See Chapter 2 HERE.
The noise of the lunch rush-hour threatened to drown out every other thing. The first time his lunch partner caught him not paying attention, it had been his excuse – the noise was so loud and very distracting. But that had been a lie; Philip’s head was roaming wild with thoughts of a certain Suzuki-riding lawyer lady with thin limbs and overzealous hair.
“So you really had no idea?”
Huh? Shit! He’d been lost track again. He stuck the straw protruding from his juice pack into his mouth and shook his head, allowing his face speak a somewhat amused you-have-no-idea. It worked.
“What?” Nina giggled. “You guys sef. So I have been mooning over you, batting my eyelashes and pouting all over the place for you this past month and you had no idea I liked you?”
Oho, was that it? Philip shook his head again and said the words this time. “You have no idea.” Another lie.
She cupped a dainty hand over her mouth, trying – or at least looking like she was – to hold back the giggles. Philip tried to make his smile as self-depreciating as possible. Nina just joined the firm eight months ago as a Trainee Associate. She was young with beautiful fair skin, huge sultry eyes and a figure that was well accentuated by the designer dresses and suits she wore to the office. Philip had first noticed her after they were put on the same team for a long-term engagement. He had mistaken her persistent questions and excited greetings for IGG – initial gragra – which was a phase of over-zealousness every new joiner passed through. But a few months in, Ele, the matronly office administrator, who doubled as his office maama, told him that Nina “had the hots” for him. He had done nothing about it, except be more careful to keep their relationship strictly professional. Until exactly two weeks ago, Ele – again – ordered him to “stop dulling and ask the fine girl out joor.”
Nina was very good company, even Philip admitted to himself, and from all appearances she did in fact like him. If only he could get the thoughts out of his head of a certain leather-clad lawyer and one impromptu linner date.
A gasp from across the table snapped his attention back to Nina. She was hunched over the table, shoulders up to her ears, as if hiding from someone. Her mouth was agape and her shocked eyes were trained on something behind him.
“What?” Philip whispered, unsure why he was whispering and not knowing whether to look.
“Look!” Her voice was a conspiratorial whisper too.
Philip looked back discreetly.
“No!” Nina hushed. “That way!”
He swung around to look over the other shoulder. A fat lady in a baggy t-shirt and jumpers was just leaving the counter. She waddled towards the doors, struggling with a handbag and three large pizza boxes balanced against her chest.
“How can one person eat all that? No wonder she is so fat –” Nina was saying.
But Philip wasn’t there anymore. He was back at Domino’s pizza place in Obalende, two weeks earlier.
He had followed Cordelia’s trail to Domino’s and parked his car just beside her motorbike in the near-empty parking lot; early evening in Obalende was rush-hour for workers to head back home across the bridge or further into the Island. He took a minute to inspect the leather covering on the gas tank. He had noticed the black and white stripes earlier as she zoomed past him at the fuel station, but he hadn’t noticed the twirls and whorls that rode along those lines on both sides. In the middle of the twirls sat one word which looked like it had either been stitched into the leather or squeezed on with a tube painter. The word was Lea.
Philip pushed his way through the doors, frowning at the doorman who sat to one side flipping through a magazine, as if he wasn’t getting paid to be a doorman. Cordelia sat facing him at a table right in the centre of the restaurant, and as he stepped in, a large grin split her face. For no other reason but just to avoid grinning back, Philip deepened his frown. He wove his way through the tables and chairs and sat down heavily.
“Who is Lea?”
“Oh, that’s me. Heck, we should probably do this again.” She stuck out a hand over the table. “I am Cordelia Anachunam. Everyone calls me Lea.”
Philip was not going to give her the satisfaction of pointing out how weird it was to redo introductions. Eyeing her warily, he took her hand. “Philip Ekezie,” he said. “Everyone calls me –”
“Philip-not-Phil,” she finished for him. At his raised eyebrows, she said, “I am a lawyer, Philip. A retentive memory is a very necessary part of the profession.”
“I see,” he grunted. Truth be told, he was a bit miffed that she remembered all those tiny details about their first meeting when all he could remember was her hair and tiny legs, and his rudeness.
“Well” – his newly re-made acquaintance rubbed her hands together – “I hope you’re hungry–”
“Er, not exactly. I really have to get –”
“–because I ordered plenty!”
It was the sparkle in her eyes that warned him. Dreading what he would find, Philip followed her eyes and looked behind him. A waiter was approaching their table with her order balanced against his chest – not one, not two, but three large boxes of pizza.
A jolt from behind him dragged him back to present. The man who bumped him turned back to offer apologies, but Philip waved them off. I should be thanking you, he thought wearily. He guiltily dragged his attention back to Nina who apparently hadn’t even noticed his leave of concentration.
“– and that was it oh,” she said, her hands splaying out in front of her. “That was how I found myself with the job Seyi had always wanted – in the top audit firm in the country – and I never even wanted it, while she is still out there, my poor darling, job-hunting.” She finished with a pout.
Philip wished he knew who Seyi was, but that was not a detail he would have dared to ask for at the time. So instead he awwed and reached out over the table to pat her hands. Nina grabbed him like a lifeline; a coy smile playing beneath her lashes, she pried his fingers open and splayed her palm out over his. The girl giggled, pointing out the disparity of their hands in size. Philip really had no choice over what happened next…
They had been halfway through the second box of pizza when he asked her why she rode a motorcycle when she could have a car.
“And be suffering like all of you getting stuck in traffic upandan?” she had retorted.
“Well that is a sound point,” Philip countered, “but it does not look so good when placed beside the alarming 70 percent of accidents that are motorcycle-related.”
“Hmm!” she slurred around a mouthful of pepperoni and barbecue sauce. “Mister Auditor. With facts and figures!”
Philip smiled and shrugged. He took a bite out of the slice in his hand, his eyes never leaving her face while she talked. “I know about the statistics but life itself is a boiling pot of risks. My personal philosophy is that to live happily, one must accept that one is actually never in control.”
“What?” It was his turn to speak with food in his mouth. “How does that even make sense?”
“Of course you disagree.” She thumped the table with a pleased look on her face, as if she had just won a prize. “I’d have eaten the rest of this pizza by myself if you had agreed.”
At that, Philip laughed. “Er, young lady” – he pointed at the space between them and the majority of crumbs on her end – “you have eaten most of it by yourself.”
As if on cue, Cordelia belched. She immediately slapped her hand over her mouth, eyes wide in horror. The self-consciousness was so sudden, so unexpected of the woman he was starting to see her as, that Philip burst out laughing. She chuckled along; with a final wave of apology at him, she picked up another slice. “Really though, I like the freedom of my bike. Plus” – she added with an exaggerated wink – “the handlebars were made for my hands.”
“Which hands?” Philip sneered. “These tiny hands? Or you left some at home?”
Her gasp was theatrical and made him laugh some more. With eyes narrowed into slits, she challenged. “I will have you know, sir, that I have very capable hands. In fact, here” – she held out a hand to him – “give me your hand and I’ll show you proof right now.”
Amused, he wiped crumbs off his right digits and gave her the hand. Placing it palm up, she splayed her hand out over his, and with all the seriousness of an attorney in the law court, began to talk him through the similarities and disparities in size, texture and complexion. She said all the right things but sitting there with her warm hand on his – in his – Philip felt all the wrong things. Her eyes took on a serious air, but he could still see that glint of amusement in them that told him she was goofing; her hair was literally everywhere; her teeth were small and they winked occasionally through lips which visibly struggled not to smile as she ‘lectured’ on; there were little bits of dough beneath her lower lip and her face was totally devoid of any semblance of make-up. The only thing Philip wanted to do right then was to fold his fingers around her warm smaller palm, drag her close and kiss her. He had known then that even if he didn’t admit it to himself, he wanted to see her again.
Philip snapped out of memory-land by himself this time. He knew what had to be done.
“Nina, we have to go.” When she didn’t move, only gaping at him as he stood, he added, “Now!”
Grabbing her hand, he paved a path for them through the still-bustling traffic of corporate Lagos in the café. Why hadn’t it occurred to him earlier?
Nina started to protest but Philip interrupted her. “I am truly sorry to hear about your friend, Seyi.” They were outside now. “But believe me when I tell you” – he unlocked the car doors and held the passenger side open for her – “that God will provide.”
“No,” Nina whined. “I already finished telling you about Seyi. I was talking about Tope, Seyi’s brother. He–”
Philip nodded several times. “Almighty God will provide for her brother too.”
When the intern called him up and started leading the way to Cordelia’s office, it suddenly occurred to Philip that there was a chance she wouldn’t agree to what he was about to propose. Heck, there was a chance she hadn’t even spared a thought for him in the past week since their ‘linner’ hang out at Domino’s. And the possibility made his palms wet.
The intern was the same one from his first visit – Philip couldn’t remember his name – the one who had tried to swindle him. The plump young man kept up an excited chatter. Completely ignoring him, Philip reviewed the plans in his head. The only reason he had not reached out to Cordelia since that fun evening at Domino’s was because it had been her who asked him there. It was not right that she had asked. Philip Ekezie liked to do things the traditional way, and where he came from, women did not ask men out on dates. However, seeing as he couldn’t get her off his mind, the logical thing to do was to undo it, by doing it right.
“Madam, shall he come inside?” he heard the intern ask.
Without waiting to hear any reply, Philip stilled his nerves and stepped around the man’s bulky frame into the airy room. Cordelia was seated behind a large mound of papers. Judging by the array spread out in front of her, the desk was a large one but only the lower wooden board coverings were visible. He looked up at her face and there was a grin on it wide enough to swallow the desk. In spite of his inner turmoil, Philip found himself fighting the urge to smile. He mustn’t appear too excited.
“Aren’t all lawyers supposed to wear eye glasses at work?” he tried.
“This had better be a social call, Mr. Ekezie,” she drawled, pointedly ignoring his question. She was swinging lazily from side to side in her chair. “You have Oliver worried that you’re about to get him sacked.”
Philip chuckled. “I couldn’t even remember his name.”
He shot her a scathing look, and she grinned back with relish at having scored a point early on.
“So,” she pointed him into a seat, “how may I be of help to you, sir?”
“Have dinner with me.”
The grin disappeared from her face. For a second it looked like she would say something cheeky, then she did not. Philip sat still the whole time, the disaffected setting of his face belied the nervousness roaring within. After staring at him for a long while, she raised a hesitant finger in the air – the solemn image of a solemn child in a classroom.
Philip nodded. Speak.
“Can I wear a dress?” she asked in a tiny voice, a small smile creeping across her lips.
Over the rushing sound of calming nerves in his head, Philip heard himself say, “As a matter of principle, you must.”