Smallie had changed, and Imade couldn’t stop stealing glances at the grown man who sat opposite her in the hotel’s restaurant.
“What?” he asked, when he caught her looking, a tiny smile lining his lips. “You should take a picture. I hear it lasts longer.”
“Oh, you’ve got jokes,” Imade laughed. “I wish I could take a picture though, at least I can compare it to the Dapo I knew in secondary school. You…changed a lot.”
He lifted his glass of chapman to his lips and took a sip using the straw.
“So did you,” he said with a cheeky smile.
Imade inclined her head. He smiled a lot, she noticed. It was one of the things that still hadn’t changed about him. In secondary school, Dapo’s classmates had nicknamed him Smallie because of his compact stature and his prowess on the football field. In his smallness, he was lithe and swift, zigzagging between legs of the bigger boys to get to the ball. In the classroom, he was one of the annoying boys, hiding his classmate’s belongings and chuckling with mischief while they searched frantically for it. It was his own way of establishing that small though he was, he was not to be bullied. More than once, the bigger boys cornered him in the toilet stalls, or on the way home and roughed him up, snatching his bag, tearing his books and even soaking him with water.
To the girls, Dapo was useful, their errand boy that delivered love letters to the boys they liked and eavesdropped on the boys to find out which ones liked them.
Imade had not given him a thought when she left secondary school, and left Benin. But if she had, she would never have thought that he would grow tall, taller than her even. He looked good, great, in fact. No jokes. He was sporting a small beard flecked with sporadic grey hairs on his chin. Gone was the thin frame of an underfed child, in its place was a healthy beefiness in his chest region. What still seemed familiar was the mischievous glint in his eye, the one that had existed there even as a young boy.
“I would never have pegged you for a Pastor,” Imade said, stirring her drink with the straw.
“Then or now?”
“Both, I guess. In my head, you were always that annoying boy in school.”
“Well, if it helps, I’m not a fulltime Pastor. I work with an NGO as the Communications officer.”
“Interesting. And you…never left Benin?”
Imade saw a shadow cross his face briefly, but it was gone before she could make anything of it. Perhaps, she had imagined it.
“I wanted to, but…well…circumstances beyond my control got in the way. How about you? Hotshot Imade from Abuja, what do you do?” he asked, teasing.
“Mmmmm… let’s just say I’m between jobs at the moment. But up until a few months ago, I worked in a law firm. As a lawyer, in case you were wondering.”
“I feel like I should ask for a selfie? I mean, look at you. Hotshot lawyer, Abuja babe.”
Imade smiled. “Hardly a babe anymore.”
“Once a babe, always a babe. You forget who you were in secondary school? All the boys loved you.”
“Stop jor. I wasn’t that popular.” Imade blushed, remembering her glory days as part of her little clique.
Puberty had hit her early, by fourteen, she was sporting breasts and narrow hips that made her brown pleated skirt look less hideous. The boys had noticed too, often finding reasons to brush up against her accidentally, at the tuck shop, even in class. At first, she had found it flattering, this new attention she garnered. And then it wasn’t flattering or funny. Her features darkened as she remembered that day. While they stood in line on the assembly ground, Imade holding her place with her friends at the back, someone had grabbed her butt from behind and gave a mild squeeze. Once, twice, thrice.
Imade felt the blood rush to her ears. She had turned, scanning the line for the culprit. She had found him, precisely because he was trying too hard to keep a straight face. Without thinking, she had raised her hand to his face. It was only when she lowered her hands and saw him grimace, cradling his cheek, that she realized what she had done. She turned away, a buzzing in her ears, unwilling to answer any questions from her stunned classmates.
“Ask him what he did,” she responded to anyone who asked.
And when she had been called to the Principal’s office later that afternoon, she had repeated her phrase, refusing to look at the boy who stood beside her.
“I’m asking you, Imade. What did he do?” the Principal, a portly man who ate starch and owo soup every day for lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon dozing away in his locked office, asked.
Imade kept mute, stony-faced. Ashamed of what had happened, angry that she was ashamed.
“Nothing, sir,” the idiot boy had dared to respond. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Liar,” she spun on him. “You know what you did.”
“Then you tell me, otherwise, I will have no choice but to punish you,” Mr Principal’s belly heaved with every syllable.
“Ask him sir,” Imade repeated. She was only fifteen, but she had always been known for her strong will. But this time it wasn’t strong will keeping her tight-lipped. This time, the words seemed frozen in her. Perhaps it was the overwhelming sense of shame she felt as she recalled the incident. She didn’t know what it was, but what she knew was that she couldn’t seem to make the words crawl up from her abdomen and make it to her lips. The Principal had ended up punishing them both, assigning them to an area of the school to pick up dirt.
As she sat with Dapo, more than twenty years after the incident, Imade felt the familiar anger at her childhood inertia. If she had known then what she now knew, she would have known that she had nothing to be ashamed of at the time.
“Hello? Earth to Imade?”
She blinked, realizing that she had been lost in her memories for a moment. “I’m here. Sorry.”
“Are you okay? You kinda looked off a bit.”
Imade shook her head, pushing the memory away. “I just…I remembered something.”
“Was it something I said about school? I’m sorry, it was a joke.”
Imade sighed, “it’s okay. It’s just… anyway, it’s not important.”
“What is it? You really looked strange a minute ago. It was like I touched a nerve. Is it…Jerry?”
Imade spluttered, her eyes wide in surprise. Even though she never mentioned his name, she would never forget it. “How did you know?”
“Wait, don’t tell me the Holy Spirit told you,” a tinge of sarcasm in her voice.
He shook his head, watching her over the rim of his glass. “No, this one wasn’t Him. I just…I remembered. It was kind of a big deal then, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know actually. Big deal for who? Do you even know what happened?” Her questions came out sounding harsher than she intended.
“Imade, hey. I’m not the enemy here. If you don’t want to talk about it, we can change the subject.”
“Now, you want to change the subject?” she spoke through clenched teeth, aware that she was being irrational, but unable to stop.
Dapo was silent, steady, his brown eyes on her.
“I think I should go,” he said, two heartbeats after.
Her only response was a nod.