“Are you okay?’ He asked.
“Yes, I am. A little tired, maybe.”
“Have you had anything to eat today?”
I opened my mouth while my brain was still processing an answer; he looked away shaking his head.
“I was just asking. I know the answer to that question already.”
He knew me too well. I would skip meals whenever I was going to a gathering like this. I think eating increased my nervousness.
We were headed to the venue of a book club meeting. Some guy had tweeted about a book club that was starting up on the mainland, and I somehow stumbled upon the tweet and signed up. When I got the email welcoming me to the group, I actually was scared. Being extremely shy, I didn’t know how I would function in such a group. About half a dozen “what if” questions danced about in my head.
When I mentioned it to my best friend that I had signed up for this book club and he said he also did!
“Whoopee! At least, I’ll have company and won’t be alone.”
“Well… I won’t always be there you know.”
He couldn’t understand why I always hid myself behind this cloak of shyness.
I brought out some facial tissue from my bag and daintily dabbed at my face, hoping my makeup still looked fresh. He smiled at me with that big brotherly look in his eyes.
“You worry too much. You don’t need makeup. You’re beautiful just the way you are.”
A few minutes later, we got out of the taxi and he held my hand as we crossed the road. As we neared the entrance, my steps slowed and I gently squeezed his hand.
“I’m nervous, egbon.”
“Hey. Chill. I’m sure they’ll love you. People always love you. I don’t know why you worry.”
And so taking a deep breath, I forced my lips apart into my widest smile as we went in. They all turned as we came in and immediately, some of them shouted excitedly “Noka!”
“See? I told you.” My best friend whispered to me. The smile on my face this time was a real this time.
“Ahn ahn, when we did the introductions online, she kept telling us she was “big”, “plus-sized”, “fat”. She never ever told us she was this beautiful!”
That came from one jaunty young lad with a massive afro. I thought he looked like a younger version of Wole Soyinka with a splash of Denrele thrown in. Weird right? I know.
“Hi, I’m the Loud One. Come, sit beside me. I’ve really looked forward to meeting you.”
“Somebody is popular already…” My best friend teased as he took his seat beside me. I jabbed him with my elbow and he was about to “revenge” when a chubby young bespectacled man stood up and clapped his hands together drawing everyone’s attention to himself. The meeting was about to begin.
They say time flies when you’re having fun. The next couple of hours went past with the speed of light. I had never been in the same room with so many great young literary minds all at once. I laughed, talked, and laughed some more. Shyness and nervousness and even the hunger pangs, flew out of the window. I didn’t want the evening to end. It was such a lively discussion and I learnt a lot from all the contribution on the book picked for the month.
But again, as they say, all good things must come to an end. And so, the meeting was over just as quickly as it started after we had agreed on the next date for our meeting and picked the next book to read.
I could very well end my gist here. But it would be incomplete if I didn’t talk about him.
He was the last to come into the meeting. So he didn’t get to introduce himself till the end. He just sat quietly with his glasses perched on his nose, observing. At some point, I thought he was a spy from another book club. I tried to take in as much of his features as I could without him noticing I was staring. From the way his well-formed biceps strained through the sleeves of the striped T-shirt he wore, I thought, Okay, maybe not a spy, but I’m sure he works with the military or police.
A few times during my “appraisal” of this mystery man, his eyes met with mine. And he smiled. His lips didn’t part when he smiled. The small ‘v’ that crested his upper lip made it look like he had a dimple on it. He didn’t say much throughout the meeting.
Another fascinating thing was how his voice did not match his looks. One would expect a husky, gruff voice, but instead, it was soft and calming and…you know, like the voices of those guys that work the late night shifts at the radio station. Those ones with the dreamy, bedroom voices. Ehen! You get what I mean.
However, what caught my attention the most were his eyes. While the rest of his face remained emotionless, his eyes spoke volumes. The way they darted from one person to another…recording, noticing, describing, analyzing, deciphering, analyzing, assessing, appreciating… Each time our eyes met, it seemed like he was trying to tell me something. I smiled back and lowered my lashes over my eyes each time.
After the meeting, everybody went around shaking hands, exchanging numbers and talking about one thing or the other. I was still sitting on my chair, because the hunger pangs had returned with full force. He stood up and walked straight towards where I still sat. I looked around furtively for my best friend and spied him at the far corner of the room, talking with a couple of guys.
“Looking for your bodyguard? Don’t be scared. I don’t bite.” His eyes were smiling.
“He’s not my bodyguard he’s my…” I began, then changed my mind and held out my hand bravely. “I’m Ojonoka. Everyone calls me Noka. I didn’t quite catch your name earlier.”
“I am the Masked One.” He replied, straight-faced.
“What’s with you guys and nicknames here though? Do all writers use pseudonyms?”
“No. That is actually my name. The translation in Urhobo is a tongue twister.”
“Oh. I see.”
“I’d like to call you after today. I have a feeling we will find each other…interesting.” With that, he pushed his phone towards me and I punched in my numbers as if in a trance.
“I’ll call you.”
I nodded several times before an “Okay” managed to find its way out of my mouth. He took my hand in his large palm and lifted it, brushing his lips lightly against my knuckles, all the while keeping his eyes locked on mine.
‘Stay sweet, Lady Nectar. Till the winds of time bring the Masked One your way again.”
Then he turned on his heel and started walking away.
“Hmm! I saw that!” My best friend spoke into my ear as he sneaked up behind me. I jumped.
“It’s not what you think.”
“And what is it that you think I’m thinking?”
“Em…nothing.” I turned to see which way the Masked One had gone but he had disappeared out of sight.
“Let’s go get some food. I’m starving.” He pulled me to my feet and steered me towards the exit.
“Yes, please. Me too!’
As the waiter set the plate of steaming fried rice and smoked peri-peri chicken in front of me, all thoughts about masks, mystery and men were momentarily filed away to be revisited later.
I sat quietly in the back seat of the cab with my best friend. As the bright headlights of passing cars threw flashes of light on my face, I closed my eyes and smiled.
I think I’m really going to like this Mainland Book Café after all.
Originally published on Neker Nibs (Nov. 25)