From the road, I saw smoke darkening the afternoon sky. My heart dissolved into my chest, liquefied by apprehension. A ringing filled my ears. Staring at the smoke, I forgot to work my hands and my car drifted, nearly ending up in one of the wide gutters we had dug along the earth road leading to the hotel site. Out of habit, I caught myself thinking of the dates for its completion. The rocks and unbroken boulders heaped on both sides of the road were testament to just how unfinished this project – my baby – was.
And now this, I thought to myself. As I rounded the corner that would take me into past the newly constructed gate, I felt my heart working again, hammering away somewhere in my ears.
“Oh God. Oh, Jesus,” I parked the car just inside the gate, blocking Orji who is behind me and legged it, making for the crowd of workers, security personal and what passed for our fire service in these parts. The fire was still burning in the kitchen and a draft of villagers carrying buckets of sand, rushed past to throw it on the flames. There was water and sand everywhere and the smell of burning rubber from the wires hung on our skin and hair and coated our gullets. My feet crunched on shards of glass from when the windows must have blown out from the heat or broken intentionally. I couldn’t tell which.
Mike rushed towards me, his arms and legs streaked with ash. “Didn’t you go away for Christmas?” was all I could think to ask him. When he held me tightly in his arms, I realised I was shaking. Eugene the foreman had his hardhat on his knee. He looked as if he had been crying. The sight jolted me out of Mike’s embrace.
“You feeling better hmm?” he asked, all brotherly.
I nodded. “I have some calls to make. Excuse me.” I walked towards the fire-fighters in their tattered uniforms and the village boys flinging earth.
“Well done,” I said to the them.I eyed the state’s firemen.
“Aunty na water. Water no dey,” said one of them, returning my gaze with a brazen on of his own.
I heard the shifting of gravel as Mike followed behind. “The borehole was going to start working this week. We could have had water through all the pumps and the sprinkler system…” Mike said nothing. “Who would do this? Why?”
“I think you need to speak to him,” he said pointing. Under a tree sat a man who from my distance looked as old as Methuselah. He was a brown, wizened dot in a cloud of white hair and beard and when I approached, two young boys flanking him, put their hands under his armpits to pull him to his feet.
“My daughter,” he said by way of greeting.
“Papa, please sit. You don’t need to stand for me,” I said.
“You sound young,” he said at the moment I realised that his eyes were also as white as his beard and that he could not possibly see through them. “Maybe you will understand young people and their foolishness. I am not very well now, but I told my great-grandsons to bring me here so that you will hear what I have to say in person,” his voice had the eerie quality of someone speaking through a straw. He cleared his throat. “It is only a fool that asks for oil to drink when presented with cool water from the stream. These boys….” He cleared his throat again. One of the boys held a bottle to his lips and he sipped.
I stamped my feet to chase away the flies attracted by the old man’s staleness.
“These boys who did this bad thing, they are young. They have no sense. We are all Amagu people and they are our sons, but we do not support them. They are threatened, afraid to smell all day what their neighbour is cooking without being invited to the feast. They do not understand the good you have done to bring this hotel here. I cannot see it but my children tell me it is something. If only I had my eyes. I used to be a hunter you know….life, it plays so many cruel tricks….” The old man lapsed into silence.
“Papa, thank you for…”
“Please forgive them. Do not give them to the police like the other ones. We are already a poor community…we need all these hands…”
I did not reply. If there was work to be done, then surely their boys would not be idle enough to vandalise my project, I thought.
“Nobody wants to farm. All they want is money, money, money….” The old man rubbed his rheumy eyes.
“Papa, I must go. I have heard you.” As I made way to the heart of the crowd, I felt eyes searching my face; fearful eyes afraid for their income, hopeful eyes, waiting for me to direct them, even angry eyes convinced the project was no place for a woman and I had somehow doomed it to fail. I knew those ones; the ones that listened to Eugene and Orji and even Mike more than they did me. At least they tried before I shut it down, and now they had proof to fan the flames of their bigotry.
I could only think in fire terms. The mind was a funny thing.
As I went back to my car to place calls, I could feel the hundreds of pairs of eyes on my back. Never before had the enormity of what I had control over dawned on me as it did at that moment. The call went through on the special line. It was picked up immediately.
“Hi, this is Abby, 1358528 calling from Project Alpha, Mike, Alpha. I would like to report an incident. My written report will follow this phone call.”
I smelled of soot and sand and stagnant water and depression. And the last person I wanted to see was Belinda – or rather Belinda’s car – as I pulled in front of my mother’s house.
“What are you doing here?”
“Hello to you too,” she said. “Can’t I swing by to see how my darling aunty is doing?” She looked me up and down. “God what happened to you, were you run over a bus or something?” She gestured to my scarf-belt, holding my dress close at the waist. Somehow on the journey home, the dress had gaped.I hoped it was during the journey home and not in the middle of all the people on site. The skin on my belly showed.
I hadn’t even remembered Wes all day but now I wondered what he was doing. Was he still in the hotel? I needed to find out if he was alright and tell him about the fire.
“There was a fire,” I said quickly to my mother before Belinda could berate my on my appearance. I wasn’t in the mood for her nonsense.
“Oh God,” my mother sprang up from her seat. “Is everyone alright?”
“That’s really no excuse to look like a mad woman though,” said Belinda, she looked at me, one eyebrow raised, her eyes narrowing into slits. “Wes looked okay and he certainly didn’t say anything about a fire.”
“He left before it started,” I said.
My mother rubbed my face. “Are you alright? Was anyone hurt?”
“No, mum,” a lump caught in my throat. I felt like someone had burned my baby alive but I couldn’t put it that way, what with Belinda sneering at my every word. I cleared my throat and stepped away from her touch. “They are sending someone over on the twenty-ninth from Head Quarters.”
A car screeched to a halt outside and footfalls sounded on the ground. Greg burst in.
“Thank God you’re okay,” He hugged me tightly. “I heard,” he said releasing me. “How bad is it?”
“It’s bad Greg. The new kitchen and three of the chalets have been burned almost to the ground. And another chalet has a badly charred roof. The police think they used petrol bombs.”
“Where do they learn such things?” Greg hugged me again. “I am so sorry, but I’m here if you need anything.”
“Thanks Greg,” I smiled a watered down smile at him.
“Well, I just hope all of this doesn’t have any sort of effect on my wedding. Not that I need you, Otito,” She waved a hand airily, “But you’ve got Wes semi-invested now, as a hobby. I can’t have him worried or my poor aunty running around after you like a headless…”
“You know, Belinda,” said Greg. “The whole world doesn’t revolve around you.” Giving her a hard look he dragged me upstairs. “Come. It’s bath time.”
When Greg clattered up the stairs for the second time with my mother’s ancient kettle, I was still sitting on the toilet lid.
“Otito, you need to bathe before the water gets too cold,” he said filling the bucket. His biceps bunched as he tipped the water out. He tested it with his hand, scooped a few bowlful of cold water and added it to the bucket. He tested it again and nodded.
“I’ll wait downstairs,” he said. As he turned to go, I gripped his hand.
“Yes?” Greg immediately squatted down to be on a level with me.
“I did it. I slept with him,” I said. There was silence. When I dared look up at him, he had no expression on his face. “Don’t hate me,” I said. “It was awfu…”
Greg stood. “You should bathe,” he said. He closed the door behind him.
“Where is Greg?” I asked coming downstairs.
“He is gone,” said my mother. “He said he had to see to something.”
“Most likely Otito chased him away. I have never seen him drive at such speed. Maybe after all these years, he had finally come to his senses and stopped mooning around after you.”
“What are you talking about? Maybe you should go home Belinda.” I typed quickly on the phone in my hand. ‘Please do not confront him. Do not say anything.’ I had never had to worry about Greg before, but Belinda’s words alarmed me. Greg as a friend was loyal to a fault.
My phone remained silent.
The police hung about on site all week. I was beginning to regret letting them share in our previous bounty. It was obvious front he way their numbers had doubled that they had come with empty stomachs prepared.
“Orji,” I beckoned to him. “I want those boys found quickly and quietly.”
“It will take some time. We think the village is hiding them. Some of the elders don’t agree but as yet, nobody is talking.”
“They are your people. Just find them.” My words were forceful, but I am sure the look of desperation told Orji all I could not say. He nodded, heading out for his vehicle. Four of his men trailed after him.
“I have kept six men to make sure the police does not interfere or cause problems. Nobody wants police hell. That may be why they are hiding.” Orji stopped. “We have to discuss what to do about the ones in prison when we get back.”
I eyed the members of the police force, both men and women, milling around like black beetles, doing nothing, tracking the ash and soot all over the place.
“Who is your second?” I asked.
“Nonso,” Orji replied.
“I need this place cleared. These people are doing nothing.”
“Trust Nonso,” he said. “He knows what to do.” Nonso was young, maybe my age or younger, but at almost seven feet, and with absolutely no willingness to speak, things tended to happen around him faster than if he commanded them to. As I watched, Nonso appeared in the middle of the police, shifting them backward without their knowledge.
“Good. We have work to do, the sooner the better.” There was dust rising up from the road beyond the gate again. “Who the fuck is that now?” I could not stand the throng of people standing around. I marched towards the gate to see who was joining the party. A black Jeep lead a convoy, with guns sticking out all over it. My blood froze. I had to leap out of the way as I was almost run down, clipboard clattering to the ground and papers flying. I counted the cars; after the first was another decorated with firearms before one plain black one and finally, a van also with guns everywhere.
“Did you send for MOPOL?” Orji’s voice betrayed his unease. He gave me a hand up.
“No, why would I do that? I asked you to handle it,” I dusted my slacks off. “Get those please, my papers,” I walked towards the convoy.
“Excuse me? I am the co-ordinator for this site.”
The uniformed mobile police unit exited the vehicle in some sort of commando formation. They ignored me. The other police began to disperse and re-form as if the sight of this armed -to-the-teeth unit suddenly made them remember what their jobs were.
“Hey,” I yelled. “Do not take another step on my site until somebody tells me what is going on! Who asked you to come here?”
The plain black Jeep opened and a man stepped out. His pasty complexion told me had hadn’t been in the country – or indeed anywhere hot – for a while.
“I think you’ll find it’s my site actually,” said Todd stepping out.
“Todd? What are you doing here?” I blurted out like an idiot something that would have been apparent had I been less distraught. Orji shuffled his feet behind me. He handed me the papers. Todd’s eyes followed him like a snake following a rat.
“Maybe you need to talk to HQ but I’m managing this project now,” he smile burned with malice. “It’s like I always say; never send a secretary to do a man’s job.” He took off his sunglasses. “Oh and Alicia says hi by the way.”