Nneoma held a large calculator with her left hand, while her right middle finger went from one button to another, in her bid to ascertain the accuracy of the figures Margaret had summed up. Nneoma had been slow to trust Margaret whom a friend had brought to her, as most shop owners would. But in time, she had come to trust the new salesgirl. Now, three years down the line, some customers do find it hard to believe that Margaret is not Nneoma’s daughter. Nneoma only thought it wise to ascertain the figures because the profit, as the book revealed, seemed overstated. Though as she pressed the buttons, Nneoma prayed that she would arrive at same total figure.
“Twenty five thousand four hundred,” Nneoma said softly as she added the last figure from the list of sales. “Chai!” she exclaimed. Nneoma was greatly pleased as the total figure she had gotten matched Margaret’s.
“Nne, kedu?” Nneoma heard as she gathered her financial records. It seemed to her like, for a moment, her heart had skipped a beat. As always, Izuchukwu’s smile was infectious, and she smiled in return. Nneoma always looked forward to Izuchukwu’s occasional visits, though she would never fail to remind herself that she must hide her joy.
Her throat felt so dry that she had to cough. Then she managed to say, “Izu, welcome.”
“Thank you.” Izuchukwu said, a concerned look had quickly replaced his smile. “I jikwa ahụ—are you well?”
“Okay.” he said, and his smile returned. “And how are the children?” he asked, same time helping himself on the bench Nneoma sat. Nneoma moved to the other end of the bench, creating too much space between them. Izuchukwu was not pleased, but he tried not to show it.
“They are fine. The two younger ones have gone to school.”
The pair sat silently for a while. When Nneoma coughed again, Izuchukwu maximized the opportunity. “It seems you have cough.” he said.
“My throat just feels so dry. And when I cough I feel pain in my chest.”
“Ndo—sorry.” he said, moving closer to Nneoma. She did not move this time. “Have you taken any medicine?”
“Yes, I have.”
“Sorry. You will be fine soon.”
“Thank you.” Nneoma said. Then she cleared her throat before she called out to Margaret who had previously been attending to a customer. “Maggie, please come and buy malt for my visitor.”
“Don’t raise your voice, you have cough.” Izuchukwu said. His hand had a brief stay on Nneoma’s shoulder, but he quickly removed it as he sensed her discomfort. He quickly searched his pocket, and brought out a five hundred naira note. Turning to Margaret, he said, “Take this money and buy two malt, one for your madam and one for me.”
“Maka gịnị kwanu—for what reason?” Nneoma protested. “Why?”
“Rapu ihe ahụ—leave that matter. Is it because of malt that your are complaining?” Izuchukwu asked. He knew Nneoma would have no answer so he turned to Margaret again. “And buy one for yourself too.”
“Thank you sir.” Margaret said, and she quickly excused herself before Izuchukwu might change his mind.
“Chineke!” Nneoma exclaimed. “Izu, you worry yourself too much.” Nneoma said. “You are my visitor oh!”
“Nneoma, I wish I could do more.” At his words Nneoma turned her head away, knowing the direction the conversation was about to follow. And she was not wrong. “Allow me do more, my love, biko.”
Nneoma remained silent, though her thought did not remain still. She recalled a similar visit about two months ago. On that particular visit Izuchukwu had made his intention of marrying her known. Nneoma had been taken aback by Izuchukwu’s proposal, and she had told him she would think about it. But two months after, she had no answer to give.
“Nneoma, why not give me a chance,” Izuchukwu begged. “I—” he paused as soon as he recognized Margaret’s presence.
“Brother, na canned malt I buy, dem say the other one don finish.”
“No problem. Oya take your own.”
“Thank you sir.” Turning to Nneoma, she said, “Aunty, Mama Osita say make I tell you say she dey wait.”
“Ewoh!” Nneoma exclaimed. “I forgot I made a promise to settle her this morning.” she said, more to Izuchukwu than to Margaret. Tuning to Margaret, she asked, “Hope say she no dey vex?”
“No aunty, she no vex.”
“Let me hurry.”
“I have to take my leave now.” Izuchukwu said, grabbing one of the malt drink.
“Why?” Nneoma asked. “Mama Osita’s shop is just some shops away.”
“No,” he said. “I will come some other time.”
“Okay. Imela, thank you.”
Izuchukwu gave her a final look before he made an exit. A look that revealed his plea to Nneoma; his desire for an answer, a—yes.
Evans was one among the last persons to enter the classroom after the bell had been rung to signal the end of the break period. He walked to his seat and settled in. His smile widened as he recalled the events of that morning, events that followed after his exit from Mr. Hassan’s office:
With one swift pull, Evans had lowered the zip of his trouser immediately he got to the entrance of the boys’ toilet. As he eased his full bladder, Evans had remembered Jacinta and the ice-cream he had promised her. He had become worried, but only for a while, as he had quickly thought of a way around the situation, and had also assured himself that Walter would understand. Immediately the bell was rung for the start of the break period, Evans had left the class, running to Walter’s classroom. Walter had been standing at the door when he got there.
“You came quite fast.”
“Yes,” Evans had managed to say as he was yet to steady his breathing. “I’m sorry, can we start tomorrow?” Walter’s expression had clearly showed his disappointment, and Evans for a moment had considered dropping the plan.
“I just remembered that I am to assist a friend with an assignment.” Evans had lied.
“Okay. At least you promised your friend first.”
“Thanks. And I promise, I will make it up to you.” Evans had said, and his right hand had touched Walter’s nose. Then his middle finger had made a slow trail down Walter’s nose. Still it had happened so fast that Evans only realised his action after his finger had finished the trail.
Walter smiled. “Okay.”
As Evans turned to leave, Walter had called him back. “Can I wait for you after school, so we could go home together?” Walter had asked. “I’ve not made friends yet.”
Evans immediately had resisted the urge to look down at the crotch point of his trousers, he was sure his inner short was doing a good job concealing his erection. “Yes, please do.”
Evans had left Walter’s presence with a smile, and he carried it along as he ran up the stairs to meet Jacinta. And it had lingered till the end of the break period.
Evans heard a bang on a desk, and he was released from the tight grip of his thoughts. The bang was the usual call to alert the class that a teacher just walked in. He quickly stood. As the class greeted, Evans’ eyes met Emeka’s, and Evans smiled. Emeka did not. Unknown to Evans, Emeka’s eyes had been on him immediately he walked into the classroom. Evans was also unaware that Emeka had been watching from a reasonable distance when he touched Walter’s nose.
Nneoma and her two younger children sat in the living room watching a local movie. Jerry had been in the boys’ room most of the evening, pacing from one end of the room to the other. To Evans, Jerry would easily pass for a frustrated actor who had been given a role that was too big for him, and as expected, was having a difficult time getting into character.
Evans, among the lot, was the only one who recognised Jerry’s presence when he joined them in the living room. Jerry did not take a seat, like the others, making it so obvious that he did not join the trio just to watch the movie.
“Mummy, a friend of mine invited me to a vigil in his church.” Jerry said.
“A vigil?” Nneoma asked, taking her eyes from the television screen. Evans’ interest quickly moved from the movie to the conversation that just began, though he did well not to make his interest obvious. Ruth was the only one who followed the movie faithfully. “A vigil on a Thursday?”
“Yes. A youth vigil.” Jerry answered. Evans had his eyes on the screen, still he noticed when Jerry handed their mother a flyer.” Evans wondered where Jerry had gotten the flyer, as he was sure his brother had no intention of going to any church. He had overheard part of Jerry’s conversation with a friend when he got home from school—with Walter, as Walter had been adamant on knowing where he lived. Jerry’s friend had mentioned a party.
Nneoma heaved. She was sure a row was coming, if she did not handle the issue properly. She was about to ask for the friend’s phone number when Jerry continued, “You can ask Evans, he knows about it.” Evans turned in shock, and he met Jerry’s gaze. Jerry had a funny smile, and Evans felt he could read Jerry’s expression—I’m not the only one who has a secret. Evans wondered what Jerry thought of Walter’s visit that afternoon, as Walter had been all over him. And Jerry seemed anxious to reveal what he thought.
“I know about it.” Evans heard himself say. Then he knew he had to continue, “I was here when his friend came with the flyer.”