I sat down on my bed, picked up the receiver and dialled four digits. When the beep told me I was connected I entered my thirteen digits. I could feel my pulse travel through my clenched fist.
“Hello.” It was just one word but it felt a lot friendlier. I could tell Eke was glad to hear from me. “Good afternoon. Would you like me to…?”
“No, no. I wanted to speak to you.”
“Very well,” he said, sounding not in the least bit surprised. Somehow that threw me off. I forgot all I was going to say, what I had spent the past week rehearsing. I thought at that moment that I should have sent it by email as I was going to. I regretted not listening to myself, but it hadn’t seemed like a matter for email and now…
“Tell, Greg,” I took a deep breath. “Please tell Greg ‘I said the word’.”
I thought I heard an intake of breath but I wasn’t sure. “Hello? Eke are you still here?”
Eke cleared his throat. “Yes. The word. I will tell him what you said. Was there anything else?”
“No, just that. That’s it.”
“Thank you for calling.” He sounded slightly rushed.
When I put down the phone, I saw the tiny crescents left on my palm from where my nails had dug in too deeply.
I didn’t hear back from Greg. I felt like a fat fool. A fat-bottomed fool.
Food did not taste right in my mouth. My skirts got even looser at the waist. I cursed myself for being so stupid. I went on a purging spree, bundling up clothes and shoes I had worn in Nigeria and donating them to charity. I deleted names and numbers from my phone. Men just messed one up too much and I was resolved to do without them, at least for a while. I would discover myself again, learn to love myself; no fucking or confiding in or pining for anyone ever again.
I steeled myself.
And there was morning and there was evening for seven more days.
When I opened my eyes in the morning, it only took me a split second to I remembered what the day was. I sat upright, heart slamming into my chest, feeling sick. My bed was a boat on choppy waters. I took a deep breath and held it until I could feel pain explode into a million colours behind my eyelids. I exhaled and took another one repeating the process. The sick feeling began to abate. I didn’t let my feet touch my fluffy rug on the floor beside my bed until I was sure that it was completely gone.
I walked to the bathroom and was very generous with the toothpaste, enjoying the fiery minty taste. The nausea would think twice before returning. After I showered I eyed the outfit I had chosen the night before with some trepidation. Was it right? Too desperate? Would I come across as professional and passionate or an aloof ball buster? It was important to make just the right impression today. I hadn’t yet planned my life beyond the ‘Yes’ answer I hoped to receive from the CEO of the company buying my project. I yanked the trouser suit off the hanger before I could change my mind.
Ten minutes later, dressed, with my hair drawn up in a fat bun at the top of my head, I was out the door.
“Hey girlfriend,” said Jackie. She sashayed over from her own flat across the landing to mine.
“Hey Jackie,” I said. I turned around to lock the door before she could see my face. Jackie’s voice already told me she knew exactly how I was feeling. She was good at reading people, an emotional barometer.
“I got you this, it should help a little. I bet you didn’t eat any breakfast huh?”
“I couldn’t.” I tossed the keys in my bag and eyed the thermos cup in her hand. “What is it?”
“Something which will make you feel better. Try it,” said Jackie, shoving the cup under my nose. I took it from her, shaking my head.
“What?” she asked, hand on hip.
“You,” I took in her outfit this morning. Thick white wool trousers, a white shirt, monochrome claws and a long imitation fur and velvet embossed coat which looked as heavy as Victorian drapes. A black turban with a large black stone in front of it completed her look. The stone seemed to draw me into itself as I stared at it.
“You’re unbelievable Jackie,” I looked away from the stone. It reminded me of something reptilian, like an alien’s eye. “It’s not even nine o’clock in the morning. You look like you’re on the way to a film set to play Cruella Deville’s stunt double.”
“Thanks!” she beamed. “I have a little show in G-A-Y. It’s sort of an experimental burlesque thing based on Cruella. It’s only for a few days,” she shrugged. “I’m trying to get into character.”
“You didn’t tell me! Why didn’t you tell me?” I watched Jackie blush as well she should. A show in G-A-Y in Soho was huge.
“Well, you seemed like you never came back from Africa. What the hell happened to you in that place?” Jackie looked intently at me. I felt my face fall. Before I could say anything she was waving me away. “You tell me when you’re ready. If you want to. For now, drink up. You need some insulation against the cold.”
I wrestled with the lid of the thermos cup. My leather gloves though second-skin tight, felt clumsy against the cup. Tutting, Jackie took it from me. She frowned, fiddling with the lid. “The hell…?”
I was seized by my earlier doubt. “Jackie, what do you think of what I am wearing? Is it too much?”
“I don’t know why you’re asking me. You never listen to what I have to say,” Jackie struggled with the lid. “Open, you bastard.”
“Seriously, Jackie.” Something in the tone of my voice stopped her. She looked up.
“I always did think that coat suited you to the ground. A-line is so your cut.”
“No, not that,” I sighed, undoing my belt. When I held the coat open, Jackie breathed in deeply.
“Mm-hm,” Jackie nodded. “Unbutton an extra one at the top,” she said.
“Unbutton?” I asked.
She sighed. “Did I say that in Chinese?” she asked. I quickly obeyed. “You’ve got the nerves bad, huh.” She nodded at my heels. Jackie knew they were my shield, my mask, my war paint. The more worried or nervous, the higher the heels I wore. It was as if I wanted to put myself above whatever was troubling me, beyond its reach.
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t know why. It’s not like I can do anything about it. They already bought my project. It’s just paperwork now. Signing, shaking hands, maybe a photo for the archives.” I did up my coat
“Well,” said Jackie, beginning to struggle with the lid again. “You just make sure you’re front and centre at whatever photos they take. The way you look, they shouldn’t be able to forget you for a long time to come. Ah-ha!” She held the lid out, beaming triumphantly. Steam immediately rose up, filling the cooler corridor. It smelled of Christmastime and mulled wine, cinnamon and cloves, goodwill and peace towards all men. My spirits began to lift, the knot in my stomach to unfurl. I took a sip.
“Oh, Jackie,” I said, my eyes watered a little. “It’s delicious. I feel better already.”
“I’m sure the obsidian helped too,” she touched the stone in her turban. “It’s mean to draw out toxins from the body.”
I raised an eyebrow, sipping some more from the cup. The heat spread like the warmth of a lover’s caress all over my body.
“You’re welcome,” said Jackie, waving off my thanks. “Now off with you. Go quit your job in style like the queen that you are.”
Jackie was exaggerating a little as usual. I wasn’t quitting per se. It was my last day and management were all aware of it. Nevertheless, by the time I hit the revolving doors leading to the reception, I was ready for imaginary battle. The jacket of my suit sat squarely on my shoulders, my trousers creased and sharp; material, tweed.
I made sure my last day at work coincided with the day of the signing to this mysterious company that bought my project and to all intents and purposes were carrying out works and modifications to it. It was like nothing changed apart from the owners. Orji and his troops were retained to work on it. He had written me a nice email to say things were going swimmingly and that they all wished I was still their boss. It was all I could do not to weep and vomit with jealousy and longing. I couldn’t bring myself to work past the day of signing. There didn’t seem to be much to come to work for. But I had to see who the new owners were. I just had to. I owed myself that much.
The Marys were already at work as usual when I got in. “Morning girls,” I said.
“Oh, Mary. She’s got her armour on,” said the shorter of the two.
“I see that,” said Tall Mary. She adjusted her rimless spectacles after giving me a cursory glance over the tops of them. “But who is she fighting, Mary? Like as not, there is not battle.”
“No battle, no armour, just a lovely, peaceful last day. You’re getting paranoid in old age girls,” I swept past them into my office, now devoid of the small amount of personal stuff I had lurking in the drawers, sitting carefully on my seat to avoid creases. It would not do to look shabby before the meeting. I intended to intimidate whoever bought the company into employing me. Either that or seduce them into it. It would go a lot easier if I did not look like I had rolled out of bed.
“It’s good you got us to stay on you know,” began Tall Mary, speaking for the two of them as she always did. The smaller Mary’s hands flitted about like tiny birds. “But it won’t be the same without you.”
“What if they relocate us after you leave?” said the smaller Mary. “They mightn’t fire us. They might move us to conditions so unfavourable that we will be forced to quit. I don’t know how I can do anywhere else. My arthritis…”
“Hush, Mary,” said Tall Mary sternly. “We didn’t come here to complain.”
“No, I guess not. Sorry Abby. It’s just we’ve been so worried…”
“You have nothing to be worried about,” I assured her. “Nigel says he will work with you two until you want otherwise.”
“We came to give you this,” Tall Mary cut to the chase. She handed me a medium-sized gift bag stuffed full of pink tissue paper. Before I could begin to unwrap is, Nigel came bounding in. “Good morning, Mr…”
“Abby,” he nodded. “I see the present-giving has started without me.” Doreen walked in behind him from her last day downstairs. I smiled at her and she smiled back. She had been shadowing me since I had been back, although how much shadowing could someone who had done my job for more than a month really do?
“No, not really,” said the two Marys in unison. Small Mary’s fingers flittered like mad. Nigel raised an eyebrow.
“Yes.” He said and it was such a Nigel-ism that it tugged at my heart strings. I would miss him. Nigel had a way of saying loading words with such meaning, like saying ‘Yes’ when he meant ‘Oh are you not?’ and ‘I could have sworn you were giving presents,’ and ‘What’ that Abby’s trying to stuff into her drawers then?’. I quickly cut in before Small Mary could have a heart attack.
“I’ll open this later. Thank you girls.” They departed, Tall Mary almost propping up her friends.
Nigel barred his teeth. “Right. Briefing time, Abby, Doreen. The other heads of department should be here in a moment but I wanted us to go over a few things first.”
By noon, my stomach had worked my intestines into knots again. Jackie’s offering had vanished like the ghost of Christmas past and all I could taste in my mouth was the slightly acid taste of my own bowels. I could feel my teeth melting from the excess hydrochloric acid fumes.
“Well, it’s definitely an African company alright,” I said. “They are late.”
Doreen’s creamy complexion flushed. “I’m sure they have an explanation,” she said. But I knew she was thinking the same thing.
I checked my watch. “I’m off to the loos. Give me a ring if they arrive.”
In the loos I did my business and brushed my teeth with my ‘office toothbrush’, checking for squeakiness with my tongue. My phone did not ring so I took my time, reapplying my lipstick, applying clear gel mascara to my eyebrows, straightening my suit. Tall Mary burst in, her iron-grey curls askew.
“You left your phone on the desk…conference room C…” I didn’t need to hear more.
“Are you going to be alright?” I asked. She had turned an alarming shade of purple.
“Not young…you go,” she waved me off, hands on knees, panting. One more second to make sure she was not going to keel over and I was off, racing for the conference room. I was the last in, the door closing behind me with a soft ‘whoomp’. Nigel stood at the window doing what we called his ‘This is my kingdom’ sweeping gesture. He chose Conference room C whenever he had someone he needed to impress or intimidate, but whichever one he was doing it did not seem to be working on the newcomer.
The man beside Nigel stood as Nigel pointed out things in the glorious London landscape; the eye in the distance, the OXO tower, the Thames shimmering like a brown snake. Something about his body language made me uneasy. He looked as if he was barely listening, his body tense. Nigel must have felt his absentmindedness too because he clapped a hand on the man’s shoulder.
The man’s broad shoulders filled out his navy blue suit nicely and if I was not a bundle of nerves I would have stopped to appreciate it better. His brown brogues gleamed like it had been spit polished. His skin was as dark as…
Realisation hit me like a peal of thunder upside the head.
Through the hollowness echoing in my ears, I heard Nigel say: “Shall we begin then, ol’ chap?” I was aware of thinking he was acting like this was a date and he was eager to please. I knew he was eager to offload my dud project but it wasn’t as if this buyer-company was going to back out now, after paying as much as they had. It wasn’t as if this man was that sort of person. I knew who he was, this man. I knew him like I knew my own self.
“Yes. Let’s,” said the man and turned. Time stopped as he found my eyes and held it. It was Greg.
“Hello,” said a low voice. I turned in a daze. Eke stood beside me; sharp, suited and booted. My jaw dropped. “Greg said when I saw you I was to say, ‘Don’t freak out, Otito. I can explain everything.’”
I wasn’t listening. I was trying very hard not to scream out the thoughts in my head; He bought my project. The sonofabitch bought my project out from under me! He knew what it meant to me and he took it away! I will never forgive him.