I’m eating a dessert of duck’s egg and fried snails when they come in. It’s usually the same types. Two women. Never more. One confident, assured. The other downcast and doubtful. I stand up and reach to pull out a seat but Confident beats me to it. Once they have been here, they think they own the place.
“Ngwa sit down,” she says to her friend. I dab my lips with a napkin and put the plates into the basket at my feet. I ask the women what they would like to drink.
“Just water, please,” says Confident, placing a bottle of schnapps in front of me. “We bring this to clear our way.”
I smile at her. “Your way is cleared.”
I pour the schnapps into three shot glasses and upend mine on my carpet. It disappears leaving barely any stain. Confident downs hers like a pro. Her friend sniffs, sips. I take my place across the desk from them. I like to maintain some distance. It’s the one thing I will not concede.
“So, my friend thinks that…” begins Confident. I raise a hand to silence her. She ducks her head almost coyly.
“Perhaps I should hear from you?” I ask her friend. “How may I help you today Mrs…?”
“Mrs Eriwona,” I repeat. I lean back and steeple my fingers. I never need to take down names. Mrs Eriwona takes in the dark gleaming wood of my bare desk. No pens. No paper. Just the Toblerone-shaped name plate on my desk. And of course the large screen people always assume is a computer. The screen which starts up with a ‘crick’ the moment I say her name.
“You are Igbo abi?” she asks. “Is ‘Amazu’ your real name?” She points at the name plate.
“I’ve been many things,” I say. “One name is as good as another, I find.”
She looks offended. “Not for me. I knew from when I was sixteen that I was going to be Mrs Eriwona. I was crazy for that man, built him up from nothing.” She pauses. “You know they would have disinherited him, if not for me? His mother was only a mistress after all. Now he thinks he is too big and can do what he wants.” She hisses.
Confident shakes her head sadly.
“Running around with small-small girls. Izokay,” Mrs Eriwona shrugs. “He is a man and must do what men do when their blood runs hot. Me, I have don’t have energy for those things anymore. I can do without that-”
“That’s good to know,” I interject.
“-But to put my children’s inheritance in jeopardy because of a woman? No way. He should know better.”
“Her husband got one of those girls pregnant,” Confident explains.
“She won’t remove it! Does she think she is the first person my husband has impregnated? This one is now telling me she is in love. In love! Does she know what love is? She thinks because a man buys her perfume and gold and sends her money and mobile phone recharge cards that he loves her.”
Mrs Eriwona’s slender shoulders heave with the effort of squeezing each anger-laden word out through her constricted throat. The neckline of her buba seems too wide. I can see a bra strap slipping off her shoulder through the sheer, sequined, leaf-green material. Mrs Eriwona appears to have recently lost weight. The heavy gold chain resting on her collarbone makes her seem like a bird trapped in a circlet of barbed wire. She keeps turning a wedding band around her finger with the thumb of the same hand. I let her statement marinate while she catches her breath. She starts to fidget.
“I need him to stop. He has to stop,” she says.
“So how far do you want me to go exactly?”
“Exactly, now. We have talked about this,” Confident looks annoyed. “If this is how you’re going to be doing, next time you will find your own way.”
“There is never a next time, after I’m done,” I say.
“Well. My husband likes pretty, yellow girls like you.” A look comes over Mrs Eriwona’s face. Suspicion. “What is it that you do to them anyway?” she is almost spitting the words.
Confident seems to be struggling not to shout at her friend. “How can you ask that? I told you who she is. You don’t believe?”
“It’s okay,” I begin.
“Remember who you’re talking to!” Confident cuts in. “She is not your age mate or your mother’s or even your great-great-great-great grandmother’s -”.
“Ugonwoma. Lovely woman,” I add.
“Sorry for all this. I made a mistake. I thought she really needed help.” Confident bobs apologetically. Honestly. She’s acting like I am going to smite them or something. I want to tell her to relax. We’re not allowed to do that these days. Between the pastors and charlatans we take what we can get – doubts and suspicions included – and count ourselves lucky.
My screen beeps at that moment and Mrs Eriwona starts. She tries to cover it up by pouting. She unwraps a stick of gum and pops it in her mouth, the very picture of nonchalance. Her eyes scans the red walls of my office, perhaps for confirmation that she is on the right track. I wonder how much she knows of her friend Confident whose ring finger now has a third ring, a thick band of platinum imprisoning her engagement and wedding rings. That had not been there when she came to see me the last time, brought along by her own self-possessed companion. The eternity ring is proof of my success rate, not that I need telling. Mr Confident had already moved out before his missus sought my services. He isn’t going anywhere now.
I know what she sees, Mrs Eriwona. My office – apart from the desk – is a shrine to opulence. It’s hard to leave the habit behind even in these austere times. The glass shelves are crammed full of things I have been given in payment; cut and uncut stones, perfume oils in glass vials, carved and stained wooden bowls filled with rare coins, trinkets and cowrie shells, mirrors with exquisite detailing, heavy woven cloth from many lands; each unique and stunning in its own way. Which reminds me…
“She has told you of the fee?” I ask. Mrs Eriwona nods. She reaches into her red leather bag and pulls out an egg. My breath catches in my throat. It is as big as a husked coconut; light grey, covered in swirls of black and speckles of white and bronze. It is definitely going on a shelf.
“That is beautiful,” I say.
Confident beams. She looks as proud as if she laid the egg herself. She jabs Mrs Eriwona with an elbow.
“I told you she would like it,” she says.
I do indeed. Things of beauty always make my mouth water. I stroke the cool shell with one finger. Instantly the suspicious look is back in Mrs Eriwona’s eyes. Maybe she thinks I am going to take her precious egg and run. For a moment I am tempted to change in front of her, see how much she runs her mouth then. But I really want the egg. I take my finger away.
Mrs Eriwona pulls out a bag of cowries in a small red net bag and dumps these on the table along with a silver cross inlaid with red stones and some garden variety guinea fowl eggs. These ones I will eat.
The screen beeps again and an image comes up. I turn it towards her. “Is this your husband?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. Before she clocks that she is looking into a mirror and passes out.