When the Dark Becomes Silent
John is tired and this is how he has spent the day.
Not mopping the sepia-stained cement floor with a mixture of five drops of lemongrass extract, ½ cup pH neutral floor solution, and 4 cups of freshly boiled water. Not mopping the gray, black, and white speckled outdoor balcony tiles with a mixture of five drops of lemon grass extract, ¼ cup vinegar, 2 tablespoons Ariel powdered soap, and 4 cups of freshly-boiled water. Not watering the hanging indoor plants. Not watering the hanging outdoor plants. Not watering the standing plants in his Madame Eni’s office. Not spritzing the deep blue orchid on the lightly stained wooden sideboard near the entrance with water. Not washing the plates in the sink. Not clearing up his Madame’s unfinished breakfast of yam and omelet on the dining table from the day before when she announced as per usual that she would be traveling within just a few hours.
John is not doing anything. John is not doing nothing, but still John fans his hand in front of his face to rid the air of the smell of harsh breath after a yawn stretches the corners of his dry mouth. John sits on the off-white suede L-shaped sofa in the open living room with his legs folded underneath his thighs and the soles of his feet pressed into the soft and cushy fabric. The flat is starting to smell like him instead of the Mango Butter incense his Madame has him burn every day before he begins to clean. If his Madame smelled him like this, not having bathed in the morning, she would scrunch her nose just slightly, perhaps thinking he didn’t notice.
Yesterday at around 1pm, just before his Madame traveled, the gen went off and it took longer than a few minutes for the security to do a changeover to NEPA. John was watering the plants outside when he noticed the outdoor fan for the air conditioning unit was motionless. Anticipating an angry text from his Madame, he went downstairs.
Light no dey? he asked as he approached two of the security guards gathered by the generator.
The gen just off now, I already call Mr. Michael, one of the security guards replied.
John sighed, not because he was particularly bothered, but because he could already see his Madame looking vexed when he explained they were having an issue with the generator.
John walked through the parking lot to the staircase that led to the apartment. He skipped every three steps, leaping up the stairs to deliver the message.
His Madame wasn’t inside her office. He walked further down to the end of the hallway towards the bedroom door, ajar.
He didn’t knock, instead he stood at the entrance and saw his Madame facing the mirror opposite her bed.
She was holding something in her hands. John was caught in a trance, looking at his Madame, looking at herself.
She shouted him right out of it.
John! What are you doing? she screamed recognizing his aureus golden frame, standing inside her room, just where the rug began.
John did not answer, simply retreated to the living room to wait for his Madame to scold him for entering her bedroom without knocking.
I’m traveling for a few days, she said as she walked into the living room with a leather bag on her shoulder. John quickly walked towards her to remove the bag from her arms.
Make sure you clean the house well before Mr. Akin and I return, she said, releasing the weight to him.
At Angel Court, John lives in a self-contained room adjacent to the storeroom outside the kitchen at his Madame and Oga’s flat. He knows himself to be lucky. When he first arrived, his Madame gave him a walk-through of the cleaning procedures. They started in the late morning, finishing only as the sky swallowed up the last remnants of the sun. He tried to stifle his awe at the balconies facing the Lagos Lagoon hiding just the right amount of sun in the open living room and verdant leafy plants nailed to the ceiling, swaying above their heads from balcony breeze. The flora hung from intertwined rope wrapped around olive-beige tinted ceramic pots. It was a green sanctuary—his Madame actually called it that when she saw him leering at the ceiling instead of observing her preferred method of rodent prevention (placing dehydrated shaved lemon peels in the bottom rails of the sliding balcony doors every week). When it was dark, Madame Eni showed John to his room, which had just one small window on the forefront wall. It still felt luxurious to John compared to the bungalow in Cotonou, where his wife, Glory, at that time of day would probably be sweeping the dust from the entrance of the house so it could become reacquainted with the dust outside. Whenever John had a break in between cleaning chores during his first few months at Angel Court, he’d rest inside his room. The constant electricity was seductive. Fatigued, he’d fall back onto the thin mattress on the floor and push the single sheet to the side as he spread his legs wide across the bed. He’d connect his phone to charge at the socket behind the bed and turn on the standing fan plugged beneath. It never took long for him to fall asleep guided by the air oscillating around his body. The flow of light kept him inside, lying in bed during his free time on Sundays rather than outside socializing with the other house-helps and drivers in the compound. He reveled in the muted air.
That the gen at Angel Court had to be shut off just once a day at 11 in the morning made no difference to John. He was usually inside the kitchen at that time preparing his Madame’s lunch. In between rounds of washing the dirt from spinach, and slicing onions and peppers for an omelet, if it took longer than a few minutes for them to changeover to the gen or NEPA after the hour had passed, his Madame would shout his name from the hallway at the other end of the flat and demand to know what was going on.
John! Is something wrong with the gen? she’d ask on these occasions, her voice rising in a panic.
There was hardly ever an issue and the lights would always come on within a few minutes. As soon as the light returned, the tightness of her voice would slack. Watching how agitated his Madame became when there was no light had made John that much more aware of it. He’d made a new habit of walking over to the security house at the front of the compound, when the lights went off before she could call him to ask what was going on.
More often than not, John would find the security officers taking slow steps towards the generator area just next to the security room. They always took their time to do a changeover — their way of delaying the generator’s viscous noise.
Madame Eni would never know that John had watched her inside her bedroom on more than one occasion. At 11 am, sometimes when the generator was off, and there was no NEPA to carry the pulse of energy in the flat, she would go to her bedroom, thinking John was inside the kitchen making her lunch. She’d close the light blocking curtains to keep the room as dim as possible. From the hallway, through the slight opening of her door (on the occasions she’d forgotten to make sure was shut properly), John would take quiet steps from the kitchen and watch her lie in bed. It was no secret that his Madame was beautiful. She had plump caramel-reddish cheeks, while the crown of her face, chin, and cheekbones were darker. She didn’t wear much makeup, which was why John found the time she spent looking at herself in the mirror to be so odd. From the hallway, he’d watch her study her face in the dusky room. These details of her face were etched in John’s memory. The freckles visible when she’d use her fingers to stretch her cheeks. A small mole where her neck met her throat. Two indented pockmarks equidistant from the middle of her chin on her left and right jawline. He would watch her reflection as he pretended to dust the hinges of the bedroom door, and wonder: what is she looking for?
The sun outside has nearly finished setting and John, still on the couch, doesn’t bother switching on the lights. John is not expecting his Madame and his Oga until the following evening, so he can sink into the foam of the sofa and leave an imprint without re-fluffing anytime soon to disguise that he was ever there. John can make a mess and wait a moment before cleaning it up. Sitting in the dark room, with glimpses of light from outside the compound, John stays seated in the dark.
John lies flat on the sofa thinking he’ll just lie here a bit longer, but despite the warmth from his body, the chair feels cold. His Nokia phone buzzes with another missed call from his wife, Glory. He should pick up the phone. He should call her back. When John had returned home for the Christmas holiday a few months earlier, he had felt restless from the incessant conversation around him, conversations he was meant to participate in, the questions he was meant to answer, the questions he was meant to ask. As the phone continues to vibrate on the floor, he tries to picture his wife sitting outside of their one-bedroom bungalow in Cotonou, on a wooden bench next to the entrance holding her own Nokia phone up to her mouth, listening to the phone ring on speaker as she waits for him to pick up. He sees his Madame’s face instead. During the holidays, when he spent his afternoons sitting on the bench in between Glory and his younger brother underneath a blazing sun, his pores bubbled, overwhelmed with sweat. When he told Glory one morning that they should get another bench to place next to the old one for more space, she didn’t understand what he meant.
Why do we need another one? she asked.
John lets the phone tremble. He looks downs from the couch a few minutes later to see his phone is dead.
The other day John walked to the gate to collect a bouquet of red roses for his Madame. He presented the white cardboard box of roses and watched her smile measuredly as she removed the card from the plastic wrapping at the sides. Her eyes scanned across the note, after which she took the flowers from him and handed him the card.
Help me throw it away, she said flatly.
Yes Ma, John said.
He was curious. In the kitchen he opened the card and read what he could make out of the message inside. My Dark Flower, it said at the top.
He noticed on a few occasions, when Mr. Akin came home to find his wife sitting on the couch and addressed her with this pet name, or another one he’d call her (Dark Chocolate), his Madame would flinch almost imperceptibly.
She always replied by calling her husband by his name, Akin, as she returned his embrace.
John figured it was some kind of joke between husband and wife, still he found it odd Mr. Akin continued to refer to her with names she could barely stand.
John, come and put these flowers inside water, his Madame shouted from the living room.
Yes, Ma. Coming, Ma, he replied.
John tries resting on the floor, but the rug is itchy against his arms. He rises and stands on his feet for the first time since it grew dark outside. He rolls his feet into the smooth cement floor to press away the pins and needles vibrating up to his ankles. He adjusts the waist of his gray cotton shorts as he walks with bare feet through the hall, stretching his arms so his fingertips graze the ridges of the stippled gray walls. John’s feet traipse through the dark apartment from memory. His left hand stops at the raised doorframe; he stands in the entryway to his Madame’s and Oga’s bedroom, dragging his feet across the soft rug fibers that cover the floor. John didn’t turn off the AC after his Madame left, and despite the open door, the room is freezing. He feels the cold almost instantly as goosebumps form up and down his arms and the base of his neck. John looks at the heavy goose feathered blankets on the bed and rubs his arms.
Cold and tired, John’s hands reach for the soft and silky cotton he lays every single day. The soft cotton he washes by hand because his Madame likes him to do a spot wash before putting the sheets inside the machine. His hands feel the fabric he spreads across two ironing boards so he can smoothen every wrinkle and spritz the sheets, just twice with lavender spray, his Madame reminds him, as he presses the scent through the cotton fibers with heat. John gathers the sheets in his hands to make room as he lies down in the sheets he was meant to wash in the morning. He lies on the right side of the bed, but he starts to imagine his Oga poking his Madame from behind and so he turns to his left. The sheets are slightly damp beneath him. Perhaps residual sweat his Madame has left behind. He breathes in, expecting to smell her. The scent she carries of mango, vanilla, and coconut. Instead his nose takes in the scent of his own body odor from a lazy day.
Lying on his left side, John faces the mirror in front of the bed. He imagines her there. His Madame sitting in front of the mirror, inspecting the reflection of her deep brown face with red undertones, her thin eyebrows, and bottom lip lighter than the top one. He imagines her trying to place herself in the dark and lets the cushy mattress carry him into a deep slumber.
John is in dark dream. Here, bodies enter by crashing into one another, apologizing profusely to the gush of warm air that surrounds them. Feet are slashed from uneven surfaces and bleed on occasion from deep gashes that cause intense pain. The bodies they belong to fall to the ground and caress the bruises on their feet, searching for something to stop the flow of blood. Sometimes they sit like this for months and wish they had more than their naked bodies in this space, that they could find a form of some sort, anything to stop the bleeding. Sometimes they sit like this for months, wishing that they could see more than shadows. They yearn to do something other than feel. That is, until they get tired of waiting for the bleeding to stop because they finally understand their bodies only exist to collect more bruising. At this point, they no longer apologize to the shadows they collapse into. They just keep moving.
Like these two. Their shadows circle around one another in the dark and at first, they say nothing. He is the one to break the silence. He tells her about his childhood and the stories his mother used to tell him. How much he misses her now that she’s passed. How he misses his family far from home, but also feels detached. How it feels impossible for him to return. She tells him how she used to cry every single day until she realized she was only crying to look down and see her hands drenched in salty tears, and, isn’t that bizarre, she says, with a chuckle. As soon as I got what I wanted – him – I realized I didn’t want anything at all, she confesses. On occasion the sharing between the two is interrupted and they drift apart, but neither mind when the dark becomes silent. When the darkness swallows them. They become aware of the other’s return when the air becomes a bit thicker and warmer from another body taking up space. At times he gets wistful, wanting to see even just the outline of her face, but he knows this is a silly thought to have in the dark.