Abayomi slid the blade of her tenth anniversary letter opener into the flap sealing the letter and cut it open decisively. The bright green envelope stood out from the stack of letters she was processing before calling it a day. She sighed. It had been a long day. One of many, and the gilded letter opener gifted to her by her staff upon her tenth anniversary in this office was testament to that. It was a joke really. Everyone teased her about how efficiently she carried out her administrations day after day. Abayomi on the other hand delighted at the relevance of a sharp object with which to do business in this day and age, especially for a woman. She loved its weight in her hand. It made her feel like she’d accomplished something after all these years behind this desk. Her fingers parted the envelope and fished out a letter printed on official stationary. Abayomi held her glasses to her eyes without putting them on as she would when only scanning for importance. Skimming through the printed lines, the words ‘xenophobia’, ‘South Africa’ and ‘agreement’ leapt out at her. Abayomi hooked her glasses on properly as she read the letter carefully again, then set it down on her desk and swung around in her chair to stare out of the window.
Down in the city below, Lagos was going about its daily business, as it usually did. Tiny people disembarking from a bus while others queued were signs that the afternoon traffic was picking up. Soon it would be chaos down there. But, despite life sprawling out into the streets in a hundred different directions, to Abayomi it all suddenly made perfect sense. Those teeming crowds down below in the streets of Lagos were her friends and neighbours, fellow human beings who gifted her with purpose, rather than just ants crawling across a dark continent. It wasn’t so much the plight of Africans in the big world that got her started in this business all those years ago. No, she’d remained diligently at this desk all that time simply because she believed that each of them deserved dignity.
It was the cornerstone of a life worth living, enough to build any dream upon, and now this letter had arrived!
“Abi, I’m off in a…” Pia stopped in mid-sentence, squinting to take a better look. “Geez, eat something, will you?” Pia ordered, surging into Abayomi’s office as if there was a crisis. Had the desk not been between them, Pia would’ve embraced her colleague and friend.
Pia stared inquisitively at Abayomi, whose mind was clearly still wandering around out there in Lagos. When Abayomi swung her chair around again, she clapped her palm over the envelope, but, alas, it was too late. Pia had noticed the green envelope and snatched the letter, suspecting it to be the cause of Abayomi’s daydreaming. Pia pursed her lips sternly to warn Abayomi to back off, then ran her eyes along the text contained in the letter. Her eyebrows knit quizzically as she interpreted the contents. Her jaw dropped. The expression on Abayomi’s face was mirrored by the surprise on Pia’s face – then they both burst out laughing…
“Chineke me!” Pia shrieked, flopping into a chair. The news took a few moments to sink in – it truly was an ‘Oh-My-God’ moment!
“Now who says wishes don’t come true?” Pia gasped. She picked up the telephone to dial Lemar, but Abayomi cut off the call.
“He would love this!” Pia said, wondering what Abayomi was playing at. “Lemar is perfect for this… he’s qualified!” Pia said, wondering why Abayomi was reluctant to share the news with him.
“It’s my decision who comes with me”, Abayomi replied.
She stood up to stare out of the window at lively Lagos again. It was true. Abayomi knew that Lemar would indeed be an asset to the mission, but she didn’t want him at her side on this particular occasion. Lemar was more a hunter out for the kill than a relationship-builder. A change from the traditional was clearly on Abayomi’s mind.
“I’ve decided to take you instead,” she said, finally.
“Stop messing around, Abi!” Pia frowned. She then realized that Abayomi was quite serious and the letter dropped onto the table.
“Don’t waste this opportunity, Abi”, Pia began. Lemar had helped Abayomi build this organization with as much dedication as she had for it herself.
“He shares your vision, you know” she went on, but Abayomi’s mind was made up.
“Relax, I’ll break the news to Lemar”, Abayomi said, sitting down again.
Pia was still not convinced, and Abayomi knew her well enough to know that Pia was already imagining professional confrontations. Pia didn’t like confrontations.
Abayomi leant forward in her chair. “Now listen, we don’t need more big ideas and more macho talk. A down-to-earth girl like you could really show who we truly are…as a people, and what we’re made of.” Abayomi paused – she read Pia’s face to verify that her train of thought was on track.
“Progress needs something real” Abayomi stated, with the same animation that had inspired Pia to join the company the very first time they met. Pia remained silent. Chug-chug-chug… Abayomi could hear Pia’s mind working!
“What’s wrong? …Is strong, assertive, vivacious Pia afraid?” Abayomi teased.
“Shoosh!” Pia scowled. She stood up and stomped out of Abayomi’s office. “OK everyone, pens down right now!” she called out to the rest of the office, then turned back into Abayomi’s office. “He’s not going to be happy, I’m telling you”, Pia warned, her thumb pointing behind her.
Lemar had just arrived back at the office and was rather unimpressed by the festive atmosphere that was brewing. Abayomi and Lemar made a great professional team, so his sombre mood didn’t bother her. She felt full of energy and it was more than this opportunity that floated her. Lately, the idea of exploring herself beyond all her work commitments had become an increasingly attractive one. It was a welcome distraction from the reams of paper that surrounded her every day. A trip to South Africa would be the perfect opportunity to explore new possibilities and, even more than Pia’s exceptional legal skills, she would be a great friend on the journey. Life was waiting out there for Abayomi. She just had to get off her backside!
Pop! A champagne cork flew across the office and landed at Lemar’s feet. He continued to stack the paper being spat out by the printer, completely oblivious to the impromptu celebration that had turned into a full-blown party. Abayomi watched from afar as Lemar scanned the room. When he found her eyes she discovered that he had been looking for her. Lemar’s emotional dictionary really only had one word in it – and that word would range in intensity. This time ‘discuss’ came across the ether, and Abayomi replied with a silent nod to signal the understanding between them.
He’d obviously caught wind of the invitation already, so Abayomi turned her attention to the cackling office girls before Lemar sniffed out her intentions. She could still feel his eyes on her though – which may or may not have been a sign of expectation. There was an awful lot of name-dropping as the girls flipped through the brochure that had accompanied the official green letter. The brochure showcased fellow dignitaries who would also make the trip to Johannesburg – Lemar was particularly attracted to tales from the corridors of power.
“Olewayo Jembe!” an office intern gasped.
Jembe was one of Nigeria’s own human rights superstars and she considered it an honour that Abayomi would be rubbing shoulders with him. The all-star cast of political and legal heavyweights who were invited to the conference sent a clear message that this was not business as usual. Their participation meant that the South African government was serious about addressing xenophobic problems experienced by Nigerians in their country. The aim of the conference was to establish a trade relationship between the two African countries and Abayomi thought it a clever strategy to ease the two nationalities into a relationship of co-dependence at a very basic level. Even as a gesture of friendship it would help to control conflict in the streets; a very real problem for South Africa. But Abayomi also knew that, beyond the suave Sandton Convention Centre where the week-long conference was to take place, the delegates would have their work cut out for them.
“Oh look, forbidden fruit!” another colleague pointed out after reading the profile of a Priest who stood in opposition to the trade relationship.
He had a dignified presence even in the photograph, but Abayomi was aware that a peace-making exercise such as this conference would only be successful if all the interested parties were invited to the table. It was no secret that some South Africans didn’t take too kindly to immigrants competing with them for local jobs. The South African’s believed they had priority, which was one of the reasons why xenophobia was so rife. The Priest represented these interests, and Abayomi sensed he was not a man to be trifled with – a Google search revealed the Priest to have been recently censured for refusing to allow foreign nationals into his church’s social programme.
“He needs a spoonful of humble pie”, the girls joked, but Abayomi noted the coincidence.
It was planned that the conference would close with a ceremony in which representatives from all over Africa would eat from a pie to symbolise the fostering of good relationships in the long term.
“Luckily we’ve got a big mouth on our side too!” Pia yelled, raising Abayomi’s hand.
The champagne had already done its work on Pia, but everyone knew that the success of women in business world-wide was an issue close to Pia’s heart. Abayomi’s invitation was indeed a milestone to be celebrated, and Pia pushed a paper cup into Abayomi’s hand, filling it with bubbly.
“You, my friend, are what’s called an occupational hazard” Abayomi hiccupped.
“Tell my hubby and I’ll be forced to kill you!” Pia slurred back, her pinky finger pointing in a general direction behind Abayomi.
“Circling, but not approaching?” Abayomi enquired casually, without turning around. Pia nodded then devised an excuse to escape with Abayomi to the cloakroom. When they got there, Pia hopped onto the dropped toilet seat to push open a window and lit a cigarette while Abayomi locked the stall door. Abayomi refused a puff, so Pia pulled her tongue at her.
“You’d better get used to me if we’re gonna stay sane on this trip”, Abayomi quipped.
“You’re passing-up on what could be a romantic getaway with strong, dark and handsome over there for a middle-aged mum, and you’re telling me to get used to it? You’re mad, Abi!”
“Are you saying that, if it were your decision, you’d rather take him instead of me?” Abayomi teased.
“C’mon what’s there not to like? He’s like a warm cup of coffee on a cold night!” Pia said, laying her thoughts out bare. Lemar was quite the catch too. In and out of the office, girls swooned over the Denzel Washington lookalike.
“The good teeth…” Pia blew out matter-of-factly along with a billow of smoke, “…that’s his claim to fame!”
Abayomi giggled, fidgeting while Pia drove home the point that even the guys respected him as a man in charge, so she couldn’t quite understand why Abayomi was resisting his advances.
“Never eat and crap in the same place” Abayomi offered as her level-headed reason, but Pia understood Abayomi’s hard-learned truth. She had fought long and hard, and with many, to pursue the beating of her own drum.
“In a relationship you have to give that up.”
“Give it up?” Abayomi quizzed.
“I have three kids. Trust me, you’ll be giving up a lot of who you think you are” Pia was matter-of-fact, but Abayomi disagreed. To lead herself, attached or sans a relationship, was a sense of dignity she had sought her whole life, and, finding it had made her realize a profound truth about all relationships:
“It takes two willing people”, Abayomi played her well-worn sound-bite.
But it was true. It was her relationship credo, the DNA that drove all matters Abayomi. Mutual participation in a common vision made for practical relationships, and this was an ineradicable/ indelible lesson learnt from her parents. It was a lesson in sharing.
“Whoa, now you’re blowing my mind!” Pia gasped, eyes as big as saucers. Egging Abayomi on so sarcastically earned her a sharp pinch.
To Pia, relationships of mutual participation and Abayomi’s penchant for independence seemed a contradiction. As she pointed out, Abayomi was not without her own little idiosyncrasies, like being thorough to a faulting degree, Pia also realized that attempting the impossible was what brought Abayomi the success she now enjoyed. Tangled in her own words, Pia’s argument lost steam and she took a pensive puff of the cigarette instead.
Abayomi smiled at the fact that their differences formed the glue of their friendship.
They were thrown together by fate a long time ago, and had built a great relationship swimming alongside each other in the choppy sea of women in the working world. Similarly, in her love life, Abayomi didn’t just want to be part of someone else’s life, she wanted to build something with someone she respected.
“The only time man’s going to encourage you is when he thinks you’re coming”, Pia winced.
“Well, if I encourage him, why wouldn’t a man encourage me in return?” Abayomi asked, then added “it’s the human thing to do.”
Pia’s head suddenly dropped onto her shoulder. Her eyes drooped and her jaw hung to floor. Pia grunted a snore, pretending to have suddenly fallen asleep, then swiftly awoke again.
“The perfect man is just a theory!” she spat. “When it comes down to Lemar, that man doesn’t need your smarts Abi. He can see his unborn children in those deep soulful eyes you inherited from your mother!”
Indeed those eyes had attracted many suitors for Abayomi, most of them confessing during a drunken tryst at a late night bar how lost they had become in them…as if looking into her eyes were a free trip to Narnia! What Pia was alluding to though was a raging internal debate for Abayomi. She was a woman with maternal instincts after all, and the question of how she would be able to balance her biology with a demanding career was no easy matter to resolve. Luckily, before she became snarled up in justifications, Pia reminded her that there being nothing to resolve was the point. Notwithstanding the debate, it was no fault of Lemar’s, or men in general, to expect that she play her part in building a family if she decided to start one with one of them. If anything, that was mutual contribution too. Besides, It was also the human thing to do.
Pia’s sermonizing suddenly stopped. She was frozen, distracted by something in the distance. Pia quickly shoved her burning cigarette into Abayomi’s hand, then panicked, realizing her handbag was still at her desk. Frantically searching, Pia reached for the air freshener atop the toilet and doused herself with Fruits of the Forest, causing a thick fog, and they both fell out of the stall, coughing wildly. Outside the bathroom Abayomi could now hear Pia’s husband calling out for her. Pia’s disarray now made sense. She was transforming herself into a wife!
“Oh and this is very human!” Abayomi teased, “here, this will help.” Abayomi said handing Pia the luxury hand-wash she kept stashed in the storage cupboard for herself.
“Oh, how very luxurious!” Pia put on a posh accent. She squeezed some onto her tongue and gargled with it.
“What are you doing?” Abayomi croaked in disbelief.
“It schmells sho lovely” Pia replied foaming at the mouth with the rich lather.
After a good rinse, Pia words carried the unmistakable scent of lavender. She reluctantly handed Abayomi her secret-soap back and took her friend warmly by the shoulders.
“You can’t date another you” Pia remarked.
“Why, is that ungrateful?” Abayomi shot back, but she really couldn’t argue with the decade’s worth of relationship experience shining through Pia. They hugged and, when Pia left, Abayomi lingered on in the toilet stall, puffing on the cigarette she didn’t really want to smoke.
By the time Abayomi found her feet and returned to the office, everyone had trickled out. She dimmed the lights and flopped onto the couch in her office to put her feet up, too tipsy to drive and too comfortable to try. A bowl of crisps miraculously descended in front of her and, when she took it from his hand, Lemar lifted Abayomi’s feet to sit opposite her on the ottoman. He set her bare feet back into his lap and started kneading at them with his strong hands. Abayomi groaned in the comfort of familiarity. Relationships are strange that way, especially clandestine ones. The better she knew someone, the more silence they dwelled in together. Tossing a chip into her mouth, Abayomi chewed on that for a while.
“You’re still the best lawyer I know” Abayomi said, hoping that she hadn’t let on yet about her plans to take Pia to the conference. She wanted to break the news gently to Lemar.
“Then why do I feel so emasculated?” Lemar’s deep voice rumbled while he still focussed on her feet.
Behind his retort was a sincere acknowledgement for a woman who equalled him in profession. Lemar was accustomed to Abayomi’s fierce independence, and exposing his vulnerability to share in her joy was the chief reason she could open up to him. Abayomi tousled his hair with her toes to crown the moment. He kissed her foot and kept kneading away. Despite their comfort, Abayomi and Lemar were professionally quite competitive with each other. Abayomi’s phone beeped, reminding her to get out of the past.
“…dinner at my parents” she mumbled, inspecting her phone.
“Your dad must be proud?” he asked, knowing the significance of the invitation to South Africa.
“Ya think?” Abayomi smiled.
Lemar was quite the visionary and he knew this as a promising opportunity for the future of all people on the African continent, should a collaboration between the two countries transpire. It would set the precedent for peace. But, being that clever, Lemar also knew none of it mattered to Abayomi’s dad. Her dad really cared only for this being a dream-come-true for his little-big-girl.
“Still wears his rose-tinted glasses, huh?” Lemar teased.
“That’s why I’ve decided on a more realistic strategy” Abayomi began to tactfully break the news.
He switched to rub her other foot while hearing her out. Lemar agreed that policymaking of this sort usually became quite highbrow. Further intellectual perspectives weren’t going to be that fruitful for the lives of ordinary people the trade relationship was actually meant to improve.
“Giving the man on the street the dignity he deserves is a worthwhile pursuit”, he clarified her intentions, then leaned over to pinch a pair of paper cups standing on the table nearby with his fingertips. He offered Abayomi one.
“A woman’s perspective could really get to the heart of it”,
“I like that!” she quipped, grateful for his support, and they toasted her vision.
“Pia would be perfect to help get it across” he added quickly.
“You’re such a resourceful bugger!” she sighed with relief. She found herself a little embarrassed for making mountains out of molehills in her mind. Abayomi leaned forward to kiss him.
“How did you know?” she asked, coyly dipping her finger into the bubbly and licking it off. Lemar set her feet down and stretched his hands out to her. Abayomi innocently put her hands in his, allowing Lemar to pull her into his lap.
“I haven’t seen Pia this excited since…since ever!”
They laughed, which was a welcome relief for the butterflies Abayomi carried in her stomach. In his arms still, all that fluttering didn’t disappear, though. They began waving to a new song. Yes, dinner with her parents was waiting, but his hug flowered into a passionate kiss and the urgency of the moment overtook them.
In one swift move Lemar lifted Abayomi and swung her onto his hips. She was above him and wrapped her arms around his head, pushing his chin up so she could reach his full lips. She kissed them hungrily, finding her crotch tightening against his torso. Lemar was quick to respond and grabbed her hair. He yanked a tuft back firmly, arching her back while she was kept attached to his waist. His finger ran down her elongated neck and found the zipper which followed his fingers down. With her top unzipped, Abayomi’s breasts fell free and heaved in the fresh air.
They swung around and around into each other’s arms with the momentum of whirling dervishes. Extending her leg, Abayomi kicked the door shut with a pointed toe. Their jostling sent them crashing against the wall, where Lemar pushed her skirt farther up Abayomi’s waist. She didn’t just want him. Abayomi was as open as the view of Lagos outside her window, and her fingers stretched down into his trousers, searching for an answer. Why was she hiding her relationship with this irresistible man?
The fever rose with the friction of their limbs and minds. Coiled around each other, their kissing became more intense. The excitement finally exploded and they spun like tops across the office to fall into the couch, Abayomi on top of Lemar, caressing his handsome cheeks. She began straddling him as if she were riding a giant brown pony. The lust within moving her while the rhythm of his body responded below. Together they galloped through a vast field, racing against the wind toward the distant orange and purple horizon. Her insides rumbled as they crossed the vast chasm between their souls and, each time Lemar ventured deeper into her, a step closer was accomplished. Soon they were surrounded by a sweaty haze. In his eyes she could see him surrendering to her. Receiving him was a woman’s pleasure and she was not yet done. Who knows when next they would see each other?
Greedily they consumed each other, racing faster and faster. Then, with her pony between her legs, Abayomi leapt across the proverbial ravine that separated ecstasy from love. The chasm was huge and much distance needed to be crossed. The couch rocked and the table alongside shivered. Then, in mid-air their desperate panting quieted. Dangling in nowhere, gravity lost its control over them as they drifted magically. Even time was no more. The distance covered by their momentum only took them half the way but, in their mutual submission, this was the balance. Suspended there in the bosom of ecstasy, a charge entered her body through the connection they had at the hips. A mad spasm overcame Abayomi in the holy silence that enveloped them, enough to fly her charger to the farther land, and with a crash, they landed in bliss. Cymbals smashed and the heavens sang their harps in a song of a thousand tiny sensations joining Abayomi’s body with Lemar’s. Abayomi threw herself forward, and hung over Lemar’s hot shoulders. They lay there heaving as reality slowly descended upon them again. Abayomi smiled to herself at the absurdity of her pony and magical garden fantasies her mind could still produce. Was she still just a little girl inside?
“I love working late”, she moaned.
“When you get back” he promised, pressing his lips to hers.
“I don’t even want to go now.”
“Go…and work it out of your system!” he encouraged, squeezing her breasts.
Well, well, a Freudian slip if ever Abayomi had heard one. Her analytical self had suddenly begun to intrude upon her warm, fuzzy feelings. What should have been two lovers lost in each other’s arms revealed a shadow lurking in Lemar’s unconditional support. It had remained hidden until now. Men! In Lemar’s mind, this trip to South Africa was allowing Abayomi to have her final jaunt with her ‘BFF’ so she could return as his possession. She guessed that allowing her this courtesy meant a lifetime thereafter of playing by his rules. In his mind it was a trade-off. No wonder she hadn’t dared yet take their office romance into the light of day. Was this love or a deal with the devil?
Abayomi dismounted Lemar and started fishing for her clothes on the floor. It appeared that, sophisticated as he was in a suit, the only love Lemar knew was beating a woman over the head with a club. It was what his culture expected of him and he delivered it sincerely in exchange for the approval of his family and the hooting of his shallow peers. He hadn’t the spine to venture out of the white-picket-fence fantasy that was drummed into his head with the label ‘fulfilment’ attached to it. She felt sorry for this beautiful man whose heart had been crippled. Lemar only needed a woman to cast in the role as the leading lady. Abayomi didn’t want to be a bejewelled trophy completing the picture of perfection Lemar was always trying to portray, one endorsed by grinning mates. It was quite funny even that life threw her fiercely independent spirit in his path to make an attempt at love. She had now learnt the lesson. This was the change she’d been trying to make – the love she wanted was not to be used as a means to an end.
“Come back Abayomi”, Lemar held out his hand, watching her fix herself in the mirror. He meant more than just after dinner, or from Johannesburg.
Those three words were loaded with expectation. They reflected the desperation men have to own things. In his limited emotional dictionary, this was the only way Lemar knew how to express himself, like lion cubs who smack each other around to express their affection. Bless him, Abayomi thought, finding herself in the mirror, Lemar didn’t know this night of passion was their last. As the evolving African woman she had grown into, this was her example to set. This was her parting gift.
“Dinner with my parents…” she waved, slipping through the door, unsure of where this would lead. And, just like that, Abayomi took her heart and jumped into the unknown.
The night whizzed past her window in a colourful blur as Abayomi drove out of the city. She stepped on the gas, happy to escape her troubling thoughts. Was she the only person in the world who loved this way, or was she just trapped in an impossible dream – probably nurtured by a lifetime of fairy-tales which still warmed her heart? It was rather worrying that no one seemed to want the love that she had to offer, and that begged the question: what the hell was love anyway?
“There she is!” Dad shouted, lighting up like a candle when Abayomi arrived at their family home. He got up from the dinner table and hugged her warmly.
“Sorry I’m late”, Abayomi announced, while offloading her bag and coat onto the sideboard. Rita swung around and stuck her cheek out so that Abayomi could peck at it.
“Coming!”, Rita shouted, rolling her eyes at her mother who was still barking instructions from behind the kitchen door.
“Alex help!” Rita scolded her brother, but he continued to stare at the domed tray in the middle of the table, picking his teeth with a toothpick. Abayomi giggled to herself. This was sibling love…optional!
Flying into the dining room, her mother grunted at Abayomi for being late, then smacked a spoonful of grub into a plate and set it down for her daughter.
“Eat!” Mum commanded, packing the dirty ladle onto the pile of dishes in Rita’s hands. Rita was shooed away, and Mum sat down at the table.
“Cupcakes?” Alex blurted out but Dad just shook his head, taking his seat again.
“Shuku Shuku?” Alex yelled out again. Guessing at what surprise lay beneath the silver domed tray was beginning to irk him. This time he was sure there were traditional coconut balls sitting beneath the dome, but that didn’t elicit a positive response from Dad either.
“If this was a traditional family, maybe,” Mum complained. Abayomi kept chewing, knowing where the comment was aimed. In her mother’s eyes, remaining unmarried was a steep deviation from the traditional.
“Hey, all her hard work’s paying off now!” Dad retorted proudly.
The dinner was his idea. To him the success of his children was having his own objectives for the family realized. He dedicated his life to building a supportive environment for Abayomi, her brother and sister, and no one brought that out as quite as flamboyantly as Abayomi had.
“Tell her to get married!” Her mother frowned at Dad. She knew who Abayomi really listened to.
Dad sat back in his chair pensively before he was accused of defending Abayomi, or worse, setting a bad example. In fact, she had never forgiven him for corrupting their daughter with independence. Now the bar was set too high for Abayomi to get married to anyone! This was parental love, and Abayomi smiled through their bickering. It was always hoped that children would be saved from making the mistakes their parents had made.
“Blah, it’s empty I bet!” Alex gave up guessing at the contents beneath the domed lid. This time no one paid any attention to him. Instead, Rita returned with tea and they all sat down comfortably, like a family. Abayomi reached out and lifted the dome.
“Aww… Dad!” Abayomi squealed, just like a little girl.
“We’re all sharing in your success today,” Dad said proudly, then added a long parable about his hunt for the famed South African delicacy.
It was creamy fridge tart laced healthily with cinnamon over the top. It had been invented by the Cape Malays when they were still a burgeoning community in Cape Town at the turn of the twentieth century. While the Malays were initially brought as slaves in South Africa, their perseverance in establishing their identity in the foreign land made them a cornerstone of South African culture.
“That takes determination!” Dad proclaimed, a finger doing a drumroll in the air. He thought that the milk tart was the perfect way to celebrate the occasion. Mum took Abayomi’s hand and smiled. Despite their differences, they could still love each other and Abayomi felt familiarity creeping over her. She wasn’t the only one who loved the way she did.
The rest of the evening passed by with lots of laughter. Johannesburg and politics were all foreign to Abayomi’s family, but they delighted at the opportunity Abayomi had been given to cross the cultural divide. They didn’t have to understand politics because Abayomi’s achievement was a celebration of their history together. She was as much a product of that home as they had benefited from her presence in it. Honouring themselves was truly a moment to remember. Dad whipped out his mobile phone and snapped a picture to add to his long row of family photographs collected upon the mantelpiece in the dining room. Mum too agreed that Abayomi’s headstrong ways had some advantages, albeit a little reluctantly! Of course everyone teased Mum for being biased, but Abayomi hugged her warmly when her mother’s eyes welled-up with pride.
Abayomi knew that tradition pumped through her mother’s veins as a result of many generations of culture – and she was also not short of grit. Yes, Dad was far more liberal with his children, but Mum had become very skilful with her words over time in order to negotiate with Dad over the best way to bring up the kids. In a way, she was more responsible for Abayomi’s fierce independence than Dad was. All in all, in each other’s company, even the invitation to South Africa paled in comparison. It was truly mesmerizing to see such different people, all leading such different lives, form a community around one table. This was real love.
It was not a specific kind of love, Abayomi observed to herself. And it was there right in front of her eyes, yet so subtle that Abayomi couldn’t quite put her finger on it. There was no way to really describe it except to say that it was a way of seeing herself in them. Well she knew what it wasn’t. Flowers and a pounding heart were instruments too blunt to understand this kind of love. This authentic love didn’t need any convincing at all. It was natural, like the wind or sunshine. As the laughter roared on, it intrigued her that no one had taught any of them this love they shared now. It just spontaneously arose between the disagreements and hugging over the years. Somehow, each learnt to love on their own rather naturally through a sense of charity that was nothing more than delighting in the next human being as she would have delighted in herself. And then it struck her!
There was another kind of love that often goes by without acknowledgement. It was the instinct with which any other kind of love was available to her. When she thought about it, it could best be described as self-love.
Johannesburg looked like a huge garden from two thousand feet above the ground. The in-flight magazine said that the city had one of the largest urban forests in the world and indeed, from above, the city sprawled across the rolling hills between little green and purple tufts like a fluffy carpet. Abayomi didn’t recognize any of it and couldn’t tear her eyes away from the window as the promise of change caused a grooving in her belly. The courage to stop waiting for something to happen took root there.
“Bing! Ladies and gentlemen, we’re beginning our descent into Johannesburg. The local time is eight-fifteen and it’s expected to be a bright sunny day!” the Captain’s announcement echoed. Abayomi strapped herself in and watched a baby boy’s head bob about as the plane hit the ground. The little boy chuckled with delight as the aeroplane skidded on the runaway during contact.
Pia meanwhile had tightened her grip on Abayomi’s hand and pushed herself into her backrest. The stack of files she chose to hold on to with her other hand tumbled onto the floor as the wheels made contact with the runway. Not that Pia noticed. Her eyes were shut tight. But Abayomi embraced that change would not always be smooth and christened the new beginning by waving dreamily at the baby boy.
After disembarking into the vast halls of O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg, the girls grabbed their luggage and met the concierge with a sign bearing their names. He was helping push their trolleys to the limousine when suddenly an army of news reporters pounced upon them.
All the delegates arriving for the xenophobia conference were being hounded by questions. Would the conference achieve anything or was it just political fancy-footing the gist of it? Their concierge was attempting to shield Pia and Abayomi from the chaos caused by the incisive questions being hurled at them. His reach was limited, though, and he was soon overpowered by an ageing newscaster in a trench coat, who climbed over everyone else. His microphone was stuck in Abayomi’s face.
“Are you aware of faction groups in South Africa who are dead against the conference?” he shouted at her.
“Maybe you should send them a bloody invitation!” Pia swiftly countered, creating a deafening silence.
She had three children and chaos was something she handled with considerable ease. Pia calmly hooked her handbag into the crook of her arm and stepped into the limousine. Abayomi simply shrugged her shoulders and leapt into the car after Pia.
Down on the ground, Johannesburg was a collage of sunshine and shade. It had recently rained and the beautiful Jacaranda trees had shed their purple flowers, coating the streets in pretty mauve pathways leading everywhere Abayomi wanted to go.
“Did you know they’re not indigenous to South Africa?” Abayomi pointed out.
“Alien, like us, you mean?” Pia quipped in jest.
Driving along, they were awe-struck by apparent wealth of Johannesburg. The spread of industry, residence and recreation, told the tale of a nation with vision. Johannesburg was indeed an ambitious city and it was no wonder that South Africa was a favourite escape destination for Africans. There really was so much to discover beyond the rote pushing of paper from one hand to another at the office.
Eventually they exited the highway en route to their hotel. The city definitely pulsed to the beat of the African drum. Taxies tooted their horns and traffic was a dismal effort to navigate. It felt just like the esplanade Abayomi’s office overlooked in Lagos with people trafficking themselves in a thousand different directions, each with a purpose. A sense of home overtook Abayomi, so she opened the window to allow the fresh breeze to flow into the cabin of their car. The heat was slowly rising through the morning, but the sky darkened as tall buildings filtered out most of the light.
At a traffic light, a young boy, barefoot, led an old lady, with an empty cup in her hand, to Abayomi’s window. His eyes were enormous in their hungry sockets, but Abayomi’s attention was struck by the opaque blue haze over the old lady’s eyes as she hobbled along beside him.
“Give me a few coins” Abayomi stretched her palm out to Pia, unable to look at the old woman.
Pia scratched around in her handbag but, before any were found, the traffic light changed and the driver started off again. Abayomi swung her head around, moved by the forlorn family left out in the streets. Johannesburg was no doubt beautiful from above but the incident left Abayomi’s gut wrenching. It seemed that, down below, Johannesburg was quite different and it was quickly becoming a contradiction for her. Abayomi was not sure what to expect anymore.
The feeling passed when they arrived at the Michelangelo Hotel, a stately and comforting distraction. As their car swung around the great stone fountain in the entrance, Abayomi stepped out into the caring hands of a team dedicated to her every whim and fancy. It was a decadent experience and continued as they rode the elevator up to their palatial suite. This time, Abayomi did not shy away from handing the concierge a large note in gratitude for his services. Which girl doesn’t enjoy being treated like a princess?
Sadly, Pia had missed the whole thing. She’d been scratching in her handbag ever since they’d met the beggars, and was now consumed by panic.
“I can’t find my keys” she shrieked. The girls had brought gowns especially for the gala dinner planned for the evening, and, without her keys, Pia couldn’t unlock her suitcase. “I’ll lend you something ‘til we sort it out, don’t worry”, said Abayomi, unzipping her own luggage. But Pia wasn’t really game.
“We’re two very different women” Pia sulked. Abayomi picked up the telephone to dial for some help, but Pia’s agitation was brewing up another scheme.
“Wait! I have a better idea…” she interrupted. Abayomi put the receiver down.
It was tempting too, regardless of the fact that Abayomi had already blocked out her calendar in order to catch up with notes in preparation for meeting the selected delegates at the inaugural gala that evening.
“You know you want to, Abi!” Pia said, with big enthusiastic eyes. If Pia had a tail it would be wagging right now.
“Oh, what the hell!” Abayomi conceded. Instantaneously, the right priorities snapped into place…
Gucci, Prada, Hermes and Louis Vuitton! Sandton City was like a parallel universe. Rather than pushing paper files around the office, and sparring old slobs in the boardroom, here they bargained around spectacular glass counters, tended by supermodels. While the office ethic hinged on trying a few solutions to fit the parties involved, here, in the mall, the girls delighted in achieving a good fit for parties they just had to be involved in. Life was quite simple when the forest could be seen from the trees!
Clarity came in the form of an incredible pair of strappy sandals that would lift the little black number Abayomi planned to wear at the evening’s gala dinner. With one bare foot still firmly planted on the ground, Abayomi modelled the sandal in a tall mirror by turning her ankle this way and that. She liked them, but couldn’t quite decide whether to take them or not. As usual Abayomi was diligently tallying up the pros and cons, only to discard the whole exercise when a handsome man, passing by the store window, licked his lips at her. Abayomi bent down to take the shoe off, but Pia had seen the whole thing, and stood behind Abayomi to rectify the rather lop-sided image in the mirror.
“Practical is for the office, Abi!”
Pia hoisted Abayomi up at the waist, and Abi tried to balance, wobbling, on one foot while Pia reached down for the other shoe to slip onto Abayomi’s bare foot. Pia then stepped back.
Once she was balanced again, Abayomi’s svelte figure stood tall in the mirror. Pia pushed her palm into the crook of Abayomi’s back so her image in the mirror lengthened into a shapely silhouette. For an African woman, Abayomi’s breasts were ample enough to accentuate her confidence. This was the sacred altar of fashion and, when she wasn’t hiding herself, Abayomi made for quite a vision.
“The mirror never lies” Pia commented, quite satisfied with her handiwork.
“Unfortunately, the men who are attracted to this do” Abayomi replied, wondering just why she was so afraid to embrace her womanhood.
In all honesty she didn’t want to be a thought of as being sexy. Though she was against the game, culture supported the notion that men preferred to hang out with women who oozed sex appeal yet didn’t want to make a home with them. At home they needed someone who could roll up their sleeves and get truly dirty, not just sexually, but with kitchen gloves on. At home men wanted to be taken care of, just as their doting mothers had done, and domesticity rather than sexiness was the sage advice mothers handed down to their daughters, one generation after the next. Under those circumstances, shying away from her sexuality made for perfect sense, as it was almost a guarantee of love. Then again, who even knew what men wanted?
In a way, conforming to a stereotype was comforting and it was easy to buy into, hook, line and sinker. She didn’t want sex to be the only tool she had to ply her love. But holding herself up to a stereotype also stifled her power to command the attention of men, just as the lascivious passer-by who licked his lips at her reminded Abayomi. Why not embrace it? It was a man that she wanted to share her love with after all.
Chug-chugging along to the end of this train of thought was a dark tunnel. In it was the fear that Abayomi was not enough somehow. Neither situation could be satisfied if conforming stifled her, while becoming attractive branded her. Those deep soulful eyes she inherited from her mother softened encouragingly in the mirror. Mum learnt to negotiate with Dad despite her traditions, and Abayomi too could relax comfortably into herself without expectations. We learn how to love from who we love, right?
And so she flopped into the couch, alongside Pia, and lifted her foot so they could both take a look at her pretty feet.
“Ma’am we need a club!” Pia shouted at the puzzled sales assistant.
“And some rope too” Pia continued. She knew they were going to be hitting men over the head, and dragging them home tonight. Abayomi roared with laughter. What a pleasant surprise liberation was! This is why she had a soft spot for Pia. Pia understood.
That evening even the glorious African sunset couldn’t compete with the girls in their gowns. The view atop the Sandton Convention Centre was spectacular. Guests from all over Africa had assembled there, some faces were even recognizable. The gala dinner was planned to acquaint the delegates with each other, in preparation for the following day, when the official conference began.
“Six!” Pia said pointing to a guy in a navy blazer, white shirt and jeans. He was tall and burly, as if nourished by the African sun.
“Marriage and children have obviously made you desperate!” Abayomi came back quirkily. Guessing the origins of the variety of African men, the first game they played that evening, was not as exciting as rating them.
“His friend, rather” Abayomi suggested. He was a smaller man, but looked quite dashing in a black tuxedo.
“And suddenly you’re an expert?” Pia provoked.
“Just look at me!” Abayomi threw her arms out, struck a pose for Pia in her little black number, enhanced by those strappy sandals.
“If only I was a man,” Pia snarled, curling her fingers into a tube and swinging it back and forth from her crotch. They bellowed with laughter while a group of highly-polished girls standing nearby scowled in disgust. But Pia’s obscene gesture also got the men’s attention. The taller guy led the way over. Abayomi tensed up a little, so Pia grabbed a fork from the cocktail plate alongside, and shoved it into Abayomi’s handbag.
“There, in case you don’t like the meatballs!”
The usual pleasantries ensued, followed by a light flirtation directed at Pia. The taller man, Edmund, was keenly interested in Pia’s opinion of the conference.
“I have three children. My interests are Barney the dinosaur and how to get stains out of the carpet” Pia muttered, nearly killing the conversation.
“I’ll remember to call you then in case I spill anything”, the shorter guy in the tuxedo joked, to rescue the conversation.
He introduced himself as Muhammadu when he noticed that Abayomi was impressed by his social intelligence. The conversation soon deepened when the rooftop party was invaded by a few delegates who represented an opposition to the trade agreement. They came from across Africa, but, amongst them Abayomi recognized the scandalized Priest she had read about in the conference brochure. He was a quite a charismatic man too, and many seemed drawn to him.
“Why do we have to listen to them at all?” Edmund turned his back on the new arrivals. His sensitivity about xenophobia was laid bare. Edmund believed that violent people shouldn’t be heard, they should be incarcerated before they caused any trouble.
“Democracy gives everyone the freedom of expression” Muhammadu argued, becoming unnecessarily legal during the otherwise casual conversation.
It was an important point being raised but, like all things men, the conversation turned into a debate, which then became louder and soon attracted a crowd which blocked Abayomi and Pia’s attempt to sidle away. They were trapped by intellectual masturbation. When Muhammadu kept looking at her as he made his argument to the gents, Abayomi realized that this game was designed to earn their approval. She sipped her drink to keep the boredom at bay.
And with a glass in her hand, she found her thoughts inevitably finding their way to a comforting bubble bath, away from all this yakking. She could even smell the sweet vanilla wafting up from the hot foam, bringing with it the thought of a hefty agenda for the three tough conference days lying ahead. Along with some candlelight and the velvety-soft skin she always had afterwards, the bubble bath was a tried-and-tested recipe she used to refresh her spirits.
“We need to stop at a chemist”, Abayomi whispered to Pia.
“Oh – I have a few condoms in my handbag!” Pia quipped.
“No, silly, a bubble bath later on would do wonders.”
“God, are you dating those little bottles of luxury soap?” Pia said, all deadpan.
Muhammadu noticed their detachment and asked Abayomi her opinion so as to keep the engagement going. Abayomi obliged, patiently, but her beliefs had the reins.
To her, bringing African nations together in harmony was no different from bringing any group of people together. It was an exercise in sharing common needs rather than emphasizing differences. In this way, it was no different from any other relationship. Nations are simply larger individuals, and so the principle still stood.
“You’ve all had one, I presume…a relationship?” Abayomi asked, raising her eyebrows.
Facts and figures were set aside to accommodate this simple human truth. If South Africa had a legacy of prejudice, then that is what they had to work with at the conference. Respecting each other was the basis for participation, and, that way, the nations of Africa could draw strength from each other rather than cutting each other down. In Abayomi’s opinion it was just like love, only on a large scale, and perhaps with a few more partners in the mix than the old folks back home would allow!
“The rest was all bickering!” Abayomi quipped, and the crowd cracked up with laughter.
She used it as a distraction and yanked Pia by the hand to escape the boys. Muhammadu took her arm momentarily to stop her.
“Sorry, I’m in unchartered territory”, Abayomi responded to his advances and quickly fell out of the group. Perhaps, if they were lucky, she winced, they might run into a man sometime. But, as they emerged, Abayomi found herself staring at the Priest, just as his attention searched for the source of joy. It was a knowing exchange, momentary, as it waltzed past. Pia didn’t notice, she was amused.
“Damn, Abi, if you talked like that back home we’d have been tied to a tree and whipped!” Pia said, astonished, as they entered the dinner hall. Abayomi surprised herself too. Then Pia locked their arms and came in close.
“He’s a ten!” Pia whispered in her ear.
She was talking about the handsome blonde man watching Abayomi attentively from a distance. When Abayomi’s eyes found his, the vibes in the ether told her that he was a stranger she could find interesting. It was an oddity that she had often experienced. Passing by a stranger, she would know immediately whether she would befriend him or not. She knew, from just a glance, that this person was cut from the same human fabric as she was. And often it was confirmed, as it was now, in the eyes of the blonde. Abayomi kept walking.
“I’ll meet you at the table”, Abayomi told Pia, and followed her own path for a while.
It led her to the bar. Halfway through a glass of wine for company while she people-watched, she found the same blonde man pulling up on a barstool alongside her. While waiting for the water he had ordered, he turned to her.
“You could be a politician!” he said.
“Never thought of it as a career choice.”
“With those shoes you’ll have no problem getting votes!” he smiled.
“Now, don’t mistake your vote for everyone else’s” she played along casually, noticing also that he was scanning the room intently. Abayomi stopped talking.
He suddenly swung around on the stool to face her, leaning on an elbow. She waited, but he didn’t say anything. He just drank her in while she sipped the wine, and waited for her to continue where she had left off.
“This is Africa’s problem too, don’t you think? Perfect as they are, just not good enough for themselves?” she said softly, in a more feminine tone, obviously as a means to kill the silence.
“Hmmmmm… he reflected, while reading her vibe. “And South Africa has the same problems as you have in…?”
“Nigeria…Lagos”, Abayomi added for clarity, rather formally. She didn’t know why, but she’d snapped into her best behaviour.
He repeated her words verbatim, but again didn’t carry the conversation any further. Slightly disconcerted at having to explain the obvious, she asserted that she’d been invited to the conference. His gaze rested steadily upon her, happy to listen, with undivided attention. It was unnerving to say the least, yet seductive in a way – to be so completely absorbing for someone. It engaged her in way that Muhammadu couldn’t. Abayomi felt as if she were being drawn out, yet she wasn’t even aware she was in a shell. ‘Unchartered territory’, she thought to herself.
“And you are?” she asked, pushing her hand out.
Given the purpose of the dinner, the formality made sense, but she was rather heavy-handed in using it. He smiled, taking her hand in his, and shaking it gently.
“Oh, no-one important” he replied, and then she lost him again. His eyes had flown over her shoulder to follow something or someone.
Abayomi didn’t have eyes in the back of her head, so she used this opportunity to inspect the curious creature. The almond shape of his mouth was unexpected. Atop his strong jaw he had bright red lips, almost as if he were wearing lipstick. They seemed to be saying so many things, without even moving, and Abayomi found herself sifting through words for a conversation only imagined. Her instincts were definitely aroused, for the slightly unshaven man who moved with purpose beneath a crop of wild hair, which made him look unkempt and carefree. He caught her looking at him when his attention suddenly returned to her.
His penetrating blue eyes locked on hers, and the whole of Johannesburg became eclipsed. He was reading her fluently and it scared the hell out of Abayomi. She quickly raised a finger, calling for another glass of wine to break the connection. She couldn’t allow him to see just how drawn she was to him, a stranger. Ducking for cover was instinctual. She didn’t trust what a stranger might do with her heart. Chances weren’t always worth taking.
“You don’t see a daffodil wishing it was a rose, now do you?” he whispered. The intimacy in his voice put her at ease despite the words being so incisive.
“You don’t see a rose?” she murmured, taking a chance on him anyway.
“I see this”, he replied, opening his palms to her.
“And I see a wandering eye”, she retorted.
He was suddenly reminded to scan the room again, and, when his attention returned to her, he was aware that she could read him too. They understood each other at some primal level, it was as if she too knew him the way he knew himself. For her, it was an intoxicating realization, making it all the more difficult to let down the guard she thought she had already dropped. The truth was that Abayomi wanted control over those blue orbs – she wanted them fixed upon her. Attention is, after all, the currency of love.
Without warning, he leapt off his stool and accosted one of the waiters passing by. At first it seemed a trick, and Abayomi thought that this guy was just playing her. She didn’t want to be drawn into more games like the ones with Lemar, and took her clutch bag, ready to leave. A small altercation in a local dialect ensued between him and the waiter, and she changed her mind about what was happening. Her rendezvous with the handsome blonde was cut short. He leaned over to her momentarily.
“If I see you again, I’ll see you again”, he whispered in her ear and, just like that, the stranger disappeared through the kitchen doors.
Abayomi crossed her legs tightly, imagining possibilities that could have been. Suddenly, the independence she fought so long and fiercely for wasn’t all that interesting anymore. Her attention was still with the ghost of that man and she sipped the wine to drown it away. She didn’t like feeling dependent on someone’s invitation. It was a weakness. She dabbled in the mystery of his name, which she hadn’t discovered, but in reality she was also asking just who this person was that she had become?
It didn’t feel as if she’d had too much wine, but when Abayomi got up to see what the commotion behind her was all about, she definitely wasn’t as stable as her normal self. Someone shouted for a doctor while standing above a choking woman. She’d already gone blue and looked ghastly as her companion tried to frantically dislodge a particle of food from her throat. Suddenly, the man pumping at her chest also collapsed into a coughing fit. Abayomi pulled herself together as he lay on the ground, unable to breathe. She couldn’t believe her eyes.
“Pia!” she muttered in a panic.
By the time Abayomi reached her, all the guests seated alongside Pia were bent over and choking too. With one hand around her throat and the other reaching out to Abayomi, Pia gasped for help. Abayomi took Pia’s hand and cradled her friend in her lap. Tears flowed down Abayomi’s cheeks as she cried out for help amidst the pandemonium. And that’s when the unfinished dinners caught her attention. Abayomi sniffed the leftovers in Pia’s plate – luckily she hadn’t felt like having dinner.
“Consider this a warning from the people of South Africa whose lives have been taken away from them!” a waiter’s shouting bellowed through the dining hall.
Other waiters tossed away the trays they carried, and they joined in, with their fists in the air, shouting ‘Viva National Liberation Army’. They went on the rampage towards the delegates, but shot off for the kitchen as security closed in on them. Little skirmishes broke out here and there as security pounced, but the damage of what seemed to be a calculated xenophobic attack was done. The conference could certainly not go on without the affected delegates.
In the distance, a voice drawled out of the speakers, something about the effects of the poison only lasting a few days. Abayomi ignored this until she noticed that the masked man from whom the message came was being chased down the long row of tables by security. He was running while still shouting into the mike and she couldn’t help thinking that there was something familiar about that voice. But it couldn’t be, could it?
Guests shrieked in horror as the masked man leapt from one row of dining tables to another, changing direction to escape the security men giving chase. Food was kicked everywhere as the thug and a few security guards came storming toward Abayomi. She got up to shield Pia from harm just as a security guard got the upper hand on the masked man by pulling the table cloth from beneath his feet. The man tumbled to the floor right in front of Abayomi. He rose swiftly to his feet and caught her just as she lost her balance on those strappy stilettos.
“Thank you,” Abayomi said instinctively, only then realizing how inappropriate manners could be sometimes.
Up close, she noticed that his mask was nothing but a handkerchief tied around his head but Abayomi swore that he was none other than the fair-haired man with whom she’d just shared a glass of vino. He pulled her sharply to her feet again, but by then security and police had surrounded them. Guns clicked as they were pointed at him, so he swung his arm around Abayomi, swiftly grabbing a steak knife from the table and holding it to her throat. She froze like a doe in the headlights. Even the tears she shed for Pia’s safety stopped flowing from the shock. She knew it was him – the man with no name. Minutes ago she had revealed herself to him and now there was a steak knife between them instead of a burgeoning romance. How could she trust her instincts now?
Slowly, her captor backed up. With his arm pulling her from around the neck, Abayomi was dragged with him, on limp legs, through the kitchen swing doors. The last thing she saw before the doors swung closed was Pia stretching her hand out to her, while she lay choking on the floor. How could they help each other now that they were out of each other’s sight? In a flash, the xenophobe escaped with Abayomi into the dark night.
END OF SAMPLE.
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