In The Time Of Strangers

ImageYou’re lying in bed. Even though it is winter, you are too warm and you kick your legs out from under the doona, your bare feet register the cool air. Silver clouds of moonlight hover about the room, and you swim in them, each one slick like mercury. You can hear the adults in the other room, laughing and clinking glasses, the fridge door opening and closing every ten minutes. You are the only child in the house. None of the adults told you it was time for bed. They enjoyed your infantine presence and asked you to do things which in their drunkenness brought some hilarity into the collapsing veins of the night. But drunken adults are absurd to a child so you left the room without announcement, put on your flannelettes and now you lie here listening to them and staring at the wall, tracing the tip of your finger over the flowers on the wallpaper. You smell your bed sheets, also flannelette like your pyjamas, you notice how different the smell is from the cotton sheets you have in summer. Can a temperature have its own smell?

That is when the door opens, ever so quietly, and the light, which was just a sliver, widens and becomes a whole cake, a globe of light which illumines the room so that Zifa stands there, black, her front shadowed out by the hallway light. You know it is her by the outline of her body. It is the first time you are aware of how familiar she is to you, how you could identify her from any distance, just by the line that runs the rim of her body. You are glad she has walked in. You don’t respond when she says ‘Meredith? Baby, are you still awake?’ She sits on the edge of your bed and with her right hand strokes your forehead and hair, her touch making you suddenly sleepy. She speaks to you of things which later you will not remember but you will recall that she spoke of the other adults, of your mother and her husband, Valentine. You will recall that she spoke about them but you will not remember what she said. Your only memory of that night, besides her cut-out figurine image in the doorway and the stroking of your forehead, will be this, her goodnight kiss which she gives you just as you fall asleep.

Her lips are like pillows, almost the colour of mulberries, and they taste like the fruit you pilfer from the tree in your neighbour’s yard. She lays them softly on your small white child mouth: an unlikely but welcome respite, a soft haven, like a cloud that appears as bizarrely as a Dali painting, without reason, melting into your conscience. Her mouth on yours is the promise of a dream.


            She looks a sight, cheap you once heard your mother say: her tight skirt, too short for a woman her age, the lurid colours, the ever-changing hair. She is one of those women whose age you cannot be sure of. Is she 30 or 40? Surely she is older than your mother but somehow your mother seems, appropriately, older. Zifa, whenever you see her, is in the short skirt and high heels. You and your mother once ran into her in the car park at the Metro on a Thursday morning and she was dressed like that. Her arms are always bare and her hair is always full of air. Even at your age you can tell, some ancient, olfactory sense tells you that she is sexy, that she threatens.

And you instinctively love her. You might argue your love is a defence mechanism, a way of enacting revenge upon your mother who left you alone in your room, in your flannelette pyjamas, giving her attention to Valentine. There is your mother in your mind’s eye, threatened. There is Zifa who by the mere lottery of birth is what your mother can never be.

Until this morning you had thought Zifa was Valentine’s sister because that was how he called her, never by her name, always ‘sister’. Your mother does not usually work Saturdays but today she has been called in to the hospital to cover for one of the other nurses. That means you will be alone with Valentine, a prospect you do not look forward to. He spends his time trying to interest you into doing something and you spend your time trying to ignore him. Your mother chides you for being rude to Valentine but you refuse to be charmed. You take your bike and ride through the park and then to the library where you play computer games and read comics.

Eventually you return home, unlock the door with your key that your mother gifted you the summer before. You enter the house. The living room is quiet, untouched and still. Then you hear it, the sound of something close to death or close to life, like a calf crying for its mother. It is a noise that makes you want to tread warily, and so you do, padding through the plumes of light that make a path to your mother’s bedroom door, slippery remnants of a falling sun. You look through the crack of the door at a vantage point that offers you the illusion of invisibility. Valentine is on the end of the bed, naked and semi-reclined. His skin is glistening, tight and shiny like an oiled eggplant, his mouth open except for the intermittent biting of his lower lip, and you realise now that it is he who is making the strange animal noises. It is Zifa, knelt at the foot of the bed, still holding his thing in her palm, that makes you gasp. The sound makes them both look up at you, him yelling ‘What are you doing? Get out!’ and her reaching for the air with her mouth, as though she were choking on broken glass. You run out of the house and down the street to the park. It is not until you are on the swing that you feel your shoulders tight and heavy and realise you are still wearing your backpack, its weight pulling you down.


The day started normally. You woke from the dream you have been having since your father died the year before. It begins with you sitting at the dinner table with a plate of food in front of you and two more plates of food at the places where your mother and father would sit. Your mother enters the kitchen and sits down and now it is just the two of you waiting for your father who must be changing upstairs or fixing something in the garden. In the dream you are expectant, you are smiling and giddy. Your mother is smiling, too.

Then you hear his footsteps coming down the hallway, you are almost bursting and when he enters you turn to look at him, to behold what you have been anticipating. But it is not him, it is not his broad shoulders or sand-coloured hair that you see, tumbling dollops of curls and still wet from the shower. You do not see his face that always looked slightly flushed like a peach. Instead it is Valentine, who is tall and skinny with a shaved head and eyes and skin so dark you have to wait until he gets closer to the table to be sure, to confirm that you haven’t made a mistake. He kisses you on the head and then kisses your mother, just as your father would have done, and he and your mother smile and hold hands. When he kisses you there is a scent that is like nothing you have smelt before. It’s like lotion, mandarins and soap and it is his smell, more than even the colour of his skin and the darkness of his eyes, which makes you sure that this man is not your father. You are no longer hungry and your eyes fill with tears and you cry all over your food but neither your mother nor Valentine seem to notice, they eat their dinner as though you were not even there. You have this dream so often but still you wake with real tears soaked through the pillow. The dream is always the same, except for the meal on the plates. Sometimes it is spaghetti, other times it is sausages and mashed potato, once it was pink fairy floss. You cannot tell who you resent more in the dream; your mother or Valentine.

You are old enough to know that it is not your mother’s fault that your father died but still you blame her for marrying Valentine so soon, for bringing him into your home, for changing your world so much more than was necessary. You feel now even when you are at home that you are somewhere else, perhaps another country or some other planet. Your home smells different since he came to live there and the sounds are not the same. Your mother cooks food that you had never tasted before and which sometimes you cannot eat because it is too spicy or too slick with oil that you have to run to the toilet straight after. Of course it is for Valentine that she makes these things with strange names, words that sound like children’s games or that are said twice, for no reason, like fufu or pofpof or shuku shuku.

Before Valentine came to live in your home your parents listened to the radio, to programmes they streamed from overseas where people talked about things. White noise. Sometimes they would listen to a quiz or an interview with someone famous and then discuss what he or she had said. The absence of those voices and their intonations pains your ears. They have been replaced by Valentine’s music, which he and your mother dance to, moving around the house. He has tried to tell you about it: this is a steel drum, he might say, or that guitar sound is where the blues comes from, or that man is called Fela and he is greater than Elvis. But you don’t care, you shrug your shoulders or raise your eyebrows and so Valentine stops trying. All you care about is that it is his music, and not yours, nor your mother’s and father’s. Now your home does not feel like home anymore but somewhere that you cannot understand, somewhere you cannot find belonging.


            In the car on the day of your mother’s marriage to Valentine you are sitting in the back seat next to your four-year-old cousin Sophie, the daughter of your Aunty Jane and Uncle Mike. They do not use their names but you know they are talking about your mother and Valentine. Aunty Jane says, ‘It’s obvious he is using her to get a visa. But it’s too late now, I mean what more can I do?’ and Uncle Mike nods his head and looks back at you and Sophie through the rear view mirror. ‘You right back there?’ he says and you smile and nod your head. ‘Poor thing’ Aunty Jane says quietly and Uncle Mike pats her thigh.

You don’t know what a visa is but you do know that none of your family likes Valentine. That is why only Aunty Jane and Uncle Mike have come today, not your grandparents or your mother’s brother. The only people that you know here besides your aunt and uncle are your cousin Sophie and your mother’s friend Jill from the hospital. The rest of the room at the council registry is filled with Africans, men and women and children, all friends of Valentine’s. The men are loud and each of them, as he approaches Valentine, slaps his back or shakes his hand in an elaborate sequence of clicks and fist clenches. They all call each other masa and speak in a language which at times sounds like English but at others does not and so you cannot understand everything that is being said.

Before the ceremony you go to the bathroom and lock yourself in the cubicle at the very end and sit on the toilet with the lid down. A few minutes later you hear your aunty and Jill enter the bathroom, their voices soft, conspiratorial. ‘This is weird,’ Jill says. ‘So weird,’ your aunt adds. ‘Do you think he is marrying her for a visa?’ Jill asks and your aunt says yes, that that is what her and Mike believe. They talk about what they know and what they don’t, filling in the other one’s blanks where they can, and when they can’t they tutt tongues and repeat over and over how sad it is, for you and for your mother. Eventually someone else enters the bathroom and they stop talking and leave. You flush the toilet and exit the cubicle, there is a woman applying lipstick in the mirror. She has a big round face, shiny cheeks and a smooth forehead that is pulled up tightly by a luminous yellow scarf she has wrapped around her head and which juts up in points like a bird of paradise. The scarf is the same fabric as her dress and you look down at her feet to see the straps of her sandals studded with stones and her toenails lacquered a deep purple. ‘Hello dear,’ she says and you smile and nod at her through the mirror as you wash your hands before leaving. Later on, during the ceremony, you look over and see this woman sitting on the other side of the room, wiping the corners of her eyes with a handkerchief to stop the tears running down her face. In fact there are many people crying, or nodding their heads each time the celebrant says something about ‘this union’ or ‘these two people, bound by love’. Even Valentine is crying and when he kisses your mother it is for a long time, holding her tightly around her shoulders and all the African people are whooping and cheering. You just sit next to your aunty who is holding your hand, squeezing it so tight that it almost feels numb.


Zifa is at the sink when you return from the park some hours later. She is furiously rubbing handfuls of beans to remove the skins which clump up in the sink in abject piles. She is wearing a white tube dress which against her skin glows fluorescent and makes her look fresh and clean, like the most natural wonder you have ever seen. She looks up as you walk across the room and smiles at you, rinses her hands under the running water and asks you if you are okay. You sit at the table and look at her, not expectantly but aware of the possibility that she will want to tell you something. But she doesn’t tell you anything, she just takes a plate of coconut biscuits and places them in front of you and says, ‘I remember you liked these. I made them for you. I thought you might be hungry.’ And you are hungry. You have not eaten a thing all day but it is her saying this that makes you register your hunger, as though it were a lurking lion camouflaged in scrub, and you ravage three biscuits.

Zifa returns to her cooking, this time pounding the beans until they are thick and mushy and can cling to the spoon. ‘I’m making akara,’ she says and you smile and say ‘That’s nice.’ After you eat some more of the biscuits you are full and feel a little sick. You say ‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone’ and she doesn’t really look at you but rather stops pounding for a moment to look out the window. Her beauty is the first you have noticed in your life, as though seeing her made you understand the word, made you finally see that the world contained it. Realising this was like learning the word ‘hot’ after you touched the door of a lit oven.

You notice a muscle in her arm twitching up and down and you wonder what she is thinking. Then she says, ‘I’m sorry dear. It was wrong to do that in your mother’s house,’ and returns to the pounding, this time with a slightly slower but more pronounced rhythm. ‘Mum says it is Valentine’s house too,’ I say and she laughs one breathy snort before clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. ‘Is Valentine using Mum for a visa?’ You suddenly ask, the question popping from your mouth like a burp you hadn’t felt rise up your throat. Zifa looks at you, not shocked at all but graceful. She is looking at your face like it is a bee on the tip of a flower petal. She is studying you. Then she turns back to the sink and looking at the beans which are now clinging to the spoon says ‘Who is to say who is using who?’

Your mother is not ugly but worse than that, she is plain. She lets her hair hang lank, she wears only pawpaw cream on her lips, never colour, maybe some mascara on special occasions. It is something you never considered before, until she married Valentine, until you met Zifa. You have come to this conclusion: being married to Valentine somehow confers upon her a particular kind of exoticism, as though she is now more interesting as a result of being next to him. When the three of you go out together, to a restaurant or a movie, she beams out to the world, practically beckoning people to notice you all as though you are the most unique beings that ever walked the Earth, World Peace incarnate. But you want nothing less than the eyes of others on you and you worry about what people think: Who do they think you are? Who do they think he is? You hate it when Valentine refers to you as his daughter. You imagine them discussing you after you are out of earshot.


The party started early but even now there is still a momentum to it and it will take hours to die down. Sitting on the couch, you try to imagine your father here, in this room with all these people who were never part of his world. You watch your mother placing dishes of food on the table, Valentine drinking beer with his friends, Zifa and three other ladies standing in the kitchen helping your mother serve the food. You see the very fat man they call the Scorpion who is always sitting, smoking a cigar, as though he were a ringmaster at the circus. Once, at another one of their parties, the Scorpion had pulled you up on his knee, his obtuse belly pressing against your side and the smell of his cigar up your nose. He had tried to tell you a funny story, the whole time tickling you beneath your chin. You had wanted to cry, you had wanted your mother to tell the Scorpion to leave her daughter alone. In the end he had squeezed you about your waist, ‘Don’t be scared darling, don’t be scared,’ he said. He squeezed you so hard beneath your ribs that you had slapped him on his fat cheek, the sound of it the same as a piece of raw chicken being thrown against a wall. He had laughed, all the adults had laughed, because you were their little monkey. If your father were here now, you think, he would tell them all to get out of his house, to leave you alone.

So here you are now lying in your bed in your flannelette pyjamas, observing the party within earshot from your room. Valentine has stuck some glow-in-the-dark stickers on your ceiling, shapes of planets and shooting stars and secretly you like to lie there and stare up at them. But tonight the moon is so big and close that its yellow light floods the darkness of your room and your planets and stars cannot be seen. You turn over on your side and face the wall, observe the flowers that creep across and try and see their colours, the pastel pinks and greens and lemon yellows which you know are there behind the shadows. You trace your finger tip around the edge of each flower as though the shapes were your doing.

That is when the door opens and Zifa appears in the wedge of light streaming in from the hall. The sound of your mother’s laugh is suddenly audible, high and squeaky, and you hear Valentine’s voice, the antithesis, deep and velvety, compelling your mother to laugh harder. ‘Meredith? Baby, are you still awake?’ You don’t respond. Instead you repeat silently your name, the way she says it, the word familiar but the phonics not, the emphatic stress on the last syllable, the ‘th’ pronounced ‘t’. It makes you sound like something more than what you are. She sits beside you and begins to stroke your forehead, running her hand over your head like a cat. It is what your father did after he had finished reading a story to you and it makes your eyelids feel heavy, which you resist because you want to keep looking up at her.

Slowly you crawl up onto her lap and place your head there, her stomach warm and firm against the back of your head. The bare skin of her legs is at your nose and you breathe her in, the smell of her is pungent, like newly pestled jasmine. You run your finger along her leg to the knee and say, ‘I wish she could be like you,’ and she holds you tightly with her right arm and strokes your cheek with her left before bending down and kissing you softly on your eyelids. After some time you lay back in your bed and she speaks to you more about the things you will not remember. Then she says goodnight, she tells you to have sweet dreams and she bends down and kisses you adieu. Her breath is hot and you feel as though she is breathing flames straight into your mouth, straight to your head, setting alight everything you have ever felt, ever said, everything you cannot say nor understand.

You will remember feeling a shaking in your feet and your head, so heavy, so burdened, blazing. You will recall holding her face on yours, your monkey arms slung around the back of her neck, your body feeling soft like pulpy mulberries perfectly crushed. You will remember believing that as long as she breathes this heat into you, then you will see yourself reflected in her mouth, in these pillowy lips, the promise of a dream. Eventually your arms loosen and she draws away from you, she says goodnight and leaves the room, closing the door behind her all the way shut.






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