Fiona paces the kitchen, keeping her feet inside the flagstone squares, then she stops and stares through the French windows into the garden. The flowerbeds are bedraggled, the winter frost has killed off any growth and only the potted Christmas tree, discarded on the patio, sprouts a few green needles. Sitting at the kitchen table, Liz snorts at the photographs of fashion mishaps in a magazine.
‘What’s so funny?’ asks Fiona.
‘Nothing much.’ Liz closes the cover. ‘You were never much interested in the lives of celebrities.’
‘I’m even more out of the loop now. I was only away for six months but it feels more like six years.’
‘You’ll catch up soon enough. Once you start university in the autumn, it’ll feel like you’ve never been away.’
‘I’m not so sure about that.’ Fiona turns back to the window. ‘A gap year changes your life, or so the brochures say.’
Watching the sky turn navy, Fiona counts the street lamps that speckle the night. It shouldn’t take Ria that long to drive over but waiting for her is something of a habit that started in the sixth form. Ria likes to make an appearance when everyone has given up hope that she’ll make it. Scanning the kitchen, Fiona realises that nothing is familiar anymore, not since Liz’s parents completed the renovation. She traces the veins on the granite work-surface, watching the patterns swirl. Liz has remembered to use a chopping board to prepare the vegetables. The ingredients for the stir-fry appear like an artist’s palate: diamonds of orange and yellow peppers, spears of asparagus flown from Peru, circles of courgette with a green frill.
‘I’ll cook jollof for you one of these days,’ says Fiona.
‘Will I like it?’ asks Liz.
‘I ate it all the time in Nigeria. It’s a rice dish that’s served with chicken. I even got the hang of sucking the bones while I was there.’
‘Sounds like you turned native.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Nothing,’ says Liz. ‘Why don’t you keep watch for Ria? I’ll make some tea.’
Fiona presses her forehead to the window, her breath blooming against the glass.
Droplets of rain splatter, transporting Fiona back to the volunteers’ house. Rainfall plummets in Nigeria, dropping in parallel lines, surging from the corrugated iron roofs. She listens for the sound of the earth licking its lips while she waits for Tobe to arrive, longing to feel his breath on her neck.
I walk barefoot across the wooden planks on the veranda, my cotton dress flaps against my legs as the wind gets up. I’m sheltered from the rain but when the temperature drops, my skin is covered with goose-bumps. I think he’ll arrive soon, wrapping me in his arms, threading his fingers through mine, making our skin become like the pattern on a zebra’s coat. He has the smell of a man and his soft lips consume me, the tufts of his beard tickle my chin. Arranging the hessian cushions at the unlit end of the veranda, I throw over a blanket ready to hide us from the night. I think of the dark curls on his chest, the loose ones scattering my breasts when our lovemaking was over. I remember how the bedding mat slips as our bodies collide.
‘This is hopeless,’ says Fiona. ‘It’s no good waiting for Ria when we’ve no idea whether she’s even going to turn up.’
‘She said she was looking forward to seeing you. That she wanted to know all about Nigeria.’
‘Forget the tea, Liz. We might as well start on the wine.’
‘That’s not a bad idea.’ Liz takes a bottle from the refrigerator and sets about turning the corkscrew. Placing the bottle between her knees, she pulls her arm in an arc to release the cork. ‘I’ll pour you a large one, shall I?’
‘Yes.’ Fiona flicks a switch in her brain, allowing the images to flood. Tobe arrives breathless from dodging the downpour. His shirt is dappled with rain, the fabric clings to his ribs, the cuffs are rolled up to his elbows. Diamonds of rain sparkle on his springy hair.
‘Take the glass then,’ says Liz. ‘I can’t stand here forever waiting for you to regain consciousness.’
‘Sorry. I just phased-out for a minute. You know how it is.’ Fiona takes a large gulp that helps to swallow back the lump that’s forming in her throat.
‘I know how it is with you. One minute you’re here, the next minute you’re off with the fairies.’
‘I can’t help it if I like to muse.’
‘So that’s what you call it,’ says Liz.
‘Anyway, at least I’m here. Which is more than can be said for Ria.’
‘She’ll be along soon enough. And it’s not as if the dinner’s going to spoil or anything.’
The night in Nigeria is spoilt. I search Tobe’s ashen face for an answer. I focus on his eyebrows, his eyes would be the undoing of me. Those brown eyes that hold my love, the whites like a rich cream. He rubs his chin and the bristles scrape. I know what he was going to say but I can’t believe it’s over.
Fiona walks to the window and noticing her reflection in the glass, she swings her hips as if modelling on a catwalk. Her figure hasn’t changed much in spite of the circumstances. Tracing a finger over her belly, she wonders how long it will be before the pregnancy shows. She imagines her cinnamon skinned babe, contend in amniotic fluid, taking the looks of his father: rich brown eyes and long straight lashes.
‘The rain’s lashing down and I can’t see a thing,’ says Fiona.
‘There are headlights on the road.’ Liz points towards the street. ‘You’re not much of a look-out if you can’t even see there’s a car parking.’
‘If it’s Ria she’ll get soaked,’ says Fiona.
‘Of course it’s Ria. I’ll dash out with an umbrella. You wait here and guard the wine.’
I am on guard, I guard myself from Tobe. His words don’t penetrate and I’m the queen of indifference. I guard my babe – keep the child secret – safe from rejection. And I keep my dreams alive, I keep the option of escape real.
First published on’ http://www.fivestopstory.com