‘You can never be homeless in this city, sis. Not with me here.’ Otas’ voice was filled with indignation as her sister sought shelter in her home. ‘Hopefully, this misunderstanding would be resolved in a week or two. Just think of it as an extension of your holiday.’
Stella looked right past her. There was not much joy in having to lodge with Otas and her family while her home remained under lock and key. She considered moving to a faraway place where life was much simpler and the people, much nicer. But she knew of no such place and would have to settle into the guest room of their three-bedroom flat.
With everything of hers locked up at the house, she came unceremoniously with no suitcases or necessities. Otas lent her a few clothes, handpicking the best ones which she believed would match her sister’s exquisite taste. Blandly, Stella murmured a word of thanks. Wearing borrowed clothes was a travesty for a fashion designer like herself. It was bad enough that she would have to live on hand-me-downs over the next couple of days, but what made it worse was that Otas was not in the least bit stylish. Her baggy tops and pleated skirts left much to be desired. But this was hardly the time to be picky. There were much more drastic adjustments to be concerned about than a fashion downgrade.
The temporary lodging also came with a change in Stella’s routine. The morning that followed, Otas and her husband left for work and the kids were carted off to school. Even the house-help had errands to run, and Stella found herself alone at home. She remained in bed, finding no joy in rising early like she had always done - indeed she saw no need to. When Otas stopped by the house later in the day to retrieve a forgotten item, she was surprised to find Stella idling around.
‘Sis, are you still in your house robe?’ she exclaimed. ‘It’s past 11am. You should be up and doing. Why not take your bath and get dressed?’
‘And then go where?’ Stella retorted. ‘You know my work is locked up back there.’
Her eyes warned her sister to quit nagging. In the days that followed, Stella stayed out of everyone’s way, including skipping dinner. When Otas expressed concern about her eating habits, she asked to take her meals quietly in her room instead. Eating in the bedroom was a bad habit in itself, Otas protested, one which she did not want her children to inculcate. Dinner time was family time and as a member of the family, Stella had to join them at the table. Only the father of the house reserved the right to be absent whenever his work kept him till the late hours of the evening.
Stella had no idea that she could feel so irritated at her sister with her many house rules. All the while, Otas did not realize she was being overbearing, not until her first daughter pointed it out. As they sat at dinner, where Stella was absent as usual, she noted that mummy ought to take it easy with aunty since it was not by choice that aunty had come to stay with them. Otas had snapped at her nine year old girl, ordering her to be quiet and face her food whereupon the child noisily slurped down a forkful of the stewed spaghetti on her plate. She finished her meal pouting in protest at the rebuke. Her mother pretended not to notice but early the next morning before leaving for work, she entered the guest room and bent over the bed where Stella lay, staring bleary eyed at the ceiling.
‘The kids say I’m being too hard on you.’
Stella turned her head but kept mute. After five minutes of trying unsuccessfully to extract a word from her, Otas gave up.
‘I seem to be losing you sis,’ she said softly. ‘You are here but you are not.’
Opening her mouth slightly, Stella stared at her but still did not say anything. She loved Otas and her family dearly but right now this was not where she wanted to be, cooped up inside their little spare room. She needed to get on with her life and her work but wasn’t sure how to go about doing that.
Sighing, Otas stood up. ‘I have to go. I need to make some quick stops on my way to work.’
She left, feeling unnerved. Following the saga with the in-laws, Otas would have preferred for her sister to lash out. She would prefer to see her shed some tears; rather than that dry, distant look that portrayed no emotion. She was prepared to stand by her if only Stella would tell her where she stood. Even if she felt she did not have the strength to fight back, Otas wished she would at least say so. Right now, it was impossible to unravel what was going on in Stella’s mind. Otas had not seen anything like this before. Her sister was a strong woman, but she was clearly homesick and something inside her seemed to be cracking. Her sudden withdrawal and silent retreat might not be a condition that required medical attention but it was unhealthy nonetheless and the sooner they dealt with it, the better.
Edwin hitched a ride to work with a neighbor, as his vehicle was undergoing repairs that morning. Inside Mr. Aigbe’s car, he leaned back against the head rest and allowed his mind to wander as they drove into town. Just the previous day, he had spent the evening clearing out his desk. The photos of all those eligible ladies no longer littered his bottom drawer. He had discarded them all. The only picture that remained was the mental one he held of Omore. She was everything Oskar had described and Edwin was not disappointed when they met. The next thing was discovering how best to impress her, not that she needed impressing for it was obvious that she was already quite taken with him. She seemed rather absent minded whenever they were together. Just that weekend, she had forgotten her journal in his car. He recalled their outing. It had been a special one, and he was left trying to figure out how to create an even greater impression on her than she had done on him.
Reaching into his briefcase, he fished out the little book. He bit his lips pensively as he opened the first page of the stapled sheets: the jottings of a legend, as Omore had described it. Edwin was not much of a reader and his literary habits were nothing to write home about. He was the type of person who could never read a suspense novel without first checking how it turned out. Whenever he was presented with a book, he would run through the first few pages, then turn to the end and read the closing chapter. It ruined everything else that lay in the middle but that was his style, for he never had the patience to read through an entire book. Opening the first page of the journal, he read the starting lines;
Walking through life’s paths, there are deep mysteries to unfurl.
There is still so much to accomplish before eternity’s call.
For others, yes. But as for me, this heart will soon be stilled.
For when eternity beckons, this ailing earth must yield.
Impressed, Edwin pursed his lips together. Whoever this old woman had been, she was a deeply poetic person. He read on:
I remember when it all seemed a futile, dreary quest.
Life, with its labors, had no luster - mere drudgery at its best.
But along the way, Christ’s call resounded to a higher goal
I found that a deeper essence lay deep within my soul.
I look back at my brief sojourn, over almost in the blink of an eye.
Though I was here longer than some, it’s still as though time just flew by.
Now I’m homeward bound, to join the heroes of our faith,
And friends who have fallen asleep, that glorious morning to await.
Edwin nodded to himself. The old woman certainly knew what she was talking about. If her opening words were so poignant, then how would the rest of it be, he wondered as he scoured through the pages haphazardly. The writer switched her poetic streak on and off, depending on her mood. There were some experiences which she wrote about plainly with no fine use of words, merely as though holding a conversation with a silent friend. In his typical manner, Edwin quickly turned to the last note in the journal to see its conclusion. It was plain and un-poetic:
This dear lady came to the house today. I think she might be my last visitor and I perceive her time with me will be short. I’ll try to give her all I can before my eyes finally close.
She must be asleep now for it’s after midnight. It’s been a rough day for her. She mentioned that she’s a beauty queen but I didn’t see any of that. Her countenance, when she arrived, was a fright with tears streaming down her face - and a bit of blood here and there. Her hair flew wildly everywhere and her clothes were rumpled and messed up.
When she started speaking, I got to understand the reason for her disheveled appearance. She poured out her heart like water gushing from an open tap. She wept, but it was more because of life’s let-downs than the physical pain inflicted by her husband’s brutal treatment.
I feel a special bond with her. I cannot but be stirred by her pain, yet I must be firm. There isn’t much time so I must temper my sentiments with sound judgment. I must give compassion, care and fairness; all in that order. No doubt when we are done, she will be beautiful again.
Edwin wasn’t sure why he had a jittery sensation inside him, as though he had read this piece somewhere before. Of course he knew that was impossible, so why this feeling of déjà vu over this narrative? A tap on his shoulder distracted him as Mr. Aigbe leaned forward.
‘We’ll make a quick stop at the bank before I drop you off,’ he said. ‘I need to make some deposits.’
Edwin said a respectful okay. Mr. Aigbe was not only a good neighbor, he was also his chief client and one of the few to whom he made deliveries personally. The younger man had styled the older on many different occasions. He liked to think of Mr. Aigbe as his boss. After all, a large chunk of his work had come from members of this man’s household. It was amazing that Mr. Aigbe was already in his seventies yet showed no signs of slowing down. Edwin wondered if he ever intended to retire. He was intelligent and Edwin liked him to an extent. He enjoyed his stories. Though he had humble beginnings, when it came to his family life, Mr. Aigbe made great boasts. More than Edwin cared to admit, he particularly liked the way the older man addressed him. He could still remember when they first met, Mr. Aigbe had asked him: ‘How’s it going, son?’
The younger man had found it rather amusing and wondered what the most appropriate response ought to be. He almost wanted to reply: ‘Fine, dad!’ But he checked himself and used ‘sir’ instead. Initially he thought it was because the man had no sons of his own, only to discover later that he had three of them - and many grandsons as well. But the term ‘son’ was one he used freely with his younger acquaintances. He had taken a special liking to Edwin; the latter was not sure why.
There were other things he did not find so likeable about the older man. Though he held Mr. Aigbe in high esteem, he could not help finding him a little too inquisitive. Every time he paid him a house call, Edwin ended up revealing a little more about himself than he would have liked. Looking back now, he wondered how the older man managed to get all that information out of him. The way he asked his questions made it impossible to deny him answers. Already his eyes had rested on the content in Edwin’s hands.
‘What’s that you are holding?’ he asked.
‘Oh nothing important sir,’ Edwin replied, tilting his head. ‘Just some sheets of paper.’
‘It doesn’t appear to be unimportant to me,’ his chief client persisted. ‘You certainly seem to prefer its company to that of the person you are riding with.’
Edwin smiled apologetically as the driver slowly turned off the road and came to a stop at the bank. He waited as Mr. Aigbe came down and stood at the bonnet of the car, signing his cheques. A familiar face emerged from the banking hall. Alighting, Edwin called out and waved to her. She looked pleasantly surprised to see him and approached with eagerness, under Mr. Aigbe’s enquiring eye.
‘Otas,’ Edwin exclaimed. ‘Imagine running into you here.’
‘I know,’ she replied. ‘It’s barely a month since I last saw you.’
They shared a quick handshake. As it became obvious that a level of familiarity already existed between them, Mr. Aigbe turned his attention back to what he was doing. It would not be the first time Edwin and Otas’ paths would cross by chance as they bustled around town. Yet no matter how often they ran into each other, their chance meeting always brought much awkwardness. Their conversation was polite but a little strained as they deliberately avoided a mutually sensitive topic. Each time, Edwin debated within himself whether to ask that one little, discomfiting question. And each time, he decided it would be impolite not to.
‘How’s your sister?’
Otas nodded in anticipation of the question. ‘She’s fine,’ she responded. That was usually all she said but this time, she felt compelled to modify her answer. ‘Umm, well no actually she’s not.’
Immediately she bit her lip, wishing she had stopped at her usual response but it was too late and Edwin had heard the additional part. He waited for further clarification but none was forthcoming.
‘What do you mean? Is she ill?’ he probed.
‘No, not at all.’
‘So what’s the matter?’
Otas shook her head. ‘Me and my big mouth; I shouldn’t have said anything.’
‘Well you did and I heard you.’
She sighed. ‘Then can we pretend that you didn’t?’
‘Otas!’ Edwin scolded. He placed the journal on the car seat and gently turned her aside so they could talk privately.
Otas hesitated for a while. She was not sure if she should tell him anything. Stella’s pride would never allow for Edwin to hear of her predicament. She would not take it kindly if he got to know of it by her own sister.
‘You must have heard about Orobosa?’ Otas began slowly. ‘Since he died, some of his relatives have been harassing her. They came and seized her place.’
She paused. Her sister would be furious if she knew this conversation was taking place.
‘They tried to sell the property while she was still living in it.’
Stella would not like this at all; Otas knew. Yet she continued.
‘It is not only her home but also her source of livelihood. She stumbled on them trying to seal the deal and when she tried to stop them, they sealed up the place instead. Now she’s stuck living with me and she’s miserable with no motivation to go out. She has barely come short of saying there is a lion in the streets waiting to devour her - although that excuse would not be too farfetched if you consider that the ferocity of her sister-in-law would make the finest pride of lions jealous.’
Otas choked back emotion but as she spoke, Edwin turned away. Unfortunately he could not say with all honesty, that he was touched. His first reaction was to gloat but he maintained a straight face as the news bounced off him like water on a duck’s back.
‘So what do you want me to do?’ he asked with a blank stare
Frowning, Otas shook her head. He must have misunderstood her. ‘We don’t want anything from you,’ she corrected him gently. ‘Remember I didn’t want to say anything, you made me talk.’
The awkward silence crept back between them as Otas squinted thoughtfully. She could hardly believe what she was about to say. Stella would certainly eat her up now.
‘Still! Now that you know, it wouldn’t hurt if you got in touch.’
Shrinking back, Edwin exclaimed in a rather loud voice. ‘Get in touch? Me? No way!’
‘If only to encourage her,’ she looked at him hopefully. ‘I have tried to, but I didn’t get very far.’
‘I don’t have time for that,’ he objected.
‘I know you are busy.’ Otas insisted with quiet stubbornness. ‘We all are. But people make time for things that are important to them.’
He almost laughed at her gall. What made her think Stella was important to him?
‘Listen to me,’ he said sternly. ‘My heart goes out to your sister over what has happened, but I can’t get involved.’
She noticed how he emphasized ‘your sister’ with a sense of detachment and decided not press further. It was probably in bad taste to have said anything in the first place.
‘Okay,’ she turned to go. ‘See you again soon.’
It was only after she left that Edwin noticed that somewhere during the course of their discussion, Mr. Aigbe had disappeared into the banking hall. Thankfully, he did not have to wait too long for him to complete his transactions and come out again.
‘I overhead your conversation,’ the older man admitted as soon as they got into the car and set off again.
Edwin frowned; not at all happy to hear there had been eavesdropping going on while he and Otas talked. Mr. Aigbe should not have done that - and was that Edwin’s journal he was holding? When did it get into his hands?
‘The conversation was not important,’ he assured him trying to conceal his irritation as he stretched out his hand to retrieve the little book.
Mr. Aigbe did not hand it back. ‘That’s the same thing you said about this,’ he said, flipping the journal open. ‘Is anything important to you?’
‘With all due respect, sir,’ Edwin replied. ‘The discussion was of a personal nature - and so is that book. If I could please have it back...’
He had been reading the closing note with details of Edede’s last visitor and he really wanted to finish it. But the older man did not respond. His eyes were fixed on the pages as apparently, he too had started reading the book. For the rest of the ride, there was silence in the car. When he finally dropped Edwin off, Mr. Aigbe said to him.
‘I guess you’ll be too busy to read anything at work today, considering my clothes are due this Friday. You may see me for your journal after you deliver them.’