Mere seconds into Bebida Cafe, she lost her nerve. Nearly turning around and heading back out. Any erstwhile confidence drained at the muted lighting, wispy strings of cigarette smoke drifting from dark corners, the rich aroma of high-end booze mixed with equally rich grooming scents, slow laughter and no one looking like her.
She couldn’t leave now. Even when her steps faltered a bit on their way to the bar. The place seemed smaller than she’d expected. She’d passed by it several times before and, looking in from outside, had thought it would boast more space. Inside, it was no bigger than a basketball court whose careful placement of furniture gave the illusion of a lot of leg room. Despite the handful of patrons present, there was no feeling of crowdedness.
The night was still young. She was probably early.
At the bar, she waited for the barista to lift his eyebrows in surprise. She didn’t quite fit the description of his regulars; neither was she dressed the part. She’d steeled herself for the same silent inquiry the door man had radiated before he swung the glass entrance inwards.
Disappointment followed. In a white, long-sleeved shirt like hers and fat cornrows reaching his neck, the barista merely blinked and gave her a cocky smile. ‘Good evenin’, what’s your poison?’
She laughed in relief, and relaxed. ‘What do you have?’
He pointed above to a hanging screen with a comprehensive list of offerings. She scanned it, discovering familiar names–Martini, Brandy, Bloody Mary, Irish Cream, Whiskey, Gin & Tonic, Margarita, Mojito, Tequila, Cosmopolitan, Manhattan–and new, barefaced ones–Sex on the beach, The Pornstar, The Hangover–with their criminally high prices for a shot.
She’d never had a proper alcoholic beverage before. She lacked the knowledge of taste and texture or the effect it would have on her afterwards. Once she’d downed a bottle of Teasers at a friend’s bash and had to crawl into bed to sleep it off. Well, that was three years ago. She was determined to replace that appalling memory with a refined one to reflect her growth and maturity.
She’d settle for familiarity over adventure like she’d seen in the movies, and cautiously sip her way through it. ‘A margarita, please.’
He nodded and slid away.
She dumped her black bag on the stool next to hers, glancing around. Her eyes clashed with one or two other sets, men’s of course, whose expressions reflected her thoughts about being a goldfish. One of them grinned suggestively through the fog of cigarette smoke.
She averted her eyes, picking out the other females in the café. Yep, she looked nothing like them. Second-skin dresses. Perfect hair and nails. Crotch-high skirts. Killer heels. Exotic looks. Then her gaze dropped to her work clothes. Ash-grey, hip-skimming. formal palazzos; white long-sleeved shirt tucked in respectably; and a black, sheer scarf slung across her collar, knotted loosely on her chest. Not exactly the gear you wore to a bar.
But her reasons and theirs were poles apart. No competition there.
Movement from the corner of her eye drew her attention back to the barista setting a sweating glass in front of her. Clay-coloured liquid with a slice of lime hanging from a coated rim. Loads of ice cubes swimming.
Moments later she cringed inwardly at the number of notes she handed over for an almost full glass of drink probably bad for her health, and promptly forgot about it after taking her first sip. It hit four of her five tastes–the salty rim of the glass, the bitterness of the tequila, the sourness of the lime, the sweetness of the agave…
She closed her eyes. So this was it? Not bad. Not bad at all. She could see herself getting used to this.
‘Tough day?’ A smooth, expensive, hoarse voice asked from beside her.
Her eyes flew open. Here we go! She thought, placing her glass gently on its coaster and glancing sideways.
A tall, rangy thoroughbred of a man with powerful shoulders, under a dark suit, had settled into the stool next to the one her bag sat on. Mid-thirties or older, face in profile as he shed mobile phone and wallet onto the counter, and ordered a drink: ‘Bloody Mary, chilled, no ice’ before turning to her again.
Mid-thirties definitely, she decided as eyes, behind designer frames with attractive, overseas-educated looks, widened fractionally.
‘Are you old enough to drink?!’ He blurted out.
And there it was! The question she was certain hovered on the tongues of most people who had seen her. What the heck was she doing here? With a drink in her hands? Did her parents know of her whereabouts?
Deceptively young looks, that was her. Good thing she’d come prepared and was being fortified accordingly.
She held the stranger’s astonished gaze for a full minute. ‘Tough traffic,’ she said with pseudo calm and returned to her drink, her heart ramming her ribcage. In what capacity had he asked that question-as her father, brother or husband?!
Or just a concerned citizen of humanity, a small voice answered inwardly.
She felt eyes sweep over her and then land back on her face.
‘From the Island?’ She preferred his voice when unexcited. It suited the café’s aura–suave, unhurried, classy.
Another sip. She shook her hear. ‘Ikeja. Allen-Opebi axis.’
‘That is one brutal route.’
She agreed. ‘Mild sometimes if you’re coming from Adeniyi Jones.’
‘You need two drinks then.’ He nodded at the barista, who was plopping a vast glass in front of him, and handed over his card.
‘Judging from yours, I can bet – ‘
‘The Island traffic was just as hell1’ He finished for her and touched their glasses lightly, then halved his in one big gulp.
‘Hi, I’m Jide,’ he said, half-swinging to face her.
‘Orode.’ She held out a hand which he took briefly, firmly. No death grip. No creepy lingering.
‘And where does Orode work in Ikeja?’
‘At a printing press. Marketing & sales.
‘You don’t like your job?’
She shrugged. ‘How many of us do really?’
His eyebrows lifted fractionally. ‘How long have you been there?’
‘Nearly two & a half years if you don’t count my NYSC.’
‘My hormones are not arranged to market or sell.’
He laughed out loud, a rumble of sorts. ‘With a face like yours, you ought to be on TV.’ He took another huge gulp.
Her face sagged slightly. ‘I don’t think so, not interested in broadcasting.’
‘What did you study?’
A pause, then. ‘Eres una chica muy bonita.’ You’re a very pretty girl. Coming from him, it sounded nothing like the ordinary, simple compliment it was. More sexy and suggestive.
She turned away to hide a blush. ‘Gracias.’ Thank you. Immensely relieved that he hadn’t resorted to the sleazy, French alternative: Voulez vous couches avec moi ce soir?
‘Don’t ask me how I know that.’ He chuckled. ‘Have you applied to-?’
‘Everywhere,’ she cut in knowingly, and throwing her hands in the air she proceeded to name companies, embassies, ticking them off with her fingers.
‘Ok, ok, I believe you.’ Briefly, their fingers brushed together as he physically stopped her mid-rant. ‘And nothing?’
‘Actually, that’s why I’m here?’
‘You got a new job?’
She shook her head. ‘My first big interview is tomorrow morning.’
He frowned a little. ‘Isn’t this celebrating prematurely?’
‘No, no, I’m trying to calm my nerves.’ She let out a shaky laugh. ‘It’s the first time I’ve come this far after a round of tests and an initial chat. Tomorrow I meet the man himself whose PA I might be.’
He reached for his drink again. ‘PA, uh?’
‘You want to do that?’
‘I believe I can. Yes. Why?’
‘Whatever happened to-?’
‘If the bandwagon is going anywhere near where you’re going, hope on it and drop off when you need to. I read that somewhere?’
‘And this bandwagon?’
‘Will take me closer to the major players on the Island, will teach me more employable skills, y’know the hard and soft ones.’ She gestured expansively. ‘Essentially, I’ll be effectively managing someone else’s time and that’s one skill we all need to master. Pluss the bandwagon will put me in the networking path of new people.’ She sipped some more.
He leaned an elbow on the counter and regarded her. ‘Don’t ever think anyone’s doing you a favour when you get an interview summons,’ he began. ‘You were contacted because you have something to offer and it’s not for free either,’ he went on. ‘You passed their test and interview. You’re worth their time as much as they’re worth yours.’
‘Oh, wow. Thanks.’
‘When you go in tomorrow, treat it like a conversation. Like the one we’re having. No overly rehearsed script. Relax. Show them who you’re.’
Her lips grazed her glass. ‘Which is?’
‘Calm, confident, unafraid to –‘ he glanced around the café. ‘-to stand out from the crowd-‘ she almost choked on the last sip. ‘-determined, more than just a pretty face.’
‘I will. Thank you, Jide.’
He nodded silently.
As her empty glass contacted its coaster, she glanced at the clock high up at the bar. ‘I have to go.’ She slid off the stool and grabbed her bag.
‘How early?’ He wanted to know.
’11 am. I’ll probably get there at 10 or 10.30 am. Don’t want to tell stories.’
He grinned. ‘What story did you tell your boss?’
‘The truth. It’s easier to remember than a bunch of lies. I told him I’ll work extra hours. He said no need.’ She paused. ‘Thank you for making my first real drink and first time here a nice one.’ She giggled at the change in his countenance. ‘Do you come here often?’
‘Don’t come here next time,’ he growled good naturedly.
‘Why? Too many wolves? I didn’t meet any.’
‘Not a place for a nice girl like you.’ He snatched his wallet and flipped it open. ‘And don’t forget to add honest and open to new experiences as well tomorrow.’ He handed her a pale green business card. ‘Call me. I want to know how it went, and maybe I can help, or take you to a nicer bar.’
She glanced down at the card and nodded. ‘Good night.’
The next day she arrived the familiar grey building on a narrow street at 10.40 am, hot and bothered from an uncomfortable, stuffy bus ride.
Beneath the ash-grey woolly trouser suit she wore, one of the only three she owned and had bought in the last 12 months, she was sweating buckets. Blissfully, the fitted jacket covered her wet underarms and within minutes of waiting at the reception, the mortuary-cold air conditioner had cooled her off.
She’d slept well, aided albeit suspiciously by alcohol. When she woke up, she expected to be hit by her first hangover but her head and mind were as clear as the new, dawning day.
So I can hold my liquor?! Yeah, right. After a single glass!
She also remembered Jide and the advice he’d given, his subtle compliments, their conversation. She wondered idly if he was married. She hadn’t thought to check. She hadn’t even asked him what he did for a living either. Too caught up, selfishly, in her own issues.
Besides his name and two sets of numbers–one landline and the other mobile, all smack in the middle of the card–nothing else gave his line of work away. Ditto the back of the card. Plain as a leaf.
She’d definitely call him. Good or bad outcome.
At exactly 10.58am, she was led into an office at the far end of a long corridor where a man occupied, not the imposing table at the middle of it but a smaller one by a long window, giving a view of congested Victoria Island.
The lone male, half backing her and speaking into a mobile, turned around when she stopped by the table.
During the short walk from the reception to the table, Orode had taken two deep breaths. Relax, Jide’s voice echoed. You have something to offer. Confidence. New experiences.
‘Good morning sir.’ She tried for a business-friendly expression and achieved astonishment instead as the man gave her the full benefit of his appearance.
In the glare of day, everything about him jumped at her. The snugly fitted frames, attractive, chiselled looks and powerful shoulders moving towards her as he took a step forward.
The room reeled. She took two back involuntarily.
‘Good morning Orode.’ He greeted. ‘I’m still Jide.’ The navy-blue suit clung to him like it had been made for all his angles and planes. He perched at the edge of the table, one long leg dangling from it, and regarded her.
‘That’s what they say about celebrities: “Oh, they’re just like us.” Only richer, they forget to add,’ she heard herself blurting out before she could get over her shock and stop herself, then flushed and clamped her mouth shut.
Jide fingered his frames and grinned. ‘I like your sense of humour.’ He gestured at the empty chair facing the table. ‘Take a seat, please.’
Stiffly, she lowered herself to the edge of it, refusing to meet his stare. She felt like a total fool, the biggest clown at the circus.
Catastrophe! She’d practically confided in this man last night about her job concerns, her reasons, her drink, her bar moves.
Disaster! She’d treated him like an equal, took his unsolicited advice, and, Oh God!
Tsunami! She’d fantasized about him.
This was her worst nightmare, if she ever had one.
‘I didn’t know until you left last night,’ his voice broke into her careering thoughts. ‘When you mentioned your interview, I vaguely remembered I had similar ones today at different times, for the same position. Just to check, I called HR who confirmed you as the third and final candidate today.’
She lifted her face finally, having managed to smoothen it into a neutral expression. But said nothing in response.
He heaved off the edge and took the chair behind it, facing her. ‘Can we finish what we started last night then?’ He asked surprising her.
Her face answered, relaxing, before she nodded. ‘Yes.’ And edged inwards for more comfort on her chair.
‘Good.’ Leaning forward, he placed both hands on the table and became serious. ‘So tell me, do you think we can work together?’