Friday 11 October 2019

Her Last Breath (Episode Twelve)

A wry smile appeared on the face of the shop attendant as she watched us pick items from the shelves and place in our shopping basket. Khayrah had nudged me by the shoulder with her face contorted, whispering in my ears to know if the petite lady- who was dressed in an adire blouse and a pair of jean trousers- was someone I had met before.

I replied ‘no’ with a crinkly face, watching as Khayrah had turned on her jealous-defensive face.

I was seeing the lady for the first time, although I had visited the supermarket on several occasions to buy groceries for the family.

Khayrah and I had planned on visiting my family before the weekend runs out. We had stopped by a supermarket on the street to my house to purchase provisions for the family.

“Anything else?” Khayrah asked she threw a tin of Bournvita into the trolley. I knew she was trying to act composed but deep down inside, she was fuming with rage.

With the few weeks I had spent with Khayrah as her husband, I had learnt about her; like the way she acted whenever she was angry, hungry, excited, disappointed, jealous and moody.

Right now, she was jealous. Her face was usually scrunched up in a frown-defensive way whenever she caught a lady staring at me.

I gazed at the basket thoughtfully as I inspected all we had picked: a pack of noodles, tins of Bournvita and Dano Milk, a pack of biscuit, three bars of chocolate, a bottle of groundnut, a pack of sugar, a bag of potato chips and three bottles of fruit juice.

Khayrah had suggested that we buy few provisions as we planned on paying a surprise visit to my family.

“Nothing else.” I remarked as I held the basket to drag towards the counter.

“Never mind.” Khayrah blurted out as she grabbed the basket from me and moved it herself to the lady who had been staring at me with flirty eyes.

She placed the goods on the counter and the lady, who had three piercings on both ears and fake lashes stuck to her eyes, assessed the goods and named their prices.

“A pack of Indomie noodles is one thousand two hundred naira? How is that possible?” Khayrah scowled, screwing up her face in agony.

I stifled a snort of laughter as I watched her closely. Dressed in a brown jalabiyah and peach-coloured scarf, Khayrah adjusted the designer sunglasses that was resting on her head, as if to show-off to the lady that she was classier. We had spent close to an hour, deliberating on what she would wear. Despite assuring her that all the dresses she tested looked elegant on her, Khayrah insisted they did not fit her body figure.

“Sweetheart, we are just going to pay a visit to my dad. We’re not attending a party.” I had said in frustration before she decided to settle for the brown jalabiyah. I wished I had insisted that she remained in the car when we got to Jimoh Balogun street. I could have easily bought the items and return to the car hassle-free.

“A pack of Indomie Noodles is one thousand, two hundred Naira but I’ll sell it for one thousand Naira. It’s because it’s you oo!” The petite lady’s face flickered with a smile as she gazed at me.

Tension crept up my face as I watched Khayrah gasp in shock. She placed her hands in mine and smiled at the lady, displaying her fingers to show her wedding band. “Just so you know, we’re happily married. We’re the loveliest, happiest and most adorable couple in Nigeria at the moment.” Khayrah grinned at me lovingly and I smiled back, controlling the laughter that had filled my stomach.

The lady gazed at us thoughtfully and smiled. “I know you’re married. I have a friend, Zainab, who really likes your husband. Her daughter attends the same school with his. All she dreams of is becoming his second wife.” She stated, packing the items into a nylon as she punched on the big-sized calculator lying on the table.

Shock engulfed Khayrah’s face as she stared at me with a skeptical face. “We’re in a hurry. Can you please pack the items on time?”

“Of course!” The lady took hold of my ATM card and inserted it into the POS machine. After inserting my password and collecting my receipt, she gave us our bag of goods with a happy face. “I’m Zulaikha.”

“Nice to meet you.” I replied as Khayrah and I walked out of the building.

As we were approaching the car in the searing heat, I knew that I was done for. Khayrah wouldn’t let me rest until she heard the last of it. She would want to know who Zaynab was and if I truly desired to take her as a second wife.

We had entered the car and I had placed my hands on the key to start the engine when she held it. “We have things to talk about, Taofeek.” She stated with a stern look.

“It’s not what you think. I’ve known Zaynab since Aliyah started schooling in An-Noor’s college. We had become friends because our children attended the same school and we lived on the same street. Yes, she had declared her intention to become my second wife but I’ve always seen her statement as a joke…”

“A joke? You’re hearing this from someone else. Who else has she told that she’ll be getting married to you?” Khayrah asked morosely.

“I never knew it was this serious. I promise to be more careful.” I said, peering at her strained face. I wanted to reach to her face and cup it with my hands but she pulled away instantly.

“You have been talking to her even after we got married?”

“But she’s my friend…”

“Let’s forget about this discussion. We should just visit your family and head back home. I’ve had enough of this.” Khayrah stated in anger as she reached into her bag to get her phone.

I started the engine and drove quietly out of the compound, knowing full well that nothing I say would convince her until she had calmed down.

She jabbed on her phone’s keyboard furiously as she pressed her phone to her ear and hissed afterwards. It was obvious that she was trying to call someone and I was worried. “Who are you trying to reach?”

“Fadilah. I haven’t spoken to her for the past three weeks.” She jabbed her fingers repeatedly on her phone again as her forehead furrowed with a frown.

“Have you asked mom about her?”

“Yes, and she said she’s doing fine. I mean, Fadilah is doing fine even without speaking to me for weeks?”

I faced the road and controlled myself from bringing forth words that had formed in my head; that she should go out and make more friends instead of being in isolation of herself. That she shouldn’t keep to herself because of her illness. That she should enjoy her life while it lasts and have fun. But I didn’t. I watched the road quietly while I listened to Khayrah’s grumbles.
The house looked deserted and empty.  If we hadn’t spotted my father in the living room reading a newspaper, I would have assumed that no one lived there anymore.

 My father was reading a newspaper on the brown sofa, his legs spread across the centre table. He appeared frail and lean and I could spot fresh silver hairs on his head. His face flickered with a smile and his eyes glinted as he sipped from his cup of water. “Nice to see you again.”

“Asalamu ‘alaykum, sir.” We greeted as we approached him.

“Wa’alaykumu salam. How have you two been?”

“AlhamduliLlaah, we’ve been great.” We held hands and smiled at him.

But what we were actually thinking was that: We haven’t been great. We just quarreled and we are mad at each other.

“I can see that. Look at how everyone left me here. It’s funny how the little boys I nurtured are now grown-ups. Lukman has married and left the house. You’ve also left me here.” He laughed softly, his kind of laughter that usually came out as breaths of air. “I missed both of you. Sometimes, I wish you were here. I would wish we could go back to the old days, before you grew up and your mom left this world…but life keeps revolving round and making changes. We can’t expect everything to be the same way they are.” He smiled weakly and swiveled towards Khayrah.
“How are you, our wife? I hope Taofeek is taking good care of you?” he asked with a strained voice and I started to wonder if he was fine.

Khayrah smiled shyly as her face gleamed. “More than I had ever imagined. Thank you for training for your son to take care of me.”

“Ah, I didn’t train him alone.” He said, then turned towards me. “Jaleel has gone to class as usual. What would like to eat? I think he made white rice and stew before leaving.”

Something about my father didn’t seem right. He appeared weak and bedraggled. I had first thought it was because I hadn’t seen him in a while but I was certain that something has gone wrong. “Are you fine, father?”

“I have Malaria but I’ve been taking my drugs. Jaleel took me to the hospital yesterday. I’m getting better,” he assured me.

Khayrah moved closer, clutching the bag of provisions in one hand. “By the way, we brought something little for you and Jaleel. Please, manage the little we brought for you.”

He sat upright as he dropped the newspaper on the stool beside him and smiled at us with a glinted face. “You call this little thing? This is massive! May ALlaah reward you abundantly.”

“Aameen. We’re not in a hurry to leave here today, so let me head to the kitchen and prepare something nice for all of us.” 

“Okay, my daughter.” My father replied as he watched her leave the living room. I smiled in appreciation as I noticed Khayrah glancing at me before entering the kitchen.

“You, Taofeek, are a lucky man. You are perfect together…I’m just concerned about her health. I don’t want you to be left heart-broken when the unexpected happens.” He stared at me with pitiful eyes.

I controlled the tears that were forcing its way down my face as I watched his sad eyes. He was saying this based on his personal experience. But we had no idea that such incident would happen and we would lose my mom without a notice. I knew how depressed and forlorn he was during those trying period and I was thankful that we had gotten over it to a large extent and accepted to move on with our lives.

“For now, we will cherish the present and the memories we both share. No matter how long a couple spend together, what truly matters is how the time they spent together count.”

My father nodded as he scanned my face closely. “I’m sure you’ve started having one or two quarrels. Don’t tell me no because I know you’re both angry with each other right now.” He laughed loudly.

Surprise stole over my face. “How did you know?”

“I was once married, remember? Taofeek, whatever happens, ensure that you make her happy always. Remember that no one is perfect. Learn to accept your flaws so that you can live together in harmony.”

“JazakaLlaahu khayr, father.”

“Waiyyaka. I’m sorry for always reminding you about your past. I believe you’re a changed person and I want you to keep asking ALlaah to keep you steadfast on the right path.”

“Aameen. Thank you, dad.”

“I want to visit the toilet. I’ll be back soon. Make yourself comfortable and stop peering around like you haven’t lived here for years.” He stared amusingly at me as he took careful steps towards the door.

Watching him closely, I discovered that my father had become older than I had ever imagined. His back was slightly bent and he had started to walk like he was limping. My father was a lanky and long-limbed man with fair skin and interesting eyes. I took after his stature while Lukman had my mom’s petite and pudgy stature. He had retired as a civil servant in the Lagos State Ministry of Health last two years and since then, my father spent most of his time at home, picking a new book from his library and becoming engrossed in it.

The room I had spent twenty-seven years of life looked dusty, unfurnished and vacant. The old mattress still rested beside the gray-coloured wall, the wardrobe comprised of few of my old clothes and the brown carpet looked shabby and worn-out. I couldn’t believe a few weeks could change a whole lot in one’s life. In less a month, I was now a married man and the owner of a house. I had left my family and started a new chapter in life.

The room also reminded me of Aliyah. She would sit beside me on the bed and talk incessantly about her teachers and classmates…in a bid to distract me from whatever I was engaged in.

“I’m busy, Aliyah. We’ll talk later.” I would whine and Aliyah would giggle mischievously, stating that she would leave the room only when I promise to take her to Ikeja City Mall.

I missed the way we would go on outings together, play games and read together. Aliyah was my best friend and the only person I loved with all of my heart. Now I knew why she wasn’t very pleased with Khayrah’s sudden appearance in my life.

If I had embarked on an expedition outside of Lagos, Aliyah would ensure that she called at least thrice a day. Now, she had left the country and sometimes days would go by before we speak to each other.

All through these years, I had dread the moment when Jasmine would appear from nowhere and try to claim our child. And the moment finally came.

Dipping my head into my trouser-pocket, I reached for my phone and dialed Aliyah’s number again. All my efforts to reach out for the past two days had turned futile. Surprisingly, she picked up at the first ring.

“Hey! Asalamu ‘alaykum, dad!!!” Aliyah’s resounding voice greeted my ears.

I grinned excitedly as I replied, “Wa’alaykumu salam, my daughter. How have you been?”
I imagined Aliyan smiling pleasantly with her upper cheek bone raised and her eyes gleaming.

“Never been better. You need to visit here, dad. This place is lovely and cool…and so beautiful…the meals are great and they have nice flavours of ice cream. Remember I told you that I was tired of eating rice, beans, yam and amala all the time. Here, we have different delicacies. Yesterday, we went to an Indian restaurant. The food was great!” Aliyah exclaimed in a frisson, giving a detailed description of the people she had met, delicacies she had tasted and friends she had made.

I listened patiently as I waited for her to conclude her long rant. No longer how great she sees Canada, she had to return home. “When are you returning?” I blurted out, interrupting her story about a lady with seven cats, who lived close to them.

“Returning? To Nigeria?”

I rolled my eyes. “No. To Ghana. When are coming home jhoor?”

“Ah, I don’t know, dad. We’re considering enrolling me in a school here…”

“Enrolling you? You’re mother convinced you to remain in Canada? Was this our agreement?”

“I’m sorry, dad. I thought you will want a private moment with Aunty Khayrah. And surprisingly, mom wants me here with her. Her family also accept me as theirs. Dad, I love it here.”

My heart sank. I settled on the bed to prevent falling in shock and disbelief. I couldn’t believe that Aliyah would decide to remain in Canada. Maybe I was wrong to have agreed to meetup with Jasmine after over thirteen years.

“I’m so sorry dad. I thought mom had discussed this with you. If you want me to return, I’ll…”

“No, Aliyah. You should remain there since that is what you desire. I’ll talk to you later.” I said and cut the call, lowering my head and covering my face with my hands.
Just when I thought that I had gotten it right by getting married to the woman I desired, I never knew that I might lose my child in the process.

“Darling?” A warm hand tapped me.

Whipping my head up, I spotted Khayrah, smelling of friend onion and staring at with pitiful eyes. “Are you fine, my love?” she sat beside me on the bed and held my hands.

“It’s Aliyah. She wants to remain in Canada. Imagine…we hadn’t even talked about it. Out of the blue, I called her and she’s telling me that Jasmine wants to enroll her in a school! Imagine! She didn’t even bother to check up on me for days. Imagine how worried I was when I didn’t hear from her. She kept telling me about the beautiful places there, nice foods and a woman with cats…” I prattled, hardly noticing that tears were coursing down my face.

Khayrah pulled me into hug and I sobbed on her shoulder, soaking her hijab with tears. Maybe Aliyah had left me but I still had Khayrah, who meant more than the world to me.

But wait…maybe things would turn out the same. Aliyah had gone. Khayrah would also leave and I’d be left alone, staring at the ceiling morosely and bawling my eyes out.



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