Never been kissed
At first, all I saw were the animals. They came on horses borne of wishes, powerful beasts riding chariots with an emblem across their chest. Sylvia, it read. I remember thinking what a curious name for a fleet of horses; surely Sylvia would have been more appropriate on a boat? There were four horses in total and me, having never so much as ridden neither horse at a fairground, nor previously owned a pony was none too comfortable at the dominant air that was forced out the lungs of those beasts. I remember shifting in my heel at the monstrous way they appeared. They looked almost possessed with determination, though to what cause I neither knew nor was I willing to wait to find out.
As I shifted cautiously again in my heels, flight syndrome ignited and ready to run into the crippling darkness that surrounded me, I noticed the chariot. It was not made of gold or any of the fairytale ingredients that a good chariot makes in books. It sat about six feet high on wheels that I could not make out. The chariot itself seemed to be all of glass… or Perspex? It looked delicate in a way that glass should, yet durable as you would expect of Perspex. Light didn’t bounce of it, but it shone like no material I ever tested in science class. Inside it sat a single candle, steady and almost calming in the face of my panic. My instinct to run was replaced by an equally inexplicable urge to touch the air above the flame of the candle. An urge I never got round to seeing to fruition as just then, the horses - whether objecting to my thoughts or demanding my attention, for me to show them the fear I was initially bathed in - they made an odd braying like sound which was followed by the illumination of their hooves and as if obeying well orchestrated arrangements, so did the floor beneath them.
Street lights came on and I found myself standing on a cobbled bridge. I looked back at the carriage and noticed the etching in the glassy perpexy lord knows whaty thing that it was, and read ‘the volcano within must always be respected, worshipped, appreciated’. I remember thinking I’d read that off a subtitle in a foreign movie, though which one? I scarcely had the time to further that thought when again I was interrupted by the horses. This time, post another bizarre sound, theirs eyes bled a beautiful shade of hypnotising green, soft and welcoming like my mother's dark leather sofa, endless like my father's love for grass, rich like my sister’s spinach and coriander broth, inviting as the outstretched leaves of my favourite tree in Kew Gardens. Something about those eyes implied discovery, evoked possibilities and transformed the animals in a way that transcended beyond their initially threatening appearance.
My legs returned power of movement to my will as I gestured to move towards the enchanting eyes that called me. One horse in particular seemed to yearn for me like a distant memory. My first step brought eight ears prickling up at attention like my dog Tempest would when he heard footsteps around our house at night. I half expected them to bark at me. But they looked away. All but one; the one I call Tony.
Do you believe in reincarnation? Or at least in the possibility or transference - of skills, of ideas, influence, emotion? Tony was someone from my early teens. We met by chance one summer when as I uncharacteristically home for a school holiday. This was back in the age when I wore pleated blue and white check uniforms with brown moccasins and hair styles as dictated by the social prefect. He was 18; I was 14 going on 15. An age when reading Mills & Boon and Silhouette was my only guilty pleasure and drug of choice. I was a tomboy, he was a charmer and in the months that followed, he held me through a significant movement from boyish to sheepish teenage girl with untameable butterflies, and twisted word salad days.
I was sweeping the dust off the welcome mat outside our apartment. We lived in flat 1; he lived in flat 20 of an all military residence. I had never cared to spend time with family outside of their mandatory sightings on visiting days at boarding school. Usually I’d find an uncle’s cousin’s pastor who needed a hand at a far off land which meant I couldn’t be home, but that summer, I decided to spend a week with my dad first. I remember waking up to the domineering air of my step mother and wanting nothing more than to escape somewhere else for the weekend. To avoid having to deal with another ill provoked attack from her honorary royal nightmareness, I opted to throw myself out of the bed I shared with my cousin, it was a Saturday. Environmental Sanitation Day, the radio had announced and so I set about my appointed chores.
I loved cleaning, I still do. Nothing beats the clean smell of well, clean! Nothing hits the spot quite like the proclamation of death to organisms unknown by well targeted thick quirts of bleach and well motioned elbow grease. Out of spite, her royal nightmareness had given me a disused broom to sweep with and mumbled something about the hoover being out of bounds till us kids could afford one of our own. To infuriate me even further, she had insisted that no one was to eat, bathe or look decent until the house looked decent and she threw old Ankara fabrics at us to change into as she said so. I had two options, kick a fuss or just bite the bullet. My dad was back from tour that evening and I had my pepper soup and drinks tradition to look forward to with him. Soup washed down with fanta (for me) and guilder (for him). The smell of Benson and Hedges as we would talk about the important things in life, like how men are evil and I must always remain his smart little girl. I remembered a joke he’d made last time we had one of our conversations and it filled me with enough to help look forward to my day of chores and hell with her royal nightmareness.
Is Martin in?
He’d asked. I looked up from sweeping the ugly ‘welcome mat’ her royal nightmareness had tackily adorned the doorstep with and followed the trail the sound he made had left behind, to a face that belonged on movie hour on NTA2 Channel 5 (your reach out station).
I asked and hoped he would repeat himself, just so I could watch his lips move. He smelt heavenly and his eyes were a greyish shade of green like no Igbo boy I’d ever met.
Do you live here? Are you the new maid? Do you know Martin? He is the son of your oga. Is he in?
All this he asked at once. I was mortified. Am I a maid? I might be dusty looking, from sweeping all manner of filth from this godforsaken home but as sure as the wrapper around my chest was not mine, I sure as hell was not owned by anybody. Well, except for perhaps my dad, my aunts, uncles, teachers, ok, I give you all adults, including her royal nightmareness but they are not the boss of me!
He frowned, and even in my fit of anger, I melted and had a very foreign urge to touch his forehead and caress the raised brow and frown lines into the smoothness I was initially approached with.
So, is he in?
Well, tell him I called.
And you would be?
Tony. Tony Egbuonu.
His name touched me with extensions of what must have been a crush. And that was how we met. Me in wrapper and wildly skipping heartbeat, he cool as the water he wore.
Martin was away that summer visiting cousins in Jos. The one summer I needed him to be less of a half brother and more of a (make pretend) full brother, he was not there. Typical and ironic and annoying and I had no choice but to commandeer things on and find excuses to see Tony again. I would volunteer to wash my dad’s car, go with the driver to pick up groceries from the car, pick up plantain and condensed milk from Ekaite’s stall across the road and run other odd errands with the hope that when I am not forcibly holed up in the apartment, I would see him again. It used to send me in tail spins to smell him on our stairwell. Nobody used the elevators that summer because there were several faults in a row and people feared getting stuck on the lift again or worse, plunging to death from the 12th floor in the terribly claustrophobic elevator.
We lived on the first floor and the smell of Tony lingered on our stairwell like the thought of him lingered in my forebrain for many years to come. I could always tell if he had gone up or down the stairs and how long ago it was. There were two stairwells, one for the main apartment with the corresponding entrance to the apartment leading you to our living room. The other stairwell was used mostly by ‘the help’ and so, it connected you to the boys quarters and the main kitchen, depending on which door you opened. Tony would often use the main stairs unless he was sneaking back home at night or trying to avoid someone. For this reason, when I sat in the living room, I chose the chair closest to the main stairs so that my senses would alert me to Tony’s arrival or departure. I think I loved to hear him leave the most because it meant that I would get a chance to grab a proper glance at him. All I needed was to hear his voice, or smell him and I would make a run for the balcony where I would watch him talk to friends and make his way towards the gate, hop in a cab, take his car or walk as his destination required. I preferred it when he went for his evening strolls; I got to watch his form uninterrupted for a full minute before he disappeared into the horizon. My friend Umi who lived in Flat 13 had an impressive collection of movies and games, something to do with her father not wanting her out and about and so between studying and being a God fearing Hausa daughter, she got to watch movies and fast became my best alibi when I needed an excuse to run past Tony on the stairwell, under the pretext of returning or borrowing a vhs videos.
Is Martin back yet?
He asked one night.
No, he is in Jos all summer, we are not expecting him till next year. He is thinking about moving to the military school in Azare. I babbled.
I remember thinking of many impressive things to say like how I aced my social studies exam and can name all the countries in the world, and their corresponding capitals. I wanted to let him know I could recite all the chemical elements, that I could name all the commissioners and ministers in Nigeria and even tell you their previous roles that…
So what you got there – he interrupted
A movie from my friend, Umi. I’m about to return it. She lives in flat 13.
So you lived here long? I’m sorry if I offended you the other day, this area is like a small town within Ikoyi. Everybody knows everybody and well, I hadn’t seen you around. I know your mom was having troubles with your last maid so I assumed you were the replacement.
That’s okay, I shouldn’t have jumped at your throat like that
Yeah, really, you were leaping at me and throwing daggers with your eyes and everything. You are pretty scary for a little lady.
I am not little! I am of average build for my age and well, thank you for calling me lady. Most people think I am still a kid. I am a grown woman and I take care of me. And that woman is not my mother.
There you go again.
Oh, sorry. Can we start again?
Sure. Promise not to snarl at me this time?
I’m Bougzy. You hadn’t seen me till now because I’m mostly in boarding school. I haven’t been to this house since the family moved here.
Boarding school? That explains your ‘I can take care of myself’ attitude. Which one? I was at boarding school too, in PH. I’ve just finished my final exams, university here I come.
… And so we continued. Talking to Tony was very easy. He set me at ease and looked at me like I was the only thing that mattered, like every thought I had and every sentence I uttered weighed highly on the grand scale of things. I wasn’t a naïve child, I’d had boys hit on me since I was 8 and had always been able to handle myself but Tony was different.
I began sneaking out more often to see him. We would sit at the stairs and chat for ages, I’d go up to the apartment he shared with his mom and sisters and hang with them. He was the only boy in the neighbourhood that I noticed all the other boys respected and wanted to be like. He was what I now call a serious whoosher and I was totally sprung. A lot of the other girls in the neighbourhood liked him and wanted to be with him, girls from his church would make excuses to come to our end of the neighbourhood just to see him. The blocks near ours was inhabited by Shell bosses, NEPA bosses, NITEL bosses and the odd movie star, what this meant was for three or four blocks around where we lived, Tony was the reason why a lot of painfully (for me) attractive and very developed (I was just getting into my training bra then) girls got out of bed in the morning. Tony was the reason house parties were thrown and ad hoc barbeques held and even after their parents scolded them for damaging their properties and furniture in their absence, Tony was the reason these girls went to bed with smiles on their faces. All he had to do was look at you and life was good.
I remember a week when water pipes to the neighbourhood were sabotaged by someone who thought it would be funny to see the rich kids hustle for water. Most neighbours got their bat man or maid to get water or ordered water tankers. Her royal nightmareness decided that in my father’s absence, it would make far more sense for her to spend the money she was given on the jewellery she’d been staring at which Hassana’s mom sold, and have us fetch the water from the next street instead. I had not seen Tony for a few days and amidst the teasing, his cousin had told me he was visiting a relative in Enugu and won’t be back awhile. I grudgingly got a full pail of water balanced on my head and headed to my dad’s apartment from a friend’s house. I walked past what at 7pm becomes the coolest corner in the neighbourhood once the suya man got there. Anyone who was anyone worth knowing would sit and eat suya, hang and generally ogle each other. Shame was the teenager who could not be part of this rite of passage. I remember turning around to yell at my fellow water maids to hurry up before I got seen and just then drove past a car, in it, Tony. Following his car was the neighbourhood Eva Longoria who once you lost a man to, he aint never coming back. "Eva", now recently single, had thrown her hat into the ring a week ago and the unanimous decision had been made by all concerned that the perfectly manicured, fresh faced, 32C bust and hour glass living, walking, breathing black Barbie was a clear winner. She told her driver to slow down, down came her window, she looked at me and gave me her knowing look of ‘…and you pathetic wretch think you can compete with all of this? Looser!’ I had the worst fight to living memory with her royal nightmareness that day and resigned myself to pining only after the space he used to inhabit briefly on the stairwell.
After a week of avoiding him, he came to our door and asked her royal nightmareness - who surprisingly actually got up to open a door on purpose- where Martin was. She gave him the same answer I had a few weeks back. He asked to have a pen and paper to write down Martin’s number and new address so he could get in touch or at the very least leave a message for us to pass on. She called out for me to fetch the tools of my mortification and walked away to tend to the section of her face that was not quite layered enough with pancake.
Hi! I was actually hoping to see you. I thought she’d be away at the women’s conference this afternoon and hoped you would answer the door. I have not seen you in a while. Have you been sick?
I was touched, embarrassed at the memory of the last time he saw me, confused and eventually humiliated again into silence.
Are you okay? You seem very distant today. He laughed, I thought at me. In hindsight I think at the awkwardness of the conversation which made him slightly nervous.
I’m fine. Do you still need this?
No, no, I was going to leave you the message and hoped I would see you later.
Is this about the other time?
What other time?
Look, my dad, when he was around, was a no nonsense kind of character and I’ve done a lot worse than carry water from one end of the street to the other. It’s what I like about you, you know? You are not like the other girls around here, there’s something about you. Don’t ever loose that or be ashamed of it. It’s what makes you, you.
Look, if this is some kind of joke, I lost my sense of humour to the draught last week so please just leave your note and go tend to the other many girls who would give up their next summer holiday abroad just to spend an hour with you.
He looked at me with eyes I could not say no to and dimples that melted into his caramel complexion every time he so much as breathed. He offered me his hand and asked me to come with him.
Something to show you – he said.
‘I’m going upstairs to see Umi’ I yelled as the door slammed, announcing my departure.
We went downstairs and talked about things I barely remember. Nothing mattered and everything mattered at that moment. We were there till very late and when I said I was thirsty, - cringe alert! – he came forward from the wall he was leaning against, stood before me and the car I was sitting on the hood of and kissed me. Just like that. I had dreamt of that moment and played the many possible ways it could happen in my head too many times to not have been prepared. But I wasn’t. Using my favourite phrase of the time, I was flabbergasted but I will spare you the remaining unbelievably cringe worthy scenes and conversation we had and just move on to a few weeks on.
It was the day I was due back at school, I had enjoyed the best summer of my life to date. I’ve always hated goodbyes and had spent as much time with Tony as my prison like existence would allow. He asked for my address at school so he could write me. I tried to avoid actually giving it to him but he cornered me and confused me with another of his kisses which always had my knees weak and useless like soaking wet bamboo sticks. He asked if I’d miss him. I said no. He said whatever George (he had taken to calling me George after the girl in Famous 5), and continued: I know I’m going to miss you. I’m going to write you, promise you’ll write back?
I’ll think about it. I said.
You will come down for half term and not hide away up there? I might be starting at Unilag soon or moving to the States, but that won’t be till after your half term. I’d like to see you before I go okay?
I nodded and stole another kiss which ended scarred when my sister came huffing and puffing up and screaming something about my dad ready to decapitate me if I do not show up in his fore before right this second so he can get me to school.
I love you, Tony said. You love me too right?
Whatever. I’ll see you later.
My heart was pounding and as I leapt down the stairs, scaling 7 steps at a time, my heart was pounding not just from the fear of decapitation that awaited at the bottom but for the unexpected kindness and love I found that summer, for the first real kiss I had shared and for this being that I will always hold in a special place in my heart.
I got a call one evening from the hall monitor; I had to attend to Mama’s office. This usually meant trouble, mama’s office (Mrs Sobowale who we endearingly all called mama) either meant a can of whoop ass or suspension, or worse - shame and ridicule at the hands of a room full of 4 female teachers. Mama was the graphics and art teacher who also took it upon herself to maintain the honour of our all female boarding school. This made her our self appointed post woman, she was in charge of sorting through our mail. I don’t mean telling you when you have mail, mama would read your letters and God help you get one from a boy, she would call for you, ask you to kneel down in the centre of the room and with the other teachers and a few other spectators, she would read your letters to you, in mock boyish voice and once done give you a verbal tongue lashing, beat the virgin back into your ass and then pray for you and all your future generations. Mama was a tough cookie; we loved and hated her in equal measures. We loved the way she was respected by all other teachers and if you were ever in trouble and had mama on your side, the student court case was as good as won. We loved the way she brought the senior students right back down to earth whenever they stepped out of line but Mama being an all fair, big punisher, would scorch you under the same breath, so help her God.
I walked into the staff room and mama was on her throne of judgement. I feared my life to be over, I assumed it was something to do with one of the many idiotic pests from the Navy school nearby, blinded by the dangerously high levels of their own testosterone, they had a habit of writing to girls in my school once they saw you at a school fair/ sports day/ debate or whatever competitions brought us together with other schools that month. I was a member of the debate team, I wrote for the school press club, could sort of almost run a little but fared better at the callisthenics and dance offs we used to have.
Your homework was late and your graphs were of a poor quality this week. I also noticed you daydreaming in the last class. Let this be my final warning to you, the next time, you will be punished severely if you do not pay attention in my class.
On my way out, she pointed an unopened letter at me.
Did your parents come to see you last visiting day?
Well, you have a letter. Go on, take it and get out of my sight.
I was baffled. No family member ever wrote me on purpose, the scribble on the letter was none I recognised from the boys at the schools around. I opened it once in the safety net of my bunk bed:
.. blah blah blah…
… you will always be my beautiful princess.
All my love,
I did not breathe for a full minute. It took longer to get out of bed. My knees weak and lifeless, my heart pounding till I was nearly deaf and then my stomach, fluttering with the flight of a thousand butterflies.
I was in J.S.S 3 and sitting for my final exams that semester. I didn’t make it home for half term as I had study to do and going to stay under the same roof of her royal nightmareness was a sure fire way to prove her right: that I was a failure, that I would never become much in life and after failing my JSS exams, I would have no choice but to drop out of school and have many illegitimate children and live the life of the vagabond I was born to be. Lord knows where her special brew of madness came from. Needless to say, I was not in a rush to go home and study with such big exams looming.
I remember it clearly, I was sitting in exam hall 2 for my last paper on geography which I hadn’t prepared enough for. 40 minutes into the exam, I smelt him. I ignored it at first but when the scent got stronger, I blamed it on my overactive imagination and the letter I had read from him last week. He couldn’t wait to see me he’d said, and wished me the very best of luck with my exams. The smell lingered and I looked up and around me to find out how many male invigilators where in the room and which of them would be wearing the cologne I now associate only with Tony. There was only one in the room. My Dawudo and he was as likely to be wearing a cologne as I was likely to be acing that exam. As no one else had come in or gone out since the doors were closed and the exams begun, I brushed the thought aside again and went back to trying to understand the map on my junior WAEC paper. After what felt like five minutes, I couldn’t smell him anymore.
I had two weeks to wait for everyone else to finish their exams and then it was holiday time. For the first time in my life I was very eager to leave school and head into the unknown, to Tony’s world and all the wonderful things I hoped it entailed. I wanted my visit to be a surprise so, I didn’t tell anyone I was coming and just made the interstate journey. I got in at night and on my way past the suya spot, I noticed there were fewer people there than normal and there was a poster up on what we had started to call the community notice board. On my way up, I noticed a poster on the first flight of stairs but as the fluorescent seemed to have blown out again, I couldn’t make out what it said in the darkness. Besides, all I wanted was to sneak in unannounced, drop off my suitcase and spend a few hours with Tony before going back to face the olds.
My sister opened the door and the smile she had on her face told me she had hoped I was her boyfriend. I asked her to help me move my things into the corner and I would be right back.
Where are you going? You barely just got here!
I have to go see Tony, he wrote me and I didn’t write back 'causeI wanted to surprise him. I’ll be right back.
When did he write you?
I don’t know, I got it a few weeks ago I think. Look, just take the bag and I’ll tell you all about it later.
Tony is dead.
That is NOT funny. Just take the bag and …
No, really. He died three weeks ago. Didn’t you see the posters on your way in?
His obituary. His funeral is this weekend.
You have always been a liar and I hate you. Shut up!
Go see for yourself.
She gave me a flashlight and I went back down the way I came, heavier without the luggage. I knew it before I saw it. I prayed before I got to it. Lord please let it not be...
He was sick and he died. That’s the story his family are telling but we don’t know what killed him exactly. Someone said he got a contaminated needle or something which his body reacted to.
But his mom is a doctor. If he was sick, she would have looked after him.
She did, she was the one that injected him.
She killed him?
She is killing herself thinking the same thing. It was not her fault, she wasn’t to know.
His wake keeping was held on the ground floor and I sat in our balcony refusing to attend yet unable to not be a part of it. I prayed when they prayed and listened to the songs and sweet words everyone had to say about him. I cried for the first time since hearing the news and would not stop for days.
I did not want to go to the funeral. Going would mean saying goodbye, going would mean never seeing him again, going would mean accepting. My sister made me, together with Gbemi, a friend of mine who later told me she’d had a crush on him since they moved into the neighbourhood, long before I came along. We were in no rush to get to the burial ground, we arrived just as the pastor said ‘…dust to dust…ashes to ashes...’ I stood at the back and refused to be a part of it. People threw in their flowers and earth and condolences to the family, I stood back and refused to be held. The long journey home in traffic was torturous.
Sometimes I would hear footsteps and run to the balcony, half expecting his goofy smile to jump out at me and shock me into reality, April fool or something. It never came. I talked to a friend’s mom about the details of his death. Turns out he died around 3 o’clock on the Wednesday, the same day and time I was sitting for my final paper at school, the last time I smelt him. Tony had come to say goodbye to me she said.
I used to think about him a lot. I can't find his first and last letter to me anymore, I don’t remember what he looks like but looking into that horse’s eyes in my dream that night, I felt like I had been visited by the memory of something significantly life changing.
- in memory of Tony. The first man who showed me how easy it is to care.