I listened to the phone ring with a slight feeling of relief. In the two weeks preceding this call, all I had been able to get was the answering service.
I felt my relief begin to ebb when I heard the click on the other end and then her voice, crisp, formal, but in that almost breathy whisper that did things to me.
“Hello, who is this?”
I felt all the air sucked out of me. It was like someone had kicked me in the solar plexus; I clutched the phone tighter.
“My name is Franque,” I managed to whisper into the mouthpiece, my heart constricted. I heard a sharp intake of breath and then the laughter. That threw me momentarily.
When she was done she said, “Please, can I call you back? I am driving at the moment. I promise, I will call you back as soon as I am done driving.”
“That’s alright,” I said. I almost said ‘I love you’, that was how we ended every phone call. I love you. But today, I could not say those words. It was not because they would be a lie if I said them, it was not because of any hurt or anger I felt I had a right to. I just simply could not say them.
“When words fail me, I know I am in your presence… I love you Franque, more than I can ever tell you, for ever and a day.”
Those words were written in her own hand on the first page of the first gift she ever gave me; a note pad bound in the softest brown leather. “To help with your writing”, she had said the night she gave it to me. It was just after Christmas that year. I had gathered her in my arms and hugged her like I would never let her go; and I had no plans to.
We had distance between us, distance as long as South Africa is from Nigeria, so we cherished every moment we got to spend together.
“What is it about me that makes you want to spend the rest of your life with me?” She would ask from time to time.
“I honestly don’t know. I just know that you make me happy, and for me, that’s all that matters.” My standard reply, the truth.
She made me happier than I had been in a long time. With her, it was like I was born anew. Life could not throw anything my way that was too hard to deal with as long as I knew she was on my side. I smiled more, walked with a spring in my steps, and generally had a good feeling about everything.
Being away from her caused me physical pain. There was always a throbbing in my chest region that I would have waved away as phantom, but every time I got a message from her, or my phone rang and I heard the opening bars of Beyonce’s 1plus1, I would break out in a huge grin and the pain will recede.
We made plans to be together: I was going to save up some money, enrol in a school in SA, spend time with her to sort out our feelings and, convinced we were meant for each other, it was only a matter of time before we would get married and raise a family.
“Think of the sacrifice you’ll be making,” she would say. “You have your family and friends in Nigeria, and you’ll give all of that up to be with me?”
“I will not be giving anything up. My family is family, distance will not take that away. As for friends, I don’t have a lot of those to miss. Besides, I will be with you.”
“I love you Franque.”
“No more than I love you.”
Then one day she called me, and I could feel her excitement across the miles.
“What if I tell you I can get you papers? Fix it so that you can come and join me in SA soon?” She asked.
“Are you telling me, or asking me?” I hedged. I wanted to know where this was leading.
“I know someone who can arrange your documents…”
“Hold on,” I cut her off. “Is this above board?” I asked.
“Ermm… Uhmmm…” She stuttered, “It won’t matter once you get here. We’ll get married as soon as possible and it won’t matter.”
“I thought we had a plan.” I could not keep the disappointment from my voice. “I will not do that, and I am sure you already know this. I am working as hard and fast as I can to sort out my finances, then I will join you. Not a second sooner, and surely not like this.”
“It is hard Franque, you have no idea.” She sobbed.
“Actually, I do.” I told her. “Hang in there love, we’ll be together soon. Be strong.” I knew those were not the words she wanted to hear, but I was not going to be stupid about this.
When she came to visit just before my birthday, I could not sleep the night before, and the day could not go fast enough. I knew I missed her, I just did not realise how much until I saw her.
She stood there holding her room door open, while my heart strained against my ribcage, swollen to bursting. Something jumped about in my stomach like a grasshopper on hot coals.
“Fra..” She started to say, and I covered the space between us. I sealed my lips over hers and walked her backwards into the room.
When she left the next day, we were already counting down to her trip back the next month. For days I was walking on air, my head in the clouds. We talked everyday, and made plans for her trip. Then one morning, about a week later, I sent her messages that went unanswered. I called her phone and got her answering service. That was not strange, I got her answering service sometimes when she was out of town or if her phone was turned off. “Maybe she is working,” I told myself. When, by the third day I had still not heard back from her, I started to worry. This was the longest we had gone without talking even once in two years.
It was then I realised I did not have an emergency number for her, no sibling or friend of hers I could call. Everyday I sent her a message on twitter and bbm, everyday I called her, and everyday I got her answering service. I was in full blown panic mode. It was not until the second week before I remembered facebook. I went on there to send her a message only to find I was no longer her friend. I just lay there that night in the darkness of my room and had a really good laugh. That was the last time I sent her a message.
A few days later, I was chatting with my cousin when her name came up. For some reason I punched in her number and pushed call.
That was two months ago, and I am not waiting for her call back. My friends always first ask me “What did you do?” This always draws a smile from me.
“Was there no sign?” Is the next question they ask in a hundred different ways, and to this I always answer no.
There was a sign, the tiniest hint, though I did not pay it any attention then. The last time we saw, she had Lauryn Hill’s Nothing Even Matters on replay. I reckon sometimes, that is all the clue you get.
I should know this, I have been on the other side of the fence before. Paul Young’s Wherever I Lay My Hat was my choice back then.