“There are numerous camera crews outside,” Yeni said as the elevator doors closed, “we were prepared for crowds, but this is exceeding our expectations. We have opened the two adjoining conference rooms to give you more space. It may still not be enough.” She was confident, but I sensed a bit of frustration in her voice.
“I am sure it’s perfect,” Shade said, smiling. She wrapped her hand around mine. “We appreciate all you have done.” I felt a tinge of guilt when I gave her hand a small squeeze. Her hand shouldn’t feel so comfortable, it just shouldn’t.
Yeni gave us each a key card, 701 for Shade and 703 for me. I followed Shade and Yeni into Shade’s room. It was fairly large room with a small sitting area with four leather chairs surrounding a short, round coffee table. There was a bucket containing ice with and a bottle of what looked like champagne nestled inside.
“From the first lady,” Yeni said, pointing at the champagne. We each took a leather seat and Yeni unfolded a piece of paper she had pulled out of her skirt pocket. “The caterer is already here, they are expecting to begin serving at six. The first lady would like five minutes, if you wouldn’t mind. Her chief of staff said it would be strictly in support of the City Kitchen.” Yeni stopped there and looked at Shade.
“That will be fine.” Shade shrugged. This was all getting bigger than we had expected.
“How long will you need?” Yeni asked Shade.
“Your speech, how long do you need?” Yeni repeated. I don’t think Shade was planning on more than a thank you. I could see her thinking within herself, trying to put something together.
“You can tell them about Richard, how it all started,” I said helpfully, “‘I Need An Angel’ and the number of people that get fed. They might as well know what it means to you.” Shade smiled at me.
“Five minutes would be fine,” Shade answered with confidence.
“And you Mr. Akeju?” Yeni looked at me and I looked at Shade.
“I am just here to support Shade,” I said, “I wasn’t planning on saying anything.”
Yeni gave a small grunt of surprise. “You’re going to disappoint a lot of people,” Yeni said with a condescending tone. “A lot of people are expecting a song.” I looked between Yeni’s grim expression and Shade’s suppressed grin.
“I guess I could say a few words. Maybe talk about the people I met and how the kitchen helps them.” I was thinking about Fabio. “I could come up with a few minutes.”
Yeni scribbled something down on her paper and looked back up to Shade. “I spoke with a Femi Adeshina and he told me about ‘I Need An Angel.’ We are prepared to play it when the buffet opens if you like.”
“That would be wonderful. Thank you, Yeni.” Shade looked very pleased and I thought it would be a wonderful addition. Everything seemed to have a nice flow to it. Shade could explain ‘I Need An Angel’s’ significance and it would lead right into it getting played. The only thing that could disturb that flow would be me saying a few words.
“I think ‘I Need An Angel’ should come right after Shade’s speech, you know, right after she explains its meaning,” I offered.
“That makes sense,” Yeni agreed, “but when would you speak.” I wouldn’t, I thought. I threw that wonderful thought away.
“Maybe during dinner I could say a few words.” Maybe everyone would forget I exist by then. If not, I could just give everyone a great big thank you. Short and sweet. Shade laughed. She knew exactly what I was thinking. Dolapo would have really liked her.
“I think they are expecting more than a thank you,” Shade said. She knew me as well as I knew myself. It was unsettling to hear her dissecting my thoughts.
“I can talk about Fabio and Jummai,” I offered, “how much it all means to them. How much it means to me that they have food though homeless.” It was off the top of my head, but would be easy to talk about.
“Perfect,” Shade said, her face going compassionate, “they need to know why they are donating and I can’t think of a better way.”
I smiled. It wasn’t a smile I could control. Pleasing Shade was becoming important.
“I’ll make sure everything is set, and someone will come to get you around 5:30,” Yeni said, “sure you won’t sing?”
“I haven’t prepared anything,” I said with a sorrowful shrug. Yeni left, promising the night will go smoothly as possible. Her confidence left us feeling pretty good about the event.
“I’m sorry you had to come out of hiding,” Shade said once we were alone.
“You are worth it.” I meant to say the City Kitchen was worth it. My mouth was moving faster than my brain. I stood quickly and headed for the door, “I’m going to get cleaned up,” I said as an excuse. I didn’t want to look back, my hormones are raging again. It took a few deep breaths behind the closed door of my room to calm myself. I sat on the bed and stared at the wall, wondering how Shade mixed with all my guilt. I closed my eyes and fell back on the bed. I lay there until there was a knock on the door. It was 5:30.
I met Shade in the hall. She looked at me with kind eyes. The kind that didn’t look away from the shame I was feeling. The kind that begged to share the guilt. Those kinds of kind eyes. She held out her hand and I took it. This time she pulled me close as we headed toward the elevator. She raised on her tip toes.
“You’re worth it too,” Shade whispered in my ear. I didn’t feel like I was. I lightly kissed her forehead for the thought. She leaned into my shoulder and we rode the elevator down, more comfortable than I deserved.
The elevator opened on the first floor to a row of police officers their uniforms. A smiling official escort. The whole thing was way out of proportion. We entered the huge banquet hall to a round of applause. Shade took it gracefully; I cringed. She turned to me, smiled and mouthed “thank you.” The place was packed. Every table was full and many were standing along the walls. There were three buffet lines and we walked along the one in the centre, toward the stage. I saw Tony Bakare looking good in his dress with his wife on his arm. I felt ridiculous, but I stepped over to him as we passed and shook his hand. He had done a lot and at least my thanks were in order.
“This is my wife, Rebecca,” Tony introduced his overly excited wife. I still didn’t understand what women expected from my unexpected fame. More than I obviously knew how to deliver.
“It’s wonderful to meet you,” I said holding out my hand. Rebecca laughed and gave me bear hug. A cheer arose and suddenly I had to shake everyone’s hand all the way to the stage. I also had to endure a few more hugs. I was feeling trepidations when I arrived at the stage. Shade stood waiting, obviously enjoying my embarrassment.
I went to stand next to Shade, just to the right of the podium. I turned to see a sea of people, all out of their chairs. The police officers made up half the attendees. In the middle, off to the left, there were two tables filled with my ex-coworkers and my good friend and boss, Mofe Alege. Some of them waving. Out of habit, I waved back. There were more cheers and I thought ‘screw it’ and waved to everyone. Up front, I noticed Femi with his cameraman filming it all. My smile felt fake, it was hard to leave it on my face. I would never make a good politician.
I saw the first lady make her way onto the stage. Her smile looked real as she approached Shade and me. She shook my hand gracefully. I was being used, but it was worth it if it helped the City Kitchen. He moved over to Shade and kind of pulled her closer to me when he shook her hand.
“I understand Kunle Sanda is causing you some grief,” the first lady said just loud enough for only the two of us to hear, “let’s see if we can put an end to that.” She winked at us. Both Shade and I lit up with large, honest grins. I am sure it played well for the camera and made the first lady look good. I had no problem paying the price. Shade just loved the support. The first lady took the podium.
“It looks like half the city is here,” the first lady yelled when she reached the microphone. The crowd cheered and the applause continued until the first lady asked it to stop with her hands. “Do you know what makes this State great?” She paused for effect, then answered her own question while pointing at Shade, “it’s people like Shade Aiyeto. The City Kitchen provides a safety net for all those wonderful souls who fall through the cracks of our great society. She doesn’t do it with tax evasion or by demanding concessions. She is there every day unselfishly giving of herself with one mission in mind.” The first lady dramatically cast her eyes across the crowd. She was a speaker and really good at it. Her husband, the Governor was always depending on her during electioneering campaigns to make speeches. “No one leaves the City Kitchen hungry,” she said it with gusto and pounded her fist on podium. The crowd ate it up. The applause was deafening and Shade looked awfully cute in her ebony skin. I didn’t need to fake my smile any more. I was proud standing next to her.
“Our proud police officers know this. I see most of them right here.” The first lady cast her arm across the crowd to more hefty applause. “I see it in all your eyes as you open your wallets to support the City Kitchen. I am proud to be among you, to call you fellow citizens. I want you to know my husband, his excellency, the executive Governor of this State and I stand with you. As long as I am first lady, the initiative Shade Aiyeto and her late husband created will stand strong right where it is. No one will interfere with the support it provides.” The crowd went nuts again. I am not sure how many in the crowd knew what was going on, but the first lady just shut down High Chief Kunle Sanda, on the record.
“I would like to introduce you to the driving force behind the City Kitchen,” the First lady said, still in her excited speaking voice, “a role model for us all, Shade Aiyeto.” I smiled at her as she headed to the podium and once again shook the first lady’s hand. The first lady spent a few seconds patting my shoulder and smiling with me as she exited the stage. At least my fame had bought Shade a strong defender.
Shade was a competent speaker. Not the vibrant play to the crowd type like the first lady, but she was confident. She spoke about how she and Richard started the kitchen. At the time it was mostly Richard driving the dream. How it became her dream as well. The crowd became quiet as she mentioned Richard’s passing and her promise to make sure the kitchen continued. She spoke well of the progress and future of the kitchen.
“I have kept one tradition as a tribute to my late husband,” Shade said calmly, “every day at 4:00 a song is played. It was his favorite and substitutes for our dinner bell when he died. We will play it now to open the buffet.” The silence permeated the room as we waited for the music to start. It didn’t come and Shade started looking around anxiously. I saw Yeni moving quickly to the stage with a worried look on her face. I happened to glance down at the Femi. He was smiling, an awfully sneaky smile. There was a gleam in his eye. I knew then; he had set me up.
My heart started pounding and I closed my eyes. There were way too many people here. I heard Yeni whispering something about a missing flash drive to Shade. ‘I Need An Angel’ was a bit too tough for me because of the richness of the voice of Rueben Studdard. I knew the words; I’ve heard them every day for months. The tune had melted into my brain long ago. If I could just slow it down, sing it at my pace. I tried to pull Dolapo together in my mind. I could always sing to her. The images were fleeting, my weak memory failing. My hands began to shake as I opened my eyes to a bewildered crowd. I turned toward Shade. She was flustered and confused when she looked at me. Her eyes met mine and her face shifted to concern.
I sang. I sang to her…
I’ve run out of answers I’ve run out of answers I’ve run out of time
And I’m so confused that I’m loosin my mind
Its gonna take a miracle to help me this time
I’m traveling a road that has not one sign Help me…
Have mercy on me… Set my soul free…
And let the bell in my heart ring…. Oooo
This is my cry, hey, this is my plea, ya see
I need an angel,
I’m callin an angel, send me an angel down [2x’s]
I’m carryin a load that’s too heavy for me
Have nowhere to go so I’m down on my knee
I’m tryin to see the forest but there’s this one tree
Can’t understand why I’m sinking so deep
Help me (Help Me Help Me) have mercy on me (Wont you have mercy on me)
Set my soul free, and let the bell in my heart ring
This is my cry, this is my plea
I need an angel (I need an angel)
I’m calling an angel, send me an angel (Send it on down)
Here Me Now I need an angel (I need an angel)
I’m calling an angel, send me an angel (Send it on down)
Oooh something inside me telling me the morning will come (Morning will Come) Yes it will
Oooh sometimes it’s hard to face the truth so we run (We Run)
God if you care at all please don’t let me fall by the wayside (Oh No)
Please be my guide, would you light my path…
Take Me, Shape Me, Mold Me, Change Me, Teach Me, Fill Me, Save Me
I need an angel (I need an angel) I’m calling an angel, send me an angel (Send it on down)
I need an angel (I need an angel) I’m calling an angel, send me an angel (Send it on down)
I know it’s gotta be some kinda angel out there for me Send a angel down right now
Send a angel down right now[/b]
The words just flowed as I memorized every facet of Shade’s face. I saw her eyes swell, a tear run down her cheek. I sang the song at my pace. Our pace. Shade held my eyes and I drew confidence from her and sang stronger. She took a step toward me as I came to the end. When I finished, she jumped into my arms and I didn’t want her anywhere else. I turned her face away from the crowd so they wouldn’t see her tears. They saw mine instead. The applause was deafening.
I pulled away slightly when my heart began to slow. My mouth moved as fast at my guilt, “I love Dolapo.” I don’t know what I expected, but a smile wasn’t it. Shade raised her mouth to my ear and whispered.
“And I’ll always love Richard.” Shade kissed my cheek softly and slowly separated from me, her hands following my arms down until she was holding both my hands. “We have guests to thank,” she said, her smile defying the tears on her cheeks. I nodded and we headed down the stage stairs and began going from table to table.
I stopped when I passed by Femi who was trying to follow me around with his cameraman. Smiling for the rest of the world, I leaned into his ear. “You’re supposed to report the news, not create it.” He laughed and handed me the missing flash drive.
“I didn’t report everything Fabio told me,” Femi said conspiratorially, “consider it payment for keeping my pen quiet.” I thought about it. He was slime, but a compassionate one.
We spent the rest of the buffet thanking the hundreds of people who showed up. We thanked the first lady for her speech and she made sure Femi got a good shot of her with us. I have no idea how it would play with everyone else, I just know her husband had my vote next election.
I was never any good at accepting public praise. The constant comments about my singing were embarrassing me. I was lucky Shade was there to shield some of the praise. She had a way of allowing me to accept it without having to come up with too many verbal responses beyond the occasional thank you. I just let her do most of the talking. Some of the women were a little aggressive, but Shade always seemed to slide between them and me. For some reasons, I was expected to hug closely. My clothes had absorbed a hundred perfumes by the time we finished.
The police officers were ecstatic I was coming to the Boxing event. I had no choice but to seem excited. They were here for us, so I would be there for them. I really didn’t want to sing again. It just seemed to draw more unwanted attention and the stage fright was slightly debilitating. I would be there though, hopefully increasing the attendance as they had for us. They were good friends to have. I thanked detective Bakare heartily again, since he is the one who put it in motion.
I was called up to the stage once again. I had almost forgotten I would have to say a few words. Shade came up with me and I welcomed her company. The stage was a lonely place to be. I spoke briefly about the City Kitchen, about the people I met and how much the kitchen meant to them. We were one link in a support structure for those who had lost their traditional ones. I spoke of Fabio and how his warped view of life helped me endure the death of my wife. I thought about Fabio as I spoke and I wondered how much he had lost. There had to be a reason he had given up and chosen his strange freedom. I closed, pledging my support and thanking all those in attendance. The applause was warm and everyone stood up. I was uncomfortable with it and glad Shade was there with me, her hand taking hold of my fidgety one.
I felt the Femi owed me one after the stunt he pulled. There were things I needed to know. When I came down from the stage I asked him quietly for help. He said he would try. Now I owed him again.
…to be continued