On New Year’s Eve, Adie was not among the throng of merry makers on the street where he lived. He had planned to attend the End of Year Vigil Service of Christ Believers Church in Gbagada with his friend, Bode. But Bode had called to say that he had changed his mind because he was taking his girlfriend, Alice, to a party in Lekki.
He was in his room, almost asleep, when he heard a loud bang. He got up with a start, afraid that armed robbers had come to pay him a visit. He was halfway across the room when he remembered that the children on his street had taken to throwing firecrackers at unsuspecting female passer-bys. He felt foolish even as he heard their latest victim cursing, her voice drifting up to his apartment on the first floor.
“Idiot!” she screamed “If I catch you eh…”
“Sister, sorry o! Fine girl like you no suppose vex now!” They teased her unrepentantly.
Adie opened the door and went downstairs. When he got to the gate, he gave them what he regarded as a menacing look and they scampered off, giggling as they went. From where he stood beside the gate, he could make out a silhouette beside a car.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” She said warily, rubbing her left leg as she spoke. He wanted to ask her if she was hurting but he held the words back.
She was picking her things from the ground and stuffing them haphazardly into a bag. Then she looked up and he wondered why he didn’t recognize her at first. Perhaps it was because she looked different every time he saw her.
She lived in the flat above his, and had barely spoken to him in all of the nine months he’d been there. Once, he had said hello to her at the gate. She’d looked at him passively with her head held up high like a geisha; with dark braids contrasting against skin the colour of the anthill in his mother’s compound in Jos.
Her bag was now slung loosely over her shoulders and in her other hand she held a nylon bag filled with foodstuff. She brushed the bags to one side impatiently while she locked her car door. Watching her gave him some sort of perverse pleasure.
“Let me help.” He offered.
“No, thanks.” She said curtly.
“It’s alright. I’m going back inside too” She regarded him evenly and then gave him the bags. Their footsteps beat an uneven rhythm on the concrete floor as she led the way up the spiral staircase.
“Thanks” She said when they got to her apartment.
“Don’t mention it.” He felt slightly uncomfortable for a reason he couldn’t fathom.
“What’s your name?” he said.
She looked at him, nostrils flaring, as if she was trying to decide whether or not he was worthy of such an honour.
“Maria” She said in her husky voice.
Back at his apartment, he took a can of Guinness out of the fridge and popped it open.
Maria. He said her name over and over in his head. He had thought it would be unusual – like Solange or Zahara. Names the nouveau riche branded their children. Labels that proclaimed their new age sophistication. He replayed their conversation, and thought of a hundred other things he could have said to her. He shook his head to rid himself of his inane thoughts and went into the living room. He flipped through the TV channels idly. There was nothing to watch, except for the live vigil services that every station was screening in a bid to outdo the other.
He switched it off and refreshed his Facebook page on his laptop. A friend in London had sent him an invite to join a group called “We condemn Umar Farouk’s Action. Nigerians are not terrorists.” Attached was a plea asking him to sign a petition against the Nigerian boy who attempted to blow up a plane on Christmas Day. He minimised the page, irritated by the exaggerated fury the Nigerian middle class was notorious for.
He opened a new tab and heard a remix of Osita Osadebe’s Osondi Owendi from the speakers outside. Feeling nostalgic, he walked to the window and opened the blinds. It was a melange of madness outside. Bodies polished with sweat writhed on the tramp that had been converted to a make-shift dance floor. The music was in fortuitous harmony with the faint hum of generators breathing in the dark. Area boys had created a baricade at the gate and were collecting “levies” from car owners. A group of gangly teenagers were calling out taunts of “Fokasibe” to a girl wearing a cropped top that did little to conceal the stretch marks on her stomach.
He padlocked the burglary proof door behind him and went outside. A boy of about ten wearing aviator sunglasses, white gloves and a t-shirt with the inscription: ‘Long live the king!’ was thrilling the crowd with the moves Michael Jackson was famous for.
A slight movement made him look up. She was standing beside him.
“What does he think he is doing? The moonwalk is so overrated”
She spoke English with a cultured accent that made it difficult to tell which tribe she came from.
“The boy is trying now” he said.
She rolled her eyes “I’m going to get a drink. The weather is so hot these days.” She wiped sweat off her smooth brow. “Aren’t you coming?”
They went to a stand where cold drinks were being sold. She bought a bottle of Pepsi and they sat down on a bench. She watched the people dancing with a bored expression on her face. Her lips were bright red; her nails a vile shade of green. He could smell the light floral notes of her perfume. A woman with massive arms was pulling her son’s ear and calling him an Ode as she dragged him across the street. People laughed, their drinks forgotten in their hands. The bench vibrated, and she put her hands into her pocket and brought out a blackberry.
“Oh my God! Maryam Babangida is dead.” She called the name with an air of familiarity.
“She died last week. Didn’t you hear?”
“No I didn’t. Eyah! Poor woman…she struggled with that cancer for so many years”
Adie did not tell her that the death of the wife of an ex-military dictator was the farthest thing from his mind. He vaguely remembered a dark-skinned woman wearing an ankara blouse, cutting a ribbon with a flourish to declare a new building open on TV.
The DJ was now playing the latest club banger.
“That is my problem with Nigerian music” she said “All the songs sound alike.”
“Really? So what kind of music do you like?”
“Jazz and rock. And I love Joss Stone, she’s amazing.”
“She is. Her cover of The White Stripe’s Fell in Love with a Boy is good.”
She smiled, revealing a dimple in one cheek.
“Good? It’s a classic!” She paused, as though she was considering something. “Chidi says I have bad taste in music.”
“Who is Chidi?”
There was a stretch of silence.
“How’s your leg?”
“My what? Oh – it’s fine. Those little rascals should be locked up sha” she swatted at a mosquito as she spoke.
“So what do you do?”
“I sell houses.”
“Interesting.” He could see her closing a deal in a crisp suit, aloof expression firmly in place.
“If you say so.”
“What kind of houses do you sell?”
“How many kinds of houses do you know?”
“Did I say i was angry with you?”
She stood up and dusted the back of her skirt. HHkkkk
He did not speak to her as she walked away, her palm slippers leaving identical hollows in the sand. Someone had set off fireworks and they exploded in the sky in a multitude of colours. He went back home to find it engulfed in darkness.
He started his generator and resumed his browsing. Someone knocked on the door and kept quiet, hoping the person would go away.
The knock came again, rapid in its insistence.
“Who is it?” he asked. When there was no answer, he opened the door cautiously.
“They’ve brought light.” she said as if they were in the middle of a conversation.
“Won’t you put off your generator?”
He went to the balcony and she locked the door behind her while he turned off the generator. When he turned, she was standing behind him; balancing her weight on one foot first, then the other. She reminded him of the girls in his primary school who used to play ten ten for hours on end.
“Sorry I snapped at you.” She said.
“Sometimes I have mood swings and I just go off. Pele”
They stood there for a moment, not saying anything. Then she leaned forward and kissed him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and he caressed her body gently. They made their way into the bedroom, the track lights in his ceiling casting shadows around them. He took off her dress and it fell to the floor. She appeared slimmer without clothes, her breasts smaller, her hips softly moulded. He shed his clothes and they sank into the mattress together.
They were silent afterwards. They lay with their limbs loosely entwined, their breaths mingling as they lay sated in each other’s arms.
When she fell asleep, he absorbed the sounds of doors opening and closing outside; of people calling out to one another cheerfully. He remembered that she did not know his name. Then he wondered if it mattered to her, or if they would keep on living separate lives like nothing had happened.
Photo credit: http://www.the617.com