She calls Wale when she gets back to the Hilton in Abuja. He doesn’t answer his phone and she doesn’t leave a message after his recorded greeting, which ends with him saying, “Shalom.” She is walking into the bathroom when her cell phone rings and she runs out. She sees Wale’s number and takes a breath before she answers.
He sounds angry. “Did you just call my number?”
“It’s Adeola Bello.”
“Hey! You’re in town?”
“I thought someone was flashing me again.”
“You’ve haven’t heard of flashing? When you call, hang up and wait for a call back?”
She smiles. “Not used that way.”
“So how are you, Adeola Bello?”
“Very well. I was hoping we could meet for a drink.”
She wrinkles her nose. Why is her heart beating faster?
He laughs. “Where?”
“I’m at the Hilton. What’s so funny?”
“I didn’t expect to hear from you.”
“I didn’t ask for your number. It might have seemed…”
“It didn’t seem anything.”
“Good. I didn’t want my staff to think I was, you know.”
“You were fine. You weren’t flirting.”
“So, I’ll see you later?”
She struts around her room, then she pats her cheek. She mustn’t look desperate.
She has dinner at the hotel restaurant and returns to her room to take a bath and change. She sprays perfume on her wrist, smacks her lipstick in place. Her earring needs securing. She smoothes her eyebrows.
The front desk calls to say he has arrived and she goes downstairs again, this time pretending to take an interest in the décor in the lobby, which is reminiscent of a dictator’s palace, with its crystal chandeliers, faux Louis Quatorze chairs and white marble floors. The light reflecting on the marble blinds her and she worries about slipping. There are a few expatriates and many Nigerians walking around in that lethargic manner that is typical of loiterers in hotels.
Wale is by the front desk. He has made an effort, his shirt and trousers are pressed. He looks naturally trim. He stands with his back to the lift, which might be deliberate, and she is tempted to pinch his bottom and throw him off balance, but she taps his shoulder instead.
“Have you grown?” he asks, looking her up and down.
“My heels,” she says.
He smiles as if she is a statue he can’t quite take seriously.
“Shalom?” she says.
“Pele, then,” he says. “Pele, if you prefer.”
Pele doubles up as an apology. Pele might also mean he feels sorry for her.
In the lounge she orders a Cointreau. She has never had Cointreau before. It is strong and tastes of oranges. He has a neat brandy. She doesn’t just like his eyes; she likes his way of looking at her as if she is a solo act. She is also aware of the stares she gets from the security guards who size her up as she tells him about her day at WIN.
“What pains me is that I now have to go back and admit to these people that Nigerians are fraudulent.”
“She’s just hustling like everyone else. She and the other woman, who might be trying to sabotage her.”
“Of course. Even microfinance is a hustle now. The people who are meant to get it don’t. It’s all about competition here.”
“They won’t see it that way. All they know is Nigeria, corruption, 4-1-9, Internet crime. It’s embarrassing.”
“And Elizabeth made more sense. Of course the women would want to do business. Of course they would. Business is what we do in Nigeria.”
Is she talking too much? She can’t get away from the idea that she has failed the women, but not enough to disregard the irregularities she noted at WIN. She takes another sip and winces. The Cointreau is too concentrated for her.
“Your father’s five-year memorial is on Sunday, isn’t it?” he asks.
“How are the preparations going?”
“Fine. Everything is fine.”
“It’s good that we do that, remember those who have died.”
She finds the idea of a five-year memorial artificial. She remembers her father when she smells a combination of whiskey, cigars, aftershave and perfume: the “grown-up party” smell. Or when she hears the music he listened to: his Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck and Dvořák. In her teens, they argued over music. “Who is this Teddy Pendergrass?” he would ask. “Have you heard Otis Redding?” “Who is this George Benson? Have you heard John Coltrane?” He pitied her because she didn’t appreciate juju music. “Children of nowadays,” he used to say. “You have no roots. You go any way the wind blows.”
She would love to find his Bally slippers again, knowing that all he had to do was think where he last left them before asking her to look for them. And to watch Wimbledon on television with him. Every summer he was in London in time for Wimbledon, knocking things over while cheering and getting names wrong (“Matilda Navratilova”).
“How old is your daughter?” she asks.
“Is it just you and her?”
“Her and me, that’s it.”
“Fourteen. People say thirteen is the tricky age, that you’re still adjusting to the whole teen thing at thirteen.”
“Which is why I have no intention of complicating her life further by making her a half-sister or stepchild.”
He seems to be addressing someone else and this agitates her. They are talking too much about family.
He puts his glass down. “I have just put you off, haven’t I?”
“See me. I have white hairs all over my head. No more raps.”
“Some of us are not interested in being stepmothers, wicked or otherwise.”
He smiles. “I didn’t mean you.”
“Please,” she says. “I meet someone I like. Why would marriage be a consideration?”
His expression reminds her of the boys she chatted up as a teenager. They knew bad girls didn’t talk as much.
“What?” she asks. “You’re underestimating me? I’ve had many men. I’m a very passionate lover.”
He laughs loud and claps, causing people to turn around.
She retaliates. “Isn’t it dangerous for you to leave a teenager at home on her own this late with armed robbers prowling?”
“She’s with her cousins.”
“You might want to pick her up soon,” she says, reaching for her glass.
“Her cousins are in Lagos.”
“So there is no reason to run home tonight.”
She crosses her legs. It is not as if she has misinterpreted him or vice versa. She imagines his skin against hers, his hands, his tongue and hard-on. Her desire is insistent, almost jeering. Why the small talk? Why not now? She gave up her virginity when she had no more use for it. Losing her virginity was like discovering her hair was not her crowning glory.
She is heady from the Cointreau, but more so from the thought of having a safe indiscretion. A security guard in the lobby gives her the same meddlesome look she encountered when she sat down. That can happen in a Lagos hotel, but here there’s also Sharia law, which can make men act in overzealous ways.
“What if security stops us?” she asks.
“Who, these ones?”
“It’s me they are watching, not you. Weren’t there riots here when the Miss World contest was supposed to be staged? The fatwa on the journalist and all that?”
“Haba, things are not that bad.”
“Who says?” she asks. “Don’t they sentence women to death for fornication in these parts?”
“No one would dare sentence a woman like you.”
“That’s good. I don’t want to be disgraced meanwhile.”
“My house is not too far.”
“I can’t go to your house.”
“I said I can’t go to your house.”
“I asked why not?”
“How do I know you’re not a killer?”
“Can’t I kill you here?”
She laughs and slaps her thigh.
“I will speak to the front desk,” he says.
He finishes his brandy. She abandons her Cointreau and goes ahead of him, so as to be sure she won’t be stopped.
“A Safe Indiscretion” is an excerpt from the novel A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta. This excerpt has been reproduced with the author’s permission.
Photo: Julien Chatelain