Begin, inevitably, with Uncle.
There you are, eleven, alone in the study in the dark in a cool pool of moonlight at the window. The party is in full swing on the back lawn outside. Half of Accra must be out there. In production. Some fifty-odd tables dressed in white linen table skirts, the walls at the periphery all covered in lights, the swimming pool glittering with tea lights in bowls bobbing lightly on the surface of the water, glowing green. The smells of things – night-damp earth, open grill, frangipani trees, citronella – seep in through the window, slightly cracked. You tap the glass lightly and wave your hand, testing, but no one looks up. They can’t see for the dark. It rained around four for five minutes and not longer; now the sky is rich black for its cleansing. Beneath it a soukous band shows off the latest from Congo, the lead singer wailing in French and Lingala.
She ought to be ridiculous: little leopard-print shorts, platform heels, hot-pink half-top, two half-arms of bangles. Instead, wet with sweat and moon, trembling, ascendant, all movement and muscle, she is fearsome. It is a heart-wrenching voice, cutting straight through the din of the chatter, forced laughter, clinked glasses, the crickets. She is shaking her shoulders, hips, braided extensions. She has the most genuine intentions of any woman out there.
Their bright bubas adorn the large garden like odd brilliant bulbs that bloom only at night. From the dark of the study you watch with the interest of a scientist observing a species. A small one. Rich African women, like Japanese geisha in wax-batik geles, their skin bleached too light. They are strange to you, strange to the landscape, the dark, with the same polished skill-set of rich women worldwide: how to smile with full lips while the eyes remain empty; how to hate with indifference; how to love without heat. You wonder if they find themselves beautiful, or powerful? Or perplexing, as they seem to you, watching from here?
The young ones sit mutely, sipping foam off their Maltas, waiting to be asked to dance by the men in full suits, shoving cake into their mouths when they’re sure no one’s looking (it rained around four; no one sees for the dark). The bolder ones preening, little Aunties-in-training, being paraded around the garden, introduced to parents’ friends. ‘This is Abena, our eldest, just went up to Oxford.’ ‘This is Maame, the lawyer. She trained in the States.’Then the push from the mother, the tentative handshake. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. How is your son?’ You wonder if they enjoy it. You can’t tell by watching. They all wear the same one impenetrable expression: eyebrows up, lips pushed out, nostrils slightly flared in poor imitation of the 1990s supermodel. It is a difficult expression to pull off successfully, the long-suffering look of women bored with being looked at. The girls in the garden look more startled than self-satisfied, as if their features are shocked to be forming this face.
But their dresses.
What dresses. They belong on the cake trays: as bright, sweet and frothy as frosted desserts, the lacy ‘up-and-downs’ with sequins, tiny mirrors and bell sleeves, the rage in Accra this Christmas. It’s the related complications – tying the gele, the headwrap; wrapping then trying to walk in the ankle-length skirt; the troubling fact that you haven’t got hips yet to showcase – that puts you off them.
You can barely manage movement in the big one-piece buba you borrowed from Comfort, your cousin, under duress. The off-the-shoulder neckline keeps slipping to your elbow, exposing your (troublingly) flat chest. Absent breasts, the hem drags and gets caught underfoot, a malfunction exacerbated by your footwear, also Comfort’s: gold leather stilettos two sizes too small with a thick crust of sequins and straps of no use. You’ve been tripping and falling around the garden all evening, with night-damp earth sucking at the heels of the shoes, the excess folds of the buba sort of draped around your body, making you look like a black Statue of Liberty. Except: the Statue of Liberty wears those comfortable sandals and doesn’t get sent to go fetch this and that – which is how you’ve now found yourself alone in the study, having stumbled across the garden, being noticed as you went: little pretty thing, solitary, making haste for the house with the shuffle-shuffle steps of skinny girls in women’s shoes; and why you tripped as you entered, snagging the hem with your heel, the cloth yanked from your chest as you fell to the rug.
And lay. The dry quiet a sharp sudden contrast to the wet of the heat and the racket outside. And as sharply and as suddenly, the consciousness of nakedness. Eve, after apple.
Your bare breastless chest.
How strange to feel naked in a room not your own, and not stepping from the bath into the humidity’s embrace, but here cold and half naked in the leather-scented darkness, remembering the morning, the rain around four. This was moments ago (nakedness) as you lay, having fallen, the conditioned air chilly and silky against your chest. Against your nipples. Two points you’d never noticed before but considered very deeply now: nipples. And yours. The outermost boundaries of a body, the endpoints, where the land of warm skin meets the sea of cold air. Shore. You lay on your back in the dark on the floor, like that, newly aware of your nipples.
Presently, the heart-wrenching voice floating up from the garden, ‘Je t’aime, mon amour. Je t’attends.’ You sat up. You listened for a moment, as if to a message, then kicked off the sandals and stood to your feet. You went to the window and looked at the singer, in flight on the stage, to the high note. ‘Je t’attends!
So it is that you’re here at the window when, five minutes later, he enters the room, his reflection appearing dimly on the window before you, not closing the door in the silvery dark. You think of the houseboys with their lawn chairs in an oval reading Othello in thick accents, Uncle watching with pride. Demand me nothing: what you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word. (Likely not. With the thing come together, the pattern emerging, the lines, circles, secrets, lies, hurts, back to this, here, the study, where else, given the fabric, the pattern, the stars. What to say?)
From the start.
The day began typically: with the bulbul in the garden, with the sound of Auntie shouting about this or about that, with your little blue bedroom catching fire with sunlight and you waking up from the dream. In it, your mother is bidding you farewell at the airport. This first part is exactly what happened that day. You are eight years old, skinny, in the blue gingham dress with a red satin bow in your braids and brown shoes. Uncle is in the terminal presumably buying your tickets. You are waiting with your mother on the sidewalk outside. She is crouching beside you with her hand on your shoulder, a wild throng of people jostling around and against you. Her fingernails are painted a hot crimson red. You are noticing this.
Blood on your shoulder.
Meanwhile, a stranger with a camera is trying to take a picture. She doesn’t know your first name so keeps calling out, ‘Child!’ You’ve never once thought of yourself as this – ‘child’ – neither a child nor someone’s; you’ve always simply been you. A smallish human being by the side of a larger one, both with neat braids with small beads at the ends; both slim (well, one skinny) with dark knobbly kneecaps; one never without lipstick, the other never allowed. In the dream, as it happened, you ignore the photographer. ‘Child!’ she calls louder. A dark, smoker’s voice. Finally you look up in the hope of some silence.
‘Smile!’ She, unsmiling.
You consider, but frown.
Your mother pulls you close to her, so close you can taste her, the scent of her lotion delicious, a lie. It’s a sensory betrayal the taste of this lotion, the smell on your taste buds not roses at all. A chalky taste, heavy and soapy as wax. You suck it in greedily. Swallowing it.
Her braids are tied back with an indigo scarf, the tail of which billows up, covering her face. The scarf is tied tightly, pulling her skin towards her temples, making her cheekbones jut out like a carved Oyo mask. The red on her lips contrasts the indigo perfectly, as the man who bought the scarf would have no doubt foreseen. Not for the first time you think that your mother is the most beautiful woman in Lagos . . . well . . . quite likely in the world, but you’ve never left Lagos and it hasn’t begun to dawn on you that you will. That Uncle is in the terminal buying only two tickets, that she’s not coming with you, that she hasn’t said why. You don’t think to ask. At this moment, here beside you, your mother is unquestionable. You simply don’t ask. In the dream, as it happened, she kisses you quickly, her lips to your ear, and says, ‘Do as you’re told.’ The stranger presses a button and the flash goes off – POP! – and your mother turns – POOF! – into air.
In the liminal space between dreaming and waking (into which enters shouting, about this or about that) you started to scream but the feel of the sound taking form in your throat woke you fully.
You wet the bed.
Now the terror passed over, with the cold in your fingers, the echo of POP! and your heart pounding, hard. To almost precisely the same beat someone leaned on a horn – HONK, HONK, HONK – at the front gates outside. You fumbled for the photo you keep under your pillow as an antidote of sorts to the dream (or the waking): the sepia shot of your mother and you, with her crouched so you’re both the same height, cheek to cheek. The wildness of Lagos is an odd, knee-high backdrop: passing cars, people’s legs, soldiers’ boots, cripples, trash. But when you look at it now you see only your mother. The scarf blowing forward and hiding her face. She is sending you to live with your uncle ‘for a while’. No one has heard from her since.
You wouldn’t say your mother ‘abandoned’ you exactly; it was Uncle’s idea that you come. It was the least he could do, the elder brother, her only sibling, after all that she’d been through, abandoned, pregnant and the rest. You’ve heard the Sad Story in pieces and whispers, from visitors from the village, whence the rumours began: that your mother got married and is living in Abuja with no thanks to Uncle and no thought of you. Not for a minute do you believe what they say. They are villagers, cruel like your grandmother.
As told to you:
Dzifa (missing mother) was born eight years after Uncle in Lolito, a village on the Volta. Their father, a fisherman, was drowned in the river the day after Dzifa was born. Their mother, your grandmother, for obvious reasons decided her daughter was cursed. Uncle, unconvinced, worshipped and adored his little sister and the two were inseparable growing up. Dzifa was beautiful, preternaturally so, shining star of the little Lolito schoolhouse. But your grandmother, believer in boys-only education and a product of the same, withdrew her daughter from school. Your mother, infuriated, ran away from Lolito and hitchhiked her way to Nigeria. In the same years Uncle won the scholarship to study in Detroit and left Ghana, himself, for a time. Dzifa found her way to, and met your father in, Lagos (a privilege – meeting your father – that you’ve never had). An alto saxophonist in an Afro-funk band, he left when he learned she was pregnant.
The brother/sister reunion came some seven years later when business brought Uncle to Lagos. You were living at the time in a thirteenth-floor hotel room, free of charge, care of the hotel proprietor. His name was Sinclair. At least that’s what they called him. This may have been his surname; you were never really sure. He was ginger-haired, Scottish, born in Glasgow, raised in Jos, son of tin miners-cum-missionaries, tall and loud, freckled, fat. On the nights that he visited, at midnight or later, he’d hand you a mango, smiling stiffly. ‘Go and play.’
It was always a mango, with perfect gold skin, which he’d pass palm to palm before tossing to you. He was stingy with his mangoes, barking at the kitchen staff in the morning to use more orange slices and pineapple cubes in the breakfast buffet. His face blazed an unnatural pink when he shouted, like the colour of his hair, or his skin after visits. (You were shocked when you moved here to find mangoes more perfect growing freely on the tree in the garden.) You’d go to the pool, glowing green in the darkness. The sounds of the highway, of Lagos at night. There were no guests or hotel staff at the pool after midnight. No sweating waiters in suits with mixed drinks on silver trays. No thin women in swimsuits, their skin seared to crimson, their offspring peeing greenly in the water. Only you. Still now there is something about those nights that you miss; maybe the promise of your mother in the morning? Hard to say.
On the night Uncle found her she was circling the lounge like the liquor fairy, topping up vodka and Scotch. You were behind the bar reading Beezus and Ramona, recently abandoned by some American. Ex libris: Michelle. It was a Friday, you remember: Fela blasting, men shouting, the lounge packed, Sinclair smiling, counting cash, your mother’s laugh. Then abruptly, glass smashing, a comparative silence, the extraction of human voice from the ongoing din. The resumption of talking. You looked. There was Uncle. She was staring at him, mouth agape, shards at her feet. ‘You,’ he was saying softly, then hugging her tightly. Over and over and over. ‘Dzifa. You.’ You’d never seen him before that night. You wondered how he knew her name. Sinclair wondered too and rushed over now, shouting, ‘DON’T TOUCH HER!’ while you watched, considering Uncle.
Your mother said nothing. After a moment she smiled. Too bright to be real. Too beautiful to be fake. After the hugging and weeping and telling it all Uncle insisted she return to Ghana. She refused. A compromise. Uncle would take ‘the child’ to Accra and when your mother was ready she would join you. You packed. Uncle and a woman, a fair-skinned Nigerian, the photographer, drove you to the airport. You’d never been. The woman smoked cigarettes. You’d seen her at the hotel once, her hands and neck darker than her bleaching-creamed face. Your mother was silent, gazing away, out the window, her eyes black and final as freshly poured tar. You were pressed up against her, so close you could breathe her, the taste of rose lotion breaking the promise of its smell.
Then Murtala Muhammed: the arriving, the departing, the begging, the crippled, the trash and the throng. Smile! Pop! Poof! Here you are three years later. End of Sad Story.
You set down the photo and glanced out the window. The caterers had arrived with the party decor. A large painted banner on the back of their truck read Mary Christmas! in red and green letters. You laughed. Only then did you realize that you’d peed in the bed, as happens when the dream is most vivid. The warmth of the wet spot turned cold on the backs of your thighs.
Auntie screamed, ‘You illiterates!’
‘Please, oh, I beg,’ one of the caterers placated.
‘It’s m-e-r-r-y. Merry Christmas.’
‘Yes, Madame. Mary,’ the caterer assured.
‘No! That says “Mary”. The mother of Jesus.’
‘Jesus is Christmas.’ As if he’d heard it somewhere.
Auntie sucked her teeth. ‘May He help me.’ The voices carried up from the gates into your room as you wiped off the backs of your legs with a towel. You detached the fitted sheet from the narrow twin bed and carried it, embarrassed, to the washroom.
Ruby was there sucking her teeth at the washer. She prefers to clean clothing the old way, by hand. Auntie will hear nothing of primary-coloured plastic buckets (‘You’re not in backwater bloody Lolito still, are you?’). Uncle bought the washer on his last trip to London, along with the blue jeans you’ve cut into shorts. He’d meant them for Comfort but they didn’t quite fit as she’s put on weight studying at Oxford. Auntie, who refuses to travel to Britain, waited for the delivery as for a prodigal child. (Auntie calls London ‘too grey’ for her taste. Comfort says Auntie feels ‘too black’ abroad. Whatever the case, none of your neighbours have machines as impressive as the one in the washroom. Ruby would say there’s a reason for that but, like you, Ruby does as she’s told. It was triumph enough when the washer’s noisy brother, the dryer, was sold off for parts. The whirring contraption put too great a strain on the power supply, waning in Ghana.)
Ruby was dressed in the same thing as always: a T-shirt extolling the world to ‘Drink Coke!’ with a thin printed lappa and black chale-watas, the flip-flops Auntie buys in bulk for staff. No one seems to mind much that you wear them also. Comfort would ‘nevah deign’ to. (Nevah, without the ‘r’.)
‘Good morning, Ruby.’
Ruby said nothing. Frowning with her eyebrows but not with her eyes. She stands like this often, with her hands on her hips, bony elbows pushed back like a fledgling set of wings. She is pretty to you, Ruby, though her appearance is jarring, the eyes of a griot in the face of a girl. It’s an odd mix of features: pointy chin, jutting cheekbones, tiny nose, initiation scars, village emblems. It’s hard to tell what age she is. Her eyes have the look of a century of seeing. They say she lost a child once. (Which would certainly explain it. In the peculiar hierarchy of African households the only rung lower than motherless child is childless mother.)
‘Fine,’ she said finally. She held out her hand. You gave her the sheet, which she shoved into the washer. She closed the windowed door and looked, scowling, at the buttons, unsure which to press, too proud to say so. You came up beside her, pressed ‘Gentle Cycle’. Silence. The washer, as advertised, sprang noiselessly to life. Ruby gasped, startled, stepping backwards. ‘Eh-hehn!’ You stepped back, too, to be next to her.
And stood. Shoulder to shoulder, like a couple viewing a painting. Whites in the window of the washer, sheets and shirts. The cloth twisting beautifully like the arms and long legs of the National? Theatre dancers dancing silently in soap. Ruby sucked her teeth, repeated ‘Fine’, and left the washroom. She returned a moment later with a clean fitted sheet. You took this, folded neatly and smelling of Fa soap.
You said, ‘Thank you.’
Ruby said, ‘Hmph.’ (But her eyes said, ‘You’re welcome,’ and, briefly, she smiled. She is beautiful when she smiles. It isn’t often.)
From the washroom to the kitchen at the side of the house, the sun slanting in through the windows.
The door was propped open to the buzzing of flies and the symphony of the sounds of the houseboys in the morning: Kofi hanging the washing Ruby brings out to dry, blasting Joy FM on his transistor radio; Francis’s little paring knife dancing on the chopping board, a staccato cross-beat to the bass lines outside; Iago, né Yaw, soaping the Benz in the driveway with the sloshing of cloth in the bucket of suds; and George, grumpy gatekeeper, at the end of his duties, eating puff-puff he buys at the side of the road. Your breakfast was laid on the small wooden table: one scallop-sliced pawpaw and lime wedge as always. Francis was frying kelewele for Comfort (her favourite) in honour of her first morning home. She’s been in Boston for an exchange programme at Harvard since August. After Christmas she’ll go up to Oxford again.
‘Good morning, Francis.’
‘Oui. C’est ça,’ his standard answer, smiling, Francis, gentle giant, six foot six, a most unlikely cook. He’d been working in Accra’s finest restaurant, Chez Guy, when Uncle discovered his pissaladière. To the dismay of his employer, the eponymous Guy, Uncle made Francis a better offer. His parents are Ewe, his mother from Togo, his English much weaker than his French, even now. ‘Did you sleep good?’
‘How could one?’ Comfort. Appearing at the door in her slippers.
She padded into the kitchen, stretching her arms with a yawn. ‘With Mother bloody yelling – is that kelewele I smell?’
‘Oui. C’est ça.’
‘Oh, how good of you, Francis.’ With the exaggerated British accent. Frawn-sis.
‘Je t’en pris.’
She plopped herself down at the table across from you. Reached for a slice of your pawpaw and sighed. ‘And you, little lady.’
‘Good morning. As skinny as ever. She only eats fruit.’ Comfort picked up the lime wedge and sucked on it, rueful. ‘Is Daddy awake?’
Francis frowned. ‘Oui. C’est ça.’
Auntie and Uncle take their breakfast on the veranda or in the dining room with linen and china and silver. Comfort and you have always eaten in the kitchen, the small one, at the rickety wood table like this. The arrangement dates back to the morning you arrived after the short Virgin flight from Nigeria. As he tells it, Uncle ushered you proudly into the dining room for breakfast. You don’t remember any of these details. You wouldn’t look up from your plate, as Francis tells it; you just sat there, mute, mango on fork tines. After Uncle tried unsuccessfully to sell you on an omelette Francis intervened, uncharacteristically. He lifted you carefully out of the dining-room chair and carried you into his kitchen. Like that. Silent, he placed you at the small wooden table and returned to his work pounding yam. For the next week you refused to eat any meal at all unless seated in ‘Francis’s kitchen’, so-called. Auntie had a massive new kitchen installed off the first-floor pantry this summer. No one but Auntie much likes the new kitchen, though it’s nicer, says Francis, than Guy’s. Francis still insists upon preparing for meals – shelling beans, gutting fish – in ‘his’ kitchen.
‘Bon. We couldn’t well let you starve,’ Auntie tells it. ‘However pedestrian to eat with the help.’ Comfort assumed she was missing something special, characteristically, and demanded to join you. When Auntie said no, Comfort refused to eat also, so Uncle said yes, but only breakfast.
Iago appeared presently at the door to the kitchen. He is the best-looking houseboy, you think. There’s been talk of a liaison between Iago and Ruby but you don’t believe a word they say. First, Ruby never smiles and Iago never stops: perfect teeth, strong and white, and one dimple. Second, she lost a child. Third, you’re in love. (And what would they know about love in this house?) In addition to the beauty, and there is no other word for it – he’s beautiful in the way that a woman is, insistent – he is clever. The cleverest of all, according to Uncle, who just last Monday said as much during Reading Group.
Uncle started the Shakespeare Reading Group last winter, with the dust like fine sugar on the grass, in the air. Auntie thinks it’s ridiculous – ‘Houseboys reading Shakespeare? I mean, really . . .’ – but defers to him on this as on everything. Uncle’s secretary Akosua makes the photocopies in his office then brings them to the house wrapped in paper. Kofi drags the lawn chairs into an oval by the pool, carrying out an armchair from the living room for Uncle.
They started with Othello. You found a copy in the study from Comfort’s final year at Ghana International School. You read it in one sitting, seated cross-legged by the bookshelf. Uncle appeared so silently you didn’t hear him. At some point you stopped reading and there he was. Uncle: arms folded, leaning lightly against the door frame. You uncrossed your legs quickly, fumbling to get to your feet, trying to think up an excuse for being in there. No one’s forbidden you to enter the study – as you’re forbidden, for example, to enter Auntie and Uncle’s room – but no one’s exactly invited you, either. It’s your favourite room in the house.
On the one occasion Auntie caught you reading she said nothing. She was passing by your door on her way down the stairs. You were upright in bed by the window for light, reading Comfort’s House of Mirth. She had a bottle of Scotch. She started to speak, hiding the bottle, then stopped. You pretended not to notice the bottle. She was staring at the tie-dye that’s taped to your wall, as if suddenly transfixed by the pattern. You considered her. It was a new way of seeing her, your own gaze unnoticed, staring straight at her face while she gazed past, through yours. She looked young without make-up and tired. Even soft. The cream-satin nightdress, sponge rollers.
‘That’s Ruby’s lappa, isn’t it.’ A statement, not a question.
‘She gave me the cloth, for decoration,’ you said.
‘That was kind of her,’ Auntie said. ‘Ruby . . .’ Then stopped. You waited for her to finish. She didn’t. She stared at the tie-dye cloth (Ruby’s old lappa, a worn piece of wax batik, blue with white stars, sort of misshapen stars, more like starfish), saying nothing, then abruptly looked away, as if remembering you were there. She said, ‘You’ll strain your eyes, reading in the dark like that.’
You didn’t mention that you don’t have a lamp. ‘Yes, Madame.’
But she didn’t forbid you to enter the study. You did and found the battered Othello. You were there sitting cross-legged when Uncle appeared at the door and you half tried to stand.
‘Don’t get up.’
His voice was so gentle, just barely a whisper, as if speaking too loudly might cause you to rise. ‘Please, don’t get up.’ He laughed softly. He sighed. ‘You look just like your mother.’ He told you to keep Comfort’s copy of Othello. He invited you to Shakespeare Reading Group that week. You went to the garden, read the part of Desdemona. The pool brilliant blue in the late-morning light.
George read Brabantio. Francis read Roderigo. Iago read Iago. But his name then was Yaw.
The best-looking houseboy, indeed.
It’s the skin that seems edible, that insists upon being looked at, less the colour than the consistency, the constancy, and the eyes. You’ve only ever seen such eyes on Ashanti men with slender builds. Those narrow, twinkling, inky eyes, as thin and angled as Asians’.
Yaw made his announcement at the end of the hour with his hand on his packet as if the play were a Bible. ‘From this day forth my name will be Iago.’ Uncle asked why. ‘He is strongest,’ Yaw said.
Kofi raised his hand. ‘Yes, sir?’ Uncle said.
Kofi looked at Yaw, almost pityingly. Sighed. ‘The king is strongest.’
‘Impeccable logic. But Yaw is correct.’ That one dimple. ‘Iago you wish to be, Iago you are.’
Iago, né Yaw, in the doorway.
‘Good morning,’ he said brightly, leaning into the kitchen. He held out the mangoes to Francis.
‘Good morning,’ you said softly, turning from the table to face him, losing your breath for a moment at the sight. Comfort said nothing, her mouth full of kelewele, blowing out air – ‘hot, hot, hot’ – as she chewed. As a rule she isn’t rude to the house staff (like Auntie) but she doesn’t ‘associate’ either. Even to Ruby, who was employed before Comfort was born, Comfort says little. The only employee you’ve ever heard her thank that one time is Francis. She barely seemed to notice Iago, back-lit, at the door.
‘You are welcome, Sister Comfort,’ he whispered. She looked. The sun from behind him seeped into her eyes. Seated across from her, you stared at her face.
You’d never seen this particular look in her eyes, which are dark brown and gentle, even flat sometimes, still. Not empty, as such – not like Ruby’s – but still, like the eyes of a cow, deep and sated. She looked up, saw Iago, and her eyes sort of flickered. Just the hint of a hardening.
‘Morring, Yaw.’ Her mouth full.
As you stare at her now through the wide picture window, looking down at the garden and your cousin in her lace, you think to yourself, as you thought at the table this morning, it’s a very pretty face. Sort of heart-shaped and plumpish with the cheeks of a cherub, the long curly lashes and small, pointy chin. Her lips look like pillows, some unique form of respite: top lip and bottom lip equal, together forming an ‘O’. She has Uncle’s flawless skin, the same sparkle and shade as the earth after rainfall, as shea-buttered soft. The skin on her collarbones and shoulders, in particular, is impossibly smooth, with a specific effect: that calm kind of loveliness unique to flat landscapes, to uninterrupted stretches of uniform terrain. Perhaps in the absence of the absolute standard that is Auntie, you’d call Comfort ‘beautiful’.
But there she is – Auntie – fluttering from table to round table, drawing all eyes and oxygen towards her, restless Monarch. She is somewhat less witch-like when viewed through the window. Merely beautiful beyond all reason. The long jet-black hair against skin that won’t tan, wide-set eyes and the warpaint of cheekbone. For a moment you wonder if it’s the beauty that’s aggressive, perhaps in spite of its owner, and not Auntie herself? Perhaps anyone so striking, so sharp on the outside, would appear to be hard on the inside as well?
Then Auntie stands straight and the moon gilds her up-and-down: white in a garden of colour, as foreseen. As you watch from the study Auntie flutters to Comfort, who is fussing with Kwabena, her fiancé. Auntie offers her cheeks, one then the other, to his kisses. Comfort steps back, for no reason; there is space. Kwabena begins gesturing, chatting animatedly with Auntie. Comfort sips foam off her Malta, gazes away.
She isn’t lovely near Auntie; you see this now, plainly. She couldn’t be lovely. She is too starkly lit. It isn’t that Auntie casts others in shadow, as you’ve often heard it said. It is the opposite. She is luminous. A floodlight on everything around it, in darkness. In an instant something lights Comfort’s eyes.
It is the same thing you saw for that moment this morning, the sun slanting in thick and golden as oil. That flash, like two fireflies in Comfort’s black pupils, while Iago wiped his hands on his trousers, looked down.
Francis finished crafting a blossom from an orange then turned his focus to scalloping mango. He gave the overripe mangoes to Iago as he does despite Auntie’s weekly speech on ‘free lunch’. You finished your pawpaw, surreptitiously watching Iago, his chale-watas wet still from washing the car. The pink tip of his tongue on the stringy-gold flesh, the wetness around his mouth, made your stomach drop down. A feeling very similar to wetting the bed when the dream is most vivid. The dampness and all.
Iago finished the mango and tossed the pit across the kitchen. It landed in the rubbish with a clatter. ‘Goooooooooooooooal!’ Francis called out like a football announcer. You giggled. Comfort slapped at a mosquito.
‘Is Madame in the garden?’ Iago asked, licking his fingers.
You nodded. ‘With the caterers.’
‘Bloody party,’ Comfort said. She considered the mosquito bite blooming on her arm. ‘Damn mosquitoes. Every Christmas. For what?’
‘I go and come.’ Iago, backing away from the door. He ran down the path along the side of the kitchen.
This scraggly grass walkway runs between the house and the Boys’ Quarters, the staff’s modest barracks, half hidden in brush. On the other side of the house is a wide pebbled walkway that winds from the gates to the garden at the back. This is how party guests access the garden. The house staff, forbidden, use the kitchen path. It scares you for some reason. Its dark smell of dampness, the wild, winding crawlers climbing the side of the house, the low-hanging tree branches twisted together like the skinny gnarled arms of a child with lupus. And, set back in shadow behind the tangle of branches, ominous and concrete, never touched by the sun: those three huddled structures with their one concrete courtyard where the houseboys sit on beer crates and eat after dark. If you’re passing the round window on the second-floor landing you can look down and make out their shadows at night. A cooking fire flickering against the black of the sky and their laughter in bursts, muted refrains. No one’s ever forbidden you to join them, to go back there. But no one’s ever invited you either. They scare you: the Boys’ Quarters, the trail through the thicket.
Iago disappeared down this path.
You took your plate to the sink, turned on the water to rinse it. Francis patted your head, took the plate, pushed you away. Your willingness to do housework is an oddity at Uncle’s, as the notion of house staff is an oddity to you. You who ate leftovers at the bar with the busboys at the end of each night while your mother drank rum; who helped maids on the mornings your mother was hung-over; eating left-behind chocolates and half-rotting fruit. But Ruby doesn’t need or want help with the washing. Iago will let you trail him reciting Othello across the lawn (he has memorized his part and no longer needs a script), as Kofi will abide your quiet audience. Francis will let you watch from the little wooden table while he skins and chops chicken in the afternoon light. But no one will allow you to do what you’re watching. It was Kofi who one day read from his script: ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind! Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.’ You’d been trying to hang your sheet on his line outside the kitchen. A breeze had kept billowing it up. Francis finished breakfast and arranged it on a tray. As if on cue, Ruby came into the kitchen, chale-watas slapping the concrete. She stopped when she saw Comfort. A small curtsy. She didn’t smile. ‘Miss Comfort. You are very welcome home.’
Ruby, to Francis: ‘Madame already took breakfast?’
He handed her the tray. ‘Only tea.’
‘Will she eat?’
‘She’s fasting for the party.’ Comfort sucked her teeth dramatically. ‘That’s my mother. Bon.’ It was the briefest of glances: Ruby’s eyes lifting sharply, darting quickly to Comfort, then snapping back down. Comfort didn’t notice. Ruby left with Uncle’s breakfast. The swinging door flapped lightly back and forth, then shut behind her.
Comfort turned to Francis, scratching the mosquito bite on her arm. ‘Kwabena is coming for pre-party cocktails. I told him I’d make him that chin-chin he likes.’
‘Mais bien sûr, mademoiselle.’ Francis began wiping the counter.
‘Bloody bugger. Still thinks I can cook.’ Comfort laughed. ‘I haven’t seen him since August. I was slimmer then, wasn’t I?’ She sucked at the bite as it started to bleed. She looked at you jealously. ‘Not like you. But still slimmer.’
You shook your head, lying, ‘You’re still the same size.’
She beamed as if with delight at your very existence. Then, suddenly remembering: ‘I brought some books back from Boston.’
‘Yes, of course. They’re in the study. Go and get them.’
‘Don’t do that, please.’ Iago. Appearing at the door. He leaned in (the houseboys don’t enter the house) and held out an aloe leaf to Comfort, cracked open. She looked up and frowned. The little flicker again. Confusion? Irritation? But smiled politely.
She went to the door, took the leaf from his hand. ‘Aloe,’ she said, sounding confused.
‘For your arm,’ said Iago, backing away from the door. Suddenly shy. Disappearing. Comfort watched him go, rubbing her arm with the sap. ‘Has Iago gotten taller?’
‘Oui. C’est ça. ’
The study is at the end of the second-floor hallway at the opposite end from your bedroom. Its one wall-length window overlooks the back garden, the three other walls lined with books. Uncle’s large desk and stuffed chair face the vista, the chair with its back to the door. And the rug. Every room in the house boasts a thick Persian rug, courtesy of Auntie’s (estranged) Uncle Mahmood. In the study – as in the parlour, as in the dining room, as in the drawing room – this furnishing serves to mute footfalls.
The door was half closed when you came for the books. Comfort said, ‘Go and get them,’ and you did as you were told. The swinging door clapped shut as you bounded out of the kitchen. Up the staircase to the study, skipping every other stair. You were wondering what books Comfort had brought back from Boston, whether more Edith Wharton or your new favourite Richard Wright? The door was ajar but no sunlight spilled out of it. You approached and peered in the slim opening.
The drapes were pulled over the window, uncharacteristically. Uncle’s breakfast tray, balanced at the edge of the desk. The plates were all empty, Francis’s blossom destroyed. A stack of glossy paperbacks beckoned by the tray.
You assumed, perfectly logically, that Uncle had finished eating and left the tray for Kofi or Ruby to come collect. You pushed the door slightly and slipped in the slim opening, your feet sinking into the soft of the rug.
Uncle was in his chair, facing the window and drapes, gripping the edge of the desk with his fingertips. From your vantage behind him across the room in the doorway you could barely see Ruby between his knees. She was kneeling there neatly, skinny legs folded beneath her, her hands on his knees, heart-shaped face in his lap. The sound she made reminded you of cloth sloshing in buckets, as rhythmic and functional, almost mindless, and wet. Uncle whimpered bizarrely, like the dogs before beatings. For whatever reason, you stood there transfixed by the books.
It was Ruby who saw you but Uncle who cried out, as if sustaining some cruel, unseen wound. Now you saw the trousers in a puddle around his ankles. Now he saw you, mute, at the door. He grabbed Ruby’s head and pulled it away from his lap. She crumpled to the rug like a doll.
‘Stupid girl!’ he spat. ‘Get out! Get out!’ Whether to you or to her, you weren’t sure.
Ruby scrambled to her feet; you stumbled back out the door. She wore only her lappa and a tattered lace bra. She looked at you quickly as you pushed the door shut. Her almond eyes glittered with hatred.
You recognized the expression. You’d seen it once before, in the morning in Lagos with your mother and Sinclair. You’d been loitering in the kitchen waiting for the cooks to finish breakfast. Just as Francis does with Iago, they’d slip you anything spoiled: collapsed soufflé, browning fruit, crispy bacon, burned toast. The trick had been to show up after Sinclair made his rounds, shouting complaints then disappearing until dinner. The spoils that morning had been unusually abundant: enough fruit for a week, pancakes, over-boiled eggs. A younger cook had set the food on a metal rolling cart and sent you up to your room in the freight elevator.
The rest you remember not as a series of events but as a single expression. A postcard. You must have inserted the keycard in the door, which would have beeped open, blinking green, making noise. But they must not have heard you. So you wheeled in the cart and just stood there, frozen, mute at the door.
Your mother on the floor, Sinclair kneeling behind her, their moaning an inelegant music, the sweat. Her eyes open wide as she looked up and saw you, surprise that you’d returned from the kitchen so soon. And the hatred. Bright knives in the dark of her irises. Unmistakable. You’d left the cart, running.
From the study to your room.
Slamming the door, leaning against it. The sound – sloshing cloth, buckets of soap – in your ears. Your bright blue walls trembled, or seemed to, in that moment, like a suspended tsunami about to crash in. The image (not yet a memory) – of Uncle in his desk chair; of Ruby folded prayerfully on her knees between his – flashed on the backs of your eyelids like a movie whose meaning you didn’t quite understand. But you saw. In that moment, as you stood there, with your back to the door and the lump in your throat and your pulse in your ears, you saw that it was you who was wrong and not they. You were wrong to have pitied her. Ruby. That she could make Uncle start whimpering like the dogs before beatings meant something was possible under this roof, in this house; something different from – and you wondered, was it better than? preferable to? – the thing you lived out every day. You envied Ruby something, though you didn’t know what. You stood at your door trembling jealously.
You heard the steps (small ones) on the other side of your door, followed by the faint sound of feet on the stairs, going down. You waited for a second then cracked the door open. No one was there. You looked down. Someone had stacked Comfort’s paperback books on the threshold. Like a fetish offering. You glanced down the hall to the study; the door was open. The drapes had been drawn back to richly bright light. You picked up the books and you walked down the stairs. The meaning – whether Uncle’s or Ruby’s – was clear.
So you went to the garden as you would have done otherwise, had you not seen what you saw in the study just then. You said nothing to Francis who was just starting the chin-chin, nor to Iago who was making centrepieces of torch gingers as you appeared. You didn’t so much as gasp when you found Comfort by the pool on her back on a towel in a bikini.
You stopped, staring down at her. She shifted, squinting up at you.
‘I see you got the books,’ she said.
You nodded. Quietly: ‘Thank you.’
‘You’re welcome.’ She smiled. Then closed her eyes. Without opening them: ‘You’re in my sun.’
Caterers swarmed the garden, unfolding round wooden tables, festooning lights along the walls, ignoring Comfort by the pool. The garden half done like a woman getting ready, standing naked at the mirror in her necklace and shoes. The thick buzz of flies and the sweet smell of chin-chin. Not for the first time you thought about running. They were consumed with their preparations, all of the houseboys and caterers, Comfort sunning in her bikini, Iago working by the pool. You could get up now, unnoticed, leave your books, walk away. There was the door at the edge of the garden.
You’d always wondered where it led to; it was always closed and no one used it. You considered it, suddenly hopeful, not one hundred yards away. Perhaps it pushed out to some Neverland? To Nigeria? Or simply to some route to the road through the brush? You were considering the distance from the tree to the door when the thought seized you suddenly: but what if she’s gone? What if they were right, and she’d run off to Abuja, with no thanks to Uncle and no thought of you? Now the breath left your chest and your heart began racing. To almost precisely the same beat, someone’s hammer: THWAP! THWAP! Two carpenters installing the dance floor, banging nails: THWAP! THWAP! while your chest refused air.
And there was Auntie.
She was standing across the garden at the door into the living room in big bug-eye sunglasses, shouting your name. The way she scanned the garden made it clear she couldn’t see you where you crouched behind the veil of tree leaves, silent, trying to breathe. She was starting to go in when she saw Comfort by the pool. ‘For God’s sake, daughter. What are you doing?’
Comfort lifted her head, shading her eyes with her hand, the flesh at her mid-section folding over. ‘I’m sunbathing, Mother. It’s good for my skin.’
‘You’re going to get darker.’
‘Don’t be smart. Your husband is coming this afternoon. You need to get dressed.’
‘My fiancé.’ Comfort lay back down, adjusting her position on the towel. Auntie glanced at the caterers, who were observing this exchange. ‘What are you looking at?’ Nobody answered. Auntie snapped, ‘Where is that girl?’
An inhalation at last. ‘I’m here, Madame,’ you called hoarsely, stumbling out from the leaves. She glanced at you casually, as if you’d always been standing there. Then looked down at Comfort, sucked her teeth, turned away. ‘Kwabena is coming. You had better be decent.’ Over her shoulder, to you, ‘Ehn, let’s go.’
Makola Market is thirty minutes’ drive from the house. You sat in the back, silent, with Auntie. You glanced at her quickly, holding her bag in your lap, trying to interpret her vacant expression. Did she know that this morning after serving Uncle’s breakfast, Ruby removed her little shirt and knelt between his knees? Would Uncle send you away if you shared this with Auntie? Would Auntie like you better if you did?
You were thinking this over when she spoke. ‘When I call you, you come. Do you hear me?’
The market was crowded with Christmas returnees haggling unsuccessfully over the prices of trinkets. And the fray. The bodies pushed together in the soft rocking motions; the sellers shouting prices over heaps of yellowing fruit; the freshly caught fish laid in stacks of silvery carcasses, their eyes still open wide, as if with surprise at being dead. You pushed through the traffic to the back of the market and parked outside Mahmood the Jeweller’s.
Mahmood is Auntie’s uncle, one of the richest men in Accra and the nicest you’ve met apart from Francis. He used to call you ‘Habibti’, as if it were actually your name, and bring you ma’amoul wrapped in wax when he visited. His houseboy Osekere would lug in a case of Chateau Ksara and they’d sit by the pool, drinking: Auntie, Uncle, Mahmood. Two or three bottles down, Mahmood would demand that you join them, instructing Kofi to come get you from your bedroom. Never Comfort.
He liked to tell the tale of the silkworm crisis that brought the Lebanese to Ghana. You’d lean against his stomach while he stroked your hair, talking. English Leather, fermented tobacco, citronella in your nose. The last time he visited – over a year ago, summer – you climbed into his lap as per habit. He stroked your knee gently and kissed you on the head. ‘Habibti.’ He wiped powdered sugar from the ma’amoul off your lip. ‘Have I ever told you the story of Khadijeh the silkworm?’
‘No,’ you lied, giggling.
‘Have I not?’ Mahmood laughed. Uncle pulled on his cigar, his eyes twinkling in the candlelight. ‘Fucking silkworms.’
‘Watch your language,’ Auntie hissed.
Uncle merely laughed, ignoring Auntie, speaking louder. ‘Might have been silkworms that sent you damn Arabs but it was British worms who welcomed you, them and our women.’ He removed his cigar slowly and smiled, not kindly. ‘You’ve made whores of them. All of them –’
‘Not in front of the child.’ Auntie glanced at you.
Laughing harder. ‘She’s my sister’s daughter,’ Uncle said. ‘She of all people understands what a whore is.’
Their eyes grazed your face and you closed your own tightly but no sooner had you done so than the image appeared. On the backs of your eyelids where such images are stored: of Sinclair on the floor with your mother. You opened your eyes quickly but the image remained. You were sick to your stomach. There were hands at your waist.
‘Don’t mind them, Habibti,’ Mahmood whispered softly. He was squeezing your waist tightly then kissing your cheek. His beard scratched your shoulder. His lips wet your neck. The thought was just forming: his hands are too tight. They were pressing against your ribs through your nightdress; you were nauseous. You’d eaten too many pastries – and that word in your mouth. That image in the air. Whore. You started to speak. But heard Auntie as you opened your mouth.
‘DON’T TOUCH HER!’ she raged at him, leaping to her feet.
‘Sit down, Khadijeh!’ Uncle, leaping to his. The gesture knocked his glass to the tile where it smashed. The wine ran into the pool like a ribbon of blood. ‘You will not address a guest in my house in that manner.’
Kofi jumped back. Auntie gasped. Mahmood chuckled.
‘Malesh, Khadijeh. Malesh,’ he said calmly. He stood, lifting you with him, kissed your head, set you down. ‘Go inside, Habibti,’ he whispered, ruffling your hair. ‘Go inside. Sweet dreams. I’ll see you soon.’
But you haven’t.
He hasn’t been to the house since that night by the pool and neither Auntie nor Uncle so much as mentions him.
You trailed behind Auntie to the door to the store. A sign read: ‘Back after lunch. Shukran.’ She pushed the door lightly. It opened. A bell jingled. You entered. No one materialized. ‘Hallo?’ she called out.
You lingered behind Auntie, glancing at your reflections in the mirrors. She in her sunglasses. You, shorter, in your shorts. In light like that there is something very African about Auntie. Her skin is so pale you often forget that she’s half. But the set of her mouth, the slight downturn of the lips, the proud upturn of the chin betray her paternity.
Her eyes met yours suddenly. You looked away quickly. ‘What are you looking at?’
‘I wasn’t expecting you,’ someone said. Both you and Auntie turned to the back of the store where Mariam, Auntie’s mother, stood watching her. In spite of yourself you took a little step backwards. She is terrifying to you, Mariam, viscerally so. She has the same dramatic features as her daughter and brother, her skin a dark bronze from the decades in Ghana. It’s the dark hooded eyes that deny her face beauty: the slope of the eyelids, the black bushy brows. They say that Mahmood would be nothing without his sister, ruthless bookkeeper; that it was she who built his business. Mariam said nothing. She just stood at the counter at the back of the store watching Auntie. She didn’t so much as look at you.
‘I can’t see why you wouldn’t “expect” me. We throw the same party every year.’ Auntie sighed. ‘Aren’t you at least going to offer us tea?’
You stiffened. You didn’t like the sound of this ‘us’. But Mariam smiled brightly, a menacing expression. A bit like a wound beneath her nose. Her eyes travelled past Auntie and rested on you. Without irony: ‘May I offer you tea?’
To watch Auntie now on the dance floor with Kwabena, her see-through lace glowing like sun-tinted ice, it doesn’t seem possible, what you heard next from Mariam. It is obvious, and still seems the lie. This has less to do with Comfort – who sits sipping her Malta, watching Auntie dancing with Kwabena as the singer wails in French; and whose eyes, more like Ruby’s than you’d previously appreciated, are up-lit by candles and sparkling with spite – and more to do with Auntie, who is laughing now, clapping, while the other dancers, sheep, start to laugh and clap too.
This is what jars you as you watch from the window: how impervious she appears still, impenetrable. There is anger in Auntie and, you see it now, hurting. The sheen of her eyes like a lacquer, sealing grief. But the appearance is compelling, the apparition of Auntie’s fortitude. Bright black-haired chimera. It wants to be believed. And you want to believe it. The lie of her majesty. That she couldn’t be other than what she appears. The truth of her weakness leaves nothing to be hoped for, leaves nothing to cling to, makes everything as weak. Meaning that something is possible here in this house where you envy the housegirl but don’t know for what – and it’s not what you thought, which was that you were forsaken, alone. It is that all of you are.
Mariam, to you: ‘May I offer you tea?’ How you ended up overhearing from the bathroom. You followed her up that dark, narrow back staircase to the office above the shop, which you’d never before seen. It was filthy: a cluttered office with a kitchen in the back, sticky tiles, one oily window overlooking the market. Mariam went to the kitchen and put a kettle on the stove. Auntie stood looking around as if for a mop. Finally, she perched gingerly on the arm of a desk chair. She gestured to you, impatiently. ‘Bring the invitation,’ she said.
You opened the handbag and pulled out the envelope. Mariam reappeared with two teacups. ‘Tea,’ she said. She handed you both cups, took the invitation, looked it over. Then sat at the desk clasping her hands. You handed Auntie a teacup. There was no place to sit. You wished you had waited with Kofi in the car. You didn’t dare ask now. No one moved. No one spoke.
‘Keeping up appearances,’ Mariam said finally. ‘Well done.’ She has Auntie’s clipped accent. She didn’t have tea. You noticed this now, peering into your own teacup with worry. Mariam noticed your expression and chuckled. ‘Poison-free.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake. Let’s not start.’ Auntie hissed. ‘I’d like you to come to our party tonight. People ask questions when you don’t.’
‘Let them ask. You’ve embarrassed your family. That’s all there is to it.’
‘That’s not what you said when I married him.’
Mariam sneered, ‘This isn’t about Kodjo.’ She said the name with contempt. ‘If you lie down with bush boys you get up with fleas.’
‘Well, you would know –’
‘How dare you? Your father was different! An honourable Ghanaian. A very good man.’ Mariam pounded the desk with her fist on this ‘very’, her face flushing mauve and her eyes welling up. The outburst made you start, spilling tea on your T-shirt. They both turned to look at you now.
‘Please excuse me,’ you mumbled. You stood, glancing at Auntie. She said nothing. Mariam said, ‘Go,’ and you went. Through the kitchen into the bathroom where you closed the door quickly, then instantly wished that you hadn’t. There were flies in the toilet and stains on the tiles, the stench overwhelming: urine, ammonia, mothballs. You were fumbling with the door, trying to let yourself out, when Mariam began screaming on the other side of it. ‘You disrespect my brother in that philanderer’s home –’
And Auntie: ‘You can’t be serious. Your little stand-off is about Mahmood?’
‘Uncle Mahmood, kindly. After all that he’s done.’
‘Which is what, Mother? Kindly. Do tell.’ Auntie laughed.
‘You know bloody well that he paid for your schooling.’
‘For my schooling. For my schooling?!’ Now Auntie’s laughter was shrill. ‘Is that the going rate for a virgin in Ain Mreisseh?’
‘Go to hell.’
‘Thank you, Mother.’
‘You’re a liar.’
‘I was twelve.’
‘It’s your husband who insults you, running around with those bush girls.’
‘At least they’re grown women.’
Mariam laughed, genuinely amused. ‘The daughter of a housegirl. Passed off as your child. And is she? A comfort?’
‘You know why I can’t.’
Auntie said it very simply, in a very small voice that you’d never heard her use but could match to an image: of her standing in your doorway in pale pink sponge rollers, transfixed by the lappa, unbearably frail. Her words and their meaning were like a taste on your tongue, then, a thickness spreading slowly across the roof of your mouth. The daughter of a housegirl. You know why I can’t. You heaved, vomited pawpaw into the toilet.
Now came a rustling, someone slamming a door; now the clicking of heels, growing louder, towards the bathroom. From outside the door: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ You wiped off your T-shirt, cracked opened the door.
There was Auntie, crying quietly, fumbling for her sunglasses in her bag. She looked at you blankly and turned. ‘Ehn, let’s go.’
You got in the car. She got in the car. Kofi glanced back at her, started the car. She removed her bug sunglasses and wiped her eyes quickly. She put them back on. She said nothing.
Kofi pulled up to the gates and honked. George opened the gates with much clanging of locks. Kofi drove in, Benz tyres crunching white pebbles. Auntie said, ‘Thank you,’ got out. You’d never heard her thank anyone for anything before. Kofi said, shocked, ‘Yes, Madame.’
You’re still not sure why you followed her in. She got out on her side and you jumped out on yours. Perhaps you were waiting for instructions about something? About not saying a word to a soul or suchlike? Watching her now on the dance floor with Kwabena, it occurs to you that you didn’t want to leave her alone. You needed to stay near her, you thought, trailing behind her.
So you followed her into the kitchen.
Francis was removing a tray of chin-chin from the oven. You entered behind Auntie, swinging door swinging shut.
‘I told you to cook in the new kitchen,’ she said. Francis looked up, startled.
‘I told you to cook in the new kitchen,’ Auntie repeated. ‘Not in here. In this dump. With these flies. Do you hear?’ Francis shook his head in confusion. Auntie stepped forward to stand just beneath him. ‘No, you don’t hear me? Or no, you don’t understand me? Or no, you intend to ignore me? You, too?’ She was laughing hysterically. He shook his head, faltering. Then Auntie reached up and slapped him. Once.
He dropped the tray of chin-chin, the sweets scattering across the floor. Tears sprung to your eyes.
And to his. And to hers. She stabbed the air in front of him, gasping for breath. ‘You do as I tell you. You do as I say.’
Then walked out of the kitchen, started sobbing. You stood there with Francis, who stared at you, silent. With tears in his eyes and what else? Was it anger? You’d never seen him angry. You tried but couldn’t speak. For the thickness in your mouth. All the words. The door opened suddenly and Uncle stormed in. He looked at the chin-chin, scattered nuggets on the floor. ‘Idiot.’ To Francis. ‘Clean up,’ as he left.
The sky seemed to darken outside the door.
Francis knelt down and picked up the tray – a long way down for such a tall man. He set it on the counter, leaving the chin-chin on the floor. He ducked, and walked out the door.
You waited too long.
There, dumbstruck in the kitchen. You waited too long before you followed him out. You dropped Auntie’s bag and ran out the side door but you didn’t find Francis so you ran down the path. You hurried through the thicket along the side of the kitchen between the house and the Boys’ Quarters to the garden, crying now. The rocks and knotted roots cut through the soles of your chale-watas as you pushed through the low-hanging leaves. The sky was dark.
The caterers were raising a new banner above the dance floor. Marry Christmas! A boy was setting tea lights into bowls. No one seemed to notice you. You didn’t see Francis. You saw the little door across the garden.
The door opens easily. Not to Neverland, it turns out, but to the unkempt brush of the neighbours’ back lawn. Weeds, chopped-down trees, redolent dankness of earth. And Iago kissing Comfort in her bikini. She was leaning against a tree with her hands at his waist. He was cupping her breasts. He was shirtless. At the sound of the door creaking, feet crackling on twigs, Iago turned. He said, ‘No.’ Nothing else. Comfort looked also, saw you, and cried out. Iago clamped his hand over her mouth.
For the second time that day you backed out of a door, pulled it shut, and stood staring, now seeing. Four o’clock. There were your books, beneath the mango, where you’d left them. Thunder, then it started to rain.
You came up the path slowly in the driving rain, the wet on your shoulders and face like a weight. The smell of damp earth swelling up from the ground as it does in the tropics, overpowering the air. So that all that there was for those few wretched minutes was the rain on your skin and the earth in your nose. The caterers, behind you, shouting about things getting wet, as you pushed through the low-hanging branches, then stopped.
There, through the brush, in the Boys’ Quarters courtyard beneath the one shower: there was Francis, soaking wet. With the water from the shower and the downpouring rain and the soap on his face, and the cloth in his hands. And his form. You gasped to see it, that foreign landscape of muscle: the hills of the stomach, the mountain of bum, the plain of his shoulders, the tree trunk of torso, the roots of the cordons the length of his legs. In a way, it was too much to see in that moment, through the tangle of branches, nude Francis. You turned.
But the sound of the movement was loud and he heard it. He turned his head quickly and opened his eyes. He stared at you, frozen, the cloth in his hands, but not using it to cover himself, suds in his eyes. ‘Regardez!’ he called out through the brush and the rain. ‘Je suis un homme, n’est-ce pas?’
Now it stopped raining, as suddenly as it had started. As if God turned a tap just once to the left. Francis stood staring at you, arms open wide. The shower still running. With rage in his eyes. You could barely see anything, for the tears welled in yours. You turned and ran into the house.
Through the kitchen.
Through the side door into the kitchen, with the oven standing open, the spilled chin-chin on the tiles and Auntie’s bag on the floor. To the stairs, past the washroom, where the caterers were conferring noisily about the soaking-wet linens, decrying the absence of a dryer. Up the stairs to your bedroom, where you removed your wet T-shirt, kicked off the sopping chale-watas, pulled on your cut-offs, a dry top. You found the slippers with the beading, beckoning cheerfully, slipped these on. You squeezed your eyes shut. But couldn’t breathe. So opened your door.
Auntie was on the stairs, her eyes swollen, no make-up. She glanced towards your bedroom. You retreated too late. ‘Whatever are you wearing? There’s a party tonight.’
‘I’m changing,’ you said softly.
‘A Christmas top.’
‘And the trousers?’
‘I can press them.’
‘You’ll do nothing of the sort. Borrow a buba from your cousin.’
‘Your hair is wet.’ She continued down the stairs then paused abruptly, looking up. ‘And where is your cousin?’
‘I’m right here,’ Comfort said.
She’d appeared at the base of the stairs in her robe, wearing Iago’s chale-watas, many sizes too big. Auntie looked at Comfort then back up at you. Comfort looked up at you also. (And you couldn’t for the life of you see how you’d missed it. Comfort looks nothing like Auntie.) Their eyes on your face, different shapes, the same pleading. Auntie turned to Comfort and pointed at her shoes. The chale-watas looked bizarre on Comfort’s delicate feet.
‘And whose are those?’
‘Mine,’ you answered quickly.
Auntie sighed. She considered your cheerful slippers, considered Comfort, and hissed. She continued down to Comfort and lifted her chin. ‘We’ll never bloody marry you off at this rate.’ She dropped Comfort’s chin and walked off.
Comfort looked up, at you. ‘Do you not speak English? Get dressed, Mother said. There’s a party tonight.’ But she didn’t sound angry and just stood there, started crying. ‘Thank you,’ she mouthed to you.
‘You’re welcome,’ you said. She is beautiful when she smiles. It isn’t often.
He walks in behind you, saying nothing at all and not closing the door in the silvery dark. You turn round to face him. Full circle. Explaining, ‘I was fetching an album for Auntie. I’m sorry.’ Your buba slides down. You start to say more but he holds up a hand, shakes his head, is not angry.
‘It’s nice to be away from it all. Isn’t it?’ He smiles.
‘I’ll bring her the album. Relax.’ He joins you at the window. Ever so slightly behind you. Puts a hand on your shoulder, palm surprisingly cold. In a very gentle motion he rearranges the buba. ‘Are you happy?’ The question surprises you.
‘What I mean is, are you happy here? Happy living here?’
‘And you would tell me if you weren’t?’
‘“No, Uncle.” Better than “yes”, I suppose.’ He chuckles almost sadly. He is quiet for a moment. ‘Do you miss her?’
He nods. ‘Yes, of course.’ Then you stare out the window, another couple at a painting. The singer is hitting a high note, clutching the mike as if for life. You look at the dance floor. You see Kwabena but not Auntie. The younger girls dancing with men in full suits. You look to the tables. There is Comfort, sitting stiffly. Iago, in a server’s tux, approaches with drinks. He pours her more Malta; Comfort doesn’t look up. You feel your breath quicken. Uncle’s hand on your neck.
‘You remind me so much of your mother.’ He leans down now. The hotness of rum and his breath on your skin. The buba slides off and he adjusts it again carefully. ‘She had this long neck. Just like yours,’ he says, touching. You stiffen. Not at the touch but the tense. He notices. ‘I frighten you,’ he says, sad, surprised.
‘Bloody hell. Is that all you say?’ He speaks through clenched teeth. ‘It’s a question for God’s sake. Do I frighten you?You are silent, unable to move. ‘Answer me.’ Not gently, he turns you round. Unable to face him you stare at your feet sinking into the carpet, toes painted pink. But when he lifts your chin, whispering, ‘Look at me,’ you do – and don’t find the anger you’re expecting. None at all. You have never been this close to Uncle’s face. You have never noticed its resemblance to your mother’s. The dark deep-set eyes. And in them something familiar. Something you recognize. Loneliness. Loss. ‘I didn’t frighten her,’ he says insistently, slurring the words. ‘I never frightened her. Do I frighten you?’ Your chin in his hands.
You shake your head quickly. ‘No, Uncle,’ you mumble.
‘I miss her so much.’ He cups a palm around your cheek. And when he leans down to kiss you, you know what he means. You feel his tears on your face, mixed with yours, warm; his cool. There is something sort of disgusting about the feel of his lips, as there must have been something disgusting to Auntie about Mahmood’s. But you bear it for those moments, as an act of generosity (or something like it), feeling for the first time at home in his house.
Still, you can imagine how it must look from the doorway when you hear Auntie, ‘How long does it take –?’ then sudden silence as she sees. ‘Oh, God,’ she splutters out in a horrified whisper. The only sound in the darkness. ‘Oh, God.’
Uncle pulls away from you and looks at his wife. ‘Khadijeh.’ And there is Auntie, in the doorway. How she falls. She leans against the door frame then slumps to the ground. She repeats the words, ‘Oh, God.’
Close to hyperventilating. In tears. Uncle smoothes his trousers with the palms of his hands. He touches your shoulder calmly before going to the door.
‘Khadijeh,’ he says, kneeling, but she pushes him away.
‘Don’t touch me. How dare you? God damn you to hell.’ She hits him now, desperately. ‘She’s your blood. She’s your blood.’
‘That’s enough,’ he says softly, as she kicks at his shins. He grabs her by the shoulders, standing her up on her feet. She flails at him, sobbing. He slaps her. Hard. Once. ‘This is my house,’ he says. Walks away.
In the dark and the silence you wish you could vanish, at least crawl beneath the desk without her noticing and hide. But she barely seems conscious as she sits in the doorway, her lace like a pile of used tissues, a cloud.
And that’s when it hits you. Your mother isn’t coming. Wherever she’s gone it’s a place without life. What life there was in her was choked out by hatred; whatever light in her eyes was the glint of that hate. And whom did she hate so? Her brother? Her mother? Your father? It doesn’t matter. They live. She is dead.
This is what you’re left with: a life with these people. This place and these women. Comfort. Ruby. Khadijeh. Who – it suddenly occurs to you, with an odd kind of clarity, as you watch from the window – mustn’t be left to die, too.
So you go to her, stumbling over the hem of the garment as you cross the Persian rug and she looks up, face smeared. The kohl make-up runs down her cheeks like black tears. You sit down beside her, laying your head in her lap.
‘Edem,’ she whispers faintly.
‘Yes, Auntie.’ You start to cry. A familiar sound, peculiar: the sound of your name. You put your arms around her waist. It is softer than you’d imagined it. You hold her very tightly, and she holds you as if for life. You wish there was something you could say, to comfort her. But what? In the peculiar hierarchy of African households the only rung lower than motherless child is childless mother.
Artwork © Olaf Hajek