A short story about a dependent woman seeking autonomy and freedom in her marriage, resisting a patriarchal norm.
It is my turn tonight. These days, I go to the Cyber cafe down the road to find a new style on Kama Sutra before going to our madam’s room. It surprises me that I now look forward to these nights.
I look through the window of my square room and our forewoman, Sika, is examining the Yellow Bush. I’m sure she’ll whine about my gardening when I step out — this evening, the Yellow Bush seems a browner shade of yellow, she’ll raise her left brow and ask me why. It hasn’t rained since last week but the clouds are gathering.
I put on the blue denim jacket that has become a staple for every night I go to madam’s room, and step out to the balcony. The breeze hits my face, a drizzle drops on my right cheek, the trees are swaying. I close my door and turn to Sika who has just materialised behind me.
“She must really love that jacket,” she says casually and walks on, in much the same way as she would have said, it’s really cold this evening. It is not that this is news to her because it was she who wooed me- with a glass of mango juice. But every time she makes an allusion to this affair, I feel inadequately clothed. It was an ordinary sunny day in late November. I was watering the hibiscus in front of the kitchen balcony when she came out with the glass of mango juice.
“It’s fresh, take,” she had said
I grabbed the glass before asking her why she’d thought of bringing me mango juice. She side-eyed me, stupid question, and I realized it immediately. But it was not a stupid question really, there was just a thing about her. Maybe it was how she had stood there as though she was waiting for me to drink up and hand her the glass with a verdict. Or how insufficiently her blue checkered button down shirt and trousers had covered her quirkiness when she suddenly got up, hand in pocket, and left without the glass. She had nodded without turning to look back when I screamed my thank you after her.
The room is warm, a sharp contrast to the chilly breeze I have just walked through to get to the main house. Madam is sitting at her desk, just across from the large bed she shares with her husband. And us. She’s on the phone and I’m sure it is her husband, our oga¹- “oh the mangoes are the juiciest they’ve ever been, the avocados are really healthy, and the soursops, they must find it very fecund here,” she’s telling him. She turns to me half smiling and points to the bed while she’s still on the phone. I sit and think of fecund, how big it sounds, how easily words like this roll off her tongue. I think it is the same way everything else comes easy to her. But I find it strange that she uses crisp words like this in ordinary conversations with her husband. Properwords, like her clothes, neatly lined up in hangers in her open wardrobe, arranged by size and color.
I feel strangely awkward tonight, I feel a tad shy, a shade of what I felt on the first night. But it had seemed almost natural that night, sleeping with her, as though it had always happened. It was, I think, the way she had casually beckoned on me as I stepped in and stood by the door, as though she had expected me to know, from experience, what to do. It was the way she had thrown off the silk peach jacket over her night dress to reveal a fitting opaque blue dress and slid under her duvet, throwing me a pillow and going ahead to flip through a wad of papers. The naturalness of her attitude surprised me.
I stood there. Maybe Sika had forgotten to tell me what to do first when I got to madam’s room because when she stood leaning on the marble desk in my room long after she had brought me the mango juice, she had only told me where to go, why. And I had only nodded, stunned.
So I stood there. “It’s fine if you’d rather not,” madam had said with a kind air of superiority I had become accustomed to, “it’s okay if you want to return to your room.” She was still flipping through the papers. But I was drawn by her easy nonchalance and this thrill of illicitness. And how does a servant say no to his madam? So I took off my leather slippers and got into the bed. Her cologne stung. Mr. Thompson stormed into the room and asked me what the hell I, an ordinary servant, was doing in his bed with his wife — it was only in my head.
Her skin was soft -as I had imagined- and cold. When she straddled me later, I wanted to run off and pee and I must have looked nervous because I stiffened and she had asked me if it was my first. I wanted to tell her that my first was Scholarstica from my catechism classes for the sacrament of confirmation. I wanted to tell her that she had pulled me behind the nursery school building where our classes held and asked me if I knew how to kiss, told me she would show me, that we had made a bloodied mess afterwards and I had had to wrap my sweater around my waist, over my trousers before going home but that it made me happy, that it was nine years ago when I was fourteen and she was sixteen. But I nodded instead and said yes. “Oh,” madam had said.
Tonight, I sit at the edge of the bed while she’s on the call and worry- I think of Mr. Thompson, our Oga. He reminds me of my father, a stout man with a slightly bulging belly, just like my father. His loud laughter echoes round the building when you’re in the main house, even shutting out the sound of the TV singing in the new millennium, we can make it happen. I turn and look at her now as she sits in that slim cain chair, phoning him. I’ll never understand but I wonder why she cheats on a man like him with people like us. She has a charmed life, a coveted rich man.
We don’t know much of what happens in the main house. I, really, but I think I speak for all of us servants. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson have been married for eleven years. They have a happy marriage. That is the most you can know. That is the most I know.
The rest of this household is made up of us servants, lodged in the circle of rooms standing hundred kilometers behind the needlessly large main house and separated by a lineup of whispering pines. I often think of getting lost among these trees and someone finding me dead only five days after. Haha. I think of strange things.
When I first came here in September of last year, I wondered why a couple with no children would need all this space. My whole village would fit into the main house. But I think it is the life that wealthy people live. Now that I think of it, it seems like a long time since that first day when Sika had taken me around, introducing me to the plants as one would an old friend to their lover:
“The carpet grass is a bit brownish lately because it hasn’t rained since August. And Festus, I don’t know, he should be watering this but he doesn’t do enough. But now that you’re here.” She bent to pluck out two strands of weed growing out from the carpet grass, “you have to do this often so they don’t compete with the grass.” I nodded, scanning the large expanse of space the carpet grass covered, running from the gate all the way to the ixora fence around the garden.
“This is easy,” she had said, pointing to the ixora fence as we walked to it before she turned to say “just keep it trim, just enough so that visitors can see the garden when they walk through the gate, they like to show it off.” I nodded.
I met the fruit farm last, an expanse of land lined up with pineapples and avocados and soursops and guavas, many fruits.
She was sitting at the balcony upstairs reading This Day Style when Sika took me to meet her, our madam. Her mustard yellow shift dress seemed perfect against the white flowing gown of the woman on the front cover.
She closed the magazine and turned to me, “John?”
“Yes, madam,” I said on quick second thought. She was my madam even though she had the petite build of my younger sister, Weremi. She looked like the elite women in Nigerian films who would have said nonsense, call me Sarahbut she smiled and did a slow nod, her eyes closing and reopening immediately, as though she had expected me to add the second bit, to recognize that she was my madam. It was the first time I noticed the nonchalance in her manners, I didn’t think a lot about it.
“So you’re from Calabar,” she said, a question that was more a statement, dropping the magazine with a light thud on a low wooden stool beside her and facing me squarely.
“No, madam. I live in Calabar.”
She raised her brow to look at me questioningly, as though to ask what difference it made, and then, I was shocked by how beautiful she was. Her big oval-shaped eyes seemed to have an extra layer of black lining where her lashes were. Her full, chubby brown face was smooth, very smooth, like the skin of a neatly peeled boiled egg. In the light of the fluorescent bulbs glowing in the twilight, her lip gloss looked like debris of vegetable oil after a meal of fried chicken.
She was a contrast to the person in their wedding picture hanging right above the Panasonic box TV overlooking the VHS player in the living room. There, she’s thin, and even though her bold eyes glimmer still with the extra layer of black lining, her cheeks are sunken beneath her make-up and her sparkling white lace wedding dress hangs on her neck, unlike the neckline of the mustard shift dress that now sat at ease on her full neck flanked on the left by neatly braided cornrows that fell to her shoulder.
“I’m from the north, Ma, the Ogoja side of Cross-River.”
“I see,” she smiled, a kind and patronising smile. I thought the person in the wedding picture would have said something like I’m not like those madams who think their servants are peasants. I see you as a member of the household. But now, she had a superiority wrapped in kind manners, that was okay for me. “I hear you grow the best yams.”
I didn’t know how to make small talk with a woman like her so I just stood there, taking in the rusticness of the balcony’s wooden floor, the glitter of the metal railings, the immaculateness of the high white walls. I wanted to reach out and touch the bougainvillea creeping on the railings.
“Welcome to the family,” she finally said after running her eyes from my head to my toe, “keep your nails short.”
I looked at the little finger on my left hand swiftly, “yes, madam.”
It was only a year ago.
The dining room in the servants’ quarters is a vertical, almost long peach hall draped in white Cluny lace curtains. It smells constantly of High Street Talcum powder and reminds me of home in my childhood. The dining table, standing between two lines of seven Parsons-style chairs, was dusty that first day. Harmattan came early last year.
I had looked at the seven chairs and wondered if they had really meant to have all these servants, as I sat at the table, across from Festus, the driver who had doubled as gardener after the last one, just before me.
He laughed, “a poor man’s mind,” what was special about having only seven servants? Nothing, I would realize later. Many households in this neighborhood had more.
The morning after my first night in our Madam’s room, I waited after breakfast to tell Festus. He looked like a wise old man even in his seeming late thirties. Well, he is the oldest among us.
He laughed, a small knowing laugh that made me feel conscious. “What do you want to do?”
“Do you want to quit?”
“Quit ke?” I shook my head. I thought I looked unhappy so I smiled too. “How can? How else can I save for university?”
Chuba had left after only a week, Festus said laughing, because the other wiveshad become so unfriendly. He was the last gardener.
“Oh,” I wondered what was funny: Chuba’s leaving or the fact that he considered us wives in a polygamous marriage. Madam’s wives.
He must have sensed the loss on my face because he quickly added, “you’ll be special, you’re the newest wife.”
I frowned. I wanted to ask him if he went to her room too, if she also insisted he use his little finger and roll out his tongue but I frowned instead and stood up. I realized only now why she said to keep my nails short.
Outside, the soil was soft when I picked the weeds out from the carpet grass. It had rained the previous night, strange for November. I thought of Festus calling me the newest wife. When I was eleven, my father’s younger brother, Uncle Eneji had married a new wife and Aunty Clara, his original wife had taken her daughter and left him. My mother said it was the way of men, unsatisfiable. Well, he wanted a son to carry on his name.
But our madam didn’t want a son to carry her name. Or maybe, I didn’t know. We were servants. I wondered about the others:
Only Festus had come into my room when I first came, to say “mmedi,” a weak effort at saying welcome in Efik. I had laughed and told him thank you but that’s not how to say it.
That night, I had the dregs of okra soup for dinner because Inyang said no one told him I was coming. Festus said it was a lie, it was his way of compelling obeisance just because he is in charge of something as important as food. “No mind am, he is the grumpy senior wife, it’s paining him that there’s a new wife,” Festus had leaned closer to whisper before laughing a loud sarcastic laugh. I said nothing.
We do not say much to each other outside the dining room, we work in different parts of the house. We do not say much to each other in the dining room either, we eat. At first, I thought it was the way it was so I stuck to talking with Festus alone. But I had been here for two weeks when Ali who took care of the fruit farm came to say he wanted to help me. I was trimming the ixora.
I looked up and wondered if he found tending the fruit farm a lot easier than my gardening, why he thought he could leave the farm and offer to help me with my work. Maybe it was easier.
“Why? With what?” I asked
The others were plotting against me, he said.
I raised my brow and focused on his lanky, tall figure. Why would they be plotting against me? I said I had done nothing.
He laughed and called me a novice. “Well, they don’t like you because madam likes you.” “Too much,” he added after a pause.
“Look at you. You see anybody go there two times a week?”
It seemed as though I was hearing his northern accent for the first time.
Well, in case I didn’t know, he was saying, Boma- the servant who cleaned the main house- and Inyang -the cook- were planning to steal from madam to frame me. “They’ll put it in your room and tell madam,” he was pulling at his ear lobes, in the way of a warning. But I paid attention to how easily he replaced his THs with Zs, Ps with Fs, how he said za room instead of the room, how he said shoffing when he meant shopping, how he had called me a nobiswhen he said I was a novice.
I nodded. I didn’t know that our madam liked me too much, I didn’t even know that there was a different way to like any of us. I only knew that we took turns to go to her room when Mr. Thompson was away. But I started locking my room and carrying the key around in my pocket. It was only two days later when I walked into the kitchen and saw Ali talking to them, in the same hush tone he had told me about their plans. He had swiftly stopped talking.
I was not surprised. Beautiful women often married unattractive men. Our Oga was proof, this stout man in his early sixties. The only thing beautiful about him, I think, was the way his smile always tilted to the left side of his mouth. But he has the grand, polished air of rich people and carries the woody smell of cinnamon around, I think that was enough. I often think of how if he had had a daughter at thirty, she’d be the age of his wife, or close. But I think more often of why she spites her husband’s grandeur for this life with us. I’ll never know.
They have a happy marriage, it is what it seems, perfectly. It is what it is on the latest edition of Ovation Magazine: Inside The Dream Life of The Thompsonswhere her teal green ball gown is flowing, covering up space and hiding half the white trousers beneath his deep green brocade kaftan, where she is smiling at him, her teeth sparkling like the diamond stud on her ears. And you can be sure about their happiness when you stand in the hallway that separates their small dimly lit dining room from the kitchen, on the nights when he’s at home.
He stares at her and smiles often, a contrast to his typical straight look when he walks through the fruit farm with Ali or when he yells to Festus to “get in the car quickly, I’m running late.” When he passes the bowl of steamy groundnut and chicken soup to her and taps his legs and nods his head to Nina Simone’s Feeling Good which you will see is their dinner favorite, he’s different.
Which is why I was surprised the first time he broke a glass. I was standing in the hallway that separates their small dimly lit dining room from the kitchen, waiting on Sika. The door was slightly open and I could see our madam sitting in the chair facing the living room, scooping spoons of jollof rice into her mouth. The blue light had cast a shadow on her face, making her chewing seem like a wry smile.
She had sat there unmoving, calmly eating rice as though he hadn’t just flung a glass on the floor. He pranced about, and then suddenly came back and sat in the chair at her right and took her right hand and kissed it. I couldn’t hear him when he talked.
She said, “my goodness, Remi, you have the weirdest ideas.” She had the same nonchalance she had had on my first night in her room, when she threw a pillow to me, the same nonchalance she had every time.
I took to standing in the hallway.
The second time, he had just returned from Warri where there would be a new fruit juice factory, he spoke loudly, “that simp! That drag of a man.”
“You think so low of me.”
I wondered what she wanted to say more and wished for it but she only opened her mouth and then stopped and smiled and went and poured two glasses of wine. When she took him in her arms to dance to Majek Fashek, he didn’t decline. I watched them ebb apart from each other and return in swaying reggae movements. I worried they’d step on the shards.
It is a quiet evening today. The air is humid, a break from the chilly breeze of the steady rains these past days. Outside my window, the Yellow Bush is blooming and still. I step out of my room and Festus is sitting under the mango tree in the middle of the large circle that is our quarters, reading a newspaper. Our Oga has been at home for three weeks, it is unusual. Tonight would have been Boma’s night but we have not been in madam’s room for three weeks. As I walk to meet Festus, I think of the two separate evenings her marriage inhabits — the evenings we have, the evenings he has. It is funny how we have taken up space. I laugh.
“Why you dey follow yourself laugh?” I look up at Festus and realise only now that I have reached the stone bench he’s sitting on.
“Nothing, nothing, just thinking about things.”
He searches my face, “you don go fall for your Oga wife.”
I had never thought about it that way, falling for her. She did not give you any permission to fall.
He shakes his head and laughs, “you tink say I be small pikin? Eh, do I look like a child to you?”
I get up, “that one konsain you.”
He holds me back and wags a finger at me, “be watchful.” I don’t know what to make of it. I thought it would have been clearer if he said be careful. It is easy for him to give advice, I think. It is easy when he’s the only one she doesn’t sleep with. It occurs to me only now that I’ve never wondered why.
Inside the main house, their small dining room is slightly brighter. A fluorescent lamp is on on a low cabinet and the glass door of the room is closed leaving only the wooden door ajar. I suddenly think I should go back to my room but I go into the kitchen which is now characteristically empty, after Inyang has served their dinner and Sika must now be in her room.
I must strain to hear them now so I take off my slippers and move closer to the door and sit at the edge of the single stair that connects the hallway to the dining room, where I cannot be seen. I wish I can open the glass door.
She’s pulling chunks off the full roast chicken sitting in a tray, “what does it matter, Remi?”
His eyes bulge and dim again.
She slips a tiny piece of chicken into her mouth.
“These boys and what does it matter?” His voice is calm, lacking the usual boisterousness. “Did it have to be them?”
My heart stops and starts again. I press my eyes to the glass. At first, the mix of fluorescent and blue light had caused an inconsistent flicker on his face but now that I look closely, he’s crying. I find it unbelievable that he’s crying, our oga, this stout, sturdy man with a deep voice, this man who holds this household together without effort.
She drops a cutlery noisily on the glass plate, “do you have a preference?” she says calmly.
“Do you know,” he says coming to sit beside her, “do you even know how much I love you?”
I take my slippers in my hands and get up, I have to tell Festus. She has stopped cutting the chicken and is sitting with her arms crossed on the table, and as though to say if it makes you feel better, she says “it was purely physical, Remi, it was just sex.”
He looks forlorn, as though he were the offender and points to her stomach with all five fingers of his right hand, palm facing upward.
She pouts, “a child is always a gift.”
A short time passes -short enough for a tumbler to leave a hand and crash on the floor- but the uncomfortable silence elongates it. I try to keep my breathing steady.
“But you never wanted children.”
“A child is always a gift, Remi. I wanted a gift, something you didn’t give me,” she says, her tone unaffected, the same as always.
I think about Festus under the tree. I think about the other servants. I wonder if they know their lives have changed, if their lives have changed at all. There’s heat in my chest. This strong wooden floor underneath my feet feels shaky.
Tonight on the stereo, Sade Adu is singing King of Sorrow.
At home, my sister, Weremi will sit up straight on the lone red pouffe in the center of our living room and gape at me, “Will you dash them the baby? I swear it’s your baby, I feel it. Will you just dash them?”
But now, I walk quietly through the door of the hallway, leading out to the kitchen balcony. The sky is turning to the purple of twilight, the breeze is still and the trees are calm, it will not rain tonight.
Amokeye Adi is a Southern Nigerian writer born in Eastern Nigeria where she grew up in a home full of books and started reading fiction at around the age of 6. She studied English and Literature at the University of Calabar, is enthusiastic about history, and also writes essays, mostly on feminism. You can follow her on Instagram @amokeye.adi.