I jiggle my legs as I watch people walk in and out of the compound of the Compatriot. I take a break from staring and open my handbag to bring out the papers I picked from the file in Ladi’s room this morning. I shuffle through them, occassionally looking up to see if anyone was approaching. The papers are complete. Sighing, I return them back to my bag.
“I…can’t,” I mutter quietly to myself, stuffing the papers back into my bag. The woman selling refreshments in the kiosk opposite is leaning across the small doorway towards three men holding out bottles of cokes in their hands, a bottle opener in her hand. With three distinctive pops, she opens the bottles and nod as the men thank her. Clutching their bottles of drinks, they approach the bench and squeeze into the available space.
“Sorry o, sister,” one of them says as his shoulders bump into mine. I nod and try to smile, but I am too distracted by my thoughts and can only manage a stretch of lips. The man nods back and then parts his legs. I watch as he leans forward, crooks his forefingers and runs it against his forehead, sending droplets of sweat to the scorched earth.
“Join us," his partner sitting at the extreme end of the bench says, extending his bottle towards me, brown stained teeth opened in a smile.
I shake my head. “Thank you.”
The men begin a discussion on the weather as I hang precariously at the tip of the bench, and consider going outside to wait for Lydia for our hospital trip. The last time I called her, she had promised to be at the Compatriot in one hour. Thirty minutes had passed since then.
“Is it true about that case?”
“The one you told me about yesterday.”
I stop thinking and begin to listen in to the conversation taking place beside me.
“Oh…” the man beside me says with a nod. “The libel case.”
“Yes it is true. Mr. Awwal said they are asking for a lot of money.”
I steal a glance to my right and see the second speaker, the man wedged in the middle of his two friends, shake his head. He stops shaking his head to give me a smile. I smile and quickly look away. There is a pause as I feel the eyes of the other men on me. Lucky for me, they go back to their conversation the next minute.
“That is why I hate gettiing involved with anything that concerns the government.”
“What do you think will happen?”
“It is too early to tell for now, but I hear Mr. Sunday was the one that started the whole thing.”
“Didn’t he have the approval of the paper?”
“I am sure he did, but you know when trouble comes, everyone stands alone.”
“So they will leave him to face this problem alone?”
“I hope not.”
The men take a break from their discussion and I struggle with my conscience, torn between betraying Ladi and saving Mr. Sunday from the headache of a court case he cannot afford. I look down on my hand and see a film of moisture gathering on my palms. Wiping them on my dark blue jeans, I stand up with effort and walk to the staircase. I am just about to take the first step when I hear Doctor Ignatius’s voice above me.
No….problem I will talk to you later…No none at all. We are still working out something…Thank you.
He soon steps into view, pulling his phone away from his ears, an intimidating figure in black and orange Adire button up shirt and trouser. He gives me a polite nod when I greet him.
I resume my journey up the flight of steps, slowing down when I get to the corridor of the editors’ offices. At Mr. Sunday’s door, I pause and tell myself that I am doing the right thing. I knock once on the door but there is no answer. I try again, and Mr. Sunday’s tired voice reaches me through the door.
Mr. Sunday is at his desk, hands poised over the keyboard of his antique computer. I greet him and move to the visitor’s chair.
“How are you Arisha?”
“I am fine sir.”
“Do you have anything to do here today?” Mr. Sunday asks, his fingers beginning a light tap tap on the keyboard. I shake my head, but he does not see it.
“I told you it was okay to take the day off.”
“That was for yesterday sir.”
Mr. Sunday’s mouth opens in a silent O, and he nods. “I see.”
I unzip my bag slowly, my hands faltering for a second.
“And urm…I have something for you sir.”
Mr. Sunday turns his chair away from his computer and faces me, a frown of curiosity on his face. I pull out the papers and hand them over to him. Retrieving them from me, Mr. Sunday fetches his square rimmed reading glasses where they sit beside a stack of newspapers and begin to read. I sit in silence and watch him as his expression changes from curiosity to surprise.
“Interesting,” he says, several minutes after. “Where did you get this?”
I look down at my fingers. I know I cannot reveal Ladi’s identity or his relationship with me. Taking the papers from the file was bad enough.
“I got them from a friend.”
Mr. Sunday seems to know that I am not willing to divulge any more information and he gives me an agreeable smile before glancing once more at the papers in his hand.
“I am surprised you managed to get these papers, but thank you.”
The look of relief on Mr. Sunday’s face makes me forget my guilt for a second. I smile at him and nod. Pushing back his chair from the table, Mr. Sunday begins to stand up from his chair.
“I should show Doctor Ignatius these papers.”
I am suddenly nervous at how quickly Mr. Sunday wants to move with the discovery before him.
“Erm…I saw him a few minutes ago. He was on his way out.”
“Oh okay,” Mr. Sunday says, returning back to his seat, and pushing his hand into the breast pocket of his red shirt to bring out his phone. He gets busy with calling Doctor Ignatius.
“Good morning sir…I was about to come to your office now….yes….I wanted to show you some papers…..okay sir.”
Mr. Sunday returns the phone back to his shirt and beams at me.
“Well done Arisha.”
“Thank you sir.”
The moisture returns to my palms again, and I wipe them this time on the cushioned hand rest of the chair.
“I should be on my way now sir.”
Already picking up the papers again, Mr. Sunday looks at me.
“You don’t want to hang around and see Doctor Ignatius with me to give him any other information you might have about the papers?”
I give Mr. Sunday an apologetic smile and shake my head.
“I see...okay, I will just tell him you got the papers from a friend.”
I thank Mr. Sunday for his time and leave the office. Downstairs the bench is empty again. I plant myself on it and call Hannah, desperately needing an outlet for my confused emotions.
“Hi. Can you believe I just thought of you right now?”
“I want to talk to you about something.”
I tell Hannah everything about the case, including my early morning misadventure.
“I feel guilty now. What if Ladi finds out?”
Hannah is silent for some minutes. I wait for her, my eyes resting on the ants wrestling a small piece of biscuit at my feet.
“I think you did the right thing.”
I sigh, still feeling doubtful. “Are you sure?”
“Yes I am. From what I have learned, Ladi is from a rich background and his uncle is rich while your boss at the newspaper is not so rich, am I correct?”
I nod slowly. “Yes.”
“You know deep down inside you that this not so rich boss of yours has more to lose than the guy you are dating, abi?”
“Good. Then don’t beat yourself up about it. No matter what happens, I want you to know that you did the right thing.”
Hannah spends minutes trying to cheer me up, and I drift between relief and desolation, still terrified at the thought of being discovered by Ladi. When she ends the call, I lean back on the wall behind me, not minding the rough surface. I lose track of time and space until my phone rings and I pick to hear Lydia tell me that she is a minute away from the Compatriot.
“Come outside to the gate,” she says, a click following the command.
True to her words, Lydia arrives with a taxi as soon as I walk out of the compound of the Compatriot. She senses my withdrawn mood immediately.
“What is wrong?” she asks as I slip into the backseat beside her.
I fidget with the strap of my bag. “I did something this morning, and I don’t if it was right or wrong.”
“Tell me about it.”
I sigh and stop my fidgeting to stare into Lydia’s concerned eyes.
“I will tell you when we get to the hospital.”
“Okay,” Lydia says with a nod, the concern never leaving her eyes. We fall into silence as the taxi begins to race to Wuse. The taxi driver seems to have a thing for speed and Lydia berates him constantly about it.
“Take it easy…didn’t you see that car? If you are on a suicide mission, you better stop and let us drop before you carry us along with you.”
I close my eyes, hold on to the door handle and feel sick.
The private hospital is a white painted four storied building in Wuse Zone 4. The walkway is covered and two men stand by the entrance, talking among themselves as we walk past. The strong smell of antiseptic hits me as we step into the reception. Leading the way, Lydia walks to the high square reception desk where a harried nurse is attending to a small crowd, giving out short curt replies as if upset with something. Lydia tells me that this is where we will pay my consultation fees. I nod and stand behind her as we join the crowd. After a few minutes, it is our turn and I pay the required three thousand Naira consultation fee, collect a small card where my name has been misspelled by the irritated nurse, and get directions to the waiting room. We follow a blue patined line on the floor. We soon find the waiting room.
It is a windowless space with an air conditioner sitting high above the wall at the opposite end. A nurse sits at the entrance writing on a piece of paper. She looks up when we approach her desk.
“Good morning,” she says, flashing a pleasant gap toothed smile. “How can I help you?”
“We are here for consultation,” Lydia says, reaching to collect the consultation card I hold out to her before giving it to the nurse who looks at it briefly.
“Who among you is…” she stops to look at the card in her hand. “…Anisha?”
“Me,” I tell her with a small smile. “It is Arisha actually.”
“Oh…sorry,” she says, picking up her pen and putting a dash at the top of the ‘n’ in my name. “So…” she says, returning her attention back to me. “You are the one who wants to see the doctor.”
“Okay,” she says with a nod, picking up a file from her table and writing my name on it. When she finishes, she points behind us to the two rows of stainless steel waiting chairs lining the walls on each side of the room which have spaces between them for the doors leading to doctors offices. We walk to them and settle on one where two women are sitting. Time begins to tick slowly and we watch people empty out of the waiting room. A man with a large swelling on the ankle of his right foot comes out from one of the consultation rooms, and walks out of the waiting room with slow painful steps.
Just as I am about to despair, the nurse disappears into the door closest to her desk and comes out minutes later to invite me in. Leaving my bag with Lydia, I stand up and hurry into the consultation room. The doctor there is surprisingly young and very polite as he asks questions.
“How long have you been feeling this way?”
“Since a few days ago.”
He takes note of the symptoms I spell out to him. Afterwards he nods and hands me a slip of paper.
“You have to do a test to be sure.”
I remember Lydia’s advice. “I think I want a blood test.”
The doctor looks at me thoughtfully, and then asks for the paper he handed to me a few seconds ago. He scribbles on it some more and hands it over to me again.
“Give that the nurse outside.”
I thank the doctor and leave the consultation room. In the waiting room, the nurse is talking to a young mother with a crying child. Above the din, I hear her implore the woman to be patient.
“Just wait for some minutes, I will call you in.”
The woman reluctantly turns away from the nurse to the waiting chairs. I show the nurse the paper and she points me to a hallway between one of the chairs.
“Follow it and turn left. There is a laboratory there.”
She tells me I have to pay for the test. I nod and thank her. Lydia leaves her seat and follows me to the laboratory. I make payment to a nurse sitting outside the laboratory and walk inside while Lydia waits outside. There are two rooms, and I wait in the outer room until another nurse comes out of the inner room to attend to me. When I show her the doctor’s note, she nods and walks into the inner room, returning with an aluminum tray.
"Please, sit down," she says, pointing to a chair sitting in the middle of the room. Producing a thin plastic string from the tray, she turns my arm, and ties the string around the upper part of my arm. She gently pats the vein bulging in the inner part of my elbow and turns to cut off a piece of cotton from the transparent packet of cotton roll on the tray. Soaking it in metylated spirit, she swipes across the vein and picks up a capped needle which she attaches to a syringe.
I close my eyes and shut out her preparations. I open them again when I feel the tiny prick of the needle. I watch the nurse hold the syringe at an angle and begin to draw my blood. When the syringe is half full, she withdraws the needle, and replaces the cap. Soaking another piece of cotton in the spirit, she swipes the vein, applies pressure on it, and asks me to hold the cotton it in place.
"Wait outside," she tells me, picking up the tray. "The results will be ready in a few minutes."
Outside Lydia is on her phone. She ends the call as soon as soon as I draw close.
"It won't be long before the results come."
I nod. "Yes, the nurse said so."
"So, are you going to tell me what is wrong?"
I shift my weight from my right foot to my left foot, feeling suddenly tired.
"It is about the mint case..."
"What about it?"
For the second time this morning, I find myself confiding in a friend about my discoveries.
"You are not thinking of taking out the documents from the file, are you?" Lydia asks, eyes opened wide.
I turn away from Lydia's eyes to look down at my feet.
"I did...this morning."
Lydia clamps a hand over her mouth in horror, eyes widening further. Finally she removes her hand from her mouth and shakes her head.
"No...Arisha. How could you?!"
"I wanted to help Mr. Sunday."
"There were other ways you could have helped."
"There was no other way Lydia."
"Yes there was. You could have spoken to Ladi about it, and he in turn would have spoken to his uncle...that would have worked."
I think about Lydia's words for some seconds.
"What if his uncle had not listened to him? Besides, I don't think his uncle is the only one behind the suit."
"You don't know that for sure," Lydia says with a sigh. "I just hope Ladi never finds out."
There is a lull in our conversation. A few minutes into our silence, the laboratory door opens and a tall slim man in a blue laboratory coat steps out holding a long sheet of paper.
"Are you Arisha?" He asks, looking directly at me.
I nod and hurry to him. He hands me the paper and disappears back into the laboratory.
Paper in hand, I walk back to Lydia and we stare at the paper together.
"I guess you know what it means," Lydia says, drawing back to look at me.
I nod. She throws her arms around my shoulders, and we walk out of the hospital together.
I drop my pen and stretch, looking at my wristwatch as I do.
"The day is slow," I complain to the empty office. I pick up my phone and dial Arisha's number. The phone rings and ends without being picked. I try again, and this time she picks, her voice sounding strained.
"Hey...are you okay?"
Unconvinced, I press again to find out why she sounds different.
"I am just a little tired."
"Are you home now?"
"I just came back a few minutes ago."
I check my wristwatch again.
"It is just three o'clock but I feel like calling it a day."
"Maybe you should come home."
As if spurred by Arisha's answer, I lean forward in my chair and begin a search for my car key. I find it at the back of my laptop. As I pack away my laptop and clear my table, I can't help thinking of my short conversation with Arisha. We had both referred to the apartment as home. I can't help feeling pleased with that fact.
Unable to force sleep anymore, I open my eyes and stare at the ceiling.
What have I done?
I lift up the hospital test result to my face and read through for the umpteenth time. Folding it neatly, I turn on my side and reach for the top drawer of the bedstand beside me, pull it open and dump the result inside.
Dragging myself up to a sitting position, I shuffle to the end of the bed and throw my legs down.
Ladi will soon be home. I have to keep my guilt away from him until I find a way out of this situation.
Arisha is in the guest room when I return home. She is fresh faced and sitting at the edge of the bed, her hands between her lap.
"Hi," she says, giving me a bright smile.
I sit beside her and she inches closer to slip her hand around my waist.
"How was work?"
"There was nothing to do."
We look into each other's eyes for some minutes. Feeling the need to touch her, I lean away slightly to cup her face in my right hand.
"Are you ill?"
Shaking her head slightly, Arisha tells me that she is fine. I look down at her chest.
"Still feeling sore there?"
Arisha hesitates for some seconds before shaking her head again. For some reason I feel disappointed and I don't know why. Had I been secretly wishing she was pregnant?
"Do you want me to heat something for you to eat?"
"No. I had a late lunch at the office."
Standing up, Arisha suggests that we go to the living room. We leave the guest room and settle down together on my favourite sofa to watch the news. As the images flash across the screen, I cannot help looking at Arisha's side profile as she focuses intently on the television. Why is she so quiet?
My phone rings before I get a chance to ask Arisha about her mood.
"Let me help you get it," Arisha says, standing up and walking to the dining table to fetch my phone. She hurries back with it and I press down the answer key before the call ends. It is Uncle Hassan and he wants to know where I am.
"I am at Wuse. I just left the house."
"I see. Have you spoken to Mr. Uchendu recently?"
"Yes. I had a meeting with him some days ago."
My uncle begins to say something, but his words are swallowed by some noise in the background.
"I will be at home in a few minutes," my uncle says, coming back on line. "I will see you then."
The call ends and I carry the phone back to where Arisha is sitting.
"I will be going to Maitama in a few minutes. Do you want to come along?"
Arisha pleads tiredness and tells me she prefers to stay back at the apartment. We share a quick kiss and I hurry out of the house. Throughout the drive to Maitama, I think of Arisha's odd behaviour. I resolve to find out the reason behind her silence when I return back to the apartment.
I wait as Uncle Hassan talks on the phone with his lawyer. When he is done, he sighs and shakes his head.
"It appears Mr. Uchendu might have leaked sensitive information to the press."
Nodding gravely, Uncle Hassan begins to talk about Billami Trust, but omits mentioning whether his involvement in the company.
"My contact at the newspaper says the story will be in press tomorrow."
"How does this person know the information has to do with Mr. Uchendu?"
"That is the only plausible explanation. He knows a lot about the mint case and the other surrounding events. No one else does."
I feel a pang of guilt, but I keep my expression unreadable.
"I was told that the chairman and the man behind the investigation have been locked in meeting all day. He only managed to gather that they had new information to be used against us."
I wonder briefly if Mr. Uchendu had felt spurned by my refusal to accomodate his request for an intimate relationship.
“When was the last time you spoke to him,” Uncle Hassan asks, leaning back in his chair and linking his hand over his flat stomach.
“Some days ago.”
“Did you have any misunderstanding with him?”
I tell my uncle about my date with Mr. Uchendu and his request. My uncle keeps a disgusted on expression on his face throughout my story. At last he shakes his head.
“That explains the sudden turn around.”
I agree with a nod. “Yes.”
“This complicates matters.”
“Is there anything we can do?”
“Nothing,” Uncle Hassan says with a shrug. “Except wait for my contact at the paper to update us.”
“What newspaper are we talking about?”
Arisha’s workplace. I refrain from sharing this piece of information with my uncle. I didn’t want the spotlight on my relationship with Arisha.
“Maybe I can do some digging of my own.”
“It is hopeless Ladi. Those people belong to the other side. We are not on the same team.”
“I could try.”
Uncle Hassan sighs and concedes with a nod.
“If I find out that Mr. Uchendu is really behind this leak, I will do my best to relieve him of his job.”
“Is he not the Vice President’s man?”
“And what if he is?” Uncle Hassan asks, looking slightly annoyed. “The President is the highest office holder in the country.”
The meeting with my uncle ends when his wife comes to announce dinner. As I leave the house, my uncle’s wife, Aunty Jemila teases me about my bachelor status and asks when I am getting married.
“You are almost thirty one.”
“It will happen soon,” I promise her with a laugh.
My exit is quick. My cousins are not at home. I am relieved to be on my way back to Arisha.
I stop staring blankly at the television screen when I hear Ladi at the door. Pulling my legs from underneath me, I stand up from the chair and walk to the door. Ladi smiles as he steps into the apartment.
I nod, and reply in the affirmative, following closely behind him, my mind on the task ahead of me.
“How was your meeting with your uncle?”
“We have issues.”
My stomach dips as I squeeze into the remaining space in his sofa.
“Apparently your newspaper has gotten wind of the Billami Trust company.”
I inhale and prepare to confess what I had done.
“My uncle thinks Mr. Uchendu is behind the leak, and I think I agree with him.”
Ladi leans back and studies me. “Let’s talk about you…what is wrong? You have been acting different all day. Sure you are not pregnant?”
Growing nervous by the minute, I clear my throat.
“I have something to tell you.”
“Okay. What is it?”
The weight in my stomach becomes unbearable, and I almost bend over from the pain of it, but I hold myself up, determined to go through with my confession.
“It is about the issue your uncle has at the Compatriot.”
“Do you know anything about it,” Ladi asks, hand stroking the side of my right arm.
“Before I start, I want you to know I love you.”
Ladi raises one eyebrow at me. “Okay.”
I breathe in deeply. “I took the papers from your file…the file in your room.”
Ladi’s stroking stops as he stares at me in surprise.
“You did what?”
“I took the papers from your file,” I repeat with difficulty.
Disbelief in his eyes, Ladi lifts me gently off his lap and stands up.
“The red file on my bedstand?”
Without another word, Ladi turns and walks to his room. Alone in the living room, I feel myself begin to shake from the fear of what is about to happen. I can feel my chance at love slip away.
I stand beside the bed, looking down at the near empty file on my bedstand, feeling several emotions at once. A singular question repeats repeats over and over in my head. Why?
Feeling suddenly weary, I sit down on the bed and stare at my hands. It was Raina all over again. Just when I thought I had found a woman who made my life complete. I run my hands down my face and throw myself backwards on the bed.
“This is crazy.”
I had given my heart to Arisha and she had betrayed me in a spectacular manner. Not only had she taken important documents from my room, she had given it to people intent on bringing my uncle down.
I stand outside Ladi’s door for some minutes and finally work up courage to knock on it. There is no answer. I push the door open and step inside the room. Ladi is on his back on his bed, and he does not acknowledge my presence.
Angling his head to the side, Ladi watches me walk to him slowly.
“Can we talk?”
Ladi pulls himself forward and sits up. “If you want to.”
I lean on his wardrobe and wipe away the tear escaping the corner of my left eye.
“I know you hate me right now…but I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Raising his chin, Ladi looks at me coolly.
“Yes. I just thought it was the only way to save the man who took me under his wing at the Compatriot.”
“What about me Arisha? Did you think about me?”
The tears begin to fall. They are hot and scalding, but I barely notice them.
“I am sorry.”
“It is too late Arisha,” Ladi says, standing up from his bed and walking past me as he leaves his room. “You betrayed my trust.”
I move to intercept Ladi, hanging on to the sleeve of his shirt.
“Don’t you see? I didn’t have a choice.”
“I didn’t,” I insist, using my free hand to dash at the tears on my cheeks. “You would not have given me those papers."
"Maybe, but we would have at least reached a compromise."
I drop my hand from Ladi's sleeve and hug myself.
"I love you," I whisper a little desperately. Ladi's face begins to swim in my vision and I close my eyes until the dizziness passes.
"You are not pregnant, are you?"
I open my eyes to find Ladi at the door. I begin to nod to his question, but find myself shaking my head instead.
Ladi pauses in the act of opening the door.
"Is this it?"
"Are we done?"
Ladi stands looking at the floor for some seconds.
"I don't know," he admits with a frown. "Maybe."
The door closes with a click behind Ladi and I sink to the floor and give in to the overwhelming sorrow that sweeps through me. I know. I can feel. This is it. It is really over.
I watch cars speed past as people walk in and out of the fast food restaurant. Baba is among the crowd, and I watch him stroll confidently towards my car, hands in pocket. He is inside my car in no time.
"How far? Wetin dey?"
"Are you going home soon?"
"Why?" Baba asks with a laugh. "Arisha don run leave you?"
"No," I answer with a frown. "Dipo and Joseph...are they at home."
Baba looks at me thoughtfully. "You look depressed."
"I am fine," I lie with a shrug. "I might be spending the night at your place."
I can see my cousin struggle with the urge to ask more questions, and I am relieved when he shrugs.
"Okay then. See you at home in some minutes. I need to drop Aisha off at her place first."
I pull my car away from the street curb and enter into the busy road. I am far removed from the complexity of human activities taking place around me. All I can see is the face of the woman who recently betrayed my trust.
I call Lydia as I move the last trace of my presence in the wardrobe.
"Hello love," she says, sounding sleepy. "What's up?"
"I told him."
"You told him?"
"I told Ladi what I did."
"Oh Lord, Arisha," Lydia says with a sigh. "Did he find out that the papers were missing? Did he confront you?"
I reply in the negative to Lydia's questions.
"I had to..."
Another sigh. "So how did he react?"
I draw in a shuddering breath to stop myself from crying.
"I think it is over."
"Don't say that."
"No, I am serious. It is."
"You both need to sleep over it. Don't make decisions when you are upset. The head and the heart don't work well together."
"I am leaving tomorrow."
"Arisha sleep over this. Ladi will get over his anger tomorrow."
"Good night Lydia, I will call you tomorrow."
I return to my packing. My brother had talked about a luxury liner in Utako when I called to announce my impending trip to Lagos a few minutes ago.
"The first bus leaves as early as five thirty in the morning...are you sure you don't want to take a flight down here? I can arrange a ticket for an evening flight."
After insisting on taking the liner, my brother had wished me a safe trip and hung up.
I stand in the middle of the room, and remember. I remember the sound of Ladi's amused laughter at a funny joke, my fevered whispers as we make love, and the sight of his eyes narrowing as he contemplates a situation.
Deep inside me, there is a yearning to stay and talk things over with him. I want to believe in miracles, but I remember the disappointment in his eyes as he left the apartment and admit to myself that I am too much of a coward to try.