One of the perks of owning a small car, is being able to maneuver into small spaces. I backed my car slowly into a spot between a black SUV and a wine space bus with a sigh of relief. Then pushing the gear into park, I took my foot off the break as tiny droplets of water sprinkled onto my windscreen from the sky. I peered through it into the gathering grey clouds above.
“Just Perfect!” I muttered switching off the air conditioner and then the engine. “What a day to not have an umbrella!”
I usually keep an umbrella permanently in my car but our silly house help had ruined it the other day when she had attempted to go through the foot gate at home with it still spread out. I glanced out at the rain which had picked up speed by now and groaned again. ‘How in the world was I going to walk the ten meters to the Collection center?’
I looked out ahead at the floor of the car park which was located in a big field that housed a tent usually rented out for wedding parties. At least it was now tarred, less mud to pick my way through. The last time I had been here, it had been grass and dirt floor which had turned muddy with the rain. It had also been raining that day too, funny enough.
I sat in the car for a few minutes, contemplating what to do. The rain couldn’t seem to make up its mind either. It was moderately heavy one minute and then light the next. At the back of my mind, I recalled sighting something on the collection paper about one p.m being the official closing time for pick-ups. It was already fifteen minutes to one, and I was almost late.
I reached in the glove compartment box for the collection paper as well as two little green cards. That was when I recalled a little yellow umbrella, packed in a fancy plastic baton my mother had given me over two years ago. I had just dumped it in my car. I remembered leaving it in the boot the last time I had rearranged my car. Folding the collection slip into my handbag, I braved the rain and was by the hatch back boot in seconds, fishing out the yellow umbrella. It was small but surprisingly strong.
I locked the car and hurried out of the car park holding up the tiny umbrella with a murmur of thanks to God as I skipped over water logged mounds of grass and avoided puddles of water. It’s amazing how much water flows on Lagos streets after a few showers of rain. It hadn’t even been raining for more than ten minutes. Cars whizzed by, driving into large water puddles and splashing them carelessly. I was careful to avoid them.
My eyes shot upwards and spied a tiny crowd in front of the collection center gate. Most were not going to get in. They had no business there, but they would crowd the gate anyway. I hurried into the crowd behind a large fat Alhaji who was trying to explain to the two gatemen in dark blue rain coats why, it was necessary that he accompany the lady with him inside. One of the gatemen shook his head and held the gate slightly shut while the other attended to a line (which was scattered by the way) of people with legitimate documents that would secure them entrance into the center. Around these, were other people, both male and female, young and old, vying to get in.
I stepped up to the line with my yellow umbrella and waited quietly.
“Hello!” A low voice said in my ear as a hand suddenly seized the umbrella from behind me. “May I help you with that?”
“Why?” A confused cry escaped from my lips as I swung round to see the person who had snatched the precious item that was keeping my hair from getting wet.
He was dark and tall, about five foot eight or nine. He had a small smile as he held firmly unto the umbrella and stood directly behind me. His face was angular and friendly, his eyes bright, and he was spotting a small beard below a nice looking mouth. “Because I’m taller.” His smile broadened as I struggled to keep a hand holding unto my umbrella. Was that an answer? “And……because I want to share it with you.” He added.
“Okay.” I frowned looking into his face with some measure of distrust. “You should have said that first.” I turned back to see the line inch forwards as another young man was let in.
His hand was suddenly prodding me forwards towards the gate with a gentle push. “These people are going nowhere. You have to push ahead to get to the front. Common, push through.”
I was annoyed. Firstly because he was still holding unto my umbrella, gently prying it out of my hands and secondly because he was pushing me forwards. “How do you know that?”
“They don’t have anything to do in there. The only other people with collection papers are already inside.”
I could see that the group of four people between me and the security guard pleading to be let in. I released the umbrella and pushed forwards, hurrying to bring out my white collection paper. He definitely couldn’t run off with it anyway. The rain drops made it slightly wet, so I moved back under the umbrella.
“Hey, Madam. You can’t come in here with your hand bag, you know that!”
I looked up. No, I didn’t know that. The last time I had been here I had come in with my bag and dropped it at the security post inside after thorough searching. I knew it was almost one and I was not about to head back to my car in the rain.
“Please,” I said. “I didn’t know that. Can’t I drop it at the door when I get there?”
“No. It’s not allowed. Did you take your bag in with you when you came for the interview?”
The security man spoke in a cocky annoying way as he let two elderly women in and shut the foot gate to me.
“Hey, Oga. Please help her. Can’t we keep the bag with you?” My tall new friend leaned across me and asked the gateman. I got a whiff of his aftershave or perfume. It was nice. We both wanted to stay under the cover of the umbrella and so we were practically touching.
“No!” The security guard locked the gate. “Do you want me to lose my job?”
“Please.” We both said at the same time.
He gave us a cold look and turned away to attend to someone else. I frowned for some seconds contemplating whether to get back to where I had parked my car or not. It was quite a walk with the rain.
“This guy is not going to help us.” He said behind me. “I was taking a drink by the beer parlor just across the road from here. I can talk to the guy. He can keep your bag.”
I glanced up at him worried about the time and wondering who the heck he was and what kind of nerve he had showing up, snatching my umbrella and covering himself with it. In fairness, he had tried to cover me as well but hadn’t been doing a good job so far. I was wet. It wasn’t a big umbrella and it wasn’t even his.
“I don’t know about that….” I glanced hesitantly across the road.
“I hate this.” He handed me my umbrella and proceeded to return his collection form into a brown paper envelope. Then he lifted up his shirt to expose a clean white singlet and stuck the envelope in his trouser waist. “That’s why I’m borrowing your umbrella” He flashed me a smile. “I hate it when any important paper I’m holding gets wet.”
I’m staring at him, wondering whether to trust him and wondering how he could be comfortable showing me his singlet. My phone, purse, Id cards and money were in my bag. Was it wise?
He reached for the umbrella again and stared intently into my eyes. “Shall we?” We are both holding the handle and he sensed my hesitation. “I built a rapport with the guy, your bag should be safe.”
There was no time. “Let’s go.”
I hurried after him letting go of the umbrella and he guided us across the road, stopping a car and then a truck with his right hand while his left holding my yellow umbrella, swung protectively around me as we ran across the road.
For a second, I’m thinking it’s weird that a guy I just met has the boldness to put an arm around me like that. The next, I decided to believe he was basically just a nice guy trying to be nice being that he was using something of mine.
He lead the way into an open compound where the photographers and photocopy machines were open for business under various sheds and walked straight across to a man cooking some sort of stew over a large cauldron pot. Beside him is a makeshift beer parlor with plastic chairs and tables occupied with men eating fish and meat pepper soup and drinking beer.
I brought out my hardcover jotter and money as well as the folded white paper and two green cards. I can’t understand why I decided to trust this stranger with my bag and phone. He tried to talk to the beer parlor owner who refused at first claiming that the last time he’d held something in trust for a stranger like that, he had gotten into lots of trouble. We convinced him after a few more minutes of begging and he enjoined me to remove all my money from the bag. I assured him that I had and he agreed to keep the bag.
My tall friend reached for the umbrella again as we hurried back across the road and the guard finally let us in. As we walked into the compound, he glanced at me with a smile.
“I didn’t see you at the interview.”
“I was there!” I replied following his hand pointing in the direction of the back of the building.
“This way. Was it the eight-thirty appointment?”
“Yeah.” It’s still raining.
“I didn’t notice you.” He frowned and hurried up the steps out of the rain and waited for me to go in through the doors. “I’m wondering why I never saw you.”
“Well, I wouldn’t be collecting today if I wasn’t there.”
“I hope it’s ready.” He continued. “I was here earlier this morning and the lady told me that some of the passports hadn’t been dropped off.”
“Really?” I don’t know why he is being friendly. “Did you get an email or an sms alert?”
“No!” He replied running up the short flight of indoor stairs to the first floor. “Did you?”
“I got an email alert.” I wrapped up my umbrella as we stopped by the entrance of the Passport collection room.
There is another guard there who checked our slips and let us in. Somehow, a man in his forties gets to queue up between us. I followed them into a smaller room. He walked over to the counter to meet the lady and I sat on the chair waiting for my turn. I watched him tell her his name and hand her a small green card. The lady checked for his name and then for his passport and made him sign a receiving note. The whole process with him took about five minutes. The man between us walked up to the counter while my new friend sat on the chair beside the wall. There is enough space between us for one more person.
‘What is he waiting for?’ I’m thinking. He has his passport, it’s stamped with his Visa. I’m not sure I want him to follow me back to pick up my bag. Why the heck didn’t I reveal that I had a car and I could have kept my bag in the car? What happens then when he asks where I’m headed and I say I have a car? Why was he still around?
I glanced over at him. He was studying his passport intently.
I stood up with a sinking heart and thought to myself. ‘Now he is going to find out the truth about me.’
I walked up to the counter.
“What is your name?”
“Morenike Thomas.” I placed the two green cards on the counter
“Who are you collecting for?”
“For myself and for Olatide Thomas”
“Your husband?” It’s loud enough for the people sitting behind me to hear. I felt my cheeks burn as she said that and I don’t know why I was suddenly conscious that my tall friend was listening.
I am married, I love my husband and we are happy. Tall guy had simply borrowed my umbrella and helped me out. He had not hinted at anything nor asked for anything. He had definitely not asked if I was married nor had he shown any real interest in me whatsoever aside my umbrella. So why did I feel guilty? I had certainly not led him on, neither had I lied to him.
“Yeah!” I said out loud. “My husband.”
She fished out our passports after what seemed like two minutes. Then I signed for both and turned around. He was still there, staring at me as I came to sit down. Another man got up to approach the counter. The man that had been ahead of me had gone.
I packed my jotter and passport together and glanced at him. He smiled.
“So you’re married.”
It was the quiet way he said the words that made me feel even more guilty. The atmosphere had suddenly changed and there was now an invisible line between us that he knew he couldn’t cross any more.
“I hope he treats you really good.”
I smiled. “Yes, he is a great guy.”
“Thanks for the use of your umbrella.” He stood up, nodded at me and walked away.
I followed but he was gone by the time I got out. He had simply disappeared, just as mysteriously as he had come. I found my way back to get my bag and things which were still intact and walked under the umbrella to the car park musing over what had just happened. I still think about him, sometimes.