ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1981 (Part Eleven)
It’s much better now, but in those days, when I felt embarrassed, my nose would break out in beads of sweat. My nose was clammy, and I knew that my entire face would soon be covered in sweat.
Rufus laughed, saying, “You didn’t bring your handkerchief Moyo.” I didn’t know whether he was mocking me or being sympathetic. I shook my head.
“Sorry,” Rufus said, “I don’t have one on me.”
Iya Ngu lifted her bag from the floor and fished in it. She dug out a handkerchief. “Here, Muyo,” she said, extending her handkerchief to me. “It’s fresh,” she said. “I keep several in my bag.”
I took it from her, and dabbed my nose. Suddenly the entire buka was getting uncomfortably.
Gina returned with a tray of pounded yam and soup in separate bowls. She set it on the table and placed the bowls in front of Professor Wangboje. He said, “No, serve madam first. You must always serve women first.”
Gina, embarrassed, said, “Sorry, sir,” and quickly moved the plates to the front of Madam Ngu, who kept watching her every movement. I didn’t know what to do with my eyes because I didn’t want to look at Gina, yet it was impossible to avoid looking at her because she was the center of attention. She was smiling with confidence.
“How tall are you, Gina,” Madam Ngu asked.
“I don’t know ma,” Gina answered.
“Do you like that handsome young man?” Madam Ngu asked, pointing her nose in my direction, as she began to wash her hands. Gina had now removed the plates from the tray, and was holding the tray flat against her chest, like a shield. She looked at me briefly, quickly looked away and covered her face with a hand. She didn’t say anything.
“Look at him,” Iya Ngu said. “He is a graduate student. He’s tall like you. He is going to be very rich. Don’t mind the way he is dressed like a scarecrow.”
Gina, quickly looked at me again and looked down. Then shyly, she nodded her head emphatically.
Lord almighty, these people are going to kill me, I was thinking. My mind instantly went back to my primary school days.
Our class teacher, Mr. Ayinde, was casting us for the end-of-year school play. I was new in the school, after transferring from another school to that school because of the good after-school coaching facility there. Mr. Ayinde took a liking to me, and decided to cast me as the lead character, and the most beautiful girl in the class, Iyabo, as my wife. Part of the play required me to hold her hand and walk down the street. I couldn’t do it. The idea of me holding her hand was too much for me to handle. After we tried it a couple of times and I was unable to do, he had to use someone else as the central character. I was relieved. But that wasn’t the end of the matter. The other students wouldn’t let me hear the last of the matter. They began to call me “Ọkọ Iyabo,” meaning Iyabo’s boyfriend. That was bad enough. What was worse was that Iyabo lived just one street behind my mother’s shop, and whenever I went to the postal agency to collect the mail, I often ran into her.
Everybody told me Iyabo liked me. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. And I liked her. But I was such a shy thing, and could not bear the idea of running into Iyabo. Other boys seemed totally capable of handling the situation well. But it seemed when I saw her I was going to die. At the same time, I longed to run into her, though if I did, I wouldn’t even be able to say a proper hello to her. And I could see that she smiled whenever we met on the street, which didn’t make matters any better. That shyness has steadily remained with me all my life. I am a little bit better now, but I wouldn’t still bet that I would boldly let a woman know if I liked her. That’s just the way I’m made, and it has saved me from a lot of trouble, when I look back and reflect on the matter. Age has made me a little bolder, but don’t trust me to make the first move.
But here I was in the middle of a roomful of people, and this gorgeous girl was asserting in front of everyone that she liked me.
“Over to you, Muyo,” said Madam Ngu, digging into her plate of pounded yam. “Gina, go and get the professor his own food. Gina turned elegantly, and glided back, still hugging the tray to her chest, defensively.
Rufus said, “Leave everything to me, Moyo. We’ll take care of her.”
Obaseki, thank goodness, abruptly changed the subject, saying, “Prof, I have something to say, sir.”
“What?” said Professor Wangboje. He washed his hand, reached over and picked a piece of meat from Iya Ngu’s plate.
Iya Ngu said, “Better just keep eating from my plate. I can’t finish one-quarter of the food. I’m watching my weight.”
“No,” said the professor. “I’ll wait for my plate.”
“As I said, sir,” Obaseki continued, “I have an important thing to say.”
“And who is holding down your tongue, prince,” said Iya Ngu.
“Thanks, sir, thank ma,” said Obaseki. “Please help me to appeal to Mr. Rufus. I have offended him very badly.”
Rufus snapped, “No, you have not offended me. I am not the one you offended.”
“Have, have, have you-you-you for-for-given me then?” Obaseki asked.
“I have not forgiven you,” Rufus retorted.
“Whatever he might have done to you, Rufus,” said Iya Ngu, “you must forgive him. You know he is not well. He is just recovering.”
Gina returned with the professor’s food on a tray and was setting the meal on the table in from of him.
I said, “Gina, get Obaseki a plate too. Rufus ate his food.”
Gina looked at me boldly and directly with a smile. “Yes, sir,” she said, genuflecting slightly.
“We have beer and soft drinks,” Gina continued. “What should I bring for you?”
Iya Ngu looked at me. “Muyo and I will share a beer. Is it very cold?”
“Yes, ma,” Gina said.
“Get me a cold coke,” said Professor Wangboje. “Obaseki, what will you drink?”
“I will share a beer with Mr. Rufus,” said Obaseki.
“I’m not sharing a beer with you,” Rufus said. “Gina, bring me a bottle of very cold Gulder.”
TO BE CONTINUED