20 Dec Preview: A Betrayed Kind of Love
There’s not a minute, hour, day or night
That I don’t love you
You’re at the top of my list
‘Cause I’m always thinkin’ of you
‘A million right now is the baseline narrative, as long as rates stay under control.’
Cup of coffee in hand, Bonju listened with rapt attention as the CNBC analysts discussed the continued upward movement of stocks on the NASDAQ Stock Exchange, gaining thirty-five per cent from inflow from its listed tech giants. With the other indices, the FTSE, Nikkei, and S&P 500 recording similar boosts that week, and the assurance that his fortunes were on the up and not the converse, it was music to his ears. As the program cut to a commercial break, he flipped to the Bloomberg channel and listened to the breakdown of the day’s activities in the Asian financial market as it wound to a close, until the timer on his phone chimed, his cue that, at 10am, it was time to take his phone off its default Do Not Disturb mode, a habit he’d adopted at the start of the year, to keep external forces from determining how he started his day. Text messages, DMs, and other inane social media chatter could wait till after his morning meditation, early morning gym run, a cup of coffee or two, and a dose of finance TV.
As his phone lit up with the backlog of incoming notifications, scrolling through them, there were none of any particular importance. Not even the messages from two of the women he’d been out with the previous weekend, one of whom he’d even brought back to his Sloane Square townhouse. It was the same old thing, the same story of the plethora of women in and out of his life like a revolving door in the last few years. Actually, that wasn’t quite the truth. It was definitely more than ‘a few’ years. For much longer than he was proud to admit, he had been on the rollercoaster that was the smooth incline of getting attracted to a drop-dead-gorgeous woman, and the sharp descent of losing interest after only a date or two. The hotter, the sexier, and the younger the women got, the shorter was the life span of his attention. He had finally accepted that was as far as his emotional evolution had progressed, and that he just wasn’t able to give more to a woman than an expensive dinner date, good sex – at least he hoped it was good sex – and a nice gift afterward. He couldn’t give what he didn’t have. What he no longer had. What he hadn’t had for twenty years.
His phone vibrated and the name on his screen elicited his first smile of the day.
“Guy, so what happens if you have a family emergency when your phone is on DND?”
Bonju chuckled at the sound of Emeka’s voice, his friend. “Any emergency will still be there when my phone comes on. There’s nothing like taking charge of setting the tone for what your mind feeds on in the morning and delaying third-party influence until you’re fully centered for the day. You should try it.”
“My wife would skin me alive if I were to as much as attempt that.”
Bonju smiled, understanding that, as a married man with a young son and another on the way, his friend didn’t quite have that luxury.
“What time is your flight tonight? Are we still meeting up for lunch?” he asked. Emeka was passing through London on his way to the States, to be present for the birth of his second child.
“8pm, so yeah, enough time for lunch,” Emeka answered. “Same place as the last time? That place on Pimlico Road, I forget the name.”
“Let’s meet at St. James’s Market this time. There’s a nice Nigerian fusion restaurant there that you’ll like.”
“Oh yeah, Erin told me about that place,” Emeka answered. “Meet you there for, say, 1?”
Bonju’s eyes darted to the acrylic wall clock, twelve glossy metallic Roman numerals mounted on the stark white wall. Meeting up at 1pm would give him enough time to shower, check his digital currency investment dashboards, stop at Covent Garden to upgrade his phone, and still get to the restaurant with enough time to spare.
“1 is good. See you then.”
The line disconnected and he made his way to his bedroom, his feet welcoming the transition from the hallway’s cold acrylic tiles to the plush carpeting of his boudoir, once again grateful for the flexibility of his life, the latitude to pretty much do anything he damned well wanted, whenever he wanted. Quitting his father’s company seven years before and returning to London had been the best decision of his life.
“It’s a shame you won’t be in Lagos while I’m there,” Bonju remarked as he and Emeka tucked into plantain, smoked kelp, and blackberry maitake at Ikoyi.
“So, you actually decided to go for the reunion,” Emeka laughed. “If I were a betting man, I’d have put my money on you not attending.”
Bonju shrugged. “I figured, why not? It’ll be fun to spend a weekend catching up with old faces.”
The truth was that, even though he was still in touch with a good number of his former classmates, receiving the invitation for his class’s 20-year reunion had given him pause. Yes, the detailed itinerary the organizer, Bioye Laguda, shared painted what promised to be a fun-filled weekend, and yes, he could think of worse things than reliving what had been some of the best years of his life with the people that had made it happen, but the truth was that the possibility of seeing the one woman who had possessed his heart and mind for the last two decades was enough reason for him to consider declining outright.
But it was also the very same reason he’d decided to attend.
“I’m sure you’ll have a good time. And it’s a whole weekend?”
“We check in on a Friday afternoon and check out the following Sunday morning,” Bonju nodded. “I’m actually quite looking forward to it.”
“When do you leave?”
“Next week. I land in Lagos the night of the 18th.”
“You should make out time to see my friend, Destiny,” Emeka said, raising his glass of palm punch to his lips.
“Ah yes, your friend with the radio station.”
Emeka nodded. “It’s right up your alley. Just the kind of deal you like.”
Even though he and Emeka had only been friends for a couple of years, becoming acquainted when Bonju attended his art exhibition and bought several of his paintings, they had bonded over the fact they had more than just a love of art in common. Emeka was one of the few people who didn’t judge him for his lifestyle, a lifestyle many considered flashy, entitled, and maybe even a little lazy. To most people, he was a spoilt rich kid, living a life of leisure off the generous allowance he was paid as a non-executive director with his father’s company. What they didn’t know was his penchant for investing in niche startups, taking a chance on companies with outrageous business ideas, business ideas oftentimes too outrageous for the standard, risk-averse investor. He’d been known to jump in headlong with many an idiosyncratic kid with a dream, and even though he had been burned a few times, more than half of these seemingly harebrained investments had given him returns in several multiples of what he had ploughed in, creating for him immense wealth and according him the lifestyle he now enjoyed. His money was working for him, and if he chose to spend his days lounging, dining in luxury restaurants, and dating a slew of exotic beauties, it was his prerogative to do so.
Bonju shrugged, no more convinced about the business prospect than the first time Emeka broached it to him the night before. “What’s so special about a radio station?”
“Its focus is only ‘80s and ‘90s rock and pop,” Emeka grinned. “The kind of music you like.”
“Still nothing special about that.”
“Just meet with him when you’re in Lagos,” Emeka said, reaching for his phone. “I’m sending you the link to the station. It only airs at night right now but check it out when you can. Check it out and meet with Destiny when you’re over there. One meeting, that’s all.”
As Bonju’s phone vibrated with Emeka’s incoming message, glancing at the web address, he was fairly certain he would be doing neither.
But later that night, sitting in his living room and nursing a glass of Burgundy Pinot Noir, his curiosity got the better of him. Emeka’s assertion of him favouring ‘80s and ‘90s music was no exaggeration. For many reasons, that was the era of music that had the most of his heart. While, on the one hand, it reminded him of a happy time of his life when he had listened to that genre of music with his father as a child, it also reminded him of another happy time…the one and only time he’d ever given his heart away.
Clicking on the link, he smiled as Luther Vandross’s Never Too Much started playing from his surround Wilson Audio speakers, memories of the same song wafting from his father’s study as the man hunched over engineering drawings at their Richmond-upon-Thames home in the mid and late 1980s. As lyrics of the song Bonju hadn’t even thought about in years flooded his mouth, he sat back in his chair, already enjoying Emeka’s friend’s radio station.
Lying on her bed as her favourite Luther Vandross song, Never Too Much, came on right after Spandau Ballet’s True, she was once again thrilled with her playlist for the evening. Even though the radio station had been running for nearly five months without even a hint of any consistent listeners, talk less of a serious investor, being able to unwind to good music after a long, tedious day still felt like a win for her.
Scrolling through her phone, she prowled Instagram pages and websites for inspiration for the children’s bedroom a new client had engaged her to decorate. As much as she remained grateful for the trickles of business she got, the bigger jobs that would make a more significant financial impact were way too few and far between. Her last major job had been the previous year when she’d been commissioned to decorate a new couple’s home. Since then, she’d had no choice but to settle for small gigs like this. But small gigs would neither renew her rent nor get her car back on the road. If she was going to keep a roof over her head and not have to hop in and out of taxis or, worse, buses, she was going to have to find for herself a bigger gig…and quickly.
The ringing of her phone interrupted her online research.
“Hey,” she said in greeting to her brother, Destiny.
“Hey,” came his weary voice, and she could immediately tell he’d had yet another difficult day.
“How did it go?” she asked, referencing the meeting he’d been scheduled to have with an older friend he was hoping would invest in their radio station.
“Same as the others. He agreed it’s a great idea but expressed uncertainty over it taking off because of the existence of another, and I quote, ‘old school station’.”
“Didn’t you tell him it would be more than just an ‘old school station’? Didn’t you share with him our plans for it?”
“I spoke till my mouth ached!” Destiny answered, letting out a deep sigh. “I just need to focus on this properly and I’m sure I’ll find someone who can see our vision. I just might have to quit my job so I can dedicate enough time to finding us an investor.”
The thought of him giving up his job at the radio station where he currently worked tied her stomach into knots, especially as he had a young family to cater for.
“There’s no need to quit your job now,” she said, trying to sound more confident than she felt. “We can just keep streaming online until we get an investor.”
“We need to think bigger than online, Divine,” he scoffed. “We need to show investors that we’re serious about this thing.”
Divine. Even though she’d been answering the name professionally for nearly a decade, after deciding to start an interior décor business following the loss of her low-paying job with an insurance company, it still felt strange hearing her brother use the name their father had called her when he was alive. Born to different mothers, Alero and Destiny hadn’t been particularly close when their father was alive, but years afterwards, they had gravitated towards each other, soon becoming the most important person in the other’s life.
“Anyway, how far with your reunion next week?” Destiny asked, changing the topic. “I hope you haven’t changed your mind about attending?”
“I don’t think I want to go,” she answered, unhappy to disappoint her brother after the hour of pep talk he’d given her only the day before. “I made a mistake attending the 10-year reunion and it was awful. Those people are strangers to me.”
“How won’t they be strangers when you haven’t kept in touch with any of them?” Destiny exclaimed. “Divine, you need to get out and socialise more. You’re not getting any younger, babe.”
She grimaced, the reminder that she was on the wrong side of 30 not one she liked to get.
“Besides, how are you going to manage with the station while I’m away?” she countered. “Or would you want me to stream while I’m there? Bear in mind it’s an entire weekend.”
“I’m sure I’ll be able to manage. I’ve been doing this for a living for many, many years, in case you’ve forgotten. Take that weekend and go reconnect with your old schoolmates. You need to let your hair down now and then.”
Let her hair down indeed.
After he’d hung up, she pulled up the reunion invitation on her phone, her heart hammering against her chest and her anxieties rising as she thought of the one person, the very one person, she absolutely did not want to see. But considering he’d been a no-show at the 10-year reunion, maybe he wouldn’t show up for this one either. With any luck, maybe the reunion would be her opportunity to find much needed new business, or maybe even an investor for the station. She was nowhere near as skilled as her brother was with pitching their business idea, but she was determined to do the very best she could, if need be. So, rather than fixate on someone she had neither seen nor spoken to in twenty years, she would work the reunion in so many other ways that could favour her.
Because seeing him again was the last thing she wanted.
Not after what he did to her.
“I hear bitcoin surged by over seven per cent today,” Bonju’s father, Bankole Adalemo, remarked as they sat together the following evening.
“Since when did you start paying attention to bitcoin?”
“I started paying attention to bitcoin when you plugged your money into it,” the older man answered. “I hear Oracle and American Express stocks are also up, so it looks like I’ll soon be asking you for money.”
“I’ll bet you can’t wait for that day,” Bonju chuckled.
“From all indication, those two clowns in Lagos will probably beat me to it.” The ‘two clowns’ were his older brothers, Babawale and Bolu, the Managing and Deputy Managing Directors of the company their father had started as a young, idealistic engineer, a fifty-year old family legacy, Oceadrill, a legacy Bankole had steered to become one of the biggest drilling businesses in Africa. “I hear Mideastern has decided to take us off their drilling campaign for next year. More business your dimwit brothers have lost for the company!”
Bonju said nothing in response, choosing instead to look away, lest the resentment he still felt for the old man for the decision he’d made seven years before, show on his face. As a young engineer, Bonju, too, had been roped into working with the family business, but after being stifled one too many times by his older brothers, who consistently made questionable operational decisions that were often backed by their father, he had made the decision to resign and return to England.
“You’re not saying anything.”
Bonju shrugged. “Nothing to say, pops. You’ve always trusted Babawale, so maybe you should trust that he has some kind of plan.”
“A plan, you say?” the man chuckled, exhaling a gust of aromatic smoke. “If you say so.”
Bonju cast an anxious glance at the Cuban cigar his 85-year-old father was puffing away at. “Should you really be having that?”
“I’ve been smoking these long before you were born, so, yes, would be the answer to that daft question.”
Bonju chuckled again, amused that three heart attacks and a stroke had done nothing to dim the old man’s wit. As was his weekly ritual, he had made the long drive to see his father, his chance to enjoy the scenic views from the man’s Sandgate house. After the last heart attack two years before, Bankole had left Lagos, bought an old cottage overlooking the English Channel in the quaint Kent coastal town, torn it down and built an expansive edifice in oakwood and glass, with sun-drenched windows and a decked courtyard to take in the sweeping ocean view. Much smaller than the other homes he owned around the world, the house had become the old man’s hideout and perfect getaway from his otherwise chaotic life. Living there with only a nurse and a housekeeper for company, it was difficult to believe that this same man had once been surrounded by so many people, wives and children alike.
“Keep talking like that and I’ll stop coming all this way to see you every week,” Bonju teased.
“You come here every week to rest and recharge for your wild weekends. Don’t think I haven’t heard about all you get up to,” his father sniggered in response.
Bonju grinned. The man was absolutely spot-on. Coming there for a night every week gave him the chance to not only bond with his father, but to isolate and rejuvenate himself, if only for one night, before his very busy, very social, very active weekends. But he would never admit that to the old man. “Well, at least I come. Tell me the last time anyone else came all the way here to see you.”
“And who says I miss them?” the older man scoffed. “I’m in paradise, boy. I would take sitting here, staring at the sea, with only John for company…”
“His name is Justin, dad.”
“John, Justin, same difference. I would take this any day over the circus back in Lagos,” he muttered, before sighing deeply. “I hear Busayo has been appointed MD of Mineshaft Drilling.”
Bonju cast his father a tentative glance. He had also heard about his other brother’s recent appointment with the American drilling company and had made every effort to refrain from discussing it. Busayo’s long-strained relationship with their father had led to his decision not to work with the family business, choosing instead to accept a job offer in America right after his first degree at Imperial College, the same school Bonju would attend years later. Over twenty years after that decision, it was still a very sore topic of discussion.
“Anyway, I’m off to Lagos next week,” Bonju said, changing the topic. No benefit could come from talking about his father’s prodigal son. “A Malomo High reunion. It’s been twenty years since I finished secondary school, can you just believe that?”
“I believe it every day I’m reminded of the fact you’re 37 and still living the bachelor life. At your age, I was already on my third marriage.”
And he wasn’t joking. After seven failed marriages, it was safe to say the man was an expert on the subject.
“Keep your eyes open while you’re there, boy. I’ve told you several times you’re not going to find a good woman to marry over here,” his father went on, his eyes twinkling and a small smile playing on his lips.
“I’ve got loads of time. You had me at age 50, and I didn’t turn out too bad,” Bonju answered with a sly wink.
“I was 48, silly boy,” his father retorted, giving him a playful nudge with his walking stick. “And considering your old man’s track record, I’d get a head start if I were you.”
They continued to laugh and banter, but later that night, sitting alone on the beach, drinking a can of beer, and staring ahead at the ocean, its waves rising and falling with rhythmic ease, Bonju allowed his mind wander, thinking about the looming reunion…and the likelihood of seeing her again. In twenty years, this was the closest he had ever come to that possibility, and now that it loomed, he was the most anxious he had ever been.
If you are the desert
I’ll be the sea
If you ever hunger
Hunger for me
She kept a nervous eye on the temperature gauge of the 1999 Honda Accord Destiny lent her for the drive to Epe, unhappy that, even after topping the radiator thirty minutes before, the temperature was starting to rise again. With almost an hour left of the drive to Nonso Aguta’s hotel, where the reunion weekend was happening, she couldn’t afford to stop the car again on the lonely expressway.
The temperature continued to climb but, luckily, the car got her to her destination. As she pulled into a vacant spot in the parking lot, she looked at the tall, impressive building in the not-too-far distance, so much more imposing than anything she had imagined. She’d thought that, as was the case with several other resorts in the vicinity, it would be nothing more than a cluster of lacklustre bungalows, with their group’s festivities taking place on the beach. But there was nothing lacklustre about the building she was looking at, a building that looked like it came from the same design sheet as the UAE’s Burj Al Arab or Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers. She’d heard Nonso had done well for himself, and if what she was looking at was anything to go by, the boy was darned well minted.
But there was a more important matter at hand.
Waiting a few minutes for the car to cool, she contemplated topping the radiator with more water. But the last thing she needed was to be scalded by angry steam the minute she popped open the hood. Deciding to leave the car to cool for the rest of the day, she got out, taking in the even more impressive grounds, soothed by the sound of the crashing waves from the nearby Atlantic Ocean, feeling equal parts thrilled about the luxurious weekend that awaited her…and out of her depth. Grabbing her bag from the back seat, she proceeded to make her way to the hotel.
“Alero!” came the voice of a smiling lady seated a table facing the door when she walked into the lobby.
Alero smiled back at the person she recognised as Bioye Laguda, one of the few people she had fond memories of from school. Apart from the fact she had been extremely nice and friendly to her, in those awful last weeks of school she had been one of the few people who hadn’t treated her like a pariah.
“It’s so great to see you,” Bioye said, rising and embracing her. “You look as beautiful as ever. Your hair is still so thick and long!”
“You look great as well,” Alero smiled, returning her embrace. “This already promises to be better than the 10-year reunion.”
Bioye rolled her eyes. “Please don’t remind me of that awful experience.” Brightening, she handed Alero a card key and what looked to be a brochure. “The turn out for this one is already so much better. I’ve already checked in sixty-two people.”
Alero’s eyes widened. There hadn’t even been up to fifteen at the 10-year reunion.
“And I’m sure more will still arrive before the end of the day,” Bioye said, before glancing at her watch. “The mixer starts in just a little over an hour, so I’ll advise you to start getting ready as soon as you get to your room.” Beckoning over a nearby porter, she smiled again at Alero. “You’re in the west wing. Dotun will help you with your things. See you at the mixer.”
Alero smiled again before following the porter as he carried her single box, walking behind him as he approached the elevator. Once in her room on the twelfth floor, the unabashed panoramic view of the ocean took her breath away. Looking around the room, taking in the handmade finish of the king-sized four poster bed, made from what looked to be African blackwood, the thick white bed sheet with a sheen she recognised as pure Egyptian cotton, the welcoming Chesterfield chair upholstered in navy blue crushed velvet, the same blue as the thick wool carpet on which she stood, real wool and not the commercial grade found in most hotels, the part of her mouth was involuntary. The bathroom door was ajar and from where she stood, she got a decent view of the marble bathtub that sat in the middle of the room like a washbowl, and the shower cubicle door made from the finest tempered glass. So in awe was she that it wasn’t until she had handed Dotun several notes from her wallet as a tip, did she realise she had parted with a whole lot more than she’d planned to, nothing having prepared her for the luxury oasis that was her lodging for the next two nights.
Feeling her anxieties rise again, she reached for her phone and hit the play button on her playlist, immediately eased as George Michael’s Father Figure started to play. Of the possibly hundreds, maybe even thousands, of songs that reminded her of her late father, this wasn’t one of them. She had no special reason for loving the smooth ballad, except she just did. Setting it to play on repeat, she unpacked the pink chord lace summer dress she was to wear for the mixer and exhaled, trying to muster all the bravado and enthusiasm she had talked herself into before leaving home.
Letting himself onto the balcony, he marvelled at the stunning ocean view. He had come there expecting functional, but everything about the hotel, from the moment he got out of the car that had chauffeured him there, to being ushered into the spectacular room he had been assigned, to taking in the orange-gold sunset over the Atlantic Ocean, had blown his mind. Looking in the far distance towards the east of the grounds, he spotted the location Nonso indicated would be a golf course in the near future, and he regretted not having pushed his friend to accept his offer to partner on the hotel project. When word about this place got out, it was going to be a tourist haven, a real cash cow, and if there was one emotion Bonju didn’t like, it was regret.
Not especially when he’d already been nursing a twenty-year-old one.
Less than an hour later, after a shower, as he slipped into a light blue Brunello Cucinelli shirt over a pair of dark blue jeans, he exhaled several times, his nerves amplifying with every passing second.
Earlier that evening, he’d walked into the hotel lobby at the same time as Ikenna Idozuka and Deina he-couldn’t-remember-her-surname, and through all the enthusiastic greeting and hollering, as Bioye checked them in, he’d been too scared to ask about Alero, to ask if she’d RSVP’d to come, or if she was already there. As desperate as he had been to know, his lips had remained sealed, shut by some unseen force. But, if she had RSVP’d to come, and if she was already there, then it was only a matter of minutes before he saw her again.
After twenty long years.
Once dressed, he stood before the bathroom mirror and exhaled several times in quick succession.
It was time.
With a smile plastered on her face, she made her way to the hall where the mixer was holding. Walking into the brightly lit hall, her eyes scanned the room, looking for faces that didn’t remind her of the awful final weeks of school. Her eyes lit up when she spotted Zinna Aniche and Tomi Aguda, girls who had been too studious to get caught up in gossip back in school, and just the kind of people she wanted to be around.
“Hi, girls. Is this seat taken?” she asked when she approached their table.
Turning to her, their faces broke into wide grins, both genuinely happy to see her.
“Alero!” Zinna exclaimed, rising to her feet to embrace her. “Still as cute and adorable as ever. And you still have all this hair!”
Alero beamed, patting her long, lustrous hair secured in a thick ponytail, grateful anew for her father’s genes. Taking a seat on the table and seeing that Zinna and Tomi were also simply attired, with the former in a fitted denim shirt over a floral summer dress, and the latter in an Ankara and lace dress, she was even happier with her choice of table. From the little she had seen since getting there, many of her former classmates were just as alien to her now as they’d been then.
“You look lovely!” Zinna remarked again. “I don’t know what you and Tomi are eating, because you both look like you’re still teenagers.”
Alero giggled, tickled by the compliment. “Please, I’d rather be a big shot like you, than look like a kid. Who looking like a teenager epp?” From what she’d heard, Zinna was a top shot with a major international bank.
“What do you do?” Tomi asked.
“I’m an Interior Decorator,” Alero answered. “I’d like to say I own my practice, but that would be exaggerating. I mainly freelance.”
“Freelance or not, it means you’re your own boss!” Zinna remarked. “Isn’t that what we’re all aspiring to?”
“Abeg, let’s exchange places, please,” Alero giggled. “Give me your fat salary, and I will happily give you my so-called freedom.”
“This table seems to have reasonable people,” came the voice of Ogugua Ejiofor, Head Girl of their graduating year. “More reasonable than some of the other people sitting around, talking the same kind of trash they did twenty years ago.”
As more people joined their table, and as laughter and salutations rang out, Alero started to lose the nerves she had walked in with. She had no reason to be anxious. It had been twenty years, so nobody remembered her scandal. And from the look of things, Bonju hadn’t even deemed it fit to attend the reunion anyway.
But it turned out she spoke too soon.
Eva and Omoruyi, the most unlikely of couples from their set, had just joined their table, and everyone was teasing the pair about their uncanny switch of personalities, with the hitherto studious nerd Eva now turned a sexy vixen, and the once gorgeous star athlete, Omoruyi, now several kilograms overweight and with eyes only for his wife.
After a few minutes of sitting through the ladies’ conversation, Omoruyi rose to his feet. “Let me go find the guys. You ladies have fun.”
As the girls burst into laughter as he walked away, teasing Eva for transforming Hercules to McFatty, Alero saw him.
The laughter died on her lips and her heartbeat accelerated as she recognised the person walking in through the glass doors. Broader and more solidly built than she remembered, he had the same self-assured pep in his step and half smirk on his lips. As he stopped to exchange pleasantries with Feyi Anifowoshe, one of the popular girls from their year, she was reminded he was still the same Bonju. Twenty years later, he was still the same arrogant ladies’ man…the same guy who had broken her heart and obliterated her pristine reputation.
And she found herself unable to breathe.
“Hey, man!” Omoruyi called, as he walked up to him.
Happy to excuse himself from Feyi Anifowoshe, who looked like she had more in mind than just a quick exchange of greetings, Bonju turned in the direction of his old friend’s voice.
“The big man!” Bonju exclaimed, hugging his friend. “So, it’s true what they say about us turning into our dads in the end!”
Omoruyi scoffed. “Clearly not all of us. Unless your dad looks like he spends every waking day in the gym. You look great. I didn’t expect you’d fly all the way for this.”
Bonju shrugged. “It’s no big deal. Ikenna came from L.A, and Zinna from Geneva, I think.”
“Eva says Zinna just got a high-profile job with a new bank here in Lagos,” Omoruyi answered. “And speaking of Ikenna, he just walked in with Nonso.”
Turning in the direction of the door and seeing the two men emerge, Bonju grinned, getting more excited about the evening with every passing minute.
“My homies!” Bonju called out, as he and Omoruyi walked up to Ikenna and Nonso. “Take it easy on the ladies o, awon fine boys!”
Ikenna shook his head and chuckled. “I hear you.”
“But seriously though, I can’t get over how you transformed from Steve Urkel to Michael B. Jordan overnight!” Bonju remarked. “Didn’t I still see you a few years ago in ATL?”
Ikenna smiled. “It’s amazing what you can achieve with a little determination and motivation.”
“Are you sure you won’t share some of that motivation with Omoruyi here?” Bonju laughed.
“I am very fine the way I am, thank you very much!” Omoruyi beamed. “My Madam likes me this way.”
“I didn’t give Eva enough credit back in school. The babe is a cunning fox. She fattened you up so she could have you all to herself!” Bonju continued to tease.
“And I’m more than happy to be all hers!” Omoruyi answered, waving across the room at his wife.
“Ah, there they are!” Ikenna remarked. “Can we go say hello? I need to touch base with Tomi, or she’ll kill me.”
Looking across the room at the table in question, his eyes landed on the very person he was both excited and frightened to see.
And it felt like all the blood had drained from his body.
She was the only one on the table not laughing, and if her stiff body language and rigid posture were anything to go by, she’d probably already seen him…and wasn’t happy she had.
And he lost all the confidence he had entered the hall with.
“You guys go ahead,” he said to the other guys. “Let me go say hello to Ogonna and Deina over there.”
Not waiting for a response, he turned in the other direction, wanting not just the distance of a few tables between them, but wishing for the distance of a few continents like it had been for the last two decades.
“I’ll have a Martini, please,” he said to the guy mixing cocktails at the open bar on the far side of the room. “Bone dry, if you can.”
As soon as he was handed the glass, he downed the potent liquor in a single gulp. But not even the alcohol was enough to calm his raging emotions. He knew seeing her again would leave him shaken, but he had underestimated just how much.
“Can I fix you another?” the bartender asked.
Bonju shook his head and handed the guy a twenty-pound note as a tip. It was too early in the evening to get inebriated. Not only had the main event not even begun, he wanted…needed…to be in control of his senses when he spoke with her. Because, God help him, he was going to talk to her. Not even if the mere thought of it was making him tremble like a leaf in the wind.
“So, we’ve had our drinks, our cocktails, and have had our mixer as we’ve caught up with old faces,” came Bioye’s voice from the stage, as Bonju made his way to a table where Ikenna, Nonso, and Omoruyi were now seated. “Now, it’s time for us to play a game I like to call 1999 versus 2019. Many of us haven’t seen each other in twenty years, and some of you look so different, I’m still trying to be convinced you’re who you say you are.”
Keeping his eyes on the stage, he laughed on cue when he heard everyone else laughing, despite barely hearing a word of what Bioye was saying, his mind on one person, and one person only. But as glued to this person as his mind was, he was unable to even as much as look in her direction again. Because he couldn’t guarantee that seeing her again wouldn’t make him completely unravel.
“One of the other awards from 1999 was Most Likely to Get Married First, aka Girl You Can Take Home to Mama, won by the stunning Alero!” Bioye’s voice cut into his reverie, the mention of Alero’s name grabbing his attention.
“And she’s still exactly that. So, to all the many bachelors here, y’all better shoot your shot. That’s one million yards of wife material over there.”
Unable to stop himself, he looked towards where she sat, Alero, the only woman he had ever given himself free rein to love, and his heart crashed when he saw the despair in her face, knowing how much she hated being the centre of attention. Looking away, he grit his teeth, wishing forward the hours so the silly game would be over.
“No surprises who won Biggest Flirt in 1999,” Bioye laughed, turning to look at him, prompting more laughter from the crowd.
It was his turn to be dismayed, horrified by the thoughtless overlap. Looking at Alero again, his breath caught in his throat when his eyes met with hers, and if her icy stare was anything to go by, she wasn’t pleased. She wasn’t pleased at all.
As everyone laughed, she bit the inside of her mouth to keep from crying, their giggles and laughter taking her all the way back to those last awful weeks of school in 1999, when everywhere she looked, everywhere she turned, there had been whispering, sniggering, poorly concealed pointing, and all because of one person. Turning where she’d seen Bonju take a seat half an hour before, he turned to her almost at the same time, and she glared at him, the hatred she had once felt for him bubbling from her core like a volcano in agitation after a long spell of dormancy, while at the same time colliding with the fluttering butterflies in her stomach.
Distracted by loud laughter from their table as Bioye’s spotlight now shone on Zinna, Alero looked away and plastered a smile back on her face, presenting the façade of having just as good a time as anyone else, of not caring at all about the ugly events that had marked the end of her time at Malomo High, trying to pretend that over half of the people in that hall hadn’t torn her apart with their awful, vile words, or that someone seated only a few feet away hadn’t broken her heart and damaged her irreparably.
The awards over, as everyone took to the dance floor, she decided she’d had enough pretending for one night. All she wanted was to be alone.
“Are you going?” Zinna asked, interrupted from rapping along to Heavy D’s Don’t Be Afraid.
She forced a smile and nodded. “Headache. I’ve had a long day.”
“So sorry about that. Get loads of rest, okay? Maybe even a nice soak in the bath? Put those expensive candles there to good use.”
Alero laughed as Zinna winked, cheered by her former classmate’s wit, even if only for a few seconds. “Thank you. See you tomorrow.”
Once outside, as she made her way through the courtyard that separated the hall from the lobby, as vivid images of Bonju’s eyes flashed in her mind, her first sight of them in twenty years, the betrayal she had sat with for just as long was so overwhelming, she could hardly breathe.
Coming there had been a very, very bad idea.
He watched as she made her way out of the hall, crestfallen he hadn’t been brave enough to talk to her. His eyes remained on her as she headed to the door, his first proper view of her in years, his breath coming in short, uneven spurts, noting how much she had changed…but was still so much the same. Her walk was still the same, quick paced like she was in a hurry, but tentative like she was skirting around eggshells. The same constellation of freckles still marked her right shoulder, the perfect accentuation to her flawless light brown skin. Her hair, the same long, beautiful hair, still thick, glossy, and dark, secured in the same bun she’d favoured on occasion even then. But there was a hardness in her eyes, a furrow in her brows, a pinch to her lips that had not been there before.
She was the same…but different.
Back in his room a few hours later, he clicked on the link to Emeka’s friend’s radio station, eager for a chance to calm his frayed nerves. Since getting the link the week before, listening to the station every night had become food to his soul. It wasn’t that he didn’t have access to the songs they played. He did. What made the station special was how he was always kept guessing about what the next song on the playlist would be. And every song that was cued always managed to elicit a nostalgic smile from him. But, that night, he was disappointed to find the station offline. Putting his phone down, he let out an exasperated sigh, blaming the remoteness of their location for the poor service. Deciding against streaming music from his plethora of other options, he lay on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, determined to do one thing that weekend.
Find a way to rebuild the bridge back to her.
Lying in the tub, the bubble infused water grazing her chin, a vanilla and cinnamon candle burning on the counter, relaxation eluded her. Instead, vivid memories she had long tried to supress came rushing back.
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