I felt as if I passed the whole week the same way; sleep, wake up, bathe, eat, sleep. All the while I was aware of my mother’s presence hovering just outside the corner of my eye. I was reassured and irritated by her watch. I didn’t want to talk. I knew I must, at some point. It didn’t have to be now.
Belinda’s wedding came and passed. Or did it? I didn’t know and I couldn’t care. All I thought about was my job, whether I had one, what I could have done differently, whether this all was karma or if I truly stank at project managment. But even as the thought formed, I shook it away. I was good at my job dammit, which left just karma. And oh, boy was she a bitch.
Every time I woke up, I checked my phone for missed calls and the date of the hotel’s launch grew closer, hour by passing hour. The clocks in the house seemed too loud. The fires no longer burned on TV and all the mobile policemen had gone but the community was still restless. I was surprised to get the general email summoning us all to site. I was grateful, pathetically so, to be included. Now something was happening at last. It felt good.
I missed Greg. I missed my friend badly, terribly. I had got so used to having him around again that I felt his absence keenly. I kept playing back snippets of our conversation, trying to glean what his advice for my current situation would be from past dialogues. Maybe it was harder this time because I felt he was judging me and it hurt, or maybe it was because he was the one who left not me, on my way to London. He was the one who had abandoned our friendship maybe for good. But what could I do? He was not taking my calls. I didn’t have answers only more questions and a string of theories.
And there was evening and there was morning and I avoided my mother.
There was a buzz in the air when I got to the site that morning, a barely suppressed hum of excitement. Todd looked red and angry under the sun, like the head of a pimple.
“I tell you, I did not call any meeting,” he shouted. Then he heard the bang of my car door and turned. He asked loud enough for someone from the neighbouring village to hear; “What the hell is the secretary doing here?”
“Good morning, Todd,” I said. I felt lighter than air. It was as if I had just returned from vacation. My white shirt filled with fresh air and billowed as a breeze started up, trying to break free of where I had tucked it into the band of my trousers. “You look like shit. I take it starting community wars takes it toll?”
“Somebody get her off my site, please.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I am still employed by this company. I was asked to be here, same as the others.” I felt as if I was getting my old self back. It was as if I had sloughed off old skin. It was madness to think I could avoid my family forever but for now I was not going to think about it. And for once I didn’t give a damn what anyone thought.
The next car to pull into the parking lot was Orji’s. He grinned and waved when he saw me. Todd’s scowl deepened.
“Right, I am going to get to the bottom of this,” he said marching off towards one of the chalets.
“What is his problem?” Orji said by way of greeting.
“I don’t know. Maybe something crawled up his bum and died true-true. How are you?” Orji hugged me lightly. In that gesture I could tell he was as glad to be back as I was.
“I can’t wait to see what is going on. We’re here for a reason….” he broke off as another vehicle pulled into the compound.
“I believe we just found out who wants us here,” I said. The air filled with an orchestra, like you hear in Hollywood films. It was like angels singing; ‘Ahhhh-ahhhhhh-ahhhhhhh’. I seemed to be the only one hearing it if the smile on my face was anything to go by.
As she stepped out, her hair gleamed more than I remembered, it was a new copper coin straight from the mint, the sun seemed to shine more brightly, eager to claim back some of the glory from her gorgeous red locks.
“Hi, Sarah-Jane,” I said brightly. My heart beat faster.
“Hello, Abby,” she said without as much as a glance at me. My heart sank.
“Welcome, Madam. You are well?” asked Orji.
Sarah-Jane smiled at him. “Orji,” she responded simply. “Somebody get me that nincompoop,” she said to no one in particular. She didn’t say anyone’s name either but someone broke free of the crowd and went in the same direction as Todd had gone. The hum in the air took on a feverish edge. It was as if I could hear it in my head, in my blood, in my bones. I could barely stand still. When I moved again, Sarah-Jane raised her eyebrow without turning her head. I soon realised I wasn’t the only one shuffling. A lot of us were doing it. I stopped.
Todd hurried from the chalet, looking angry. As soon as he saw Sarah-Jane, the majority of his crease lines vanished from his forehead. You could still see that he was annoyed though. The muscles of his jaw clenched and unclenched and when he did smile it did not reach his eyes.
“Sarah-Jane, glad to see you back. I hear you’ve been poorly? Perhaps you should get out of this heat. I don’t know how the locals stand it.”
“I’m from South Africa,” Sarah-Jane deadpanned.
“Right, right, but still. It’s a much more civilised place than here,” said Todd. “Nigeria certainly had potential in the seventies I am told. Now it’s all chaos. Everyone wants a bribe and no one wants to work. You habe to whip them into shape.”
“Oh?” said Sarah-Jane. “Is that what you’ve done then?” She did not wait for his answer. She nodded and the girl behind her who I had not seen until that moment came forward. She handed an envelope to Todd.
“What’s this?” he said taking it from her hand. The blood rushed to his face, making it redder and angrier. If he was a boil, he would be at lancing point. “Hey, what the hell…?”
“Tickets, back to London, tonight,” said Sarah-Jane.
“Now look here, I was given this project fair and square. It’s not my fault you women cannot organise shit to save yourselves. And you,” he pointed with the tickets at her. “Had to go off with some women’s issue no doubt. I stepped in and did what needed to be done.”
“You stepped in and caused a full-scale uprising,” said Sarah-Jane. I had gasped when Todd said ‘Women’s issue’. Sarah-Jane did not flinch. “This is what people like you do. You have to try and be macho and feed your ego. Why crack an egg with a hammer? It’s pointless.”
“People like me?” The veins in Todd’s head popped. “I got the job done when your glorified secretary could not! I got rid of that one,” he pointed at Orji, “For working with the villagers against us. You women sure do stick together don’t you? What about her? What about her part in all this?” He made a disdainful gesture towards me. “I…”
“You forget your place,” said Sarah-Jane. “I am still one of your bosses, a partner with the company. If I bother you so much quit. Otherwise,” she took a step forward. “Get off my land.”
“The company is selling,” said Sarah-Jane by way of starting the meeting. There was a collective gasp, but she ploughed through regardless. “We would like to thank you for doing your jobs and remaining steadfast during this time. You will all be paid your salary this month and Christmas bonuses to compensate you for any trouble you might have faced.” She flipped through the papers in front of her on the table. “Certain other medical bills have been paid,” she nodded at Orji.
“Thank you, Ma,” he said.
I was too shocked to move. I felt my hands grow steadily colder and colder until they were blocks of ice. I rubbed them together to warm them, but it was futile. I shook my head. I wanted to stand up and howl but Sarah-Jane’s frosty look made me keep my seat and my cool.
“We will be writing reference letters for those who need it of course. No need to lose out on other jobs just because this one didn’t happen,” Sarah-Jane was still flipping through the papers. At the silence she looked up, eyes cutting through the throng. “Of course you may mention that you worked on this project on your CV but with it going belly-up, it might not be a good idea.” She attempted a smile.
A hand shot up into the air. “Yes?” said Sarah-Jane.
“How long will we have to get leave?” asked a smallish woman who worked in accounts. Gloria, her name was. “I mean, when is it going to be sold? What’s the time frame?”
“As soon as we can find a buyer, Gloria,” said Sarah-Jane turning on one of her rare smiles. Gloria beamed back, thrilled at having her boss remember her name.
“Any other questions?” asked Sarah-Jane, looking around. Nobody moved. “That will be all then.”
I made to leave, feeling as though my head was going to split in two. I had failed again. ‘I am worthless. Everyone is right. I will never be more,’ I thought to myself. My feet throbbed as if they were expanses of pure pulse. As I reached the door, I heard Sarah-Jane call my name.
“Abby? A word?” she said. She waited until the last person had gone before she fixed me in her green-eyed gaze. “Sit down,” she said. “And tell me why my trust in you has not been misplaced. And yes,” she crossed her legs. “This is an interview; an interview to save your job.”
Sarah Amuah was sitting with my mother, laughing when I walked in. She looked so at home that I made to walk past the sitting room and go upstairs for a quick shower and maybe, to hide away.
“Are you trying to sneak off?” I heard her shout in my direction.
“No,” I said, dropping my shoes from my hands. I had taken them off to move silently.
“I hope not. We heard your car outside. It would have been foolish,” she said.
“What are you doing here? Good evening mummy,” I said.
Sarah Amuah rolled her eyes and avoided the question. “How is your back?”
“Sarah-Jane is back,” I said to distract her.
“She is?” Sarah Amuah shrieked. My mother looked at the two of us, one after another and said nothing. “Why didn’t you tell me! Is that where you have been all this while?”
They are selling the…” I couldn’t get the words out. My throat clamped shut over them. “They are selling the hotel. They said it is too high risk and they have lost a lot of money on it. They are looking to sell it back to the government or to anyone ‘crazy enough to take it on’,” I made air quotes with my hands.
Sarah Amuah shrugged. “You see it all the time. Big companies hate losing money, as I am sure you know.”
“I know,” I said. “But this is my baby.” I shook my head. “It’s different when it’s your baby.” I sank into an armchair. “I was so close.”
“And you’ll be close again, Otito. Why must you always underestimate your abilities? Why do you always sell yourself short?” asked my mother.
“I should be asking you that question, mum,” I said.
“Look at the time. I should leave, maybe I can meet Sarah-Jane? Do you know what hotel she is staying in?” Sarah Amuah studied my face. “Don’t worry, I’ll find out.” She picked up your phone and pressed a button. It speed dialled a number. “All those brochures wasted,” she shook her head.
“Don’t worry you’ll be paid.”
“Of course I will be paid!” she eyed me as if I had sprouted horns and was coming at her. “Still it’s a shame you can’t get the money together and buy it yourself. That way, the brochures will still come in handy, not to mention the whole thing. I really enjoyed working there. And it is such a solid business idea…yes! Hello? I need you to help me find out where someone is saying,” she said into her telephone. She gave my mother a quick hug and peck on the cheek and was out, her heel clicking on the tiled floor. Her peplum skirt would have looked slutty on anyone else. It just made Sarah look classy.
My heart beat faster and faster and faster still as a germ of an idea took root.
“What? Otito what is it?” asked my mother, her voice raised in alarm.
“Nothing mummy, just an idea…” I started walking off, building the business plan in my head. It was a long shot but still…
“Otito, are you doing this to avoid out talk?” asked my mother. I turned to her. Something in her face, some sadness made me go back and hug her.
“No mummy, I swear. This is something I have to do, something important. We will talk, we need it. But now, I just have to do this.”
“Ok,” she said.
When I got upstairs, I shut the door and dialled the number from memory. The phone was answered on the fourth ring.
“Hello?” said the familiar voice. It brought tears to my eyes just to hear it; warm, and mature.
“Hello, Mr Big. ”
I heard his laughter in my head seconds before it came through on the line. “To what do I owe this pleasure,” he asked, exactly the way I remembered.
“Charles, listen darling. I know I am being very cheeky, but I really need your help. I wouldn’t call if I didn’t. I might need your special Mergers and Acquisitions game face on this one.”
He laughed again. “I’m listening,” he said. I started to talk.