He woke up early, and only out of habit. Also out of habit, this one ingrained in him by his grandmother, he said a few short prayers after lying nearly twenty minutes to outline the plans for the day. Then he got up to brush his teeth and tidy up the bed.
Since power outage had occurred by eleven p.m. on the dot and the day was still relatively dark even at six-fifteen a.m., he grabbed the rechargeable lantern and torchlight as he made his way to the generator house.
He worked on it, cleaning up all the parts and changing the oil. Then he put it on just to test it. Satisfied that it was in good working condition, he took the two jerry cans for fuel and dumped them in the boot of the van before returning to the house to have his bath.
With the intention to fill the jerry cans and grab some breakfast before heading over to the building materials store, he made his way into town somewhere around eight-thirty.
As he cut into the NNPC Mega Filling Station, he caught sight of the large sign post: A Slice Of Heaven. Intrigued by the name, he studied the front store on the bungalow building, making the decision to check it out once he was done at the station.
It turned out to be a pastry store. Or maybe a fast food restaurant which served pastries, Saz considered, as he made his way towards the counter that was a display glass below. The lady behind it unabashedly studied him, a carefully polite smile on her face.
“Good morning,” she said, using English instead of the common Igbo language. “What can I help you with?”
She was petite and pretty, also married given the dual rings on her finger, so it was hands-off for him. Not that she was particularly the type he wanted his hands on.
“Good morning. Do you serve food here, or just pastries?”
“The only food item we serve is moin-moin, and that will be ready around ten. Fried meat is usually available in the afternoons and evenings.” Her polite smile brightened into friendly. “But you can try our sausage rolls and mini chocolate cakes. They’re very tasty. Everything here is tasty.”
“They do look tasty,” Saz agreed, pushing back to study the tempting display below. “But I am not particularly a pastry person. What I need is a nice eatery to grab some breakfast before I get to work. Can you make a recommendation?”
“If it’s breakfast you’re after, then you are in luck because we are serving sandwiches this morning. It’s not a regular on the menu, but we switch things up every now and then.” She threw a glance behind her, and then looked back at him, beaming that smile. “If you will just give us a few minutes, it will be ready soon.”
Saz approved of the technique not to lose an available customer. Still, he wanted something other than sandwiches. “Not this morning. But I promise to give the sandwiches a trial another time they are on the menu.”
The door behind the counter swung open just as he finished, and she strode in, her hands holding a tray full of tasty looking sandwiches.
She saw him and flashed her friendly smile. “Well, hello. You’re here just on time to tell me what you think of this.”
Since she had the habit of speaking like they were old friends, or even present ones, Saz’s mouth quirked with a smile when he replied, “Were you expecting me then?”
“Do you know each other?” The counter attendant asked, her choice of language switching up again, clearly realising he was one of them.
“We do now, don’t we?” Anya shot him a grin as she took a triangular cut sandwich, set it on a saucer and pushed it to him. “On the house. Tell me what you think.”
Saz took the sandwich, his eyes holding her smiling ones, he took a bite. Then another bite because it was darn good.
“Amazing,” he said, finished it off and took the paper napkin she held out. “Thank you. I think I will have a couple of them and a drink.”
“I thought you wanted something other than sandwiches,” the counter attendant said.
Anya laughed at the grumble. “The customer has changed his mind, Nke. And he should after having a taste of our amazing sandwiches. Serve him, and let him a mini chocolate cake on the house.”
“He’s having a lot of things on the house,” Nke muttered, but went about serving him, adding a tempting looking chocolate cake cup to his tray. “Will you be taking a drink or water?”
“Malt drink.” Saz named his preference. “Thank you, Nke.”
“It’s Nkechi to you.” But there was a smile when she set the tray in front of him. “That’s one thousand fifty.”
Saz made the payment and took his change. “So, how about that eatery recommendation for when I want lunch?”
“Don’t you cook at all at home?” Nkechi asked him, a small frown knotting her forehead.
Amused, Saz winked. “Rarely.”
“Hmm,” Nkechi groused.
“Let the man be, Nke,” Anya chided, chuckling. “There area couple of good places to eat, but I always say the Food Is Ready place right after General Hospital is the best. You will get an assorted array of soups and the tastiest too.”
“I’ll be sure to try it out then. Thanks.”
Anya nodded. “You’re welcome. How about you take a table and enjoy your breakfast?”
“Only if you will keep me company a few minutes.”
It didn’t surprise him that Nkechi made a noise in her throat. The petite lady obviously didn’t trust him. Or perhaps she didn’t trust any man around her boss. Or, they were probably co-workers since there wasn’t any act of deference.
“I still have work to do in the kitchen and customers to attend to when I’m done,” Anya declined his offer with a smile.
Saz shrugged, picked a sandwich and took a bite. “Then I will eat here at the counter.”
“You can’t eat here. We attend to customers here, and have two coming up right now,” Nkechi said firmly. “Take a table; that’s why we have them. If Anya has no wish to sit a few minutes with you, then so be it. Indulging the whims of customers is not one of our duties.”
“But asking Anya to keep me company a few minutes is not a whim,” Saz returned, amused. “We are obviously old friends, and I want to catch up.”
“Fine. Go sit with your old friend, Anya.” Nkechi gave her a nudge, then aimed a smile at the young men who’d stopped in front of her. “Good morning. What can I offer you?”
While orders were made, Anya took his tray and swept around to walk him to a table. “So, we are old friends, are we?”
Saz stared at the teasing twinkle in her eyes. “I figured we have to be since you knew my…the name I once used.” He gestured to the tray, when she shook her head, he took another sandwich. “These are really great. Tell me then, how do we know each other? I’m definitely older than you, so we couldn’t have been classmates.”
“No, we were not. We weren’t even in the same school. As a matter of fact, I was in junior secondary school in a girls’ school while you were a senior student in a boys’ school.”
“I guess that should be about right.” He took a sip of his drink, studying her. “If not through school, how do we know each other? Believe me, I’m not trying to be rude. I sincerely can’t recollect who you are.”
“You shouldn’t, as we don’t know each other.” At his arched stare, Anya chuckled. “I knew you…Well, to put it better, I used to see you and stare at you, a little girl having her first crush.”
“Aha.” Her uninhibited way intrigued him. “I was your first crush then.”
“You were. My poor heart used to scramble about in my chest whenever I saw you. And whenever you threw an absent glance my way, I would sigh so softly. And longingly too. Longing for you to stop and say a word to me.”
Her smile was teasing and good-natured, but the dimpled curve of her unpainted mouth tempted him. It shocked Saz that he thought of leaning over to kiss her.
“But I never said a word to you?” To distract himself from the odd temptation, he busied himself unwrapping the cake.
“Not once. But I didn’t really expect you to as you were out of my league.” When he looked at her, Anya shrugged. “I mean, you were older than I was. I think you must have been about seventeen or eighteen, while I was thirteen. Thirteen when I last saw you.”
“I wish I’d noticed you.” He hadn’t noticed much of anything but his personal misery in those days, Saz thought. “I wish I’d stopped one day to say hello to a beautiful young girl.”
“Ah, my thirteen year old self thanks you for the compliment, but I was a little gangly at the time.”
“Well, you’re not gangly anymore,” Saz said, his gaze lingering once more on her lips before he lowered it and grabbed the paper napkin. “I’m sorry I was negligent in my youth. I guess my mind had plenty to distract it those days.”
“The mind always has plenty to distract it,” she said softly, and then reached for the tray. “Thank you for stopping at A Slice Of Heaven. We hope to see you again.”
“Is it yours?”
“The shop? Yes, it’s mine.” She lifted to her feet. “I’ll see you around, Saz.”
“Thanks for a good breakfast, Anya.” Because he was tempted to linger, Saz rose, tossed a wave at Nkechi behind the counter, and headed for the exit.
The mind might always have a lot to distract it, but he had a goal and needed to stay focused on it.
Keeping that goal uppermost in his mind, he drove straight to the build materials store close to the town’s old post office. He expected a medium-sized shop, but the place was bigger now, although it looked half-empty.
Eze Morka was there to meet him, and Saz was happy to see his old friend. They’d reconnected when he’d come for his father’s burial, and Ifeanyi had called to inform him that he’d been the one overseeing things for her before she closed down the store.
“Hey, man.” They exchanged a warm embrace, and Saz took the seat Eze gestured to. “So glad to see you. How’s the wife and kid?”
“They’re both great.” The affectionate beam of a friend on his face, Eze took the seat opposite the cashier desk. “Gosh, it’s good to see you, Saz. How was the trip down from Benin?”
“Good.” He cast a look around. “Place is bigger than I remember.”
“Yeah, your father leased the store after his when the tailor who used to rent it moved. Then he broke down the walls and had both stores merged. Now, it’s the biggest building materials store in town.”
“Half-empty too,” Saz murmured.
“Well, your sister barred any restocking unless you gave the go ahead. Now you’re back for good, the store will be again what it used to be.”
It was pointless to point out it was his half-sister, for Eze knew that. But he needed to clarify the misconception of his reason for being there. “I’m not back for good, Eze. I can never again live in this town.”
“Then how…” Eze cut himself off. “Oh, here comes Ekezie and Lucy, the store manager and sales attendant. I notified them of your coming, so you can meet with them and abreast yourself with the situation of the store.”
Saz rose to be formally introduced to his father’s staff, and went into a meeting with them after Eze excused himself to attend to his own affairs.
The old man had a sweet tooth, so Anya never failed to bring him sweets from the shop when she visited. And she visited at the very least twice a week.
“Is it my eyes, or are you growing more handsome these days, Nna-Oyibo,” she teased as she joined him on the veranda where he was seated on his favourite cane lounge chair.
Grey eyebrows wiggling in mischief, Okechukwu Akalue shot a grin. “Of course, I am. A good looking man never grows old, have you never heard that saying?”
Anya chuckled. “I never heard that one. But I’m glad to see you looking well and healthy. I brought you all your favourites.” She handed over the polythene bag. “See that Ogene does not catch you while you eat them. By the way, where is she?”
“I am here, and have caught you two.” Ogene, as she is called by all, came out of the house and shot a reproving glare at Anya. “Why do you indulge him when you know he’s too old for sweets?”
“If I’m too old, what then does it matter if I eat sweets or not, as death comes anyway?” Nna-Oyibo retorted before Anya could respond. “And why do you worry when I don’t have diabetes or any of these old-age diseases troubling me?”
“You may not have any now, but if you continue to stuff those cakes into your mouth, you surely will. Mark my words. Here’s your tumbler of palm wine.” Ogene set the sturdy glass cup on a stool. “Another thing you should consider giving up, but you won’t listen to me.”
“Tell me now how palm wine is dangerous to the health.” Nna-Oyibo demanded, his gaze on Anya. “My father and his father before him drank palm wine until they breathed their last. In short, it’s said of my grandfather that he had his favourite keg of palm wine on the night he peacefully passed on in his sleep.”
“Of course he did. And having over-indulged, death came quicker.”
“Bah! He died at ninety-seven, how quick was death at that age?”
“Well, maybe he could have lived a year longer, or two. But over-indulgence did not permit it.”
Nna-Oyibo snorted. “Who wants to live longer at ninety-seven?”
“People who understand the value of life,” Ogene retorted. Then she shot a quietly laughing Anya a glare. “You encourage him and then do nothing but laugh when I complain. When he has one of his stomach upsets, I’ll be sure to call you to look after him while he whines.”
“I most definitely don’t whine.” Nna-Oyibo glared at her. “Go get Anya a glass of palm wine. She will want to have a taste. And hurry up with dinner. I want to eat first before feasting on the rest of my snacks.”
“I will go get the palm wine myself.” Wanting to distract them from their comical argument, Anya shifted the topic. “Is that ukpo-oka I smell in the air, Ogene?”
“Yes, it is. You must have some, and take home to your mother.
“I’m greedy enough to say yes to you,” Anya said as she followed her into the house.
She returned a few minutes later with a cup of palm wine and a plate of cooked corn. “She said you should cleanse your internal organs with this.”
“My internal organs don’t require cleansing. That woman is a pain on my old butt.” Still, Nna-Oyibo took a corn cub from the plate and gestured for her to do the same. “How’s your mother and Ukamaka?”
“They are well. Mama is thinking of travelling to Lagos to see Obiajulu by month end.”
“Hope all is well with him and his family.”
“They are well. Obi only invited her for a visit. I think she’s reluctant to go though as she hates long road trips.”
“Then Obi should buy her a ticket, so she can take a flight from Asaba. It’s not as if he can’t afford it.”
“Nna-Oyibo, but you know how Mama is. She’s terrified of flying, and has forbidden Obi, or anyone, to speak of it ever again.” Anya rolled her eyes. “I think I will call Obi to be patient until Ukamaka goes on holiday, so they can travel together. That will make it easier on her.”
“You do that. She will definitely feel better having a companion along.” Setting back the emptied corn cub, Nna-Oyibo took the tumbler of palm wine. “By the way, did you hear Isichei’s son is back in town?”
Amused because the old man liked a good gossip, Anya teased, “I see you’re itching to share some gossip.”
“Hush, child, and don’t speak abomination. A man never gossips. He talks and discusses, that’s all.”
“Is that so? So, what about Isichei’s son do you want to discuss?”
“You’re a mischief maker, you.” Himself an even bigger mischief maker, Nna-Oyibo shot her wink. “They say he returned yesterday, and today he was at the building materials store, and had a meeting with his late father’s staff.”
“They didn’t tell you the part that he stopped at the shop to have breakfast?”
“He was at the shop? I wonder how I missed on hearing about that.”
“Your discussion on the matter wasn’t all encompassing then,” Anya said, and laughed at his mock glare. “If you must know, I saw him yesterday evening when he was just arriving. We said hello, and this morning he came to the shop.”
“Well, imagine that. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Close to seventeen years before he came home for his father’s burial. It is good he’s back again, as he’s his father’s only son. The only son that’s left.”
There had been another, Anya recalled. But he had died a few years back.
“So, how is he these days? What’s his name again–Ifechukwude, right?”
“It’s Saz these days. And that’s short for Osaze.”
“He answers to his mother’s given name now?” Nna-Oyibo frowned.
Anya shrugged. “So it appears. He’s fine. All grown up, like most of us,” she grinned. “He looks a lot more like his father now.” Although he was more handsome, Anya thought.
“He always was his father’s spitting image. There was never any doubt whose son he was.” Nna-Oyibo cast her a sidelong glance. “They say he’s not yet married.”
Anya picked up her cup of palm wine. “Is that so?”
“Yes. Do you think he’s looking for a wife?”
“I don’t know.” She slowly took a sip. “Maybe you should wait to hear the discussion on that.”
“Hush with you.” But he laughed with her. Then added when they stopped laughing. “I think you should be looking for a husband.”
“And I think it’s time I start heading home.” She set down her cup. “I will go tell Ogene I’m off, and get the ukpo-oka from her.”
Nna-Oyibo reached for her hand. “There’s a man out there for you, Anya.”
“Is there? Well, let me see. Abua was in the shop the other day and he once again declared his unending affections. Is he maybe the man you speak of?”
“Bah! Forget that old rascal,” Nna-Oyibo dismissed with a loud snort. “I am serious, Anya. There is a man out there for you.”
“And you think that man is Saz Isichei? Because it is talk of him that brought this on.”
“It is talk of him that reminded me, but it is not of him I am speaking.” Nna-Oyibo gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “Why don’t you give Peter a chance? That young man has true affections for you.”
“Maybe he does, Nna-Oyibo. But I am not thinking of a man now.”
Her mind quickly called her a liar because since yesterday, she’d been thinking of Saz Isichei. And she thought of him now. Thought of his studying dark eyes, on his very handsome face.