by Eboka Chukwudi Peter
“So, how long have you been fucking?”
It was a question deliberate in its intent, designed to alarm, to beach the coquettish charm he’d in their two weeks of online exchanges grown accustomed to. And yet she sat staring at him across the table, her eyes huge unblinking saucers, a slight twitch on her eyebrows, reined in as quickly as it had appeared, the only betrayal of her curated calm.
A sharp crackle split the air of the restaurant and the fly that had been buzzing angrily overhead plummeted earthwards, its tiny wings separated from its body by the snarl of the pulsing Electrolux. He tracked its descent, bottle body and treacherous wings floating down to join its mates at the corner of the window, his stomach lurching at their morbid congregation, little corpses in dusty cobwebs wrapped, ghastly hollows by haunting spiders discarded.
He dragged his eyes back across the table and submitted once more to her steely consideration. A glint crouched in the corners of her dark brown eyes, her lips aquiver beneath their marauding intensity as she worked a piece of gum frenetically: squashed and invigorated, tossed east and parried west, a bright pink mash its essence lost against the pubescent clean of her tongue.
“That’s a rather rude question to be asking, don’t you think?” the words sludged off her tongue like motor oil. Smooth and reinforced. Calm.
Her appearance whispered privilege, her voice soft and non-tonal, the words from her thin lips measured out in tiny portions, carefully, with a side of foreign twang. Her command of the language was good; a mime out of rhythm with skin that was supple and shiny, a capture of gleam on it as freshly lacquered wood. So young and unblemished did it appear in the weathered lights of the restaurant that he began to question, in their marinating awkwardness, the 18 years on her Tinder profile.
Fled from her gaze, from its boring intensity, he let his eyes wander the room. It was mid-morning on a Tuesday in the capital city, the people by their industry entombed in the surrounding high-rises, the restaurant in that pre-lunch twilight a sparse and desolate calm.
Across the room, and partly obscured by a large granite counter, a female attendant, sweaty and flustered, tonged treats into a show glass. A doorman, peevish in a wretched blue and yellow uniform stood by the glass and aluminium doors peering at the morning without. The only other patrons in the restaurant, two men in greasy overalls, sat beneath a dusty alcove enraptured in an animated congress.
“What did you say you did again?” she asked, a loud pop from her chewing gum punctuating the query, courting in the quiet morning, the tender of inquiring eyes.
He shifted on the paisley patterned chair, an itch in the pit of his arms, a knot contracted, settling through his stomach, and docking itself against his already testy bladder.
It was not often he found himself in rotting fast food joints, meeting strangers at 10 in the morning. A few years before he might have been in one of those high-rises, corralled, despondent equine in some vile cubicle, his dreams receding with each stroke of his keyboard had his boss not one morning -swivelling his latitudinal hulk in his direction and announcing his retirement- urged between them, on the confidence of a few underhand deals, a business partnership. He had at first been hesitant, a caution not entirely misplaced, never having been able to trust the fellow in all the years they’d worked together. That weekend, at the boss’s suggestion, they had met at the company club, loud guffaws and thrice distilled spirits, drool-inducing tales of vast fortunes in private enterprise just waiting, like whelks on a secluded coast, to be picked up. The next Monday he had handed in his resignation, his mind by heavy liquor and earnest assurance finding with the rambunctious man a certain alignment. A few years down the line, in his late forties and rid now of the scrupulous fellow, he had managed to build himself a rather impressive business.
He now spent his days in the piling of bricks, in the construction of castles that would, never having had the constitution for marriage, almost certainly echo on his passing. Only on occasion, when his long working days dragged into bore, did he embark on these capers, this casting and reeling, strutting these courtship dances in ease of a tenured tic.
“I run my own business; I import equipment from China, tractors, harvesters, battery cages. I lease these out to farmers at the government settlements.”
Her eyes came alive at this disclosure, her excitement tilting her forward for veins evident, an earnest throb beneath the svelte of her adolescent neck.
“That’s really cool,” she said. “Does that make you any money? Like real serious money?”
He smiled. Right on time, the money question. You could set an egg to boil to the money question.
“It’s a neat arrangement,” he said, a brief pause reflective of the fact that like a player in a travelling troupe, he had thumbed this script a million times.
“It pays the bills,” he continued, “But more than anything else it allows me a lot of free time, time enough to be here with you on a Tuesday morning.”
She smiled, easing from her tension. A sigh curled from parted lips, her eyes moist and distant in feign of a deep consideration.
That he preferred them tender was no longer novel. In a few weeks he turned fifty, the grey in his hair, liberated from the fringes, had now overrun his unruly mane. It had been constant supplication to the gods; praises night and morning that he had retained such a sprightly plume even though until recently, two gouges of Morgan’s hair magic applied each morning, he had tried to stave the encroaching grey. He had given it up last year, the results had become too unnerving; the dark unnatural, increasingly ghastly even to him against the deep troughs on his face. The bottle lay abandoned in the cabinet above the bathroom sink and he may have presented it to one of his friends if in his cresting years those woeful creatures had lingered.
Before a matrimonial tide, he had found himself banished, woeful vagabond to a bleak Australian coast. His friends in their mortgaged houses, stripped of all humour, were now enrolled in the exertions of a coupled existence; bouncing toddlers on arthritic knees, counting sheep and losing sleep, knuckling the edges of their bedclothes in horror of pressing fees. With the sands shifting on their common ground he had, with nobility, removed himself from social function, leaving few joys to be had but those he found in these forays, in the scalping of the single and occasional married delights that in recent times seemed to have been loosed upon the city. But even then, these days, the little joys of a protracted youth, had begun to plateau. The world had grown feral, prey once restive and uncertain had become self-aware; given to easy capture on the scent of a lasting affluence. He found older women of the sort he was often implored by his nosy neighbours to date, an uninspiring bore, ghastly gremlins those furry demons were, their snarls by gilded words soon uncovered, their pursuit and capture an enterprise he no longer found rewarding.
In a constant itch, as an addict in the grasp of his addictions and pining always for increasing amounts of remedial poisons, he’d set off inland from salt blighted coast. Younger, he searched them out younger, their wills unset, tender saplings with grips on the earth tenuous, like plantain shoots recently suckered from muscacea parents.
“And you. Why are you here? Are you in trouble at school?
A smile in its coy displaced her powdered cheeks as she uncovered immediately his subterranean prodding.
“I am done with college, and university doesn’t start till September.”
“You mean secondary school?”
“Yes, secondary school,” she said rolling dark alien eyes.
There was once a time, seemingly distant now, when college had meant university, the tactile lingo of this generation something he still struggled to get a handle on.
He scanned the room, testing in the time the action allowed, the heft of his next question. The conversation beneath the alcove had progressed in its animation: frantic whispers billowed on air drenched in the aroma of toasted treats, one of the men cried out suddenly, as in a fevered angst, and then finding himself, reverted furtively back to their huddle. A disagreement there no doubt; contracts breached over some nefarious spoil.
“How old did you say you were again?”
“My age is on my profile.” she said, pulling herself to the limits of her form, and leaning forward, presented her face for inspection.
“How old do you think I am?”
From eyes a startling white, no signs present of prior infirmity, his gaze travelled to skin the colour of melted caramel, as smooth and aglow in an ebony youth, coming to rest finally on her phone on the table between them: An iPhone in a black and red Mickey Mouse cover, its rodent shaped ears satellites deployed. He let the question linger, in choke of his niggling doubt. Better a blundering fool, he imagined, than concede his depravity.
“I am not a baby. I can take care of myself” she said pushing the words at him through her recessed front teeth, and from lips that were lipstick black, sectioned from a gothic look.
With the emergence of dating apps it had become a carousel of easy treats, a garish spread of spectacular blandness, only rarely now the thrill at finding the occasional lobster. Still it wasn’t an exercise without peril for every day came headlines emblazoned, of people on these hook-up forays robbed, or by a tug on their groins led to most grisly ends.
He had learned to account for caution, making sure to meet only on neutral ground; a dingy café in an obscure part of town, hurling flirtations through the alcohol din of roadside pepper soup joints. Only then, mutual expectations met, flirtations dutifully executed and transaction details where demanded meticulously outlined, would they proceed to the saner comforts of his penthouse lodgings. In spite of this, this structured caution, he’d gathered along the way a few beer parlour worthy tales of his own; on more than one occasion he had been robbed, phones, jewellery and cash in the throes of relief sequestered in shady handbags, and the one time, pert breasts and expansive areolas swinging, a lover disgruntled had tried with a six inch Oyster of India screwdriver to bring to swift conclusion an argument over undisclosed fees.
A looming presence dispersed his thoughts. One of the attendants, a simpering lad, his face pocked from childhood disease, come to bother them with a menu. By the counter a sudden agitation and he turned in time to see the tongs catch the side of the show glass, a sugary treat bouncing off the door and disappearing behind the counter. Brushing her hair to the side, the attendant dove after it and a few seconds later had reunited the pastry with its more cooperative mates.
He ordered two cokes and shooed the fellow away, allowing his gaze to linger briefly on low hung trousers balanced precariously on insufficient buttocks.
She had turned her attention to her phone, needling it with stick thin digits, the tumble of braids around her face framing it for a portrait apt, of her sudden detachment.
“So what do you get up to now?”
“How do you pass the time?”
“You ask a lot of questions young man.” She said, swinging back to attention, her eyes a roguish glimmer at the cleverness of her out-of-place compliment.
“I sell hair and makeup to my mother’s friends. My parents are–” She picked the words carefully
“My parents have a lot of rich friends, but mostly I spend my time at home, watching TV and playing around on the internet.”
Itunu: of absent mirth and kittenish mien. The night he had found her, he had been perched, in a state of languor on his favourite sofa, libations intermittent from the glass of red on his knee, flipping through on his phone, as he often did in habit, the smorgasbord of digital delights; left, right, left, right, vile, nasty, cute, and whorish, when suddenly, breaking free of the blur of pouts, asses and hotel room selfies she had jumped at him, her baby antlers bristling, startled doe from a vast stampeding herd. Her youth, in spite of a sultry pout, had been apparent, her eyes in heavy makeup, dark and sinisterly carnal. Her limbs, in a red off-shoulder number, had been stick thin and greenly enticing; an overall effect that stirred his loins and ignited in his somnolence dark longings of copulatory entanglements.
In the following weeks they had swapped conversations honest, her childlike earnest expressed in Arial type font, the nubile sensuality in the photos he requested, and which she eagerly obliged, a plague every night upon his wicked loins. Finally, the awkwardness between them by the exchange of naughty messages eased, they had agreed to meet, and that morning driving home from breakfast at a nearby café he had called to ask for her address.
She had directed him to a restaurant bordering her estate and he’d lurched his way there through the mid-morning pileup and a steep slanting rain. Here he was now, moderator to a stilting conversation, uncertain how best to proceed, what themes might be presented that would hold the interest of two people, by a yawning age gap, so firmly removed.
Her seedling guise a blight upon his conscience, he considered her again; a calm restraint across the table, her sweater of a loose weave and at least two sizes too large allowing in its droop down the front, a gentle tease of her young and supple breasts.
“Do you want to go back to my place?” He plunged over that last precipice.
“No,” she said.
Dead: a thing rotten, died in its shell.
“We can go back to my house. My parents don’t get back till late.”
Alive again by these glorious words exhaled, his fingers corking already his half-finished bottle of coke.
He settled the bill, adding a little extra for the service, and on their way out mumbled his gratitude at the suffering doorman.
The ground outside was puddled from the early rains, and he started towards the corner of the parking lot where his car was cramped between a beat-up SUV and a crumbling wall.
“It’s not far, we can walk,” she said, taking him by the elbow and nudging him towards the gates.
Her sweet-scented palm lurching against his shoulder, they made their way past the gatehouse and into what appeared to be a private estate, one of those that had sprung up in the area in recent times, a sudden rush of development driven by the gains of an out-of-control political class. Prodigious mansions with slate-cladded facades and huge alpine columns, wide interlocking tile streets that edged at deep gurgling gutters, a spine of African dwarf palms that stretched as far as the eye could see, a seam of foliate stitches securing the privileged knit.
They walked in silence for a few minutes, father and daughter, for all who may be bothered, until midway up the road she pulled him unto a gravel driveway, a short avenue that wound lazily up to huge iron wrought gates.
He trailed his fingers along her waist as he gestured her to the fore. Her fingers flew across the keys of the electronic lock, a practiced speed to confound prying eyes and with a soft click the gates swung open.
The house loomed, large and imperial, set in a compound lush in its expanse of rolling green. Vast swatches of neatly kept lawn broken only by fountain installations scattered about the space, stone grey sentries stark against the vibrant green.
A persistent thumping intruded on the morning and lifting his gaze he caught sight of a man, the gardener he presumed, entwined in the canopy of a small acacia tree. Axe in hand, chop-chop-chop in ruin of the morning, his body slick and muscled, taut in his pruning of the unruly tree.
Through a large metal door, they passed into the front room; huge throne like seats with clawed feet and a marble centre table furnished the heavily-gilded space. Beyond, he spied a smaller sitting area, its furnishings a more restrained minimalist modern, and at the limits of his gaze, the dining area with an immaculately polished wooden table and six matching chairs. The ground beneath his feet shone like slabs of mirror before a supercilious king and television screens, large blackened portraits adorned the walls in each of the spaces. The air-conditioning was dry and crisp in its hold.
She took him by the hand and led him towards a sofa overrun with an army of throw pillows and restraint fled, pulled him into its depths, trapping him in the folds of a perfumed embrace.
A feline, wild and sufficiently panged, he wasted no time setting on his prey. Their lips met, hot fiery magic ignited, their tongues locked in dance, slick and sinuous, to the aria of their frenzied fumbling. His hands at the limits of her thrusting eager, pert breasts cupped through grey woollen vest, squeezing gently before making his way down the sticks of her ribcage and disappearing finally between the spread of her slender legs.
Their rhythm secured, they paused briefly to discard clothes unto lush carpeting. He closed his eyes as he sank into her, her hands clawing feverishly, her legs curling around him to tame the waves, thundering of an impending release.
He stood by the faux fireplace looking down at her, her soft tresses splayed across the edge of the sofa. On the mantelpiece was a row of family portraits, in one of them a fellow he assumed was the man of the house; neatly tailored suit, face bunched in a rather severe look, his arms draped heavily around a frightened woman. Foolhardy to test now the boundaries of his good fortune. It was time to leave.
Do you want some money? He said pulling on his clothes and patting them in place, latching the silver on the cuff of his starched sleeves.
She swung her feet off the edge of the chair and sat up, propped erect by the throw pillows.
“Yes, as a matter of fact I do.” she said.
He took out his wallet and thumbing out a few notes, placed them beside an ornate vase on the edge of the mantelpiece.
“I want all of it.”
A wry smile played on her lips as he met her gaze, and framed by the dishevelled mass of her hair, something else lurking, something feral and menacing.
Lessons learnt about arguments with women recently scalped, he wanted only to be away from the growing sinister of this place. He pulled the remaining notes from his wallet and placed them beside the others.
She rose to her feet, still naked, and tottered unsteadily towards the cupboard beneath the TV. She reached into its depths and pulled out a device, the size of a POS machine, with a numerical keypad and a small electronic screen.
It was a point-of-sale machine. She placed the device on the cupboard and turned to face him.
“All of it.”
He stared at first the girl and then the device, trying to gauge in the suddenly oppressive lights, the gravity of her intent. Behind him a door creaked open and a light streaking across the walls caught his attention. He turned to its source and found the gardener present, the axe in his hand bumping lightly against his knees.
“All of it,” she said,
“Don’t do this, Itunu.”
“All of it,” She repeated the request, a child’s toy of a single trick possessed.
The menace had blossomed now on her face and cornered him. He scanned the room for escape. Before him the gardener swayed in his path, and though there was likely a door in the kitchen that would exit into the compound, he was certain the minx, fox, large fucking bear would have barred that also, and if she hadn’t what would he do once outside before the large metal gates.
“You know I will come back with the police,” He said, the cracks spreading on his defiance, his threat he could tell, bled of conviction.
“I don’t think so.”
Calmly, and with a confidence that unsettled him she picked her bag from where it had been discarded in their now evanesced frenzy and pulling out her wallet, tossed it across the room. He wrangled it from the air and unclasped it: a neat column of cards on one side, peeking one above the other like a crowd in the marketplace at some intriguing spectacle, and in a clear window on the other, a college ID.
She stood above him heightened by her advantage, inputting the limits on each of his ATM cards into the device before passing it to him. He keyed his security pin into the machine, by the pained whirr and spit of curly receipts buying his release. Current account through savings they conducted this ritual, and at his domiciliary card, after a brief consultation on her phone for the current rates, he paid the ransom for her silence.
A shadow on his haste, the gardener trailed him through the compound, a large unspeaking presence that pushed past him to open the gates and with a hand firm on his shoulder, shove him roughly into the street.
About the Writer:
Eboka Chukwudi Peter is a writer of Literary Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction. In 2016 he was announced winner of the Saraba Manuscript Project for his collection of short stories Mosaic: Stitches of stories lived, stories learned, stories told. He attended the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop with Chimamanda Adichie in 2008 and in 2016 the Writivism Nonfiction Workshop that was held at Accra Ghana. He has had works published in Saraba Magazine, Blanck Digital, Happenings magazine and The Africa Report. He lives in Lagos and is currently at work on a novel. He is an avid aquarist.