Yaw made his announcement at the end of the hour with his hand on his packet as if the play were a Bible. But Yaw is correct. Even to Ruby, who was employed before Comfort was born, Comfort says little. She barely seemed to notice Iago, back-lit, at the door.
The sun from behind him seeped into her eyes. Seated across from her, you stared at her face. She looked up, saw Iago, and her eyes sort of flickered. Just the hint of a hardening. Sort of heart-shaped and plumpish with the cheeks of a cherub, the long curly lashes and small, pointy chin. Her lips look like pillows, some unique form of respite: The skin on her collarbones and shoulders, in particular, is impossibly smooth, with a specific effect: But there she is — Auntie — fluttering from table to round table, drawing all eyes and oxygen towards her, restless Monarch.
She is somewhat less witch-like when viewed through the window. Merely beautiful beyond all reason. Perhaps anyone so striking, so sharp on the outside, would appear to be hard on the inside as well? Then Auntie stands straight and the moon gilds her up-and-down: Auntie offers her cheeks, one then the other, to his kisses.
Comfort steps back, for no reason; there is space. Kwabena begins gesturing, chatting animatedly with Auntie. Comfort sips foam off her Malta, gazes away. She is too starkly lit. It is the opposite. A floodlight on everything around it, in darkness. I t is the same thing you saw for that moment this morning, the sun slanting in thick and golden as oil. Francis finished crafting a blossom from an orange then turned his focus to scalloping mango. You finished your pawpaw, surreptitiously watching Iago, his chale-watas wet still from washing the car.
The pink tip of his tongue on the stringy-gold flesh, the wetness around his mouth, made your stomach drop down. A feeling very similar to wetting the bed when the dream is most vivid.
The dampness and all. Iago finished the mango and tossed the pit across the kitchen. It landed in the rubbish with a clatter. Comfort slapped at a mosquito. She considered the mosquito bite blooming on her arm.
He ran down the path along the side of the kitchen. On the other side of the house is a wide pebbled walkway that winds from the gates to the garden at the back. This is how party guests access the garden.
The house staff, forbidden, use the kitchen path. It scares you for some reason. Its dark smell of dampness, the wild, winding crawlers climbing the side of the house, the low-hanging tree branches twisted together like the skinny gnarled arms of a child with lupus. And, set back in shadow behind the tangle of branches, ominous and concrete, never touched by the sun: A cooking fire flickering against the black of the sky and their laughter in bursts, muted refrains.
You took your plate to the sink, turned on the water to rinse it. Francis patted your head, took the plate, pushed you away. You who ate leftovers at the bar with the busboys at the end of each night while your mother drank rum; who helped maids on the mornings your mother was hung-over; eating left-behind chocolates and half-rotting fruit.
Iago will let you trail him reciting Othello across the lawn he has memorized his part and no longer needs a script , as Kofi will abide your quiet audience. Francis will let you watch from the little wooden table while he skins and chops chicken in the afternoon light.
It was Kofi who one day read from his script: A breeze had kept billowing it up. Francis finished breakfast and arranged it on a tray.
As if on cue, Ruby came into the kitchen, chale-watas slapping the concrete. She stopped when she saw Comfort. You are very welcome home. The swinging door flapped lightly back and forth, then shut behind her. Comfort turned to Francis, scratching the mosquito bite on her arm. Still thinks I can cook. She looked at you jealously. She beamed as if with delight at your very existence. Appearing at the door.
She looked up and frowned. The little flicker again. Comfort watched him go, rubbing her arm with the sap. T he study is at the end of the second-floor hallway at the opposite end from your bedroom. Its one wall-length window overlooks the back garden, the three other walls lined with books. In the study — as in the parlour, as in the dining room, as in the drawing room — this furnishing serves to mute footfalls.
The door was half closed when you came for the books. The swinging door clapped shut as you bounded out of the kitchen. Up the staircase to the study, skipping every other stair. You were wondering what books Comfort had brought back from Boston, whether more Edith Wharton or your new favourite Richard Wright? The door was ajar but no sunlight spilled out of it. You approached and peered in the slim opening.
The drapes were pulled over the window, uncharacteristically. A stack of glossy paperbacks beckoned by the tray. You assumed, perfectly logically, that Uncle had finished eating and left the tray for Kofi or Ruby to come collect. You pushed the door slightly and slipped in the slim opening, your feet sinking into the soft of the rug.
Uncle was in his chair, facing the window and drapes, gripping the edge of the desk with his fingertips. From your vantage behind him across the room in the doorway you could barely see Ruby between his knees. She was kneeling there neatly, skinny legs folded beneath her, her hands on his knees, heart-shaped face in his lap.
The sound she made reminded you of cloth sloshing in buckets, as rhythmic and functional, almost mindless, and wet. Uncle whimpered bizarrely, like the dogs before beatings. For whatever reason, you stood there transfixed by the books. It was Ruby who saw you but Uncle who cried out, as if sustaining some cruel, unseen wound. Now you saw the trousers in a puddle around his ankles. Now he saw you, mute, at the door.
She crumpled to the rug like a doll. Ruby scrambled to her feet; you stumbled back out the door. She wore only her lappa and a tattered lace bra. She looked at you quickly as you pushed the door shut.
Her almond eyes glittered with hatred. You recognized the expression. The trick had been to show up after Sinclair made his rounds, shouting complaints then disappearing until dinner. The spoils that morning had been unusually abundant: A younger cook had set the food on a metal rolling cart and sent you up to your room in the freight elevator.
The rest you remember not as a series of events but as a single expression. You must have inserted the keycard in the door, which would have beeped open, blinking green, making noise. But they must not have heard you. So you wheeled in the cart and just stood there, frozen, mute at the door.
Your mother on the floor, Sinclair kneeling behind her, their moaning an inelegant music, the sweat. Bright knives in the dark of her irises. Slamming the door, leaning against it. The sound — sloshing cloth, buckets of soap — in your ears.
Your bright blue walls trembled, or seemed to, in that moment, like a suspended tsunami about to crash in. In that moment, as you stood there, with your back to the door and the lump in your throat and your pulse in your ears, you saw that it was you who was wrong and not they. You were wrong to have pitied her. That she could make Uncle start whimpering like the dogs before beatings meant something was possible under this roof, in this house; something different from — and you wondered, was it better than?
You stood at your door trembling jealously. You heard the steps small ones on the other side of your door, followed by the faint sound of feet on the stairs, going down. You waited for a second then cracked the door open. No one was there. Like a fetish offering. You glanced down the hall to the study; the door was open.
The drapes had been drawn back to richly bright light. You picked up the books and you walked down the stairs. So you went to the garden as you would have done otherwise, had you not seen what you saw in the study just then. You said nothing to Francis who was just starting the chin-chin, nor to Iago who was making centrepieces of torch gingers as you appeared. C aterers swarmed the garden, unfolding round wooden tables, festooning lights along the walls, ignoring Comfort by the pool.
The garden half done like a woman getting ready, standing naked at the mirror in her necklace and shoes. The thick buzz of flies and the sweet smell of chin-chin. Not for the first time you thought about running. They were consumed with their preparations, all of the houseboys and caterers, Comfort sunning in her bikini, Iago working by the pool. You could get up now, unnoticed, leave your books, walk away. There was the door at the edge of the garden. You considered it, suddenly hopeful, not one hundred yards away.
Perhaps it pushed out to some Neverland? Or simply to some route to the road through the brush? You were considering the distance from the tree to the door when the thought seized you suddenly: Now the breath left your chest and your heart began racing. Two carpenters installing the dance floor, banging nails: She was standing across the garden at the door into the living room in big bug-eye sunglasses, shouting your name. She was starting to go in when she saw Comfort by the pool.
What are you doing? Comfort lifted her head, shading her eyes with her hand, the flesh at her mid-section folding over. Auntie glanced at the caterers, who were observing this exchange.
An inhalation at last. Then looked down at Comfort, sucked her teeth, turned away. You had better be decent. You sat in the back, silent, with Auntie. You glanced at her quickly, holding her bag in your lap, trying to interpret her vacant expression. Would Uncle send you away if you shared this with Auntie? Would Auntie like you better if you did? The market was crowded with Christmas returnees haggling unsuccessfully over the prices of trinkets.
The bodies pushed together in the soft rocking motions; the sellers shouting prices over heaps of yellowing fruit; the freshly caught fish laid in stacks of silvery carcasses, their eyes still open wide, as if with surprise at being dead. Two or three bottles down, Mahmood would demand that you join them, instructing Kofi to come get you from your bedroom.
He liked to tell the tale of the silkworm crisis that brought the Lebanese to Ghana. English Leather, fermented tobacco, citronella in your nose. The last time he visited — over a year ago, summer — you climbed into his lap as per habit. He stroked your knee gently and kissed you on the head. Uncle pulled on his cigar, his eyes twinkling in the candlelight.
Uncle merely laughed, ignoring Auntie, speaking louder. Their eyes grazed your face and you closed your own tightly but no sooner had you done so than the image appeared. On the backs of your eyelids where such images are stored: You opened your eyes quickly but the image remained.
You were sick to your stomach. There were hands at your waist. He was squeezing your waist tightly then kissing your cheek. His beard scratched your shoulder. His lips wet your neck. The thought was just forming: They were pressing against your ribs through your nightdress; you were nauseous.
That image in the air. You started to speak. But heard Auntie as you opened your mouth. The gesture knocked his glass to the tile where it smashed. The wine ran into the pool like a ribbon of blood. He stood, lifting you with him, kissed your head, set you down. You trailed behind Auntie to the door to the store. You lingered behind Auntie, glancing at your reflections in the mirrors. She in her sunglasses. You, shorter, in your shorts. In light like that there is something very African about Auntie.
But the set of her mouth, the slight downturn of the lips, the proud upturn of the chin betray her paternity. In spite of yourself you took a little step backwards. She is terrifying to you, Mariam, viscerally so. She has the same dramatic features as her daughter and brother, her skin a dark bronze from the decades in Ghana. They say that Mahmood would be nothing without his sister, ruthless bookkeeper; that it was she who built his business.
She just stood at the counter at the back of the store watching Auntie. We throw the same party every year.
But Mariam smiled brightly, a menacing expression. A bit like a wound beneath her nose. Her eyes travelled past Auntie and rested on you. It is obvious, and still seems the lie. This is what jars you as you watch from the window: There is anger in Auntie and, you see it now, hurting.
The sheen of her eyes like a lacquer, sealing grief. It wants to be believed. And you want to believe it. The lie of her majesty. The truth of her weakness leaves nothing to be hoped for, leaves nothing to cling to, makes everything as weak. It is that all of you are. M ariam, to you: Mariam went to the kitchen and put a kettle on the stove. Auntie stood looking around as if for a mop. Finally, she perched gingerly on the arm of a desk chair.
She gestured to you, impatiently. You opened the handbag and pulled out the envelope. Mariam reappeared with two teacups. She handed you both cups, took the invitation, looked it over. Then sat at the desk clasping her hands. You handed Auntie a teacup.
There was no place to sit. You wished you had waited with Kofi in the car. You noticed this now, peering into your own teacup with worry. Mariam noticed your expression and chuckled. Your father was different! A very good man. The outburst made you start, spilling tea on your T-shirt. They both turned to look at you now.
You stood, glancing at Auntie. There were flies in the toilet and stains on the tiles, the stench overwhelming: You were fumbling with the door, trying to let yourself out, when Mariam began screaming on the other side of it.
Mariam laughed, genuinely amused. Passed off as your child. Her words and their meaning were like a taste on your tongue, then, a thickness spreading slowly across the roof of your mouth. The daughter of a housegirl. You heaved, vomited pawpaw into the toilet. Now came a rustling, someone slamming a door; now the clicking of heels, growing louder, towards the bathroom. From outside the door: There was Auntie, crying quietly, fumbling for her sunglasses in her bag.
She looked at you blankly and turned. Y ou got in the car. She got in the car. Kofi glanced back at her, started the car. She removed her bug sunglasses and wiped her eyes quickly. She put them back on. Kofi pulled up to the gates and honked. George opened the gates with much clanging of locks.
Kofi drove in, Benz tyres crunching white pebbles. She got out on her side and you jumped out on yours. Perhaps you were waiting for instructions about something?
About not saying a word to a soul or suchlike? You needed to stay near her, you thought, trailing behind her. Francis was removing a tray of chin-chin from the oven. You entered behind Auntie, swinging door swinging shut. Auntie stepped forward to stand just beneath him. Or no, you intend to ignore me? He shook his head, faltering. Then Auntie reached up and slapped him.
He dropped the tray of chin-chin , the sweets scattering across the floor. Tears sprung to your eyes. She stabbed the air in front of him, gasping for breath. You do as I say. Then walked out of the kitchen, started sobbing. You stood there with Francis, who stared at you, silent. With tears in his eyes and what else? For the thickness in your mouth. The door opened suddenly and Uncle stormed in.
He looked at the chin-chin , scattered nuggets on the floor. Francis knelt down and picked up the tray — a long way down for such a tall man. He set it on the counter, leaving the chin-chin on the floor. He ducked, and walked out the door. There, dumbstruck in the kitchen. You waited too long before you followed him out. The rocks and knotted roots cut through the soles of your chale-watas as you pushed through the low-hanging leaves.
The sky was dark. The caterers were raising a new banner above the dance floor. A boy was setting tea lights into bowls. No one seemed to notice you. You saw the little door across the garden. The door opens easily. Weeds, chopped-down trees, redolent dankness of earth. And Iago kissing Comfort in her bikini. She was leaning against a tree with her hands at his waist. He was cupping her breasts. At the sound of the door creaking, feet crackling on twigs, Iago turned.
Comfort looked also, saw you, and cried out. Iago clamped his hand over her mouth. For the second time that day you backed out of a door, pulled it shut, and stood staring, now seeing. Thunder, then it started to rain. You came up the path slowly in the driving rain, the wet on your shoulders and face like a weight. The smell of damp earth swelling up from the ground as it does in the tropics, overpowering the air.
So that all that there was for those few wretched minutes was the rain on your skin and the earth in your nose. The caterers, behind you, shouting about things getting wet, as you pushed through the low-hanging branches, then stopped. With the water from the shower and the downpouring rain and the soap on his face, and the cloth in his hands. You gasped to see it, that foreign landscape of muscle: In a way, it was too much to see in that moment, through the tangle of branches, nude Francis.
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In this view, western women are oversexed, promiscuous and have revolving doors in their knickers. This can lead to hassle and harassment for western women travelling or living in Egypt and some other Arab countries, although in places like Yemen men will either just stare or the western woman will become invisible like the local women, as my wife found while travelling alone through the country.
Of course, given the potent mix of sexual repression, poverty, ignorance, the growing disappearance of the traditional model of respect for women and the failure to replace it with a modern equivalent, you don't have to be western to be harassed on the streets. Some men will hit on western women out of the conviction Ahmed described, while others who understand the west better will do so out of simple opportunism, hoping that they will "get lucky" with a woman from a society where sex does not carry the same heavy restriction for her as it does for her Arab sisters.
In fact, some men want the best of both worlds: Another form of opportunism is the allure of escape. It sometimes seems to spell freedom," observes Angela, a Jerusalem-based acquaintance. Among certain men, this myth of the western Aphrodite is complemented by another delusion: In fact, some blokes I've met entertain the belief that Egyptian men have a good reputation among western women for their virility and sexual prowess.
This misperception is reinforced in their minds by the fact that some women do come to Egypt for sexual tourism or get caught up in whirlwind relationships filled with old-fashioned romance, expressions of undying love, passion and charm. So, which Arabs have the most negative views of western women? Well, probably those from the most conservative societies. What is behind this belief that western women are somehow sex-crazed? Part of it relates to the conservative Arab fixation on women's sexuality in general.
According to this outlook, women's sexual appetites are so insatiable that, if they are left to their own devices, they turn into uncontrollable nymphomaniacs and temptresses luring men to crash into the rocks of lust.
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