Walking down the aisle in church the next day I couldn’t help feeling self-conscious. It was Offering Time and it seemed the new vicar had rung in some changes. For one thing, there was a gospel band instead of the usual traditional instruments like the gong and drums to accompany our grateful steps all the way to the altar. The gospel band felt forced to me, trying to wrest joyful dancing from my reluctant steps, blasting out my eardrums. The walk to the front had never seemed so long. People kept dancing forwards and backwards until all I wanted to do was scream.
“I hate small towns,” I muttered under my breath, still keeping time with the music. Luckily Greg wasn’t around to read my lips. I didn’t know the song so I just clapped, looking for a familiar face in the crowd and walking a safe distance away from my mother’s gyrating hips which could knock me into the pews.
After church as I waited for my mother to finish her usual Sunday chat with friends, I heard my name, pronounced the right way,with the accents in all the right places, so that it seemed as if the person was singing it. I hadn’t heard it said that way since I was in primary school. Whoever the person was, I probably didn’t want to see them.
“Otito!” Frowning, I turned. The woman hurrying towards me looked about my age but she was wearing the double wrapper and blouse that denoted her status as a married woman; that and the double band on her ring finger, clasped around the child balancing on her hip. She was followed by two other women, dressed the same way.
“Oh God,” I muttered. I recognised them instantly. They were the trio of girls who made my life miserable in primary school. They were mean in the way children could be; picking at the stitches on my school uniform when my mother couldn’t get me a new one on time so that it was bursting at the seams and throwing my sandals into the bush before I could get to them after Physical Education. My mother had to soak my feet after I went home bare-feet The cuts and blisters healed but I never forgot. These girls were same ones who started calling me ‘Armpit boils’ – Belinda had merely carried on for much longer.
“Ah-ah! Toochi Ifezube? Is this you?” I asked, knowing she would object to her maiden name.
“I heard you were back!” Toochi said, standing some distance away from me. “And it’s Mrs Toochi Mbanugo now.” She hugged me with her free arm, pulling me in the more I resisted. The child started wailing and she juggled it on her hip.
“Is this yours?” I stroked the baby’s cheek.
Toochi looked at her friends. “No, it’s yours.” She hissed, trying to make it sound as if the question was stupid. “Of course it is mine. This is my last. I have five.”
“Five. Wow. How are you? You look great. And is that you, Oluchi? Ah-ah! I didn’t recognise you now!” I glanced over at my mum, hoping to escape the circle closing around me but she did not notice.
Oluchi hissed. “How will you notice me? I am too small for you now, Madam London.” She hugged me, throwing her face away as if protecting her make-up.
“Don’t start,” I said to the woman behind her as she opened her mouth. “It’s not my fault, Ezinne. You people look so different now. And you’re all still friends. Wow.” I knew I sounded like an idiot. Saying ‘Wow’ probably didn’t help.
“Did you expect us to stop being friends?” asked Toochi.
“You came back you didn’t even ask of anyone. Na wah o. Are we quarrelling?” asked Oluchi eyeing me.
“Let her land, now,” Toochi shushed her. “Oya, why have you not asked about us?” she asked.
“I don’t have your number,” I said quickly. We weren’t friends in nursery and primary school and luckily as I went away for secondary school, we couldn’t claim to have become friends then. But I knew they didn’t really care for a phone call. They were after something.
“I thought you would have been speaking like an oyibo by now. Your accent is still the same,” said Ezinne. I almost didn’t hear her; she was always the quiet one. Quiet and deadly. Toochi picked up on her point.
“I wonder o. Your mates sound like they are from Overs but you still sound like us,” said Toochi. “Are you sure you were not just hiding in Lagos and lying to us that you were in London?”
“Maybe I was,” I said, glancing at my watch.
“Anyway, what asoebi are we wearing?” asked Oluchi, cutting in. I could sense that she was impatient to introduce the real reason for their ambush.
“Asoebi for what? The hotel is not yet done. And you don’t wear asoebi to a hotel launch.”
“Biko, which hotel? We’re talking of that your cousin that used to sometimes spend long vac here. The one who used to live in Onitsha?” Toochi asked.
“We hear she is marrying oyibo. Where are our invitations now? Or are we too small for oyibo wedding as well?” asked Ezinne.
“What is all this preoccupation with big and small? You have come again,” I said. My mother adjusted her shoulder bag, looking around for me. Look here, look here.
“Anyway, we are coming. Just tell us what colour to wear so that we can buy the latest from Main Market,” continued Oluchi.
“I don’t know what asoebi colours she has. When she comes back I will ask her.”
“How can you not know? Is it not in your family that there is a wedding? If you don’t want us to come just say so,” Toochi shifted the baby who was falling asleep. “My husband is waiting for me. Take my number and call me when you’re serious. 07035… Aunty good afternoon,” said Toochi looking up and curtseying. Oluchi and Ezinne did the same, the smiles splitting their faces wide open.
“Hello girls, ah! Who is this?” said my mother stroking the baby.
“It’s my last born, aunty. I think five is enough now,” she smiled in a way that said she could have ten if she wanted to.
“Five, eziokwu?” asked my mother, looking at me and I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes.
“We are waiting for Otito now,” said Ezinne. “We’re waiting for her to join our club.”
“You might have to wait a while,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. The three of them shrank back as if I had fouled the air.
“God forbid!” they chorused.
“Don’t mind her,” said my mother, clicking her fingers. “She is only joking. How many children do you have now?” my mother asked Oluchi.
“I have four. Ezinne has four too,” she replied.
“Of course,” I said. Nobody would dare have as many as Toochi the queen bee.
“Aunty, let us go. The children all need feeding,” she said now. “Otito, call us o. Two weeks is already short notice, but luckily we have a good tailor.”
I bid goodbye to them. “God they are so tedious,” I started to say. My mother wasn’t listening.
“Aren’t they lovely? So respectful. Make sure you see your Aunty Mabel before she leaves for Lagos to get asoebi for them.”
Bloody Belinda was still ruining my life from thousands of miles away. I wished it would rain on her wedding. As soon as lunch with my mother was over, I drove over to my hotel room, ran a bath and spent hours pleasuring the stress out of my body until I was satisfied.
The fence was already up by Monday morning. Orji looked like a proud father, albeit one about to drop.
“Go home, Orji,” I said by way of greeting. Margaret waved a basket of pastries at me, without seeming to do so. It was her way.
“Yes,” he turned around mid-speech and strode towards his car.
“Right,” I slammed on my hardhat. “Let’s get to work people, time is running out!”
“Get to work,” said Eugene the foreman, whose booming voice carried to the corners of the building site. The machines started up, pounding away at the earth, levelling it around the newly-planted trees dotted to the exact specifications of our landscape artist. The cement mixers were on stand-by, waiting to cover everything up and then would come the paver foundation and we’d be done – with the outside bit anyway. This was my baby. Things were looking up.
“So, how are you enjoying the building?” I asked Margaret over lunch.
“Fine,” said Margaret. “I’m happy that we’re in here with all that sand the tippers have been delivering. The men were complaining that they were chewing sand with each forkful.”
Margaret looked horrified. “No.”
“Divas. There’s going to be even more sand coming. They’d best get used to it.”
Margaret shook her head, in what I thought was amusement. “Are you sure this is alright for us to be here? I mean, won’t the future chef have a problem with us being here?”
We were in the area which would serve as the future restaurant. It was still under construction but because the air conditioners and windows had been fitted, it seemed churlish to deny the catering staff and workers a decent area to eat, especially as most of them had gravitated towards the building the moment the ACs were put in. The catering tent was still set up outside, but Margaret and John preferred to use it as a cooking area only. Food was now served behind the counter.
“Well, you’re not using the kitchen so I don’t see why he or she would; and even if you were nko? I said it’s okay, so it is.”
“Any idea who it is?” Margaret asked, eyeing a cluster of taped wires sticking out of the wall.
“I thought you people in the catering industry knew everything.”
“The rumour mill has been silent on this one.”
“Well, I don’t know,” I took a sip of my fruit punch. “I am no longer in charge of that side of things. This is nice,” I said taking another sip.
Margaret had taken to bringing in a stack of magazines to jazz up break time and one of them now caught my eye. I pulled it out. “Ugh.”
Charles smiled at me from the cover, his usual impeccably dressed self. The bony bitch of his had her arms snaking around his neck from behind, grinning with impossibly white teeth. I reckoned they were veneers because if they weren’t, poor Charles stood to lose his penis each time he received a blow job from her.
I shook my head. Margaret was watching me. “I hope it’s not my food,” she said, turning away to refill drinks and make small talk with the rest of the workers.
“The rock on her third finger could solve world hunger,” I said in explanation. Margaret said nothing. I looked at the magazine cover again. No, she didn’t look like anything that wasn’t water went near her mouth. Red meat was probably out of the question, even if it was Charles’ meaty dick. No chance of a blow job then, poor Charles. He loved those.
I tossed the magazine and shovelled my food into my mouth, catching rice grains in my hand and the clipboard which was resting on my lap. The double doors leading into the kitchen and out the back swung open and John came in, in a cloud of steam. He dumped whatever he was carrying in the huge basin, pecked his wife’s cheek and was out the door again. Margaret started wiping down the counter.
I rolled my eyes. “Married people. I’d give anything to not have wedding and marriages forced down my throat this week.”
“Single people, always complaining,” said Margaret. A smile curled around one side of her face and was gone before I could figure out whether or not I was seeing things.
“I’m so bored.”
“Only boring people are bored,” said Greg.
“And I’m so horny,” I whined. “All the time.”
“Stop telling me. That is one picture I don’t need in my head.”
“And I’m tired of this flipping wedding. God! It’s all anyone will talk about. I mean, enough already!” I paused. “When are you coming back?”
“I am not fucking you when I do, let me tell you now.”
“Please. I don’t have the right parts for you.”
“What are you talking about, you crazy woman? Why are you asking when I am back then?”
“I was just asking. Christmas is coming up. This Friday is the last day at work until the New Year. It is going to be awesome!” I burrowed deeper into my bed. “I can’t wait to start doing nothing all day.”
“Fat chance. Belinda’s wedding. You mum will have you running around.”
“Stop talking about the bleedin’ wedding! You’d think that’s all there was to life.”
“You should come here for a while. We’ll come down East together.”
“Are you crazy? I am not flying anywhere in the Christmas rush. Cancelled flights, road accidents, general mayhem…no thank you.”
“Yes, what you’re saying is really making me want to come back now.”
“But you said you’re coming for the wedding now. Greg, com’on. I am dying here. Do you know who I ran into on Sunday? The Terrible Trio.”
“Don’t they have like one hundred children between them?”
“I’ll see you on Saturday.”
I sat up. “Yes? Excellent! I can’t wait. God I need a break. Sarah Jane flew back to London already. She got food poisoning in Abuja and took her leave early so everything has just been on my head.”
“Poor you. All that responsibility. And money.”
“Shut up, Greg.”
“Make me, Abuotito.”
“Screw you for calling me that.”
“You really are horny aren’t you?”
I groaned. “You have no idea.”
“Anyway, make plans. I will not entertain you. I am the one coming back so you will entertain me.”
“Screw you, I don’t even live here!”
“Again with the screwing.”
“Oh, but there is this joint, the one I went to with that Merije guy. I loved it. Freaky fountain, but nice vibe and concept. We should go when you come back.”
“Yeah? Which joint is this?” Greg cleared his throat.
“Oh, it’s near the Expressway but not too near. The owner is a little bit of a hottie. We’re meeting after Christmas so that he can show me around his…”
“Too much information…”
“No, he’s just showing me around his joint, stupid.” I could hear the smile in Greg’s voice, even though he was saying nothing. “Is err…Eke coming too?” I asked.
“Of course he is.”
“Why? doesn’t he have family to go to? I bet he doesn’t. I bet even his own family can’t stand him.”
“He goes wherever I go. Why do you hate him so much? Be nice.”
“I don’t know. He seems…clingy.”
Greg laughed. “You know you really need to get laid. You’re turning into a little…” I could hear him mouthing something.
“Did you just call me a bitch?”
“I said ‘Witch’.”