She was the first thing he saw as he entered Dimga’s place. She was standing by the cat-fish tank, staring intently at the fish. A waiter stood beside her pointing at the fish, willing her to make a choice. She had her back to Ebube but he was sure she was beautiful, maybe it had to do with the way she stood. Her hands were on her waist and her head slanted to one side like a model on a runway. Her short hair was dyed light brown, a couple of shades lighter than her caramel skin which seemed to glow softly in the orange evening sun. She wore a black singlet tucked into a loose fitting pair of Ankara shorts.
He tore his eyes away from her and allowed them rest on the compound. “Dimga’s place is always full,” his friend Ade had told him, “you might not even find a table.” He looked around the tables scattered across the compound, they were all taken, all but one. He made for the table and sat down. He noticed the book on the table after he had sat down, it appeared the table was taken as well. He hoped it was only one occupant, he decided to remain at the table, he would ask if he could share the table. He picked up the book, Sefi Atta’s “Everything Good Will Come” and strangely his eyes strayed to her and he felt a certainty it belonged to her. He was proven right when she joined him at the table.
“Do you mind if we share this table?” he asked as she pulled out the chair opposite him and sat down at the same table.
“Yes,” she smiled, “not at all.” Her face was perfect, with the large expressive eyes and their long lashes. His eyes roamed her face further, he took in the carefully carved brows, the dark purple lipstick, and noticed the pimple sitting on her short nose. The pimple didn’t diminish from her perfection. He averted his eyes and called for the waiter standing nearby.
“Good evening, what do I get you?” the waiter asked.
“A plate of Nkwobi,” he answered, “do you have Orijin, the small bottle?”
“We don’t, it’s the big bottle we have”
“You should have the palmwine,” the girl said.
“Yes, it’s very fresh, it was tapped today,” she said in an assuring tone. Ebube wanted to ask how she knew when the wine was tapped, did she work at the bar? Instead he found himself turning to the waiter, “I will have the palmwine then.”
“Okay sir,” the waiter said and was about to depart when Ebube realised he didn’t really know how they sold their palmwines here.
“Wait, how do you sell it, in bottles right?”
“Yes, in bottles,” the waiter replied.
“Just one bottle then,” Ebube said then added as an afterthought just before the waiter got out of earshot,“I hope they are not very big bottles”
“You can finish one bottle sir,” the waiter said with a laugh and the girl did too. A light chuckle that ended with a grunt, a very faint grunt. He loved her laugh.
“Aunty you nko?” The waiter had also realised he had not asked her for her own order.
“My Point-and-kill is on the way,” she answered. The waiter nodded and walked away. A saxophone solo filtered through the evening air, the girl shut her eyes for a moment and swayed to the music. Ebube smiled when he realized it was Fela Kuti’s “Gentleman” and he found himself moving his head to the afrojazz tunes.
“Eh?” Ebube was taken aback by the question.
“Why Nkwobi?” The girl repeated her question “Dimga’s place is popular for the Point-and-kill not the Nkwobi you just ordered”
“I was assured the Nkwobi here is very good”
“It is, but the Point-and-kill is way better”
“I don’t eat fish”
“Does it do anything to you?”
Ebube chuckled, “it doesn’t, I just don’t like fish”
“You will like this one”
“Do you work here? Or perhaps your father owns the place?” Ebube asked, “you are doing a great job selling it.”
She laughed, a deep throaty laugh this time around. “I live in the next compound,” she pointed “I come here when I have enough money to spare. Trust me, the Point-and-kill here is pure heaven especially when taken with chilled palmwine”
“I hear you,” Ebube said, “it…” she cut in before he could continue
“Hold on, I love this part of the song so much,” she declared and sang along “Africa hot, I like am so, I no want wear…, but my friends don’t know. You put on socks, you put on shoe, you put on pant, you put on singlet, you put on trouser, you put on shirt, you put on tie, you put on coat, you come cover all with hat, you be gentleman. You go sweat all over, you go faint right there, you go smell like shit, you go piss for body you no go know. Me, I no be gentleman like that, I be African man, original.”
“You are dressed for the heat,” he said when she stopped singing along.
“You too,” she said giving him a quick over with her eyes. He was wearing a shirt and shorts, the heat had been so much he hadn’t bothered to wear a singlet.
“It is too hot,” he defended. The waiter returned with Ebube’s order in a tray. He placed the small mortar containing the pieces of meat drenched in spicy oil paste and palmwine contained in a small eva water bottle.
“Your Point-and-kill is almost ready ma,” the waiter said as he filled a basin of water for Ebube to wash his hands.
“Join me before yours come,” he said as he washed his hands.
“Thank you, but I do not want to spoil my appetite,” she said “and it is just one plate”
“I can order for more”
“You should try the isi ewu.” He smiled at her then dipped his fingers into the mortar and emerged with a large piece of meat covered in oil. The aroma filled his head and his mouth watered. He bit into the chunk of meat and tore flesh off the bone. His eyes closed involuntarily, his taste buds coming alive as he chewed the meat, crushing tender meat and onion. The pepper set his tongue on fire but he swallowed the piece of flesh and picked up another and another till all that was left was an inedible piece of bone. She was watching him with an amused smile on her face as she watched him eat.
“This is the best Nkwobi I ever had”
“Wait till you taste the Point-and-kill.”
The waiter arrived just then with another tray and carefully placed the cat-fish pepper soup before her and her bottle of palmwine.
“Can you bring another spoon?” She asked the waiter. The waiter nodded, Ebube poured himself a glass of palmwine.
“Do you have isi ewu?” he asked the waiter. The man nodded, “bring us a plate”.
“Us?” she asked.
“ Since I am eating your fish with you,” he said as the waiter left, “it’s only fair.” She nodded.
“It’s my birthday today,” Ebube blurted. He had not planned to tell her, he just wanted to say something to her.
“Oh really? A toast is in order then,” she poured herself a glass of palmwine and raised it up. He noticed her dainty fingers and black nail polish. He admired the bracelets on her wrist, they were handmade. The kind that spelt names, the first one spelt YUGEE and the second MMA.
“So, what’s your name,” she was saying.
“To Ebube,” he raised his glass too, “I wish you long life and prosperity, I wish you happiness and joy, good health and strength and many more years,” their glasses met. Ebube sipped the cold wine and knew he would keep coming back to this place.
“Are you Ugomma?” He asked pointing at her bracelets
“No, Ugbomma,” she said and took a spoonful of her fish pepper soup.
“Ugbomma, that’s a beautiful name.” She smiled in a manner that spoke of one who was used to hearing the same lines over and over.
“I’m sorry, that sounded a little cliché,” he mumbled and quickly took a sip of his wine to as cover up his embarrassment.
“It was terribly cliché.”
“But your name is beautiful,” he repeated.
“Thank you,” The waiter came and handed Ebube the spoon. He rinsed his oily hand and took a spoonful of the steaming soup,
“Don’t just take the soup, take the fish too,” she said. He obeyed and as he chewed the fish, she watched him keenly, as if expecting him to make an epiphany of sorts. Ebube found out he enjoyed it. The way the fish melted in his mouth, the taste could not compare with anything else he had ever eaten.
“This is so good.”
She smiled smugly, “I told you so. So, it’s your birthday, eh, why are you here?”
“Here and not at a party or perhaps the mall?’
“The mall is such a pedestrian thing to do on one’s birthday,” he said dismissively. She smiled and put her spoon back on the plate then kept her head on her hand.
“Everybody does that, go to the mall on their birthday, roam around the shops, buy cake and maybe ice cream, take a gazillion selfies and flood Facebook with the photos”
“Hmm,” she nodded thoughtfully.
“Don’t get me wrong. I love the mall, I go when I can, mainly to the cinema or to Coldstone, the ice cream is to die for. But to go on my birthday like there is something special about malls is not something I want to do.”
“So you are here”
“Yes,” he said and made to pour himself another cup of palmwine only to find he had finished the bottle. he hid his disappointment and continued, “as for the party, I am sure there is one waiting for me at home, my roommate is trying to surprise me. Discretion is not really his strong suit.”
“So you’re a student” she said with a chuckle.
“I am, at Umudike,” The waiter came again with a large mortar containing a goat head soaked in oil like the Nkwobi and garnished with onion rings and vegetables.
“Can I have another bottle of pammy please,” he requested.
“Me too,” Ugbomma said. It was already dark now, night had crept up on them. The compound was now lit by coloured bulbs on the trees, there was a green bulb in the tree just behind Ugbomma and Ebube marvelled at how beautiful she looked, even under the reflection of the green light.
“What are you studying there?” she asked
“Really?” her tone was incredulous, “I was expecting you to mention an art discipline, that is exactly how you sound.”
“You don’t look like one to stereotype,”
“I know right”
“Well, I write too,” he said and picked the last piece of meat from the mortar.
“That’s awesome, what do you write?”
“For now, short stories, spoken word.”
“I have a burden, I feel that every young African should know, that Africa is moving forward. That our place is not in the rear, that it is time we stop running away and wear Africa proudly, that it is time we stop conforming and be who we are supposed to be else we might be left behind, because the change is inevitable. So it is a subplot or the main plot in many of my stories, Africa.” He dumped the last bone in the Nkwobi mortar and faced the goat head.
“That is just beautiful,” she said, her eyes expressing just how much in awe she was
“I must read something of yours.”
“I have a blog”
“Great, send me the link on WhatsApp,” she brought out her phone and pushed it towards him. “Type in your number.” He smiled when he saw the Game of thrones wallpaper. He typed with his free left hand and pushed the phone back to her. The waiter came back with their bottles of palm wine and left after placing them on the table.
Ebube’s phone vibrated in his pocket.
“That’s me calling,” Ugbomma said as he reached into his pockets. “save my number”
“What do you do?” He asked after saving her number.
“I am a student, computer science at Ife” she answered “I am an artist also, I paint”.
“Let me show you some of my work,” she took her phone and scrolled to the photo gallery. The first painting she showed him was a painting of a road. A busy road with cars and buses littered all over and people struggling to get across. It was chaotic, beautiful chaos. In the background was the large façade of a building, on the top were three letters REX.
“I know this place, it is Aba, it is park, Aba”
“Yes it is”
“This is so beautiful, so realistic, I feel like I can touch the man in red shirt”
“This painting is on display at the National Art Gallery”.
“Wow, that is awesome, congrats”
“Thank you,” she said. “What rules your mind, your machines or your stories?” She asked.
“Africa, how I can contribute to her greatness, be it by my stories or my machines,” he replied. “And you, computers or the canvass?”
“Computers, they are such intricate beings, there is so much sophistication to them in the way that can be so small and yet so big at the same time. They enthrall me. The canvas comes second, a close second.” Ebube nodded and tore flesh away from the goat head and ate, it was divine – the goat meat flavour, different from that of any other meat, coated in the spicy oil goo.
“This is better than the nkwobi, even better than your point-and-kill,” he said. She chuckled and pushed away the now empty fish pepper soup plate and tore a piece from the goat head and ate. “It is very good, almost as good as the fish”, she said as she chewed. “You know that they boil the brain, then mash it and mix it with the oil paste, it adds to the unique taste.”
The long intro of Fela’s ITT was playing as they ate the goat head until there was nothing left. They drank and talked and talked, about books, movies, Game of thrones, school, aspirations after school and the future.
“You know Olanna is premiering this weekend,” Ebube mentioned
“Yes, Genevieve Nnaji and Nwokoye, my two best actresses. The trailer almost brought me to tears”
“Kunle Afolayan cannot disappoint”
“You want to go see it with me?” Ebube dared to hope. He continued in one breath, “on Friday”
She smiled, “I did love to.” Ebube smiled too, his heart returned to its normal beating pace, he hadn’t realized it was racing.
“What’s it with the Fela songs?” Ebube asked a moment later as ITT ended
“Dimga is obsessed with very old songs,” she said with a laughing “he claims that it adds character to his establishment.”
“It does though”
As if Dimga had heard Ebube’s question, another song filled the night, this time Onyeka Onwenu’s Iyogogo. Ugbomma laughed loudly as the afro beats rose into the air,
“I love this song,” she said and began moving in her seat.
“Do you want to dance?” Ebube asked. He didn’t know when the question left his mouth, the palmwine had pushed them out. She nodded and he stood and stretched out his hand to her, she took it and they walked to the middle of the compound. They danced till their feet ached and found themselves lost in the sounds of the peals of their laughter.
Ebube did not hear Dimga’s gate shoved open rudely, his ears were filled with Ugbomma’s laughter as he unsuccessfully tried to sing along with Sir Victor Uwaifo’s Joromi. He had his hands on her tiny waist as they danced to the song, Ugbomma twisting her waist this way and that. He let out a shriek as a blow landed on his shoulder and he turned to see where the blow had come from.
“Take your hands off my daughter, osiso,” a heavy set woman barked at him. Ebube saw the resemblance even in the dim lights, the short nose and the dark eyes. Only that this woman’s eyes looked tired, like the many stories they had to tell weighed them down. Ebube removed his hands immediately from Ugbomma’s waist as the woman raised her hand to hit him again. She looked like a raging bull wrapped in many layers of cloth. She wore a long skirt that would have been sweeping the ground if she hadn’t pulled it up to her stomach, an unflattering shirt that seemed to want to bury her and a head scarf that swallowed her hair, ears and most of her face. Ebube decided she was coming from church.
“Mummy, good evening,” Ugbomma greeted as if she was unaware of the rage that burned in her mother’s eyes.
“What are you doing here? Why didn’t you come to prayers, eh?” The woman bellowed
“We were in church yesterday, and the day before, and the one before that,” Ugbomma said looking around in a bid to avoid her mother’s gaze. She added under her breath so that her mother wouldn’t hear “if Jesus wanted us to live in his house, he would have said so.”
“Eh?” Her mother asked, “what did you say?” Ugbomma didn’t say answer, “instead of coming to church, you are here frolicking with a boy,” she threw Ebube a dirty look, then grabbed her daughter’s wrist “Oya let’s go home,” she dragged her “you always feel like you know so much, stupid girl”
“See you Friday,” Ugbomma said to Ebube as she allowed her mother drag her away. Ebube stood transfixed as he watched her being pulled away.
“And what is this you are wearing?” He heard her mother ask
“It is very hot, mum, I would melt if I was to dress like you…” she said and her voice faded into the night. Ebube discovered then that Sir Victor Uwaifo’s Joromi was still playing, albeit coming to an end. Only a few people had taken notice of the little scene that had just played out, Reflecting on it, he found the little scene very amusing and he still smiling as he made his way out of Dimga’s place, thoughts of Ugbomma following him.
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