“What are you listening to?”
“Obviously I know that,I mean by who was this sung?”
“Whom. It’s an opera aria, by Mozart,the woman singing is Anna Nebtreko.”
She lifted her intense gaze slowly from her canvas and stared out at me from behind her gold rimmed glasses and used neatly manicured fingers to force her lustrous black curls behind her flushed ears, she looked cold, I didn’t know whether it was the soft blue of her cashmere sweater or the paleness of her skin.
“You look cold.”
“Should I make you something to warm you up?”
“You can’t cook.”
“Why are you making this so hard for me?I came all the way here to see you.”
“No. You came here to apply for a school.”
“Because I wanted to be near you!”
“Do not raise your voice at me.”
I retired to a silky cushion by the window and let the Sun’s pale yellow rays rest on my frozen skin,the view was breathtaking,the sky was a soothing blue and the Sun’s dying light accented the cream coloured homes several stories beneath us.The entire town was slowing to their dreams and the clouds seemed to bring about a peaceful aura and calming authority.
“This place is beautiful, I can see why you chose it.”
“Why are you being so difficult?”
“Difficult is what my work is,busy is what I am.”
The music slowed to a death and and a smooth jazz slid through the radio speakers.
“Can we at least go out?let’s have a nice dinner even if it’s just once,please.”
“In this weather?”
“No,in tomorrow’s weather.”
Petra pulled out of under her dark wood table and rose with elegance I didn’t know was possible.
She put on a black dress that clung desperately to her slim waist and swept the ground,she smelled of expensive perfume and pessimism.
Her bold purple lips were hidden beneath a thick grey scarf she had wrapped round the bottom half of her face and her neck,her full length coat with a hood hid every other part of her.
We shuffled through choking winds and into her car .I offered to drive but she murmured something about insurance and we were off.
The streets were lit brightly and the emptiness that had seemingly taken over the town made me feel I was in a story.
As we halted at a red traffic light I tried to start a conversation.
“So, how did you come up with the name Petra?”
“A friend suggested it.”
“But really is Ifeoma so hard to pronounce?”
“You don’t understand.”
“Okay I’m sorry.”
And we drove in silence.
We turned onto a dimly lit street, narrow because cars had been double parked across the lengths of road.
A soft stream of French jazz swam into my right ear, originating from behind a window of a brightly lit apartment and looked up there was a 24/7 sign hanging from the side of the third storey window. There were three windows on either side of a collection of fairy lights that curved to spell : “où les rêves viennent de”.
The moon had resumed its nightly post and was wide and full of pride.
As we turned onto the next street to search for parking space, I attempted conversation once again.
“What does it mean?Petra?”
“It comes from a word that means stone.”
I remember gulping before I muttered that it was a beautiful name and she said:
“Yes, but it loses it’s beauty when you translate it into a language that is not it’s own.”
It took every bone in my body to resist commenting that she was much like her name, and had lost much of her beauty when she begun to live in a language that was not her own.
We rushed out of the car and into the building ,the night had come with ice and winds of uncertainty.
“Is this place a café?” I asked, stroking the soft brown padded staircase as we flew up the stairs longing for a heated environment.
She stopped as we arrived before a glass door, lined with fairy lights and decorated with “ Café” in delicate white letters. She glanced behind her and stared at me intently with her gloves in one hand and her scarf in the other.
“It is where dreams come from.”
She laughed for the first time since I had arrived and the stars in her eyes twinkled softly.
Then she turned the handle and pushed.
The cafe walls were lined with books,down from the ceiling to plush navy blue carpet. The shelves had been sprayed a heavy brown.
The ceiling was much higher than I had assumed from down below in the street and mighty chandeliers stood at attention above our heads showering us with fresh rays of gentle light.
The café was made of the entire third,fourth and fifth floors and from the perspective of the door where we stood, the length was never ending.
There were plum coloured couches opposing each other calmly and wine grandfather chairs closed each arrangement into a rectangle.
In the centres were glass tables with eerie candles placed on them and lanky lamps hanging over each setting.
A large wall clock with gold arms told us the time was eleven fourty-six.
In the corner a band played music that made me feel cool in my black trousers.
It was buzzing with chatter and the repeated clink of wine glasses.Thick coffee flavored mists swam around and book pages flipped.
“Ah Petra! Bonsoir Mademoiselle!” A stout not-so-young man dressed in black planted kisses on both sides of petra’s warming face.
She smiled at him, “This is Calixte my photographer” and nudged me forward saying “This is my friend Andrew B.”
Calixte offered me his right hand,“Bonsoir Monsieur Andrew”
He handed me a strangely large business card and retired to his company of women who wore soft coloured elegant dresses and men who wore dark suits.
“Calixte Alloyce.” I pronounced,reading from the business card as I comforted myself in a plush wine chair.
Petra who was sunken into a chair on the other side of my table corrected, “ah-LOW-ees, A-l-o-ï-s, ah-LOW-ees.”
“Il est presque minuit !” I heard someone belt out with glee.
“What happens at midnight?” I whispered to Petra, she replied saying I should wait and see.
“You introduced me as your friend.”
“You are my friend,are you not?”
I stared at her,speaking a language with my eyes that only she could understand.
“You can’t seriously expect us to have what we had before!”
“It’s not such a mighty favour to ask.”
A waiter arrived at our table offering us their finest wine, I declined and asked for coffee knowing fully well the status of my wallet,But Petra who had been accustomed to the ways of the café asked for the entire bottle.
“I’ll pay for it if its too much for you” she offered, fully aware I would never allow her to do so.
“This is awfully fancy for a café,”
“Can we talk?”
“We’re talking already.”
“Why have you changed so much? I can hardly believe you’re the same person Ifeoma.”
“No one has called me that in a long time.”
“Talk to me,please.”
She looked around sharply like she was about to steal something then parted her lips to tell me what had shaken her so.
Just then the café went completely dark.
I sat in the darkness wondering how my friends in Nigeria would react when I told them they take light in France.
Slowly,consecutively like pure notes being performed by greatest symphony, gentle stars appeared,until the entire ceiling was a beaming constellar masterpiece.
Then the shine of the stars began to pulsate causing the ceiling to appear alive.
Gasps echoed as rotating protectors cast images of fast moving pale blue and white clouds on the café walls and everything and everyone in it.
Fans burst into action blowing warm gust in circular motions.
“It’s like we’re..” I started softly
“In a dream” Petra completed.
And when our food was set before our wonder-full eyes Petra allowed me insight.
“Where do I start from?” She used her left hand to tuck stray curls behind her ear. “ when I left for Lagos i didn’t know what to expect, at that time I head no idea I would even eventually leave the country.”
Her voice sounded pure and honesty, but she sounded afraid.
“I stayed in a Lagos for one year with a family that treated me like a maid,
“They moved to the UK, and they left me behind,so I had to find work in Lagos.”
“What kind of work?”
“I don’t think you want to know.” she held her wine glass in front of her face and looked into my eyes reflecting the ice in her heart. And then I understood.
“There was this man, he offered to help me out, but he set me up, had me robbed. Andrew, they took everything.”
I offered my right palm but suddenly she decided she needed her free hand to eat.
“So you know I decided I needed a fresh start,I wanted to go back to school, so I did, a church funded my education.”
“ So lets skip to post high school where i fell in love.”
My hand curled into a fist.
“I was working as a waiter in an upscale restaurant,he was there with his friends,” then she chuckled “ I remember when he and I were..”
“Could you not tell me?” I interrupted.
“Okay. he’s how I got here but now he’s no where to be found.”
“About three weeks before I contacted my mother in Nigeria,i found out he was married.”
“How old is he?”
“That makes sense.”
“I guess.His name is Ade,when I found out, he left. He said I was a once in a while thing, after a year of being suddenly it began to make together.And why he always had to go to Lagos for business.”
“He bought me my apartment,and I started school about one year ago,my mother thinks I’m graduating in two years but i can’t explain where I was for those missing two years.”
“Did you tell her how you got here? No. I told her it was the Fola’s,the Lagos family that it wasn’t the UK they moved to,
“I’ve been working as a writer. ”
“But why did you follow the man Ifeoma?”
“ I needed to come to school.”
“Is school that important Ifeoma? Why didn’t you just come home when the Fola’s left you?”
“Because I wanted something better,The same reason why you’re here.”
“Can you still speak igbo?”
“When he left me I did everything in my power to forget Nigeria.”
“But you still called home.”
“I needed comfort.”
“I can’t believe you went through all of that because of school. My family could have sponsored you.”
“Oh please, I’m sure your parents sold their eyeballs to get you here.”
“No. You’ve been gone a long time. Business is better.”
“Okay.” And she concentrated on her food.
“Did I say something wrong?”
She wiped her fingers with her napkin and fled from the table.
I covered our bill and raced after her.
“Petra!” She sobbed and collapsed to her knees at the bottom of the stairs.
“Petra my name is Petra.Petra my name is Petra”she whispered with a pain in her voice I didn’t know was possible.
“Ifeo..Petra, there’s something you’re not telling me.”
“The man. He didn’t leave me. He’s dead. Before he died… he hit me often,he cut me,he called me names, and he made me, he made me” she sobbed, her nose redding and her eyes flooding her soft cheeks” one day he threatened to stop sending me to school if I didn’t, if I didn’t… I didn’t know the gun was loaded Andrew God knows!God knows! I didn’t know it was loaded! I didn’t know it was loaded I didn’t know I didn’t know I didn’t know”
And she wept bitterly in my failing hands.
She kicked and screamed and grabbed at my chest.Before that moment I didn’t know it was possible for regret to be tangible.
“But Ifeoma where was God in all this? Why didn’t you go to Him?”
“Andrew I dont think you understand what I’ve been through.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“ I changed my name because people suspected me. The apartment I’m in now, it’s abandoned, its not mine.”
“Ifeoma,God still loves you.”
“How can He love me when I don’t even love myself? ”
“Why are you behaving like this? You know the things you’ve been thinking are lies, you know nothing you can do can ever seperate you from His love.”
“I know. But. I’ve just been through a lot. ”
“I killed somebody.”
Then she sat up and said
“I want to go back to Jesus.”
She walked outside and left me in the corridor.
The next morning I woke from the couch in Petra’s apartment, someone knocked on the door violently. She was asleep in her bedroom so I answered.
A heighty man with skin like butter and arms like steel stood outside her door. A Louis vuitton suitcase was posted behind him.
“ Who are you?” I asked pretending not to be intimidated.
“My name is Ade.May I know what you’re doing in my apartment?”
”Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him would not be lost but have eternal life.”