Stop smoking. Not because she believed it was such a terrible habit, but because of how she started. It was a small thing, really. She merely saw the cigarette packet on a table, slipped one out of the pack, and began smoking it. Just like that. That was how she did most things. Her marriage, for example. She doesn’t know why she married her husband. She had met a tall, handsome banker at a dinner party her sister threw for a PR consultancy firm. He had said hello, poured her a drink. When he spoke, she heard a Nigerian accent smoothed over by years abroad as though with sandpaper. He seemed nice enough, smart enough. Enough. Why wouldn’t she let him take her out a few times then, to parties where she had nothing to do but smile politely and listen to him drone on about Nigerian politics while hoping to get a contract? He was perfect; everyone thought so. When her sister saw him talking to her that first time, it was as though someone had blindfolded her and put her on a one-way express train to somewhere she had always wanted to go but had not yet packed for or learned any of the languages. Six months later, he had asked her to marry him and she had said yes. There was no reason not to. When asked about how they got married, she’d always laugh and say, “it all happened so fast!” She thought of everything in her life that way – her marriage, her child, her not going out to get a job. She did not know how any of those came to be so permanent, so there.
She had only travelled to the UK three times, each time with her husband, but this last trip was different. This time, over the novelty of London and bored of being at home waiting for her husband’s sister to take her out, she went on long walks on her own. Sometimes, she would even hop on the train and purposely get lost, find herself in Bayswater or Kilburn or Canary Wharf, walking the packed streets aimlessly, pretending that she had come to London by herself, on her own terms. One day, she chose not to go straight to the train station a block away from her sister-in-law’s apartment, opposite the newsagent she often guiltily bought tubs of Haagen-Dasz and Maltesers. She instead planned to walk to the next station over but first, have lunch at the chip shop down the road. That was how she met Eric.
Eric was not as tall as her husband, but his broad shoulders and toned arms made him look strong and athletic. He had a wide, gap-toothed smile, a short afro like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, and an easy manner. He took her order and, hearing her accent, asked if she was Nigerian. She confirmed that she was. Well, he was, too.
A Nigerian named Eric? Was he serious?
Yes, he had said, laughing. His mom and dad just liked the name.
She made her order and stood to the side, and he told her he was studying for his undergraduate degree at a small university in London. She smiled, amused that he would tell her that without asking, even more amused that he found her worth the quick attempt at respectability. He was Nigerian after all.
While she waited for her fish and chips, he asked her what her name was. He asked her where exactly she was from. When he had to attend to another customer, he asked if she could wait, and she did. She liked watching him with the customers, leaning over the counter as though they were telling him a secret, smiling when he bantered with the customers, first the heavyset ruddy-faced man with gold-rimmed glasses and a Kangol cap, then the petite girl with a blond bob. She liked how differently he sounded with these people, how much more British. It made her think that she reminded him of home.
She was not the type of person to harbor secrets. Perhaps her husband was more the type. She did not know anything about his private life before they met and later married. Indeed, she had never thought it her place to ask or try to find out. Her husband had always played his part while holding himself apart, but that was normal. Aren’t men always, in the real sense of it, single? Her husband was so solitary that when he would go to meet business partners or friends after work and she never went along, nobody thought it strange. So she began to make a habit of stopping by the chip shop to talk with Eric on his lunch break, until a week passed and she saw him every day since their first meeting. Nobody suspected a thing. When she said she was going shopping all by herself, that she wanted to wander and get lost in Central London, nobody batted an eyelid. When she would go out on long walks with Eric and tell her husband and his sister that she went to dinner in a Greek restaurant then off to catch a jazz show, everyone assumed she was by herself. On these walks, they talked about everything – her Lagos, so different from the one he left five years ago; his London, as full as it was with studying and work. There’s nothing fun in my world, he often said. All I do is work. London is where I work. Like, the entire city is a job.
But nothing was supposed to come of this. She had just wanted a secret thing to curl her fingers around in her pocket, something that only she knew was there.
That one day when her husband went to Manchester to see old friends from university and his sister spent much of the day at the law firm where she worked, she and Eric spent the whole day together. They took the train to Central London to walk around the Tate Modern, then linger by the riverbank before having lunch at Wagamama’s. They were like natives to each other, sitting and laughing over green tea and noodles from their table by the restaurant window, watching the tourists pass. He teased her about liking green tea (it tastes like the agbo my mom used to force-feed me when I had stomach trouble as a kid). She made fun of him not liking football (So your name is Eric and you don’t like football. Next thing now, you’ll say you don’t like pepper”). The air was cool, the sun was out, and the river just off the broad walk shone like new leather. She felt herself carried along by the conversation, their easy laughter, the ease with which she walked in step with him. She could feel herself committing to something she could not yet name, something almost tangible, something that she actually wanted.
They took the train southeast to his apartment, a three-bedroom on the fourth floor of a beige colored ten-storey block. The interior was more welcoming than the building’s exterior, if sparsely decorated; all the living room had was a green corduroy-looking sofa and a shaggy black rug in front of the large flatscreen television set. Beneath the crisp air wafting in through the windows was just the hint of cigarette smoke and, from the tiny kitchen that she did not enter, warmth as if someone had just been cooking.
“We try to keep it clean, but you know how it is,” he said offhandedly, as though it were something he felt like he had to say, as he closed the door and draped his jacket over the sofa.
There was a pounding in her ears and her hands shook a little. She sat down slowly, as though afraid the ground beneath her might shift. She knew what she was about to do. He sat on the couch and offered her a bottle of Newcastle. She took a long swig, savoring the bitter even though she had only ever finished a bottle of beer once (aged seventeen, on a dare). When he spoke, it was to say how happy he was that she was there with him. He wrapped an arm around her and stroked her shoulders, and she leaned into him, breathing him in, thinking how strong he felt, how solid. He kissed her easily, without hesitation. Her fingers reached for the back of his neck and crept into his hair, and thinking how different his short afro felt beneath her fingers from her husband’s closely-cropped hair. She closed her eyes and willed herself to forget the apartment, this couch so comfortable it was almost as if it were folding them in, the entire world beyond Eric’s front door. She thought, instead, of the fingers lazily tracing their way down her back, the pleasant roughness of his stubble against her skin when he kissed her neck, her surprise at how much she wanted him. When his hands slipped between her thighs with an ease that surprised her, she did not push them away. When he laid her on the couch and pressed against her, she ran eager hands up his back, into his thick hair, arched her back, pulled him even closer. When he finally began to undress her, she did not protest that she was married, claim that she had to leave, give him any reason at all to stop.
She did not linger afterwards. He remained on the couch while she got dressed, looking away from him in an effort not to admire his naked body. All he did was ask if she was leaving, and she said yes. He did not ask where she was going. He did not ask her any questions. When she was dressed, he got up from the couch, still naked, to wrap his arms around her and kiss her lips gently. He must have known that she would not go back to see him at the chip shop. She found that she could not look at his face. When he withdrew from her, she left his apartment. On the way out of his apartment, there was a packet of Dunhill cigarettes and a lighter on the wooden table by the front door, and she took them. She walked to the train station with a cigarette burning between her lips.
That was when she started smoking. And she really ought to stop.
Refrain from buying a ticket to London to see him. It’s not like she’s in love or anything. It’s just that she just noticed an ad in the paper for return tickets to London and the thought – the delicious, thrilling thought – ambled through her mind. But as she drove to and from the market for shopping, came home and cooked lunch and dinner, she realized the thought wasn’t fleeting at all. It stayed in her brain, lodged there like a stubborn tenant, refusing to budge. Go. Go. Go.
She was surprised at who she had become with Eric, how easy it had been to simply shove her life into a dark corner in the room of her mind, how calmly she conducted herself when she went back home. She had said she went sightseeing at Trafalgar Square, took a long walk, then had some tiramisu at an Italian restaurant somewhere on Edgeware Road. She had lost track of time, and it was wonderful. Yes, her husband did not seem happy she had simply drifted off by herself, but he did not say so. He did not have to, and she’d have hated to pretend as though she cared. He let it rest, and so did she.
She imagined turning up at Eric’s door with a huge, genuine smile on her face. He would wrap his arms around her and whisper something about how he was scared he’d never see her again. And they would pick up where they left off, as though the distance and the intervening weeks had never happened. They would have their easy conversations, walks around London streets, holding hands. She would forget herself, forget the weight of all that Lagos bears, and be someone other than herself, someone closer to who she wanted to be.
Fail miserably at refraining from buying a ticket to see him. This was far from the plan. Whatever her issues with her marriage, buying a ticket to London to see a man who could not even be aptly named a lover triggered too many moral tripwires in her mind. But the travel agency’s name was below the advert. Go Well Travels, Ltd. Enquire Within. So she did. The ticket was for Royal Air Maroc, which meant a stopover in Casablanca before the onward journey to London. She had also taken a peek at her bank account, the personal bank account that her husband knew existed but probably didn’t think much was in it. She did have enough for the ticket. So why not check?
“This ticket would be available for another five days, Ma, but not for longer than that. If I may advise, Ma, I think you should buy it before then.” She could almost hear the slight smile on the agent’s face, the slight nod of the head as though urging a sale by sheer will. The agent’s name was Abosede. Her voice was friendly and soothing, like the vocal equivalent of a pat on the hand. She wondered how old Abosede was.
“OK, so I have to buy it very soon, ehn? Send me the ticket details….”
“… time of the flight and all that. I should decide within the week whether or not I’m interested.”
“Yes, Ma. I’ll send you the ticket right away. Once again, the quote in the email would be valid for five days, after which the ticket deal would no longer be available.”
“OK, Ma. I will send the ticket now, Ma. Have a nice day.”
She waited by her laptop, the internet modem still running, waiting for the email. She thought of how her husband merely informed her of his actions, never even imagining that she may raise an objection. When she opened her email and saw the ticket in her inbox, she felt the smile spread slowly, unbidden across her face. She felt a tingle in her body so small but so powerful that she could not tell where it came from. She could go. She took a cigarette from her bag, lit it, and took a deep drag.
She had five days.
Waver. She bought the ticket two days ago, and it gave her private pleasure. It was like a door left ajar, a private jet at her beck and call, something liberating and reassuring by its mere existence. But she woke up that morning and saw an email reminder about the ticket. Abosede, friendly and reassuring Abosede, was politely reminding her that she had three days to buy the ticket.
She wondered how well she had hidden her delight from her husband these past two days, if he was baffled by the strangeness of her countenance, indeed if he had noticed a change in her countenance at all.
That evening, he came home at eight. She set the dining table with a plate of jollof rice and moin-moin and a piece of chicken, and smiled as she did this; her husband did not like meat with moin-moin. She sat with him but did not eat.
“You’re not eating with me?”
“No, I’ve had dinner already.”
“Do you want my chicken? You know I don’t like meat with moin-moin.”
She didn’t answer. She, in fact, hadn’t had dinner, and had begun to regret this plan. Her husband ate hungrily, and the jollof rice smelled spicy and good.
Fork and knife scrape plate. He reached for a glass of water and downed it in one go. “Omo mi nko?”
“Your daughter is at my mother’s.”
He laughed heartily. She’s always loved his laugh, how unfettered it was, how much it always sounds like he meant it. “My daughter, ehn?”
She looked away, waiting to see if he’d notice that she wasn’t laughing with him. Suddenly annoyed with herself, she got up from the dining table and walked to the living room to watch the news. She felt his eyes on her back but refused to turn to look at him.
“Yes, why wouldn’t it be?”
Now she turned to him, willing him to somehow reach behind her eyes and drag her thoughts out into the open.
But he didn’t. He just carried on eating.
She kept her eyes forward, squelching the sudden urge for a cigarette. She heard him get up from the table, his footsteps when he walked to the kitchen, the soft crash of dishes in the sink, the hissing of water from the tap. His footsteps grew closer until he was right behind her, and he squeezed her shoulder and pressed a lingering kiss on her forehead. “Thanks for dinner, baby.”
She wanted to speak, to tell her husband that she wanted to go away for a while, to tell him that she needed to be away from him, from this house, from her life, that she wanted to be someone else and return – she’ll promise to return – but her tongue felt heavy and her mouth felt dry, and nothing she wanted to say would pass her lips.
Leave the house an hour before her husband is due to return home. She saw the subject line of another reminder email from Abosede the day before the ticket would expire, but she did not open it. Instead, she lay on the couch, hoping to still her restless mind. The room was too cold, but she did not reach for the AC controls on the table in front of her. At that moment, there was nowhere she wanted to be less than in that house.
Drive to Bar Beach. She could think of nowhere else to go. Lagos traffic from her mainland home to the island knew better than to stop her. The road was an open mouth. She weaved her way past the 7-Up manufacturing plant, through Third Mainland Bridge, past Tafawa Balewa Square, all the way through until she passed Eko Hotel and found a place to park her car.
The night had fallen quickly. She found a seat by the man selling grilled fish at the charcoal grill along the dirty white plastic chairs, close enough to the crowd of drinking people but far enough away from the prostitutes. The roasting fish was a mere side-dish to the chatter and beer, even though it dominated the air; over and above the ocean, the weed, the cigarettes, the cars belching exhaust from the main road just by the beach. She sat at a vacant table and immediately looked for a lighter to light her cigarette.
A man sitting across the table from her called out, “Ah, sister! Na by yourself you come?”
She looked up at him. The darkness hid most of his features. She could only tell that he had a white smile and was not alone. Judging by the beers on his table, and a quick assessment of his company, he did not need her money. Nigerians who don’t mind their own business can be charming, but not tonight. She ignored him.
“Leave her alone, jor,” the woman sitting beside him said, laughter in her voice. “You don’t know somebody, you want to start bothering them.”
“Which kin’ bother am I bothering her? This woman, leave me! Sister!” He called to her again. “You want to join us?”
She found herself smiling at him. “No, thank you. I’m waiting for somebody.”
“You can join us if you’d like,” the woman called to her. The other friend, a slim, tall-looking man, nodded agreeing.
Why not? She got up and joined them. A cool, salty breeze greeted her as she sat on the white plastic chair. Someone was playing a Nigerian pop song she’d heard on the radio recently, something dancehall-influenced, something young that managed to reduce the blaring car horns on the main road just off the beach to a more distant sound, like a phone ringing from afar.
She got a better look at her company. The other tall-seeming man was young-looking and handsome, with razor bumps on his face, and light-skinned. His white shirt almost glowed in the night. His friend, the man who called her over, was pudgy and bald, with a friendly smile. He wore a black shirt with Fela drawn on it in white.
“You like my shirt?” He asked her when he saw her look at it. “I bought it at the Afrikan Shrine. Did you ever see Fela perform? Ah! The man was a madman! Once, in the middle of one of his shows, he pulled one of his dancers to the ground and had sex with her right there! In front of everybody!”
“You too dey tell that story, mehn,” the other man said, dismissing his friend with a wave of his beer bottle. His voice was a surprise, a deep elderly-sounding baritone from such a youthful face. “He was mad o, but he won’t just fuck somebody in front of everybody, jor.”
“But he did! I’m telling you!”
“So he just pulled his trouser down and started fucking her there, abi?”
“On stage? In front of everybody? Iro e ti poju.”
“So I’m a liar now, abi? My sister,” he turned to her, “what kind of person does not believe his friend when he tells him something?”
“You see this man?” The light-skinned guy gesticulated to the friend with his now-empty bottle. A wide smile creased his thin, leathery face like an old napkin. “This man is a godforsaken liar. Back in the olden days, Sango would have struck him dead.”
She leaned back in her chair and allowed herself a smile. All three laughed.
What little light there was from the beach bar gave the green bottles of beer on the table an eerie glow. A cool wind blew. The night felt good against her skin. She breathed in the warm, spicy air. A group of young men walked past the table smelling heavily of weed, stumbling. She brought out a cigarette. The tall, light-skinned man extended his arm with a lighter.
Smoke another cigarette. Because, well, fuck it, right? You have a right to want what you want, even if you have no right to want it, even if you can only want it when no one else is around. She smiled her “thank you.” He smiled his “you’re welcome.” The woman leaned against the pudgy man’s arm and sighed deeply, as though she had relieved herself of a heavy load, and both men carried on talking about Fela and sex and whatever else fly-papered across their minds as friends do. She let their conversation pass her by and they let her, without demanding anything of her, not her name, not why she was there. They seemed to understand, at least the tall one seemed to, that her being there with them was enough. Besides the smile in her direction, and her smile back, and her laugh, they expected nothing. For the first time since she returned from her trip, her presence was enough. The dull ache in her chest, the longing to be elsewhere throbbed at a distance. A phantom pain.
Ignore the phone calls. Because she could. She knew who was calling anyway, and it felt fitting not to answer. It was a call reminding her of what she left, of what she was to return to, a call she was not ready to answer. So she didn’t. She just leaned back against the chair, lit a cigarette, took a deep drag.
Stay. Breathe. Watch the sky darken. Listen to drunken conversation. Allow herself to smoke the joint when it was passed her way. Give in when they asked to buy her another drink. She would go home eventually, but not now. Just a while longer.
About the Author:
Saratu Abiola is a freelance writer based in Abuja, Nigeria, and Amsterdam, Netherlands. She’s been published in Guardian Nigeria, Quartz Africa, Open Democracy, among other places. She also writes a monthly pop culture newsletter themonthlythree.Substack.com.
Feature image by edwinp99 / Pixabay