Anjola’s mum, aunty Arin sets the cake on the table, in front of Anjola and the other kids from school. The birthday cake is a barbie doll in a pink ball gown. I do not like ball gowns, the lace itches my thighs but I am wearing one today because Anjola will be pleased, It is her birthday today. Eleven of us, boys and girls are standing under the sun, waiting for Anjola’s big uncle, Uncle Mika to arrange chairs for a game of dancing around the chairs. I count the chairs with my eyes as he pulls from the tall stack, placing them beside each other in a circle. They are ten, ten white plastic chairs. He wipes dust off the chairs with a piece of cloth, his t-shirt has Anjola’s face in front, with a big yellow number 7 at the back. I am only a few months older than Anjola but she is taller than I am, she is taller than everyone in our class. We are in primary three and even though we are no longer seatmates in class, Anjola and I still do everything together. We have been best friends since her family moved into the next house. I see mum serving the adults, they are sitting under a different canopy, eating chicken wings. Mum fried them in a large pan at our backyard this morning after Aunty Arin had washed them in her kitchen. Aunty Arin did not go to work early in the morning like she does every day except Sundays. We ran around the house this morning since everyone was too busy to stop us. The music starts playing and we are walking around the chairs, Uncle Mika tells us to dance as we walk. I don’t, I simply walk carefully behind a girl in our class, Bimbo, who is dancing and walking happily. I do not want to play this game, I want to go back to sitting beside Anjola. We were talking about baking a layered cake of vanilla and chocolate flavours. My birthday cake, this year was vanilla flavoured, mum bought it on our way to the zoo, that Saturday. Anjola and I ate the cake all by ourselves and giggled when Aunty Arin said we were going to have running stomachs. The music stops and Bimbo sits hurriedly on the chair in front of me and sticks a tongue out at me. I smile because I know I have lost.
The humming from the freezer in Anjola’s living room stops. I wonder if Uncle Mika would play with us now that the power is out. He has been playing his video games since Mum and Aunty Arin left the house. They were going for a party, Mum told me.
“Let’s play hide and seek”, Uncle Mika says as soon as I sit on the bed in his room. He has taken his shirt off and throws it over his shoulder. He has a big scar on his back, Mum says it is because he plays too much. We walk to the living room together. I am thinking of where to hide, when he starts counting.
“1, 2, 3…” Anjola pulls my hand and we start running away from him. He is sitting on the couch, his hands over his eyes as he counts.
“I know a place we can hide” Anjola says as we are running into the corridor. She stops in front of the store room on the corridor and opens the door for us to get in. There is dust all over the place so I cover my nose with my left hand as we walk in and shut the door behind us. Anjola stands in front of me and we are so close, our stomachs are touching. She smiles at me, her smile is wide and perfect. I am breathing fast, Uncle Mika has stopped counting and is yelling our names. Anjola pulls me close to her, our faces are so close together and we are breathing the same hot air. I shut my eyes and freeze when I hear Uncle Mika’s footsteps getting louder. I feel soft lips press against mine, they are soft and chewy like gummy bears. I open my eyes to look at her. Her eyes are still shut when she pulls away and I am looking at her.
“I got you guys”, uncle Mika says loudly as he opens the store room door and Anjola runs out into the corridor. I walk slowly behind them.
“It’s your turn to count, Anjie and Ini”, uncle Mika says.
“1, 2, 3”, I start.
The trip from Benin to Lagos is not that long, Mum told me over the phone. It is a few minutes past two and our bus stopped at the park. I climb down from the bus and look around. The air here is thick with exhaust smoke and the smell of sweat. A man rushes to me when I grab my bag from the back of the bus, he pushes a copy of Ben Carson’s gifted hands in my face, “Corper, you no go buy”. I wave him off. I squeeze through the different stalls with bananas, groundnuts and beads, watches, fake gold necklaces and rows of peppered meat sticks heating up as I make my way out of the tight park and find a cab. I am in Benin for my NYSC, mum convinced to move here instead of deploying. Her sister, Aunty Ire has offered me her house while she will be away taking care of her daughter that had just put to bed. It is just opposite the University of Benin, a small yellow flat, sitting behind weak whitewashed grille gates. It is the way I remember except for the peeling yellow paint on the walls. The house keys were underneath the flower pots that decorated the front of her house, just like aunty Ire had said. The power comes on as I am tidying the room Aunty Ire has told me to stay in. I find old picture albums in the wardrobe, there is a grainy picture of me and my cousins in matching adire outfits. It was the last time I was here, for grandfather’s memorial service, every one else in the picture is smiling except me. I did not want to be there, it was a terribly long drive and my shoes were too tight. Evening comes as a grey blanket covering the sky and the sound of croaking frogs and chirping crickets echo in the empty house. The power is still on when sleep takes me away.
My stomach is already in knots when I see the restaurant on the street leading to my Aunt’s house. The smell sifts into my nostrils and I decide as I push the door open, that I would probably come here every day. The queue is seven persons long but I’m pleased with the way the food is being served. I drop the bag with the materials Mrs Osawaru, the pregnant biology teacher has given me- her textbooks and her old notes, between my feet and the wall as I wait till my turn. She has asked me to go through them and make my notes. She also introduced me to the classes I would be taking. It is finally my turn and I have rehearsed my order, rice, plantain, two beef with enough stew. I turn around, there is no empty seat at first then I see one in front of a girl. Her head, full with curly Brazilian weave is bowed in front of a black handbag. She is talking on her cell phone. When I sit down, she looks up at me, her hand still holding the cell phone to her ear.
“Inioluwa?” she says, her eyes grow bigger when I nod, I am smiling at her. It is Anjola
“Wow, I can’t believe it.” she stands to hug me. She is taller than I expected, my face rests on her shoulders. I can smell coconut oil on her skin.
“What are you doing here?” I ask her as I pull away. We settle back into our seats, now everyone is looking at us. She pushes her Brazilian weave off as her face as she answers me. She is serving in Benin – at federal girls’ college, just beside the University of Benin, she tells me. I ask about Aunty Arin and Akure, as we walk away from the restaurant to my aunt’s house, the bugging stares of the hungry men and women behind us. She talks as fast as I remember, gesturing as she does.
“Ini, your face has not changed at all, look at your dimples.” she says as I am telling her about Mrs Osawaru and the dirty canteen food. I tell her about boarding school in Lagos, about Mum’s catering business.
“Oh Aunty Kunbi, see how she is still so beautiful.” She says when she sees a picture of Mum and I on my cell phone. She squeals when she sees how big my natural fro is. Her phone starts ringing from inside her handbag. She lifts her finger and starts to walk away to answer her call. When she returns to the room, there is a frown on her face.
“Ini, I have to get going. My landlady wants to see me.” she says. She does not look at me, as I change. I walk her out of the house till the junction where she can get a taxi to her house.
I am standing in front of Anjola’s door. The rooms in the hostel are close together and without windows. I knock again and she appears a moment later.
“Are you getting ready to go somewhere?” I ask her after she has shut the door behind me. She is wearing a bra and shorts, her face is without makeup but she has let her weave down. She lets out a loud sigh, pulling an empty box behind her. There are many clothes lying around her room, on her bed and on the chair, in front of her dresser.
“No, I’m just cleaning” she says, folding a T-Shirt into the empty box. I join her, folding the clothes in, one by one to fill the box. After we are done and she is about to sweep the room, rain starts falling, without the dimness in the sky, without bowing of trees, it just starts.
“This nonstop Benin rain” She says as she bends to sweep. Soon we are giggling as we look at old pictures of Anjola in her laptop. She graduated from the University of Port Harcourt. I tell her about my experience there for the post ume screening, how my travelling bag went missing and at the end of the day I still did not get the admission. She laughs,
“That can happen to anyone Ini, oh look that’s Josh, he was my first boyfriend in Uniport.” He is a scruffy boy in an oversized basketball shirt, holding her so close. She is giggling and pulling away from him in the picture. She clicks on a different folder, where she has kept pictures of past relationships. There is Vincent, the one with hair as full as mine, Lawal, who is so tall, Osi, with the same pose in every picture and a girl she calls Desiree. She is pretty and in most of the pictures, they look really cosy. Anjola taps the next button faster as pictures of them are scrolling past. I laugh at her ‘thoughtfulness’ there is a funny story for each one except Desiree.
“So you tell me about your boyfriends”, she says with a large smile on her face. We are done with her pictures, so she takes the laptop and turns it off. She crosses her legs in front of me, eager to listen. I tell her about Abu, the dignified mallam, Toba, who cannot see woman with his two eyes and Chuks, who is now dating his so called cousin.
“These things happen” she says after I finish. I move back to rest on the cold wall, the air conditioning is directly above me. She lays her head on my bare lap. Her weave itches my thighs but I do not say anything.
“Hmm” I say instead. The power goes off and the wind stirring the aluminium roofing above us is louder than ever.
“Ini, I’m sorry but I don’t have the strength to put on that generator” she says as she lifts her flowery curtains. The windows let in a faint light and I can see her breasts jiggle when she takes her bra off. She lays beside me after she has changed into her nightdress. I lay still as she balances beside me. I am looking at the ceiling, there is a large water mark spreading across the ceiling.
“I think the one thing I miss the most about Akure is the stable weather… and light”
“I know right.” The light situation in Benin, is horrible but I cannot remember the light situation in Akure. I had left Akure when I was nine. It was when Dad got the job in Lagos. The thing I had missed the most was Anjola and I thought about her for many years.
“Everything was alot simpler then.” I add.
“Ini, do you remember our kiss?” I stop in my thoughts. I feel her turning to look at me.
“That was hardly even a kiss, Anjie.” I say and she starts laughing. A nervous chuckle. She is quiet again. I do not know what to say so I turn to her and her lips meets mine. Her lips are as soft as I remember. I can smell the coconut oil on her skin.
N.B – So this story is in the Ake review 2015 and that makes me so happy. Yes i was at the Ake festival 2015 and it was so amazing. I should post my Ake diary really soon. Thank you for reading.