Sapphire slipped into the small room off the kitchen, momentarily escaping the infernal heat of the cookers. She wilted onto her cot and dabbed the sweat from her face with the towel she kept over her shoulder. Leaning back against the wall, she sighed in relieve. Constant moisture seeped through the mortar, making sounds not appealing to the ear as pounding takes place.
“Sapphire!”the chef, Amos, shouted from the kitchen. “Sapphire!”
“Give me a minute or I’ll melt faster than your ice! ” She hadn’t had break all evening, and a colleague had brought her a letter from Mama. She took it from her apron pocket, tore it open, and began to read.
My dearest Sapphire,
I hope you are well and happy. I hold you close yo my heart and pray for you unceasingly. I have sad news. Papa had to go to delta to fetch Jane home from the housekeeping school. Carolina Martin said she is unfit for service.
Papa didn’t go the first time they wrote. He thought Jane would adjust. But he had to go when Miss Caro sent another letter to come for Jane or pay the expenses of having her escorted home.
Miss Caro refused to return the money paid. She said she had taken space that should have been given to another girl, and she would not accept the loss. That was bad enough, but she made it worse by telling papa a father should know whether his own child could bear separation from her family. I know there’s a lesson for us all in this.
” Oh, Mama.” Her mother had unwittingly encouraged Jane’s dependence, but the full responsibility couldn’t be laid at her feet. Sapphire blamed herself for giving papa the money to send Jane to Squeakyclean. He had made her feel so guilty when she had said no the first time.
“If you loved your sister….. If you weren’t so grasping and selfish…. You think nothing of your family…. You hoard your money when they need help…….”
She should have told papa how he’d been duped by the principal. Instead, shed convinced herself Jane might benefit by getting away. Perhaps she would blossom among the other girls her age and enjoy the school as much ad Sapphire had. Sapphire had sent extra cash to Jane and told her to get some chocolate and candies too just like Mama did her.
Now, all she could do was pray papa wouldn’t take out his anger on Jane.
Sapphire lifted her letter and continued reading.
Please don’t be angry with her. I know it was your money wasted, but Jane did try. She managed to stay three weeks before she wrote the first time. And she suffers noe. Papa hasn’t spoken a word to her since he brought her home.
Jane helps me as much as she can. Her stitches are as fine as mine now. She will learn to work faster with more experience. She helps Dr. Afang with his son. He is so dear, but he’s at that age when he’s into everything. Hr got away from her for a few minutes the other day. She is keeping closer watch now.
Write soon, dearest. Your letters are a great comfort to us all. May the lord bless you and keep you. May his face shine upon you. I love you.
Sapphire folded the letter and tucked it back into her apron pocket. She would write and tell Mama to make Jane go to the market. She needed to learn to talk with people. She could buy bread from the bakers. Jane needed to learn to stand on her own. She wouldn’t always have Mama.
The clatter of the market went on in the other room. Sir Amos shouted an impatient order to someone. Sapphire’s door banged open and the chef stepped into her room. She had long since learned not to be surprised or offended when someone barged in. The heat of the kitchen made escape necessary, and her small bedroom was convenient. All day from breakfast through dinner, workers danced around one another, and someone would regularly slide in for a few minutes of cool respite before facing the stoves and ovens again. Only after the last customers had gone and the last dishes had been washed and put away did Sapphire have any privacy.
Amos stood taller than Papa and several stones heavier. He liked his beer, too, but became jolly when he over imbibed, rather than moody or violent like her father. “What’s the matter with you? You look like you ate a bad fish.” The chef wiped perspiration from his face and neck.
“My sister wasn’t able to finish housekeeping school.”
“Is she ill?”
“She’s fine, now that she’s home with our mother.”
“Ah. Is she a good worker? She could come here and live in this room with you. We could use another dishwasher.”
“You’d frighten her to death.” Sir Amos shouted louder than papa. Even his daughter boomed enough to rattle crockery. Jane would probably break half the dished before the end of her first week.
“A pity my wife doesn’t need another maid.”
Amos wiped the towel over his bald head. ” She did a few years ago, but the other tribes come down here(Hausa and Yoruba) and our tribe has issues with the Hausa. They are like oil and water, and my wife doesn’t speak their language enough to sort things out. When she couldn’t bring peace, customers didn’t want to pay. So now she caters for just our tribe.”
“And make less money.”
“And fewer headaches.” Amid slapped the towel over his shoulder. “Money isn’t everything.”
“People who have it always says that.”
He laughed. “You’d know how to stop a ruckus, right? Bang two heads together. My wife should train you to manage and take a long vacation.”
She knee he meant it as a joke, but she pushed herself up and faced him. “If I could speak Hausa and Yoruba, I’d figure out a way to gill every room in this hotel.”
He laughed.” Then learn, Sapphire. ”
“In a basement kitchen?” She put her hands on her hips. “Do you speak Hausa?”
“Not a word.”
“Then I should quit and go to north or south.” She brushed past him.
“I don’t like your joke!” He followed her.
“Do you think I plan to remain an assistant cook for the rest of my life?”
Amos snatched a pot off a hook and slammed it on the working table. Everyone jumped except Sapphire.” This is the thanks I get for training you!”
How many times did she have to say it? Sapphire bared her teeth in a smile and dipped in an exaggerated curtsy. “Thank you, Mr Dozie Amos.” She spoke with cloying sweetness. ” I’m blessed to must have crossed your path. ”
He laughed.”That’s better.”
Her anger evaporated. Why take our her frustration on Amos when he had been nothing but kind? “I told you I wouldn’t stay here forever.”
“I know. You have big dreams! Too big, if you ask me.”
His hands worked quickly, coating pieces of meat in seasonings. “It takes years to become a chef.”
“I don’t have to become a chef , Sir Amos , just a good cook.”
“Ha! Then you’re not as ambitious as I thought!”
She felt a fierce rush inside her. “I’m more ambitious than you’ll ever know ”
Mama wrote again. Papa had found a job for Jane at a neighboring town.
The family is wealthy. They come from Abuja to spend their holidays in the town. Jane has a room and some privacy, and she can come home on her day off. When will we see you? You haven’t been home since Jane returned from Squeakyclean. Papa told her you’re probably upset over the wasted money.
Sapphire wrote back right away.
Mama, please tell Jane not to be distressed. I work fourteen hours a day. Six days a week, and spend Sunday mornings in church. I’ll come home soon. In the meantime, give our little pigeon my love.
Mama’s next letter gave Sapphire some hope that Jane would be better.
Jane seems well settled. She hasn’t been home for two weeks. The Okekes’ told a friend what a lovely child she they said she is over there. Their son, Sunday changed his plans to return to Abuja…..
Sapphire wondered if Sunday might be the reason Jane didn’t feel the need to come home.
Precious wrote, too, filling two pages about her boyfriend dancing with her at a festival, and how her father might lock her up if he knee she’d received her first kiss! She filled another page with news of her sisters and brothers and mother and father and town gossip.
Sapphire wrote back and asked previous if her father knew any hotel managers in the South or North.
Sir Amos speaks only urhobo, and I need to learn more languages……
Precious responded quickly.
Father has only acquaintances in the North and the South; unfortunately, no one upon whom he could prevail for a favor. Mama has an older second cousin in the north. She is a widow of six children, only two left at home. Her eldest son is a politician, but I’ve forgotten where. Mama says he married a lovely Fulani girl and they have ten children, but since it was too far for the children to go to a school. They went to a boarding school. Mama will write her Cousin Clara..…
Sapphire wrote to Precious’s mum to thank her, and then to Precious.
I plan to come home for a week the middle of September, then go to the North. If Cousin Clara cannot help. I will haunt the hotels around her area myself. I’ll find something. I would like to speak Hausa and learn their ways before my eighteenth birthday!
Toward the end of August, Sapphire received a letter from Jane. Surprised and pleased, Sapphire tore it open immediately rather than wait for a quiet moment alone.
Please help me. I’m afraid of Mr Okekes. He won’t leave me alone. Papa will be angry if I come home without any money, but I haven’t been paid anything at all and I’m terrified of Mrs Okekes. She hates me because of her horrible son. I thanked Got when he left for Abuja. I would ask mama to come, but she is not well enough. Please, I’m begging you. Come and help me get away from here.
Your loving sister ,