‘Mr. Lasisi! Mr Lasisi! Liadi!’
Liadi pivoted abruptly, yanked from the mental calculations he had been engaged in. Maami was very generous with his allowance, by Jilete standards. But Lagos gobbled money up at a rate that would blow her village-trader mind, especially for pleasure-inclined young man. He had taken to working early evenings twice a week, on weekends and on his free days, at the wharf. He found that in addition to the extra income, he was a natural in and loved the business of importing goods into the country. In fact, that was where he was headed now, before the call of his name rent across this primary school yard.
He held his hand flat above his brow, squinting into the glare of the afternoon sun to focus on the shapes hurrying towards him. Shapes that, the closer they got, were morphed into two young women of some distant familiarity.
He waited. The last thing he was not going to do was let on that he didn’t remember them. Or worse, call out the wrong names.
‘You don’t remember us o, abi?’ the first one, owner of the voice that had called out to him, called him out.
‘Erm…’ he stalled.
‘It’s alright,’ the second young woman smiled at him shyly before levelling an admonishing gaze at her friend. ‘Be nice.’ Then the smile, directed at him again. ‘No one expects you to remember school students from over a year ago.’
‘Students… You’re students?’ He took a reflective step backward, eyeing their non-regulation attire and the full face of make-up on the first lady.
She laughed; at him he was sure. ‘Not anymore. You really don’t remember us from the high school you were posted in last year for your last teaching practice?’
He felt the memory slid into place, ironically of the second girl. She should have been easy to overlook, with her friend’s in-your-face attractiveness and brash assertiveness. In her school uniform, she was almost nondescript and blended too easily into the background, letting others vie for the metaphoric spotlight. But Liadi had noticed her solely for that reason – he was fascinated by her reserve and often wondered who she was. Also, it had been difficult to miss the way her eyes zeroed in on him whenever she thought he wasn’t looking, sliding away before their gazes could meet.
As final year student-teacher, as students at the teaching college were called, and being only a few years older, Liadi and his colleagues had not been assigned to teach the higher classes of the secondary school. They had also been sternly warned about inappropriate relationships with the high schoolers, a warning that was superfluous where he was concerned. With the ever-present knowledge of where he came from and how mum his mother endured to get him there, Liadi had no intention of jeopardizing his shot at the job awaiting him at the state secretariat upon graduation. What did it matter that he already knew by then that he wasn’t cut out to be a teacher or a civil servant?
The son Abibatu Abeke raised always keeps his options open.
So, he had noticed the shy beauty who watched him. But he had kept his distance, going the extra mile to make sure that their paths never crossed – even under the most innocent of circumstances. Thinking back, it was as though he sensed, even then, how intertwined their fates would become if their paths did cross.
Almost like the rush of emotions that was enveloping him at this moment, bathing him in the glow of her restrained, radiant smile.
‘Oh, I remember you,’ he assured her.
‘So, you’re determined to go through with it.’
Liadi looked at the woman he most owed his life, really looked at her. It had been a long time since he’d done that. The distance and bi-monthly weekend trips did not leave much room for gazing at his mother as though she was the stars, as his young self had done, so often in the past.
‘Yes,’ was all he said.
They had hashed this conversation for the best part of a year now and he was heartily sick of it. There was no going back now, anyway.
‘What I do not understand is why you cannot find another girl to marry. There are many good girls here in Jilete –’ she faltered in response to his incredulous look. ‘O da! Surely, there are other alakowe girls in Eko. Girls who are not Egun. Why this one?!”
Not this again!
The first time Liadi had brought up marriage, his mother had been ecstatic. Then again, she had been dropping very huge craters of ‘hints’ since he started making money from his business. Of course, when he ‘buckled’ under the pressure of that weight, she was happy. For all of ten minutes or so, then she started an enquiry into the woman he had chosen. She hadn’t quibbled over her being an alakowe from Lagos – after John’s, whom no one ever saw, and Raufu’s fiasco of a wife, she said, it was enough that he had chosen a Muslim girl for a change.
What did he mean she was Egun?! Over her dead body would her child take an Egun person as spouse! Hadn’t he listened to any of the tales she told him growing up? The Egun of Badagry – what, she is not from Badagry, but a village close to French? Why would he think that made any difference? Egun people are so…
Liadi had chosen not to engage, hoping that she’ll come around. But nearly a year and meeting the girl I question had not changed his mother’s mind and he was tired. If anything, his mother had dug in her heels, refusing to even listen to his entreaties on the subject. And the only visit, when he had brought Mulika to Jilete, had ended abruptly after he overheard Maami addressing her in Egun. He hadn’t needed to understand the language to detect the vitriol. They had left immediately after, and Mulika never accompanied him on any other of his fortnightly trips. He was begining to agree with her that Maami would never relent on this issue.
In any case, the time ,and wait, was up.
‘Because this one is special, Maami,’ he sighed. ‘She’s the one I want.’
For a fleeting moment, Liadi saw Mulika’s face, the expression she would wear had she heard his declaration just now. The bent head and downcast eyes, the small lopsided smile with the potency he prayed she never fully comprehends. He was not a declarative sort of man when it came to matters of the heart – in fact, he never thought of himself as involved in matters of the heart, until Mulika. The other girls before her, well, those matters were deliberated and decided in a much lower organ.
But Mulkah was different, he knew from that first official introduction, when she became a prospect – he would never look at his students that way! She was exactly what any ambitious young man with dreams of going places wanted in a partner – beautiful in an unobtrusive way, clever but quiet enough to let her man shine. And patient, but not in that long-suffering way of women who would then wield their patience as a weapon.
‘It doesn’t matter anyway. She’s –’ his stop was abrupt, and he couldn’t quite meet his mother’s gaze. ‘Maami, I don’t want to do this without you. I hope I don’t have to. But I am marrying Mulika. The civic ceremony is two months from now, in Lagos, and I want you there. Tomorrow morning, I will go into the iga and speak to the olori ebi about going to do the idanna at her village. I only put it off so long, waiting for you to come around to the idea. But I can’t, we can’t wait anymore. You know the entire agbole would support me and go with me, whatever you decide. But I hope that you – the woman who gave birth to me – will do the same. It wouldn’t be the same, getting married without you there. But I will get married, either way. O daaro, Maami.’
Liadi tried not to despair over his mother’s silence even as he got up and left her room for his room that night. Or the next day, while he concluded arrangements with the men of his father’s family. Or the next, as he took his dutiful leave of her to return to his life in Lagos.
She really was the most infuriatingly stubborn woman!
Yet, three weeks later, when the tiny Egun village just a few minutes from the nation’s border received the largest contingency of prospective in-laws anyone had ever witnessed in recent memory, the mother of the groom was the most commanding person of the entire company. Resplendent in her heavy iro and buba sewn from a most expensive looking ofi, her gele tied to intricate complexity and her pearly-white iborun adding a regal train, she looked every inch the fulfilled woman who had raised a successful son. It was, undoubtedly, her day of glory.
By contrast, posterity would note that Abibatu Abeke looked unsure and ill at ease in the wedding pictures taken just over a month later at the marriage registry in Mushin, Lagos. In this new world, one in which her son had found himself, she was a stranger.