had stuck it back into the lilac envelope it came in.

“No!” I hissed. Hurriedly stuffing my hair under a shower cap, I wiped my hands, still covered in the cream-colored conditioner, on the moist towel. Then, I grabbed the card and ran out to meet my father who had begun his slow ascent up the stairs. I met him just as he reached the top of the stairs.

“Good afternoon, Daddy,” I greeted him.

“How are you, Enitan? Where’s your mummy?” he asked, still holding the tennis racket in one hand, dressed in a plain white t-shirt and matching white shorts both stained brown by sweat and whatever else stains white clothes on a tennis court.

“She’s in your room, sir,” I replied.

And then, for a moment, I wondered at uniforms. Here was my father, dressed in the color of the uniforms worn by certain secondary school students. In fact, that white-on-white was the mandatory sportswear in some schools.

Whose bright idea was it to assign white uniforms to students whose entire day was spent engaging in activities that were guaranteed to soil clothes, especially the boys? Whose silly idea was it?

It was like these people, the decision-makers, had forgotten that dust and dirt were drawn hypnotically to the dazzling white of fabrics. Bleach comes to tear these strange lovers apart, but the very next day, their love affair continues.

I thought this was common knowledge. I concluded that those who made the rules were not the ones who had to engage in the tiresome ritual of stripping dirt from white clothes several times a week. If they were or had even tried it for one day, they themselves would have changed the rules a long time ago.

I knew that the task of washing my father’s white tennis clothes would fall on me, but at least, it wasn’t a regular chore.

Meanwhile, I held in my hand the card that had stirred my mother’s anger and I handed it over to my father.

“It’s for you, sir,” I said, wishing I didn’t have to be the emissary of bad news. “It came with the hamper.”

“Oh, I see. Thank you,” he said, without even opening it. As I watched my father disappear down the hallway in the direction of his bedroom, I had to bite my tongue to keep from yelling, “Daddy, stop! Read the card and brace yourself, before facing Mummy!”

But experience had taught me to avoid my parents’ confrontations. My only involvement would be as the eavesdropper by the door of their bedroom. As I took my position, I discovered that I was not the only person with that idea.

Yemi joined me.

“Does he know?” he whispered to me.

“Shh! Not yet!” I whispered back.

And we both listened to the drama that unfolded in the bedroom.

My father did not know what he had just walked into. My parents did not employ the “turn-on-the-A/C-to-muffle-our-voices” practice this time around because the air-conditioner had broken down just that week and the repairman had gone in search of the necessary spare part to be installed the following Tuesday.

Meanwhile, there was the issue of the card between them.

My father started with, “Bawo ni, Asake?” to my mother. He was met with complete silence. We, the listeners at the door knew our mother was awake because the next words my father uttered were: “Ahn ahn, Asake. Won’t you even greet me? What’s the matter?”

More silence.

Yemi poked me in the ribs.

“Let me stand closer,” he whispered aloud in a conspiratorial tone. “I want to hear them well well.”

“My friend, will you keep quiet!” I whispered back with a viciousness that told Yemi that I meant business. In that moment where we had that brief exchange of words, we both missed what my parents said to each other. The next words I heard came from my mother.

“You’re the one encouraging her. If not, she wouldn’t have the audacity to send such a useless card to me in my own house. I’m sure she saw you leave and sent that her yeye driver to come and drop that rubbish package. She wanted me to see it!” my mother fumed.

“Ehn … But I’m sure there’s a good explanation for this, Asake. There’s no need to read meanings into innocent gestures,” said my father.

A high-pitched laugh followed. It came from my mother, and it was targeted at my father, to show him exactly what she thought of his preceding statement.

“Innocent? Please, Baba Tayo, don’t use that word where Iya Tokunbo is concerned. She’s a conniving, sneaky, calculating, morally bankrupt, nasty piece of–” my mother said.

“It’s enough! I said it’s okay!” my father thundered. But my mother wasn’t done.

“Just because her own marriage didn’t work, doesn’t mean she should spoil other people’s homes. I’m sure she’ll say it was a mistake, and–” my mother continued spitefully.

“Asake, I’m disappointed in you. That was really below the belt. Totally uncalled for. What does Mrs. Williams’ marriage have to do with ours? No, no … You should know better. You know what? In fact, I know what I’ll do. Let me send for her. Where are these children?”

The moment I heard the last statement, I knew what was coming next. I turned to warn Yemi only to see him tearing down the hallway on tip-toe. Following his lead, I took to my heels too.

Fortunately for us, my father’s usual practice was to shout our names as loud as he could behind closed doors, perhaps hoping that his voice could penetrate through the cement walls and reach us wherever we were. So, that was his first move, and it gave us time to make a proper escape.

Still standing in his bedroom with the door closed, he called out:

“Enitan! Yemi!”

Answer ke? For where? If I answered him at the first call, I would betray my location and what I was doing beforehand. Yemi knew this too. So we both kept quiet and waited for the second call. Like clockwork, it came, louder, more urgent and more serious than the first.

This time, as I had predicted, he opened the door of his room, before shouting.

By this time, I had safely reached my bedroom and closed the door gently. Yemi had reached his room before mine, and so when he heard my father call out, it was like we both heard it at the same time because our collective response, chanted from two different rooms, arrived at the same time.

“Sir!” we both shouted.

“Come here! Now!”

We both stepped out of our rooms, our feet travelling eagerly in the direction of our parents’ bedroom. Our little ruse tickled Yemi who noisily suppressed several giggles as we neared the bedroom, but wore a stoic appearance as soon as we stood before my father.

My mother was pulling bed sheets off the bed, humming a tune, when we entered. The door was already ajar, but Yemi still knocked before going inside. I followed closely behind him.

Turning to both of us, a look of suppressed anger on his face, my father was in a no-nonsense mood. He had pulled off the white shirt, revealing the singlet he wore underneath. I could see tufts of bushy hair struggling to escape from his armpits when he raised his arms just a little.

Not quite sure who to send on this errand, he began by addressing us both.

“You know Mrs. Williams?” he said, pointing towards her house with his forefinger.

I chuckled inwardly. I wanted to say:

“Know her? Daddy, her son is simply marvelous and he’s–” but I thought better of it.

“Yes, sir,” I replied. Yemi echoed my response.

“Good. Now … In fact, I think it’s better you go, Enitan,” said my father, selecting the person who was to go on this all-important mission. But Yemi still stood there.

Noticing, it seemed for the first time, the shower cap sitting on my head, my father asked:

“Did you forget that plastic on your head?”

“No, sir,” I replied wondering if he never noticed it when I gave him the card. He must have thought I forgot to remove it since I took a bath that morning.

“In that case, you see Mrs. Williams house? Go there and ask her to come and see me urgently.”

From the corner of my eye, I spied my mother about to protest about having Mrs. Williams come to our house, but thinking better of it, she closed her mouth, and proceeded to strip the pillows of their cases.

“Alright, sir,” I said.

I wondered why we couldn’t just call her on the phone, but I decided not to argue with my father. He did not seem to be in any mood to entertain contradictions from his teenage daughter.

So, I tied a scarf on top of the shower cap, taking care to hide the plastic covering under the black-and-white striped scarf.

I changed into a more errand-friendly dress and went to the Williams’ house.

After knocking about four times, a girl came to the gate. She looked to be about my age, but dressed more shabbily. I guessed she was a new house help as I had never seen her before.

“Is Madam around?” I asked, not really because I wanted to speak with Madam in person, but just so I would know if Mrs. Williams would startle me with her presence.

“Yes. She’s upstairs,” said the girl.

“I’m your neighbor,” I said, “–from that house,” I said pointing with my thumb at our house. “My father is Mr. Ladoja. He wants her to come and see him now now.”

I turned to go, but she tapped me gently on the shoulder, and said, “I think it’s better if you tell her yourself.”

I was puzzled. “Can’t you tell her?” I asked.

“It’s better you tell her,” she insisted. “She’s inside,” she added, pointing at an indeterminate room indoors.

“Okay,” I sighed in resignation. “Let’s go.”

The girl led the way into the house. It was the first time I had ever been inside the Williams’ compound, not to mention actually going inside their house, and I was filled with an inexplicable sense of wonder, mixed with nervous excitement. I expected to run into Tokunbo at every turn, and that perhaps, fueled my excitement, because I had never visited him at home before.

Cobbled stones paved the entire yard and the modern architecture of the house spoke of the type of wealth that seemed out of place in our part of Surulere where some of the houses had been around since the 80s.

Cream-colored walls paired with red terraced roofing, in some ways, made the house look like it belonged on a beachfront rather than a densely-populated suburb.

Indoors, the housemaid led the way to a spacious well-furnished room, which she informed me was the visitor’s parlor. From there, I could see another sitting room, which looked cozier, more homely than the place where I was seated. I guessed that that was the family parlor.

All over the visitor’s parlor, I saw evidence of Mrs. Williams’ travels standing as witnesses to the many happenings in the house: flags from different countries, sculptures, carvings and other art work I had never seen before and couldn’t name, were arranged on the walls and shelves.

There were no family pictures in this room, but from where I sat, I could make out a few picture frames in the inner parlor.

The house was so quiet I could hear the gentle hum of the A/C. I wondered if anyone was at home. As I rubbed my palms together to warm myself in the freezing room, I asked myself how Tokunbo and Omoyele had lived in this quiet house.

Had the house changed as they grew older or was I looking at a picture of the house exactly as it had been five years earlier?

The maid left me sitting there on a single-seater sofa, and I heard her enter the kitchen. I thought she would go upstairs and call Madam, but that must have been contrary to the usual protocol.

Instead, she went to the kitchen, and picking up the receiver of a phone, I heard her say:

“Madam, omo ile keji n wa yin, ma (Madam, the girl from the house next door is looking for you, ma).”

Mrs. Williams must have asked which specific neighbor she was referring to because the girl said:

“Omo Mr. Ladoja, ma (Mr. Ladoja’s daughter, ma).”

At this point, the girl must have decided she had spoken enough Yoruba for one phone call as she continued in English from that point forwards.

“Her father wants you to come and see her now, ma,” she said.

As if she had a 6th sense of what I had come for, the maid left the kitchen and went to meet Mrs. Williams upstairs. From where I sat, I heard a loud female voice talking, shouting actually, and by the time the door opened again, I heard that voice shout:

“Alakoba! Oniranu!” before the door slammed shut again.

I heard the girl sobbing quietly at the top of the stairs, and she must have wiped her eyes before she came downstairs because by the time she stood before me again, her face was dry, but her eyes still glistened with unshed tears. A look of sadness had replaced the cheerful disposition I had observed earlier and she told me in a low voice:

“She says she’s coming to your house now.”

“What happened? Why are you crying?” I asked, alarmed that somehow I had something to do with her sorrow.

She refused to answer my questions and just repeated a shorter version of her earlier statement.

“She’s coming.”

I had no choice but to leave, racked with guilt. I had not arrived at home more than five minutes when a knock at our gate informed me that Mrs. Williams had kept her word, and was here to see my father. Instead of going to the gate, I made for the side of the house where the apoti was waiting for me. I left Yemi to dispense of the gateman duties and usher Mrs. Williams into the house.

Moving from the usual position where I sat below the window, I stood up and looked into the parlor. There, I spied Mrs. Williams, not sitting down, but standing, looking tense and visibly troubled.

That was my second inkling that perhaps my father’s “mistake” theory might be closer to the truth than the conspiracy theory my mother firmly held onto. The first clue, of course, was the choice of abusive words Mrs. Williams had hurled at her housemaid while I waited downstairs.

Alakoba. Oniranu.

But what had really happened? Only Mrs. Williams could answer that question.

I heard the rush of feet as Yemi hurried to tell my father that Mrs. Williams had arrived.

As soon as my father arrived, Mrs. Williams greeted him warmly. He acknowledged her greeting, but she refused to sit down, even when he insisted. Clearly, what was troubling her had to be said standing up.

“Daddy Tayo, I got your message that I should see you urgently, but–” she began.

“Yes! It’s because of the … the hamper. First of all, thank you very much for the package. I applaud your generosity. But–” and here, my father’s voice got at least 50% more hardened and serious than before, “–I think there was a mix-up with the card.” He handed the offensive card to her and watched her reaction.

Cries of “Ha! Ha!” followed by “This isn’t what I asked for,” came from Mrs. Williams.

“It’s okay, Iya Tokunbo,” said my father. “I just want to know what really happened. That’s all.”

“Ah no, Daddy Tayo, it’s not okay at all. After all the help you gave with Tokunbo? No. Once they said you wanted to talk to me, something just told me to go and cross-check about this card. That’s where my mind just went to,” she began, snapping her fingers once to show how quickly her mind zoomed in on the potential problem.

And here, her voice got softer. She assumed a more penitent demeanor as I observed from where I stood beside the window, peeping into the parlor.

“Actually, sir, it’s all my fault,” she continued, wringing her hands. “–Ummm … I sent someone to … In fact, I even brought the list …”

At this point, I saw her pull out a folded sheet of paper from the pocket of the capri pants she wore under a loose-fitting blouse. My father, sensing that in witnessing this great exposition, two were better than one, told Mrs. Williams to hold on, and called out for Yemi. Once he appeared, my father ordered:

“Go and call your Mummy for me.”

Amazingly, my mother appeared within a minute, which led me to conclude that she herself must have been standing not far off, probably in the hallway, listening to them.

As soon as she entered the parlor, Mrs. Williams abandoned my father and rushed to my mother’s side. And then, in spite of my mother’s stiffness, the two greeted each other with side hugs and laughter, talking about not seeing each other for such a long time.

Was I dreaming? Were they really pretending to be friends?

For the first time, as I saw them standing side by side, I realized that they could get along if they really wanted.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. They asked after each other’s children, and then my mother took her seat beside my father who looked at them both in disbelief. In fact, his face conveyed my emotions in that moment. Once they were all seated again, Mrs. Williams quickly steered the conversation back in the direction of the card.

“Can we offer you anything?” my mother asked in a gentle voice I couldn’t believe was really coming from her. In this same sitting room, that very morning, she had almost burnt the offensive card with the arrows of fire darting from her eyes.

“No, no. Don’t trouble yourself,” said Mrs. Williams declining the offer. Rather than waiting for any further prompting, she began to shed light on the mystery behind the unwelcome card.

“You see, I gave my house help, Peace, a list of names. Here it is,” she said, passing the sheet of paper she had unveiled before my mother’s arrival, to my father. He glanced at it, and then passed it on to my mother. My mother held onto the list much longer, scrutinizing it with the thoroughness of a detective or a teacher looking for spelling errors.

“Oh, you know Mr. Lanre Famakinwa? The one who works at UAC?” my mother said, zeroing in on a familiar name, the list still firmly in her grip. Mrs. Williams nodded her affirmation.

Pouncing on the opportunity presented to her, Mrs. Williams launched into the details of her ordeal with her housemaid and the list.

“I wrote the list, and told her to address the Christmas cards to all the people on that list. I said, “Make sure you put ‘AND FAMILY’ at the end of each one o” … She said, “Yes ma.” At the same time, I had given her a birthday card to return. You see, Tokunbo’s father’s birthday is this month, and I told her to buy a card that says, “To a Loving Father.” I don’t know whether this girl was sleeping or her ears were blocked when I was talking to her o! When she came back, it was “To a Loving Husband” that she brought back!”

As recognition started coming, my mother interjected with:

“S’eri awon omo odo yi, won o bosi rara (You see these house helps ehn, they’re no good at all).”

My father grunted his affirmation. Mrs. Williams practically shouted, “Thank you, sir! Exactly!” before continuing with:

“Won o bosi rara (they’re no good at all), but we need them. So, what can we do? Simple instructions! I gave her a pack of Christmas cards and told her to address them, and put them with each hamper. Look at what she did. Not only did she keep the wrong birthday card, she kuku addressed it to you, and didn’t even address it properly. It was not until your daughter came to call me that I realized that she had not yet told me if she bought the correct birthday card. It was when I asked her that she said–” and here, Mrs. Williams jumped into a near-perfect imitation of her housemaid’s voice,

“–Mummy, I mixed them up, ma!”

My parents shook their heads at the same time.

“Maybe she got carried away, addressing so many cards,” my father suggested.

“–Or maybe the cards were similar?” said my mother.

“Emmm … it could be because both the Christmas card and the birthday card have red ink! But they’re different. One is Christmas, the other is birthday. How do you mix up something so simple? And she went to school o. Up to JS3. She’s not an illiterate. So, please–” and here, Mrs. Williams tried to kneel down, but my mother swiftly prevented it, insisting that she understood Mrs. Williams’ rather convoluted explanation.

“Alakoba l’omo yen ke. Look at all the trouble she caused now. Akoba adaba–” Mrs. Williams began.

“–Olorun maje a ri,” my parents chorused, shaking their heads, with my mother clicking her tongue.

“I just had to come and apologize in person,” said Mrs. Williams, as if she had forgotten that it was my father who had sent for her. Her voice was now noticeably lighter, less tense than before. “After all–” and here, she faced my mother, “–I too am a woman, and I know how I would’ve felt if someone sent that type of card to my husband. Once again, Mama Tayo, accept my sincerest apologies. E ma binu.”

“Ko si wahala,” said my mother, her voice carrying the piousness of a saint. “Nobody is above mistakes.”

From where I stood, I saw Mrs. Williams flinch a bit, like she wanted to tell my mother to forget the apology and give her a condensed sermon on mistakes, but she held her tongue. This was Asake Ladoja’s territory, and Mrs. Williams recognized this, choosing instead, to simply move on.

By the time Mrs. Williams left our house that afternoon, she had made peace with my parents, and promised to send another hamper. I wasn’t sure whether to classify this second hamper as a peace offering or a guilt offering. Even my mother couldn’t say “No” to a second hamper.

We all heaved a sigh of relief when Mr. Rufus delivered another one that afternoon, this time with a Christmas card bearing the words, “Seasons Greetings” on the cover, and properly addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. A. Ladoja and family.”

When I relayed these events to Tokunbo the next time I saw him, he explained to me that his mother had really taken out her frustration on the poor housemaid.

“Family feuds have started over less,” he chuckled.

“You don’t say,” I said. “You need to see all the kata-kata that single card almost caused in our house.

Thankfully, that was the only drama-filled event of the season. Tayo arrived from school, and spent his last Christmas as a secondary school student at home. By the time January rolled in, I had gotten my parents to agree that I did not need to attend any after-school lesson for a while.

Once my parents saw that I did much better than they expected in my mock exams, they dropped the whole after-school lesson matter for good. It was clear to them, and to me, that I did better studying by myself than at any lesson.

My 16th birthday party was a “girls-only” affair, with most of the guests being my classmates. It was around April, after this celebration, that Tokunbo told me for the first time that he would be throwing a small party for his own 17th birthday in June.

“You already know you’re invited, Enitan,” he said. “But, here’s your IV anyway. Now, no excuses. You better come and don’t give me any silly excuses about baffs. Your presence is more important to me than all that.”

“I won’t miss it,” I promised. But as soon as the words had left my mouth, I realized I needed to add the all-important caveat: “As long as my parents agree.”

Well, my parents agreed, but they premised my attendance on a single condition:

Tayo, my elder brother, would have to accompany me as my chaperone.

Did I really have a choice? No. Of course, I told them it was okay with me.

From the day my parents gave their consent for me to attend Tokunbo’s 17th, an unescapable restlessness seized me, increasing as the day drew closer. Since I couldn’t shake it off, I channeled that nervous energy towards a feverish countdown to the D-day.

However, I didn’t realize that I was also counting down to the day when I would come face-to-face with this very real possibility:

Tokunbo could end up with someone whose name wasn’t Enitan Ladoja.

The weeks leading up to Tokunbo’s 17th birthday felt like Christmas and Easter rolled into one, except that the whole of civilization wasn’t part of the preparation. Not a single week passed without Tokunbo and I talking about the upcoming party, so that I felt like I was a member of the birthday planning committee.

In reality, I was simply a member of the “supporters’ club.” It wasn’t until the day of the party itself that I met other core members of this distinguished club.

Meanwhile, although I had agreed to my parents’ chaperone condition, I still tried to get them to consider ditching this condition. I raised all the plausible reasons my mind could conceive at the time, including the following:

Tokunbo is harmless

The party is next door; you can practically walk in and say hello if you so desire

You can even watch us from one of the rooms upstairs

I will behave myself

Don’t you trust me?

Bla, bla, bla …

But my parents remained immovable. Tayo was going with me, and that was final.

Now, Tayo was not the party type. He wasn’t even remotely interested in parties, neighbors or any combination of the two. At the time my parents gave their approval for me to attend Tokunbo’s party, Tayo was still in school, completing his final term.

But in June, he graduated from FGC Ogbomosho and moved back home to start a new phase of his life. He started feeling the pressure of staying at home for an extended period of time. Of course, he had stayed at home for long holidays in the past, but he always knew exactly when he would have to go back to school.

This time around, the future for him was less certain. He had entered that season of his life where his fate would be decided by his performance on that lousy JAMB exam, and other external factors. If things went as planned, he would start a new semester as a jambite at the university of his choice. If not, he would end up pining away, re-taking the same JAMB exam, and waiting for his life to change.

So, when my parents told him about his role at Tokunbo’s birthday party, he treated it with an aloofness I knew Tayo displayed when he didn’t want to show he really liked or wanted something. But, the twinkle in his eyes gave him away. I knew he was looking forward to it and in his own way, began to ask me questions about the celebrant: Tokunbo.

Once I noticed this, I stopped trying to convince my parents to revise their decision to involve Tayo as my chaperone. I put myself in his shoes, and understood why this party, for him, was a welcome distraction.

“It’s just one day,” I reasoned. “Why not?”

The questions Tayo asked me were simple, practical ones, the sort of questions a guest would ask about an event he had been invited to, such as:

Who else was invited?

Will there be a DJ?

How big is this party?

What sort of food and drinks will they serve? Etc

But then, out of the blues, Tayo shot a question I didn’t see coming, not because I did not have an answer, but it was the last thing I expected my big brother to ask about another guy, let alone our neighbor.

“So, do you like him?” Tayo asked.

The day Tayo fired that question at me, my first instinct was to bolt through the door and avoid this and other follow-up questions. Unfortunately for me, Tayo, who must have anticipated my “run-away-fast” reaction, blocked my exit from the sitting room, and since he was bigger, taller and stronger than me, I knew I didn’t stand a chance of escaping from him or the question that still lingered in the air.

So, I did what I usually do: avoided the question, using evasion tactics.

“Tayo, do you know when Yemi will be back?” I began. “I have to–”

“Nice try, Eni. You can’t escape o. I’m still waiting for your answer,” said Tayo, using his hands to block the doorway while the rest of his body acted like an ill-fitting door. The look on his face said, “We can play this game all day. I’ve got time to burn.”

Tayo had never shown any real interest in my friends, not even the occasional classmates or neighborhood friends who visited. He had certainly never mentioned Tokunbo in the context of any friendship, except when he talked about our neighbors in general, and called him, “That guy next door.”

So, what had prompted this question? Did Yemi snitch on me? Had some words escaped my mouth when I was awake or asleep that had roused Tayo’s curiosity and put him on my trail? All these and many more questions rose in my mind. However, before my own questions could be answered, I would first of all have to jump over the first hurdle Tayo had placed before me:

Did I like Tokunbo?

My long silence must have told Tayo all he needed to know, but for some odd reason, he wanted to hear it from my own lips.

I began to worry.

If I said “Yes,” he could assume the role of a designated parent, with all the preachiness and none of the authority, telling me about the dangers of tangoing with boys.

But if I said “No,” he could ask me why, if I didn’t like Tokunbo, I was going for his party, even if it was just next door.

So, instead of answering with a “Yes” or “No,” I played it safe and answered with:

“You know me, and you know the answer.”

Tayo held his belly and laughed for a full ten seconds, while I wondered what was so funny in the response I had given.

“You know what, Eni, you chose the right course for uni. Law will definitely suit you.”

I chuckled nervously, praying that this back-handed compliment meant the end of Tayo’s Q & A session.

Boy, was I wrong!

Tayo peeled himself from the doorway and pulling my arm, led me to the long sofa in the sitting room, the one where over the years, each of us had taken many drool-involved naps.

After making me take the seat on the left edge, Tayo took a seat close to me. A single, flattened cushion, wrapped in satin with pink and green foliage, separated us. Then, he took the thick paperback novel I had been reading, whose cover had been celotaped in several places, binding it to the edge of the spine, placed it on the empty spot to his right, and sat up.

Turning to me, he said:

“Eni, before I asked you that question, I already knew the answer. I won’t tell you not to like boys, and from what I’ve heard, Tokunbo’s cool. But wait till uni before jumping into any relationship. In fact, wait till maybe 200 level.”

“But I wasn’t thinking of–” I began, in protest, angry that Tayo felt he had the authority to give me relationship advice when it was just two years that established his seniority over me.

“Ehn ehn, Enitan, listen. I’m a guy, and I know what guys my age are thinking. All they want is sex. They’ll use you and dump you. I wouldn’t even let you date my own friends, and it’s not because they’re bad guys. It’s just that under the right circumstances, even good guys can do bad things. And–” here, he placed a hand on my shoulder, reminiscent of Tokunbo’s occasional behavior, “–you’re my only sister. I don’t want other guys to talk about my own sister like the garbage one kole-kole can pack and carry away. Please, Eni, do it for me,” Tayo pleaded.

I looked at Tayo and wondered where this change of heart had come from. Why was he choosing to have a conversation with me, rather than lord this relationship matter over me?

“I understand what you’re saying,” I said. “I actually already made up my mind to stay away from relationships till uni. I guess this is confirmation for me.”

On hearing my resolve, Tayo relaxed.

Then, all of a sudden, he sat up again. I felt a bit uncomfortable. I was used to his bossy side, the part that delegated those chores he didn’t care to touch to me.

The perks of being the first born.

But that afternoon, in that moment, I could tell that something had changed. There was something different about Tayo, and I couldn’t place my finger on it.

Tayo leaned forward slightly, like he was trying to get a clear view of my toes, and comment on my chipped turquoise nail polish. But he never brought it up.

Rather, he cleared his throat, and asked me one question.

“Enitan, what do you think of good guys?”

I frowned at him. What did Tayo mean by asking me that question? Was it a trick question? Did he want me to say I preferred bad guys so he could report me to our parents?

I was confused, and my face must have betrayed my state of mind, because he reached out, and patted my arm saying,

“Hey, Hey! Relax! It’s not a trick question. I just want your opinion. That’s all.”

How reassuring! I thought. Aloud, I said:

“Okay. You really want my opinion, right? Why?”

“Because you’re the quintessential good girl,” said Tayo.

Whoa! I was taken aback by Tayo’s directness. It is one thing to see yourself a certain way, but when you hear someone who knows you, use particular words to sum up your character, it takes you by surprise. And you wonder, “How did he know?”

That is exactly how I felt.

But then, I remembered Tokunbo and wondered if I would lose points on the “good girl scale” if Tayo knew just how far I had gone with Tokunbo.

But, I guess our friendship was harmless.

As far as friendships with boys went.

So, I decided that I would be honest with Tayo and try not to make this about me.

Blushing a little, I said to Tayo:

“Well, that’s …. Different! I didn’t know you saw me that way.”

“Every brother prays his sister is a saint. At least the guys with sense. I know you’re not a saint, but you tip the scale pretty well,” he added, still watching me.

Even as he said the word, “saint,” visions of me on the apoti eavesdropping and improving my gbeborun skills flashed before me.

Saint indeed!

“Ahn ahn, Tayo! Kini gbogbo eleyi now? What’s all this for? Are you setting me up ni? You’re just buttering me up like say I be toast bread,” I said, genuinely surprised and curious.

“But na true I talk o,” said Tayo chuckling. “All I want is for you to listen and give me your opinion. That’s all.”

“Ehen? Is that so? Okay now. Carry go!” I said.

Sitting on the edge of his seat, and looking at my face every now and again, Tayo began to open up and tell me about an aspect of his life I had not paid much attention to. In fact, I seemed to have forgotten that although he was my older brother, he too, was still a teenager, and carried burdens of his own.

A few minutes into our conversation, it dawned on me that this was an unburdening session. Armed with that knowledge, I relaxed more, knowing that although he wanted my opinion, he needed me to listen more than to hear me speak.

So, I listened, observing as if for the first time ever, how much Tayo used his hands to demonstrate when he was talking or being particularly descriptive.

“Eni, the thing is, some things happened in Ogbomosho, things I feel I can tell you, but definitely not Mummy or Daddy. But you? You’d get it just like that,” said Tayo, snapping his fingers once.

“Like what?” I asked.

“You know my school, FGC Ogbomosho, you know it’s mixed, right?” Tayo began. “Both girls and boys.”

“Um-hmm,” I said, nodding and wondering why Tayo was stating the obvious. If I had missed this important fact while scanning the school prospectus he had received after admission, surely, after accompanying my parents to see Tayo on numerous visiting days, any lingering ignorance must have dissipated.

But I guess he was just warming up.

After taking note that I understood this point, he proceeded.

“Okay, okay … So, you know the people in my class, we’ve known each other since JS1, right?” said Tayo.

I nodded. It was the same with my school, and I assumed, every other secondary school that had been around for at least a decade.

“In junior secondary school, I didn’t really pay attention to girls. I wasn’t interested. But right from JS1, some folks in my class were already coupling up. You know–” and here, Tayo paused to gauge my understanding.

“You mean they were doing girlfriend-boyfriend in JS1?” I asked in disbelief.

“Exactly,” said Tayo with a low chuckle. “Boyfriend-girlfriend.”

“You nko? Did you join them?” I said.

“That’s where I’m headed, Eni. Just hang on,” he said. I nodded and urged him to continue.

“As for me, I didn’t follow that nonsense they were doing. At that time, I saw girls like the walls of my classroom. I knew they were there … I mean, we couldn’t have lessons in a wall-less room. But I just didn’t notice them. Until–” said Tayo.

“–Until SS1, maybe?” I suggested.

“Um … No. It was before that. Just around my second term in JS3, when we were still preparing for JSCE mock exams. It was then things really changed. For me, anyway.”

“Like?” I said.

“So many things changed … You know now,” said Tayo, nudging me playfully.

“No. Not really,” I said, truthfully.

“Ahn ahn, Eni. Didn’t you take Integrated Science? Puberty … Adolescence … You know, that time when guys start growing hair in weird places, and our voices crack and all that,” said Tayo, hurriedly skipping over some of the other more telling symptoms of puberty, things boys experienced alone at night, on their beds. But then again, I was his sister, and I didn’t want to hear Tayo share those nasty details with me.

“Yes, yes. I know. Can we move on, please?” I practically begged.

Tayo laughed. “Why? Are you afraid I’ll say something that will scatter your brain?”

“Yes. I’m very scared,” I replied, looking away.

“No qualms. Moving on. So, when these things began to happen, it’s like I went to sleep one night and woke up and all of a sudden, I started noticing girls. And men–” here, he started scratching his head, a wistful look in his eyes, “–I really noticed them. Imagine coming to class every day, and not really noticing the walls. And then, one day, all of a sudden, gbam! You notice that the walls are not just made of cement, they also have colors: cream, gray, brown, blue. And on top of that, you notice that people have been writing on the walls. And it’s not just your set o. No! Those that have passed out before you, have left their mark in that class,” said Tayo, eyes shining with recollection.

“What?! You mean they did that in your class too?” I asked incredulously, recounting all the graffiti on the walls on my various classrooms, and inside the bathroom stalls. For some reason, I had assumed that this display of teenage vandalism and artistic expression by some students, who went beyond writing, to actually sketching pictures on the walls, inside doors, etc, was limited to all-girls secondary schools.

But here, in my parents’ sitting room, Tayo was informing me that these student-run acts of vandalism were essentially universal, existing in varying degrees across the universe of schools.

I recalled the one I had seen on the back wall of a classroom. It read:

Rekiya wuz ‘ere, 98/99 set

I had often wondered why Rekiya would risk identifying her set, right next to her name, but seeing that no one seemed to bother, I plotted to do the same thing before I graduated.

“Absolutely!” Tayo confirmed. “But most people used nicknames, so let’s imagine a guy’s name is John. But he doesn’t like the name. It’s too common. Everybody and their father’s brother’s cousin’s nephew’s fifth son is called John. So, he decides that at least, among his peers, he won’t be called John. He opts for a nickname, let’s say “Capone” or “Capo.” Now, John a.k.a Capo, won’t write “John was here” on the wall. No, sireee. He might write something like:

Da Capo reigned here, 96 – 97

That way, only those who went to Ogbomosho around that time, and really had their ears to the ground, would know who “Capo” was. But back to my story,” said Tayo, suddenly realizing how far off track he had veered.

“Right.” I said. “Carry go.”

“Yes, so as I was saying, I began to notice, I mean, really notice girls. Their shape or lack of it, complexion, height, gbogbo e, everything! But there was this particular girl in my class. Her name was Funke. Funke Ligali. I really liked her, but … I don’t know what it is with you girls. You just like bad boys. Good guys like me, you like to collect advice from us, you want us to be forming supporters’ club, but that’s all. When it’s time to date, you pick the scum of the earth, de one wey be confam bad boy, and be saying, “But, he’s nice o. He’s not that bad,” or “He’s so cute.” Are there no good guys who are cute you can fall for? Must it be the one wey go spoil una life finish you go dey fall for?”

Tayo sounded bitter. I chuckled nervously. Clearly, Tayo had gotten carried away, and was about to use me to answer “bad boy themed” questions on behalf of every girl in the universe. I wasn’t up for that challenge.

“Well, Tayo, you know I’m not like that, so–” I said.

“I know, I know,” he agreed, and then continued.

“So, her name was Funke Ligali,” Tayo said, repeating himself.

And even in that moment, although we were physically seated in the parlor of our parents’ house in Surulere, one look at Tayo’s face, convinced me that the mere mention of “Funke Ligali,” had transported him across hundreds of miles, all the way to Ogbomosho, where this girl had been his classmate.

“Funke–” Tayo mused, with a deep chuckle. “That girl was a babe. I mean, correct babe.”

I almost asked Tayo, “So what about the rest of us? We no qualify? We too wowo, abi?” But those words never left my mouth.

Instead, I said: “Was ke? What do you mean was? Are you telling me Funke Ligali used to be a babe? Has she lost her babe status?”

“Ah no-o! Enitan, lai lai! Never! That girl na babe forever! For life! She too set! If you see her ehn … When they say black is beautiful, just picture Funke Ligali,” said Tayo smiling sheepishly.

“How can I do that when I haven’t even seen her before?” I said, drily.

“Are you jealous?” said Tayo, nudging me.

“Me? Jealous? Of a girl in your school? How can? No-o! Jealous ke? Why? No way!” I vehemently denied. However, what I did not admit to Tayo was that his loving description of Funke Ligali made me wonder if Tokunbo described me with that level of enthusiasm to other people, using similar words, and with that same “I-go-love-o” eyes Tayo had.

But, no matter how vulnerable Tayo seemed just then, no matter how open he was or appeared to be on that couch, I knew I couldn’t open up to him in the same way about Tokunbo. No, I would have to seriously vet him first, and even then, I wouldn’t tell him everything.

Some secrets should be kept to yourself.

Tayo continued.

“Okay. If you say so,” said Tayo, brushing aside my aggressive denial of jealousy. “But you don’t need to see her. Trust me, that girl is a babe,” said Tayo again. I groaned inwardly.

I get it! Funke Ligali is a wide-eyed doe with a body to die for and a fantastic personality to match. I get it! I wanted to shout at Tayo, but recalling that he had already accused me of jealousy, and not wanting to add bad belle-ism to my list of transgressions, I said:

“Okay. I agree. Funke is a babe. End of story. So, what happened between you and her?” I said.

“Who told you anything happened? Where did you hear that?” said Tayo, stiffening and frowning.

“Tayo, calm down. You have never ever sat down to confide in me about any girl. Ever. So, I naturally assumed that this particular girl must be special to you. Nobody told me anything,” I reassured him, wondering for a moment if I was not the older one, and my parents had just kept that fact hidden from me.

But Tayo was the first born, so …

Anyway, he continued.

“Okay. I just thought–” he started, and then waved it aside. “So, in JS3, I started to crush on Funke. At least, I thought it was a crush o, but I don’t know whether to call it love, ‘cos I still have deep feelings for her till now.”

Because I had been forced to answer that same “love or crush” question myself where Tokunbo was concerned, I answered Tayo’s question, drawing from my own experience.

“Tayo, I think just going by what you’ve told me, that you had–” I began.

“No … Have. It’s still there,” he said, tapping the middle of his chest lightly, a sad look settling on his face.

“Okay. Sorry. Have,” I said, accepting his correction. “I think you have a huge crush on Funke Ligali. Love goes beyond ordinary feelings. It’s a lot deeper, involves more … more doing … withstands challenges, pressures, time. Love is sacrifice, it’s–” I said.

“Hold on, Eni!” said Tayo, grabbing my arms, which had been gesticulating wildly as I explained my idea of love to Tayo. “E don do! Ahn ahn! I didn’t ask for an essay on love. Haba! And how do you know these things anyway? Please don’t tell me it’s from one of those yeye soap operas,” Tayo sneered. I wanted to slap him for deriding my precious soap operas, and wanted to tell him they were still more educational than those mindlessly violent video games he seemed to favor, but I didn’t.

Instead, I said:

“It’s not your fault. It’s me that’s bothering to help you understand your heart,” I said in a hurt tone.

Tayo must have noticed that tone, because the next thing he said was:

“So, somebody cannot play with you again, ehn? You’re too serious. Loosen up, jo.”

With my arms folded across my chest, I side-eyed him, and maintained my position, eyes transfixed on the TV which was turned off.

Tayo removed the cushion that separated us and shifting closer, began to pull my cheeks, while making gurgling noises, the way mothers coo to babies, while he said in the voice of an infant:

“Eni, Eni baby! Oya, smile for me!”

I couldn’t help myself. Whether it was the ridiculousness of having my cheeks pulled, or Tayo’s baby voice, or the combined ridiculousness of these two things, I just felt the muscles of my face relax first into a smile, then it progressed into a grin, and finally, when I simply couldn’t quench the bubbles rising from my belly, I erupted with laughter.

“Ah, na God save you!” said Tayo triumphantly. “I had tickles lined up and waiting for you. But don’t worry, another day will come.”

“Please, ‘ave mercy,” I pleaded between giggles.

“Can I continue my yarns?” said Tayo.

“Sure. I’m listening,” I replied.

“Okay, so I agree that it’s a crush I have on Funke. But it started in JS3.”

“So, did you ask her out?” I asked.

“In JS3? No! What was I looking for?” said Tayo dismissively, as if I had asked him when he would get his ears pierced so he could start wearing earrings.

“Later, nko?” I pressed.

“Hmmm … We shall get there. Hold on, Eni. Stop jumping the gun. Let me land, ke!” said Tayo.

“Okay. No vex. I dey hear you,” I said.

“Ehen. So, in JS3, I was just too shy. I didn’t even say, “Hello” to her. I think she probably thought I hated her sef. I just used to avoid her, because I didn’t, you know … trust my feelings.”

“Ehen? So what happened?” I asked, surprised at seeing this side to my brother, who I had not pictured as the shy guy who couldn’t speak to the girl he liked.

“Hmmm … Well, we took our JSCE, and then went to SS1, and it was in SS1 that things started to happen.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“You know how secondary schools are. It’s in SS1 you have to choose whether to go with Science, Arts or Commercial,” Tayo began.

I certainly understood that part of our conversation.

In junior secondary school, students took general knowledge classes with very few electives. For example, they could choose between French and Arabic. They could also choose, from a pre-determined pool, a Nigerian language to learn to fulfill the requirements for a mandatory second Nigerian language, otherwise known as “L2.” Students had to learn a second language, in addition to the mandatory “L1” (“First Language”), which was typically, depending on tribe or ethnic group, the student’s native language.

But for L2, which presented the opportunity to learn a Nigerian language you were not familiar with, students still had to choose from the same pool of languages offered under L1: Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba.

But that was only for the earlier part of junior secondary school.

At the beginning of senior secondary school, a student had to make a more definitive choice on what career path he or she wanted to pursue. This would then inform whether that student was grouped under one of three streams: Sciences, Arts or Commercial.

Typically, the most brilliant students and those who had a firm grip, or at least didn’t struggle with the trifecta of sciences, that is, Physics, Chemistry and Biology, were pushed towards the Sciences. For those who possessed good writing and/or oral skills, or leaned towards the more creative side, they were pushed towards the Arts.

Finally, Commercial was for the students who were either undecided, didn’t fit into Arts or Sciences because of the subjects they chose, or simply wanted a career path that was not addressed by Arts or Sciences.

Because I wanted to study Law, I was in Arts classes, where subjects like Literature-in-English were mandatory.

Also, these streams of learning with their subject areas were so divided because of the mandatory subjects students needed to pass on their SSCE/NECO/GCE/JAMB exams to gain admission to a particular course or field of study in the university or other institutions of higher learning.

I nodded my understanding of what Tayo meant, when he mentioned Sciences, Arts and Commercial.

“Okay, so because I was in Science class, I took Physics, Chemistry and Biology. But, remember Intro Tech from junior secondary school?” he asked.

I nodded. Introductory Technology was one of my least favorite classes in junior secondary school, and I blamed it solely on our teacher, a woman whose boring voice seemed to be more effective at sending students to sleep than stimulating them to learn anything.

“Well, Technical Drawing was one of my favorite aspects of Intro Tech, not Elect/Elect., and definitely not woodwork. In fact, it was my love for TD that made me start thinking of architecture.”

My father had wanted Tayo to study Mechanical Engineering and become an engineer like him, even though my father was a civil engineer.

But, I remember my father having a serious conversation with Tayo during one of his junior secondary school holidays, where Tayo essentially said he didn’t want to study engineering again.

In her typical fashion, my mother panicked, and said her enemies were after her, and it was manifesting in my brother Tayo being derailed from his destined career path.

But my father took a more sensible approach. He took Tayo to see a guidance counsellor who worked at the school of his friend, Mr. Osagie, the man who recommended Thompson Tutors, my last after-school lesson.

It was this guidance counsellor, a woman, who opened Tayo’s eyes to see the other fields of study where his interests lay. It turned out that architecture was a good fit for him because he loved design, and was very attentive to details.

By the time Tayo reached SS1, he had made the unofficial move career-direction wise, from engineering to architecture.

My mother no longer mentioned enemies where Tayo was concerned after that episode.

Tayo continued.

“Knowing how TD is, you can imagine how many of us took it in the entire SS1 block,” he said.

“Very few?” I guessed.

“Correct!” said Tayo beaming. “And guess who was among the “oh-so-few” TD students?”

“Ah … Let me see,” I said, casting my eyes upwards, pretending to ransack my brain for answers, when in all honesty, the answer was on the tip of my tongue. “Was it Funke Ligali?” I finally said a smirk on my face.

“Right you are again, Eni! Ah, if only I had some Cabin biscuit to reward you for these correct answers,” said Tayo grinning mischievously. He knew how much I hated those biscuits.

“How dare you?!” I asked, eyeing him in jest. “Keep your Cabin biscuits jare.”

Tayo laughed. “Okay, maybe next time, ehn,” he said, nudging me playfully.

Then, he continued.

“Yes, Funke Ligali was in my TD class. I don’t think we were up to 18 in that class. It was from there we became friends because I used to sit beside her, and all that. She’s a very lively girl, and we used to talk about lots of things, including, believe it or not, video games!” said Tayo.

I rolled my eyes. Perfect! Funke Ligali was every guy’s dream girl. Pinch me.

“I bet she can make those farting noises from her armpit better than you,” I said, with more than a hint of sarcasm barely concealed in my voice.

Tayo looked at me in shock.

“How did you know?” he asked in amazement.

“Oh, just a wild guess … Or a hunch. Doesn’t even matter. Oya continue,” I implored.

And he did.

“Okay so, Funke and I became friends. Very good friends, and I really liked her, you know. But I didn’t want to ask her out yet. I just had this idea that secondary school was not the place for relationships, that there was more freedom in uni,” said Tayo.

“But what if you guys end up in different unis, like UNN and ABU Zaria?” I asked.

“Ehn … It shouldn’t matter now. Shebi there are buses you can take from Nsukka to Zaria, and vice-versa?” said Tayo.

“Are you serious, Tayo? You’d be travelling all the way just for a girl? How realistic is that?” I queried.

And then, I remembered that I had had a similar discussion with Tokunbo on how to make a long-distance relationship work. My exact words were:

“Love will build a bridge from me to you.”

But hearing Tayo voice the same idea, even though he used different words, it sounded too contrived and far-fetched. Road travel could be hazardous, and accidents were common. Was it wise to pursue a long-distance relationship or wasn’t it better to find a local boo to build a relationship with?

I didn’t bother sharing these thoughts with Tayo. I wanted him to get to the heart of this Funke Ligali matter.

Tayo continued.

“Eni, the heart wants what the heart wants,” he said. “Travelling is a non-issue.”

I nodded and wondered if my parents would agree with him.

“So, I just remained friends with Funke. She herself wasn’t dating or going out with any guy until SS2. It was in SS2 that I started having regrets. Lots of regrets.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because that’s when Oscar showed up,” said Tayo with a deep sigh.

“Oscar? Who names their child Oscar? Don’t tell me he was a grouch,” I said, rolling my eyes.

Tayo chuckled. “His name doesn’t even matter,” he began, but I stopped him.

“Did everyone call him Oscar or did he have a nickname like … Capo?” I asked, referring to the scribbles on the wall in the earlier part of our conversation.

“No,” said Tayo. “Oscar didn’t need a lame nickname like “Capo.” Once you mentioned “Oscar” in school, everybody knew who you were talking about. He was that popular.”

“Wonderful!” I said. “So what did the Great Oscar do?”

“Oscar …,” Tayo began in a low tone, shaking his head, followed by a grunt. “That guy is the perfect example of a born womanizer. You know some womanizers are made, but others are born. This Oscar na born womanizer. That guy? Hmmm … I’m sure that right after he jumped out of his mother’s womb, when the nurse was carrying him away, he pulled out a jotter and pencil, and his first words were, “Baby, can I have your number?” ”

I burst into laughter. The mental image of the scene Tayo had just described was too ridiculous for words.

“Tayo, where in the womb of a woman, is there space for a jotter and pencil? And a talking baby? God forbid!” I said, snapping my fingers, and throwing my hands to my left side, so this evil I was wishing away wouldn’t fall on me or Tayo.

But Tayo didn’t even care.

“I’m telling you, Eni, that guy was toasting nurses before he was one week old! He’s had too much practice. Too sleek!” said Tayo.

“Ehn, maybe you should’ve approached him for toasting lessons now. Tap into that–” I teased.

“Excuse you?!” said Tayo, scowling at me.

“I’m just saying … Oya, no vex. Finish your story,” I said, pacifying him.

“Well, there’s not much left to tell,” said Tayo. “Everybody knew Oscar’s reputation. It wasn’t a secret at all. I mean, this guy was just a bad guy. Word around school was that Oscar was even servicing some of our teachers, including the CRS teacher, a married woman!”

“O ti o!” I shouted, sitting up. In my mind, I wondered why Tayo had been keeping this type of hot gist to himself all these days, when my ears were ever ready.

“Siddon there, dey look!” said Tayo with a sneer. “Next thing I knew, Funke started asking me these abstract questions. You know the type. No name to identify anybody. Just facts or scenarios, and because we were friends, she wanted my opinion.”

“So, she was using you, abi?” I jeered.

“Eni, I’m asking you for your own opinion too in this matter. That’s the point of this long story. Does it mean I’m using you too?” said Tayo.

“Well … Yes … No … Oh-oh, Tayo! It’s not the same thing jo. You’re my brother. It’s different,” I whined.

“But maybe that was the problem. Maybe that was how Funke saw me. As her brother,” said Tayo. “Which is why she told me all these things.”

“But you had other plans for her. Am I right?” I said.

“Yes, I did. But I held her in such high esteem. I didn’t want to do what other guys were doing: jumping into relationships in secondary school. Plus, I felt it would affect my focus on my books, and … and I was worried she’d say no. Secondary school isn’t the ideal place for relationships, you know. I felt, okay o, once I’ve reached uni, I’ll have the maturity to handle a serious relationship,” said Tayo.

“But you never told her any of these things, how you felt or what you were thinking?” I said.

“Of course not. What was the point? I couldn’t just walk up to her and say, “Hey, Funke. I like you. A lot. And I’d like us to be in a relationship, but I don’t think now is a good time. How about 100 level or 200 level in uni?” She’d have laughed in my face!” said Tayo in an exasperated tone.

“Or she might, because the feeling is mutual, actually wait for you,” I said quietly. “I mean, if this Funke is everything you’ve said she is, she too would be focused on her books just like you, and wouldn’t want to entangle herself in a relationship just yet.”

“Hmmm … I thought so too. I thought we had the same goals, until Oscar came along and spoilt everything,” said Tayo.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Remember those abstract questions I said she used to ask me? To be honest, I didn’t even know who she was referring to. She would just say something like, “Tayo, do you think people can change? I mean, people who everyone thinks they’re bad. Do you think they can change?” And of course, I foolishly answered her that it is possible for anyone to change, that everyone deserves the benefit of a doubt, and deserves a second chance. How was I to know that she was fishing for a reason to get with Oscar? Of all people, Oscar! Wo, Eni, please don’t bring home any guy named Oscar and say he’s your fiancé o! I no go gree!” said Tayo bitterly.

“Don’t worry,” I said chuckling. “No Oscar for me.”

In my heart, I wondered if Tayo had forgotten that it was my parents who needed to approve of my choice of a life partner. The approval of my older brother was very, very low on the scale.

“She didn’t tell me when they started seeing each other. It was another friend who told me, and I didn’t want to believe it ‘cos I thought Funke was too smart to fall for that guy. Until one day like that, after night prep. I went back to our class because I forgot my torchlight in my locker. Eni, I saw them. Funke and Oscar were kissing in a corner of the class. My Funke!” said Tayo, letting his head drop into his open palms, grimacing like his head was hurting.

“Ehn! What’s wrong with kissing?” I asked.

Tayo raised his head and looked at me with a puzzled expression. Clearly, I didn’t get the full picture of what he had just told me.

“Eni, it’s not the kissing that’s the problem. It’s the kisser. That guy, Oscar, he doesn’t just stop at kissing o. He … He finishes the job!” said Tayo, looking away uncomfortably.

Finally, I got what he meant. I didn’t need to attend an hour-long lecture to understand what Tayo meant by “finishing the job.”

“In that case, Tayo, I think it’s time for me to really speak my mind,” I said sitting up. “Ya ara e ni brain, you hear? Borrow yourself a brain. Get some sense. Funke, has made her choice, so move on with your life,” I said to Tayo.

For a few moments, a look of anger twisted his features. It was clear that he didn’t like what I had said, much less, the way I had said it. He looked like the truth had just slapped him across the face, with the lingering effects stinging his eyes and nose like tear gas. He kept sniffling and blinking.

I quickly rose to my feet.

But Tayo didn’t move. He just sat there looking at me. Then, he said:

“Eni, you might have a point. Isn’t this what they say about good guys? They finish last.”

I shook my head, and said:

“Yes, good guys finish last, but that’s where most people stop. They forget the other part. Good guys also finish well. It is better to finish well, than to finish first. All you need is a change of perspective. If you believe life is a sprint, then when you see those cutting corners, the unscrupulous, anything goes “bad guys,” zooming past you in their flashy sports cars, and you, the good guy, you’re riding an ordinary ketekete (donkey) observing all the rules, of course, you’ll be angry because you know the bad guys will always win. It’s a no brainer. But, if your perspective is different, if you see life as a marathon, you’ll pace yourself. You’ll stay focused on your goals, learn whatever lessons you need to learn along the way, knowing that ultimately, you will reach the finish line, principles intact. Tayo, good guys win too. The wise ones among them marry good women and raise even better children. Bad guys might make excellent actors, and even businessmen, but they make lousy husbands, and even more pathetic fathers. As for me, I vote for good guys, any day, any time.”

Tayo looked at me in amazement. “Who … Where did you hear that? You’re just 16, Eni!”

“I read it in a book,” I said smiling. “More than one, actually.”

“Well, you need to read more books like that so you can be advising your brother, ehn” said Tayo, nudging me. I giggled.

“Thanks, Eni. I’ll keep what you said in mind,” he said rising to his feet too.

“Anytime, bro,” I said still smiling.

Later that evening, as we strolled to the junction, Tokunbo and I had a conversation I will never forget.



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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hoped it continues

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