It was a cold Tuesday evening when Emayak looked up from her phone and saw the sign outside read that they had arrived in Kontan. She expected to feel a certain type of elation but could only sum up exhaustion. She blamed it on the two-day journey up North.
The bus rolled through the dusky busy roads, came to a halt, and called out her stop. She jerked out of her reverie and looked around her. For the first time since she left Lagos, Emayak felt fear grip her heart.
“What have I done?” She mumbled absentmindedly to herself.
She had had this same conversation in different ways in her head over the past two days. And now, another version was about to ensue.
“Oh, child! Of all the places to start over?”
“Madam come down abeg. We never reach where we dey go”. The rude and gruff voice of the driver shook her out of it, and apologizing profusely, she alighted from the bus and went to the rear of the bus that had the cargo hold to sort her luggage. After being certain she got every piece of luggage, she hailed a taxi and gave him the address. It was hard to miss. It was the only military installation in the area.
The taxi was stopped at the gate for the usual security checks, after which he was let through. The ambiance of the Barracks in the falling evening light was divine. The electric lights that lined the drive were uniformly arranged, the trees lined the drive orderly, creating a whole uniformity that fostered a serene ambiance. She swallowed and slowed the taxi driver to ask a young soldier for directions to the Administrative Offices.
Two missed turns later, they found it and the driver was in a hurry to get rid of her. She stood there and watched him drive off into the dusk with his rickety old Volkswagen, and felt suddenly very alone.
“Yes! Good evening Ma’am. Are you lost?” A male voice startled her back to reality. She suddenly realized how late it was and how tired she felt. She turned around in the direction of the voice and saw a man in army fatigue standing a few feet away from her with what looked like a car key in his hand. She could not see his face clearly in the falling twilight, but the garden lights that lined the pathway where the taxi had unceremoniously dumped her, cast enough illumination to see a little of the stranger’s face.
She worked up a smile and went closer to the stranger and pulled herself straighter and introduced herself.
“Emayak Chibuike, reporting for duty from HQ Sir,” She said, handing him her transfer documents.
“OH! You are the new civilian Language Instructor?” He said with a slight frown on his face while studying the documents.
“No one said anything about it being a woman, or one so young. Are you up to 18?” He asked in amused sarcasm.
“24, Sir” She answered with a mirthless smile across her face.
“Wow! When did you finish school?”
“You must be a very smart young woman” he responded in a subdued tone that was almost sad and handed the documents back to her.
“Come, let me escort you to the lodge. You can come back here for processing in the morning. You look like you could do with some rest.” He perked up, then walked away immediately yelling for someone in the distance who came running. It turned out to be a young soldier going off duty. He was instructed to load up her belongings in the stranger’s car so he could take her to her assigned accommodation. It bothered Emayak that she did not know his name.
He held the door of the car open for her and waited till she was settled before he shut it and strolled to the driver’s side and got in. She raised her head slowly and got a good look at the stranger in the car’s light. And she was startled at his appearance. He had a very calm mien, but quite a gruff voice that turned sad when he talked gently. He was also handsome in a rugged way and looked to be in his mid-30s. She looked him in the eye and smiled sweetly.
“I don’t know who you are?” She said with a nervous laugh that made her look like a child. She noticed his features soften and become almost solemn. Then he smiled a reassuring smile and it warmed her in a strange way.
“Sorry. Where are my manners? Maj. Tanimu. 2IC. I usually don’t do this. But when I saw you standing there, I could not walk away.”
“OH! Thank you. That was very kind.”
He made a dismissive motion with his hand and turned on the ignition. They drove in silence and once again she marveled at the serene ambiance of this place that houses men and women that are supposedly trained for violence. After what seemed like five minutes, he turned into another beautifully manicured driveway, lined with slender Dongoyaro trees. He finally slowed and came to a complete stop before a simple bungalow with numbers on the doors.
“This will be your lodge for the duration of your posting. I hope you find it comfortable.”
“Thank you, Sir, you really are very kind,” she said while looking at her hands and feeling suddenly foolish. When she looked up, she found him staring intently at her with that sad look on his face again.
“Are you sure you will be ok? You look really tired.” He asked in a gentle voice that did not sound like his own and quickly had to clear his throat. She realized they were too close in the car and pulled back immediately, while she tried to frantically open the door of the car that was still on central lock. He responded by pressing the unlock button and she opened the door rather too quickly and stepped on the gravel path that led up to the main lodge. She breathed in a lungful of the dry cold air and it invigorated her. After a few more deep breathes, she turned around to find Tanimu behind her staring at her again with a concerned expression on his face.
“You literally fled from my car. Did I do or say something that made you upset?” He asked gently, and she could catch the Hausa accent. It was strange, exotic, and exciting to her.
She opened her mouth as if to speak, but no words came out. Then she found her voice and said “No. Just wanted to get in and try to settle down for the night.” “I’m just tired, hungry, and terrified” she added with that nervous laugh that made her look so vulnerable.
With a surprised look on his face, he took two steps away from her and jammed his hands into his pockets.
“Look, the house is going to be very dusty and dirty. It has not been assigned in a while, and we don’t have housekeeping around here.” This made her giggle and he looked up to see her face light up.
“So if you are not against the idea, I can get you a room at the Officers’ Mess till you can clean this place up.” She looked at him in the shadowy garden light and she could see that he was uncomfortable.
“Uh! That is very kind, but I don’t want to be a bother. That would cost you a lot” She added with her voice getting a little too loud with the alarm that was evident on her face.
Her outburst seemed to have an almost automatic effect on him. He stepped closer to her and she could see his face in the garden light more clearly now. He looked angry. She felt a stab of fear in her chest and took her hand to her right breast; as if to protect her heart from what was to come. He stopped within a foot of her and looked her in the eye. She made to lower her eyes but he said in that gentle gruff voice
“UM! Look! I understand how you feel. But believe me when I tell you that you are walking on the safest grounds you have ever walked in your life, and you are dealing with a gentleman and an officer”.
“I’m literally paid to keep you safe” he added with a nervous chuckle that gave his features a wicked look. She gulped in another lungful of air, exhaled slowly, and gave him another smile that made him feel like protecting her from bad things.
“I like that idea. It’s clearly the saner choice in this situation. Did I mention I’m terribly exhausted?” She said almost sorrowfully. This made him chuckle again.
“Get in the car let’s get going then, good thing we did not offload your luggage yet.” He glanced at his military-grade watch and frowned.
“The day is no longer young little girl” He mumbled almost to himself but she caught it and scoffed.
The short drive was done in silence till they arrived at a white sprawling bungalow. It was in the same groomed state everything here seemed to be. He pulled up into another well-manicured driveway and turned into a parking spot that was marked Reserved.
“Come on. I will get someone to deal with the bags. We need to get you a room first.”
“Good evening Sir” A crisp voice greeted from a corner of the lobby.
We turned in the direction of the voice to see a young soldier standing rod-straight. Tanimu made a brief straightening motion with his torso and arms as acknowledgment.
“Are there available rooms?”
“No Sir, just the reserved ones.”
“No problem, give me the key to one of them and get someone to offload luggage from my car.”
“Ok, Sir. Permission Sir.” The young soldier said standing ram-rod straight again. Then turned and walked away in the direction we had just come from after handing Tanimu a key.
“Please can I bother them for some water? I’m thirsty.” Emayak leaned forward to whisper to Tanimu who was still watching the departing soldier.
“Oh! This way.” He said as he nudged her towards another large room on the right of the lobby that turned out to be the bar. At that time of the night, there were only two other officers there who saluted Tanimu as he entered and nodded to Emayak.
“Gentlemen! Burning the night oil responsibly I can see?” He said with a mischievous grin to the two young officers, who burst out laughing.
He motioned her to one of the sofa chairs that were arranged around the bar. She moaned with relief and pleasure as she sat down on the comfy cushion of the sofa, and found herself sprawling out in a very unladylike way and just staying that way for what seemed a very long time.
He perched on the only available space on the sofa and motioned on a waiter. It was the voice of the waiter asking her what she wanted to drink that made her open her eyes and give the waiter a confused stare.
“You said you were thirsty?” Tanimu answered at the confused look on her face.
“Oh! Yes, I am. Water. Thank you.” The waiter turned to leave and she opened her eyes again and said “On second thought. It’s terribly cold here. Do you have wine?”
“Yes we do Ma’am”
“Get the lady whatever she wants” The Major said.
“Water and wine it is then Ma’am?” The waiter asked Emayak whose eyes were closed again.
“Yes,” She nodded without opening her eyes.
The waiter brought the water and wine with the appropriate glasses, and the noise of the glassware being arranged on the table made Emayak open her eyes and found Tanimu staring at her again in that intense way that made her very uncomfortable. She just met this man in a strange new place. Why did she feel this way? The waiter took her permission to open the wine and she nodded her head while she picked up the bottle of water, unscrewed the cap, and drank till the bottle was empty.
“You were really thirsty.”
“It’s obvious?” She replied with mock shock, which made him laugh.
She sat back and surveyed the room
“So this is the North huh?”
He smiled. “Yes. Disappointed, are we?”
“Not at all. Fascinated is the word you are looking for.”
“Fascinated? With what?”
“The city. This Barrack. You.”
“What is so fascinating about me?”
“I have actually never interacted with a Hausa Muslim this closely before. So I find myself paying closer attention.”
“What did you think I was going to do to you? Rape, kill, and dump your body in a shallow grave behind the barrack?” He asked with a straight face.
A brief look of alarm swept through her face, then she laughed nervously. “I may have thought about that for a millisecond,” She said covering her face with her hands.
“Only a millisecond? That is forgiven.” He said with a tired sigh and settled back into the couch. He looked at her as she took a dainty sip of the wine and said in a quiet voice “There is a lot of stereotyped narrative flying around out there about the North. Some of them are true to a degree, some are exaggerated out of proportion, and some are just outright lying.”
Emayak chuckled at this. “What is your definition of “true to a degree?”
“They paint us as these illiterate, religious fanatics just roaming the place looking for the next unfortunate soul to decapitate. Adding no value. This is not true.”
“Oh, I see. That was a little harsh” She said apologetically.
He laughed a bitter laugh.
“I’m fascinated with you too. I have not had a long conversation like this with a woman in a while. It's refreshing. I’m actually glad I found you at the Administrative Office.” He seemed to feel like he had said too much.
To ease his discomfort, Emayak smiled sweetly and asked in a husky voice “so what do you find fascinating about me?”
The response this brought about, both warmed and alarmed her. His face seemed to light up and he settled back and gave her an intense stare.
“Well! Where do I start? Should I talk about your apparent wit? I’m confused how one so young could be so smart and a woman too” he added with a nervous laugh.
“The females here generally don’t talk much. They are not expected to.”
“So do you find my voice and opinions offensive?”
“You know I don’t. On the contrary, I think I love hearing you speak.”
“But you expected me to be quiet?”
“Yes.”He responded as he studied her face, and saw the anger begin to rise.
“Stand down, Ma’am. I meant no offense. I’m sorry if you found it offensive.” He said raising his hands in mock surrender. He saw the anger ebb as she picked her drink and took a long sip before she spoke in a calm voice.
“So, tell me what else I’m not expected to do around here.”
“Well, for starters, what you are doing right now. Drinking. Talking. Having an opinion. Being smart. Making your own decisions.” He added as he watched the rising anger on her face and quickly added “But I find it very stifling.
One of the things I worry about as my family is in a frenzy to find me a wife, is being duty-bound to marry a woman I can’t talk to because she is conditioned to not speak or have a mind of her own. It sincerely bothers me.” He added with a tired sigh and looked down at the table. While he spoke, he did not notice the mischievous grin that was spreading across her young face.
“So your family is trying to find you a wife huh?” She asked in a voice that sounded like it was fighting very hard not to laugh.
He chuckled and shook his head. “Yes, they are. And it’s a very serious exercise that is not trivialized” He added with a solemn look. At this point, she guffawed. This made the other young officers in the mess look their way. She immediately composed herself, while still stifling the laughter.
He enjoyed talking to her so much that he did not notice the time fly by. He was jolted out of their bubble when the two officers at the bar said goodnight as they departed.
She glanced at her watch and the time read 11 pm. She noticed she was slightly tipsy from the alcohol and felt warm.
“I hate to do this, but, I must leave you now to rest. I have an early day tomorrow. Try to be at the Administrative Building by 9 am tomorrow morning”.
She nodded absentmindedly, as he made to rise and leave. He paused for a moment, reluctant to leave her, as she sat there, looking very vulnerable.
“Would you like me to escort you to your room?”
“Oh! Sure!” She smiled and stood to follow him out of the bar in the direction of the rooms.
He kept walking till they arrived at a room marked Reserved (2)on the door, he handed the key to her, and there was an uncomfortable pause.
She took the key from him slowly and held his gaze before he looked away shyly, turned around abruptly, and threw a hasty good night over his shoulders as he retreated.
Emayak woke up slowly. The bright Northern sun streaming through the window. She took in a lungful of the crisp cold air and surveyed the room, trying to remember where she was. She caught a glimpse of her luggage arranged in a corner and her mind was awake.
She jerked up from the bed and took a glance at the watch that she had not had a chance to take off before falling into a dreamless sleep. The time read 11:45 am. She looked at the watch in dismay and wondered if it was malfunctioning. She grabbed her phone from the bedside and checked the time there, and truly, the time was now 11:46 am.
She scrambled out of bed and ran into the small adjoining bathroom, swearing under her breathe for oversleeping. She was appropriately late for her first day at work. In her alarm at having overslept, she did not notice the terrible headache that had been gnawing at her skull. It was very unhelpful. She could not think or organize her thoughts.
Turning on the cold water in the shower, she stood under the icy sheets and the jarring effect of the cold water on her skin woke her up totally. She stood under the cold torrent for a long time, shivering and trying to remember snatches of the night before. The memories came back in bite-sized pieces and were gone before she had a chance to chew.
The cobwebs begin to clear from her mind, and she slowly started to remember the events of the night before. She swore again as she remembered the man who had so benevolently offered her this room, to save her the trouble of sleeping in a dusty, dirty house. She turned off the cold water and stood staring at her naked body dripping in the bathroom mirror. She looked like a little girl trying so hard to look tough. She sighed tiredly and dragged herself to the bedroom to get dressed.
For her first day, she chose a black slack and matched it with a black cotton shirt. She finished the get-up with black demure heels. She noticed with humor that she looked like she was heading to a funeral. She chuckled at this thought as she applied a deep wine-colored lipstick to her lips. Satisfied with her appearance, she headed for the door.
She walked briskly to the reception with the intention of finding transport to the administrative block and hoping to bum a painkiller from the young soldier she had seen the night before. When she got to the lobby, it was filled with young officers, standing around. Apparently, it was lunchtime. She got a lot of appreciative stares. Emayak was a beautiful young woman who was always unaware of her looks. She recognized the young soldier talking to a man who stood with his back to her, and she made a beeline for him, thinking of how to interrupt the conversation for her head really hurt.
As she came closer to him, the young man noticed her and said: “OH! Here she is, Sir”.
The man turned around and it was the good Major. He gave her a small smile.
“Good afternoon, you clean up nice”.
She smiled and responded to his greeting shyly. Painfully aware that the whole room was staring at the fresh young woman.
“Err! I’m painfully late!” She said without looking up.
“Yeah, I looked out for you at the office, had to drive up here to make sure you are okay”
“OH! Did you drive all the way here because of me? She asked in a small voice.
“Yes! And you dropped something in my car last night. Your wallet” He said while handing her the dainty red wallet.
“Oh my goodness! Thank you! I’m such a Klutz. I did not notice that was missing!” She exclaimed incredulously. Opening her purse to notice the apparent absence of her wallet in it.
“Now I feel like an idiot, this contains all my cards, would have been a terrible inconvenience to lose it here”.
Tanimu smiled fondly now.
“I believe you slept well, seeing that you have literally missed your first day?”
“Oh, I did. Do you happen to have some painkillers? My head hurts badly” She said with a pained look that made him concerned.
“Sure! I think I have some in my car. Come with me” He said as he made for the exit and she followed him. Still aware of the stares directed at her.
“You need to go to the admin offices and report for Duty. They will excuse you for today, then you can resume fully tomorrow. I can put in a good word for you if you want”. He said to her as they walked to his car.
“That is very kind. But, I think I can manage to own up to being exhausted without you, I think I have been a huge bother already”. She retorted a little too quickly.
They had stepped into the bright sunshine now, and she squinted to see. In the bright sunshine, The Barracks looked even more beautiful than she remembered it from the night before.
“I understand. You don’t want to be marked on your first day” He said with a chuckle.
Marked? What does that even mean”? She asked bewildered.
“It means that you will be identified”
She still had the flummoxed look on her face.
“Just leave it alone. You will be fine” He said as they finally get to his car.
He unlocked the car, leaned in, and gets the medication for her. She took it from him and pushed two of the pills into her red lips gratefully. He hands her a bottle of water he found on the back seat. She takes the bottle from him with a small smile.
“Thank you. So, do you usually check up on new arrivals like this?”
He smiled indulgingly. “No. I’m equally surprised. Been thinking about you a lot since I left here” He blurted out and wish he had not said that, for her face held an expression he could not read.
Desperate to change the subject he asks her if she would like some lunch. She smiled slowly and said “I have not even had breakfast yet” This made him laugh.
“Come on! Get in. I will take you to the Admin Office for your processing, while you are at it, I will clear my table, then we can go for a long lunch in town. What do you think?”
“Sounds good” Her face brightens up at the prospect of getting to see the town in good company. “You are going out on a limb to be kind to me. I’m grateful”.
“Don’t thank me yet. I just may have ulterior motives”
She opened her mouth to say something, but closed it back, and then laughing, turned around to get in the car. He got in beside her with a wicked grin on his face, which made her laugh hard.
She laughed like a child and it struck a chord in him that made his features soften. He started the ignition and drove the car away from the sprawling bungalow and headed for the Administrative Building.
They made the short drive in silence, but now, it was more of comfortable silence. When they arrived at the well-groomed administrative building, she checked her watch and it was 2:30 pm. She gulped and got out of the car and stood staring at the door that was marked, Adjutant.
“Don’t worry, this present is nice. The last one would have sent you right back. No excuses” Tanimu said to her to cheer her up. Noticing the trepidation on her face.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?”
Some support would have been nice. But Emayak had learned enough about Army politics from her brief stint at DHQ to know that it was a bad idea to have the 2IC making excuses for her on her first day. She looked at him and smiled bravely.
“I will be fine. You need to give me your number. I will call you if I need help” She said while handing him her phone.
“I thought you would never ask,” He said with a smug smirk as he collected the phone and punched in his number.
She rolled her eyes and snatched the phone from him. Turning towards the Adjutants office, she started to walk to the door with a brisk determined walk that was almost like a march. She could hear him chuckle and say good luck, but she refused to turn around. She got to the door and knocked softly; while saying a prayer under her breath.
“Come in!” A voice answered from within. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves, then gently opened the door and peeked inside the room.
The room was not a large one, but it was brightly lit and had a big window. The Adjutant was a dark slender man that looked to be in his early twenties. He wore fatigues and the nameplate on his table read Capt. Olaleye.
“Yes? How can I help you?” The man behind the table asked.
“Good Afternoon, Sir. My name is Emayak Chibuike. I was posted from DHQ”.
He looked at her quizzically.
“Where are your designation papers? You were expected to arrive yesterday”
“Yes, I did. It was very late. The journey was grueling and I overslept. I am very sorry, Sir.” She said remorsefully, stepping forward to hand him her documents.
His face softened, and he motioned her to take a seat, while he went through her documents.
“Your documentation seems to be in order. You can start your sessions with the soldiers tomorrow.” He opened the drawer and took out a file and handed it to her.
“That is your schedule. Please study it carefully and keep the time strictly. Lateness is not tolerated here.”
“Yes Sir. I understand.”
“Good.” Smiling, he stood up and offered her his hand.
“Welcome to 52. We hope you like it here. The last Instructor requested for a transfer after only three months on account of the weather.”
She stood up and took his hand in a firm shake, with a smile told him “Don’t worry Sir, I’m tougher than I look”. This made his smile wider and he let go of her hand.
“Come, let me show you your office, that space will also serve as your classroom. You are expected to participate in physical exercises four times a week. If you have a valid reason for being unable to attend, you are required to go to the MRS and seek permission. Shirking your duties is an offense that is not taken lightly” He said as she followed him out the office and into a wide corridor that led to the classrooms.
As they went, they passed doors that had served as offices. They passed one that was marked 2IC and she felt a small flutter in her stomach and took a deep breath. The Adjutant gave her a brief tour of the complex and left her in the corridor outside his office. She turned around in the direction of the door she had seen marked 2ic. She got to the door and she could hear murmurs inside like people were in a conversation.
She took a deep breath, ignoring the flutter in her stomach, she realized she was starving and she had been promised a long lunch. She knocked and heard a voice that did not sound like Tanimu’s voice beckon on her to come in. She opened the door and peeked into the office, and was surprised to see that she was looking into a reception area, that led into a larger office.
A young soldier sat behind a large desktop computer and was furiously tapping away at the keyboard in front of him. He paused and looked up at her.
“Good afternoon, please I have an appointment with the 2iC?” She asked with a sweet smile.
The young soldier smiled back and asked her name. He told her to have a seat on one of the straight-backed chairs that lined a wall of the fairly large room, while he went in to confirm if the 2ic was free to accept visitors. Less than 30 seconds later, he came out and ushered her into the adjoining office. She walked in timidly, her stomach doing somersaults and this annoyed her greatly. The orderly, as she later got to know, shut the door gently as he went out and left her standing in front of Tanimu’s desk feeling inadequate and very shy.
He stood up after the orderly had shut the door, and gave her a smile.
“So, how did it go? I have been expecting your call, but you did me one better by visiting my office. Please have a seat”
She smiled shyly and sat down on the chair facing his table, avoiding his eyes the whole time.
“It went better than I expected. He was nice like you said. Gave me the tour, discovered your office while on it, I hope you don’t mind I decided to drop in like this?” she replied still without looking at him.
“I don’t mind at all, I operate an open-door policy,” he said with a small laugh.
He noticed she was twiddling with her fingers. Why was she nervous?
“So, are you cleared now?’’
“Yes. I start tomorrow. I have been given my schedule.”
“Good. So, you are ready for that lunch?”
“Absolutely! I’m officially starving” She said with a breathless and nervous laugh.
He came around from behind the desk.
“Let’s go, it’s a relatively long drive to town.”
She followed him out of the office. He left instructions of what he needed to be done in his absence.
They walked into the bright sunlight and headed towards the parking lot. They drove out of the Admin Building in silence and headed for the main exit of the barracks. The guards on duty saluted the Major as he drove past and she smiled.
“You appear to be nervous. Is something wrong?”
Tanimu asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence. She flinched slightly when his voice broke the silence. Feeling slightly trapped.
“No! She turned to stare at him shyly. And saw the concerned look on his face.
“It’s been quite long I was in close quarters with a man”
Me too, actually. You know, it’s frowned upon for a single young man to be seen hanging around a young unmarried woman. It’s considered improper and immoral” He admitted.
“So you are committing a sin taking me for lunch?” she said incredulously
“I am, Technically. I must confess, I’m surprised at myself. I can’t stop thinking about you. For what it’s worth”
She turned to steal a glance at him. Did he use that line with all the women he met? She thought furtively. She itched to ask him, just for clarity, she instead chose to smile slowly and looked out of the window at the arid landscape that flew by as they sped towards the town.
She settled down into her seat and sighed contently. Twenty minutes later, they pulled into a large compound with a few squat bungalows.
“What is this place?”
“One of the places non-judgmental people eat,” He said with a straight face.
“So, where do the judgmental people eat?” She asked while trying not to laugh.
“Somewhere in town. We can’t even sit together there”
She looked at him with confusion on her face. She had a hard time believing that there were restaurants where people sat according to gender.
“Are you serious?”
“Why would I joke about that?”
“So if you go there with your wife, how is the sitting arrangement”?
“She sits at the women’s section, you go to the men’s section”
“Wow, y’all serious about this stuff?”
He smiled slowly and came down to open the door for her. They walked together into the restaurant which was fashioned in an open bar format. She looked around and saw young people milling around, the lunch hour crowd. She settled into her seat and he signaled to a waiter who came to them and took their order.