“I’m told that Susan has already shown you how everything works.” He said, “This is your new station. If you need any help come to me or any of the floor managers and we’ll be glad to assist you. It’s a pity you only work part time as we need more hard workers like yourself. If you put in enough hours you will go very far in this organisation.”
“Thank you, sir.” Nkiru said, “I would love to help out more. Perhaps during the next semester break.”
“Where are you studying by the way?” the manager said.
“The University College at Ibadan.”
“Really?” his eyes lit up with admiration, “you must be very intelligent. UCI is an excellent school! And what are you studying, by the way?”
“Engineering, Sir.” Nkiru sat at the checkout counter and braced herself for the next question, “machine design engineering.”
“Machine design engineering…”
“Wonderful,” the man let out a squeaky laugh, “a woman studying engineering? What do you need an engineering degree for?”
Nkiru bit gently into her lower lip as she wiped the dusty counter with a stash of paper napkins.
“Wow,” the manager was momentarily lost for words, “a woman reading engineering.” He muttered to himself as he walked away.
“Don’t mind him,” Susan chuckled from an adjacent counter. “What’s wrong with a woman studying engineering? He must feel intimidated now – foolish man who only has a secondary school certificate to his name but prances about as if he knows it all. Maybe you should have told him you were studying domestic science.”
“Why should I lie?” Nkiru said, “I’m proud of my profession. If he feels threatened then that’s his problem, not mine.”
“What do you mean ‘if’ he feels threatened?” Susan hissed, “Men always feel threatened by intelligent women. Or have you not noticed? You always have to make yourself seem less than you are else you’ll be accused of blatant arrogance.”
“Are you speaking from personal experience then?”
Susan clipped her name badge on, “my dear, wait until you get married,” she said, “You’re just a small girl for now. Very soon you will know how petty and jealous men really are.”
“But it can’t be all men, surely not?”
“Ninety nine point nine percent of them are,” Susan adjusted her chair in readiness for the day’s work, “anyway, congratulations on your promotion. If you need any help I’m just a stone’s throw away. We women have to start looking out for one another.”
“Thank you,” Nkiru said as the security staff unlocked the doors and ushered the first batch of shoppers in, “any New Year resolutions?”
“Hmm,” Susan laughed, “I’ve now given up on New Year resolutions. Last year I swore to lose weight and ended up fatter! My sister, let’s just see what the New Year holds for us.”
Nkiru believed that the New Year would be a remarkable one. It was 1960 after all, the year of the inevitable. On January 12th the federal House of Representatives had met for the first time, passing a motion for the country’s independence two days later. Now it was being rumoured that Sir Tafawa Balewa, the first elected prime minister of the federation, would be travelling to London shortly for final handover preparations.
The papers were full of sanguine rhetoric, the atmosphere sated with promise. Soon, very soon, there would be a new Nigeria, a free Nigeria… and Nkiru now knew the possibilities freedom would bring. Already a new university was being built at Nsukka, a full fledged university that would award proper Nigerian certificates – unlike University College Ibadan… the glorified annex that still bequeathed London degrees.
The morning was swift and by midday the stores were packed with shoppers keen to restock after the Christmas festivities. Long queues formed as pot bellied Indians, pungent Lebanese, sunburnt Europeans and smug natives pressed toward the counters with loaded baskets. Nkiru worked quickly: smiling as the customers took turns before her, proffering greetings, searching for price tags, entering decimal figures in the cash machine, supervising the junior workers who packed goods into labelled waterproof bags, printing out receipts, answering random questions and nodding goodbye as each punter walked away.
Checkout work had looked so much easier whilst she stacked shelves, so much more befitting, now she felt ‘under fire’, constantly harried by the petulant backlog. Still she managed to keep her cool, hide her panic under an unruffled exterior, work faster and faster each hour until all the faces before her blurred into a giant mask and the sound of the cash register drowned out everything else. However, an hour before closing time, when a bottle of red wine suddenly slipped out of her hand and crashed to the ground, her confidence was shaken.
“Chineke,” a male customer exclaimed, “just look at this!”
Nkiru stared at the floor as the store grew silent, curious eyes burrowing into her flesh like little spears. When she realised that the broken pieces would not magically reform and that her continued silence could be mistaken for a cerebral deficit of some sort, she took a deep breath, looked up and said to the customer, “I am terribly sorry about this.” And then turning to the junior attendant added, “Please get a brush, a dustpan and a mop. Tidy up before anyone steps on the glass.”
The customer was a tall man with skin the colour of dark raisin. His face was narrow, so narrow that his lips, which were parched in certain places, appeared too wide, too high. His nose looked lost, dwarfed by the mountain of lips and angry grey eyes which shone beneath puckered brows. His dark hair glistened slightly with hairspray; hair bushy enough to rake whole fingers through, hair which ventured to the very edge of his forehead as if the scalp wasn’t enough room for it. His cheeks were just starting to sprout hair between clean shaves, his sharp jaw demarcated into equal halves by a faint cleave and his Adam’s apple throbbed as he swallowed a mouthful of irate spittle.
Nkiru did not fully comprehend his annoyance until she noticed that he was dressed in a two piece suit the colour of an egg yolk and shoes made out of suede. The spilt wine had left zigzag streaks which now made his stylish outfit look like a painter’s overalls.
“First I have to wait in a queue for nearly an hour,” he spread out his hands with disbelief, “and now this?”
“I am so sorry,” Nkiru said as the attendant eagerly tackled the mess, “the bottle must have had some liquid detergent smeared on it. It just… slipped out of my hand.”
“It’s her first day, sir.” Susan apologised, “I’ve asked someone to get you another bottle of wine.”
“It’s okay,” the man shrugged, suddenly discomfited by the outburst, “I’ll just… come back some other time, I guess.”
The tension lingered for a moment as he walked away, but after the attendant wiped the last bit of liquid off the floor, the crowd pressed forward as eagerly as before.
“Don’t mind the yeye man,” Susan said at closing time an hour later, “if he knew he was going to participate in a beauty pageant then why come to the supermarket in the first place?”
“Who said he was participating in a pageant?” Nkiru placed currency in various compartments according to their denomination.
“Well, why else would he come to Leventis wearing such fancy clothes?” Susan hissed, “Or is he looking for a wife?”
“I’m really sorry about what happened,” Nkiru sighed, “I’ve never dropped anything in my life. And everything was going so well…”
“Don’t worry about it, my dear,” Susan said, “everyone makes mistakes. Just imagine that nasty man making everybody stare at you.”
“He wasn’t that nasty. Many men would have done worse.”
“Why are you defending him?” Susan spoke with her mouth open as she put on a fresh layer of lipstick, “would you make such a fuss if somebody soiled your cloth at the supermarket?”
“Probably not,” Nkiru pushed the cash machine shut, “although you would, Susan. I know you very well.”
“But you’re a fine lady,” Susan laughed, “or is he blind? What ever happened to gentlemanly spirit? Anyway, let’s forget it. The yeye man is gone and we’re never going to see him again.”
Susan was wrong. Three days later when Nkiru saw the man making his way to the checkout section, her intestines seemed to knot about her lungs.
‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ the softer, sweeter, voice said, ‘just look away and pretend not to notice him.’
‘Oh no, he’s coming closer,’ another voice said, ‘he’s going to ask for the manager, file a complaint and make you pay for the posh outfit you ruined! You would never be able to afford the trousers let alone the shoes. Do you remember those suede shoes?’
‘It wasn’t your fault. The bottle was slippery. Everybody makes mistakes.’
‘Ah, look! There are ten people in Susan’s queue and two in yours. He’s heading for yours. Are you going to drop the entire basket this time?’
‘Smile and keep a straight face. Don’t let him rattle you!’
“Hello,” the man placed his basket on the counter, “I see it’s not so busy today. How are you doing, by the way?”
“Fine, thank you,” Nkiru reached in the basket and retrieved a can of baked beans. ‘He is trying to be nice,’ she thought, ‘he must feel bad about what happened, blame himself for giving me a bit of a hard time.’
Awkward silence stood between them as she found the price tag on the can and punched numbers into the cash machine. The smell of his aftershave was manly and sweet and overpowering.
‘Apologise again,’ a voice said, ‘apologise for what you did.’
‘You’ve already apologised,’ the voice said, ‘carry on as normal.’
The man’s eyes roamed Nkiru’s face as she reached in the basket and retrieved a loaf of white bread. Next came several tins of sardine, packets of sausages, Lipton tea, butter… She was breathing normally now as she punched numbers into the machine and added them up in her head just to make sure, she was feeling better now as he peeled his eyes away and focused on a stack of greeting cards on a nearby rack. However, her heart skipped a beat when her hand fished out another bottle of wine, same as the one she’d dropped the last time.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ a voice said, ‘Stop panicking or you’re going to break it.’
The bottle slipped out of her hand and rolled across the counter.
“Watch it,” the man shrank backwards, guarded even though he only wore a pair of black trousers and worn out leather sandals this time around.
Nkiru reached for the bottle and tried to stop it from rolling over the edge, but the cash machine restricted much of her movement.
‘You’re going to lose this job!’ a voice said, ‘you’re going to get into trouble this time for sure.’
She stood to her feet and stretched over the counter, sucking in air as the bottle tipped over the edge, but as she braced herself for the sound of shattering glass and the splash of crimson liquid, the man leaned forward and caught the bottle by its long, slender, neck.
“Here,” he smiled faintly as he placed it on the countertop, “I must make you nervous, for some reason.”
“Thank you,” a sigh of relief screeched through her nostrils as she sat back down, “and it’s not you,” she picked the bottle up and searched for signs of leakage, even prayed that half its label would be sodden with bright, sticky, washing up liquid, in her defence. “Sometimes batches aren’t properly sealed by the manufacturers.”
“You should file a complaint,” he shoved his hands in his trouser pockets, “notify the suppliers or someone.”
“I will do that,” Although the bottle was clean, Nkiru wiped it with a paper napkin before placing it in a carry bag. “Have a good day.” She stopped short of saying ‘sir’ because she suddenly realised that he was young, twenty five, twenty six at the most.
“Thanks,” he slipped his snakeskin wallet in his breast pocket after he’d paid for the goods, “have a nice day.”
She noticed him every weekend henceforth, the intriguing man whose name she didn’t even know. Long before he reached the checkout, she would smell the woody fragrance of his aftershave and search him out quickly, peeping from the corner of her eyes. He queued at her station without fail, even when hers was busiest he waited anyway. Sometimes he said hello, sometimes he merely nodded or greeted with his eyes alone. For some reason she was uncomfortable whenever he approached, worried that it was the sweat that suddenly seeped out of her palms that made the bottles turn slippery.
The third time he’d brought wine to the counter, she’d first wiped her hands on her skirt, held her breath until the transaction concluded – surprisingly without hitches. If truth be told, the man’s presence made her nervous. When he looked at her she wondered if part of her lipstick had worn away as she ate lunch, sometimes she even feared that he would hear the sound of her heart lurch. One week she thought of asking for his name, toyed with the idea of making longer conversation but when he reached the counter her tongue gummed to the bottom of her mouth.
“Wow, how do you do that?” he said when she told him the total cost of the items in the bag.
“How do I do what?” She said, wondering if he could see her tongue.
“You can tell the total without looking at the machine,” he said, “you add up all those numbers in your head?”
Nkiru was tempted to smile until she saw the look in his eyes that said ‘you poor girl, what are you doing wasting your life in this supermarket?’
“Yes I can,” she shrugged nonchalantly, “have a nice day.”
Still she couldn’t get him out of her mind. The more she saw him the handsomer he became – the more his nose, his lips, his Adam’s apple seemed perfectly shaped and sized, flawlessly justified. Although he was not good looking in a generic way, he had an aura about him, oozed majesty as he walked with his head held erect and his shoulders straightened. She could tell he was Igbo by his accent, by the way he said ‘chai’ every time she told him what the bill was.
‘These bits and pieces really add up, don’t they?’ he would add.
‘Yes, they do.’ She would say.
Still he always paid for the shopping in shiny notes and often he would ask her to keep the change.
‘Have a nice day,’ she said firmly as she bundled his change along with the lengthy receipts.
‘Have a nice day.’ He shrugged as he made a hasty retreat.
Week by week she became intimately acquainted with him. Who else knew that he drank Lipton tea, loved baked beans and bacon, washed with Imperial Leather, wore St Michael’s underpants and used laundry starch on his shirts? He didn’t need to tell her, didn’t need to prove himself at all. The contents of his shopping basket gave him away.
(c) Ọgọ Akubue-Ogbata, Priceless Books (c) Oct 1st 2009
Available at Amazon. For autographed copies, go to the author’s website: http://www.elpwoman.com
To get this novel for free in the Bella Naija Giveaway, go here
About The Novel –
Egg-Larva-Pupa-Woman is the story of a privileged Nigerian girl whose life is disrupted by a series of unusual events and the loss of innocence as she knows it. Striving to survive in the wake of her country’s independence from British rule, she meets an aspiring diplomat with radical political views, a man who asks for more than she knows how to give. They embark on a love affair but can she put the past behind her or will her scandalous secret destroy everything?
Set in the politically charged colonial and post-independence Nigeria (as well as the vibrant capitals of Uganda, Sierra Leone and Britain), Egg-Larva-Pupa-Woman explores the vicious cycle of violence, corruption and rejection as well as the triumph of love over fear. Written with passion, poetry and deceptive simplicity, this is a story of womanhood (sisters and daughters, mothers and wives who metamorphose over time) juxtaposed with a nation’s fight for freedom, fall from grace and pursuit of an elusive destiny.
Egg-Larva-Pupa-Woman: Buy it. Read it. Love it!
Available at Amazon. For autographed copies, go to the author’s website: http://www.elpwoman.com