‘Cali’: Part Ten

I groaned. I could have sworn it was inwardly but the man laughed, so I knew I had done it aloud. His teeth gleamed unnaturally white in the dimness of his car.

“No, thank you,” I said. “I don’t take rides from strangers.” I started to walk away. He followed in the car.

“Ehh, let me guess. You can run your mouth when you’re behind the safety of your precious glass but now that I am here, I’m a stranger?”

“You were always a stranger,” I said, in spite of myself. Something told me to shut my mouth and just keep walking. I looked all about waiting for the okadas coming behind me or towards me on the other side of the road. Nothing. Only cars. Buses zoomed past without stopping. No conductors shouting for fares. They were all full. What time was it?

The man laughed again, as the last car whooshed past us. Darkness. I realised I had walked past the bank’s lit fence. My heart beat with so much force that it shook my body. I began to walk faster. I turned. The car remained ominously silent behind me…

“You’re being stupid,” said a voice.

I walked straight into the man. In front of me. I screamed.

“How did you…? Jes…”

“You’re going to break your neck,” he said. “Stop being a smallie. Get in the car. I’ll give you a ride. Okay?”

The asshole was almost murmuring now. I felt dizzy. I couldn’t think. My nose hurt from where I had bumped it against his body, like walking into a padded door. How had he got in front of me?

“I’m waiting for someone. My boyfriend. He’s coming to find me…”

His face was above mine. Way above mine. But I felt a disturbance in the air as if someone had sliced it in two with a hot knife. He was smiling again.

“No he isn’t,” he said. “Com’on. You don’t want someone to attack you, do you?”

What he said made sense. Perfect sense. Would I not be better off with someone I sort-of knew? But something in me was screaming. I backed away. I had been intending to get away and cross the road to the other side but somehow I got to the car and he was opening the door, standing near me, helping me in.

“You know, you really intrigue me,” he said.

My saliva turned to paste in my mouth. “I do?” I could see flashes of colour in my mind’s eye. Red mostly. Some silver. I knew I was afraid but it was as if my body could not feel it properly.

“You do. You seem…unaffected by me. Almost.” The asshole sniffed my ear, my neck. He backed away. “Listen. I’m sorry I called you a bitch. I didn’t mean that. And I don’t mean to scare you or anything. You are scared. I can tell.”

As he backed away, I felt a jagged feeling run though me, as if I was finally connecting to my brain. “Look, I’m sorry but I can’t…my boyfriend will pick me up.”

“We’ve been here for twenty minutes . Would you get in the car already? I’ve never had to work so hard to convince a woman to let me help her.”

A thought occurred to me. “No.”

“No?” he sounded surprised.

“No, thank you. I think I’ll…I’ll wait.”

The man stood there. I could feel the heat coming off him as he leaned in again. “Are you sure?”

Flashes of red. Silver. Sweat soaked into the wings of my bra from my armpit.

‘Cali’: Part Nine

“I should LOWER MY VOICE?!” The woman shouted. She was getting louder, in that very Nigerian way of escalating an argument very quickly. People turned.

Real fear clutched at my heart. My hands grew cold. How would I pay my rent? How would I get another job? I had lied to get this one, won it by out-talking my rivals, as one senior management person told me on my first week. Could I do it again? Were there even vacancies?  I didn’t have enough saved up for my masters’. I couldn’t make a proper living as a writer, not without some side hustle. My life prospects flashed before my eyes. None of it was good.

Of course I didn’t want to work as a banker for the rest of my life. I hated the job! But it was better to quit than to be fired. And it was more pragmatic to quit when one had other things in place. Otherwise…

The floor manager marched towards my cubicle. Asshole reached over and placed a hand on the woman. She turned towards him.

“What seems to be the problem?” asked the floor manager. Her voice told me what I suspected. This was it for me.

“There was just a misunderstanding…”

“I wasn’t talking to you, Chielozona,” she turned to the woman. “Would you like to make a complaint?”

When the woman turned towards us again, she was smiling, all the harsh angles of a face contorted in anger had dissolved like a sugar cube placed in water.

“Sorry?” she said, looking dreamy.

The floor manager’s smile superior smile faltered. “I asked if you would like to make a formal complaint. You were shouting. You had a problem, abi?”

“Me? Shouting? No. It was just a misunderstanding,” she said. “No problem at all, ma.”

Customers turned back to what they were doing. The floor manager huffed and stomped away.

Asshole concluded his business and poked his head in my window – regardless of the woman standing there – and said “I’m leaving, I’ll see you later.” As if we were friends. I said nothing.  I didn’t look at him. I was so shaken up. Something had just happened and I couldn’t place my finger on what exactly. Asshole didn’t move from the glass. I looked up.

“You’re welcome,” he said.

I went through the rest of the day in a daze, counting down the hours till I finished for the day. I suddenly missed Cali with a fierceness that made me ache.

I slipped my phone out of my pocket. Cali, I will like to come inside tonight.

It had barely sent when I got my reply. Yes mummy. I am here for you. Then, Do you want me to pick you?

No, I drove. I’ll come to you.

What do you want to eat?

Surprise me.

Cabin and milk then.

LOL!

I started to feel better.

***

The floor manager took her frustration out on me by giving me a lot more work to do. I didn’t complain. I knew I had got off lightly. She was just annoyed that she had not got rid of me this time. By the time I left work the car park was deserted. I had parked my car almost by the front wall, a tight squeeze as there had been no space but now it looked forlorn being there all on its own. It shone ghostly sliver in the moonlight.

Shouting a greeting across to the night watchmen, I darted across the car park, taking courage from their sleepy responses. I flung my things in the passenger’s seat and slammed the door. I slid the key in the ignition and twisted it.

Nothing. Not even so much as a wheeze.

I tried again. It didn’t work.

“What the…?”

I pulled out my phone to call Cali but it was dead. I sighed. The day just kept getting better. I sat in the car while I weighed up the benefits of using one of the calling stands on the road to call Cali, then waiting for him to come all the way through traffic to get me, versus just jumping on an okada.

The okada won. I grabbed my things and set off, determined not to walk past the perimeter of the bank’s fence where it was well-lit. I waited. There were no free okadas. I was about to give up and make a call from the MTN umbrella down the road when a dark car pulled up beside me. Its driver wound down the window and a gust of cold air wafted out.

“Ah, it’s my friend with the attitude,” said the asshole. “Get in. I’ll give you a ride.”

‘Cali’: Part Eight

I gasped.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” said the asshole. “First you ignore me while I am here waiting, then you pretend not to see me as I am standing right in front of you. What does that spell to you?”

Normally I could take any insults from customers with a smile or a barb that went over their heads but made me feel infinitely better. Or if they got too loud, I could just report them. But something about this guy made me believe that not a lot would go over his head. I wanted to slap his face. His stupid, smirky face. I could not believe that for a split second I thought that he was fine enough that I stopped to breathe. That coffee complexion deceived me. I shook my head.

“There was no one by this window and yet you stood here. What does that make you?” I asked. In my head I said ‘Olodo’.

He chuckled again. “Call me olodo for wanting to be served by the most beautiful girl here.”

Don’t mind if I do, olodo.

The man frowned slightly.

“One’s beauty or its lack thereof is not directly proportional to how well they do their job,” I said, glad to have an area to challenge him on. “And furthermore…”

He rolled his eyes. “Learn how to take a compliment, why don’t you? God. I just want to deposit some money.”

And with that he moved to the next window, cutting off the customer who had been on her way there. I saw her brow furrow as if in slow motion, her mouth opened. She had been tapping her foot impatiently while she waited, jabbing the keys on her Blackberry with so much force that the tak-tak  sound filled the entire floor. He smiled at her. The furrows on her face melted.

“Sorry,” she said, as if she was at fault.

“It’s all right,” he replied.

Anger heated my blood.. I gripped my worktop, shaking, shaking. Oh the things I wanted to tell him! I could see the floor manager watching me, always watching me. I took a shaky breath and said “Next please!”

The woman that the asshole had cut off came to my window with a dreamy look on her face. I waited for her to tell me what she needed but she just stood there.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Erm…yes…I came to…came to…” she glanced back at him again. The asshole was busy chatting to my colleague Nnaemeka, joking about. Of course they would get along, I thought. Nnaemeka was a pain in my neck; always making sexist comments that none of the other women challenged.

“What do you want?” I finally snapped at the woman when she wouldn’t say anything that made sense. That seemed to bring her back to earth.

“Excuse me?” she yelled. “Is it me you’re talking to like that? Don’t you have any manners?”

“She clearly doesn’t,” chipped in Asshole. “Nigerian customer service at its finest.”

“Imagine!” said the woman, glad to have his attention.

“Could you please tell me what I can do for you?” I attempted in a lower voice. “There is no need to shout.”

My heart beat very loudly. I thought ‘This is it’. I was surely getting fired now. The floor manager had a niece that she had been wanting to bring in for months. Some chick who studied accountancy. She made no bones about the fact that with my English degree, she did not think I belonged and was always trying to get rid of me.

I had just given her a reason.

‘Cali’: Part Seven

I heard my phone buzz on the desk as I squatted, riffling through some papers. There were papers all over the floor and even though I was away from my window, I could see someone walk up to it and wait, checking their watch.

“Stupid, asshole,” I muttered. Why were they standing there? They were trying to get me fired. I hadn’t called anyone to my window yet. The floor manager would see and report me and I would get in trouble for slow service. My phone stopped buzzing for a second and started up again. I gave up on looking for the document I needed, shoving papers back into the bottom drawer carelessly. I grabbed the phone and still squatting by the desk, I answered it.

“Hello?”

A pause.

“Chielozona?”

“Oh, hi, Cali.”

“Is evlyting okay? I have not heard from you since.”

“I’m fine. It’s just work is hectic right now. I’m even hiding to answer this call right now and if they catch me…” I peeped out again. The shadow of the asshole stood resolutely by my window. As if they saw me, the person by my window seemed to crane their neck. I ducked again.

Cali seemed to be waiting for me to say something. “Sorry,” I said.

“About what?” he asked. “If ya busy, ya busy. No ploblem. But…”

“But what?” I asked feeling the irritation rise and tamping it down.

“You don’t reply my texts or text me either. I can always see that one and I will know you are okay.”

“I’m sorry, Cali. I’ll try harder. It’s just been busy.” Someone was calling my name. The floor manager! “Cali, I’m so sorry. I have to go.”

“Okay, mu-”

Feet came towards the office. I disconnected the call and slipped the phone into the pocket of my trousers. I opened the drawer again.

“Chielozona, so this is where you are? There are customers waiting.”

I  looked up, from the pair of black, block-heeled courts to the midi maroon skirt and matching jacket. A scowl topped the ensemble.

“I was just looking for an account document,” I said, making a show of slamming the drawer and getting up. “Nice shoes,” I said.

The floor manager allowed her glance to linger on my own stilettos. I hated block heels and never wore them.

“Maybe you can look for it later. There is someone by your window,” she said. She looked at me, wrinkling her nose as if she could smell my bullshit and walked out.

I huffed when I got to my stool. I didn’t mean to. It just came out. Or maybe I meant to. I mean, who just stood there by an empty spot instead of moving to another window?

“Next please,” I said pointedly, avoiding the person in front of me. A low chuckle. I looked up. My breath caught in my throat.

“Just what I like with my transactions,” said the man in front of me. “A touch of bitch.”

Good news!

I am pleased to announce that I have a short story appearing in Apex Magazine next month. Excited!

Here’s the reason I’m so happy:

Screenshot_2014-10-10-17-54-14

I made a promise to myself, then I tried (and failed) and tried again and it came true!

I have loved this magazine forever. I went through a bout of insomnia last year and Apex magazine was great company; all that weirdness, that darkness. Scrumptious sci-fi.  The stories would grip me until I was dizzy, falling eventually into an exhausted sleep. (For a long while, this was my favourite story.)

I mean, you have all these Hugo and Nebula and WSFA award-winners contributing to the magazine. And then there’s little ol’ me.  Have I said how excited I am?

I am so happy I fulfilled this promise to myself. And as they’re having me narrate my story for the podcast, I just might die from glee.

You can hear their previous podcasts by following links here. I joined their list of narrators after my piece was accepted for publication a few months ago. I narrated ‘Jupiter and Gentian’ by Erik Amundsen. I really enjoyed reading it – in fact, I have got bits of it still stuck in my head.