I could not take my eyes away from the TV screen. The more I listened, the more it seemed like someone was dunking my head repeatedly into a bucket of water, the words swished and faded in and out. I wished I was dreaming. I knew I wasn’t.
‘Violence broke out today…site of the popular luxury hotel…fires started…police have made arrests…community in chaos…’
“This man is crazy!” I threw my hands up, letting the magazine I had been reading take flight for a few seconds before crashing to the ground like a sightless bird.
“Are you still watching that?” my mother asked, bring in a tray with our cups of tea and a plate of biscuits on it. She cast her eyes on the images of the newly-smouldering sections of the hotel flashing on the screen. The image cut to mobile police thrashing at the crowd of men, women and children as they gathered in protest. More MOPOL dragged a few young boys away, kicking and screaming. One boy broke away and made for an elderly man standing at the fringe. The MOPOL reached him but not before he clutched at the old man’s feet, causing him to topple. I recognised the blind papa who had spoken to me earlier in the week. The boy was one of his helpers. My mother made a clucking sound in her throat.
“Nne, stop watching that,” she said.
I wanted to fling something else but the remote was too far away. Tears stung my eyes. “Why is he doing this? What is wrong with Todd? Look at my work, all my hard work…!”
“Not to mention the poor people being arrested for nothing,” my mother added.
“That too,” I said. The TV put up more images of cars in traffic along the Enugu-Onitsha expressway with green leaves stuck into their bumpers as they passed to show they were not a part of the violence.
“Maybe you should go in, try and talk some sense into this Todd fellow?”
But even as my mother spoke, I was shaking my head. Speak some sense into Todd? I was more likely to grow a penis in my armpit. Todd was a dick. And now, what with the riots, he was a stupid dick. Already the Federal government was involved and everyone who wanted a bit of our company’s money rooted for the MOPOL. Journalists were having a field day also at our expense.
“Mummy, please pass me my magazine,” I said to her. She stopped filling a teacup with tea from a pot and tossed the magazine to me. I threw it at the television, just as a Human Rights’ activist came on.
“Otito, stop watching it,” said my mother when I wailed low in my throat. “Why don’t you go back to work?”
“As what? I am no longer in charge of the project, my own project. He threw me off site. What am I supposed to return there as? I placed calls to HQ you know this. I was told to hand over everything to Todd and await instructions. I can’t go back, I can’t move until they tell me. I am not sure what is going on, if they will ask me to come back to London now or stay here.” Bile rose to my throat. I grimaced.
I stood and started pacing. Was I still going to get my salary if I was not technically working? I was still a company employee even if I was no longer on the project I came for, right? How would that work out? My mother’s eyes followed me over the rim of her teacup.
“I had everything under control,” I blurted out. “Everything!” I clenched my fists. “You don’t use a hammer to break an egg. I was handling it!”
“They burnt down your kitchen dear,” said my mother.
“And I had the police and our security looking into it. Orji is from here. Orji has been handling it. And to top it all, Todd fired him convinced he was conspiring with the ruffians because is local. Can you imagine that?! Who does that man think he is?”
My mother made sympathetic noises in her throat.
“Why Todd? Why the hell did they send Todd? Why send anyone?!” I nibbled on the dry skin around my fingers until my saliva caused me pain. I knew I had opened the skin. I didn’t care. I felt like such a failure. I failed myself. I failed Sarah-Jane, most of all. She put her trust in me and I had let her down. Maybe Todd was right. Maybe I was just a secretary, not ready for the big leagues.
“No, no,” I said to myself. My mother said nothing still watching me.
“You are as good, if not better than Todd, Otito,” she said.
“What?” I started.
“I know you think I don’t support you…” she began. My trill of my phone cut her off. I lunged at it. I had changed the ringtone a few days after Todd arrived. I wanted to make sure I heard the phone ring whenever HQ tried to get back with me. They still hadn’t.
“Hello?” The line was not dead but whoever was on the other end of it was silent. I checked the number: Private Line.
“Hello?” I said again louder this time. There was laughter on the line. “Al…Alicia?”
“Hello Abby. I just had to tell you in person. Guess where I’m sitting?”
My heart went cold in my chest. “What do you want Alicia?”
“I’m kidding. How’s exotic Africa?” I heard a sawing sound and then puffs of breath as Alicia blew. She was filing her nails.
“Again. What do you want Alicia?”
“Can I speak to Todd?” she asked.
“Todd?” I paused.
“That’s right.” Alicia snapped her fingers. It was like fireworks going off in my ear. “I forgot, you’re no longer on the project are you? Shame.” She tsked. “Gotta go, I’ll call Todd myself, don’t worry. Toodles!”
My mother was still watching me over the rim of her cup. “Who was that?” she asked. I burst into tears.
“Why is this happening to me?” I screamed.
“God cousin, are you still watching that? Why don’t you concentrate on something more important, like my wedding. It’s next tomorrow!” Belinda snatched up the remote where it lay at the foot of her massive bed and turned off the TV. “So your mum said you want to be in the bridal party. I knew you’d come around.”
I shrugged. “I got nothing better to do.” I slumped down on her bed. The truth was that my mother thought it would take my mind off things with work and I didn’t have any more excuses. My feet jerked repeatedly and ants crawled all over my skin. I sat up again.
“Don’t do me any favours,” she said flashing her eyes at me. “It’s not like we are family or anything.”
I rolled my eyes. “Let’s get this over with then,” I said. “Where is the dress?” I cracked my knuckles and kept cracking long after the last one was done.
Belinda reached into her wardrobe and pulled out the long skirt and blouse in her asoebi colours. “That bitch Toochi had the audacity to ask for my bridesmaid’s material knowing she was pregnant.”
“She’s pregnant again?” I asked.
“Ugh, don’t get me started. What is that now? Number ten?”
“Whatever, it is too many for this damned century. Why would anyone choose to do that to themselves?”
“She’s got nothing better to do?”
“I guess that’s one thing you both have in common,” said Belinda laying the outfit on the bed. She nudged me playfully. “Another thing is, she was fat. You’re lucky. This should fit without a cinch.”
“Yay, me.” I said dryly.
“If I am going to have a fatty at my wedding, I’d rather it not be a pregnant, unsexy one,” said Belinda.
“Lucky, lucky me. I have a ginormous bottom to fit your spare dress and I might not have a job so I’m available. I’m glad life is working out for you.”
Belinda laughed. “Cut it out.” She sobered up. “Seriously, cuz. I’m glad you’re doing this. I know we don’t always get along but I always pictured you in my wedding.”
“So you could rub my face in it?” I asked returning her nudge. The serious turn made me uncomfortable.
“Well, that too,” said Belinda. She flung her arms around me.
A heaviness settled in my gut. “Hey, Belinda…”
“…B’lin,” she corrected. Her voice was muffled from being buried in my neck.
“Belinda,” I said. “What’s going on? Am I dying?”
Belinda released me then. Her eyes glistened. “I think Wes is having an affair,” she said.
“No, no,” I said. “You’ve barely been in the country. He wouldn’t,” I said. I was glad that Belinda had let go of me. My heart was pounding up a storm.
Belinda sniffed. “Why would you assume the affair is in this country?” she asked. “Do you know something?
“No..no…” I fumbled about in my brain for the right thing to say. Belinda stopped sniffing. She looked at me sharply. “It’s just that if you knew he was having an affair before, you wouldn’t have bothered coming all the way back to marry him, is all.” I couldn’t meet her eyes. My hands grew cold. My finger tips were sweating.
“Oh,” said Belinda. The hum of the air conditioner filled the silence. “Yeah, you’re right.” She looked away. When she looked back her eyes were still brimming over. “You’re right.” She clasped my hand. “But you would tell me if you knew something right?”
“Why would I know something?” I asked. “Besides, how do you know anyway? Shouldn’t you be talking to him? I’m sure you’re overreacting, Belinda. I’m not comfortable with this.” Everything came out sounding sharper than I intended. I panted slightly at the end of it.
“If the woman is here then I’m sure you’ll know her. You grew up here. Besides, they say the wife is always the last to know right?” Belinda was still searching my face as if she wanted to hear me confirm all her suspicions. She glided off the bed to sit at her dressing table. “And the way that Greg just left for Abuja…”
“Wait…what?” I stood. “Greg did what?”
“Left for Abuja. Didn’t you know?” Her eyes met mine in the mirror.
“No, no. I mean, I knew that there was a possibility that he might have to leave early, but he told me he was taking care of it,” I lied.
“It was a bit strange. He came over here to give me and Greg our wedding present. He said he had been called to work suddenly and he couldn’t make the wedding anymore. Wes wouldn’t stay to see Greg which made me suspicious. Those two have been thick as thieves since they met and suddenly Greg can’t make the wedding? He came down here for me for chrissakes! What if Greg knows something?”
“Yes, but maybe they had a fight. Why do you have to make it about you?” I asked. I sat back down on the bed. Greg left without saying goodbye. Greg judged me. Our friendship was over.
“I can’t explain…it’s a feeling I have. Oh cousin, I didn’t mean to bother you. You look like you’re going to cry.” Belinda came over to the bed and hugged me tightly again. “I’m sure I am just being silly.” She knuckled away one tear and laughed. “It’s probably pre-wedding jitters right?”
“Right,” I said, not really listening to her. I wanted to cry. I wanted to talk to Greg. I missed him. How could he leave me just like that? It was so unlike him. Was he angry at me? Disappointed? Did he actually have work? I shook my head inwardly. No. He would have said something.
“Where is Wes anyway?” It seemed like a good time to ask the question that had been on my lips since I came into the house. I hadn’t wanted to appear too eager but now I had to talk to him.
“Oh, somewhere with daddy doing something. You know, boys stuff.” Belinda waved her hands.
“Yeah, yeah.” I had to get out of there. “Listen, I’ll take this and go, okay? And don’t worry. I am sure that Wes is fine,” I said. It was the most general thing I could think to say.
“Don’t be silly,” said Belinda. “Try it on here. I need to know how it looks so that my mummy’s seamstress and make corrections tonight.”
I felt like I was suffocating. The heaviness in my throat cut off my air supply. “No, it’s okay. I’ll deal with it, I have someone that lives nearby.”
“Who?” said Belinda. “I won’t have you looking like a clown at my wedding.”
“I won’t,” I said gathering up the material. “I promise. I have to go and wait for HQ to contact me.”
“You can do that here,” said Belinda. She was almost shouting now. Her eyebrows hit her fringe in heights of incredulity. “I’ve seen you naked before. And in spite of all my jokes, I am sure you don’t look as hideous as when we were kids. Com’on,” she said. “Please?”
“Belinda, sorry, I can’t.” I turned to go, hanging the garment over my arm.
I didn’t know if it was the burst of desperation I could hear in her voice or the fact that she called me Abby, but my feet stopped by her door. Belinda came around me. She held my hands.
“It’s one day to my wedding. None of my friends are here.” Her shoulders moved. “I know we have not always been close but surely you can stay for a while? I’m scared.”
“Belinda, you’re scaring me,” I said. She was so unlike herself. She looked at me with wide open eyes rather than her usual narrowed ones. She was not being nasty. And she kept holding my hands. Maybe she really was scared? Maybe she really did have cold feet? I owe her, I thought. It was the least I could do for sleeping with Wes. I looked at her. Marriage sure was strange. It made my cousin vulnerable. Maybe she should have got married earlier, I thought. This version on her was not so bad.
I swallowed. The lump in my throat did not budge. I would have to suck it up and deal with it later.
“Okay, maybe I can stay for a few more hours,” I said. My shoulders slumped. Belinda did not notice. She whooped and hollered.
“Crazy idea,” she said “Let’s have a party!”
“Oh yes, com’on! It’ll be just us girls. We could bring together the rest of my bridesmaids, I am sure they will love it.”
“I am not sure it’s a good idea…”I began.
“It’s New Year’s eve! Tell me that isn’t the best time for a party?”
“People go to church on New Year’s here,” I said.
“Nonsense. I am sure they will be glad for a little distraction.”
“Belinda…we’re not prepared.”
“We’ll make it a slumber party then!” She squealed. “Yay! That’s even better. That way nobody feels like they have to make too much of an effort.” Her phone was already in her hand and ringing. “Hello? Ezinne? How are you…”
She waved me away. Discussion over. I turned to leave the room again and she said. “Just a sec, Ezi. Otito?”
‘Great,’ I thought. ‘We’re back to Otito.’ Out loud I said, “Yes?”
“You can bring that show-off girl, Sarah. I hate the bitch but Wes won’t be here. You know if you hadn’t told me that she batted for the other team, I could have sworn she was making a play for Wes.”
“Right. I’ll see if she’s available.” I turned again.
“Just tell her to keep it down, okay? It is my party after all,” Belinda said. She took her hand off the mouthpiece. “Yes Ezi? No. Definitely no kids.”
Wes’ eyes lit up as I walked down stairs. “Hey, what are you doing here?” he asked.
“I could ask you the same question,” I told him. Wes grin burned all over his face. I frowned. I definitely needed to talk to him. He was too obvious. I turned to my uncle. “Good afternoon uncle. Belinda told me you were off doing guy things.”
“We were, but this one here forgot his phone,” Uncle Vince kissed me on the head. “Apparently you young things can’t live without gadgets these days. In my day…”
“You entertained yourself with stones and sand and string, yes I know. It’s the same thing my mother always says.” I hugged my uncle. “Hey Wes, can I talk to you a moment? Wedding stuff,” I explained to my uncle.
“Go ahead. I have to use the little boy’s room. The old bladder is not what it used to be,” he said.
“Dad, definitely TMI,” said Wes, clapping my uncle on the back.
“LOL,” said my uncle walking away. “OMG.”
“You taught him that?” I asked a laughing Wes.
“Yeah,” he said. “He has to keep up with the times.” We both watched as my uncle rounded the corner. Wes’ playful facade dropped. His eyes still blazed but it was with a different kind of intensity.
“You want me?” he asked.
“I need to talk to you,” I said, emphasising the word ‘talk’. I looked around and dragged him into the little room which served as a pantry and general storage space. I closed the door and switched on the light.
“I like where this talk is going,” said Wes nuzzling my ear. In spite of myself, my nipples hardened. Wes raked a fingernail over it. “God Abby, I have been going crazy. Why didn’t you come back?”
“I couldn’t, crisis at work…” his finger was driving me to distraction. Wes ground into me with his hardening bulge. “Listen Wes, I really wanted to talk.”
“So talk,” he said. He bent his head and licked the skin under my ear.
“I can’t talk when you’re doing that,” I said. I meant it. I was beginning to forget why I wanted to speak to him in the first place.
“I want a chance to love you better, Abby, we were so rushed before. I have so much love I want to put in you, right inside you.” Wes kissed me, plunging his tongue inside me and licking me out in exquisite stokes. There was no doubt as to where he wanted to stick his tongue.
“Wes, stop. I realy need to say something here. Uncle will soon be back and Belinda is upstairs alright?”
“So?” Wes unzipped my jeans, touching neither belt no button. With his middle finger he sought out the nub hardening inside my underwear even as he tried to find it.
“Wes, stop. You’re getting married in one day.” I pushed him away. “Stop okay?”
Wes stood away from me and my head began to clear. He reached behind my waist, fondling my bottom. “Listen,” I said. “Belinda suspects you of seeing someone. I think we shouldn’t do this anymore. We got carried away by London and…your wedding is next tomorrow okay?”
Wes lowered his head and kissed me again. By the time he stopped, whatever doubts I had fled. I wanted Wes. I wanted him badly. I took his finger and helped him find my core with its express-pleasure button. Wes finger slid right in. “Abby, I am crazy about you,” he said over the sound of my indrawn breaths. “Maybe this is good, what’s happening.”
“Oh yes, so good,” I said stabbing myself with his finger.
“Abby, you’re so fucking hot,” said Wes. “I want to eat your ass. Then I want to fuck it slowly until you beg me to stop.”
I frowned, my pleasure dissipating slowly. My unease was back. “What do you mean by ‘Maybe this is good’?” I asked. I had heard something in his voice that I didn’t register when he spoke.
“I mean, just say the word Abby,” Wes took my face in his hands. The finger that had been in my folds glistened in the light from the naked bulb. “And I’ll call off the wedding.”