Laila, Farouk say that I am very stupid boy for still talking to you inside my head. He say that right now, you must have already forget about me, move on with your life to have fall in love with another boy. Why can’t I forget you too? But even though one year have pass since my eyes last fall on you, and even though he is right that there is good chance you may already be in the arms of another, there is no way, on my part, that you will ever leave me. You is my one love, my only love. Till end of time, it is you.
I like to imagine that you sit inside my brain, looking out at my world and my life through my eyes. Right now, you can see this heavy cement block in my hand. You can see effort it is taking to lay this brick in straight line with others—to build this wall up to lintel level. Maybe you can smell with me scent of cement, this thick grey slab that block press into. And hear Slow Kofi, my co-worker, whistling as he lay blocks to across the room. When we is done here, this will be office on second floor within this eight-storey high-rise building. There will be windows from wall to wall that big man will sit down behind his desk and look out of, seeing skyline of Accra city. Or he will sit in his chair with his back to it, answering phone calls and slamming handset down hard when people annoy him. I like to think all these thoughts as I build—imagine what this place and other places me and Farouk have work since we move to Accra from home will look like once they is complete.
I wake up this morning thinking about last time I see you. No when your father and brothers burst into room, dragging us away from each other, but earlier that morning when I arrive work. As I am washing your Baba BMW car, I look up at your duplex building and in upstairs window there you is: crown with sun, your brown skin shining like jewel, jewel that belong to me. You smile down at me from window but suddenly your head snap back towards interior of room you is in—as if someone have call your name or you hear someone coming. Next thing I know, you is gone. That is what I like to think about when I think about you. How you look in that window before you leave. In my dreams it is recurring image, so real and so…visc…viscera…so clear that I wake up smelling you, tasting you, feeling your skin on my fingertips. Farouk get annoyed that sometimes I talk in my sleep and all I am calling is you and you.
Restaurant. If truly you can see through my eyes, then you know that we come here every night after we close from construction site. Tonight, darkness have fall over us very well. We is soak in moonlight and dark clouds as we pass along side of this high-end restaurant whose front glitter with bright, twinkling lights, visible through it glass doors. Men and women in nice clothes, high heels and shiny shoes pass in through those glass doors, where they will eat on tables cover with white tablecloth and shiny cutleries.
We pass along side till we get to back of restaurant. It is awash with dim security light. In corner, sit stacks of Coke, Fanta, and wooden wine crates. This is our destination. Me and Farouk head straight for them and deposit our backpacks—they hold our stained work clothes and essentials, such as wallets and face towels. Arranging them into two lines, separate by narrow space, we hop on them, stretching out as if they is bed, folding our hands under our heads to wait for Ibrahim.
This is where we eat every night, you may or may no have see by now. Ibrahim, who is person who invite us to come to Ghana after what happen between me and you happen, work here as plate washing boy. You never meet him back then because I never meet him back then either. Him and Farouk is in same almajiri school when they is young boys and they keep in touch over these years. When your father and brothers is looking for me all across town to teach me a lesson because I dare to love you, and when they blacken my name so thoroughly that I am no able to find any job in that town, Ibrahim suggest to Farouk that we move to Ghana to start afresh. There is much opportunity to make money here, he say, for boys who is willing to work.
Since we come, we have be working during day and coming here to eat at night. Ibrahim is able to gather food discard from tables, or food that chefs declare unusable, for us to dine on. Head Chef know we come and give his permission, as long as we no cause trouble and no make ourselves noticeable to diners as we is arriving.
There is Ibrahim now. Always, it amuse me how he emerge from kitchen in cloud of steam, voices of chefs and kitchen utensils loud behind him. He always look as though he is movie star making an entrance when merely stepping out. He is still in his uniform today, and is holding in one hand, his black, old backpack. His other hand clutch white, polythene bag which contain our meal for tonight. Big smile break out over his face.
“Brothers!” he yell from all the way over there.
“Brother!” Me and Farouk shout back.
Something is different about Ibrahim tonight. He have such excitement shining in his eyes, his movement as he hurry over to us is too eager—he look like little boy who can no wait to tell his daddy what his little sister do wrong. He reach us on crates and unceremoniously toss his bag and food onto top of one crate then plop down in front of me, looking me directly in face.
“I have good news, Nafiu,” he say in Hausa. “You know how I know the security guard in the house next door to Laila’s? I spoke to him. He said he managed to speak to the security guard in her house.” He lean forward, eyes alive. “They say she ghosts about the house. She has refused to look at other men even though her family has been pressuring her to marry a rich Alhaji. She’s remained firm, brother. She hasn’t forgotten you. You still have a chance, dan uwa. You still have a chance!”
Laila, can you hear that? Is you really inside me? Can you see how I am screaming and my heart feel like it want to explode into many pieces like paper cut up and throw into sky? I hope you can. I hope you have knowledge of how happy I am in this second.
When we first meet, what strike me about you is how you no treat me like everyone else. Look at me, skinny boy who can no speak English well, who stop school after primary five, who is nothing but simple worker in your father house but still you offer me smile and ask how I am doing. Though your Baba and brothers scream at me for small mistakes—like day I forget to clean carpets in your Baba car—and though your mother always ignore me as if I am invisible, you take time to talk to me and everyone you meet as if you have interest in what they have to say.
Day your Baba ask me to drive you to dentist appointment and we end up having our first real conversation, I experience jumpy feeling in my belly. I will never forget your honey voice, telling me from back seat how you like studying French in university; you enjoy how your tongue twists over words and finally finds right pronunciation. Shifting forward in your seat to be between passenger and driver seat, you ask me about myself, my family, how I come to be working for your Baba. Sympathy in lines of your face and in your voice when you hear about death of both my parents during my childhood is real.
I am at beach now with Farouk and Ibrahim thinking about all those moments while trying to sell last of this bucket of live catfish. Selling, even though we have to run up to the men and women trudging up and down sandy shores and get right into they faces to ask, “Sir, Madam, do you want to buy fish? Fresh fish? Freshest fish in the sea!” Selling, despite all that, is no really work that require your mind to be engage one hundred percent of time. Your mind can afford to wander to other things… such as those lovely days.
One month have pass since Ibrahim let me know that you still have me in your heart. Every Sunday since arriving in Ghana, me, Farouk and Ibrahim come here to make extra money. Usually we will come around eleven, taking lazy morning to rest from stress of week behind us. But because I plead with them, in last month we have be coming earlier so we can make even more money. I have to make as much as I can in order to come back to you. No just come back, but come back with small nest egg. Maybe I will finally be able to start fabric shop I tell you I dream about owning one day. Can you see life that I imagine for us? Small house in new city, small shop, lots of laugh. Maybe one day, our small shop will grow to be big one.
“That’s the last of the fish,” Farouk announce, kicking bucket at his feet. The little water remaining in brown container slosh around.
On another day that would be the end of it, we will pack up and go home or simply rest, but today it simply mean transition to other avenues of money making. Ibrahim lift the radio at his feet up into the air with big, cat-like smile. “Are you ready?”
Hiding our fish buckets inside abandon shack that was once restaurant but now no one use, we move up to part of beach where there is most crowd: people is either within eateries or spread out on towels and beach chairs. In front of them, Ibrahim set radio on ground and I drop a collection bowl in front of us. We get into our choreograph positions.
Once music come on, we begin to move, fluidly and in sync…synchro… together. We begin to perform our dance steps. Men, women, and children who have be enjoying they beach day surround us. Some of them begin to clap in tune with music, some of them sing along and hail us when we do particularly cool move—like when Dandladi do body roll on floor. Soon our bowl is full.
End of day come fast. We is lay out on bare sand, exhaust by all our work. We stare up at sky which is litter with stars. So many beautiful stars.
Another month have pass. I rush down darken road aware that Ibrahim is no far behind me, trying to catch up to me in order to beg me to calm down. Road is buzz with trotro buses rushing to various parts of town. Conductors hang out of windows of these buses screaming, “37, 37, 37!” in hopes one of many pedestrians bustling back and forth will raise hand to flag them down.
In another few seconds, I will be at loud, open-air bar which sit in front of crumbling building where me, Farouk and Ibrahim rent room. For first time I wish you is no in my head, Laila. My anger is so plenty, I would prefer that you no have to witness all this. Maybe you can give me few minutes of privacy? But no. There is no part of me that you should no be able to see.
I just turn around corner to bar when Ibrahim catch up with me, grabbing my arm.
“Nafiu, calm down! Please calm down!” he urge.
I shrug him off. I start to head towards our room, but spot Farouk at one of many yellow and red plastic tables of bar with drink in front of him. Rushing up to him, I jerk him up by front of his shirt.
“Why?” I shout at him. People at the bar turn to look at us curiously but I ignore them. “Why did you do it?” I shout again.
Much confusion streak through his face. His eyes jump back and forth between me and Ibrahim. It come pouring from my mouth what Ibrahim just tell me. That it is Farouk who go to your Baba and brothers and inform them about our relationship. He think we will no end well, rich girl and poor boy. He think it is better to cut it off from beginning instead of allowing us to stretch out, giving us false hope. Ibrahim talk to security guard in house next to your own who have hear, through whispers in your house, that this is how they learn about us.
Farouk grow slack and his eyes, sad, look of person who is no able to deny any of it. Hot anger dance in my veins, Laila. My free hand tremble at my side to crunch bones in his cheek. For long moment, it tremble like that as Ibrahim claw at me from behind to leave him alone. Finally, I release him into wind.
Without thinking anymore, I hurry to our room and shove my clothes and belongings inside bag. Gathering all the money I have save up till this point, I shove it inside bag as well. It is enough. It will get me home. It will get us small start. Maybe no shop I want and imagine, but eventually we will work up to that. Once I reemerge outside, Ibrahim try briefly to intercept my path, but he look into my face and see that my mind is make up. He step aside with his blessings. “Good luck,” he say, and press number of security guard into my palm— to help me reach you when I arrive.
I am in back of bus now, Laila. Passengers is filing in, taking they seats, settling themselves onto the thin cushions for the long journey ahead. Soon, I will reach you. If you can hear me, if you is inside me listening, hear me say that I will be with you soon. I will get you from your house. We will start anew. We will have life of love we always want together.
Nafiu, right now it is a quarter to five a.m. In one hour, my mother and aunts will bustle into the room to wake me. I will pretend to pry my eyes open, stretching and yawning as if I have slept all night. They will be in wrappers tied over their chests and hair nets, holding their coiffed hair together. In a few short hours, they will be dolled up in shimmering lace bubus and perfume so strong it makes eyes water and clogs throats.
My wedding attire hangs in the wardrobe. Flown in from Italy, it will sparkle in the sunlight, raining disco lights on my future husband’s face under the glow of the chandelier in the 2000-seater reception hall. His family owns three oil wells in Niger Delta. His Uncle will be the next Governor of Kano if everything goes well.
Shine, let him know our family too are stars, Mama said when I tried it on at Mallam Adamu, the tailor’s shop. Our family is descended from the great Amina of Zazzau. Our blood is older than their ordinary Fulani blood. Our wealth, though not as vast as theirs, is still vast, and didn’t just spring up in one generation. Shine well, my child, let them see us.
In the mirror, her eyes sparkled, wet with joy, the way they did when I trudged down the stairs and finally agreed to marry this man after I had refused so many. She’d fallen to the ground, her forehead touching the floor in loud thanksgiving. All her prayers and supplications that her daughter be returned had finally worked. The child who used to monkey-cling to her legs while she issued dinner instructions to the house help and cook; the teenager who had enjoyed weekend outings to high-end boutiques to palm through soft, colourful fabric from all over the world; the young, eighteen-year-old woman who had been her mirror image in face and personality before she went off to university, returning with new ideas about the world she was raised in—ideas that made her think a driver was an acceptable sort of man to love.
Mama danced and ululated with joy in the living room. When Baba had returned, a briefcase in his hand, he had found her that way, still crooning. His eyes had merely come up to meet mine in surprise from across the room and then he hurried off to his office to set plans in motion before I changed my mind.
It has been a long year in ways that I cannot describe, Nafiu. From locked bedrooms here in Kaduna to locked bedrooms in Abuja, my sullen silence was a shield and a blanket wrapped around my shoulders. Mama screamed and cried and pleaded her voice raw for months. After she had given up, she invited Baba’s sister, Aunty Ummi and her husband, Uncle Tawseef, to talk sense into me. They came several times. On each visit, they would sit on the edge of the bed while I was on the floor, picking at my rough, cornrowed hair and staring out the window. No man is worth this, they said. What man who separates you from your family is worth it, they questioned. I didn’t have answers. The words dried up in me because I didn’t know.
Mama invited Aunty Nafisa, my godmother, next; she came in a wave of perfume, finery and noise that always accompanied her. “My Laila!” she exclaimed, her heavy stomach draped in sequined peach, seeming to precede her as she approached.
She also sat on the edge of my bed, and I sat on the floor. But this time, she loosened my hair with my head tilted and resting on her thighs.
“So, who is this man keeping you from us, mmm?” she asked softly.
I told her about you, about us. About the way, when I told you that Baba had put his foot down at the idea of me applying for teaching jobs, you had insisted from the front of the car, while staring out at the dirt road ahead, “Just do it, Aunty. This life is one. Just go on and do that thing and he will change mind.”
I asked you not to call me Aunty after that, and the first time you called me by my name, you said it with such reverence. We were parked on the side of the road by a row of partially constructed buildings, both in the back seat. My gele, usually wrapped around my torso, was bunched up and placed between the two front seats, leaving me feeling exposed somehow, though I was in a mermaid style Ankara dress and, really, only my upper chest and face were bare. Our fingers were intertwined. My mouth still tasted of you, fresh and clean, like you had recently brushed your teeth. “Laila,” you said, your dark eyes looking as though they would cry, as if emotion overwhelmed you. How do you not respond in the face of that?
“Because family comes first,” Aunty Nafisa responded, her fingers still on my hair.
I want you to know that I didn’t blindly accept this. Family is made, not merely inherited, as they say. But all these months, this year, I have begun to feel like a fisher wife, waiting at sea to see her husband’s ship in the distance while also feeling like a widow, who knows as much as she wants it, her husband will not rise from the grave. Perhaps family is something that I have to try to make tremulously with those I inherited at birth, I have started to think.
My life looms long before me. There will be this man, who will be much like Baba, distant but a good provider, which means my days will unfold much like Mama’s have—fixated on my children for small bursts of joy, and personally quieted of all other longings. Never will I forget you, but gradually I will tuck you into a part of my mind where I can bring you out, only occasionally, like a figurine from a treasure box. Dusting you off, I will gaze at you fondly and with nostalgia, with a small bit of my heart breaking. Mama, Mama, my children will call, and I will put you back into the box, closing you up until the next time. A person can live with those integral longings unmet. But only if they shut them up in a place where they go unviewed daily.
About the Author:
Zainab A. Omaki is a Nigerian writer. Her essays and short fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Passages North, The Rumpus, Transition Magazine, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and other publications. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia where she was the 2019/2020 recipient of the Miles Morland African Writer’s award. Subsequently, she was the 2020/2021 artist-in-residence at the University of Bayreuth. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Find her on Twitter: @zainabom
Feature image by Repic Studio / Pixabay