Ben sat in the spacious living room in Bella’s house and stared at the white rug with a black flower at the center. He wondered how anyone could have a white rug, how did they maintain it? His eyes travelled to the soft grey chairs that formed a semi-circle in front of a glass table upheld by a gleaming black wood. Everything seemed so precise. There were no flowers, pictures or paintings on the white marble walls. Above him, the chandelier sparkled with white light. It was all either black, white or grey. Focusing his attention on the black 60 inch LED television, he tried to concentrate on the fashion show that was airing.
A dark-skinned woman wearing a light blue knee-length gown and a red-checkered apron came into the room bearing a tray filled with some cookies, cashew nuts and a can of soft drink. She set them on a black stool he hadn’t seen earlier, and left him without a word. Her silence reminded him of Faith, she had refused to pick up his calls or replied to any of his messages.
He waited for her to disappear back into the kitchen before he threw some nuts into his mouth and opened the drink with a soft pop.
“This custom-made jewelry is valued at twenty thousand dollars,” the red-haired host of the fashion show was saying. Raising her black painted nails to the display of diamond jewelry behind a glass.
Ben whistled and shook his head disapprovingly. “Twenty thousand dollars. These people don chop belleful!”
The sound of flat rubber hitting smooth tiles caused him to sit up. Bella descended the stairs behind him, wearing a long loose white gown embroidered with dark green sequins. Her long straight hair was pulled to one side and lay smoothly on her breast. She flicked some of it away from her eye and smiled.
“Sorry I kept you waiting.”
“No problem ma…” he said, rising hastily to his feet.
“I’ve told you to stop calling me ma!” she replied with feigned annoyance.
Ben smiled awkwardly, feeling uncomfortable with the demand for familiarity.
“You’re feeling better?” she sat on the couch, crossing her legs gracefully, her red-painted toenails peeking out from under her dress.
“Yes ma… yes.”
“Good. All right then, let’s get straight to business. I want you to paint me and like I said, I will pay you two hundred thousand naira for it. My fiftieth birthday is coming up and I want it to be mounted on this wall when people come to visit me,” she pointed at the wall beside her.
“No problem, where is the picture you want me to paint from?”
“Picture? Who said anything about a picture? I will sit for you.”
“Do you have a problem with that?”
“No, not at all. Not at all. When do we start?”
“I don’t have my instruments here…” he replied nervously.
She looked at him with a mixture of disappointment and scorn. “Come here tomorrow, at eleven o’clock sharp.”
She got up without another word and left him staring after her, her dress billowing like the wings of a white bird.
He saw her at the car park, picking up the dark blue purse that had fallen to the ground. This time around, she was wearing a loose black and grey ankara gown, her head was covered in the same silk grey scarf. He pulled up beside her brown KIA Picanto and got out quickly.
“Good morning madam!”
“Doctor,” she smiled gently, clutching her purse under her arm.
“How are you today?”
She clasped her hands together and exhaled. “I started used my medication two nights ago.”
“That’s good! That’s very good!”
There was an awkward silence between them.
“So, are you just coming in?”
“No, no, I’m actually leaving.”
“Oh…” he was unable to mask his disappointment. “Which of the doctors did you meet?“
“Dr Goriola, I think.”
“Okay, he’s a good doctor.”
She looked down at her hands for want of what to say and he saw the way her bushy eyelashes covered her eyeballs, and the slight pout of her mouth. She licked her lips and scratched her forehead gently. He thought of how her small body had felt in his big arms.
“I should be going.”
“Okay then, Err… here’s my card. If you need anything, just call. Let’s overcome this depression together hmm?”
“Thank you Doctor.”
“Please call me Gbenga.” he said with his hand outstretched.
She shook the tips of his fingers limply and got into her car.
Chidi sat in his car and ate the lunch his wife had prepared for him quickly. The line of customers in the banking hall was getting longer. He stirred the rice and egusi soup in his food container together, scooped some of it into his mouth and looked up at the rearview mirror. He could see the market behind him bustling with activity. Two women were fighting, one was seated behind a pile of tomatoes, rearranging them. The other was walking away with a black polythene bag, and pointing back at her, her eyes filled with spite. Some distance away from them was a white truck with a yellow banner on it, advertising cheaper airtime rates. In the open space behind the driver, three young ladies were shaking their backsides vigorously to the music blaring from the speakers beside them.
In front of them, a young man was yelling at the top of his voice, “Buy your sim card! Two in one! Any amount you load, is times three! Load hundred naira, get three hundred, two hundred naira, get six hundred, three hundred naira, get nine hundred and so on and so forth! This one na better awoof!”
Chidi pulled his eyes away from them and shook his head. He was tired of working in this branch and with the bank but he saw no way out. Picking up the little, fried beef sitting inside the food container with his right hand, he clamped his teeth into it and pulled hard. The meat was hard. He sighed, sank his teeth further into it and pulled harder. The stew around it sprayed all over his face, the top of his light blue shirt and into his left eye.
He dumped the food on the passenger’s seat and grabbed the bottle of water on it. Cupping his hand and pouring some of the water into it, he began to wash his eye furiously. He sat back in his chair traumatized and stared at the offending meat and his soiled shirt. He leaned his head back on the headrest when his official mobile phone rang.
“Hello, this is Chidi,” he said tiredly.
“Hello Chidi,” a familiar feeble voice said.
“Who’s speaking please?” he asked suspiciously.
“It’s Job, have you thought about my proposition?”
“What proposition? Which Job?”
“It will only be for two months, I know I offered you one million but I’m prepared to go higher. What about two million?”
Chidi looked at the phone in shock. “Please don’t call this number anymore…”
“Think about your lovely wife and your two children, and aren’t you tired of working in a small bank in the middle of the market? What about your brother, the one who studies in Canada, how is he going to cope with his studies if you don’t send him money…?”
“Hey, listen to me! Don’t ever call this number again!!!”
He hung up, threw the phone on the passenger’s seat and stared at it bewildered.
Ben followed the maid who had served him the other day, she led him up a flight of marble stairs. The smell of barbecued meat and frying stew assailed his senses as he tried to concentrate on the task ahead. They stopped in front of a small sitting room with light brown, high armchairs and she signaled that he should go in. She came back in a short while with a plate of spicy red jollof rice, a piece of barbecued chicken and a carton of juice.
Just as he was finishing his meal, Bella came in wearing a yellow button-down shift dress.
“Good morning ma…” he greeted, rising hastily.
“You’re such a slow learner,” she replied with a drawl.
“I’m sorry… Bella.”
She sat opposite him and crossed her legs. “Are you ready?”
Setting the plate aside, he began to arrange his canvas and brushes.
He observed her for a while. “It’s a little too dark, I need to open the curtain slightly…”
When he returned, he looked at her once more, dipped his brush into the brown paint and began to stroke the white canvass with it.
“Tell me about yourself,” she said, looking at him intently.
He hesitated for the fraction of a second. “I studied fine arts at the University of Ibadan, I have been painting since. I love art.”
She waited. “That’s all you’re going to say?”
“I don’t know what else to say…”
“What kind of music do you like?”
She held up her finger and grabbed the remote by her side. In a moment, the sound of Afro-beat emanated from the speakers behind her.
“I used to love Afro-beat, a long time ago. I don’t like it much anymore, it brings back a lot of memories.”
“I’m playing it for you. You seem tense, you need to relax. Tell me about your girlfriend.”
He smiled sadly and continued to paint. “Her name is Faith, but she doesn’t want me anymore.”