*Recap: Dami met up with Toyin after the dress fitting and afterwards, started receiving strange messages from her stalker. She was forced to tell Daniel what’s really going on.”
10:30am, 9th May 2016,
It was another Monday morning, but I actually had a reason to look forward to it because today was my first day working in the Reserved Area. Far away from the grumpy and impatient customers in Section A or the misers in Section B who could resort to haggling over the price of meals on the menu. You can trust that they never gave us any tips too.
Kayla handed me a new set of the work uniform and told me to get changed. I slipped the uniform on and stared at myself in the mirror. I’d never worn clothes this tight. The top was black with short sleeves and had a row of silver buttons in the front. The fitted skirt was also black and stopped a few inches above my knee but that was way too short for comfort. There was a stark white lacy apron attached to the waist which was more for fancy than to actually serve a purpose. She had warned me about getting any food stains on it.
I tied my hair up to keep it out of the way and slipped on my black flats before leaving the changing room.
“Oh good, you’re ready.” Kayla said, taking in my appearance.
“Yeah, what’s next?” I asked.
Her eyes darted down towards my feet and she frowned.
“You can’t serve customers in those.”
“What are you talking about? They’re very comfortable shoes.”
She gave me a look that said she thought I was quite slow on the uptake.
“When I work in the Reserved Area, do you ever see me wear tacky shoes like those?”
I wasn’t even sure how to answer that.
“Follow me. I’ll lend you a more appropriate pair.”
She went over to her locker and brought out a pair of black 5-inch heels.
“You expect me to function in those?” I asked.
“At least you’re not wearing 6-inch heels, leave that to me. Now, hurry up and get ready. Customers usually don’t start arriving till late afternoon but sometimes there are early-birds.”
I stared at the shoes in disbelief as she turned to leave but she suddenly turned back to face me.
“And for your sake, please tell me you know how to walk in those.”
I didn’t get a chance to reply before she walked out and the door slammed shut. Thirty minutes later, I was wobbling up and down in the employees’ room practising walking in heels. And I was failing miserably. The door swung open and I whirled around sharply, losing my balance in the process. I never even had any balance to begin with.
“What on earth are you doing?” Daniel raised an amused eyebrow as he scanned me from head to toe and immediately burst out into laughter.
“This isn’t funny! My job is on the line here.”
“Sure, I can see how a pair of heels is very crucial to your career.”
“You don’t understand.” I replied, taking a few more steps in them.
“Explain.” He said, grabbing a seat to watch me make a fool out of myself.
“Kayla gave me this new uniform and told me that I could only wear heels to serve customers. Now, I have to avoid falling flat on my face in them.”
“Hmm, it doesn’t look like that’s going to be an easy task.” He grinned.
“You’re not helping matters at all Daniel.” I snapped.
“Okay.” He stood up and pushed the chair aside. “Stop walking for a minute.”
I sighed and leaned against the wall to take pressure off my feet. He was silent for a while, peering closely at my legs before taking a step closer.
“Stand up straight.”
I frowned and gave him a questioning look.
“Trust me Dami, I’m close to being an expert on such matters. I have three sisters remember? Lesson number one; never slouch in heels. In fact, never slouch at all.”
I rolled my eyes and straightened my back.
“Number two, take short strides. You’re not running a race here Dami.”
I practised taking smaller steps like he said and noticed that my knees weren’t as unsteady as before. I grinned in excitement even though I missed my step a couple of times.
“Now walk from heel-to-toe and point your toes forward. No Dami, this isn’t a march past, walk slowly with your heels to the ground first before you rest your toes.”
“Gosh, it’s not like this is astrophysics why on earth is it so difficult?” I grumbled.
“Practice makes perfect.” He shrugged. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, by then I expect you to have graduated from baby steps to at least adolescent.”
I was stumbling less often when the door opened a few minutes later.
“I’m not sure about adolescent steps but I think I’m at kindergarten-“
“There’s nothing childish about you right now.” A voice said slowly.
I frowned and turned to see who walked in. I sighed automatically when I saw that it was Kevin.
“Why is it that you’re never happy to see me?” He frowned.
“Maybe it’s because I don’t like your presence.” I muttered, slipping the heels off.
Kevin smiled sadly and shook his head.
“Don’t you think you’re too hard on me?”
“Not at all, someone needs to put you in your place.”
“Anyway, I heard you’re working the VIP shift today.”
“Is anything ever a secret in this place?” I asked in wonder.
He gave me a cryptic look and shrugged.
“Some things are.”
I frowned, not getting his meaning. Kevin rarely looked as serious as he did in that moment. Before I could ask what he meant, the door opened for a second time and Daniel walked in. He glanced from Kevin to me and then to my bare feet. He raised a single, dark eyebrow in a pointed look.
“I know okay? I’ll keep practicing.” I said, slipping the shoes back on.
“Anyway, I’m out. Tell me if you survive the first shift.” Kevin said before walking out.
A few hours later, the VIP section of Exquisite was opened. I stood in line with about 7 of the other staff who were on duty. Kayla stood at the head of the female line with a face full of professionally applied makeup and Dare; a former model for a clothing line led the guys. I wondered for a brief moment what I was even doing there. I wasn’t as glamorous as anyone here. Now I understood why Kayla was particular about my appearance. I must have missed some sort of signal because moments later, everyone started moving forward.
“What’s going on?” I whispered to Toyosi who stood ahead of me.
She brushed her pin-straight chocolate brown hair away from her face as she turned to look at me.
“Sometimes, customers choose who they want to serve them during their visit. You see that lady over there?”
I nodded as I spotted a dark woman who looked to be in her forties walking into the building.
“That’s Senator Achibu’s wife. A single look from her can melt even the toughest of hearts. I’ll try to avoid her if I were you, especially since you’re new to this.”
Before we entered the room where they were seated, Kayla turned to face the rest of us.
“For those of you who are new here,” She glanced at me and another girl I hadn’t seen before. “There’s a strict policy that is applied when serving in the Reserved Area. Always remember that the customer is your first priority and their comfort is more important than yours.”
I couldn’t help the small frown that crossed my face. Wasn’t she taking this a bit too serious?
I didn’t have time to ponder on that because they started moving again. Melodious music reached my ears as we got closer, accompanied by the sound of laughter. It was a completely different environment altogether. A live band played soft jazz music and beautifully-clothed people swayed in their seats.
Behind me, the new girl gasped quietly. I definitely understood how she felt. After a while, the waiters started leaving to attend to different tables they’d been summoned to. I kept waiting for my turn, but it seemed no one even glanced my way. It was down to just me and the new girl. We glanced at each other pitifully aware that out of all eight of us, we were the only two left.
“So… what’s your name? I don’t think we’ve met.” I said to ease the tension.
“Natasha.” She replied quietly with a small smile.
I glanced at her from head to toe. Frankly speaking, she didn’t look like a Natasha. She looked more like a Chinyere, Njideka or maybe Obianuju and she had a distinct Ibo accent when she spoke.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Dami.” I said, not wanting to pry.
She was about to reply when someone tapped me from behind. I turned to find Kayla standing behind me.
“You’re needed at table 6.” She had barely even finished her sentence before running off in those deadly heels.
I gave Natasha a smile before leaving, feeling quite sorry for her being the last one. Taking care not to trip, I made my way to table 6 and stood beside the chair, fixing a polite smile on my face.
“Good day, shall I take your order?”
The gentleman and his female companion turned at the sound of my voice. The man barely looked at me before handing me his menu and dismissing me. I glanced back once before leaving to find the lady watching me with a blank expression as she tipped her wine glass towards her red painted lips. I realised just how different these customers were from other sections and frankly, I didn’t appreciate their indifference to staff, like we simply didn’t exist. Maybe that was the norm here, but I wasn’t used to it.
Minutes later, I saw Natasha serving a table where a young, strikingly handsome man was seated. I felt relieved that she finally got an assignment until I saw what happened moments later. As she leaned across the table to set down an ice bucket in which a bottle of champagne was chilling, he shamelessly ran his hand down her waist and against her backside. She flinched in surprise and drew back immediately, her lips parted as a fierce expression took over her face and the first few curses in Ibo language flew out of her mouth in rapid succession. I unconsciously started walking toward her but stopped when Kayla got there first.
Kayla grabbed Natasha by the arm which caused her to go silent and turned to the man with an apologetic expression. She then gave Natasha a stern look which made her mumble an apology. I stood frozen in outrage. Didn’t Kayla see what just happened? That slimy thing just made a grab at an innocent girl and she was making her apologise?
The man watched the two of them leave, his eyes trailing on Natasha even when she was more than halfway across the room. A slow smile grew across his face and even though it wasn’t directed at me, I felt myself shiver with fear.
Once the shift was over around 8pm, I immediately went to the staff room.
“Dare, have you seen Natasha?” I asked before he could leave.
“Not since that scene she caused, why?”
“Never mind, I just wanted to ask her something.”
He nodded as he grabbed his jacket and left. I waited for close to half an hour for Natasha to show up but she never did, I couldn’t find Kayla either. It was getting close to 9pm and I knew I had to leave so I decided to check on her tomorrow.
But the next day when I arrived at the restaurant, all everyone was talking about was the new girl who had been fired on her first day. I was beyond shocked as I realised how similar, yet different our situations were. The only saving grace I’d had was that I hadn’t offended one of the special customers when I’d messed up at work last week, but Natasha hadn’t been that lucky.
Back in dorm, I carefully approached the room door and checked for signs that it hadn’t been tampered with. Before leaving the house that morning, I had placed a thin piece of transparent sellotape between the door and the frame. If anyone had tried to open the door while I was away, the sellotape would’ve broken. I was relieved to find it still intact. I tossed my stuff unto my bed and took a quick shower before going out to get something to eat. You would think that working in a place like Exquisite would entitle me to some free meals at least. There’s an employee discount but considering the price of food there, the discounted price would still cost a fortune for me.
I stopped at the campus cafeteria to see if anything looked appealing. After purchasing my meal, I searched for a free table. Minutes after sitting down, I heard the empty chair across me being pulled out, slowly. I immediately looked up at the person standing before me but when I got a good look, I felt slightly relaxed.
“Hey Nonso.” I smiled.
“I hope I’m not disturbing? I just thought I should say hi.”
“No, not at all.”
He went ahead to sit down and set his food on the table. My eyes widened when I saw the amount of food heaped on his plate. He simply laughed and dug into his meal.
“I’m curious…” He started after taking a sip of water.
“Well, I hardly see you with anyone. How do you cope by yourself?”
“I’m not a loner if that’s what you think, I do have friends. I just like my own company better sometimes.” Although, now that I considered it, the only real friend I could boast of was Daniel.
“Don’t you think you should get to know people better?” He asked.
“Like you for instance?” I laughed.
“Exactly.” He grinned.
We talked all through the meal and I realised he was really a nice person to be around. He even got me to talk about my hobbies which mainly consisted of my relationship with action TV series. I learned that he and Chioma were the only children of their parents and that despite how his sister acted, she was really sweet. I had a hard time believing that though. Afterwards, he offered to escort me to my dorm but I declined because I wasn’t sure how I felt about getting close to any guy at this point with all the strange things happening. The only guy I trusted was Daniel and we had 6 years of friendship to prove that he was trustworthy.
As I walked towards the dorm building, I was so carried away by the great time I had talking with Nonso that I didn’t realise my neck had begun to tingle again.
10:33pm, 11th May 2016,
The one-bedroom apartment was dimly lit by a single kerosene lamp and stank of poverty and sickness. In one corner was a mat where a woman lay helplessly. She looked older than her age due to the damage that abdominal cancer had wreaked on her body. Her once smooth, glowing skin was now wrinkled in endless lines of fatigue. Her eyes no longer hinted at laughter but held deep sorrow. Beside her sat a young girl; her daughter.
A phone rang, breaking the silence and the girl picked the phone up, moving away to speak quietly.
“Chidera, it’s me.”
“I told you not to call me that. My name is Natasha.” She whispered.
Her birth name brought her painful memories, things she wished she could erase from her memory. She gave herself the name Natasha as a constant reminder that she could no longer be the young girl she was who sat back in ignorance as everything fell apart around her.
“I’m sorry. Anyway, about what happened at the restaurant, it’s quite a shame really.”
“You saw what he did. Did you expect me to keep quiet?”
“I warned you about this kind of customers, they aren’t to be disrespected.”
“So I was to stand there and smile while he tried to take advantage of me, just because he’s rich?”
“You have no idea who he is, do you? People like him rule society.”
Natasha was silent.
“Listen, I’m giving you one last opportunity to set things right and get yourself out of that poverty hole you’re in. Or do you want your mother to die before your eyes too?”
Natasha gulped down her fear as she turned to look at her mother who lay still on her side. She sighed and closed her eyes.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Good girl, that’s what I want to hear. I’ll text you a number to call, be glad that you even have a choice in this.”
The phone went silent as the caller cut the line. Minutes later, she got a text message containing a phone number. Her fingers hovered over the keypads. All she had to do was dial that number but her conscience wouldn’t let her.
The next morning, she was up early to tidy the little apartment as well as possible, not much could brighten up the dull paint and the old furniture but at least she wanted it to look clean. Her mother was in the single bedroom while she was in the parlour. All of a sudden, strange noises began coming from her mother’s room. Natasha dropped her broom and ran to find her mother convulsing on the floor. Her scream alerted the neighbours who later came to find out what the problem was. Minutes later, her mother was rushed to the hospital where the doctor informed them that the cancer was progressing and her body system was failing.
Natasha looked at the bill for the new medicine to be administered and felt her heart sink in her chest. She knew what she had to do. With trembling hands, she picked up her phone and made the call.
“Hello Natasha, I was waiting for your call.” A deep masculine voice said.
She wasn’t surprised that he already knew who was speaking. After all, she realized she never really had a choice in this. It was just a matter of time.
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