Last Flight to Biafra (2)

How I met Rumbanafa?

It was that Christmas weekend of ’09 when he first checked into Tombia Hotel. I’d taken time off to attend the wake and interment so I only met him when he stormed downstairs early on Boxing day. The first thing I noticed about him was how he wore his Mercedes key fob on a gold chain around his neck. Clearly he was either an absent-minded man trying not to lose his keys… or a silly show-off. (It didn’t take me long to decide which.) I hadn’t slept much, the two previous nights, and I clenched down a yawn. ‘Good morning Sir,’ I said, as he dumped some UHT milk sachets on the desk before me.

‘These things have no expiry dates on them!’ he blazed, ‘The one I opened for my coffee was curdled! Curdled! I could have poisoned myself!’

I waited.

‘I could have poisoned myself!’ he repeated.

‘Sorry,’ I said, sweeping the sachets from the counter into the bin. I replaced the supplies from a carton behind the reception.

He probably thought I wasn’t sorry enough, because he pushed his chest up against the counter and leaned menacingly towards me, ‘I want to see your supervisor. Now!’

‘Of course, Sir. Can you wait five minutes?’

‘I’m not going anywhere!’

I pushed the swing doors into the backroom and passed through the rear exit, into the alley separating Tombia Hotel from Kaura Supermarket. That early in the morning, the shopping baskets were blue, neatly stacked sentries by the main entrance, waiting for customers. I pulled a half-smoked fag from the crumpled pack and lit up. I took two long puffs and carefully tapped out the flame. I’d never smoked fags by installment, but this was the last stick of my last pack, and I was going to stretch it out. On my way back to the angry customer I pulled on a baseball cap and put on a more supervisory manner. ‘How can we help you, Sir?’ I asked brightly.

‘I said I want your supervisor,’ he snapped, ‘it’s too late to come ass-kissing…’

‘I’m on supervisor duty this weekend, Sir.’

‘You should have said so before, you insolent twerp! Then I want to see your manager.’

‘One moment, Sir.’

I returned to the alley, losing my cap on the way. I suppose the customer was always right. Idiotic sometimes, but always right. Perhaps I should have acted more devastated by his curdled milk, but I had just returned from my mother’s funeral and just didn’t have enough sympathy for water from the breast of cows, whether curdled or otherwise. I lit up my last cigarette once again. She had gone on and on about my smoking, it was the last thing she’d asked me, and when I saw her lying-in-state I knew I could finally find the strength to quit. I was so lost in thought that the cigarette burned out before my first real drag. I flicked it regretfully into the drain. That was it then, as Mum is my witness. After this, the long fight against addiction.

I returned to the customer at the counter, pulling on my green jacket and snapping the black bow tie in place. I also wore a grave, managerial air, my voice, deep and mellifluous. ‘How can I help you, Sir?’

Is this a joke?’ he snarled, ‘I said I wanted your manager!’

‘I am the manager and owner of this hotel, Sir.’

‘Don’t give me that rot! This is Madam Tombia’s hotel, it says so on the internet! Family-owned for two gen-‘

‘We buried Madam Beaty Tombia yesterday, Sir. I’m her only son.’

He stared at me for a long time. Finally he cleared his throat at length, ‘I’m an idiot, aren’t I?’

I could tell that the words were very difficult for him to say, so I lied, ‘You’re not, Sir.’

He pulled out a cigar from his jacket and pushed it across to me. ‘Sorry about your mum,’ he said gruffly.

I pushed it back. ‘Thanks, but I don’t smoke.’

He laughed shortly then, ‘My nose tells me different. You went to the back to smoke, didn’t you?.’

‘That was my last stick. I promised my mum.’

He twiddled his Mercedes key fob, pushing the cigar across again. ‘No disrespect to your mother, but I think your last cigarette should be a cigar.’ He clicked the Mercedes key fob y gave me. Tha is why I came ere. and I realised it was a cigarette lighter all along. I took a deep breath as I recognised how deep and complex and elastic and confusing the world was. Then – despite the large, No-Smoking sign behind me – I lit up.

He offered a handshake then, and when I took it, said: ‘My friends call me Rummy.’

‘I’m Timota,’ I said. Then he took his milk sachets (which still had no expiry dates) and went up to his room.

Honest. That was how I met Rumbanafa.

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