A Pinch of Salt: by Hannah Onoguwe

It had begun some weeks back when Isinam had gone to Connexions, the cybercafé she was used to frequenting. It was near the Federal Secretariat, some distance from her house behind Nsebisi Road, but didn’t have the power or connectivity issues those near home had. It was also comfortable—tiled floor, plush seats, flat screen monitors and opaque-walled cubicles that offered some privacy. A tad more expensive than most, but she was gratified with the kind of people she ran into: business types, professionals, university students. As if that was not enough to make it popular, it also boasted a canteen that offered about the best delicious local dishes and baked goods to be found anywhere.

She had been sitting with a meat pie and a Coke when he asked to share her table. His was a familiar face at the cybercafé and she had assumed—erroneously—that the request was preliminary to some heavy chatting up. His chunky wedding ring was as conspicuous as a madman at a lawyers’ convention, but he was friendly without being pushy, his cologne distinct without being overpowering. And he was good-looking. So she let him sit across from her with his plate of egusi soup and semovita.

The conversation had begun cautiously, she turning down his offer to buy her something more substantial, and while Isinam sucked on her straw she watched in fascination how he devoured his food in that very male way like the end of the world was nigh and by extension therefore, all such pleasures. The fluffy semovita was plumped into near perfect balls which were then dunked into the thick soup, coming away with flecks of egusi coated in fragrant palm oil, accompanied with bits of shredded ugu and uziza, chunks of smoked fish or small curls of tender pomo. She wasn’t hungry for proper food but her body could have tricked her into thinking she was, her senses sharpening in appreciation of his enjoyment. When he paused to take a long draft of his water, he commented on how good the food was.

She nodded. “It almost makes up for the price.” When he laughed, she smiled, adding, “No offense to the cook, but my mother cooks way better.”

“You’re just being loyal.”

Isinam shook her head firmly, meeting his eyes. “If we made a bet, you’d lose. In fact, you’d pay me double out of gratitude.”

“Mmm.” He gave her a considering look. “You come here quite a bit.”

“Well, yes. I subscribe to a service that sends job vacancies to my inbox, so I check what’s available and send my CV out—besides checking my email and Facebook.” She grinned at his expression as she mentioned the last. “I keep telling my parents to get Internet at home.” Or finally replace her defunct Android. The Nokia phone she managed now did little more than calls and text messages, a testament to antiquity. It was embarrassing.

“How long ago did you finish school?”

She let out a breath. No matter that it wasn’t her fault, she was reluctant to say it aloud. “Um…almost three years? If you subtract the NYSC year, it’s nineteen months to be exact. It’s a competitive world out here.”

“Especially in Nigeria.”

Oh yes. In Nigeria where thousands applied for one vacancy. It had become some sort of cliché. She was tired of the whole job-hunting thing and, out of frustration, had once cried in the privacy of her room with all the props, snot, sweat and sobs, sans dignity. She doubted that had ever been his problem, though…more likely he’d been one of two or three whose father or uncle was on the board of some bank or other establishment and merely took the aptitude test to fulfill all righteousness. Isinam had glimpsed his shoes earlier and now dropped her gaze to the designer logo on his shirt. She was almost positive he couldn’t relate.

As if he’d read her mind, he said, “I must have written dozens of aptitude tests when I graduated from the university. GMAT was my bosom buddy.”

She felt a growing spark of kinship with him just then. “Really? So…when did you get lucky?”

“When a man I greatly respect and admire sat me down and talked to me. Told me to do what I can with what I have instead of waiting for Chevron or Zenith Bank to snap me up. I started small and slugged it out, and” he shrugged “I now own a successful business.” Seeing Isinam’s surprise, he said, “I can’t be the first person who’s telling you to keep yourself busy— at least until you get the job of your dreams?”

No, but he was the first who made her sit up and notice. It was time she stopped waiting for something to happen to her and made something happen instead. Take control of her destiny, as a local televangelist would say.

Her dad, a retired civil servant, had been thrilled. “So you’re saying that your degree in Economics will waste, ehn? Why didn’t you say you wanted to study Food and Nutrition? I could have saved the tuition fees altogether and sent you to Mama in the village instead.”

Her mother’s concern was that people would think she hadn’t raised her daughter properly. “Cooking class? All these dishes you learned to cook from me…wetin you dey call those ones na?” Praising her mother’s cooking and teaching skills and insisting that the classes were for continental dishes—and to crown her wealth of knowledge with a certificate—mollified the woman only slightly.

Even her younger brother, Udoh, home for the Easter break from his NYSC station in Benue State, chortled at the news and began calling her Iya Basira, a nickname made popular by the group Styl Plus.

Her parents had eventually seen reason with her and given her money to enroll in the twelve-week class. In their eyes, she thought she read the fervent hope that it was the last time they would fork out cash for their adult daughter—except maybe at her wedding. Cooking was something Isinam remembered resenting while growing up, but it must have been the Akwa Ibom blood in her veins that had subtly changed that. There was no local dish she couldn’t prepare unless she hadn’t come across it. At the university she had made friends with girls from other states and taken it upon herself to learn their native dishes, turning internet searches and trials into a hobby to learn the oyibo ones she was unfamiliar with. She loved it. Learning even more from Powei was amazing. He had a flair and economy of movement that made anything he cooked seem easy. She heard he’d studied abroad and worked as the chef in a 5-star restaurant in Lagos for almost a decade. What had led to his leaving, however, was something that was shrouded in mystery.

Now as the only male student in the group opened the pot on the hob, Powei’s lively eyes darted around and came to rest on Isinam. “Isinam, why don’t you finish preparing the bean soup?”

Isinam took a bracing breath and then stepped up to the massive table with its gleaming utensils and colorful ingredients in their dishes—brown and white sections of smoked fish, treacle-coloured locust beans, the light brown of blended crayfish, the deeper brown pieces of goat meat still sitting in their stock, the orange-red palm oil, and the brighter red of pounded ata rodo peppers. The aromatic scent leaf which had been cut into slivers was optional, Powei had informed them before cheerfully adding that its scientific name was Ocimum gratissimum, to which one girl had whispered snidely, “Wetin I wan use that one do na?” The beans in the pot had been briefly soaked in water before being relieved of their skins and then cooked with potash and an obscene amount of onions until what remained was a mush. Isinam took the wooden stick and began stirring in the ingredients, meat stock first, and as the heady aroma curled around the room, someone murmured, “Gbegiri, no ni” which resulted in a smattering of laughter.

Powei smiled. “Actually, there’s a difference. This version isn’t strained, which is better in my opinion as I think Yorubas strain out the best part of the beans. This is the version from the Bassa-Nge of Kogi State. I can never overemphasize learning as much as you can, whenever you can. You never know where you’ll find yourself tomorrow.”

Into the silence that eventually ensued was the sound of the door opening. All eyes swung to the source. Isinam, arm still moving automatically as she looked up, recalled her thoughts the first day she had seen this young woman now shutting the door behind her: What on earth is she doing here? She was like an exotic plant in a yard of weeds. Scorning the serviceable jeans and casual clothes the rest wore, today Helen was dressed in form-fitting white shorts that stopped above her knees, and a multicolored blouse that clung to her trim waist and the swell of her hips and left one flawless shoulder bare. Sky-high tan wedges matched her handbag and as she came to a stop at the worktable the smell of her perfume overpowered that of the spices.

“Madame,” Powei said, expression wry.

Helen’s perfectly glossed lips curved. “Hello. Sorry I’m late.”

With a resigned nod he turned his attention back to what his students were doing. Before Isinam redirected her gaze, Helen tossed her a naughty look and Isinam’s lips twitched. Helen seemed to glory in her superficiality. Isinam couldn’t forget how, after telling her mother about Helen’s Peruvian extensions which cost ninety thousand naira upwards, the older woman had clapped her hands and released a stream of words in Oron about how young girls of today went about attaching marine spirits to their hair.

They had begun talking one day after class when Isinam was waiting for a taxi at the junction and Helen had stopped her lipstick-red Hyundai Tucson a few feet away, bending slightly to see her better. Isinam, having noticed her from the first day of class and pegging her as a spoilt and idle young wife (her rings were phenomenal) had seen all this from the corner of one eye but refused to even acknowledge her until she spoke.

“Can I drop you off somewhere?”

“It depends on where you’re going.”

Helen had laughed, (at the seriousness of Isinam’s demeanor, she later told her), the sunlight glinting off the lenses of her humongous Ray Bans. “Come on in, I’m not rushing off to anyplace in particular.”

Trying not to let on that she was impressed by the luxuriousness of the upholstered seats, Isinam entered the cushy interior and winced slightly as Falz slapped her eardrums. Helen had studied her in amazement for a few seconds and then said, “You know, I would have sworn that your hair wasn’t real. But it is all yours, right?”

Being used to such reactions didn’t mean Isinam was impervious to admiration. “Every last strand.” It was thick and jet black and fell to her shoulder blades.

“My goodness, I’m so jealous! You should see mine. It’s a good thing there are weaves, extensions, lace caps to hide my shame. The day my husband saw my real hair, he was in shock. We were engaged at the time and I was afraid for one second that he would take back his proposal.”

“Well….let’s just say you might think twice about being jealous when I tell you that it thrives all over.” Warming up to her quickly, Isinam had widened her eyes meaningfully.

“Oh my God!” Helen had laughed in delight when it sank in, and that was the start of some sort of friendship. Isinam hadn’t really had any friends post-university, as her close pals in school lived in Lagos and Abuja. Calls and emails had dwindled in both content and frequency until now there were only the occasional few cursory lines exchanged on Whatsapp. So it was great having Helen who was about her age, to talk with in class and give her the occasional free ride to her junction. On the other hand, it was a bit strange associating with someone who appeared to have everything going for her: a graduate of Northumbria University, Helen had completed her NYSC year when she got back from the UK four years ago, and got married after “gaining experiences I won’t be able to repeat to my children”. She wasn’t really looking for work but was considering a Masters soon—but not in Nigeria. Isinam found even stranger the fact that Helen couldn’t cook: a Nigerian woman her age who couldn’t cook stew, let alone the basic egusi, ogbono, or vegetable soups! Helen said Indomie noodles and fried eggs were her limit.

Isinam wished her well, though, better late than never. But she was shocked later that day when Powei said, “Helen Eghirie, I’m thinking you should have shares in this business by now.”

Helen had tossed back a light response, but Isinam blinked as the implications of his words found their mark. When she saw Powei had moved on, the words spilled out. “What does he mean?”

“Well, I’ve been registering here—off and on—for…oh, a year and a half, maybe two?”

“But Powei makes everything simple.”

“Yeah, but…cooking has never really been my thing, you know? I’ve never been as regular as I should be…sometimes I’m out of the country and when I am around, I often have other engagements. Anyway, I think you’re making me a more attentive student. Don’t blame me,” she’d added on seeing the expression Isinam couldn’t veil. “I’m an only child and while growing up we had relatives who lived with us and did practically everything.”

As she began to slowly recover from the onslaught of information, Isinam tried to absorb the cheerful nonchalance with which all this was delivered. She was an Eghirie. Her heart sank. Everything was falling into place.

When the course came to an end some weeks later, the two girls hugged as Helen dropped her off. Isinam remarked that Helen had finally ‘graduated’, to which Helen laughingly asked if that was possible and declared that Powei would miss, if not her personality, her money.

“Make sure you call me,” Helen said after they’d exchanged addresses.

“You too!”

“I’ll definitely call you tomorrow. We’ll hook up.”

Two weeks dragged by, and Helen’s ‘tomorrow’ never came. Annoyance and disappointment warred for prominence even as Isinam debated what to do. Helen extending a sincere hand of friendship might have changed everything. In the end she made her decision. Scrolling down her list of contacts, she came to H Eghirie and dialed.

“Hello there. I thought you’d never call.”

“Well… I have.”

“Should I expect you?”

“Right away… that is, if you’re home?”

“I am.”

The house was a sprawling pale green bungalow in GRA Phase I with tall dogon yaro trees and a profusion of green, leafy plants. It was a soothing sight in the humidity of Asaba. I need that right now, Isinam thought as the gateman let her in. There was a burgundy Infiniti sitting in the open garage and another smaller car with a cover spread over it. A middle-aged man watering a colorful splash of flowers by one wall greeted her in Ika as she passed. She knew enough of the language to reply and tell him well done. As she got to the porch, she paused with a foot on the first step. As if on cue, there was the sound of a horn at the gate and she was momentarily struck with confusion as she turned to watch the gateman scramble to open it. The familiar red Hyundai drove in and parked smoothly. Seconds later, Helen sauntered towards her carrying a couple of shopping bags, the hem of her rose pink sundress stopping a mere inch below her butt.

Helen’s face was etched in surprise as she took in Isinam’s long ankara shirt and black leggings. “You’re here. Why didn’t you…” Her words trailed off as the front door opened. Helen’s husband stood there in jeans and a T-shirt Isinam knew her brother would probably kill to own.

He took in the scene before him. “Darling, you’re back. I guess your shopping went well?” He barely glanced at the oversized bags Helen held. Then he smiled. “Come in, Isinam.”

Isinam took a deep breath and continued up the stairs. When she got to the front door and turned, she saw Helen hadn’t budged, a bemused look on her face as a manicured finger made some vague gestures in their direction.

“You called her name, sweetheart. Isinam. You know her?”

Her eyes on the face of one of the youngest members of the Delta State House of Assembly, Isinam attempted to reply. “Yes. I’m….” She didn’t know whether to call him by his name or his title, Honorable.

Victor came to her rescue. “She’s the new cook, Helen. I told you a hundred times I wouldn’t live like this forever.” And he went inside, leaving them to follow in his wake.

Isinam, gaining confidence by the minute, wished she could take a picture of Helen’s frozen form at the bottom of the stairs. She remembered that afternoon Victor had taken her up on her comment about her mother’s cooking especially after she added offhandedly that she had learned everything from her. When he had offered her a job Isinam had laughed…until he mentioned what he was willing to pay. No girl in her right mind turned down that kind of money. At least not an unemployed one. And more especially when tradeoff sex in any shape, form or disguise wasn’t demanded. Looking her over as they sealed the deal with a handshake, his eyes had glinted in the manner of an Olympic gold medalist’s. “And you’re beautiful, to crown it all. I can’t wait to see my wife’s face when she lays her eyes on you. She’ll have a fit.”

A minute later when, face contorted unbecomingly, Helen stormed into the house, knocking things over and shouting obscenities and threatening all manner of disasters, Isinam found he was right.

Hannah Onoguwe’s work has appeared in Adanna and BLACKBERRY: a magazine, and online in LitroThe Missing Slate, Cassava Republic, African Writer, The Kalahari Review, LawinoThe Stockholm Review and Brittle Paper. Others are published or forthcoming in Turn the Page AfricaPersistent Visions and Drum Literary Magazine. She has a story in the speculative fiction anthology, Imagine Africa 500 while a collection of other stories are soon to be published as an ebook by Bahati Books.  She lives in Bayelsa where, in between being ruled by the internet and her toddler, she bakes banana bread and other stuff. She tweets at: @HannahOnoguwe

Related country: Nigeria

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