Shade was happy to see me the next morning. Maybe I was more reliable than the average homeless person. It was nice to start out the day with her smile.
“You ever going to shave off that fuzz?” Shade asked. I could see her eyes on my chin. The mirror told me it added a few years to my looks, but I was getting used to it. Dolapo would have hated it. Strangely, that’s why I finally decided not to shave it. It reminded me she was gone, and I didn’t want to forget. I was worse off without her and my scraggly beard was proof.
“Someday,” I answered with a smile.
“It makes you look old.” Shade turned and started walking toward the kitchen. I followed, liking my beard a little less.
I went to work on last year’s financials. It took me all day to audit the financials and reconcile everything to the tax return. I questioned Shade about a single donation entry marked Charity Dinner. She produced a paper ledger with the handwritten names of all the donors and the amounts they gave. The Kitchen put on the dinner every February. It was the biggest fundraiser of the year. I tallied the donations and they mirrored the entry. It was a pretty successful event, generating a little over N3,500,000 in donations.
“I notice you don’t take a salary.” It struck me as odd. She spent seven days a week here and there was no disbursements to her name. In fact, there was no payroll at all.
“I don’t need the money,” Shade said nonchalantly.
“Independently wealthy?” I was grinning.
“I don’t know, Frank.” Shade dragged my fake name. “Am I?” We were still in the trade story for story mode. I wasn’t willing to give up mine and she was stubbornly holding on to hers as leverage.
“I’ll just make up a story then,” I said, tongue-in-cheek.
“Make it a good one.” Shade laughed and returned to her work. I liked her laugh. She didn’t laugh enough. Neither did I.
I found only one entry without supporting documentation. It was for one thousand five hundred naira and was expensed as window cleaning. Hardly material, but I followed up anyway. Shade had given a young boy the money to clean the windows. He obviously didn’t have a business that could generate a receipt. He was homeless with his mother and just wanted to help. Shade allowed it and paid him out of petty cash. I assured Shade it wasn’t going to be a problem.
I now knew the words to ‘I Need An Angel’ by heart. I really wanted to ask Shade why she played that song every day. I knew it would cost me my past so I just sat with Fabio and tried to quell my interest.
“Hearing from any of your family members?” I asked. I wondered why I never asked the question before. I was so busy hiding my past, I never thought about his. He simply nodded and went on eating. I could tell he really didn’t want to go into it. There was no eye contact, and his gritty smile wasn’t evident. I dropped the subject and knew we would be better friends because of it.
I spent the next day on the two-years-back books. There was absolutely nothing wrong with them. I couldn’t even find simple addition errors. Shade was as stringent with her accounting as she was with her kitchen. I pulled the FIRS letter out of the desk again and reread it. It used harsher language than I had seen in past audits. Things like these are usually handled by ordinary letter to the organisation that is concerned.
Here they were demanding an on-site audit with veiled threats hidden inside their demands. The two tax returns I reviewed didn’t seem to warrant any kind of review. Nothing in them should have raised any flags. The letter was certainly not indicative of a random audit.
“This audit doesn’t feel right,” I said as Shade came in to check my progress. “It almost seems hostile.” She hesitated before she responded. Then she sat down.
“I think it is an attack, but I can’t be sure.” Shade sighed softly, looking at the letter I placed on the desk. “The city tried to rezone this block for a developer. It would have forced me out so I fought it and won. I don’t know how they could have done that.” She pointed to the letter. “But I think it might be part of the same thing.” She looked up at me. “The FIRS doesn’t do things like that, do they?”
“No, but people do.” My anger was brewing again. Someone was the friend of an FIRS field officer. It was the only way the letter made sense. Dismantling Shade’s charity initiative to the poor and homeless would silence her opposition. It was a roundabout, but effective way. I simply wasn’t going to allow it to happen.
“We’ll just make sure they fail.” There was determination in my mind and I wanted Shade to hear it in my voice. I was surprised when she blushed at my words.
“Thank you, Frank. That makes me feel a lot better.” Shade stumbled the response out with an awkward smile. She hesitantly rose and exited the room. It almost seemed like she wanted to say more, but thought better of it. She was flustered and I wondered what I had said that caused it.
Shade surprised me the next morning with a cup of coffee and a doughnut. I had never seen her serve any food before four. I had never even seen her eat. I stared at it in shock when she placed in on the desk. She blushed again and left quickly. I didn’t even have time to get a ‘thank you’ out. It was completely unlike her.
I spent the morning, warmed by coffee, traversing the first year the FIRS was interested in. They were as immaculate as the other two. I was determined to leave no stone unturned, so I went through the Charity Dinner ledger as I had the other two years.
I was absently totalling the donations when my eyes were attracted to the name column. A sense of familiarity pulled my eyes. ‘Dolapo and David Akeju’ was handwritten next to a donation of fifteen thousand naira. My eyes welled up as I ran my fingers across the names. Dolapo was always giving to one organization or another. My name must have come from the cheque. The irony of it all hit hard. I felt tears running down my cheeks and I squeezed my eyes to get them to stop. They didn’t, so I let it go. I saw her perfectly again, my mind had rebuilt the image. With it, the pain came slamming back. I buckled under the pressure and the floodgates opened. God, I loved that woman.
Shade picked that time to check on my progress. Fooling no one, I turned away and quickly wiped my teary eyes. I stumbled out of the office mentioning the need to use the restroom. The tears kept coming as I hurried past Hassan who was busy peeling yam. I spent fifteen minutes, sitting on the toilet, slowing my heart. I rinsed my face, trying to dull the redness around my eyes.
Shade was sitting at the desk when I returned. “Close the door,” she said, and motioned me to the seat on the other side.
“My husband died nine years ago.” Shade was looking directly at me. “The kitchen was Richard’s creation, the only thing he had done right, he told me. I promised him I would keep it running. I don’t think he envisioned me running it personally, but here I am.” She looked down at the desk. “The whole world thinks you’re dead.” My mind was reeling. She made sense now, her running this place fit. Her telling me about it meant she knew something of me.
“Most of the world doesn’t know I exist,” I countered. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be angry. I just didn’t want more memories. I was having trouble not remembering on my own.
“I’m pretty good with faces, it was your beard and name that throw me off.” Shade tapped the ledger with Dolapo’s and my names. “You just looked the same way I felt when Richard died, David.” I excused myself again. Having Shade know was just as bad as seeing Dolapo’s name in the ledger. I was dousing my face in cold water when I began to wonder how she knew my face. She wasn’t guessing, she knew. I don’t remember ever meeting her prior to a few days ago. Maybe she knew Dolapo that, would explain the donation. I settled my emotions and returned for the second time.
“You knew Dolapo?” I asked, choking on her name.
“Close the door,” Shade responded while shaking her head no. “I know of her. The whole world knows her.” I sat down confused. “I’m sorry, seeing the name in the ledger must have hurt.” I closed my eyes and nodded. I really didn’t want to start crying again. I wasn’t confident my voice wouldn’t crack.
“You can hide here for as long as you need,” Shade offered.
“The police looking for me or something?” I asked with quite a bit of confusion.
“Not any more. They think you are dead.” I shook my head, trying to wrap my thoughts around what Shade was saying. Dolapo’s image kept flashing in my mind. I had an estranged sister, it would have taken her twenty years to report me missing. I had quit my job, they wouldn’t have cared enough to check up on me. I guess maybe a friend, but I hadn’t been gone long enough for them to worry enough to call the police.
“Why would they think that?”
“You don’t know?” Shade seemed surprised.
“Know what?” Shade went to work on the computer as I looked on. A few moments later she turned the monitor towards me. My picture was on the screen under the headline, ‘Promise Keeper Believed Dead.’ The banner across the top was the daily paper’s logo. It was a picture of me, on stage, with my hand held out before me.
“Your song ‘Dolapo’ went viral.” Shade said softly.
“It was just a prelim. It wasn’t supposed to be broadcast,” I said as I leaned into the computer screen to read the article text. The text mentioned finding my wallet in the river. The fact that it contained money, indicated I wasn’t robbed. Their assumptions were correct, the end result was not.
“How did your wallet end up in the river?” Shade asked softly. I could see the concern in her eyes.
“Fabio fished me out of the river,” I answered. I wasn’t ready to say the truth out loud and probably never would. I skipped over it and then added a weak justification, “It wasn’t a good time for me.”
“Time to think,” I answered, “I just need time to think.” Shade looked like she might have misunderstood so I added, “No more bridges in my future.” She smiled.
“Take all the time you need, Frank.” I smiled at her use of ‘Frank.’
“I’ll figure things out as soon as we get through this FIRS audit,” I said as I continued perusing the article. Shade got flustered again and fumbled her way off her seat. I had no idea what was causing it. I pretended to ignore it for her sake, and mine.
“I’m sorry about Dolapo,” Shade whispered before she opened the door.
“I’m sorry about Richard.” We shared forced smiles. At least we understood each other that far.
Embarrassment was my main emotion as I surfed the web for the first time in a week. My fame was fading, as all digital fads do, but I had shined brightly for a few days. I couldn’t watch the video, not out of shame, but out of fear of the pain returning. Dolapo had always said I had a lovely voice, I had just assumed she was biased. I sang for her because she got a kick out of it. For us, it was like pre-intimacy. I never had a desire to share it with the world. I made up songs for her and her alone. The words were sometimes silly and sometimes nonsense from my heart. Loud pillow talk and nothing more. Now the world knew because of a dying promise I could not deny. I loved her too much for that.
The social media platforms, first of all, Nairaland and the likes of LIB, facebook and others were the worst. Half had me as an insane idiot and the others thought me some kind of love god. Offers of marriage and psychiatric help were abundant. It was just a promise, it wasn’t meant to go this far. I was going to have to hide for a while. The story would die a quick death as all things internet-related do. Dolapo would have gotten a kick out of the whole thing, but then I would have had her at my side. I could have weathered any storm with her there.
…to be continued