I was seated on a wooden bench adjacent the cinema and in the middle of deciding among, I think, five options, how best to kill time before my movie would start showing two hours away when Labake slid into the space beside me.
Before we could say hi’s, I knew if she was staying, the option of reading a couple of short stories from the collection I was holding was out.
Neither of us said hi; she leaned in and pecked me on a cheek.
“Your chukuchuku beards,” she said.
She touched my bearded chin the way a friendly neighbor or stranger would touch a baby’s cheek or chin, with the four fingers lightly brushing against the anatomy before curving uniformly inwards in what could have been a beckoning gesture in another instance.
“Chukuchuku,” she said again and laughed.
I shook her hand off with a shaking of my head.
Her large eyes lit up in her oval face as though she was in the middle of an epiphany:
“You are shy, Ak!”
I was: as against what I may have suggested to my love interests at different times, I was extremely uncomfortable with any semblance of a public display of affection from any female. I stared at my movie ticket as if I just found out it was another movie I’d gotten the ticket for.
There was an impasse where she briefly checked her phone like someone expecting a call or text.
“Chukuchuku bear-bear,” this time she said it with a dying smile and her eyes looking forward.
“Where do you work now?” I asked her.
“See, Ak, I don’t have a job yet and I need one like mad.”
Three boys who could be in their late teens or early twenties on fancy haircuts and arguing loudly walked past us. I glanced at their footwear: all high-tops, one pair, red, and the rest, black. I have learned that the boys that come to the mall come in the finest footwear.
“I saw no reason why you had to leave us when you did,” I said.
“See, I had to go then: my final year project won’t get done if I had stayed.”
It seemed she felt if she didn’t start her statements with “see”, I’d only get a surface grasp of her words like an inattentive listener.
I found the postulation ironic in that, while she was at my then workplace as an industrial attache, she had been the most distracted person on the staff. It was imperative that her work which had consisted noting down customers complaints on the phone and at the reception where a large sign that had the company’s logo and a bold text declaring that “…the customer sits on the throne” was hung be double-checked. In a workplace with few staff and defined roles, it was easy to pinpoint where things went wrong. And the few shortcomings we had when she was with us somehow mostly began and ended at her table. Thankfully, she had the ability to calm the irate customer; the source of the ire usually having been her fault. In the office, during snatches of free time, she was the happy figure calling everyone (there was only one other female on the staff) “my boyfriend” with a chuckle that was mostly laughter. At the beginning, the office had a love-hate relationship with her. When she’d leave to resume school for her project (as she’d told us), we didn’t quite know how to cope without her. It felt as if nobody would ever say “Have a nice day. Bye.” in the way she had: a way that had made a number of customers come to the office to see who it was that said “bye” like a happy child would say to a parent going to work in the morning.
When she left, like most loose acquaintanceships I have had, Labake and I had entered upon an afterlife of frequent phone calls which gradually petered out into seldom; seeing inside traffic; and bumping into each other at public places like the mall.
She had taken on a new persona, a quieter and more thoughtful persona, not like the soul without cares that she was while we worked together.
“If there’s any opening anywhere, I’ll take it,” she said.
I was going to say an “ok” when she excused herself to pick a call. I heard her describing where we were sitting to the caller.
When the call ended, she told me it was her friend who she’d followed to the mall. The friend had come for a modelling audition in a studio at the mall. I asked why she wasn’t auditioning too.
“Ak, you know I am not fine. Besides, I’m not tall.”
She laughed and I followed suit.
Then she waved at someone. A tall, fair, slim figure I was sure I’d seen somewhere in the mall earlier.
“That’s my friend,” she said.
I remembered her because of her face: it looked like what a made-up mannequin would look like in a makeup shop. I recall figuring that no one should laugh at the mannequin because its makeup was done for display value and so had succeeded in keeping a passive face.
“I’ve seen you somewhere in the mall today,” I said.
“No. You haven’t,” she said and glared.
She glared at me the way I imagined I must have glared at my mother the day she told an adolescent me not to ever speak in my newly-found cracked voice (the biological alteration was much welcomed after having lived with a sing-song voice all the years before then) again, that it was “for thugs”. I knew I must have stared at her in a way that was either disapproving, disrespectful or contemptuous because she had slapped me and sternly said: “you can’t grow wings in this house”.
It amused me that in a happenstance meeting in a public place, anyone could be conveniently hostile and dismissive.
Why is she glaring at me that way? I asked Labake in a whisper loud enough for her friend’s benefit.
“Babe, dem no pick you for the audition?” Labake asked her.
“They say they’ll call us,” she said in an English she wasn’t comfortable speaking in and that she was obviously speaking for my sake: I, the urbane-sounding other.
She was standing and holding a large brown envelope and avoiding eye contact with me.
“Rachel, this is Ak, my boss where I did my IT,” Labake said.
She seemed stunned, like Labake had just told her “meet the Governor”.
“Good afternoon sir,” she said and curtsied.
“Hey,” I said. I could feel all the ice in that single syllable.
She twitched her hands and worked a smile up on her face swiftly.
“How is work sir?”
“Labake, do they have space at their office?”
“Ask him yourself,” Labake said.
“Sir, I need a job badly. Please help me.”
I took a spiteful pleasure in watching her, at my remove where I sat, pass the envelope from one hand to the other.
I turned to Labake and she gave me a knowing smile, like we were about to create an inside joke. I wondered why she didn’t want to tell Rachel I was useless to her problem.
“Write down your number for me. I’ll see what I can do,” I said.
Later, inside the cinema hall, I would consider sending Rachel a text to let her know I was no longer an Oga, that I’d stopped working there and couldn’t help in any way. Instead, I crumbled the paper where she wrote her number and dropped it inside the cup holder attached to my seat.