Kim, I enter her room. The baby sleeps on her floor, in the corner, three or four tiles from the walls, in the exact breezeway between the jalousies of the windows. An uncanny nose for the coolest spots in the house, has that one.
Kim has not turned up the radio again, to spare the baby I guess. It plays softly in the background. She still lies on her bed, eyes closed.
How about getting up, play outside, get some fresh air?
She looks at me, truly bewildered.
I guess not, then. But won’t you feel worse just doing nothing?
I’m fine, Mum, honest. I love my new bed. Thanks. I love this song. I’ve missed my records.
You glad to be back? I can’t keep the abject note out of my voice, nor my genuine wonder. It’s lovely to have her back, it really is. We have not been entirely complete without her, I realise suddenly. Something was missing. This dark, musical.. whatever it is, Kimness, so unlike me and the twins with our tin ears and simple polder dispositions, kaaskoppen as we say back home, cheese heads. All we lack is wooden shoes. Kim is the Dutch Master sky, a brown Rembrandt palette, like my husband.
Look at me, getting as fancy as her, and Obaji, still staring up at the stony mangos in the green crown outside. Little tree huggers, with their airy fairy dreams, both of them. Thin of substance as the air.
There’s a knock on the door. Just wait till they grow a rack, I’m still thinking as I get up, till they have to wear a proper pair.
Ma, Policeman say he have one last request.
Tell him the Master’s not in, and my daughter and I are resting. Simply tell him what you know, Innocent, okay? Or let Bernard talk. Just answer the man as best you can. The school must have sent him for some reason. He’s only doing his job.
He wants to look around, outside the house.
I shrug. Mosquitos cling to the screen on my daughter’s window, trying to get out, it seems. The heat is driving us all up the walls. Fine.
Bernard and I will take him.
Thank you. The baby still sleeps. I want to get back my book, before the twins return from school. There’s a good hour at least if I’m lucky, with Marloes out cold still. Enough to get curled up with the swashbuckling Philip Lombard.
Wolf, a propos nothing, like my daughter, has returned from his Dutch furlough. Well. Another soldier of fortune, I suppose. Like Father, like Lombard. Wolf is back in his house in the bush. So I hear. Toto waits at my knee, glancing from me to Kim, to the baby. From the window, I see Obaji being called by her father, Bernard, to replace him at my gate, as he and Innocent, the small man between them, head for the wall. Bernard’s limber, soundless gait, the neat man surprisingly quick, Innocent bumbling along good-naturedly, kicking at a smouldering bit of paper. They make for the mango tree by the wall, or its shade, as the actual tree is on the other side, belonging to the neighbour.
Obaji passes Kim’s window without glancing up, trails to the gate with her ears pricked, like the pup.
Look up, I want to whisper to her, you are cute as a button. You’ll be beautiful one day. You have trembling black eyes, like Toto, you see everything. You’ll make a better watch girl than even she, my darling.
You are not her darling. Nor are you Ma’s pup. You are not a watchdog. You want to be nowhere near this house. You drag your feet through the dust as you walk, do not look up. The sun is right overhead. It makes your shadow small. The sun keeps your shadow close to yourself. You want nothing from her. You want not to be petted by persons. You want not to marry, you want to be mean enough to bite persons off, and be far away from bad thoughts. You know nothing about juju.
But you walk to the gate. As you’ve been told. By Father. It is a good day. Father trusts you, he knows you are good. He knows you have no bad thoughts. You wait at the gate, as you were told, play with your toe in the dust. You have hung up the washing. There was no school uniform, and no clothes for Ma’s eldest daughter, the dark one, Kim. You have no bad thoughts. Only God knows what it means. No clothes. Yet here is a Man from Police, asking questions.
You just wait at the gate in the sun. There is no shade at the gate. You wait for your Father’s return.
But there is the Man from Police, asking questions.
Does Kim have some fly by night way to travel to school?
Does she wear a cloak we cannot see, like the women from Benin?
Is that what Onyeocha, white people do?
You have heard stories, in school, from your Father, your Teacher even, of how they fly planes right into the sky with their juju, just because that is what they believe they can do.
You wait in the dust, for the Man from Police to disappear, and Father to arrive. You long for the shade of the tree, and you wish you believed you could fly. You would live in that tree, in the cool of its leaves, eating mangos all day, and they would be soft and ripe, not rock-hard and green. You would eat them. You would be closer to mama. Who is in Heaven, like our Lord. So they say.
But here is the Man from Police, asking questions from Father.
Does the girl Kim have a secret in her locker? Is that how she stays at home and reads, a secret, self-teaching book?
You wait in the dust for Father. Like the girl Kim, you are not in your school. But your school is small, only two rooms, and there is a reason.
You pry your toe in the dust, you stand very still, make your shadow small. You put a hand over your head, make your hair cool. You cannot read.
You have no bad thoughts, but you are very stupid, so they say. Your Father, your Teacher. You have no mama to take you to school. You are not in class today, nkwo, and you have not been the day before, eke, or afor, not the whole week. You try to go, but they are reading a book. Your Teacher beats you.
And here is a Man from Police, asking questions from Father. Where is your mama?
In Heaven, Sah! he will say.
Why is not your daughter in school? Where is her locker?
She cannot read, Sah!
He is wrong, they are all wrong, Father, the Man from Police with his questions, your Teacher who beats you. You can read. Just not this book. It is too sad. Too scary.
You hold your hand over your head at the pity of it.
You wait at the gate, do as you’re told. When the Man from Police has gone, you won’t go back to school. You will stay home, in your Father’s room. You have no locker at home, not like the girl Kim. No secrets. You have no book. No bad thoughts. No sadness but your own, which you already know. Not the story about Eze, that your Teacher is making you read.
Not the great pity for another person, Eze, still just a boy. The great terror of the book.
The Man Eating Leopard.
The room swelters, even with the windows placed to catch every last hint of draft in the hilly city. The flies are dropping around me. Even they cannot breathe. Kim, I try one more time, sitting down on the foot end. How long have you worn this dress? A week, since your flight, right? It’s a little gamey.
She smiles, a dopey kiddie smile. Those tea cup eyes. Gets up, to play her album again. Dear Prudence. Sits on the edge of the bed.
I’m a bit bored. Shall we bake a cake, Mum?
I sigh, thinking of my book. That’s a great idea. Are you sure though you’d not rather go play with someone your own age? That American girl, what’s her name, Chichi? She lives close, right?
Not her, Mum, Kim rolls her eyes. She hates me.
Oh. I sigh again, pat the dog, get up. Flour, sugar. Boterkoek?
My daughter beams. A rich, fudge-like plate cake.
Come on. We’ll use an entire roll of butter. Dad can get more on the weekend. We deserve a treat in this heat.
The dog jolts up, all quivers, excited to see some action. She checks on the baby, who still doesn’t move. It’s okay, I pat her snout, little Loesje is safe, good girl. But the dog stays put another second, gazing from me to Kim to the window and back again. There’s a small, dull crack in the yard, even I can hear it. The dog yaps.
Bernard and Innocent are flanking the neat man, who has a neat little spade in his hand. He did not have it before, at the gate. Must have been in his car. What is he doing, digging up my dying collards? It’s hard to see, with the vultures circling again.
Oi, I want to shout, but he’s already dropped the spade. He’s kicking at the ashes from the garbage hole in the ground, no longer smoking, heaped to one side. Picks something up. The birds seem to freeze in the frothing hot air.
Kim too sees it. She sinks back down on her bed. The dog has jumped on the sill, yapping.
Quiet, I hiss, Get on the floor, Toto. Calm everyone. Innocent will know how it got there, and Bernard will deal with it. None of our business. Let’s bake that cake.
Mum, Kim says, looking at her feet.
There’s a puddle of pee, just like the baby’s. Except Marloes is still dry, this time.
Fucksakes Kim, don’t tell me you just pissed your pants.
Mum, she says again, doubling over. I stare at the water. Still more pours from her ankles. Some floodgate seems to have broken. I cannot believe this. But I know the signs too well to ignore. Glance at baby Marloes, her bare golden bottom dry now as the summer sun, and back at the pool on the floor.
My daughter has gone into labour.
Nada Holland has been long listed for Lucy Cavendish, Mslexia and Bridport novel awards, completed a UEA/Guardian MasterClass with Gillian Slovo, and a Gold Dust mentorship programme with Jill Dawson.