He could see her face, the sorrow and the sudden beauty that shone forth when she smiled. She had looked out of the window as he talked about the medication he was prescribing. She had looked so despondent, that he was certain that he had never seen anyone that way. He couldn’t stop thinking about her, wondering about her dead husband and the life they had had. Had they had children? Had he been a good man? Gbenga shook his head as if to rid his mind of the image of Mrs Ade, and looked at his wife. She was sitting beside him in their living room, reading something on her phone and smiling.
“Why are you smiling?”
She smiled even wider. “Just read this post about a man who got help from a Good Samaritan at the mall.”
“Please, those things are usually just made up.”
She looked at him reprimandingly. “Gbenga, there are good people in this world. Stop being so cynical.”
“Look I’m telling you, some random person will sit in his house and compose a touching story and say it’s real, so that people like you can smile, cry, and say aww…”
Her smile was gone. “What is your problem?”
“Nothing, I’m just telling you the bitter truth…”
“Did I ask you for the truth…?”
“So you’re being deliberately gullible?”
“You really have a problem, and I’m not going to sit here and allow you to ruin my evening.”
“Oh c’mon Nife! You’re too emotional. NIfe…!”
He shook his head, went to the kitchen to get a beer and dozed off on the couch with the can in his hand.
Faith sat in a brown plastic chair beside Ben’s bed, her hands in her laps. On the table beside him were the things she’d brought. A tin of glucose, milk, chocolate beverage, two bottles of water and a dark blue plastic food warmer. She sighed, looked away from him, then she faced him again.
“So you weren’t going to tell me? I had to hear from Chidi.”
“I didn’t have time to think, Faith,” he lied.
“Do you have to think about calling me? Shouldn’t I be the first person you should call?”
“Aren’t you at least grateful that I’m alive?”
She shook head and looked away once more. “Tell me again how it happened. You were crossing the road and someone grabbed your wallet. And then you ran into oncoming traffic to get it, right?”
He cleared his throat.
“How much was in the wallet?”
“I said how much was in the wallet?”
“I’m not very sure, I know I counted three thousand last night…”
“You wanted to kill yourself for three thousand naira?”
He sighed softly.
“Ben,” she exhaled sharply. “Ben, you have to think, you really have to think.”
He closed his eyes.
“You’re thirty-five, how long are you going to continue living like this?”
“Faith, can we talk about this later…?”
“This painting thing is not bad, but get a better job. One that can take care of your needs and then you can do your painting by the side…”
“I cannot put my creativity in second place!”
“What sort of creativity forces you to live so wretchedly? Wake up!”
“You and Gbenga should be married, since you both think about me the same way.”
“Thank God,” she muttered. “At least one friend is doing the right thing.”
Ben looked away from her and thought about Gbenga’s parting words to him earlier that day. “Enough of this whimsical artist thing you’re doing. Get a proper job and be a real man.”
Faith’s voice snapped him out of his memories. “I’ve been patient with you Ben. I can’t endure this anymore. Eight years and no proposal, no prospect of marriage. I love you but I’m tired of hoping that you will do the right thing.”
He looked into her eyes. “You used to believe in me, what changed?”
She looked down at her hands. “You know Mrs Mba, my mum’s friend. Well, her son came to visit us about eight months ago, and he wants to marry me. He’s just finished his PhD in the US. I like him, I feel comfortable sharing my dreams with him. He encourages me…”
He squirmed, limited by his pain. “So you want to leave me for a rich man?”
“He’s not even rich yet, but he’s going to be. I know because I can see how ambitious and hardworking he is…”
“You want to live in the US…?” he said sarcastically.
“I want security. What do you have to offer me? Just ask yourself that!”
He glared at her and said nothing, because he had nothing to say.
“Hello?” A feeble voice said.
“’Yes hello, my name is Chidi, I’m calling from Tower Bank.”
“You tried to open an account with us a few days ago…”
“Unfortunately, the name on your utility bill does not correspond with the name on your form. Can you please bring one that does…?”
“I don’t have another one.”
Chidi hesitated, put off by the man’s abrupt tone. “Then I’m sorry, you won’t be able to open an account with us…”
“What if I deposit my money into your account?”
“It’ll only be for two months, I’ll pay you one million naira.”
Chidi hung up and stared at the form in front of him. What had just happened?
Ben was eating lunch when the woman in the red dress walked in. This time, she was dressed in a yellow and green flowery chiffon blouse on a pair of dark blue jeans. She held a beige handbag and wore a matching wedge sandal.
“How are you feeling today?” she asked.
Ben was too surprised by her presence to respond. He’d thought that he would never see her again.
“Can you talk?”
“Yes,” he cleared his throat. “I’m better.”
“Thank God,” she sat in the chair beside him, placed her handbag on her laps, and watched as he ate.
Feeling self-conscious, he set down his cutlery and glanced at her.
“Why did you want to kill yourself?” she asked sitting forward, her hands clasped and her elbows on her handbag.
“I didn’t want to kill myself.”
“So why did you run into the road?”
“I was… I was trying to… they stole my wallet, some two guys on a bike.”
The woman thought it was foolhardy to chase two people who were on a motorbike by foot. Only desperation could make one act so thoughtlessly. She looked at him closely and noted, his full unkempt hair, dull complexion, the leanness of his body, and the frantic way he chewed, as if his very life depended on the morsel in his mouth.
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I’m an artist, I paint…”
“What do you paint?”
“Human beings, things, whatever catches my eye…”
“A painter. So you have a gallery?”
“Yes I do, it’s on Kalu Chuwkuma Road, not far from where…” he trailed off.
“Hmmn.” She looked at him again, and he looked away from her and stared at his unfinished meal. His half-eaten beef was drowning in the dark green ewedu soup and he wished that she would just go and leave him to finish it.
“I want you to paint me,” she said suddenly.
His eyes flew up to her. She had a distant look on her face and squinted one of her eyes. “Ma…?”
“Yes, you should paint me. I need a full portrait of myself… something regal, elegant, he needs to see…”
Suddenly she sat up, her eyes sharp. “Yes, you will paint me.” she opened her handbag and brought out a complimentary card.
“How much do you charge for your work?”
“Err…” he mumbled, taking the card from her. “I…”
“Will two hundred thousand naira do?”
Ben’s mouth was open. “Two hundred…”
“I don’t know when you’ll be discharged, but as soon as you are, call me.”
“Please call me Bella.”
“Yes ma… B…”
She huffed and walked out of the room. Ben stared after her and suddenly felt thirsty.
Gbenga smiled when she walked into his office again. She carried the same dark blue purse and wore an ankle length black cotton gown. Her hair was covered in a grey silk scarf. She sat calmly in front of him stared down at the table.
“Good afternoon Doctor.”
“Good afternoon madam. How are you today?”
“Have you been using your medication?”
“Sometimes…” she said uncertainly.
He could see from the look on her face that she had not told the truth. He stared at her and noticed her full pink lips for the first time, and even though they were still chapped he could see how beautiful they would look under better circumstances. He also noticed her clear fair skin and the black spots spread on one side of her neck, like a finishing. She heaved and his eyes travelled down to her chest and the slight swell of her breasts, so unlike his wife’s ample bosom that she struggled to cram into her big silk bras. Thinking of his wife, he cleared his throat and sat up.
“Madam, you need to use your medicines…”
“Okay,” she replied in her small voice.
“Do you have children?”
“No… we were trying to have children…”
He looked at her file. “You’re thirty-two, you’re still young. I think he would want you to move on…”
“You didn’t know him, you have no right to tell me that.”
He was taken aback by the sudden harshness of her tone, even though her face remained passive.
“I might not have known him, but If he really loved you…”
“He did!” she snapped and her face contorted in anguish. “He was the only man in this world who loved me!”
She began to sob loudly, her face in her small hands. Gbenga felt uncomfortable, he reached for the box of tissues by his right hand and held it with both hands, waiting for her to stop crying.
“Why did you leave me? Why? Why? We’d planned everything…”
Feeling that he ought to do more, he got up and walked over to her.
“It’s all right madam.”
“Madam…” he placed his hands gently on her shoulders. “It will be all right.”
She turned towards him and melted into his arms.