Finally, the four-hour meeting with the Programs Director was over.
Ibidun sighed in relief and rested her head on the mesh office chair as her colleagues filed out of the conference room. She was tired and wished her head would stop banging hard.
You need to slow down, the family doctor had warned her after a visit to the hospital the previous day.
The preceding weeks had been stressful. Ibidun had led the team that provided free dental services to some localities in Oyo state. The project, Clean Your Teeth, turned out better than she expected. Apart from the campaigns on the streets, a five-day awareness program had been set up between experienced dentists and the mothers of children under 7. Tooth brushes and pastes were provided alongside teeth cleaning services.
Her boss had been impressed. Last week, he’d assigned her the task of raising funds for the distribution of baby wipes and diapers to Awe town. Driven by a passion to succeed, she’d barely slept. She’d spent the night researching and working on proposals for grants.
Her eyes went to the wall clock. 1pm. She yawned and began to arrange her documents into a brown folder. She yawned again.
Her eyes were heavy. She decided to leave the office early to catch a nap before the evening bible study. She looked around the conference room. She was alone with her boss and his personal assistant, Ayinde.
Her phone beeped. A mail notification popped up on her phone. Ibidun heart thumped. She prayed silently that it was a positive response to the grant proposal she sent a few days ago.
Her eyes scanned the body of the mail and stopped at the last paragraph.
I regret to inform you that your organization, Roboss Child Health Foundation, was not selected for funding at this time. We wish you success in securing financial support from other sources.
‘No!’ Ibidun said aloud.
Her boss glanced at her, curious. ‘What’s that?’
Ibidun sat back, sad. How she hated rejection mails. ‘I worked hard on that proposal.’
Ayinde moved away from the Programs Director and stood behind her. ‘Could that be from Hemingway Child fund foundation?’
Ibidun nodded, her eyes on the phone screen. ‘Yes. I really worked on the proposal.’
Ibidun’s boss shrugged as he reached for a pen and tore out a sticky note. ‘We win some, we lose some. Don’t take it personal.’
Ibidun shook her head, her gaze on her boss’ beards. Strands of gray hair lined his chin even though he just turned forty last year.
‘You don’t understand. I really wanted this to work.’
The Programs Director raised his head. ‘But it didn’t.’ He wrote briefly on the note and tucked it on a black folder. ‘Ibidun, it’s your birthday. Go have fun and leave Hemingway alone. You’ve won bigger grants. They may just not be ready for the project yet.’
Ayinde placed his hand on his waist and spoke in a voice that irritated Ibidun. ‘Ehn! It’s your birthday! You didn’t want us to know so we will not ask for cake abi?’
Ibidun hissed, disgusted. Why was he twisting his waist and cat-walking like a spoilt teenage girl. He thought he was funny by acting feminine but it annoyed her. Ayinde caught her disapproval and stopped.
He put his hand around her neck. ‘Happy birthday.’
Ibidun leaned slightly into him and forced a smile. ‘Thank you.’ She stood up. ‘I need to get back to work.’
The pair left the conference room with Ayinde’s hand around her shoulder. ‘Where’s the party holding?’ He didn’t wait for her response. ‘It’s your birthday and you should be treated like a queen. Give me that laptop.’
Ibidun laughed and released the laptop to him. They walked down the corridor that led to her office. ‘This birthday is going to be so quiet. What I need right now is good sleep. Once I’m done with that grant, I’ll-’
Ibidun froze as she entered her office. Her friends, Remilekun and Cecilia, were standing by her table, holding bottles of wine. Frightened at what her friends were capable of, she ran for the door. Ayinde blocked the entrance and pushed her towards them before she had a chance to escape. They emptied the wine on her body.
‘You guys, stop! I’m in the office.’ Ibidun said, covering her face with her hands.
When she opened her eyes, a few of the staff had crowded her office and were standing in front of a large lemon cake with the inscription, Happy birthday, Ibidun. Their voices filled the room as they clapped and danced.
For she is a jolly good fellow
For she is a jolly good fellow
For she is a jolly good fellow
And so says all of us
Embarrassed at her soaked gown, she pulled her cream jacket closer, smiling and moving her head lazily to the rhythm of the song.
She was relieved when Remi thanked everyone and pulled her towards the door.
‘I’m sorry we have to go now.’ She said, stopping at the entrance. ‘There is a bigger party waiting. Enjoy the cake. There are drinks at that corner for everyone.’
Ibidun slid into the back seat of Remi’s blue honda civic. She shrugged off the jacket and reached for serviette on the dashboard. ‘Jesus! What stunt did you guys pull in there? What if my boss had come into my office. You want to get me fired?’
‘Ogbeni, calm down. Your blood too dey hot.’ Remilekun said, speeding out of the office complex. ‘Your boss knows about this. You are too serious in this life ehn. Ibidun You need to relax.’
Ibidun glanced at her sticky arms. ‘Look how soaked I am. Thank God I wore a jacket. This is not fair.’
Cecilia held up another bottle of wine. ‘If you say another word, I will start round two.’
Ibidun grabbed an half-filled bottle of water from Remi’s bag and pointed it at Cecilia. ‘Two can play this game. I’m out of the office. If you try anything, I will deal with you.’
Remilekun laughed as she turned out of a bad road into the express. ‘Your office people will not know that you can be an agbero like this o.’
Ibidun put down the bottle. ‘Wait a minute. You talked about a bigger party. What are you guys up to?’
Cecilia snapped her finger, clapping her hands intermittently. ‘Just wait and see what’s going to happen today. By the time we dress you in the outfit we got for you, oh God! You will not recognize yourself again.’
Remilekun winked at Cecila. ‘The plan still stands abi?’
‘Sure.’ Cecelia glanced at her wristwatch. ‘We have enough time before bible study.’
Ibidun shook her head. ‘What kind of friends do I have? For goodness sake, where are you taking me to?’
Remilekun turned on the volume of the car stereo playing Oruka by Sunny Neji.
Ibidun burst into laughter. Why would Remi play a song about wedding on her birthday. She chuckled, watching her friends sing at the top of their voices.
Philip alighted from a keke napep and hunkered down to wipe the dust that had gathered on his brown shoes. His partner paid the fare and walked to an empty bench in front of a men’s store. Philip followed him, holding a heavy briefcase in one hand and using his free hand to wipe sweats from his neck.
‘I swear this job don tire me.’ His partner said, slumping down into the bench.
The scorching heat burned Philip’s back and his face towel was already soaked. He called out to a woman hawking sachets of cold water and bought two. He gave one to his partner.
‘How can they owe us four months salary. Who does that!’ His partner barked, tearing at the sachet angrily.
Philip didn’t respond until he had emptied the sachet. He wanted more water but there was no hawker in sight. He threw the empty nylon towards a small heap of empty plastic bottles.
‘At least, they have promised to pay us next week. Let’s be hopeful.’ He said, finally.
‘I don’t want to believe those fools will pay. Was that not what they said last week? Look at the way we’ve been walking the streets of Ibadan trying to sell products nobody wants to buy. People are looking for what to eat! Who cares about electric massage and hair wax warmers. I’m tired. My girlfriend is already giving me attitude and I don’t blame her. Every week, she helps me with transport fare. The babe don try.’
Philip smiled. At least his colleague still had a girlfriend. Maria had simply walked out of his life leaving him a text message.
We don’t have a future together. I’m sorry Philip. You are a good man but I’m not feeling this relationship.
Was it not this same Maria who was heads over heels in love with him when they first started seeing each other? How many times had he caught her staring at him while he strummed the guitar in church? She had left several love notes in his bible, sent him recordings that kept him awake, thinking about the future they had together. Six months gone and she woke up and couldn’t feel the relationship.
If he had a car and gave her monthly allowance, would she have made that statement?
I’m not feeling this relationship.
What did that even mean?
A woman who cannot stay with him during his broke days does not deserve to be with him in the first place! His thoughts screamed. When he becomes wealthy, Maria would regret leaving him.
Philip’s partner stood up. ‘Let’s get back to the office. We’ll tell Oga that we tried our best to make sales but nobody was willing to buy from us.’
They picked their briefcases and walked down a line of shops that led to the dilapidated building where the office was located.
From a distance, Philip saw his colleagues standing outside the building. They seemed angry and were talking at once at the top of their voices.
The two salesmen hurried towards them.
‘Nonsense! I will scatter this place!’ One of the men was saying. ‘You didn’t pay our salary for four months and now you are saying the office has closed down and we should leave like that!’
‘Wicked people. Ko ni da fun yin. You knew you had no money and you were wasting our time.’
Another man grabbed the box from Philip’s hand and upturned the content. Smaller boxes fell out. An electric massage. A temperature reader. Electric car pillow. Hair wax warmer
‘Look at the nonsense they said we should be selling at exorbitant prices. Awa gan. Ode ni wa.’
Philip walked over to a lady typing furiously on her phone. ‘What exactly happened?’
She answered without looking at him. The company had shut down. They had been asked to go home.
Philip put his hand on his head. He had borrowed money earlier that week promising his cousin he’d pay by the end of the month. Where would he get eighty thousand naira to pay back? Yesterday, she’d called reminding him of the loan and he had reassured her the money would be ready the following week.
‘I need a drink.’ A man in a white faded shirt pointed at a bar across the street. ‘I’m going over there.’
Four men followed him. Philip went with them, morose and silent as they crossed to the other side of the road.
Church was a scam, Philip concluded. Pastors were thieves. Last week, there had been a three day fasting and prayer meeting. The Pastor had screamed, ‘You will receive supernatural money this week!’ He had responded with a thunderous, ‘Amen.’
When the Pastor demanded for the highest denomination in their pockets, he had rushed to the altar with his transport fare and put everything down. He’d trekked home that night, his legs hurting badly and his stomach growling from hunger.
His Pastor was possibly sitting in his dining room munching on wraps of amala and efo loaded with assorted meat.
The bar was smaller than Philip expected. It was littered with empty bottles and the sight of the place irritated him. He was relieved when his colleagues settled for empty chairs on the veranda. They placed their orders while he watched a light-skinned woman in a brown bonnet and bags under her eyes scream at two boys who grudgingly arranged empty bottles into crates.
‘Place your order.’ His sales partner said, pointing to an adolescent girl in a skimpy gown. Philip reached into his wallet and pulled out a thousand naira.
‘Four bottles.’ He said, slapping the note on the girl’s palm. She disappeared behind a counter.
Philip didn’t join the conversation. He sat back and thought about his life. From the day he got into the university till he graduated, his mother had borrowed money to pay his school fees. He had vowed to take care of her but he had failed her. Will suffering ever end?
The girl returned with his order. He opened a bottle of beer and poured it down his throat. He reached for another bottle. His colleagues hailed him as he picked a third one.
I want to forget my pain. I want to be so drunk I’ll run into a moving vehicle and be hit hard and not survive. Death, get me out of here.
‘I’m beautiful.’ Ibidun giggled at her reflection in the car window. The five inches silver high heels added to her height and made her feel more confident.
Her friends had whisked her out of the office to Cecilia’s three-bedroom apartment. She’d showered, got into a champagne-gold gown and allowed Cecilia work on her face. Cecilia was a make-up artist and when she finished, Ibidun was bundled into Remi’s car again.
Remi had drove into a high clientele restaurant in Oluyole Estate. Whatever her friends were up to, Ibidun was loving every bit of it. She smiled at her reflection again and patted her hair gently.
‘Can we go in now?’ Cecilia said and reached for Ibidun’s hand.
Remi led the way. A sliding glass parted and the three ladies walked into the restaurant.
Ibidun’s eyes widened when a woman in a high pitched voice raised a song. Three other women and a man in an apron and white toque came out of the inner room, joining the others. Their voices blended so well goosebumps sprang all over her arms.
Ibidun’s eyes darted from Remi to Cecilia. ‘What’s going on?’
How much did her friends pay for this display?
Remilekun owned a small thriving business in Eleshinloye market. Cecilia was a make-up artist, married to a rich business man. Putting this together must have cost them a fortune.
The birthday wishes over, Ibidun stepped forward. ‘Thank you so much. I’m honoured.’
She’d never had a party like this in her life. Her friends had made her 25th birthday remarkable. Her heart swelled in love for them as she watched the restaurant staff return to their positions. She pulled her friends into a group hug.
‘Thank you guys!’ She exclaimed, pecking them on their cheeks.
‘Happy birthday to the most beautiful girl in the world.’ A man’s deep voice said from behind her.
Ibidun pulled her arms away from her friends but didn’t turn. Whose voice was she hearing?
No, it can’t be him, she thought. Silas is in Abuja.
She shot a questioning glance at her friends, pleading for clues.
Remilekun chuckled. ‘There is someone behind you, Ibidun.’
Ibidun’s legs were frozen at a spot. Was she dreaming? Could that really be him?
‘Ibidun.’ The voice called her softly.
Ibidun turned slowly to face a tall dark man in a gray atiku outfit. He had a soft smile on his face.
Ibidun’s heart stopped. It was Silas. She covered her mouth to prevent an excited cry from escaping her lips.
Remilekun tapped her friend’s shoulders. ‘Four is a crowd. Have fun.’
Was this the bigger party Remilekun talked about?
Ibidun’s heart raced as her friends hurried out of the restaurant. Why was she nervous? It was her first time meeting Silas but they’d talked every night in the last three months. Heat flooded her face when their gaze met.
‘I’m sorry, I’m still in shock.’ Ibidun said, chuckling. ‘We talked yesterday and you didn’t give me a hint.’
Silas smiled and Ibidun felt her body go warm with desire. ‘If I had told you, it would not be a surprise anymore.’ With his strong hand, he guided her gently to the table he’d reserved. He held out a chair and waited till she was seated before taking his place across from her.
They stared at each other. Ibidun closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. She allowed her gaze stay on him.
‘I don’t know what to say.’
He paused, his eyes never leaving hers. ‘Same here. I can stare at you forever. I’m glad we finally met.’
Ibidun let out a deep breath. ‘We’ve been talking on the phone for how many months now. We finally meet and we can’t get words out.’
He folded his hands and leaned backwards, relaxed. ‘Your friends are amazing. Great birthday planners.’
Ibidun laughed. Was this really happening?
Silas took in a deep breath as he studied her face. ‘You are stunning.’
Ibidun’s heart leaped. It’d been long she felt this good, not since Tobi walked out of her life.
She blessed the day Remilekun gave Silas her number. They had met at a conference in South Africa. The night she called her friend, Silas was beside her and Remi had pressed her to talk to him.
‘The moment I saw your face on that video call, I knew I’d never let you go.’ Silas said, some days after he returned to Abuja from the conference. It was easy conversing with him and he made her feel special.
God, thank you for this birthday gift, she muttered quietly.
Bible study was in less than an hour. She was the head of the ushering team and she’d never been late before. Today would be an exception.
God would understand, wouldn’t He?
She sent a quick message to a member of the ushering team.
Please, stand in for me and ensure everything goes smoothly. I’ll be a little late because of something important I’m attending to.
When Ibidun raised her head, Silas was still staring at her, this time with a wide smile on his face.
Episode 2. Monday.
It’s been a while on this space, yeah! I’m so excited about this story series-Ayanfe. Every Monday for the next four months, I’ll be sharing with you intriguing episodes. I look forward to reading your comments and your thoughts. Let’s do this together for 15 weeks, shall we?
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