|Image from here|
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 the workshop.
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 or so.”
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 here?”
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.