She heard him shuffling around in the next room. His leather sandals slapped against the marble-tiled floor, his waxy sokoto rustled as he moved. She lay still on her side, staring at the hotel room’s egg-shell papered wall, conjuring up images of his movements in her mind and listening out for the quietness between his steps. Sunrise made itself known with its amber rays spilling into the bedroom.
When they first spoke she thought him odd. A disheveled, slouched, awkward but endearing man, he came across as much shorter than he actually was. She felt like he needed a hug. And to be put upright.
She caught his eye before she knew it. He’d watched her all morning as she spoke with delegates, jotted down notes and fiddled with the bed of tight curls on her head. To him she radiated youthfulness, triggering memories of a life that he had for many years tucked away – but not completely hidden – in his mind’s compartment of past times. Looking at her felt like a punch in the stomach and a gentle forehead kiss at the same time.
They were standing in a packed conference hall where uniformed grey and black suits and ties with sharp elbows jostled past each other, their bespectacled personal assistants trailing behind. She was there to monitor the event and ensure the program ran smoothly, though he sensed that she – in her white sun dress splattered with pink, blue and lilac flowers – was too restless for this corporate setting. Too unconventional. Too multi-coloured.
“So what do you guys have going on here?” she gestured towards the stand he was occupying along with his colleagues who were milling around their work station, failing at their attempts to look busy.
“Ah,” she offered, feigning interest. “And how is that going for you?”
“It pays the bills,” he replied, with a hint of regret in his voice. “And you? What do you do?”
“Magic.” She flirted and fluttered like a ladybird avoiding its captor.
“And what do you do when you’re not doing magic?”
“I’m always doing magic.” She smiled coquettishly.
“Do you have plans this evening?” He pushed.
He was usually more measured with his approach. Caught off guard, she shuffled uncomfortably. She wanted to escape the heavy weight of the sun, she was not used to the thick heat of this desert country.
“Erm, none yet.”
“Would you like to join me for dinner?” He asked confidently.
He didn’t know where to take her, he barely knew this town.
She hesitated.“Ok. Sure.”
“Here, write down the name of your hotel and I’ll pick you up at 7.”
He handed her a post-it note and a biro. She scribbled the name and address of the hotel obediently then gave the note back. He read it over twice, making sure every letter was legible. He looked up to catch her gazing at the note in his hand.
“So I’ll see you later then?”
She turned to leave. He watched her intently as she flitted away.
Finding something to wear was a struggle. Always pack a little black dress, she thought to herself. She had to make do with a little black skirt instead, and a peach-blossom blouse.
She took her time to get ready. Under the shower she reflected on the day. She was apprehensive. She didn’t know this man nor truly of his intentions, yet she’d made herself available for him. Back in the bedroom she toyed with the idea of calling it off and not going. But changed her mind. She got dressed and pulled her mass of hair into a bun then carefully applied some makeup.
Bare-backed and rouge-lipped she sat on the edge of her bed, waiting.
“Take the opportunities that life presents to you,” she murmured in a bid to convince herself that it was perfectly alright to share personal time, and possibly more, with someone she barely knew.
It wouldn’t be the first time. She pondered over the long weekend she spent with the Cameroonian, and the unaffected feeling that followed the passion. She left him after the third night without saying goodbye.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a telephone ring. The receptionist said a gentleman had arrived asking for her and was waiting in the foyer. As she rose she caught a glimpse of herself in the wardrobe mirror and paused for a moment in contemplation before leaving the room.
His eyes lit up as she entered the reception area.
“You look wonderful,” he poured nervously as she neared.
Pinprick sized beads of sweat gathered along his hairline.
“Thank you,” she replied coyly. He looked much taller out of his work attire. His bristly beard was now neatly clipped.
The sun was going down and the temperature began to do the same. A cool breeze blew past, sending goosebumps along her back. He led the way to the taxi and ushered her into the backseat before joining her from the other side. He looked over at her as she stared through the window, distracted. He took her hand in his, their first touch. The hairs on her arms stood to attention. She turned to him with a kind smile as the car took off.
When he awoke the next day he saw her lying there restfully, near naked, vulnerable and unaware of the conflict she stirred in him.
On hearing him stumble out of bed a familiar feeling crept over her. Aloneness. Through all of her romantic liaisons she’d become acquainted and then reunited with this empty aloneness. She had felt it in the arms of lovers and in the quiet of the night, this emotion dwelled in her several times over her young life.
The night before she was all he could see. She enthralled him over dinner. The way she spoke of love, life, politics and freedom sent pangs through his core.
“Where would you like to be in ten years? How would you want your life to look?” she probed.
She didn’t know the answer for herself but usually enjoyed listening to the various responses when they came her way. He had a default answer, the one he shared with his colleagues, family members and friends. Get his MBA, get a promotion, renovate his parent’s house in the village and build one close by for himself so he can be near them during their retirement.
“I want to quit my job. I want to leave Lagos. I want to write. I want to travel. I want to farm.” His answers surprised her. His readiness to impart his truth surprised him.
“So why don’t you do it? What’s holding you back?”
“Responsibilities.” he said sullenly.
She took his hand in both of hers and placed a light kiss on the back of his palm.
“Go get that farm,” she urged.
His throat stung, he couldn’t swallow. He couldn’t speak.
Once they finished eating they headed to a bar where Hip Hop, RnB and Afropop music blared through the speakers. Once on the dance-floor she felt him lust over her as he swung her around, when he grabbed her close she spun away.
She often gave herself to the men that fell for her. After all surely it is better to share love with somebody desperate for it—even if not quite deserving—than it is to lock it away, dulling in a treasure chest of things that could have been but never were? Yes. She was sure that it was better to spread love, or her version of it at least. Besides, he needed a hug, and a woman’s warmth. And also this was different. He opened up to her, he shared. When he spoke of his constant search for peace she saw truth in his eyes, a truth that she could relate to.
Next to her, he felt like a failure. Here she was sleeping calmly whilst he wrestled with feelings of loss. He had lost himself over these years. He had taken the sensible route, good education, good job, good house. But he wanted to live on the edge, his apparently normal life made him sick. He saw himself as a waste. She has so much time, he thought to himself. He was halfway through his. He had to leave.
In the next room he went about collecting his belongings. He stuffed his watch, phone and hotel key-card that sat on the coffee table into his pockets. Picked up his wrist beads that were lodged in the side of the sofa, his wallet was on the dining table.
Her ears throbbed to the sound of his abandoning her.
He stood in the doorway taking one last look at what could have been. He couldn’t lay as peacefully as she did nor breathe her soft lulls. He envied and ached for her in equal parts.
He knew this couldn’t last, tomorrow they would go their separate ways. She would return home from this arid oil-monied country, as would he, leaving their liaison at the trail of the sand dunes.
The door clicked gently behind him.
His heart banged noisily in his chest as he waited for the lift to arrive, glaring at his distorted reflexion in the steely mirrored doors. They opened. He stepped in. Slid his gold wedding band on his finger, took out his phone and called home.
Image: Kwesi Abbensetts is a recent discovery. His body of work is many kinds of marvelous. This particular image is part of a project done in collaboration with Daniela Yohannes, titled “Where Are The African Gods: A Working Series” Click HERE to see more of his work.
About the Author
Billie Adwoa McTernan is a writer and editor covering political and cultural affairs across Africa. She is a keen traveller but hates packing. You can follow her on twitter here: @billie_mack