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They had somehow managed to find silence beneath the noise in the restaurant. Their hands were clasped together and time appeared to pause a bit for them. Her palm was sweaty and when he pulled his hand away, she felt embarrassed. She put them safely behind her back and stared broodingly at the floor.
“Quite the lovely name” he looked at her curiously, “where are you from?”
“Benue, Idoma,” She replied nervously.
“I’m from Kaduna. Jaba” He paused to get her attention. “I’m actually on my way back there from a wedding somewhere at Alheri. You know the place?” She nodded.
“My boss just got married,” he chattered on.
You work?” She asked, surprised.
“Yes. I’m a nurse, not so privileged now am I?” he promptly returned.
“Not bad,” she said nonchalantly.
“Thanks. I’m glad you approve,” he said, sounding sarcastic.
“What about you? Are you still in school or you’re done?” he asked.
“I’m in my third year at the university. Political Science,” she replied.
“Impressive,” said he, nodding.
“For a waitress?” and they both burst out laughing.
Hours had passed since Faisal left and Onya could not restrict her thoughts from wandering off to the funny stranger. She replayed his remarks and arranged them like music notes in her head. There was something auspicious about her meeting him. Like she had stumbled upon some hidden opportunity. It was probably folly to place it under attraction. She wasn’t a stranger to false hopes and how no matter what was put in to fuel them, they always dwindled into cold, indifferent ashes. She gave herself a mental warning to avoid thinking of him like that. But she knew she wanted to see Faisal again and she prayed silently. That he would somehow seize the initiative and deliver the groundnuts personally.
“Onya,” Mama called from the back yard.
“Coming Mama” She rushed to answer.
“Please take some money and go and buy plantains. Our plantains just finished and you know how people like them in the morning,” she wiped her sweaty forehead with the edge of her wrapper.
“Okay Mama”, she said grudgingly.
The road to the plantain seller’s shop took her through the place where Faisal had thrown off her basinful of ground nuts. After haggling and pleading, she got an attractive bunch of ripe plantains for a price she was convinced gave a worthy testament of her bargaining skills. On her way back to the restaurant, she allowed her mind to concoct the most unrealistic scenes, of Faisal running to her, his white agbada fluttering in the wind. Caught in the haziness of daydreaming, Onya was oblivious to Faisal approaching and found herself quite embarrassed at stepping on his shoes with her rubber slippers.
“Penny for your thoughts” he said.
She slouched her shoulders and refused to answer, putting all her concentration into strangling the plantains.
“Haven’t you heard that you shouldn’t look down at a market place or you might see a spirit?”
“Sure and Otutu really exists too.”
He shrugged, which looked rather odd in his agbada.
“If witches can exist, why not Otutu that in my head seems to bear a certain resemblance with Lagbaja. Anyway, you don’t appear to need any help killing your food this time. The way you’re holding those poor plantains.”
The words hung in the air and it looked like he was eagerly waiting for her to laugh and it was not that she didn’t want to, She was just really shy. So she sighed deeply and told him she had to get back to her mother.
“What’s the rush? Did I say something wrong?”
She looked at him this time, then at his shoes, and the insignificant dust marks her slipper had placed and she said, barely above a whisper,
“I really have to go before the old woman thinks I’ve gone missing.”
“Well, I’m coming with you.”
Her face was frozen in surprise and if there was any pleasure, she hid it well.
“Am I missing something here, why?”
“I missed the bus and I have to eat something for dinner.”
She simply shook her head and began to walk.
“Hey wait” He made to grab her arm. “Where are you running to?”
“You don’t know you’re supposed to follow me abi?”
It was a brief silent walk and when they got to the restaurant, it felt like somebody had pressed pause on the remote of activities at the restaurant. All the tables had been cleared and the chairs stacked in a corner. There was no one at the counter and Onya could not pick sounds of any activities from the backyard.
“Wait here”, she said. He nodded and placed his hands behind his back, walking around the restaurant like a health inspector.
Mama was not around. Only the girls were seen cleaning pots and pans outside the kitchen, gossiping, as usual.
“Where’s Mama?” she asked
“She go house” said the older girl, barely raising her head from the plates to acknowledge her.
“Okay,” Onya said. “But why are we closing now?”
“Your Mama say make we close. She say make we no even come tomorrow. Say she go call us. Anything happen?”
“Okay then,” she said, ignoring the girl’s question. But if Mama didn’t want to open tomorrow why had she sent her off to buy plantains?
She met Faisal engrossed with his blackberry. He looked up as she came in and gave the faintest hint of a smile before returning his gaze to the phone.
“I’m looking for you on Facebook,” his eyes flitted over her for a while.
“Oh-kay,” she sounded distracted.
“So what’s the name?”
“Onya Abah,” he repeated slowly, and kept humming it under his breath until Onya thought she couldn’t bear to hear it said another way.
She watched his fingers glide across the screen, obviously looking at her pictures and she shifted uncomfortably on her feet.
“You know you’re a fine girl sha?” he said.
Onya did not know how to reply him. She did not want to agree or tell him thank you, as if she needed his approval. She stared at the floor and shrugged.
“I’ve sent you a request,” he said. “It’s Faisal Magaji.”
When Blessing and Joy were done cleaning and arranging, Onya locked up after them. She secured the kitchen with a heavy padlock and the door to the hall with its inbuilt lock and external burglary proof door. Together, she and Faisal stepped into the serene chill of the evening.
“I’ll show you a place where you can have something nice to eat,” she began.
“I’m not that hungry,” he mumbled, hiding his hands in the pockets of his agbada.
“Oh really, the way you accosted me on the street an hour ago, one would think you were the Rich man in the bible asking for a drop of water.”
“That sounds a bit derogatory.” He folded his arms and turned away.
“Stop acting like a child jor.”
“You have a mouth on you. I almost like it.” He said smiling.
It was quite the starry night and when it happens to be so, the stars begin to bear the semblance of street gossips that raise their ears like wild animals to trap juicy bits of scandalous news. Besides that, they looked pretty and sentimental granting beauty to the throng of dingy houses that the day denied them of. Onya walked cautiously, the ridiculousness of the situation dawning on her. How grand he looked in his ensemble, how basic she looked with her rubber slippers and threadbare dress. How cliché and predictable, the tale of a prince and a pauper. Yet, it was a lovely thing. It made her queasy. They had slipped into an uncomfortable silence and both parties searched for distractions in such mundane things as an empty pure water sachet or a rat that scurried past.
“So what do you love most about Jos?” he asked, trying his best to sound casual, as if he had not spent the last few minutes fishing that one out.
“It is something you have to see for yourself.” She said reluctantly.
“But honestly…” She continued. “It begins with the sun, how it climbs over the hills every morning and how it seems to make the rocks look alive.”
“Huh. I can picture that.” He said
“And you must see Kurra falls. One does not know Jos if you do not hear the song the waters sing.”
“I’ve only been to the Wild Life Park,” said Faisal. “It was delightful.”
Onya laughed, the sound lost in the darkness of the night.
“Who knows, bump into me again and I might show you somewhere other than a restaurant.”
“It’s a date, Miss Abbah.”
When he had seen her to the front of her house, Onya felt slightly torn between leaving him and walking with him all night, chattering away. But the thought of Mama jolted her back to reality.
“I’ll call you in the morning before I leave so you can wish me a safe journey.” The light from his phone limned his face with a bluish hue and she watched tiny beads of sweat hide behind his eyebrows.
“Yeah, okay,” she agreed.
“Your phone number,” he stretched out his phone to her. Onya typed in her number. They stood facing each other in a moment of awkward silence.
“It was wonderful meeting you, Onya,” Faisal said at last.
“Yeah, you too.” She said, hiding her smile in her shadow. ♦
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