The rising buildings of Liverpool and gigantic ships with masts resembling wings of a thousand birds, brought back memories of Rhoda’s first arrival in England. Anxiety however replaced the sorrow of her time here. She had left notes for Henry as well as her other friends stating briefly that she’d be travelling to Africa and that she’d be back soon. Nothing more. Having prayed most of the night and now feeling invigorated to take the journey, she couldn’t afford anyone pulling her back. She would get to Badagry, inform Akeem about the plan to kill him and hopefully, see her mother. Mama. She could hear her mother’s voice in her head, husky from continued reprimands at a headstrong preteen. Mama would always click her tongue against the roof of her mouth and would tease, calling Rhoda “olori nla”, a colloquialism meaning “big head”.

Sometimes, she would smack Rhoda’s back or ask that she count bean seeds by way of punishing her, but would then cuddle her, singing the famous ballad, boju boju. These however changed after Mama’s remarriage to Akeem. Rhoda smiled a little, trying to ignore the hurt from her mother’s neglect and excuses for Akeem’s attitude.

Arriving at the Liverpool port, Rhoda bought passage on a vessel transporting goods to West Africa in exchange for palm oil. The demand for the African produce was rising in an unprecedented fashion as more of its use was discovered. From candles to street lights, the extract from palm kernels served diverse purposes. Rhoda settled into her cabin and was taking off her bonnet when she heard a knock.

A small, bald man who introduced himself as the chief cook, lodged by the door. “Miss Rhoda Smith? Someone is here to see you.”

Rhoda threw a coat over and hurried up the stairs that led to the higher deck. Nothing prepared her for the shock of seeing Henry, let alone his face both discoloured and disfigured like he had wrestled a bear. She flew towards him, questions clung to her tongue. He spoke before she got a chance to let them loose.

“Why are you headed to Africa?” Henry winced and Rhoda helped him onto a vacant seat. “I went looking for you at home and got attacked by some men.” He rubbed his arm in pain but assured that he was fine. “Got hold of one, but he would not say who sent him. He has been taken to the constable.”

Rising to the rail behind her, Rhoda looked beyond the sea. She realized that she must have been caught eavesdropping the other day at the tea party. “Certainly, I have no double dealings but I fear for the fact that someone might be threatened with my possession of some information.” She explained her findings, watching Henry’s brows furrow in amazement. “I have found myself in trouble bigger than I. I apologize for your hurt.”

Henry stood and observed also, the busy sea beyond. Ships and boats of all sizes docked and passengers exited them, some carrying as many as five portmanteaus. The sight made Henry and Rhoda chuckle hard. “They must have possessed the entirety of Europe.”

“And all its treasures.” She chortled but soon grew pensive, considering the dangers that could lay ahead. “I have no idea what to expect at Africa.” She felt Henry’s gaze on her and heat rushed up her neck. Why would he come all the way to Liverpool? He was doing too much for their friendship.

“I shall accompany you,” Henry said after a long pause. “To see to your safety.”

“I am trusting the Lord to see to that.” Rhoda turned to escort Henry out of the ship but he took her hand.

“I insist.”

The intensity of his gaze made her breath catch. Her pulse quickened at the warmth from his touch. She gulped, struggling to find her voice. When she eventually did, it emerged a stammer. “How about, how about your business? Who shall see to it?”

“You need not worry about that.” He let go of her hand and reminded her that she also had done him countless favours. “I want to help a friend.”

“If you will travel without proper change of clothes then, that is not on my account.”

“Would you despise me if I smelt like a skunk?” Henry smirked, brushing his hand over his wavy chestnut hair.

“I would shoo you if you smelt anything close to a horse.” She huffed, but expressed her gratitude and helped him make payments for his own chamber.

The turbulence of the Irish Sea made the stop at Czech most relieving. Although it hadn’t been long and the crew started again to the Mediterranean, Rhoda was grateful she could get some quiet from the ramblings of the crew and mutter a prayer. A knock on her door jostled her from an attempt to sleep. Henry’s gruff voice came from beyond the door. “I thought to check up on you.”

Rhoda followed Henry to the top deck where they found a quiet spot away from the crew members playing cards over ale, fish and chips. She had only been on the upper deck few times on the journey and she loved the feel of the wind on her face and the saltiness of the sea drizzles that met her tongue. “I have not travelled in a long time.” Since she arrived England, she wanted to say, but hesitated for fear that she might expose too much of her life.

Henry as though sensing her insecurity, asked no questions. Instead he spoke about himself. “It’s not my first time in Africa.” He righted himself, grasping the rails across the deck. “My grandfather used to be a surgeon. He accompanied slave ships across the Mediterranean when he was a lot younger. It was during that time I travelled with him.”

Hearing about this part of Henry’s life ignited something in Rhoda. Something also told she could bare her life like he was doing with her. “Whereabout did you go?”

“Sierra Leone, Bunce Island. The culture, the food, the people, you see, were different from what I knew but they were nonetheless lovely.” His expression softened and he looked away. “I apologize for any suffering you may have been through. I saw a part of it at Sierra Leone. In retrospect, I realize the transatlantic slave trade was most horrendous.”

Rhoda blinked back a tear. “Before I came to England, I was at the West Indies doing what you know, people do.” A nervous, shame-filled chuckled rattled from her. “I wanted more to life. I was tired of being subject to my master’s whims and caprices.” She paused a long time but Henry didn’t push. How much could she tell him? Would he despise her? His eyes, clear as emerald, remained on hers, patient, steadfast. The empathy in them beckoned to her, so she let her past go, slowly, carefully, as she would a memento. “I met a steward who was willing to pay my manumission for a price.” Wincing, she broke into a sob.

“Oh, Rhoda. You do not have to say.” Henry reached for her hand, but she withdrew.

“It’s no worry. I will tell you all of it. The steward did fulfill his part of the contract, but you see, I lost myself, my worth.” She collapsed into Henry’s arm and he wrapped her in a cushioning hug.

 “We all have stories to tell. Unfortunately, not all are quite glamorous.” Allowing her sob her inside out, he whispered, “You’re my friend and I do not despise any part about you—your past inclusive.”

“No, you do not understand. I serviced the steward with my body. I was at his beck and calls as he would his dinner.” She gave convulsive sobs so Henry lifted her chin and willed her to look at him.

“I do not need to understand. The Lord also does not need to understand. He has loved and forgiven you. And I love you as a friend, a brother and if you will permit,” he paused, searching her eyes before choosing his next words. “I would as a husband and lover.” He pulled her into another hug, and before Rhoda, everything else blurred into an infinitesimal rubbish against the moment—wrapped between Henry’s arm, listening to both his heart and his confession of affection for her.

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