It was a marketplace at high noon. But it was close to midnight, and the buying and selling was with the commodities of beer, wine and liquor, suya and roasted fish. Under the tantalizing smells of the food were those of cigarette smoke and a loss of inhibition. The DJ was a star, mixing popular indigenous and foreign numbers that caused waists to wriggle and buttocks to vibrate. It also made it next to impossible to hear anyone. After a few energetic — but vain — attempts, some people resorted to crude sign language to get their message across.
Seyefa looked around in amazement at the humongous canopies set up under the open sky. Arranged underneath them were tables and plastic chairs in groups of four or five, jammed with human bodies. Beyond she could see the still shimmer of Ox-Bow Lake, and hoped the mosquitoes would hold their peace for some time. Young people gyrated with abandon, faces contorted in varying expressions as they danced. They were enjoying themselves or they wouldn’t be here, but from their expressions you would think some were in acute pain. The way of some dance steps these days.
She didn’t think she was dressed appropriately. She should have worn jeans and sturdy shoes instead of the long green jersey dress and strappy sandals. But she hadn’t imagined Voke would want to end the evening at a place like this, and he had given her no warning. She felt better when she saw other dresses, but none quite as long as hers.
“Now, this is what I’m talking about,” Voke said, his lips right at her ear so she could hear him as he steered her towards an empty table that still held beer bottles, glasses and the pooled moisture from them.
She looked up into his handsome face, his body muscled but lithe and with none of the bulkiness of a body builder. He was in shirtsleeves tucked into dress pants, not quite the outfit for the place either, but his eyes shone with excitement.
Seyefa couldn’t help smiling, her mood lifting at his enthusiasm. Different strokes and all that. Wasn’t the fact that he was the very antithesis of her the reason she was so attracted to him? He was energetic where she was subdued, opinionated where she was hesitant to step on toes, adventurous where she was cautious. If, after the dinner they’d eaten at a decent restaurant, he felt he needed some excitement to crown the evening, then she would be understanding. No matter that she would rather be in jogging pants and curled up with a mug of Ovaltine and a Molara Wood, she had to be open to new experiences. Especially now that he’d started hinting at bringing wine and was asking her opinion about personal matters. Since they had met eight months ago at a mutual friend’s daughter’s christening, their relationship seemed to be heading in the right direction. He had a good job in a bank, a clean Honda Civic, and rented a two-bedroom flat. That was enough to start life with. Initially another colleague of his, a big-breasted short thing, had been hanging around him suspiciously, but that one had slowly faded out of his life. Seyefa knew that she stood head and shoulders over the other woman — literally — but also in the matter of a prettier face and better body. Things were looking up.
“Wetin you go drink?” The woman who stood before them in black trousers and expired braids had a dirty bra strap peeking from the side of her sleeveless shirt. Snapping gum, she glanced down at the table and bent to wipe it as if as an afterthought.
“Smirnoff Ice?” Voke asked Seyefa. As she nodded, he turned back to the woman. “One Smirnoff Ice and a Guinness Extra Smooth for me. I hope say them cold well-well o.” As the woman turned to get their order, he stood. “Let me order the fish.”
While he was gone, Seyefa stared in fascination at a girl a few feet away in a micro mini and sheer pink blouse with lips to match and mammy-water hair to her waist. She would stand still for a few moments, and then as if possessed by that marine spirit, would suddenly begin undulating her hips in time to the music in a way that transfixed even Seyefa. A quick look at a nearby table revealed the glazed over eyes of a man with a premature paunch. Seyefa hoped she would take her witchcraft and be gone by the time Voke came back.
Their drinks were served first and almost twenty minutes after he had returned, a rope-thin girl bearing a wide tray arrived. Setting it down, she separated a plastic bowl from the bottom of another which held some water, divided the water between the two and placed them within reach. Next she set a large steaming roasted catfish in front of them, arranged on a tray with a lemon cut in half, some red-hot sauce, and some shredded cabbage drenched in mayonnaise with a few stray cubes of cucumber — what must pass for a salad.
Despite the fact that she had eaten just over an hour ago, Seyefa’s taste buds were not unaffected by the aroma in her face. With an arch look at Voke as the girl left, she said, “Where do you want me to put all this?”
He grinned. “Do your best. I ordered something smaller than what caught my eye, but we can’t just sit down without at least ordering something.”
She refrained from pointing out that they could have done with the drinks alone, washed her hand and began digging her fingers into the succulent fish. Voke laughed at her as she quickly pushed a portion into her mouth and blew on her fingers to cool them.
They were halfway through with the fish when a gunshot rang out and pandemonium took over. There was scrambling, tables and chairs overturning and the rush of human feet. As if in a dream, heart stuttering, Seyefa heard shouts and screams as she struggled to her feet with people whipping by her. She took a few steps in flight but was knocked off balance by fleeing bodies. She managed to hang onto the edge of a tottering table for balance and prayed not to lose it. What was going on? Had members of a cult decided to make a hit on a rival member? Was it political? Boko Haram? Her feet were moving again of their own volition, swiftly, taking her to relative safety, even as her head swiveled round in search of Voke. Where was he? She felt a touch on the small of her back and turned around in desperate relief, but it wasn’t him. It was the man with the paunch she had noticed earlier and she shrunk away from his hand.
“Are you okay?”
Besides almost pissing herself…? She nodded quickly. “What happened?”
“I don’t know.”
He sounded like that was the least of his problems. And with that he melted into the group people that, having put some distance between them and the scene of the drama, were brave enough to stop briefly to see what was really happening. All around there was the buzz of who and what and why and theories of hits and boys that were no good, marked men and sabotage of the owner’s business. Seyefa glanced back just once, hoping to glimpse Voke somewhere. A shiver passed over her bare shoulders. Was he okay? Thankful for the purse attached to her wrist and unmindful of the fishy oil on fingers and pepper sauce under nails, she dug out her phone and dialed his number. It rang and rang, no answer. She let out a shaky breath and pushed to the edge of the crowd to face the canopies. Her eyes darted about looking for the cream of his shirt, but all she saw was a police van with some officers sitting pretty in it, some jogging back to where the shot had originated from — long after the fact, naturally — and among the empty tables and chairs, some of which had been overturned, the disgruntled face of the woman who had served them drinks. Seyefa didn’t envy her or the other vendors at all; they would lose a heap of money as a result of the confusion. And over all this, like the incongruous soundtrack of a Nollywood film, Davido’s Skelewu played on stubbornly. She wondered where the DJ was.
On a final exhalation, she turned to hail one of the keke napeps lined up near the curb. The driver was a young man with pimples and a fade. Apparently those were still in, she thought irrelevantly. She gave directions to her house — she still lived at home with her mother and younger sister — and then some minutes after he had set off, changed her mind and gave him directions to Voke’s which was a bit farther. She didn’t really know why she was going there as he couldn’t be back yet. He was probably looking for her, and since he wasn’t answering his phone, maybe she should just wait for him there. He might be trying to call back but with the notoriety of telecom networks these days, he might not be able to get through. At the back of her mind was the satisfaction that it would be some time before he suggested they hang out at such a place. What was wrong with a quiet night every now and then?
Seyefa’s brow furrowed as the keke pulled up outside the house. Had Voke left the lights on in his flat? Keeping the driver waiting, she knocked on the pedestrian part of the gate and waited for the gateman to answer.
After the trauma of the past hour his gap-toothed smile was comfortingly normal. “Aunty, na you?”
“Yes o, Akpan. Well done.” About to ask after Voke, she looked through the open gate and saw the Honda Civic. Oh no, he didn’t. She turned back and, without the usual protest, paid the keke driver the outrageous fee he charged. She missed the self-satisfied look on his face as he ground the disproportionate gearstick to reverse. She had already spun around and sailed past Akpan who looked after her with a puzzled expression. By the time she knocked on Voke’s door, the mix of emotions that had begun simmering low in her belly when she spied his car was close to boiling point. She stared in disbelief when he opened the door in his singlet and a pair of shorts, smelling like a garden. He’d had time to drive home and shower? He must have driven like a demon.
He looked relieved to see her, grasping her arm to pull her in. “Thank God you’re all right. Did you see those touts? Honestly, I don’t know what this state is becoming, and the governor keeps saying they have improved security and all that nonsense.”
She gaped at him. “Are you serious, Voke?”
“What are you saying?” She wanted to slap that clean-cut face. “You just took off and left me back there and you can stand there and tell me ‘Thank God you’re all right’?”
His look turned placating. “Come on, don’t be like that. You saw how it was, all the confusion, everyone running for their life. I looked around and didn’t see you, so I figured you must have left in the scare.”
She was staring at him like he had burst into a stream of Swahili. “And you ran straight home.”
He hadn’t looked for her back there, he had disappeared faster than the infamous Anini after a raid. Was this was she was setting herself up for, a lifetime of disappointment? If he could take off in a moment of crisis when they were dating, what worse fate might he leave her mired in if they married? As her mother was fond of saying, Na from clap them dey take enter dance.
She let out a breath and summoned a small smile. “It was quite mad out there.”
“Yes!” He put a hand under her chin to look deep into her eyes. “I was worried, but you’re a sharp girl and I knew you would find your way. Why don’t you spend the night–”
A sharp shake of her head. “Take me home.”
He opened his mouth as if to object but killed the words at the look in her eye. “Let me just…wear something, then.”
The ride home was a silent one as Seyefa stared out at the dark roads interspersed with occasional lights. There were the usual roadblocks set up on her street by the local vigilante group, but after Voke exchanged a few words with them, they allowed them to pass without any issues.
“Are you okay?”
Voke’s voice was low, concerned.
A little late, she thought sourly, but turned to him with soft eyes. “Yes. Thanks.” She initiated the kiss, leaning towards him. Making it slow and tender, drawing it out. His eyes were gleaming with desire by the time she drew back. Good. Let him stew on that all night. They had gleamed in that very same way when he had laid them on the girl with the pink blouse and matching lips. Yes, she had seen him practically salivating when he returned to the table. She smiled into his eyes. “Good night.”
It was almost one-thirty and apart from the security lights outside, the house was dark and still. Seyefa let herself in with her key and crept to her room. It was only as she shed her clothing before taking a quick shower that she discovered the graze on her ankle, the mud caked on the hem of her gown. Fuming afresh, she winced as she soothed the ankle with cold water. She would apply some antiseptic cream just to be safe.
Regret and hurt sat in her chest like a heart attack. She’d been scared but had hung around out of concern for him…while he was burning rubber to the safety of his house. She wondered how her mother would react when she told her about this. The woman would say she should give Voke another chance, men had their little foibles and it was up to the woman to subtly teach her man the right thing to do and slowly, gradually — quite reluctantly — he would learn. Seyefa had heard it all before. And when she insisted, the older woman would open her eyes as far as they could go and fire her final argument: you’re not getting any younger o.
Seyefa wondered whether she should spend as much of Voke’s money as she could before cutting him loose. She could milk this abandonment theme for a few days, he was feeling guilty enough. By the time she was thinking she might just give him his marching orders so she could be free to find a new man, she was in bed. She was, also, cooling down and reconsidering her stance. She wouldn’t be too hasty — who knew what the future held? Like the oyibo man would say, she shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Voke had a lot of things going for him. If he was a little lily-livered, well…she would have to take that into account in the future. If another more promising — and, hopefully, braver — guy came into her life she would take it as a sign from heaven. But for now, she would see how things went. After all, she
was already thirty.