Sade perched on the edge of her bed, nursing a cold glass of wine and her discontent. She thought again about how much she hated the view from the bedroom window. It looked out over the rear of the apartment block, a concrete expanse that housed the dustbins and generators. If she craned her neck far enough to the right, she could just make out a corner of the communal pool, shimmering like a mirage in the smog filled air. It made her feel worse somehow. As if she were watching her life from the cheap seats and she silently cursed the oily estate agent who claimed to have found them the perfect apartment. It was a nice enough place – three bedrooms, all en-suite, a separate living and dining area. Femi wasn’t around when she signed the lease. “Go with your gut”, was all the advice she received by text. So she threw caution to the wind and paid two years rent in advance for a flat that neither of them had seen. A year later, she couldn’t remember why they had been in such a hurry.
They moved home, to Lagos, even though neither of them had lived there since they were children. Femi got a new job – not quite a promotion but certainly one with better prospects – but Sade had little to do. There was scant appetite for her reportage photography and wedding clients were only interested in a line-up of who’s who. She settled on family portraits in the end, which she did sporadically, at a nearby studio. When she wasn’t working, Sade missed her friends, her walks in the park, the way strangers huddled at bus stops, talking about the weather.
“Do you ever miss seasons”, she asked her husband.
“Nope. Not one bit. I’m a sun-child. Why, is it too hot for you?”
“It’s just so humid. I’m sure it never used to be this muggy before.”
“Ajebota! I’m the one who was supposed to have been away too long. Get another air conditioner if it bothers you that much”
Sade wanted to say something clever about cheque-book generosity, but she couldn’t think of anything.
Inevitably other cracks appeared. Uneven bathroom tiles, blocked drains, a sloped kitchen ceiling – all of which she dealt with stoically. Had she been the daughter of a first wife, she thought, perhaps things might have been different. Femi might have a job with better hours, assistance would be freely given. But as the only child of a third wife – a dead one at that – she had learnt that gifts had to be earned. So she accepted the flaws as the price she had to pay to become mistress of her own home. No more tip-toeing around her step-mother or pretending to ignore the woman’s shrill complaints. Now she decided where the sofa would sit, what paintings would hang on the wall, how much beer to stock in the fridge. It should have been exhilarating but Femi was always away on business and so her triumphs went unnoticed. Except for Blessing, the house girl, but she never had much to say about anything.
The bedroom window also looked out over the boys’ quarters – a rectangular slab, like Lego but less colourful, where the maids, nannies and stewards from each of the apartments lived. At first Sade kept the window closed in the evenings, protection from the stifling heat and mosquitoes. Lately she had begun to leave it open. Just a sliver but wide enough to catch snippets of conversation that drifted upwards like smoke. With a glass of wine in hand she would turn off the lights and the air conditioning, lie on her bed and listen. She heard the chirping of crickets, the crunch of footsteps on gravel, the muted sound of car horns and gridlocked traffic beyond the apartment gates. In time, with a little concentration, as if tuning in to a long wave radio station, she singled out the voices from below and their stories and laughter seemed to fill the empty spaces in her life. She heard talk of sick babies and vicious in-laws, torrid affairs and family reunions. She did not always know to whom they referred but relished weaving the disparate strands together. She spent many days and nights tallying facts, piecing together the lives of others.
Femi was away when she heard Blessing’s voice through the window. She couldn’t be sure initially because the girl barely spoke and only ever answered questions in mono-syllables. Sade had just spoken to her step-mother on the telephone and was feeling raw and bruised, her fingers tracing circles around her temples. It took a little while before she connected the sharp, bird-like tones with her dawdling housegirl.
“Kai. Dis life no easy o.”
“Wetin de trouble you?” a woman’s voice asked.
“Na money o. Always na money be trouble,” Blessing replied. “Soon, I must travel to my village. My sista pikin no well and she no get doctor money.”
“Wetin do the child?”
“I donno but my sista don cry tire on the phone.”
“Your madam, nko? She go ‘gree?”
“Wetin I go do? I must to help my family.”
Alarmed, Sade pried the window open further but heard nothing else of the conversation. Her head throbbed. She thought of the suffocating silence that infused her days and determined not to lose her only companion. The next day she tried to think, how best to broach the subject without divulging her habit for nocturnal eavesdropping. Unable to come up with a plausible excuse, she simply presented Blessing with an envelope of money instead.
“I’ve been thinking, Blessing, that we don’t pay you enough” she said.
“You must have things that you need to do, things to buy?”
Blessing nodded in agreement.
“Why don’t you take this then. You can use it for emergencies, help your family or whatever you like.”
Sade gave a nervous laugh. Blessing seemed perplexed but took the brown envelope with a grateful smile. Sade wasn’t sure how much a doctor’s bill in the village should cost but hoped her offering had been generous. She waited anxiously over the next few days for Blessing to announce her departure. When none came her tension lifted, her shoulders became slack. Somehow a crushing weight had been lifted and she suddenly felt close to Blessing, as if by coming to her rescue they had shared some special bond. She saw them as two halves of the same coin – different women in a symbiotic relationship, together dodging life’s slings and arrows. Later while the housegirl mopped the kitchen floor, Sade poured herself a glass of wine and gave in to the urge to talk. She told Blessing about growing up in a polygamous home, brought up by a woman who called her mother a whore. She talked about her father, an old man who promised the earth when he saw her, while his accountant sent emails letting her down. She described the disappointment of moving home because she wanted to be connected to something, only to feel more untethered than ever before. And the frustrations of marriage to a man who didn’t have the time to notice she was lonely. All the while Blessing would continue to work, cleaning surfaces, sweeping rooms – sometimes stopping to refill Sade’s glass.
The night before Femi came home she heard the housegirl’s voice again among a chorus of women.
“Blessing, wetin happen?”
“Her madam don tell her to leave.”
“Why, wetin you do?”
“My madam never ask me to go. Is me that won go. I won go to my village”
“Na your sista pikin de worry you?”
“Did your madam ‘gree?”
“I never ask her. I tink the woman don craze. Everyday she dey drink wine and talk nonsense, drink and dash me money. Me I no understand wetin she say. My oga go come back tomorrow. Me I just won take my money, go my village and help my sista. De woman get more money dan sense”
“Kai. Dis life no easy o! I wish me I get your problem.”
Sade’s body slumped against the wall. She pressed her forehead on the window and watched her breath form little orbs of condensation. The women’s voices were distant now and the chirruping crickets, so loud they could have been inside the room. How she could have been so foolish, she thought. Of course, Blessing was right – she had no sense at all. She laughed at herself, at the imaginary friendship she had forged, at each awkward exchange of brown envelopes stuffed with cash. She laughed when she recalled how her stories had tumbled out, a stream of consciousness that the poor girl had barely understood. She laughed when she remembered how good it felt to unburden herself. Sade shut the window and emptied her glass. Then she cried – slow, bitter tears.