As if the hug was not unexpected enough, it was the fierceness of it that threw him off balance. He was rocked to his heels as she crushed him in a tight embrace. The right hand he had thrust forth for a quick handshake was totally ignored, he had to step his left foot backward to maintain an upright position. She grabbed hold of his neck and clung to him like the swaddling clothes they used to wrap baby Jesus before he was deposited in the manger. Her body shook in nerve-wracking sobs as she cried with her face buried on his shoulder. It was his most intimate encounter with brazillian hair and it was all over his face.
It was nerve-wracking for him too as he stood there, like a pillar of salt, incapable of regretting why he had looked back. His arms were still out-stretched like a catholic priest at benediction, like he expected a third party in the embrace or like Jesus trying to convince Thomas of his resurrection by showing him the holes in his palms. Gradually the granite that was his face softened and he begged a look in Humphrey’s direction. Humphrey shrugged and looked away, so he allowed gravity to pull down his hands. Across her back he rested his palms, one on a shoulder blade, the other on a butt cheek.
Chima Okafor felt the warmth and fragility of her body, her scent permeated every pore in his body. She does things to him, she had done something to him, what is she going to do for him. She made him strong and weak at the same time, it was no different from how he felt the first time he met her over a year ago. He had forgotten how alluring she was, and now he was in trouble again. He has to get away from this woman, he had to console that woman.
“Am sorry” she whispered beneath the hair.
“It’s OK, it’s OK”
Chima could not recognise his voice. Humphrey looked away in embarassment or may be distaste or both. He coughed and Vivian Sylvester raised up her face and regarded Chima.
She said as she disengaged and headed for the ladies room, leaving Chima and Humphrey puzzled as they sat down near a window at Mama Cass.
Like someone choking on a crayfish bone, knowing full well that crayfish had no bones, Chima Okafor could not re-program his brains to free himself from the past. Coughing and sputtering through the present, his malady defied all the remedies he could personally offer himself. All his efforts which were akin to swallowing the whole cross river (the water body not the state) did not help him dislodge that crustacean exoskeleton that had taken up permanent residence in his oesaphagus.
He was fed up with being a passenger on this helium-filled dirigible orbiting the earth. He was ready to jump off and re-unite with humanity. It did not matter if he crashed on landing. It did not matter what part of the globe he landed. He was just tired of that mental incarceration that had him trapped. Unfortunately he had no parachute, he would have to stay put and ride it to the end, even if it was heading straight to hell.
He had often stared at a Tuesday Guardian newspaper with disgust as he appraised the numerous job openings. They often had one thing in common, they needed more than 3 years work experience which he did not have. The ones that did not require such lofty qualifications were either behind his age-bracket or full of crap. His irritation increased whenever he considered that most of the companies were similar to his previous employers. Probably well established but also probably having ill defined organizational structures. A heirarchy that permitted only one authoritative leadership. The rest of the workforce would be engaged in ‘eye-service’ and an eternal struggle to be the ‘favored’ as they tore each other apart. With accusations and some times unfounded rumours.
Chima Okafor had only worked for less than 2 years at Oceanic Ventures an advertising agency located at Adeniyi Jones Avenue, Ikeja Lagos. He was sacked for being absent from duty for over 4 months (a good enough reason), but he suspected that it had more to do with the dark cloud of the rape allegations that surrounded him.
It wasn’t like he could no longer use corel draw or photoshop, but employers seemed to avoid him like he was suffering from leprosy. Perhaps they just could not afford to pay him what he deserved. A skilled graphic artist, he still believed in himself. Nevertheless, that self-belief was hanging by a single thread these days. A year and 6 weeks had passed since he was accused of raping the daughter of the minister of state for environment. A year of heartbreak and shame he did not even feel. A year and 6 weeks of anger, hunger and unemployment. The kindness of friends and family and the occasional odd job were what kept him alive but the suicidal thoughts were never far away.
That was the mood prevalent in Chima Okafor’s life when he was invited for a lunch time meeting with Vivian Sylvester at Mama Cass. He was not looking forward to it, the food at best was immemorable. Also he shuddered involuntarily as he took his mind back to that merry evening more than a year ago at Pekas (a stone throw from Mama Cass). A night when a happy situation had gone completely awry and subsequently changed his life forever.
He had not known whether to honor the invitation or not. He had received a call the previous day, a female voice who said her name was Vivian had asked him to meet her there at noon the next day. It was the same Vivian Sylvester who had contributed greatly to his present predicament. Not the intense desire he felt on meeting her again, but the ordeal that led to his joblessness and hopelessness.
It wasn’t like he had anything to fear or that he still haboured any grudges. It’s just that he had moved on, and now this meeting had ignited emotions and a passion he thought he no longer possessed. Vivian was a stranger the day they had met and despite a very brief period of intimacy, she was a stranger still.
What Chima remembered most about the day he met Vivian was actually the toad that had hopped into his apartment. It had been a hot day and there was power outage as usual. He was too tired when he returned from work to go out and buy fuel for his ‘tiger’ generator. So he had left the door to his one bedroom apartment open. Night had fallen and the cold breeze of imminent rain made him realise he had dozed off. He got up from the sofa and made to shut the door. Out of the corner of his eyes he detected some movement. He had turned around thinking it was a rat or worse a skunk, it was neither. A medium sized toad that tried to conceal itself behind the sofa he had been sleeping on moments before. He walked casually to the bathroom, grabbed the mop and switched on the video light on his smartphone.
It took him over 30 minutes and a dead battery before he was able to cajole that toad out of his home. His apartment was also in shambles by the time the toad had left. On returning with a mop from the bathroom, the amphibian was no longer behind the sofa, it was not behind the TV set and DVD player, it was not behind the refrigerator, it was not behind the gas cooker, it was not behind the plastic drum, it was not in the bathroom. In the bedroom it was. Not under the bed, not in the wardrobe, but squeezed between the pile of magazines on the bedroom floor.
The amphibian did not possess the massive hop of its frog cousins or those Triple Jumpers at the Olympics, but it was a master of disguise and stealth. It used its camouflage dressing and the inadequate presence of light efficiently. One minute blending with the floor length curtains, the next minute it was hiding behind travel bags. Moving constantly and seemingly without haste, it melted into the shadows with amazing fluidity. It frustrated Chima from one household item to the other, feinting left and going right like a skilled boxer. It seemed to have the ability to read Chima’s mind. It guessed quite rightly that he was not about to squash it and smear his apartment with cold blood and gore. So it danced around the apartment and confounded the exasperated tenant.
Just when Chima had decided he was going to kill the intruder, the toad hustled quickly towards the doorway and hopped outside. Chima shut his door and collapsed on the rug in exhaustion, he had no idea whether to laugh or cry. He was still lying on the rug when PHCN restored electricity supply. Kids in the neighbourhood screamed “NEPAAAAAAA!” and he got up smiling with new found respect for toads. He had previously considered them to be ugly and sluggish creatures, but as he re-arranged his apartment, he realized they were actually quite smart although still repugnantly ugly. That happened the day before he met Vivian. He had since regarded the toad’s visit as a premonition he had ignored to his detriment.
“Chima you dey house”
his friend Humphrey had called from outside, the morning before they went to Allen Avenue.
“I dey oh” Chima had responded as he welcomed his friend into his apartment.
Humphrey lived on the same street with Chima, they had become companions ever since Chima lost his job. Humphrey has been unemployed since he finished ‘Youth Service’, so their friendship was not awkward. The situation with Vivian made him uncomfortable, Chima had told his friend. He was wondering if spending some his scarce resources to go to Allen Avenue for a midday rendezvous with an enemy was going to be worth his while. Aside from the fact that he was trying to put that whole other episode behind him, he was wary of female company, but she had sounded so sincere on the phone.
Humphrey had laughed and said. “Dude, she can’t do you a damn thing, the case has been closed since last year. Who knows, she may be looking for an opportunity to apologise and this may just be your chance to get some closure, or at least figure out what the whole thing was really about”.
Humphrey had never met Vivian but he knew about the fall-out from Chima’s previous encounter with her. He felt the radioactivity whenever he was in contact with Chima Okafor who had more mood swings than a pregnant mid-wife. Chima who was weirder than a clean-shave on a street lunatic. It was after they had carefully (Humphrey was more careful) considered the pros and cons that Chima had decided that closure may just be exactly what the doctor ordered.
Although he was still somehow affected by his experience with Vivian Sylvester, the sting of the trauma had waned over the passage of time. The trip from Egbeda to Ikeja will be embarked on with Humphrey as company. Together they will wrap their heads around whatever Vivian had to say. “Two heads are better than one” was quite a popular saying after all.
(to be continued)