When they met, she was six and he was eight. He peered at her from behind his father, instantly ashamed at how he must looked to the chubby girl in her bright white dress and matching sandals with its little bow on the side. He wore one of the two shirts he owned, the other one being his thread bare school uniform that his older brother had passed down to him. He avoided her eyes, though he felt the intensity of her stare the whole time he and his father paid their annual visit to her father in the big house on the hill.
She liked to go on walks around the village during which she would stop to greet the old people who could not make it to her father's house. By now, she was ten. Sometimes, she brought gifts for these old people. She always stopped at his house on her way. It never made sense because his father would have gone to see her father but she stopped anyway. And then, he would be asked by his father to walk back with her and whoever accompanied her; usually the maid.
On the way, they would talk. Or rather, she would. Her Igbo was pathetic and his English was disastrous but they laboured on in their comprehension of each other.
They both figured out that she was going to the government school back in the city and into the boarding house and he was going to join his older brother to learn a trade.
The first thing he gave her was a book. The bookstore owner who sold it to him told him that it was very interesting. it had been a while that he had been in school but something told him that she would like it. It was very big and heavy and he wrapped it in the best colourful paper that he could find. It was a book on European history. She squealed and gasped. He was so pleased with himself that year, that he walked right into a pile of dog excrement on his way home.
She gave him a mixed tape. He could play it as he plied his route in the city conducting for his brother who was now a driver.
His brother looked up when the shrill voice of a foreign female singer permeated the bus.
"wetin be dis?" he asked of Ogugwa.
With pride, he replied, "Nwabugo gave it to me. She made it and brought it to the village for me."
His older brother thus changed his mind about flinging it out of the window but he was not allowed to play it when customers were in the bus or when he, the older brother was at the wheel.
Ogugwa kept his tape amongst his prized possessions: his bible, his four shirts and his leather shoes for church.
He was fifteen.
"Nwabugo, dad wants you."
It was her older brother and he had been sent to find her. It was not hard. The village was not small and everyone knew that when she was there, there was only one other place besides her home she could be found. She was with Ogugwa, on his land.
His father had died and his one piece of land had been split between him and his older brother. It was to that piece of land that sat at the very top of the hill, with a view of the city in the distance that he would come and weep for his loss and she would come to sit with him in silence as he thought.
She was done with secondary school and had been told that she would be shipped abroad for her university. He now drove a bus. He was nineteen and she was seventeen.
They were both doing good. But she was afraid to leave him. He was very broken over his dad's death. He had always promised God that he would build a house for his father and step mother who had raised him when he was able. He felt death had cheated them, his father and him, out of the dream.
"Mama Emeka is still here. Emeka is still here," and then when he still would not raise his head, she added, "I am still here."
His head jerked up and he looked at her. Really looked at her. Really really looked at her.
Until her brother came.
"I will build our house here. By the time you come back, I will have my own buses and I will ply the Lagos routes. I will build our house and you will always have new shoes." he told her before she left, a year later.
He told her that as they stood on the land, not touching, just staring at the city in the distance.
That was the first time she allowed him in her bed. Nothing happened. He was too scared to touch her. It was not that it was his first time or hers, it was that it was her and it was him. So instead, she held him till he went to sleep, his head resting on her soft bosom. He really loved that.
"Where is my daughter?!!!" Saliva burst forth from the Chief's mouth as he grabbed Ogugwa by the shirt. Ogugwa could barely see the man's anger as his eyes were near swollen shut but he could feel the hate. Things had changed, and very drastically. She had run away. But she had not come to him. Ogugwa did not know where she was and he could not go out and find her because he was holed up in the room with the police who had under the chief's directives arrested him for kidnapping and tried to beat a confession out of him.
It did not matter to the Chief that the Uzochi line plied all the routes from the east to the west and to some parts of the north. In seven years, without stealing or visiting a witch doctor, he and his brother had slaved to build their transport network. He, Ogugwa had even travelled outside of the country to Ghana, by air. He had built Nwabugo the house he promised and she had come back to him but that did not matter. He remained to the Chief, Uzochi's son, son of the palmwine tapper.
She would not marry Ikechukwu the Senate president's son. Even when her father had locked her inside the house, she had somehow managed to escape.
Ogugwa could barely think. He had thought he had lost her when he read of the engagement. Now, she was missing.
"I will speak to him." Peter said "Just rest."
Nwabugo nodded and pressed her cheek against her son's head and bid her brother good bye. Ogugwa sat beside his wife and son and put his arm around them.
"Don't worry, he will come around. No true father will disown his only daughter."
She did not reply because she was interrupted by her mother-inlaw's entrance. Mama Emeka came in dancing and smelling of old wrapper. Behind her was her son, Ogugwa's brother and his wife, Beatrice.
"His name is Uzochi" Nwanbugo whispered. Tears sprang to Mama Emeka's eyes.
"Yes, that is good. See his mouth is like his grandfather's. You are going to be feeding this one non stop."
It was Uzochi who brought them back together. It was Uzochi who chased his football out of the compound and into the road and was run over by his grandfather's peugeot station wagon. It was his grandfather who held his frail body as the little boy fought for his life. He nearly lost it too.
It was in the house on the hill, the house that Ogugwa had built for Nwabugo that the reconciliation was held. It was in the house on that land that the story would end.
Because when they met, she was six and he was eight. When they left, she was seventy two and he was seventy four. And as usual, she sat on the balcony attached to her room at the back of the house so she could catch the evening breeze, seperated from the noise and drama of grandchildren, fretting daughters-inlaw and sons-inlaw. When he found her, he thought she was asleep. It was when he pulled on her ear like he always did that he knew she had left him. For a good five minutes, he just stared at her peaceful form frozen in time.
Then without saying a word, he climbed on the day bed with her and rested his head where it seemed like he always had.
There was no heartbeat to lull him to sleep. No rise and fall of her chest to comfort him. But he begged her to wait and not cross over yet so he could come with her.
It was Uzochi who found them. Like his grandfather, he knew just by looking at them that they were where they were meant to be.