Working in the hustle and bustle of Lagos has taken on toll on Ella and Peter, but then they find each other.
Peter first noticed her because her mane sat atop her head like a crown, and she had a knack of putting artificial flowers – white roses and purple daisies – in her hair and, by God, she looked like something out of a rustic magazine. Her neck was long, her face deep ebony, her mouth full of teeth.
Her name was Ella. Ella Pedro, and she spoke English as though it sat heavy on her tongue, careful so that the h’s did not go where they ought not to, watchful that the r’s were enunciated.
She lived in Isolo and work was in Ajah and she complained, like all Lagosians do, about the commute and the insufferable traffic and the weariness that settles like mist in your bones when at last you are home long after the sun has set.
She sat at her desk in the office and minded her business much of the day, and laughed politely at the jokes thrown over her head and spoke only when spoken to and ate her lunch in the kitchenette out of an orange plastic bowl that contained moi moi or rice and dodo or beans. She worked with Accounts and everyone knew the HOD could be an asshole and some days Peter saw Ella dotting back and forth across the office and saw the fine lines on her forehead and her pursed lips and knew that she was having a bad day.
Peter had tried and failed and tried and failed to start meaningless conversations with her, the kinds that are so easy for the guys at the office to initiate. Her hair, start with the obvious, her hair is beautiful, tell her. But Peter could not.
And then she wore the prettiest sandals on one casual Friday and Peter wanted to tell her that the beads reminded him of the kinds Maasais wear around their necks. But Peter could not.
And then at the office retreat, when they were doing teambuilding exercises and she stood up front and spoke slowly and intentionally about how much she had learnt and grown the last seven months, Peter wanted to tell her that he liked what she said. But he could not.
And then they rode together a few times, Peter and Ella, because she sometimes went to her cousin’s house in Surulere after work, and it was right up the alley for him and in the back of the taxi, it felt like static between them, like something beautiful could truly happen if only he would look up from his phone and open his damn mouth. But, being Peter, he said nothing and when the taxi dropped her at the junction of Adelabu, and she would say, “Thank you,” he would nod quickly, mumble, “No—no wahala.”
Peter did not know that he had it in him to miss a person, because he was so used to his solitude and the quiet, to not being hurt and left to rot because that was all he had known all his life. Until the month Ella accompanied the Events department to a partner’s conference holding in Enugu and she was not at the office for two days and the whole place felt like a vacuum those two days and the words on the laptop screen before his eyes seemed to blur in and out of focus. He realized then that he did not have her number, so he drafted an email:
Hi, Ella How is Enugu? Regards, Peter
And never sent it.
But Ella did not notice Peter for the longest time. Because in between commuting two hours to and from work and staying in her boss’ good books, at home – when she wasn’t cleaning up after her siblings – she was studying for her second attempt at the ICAN and was walking on egg shells around her stepmother and was altogether trying to stay alive. Life was drifting by, and though she looked composed on the surface, beneath it all her legs were treading water like hell and if she stopped to take a breath, she might drown.
She had tried to get her own place when her father died but needed to raise around ₦460,000 if she were to live in a place that was not a ghetto and was at least on a gated street – her father had been fussy about the safety gated streets bring. So Ella was saving up, that was what she told her stepmother each time the woman asked when she was moving out – forgetting, conveniently, that it was her father’s house. Which was why she failed the ICAN in the first place, because she barely had time to sit and study when she was so busy defending her existence.
Then there was Debo, whom she thought she wanted to marry, but Sarah kept saying, “Don’t marry to escape, don’t marry to escape,” and then Debo got his neighbour pregnant and Ella was glad that she had not married to escape because wouldn’t that have been a colossal shitstorm?
Then there was this new job with a boss that left her feeling incompetent and diminutive, no matter what she did.
So, no, she did not at first notice Peter, or his bifocals, or the way he mumbled to himself at his desk listening to the radio with one earphone plugged in, or the way he glanced at her each time she walked by, or how he worked up the nerve - and failed - to talk to her the few times they rode together. When there’s so much going on, how can you notice anybody else?
The day Peter made his first, real move, HOD Asshole had finally made Ella cry. It was about a wrong invoice sent to a customer and the whole office heard him say, “I really don’t know why you are still employed here!” And then Ella rushed out of the office in tears, past Peter’s desk, and before he knew what his legs were doing, Peter had gotten up and was walking out after her.
She sat on a bench under the mango tree, by the malam’s small kiosk, who sold TomTom and bottles of cold water. Her head was in her palms and her shoulders rose and fell as she sobbed.
Peter sat down next to her, wanted to drape an arm around her shoulders, but thought better of it.
“Sorry,” he said.
She looked up then, tears rimming her reddened eyes. She said nothing.
“He’s the one who shouldn’t be employed here.” Peter said.
“You heard all that?” She managed to ask.
She chuckled then, lightly, and lifted a hand to adjust a flower in her hair. The way the rays of the sun fell in through the leaves, lighting her face in patches, she looked more beautiful than he had ever seen her.
They sat like that for long moments, in silence, before the head of HR, another who was a nightmare some days and other days somewhat of an angel, rushed out of the office, asking that Ella to come in to “explain exactly what happened.”
But Ella didn’t stand up, she didn’t even look at him. And then HR looked to Peter for help, who also did not know what to do. HR gave up after a few minutes of being blatantly ignored and returned to the office.
“What are you going to do?” Peter asked after a while.
“Go home.” Ella was looking across the street at a stray dog chasing its tail. “I think… I deserve better.”
Ella looked at him then, and her eyes seemed to smile. “I do.”