“Risi! Get me some water!”
Madam’s voice bellowed across all the rooms of the house. Risi couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It echoed, confused and threatened all at once. She shuffled the length and breadth of the kitchen, seeking Madam’s favourite cup. The damn thing was in hiding today. This wasn’t good. She knew what would happen if Madam had to repeat herself.
“RI-SI!!! ARE YOU DEAF? WATER!”
In Madam-speak, this meant Risi was dead.
“WHERE IS THIS IDIOT?”
Finally, the cup materialised. Too late, unfortunately. Risi looked at the clock on the kitchen wall. The gaudy display flashed: 07:13. The day had barely begun and she wanted her life to end.
“Yes Ma! I’m coming ma!”
She ran to her boss’ room – it was the safest guess regarding Madam’s whereabouts – and knocked ever so slightly. Her lungs seemed to push against her rib cage as her chest tightened, awaiting whatever fate Madam had in store for her this morning.
“Will you get in here?!”
Risi slipped into the room and made her way to Madam’s bedside, falling to her knees and placing the water on her bedside table in one swift motion.
“Good morning, ma.”
“What is this?”
“I SAID… WHAT HAVE YOU BROUGHT TO ME?”
“You asked for…”
Risi was drenched. It took her a second to realise that Madam had just emptied the contents of the cup she had so painstakingly searched for, all over her.
“ARE YOU STUPID? WATER FOR THE BATHROOM, YOU IDIOT. Is it not one of you fools I employ in this house that has clogged my drainage? Get me a bucket of water so I can have my bath, my friend!”
“Y-y-yes ma. I’m… I’m sorry, ma…”
“Just get out of my sight.”
And so the day began.
On days like these, Joy relished being her own boss. Despite being almost forty-five minutes late, she strolled into her swanky office on the fifth floor of Highgate Towers, a prestigious piece of real estate in Lekki.
“Good morning, ma.”
“Yes, Stella… Good morning. Any messages?”
“No ma. But someone called. He wanted to know if you would be coming in today and when I said you would, he simply said “okay” and hung up. Didn’t leave a name or message, ma.”
“You volunteered information about my schedule to someone whose identity you do not know?”
Stella started to fidget.
“No ma… It’s just… He asked… And…”
“Shut up. He asked and you told him? Without finding out who he was? Is that how easy it is to get my details from you?”
“SHUT. UP. Just get me my itinerary for the day.”
Joy stormed into her office, leaving Stella rummaging through the documents on her desk. Madam was around now.
Yet, as she shut the door behind her, Joy knew she had overreacted. The same way she knew she shouldn’t have humiliated her house-help earlier that morning. She knew something was wrong. She wasn’t sure when it started but it was consuming her. This anger that never went away. Most people feared it because she had power over them. The consequences of Madam’s temper could prevent them from feeding their families. Yet, no one knew Madam was eating herself alive too. She wasn’t sure if there was anything left.
Joy was shocked out of her reverie by Stella’s tentative knocks. They all knocked like that. Her subordinates. Already pleading, stretching out an olive branch from the other side of the door. She pushed her self-doubt into a vault that held much more and quickly moved to her desk. Then, she employed her trusted ally – false confidence – and asked Stella to come in. Her tone was cold, steely and superior. Madam was back.
“There is someone here to see you, ma. It’s the man who called earlier.”
“Right… And where is my itinerary?”
“Oh… I thought since you had a visitor…”
“You’re just useless, aren’t you? Get out and send him in.”
Joy turned her swivel chair to face her laptop. She did this whenever she had visitors so she looked distracted, busy and important. Except this time, she just got in so it wasn’t on. She quickly opened the contraption and hit the power button.
“If you’re busy, I could come back.”
Joy froze. That voice. It couldn’t be.
Risi was doing Madam’s laundry when the phone rang. She was on a particularly tough piece of fabric- Madam’s long denim skirt. The thing was so heavy that washing it was a nightmare. For good measure, Madam’s god daughter had spilled some stew on it while she was babysitting. The woman never liked kids. Maybe the smart kid sensed it and got her own back. The only problem was that Madam’s hands weren’t the ones peeling and stinging from scrubbing all day. Risi looked at her caller ID.
She picked up.
“Oko mi… How are you, my dear?”
“Hope your oga is treating you well?”
Risi could never let her mother know how she suffered to earn the money that sustained her and her four younger siblings. The fact that Risi was working in the first place was a reality that her mother hated herself for. She had dreams that her daughter would go to university. Instead, she barely finished secondary school.
“Yes ma… We thank God…”
“Yes o… We thank God… But I really thank God for this day. Oko mi, you don’t have to work there anymore. Seye is back.”
Risi’s heart froze.
“Beeni… Seye… He’s here now.”
Risi genuinely believed she was as close as she could possibly be to a heart attack without fainting. Seye? Shouldn’t he be married by now?
“Don’t you want to speak with him?”
For the past two years that she had worked for Madam, Risi wondered what she would do if this moment ever came. Or if she saw him again. If she would cry, scream or laugh… Or…
It was him. Mother must have got impatient with the stunned but inconvenient silence at the other end of the line and handed him the phone.
All the anger… All the hatred… It went away… He was still… him. And he still had her.
Risi burst into tears.
Joy had built an influential NGO in the heart of Lagos. She knew most of the top players in politics and appeared on the evening news from time to time, championing the cause of disadvantaged women. She had built this organisation from sporadic meetings with like-minded friends in her kitchen to an efficient machine with contacts in different parts of the world.
GirlPower was already sponsoring the education of hundreds of women across the country and expanding operations was certainly on the horizon. Joy had achieved all this by being tough, conniving and even brutal at times in order to network and secure necessary funding from her friends in high places. She believed that the end justified the means so if she had to manipulate one to send another to school, she did it. She was a strong woman. Sitting at her desk. Unable to speak.
Joy didn’t recognise the voice that had just escaped her throat. It was scared; it was unsure. She fixed it immediately.
“Erm… Wow… What a surprise… Please, come in.”
Dele stepped through the half-opened door he had been standing behind so cautiously.
“Thanks. You look great. This…” He turned around and gestured at the office. “… looks great. You really did it.”
He paused and looked straight into her eyes. Memories of a past life stirred within them.
“I’m really proud of you, Joy.”
She couldn’t take it. She looked back at her laptop. She continued to look away as she spoke.
“Thank you. Please, sit down.”
Joy was disgusted with herself. Joy Amadi? Unable to look someone in the eye? Again, she fought her natural instinct. She feigned bravery when every part of her cowered in fear. Or love. Or both.
“So what brings you back home? That wife of yours is sick of you already?”
Shit. Too passive-aggressive. Shit.
He laughed. Her pride was salvaged. Somewhat.
“Probably… She’s too good to admit it, though… I’m actually here for Olu’s wedding. Remember him?”
She did. That friend of his she never liked. The one who smoked, drank and talked too much. She wondered who the unlucky bride was.
He knew what she was thinking.
“Olu has changed, you know?”
“What? I didn’t say anything…”
He laughed again. That warm, hearty laugh that soothed her nerves when she was stressed and enveloped her when she was sad. His laugh, his voice, everything about him felt like home. It had been three years and everything about him still felt like home. Joy felt weak. She hated herself for it.
‘You didn’t have to… You never liked the guy…”
“Hmmmm… Ummm… So how long are you in town for? We should catch up when I’m not so busy…”
Dele smiled. He took the hint.
“I’m here for two weeks. All the wedding festivities happen next week but I came out a week early to see family…” He looked at her. She still couldn’t face him. This time, she buried her face in a random sheet of paper on her desk. Looking at it closely, she saw it was the minutes from an old meeting. For God’s sake…
“Well, here’s my card. I’m staying at the family house. Call me and we’ll arrange something.”
He left his card on her desk as she finally summed up the courage to look at him. In that moment, they both knew this was the last time they would see each other if either of them could help it.
“It was good to see you, Joy.”
“Yeah. My regards to your family.”
Dele stepped back, gave a slight nod and walked out of her office. Part of her prayed that he was also walking out of her life. Yet, another part yearned to make him stay. Just to talk. She missed the way they would talk for hours. Sometimes about nothing. Sometimes about everything. She hated the fact that she could forget about him completely, yet be so fundamentally shaken when she remembered.
This was not going to be a good day.
Joy left work an hour early. Her meetings had gone badly. Her staff were particularly infuriating. It was just a bad day. She needed to get some rest. She told Stella to take any messages she could and move the rest of her schedule to the following day. Her mind was running ahead of her and she needed to get centred.
Joy didn’t respond. She walked past Risi and headed straight into the house. What was the girl doing outside, anyway?
Joy spun around and shot back.
“I HEARD YOU…”
She trailed off because she saw that the girl had been crying. Her cook, cleaner, receiver of all bad moods… She was actually a person. A sudden shame washed over Joy like a wave. She worked all day to help people like this. She sighed and started again.
“What is it?”
Risi was obviously taken aback by the change in Madam’s mood. She didn’t know whether to keep up the momentum and deliver her news or wait and savour the moment. Madam was about to be… nice?
“Erm…” She curtsied… “Ma… My mother called me from the village. She told me my… erm… fiancé… He came to see her. He just stopped calling and we heard he moved to Lagos but… He came back and… We talked… He explained… He has done well so… I’m getting married, ma.”
Joy felt like every whiff of air she could possibly sum up had been sucked out of her. THIS girl? Then she looked at her again and saw that, standing before her, was not just her servant but a woman in love. Even if this guy turned out to be a fraud, it didn’t matter. She wanted to leave. She wanted to leave to be with him.
“I am sorry ma… I have to go… I don’t mind to leave the salary, ma… Please let me go…”
“Ma? Are you alright ma?”
Joy wondered why the girl looked so worried. Then she realised that a tear had just run down her cheek. Another followed. And another. So there she stood, crying in front of her house-help, wondering if she would ever love again.