Greg was running late. Again. I patted my tummy and grimaced as it bounced back, full of water. My waiter caught my eye and started walking towards me, smiling. I shook my head and he turned around. I sat up straight and nodded at other diners, some of who seemed to have their heads tilted an angle as they watched me. I raised my hand.
“Yes, madam. Are you ready to order?” asked the waiter standing to attention, pen poised over pad. His smile looked as if it would crack his face at any moment.
“I’d like to sit at the bar for a moment. My friend and I will order when he arrives.” I let the waiter pull my seat back.
“Yes, madam.” He waited till for me to pick up my phone and walked me to the bar. “Would you prefer a seat in the corner?” he asked. I was already walking past him to the spot he indicated. “Let me take this way,” he moved a half-drunk glass of beer from the table and exited. A waitress took his place by my right. He name tag read ‘Uti’, its colour marking her out as bar staff.
“You took my seat.” A man’s head loomed above me.
“Sir, we had no idea you were still around…” began the Uti.
“Where is my beer?” he continued, eyeing me. “Did you drink my beer?”
“No,” I said.
“I will get you another one on the house sir, if you follow me, I will seat you in another section,” Uti made ushering motions with her hands, stepping forward. The man stood still.
“You’re glaring at me,” I said.
“I am what?”
“Glaring. Giving me evils.”
“Are you not going to get up?”
“I would have, if you didn’t accuse me of drinking your beer.”
“I know what you Abuja girls are like. Look, why don’t you move to another table. I am a respectably married man. My wife satisfies all my needs. I don’t have need for prostitutes.”
“Excuse me, sir, please lower your voice. There is no need for you to harass…” Uti began. I raised a hand.
“What makes you assume I am a prostitute?” I asked. I could feel the veins in my neck throbbing.
“Where is your husband? You have already reached the age of marriage. You should have children keeping you busy, instead of coming to harass innocent men in bars.”
“Am I spending your money?” I put on my best British accent. “This is why I hate coming back to this bloody backward country. I took this seat because it is what I was offered. If you had been polite, I might have been tempted to move. I won’t now. Push off, mate.”
“You think speaking ‘fri fri fri’ in your fake accent is going to make me change my mind?”
“Is there a problem, madam?” asked the bartender, coming round.
“Nothing I can’t handle, thank you. James.” I added looking at his nametag. James crossed his arms, biceps bulging. “Please go back to your station, James. There is no problem.”
Uti wrung her hands. I nodded at her and she disappeared to get my order. James returned with a glass of red wine and set it down in front of me, only stopping his fussing with the coaster when I eyed him. He went behind the bar.
The man sat down opposite me. “I don’t believe I asked you to sit down,” I told him.
“I don’t believe I want your permission,” his nostrils flared as I took a sip of my wine.
“You should have taken that beer, you know. I’ll remind them,” I gestured to James who nodded.
“You must really pay them well-well if they are willing to fight for you like this. How much do you make?” asked the man.
“Is your mother alive?”
“Your mother, is she still alive?”
“What about your father? I’m just trying to understand why your manners are so poor.”
“You are definitely unmarried. You don’t know how to talk to men. Ask your mother to teach you and maybe you will find someone instead of hanging around in bars.”
“If you’re an example of what’s out there, I’d rather remain single till I die.” I picked up my wineglass. “Enjoy the beer and your table,” I said, moving to the other side of the room. I tapped out my message to Greg. ‘Where are you? I’m surrounded by idiots.’
I was washing my face when I heard the tap on the door. I turned off the tap and listened, hearing only the hum of the air conditioner and the sounds of the TV. As soon as I started scrubbing again, it came again. I rinsed my face, dabbing at it with a face towel. Eke’s face confronted me through the peephole.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Eke stopped scribbling on the piece of paper he had placed on the flat of his hand and straightened up. “Good evening. I thought reception was wrong about you being in your room so I was leaving you a note. Can I come in?”
I opened the door wider and stood back. “I have a message from Greg,” he started.
“What does Greg need to say that he could not say himself?” I walked over to the bedside table and picked up my phone. “I have a phone and yet, look no messages.”
“He had a prospect to look into. It could be really big for him. I am merely being supportive.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What’s the message? I’m tired and I would like to get some sleep before I have to fly east tomorrow.”
“Would you like me to drive you to the airport tomorrow? I don’t mind, I’m not doing anything particularly interesting.” Eke looked around my room.
I sat down by the dressing table, twisted the lid of my favourite pot of Vitamin E night cream and slathered it all over my face and neck. “I wouldn’t worry about that. The hotel is sending me in their taxi – as they should. Is that all you came to tell me?” I peered at him in the mirror. His eyes met mine without blinking.
“You don’t like me,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said.
“I am a good person. I give Greg what he requires.”
“What you are is your business.” I stood up and tied the robe more firmly round my waist.
“I can take a hint. Good night, Abby,” said Eke. He held out his hand. “And safe journey tomorrow.”
“Good night, Eke. You know,” I stopped, scratching my chin. “I am still not sure what you came here for.”
“Oh, I almost forgot.” Eke fished in his pocket and pulled out something. “He said you would know what it meant.” Eke placed the object in my hand. I started laughing.
It was a pebble.
“Stand back, Belinda,” said Greg. “You don’t want the cashew-seed’s water to touch you. It will burn your skin.”
“But I want to see what you’re doing,” said Belinda. She screamed when a gust of wind blew a tongue of naked flame towards her legs.
“Greg…” I said.
“Sorry,” Greg spat on the rogue flame and it sputtered. He smiled at me.
“Greg, that’s disgusting,” Belinda said. “I’m not going to eat it now. Besides,” she drew near the three rocks on which the cashew seeds roasted. “That is not how cashew nuts look. This is now black.”
“You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want. Me and Greg can…”
“Of course you and Greg can. Look at the size of both of you. You can eat a whole cashew tree, gobble, gobble.”
“No we can’t, Belinda!”
“Yes you can Abuotito!” Belinda clapped her hands to her mouth and started giggling. “Abu otito, Otito abu, armpit boils…”
“That’s not my name!”
“Yes it is!”
“No it’s not!”
“Is, is, is, is, is!”
“Is not, not, not, not to the power of infinity!”
“Greg, what’s her name?”
“Abu otito?” Greg asked looking up.
“What does it mean?”
“Songs of Praise.”
The beads in Belinda’s braids clacked as she drew nearer to Greg, touching him as he squatted poking at the cashew seeds with a stick. “No, that’s not her name. Abu is ‘armpit’ and ‘Otito’ is ‘boil’. Right?”
“Yes, but you’re not saying it properly. You’re saying the other ones,” said Greg, poking at the seeds with a twig. A cashew seed rolled too close to the open fire in centre and started to crackle and spit. Greg fished it out with the twig and rolled it onto the sand.
“Right,” said Belinda fluttering her eyelashes at Greg.
I felt the pain in my throat. “I hate you Belinda. You are a….monster!”
Belinda’s mouth hung open for what seemed like a minute and then she started to scream.
I knew when the door opened. The smell of paper-smoke filled the room. I buried my face in my pillow. “Go away, Greg. Mummy will cane you too.”
“She knows I am here. She said I can come for two minutes.” He touched my head, feeling for my face. “Are you crying?”
“You’re crying. Don’t cry.”
“I’m not crying.” I sniffed. “Where is she?”
“She’s eating dinner with your mummy.” Greg’s tummy rumbled. “Sorry.”
“You can go and eat with them you know. You don’t have to sit here with me. I know you want to.”
“I can’t eat if you’re sad.”
We sat in silence. “I hate her,” I said eventually.
“She doesn’t matter you know. You have to know. You have to stop letting her make you cry.”
“She didn’t make me cry!” I sat up. “Mummy flogged me. She says I shouldn’t say I hate Belinda because she is my cousin, but I do. I hate her. When I am big, I will leave everybody and just run away.”
Greg’s throat made a noise. “Even me?”
“Will you leave me too?”
“No, Greg. You’re my best friend. I won’t leave you.”
“Ok.” Greg put his hand in mine. “I brought you your own share of the cashew nuts.” There was the rustle of paper. “Here.” He took my hand and placed it in the nuts.
“Did you have any?” I asked, feeling the two nuts.
“I always have them. I brought these for you.”
“I know Belinda ate most of them.” I picked up one of the nuts and threw it in my mouth.
“It’s bitter isn’t it?” asked Greg. “I think it burnt too much.”
“I like it. It’s better than those supermarket ones your mummy buys.”
“Mmhmm. Thank you Greg. They can have their…what are they eating?”
“Spaghetti,” said Greg.
“My mum only makes spaghetti when Belinda is around. Does she think I don’t like spaghetti? I know she wishes Belinda was her daughter instead of me, because I am fat and not little like Belinda.”
“You’re not fat, Otito.”
“Yes I am. Well, they can have their stupid spaghetti. I will eat my cashew nuts.” I put the second one in my mouth and started coughing.
“It is bitter,” Greg said. “This is why my dad konks my head. He said I don’t know how to do anything.”
“Thanks, Otito. I can’t make any more now.” I felt Greg shrug in the darkness. “Let me go, I don’t want your mummy to shout.”
“Ok,” I yawned. I crumpled the paper and felt an object. “Is there more?” I unwrapped it again. “What’s this? It’s not cashew.”
“It’s a stone.”
“Why did you bring the stone now?”
“Because David killed Goliath with a stone.” Greg shrugged again. “Remember?”
“So,” I smiled. “I should kill Belinda with it?” I yawned again.
“No,” said Greg. “I didn’t tell you that one o, before you get me in trouble.”
“I know, I was just joking, Greg.” My mattress sprang back to its original position. “Bye, Greg.”
“Bye, Otito.” I closed my palm over the pebble and turned over.
Eke stood by the door waiting for me to say something.
“Tell Greg I said, ‘Message received’.”
Eke nodded, a smile curling his lips. “Of course, whenever I see him.”
I turned the pebble around in my hand, caressing the faint gold lines running through the pale pink stone. I opened my jewellery box and placed it beside the brown one lying under the piles of necklaces and shut the lid.