Nduka watched the fingers of smoke curl towards the ceiling. He stretched his hand out to the side without looking and tapped, once, twice on the butt of his cigarette. He inhaled again.
“I wish you wouldn’t smoke,” said Buti.
“Sorry, babe. I can’t not smoke. I need to get my strength back. You almost killed me.”
“Smoking is not the way to ‘get your strength back’. If anything it’s going to make you lose your breath even more,” Buti slid out from under the sheets and tiptoed over to the window. Thrusting a hand between the curtains, she pushed the window open. Nduka put his hands to his ears. “And that,” she continued, “Was a double negative.”
“Yes, madam. Why are you hiding yourself like that?” he asked as Buti slipped back under the covers. “I’m sure everyone in this compound heard you. Even that little boy downstairs you said was spying on you when you dressed up.”
Buti twirled a lock of her weave around an index finger. “Do you think so?” She looked at the stump – all that was left of the tree outside her bedroom window after the landlord had taken care of her ‘little problem’.
“You said that too.”
“That’s blasphemy! I told you not to come here. The last thing I need is insults from anyone in this compound just because they have heard me …er…erm…” Nduka raised an eyebrow. “You know. What’s so funny?”
“It amazes me how you can be so proper on the outside and yet so filthy on the inside. ” Nduka started putting the cigarette to his lips again. Buti leaned over and snatched it, crushing it in the ashtray beside him. “Ok, so what am I supposed to do now?”
“I don’t know,” she said fastening the covers over her chest. “But if you want to recover I suggest you get something to eat.”
“I suggest you make it for me.”
“Oh no.I am not breaking two of my rules on the same day. I am not cooking for you.”
“But you have cooked for me before.”
“Only because I was already cooking when you showed up. Don’t make a habit of turning up unannounced, seriously. I don’t want the gossip. I don’t talk to anyone in this compound for a reason.”
“You are such a snob.”
“There are levels.”
“You are such a fake snob.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Okafor’s Law. And the possibility of some tasty Egusi soup.”
“I told you, no.”
“You said that before too, but you didn’t mean it then.”
Buti swatted his arm. “I mean it now.”
“You’re lucky I’m crazy about you.”
“You’re lucky I’m crazy about you. I’ve already broken another of my rules, dating a smoker.”
Nduka licked his lips. He sat upright. “What other rules do you have? I should probably have asked that before now so I could know what I was getting myself into.”
“Erm…” Buti waved in the direction of his waist. “Could you…maybe…adjust?” She tucked her hair behind her ears.
“Oh sorry,” Nduka said. He tossed the cover aside, leaving himself bare. “Is this better? Ha! Ha!”
“What? You control your body, I control mine. Now what other rules are there?”
“How much time have you got?”
“That many?” He rubbed his chin producing a crackly sound from his beard. “OK, do you have any specific rules for the men? Things that don’t have to do with what you wouldn’t do?”
“Well, ” Buti clutched the sheet tighter with her armpits, leaving her fingers free to comb through her hair. “Don’t smoke. You broke that one. Don’t show up unannounced, ditto. Do not ask me for money…”
“No danger of that,” said Nduka crinkling the corners of his eyes.
“You’re laughing, but you don’t know how many relationships have been destroyed by money. My dad never asked my mother for money and they have been married thirty-nine years.”
“So am I to assume that this generosity flows from the man?”
“Of course. Carry on. What else?”
“No telling your friends what I am like…in…in..”
“Damn. There goes my five o’clock with the boys. What are we going to talk about now?”
“No breaking wind or doing number twos…”
“Can I use the toilet?”
“Look, do you want me to finish or not?” Buti swept the length of her hair over one shoulder.
“Sorry, continue. Wait will you go number two at his or fart in front of him?” Buti made a sound in her throat and her mouth dropped open. “Sorry, sorry. Eh-hen? What else?”
“No touching my hair or face. And no tickling.”
“Excuse me? No tickling?”
“No, I hate it.”
“Are you ticklish?”
“Yes, which is why I hate it. I don’t like losing control like that. It’s like your body is no longer yours and I want to cry and scream and vomit all at the same time. I really hate…why are you looking at me like that? Nduka, no! No! I mean it!”
Nduka launched himself on Buti, grabbing for the end of the bedsheet as she wiggled away. He knelt on the bed and pulled the sheet, fastening it to his elbow and pulling again. “You’re going to have to do one, Princess. Either let go of the sheet and run or stay and fight.” Buti ran, flinging open the door and leaping into the corridor. Nduka pounced bringing her down.
Nduka struck gold. Buti’s arms and legs flailed. He gathered up the excess limbs, pinning them beneath his body and continued tickling, his tongue between his teeth. Buti was like a huge pale snake beneath him.
“Please! I will do anything you want!”
“Good so we’ll eat now. No more of this nonsense.” He made to get off her.
“No, I already ate before you came. I am still not cooking for…”Nduka was on her before she could crawl away. This time he tickled for longer. There were tears in the hollows of her ears when he stopped. Her breathing was shallow.
“So, are you going to cook now? I will not have this insubordination in a woman I am going to marry. No eating in a restaurant from now on.”
“You may tickle me till kingdom come, but I am not a small girl. I know my own mind…” Nduka ticked her again, feeling his heart explode in his chest. Buti’s hair was like a fan on the carpet. Her skin glowed and even though she was now making retching sounds, he had never seen her look more beautiful. She was so carefree, so …young. He resolved then to make her laugh as much as possible.
He might never have heard it if they were not on the floor. Or in the corridor. But they were and the sound exploded against the unyielding floor magnified by the acoustics of the corridor. It was the sound of flesh hitting flesh – as loud as shouting into a megaphone. He knew he had gone too far.
“Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!” Buti was no longer laugh-crying. She curled herself into a C-shape, burying her face in her hands.
“Baby, it’s OK.” Nduka made to gather her up in his arms.
That was when the smell hit.
“Baby, it’s OK. It’s OK.” Saliva filled his mouth. Nduka wanted to spit but he didn’t dare move.
“I told you not to. I told you. You never listen.” Buti’s body shuddered.
“Baby, look at me.”
“Please, look at me.”
She took deep shaky breaths, gripping her hair with her long, white-tipped nails. “I can’t,” she said at last.
“Just…” He put a hand under her face and turned it.” Open your eyes,” he said. When she didn’t, he continued, “You know I’m crazy about you. What’s a little fart between lovers? I love that it’s an honest reaction between two people who are comfortable with each other.” Nduka shook his head. “Com’on. Open your eyes. There. Hello.”
“Hi,” Buti wiped her face. Did you really mean what you said?”
“Errr…which part?” Nduka squeezed his eyes shut as if to clear them.
“The part where you were going to marry me?”
“I can’t believe that’s the only thing you heard.” He stood up, pulling her to her feet.
“I’m serious. I am thirty-six this year…”
“…and I want to get married. If you’re not serious, then it’s best we call it quits now.”
“We’re on ultimatums? Since when? Just a minute ago you farted in front of me and I thought everything was going so well.”
“Don’t say that! I didn’t mean to…I have never…” She paused and took another deep breath. “Ladies, especially ones of my calibre, do not do such things. Now do you want that lunch or not?” She walked on tiptoe, crossing one foot in front of the other as if she was on a catwalk.
Nduka put the folder down and reached into his pocket.
“Your phone has been ringing all day. Do you owe anyone money?” asked Obi. He took off his hard hat, swiped a handkerchief across his scalp and replaced it.
“No, I don’t owe anyone money.” Nduka glanced at the screen. It was Buti. He disconnected the call and slipped it back into his pocket. He knew he was being a coward but he just didn’t feel the same about her, somehow. Too bad, he thought, he was going to miss her. Nduka hated to admit it but she was probably right about having some rules. Familiarity ruined things.
And if that was what she smelled like on the inside, it was probably best that she didn’t cook for anyone other than herself.