That doctor’s surgery was always full, but it was made worse today by the start of the Christmas holidays. It needed only one child to come down with a cold for every other child in the estate to follow suit, and now they crowded the waiting room taking up every available seat. There were many things that Bisi would never get used to in England after ten consecutive years, and one of them was the way that children were indulged. What child in Nigeria would dare to sit when adults were standing? No wonder they ran wild in adolescence.
Every time the door opened, Bisi got a blast of cold air. Winter was the other thing she would never get used to, she thought, as she wrapped her coat closer about her and rammed her icy hands into her pockets. Just then, another patient emerged from the surgery. Ten more ahead of her, and time was going. The outside door opened again, and an old lady, bent almost double, shuffled in with a walking stick. Bisi had noticed her before. She lived on the ground floor of her block. She was always alone whenever Bisi saw her, usually on her way to the shops, clasping a string bag, which was all she could manage. Bisi even thought, once or twice, to offer to help her, but you could never tell with these people. She might have been a racist, especially someone of her generation. All the same, she felt sorry for her. This was the worst kind of country to be an old person. Half-an-hour passed. Bisi was at last beginning to warm up when her turn finally came. She might even have allowed the old woman go in ahead of her, except that she was running late.
The doctor, a tall, balding middle-aged white man with worry frowns on his forehead was bent over his desk, making notes in a file.
“Take a seat, I’ll be with you shortly,” he said, not looking up.
Bisi sat down. You could tell this was an inner-city surgery by its shabbiness. Bisi who was used to lower standards back home hadn’t at first noticed until she had occasion to visit another surgery in a better part of London and saw the difference.
“So, what can I do for you?” the doctor asked, sitting back in his chair and taking up another file. It was more a statement that a question as he quickly read through the notes, muttering to himself as he did so. He had an air of perpetual destruction about him as if he only partially connected with reality. It made Bisi feel even more anxious.
“Have you been to see him yet?” he finally said.
“Not yet, doctor,” she replied.
“At the moment, he’s only been admitted for observation. Once the doctors there have had a chance to access his case, the matter will be referred to the appropriate authorities for the next step. At this stage, I can’t really say more than that, I’m afraid.”
“But how long will it take, doctor?”
“I can’t say. You will have to ask them.”
“But I don’t want him to go to prison,” she said, uttering the dreaded word for the first time.
“I don’t know any prison. That’s for the authorities to judge, but getting him committed…” He shook his head and consulted the file again. “It’s a serious step, Mrs. er…”
“I only want him to come home,” Bisi said.
“Yes yes, I do understand, Mrs…”
“Adesanya,” she said.
“Mrs. Adiy-sonya, your son almost killed a man for no apparent reason. That is a serious offence in anybody’s book.”
Without warning, Bisi started crying. She hadn’t meant to. She had meant to be strong, if only for Rotimi’s sake.
“Oh dear,” the doctor said. “Oh dear,” he repeated. He looked about for the box of Kleenex but couldn’t find it anywhere on his desk. “Where did she put it?” he muttered. He reached into his coat pocket and took out a handkerchief.
“Here, you better have this,” he said, waving it at her.
“Thank you, doctor,” Bisi said.
“You mustn’t take it to heart, Mrs…er, I’m sure everything will work out in the end.” He consulted his notes once more.
“I see that he’s never been in trouble before,” he added, ignoring Bisi’s involuntary sob. “And I want you to know that I will do my best at the hearing to explain to the board the kinds of stress that you people…er, I mean the immigrant community, are under.” He paused. “It’s not easy for you people to cope with a different culture,” he added. “And, of course, the hostility makes it worse. I sympathise, I really do. Your son is not the first case I’ve seen in my years at this surgery.”
“Yes, yes, that’s it, doctor,” Bisi said eagerly. “Too much stress, really. It hasn’t been easy. And without a husband…”
There was an awkward silence as Bisi dabbed at her eyes and then blew her nose. The doctor looked at his watch.
“I see it’s almost visiting time at the clinic,” he said. “Why don’t you go see him? You can tell me tomorrow how he’s getting on.”
Bisi stood up. “Thank you, doctor.”
She turned to go, and remembered the handkerchief which she had crumpled into a ball in her palm. She glanced at it and then at the doctor, but he was already bent over his notes, seemingly oblivious of her presence.
“What do you want?” the woman snapped from behind the reinforced glass partition.
“I’ve come to see my son,” Bisi said in an even voice.
“Rotimi Adesanya,” Bisi said.
The woman looked up. She was one of those thin, sallow blondes for whom being blonde was everything. And with some justification, it seemed. She could have been the sister of that bitch her husband ran away with.
“Surname only,” the blonde said, and then, speaking slowly in case Bisi was dim or didn’t understand English properly, said, “I want your son’s last name, not his Christian name.”
“Ade-san-ya,” Bisi said, equally slowly, careful to emphasise each syllable. She didn’t want to have to repeat it. Luckily, his name was at the top of the register.
“Go and sit over there,” the blonde ordered, indicating the long wooden bench against the far wall. There was only one other occupant, a middle-aged, overweight white woman in a cheap coat and sturdy black shoes that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a man. Bisi nodded absently at her and sat at the other end, beside a sickly-looking plant that was the only other object of furniture in the room.
“All right, love?” the woman said, managing a limp smile.
“Thank you,” Bisi replied, glancing at her. Bisi didn’t particularly want to be drawn into conversation.
“I fuckin’ ‘ate this place,” the woman persisted after a short silence.
Bisi inclined her head in what she hoped was a gesture of sympathy. What was there to say?
“Your son?” the woman added. Clearly, she wasn’t going to be so easily put off. Bisi nodded.
“Mine, too,” the woman said and then cleared her throat.
“Took a get fuckin’ carving knife to his dad, didn’t ‘e?” she continued. “Couldn’t stand seeing ‘is poor ol’ mum being knocked about no more. A good boy is my Brian. Always looks out for ‘is mum, does Brian.”
Bisi smiled reassuringly.
“What about you? What happened to your boy?”
“Nothing,” Bisi said quickly. She shrugged. “He wasn’t feeling well, that’s all,” she added, as if that explained everything. The woman looked sceptical.
“He was working too hard,” Bisi added. “He had too much stress. He just needs to rest.”
“That’s alright, love,” the woman said, reaching over and patting her arm. “I understand. It’s not easy the first time.”
Bisi jerked her arm away. What did she mean? There wasn’t going to be a second time.
“I’m sorry, love,” the woman began.
“Why don’t you mind your own business,” Bisi snapped. The woman burst out laughing, revealing a mouthful of blackened stumps. “Stuck up, are we? Think you’re better than me, do you? I ‘ope your son fuckin’ rots in ‘ere, all right? I ‘ope ‘e fuckin’ rots, darling.”
The blonde looked up sharply. “Mrs. Hopgood,” she called, indicating a door to the left which was being held open by a large black man in a white coat. After the woman left, Bisi realised that she was having trouble breathing and that her heart was beating fast. She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. This country was going to kill her, she thought.
The time passed. What was keeping them? What were they doing to her son? If only she had sent him back home for his schooling when it had become obvious that she was going to remain here for some time, none of this would have happened. The fees wouldn’t have been much when you consider the exchange rate, and he would have had proper training from his uncles and aunts. Not like here, where he didn’t even have a father he could look up to. He could have been coming to London once a year to see her.
“Mrs. Adey…sonya,” the blonde called. The same door opened and the same black man beckoned her forward. His head was completely shaven, but he sported a nicely trimmed goatee, and when he smiled, as he did now, his whole face lit up revealing two rows of perfect teeth.
She stepped past him into a brightly-lit room with a small, barred window high up in one corner, a television monitor in another, and half a dozen tables scattered about. The other woman and her son sat at one of the tables; Rotimi sat at another. He was staring at the table with his head in his hands. His shoulders were hunched as if he carried a burden he could barely support. Like the other boy, he was dressed in a pale green smock and pale green trousers. No belt or zips or buttons. She went over to him, but as soon as she touched him, he recoiled, and when he looked up, it was as though he didn’t immediately recognise her.
“How are you feeling, my son?” she said, sitting down opposite him. He shrugged and looked down at the table. “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” she said. He lifted his head with evident reluctance. She saw that his eyes were glazed. Of course, it was the fault of his medication. She had seen television documentaries about places like this.
“Did they give you medicine? Injection?” she asked. He nodded and moistened his lips with his tongue. She saw that his lips were cracked as if he had been out in the cold a long time. But it was warm in the room, even hot.
“Why not take some water?” she said, removing her coat. She looked over to the door and beckoned to the man.
“Please we need some water.” He nodded and went away.
“Listen, Rotimi,” Bisi began, bending towards him and speaking in Yoruba, “you must get better quickly and come home. You are not even supposed to be here at all. This is all a mistake. You just got yourself upset over nothing. Probably you were working too hard. I already told you before that you weren’t getting enough sleep. Everybody knows that if you don’t get enough sleep, you start to suffer from hallucinations. But you are not sick. You must remove that idea from your head. We don’t have such sickness in my family, or even your father’s family.” She paused. Rotimi didn’t seem to be paying attention. She reached forward and put her hand on his head, but he pulled back from her. She glanced at the other woman, but she was too engrossed in her own son.
“They have just been giving you medicine to confuse you,” she continued. “That is how these white people are. Once they see a black man, they want to start experimenting with him. How can they know that you are from a respectable home? They think you come from…” She wanted to add something disparaging about West Indians but she knew how much this annoyed him. Rotimi insisted on seeing all black people as the same, which was indication enough of how far he had lost touch with his roots. She should have sent him back when she had the chance. She shouldn’t have let his father talk her out of it. And it wasn’t even as if he was going to pay. She saw that he was drooling from the side of his mouth. She took out her handkerchief and wiped away the spittle. The man returned with a paper mug. She took it from him and passed it to Rotimi. His hands shook so badly that he splashed some of the water on his shirt.
“Rotimi, you must control yourself,” she said. “If they see you like this, they will want to keep you here for a long time.” He didn’t answer, just stared at the table. “What of food? Will they allow me to be cooking for you?”
“I don’t think so, mum,” he said, speaking for the first time. He slurred his words so that she almost didn’t catch what he said.
“Why not?” she demanded. “Am I not allowed to feed my own son?” She beckoned to the man.
“Don’t start, mum. Please,” Rotimi begged.
“What’s wrong with you?” she snapped. “I just want to ask this man something,” she added more evenly.
“Just leave it, mum.” There was almost a whine in his voice that reminded her of his father. “Control yourself,” she snapped.
The man came over.
“Please what is your name?” she asked and smiled. Rotimi looked away.
“Leroy,” he said. He had a soft voice for such a big man, and for the first time she noticed the diamond stud in his left ear.
“Rotimi is my son,” she said. “I want you to be helping him for me.
Leroy nodded. Rotimi muttered under his breath but she ignored him and she rummaged around in her handbag until she found a £10 note.
“Have this,” she said. Leroy glanced up at the monitor and then quickly pocketed the money.
“I don’t trust these white people to look after him,” she added. “Once they see a black person, they can do anything.”
Leroy sucked his teeth. “Is Babylon, man,” he said.
“I want to be cooking for Rotimi,” she said.
“African food, yeh?” Leroy said and nodded.
“Yes, proper Nigerian food,” she said. “You know how to eat it?”
“Sure. Why not?” Leroy said.
“So you could help me?” She said.
“No problem,” Leroy said. He glanced at the monitor again. “Let me know when you’re ready to go and we’ll discuss outside.”
The other woman scraped her back and stood up. Leroy went to attend to them. For such a big man, he had a light tread.
“Why do you always have to do that?” Rotimi said.
“Why can’t you just leave things be?” he said with that whine of his. “I mean…” he added, and then he just shrugged and stared at the table. The woman passed close by but Bisi ignored her.
“You don’t even know what they’re putting in your food,” she said. “And what kind of English food are they giving you, anyway?”
“I’m sure they know best,” he said in a resigned voice.
“How can they know best? Do they know you better than I do? Were they the ones who carried you for nine months? Answer me. Were they?”
“Leroy appeared at her side.
“Visiting time is over, I’m afraid,” he said. “You have to go now.”
“Just one moment,” Bisi said.
“What else must I bring for you tomorrow?” she asked.
“Cigarettes,” he said.
“Do they allow smoking here?”
He shook his head.
“I’ll cook egusi with pounded yam for you,” she said. “You have to put on weight. You’re too thin.”
Leroy coughed. She stood up.
“Take care, my son,” she said, touching his face, but he didn’t look up, just stared at the table.
Leroy met her outside, just around the corner from the clinic. She could tell that he liked her by the way he had glanced at her breasts when she was putting on her coat. Men were so transparent. It turned out that he lived in a nearby estate. He arranged to come after nine when he finished work. She looked at her watch. It was just gone noon but you wouldn’t have known it from the overcast sky. She hadn’t felt the warmth of the sun on her skin in weeks. She caught a bus and got off after six stops. It was only a short walk to the house. As she approached the door, she saw a slight movement of the net curtain in a front room. She smiled to herself. It was good if they were still impatient for her after all this time. Bob opened the door. Bob had no arms, just two stumps that jutted six inches from his shoulders, but you’d be surprised what he could do with them. In a way, it was normal for him because he was born that way. His mother had taken a drug while she was pregnant, and this was the result. He had never known what it was to have hands.
“You’re late,” he said, glancing up the street first this side and then that before closing the door. She started taking off her coat.
“I said you’re late,” Bob repeated querulously, coming around and standing directly in front of her.
“You don’t want me again?” she said, pausing as if to put on her coat again. He made an exasperated gesture.
“I don’t like people being late, that’s all,” he said almost apologetically. Just then Pete came through in his wheelchair. He was paralysed from the waist down following a motor accident two years ago. The accident wasn’t his fault. It happened that he was driving home from work late one winter’s evening when a teenage joyride lost control of the car he had stolen and ran straight into him. Both the boy and his companion walked away from the from the accident, leaving him strapped in his seat belt thinking that he was going die. Since then, he sometimes wished that he really had died.
“Hello, love,” he said. Bisi bent down and gave him a peck on his cheek. She liked him because he was a decent man and she felt sorry for him because he always looked so sad.
“Let’s get on with it, then,” Bob said patiently. He hopped from one foot to the other, then went into the adjacent room. Pete raised his eyebrows at Bisi, who giggled.
“Don’t mind him, love,” he said. “At least you don’t have to live with him.”
They followed Pete into what they jokingly called the pink room. Everything in the room was pink: the curtains, the carpet, the bed sheets, the light bulb, even the nurse’s uniform which didn’t button at the top and hardly covered Bisi’s crotch.
The routine was always the same: Pete would watch while she undressed Bob and then massage him back and front with coconut oil — always coconut oil — talking to him all the while, telling him what a big, naughty boy he was, and that if he didn’t behave himself, she wouldn’t come back to give him a treatment. The script was wholly Bob’s idea. At first she had found it difficult to keep a straight face much to Bob’s annoyance, but now the words just ripped off her tongue and all the while she would have to keep an eye to gauge when he was ready, then she would fix the condom telling him that she would reward him just this once if he promised to be on good behaviour in the coming week, and then she would straddle him but facing away from him and leaning forward so that Pete, who had been silently watching all the while, could play with her breasts while she rode up and down, up and down, faster and faster as Bob’s moans grew louder, and she and Pete stared into each other’s eyes. Afterwards, when Bob was satisfied, curled up in a ball under the covers, she would sit on Pete’s lap, but carefully so as not to break his fragile bones and let him bury his face in her breast. Sometimes, most times, he would weep silently and she would stroke his hair until he was done, apologising to her for being such a nuisance.
The entire session lasted an hour, and then she and Pete would have tea and a slice of cake in the kitchen while Bob slept in the pink room, and then he would give her the money in an envelope. Today, she was in a hurry because she wanted to do some shopping at the market before going to work, but Pete wanted to say something to her. This was unlike him. He was a taciturn man, taciturn and sad with his sad eyes.
“How long has it been now since you answered the advert for a cleaner?” He chuckled. “And to think you actually cleaned for the first few weeks. Eighteen months, is it? Or longer?”
She shrugged. “About eighteen months,” she said.
“Well, all good things must come to an end,” he said. “I got a letter yesterday from my sister in Margate. Her husband died recently and she wants me to go and live with her. We were always close, me and Beryl, and…” He shrugged.
She didn’t know where Margate.
“What of Bob?” she said.
“That’s the point, love. He couldn’t afford to pay you. It will be all he can do to feed himself when I go.” He indicated the envelope on the table. “Anyway, I’ve put in something extra as a token.”
“So no more?” she said.
He nodded sorrowfully. “I’m going to miss you.”
“Maybe I could come and see you in—”
“Margate?” he said and laughed.
“I don’t think my sister will be terribly impressed, do you? No, love, it’s goodbye, I’m afraid.”
She didn’t have time to go back home after the market, so she caught the underground to the city. Ngozi was already there ahead of her, reading one of those trashy women’s magazines she liked so much.
“How body?” Bisi said, sitting down on the only other chair amid the pans and buckets and brushes in the cramped, windowless room.
Ngozi shrugged. “My sister, I am tired of this life,” she said in a high-pitched voice.
“What happened?” Bisi said.
“You know how we Igbos are. We can’t miss Christmas at home. But come and look at what was my useless husband went and did. He took the whole money we have been saving since January and give it to his brother.”
“His brother came with the cock-and-bull story that he was owing money to some people who wanted to kill him if he didn’t pay them.”
“Some West Indians.”
“It’s a lie!” Bisi said.
“That my in-law,” Ngozi said, shaking her head. She clicked her fingers. “One day will be one day, I myself will kill him not to talk about West Indians.”
“But doesn’t your husband know his own brother now?”
“I wonder. And it’s not only me. Others have been warning him but he won’t listen. This is the first time I won’t go home for Christmas and my mother is sick.”
She brought out a blue aerogramme letter and waved it at her.
“This just arrived today. She’s asking me to bring some medicine for her when I come. She doesn’t trust the one they have in Nigeria. It could be fake, you know our people.”
“You could still find somebody to help you take it,” Bisi said. Ngozi sighed. Bisi wondered whether she should tell her about Rotimi, but before she could make up her mind, there was a knock on the door.
“Are you girls decent?” a male voice called.
“Go away,” Bisi said.
The door opened and a white head peered round.
“Hello, girls, how are you?” he said and winked at Bisi. He looked at Ngozi. “And how’s my darling?”
“John, aren’t you afraid?” Bisi said and smiled.
“What should I be afraid of, sweetheart?” he said.
“Don’t you know what her husband will do when he catches you? He will cook you over a fire and call his relations to come and eat.”
John laughed. His laugh seemed to come from deep inside him, full and unabashed. Bisi could see why Ngozi liked him.
“That’s why I keep telling her we should run away together to a Greek island. He will never find us there. We can swim all day long in the nude. You can come and join us. Will find you a nice Greek man to make love to you under the stars.” Ngozi giggled.
“Beats a winter here in England,” he said. “But I suppose we better get on with real life,” he added. “Come on, girls. Let’s get busy.”
Bisi started on the top floor. At least with this work she didn’t have to talk to anybody. She walked fast. She wanted to finish quickly tonight so she could go home and cook before Leroy turned up.
Three hours later, she had reached the middle office. There was no sign of Ngozi. She had run out of cleaning powder, so she went downstairs, but just as she was about to open the door to the storage room, she heard John’s voice.
“That’s it, my lovely. Come on, sweetheart. Come on, you gorgeous black bitch…” She turned and went back upstairs. She could manage without powder.
Ten minutes later, Ngozi came up. She had a dreamy, far-away look on her face.
“Bisi, let’s go and take some refreshments,” she said.
Bisi looked at her watch. She was already running a bit late.
“Don’t worry,” Ngozi said. “I’ll finish for you.”
The bar itself was half-empty. Most of the office workers had left for home after a quick drink. Only the stragglers were left, a group of five men and a woman loudly propping up the bar. It only took the presence of one woman to have the men competing with one other. And it wasn’t even as if the woman was attractive, although she had good legs which she used as an advantage.
Bisi and Ngozi settled in their usual corner with a small bottle of stout each.
“I want to return home,” Ngozi said.
“But you said…”
“No, forget about Christmas. The money is gone. I mean I want to go and live at home. I am tired of this life here. When I was at home, you couldn’t see me doing this kind of work.” She took up a sip of her drink. Bisi knew exactly what she meant.
“But what will you do in Nigeria?”
She shrugged. “Anything,” she said. “I can do any kind of business.”
“And what of your husband?”
“Chijioke! That’s why I wanted to talk to you. Our marriage is no marriage. I want to leave him but I have nowhere to stay.”
“But how can you just leave him like that?”
“Why not? I have no issue with him.” She paused, then put her hand on Bisi’s arm.
“I’m expecting, but not for him.”
“Ngozi!” Bisi exclaimed.
“My child will be a half-caste,” Ngozi added. “Can you imagine. An oyibo.”
“What will your people say?”
Ngozi shrugged. “What can they say? Anyway, I want to stay with you in a meantime. Six months at the most.”
“I hope your husband won’t come and make trouble in my house?”
“Even, he doesn’t know where you live,” she said. “And I can be paying you rent.”
“What of tomorrow?”
Jide was waiting for her outside the front door.
“How did you enter the building?” Bisi said.
He shrugged. “Open up. I’m feeling cold,” he said. “I’ve been standing here since. Why are you so late?”
Bisi hesitated, then opened the door. He pushed past her and made straight for the living room. She went into the kitchen.
“Why don’t you use the timer for the central heating?” he called. She slid back the partition and saw him crouched over the electric fire.
“Are you the one who is going to pay my bill?” she said. She deliberately kept her voice low. She wasn’t going to be drawn into an argument which was exactly what he wanted. For him, having an argument meant that there was still a connection between them, which was better than no connection at all.
“What of Rotimi?” he asked. “When I saw him last week, he said that he had found a good job working with computers.”
She didn’t bother to answer as she set about washing the vegetables. He came into the kitchen.
“I asked you a question,” he said.
“What do you want me to add since you said he already told you?” she said.
“Shouldn’t he be back by now?” he said, ignoring her tone.
She shrugged. “Maybe he went to the bar with his mates,” she said. “He’s not a small boy. He can do as he likes.”
“What are you cooking?” he said, peering over her shoulder. She could smell the beer on his breath.
“Egusi,” he said. It was his favourite dish, and Bisi really knew how to cook it.
“Leave me, jo,” she said, pushing him away.
“Bisi, why now?” he said with that whine in his voice. He came up behind her and put his arms around her waist. “You are still my wife, you know,” he added, and squeeze her breast.
She pushed him again, harder this time, and then turned to face him.
“I said you should leave me,” she said, pointing a knife at him.
“And I said that you are still my wife,” he retorted. But he stayed where he was, one eye on the knife.
“You think we’re still in Nigeria?” she said, deliberately keeping her voice low. She wasn’t going to allow him to provoke her, not tonight.
“Come on, Bisi. You know I still love you,” he said. He grinned boyishly but she would have had more respect for him if he slapped her. “And I know you still love me,” he added. “That is why you are angry. Only a woman in love is able to be angry.”
“Who told you I’m angry?” she retorted. But it was true. He still had the power to hurt her. She turned back to the kitchen sink and busied herself with the vegetables.
“You think you were an easy person to live with?” he continued. “No other man would have tolerated your behaviour, let me tell you. Just because I was forbearing, you can find the mouth to talk to me anyhow.”
“That was why you went to leave with your white bitch, not so?” She said.
“I’m warning you,” he said. “Or doesn’t she know how to cook egusi for you?” she continued, ignoring him. “What does she cook? Fish and chips?” she chuckled. “Perhaps you are even the one doing the cooking like a white man.”
“Don’t let me warn you again,” he said. She shrugged. Perhaps she had gone too far.
“I’m only asking,” she said in a conciliatory tone.
He opened the fridge. “No beer?” he said.
“Nobody drinks beer in this house,” she said.
“Because you turned your son into a woman. Always fussing, fussing, fussing. He’s lucky you didn’t turn into a homosexual.”
The idea had only just occurred to him, but now that it did, he was suddenly disturbed. “Or perhaps he is,” he said. “Is that why he doesn’t have a girlfriend?”
“Yes, he is my son when you don’t want to take responsibility, not so?”
“You will drive him out of the house just like you drove me out, let me tell you. Unless you don’t want to hear the truth.”
Stung to the quick, she turned on him. “You left because you wanted to fuck a white woman, that is the truth,” she said. He laughed.
“Bush woman. I should have left you Nigeria instead of bringing you here to learn all sorts of nonsense,” he said. He wandered back into the living room. Presently, she heard the television. She looked at the wall clock. It was almost eight. She finished washing the vegetables and put a pan of water to heat. She went into the living room. Jide was sprawled out on the sofa, fast asleep. She turned off the television and shook him awake.
“I am watching the news,” he said.
“Go and watch it in your new house,” she said. He yawned and sat up. For the first time, she noticed that his shirt collar was frayed and that his coat was missing a button. His shoes which hadn’t been published in a while needed reheeling.
“You have to go,” she said. He yawned again.
“Come and sit here,” he said, patting the space beside him.
“Didn’t you hear what I told you?” she said.
He frowned and looked away. “I need money,” he said.
He remained tight-lipped, simply staring at the blank television screen.
“I don’t have money,” she said.
Just then she heard the water in the pan boil over. She went back into the kitchen, turned down the flame and added the vegetables. She set about cleaning the meat, wondering how she was going to get rid of Jide, when she heard the front door click. She went into the living room, and for a moment she couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and then she saw that the television was missing. It was a new television Rotimi bought with his first month salary. She rushed to the front door and looked down over the balcony in time to see Jide disappear round the corner five storeys below.
“Bastard,” she yelled as her neighbour, a thin, prematurely-aged Bengali woman who spent all day everyday cooking and cleaning for her husband and five sons, scuttled along the passageway towards her. The woman offered Bisi a watery smile, but Bisi scowled back and slammed her front door, only to come out again to go and buy some beer from the nearby store.
She was feeling only slightly better when Leroy turned up an hour later with a pot of chrysanthemums. Nobody had ever bought her flowers before, and for a moment she wasn’t sure what to do with them. She held them awkwardly as she led him into the living room, then she went into the kitchen and found an empty coffee jar under the kitchen sink. She came back into the living room and put them in the space where the television has been.
“Nice and warm in here,” Leroy said, rubbing his hands.
“What of Rotimi?” she said.
“Oh, he’s fine,” he said. “I mean he was okay when I left him.”
“So you say you’ve eaten African food before,” she said.
“Yes,” he said, nodding eagerly.
She went back into the kitchen and prepared the semolina. She put the semolina in one bowl and some of the egusi in another and took them to him on a tray.
“Will you take beer now or after?” she said, putting the tray on his lap.
“Later,” he said, surveying the food in front of him. “What about you?”
“Don’t worry, go ahead,” she said. “I’m coming.”
She went to the bathroom and took a shower, then she went to the bedroom and changed into a night-dress. It was a skimpy, black see-through number that Jide had bought for her one Christmas. Jide had a thing about night dresses. If he knew that Rotimi was staying over with the friend, he would phone on his way home to see if she was back yet. If she was still at work, he will go to a nearby pub and keep phoning the flat until she answered. He wanted to see her in it when he got home. She sometimes thought that the sight of her opening the door in it was even more exciting for him than what followed. Not that she minded. She had always thought of herself as a good and faithful wife until he suddenly left her without any explanation. And now she didn’t care, now she only wanted to make enough money to start a business at home, like Ngozi also wanted to do. She was only afraid that Rotimi had been too long in this country and wouldn’t want to follow her back. Even if he did, he might not be able to adapt to life in Nigeria. She should have sent him back all those years ago. That way, none of this would have happened. She went back to the living room.
“How are you enjoying your food?” she asked.
“Nice,” he said. “Real African food.” He looked up at her and smiled appreciatively.
“Let me get you your beer,” she said, bending down and taking the tray from his lap. When she returned, he had lit a long cigarette which had a funny odour.
“Do you mind?” he said.
“What is it? Drugs?” She put the beer and a glass on the side-table.
“Don’t you know the herb?”
“Why do you West Indians like to smoke that thing?” she asked, sitting next to him.
“Try it,” he said, offering it to her.
She shook her head.
He put his arm around her shoulder.
“Go on. Try it, it can’t hurt you,” he said. His arm tightened around her shoulder as he tried forcing it between her lips. She took a puff, but the acrid smoke caught in her throat and made her cough. He laughed.
“I thought all of you Africans smoke this stuff,” he said.
“So what of Rotimi?” she asked again.
“What about him?” he said. He took a deep pull on the draw, held the smoke in his lungs, then let it out slowly. He shrugged.
“Babylon has got him,” he added. “You must forget about him.”
“How can I forget about him?” she said. “He’s my son.” She didn’t care for his tone.
“I’ve seen it all before, my sister. Once they get hold of you, you’re fucked, let me tell you.” He took another pull and went through the same ritual. “Yes, man, Babylon has got your son, and there’s no way you can get him back, that I can promise you.”
“But you were supposed to help me,” she said.
“Help you!” he said, and laughed. “Listen, my African sister. I can’t even help myself, and you say I must help you.” He laughed again. “Get me an ashtray.”
She went to the kitchen and returned with a saucer. Leroy put the joint down and took a swig of beer.
“So let’s go and do the business,” he said, reaching for her breast. She pulled away.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
“You were supposed to help me, and now you say you can’t do anything. Is that why you came to eat my food?”
He laughed and seemed to consider the matter for a moment, then he lunged at her wrist and pulled her down on the sofa.
“Leave me,” she said, trying to pull away from him, but Leroy was strong, stronger by far than Jide; strong enough to pacify violent inmates like her son. She was no match for him.
“I want some African pussy,” he said as he unbuckled his belt. “Yes, man, tonight I must have African pussy to go with my African food.”
was born in London, England in 1953 and grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, where he currently lives. He has a BA in History from the University College of Wales, Swansea, and an MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
He is the author of a number of books, including Loyalties and Other Stories, In My Father’s Country: A Nigerian Journey, How many miles to Babylon?, Who’s Afraid of Wole Soyinka: Essays on Censorship, A Mask Dancing: Nigerian Novelists of the Eighties, Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy: JP Clark-Bekederemo and the Beginning of Modern Nigerian Literature in English, and The House My Father Built. He edited Christopher Okigbo: Collected Poems, The Heinemann Book of African Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories, and Dream Chasers: New Nigerian Short Stories.
He was formerly editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series (1986-1994), and Africa editor of Index on Censorship (1986-1997), the London-based magazine of free of expression.
He has contributed essays and reviews to a number of publications, including Granta, Times Literary Supplement, Prospect, The Guardian (London), The New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, and London Review of Books.
He currently runs YEMAJA, an editorial services agency, and is a partner in The New Gong (www.thenewgong.com), an independent publishing company.
He is married to Juliet Ezenwa, the artist.