It was late afternoon. At that time of the day, Tafawa Balewa Square was not yet as busy as it would be later in the evening, when the labor force from Victoria Island, would arrive to queue for the buses that would take them over the bridges, to the mainland. Now there was a long queue of big, empty buses, with only a few passengers seated. The drivers waited impatiently for more people to arrive so that they could be on their way. Hawkers, selling cold drinks, fruits, boiled groundnuts, and other typical Lagos traffic snacks, sat impatiently on the curbs, disgruntled with the slow afternoon sales and eagerly awaiting the thirsty, hungry crowd that would soon arrive.
On the other side of the road, in front of the old tennis club, Ada Arinze watched as two children in school uniforms walked along the sidewalk, holding hands. The bigger child, a girl about eight years old, wore a red pinafore, a pink check shirt, black rubber shoes, and a pair of white socks that reached up to her knees. The boy, much smaller, wore the same except that instead of the pinafore he was wearing red shorts.
Ada was already reaching for the camera hanging down from her neck. The movement, almost involuntary, happened whenever she sensed a good picture. Her slim, caramel skinned, medium height figure was casually dressed in blue jeans, black sneakers and a purple T-shirt, her thick cloud of tightly curled, springy hair, narrowly prevented from becoming a sky-high afro, by a wide purple headband.
The little boy was kicking his feet idly, with the girl holding one of his hands to keep him from skipping away. Siblings, Ada thought, on their way from school. She took a couple of pictures. She captured the little boy as he jumped too far ahead of his sister and her subsequent warning for him to stay in line, one hand on her waist and one finger pointing towards his upturned nose.
A few pictures later, Ada noticed that the children had stopped walking and were standing, facing the road, waiting for the traffic to clear so that they could cross. As another car sped by, she walked up to them.
“You want to cross?” She asked with a friendly smile.
The little girl looked up at her and nodded uncertainly. The boy only stuck his thumb in his mouth and smiled widely.
Ada took both their hands and waited until the road had cleared again. It was a one-way street, but it being Lagos, she made sure to look both right and left before attempting to cross to the other side.
“Thank you Auntie.” The little girl said shyly, before running off with her brother across the concrete pavement, to a small wooden kiosk where a woman was selling fresh fruits. Their mother, Ada decided. Most likely, they would stay with her in the kiosk until evening, when she was ready to go home. Ada smiled nostalgically, remembering herself as a schoolchild, spending the days after school in the much larger shop where her granny used to sell provisions.
She shrugged off the memories and removed the zoom lens from her camera, placing it carefully in her backpack. There was no point in dwelling on those happy days, especially now that Granny had returned to Owerri to live in peaceful retirement. She knew it was the best choice, Lagos life being what it was, but with granny gone, she felt more alone than she had ever felt in her entire life.
She and her brother Zubi had lived with Granny since their mother died. It had been their only option after their father had shown his reluctance to take them in to live with him and his new wife. Now that Granny no longer lived in Lagos, her father had refused to continue payment of the rent for the Lagos house. He had advised Ada to go and live with Zubi, who was married and had a young family, until she got “a real job and could afford a house of her own, or some man to marry her and give her a home.”
Ada grimaced at the memory of the conversation with her father. He usually either ignored her or said the worst things to her. Not surprisingly, she preferred it when he ignored her. She switched her thoughts from him to the new apartment she had found on the mainland. She would have to tell Zubi about it, she reminded herself, even though he was still mad at her for not being eager to ditch photography for the job he had found for her in real estate.
She started to look around for a commercial motorbike. She had to wait for a while. When you didn’t need one they were all over the place, buzzing like flies, but as soon as you actually needed them, they became impossible to find. After a while, she was finally able to wave one over. She negotiated a price and in a few moments, they were speeding toward the offices of Living Lagos magazine.
It was tucked in one of the less busy streets of Lagos Island, not very far from the Square. In a couple of minutes, Ada had paid the bike-man and was running up the stairs of the six-storey building that housed Living Lagos. By the time she got to the fourth floor, she was out of breath and could feel her thigh muscles protesting, but she didn’t mind. She never took a lift for anything less than six floors.
As she entered the fourth floor lobby, the security man, Mr. Festus, looked up from the issue of Complete Sports he was reading intently, and called out a greeting to her. He was a middle-aged man with a round face that was perpetually wreathed in smiles. “Aunty Ada!” He exclaimed, breaking into his characteristic smile. “Why you did not take the lift?” He asked, in his own version of English, “Is working fine.”
He always asked her that! Ada sighed. “I’ll take it next time, Mr. Festus.” She replied, unwilling to explain for the hundredth time, that she preferred to take the stairs.
As she walked towards the glass double-doors of Living Lagos, she was already mentally planning the rest of her day. Which was why, she had already started to push the doors open before she realized that the man standing over the front desk, talking to Fadeke the receptionist, was Eddie Bakare.
She stopped, reluctant to continue the journey inside, and trying, without much success, to control the sudden erratic rhythm of her heart. If only she had seen him before she started opening the doors, she thought desperately, then she could have gone back downstairs, gone to lunch, gone shopping, anything rather than walk straight into him as he flirted with Fadeke.
It wasn’t that she had anything against Eddie, after all, he was partly responsible for the success of Living Lagos. He was the one who had made the initial financial investment in the magazine when Sophie, the publisher/Editor–in–chief, had first conceived the idea for a weekly publication that presented the interesting aspects of living in Lagos in a humorous and entertaining way. In fact, Ada conceded, there was nothing wrong with him. He was a pleasant enough person, with wonderful manners and well, an incredibly, handsome face. The only problem was, she never felt right when she was around him.
It wasn’t physical attraction, it couldn’t be, Ada reasoned. He wasn’t her type. She wasn’t crazy about tall guys with perfectly handsome faces and male model bodies. If she had to choose, she told herself, she would go for a pleasant face over a handsome one any day.
She just didn’t like him. There was something about that lazy confidence, that instant friendliness, playfulness, and amiability that put her off. Everything came too easily to guys like Eddie, and somehow, she didn’t think her good regard and friendship should be one of those things.
He was saying something to Fadeke, probably something flirty, judging from the way she was giggling like a maniac. Ada snorted silently. Of course, to a girl like Fadeke, Eddie was something like a demigod. He was rich, handsome, and extremely charming, just the way the romance novels had told her that her Mr. Right would be.
As if somehow, he had heard her thoughts, he looked up and noticed her standing at the door. His face broke into a handsome smile, as if, Ada thought cynically, she was just the person he had been waiting to see.
“Hello Ada.” He greeted, his deep voice was warm and friendly. He left Fadeke’s desk to help Ada with the door. She quickly stepped inside the office, not too pleased with the thought of him holding the door open for her like some olden days suitor.
“Hello Eddie.” She only gave him a small polite smile, before looking away from his face, stubbornly resisting the urge to gawk at how handsomely his cheeks dimpled. “Hello Fadeke.” She added, before walking past the both of them to her own desk farther inside the open office. She carefully laid her backpack on her desk and started her computer.
They both watched her in silence, their conversation on hold. Surely, Ada thought, they didn’t expect her to join in them, did they?
“How’ve you been?” Eddie asked finally. “It’s been a while.”
Internally Ada rolled her eyes. This was so like Eddie, instead of accepting that she had just ignored him and that her behavior had even been on the verge of rudeness, he would still try to talk to her, he would still try to be nice.
She exhaled, realizing that she had been holding her breath, waiting for him to either talk to her, or leave her alone. She looked up at him and smiled halfheartedly, hoping that the look on her face would tell him that she was too busy to talk to him. “Work has been fine, thank you Eddie.” She turned to Fadeke, who was gawking at Eddie as if she had never seen a man before. “Fadeke, does Sophie know that Eddie is here?”
“I… yes…I…um…” Fadeke started to stutter.
“She knows.” Eddie interrupted smoothly. “She’s been on a phone call for a while, probably with Michael.” He smiled, his eyes teasing. Sophie had recently gotten married to Michael Ade-Cole, the man she had been in love with for as long as Ada had known her.
Ada shrugged and turned her attention back to her computer, hoping that he would go back to flirting with Fadeke and not talk to her until Sophie finished with her phone call.
As if Sophie had somehow heard her thoughts, the door to her office opened just then, and she appeared, her face all aglow, showing that she had indeed been talking with her husband. Ada smiled. It was a testament to the strength of Sophie and Eddie’s friendship, that she could keep him waiting while she took a personal call, despite the fact that he owned a large stake in her business. Eddie would never mind though, Ada thought, sometimes he and Sophie seemed more like brother and sister than business partners and friends. But then, it was Eddie who had introduced Sophie to Michael all those years ago.
“What’s up?” Sophie said, addressing all of them at the same time. Dressed in one of those stylish chiffon blouses, a pencil skirt and fashionable high heels, she looked totally ‘on point’. Ada looked down at her own jeans and T-Shirt and sighed. Oh well, she thought, not everybody had to wear chiffon.
“Young man!” Sophie exclaimed playfully, wagging a finger at Eddie. “Stop flirting with Fadeke I beg you! Before you turn her head upside down, I cannot explain anything to her mother!”
“Hey.” Eddie protested as Fadeke dissolved into a pool of embarrassed giggles. “I’m only having an innocent conversation with her.”
“Ada, when did you get back?” Sophie continued, looking over at Ada who was quietly working at her computer. “You weren’t here when I came out a moment ago.” She paused, leaving Ada wondering if she actually wanted an answer, then she went right on talking to Eddie. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting.” She told him, a mischievous look on her face. “You can come inside now.” She turned back to Ada. “You too, Ada”
Ada watched with a small frown as they both disappeared into Sophie’s office, she wondered how long she could stall, now that she was finally rid of Eddie she wasn’t terribly eager to be back in his company, especially in Sophie’s tiny office.
Fadeke was still staring after Eddie with an enraptured expression on her face. “Close your mouth before you eat a mosquito.” Ada said to her.
Fadeke gave her a self-conscious smile, and then because she couldn’t help it, as all girls with crushes love nothing more than to gush about the object of their desires, she whispered. “But he is so hot!”
‘Of course’ Ada thought sarcastically. ‘Let’s talk about Eddie Bakare’s body temperature by all means.’
“He asked me if I had done something new with my hair.” Fadeke continued, oblivious to Ada’s lack of interest, “He said that I looked brighter than usual.”
Ada rolled her eyes. Seriously! Of course, that was exactly the sort of thing Eddie would say! Guys like him tossed compliments around and just waited while girls dropped onto their laps, or beds, like ripe fruit.
“He’s so handsome!” Fadeke continued dreamily, her eyes wide in her pretty, little, pixie face. How old was she again? Ada wondered, getting rather annoyed. Didn’t the fact that she was old enough to have a job also mean that she was too old to indulge in silly fantasies about men she didn’t know?
As Fadeke started to say something else, Ada decided that she had heard enough. “You know he can hear you across the partition.” She stated bluntly.
Fadeke squealed and clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh my God!” She exclaimed. “Do you think he heard? Oh my God!” When Ada didn’t bother to reply, she deflated into a self-conscious silence.
A few minutes of quiet followed for which Ada was immensely grateful. Fadeke could be such a chatterbox sometimes. She turned back to her computer and continued stalling, checking a photo spread she had done the night before. Hopefully, Sophie would forget that she had asked her into her office and only remember after Eddie left.”
Her hope proved futile as Sophie soon poked her head out of her office, “Ada.” She said with a slight frown, “I meant this year, not next year. Come on.”
Ada got up reluctantly, wondering why Eddie was not at his own office. He worked in an oil-marketing firm that belonged to his father, and from what she’d heard, he had proved to be a shrewd oil marketer in the past two years, earning his place in the top management. He hardly ever bothered with Living Lagos anymore, Sophie was the boss now, and anyway, he had other investments. Ada supposed he still came around occasionally when he found himself in the area because he was such good friends with Sophie.
He was sitting on one of the chairs opposite Sophie’s tiny desk, with his body stretched out and relaxed as if he had no care in the world. He would look relaxed even if he were stuck in a market place under the hot sun, surrounded by thousands of sweaty people, Ada thought enviously. That was just the way he was. She took the seat beside him, placing her hands demurely on her lap. He turned and gave her a conspiratorial wink and a smile as if to say – let’s hear what Sophie has to say this time – Ada turned away from him and gave all her attention to Sophie.
“I wasn’t expecting you today Eddie.” Sophie said, as she gestured with one hand, the one with the rings, creating a light diamond and platinum sparkle. “But it’s good that you stopped by. I have wonderful news.”
Eddie raised a perfect brow. “Better than, I’m getting married!” He teased, affecting a high pseudo-feminine voice, which sounded nothing like Sophie’s own.
Sophie gave him a warning look, and then her face softened into a smile. “No, actually, nothing’s better than that.” She paused, the light of excitement dancing in her eyes. “The good news is…We’ve been nominated for the TRANSCEND awards for Entertainment in Print…”
“Well done!” Eddie looked very pleased. “Congratulations.”
“I’m not done yet.” Sophie continued, “We’ve also been nominated for Best use of new media, for our website.” She smiled sweetly as she took in their reactions. “And that’s not the best part at all.” She added. “Yours truly, moi, Sophie Aliu Ade-Cole was nominated for the Young Person of the Year award.” Her announcement ended in an excited squeal.
“Oh wow!” Ada exclaimed, rushing up from her chair to give Sophie a hug. “Congratulations!”
Eddie got up and hugged Sophie too. “This is a big deal.” He said. “We should celebrate!”
“We will.” Sophie nodded in agreement, her eyes shining with pleasure. “We can all go out for a celebratory dinner, I think.” She paused, thinking. “I’ll arrange it”
“This will be great for sales and advertising.” Eddie said to Sophie, the business-man in him identifying the opportunity immediately.
“I know.” Sophie agreed, excited. “We may have to increase the number of features as well as the number of pages to accommodate all the new the advertising we’ll be getting from now on.”
Ada sighed inwardly. This was her cue to leave. When these two started talking business, there was nothing for the creative in her to do but to leave them alone to it. She stood up.
“Hey! Where are you going?” Sophie asked.
“I have to finish editing the fashion spread for next week.” Ada replied. It was true, anyway.
Sophie chuckled. “Ada is allergic to discussions about money and business.” She told Eddie. She turned back to Ada. “How far about the apartment you were looking for?” She asked. “Have you paid for that one you liked?”
“Yes, I have.” Ada could barely keep the exasperation out of her voice. Couldn’t Sophie tell that the last thing she wanted was to discuss her personal issues in Eddie’s presence?
“You were looking for an apartment?” Eddie asked. He was back in his seat, but now he swiveled towards Ada. “Why wasn’t I told?” He asked. “I could have gotten you something nice.”
“Like your spare bedroom?” Sophie quipped playfully.
He looked hurt, “No, no! I know many agents, the best actually, not these dubious ones all over the place. The ones I know can get you anything from a one-bedroom apartment to a duplex in Victoria Island.”
It was true. Ada knew that for a while, after his graduation, Eddie had a sort of career as a facilitator of housing deals. According to Sophie, he had made a lot of money connecting people to the properties they wanted to own. It was intimidating in a way, how easily he seemed to find and take advantage of opportunities to make money, even though he already had more than he could ever spend.
“I would never ask you to move into my spare bedroom.” He said earnestly. “Except if you really wanted to.” He gave her that dimpled smile again.
Sophie was trying not to laugh. “Eddie! Stop flirting with Ada, she’s not interested.”
One of his eyebrows went up, in what, to Ada, looked like cocksure disbelief. His eyes did not leave her face.
Ada met his stare. He probably believed there was no girl in the world who wasn’t interested in him, well she wasn’t. “I don’t believe your spare bedroom is big enough for me.” She said dismissively, even though the look on his face was doing things to her ability to balance on her two feet.
“You haven’t seen it.” He informed her.
“I don’t need to.” Ada replied with a small smile.
He shrugged, apparently deciding to let it rest. “So where’s your new apartment?” He asked.
Why did he want to know? Reluctantly, she told him.
“Really!” His face lit up. “That’s very close to my house,” he said. “We’re neighbors!”
“You don’t live on the island?” Ada blurted before she could stop herself.
He gave her a slight frown. “No, must I?”
She kept quiet, feeling slightly taken aback. She had assumed that someone with his money and connections would surely live on the Island, free from the relentless Lagos traffic, bridges, and all the other headaches that came with living on the mainland.”
“He took a house on the mainland to escape all those island girls who don’t do bridges.” Sophie said, laughing.
Eddie nodded. “I had to find a way to trim the numbers.” He said earnestly.
Ada rolled her eyes.
He ignored her. “Anyway now that we’re neighbors,” He continued, turning his one million megawatt smile on her again, “maybe we should hang out more, I could show you all the local joints.”
Ada gave him her sweet smile again “Maybe.” She said noncommittally before turning back to Sophie. “I’m going to finish that photo spread now. Bye Eddie.” She said without looking at him.
“Did I say something?” She heard Eddie say as she closed the door behind her. “I don’t know what you mean.” She heard Sophie’s response through the partition as she went back to her seat. She tried to concentrate on her photo spread, but it wasn’t until about fifteen minutes later, when Eddie finally left, that she was able to breathe easier.