Ada is your sister, Mama Obinna said this to her son often.
‘Take this to your sister,’ she said, handing Obinna the black polyethylene bag that contained Ada’s dress, the one she’d helped her mend. ‘Tell Uchechi my sister that I’ll now see her at the market tomorrow.’
The thing is, Mama Obinna called everyone close to her either brother or sister. It’s usually that way—their real names at first then they become too familiar and she quickly adopts them.
Probably that was why her son, Obinna, never believed Ada was his sister.
When they were little, anytime Ada came around—and it was often that she did—Mama Obinna would give them okpa in one plate.
Then, little Obinna in the influence of that rebellious attitude of growing boys, would grumble in protest.
‘Mechie onu osiso!’ Mama Obinna would snap at her son. ‘Shut up and eat with your sister!’
When Obinna reluctantly dropped back to the floor to join her, Ada would smile at him – as though she had only been entertained by the little boy’s folly— before swallowing her food.
In the smile, she looked like an adult bottled up inside an infant’s body.
Obinna has come to understand that smile now—that feeble bending of her lips with her eyes narrowed, a calculated representation of unknowingness on the outside, yet abundance of knowledge in the inside.
He’d come to understand now, too, many other things she usually did that was not very easy to discern. Hers has always been that of complex expressions.
She was never the easy kind to read, so the feeling of being the only one quite able to, at least, always left him glad.
Again, Adaku pretended not to have heard anything, not Ujunwa’s whispering, not Obinna’s beckoning whistle.
She ran a finger across her wet forehead to stop the water from her metal bucket from trickling into her eyes.
It was the drier months of the year and the road to the borehole now seemed wider, with the lush vegetation that used to fringe it all gone.
‘Ada, chelu! I was calling you.’ He was with them now.
Running was easy for him. Even so, he walked with so much confidence one could easily assume him a prince, which he was not.
He had slight bowlegs, and Ada had once told her friends; Ujunwa and Ogechi, that that was what gave him his quick gait, like the bowlegs of nwamkpi, her mother’s sprightly odd-legged he-goat.
Anything to make him look less exceptional.
Her friends’ assessment of him has always been that of approval, and many times awe. They talk about what strong arms he’s got, his perfect nose, his well-cut lips and sparkling white teeth—sometimes, too excessively, it made her more jealous than proud.
‘Ogini, what is wrong with you?’ He held her arm now, firm, yet careful not to cause her bucket to fall. ‘Why do you ignore me?’
‘Obinna, hapum aka. Leave me.’ She didn’t stop walking.
He grabbed her bucket. In the season, water has become very precious, so she stopped.
‘Obinna, what is it?’ she said. ‘I said you should leave me alone! Or do you want my bucket to fall?’
Her voice was raised and her face swollen in a frown, but he knew better. Talking in higher voice did not necessarily mean she was angry with him. He never really thought that she was capable of getting truly angry with him anyways.
‘Erm, I think I will be going now,’ Ujunwa muttered. On her face, was that awkward smile of someone who suddenly walked in on a scene of domestic violence.
‘No, Uju stay!’ Ada told her friend.
‘Uju, take your water home. I’m sure Nne will need it now,’ he countered. His eyes were on the girl, the bold eyes that speak only of dominion, dominion most often tempered with gallantry.
‘Yes, yes,’ Ujunwa flung out. ‘Nne had food on fire when I was leaving, I must go now.’
Ada shook her head, aware that her friend has just lied. As Ujunwa walked away, she turned to him with ferocious eyes. ‘Gini, what is it?’
Now he used a voice not even her anger could resist. ‘Obim,’ he called her.
She inhaled deeply and threw away her face.
He carried her bucket from her and lowered it to the ground. He took her hand and drew her gently out of the road.
As she felt the pillar of fury she has spent so much energy to build crumble at the mere sound of his voice, all the hard work gone, she felt like slapping herself, so forcefully she would see stars.
She blamed herself now. She should have run off on sighting him or better still taken the other path that she was sure he wouldn’t follow. Only that she was not so sure of that either; he knew her whole.
It had amazed her the way he easily made her weak. Vulnerable, like a cornered rodent.
She was the strong kind of beautiful girls. The kind that knows how to handle her admirers, no matter in what number, age or size they come. She’d rather confront them than dodge them.
He was the only one capable of crumbling her defences, with things as easy as a single word, or just a calculated stare!
With a bit of regret, she has finally come to accept things as they were. But that does not mean she had given up trying anyway—she is still Adaku, after all.
‘Ada, what is it?’ He was staring at her. ‘Tell me.’
‘I told you to leave me alone,’ she said.
His face changed. ‘You are really angry with me,’ he said.
She took away her face, clucking and blinking hard.
He held her at the shoulders. ‘Gwa m, tell me please. What is it?’
She wanted to speak, but two girls were upon them.
They were carrying plastic jerry cans instead of buckets—tall, slender, yellow cans that once were containers for cooking oil.
Unlike the other people that had to suffer a long queue to fetch, Ada fetched from the tap inside the compound.
Chief Ozua, the short, stocky man that built the borehole, had wanted to marry her at some time.
She had refused, but according to the wealthy chief, she had refused differently—maturely in his own terms— and they became friends afterwards.
‘Dalu kwanu,’ the girls chorused, their eyes gliding past them with feigned disinterest.
Ada was sure they would gossip, but she didn’t care. And neither did him. Their gossip has become too common it has now turned tasteless.
The tale of the two children deceiving themselves with what they did not understand used to be a hot topic everyone in Obeledu was interested in. Some called it infatuation, others mere madness of youth.
But overtime, as more and more mouths continued to taste it, the matter turned flat.
Ada looked back, another woman was trudging up the road with a mighty bowl that screamed greed on her head. The tap has started to run eventually, she could see now. ‘Let’s go,’ she said to him.
He gave an understanding nod and bent to lift her bucket. She placed her aju cloth on his shaved head and he dropped the bucket on it.
That night they met under the avocado tree behind her house.
That was where they first had it, deep knowledge of themselves. He had pestered her about it for months, and that night she came with an extra wrapper. She didn’t say anything to him. She just spread the wrapper on the ground and allowed him.
He had been grateful.
‘So tell me, what got you so upset this evening,’ he asked. She was leaning to the tree while he stood facing her. He smelt of the floral scent of bathing soap.
‘When were you going to tell me?’ she said.
‘Tell you what?’
She turned suddenly to him as if enraged at his pretence of lack of knowledge. ‘That you are leaving for the city, Obinna!’
It wasn’t her intention that much concern showed in her voice. She decided to go on nonetheless. ‘You are not going to Enugu, or Onitsha, or Asaba, you are going to Lagos, Obinna, all the way to Lagos!’
Guilt splashed over his eyes and for once they lost their boldness and dimmed. ‘Who told you that?’
‘Is that what you are going to ask me now?’
He quickly took her arm. ‘Don’t be that way, I am not sure I’m going anywhere yet. Yes, Mama talked to Ahanna, but no agreement has been reached yet.’
She quietly slipped out of his grip. ‘Obinna, your brother sounded so sure so do not lie to me.’
‘Forget that one, he is just over excited.’
‘And you are not?’
‘I can’t be.’
She was quiet.
He took her hand again. ‘How can I be, Ada? How can I even feel normal that I’m leaving you?’
‘So you are really sure that you are going then?’
Feeling caught, he didn’t say another word.
‘Ada, come,’ he finally said. He folded her up in his arms.
She let him.
She always liked that part. Many months of carting away goods at the Nkwo market has gotten his arms bigger, his thighs firmer and his chest, broader, with that embellishing sprinkle of hair. He was what comes to mind when one mentions a strong, sexy man.
‘You must understand why I need to do this. It’s been over four years now since we finished secondary school. I have no hope of writing JAMB, let alone someday going to the university.’
She turned her eyes up at him. ‘Obinna, you are losing hope already?’
He snorted, a faint smile lingering on his face. His excellent dentition afforded him a nice masculine smile. When he smiled broadly, he created the impression of a toothpaste commercial. ‘Those were only childhood dreams, Obim, it was never meant to happen.’
‘Me becoming a lawyer?’ He threw out a laugh that meant more than amusement.
She appeared puzzled. ‘Why do you laugh?’
‘Even if miracle happened and I somehow found myself in UNIZIK or UNN, what kind of lawyer do you think I will be when I can’t even speak good English? Eh? Charge and Bail?’
She frowned at him. ‘Didn’t you pass English in your WAEC?’
‘I did. A miracle I still owe you for.’
‘Did I write the essays for you?’
‘You told me what to write.’
‘Then, is that not what the university is there for? The teachers tell you what to do and you do them, is that not it?’
He appeared to consider this for a while.
She stared at him.
‘I heard they are not called teachers in the university though,’ he came through at last.
‘Teachers, lecturers, all the same.’
He smiled at her and hummed. He turned her fully to himself so that they now faced each other. ‘Forget about me. The university was never meant for people like me.’ He brought his face down to hers so that their foreheads met. ‘Don’t you think you can get enough education for the both of us?’
She smiled to that— a sudden smile that seemed automatic. Somehow, the statement settled her. The way he’d used ‘us’.
Then it hit her again—he was leaving. To Lagos! ‘There won’t be any us anymore when you leave for Lagos,’ she told him, shifting.
He did not fake his shocked face—she knew. ‘What do you mean by that?’ he asked.
‘You are going to Lagos to meet those Lagos girls that wear tight trousers and draw scary tattoos on their laps and breasts, who do you think is going to stay here alone and wait for you?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘What I’m saying is that once your bus to Lagos leaves, I’m going to choose any of my numerous suitors and get married.’
His heart started to beat faster.
She seemed aware of his torment. She continued nonetheless. ‘Who is it going to be now sef?’ She narrowed her eyes, pretending to be in thought. ‘Okwudili? No.’ She shook her head. ‘Okwudili lives in Asaba. I don’t trust those boys in Asaba. He must have gone to drink from the mighty breast. Evil money, kpa. Maybe Chuka?’
She shook her head again. ‘Chuka that stays in Onitsha and says Bebe instead of Baby. I think I’ll prefer someone educated. Yes, Mathew. Someone like Mathew, heard he is in the university again, for the second time, studying for his masters—’
‘Stop!’ he gave out. ‘Stop this rubbish, Ada!’
She obeyed at once, obviously been waiting for the reaction.
‘You are not marrying anybody except me!’ he said.
She liked the authority in the words, but she wasn’t done yet. ‘I am not marrying any man from Lagos,’ she said.
‘What is that supposed to mean? Do I come from Lagos?’
‘I mean once you travel to Lagos, consider whatever we have meaningless.’
‘Ada, stop this. Your words are hurting me.’ His voice was now low.
She turned away, a strange feeling of satisfaction clouding over her. She was happy to know he still cared just as much.
He came to her. ‘How can you be saying these things to me, eh?’ She heard him swallow. ‘Why? Have you no mercy for my heart?’
She didn’t say a word.
‘Ada?’ He waited, but still nothing came from her.
‘Ok, fine! I’m no more going to Lagos,’ he said. ‘I will stay here and we get married in this village and start up whatever life we can manage here.’
She turned to him, a look of compassion on her now. ‘You can go to Lagos,’ she told him. She joined her fingers together. ‘I will wait for you here. I’m just afraid, that’s all.’
‘Afraid of what?’ He took her wriggling fingers, separated them and joined them to his. ‘That I may leave you for some Lagos girl who wear same clothes I wear and greet people by joining lips together?’
She nearly smiled. ‘We have never stayed away from each other, you know that. Are you not worried?’
He exhaled deeply. ‘I am, Ada,’ he admitted. ‘I really am, but Ahanna said if I work hard enough, I can get my own place in less than two years.’
‘So? I will come and pay your bride price and carry you to the city.’
She liked the way he said carry. She imagined herself on his strong, muscular back all the way to Lagos. ‘I might be in school by then,’ she said.
‘There are better universities in Lagos. Haven’t you heard of UNILAGOS?’
She smiled. ‘I want to go to UNIZIK.’
‘Why? Is the education there better?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Anyhow, there must be a way.’
There he goes again. She slipped half of her lower lip into her mouth.
She never liked that he was not the one to reason deeply, never considered anything both ways; success and failure. He was always quick to pick the former.
Sometimes, it made her think of him as scared, though most other times brave— the times everyone seemed uncertain and without hope and he would appear the only one still strong in heart.
Like the day he saved Echezona from the well. When the little boy fell in, the echo of his scream disappearing with him into the deep pit, everyone was running helter-skelter, full of confusion.
But he seemed very much in control when he reached for the tall bamboo. Even after the third dip and the stick still came out without the boy, he continued trying, as though he was sure that something was going to happen eventually.
Success would eventually come.
And he finally saved the day.
She drew near and nestled against his chest.
‘All will be well,’ he told her and folded her up.