The man was short and had a butt that couldn’t fit on the chair. He was sitting on the only chair in the sitting room — to the right of the door, between the fireplace and the open window. Noma felt she could tell how long he had been waiting from the thick air of impatience around his person. She had promised to come down to see him fifteen minutes earlier. He was to be her first customer.
Noma’s friend and new flat mate, Lisa, had talked her into it. She wasn’t difficult to persuade, as she had wanted to do it for some time but had never been brave enough to make it happen. Lisa was a godsend who understood where Noma was coming from, and knew exactly what she wanted — Lisa had walked the same path a few months earlier. She promised Noma that it wasn’t a difficult thing to do. All Noma had to do, she had said, was attract her first customer, get them naked, and the rest would take care of itself: ‘You will be self-employed and rich in no time.’ Lisa had let the obese man in and informed Noma that her customer was waiting for her.
Noma remembered why she was doing it all, why she needed the money. She could barely pay her monthly bills anymore. For the past two months, a cloud of financial uncertainty hung over her head. Her salary was deposited into her account every last Friday of the month like a gift from the spirits of unidentified people buried in an ancient graveyard. She would pay all her bills, everything she owed except the £3200 she had borrowed from Munandi, and remain penniless. He had said she could pay it back anytime in the six weeks following the day she borrowed it; the repayment was now three weeks overdue. He still hadn’t asked for the money, and Noma didn’t know when she would be able to pay it back. Her mother was lying in a private hospital in Harare, battling a disease the doctors didn’t seem to have the skill or knowhow to diagnose, and had lain there for six months now, waiting. Noma was paying a lot of money to keep her connected to various plastic tubes and electronic devices. Sometimes she told herself the tubes and device cables were the last link between her and her mother; an umbilical cash cord connecting the five thousand miles between Harare and Birmingham. She couldn’t afford to have them disconnected, and paying back what she owed Munandi was the least of her worries.
Noma hadn’t seen her mother in seven years, and couldn’t imagine what it would be like to never see her again; she could not even entertain the possibility. She tried to imagine what she would look like now, seven years from when they had last joked, gossiped, and laughed together, in front of a fire outside the house they rented in Highfields, Harare. She failed. Was her mother all wrinkled and grey? Were her teeth becoming increasingly spaced in her jaw as had happened with her grandmother’s? Were the tubes plugged in her mouth or her nose, or both? Could she still smile, or scream? Was she in pain? The questions would race each other in her mind, competing for attention and answers. She didn’t have the answers so they would race each other until they were so tired she could no longer think about them; until her consciousness had grown numb to them. In their place — that abominable space in her skull — was now a deep longing to be by her mother’s bedside. A longing she knew she could only satisfy if she earned more money. Not the sort of extra money one gets from an annual pay rise or promotion; she needed something far heftier.
‘Hi Bonita! Your pictures don’t lie, you know?’ the man said.
She was annoyed he was leading the interaction already. ‘Hello... uhm... Tim isn’t it?’
‘Yes. You look pale love. Are you all right?’
‘Erm, yeah, no I am OK… Don’t mind me. Did you find the place all right? Uhm, can I get you something to drink — a beer, some wine… a hot drink?’ Noma had rehearsed all the questions that Lisa said would make the client relax.
‘Well, I have waited fifteen minutes already and all you have to offer is a drink? Come on.’
She hated him already, was he forgetting he was in her house. ‘No sir... Tim. I am sorry for keeping you waiting. Uhm, I’m just trying to make you feel comfortable, at home.’
‘Hmmm, from the look of things, it’s you who needs to feel at home love. I will have a beer if you’ve a cold Guinness. Otherwise, I would say let’s get down to business.’
‘I don’t think we have any Guinness left. I am sorry. We might have some John Smith, if that’s...’
‘No! Not to worry love, it’s OK. Let’s just get on with it.’
‘OK. Uhm, if you would like to follow me please. I hold my sessions in the bedroom upstairs.’
Noma led the way to the spare bedroom on the first floor, and could feel his eyes scanning her body as she walked up the stairs. She had forgotten to let him lead the way, as Lisa had advised. After showing him into the bedroom, she disappeared into the tiny bathroom next door. Shortly, she joined him in the bedroom before he could choose a place to sit. There was a stool in the room in front of the dressing table. He seemed reluctant to sit on it. She came in carrying a shallow cream-coloured tray bearing the wares she had judged necessary for the task before her.
Either he can’t stand his own reflection in the mirror or he can’t wait to lie on the bed, she thought to herself. She ignored the fact that Tim was staring at the photograph of her and her friend taken while on holiday in Barcelona.
‘What do you think of the unfinished church?’ He asked, and pointed at the Sagrada Familia — Gaudi's unfinished cathedral — visible behind her and her friend in the photograph.
The photograph was her favourite, more for the cathedral than the experience it depicted. It reminded her how the best things in life are those that aren’t finished yet, those whose potential is yet to be realised. ‘I think it’s adorable and I would want to be alive when it’s finally finished. So, would you like the full service?’
‘Yes please, just like I said on the phone.’
Noma realised she was finding it difficult to distinguish whether Tim was displaying self-confidence or arrogance; whatever it was, she didn't like it. ‘That will be two hundred pounds then.’
‘Here... Oh, come on, count, count it, don’t be shy. It’s OK. It’s all there. Just make sure you don’t spend it too fast. I might come back for a refund.’
She fumbled with the money, oblivious to what Tim was saying. The smell of new notes went straight up her nostrils straight into her brain, which responded by softly saying, it’s that easy!
Briefly, she forgot what she had to do to earn the money and found herself thinking of how many customers she would need to see before she could afford her trip to Harare. At that time, she didn’t think of repaying Munandi, she thought of the times when she was a student. The times when her sponsors would pay her stipend in to her bank account every three months. She would pay her accommodation fees and remain with more money than she could spend on food and entertainment. The Zimbabwean currency was so weak then, she could feed two families for a month with the money she spent on a single meal. Her mother wasn’t ill then and the only medication she required was the occasional paracetamol, which went for a song at the local supermarkets.
Gradually, she had drifted into debt, almost like a sleepwalker. It had started with the nil-interest credit card her bank foisted on her. At first, she only used it for small items, and paid off the balance when the promotional interest-free period was over. She had read somewhere that this way she would improve her credit rating, something she understood she would need if she were to successfully apply for a mortgage later. Thereafter, when she got a graduate job, she would use the card for her regular shopping and pay off the balance every month. She avoided paying interest and enjoyed what her and her friends called the interest-free 56-day loan — it took 56 days from the first day of each billing period to when the bill had to be settled. One month, when she moved into a flat of her own, she spent more money than she had earned. She couldn’t repay the 56-day loan in full. Her debt began to accumulate. Before she could come up with her own solution to the mounting debt, her bank (as if sensing her financial difficulty) offered her theirs — a low interest loan to cover all her credit card balance. The loan left her with some change, which she used to move her mother and siblings out of Highfields. She rented them an eight-bedroom bungalow in a low-density suburb in Eastern Harare. Before her mother had settled into the mansion, while the decorators’ paint was still wet on the walls, her credit card had a balance again. When she reached the borrowing limit, her bank raised it unsolicited. She had more money to spend again; more money than she earned. She was trapped forever.
Tim lay on the bed waiting for her. Secretly, Noma remarked how he could have been handsome, had his body been more athletic. She had drawn the curtains, turned up the heating in the room, and took her time lighting some scented candles. Lisa had said this would set the perfect scene, relaxing both her and her customer.
As she warmed her hands in the candle flames, Tim started talking again. They talked about how she had got into the business. She asked why he had decided to use her services. She wanted to know what, on her website, had really attracted him — to gauge his expectations and to understand what potential customers looked out for in adverts. Slowly, she felt herself begin to relax, and didn’t mind the excessive fat on Tim’s short body anymore. Her mind had managed to work out a way of looking beyond his appearance and focusing on what she had to do for him and the money she was going to make. She focussed on the longing to see her mother again. The longing had the magical effect of displacing any other thoughts from her conscience.
She mixed the henna powder with lemon juice, tea, and sugar. Now she was ready to start on her first henna body painting, and make some money!
'Customer No. 1' was written by Tinashe Chiurugwi.
Copyright © Tinashe Chiurugwi 2012.
Tinashe Chiurugwi is a Zimbabwean writer, and molecular biologist, who likes to write about how he sees and responds to the world around him. He writes because he believes that most regret is centred on the things we thought about but failed to say or do. And it is painful to have to watch, in shame, strangers say eloquently or do without hesitation what we have thought and felt ages before them. Then, like one watching a could-have-been lover in another’s arms we give ourselves the hard instruction, “in future, say something, write something, do something!” only to repeat the same mistake yet again.