Chioma sat at a far corner of the room. Her disheveled hair appeared thin at the edge. Her legs were stretched in front of her, criss-crossed like those of a penitent worshipper. She propped her head against the wall and peered at a band of spiders weaving cobwebs on the corrugated iron sheets. Occasionally, the iron sheets clacked as they contracted after being stretched by the day’s heat. In the early days of her arrival, she stirred at every sound until her eyes became slowly accustomed to the dark, and she could make out every corner of the room. The room was quiet except for the snore of two elderly women who shared the room with her.
The thud of moving feet on the corridor outside startled her. She knew it was not time for the evening meal. The women’s snoring made a low rumble. Flies perched on the used plates made a loud buzzing noise. There was a loud bang on their door.
She answered. She did not think the voice outside heard her. She barely heard herself. The door opened with a crack. The women turned, mumbled incoherent words and went on sleeping. The warder flashed torchlight round the room. The man’s face contorted at the stench in the room. She got up.
“A woman is here to see you.”
She could sense a mixture of anger and disgust in his voice. She followed him out, closing the door behind her.
Ducks and ostriches swam and glided across the lake outside their hotel room. Their colorful feathers made a glint on the water. The azure of the sky cast a blue shade on the lake, and she thought it appeared like the Mediterranean Sea, an advert she had seen on Disney Channel. Birds flew from shrub to shrub and sometimes made a circle dance in the air. Chioma loved this view. It enchanted her. Sometimes, the water made a low rumble before sailing down its tributaries. This was one of the reasons she preferred Nike Lake Hotel to the others, even Chief’s mansion in Independence Layout with the bougainvillea trees and the orchard. She could stand there at the balcony for hours at a stretch. Chief stayed with her sometimes when he got tired of listening to the news or talking endlessly with his friends on the phone or after a drinking spree at the bar. It was there that Chief had first called her Nwa mamiwota and sometimes when she stood alone and viewed the lake, she would imagine herself as a river goddess emerging out of the lake.
From where she stood, Chioma could only see a part of the raffia palm that formed the bar’s awning. Occasionally, loud music wafted from the stereo. Her legs wobbled. She got inside and switched on the TV. Kaakaki: The African Voice was showing on AIT. She remembered it was the last station they had tuned in to the last time they visited the hotel about a month ago. She sat on the Persian rug decorated with a maze of intricate flowers and munched an apple. The door handle turned. She gazed at it. It turned again and Chief walked in.
“Hey dear, tired already?”
He was shaken by her silence.
“Senator Ben joined us.”
She knew what that meant. More talks. More politics. More drinks and sometimes more girls. She did not doubt the fact that Chief went out with other girls. Had she any right to condemn him? Her thoughts wandered away. Chief rummaged through a stack of papers and envelopes in a closet drawer. She watched him with through the corner of her eyes. Chioma pretended not to hear his hisses and the words he said in snatches that Senator Ben’s envelope was supposed to be there. When Chief found the envelope in his portmanteau, he called out to her. She turned her gaze at him. Chief took the envelope and some stacks of papers and made for the door. He turned the handle and looked back.
“Chommy, are you alright?”
He walked back to her.
“Chioma, are you ok?”
Sure I am, she thought.
“You know you can always come with me if you are tired of being alone. Senator Ben is here, and we need to settle some issues.”
“Ok,” she mumbled.
“I’ll make it snappy.” Senator Ben was Chief’s friend and classmate from university and was helping Chief secure a senatorial ticket in the election just few weeks away.
She heard his brisk walk on the pavement. She resisted the urge to follow him downstairs. Chioma wished Chief were her father. She remembered Princess, Chief’s only daughter who was just a year older than her. Princess already had a master’s degree in Law from Harvard. Her mother and two brothers lived in London and visited Nigeria from time to time. She envied her. Chioma often dreamed of bragging about an elder sister in the US to her friends and course mates at the university. The musings in her mind lulled her to sleep.
She was startled from her sleep. An owl cried outside in the dark. She groped in darkness, yawning and trying hard to calm her mind. She wondered if they had experienced any power outage before in the hotel. Her legs hit something. She stumbled and staggered to her feet.
“Damn it” she cursed under her breath. She tried to remember where she had left her Blackberry Classic. Power was restored just then and the intensity of it flooded her eyes. She closed her eyes momentarily and opened them. It was past three. Chief lay on his back.
She tapped his hands. Froth gathered around his mouth. He felt very cold. She pushed him. He did not move. Chioma screamed and her mind went blank.
There was enough distance between her and the young woman. She was dressed in a pink peplum blouse and a long Ankara skirt with a leather handbag to match. Chioma took in the scent of her cologne. With a swipe of her right hand, the woman motioned her to sit on the bench. Chioma obeyed. The woman sat across her on a leather armchair. She had an air of elegance. Chioma observed the woman’s familiar features: the broad face, the small, squinting eyes, the thick eyelashes. Then, she remembered. Princess. Her eyes dilated. Princess stared at her. Chioma looked away. Several ants rolled a tiny piece of oiled yam on the floor, scurrying and darting into a hole at the edge of the table between them. Chioma opened her mouth, but the words were stuck in her throat.
“I am sorry.”
She drawled her words. She feared she had developed sore throat. The other woman kept quiet. The silence between them terrified Chioma. For a flicker of a second, Chioma thought what if things had been different and they had become friends? Chioma liked her in person just like she had admired her in pictures.
“I just wanted to see you.” Her accent sounded so American that Chioma could barely make out her words. The orange hue of dusk filtered in through the gaps in the window, the only one in the waiting room. Princess rose to go. Chioma stood and watched her make for the door. She wanted to tell her that she didn’t really know what happened that night at the hotel, but she couldn’t find her voice. When Princess got to the door, she said:
“Chief will be buried on Friday.”
A drop escaped Chioma’s eyes. The young woman disappeared through the door. She heard her drive away.
Chioma breathed in a fresh gust of air as she walked past the gate. The warder called out to her. She turned and bade him goodbye. The din from Ogbete Market was beginning to mount. The sound of moving cars and traders filled the air. She went to a nearby tree and brought out the note the warder had given her.
Take care of yourself.
It was written with a flourish. She peered into the envelope and saw a cheque.
Post image by QThomas Bower via Flickr
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