15 March 2009

Pot Pourri by A. Igoni Barrett

There was only one place to find Mrs. Uju (Augustina Lilyrose Patience Odenigbo ‘Mama Uzo’) Orjinta at five o’clock on a Wednesday, and that was plumb in front of her TV set. Come rain or shine, or—as was more likely—power failure or military putsch, Uju Orjinta never missed Pot Pourri. It was her favourite programme, ever. Though unaware of it, this was no small coup for Pot Pourri—Uju Orjinta never gave her loyalties lightly.

Pot Pourri was a weekly half-hour live feature on African cuisine, and it was shot on the grounds of the hotel or restaurant whose chef was the guest for that episode. Uju Orjinta loved cooking—but she loved eating even more. She devoured everything that met one of her three criteria for toothsome food: starchy, greasy or crunchy. Her all-time favourite delicacy however was fried fish. She consumed it as a whole meal or in combination; she nibbled it as a snack, or as an appetizer; she even used it as an analgesic. As a consequence of this craving Uju Orjinta reeked like a fishmonger’s dustbin (or so her husband complained).

Five Styrofoam packs of fried fish and a thermos flask of ice-cold beer held themselves in the ready on Uju Orjinta’s lap as the seconds counted down to Pot Pourri-hour. She picked up the woven-raffia fan that lay beside her on the sofa and, adjusting herself with a dolorous sigh, she began to beat the air before her face. The sitting room was as hot as a baker’s oven, but she couldn’t turn on the air conditioner as its current load was too heavy for the generator. Neither could she open the windows: the deafening grumble and the fumes of the generator would interfere with her enjoyment of Pot Pourri. And that she couldn’t have.

Uju Orjinta stilled her working hand as soon as the TV screen beamed forth the red light of Pot Pourri’s opening credits. She tore open a pack and grasped one of the grease-crusted fishes by the tail. The screen changed colour again, and the presenter, the bubbly, delightful Joyce, trundled onto the set. Uju Orjinta, her eyes glued to the screen, dug hungrily into the parade-stiff carcass and set about opening the flask of beer.

It was Joyce—apart from the sheer luxuriousness of the cooking—that kept Uju Orjinta coming back for more. She felt like she knew her, like she was a friend or a sister, a soul mate. Never mind that Joyce was a loquacious, plucked-chicken-complexioned woman with a penchant for hoop earrings and bulbous neck beads. There was no denying these differences, but it was their similarities that Uju Orjinta preferred to focus on. Of these the most conspicuous was Joyce’s size, which filled the screen with rosy folds and straining bulges. Then there was her endearing, and unashamed, gourmandise. This shared passion, more than anything else, was the compost from which the attraction sprouted.

The guest chef today is Francois . . . Joyce said, and the camera cut to a tall white man in an equatorially flowered shirt. He stood behind a table laden with Pyrex bowls, steel cutlery, aluminium pots and pans, china jugs, spice bottles, a chopping board, a sherry decanter, a four-ring gas burner and caramel-hued baskets bursting with the ingredients for the day’s menu. He looked ill-at-ease. He was a Frenchman: Uju Orjinta could tell by the way he pursed his lips and clasped strings of air between forefinger and thumb as he endlessly inspected his fingernails. Then there was his name.

Our main course today is called . . . Joyce announced as she moved into the frame with the Frenchman, dwarfing him, and then held the microphone to his mouth for him to complete the sentence. It was a signature manoeuvre. The screen flickered on cue as the name of the meal and its recipe appeared in caption, which was as well as Uju Orjinta hadn’t caught the Frenchman’s babble. Joyce thought of everything, Uju Orjinta exulted, and then settled back to let herself be titillated.

Heat the palm oil—not long . . . then the chopped onions and the purée, and stir . . . and then this, the cane rat flesh goes in, and the stockfish—deboned ‘member?—you shred. And the crawfish, and the dadawa, and then—ooh, smell that, oui?—soupcon garlic . . . Joyce looked on with uncontainable glee, her throat working lubriciously, as the pot began to splutter and belch beneath the chef’s magic fingers. Uju Orjinta, guzzling beer to calm a palpitating heart, writhed on her sitting room sofa in vicarious ecstasy.

Leave to cook. We do the yam. For four persons you need . . .

To give herself some respite Uju Orjinta tore her eyes away from the cornucopian table. She turned her attention to the right end of the screen, where, in the background, the wrought-iron furniture of a garden restaurant was in view. There were few diners.

Pounding the yam is . . . Joyce said, guffawing at the camera. When Uju Orjinta turned her eyes back to the restaurant she noticed that two newcomers had taken the table closest to the screen. It was a young lady and an older man. The lady’s face was in plain view, scrubbed clean and girlie-looking, while the man’s, as his heavy form leaned forward to whisper importunities in her ear, was hidden by a vase of carnations. Old goat, Uju Orjinta thought, noting with a twinge of envy the embarrassed, head-thrown-back laugh of a woman courted. Then a waiter appeared from the wings to take the lovebirds’ order. The man leaned back in his chair, his fingers interlocking over his paunch. The lady turned away, her face a mask of boredom. When the waiter eventually bowed and withdrew, taking the vase of flowers with him, the man resumed his soft-soaping from where he had left off. Uju Orjinta thought there was something familiar about the man’s face. Then recognition struck, like a boot in the belly.

Oh!’ Uju Orjinta gasped, clutching at the folds of her neck. ‘You!’ She flopped back on the sofa, scattering empty Styrofoam packs.

Mr. Orjinta, though unaware of it, was in hot soup—Uju Orjinta never gave her loyalties lightly.

After long seconds of bug-eyed gawking and spluttered curses that left her chin shiny with saliva, Uju Orjinta roused herself with an effort and reached for the TV remote control. She jabbed at the off button like it was Mr. Orjinta’s eye.

‘Bola!’ she bellowed, setting the sofa trembling.

There came the sound of running feet and the housemaid burst into the room, wringing her hands.

‘My phone,’ Uju Orjinta ordered, pointing to the chair two arm lengths away on which her handbag lay.

The housemaid delivered the cell phone and, seeing the malevolent glimmer in her madam’s eye, scurried away before the thought coagulated into action.

Uju Orjinta switched the TV back on. Mr. Orjinta and his floozy, far from being figments of the TV’s imagination, were still at it. Their meal had arrived. ‘When last did the brute take me out to dinner?’ Uju Orjinta fumed as the cell phone sang the tones of her husband’s number. The call connected at first try—she could see him reaching into the folds of his babariga even before the ring tone sounded in her ear. Then, insult upon injury, he rejected the call. She immediately redialled. And again he rejected it. Again she redialled, heaving herself up in her seat. She saw him say something to his lady friend—an apology?—then . . .

‘Yes?’ that familiar voice boomed in her ear, startling her. ‘What do you want?’

‘Where you?’ she demanded.

‘What is it to you?’

‘What kind . . . question . . . that is . . . Papa Uzo?’

‘You want to fight, eh? Well I won’t, Mama Uzo, not now—I have better things to do with my time. Anyway, I’m at the office.’

She saw him flash a smile at his date, and she, the home breaker, smiled back. So that was how it was.

‘Are you . . . coming . . . home dinner?’

‘No, I’ll be in late. Any other thing?’

He reached over—in public, on national TV!—and wiped away a fugitive morsel from the hussy’s mouth. Uju Orjinta felt like a creature derided by the gods.

‘Yes . . . something,’ Uju Orjinta said, her tone colourless, like vinegar. ‘Tell girlfriend . . . fork . . . in left . . . knife . . . right hand.’ Then she cut the connection.

Till we come your way again next week with another thrilling episode of Pot Pourri, from me, Joyce, and the camera crew, its goodbye and good cooking.

And just before the Trinitron-clear picture of Joyce tucking into a heaped plate faded out, Uju Orjinta and her aghast spouse locked eyes.

Pot Pourri appears in From Caves of Rotten Teeth published by Daylight Media, Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

Copyright A. Igoni Barrett 2005.

A. Igoni Barrett

A. Igoni Barrett is the author of one book, a collection of short stories titled From Caves of Rotten Teeth. A story from this collection emerged winner of the 2005 BBC World Service short story competition.

His short fiction has been published in Eclectica, Guernica, Mississippi Crow, Istanbul Literary Review and Stickman Review.

He lives in Lagos, Nigeria, where he works as an editor with Farafina magazine.


Anonymous said...

This is definitely one of the best short story I have ever read.

The simplicity of the plot and the use of language is very beautiful.

Excellent work!

Afolabi said...

I'm really enjoying your writing. I read your stories on this site, and I'll try to get your short story collection.

And btw, I love what you do with words, for instance I think the line "The housemaid delivered the cell phone and, seeing the malevolent glimmer in her madam’s eye, scurried away before the thought coagulated into action"
is splendid.

onlyonezee said...

Lovely story. Well written

Nana Ama Akoto-Boateng said...

this piece just took me away to a world i really enjoyed. ur knack for detail and rich language just do it for me. stunning writeup!thumbs up!

Ivory Punk said...

Uju and her fish!! I learnt of Igoni at the Story Moja Hay Festival and since then i have been hooked. Great talent.

Nana Ama Akoto-Boateng said...

this piece just took me away to a world i really enjoyed. ur knack for detail and rich language just do it for me. stunning writeup!thumbs up!

Ivory Punk said...

Uju and her fish!! I learnt of Igoni at the Story Moja Hay Festival and since then i have been hooked. Great talent.

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