“What is it about Christmas that makes everyone so crazy?” I asked watching the tippers dumping more sand on the floor. The driver released his load too quickly blowing a cloud of dust over everything. It was as if everyone was on fast forward on site and yet things were also not getting done quickly enough. There were delays everywhere.
I could feel the patch of skin on my forehead hurting and I knew another pimple was going to break through. Just what I needed when Belinda was coming back at the weekend. I went through all the jokes in my mind ‘One-eyed monster’, ‘Cyclops’, ‘Pizza face’ and depending on the position ‘Sunita’ if like a bindi it appeared right in the middle – it didn’t hurt to be prepared. I smiled to myself. Greg was coming home too.
Margaret said nothing. She was writing in a notebook; counting off the empty bottles of drinks and water against the full ones and scribbling quantities. The lunchtime rush had tapered off, leaving the restaurant deserted, except for the drilling and sawing noises and the sounds of male banter coming from the kitchen. “Someone is happy,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Why are you so miserable today?” asked Margaret. She stopped writing, pen poised over her notebook and looked me full in the face.
“Today?” I asked. “Don’t you mean, this week?” Margaret said nothing. She didn’t move. “Stop doing that. It really freaks me out.”
“What am I doing?”
“That robot thing you do where you don’t move.” Margaret kept looking at me. “Fine, it’s because I hate Christmas, alright?”
“Alright,” she said, going back to her scribbling.
In the silence, I watched dust motes swirl in the shaft of light coming through the window. Margaret put down her pen and started assembling one of her blenders. “Christmas was always a hard time for my mother and I,” I said when she didn’t continue. I knew this was her way of asking without seeming to pry.
“You’d think it would be the best time of year with all the ‘Peace and Goodwill towards men’ but I found it to be extremely painful. People always landed at our doorstep with bags of rice and beans and tubers of yam…ugh. It was as if they had to fulfil their charity quota for the year with us.” Margaret was like an alchemist; I watched her toss some alcohol in there followed by something milky from a carton. She was still watching me as she did so. She did not spill a drop.
“Do you find charity to be bad?” she asked.
“Not bad, no.” I exhaled, struggling with the words in my head. “It was as if, the only time people cared about my mother and I was during Christmas – or rather it was the only time they remembered that they were supposed to seem caring. Most of the people dumping the gifts were the same people who didn’t want me at their children’s parties in case my mother showed up. You know how married women fear single ones, especially those with children. She might as well have written ‘Husband snatcher’ on her forehead in permanent marker.”
Margaret nodded and tipped some more liquid – this one yellow – into the blender. The smell of pineapples wafted over.
“The only parties I was invited to were my friend Greg’s and he was like my brother so…ha! I remember that for a while, the usual friends who attended Greg’s party stopped coming if I was going to be there. He didn’t care though. We would but on the party music and jump on the bed higher and higher till we could touch the ceiling. We broke it when we were around 10 or 11.” I shook my head, feeling the laughter settle around my shoulders. “God, we were heavy!” I sobered. “Well, I still am. Greg on the other hand…”
“You should probably look in the mirror.”
“You’re not heavy.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Feeling heavy is not the same thing as being heavy.” She turned on the blender, disappearing in the whirr of noise. Soon she was pouring the light, creamy liquid into two tall glasses and garnishing with slices of pineapple. “Haven’t you noticed your body yet?”
“I know I have lost some weight but it doesn’t mean I am not heavy.”
“You weren’t even fat when you got here,” said Margaret. This was the most I had ever heard her say since she started working with us. I shrugged. Margaret was doing the staring thing again. I fiddled with my clipboard.
“Here,” she said, sliding me a glass. “I find Pina Colada to be a happy drink.” She waited for me to take a sip and I did, feeling my eyes close of its own accord.
“This is divine.” It tasted of sunshine.
“Good. And that is what Christmas tastes like – from now on. No more bitterness.”
I took another sip, feeling the cool liquid slide down my throat, sweeping away the dust I had inhaled. Over the weeks I had come to see why people talked to Margaret; it had nothing to do with being a caterer and everything to do with the fact that she just listened. She never interrupted and she never pried. Okay, maybe it had a little to do with being a caterer. You’re more likely to talk with a full belly than not.
“Thanks Margaret,” I said.
“What for?” She grabbed the other glass, gave me one of her non-smiles and left. I was sure she was going to find John.
“Ah-ahn? What is going on?” asked Eugene. I looked up from the plans to see a Jeep careening on the road, raising Hamarttan-fine dust until the air was a light shade of rust.
“Who’s that?” I asked, shading my eyes. The Jeep made a wide turn and gunned it straight into the compound. Another right and it screeched to a halt.
“Na woman o,” said Eugene. It was as if the whole site slowed down. We stood there watching the head bobbing in time to Wizkid’s ‘Don’t Dull’ which we could hear clearly even though the windows were wound up. We could barely see her shoulders.
“How e no go be woman? Dem sabi dri…” I gave the worker who had spoken a look and he coughed. “Aunty, you no be dat kain woman na,” he backtracked. It was meant as a compliment but it only made things worse. It was as if I was another grubby man in work gear, a thought which crystallised when the car door opened and a pair of very yellow legs slid out, encased in four inch heels with a platform sole. The bass thumped, shaking everything including the grounds.
“Get back to work,” I said to Eugene, sensing his mouth dropping open. It was as if were standing in a graveyard. I heard muffled voices to my left and saw that the men working indoors were crowing the windows, no doubt drawn by the lack of activity outside. The legs touched down on the ground, culminating in a pair of yellow Ankara-print shorts and a white flared, shirt. She was small; no more than 5’3 or 5’4 more than half of which were her legs.
“Go back to work!” shouted Eugene to them men behind him who were still staring. Nobody moved. The girl shut her car door, carrying a cardboard box which she gripped close to her body with one arm and walking in her wooden heels as if on a catwalk. I found myself thanking God the ground was even. She looked like a workplace safety nightmare waiting to happen. The girl smiled behind her sunglasses. I heard a sound escape Eugene’s mouth.
“That includes you, Eugene,” I said.
“Yes, sorry o.” Eugene turned towards his men. “Wetin una dey look? Una never see woman before?” he bellowed.
“Eugene, you sef you neva marry?” someone retorted. There was laughter. The noise started up again.
“Hi,” said the girl when she got to me, taking off her sunglasses. “I’m Sarah? Sarah Amuah of CopperColoured Designs?”
“Of course! The brochures company. Hi, Sarah. I’m Abby.” We shook hands.
“Yes, Abby. I remember your name from the emails. You’re in charge.”
“Yes, but Sarah-Jane gets the last word on designs,” I said. Sarah Amuah craned her neck, looking around me. “Sarah-Jane is not here right now. I take it you didn’t get my last email then.”
“Oh.” She said, stepping back. “I had a meeting with the both of you today. What email?”
“I sent an email last week. Sarah-Jane had to fly back to London and I sent an email rescheduling. I didn’t think you would want to make it all this way only for SJ to change her mind. That way we can all have a say and you can finalise the designs.”
Sarah-Amuah was frowning. “I don’t recall getting the email. Oh well. I am here now.” She set the box down on a nearby table. “I wonder if you mind showing me around. That is if you are not too busy? All I’ve had access to have been the 3D designs from the architectural and landscaping teams.”
“Sure, if you just give me five minutes to finish up here. Or better still, Mike can take you,” I raised my voice spotting Mike and his team coming in from the bush. He looked red and sweaty and there were leaves stuck to his hair but the minute he saw Sarah he perked up, marching towards us as if he had just found water. I made the introductions.
“Hi,” said Mike. His palm swallowed up all of Sarah’s.
“If you need anything else, please come and find me, but you’re in good hands,” I said to Sarah. “Mike is the Activities Coordinator.”
“I would have shown you around the trials but you’re not…really dressed for it,” said Mike staring at her legs.
“Lead the way. I would love to see them,” said Sarah. Mike started pointedly at her heels. “I never take my heels off,” she said.
“I can carry you over the difficult bits if it comes to it,” he said. He sounded as if he was joking and even though I couldn’t see his eyes behind his extra-dark sunglasses, I could tell he wasn’t.
“You just mind yourself, mister. I can handle me,” said Sarah, playfully swatting Mike. He reeled.
“Whoa. You’re strong,” he said, following her back in the direction he had come. “You know, if you can manage the trek, in those heels, I might have to make it a tougher.”
I could feel the eyes of every man on her pert derrière as she walked off. I rubbed mine, absently, wishing it was smaller.
“We should all go out tonight,” said Sarah Amuah. She was back again. Today she was wearing clashing Ankara prints in a wraparound blouse/skirt combo, which shouldn’t have worked but did. Her heels were patent nudes. “Easy wipe,” she said in explanation.
I was starting to like her. She looked like a fashionable doll – even her portfolio bag was embossed with LVs – but looking through one of the brochures yesterday had shown me why she was hired. Her attention to detail and creative flair were simply amazing. She didn’t come cheaply either. I wanted to live inside her head. And how could you not like someone who wore heels everywhere? She even ran in them on challenging terrain – if Mike was to be believed which he wasn’t. He was smitten.
There was an air of restless calm hanging over everything. The workers moved like bees that had been exposed to smoke. I couldn’t tell if it was Sarah Amuah induced or whether it had to do with today being the last day of work before Christmas. Or both. Maybe it was a mistake having the drinks arrive in the middle of the work day. I could feel the guys looking towards it at every opportunity. Suddenly Margaret’s tent was no longer good enough; they wanted water from the cooling van and a chance to glance at the chilling drinks no doubt. The generator powering up the van wasn’t helping my nerves.
“Who is ‘All’?” I asked warily.
“Anyone who wants to come along,” she said. “Don’t look so scared. I promise I’m fun.”
“That’s what I am scared of,” I said. She laughed a high-pitched sound and punched me in the arm. I almost fell down. “How are you this strong?” I asked, rubbing my arm.
She flexed her biceps, adopting a muscle-builder’s pose. I caught Mike looking at her from where he was trying some knots on a length of rope.
“You probably shouldn’t do that again. Mike looks ready to swoon.”
“Ey-yah,” she said like a Nigerian. There was something about the way she said it that caused me to look at her. “Too bad he is the wrong gender.”
“Oh,” I said. Sarah Amuah took a look at me and started laughing again.
“Yes, so now you can see why I want you to come too. It will mean that things will not get awkward between him and me.”
“And here I was thinking you wanted me for my sparkling personality.” I looked at Mike again. He was knotting the rope, and it looked like he was focused solely on it, but the way he stood…like he was showing off himself. I shook my head. This could get messy. “Have you told him?”
“Yup. But I think men don’t listen to me because I am so small. It’s my curse. He probably wants to take care of me for the rest of his life now. Ugh.”
“Yes, that is such a pain,” I said sarcastically. I couldn’t help smiling.
“You think it’s funny. Do you know how many people just try to carry me for no reason?” She started making faces.
“Fine, I’ll come. No more sob stories.”
I looked at my watch and gave Eugene the signal. He blew his whistle and the site erupted in cheers. Hardhats were flying in all directions. I stepped back, instinctively putting a hand out in front of Sarah. When I looked at her, she was scowling.
“Yeah, I see how that can happen,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Now, you owe me. You are going to party with me until I say you can go. You’re not my employer till after Christmas,” she said when I tried to speak. “And while we’re there, you can tell me everything about Sarah-Jane.”
“Huh,” I said, as the corners of her mouth curled upwards.
Sarah Amuah shrugged. “Redheads. I can’t help myself.”