The first time my phone rang that hazy mid night, the harmattan wind from the north held my stomach and pierced my heels, and I couldn’t move. The buzzing sound was bent on punctuating my sleep, so I reached out for it.
The caller on the other end of the phone was familiar, but her Yoruba sounded worryingly distant. Within five minutes after I had dropped the phone, I raced down the deserted street, through the darkness and silence that held it prisoner, towards the Ajayi’s residence.
Mrs. Ajayi was in the lobby when I arrived. Her appearance was cold and sad. She looked like a woman coming out of child labour. When she spoke, her voice was cracked and deep.
“Ese, Kobi, thank you for coming. I am sorry but she needs you.”
I nodded and made my way up the stairs. She followed me, trying to keep up with my pace. I sensed from the way she wobbled that, she was not used to it. But I concentrated on what lay ahead of me. When I reached the passage, I opened the door that lead to Tope’s room. It was shadowy and the silence was punctuated at irregular intervals by her laboured breathing as she lay on the bed. That moment, I knew it would be a long night.
Tope was facing the side of the room which was stacked with her philosophy books. I tapped her shoulder, and she turned and stared into my eyes. Our eyes were locked in a thousand unsaid words, ecstasies we couldn’t share and pains that couldn’t go away. I could read the imperceptible message in her eyes. They were clouded with moist redness and her face was dry and cold. Her face was contrary to the liveliness I saw in her the first time I came to Marina. I was so lost in the gaze that I didn’t know when Mrs. Ajayi left the room.
I hugged her. She clutched her hands around me.
The first month when my parents and I arrived at Marina, it brought with it lonely feelings and nostalgic thoughts about our former residence at Tedi. But all those feelings were blown away like sand in the wind when I saw Tope.
She was a beauty with the face of a Madonna and a sensuous body full of promises. She could have been anything from twenty to twenty three.
In the first week, I would trail her each time we met, lowering my head whenever she turned to check me out. I was desperate to evade her piercing black eyes.
The second week, I mustered the courage to ask her name, a fact I was ashamed to admit I already knew.
“Orukọ mi ni Temitope,” she said with a smile, while she tucked her kinky braids behind her ear. I later become familiar with the gesture. She said it was a girlish charm that drew people to them.
The third day, I watched in admiration as she laughed when she tried to pronounce my name, Kobichimdi in full. She said Kobi sounded more like Yoruba than Igbo.
The next month in our family flat, our lips met in a long passionate kiss. I remember her scent of early season palm oil. I marvelled at how we felt at home with each other.
Later that day, she said to me, “Kobi, I have cancer.”
I stared into her eyes, and tried to soothe her pain, but the words never came out. All that was in the past.
Her cough brought me back from my reverie. It was probably a purposeful action to bring me back to reality. I sat on the edge of her bed while she lay silent.
I picked up the “Dialogue” from her book stack.
Tope always said she preferred philosophy to sciences and we would often argue who was a better philosopher between Plato and Aristotle. She always aligned with Plato, saying that Plato believed in afterlife. I hated it whenever she talked about afterlife. I returned the “Dialogue” to the stack. It was not the perfect time to discuss philosophy.
“Aya mi nja, I am scared.” There was despair and tentativeness in her voice.
Softly, I stroked her head which was left with only scanty patches of frail hair and whispered into her ear, “Don’t be scared Monifee re.”
I sensed she was expecting me to say more. She pulled a smile at the corner of her lips and said I sounded unintentionally comic whenever I spoke Yoruba.
“I love you, too,” she replied. I slipped into the bed beside her and cuddled her, following my thoughts deep into sleep.
In the morning, I woke up to the calm breeze that blew in through the open windows. The kind of breeze that moved the eucalyptus in her compound to dance. When I tapped Tope, she was cold and a deep silence enveloped her. The smile on her lips was still there, the smile she wore the day she told me her name was Temitope. I was in denial, but it slowly dawned on me she had gone to her afterlife.