Everyone spoke well of her, Oskar reported. She was a people’s person and he really believed she was just right for Edwin. He spoke at length of her many virtues, not minding that his advocacy fell on reluctant ears. The recipient of all these details only partially processed what he was hearing. Up till now, Oskar was the only one of Edwin’s friends who had never taunted him about his bachelor status. The week before, another friend came with his own proposition. Edwin could still remember how Boma had pulled a picture from his wallet, where he had tucked it for safe keeping. Turning it with exaggerated care, as though handling an egg, he had handed it over to him.
‘How about this one?’
With a cynical smile, Edwin took the photograph, but he barely looked at it. He already knew that it was a snapshot of yet another single lady.
‘She’s a friend of a friend,’ Boma explained.
‘A friend of a friend?’ Edwin repeated.
Boma attempted to provide more clarity. ‘She’s a trusted friend to one of my most trusted friends.’
‘Have you met her yourself?’
‘I know only what I’ve been told.’
‘I see,’ Edwin had responded with a mixture of amusement and nonchalance. ‘Well, thanks man. I’ll consider.’
Boma saw through his ploy to dismiss him noncommittally. Aware of Edwin’s faith, he decided to shift the ball to a spiritual turf.
‘You know there is no marriage in heaven,’ he said. ‘So better enjoy it while you are here.’
‘Ah!’ His friend began to laugh. ‘Masquerading as an angel of light, are we?’
Boma was battle-ready. ‘Surely you have read,’ he argued. ‘How in the days of old, even the angels left heaven and came down here to marry the daughters of men. Why do you think they did that?’
‘Well whatever the reason, I’m sure they don’t do it anymore,’ Edwin replied, still laughing.
‘It says the women in those days were very beautiful.’ Boma made a nudge towards his proposal. ‘She is beautiful.’
Edwin barely looked. Reaching towards the bottom drawer of his desk, he made as though to archive this most recent picture. But Boma leaned forward quickly and snatched it from him.
‘I am no angel,’ Edwin responded with a shrug. ‘It’s going to take more than sheer beauty to convince me.’ He looked Boma in the eye. ‘I was once married to a beauty queen, remember? But that didn’t stop things from going sour.’
‘That was then,’ his friend replied. ‘There is no point wallowing in the past. It’s been too long.’ Placing the picture right side up, he set it back on the table. ‘Give this one a try.’
Boma was still not convinced. ‘Stop considering, my friend and do something,’ he chided. ‘At the rate you are going, my youngest son will make it to the altar before you do.’
Frowning, Edwin lifted the picture and took a good look at it - just to silence his friend. There was nothing striking for him about this particular photograph. It did not look too different from the others he had received before. With a bored look, he turned to Boma.
‘Thanks man, you’ve made your point.’
As soon as his well-meaning but nosy friend left, Edwin opened the bottom drawer and tossed the picture in with the others. That was barely a week ago and now, here was Oskar presenting his own candidate. It was not clear at what point he too had caught the fever. Edwin exhaled loudly in what sounded like a cross between laughter and a sigh of exasperation. There was no denying his friends’ sincerity, but the number of potential wives they presented to him was becoming so numerous that it would be difficult to chose, even if he wanted to. They had been plaguing him with many such candidates, since his divorce some years ago. The photos they brought of young ladies, with varying vital statistics, were piling up and he would need to empty his drawer soon. His attention was already divided as his friend rattled on about this new prospect.
‘Chairman!’ he hailed Oskar, distractedly. ‘Don’t tell me you too have joined the bandwagon. So, whose picture have you brought for me this time?’
But Oskar’s approach was different. There were to be no pictures. He reasoned it would be best if the two parties met in person, without either one having a prior mindset. Edwin narrowed his eyes. The absence of a picture to toss carelessly into his drawer changed the game slightly. It would have been easier to dismiss this latest proposition if he had something to work with. Oskar’s introduction of an element of mystery brought with it a delightful discomfort.
‘Come on man,’ Edwin scowled. ‘Don’t stand there looking cocky, telling me you have found the right one for me.’
Oskar continued to stand there, looking cocky. ‘Have I ever done this to you before?’ he teased. ‘Believe me, I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t convinced. But like I said, there will be no pictures. I’ve found the perfect place for you both to meet. All you need to do is show up.’
‘Well, at least give me a name,’ Edwin requested.
‘That, I can give - and a number too,’ Oskar agreed. ‘Her name is Omore; beautiful name, don’t you think? But everything else about her, you have to find out yourself. Mind you, she is just as skeptical about arranged matches as you are, so it’s left for you to do the convincing.’
Oskar left, having satisfactorily piqued his friend’s curiosity. He also left behind a number. As Edwin sat alone, brooding over how these friends of his would never let him be until they had him settled down, somewhere within the recesses of his mind, a thought occurred to him:
He waved it away. As one known to be extremely logical in his reasoning, he could give a thousand reasons to be disinterested. More so, he was a very practical kind of person with no time to waste and would never embark on a project which he did not intend to see through. Perhaps that was why he had never taken his friends seriously on this issue before. So why on earth should he consider this one now? The thought came again:
But really, why not?
Maybe he felt the need to humor Oskar, but Edwin reasoned that one positive move on his part would not hurt. Besides, it would show his friends that he was at least making an effort. That would, if nothing else, help to relieve the mounting pressure they were putting on him.
Any awkwardness Edwin could have felt about calling Omore was quickly dissipated, when he did. The young lady did not seem skeptical at all. In fact she was quite keen. Though she put forward a big show of being annoyed with Oskar for setting her up this way, Edwin gathered from the tone of her voice that she was definitely glad he called. It augured well that she sounded eager though not overly desperate to hook up and they agreed to meet at the location which Oskar had arranged.
The new beach had only recently opened to the public. Many residents of the surrounding area were not yet aware of its existence. Those who had discovered it were taking advantage of the early days of serenity which the small and enclosed location offered, before more people crowded in. Arriving first, Omore picked out a prime spot on one of the stone benches in a shaded area that would allow for a bit of privacy. Some distance away was a food court, with the cooks busy roasting and grilling away. Facing the water with her back to the entrance of the beach, she didn’t see her date when he arrived some minutes later. But he spotted her fairly easily- the only lady sitting by herself and enjoying her temporal state of solitude. Trust Oskar to come up with the most unconventional location for a blind date, Edwin thought trying not to smile. Still, the blessing of clear and sunny skies that weekend made this a great place for relaxation. He crossed his fingers and hoped it would not rain. Their date was set for 2p.m. He was glad Omore had kept to time, so that if they didn’t hit it off well from the start, they could wrap up the day early and go their separate ways. Strolling over to where she sat, Edwin stood behind the bench and asked softly:
‘Are you the one I have come for or should I look out for another?’
She turned round and sprang to her feet, startled out of her reverie. Exuding an infectious smile, she quickly extended her hand and apologized for allowing herself to get so lost in thought that she hadn’t seen him coming.
‘Interesting location,’ Edwin noted.
Omore nodded in agreement, as she reclaimed the space she had been occupying on the bench. She reiterated her annoyance at the audacity of their mutual matchmaking friend. ‘I must warn you that I am not good at blind dates.’
‘Neither am I,’ he assured her in return.
They both agreed they would deal with Oskar for initiating all this - but that would be later. For now, they sat quietly for a few moments until Edwin suggested they ordered something to eat.
He picked at the food on his plate, getting so engrossed in his thoughts that he did not notice she was doing the same. Minutes slipped by awkwardly. Edwin stole a glance at her. Omore was plain to look at. He wondered if she thought the same about him. Whatever her opinion about his looks, she would consider him downright rude if he did not start a conversation soon. He wished he could borrow a leaf from the books of a couple close by, who seemed very much at ease with each other. Biting into his burger, he forced himself to stay focused. Now that the mystery of seeing this faceless lady - whose many great qualities Oskar had extolled - was resolved, Edwin now faced the greater challenge of discovering the depth to her personality. There were a stream of questions that he would have liked to ask, but he did not want it to feel like they were at a job interview. The ocean’s waves beat impatiently against the sands on the beach. Where should he start? Was this a good time to tell her that he had been married before? No, he decided it was still too early for that.
‘What exactly do you do for a living?’ He finally ventured.
Her attention had been caught by the ocean view and she had on a mesmerizing stare as she watched the powerful tossing waves. Forcing herself to break away from the enthralling sight, Omore guiltily shifted her gaze to rest on Edwin. She too was distracted and seemed to find the waters more interesting than him. Patiently, he repeated the question. With a laugh, she replied that she wanted to ask him the same thing, but would be glad to go first. With a degree in corporate marketing, she had been working at an advertising firm for several years. She had other interests though, particularly in social work. More exciting than the full-time job she held down, was the volunteering she did during her spare time. Omore’s face lit up as she talked about how she currently served at an old peoples’ home, not far from town. It was obvious, from the way she spoke, that it had become a passion with her, though she admitted she was still learning the ropes there.
They spent a few more moments chatting and then took a long walk along the beach, so she could get a closer look at the waves which seemed to fascinate her so much. Edwin, in turn, talked a bit about himself - but only a bit. Their first date left him still unsure. There was a lot one could infer from a person like Omore. She came across as stable and gentle mannered, and he was definitely impressed by her. Still, it was too early to determine the possibility of their settling down together into a steady relationship. The stakes were good though. Omore seemed suited for the lifetime commitment which Edwin wanted, and there was nothing so far, to suggest otherwise. By the time the day was over, he decided that he would like to see her again. She smiled broadly when he asked if they could come out here the following weekend and replied that their time at the beach had been great but this time, she would be the one to pick the venue of their next date. There was somewhere much more special she had in mind.
The family feud, which Otas had feared, found its way to Stella’s doorstep one early Thursday. Stella was already easing into leisure mode, having finally concluded plans for a vacation. She had closed up almost all outstanding orders and briefed her assistants on how to handle new ones. The girls knew what to do and she was confident they would fare well during her one month absence. That morning, she was bent over several yards of fabric, deftly cutting them into shape, when a middle aged woman and a younger guy arrived. Their visit caused a stir on that warm but quiet day.
‘May I help you?’ Stella asked, a little startled by the way they barged in. The yards of delicate lace slipped from the work-table and landed in a heap on the floor.
Standing at the door, the visitors kept silent. Then slowly, they began pacing round the outlet; inspecting the place as though it was up for sale. For the most part, they ignored the proprietress and her assistants, except for the dark menacing glances which the guy cast in their direction. From their manner, Stella initially assumed them to be from the local government council conducting some kind of routine inspection; though she wondered why they would not even offer a word of greeting. She repeated her question a little louder, this time directing it at the woman who seemed to have the guy at her command. The woman turned slowly to face her, her face set in a frown.
‘I heard you the first time. I’m not hard of hearing, you know. I may be twice your age, but my ears are still as sharp as yours.’ Her gaze softened for a bit. ‘Stella,’ she pronounced the name in a familiar but not necessarily friendly manner. ‘Don’t you remember me anymore?’
Stella squinted in broad daylight, trying to place the face. But before she had the chance to even think, the woman came to her aid. ‘It’s me Gina; Orobosa’s step-sister,’ she announced. ‘We met only once and that was many years ago.’
There was still no recollection, but Stella thought it safer to be agreeable in order to avoid being accused of deliberate high-mindedness.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘You are welcome.’
‘Thank you,’ the woman replied. ‘Orobosa and I were very close. Despite the twelve year age gap between us, we were so close.’ She pointed to the guy who had come with her and was now leaning against the wall. ‘This is our last born - from my mother.’
Stella nodded in greeting at the guy, who only grunted in return. The woman put her bag on the worktable and stared straight at her.
‘He left almost everything to his first wife and their sons,’ she said. ‘Together, they got about ninety percent of his estate. Most of it is to be held in trust for the boys till they reach maturity.’
‘Oh, so there was a will then?’ Stella asked.
‘There was,’ the woman affirmed. ‘Obviously you got nothing otherwise they would have contacted you by now.’ She paused and added. ‘I don’t think my brother ever really saw you as part of him - anymore than he did those tramps who came to disrupt his funeral.’
She waited to see what the reaction would be. In the corner, her brother sniggered. When Stella did not say anything, she continued.
‘While there are no illegitimate children in the eyes of the law, my brother considered that only Ray and Rex were worthy of mention. As for me, I’m his only sister. Same father but different mothers yet we were so close. He practically raised me after our father died. I lived with him when he first got married and I helped raise those kids. Did you know that it was to him my husband came when he sought my hand in marriage?’
Stella shook her head. No, she didn’t know.
‘Yes, it was,’ the woman informed her. ‘And it was he who gave me away on my wedding day. To think he didn’t leave me anything.’
With a hiss, she leaned against one of the iroko stools; half sitting, half standing as though something weighed her down. The sense of entitlement that oozed out of her was further aggravated by her feeling of betrayal caused by the sin of omission which her late brother had committed against her. Inhaling deeply, Stella moved to the window to get a breath of fresh air. She did not share in the woman’s sentiments and wished she would leave. She would have liked to suggest that maybe when Orobosa gave his sister away in marriage, he expected her to live independent of him. As obvious as this was, it probably never occurred to Gina. But again, Stella wisely chose to hold her tongue.
‘We were very close,’ the woman repeated for the umpteenth time. ‘Even up till his dying day. When he was down and the others did not come, I was there. I stayed with him till the last moment. I can’t believe he didn’t even mention my name in that will.’
‘Why have you come?’ Stella asked with mounting impatience. ‘And what exactly can I do for you?’
The woman turned sharply and her countenance became fierce. ‘Obviously I did not come here to rub shoulders with you,’ she snapped.
Getting on her feet, she continued her movement round the room. An uneasy tension settled on all those present. By now, the assistants had stopped what they were doing and were watching what would happen. Finally, the woman stopped in the middle of the studio.
‘Tell me,’ she said. The calm familiar manner with which she had been speaking at first, changed to a hostile one. ‘Is it not my brother who owns this property?’
As soon as those words were spoken, Stella was hit by a sinking feeling. She quickly deciphered why these visitors had come. No doubt, these were the members of her late husband’s family whom Otas had warned about - the ones for whom the battlefront was too fierce. They had opted to find a forgotten piece of property that no one else wanted.
‘I’m going to be very blunt,’ the woman continued, as though to confirm Stella’s fears. ‘We want to make use of this place. My brother and I must have something to remember our elder brother by.’
‘Excuse me?’ Stella could barely mouth her words.
‘This is one of our brother’s properties which he failed to mention in his will,’ the woman continued as her younger sibling nodded in agreement. ‘Don’t ask me how I know about it. I told you we were very close.’
She claimed to have the title deed, certificate of ownership and other legal documents that showed the property was still in her step-brother’s name. A sense of foreboding washed over Stella and she suddenly felt too weak to argue. She had lived and worked here for years. When she walked away from her marriage to Orobosa, she did not leave empty handed. She took with her the keys to one of his modest houses - after all, she needed a roof over her head following their separation.
Orobosa did not object to the move. Perhaps he was too occupied with weightier matters. Built on a single plot of land, this house which Stella had chosen was a trifle compared to his other massive projects including the now defunct Bronze Museum. But for Stella, it was a palace - convenient for her operations and rent free. Settling on the upper floor, she relocated her fashion outlet to the bottom level. It had remained that way ever since. Till the day he died, Orobosa never troubled her or questioned her decision. It was almost like an unspoken agreement between them that this would be her haven. Besides, the place had undergone massive renovation since she took it over. With all the refurbishment put in place over the years, Stella had transformed the once empty building into much more than what she acquired.
The step-siblings, however, did not see things that way. Bent on taking possession, they were not interested in her embellishments. Stella could strip down the excess finery and take them with her for all they cared. She was even free to peel off the paint. Believing they were about to make their first ‘kill’, the duo stated that they had no need of flamboyance; all they wanted was the land and the building on it. Icily, they served her a two-week ultimatum to move out, after which they would come to forcefully evict her and seize the place.
Stella thought they were joking. Waving them away as they exited with a swipe of her hand, she turned back to her work and forgot about them as soon as they were out of sight.