The sun was barely stretching; its lazy arms reached to uncurl the blanket of the night by the time Frank was standing in front of his shop. He looked at his phone for the time – 6:42am – and leaned against a table standing to one side. His fingers itched, strained to reach into his pocket for the pack of White London that rested in there – a desire that seemed to have heightened within the past few weeks.
He shuddered and pulled his hand away. He didn’t – wouldn’t want his staff and work neighbors to know about his ‘sudden’ passion for ‘cancer sticks’; as Fola jokingly referred to them. Besides, it was too early for him to smoke anyway.
So he leaned against the bench and watched morning arrive Orile while wondering when his shop would open.
Frank started awake groggily and looked for the time again.
It was a few minutes to nine.
The sun was out in all its angry glory and Frank rubbed his neck, specifically the small ache that had made its way there. He looked around – he was still outside his shop – and was about to reach for his phone when he spotted the person he’d left in charge, James, alight from an okada. Frank’s clenching and unclenching fists were the only sign he was feeling some kind of upset – otherwise he was still, at least externally.
James still hadn’t seen him.
As the okada drove off, James started his jaunty walk towards the shop, not in any hurry as he smiled and waved at the next door shop owners and people who kept hailing him. He didn’t notice Frank in front of the shop till he was climbing the stairs.
And then he froze, dismay, surprise and fear fighting for expression on his face. “Ah – oga! Good – good…”
“Open the door and let me in, James. I’ve been standing here since after six.”
James tried several times to put the key into the huge padlock, repeating and failing at a task he had performed every day for the past three years almost effortlessly. After watching for a bit, Frank impatiently snatched the keys from him and opened the shop’s metal doors. Then he stood aside to let the hapless manager hasten into the shop before following after him.
“James, give me your phone.” Frank said quietly, stopping James in his tracks as he approached the first set of windows.
The man turned around and silently handed over his phone, before continuing to the window to pull back the curtains.
The sunlight chased away the shadows that clung to the deepest parts of the shop. Frank nodded approvingly, looking like a new king surveying his domain. The shop was as clean as he insisted it had to be – he ordered them to sweep every day before they closed shop; clearly that part of his instructions hadn’t been neglected.
He watched James hastily head to the cupboard against the shop’s far wall to unpack half-done jobs. Then he called his attention, shaking his head slowly as he did. “Not yet James, let us wait for the others to arrive.”
And James, knowing the others were going to be very late and knowing he couldn’t warn them that oga was around, sat in his chair and chewed his lips while mentally willing his fellow workers to hurry.
It was a few minutes to twelve noon before the last person arrived. At that point, the tension in the room was thick enough to be cut with a chicken wire.
Frank regarded his employees, taking note of the various emotions they wore on their faces – anxiety, hopelessness, fear, as he tapped his forefinger on the table before him.
“How many of you are not happy to be working here?”
The seven employees – James included – four men and three women, ages ranging from twenty to forty looked at each other, and then back at the boss.
“Oga, we no understand,” James muttered.
“Which language you wan make I take talk am?” Frank snapped.
James seemed to shrink into a shell, pretty much like a snail. At another time, Frank would have laughed.
“If you’re not happy working here, you can just carry the things you came with and leave now.”
There was silence for a bit – silence interrupted by the vibrating of his phone – but he ignored it.
And then one of the women, Alhaja spoke up. “We are ferry happy to be hia, Oga Frank. Is the devil that make us to late –”
Frank silenced her. “The same devil will make your salaries late too. How can you resume here at ten o’clock in the morning?! Do you know how many people I had to turn back because the shop wasn’t open?!”
A lanky fellow standing in the back opened his mouth – probably to point out that Frank also had the shop keys – but one of his colleagues, someone somewhat more discerning than he shoved an elbow in his side. And he closed his mouth.
“Maybe you thought something had happened to me, or maybe you were hoping I was dead –”
There were various shouts of ‘ah!’ ‘God forbid!’ ‘Tufiakwa!’ and Frank, lips curved in what could only be referred to as a smirk, interrupted them. “You can all be saying that now, yet you’re behaving as though I wasn’t supposed to return. Is this how you run a business?”
His staff hung their heads in shame.
Frank sat in his shadowed office, a vacant look on his face.
He had just gone over the accounts with James, and he couldn’t help but wonder why he wasn’t in a better mood. The staff’s tardiness hadn’t affected their turnout rate much, and the books looked just as promising as they had been when he was around.
Yet he felt all out of sorts.
He picked up his phone to call Igo. He’d actually started to punch in the numbers, when the last words she’d said to him echoed in his mind:
Stay away from me.
Gently he put the phone down, and slowly clenched his fists and teeth. The air was beginning to feel oppressive; he wanted to get up and just go away – go somewhere. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind for work –
His phone rang. It was an unfamiliar number. He picked it anyway. “Hello?” he grunted.
“Hello Frank. This is Efe.”
“Eh…Efe?” He paused for a moment, wondering who it was. And then: “Efe! Hi! How are you?”
She laughed, a sound Frank discovered he was starting to like. “I thought you wouldn’t remember me. How are you?”
“Fine, fine. I’m back to work now.”
“That is good. I’m pleased to hear that. When will you be back home?”
He hesitated. “I really can’t say yet. Why? Is something wrong?”
She laughed again. “No joor! I’d like to invite you over for dinner, that’s all.”
“Ah…” Frank began, and then paused. “Well…”
“Come on, Frank dear. We’re adults. You’re my best friend’s ex-husband, I’m married with kids. What’s the worst that could happen?”
What’s the worst that could happen indeed?
“Ah – sure! What time?”
“Any time from 8pm is fine. You can call me on this number when you’re on your way.”
He nodded, as though she could see him. “Alright,” he said.
“Bye!” she said cheerily and hung up.
Frank stared at his phone, as though it had suddenly grown eyes and a mouth, before setting it aside, resolving not think too much about Efe and her offer.
He jerked out of his woolgathering to find James looking at him with concern.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Oga…there’s a woman here to see you. She say her name is Idowu…”
Frank frowned. He couldn’t recall any female Idowus in his life, past or present. He couldn’t remember ANY Idowus for that matter.
“Is she a customer?”
James scratched the little fringe of hair on his jaw. “Oga, I don’t know. When I asked her what she want, she ask for you.”
Frank sighed and nodded. “Tell her I’m coming.”
But James lingered.
“What is it?” Frank asked the young man who was twiddling his fingers and exuding an air of nervousness.
“Em…oga, are you okay?”
Frank stopped his rising movement and fixed James with a stare. The man got the hint and moved quickly out of the office. Allowing himself a sardonic smile, Frank stepped out from behind his table and out into the main shop.
“I know independent women are quite the in-thing these days, but women still like to be pursued, you know.”
Startled, Frank looked towards the direction of the voice to see a pretty woman folding a newspaper and rising from a bench to his right. She walked towards him, looking very official in a white blouse and black skirt. Heels showed off her brown legs and everything else accentuated her body. She had a nice body.
She stopped when she stood scant inches from his. “I called you last night – and I’ve sent you a couple of texts this morning. No response.” She paused, and then looked at him accusingly. “Did you even read the messages?” At the confused look growing on Frank’s face, she rolled her eyes. “Great. You don’t even remember me.”
Frank shook his head. “I’m sorry – but who are you?”
She smiled. “I am Idowu – Idowu Bakare. My father lives next door to your parents…”
Frank hit himself on the forehead. Of course!
She was Idowu, the girl his parents – his father, at least – wanted him to marry.
Written by Seun Odukoya