His tools were laid before him on the expansive table. Scissors. Measuring tape. Pins. Iron. Today, he’d make a dress for her and he’d finish it too.
“Oga, this one is what?” Ene, his youngest apprentice asked.
“It’s a blouse,” he answered distantly, seemingly absorbed in what he was doing.
It was going to be a peplum top with a sweetheart neckline and a low-cut back. He would pipe all the edges with embroidered lace trim and add tiny rhinestones to the fabric’s pattern. It was going to be one of his most beautiful creations yet – worthy of her.
“Oga, this one is for who?” Angela, another apprentice asked.
That question made his scissors snip almost a full half-inch out of line, for he seemed to see her again before him. He wanted to tell Angela that the dress was going to be for the most beautiful woman he’d ever known but when he looked up a compelling memory held him in thrall.
“But this is not what I wanted to buy,” it was the half-amused, half-annoyed sound of her voice arguing with a textile vendor.
He had taken one look at her and decided he would be her savior.
“Kai, Mallam, what is going on here?” when he moved closer to where she stood examining the Vlisco and Hitarget versions of the same print, he reached a hand to touch the material and accidentally brushed his fingers against hers.
“Oga, na customer,” the vendor was smiling extra. “No problem, wallahi.”
She’d scoffed indulgently, shaking her head. “Iliyasu, how can you say there is no problem? The wedding is this Saturday.” Her eyes were glued to the wrappers.
“This is not what you ordered for?” he looked directly at her then.
“Not at all. I told him purple, but this is just pink. It’s pink!” she seemed outraged and incredulous at the same time.
He wasn’t sure he hadn’t just imagined it, but when their eyes met, it was like something clicked into place – there was that curious question in her eyes that let him know she’d felt it too. With the both of them thus confused, it was easy for Iliyasu to convince her to take the wrapper like that – the pink was only glaring under direct sunlight.
“Oga, lafiya?” Ene turned a concerned face toward him.
“Lafiya,” he had to clear his throat to get the word out.
They were looking at him, all a little worried, and he was feeling slightly dizzy.
“Let me just sit down and rest small,” he slowly went to the customer couch and lay down.
Even with closed eyes, it was not a restful position. The shop was by the roadside so all the blaring of car horns, sirens, and wailing business people kept intruding. Jibril was also silently working away at the embroidery machine. It wasn’t really a need to rest that made him lie down; he just needed to make that dress perfect.
It was funny that even after he’d knocked off almost seventy percent from the normal charges, she’d still refused to believe he could sew.
“Don’t worry, it’s my sister who makes all my clothes,” there was teasing in her bubbly eyes.
“Okay o,” he’d laughed, feigning defeat. “I tried to be a friend.”
“Yeah, what’s your name?” she’d asked then.
The directness about her made him pause for a half second; no coquetry, no waiting for him to make all the moves and then putting annoying little obstacles on his path.
“Jeremiah,” he’d answered with a smile. “And what’s your own name?”
“Fitsha,” she replied. “It’s Jaba from Southern Kaduna,” she answered the unspoken question on his face.
Meeting again after that day wasn’t difficult; they both wanted to. At first it was the cautious Sunday afternoon hangouts at parks and eateries until Fitsha shocked him with her directness again.
“when will I know where you live?” she’d asked.
It made him turn and look at her squarely. “Like seriously?” he shrugged in jest.
Laughing, she poked a finger in his ribs. “What? I’m blunt like that! Show me your house,” she said.
Even the memory put a smile on his tired face. The steady drone of Jibril’s machine ceased and Jeremiah’s eyes reluctantly opened to see why.
“I want to go and eat,” Jibril explained, off-hand.
“Mmm-hmm,” Jeremiah grunted, shutting his eyes again.
He felt a little slighted that the other young man hadn’t asked if anything was wrong. It wasn’t everyday he laid down in the afternoon for nothing. But he let the thought pass. Who knew if Jibril’s mind wasn’t also preoccupied with something or someone? It seemed only Ene and Angela were young enough to notice these things.
“So tell me who you are.” Fitsha’s face came again into focus – another memory.
“I’m Jeremiah. What you see is what you get,” he’d laughed and touched her cheek fondly.
“Naw! You can’t get out of this one.” She spruced up her face into a look of intense concentration, “tell me who you really are.”
Right then, something had moved in his heart. It was an almost imperceptible tumbling, but he knew there had been a shift. He told her. He told her how he’d learnt to sew when he was really young because his widowed mother feared he might go wayward on the streets without a steadying routine. He told her about his plans to go back for a masters’ degree and then start a lecturing job. He told her how he panicked at how the money came – trickling and dripping and too slippery too fast. He told her about his pastor, the man who heard from God everyday, and about how he feared sometimes that he would go to hell.
She’d laughed at his fears and was awed by his dreams; but that day she gave him the embryo of another fear – she was adding up the facts on him, dating his reality.
“I love you, Fitsha,” it gushed out of him unpremeditated.
“I love you too,” and she was smiling.
“Oga Jeremiah!” a loud female voice yanked him to the present. His eyes flew to the robust figure of Mrs. Nelson.
“Madam, good afternoon,” the cheerfulness money could inspire amazed him every time.
“How work?” the woman splashed her generous body on the couch Jeremiah had just vacated.
“We thank God, Madam,” he was now fully in the mode of easy banter.
Mrs. Nelson was like an inside joke in the shop. She was endlessly making new clothes, choosing new styles, and nothing she picked hung right on her. Once Jeremiah had tried to tell her that bou-bous and caftans and blouses on wrappers suited her best, but she’d shaken off his advice saying he was trying to make her look pregnant. She had made skirts and blouses, trouser pieces, jumpsuits, anything that caught her attention in Ovation or Bella Naija.
“Abeg, lemme dress well for my husband,” she’d always say through a choking mouth, busily munching something.
“You’re right o! Dress to kill,” Jeremiah would always respond, though at the tip of his tongue would be something more like “eat well for your husband,” or “dress to breathe,” or something else she was very unlikely to take well.
It put some energy into him that he was paid for four changes of clothes; that was a pert sum.
“Ehen, Oga Jeremiah! My brother is getting married soon,” Mrs. Nelson reached into her handbag and gave him an embossed envelope.
For no good reason, he didn’t feel like opening it just that instant, so he placed it on a handy shelf and cheerfully enthused with his customer.
“Actually, the girl travelled abroad but I have her picture somewhere,” she was busy scrolling through her phone.
Jeremiah knew where that preamble was headed – could he just look at a picture and estimate practicable measurements and make a dress (or, since Mrs. Nelson was involved, dresses)?
“I want to give her a surprise that’s why I didn’t ask her to send her measurements,” she was still going through her phone. “Ehen! I think this is a very recent one,” she handed it to him.
The photo was of a thick-fit, beautiful young lady, and though she wasn’t smiling anyone could tell her eyes were happy. Fitsha. The blood almost stopped in his heart. He swallowed hard and was about to say something but decided mid-gape to hold his peace.
“Please, you’ll do your best work o! I have like ten materials in the booth. Angela, go and pack them – you and this girl,” she gave her keys to Angela and both apprentices went out to haul in the work.
As much as it was killing him, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the picture.
“Let me send the picture to your phone.” Mrs. Nelson interrupted the whirling of his thoughts.
“No need,” his eyes were blazing with military tears. “I’ll remember her.”
He’d never sewn for her; she always insisted that her sister made all her clothes. But he’d resolved in his heart that he’d make something stunning for her. He knew her measurements by instinct – he’d touched her, wrapped his arms around her waist, cradled her shoulders on his chest, straddled her hips on his thighs, felt the whole length of her slow-dancing in his arms, the width of her arms when he’s steady her for quaking passion, and how many times had he not explored her busts, caressed her, sucked her? He could convert every memory to its equivalent in inches. He knew her by heart.
After Mrs. Nelson left, he stared at the work spread on his table for a long time. He’d meant it for a right-to-question gift, a token of his desire to know why. The way she’d just cut him off without any explanations, zero provocation and no apologies continued to worry him. She ought to have said something, anything – he was a long wait, they wanted different things, she was in love with someone else, anything. But no. All he had was the occasional anger, the perpetual, powerless desperation, the self-doubting usurper-complex: had it all really happened?
He reached up to the shelf and retrieved the invitation. Without a pause, he ripped open the envelope and felt his eyes burn as he read:
The Families of
Mr. and Mrs. Gideon Magaji
Dr. and Mrs. Michael Nicholas
Cordially wish to invite: Jeremiah Lubem (in blue ink)
To the Wedding Solemnization of their Children
Nicole Fitsha Magaji and Jeremiah Obed Nicholas
He couldn’t read it through anymore.
His tools were laid before him on the expansive table. Scissors. Measuring tape. Chalk. Pins. Iron. Vivid memories. Today he’d finish his surprise for her and sneak it in as a bonus on the elegant wardrobe splurge for her wedding to another Jeremiah.