SAPPHIRE (CHAPTER 11)

Sapphire received a letter from Precious ten days later.

I saw your father and mother in church. Your brother came, too. Jane didn’t. Most people think she went back to work. Of course, she hasn’t. I asked your mother if I might come to call on Jane. She asked how much you had told me and I said everything. She seemed upset about that, bit I reassured her. She said Jane isn’t ready to see anyone. I’ll try again next week.

Mama wrote a week later.

Precious said you told her and no one else. Precious is a good girl who we can be confident in. She is kind. Papa went to town. The Okekes had closed up the house and gone back to Abuja. A man asked of he had come to look at the house. The Okekes plan to sell.

Sapphire sent a brief letter in reply.

Perhaps now that the Okekes have fled, you will help Jane come out of exile. Precious wants to be a friend to her, Mama. Please encourage Jane to allow it.

Mama wrote back.

Jane is doing better. She helps me in the shop. Papa agrees the best place for her is here with me. She cries so easily.

Sapphire tried to put it all from her mind, but she couldn’t. She dreamed about Jane at night. She dreamed of burning the Okekes’ house down with them inside.

“Go out for a walk.” Amos brushed her aside. “If you knead the dough any more, we’ll have bricks instead of loaves!”

“I’m sorry.”

“You haven’t been yourself since you came from home. You helped your sister, ba? It’s been a month. Are you ready to tell me what happened?

” No.” She made a decision in that split second. “I’m done here. I’m going to Oyo state.”

Amos’s head jerked up. “Just because I won’t let you knead dough?”

“The dough has nothing to do with anything.”

“Then why?”

“I have to get away!” She burst into tears.

The only sound in the kitchen was the burbling soup. Everyone stared at her. “Get back to work!” Amos shouted. He pushed Sapphire into the cold room off the kitchen. “Are you leaving or running away?”

She sat on the edge of the bed, head in hands. “What does it matter? She wiped her face. She thought of Jane staying in the same place, remaining a child for the rest of her life. ” I know what I want in life, and I’m going after it. I’m not going to let things happen to me. I’m going to make things happen!”

Amos sat beside her. “Why are you in such a hurry? You’re only sixteen. You have time.”

“You don’t understand, Sir Amos.” Sometimes she didn’t understand. One day she wanted to run as far away and as fast as she could, and then the guilt would set in and she wondered if she shouldn’t go home, take care of Mama and Jane, and forget all about her dreams of making a better life for herself.

“You want to own a hotel, ba?” He snorted. “You think life will be good then. Work, work, and more work. That’s all you’ll ever do if you get what you want.”

“Work, work and more work is what I have now.” If she went home, papa would rule her life forever. “I’d rather work for myself than work to put money in someone’s else’s pocket!”

“Pigheaded girl” When she tried to stand up, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her down again. “You still have much to learn from me about our cooking.”

“You’ve taught me enough, Sir Amos.” She gave him a watery smile. “And I am grateful. But I’m going to Ibadan, Oyo state.”

“What will your family have to say about that?”

“Nothing.” Kelvin, her brother, had followed his dream and joined the Army. Mama would always have Jane, and Jane would have Mama. Let Papa shoulder the responsibility for those God had given into his care.

“I see the pain in you, Sapphire.”

She wrenched free and went back into the kitchen to work.

Sir Amos came to the train station as Sapphire left. She hadn’t expected to see him again. When she tried to thank him for coming to see her off, no words would come.

“You didn’t tell your family, did you?”

She shook her head.

Stepping close, Amos took her hand and pressed some cash into her palm, closing her fingers around them.

“Sapphire, don’t cry. Enjoy this money; don’t hoard it.” He planted his hands firmly on her shoulders. I’m going to speak to you like a father. You’re young. Have some fun when you get to Ibadan. Go dancing! Laugh! Sing!” He kissed her on her head and let her go.

Sapphire stepped up behind the last man boarding the bus. Amos called out to her before she went inside the passenger’s space. “When you have that hotel, write to me.” He grinned broadly. “Maybe I’ll come cook for you!”

★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★

Caroline invited Sapphire to stay until she could find work in one of the Ibadan hotels or restaurants. Sapphire thought it would be easy. Ibadan sat perched on hills, houses, and grand hotels tucked like elaborate nests into winding cliffs roads. Some wealthy men strolled along cobbled pathways lined with beautiful trees, or sat on lawn chairs enjoying the view.

Sapphire walked the steep streets for days. She found all the grand hotels and restaurants uninterested in a girl who speaks only Urhobo. Broadening her search to lesser neighbourhoods, she spotted a help wanted sign in the window of Maame Restaurant. From the unkept exterior, Sapphire could understand why.

The owner, Madam Kofo, gave Sapphire a curt nod. “You’ll have a week to prove yourself. Room and board and ten thousand naira a month.” Sapphire held her tongue about the paltry pay. “Clara!” Madam Kofo called out. A pretty faced lady setting beer steins on a tray glanced their way. Two other girls older than Sapphire worked with heads down, silent. “Show this new girl upstairs. Quickly! We have a lot to do before the dinner crowd arrives. ” Madam Kofo looked at Sapphire again and shook her head. “I hope you’re as good as all your fine papers claim.” She held a bowl locked in one arm as she stirred fiercely with the other.

Clara led Sapphire upstairs. Glancing back, she raised her brows. “I’m surprised you came here with all your qualifications, Sapphire.”

She looked at the drab stairwell walls. “Unfortunately, I don’t speak Yoruba well.”

“Neither do I.” Clara opened a door and stepped aside.”This is where we sleep. It’s small, but comfortable. I hope you aren’t afraid of mice, Madam Kofo shouts eku all the time during odd hours. We have a nest of them somewhere in the wall. You can hear them scratching at night. Take that bed over there.”

Sapphire saw a row of planks platforms with uninviting graying foam beds rolled at the end. The room was cold. The small, narrow windows faced east. Leaving the room dimly lit in the afternoon. No curtaims to keep out the dawn. When Sapphire peered out, she could see only empty window boxes and the street below.

“I’m leaving soon.” Clara announced from the doorway. “I’m marrying Alhaji Muliaka. Have you heard of him?”

“I’m new to Ibadan.”

“He’s very rich. They live in a mansion up the road from here. Alhaji came one evening by himself and ordered beer and meat. He says he took one look at me and fell in love.”

Sapphire thought of Jane. Clara has periwinkle eyes and long curly hair too. She hopes the girl had good sense.

Clara nodded toward the window. “Madam Kofo will expect you to plant flowers soon. “She made me pay for them last year.”

“Why should either one of us pay for them?”

She shrugged. “Madam Kofo says we’re the ones who get to enjoy them.”

Sapphire dumped her bag pack on the bed. “If Madam Kofo wanted to dress up the outside of this place, she’ll have to pay. Or there’ll be no flowers.”

“I wouldn’t argue with her, Sapphire, not if you want to keep your job. Flowers don’t cost much, and the customers give good tips.” She laughed. “Alhaji dropped four thousand naira in my pocket the first time he came.”

Sapphire turned away from the window. “No one is going to drop anything in my pocket.”

“They will if you’re friendly.” The gleam in Clara’s eyes told Sapphire the girl valued money more than her reputation.

★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★★

By the end of the first week, Sapphire saw ways to improve the eatery. When she overheard Madam Kofo complaining about business, Sapphire shared her thoughts.

“With a few changes, your business would improve.”

Madam Kofo turned. “Changes? What changes?”

“It wouldn’t cost much if you repainted the front window boxes with bright colors and filled them with flowers that would attract the eyes. The menus you have now are greasy. You could reprint them and put them in sturdy folders. Vary your menu occasionally.”

Plump face reddening, Madam Kofo put her hands on her ample hips. She looked Sapphire up and down in contempt. “You’re sixteen and you think you know so much with your fancy certificate and recommendations. You know nothing!” She jerked her head. “Go back to the kitchen!”

Sapphire went. She hadn’t meant to insult the woman.

Madam Kofo came in a few minutes later and went back to work on a hunk of beef, using a mallet as though attempting to kill a live animal. “I know why customers don’t come. I have one pretty waitress who used to attract customers before she decided to marry one of them. And I have Sapphire who’s as plain as Agege bread and as friendly as a bee.

No one in the kitchen looked up. Sapphire felt the heat rush into her face. ” No one wants to eat in a dirty restaurant. ” Sapphire barely managed to dodge the flying mallet. Stripping off her apron, she tossed it like a shroud over the embattled beef and headed for the stairs. She threw her few things into a bag, marched downstairs and out onto the street. People up and down the block turned when Madam Kofo stood in the doorway cursing her.

By the time the woman slammed the door, Martha’s body felt so hot, she was sure steam came off her. She walked uphill rather than down. She pounded on one door after another, making inquiries. The first few opened the door, took one look out, and ducked back inside their houses, closing the door quickly in her face. Still fuming, Sapphire realized what a sight she must be and tried to calm down.

Now what? No job. No place to live. Her prospects were dimmer than when she had arrived in Ibadan a month ago. She didn’t want to go home and admit defeat. Bending over, she covered her face with her hands. “God, I know I’m impossible, but I work hard!” She fought back tears. “What do I do now?”

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