We lived in Kaduna, in the north, in a yellow bungalow with a single ceiling fan in the sitting room, which swung slow and heavy like an old man’s scythe. It was warm there and gloomy, I remember, on account of the foliage —the guava and avocado trees in the garden, the frangipanis and the dainty pawpaws, the imposing cotton tree in the circular drive. They ambushed the little house. Mother said we lived too far from life, too far from the city. It was like being on the edge of a wheel. It took so much longer to complete a revolution, to get things done.
“How can I do anything in this place?” she said, looking down at us as we lay on the cool concrete of the veranda, making sketches on paper in preparation for my painting class, “When it takes one whole hour to get anywhere? Even to buy bread. Who asked us to live in this bush?”
Ronke looked up at her, shame-faced, having failed to maintain
Mother’s happiness on this occasion. “Don’t worry, Mummy,” she said. “Daddy will be back soon. He will drive you to town.” Mother squinted at her through her horn-rimmed glasses, then settled on a smile. “Don’t mind me, sef. I can wait until tomorrow.” She turned from her sewing machine and glanced into the sitting room, to the window overlooking the drive, as if she could make out the distant rumble of an approaching vehicle. She touched her forehead with the back of her hand and said, “I’m going to have forty winks,” and stood with a little groan. “Don’t make any noise, you hear?”
“Don’t worry, Mummy,” Ronke said. “We won’t make a sound. Will we, Bisi?”
I shook my head. Ronke looked back at Mother and grinned, but Mother was already drifting towards the bedroom, her wrapper whispering behind her tall frame. She shut the door with a soft, determined click. We both waited a moment before speaking.
“You just keep quiet, Bisi,” Ronke said. “Or I’ll beat you. I’ll beat you until you bleed. I mean it.”
“I’m not joking, you know.”
Ronke couldn’t have beaten dust out of a filthy rug. I began a quiet whistle. She seemed about to scold me but sighed at the final moment and said nothing. Ronke was a class prefect. Everyone admired her, while I was content to drift along on a sea of mediocre grades — a run-of-the-mill presence at school. We continued to sketch. Mother’s complaint about the bread was somewhat of an exaggeration since it was rarely her responsibility to buy groceries in the first place. A variety of street sellers carried trays of freshly baked bread and tinned milk on their heads past our house every day. Halimah would hurry out to purchase whatever was needed at short notice: a packet of Omo, boiled sweets, a tin of sardines, batteries for Father’s transistor radio.
We tried our best to sympathize with Mother, but neither of us was enthusiastic at the prospect of traveling to downtown Kaduna. We weren’t impressed by the dust coughed up by honking vehicles, the belligerent taxis and lorries choking the life out of the city. I shuddered at the thought of markets teeming with people, everyone haggling at the same time. Ronke and I were always relieved to return to our outlying suburb where the comparative cool, dark silence was a balm to the brilliant chaos of town.
Halimah began clattering away in the kitchen as she prepared the evening meal. Ronke moved swiftly to intercept her, and I followed close behind. “Don’t make so much noise!” she said in a loud whisper. “Don’t you know Mummy’s sleeping?”
Halimah glanced at her and shrugged and continued to work in silence. We glared at her for a moment before Ronke turned to leave.
“Sshh!” I said to Halimah. “Keep quiet. Mummy’s sleeping, don’t you know?” and hurried after my sister, who had already disappeared through the swing door.
Halimah had come to us a year after I was born. My sister was three, Halimah seven or eight. She had come to help out, our parents explained. Her own parents had allowed this. More importantly, they had wanted this, they clarified. I tried to imagine how it might feel, come my eighth birthday, to be parceled out to a stranger’s home, to a family not my own. I couldn’t work out the logic behind it.
I ran after Ronke who was now sitting in Mother’s wicker chair in front of the sewing machine on the veranda. She brushed back her plaits and snatched up a strip of cloth from the table and pretended to feed it through the needle plate.
I sat beside her on the ottoman, hugging my knees within my skirt. “That’s lovely,” I said when Ronke held up her imaginary costume. “Is it a dress?” “
Stupid girl — can’t you see properly? It’s a boy’s sokoto.”
“Yes, oh. I see now. It’s very nice.”
“Well, I do my best,” she replied and continued with the charade until I grew bored and said, “It’s not too small is it? Is he a tiny, tiny boy? How will he put it on?”
“Don’t disturb my concentration.” She pursed her lips, but in a moment threw the cutting to the floor. “Haven’t you got anything else to do?”
I looked down at the sheets of paper and pencils and unopened pots of paint beside them, the two stiff paintbrushes, the enamel bowl of water. “No.” “Well, I’m going to my room. Stop following me.” I lingered beside the sewing machine before deciding to investigate — there were only two bedrooms in the house; my room was hers as well — and began to build a case for my defense.
Mother took in bales of cloth from neighboring houses and ran the material through her ancient Singer, making it buzz and whirr during the cool, quiet hours of the morning, stopping shortly after noon for a light lunch and a siesta. She woke at around five a.m. every day and puttered about the house until Father drove Ronke and me to school at seven-thirty and continued to his office in the center of town. She was then free to work on her creations, as she liked to call them — vivid bubas and ipeles, demure kaftans, sometimes western dresses replete with bows, shirts with stiff formal collars — for friends and neighbors and people who admired her work. They would often spot an item at a function or a dinner or a children’s birthday party and request she make something similar for them, or for their children, never asking how much a job might cost. They could have driven into town and paid a roadside tailor a quarter of the price, but they did not equivocate with money, these people.
Mother said the noise and energy created by the sewing machine made it unbearable to operate beyond midday even though she worked outside and sent for glasses of iced tea and ginger ale and cold, filtered water every hour or so. She ordered slices of chilled pineapple or mango or pawpaw, straight from the fridge, as if she were in the lobby of the Hamdala Hotel waving a sheaf of newly minted naira, a pride of waiters attentive to her every need. Ronke and I loved to fetch and carry for her during the holidays, but otherwise she was forced to rely on Halimah.
After her naps Mother would gather her finished articles, leaving piles of cuttings on the floor for Halimah to sweep. A few weeks later Halimah might be seen sporting a new blouse or a wrapper she had strung together from this litter, and as was routinely the case, the effect would be hodgepodge, like something glimpsed in a circus.
Mother was not a seamstress by trade. She sewed merely to pass the hours in the day when my sister and I were at school and Father was at his administrator’s desk. Now that our holidays had begun she continued with her routine but with less vigor. I could never tell whether she enjoyed sewing, as she claimed, or whether she would have dropped it the instant a more compelling diversion arose.
The phone rang and Ronke and I raced to answer it before the third trill.
“Hello?” I said.
The voice on the other end of the line seemed distracted, abrupt. I could hear, in the background, conversation and laughter, a door creaking open or closed. I listened and waited and said, “Yes, Daddy.” Mother was coming through the veranda doors, carrying a half-stitched- together dress. “She’s here . . . Yes, Daddy . . . Not yet . . . No.” Father asked whether Mother had taken her nap, what we had been doing all morning, Ronke and I, what we planned to do with the remainder of the afternoon. A vague image of Ronke holding up a pair of invisible shorts sprang to mind. I glanced at our half-finished sketches. “I don’t know, Daddy. I can’t remember.”
“Idleness,” Father said, “is the stepping stone to ruin. Remember, Bisi? Have you finished reading your book?”
Father had given me Akin Goes to School to read over the Easter holiday, but I had yet to crack the spine. I prayed he wouldn’t ask me to summarize the story.
“Not yet, Daddy.”
“Let me speak to your sister.”
Ronke replaced the receiver after listening to Father for no more than twenty seconds. “Daddy’s going to be late,” she said. “Maybe thirty minutes. If there’s no beef, can he have chicken? But only the leg and . . . and something.”
“Something what?” Mother asked.
“Chicken, chicken something. I can’t remember.”
Mother placed her material in the sideboard in the sitting room. She locked the cabinet door and wedged the key into a fold of her wrapper and stood up straight, brushing away non-existent pieces of thread from her sleeves. “Chicken gizzard?” she said. “Chicken wing? Giblets? Hmm? If you can’t remember a simple message, Ronke, you should write it down. How many times do I have to tell you? Both of you.”
I wanted to protest my innocence on this occasion, but Mother wouldn’t have listened.
“I’m sorry, Mummy.” Ronke looked down at the parquet floor as if life no longer made sense, but Mother had already moved on and had been spared this performance.
Mother would say, “Answer the phone,” and we answered it. If she did not want to speak to the caller, we would claim she was asleep or she wasn’t in — she had gone to dinner with our father at a friend’s house on Umaru Gwandu Road. We had our responses down pat, but the process was always laced with anxiety. I might be in the middle of an excuse and Mother would change her mind and motion for the phone. I would have to think fast, saying she had just returned — there was the car now in the drive —o r she must have woken up, I could hear her walking down the hall. None of the callers seemed to pay too much attention to these lies, or query them, except for Aunty Amba, who always bypassed our excuses no matter how authentic they sounded.
“Mummy can’t speak now,” Ronke once said. “She’s been to the dentist and the anesthetic hasn’t worn off.”
“Put my sister on the phone, my dear,” Aunty Amba replied. “I can talk and she can listen, isn’t it?”
I wanted to repeat Ronke’s excuses myself, but I could never pronounce the necessary words.
“What’s all this mess?” Mother asked, as if she had only then noticed the disorder on the veranda floor.
Ronke and I had created several mounds of mangos, pineapples and bananas in calabashes, and trailed more sheets of paper from the sitting room to the base of the sewing machine table, attempting to capture the essence of the fruit in our art.
“What happens when your father gets home?” Mother said. “Who is going to clean everything? Me?”
Halimah, of course, I wanted to say, but I kept quiet.
“Come on, lazy bones,” Ronke said, and we began to layer the sheets of paper in one pile and return the fruit to the kitchen. Halimah was already scrubbing the pots she had used to make our dinner, the dinner we had yet to eat.
She turned from the sink as we placed the fruit on the counter. Seeing the mangos in my hand, she said, “Enter two for fridge, for tomorrow. For Mama.” She turned back and resumed the washing up.
“Enter them yourself!” I said, but she did not react. I knew she had heard me, which only incensed me further. I placed the mangos in the fridge — they were for Mother after all — and left the kitchen without another word.
Father taught French in the evenings at the lycée on Zanna Dujima Road. He had a gift for languages, for communication, and in addition to French, he spoke Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, and a rudimentary Arabic — slow and limited but precise. When I asked him to list his languages, he never included English, and when I complained, he always said that English was easy, as easy as breathing or walking. It had taken no special effort on his part to learn. Besides, he said, it has been imposed on him. I didn’t understand what he meant by this, not fully, even after he tried to explain it to me.
Father had been sent to Cameroon when he was twelve, to a town where a branch of my grandfather’s relatives lived. My grandparents did not wish to send him away; it was primarily for his education, for his passage to adulthood. Father’s parents farmed on stubborn arable land and the relatives in Cameroon were better able to provide for him. They didn’t want to send him to a missionary compound in another part of Nigeria, as had happened to his older brother, my Uncle Lanre. Father went away for two and a half years and when he returned, he could speak French in a way no one in his school could quite grasp, including his teacher. It seemed to stand up and sprint rather than set off at a jog.
By the time Father returned at a quarter to five, everything was put away and swept clean. He was able to sit back in his armchair and read the paper without witnessing offending clutter.
“Where is this girl?” he asked, peering at Ronke and me over the top of his Daily Times. “Ask her to boil water now, now. I need to take my bath.”
I ran to the kitchen and saw Halimah pouring hot water from a pot into an aluminum bucket, always one step ahead of everyone else. Even so I couldn’t resist. “Daddy’s waiting for his bath, don’t you know? Now, now!” and I ran out.
Halimah staggered through the sitting room with the bucket of hot water en route to the bathroom. She began the late afternoon ritual of shutting windows and the veranda doors, lowering the mosquito nets on our beds, tucking the trim beneath each mattress. Once the table was laid and the food brought out from the kitchen we gathered in the dining room.
“Tomorrow you can come to the lycée,” Father said as he reached for a chicken gizzard. He was perspiring a little from his bath. “Both of you. Bring pen and paper.”
Mother opened her mouth to speak but then closed it abruptly.
“You can’t be spending all day doing nothing, wasting away,” he continued. “Where does the idleness lead you? Hmm? Ronke?”
My stomach muscles clenched.
Ronke swallowed a mouthful of fufu and okra, and blinked. “Idleness leads to ruin, Daddy.”
“Good,” Father said. “Very good. Don’t forget that, either of you.”
Ronke grinned and continued to eat. Now the crisis had passed I could feel my heartbeat adjust from gallop to trot. I had forgotten Father’s aphorism even though he appeared to repeat it on a weekly basis.
“Why not today?” Mother asked, pushing aside her empty plate.
“Why don’t you take them to school today? They’re not doing anything this evening. Are you?”
I could think of a thousand things to occupy my evening, most importantly the next installment of Village Headmaster. I prayed there would be no power cut tonight.
“No.” Father waved away the suggestion. “Tomorrow is better. Tonight they won’t have anywhere to sit.”
“Halimah!” Mother called. Halimah dashed in from the kitchen. “Yes, Ma?”
Mother glanced at the table, at the near-empty glasses and strips of skin and chicken bones on the sides of our plates. Halimah began to clear. She hurried back with a bowl of warm water, soap, and a hand towel.
Mother tapped the glass lid covering the bowl of okra soup with her ring finger. “Pack it fine, fine,” she said. “We can have it for lunch tomorrow.”
“Yes, Ma,” Halimah said. She half curtsied whenever she spoke to an authority figure, and she bent her knees now before withdrawing to the kitchen.
“What’s so amusing?” Father asked, leaning back in his chair.
“Nothing, Daddy.” I covered my face with both hands and inhaled, trying to smother my laughter. Failing. Twice Halimah had humiliated me: first with the mangos, now on account of her genuflecting. The blood rushed to my face.
“What a funny girl you are.” Father’s broad mouth grew even broader and I caught a glimpse of his upper teeth. A speck of spinach flickered into sight, then disappeared when he spoke. “Aren’t you?”
“Yes, Daddy.” I would have said anything to agree. It was always a joy to see Father smile. I glanced at Ronke and turned away.
“There will be grownups there, tomorrow,” Mother said, “as well as young people. Not as young as you, mind. Rich people. And they have paid a lot of money for the classes. I don’t want you disturbing anyone, you hear me?”
Ronke nodded, but I was baffled.
“But we’re rich, too, aren’t we, Mummy?” I wondered how many other children lived far from the steaming muddle of the city, with someone to cook and fetch and carry, a veranda overlooking a garden bursting with lilies and birds of paradise.
Mother frowned. “Don’t ask silly questions, Bisi.”
“Daddy . . . Daddy, do we have to go?” Ronke said. She glanced at Mother. “To the lycée? I mean, it’s holiday time now, and — and I wanted to see Peju and Tinuke, and —”
“Of course you have to. You can see your friends any time,” Father said. His easy smile was slipping away. “Isn’t it, Bisi?”
“It is, Daddy!” I said, not sure what I was agreeing with. My heartbeat began to canter.
Father’s smile returned and the heat slowly drained from my face. Halimah came through the swing door and our eyes locked for an instant. I recalled my humiliation over the mangos.
I liked to witness the effects of my words sometimes, particularly in the presence of my parents. I remembered Mother’s summons for iced tea and pineapple slices, straight from the fridge.
Miming as I spoke, I said, “Half Fanta, half ice. Make it full, oh.”
Father chuckled again at my clumsy attempt to imitate Mother. He was pleased. That was all that mattered.
Halimah left the room and returned with my order, just as I had requested. The glass appeared in front of me, ice cubes bobbing on the surface, condensation already pooling on the Formica. I would have to drink it, I realized, whether I wanted to or not. Because sometimes I had no desire for the things I demanded of Halimah. I only wanted to see her run back and forth, in a panic, as if the fate of the world depended on her efficacy. It was like a kind of magic — I pushed words into the air and they elicited action, garnered rewards, and this thrilled me.
I could feel Ronke’s eyes boring a hole through my head, through the walls, through the whole of Kaduna. She looked away and stared down at the table top, then said, “Excuse me, Daddy, Mummy,” and got down from the table and went to our room.
I sipped my drink —ice-cold and wince-inducing —and we sat in silence as Halimah cleared the dishes.
Father pushed against the edge of the table with both hands and stood up. “Well, back to work.” He tapped his fingertips against his stomach as if playing piano scales. “Don’t forget to prepare for tomorrow, Bisi. I don’t want any delays, you hear?”
“Yes, Daddy.” But I wanted to know what preparations he was referring to. Were we to wear skirts or dresses? Our school uniforms? Did we need to bring exercise books?
Mother rose and followed Father to their bedroom while he made ready to leave for the lycée. I remained at the table, having managed only a quarter of the Fanta. Ronke and I were forbidden from taking drinks into the sitting room to discourage an invasion of ants.
Halimah returned with a damp cloth and wiped away the wet rings of condensation when I lifted my glass. I smiled but she did not smile back.
Ronke wouldn’t speak to me when I returned to our room. She’d sequestered herself away while Mother and I had watched the evening’s offerings on TV, before Father returned from the lycée. “You missed Village Headmaster,” I said. “It was great!”
She didn’t answer — only continued to turn the pages of The Drummer Boy so quickly I could tell she wasn’t reading. She lay beneath a single cotton sheet as the fan plodded above our heads. I couldn’t understand why she was ignoring me.
“Amebo was so naughty,” I continued skittishly. “Sisi Clara scolded her fine, fine. And she was wearing a very nice iro. Just like Mummy’s.”
I hurried into my pajamas and settled into bed. Ronke put away her book and switched off the light, scuttling back to the protective tent of her mosquito net. She kept shifting about until she was comfortable.
When she was still, she said, “You should say sorry, you know. You shouldn’t talk to her like that. It’s not nice.”
I felt the hot flush return to my face and lay inert, pretending to sleep. I could hear the slow swoop of the ceiling fan and my sister’s shallow breathing, and beyond that, the buzz and whistle of insects beyond the window, the occasional crackle of something moving through the bushes. I wondered whether the noises frightened Halimah where she lived, alone in the boys’ quarters.
After a moment, Ronke said, “Goodnight, Bisi.”
“Goodnight, Ronke.” And I was free to move once more. I shifted on my side and saw my sister’s slender profile turned towards me. The sounds from the bushes seemed to recede and within seconds I fell asleep.
Father said wait and we waited, stop and we stopped whatever we were doing. Had he told us to run we would have broken records, participated in marathons. We sat in the back of his cream-colored Peugeot and waited for him to return from the building. I could see lights from several rooms in the lycée, the silent sweep of figures along its corridors.
“Close your window,” Ronke said. “Do you want mosquitoes to bite you?”
“I’m hot,” I said.
“I’m hot too, but I don’t want to be bitten to death. Close it.”
We were flanked on one side by a white Mercedes coupe and on the other by a gleaming burgundy Volvo. I couldn’t make out the interior of the Mercedes because of its tinted windows.
“Why are we waiting?” I asked.
Ronke didn’t respond so I wound up my window.
“Daddy’s getting ready,” she said. “Didn’t you hear him? Just wait and see.”
“What and see what?”
I stared at the ceiling, criss-crossing from one corner of the car to the other. A tear in the lining, roughly an inch and a half long, pouted down at me. I couldn’t recall seeing it before. Footsteps crunched across the gravel and when I turned Father was beside my door.
“Oya now,” he said, as if he hadn’t told us to stay in the car. “What are you waiting for?”
We hurried into the building and up a flight of concrete steps. I noticed a poster of the Eiffel Tower at the top of the landing and a honeycombed wall on the far side of the corridor through which I could see Father’s Peugeot below. It looked, for the first time, inconsiderable beside the other vehicles in the driveway.
“Just sit quietly,” Father said, ushering us into the classroom. “Pay attention and don’t talk. I’ll speak to you later.”
We were in a room, slightly larger than our lounge, with a vast oval table occupying most of the space. The table’s dark wooden surface absorbed the light from a single overhead bulb, but several standard lamps cast warm, comforting glows around the room.
“There’s air-con!” I whispered to Ronke.
“Sshh!” she said as we followed Father past the table.
A woman sitting near the center of the table stared at a textbook in front of her. As we passed, she glanced up and smiled. She looked older than Mother, older even than Aunty Tabara, Father’s eldest sister. I could tell this woman’s glossy buba and wrapper hid a generous, well-fed body. Mother might have called her vulgar. She might have sewn something along those lines simply to demonstrate what not to wear, had she been a sewing instructor. I was surprised at how much I had learned about taste and style simply by being in Mother’s presence.
In three other chairs sat a middle-aged man in a charcoal-gray business suit, a younger man wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap, and another woman, slightly younger than the first, wearing a violet kaba. None of them paid us the slightest attention.
Father directed us to two wooden school desks tucked in a corner of the room. I was relieved not to have to sit with the adults.
“We’ll wait two more minutes,” Father said, returning to the front of the room. He glanced at his watch and seemed, for a moment, at a loss. “In the meantime, turn back to page seven, and we’ll recap what we learned last time.”
The students began riffling through their textbooks. Father looked across at us, then quickly away. I wanted to see what the others were reading. Ronke had brought pencils and exercise books for both of us. I picked up my pencil, poised above the blank first page. I looked at Ronke, who scowled and shrugged, which immediately gave me the giggles.
“Sshh!” she hissed, struggling to contain her own laughter.
The businessman turned round and Father darted toward us. “What’s the matter?” he whispered, cradling a stick of white chalk.
“Daddy, we haven’t got the textbook,” Ronke said.
“Never mind. You don’t need it. Just listen carefully and learn. You understand?”
“And no misbehaving, you hear?”
There was a quiet knock and the door swung open. Three stragglers entered: a middle-aged woman in light blue slacks and a dull yellow blouse, a man wearing a rust-colored safari suit, and a young woman who walked the length of the room and sat at the extreme end of the table, nearest to us.
Did she walk? She seemed to glide from one end of the room to the other. She wore a plain ivory shift dress, sleeveless, which made my own look like something picked up for nothing at a jumble sale.
Ronke sat up or forward or both. I couldn’t tell. Up close, the woman was younger than I had first thought. She may have been a school girl or more probably at university. It was the way she carried herself: head held high, gait neither pronounced nor veiled. I leaned forward to take a closer look. Her hair was straightened and held in place at the back with a tan leather barrette. Each strand seemed to shine as if she had soaked it in olive oil, then combed it free of the oil until it was immaculate and glistening.
“La mère. La mer,” Father began. “Who can tell me the difference and spell each word?” He looked first to the man in the baseball cap nearest the door, then to the woman in the buba. “Mrs. Mayowa?”
Mrs. Mayowa stared down at her textbook as if she hadn’t heard father.
Ronke’s arm shot up, but Father shook his head.
The businessman said, “Well. Hmm. One means ‘mother,’ that much I know. Isn’t it? Are they not the same word? Hmm? Am I not correct?” He spoke so slowly I thought his speech would never come to an end, then he chuckled and glanced around the room as if anticipating applause. No one responded.
Father said, “Very good, very good, Mr. Jegede.” He gave a little laugh at the end of it. “And the other word? Any ideas?”
I was amazed Father hadn’t scolded him for providing an incomplete answer. I didn’t know it was a beginners’ class then. It seemed terribly convoluted and unnecessary, this mixing up of similar sounding words. I began to drift and place things incrementally: the cars in the driveway, the air-conditioned classroom, the easygoing manners, how a T-shirt and baseball cap could be anything but tasteless.
Father turned towards the girl. “Blessing, what do you think it means?” He was smiling when he spoke to her, as if she’d stamped her feet and told a million jokes and made Halimah turn cartwheels around the garden. But she had done nothing at all.
“It means the sea,” she replied. Even her voice was like birdsong. She spelled out the words mère and mer with Father, in a kind of duet, as he wrote them on the blackboard. I was waiting for her to add sir to the end of her sentence, but I would have had to wait until doomsday.
“Excellent, Blessing,” Father said. “Very good indeed.” He smiled at her again.
I slumped back in my seat and looked down at my exercise book. I could barely spell in English, let alone in another language, but I wrote muhther and see very carefully beside the copied-down French words. Ronke glanced at my page and arched her eyebrows, surprised to see actual words rather than doodles. She reached across and corrected the errors.
Father began to converse more in French than in English. For me, the lesson was already over. There came a spell of furious dictation during which even Ronke attempted to fill her page.
At one point Blessing reached into a leather bag at her feet and retrieved a length of lilac cloth and draped it around her shoulders and continued to write. I thought she could have been a film star. All she needed was a pair of sunglasses and high-heeled shoes. As far as I was concerned, she had eclipsed even Mother.
“Okay,” Father said. “Now I am going to introduce you to a new set of words. Words to increase your vocabulary. Words to form phrases. Sentences.” He looked from one end of the room to the other.
“Don’t make it too much, oh.” Mr. Jegede laughed. “It’s okay for these young ones, but some of us cannot run so fast.” He continued to laugh and Father joined him.
Mrs. Mayowa added, “Hmm — it’s true, shah.”
I wanted Father to say Stop, for Mr. Jegede to fall silent; Go, for the businessman to get up and leave. But that wasn’t going to happen. I was beginning to understand. Father would laugh at whatever Mr. Jegede said, smile at whomever required his countenance. I had a dreadful fear he might even begin to genuflect. I couldn’t understand where my father had gone.
“Un oiseau,” Father said. “Repeat after me — un oiseau.”
Everybody chanted. Father wrote each word on the board after the class had repeated it a number of times. “Le déjeuner,” he said. “Who can tell me what this means?” He began his perusal of the room.
“Lunch!” Ronke called out. She must have grown tired of being ignored.
Father’s gaze skittered towards our darkened corner, then scampered back to his students.
Blessing turned to the source of this interruption, and I noticed her eyes — like pools of honey. She turned to the front and said, “Lunch — the girl said it means lunch.” I don’t think she had even been aware of our presence until then.
“Yes, yes,” Father said. “Good. That’s our final word for today. Now I want you to note down all these words and their meanings, and we’re going to compose sentences out of them.”
The woman wearing slacks snorted, as if here were the final straw in an unending array of impossibilities. I copied down a few words, and Father moved on with the lesson. By the time I had finished he was at another point entirely. I wanted to use the toilet. I shivered and rubbed my hands up and down my arms. The heat of the car, of home seemed unexpectedly attractive. I crossed my legs. I had made Father happy yesterday and wasn’t about to forfeit healthy credit. Hot tears dammed up behind my eyes, threatening to spill down my face, onto the new words in my exercise book. I wouldn’t let them.
“Okay, that’s it for today.” Father clapped his hands and the chalk made a brief little cloud. “I want you all to spend at least twenty minutes going over what we’ve learned today, before tomorrow’s class, so we can put these new words into practice.”
He garbled something in French and everyone replied in unison, “Bonne soirée, Monsieur,” and began to pack their bags and push back their chairs.
The woman wearing slacks bustled over. “So Daddy’s teaching you girls to speak French, is that so?” She gave a beatific smile and peered at us as if she were short-sighted.
“Yes, Ma,” Ronke replied.
“Very good, very good indeed,” the woman said. “ I can tell you’re going to be excellent students —you have the best teacher.” She looked at me with a frown that failed to erase her smile. “You’re very young aren’t you, dear, in this late night? Did you understand any of it?” Her face pleated like a sheet of Plasticine whether she smiled or frowned. Otherwise it was perfectly smooth.
I nodded. “Un oiseau means bird.”
“Well!” she laughed. “You will pass me in one week, I can see that.”
“Don’t keep Mrs. Dawal waiting,” Father said as he tidied the classroom. “Why don’t you go to the car while I lock up. Ronke, come and take the key.” W
e followed Mrs. Dawal downstairs, across the hall and into the driveway. A pale blue Mercedes pulled up and a chauffeur hurried out to open the door for her. She said, “Goodnight, girls,” before stepping inside.
We returned to Father’s car and Ronke said, “She was a nice lady,” but I only leaned back and closed my eyes and repeated un oiseau, un oiseau again and again until the words failed to make sense.
“I need to go to the toilet,” I said.
“Wait until we get home. Daddy won’t be long.”
“You can’t? Why didn’t you say something before?”
“Ronke, I need to go badly.”
She sighed and glanced back at the building and opened her door. I followed her across the gravel and we tiptoed upstairs and there was my poster again. I temporarily forgot about my bodily needs and stared at the tower, wondering about the view from its summit, the spread of the city below.
“This way,” Ronke said, moving in the opposite direction from our classroom.
We inspected every door we passed, but there was no sign of a toilet, no symbols to denote gender. We came to the end of the corridor, then realized it continued around the corner, and as we turned, there was Father, pressed against the wall sighing. Someone else was sandwiched between him and the concrete. I noticed a scarf on the floor, discarded like rubbish.
Ronke held me back, but I had already screamed. Not in fright, but in shock or surprise or even glee. For a split second I believe I was delighted. The woman screamed too as if it were a contagion, and Father was stumbling backwards and Ronke was running toward the staircase.
Father coughed and said, “We’re just having a chat. Did I not tell you to say inside the car?” He kept looking from me to Mrs. Mayowa as if he couldn’t decide who he was talking to.
“I need to use the toilet,” I said, but it was already too late, and he had seen that.
“God, oh God,” Mrs. Mayowa kept saying. She snatched up her scarf and tiptoed around me and bumbled away. Father looked at me — not in anger, as I had expected, but with a certain weary release — then held my hand and said,“Come—let’s go. The toilet is this way.”
he following morning Mother surprised us with a treat. “Aunty Amba is giving a party this afternoon, for Jimoh. They won’t be here this weekend, so they’re going to celebrate his birthday today.”
“But he’s just a baby,” Ronke said.
“Never mind. You’re invited. Both of you.” Mother tilted her head. “Call Halimah for me — I can hear the hawker.”
Ronke and I raced to the boys’ quarters where Halimah was hanging out clothes on the washing line.
“Mummy’s calling you. Quick!” I shouted before Ronke could open her mouth. “The hawker is here. Can you buy me a peppermint?”
“Buy it yourself!” Halimah shot back and breezed past us towards the main house.
Mother gave her some notes and instructions to buy a box of sugar cubes and two tins of Peak milk. Halimah hurried to the gate to call the street seller, who had by now passed our compound.
“Find something nice to wear for this afternoon,” Mother said, returning to her wicker chair. She began to thread a reel of white cotton through the eye of the needle. She was wearing a green and navy tie-dye gown, like a sack with holes cut out for the arms and head. I thought Sisi Clara would not approve.
“What should we wear?” Ronke asked.
“Put on your school shoes, both of you. And choose a nice dress or a skirt — it’s up to you.”
My parents had given me a knee-length sleeveless shift dress for Christmas, cinched slightly at the waist. I’d worn it on my seventh birthday. I liked the effect of the salmon polka dots against the sea- blue cotton. When you looked closely you could see they were actually round slices of watermelon embellished with seeds.
From the bedroom window I could make out two figures in the road. I went outside and approached the gate by hugging the trees. There were snakes, here, I knew. Father had once burned down the bushes on one side of the house to smoke out a nest of carpet vipers. A new hedge had sprung up in its place.
Halimah and the street seller were standing in the road on the other side of the fence. She was swinging a blue-and-white-striped bag from her fingertips. The street seller wore dirty oversized shorts, the color of pastry, and a lime-green singlet, too large for him. Halimah kept brushing her forearm and swapping the bag from hand to hand. She didn’t speak to other street sellers this way. She hardly talked to them except to request whatever we needed.
I spotted a twig on the ground and stepped on it, but it wouldn’t snap. I stood on it with my full weight and bounced up and down until it broke with a soft, unsatisfying crunch. When I looked up again Halimah and the boy were still talking. She wasn’t hurrying back to us. To Mother. She seemed, suddenly, to have a life apart from us.
I had never imagined what Halimah did when she wasn’t fetching and carrying, cooking, sweeping, curtsying, running back and forth. She was, to me, like the refrigerator, which only shuddered to life once it was opened.
A trickle of sweat emerged from between my plaits and crawled down one side of my face, but I stood transfixed in the unrelenting sunshine. At one point Halimah looked back at the house, then turned and touched the boy on the arm, and they continued to talk.
A charge passed through me. I wanted to inform the whole world: Mother, Father, our neighbors, the police. I wanted to parade this secret knowledge in front of Ronke and her hopeless request for an apology. Our wet clothes still needed to be hung on the line; Mother’s mangos were slumbering in the fridge, not yet sliced. Everything appeared rather careless to me then, a world rapidly going to pieces.
I stole back to the house, to the grind and thump of the sewing machine. Ronke was standing to one side of the little table, wearing a plaid skirt and blouse, the blouse a washed-out pewter.
“That’s fine,” Mother said, looking up at her after sewing a length of material to a convenient juncture. “Bisi, let me see what you are going to wear.”
I went to our room and put on my dress and stood in front of the mirror. Why did I feel full yet empty at the same time? I took off the dress and held it in both arms and returned to the veranda.
“You’re not going to show me?” Mother asked.
I shook my head.
She turned to the machine and began to adjust the material, what would later be transformed into a white and gold embroidered head tie. “Is something wrong?” she asked. “Bisi?”
“No, Mummy.” I stared down at my dress on the verge of tears.
Ronke rolled her eyes and went back inside. Halimah emerged from the kitchen with two saucers: one containing notes and coins, the other filled with groundnuts and a single peppermint.
“Ma.” She curtsied.
“What is this?” Mother asked. “I didn’t ask you to buy groundnuts.”
“Ma, they gave me,” Halimah replied.
“Who gave you?”
“They gave me, Ma. The hawker gave me.” Halimah had gone into a prolonged curtsy and was only now straightening up.
“Halimah’s boyfriend!” I said, no longer able to contain myself. “Mummy, they were kissing! Outside.” I grabbed the peppermint before anyone could react.
Mother looked from me to Halimah and back again.
“No, Ma. No.” Halimah started to splutter, then remembered her place and fell silent.
“Very well.” Mother glanced down at the change. “Just put it on my dressing table. And we better start getting ready for an early lunch. Aren’t you hungry, Bisi?”
“A little, Mummy.” I couldn’t even begin to think about food. I’d wanted to see Halimah punished, but that no longer seemed probable. My earlier euphoric, righteous air had evaporated.
“Mummy, how old is Halimah?” She had always seemed adult to me, a full-grown woman, whereas the street seller was just a boy.
“How should I know?” Mother said. “Why are you asking?”
I shifted from foot to foot and hugged the dress to my chest.
“Maybe twelve or thirteen. You can ask her, you know.”
“Can I?” I couldn’t tell if Mother was teasing.
She took my dress from me and smoothed it down with one hand and reached out to touch my forehead. “Are you not feeling well, Bisi? Hmm?”
I shook my head, unsure of the correct response. “I’m well, Mummy.” I slouched back to my room and turned the fan to its highest setting and lay on the floor directly beneath it and closed my eyes for the longest time.
I live now in an old apartment building near the Jardin du Luxembourg. I won a place at the Sorbonne. The flat is large enough for four, but I share with two other girls — we are all on scholarships, which only partially cover our rent. We make do. We cook with the cheapest ingredients from the Marché d’Aligre, sampling each other’s cuisine, theirs from Madagascar and Cote d’Ivoire. I had to learn fast after Halimah left — how to cook, sweep, wash dishes, scrub clothes alongside Ronke — witnessing the succession of people who drifted through our bungalow, though they never worked for us for long. They were either let go or left of their own accord. I wanted Halimah back, for everything to remain as it had been, but that never happened. I think of her often, at odd moments: in the middle of a play at the Athénée, halfway through a morning class, sometimes in my dreams. She’s working in the background — working for me, for all of us, so young I can hardly imagine it. I think of how her life might have turned out over the years. I wonder if she was ever able to return home.
Halimah gave a week’s notice, but Mother said she had to stay at least a month so someone else could be hired. She moved out after a week, just as she’d intended, but without her final pay, which Mother withheld. I felt sure she had left to join the street seller, and I said so, but Mother only said, “Don’t guess about things you don’t know.”
I may have been in shock. I returned to the lycée the day after our first class, and again the day after that. It became habit. Ronke refused to go back, and for once, Mother didn’t object. Father said nothing. I sat at the oval table between Blessing and Mrs. Dawal, who was kind to me; we often assisted one another, even though, as she’d predicted, I began to race ahead of her.
Mrs. Mayowa never returned and Father only alluded to her once, the next day during the drive to the lycée. He stated again that they had only been talking. “About grown-up things,” he said. He seemed to want to say more, to explain, but he gave up and asked me what was my favorite word in French. I thought about it for a moment, and then I said, “La mère.”