I arise before the sun begins its westward journey, before the roosters sing their morning assertions, before Ahmed steals back to Alhaja’s compound next door.
Allāhu akbar, Ash-hadu an-lā ilāha illā allāh…
I am quick about my morning duties, making sure to be busy before the assonant adhan from the neighbourhood mosque stirs up a part of me I have long since accepted must lie dormant. Madam is a Christian of the fire-and-brimstone kind; my religion is important to me but one must eat in this city. To get this job, I became Mary to replace Maryam. Ahmed is the only one who still refers to me by the name my father gave me.
My Jesus, my Saviour, Lord there is none like You…
The syrupy melody means that Madam is awake. The tune is catchy and I have heard this CD every day for a month now. I hum along, careful not to actually sing the words. I turn and she is behind me, watching me pretend to mop the floor I mopped an hour before. I do this to give her the visual confirmation required to convince her of my diligence. It’s all a game to me.
‘Good morning ma.’ I curtsy slightly.
‘M-hm.’ She returns upstairs as silently as she came. One day last year, Madam travelled to Switzerland for two months and returned with half the woman and twice the luggage. She has been shrinking ever since. I fear that one day she will disappear.
It is Saturday. The children are not at home; they have gone to an aunt’s to spend some time before they travel for the holidays. This means that there are fewer things to mess up and fewer things to be scolded about. This means that Madam is paying more attention to me and will find more things to scold me about. The uncertainty excites me – will I win today?
Madam’s husband (not Oga, as he does not involve himself enough in my role in the house to be called so) chases endlessly after success, never happy with one goal. He calls it ‘high-flying’. I call it greed. He and his friends encourage each other through jealousy and insecurity. One of them closes a business deal and so the other buys a new house or car to remind them all (including himself) that he too is a major player. As such, no one is ever content. Their wives suffer, for behind the lacquer of Botox injections, Indique hair and waist trainers are lonely women who have been ignored for cars, houses and – worst of all – other women. I serve their drinks when they visit. They are indiscreet with their boasts, even around me. I know that Mr Ebuka has bought his mistress a new flat in VI, and that Pastor Edwin has just bought his way into a government-housing contract. I have learnt to be invisible, absorbing as much as I can.
I bear the family no ill will; I simply find the details of their private lives more scintillating than any Telemundo drama. Thievery does not appeal to me in the slightest. Madam sets ‘traps’ around the house – a $100 bill here, a gold bracelet there – to test my integrity. I play along and leave the items where I find them because admitting that I have seen them at all would sadden her. It would mean that I am a good person, but she needs me to be the opposite. She needs me to be a lesser person than she is, a foil to her rapidly depreciating self-worth.
Back to the present. Madam is expecting some guests and is berating my forgetting to polish some random figurine or the other. I have learnt to tune her out but watching her scream always fascinates me. When she was porcine, the trembling of her jowls was hypnotic. Her new face, however, does not move as freely. In fact, movement above her nose is limited, a sharp contrast to her lips and tongue, which contort alarmingly to distort an otherwise pretty face. The effect is one you must see for yourself to appreciate fully.
‘Are you LISTENING TO ME?’
‘Yes ma.’ (I do not tune her out completely, in case she asks a question.)
‘O-HOOOO. So we are now mates, abi? I talk and you talk.’
‘No ma, I just- ‘
‘If I hear pim, you will leave this house today. I nugo?’
…and so on. I play the game because she needs it to happen. She needs to feel superior to me even though that no longer holds. When I moved here, Madam had a work ethic that would put a bee to shame. I truly feared her inspection of my efforts because they could not compare to her machine-like results. Eventually, I learned. She realised this too and began to relax. After a year of laziness, she can no longer keep up her previous pace. I go on leave and come back to find everything covered in a layer of dust and grime. She knows it as well as I do but she will never admit it to herself, not on top of the indignity of a husband who fails to see her pain at having lost herself to a marriage.
Night falls. Madam locks the door of the kitchen. I find it funny that she thinks I would steal from her at night. The night guard, Sunny, hates me and would never let me escape. I refused his advances and now he watches with his heart in a green fist as Ahmed slips into my room in the boys’ quarters every night. No, to steal from her I would do so in the daytime. I know where she keeps her spare room key. I know that she keeps a bundle of dollars under a loose tile in the study. I know that her husband has a hidden safe in the garage. I clean the house from top to bottom every day. I know all their secrets. Innocent wide-eyed Mary, with her poor English and ugly headscarves, does not pique their interest at all.
They know nothing about me.
Sometimes Olamide Akinwuntan paints, sometimes she writes. Often times to escape the tedium of medical school. Otherwise you may find her at home, asleep.
Related country: Nigeria