It has been a year and five days since Mayowa lost her daughter—lost, because she cannot say the other word: suicide. It goes against everything she ever stood for. Suicide damned you in death. But now she wants to believe that anything can be reconciled with Jesus, on anyone’s behalf. So she aims to be of better service to the Lord than anyone among her congregation. She arrives at the Celestial Church of Christ earlier than most others on Sundays. She turns up midweek to clean, replace the toilet rolls, and index new membership cards. She spends hours after service in loud and feverish prayer with her intercession group, while at the same time she quietly implores the Lord to take mercy on the soul of Abiola. Fourteen. Her youngest child. Her baby. How different would she have been at fifteen now? She would be a shade removed from her idiosyncrasies, more outspoken and demanding. She’d take her upcoming exams for granted, argue for black- or blue-colored lipstick, and flip her lid over the fact that she could only see her friends on weekends. Mayowa pines for the now impossible privilege of fighting these battles, and in the strange, uncomfortable nostalgia of loss she relishes the thought of any act of rebellion; she is warmed by the picture of her daughter, older and autonomous, spirited and full of wondrous malcontent.
There are six instances of suicide in the Bible, seven including Samson. She has, in recent months, pored over them looking for evidence of God’s damnation, and within the ambiguity she feels the Lord’s merciful glow wash over her family. Sundays shake it all out of place—the looks of pity and shame sprinkled among the congregation, the silence of the elder sisters whenever she walks into the anteroom, the slow ease with which the married elder, Brother Stephen, regularly strokes her back. She’d quietly fall apart on any given Sunday, and so it was important for Mayowa to spend the working week putting her faith back together again.
She calls for Jesus this morning. She doesn’t believe she can get out of bed today without the assistance of some kind of divine hand. It’s the grief, it sits beneath her chest and immobilizes her, and only when it lets up is she finally able to stand. It flows downward as though the sorrow is pooling at her feet. Her first steps toward the bedroom door are heavy.
Predawn light seeps through the bedsheets that hang in the window as makeshift curtains. In the lambent blue that washes over the room she looks over the calendar on the back of the bedroom door. An annual gift from the Christ Apostolic Church, and every year is almost always the same thing, an inset photo of the pastor and his bright smile as somewhere in southern Nigeria, thousands gather for an outdoor evangelical revival. She marks Tuesday, July 12 with an eyebrow pencil. There are five X’s now. One for each morning her husband hasn’t come home. A new low, even for him.
The bus winds its way north toward the West End, then crosses Waterloo Bridge, where the Thames is like black steel at that hour, shimmering under the illuminated London Eye. By the time Mayowa steps off the bus, the skylight has broken from night into a luminous purple. The early morning air is beginning to warm, the summer staking its claim on the day. She uses the staff entrance to the hotel, a path that takes her along the edges of all the opulence, the white marble flooring, gilded columns, crystal chandeliers, and gold leaf ceilings.
She barely makes it to the stairway. She steadies herself as she heads to the basement. The exposed piping along the walls rattles at her ear. She gasps for breath as she moves between the mounds of food-stained linen by the laundry rooms. She doesn’t have the presence of mind to step over the puddles in the kitchen. The passing smell of spoiled food wafting from the pileup of bin bags provokes her vertigo. She steps into the staff communal toilets and locks the door as if she has a right to the entire room.
“The devil is a liar,” she says to her reflection in the mirror, to the pale manila skin, hazel eyes, broad nose, and bullet chin. She waits for her breathing to settle and thinks about what Claude, her manager, will say to her when he sees her. Not what he will say, but the way he will say it. She will not explain why she missed two days of work, because she cannot even explain to herself the four nights she waited for her husband to return. She did not leave the flat. Not even on Sunday, with the strong pull of the church ebbing at her. There are people who rely on her there, like the young teenage sisters she mentors, the ones that remind her of Abiola. And then there are the tasks that she volunteers for. Had all the candles been replaced after service? Had they chosen someone responsible enough to carefully conduct the second count of the tithes and offering in her place?
A draft of cold wind sweeps from beneath the door and whips at her ankles. She shudders. “I am blessed and highly favored,” she says, but lingers before turning away from the mirror.
Gabriel is at her side as soon as she enters the staff room. He is a linen porter. He doesn’t need to be there, but he loiters as though he’s been waiting for her to arrive. Everything she knows about Gabriel has been gathered through his complaints: his age (“I’m thirty-eight, too old for this work.”); his hometown (“No work to be found in Freetown.”); his training (“An architect back home! But that is not the point.”). He shares these details with her so that she understands that working as a linen porter is beneath him.
Mayowa is only half-listening. She is buried in her memories of Abiola: how her eyes used to light up whenever an illustration was going well; how her contentment seemed unmatched when alone, whether she was playing pat-ball on the walkway outside their home or sitting away from the other teenagers in the pews at church.
“I’m sorry,” Mayowa says and heads to her cubbyhole to unfold her red tabard. Bisi is on this side of the room—an elder woman, with a headscarf over tight graying cornrows. She has pockets beneath each eye and small single tribal markings on each cheek. “Well? Do you have it?” she asks.
“Friday, Ma,” Mayowa replies, before continuing the conversation in Yoruba. “Friday is the day that you are to collect your money.”
“Ah! But you know I am traveling the following Tuesday,” Bisi replies, though her outcry appears feigned. “You know I am taking this money home with me. Have you not collected it from the others yet?” She pauses, as if considering the answer herself. She points a finger at Mayowa. “I hope they are not trying to cheat me now that it is my turn. These Jamaicans…”
“Ma,” Mayowa replies, “who are these Jamaicans you talk of amongst us?”
By “us” Mayowa means their Pardner circle. Yvette, a Barbadian neighbor who lives in her building, had introduced Mayowa to the practice. Two of the women in their circle were St. Lucian and friends of Yvette’s. Mayowa had then invited Bisi, along with Sister Ayedokun from church, to join their ring. For some months now, on the second week of each month, the other five had been handing £100 to Mayowa, who would also put her own £100 into the pool. Each month one of them collected the entire proceeds from her. It was a way to save; a way to ensure that they each took turns in having something to look forward to. This month Bisi was to collect the entire £600. She had chosen July because it coincided with her summer trip home to Gbongan, and then on to Abuja, where her niece’s wedding was to be held.
“I can promise you, no one is trying to cheat you, Ma,” Mayowa says. “Everyone before you has received their own money. Why not you now?”
Bisi waves a dismissive arm. “Let me have what it is you’ve collected so far.”
There is a pause before Mayowa replies. “I cannot do that.”
“I am not allowed.”
“What is this you mean, you are not allowed? Who is it not allowing you?”
“These are the rules,” Mayowa says in English. “If I do this for you now, I do so for others and then the entire thing is in dribs and drabs and before you know it,” she brushes her hands together as though wiping dust from them, “a wahala.”
Bisi makes a guttural sound with her throat. “Friday, then,” she says before squinting her eyes and pointing again. “But no later. These Jamaican people are not to mess you around. I will be gone for two weeks and it is not as if this place will hand me any paid leave.”
“Yes, Ma.” Mayowa says. She feels wedged in place by Bisi’s seniority. She wonders if duplicity is why she has hung around for so long, thirteen years of knowing there’s no paid leave, in a place where staff often resign within months. She has outlasted supervisors and managers; she is playing last-man-standing with Bryan from payroll.
Claude enters the room and the relief she feels when she sees him, although brief, is uncharacteristic and alien. Claude is punctual, as always, for the 6 a.m. shift. A young Igbo man with sandy red hair and light skin—lighter than her own. He gives instructions and revels in the ability to do so, stock inventory, toilet and ballroom cleaning—tasks for those chambermaids that cannot get to their assigned guest rooms before the checkout hour. Elizabeth, a young Polish woman—most of the women in the room are Polish—raises her hand. She has been there for six weeks and mentions she has yet to receive her first pay packet.
Claude shifts his weight away from her. He propels a customary list of complaints and threats to the group. The hotel is not happy. The rooms are not being cleaned properly or quickly enough. They have passed on their concerns to management. People will be let go if there is no clear improvement. He dismisses them but stops Mayowa before she leaves the room. “You’ve missed the last few days,” he says, “and you called us without notice. This leaves us short. This means more work for the rest of us. More rooms for us to turn. I have seen your records. Was it not just a few months ago that you did the same thing?”
That was a year ago, but she sees no point in mentioning this. He has to be her junior by more than fifteen years, and it was only a few months ago that the hotel’s contractors, Ocean Cleaning Unlimited, hired him to manage the staff. She wonders why he is so enthusiastic in his authority, why he intoxicates himself on moments like this. If he is fortunate his new title might leave him five or six pounds better off than the rest of them each payday. To be respected, she imagines, must be worth more than that.
“Management wants me to make it clear,” he continues, “that any more unauthorized time taken without notice will result in termination.”
“I have rights.”
He laughs. “Rights, eh?” he says. “After all, you have a clean British passport, eh? What of it? A Nigerian is a Nigerian, no matter what his or her little book says.”
She begins to walk away. Because she knows him. She knows he is not finished. “You think you cannot lose your job?” he calls after her. “It has been made clear. Miss another day without letting us know and you should not bother to return. It’s simple. You will come and find there are no hours or shifts available for you in the near future.”
His cackles chase her out of the staff room. She does not stop, she does not turn. She does not allow them to catch up with her.
She arrives homein the late afternoon. She takes her usual nap, and then prepares red stew and tilapia. Later, she sits on the sofa with the cordless phone in her lap. She is alone again, but still unaccustomed to the silence of her home. She collects the black pocketbook from the coffee table. A diary, from the year 1999, that has been fashioned into a handmade alphabetized address book. Without the need to open it she calls Sister Ayedokun. They fall straight into Yoruba, and once the greetings are over with—the asking after children and their educations, the husbands and their work—there is a lull, a hole in the conversation that Mayowa feels compelled to fill.
“Sister,” she finally says, and cannot recollect ever feeling as small, “forgive me for asking but I wanted to see if I am able to borrow some money from you?”
There isn’t an immediate answer. Instead, Sister Ayedokun peppers her with questions, a sense of concern that feels more dutiful to Mayowa than anything else. She confesses it’s toward the Pardner. She needs £100 but any little help would do. She does not feel she can ask for more without arousing suspicion. Her reticence, however, does little to help ease Sister Ayedokun, who asks if Mayowa somehow lost the money she gave her.
“No, no, no, sistah,” Mayowa replies—emphatically—knowing what is really meant by “lost.” “I am having a little trouble coming up with my own contribution,” she says. “I don’t want it to be late as Ma—Mama Bisola—is leaving for home in the coming days…”
She paints a picture full of bills and unforeseen expenditures, and when she is done with it all there is just as much relief from Sister Ayedokun as there is sympathy. But then an apology—Sister Ayedokun tells her she cannot help and they exchange another round of polite apologies before they exchange a goodbye. Mayowa takes a moment to let it pass—the regret at making the call, the thought of what Sister Ayedokun might think of her now—before she calls Sister Rebecca and then Sister Afolabi. After Brother Festus gently lets her down, she puts the address book back on the coffee table and picks up the daily devotional Bible guidebook that lies beside it. She turns to the page for Tuesday, July 12, and reads the Message for the Day: “God’s greatest promise is his presence.” She reads the day’s lesson, on God being present for the Apostles during their persecution, the crucifixions of Peter and Andrew, but she stops when the passage mentions the beheading of James. She turns to Wednesday, July 13, to the Message for the Day: “The courage to live God’s way.” She turns the page. Thursday, July 14, the Message for the Day: “Do not be ashamed of God.” She begins reading the passage, which draws from the apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy, but finds herself turning the page after the first paragraph. Friday, July 15, the Message for the Day: “He brings gifts into our lives.” Saturday, July 16: “Get into the habit of helping.” Sunday, July 17: “Become a great commission Christian.” She turns the page.
She is turning down a bed in a guest room on the first floor when Bisi shuffles to the open door, squeezing herself through the space between the jamb and trolley. They greet each other; Mayowa customarily falls to one knee and rises again. “How are you?” Bisi asks.
“God is good,” Mayowa replies as she folds the bedspread over toward the end of the bed.
“All the time,” says Bisi.
“Please, what is it? I will come and help you right after this, Ma.”
Back home, Mayowa knew a matriarch like Bisi would have a cook, a driver, and a houseboy to wait on her, not to mention a score of descendants at her bidding. Instead, despite being well past the age of retirement, Bisi often talked to Mayowa about the need to continue working, that she would send home money to her mother who, by the grace of God, was still breathing at ninety-seven years. Then there were brothers, to whom she regularly sent money, and the nephews and nieces she helped put through school.
“But it is you I worry over,” Bisi says.
Mayowa picks up the used sheets from the carpet and turns to look out the window, at the traffic that swarms below. It is a sight so distant from anything she might’ve been accustomed to as a child among the hills and giant iroko and obeche trees of Imesi-Ile, where she and her siblings helped carried yams and cassava from her father’s fields to his stores. She has confided in Bisi before, about her husband’s drinking, and how she misses Abiola. How she has struggled to keep herself from questioning God. And Bisi has been there, on a couple of occasions, during the muted breakdowns Mayowa would have at work, reminding her that to mourn is not to be without friends. Together they would huddle in the storage cupboard and say prayers that always ended with a request for strength.
Mayowa turns from the window. She tells Bisi that she has not seen her husband for almost a week. But more than anything else she is upset at him because of the day he chose to disappear. “It has been a year,” she says “…this time last year…is when we lost Abiola.” You have not heard from your husband for a whole week?” Bisi asks.
Mayowa shakes her head. “David, his brother, has. Richard has turned up drunk at his house once or twice. I am not surprised he is gone, but for this long now? He is behaving like an oyinbo.”
“It is only something that prayer can fix,” Bisi says.
“Yes. Demonic forces are at work. They have finally sacked him at his job. He has missed so many days now over the last two months. The Department of Health. A civil servant. A government job. Can you imagine? That place is not like here—you have to work hard to lose your job there. He hasn’t mentioned anything to me, but now he remains at home in the morning. Now he relies on me for money, helping himself to it whenever he wants. And what of the children we still have? It’s no wonder they never want to be home. He pays them no mind. He prefers to drink instead. Drink for breakfast. Drink for dinner. Drink for lunch. Even their education is of no interest to him.”
“How are your children?”
“How can one say? Modupe prefers to remain in Birmingham. She does not even come home when there is no school. Richard is supposed to be preparing to attend university in September, but he spends the summer staying out all day and night. Richard Jr., behaving like Richard Sr. I told him: Where does he think his son is getting it all from? What of all those evenings he has spent out at those Naija bars on the Old Kent Road only to come home the following morning stinking of Guinness? What example is he setting?”
“Maybe he is carrying on. Maybe he has found himself a mistress,” Bisi says. “May the Lord forgive him.”
Mayowa shrugs her shoulders. She has asked her husband this. He has denied it. But he struggles to do anything well these days. He carries the truth as badly as he wears his lies. He gives her words empty of any compassion or outrage or even derision. And then he leaves, vacating the moments that call for even a small show of strength.
“Claude,” Mayowa says, snapping back to the task at hand. “Let us not have him complain tomorrow.”
“Yes, you are right,” Bisi says.
Mayowa drops the sheets into the laundry bag attached to her cart and the two of them push it toward the door.
Mayowa lays her copy of Eight Ways to Keep the Devil Under Your Feet on the bed stand. She hits the switch on the alarm clock and the sound of Premier Christian radio grows from crackle to choral. The heaviness she has grown accustomed to settles in her chest and pins her to the bed again. The weight isn’t any lighter or heavier than it was a year ago. But her burden is different. It is different every day. She imagines her husband carries his own weight, in his own way—a way without God. There was a burden he carried even then, years ago when, as a young lady in Kaduna, she first laid eyes on him. He was untidy and stooped and did not appear to truly belong to her sister’s church. They exchanged their first words just outside the building, after he rushed toward its exit. She happened to be sitting near the doors. She followed him outside, and watched him bend over the gutter and evict that morning’s breakfast. She went back inside to retrieve some water for him.
The attraction was a slow thing that gathered over the months that followed. He looked too old for her, too old to not have married already; too old to be a carpenter building benches and fences and coops for the locals. But Mayowa was drawn to the way in which he did not seem to know how to move forward in the world. How he had arrived in Kaduna from Lagos and had been there for a little less than two years before his older brother had left for London. He had been asked to stay behind with his sister-in-law, her daughter, and her extended family. Mayowa could empathize. She, too, felt out of place at times, having been summoned from home to the city, to help tend to her young nephews, after her sister had sent the house girl away, having deemed her as being too lazy.
Richard was going to join his brother in London. He talked about it at times, during the many conversations they would have as he walked Mayowa from church to her sister’s home, or while he escorted her to the market. He would talk about his childhood in Ado Ekiti but also about he and his brother being born in London while their father was studying there. A British passport was something to be serious about, he would tell her, as though it was an epaulet he wore on his shoulders. “When my brother finally sends for his wife and daughter,” he would say, “I—and any wife of mine—could easily join them.”
As she drifts to sleep, Mayowa is startled by the bang and rattle of the front door crashing open. She sits up and looks at the clock, the red digits reading 2:08. She switches off the radio and listens. The front door closes. Feet shuffle. Then she hears “…for fuck’s sake” in the familiar but foreign sound of her son’s South London accent. She takes a deep breath and lies back down again, drawing the blanket over her. She will remind him tomorrow about the use of such language in her home.
She takes the service lift down to the staff dining area. In the microwave she heats last night’s leftover rice and then searches for a place to sit among the porters, waiters, and kitchen staff. Gabriel calls her over to where all the West African men sit clad in white shirts, kitchen coats, and gray trousers. Most of them are Nigerian. “I have been telling them,” he says, gesturing to the men as he shuffles to make room for her, “that my friend will never stop extorting me…” and he begins a diatribe that she has heard at least a dozen times before—how he is enrolled at South Bank University, relearning what he already knows, and because his student visa prohibits him from working enough hours he relies on the credentials of a friend, who is now demanding even more money. Normally, she tunes him out, but she is brought to attention by how freely and widely he is sharing his business. It is not until he mentions that he has decided to go back home that she realizes this is a tale of defeat.
“Forget about that,” one man says to Gabriel, directing him and others at the table to the sprawl of newspapers left out for staff. Front-page headlines from the last few days identify last week’s suicide bombers as British citizens. She remembers when the news broke, when the housekeeping staff had gathered in one of the vacant rooms to watch the television. She remembers the footage of a bus mangled by the explosion. She had pondered the significance: how it was a year to the day without Abiola, and the day was marked with tragedy.
The men begin to discuss the bombings and Islam in loud pidgin English, and Gabriel quietly returns to his food. Mayowa rests a hand on his forearm, and he lowers his spoon of rice. “Maybe it is not such a bad thing to return home,” she says. “My father used to tell his children not to expect a harvest from fallowed ground.”
“A harvest…” he repeats. He holds her gaze for a moment before nodding. She removes her hand and they both turn back to their food.
She can hear all the banging before she has even opened the front door. Doors slamming shut. China plates manhandled. The kind of clatter she knows her son would never dare to make at any hour. She lays her handbag down in the passageway and walks into the kitchen. Her husband has his back to her. He is rifling through the cabinets above the countertop, slamming them closed as he moves from one to the next. He turns his head to face her. He is wearing the same clothes he’d left in days ago. His black trousers are heavily creased. His sky-blue polo shirt streaked with grime, sweat stains under his arms.
“It’s not that I expect you to prepare anything,” he says, “but at least you can send that boy to buy food that I can prepare myself.” His hair is picky, his beard too. His eyes are yellow. His thick eyebrows angle toward his nose bridge. He turns back to the cabinet, shuts it, and begins to rummage through another.
“You idiot,” she yells and races toward him. She bangs her fist onto the counter. “Where is it?”
He looks at her, scowls, and turns back to the cabinet. “What are you talkin’ about woman?” He sucks his teeth. “Not even any gari in this house.”
She lifts the pressure cooker by its handle, brings it over her head and swings it back down. Mice droppings skip up off the counter. “Are you mad? Don’t you know you will ruin me? That was not my money. And you took it. You took it.” She begins to prod his chest, stepping forward as he backs away. “Not from me. From Bisi. You took it from her—her niece, the wedding. She needs that money. Bisi has sponsored that girl and helped to put her through school. Now the girl has a steady job and is to be wed. You want to take this from her? From Bisi? We give glory to God. This is Bisi’s reward. To be alive to see it. And she does not deserve this. That poor woman. I cannot find the words to tell her my own husband helps himself to my handbag and takes what he likes.” By now Mayowa is crying but she does not stop talking. Not even when he is up against the wall and violently sobbing.
“Grieve slowly, joh,” he cries. “Grieve slowly so that the rest of us may catch up with you.” He opens his arms. “You give everything to God, you leave nothing for the rest of us.”
She stops jabbing at him and stares. A man as disheveled as he was the day she’d met him more than twenty years ago. She remembers now that it wasn’t the way he struggled to move forward that drew her to him or the opportunity to leave together for the UK, it was the clouds that gathered at his eyes. He used to look at her as if she was his redemption. He would talk about the life he left behind in Lagos, and she knew she must’ve been unlike any of the boisterous girls he would’ve encountered there. And perhaps this was the attraction. Unconventional. Uncharacteristic. Divine.
He steps forward, his arms open to embrace her. But where was he a year ago, when she had sat alone in the flat, infuriated that her family had begun to find it difficult to come home on time? And when the doorbell rang that night, why was it not him on the doorstep instead of her son’s friend, Zahra? Why was it left for Zahra to speak, so wrecked with shock that she could only gesture to the tower block across the street. Mayowa had rushed there, toward the crowd that had gathered at the cordon tape—and at a distance, a small police tent. All the talk around her was that a child’s body lay inside, that it had fallen from the floors above. A young girl, they said, and every part of Mayowa collapsed, as an old life left her.
A police constable eased her fall. Where was her husband? No doubt he had been at some lousy bukka, filling himself with Guinness and suya. She steps back now, away from his outstretched arms, shakes her head, then turns and leaves the room.
When she wakes, everything is difficult again. It is difficult to breathe, to stand, to embrace the new day. She goes through the same routine, the same plea, Jesus help me, Jesus help me. She eventually sits up. She eventually stands. And at the calendar she marks an X on Friday, July 15. It is the eighth X in a row because, though her husband had returned home, he is gone again.
She calls his brother, David, before leaving the house. Because you never know. She had never seen her husband as distraught as he was in the kitchen last night. She apologizes to David—first, at the sound of his hoarse and weary voice, for waking him, and then a second time, just before she hangs up, after he tells her he hasn’t heard from his brother in days.
At 6:45, she is still standing outside the Hamlyn Republic. She takes in its seventy-five years of history, its Georgian- and Baroque-inspired façade, embossed with the hotel’s coat of arms. The morning traffic coasts back and forth behind her. She has never been this late to work before. But beyond the revolving doors and the blood-red carpets that line the lobby’s pathways, lies Bisi and her 600 sterling expectations.
Mayowa raises her right hand and notices it tremble. She knows Claude is somewhere inside the hotel, enraged by her absence, questioning an anxious Bisi, who would likely cover for her while trying her best to hide that she is just as worried that Mayowa won’t show up.
And she won’t. She has decided. She backs away and heads down the street toward the bus stop.
An elder is reading the pre-service Sunday announcements when a pregnant lady leaps up from the women’s row of pews, speaking in tongues. Those beside her make room as she begins to convulse, as though she was having a seizure. It is the first one of the day. During any given Sunday service, the Holy Spirit could possess two or three people. The congregation waits and listens and calls out aaaaah-min intermittently. The woman begins to move. A senior elder gives the signal. He nods and cuts the air with two fingers. A sister elder makes her way to the woman’s side. “Jehovah Jireh wishes to speak to someone today,” the sister elder says, and begins to interpret on behalf of the pregnant woman, who walks up and down the aisle, stumbling as she speaks. Mayowa presses her hand over her coat pocket, against the bulging envelope stuffed inside, to prevent any of the coins among the banknotes from rattling. Her stomach turns at the thought that the woman might stop at her side.
And she does, clutching the sidearm of the pews, rambling with her eyes rolled to the back of her head. “The Lord sees you…He sees your tribulations,” the sister elder cries out. “Whoever you are, he wants you to confess before it is too late. Fortune awaits your faith…” The pregnant woman moves on. She stops two rows in front of Mayowa and places her hands on a woman’s head. Two elders rise from the front of the men’s row of pews and escort the three women to the chamber room. Mayowa sighs. It is over as quickly as it had begun. She gets up and shuffles down the nave toward the exit, pressing her hand against her side as if in pain.
Sometime after seven in the evening, Mayowa rings the doorbell. A woman in a green buba comes to the door. She looks close in age to Mayowa, but is shorter and carries more weight.
“Hello?” she says.
“Ek’abo ma,” Mayowa replies, and kneels briefly. The woman follows suit. “I am here to see Mama Bisola. I am a friend from work.”
“Oh,” the woman says with an apologetic tone, “Mama is sleeping.”
The woman nods. “Yes.”
“Please,” Mayowa says. “If I could ask you to wake her. It is important that I speak to her before she travels tomorrow. She will want to see me.”
The woman takes Mayowa in for a moment before opening the door a little farther. “You are Mama Modupe. Please, come in,” she says as she backs into the home. Mayowa is expected to follow, to make her way in to perhaps the living room or the kitchen, wherever it was where they welcomed guests, but she remains in the hallway, just a few feet from the front door, still open.
“Oh, my sister,” says Bisi as she pulls at the skin beneath her eyes with her fingers. “My dear sister.”
“Ma, sorry to disturb.” Mayowa kneels, this time on both knees, and rises.
“Please, come in.”
“Oh no, Ma,” Mayowa says. “I cannot stay. I just wished to give you this.” She digs into her overcoat and pulls out the envelope. It is stuffed with notes of all different denominations; pound coins roll around at the bottom of it.
Bisi takes it, feels its size and weight and listens to the noise it makes. “What is this?”
“I give it to you as the Lord provides to me.”
“You give this to me?” She shakes her head. “What is the meaning of this? Have you spoken to Claude?”
Mayowa smiles with pursed lips at the thought. “No,” she says. “I have not been back there.”
“I’m sorry,” Bisi says and shakes her head again. “I tried. But you cannot speak any sense to that Igbo man.”
“It is fine,” she says. “I am sorry to disturb you.”
“No, not at all,” Bisi replies. Mayowa begins to back away toward the door. “Please stay, have something to eat.”
“Oh no, Ma. I am sorry. I have to get going.”
“Please,” Bisi says before Mayowa can close the door.
“Wait, now. I have already borrowed the money I need. You don’t have to give this to me now.”
“Then you can be happy knowing that you are now able to give it back to whomever gave it to you.”
“No. I will not. Take this back if it is to come between you and the Lord.”
“My dear blessed Ma,” Mayowa says. “Do not be troubled. So much has already come between myself and the Lord.”
“You will be considered a disgrace among them.”
“As I have been this past year,” Mayowa replies. “As I have been. Journey mercies, Ma,” she adds just before she closes the door.
Her mornings aren’t any lighter with her husband asleep beside her. The rituals are the same. He groans as she rises. She has no cause to set the alarm anymore but she makes as much noise as she wants to.
In the kitchen the sink is piled with plates her son has left unwashed. She collects them and carries them to the room he shares with his sisters. She is surprised not to find him there. Perhaps he came home to only eat and change his clothes. She will speak to him. His disappearances will have to stop by the time the summer ends. He must start university with focus. She lays the dishes on his bed, but then surveys the room, realizing how rarely she is actually in it. She glances around: How much her babies have aged. Textbooks, magazines, novelty teddy bears, a PlayStation, a pair of underwear, a computer monitor with gold triangles on its casing. Abiola used to like to paint patterns onto things that didn’t require patterns. Like their chest of drawers, the doorjambs and skirting boards—all marked with circles, triangles, and ovals of all colors. Mayowa doesn’t know how many times she smacked Abiola for painting on things. It all seems so trivial now.
She accidently kicks a shoebox jutting out from beneath the bed and kneels to put it back in place. It is a new box so she opens it and finds a colorful pair of Nike trainers inside. Also under the bed, bottles of alcohol lay flat—rum, whisky, tequila, and a couple of brandy bottles. All of them new and unopened. And more shoe boxes—brand new Adidas and more Nike and among a pair of the shoes an empty envelope with Yvette’s handwriting. She puts the shoes back, gathers the bottles in her arms, and makes her way back to the kitchen. She empties the alcohol out into the sink as the kettle boils. She pulls a box of PG Tips and makes herself a cup of tea and rustles up some plantain to eat from the remains her son has left behind in the refrigerator. She sits at the kitchen table and begins to eat. She reaches for the Bible that sits there. She opens it up at the beginning.