I told this friend of mine that I liked her and she said I should prove it by writing her an exclusive story for her blog . She even gave me the theme, I wrote the following story. It is titled Borrowed Happiness but here, I publish it as Paparazzi. I don’t know why. And when I am ready to write that novel, I am going to tell her to marry me. Enjoy.
Only the photographer was invited to her birthday celebration. It wasn’t invitation as you know it, nor was it a celebration as normal people do it. ‘Celebration’, used because it is the word most suitable to succeed a
birthday. It was the word that had defined her forty-one birthdays before today, across two continents, among thousands of friends, hundreds of colleagues, tens of family and one or two genuine admirers. It was the word that had embraced her birthdays, trapped them. It was her 42nd birthday today, although she spent the whole morning crying and half the afternoon nursing a violent headache, it was a birthday celebration. It had to be, by default. Naturally.
Though Emily had abolished the cake, the new dress, the assorted drinks, the sumptuous meals, and the mob that had been part of her birthdays like false shadow, since she could remember, she couldn’t bring herself to banish the memory aspect. She would capture it in lens. Her mind had been most untrustworthy in capturing past events, mostly bringing back blurred figures where there were bright, black and white where they occurred in technicolor. She trusted the camera more than her memory. She would prefer her memories in postcards. There would be no children, never grandchildren, to see them, but she would capture it all the same.
She didn’t invite her regular photographer because she didn’t want to use her phone. She had switched off her phone to keep off the insipid birthday text messages which hung in the air, like an army of vultures, ready to pounce. Switching on her phone, for a minute, to call her photographer would open the dreaded floodgate of unwanted goodwill which would hit her with whirlpool force and drown her in sorrow. So she took her cold bath, spent half an hour with the eye pencil erasing the tell-tale signs of tears, then put on a simple blouse over tracksuit trousers and went out in search of a photographer.
Outside, Emily stopped by her car and stared at her reflection in the glass. A mighty woman, almost round with flesh stared back at her, with enormous eyes above two mountains of cheeks. She narrowed her eyes and fed on her glassy portrait, willing her eyes to see the positives. Then she permitted a wry smile soften her brow and decided she was beautiful (If she were without at least thirty kilograms of flesh, and without this mound of a belly which the evil one filled up every night while she slept, with materials meant for pregnancy). Perhaps if she were slim and flat in the belly like normal ladies she would have since hooked a husband, she thought bitterly. And immediately cursed herself for thinking a stupid defeatist thought. She didn’t need to be bony to get married; she was beautifully made, and proud of herself. The right man would come, love her the way she was. Although he hadn’t come since the twenty years she left Leeds University, hadn’t come since the ten years she become an executive secretary, hadn’t come since the four years she became a regional manager; less than eight years to menopause, he hadn’t come!
Tears welled in her eyes but she bit hard on her lip, forcing the tears to remain where they were, determined not to ruin her make-believe happiness, her carefully built public picture. Her gateman was not on his post when she opened the bulletproof gate and stepped into the bright street. She made a mental note to rebuke him when she returned. Stupid man, useless man. She forced herself to be angry at the poor man, and found it diverting and ruefully soothing being angry with one man, who was her employee, than with the world of men’s folk who owed her no allegiance. Although if she had the emotional will, there were nearly a dozen men in her past she could be mad at. Like Bola who took her virginity after convincing her that virginity was psychological not physical. Like Uche who ditched her after she used her influence and affluence to get him a scholarship to the United States. Etc.
She had no time for stupid men who were past errors, a prize for her youthful naivety. When her gateman returned she would tell him her mind. Period.
She crossed the tarmac street lined up with fine but ill-tendered flowers to BBC’s provision store. His real name was Hyacinth or something unpopular, but the entire neighbourhood called him BBC because of his ability to produce the latest news, from the neighbour whose daughter had a complicated abortion in the campus to the politician who resigned from Obama’s cabinet. BBC also had an avalanche of useful miscellaneous information, from where you could find an affordable plot of land to where you could find a native doctor to tame the village witches. BBC should know where she could find a photographer in short notice.
He was a tall, thin man whose face was fixed in a permanently frozen smile, a smile that didn’t reach the eyes of course. He could be any age from 35 to 58. Emily gave him 45.
‘Good morning, Oga BBC.’ She rested her elbows on his counter.
‘Ah, Aunty Emily.’ At her age, Aunty Emily, instead of Mummy John or Iyawo Matthew. She swallowed a bitter lump.
‘Do you know where I can find a photographer? A good photographer,’ she added.
‘Ah, Aunty Vero’s nephew is a photographer na,’ he replied. ‘You don’t know?’ She didn’t know. ‘Ah, the poor boy finished University since, no job, so he began to snap people, and the guy is good o; he was the one who covered Chief Barnabas wedding to his second wife. Though he didn’t cover the first wife shedding tears.’ And BBC laughed so hard a vein, like a whip, appeared on his neck. Emily donated a weak chuckle. ‘How do I contact the guy?’
‘What do you need him for?’
Tell him and the whole Port Harcourt would hear about it within minutes.
‘I just need a photographer. But, BBC you sabi gossip o.’
‘Ah.’ They laughed. ‘Just go home Aunty Emily, I will call him, shey you are at home?’ She said she was at home. ‘He would come and meet you there.’
‘Oh BBC, you are such a darling.’ She meant it.
‘Ah, I like you na. You are my aunty. You no dey gossip.’
‘What is the guy’s name?’
‘Nicholas. But his studio name is Paparazzi.’
And Emily smiled the first genuine smile of the day. When she reached the gate, she discovered she was lighthearted enough to be hungry. She even forgot to rebuke the gateman smiling a sheepish welcome at her. She decided to cook a meal. Not a birthday dish, just a dish to alleviate hunger.
Emily was one of those people who can never do things in small proportions. What began as an ordinary meal to silence hunger soon became something she couldn’t name. She opened the fridge, brought out the chicken, lit her double-burner cooker and set two pots steaming. Two hours later, she was setting a table with food made for a family of four. She was interrupted by the call of the door bell. Who could that be?
A tall man of elevated looks, in his midthirties, clad in smart suit stood before her as she opened the door. Her heart braked for a moment then began a desperate search of her memory, seeking any minute conversation that could attempt an explanation of this visitor.
‘Good afternoon,’ his voice was deeply musical.
She nodded. What did her bank want with her? Why didn’t they call her phone?
‘I am Nicholas the photographer.’
Her eyes widened. ‘Actually I was in an interview venue when BBC called me. I decided to branch in here.’ She made way for him. Where is his camera?
He showed her his briefcase. ‘In here. With my credentials.’
‘I was about to dine,’ she said, what else was there to say? ‘Please join me.’ She suddenly wanted this man to see that she was happy. A small smile cut his face into two beautiful halves. So small it was gone, like a flash of friendly thunder, before she could join in.
‘It’s my birthday,’ she announced as he settle on the dining.
‘Oh beautiful, beautiful, where’s the champagne and the crowd of loved ones?’
‘It’s just a personal celebration,’ she explained. ‘Just me and you. I mean, me and your camera.’ She laughed, almost shyly. He smiled, almost lovely.
She brought the champagne and two glasses. She filled them with white bubbles. We toast for a future table surrounded with a glutinous husband and half a dozen mischievous kids. She said this in her mind. He toasted. ‘For a most beautiful woman on an excellent day.’ She blushed. ‘Happy birthday, dear.’
Clink. She quickly put the glass in her handsome lips to hide her embarrassment. She drained the drink in one quick gulp. She filled it again and gulped it sharply. She felt a false calmness shroud her gently, tightly. She filled the glass the third time. Her guest touched her wrist. She looked up and locked eyes. She saw something like appreciation in his brown eyes; she strained to confirm it, to shower in its glory. She barely noticed him take the glass.
He sat down. She sat down. ‘Let’s eat,’ she said.
She stood up. ‘It’s too quiet.’ She made for her sound system. Jay Z’s ‘Forever Young’ filled the room with strong melody. It was a track she had played on repeat for thousands of time. She still hadn’t learnt the lyric. She didn’t need to, she was okay with the sheer comfort the song proffered. She was now in her forties but she was forever young, forever young enough to be happy, to celebrate… to marry.
‘Let’s dance for a while,’ she sang; ‘the dining can wait. Yaaay! I am so happy!’
So much for two glasses of champagne, Nicholas thought.
‘Come on,’ she called. She danced well. With more enthusiasm than beauty. He brought out his Canon digital camera and began to shoot. She danced for him, he captured her; she danced harder, he shot smarter. She knew she was living in borrowed happiness but she was willing to suck it to the fullest. She raised her hands above her dreadlocks which swayed joyfully on her shoulders, to the rhythm of her mood, to the brilliance of his lens.
Each dance step brought her closer to the camera. She couldn’t have enough of this memory recorder. She ached to embrace it, possess it. When she reached the camera she stretched her hands and hugged the cameraman. She set her lips for a crowning kiss. He saw it coming and aptly shifted his head and her face landed on his shoulder. The mist of the sparkling wine lifted momentarily and she saw the stark hopelessness of her situation. Now she understood that what she missed most was a comfortable shoulder to cry on. She seized the opportunity, she cried her heart out through tears, soaking what could be his only suit.
He let her cry to her fill. But it seemed she would never be filled. She seemed to weep for all of the decades of heartache, broken promises, compromises, rejection. It seemed she needed forty-two years to equalise her shortfalls with tears, and be satisfied.
Nicholas decided to lead her to her bedroom. She didn’t budge, he carried her. In the carriage of his arms, Emily felt an acute sensuous desire grab her. Perhaps this was all she needed all this years, a man that would rock her world without seeking entrance into her heart. Someone who would just make love to her body, have intercourse with her soul, without scarring her heart. She wept no more, her tears suspended for the coming joy of orgasm.
He placed her on the bed. She shut her eyes, waiting for the touch that killed. But he was reaching for the sheets or something. Well, let him take his time. There was no hurry, she was ready to make love for the next forty-two years. ‘Come on baby,’ she breathed. Nothing happened. She opened her eyes, he was gone.
The joy of the disappointment was so great, she resumed crying. But as she wept her rejuvenated heart analysed. He didn’t take advantage of her. He was a gentle man, cute, understanding, enterprising. Perhaps this was the man that had eluded her for years. He was searching for a job. She would help, collect his CV and fix something for him at the Establishment. From there, who knows? Who knows?
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