A week later, the power outage proved to be the catalyst that led Umm Rumaysah to the balcony that Sunday evening. She had slept off after asr prayer on the rug in her room. Immediately the standing fan gave up, her overall hijab became damp of sweat as if on cue. She jumped to her feet, stretched and yawned, and walked over to the window. She drew the blue curtain, and looked outside. It was a little after five, so the sun was already waning. Three boys, probably in their sixth, fifth or eight years of life, were in a tire race. They were in short nickers, no shirts on, and were having the best time of their lives. Engrossed in the race, they held the motor tires with passion, determined to outrun each other. Umm Rumaysah, smiled, and felt nostalgic.
She remembered her two brothers in their childhood. How they would tell her she couldn’t join them and ask her to go to her friend and do ten-ten. It had been long since she last spoke to either of them. One was in Malaysia, the other in Australia.
In the bathroom, she rinsed her face and applied a little bit of powder and antimony. Something as trivial as powder made her heart race, for a second. She remembered the last time she dusted her caramel toned face with powder.
Abu Rumaysah had called that he would be coming home that night as his boss, the minister of finance, had some functions and events to attend in Ibadan that weekend. She had made sure that both her girls had slept early that night. She had stood in their room, by their bonks, and lulled them with songs till they slept. Umm Rumaysah had a beautiful voice, and her six-year old twin loved to hear her sing. She had spread the bright crimson bed sheet, perfumed the room, and put on her purple negligee. She rose at 12am to the beeping of her phone, realizing she had dozed off on the couch. She picked up her phone to find a message from Abu Rumaysah. He was sorry. He couldn’t make it. That was five months ago.
Now back in the room, she took a navel-length hijab of black over her fitting sweat shirt, and a white long skirt to match. On her phone wallpaper was a photo of her twins. She smiled. She missed them. They were on vacation at their grandparents’ in Ogbomoso.
This afternoon Umm Rumaysah at on a white plastic chair in her balcony. The house was a four flat, one story building. Her apartment was on the top floor, sharing the same stairway with another apartment occupied by an Ebira woman from Kogi state. The woman was a Christian. She traveled all the time that Umm Rumaysah thought she was just wasting her rent money. But a month ago, she came home for two days and when she left, her brother, whom she introduced to Umm Rumaysah when they ran to each other by the stairway as Ibrahim, had stayed behind.
Umm Rumaysah, walked over to Fatima’s apartment, to talk with Ibrahim who was on a stool, in the balcony, head buried in a book. He was reading There Was a Country; its cover of orange sun faced Umm Rumaysah, and matched the position of the sun towering over Oniyanrin that very moment.
“You sure like books, ehn?” She said walking towards the balcony railings.
Ibrahim smiled back in response. He was of average height and gentle disposition. He had seen twenty three years of life.
“So are you hearing from your sister, and when will she be back?”
Ibrahim explained that she was in Gabon for an academic research, and it would take her a while before she returned.
“Aren’t you in school?”
Yes, Ibrahim responded. He was in school, but the school was on strike.
“Achebe. Hmnn…” She averted her gaze. “I remembered arguing with one of my friends, Ngozi, in JSS3, that Soyinka was better. I never read Soyinka’s books. But I read that Okwonko story, erm, erm…”
“Things Fall Apart.”
“Yes, that one. I wish I can read it again.”
“Oh, I can borrow you. I have it.”
And before the same time on Sunday, she finished the book. She walked over and asked if he had any other book. He rushed inside and, in a jiffy, was out with No Longer at Ease. And before the same time on Monday, she completed the book.
Friday evening, two weeks after that Saturday, Ibrahim was in his usual corner, reading, when it dawned on him that he had not heard from Umm Rumaysah since two days ago when he lent her Americana. He was concerned: he wanted to see her.
So he walked over and knocked the door to her balcony.
She was standing there, her hands were on the railings, and she seemed lost in thoughts. Americana was on a stool next to a white plastic chair.
“I just wanted to see if you’re fine.” He said after formal greetings. He was standing close to the door.
“Thank you. I am. I have just been down a little.” She drew her overall hijab to her body, pushed the plastic chair towards him, and sat down on the stool.
“Are you hearing from your sister?”
“Yes, she called me today. She’s supposed to be there for a month more.”
“Hmnn. She must be enjoying her trip. Good for her.”
He smiled. “I don’t think so. She complains every time we speak. She says this and that, but no one is forcing her, abi? She’s the one who wants that life.”
“Ehn, ehn. You, what life do you want?”
“I just want to write. I want to be a renowned author.”
“In this country?”
“But you still have to be doing something else. You can’t live off writing only.”
“Some do. I want to be among those few people.”
Eleja tutu de… a woman, hawking fish, called on top of her voice. She was walking away from Umm Rumaysah’s view.
“And I wanted to buy fish o.”
“You want me to call her for you?
“No, don’t worry. I will make do with the meat I have in the fridge. After all, it’s only me.”
“I saw you at the mosque today after Jumuah.”
“You saw me? You came to the mosque or what? You’re Muslim?”
“Yes.” He laughed.
“But your sister is a Christian, how come?”
“Our mother was a Christian, she followed our mom. I followed our father.”
“Do you pray regularly?” +
He ducked his head. “Sometimes. I pray Jumuah though.”
Umm Rumaysah kept quiet for a while. Maybe she could do dawah to him. This way she would be getting back the reward she was missing from being absent at the central mosque’s weekly sisters halqa. She had stopped going because she felt unease when the women discussed sexuality. Or when some asked her if she was getting along with her co-wives who she had seen only a couple of times. Or when others asked her if she could talk to Abu Rumaysah to help their brothers get jobs.
Umm Rumaysah was the first wife of Abu Rumaysah. She married him when she was twenty five, and a fresh graduate. She worked for a few years but after the birth of Rumaysah, her first born, she became a housewife or a homemaker as she would prefer to describe her new occupation. Rumaysah was now eighteen years old and she was studying in the University of Carleton in Ottawa, Canada. Five years ago, a little after the birth of her twins, her husband married a second wife. He rented a house for the second wife in Lagos. Then, two harmattan ago, he married the third wife when he became special adviser to the minister of finance, and settled her in Wuse, Abuja.
At first, his one-week visits in a month to Umm Rumaysah declined to three days, then it began shrinking even more as the years went by. She received credit alerts weekly.
“Salat is very important. You should try to pray regularly. You hear? It’s good to pray.”
“I will give you a book on prayer. It should help you.”
The book worked on Ibrahim. He read that the divider between a believer and a disbeliever was salat. He read that the first good deeds to be assessed on the scale on the Day of Judgment would be a person’s salat. If they’re good, the rest would be easy. If they’re not, the person would be in trouble. He made sense of it. Islam had to reside not only in his heart but must be evident from his actions. The word Muslim, he read, meant a person who submitted, so he decided to submit his head on the floor in sujood at required times. He went over to thank Umm Rumaysah after asr.
Her face was bright today. She had on a black abayah and a navel length brown hijab. She was sitting on the plastic chair, resting her feet on the stool. She pushed the stool with her feet towards Ibrahim. Ibrahim, for the first time, noticed she wore socks. He had begun to think about her when alone. Her tallness. Her complexion and age. Her sad, but beautiful face.
To be continued tomorrow – in shaa Allah. In the meantime, please help feed children in poverty. Help Siddiqah Street Kitchen, and Allah will reward you. 😊
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