Ebele and Ruth were sitting at a table in a corner of Ginger, close to the bandstand, watching Mosquito and the crowded dance floor and Professor, who had come up behind them, said: “Hey guys, look what I found.”
What she’d found was a stocky fellow, with a shiny clean-shaven head, a spotless face and a soft smile, dressed in a white tee-shirt, khaki shorts and slightly worn white sneakers. The dark handsome face was well-fed, perfect for an advert for full cream milk.
“This lovely dish was sitting in a corner at the back all by himself and I told him I wasn’t going to allow that when there are three lively women here looking for decent male company.”
The fellow seemed to be looking at Ruth, as if he knew her from somewhere. When he said hello to them, his voice was high-pitched, almost shrill, whereas you expected a deep voice to emanate from such a stocky frame. Professor fetched a chair for him, placed it directly opposite Ruth’s seat. “His name is Nengi; he’s an investment banker,” Professor said, “all the way from London and this is his first time here. He’s in Nigeria on business, staying at the Sheraton, and someone at the hotel mentioned Ginger to him.”
“I’m so glad I came, and I am lucky Professor found me in my quiet corner. Less than an hour in the best club I’ve been to in Lagos and I am already sitting amongst some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in Nigeria.”
“Most beautiful women in Nigeria? Didn’t know the lighting here was that poor,” Professor said, with a chuckle.
“I have good eyes,” Nengi riposted.
Was he looking at her when he said that, Ruth thought, or was she just imagining it? Had he lingered when she shook his hand or had that also been her imagination?
Ebele and Professor had many questions for him: what exactly did investment bankers do / did they make a lot of money / what was an investment banker doing in a place like Nigeria, you associated people like that with London, New York, etc. Nengi’s answers led to more questions. Ruth felt left out, which was not unusual when she was with her more talkative friends. She had worked in a bank for three years, but the kind of banking Nengi was involved in was a world away from what she’d done most of the time: standing behind a counter at the Premier Bank branch on Ahmadu Bello Way in Victoria Island counting huge wads of filthy money while impatient customers scowled at her.
While watching Mosquito on the bandstand and the dance floor, packed as it always was on a Friday night, she heard snatches of his answers: names of strange places in Brazil, Pakistan, Turkey, etc, of dams, airports, power stations and ports, of huge sums of money, of great banks and powerful international agencies. He may have been Nigerian, but he now belonged to a far off world of great transactions. He sounded very knowledgeable and also very passionate; you would think he was discussing matters of life and death, not power plants and interest rates. Professor and Ebele questioned him tirelessly. They could get quite animated when discussing a subject they found interesting but Ruth thought she detected something a little more; her friends were trying even harder than usual to sound intelligent, to show off. The way Professor’s arms flew all over the place as she made her points, the extra precision in the way Ebele pronounced words, the way they poured smiles at Nengi, it was obvious they were captivated. But who wouldn’t be, Ruth thought. He was so good-looking, spoke with so much energy, came from such a fascinating world. When Ruth thought she felt his eyes on her again, she told herself to stop imagining things, to stop deluding herself. But from the corner of her left eye she did catch him watching her. She felt naked. Why was he watching her when it was her friends who were asking all the intelligent questions?
“Ruth has no interest in what we are saying,” she suddenly heard that high-pitched voice say and her heart pounded, “perhaps we are boring her.”
“Ruth doesn’t talk much,” Professor said.
“You seem to like this song, the way you were moving your head,” Nengi said, looking at Ruth directly, with that soft smile which always seemed to be on his face, “I like it too. Will you dance with me?”
It was an old Gregory Isaacs tune, Night Nurse, being delivered in Mosquito’s “love-hour” whisper. Ruth hesitated, confused. “Go for it, baby,” Ebele said.
“If you don’t want to . . .” Nengi began, but Ebele cut in, “Of course she wants to dance, she’s just a cool chick, doesn’t just jump up like the rest of us.”
Ruth’s heart was pounding uncontrollably when she got to her feet, so much she felt slightly dizzy. Nengi was on his feet too, but was watching her closely, as if he wasn’t sure the dance was such a good idea after all. She reached out and took his left arm and pulled him towards the small packed dance floor. She put her arms around him and placed her head against his right shoulder.
“I’m sorry if I…”
“You are too polite,” Ruth cut in, pinching him playfully, “you’ve been away from Nigeria too long; that’s why you apologise so much. You just took me by surprise, that’s all.”
Her heart was still drumming and she was sure he could feel it. She felt strange, thought she was acting strangely. Why did she just pinch him, someone she barely knew, so familiarly? Why did it feel so utterly nice to be held by him, to put her head on his shoulder and to feel his body against hers? She was extremely worried about what she was doing, extremely worried about where it could lead to, even though she wasn’t sure where. She was worried that this man’s body was against hers and it wasn’t a dream, worried about Ishaya, worried about the beating of her heart, about what her friends would say or think.
“I wanted to talk to you alone,” he said. “I kept watching you there and you didn’t seem to want to make eye contact. So asking you to dance was a desperate gamble.”
Ruth chuckled and said nothing.
“Are you always this quiet?”
“I prefer listening to talking,” Ruth said, “keeps me out of trouble.”
He spoke in a whisper and she answered in a whisper, increasing the sense of their being apart from everyone else, but also increasing her panic, the feeling of being pushed away from familiar ground by a force beyond her control.
Nengi laughed. “Is it very hard running this place?”
“It’s hard. One problem after another, but when people come in and have so much fun, I feel fulfilled. We dreamt about it for years, Professor and I, and it’s so wonderful to live our dream. Did you always want to be an investment banker?”
“No, I really was never sure what I wanted to be. I actually studied electrical engineering in Port Harcourt. PH is where my parents live. Then I got a scholarship to do an MBA in Switzerland and it was after that I got into investment banking. By the way, I haven’t been away for so long. I’ve been away in total just about ten years and I’ve visited my parents every other year when on vacation.”
“That’s still too long.”
“Not at all. Anyway, my own dream is to use some of the exciting new tools that have been developed internationally to finance projects here in Nigeria. If I can do that, I’ll feel almost as fulfilled as you guys.”
“That’s why you’re here?”
“Yes. The bank I work for is very sceptical about Nigeria, but I’m so passionate about it. And now Abacha is gone and the country is no longer a pariah, my boss is willing to give me six months to prove he should pay any attention to Nigeria.”
“Six months?” Ruth asked in a voice that rose sharply. “Nothing happens here in six months.”
“I know it’s short, but if I’m able to show even a little progress, I’m sure they won’t pull the plug.”
Just six months, Ruth thought bitterly. And her panic was already racing ahead of her. She was already experiencing loss without first possessing, already suffering the pain of parting from Nengi before even experiencing the pleasure of being with him. They were just having a dance, yet she was already gripped by panic and pain at his departure, which seemed inevitable, in six months. In her panic she held him tighter and he felt it and his own arms around her tightened. Soon afterwards, Mosquito broke off from whispering the Gregory Isaacs song and announced: “The next one is dedicated to my sister, Ruth, and the lovely hunk she’s dancing with. We don’t see Ruth dance a lot so whoever she’s dancing with must be very S-P-E-C-I-A-L. I want her to know that she too is a very special lady and we all love her very much. So this next song is for my sister Ruth!”
“Yes, I feel like the luckiest man on earth,” Nengi said, giggling, “I knew it even before she said it, I knew there wasn’t a luckier man anywhere.”
Ruth didn’t say anything, she didn’t trust her voice. She buried her face deeper into Nengi’s shoulder. “Have I told you lately that I love you?” Mosquito sang. Mosquito had walked to the edge of the bandstand, swinging the microphone like a club, and she now leaned forward so that the microphone was only a few feet from Ruth and Nengi. Ruth felt herself disintegrating, felt everything she had known about herself dissolving. Mosquito knew the song was one of Ruth’s favourites but what a dangerous time to sing it. Ruth had in less than an hour drifted away from everything recognizable in her life, had no clue what was going to happen to her. It seemed that her fate was now entirely in the hands of the man on whose broad shoulder her head lay, a man from nowhere who had been given six months to make sense out of the gigantic confusion that was Nigeria.
Ruth held him tighter and tighter as her muscles seemed to soften and the world itself seemed to disappear from her. She heard the lyrics of the song somewhere above her, invading her from a short distance away and then she realised he was singing softly into her hair:
Have I told you there’s no one above you
Fill my heart with gladness
Take away my sadness
Ease my troubles, that’s what you do
She knew she had suffered the ultimate betrayal when, without warning, her eyes filled with tears.
Ruth woke up late every Saturday. Hanging out with her friends in the living room of the flat she shared with Professor, she often didn’t get to bed until about five a.m. This Saturday she finally fell asleep about six and woke up at four. After she’d seen Nengi to his taxi at about three a.m. and returned to close Ginger, Professor and Ebele had teased her for a long while; they’d pronounced her a “goner”. “After that dance,” Ebele declared, “there is no way back o.” “You make such a fine couple,” Professor said, “except that both of you are so dark; your children will look like midnight.”
Ruth hadn’t said a word. She was still very worried about what seemed to be her frightening lack of control over herself. She had no doubt that if it hadn’t been for the fact that the girls always got together in the flat after every Friday Night Party, she would have followed Nengi back to his hotel room. Saying bye to him had been so wrenching. She’d thought she was a “big girl,” everyone said she was so cool, always in control. So what was happening to her? She worried that he would have noticed her lack of control, that he would think her cheap. He’d said he was going to come to the flat Saturday evening, but maybe he wouldn’t even turn up. Maybe when he slept over it he would become disgusted at the way she kept squeezing his body while they were dancing, at her silly childish tears. Maybe he would think of her as too emotional and would not want to get entangled with someone who cried just because of a dance, a crazy woman. She also worried about Ishaya (how about if he found out? what was she going to do about him?), about the six months Nengi’s boss had given him (what was the point of losing her head over someone who would soon return to big, big transactions in the great cities of the world and forget Nigeria and small fry like herself?). But his soft smile insinuated itself amidst all that worrying, his voice whispering into her ears: have I told you lately that I love you, his strong arms around her, his eyes, desperate and at the same time somehow managing to look understanding, when she told him outside Ginger that she couldn’t come with him because the girls always met without fail after every Friday night show.
Ruth got out of her bed, feeling sick from all the worrying she’d done before she finally managed to fall asleep, feeling at the same time, because Nengi had said he was coming to see her later in the day, an excitement that sat like a giant on her chest. As she opened her door, on her way to the bathroom to brush her teeth, she nearly collapsed from shock: she heard Nengi’s high-pitched voice from the living room, heard him laughing at something Professor had said.
“Sounds like sleeping beauty is finally awake,” Professor said, “Hey Ruth, Nengi is here.” “Forgive me,” he called out, “I know I said I’d be here about seven, but I couldn’t wait any longer.”
“Give me a few minutes,” Ruth replied and was surprised that given the extent of her nervousness she’d been able to say anything at all. Her heart kept pounding as she brushed her teeth; her hand shook. When she was done with brushing her teeth, she knew she wasn’t yet ready to face him. Her hand still shaking, she carried a plastic bucket of water into her room to heat it for her bath. While the water was being heated, she stood in front of her mirror staring at herself, trying to decide if she was good enough for Nengi. She thought she looked fat; she always thought she looked fat even though she ate little and her weight rarely changed. She thought her eyes looked sad; she’d always thought her eyes looked sad from the day she started looking at mirrors. She thought she had an ordinary-looking face, nothing exciting about her; Professor had a slim nose and a long and sharp face; she had nothing, she looked unremarkable. Perhaps when he saw her clearly, unprotected by nightclub lighting, he would lose all interest in her. They should have met in the afternoon, she said to herself, so he’d know exactly what he was getting and she would know that he had seen her as she was. Where was the life she had known before all this nervousness? How could she go back to a time when her heart didn’t beat wildly except occasionally at night when the sound of a gunshot or of someone slamming their door too loudly broke the silence? Ishaya visiting from Jos once in a while for a couple of days, her distant admirers at Ginger stretching out every conversation for as long as they could, her never-ending chores, the air of remoteness around her: that life had been predictable, safe, convenient, never made her stomach stormy, her heart riotous.
Lost inside her mind, she left the water heater in the bucket for too long and even after she’d stirred it, the water was too hot to have a bath with. To reach the kitchen where they stored water in big black tubs, she would have to go through the living room and there was no way she could face Nengi before she’d had her bath and done the best she could to look “presentable.” Calling herself a fool and wincing in pain, she had a painful bath with her too-hot water. She then looked her breasts and stomach over in the long mirror in the bathroom, concluded the breasts were too big and that the stomach bulged like that of a beer drinker. When she returned to her room, her skin still sore from the hot-water bath, she had a hard time deciding whether to wear shorts (and look casual, but expose her thighs which she thought were too large, besides he might think she was flaunting her oversized thighs and find her ridiculous) or her jeans trousers (which would be too dressy for staying at home with, show he had made her nervous in her own home, show she was etc.). She finally settled on a pair of blue jeans, a white tee shirt and navy blue sandals. She combed her hair carefully, worried for the first time in her life that her low cut was too plain, too unexciting. She worried that she had dabbed far too much perfume on her body, that she smelt like a whore. Then she looked at the clock and realised it had been almost an hour and a half since she got out of bed, and became worried that he would think she was scared to face him, that he would realise how completely he had destabilised her, and she made for the living room, blundering forward like a car out of control, still worried about how she smelt, how her stomach bulged, how plain her hair was, etc.
He was even handsomer, his face was even smoother, and his soft smile was absolutely disarming. He was sitting with his legs crossed on their brightly flowered bean bag, in the same clothes he’d worn to Ginger. “You look stupendous,” he said as she came into the room, and he rose to his feet and she fell into his arms as much from confusion and nervousness as from a fierce desire to be held by him again. She glanced nervously at Professor, who was seated on their long yellow sofa, still in her sleeping clothes. The hug was a long one and he nuzzled her neck like a cat, which was mightily ticklish and beautiful but made her even more nervous. And he placed her gingerly on the edge of the bean bag on which he’d been sitting, sat beside her and drew her close to him. Ruth looked helplessly at Professor, who smiled encouragingly.
“I’m famished,” Professor said, rising from her seat, “I have to go and get some food.”
“I’m sorry I came earlier than I said I would,” Nengi said after Professor’d left the room. “I just couldn’t . . .”
Ruth cut in, turning to face him, “I keep telling you, you are too polite, too, too polite. I’ve never heard anyone apologise for being early.”
Suddenly he kissed her, flung his tongue into her mouth like a spear. She gobbled on it greedily, turned her body towards him and grabbed his neck, gripped by an overpowering need. She would be frightened when later she remembered that need and replayed the scene in her head, the way she had pushed his head backwards until it came to rest against the bean bag, the way she had even when he’d completely conceded the initiative to her continued to plunge at him like a mean-spirited wrestler continuing to kick and box a defeated opponent. His tongue was still deep in her mouth and her body was half covering his when she heard the sound of a door opening and she quickly pulled away and restored his tee-shirt which had ridden over his stomach.
“Hope I didn’t interrupt anything heavy,” Professor said and chuckled, walking past them to the kitchen to fetch water and Nengi laughed and Ruth joined in, nervously.
They sat for a long time on the bean bag holding, and smiling at, each other, as if now they were alone together they weren’t quite sure what to do next. Then Nengi said he wanted to show her something back at his hotel room and they left the flat arm in arm and got into Ruth’s car. Though Ruth continued to worry about her loss of control etc., being alone in her car with Nengi was very exciting. The crazy currents that had been flowing between them since the dance at Ginger, that had been fiercened by that long kiss on the bean bag in her flat, tormented her exquisitely. It was a struggle to keep her eyes on the road, to remember to move the trafficator, to reach the brakes, to move any muscle. He didn’t help matters either. He leaned over and put his left arm around her; he stressed every point he made by touching her here and there, easily, naturally; he shifted this way and that, brushing against her all the time, as if the car could hardly contain him. In his high-pitched voice that made him sound so innocent, that sounded so beautiful to Ruth’s ears, he kept saying things that made Ruth dizzy. Things like: “I don’t know how I was able to control myself when you walked into the living room in your flat this afternoon; I was shocked; I didn’t think anyone could look so beautiful. You know, because of the lighting at Ginger I didn’t see you well before I fell for you. And then when you walked out and I saw how stunning you were, gosh! It was like winning a bonus.” Things like: “How do you do it? How do you impose your presence so much without saying a word? You know, at Ginger we were all doing a lot of talking on that table but it seemed so pointless because you were not part of it. It was as if we needed your approval for anything we said to make sense.”
“Oh, you talk so much rubbish,” Ruth said and struck him gently.
“No, I mean it, I mean every word. I barely slept after I got back to my room. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I couldn’t believe it. I would have come to your flat in the morning but I kept restraining myself. By three o’clock I couldn’t take it any longer.”
“You sweet-tongued man,” Ruth said, squeezing his hand which was on her right knee, “You want to blow my mind, you want to finish me completely.”
As always, the car park at the Sheraton was full and the lobby was packed. Men in suits, part of a wedding, hurried back and forth, bumping into people if they didn’t get out of the way quickly enough. Other men were huddled in twos and threes on the seats in the large, poorly lit lobby, whispering in spite of the din, and yet other men, and a solitary woman here and there, watched you intently and expectantly as you walked across the lobby as if perhaps you were a messenger they’d been awaiting for a very long time. Ruth, arm in arm with Nengi, at the receiving end of all those stares and disoriented by all the bustle, by the experience of walking into that extremely busy place arm-in-arm with a man she’d known for less than twenty four hours, suffered from acute self-consciousness. They couldn’t reach the lift quickly enough. Nengi was on the last floor, the executive floor, but his grey bedcover was weathered, the carpet was tired and the room had a stale smell.
“I’ve never paid so much money for such a crummy room anywhere in the world,” Nengi said, “anyway I console myself that if one of the best hotels in Lagos is in this state then there is no shortage of projects to fund here at home.”
But the state of the room didn’t matter to Ruth. When Nengi kissed her, she again went for his tongue greedily. It turned into the longest kiss of her life. When it came to an end because he broke free to look at her, she was panting like someone who had run the marathon. He had a naughty smile on his smooth handsome face as he looked at her, still holding her body to him. She wanted to go on kissing him, perhaps forever. At the same time she was worrying afresh about what struck her as the unseemly speed at which she was surrendering everything she had to this man from far away. He was clearly aroused and made no effort to hide it; she too felt very unsettled, which made her even more worried. He seemed to sense the turmoil inside her, for he gave her a short, sweet kiss on her lips, led her to a seat beside his bed and began to talk about his work. That reduced the tension in Ruth’s chest, allowed her to breathe a little better.
“This is my little baby,” he said picking up a slim, shiny PowerPoint projector on the desk beside his bed. “Before I met you it was possibly my best friend. I want you to look at my sales pitch for the government and let me know what you think.”
Even that little request caused Ruth some panic – what did she know about all the sophisticated things Nengi, Professor and Ebele had talked about at Ginger? He was going to find out that she was uninformed and uninteresting, he was going to lose interest in her very quickly.
In the meantime Nengi had set up his projector and was checking its connection to his black Toshiba laptop. Then, in bold dark blue and crimson colors against a dazzling white background, the name of the bank Nengi worked for (Masayoshi Lewis and Kleber or MLK for short) appeared on the wall across from the bed.
“I’ll try and present it to you the way I plan to spin it to the minister when I see him in Abuja. Just touch this switch on the laptop whenever I nod in your direction.”
He stood by the wall on which the image was being beamed holding a little torch-like object that produced a thin red light whenever he pointed it at the wall.
“MLK is a world leader in financing infrastructure projects. Most recently we completed the financing of a pipeline to transport natural gas from . . .”
And as Ruth, following nods from Nengi, pressed the button on the laptop, jet black lengths of pipe emerged from all sides of the screen and danced towards each other forming, as if by magic, a pipeline that came together gracefully across the middle of a map of South America filled with colourful representations of nations and large cities. Next came a series of cartoon characters representing the promoters of the pipeline, the national governments involved and the customers. The promoters carried their gas reserves in bulging gourd-like objects; the customers held briefcases marked with flashing US dollar signs which they were however shielding away from the promoters; the governments proffered folders marked “Enabling Environment”. Then in the slides that followed, a hyperactive character, with MLK written boldly across its chest, accompanied by a group of other banks, set about connecting the enormous gas reserves of the promoters with the energy-famished customers. Once this connection was made the jet black pipeline made its way unerringly from the gas fields of the promoters to the power plants of the customers. And then the pipeline was filled with gas and the parties lived happily ever after. The next project was a power plant in Poland and once again MLK’s diligence and expertise enabled a private power company to build a mammoth plant that went on to provide thousands of megawatts of electricity to industries and homes across the country. All with playful humour, all in rich, strong colours, like in a primer for toddlers.
“These projects would have been financed from scarce government resources or the governments would have queued for equally scarce funding from the World Bank and other development agencies. But with MLK’s advice the governments provided a conducive environment for private sector promoters to access international funding. In this age of liberalisation, it’s getting increasingly difficult for governments to finance projects which the private sector can handle. This is where MLK’s international experience can be decisive.”
Nengi’s voice had lost its shrillness; it was now smooth and soothing. Even when it said something boastful, it said it as if it was a fact which everyone knew or ought to know. Ruth tried very hard to listen to and understand every word; she wanted desperately to be able to discuss his work with him, but he distracted her terribly: the way he moved his lips reminded her of that long kiss of a few minutes before, his now-modulated voice made her heady. She wanted to hold him and be held by him, but she persevered with the picture show. The next set of slides showed all the potential projects that could be financed in Nigeria with MLK’s expertise: power plants, oil and gas pipelines, water projects, etc. It seemed from the slide show that if Nigeria would only embrace MLK, it would in a few years have more state of the art infrastructure than it would know what to do with. Ruth found it very interesting but too easy; it didn’t seem to her that anything concerning Nigeria could be so simple.
“What do you think?” Nengi asked her when the show was over, his voice back to normal.
“You guys do wonderful things,” Ruth said, “but things are never so straightforward here. Around here problems always seem to come from every direction.”
“Of course, it’s much harder than my spiel suggests,” Nengi said, “for example, the pipeline in South America took seven years from conception to closing. What the presentation aims at is to get the government to make an initial commitment to do the things necessary to support investment and then we can go away and try to put the agreements together. And, believe me, there are scores of agreements to be written.”
“It’s like magic,” Ruth said, not wanting to sound discouraging, “building fantastic things out of nothing.”
Nengi had moved from his place near the wall which had served as a screen to her side. His proximity made her uncomfortable, as if he’d chased away all the air around her. As he turned off the laptop and then the projector with his right hand, the left hand encircled her waist and drew her against him.
“You’re the magician,” he said. “When I was coming here all I could think about was how to sell my project finance wares and suddenly you’ve made all those things seem secondary. Everything else is minor compared to you.”
“Sweet-tongued man . . .” she began but he cut her off with a kiss.
When he began to take off her clothes, the anxieties that had shadowed her since the previous evening rose sharply. She helped him, but all the while a massive struggle took place inside her. Was she being cheap? Was she being stupid flinging herself at this man who would soon disappear? What would she do with Ishaya? The feel of his naked body against hers, the dozens of worshipful kisses that he planted on her body, the way he nozzled her enlarged right nipple broke all the padlocks inside her and pushed aside her panic. Over the years with Ishaya Ruth had learnt to get more out of sex. When pressed by her friends she’d described their lovemaking as “good” or even “very good”. Those adjectives would be too tame to describe sex with Nengi that afternoon at the Sheraton. Her body felt like an amazing bomb that kept exploding but somehow still held together. Those sudden, very satisfying explosions were immediately followed by new neediness; each burst of pleasure merely making her hungrier, more desperate.
Thoughts about Ishaya tormented her all through the period Nengi was around and only got worse when Nengi returned to London at the end of his trip. She and Ishaya had been lovers for ten years, since when she, a first year student at the University of Jos, met him on a terribly cold evening in the middle of the Jos harmattan. He had picked her out of a group of about fifteen female students, shivering in the cold outside the university’s female hostel, being herded to a party he was organizing for some rich and powerful men from out of town. It was a little like how Nengi had honed in on her, sitting quietly watching Mosquito and the dancers, even as her friends filled the air with their opinions and wit.
Ishaya was rich, powerful and popular. He managed contracts for millions of naira, organised parties for powerful men and watched them make a fool of themselves in the presence of university students young enough to be their daughters and in some cases their granddaughters, and paid kickbacks into their numbered accounts in Europe. He bought or built homes for them and was the person to talk to if you wanted to make the impossible possible or if all you wanted was to know where the best party in Jos was that weekend. Among certain circles in the female hostel “Uncle Ishaya” had a status close to that of God. That he had chosen her had made Ruth’s head reel.
Ruth had lost her mother in a motor accident when she was very young. She had been brought up by her grandmother and then when her grandmother died, by an aunt with a bad drinking habit who had three children of her own and had, when drunk, angrily enumerated to Ruth again and again over several years all the sacrifices she was making on her behalf. Ishaya was the dramatic turn that had led her away from a life that had almost always been miserable. Ishaya had made her feel worthwhile. When they met he was married and had three children, but he had paid more attention to her than the boyfriends of most of her friends, married or unmarried, ever did to them. He had been generous to her, had helped her a great deal when she and Professor were setting up Ginger, had become a part of her life that she couldn’t imagine letting go of. She had easily fended off the attentions of many suitors over the years because deep inside her she felt she had all she wanted. Ishaya always found reason to visit Lagos to see her at least once a month. She probably would have liked to se him more often but she’d adapted. Ruth was good at adapting, at fitting herself into whatever space life offered her and trying to make the best of it. That way you spared yourself a great deal of heartache.
So what had happened with Nengi? Why had all her coolness suddenly dissipated? Where was the deep contentment she was so confident she had? How had she ripped apart the easily manageable shape her life had fitted itself into for years and gone in search of pain and heartbreak? What would she do with Ishaya? What had happened to her? What was going to become of her?
The next time Ishaya was in town, she was terrified that she would unwittingly reveal to him that she had slept with someone else, that he would somehow read what she considered to be her betrayal of him on her body. Nothing of the sort happened. If her behaviour had changed in anyway, Ishaya didn’t notice. In her eyes, he did look different. He was still handsome and very well groomed. He looked very elegant in the beige kaftan and light brown sandals he wore when they went out for dinner at Villa Medici. His beard was meticulously trimmed, but it was beginning to sprout a few white strands. He still did press-ups but his stomach was nevertheless starting to bulge a little. When he made love to her, he was still filled with energy, she still seemed to arouse him incredibly, but his effect on her was no match for what Nengi did to her. It was like the difference between a thunderstorm and a drizzle. He seemed to spend a lot more time at the mirror as if searching for ways to halt the onward march of age. She’d never asked his age, but supposed he must be in his mid-forties. She may have seen all those things in the past but she saw them with new, critical eyes. He was less than he used to be.
After Ishaya returned to Jos, Ruth became even more restless. Suddenly she would be seized by a powerful urge to call Ishaya and tell him it was over between them. The reasons for ending it with him would blossom in her head – he was a married man (in those moments that suddenly became a huge issue ten years late) – they’d been seeing each other for long enough – she had to think about her future, about getting married, she was after all thirty-one years old – she’d depended on him for too long – she had to make her own way – she was incapable of keeping two relationships at the same time – she hated telling lies and she’d have to lie to one or the other and so on. She would even reach for the phone in her office at Ginger and then she would take her hand away. The reasons why she shouldn’t just end it, at least not just yet would come surging. Ishaya had done so much for her, he was such an essential part of her life she couldn’t imagine breaking up with him. How, anyway, could she seriously think of giving up that which had been so reliable, so stable for ten long years, on account of a man she hardly knew, who would probably soon go away to his world of great transactions and forget her?
A few hours later, a feeling that she absolutely had to end it with Ishaya, that she had to make a decision just to stop all the turmoil in her head once and for all would again take hold of her. One night she dreamt that she had called Ishaya to tell him it was over between them and she couldn’t find the nerve to tell him and he kept asking her what was the matter.
“Ruth, are you there?” he asked her in the dream.
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you all right?”
“Ruth, are you there? Is everything all right?”
It was like having a length of rope tied round your waist and the more you tried to untie it, the more rope there was to untie. Ruth was sweating profusely when she woke up.
Ruth drew crooked lines and circles across Nengi’s chest slowly, journeying from beside his left nipple to beside the right one and then down to his stomach and then back again. Her head lay sideways in the crook made by his right arm; her naked breasts were pressed against his side. They still throbbed, her entire body still throbbed, like a malfunctioning engine that couldn’t be switched off. The six months Nengi had to perform a miracle in Nigeria had passed and though he said he’d made no headway in contacting senior Nigerian government officials, he sounded as if he was still determined to go on.
“I remember distinctly the day I began to feel dissatisfied with my work,” Nengi said. He was staring at the ceiling, while playing with her hair. “I’d come back from a meeting in New York and when I got into my flat I felt so empty. Maybe it was the work; I’d been in meetings constantly every day for the previous two weeks. I remember feeling, for the first time, that the work I did was meaningless and that the life which until then had meant so much to me – the fantastic hotels, the meetings where sometimes there were people from ten different nationalities, the best and brightest in the world, I remember feeling that that life was artificial and pointless. It was a strange feeling. When I started at MLK I’d dashed off e-mails to my friends and family describing every single person I worked with, describing every meeting in detail. I was in a tough group, dealing with emerging markets that sometimes tended to be erratic, but that only made the work more exciting. I had settled in very quickly, I didn’t have any choice anyway: in MLK you hit the ground running. Within six months I’d been to Latin America for the first time in my life and had in one single week had meetings in Prague, New York and Rio. I didn’t see how I, or anyone else, could ask for more. So when I began to feel dissatisfied, it amazed me. And the feeling didn’t go away. It made me think about every aspect of my work and the life I led, searching for what was wrong, searching for what else I could possibly want. That was when I began to think of promoting infrastructure investments here at home and the idea gave me a lot of energy. If I could manage to have even one project financed here, that would finally give meaning to all the fancy knowledge I had acquired. The political situation in Nigeria was terrible then so I would’ve been crazy to suggest to my people that we should do anything here, but it didn’t deter me. I began to do my research, to assemble the stuff I would need. I was convinced that things would improve someday. The day Abacha died, I danced naked in my living room. I know I should have been sad for the lives he’d destroyed and what he’d done to our country and also for the way whatever it was that drove him had turned him into such a monster, but I had no time for any of that. I sensed that the time had come to try and realise my plans, I sensed it and I couldn’t control myself.”
Moments like those would become some of Ruth’s most precious memories. She would store every detail in her mind – his tone of voice, how he’d held her, how his leg had felt across her body, how his body had trembled each time her fingers slightly touched his nipple – she would store every detail carefully like a farmer preparing for a lean season. When he was in some distant corner of the world negotiating great transactions, she would draw from her stores slowly. She would fill her days with memories of him, his big, hard chest, his strong thighs. While these memories often made her smile, they also made her restless and miserable. Most of his work was in Latin America and eastern Europe; Nigeria was, for his employers, a side show, a place they were “looking at for a while” so his trips to Lagos were short, few and far between. Ruth suffered terribly, but she hid her suffering well. All her friends crowed about how lucky she was to have Nengi. And all the time she continued to be tormented by thoughts about Ishaya, that during his monthly visits, he would somehow find out she had been seeing someone else.
To all the things she already found so attractive about Nengi, she added the fact that after their lovemaking, he told her the deepest things about himself. He told her about growing up in Port Harcourt, about studying for a masters in Switzerland, where during his first winter, he thought the cold would drive him mad. She learnt so much about his work that after a short while she no longer felt quite as ignorant about those fantastic deals he and his colleagues put together. She felt extremely privileged; those long post-coital monologues (for she said hardly anything about herself no matter how hard he tried to draw her out) were for her strong evidence that when he said he liked her very much, that she was even more important to him than his great transactions, he wasn’t only trying to make her feel good. He had to care about her to tell her all those things, he had to think of her as more than someone he slept with whenever he happened to be in Lagos; she had to mean a lot more to him than that. Though from time to time he mentioned this or that former girlfriend, he never said anything about a current relationship. Ruth thought it would be silly to imagine that such a lovely man was unattached, and she assumed that there was someone in London whom he chose not to say anything about. She wasn’t the probing type, she was grateful for what she was getting, which, even though she saw so little of him, she thought was a lot, and she never asked him if he was in a relationship with someone else.
She sometimes had nightmares that he had gone away and she would never see him again, and she woke up panicky and miserable. One day he would go away for good, of that she was sure, but it was unbearable to think of life after that. She told herself it would be far too ambitious to have long term thoughts about him, but hope is a sly, stubborn thing. In her case the hope that Nengi’s departure would somehow not happen never really showed itself, but it was nonetheless alive. It lived a secret half-life, like something concealed at the bottom of a packed deep freezer.
It was at the Sheraton, on the same executive floor where he always stayed, that Nengi broke the news to her that the day she had dreaded had arrived, the day he would have to give up on Nigeria. He’d spent nearly two years trying to get senior government people to listen to him. After several hours in a variety of congested waiting rooms in Abuja, surrounded by the former girlfriends, former schoolmates, distant relatives and party colleagues of the powerful people whom he wanted to see, by contractors, commission agents and all manner of hustlers, all waiting patiently, all demeaning themselves to secretaries, messengers and police orderlies in order to get a chance to see oga or madam, he had been on the verge of accepting defeat. Then through an old friend of his father’s Nengi secured a firm appointment to see one of the most powerful ministers in the government. He’d flown in from London the Friday before, spent Saturday with Ruth in Lagos and left for Abuja on Sunday afternoon, nervously hopeful, armed with a refurbished PowerPoint presentation. He’d returned the next Tuesday a broken man.
“I waited for only three hours this time,” Nengi said. “The secretary had my name at the top of a list and even told me that the minister had asked her to apologise that he’d received an urgent summons to the president’s office, “the Villa” as they all call it up there in Abuja. I couldn’t believe that she had actually apologised to me, when I’d sometimes sat in that office from morning till evening and she’d not even looked in my direction. When he came back there was the usual commotion that surrounds power in this bloody country, nearly everyone in the crowd in the waiting room rushed forward to greet him. It was as if they all wanted to lie on the filthy red carpet so that he would step on their heads as he walked past. He and his entourage of about ten people spent nearly half an hour answering greetings and dispensing jokes and so on and so forth and then I was called into his office. It was an enormous office but there were so many people – the entourage and some of those who were with me in the waiting room who’d managed to get in – that it felt very tiny. The waiting section of the office was packed, some were leaning against the wall, a couple were sprawled on the floor. The minister was sitting behind his desk, a huge black desk, and he wore a long black gown and glasses with a dark brown tint. The effect was disconcerting; all through the period I was in the office I searched for his eyes, and was never quite sure where they were at any time. ‘Thank you for agreeing to see me, sir,’ I said. ‘I realise you’re very busy.’ ‘Ah, no problem at all,’ he said very pleasantly, ‘your uncle is a good friend of mine – and a friend of the party.’ One of the men in his entourage, a big fellow in a tight dark suit who was leaning on the wall behind the minister, repeated, ‘Yes, a friend of the party.’ I looked around me. It was weird; all those people were staring at me, listening to every word. ‘I would like to discuss some of the services my bank can render with you, sir,’ I said. ‘Yes, go ahead, please go ahead, and you have to be quick, we have a party caucus meeting this afternoon.’ ‘Yes, you have to be quick, we are going for a caucus meeting by one,’ the man in the tight suit said. ‘I have a slide presentation,’ I said and pointed to my bag. ‘What is that?’ ‘A slide what?’ I said, ‘I have a presentation, a Powerpoint presentation, slides to introduce what we do and then we can discuss areas where we can perhaps . . .’ ‘I don’t think we have time for that,’ the dark suit said. ‘Yes, we don’t have time.’ This time it was the minister who echoed him, ‘In fact, put it in writing and submit to my secretary.’ ‘Yes,’ the dark suit shouted, with a smile, as if it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever heard in his lousy life, ‘yes, put it in writing and submit to the secretary, we don’t have time.’ ‘We’re out of time.’ ‘Put it in writing and submit to the secretary,’ another member of the entourage said from behind me. ‘Put it in writing,’ I heard from at least four other parts of the room. ‘Sir, I think there’s value . . .’ ‘Put it in writing,’ the man in the dark suit snarled at me, he moved forward as if he would hit me. ‘Sir . . .’ I began but the minister had turned away, his phone stuck in his ear.
“In the minister’s waiting room, just behind the secretary’s desk, there is a very large and tall shelf filled to the brim with old files and papers. The files are so many that some are strewn on the floor behind the secretary; some papers marked “secret” actually lie around under her table. When the minister and his hangers-on began to chorus “put it in writing” my mind went straight to that shelf. I knew that was where whatever I wrote would end up.
“I know that what I want to do can be done, I have no doubt about that. But either I’m not going about it the right way or this is not the time. Whatever the case, I can’t justify flying to Nigeria nearly every month and having nothing to show for it. I know I already look silly at work. I’ve known for a while now that the only reason I’ve kept making the trips is because of you, Ruth, to be with you. But I can no longer justify it. I’m going to miss you and I will call you every opportunity I get and whenever I can I will come and see you and please Ruth promise me you’ll finally get e-mail. I’m going to miss you horribly.”
He looked desolate; she was sitting beside him on the bed and he took her hands in his and squeezed until her hands began to hurt. His eyes pleaded with her, but she didn’t understand the plea in them. What she had felt was a thud on the head as if she’d fallen from a great height followed by a brutal wakefulness. The world was suddenly extremely clear and bright until her tears drenched it. Nengi tried to soothe her but was himself incapacitated. For a short while, she had wild thoughts – perhaps she could move to London to be near him. She would not interfere with his life; he would only come and see her now and again. She would be content to receive whatever little part of him he could spare. She would be out of sight, would not depend on him, would find something to do to feed herself. But she didn’t utter any of those desperate thoughts. She knew there was nothing that could be done.
The period between four p.m. and seven p.m. is Ruth’s most vulnerable time of day. It is the time she spends alone in her tiny office at Ginger, after the lunch crowd had gone and the customers who came in after work to have a few beers had not yet begun to trickle in. She would sit behind her desk, her chair turned to face the window, and stare at Allen Avenue, at the smoking yellow buses chasing pedestrians off the sidewalks, squeezing themselves into every little space, so desperate they seemed ready to climb the electric poles by the side of the road.
It is during that period that Ruth is most defenceless. That is the time when Nengi’s smooth handsome face comes back, his broad chest and the way he shivered when her fingers drew lines around her nipples. Two years after the day he told her in his stale-smelling room on the executive floor at the Sheraton, on a bed with a faded cover, that he could no longer continue visiting Nigeria chasing project finance deals that were going nowhere, her memories of him are as strong as ever. He had called every week at first, his voice laden with guilt, but she had responded to everything he said in monosyllables. He had pleaded with her to get an e-mail account, even taken out one for her with Yahoo, but she’d ignored him. He had written her a long letter, the first letter he’d write in a long time he said, telling her that he thought about her all the time and that he missed her sorely. She had not replied. He had called her the next time he was coming to Nigeria on vacation and said he wanted to stop for a day in Lagos and she’d said, coldly, “There’s no need for that.”
She’d wanted to return as quickly as possible to the predictable, convenient life she had before Professor found Nengi sitting alone in a corner of Ginger, but that life was gone for good. She couldn’t get Nengi out of her head despite everything she’d done to keep him out of her life. Ishaya visited once a month as usual but nothing he did could fill the void that Nengi had left. Ruth is grateful she has Ishaya, but the old, deep contentment she thought she had was gone. She sometimes thinks she ought to be very bitter about what Nengi had done to her, she sometimes thinks she should hate him for turning her life upside down. But occasionally on some evenings when she thinks about him, alone in her office, drawing from those memories she had saved like a farmer preparing for a lean season, she catches herself smiling.