Hugo’s was packed to the rafters. I don’t really care for bars; restaurants are more my thing but Beth and Lizzie swore by them.
“The best place for meeting someone,” I could hear their voices in my head.
I missed my girls something terrible. Married within a month of each other, both couples had emigrated – Lizzie and Mark to Australia and Beth and Sean to Thailand, to teach English as a Foreign Language.
That didn’t change anything though. They carried on trying to set me up with blind dates still. I mean who could blame them? It worked for them right? It was sure to work for me.
So here I was at Hugo’s bar, waiting for my blind date, set up by my newly-wedded ‘friend-in-law’, Sean. He had a cousin who was, ‘searching’ so he thought it might be worth ‘hooking us up’
I looked up from my drink; a cocktail of some kind with an impossible name – ‘Sneaky Susan’ or something or the other. Not that I cared. I wasn’t much of a drinker anyway, only when I’m out with friends or waiting, like I was, for a date, blind or otherwise, to turn up.
“Yeah, I’m Jehlani.”
“Hi, I’m Linford, Sean’s cousin”.
We shook hands rather awkwardly and I sat back down as he pulled up a miraculously, free bar stool.
He was gorgeous. I know, I know, looks can be deceiving but he was. He was a dead ringer for the actor, Michael Ealy, only taller, darker but with the same piercing, blue eyes.
“My dad and Sean’s dad are brothers”, he smiled by way of explanation. “My mum is Nigerian…Igbo.”
“I’m Nigerian too…” I replied.
“…Really?”, He cut in excitedly. “Is Jehlani a Nigerian name? I mean, not that I know all there is to know about its two hundred and fifty plus ethnic groups and four or five hundred plus languages.”
A tingle travelled from my toes to the nape of my neck. I just love a man who is knowledgeable about …stuff; all kinds of stuff.
I don’t know how long we chatted for, but by the time he was draping my silver-toned mackintosh over my shoulders, the bar was pretty much empty.
“Jehlani, are you still going to the hair dressers?”
I was sitting in front of his dressing table, with a Tesco carrier bag tied round my hair to ‘steam’ it. I couldn’t for the life of me, find my shower cap.
“Naa, I’m treating my hair myself and giving it time to breathe.”
“Time to breathe kwa?”, Nduka (he insisted I call him instead of Linford when I eventually managed to get a word in edgewise and inform him that my mum was Igbo as well) had found his way to my shoulders and was kneading the knots away.
“Hmmm, that always feels so good, Lin…Nduka, thank you.”
“You don’t need to thank me, Jehl, it’s my duty to make you feel good.”
That was the thing about Linford…Nduka (even in my thoughts, I still struggled to call him Nduka; somehow he looked like a Linford to me) he ticked every box. He was attentive, kind, knowledgeable, polite and damn good-looking but…that was just it! There was a ‘but’…but I just couldn’t find it! I knew it was there because it scratched the back of my neck, when I woke up in the morning and every night, before I went to bed. It was an elusive, little bugger! I couldn’t catch it and I couldn’t make it go away!
“So you aren’t going to fix your weave then?”
“Naa, I really do want my hair to breathe.” His hands stilled for a nanosecond and at the same time, a thought flashed through my mind – ‘What big hands you have…’ I felt a swift, sharp shaft of fear pass through me but it was gone before I could grab hold of it and examine it any further.
“Lin…Nduka”, I pulled the carrier bag back a little bit, “Look…my front hair is thinning. I need to give my hair breathing space between weaves so it can grow back. If I don’t, I will be looking at a bad case of traction alopecia.”
“Traction alopecia, kwa?”
“Yeess, a.k.a ‘Mama Iyabọ!”
“Oh I see”, he chuckled, “You mean when your front hair, as you call it, starts to fall off and leaves bald patches?”
“Exactly! Too much tension, pulling, weaving, braiding…mba…not good.”
“But I love those soft, wavy curls…”
“…but Lin…Nduka, those soft, wavy curls are not all mine! They are only there from time to time. My own hair needs attention too or I will lose it permanently!!!”
His hands grew still around my neck, again.
“There was no need to interrupt me or raise your voice.”
This time seconds ticked away and I felt the elusive ‘but’ crawling up my toes again, trying to scurry past, to get to the base of my scalp, scratch it and disappear again.
I clenched my stomach muscles as it was about to dash past my abdomen and held it tight. It wriggled and wriggled, trying to make for freedom but I had had enough. If there was no reason to doubt, then there would be no visits from an irksome ‘but’.
“Lin…Nduka, I apologise for interrupting and raising my voice. It’s just that I get passionate about anything to do with my hair; indeed anything to do with…”
He interrupted me this time.
“I know, I know, your emotions are your greatest downfall, Jehlani but don’t worry, we will work on that.”
I stilled it. I stilled the writhing ‘but’. I looked closely at it, my eyes still on Linford through the dressing table mirror.
That was what it was.
Linford was a control freak. But he was controlling in a ‘I-will-massage-away-all-your-troubles, just-leave-it-to-me’, way.
His burnished caramel skin and piercing, blue eyes made you think of Thor, Hercules and the son of Amadioha, god of Thunder, all rolled in one. His broad shoulders and muscular chest spoke of safety and refuge and his hands, those large hands promised to ‘take care of it all’.
If you didn’t…that was what I saw in his eyes…if you didn’t let him take control, then…
“Do it for me, inula? Just wash out your avocado and egg concoction and go fix your hair”.
“Okay, if you say so,” I grumbled playfully, hiding my ensnared ‘but’ and the shaft of fear that had returned with a sharp tip that prodded my insides; hot like a scorpion’s sting.
Sweet Mother, I no go forget you…
My signature ringtone for my mum broke through my fear; not the ‘but’ though, I held on to it for dear life.
My mum loved Prince Nico Mbarga, hence the ringtone. She said he was the only authentic, Nigerian musician with the exception of Sir Warrior of Oriental Brothers.
“Li…Nduka, I have to take this, you know what my mum can be like”, I made to appear rueful.
“Jehlani”, my mum pronounced my name like it was an Igbo name.
‘Of course it’s an Igbo name! All Africa was originally Igbo, didn’t you know that?’ I could hear her voice clearly in my head. I don’t usually bother replying. I mean how can you argue with a retired Professor of African Studies, even she says the pyramids were built by the people of Arọ Kingdom? Waste of your time!
“Have you left that boy? That oso chi egbu! Destiny-Killer!”
“Just about to mum, just about to.”
“About time. Meet me downstairs and be quick please; I’m parked on a double yellow line.
How she always knew when to bail me out, I’ll never know but that was my mum for you, an amalgam of intellect and clairvoyance.
“Linford, I have to go”, I didn’t even stumble over the name anymore. Nduka kọ! Nduka ni!
Kiti kpa lacha kwa ya anya! (May smallpox lick his eyes!)
Sean’s cousin or not, it hadn’t come to the point where I’ll put my life on the line for a neck massage, extensive general knowledge or the body of a hybrid demi-god.
I grabbed my vanity case and its matching weekend bag, plunked some random baseball cap over the carrier ‘steaming’ bag on my head.
“So you will fix the weave then?”
“Naa, I think I’m going to let my hair breathe.”