I spotted her on the bench as I entered the Park. But that was as far as it went. I turned right and took the path to the food court. No, I didn’t go by the stage where only three days ago the largest street party in Lagos – and I stand to be challenged on that – aka Afropolitan Vibes took place. If you’re a regular, you’ll know by now that I’m at the Freedom Park.
I got to the food court and ordered my favourite, catfish pepper soup. Pascal, my friend, wouldn’t want to hear this. Sometime ago, this same dish wasn’t stomach-friendly with me. The chef might have changed the recipe because I haven’t had any crisis after then, touch wood. While waiting for my order, I brought out my crossword book. It was early afternoon so there were not many eaters at the food court. I was alone at my table.
I got busy with the crossword, my head buried in the book.
– Good evening ma.
I looked up to see if the greeting was meant for me.
– Oh! Hello.
– Can I sit with you?
– I saw you come in.
– Oh! Did you?
– Yes ma. I was on the bench by the museum.
I didn’t want a conversation. Not when I’m doing crossword. How do I say this without sounding unsociable?
– You don’t remember me ma?
That question made me look at her properly, taking in her features. I always pride myself on remembering faces. Not the case today.
– Have we met before?
– Yes ma.
She mentioned the lieu and the circumstances. I was ashamed. I had to make up for this lapse in memory. I decided to share my pepper soup. I offered her one of the three pieces of dish.
– Thank you ma. I don’t eat catfish.
– But I won’t feel comfortable eating all alone.
– I’d be alright ma.
I put the crossword book down to talk.
The first time we met was at a party. So I decided to know her better.
– Do you work around here?
– No ma. I come here to have a quiet moment.
– You live around here then.
– Up till yesterday I did.
She lowered her eyes and bowed her head. The next thing I saw was her shoulders shaking. She was sobbing. What have I started?
– Do you want to talk about it? We can go to a quieter place.
I told those in the kitchen to keep the fish pepper soup and I’d be back.
We moved away from prying eyes. We went close to the amphitheatre right behind the former cells. Freedom Park in another life was Broad Street Prisons. Theo Lawson, that genius of an architect, converted it to what it now is with an endorsement from the Lagos State government.
The party at which I had met this young lady took place at my cousin’s house. She had come with her then ‘fiancé’. I know the young man, he’s my cousin’s childhood friend. She told me how they lived together for two years. She noticed changes in him after the party. She asked what she did wrong. He said nothing. But he wasn’t the same since then. She tried her best to keep hope alive. But he had become a stranger to her. A week before we met at Freedom Park, he came back from work and told her he needed his space. He gave her a week to move out. She attempted to talk it over with him two days after then. She couldn’t find him to talk to. He wasn’t spending the nights at home anymore. He only came early in the morning for a change of clothes.
– He knew I had nowhere to go.
– Where are your parents?
– In the UK.
– What about other relatives?
– Some are here in Lagos but I don’t know them as such. I only see them when Mom’s in town.
– Did you bring anything to his flat? I mean electronics, furniture…
– I brought fridge, bed and mattress from my former studio.
– So is he buying those off you?
– I already flogged them off.
– Can’t you stay with any friend till you get your act together?
– I don’t think I have a friend. Those I thought were friends gave flimsy excuses for not taking me in.
– What a shame!
– I moved out this morning.
– He came home yesterday and asked me to move today. Though I should’ve gone tomorrow.
– So where are your things?
– I left them with the neighbour. It’s just two suitcases filled with shoes and dresses.
– So which way forward?
– When I told my parents what happened, my Mom asked me to come home.
– That’s good. I’m happy for you.
– I bought a ticket to go to London tomorrow. I’m lucky it’s the low season.
– Any mother would want to be with her child in such a situation. So why were you crying?
– I have nowhere to spend the night.
I was going to ask if she couldn’t stay in a guest house when she said:
– The only money on me is my taxi-fare to the airport. I haven’t eaten anything today. Catfish is a taboo in my family. That’s why I refused your offer.
When Theo Lawson conceived the idea and design of Freedom Park, he didn’t envisage that it would be a refuge for broken hearts and a point to meet agony aunts.