When you met the girl, you knew she was not the perfect one.
Mother had told you about the perfect ones – they had soft faces and smiled endlessly and spoke Yoruba with a grace that reminded you of the compositions of Handel, such heavenliness. But she did not have a soft face, her face was like a chalkboard, that plainness and ordinariness. She talked as if her tongue was rolled at the tip, like the way Pa rolled the ears of pages of a book he was reading, to mark where he had stopped.
She was not beautiful either. Beauty was not the stuff anyways. You’d grown enough to know it was not about beauty or about the soft faces or unending smiles, but you could not tell Mother this.
Because of this, you did not approach the girl. You watched her walk away in a company of other girls. It was Saturday and the sun had painted the morning orange. You swung your hoe as you headed for the school farm. You tried to whistle, but the tune that found your lips offended you. So you swung and walked.
You saw her again. It was Wednesday, and you were returning from the library. You had bible study by six, and the time was a quarter to. She flounced on the sidewalk, a tote bag draped over her left shoulder, earphones plucked into her ears. She was staring straight at you, but you knew she did not see you.
The stare reminded you of Tinuke, the day Pa found out she was pregnant. She was nineteen then, in her second year at the University of Ife, and was home due to an ASUU strike that was now four months old. She was a good girl, Tinuke, a model Pa carved and planted in your Mother’s womb, a model that would be all he could not be.
Pa was hunched over a file of documents from the college, his glasses tilted on the bridge of his nose. He raised his head and looked at your sister, and you noticed that Pa’s eyes were glassy.
You studied them, Pa and Tinuke – Pa who had led you into his room when you were seven and asked why you would finish fourth in Primary One, even though Tinuke had finished first, did she have two heads? And Tinu, who said, me I am not studying medicine o, I don’t like blood. I would go and read Botany.
The silence was unnerving, forcing a cough through your lips. Pa looked at Tinu. Tinu looked at you. You looked at the pleated curtains.
You bumped into the girl and snapped into the present.
You looked at the girl. She looked at you. You’d been distracted, you said to her, you hadn’t noticed she was coming straight at you. She smiled and asked if you were so captured by her face you lost yourself, and how did you expect her to believe you were distracted. You opened your mouth in shock. Captured? What do you mean captured?
Retrieving her tote bag, she said, I saw you on Saturday. You couldn’t stop looking at me. You did not have a comeback. Your fingers got jittery, so you wrapped them around your notebooks. She flashed some fingers before your eyes, hello?
I should go, you said. You said sorry again and started walking. You had barely gotten past her when she tapped you and asked if you had your phone with you. It struck you, how she’d been careful to phrase those words, do you have your phone with you? You did not understand what it meant then, her way of carefully phrasing words.
She punched her number into the phone and saved it with Bolaji. Call me, she said. She didn’t ask for your name, she said she would know if it was you or not when the call came.
At fellowship, you were distracted during bible study, distracted by the delicateness of what transpired between you and the girl. The teaching centred on godliness and Christian living, and towards the middle of the teaching, there was an emphasis on relationships among Christian students, and succumbing to peer pressure. Today, the teacher wore a tie that fit into his shirt like the noose of a rope around the neck of a person about to self-annihilate. He looked at you as he spoke.
On your way home, you called Mother and asked about her shop. Were sales coming in? Hope the new salesgirl wasn’t planning to run away with the money. It was too early to know, Korede, too early to know. She bombed you with questions. When was your next test? Hope you weren’t missing classes? Eating well? You gave short answers.
You did not mention Bolaji. You did not call the girl either.
The third time you ran into her, she’d been waiting for you. You paused and wondered what god you offended, what god had cursed you with this girl. You walked up to her.
I’m sorry, you started, but she cut in with your name. Korede.
You blinked. Why do you know my name?
She said she asked around. She talked about how she was surprised when someone in your department said, the brainy Korede? She’d asked for your matric number and when she checked the result board, confirmed you were a nerd.
You blushed and turned your eyes away. I’m sorry, you said, for not calling.
You walked together to Senate, where most shuttle buses waited during the day to ferry students to South Gate. I stay at the hostel, she said when you made for the next shuttle but she did not. You turned back and said, you do not look like someone that stays in the school’s hostel.
You didn’t go to your lodge. You branched at your friend’s. He was sleeping, so you sat at his table and tried to read. Ten minutes later, you were texting Bolaji. Her reply was brief: let’s WhatsApp.
It was two pm, and you did not stop chatting until a minute before six. Your fingers ached, so bad you wanted to unpluck them and just hang them somewhere. Your friend was awake and reading CHM 204. You said goodbye and walked the distance to your lodge. It rained but you did not run or hide in a shop until the rain faded, not minding that your backpack was not entirely waterproof, not minding that your phone could get damaged if soaked.
You read together for tests. She was in Biochemistry, you were in Chemistry. You learned things about her – she drank green tea twice a week because of something she had with her blood, she threw her head back and let her hair drop whenever she wanted to laugh. On mornings that you walked her to the hostel, Bolaji smelled of lemon and dew.
It was after exams before you told her you loved her. You were going home soon, in less than a month, and you would not resume the new session till January. She stayed in Abuja, you in Lagos, and you were afraid of the anguish that would accompany her absence.
She looked at you and blinked back something. It was not tears. You held her stare for a while before moving to kiss her lips. She turned her cheeks instead. Why, you asked, did she not feel the same way about you?
Her voice dropped into a smallness you were not familiar with, like that of a little girl scared of staying alone in the dark. It’s not that, Bolaji said. I am afraid. I don’t want to get pregnant.
It was the bluntness that got you whispering through the night. It got you to think about Tinuke. Tinu had been like that too, fragile, on the right path, thinking about how to get scholarships while her mates gossiped about what boy slept with what girl.
After Tinu had stopped talking, Pa studied her for so long you thought his face would fracture. Then he swallowed and said, who is the boy? Tinu did not look up, said it was a one-evening stint, she’d known the guy for a year, he was her course-mate in school. It happened three weeks after she got home. She went to his house for a reason that seemed irrelevant now, and when the guy touched her, she did not flee. She should have fled without waiting to pack her sandals, but she did not flee.
Did he force you? Pa said. Tinu shook her head. Pa’s face was calm and collected in a haunting way, and you asked yourself if he’d done this before, and how he knew to be so calm. He went into his room and emerged ten minutes later. He’d changed his singlet into a fading grey top.
Tell your Mother I took your sister out, Pa told you.
You learned later that Pa had taken Tinu to a quack and allowed him lay his filthy, untrained hands on your sister as he flushed out the undeveloped foetus. That was what Pa told Mother when she screamed at him for killing her unborn grandchild: it was just a foetus, just a foetus. You did not think about Mother’s incredulous comment – unborn grandchild, as though the pregnancy was the will of God.
You left for Lagos on a Friday. At the park, there were four passengers. You called Bolaji and told her you were going home.
Okay, she said.
You made small talk about home and her two brothers. She said they were eager to meet you, their sister’s boyfriend. It made your limbs stiffen: boyfriend. When the bus filled, you told Bolaji the bus was filled now, so you had to go. Okay, she said. She sighed over the phone and said, I miss you, Korede.
You spent the holiday like a wanderer. The first week, you were devoted to Mother’s business, finding out wholesalers who sold at a cheaper price relative to what she normally paid. You monitored the salesgirl, ignoring her winks and the incessant fiddling with her braids whenever you were at the shop. October ended and you got bored.
You contacted your secondary school friends and asked if they knew of events happening in Lagos.
No dull yourself o, one wrote back. Lagos nah beehive of events. He was right. You found out about concerts and book readings and trade fairs. You registered for carol services and volunteer works. You tried to call Bolaji, but recalled the text she sent on your way to Lagos – Korede, please don’t contact me till Christmas. It will soften the hurt of missing you.
The message was weird, and now, it warmed your thoughts with Tinuke’s death. Tinu, the girl who would grow up to be an excellent lady, died on a day the sun did not come up. You should have known by the absence of sunlight, and by the strict words Mother threw at you the night before: don’t go into your sister’s room except you are told to. You did not remind Mother this was your sister, remember?
You were washing plates, singing along to a D’banj track, when Mother’s scream tore through the morning air, tore into the kitchen and ruffled you, then split the door wide and reached Pa. You got to the room first. Mother’s legs were splayed and in the space between, Tinuke’s head hung. Your eyes glanced to the mattress. It was red. Like, bloody red.
December. When December came, it brought with it dry air and stretches of silence spreading into the neighbourhood and the realization that when you resumed, you would not share courses with Bolaji again. On the fourth day of the month, you started a countdown to Christmas. You talked about it – at concerts, in Mother’s shop, in the kitchen while you washed rice in tap water.
Mother noted the excitement. I’m just thankful, you said. She nodded in a way that said she did not believe you, but she did not probe. It was not unusual, this attitude of not probing, only singing, all will be well, all will be well. She hadn’t probed Tinuke’s death either, though you knew it was a result of complications from the abortion. And when Pa disappeared and was found by fishermen three days later, his body bloated from being drowned, she did not probe.
She only sang, all will be well, I know by God all will be well.
Christmas day, you woke to Bolaji’s text. You knew it was her but you tried to play mature, brushed your teeth and wished Mother a happy Christmas and switched on the television. A Christmas play was running and you watched happily, tearing and crunching on the fried chicken legs in a way that made Mother smile.
There were four missed calls when you returned to the phone. All Bolaji. You read her text: Korede, please call me. Things are falling apart.
You rang her. She did not pick. You called again, pacing the room, tightening your fists, inhaling heavily, squeezing your eyes so as not to fight yourself or imagine the worst.
Her voice was mellow: Korede.
Bolaji, what happened?
She gave a half-laugh. A baby whined in the background. Nothing, she said. I’m fine.
You are fine? Are you sure? I saw your text, you said. Things are falling apart, what does that mean?
She said it was nothing, she was reading Purple Hibiscus and decided to tease you with the opening line. You sighed and asked if she was sure. She said yes. You were not convinced, but because she was Bolaji, and because when you think of that morning in retrospect you realize some things occur because of fate, that measly thing called fate, you did not probe her.
When January broke, firecrackers exploded everywhere. The guys who wore dreadlocks in your street carried cigars around and played hip-hop from portable speakers.
You told Mother you were going to school on the fifth. But you don’t resume for a week, she protested. You said it was because freshmen were to resume on the fifth, and you wanted to help out with Catch Them Young, a scheme employed by religious bodies to lure the naïve students to different fellowships. You left out the part that Bolaji was coming early too, and you would have a week to yourselves.
In school, the roads were dusty and the shops sat like hungry children scattered everywhere. You spent the day cleaning and washing your reading table and chair, pots, and bedsheets. You dusted the nets. You got exhausted. You bought bread and Pepsi and slept like a labourer.
On Thursday, you called Bolaji. She was still in Abuja. She wouldn’t be coming till Saturday, family issues. I’m fine, she said. I’m very fine. On Saturday, you called her but she did not pick. On Sunday, you slept through the sermon and forgot to drop your offering.
Students trickled into school. The advanced undergrads built makeshift shops by the road within the school gate and helped the freshmen with registration. Everyone was shouting. Bolaji did not call.
On Tuesday, you left your faculty and trekked to South Gate. You did not pay attention to the fire lighting up in your tummy, tempting you with the thoughts of food. You called Bolaji. The voice that picked was different. You introduced yourself as Bolaji’s friend and asked if you could please speak with her.
No, the voice said. Oh, you are the boyfriend she used to talk about?
Huh…Yes. Used to?
Yes, the voice said. Bolaji died last evening. She took an overdose.
Presently, dark clouds are gathering. It is not yet February, so you know it cannot rain. You look at the clouds again and tell yourself anything can happen. If Bolaji could kill herself, anything can happen.
In the last days, you’ve learned more about her family, her two brothers, her dad and step-mum. You’ve learned about her two-year-old son – the result of a mistake that happened with a tutorial teacher in her final year in secondary school.
You’ve asked yourself how you were so insensitive, and you did not notice the unsaid words, how you did not think too hard when she said, I don’t want to get pregnant, how you did not ask about the baby whining when you called her.
A man walks towards you. The way he walks reminds you of Bolaji, that carefree non-Yoruba way. He tells you they came to clear her remaining stuffs from her friend’s lodge. You can see that, you think. You can damn see that. You are not blind. Or maybe you are.
The man asks how you are holding up.
How are you holding up? You ask him. Shock covers his face. How are you holding up? You ask again. How can you lose a daughter and talk about it so casually? How? How do people damn do that?
You turn and walk away. You avoid Bolaji’s brothers’ gazes. You think about your outburst, and think about why you just shouted, and why you should not be shouting at this man who did you no wrong, but at Mother who treated Tinuke’s death and Pa’s death like an everyday event.
You call Mother. You cut in as she says hello. How could you do it? How could you act normal after Tinuke died? And when Pa died too, how could you? How could you just say, all will be well, all will be well, as if committing suicide was a normal thing? How did you not feel this heaviness and sourness that is sitting in my chest?
Korede, Mother says. But the voice does not sound like Mother’s. It sounds like Bolaji’s. She comes to you and says, Korede, what has happened to you? Are you alright? Are you lonely? Do you want to come home?
“Comes A Plain Girl” was commended as a Top 30 entry for the 2019 Writivism Short Story Prize. On the non-usage of quotation marks for the dialogues: as at the time of writing this story, I was experimenting with a lot of style and form (I still am, always will), and I had read a number of short stories that didn’t employ quotes, so, why not?
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