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Before her there were others. After, there will be more. Right now there are plenty. Plenty. Causing his head pain.
‘She won’t shut up, man.’ Gunner’s voice down the phone is like a knife stabbing his head. He feels the hotness of his palm slide down over his eyes, his mouth, his chin, as he sits on the side of his bed, elbows on knees, wishing for the silence of his stolen sleep. ‘Keeps screaming like some freak – “Cousin, cousin”. No one will fuck her like this. You asked me not to deck her but Jesus, man, I can’t be having it. Five hours. Five. Get your arse ‘round here and sort it.’
Gunner – this is a stupid name. But that is what the skinny Irish man had said to call him the first day they sat across from each other in Kavanagh’s.
‘Ireland’s number one Arsenal fan, that’s me.’ Black suit, black hair. Gold chain, cannon tattoo. Fortune had forced himself to laugh at the crude jokes and drink the disgusting Guinness in order to get this deal done.
And now, he must leave the warmth of his bed and his woman to drive the city streets.
It takes money to get you here. Who do you think paid for the boat, the truck, the documents – your grandmother? I would have liked that if she had – I would be a happy man. But no, it was me. Me, who takes the debt and you who must repay it. That is what he will say to her, he thinks, as he stops at Arran Quay waiting for the lights, tapping out a rhythm on the steering wheel, humming along to a tune he cannot place. The night holds the city in like a dome, making him twitch. A group of girls laugh hysterically, as they walk in front of him. Distracted from her drunken path, one of them knocks into his car. Two hands land on his bonnet and her hair splays out over the red paintwork.
‘Tsk tsk.’ His hand shoos her from the dashboard. Her pale face lifts and her eyes stare at him. Laughing even louder now, her friends pull her up, but not before her eyes have reached inside him and blown ice-cold air through his soul.
Instinctively, he moves his fingers to his forehead. Just between his eyebrows, he feels the depth of the wrinkle. He pulls down the mirror to look. Once his brow was smooth. Smooth with just enough shine to show a man of health and youth. He wore his forehead proudly in Kutara, the village of his birth. Handsome and intelligent. Oh yes. His mother has told him this many, many times.
‘Your brain was so big that when you came into this world, I cried loud enough so every mother in Nigeria lifted her head. The pain was too much. But I knew it would be worth it. And now look at you. I am so proud.’
The lights turn green and his right foot depresses.
His father does not look at him when his mother retells the story of his birth. Instead, he stares at the ground – his watery eyes leaking – his fingertips treading his worry beads. His father is jealous, that is what is wrong with him. It drips from his silence. He knows his son has become the brighter star. Achieved far bigger things than he and his goatherd ever could. Not even when Fortune built him the house in Abuja, with thirty rooms, four red leather sofas and a pool as big a football pitch – not even then, could he look his son in the eye and say thank you, God is good.
His mother says his father will not sleep under its roof. This is madness. Who has ever heard of a man who owns a mansion sleeping in the shed that is meant for the sun-loungers? The man is a fool.
And when he goes home to Nigeria to see them, where is his father then? Gone. Out to his lands and his goats. Yes, he still has goats. He does not need goats anymore but still he must keep them to rub it in his son’s face. It is embarrassing. Sitting out on the parched earth like a small child, because he could not provide as well as his son has done. Sharing a hut at night with his sister instead of shaking the hand of his son. You would think, would you not, that if a son travels seven thousand kilometres over lands and seas to see his family that it would be a good thing to greet him.
His father thinks he does not see when things have gone missing from the house. Thinks he does not know why he takes them. First it was the coffee machine, then it was the lamps with the gold flowers that Fortune personally chose for the guest rooms and now, now it is the white bathrobes with King and Queen stitched on the back. And as for the phone he bought him, he does not even ring it anymore. Who knows who would answer it? He knows where all of this has gone. He knows that if he walked down Idumota Market right now he would find them there, all of his things, with his aunt sitting waiting for a buyer.
His mother’s fawning, and hugging and high words annoyed him that last time he visited. Getting under his skin, making him scratch as he squeaked on the leather seats of the sitting room. He had forgotten how hot Abuja could get. He had pulled at his collar, passed a linen handkerchief over his forehead as he rose to check the AC.
‘What is this? Why do you not use what I have given you? Put the thing on, woman.’ He had said to his father.
‘It is your father. He does not like it when I use it. He says it saps the energy from the earth and the earth needs it more than our armpits. I am so used to not having it now that I forget it is even there.’ That voice of hers, high and cheery, like it was a laughing matter. That shuffling of her slippers as she rushed to his side. Those sleeves of her robe flapping about her elbows, her hands raised ready to do battle with a unit she clearly did not understand. Infuriating.
‘Now, let me see,’ she said, pushing the glasses higher on her nose. ‘Maybe this one? Ah, no, this one.’ How could this woman not know how to run her home? When he could take no more, Fortune stretched his hand in front of her face and slammed the big red button.
‘Ah, it was that one. See, brains to burn my son.’
Ignoring her he had crossed to the bay window, jerked back the long laced white curtain and looked down over the landscaped garden rolling to the wide road. It was strange, he thought, how he had come to crave the biting wind of Grafton Street.
‘We are not ungrateful, Fortune. You must not think that.’ His mother’s voice called him back.
‘It is about the girl your father is worried about.’
‘She is his sister’s daughter.’
‘I know who she is. You do not need to tell me who she is. But it is she who has come to me.’
‘He does not want you to take her. He says he can help them. She does not need to go.’
‘He will help them how? By selling every piece of furniture I have bought for this house and every grain of rice I have put in the cupboard.’
The words had burst out of him so fast that they caught in his throat, hurting him as they passed. He coughed hard, making his mother bring water. She held the glass to him with one hand while her other soothed his back.
‘He will see, my son. He will see. Do not worry. He will see the goodness you do. He is just worried for his sister that is all. You know your aunt is not well.’
‘Yes and this is why my cousin has asked me to make it right. I have given her the money for all of the medicine and now she will come back with me. That is how it will be.’
‘But what work will you make her do? Your father says…’
‘My father says what? What?’ He does not like it when they make him raise his voice. ‘I know what he thinks. That I am telling lies.’ He shoved the empty glass into his mother’s hand and loosened his tie. ‘I have told you a thousand times. It is cleaning – offices, big houses. Cleaning.’
Sweat slid down the side of his face as he looked down at his mother, daring her to contradict him.
His father will never understand, he knows that as he drives through this Irish murky darkness. Will never see that this life is not simple. Will never appreciate what it is to succeed in this world today. What it is people must do and what people must sacrifice. And what of it? Huh? What of it? Let him stay on his dry land, where money will never grow and tend his skeletal goats if this is what he really wants. And Fortune, Fortune alone will do what must be done.
He pulls into the parking space outside the apartment block and looks up.
The girl’s black eyes are small, pathetic, and crawl all over his face looking for something. Look as long as you like, you will not find what it is you look for, Cousin.
His voice is calm. His words slip easily out of a smiling mouth. But it is these tears she cries, the words she spits, the way her face contorts that makes him mad. Her pulling at his sleeve stretches his patience wide, creasing what he has paid good money to make smooth. He forces her hand away, grasping it as tightly as a chicken’s neck. It is when the button falls to the floor that he has had enough.
‘Drug her,’ he says to Gunner when he leaves the room, pulling at the naked threads on his cuff in the hallway.
‘Never ask me to do a favour again, Fortune. Time is money and that little cunt has just wasted a whole lot of green on us, man.’
‘You are right, my friend. It was a stupid thing I asked. I am a sentimental fool. What can I say.’ He smiles, a large pearly smile. ‘Do what you must do. Next week I will call you. I have two girls already on their way. Sixteen, no more. Beautiful, my friend, beautiful. Maybe you might have a taste yourself? Eh? Maybe?’ Fortune nudges the Irish man’s arm and laughs as Gunner smiles. But by the time he hits the freezing air his face is stone.
It is 4.31 a.m. when Fortune turns off the ignition for the last time. It is 4.45 when he lays his head down once more on a pillow long turned cold, listening to the rise and fall of his woman’s breathing. His hand moves around her. Shifting under his touch, she repositions herself into him, spreading the warmth he craves. He squeezes her breast in appreciation then closes his eyes against the hint of morning light.