The next week was a busy one at the office. Hope and her team worked tirelessly to finish the engineering services drawings for a multi-storey building in Lekki.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” It was her mother, on Thursday night, hovering at the door to Hope’s bedroom in the five-bedroom duplex where they lived in Gbagada. Patience Alade was a tall woman, slim and well preserved for her age. At the moment, her face was touched with a worried frown as she watched Hope, still wearing her work clothes, collapsed across the bed in exhaustion.
“I’m not really hungry,” Hope replied. “I’m just tired.” What she really wanted was sleep. She’d been running around in the office all day juggling meetings with producing drawings. All that, combined with the drive home in bumper to bumper traffic, had ensured that right now, she could barely lift her arms.
“We put your food in a cooler in the kitchen. At least try to eat something.” Patience regarded her daughter. “You can’t keep working yourself like a machine? What if you were married? Would you come home like this – exhausted from work, unable to talk to or play with your children before going to bed.”
Hope sighed, wondering once again why she still lived with her parents. If she was very prudent, she could afford to rent a mini-flat like many of the single girls she knew. She had toyed with the idea many times, but she’d never gone through with it, because for her, independence wasn’t what it was to other girls. She had no interest in the stress that came with managing rent, Landlords, generators and all that. Plus, being free to have guys spend the night meant nothing to her, because she didn’t have time for guys anyway. After Charles, her work had become her life in more ways than one.
“I’m not married, mummy. I’m single, and I’m exhausted. I told you about our deadline at work.”
Patience sighed and started to say something but Hope interrupted before she could continue. “I might wake up later and eat, hmm. Tell Justina to leave the cooler on the kitchen counter.”
Her mother didn’t look happy. “You don’t have to do all the work in the office in one day. You have to start learning where to stop to continue another day. You’re too young to be living like this. Your mates…”
Hope blocked out the rest of the speech. It was the same one she was familiar with. “Your mates are married and are managing kids and careers…” and so on and so forth. She closed her eyes and faked deep breathing, hoping her mother would go away. The faking became real after a while, because she woke up to her morning alarm.
She pulled herself out of bed, still tired, her body feeling sore and achy. She was still wearing her work clothes from the day before, and she felt grimy. She stared at her reflection in the mirror, suddenly sad. This is really not life, she thought, undressing and going to the bathroom to prepare for another day at work. Her mother’s words stayed with her. ‘Your mates are married and managing kids and careers.’ She’d thought she’d be married too by this time. In those heady days of her relationship with Charles. She’d hoped, prayed, believed that by the time she was twenty-seven she would have his rings on her finger and his child on her arm.
But life never worked out according to those plans. She prepared for work quickly. Shower, dress, makeup, downstairs to make a sandwich and steal an apple from the fridge. It was still dark outside when she finished, and even Justina, the housegirl, was not yet awake. Hope noticed that there was no cooler on the counter. Her mother had rightly ignored her and probably put the food in the freezer, at least it wouldn’t waste.
Outside, the gateman called out a greeting as she made for her car, which was parked by the fence beside her mother’s SUV.
“Aunty Hope. Good morning o.”
“Good morning, Ayuba.”
“Make I open gate now?”
Hope shook her head. “I’m not ready yet. I’ll horn.”
He went back inside his gate house and Hope tossed her bag and things in the car. She entered the driver’s seat and said a quick prayer, then started the engine. After a few minutes she hit the horn and watched as Ayuba rushed to open the gates.
“Another day,” she muttered under her breath. “God, please let it be a good one.”
It wasn’t. At least not in the morning anyway. Her car stopped in traffic, twice. And at some point, even though she pressed down hard on the accelerator, it just kept slowing down. It took multiple times switching the engine off and on and a few curses from other motorists to get the car to the office.
It was Friday, and because they had submitted their pressing deliverables the day before, it wasn’t looking to be a busy day. A few meetings, checking and replying emails, and close to an hour spent on her daily crossword game. The day went by very fast and before long it was close of business. Her mechanic had come in the morning to pick up the car, promising to return it in a few hours, but at five in the evening she was still waiting.
“Why not just take a cab home,” Agnes suggested. She had redone her makeup and looked more than ready for an evening out with her date, some guy she’d just met. “Your mechanic can bring your car to your house tomorrow.”
Hope shook her head, an image of the gum-chewing mechanic with his skinny jeans and eyes that filled with delight whenever her car had a fault filling her head. “That one will use my car for public transport. He’ll do two trips to Ibadan before he returns it.”
Agnes laughed. “Okay o!” Her phone was ringing. “That’s Kola. I’m sure he’s here.” She picked up her bag. “See you on Monday, love.”
“Yeah. Have fun.”
Hope waited about thirty more minutes, then called the mechanic, who promised to have the car ready in another hour. She watched as people shut down their systems and left the office. She had nothing better to do than idle on the internet. It was depressing, on a Friday night, to have nothing to do. No date, no nothing. Just an unreliable mechanic and a problematic car.
An hour later, she called the mechanic again. Another hour, he begged, detailing all the names of things he’d had to adjust or fix in the car. Hope cut the call and decided to check the movies showing. At least she could while away time at the galleria instead of waiting at the office until she was the only one keeping the security men from locking up.
She found a movie she hadn’t seen and took a cab over to the mall, buying a ticket and salt popcorn before going in to watch almost two hours of passable romantic comedy. The cynic in her couldn’t help rolling her eyes at the happy ending and the whispered ‘awwws’ from other girls in the dimly lit cinema.
Outside, she checked her phone. There were no missed calls. Meaning that the mechanic hadn’t finished. She called him again and waited as the phone rang and rang on his end. He didn’t pick up. She tried again and the number was switched off.
She cursed under her breath. Now, she would have no choice but to take a cab. She stalked down the stairs, annoyed. The floor below the cinema floor had a number of stores selling shoes, apparel and such. She would have walked past them on her journey towards the next set of stairs if she hadn’t seen Charles emerging from one of them.
He saw her and stopped, letting the door swing shut behind him. Hope wanted to keep walking. She wasn’t really in the mood to talk to him. Would it be rude if she just walked past? Probably. She slowed her pace and he smiled, his eyes teasing.
“You look angry,” he said, moving from the door of the store to stand in her path. He was wearing a suit, dark grey, with a darker shirt beneath, and of course, he looked good enough to eat. His gaze flicked past her to the crowd of moviegoers trickling down the stairs, then back to her. “Was the movie that bad?”
Hope shrugged. “No, not really.” She gave him a thin smile, resisting the urge to ask what he was doing here. She didn’t want to lengthen their encounter for any reason. “I’m on my way home,” she said, starting to edge past him.
“Why the rush?” His eyes held hers, still smiling, still teasing. “It’s Friday night. Nobody has to be home early on Friday night.”
Her eyebrows went up. “How about married people? With wives waiting for them at home, and children.”
He was quiet for a moment, a small sad half-smile playing on his lips. “It’s funny that I haven’t seen you in years, and yet, in a month we’ve run into each other thrice.”
Hope almost clapped at the deflection. “Funny is not the word I’d use. Irritating, maybe.”
For some reason, he found her statement funny, laughing out loud, the sound so familiar and full of memories. “Look,” Hope said, angry with herself for wanting to succumb to the insane desire to dive headfirst into those memories. “I have to go…”
“Are you driving?”
“No, I’m getting a cab,” she replied with a frown, moments before she realised that she had just given him an opening, which he didn’t hesitate to take.
“I’ll drop you,” he said, as if it was a done deal.
“No!” Hope exclaimed. “No.” She had no intention of sharing a car with him all the way back to the mainland.
She chuckled, and even to her ears the sound was mirthless and bitter. “You are asking stupid questions,” she snapped, walking past him.
He followed her downstairs. Outside, once they were past the burly security men at the entrance, he caught her hand.
She pulled her hand from his. “What?”
“I’m sorry, you know. I really am.”
There was a torrent of tears threatening to burst from her eyes, but she held them in. “It’s fine,” she said with a shrug. “I moved on a long time ago.”
Charles nodded. “I’d really like to take you home. I won’t feel settled watching you get in one of these cabs. It might not be safe. Just let me, as an old friend.”
‘You were never my friend.’ The words hovered on the tip of her tongue, but she refrained from saying them out loud. A cab drove by, slowly, the hopeful driver unmindful of the cars honking behind him as he searched for a passenger.
“Come on,” Charles said. He looked hopeful, with that hint of sadness she’d seen in his eyes before. “You don’t even have to talk to me if you don’t want to.”
Hope drew a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. “Where’s your car?”
The traffic on the bridge had reduced somewhat, enough that instead of bumper to bumper traffic they could move at a steady crawl. Inside the coolly air-conditioned confines of Charles’s car, the same range rover he’d driven to Greg Abudu’s party, they were both silent, the only sound the low hum of the engine and barely audible voices from the call-in program on the radio.
If it had been anybody else, Hope would have felt obliged to make conversation, but this was Charles, she didn’t owe him anything but resentment.
“So how long have you worked at Madueke and Makinde?” he asked, breaking the silence.
She snorted, her eyes going to his fingers on the wheel of the car. They were long, graceful and tapered, with the nails neatly filed, buffed, and she noticed now, visibly missing a ring. “Where’s your wife?” she asked bluntly, ignoring his attempt at small talk.
He sighed, beating his fingers against the wheel in series of light taps. “She left,” he said, after a moment. His eyes skipped to hers and his lips lifted in that small sad smile again. He turned back to the windscreen. “So you still live with your parents?”
She turned away from him, towards the window, still reeling from what he’d said. What did he mean ‘she left.’ Was he no longer married? And if he wasn’t… She closed her eyes. Well, even if he wasn’t, it didn’t mean he’d changed from the selfish asshole who broke her heart.
“You know how it is,” she said calmly, pretending that he hadn’t dropped a bombshell in her lap. “My parents are not the type to let me out without a ring on my finger.”
His gaze flicked to her again. “That might happen sooner than they expect,” he said with a quiet smile.
Hope frowned, the cynic in her convinced that he was dropping lines to make her let down her guard, to make her think that some part of their relationship was salvageable. Well, she wasn’t going to fall into that trap. So, instead of responding, she concentrated her gaze on the view outside the car windows, the pale moonlight shimmering on the water. The giant billboard at the end of the bridge, everything but the man beside her, the man who’d once held her heart.
The silence stretched for a few more kilometres. He drove, and she refrained from asking what he meant when he said his wife left.
He didn’t need directions to her parent’s house. He’d been a regular guest when they were still dating. He drove down the quiet street to park at the front of the gate.
“Thanks,” Hope muttered, already reaching for the handle.
“Wait.” His voice was cajoling, pleading.
Hope sighed. “What?”
“I know you have every reason to hate me, Hope, but I’m really sorry. I’ve spent years thinking about what I did to you. Every time I thought about coming to apologise to you face to face, but I was afraid that you’d hate me too much to listen…”
“Charles…” Hope stopped him. “There’s no need for this. It was a long time ago. Like I said, I’ve moved on.”
“So…” he grinned. “Will you come with me to a party tomorrow evening? One of my friends is having a birthday soiree for his girlfriend.”
“I don’t… No,” Hope shook her head. What was he doing? “I don’t want to spend time with you.”
“Why?” He turned in his seat, towards her, giving her full view of his perfection. “If you’ve really forgiven me, you would.”
“Or maybe you’re afraid?”
His only reply was a smile. Not too smug not to be endearing, but smug nonetheless.
“I’m not afraid of being around you,” Hope said scornfully.
“Then prove it.”
This was where she should ask him to clarify about the wife, Hope thought, but was there a way to ask at this moment that wouldn’t give the impression that she was hoping for something more than just going to a party with him?
“Fine,” she said, giving in. “Tomorrow when?”
He grinned. “Okay.”
She studied the triumphant expression on his face for a moment, then she opened the door and slid out of the car. Whatever it was she was doing, letting him close, flirting with whatever it was he was offering, she was sure that somehow, she would come to regret it.