HE had always loved to cook. When he was a little boy and living in a neighbourhood filled with puffed-up and macho boys, he was teased and taunted for being the ‘girly’ boy who gathered sands and stones and pretended to cook in rusted tins over make believe fires.

The mockery hadn’t changed him and neither had the years. He had continued to cook; first in his mother’s kitchen, where it wasn’t even an option to not cook. Then he had become a kind of assistant cook at Mummy-Ajulu’s Canteen when he was seventeen and waiting to get into the university. And then it was at the fast food restaurant when he landed his first official job and thereafter, a Regent Hotel’s sous-chef at Calabar, before finally, the number one slot, chef in Mama’s Kitchen Restaurant.

He was chef. But it wasn’t just the title—which his several qualifications had earned him. It wasn’t just a way of earning a pay cheque. It was art, a touch of finesse and style breathed into everyday food. A creation of something not only edible, but also nourishing and satisfying. It was life and living, an expression of his heart and soul. That was what cooking, and being a chef, meant to him.

He dragged on the pair of cotton slacks and picked a short-sleeved check shirt he didn’t notice was worn to go with it. The kitchen didn’t care what he hung over his body. The food didn’t ask if he wore Gucci or a piece straight out of the markets at Aba. He was a simple man with a simple taste and they accepted him that way. That was the beauty of being a chef. His number one companion was food and it had no prejudices.

He slipped out the door, treaded along the side of the bungalow boys’ quarter building towards the front of the main house. If it was still dark at four twenty-five a.m., he didn’t notice. If he noticed, it would mean nothing to him. This was tradition; he left home early every day, except Sundays, and returned to it late. There was nothing to it. It was what he had to do and he enjoyed the early hours and late nights.

He started the car and only tapped the steering wheel when it snorted and coughed before kicking to life. The car could snort, cough and even belch for all he cared, but it didn’t have a spot in his priority list in the foreseeable future. Still, a change of plug wouldn’t hurt his tightly strung budget—if that was what its ailment was. He would call Tope, his mechanic since he moved to Lagos a year, nine months ago, and hear what he had to say.

The highways weren’t empty, they never were in Lagos. But they were free enough, so he made the trip from Mafoluku to Allen Avenue at a steady pace and was at the restaurant before the strike of five.

At the gate, he engaged in a short conversation with Ahmed. It was that way every day, a greeting, an inquiry of how the night went, a wish of a better business day, and then he would drive through and park his car at the end of the left side of the restaurant’s bungalow building.

He came in through the back door; many of the staff rarely used the main entrance up front. He never did. Already working through the details of the day’s menu inside his head, he walked to the store to get the broom. It was swept the night before. He never closed the kitchen at the end of the day without having it cleaned up, top to bottom. But that didn’t stop him from giving the floor another sweep when he came in the morning. The continued effect of his mother’s early teachings, no doubt.

Sweeping done, he washed his hands, tied on his apron and started getting out the ingredients for the breakfast menu. That morning’s special was club sandwiches. While the restaurant was more of a family kind of place focussed on providing lunch and dinner, some customers liked to stop for breakfast, and especially as takeaways, so he worked out a daily special. And not just for the breakfast menu. There was always a special soup for lunch and another special dish for the dinner menu.

He did most of the cooking and preferred it that way. It was one of the big reasons he’d accepted the job at Mama’s Kitchen. The executive chef position, so to speak, was about to become vacant and they needed a replacement, so he’d taken the job and had worked with the Madam Nonye for about a month before she left. Then he’d dissuaded Mama—Iheoma Azuike, founder of the restaurant—from hiring an assistant cook, assuring her that he could manage and with only Lance as his assistant. And he had owned this kitchen ever since.

But maybe now he was thinking more and more about owning his own kitchen, he could do with a more experienced assistant. He would have to talk to Kristi—when he was certain about his plans, Cheta thought as he put a dozen and half eggs into a pot, set them to boil on the cooker and started getting out the other ingredients for the club sandwiches.

The cleaning team were already busy with their job and he had the boiled eggs and tomatoes sliced, the chicken breasts shredded and the cabbage and carrots grated by the time Lance walked into the kitchen.

“Good morning, Chef.” He greeted and dumped the jute sack bag of leaf vegetables on the wooden counter assigned to him.

His mother supplied the restaurant leaf vegetables since that was her stock in trade and it was his duty, among other things, to get them in.

“Good morning, Lance.” Cheta stilled his hand on the big can of mayonnaise to glance at the boy.

He was the quiet sort. He talked only when you talked to him and even then, he barely said much. Twenty-two, he wanted to finish school and go into business; maybe a restaurant business. He would need to come out of his shell to take a firm stand in the business world, Cheta always thought.

Now, he prodded as he returned attention on the mayonnaise. “Your eyes still look sleepy. A late night?”

“Ah, yes. I didn’t get to bed until past two a.m.” Lance nodded as he separated the leaves.

“Really? Chatting with a girlfriend?”

“Girlfriend?” He guffawed. “I haven’t got time for girls right now, Chef. I’m too busy with my personal plans for that kind of thing.”

He would encourage him to show interest in the ladies as it never hurt any, but he believed in priorities. So, he gave an approving nod. “That’s the way to go, Lance, focus on your personal goals, one at a time. It’s always my belief that a man must first find his feet before he finds his woman.”

“Yes, Chef, I believe that too.” Lance nodded.

The conversation stopped there. While he didn’t mind talking while he cooked, he didn’t over indulge with the junior staff. A personal policy and for no real reason other than he preferred it that way.

 

WHEN Fejiro strolled in somewhere around seven forty-five a.m., the first batch of sandwiches were gone and he was working on a second batch.

“Good morning, Chef. Hmm, I don’t know why this place always makes me feel like I’m home.” She added with a short sigh.

“Good morning, Fej.” He raised his head and watched her walk to the refrigerator where she put in a food pack. “Brought your own lunch today?”

“Mmm-hmm. I woke up earlier than usual this morning and found myself in the blissful mood to cook. So, I cooked beans and can’t wait to devour it at lunch time.” She chuckled as she strolled back to his counter, slipped on stool and crossed her legs.

The lady had the longest legs he’d ever seen. Well, maybe not quite true. But she had a pair of really long legs and they added beauty to her slender, shapely figure. She was an attractive woman; if a man looked closely enough he would see it. She had this beautiful skin tone, one he likened to the colour of nutmeg because of its reddish-brown shade and tough outer coat texture. Her face was long—oblong, some would call it—and with a set of features that rightly matched it. Attractive woman, if a man was interested enough to look.

But since looking didn’t always mean interest, Cheta lowered his gaze back on his work. “Good for you then.”

“Yeah, good for me. Hey, Lance. How are you this morning?” The young assistant had his hands busy slicing spinach leaves.

“I’m fine. Good morning, Aunty Fejiro.”

“He went to bed past two a.m., so I doubt he’s really fine.” Noticing the contemplative stares she was shooting the sandwiches he’d set aside on a separate plate, Cheta added. “You can have one of those. They didn’t come out right, so we are not serving them.”

“Oh, thanks.” She took one, bit in and grinned. “Great as always, Chef. So, Lance, what kept you up till two a.m.—chatting with your girlfriend?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend, Aunty Fejiro. I just told Chef that.” Lance said with a shake of his head and a chuckle. “Actually, I was watching movies on Netflix.”

“Oh, Netflix. I avoid that one.” Since she had the chef’s express permission, Fejiro took another sandwich. “Me, I prefer movies that come in DVD packs. Bought two yesterday… and oh, talking about yesterday,” she shifted her attention to Cheta, “Cheta, guess who I ran into at the movie store.”

“Uh, Alex Ekubo?”

“Alex Ekubo at Agege?” Fejiro snorted. “I knew you were going to make fun of this, but still I’ll tell you—it was Arnold.”

“Arnold?” He wasn’t done making fun, so he let out a soft gasp. “Hollywood movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger?”

“Ha-ha, funny. I meant, Arnold, my ex. My cheap liar, cheap cheater ex.”

“Oh, that Arnold. This is the first I’m hearing of him.” He gave a nod to Lance to take the finished sandwiches to the service station. “So, you ran into each other at the movie store and reconnected, huh?”

For some odd reason, he’d come to enjoy her many stories. Three things he has learned about Fejiro Oberabor in the six months they have worked together was first, she was in love with love and romance and she saw romance in just about anything that has to do with a man and woman. Second, she gave her very best to her duties even when she complained of being overworked—which was often. And third, she was the realest person he knew. There were no hidden parts with her. She was who she said she was and said only what she meant to say—and how she meant to say it.

All three qualities could be refreshing, except that number one was really exasperating.

“Reconnected my ass!” Fejiro scoffed, used the towel on the counter to wipe her hands. “Well, he wanted to reconnect, the asshole. Suggested we go somewhere and sit, talk, have a drink or maybe even dinner. Can you imagine?”

“I imagine you showed him the door out of your life a second time.”

“I sure did.” He’d put it in the way that suited her ego, so she grinned. “I told him no, in a nice little dramatic way, and resumed my lovely walk home. Unfortunately, Satan must be best friends with him, because the heel of my left shoe caught on something and I stumbled and fell down.”

“Oops! Hope you didn’t hurt yourself?” Reflexively, his eyes shot to her legs. But she had on trousers, so he saw nothing.

“Mercifully, no. Just a bruise on my left knee. Anyway, you know how they say that in the plan of the devil, God has a plan?”

Cheta eyed the twinkling smile. “No, I don’t really know that saying.”

“Well, it’s a saying and was proved to be true yesterday.” Excitement bubbled inside of her as it had this morning when she’d woken up. “While I was bemoaning the broken heel of my shoe, this deep voice that purred like a soft-sounding engine asked me if I was all right. Cheta, I swear to you, my heart did a somersault in my chest.”

“I bet it did.” He scoffed, handed over the dried fish to Lance to clean up and busied himself with the snails. His lunch special was goat meat nsala soup.

“I know you don’t believe it, but it did. I looked up and right there in front of me was this gorgeous man.” Her heart repeated the flutter it had made yesterday when she’d looked up and seen Kane. “His name is Kane. And I think that is k-a-n-e, not the c-a-i-n spelling. No one bears the c-a-i-n version, do they? Anyway, he was so courteous, and thoughtful, and gallant. I was in distress and all he wanted to do was help.”

“The heel of your shoe broke, doesn’t sound much like being in distress to me.” The lady glamorised everything.

“Oh, I was in distress all right. Can you imagine me walking the rest of the way home barefoot? I’d have looked silly.” As Kane had pointed out. “But he saved the day and offered me a ride home.”

“Wait, let me guess—on his white, magnificent horse?”

Fejiro laughed. “Cheta, your sarcasm is rib-cracking but this is a true story. And it wasn’t a horse, or even a Mercedes G-Class. It was a Mazda CX-7, painted a flourishing red colour and the comfiest thing to ride in.” She made a face. “The only hitch in the ride though was that it was too short and I didn’t get to give him my number before it ended.”

“Why, you forgot your number?”

“No, Chef. He didn’t ask for it and I managed to retrain myself from blurting it out.”

“Bravo on the restraint. So, you had an eventful day yesterday—breakup with ball-less Tega, run-in with cheap-liar Arnold and a sweet ride in gorgeous Kane’s flourishing red Mazda CX-7. Honestly, I almost envy you, Fej, seeing as my life is so lacking in lustre.”

“You should actually envy me, seeing as I see possibilities where you see nothing.”

“Possibilities?” He tossed her a glance. And sure, she had a dreamy smile on her face. “What possibilities can you see in a ride that probably didn’t last three minutes and ended with you two parting ways without any contact exchange?”

“The possibility of us meeting again.”

“How?”

“I don’t know how.” Fejiro shrugged, not daunted though. “But it will happen. I told him I worked here. He said he’s been here before and that we served great food. So see, Chef, he paid you a compliment.”

“What a regular gentleman.” Cheta wasn’t impressed. He had always agreed with the saying that words were cheap. “So, you think he’s going to come looking for you here?”

“Yes, I believe that can happen. In fact, I want that to happen.”

“Fejiro, yesterday, just same yesterday, you broke up with Tega. And today, you want Kane to come looking for you here?” He gave his head a shake. “This is either you trying to rebound or you being shallow. Neither is flattering, so beware.”

“Actually, both are insulting, so you beware.” Fejiro retorted. But she wasn’t deeply offended. She considered them friends now and friends had the right to speak plainly—even when it hurt a little. “But to clarify, so you misunderstand nothing, Chef. Tega and I didn’t go that far. We were still in considering-things stage when he broke things off to please his mother. I only knew him for six weeks and in those weeks, we went out about four times and kissed only once. In the real world of dating, we weren’t officially a couple. So, rebounding is completely ruled out. And if I want Kane to look me up here, it’s not because I’m shallow. It’s because I believe in the possibilities of meet-cutes and happily ever after.”

“Meet-cutes?”

His baffled look made her grin. “Never heard of those, have you, Chef?” She chuckled, stood up and took her handbag. “It’s work time for me, so I’ll see you around. Someone tall, dark and handsome come looking for me, you guys know where to find me. Ciao.”

“Meet-cutes?” Cheta repeated after the door swung shut behind her. “Lord have mercy, that lady has some really wild imagination!” He muttered and then turned to Lance who had his earphones plugged in his ears and pretending deafness. “Start prepping the yam I’ll use as thickener, Lance.”

“Yes, Chef.” Lance said promptly and headed into the pantry.

“Meet-cutes my ass!” He muttered again, opened the cabinet that contained his special spices and completely shut off every thought as he focussed again on cooking.

 

HE stayed in that focussed mood, cooking dish after dish, not breaking, not slowing down his pace and not permitting anymore conversations until the lunch hour rush was over. Then he turned off his burners, got himself a plate of food and strolled into the service station to enjoy his break.

Duke, twenty-something, swift with his hands and very detailed, manned the service station and handled the plating of food. He was one of those who didn’t need to stay at the staff quarters. He talked about owning a business like Lance did and Cheta considered he had a fair chance of making that dream come true.

“How’s it going, Duke?”

“Cool, Chef. The rush is gone until dinner hour.”

“Hmm, I see Papa’s here today.” He made himself comfortable on a stool and watched as the old man talked with Kemi.

He was a retired medical doctor, somewhere in his seventies and fit as a fiddle. He came in once or twice a week and ate nothing but fufu with whatever soup was the day’s special.

“Yes, he is. Kemi said he says his children are encouraging him to remarry but he doesn’t want a woman upsetting his style.” Duke chuckled at that.

“Can’t say I blame him.” The old man had his bill settled and from Kemi’s big smile, he’d left her his usual generous tip. “It’s tough letting people in once you’re set in your ways.”

“Maybe. But he must miss having a woman attend to him, right? I heard his wife’s been dead close to five years now.”

“So I heard too. He’s probably enjoying being a bachelor again, or simply doesn’t want another wife.” Cheta shrugged, spooned jollof rice into his mouth and allowed his gaze to travel around the dining hall.

A couple was sitting on Table-9. The tables didn’t have numbers pinned on them, but every staff knew how to label them. It was easy to tell they were a couple with the easy smile on the lady’s face, the gestures she made that included a touch or a stroke and the way the man’s eyes stayed on her in that possessive manner.

It’s been long he had a woman in his life, he mused. He missed it, being in a relationship, having someone to care about and someone who cared about him. But he couldn’t afford it now—the emotional, mental and financial responsibility of a romantic relationship.

He scooped fried fish into his mouth and moved his gaze again. Then his interest piqued when a man, tall, dark and likely considered handsome strolled in and picked Table-11. Ujunwa quickly approached him and handed over a menu. He studied the menu, handed it back as he said something to Ujunwa. Then she nodded, turned and started towards the service station.

“White rice and beef stir fry for Table-11.” She announced to Duke. “Chef, Table-4, the usual trio from Universal Trust, praised your nsala soup. They really loved the snail, said it was genius. I told them our chef is a genius.” Ujunwa beamed.

“Next time, you tell them the entire staff of Mama’s Kitchen are geniuses. It’s how we roll here.” Cheta winked. “So, did he ask of anyone?”

“Who?” Ujunwa asked, baffled.

“Table-11.”

“No, he didn’t. He just made his order. Why, do you know him, Chef?”

“Uhm, he looked vaguely familiar. But I guess I must be wrong. Well, his food is ready. Bid him bon appétit.”

“I will, Chef.” Smiling, Ujunwa took the tray and aimed back to Table-11.”

“It’s back to the kitchen with me, Duke.” Cheta decided and stood up.

Close association did indeed corrupt sane minds, he laughed at himself as he dumped his plate into the sink. Fantasy-headed Fejiro almost had him getting fanciful. Tall, dark and handsome indeed, he scoffed, and went back to work.

And worked until close down.

Officially, the restaurant closed at nine-thirty p.m., most often, he closed at ten-thirty. It was the same that night and he got home something after eleven.

“Evening, Cheta. Welcome back home.”

Uche—he shared the boys’ quarter building with her—was outside on her veranda.

“Thank you, Uche. Still out here?” Cheta offered a friendly smile as he stopped on the stair that led up his own veranda.

“Yeah, enjoying the cool night breeze before I turn in. Not in the mood for TV even though the light people spared us a thought tonight.” The smile around her mouth turned inviting. “Want to join me? I’ve got cooked groundnut and there’s plenty left here for two.”

She’s been making subtle moves the last couple of months and he would respond if not for his one single rule—don’t date where you work or live. And added to that rule, he wasn’t just ready for a relationship now.

So, he declined the invitation with a rueful smile. “I wish I can snatch up that generous offer, Uche, but I am totally fagged out. The only thing I want to do now is bathe and sleep. Forgive me, please?”

“Nothing to forgive.” Uche chuckled and waved off the apology. “It’s late anyway and I should be thinking of turning in myself. So, goodnight, Cheta.”

“Goodnight, Uche.”

He kept the smile until he entered his apartment and locked the door. Then he blew out a long breath, let the thoughts go and started stripping for his bath, his mind caving in to the fatigue of a hectic and fruitful day.

***

Not Fairy-Tale to be published 3 Sept. 2018.