I went back to work and finished the last tax year. Like the rest, no errors. That, in and of itself, was amazing. Books this clean were usually done by professionals. The FIRS can dig as deep as they desired, there was nothing to find. Shade was pleased to hear my summary. I could still see a little fear behind her eyes, but the FIRS had a tendency to do that.
“Do you remember Dolapo?” I asked pointing at the charity ball ledger.
“Sorry, there are lots of attendees and most of them bring cheque from their friends.” Shade’s eyes went sad. “I’m sure she was lovely, I can see her in you.” I could only nod at that. Dolapo was certainly lovely.
Fabio joined me for dinner once again and he told me about his day. There was an accident on the bridge that marred his time keeping, but, other than that, it was the same day as always.
Jummai sat down next to me, her face all crinkly with her smile. I guessed I had become a regular and was considered safe. Fabio placed my fish on her plate. I gave him a confused look. I had never seen him give up a fish. I thought maybe he was hitting on Jummai.
“Jummai got me new shoes,” Fabio said, nearly bringing his leg and a HSE boot up on the table.
“Nice one, Jummai,” I said as I admired the nearly new treads on the sole.
The boots did look warm and I knew Fabio saw the value. It was strange how my priorities were changing. A month ago, I would have just run out and bought a pair if I wanted boots. Now, I was slightly envious. Shade snuck up on us again. This time it wasn’t to speak to Fabio.
“Thank you for all your work, Frank” Shade put a bottle of zobo on the table for me. I just stared at it, not knowing what to say.
“I thought you liked zobo,” Shade said with pain in her voice. She started to reach out to take it back. She couldn’t have known. I reached it before she did and pulled it close and forced a smile.
“It’s perfect. It was just unexpected.” Thank you.” I glanced back at her. She was wearing a grin that spanned the whole room. She turned and went back to her duties on the line, her blue flowered skirt floating across the floor as she moved. Jummai giggled and shared a stupid look with Fabio.
“It’s just a thank you,” I said, exasperated. Jummai went back to eating. Fabio just smiled at me. I spent a good five minutes examining the zobo. Fond memories of Dolapo washed through me.
I refused to be in a mournful mood. I smiled at my memories. It was well chilled and tasted wonderful. The irony of the day was not lost on me, finding Dolapo’s name in the journal and the zobo. There was pain, but there were also good memories. I decided to concentrate on the memories that shown brightest. The pain would have to take a backseat.
“Thanks for the zobo.” Shade was busy watching the hall as I spoke. She turned to me with an honest smile. She really needed to smile more and so did I.
“Your time is done here,” Shade said cheerfully, “what will you do with your day?” I looked around the room and felt a kind of affinity towards the place. I hadn’t been here long, but I was comfortable here, for now.
“The work here is kind of therapeutic. I wouldn’t mind staying on if you can use me.” Shade looked at me with curiosity. I could almost see her thinking. It wasn’t the reaction I expected.
“Food preparation or the line?” Shade asked when her mind was made up.
“The line. Might as well learn it all,” I said honestly. Shade laughed before she spoke.
“1 o’ clock, you’ll just love the cleaning.” Shade had a mischievous grin on her face. I had seen it on another woman before. I smiled graciously, somewhat wishing I would have said food preparation.
Cleaning up was really a task. Shade was adamant about sanitation. Nothing was clean until she inspected it and it usually didn’t pass on the first inspection. Luckily, there were four of us so the work wasn’t totally oppressing. I washed hundreds of plates, pots and pans, a lot of them more than once. The floor was done twice. She seemed to relish finding issues when I thought I was done. I think she took my volunteerism as a challenge.
I spent the next four weeks learning the hard part of running the kitchen. Shade began to trust me to manage the deliveries. She was hesitant at first and I don’t believe she had ever allowed anyone else to do it in the past. The first time she watched me like a hawk. It was simple stock control to me, but to her it was like lopping off an arm. Reluctantly, she began to trust I wasn’t going to screw it all up.
We would receive both ordered goods and donated goods. The donated had a very short shelf life, the reason the supermarkets donated them in the first place. It was priority that these short-lived items found a place on the next day’s food and everything was visibly marked so nothing expired would ever find its way onto a plate.
I watched Shade develop food menus. This was something she would never relinquish control over. It was as much art as science. The expiration dates drove some of it and experience drove the rest. She worked up to five days in advance, solidifying a day’s menu as it drew near. It was not something you could easily automate. There were food clashes that needed to be avoided and last minute donations that needed to be squeezed in. She allowed me to watch, but laughed when I offered to help. This menu was her domain and it would take an uncontrollable situation to drag it away.
The situation arrived a week later. I walked into work to find Shade, pale and sweating, slumped on the kitchen stool trying to work on the menus. Her eyes were bloodshot and I could tell she hadn’t slept the night before. She looked absolutely miserable.
“Go home,” I said compassionately.
“I can’t, there are much to do.” Shade covered her mouth with her hand when she spoke. Her voice was raspy like something was stuck in her throat.
“Give me the keys,” I said forcibly, “and go home. You’re going to get everyone sick.” I think it was the thought of contamination that finally convinced her. Reluctantly, she handed me the keys.
“I promised Richard,” Shade said softly while looking around. It was important to her that I understood why she was here, as sick as she was. I understood, maybe the only one who could.
“I will make sure the promise is kept.” I said it with conviction because I meant it. When Shade’s hesitant red eyes meet mine, I added, “I promise.” Her eyes sparkled for a moment as she held my gaze.
“Thank you.” Shade moved off hesitantly.
I ran the City Kitchen for the next three days. I had to send Shade home every morning those three days. I made it easy for her to leave, everything was in perfect shape and I was the picture of confidence. It couldn’t have been father from the truth. I had no idea how Shade did it seven days a week. I felt like I was being pulled in ten directions at once. Workers didn’t show, deliveries were late, menus didn’t fit supplies and clean up done later than it should. I messed up on the first day sending the next two days’ menus into turmoil.
The days were long and gruelling. Shade had made it look so easy. With the help of some of the more experienced volunteers, we were able to pull it together at the last minute. ‘I Need An Angel’ always played at 4:00 and people were fed. I was a stressed mess.
Shade took back the reins on the fourth day. She smiled at the obvious relief on my face. I confessed it all, the problems, the botched menus and the overall mismanagement. She walked around inspecting the kitchen as I explained the problems that still needed solving. She ended in front of me as I explained about things I threw away because I didn’t use it in time.
“Did anyone leave hungry?” Shade asked calmly.
“Well no, but…” Shade didn’t let me finish. She went up on toes and kissed my forehead.
“Thank you, David. You did wonderfully.” Shade’s smile burst through my misgivings. I let out the breath I was holding and stopped the tirade of my failures.
“I’m glad you’re back,” I admitted as I handed her the keys. It felt really good to put the place back on her shoulders. She was even stronger than I had given her credit for. The kiss was a little disturbing. I could still feel the impression her soft lips left. I was happy when she sent me to reset the tables for the day.
Three days later the FIRS invaded. A black-suited field agent with two similarly-suited accountants descended on Shade’s books. It was a witch hunt. Normally, an auditor would look at significant transactions and a random sampling of others. These three did as I had done and checked every transaction and journal entry. Each, and every, bank statement for the last three years was scrutinized. The questions were insulting and bordered on acquisitions. My indignation was already sky high when the audit came to a close.
“We will assemble our findings and you will be notified within two weeks of the results,” the head field agent said. His name was Tade Ibirogba. I could see the frustration on his face. I suspected he wanted to find glaring problems.
“You don’t foresee any issues, do you?” I asked, thinking I already knew the answer.
“We will make a formal response only.” Tade’s face was not friendly as he packed up his note pad and calculator. My anger was growing. The FIRS was always a pain, but usually polite.
“You must have some idea,” I added with my hands on my hips. Tade looked at me from head to toe, then at Shade with more than a bit of disdain.
“I recommend you secure proper guidance.” Tade closed his file folder and started walking out. It was all I could do not to take a swing at him. His words told me they intended to find problems. I couldn’t imagine it would get anywhere in the long run, but they were going to pull Shade through the ringer.
“What are they going to do?” Shade asked. I saw fear in her eyes.
“I’m not sure, but it won’t be good.” I didn’t have the heart to lie to her. “In the long run, nothing will come of it. I’m just not sure how long the long run is.” Shade looked ill. She seemed to be taking it as a personal failure.
“We’ll get through this.” I thought the words would be comforting. Shade found them shocking.
“We!” It was the first time I had heard Shade raise her voice. “There is no ‘we.’ It’s me they are attacking. You’re just some guy who dropped out. You risk nothing and then walk away clean.” She raised a hand to shoo me away and returned to the kitchen. She returned to work, making sure not to look my way. It was time I left. I just didn’t know where to go.
I left as quietly as I could, unseen. Shade was right, I could just walk away. I walked for the rest of the evening, my stomach churning with bile. I thought I saw friendship in Shade, I thought I could help. I had done nothing but raise her hopes, only to watch them get flung from a bridge.
That night was cold. The seasons were changing and I wasn’t ready. I huddled sleeplessly in a warehouse entrance down the street, trying to avoid the wind. I closed my eyes and tried to see Dolapo, build her face in my mind. I saw only Shade, hating me. I shivered with my knees tucked tightly to my chest. I wanted my wallet, keys and phone back. I wanted Dolapo and my life back. The shaking increased, memories of my first wet day under the bridge. The cement I was sitting on did me no favours. I nodded in and out.
The air tasted colder than it should. I realized my nose was non-functional and dripping mucus. My body had caught up with my soul, both feeling horrible. Maybe it was time I went home. I didn’t like the idea, not with all the memories, but I knew I wasn’t built for the streets or to become homeless. I was no Fabio, not strong enough. I needed sleep. Then, I could do what was needed, whatever that was. I tried to cough, but my lungs argued about it and decided to remain clogged. At least the shaking had stopped.
I stumbled forward for blocks. Directions were muddled and I wasn’t sure if I was going the correct way. It was still dark and traffic was minimal. Fabio would know what time it was. I laughed at that, me and my university degree easily shown up by an uneducated homeless man with bad teeth. My laughing didn’t sound right, way too throaty. A laughing frog came to mind which made me laugh more. I had to stop with my hands on my knees to catch my breath. It felt good to laugh, but I knew it was sapping my energy. I had to find a place to sleep. I found a church, God’s Promise Evangelical Fire Church this time. What a name? It was just a small building consist of woods and corrugated iron sheet.
Thank God it was warmer. I curled up against the corner away from the cold. It was better than the cement. I closed my eyes and Shade’s image formed in my mind. I was puzzled why it wasn’t Dolapo’s as I drifted off to sleep.
It was music that woke me. It entered as a dream on the tip of my memory and then the dream faded away. I was late, late for dinner. I sat up too quickly and ended up in a small coughing fit. When my eyes focused, I was in an office I knew well. Shade’s office. I could hear ‘I Need An Angel’ playing and the general noise of food being served. It was muted by the closed door, but it was obvious it was 4:00. I was on a fold out cot with two thick blankets now bunched up on my lap.
I wasn’t sure how I ended up at the City Kitchen. I remembered finally finding the small church building and trying to get some sleep. In hindsight, it seemed like a silly decision to sleep outside last night. I should have gone to the bridge to see Fabio. I still wasn’t good at dealing with pain. I stood and coughed some more. My feet were steady, but my head felt like a brick. My nose was stuffed up and I could feel thickness in my eyes. I must have found my way back here. Shade must be really pissed. I had to stop this stupid self-loathing homeless poo and get my life back.
…to be continued