The house-helps were stomping all over the top-floor flats in which we lived. I heard the louvres rattle as they banged doors and shrieked in their cat-and-mouse playtime antics. Soon, the doorbell would ring. A nurse from my father’s clinic downstairs would issue a warning from my father and the noise would quieten down. A shriek and the sound of flesh hitting flesh, and the banging-stomping-rattling would resume once more.
I sighed. I had been banished to our bedroom across the landing with severe instructions not to get up until it was five o’clock. But I was thirsty. The striped curtains both let and blocked the sunlight and for a while, I had played my usual game of ‘dodge the sun’. I was bored now.
My sister’s earlier suckling of her thumb had drawn a map on the bed. I knew from experience that it would smell. I poked her until she turned her head the other way.I got up little-by-little until I was sitting up. It would take a while to get out of bed completely – Creak. Pause. Creak. Creak. Creeeeeak. Pause. Breathe – but I would make it.
The bed was the least of my worries. The first door was the worst. Then there was the second. Then out the always-open third, across the landing, skipping over the hole with its bit of exposed piping left behind by a plumber, another creak into the kitchen and open the door leading to the dining room and to the fridge.
It seemed a long time but the fridge was a welcoming sight. Laughter bubbled up and I stopped mid-step. That was close. I leaned sideways, holding on to a dining room chair for balance. The door to the maids’ room was not completely shut. The laughter came again and I forgot my thirst. There was something about it….something curious. A genuine enjoyment. I had to see what it was all about. I skipped over the puffed-up bit of linoleum. It formed the ‘mountain’ in our little car games but stepping on it now would cause a loud ‘crack‘. I didn’t want that.
Once my feet touched the linoleum boundary, I breathed a sigh of relief. The floor was concrete, cool and hard. Nobody could hear my bare feet. I stood close to the door jamb, angling my head downwards so that my breath could brush against the wood frame as opposed to bouncing off it. I peeked.
At first my eyes couldn’t make out anything in the gloom. I pulled back in case somebody saw and closed my eyes. I tried again.
“Hehehehhehe.” A low chuckle.
“Look at his thing. It is so big.” The laughter was harsher, bolder. More assured. It belonged to the tall one.
“Can you read the words well?”
“Yes now. Let me see that piece you are looking at.” A cleared throat. “OK, he’s asking her if she is selling her breasts like the plantain on head. Because her breasts are shaped like plantains see?”
“I can see that from the pictures. I wanted to hear his own words.”
“I am telling you myself, oya read it if you don’t believe me, bush girl.”
“Who are you calling bush girl, don’t you know I am older than you? Is it because I can’t read?”
“You’re older than who?” The tall girl delivered a big slap to the other’s behind.
“Stop it. Osiso.” The sentence ended in a scream and they started tussling, falling back on the single bed. A piece of their literature floated in the air and landed near the door. There was a woman’s naked buttocks in black and white. It looked too big to belong to just one woman. There was a man, veins bulging in his neck, a long, knotted thing between his legs, he was sweating. It was his thing.
I gasped. The tall one looked up.
“What are you doing here?” She jumped up and stood in front of me. My heart beat in my mouth. “Aren’t you supposed to be taking siesta?”
“I was thirsty…” I hesitated. She looked like she was going to kill me. “I came to get water from the fridge.”
“You know you’re not supposed to touch the fridge. Why didn’t you take water from the filter in the kitchen?” I hated the filter. The water tasted of pot and…and… boil, no matter how long it had been left to cool.She put her hands on her waist and glared like she wanted me to set me on fire. Her breasts sat high on her chest. When did she take off her blouse? Without meaning to, my eyes darted around the room. The short one got up from the bed and moved quickly to the wardrobe. Her buttocks were two blackened buns as she pulled up her skirt.
“Yes but I wanted cold water. It is hot.” I decided to push my luck. “Besides, I saw what you were doing. You were reading a bad magazine. If you don’t let me drink water from the fridge I will tell mummy…” The tall one shoved me with such force that I hit thrust my elbows into the wall opposite. A numbness traveled down my arms. She reached down and picked up the magazine. She had put her foot on it as soon as they discovered I was there. ‘Lolly’ screamed at me from between a woman’s thighs. She dropped it on the bed and advanced.
“If you tell your mother what we were doing I will make sure she beats you well well for breaking your siesta. And I will tell your mum that you broke one of the tumblers. I have been hiding it to help you but try it and you will know yourself.” She poked me in the chest with a hard finger. I wanted to cry. I knew I was going to pay for breaking the glass. I should have told my mother when it broke. I knew I should have been suspicious when this one tried to cover for me. She didn’t even like me. She liked my sister.
I walked back to the room and waited for siesta to be over. I stayed in the room when it was TV time. I didn’t come out when dinner was ready. I knew when my mother came back but I didn’t come out to greet her. I knew from her footfalls that she was coming to give me the thrashing of my life.
“Welcome mummy. I’m sorry that I broke your glass and didn’t tell you. I am already punishing myself. I don’t deserve any dinner. But let me tell you all the bad-bad things they did today…”
Screw it. I knew which way my bread was buttered.