By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chidera’s taxi crawled over Third Mainland Bridge, towards Lagos Island. The morning traffic was thick with cars, with hawkers selling newspapers and CDs and gala sausage rolls, with motorcycles snaking past. She wiped the sweat on her nose with the back of her hand, carefully, so as not to ruin her brown powder. The taxi seat was battered, her seat sunken-in, and when she reached out to take the window down, she discovered the winder was broken off.
“You get winder?” she asked the taxi driver.
“Yes! Sorry Aunty, it fell off just this morning, just this morning.”
She knew the winder had fallen off years before. He handed her a piece of metal, something that looked like a spoon, and she stuck it in the space where the winder had been and cranked the window down. There was no breeze; the humid air smelled salty. She looked across at the blue-green lagoon, at the far off rumpled landscape of waterside shacks, at the canoes paddled by bare-chested men.
Sirens blared behind, and cars swerved to make room on the bridge already occupied by four rough lanes of cars. Her taxi swerved, too, and the rusty floor quivered under her feet as if about to give way. The siren-blaring black Peugeot 504 sped past. Perhaps the governor on his way to work, or the governor’s wife rushing to the hair salon, or one of those fraudsters who used sirens to beat traffic these days. Chidera wished she was in that car; at least she wouldn’t be as sweaty as she was now. But the prickly wetness in her armpits had little to do with the morning heat. It was the job interview she was going for; it was the heavy clutch of anxiety and hope inside her.
The traffic picked up again, cars squeeze-speeding through the space the sirens had left behind. There was honking and cursing. A driver stuck out his head and shouted, “Ode! You no sabi drive?” And then the dull crunching sound of a car hitting another. Two men jumped out to examine the damage and one soon punched the other’s face.
“Ah! Those men should move out of the road and fight, or they will cause big go-slow,” her taxi driver said. He had been talking nonstop ever since he picked her up on Coker Road, about his wicked landlord who removed the electric meter, about his in-laws who were out to grab all the money he earned, about the President’s mistress who lived in Ikeja, about his pregnant wife taking a shot of local gin every morning to make sure the baby was born with flawless skin. He didn’t seem to mind that she made no response.
He laughed now. “Look Aunty! It will be a big fight oh!”
The men were holding each other by their collars now, in awkward twists.
More cars honked. A crowd gathered, hawkers and drifters and roadside mechanics, and taunted each man. You cannot let him say that to you oh! Ah, he is insulting your mother oh! Slap him now!
They left the mesh of Third Mainland Bridge and turned into Ikoyi. A small crowd had gathered by the roadside, just before Osborne Road. Two women were arguing; their voices floated clearly above the sounds of cars horning and hawkers calling out.
“Ashawo!” the first woman shouted to the other, “Prostitute!” The second woman pulled her scarf off her head and knotted it around her waist, a gesture that meant she was ready to fight. The first woman yelled, “Go and marry! Useless girl! Stop prostituting yourself and go and marry!”
“You know what happen there, Aunty?” he asked.
“No,” Chidera said.
“Their okada had an accident.”
Chidera looked back and only then noticed the motorcycles — one was lying on its side on the road while a man fiddled with the tires. The women had had a motorcycle accident and both had come out to fight. And how easily it became about men, Chidera thought. They did not know each other, for sure, but perhaps because one had not noticed a wedding band on the other’s finger, it meant she was a prostitute. That woman, the shouting one, reminded Chidera of Mama Tayo who lived in the flat upstairs with the torn mosquito netting. Mama Tayo often picked a fight with the agoyin hawker because the ewa-agoyin was not hot enough, with the street mallam because he sold her matches that didn’t light properly, with the bus conductor because he gave her crumpled money for change. She won all of those fights, but then Chidera knew that Mama Tayo didn’t always win the fights to pay her children’s school fees or the rent for her stall in Balogun Market. Perhaps this woman, this shouting woman, was just like Mama Tayo. Perhaps she had fights she could not win.
It struck Chidera then how full of people, dissatisfied people, Lagos was. She, too, was one of those dissatisfied people. But she hoped it would end today with this interview. She had passed the first two tests and this was the final interview, with the Managing Director of the bank. After the second test, the facilitator had told her she was the most impressive applicant and that the job was almost surely hers. All she had to do was be confident when she met the MD. That word ‘impressive’ had rung in her ears for days.
“Aunty,” the taxi driver said. “Abeg, I want to piss.” He was already stopping the car.
Before he walked over to the gutter to urinate, he went around and opened the boot and for a moment, Chidera thought he would bring a gun to rob her. This was Lagos, after all. She watched carefully as he took a plastic kettle of water and then moved away and stood, his back to her, at the edge of the gutter. When he climbed back into the taxi, she asked, “Why did you go to your boot?”
“Ah, Aunty, I went to get water, to wash my…area.” He laughed and started the car. “I’m a Muslim.”
She knew; she had noticed the milk-coloured prayer beads strung on his driving mirror and the Islamic Unity sticker pasted on the back of his seat. She wondered if he had been able to afford a ram last week, during the two public holidays, Muslim holidays, when Lagos Television had shown Muslim men roasting rams, carving rams, eating ram chops. Her Aunty Faith had called the public holidays “The Muslim Christmas,” and Chidera had said, perhaps a bit too sharply, that the Muslims did not call Christmas the Christian Id-El-Fitr. Aunty Faith’s retort had been, “Why should I know what those people call their holidays, anyway?”
Chidera smiled now, one of those ironic little smiles she allowed herself when she was away from Aunty Faith’s house. She had been there since she graduated from Nsukka five months ago and joined the job-hunting Lagos world. And she was tired of being there, of Aunty Faith’s comments like “God helps only those who help themselves,” as if Chidera didn’t try hard enough to look for a job, as if she had not sent out CVs and attended interviews after which she never heard back from the companies. Sometimes she dreamed about going back to the village. She could help out in her mother’s restaurant or teach in the primary school. Anything but to live in Aunty Faith’s flat, where she was always careful not to take too much rice from the pot or too much milk from the tin.
But she didn’t pack and go home. She could almost hear her mother saying, “But nne, it is always difficult at first in Lagos, but if you look well you will find a husband and a job.”
She hadn’t called to tell her mother about this job interview, not even after the facilitator told her how impressive she was. She wanted to wait until the job was hers, until she was sure. And, maybe, she wanted also to prepare herself for what she knew would be her mother’s next line – that now that she had a job, it was time to look for a husband, as if a husband was hiding underneath a bed, or behind some bushes, and all she had to do was search creatively. At least her mother was not pushy, like some of the other mothers she knew, the kind of women who forced their daughters to marry rich ugly traders who spoke poor English and pulled their trousers up to their chests. Even Aunty Faith, she guessed, would end up being that kind of mother, choosing a husband for her daughter, Obioma. Probably a man who went to her church, the kind of man who was dubiously rich — maybe 419 or drugs — but who donated a new car to the church pastor every year and funded some of the special Holy Ghost Fire services.
Just then the taxi driver asked, “Aunty, you say it’s Kingsway Road?”
She looked out of the window, surprised. She had not realised that they had arrived at the bank. She had been here before, to take the first two tests, but now there was something ominous about the high black gates, about the marble building.
Chidera climbed out and paid him with two two-hundred naira notes, leaving her one five-hundred naira note in her wallet. She was splurging, taking a taxi instead of the bus. But it was worth it. If she got this job, she might even buy a car, or so Aunty Faith had suggested, telling her how these new generation banks paid so well. She wouldn’t have told Aunty Faith about this job until she was sure, but two days ago, Aunty Faith had invited her to the Holy Fire Prophesy Deliverance service, which was for job seekers. Aunty Faith’s long-suffering smile had irritated her and so she blurted out how close she was to getting a job, how well she had done on the first part of the interview. She had enjoyed the surprise on Aunty Faith’s face.
Now, as she walked into the bank, Chidera could not bear to think of Aunty Faith’s expression if she did not get this job. Aunty Faith would shake her head solemnly, and tell her that it was because she hadn’t come to the special church service. She used to go to Aunty Faith’s church, clapping and singing alongside her. Until the time the pastor had said, “Cough out the evil spirits holding you back! Cough out the evil spirits holding back your progress and your promotion! Cough now in Jesus’ name!”
People began to cough, their shoulders heaving, some of them bending over as if to better urge the evil spirits out. Aunty Faith coughed, nudging her to cough as well. Chidera was filled with astonished disgust but it was when Aunty Faith’s saliva landed on her face that Chidera swore she would never step into that church again.
“Yes, Madam?” the gateman asked.
“I have an interview with the MD.” She gave the gateman her name; he checked it in a roster and then let her in. The bank compound was covered in two-toned gravel; one wall was wrapped in creeping pink bougainvillea. As she walked into the bank building, she imagined her car, perhaps a small Toyota, parked just beneath the bougainvillea.
Inside the bank, a receptionist smiled, asked her to sit down, and said, “They will call for you soon.”
The MD was tall, and as they shook hands at the door of his office, she had to tilt her head to meet his eyes.
“How are you?” he said. “Sit down, please.”
The MD talked fast. They wanted her in the Public Relations department, for an initial trial period of three months, during which she would get a salary but none of the allowances. At the end, if her performance was satisfactory, she would become permanent. Was it acceptable?
She held herself from hugging this smooth man in a creaseless suit and a splashy tie. And maybe hugging him would not only be because she was so relieved to finally have a job. Maybe she wanted to feel his arms around her; maybe she wanted to trace his teeth with her tongue.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, it’s fine. Thank you, sir.”
“Nobody calls me sir here. They call me MD, there’s something more informal about it.” He was smiling, but it was a generic smile, a smile she imagined he produced on demand — for bank customers, for future employees, for restaurant waiters.
“Oh, okay, MD,” she said, clasping her hands to fight the sudden urge to reach out and smooth his eyebrows. It had been so long since she felt this physical pull towards someone. The last time was when she first saw Nnaemeka in the university canteen more than a year ago; she had wanted to go over and lick the beer foam from his upper lip. Nnaemeka looked a little like MD, too. There was a similarity in their deep-dark complexions. Nnaemeka, her ex-boyfriend. Not that he liked to be referred to as that. When he left for America a few months ago, right after they graduated, he had told her that they were soul mates, that he was going to make a life for them in America and send for her. She didn’t believe him or his grand speech, and she suspected that he didn’t entirely believe himself either. She had not felt anything for anybody since Nnaemeka. Until now, sitting across from this man whose cologne she could smell, who was giving her a smile so neutral, so charge-free it was annoying.
“The best way to make sure your job becomes permanent is to get new accounts,” MD was saying. “So, if you can get your father, say, to open an account with us…” He paused. “Around three million naira and you’ll be sure of becoming a permanent.”
Chidera unclasped her hands. She wanted to say that if she had a father who could open an additional bank account with three million naira, then she would not need to be here, looking for a job. But she said, “I see.”
“Good.” He stood up. “You’ll share an office with Yemisi. You and Yemisi will be going out a lot, on publicity purposes.”
He shook her hand again, and she wished that he had lightly caressed her palm before he let go.
Yemisi had the light-skinned, heavily made-up, knowing face of a proper Lagos girl. She wore red lipstick, very-black eyeliner, and a crisp trouser suit bought from one of those boutiques in Surulere where thin, white mannequins displayed expensive clothes. She looked on, smiling, as Chidera sat at her new desk, swivelled around on the leather chair.
“I’ve been a permanent for almost six months now,” Yemisi said. “I just moved into a new flat in Lekki.” Yemisi extended her hand, the nails painted the shade of her lipstick. “The girl who used to work with me, Juliet, she didn’t make it to permanent. She tried sha, but she didn’t have good PR, you know?” Yemisi widened her eyes, raised her pencilled-in eyebrows. “There is money in this country, I’m telling you. All you have to do is make sure you use your PR, and work it and get those accounts.”
Chidera nodded. There was something unprofessional and comforting about Yemisi. She reminded her of her final-year roommate at Nsukka, the older girl who told her where to eat, what fraternity had responsible boys, where to hang her clothes to dry so that they were not stolen.
“We are going to see Alhaji Ayike tomorrow,” Yemisi said. “The man is richer than Dangote! MD has been trying to get us an audience with him for so long now. You know, it is these Northern Muslims who own this country! He is enough to make you permanent if he opens an account with us.” Yemisi patted her hair, a huge mass of weave-on extensions the orange-brown colour of roasted corn. “Wear something nice. Juliet used to wear bush-bush clothes and that’s why she couldn’t get any accounts. It didn’t help her PR.”
“Okay,” Chidera said, wondering if perhaps she had known, even before she met Yemisi, what the job was really about.
The next day, Chidera felt sophisticated, important, walking beside the expertly-made up, all-knowing Yemisi. She could not remember the day before yesterday, or the day before that, or all the other job-hunting days. Soon, she would move into an apartment in Lekki, too. But then Aunty Faith had hugged her so warmly when she heard the good news and when Aunty Faith broke into an Igbo thanksgiving song, Chidera had joined in the chorus – ka anyi jee nye ye ya ekene.
After they sang, Aunty Faith said that she had commanded God to prove that He was God and give Chidera the job. Chidera was not sure what it meant to command God, but she felt an unfamiliar warmth talking to Aunty Faith, answering her questions about the job, the office, Yemisi. Aunty Faith was her mother’s sister, after all, and did wish her well. Or perhaps this job had given her a new magnanimity so that she saw everything differently.
“Look, there’s my car,” Yemisi said, pointing, before they climbed into the bank’s chauffeur-driven Jeep. Chidera looked at the red Honda coupe parked underneath the bougainvillea. She would have picked it out as Yemisi’s car even if Yemisi had not told her; it was as hip, as flashy, as she expected.
The Alhaji’s office in Victoria Island occupied a whole floor of a high rise. Everything seemed to gleam: the marble floors, the glass tables, the gold embroidery on the Alhaji’s caftan.
“Good morning, sir,” Yemisi said, and Chidera quickly repeated the greeting.
“Yemisi from Hopewell Bank, kwo?” he asked. He had a copper-coloured face, a tall slenderness, and seemed slightly distracted, as if he had a lot on his mind. “How are you? Come, come and sit down.” He shook Yemisi’s hand and turned to Chidera, as if noticing her for the first time. “Ah, who is this fine one? How are you?”
She came closer to shake his hand. But he reached out and enclosed her left breast in his hand, squeezing. Chidera froze. A surreal fluttering started in her head. She thought about how Nnaemeka had once said, teasing, that her breasts felt like unripe cashews, fleshy and firm. And then she wished, unreasonably, that it was MD whose hand was on her breast, who was pulling her to him.
“Her name is Chidera,” Yemisi said. “She just joined us.”
“What will you drink?” he asked.
Yemisi asked for a chapman and told him how lovely the marble floors were.
Alhaji was looking at Chidera. “And what will you drink, my dear?” he asked.
His smile was innocent. He had dispensed with the order of things: he could squeeze a breast before he asked what they would drink, before he even knew her name. Chidera turned silently and headed for the door. She did not walk fast. She did not respond to Yemisi calling her.
Outside, she jumped into the first bus she saw. The mid-afternoon traffic was thick although it was not yet rush time. She looked out of the bus’ cracked window to see a car being slowly pushed off the road. Yet another car had broken down. Yet another failure. She pushed her face through the window and smelled Lagos, the smell of mouldy water and urine stagnating in gutters, of too many people breathing the same hot air, of stale lives packed in molue buses that coughed dark-grey puffs of exhaust fumes.
On Ikorodu Road, a colourful church advertisement flapped from an overhead bridge: COME WORSHIP WITH US. FRESH FIRE PROPHECY. Perhaps Aunty Faith would go there; Aunty Faith had gone to four different churches in the past year. And maybe she would go with Aunty Faith, to find out how God heeded particular commands. She hated to think of Aunty Faith’s expression when she told her the job was gone. “This kind of thing does not happen to true children of God!” Aunty Faith would declare. She would not bother to explain, because Aunty Faith would not understand, that she would not have minded a hand on her knee or a brush of her waist right away. But this squeezing of her breast, the cavalier casualness of it, had shown her that none of the rules could be made by her. That, in fact, there were no rules.
But when she got home, she did not tell Aunty Faith that she had lost her job. The next morning, she went back to the bank. The Managing Director smiled thinly at her apology and said, “The Alhaji was very offended. You insulted him. You’ll have to go and see him tomorrow. And please think of the welfare of the bank.”
Chidera thought, instead, of the flat in Lekki that would be hers, hers alone. “Yes MD,” she said.