SHORT STORY by Grace Ochigbo
The long awaited day split open like it’s not the same one Ojoma had been looking forward to – her whole life? Yeah. Maybe. Probably. It feels like a lifetime already since a year ago when she first met Joshua; Josh, as his friends fondly called him, and ‘My J’ as she did. The use of the personal pronoun was deliberate as Ojoma likes to think that Joshua was tailor-made for her.
It wasn’t any dramatic meeting.
It was on one of those lazy days when her workplace appeared like a place of torment to her and she readily indulged her hobby. And if you are that curious to know the hobby of a twenty-four-year-old certified barrister who’d decided to go into fashion designing instead, then you are not out of place.
Ojoma had it up to her jaw level when she informed her mother about opening a fashion house shortly after she had been called to bar.
“Are you alright?” the older woman screamed reflexively.
She couldn’t even place her hands on wherever what she referred as a ‘stupid idea’ had dropped on her precious child from.
Ene Usman was a successful woman by all standard. She started a media firm from the scratch few months after relocating into Nigeria from the UK. Those were the most challenging days of her life as people far and wide didn’t see STAR TV becoming what it is now. Just last February, it was ranked the 1st panAfrican Television station in the continent and she’s been named severally amongst the first 10 females, first 50 Nigerians, first 100 africans, 100 richest women across the globe. Ojoma was 18 and her younger brother Greg, 16, when they finally returned into the country.
Ene Usman understood the place of passion and pursuing one’s dream. She’s been there before. A thousand times. She’s lost a lot of things on her journey into self-discovery and dream-realization; from money, to friends, to materials and most importantly – the last straw that broke the camel’s back – she lost her husband. Ajogwu Usman got carried away at some points with the hot searing waves that came with being married to a go-getter, career-oriented lady. Gradually, he’d thought her to be progressing from arrogance to gross disobedience and the time finally came when he considered her unworthy to be his wife. It was the other way round in reality. Ajogwu Usman got to that pathetic point of seeing himself as ‘not good enough’ for the woman Ene was becoming and to ‘save his head’ as one of his friends had advised, he opted for a divorce.
Ene had disallowed any of those ugly turn of events from altering her dream or denting her name in the public. She’s a media mogul quite alright but had done a great job at keeping some seemingly deep part of her personal life away from the hungry press. She kept objecting to the divorce until she had to let him go. Ene had come to realize that a man can be taught how to do anything but no one can teach a man how to be a man. Rumor had it that her husband started having affairs with other women he would excuse as being ‘readily available’ for him. Nothing else mattered to Ene at that point. The judge let her keep the kids while Ajogwu could still partake in catering for their upkeep and welfare. It turned out eventually that Ene had all her children’s bills covered so much so they almost didn’t miss their father. Well, except that Ojoma always insist on visiting her father. She’s been fond of her father right from infancy and even now that the man has a separate family from theirs, it doesn’t change a single fact. The fact that she doesn’t have another father.
Ene Usman completely understood and could relate when Ojoma got to that phase – that phase when one realizes that fulfilment wasn’t going to come from what he/she had studied in the university. Only that in her opinion, her daughter should have chosen a ‘more honorable path’.
“Trust me on this, mum. I’ll make you proud.” Ojoma assured
That was three-years ago and did Ojoma make her mother proud? Well, on her last birthday, Ene Usman took to Instagram to make an open declaration of how more than a proud mother she is of her daughter. She highlighted with pictures the progression of Marvel’s Needle, Ojoma’s fashion house, from inception to present and when she ended the long post with ‘You promised to make me proud, Ojoma and you exceeded my expectations. I just want the whole world to know that I am proud of you’, Ojoma couldn’t hold back the tears anymore and she let them drop down on her iPhone. Many thanks to her mother’s influence as well, she’s had clients from the people that matter in the society, both home and abroad so much so that in less than a year, Ojoma had fifteen permanent staff doing everything fashion; from buying materials, to sewing to styling.
Fulfilment was the word whenever Ojoma looked at her fashion house. She felt like a creator, like God who could make something as beautiful as the world from a formless and void earth. Her other hobby whenever her office looked like a cage was shopping. Ojoma loved to shop to stupor and that’s just the long and short of it. At a point she had to open another fixed deposit account because she knew her tendencies. Whenever the ‘shopping spirit’ entered her, she didn’t mind spending her last dime.
“If I perish, I perish.” She will console herself.
Of course, the world would have to end for her to be broke. The massive return from her business aside, her mother had made a lot of investments enough to sustain them up to the fourth generation.
That fateful morning, her alarm went out loudly and it was as though the third world war was staged in her head, with neurons spiking like angry shots from an AK 47. She knew she wasn’t going to leave her house at all that day. Her house. Yes. She’d moved out of her mother’s mansion after commissioning her business. She thought she desperately needed to prove a point to the older woman and living under same roof with her was not the way to. It was no big deal getting a 3-bedroom bungalow in the GRA. It’s actually one of her mother’s houses so she lived as tenant and caretaker all by herself without a need to pay rent.
She spent the morning dragging herself all over the place and by some minutes to noon, she knew she needed to go out to avert the depression that was about to set in. Something had gone wrong at workplace the day before – she was unable to meet up a client’s demand and the woman seized the opportunity to sit on the matter, literally. Ojoma felt so miserable after the woman rained harsh demeaning words on her so much so that she almost gave up on the whole business. She hated people shouting on her. She can’t bear it. It weighs her entire soul out. For want of what to do, it clicked in her head that she needed to buy a particular material so as finish up a bridal couture work she started earlier. She would shop some few items for the house too and maybe get an easy-to-wear-slippers. Heels were all tugging at her heels at the moment and anything for comfort will do. Making a mental note of the various stops and how to get around all the places she needed to get to, she got in her car and zoomed out of the estate.
The afternoon sun was milder today, she thought as she stepped out of her car in front of a fabric store. It didn’t take so long to get the material she wanted after all. One of her staff had described that place to her some time ago. Categorically stating that items were ridiculously cheap and one gets to pick from varieties. Ojoma couldn’t agree more. She quickly got the phone number of the middle-aged woman that sold to her. She surely would be needing her services more subsequently.
Ojoma had hit the roads from the grocery store where she stopped next and was almost negotiating into the street that led to her estate when it dawned on her.
“Oh no!” She groaned.
She considered the possibility of going all the way back to where Jude, her shoe dealer’s shop was and was certain she wasn’t game for that. Ojoma can be lazy, yes, and at that point, the laziness had an icing coat, tired.
“I’ll get it another time o!” she muttered underneath her breath as though she owed someone an explanation and made to drive on when her eyes caught a glistering ball-like structure shining from a distance. She bent a bit to see clearly, ‘MK SHOE PALACE’ she read aloud.
Was she overjoyed? Not necessarily. True, it would save her some stress but Ojoma was one to get used to a particular place. The first time she patronized Jude was the last time she’d had cause to go about looking for shoes. In fact, her relationship with Jude was so cordial that he would call her first thing after he ‘return from travel’ as the young energized Igbo man would refer to his business trips. She would go and pick all the stuffs she wanted, including the ones she specifically placed orders for before everyone else start arriving. Going to a new shop to pick shoes now felt weird for her. She ignited her car and almost continued when she told herself to stop being stereotypical and try something new.
“You are welcome to MK SHOE PALACE, ma’am. You can get whatever you want as far as shoes are concerned here and I am available to take you round as well.”
The voice greeted Ojoma right from the door and she thought it was automated initially. She wanted to smile. It was too serious an introduction, she thought. She even imagined how disappointed this sales rep or whoever the tall, bearded, dark and handsome young man would be when he discovers what brought her in here. So much introduction for buying a mere pair of slippers.
“Where are your slippers section?”
“Kindly follow me, ma’am.” He said courteously, leading the way.
There was something unusual about him. He had an aura that didn’t depict that of a regular sales rep. His words were polished and prim. If Ojoma didn’t know better she would swear she heard a British accent. But then, if any accent at all, it had to be coming from her. She was the born, bred and schooled abroad British-accented one. Still, there’s something about the young man who at that point was already pulling out a Gucci box. Ojoma didn’t know if she was staring at the item he’s showing her or at him.
If only he stopped talking at least, she may be able to joggle herself back and think better. There’s something about the voice that’s his. She had observed a potential inclination to guys with mild baritone voice just like this one. The voice spelt out security to her, much more than anything else. It came across as an assuring voice of a soldier ready to defend his territory in times of war regardless.
“Looks like this pair of slippers was carved specially for your leg, aunty.” He flattered, all smiles as soon as Ojoma slipped her fair smooth size 38 leg into one of the silver slippers.
“I am not your aunty!” Ojoma spilled before she could stop herself. She’s had this budding dislike for people referring to her as ‘madam’, ‘aunty’, ‘mummy’ or whatever was the norm in this part of the country. It made her feel uncomfortable.
“I didn’t mean any disrespect, ma’am. It’s just within my jurisdiction to give my client the due respect she deserves.”
“Jurisdiction, client?” Ojoma was laughing now. “Who are you? Are you sure you belong here?”
“Oh no. Sorry! My customer I mean. Delete ‘jurisdiction’ too.” The young man apologized quickly, acting in a way that made Ojoma laugh even louder.
And that was it.
Right there and then she found a friend in Joshua Ibe. He’s a barrister working with the state’s ministry. Trained at the Usman Danfodio University in sokoto Nigeria and had gotten certifications and fellowships from highly placed institutions outside the country including the renowned University of Manchester where she’d gotten a fellowship as well.
“How come we never met at any of those conferences?” Ojoma inquired on their next outing.
“Because I knew there was something about mum’s shop that I needed to start frequenting.”
Ojoma laughed till her ribs almost cracked. The guy had a deep sited sarcasm in his bone marrows and that’s a big turn on for her. He never responds to questions directly, so much for being learned colleagues. He told her why he was at the shop that fateful day. His mother complained about the unavailability of any of her sales girls and he had opted to drop by from work since the office wasn’t so busy after all. He asked his mother to go home and that he would take over for the day when he arrived. He had barely settled in for an hour when Ojoma walked in.
We all meet that one person who would divide our entire life into two; the time before we met and the time after. Every day since then had been full of laughter, hanging out, hanging in including hanging up and down. Ojoma finally found her long time prayer of a tour guide round the city she’d come to live in. Josh and her visited virtually every spot. She wasn’t the friends’ keeping type and so most times she’s left to stay alone. She could have asked her mother for any of the home staff to become her tour guide right from when she returned from the states but it’s not everything that mother must help the daughter out with, right?
For Ojoma and Josh, the speed at which they clicked and bonded was faster than that of light. Theirs wasn’t love on a budget as Ojoma didn’t spare anything. Josh was a comfortable young man building a noble career. He wasn’t as rich as Ojoma, certainly, but also didn’t spare any thought in making her feel special at every chance he got. On her last birthday, the same one her mother wrote an epistle full of love and accolades for her, Josh had done something quite incredible. She had stayed up taking calls and responding to fleets of text messages right from midnight and by the time she saw the need to catch a little sleep, it was enough to make her wake up late. In fact, it was the continuous chiming from the doorbell that pulled her from dreamland. She wondered who would already be calling at her house so early in the morning and by the time she trudged towards the front door, she realized she’s on a short and singlet.
She thought to just hang around the door and quickly dismiss whoever it was.
Alas, it was Josh.
Worry had found a home on the young man’s face and moved in. Alarm rang on Ojoma’s head as she left the door to let him in immediately.
“What’s wrong, Finest?” she called him ‘finest’ or ‘my J’. In her opinion he’s not just the finest man she knows but the finest thing that had ever happened to her, her heart.
“I know this is going to be hard but you have to understand that life hits every man at one point or the other. You got to stand up, pick up the shattered pieces and build again.”
Now, sincere concern could be spelt out clearly on Ojoma’s face. She couldn’t place what was going on.
“Ojoma, I need you to be strong, OK?”
“Strong?” Ojoma cut in before she could stop herself. Strong about and over what? She wondered.
“This has everything to do with the shop. Your shop.”
Ojoma pulled herself to the edge of the chair, she almost slid down.
“My shop? What happened to my shop?”
Josh’s eyes moved from her and settled on the television. It was a speechless statement and Ojoma got the message. Something must have happened to her shop and made the news. She probably didn’t see it because her television was off. She was undecided on the first thing to do. It’s too strange to be true. Where was she going to start from?
“Take me there…” She sprung up, forgetting she’s only on a short.
Josh brought her attention to what she’s putting on and fear of the unknown almost made her damn it all but he’s not going anywhere with her like this, or so does his hesitation say.
She dashed into the room and slipped into a pair of trousers. Pulled a long shirt over her shoulders and was out in another second. Josh’s face was the coldest fall she had seen. It carried no expression at all but she’d learnt patience. She knew she was going to breakdown, so she would save it until she sees the ruin her shop has reportedly turned into.
As they drove closer, she saw smoke emanating to the sky few blocks to hers. God, this cannot be happening, she muttered what was between a reprimand and prayer. Her eyes could almost pierce the door into the fashion house as Josh parked. She stepped out and reflexively looked around. Yes, there was smoke everywhere but she doubts if it was from her shop. With rage, fear, doubt and combination of all things depressing, she hurried to the door and almost tippled over on pushing it forcefully assuming it was locked.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU…” came the chorus chant immediately she caught her balance. The voices were so loud she almost collapsed in on herself.
“…happy birthday, dear madam, happy birthday to you!” they continued and for all those seconds she was battling with stopping her racing heart. “Hip hip hip, hurray!” they shouted, a bottle of wine went off with so much pop sound they screamed again.
Ojoma’s jaw dropped open and she left it that way. Then,
“Happy birthday, big sis. Love you!” Greg walked over to stand tall in front of her, giving her a bunch of beautiful flowers before hugging and planting a peck on her forehead.
“Greg?” Ojoma was pleasantly surprised. She hadn’t seen her own brother in two years and when he’d called to inform her of his arrival, how he would love for her and mum to meet him at the airport and how that it totally skipped her mind when the day came, she knew she owed him an appeasement. The only person she mentioned this to was Josh and she had been pending the appeasement until when she gets the best way to. “How did you get here?”
Greg chuckled lightly. “I’ve forgiven you for your inability to come pick me up at the airport though.” He winked in that familiar way that only him and his big sister knew what it meant.
“Thank you, Greg.” Ojoma screamed, forgetting people were standing around.
It felt like a heavy weight of guilty conscience had just been pulled off her shoulders. She crashed into his manly hands for a hug. Her little brother of yesterday is now a big man. After a minute, she withdrew from the hug enough to see his face.
“That doesn’t answer my question though?”
Her forehead squeezed as she gradually turned in the direction where Greg was pointing her to the person who invited him, more or less, planned the whole event.
“Happy birthday, my queen.” He called out from the place he’s still standing and holding onto the doorknob.
Oh no. Ojoma left Eneojo and hurried over to where Josh was standing. She landed three playful punches on his chest. “You said something was going on in my shop?”
Josh smiled. “Is this not more than something going on in your shop?” He quotes a part of the statement with his hands in the air.
Ojoma took in a deep breath. Why had she expected something bad to happen? She turned to see all her workers standing, most with flowers and presents. She thought to start the appreciation line that served as closing remark. Everyone needed to return to work. Her birthday didn’t amount to a public holiday. She was about to say this when she heard something. She stopped. It was soft and mild. OK, hopefully there are still many more surprises for this day. Orchestral blared her favorite song ‘I get to love you’ by Ruella and she didn’t know when her eyelids shut. She swung on one foot and Josh held tightly to her right hand. She would have gotten into another cloud if the orchestral hadn’t stopped just in time for that. Opening her eyes, she jerked and ran behind Josh without batting an eyelid. Greg went over to her back and tried to push her forward but no, Josh’s height was enough mask for her until the latter went down on one knee. Ojoma couldn’t believe all that was happening.
“A lifetime is not enough to study a woman, Ojay!” He locked eyes with her and picked her both hands this time. Ojoma had seen a large cake wheeled in by the orchestral but that wasn’t what rushed her to Josh’s back. There was an inscription on the cake.
“I don’t know much, but I know I love you, and that, for me, is all I need to know. So Ojay baby,” He let a sweet smile. One of those things that made him so loveable. He had a perfect dentition. “…would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Tears spilled down Ojoma’s eyes at this point and she couldn’t stop it anymore. She let them drain down the bathtub of her soul, cleaning and rinsing it. Ridding it of all pessimism, fear, doubt and everything that the thought of marrying one’s friend took away.
It’s been six months now since the proposal. She had deliberately stalled the entire process. Left for Josh, they would be on the altar saying their vows a day after her birthday, but no, she was as interested as she was scared. She saw how her parent’s marriage moved from the most beautiful and happy union to the point where Mr Ajogwu and Chief Mrs Ene Usman are now, total strangers. She didn’t want that to happen to her. She wants to go a hundred and one years with the husband of her youth, the love of her life, loving and befriending each other every new day like it was yesterday. A month after the proposal, she agreed to a formal introduction between both families. It took another 3 months before she was ready for their first nuptials, a court wedding. It was so quiet. Too quiet for the only daughter of a revered media mogul. She particularly instructed her mother not to go public with it and the woman respected her decision.
It looked like she was holding back but no, she was just being herself. It couldn’t have been termed testing the waters because she was already two feet deep in it. She fell in love and gross fear unintentionally became part of the package. She thought herself to be philophobic. She was grateful Josh was nursing her emotions like a mother would a frail child, patiently holding her up and walking her through the process of breaking whatever high rise walls she’s built around herself. And today, the day she had long been awaiting, she couldn’t wait to fully be married to the man who she was beyond convinced was the right one for her.
It’s been long time coming years of major achievements for Ojoma Usman and now she can add becoming a wife to the list. The twenty-four-year old fashion designer and stylist extraordinaire was getting married to Joshua Ibe in an intimate afternoon ceremony overlooking the beach. Nature was in tune with their event with the wide sand cascading across the land and sweet small breeze offering a slight chill and providing relief from the warm, setting sun. The water crushed against rocks in a distance. There were 200 guest in this outdoor occasion. The elegance and beauty from all the different shades of pink made the beachside look like this side of heaven. Ojoma had picked her color of the day as ‘all shades of pink’ and should she say the event planner blew her mind? It came out more perfect that she imagined.
Josh could not curtail his heart inside the hundred-dollar tuxedo he’s wearing as Ojoma walked down the aisle hand-in-hand with her father. It was her favorite song ‘I get to love you’ by Ruella that was streaming in the background and at this point he feared his heart will split in twos for cheer admiration. How could God have made a lady so perfect? Right pound of flesh in the right places, right facial contours, glistering spotless skin. He was still in his dialogue with the creator when Ojoma arrived right in front of him. He looked at her. She looked like God to him right now. So beautiful and radiant. Indeed, she was a reflection of the depth of love God must have for him. He could kiss her feet if need be. She was worth the wait. Now he saw clearly how true what they say about God stopping the wrong persons from agreeing to marry you the whole time until you meet the right one. Ojoma was just the right one for him. The perfect fit.
It was time to say their vows and after reciting the ones from the priest, Ojoma had other plans.
“My J!” she called out softly, holding his gaze. Josh smiled. The name flatters him every time, every day. “Isn’t it surreal that you are mine? I went in search of a slippers, and God gave me a sweetheart.”
“Awwwn!” came out loudly from the audience. Ojoma didn’t care. It’s her day and she can say them – all those things bottled up inside her the entire time.
“I thought you were messing with me. Oh how I thought you were just playing. I was afraid. People fall in love but with mine came sore fear. Fear of leaving my emotions all over the place.” she spreads her lips into a smile. “Didn’t the bible say there’s no fear in love? That perfect love cast away all fear?”
Affirmations came in words and exclamation from the audience.
She took in a deep breath and continued. “Like you said, I don’t know much, but I know I love you. and that’s all there is to know. With you, I found everything I ever wanted, Finest. And indeed, everything I ever wanted was on the other side of fear.” She drew nearer her husband with fierce desire in her eyes. “I love you, my J, and will do forever and a day more.”
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear; because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18
PHILOPHOBIA – GRACE OCHIGBO