F-1-4-A (“February 14 Anonymous”)
I am the knock on your window
I am the fierce desert storm
I am the rustle in the leaves
I am the kindling in the brush
I am the ache in your chest
I am the scrabbling at the door
I am the dying of the light
I am the Phoenix – some day
– from “Days of dreams” by Kayode Oluyinka
I was standing at the cards stand in the Stop Centre supermarket and gift shop in Victoria Island. I had my hand on one of the cards. I was wondering what I was doing. I knew what I had in mind. But still where would it end?
“That’s a nice card.”
There was an older woman standing next to me. Her diction and the elegant air she had about her spoke of sophistication.
I forced a smile. “Thank you ma.”
“Forgive my inquisitiveness. I should really learn to mind my own business. But are you planning to send that to some lucky young lady?”
To lie or not to lie.
“Well. Actually no. I did send one last year. But I won’t be sending any this time.”
“Oh. So why are you buying it?”
“It was a mistake. I shouldn’t have come here at all.” I said.
“It was nice meeting you ma.” I made to leave.
“I am sorry if I said something wrong.” she said.
“No ma. You didn’t.”
“Alright then. Can you help me pick out one?”
“What do you think of this one?” she says holding one up.
I examined the card. Read the inscription inside. My mind wasn’t really taking anything in. But I went ahead and said it was a lovely card.
“Thank you.” she replied.
“You are welcome ma.”
“I should be leaving .” I said.
“Why don’t you see me to the till.” She leaned towards me conspiratorially and whispered, “Won’t it be hilarious if they thought we are together?” she said laughing.
I smiled and she led the way. No harm in humoring her for another minute or two.
She paid for the card, stuck it in her bag and hooked her arm through mine and made for the door. The thought crossed my mind that anyone that sees us would probably assume she was my aunt.
She led the way towards her car. A monster of a thing with a driver behind the wheel.
“You are such a nice young man.” I held the door open as she got in the back.
“So if you are not buying nor sending a card, should I assume you are spending this evening alone?”
Ok. Now. This was bordering on the ridiculous. Was she hitting on me?
She burst out laughing. “Young man. I am not hitting on you. If that’s what you are thinking.”
I was embarrassed and laughed as well to cover it up. “Probably” I said.
“In that case, I would like to invite you to a meeting.”
I was about to throw up some excuse, but before I could come up with a suitable one, she continued.
“I can’t promise you would enjoy it. But I can tell you it’s an experience you would not want to miss.”
“And I promise there’s no hanky panky involved. Come formally dressed.” She had a sense of humour.
“What’s the meeting about?” I asked.
“What’s today about?” she responded.
“Does this meeting have any name or subject?”
“February 14 Anonymous. You will be my guest.”
I really should find that excuse. “What’s that? People addicted to February 14?” I said half joking.
“You could say that.” She said. She didn’t look like she was joking. In fact for a quick second, there was a flitting expression on her face that I couldn’t quite place. Still I hesitated.
“Be a sport. You can leave any time. And Lekki is not that far away is it.”
I weighed my options again. I had planned to go see a movie at the Genesis Deluxe Cinema by myself. Then indulge in some Bunny Ice Cream L”sin” afterwards and hit the Shawn Tee’s insanity exercise video with a vengeance tomorrow morning as a penance for my planned self-indulgence.
“OK.” I said. “Thanks for the invite. Let me have the address please.”
She scribbled it on the back of a complimentary card. “Here it is. And that’s my card.” I glanced at the text in front. The name was vaguely familiar. “Do you have one of yours on you?” she asked.
I took out my wallet and fished out one.
“Gotcha!” She said laughing. “if I don’t see you by 15 minutes to 8, I am going to start calling.”
“I will be there.” I said smiling. “That was neatly done.” I was referring to the way she got my phone number.
I closed the door and waved. “See you later ma.”
I stood there watching until the car pulled out into the street, then made my way to my own car.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I knocked on the gate of the house at the address she had given me earlier. I had waited in my car for about 20 minutes. I was expecting some traffic but the road had been free and I had arrived early. I was casually dressed but added a jacket in case it was more formal than I expected. I had a bottle of some wine in my hands. I don’t know why I decided to bring it. I was watching too many western movies I guess.
A gentleman opened the door for me and bowed a little.
“I am here for the meeting.” I said.
It was enough. Because he ushered me in straight away into what was probably the biggest seating room I have seen in a private house. There were less than 20 people in the room. I noticed immediately I was probably the youngest and also one of only 4 men in the room. There was a long narrow table set to one side laden with food. My stomach grumbled a little at the sight of all that food. It reminded me that I hadn’t eaten anything that day. My host called out my name and waved vigorously at me. I made for the empty seat beside her.
”I am so glad you came. I wasn’t so sure you would turn up.” She said beaming me at me.
“Have a seat” she said patting the seat beside hers.
She leaned over after I sat down. “Just so you know, you have to introduce yourself. You start by stating your name. Then saying that you are an addict. That’s just to make it fun. Then if possible, a few sentences about why you are here today, and not out with some young lady.”
That started my heart fluttering a little. I didn’t quite care for public speaking and the supposed subject made it even worse.
“Relax. Just think of it like taking an injection. It will be over before you know it.” she smiled and patted my hand.
What have I got myself into?
“Do you want something to drink? We are about to start.”
“No. Thank you.” my stomach was in a knot.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
An elegant lady seated across the room got up and tapped a spoon lightly against a glass cup in her other hand.
“Thank you all for showing up. If you look round, you might notice that there’s been some attrition right? We are fewer than we were this time last year. But I can see at least one new face.”
“This is of course the annual meeting of the February 14 Anonymous. But as you know, we communicate throughout the year and even meet from time to time in town, at various functions and so on.”
“Mrs Douglas sends her regrets. She had to fly out to England on short notice.”
“As is usual practice, we shall introduce ourselves. Starting from Yemi as she has told me the gentleman seated to her left is her guest.”
“Good evening all” said Yemi (I hadn’t seen a ring so wasn’t sure if she was Ms or Mrs).
“It’s so nice to see all of you again. My name is Yemi and I am an addict. As I always do, I have a card in my hands here.”
The lady continued. “Yemi has graciously agreed. Finally! To tell us her story today. So we will go round with the introductions first.”
Yemi (I keep thinking it is wrong to think of her as Yemi when she’s much older than me) squeezed my hand at that, I took a look at her face and noticed her smile was a little forced.
The room was silent. I looked round. They all had this expectant look on their faces and a kindly smile.
“Good evening all. My name is Tola. I am addict.”
“Welcome Tola” Echoed everyone in the room.
I must have been overwhelmed at some level because I surprised myself when I continued.
“I have spent all my valentine days alone except for the past two. I would give an arm and a leg to repeat the very last one. But here I am. I am happy to be in this company though. And thanks Yemi for inviting me.”
Another round of “Welcome Tola”
“Welcome Tola”. Said the lady who I assume was in charge and I suspect was our host.
“We don’t call today Valentine’s day for reasons that will become clear later. We just refer to it as February 14. Just one of our little quirks” she said smiling.
The introductions continued around the circle of seats. It was obvious they all knew one another and I was the only new face in the room.
“As Tola is new, I will just give a brief introduction to who we are and what we are about. To start with, just so we are clear, we are not a cult” there was general laughter in the room.
“We are just a group of people whose life changed dramatically on February 14. We seek release in sharing. We do not force people to tell their stories until they are well and truly ready to do so. We understand some things are so personal, it may never even be shared. But we also understand the release that comes from sharing such stories in a non-judgemental setting such as this.” She said looking around the room.
“And not all stories are negative. We had a couple who met on February 14 and have been happily married for decades for example. We had a gentleman who was born on the same day and who just preferred to be here than anywhere else once he knew about us. Yes. It does seem majority of the stories are negative. I guess that’s life. But we encourage “members” (if I may use the word) to move on. To move past whatever it is. That in part accounts for the small size of the group. We are about one of the few groups that actively tries to get rid of our members if that makes sense” she said laughing.
“But life is about living while we are still alive. Not hiding. Of course, we do not chase away people who choose to stay either.”
“Frankly. We have been waiting several years for Yemi to tell us her story. I am not sure why the change in heart but I suspect that may have something to do with you. But no matter we are ready for it.”
There was a low murmur of accent in the room. And bobbing of heads as well.
“Members are free to speak at any time. They just need to indicate by raising up their hands.”
“Oh. And contrary to what most first-time visitors assume, I am not the boss, head or anything of the sort. We are all equals. I just coordinate the meetings.”
“Yemi. Thank you very much. You have the floor.”
She started off a little hesitantly. I guess now that it was time, it wasn’t easy for her.
“Hi. My name is Yemi. I am an addict.”
“Welcome Yemi” the room chorused.
She delved into it without any preambles.
“I have been attending this yearly meetings from almost the beginning.”
“I got married relatively early even by the standards of the time. But things quickly went awry. It wasn’t one thing. It was a combination of several things. Some avoidable, others not so much. I quickly found myself single with a 2-year old boy in tow when I finally called it quits with the marriage.
Life wasn’t fun any longer. It was a lot of responsibility. Hindsight is 20-20. I am not sure anything we did could have saved the marriage, but we could definitely have tried harder.”
That’s when I moved back to the country. I felt I was a disappointment to my parents. They had been together forever and had this easy-going marriage. You rarely heard a raised voice in my house growing up. They were like best friends. I learnt of course later that they had just learnt to do their quarrelling behind closed doors when no one was around.
I moved back into my parents’ house while trying to get back on my feet in crazy Lagos. I could say with certainty that I hadn’t missed the fast and furious Lagos life when it comes to business or work. Or the crazy traffic! I tried as best as I could. I was close to tears several times, but it did get easier with time. Or maybe I just got used to it.
I put in the time and worked hard. I think I worked so hard to ensure I had no time to dwell on the other things going on in my life. My parents helped with Tade (that’s my son’s name) at the time. I guess I was lonelier after I sent Tola back to his dad so he could attend the school we had already planned for him before we split up.
And friends kept pestering me to go out. Meet people. Have fun.
I just couldn’t find the drive or the inclination to do so.
This went on for a few years. My parents’ only comment from time to time was that I should take all the time I need, but that there’s life out there outside the office.
Then out of the blues one sunny Harmattan morning, Kayode came bursting into my life.
Funny, I still remember everything that happened on that day. I was standing by the window looking out at the slowly moving vehicles on the street below, when there was a knock on the door.
My assistant opened the door with a gentleman hot on her tail. He introduced himself and said he required my services urgently and wasn’t about to deal with the “help”.
I told him I didn’t appreciate his attitude and he retorted that with the amount of business he was about to bring my way, I should be least concerned about his attitude. I could use the distraction so I offered him a seat.
He just seemed to rub me the wrong way from the get go. I just sat there watching him. At some point I admitted to myself that not only was he quite good looking, he also had a nice voice. He was definitely confident bordering on being annoying in his choice of words sometimes.
By the time he was done, I had a good idea of what he wanted done. I saw him to the door.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
We worked closely together with teams from both his office and mine over the next couple of months. He was still annoying from time to time. But on the whole he was quite pleasant. He would call at odd hours of the day and night whenever anything crosses his mind. Despite working a hefty penalty for changes into the contract, he kept making changes to the campaign. Most were positive but I disagreed with a few. Sometimes we went at it for hours and didn’t always come to a compromise. Sometimes he would force his position through and sometimes I stood my ground and refused to budge.
There were working lunches and dinners. Some of these ended up being just the two of us.
Little by little we talked more and more about non-business related matters. I told him over time about my marriage and my little boy and he told me about growing up as an only child and following his dad all over the world as he took up appointments in various postings. He’s never been married.
The first time he asked me out I found an excuse not to go.
But I relented the second time. It wasn’t long before we started going out regularly. He was easy to be with. I didn’t know there were so many clubs and places to hang out in Lagos. He seemed to know where it was “happening” at any given time.
I had been to his place and he to mine several times. Of course we had made out on those times. He hadn’t attempted to do anything more or maybe he sensed I wasn’t ready.
We had made trips to all the beaches at one time or another. We were spending more and more time together. I started looking forward to both his work visits and the unofficial ones as well. I think we sort of slid into dating without actually having to sit down and discuss it.
Still, I was a little apprehensive for some reason as February came around with all the commercial adverts you are bombarded with everywhere you go and look. I find I wanted so badly for him to be my valentine.”
“I had to keep chiding myself not to behave like a little love-struck girl. After all, I am a grown woman with a little boy in tow.”
He finally asked me out a couple of days before and of course I said yes.
I paid a little more attention to my dressing and make up than usual that morning. I was restless all morning at work. I didn’t get any work done because my mind was everywhere but.
I still remember the exact time it happened. He called me at 11:57am and asked me to look out the window. I got up and went to open the window. There he was on the other side of the street. Grinning up at me with a huge bouquet of flowers in his hand. He definitely knew how to make an entrance.
Then it all went to hell and took me along with it.
It all happened as if in slow motion. Excuse the cliché. But I have thought of it a million times since then and it seemed I could have stopped it.
You see. A car came speeding down the bend in the road. He didn’t even see it. But looking down from above, it came into the periphery of my field of vision just at the last moment. Even as I screamed I watched him get tossed into the air. He was still looking up at me. I can’t forget the expression on his face in that last moment. It went from the grin to what looked like a cross between shock and surprise.
I dashed out the office, down the stairs and into the street. He was there. And there was blood everywhere. I held him and screamed for help. People were just milling around and shouting. They had dragged the other driver out of the car but he appeared too shocked to do anything but sit on the hot Tarmac.
My driver brought the car around and with his help I got him into the back-seat. He was already limp and I guess somewhere deep inside me I knew he was already dead. But we still went through the motion and got him to the GoldenCross hospital just a couple of streets away. He was put on a stretcher and rushed into the theater but the doctor pronounced him dead almost straight away.
How long I sat there I couldn’t say. Someone had called his father I guess because he was suddenly there beside me talking to the doctor. I had only met him once before. Our eyes met but there was no recognition in his. He left shortly after. I was too out of it to even get up to go after him. I found out later he held me responsible for his son’s death. Not so much in words as in action. I was hurt but I could understand his feelings much much later.
The next couple of months went by in a blur. I was home most of the time. I just stayed in the house with all the curtains drawn and the lights off. My assistant was a blessing in that dark hour. She came regularly like clockwork. Got me to take my bath. Brought a hairdresser a couple of times. Literally forced me to eat once a day. I can’t even remember what it was I ate. My parents tried to get me to move back in with them but I refused.
I tried reaching out to his dad but all my attempts were rebuffed. I did manage to go for his burial. His casket was closed. But I had managed to see him once at the mortuary. I thought I had done my crying and breakdown before that day but still it took all my strength and the support of my assistant not to fall to pieces again.
Some uncle of his had contacted me once before the burial. He said the family won’t stop me from attending his burial but they would appreciate it if I kept it low key as they don’t want any distractions. So I arrived early but did not sit with his immediate family. I was in a black suit skirt. Most attendees where in dark clothing as well.
It was a quiet and brief affair.
I have never had any contact with his dad since then. I have gone to visit his grave every year on February 14. I miss him even now. It’s strange. This is someone I knew for less than a year. It’s better now. Even his face has faded a little in my memory despite having his framed portrait by my bedside. I don’t believe in destiny but I have come to believe that once in a lifetime it’s possible to meet someone that’s “it” for you. If you are lucky, you get to spend a lifetime together. And sometimes in a case such as mine, that lifetime is a year.
I have dated a few times since then of course, but none lasted any length of time. I am sure I didn’t give it any of them any real attention though.
So after Bola over there invited me 5 years ago to this meeting. Well. I have been here every year with you lovely people.”
“Thank you for allowing me to share my story”
“Thank you Yemi. Can we all go give her a hug now”. Said Yinka.
I waited until they were all done. Then with a smile on my face, I stood up and gave her a bear hug that lasted for a full minute.
“We should probably have a break now. Please don’t be shy. There’s food on the side table over there. Let’s mingle and chat while we partake of the delicacies provided by our lovely host for today, Wura. Thanks again Wura.”
“Thanks Wura.” We all chorused as we got up.
The rest of the evening was spent hanging around in continuously shifting small groups getting to know one another or in the case of the older members, catching up.
* * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
She invited me to dinner and we ended up at 355 (the club). It was mostly drinks though as we had eaten after the meeting.
“Tola, you know it would help if you talk about your story. You are too young to get stuck in the past.”
“Besides I like a good story. OK. I agree. I am just inquisitive!” She laughed.
It might have been all the drinks. Like it was that night a year ago. I was tipsy. I had said too much. Which didn’t help either. Or it might have been the lyrics of the song playing at that moment in the background: “… Ain’t no Sunshine when she’s gone; Only darkness everyday; Ain’t no Sunshine when she’s gone; … ; I know, I know, I know, …“. Or maybe I just needed to talk:
“My name is Tola. I am an addict.”
“Welcome Tola” she said with all seriousness.
“Do you want to share your story with me tonight?” she said.
“Please start whenever you are ready.” She said.
“There was this girl I met a couple of years ago. If the world were mine, I would have laid it at her feet. …”
“Wait! Wait!” She said, holding up her hand. “I know I am not supposed to interrupt but could you leave out the writer’s bullsh*t?”
“OK. What I meant was that if I had all the money in the word, I would …”
“Which obviously you don’t. Did you meet this girl on February 14?” She asked.
“No. But …”
“Did she die on February 14?”
“No. She’s still alive.”
“Did you lose your you-know-what on February 14?”
“No. As I was …”
“So why is this story relevant today?”
“Ma’am, are you going to let me tell the story?!” I said in as respectful a tone I could muster given that I was feeling exasperated.
“Sorry. I sometimes get that way. Please go on.” She said.
“Where was I? Yes, I remember. There was this girl …”
We were still there well past the witching hour.
* * * * * * * ** * * ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
NB: *Tola* claims the F.1.4.A. is real: though one needs an invite by an existing “member”.