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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Housegirl

A Novel

Michael Donkor

Picador

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1

Daban, Kumasi – March 2002


Belinda fidgeted in the dimness. She sat up, drawing her knees and the skimpy bedsheets close to her chest. Outside, the Imam’s rising warble summoned the town’s Muslims to prayer. The dawn began to take on peaches and golds and those colours spread through the blinds, across the whitewashed walls and over the child snuffling at Belinda’s side.

All those months ago, on the morning that they had started working in Aunty and Uncle’s house, Belinda and Mary had been shown the servants’ quarters and were told that they would have to share a bed. To begin with, Belinda had found it uncomfortable: sleeping so close to a stranger, sleeping so close to someone who was not Mother. But, as with so many other things about the house, Belinda soon adapted to it and even came to like the whistling snore Mary often made. On that bed, each and every night, Mary slept in exactly the same position; with her small body coiled and her thumb stopping her mouth. Now Belinda watched Mary roll herself up even more tightly and chew on something invisible. She thought about shifting the loosened plait that swept across Mary’s forehead.

Belinda turned from Mary and moved her palms in slow circles over her temples. The headache came from having to think doubly: once for Mary, once for herself; a daily chore more draining than the plumping of Aunty and Uncle’s tasselly cushions, the washing of their smalls, the preparing of their complicated breakfasts.

Dangling her legs down and easing herself to the floor, Belinda quietly made her way to the bathroom. She stepped around the controller for the air con they never used and around the remains from the mosquito coil. She brushed by the rail on which their two tabards were hung. Belinda remembered the first time Aunty had said it – ‘tabard’ – and how confused Mary’s expression had become because of the oddness of the word and the oddness of the flowery uniform Aunty insisted they wear when they cleaned. Belinda would miss that about Mary’s face: how quickly and dramatically it could change.

Under the rusting showerhead, Belinda scrubbed with the medicinal bar of Neko. Steam rose and water splashed. In her mind Belinda heard again the sentences Aunty had promised would win Mary round. She yanked at a hair sprouting from her left, darker nipple, pulling it through bubbles. The root gathered into a frightened peak. She liked the sensation.

Returning to the bedroom, in the small mirror she was ridiculous: the heaped towel like a silly crown. For a moment, she forgot the day’s requirements, and flicking her heels she pranced across the thin rug. Would Amma like that? Might jokes help heal that broken London girl? Or perhaps Belinda would be too embarrassed.

Mary shot up from beneath the covers and launched herself at Belinda’s chest. Belinda pushed her off and Mary lost her balance, fell onto the bed.

‘What is this? Are you a –? Are you a stupid –’ Belinda lifted the towel higher. ‘Grabbing for whatever you want, eh?’

‘What you worried for?’ Mary arched an eyebrow. ‘I have seen all before. Nothing to be ashamed for. And we both knowing there is gap beneath shower door and I’m never pretending to be quiet about my watchings neither. You probably heard me while I was doing my staring. Even maybe you seen my tiny eye looking up,’ Mary squinted hard, ‘and you’ve never said nothing about nothing. So I think you must relax now. I only’ – Mary tilted her head left, right, left – ‘wanted to see how yours are different from mine.’ She pulled up her vest and Belinda quickly rolled it down. A ringing quietened in Belinda’s ears.

‘And, and here is me ready to speak about treats for you,’ Belinda began.

‘You mean what? Miss Belinda?’ Mary folded her arms. ‘Adjei! You standing there in a silence to be so unfair. Ad?n? I want to hear of this my special thing. Tell of it!’

‘Less noise, Mary! You know Aunty and Uncle they have not yet woken.’

‘Then tell the secret and I will use my nicest, sweet voice.’

Belinda headed towards the mirror and adjusted its angle slightly. ‘Number one is that we have a day off.’

Wa bo dam! Day off?!’

Aane.

‘Day. Off. Ewurade. When, when have they ever given us one of those?’ Mary rubbed her hands together. ‘Today no getting them nasty stringy things from the drain in the dishwasher? No scrubbing the coffee stain on Uncle’s best shirt again, even though everyone knows the mark is going to live there forever and ever amen!’

Mary laughed but soon stopped to count her stubby fingers. ‘You said number one. And you said treats not treat. I know the thing called plurals. You speak as if we also having two and three and four and even more. So you have to complete please, Miss Belinda. What else?’

‘Many great gifts from Aunty, Uncle and their guests Nana and Doctor Otuo. Many. But, but I will let them know they should change their minds and their plan. Because why should a naughty little girl get good things?’

‘That question is too easy. Nasty people get nice all the time. Look at Uncle. He is farting in the night and afternoon, and then blaming it on Gardener or anyone else passing.’ Mary threw up her arms. ‘But he still got treasures from the UK and this massive palace he lives in with his own generator, own two housegirls in me and you and all kinds of rich visitors coming in.’

‘Ah-ah! Your Uncle never, never farted! Take that one back.’

‘What else is my treat?’

‘Wait and see,’ Belinda said.


Copyright © 2018 by Michael Donkor

Copyright © 1994 by Jack Gilbert