The hot plate fell on the table with a loud clang. It had only been three or so seconds, but that is all the time you need to burn your fingers. Stupid. I licked my tender fingers and studied the white ceramic cereal bowl carefully, worried that it may have cracked when I dropped it. It was fine, and the contents steamed satisfyingly in the dark, airless room. On my way back to the kitchen, I banged shut the microwave and ran my fingertips under cold water to take the sting off. I inspected them. It did not feel too bad. But I knew from long experience that my diagnosis was only valid until I buried my fingers into hot eba; that was the true test of how bad the burn was. I was to find out soon enough.
I grabbed a cup from the cupboard and went back into living room, past the tray of food on the dining table, to the water dispenser in the far corner. I noted that this was my first glass of water for the day.
“At 4 P.M?’ I thought.
But I did not dwell on the matter too long. This is “Christmas Period”, let us enjoy and be merry. I sat before the plate of afang and eba. Before beginning, I turned on the standing fan and made sure the blast was directly on my back. This is a standard precaution. I could already feel the sweat building around me, within me. But what is that to me? Can one truly say he has lived if he did not at least once experience what it is like to sit to a steaming meal in a tropical country, sweating, shirt off, with a blast of air pressing on skin enthusiastically?
It is a treat for the gods.
And so it was that in this condition, having unconsciously taken note of the sensible green-black colour of the soup, I carved my first ball of eba.
It did not burn the fingers. Good.
The first ball is all critical. It heralds the beginning of a stroll in paradise or a descent into a bland, saltless desert. Is it too hot? Then you need to slow down and track your prey more patiently. Too cold? Well, who eats cold food? You moderate and adjust. And when the temperature is just right, you chew carefully, swallow slowly, pause here and there to consider all that you have learned.
A burst of juice from a stray shard of okporoko, with its unmistakeable, pungent taste filled my mouth. I nodded and said a quiet prayer of gratitude to my ancestors who I knew then still smiled warmly on their son. After carefully selecting and setting aside the usual obstructions—cubed beef, dried fish, okporoko, and so on—I was still able to enjoy this piece of fish without reaching into my priceless hoard.
It is the mark of an experienced professional to cook the soup so as to achieve that perfect consistency which allows that each scoop of soup contains within itself some memory of the end, the last act, the conclusion to the whole business. It was clear that the dried fish and okporoko had been introduced at such a time, in such a manner, and in sufficient profusion as to ensure that each quantity of afang one summoned never arrived unaccompanied, never met the palette unescorted.
But I get ahead of myself. At this stage I had just entered a spiritual seance when I noticed a strange phenomenon: There was no periwinkle.
What was this provocation? How did this cook, of whom I had thought in such reverential tones only a few moments ago, think it fit to prepare afang without periwinkle? I must admit that I was so gravely offended by this realisation that it threatened to capsize the canoe on which hitherto I had sailed on a river of perfect bliss.
“Nobody does anything properly anymore,” I said aloud.
I put my hand down in despair, careful not to ensure my fingers did not touch table. The dark mood, slowly enveloping me like the shroud of an evil, giant mkpokporo, threatened me with absolute ruin in that hot room. I heard the NEPA horn blare and the fridge and deep freezer compressors kick-in to return the salute. But even this, this smile from the Nigerian Goddess of Electricity (she who is the protector of sleepers, scourge of the generators, ancient of days) failed to lift my spirits. I sat staring with glazed eyes into that cereal bowl.
Then it appeared. I blinked hard to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. But it was plainly there: a green-blue slug glistening under the light of a low voltage energy-saving bulb. I picked it up and placed it in my mouth and chewed gently. Confirmation! I fingered the plate feverishly looking for other signs and there they were all around! It had all been an unfortunate trick of the mind. Where I had been looking for the hardened shells of the periwinkle, I had not allowed the possibility that its less noble de-shelled relatives may be standing in substitute. The gods did indeed smile on me. In a moment, the storm had passed, I was back at the head of the canoe sailing calmly home, sailing towards the sun which sank behind the palm trees.
After the festivities of looking for the elusive periwinkles, I was in no mood to delay the final entree for much longer. I picked one piece of cubed beef, topped it with some of the leftover soup, then delivered it all into my mouth. I chewed for as long as the thing would emit its juices. Next, it was time for the kpomo: one kpomo, two kpomo, three, all boiled to perfection, not too soft, not too hard, not too thick, not too thin. Towel came after, then the dried fish, then the snail, and finally, critically, historically, okporoko, the king of the soup. In this manner, I did as was expected, I preserved the ancient order of precedent set out by my forefathers’ forefathers when they sat in the distant past to decide the order in which the obstructions of a well-appointed plate of soup are to be absorbed.
To complete the ritual, I placed the now cold cereal bowl on top of the flat plate now littered with bones and other detritus. I downed a glass of cold water. I was starting to realise that I was getting cold. Gone was the sweat and humidity, replaced by a hypnotic feeling of satisfaction and contentment. I could feel the approaching state we call Itis. I picked up the tray and left it by the sink, making sure to empty the bones in the bin then soaking the plates in water so that it could be washed easily later. I washed my hands and applied hand cream, which left them supple and smelling faintly of stock fish and lemon.
The room upstairs was ice cold. I had forgotten that I had left the AC on that morning, but it was all as it had been ordained, wasn’t it? I climbed into the bed and laid in it for a minute thinking of nothing in particular. I listened and all I heard was the hum of the AC and the banging from the construction site next door, something which usually annoyed me to no end, but in my present state of intense itis, I found not at all disagreeable. My thoughts drifted to the new year coming. I prayed. I prayed to the Christian God. I prayed to my ancestors. And I asked the Goddess of Electricity to give me smooth tidings even if it was only for the next two hours.
I shut my eyes and slept.