When you come to Lagos from the heart of Osogbo, you know you’re going to have to work till your knuckles bleed, till the bones in your back go sour, if you want to survive in that jungle.
You have been to Abuja, Benin, Ibadan, Ilesha; offering your services of impeccable housekeeping. Then Aunty Mimi calls and tells you it’s time to go to Lagos. Miriam is your father’s sister and your manager. She is the one who nurses you and christens you Divine after your father dies, following your mother into the grave where your birth had led her.
Aunty Mimi advises you about Lagos and how raucous it is for the poor and how much decorum and perfection is expected of the rich. You will be going to a commissioner’s house in Ikoyi and much more will be demanded of you than usual.
Most of the houses you have been maid at have been middle-class affairs: Daddy is a pastor and Mommy sells cold drinks at a nice shop near the road. Sometimes there’s a dog, a garden, tapwater. Most of them wait a month before they begin to bark your name out, without the softness they give to their pets.
Eventually, the masks would slide off. There was the Daddy who slapped you when you refused to let him squeeze you from behind as you washed plates. The woman who didn’t let you show your hair in her house because its beauty would put her sons under a spell.
You bend into various shapes for all these people, these families and their peculiarities. You go blind to their secrets, even as you serve them with your lifeblood. Aunty Mimi is saving your salaries till you’ll have enough to write WAEC or go to Ghana for Fashion School. You trust her because she makes it a clause that you have your own phone at all the houses that you work, to call her when things go south.
You get to Lagos on a Sunday, alone.
The sky is cloudless and blue as detergent. There is more noise and people than usual but it’s the same as all the other cities you’ve been to, led around only by Aunty Mimi’s voice to your destination. She tells you to get to Obalende and wait. You enter one of the yellow-black buses, sitting by the window to gaze upon the bricolage of the hot world outside. Everybody talks at the tops of their lungs here and it makes you chuckle.
When the bus zips over the ocean which manages to be bluer than the sky above, you remember nothing. Somehow, even in homes where you were shown care and love; the moment you exit the door, turn your back and move away, you forget. Just like you forget that one of your names in the world is orphan.
You have been both mother and father in all the places you’ve worked, caring for people with no blood ties to you with the patience of surgeons.
In Obalende, you wait. Aunty Mimi made you wear a bright red dress. People walk past you without much a glance while you bake under the sun. You’re feeling the heat on the back of your neck with your knuckles when a polished black car stops in front of you, almost blinding you as the driver’s window rolls down.
“You be Divine?” he asks. He’s wearing sunglasses and an ironed suit. You nod and he gestures that you enter the backseat.
This is when you first meet Mrs. Arowolo.
Mrs. Arowolo is one of those women who has made their ordinary beauty extraordinary through the sheer power of cash. Her skin is the color of something warm and honeyed, false hair that looks like it’s moisturized with diamonds crushed in clear oil lies smooth against her head, her clothes are simple but a closer look reveals exquisite fabric and her carriage is careful and precise, like that of royalty. When she speaks it is fine English, in a voice that you’ve only ever heard on the television.
As the car drifts further away from the sooty streets downtown into a maze of manicured estates, she lays out the rules of keeping her home to her taste to you. Her version of a welcome. You are overwhelmed but you listen.
“There’s already a washwoman and a chef. A gardener too. Everything about the cleanliness of the interior falls to you. All the floors, windows and tabletops must sparkle.” She looks at you, seeming taller than she is. Her eyes are ringed with eyeshadow to hide the fatigue you can clearly see inside them. What does someone with so much money have to be tired of? “I hate dust. It prevents light from doing its job, you know? You’ll assist the cook when he needs it. With setting and clearing tables, washing up after and sometimes preparations.”
“Okay,” you say. It’s not much different from what you’re used to. In fact it sounds like easy work. You’re used to doing everything; being the washing machine, the cook, the gardener, the gateman, the babysitter, the nurse.
Mrs. Arowolo’s tired eyes bore into you. “You’re not allowed to answer me like that ever again. Every response from you to me must end with ‘Ma.’ You hear? If not I’ll send you back to the village you’re coming from to continue cleaning up the piss of drunk men. You girls are all the same. Ungrateful, thieves.”
“I’m sorry, Ma.” Mrs. Arowolo is already looking outside the window. Her mind lost in some inner spin you can almost feel. The car is turning into a wide compound with carpets of grass and big trees, hedges neater than sugar cubes. A wide house painted the blue of the sky and the cream of tinned milk, sprawls before you. It has pillars to welcome you through a front door of carved wood, where the car drifts to a stop. All the ironwork you can see is a clean floral bronze.
You step out with your Ghana-Must-Go, almost afraid to step on the floor. Everything is so neat. Too neat.
Mrs. Arowolo is standing before the carved doors. They are each engraved with a trio of women, dancing in skimpy iro, their breasts free to the air. She turns around and says, “Hurry up! I don’t have all day to carry you around like a child.”
Her voice is loud and hard. She slips inside the house. You follow her, dragging and lifting your heavy bag as the car drives away, across the field of the compound, turning right into sunlight.
After the lights go out, you lie in bed in your room, anticipation and anxiety blurring your rest. Your eyes are heavy and sticky with sleep but you can’t shut them. The room is too big, too cold. Mops and brooms and buckets line the wall beside the door. Your pile of comfortable colorful clothes is heaped in a corner. They will be useless from now on.
Mrs. Arowolo has given you three sets of a uniform—black knee-length gowns of thick cotton. There is one white lace apron to cinch your waist. A pearl necklace and single-pearl earrings, soft black moccasins. This is all new to you. You had been bought clothes before in old homes, usually new starched ankara meant for And Co., for going to burials and weddings as a family unit. They didn’t want you to feel left out, sore as a thumb. Here the uniforms mean you are a cog in a machine, destined for infallibility. You must be perfect in all that you do.
Mrs. Arowolo had restated that point as she led you through the house earlier. It was as big inside as it looked from the outside. There were so many parlors, big and small. There was a dining hall with heavy chandeliers and the longest table you have ever seen. The rooms were all tucked away from these open spaces. The house had been built to be shown off and Mrs. Arowolo treats you like a guest, a spectator to be awed. You try your best to retain your composure but your mouth falls open at the richness before you. So much gold, porcelain, glass, glinting in amber light.
She takes you around to the boy’s quarters at the back of the house, to meet the cook and the gardener, but they are out for the Sabbath, off to visit their families. The driver, Kayode, is asleep in his room which is nestled inside a large garage filled with several luxury cars. After the pay from this one, you will definitely be going off to Ghana. Aunty Mimi didn’t tell you how much it was, but the excitement in her voice and her demand for your best work, show their reason now.
Your room is downstairs, next to the garage and a tap that rushes cold so you can wake up and begin work without “being a nuisance” as Mrs. Arowolo says. She seems bored yet laden with that sense of being lost in herself. Her showing you around lets you see brighter sides of her person. She even smiles once, before she makes you dust all the paintings in the house, that haven’t “seen any care since that boy left.” You wonder who the boy is. She tells you she hired you because it is the season of hostings: dinner parties, brunch soirees, breakfast wine.
There is something heavy in the air. It’s dense, as in the aftermath of a catastrophe and she carries it in the occasional strain of her voice, in the way she has to lean against walls often to catch her breath, before continuing, her voice filling the spaces, trying to remind the house that she was there.
Before you go to sleep, on this first night, you are sure you can hear someone wailing in the walls.
Mama Klin, the washwoman, becomes your favorite, and you hers. You meet her often at the tap behind your room window, which is the quickest in the compound. The taps in the wash room are slow so she prefers to come fill buckets outside to make the work faster. She spills things you want to cover your ears to forget.
Baba, as she calls Mr. Arowolo, had done something so vile that he had to be evicted from his own home by Mrs. Arowolo. “Na that boy wey dey do cleaner before you. Madam catch them inside the bed one day. She comot, con forget sontin. Na so e dey always happen. You go comot, forget sontin, catch your person dey do the thing wey den really wan do.”
You are very quiet whenever she speaks. Your job doesn’t involve knowing so much as doing, but that is the way of those who work under the system of the home. Things are seen and they must be spoken about. The driver, Kayode, and the gardener, Uncle King, don’t talk to you much beyond morning greetings and thank yous when you take them their food. And you are grateful for that because you are now always tired.
The football fields worth of marble that you mop daily. The vast tabletops that make the ligaments in your right arm twitch. The corners of the high ceilings and chandeliers that you remove cobwebs from as your back moans in response, bleeding an ache you’ve never experienced before in smaller homes. This place takes too much of your energy to remain as perfect as Mrs. Arowolo wants it, and you want to cry when the morning alarm for work sounds at six am. You feel yourself ebbing away as you scrub yourself in the sweet lavender wash that hangs from the tiles in your shower. You always make the water too hot. You want to dissolve.
“Do wetin she say make you do o.” You watch Mama Klin’s white scarved head dip to foam some washing water. “She don dey vex for wetin Baba do for am, an she dey find the person wey go collect the vex for her hand. I dey try my best to only see am when I wan collect my salary, because na so so she go dey look person like say she wan bite am.”
She looks up at you and smiles, her black face still beautiful under the wear of age, experience and the routine of cleansing human excretions. “You, you be good girl. I see say you don master this work finish. Just do wetin dem say make you do, when the visitors begin dey come. Na where the real work dey be that.”
In the nights, when everything is empty and quiet, you still hear that wailing. A sound of a thing being torn apart, or tearing itself apart.
When you are not making surfaces shine within the house, you wash plates for George. Fold Mama Klin’s ironing. Sweep away Uncle King’s grass cuttings. Run the hose for Kayode to wash the cars. Care of the house moves seamlessly.
Mrs. Arowolo is usually away, until she returns at night and you have to go to her room and ask what she wants. She always rattles off a list that you have to run around to get together—clean sheets, black tea with lime, a lot of fried chicken, flowers at the bedside so she can sleep better.
“Tomorrow, we begin to host a new round of guests. I hope you are ready to help me make it the best it can be. They must know that I am still who I am. I am counting on you and the others to not fuck up. I can continue being someone on my own, without Baderin and his ugliness in my house. You know?”
“Yes, Ma,” you say. You’ve been practicing your English, plus a meek smile and bow in the mirror. The uniforms have changed into a baby pink with black lace. There’s even a second cook sleeping in the room opposite yours, a frail woman named Bola.
You don’t know why the hostings happen, but they begin very early. From nine am, the women troop in, in their long gowns and high heels; their faces dusted gold, lips red. They drink wine and laugh very loud. Sometimes, it seems like they are laughing at Mrs. Arowolo, who makes sure to laugh the loudest, sometimes falling to the ground drunk.
This is when you realize she is always drunk, when you realize what George always pours in the coffee before he hands it to you every morning.
The brunches happen outside in the garden, under the biggest umbrella you have ever seen. They eat finger foods and drink more wine and laugh even harder at the stories of other people’s failures. The air is always too sharp when there is nothing to say. From where you stand in the sun watching, you can see the eyes of the other women fail to look to Mrs. Arowolo’s face. They gaze at the dark blood in their glasses. Someone begins to talk about a television show with a lot of ‘those fruits being so dirty and so brave, fucking all over the screen’, as a way to get the pressure that is bearing down on their soiree to escape and Mrs. Arowolo’s toned skin seems to melt off her face. She totters away from the table, over the lawn and up to her room, her glass of wine never leaving her grip.
You don’t know why the mention of fruits would get her so angry as you follow to go soothe her.
The second dinner of the hosting season, Mrs. Arowolo dresses to the tens. Her gown of prime black silk, the diamonds at her throat and wrist, and her heels so sharp, they almost cut you as you slip them onto her feet. The glass in her hand holds something stronger than wine. She sways as she walks down the stairs to greet her waiting guests. You think she is so beautiful, but completely lost in her sorrow.
This time there are some men waiting. Their beards and aftershave catch your eye and throat as you serve hor d’oeuvres and samosas. Your arms ache and you haven’t been able to pause to eat anything more than stolen bites of chicken. You move to stand behind Mrs. Arowolo.
“Thank you for joining me today as we celebrate . . . uhm . . . well, whatever the fuck we like. As we celebrate!” Her voice is too loud. The women whisper between themselves. The men gaze too hard at this woman falling apart, yet everyone cheers and whoops their way to the feast laid out on the table.
Midway through their chewing on roast duck and exotic pastas, and several carefully arranged meals that reside only at the center of their wide plates, a woman rises to give a toast. She’s wearing a small red dress and her hair is down to her hips. Her lips are wide and painted to match her dress. Everyone quiets as she knocks a knife against her champagne glass. They continue eating as they watch her speak.
Mrs. Arowolo, who has been drinking since breakfast, seems to be on another plane, her smiling and gazing around at her guests are like the motions of a robot with a glitch. The woman’s words don’t make any sense to you. They color the air in a slow sassy drawl. “Here’s to our friend, finding a real man to love her!” she concludes. There is silence at the table. The women are aghast. A few oblivious men clap. The woman sits down, deeply satisfied by her toast.
Mrs. Arowolo stands up. “Nkechi, please leave,” she says, glaring at the woman. The woman smiles back, still sated by the after-effect of her speech. “Now!” A scream. Her wine glass flung past Nkechi’s ear. “All of you. Get the fuck out of my house!”
You watch as Mrs. Arowolo clenches her jaw and swipes her arms across the table, scattering still unopened bowls of native soup and jollof rice, glasses of wine, bottles of water and flower vases across the laps of her seated guests. They leap to their feet and begin to walk out, some silently furious, others screaming obscenities about her clinging to Mr. Arowolo.
George and Bola and Uncle King walk into the room as the small crowd of guests exits the house. You all gaze at Mrs. Arowolo, whose face is hot with anger and dark with trembling shadows from the chandelier above.
“What are you fools looking at? Clean it all up now. Before I come back down and fire your sorry asses!” She turns and makes for the stairs, stumbling with no center. “You! Diane, Divine, whatever your name is. Follow me.”
You don’t like to think of the violence. It is a note under all the lives you’ve lived. Beyond words that aim to scar and belittle, there is the allocation of pain to bend and break the spirit. It’s how you got to be so good at your job, because you do not want to feel that way ever again. When you first started, you were bruised and battered repeatedly, with belts and palms and canes, and the only thing you could do was cry over the phone to Aunty Mimi, who always told you to endure.
It’s all part of the territory, she used to say. Your response was to wake up earlier, work harder, but that didn’t stop most of them. You came to know wickedness as the base of most human nature, which is why you forget kindness too when you meet it. You don’t trust it.
You always knew Mrs. Arowolo had that capacity lurking. The coffee mugs she smashes, the clothes she rips when she is unsatisfied. All that anger turned towards the inanimate makes you worry, so you do as you have always done and work harder than you can. Bow lower than your back can take. Don’t look into her eyes.
In her room, after her meltdown, you slip off her stilettos and peel off her gown for her as she sobs and talks to no one. She is beyond drunk now. Her rage has cracked open the safe where all the hidden stuff was put.
“Am I not beautiful enough? Did I not give enough of myself? Care enough for my body? To turn my husband into such an abomination that he would lay with the help. A mere houseboy. Now all these idiots!, those idiots have turned me into their next laughingstock. I’ll never, never . . . be able to . . . go out . . . all my friends . . . ” She sobs harder as you slip off her stockings.
You remain quiet, doing your job of invisible hands. Laying the stripped clothing down. Moving the sheets. “Should I run you a bath, Ma?” you ask.
Mrs. Arowolo’s head is hung low. She has stopped crying. You think her strength is gone but when she lifts her head to look at you, you stagger back. Her eyes are empty, like a corpse’s.
“Come here.” Her voice is too guttural and low. “Come and kneel before me.”
You don’t move. There is something wrong. Her hair has fallen over her face, matted with sweat. Even the room feels colder. “Ma, what’s the matter?”
“I said come and kneel down here.” You stay still, backing away slowly. “You stood there and watched me be exposed and embarrassed like that. You must kneel down here and tell me you’re sorry.”
“Ma . . . ?”
“Tell me you’re sorry for everything that happened tonight,” she says dryly, lifting hair out of her eyes as she stands to her feet. “Apologize. Tell me you’re sorry, Divine, or I’ll get angry.”
You shake your head before she can finish her sentence. In disagreement, from fear. Mrs. Arowolo growls, baring her teeth. You run for the door.
A thick ashtray flies through the air to hit the back of your head with a dull thunk! Making you fall. On the floor, you begin to spasm. There is pain down into your bones but you can’t scream. You have bitten your tongue in shock.
Mrs. Arowolo watches you. Her eyes gleam, then pool with darkness. She begins to salivate, as your spasms recede, as blood from your cracked skull slithers to soak into the white rug at the center of the room.
When you die, you find yourself here, watching your empty body gaze up at Mrs. Arowolo. She says to your corpse, “My name is hunger.” And bends down to begin feasting at your throat.