Ivie picked her way through the crowd that was gradually thinning out after the programme. A thin layer of sweat dampened her forehead in spite of the air conditioning. The 5,000 plus humans who had turned up for the programme had put some good pressure on the cooling system. She dug into the pocket of her trousers, pulled out her handkerchief and dabbed her forehead with it. The just concluded programme had been worth her time and worth the cock and bull story she had to cook up to her husband so she could be here without a fight. With the place bursting with so much activity, she wondered if she would ever get to say hello to Femi. The song ministrations, the testimonies and the message, especially the message had torn at her heart. She couldn’t help stealing glances at Freda, her graceful carriage, flawless skin, slim frame that drew a second glance and soft spoken disposition. What would her life had been like had life not torn her love story with Femi to bits and pieces? She pushed the thought aside and inched her way closer to the exit. A sense of camaraderie hung in the air. Worshippers who looked like they had no plans to leave the auditorium today sat in clusters. Others stood along the isles and walk ways .Her throat closed as a feeling on nostalgia crashed on her. It had been long, too long since she made gatherings like these the center of her life. Above the din in the hall, a male baritone voice made an announcement. All members of the married women’s fellowship were to wait behind for a brief meeting and parents and guardians reminded to present their tags at the children church else their children would not be released to them for security reasons. She wound her way through the throng till she stepped outside.
Outside, the sun shone with a brilliance that made her appreciate the temperature in the auditorium all over again. She headed towards the building Femi had described as the administrative block. With all that could follow after a programme like this, she wondered if she could get to say hello to Femi. At least she could try. A sigh escaped as she imagined what life would have been like for her had things played out differently. Dami plodded towards the ash and white coated building with pictures from how she met her husband dancing in her head. Justus wasn’t the finest of men in terms of physique. His charisma, intelligence, his unrivalled self-confidence and affluence made up for the tall dark and handsome features that were absent. Her cousin had managed to drag her to a wedding with her to help bring her out of the self-pity she was wallowing in after her second relationship after her Femi also failed.
“Mind if a join you?” She spun around at the voice, heart tumbling over in disappointment at the young man behind her. Such a voice had to go with a Denzel Washington face but what did she care. She nodded and dropped her gaze back to her phone.
His perfume caressed her nostrils without her consent as the stranger dropped into the empty seat beside her.
He extended a hand towards her. “Hi, my name is Justus.”
“Ivie.” She barely touched his extended hand before pulling back, too exhausted for any of kind of pleasantries or small talks.
“I like the sound of the name.”
She didn’t lift her head from the Instagram stories on her phone. “Thanks.”
“Definitely not a Yoruba name.”
She tapped at her screen and zoomed in to get a better view of a dress that caught her attention. “It’s Edo.”
“Oooh, nice. I have a couple of friends from Edo state.”
She offered a tired glance. “That’s nice to know.”
Her phone vibrated with a notification, pulling her attention away from this stranger who seemed bent on being intrusive. She lingered longer on her phone, hoping he would get tired and mind his business. Thankfully, the loud music in the reception hall as the couple took the dancefloor did not allow for the kind of chit chats he wanted.
An usher walked up to him with a tray of food, distracting him for a moment. Maybe with the plate of fried rice, salad, and chicken before him, he would mind his business. He shot her a sideways glance.
“You haven’t touched your food,” Justus said.
“I’m not hungry.”
He gave a scrutinizing look. “You don’t look very happy too. Do you mind sharing?”
“Thanks for asking, but I’m sure you don’t expect me baring my life to a stranger.”
He smiled, not the least bit offended at her attitude. “Forgive my manners.” He picked up his cutlery and dug into his meal. Ivie couldn’t help noticing how skilfully he scooped the rice onto the fork. Not a grain was lost in transit to his mouth. Talk about compensation for what he lacked in height and attractive facial features .Just then her cousin walked up to her table and squealed in delight.
“Who am I seeing? Justus?”
He sprang out of his seat. “Ofure? Unbelievable!” She flung into his embrace as Ivie looked on. They knew each other?
The minutes that followed filled in the blanks in Ivie’s head. Justus was an old secondary classmate. They had lost touch and were just seeing each other after so many years.
Ofure sank into the vacant seat next to Justus. “Have you met my cousin Ivie?”
“I have o and she has not wasted time to raise a fence around her. I can barely see her head especially as I’m a short man like this.” He chuckled.
Ivie stifled a giggle. Ofure laughed out loud. “Please you are not short jor. Five feet plus is not short.”
“Ah, that’s what you will say o. Yet every lady we know wants tall dark handsome. I’m now light skinned for that matter.”
Ofure turned towards Ivie. “Why now? Justus doesn’t bite and he’s a nice guy.” She flashed her a knowing smile.
“At least I’m no longer a stranger. So would you mind sharing what is weighing down a beautiful girl like you?”
Snapping out of her reverie, Ivie stepped into the reception. A light skinned lady dressed in a beige coloured dress sat at her desk. Her hair tightly pulled backwards in a ponytail. She smiled, baring a fine set of teeth with a gap sitting in the middle. Ivie told her she was there to see Femi. The receptionist asked her to take a seat as it would take a while before he could see anyone. Ivie didn’t mind waiting. It didn’t make sense to have come all the way and leave without saying hello to Femi and his wife.
Just as she settled into her seat, Femi walked out of the office. A smile lit up his face he beckoned to her to come into the outer office. The front wall was made of glass, making the office visible to anyone outside. It was sparsely furnished. A polished wooden table with a leather seat on opposite sides. Probably a counselling room. Hmmm… Discretion. With the news of scandals surrounding pastors these days, she saw reasons for such a proactive step. All a pastor needs is a woman running and screaming out of his office and his ministry is over. He led her through the outer office into another, leaving the door ajar as they walked in. This had to be his personal office. A large framed picture of him and his wife hung on the wall opposite the door. Their happy smiles tore at her heart, she pulled her gaze away settling into a chair facing Femi. His perfume hung in the air. Different from the one he used years ago, but still as alluring.
“Wow! That was one powerful programme!” Ivie said with rounded eyes and slurring the “powerful.”
“Thank you.” Femi smiled and eased off his tie. “It is a joy to see God do what he has to do through us.”
The airs around him spoke of an unshakable passion for what he did. Consistency…Ivie couldn’t help but appreciate the fact that the years hadn’t worn out his passion for ministry.
“True and I’m proud of you for holding on to this even with all you had to give up,” she said thoughtfully, remembering the fights he had with his father for giving up his investment in his education and going into ministry.
“If you save your life, you will lose it but if you lose your life, you find it.”
His voice rang with so much conviction; a conviction money couldn’t buy.
He stirred the conversation in her direction. “So how are you? How is your husband? What have you been up to?”
She forced a smile. “I’m good. My husband and the children are fine. As for work, I am a stay at home mum. The hubby says wifey cannot work.”
She hoped the sadness locked up in her heart hadn’t spilled over into her eyes.
“Oh, wow. And did he say why he didn’t want you to work?”
“He says he makes enough money to meet my needs but then I tried to let him know it’s not just about the money and he …any way, I am not complaining.”
Femi dropped his gaze to her fingers. Her eyes followed his gaze. She could guess what he was thinking. The diamond ring with a conspicuous rock that graced her wedding finger was a testament to a life of comfort and wealth.
Dami pulled on a lighter tone and switched the direction of the conversation. “I was hoping, I would meet your wife.”
“She left as soon as we were done. She needed to go home.”
“I can relate with that, children and all that to attend to.”
“Yeah, right when they are finally here.”
“Oh, I see. Sorry about that.”
Femi swatted. “Naaa, there’s nothing to be sorry about. They will come.”
Tears welled up in Ivie’s eyes as she pictured him preaching so passionately moments ago like he had every single thing he desired in place. Here she was with children and the comforts of life, yet there was a yawning vacuum in her heart. How many more people out there walked around, not looking like what the weight they carried in their hearts? She let her eyes drift to the framed portrait of his wife that sat on the glass topped table. A white to the neck top did justice to her glowing ebony black skin. A smile that shone through her eyes enhanced the light makeup her wore. Dark curly waves cascaded down her shoulders. She was a beautiful woman. Femi had good eyes. Any woman married to Femi had a right to such a smile. She looked away from the picture.
“Your wife is beautiful.”
The corners of Femi’s mouth lifted in a smile. “Thank you.”
They filled the next thirty minutes on light hearted banters. They talked about life in Lagos compared to living in Ibadan, where they grew up. Every time Femi attempted to delve into serious topics, Ivie, steered them right back to conversations that kept her private life under wraps. Femi walked her to the door when she was ready to leave, promising to keep in touch with her.
The days that had led up to the programme had been very hectic days where Femi ran on less than four hours of sleep every day. He eased the knot of his neck tie further and pulled it. Ivie’s visit of moments ago played in his head. Was it his imagination or did she really look like she was hiding a weight of unhappiness beneath her polished façade. She smelled of class and looked like it but something didn’t seem right. The spark that shone effortlessly from her eyes wasn’t exactly present like he knew it. He hoped she was happy … as happy as she once was with him. He pulled his thoughts back. She was someone else’s wife now and if she had made her choice, she must have chosen right.
He lifted the receiver from the desk top phone on his table and called his receptionist.
“Ask the head of finance and first timers’ unit to send in the figures from today’s programme. Just figures will do today. They can send detailed reports without fail on Monday by 5pm. Also send in the driver. I’m ready to leave.”
He settled the receiver back in its place making a mental note of how packed out the hall had been. If the 5,000 seater hall was filled to capacity and the overflows like he had seen on the screens, then he had hit his target but he wouldn’t stop. He had his eyes on three services with the hall filled to capacity for all three services. The new branch in Asaba also needed to pick up momentum. It was big or nothing.
Son, stay your heart on me.
That’s what I’m doing Lord. Staying my eyes on you and ensuring many more come to know you.
Draw men to me son. Draw men to me.
He stood abruptly trying to shake off this line of conversation the Lord was taking him into. Why did He keep repeating this over and over? This is what he had dedicated his life to. Turning men to God even at the expense of the peace in his marriage. As far as today’s programme was concerned, it was a huge success and would flood social media in a bit.
The intercom rang, jolting him out of his thoughts. It was his personal assistant calling to say that the driver was ready to take him back to the hotel. He stifled a yawn. He could use all the rest he could grab right now. Thankfully, the hotel was just ten minutes’ drive from church. With planning and prayer meetings round the clock, being in a hotel for the three days leading up to the programme was his best bet to save him the stress of driving through traffic to and from home. Thankfully, Freda had agreed to stay over with him in order to avoid raising the suspicion of the church members about their marriage even if he got back very late every night and slept like a log through the night. He couldn’t afford to dent his growing reputation in the eyes of the world with any rumours.
Walk before me.
His personal assistant stepped into the office and picked up the bible and books he was leaving with. They both headed out of the office. Femi got his things together and headed out of the office.
Moments later, Femi soaked in the soothing effect of the cold water bath now had on him coupled with the comfortable coolness of the hotel room. The fragrance of the bath gel lingered, leaving him feeling like the scent of a new day. He lay on the bed in the hotel room, staring at the ceiling, grateful to God for how the programme had gone. Lives touched, souls saved; seeing this happen was the deepest yearning of his heart. All seemed perfect except one thing…the wall between Freda and himself. She had sent a message on his way to the hotel that she would be visiting her aunt and most likely staying over at her place for the night. He wanted her here but didn’t want to ruin the success of today’s programme with a fight. His phone beeped. He made a mental note to turn it off if he was going to get any sleep. Rolling over on his side, he leaned towards the side cupboard and reached for his phone. It was a message from Ivie.
He gasped as his eyes fell on the message. It was a picture of herself with blood shot eyes, swollen lips and a face that said she had been brutally manhandled. The caption of the picture explained it all. She had been beaten by her husband for returning late from the programme. He had gotten into a rage and hit her, accusing her of not been to any church programme.
He typed in a response.
Femi: Can I call you?
Ivie: No please. That will make matters worse. An aunt of mine is coming to pick me up in a bit. I will call when we are settled at her place.
He typed his next response asking to get her aunt’s address but deleted it on second thoughts.
Femi: Does he usually do this?
Ivie: *Sigh…Yes. And a lot more than I can talk about. So much hidden behind the life of affluence that the world sees.
Femi: I am so sorry about this. I feel bad for putting you in harm’s way by my invitation.
When she didn’t respond anymore, Femi figured she must have gone off to bed. He sat up, losing every desire to sleep. What had Ivie gotten herself into? What kind of man beat his wife for going to church? Now her evasiveness during her visit began to make sense. She had avoided any real talks about her married life, her relationship with God and anything about what she was doing as service in God’s kingdom. He sighed and kneaded his forehead, pondering on the unfairness of life. Ivie, the fire brand young lady who loved the Lord and didn’t hesitate to share her faith with people was now the target of some husband’s blows for going to church? What was really going on in her life? He pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes to stifle the tears. Lord why did life have to be this way? Why had things turned out differently between them from no fault of theirs?
He got out of bed, slipped on his bath robe and paced, looking at his phone at intervals for any update from her. Her paced and prayed that God would keep her safe and help her though whatever she was dealing with. Settling back into bed, he drifted off to sleep.
Outside the rain pounded on the roof top and pelted the windows. Thunder rumbled accompanied by claps of thunder in the distance. Freda wrapped her palms around the mug of tea, soaking in the warmth against the sudden chill the heavy down pour had ushered in.
Aunt Margaret shuffled to the dining table from the kitchen with a plate of fried eggs. She set it on the table and settled into a chair opposite Freda.
“Has he called you yet?”
Freda shook her head.
Aunt Margaret reached for Freda’s plate. The smell of fried onions and seasoning curled up into air as she spooned some of the scrambled eggs into Freda’s plate. She gently shoved it across the table to Freda.
“And have you called him?”
“No aunty. I’m not going to call him. That what I’ve always done until he got used to me always calling. Not anymore.”
Aunty Margaret smiled and took a sip from her cup of tea. “You see, the issue with children of now a days is that you treat your marriage like it belongs to someone else. You do things that make you unhappy forgetting that you are actually hurting yourselves.”
Freda set her cup aside, tears pooling in her eyes. Appetite lost in spite of how good breakfast smelled.
“Aunty you’re not being fair to me. You don’t know what I’ve been through. Look at you and Uncle George. You have both pastored a church for your entire lives and all the memories I have of my visits are memories of you being happy, him being present. I even remember him cooking with you and for you. He still does it till date. In my case, Femi is just so caught up in all the honour he gets from church members. He has filled his tummy with it like food and doesn’t even care if I exist anymore.” Freda wiped a tear with the back of her palm.
Aunt Margaret smiled and layered her slice of wheat bread with some eggs. She slapped another slice over it, took a bite and washed it down with a gulp from her tea.
“Freda, there is no flourishing garden without a hardworking, determined gardener.”
Freda’s phone rang. She glanced at it. It was Femi calling.
“Hey babe.” Femi said, sounding like one trying hard to muster all the warmth he could find.
“Hey.” She responded in a glacial tone.
“Err…I’m sorry I didn’t call you after the programme yesterday. Something came up and I slept off afterwards.”
Freda smiled, armed with sarcasm. “Congratulations on a successful programme.” Aunt Margaret glared at her, her brows pulled together in a frown.
Femi sighed. “Really Freda I am sorry. I know you have every right to be angry but I’m really sorry and I want to make it up by extending our stay in the hotel by two more days so we can spend time together. Just you and me.”
Freda stood and strode across the living room to the guestroom. She didn’t want Aunt Margaret around while she said all that was in her heart to Femi.
“Hello Freda. Are you there?”
She shut the door of the guest room and turned the lock.
“I’m here.” She walked to the window and stared at the raindrops chasing each other on the glass.
Femi sighed “I miss you babe. I miss us.”
Freda laughed. “No you don’t miss us. Oh, I get it. The programme is over now so you can get me off your little shelf and set me back there to gather up dust when your next exploit comes along.”
“You say things that draw pain that I can’t put into words.”
Freda raised her voice. “You can go ahead and accuse me. That’s all you do. Turn the tables and make it about what I said and how I said what I said. Who ends a programme and forgets to call his wife. Not even a call to know if I arrived here safely.”
“But I’ve apologised and said I want to spend some time with you without distractions.” Desperation strained his voice.
“You shouldn’t bother with the extra days. What’s the use spending time together, getting intimate when all my womb does is shed those red hot tears of disappointment every month?
“I’m sorry Freda we can ….” He did sound sorry but Freda had no peace plans.
“No you’re not Femi. You’ve always managed to be away on the days when I was most likely to conceive and I have gotten used to it.” Freda closed her eyes. The only reason she was hanging in here was because she knew Femi would never cheat on her. He was that one woman kind of man.
“Baby, none of this is intended. I just don’t want us to lose us in the quest for babies.”
“That’s why you deliberately punish me by denying me the chance to try for babies all these years right?”
Freda’s voice dripped with bitterness that was in synch with the steady dropping of the diminishing rain outside.
“You should have told me you had no plans for children and that ministry and the love from church members was enough for you when we were getting married. I should have walked away and found me a happy life a long time ago.”
“Please Freda, let’s not go over this again. None of this is intentional. Do I have to keep apologizing to you for being in ministry?”
“You know what, this conversation is not even necessary. See at home,” Freda said. She hung up before he could respond.
Desmond pulled into the carport. Through the slightly parted living room window blinds light from the television screen flickered. Stephanie had waited up for him. He groaned. The dashboard clock blinked 11:50pm. Ten minutes to midnight. With the rest she needed at this stage of pregnancy, she had to be in bed. He was sure she would be fast asleep when he returned. He had judged wrongly. Anyway, there was the car seat on the back seat… his perfect alibi. He killed the engine and headed inside, the jangling of his car keys louder than usual in the quietness that had blanketed the neighbourhood. The front door lock clicked as he approached. Stephanie pulled the door open, shot him a look and headed inside. Her slippers slapped the tiled floor softly. She pulled her night robe closely around her body now stretched way out of its slender zone with their second growing child.
Desmond swallowed, trying hard to keep any trace of guilt away from his face. She settled into the couch not saying a word.
He set his bag on the center table and perched on the arm of her seat.
“I’m sorry I kept you waiting.” He brushed his lips against her cheeks. “It was an impromptu meeting.”
“With Lillian, Sophie or Janet?” She sank a palm on the leather seat cradling the base of her bump with the other hand as she pulled herself up.
Desmond licked his parched lips
“I was really at a meeting babe then got stuck in traffic on my way from Douglas and Amara’s. Remember, you asked to help pick up the car seat she got for you. It’s in the car.”
Stephanie’s eyes softened. A smile tugged at her lips. “I forgot.”
He inched closer and held her hand. “You see yourself? Just getting worried over nothing.”
“Once beaten forever shy,” she said.
He sighed. “Babe, I promised. What happened then was just a mistake that will never happen again. I still regret such indiscretion till date besides I gave my word to your father.”
She snatched her hand away from his. “So you’re just doing this for my father.”
He took a step closer and reclaimed her hands in a firmer grip. Close enough to drink in the fragrance her night lotion left in its wake. “No my love. No. It’s all for you Stephanie. Your father will not be in my life without you being in it first. I’m doing this for you. For us. Now come to daddy.” Reluctantly, she allowed him pull her into his arms. He planted a kiss on her forehead and brushed the side of her face with his knuckles. The bump wedged between them, getting in the way of the kind of hug he would rather have … The kind he was getting outside and would keep getting diplomatically until the baby came….
TO BE CONTINUED.