I am not sure how I hadn’t looked around the first time I arrived; maybe I was too excited at seeing Greg again, but I remembered making an offhand remark about being introduced to his roommate.
Now I really looked and I really saw. The drive from the gate to the front door lined with trees. It was a little way way from the gate. But the space behind the two storey house – or should I say mansion – was even more impressive. There was a huge garden, a few rose bushes scattered hither and yon as if in afterthought and at the end of that, hidden behind many, many guava trees was a grey, industrial looking building with smoke pouring out of a sort of chimney like vomit. I could sympathise. My stomach wanted to rid itself of my breakfast.
It was the guava trees more than anything that pierced through the fog of confusion and growing shame in my head. Greg could not get enough of guavas between the age of ten and twelve. It might have been a coincidence that it was the period that United Africa Company Foods released their guava ice cream flavour as well, but I cannot remember which came before. Greg had gorged himself on a two-litre tub and had been sick as a dog for days. It didn’t stop him loving guava though, he just stuck to the fresh fruits instead. But if the guava trees were the catalyst that sped up the reaction of my apprehension-addled brain, the sculptures that dotted the huge garden, glinting in the sun confirmed what I was beginning to suspect.
I reached out and touched Eke’s elbow. He stopped.
“Eke, tell me the truth, before we go any further. Is this Greg’s house?”
Eke looked shifty. “I think you should ask Greg…”
“I am asking you.” I crossed my arms over my chest in a gesture more defiant than I felt.
“I don’t think that it is my place to say or not to say, Miss.”
“And what is with this ‘Miss’ nonsense?” I threw my hands up in the air, exasperated.
Eke looked at me. “I am sure Greg will explain whatever needs explaining. Please follow me,” he said again weaving through the trees. When we got to the grey building, Eke pushed a button, waited a few seconds, grasped the handle in the huge black door and slid it back. It moved on deep rollers in the floor coated with thick black engine oil. “Watch your step,” he said.
The grey building reminded me a little of a warehouse, expect there were even more sculptures if such a thing was possible. I could see outlines of some others under heavy dust cloths looking like the ghosts of sculptures past and yet I was not particularly scared because there was something about the clutter that felt familiar. I now knew why the fountain in the joint gave me the feeling of deja vu. I could see Greg’s hand in the lines of exposed figures; I could feel his expression in their execution. I stopped before one of the smaller figurines.
“What is this?” I asked Eke when something niggled at my consciousness. Eke shrugged.
I studied it again. “Is that…me?” I couldn’t be sure but something about the curve of the figure’s…back? “That is me,” I said.
“He’s here,” said Eke breaking my concentration. He led me to the back of the small warehouse. With one last glance at the sculpture I made to follow but I didn’t have to. I could have told him I knew where Greg was. It was as if my spirit could sense his exact location and so I drew back and admired sculptures instead. It was easier trying to decipher his frame of mind from his work than face him in an unprepared state.
“These are nice,” I said.
Eke smirked again. “You haven’t seen his recent stuff.”
I glanced at him and he ushered me through the aisle of stuff. There was a huge orb on a plinth – a huge spiky orb, just sitting there in all its…orbiness, looking perfectly ordinary and spiky and just plain malevolent. It was ugly and dark – the material was definitely not what I had come to expect from Greg’s shiny or green copper at all.
“That doesn’t look shiny – or green,” I said, forcing my thoughts out into the open.
“That’s iron,” said Eke.
“Right,” I said. I could see that the spikes themselves had spikes and on and on and on. It gave me the creeps. “Right,” I said again.
“That took him a few days to make. He just came back from down East and started making it,” said Eke, watching my expression carefully. “Iron is harder to work. There was a lot of…bashing.”
My heart started beating again hard and I felt my eyes begin to smart. I looked away from him.
Eke looked uneasy. “I really shouldn’t…I do not think it is my place to say anything but…”
Eke nodded deferentially.
“Take me to him,” I said overtaken by an unusual boldness.
I never lied to Greg. But I knew I was nervous about meeting him again because it is hard hiding away from when they know your mind like theirs. I knew he would be merciless and I hoped that the new-found courage of my newly-held convictions would be enough to get me through the ordeal. But if I wasn’t quite sure how Greg was feeling, the clanging coming from his forge let me know exactly his frame of mind. Or maybe he really did have to bash things that hard. What did I know about working metal after all? Perhaps I was just imagining things from the projections which the orbs threw into my mind with its entire spiky, evil antenna. ‘Greg is my friend, Greg did not judge me,’ I thought. But knowing how someone felt about you especially when they were a very good friend made things more than a little weird.
And then I came upon Greg.
It got hotter and hotter and the clanging grew louder and louder the closer we got to the back of the warehouse. And I berated myself for my nerves.
There was a full visor on his face but I would have known that body anywhere. He stood in front of a roaring fire and sweat ran down his orange-black body in rivulets. The heat singed my eyebrows from more than ten paces away. Greg had on a thick leather blacksmiths apron over a bare chest and what looked like the grimiest jeans in the planet. He also had on work boots against which the occasional spark fell. He held something glowing red in tongs and bashed it repeatedly with a hammer. The muscles in his back knotted like thick hemp rope, the kind used to anchor heavy floating vessels.
I think my mouth dropped open at that point. What Greg was doing looked like it took a lot of energy and he wasn’t even flagging. The racket was so loud so I did not think he would hear me if I cleared my throat which was dry from the heat and nerves.
Greg turned immediately. He set the blacksmiths’ hammer down and just stood facing me. Having him watch me through the visor and not knowing what he was thinking sent worms of dread burrowing into my skin. Greg turned and dunked whatever he had been bashing in a shallow stone well in the corner where it sizzled and spluttered sending steam billowing up everywhere. Greg was lost in it all.
“Greg?” I called foolishly, as if he had truly disappeared.
“What do you want, Abby?” said invisible Greg.
“I…”I started. Greg stepped out of the steam. He had shed the visor and the leather work gloves. The edges of the shin-length leather apron dripped with his sweat. It was as pockmarked with burns as his work boots. Eke handed him a bottle of cold water from some magical place – I didn’t see a fridge – and Greg took it and downed the whole bottle. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and tossed the bottle in an open drum which lay in the corner.
“What are you working on?” I asked.
“I’ve got a contract to make some ceremonial swords.”
“”Wow, Greg I didn’t know…”
“What do you want?” he asked again. He took off the slick apron and flung it aside. It landed with a wet ‘Squalp’ on a work bench and slid to the ground.
Greg spread his hands. “You can’t talk again?”
“Why are you talking to me as if I am stupid?” I asked. His gesture annoyed me. His sweaty shirtlessness annoyed me. His ropey muscles annoyed me. If I was honest, the fact that he was not acting pleased to see me annoyed me. And that thought annoyed me. Since when did I need Greg to act pleased whenever he saw me? Was I really that insecure?
“Could you put a shirt on?” I asked. Greg raised his eyebrows.
“Why? Is my sweaty shirtlessness bothering you?”
Dammit. Already he was reading my mind. I couldn’t let my guard down.
“This is how men look when they work, not pretty boys,” continued Greg. “I am sorry I am not your pretty-boy Wes with the beautiful eyes.” He looked at me as if I was a stranger he was only mildly interested in.
“He is not my Wes,” I said, trying to ignore Greg’s biting words or the flat, uninterested tone they were delivered in.
“Is he not?”
“What’s got into you, Greg?” I was getting angrier and angrier and yet the anger was not quite right. It itched at the corners of my eyes, threatening to draw tears.
“What is wrong with me?” He sighed. Greg reached for a towel hanging on the handle of a loading trolley and wiped his face and neck. He flung it away, picked up a white vest draped over the outstretched limb of one of his angrier sculptures and slipped it on. “There. My offensive body is all covered. Is Her Majesty happy?”
I hated seeing Greg like this; the way he regarded me so coldly, the sardonic twist to his lips as he spoke, as if he knew something slightly amusing but did not care to share.
“Greg, stop it. This isn’t you,” I said.
“What is not me? And how will you know exactly what me is? From what I recall, our friendship has largely consisted of me being everything to you and you giving nothing back. You’re so selfish Otito, the one time I needed you, you couldn’t even be there for me.” He shook his head. “Did you hate my dad?” He was joking but it joke didn’t sound funny. It snarled its way out of his mouth. It reminded me of the orb again.
I felt something raw and red and jagged flash in my brain. “You are being really unfair.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe it’s time I was a little unfair,” he continued. “You and Belinda are definitely related; two selfish girls playing at being women.” Greg rubbed the sweat and steam from his scalp with one hand full of broken nails and split knuckles. “State your business and get out,” he said. “I’m busy.”
“Oh you’re busy now, are you, you sanctimonious prick?!” The words ripped out of me, squeezed out by years of love and self-hate, weeks of apprehension and days of nerves and discovery. “I’m a child am I? What about you eh? How can you love someone nearly all their life and not say something? How much of a coward must you be?”
“I’m a sanctimonious prick, am I?” Greg was almost growling.
I ignored the way my stomach clenched at the deep rumble coming from my best friend. “Yes, I said it! Sitting there on your high horse judging me!”
“I am not judging you but if anyone should be judging you it should be me!”
“And who made you judge and jury? Who the hell gave you that right?”
“You! When you trusted me with your whole life and expected me to be there no matter what!”
“I didn’t ASK you to be there! You just were!”
“And I suppose that is somehow my fault as well, eh, Saint Otito the blameless? Do you ever take the blame for anything?!”
“Greg,” I screamed. “You are such a….a…fucker!”
“Do not call me a fucker, Otito, I have done nothing to deserve your disrespect!”
“You have earned your rights and so have I! I can call you ‘fucker’ if I want. And ‘coward’ and dickhead if I want. What are you going to do about it?”
Greg got a look in his eyes. He strode towards me like a male model on a caffeine high and grabbed my upper arms. “Someone should have done this to you a long time ago,” he said. I saw the muscles in his jaw jump from where he clenched his teeth so hard. Before I could puzzle out that last statement, Greg flung me over his knee and swatted my behind with the flat of one hand. Hard.