The Stories We Tell
1 — Why Don’t You Get a Househelp?
Charlene Aduma stood in Dariah, her younger sister’s, living room with her hands clasped behind her back and her eyes staring at a picture of her and her sister some 20 years ago. The image faded and another one taken around the same time, and probably the same day, came into view. This one was with all their families together at the Movenpick Hotel pool. Charlene moved toward the frame looking to pause the photo before it faded into the next one. She couldn’t find the button and began to fret about poking her fingers at anything that looked remotely like it could be the pause.
“Stop,” she shouted, “Stop! Stop! Pause!” The picture did as was told and the image of them altogether remained in the frame. Everyone’s beaming smiles looking back at Charlene who wished she could dive into that memory and…
“Oh, Charlene! What is going on?” Dariah stormed out from the kitchen holding a ladle and an exaggerated worry on her face.
“It’s nothing, absolutely nothing. God! Can’t someone just shout in peace around here?” Charlene cursed, moving closer still to the picture.
“You were trying to get the picture to stop, weren’t you?” Dariah’s worry turned to amusement as she made her way to her sister’s side to see what exactly she was looking at. Once she saw the picture of all of them together, she looked at her sister and the pain of her loss throbbed in Dariah’s heart and she wanted to hold her like they were young again.
“A beautiful picture,” Dariah said trying to aggrandize the moment.
“Gosh Dariah, you can be so sentimental!” Charlene said flatly. “I am just a girl, looking at a picture,” she said with intentional forlornness.
“You are not a girl.” Dariah turned to Charlene, a smile curling at the side of her lip.
“Well, a woman then … since we are being all too-known about our pronouns today.”
“You can be so ancient sometimes. You know that?” Dariah teased, realizing her sister was indeed being sentimental about the picture, and not wanting to pry, decided to switch the subject.
“I will take ancient over contemporary any day!” Charlene quipped, turning away from the frame and grabbing the ladle from her sister’s hand before heading to the kitchen. “Who can doubt the joy of having found a missing remote control for the TV? Or the bliss of jumping into the shower only to realize you hadn’t turned on the heater? The simple joys of our errors have now been erased by the overtures of technology. And with it has come a certain kind of monotony to living that I find, irksome.” Charlene concluded in her usual aplomb with her hands thrown out, almost smacking her sister with the ladle.
“The same errors that left you on the floor of your shower without anyone to help you?” Dariah mocked, snatching the ladle from her and opening the door to the kitchen.
Charlene had no response to that and rather stared at the two househelps in the kitchen kneading dough on the kitchenette.
“I worry for you, that’s all. You alone in that house. It makes me anxious.” Dariah said sincerely, trying to catch her sister’s attention. It wasn’t the first time that Dariah had informed Charlene of this. But Charlene, having a head harder than diamond, refused to hear any of it, as she was doing now, staring at the househelps, who she could swear had only been one the last time she was here.
“You have two househelps? None of your children live here. You are two in this house. What on Earth are you doing that you need two househelps, Dariah?” Charlene proclaimed, ignoring her sister’s last comments and moving round the kitchenette to a chair in the corner.
“You are something else,” Dariah smiled, still standing by the door. “I needed extra hands for our little soiree this weekend. So I called the agency, and they got me a girl… Fatiha.” She said beaming at the househelp like she were her child.
“Marvellous. I do love your soirees,” Charlene admitted as she flopped down on the chair. Dariah realized her defenses being lowered so moved in again.
“Here’s an idea,” Dariah made it seem like it had just come to her, but in reality, it was something playing at her mind for a long time and after consultation with Raymond, her husband, decided it would be best for her older sister. “Why don’t you take Fatiha then? She’ll be done with the…”
“What!?” Charlene choked. “Are you crazy?”
“She has a few days before she goes back to Tamale. I’ve already paid for her. Just see how it goes? What’s the worse that can happen,” Dariah knew her sister’s exclamations and dramatizations were part of her usual oppositions to things she actually desired. Even if she didn’t know it yet. So with this, Dariah knew she just needed to get the girl in Charlene’s house and it would stick.
“Does she even speak English?” Charlene tried to whisper but ended up shouting across at her sister. Fatiha made an awkward movement before continuing with her kneading. “What am I supposed to do with her, Dari? I am a singular entity. I work alone, I live alone, I am going to die alone,” she said proudly. “I can’t care for another person. It is beyond my capacity.”
Dariah raised her eyebrows at that.
“Well, I obviously can, I care for you and your family. But living with another person. It’s a war. Even with Ryan, God bless his heart,” she said pressing her hand on her chest. “I was going to call the whole thing off when I realized how much of a slob he was… No. It is against my fundamental belief systems. And I won’t do it. Dabi, no. Finito!” Again, Charlene ended with finality and a wild ‘no’ motion with her hands.
Dariah just kept smiling at her sister. Charlene dared to look at her and began to see her ploy unraveling in the gap between her smiling lips.
“You know, you are something else,” Charlene shook. “I know what you have done. Haha, you are sly, you know that” her fingers pointing now. “Bringing this poor girl down here. I won’t have it, Dari, I won’t be blackmailed.” Dariah was now trying her best to avoid her sister’s wagging finger. Without a reply from her sister, Charlene got to thinking and began to see how in some ways she could do with a little help in the house. Sometimes she just didn’t feel like cooking for herself, or watering her garden, or cleaning the bathroom, the dishes. Oh God, she thought, it is quite a lot of things I do by myself.
As if sensing her sister’s changing opinion on the matter, Dariah pushed on.
“Won’t you like some times to be on your porch and have someone bring food to you? Send someone to go and get you ice cream?” Dariah said softly as she glided to her sister. She could almost see Charlene imagining herself doing those things, and finally accepting that it was indeed something she would try at the very least.
Without the verbal affirmation to the plan, Dariah said “fantastic! Fatiha,” she called the girl, “you will go with my sister after you are done here today. Okay? That is your new madam.”
Fatiha curved her delicate neck round to Charlene who was out of her daze and into another one. She turned her head back and nodded shyly at Dariah before focusing her attention back on the dough beneath her hands.
2 -This is the house, here is the kitchen…
After the househelps were finished with the samosas for the soiree Charlene and Fatiha left to go home. The drive from her sister’s place was short and quiet but inside Charlene’s head, it was anything but.
‘My sister is truly a master manipulator if ever I knew one. She should have been a politician! She basically is one, with that foundation of hers. Father would be so proud of her. But the joke is on her because I am going to say and do absolutely nothing with this girl. She and I will sit in silence as we are doing now for the entire weekend. And by Monday morning, I will wake up to the sounds of splendid isolation. With no one to disturb it with their Northern sensibilities. Not that I am being prejudiced. But no one of any exception has come from up there, let’s be honest. Yes, that’s a fact! You can’t be prejudiced if it’s a fact. Just look at her,’ Charlene thought, sliding her eyes over to Fatiha, whose face was turned to the window. ‘Argh, so awkward. I don’t need a bumbling, feeble-hearted, pidgin speaker to come worrying my life. I won’t have it.’
When they reached Charlene’s gate Fatiha started to get out of the car to open it, but Charlene waved her hand for her to stop as the gate began to open automatically.
‘Why look at that?’ She thought smiling to herself. ‘Yes, mark my words by Monday morning everything will be back to normal.’
Rolling into the short driveway, the gravel crunching underneath the stopping wheels, Charlene stepped out of the car and picked her batch of samosas from the back seat before continuing to the house. The evening was fine, with a lovely spread of pillow-like clouds puffed out across the violet sky. She walked along the path through her front garden, then climbed onto her porch, a hammock gently swaying to the wind, and started for her keys. All this time Fatiha was still in the car. It was only after she unlocked the sliding doors that Charlene realized Fatiha was not behind her. She put the samosas down and waved for Fatiha to come. Fatiha slid out of the car and was too soft in closing the door leaving it partially open. Charlene saw what happened, sighed heavily, and headed back to the car.
“Move, I will close it for you,” Charlene shooed the girl away and used her ass to close the car door before marching back to the front without a backward glance at Fatiha. This time around, Fatiha was quick to follow behind her, keeping a two-step distance at all times. “First you get out when you don’t need to. Then you don’t want to get out when we are at the house,” Charlene muttered to herself of the girl.
She slid the doors open and flicked the switches of the living room revealing her orderly and quaint home. Cushioned couches and chairs were arranged in a square on the left-hand side of the living room, while on the right, was a lovely set of waist-high wooden cupboards and tables holding an array of finely carved items of sentimental value to Charlene. The path through the middle led to the kitchen which was partitioned from the living room only by an elongated counter.
She turned to Fatiha.
“This is the house. That is the kitchen in front.” She handed the samosas to Fatiha. “Put these on the kitchen table,” then realizing that she didn’t know if the girl spoke English or not, decided that she might as well ask. “You speak English?”
After a cower and a couple of side-way glances the girl spoke.
“Yes, madam,” Fatiha mumbled.
“Ah! she speaks. Good,” not that it mattered much to Charlene since silence was to be the order of the day from now on in. “I am going to my room to undress and shower. So you can wait in the kitchen. Help yourself to water from the dispenser.” Charlene added, thinking that it was the least she could offer the poor girl.
Fatiha nodded like a doll then slid over to the kitchen and carefully sat down on the chair Charlene had pointed to. Once Charlene was satisfied with her seating she too made her way to her bedroom where she would be allowed the privacy she so craved and valued in her life.
Charlene entered her room and immediately began to feel the power of its zen at work. This was her space and truly served as a certain kind of therapy for her. Between her clothes folded on her armchair, the furry feel of the carpet beneath her naked feet, to the books neatly stacked by her wardrobe, with the portrait of her family presiding over, yes, this was her home within her home. And soon the rocky surfaces on which she had been trodden on throughout the day at her sister’s house, with her politicking, all dissolved into the backdrop. Charlene was, in her mind, on the smooth plained beach of her room in which she could lie down on its metaphorical sand and stretch her toes into its moistness.
The room was dark but for the mirror in the corner glinting off the pale light from outside her window. She shuffled to the window and drew the curtains, taking a brief moment to spy over her lowly wall the surrounding neighborhood which was still awake with a few walkers and other bystanders.
Turning back she caught her reflection in the mirror. The light from outside gave the room a dim ambiance. The shadows about her face toned down the creases and lines of age she would oh so worry about. It could be that she was twenty years younger again. Twenty years younger with her daughter, Nabila, and husband, Ryan, still alive. She was thrown back into the picture she had seen at Dariah’s house of them by the poolside at the Movenpick. The damned waiters on their roller-skates were still as incompetent as you would find them in any other restaurant. Charlene remembered thinking that that made them even more annoying than the normal foot-stricken ones. Charlene’s daughter had skipped to the other side of the pool to call the waiter to take the picture of the family. As he rolled on over to where they were all seated, she distinctively remembered her husband shouting at Nabila to not run by the poolside. Charlene could almost turn back and see his grizzly beard but kind eyes smile down at her. The waiter spun to a stop and Dariah handed over her’s and Charlene’s phone to take the pictures. Dariah’s older boy, Joshua, complained that one phone would be sufficient, but Dariah shut him down for being a ‘know not it all.’ She continued to take her position with the rest of the family, with the pool and stately Mediterranean architecture of the Movenpick in the background.
Charlene had her arms wrapped around her body as she returned to the dimness of her room. She sighed heavily and began the painstaking process of removing her clothes and getting into the shower, which she was even more mindful of since the fall. The fall that had provoked her sister’s worries and had now led to the househelp, who was at this time sitting in the kitchen staring off into God knows what, waiting for Charlene. She held onto the support bars by the shower and lifted herself slowly.
Fatiha sat in the stillness of the house and waited. This would be the fourth house she had been shipped off to since graduating to an househelp. Of the four, this was the simplest and with that Fatiha admitted that it was her most preferred. There was a quiet elegance to the house with its poised ornaments posing in the living room, to the fine woods that furnished the house. Fatiha’s eye for quality had been sharpened by her employment at other lavisher households. There weren’t many portraits of madam Charlene’s family like in the others, she noticed. But there weren’t many a lot of things in comparison to the ostentatious lives of Fatiha’s past employees.
They had all been dissatisfied, in one way or another, with her quiet reserved manner. They found it suspicious, they said. She had been told by her tutor, Aunt Yaara, that she needed to do more to put her employees at ease, and even knocked her head a few times so that it stuck. Fatiha didn’t blame Aunt Yaara too much for it. It reflected badly on her, Fatiha’s failure, and that meant the agency would be less likely to recommend Aunt Yaara’s girls. But it just wasn’t in Fatiha’s personality to be so servile.
However, the money involved in house caring had convinced Aunt Yaara, who in turn, convinced Fatiha’s parents that she should forget about school and pursue a career in the housing services. And thus it was forced upon her by her parents. To support the family, they said.
Aunt Yaara had a point though. There was a life to be made from learning the craft of taking care of a Southerner’s house. Fatiha had heard stories of it from some of the girls in her training group. There was the go-to example of Azara Zareya, who went on to own a thriving catering business. Then there was also Khadija Yasman, who had used the education her employees were mandated to provide, as a stepping stone to her eventual appointment as VP of Oxfam’s ‘Work for a Better Ghana’ initiative. Of there being many good examples, no one could dispute. But there had been just as many, if not more, bad ones. Of girls being beating by their employees. Cast out of the house and left homeless. Maltreated and sometimes even raped. It wasn’t news to the northern girls how some Southerners could despise them. In the privacy of their homes, they were vulnerable to them. Things had generally gotten better because the agency had done more to protect the girls with the hand of the law. But there was nothing to protect them from the disdain and shame that some girls were subjected to on daily basis. Aunt Yaara had said the trick was to subdue yourself, and that if one wore a smile and did as was told well, it would be easier. But with some Southerners, there wasn’t an easier. And Fatiha had experienced the full force of that during her time at the Gendalo’s home. But before she could relive those agonizing days she was pulled from her thoughts as she heard a door open from the direction of the madam’s room. Caught in the anxiety of losing herself in her head, and not knowing what to do, she got up in a rush of screeching metal on tile.
“Why, what is going on?” Charlene walked into the kitchen and saw Fatiha standing awkwardly and her face cast to the floor.
“Good heavens,” Charlene shook her head then continued. “I am going to bed soon. I haven’t had a chance to clean the guest room, so you will have to sleep on the couch for tonight, wait a second.” Charlene went to grab a pillow and covers from the said guest room then tossed them on the couch she meant for Fatiha to sleep on.
“Thank you, madam,” Fatiha said with a nervous bow.
“You know what,” Charlene said with her hands. “You don’t need to bow or any of those things. Just when I tell you to do something, do it, and we will be good, okay?” Charlene asked of Fatiha, who nodded and if Charlene was not mistaken smiled a little. Charlene didn’t linger and before long she was tucked into her bed reliving memories until the memories poured into her dreams.
Chapter 3 — Did you fiddle with anything?
Fatiha woke up at dawn stretched her nimble limbs and sat up on the couch. It had been a comfortable sleep and she felt rested. The house was still asleep though, with its heavy curtains preventing the sun’s light from entering. It would have been darker but a little parcel of light that shone through a parting in the wall of curtains. Fatiha lumbered toward the inconsistency which was over at the other end of the living room, where the ornaments and tables were. The previous night she hadn’t got the chance to look in detail but as she did now, she was even more impressed with the quality of some of madam Charlene’s possessions. There was an ensemble of pieces made out of a milky marble, abstract shapes that bent in and out of each other curiously. Then there were large granite statuettes of ballerinas caught in mid-jump at each corner. Aside from the marbled shapes and statuettes, there were the more conventional portraits that held photos and certificates. Fatiha looked at a younger madam Charlene with a lovely little girl and handsome man, sitting all together in some abroad country square. Madam looked so pretty when she was younger, Fatiha admitted. Her fingers were playing at the edges of the photo when she noticed little wooden angels carved into the frame gazing back at her. The craftsmanship was astounding and Fatiha, without realizing it, was kneeling down so her eyes were level with the artistry. The sleepiness in her eyes still kept her vision in a fog though. So she pulled herself up, moved to the parted curtain, and did the honors of allowing the sun into the house fully.
Fatiha didn’t know what to make of madam Charlene. Yes, she had been snappy and quite obnoxious to Fatiha. But her home had a certain charm that enchanted her, filled her with curiosity. Where were the little girl and the man in the picture? What at all did madam Charlene do? Why was she staying here alone? The answers weren’t far away. She could sense them hiding like secrets at the tip of a gossiper's lips.
Another object caught Fatiha’s eye. It was sitting on a spindled leg table and had a large black disc sitting on it with a needled lever hanging over.
“You know what that is?”
Fatiha almost fainted.
“Madam, sorry. Good morning.” Fatiha breathed in a rush her eyes cast downward.
Charlene shooed away Fatiha’s good morning and shuffled over. She was wearing a hairnet and silk flowery gown making for a much sweeter-looking person than what Fatiha was introduced to yesterday.
“It is a vinyl player. My husband, Ryan, loved to collect old highlife records,” Fatiha stared at madam Charlene who had a faraway look in her eyes. As she got closer, the morning light glared on the madam, and Fatiha could see the beauty pronounced in her age. Then as if she only just noticed the person she was talking to, Charlene snapped at Fatiha “I hope you didn’t fiddle with it?”
“Good. Well, let us get started. Might as well see if you can be of any use to me.”
Chapter 4 — You know what Birkenstocks are?
Charlene had Fatiha clear the guest room first. Fatiha worked well and with little fuss, taking periodic breaks in between cleanups and listening carefully to Charlene’s instructions. But despite Fatiha’s speed, what Charlene thought would be an hour-long exercise turned into a whole-day affair.
There was an obscene amount of junk that had accumulated in the room. It was quite unlike Charlene to let a portion of her life go so unattended. But amidst the junk were buried treasures that took Charlene on unexpected excursions into her past. What was it they said about nostalgia being an old wound?
The pain pinched hard when Fatiha pulled out a box from the wardrobe containing more of Nabila’s possessions from her toddler years.
“You know what,” Charlene said flapping her handkerchief out from her pocket. “I need you to go and get my Birkenstocks from the shoe repair at the Palace traffic light.”
Fatiha looked at her uncomfortably, shuffling her feet.
“Do you know what Birkenstocks are? They are like slippers — chalewote. The white people are always wearing it,” Charlene looked at Fatiha expectantly but knew she hadn’t an idea, and it was probably unfair of her to think she would know. “I want you to go before night comes,” Charlene felt into her pocket and pulled out two 20 Ghana Cedi notes. “You tell him, madam Charlene. And if he is still pestering you, just tell him to call me, okay?” Though Charlene felt the ground beneath her shaking her tone with Fatiha kept its bluntness.
Fatiha mumbled acknowledgments, took the money, then picked her path out of the disheveled room as quickly as she could.
Now alone, Charlene approached the box. The cardboard was worn out with its edges wet from some inexplicable dampness. But seared onto its broadside with black felt was the inscription ‘Bila’s Tings’ written in a childlike scrawl. She ripped the scotch tape from the lid and begun plucking its four flaps, one by one. Her heart in her throat. Once opened, dust sprang out and Charlene doubled to cover her mouth with her handkerchief.
The dust settling with the setting sun peeking into the room in soft rays, Charlene’s eyes lowered into the contents of the box, her hand reaching. And it was as if her life wasn’t filled with the void she had kept for her daughter. She grabbed onto the first thing she saw. Its floppy head bounced from side to side held by a scrawny neck and stuffed body. Bronto, Nabila’s toy dinosaur, was faded green and loose, but otherwise still retained much of the charm of its youth. Charlene blurted a teary laugh at her split second's comparison between the toy and herself. Turning the toy in her hands she noticed its tearing leg. How many times had she told little Nabila to not chew at it? That it would lose its integrity. And that, she Charlene, would not buy a new one if Nabila asked for it to be replaced. And Nabila, being the beautiful but petulant girl she was, retorted ‘she would love Bronto no matter what!.. Because… because dad gave it to her.’ And Charlene, now, as she did then, couldn’t help but tear up at this wonderful thing that was her daughter. And for all the life Charlene and Nabila lived after that, in this house, all the fights, cries, laughter, annoyances, out of all of that, till the point Nabila was pronounced dead from the car crash, with her blood stained on Charlene’s shirt, through to this exact moment, she was again happily surprised that her daughter could bring her to tears.
An old wound they said. But a beautiful one.
It was a few seconds before the repeated rings from the doorbell penetrated Charlene’s psyche and hearing the alarm in the frequency and volume of the rings, she ran out of her house to the gate.
Chapter 5 — I guess you’ll be staying longer…
Charlene didn’t live too far from Palace Mall at Flower Pot junction. Her house was stashed on one of those rough roads that ran adjacent to Spintex road. Over the years, Charlene’s house went from isolated to crowded out, then the road from rough to tarred, then a community of sorts formed, mixing the usual blends of squalor and wealth that Accra was known for. It had become dense but for the most part, it was safe, if not a little dark at times on some corners, but hardly a place for violent crimes to take place. Maybe the odd mugging here and there and some home robberies. But nothing overly violent. So it was a shock for Charlene to see Fatiha looking so distraught and heavy breathed entering the compound of her house.
“What is going on?” Charlene asked, making sure to double lock the gate before escorting Fatiha through the front garden to the porch of her house. Night had come and was calm but for a stirring in the atmosphere. Charlene rushed inside to fetch some water for the shaken girl. When she came back out Fatiha accepted the glass and drank in large gulps. As Charlene waited for her to recover, aside from Fatiha’s heavy breathing, Charlene could hear in the far distance animated and excited noises. Gazing over her lowly wall she saw faint traces of amber reddening the violet of the not so distant horizon. It was in the general direction of Palace Shopping Mall.
And not knowing what came over her, Charlene pulled Fatiha into the house and began the process of shutting all the doors and windows with the burglary proof. Before getting to her room Charlene felt her phone vibrating. It was her sister.
“Charlene, have you heard?! There seems to be some commotion going on at Palace. There are looting and fires,” Dariah uttered in distress over the line. Charlene hadn’t stopped with the closing of windows and was clawing the security bars of her window shut as she spoke to her sister.
“So that’s what’s going on! The girl just got back to the house and she is out of sorts. I can see a fire in the distance. Do you know why this is happening?!” Charlene asked, finally getting the bars to shut in place.
“The bloody girl you had me take home yesterday, Dariah,” Charlene shouted, now drawing the curtains.
“Oh, shit. Sorry,” Charlene heard Dariah sigh. “I hope you are taking precautions, you know you are very close by.”
“I am closing the doors and drawing the curtains as we speak,” Charlene said, drawing the final curtain in the living room.
“Charlene, my dear sister. Why on Earth didn’t you upgrade your security at your house!? How are drawn curtains going to stop those troublemakers from…” Dariah tapered off, distracted on the other end of the line.
“Yes, I know! I know! StayWell you said, let’s share the cost. Don’t you think I know! Too late for that now, Dari,” there wasn’t much left to say about the issue, so Dariah followed with the last question she had for her sister.
“I want you to come over. How soon can you come?” Dariah commanded.
“Don’t tell me what to do. You forget that I am the older one…” Charlene said proudly, if not a little childishly.
“But you are in a house with low walls and virtually at the foot of the commotion!” Dariah yelled.
“Okay-Okay! I think we have to wait it out,” Charlene was leaning on the cushion of the couch in the living room, peaking through the curtains that gave her view of the flares. “I can use the back way to yours…” she was opening the Maps on her phone to see the status of the back road to Dariah’s. On the Maps Charlene noticed that the app was doing more than show her the route but also informing her on how dangerous it was to go outside. It was warning her to stay indoors. “Dari, my phone is telling me it’s too dangerous to go outside,” Charlene explained to her sister turning around on the cushion and looking at Fatiha who was drinking more water.
“Check your Maps, you’ll see what I am talking about,” she waited for her sister to do so.
“Yes, and actually, one second… Raymond just told me to switch to satellite. Oh my!” Charlene had left her phone on speaker and was switching to the satellite view as her sister was. The Maps went from vectors to the view directly over her house and she scrolled in the general direction of Palace which was, even though pixelated, in a blur of red and orange.
Not returning to her call with her sister Charlene glanced at Fatiha whose doe-like eyes were wide and frightened. Charlene smiled at her as if to calm her down but didn’t think it had the desired impact.
“I guess you’ll be staying for longer then….”