Nostalgia hits me like fresh air in a commercial bus conveying four people to Minna from Lagos. First, it’s in the sound of Nupe pouring out of the radio in the bus as we set out of the city. Then, it’s in the voice of the driver singing along to the beats.
Back at the park, I had heard what sounded like Nupe between the driver and the two women who now sit with me in the backseat, but had chalked it down to homesickness. I was simply missing home and my ears were moulding sounds into the language of home, I told myself. And so when I realize I had been right all along, I am engulfed by a quiet sort of excitement. Still, I say nothing to join the conversation that ensues between the two women – who I will realize soon are sisters – and the driver. The younger of the two women has henna on her hands and feet, like me. But hers is more exquisite. Though without any form of makeup, her face looks like if I touch it, I will smear it.
She is teasing the driver about almost everything. He teases back. Teasing is a love language amongst people of my tribe, so I know they are flirting. It makes me smile to myself.
“Hey, won’t you buy palm oil for all your girlfriends in your primitive village? No? What of wara?”she asks him when we get to a road flanked by traders holding wares and beckoning on us to come buy.
“Haha! How come you know I’m from a primitive village? Is it because you’re from one, too? No wonder you recognize me! We know ourselves,” he says.
She laughs with all her mouth and then says, “Lord forbid. We from the civilized parts of Niger State usually spot people who aren’t up-to par with us. And look how you ignored what I said about your girlfriends. You have so many of them. Tueh. Lord forbid”.
He laughs and shakes his head. By now he has slowed down a bit in case we want to buy anything from the traders beside the road.
“You are the one with plenty boyfriends. A beautiful woman with a sharp tongue. What’s to be expected?”
For the first time, she’s speechless. When I look at her, she’s grinning so wide. When she gets her wits back, she says, “I bet you like your women that way.”
A trader presses his body to the car window. He says to her, “Won’t you buy anything for your husband?”
“I don’t have a husband but perhaps this driver here will marry me. But then he’s from a village. Tsk. He won’t do.” There is laughter all around.
I wonder silently where she is from. Her Nupe sounds a bit different from mine and the driver’s; she has a weird but not unfamiliar accent.
When we drive past the busy road and emerge on a free one, she asks him, “Where are you from, anyway?”
“I won’t tell you,” he says.
“Well that just confirms the fact that you are from an uncivilized village. You are ashamed,” she says. He laughs heartily. They go back and forth for a bit but still he doesn’t tell her where he’s from. After a while, I say to the woman, “He’s from Bida.”
Surprised, he turns to me briefly before focusing back on the road. Then he laughs. He laughs a lot, this man.
“What part of Bida are you from?” he asks me. I should ask why he thinks I’m from there in the first place, but he knows in the same way that I found him out: the accent.
My phone rings. It’s my father. I answer it and we talk, I tell him where we are, we chat for a bit before hanging up.
“You are the first daughter?” the driver asks me. I am surprised.
“How do you know?”
“Nupe fathers treat their first daughters like their best friends,” he says. I laugh because he is right.
After 6 hours on the road, we pause the journey to eat. As we all come down from the bus, he tells her, “Please don’t eat too much. If you do and you get heavy, my car will refuse to start because you will sink it down.”
“Look who’s talking! Who’s fatter between me and you? Hmmn?” she says.
They laugh and go to eat together. I watch to see whether they will exchange phone numbers. They don’t. But I am rooting for this love story, so I am certain they will.
When we resume the journey, the teasing continues until when two hours later, we draw nearer to the woman’s hometown. It’s two hours before Minna, where I’m headed. When finally we arrive there and she and her sister alight, he alights too.
He helps her bring down her bags, all the while teasing her and laughing. When all her bags are with her, she says to him coyly, “Bush man, if I forget anything in your bus, call me oh!” and I marvel at this way of saying please ask for my phone number.
He laughs, “Bush girl, how am I to call you? Through the eyes or the heart?”
She says, “I don’t know. Just call me if I forget anything.” She looks like she’s walking away, but really, she’s only dragging her feet in the same place, that soft smile never leaving her face.
He says goodbye and she says it back. But neither of them walk away.
He says goodbye again and this time moves to enter the car, she says it back and this time makes to walk away. They turn back to look at each other again and begin another round of teasing. My heart soars. Finally they’ll exchange phone numbers. They repeat the cycle two more times, but they don’t collect numbers even though she tries in subtle words, in more ways than one to get him to ask.
The driver finally gets back into the car, and the woman walks away. It isn’t until he starts the car that I lose all hope.
He likes her. It was in his eyes and in the frequency of his laughter. It’s in how he delayed starting the car, looking at her hijab-clad figure fading into the distance through the side mirror.
He looks at me through the rearview mirror and sees that I’m judging him. He says without turning to look at me, “She’s come to her hometown for her wedding ceremony. She’s getting married to her boyfriend.”
My mouth falls open. “How do you know that?”
“She and her sister said so at the park, before you arrived,” he said.
And suddenly, it makes sense: the exquisite henna designs on her hands stretching to her elbows, and on her feet, the almost impossible smoothness of her face that could only have come from persistent use of dilka during the beauty ritual that sometimes starts months before one’s wedding.
We continue the journey in silence, me wondering what could have been but for the intrusion of fate; him, perhaps mourning. But it is of that young woman that I find myself thinking, on nights when I’m unable to sleep.