Lucy had a room in a grumbling house in a neighbourhood that was a shanty or a ghetto depending on whom you asked. The neighbourhood was covered with a dozen little lakes of standing water, with precarious rocks as bridges, dry bushes and portions of rubbish here and there. The smell of rot stood over the neighbourhood like a knight’s armour. The smell made Olivier nervous. But Lucy’s room was good, rugged, smelled well and well-arranged with a neat kitchen place, a make-up table and a well-set wardrobe area.
‘Lucy, meet my friend Olivier,’ Iyke introduced. ‘Olivier, Lucy.’
Lucy’s kind face beamed. ‘How are you, dear?’
Olivier nodded fine.
‘Make yourself comfortably, do sit down.’
Olivier looked at Iyke who nodded. She sat on the queen-sized mattress. Iyke took Lucy’s hand and led her outside. Olivier wondered whether the lady would allow her stay here, and what Iyke was telling her. That he picked her on the road, and without shoes? That…?
‘Lucy is a nice girl and will take good care of you.’ Olivier didn’t even know when Iyke came back; she just heard his reassuring voice. ‘She is a student but don’t hesitate to ask her for anything; it is on me.’ His face crowded. ‘Right?’
Olivier nodded. Is he angry? She wondered. But his face wasn’t cloudy, just twisted with avuncular concern.
‘What did you cook?’ Iyke addressed himself to Lucy.
‘I made egusi soup.’
Iyke faced Olivier. ‘You want that?’
‘Lucy, please warm the soup and made eba for her? Or do you prefer semo?’
‘Anything,’ Olivier said but it wasn’t more than a whisper.
‘What did you say?’
‘Anything.’ Now a whisper.
‘Good. Come, let me show you to the bathroom.’ He went outside and Olivier quickly made for the door, but Lucy called her. ‘You have to change and take the sponge bowl and towel.’
Olivier didn’t like the idea of keeping Iyke waiting. But when she finally came out with a towel tied across her chest to just above her knees she became shy and walked timidly behind Iyke who carried the bucket of water to the bathroom that smelt of body, hair and decayed soap. The bathroom was as dark as a forest at mid-night. ‘Let me get you light.’
Iyke soon returned with a rechargeable lamp.
Cold water, Olivier frowned when she dipped her finger in the water. She shrugged and reluctantly began to wash.
When Olivier returned to the room from the bathroom her heart missed a beat when she didn’t see Iyke. ‘He went to buy something?’ she asked Lucy.
‘He has gone home,’ Lucy informed.
He couldn’t wait to say goodbye, Olivier thought angrily. She changed into Lucy’s skirt and blouse and sat rigidly before the dish of egusi and eba. Why didn’t he say goodbye? She frowned.
‘You don’t like egusi?’ Lucy misunderstood Olivier’s frowning.
Olivier tried unsuccessfully to smile. ‘I like it.’ She began to wash her hand.
Someone knocked at the door.
‘Iyke?’ Olivier asked excitedly. But it was a neighbour, here to borrow a match-box. Olivier hissed with disappointment. But her eyes kept going from her food to the door, back to the food then to the door…
Another knock landed at the door. It must be Iyke, Olivier rushed to open the door. It wasn’t Iyke.
‘Is Lucy in?’ the woman asked but Olivier just walked back to her food, crestfallen.
Olivier spent the rest of her night, a petulant child. After eating, she didn’t say thank you nor clear the dishes; she just climbed the mattress. ‘Do you want more?’ Lucy asked as she cleared the dishes. ‘No,’ Olivier said automatically. Later Lucy brought out her lap-top and called Olivier to come and see a movie, but Olivier didn’t bother with an answer, she just lay, biting her lips and nursing puny anger against Iyke. How dare he leave without saying good night?
On the mattress, it didn’t occur to Olivier that she ought to lie on one side to make room for her host; no, Olivier didn’t think of that, she lay on the centre of the mattress, spread out like a broken aircraft. When the time came for Lucy to retire, there was no room for her on the bed. She smiled at the sleeping girl. ‘Poor baby Olivier,’ she said as she threw her pillow on the rug.
Olivier opened her eyes and for half a second didn’t remember where she was. Then a smile cut her face into two cheerful halves as she remembered. Iyke’s place. Then she inhaled the scent of perfume and cream and corrected her thought. It was Iyke’s cousin’s place actually.
‘Good morning,’ Lucy said.
Olivier lifted her head and saw Lucy at the make-up table. Lucy was clad on sleeveless shirt and jeans trousers which exposed the firmness of her hips and attractive backline.
‘Good morning,’ Olivier said.
Lucy grabbed her bag. ‘I am off to lectures.’ She pointed at the kettle and stove. ‘Make tea.’ Then a nod at the bread. ‘Just feel at home, dear.’
Kind lady, Olivier was thinking, kind and beautiful, ebony pear-shaped face, well-formed, active; perhaps twenty-four years old.
‘What are you thinking?’ Lucy asked.
‘When are you coming back?’ Olivier inquired.
‘In the afternoon. Bye.’
Olivier sat up the bed, grateful for the gift of night rest. Now that she was alone she remembered Iyke and the uncivil way he left her last night. He didn’t say goodbye, he didn’t, just went away. She made up her mind to scold him when he came. To do this, she needed energy, the energy that breakfast brought. She left the bed and made for the kettle.
Olivier was now worried. Twelve o’clock and Iyke wasn’t yet here. What was keeping him? Didn’t he know that the first thing he should have done this morning was to come and see her, see how she was faring? Didn’t he know! What could be keeping him? Had he met with some accident? Or—she didn’t want to think this but the thought forced itself into her head—he had forgotten her, left her and wouldn’t bother to check her again. No! she dismissed this with anger. It wasn’t possible. He must be held back by something and she would go look for him.
Olivier stepped out of the room and walked to the compound door. She looked at the scanty street for a while with unconcealed displeasure then began to make for the main road. She stopped at the place where the dusty street met the steaming asphalt of the road. Now, she didn’t know whether to turn left or right. Which was the way the way they came last night? She didn’t remember, it was in the dark when they came otherwise she would have made for the brothel/hotel to ask anyone of him.
Olivier looked around and caught the quizzical eyes of a provisions shop keeper on her. Quizzical and dangerous. She scowled and looked away. She murmured strong disapprovals as she walked to the concrete electric pole to lean. She looked up again; the man was staring at her. She looked at him long enough to see that he was bald-headed and nursed a hungry moustache. Olivier looked away and spat on the dust.
Olivier sighed. She had been waiting for Iyke now for forty minutes. Forty minutes in which the shop keeper’s eyes bore holes into her body. She became angry. What was she doing, waiting for a man under this oppressive sun? Who was the man to her, even? Her anger, self-critical at first soon consumed Iyke. To hell with him! She turned to go back to Lucy’s lodge. She bumped into Iyke.
Her anger, like darkness at the pressing of the light switch, vanished instantly. She stepped back and tried to glare at him but it was impossible. She just wanted to hug him, would have hugged him if her body hadn’t been paralysed with relief.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I—I—I…’ she couldn’t bring herself to say it.
‘You were bored and decided to stretch your legs?’
‘But you didn’t lock the door. It is dangerous to leave the door open, Olivier. Lucy will be heart-broken if she loses her lap-top, you know.’
Olivier felt ashamed of herself but even this couldn’t spoil her happiness of seeing Iyke. Iyke took her hand and they began to walk to the house.
Iyke stopped walking. The shop keeper beckoned at him. ‘Excuse me,’ he said and went to the shop keeper.
‘How far, Okoro?’ The men shook hands.
‘Who be that girl?’ Okoro inquired.
‘Is that why you called me?’ Iyke demanded.
‘Just answer me.’
Iyke began to walk away. Iyke asked him to wait. ‘I kept someone under the sun.’
‘I want to show you something.’
Iyke glanced at Olivier, smiled apologies to her and joined Okoro in his stuffy shop. Okoro handed him a newspaper. ‘See this.’
Iyke’s heart did a small jump at what he saw but he managed to keep his face expressionless. In the newspaper was a full page coloured photograph of Olivier, probably taken six months back. Olivier was smiling at him and the innocence in her white teeth nearly broke his heart. The inscription read:
HAVE YOU SEEN THIS GIRL?
Her name is Olivier Donald.
She is missing. Her family is worried and will appreciate
It if you contact the following numbers on sighting her—
‘Is she the one?’
Iyke continued to devour the page with his eyes.
‘Is she the one?’ Okoro was impatient.
‘Of course not. That girl over there is my cousin. This thing na just resemblance.’ Iyke began to go.
‘Wait, gimme the paper now.’
‘I will keep it for a while,’ Iyke said with a note of finality.
‘I bought that paper 1000 naira o and…’
But Iyke had re-joined Olivier.
‘What did he show you?’ Olivier asked.
‘Why then are you worried?’
‘My team lost.’
‘It is an old newspaper.’
‘It is an old match.’
Olivier didn’t believe him. He didn’t seem to care. They walked in silence.
‘When we get home you will tell me everything about yourself, dear.’
Olivier stopped walking automatically as though an invisible hand had grabbed at her brake. She snatched her hand from Iyke’s hand.
‘What is the matter?’ He didn’t understand, what had he said wrong?
She kept quiet but he could see the pains in her eyes. ‘Let’s go.’ But she shifted back with disagreement. Iyke didn’t know what he did wrong, and could do right.
‘Erm… You hungry? Let’s check a restaurant. After that you could tell me everything that happened to you—’
Then he understood. ‘Okay, okay, don’t tell me. Let’s go home.’
‘No. I am not going with you.’
‘I am not telling you anything about me.’
‘It is okay. Let’s go.’
Iyke was at a loss on what to do. The shop keeper was looking at them and Iyke knew he ought to act fast. ‘I was going to buy you some clothes, dear. Let’s take the bus and go to a classic boutique. Come on… You dare not say no! Or I will have to drag you there.’
He began to make for the road. Reluctantly, Olivier followed him. Now, the whole street was looking at them.
Olivier had two big nylon bags full of wears and her heart full of joy. ‘Olivier Twist,’ Iyke teased her, ‘you kept asking for more.’
They stopped at the cashier’s desk. She checked the dresses and told Iyke his bill. Iyke brought out his wallet; his whole money was 15000 naira short.
‘Would you give me credit?’
‘No,’ the cashier affirmed, ‘let her return some of the clothes.’
‘No,’ Olivier affirmed back.
Iyke suppressed a whistle of indecision. Then, ‘Wait for me; let me check with the manager.’
Three minutes later Iyke and an elderly well-dressed fat woman came out of the manager’s office, all smiles. ‘Jane, don’t you know Iyke is a son to me?’ the woman beamed at the cashier. ‘Allow him credit, dearie, he will pay, won’t you Iyke?’
The woman laughed.
Elated, Olivier began to make for the door, her load weighing her down, but she didn’t bother. She would show Lucy the dresses and brag. As she reached the door, it opened and she stepped back to let the incomer pass, but the woman dressed in beautiful Ankara material stood looking at her. Olivier looked up and sharply caught her breath, for standing before her was her step-mother!
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