The agent’s office smelled like the street outside and the musty rug inside. Margaret Umeh tried very hard not to crinkle her nose at the man who was going to give her a house. Jennifer was nice, but she really needed her own place before she started her internship.
Internship. Such a small, harmless word for the most terrifying thing she’d ever done in her life. One wrong move and someone paid for it-maybe a patient, maybe a doctor…maybe her. As her mind wandered to all the worst-case scenarios, she ignored the man sitting across from her who was droning about prices and apartment spaces…
‘Hey! Hey!’ he snapped his fingers in front of her face, interrupting her runaway train of thoughts. She glared at him. ‘I’m listening, Mr. Awo.’ Fitting name. He did look like a toad. ‘The house have 2 rooms, self contain. Big space. Kitchen and parlour. Very good house.’ ‘Right, I got that. I have a problem with the price though, two-fifty thousand is too much.’ It’s the price, Missy.’ ‘I’ll give you two hundred thousand and that’s how far I’m willing to go.’
The agent gave her a stony look imbued with all the words he probably couldn’t put voice to. She kept hers blank. Finally, he sighed. ‘Ok, Missy. Two hundred.’ She nodded, somewhat angry because she felt she was being ripped off-for a house in Freedom Town. She just really needed a place and this house sounded too good to be true. As she signed the cheque, she seethed with righteous anger borne from losing money. She was living off her parents till she got her first paycheck-they were happy to help, but she still felt guilty asking them for help. They’d been always there for her and would still be in the future but in this brief window when she could provide for herself, she wanted to. Badly.
‘This house had better be good-better than good,’ she handed him the cheque which he inspected with the precision of the half-literate, then recorded it in his notebook and stamped it-all very precise, very controlled movements-which took up to thirty minutes to complete. Frankly, she just wanted this to be over.
Finally, he handed her a bunch of keys tied together with a string and showed her where to sign on the reciept.
She took it and stood, taking her worn ‘battle’ bag: it was her go-to bag, easy to carry and roomy. ‘This apartment had better have locks that work. And good electrical connections. And a toilet that flushes without drowning the bathroom…the works, or you’ll not hear the last of it.
‘Bye, Missy,’ the agent said in his bored, toady voice. ‘Uh huh.’ She made sure to bang his office door.
Her phone was ringing as she came out of the bathroom. She ignored it, wiping off her body quickly and dropping the towel where she stood. She had a date-a hot date-and couldn’t afford to pass it off. The way things were looking, she was going to be late already. The busy day at work had left her tired and irritable, but the bath and anticipating her date with Tom made up for all that. She was smiling as she grabbed underwear from the bag beside the dresser-which she’d not gotten around to unpacking- and dragged her favourite blue butterfly top from the wardrobe hanger. The gray shorts she was going to wear them with was…somewhere…somewhere…
She went on her knees and started searching-it’d probably be under the bed.
The phone started ringing again and she dived for it, banging her head on the headboard in the process. ‘Jesus-Christ-stupid-fucking-hell!!!!’ ‘Chioma Obiorah, what sort of language is that?!’ She sighed at her stepmother’s voice, and then sat back on her haunches. ‘Hey, stepmum. Sorry, I hit my head.’ ‘Are you looking for your clothes in unlikely places again? Because I keep telling you-there’s a reason it’s called a room, not a tornado spot.’ ‘I have a system, Aisha, and it works for me. When I need it, I’ll find it.’ ‘Yeah how’s that working out for you?’
She sat up and started putting the underwear on, holding the phone to her ear with her shoulder. ‘Not, very well, but you know…’ ‘You have to call your father, Chi.’ She paused in her actions. ‘…nope. Not happening.’ ‘Chi…’ ‘I am not talking to a man who thinks I’m a huge disappointment.’ ‘He loves you, sweetie. Just come for dinner, at least that.’ ‘Yeah, like those ever turn out well-they always become impromptu performance reports.’ ‘Give your old man a break, Chi. He works hard for everyone so he expects the best…’ The top came on. ‘Really? Because I think that graduating with a first class In fine and applied arts is hard work enough and would ma-say, a caring father-proud of me’, she finished, putting the phone on a tub of makeup remover on her dresser and picking up the hairbrush. On hind thought, she pressed the speaker button and commenced brushing her long, thick hair back.
Her stepmother was still on the warpath. ‘I just feel guilty about this rift you have with your father.’ ‘Oh no, Aisha, this has nothing to do with you! Some things are not meant to be. With you, he’s a different person though; he smiles, never raises his voice-I swear I heard him make a joke once when you two were in the living room! He loves you. But me? Nah. He’s just stuck with me ‘cos he’s my father.’ ‘Chioma…’ ‘It’s the truth! It’s like he’s making me pay for everything my mother did to him! Not that he didn’t deserve those things.’ The hairbrush came down, foundation was next. She applied it with the ease of long use. ‘He loves you, chi. He’s proud of you.’ ‘Oh, step-mum, it’s sweet of you, really. But it doesn’t change anything. Let’s talk about something else, though. How’re the twins?’ Aisha sighed. ‘Mike broke his leg and Gaby has a terrible cold. Get the picture?’ ‘Yeah, chaos. You should get back to them now, I’m sure they need you.’ ‘Promise me you’ll call your father.’ ‘Please, I have to…’ ‘Promise it, honey. It won’t hurt a bit. Come on!’ ‘Okay’, she gave in, sighing in defeat. ‘There! Was that difficult now?’ ‘Yes!’ the woman chuckled, ‘I’ll leave you now to get on with your date.’
‘How did you know I had a date?’ ‘I’ve known you for ten years, six months and two weeks, chioma,’ she said with a long-suffering sigh. Chi smiled. Sweet, sweet step-mum. ‘Alright. Tell the twins I sent a drone of mosquitoes to them'.’ ‘You bet I will. Have fun! Be careful!’ ‘Bye’
Aisha, the only mother she’d known. Hers was somewhere in America. She’d not heard from her in six months. Her parents thought that sending her all the money she needed would make up for their absence. The truth was it didn’t. It made the hurt worse. Not all the Prada bags in the world could make up for her parents. It helped, though. She took a deep, cleansing breath, ‘snap out of it, buster‼ You have a date.’
She grabbed her Prada handbag and left the house.
‘Jennifer, thank you so much, you’ve been a gracious hostess and you put up with me-that’s an accomplishment.’ The short, rounded girl laughed and waved off her thanks, the diamond solitaire ring on her left hand winking in the light. ‘Its okay, Meg, you’re actually fun to stay with. Just call me if you have any problems, ok?’ ‘Alright.’ ‘Remember, if you need anything, just call me,’ she looked around, ‘maybe I should help you unpack, this place looks like a terrible mess.’ ‘I heard you the first hundred times you offered, Jen, and my answer is still thanks again but no. go on, you’re supposed to be at lunch with Ugo’s family!’ Jenny waved and left.
Meg looked around the living room. It was small and cosy. Small, cosy and messy. The former tenants must have been less, less than organized. There was a table, an armchair, and a couch. They were all littered with popcorn and there was a half-drunk bottle of wine on the table. She frowned and ran a finger on the table. Wait-no dust. Surely, it meant her predecessors had left that day…
Or hadn’t left yet, she surmised when she looked into the room with its door open. There were two rooms. One was open, dusty and empty. The other was open, not dusty and definitely not empty. It looked like hurricane Katrina missed her target and hit that room. And it looked like the occupants were very much around. How could Mr. Toad rent her an occupied house?!
Fuming, she moved her luggage to her room-the empty room. That done, she went downstairs and enlisted the help of the security man to carry her small table and two seats into the room. Her mattress went on the floor-for now, till she got a bed frame. Then came time for her to unpack the foodstuff. She marched to the kitchen.
And screamed. Piles of unwashed plates, the stove was crusty with stuff she couldn’t identify, and there was no cupboard. There was food debris all over the place. ‘What’s this rubbish?!Who’s this ghost occupant in my house?’
Chioma had just entered the house. She heard the enraged voice and detoured towards to see a petite girl-in black leggings and a purple bogus top, her hair in a short ponytail standing in her kitchen. A mugging-gone wrong, maybe? Already? Uh uh, nobody robbed her and got away with it. Not in her town. ‘Excuse me, who are you?’
The intruder jumped and turned to the voice, her heart pounding.
‘How’d you get in here?’ ‘With my key, of course. I should be asking you what you’re doing in here, in my house.’ ‘This is my house!’ ‘Look, I don’t like games. I paid the rent on this apartment, signed the receipt and was given the keys today.’ ‘Are you kidding me?’ ‘No way will I be kidding by past 7pm. I’m hungry and tired and need to sleep, so jokes are out.’ ‘There’s a problem here,’ she folded her arms over her expensive looking blue top, keys dangling from one crooked finger, ‘ I moved into this house-my house-two weeks ago. You’re in the wrong place, girl.’ ‘My name’s not ‘girl’, meg retorted acidly, getting more irritated by the minute, ‘it’s Margaret. M-a-r-g-a-r-e-t!’ ‘Hey, there’s no need for you to get all prickly here. It’s you who’s crowding my space.’ She took a deep breath, schooling her temper. ‘We need to sort this out.’ ‘Yes, we do’, Chioma said, cool as ever, ‘but you’re hungry and tired and need to sleep so I’ll let you stay the night. In the morning, you can go see the landlord’s agent and sort things out.’
Meg felt ashamed of her earlier outburst. She always got like that whenever she was in a threatened position. This girl was very nice, for sure. ‘I’m sorry I bitched you earlier.’ ‘It’s ok. Believe me I’ve seen bitchy. I work with models-this was a slow Tuesday’s equivalent of a hissy fit at my job.’ Meg smiled. ‘My name’s Margaret Umeh.’ ‘I got that. Chioma Obiorah.’ ‘Thanks for not kicking my ass out of here.’ ‘You’re welcome.’
Chioma turned to go but the other girl interrupted her again, ‘um, excuse me? If I'm going to stay here tonight, it’s gotta be clean.’ ‘Really? Who died and made you my mother?’ ‘It’s not that, it’s just...I’m a tad OCD. I can’t function in a place this messy, I'll get hives and end up cleaning it anyway and you’ll not like the sounds of me scrubbing in the middle of the night when you’re sleeping.’ Chioma gaped at her. ‘Are you serious right now?’ ‘Like a heart attack. You have to wash up all these,’ she gestured with her hands at the dirty dishes, ‘and your room too.’ Chioma rolled her eyes, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me! I’ve been doing fine in this house for the past two weeks, and I have a system...’ ‘Does that involve the health department declaring this place uninhabitable? Because that’s where you’re headed. I give you a month, tops.’
Chioma folded her arms in obstinate defeat. ‘Margaret, I don’t like you.’ ‘Oh good, most people don’t. Now I don’t have to worry about impressing you,’ she retorted with a bright smile, ‘don’t worry, I'll help you out.’ ‘Fine!!’ ‘Fine.’
Two hours later, they were in Chioma’s room. The rest of the house was shiny clean-the girl cleaned like a drill sergeant. They’d not done much talking, with Margaret being ill at ease around her. Chioma suspected it was her crack about not liking her that was the problem. In spite of her pretence of a thick skin, this girl was very sensitive.
‘I'm sorry.’ She looked up from the waste bin where she was trying to make all the candy and cookie wrappers that came out from under the bed fit. It was a losing battle. ‘Why? I'm the one who didn’t get my facts straight before I invaded your space,’ she pressed the wrappers harder into the bin. Chioma suspected that this was a girl that didn’t accept defeat easily. ‘Not that,’ she put a restraining hand on her shoulder, making her stop her frantic actions and look at her, ‘I'm sorry I said I didn’t like you. That was a very insensitive thing to say, given the circumstances.’ ‘You’re not under any obligations to like me, I'll be gone tomorrow.’ ‘You don’t have to...I mean, till the agent has this straightened out.’
Meg looked at her intensely for a moment, and then shrugged. ‘Ok, thanks.’ ‘So...clean slate?’ ‘Ok,’ she managed to smile a little, and then went back to attacking the waste bin. ‘What do you do?’ ‘oh...I’m a student-actually, I just graduated, I'm still not used to that-I'm attached at Legon University Teaching Hospital for my internship. Medical lab science.’ ‘A scientist, wow. How...intellectual.’ ‘xI love it,’ she gave up on the bin and found a paper bag instead. It worked, to Chioma’s relief-she was starting to sweat just looking at the girl fight with the bin. The dresser was next.
‘What of you?’ ‘I'm a graphic designer with Life magazine.’ ‘Get out! You’re an artist? With Life? That’s the biggest magazine in this country! A job that glamorous...’ ‘Whoa, let’s not get carried away,’ she laughed, carrying a pile of clothes to the wash basket and dumping them in there. ‘When did you graduate?’ ‘Two years ago. My step-mother had some contacts and got me my dream job.’ ‘Step mother?’ ‘Don’t look so aghast, she’s a sweetheart.’ Meg straightened the last of the cosmetics on the dresser and looked around the room, noticing some pencil sketches propped against one wall. They were pretty good. ‘You’re actually good with a brush.’ ‘Thanks.’ ‘I liked to draw too, when I was younger. Could never get my bodily proportions to line up, though. Now I just stick with writing. And reading-love those.’ ‘...thus the proper, Queen’s English you speak. And the marked British pronunciations.’ ‘Oh, come on.’ She blushed.
‘When do you start work?’ ‘Monday.’ ‘Wow, you have barely three days.’ ‘Yeah, I looked for an apartment for the longest time. I grew up in Enugu but when I got this appointment, I came here-about a month ago. I just didn’t think it’d be this difficult to find a place to live. I like having things sorted out, you know...settled in, or I can’t function maximally.’ ‘I’ve noticed. Look, you don’t have to figure everything out right now.’ ‘I kind of think I do.’
They finished the rest of the cleaning in quiet contemplation.
‘The house is already occupied, Mr. Agent,’ Meg said by way of greeting the next day as she stepped into Mr. Awo’s office. Was it the lighting, or was he getting fatter around the middle? Definitely the lighting considering she’d just met him a week ago. ‘What you want, a private suite?’ ‘I want what I paid for! Don’t tell me you knew that house was already occupied?’ ‘Yes, missy. I rent you one room.’ ‘No way, I paid for two self-contained rooms! My brother is coming to school here soon, where will he stay?’ ‘you single, only one person. You no need two rooms.’ ‘Don’t tell me what I need, Mr. Toady...em, Awo. I paid for two rooms-I want two rooms.’ ‘Sorry,’ he said flatly, losing interest in her tirade and going back to the book he was writing in.
‘So what happens now?’ ‘You have flatmate, Missy. I have many client, so go.’ ‘You have to find me another place.’ ‘Only empty in three month.’ ‘Three months? You’re kidding me!’ ‘No. Go now.’ She glared at him for a long moment, and then left in a huff.
I’ve been cheated! Can you imagine that? I hate being cheated.’ Jennifer raised her brows at her friend who was pacing her sitting room-cum-bedroom. ‘How?’ ‘The agent gave me an occupied house. One room is already occupied.’ Jennifer was a former course-mate. She’d accommodated her till she got her own house-if she’d gotten her own house. ‘What’s the big deal, just go with it. Occupy the other room; the house has a lot of space from what I saw. You won’t be in each other’s way.’ ‘He told me it was two rooms!’ ‘Which it was, technically. That’s ok if you ask me, considering that I thought that rent way too cheap for a two bedroom flat. How’s the other girl?’ ‘She’s ok, I guess. She’s kind-if a bit scattered-she’s friendly. And hot. Why do I always get the hot roommates that make me look like a hobbit in comparison?’
Jen laughed. ‘So she’s one of those girls that look like they just stepped out of a magazine?’ ‘Ironically, she works in one too. Life.’ ‘Hmmm, nice.’ ‘Yep. Classy, has that whole ‘diva’ attitude...so Jen, you’re saying I should stay?’ ‘Yes, so far as it’s ok with the other girl. I mean, she was there first. Technically, though, you shouldn’t have to ask her since you both paid for the apartment.’ ‘Great.’ ‘If it doesn’t work out, you can always come stay here.’ ‘Thanks Jenny, you’re the best.’
Larry sauntered into Chioma’s cubicle, then dumped a sheaf of type-set pages on her desk. ‘I need you to proof read this for me.’ ‘Go to the proofreading people in the basement, I'm a graphic designer.’ ‘Come on, Sexy. Do it for me.’ She looked up from her computer. ‘Sure, just hand me the knife and I'll do you in,’ she snarled. He smirked. ‘Damn, girl. Turns me on when you do that.’ ‘Will you just leave?’ ‘Not if you were oxygen and I'm drowning.’ He just laughed harder, irritating her more.
‘Hey Larry!’ they turned to see the features editor, looking disagreeable as usual, ‘quit teasing miss Obiorah and come over here.’ He gave him the thumbs up sign and turned back to chioma. ‘So, drinks? After work?’ ‘no.’ ‘ok then, keep this up and you’re going to die an old maid. You do know I'm the only man who’ll have you right?’ ‘Get out, Larry.’ ‘Ok, ok. Just remember that when you’re fifty and dying.’ He left, tapping out a staccato rhythm on the side of her cubicle as he passed.
The editor turned back to her and snapped, ‘Miss Obiorah, get back to work! This magazine is not going to produce itself.’ She turned back to her computer.
‘I want to see whoever is in charge of printing pictures here,’ a trademark female voice insisted loudly, attracting the attention of everyone on the Creative floor. Larry left his cubicle and headed over to the model everyone knew as Cindy. ‘Hey, Cindy. How’ve you been?’ ‘Who printed this hideous picture of me?’ she shrieked, holding out a copy of the previous month’s issue of the magazine. ‘Err...not one person is responsible for the pictures. Some people take them, others approve them...’ ‘don’t talk to me like I'm stupid,’ she postured, one hand on a perfectly arched hip and the other holding the offending artwork, ‘I want a list of everyone involved in printing this...this...,’ she gave up after a pause and threw her hands up. ‘I'll sue you. Every one of you. How dare you print a picture of me in this dress?’
One of the photographers came and took the magazine from her, perusing the picture. It was one of her in a yellow Oscar dress with a bell-bottom. ‘What’s wrong with the dress?’ ‘I look so fat in it! See, see,’ she snatched the magazine from the photographer and shoved it in the face of everyone who was gathered around her in turn, ‘you bunch of complete idiots have cost me money, I lost a major job because my agency thinks I’ve added weight!’ ‘Anyone who thinks that needs major eye surgery,’ Larry muttered under his breath, eyeing her razor thin frame. She swung around to him, her raven dark, waist-length hair flying. ‘What?’ ‘Nothing.’ Chioma was finding it more and more difficult to keep a straight face.
Finally, all the racket attracted the attention of the Creative editor-in-Chief. She came out of her office. ‘What’s going on out here?’ ‘Oh, good, someone that can do something. I have a complaint, Chris.’ ‘You always have a complaint, girl,’ she gestured with a toss of her head, ‘come on, step into my office.’
‘I swear I'll resign from this job every year, never get around to doing it,’ the photographer who’d gone to see the picture said, shaking his head. Chioma rolled her chair to the door of her cubicle to see him better as he passed, ‘yeah, like you’ll pass up any opportunity to take pictures of barely clothed, anorexic girls who can’t spell past the fifth grade level. ‘And because I can’t bear being away from you, sexy,’ he said with a lecherous smile, bending down to give her a light kiss on her cheek. She batted him away, laughing.
Larry saw them and walked over, a possessive scowl on his face. ‘Hey! Move on, dude, show’s over. Back to work.’ ‘Sorry man, I was just playing,’ he left them alone. She glared at him. ‘Really? You’re all alpha male now?’ ‘He was...’ ‘He’s just my friend, and you have no right over me, ok? Go away, I have work to do.’ He left in anger.
Meg was sitting cross-legged on the floor of her room eating ice cream and crackers when chioma came back. She paused when she saw her and detoured to her room instead. ‘Hi, Maggie.’ ‘Hi. How was work?’ ‘Crazy, as usual.’ She tossed her handbag to the bed on the floor, pulled off her shoes and imitated Meg’s stance, then took the tub of ice cream from her. ‘Mmm...vanilla and coffee. This is delish.’ Meg took a deep breath and braced herself for the worst. When chioma still didn’t say anything-just smeared a cracker with ice-cream and bit into it with a rapturous moan-she spoke up. ‘Chioma...’ ‘Before you say anything, let me finish this little piece of heaven I'm holding in my hand right now.’ The other girl smiled and let her finish the cracker.
When she finished, she sighed in bliss and dusted off her hands. ‘Ok, now I can process words. I know what you were going to say, Maggie...’ ‘Even though you were unable to process words at the time?’ ‘Ha, ha, she has a sense of humour. Abeg let me finish, jor. It’ll be nice to have a roommate, someone to gist with and bitch with. You can organise stuff and I can...pimp you up. Put a little fizz in your life.’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘You are much too demure, girl,’ she took another cracker and started smearing it with ice-cream.
Meg chuckled. ‘Honey, you just made the first error in judgement that people who meet me make. I'm not just this...quiet, homely girl who likes to cook and sew.’ ‘Uh huh.’ ‘I mean it! I have plenty of fizz.’ ‘Uh huh.’ They both laughed. ‘Thanks for letting me stay, though. This is going to be fun.’
Chioma stood and opened the box beside the bed that Meg had never unpacked, then started rummaging through it till she came upon a short, electric blue toga dress. ‘Wow! This is cute, Meg. Put it on, we’re going out.’ ‘Hmmm?’ the other girl raised a brow, spoon of ice cream suspended on its way to her mouth. ‘Yeah, it’s a Friday night! You cannot stay in on a Friday night in Legon, that’s a disaster. Girl, wear this.’ ‘I can’t, I’ve had that for more than two years but never got the courage to wear it-it’s way shorter than I'm comfortable with.’ ‘Oh, you are so wearing this, Maggie. Find a pair of heels to go with them and meet me in twenty, we’ll go with my car.’ ‘I’ve just never had the courage to...’ ‘You do now. Dress!’