Everything slowed down.
I could hear the laughter, see the smiles flashing. The stud in B’lin’s eyebrow twinkled as did her smile. Every eye was turned on her. The table roared at something she said; Uncle Vince leaning forward elbows on the table, Aunty Mabel tittering into a handkerchief for Wes’ benefit no doubt, even Greg’s laughter rumbled in his chest. I couldn’t feel my skin and my hands were cold.
“Hey,” Greg nudged me. “Are you alright?”
I nodded, giving him a smile. He frowned. “You’re going to have to do better than that,” he said. “What’s wrong?” He held my hand under the table. “Cold,” he said rubbing his fingers on mine.
“Nothing, nothing,” I said, squeezing his hand in reassurance. I took a sip of my water. It lodged in my throat and I started coughing.
“You alright?” asked Wes trapping me in the beam of his eyes, like I was a deer in headlights. My eyes started to water.
I nodded, still coughing. Greg clapped me on the back.
“Honey, I’m not sure what you’re working, but the way you have that lip gloss all over your face is dreck,” said Belinda. She raised the studded eyebrow at Greg. “Didn’t you tell her? It is just not workin’.”
I gasped, partly in horror at how I must have looked all this while and partly because I was still choking, which made me cough the more.
“Hey, be nice,” said Wes tugging on her ear. I felt something akin to love for B’lin for the first time in my life when Wes turned towards her releasing. The tightness eased from my chest and I went to help my mother bring in the rest of the dishes.
My mother had laid out a feast. At first my Aunty Mabel protested. “Ah, dear, we have just eaten. I don’t think we’ll have room for all this.” Her eyes flashed greedily from one dish to the next. My aunt sat at one end of the table occupying the hostess’s seat directly opposite my uncle at the head. I had frowned when she plopped herself in place, but my mother didn’t seem to notice.
“This all looks very good, nne,” said my uncle using his pet name for his younger sister. “You must have been slaving all day.”
“All day? Try all weekend!” I said, rubbing my mother across the back when she bent over. A sheen of moisture covered her face but I didn’t know if it was from nerves or the hot platters she was juggling. I set a platter of chicken down. The skin crackled from coming straight from the oven.
“What do you mean all weekend?” asked Aunty Mabel, looking up at me. I knew what she was thinking. She was so predictable to think my mother was serving her old food.
“I don’t know about you guys,” said Wes, “But I could eat.”
My knees went weak. Wes stripping. Wes gyrating. Wes latching on to my pussy. Wes’ hands in my hair. Images flew threw my brain leaving me short of breath. “I could eat.” He had said it then too. I had been thankful that he was wearing sunglasses when we met, until I realised that he could see me better than I could him which made the whole thankfulness stupid. Now my eyes could not meet his across the dining table which was very awkward since I was sitting opposite him.
I was convinced God was laughing at me. My mother had said ‘Otito you will sit here’ in the off-hand way she did. What was I supposed to say? No mummy, I can’t sit there. Wes is affecting me? I felt a flash of anger that she was being the perfect hostess, placing people where they should sit but she couldn’t move Aunty Mabel from her rightful place at the end of the table.
My mother came in bearing the wraps of moin-moin and set them down. “It’s a good thing this table is long,” she said as a conversations starter. “I am not sure how everything would have been able to fit.”
“You know dear, I always asked myself why you made this dining room so big and why your carpenter built this oversized table for just two of you…well, just you really, since Otito is away now,” said Aunty Mabel, helping herself to a drumstick. I eyed her and Greg caught the look.
“Let me serve you Aunty,” he said, reaching for the tongs.
“Thank you, dear,” she said automatically. It was as if she didn’t really see Greg. It was the same way people who had servants behaved; they expected things to just happen for them.
“Ah, Otito insisted on a big dining room. And the table,” my mum laughed nervously, “We are just two now but someday we will be more than two, now won’t we?”
Aunty Mabel laughed her school-girl laugh. “Yes, but you don’t think Otito is going to be living at home after she is married?” She did not wait for an answer, but continued. “My dear, you have to let them go.” She bit into her chicken, holding the drumstick between middle finger and thumb.
“Please help yourselves,” I said to cover up her bad manners. “Uncle what should I serve you first?” My uncle Vince pointed at the rice and I reached for the serving spoon. He raised his hand when it was enough. “Wes?” I asked. I was dangerously close to choking on the name again. It was like my body was attacking me.
“Errrr, it all looks good,” Wes said. I knew he was looking at me, but I busied myself transferring the rice platter to Greg. He passed me the meat, giving me a slight nod. He thought I was handling Belinda’s arrival better than expected and was congratulating me. If he only knew I had moved past that. “What do you recommend?” asked Wes forcing me to look at him. Looking in his eyes affected me strangely. It was like a hypnosis spiral lulling me into complacency. My jaw dropped open. Wes smiled and I jerked myself awake.
“Recommend? This is the best place to eat at in the whole of Nigeria. I recommend everything.” I unwrapped a moin-moin with shaking hands and holding it by the foil, dropped it on his plate. My mother smiled at the compliment, ducking her chin.
“Well load her up then,” said Wes. He pursed his lips and his eyelashes swept the length of the spoon and up my arm. “Did you cook any of this?” he asked out of nowhere. “Can you cook?”
“Ooh Wes, you don’t want to ask an African woman if she can cook unless you want to lose your head,” said Greg passing me the salad bowl. Wes was on my mother’s right and Uncle Vince to her left. She passed the salad cream from one to the other. “And when I say African, I mean Igbo.”
“Yeah? Why’s that?” Wes picked up a lettuce leaf from his plate and crunched it still looking at me. I glanced around to see if anyone noticed. My upper lip and armpits were burning up.
“Because all Igbo women can cook from when they are born and any insinuations otherwise…well, it’s your funeral my friend, let me tell you,” said Greg sitting down. Somehow without being aware of it, we had served everyone. Belinda had two slivers of moin-moin and some salad, no dressing. I couldn’t even remember doing that.
“You asked me why I built this big table,” my mother piped up. All heads turned towards her. She had a look on her face as if she had been thinking a long time about what she was going to say. “It’s not that I thought Belinda would always live with me after she was married…it’s that I thought she would not really go far after.” She smiled as if she had a secret.
“What?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“Well, I thought you two would end up together,” she pointed at me and Greg with her water glass. Wes started chuckling. Uncle Vince’s face split almost in two. Belinda clapped and hooted.
“Not bloody likely,” I said.
“God, their children would be so fat,” said Belinda. “I do not recommend that.”
Aunty Mabel tucked into her food saying nothing.
“What do you mean ‘Not bloody likely’? You would be lucky to have me,” said Greg.
“Please, I am not your type,” I said.
“Who said anything about type? You would be lucky to have me and you know it,” Greg insisted.
“But you see how they both move now? It’s like they are listening to music only them two can hear. Otito passes this, Greg passes that and we all have food. It’s how they always were since they were growing up.”
“It’s lucky we still have any food left. The old them would have eaten it all,” said Belinda.
“Baby, be nice,” said Wes tugging on Belinda’s earlobe again. It was the ear with the most holes going all the way up the outer rim, crowned with a spike and chain creation. “I was a bit of a chubster as a kid. I mean, you’ve met my Nonna. You know what she’s like.” Belinda made a face. “What is that?” asked Wes tweaking her nose.
Belinda flicked her fringe with a fingernail. “She kept saying I was skinny. I kept telling her I was an actress but she wouldn’t listen. I gained like five pounds in one weekend.” She pinched his chin. “If you get fat I am dumping you.”
“Yes, ma’m,” said Wes allowing her to pull his head down for a kiss. Uncle Vince cleared his throat and we all laughed. “Sorry. I can’t help myself,” said Wes. “Well, you’ve seen her.” He gestured towards Belinda.
“I am pretty irresistible daddy,” said Belinda all sweetness and light.
“I think irresistible should wait until you are both married,” said Uncle Vince in his gruff voice again. His eyes danced with mirth. “Or somebody will find a horse’s head in their bed tomorrow.” Wes raised his hands in surrender.
“What’s a ‘Nonna’?” I asked.
“It’s ‘Grandmother’ in Italian,” said Wes.
I nodded. Italian ancestry. My heart started to pound in my ears. I had seen his Italian ancestry. “Impressive,” I said aloud.
“Impressive?” asked Greg. “How do you mean?”
“I mean, having an Italian…Italian heritage,” I cleared my throat. “Let’s pray!” I said suddenly, earning me dirty looks from Aunty Mabel. “We haven’t prayed yet.”
“Otito lead us in prayer then,” said my mother. Aunty Mabel wiped the tips of her fingers on her napkin and waited.
“Oh Lord,” I began. “Thank you for this food we are about to eat…and have started eating. We thank you for Belinda and her…and Wes and for leading them back, guiding their planes and removing all obstacles…and…” I was getting flustered. “Amen.”
“Amen,” they chorused.
“God, I thought you were about to keep us here for hours,” said Belinda rolling her eyes.
“B is for Buzzkill,” I replied.
“A is for armpit,” she replied.
“S is for shut up so we can all eat,” said Greg shovelling rice into his mouth.
“I don’t know,” said Wes pronouncing every word in his drawl. “I thought she did pretty good to me.” He took a bite of his moin-moin, leaving me to wonder when he meant.
Afterwards they moved to the living room while I sorted out the dirty dishes ready for washing.
“I hope you’re not doing those now?” asked my mother, balancing a tray of chin-chin and plates of groundnuts. “It would be rude to disappear. Do them after everyone has gone.”
“What can I help with?” asked Greg coming into the kitchen.
“Please could you get the drinks out of the freezer?”
“Yes, go Aunty, I’ll bring them,” said Greg. My mother stroked his cheek and smiled at him before leaving.
I retreated into my thoughts as I cleaned out the plates and stacked them. I put all the glasses into a basin and moved them out of the way.
“So,” Greg began.
“So,” I repeated. My voice sounded dreamy. I knew Greg wanted to talk. He was as hawk-eyed as ever – and he knew me too well – but I didn’t feel like talking. I hadn’t figured out what I felt yet. Was I mortified? Guilty? I sighed. Sometimes having someone know you was not such a good thing.
“What is going on with you?”
“Are you sure?” I looked at him. His forehead furrowed and the drinks were sweating all over the tray he was carrying them in. “Because you’ve been acting strangely since this afternoon. Look, if it’s about us dancing…” he looked uncomfortable. It was the look more than anything that snapped me wholly back to the present.
“What? No! Greg, what are you…? No, nothing. Not us dancing.” He looked relieved.
“Okay, so what is it then? And don’t tell me nothing. Something is up with you.”
“Can I tell you later? I don’t know if there is anything to tell yet.”
“You don’t know if there is anything to tell yet,” he said in what must have been the tones I used. If so, I sounded dead.
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay. Cool. Well, I am here if you want to talk.”
I rinsed my hands and wiped them on my dress without thinking, picking up the tray bearing the cupcakes.
“Puff?” Wes was asking when I got to the living room. He sat on the sofa with Belinda. My aunty Mabel and my mother were on the other, opposite them. “It’s good. What’s in it?” He had his mouth full of the pastry.
“It’s like a doughnut without the hole,” said Belinda. “Deadly things. The calories are astronomical.”
“Mmmm,” said Wes smacking his lips.
“Here, try this,” I said passing him the bowl of sugar. He looked at me inquisitively. “You dip it in.”
“Oh, don’t do that,” said Belinda. “That’s gross. Think of all those empty calories.” She looked hard at him. “Think of your suit. Think of all your clothes,” she looked around the living room.
“You only live once right?” asked Wes, dipping his puff into the bowl of sugar. He looked at me as he said it and I wondered yet again if he was referring to then or now. Everything seemed laden with extra meaning.
“Besides, aren’t you wearing traditional clothes?” asked Greg. He took a puff ball and bit into it.
“Oh yeah. They are forgiving. Maybe I’ll grow a tummy,” said Wes patting his flat stomach. “That way I can look authentic when I wear the clothes.”
“You do that and they’ll be no wedding.” Wes’ answer was to grin at her.
“So Wes, what is it that you do?” asked my mother.
“Here we go,” I said attempting my first joke of the day. “Also what is your blood group, genotype, Social security number, Mother’s maiden name…”
“Is this a Nigerian scam?” Wes asked.
We all ‘Oohed’ at him. Uncle Vince tsked, leaning back in the good armchair opposite the TV and picking his teeth.
“You can’t make that joke!” I protested.
“I can too. I am almost Nigerian,” said Wes.
“Almost doesn’t count,” I said. “Besides, our government doesn’t grant citizenship unless your father or grandfather is Nigerian.”
“Is that right?” said Wes, eyes twinkling.
“That’s right,” I was loosening up. “So you will never be able to make that joke.”
“Dude, back me up here,” said Wes to Greg.
“Don’t look at me. I stole your credit card three hours ago,” said Greg. Belinda doubled over.
“Greg! That is terrible!”
“He’s an architect,” said Aunty Mabel. “A very successful one.”
“I do alright,” said Wes.
“So modest,” said Belinda putting a hand through his arm.
It was a late lunch- more an early dinner for us – and now darkness was falling. I excused myself to light the two lamps we kept in the hallway of the house in case the power went off as it was wont to do. I was just trimming the wick of the second one when I felt someone behind me.
“Hi,” I said without turning around. My heart was no longer pounding. It was as if I had wasted all my energies panicking and now that it he was behind me I had no more energy to expend.
“Hi,” he said. I swallowed and turned around. “I know your name now,” Wes said.
He nodded. His smile split his face. “Who’da thunk it?” He ran a hand through his hair, messing it up.
“Are you going to say anything?” he asked.
“You know all night, I have been hearing you say two things. Is that a double entendre? Did you mean…say anything now or about…?”
“I meant now.” He swallowed. “I can’t tell you to say or not to say anything. Look,” I think you are…were great. But I would never have thought…I mean, if I knew you were…” He exhaled and started laughing, shaking his head as if to clear it. “It was my bachelor’s week. God. What are the chances? I travelled six hours by plane to London…”
“…It was a one-night thing anyway. It wasn’t meant to be a big deal.”
Wes laughed. “Half the world across and here you are,” his shoulders shook. “You’ve got to laugh.”
In spite of myself I joined him, feeling the awkwardness bleeding out of the situation. “God. That’s a story to never tell the grandchildren.”
“Can you imagine?”
I shook my head. “Hell no.”
“Anyway.” Wes walked towards me. “It is nice to meet you.”
“I think we’re way past that, Wes.”
“Can you show me the way to the bathroom?”
“Sure, it down the hallway to your right.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“Sure, no problem.”
“No,” Wes said, looking at me. “Thank you.”
I nodded. This time I was sure of what he meant.