For some reason, I always came back from the teaching college in the afternoon. This meant that there was never anyone home to greet me after my journey from Jos. My father was a pilot who was hardly home and Mama was a mortgage banker who did not return till evenings on workdays. I mostly liked the silence, it was something I had come to terms with as an only child.
I had learned to spend my alone time reading or exploring our old apartment building. Most afternoons would be spent inspecting old pictures, sitting in the balcony, making up stories for people who walked by, or watching repairmen toil below.
The residents association seemed to always be in the middle of renovating or painting some part of building, so the stairway took on a distinct odor. The smell of our building always gave me a warm feeling, a reminder of home, my safe-space. As I dragged my bags up the stairs heaving furiously with every step I heard a soft voice.
“You’ll fall oh, let me help you.” I couldn’t see where the voice came from, so I continued walking. The voice persisted “It’s no worry, let me take one from you.”
“Ah I’m stronger than I look.” I said, not knowing who exactly I was talking to.
Dropping my bags out of exhaustion and curiosity, I turned and I saw a face I didn’t recognize. Stood behind me was a small woman with big eyes and lush dark skin, almost drowning in her blue hijab. Smiling, she snatched a bag and hurried up to the 4th floor.
Standing outside our apartment as I unlocked the door, I wanted to ask how she knew where I was going but somehow never got to it. Shortly after unloading the last of the bags I looked up to thank my mystery helper but she was gone. Too tired to go back out to look for her, I decide it was time for a shower. Knowing I would be home alone for a couple more hours I stripped off my now sweat-drenched clothes, picked out a shower playlist and made my way into the bathroom.
Coming out of the shower wet and wondering whether there was anything for me to eat, I was startled by an unexpected presence. Sat on one of the living room chairs staring at my open bags was the small woman from before. She smelt like turari and stood even smaller than before. Stunned by her presence I froze, almost forgetting that I was still naked.
“Oh my! Sorry I will come back.” She said smirking.
“You might as well marry me now, you have seen all my goods.” I said in between a laugh as I grabbed my towel. She laughed nervously.
“You’re Miriam, I should have known.” The mystery lady said almost as if she was reading my mind. “I’m Hauwa, Captain Mena’s wife.” She was standing now, reaching out a hand to shake me. “This must be weird, should I come back later?”
“No it’s fine, I was just a little surprised that’s all.” Taking her hand to shake it, hoping my towel wouldn’t give way. “I had no idea he was married.” Captain Mena had been our neighbour for about four years now. He was an unrealistically handsome man who kept to himself most times. I only ever recall seeing him when he came out to speak to my father in quick-fire Hausa.
“He doesn’t either!” She is silent for a couple of seconds before bursting into raucous laughter, revealing a gold tooth nestled amongst gleaming white teeth. “I kid, we got married in June.” She spoke so fluidly, with every word seemingly flowing into the next.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, I have to ask though, how did you enter?” Hoping to hear she had a spare key.
“I’m magic! Don’t you know?” She said with a smile that led to another fit of laughter that I couldn’t help but join in. “I never left, I like to sit in the balcony in the afternoons.”
“Me too, I’m alone most times so I find myself there a lot.” Hauwa had taken off her scarf to fully reveal her long dark hair that was loosely braided into two. In that moment I realised how beautiful she was. “Where are you from?” I blurted, hoping to end the silence my staring had caused.
“Maiduguri. Have you been?” She asks knowing that I probably hadn’t been. “It’s not paradise you know, but it’s home.” She broke into a smile as she spoke of home. “I hope to be there again soon.”
“My father used to live there I think, he doesn’t talk much about his younger days.” I had taken my seat next to my newest friend. “I suspect its because he was very mischievous back then.” We both burst into laughter. “Maybe some secret girlfriends, you know.” I said. She nodded in agreement.
“Life in Maiduguri was beautiful, but in a strange way.” She said, as if expecting me to object. The land of my father was a lot of things; hot, arid, desolate even but in all this she saw beauty. “I don’t know how to explain it but…” She paused for a while, looking up at the ceiling as if the rest of her sentence had escaped from her head and was now floating across the living room. She switched to Hausa now. “There is something in the air that holds me, its unmistakable.”
“Oh wow, what part of Maiduguri is this?” I said smirking. “It’s been a while since anyone held me.” Laughing as I thought of my last boyfriend. She didn’t laugh with me.
“Someone like you doesn’t have fiancée? “ She asked rhetorically.
“No now, I have one.” I said triumphantly. “It’s just that he’s magic too, the invisible type.” Barely finishing my sentence before falling over laughing clearly impressed by my own joke.
“That’s not funny Miriam.” She said, not pleased with my humor. “How are you single though?” She asked looking in my direction as I was sprawled on the soft burgundy rug that covered most of the living room. As a child I would lay here for hours, eyes closed picturing almost lucid fantasies.
“I’m not sure I will be anyone’s wife.” I proclaimed. “Love doesn’t seem to work well with me.” My relationships seemed to always involve someone trying to fix me. As if I were a rickety table or a lopsided painting. “Maybe my Prince Charming is gay or dead.” She looked confused, perhaps not knowing what a Prince Charming was.
“Love is for everyone. We all deserve it.” She said. “I think Allah made us that way, you know.” She said glancing at me from the stool she sat on.
“Maybe I’m defective.” I said more to myself than for conversation.
“Or maybe this your Prince Charming is a princess.” Hauwa snickered. “Love is a funny funny thing.” Pleased with her quip she stood up and made her way towards where I was laying. “Bako isn’t romantic like the men in the books I read in school but he is mine.” She said. “He is mine and that’s what love is.”
“Love is a handsome pilot with great hair?” I said sarcastically.
“No Miriam, it’s finding your own. Duka— completion.” She said firmly. “I have to go now.” She said after glancing at the dusty grandfather clock by the door.
“I’ll come visit you soon Mrs. Mena, it’s been a pleasure.” I said. Wishing she would stay a little longer.
“You will find Duka.” Hauwa sighed, as she put on her hijab.
“And if I don’t?” I asked as she made for the door. She smiled widely as if my question wasn’t worth answering.
Not more than a week after I graduated from the teaching college mother started her process. She had spoken of it in code whilst I was in school, whispering during her phone conversations to father. In my mother’s mind it was imperative that I be matched with a suitable man, suitable here meaning rich and Hausa. “Miriam when I was your age I had no one to look for me.” She would proudly declare. “You are very lucky.”
Sometimes I would try to explain to my mother that love wasn’t something you could arrange but I was sure it would be a waste of time.
“She’s just trying to help Mimi.” Hauwa said, glancing through an Ovation magazine. “To her this is the best gift she can give.”
“Did your mother find Bako for you?” I asked, realising I didn’t know how she came to be married to my neighbour.
“Oh no! She hated him.” She said, giggling at the thought. “We met at my cousin’s wedding.”
“So it was love at first sight?” I asked anxiously.
“Ha-ha he likes to think so but I didn’t really notice him.” She said, dropping the newspaper to fully concentrate on telling her story. “He got my number from Ibrahim my younger brother and called some days after the wedding.”
“Is Ibrahim single?” I asked, with a wink.
“He’s fourteen Mimi.” She said, laughing hysterically. “You want to go to Kirikiri?”
“Well you know age is just a number.” I said, a little embarrassed. “You never mention him, he must be handsome then.”
“It was hard for my mother to accept him.” She continued. “I guess we heard a lot about the ones that live in Lagos and she feared the worst.” I imagined a young Hauwa bent over a table writing illicit love letters and laughed.
“How did you know he was going to be worth the risk?” I asked, hoping she had some nugget of wisdom for me.
“I didn’t. I just did it.” She said. “I think you’re looking for a Romeo, someone perfect and dramatic.” Hauwa knew me to uncomfortable lengths; her insight unsettled me.
“I don’t need perfect.” I said defiantly. “Adam is too short, Ba’ana wears old dingy clothes, Garba is more obsessed with himself than anything else and I’m sure Hussein is secretly an assassin or something.” Hauwa fell over, laughing as she hugged my arm.
“Until you find him Mimi, I’ll be your Romeo.”
“Mimi Mimi!!! Help!!” Hauwa’s text came as I was about to start cooking lunch. She was due to give birth and the captain was away. I had been expecting this day since it became obvious that she was expecting. My best friend had transformed from a small spritely lady to a round, sweating, sleepy woman.
“You better not give birth in the car oh.” I said hoping to get her laughing. She was in the front seat with me as we hurried to the general hospital. Getting her down four flights of stairs was brutal but Lagos traffic was intent on making today worse.
She was heaving furiously, sweating all over even though the AC was on full blast. “If I die… tell Bako I love him.” Hauwa said sinking fully into the car seat.
“You won’t die jor, if you do die though, can I have your Zara slippers?” I asked mockingly. “They look really nice on me you know.” I was nervous, gripping the steering wheel
“Mimi seriously its too much.” Her hijab was off now and I could feel the tension. She rocked slowly in her seat as I sped through the link bridge that led to hospital. As I pulled up near the emergency entrance I could see tears in her eyes.
“Hauwa it will be OK.” I said, now wiping away my own tears. The nurses quickly took her from the car onto a stretcher and zoomed away. I waited nervously for hours in the maternity ward; firstly alone and then joined by my mother. We prayed silently as the hours seemed to stretch and the ceiling fans whirred above us. It must have been about 7:30 when a large nurse came out of the enclosed hall.
“Miriam Shettima, who is Miriam Shettima?” She seemed irritated as she scanned the noisy waiting room. “Who is Mi—”
“I am here, what do you need?” I asked nervously.
“Follow me.” She barked, walking briskly down the hall past several doors that eventually led me to Hauwa. She looked worn out, more frail than I had ever seen. She clutched her newborn, smiling as tears fell down her cheeks.
Barely noticing my entrance she looked up and saw my tears. “His name is Hassan Mimi. He’s going to be magic.” She said, laughing lightly as her new son began to cry. I waved her goodbye as the nursed shooed me out of her room, saying she needed all the rest she could get.
That was the last time I saw my best friend. Hauwa left us that night, suffering from surgery complications. The next few days went by in black, slowly and excruciatingly.
In the months that followed I took dark consolation in the fact that what happened to Hauwa seemed to have left me dead inside. On a Saturday evening in June, the captain’s new wife arrived.
Jerry K. Ayodele (@) has never been very good at writing bios which is weird for someone who calls himself a writer. He’s a Computer Science grad with huge interests in story writing, poetry and photography. He spends most of his time tweeting and or eating.
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