When Tomorrow Calls (Short Story)

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When Tomorrow Calls

By Veronica Nkwocha

Words swirl around my head, like a twitter of birds I can’t control. It is morning but I remain prone, on my bed. I sink deeper into the sheets and pluck a phrase here and another there from free singing birds outside my window. It is not good. I search and pluck despair from the twits that won’t stop. They sound chirpy enough but I refuse their reign, I fold myself. Away from any happiness. I do not deserve it.

Yesterday it rained. Hard pelting rocks that resembled white walls crumbling down like the foam surfers leave in their wake. I could not see through the slush that ran down my face, my cheeks. I stood in the rain.

My penance fizzled. In an instant, bright sunshine ruled. I craved the wet. A shower from a passing car slicing through the flooded street washed over me. I stood waiting.

‘Lord wash me, cleanse me.’

A resolute silence clung to me like my wet clothes draped around me like a morbid shroud.

A honking car slowed to a near stop waiting for me to move to safety, the driver nodding politely, I pitied him. I trudged away from his path.

My wet feet left soggy prints on the thin carpeting, I peeled of my clothes as I walked to my bedroom, the warmth indoors cloying, draining.

Sleep eluded me. Dark thoughts consumed me.

In a basin along with others, my baby lay. Given up before their time. I had thought long and hard and reached the same conclusion every time. For me there was no choice. As had the others. But mine was worse. I had gone of my own volition. I Laraba Nelson.

It began, many months ago. A day like any other in the dry season. Lectures had ended and I had gone to the lady down the road just at the road that forked left to the grounds of the Theatre Arts Department to buy recharge cards.

As usual, I pretended that was all I was out to do but after I loaded the digits on to my phone, I stared long and hard to make sure I wasn’t cheated. Then I asked for another card all the while looking through a veil of my braids to see if he would come.

The birds continue their dance of whatever it was that had them singing this un-merry morning. I get up to shush them. I grab a broom and fling it against the netting on my window. A cloud of dust and the thudding sound send them flying. The momentary silence has me floundering. I sink into the sheets and they resume their chirping.

They make sweet music. Like we made sweet love. Their notes hold a tenderness and a gentleness. Like Ahmed. They call and another answers, rolling the sounds, floating, merry, crisp. Ahmed. Ah Ahmed.

It has to be a sin. To love so strongly and to cut so deeply.

Soyayya, ruwan zuma.

Love and honey. It must be a sage who thought up the saying.

My eyes are like fire when they spy him walking down that fork in the road. He is not alone. The bright sunshine that surrounds him, bounding off the near white sands of the encroaching deserts in the savannah make like one walking on a sheet of pouring gold. I drink him. Silently through a veil of my braids.

He walks past me, as always. He asks the lady for a recharge card. His companion asks for a bottle of coke.

“Would you like a drink, sister?”

His companion asks. I stutter. I can’t believe Ahmed is looking at me intently, a question in his eyes. The voice of Jacob but the hand of Esau. Nothing good will come of this. I am warm from the gold of his gaze, I take the drink from the outstretched hand of his companion.

I am so shy I sit under the mango tree as we finish our drinks. I do not say one word. They argue about the latest results from the Premier League. It is strange living in my dreams. I am sitting next to Ahmed. I spy the fuzz on his arm resting next to me. I want to run my hands down through the hairs, they look soft. He tells his point to Joseph and they nearly stand up at odds with each other about a particular point.

“What’s your name?”

It is Joseph again.

“Laraba”

“Ah, lovely name. Ahmed here just smashed his medical exams.”

Ahmed and I lock eyes. I notice his has a question in them.

“You’re so beautiful Laraba” Ahmed says.

I lower my gaze

They both smile.

Of course I know who he is, his pedigree, and his renown. Everyone on campus knew of his family, his ancestry, a long line of royals.

I only ever came here to day dream, out of his league. Even I Laraba knew to be honest with myself.

I pinched myself. I winced.

We part. I thank them for the drinks.

The canaries flit and float, they sing trapped in their very large cage. Their yellow bellies are the part I love best about them. Like tiny balls of cotton. Ahmed loves my fascination with them. They are his favourite. Of all the animals in their sprawling compound, the horses, ostriches, peacocks, his mum’s Pomeranians and more.

He likes to wake up to their singing. I love that about him. That he would love them, fragile, beautiful.

“What gives you the right to intrude on our peace? How can you even do this to yourself? You realise this will end badly don’t you?”

It is Sameera. His sister back home from Law School in Lagos. We had tried to be discreet. Him sneaking me into his room, his parents blissfully unaware.

Love made me. I knew I should have put boundaries. To stop after I had my fill. I knew to make memories for my old age, for when I would sit at the porch like other old women and have a knowing smile, of my one true love. The one we love and can’t be with.

But I couldn’t help myself. I was everywhere with Ahmed. I moved my daydreams a notch further. I began to envisage marriage. Maybe someone would sweep into our compound, take a look at the forlorn nondescript house, shake his head at the irony and march to the door asking for my father. A letter in hand, he would open it with a flourish. An official letter bearing a coat of arms would fall to the ground and he would pick it up with manicured hands.

We would in the blink of an eye move from being paupers to co inheritors of a royal lineage. The family tree traced by a fluke of a historian bearing a record from a forgotten time. And then I would become able to marry my prince.

To be honest, I tried to pinch myself every time the day dreams began to run off. But the sweetness of honey is addictive. Ahmed was as addicted to me. We wove tales. Of how he would come into his own money and set up a new business for dad and my brothers, surely we could latch on to a faraway uncle or chief who would agree we met the pedigree of those who could marry royalty.

Sameera invaded my dreams. Every time I drifted off, she followed. A trail of ‘end badly, end badly, end badly…’ lingered like the waft from our backyard after the rains. Plumbing was a luxury out of our reach.

He came, bearing a letter. The stranger refused to sit gravely delivering his message. My father jumped up calling out to my mother. A doctor. Laraba. Marriage. My mother ululating, my neighbour ululating, my aunties danced into the compound. I was made to sit down. It was all too much to bear.

Dreams do come true. What better gift to a grown daughter. The gods had smiled down. Just finishing university and I am getting married. A good marriage.

The days are heavy with the threat of the first rains. The clouds are grey and heavy. The rumble of thunder comes but it is a message from afar. It is pouring in the neighbouring town but we remain dry. A cloud of dust lifts up here and dissipates creeping up unexpectedly raining a shimmer of fine sand on corn and beans drying on top of granaries dotted here and there.

The voice on the other end of the phone is unfamiliar yet polite and gentle.

“You will enjoy England. Your nursing degree is valued here.”

I nod through my tears, under the guava tree. I speak to him and caress my midriff.

I must tell Ahmed. That our tender baby lies cradled in my belly. Made with the sweetest love possible. The most beautiful baby ever. He or she will take the best of both of us. His laugh and his kindness, my smile.

In my dreams I tell him and he hugs me excitedly. He takes me to his mother. She is overcome with joy for her grandchild. Eons of tradition fall like a pack of cards. His father rises like a king over all, over pariahs and taboos. We are knit together by time and by a beautiful ceremony, I the blushing bride.

I walk out of my father’s compound, a prelude to my new life. First I stopped for an appointment with the doctors. For my journey to England, I have to walk alone, empty of my child. Bereft of Ahmed.

First Cut (Short Story)

Rose

First Cut

By Veronica Nkwocha

“I am strong. I’ll just pick myself up and move on!”

She banged on the stool and then moved to the mirror. She hit her reflection shattering the glass to a hundred shards.

One whole, a hundred pieces. They clung to each other refusing to let go. One mirror, crackled like a map drawn by the insane.

She drew blood. It started like a trickle from the edge of her palm and as she raised her hand to look at it closer, it made a bright red trail to her inner elbow staining her sleeve as it went along unheeded.

She grabbed the first piece of cloth she could find and after making sure there were no pieces of glass embedded in the gash, she wrapped it around and around stopping only when she had a tiny bit of cloth left. She tucked it into the flat part on her palm. She looked at her reflection, there were a hundred of her staring back at her.

“I am me. I’ll get up, again and again and again and again! I will never give up. Oh God!”

Then she started to cry.

“Why me? Why? Oh God.”

She wiped her tears and left a smudge of blood. Even as she ran her good hand through her hair, wild and sticking out in places. Her eyes were red, her mascara ran like melting wax staining her cheeks.

With quick movements, she tidied up. In a flash, the bed was made, stained bedding replaced by fresh sheets, the upturned table was back in its place and all the cosmetics and books were arranged back to their own place.

She undressed with deliberate care. Peeled off the remains of her blouse; already ripped, the buttons already popped from their holes with his violent movement. Her torn skirt was still partly ridden up her ample hips. A rivulet from his claw marks marred her soft thighs.

“Oh why?” she moaned when she saw the trickle of blood. From within her. Down her legs. She left sticky footprints.

She ran a bath. She soaked in the warm waters and imagined herself in a peaceful place.

‘If only I could lie here forever’, she thought as she immersed herself deeper into the lavender fragrance of the foam bath and into her thoughts.

But she got up. She dressed. And made up with skill in the one good part of the mirror that she could still see half a face. She smiled at her reflection as she smacked her lips. Her eyes refused to embrace her lips, they were as cold as death.

Knock! Knock!! Knock!!!

She ignored them. This intrusion into her peaceful place.

She swayed. In front of the mirror. A hundred swayed. They danced when she danced. They smiled, her pearly teeth were like pearl necklaces strewn across a dark sky glinting as they spied the stars.

A pirouette and her pink gown flared, rose petals dancing in the mirror.

She ran her fingers down her hair. She caressed her hair. She removed them. Quickly. It reminded her of him. Her countenance changed.

“I hate him”

She looked at her hands. She placed them in her hair again. And removed them.

She grabbed nail polish, she painted her nails. Bright red. Then she ran them through her hair again.

“That’s better, nothing to remind me of him.”

She pulled at her hair.

“I hate him! I hate him!! I hate him!!!”

The wet polish left red flecks in her hair.

“I hate me”

And she folded. And they all folded, her reflections in the mirror.

She lay, a dark shadow in the corner.

Knock! Knock!! Knock!!

Shouts of “Halima! Halima!”

She looked at the mirror

She spoke softly “Halima? They are calling you. Answer them”

Then she laughed.

“Which one of you will answer them? She asked the hundred Halimas.

She heard breaking. Sounds alien, from near and yet far. She crouched, in her corner staring at her nails damaged from running them through her hair.

She got up, picked up the bottle of bright red polish and went back to her corner. She imagined it her cradle. She rocked. She sang. A lullaby.

She was painting the last little finger when the door gave way.

A group of worried friends burst into her room.

“Halima!” they said worried.

“Pretty isn’t it, see my nails, they are pretty.”

The crowded around her, helped her up, and took in the scene. Her wild hair dripping with nail polish and her nails poorly done, smudged and streaky. The shattered mirror and the pristine room. Her pretty pink dress.

“Are you okay? We’ve been worried about you. It’s been two days, where’ve you been? We thought you travelled or something, you didn’t come for lectures or meals or even to Sade’s party. Ore here has been so worried about you.”

He loomed over them. Ore. They made a path for him to make a beeline for her.

She opened her arms, it knocked the mirror and the shards fell.

His arms wide open. His eyes hesitant. Knowing. Pleading. Shame faced.

She smiled, that smile that always had him wanting, needing, hoping.

Her eyes were cold, as always. Closed. As always. To him.

Her arms open, and they embraced.

“Aww, Halima and Ore sitting on a tree” some in the group sang.

She sat in his arms, on the very same bed.

He stopped. Eyes wide open. His side bearing a large piece of glass.

Her hands clutching the piece of glass. Bright red. From polish. And from his and hers. Their blood.

Halima. Singing.

“Halima and Ore. Sitting on a tree. K.I.S.SI.N.G. Halima and Ore. Sitting on a tree. K.I.S.S.I.N.G.”

A lone voice cutting through her friends’ looks of fear and confusion..

Halima swaying.

Ore, sightless in death. Ore embracing the bed. Where he drew first blood.

The Lone Elephant

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The Lone Elephant
By Veronica Nkwocha

A certain family of Elephants were on a long journey across vast plains, deserts in search of water. The journey would take them weeks upon weeks.

The Matriarch was strong, she was wise and above all, she had the fire of ten thousand men. She led them, walking alone. Apart and slightly ahead, a lone powerful beacon; through the hills she triumphed, through the valleys, she inspired. And the elephants all followed her. They were tired, they were growing weaker by the day but they had the fire of mama’s leading to urge them on. To the hope of water for everyone, to life.

As the sun set one terrible day, a lion found them. It sniffed for the weakest and trailed the broken. Those who had undergone the journey over the years had the experience to carry on; they were at the fore of the journey, right behind the Matriarch, each one eager for the oasis that was nearly within sight. They could smell it in the air, and most importantly, they saw their old faded footprints from a distant past to show them the way.

At the far end limping along though, were the calves. They tried with all their waning strength to keep up with the herd but their small legs betrayed them.

The lion was getting closer and closer. It gnawed at the heels of the last of them all, a lone yearling, the smallest calf, drawing blood. She limped along frightened and yelping in pain.

Then something strange happened. The stronger, older and wiser elephants surrounded their lone kin to protect her from the lion.

They bellowed and trumpeted, they stomped running around wildly, their large frames covered in a canopy of dust wafting from their terrible anger at the prowling lion.

They formed a bulwark against the rampaging hunter and provided a secure refuge for…
their lone beacon, the Matriarch,
closing their ears to the bitter cry of the lone yearling even as the lion took her away,
the smallest of them all.

*It is easy to be strong for the strong, the true test of humanity is whether we can be as strong for the weak.

Baby Ane (Short Story)

Various antique to modern Black dolls from the...

 

Baby Ane 

By Veronica Nkwocha

Ane stirred the dough half asleep and lost in thought. She rubbed one eye and continued the round and round movement increasing her motion when she saw her mum Ela walk in. It was almost dawn. Someone dragged a metal bucket across the cement floor, its scratching sound jarred her to a permanent wakefulness, she stood up from the three legged stool. All around her, the sounds of morning rituals hummed like a faraway thought intruding into the tranquil silence that greeted her an hour earlier. It was as if her neighbours in the set of rooms spread out like a square box, their doors facing the middle courtyard were being chased by an invisible task master.

Across from her, Mama Ezinne smacked her only child lightly across the bottom,

“Hurry now, go brush your teeth den bath before dem full everywhere. I no wan late.”

Ezinne, seven and perpetually tardy dragged her feet and her mother sighed in exasperation. She didn’t want to miss the earliest bus to her shop. Johnny the barber swung the metal bucket as he returned from the communal bathroom.

“Fine fine Ezinne, ya mama say make you quick, no waste time you hear? Mama Ezinne e do, no beat am again, I don talk to am.”

“Morning o my brother, I greet o.”

Ela clapped her hands soundlessly and squeezed her face. She whispered to Ane,

“See that shameless woman, dey talk to man wey tie only towel this early mor mor. Na so, next thing na to carry belle mtcheew.”

Ane stirred furiously, angry with her mother but she looked away to hide her feelings.

Mama Ezinne called from across her front door,

“Mama Ane, good morning, abeg when the puff puff ready, send Ane, I go give you the money when I return from shop.”

“Good morning my sister” Ela answered with a beaming smile, “no problem o.”

She lowered her tone and spoke to Ane,

“Her lazy pikin no fit come collect am abi? No go anywhere, when dey ready, dem go come collect am.”

“But mama, we need their market, what if we end up not selling everything?”

“Dey speak your oyibo dere, ‘What if we end up not selling everything’”, she mimicked with a nasal tone.

Ane stirred. The dough was coming along nicely. She sat next to the fire as her mother scooped tennis ball sizes from the large vat and tossed them in the pan of oil. They sizzled and began to puff. She picked up a few once they were ready and wrapped them in paper and made to hurry towards Ezinne who had just returned from her bath and was entering their rooms. Her mother shrieked.

“Abi craze dey worry you? Sit down there!”

She sat, on the three legged stool, one cheek of her bottom at a funny angle. She daintily tucked her school uniform underneath her and put the puff puff back with the others that were slowly building up in the tray.

“Ane! Ane!!” Mama Ezinne called from across the room.

She pretended she was stirring the vat of dough.

“Send ya pickin. Ane never finish, no vex abeg”, Ela replied.

Ezinne dashed across hopping, her hair uncombed, and one of her sandals missing.

She smiled at Ezinne who smiled back, both of them wearing wide grins.

“Morning ma, morning sis Ane”, she said hopping wildly bearing the food in her small hands.

She tripped over as the sandal came off in her hurry to get back and fell flat spilling the puff puff on the bare cracked cemented floor. She began to cry as the sand coated them like a sprinkling of sugar.

Johnny, now dressed rushed across and helped her up as Ela and Ane crowded around her.

“No worry my pikin, Ane abeg bring another one for dem. I go pay. No cry Ezinne.” He consoled her escorting her to her mother’s room once Ane had given him the replacement.

“This ashawo, hey! See as the man just enter their room piam! Papa Ezinne, where you dey oh, my eye no fit see dis kain nyama nyama.”

“Mummy, I’m almost late. See you later”, she whispered overwhelmed by a creeping feeling of claustrophobia.

“See you later my dear. You don pack your own?”

“Yes ma”, she answered sliding out the single main entrance worried her mother might change her mind and assign one more task.

He was out almost immediately, whistling as he passed by Ela.

“God bless your market my brother”, she said watching him from the corner of her eye as she arranged her merchandise in a display case, the glass steaming with the warm buns.

“You too my sister, you do well.” He answered a jaunty spring in his step.

She stared at him wistfully, her look lingering for longer than socially appropriate.

Mama Ezinne watched the interaction and smiled. Ela was a widow. Maybe she could play matchmaker. Johnny was also a widower, his children grown. Her husband would return from his job as a long-haul truck driver later in the day and she could conscript him into helping these two.

She hurried off with Ezinne who was shedding like leaves from a dried up tree in the harmattan breeze. The clasp of her school bag became undone as she tried to put the strap across her chest like a sling. It turned upside down and the contents fell, first an exercise book, some sheets of paper then a text book. She didn’t notice and carried on walking until her pens and rulers clattered to the ground. Mother and daughter turned to pick them up, the former scolding loudly.

Ela’s disgust was in full gear now. They were blocking the entrance and she was running late for the vantage spot where her puff-puff usually disappeared quickly, gobbled up by workmen on their way to their day labourer jobs. She hissed and exclaimed,

“Ah mama Ezinne, this your pickin too lazy mtcheew! Dey do like Agric fowl wey wan faint. Abeg shift make I pass.”

“Who you dey insult? Eh? You dey craze!”

“Who dey craze”? Ela quickly retorted.

Ane almost ran smack into the two women, she had forgotten her transport fare and was rushing back to pick it up.

“Mummy, is enough!” Ane shouted.

“You dey insult me, your mother?”

“Mama Ezinne, what is it now?” Ane asked.

“No vex Ane my daughter, your mother just dey insult me and Ezinne, wetin we do you?”

Before Ane could answer, her mother grabbed her ears and pulled her along exiting the building.

“Mummy”, she said in tears, “why are you so terrible to these people? Wait, I have something to tell you” she said pulling away and wringing her hands.

They were under the mango tree adjacent to the building. Ezinne and her mother disappeared from sight chasing after a bus that barely stopped.

John rushed out of his shop which was a room at the side of the building.

“Mama Ezinne, you forgot to drop the key for your husband.”

He ran towards her and collected it and went back into his shop.

Elahi put down the display case she had on her head a minute earlier.

“Mummy, these people paid my WAEC fees. Mama Ezinne and her husband saw me crying one day about the problem and decided to help. I begged them not to tell you because I was ashamed. I knew you didn’t have money and I lied that a charity decided to help those who were struggling. Even the rent that landlord said they didn’t increase for our room because we are long time tenants is a lie, they contributed together with bro John to make the balance. Bro John is Mama Ezinne’s relative not her boyfriend. They’re new in the building maybe that’s why you didn’t know all these.”

“Chei!” Ela exclaimed putting both hands on her head.

“I have to go now, I’m already late for school.”

Ela had tears in her eyes. She went about the business of selling her wares with a long face.

“Smile Jesus loves you” a stranger called across to her from a passing vehicle.

She sold everything and stopped to pick up some supplies for the following day’s buns. She added some fruits and a small doll with a pretty pink dress.

Ane was at home when she walked in.

“Ane, abeg help me go and greet Mama Ezinne, say you don tell me everything. I go come greet am myself, make I bath first. Please my daughter, okay?”

Ezinne and Ane were looking through a pile of socks wrapped in cellophane paper when Ela knocked. Mama Ezinne let her in and sat down.

A repentant Ela began in a tremulous voice,

“Forgive me Mama Ezinne, e get as this life be. Person wey be my help na so I come dey throw way, devil come dey cover my eye. Thank you my sister, na God go reward you.”

“See this your daughter Ane, good heart. Just exercise patience, you hear? I know say e no easy. Only you, two children already dey for boarding house for secondary school plus Ane. E no go tey dem go grow for you by God’s grace.”

“Amen my sister. Ezinne, come here, you be better pikin you hear? See wetin I bring for you” she said passing on the presents.

Ezinne turned to look at her mum who nodded.

“See my doll baby” she said excited.

She and Ane started fussing over the clothes and the miniature shoes and fiddling with her tightly coiled hair.

The two women smiled. Mama Ezinne cut up the fruit and they shared laughing as Ezinne tried to feed the new addition to the family whom cheekily she named, baby Ane.

Image from here: © Debbie Behan Garrett Various antique to modern Black dolls in my collection/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Black_dolls.jpg  / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Dusk’s New Dawn (Short Story)

Abuja Dusk

Abuja Dusk (Photo credit: Jeff Attaway)

Dusk’s New Dawn

By Veronica Nkwocha

Dapper. He stood out like a mannequin had just come to life, its perfect proportions in a fluid movement that made her want to dance to his rhythm. She spied from the corner of her eyes and saw he was wearing the ‘Oswald Boateng’ that had caught her eye at the last fashion event she attended in Ikoyi; where perfectly coiffed women walked nose in the air, their handbags dangling delicately from wrists upturned.

He stood at the doorway of the Hilton, Abuja and she realised in a slight panic that he was probably waiting for his driver. She had only a few moments to make her move. She stood up from the comfortable chair at the lounge and dropped her braids from its band shaking them loose. She tugged her blouse as she walked towards him and was pleased that her jade beads nestled perfectly just above the cleavage, hinting not obvious.

She stood next to him at the crowded entrance and pretended she was waiting for her car, then stretched looking around the corner. She stumbled as though her six inch heels had caught where the marble joined. He reached out to break her fall and her heart winked at his chivalry.

“I beg your pardon” he said apologising as he let go of her waist. Her eyes would do the rest. They looked into his, wide and imploring.

“So, so sorry, I shouldn’t have worn these sandals”, she said delicately angling her feet. She had never been prouder of the lady who did her pedicure. The sandals were ornamented with the same jade beads in a yellow rope twist, a thin line encircled as if she was wearing an anklet.

He stared.

“Bingo”, she whispered silently.

“Hi, I’m Uzoma.”

“I’m Mary.”

“Pleased to meet you”, they exchanged, smiling.

It seemed like years ago. That day three years ago when he couldn’t stop looking at her. Her caramel skin soft as silk he almost reached out and touched it. They parted, him with a vice like grip on her bb pin number. He memorised it.

He was surrounded by mannequins fitting their garments to show their best features when she walked in the next day bearing sushi from Uptown Asian Cuisine; their shared love discovered on that long phone call when they couldn’t stop chatting. They had lunch in his studio, he moved the clutter so she could sit and he was glad she didn’t mind.

Their love story began, a gentle drift. A lovingly crafted paper boat set to sail on calm waters floating tenderly away from the beach, both of them oblivious to the oncoming sogginess.

“Oh Mary”, he whispered.

She was the sassy and sparkly diamond that lit up his life from a darkening limbo when she interjected herself into it, her jade pendant drawing him in to her heady sweetness.

He sat on the bench fleeing from another argument, puffed on the inside filled up with her constant dribble; “cloying, needy and self-righteous to boot”, he muttered.

He didn’t very much care for her preening perfection anymore. He sat in the garden staring at nothing, his appearance was of one fixated on something afar off, his gaze and his back, rigid. He exhaled allowing the garden and setting sun to wash over him, their beauty tempering his insides and calming the annoyance that he had allowed consume him earlier. The evening breeze felt cool, their caress softened his thoughts and his eyes smarted with unshed tears; he was sorry for hurting her and he would forgive her again. And again, as always. But it left him empty inside.

They fought over the most mundane things now; whether the newscaster’s blouse was purple or lilac, whether the Governor of a particular state was worse in his stealing of public funds than his predecessor, whether he was falling out of love with her because he didn’t notice her new hairstyle.

He would rather stay in his study, a tiny building at the back of their garden creating ‘masterpieces’, designing clothes and visualising fabrics doing things that only he could make them do. He won the ‘most likely to succeed’ at design school after all. Or be at the orphanage on the other side of town, sharing his skills with the army of eager children gently encouraging them which he did unfailingly once a week.

He would much prefer to hang out with his best mates whom he had known from his ‘A Level’ days when he was fresh out of Nigeria exploring London and then graduating from university five years later. They spent the subsequent three years battling to break into the fashion world as the next big thing. The days when Claudette who was first his best friend and then his fiancée, Japheth and O’Neal and him would pub hop and attend fashion soirees and tease their innards with strange recipes from a hundred restaurants. They would traipse Paris savouring the food and allow themselves get steeped in the language, Claudie urging them on to perfection.

He remembered those days as the most he had laughed, everything excited them; they were on the brink of something new and fresh, suffused with hope. But Claudette had died of stomach cancer. It was sudden and quick and in his brokenness, he had thought to move away from everything that reminded him of her and moved back home to Abuja as one of a large wave of returnees. He had invested the pay-out from her life insurance in a smart studio and show room hoping to ride the tide of the burgeoning entertainment industry and capital city oil wealth but it had petered away. A gaping hole of overheads ate away at the substance until there was nothing left, leaving him a shell of his former boisterous self.

Mary’s face had the pinched look of extreme disappointment. ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ was her current most favourite phrase. Her friends would laugh at one of her many jokes peppered with the phrase but for her it had a deeper meaning. Uzoma. She kept the pretence of a happy thriving home but hated the inside. Nothing was ever right lately, she couldn’t put her finger on it. As though something big was about to happen. Maybe it was the increasing number of fights or the silences and the emptiness on his side of the bed night after night. His excuse for holing away in the study was always another inspiration for designs that died a putative thread in an unending maze.

‘What was he up to, how did she get into this mess?’ The ‘why’ was like a tail that just kept tagging along, wagging and nudging her mind into a niggling that carried on unabated, she became a detective prying through his things. She didn’t like what she found.

Uzoma was planning to leave her. Not only was he a failure and a disappointment, he actually had the gall to shame her. How else would one explain the letter accepting him into a program with a designer in France? He knew very well she couldn’t afford to resign her top job and leave Nigeria for the time it would take for him to complete the program, and in a country where she didn’t even speak the language.

For a moment she paused enraged at his lack of feeling, his disappearing into a world she just couldn’t enter. It happened constantly, he would lapse into French when angry and hold monologues. Once he ignored her and carried on for at least five minutes speaking to himself. She gave him her back and was initially bent over in anger over the piano stool. Then she thought to record his litany on her phone.

She took the recording to a friend’s friend who spoke French and the translation broke her heart. “Why won’t she leave me alone? Let me be. Go on with you pretentious ways and leave me to my failures ‘madam image over substance’.”

What saddened her the most was his ungratefulness, ‘Image over substance’? He was the one without substance she fumed. She had married him when all he had were his good looks, a talent in creative design and ties to a rich uncle who couldn’t be bothered to have a relationship with them. If only she had known his business was on its death throes. All she got was a fancy wedding, the uncle’s famous last name which had all her friends swooning in envy and that was it! No connections or contacts or even further visits to or from the government Minister. They had been forgotten by Uzoma’s late father’s older brother in a land of pedigrees and cronyisms. She had married beneath her station blinded by love she fumed, and then she was contrite seconds later, a shamefaced smallness for being so shallow.

Still she thought, rekindling her anger, she should be the one seeking to extricate herself from the mess. She would be better off without him, carry on without the sad puppy look Uzoma wore she was sure, to annoy her. She lit up with expectation. If he left for France, it would be the perfect excuse to still have the air of a respectable married woman without the appendage of duty that weighed her down. It had chipped away at her initial obsessive love until there was almost nothing left to cling to, leaving her empty.

“Uzoma”, she called as she hurried to the garden.

He turned to look at her. She stopped suddenly transfixed by the sunset, she put her hand on his shoulder to steady herself. He put his hands over hers and he rose from the bench and drew her to him. He cuddled her close. She looked at him as the light bathed his face and she felt his pain. He sighed.

‘This man’, she thought to herself, there was something about him that melted her insides. She wanted to wipe his hurt away, to make things better. He didn’t speak of it but she saw it with sudden clarity as he drank in the glow of evening.

She put her head on his shoulder and they stood until the sun sank slowly from sight, the orange and gold hues embraced white brilliant clouds lingering for a while and then fading into greys and a deepening dark blue.

They walked into the house and sat, knit together.

He started,

“Mary, I know I haven’t been easy to live with. I suppose in failing, I have allowed myself stay down and hurt you in the process. Thank you so much for holding us together. For working so hard for both of us. All I ask is that you bear with me a little longer inugo? Please my love?”

“You know what honey, what are we if not imperfect? Yes, I’ve been upset, confused, hurt by your withdrawal. I’ve said things in anger and have been focused more on the things that are wrong in our relationship rather than see how we can work through this.” She said clutching at the ring of hope she heard in his voice.

“Here’s my surprise. I acted on impulse and applied for a program in France and was accepted but I turned it down. I also sent in a portfolio for the remaking of the bestselling movie ‘King Ramses Temple’ and it’s a shoe-in to my amazement.  So we will be busy in preparation for the shoot which starts in six months. It’s a dream come true.”

“That’s fantastic, I’m happy for you. Happy that you are getting the recognition you deserve cos you’ve worked hard for this. I do love you Uzoma.”

“I love you my angel”, he kissed her, his breath grazing against the jade beads nestling in the dark.

Dangerous Liaisons (Short Story)

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Dangerous Liaisons

By Veronica Nkwocha

Nneoma pinched her nose as she stepped in gingerly pushing the door. She stumbled over a sharp object, its blade tilted at such an angle she whispered ‘blood of Jesus’ in thanks for escaping a cut. She lifted the soft end and put it to the side. Strewn everywhere were clothes, belts, a half-eaten pizza from a late night dinner congealed and curling at the sides. She cleared a path and moved around toiletries upturned on the dresser. A pair of underpants with skid marks stared at her dangling from the handle of a drawer. She used an old comb to fling it to the side. A thick greyish novel titled ‘Hard as Steel’ partially covered a sheaf of stationery. She moved it to the side and found what she was looking for, a birthday card and some envelops, she heaved a sigh of relief.

“He really must take better care of his room”, she grumbled to herself.

What did they learn in university these days she thought shaking her head? He got worse every time he came back for the holidays. At nineteen, her first born Sam had been brought up to be tidy, at least when he lived at home. It appeared going off for his studies was the beginning of forgetting all he had been taught. He would do nothing but read novels, whisper surreptitiously constantly on the phone, go out at odd hours and lounge complaining bitterly that he worked so hard during term time, it was his time to rest. ‘Rest’! She spat out the word as she fumed looking around once more. He must clean this room she decided. She couldn’t wait for him to come home. She picked up his ice-skates that nearly cut her when she walked in, and marched back to pick up the novel. She would not return them until he cleaned up. He would grumble but he would do it, she was boss after all.

She hid the skates at the far back of her wardrobe and tossed the novel to the top shelf. It fell to the floor nearly bruising her nose taking her glasses with it. She was very annoyed now, her glasses had lost an arm!

“Oh Sam will pay for this” she said out loud.

A piece of paper fell out of the book. She thought for a moment it was being used as a bookmark but her heart froze in fear as she read its typed contents;

“You are to pay or else we will kill him. You have until xx date to do the following…”

So this was the reason for the furtive movements, the quiet whispers on the phone, the long nights away from home. Her son was part of a criminal undertaking. A ransom note. She sank to her feet all energy sapped out of her and began to weep, silently at first and then she began to wail.

“James, I think you see what you have done. Death, you’re cruel, I said I needed my husband and you took him away to raise these kids by myself, is this the shame Samson has decided to repay me with?”

She beat her chest and began to roll on the floor clutching the piece of paper. Every once in a while she would look at it and take in another detail; bank, Warri, slice off an ear, millions.

She started to pray and then picked up her phone to make a phone call but her tears wouldn’t let her see clearly. She saw Sam in her mind’s eye, tied to a stake facing a firing squad and began to ‘bind and loose’.

“Devil, you’re a liar. Fa fa foul! You will not take any that belongs to me, I bind you, I cast you. Into the endless lake of eternal damnation. Hands off my Samson! I say hands off my boy now! Samson! Sam!”

“Yes mum?”

“What’s the racket about?” He asked sauntering in, a spring in his step.

He was Drake like. His good looks always had girls whispering when he walked into a room. They would stand straighter jutting out their chests and jiggling their behinds. Nneoma would glare at them, “young girls of nowadays, no shame” she would tell him. And he would walk, in what he called a swag, his bling tastefully worn and shopped from the trendiest of shops in London.

He clouded her vision now, flashing a huge smile.

“Mumsy the mumsy, what’s up?”

She jumped up from where she had been crouching.

“Samson Jonathan Akelowse, you want to add armed robber and kidnapper to lazy and dirty?”

“I am doomed, others have doctors and lawyers for children and mine, a kidnapper? Heavenly father, forgive my every sin and please take us out of the valley of this darkness, why me eh, why me?” She shouted.

“What are you on about mum?” he asked horrified.

She shoved the paper into his face.

“I know all about it. Here, see, can you deny it? Blood of Jesus!”

He starred at the paper his eyes widening and reached to grab it from her but she tucked it in her bra.

“Mum listen…”

“No you listen. Whoever it is you have kidnapped must be returned, that evil gang you’ve joined, may God help us. I told you to be careful in this Lagos, of the kind of friends you keep, even your old childhood friends may have changed, hungry for more money. We can still sort this out please my son for the sake of your late father”, she said weeping profusely.

“Mum”

“Shut up you foolish boy, you won’t send me to my grave before my time.”

“Mum, it’s the beginning of a short story!”

“Eh?”

“It’s the draft I started. I was hurrying home to let you know I won a creative writing contest with this piece ‘Dangerous Liaisons’. Check the rest of it online and the announcement on their webpage.”

“What?” she said, drying her tears. He hugged her wiping the rest of it tenderly.

They hunched over a computer in her room and she said happily,

“I knew you had it in you! That’s my boy. Eh heh, all that novel reading you spend hours on has paid off. You know you’re Nobel Prize material.”

“I know mum, but that’s not what you said a moment ago.”

She laughed, “Go and clean your room. I’ve kept your ice-skates till you clean it.”

“You can keep them mum, they were feeling a little too tight on the ski trip anyway. I’ll get new ones back in London when school starts.”

“I know you complain I party a lot with my friends but Oya where’s my special celebration party for winning the contest?” He asked, his a cheeky grin melting her heart.

“Silly boy”, she said affectionately. “Still, you have to clean that room. Where’s the phone let’s call your sister, this good news on her birthday is just too wonderful, Baba God you’re faithful.”

Whistling Seas (Short Story)

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Whistling Seas

By Veronica Nkwocha

“The sea flows in cascading waves over the beach only to flow back leaving behind debris and valuable, a sign of its earlier presence.”

Ana paused her writing and stared at the surface of the sea, wrinkled and glittering catching the evening sun.  She rubbed her brow with the end of her stylus and sighed. The words she tried to form into tangible letters were stuck in her head and no digging could get more out. She flung the phone to the side and unfurled her lithe frame. One last swim and it was back to the hotel.

She was enjoying the solitude of her lone vacation in her dream destination, Valletta, Malta, cradle of ancient histories and jewelled seas. She came alone, without Mark or Ephraim her brothers even though they begged her, that she should not be alone at a time like this.

She twirled in the lukewarm waters allowing its light waves tug her here and there. The light breeze picked up and had a whistle to them, a lone voice trailing from across the miles and miles of vastness. She drifted thinking of the words she had written earlier, ‘leaving behind…valuable’ could be likened to ‘memories’; a stamp of an earlier presence, and she missed Kama so. She ached for him so deeply tears welled up in her eyes and for a moment she was lost in her thoughts.

She lifted her eyes to stare at the sun and realised she had drifted a fair distance from the shore and the evening darkness was descending. She threaded water in a panic. She was alone at the beach. She tried to get closer to shore but she seemed to move further away. The tears were falling freely now.

She yelled ‘Help!’ as loud as (more…)