Saz recognised death when he saw it. And it was death he saw as he stood in the remains of what used to be his shop.
With death came grief and mourning. He mourned, had been mourning since the night he was called out to witness the razing of five years of hard work and dedication. The grief he kept inside, locked away where only he could see it. And feel it.
He still smelled the smoke. It lingered in the air, hung on charred remains of what was once cabinets made out of wood. It would take longer than five days for it to completely vanish.
It would take forever for the memory to leave him. He turned from the blackened walls to the heap of chards of glass, broken and shattered fixtures. They’d barely been able to salvage anything. A few boxes of lights and extensions. But they made no difference. They couldn’t restore life to his shop.
Saz swallowed the taste of despair, blanked off all his emotions before he turned to his sales boy. Well, he wouldn’t be his sales boy anymore, not without a shop.
“They have come to finish cleaning up the place.” Solomon gestured with a jerk of the head to the group of young men hanging by the open entrance. “They want to know if they can begin now. Or if you…”
He trailed off because he didn’t know what to say, Saz understood that. He understood the grief and guilt which hung over him.
“They can begin. I will only take the boxes to my car.” There was nothing more to do there. Even the cleaning up was only an act of necessity.
It made no difference to him.
“I will take them, Oga.” Movement agitated, Solomon began to pile up the less than a dozen boxes.
He’d been that way since the incident–jittery, guilt-ridden, terrified. He could hurl out accusations, Saz knew. He could cast blames, and maybe even dole out punishments. But like the cleaning up, what good would all that do?
He stopped him after he closed the boot of the van. “You need to take it easy, Solo. You will make yourself ill if you continue like this. It’s happened, nothing any of us can do now but to let it go.”
“Let it go how, sir?” Solomon raised sick eyes to his. “I did this. I destroyed your business. I destroyed everything you own. Everything, sir.”
Human error. A faulty electric water boiler plugged on and forgotten. A surge of power when electricity was restored. An inevitable explosion, and then fire which consumed as much as it could.
“It was a mistake. A costly one, but still a mistake.” Because something in him called for it, Saz gave the young man a shoulder squeeze. “See that they clean up properly and then lock up.”
“I am sorry, Oga.”
He looked at the form cowered by misery. “I know. Bring the key home when they’re done.”
He got in the van, started the engine and pulled into the highway that would take him back to Uselu Shell. He needed to lie down and not think about anything. Not for the next few days at least.
But wishes were never horses, he realised as he pulled into the yard where he rented a three-bedroom flat. A rent that was due in ten weeks. Another fact he didn’t yet want to think about.
He wouldn’t have minded seeing one of the two ladies sitting in front of the flat before his, but the other he was usually reluctant to see.
“Your sister is here,” his neighbour Alice said unnecessarily after a cheerful greeting. “I told her you’re likely to be back soon, and I was right.”
“You were indeed.” Shooting a smile at the homemaker and mother of two, he took his time getting out the boxes before he looked at his father’s eldest daughter. “I didn’t know you were coming.”
“I took the first flight this morning,” Ifeanyi said as if that offered an explanation. “Thank you,” she added to Alice before following him through the protector and into the house.
“Is there a problem?” They were not close, but he couldn’t help the twinge of worry.
“None with anyone I left in Lagos, if that’s what you’re asking.” He didn’t offer a seat, but she took one all the same, settling on an armchair with a loud sigh. “I won’t mind a glass of water. Your kind neighbour offered a drink, but I didn’t want to put her to too much trouble.”
He said nothing. Strode into the kitchen and returned with a bottle of water and a glass. “If there’s no problem, then why are you here?”
“To see you.” Ifeanyi filled the glass, drank and poured another which she only took a sip. “Why does it not ever get easy between us? We’re siblings, you know.”
“Things are already what they are, and I didn’t make them so.” Neither did she, Saz thought grudgingly as he shrugged and lowered on the sofa.
“I know. But we can make them different. We can try.” There was sadness on the face that resembled their father’s.
That resembled his own. A stroke of fate, both of them taking up the features of the man who connected them. Yet it meant nothing. It hadn’t all those years ago.
“Is that why you’re here, to try and amend our relationship?”
“I’m here to see you,” she repeated, and this time with a one-shoulder shrug like his own. “I’m so sorry about your shop. We all are. It must be devastating.”
To clamp a hold on the emotions that welled up, he got up to get himself a drink. And got her one out of polite manners. “It’s happened and we can only look to go from here.”
“How did it happen? You never said on the phone.”
He didn’t want to now either. But she’d come all this way. She looked genuinely concerned. She was his father’s daughter, the only one who’d dared to show him kindness–when she could.
“My sales boy plugged on an electric boiler, someone had brought it in for repair and he was testing it. Power went off, he had customers to attend to. It slipped his mind and he locked up the shop without unplugging it.”
It wasn’t so easy to speak of it dispassionately, so he took a gulp of the beer. “There was likely a surge when the power came back on, something caught on fire, spread to other things.” He left it there.
She looked sorry. She looked grieved. It troubled him that a part of him resented the show of compassion. She sat there, dressed in stylish top and denim, her handbag possibly the price of a small chandelier. She’d gone to school, finished it, had degrees to get her a job in a multinational company. She had it all, and could afford compassion, and a flight from Lagos.
Unfair. His heart told him he was being unfair. He only resented her now because of his loss.
“Thank you.” He tried to mean it. “Have your drink.”
“Yes. Thank you.” She picked up the bottle of malt as if in obedience. “What are you going to do now?”
He didn’t know. “Find a way to start over.”
“Do you need help?”
“From you?” The sardonic laugh came before he could stop it. “No, thank you.”
Ifeanyi stared at him. Her older brother. Her only brother, and they were like strangers. It shouldn’t be. It wouldn’t be if things had been different. If her mother had been different.
“I knew that would be your response. But I want to say you have not lost everything. This shop is gone, but there’s another.”
“What other?” He knew, and wished she wouldn’t talk about it.
“The building materials store. It’s yours now.”
“It’s not mine. It was his.”
“You’re his only son, so automatically it’s yours. You know this.”
“I don’t agree. The business was his, now he’s dead, you his legitimate children can inherit it. That’s how it should work.”
“That’s not how it works. You are his son–his first son…”
“His illegitimate first son.”
“Stop it.” Weary because she’d had enough of the old trouble, Ifeanyi reproved him sharply. “Stop using terms like that. They don’t matter when it comes to people and how we should treat them.”
“Wrong. They matter. They mattered and defined how I was treated.” Rush of anger he couldn’t control made him stand up.
But he wouldn’t pace. He wouldn’t let his temper snap. “Anyway, all of that doesn’t matter now. I don’t want the store. I don’t want anything from him.”
“But they are all yours. You know how it is. The house, the store, they are yours.” Because she understood his pride and respected it, Ifeanyi spoke gently. “I’ve tried to keep it going. But it’s difficult with me being in Lagos, and having no knowledge of the business. So, I asked them to close it for now. Close it until you’re ready to do something about it.”
“You do something about it. Sell off whatever is inside, vacate the building. And about the house, you can rent it out if you people are not thinking of keeping it as a family home.” He forced himself to sit. “Do whatever you want. It’s yours.”
“You’re not listening to me. They are your properties now. Tradition makes…”
“I don’t believe in such traditions. You are his daughter, the one who grew up in that house, you should own it. The two of you should.”
“Somto and I are not his heirs, you are. Besides, we don’t want it. We are married, have homes of our own and jobs that satisfy us. You need this. It’s why I came. I don’t know if you have a means to restart your business, but this is a chance.
“You worked with him. He trained you in it. Build it up again. Make it profitable, and perhaps you can find through it the means to reopen your shop.”
“Build it up? Like move to Ogwashi and live there?”
“Well, I won’t advise you run it from here. You need to keep an eye on how things are done.”
“Absolutely not. I’m not interested in living ever again in that town. I don’t belong there.”
“It’s your hometown.”
“It’s the town my father came from, end of it.” And end of this discussion, Saz decided. “Look, I appreciate your coming, but I’m not interested in that business, or the house. You ladies do whatever you want with it.”
“No one is going to touch what is yours, and I hope you won’t allow them go to waste.” Understanding that she couldn’t do more, Ifeanyi rose. “I’m staying at The Sage Hotel until tomorrow when I leave.”
She hadn’t expected to stay here, which was a relief. “I’ll drive you there.” It was the least he could do.
She smiled. “Thank you. And for the drink too.”
“I wish you would let the past go.”
“I have let it go, believe me.” He held open the door. “After you.”
“I don’t think you have,” she said before stepping out.
Saz didn’t offer a response. Instead, he maintained a polite conversation until he dropped her off.
Back home, he cleared out the bottles and glass, before going through to his bedroom.
His phone rang as he took off his clothes. And it was Grace.
He didn’t want to talk her, to anyone anymore. What he wanted was a cold bath and a long sleep.
Switching off the phone, he set it on the bedside table and grabbed his towel.
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