The next day, Saturday, Hope spent most of the morning in bed feeling lazy. Midmorning, she finally got up and halfheartedly tidied her room before taking a quick shower and going downstairs in search of something to eat.
Her father was in the living room, seated in his favorite chair with his glasses perched on the edge of his nose, staring suspiciously at the screen of his phone.
“Good morning, daddy.”
“Good morning, madam.” He’d been calling her madam since she got her first job.
Hope considered asking him what the problem was with the phone, but she decided to give him time to solve it on his own. It was probably something as simple as locating text message drafts or some other such thing.
In the kitchen, her mother and Justina were pouring the last of the ground beans paste for moinmoin into skillfully folded leaves, which her mother carefully set in a wide bottomed pot for steaming.
“You’ve finally woken up,” her mother commented, lips pursed. “I thought we won’t see you till tomorrow.”
“Mummy, it’s Saturday! After my hectic week, don’t I deserve the rest?”
“Rest? Till afternoon? Okay. We’ll be here when you have children. Shebi you will sleep when they’re jumping on your bed crying for food.”
Hope rolled her eyes. “Mummy you’ve forgotten that I used to do all this work Justina does now… I’m on housework parole. Time off for time served.”
Her mother sighed. “At least nobody can say I didn’t train you well. Are you hungry?”
“Dying,” Hope replied.
“You’re not dying in Jesus name,” her mother muttered under her breath, prompting another eye roll from Hope and a muffled giggle from Justina.
“Aunty ‘ope, Good morning,” Justina said, her smile revealing the space where she’d lost a tooth before she came to live with them. She was fifteen years old, at least that was her best guess, and had been with them since she was eleven. She was in her last year of Junior secondary school and doing fairly well academically. She’d confided to Hope that she wanted to be an engineer like her when she grew up, and Hope had assured her that it was possible, even though she was sure Justina had no idea what an engineer really did.
“Your food is in the microwave,” her mother said now, placing the last of the moinmoin in the pot and watching as Justina put it on the cooker. “Yam and egg.”
Hope nodded, going over to retrieve the covered dish from inside the microwave. It was still warm so she didn’t bother heating it. She set it on the kitchen counter and picked up a fork, coating a piece of yam with eggsauce before popping it in her mouth.
“Are you going to eat standing there…? Go to the dining… Justina! Why is the gas on the highest heat, when have we ever cooked moinmoin on the highest heat. You want to finish the gas? I have never seen a child that doesn’t learn…”
Hope escaped the familiar tirade and went to sit in the adjoining dining room. She could see the TV as she ate, and her father had solved whatever the issue was with his phone and was now watching the news. She didn’t have to be anywhere till evening, when she would go with Charles to his friend’s party. The thought made her apprehensive, and a little excited too. She wondered what her parents would say if they knew she had met Charles again, that she was letting him take her on what was in some ways, a date.
Her mother would flip, and her father would give her that disapproving look from beneath his glasses. She couldn’t blame them, they’d been witness to the devastation Charles had caused when he broke her heart all those years ago, the spontaneous tears, the listlessness, the depression… She wished there was someone to talk to, her sister maybe. Grace was married, and a medical doctor. She’d either be at the hospital or spending the morning with her family. Her younger brother Gerald was not the best person to consult about romantic stuff. He always pretended to listen for as long as he could bear before offering some unconnected solution, like a drink, a night at the club or going to see a movie.
She should drive over to see one of them, Hope decided, before realizing that she didn’t have a car. The unreliable mechanic still hadn’t called.
As the thought crossed her mind, her phone rang. It was the mechanic.
“Madam, sorry o! I swear as I dey repair your motor, I just sleep. I just sleep go. I no even know when I off my phone. Na so the sleep take catch me.”
Hope snorted, unimpressed with his excuse. “Abeg… Have you finished now?”
“Yes,” he replied. “I dey bring am come your office.”
“Shebi you don’t know today is Saturday? Why will I be in my office?”
“Sorry madam, I forget. I go bring am come your house.”
“But you don’t know where I live.”
“Na true o! But just describe am. I go bring the motor come.”
Hope considered trusting the unreliable mechanic with driving her car to the mainland, then decided against it. “Just take it to the office,” she told him. “I’ll come and pick it from there.”
She finished breakfast and changed into jeans and a bright orange tshirt with the slogan ‘the bigger the better’ then in smaller letters, ‘that’s how I like my books.’ She told her parents where she was going and listened to her mum go on about how mechanics on the mainland were more reliable. It wasn’t very true. All car mechanics in Lagos, in fact the whole country, were probably the same.
She walked from her house to the estate gate. Thankfully the sun wasn’t very hot so she could add the few thousand steps to her Fitness app without breaking a sweat. Outside the estate, she found an aging yellow cab with an ancient looking grey-haired driver. They bartered and agreed on a price, and because it was Saturday, in no time at all she was at her office.
She called the mechanic on her phone as a security man let her in through the front gate. Most of the offices were closed on Saturday, but the building maintenance people provided the basics, generator power for when there was a power cut, water, security, etc, for the few companies that opened on the weekends.
“Sister, good afternoon o!” Alfred, the guy on duty at the front entrance greeted her, “but your people have not opened office today.”
Hope smiled at the young man. She liked him because he was always reading a book, and she’d found out that he was pursuing a part-time degree. “We’re not opening today. My mechanic is bringing my car here. I came to pick it up.”
“Okay. Will you wait here,” he gestured at the waiting area in the big lobby, “or you want to go to the lobby on your floor?”
“I think I’ll go up,” Hope said. She’d brought her kindle and she hoped to get some quality reading time in the quiet upstairs lobby before the mechanic finally decided to show up. She made her way to the elevator bank, stopping a few feet from the doors as one of them slid open to reveal Daniel Amadi.
He was looking down at his watch as he strode out of the lift, a striking figure in jeans and a unbuttoned short sleeved shirt over a plain light grey t-shirt. He was kinda hot, Hope thought, staring at the broad expanse of his chest, the tightly muscled arms… He was fit, athletic looking, but not bulky. She liked that. Now she definitely could not remember why she’d ever thought he wasn’t hot.
He looked up from his watch, saw her standing there and stopped, a smile slowly spreading cross his features. “Hope!”
She realised that she’d been staring, and she tried to cover up with a cheerful greeting. “Hi!”
“What are you doing here?” he frowned. “I didn’t know you worked on Saturdays?”
“I usually don’t, except when we have a really crazy deadline… I… My car had a fault yesterday and the mechanic who fixed it is bringing it over here today, so I came to pick it up. I was just going to the lobby on my floor to wait.” God! She was rambling! How come! It wasn’t as if she was some nervous jambite straight from an all-girls boarding school, conversing with a hot guy for the first time.
He was smiling, looking slightly amused. His eyes went to the message on her t-shirt and his smile broadened. He looked up at her. “Sooo… the car’s been fixed?”
Hope nodded. “Yes.”
“Good,” Daniel said. “You won’t have long to wait then.”
“I hope so,” she replied, wondering if, with the kind of money he had, he ever had to deal with mechanics. He probably had a fleet of brand new cars and changed each one as soon as a new model was made.
“We were working on a technical problem with the servers. It’s about fixed, though some of the engineers are still up there. I’m abandoning them.” He smiled ruefully.
“The perks of being the boss,” Hope teased.
He shrugged. “I wish. It’s been a while since I slept. I’ve learned from experience that the efficacy of caffeine steadily diminishes the longer you stay awake. I think I may have become immune because even the floor of this lobby looks like a good place to crash right now.”
Hope tried not to laugh at the image of him asleep on the lobby floor. She peered at his face. He did look tired. “Well, have a good rest.”
He smiled and started to leave, then he stopped. “Hope?”
“Yes?” There was a wealth of expectation in her, causing a few stray butterflies to flutter senselessly in her tummy. It was silly, especially when she had no idea what he planned to say.
“What are you doing later, in the evening?”
Her eyebrows rose. He was going to ask her on a date. Wow! Daniel Amadi. The girls in the office would really take that story to town. “I.. em..” She paused, remembering Charles and the party she had agreed to attend with him. “I..” she sighed. “I’m kinda hanging out with an old friend.”
Daniel nodded. “Okay.” His smile was polite as he shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “See you around, then.”
Hope watched him walk away, his tall, broad-shouldered figure moving with a graceful, loping stride. Would he have asked her to dinner? to hangout somewhere casual? She had no doubt that she would enjoy herself with him. He seemed like someone who would be interesting to know. Her mind went to Charles and she almost kicked herself. It made no sense that she had just turned down a date with a single and eligible guy like Daniel just so she could spend an evening with Charles. It made no sense at all. It was the sort of thing that would make her mother clap her hands together in dismay and question if Hope was really her daughter.
At that mental image of her mother, she smiled and pressed the call button for the lift. She settled into one of the seats in the ninth floor lobby, and after spending little more than an hour reading on her kindle, her phone finally rang. It was the mechanic, calling to tell her that he had delivered her car and was waiting downstairs.
Hope spent the rest of afternoon at her sister’s place. Grace had returned from the hospital sometime in the morning and was now asleep. The children, bored with their nanny, welcomed Hope with boundless joy. There were two girls six and four, and two boys, three and one. Their father had just left for the grocery store to do some shopping when Hope arrived.
The enthusiastic chorus of Auntie Hope! Auntie Hope! was a sign of things to come. She spent the next few hours singing, drawing, watching cartoons, rocking the baby to sleep, helping with crosswords and generally rediscovering that children had an inexhaustible supply of energy. By the time Grace woke up towards evening, there was no time for the heart to heart talk that Hope wanted. She had to leave to prepare for her evening with Charles.
Unlike the days when they’d been dating, when Charles would come into the house and sit with her parents in the living room discussing everything from current affairs to career goals, this time he called her when he was parked outside to let her know he was waiting.
“Who’s this person you’re going out with that cannot come inside and greet your parents?” her mother said when Hope came downstairs, all dressed up in a short peach and cream dress, jeweled sandals with light but flawless makeup.
“Mummy! It’s the first time we’re going out. I don’t think I want him meeting the parents and going through your interview when I don’t even know if I like him yet.”
“If you don’t like him, why are you going out with him.”
Hope looked to her father for help but he studiously ignored them both and fixed his eyes on the TV.
“It’s just some guy I met in the office, mummy. No need for all this concern,” Hope lied.
“Guy from the office and he can’t come and greet your parents,” Hope heard her mother mutter. It went on, but she’d already left the living room. She heard her father says something, and then her mother laughed. She pursed her lips. That’s what always happened, they would lecture you, then when they thought you were out of earshot they would laugh about how they did the same things when they were young. Parents!
Outside, Charles was waiting in the car, running the engine and listening to 90s hiphop. “Hey,” he drawled as she climbed in, his beautiful eyes moving sensually from her face down to her body. “You look good.”
Hope shrugged. “Well, you don’t look bad.”
His smile was confident. He knew that he looked good, Hope decided. Unbelievably good actually. There was something annoying yet attractive about a guy who knew how good-looking he was and didn’t try to hide it with some sort of false modesty.
Guys who didn’t seem to know at all that they were good-looking were also attractive, she thought, her mind going to Daniel Amadi. He had that aura, like he took care of himself but didn’t measure himself by the way he looked, or expect anybody to measure him with that either.
“So how was your day?” Charles asked, snapping her out of her thoughts. He lowered the music and smiled at her.
“Nothing much. I went to the office… Got my car back.”
“Ah… your car! I forgot to ask. So it’s working okay now?”
Hope wanted to ask him why he suddenly wanted to spend time with her. What the situation was with his marriage. Why he threw appreciative glances her way every ten seconds as if he had a right to… but instead she stayed silent. Maybe after the party she would ask. For now, she would just take it moment by moment, enjoy his attention, and try not to feel as if she was making a huge mistake by allowing him anywhere near her.
“So what’s going on in your life?”
“Come on,” he cajoled. “You have to give me more than that. Is there a boyfriend?”
Hope turn her face to look at him, barely swallowing the bitter snort that threatened to come out of her mouth. Instead, she smiled sweetly. “Not right now, no.”
“Lagos guys are blind.” He was smiling. “Look at you. Guys should be lining up at your door.”
Hope was hovering somewhere between flattered and confused. How did one even respond to a statement like that?
“Who says they aren’t?”
He grinned. “So I have competition.”
Hope was silent. Why would he even say that? Was he trying to hint that he wanted to be with her again or was he just playing with her head? “Charles.”
“Hmmn,” he said, his attention on the road.
“What did you mean when you said your wife left?”
There was a long pause. “Why don’t we talk about that later,” he said finally.
There was no traffic, so by this time he was already swinging into the parking lot of a new and popular café in Lekki phase one. Inside, the whole mezzanine floor has been booked for the party. The host was Frank Leton, a twice divorced man in his forties with interests in oil marketing and – it was whispered – 419 activities. The girlfriend was at least twenty years younger and extraordinarily beautiful, just like the two women he’d already married and divorced.
He gave Hope a leering smile as Charles introduced them, and while the two men patted each other on the back, laughing at some jokes she didn’t understand. She looked around. There were lots of girls, many younger than her, and the men were mostly older, late thirties or forties, some wearing wedding rings, though it was clear that their companions were not their wives.
Hope sighed. Oh well. It wasn’t like she could judge, not when she was also here with a married man whose relationship status she hadn’t clearly confirmed.
Charles finally remembered her. He found them a booth and ordered drinks. There were a lot of those going around, expensive drinks, barbecued chicken, chips, peppered snails, goat meat, suya… Hope picked at the delicious platter Charles set in front of her. He’d joined her in the booth and was leaning very close. “I love your hair,” he said, his fingers finding their way to stroke her hair and the tender spots behind her ear.
Hope sucked in a breath and moved slightly, putting a little space between them.
Charles chuckled. “You can’t run away forever,” he whispered.
Hope pretended not to hear. The DJ was doing a very good job, so she concentrated on that, moving her body to the music as she ate.
“You were always such a good dancer,” Charles continued, his eyes devouring her every movement.
She looked away from the stark sexual appreciation in his gaze, unnerved by the way it made her feel. Pleased, flattered, flirty…
“Come on,” he said. “You should dance. I love watching you dance. Always so sexy.”
Hope ignored him, her eyes sliding to the girls who were dancing around the booths. For the men, not with them. The men mostly sat and watched while young beautiful girls gyrated and teased and tried to keep their attention.
“I’m not getting up to dance for you,” she told Charles.
Something crossed his face, a small expression of impatience, but he quickly replaced it with a smile. He leaned closer to her on the seat so that even with the thick aroma of alcohol, food and cigars, she could smell the freshness of his cologne. His fingers found her arm and stroked lightly, making her tremble. “One day, you’ll forgive me, really forgive me. You know that, right?”
Hope forced a chuckle. “Really?”
“Yes, because you never stopped loving me.”
Hope wanted to laugh, to throw her platter of peppery dishes in his face. She wanted to do a lot of things. Charles was looking into her eyes, his face close, apparently unfazed by the fact that what he said could annoy her. Her laughter died in her throat, as did any smart rejoinder she could have attempted. Just looking at him, she realised that he still had the power to reach her insides, to make her confused, to doubt herself, and to want him to be hers, the way he had never ever been.
As the realization passed through her mind, she forced a mocking smile to hide the tumult she was feeling. She laid her fingers on his cheek and stroked it gently. “You still think too much of yourself, Charles. You have to work on that.”
He grinned. To any onlooker, it would have looked like an intimate scene. Hope didn’t care, because she didn’t know anyone there. At least she thought so, until something made her look towards the stairs and she saw Daniel Amadi. He’d only just arrived, and as he ascended into the mezzanine, his eyes locked on hers, and she saw realization suffuse his features.
She pulled her hand from Charles’s cheek, mortified at what she assumed would be going through Daniel’s mind. It was too late. Daniel smiled wryly in her direction, nodded a silent greeting, then turned away – and in the few minutes he spent at the party, greeting the host and a few other people, he didn’t look her way again, not even once.