‘You broke your word.’ Omore’s voice was strong and accusing. ‘This was not what we agreed.’
Indeed it was not. She had suggested they should not let forty eight hours go by without getting in touch, either by phone or in person. They came to that agreement two weeks ago, with the onus resting largely on Edwin. But they had not been in touch since then. It was not that he forgot, but he would rather have done it from an inner motivation than out of obligation. Stella had understood that perfectly when she drew attention to his manner towards her case. She still knew him well enough to sense if an action came straight from his heart. He was not sure if Omore shared that same intuition but he hoped that, at the very least, she knew that he had no desire to toy with her emotions. Edwin had spent the last two weeks figuring out where his motivation really lay. It was now time for both of them to have that all-important talk. What Omore needed now was not an apology, but an explanation why the two of them did not seem to be making headway.
‘Meeting you has been both weird and wonderful,’ he confessed to her. ‘Our visit to the old people’s home has left me reeling from an experience I did not see coming. I’m still curious about the old woman’s last afternoon with her guest. Is there anything more about that visit you could share with me?’
With a reflective frown, Omore tried to remember if there was anything she had not already told him. Sewa did not say much else, except that Edede had gone to the dining hall that afternoon to have what was to be her last meal. She barely ate, thinking only of her guest who had declined joining her at the table and had chosen to wait in the library instead. Swallowing no more than a morsel, Edede had called for pen and paper; and engaged Sewa one last time as her scribe. They had spent a little more time on this note than they normally did. When the old woman began dictating her strange ideas concerning the couple, Sewa began to fret.
“But you barely know them,” the nurse had protested.
“I have heard enough,” was Edede’s reply.
Omore leaned back in her chair. ‘That’s all I was told,’ she said. ‘I trust it’s enough to satisfy your curiosity?’
Edwin looked frightfully serious. ‘Omore, I think you should know that I have been married before.’
He waited for shock to sweep across her face, but there was no such expression.
‘I know,’ she replied rather calmly and it was he who was surprised. ‘Oskar told me everything before we met. I didn’t bring it up because I was waiting for you to tell me yourself.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s not a problem for me, if it’s not for you.’
‘If only it were that simple.’ Edwin cleared his throat. ‘That young woman - Edede’s last visitor - of whom she wrote about. That was my wife.’
This time, he successfully managed to surprise her. ‘You can’t be serious!’ Omore stared at him as if he had just dropped from outer space. ‘Were you the one who manhandled her that way? Sewa mentioned that she ran over to Edede’s place because her husband beat her, right?’
‘That was not me,’ he shook his head. ‘I would never raise a hand against her.’ Stiffly, he tried to shed a bit more light on what had happened and how Orobosa came into the picture, concluding by saying; ‘I never even heard there was trouble in paradise for them until much later.’
Omore reached across the table and touched his hand. ‘Well, I can’t imagine what she was thinking. If I were married to you, nothing would make me discontented.’
Her words were laden with meaning and her expression spoke volumes. She was letting him know that she was still very much interested in him. The gesture was meant to warm Edwin’s heart, but somehow his mind had drifted and her subtle advances bounced off him. When he withdrew his hand, she stared at him in bemusement. She almost reprimanded herself for taking him to the old people’s home and showing him those stapled sheets. But surely there could be no cause for alarm. Edwin had moved on from Stella and there was no chance of him looking back. At least, so she hoped.
‘Listen, I read the bit you included at the back of the journal,’ she said. ‘So do I have reason to be concerned? May I hope that Edede was wrong in her projections when she dreamed of a re-match between the two of you?’
Edwin reflected. No doubt Omore was already considering the possibility of their settling down together. She would be a fresh experience for him. Things were still at that early intriguing stage and the thrill of winning her over would be intoxicating, like fine wine - at least until familiarity set in. Omore had not started getting on his nerves and he had not stepped on her toes yet. It would require something deeper than the thrills and chills to hold them together when that started to happen. It was a point which he and Stella had not been able to cross.
When he did not give her the assurance she wanted, Omore sighed. She liked Edwin but had decided not to call him during the last two weeks because she hated to be overbearing. Since they met, she could not help feeling like she was the one doing all the chasing. Oskar introduced them because he thought they would be a good match and honestly, she agreed. But if Edwin felt otherwise, now would be the time to let her know so they could both move on.
‘Do you want her back?’ she asked bluntly, trying to suppress her frustration.
There was a long silence as Edwin leaned into his chair. ‘It’s been over seven years since we ended it,’ he finally replied. ‘So it stands to reason that our union has since been laid to rest. Not once have I challenged that reasoning, not until days ago when I wrote out the translation of that script.’
Omore could not hold back the sigh that escaped her lips. She had really hoped this would be it for her.
‘I apologize,’ Edwin added, in what was a final goodbye. ‘I hope you understand that this was never about playing games.’
She shook her head. She would understand better when she stopped arriving at these stalemates. Disappointed but resilient, she gathered her things together and prepared to leave. Her search was not over, but it would be someday soon.
‘Please wait,’ he stopped her and she paused. ‘I only got to translate the final page of the book. I didn’t read the middle parts, though there is obviously still so much in there. There is this elderly client of mine, and a very good friend, who can help with the rest if you like.’
‘I don’t think so.’ Omore shook her head. ‘I’m returning the journal at once, to the library where it belongs. I’ve held on to it for way too long.’ Getting up, she slung her handbag over her shoulder. ‘You must understand my unwillingness to decode the rest of those notes. After this, it’s scary to think what is written in the middle. I’d rather leave it for the next person to stumble upon. I just hope they would be prepared for the disruption it could bring into their lives.’
Oskar was convinced that his friend had been jinxed. Whatever it was that was bringing him and Stella together, was beyond him. The two had been sighted around town on a growing number of occasions and it was raising quite a few eyebrows and generating strong opinions. There were two voices: those for and those against this interaction. Chief among the disapproving ones was Oskar himself. He had always encouraged Edwin to move on and even tried championing this by introducing a prospect. When Omore told him simply that his efforts were of no use, he headed to Edwin’s workplace to understand what exactly was going on.
Edwin was busy, as Oskar expected he would be. But who would have thought to find Stella there as well? Had it come to this now, he wondered. It was her constant presence that had jeopardized Omore’s chances. The two were becoming inseparable and he was irked at the possibility of their becoming an item once again. Looking round uncomfortably, he demanded a bit of privacy and when everyone else had left the room, he faced his friend.
‘You certainly are not thinking of doing what I think you are thinking of doing, are you?’ he demanded.
Edwin closed the door. ‘It would require a lot of mind reading to answer that question,’ he replied.
Oskar frowned at him. ‘Your memory cannot be so shallow that you forget what led to your failed marriage in the first place,’ he said. ‘It’s alright if you were the offending party. She would be expected to forgive you, for a woman must do everything in her power to keep her home. But when it turns out that she is the one who tore it down; Ahh! Now that’s unforgiveable.’
He made it a point of duty to chide Edwin for not taking his arranged match more seriously. ‘You made a mistake the first time, but now we’ve found you the right one and you keep slacking.’
Striving to maintain his calm, Edwin carefully pointed out that a relationship was considered dead if one or both of the parties involved, deemed it to be so. He did not understand where Oskar fitted into that mix. Oskar glared at him. Indeed he was convinced that his friend had been jinxed. It would require a strong antidote to return him to his normal state.
‘We really need to talk man,’ he said. ‘Let’s go out and have a beer.’
The invitation left Edwin amused. ‘You know I don’t drink.’
‘Well, then maybe it’s time you started,’ Oskar insisted. ‘Your sobriety does not seem to be helping you much. Just a drop of alcohol in your system will work wonders.’
When Edwin turned down the green bottle, Oskar sarcastically suggested prayers instead, to which his friend pointed out that someone must be doing a lot of it already, which was probably what had gotten them to this point. The two argued back and forth till Edwin insisted he needed to return to work. Shaking his head, Oskar headed for the door but not before looking his friend in the eye and posing a stinging question.
‘How could you even trust her?’
He left and the staff soon reentered the room, Stella with them. Placing the unfinished piece she had been working with on the table, she eyed Edwin curiously.
‘What was that about?’
‘Don’t even worry about it,’ he replied.
Oskar was way over himself. If he understood the casual nature of Stella’s visit and indeed of her relationship with Edwin, he would have been less fretful. The two of them had not spoken since the day she reprimanded him about his cold attitude, so Edwin was also surprised when Stella came over that afternoon. It seemed she was eager to smooth out the friction that arose from their last discussion. He was neck deep in work when she came, so she offered to help cut some material. After all, as she pointed out, she was also a fashion designer and her fingers were getting cranky from being unoccupied. With a laugh, Edwin gave her a job to do and immediately she was in her natural habitat - until Oskar came and disturbed the flow.
The work picked up quickly enough after he left. Edwin drew up new patterns and Stella cut fabric into shape. She was not used to making men’s outfits so initially, he had to guide her but she caught on quickly. In between it all, they talked about fashion and recent pastimes. As though navigating through a congested road, they consciously steered the conversation around light hearted matters and left out the more besetting issues. They discussed elderly folks and enigmatic journals. Edwin intentionally introduced those bits when he mentioned that he and a friend - name withheld - had recently visited an old people’s home. As he described the place, Stella became excited, remarking that she had been there before and further confirming what Edwin had already figured out. It made her nostalgic just hearing about the bungalow, as she eagerly added how much she would love to go again.
‘It’s different from how you knew it,’ he remarked. ‘You should visit later, but not now.’
The time wasn’t right for such a visit. Edede had envisioned that when her guest came again, she would cheer the hearts of the residents with favorable stories of herself. Stella’s current battles did not quite fit into that picture. Edwin talked about the discovery of the journal and how he had needed help in translating some of the written details, while wittingly leaving out the contents, particularly where it concerned the two of them.
‘Why didn’t you ask me?’ Stella asked in feigned annoyance. ‘You’ve forgotten I speak two native languages quite well, including my mother tongue. It earned me strong points at the pageant, remember?’ She relaxed and smiled. ‘I keep a journal of my own, you know. Well at least I try to, even though I don’t fill it up as often as I should. But there are nights when sleep eludes me. So many thoughts travel to and fro that my mind feels as though it would burst. At such times, I find writing to be a great breather. My notes are all in English of course.’
Edwin looked impressed. ‘Can I see it?’
She appeared alarmed at the idea. She had never shared it with anyone. Her dairy, more compact and organized than Edede’s stapled mass of papers, was an opening to her soul. It contained undisclosed hopes, fears and desires. She penned many memories in it - both precious and painful ones - things that would make her vulnerable to anyone who read them.
‘They are deep jottings,’ she replied with hesitation, ‘and way too personal.’
He wouldn’t back down. ‘Too personal even for me?’
Caught off guard, she stared at him in a queer way then looked away almost immediately. For a moment, she felt embarrassed that she had read more into his question than what he probably meant. Yet she was almost certain that the way he emphasized ‘even for me’, was as though he considered himself to still be special to her.
‘Did you write anything in there about me?’ He probed, studying her intently. ‘About us?’
Inhaling sharply, Stella affirmed. ‘There is much in there about us.’ She considered for a minute and then shrugged. ‘Maybe I’ll show it to you eventually, but not just yet.’
Her statement implied that she anticipated he would still be around ‘eventually’. Somewhere in Edwin’s consciousness, it registered that she wanted him to be a part of her future. He, on the other hand, did not feel embarrassed about reading more into her words than what she probably meant. It was highly unlikely she was expressing hopes that they would stay in touch merely as friends. Taking the material, he inspected it and gave her job a nod of approval.
‘I’ll hold you to your word on that,’ he said.
Deep into that night, Stella bent over the desktop lamp by her bed and wrote of her visit to Edwin’s place:
The cloud which this court case has brought came with its own silver lining. Our paths may never have connected otherwise. It is interesting that such an ugly incident would give us reason to interact again. Even now that progress in the proceedings has stalled, I still seek out his company without looking for an excuse to do so. I paid him a visit today just for the sake of it. For me it was a deposit into our emotionally bankrupt interaction.
I feel like there are two cases being tried here and strangely, the legal battle over the landed property is the less significant one. His friends think I never deserve to be trusted again. (Oskar’s voice was so loud and the walls were thin.) Yet I won’t lose sleep over what they think. It’s important that Edwin sees me for who I am now, so that when the time comes for our paths to diverge, he would leave with a changed impression.
She bit on the tip of her pen, reminisced for a while and then continued:
The whole legal battle has been distressing and I just want it to end. Yet it’s even more disheartening to think that we would part ways after it does. When this court case is over and done with, our alliance will follow suit as any interaction between Edwin and I will no longer be necessary. Of this, I am apprehensive.
‘We lost the case!’
Stella’s expression was distraught as she delivered the staggering news. The opposing side had been hard on her, citing abandonment, instability and other short comings. Yet all the petty jabs she endured during the legal proceedings were like child’s play compared to the judge’s final verdict. He ruled in favor of Orobosa’s sons. The house had always been in their father’s name; Gina was right about that. Orobosa had clearly indicated that, except where stated, all his property should go to his sons. That covered the buildings not specifically listed in the will, including the one under dispute. Thus the verdict of the court was that it was to be held in trust for them just like the other properties.
‘Gina and I were both at the losing end.’ Stella said. She would not get the house, but neither would the deceased’s sister. ‘Neither side won. All our scrambling came to nothing.’
Edwin offered his mite of sympathy over the phone. ‘Can’t you appeal?’ he asked.
‘There’s no point,’ she replied. ‘It’s hard to fault the judgment. Besides I can’t keep fighting. I must say though, I’m at a more advantaged position than she. At least I’m not dealing with a businessman to whom I tried selling the property and who is now accusing me of fraud.’ She paused. ‘The place has been reopened and I have been given forty eight hours to pack my things out of there. Otas and I are already on our way. We have hired some hands to help carry the heavy stuff like my sewing equipment and other things.’
‘I’ll join you as soon as I can,’ Edwin promised.
By the time he was able to get away, hours later, the clearing had been completed at the house. He met Stella by herself, absorbed in thought, as she stood in the middle of the now-bare ground floor which had served as her fashion studio. She heard his footsteps as he entered and turned around. Her lips curved upward slightly as she managed a faint smile.
‘That was fast,’ he commented looking around. The place had been swept clean; not a needle remained. ‘Where are the others?’
‘Otas went ahead with the stuff. I told her I would find my way. I just needed some time alone since I won’t be coming back here.’
‘I’ll take you home,’ he offered as a final favor out of this mess.
Stella nodded gratefully. ‘Thank you. Thanks for everything. You’ve been a true friend and I’ll never forget.’ She managed another smile. ‘I guess I should not be sorry to leave,’ she said. ‘The place was never really mine. I just wish all this happened under gentler circumstances.’
She felt no relief that the case had finally been concluded. The bigger question was what her next steps would be. Swallowing the lump that formed in her throat, she headed for the door. It would be humiliating for Edwin to see her break down, though she wasn’t sure how well she could hide her distress. Edwin’s own unease arose from being clueless as to how to comfort her. If she were a stranger, he would have simply turned away and pretended not to notice. If she were his wife, he would have embraced her and wiped away the tears. But she was neither and they exited the house without further ado.
‘I’m not even going to look back,’ Stella remarked through the tense silence. ‘Today is a good day to remember Lot’s wife.’
As they stepped out of the gate of the compound, Edwin paused. There was something he needed to know before he dropped her off.
‘Today would probably also be a good day to determine what went wrong,’ he said. ‘With us, I mean.’
Wincing, Stella kicked against the pebbles on the ground and sent them flying unto the tarred road. She knew what he was driving at. The evening had brought them to a crossroad of bitter truths. It was likely that after today, their paths would diverge once and for all. But before they went their separate ways, there were certain questions he wanted answered. Stella had always feared that relieving the experience of broken vows would open old wounds. Yet Edwin was bent on dissecting the complexities that had engulfed their wedlock. It was a topic they had avoided till now.
‘I had always had these preconceived notions of married life,’ Stella reflected out loud. ‘But it was nothing like what I expected and in the end, I felt wronged and cheated.’
Edwin raised his eyebrow in surprise. ‘Cheated? I never cheated on you.’
Stella looked away. They both knew where the infidelity in their union lay. ‘I don’t mean with another woman,’ she said. ‘But I still felt cheated out of the life I had mapped out.’
She sighed. After being named a beauty queen, she was convinced it could only get better from there. Marriage held a promise of more beautiful things to come and she jumped at it, only to find herself stuck over the hot cooker, romancing pots, pans and dirty dishes day after day - not to mention the hassle of picking up after him.
‘I did not bargain for all that,’ she admitted, recalling the many nights she had to put away dirty socks and smelly shoes. ‘I had the world at my feet and it was like you took that away from me. I felt you cheated me out of a life of glamour.’
‘But you welcomed the prospect of marriage. You never mentioned all this.’
She did welcome it. His proposal had swept her off her feet and her excitement overflowed as she planned towards their day. Then the big day came and went, and many normal days followed. Stella quickly grew bored. She found herself dealing with a mixture of sentiments. She admitted feeling disappointed at her daily routine and angry at his insensitivity in not noticing her discontent. Edwin was not sure what else to say. He had never imagined that the woman he had chosen to spend his life with would find herself so much at odds with the innate desire to be a home builder.
‘That’s the truth, Edwin,’ Stella went on. He had got her talking and now she did not want to stop. ‘Did I also mention that I felt a measure of regret? Back then I told myself that if I knew this was how it was going to be, I would never have done it.’
‘So what are you saying?’ He asked. ‘That you jumped in too quickly?’ He shook his head. ‘No one is ever fully prepared going in. I would rather say you - we - gave up too easily.’
It was like he had taken the words right out of her mouth and Stella felt a surge of relief to know they agreed on that one thing.
‘If you ask me which of those sentiments I still feel, I would answer without hesitation: regret.’ She nodded thoughtfully. ‘It’s a different kind of regret though. I stopped chastising myself for dabbling into what I shouldn’t have. But I haven’t stopped wishing that I never walked away. I’ve spent many years thinking I could have done more to prevent the degeneration. Till now, I still regret that we missed out on the opportunity to make something out of all that disharmony.’
A neighbor passed by, cocked her head in their direction and was immediately all over Stella, jumping and squealing in excitement. Where had she been? Was she moving back here? When could she open shop? Edwin stepped away from the interruption as Stella did her best to explain to the neighbor that she was leaving the neighborhood. He cast his mind back many years. If he had any regrets of his own, it was that he and Stella had not had this conversation earlier. He waited for what seemed like eternity for her to tactfully dismiss the neighbor and then continued.
‘You know; the night I changed the front door lock,’ he juggled her memory. ‘I did not ask you to leave for good. I expected you to go and do some soul searching and return with a change of heart.’
‘That’s not what you said. Your goodbye was so final.’
‘Of course it sounded that way. I was angry.’
She almost laughed but did not. Truth be told, she had hoped he would call and ask her to come back home or maybe even come to get her. Another passing neighbor called out to her but this time, whether or not she heard, Stella did not reply. Turning her back to the road, she raised her head and for the first time, looked Edwin in the eye. She wanted to ask if he was still angry but her voice trickled off and she wound down the explanations. They could justify the why’s and why not’s from now till tomorrow. Yet she knew that all her reasons - no matter how logical or otherwise baseless - would be meaningless if she did not make this one last point.
‘Edwin,’ she said. ‘Today is a good day to say I was wrong. Please find it in your heart to forgive me.’
With nothing left to say, Stella could only hope he saw her sincerity. Biting her lip, she fell silent.