A critical examination in the mirror revealed that this was nowhere near one of Edwin’s best jobs. Standing in his living room, Mr. Aigbe turned round a couple of times to get a better view of his new clothes. The embroidery at the neck and sleeves was extremely crooked and the hemming was poorly done.
‘It’s my fault,’ he remarked as he smoothed out the fabric. ‘I should not have held you to ransom the way I did.’
‘No, no! I take full responsibility for this.’ Edwin replied with unfeigned remorse. There could be no excuse for a shoddy job. ‘It’s not ruined. It might take some time but I’ll take it back and rework the finishing all over again.’
‘No hurry,’ Mr. Aigbe said kindly. He had worn the younger man’s label for years, so he knew that today’s imperfections were not his usual style. ‘You’ve got something on your mind,’ he observed, ‘something that has to do with our stop over at the bank that other day, maybe?’
Edwin bit his lip. All traces of irritation over what happened that day had dissolved. There was no way he could remain upset with the older man for long; he respected him too much for that. Now, he was only eager to lay his hands on the journal again. He was to see Omore that weekend and did not want to have to make excuses when she asked for it.
‘Actually, I wanted to get my journal back,’ he pointed out.
‘Ah, your little book!’ Mr. Aigbe exclaimed. ‘I did promise to return it to you when you delivered my clothes.’
His forehead creased as he looked round the living room, as though trying to remember where he had kept it. Moving to a little study table in the corner, he began lifting files and papers from the desk. He searched on the table, underneath it and then around it. When he did not find what he was looking for, the creases intensified. He took to searching around the dining area, while Edwin waited.
‘I hope I have not misplaced it,’ he remarked, then added lightheartedly. ‘But remember the agreement was to give it back when you were through with the clothes. Maybe it’s gone into hiding since you’ve not quite finished the job.’
His joke fell flat as Edwin exhaled. ‘Actually, it’s not mine. I got it from a friend and it’s not even hers either.’ He paused for a while before volunteering some suggestions. ‘Do you think you may have left in your car? Or maybe even at the office?’
Mr. Aigbe shook his head. ‘It’s in this house somewhere. I’m sure of that. What I’m not sure of is where exactly. Perhaps Mrs. Aigbe would know.’
It would not be the first time Edwin would be meeting his client’s wife. She had her own fashion stylists so he knew her only from afar but Mr. Aigbe talked about her often. They shared forty four years of wedlock between them - forty four years and counting - he would boast. On entering the living room, she gave Edwin a wide and welcoming smile as she always did and he saluted her with an equally big dose of esteem. As she came closer to admire her husband’s new attire, Edwin observed how much alike they both looked. He had never noticed it before but when he blurted out his observation, his client was quick to object.
‘Oh no!’ Mr. Aigbe exclaimed. ‘Mrs. Aigbe looks so much better than I do.’
It was amusing the way he always referred to her by her formal title. They both seemed used to it though and her laughter showed that she found his verdict most gratifying. Turning to Edwin she said,
‘Mr. Aigbe has always been so modest.’
‘I am being honest,’ her husband replied. ‘You still have those perfect dimples which fascinated me from the first day.’ He clicked his teeth and added a bit sternly. ‘Although they disappear when you frown and then you don’t look so great anymore.’
‘Well I’m smiling now, aren’t I?’
Edwin watched them as they engaged in a good natured, compliment-filled argument over who looked better. Their preference for each other was so disarming he was not sure whose side to take. He decided to stay on neutral ground and maintain that they looked alike. No doubt, he liked this elderly couple and their display of fondness warmed his heart. Fast forward to forty four years from now, he too could see himself standing in his living room, sharing the same golden moment with...
‘Edwin has come for his journal.’ Mr. Aigbe’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
‘Ah! Of course,’ his wife replied.
She confirmed she had sighted the little book when her husband brought in his things from the car the other evening. She recalled picking it up after supper and reading it while he watched the news. Hurrying indoors, she returned a few minutes later - without the journal. Her right hand was pressed against her forehead in thought.
‘I’m sure it’s around somewhere.’ she said. ‘I read it for a little while and then fell asleep on the couch.’
‘Are you sure one of your friends did not pick it up?’ Her husband offered some clues.
‘Only Agnes has been here since then,’ she replied. ‘And she has no interest in such things.’
She went back indoors and Mr. Aigbe followed, to change out of his clothes. She returned again, empty handed still, but wearing her pair of glasses to aid her in her search. She overturned the throw pillows in the living room and lifted the cushions off the chairs all in a bid to find the journal. She searched so intently, going back and forth, that Edwin began to feel like a nuisance. Mr. Aigbe returned and handed the folded clothes back to him. Then noticing his wife’s agitation, he too joined in the search. They both went indoors and came out again, bumping into each other along the corridor and asking:
‘Have you seen it yet?’
By now Edwin was extremely uncomfortable at the way he had disturbed the elderly couple. All this ado over a little book which he claimed was not important. He cleared his throat.
‘It’s okay, really’ he said. ‘I can always get it back another time. It’s not like I need it urgently.’
‘I’m sorry about this,’ Mrs. Aigbe apologized profusely, her eyes still darting to and fro. ‘We’ll definitely find it for you. It’s really very strange. Books don’t just get up by themselves and walk away, do they?’
She looked clearly stressed from all that running around and her husband put his hand on the small of her back as though to help her catch her breath.
‘It’s really not a big deal, madam.’ Edwin assured her once again and turned to leave. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘Will that be all?’ she called after him, as he got to the door. ‘Or is there anything else we can do for you?’
Edwin paused and checked the time. It was getting late and he had one more house call to make that day, so he knew he ought to be on his way. But though he had troubled this couple enough for one evening, he was glad she asked that question. His host obviously meant to know if he would like some refreshment. He was not sure if she made the offer because she was eager to compensate him for not being able to find his journal or if she was just being her hospitable self. But it did not matter the reason, he decided, as he retraced his steps back to the middle of the living room. No, he did not want anything to eat or drink, but there was something else he needed. Perhaps Mr. Aigbe could help with that. That chance meeting with Otas had been bothering him since it occurred. Dismissing her in the curt manner that he did, had not brought about any closure to their conversation. He had revisited the issue in his mind at least a dozen times since then. Should he continue to ignore it even though he still pondered on it, or should he go ahead and get in touch with Stella like Otas had asked?
‘What is it, son?’ Mr. Aigbe prompted.
Slowly, Edwin leaned against the wall. He struggled within himself whether to bare his mind. In retrospect, he was glad that the older man had listened in on his conversation that day. Yet he knew his client. As inquisitive as Mr. Aigbe was, he would never venture his opinion without being asked.
‘Well since you mentioned it,’ Edwin began. ‘About that little incident, I’d like your advice.’
He did not need to elaborate further. Mr. Aigbe already knew what he was referring to. It was his wife who looked lost.
‘I’d say you should go ahead and get in touch,’ the older man said. ‘There’s no telling how far one encouraging word would go. Besides if it is in your power to do some good, why hold back?’
Edwin nodded. ‘I hear you, sir.’
He straightened up, said goodnight and left their home without another word.
Stella began making a gradual effort to spend time with her sister’s family. The previous evening, she had sat with them at the dinner table though she ate very little. Today as well, she seemed in no hurry to retire to her room. Otas considered this to be a significant improvement. She let her older sister pick her choice of what to watch as they sat in front of the television in the late hours of the afternoon. Stella fiddled with the remote control, changing the channel whimsically as though unaware there were others watching with her. But as much as they yearned for their favorite programs, not even the kids complained. When the doorbell rang, the young ones were glad for the interruption as they all sprang up and dashed towards the ringing sound, eager for something more exciting. In the end it was Otas who answered the door. As she shooed the kids away, she wondered who that could be for it was too early for her husband to be returning from work. Yet she would have been less surprised to see him at the door, than she was at seeing the person who was actually there. So surprised was she, in fact, that she just stood there gaping until the visitor wondered if she was going to allow him in.
‘You came!’ she exclaimed.
‘That’s what you asked of me, wasn’t it?’
‘Oh of course.’
From the living room, Stella heard but did not immediately recognize the voice of the man talking with her sister at the doorway. In no mood to join in entertaining any guest, she tucked both feet into her slippers and was getting up to leave, when Otas reappeared with the visitor. Stella nearly fell back into the couch in surprise when she saw who had come calling. She squinted to make sure she was not seeing double.
He extended his hand, which she awkwardly accepted. It was a loose grip from which she withdrew quickly as though she had just touched some burning coals. They had not seen each other in years. Now coming face to face, words failed them both. Stella had, on occasion, wondered what she would do if she ever saw Edwin again. But now with him standing there, she was too destabilized to remember what her plan of action had been.
‘I seem to have caught you at a bad time,’ he said.
‘Oh no, not at all. We weren’t doing anything.’
She had no idea why he had come and considered whether to ask outright or to offer him a seat first. He must have heard about Orobosa, but it was ridiculous to expect that he came to offer his condolences. They looked at each other and almost immediately, Stella looked away but Edwin did not.
‘I heard there has been a feud,’ he went straight to the point.
A lump formed in Stella’s throat. How fast news travelled. She sensed he was still watching her but was reluctant to look at him again for fear of what she would see in his eyes - resentment, empathy or a gloat?
‘Oh but, but...’ she stammered. ‘How did you know I was here?’
From the corner of the living room, Otas gulped. She hoped that their visitor would not reveal the part she had played in his coming over. Edwin was tactful enough in his reply.
‘Where else would you be if not at your sister’s place?’ he asked.
But Stella was not convinced. She shot a questioning glare in Otas’ direction. By reflex, her sister shrank back. So intense was Stella’s gaze on her that she felt a strong need to escape from it. Quickly, she ushered the kids - who had taken over the television set - out of the living room, shutting down their protests as she mumbled something about them finishing their homework before supper. Then she too turned and slipped away.
In the safety of her kitchen, Otas poured out a glass of cold water and drank slowly. She dared not guess what could be going on in the living room. The noise from the television set drowned out the conversation which she had not waited to hear. She picked up some ears of corn from a basket and peeled away furiously at the husks, resisting that maddening temptation to tiptoe back there and listen in - she was in enough trouble already. Something told her that Stella would either throw her out of her own house for what she had done or thank her later. Right now, the former seemed more likely.
It was not clear how much time passed - twenty minutes, thirty, or maybe even an hour - before the creaking of the front door being opened was heard, followed by the soft clapping sound of it being shut again. Otas remained in the kitchen, watching the pot of corn as it boiled furiously on the fire. Within minutes, Stella marched into the kitchen.
‘Otasowie! Did you know?’
‘That he was coming here?’
‘No I did not know,’ Otas replied truthfully because indeed Edwin had told her he would not come.
Stella eyed her. ‘Don’t lie to me young woman,’ she demanded. ‘Tell me truthfully, that you didn’t know he was coming here.’
‘Ok, ok, listen! Yes I ran into him and we talked about what happened. I admit that I suggested he got in touch with you, but he bluntly refused. That was almost a week ago. I had no idea he would change his mind. I only wanted to help.’
She opened the deep freezer and bent waist deep into it, to retrieve a bowl of frozen ground pepper - and maybe also to hide herself.
‘And what kind of help did you have in mind?’ Stella demanded sarcastically, challenging her sister to a heated argument. ‘Were you hoping he would ask me to relocate to his house?’
Otas lifted her upper torso out of the deep freezer, a plastic bowl in her hand. ‘No, but I did hope his coming here would shock you out of your moodiness and get you to unleash your frustration.’ She paused and added, ‘even if it is misdirected at me.’
Stella bit her lip. She seemed a little pacified, maybe even sorry to have lost her temper.
‘You must admit,’ Otas continued as she shut the freezer. ‘It was frightening the way you withdrew into a shell where no one could reach you. My first concern was to return you to your element.’ She smiled cheerily and tried to ease the tension. ‘Well, how did it go, after the initial shock of seeing him was over?’
‘The shock is still not over!’ Stella exclaimed. ‘It was particularly embarrassing being caught wearing these baggy clothes of yours.’ They both laughed as she continued. ‘I told him everything; I guess I had no choice. He said to me, “Stella, I find no pleasure in your pain and hope it gets resolved soon” and then he urged me to do something about the situation - he wasn’t clear exactly what, but he said: “You can’t just sit around here day in, day out.” ’ Her eyes widened in exaggerated surprise. ‘Can you imagine Edwin telling me to be up and about?’
‘And what was your response?’
Stella grew pensive. She opened the pot of boiling corn and using a fork to detach some of the kernels from the cob, threw them into her mouth. Satisfied that they were well done, she proceeded to drain out the hot water; finishing the cooking which her sister had started.
‘I asked him if he knew a good lawyer,’ she finally replied.
She had not yet told anyone of her determination to go head to head with the in-laws who were troubling her. But it was obvious that a court battle was inevitable if this dispute was ever going to be resolved. Gina regarded Stella as a tenant in her brother’s house who should be evicted unceremoniously, but Stella had decided to fight back. If she was not considered a wife according to traditions and customs, she certainly was one in the eyes of the law. The marriage certificate issued at the registry was legally binding and it was on that basis she would contest her right to the house. Helping herself to two pieces of boiled corn, which she arranged on a plate; she turned back to her sister with a stern look.
‘You overstepped your boundary this time, young woman.’ she declared, walking out of the kitchen. ‘You really did. Now, please be merciful and permit me to retire to my room. I’ve had enough drama for one day.’
Checking in on Stella was anything but a social visit. Edwin might as well have been making a house call to one of his clients and when he offered her advice, he could easily have just been handing over a merchandise of clothes. Returning home, he tried to make sense of how he had felt seeing her again after so long. There was a time when he was angry. For many years, his prevailing thought had been to make her regret her indiscretions.
‘Stella will hear of me,’ he had once vowed. And in hearing of him, she would realize what a big mistake she had made.
Funny enough, he did not feel so angry now. Rather he felt distant, like he hardly knew this person any more. He and Stella had once been a family, but now it was accurate to say they were total strangers. Still, he had no regrets going to see her. Furthermore, he had promised to offer support and was determined to do just that. He knew little about legal matters but there were a number of good lawyers in town, whose services she could consult. Mr. Aigbe’s second son was one of them. Edwin had his reservations about a legal battle and the emotional toll it would take, not to mention the financial drain and disruption to one’s schedule. But he could not think of any other solution and Stella was determined to go that route.
He had left her with his number, but had not expected to hear from her so soon. Sounding a little apologetic when she called that same evening, she awkwardly explained that she only wanted to thank him for coming.
‘Don’t thank me yet, I haven’t done anything.’ He replied and then paused thoughtfully. ‘Otas was right though. You seem to have become rather subdued. It’s so unlike you - certainly not the Stella we are all used to.’
She sighed dryly over the phone. ‘Once I can kick off the legal process to get this issue sorted out, I’m sure I’ll be back to my normal self.’
‘Hopefully that will be soon.’ He replied. ‘Well goodnight and I’m glad to be of help.’
Biting his lip, he hung up wondering if he really meant what he had said. Edwin slept late that night but before turning in, he made a mental note to call on the junior Mr. Aigbe the following day and hopefully find out how best to avoid the hassles that came with a court case. That evening, he forgot to call Omore.