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The Water-Girl


ISSUE:  Autumn 1989

Tony Mears had arrived in Ghana at a bad time. The harmattan wind was blowing—clouds of white dust, dryness in the nostrils—and on it the smells from the beach where Ghanaians relieved themselves went through the city and didn’t even spare the guests of first-class hotels. Accra was swollen with young men. Expelled from Nigeria with millions of other illegal migrant workers, uneasy and unwanted here, they idled in the streets, radios blasting juju, and spoke the pidgin they’d acquired in Lagos, shamming as money lords, waylaying whites: “Change! Dollar, sterling, deutschmark!”

Lonely on his first night at the hotel, Mears had called Sampson Omaboe from the lobby phone.

“Here so soon, jallay! I thought it was to be March.”

“I had the IMF work it out with Finance here—a little early. I guess I wrote you about me and Jean.”

“Afraid you did. So sorry. But you’re among friends now, jallay. We’ll see to it you’re not gloomy.” And laughter, full of promises, had hissed over the line.

The next afternoon they were drinking under the palms outside the hotel, two bottles of Black Star beer on the shellacked bamboo table between them. Every few minutes they had to move their chairs to stay in shadow. Omaboe, a tour guide, was entertaining Mears with trade stories.

“A group of Dutch comes through and the lady says, “We want to see something of Africa, but we’ve only got three days.” “Leave it to Sam” (putting on my assistant tribal chiefs voice), “he will arrange.” In three days I pack animals, Obuasi gold mine, and fetish ceremony with dancers bare-breasted. Unfortunately no time for Ghanaians. At the end of the tour the lady says to me, “Mr. Oombobo, in three days we feel you’ve shown us everything there is to see—what a remarkable guide!”“

A moist tip of tongue appeared between Omaboe’s teeth. Salivary noises came up from his throat into his mouth and he laid his hands on the thick belly as if to subdue its shaking. Mears had known him for three years, but only now noticed how laughter turned the face, with its prominent ears and impish eyes, into the ape-African of old caricatures.

He said, “You’ve gotten cynical, Sam.”

“At all! If they want to believe Africa is some place where you can eat squid for dinner and then go round the corner for Ashanti drumming, who is Sam to disappoint them?”

“Disappointment doesn’t tip very well, does it.”

Jallay, it’s you who’ve gotten cynical. I can see it in your eyes, like—like dried-out millet seeds! Very well, it doesn’t. But why should I have to believe in it, any more than I believe in that?” He motioned across the street, where a banner suspended from the peeling facade of a government building urged popular unity with the ruling council. “The government pays me, the lady tips me. You know, we Ashanti people have a saying—”Pray over the goat, but eat it too.” You, you’d have me starve! Ha ha !”

The bargirl came by with a tray and asked if Omaboe wanted another beer. She was wearing a loose cotton shirt, and when she reached for the foam-stained bottle a tear in the armpit opened onto black dampness. In spite of the wind little drops of sweat beaded above her lip, painted cherry-red.

Mears asked, “And the Ashanti believe in—?”

Omaboe twisted around to look at the retreating figure of the girl. “Life, pleasure, what does any African? You people—” He waved, and seemed to take in the white world with it. “—you just make too many problems for yourselves where you don’t need to. You, you believe in fidelity, and hard-soled shoes.”

Mears nodded. “That’s right. And I think you people should try to forget we ever came. Default on the debt, tear down that ridiculous ministry. Scrape the paint off the bar-girl’s face and clear out of Accra for the bush. Give these poor Lagos bastards some yam fields. Don’t worry, we’ll take all the blame. Look where it’s gotten us.”

Jallay, stop. You’re talking yourself out of a job.”

Mears had a private contract with the International Monetary Fund and African governments as an economic advisor— two-week stints in a couple of countries a year negotiating loan terms. This was his fourth trip to Ghana (he thought of himself as a veteran) but his first anywhere since the split with Jean. Since Jean left him.

At 32, he was gaining a name in international finance almost as fast as he was losing interest in his life. “Don’t people in Africa talk?” Jean had asked when he got back from the Gambia last year. “You seem out of practice. Maybe you’re going to have to choose between Africa and me.” “Maybe they have nothing to talk about,” he’d replied. “No Jordan Marsh, no Filene’s, no condo market.” She made the choice for him. After two years of living together, he was left with a dim impression of the mole on her chin, aggressive sensuality, and three dozen pairs of shoes in the closet. Suddenly alone in snowbound Boston, he didn’t know what to do with himself. His tongue went dry and prickly. And whenever he thought of the African cities he’d worked in, the farmers leading goats through markets, the reviving assault of hot pepper and bright cloth, it occurred to him that this might be the thing to do: go back.

With a wink Sampson Omaboe assured Mears he would be looked after—and what did he think of the girl who was waiting on them? Or there was a woman at the bureau—.

Mears shook his head. That wasn’t what he needed. But just this morning, on his first full day, something strange had happened. He had plunged into the market and, overcome by heat and human smells, sat down on a yam-seller’s bench and squinted up to see a water-girl lifting her styrofoam bucket off her head. Twentyish, small, not pretty, she had wordlessly dipped her calabash in the cool murky water and brought up a drink for the foolish visitor who’d tried too much too soon. Her blue dress was “dead white man” clothing, from the Goodwill—it might have hung in a closet in suburban Boston. It was sunbleached now and streaked with dirt around the hem. At the bottom of her bucket silver and brass coins swam and glinted. But Mears had had no change, and tried to force a 50-cedi note in her hand.

Smiling, she’d shaken her head, raised the bucket, and disappeared.

Mears said aloud, “The water-girls work one market, or go from market to market?”

Omaboe was astounded. “Water-girls, be serious, man! They hardly have a word of English. I’m talking about someone for you, a beevie at the hotel with breasts like papaya in October! Jallay, you have some ideas.”

“Remember, I’m not Ashanti.”

Omaboe looked him up and down. “You are not Ashanti. You are blessed to be of the American male species, with hair-color like the bush in dry season and green eyes—well, a little washed-out, but close to the banana-leaf. I say you could pass for an English yachtsman who’s rather fond of gin. Forget about girls who never reached second form in school, jallay. Sam’s reputation in the trade could never recover itself.”

Mears smiled sourly at his friend, at the line Omaboe was walking between guide and pimp: the smile curled half his lip upward, in a way it had recently begun to set.

Having arrived, Mears didn’t have the slightest interest in his work. The country was bankrupt. There were hours of meetings with Ghanaian officials who flattered him on his “success in negotiating the Gambia arrangement,” but, every time a loan guideline came up, asserted, “Mr. Mears, Ghana is a sovereign state.” The meetings left a residue of disgust, which he associated with the evil wind blowing from the beach, the cripple who sat in a tangle of legs and held the hotel door open for a coin, the bargirl, the gangs from Lagos.

The harmattan evenings were cool, and Accra turned spectral behind its veil of settling dust. Each evening Mears put on his jacket, left his key for the desk-clerk, and escaped the carpets and air-conditioning into streets where leather-vendors were packing away sandals and bags, market stalls had closed up under flimsy tin, heaps of rotted fruit and dirty cloth lay on the pavement from the day’s commerce. “Bruni, brunil“— a little boy in an oversized rugby shirt, holding his mother’s hand, pointing at him in wonder. Alone, as in Boston, but no longer anonymous, he enjoyed the surprise of his skin for people who passed: in the mingled dust of Sahara winds and streets under the feet of the market crowds hurrying home, he imagined his appearance to them as something foreign and magical. With the sun down his fatigue wore off, and the city could become what he had anticipated, what he had come for. After three days, there had been no more sign of the water-girl.

“You don’t remember? Monday, in the big market—”

She looked up quizzically into his face. He’d spotted her (the same light blue dress) and followed past the sports stadium, down the casket-makers’ street, brushing and bumping shoulders with his eyes set 20 yards ahead on the styrofoam bucket that floated through the crowd. When he was alongside, her eyes had swivelled around and she was speechless with surprise. Sweat streamed down her cheeks.

“You gave me . . . I was hot from the sun. . . .”

She must have remembered. Whites in decaying Accra were almost as rare as Ghanaians in Boston. Having lifted the bucket off the coil of cloth on her matted hair, she was going through the necessary rituals of evasion and formality.

“The big market. . . Ah!” She remembered: he was the one who’d gone in the sun without a hat. He should be more careful: the sun here wasn’t like the one in Europe. European people weren’t used to it.

“Actually, I’m American. But I’m not new here. You’re from Accra?”

She shook her head. “From Volta region.” She was an Ewe then. In Accra they were joked about—hicks, bush folk. It took her three tries before he understood her name was Cynthia: she said it charmingly, “Seentya.” He offered the only words of Ewe he knew, picked up on another visit, meaning Where are you going? She screwed up her face and asked, “You say?” When she realized he was trying to speak her language she bent over and repeated the question twice in her laughter. Then, mopping her face with the coiled cloth, she answered something long in the gutturals and exclamations of Ewe.

“What does that mean?”

But she refused: she seemed to be mock-reproving him.

Mears had thought, if he happened to see her again, of asking her to meet him at the hotel bar; but there would be her shock at the chandeliered lobby, and the groups of Europeans lounging about in overstaffed chairs with pale dimpled thighs exposed by skirts and shorts. He decided on the “Jungle Bar,” not far from the hotel, where young Ghanaians hung out. Sampson Omaboe had recommended it—recommended it to all his tourists who wanted some safe local color in their night life. Mears had objected to “tourist” and “local color” but taken the suggestion.

Her lip hung open in worry, and it made him see that she was older than he’d thought, perhaps almost his age, her small breasts beginning to sag beneath the dress. It came to him in a flash that made him wince slightly at his stupidity— of course, married! She would have no ring to prove it, but at this age, a villager. . . . Where was her baby then? And why selling water?—an occupation for girls.

“No, I can’t come,” she said, two fingers over her mouth.

Mears, overcome with impatience, wondered aloud, “Do you have a husband?”

“With God.”

He said he was deeply sorry. And he pressed her to come. She was widowed and alone, in a city where her language was hardly spoken, making her living off water and a styro-foam bucket. “Only a drink,” he said, “to talk to each other.” The moment’s absurdity—in the middle of the street, among stares, a white on business from the U.S. begging a half-literate water-girl to meet him for a drink—occurred in his ear as a hissing laughter that was Sampson Omaboe’s. Mears’ vision was filled with something else: soft black eyes, high cheekbones, the worried lower lip. An unexpected surge of feeling was tearing through his chest, like the ripping of a muscle that’s been clenched after months of slackness. In the end she agreed to meet him only when he gave his word the bar wasn’t frequented by prostitutes and their white clients.

Walking toward the Finance Ministry, Mears remembered the five cedis he owed her. But he didn’t run after her. He knew she would refuse it, and money would poison everything.

Dressing that evening in his hotel room, Mears went through the old and by now unfamiliar ritual of preparing to see a strange woman. The flicks of hair back, turnings from side to side in the mirror, straightenings of the eyebrows with a moist fingertip. At the same time he watched himself pose. His mouth was set in its half-curl upward at a youth’s nervous preenings ridiculously superimposed on a 32-year-old’s unbelief. He saw himself at two, at three removes. He was aware of the fluttering against his ribs, the lightness in his fingertips; of the squalor of the whole mirrored mime-show and the pleasure it gave him; of thinking of this water-girl as the needed cleansing and knowing she wasn’t; of being aware of the awarenesses.

He snapped his head away from the mirror. “You people,” he said aloud, surprised by his own voice, “you make too many problems for yourselves.” He finished buttoning his pink pin-stripe shirt; and he focused on the fresh clean shirtfront as a simple thing, a certainty, to hold to through the evening.

Music boomed from a tape system behind the bar, and the Africans who weren’t on the floor dancing in the shower of pink and green light watched the dancers from benches and didn’t talk. A girl leaned behind the bar, fist pushed against her cheek, drumming time with her fingers. The couples moved slower than the American funk and jangling Zairoise, in curt gestures, any motion a labor in the heat. But they stayed in rhythm—hands held, the man’s other hand light on the woman’s waist, swaying their high buttocks in quick shuffles around a single point, faces averted: a sensual arrogance on the men’s, on the women’s sullen compliance. In the air hung the sum smell of a hundred colognes and perfumes. As they wore off, the sharp human odor they were meant to cover permeated through and mingled with the sweetness.

Cynthia didn’t like to dance. They sat side by side against the wall, he sipping beer and she Fanta. Under the noise he managed to learn that she lived with a cousin in a quarter he’d never heard of, that she had a child “by accident” back in the village with her parents, that she had come to Accra for work and “something better,” that she had missed her child terribly at first but after two years didn’t think about him so much.

“When I first came I am tending city gardens. After that a good job, I was maid for Nigerian family and their baby. After that stop, I start the water business.”

Mears smiled: he liked the word “business” applied to her styrofoam bucket. “What happened?” he asked. “With the Nigerian family.”

“Things happen.”

She was already tired of the water business, but for the moment there was nothing else. Things were bad for Ghanaians; and as if to demonstrate it, she showed him the place on her middle finger where gripping the bucket-handle had raised a hard thick callous.

That was all. The music was too loud, she was too remote— they had nothing to talk about. He didn’t say a word about his work, and she didn’t ask—out of reticence, or ignorance, or indifference. So they sat in a silence that embarrassed him and that she showed no sign of wanting to fill: she was a small presence in his peripheral vision, occasionally tapping one fist in the other palm. But he noted changes since that afternoon on the street: she had put on a print dress, some sort of synthetic, white and red camelias against maroon; her hair, out from under the burden of the bucket and the rolled cloth, was plaited back in thin braids that hung limp and shook when she moved her head; and a pair of garish earrings, imitation gold with shiny red plastic where the stone should have been, dangled from her ears. They annoyed him at once—they seemed a vulgar concession to him or to what an observer might have made of the situation. He wanted to tell her to take them off— she was a villager, not a tart. He would buy her real gold earrings in the market, the kind the women must wear up in villages around the gold mines.

After an hour he suggested leaving. She followed him out, weaving through the slow dancing bodies, but near the door she turned around and confronted a group of men at the bar.

“You say what?” she demanded.

One of the men had spoken. Sitting on a stool with his hands placed lightly on his spread thighs, his belly pushing out between the bottom buttons of a print shirt, he snickered and repeated something. Mears couldn’t make sense of it, it was Ga, the local language around Accra.

“You are foolish,” she hissed in English. “You are foolish people.”

“Don’t listen to him, Cynthia, let’s go.” Mears took her hand.

“Foolish,” she repeated, dropping his hand, ignoring him. “You are rude Lagos people. You speak things of a child.”

The Ghanaian looked at Mears and addressed him in Ga, as if they were in cahoots about something, man to man—at the same time mocking the white man’s ignorance.

Outside, in the cooler air suddenly quiet, he took her hand again and held it insistently, turning her to face him. She came up about to his chin, and looked at him somewhere around the mouth.

“Why don’t you ignore them?”

“They say things—I am your hotelito, that I want money. They are foolish.” She spoke with an angry, defensive contempt.

“Yes, they are. So you should ignore them.”

“Is why I didn’t like to come—because they will say such things—”

“But why do you care, since they’re foolish? Why can’t—”

“People hear. And others start to say things too. Accra is small city. . . .”

But she let him hold her hand there, at the edge of the street beside a square concrete gutter with a residue of black bilge-water. Nearby a woman huddled in cloth behind a table, indifferent to them, her stacks of matchboxes and cigarettes and soaps lit orange by a paraffin wick flaming out of a tin can. Mears stroked Cynthia’s fingers and searched for the place on the middle one, the place that she’d shown him inside the bar and that had shamed him, with his explanations of productivity and unemployment, his dabblings in sociopsychology: all of it amounted to this rough hard patch of yellowish skin. Stroking it, he entered what was real and alive about her, and he ached for her.

She adjusted her hand to hide the callous from his examining fingers.

“Listen, can we go to a hotel near here I know of—a friend tells me it’s a good place, private—” She smiled bitterly, and looked away, at the street. “Why? Please—”

Then she looked straight at him, so abruptly it was like a challenge and he had to avoid her eyes. “I want to tell you,” she said without drama. “I made a promise to my God. If I don’t move with any man this year, then next first January He will answer me. That is why. Because my God will punish me! I promise Him.” And she gasped with laughter, as if what she’d said surprised her as much as him.

She turned to go, and had already walked 20 feet before Mears could seize on something to bring her back.

“There’s an American film at the cinema tomorrow!”

She half-turned. “Tomorrow is Sunday. I pray and plait my hair.”

He was with Omaboe in their usual place, at the cafe outside his hotel, in the dead hours, moving out of the sun. The beer had gone straight to his head and made him sluggish and testy. A heavy fly was circling his mug and landing on the cardboard coaster covering the rim. Once, sipping, Mears put the mug down and forgot to cover it; when he lifted it again the fly was floating in the surface froth, its bristle legs wriggling in the air. Mears watched it struggle, then reached in with a finger, dragged it up the side of the mug, and flicked it into the dust. But now the beer was no good.

When Sampson Omaboe heard the story he didn’t laugh, but ran a finger over his lips in thought, and then said seriously, “I don’t know, jallay. You’re in a fine pickle now. These girls from the villages, they are too religious, you know, too religious. For God’s sake, man, why can’t you just pick out one of the girls at the Star or the Intercontinental and have it done with? I’ve told you before they won’t blink for a white, and for a white man of quality like you—they would howl like, like a fox on a cold winter morning!”

Now Omaboe’s laughter sputtered and shook his body, but the hot afternoon air absorbed it and he went quiet and Mears didn’t respond.

“I mean, look here, why do you people have to make it so complicated? With God for a rival, jallay, your chances are rather slim, aren’t they. And when there are so many lovely girls in Accra with less, what’s the word, scruples. Instead you go and fall half crackers for this water-girl. And she’s not even Ashanti or Ga!”

“So it’s tribalism. And you tell tourists there’s no tribal feelings in Ghana any more. You’re a hired propagandist.”

Omaboe shrugged at the appraisal and went on rubbing his finger over his lip, pondering the problem as if Mears had lost his travellers checks. “And you’ll be gone in—how many? Six days. What’s going to come of this piece of lunacy for you?”

“Forget about the future. I’m worried about now.”

Omaboe began to mutter: “”But that’s all shove be’ind me—long ago an’ fur away, An’ there ain’t no buses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay. . . .”“

“What in hell are you talking about?”

“Kipling. My God, you Americans rule the world, and you don’t know English poetry. The Africans have to teach you.” And he went on reciting in a measured baritone, turning the cockney into something like a parody of slave English, relishing the drama of each word:

“”By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me; For the wind is in the palm trees, and the temple-bells

they say:

“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”“

Mears swallowed the last bit of foam in his mug.

“”Come you back, you British soldier!”” Omaboe, staring at Mears, echoed himself. “”Come you back—to Mandalay!” Ha-ha!”

“Oh spare me that—imperialist trash. It’s given me a headache. Obviously you don’t understand.”

“Be careful,” Omaboe said suddenly. His round impish face had fallen hard, lost its humor and turned inward and severe. His chin was near his chest, and he glared up under his eyebrows like a cardplayer. “Be careful, jallay. We don’t understand you people; you’re right. You stay such a short time, you tourists, and we try to give you what you want, but it’s difficult to know. Be careful with the girl, she may not understand too.”

Banter had suddenly taken a wrong street and turned into malice. The air between them quivered with anger, and Mears was the one to flinch. He felt himself courting some danger or discovery in the isolation of a strange city: and he reached back for the man who had been standing there a minute ago.

“I see what you’re saying, Sam. I have been careful—for example I haven’t brought her here. She’d be watched: I know what people would think, whisper—oh, it’s just money on her part, sex on his.”

Sampson Omaboe slapped his broad hands on the bamboo table-top. “But my God, jallay, what is it then?”

Mears said coldly, “I haven’t given her a thing.”

Omaboe opened his mouth and a faint smile materialized. It was a false lure, and Mears took it as an offer of peace and began to meet the man halfway. But then he saw. The smile was not a friend’s—it encircled, mocked.

“Don’t you at least owe the girl a new dress for her trouble?”

Mears couldn’t identify the moment when she agreed to come. Simply, at the end of the day they’d spent together, he saw she would.

They’d walked through the market, where he amused her with his stabs at market-talk among the vendors and his skill in bargaining down the exorbitant prices quoted to whites. They’d gone out to the airport to watch Ghana and Nigeria Airways planes take off and land—she’d never seen them up close, never known anything like the scream of jet engines. Her excitement loosened him, and in the dusty breeze of the observation deck he concocted joking arguments against her promise.

“God came to me in a dream last night—He said He would allow it, He said, “You have the poor with you always, but Mears you have not always.”“

“God hears you when you speak,” she wagged a finger.

“Look at these planes, Cynthia—with Him all things are possible.”

She gazed out at the jets on the runway and refused to show she was impressed. “Which plane you are leaving on?” she said.

It was Wednesday, three days before his ticket would send him home—a market day for her, and he insisted on reimbursing her lost income. He was astonished that it amounted to a little less than a dollar. He paid for meals, taxis, her ticket to the observation deck. He found himself silently comparing her figure with the dead white man dresses in the market, the new dresses hanging in shops. It didn’t matter. He had already made the calculation: becoming one of the despised tourists, in exchange for this small joy.

They went to dinner in a European restaurant. Sitting across the table and sipping beer that had made them both slightly high, Mears was describing his country to her.

“These trains that run under the ground can take you anywhere in the city—just like that. You go under the street, and when you come up again you’re on the other side of town.”

“Is fast?”

“In minutes. It’s wonderful. I hope you can see some day.”

“If God wills. . . .”

He hesitated, but only a second. “I’m sure He does.” Bent over her plate, she smiled at the thought; and looked up.

It was past eleven when they arrived. The hotel was on an unpaved sidestreet, but it called itself international. The old clerk was asleep in a chair, letting out streams of snores, one hand on his groin. They roused him, he opened the crumpled guest-book, Mears signed in. The wad of dollars he laid on the desk made a passport unnecessary. The clerk didn’t ask for luggage. He led them up a stairway and across a hall that smelled of dirty water and he jangled his key in the lock of number seven. Inside, he switched on the light, a single bulb screwed into a socket over the bed, and pointed vaguely at the room. “Number seven.” Yawning, he went out.

Mears crossed the floor to turn on the air-conditioner under the window, a small, sooty box, which started up with a low hum. He went back to the door and switched off the light.

She undressed quickly, without ceremony, as if everything had been arranged. Before his trousers were off she was lying naked on the sheet, on her belly, her buttocks swelling up from the valley of her muscled back, her thin brown legs together, her upper body propped on elbows, hands together as if in absent-minded prayer. Around her waist were four strands of beads, the beads African girls wear from infancy to their marriage day. She had never married then, Mears thought, stripping off his socks at the side of the bed. Yet she’d said her husband was with God. The breasts bunched between her arms drooped thin and wrinkled, the one sign of her child—otherwise it was hard to believe a baby had passed through the taut belly he’d glimpsed and the narrow hips. The body of a woman who had done physical work for years but hadn’t ruined it yet with children. Naked, he sat on the bed Indian-style, his toes touching her flank. In that position his own body, which just now struck him as hideously pale, betrayed a single fold of flesh around the belly.

Confronted with this strange brown naked form, near enough to smell, Mears went hot with shame. Cynthia waited without smiling.

She touched his knee and pulled at the blond hairs. “Is nice. For African men, no hair.” She was stroking his knee lightly with her fingertips. And now she was smiling: but it was a smile Mears hadn’t seen before. Heavy-lidded, heavy-lipped, it promised pleasure. It had been brought out for him.

“You don’t like?”

She had felt his knee tremble and withdraw.

“I like.”

But he wanted to talk. Finding something to say, he touched the earring dangling from her right lobe. “Why do you wear these?”

“I’m a girl,” she said with a slight incredulous laugh. “Girls wear.”

“Girls who work in bars and hotels. Gold must be cheap in Accra, no?”

“Gold! Is dear, dear.” She shook her head at the idea of gold earrings. “They are lucky, the ones in bars and hotels. If I could—but. . .howfodo?” He knew the expression—it meant, What is one to do?

“Lucky? The men coming in to take them in exchange for tips, the way they have to paint their faces. . . .”

“The money—is good. Hundred fifty, two hundred cedis a day. Better to sell beer than water.”

“Why do you sell water? If you need help to change—”

“I sell water because last year I thought to have a husband, then I’m waiting. But. . . .”

Her voice thinned, her hand closed. She turned to stare at the pillow.

“Husband, husband,” he said. “Cynthia, Accra girls marry late, some 28, even 30. And your son is with your parents. After a husband there’ll be nothing but children and chores. I see what happens to African women. Enjoy your freedom.”

His knee was forgotten. Briefly, realizing that the moment was ebbing, Mears panicked. He began stroking her shoulder and back—the skin was wonderfully smooth and unbroken beneath his fingers—but he could feel she had already slipped away.

“Last year I thought to have a husband,” she repeated as if she wasn’t listening, talking to herself. “I meet a man who work in Lagos. When he came home one time for visiting he said he will marry and support me. And he send me money every time for those months I’m waiting. When he visit, I cook for him, I move freely with this man any time. He gave me things—a watch, these—”

She touched the earring Mears had touched.

He waited a moment. “And what happened to this man?”

She went on in her privacy while he listened. “Last 9 May he have to come back to Ghana with the others from Nigeria. When I hear this I quit my work, the maid for Nigerian family, and prepare to marry. For him I quit! On 15 May I went to his house, and I saw he marry another wife in Lagos. He said her parents force him. I didn’t cry, I didn’t speak, but when I leave it was hard to walk across the road. When I went home to cook supper for my cousin I didn’t like to eat. For two days I can’t eat. And then I made my promise to my God: that He will send me a husband.”

She stopped speaking, and a smile stirred her lip.

“So, my water business.”

The hoarse whir of the air-conditioner had chilled the room. Mears knew the woman beside him was cold, and he wanted to cover her. She seemed small and exposed. Cynthia folded her elbows under her chest and laid her head on the pillow, turned to him but looking past.

He went to the window. Its glass louvers were shut. Eventually, with the air-conditioning off, the room would stifle them. But there wasn’t a screen: and with the window open and no cold air mosquitoes would come in. An English businessman had once told him mosquitoes didn’t like to bite Africans—something about the blood, evolutionary differences. Mears now wondered why he hadn’t asked how malaria was contracted. He reached for the switch, then decided to leave it on and open the window. He glanced at the bed. From the pillow, over a hunched shoulder, she seemed to be staring back.

Standing half-blind in the darkness Mears steadied himself with a hand on the window-crank and said, “It’s late. Let’s sleep.” He opened the louvers onto harmattan dust. A dry wind blew against his naked body, and he caught a glimpse of tin rooftops and an old woman grinding peppers in the adjacent yard. Just then the old woman looked up. She gasped at the sight in the window: an orange-stained hand flew to her mouth and she shrieked with laughter. In the moment before turning away Mears saw himself as she must have seen him, the comical fish-white belly, the face too full of regret to care.

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