“She’s not my mum,” I said.
It didn’t seem to matter. I jumped off the bus and stood beside the old woman. Some of the other passengers who helped her pick up her things were getting back on. Two of them, a man and a woman, were trying to help her up but it was like holding a live catfish. The man had sweat beading his upper lip. His arms were lost in the volume of her wrapper which was starting to come undone. I held the ends closed and touched her arm.
“Ah, nwa m, thank you.” She stood, throwing the man off-balance. “My daughter will take me home now.” I felt her weight press down on me until I had to bend my knees to keep upright. The woman handed me her bags.
She led me towards a side street which opened up into a bigger street. “I live at the end of this one,” she said. I squinted, saying nothing. I couldn’t see the end of the street from where I stood.
“You can’t see it from here because the street curves at the end,” she said, reading my mind. She continued talking, forcing my steps to a half-shuffle. She seemed to be getting lighter as we approached the end of the street. By the time we were at her door, she was walking normally.
“Mama, I see you’re OK now. Let me go, I have an appointment.”
“Yes, my dear.” She inserted the key into the lock and bent over supporting herself on her knees. “Just help me bring the bags into the house, you know I am an old…” I tuned her out and followed her in. “Chidi! Chidi! Are you at home? Come and meet this omalicha nwa ada who helped me after I had an accident o!”
“Mama, it’s really not necessary, I must be going…”
“Nonsense,” she took my arm. “You will stay for dinner. I bet it has been a while since you had a real homemade onugbu soup.”
“OK, I bought some corn from the market, see?” she reached into one of the bags and pulled out some cobs. “I even brought ube when I was coming from home. Sit, I will roast some in the grill…”
“I see my mother has taken another hostage,” said a voice at the top of the stairs.
“Hi,” I said. My throat felt like I had swallowed a vengeful bee.
The man coming down the stairs had the colouring of tea at the moment it is hit by milk. He assessed me as his mother had before him; running dark eyes this way and that. I had the distinct feeling of being carried away by a flood. He stopped halfway down the stairs. Beside me I could feel the woman smile.
“So, it is settled. You are staying. Let me go and prepare.” She was gone before I could correct her.
“Do you approve? Was I everything you were expecting?” Chidi’s voice was like something from a dream; deep, resonant as his mother’s was melodious.
“I didn’t expect anything and I am still not interested.” I slung my bag over my shoulder. I knew my mind was playing tricks on me. He wasn’t swirly, but something about his complexion made me feel like he was using it against me somehow. Fighting the hypnosis, a headache began to form over my eyebrows.
“Of course you are not. Which is why you were staring.”
“Yes, God probably made you on a Sunday, but I don’t find you attractive. If you were in a magazine, I’d look, sure. But as soon as I flipped the page I’d forget all about you.” I finally allowed my hands to stray into the pockets of my skirt. “Besides, you’re too into yourself. What’s this whole production? Speaking up as if you were cued, stopping on the steps for effect…”
“Ouch.” For the first time he allowed some light to permeate the murkiness of his eyes. “You have claws. You must be the first girl not dying to rush me off to bed. You’d be surprised,” he added looking at my face. “My mother would allow it.”
“And that’s my cue. Tell your mother I had to leave. I’m glad she wasn’t too hurt falling off the bus.”
“She what?” Chidi started to laugh. It died as soon as it began. ” Listen, I’m not attracted to you either.” The non-look was back in his eyes. It was as if he couldn’t really see me. “I’m not attracted to any of you.”
I could feel my face furrow. He could have been referring to every one of the girls his mother dragged home like a lioness feeding her cub.
If I wasn’t concentrating so hard, I would have missed it.
His fingers flicked, one after another as he grasped the banister on his way down. I watched the bones of each one bend, then straighten like so many long legs. It was the expression of a courtesan signaling a lover, at once coquettish and confident. It was The Nail Test – result freely given. His stood in front of me at once daring and beseeching – to do what, I didn’t know. His breath ticked my top lip.
“Oh,” I said after what seemed like hours. “You should probably tell her then.”
(Part 3 tomorrow)