Coal City Stories

It’s been one of those days. The kind of day that leaves me feeling undervalued, undermined, and feeling that I deserve better than what I’m getting from the tyrants who call themselves my employers. I’m wondering whether I’m actually cut out for the career path I chose, or whether I missed the call when it came to determining professions. I am scared of failing, scared of ending up as an also-ran, scared of letting down my family and myself.

I could end up choking to death on these depressing thoughts if I remain seated behind this office desk, so  I decide to take a walk to clear my head. Hands in pocket, earphones plugged, playlist swinging from John Mayer’s “Stop This Train” to The Script’s “Breakeven”, I look for a different perspective, a new distraction, something to save my mind from the drudgery that is paid employment.

“Okpa di oku. Okpa di oku!”

The call pierces through my earphones, and ultimately interrupts my thoughts. She is selling a meal which is a distant cousin of moin-moin though made from a different plant, and more filling. I stand and stare at her and my eyes meet hers. She walks in my direction, assuming my interest is in buying what she has to sell. A smile finds its way to my face as I inhale the steamy aroma of her stock. It reminds me of the city to which the meal is indigenous, of a phase in my life and of a girl named Oge.

I first ran into her three years ago at a students’ conference; one of those conferences where youths gathered for purposes other than the central theme. I needed the distraction; I was in my final semester and my project supervisor happened to be competing with the villain in Maleficient to see who was meaner so I took the trip to ease my mind. Then again, the host university was located in a city of which I knew nothing about except its popularity for coal and limestone and I wanted to find out more for
myself.

I had been drawn to her wit, and despite her attempts to ward me off, finding my overconfidence annoying, I found ways to bump into her for a better part of the three days the conference lasted. I was in a camera-happy moodand even when she did not want to, she ended up in my phone’s photo gallery. My stubbornness ultimately paid off, and by the time I made the return journey to school, my contact list had a new addition. The four-hour trip from coal country to Ancient sands had Oge’s image dominating my
thoughts, and while I faced the last lap of my undergraduate sojourn, I longed to see her again. There was something in those eyes that reminded me of Nse Ikpe Etim, there was the nose I wanted to rub with mine, and there was all the sarcasm I could not get enough of. As Fate would have it, we had a chance to choose the location for the next phase of our academic pursuit, in our quest to become lawyers. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity; I chose Coal City.

I got what I wished for, and while that branch of the Nigerian Law School was not the most conducive in terms of infrastructure, there was something to look forward to on weekends. My first official weekend in Coal City had coincided with Oge’s birthday, and I remember telling Clara, a friend whom I had accompanied for shopping at the city mall, to help take my purchases back to school, as I had something ‘urgent’ to attend to.

“If I don’t return by 8pm, something is wrong,”I told Clara.

I met with Oge at a secluded area of the city mall upon Clara’s exit, and she told me of how her birthday was shaping up to be a bore-fest. I took a ride with her on the mall’s roller coaster and gave her a treat, all too glad to save the day. I returned to the campus by 9pm that day, Clara and my other colleagues wearing
huge cloaks of worry on their faces. I was right; something was wrong. Oge was what had gone wrong with me.

More trips to the heart of the city on weekends followed, accompanied by long phone calls, but while I flashed all the signals, her heart refused to switch from red to green. I eventually poured out my feelings in black and white, but my application for admission into Oge’s emotional space was turned down. As is the usual reaction when a man’s love is unrequited, I withdrew, cutting off all forms of communication. This did not last long though. Just when I thought I had her out of my head, text messages with the words “I miss you” flowed in. I began to hope again, and laced my love-boots. In my opinion, there was still a chance of being Oge’s significant other.

My fondness for Oge began to reflect in my attitude to the city. The “okpa” began to taste better, especially when washed down with a 35cl bottle of Coca-cola. The city lights became brighter, the roads appeared smoother, I fell in love with music from Phyno, and places like Trans-Ekulu, Nike Lake and Independence.

Layout began to appeal to me. Heck, I even joined in fervent prayers when the governor of the state was away from the country, unable to perform his official duties due to a mysterious illness.

In spite of the long nights out however, red light never turned to green, and in time, I threw in the towel, channelling the energy to my academics. I was however civil enough to provide room for one last rendezvous; after my make-or-mar professional examinations, I delayed my journey home by a few days,
agreeing to spend time with Oge in one of the city’s half-decent guest houses. It was in one of those suites that I found out the reason why she had refused to grant a lease of her heart: someone was already in residence.

Twenty-months have passed since I last set my eyes on Oge. Communication is infrequent, but nothing, nothing beats physical contact. Technology can only do so much, and phone calls don’t give me the chance to stroke her hair. I miss her to bits, and the feeling is mutual, but circumstances are a lot different now, and wishes remain wishes.

Now I don’t plan to steal love away from anyone, but I am just saying that if Oge opened even one of her emotional windows, I would jump right in. I know her heart is someone else’s, but I wouldn’t mind being allotted just a corner of the room, with a little mat to lay on. I get curious;I want to find out just how her
brand of lipstick tastes, how flexible she is and how fast her pulse can get.

“Okpa di oku! Oga, i-nwe-ne?”

I look up. The woman’s eyes nurse hope that I will buy from her. I shake my head and smile, not because her okpa is inferior or not steamy enough, but because I fear that after eating, I just might be tempted to board a bus to Coal City, just to get a chance to rub my nose against Oge’s.

This first appeared on Kalahari Review.

Ifeanyi Jerry Chiemeke is a lawyer and freelance writer who lives in Lagos. A foodie and enthusiast of the Fine Arts as well, Jerry’s works have been featured on Brittlepaper and The Kalahari Review