Something worried at the fore of my consciousness dragging me out of sleep. I reached for my phone even before I opened my eyes and switched off the alarm. In the silence that followed, I could feel my body sinking deeper into the bed, starting to be carried along by a fresh wave of sleep. The noise from my phone sliced into my brain again and it was like being beached. Even my eyelids felt gritty.
“What?” I said when I finally figured out how to answer the phone.
“It’s Orji. We have a problem. Sarah-Jane is on her way to Lagos and…”
“I’m on my way.” I put down the phone without looking at it and let the force of my feet hitting the floor jar me into the last moments of wakefulness.
The drive on the expressway took longer than it normally did that morning. By the time I got to the site, police officers were on the premises. Along with members of our own security team, the atmosphere hung heavy and menacing and was doing nothing for the beer-induced nausea from last night. Either that or I was more allergic to Merije’s bullshit that I thought. Orji saw my assigned driver pull in and broke away from the gathering. He looked relieved.
“Thank God you’re here,” he said.
I groaned. “What happened?”
“The back fence was breached last night. One of my men was knocked out but not before he had reported suspicious activity during his rounds. When he didn’t respond to hailing by walkie-talkie, they came and found him here.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s been driven to hospital. The on-site medic checked him out. Apparently he might have a concussion.”
“Oh God.” I rubbed my eyes to take some of the grittiness out. I could see the medic, thin and bespectacled hanging bat-like around some of the security officers. I nodded at him and he nodded back. I guess he had nowhere to be. Our retainer kept him comfortable. Men in hardhats sat by their silent equipment, others stood or sat at the catering tent eating and drinking. Margaret and her workers were flashes of colour, offering pastries and platters full of food items which I couldn’t recognise from where I was standing. The policemen drew ever closer to the catering tent. There was the smell of frying bean cakes in the air; I could smell the onions and pepper as they sizzled in hot palm oil. My stomach rumbled in spite of my nausea. “What about the fence?”
“Police are not finished with it now. Our boys are standing by to restore it when they are done.”
“If Margaret doesn’t shut down the tent, I am not sure we’ll get that fence up today.”
“How?” asked Orji, looking behind him. “Okay. I’ll tell her to stop serving.”
“No, no,” my mouth felt like it was full of frothy mud. “Let her serve them. Maybe they’ll take it easy on collecting bribes today if they have full bellies. And we never know when we’ll need them. Might as well keep them sweet. Do we know who did this?”
“Yes. My man regained consciousness before they took him away to the hospital. He said it was some boys from the village.” Orji cracked his knuckles. “I don’t know which way they could have taken. We took over all of the hidden paths leading to this place as per our agreement with the village chiefs.”
“And more importantly, we have settled all of them. I made sure of it.”
Orji shrugged. “You know how village politics are.”
“No, I don’t actually,” I knew exactly how it worked but I just wanted someone else to bear the burden of authority for a few seconds. Even my hair felt tired. I rubbed on the strands of my weave. They felt like straw.
“Okay, so each titled chief has boys under their command. All they need to do is decide that what they have been given is not enough for…”
“Conflict to break out?” I asked tiring of the game.
“Exactly. Then of course you have the youths who are not under anyone, they might be disgruntled with the old ways or trying to make a name for themselves.”
“At this rate we will be settling every man, woman and child in this village!”
Orji looked off, pursing his lips. “If you remember, I advised against settlement of any kind. So, here is what we will do.”
“You will sit tight, until I tell you. We don’t want your men going crazy.”
“I was going to suggest that we meet the Igwe. He has the power to call a town meeting. Settle this once and for all with all the chiefs.” Orji counted off the points on his fingers. “We get the real number of all the pathways that lead here and we pay for it. It’s their ancestral land after all, no matter what the government says.”
“Hence, the settlement. Why do you keep saying ‘their’? Aren’t you from here?”
Orji shrugged. “My people can be greedy.”
“You do that, I have got to call London.” My stomach grumbled. “Please tell Margaret to save some akara balls for me before those longathroat policemen eat it all.”
The day went downhill from there.
By afternoon I was irritable and dirty and my had deodorant failed me. The akara balls had long since digested and I was working on its fumes. It was going to be an all-nighter for the boys to repair the fence, but the atmosphere on site was like that of a party. Overtime pay will do that to you I suppose. Orji and his men had carried out their own investigations and in one hour had arrested six young boys aged from about sixteen to twenty-five; something the police hadn’t managed all day. Only Orji’s intervention had saved them from being beaten up. He handed them over to the police as the law demanded. There was no saying what would happen to them once they were inside, but we both hoped it wouldn’t lead to more friction between our company and the community.
The phone-call to London went without a hitch and I filed my report and faxed it as soon as it was concluded. My phone started ringing again and I picked it up once I saw the +44 dialling code.
“Hello Abby, it’s Mary,” said Tall Mary. I heard shuffling and then she said off-mouthpiece “Yes, I’ll tell her. Mary says ‘Hello’ too,” she said to me.
“Hello ladies. I’m sorry I can’t talk now. We’re having a bit of trouble.”
“That’s what we wanted to talk to you about.”
“We really should have emailed earlier but we weren’t really sure. Well, Mary said I was overreacting…”
“She doesn’t need to know all that, Mary,” said Tall Mary.
“I love to hear from you guys but could you just say what this is about? Things are chaotic around here.” I walked out of the block which housed the Reception and other administrative units, swatting the flies which buzzed around my torso.
“It’s Todd,” said Tall Mary.
“What about him?” I asked feeling like an ant under a magnifying glass. The sun beat down on my face turning it into a stream of oil and open pores. Margaret’s husband John rifled through what was left of the cleared bushes picking up things which would no doubt be transformed into something edible by nightfall. He tossed me a bottle of water which I knew I couldn’t catch. I let it crash down by my feet. He shook his head and went back to picking.
“He’s managed to get himself on your team. They say he has expertise with the Gambian project and having grown up in Malawi as a child…”
“So? I grew up all my life here and…”
“I don’t know.” Tall Mary sounded afraid. “I just thought I should warn you. I think he may wrangle a flight down. He is very determined…”
“Crafy bugger, isn’t he Mary?” said Plump Mary.
“Very,” agreed the other Mary. “Just be careful. And that one with the slinky hips, tossing her hair about and whispering poison into his ear….”
“That’s the one. Swanning about like she’s the lord of the manor….” Plump Mary sounded as if she was spitting. My brow furrowed. Plump Mary’s default was ’timid’. Anything that could get her riled up worried me. There was quiet on the line.
“Well,” Tall Mary said. “We just thought you would like to know.”
“We’ll keep you updated if anything else happens. You can count on us,” said Plump Mary. “We’ll look out for you.”
“What are you two doing at work anyway?”
“We aren’t at work. No way would we make this call at work now, would we Mary?”
“No,” said Tall Mary. “We’re at our craft class. Today we’re making Christmas decorations.”
“Two more weeks to go,” said Plump Mary. I left them in good spirits.
On my way home, I made the driver drop me off at the hotel where I still slept sometimes when I needed a night away from my mother. I asked the hotel’s hairdressers take out my weave and wash my hair, then dry it and put it into cornrows. The man doing them shivered as he sectioned my hair.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Are you sure you don’t want any attach in it? Aunty you know you’re a big girl. This hairstyle will make you look like a smallie.”
I started to say something but my body refused to cooperate. My jaw fell slack as his fingers working on my head lulled me into a state of near stupor. When he was done, I nearly cried. I felt as if I should pay him just to caress my scalp but the idea didn’t seem right so I was generous with his tip instead. He stood back, observing his handiwork.
“At least your hair is full,” he said resigned. He slipped me a card when no one was looking. It had a mobile number and a name on it; ‘Okezie’.
My mother met me at the door before the car had stopped properly, cleaning her hands against the fabric of her wrapper. She tucked the end of the wrapper around her waist even though it seemed in danger of cutting her in half.
“Mummy? What is it?”
“Your aunty Mabel is here,” said my mother. The smile on her face looked as if it had been there a long time and was now frozen in place whether she wanted to smile or not. Her eyebrows were almost at her hairline. “Come, come. She is angry that you have been back all this while and you didn’t come to greet her.”
“Abuotito,” my mother pulled me back. “I know you have no reason to listen to me but please do not make your aunt angry.”
“Does she think I came back to bow and scrape to her? I am here for work; not for Belinda’s stupid wedding, not to worship at ….”
“Abuotito!” My mother was no longer looking nervous, only angry. “You aunty Mabel and my brother have been generous to us all our lives. They helped when I was in difficulty…”
“And she never lets us forget it.”
“Just come and greet her properly, please. Explain why you have not come to see her. Maybe tell her that Jane-Susan woman is a slave driver.” My mother tugged one my crossed arms, freeing them. “Please just be the daughter I know I raised or they will say that I am a bad woman.”
My aunty Mabel was sitting in the best armchair when I got into the bungalow. It was the chair right opposite the television and a Nollywood film was playing.
“My dear,” she said without looking up. “I told you I have seen this one. The father marries the housegirl in the end and she tries to poison her former madam’s children. I have a boy that brings me the latest releases every Monday.” The rings on her fingers clacked all over the remote as she tried to eject the CD. “Please change this. Let me watch something else.” She took a sip of her Malta Guinness drink, holding the straw between her tongue and her upper teeth. “Ah, my dear, I thought I was talking to your mother. Hello,” she said finally acknowledging me. I had no doubt she knew I was standing at the door the whole time.
“Good evening, Aunty Mabel,” I said coming towards her. She half-stood, folding me in her arms. It was like being absorbed into yam fufu. I winced as she squeezed, imprinting her rings. Her perfume tickled my nostrils – I should say perfumes. Aunty Mabel never wore just one. She was paranoid about people copying her scent so she sought to confuse them by spraying more than one.
“Ah, look at her!” Aunty Mabel tweaked my chin, scratching me with her nails which had been painted red for as long as I had known her. “Is this you? Look at all the hips you have now. And that bum.” Her eyes licked my skin like little flames. “You definitely take after your father’s people – whoever they are.” My mother, who entered just in time to hear her last remark, tripped almost dropping the tray of chin-chin an mini-cupcakes she had made. “My B’lin is of course is heavy on top like her father’s people, which can be unfortunate.” My mother fiddled with her blouse, adjusting it over her cleavage.
“I don’t know about unfortunate, Aunty. I always say confidence makes anything work,” I said, feeling my headache from earlier in the day returning.
“Luckily, my B’lin is in perfect shape, being an actress. You know her job demands it. She will look gorgeous at her wedding.” Aunty Mabel cast an eye over my thighs as she said this. “All her bridesmaids are similar in size. Belinda insisted.”
“Of course,” I said.
“Mabel, dear,” said my mother. She always copied my aunt’s annoying ‘overdearisation’ of everything. “I do hope you like the cupcakes.”
“My dear, you know I cannot eat that. My B’lin would be so angry if I spoil her wedding pictures.”
“I’m sure having just one will not spoil your figure,” I said, but Aunty Mabel was already taking small bites out of one of the cupcakes. I could see that she was making an effort not to shove it all in her mouth. “You tried with the cupcakes, dear.” A smile danced about her mouth while her brow creased.
“It’s just a hobby really,” my mother sat at the edge of her chair. “It’s not really serious.”
Aunty Mabel picked up another cupcake and bit into it. “No dear, but it’s always good to have a hobby. This is why I go to the gym.”
I bit down on my tongue.
“Can I get you another Malta Guinness, Aunty?”
“Oh, no thank you, dear. This is alright. I don’t want your mother to spend all her money feeding me.” She chuckled picking a chin-chin up from the plate and holding it between two of her nails.
“You’ll have to eat truckloads of cupcakes, before you make a dent in our hospitality, Aunty. Please don’t worry.”
Aunty Mabel started at me, still smiling. I could detect her displeasure in the fact that she clenched her teeth. “This is a little oily, dear,” she said, setting the chin-chin down.
“Sorry, dear. Would you like something else?” My mother stood.
“Sit down, mummy. I’ll get Aunty whatever she needs.” I smiled, picking up the plate. I was sure that my face was beginning to look like my mother’s had when she came out to meet me. Aunty Mabel had that effect on people. “Would you also like me to change the film too?”
“So, what is this work that you have been doing that has not allowed you to come and greet us?” Aunty Mabel ignored my question and the sarcasm.
“I’m so proud of her,” my mother began. “She is…”
Aunty Mabel seemed interested but then she brought out her phone from her bag. “Ewo, my sister, it’s getting late. Well, I said let me come and see you since you were now too big to come and see me.”
“I’ve just been busy, Aunty. I didn’t mean any offence.” My head throbbed. I wanted to spit at her.
“You know my B’lin is back in two weeks? I thought you would at least come and help out with the preparations, being family and all.”
“I will try; Aunty, but I can’t promise anything.”
“She will come next week. She loves her cousin Belinda. Don’t you my dear?”
“Yes, Mummy. Dear,” I said. She scowled at me when she caught my meaning. “It should be interesting having her around.”
“You were always like a sister to my B’lin. She always made sure that all her old things came to you.”
“Such generosity of spirit,” I said. My headache was going now that I was enjoying myself. My mother was still scowling but I chose to ignore her.
“Her fiancé thinks so. He worships my B’lin you know. I knew my B’lin would only marry a white. They just love her. I suppose you will be marrying a white yourself soon,” said Aunty Mabel standing up. “These two were always like twins. Whatever B’lin does, Otito has to do as well.”
“I’m not sure if that’s…” I began.
“Ah, Abuotito bought you something,” said my mother. “I almost forgot.” She left the room and came back with a package which she handed to Aunty Mabel. Aunty Mabel opened it, grasping the straps of the plastic bag with her nails, pinkie finger up in the air.
“This is lovely dear, thank you.” She examined the bottle of perfume in the light. “I have not seen this bottle of Channel before. Is it an impostor fragrance?” She sniffed it, eyes clouding over.
“No, Aunty. It’s Limited Edition actually.”
“Thank you, dear.” She shoved the bottle back into its bag and smile, lips thinning as she did so.
We waved to her, my mother and I, standing, until her driver was out of sight. I turned to my mother. “You gave her the perfume I bought for you?!”