The room is cold and rectangular. I’m the first one here,
like I knew I’d be. The email had said nine a.m. It was seven thirty but the
room looked like everything was already set up: a long, U-shaped table, with
twenty-three chairs around it and a horrid plant in the middle, ugly red drapes
parted to let reluctant sunlight in, ACs freezing up the place. I take a seat
halfway down the table and drop my bag. I shiver, and for a moment I want to
turn and run away. What am I doing here?
The email had come three weeks ago. “Congratulations! You
have been accepted to attend the 2012 Farafina Trust creative writing workshop.”
My head stopped working for a while after I read that. “Brain freeze”, my son
would call it. When my brain thawed out I stood from my chair and went and shut
my office door quietly. Then I did a dance I no longer thought I had in me, one
of the dances from those days in the village, before I grew up and became posh.
Indeed, you could take the girl out of the village…
I had barely finished my dance when panic started to set in.
Who was I fooling? They might have been taken in by my paltry offering—sent in
a hurried email mere minutes to the deadline—but I knew better. I knew how this
whole charade would play out. I would walk into the room and they would take
one look at me and call security to throw me out and call me a fool for
thinking I could pass myself off as one of them. Worse still, they would erupt
into laughter and laugh me out of their midst because, surely, there was
something—a scent, a secret code maybe, some kind of hand signal—that writers
had so they could identify other like creatures. Me, I am no writer. The things
I ‘write’ are little more than mere journal entries; they have no literary
merit, no flair. I’m still baffled at the delusion that had led me to send in
one such piece, and even more so that it had been selected.
My enthusiasm sufficiently doused, I had taken my seat again
in front of the computer and read the rest of the email. The workshop would
last ten days, would take place in Lagos, they would provide hotel accommodation
for those who needed it. I had to respond within five days to confirm my
availability, and then I’d receive more details. I let out my breath and typed
my confirmation email with uncertain fingers. When the real writers laughed at
me, I’d laugh too and pretend I was in on the joke.
I hear the glass door slide open and I look up. A young,
light skinned man walks in, regarding me with a smile that seems friendly
enough. I show some teeth.
“Hello. Are you here for the Farafina Trust workshop?”
I nod my head and am immediately annoyed with myself. How
many times had I told my children growing up to use their mouths?
“Yes,” I mumble. But he has started speaking again and
doesn’t hear me.
“Hi. My name is Sam.”
I recognize the name as the one below the emails regarding
He reaches my seat and offers his hand. I shake it. Firmly,
like I always tell my staff. A firm handshake projects a firm image. The
familiar line gives me momentary confidence. Sam’s next words kill it.
“Welcome. You’re early o.
But the other writers should be here in…,” he glances at his watch. “…forty minutes
I catch myself before I nod again. “I can’t wait,” I lie,
attempting an eager smile.
“So, you live in Lagos,” he says as he goes around the room
checking that everything is in order. I’m not sure if this is a question.
“No. I came in from Abuja.”
He turns to look at me now and I know what he’ll say next.
“Abuja? Why aren’t you staying at the hotel, then? Are you staying with family
The staff at my hotel treat me well; they are practically family.
“Yes,” I say. What else can I tell him? That at my age I’m nervous about
meeting the nineteen real writers? That I’m afraid I don’t fit in.
“Ah,” is all he says as he goes back to inspecting the room.
“We should have more extension boxes here,” he mutters to
himself. He walks towards the door, says excuse me before he leaves.
I stretch my neck to stare at his retreating figure. Is it
too late to sneak out, pretend I’d never been here? Sam returns before I can
leave, with one of the centre’s staff who is carrying two extension boxes. I
stand up and stroll into the outer room, pretending to stretch my legs and
admire the art on the walls, telling myself that because my laptop is in there I’m
not thinking of leaving, pretending not to know that it is something I can
easily leave behind. I go out the front door and stand at the veranda. Dark
clouds are gathering in the sky.
I had told the children about the workshop, that I’d been
accepted, that Chimamanda would be teaching. TJ had given his excited shriek
and made me promise to “break a leg”, even though he had no idea who “this
Chimamanda” was. Grace, my older, tamer child, was cautiously excited. She had
said congratulations, but she never knew I was “into writing”. With my
self-assured voice I had told them about sending in my entry at the last
minute, getting the congratulatory email, getting the details, confirming my
attendance, choosing to stay at a different hotel. I didn’t tell them of the voice
in my head that kept telling me I was a fool at forty-five. I didn’t tell them about
that last talk with their father two weeks ago.
A Coaster bus stops at the gate and the driver toots the
horn. The gatemen push the gates open. The bus crawls in and slows to a stop
and I count the people as they come out of it. Eighteen. They’re early. The
writers are of varying ages, but I can tell I’m older than any of them. The
youngest reminds me of Grace’s daughter; of how I think she’ll look in a couple
of years. They’re talking and laughing in groups as they walk towards the door,
close to where I’m standing. Many do not spare me a glance as they walk by.
Others do; they greet me “good morning, ma” as they pass. I nod in response. They
all go in.
I feel tired all of a sudden. I want to walk out through
those gates and go back to the life I’m used to, where people know me and the
things I’ve achieved. Where I do not feel like a phony. Where I am certain and
everything makes sense. Then I remember the empty house, the divorce papers that
will be ready by the time I get back to Abuja.
I turn and walk back into the rectangular room. I would be
stepping into the unknown when I got home anyway. I might as well start with
this writing thing.
Debbie woke up alone. She turned and felt the other side of the
bed. It was cold; he must have been gone for a while. She looked at the bedside
clock and panicked for a moment. It was eight! Then she relaxed as she
remembered what day it was. As had become a habit when she wasn’t running
around trying to achieve some superhuman task with her meagre twenty-four
hours, she let her mind go back a few years – an eternity away – to a time when
she’d known just who she was and what she’d wanted, and known for sure that she
would get it. She used to be a woman with big ambitions, but seven years, a
husband, four children and twenty-five kilograms later, she was spent. She
didn’t like this surly, depressed version of herself. She’d spent countless
moments staring into mirrors, wondered where her former self had gone and willing
her back. She missed her. Her bedroom door burst open and Debbie found herself assaulted by
four little people.
“Happy birthday, mummy!” they shrieked as they clambered up the
bed – all except the twins, who had just turned one. Debbie reached down and
lifted them, giggling, onto the bed.
They had come bearing gifts – a bracelet made with bright pink
beads from Akan, her oldest; a blue, slightly askew party hat that had the
words HAPPY BITEDAY MUMMY emblazoned in gold from Edi; and two sloppy kisses
from John and Joan. Then, standing in line on the bed wearing the most serious
expressions they could manage, they did an off key rendition of a birthday
song. Debbie gave an applause when they were done and forced the kids into a group hug. They squealed with feigned horror and tried to flee.
As she laughed and played with her children, Debbie felt like an
impostor. She would give anything to be able to say with conviction, like many
wives and mothers she knew, that moments like this made it all worth it. That
the sound of her children’s laughter could soothe any ache. That her husband’s
appreciation was all the validation she would ever need. That she would not
change her life for anything.
Were they all liars, those Supermoms and wives? Had they mastered
the art of pretence to the point where they believed their own lies?
Or was it her? Was there something wrong with her?
They liked to call themselves bad
guys; but she knew Toju. He wasn’t one of those bad ones. He
only talked tough and acted like them so he could fit in. With her, he was
gentle and sweet and sensitive, just the way she liked her men. He had only
joined those cult people for protection; he didn’t want anyone to ride on him.
And he wasn’t even that active in Triple X sef. He just coasted
along; present enough in their midst to be seen, absent enough to be forgotten.
That was what he said. She didn’t bother to ask how come, then, he had become
the Capo’s right hand man.
If it hadn’t rained that day several
weeks ago, they might never have met. She had been walking home from Ofirima
Hall—the queues at the bus stop were too long—when a car had sped past, bathing
her with water from a puddle that had formed beside the road. As she recovered
from the shock and got ready to scream, ‘God punish you!’ at the car, she’d
noticed it reverse, making its way back to where she stood. He had stumbled out
of the car, stuttering apologies and trying to wipe her down with his
handkerchief. She’d let him drive her to the hostel.
It had rained again, a few minutes
ago. Not the kind of rain that made the weather cold; the kind that seemed to
cause heat to rise from the ground. She lay on her bunk, fanning herself with
the handout she was supposed to be reading. She wiped her forehead with the
back of her palm. There was no electricity on campus, and the generators would
only come on at night. She picked up her phone to call Toju for the fifth time
that afternoon, wondering if he was still in class. She wanted to go to his
room off campus, at GRA. He had air conditioning there, and his own generator
just in case. Her phone beeped. There was a text message from her friend,
I herd cult boyz attackd
one guy. Dey hav taken d guy to teachin hospitl. Dey sed its TriplX dat did it.
How far? Was Toju ther?
She tossed her phone on the bed beside
her and stretched. Tumini just liked to spread gist, verified or otherwise. And
even if it was true, she wasn’t bothered. There was no way Toju was involved.
He was not one of the bad ones.