“I thought I’d find you here.” The voice came from a car as its driver maneuvered it off the road and onto the sidewalk, blocking her path.
20 years ago, she’d been a little gold digger, regarded with thinly veiled disdain. Five years into her marriage, she’d been acknowledged somewhat, albeit coldly but politely. Maybe it had to do with her suggestion that the brothers become equal business partners.
At the news of Gbugbemi’s demise, her sister-in-law, Lara (few months into her own marriage), was dispatched to remain with her for as long as she was needed.
Eyimofe grinned affectionally as he nearly lifted her off the ground in a warm hug. He was as opposite to his elder brother as the north pole was from the south. Where Gbugbemi had been teddy bear cuddly, caramel coloured and at a comfortable height of 5’8’, Eyimofe was the ladies’ man – over 6ft, suave, dark, striking Adonis features. Even after being married for several years, Lara never stopped complaining about the females at the firm – the receptionist, the marketing executives, everyone who was not male. They were all out to get her man; a thought Eyimofe laughed off. Misan knew he was devoted to her and his children. The same way he had been to his widowed sister-in-law’s family.
Who would have thought bringing him on board the firm would turn out to be life-saving decision? At the time, Misan needed relations to improve between her husband’s closest sibling and her. Gbugbemi and Eyimofe were brothers and best friends; she felt like a wedge between them. Eyimofe’s initial treatment of her indicated he thought along the same lines. Working closely together meant more time in each other’s company, without the intrusion of her presence. As an accountant and equal partner, Gbugbemi willingly left the business of the books to his brother and focussed his creative energies accordingly, quietly making a name for the firm.
When he died, it was Eyimofe who opened an account exclusively for the children’s fees without asking, and another for Misan where he channelled Gbugbemi’s share of the profits. He took over payments of the domestic staff – the housekeeper, the security man – informing Lara of his actions in order to pass them on to a distraught Misan. Single handedly, he made the funeral arrangements as well.
The night before the trip to Warri, he’d dropped by the house to see his wife only for Misan to launch at him in a tight hug. Amidst silent tears, she cried out her gratitude.
It was another turning point in their relationship.
“So, it is true then?” He drawled once they came apart. “Lara says you’re becoming a business woman soon?”
She smirked. “Welcome to my empire.” Her arms in an expansive gesture, indicating the compound they both stood before them.
“Is that it?” He pointed at the bright green, compact structure. “Looks small.”
She shook her head. “Where is your faith, Mofe? Don’t despise – “
“Yeah, yeah.” He grinned out. “I’m travelling this weekend.” His tone losing some of its vibrancy. “For the Design Matters conference.”
Somehow, she’d known.
On his way to the same conference many years ago, Gbugbemi had been in a hurry, ran a red light and a truck had rammed into his car. His side.
Eyimofe had been waiting for the arrival of his brother in the UK, having left a day earlier.
“Godspeed.” She breathed out moments later. “Will you have time to see the children?”
“I don’t have a choice. Jemine already sent a list of things for me to bring along.”
“What?!” Slightly shocked tones.
“Misan, please. It’s no problem. Y’know how much we adore them. It’s nothing. Lara has it all sorted out.”
“She should at least seek my permission and not take her uncle and aunt for granted. My apologies.” Even as she uttered the words, she knew she overreacted. Lara and Mofe were second parents to her children; the adults and youngsters sharing a bond which had grown out of a common grief.
“For nothing.” He paused. “Toju’s…worried about you.”
Misan groaned. “Not you too.”
“Answer me one question, Misan, and I’ll never raise this again.”
She knew where he was headed. They had been there before. About five years ago, if she remembered correctly. “What?”
“Is remarrying on the cards for you?”
“You asked this a while ago, Mofe.” She prevaricated. “Isn’t it too late to ask again?”
“Because you can’t or won’t replace him in your heart?” He continued.
“You said one question!”
“Which you’re yet to answer!”
“To the first or second?”
“Both! And any other you have up your sleeve!”
“Have you considered a relationship?”
“Right now, the only one I can think of is that with my recipes.”
“I understand where Toju’s coming from. They are both gone now. It’s just you and…” He let his voice trail off. “Fair enough. But if you change your mind, a single friend of mine is relocating.”
“When did you start matchmaking?”
“I have a good score in that department. Ask some of my friends.” He responded. “Do you want a ride home?”
It would truncate her walk. She started to decline. “Won’t I take you out of your rou-?”
He grinned. “That’s why I am the boss!”
“Who was that?” Misan’s gaze trailed after the man picking up speed as he jogged away.
“Good morning ma!” Ladi greeted at the same time, stopping by the door of her car after she’d paralleled park.
For the last two weeks, he’d resumed at the compact green structure, now leased to Misan for a two-year period. The owner of the compound had distant demolishing plans in mind and amenable to occupancy instead of its current fallow state.
Perpetually in a pair of slim jeans and T-shirt over his lithe, young body, Ladi had been given strict, specific instructions by his boss: Stay and assist until I return. Once the lease was signed, his first action revealed why Eyimofe wouldn’t change his PA of the last seven years. Ladi presented a long list of things to accomplish before the grand opening on the 20th. It was so detailed it had Misan in a dizzy spin for just looking at it. Right down to hiring staff and business hours. She responded to a few questions.
Yes, she’d retain the vibrant colour.
Tentative name had something to do with stripes – eating stripes, savoury stripes, etc- to indicate the shape/cut of the veggies and proteins.
No staff hire. Between her maid and her, they had it covered.
Delivery services might come later. Emphasis on might.
Yes, customers would be able to order via telephone but would have to come do the pick-up themselves…
He arrived early. He lived close by. Sometimes he was already on site with workers as she strolled by in the mornings. Other times, she noticed a gathering with him doing most of the talking.
After observing him for three days in a row, she stopped bothering to look in on his progress. He knew what he was doing, and was following her instructions.
Though on the fourth day, as she stood watching from a distance, her thoughts strayed elsewhere. To the first time she’d stopped to look at the then empty building. To the stranger whose jog she’d unwittingly interrupted not too long ago.
After the incident, she’d unconsciously looked forward to her walks, unconsciously looking out for him on her three- times-weekly morning routine, increasing it to four spontaneously for good measure. Telling herself it was a healthy practice. Denying the fact that he’d stirred something inside of her at their first meeting. Something she thought was no longer alive.
But three weeks of ambling almost half the length of Admiralty and the universe hadn’t so much as crowned her efforts. She’d glimpsed neither hair nor hide of him. Every day of each walking week, she returned home a little more disappointed.
And just when she thought he’d been a figment of her vivid imagination, here he was, all donned up in black, trotting away in that upright manner she’d admired earlier on. What were the odds?
Ladi shrugged square shoulders, opening the door for her. “I don’t know ma. He wanted to know what was going on here”
“Thanks Ladi.” She acknowledged his gesture and unfurled her petite figure from the car. “Did you tell him about the launch?” Her gaze still on the erect figure retreating steadily from her line of sight as he gained momentum.
“And that he’s one of our prime target customers.”
She smirked fleetingly, her gaze remaining a little longer before allowing Ladi lead her into the organized chaos of the green building, taking her mind off the jogging stranger for a while.
Beneath the obvious madness inside, Misan could detect the method.
In colourful tiles laid, on the face of it, haphazardly underfoot yet creating little diamond patterns of eye-catching hue. Soft tones of off-white, blue and green on the walls tricked the eye to thinking the first room was bigger than it was, inviting one to linger for longer.
A curved counter, elegant and streamlined in mahogany, hugged the entrance into the second room meant as the kitchenette, barring any one from barging into that space. The plan was to do a meal prep at home to ease/speed up the food production process and reduce waiting time/delay of service.
The entire place was taking shape and picking up pace, faster than she’d imagine.
Not only was Ladi a result-oriented man, he was also an early riser and demanded the same from the contract workers fixing up the place.
“We should be ready by the 15th, ma.” He broke the silence between them as though reading her mind, and following her eyes to the pile of white plastic chairs stacked high at a corner.
“It already looks good, Ladi.” She turned to him. “I couldn’t have gone this far without you. Thank you.”
He nodded. “My pleasure, ma’am.”
“Any chance I can steal you away from Mofe permanently?”
This time he laughed out loud. “You can try.”
“Every addition to our only product is a suggestion. What can accompany the stir-fry should you choose to. However, the dish is a complete meal on its own, packed with a lot of nutrients.” She took a breath. “And that’s the only thing on the menu from official opening hours on Monday.” Her gaze danced slowly across the filled room. “Once again, thank you all for coming to share in this event and I hope to see you again as you patronize us.”
A smattering of applause succeeded the end of her speech.
Misan smiled slowly. “The buffet is now open.” She lifted her voice marginally as the hum of conversation started spreading through the room. “Please stuff yourselves.”
For the launch, Ladi had lined chairs against the walls of the first room; then subsequently in two columns in the space left at the middle. No tables.
Outside stood a large awning under which stretched out a table covered in vibrant green clothing. About 25 chairs surrounded it.
Right beside it, forming a straight line to the back, were covered stainless, serving bowls kept constantly heated, and containing the stars of the moment with their various add-ons – plain sweet pancakes, piping hot pieces of broiled/roasted/fried yams, potatoes and plantains.
Misan’s housekeeper, Mrs. Vicky, manned the bowls with both flavours of stir-fry; while the catering company’s staff handled the other food items. Taiwo supervised the entire spread.
Misan’s mobile phone trembled in her jeans trousers as she acknowledged congratulatory comments and watched her guests leisurely empty out of the house and onto the grounds, followed by a teenage boy whose ‘phone set was held up high as he streamed the experience for Toju. He was Rolayo, one of Taiwo’s twin sons and one half of the unofficial media of the day. His brother was stationed outside, taking photos as guests made a beeline for the buffet area.
No fewer than 20 guests, Misan had instructed Ladi. Saturday was wedding day. To fix her launch on that day was taking a chance but Taiwo didn’t think so.
Everyone who couldn’t workout during the week did so on weekends – at the gyms, and on the roads/streets to catch up. Furthermore, the launch was planned as a short and sweet affair kicking off at 9am. Within the hour, everything would have wound down, leaving time enough for other engagements.
From Misan’s guesstimate, nearly 40 people had listened to her opening speech. The number seemed to swell as they swamped around the food. Once again, Taiwo had been right.
As she reached for her insistent mobile, she wondered about the giveaways planned for random fitness buffs on the road and at the gym next door. With a crowd like this, would there be any food left for – ?
“Congratulations mummy!” Jemine’s soft-pitched tone was like listening to her own echo. “The spread looks yummy!”
“Thanks darling.” Misan leaned on the counter and cradled her mobile closer. “How are you and Toju?”
“Mummy, why didn’t you send some of this deliciousness to us through Uncle Mofe nah?” Her 19-year-old queried.
Misan hooted out a short laugh. “Are you serious, darling?” She adjusted sideways on the counter, backing the entrance. “It’s easy to cook jor. Veggies. Proteins. Seasoning. No secret there. Just plain old effort.”
“And sweating. And work.” Jemine completed the list, mimicking a miserable tone. The only time she took interest in food was in its consumption, never in the preparation.
“I think the only ingredient missing is mushroom.” Her mum continued.
“Uh? What do you mean?”
“Remember when you were little, your dad used to take us on those weekend hotel getaways?”
“I got the recipe from one of them. I just haven’t made them in a long while. It was one of your dad’s favourites.”
“Yes. It was on the breakfast menu and I ate it every morning. First with pancakes. Then the next day with fried plantains.” She paused. “I told your dad about it and he liked it too. I started making it for him when we got back home. The only thing I didn’t like was the mushrooms. So I omitted them.”
“So you thieved some gourmet chef’s recipe? And are now passing it off as your own? Mummy!” Jemine’s voice rose in alarm.
Misan grinned, squirming a little. “Without the mushrooms, no one can hold me to ransom!”
“I will come with Uncle Mofe to bail you out if the time comes.” Her daughter promised.
Misan hooted with laughter again. “I love you too. Give Toju a kiss for me, will you? I’ve got to go.”
Breaking the connection and spinning around simultaneously to stare through the nearest glass plane, she never quite fulfilled her intention.
In plain black tees on blue jeans, black converse shoes – which once hovered at the door, crossed the threshold. Plate in hand and the mouth still unsmiling but now lodged in a well-groomed beard, he moved towards the counter, towards her. Those eyes – strangely grey flecked and kind looking – were steady on her as he drew closer. How could she have missed him among the guests? “Y’know, you’re not playing fair.” The modulated tone, fried pasty quality, rolled out the same time a whiff of cologne sailed beneath her nostrils. He slid the plate gently onto the counter.
Misan glanced at its contents – chicken stir fry and pancakes. A sweet tooth! – before looking up at him. In her most authoritative, black heeled shoes, he didn’t seem as towering anymore, but she looked up nevertheless as he bore down on her. At 5’ 4’, tall wasn’t an adjective used to describe her. Heels always played an elevating role for her rather than just another peculiar accessory for the female species. Right now, she’d never felt so vertically challenged. The heels weren’t doing their job to the best of her knowledge.
It didn’t help that he possessed the dual threat of height and size. Imposing. Intimidating. Like a seven-tiered cake. What was wrong with her? Why did this man make her draw comparisons with food?!
Self-consciously, she tossed her shoulder length weave to the side, and let out a small smile. “I’m sorry, what do you – ?”
“Pairing the stir fry with all these lovely combos and not including them in the menu.” He elaborated and picked up the fork.
“Well…” She watched him twirl veggies on his fork like pasta. “I’m promoting healthy eating not a sugar factory.”
“Then change the name.” The fork midway to his mouth, pieces of pancake and veggies dangling. “To the green shop. It fits with the building already.” The fork disappeared between his lips in the most economical of movements.
“Isn’t it too late for -?”
“Honey!” A sultry voice, smooth like melted butter, intruded from the doorway.
For a moment, Misan stared at the owner of the voice edging into the room.
Clomping heels beneath an overdressed, hourglass figure and layers of war paint stared back boldly. She was as stunning as her tone. Flowing, back length hair framed an oval face with deep, soulful eyes and soft full lips in brazen red colour. The confident slant in her strides spoke volumes. Her complexion a much lighter shade than the stranger’s but blended nicely when she linked her arm with his. A brush of her lips against his cheek told Misan all she needed to know. She was marking her territory.
“AJ told me you’d be here.” She continued after giving Misan the briefest of nods. “We’re going to be late.” Her flickered over his clothes. “I brought a blazer for you.”
Misan watched the stranger straighten as one side of his mouth lifted in the beginning of a smile; her own becoming fixed. “Thanks for coming.” She managed out, catching the stranger’s eye fleetingly. “Excuse me.”