Saz saw her motorbike before he saw her striding out of the yard opposite his father’s, her gaze was swept down as if she was deep in thought.
She only wore trousers, he thought, cutting off the engine right in front of the gate to watch her. It probably was because it made it easier riding a bike. Whatever the reason, she had a body that made her look like effortlessly sexy in them.
She made him think of sex, of wild nights and unending passion each time he saw her. He would peel off the loose fitted top, run his hands along her curves until he found the locks to the patched green trousers, then he would slid it down her long, shapely legs, taking his time to plant kisses, to savour the taste of her skin.
Soft, warm, vibrating from his strokes…
He halted the imagery and swallowed in case he’d started drooling. He wanted sex with her, but like he’d never wanted it with anyone before. And why?
Because the answer was a mystery and he didn’t have time at the moment to unravel it, he shook off the puzzle and pealed out a whistle, his mouth curving with a smile when she threw a startled glance up before meeting his gaze.
Her smile came at once, shaping her mouth. Her lips fascinated him. The hot plump bottom, the bow-dipped top, their always unpainted form. He thought of kisses every time he stared at them. Not chaste kisses, but hungry, deep, consuming kisses.
Enough, he told himself and tried to relax the clenching that went beyond the walls of his stomach. He couldn’t be acting like a lustful teenager desperate for his first sexual encounter.
“Evening, Saz.” She strode past her motorbike, but stopped a few steps from his van. “I forgot your family home is in this quarters. Just getting back from the store?”
“Yes.” Something wasn’t right, the smile didn’t reach her eyes this time. He got down and covered the short distance between them. “But this is not your quarters, is it?”
“No. Came here to handle some personal business.”
“What kind of personal business?”
Surprise flickered into her eyes at the question. “Why do you ask, curious it might have to do with a man?”
“And if it does, so what?” Saz retorted with a thrum of impatience. “Your eyes look worried…Well, not worried, but sad. Something’s wrong and I want to know what it is.”
“My eyes look sad?” Anya stared at him.
He looked serious. He wasn’t playing a game, or casually asking just to be polite. There was interest, and care, in his own eyes.
It surprised her that he would be so kind, then she realised she didn’t know him well. She realised she would like to know him. She would like him to know her.
No time to ponder on her reason for this, she told herself, gathering her thoughts to answer his question.
“It has to do with your neighbours. Or, they could be relatives, I don’t know.” She made a mental note to ask Nna-Oyibo about it. “Iloba Nwadialor and his wife, they live there with their three children and Iloba’s nephew. I came to speak with Okwudili–his wife–about the nephew.”
Watching his reaction, and noting the way his eyes flared with understanding, and then with annoyance and flickers of concern, she told him about Okey and his situation in that home.
“I’ve caught sight of the children, coming and going from the yard, but I haven’t paid attention.” There was a soft edge of self-blame in his voice. “So, he’s being maltreated. They’ve made him the servant of the home.”
“That’s his plight. They don’t overdo it or make it look like they’re punishing him. Okwudili is smart, but he earns his keep.”
“Nine and has to earn his keep.” Fury thrummed in his voice, simmered in his eyes. “And of course, they don’t want to lose their unpaid worker.”
“Not unless a family member steps in and decides to take Okey.” Anya shook her head at his inquiring glance. “No one is interested. They’ve all dumped the responsibility on Iloba’s shoulders and no one will interfere as none is interested in taking him.”
“You are interested,” Saz observed, watching her and seeing it. “You want to take him.”
“I’ve been offering to do so for more than a year now, but I’ve got no right as a non-relative. It’s the way things work here,” she added with a soft sigh. “Families are responsible for their own, and unless they invite you in, you are supposed to stay out of private affairs.”
“Idiotic traditions which should be obliterated,” Saz hissed. “This town is plagued with them.”
“I expect every town, every community of people have their own traditions and culture.”
Her light, conciliatory tone made him draw a breath to rein in his temper. It wasn’t her fault. She was the one doing something to help the boy. The only one…so far.
“You feel like you’ve failed him. It’s why you’re sad, isn’t it?”
She didn’t look so surprise this time, and her quick shimmered faintly in her eyes. “You’re quite observant, aren’t you, Saz?”
“What is plain is easy to see.”
“Is that one of your personal maxims?”
He shook his head. “No, my grandmother’s. She had a lot of them, and they were all wise.”
“The old are often wise, years of experience and all that.” She studied him a few seconds, then asked softly, “You grew up with her after you left here, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” But he didn’t want to talk about himself. “You didn’t fail. You should know that. There’s no failure as far as you haven’t given up. And you haven’t, have you?”
“No, I haven’t. I won’t. If I can’t take him, I will always be there for him in other ways.” The sadness came back into her eyes. “That’s not much help as I can’t stop the troubles he has to go through…”
“It’s a big help, believe me. Someone who sees him, who talks to him, who cares for him, encourages him and comforts him. It’s a big help.”
“You understand his situation.”
“Yes.” Again, he didn’t want to talk about himself, certainly not about his past. “It’s getting late. You should go on home. Now I know, I will stop being a self-absorbed fool, and keep an eye on him. You won’t be watching over him alone anymore, Anya.”
“I don’t think you’re self-absorbed or a fool. I think you are observant, thoughtful and most likely kind. Thank you for the offer to watch out for him too.”
She was smiling and for the darnedest reason, he wanted to haul her against him and thoroughly kiss her.
He took a step back from her to stop the strong desire. “You don’t have to thank me. Go on, a nice young lady like yourself should be tucked home safe before dark.”
“So I’m a nice young lady?”
He grinned at the way she batted her lashes. “Maybe not so nice. A little naughty, maybe? Go out with me.”
It was her turn to take a step back, and she did, backing up while still smiling. “My answer’s still no. See you around, Saz.”
“You will see me, and you will go out with me.” He watched her climb on the bike. “Darn, I love the way you sit on that bike.”
She laughed. And that was what he intended. “Take care, Anya.”
“Take care, Saz.”
She threw him a wave and gunned into the street. If he was sitting behind her on that bike, he would wrap his arms around her waist and bury kisses in her neck.
Then they’d probably streak off the road and crash into a tree. Or, something else. Amused at his thoughts, Saz turned to stroll to the gate. He unlocked and dragged it open, and then stride back to the van.
Before he got in, he shot a glance at the house across the street. No one was outside, but he heard indistinct voices. He thought of the nine year old boy who’d gone to farm today, got back home to peel cassava and would make dinner and most likely do the dishes after dinner.
Hopefully after he’d eaten.
Hopefully he didn’t have to go to bed hungry.
His chest burned as memories swam forward. He shoved them down and got in the van. He would watch for the boy tomorrow. He was what was important now. Him, not his past.
He considered attending church only for two minutes before he chucked the idea. Instead, he went through his morning ritual of cleaning up the house and himself, and then stepped out on the terrace to sit and wait.
They came out of the house at ten past eight, twenty-something minutes after he’d been waiting. The man was somewhere in his mid-forties, bald headed…well, by choice, and dressed in trendy traditional attire.
He threw a glance in his direction, their gaze briefly locked. Saz considered throwing a greeting, but he looked away, so he was saved the trouble. The woman had a matching attire, and it didn’t hurt his eyes to stare longer at her than was necessary. The eyes and beautiful things were kin, after all, he mused.
She bustled the children into the back seat of the Volkswagen Audi, three of them. Two boys and a girl. All cute and healthy in their nice clothes. When she had them settled, she threw a glance to the house and gave a sharp call.
He had the indistinct sound, but not what she said. But he knew she’d called for someone, and it took less than thirty seconds for that someone to streak out of the house, parting their hands against an old, frayed and likely dirty pair of jeans.
The jeans didn’t make it to the ankles of the boy and clung too tight to his body. Not style, just under size. The T-shirt was only a slight improvement, loose enough to be called fitting and not as old or frayed.
The woman gave him instructions. Saz knew it was instructions she was ticking off on her gesturing fingers, and without doubt in a hard, warning tone. When she was done, she joined the others inside the car and they pulled out of the yard, and started on their way to church.
The boy turned and walked back into the house.
Saz waited a minute, two, three, then he stood and went inside. Another minute, he was crossing the street and strolling into the yard opposite his father’s house. It wasn’t his first time being inside the yard, but it looked nothing like what it used to be. For one thing, the old house had been renovated and the grounds floored with concrete.
He went through the side entranceway he knew led to the backyard, and as sure as he’d thought, the boy was right there, bent over a basin, washing clothes.
The rest of the family had gone off to church and left him at home to do the laundry. A sense of déjà vu pierced through as Saz paused and watched him.
Nine, Anya had said. He looked like he was tall for his age, slim, but not in an unhealthy way, handsome–if one could use that term for a child–and quite focused on his duty.
Not focused, Saz decided. Absent-minded. He cleared his throat, noted how he quickly jolted and then his eyes widened with surprise on seeing him. Surprise, not fear.
“Sorry, I walked in without knocking,” he said and offered a smile. “I live across the street. The duplex.”
“I know. I’ve seen you.” He stared at him for a moment, as if undecided what to make of his presence there. “Good morning, sir,” he greeted at length.
“Are you here to see Uncle?”
“No. I, actually, saw him…well, them, all of them when they left for church.” He walked forward, stopped two steps from where he sat on a stool. “It is church they are going to, right?”
“You don’t go to church with them?”
He nodded. “I do, but I didn’t today because I have to finish washing these clothes. I wasn’t able to wash them yesterday.”
Saz looked at the heap of adult and children clothes. “Didn’t you have work you were doing yesterday?”
“I did. But I still should have washed them and didn’t, so Aunty said I must this morning.”
“Do you always do the washing?”
“Not always. Sometimes, Aunty washes their own. I mean, I always have to wash mine.” He stared again at him. Then he lowered his head and resumed washing. “They will be back around eleven-thirty, if you want to see Uncle.”
“I don’t want to see Uncle. May I sit?” There was a bench beside him.
He shot him a glance, hesitated, and then nodded. “Do you want to wait for them? Because you will wait a long time. You can just go home since you live opposite us and come back later.”
“I meant it, Okey. I don’t want to see your uncle. Not today, at least.” But he would see him one day, and on this matter. “I’m Saz, by the way. That’s short for Osaze.”
“I’ve never heard anybody called Saz. I like it. It sounds like the name an actor would bear in a movie.” He grinned as he said this.
And Saz decided handsome wasn’t the adjective to describe him. He was pretty, like a girl. A boy with a pretty, slightly girlish face. A few years from now that face would lose its softness, it would toughen up, acquire the strength of manliness and the ladies would be after him.
“Thank you. I rather like it myself.” He gave a wink, to help him relax further. “We are cousins, you know.”
“I know we are related. I’ve heard Uncle say so. But I don’t understand how.”
He said things in a matter-of-fact manner, like he accepted whatever was even when he couldn’t understand or explain them.
He was growing up fast, becoming less of a child and more of a man. Of a grown-up. The realisation made Saz sad. It made him remember, and he remembered that acceptance did not always eliminate pain. Pain from wishful desires.
“Your great-grandfather–that is your Uncle Iloba’s grandfather–was my father’s elder brother. They shared the same mother not father, which explains our difference in surname.” He paused, made his calculation. “So, you’re my third cousin.”
“Third cousin.” He seemed to think about it. “That’s not too far away, right? I mean, I know there are people we say are our relatives, but we can’t even explain how we are related. We just say we are relatives because we come from the same clan. But that’s not us, am I right?”
“You’re very right, very smart too.” Saz grinned at him. “We’re close relatives, and I’m sorry I haven’t been here to see you.”
“To see me or see Uncle?”
“To see you. I came here to see you, Okey. You know Anya?”
“Yes. She’s…uh, an old friend of mine, and she told me about you.”
“What did she tell you about me?”
“How about I take over washing while you rinse and dry?”
His small jaw dropped open. “You want to wash our clothes?”
“I don’t particularly want to wash your uncle’s, aunty’s and the other children’s clothes, but since you have to wash them, I’m offering a helping hand as I’m here.” Saz said honestly, pulled the basin in front of him and picked a cloth.
He didn’t bother to check what it was, just started washing it. “Go on, start rinsing. Anyway, Anya only told me a few things about you. I’m sorry about your mum.”
“I didn’t really know her. But I sometimes wish I did. I sometimes wish she’s still alive.”
“I’m sure she wishes she’s still with you.” He dumped that cloth into the rinsing basin, took another. “How bad is it here? Don’t be afraid to tell me the truth. How are they treating you?”
Okey stared at the man watching him as his hands washed uncle’s black trousers. He didn’t really know him, even though they were close relatives. But he knew he and uncle didn’t get along. They never spoke to each other. Uncle said he was full of himself and had forgotten how to respect his elders. He said other things too, but Okey was certain they were all lies.
He didn’t know this man very well, but he was a friend of Aunty Anya, and he was helping him wash the clothes. That was reason enough to trust him, he thought.
“I don’t know how bad it is here, but I know there are days I wish I was not here,” he said truthfully, taking the clothes he’d rinsed to the clothes line to hang. “They don’t beat me much. At least, Uncle has stopped flogging me and Aunty only pulls my ears or slaps me on the back when I do something bad.”
“Something bad like what?”
“Like if I don’t fetch in water on time, or I break a plate or cup while washing the dishes. Or anything at all.” Okey shrugged. “It doesn’t pain me much, so I don’t mind. But it’s when she curses me that I feel bad.” She didn’t only curse him, she cursed his mother too.
“But Aunty Anya always tells me not to pay attention to the curses, because they are not true. So, I try not to.”
“What about food? Are you eating well?”
Okey grinned. “Aunty says I eat a lot. I don’t know if I do, but I’m kind of always hungry, even after I eat my portion.”
Saz started to ask if he never asked for a second helping and realised it was pointless to do so when he knew the answer. “Have you had breakfast?” he asked instead.
“No. We don’t eat until they come back from church.”
“Your cousins don’t eat before they go to church?”
“They eat bread usually. A few slices each. But it’s only them who eat before church.”
The other children would eat, but not him, and again he stated it in his matter-of-fact tone.
Anger boiled up. But since it wasn’t directed at the boy, Saz strapped it in and said, “Let’s hurry with this. I’m kind of hungry myself, so I will make us noodles and fried eggs. You do like noodles, don’t you? Or, would you prefer bread and fried eggs?”
“I really would love bread and fried eggs. That is, if you don’t mind.”
“Bread and eggs it will be then.”
“Thank you, Uncle Saz.”
The pure delight on his face made Saz glad he was there. It made him forget he was doing laundry he had no wish to do, and made him realise he had a responsibility to the boy.
The last thought did not make him comfortable, but the face of the boy as he chatted more easily now made him not shove it aside.