Charlotte weaved in and out of the crowd, the Tesco shopping bags she was carrying weighing heavily as she tried to pass the family in front of her. When she first came to England, she had been like them, amazed at the buzz of Market Day. For some reason, she had thought that market days were the preserve of Ivorian society, but then her host family had told her about the market in the Square and she had wanted to experience it. The touting of the butcher, the fruit & veg stallholders calling customers to their stalls, offering three bowls of fruit for a Pound had enthralled her. So bartering was allowed! Even though her host family had enough fruit and vegetables, she’d bought satsumas and avocadoes (because the ones at Tesco looked nothing like avocadoes) and a handbag as well as a purse for herself. And that was the reason why she was not growing impatient with the family although she also wished they wouldn’t stand in the middle of the path like that. A bit of give and take, right?
“Excuse me?” She said. There was accommodating someone, and then there was accommodating.
“Oh sorry! We’re in your way, aren’t we?”
You don’t say!
“It’s OK.” She smiled and dashed to the fruit & veg stall. Maybe if she had time, she might go to the haberdasher. Or maybe not as she needed to get to the cinema where she would take her bus, and then to work.
Her days were planned, even down to where she stopped off and in which order the shopping was done. Sometimes she had even got annoyed when the supermarket had changed its products’ layout.
“Hello.” She smiled at the stallholder.
“Pineapple for you, my favourite pineapple customer?”
She smiled. Ever since she managed to make it to the market just as the stalls were all packing up and bought all the three pineapples he had left, that had been his name for her. His eyes twinkled as he picked up a pineapple.
“Your husband will be happy with this.” He held it out to her.
She laughed and took it from him. Mark sure would be happy. Only the peeling of it would be left to her, the way everything was. It was a good job she had been well raised by her parents, otherwise she might have asked him exactly how much he earned to think that he could heap demands and demands upon her. Or was it because when he married her, she was still an illegal immigrant and he felt this conferred rights to him she had no idea of? This morning, despite not going to bed until 2am, she had got up at 6 to make his breakfast as well as his packed lunch. Even as she made the ham and tomato sandwich and prepared a fruit salad and rummaged for another flavour of crisps that wasn’t roast chicken, she wondered whether he would bring the lunchbox untouched because he would have eaten at the pub. She no longer bothered with getting Mark to understand her because like a record stuck on replay, she knew all his answers.
“I don’t ask you to stay up until 2!” when she struggled to wake up or “You can always go back to bed.”
He actually told her that this morning! How much sleep did he think she would get before she had to get up again and get ready for work? But she just shook her head at him and as always during those times, she rued the day she overstayed her visa. Was there really nothing she could have done back home? So she did not finish the medicine degree she came to England for, but was this country really that special that she had to marry such a rubbish man and be working as a customer service adviser when she knew she was capable of much, much more? And yet she had loved him. Once. When he was that car salesman who was desperate to set up his business.
“What if it fails? What if I’m no good at it?”
His parents had not been the most helpful of parents either, seeing doom and gloom everywhere.
“Nobody is buying new cars!” They told him, yet when he mentioned used cars, the same refrain was used.
She knew he’d appreciated the fact that she stuck by him, going without Christmas presents – as if she’d ever cared for such things in the first place – hardly having him at home because he was balancing two jobs. So why was he not returning the favour? Emotional support was the only thing she was in need of. For him to know that she was setting up the business so she could finish her studies. Surely after seven years together without ever asking him for one penny, he would see that she wasn’t the stereotypical immigrant, which is no doubt what he thought of her!
“Let’s add some oranges to that and some grapes as well.”
“Yes, why not?”
Hopefully she wouldn’t be too busy, then she might make a banana bread, otherwise most of the bananas would go in the bin. Bananas were not the fruits to buy at the market, favourite stall or not.
“Here you go.”
She checked her watch as he got her change.
“See you next week?” He winked as he gave her the change.
“Hopefully.” She smiled.
She dashed out of the market, her handbag slung over her shoulder, the three shopping bags hurting her arms but she preferred that than finishing work and getting those bits and pieces. Mark worked on Saturdays and she liked to finish and get home and have an hour or so working on her business plan before turning to domestic issues.
She crossed the road towards the cinema and the smell of fresh popcorn hit her. How long had it been since she’d gone to see a movie? This was something she used to do a lot when she first came to England: catching a movie with friends then going to the pub to discuss said movie and chat about one and a thousand things. But she overstayed her visa and money had to be saved. Plus there was the shame of being an illegal, so she moved away from her uni friends in Bath to Salisbury where apart from her host family, who had by then moved to Spain, she didn’t know many other people.
Tomorrow, tomorrow! She whispered to herself. She would go to the cinema, then she would buy a magazine and if the weather was as nice as this, she would go to the park.
The voice brought her out of her reverie.
“Oh I’m sorry!”
She smiled but inwardly admonished herself. She looked up.
“I’m sorry too for getting up like that! You actually look like someone I know.”
“Hum! Maybe. I don’t know you though.” She shook her head, and wished she knew him. There was something about him. His blackness maybe? The thought of it made her smile.
He smiled too. “Ha. I’m sorry again for jumping into your path like that.”
“By the way, my name’s Idriss.”
And as she stood before him, in those boring straight black trousers that had seen better days, she wished she spent more time selecting her clothes. Heck! She even wished she dressed like some of those girls at work. They might just be coming to do a customer service job but they wore the latest in season stuff. Makeup was always immaculate. Yet she’d never envied them. She had bigger ambitions and none of those ambitions had the phrase “Customer Service Team Leader” in them. If only she was as bothered as they were about fashion, because apart from the brogues she was wearing, her look didn’t scream fashion. In fact, would he even notice the brogues as being fashionable? Wouldn’t he just examine the combo of black trousers, dark blue tank top and brown parka and conclude that the brogues were chosen for their functionality? And then there was the hair, a messy ‘fro that came about during the overstaying years but which she had grown to like. But what would this Black man think? Did she rock the ’fro or not? Oh! How could a woman, a Black woman at that possibly be too busy for hair?! Perhaps she should have worried less about wasting the few week-ends off she got from work and been like every Black woman living in “White” cities, making the long trip to London and getting her hair weaved up!
“Nice to meet you, Charlotte. That’s a beautiful name, hum.”
He smiled again and she longed to touch the dimples that formed. Was his skin as soft as it looked?
“You look laden. You’re going home?”
Although if you invite me for coffee, I will pull a sickie. Which is what she would have said had she been bold. But even if she were bold, who invited a man for coffee like that? What if he thought something? She might be thinking it but that didn’t mean it was a road she wanted to take.
“Shame hum! Beautiful day like today.”
“Still cold though.”
He pulled his jacket around him. She liked what he was wearing: the brown tweed flat cap, the dark brown chino trousers and trainers of the same colour. Only the shirt was blue and the jacket was a light, almost beige-coloured jacket. A bag was slung over his chest.
“Listen, I would love to chat with you again. So, hum, if you don’t mind, I could take your number and call you?”
She saw her bus appearing round the corner just as she gave him the last digit.
“I must go! Nice meeting you!”
She rushed off and as she stood in line, she resisted the urge to look back. She couldn’t resist for too long however because when the bus passed his stop, she glanced up. He waved and she waved back. By the time she arrived at work 30 minutes later, he’d texted and like that, the tone of the day was set.
Thankfully it was a Saturday so there was only one manager in. She discovered BlackBerry Messenger thanks to him and finally understood then the power that tool wielded during the London riots.
“Let’s do dinner sometime.”
“Maybe coffee?” She wrote back. “You can then run away if I’m not scintillating enough for you.”
“Hahahaha! You’re on. We’ll do coffee, although I’m sure you’ll be scintillating.”
“Yes. I can smell a scintillating woman a mile off.”
“Oh! How many did you smell today?”
“You wouldn’t believe the dearth of scintillating women!” He added a smiley.
She sent one back. She who only ever texted with one finger found herself texting with both thumbs. She even told him of her plan to set up her own business and didn’t feel awkward about it. With Mark, she had felt awkward and rightly so, because he’d just rolled his eyes and she had vowed not to tell him anything.
“That’s great. What kind of business? The Prince’s Trust is very good with helping out new entrepreneurs.”
She would have sent kisses. That was why she had been working like a little demon on her business plan so she could approach the Prince’s Trust.
“Thank you – I’m in fact thinking of contacting them. Homeware accessories. What do you do?”
“I’m a PhD student in English.”
“And very hard. Setting up a business is impressive.”
“And very hard.”
“Hahahaha! Why homeware?”
“Because I’m trying to be naughty.”
Where was the boldness coming from? Maybe because he was a stranger, or perhaps because she felt a kinship with him. Although there had been a kinship with Mark. Once upon a time. She was, however, no longer the 22 year-old girl who took a man’s platitude of “You can be whatever you want to be” as a great form of encouragement. If the disaster of the marriage with Mark had shown her something, it was that she now needed better people in her life, and she liked Idriss. Not in that way. They could have a good friendship – hopefully that was why he took her number because she really couldn’t give him more. It was just that she’d felt the need lately to meet with other Africans. She missed her country, she missed her continent and she wanted to chat with other Africans about issues, real issues as opposed to these First World problems Mark and his friends and to be fair some of her own friends were adept at. Seriously, was it a matter of depression if one was unable to go on holiday?
She wanted to go with a friend to a poetry reading at the Exiled Writer Café in London. She wanted to have an intelligent discussion with someone about a documentary seen on Africa 24. Sometimes she would forget her resolve and she would begin to tell Mark about a reading she’d just attended then she would see his eyes glazing over and those words: “It goes over my head” before proceeding to tell her about the customer who wanted two grand knocked off a V8 engine car. And God forbid that she should look less than interested.
Had the visa issue not been in the equation, she wouldn’t have gone through with the marriage. So he didn’t run away when she first confessed to him that she was an overstayer but had she not been the one trying to make the relationship work since then? So that he didn’t think she was a scrounger, she had kept the cleaning jobs she did illegally so she could contribute. When he felt the need to blow money on someone’s birthday or on Christmas presents, she kept the objections to a minimum, especially when he would retort, “It’s my money! I’ll spend it as I wish.”
Indeed, it was and it slowly dawned on her the kind of husband he would make. But say no to the marriage proposal and do what? The relationship would have ended and where would she have lived then? She’d hoped that once she had her visa and she was working, he would appreciate her worth. But that wasn’t to be, even though she paid for the cost of the visa herself, all £1,000 of it thereby prolonging her illegality period.
The phone vibrated and the red light on it flashed. Idriss had sent a series of question marks. She saw that he was still writing, so she waited. If those who used BlackBerry Messenger during the riots had been like her, London wouldn’t have looked like a city at war. Somehow she didn’t think that anyone waited for anyone else to finish a text.
“Naughty? Is homeware the new porn?”
“Hahahaha! It’s better than that. It’s the new way to circumvent the new immigration rule.”
“Oh those! They bring one every minute hum! So which one are you trying to circumvent?”
“The one that says when you’re in possession of a Limited Leave to Remain, you cannot apply for a permanent work position.”
And then she got scared. What if he asked how she obtained the Limited Leave to Remain? Obviously Mark would have to be mentioned, lest he got the wrong idea. It would just be good for their carefree banter to carry on a little longer. Or forever.
“Anyway! Heavy topic – let’s move to something lighter.” She wrote.
“I don’t mind heavy. We should go to this group a friend of mine set up. How old are you?”
“Does the group have an age limit?”
“Hahahaha! You’re funny. I’m just asking.”
“28. You? And what kind of group is it? The Limited Leave to Remain society?” She added a smiley.
“I like you! You’re hilarious. It’s a discussion group – we call ourselves The Government in Exile. We talk about continent issue and what we can do. You seem like someone who will enjoy that.”
She sent a smile. She would definitely check the group out. Such determination made her smile. She could just imagine Mark’s response to that. When will dinner get sorted?
“And I’m 33. And if you don’t mind me asking, you got someone in your life? I’m single by the way.”
The moment of truth. The manager chose that particular moment to get up so Charlotte dropped the phone in the drawer.
“Hi.” She answered and hoped the manager didn’t come to talk to her about her stats. Because nobody needed to tell her that hardly any email had been sent.
“You’re doing UK customers, aren’t you?”
“Yes. But I’m also keeping an eye on international deliveries.”
“Well done. How many emails have you got in your inbox?” She bent over. “OK, once you have finished those 5, can you jump on International?”
The manager walked to other colleagues. Charlotte waited until she had gone back to her desk before taking the phone out.
“I’m with someone.” She sent the message then added, “I’m married.”
Now he knew everything. His reply came a full 2 minutes later; she kept tabs.
“Ha! Interesting. So how long have you been married?”
“That’s a long time.”
“It is.” She wrote. “Do you still want to have that coffee?”
“Of course I do. I’ll take you to my favourite coffee place.”
They met the following day after a marathon BBM, Facebook, audio files sharing session where they talked about their ambitions – he was going back to Angola after his PhD to set up a publishing company.
“If we don’t write our own stories, we can’t complain when it is twisted.” He messaged via Facebook.
“The hunter telling the tale.” She wrote back.
“You understand hum. I like you, girl – shame you’re happily ensconced with someone hum.” He added a smile to the message.
She chose not to take that bait. They talked about books and authors they liked, music too. They were both into African Rumba.
“Franco, man! He was the man.” He wrote and her heart melted within her that he knew of Franco.
“You dig Tabu ley?”
“Come on, girl! Sam Mangwana too.”
“Could that also be patriotic?”
“Hahahaha! Not many people know he’s Angolan, you know.”
“He’s a little Magellan – he lived in Côte d’Ivoire, you know?”
“I didn’t know that.”
However they did not talk about music when they met up. He picked her up in front of the cinema and they went to Southampton.
“So what makes this coffee shop special?” She asked as they listened to the latest Koffi Olomidé.
“You’ll see. And I get a feeling it’s gonna be your favourite place too.”
He was not wrong. AfricBooks was special. It was a bookstore-cum-coffee bar. The bookstore only specializing in African literature. The place was crammed with books with little square blackboards decorated with cauri beads with either recommendation of other books to check out, or of readings happening. How did she never know of this place?
“This place is just lovely.”
“It is, isn’t it? Let me introduce you to Carlos.” He placed his hand on her back and she felt the need to lean against him, but she kept herself in check.
“Soares!” The man she presumed to be Carlos sauntered towards them and bear-hugged Idriss.
“Como você está?”
“Eu estou bem.”
“This is my friend, Charlotte. Charlotte, Carlos. He’s the owner of this place and the man who’s impoverishing me in this land of the White Man.”
Carlos guffawed, beguiling his small frame.
“If someone is gonna study a PhD in this country, they can’t be that poor!” He punched Idriss and kissed Charlotte three times.
“We also do the three kisses in Côte d’Ivoire.”
“Aha! You’re Frenchy! We’ve just received the new book by your compatriot. What’s her name?” He waved his hand.
“He thinks we’re psychic.” Idriss teased.
“Why are you hanging out with this man?” He smiled. “Tanella Boni!” He clicked his fingers. “That’s the name I was looking for.”
“Anyway, we are not here to buy books. Unless Charlotte,” he turned towards her, “you wanna buy something?”
“Not this time.” She smiled.
“Go sit down!” Carlos ushered them in the direction of the café. “I’ll get Marianne to bring you some Ethiopian coffee. And maybe some Soetkoekies?”
“Obrigado, Carlos.” Then to her, “you will love those cookies.”
“Well, I’m glad you know what I’ll love.”
He smiled. “Let’s just say I hope you will.”
He selected a corner of the café – against one of the corner, a shelf of used books and on the wall just next to them, a painting of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
“Are the used books for sale too?”
“Yes. And some of the paintings too.” He pointed to the coffee ceremony picture. “His missus, Marianne, she is a painter.”
“How do you know Carlos?”
Just then, Marianne brought the coffee and the cookies.
“Idriss.” She smiled. Unlike her husband, she was more reserved.
“How are you, sisi?” Idriss got up and kissed her, towering over her small frame.
“Good, thank you. Hello.”
She smiled at Charlotte who got up as she got introduced.
“Nice to meet you.” Marianne smiled. “If you guys need anything…”
“Marianne, thank you.” He clasped his hands together in thanks.
“They seem to like you.”
“They are like my family. I love them.”
“So did you meet them in this country?”
“Yep. When I was doing my first degree in London.” He placed his hand on hers. “I like you, you know.”
He played with her wedding band. Even though she lowered her eyes, she felt his boring into her.
“You’ve been saying that since yesterday.” She looked up at him.
She shrugged. “You seem to be a cool guy.”
He cocked his head aside.
“I like you in a way that I wish you were not married. That I wish you were not with anyone.”
She pulled her hand away. Him playing with the rings made the whole thing not right and she quietly berated herself for forgetting to remove the rings. Even as she spoke to him yesterday at that bus stop, she’d hidden that finger among the folds of the bags she was carrying, worried that if he so much as caught a glint of the rings, the conversation would come to an end. So did I not see the rings as she shaved her legs, and exfoliated, and applied moisturizer? Did the topaz stone of the engagement ring not reflect enough as she painted her nails, resolving then to pamper herself often? So what if life was hard? This she told herself as she dabbed concealer under her eyes, plucked at stray hairs in her eyebrows and applied lip gloss.
“What do you say?” He asked.
“Listen Idriss. I’m a big girl.”
“You don’t need to tell me sweet things if you want to get inside my panties. You know that, don’t you?”
He raised his eyebrows. “I don’t know that actually. Listen, I really like you.” He made a fist and touched his heart. “Let’s forget the panties for a moment…”
“They can’t be forgotten.” I smiled. Because one thing you have no idea of is that my husband has not been interested in me in two years.
Charlotte wasn’t sure what caused the dwindling of sex in the first instance to its non-existence later on in her marriage. And regardless of what she did, even spending what she considered to be the budget of a little country on lingerie and resolving to seduce her husband, nothing happened. Once, Mark told her to fuck off. Of course he promptly apologised, coming after her as she rushed up the stairs in her heels and the matching forest green sheer French knickers and bra. The seduction ended then and she decided that the lingerie money would best be spent on practising her sewing skills for her business.
He laughed. “You’re funny.”
She shrugged. “I can’t leave my husband.”
There were some marriages that respected the “For better and for worse” clause, regardless of whether the better part had left the equation a long time ago. All those people who would say she married Mark for his papers. And she certainly couldn’t go to each and every one of them and say, “I still need to fulfil a total of four years before I can even aspire to citizenship in this country and leaving this man jeopardizes my stay here.” They would even think she was protesting too much.
He poured the coffee.
“How do you take your coffee?”
“Just some milk, please.”
He added milk to hers and a couple of teaspoons of sugar to his.
“Have a cookie.”
“Is it Angolan too?” She held up the cookie.
“No. South African.”
“You know we can be friends.” She bit into the cookie. “And you were right, I do like the cookie.”
“I’m glad.” He took a sip of his coffee and helped himself to a cookie. “Of course, we can be friends. I hope we are friends.” He smiled at her.
“Friends with benefit.” She continued.
She would also deal with the implications of such a statement another time.
“Until you find your very own girl.” She shrugged.
Yet when he kissed her later on, she wished she was his. The thought of going home to Mark! Mark who would never take her to an African bookstore. As they met over the subsequent weeks and months, she told him she wished she could be his girl.
“I’ve always said you can be. The ball is in your court, babes.”
They snatched a few hours, whole evenings and even some week-ends in his studio and dreamed about what their future could be. Or rather she did, because he usually put a stop to such fantasies.
“Babes!” He would put his hand up and briefly close his eyes. “Let’s not do this. Not while you’re in your situation.”
Sometimes, he would ask, “Why are you with the dude anyway?”
“You like that word – complicated.”
“That’s because it is.”
If only that was the only response her marital situation evoked. Idriss was wanting more.
“I can’t do this.” He would say on occasion. “I don’t like sleeping with another man’s wife, you know.”
He would look at her with that frown of his she’d seen so many times, when he was engrossed in a book, at The Government in Exile meeting group, when he was cooking.
“And the thought of you guys getting jiggy.”
“We don’t have sex.”
“Please. You share the same bed, right?”
“Yes. But we really don’t have sex.”
“Please girl, sort it out. I will marry you. If you want guarantees, I will come to your country and give lobola to your daddy but please.”
And she would weep inside. She knew a time would come when decisions would need to be made. Such a time came one Sunday. He’d been subdued when she met up with him and they walked to his flat.
“So what have you been up to?”
“Studying, girl. Studying.” He’d gone to take her hand but she pulled it away. “Sorry, I forgot.” He said and tucked his hands into his pockets.
“It’s OK. So how’s studying going?”
“I think I’ll keel over when I get through this PhD. Who asked me?” He smiled.
They stopped at a noodle bar on the way and got a takeaway box of Chow-Mein. The conversation was even stilted as they ate and he still looked downcast.
“Is this face all to do with the PhD?”
He leaned back against the sofa, the box of Chow-Mein balanced on his lap and looked at her.
“What we gonna do about us, girl?”
Charlotte stopped eating and shrugged. “I’ve no idea. Maybe you need to get finding that girl, hum?”
“You’re staying with the dude?”
“I can’t lose my visa.”
The simple thought of going through another period of illegality made her shiver. Unbeknown to him, she’d taken legal advice. It wasn’t only on him that the clandestine meetings had been taking their toll. For five months, she’d been solidly lying to her husband: over-time at work (good job they didn’t have a joint bank account!), drinks with work colleagues, spa trips with girlfriends; all so she could spend time with him.
“It will be difficult for you to obtain another probationary Leave to Remain.”
Every immigration lawyer she’d approached, even those expensive ones who did not, under any circumstance offer legal aid, had advised her in such a manner.
“Of course, you can always ask that extenuating circumstances be considered.”
But she knew the Home Office. The thought of staying with Mark four more years to complete her probationary period! And yet, she knew she would.
What would she do if she went back to Côte d’Ivoire? And it wasn’t just only her to consider. That boring customer service job she hated so much paid £1,400 a month. This gave her the possibility to make regular Western Union transactions to her parents. It meant that in these days where the Ivorian Government was struggling to pay its citizens, her parents could carry on living comfortably. In light of all that, how could she sacrifice her duty as the eldest child for the sake of falling in love, even if it was with someone who shared the same optimism with her that their continent was the future? Africa might be the future but Europe was still the present.
Maybe if Côte d’Ivoire had held onto its stability… Because really, if it hadn’t been for the war, what would her parents want with her money?
“I’m staying with the dude.” She tried smiling but she could feel tears moistening her eyes.
“You can apply outside the rules, you know.” He sat back up and placed the box of food on the coffee table. “Let’s get a lawyer. I have savings.” He grasped her hands.
“Seriously Idriss.” She removed her hands from his and wiped her eyes. “These things are complicated. Trust me…”
Her voice broke again.
“Let’s try for a baby then. I love you, Charlotte. You’ve told me you’re not happy with the dude. We try for a baby. If you are pregnant, they can’t remove you from the country. Even if they say you can’t work, I’ll look after you. Charlotte…”
“I’m sorry Idriss.”
She shook her head. Who knew what other law the Home Office would come up with next? She’d fought the Home Office to get her Limited Leave to Remain. She’d needed to convince them that she, the daughter of a university professor and an accountant was really marrying a car salesman, son of a housewife and a lorry driver, for love and nothing else. A human being could only fight the Home Office once and survive. She was surviving.
“I’m so sorry, Idriss.” She squeezed his hand. He kissed her.
She shook her head. Whatever he had to stay, she couldn’t bear to hear it. She wiped her eyes and grabbed her bag.
(c) Edwige-Renée Dro
Image: Free Media Goo