Ms. Grace was a woman in her early 60s. Although stunt, there was a particular grace about her. It was in the way she spoke, like a refined lady from the 50s Lagos’ elite class.
Her light skin blended well with her grey hairs, packed into a tight knot at the back of her head. Her clothing was a simple brown round neck with bogus sleeves, on dark brown ankle length skirt.
Her steps were graceful, as she moved about the small plain room, putting it in place.
Valerie sat on the bed. Her body ached severely. She massaged her foot with one hand, at the same time. Grateful for the room.
It was one hundred percent better than a tree top.
Her eyes followed the elderly woman as she reached for an ancient looking drawer with a flower like handle. She pulled it open and from the lot, picked out an old dress.
“This should do for the night, Miss Valerie”, she smiled, holding up the ancient looking night-dress for Valerie to see. Mrs. Grace had spent the early hours of the evening tending to Valerie’s injured foot and helping her take a bath. Now she had to get dressed before dinner.
Looking at the gown she held up, Valerie feared she was about to be initiated into an old woman’s club, and ancient dress sense.
“The Gown is good”, she pouted, “but it looks too big and old”. She finished quickly.
The smile faded from Mrs. Grace’s lips, “I have forgotten how ill-mannered the children of nowadays are”.
“I’m… sorry”, Valerie apologized, “I didn’t mean to sound rude”.
Ms. Grace turned around, pretending not to have heard the apology, while folding the gown back into the drawer.
“Mr. Okis will have to place orders for new dresses tomorrow. If you wouldn’t accept this night-dress, I doubt you’ll accept the others”.
“Oh please. I can use it for the nights”, Valerie said, getting to her feet, “I’m sorry I sounded rude. Please let me use the night-dress like that”.
Mrs. Grace frowned in Valerie’s direction, “I thought I told you not to stand on that foot without approval from me. You want your injury to heal or not?”
“I want it to heal”.
“Then sit!”, she ordered.
Valerie dropped back on the bed, as Ms. Grace unfolded the gown and brought it to her. “You get dressed. I’ll get you supper”.
She left the room without another word, leaving Valerie to wonder how others in the house managed to keep up with her robot-like tone.
She smiled sometimes, and she looked like an angel when she did. Other times however, her stern and robot-like behaviour wasn’t something to enjoy.
“Do you want your injury to heal or not?” She had asked, frowning.
Valerie knew the answer was yes. She also knew that getting dressed meant getting up. No way was she going to get dressed while sitting on the bed.
Talking about the bed. It was a really small bed, just enough to size her. Save for the drawer at the opposite end of the room, and a reading table and chair by the window, the room was plain, and void of decorations. Even the curtains were plain.
There was no ceiling fan. But somehow, the room was at normal temperature. Not hot, not cold.
If anyone had told her a grand mansion will have such a plain room, she’d have denied it. But here she was, staring at white washed walls. How much did a bucket of paint cost that a rich man couldn’t paint his walls?
She wriggled her nose. What else could she expect from a man who was covered, from head to toe, in dirt? So much dirt, she couldn’t even make out his face.
Much as he was kind enough to bring her to his abode, she couldn’t help but think of him as dangerous.
As long as she was staying under his roof, she was going to have to be careful to avoid him, else a repeat of Elvis’ predicament came to bear. Unfortunately the gatekeeper would have to carry out his threat. she had a strong feeling that she wouldn’t be able to get away with just anything. Not from the gatekeeper, or this Mr… what did Ms. Grace call him again? Oh.. ok.. Okus.. Okeys.. O…
“Phew!”, she sighed. Pushing the thought out of her mind, she got to her feet, unwrapped the towel from her chest and began to wear the night-dress Ms. Grace had offered her.
Done, she looked down at herself. A soft chuckle escaped her lips. “I guess ancient suits modern”.
The bedroom door opened then. Ms. Grace stepped in, carrying a tray of semovita and black soup. A bottle of cold water and one tumbler sat on the tray too. She stopped briefly and frowned.
Valerie knew nothing good was going to come out from her mouth.
“I see you’re up on your feet again”.
“Hold it”, she silenced Valerie, before moving to drop the tray on the table. She turned around, hands on hips, “am I to assume you’re the free-spirited type? One who does as she pleases and not as she’s told?”
“I had to wear my nightie”, Valerie defended, already weary of the elderly woman’s tantrums.
“You could have done that sitting down”, Ms. Grace queried.
“No. I couldn’t. I had to stand up. Besides, I don’t see how standing up can prevent an injury from healing up, ma”.
Ms. Grace’s brows shot up, “arrogant! Proud. Disobedient and self-righteous. I’ll be sure to tell Mr. Okis that’s what you are. I wouldn’t like to share home maintenance duties with a girl who doesn’t take instructions and believes she’s always right.
“But I didn’t…”
“Don’t bother”, she waved Valerie to silence, “finish your meal. In half an hour, I’ll come back to take you to Mr. Okis’ library. He wants to speak with you”.
“Yes ma”, Valerie replied
“I’m surprised you even know how to use the word, ma”.
“Oh, I know how to use a lot of things, ma”, she grinned, mischievously.
Ms. Grace’s brows shot up, “I’ll tell the master about my observations of you, before your meeting”, she smirked, “so don’t get your hopes up. You might need to leave first thing tomorrow morning. I’ve tolerated Omo long enough. I’m not going to tolerate you too”. She marched out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her.
Valerie sighed in disbelieve. At least she knew now, that not only did the gate-keeper not seem to want her presence, this Ms. Grace had just told her bluntly, she was not wanted in the house.
If the fool that called himself a passenger hadn’t robbed them, she’d still have a part of the ten thousand naira in her possession. Then she wouldn’t even think twice about walking away, first thing in the morning.
But how could she? Valerie didn’t even know her way around the forest. And surely, she couldn’t go back to Aunty Fome. Her witch of an Aunty will hand her over to the police, or kill her without even enquiring about the events that led to her brother’s death.
Her stomach grumbled then, reminding her it had last taken food the day before. She rubbed her tummy, looking at the tray of food on the table. Half an hour, Ms. Grace had said.
Valerie made her way to the table, pulled the chair back and sat down on it. She wet her hand with little water from the plastic bottle.
As she ate, Valerie made up her mind, she was going to have to do everything in her power to convince this Mr. Okeys to hire her. 3 months pay, that was all she needed. Then she’ll be gone for good.
As delicious as the food was, Valerie forgot it’s taste as soon as Ms. Grace showed up to take her to the master’s library.
The master’s library was a well furnished office, stock full with books. Valerie had never seen so much books in one place before.
The table was also covered with books, save for a small space she assumed was used for writing.
The furnishing was ancient, but of grand design. The curtains, thick and heavy with gold embroidery, were made from very fine velvet green material. The electric lamp holders stuck to the ceiling like four rose flowers held together at the stem. The gold light emanating from each flower totally illuminated the room.
Valerie never thought a house, deep in the jungle could have electricity. All the same, it was a welcome development.
She moved towards the first shelf and began to look through the titles.
“The law of attractions. The human life in the eyes of science. Astrology. Wow, all science titles”.
“I see you’ve taken a liking to my collection”.
Valerie spun around, sharply, in the direction of the open door. Mr. Okis stood there in a purple night robe. The belts were tied around his waist. She could make out rippling muscle lying beneath the satin robe. His full lips were pink, and his full brows added beauty to his already handsome features. He wasn’t so much on the light side, neither was he dark.
The man she was looking at was breath-taking, nothing at all like the man she met at the river. Or was this a brother to the other?
“You’re suddenly speechless”, he said, stepping further into the room.
“Oh, sorry”, She flushed, feeling embarrassed as she looked away. “it’s just that you’re nothing like the dirty man I met at the river”.
His brows shot up. He stopped in his tracks, “dirty man?”
“Well, I… I don’t mean it in a bad way. It’s just that you were covered in dirt. I couldn’t even make out your face”.
“And now?” he asked, smirking.
“Uh… you look…”
“strikingly handsome?” a grin appeared on his lips, and his eyes teased her as she raised her brows to him. “I see you’re now dumbfounded”, he said, when she didn’t speak. “Don’t worry. I’ve been told I have that effect on women and gay men”.
“Yeah”, she found her tongue, “did they also tell you you’re very good at massaging your ego?” She had to put him in his place. What was he even feeling like? If her tongue was going to get her fired, even before she was employed, so be it. She had it up to her neck with men feeling too good about themselves. She wasn’t going to let him go on thinking she was stupid and gullible, all because he thought he commanded a certain response from her type.
“Massaging my ego? Really? Ms. Grace was right then. You have a mind of your own. Not to talk about being sharp-tongued and arrogant”.
“I see she actually reported me”.
“She did. Fortunately for you, you’re the type of employee I need right now. Not some dummy nodding to my every instruction, without thinking of better ways to execute the same task, effectively”,
“I’m glad you don’t deny people their freedom of expression. Frankly, I’ve had enough stifling in my life”.
His brows shot up, “you don’t look like it”.
“No. I don’t. I made up my mind never to be stifled again, or look like someone who can be intimidated. And since I don’t like it for myself, I wouldn’t do it to any other person”.
“Great! Sounds bold. Please sit”, he gestured toward the empty seat at the other side of the mahogany table. While she sat, he took his seat too, never taking his eyes off her.
“Tell me about you. Where are you from? And where were you going before the unfortunate event that befell you?”
The question caught her off guard. She never for once thought she needed to narrate her life history just to get a job.
“I’m sorry. I cannot discuss My personal life with you. I can only tell you I’m hardworking and that you’ll never regret hiring me in your service”.
“Hmmmm…” his eyes narrowed, brows creased, as he observed her some more The way her eyes darted to and fro told him he was making her uneasy. He spoke at last “I won’t pursue that line then. But answer me this, and honestly too. What is your name?”
“And doesn’t Valerie have a surname?” He frowned.
“Edgar”, she said, reluctantly, “Valerie Edgar”.
Okis remained quiet, observing her. His eyes gave away distrust and suspicion. But Valerie thought he should be grateful enough to know her first name. The second however, was her own way of serving him a cold dish, since he insisted on her identity.
“If …..”, he took a deep breath, “if I run a background check on Valerie Edgar, what kind of things will I find?”
His question came as a shock. Knowing her name was one thing. Carrying out a background check, was another.
“You’re going to carry out a background check on me?” She asked, bewildered.
“Yes. I want to be sure the person in my house is not a thief, cultist, prostitute, witch, pocket picker, murderer. You name them”.
“You suspect I am not as innocent as I look”, she said, rather than ask.
“True. Let’s start with you giving me a false name. I sensed your hesitation and when I looked you straight in the eye, you flinched. I have studied human emotions and expressions since as far back as I can remember. I know when a lie is being told”,
“Phew!” Valerie sighed. A light chuckle followed. She rubbed her chin, closed her eyes briefly, then opened them again. “Ok. You’re right. I lied. My real name and surname, is Valerie Ete, and depending on what you investigate about me, you will find something not good. If the police start to look for me, they have a good reason to. And if they catch me, I wouldn’t feel any remorse. I did what I had to do with two things in mind. Defense and revenge”.
“Revenge”, Okis shifted in his chair, “sounds deep. I don’t care what you’ve done, I only care to know why defense and revenge was necessary. Care to share?”
Valerie sighed, throwing her weight against the back rest. Memories came flooding back, starting with the death of her parents, the inhumane treatment in the hands of her uncle and aunty. The death of her brother. The rapes, beatings, and days spent with little food. She was so far in thought, she didn’t realize tears had started to trickle down her cheeks. The high-rise and fall of her chest was a sign of deep sigh.
“You don’t need to say anything, if you don’t feel like it”, Okis said at last, “I didn’t mean to remind you of whatever horrible experience you may have gome through”.
Valerie wiped her tears off with the sleeves of her nightie, then sat up straight. “I never intended to make a mess of myself before you”, she swallowed, “it’s just that I’ve been through a lot, and I do not feel like talking about it. Not yet”.
Okis nodded, “sure”, he moved then to sit up, “my name is Okis. This is my home. Has been for a very, very long time. You will assist Ms. Grace in running the house. I’ll pay you 15 thousand naira every month. You can keep it in your savings, as you’ll be fed and clothed here.
“Wow!” Valerie wiped her eyes clean some more, “that’s more than I could ever ask for”, she looked really grateful.
The relief in her eyes made him feel good, but he still needed to give his condition.
“There is one thing, however, that I need you to promise me”,
Suspicion quickly replaced relief. What could he really want in exchange for his generosity? Sex? No way! Another man wouldn’t be allowed to have his way with her again. She could as well leave the mansion first thing in the morning.
“As long as you stay in this house, the secrets locked within these walls will reveal themselves to you. I only ask, that they remain a secret. No one outside the walls of this compound should hear about them. Can you keep a secret, Miss Valerie?”
There was something in his eyes that made her feel he was hoping her answer would be yes. And it was.
“Yes. I can”, she replied. He sighed.
“Then you’re welcome to my home. Ms. Grace will show you around the house tomorrow”.
“Okay”, she nodded, expecting him to say more. Of course, his expression looked like he wanted to say more. And he did, after what seemed like eternity.
“How old are you? I wouldn’t want to be arrested for child abuse”, he added, when her brows shot up, questioningly.
She smiled in understanding, “of course, I understand. I’m 21”.
He nodded. “It has been a long and stressful day. You should get some rest. Tomorrow is a new day”.
“Yes”, she got to her feet, “thank you for accepting me. I am really grateful”.
“I know you are”.
She twisted her lips, playfully, then headed out of the office.
Okis sighed, leaning back on the chair rest. How could he not have seen it before? And to think he almost labelled her a thief when he saw her trying to take his boat across the river. Who would have thought that the one person prophesied to come into his life was now here? In his house, as his employee?
The sadness that took over her expression when he asked about her past was the breaking of the ice. He saw through instantly and knew who she was, why she had gone through whatever hardship she experienced and why she was now in his house.
For decades, he had waited, hoping, praying and almost looking for her in every lady, young girl or woman, who came to the mansion seeking work or shelter.
None of the girls or ladies exuded Valerie’s qualities. Omo nearly tried though. From the moment he set eyes on her, he thought she was the one, hence he hired her to be little Ansa’s personal nanny.
But all she had done since arrival was try to seduce him. And when he found out who she really was, Okis was even more pissed. But he couldn’t get rid of her, neither was he entertaining her seduction. He warned her to desist from the act.
The good news though, Valerie had come, and in such a weird way too.
“Valerie”, he said her name, as his eyes rested on a small picture frame standing on the table, facing him. One hand caressed the frame. It was a picture of a woman. She looked really beautiful, even though she was dressed like an elite lady from the 50s.
“At last”, he said.
To be continued…
©Karo Oforofuo. July 2017. All rights reserved
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