Nene shook her head and rolled her eyes. This guy was just jumping to conclusions, but she was enjoying his company. They continued talking as they ate their lunch.
Nene told Richard that she was in Asaba job-hunting. He told her that he was in a joint venture with his best friend, Chuka in Lagos. Their company sold electronics and was considering opening a branch in Asaba. He had come to do the groundwork to prepare for the new branch, which they planned to launch before the end of the year.
“You’re lucky you have an uncle who is willing to help you secure a job. At least, you studied a sensible course: Bus. Admin. As for me, na Geography I read o, so I knew I was on my own.”
“My friend, don’t talk like that! You know that even those who graduate with a degree in Yoruba work in banks,” said Nene.
“Yes, but they need serious connections to cut that deal. I didn’t have that. I’m happy with the path I chose though. Entrepreneurship, I mean. More like it chose me. Even if I worked at a bank, for example, I could not possibly work there forever. I was going to be an entrepreneur eventually. It has brought fulfillment in a lot of ways.”
“I wonder if your girlfriend, Tiff, agrees,” Nene said, a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
“Haba! Don’t tell me we’re back to this non-existent girlfriend? Did that bobo hurt you so much?”
“How did you know?”
“That was the only logical explanation for your refusal to let go of my presumed infidelity.”
“Or you took a wild guess and got lucky?” Nene queried.
“That too … Look Nene, I understand. I really do. I have been there.”
There was something genuine and sincere about the way Richard said the words ‘I have been there’ that was heart-stirring. Nene wondered what his story was.
“So, Mr. I-have-been-there, what happened between you and her?”
“You know, it is not good to discuss exes on our first date,” Richard said, a naughty grin on his face.
“Say what?! Which date? Don’t get it twisted. I’m just here as–” Nene said, clearly flustered.
“Sister Nene, cool down for Jesus! I was just kidding … for now,” Richard said. That mischievous twinkle re-appeared so often during their conversation that by the time Richard dropped her off at home, she concluded that he was born that way.
Later that evening, she spoke with her mother who called to find out how she was settling down in Asaba. She gave her mother a condensed version of her experiences, including this neighbor who had taken her out to lunch.
“Keep an open mind, Nene. You don’t know what God has in store for you in Asaba.”
Those were her mother’s words, and that became the mantra she recited to herself every morning. It helped her through the disappointments she faced over the next four months, where she attended job interviews that were unsuccessful. Her uncle’s connections helped her get a foot in the door in some companies, but that was only for the application process. It seemed like the same ill luck that she had tried to escape from in Lagos had followed her to Asaba, and she battled discouragement daily.
In the midst of all this, Richard remained at her side, being the listening ear she needed and occasional shoulder to cry on. Nene had thought that her cousins would have played that role, but they were both disconnected from Nene’s reality. They had not tasted the pain of disappointment that came from having doors shut in one’s face in places where open doors were expected, promised even. Richard, who had walked in Nene’s shoes a few years back, having gone through the same process, knew exactly what she was going through, and it seemed also, how to comfort her.
He was usually out during the day, busy with the demands of opening a new branch office. However, in the evenings, he made himself available, coming to visit her at home and taking long walks down the quiet streets in their neighborhood. Occasionally, they visited local attractions like the Mongo Park Building, FSP Children’s Park and Otu-Ogwu Beach, but it was those long walks that Nene loved the most because they got to enjoy each other’s company and talk for hours. What better way is there to get to know a person than talking to him?
In four months, Nene knew more about Richard than she had known about Paul in five years. She knew that he had two younger brothers who were still in the university, that his parents had divorced when he was just five, and had learnt to speak Hausa fluently while he attended primary school in Kaduna, where his mother lived.
Because his parents felt that the schools in Lagos were better than the ones in Kaduna, he had moved to Lagos after finishing primary school, to attend a private secondary school. He studied Geography at Olabisi Onabanjo University, in Ogun State, formerly known as Ogun State University (OSU). Youth service was at Kogi state, and that was the last time he had been in a relationship.
He was reluctant to tell Nene about this past relationship, but Nene was not one to be ignored. She cornered him one Friday evening, during one of their numerous leisurely strolls, and asked him point blank to tell her about his ex-girlfriend.
“Talking is therapeutic, Richard. You of all people should know that. It’s what you’ve been drumming into my head almost every day since we met,” Nene said, grabbing his chin and forcing him to look at her face. “Oya talk.”
“Why now? You’re ruining the mood. Look at the way the sun has colored the sky as it is going to sleep. Isn’t God amazing?” Richard said, making a last minute attempt to change the subject. Nene did not fall for it, and insisted on him speaking about her.
“Okay. Remember that day at Mr. Biggs? I told you that I love deeply and that people often take advantage of that.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Okay, that’s what happened. I loved her too much and she knew it. It didn’t work out. The end.”
“Oh no, sir. That summary is unacceptable. You’ll have to do better than that.”
“What do you want me to say, Nene?” Richard asked, in a frustrated voice.
“For starters, you could tell me her name,” Nene said, coolly.
“Her name. Hmmmm …. Her name was … is Enitan Ibiwoye.”
“See, that wasn’t so hard now, was it?”
“No, it wasn’t. She was a fellow corper. We were both posted to a secondary school in Asaya, Kogi state. She taught English, and I taught Health Science. We spent a lot of time together.”
“Was she fine? Or should I say beautiful?”
“Yes, she was … on the outside. We were inseparable.” And here, Richard smiled as he remembered some happier times he had shared with this Enitan person.
“Go on. I’m listening.” Nene began to wonder if asking him to talk about his ex-girlfriend was such a good idea.
“She had this … this face. How do I describe her? When she braided her hair, she looked just like a Malo chick.”
“Malo what? What’s that?”
“Hausa girl. She looked like a Hausa girl.”
“She was very athletic too. She represented our platoon and won many of those running competitions. Her favorite meal was–“
“Abeg, abeg! I didn’t ask you for all the details on her life. I just wanted to know what went wrong.”
“Shebi you were the one asking about my ex? Now, you’re tired of hearing about her abi?” Richard asked in surprise.
“Why did you people break up? Simple question. Oya answer it,” Nene responded, arms folded across her chest.
“I was not the only one who was attracted to her. I mean … she was hot! A lot of the other male corpers thought so too. They were always toasting her, flirting with her, and she did nothing to discourage them. I confronted her with this shortly after we started dating, and she just brushed off my concerns. Said I was too sensitive. And then the rumors started … that she was seeing other men.”
“Sleeping with other men, you mean,” Nene said, a stern look on her face.
“Well … yes, that’s what they said.”
“Let me guess … You didn’t believe them. You thought she was above all that. Am I right?”
“Yes, yes, exactly. I told her that people were talking, but that I didn’t believe them. That I believed in us.”
“And what did she say?”
“The first time I confronted her with the rumors, she threatened to break up with me. That there were many people who were jealous of her, especially other female corpers, and they were the ones spreading the rumors.”
“There’s no smoke without fire,” Nene muttered under her breath.
“What was that?” Richard asked.
“Nothing. Continue. I’m listening.”
“She denied it and said that I should stop feeding my ears with gossip. So, I took her advice and ignored the rumors. I actually quarreled with some of my friends over this issue. At some point, some of them said I was jazzed.”
Nene laughed. That was typical. An African man’s unshakeable loyalty to a woman could always be explained by jazz or juju. It had to be a love charm mixed liberally with some mouth-watering meal she had cooked for him. Love by itself, in its purest, unadulterated form was not enough.
Richard paused, took a deep breath and continued.
“The rumors increased and so did the intensity of Enitan’s denials. At some point, I thought I was hallucinating, that I had imagined all these stories about her and other guys. Eventually, I got tired of self-therapy, and decided to find out for myself. So, the very next rumor that reached my ears, I took it to heart and investigated.”
“And what did you find out?” Nene asked, even though she already guessed the answer.
“That I had been a big fool. She wasn’t only messing around with corpers but with teachers and even the headmaster.”
“Headmaster? Well, I have to hand it to her. She didn’t aim low. She went straight for the oga at the top … if you can call the headmaster that,” Nene said. Richard did not find her joke funny and told her immediately. She apologized.
“After that, I broke up with her. The funny thing is that I still loved her though. If she hadn’t–“
“Do you still love her?” Nene asked, looking into Richard’s eyes. Without hesitating, he replied:
“No. It took a while … years actually, but I got over her.”
“And how do you know? I mean, how do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“Because when she came–“
Richard’s phone rang at that minute, interrupting their conversation. He answered it before Nene could stop him and began to speak Hausa to someone over the phone. Nene could not make head or tail of the conversation, but she wanted Richard to conclude his Enitan gist, so she waited for the phone call to end. Five minutes turned to ten minutes.
By this time, they had walked back to Okpannam road and were standing in front of Chief Alozie’s house. The front gate opened, and Rita, the house help came to call Nene.
“Madam dey call you, Auntie,” she said to Nene.
– to be continued –