My mother named me Eniola, which means, she who is wealthy – in the Yoruba tongue. Now, don’t go crooning about how unique it is until you really know why she gave me that name.
My mother believed that if you command what you most desire to manifest in your life, somehow the forces of nature with the authority to grant wishes might take pity on you and answer your requests.
When she told me and my sister, Mojisola, the origins of our names, we found the situation quite comical. My sister’s name meant, she who commands wealth. There you have it.
The reason behind our names was simply poverty. We were poorand someone had to “break that chain of poverty” in our family, as Uncle Benjen, my mother’s only surviving brother always liked to say.
And through a chain of connections, I was shipped off to France. Literally.
It was where my life as an au pair girl began with working for the Lafayettes. I never saw my mother and Mojisola again.
For months, I served. Running errands, cleaning and tending to the needs of the Lafayettes, until my family, my identity, my home started to blur away like a dream.
The Lafayettes are a family of four who live in a very big villa in Mougins, Valbonne, here in France. A man, his wife, and their two lovely children; the kind with the big, bright, blinding smiles.
Arthur, who takes so much after his American mother, is well around 20 or there about. I have never seen him face-to-face, except in the pictures that hang around the walls of the house. He is the eldest.
Manon is 17, and she is the worst. Throw in late pubescent mood swings and angst and you have got a complete picture. Always nagging about how the croissants never seem to have enough crusts or the bagels are too dry, or the spaghetti is so overly moist!
Today, the problem is the spaghetti.
“It’s just spaghetti, Maude. You boil it with water. If she doesn’t like it so moist, maybe she should chew on the dry sticks,” I complain to Maude, the cook. As well, she is my friend and confidante.
I dump the entire content of the China plate into the shiny bin and it slides its way down. I frown.
Maude stares at the spaghetti I have just tossed into the bin and heaves out in growing exasperation. She curses under her breath in French and looks at me.
“Did she even touch it?” she asks, her hazel eyes betraying her tiredness.
“I don’t know. She wants her peas. It’s pageant week and she says she needs to be in shape. I’d start now, if I were you.”
Stubborn as Maude is, she knows she can’t do anything but obey. Loss of freedom is the price you pay for servitude. We knew this before we walked through those large villa doors.
In my head, I’m picturing Maude swaying her slender self all the way into the living room rather too quickly. I don’t like to admit it, but even in my imagination, I’m still a snoop.
I’m leaning against the wall and eavesdropping on Maude’s slightly raised voice.
They argue in French, Manon and Maude, until Maude finally screams, “I don’t bloody care what your mother thinks! I answer to your father only in this house. You want peas? Come boil your own darn peas!”
The vividness of Manon’s shell-shocked expression is worth the daydream. It makes me wish Maude would break bounds and defy her in reality. But Maude doesn’t. Instead, she’s right beside me still, rolling her eyes and puffing her cheeks in frustration.
“She’s killing me. She needs a backhand,” she moans and I laugh.
Maude and I joke about ‘the backhand’ all the time. About African parents stunning their children with a backhand slap in order to instil sense in them. Mojisola and I had our taste of it when we were little. At first, Maude was horrified and could hardly imagine the horror of hitting a child without going to jail for it.
“Maybe you should visit Nigeria, one day.” I had said casually
“Oy! You know I can’t, Niyo.” she had replied, shortening my name, which if you ask me, sounds more like “Neh-yo” than “Ni-yo”.
We know we can’t go anywhere. This house, this family, is our responsibility now. But more obvious is the unspoken issue of race. We don’t talk about it, but Maude is who she is and I am who I am.
The strings of our friendship were only so securely knotted because we were the help. My blackness is the scissor threatening to severe it at any moment. Sometimes, I fear she won’t be able to tolerate it for much longer.
The giant Victorian clock in the large hallway separating the living room from every other room chimes.
I peer at the post-it notes taped to the surface of the fridge and I find the one my missus has passed herself. It is a list of grocery items for the house, scrawled in the rough italics of rushed left-handedness.
“You will go to the market, yes?” Maude asks without making eye contact as she runs some vegetables under the tap, and then dumps them inside a ziploc bag for storage.
She smiles sympathetically, knowing the market at the foot of the hills is going to be really busy today.
She ruffles through the pocket of her white chef’s uniform and fishes out a small silver key. The key to Madame Lafayette’s study. Maude is the only one with access to it, besides the Madame herself, of course. The woman trusts no one else, not especially a black woman, to invade her sanctuary. It is her other house within the villa.
I might’ve been au pair on paper, an “equal” to the family, but that is as far as that goes.
When Maude returns, she crumples and tosses a few euro notes across the kitchen island.
“Make sure to account for every Euro.”
Madame Lafayette makes me write a list of my expenses, the change and returns I get from the market. And if possible, if she has the time to, she inspects the items herself. She has never let me keep the change. Her purse is always so tight it strangles the possibility of me ever getting extra tips to buy something nice for myself.
I don’t say anything to Maude again as I leave. Manon is no longer at the dining table and I sigh with relief. I don’t want to face her again.
The sound of a car horn blares. The driver is ready.
The Maybach Exelero used to transport servants and for running errands is still parked in its lot. The driver, Timothe, who also happens to be the only other black person in the villa, already has the door open for me. I smile a greeting to him. He really doesn’t have to, yet he does it as a part of a private joke we share.
The car pulls out of the compound, and in the backseat, I go over the list and calculate the expenses, while Timothe tries to distract me with small talk.
But my mind is somewhere else. Not on Timothe, not on the little incident with Maude and Manon, not even on this stupid grocery list. My mind is home, where my mother and Mojisola are.
Mon esprit est à la maison, où mon corps n’est pas.
I used to think that I’d end up in Prague, a few months ago, and I could make those fancy sentences or rather, ridiculous sentences that put way too much emphasis on the R’s and C’s, like…
“I ate a Svíčková at the Cafe Louvre today, and it was filling,” I would say over the phone. To Maude, to Mojisola, to mother, or Uncle Benjen. Or just anybody who cared to listen.
Then I’d stick around the cafe a little while longer than I should, reading through the oeuvres of some famous French poets. Maybe I’ll even have the pre-released copies of their works in paperback before most people.
Then I would throw my head back in one of those sophisticated laughs when I see something funny, or maybe it doesn’t even really have to be funny, until my neck spasms.
Maude told me that the last au pair girl was sent to Prague. If I’m lucky, if I’m good, Monsieur Lafayette will write a letter of recommendation for me to the International Au Pair organization to send me there.
But sitting here on a bus bench, next to crying babies and shushing mothers that bribe their young with sweet sticks and candy to buy their silence, sitting here with not a single baroque building in sight, the kind that should line up the streets of Prague… that dream doesn’t seem likely to happen any moment sooner than I want. The bus pulls up at the stop and I hop off, struggling with four giant leathers filled with groceries.
I’m appreciative of the times I get to go to the market. Well… sometimes.
Because Timothe and I have our own secret arrangement, which of course, I forced him to agree to. That he will drive me to the market, as per his instructions, but he will never drive me back home. And of course, if the Madame hears of this, he’d be in big trouble.
I’m appreciative of the little distance I get to walk to the house, the bus ride, the people I see, the air that I breathe. These are a few of the small things that I still have control over. Things that are not orders in scribbly italics, arranged on a timetable that changes every day on a darn fridge.
I wait for the security guard, Jon, to buzz me past the gate, and once inside the kitchen, I dump everything on the island. Maude is in the garden with the gardener. It is a small open space in the very centre of the house.
The Madame grows orchids, sunflowers, daisies and bits of other flower species I still don’t recognize. Sometimes, she brings home different exotic flowers from the faraway countries she travels to.
“Merci.” I hear Maude say to the gardener.
“De rien.” The gardener, Léon, continues pruning the viburnum plant which Madame has just brought from Prague.
Maude puts a finger to her lips, and motions for me to follow her up the short flight of stairs, leading to the third and smallest living room of the main building. It’s reserved for us – staff. But sometimes, Manon comes there to smoke because no one ever really comes to this side of the villa. Manon has once brought here a boy, too.
Maude pushes the door silently until she hears it click shut.
“Asseoir,” she says, pointing to the chair, and I lower myself into the white one-seater near the door.
“The Madame is going to leave Monsieur Lafayette,” she whispers. I make a big show of covering my mouth with both hands as I always do, in a bid to mock and mimic Maude.
“Mon dieu!” I gasp. My God.
“I know! Shocking, isn’t it?!”
“How do you know?”
“A delivery,” she says.
She exhales and adjusts herself, sitting on the floor completely with her legs tucked under her.
“I didn’t mean to pry…” and I know she really didn’t. Because Maude is not a snoop like I am. Maude’s hands and eyes do not itch like mine. “… but the address on the parcel is from the lawyer’s office. Madame’s lawyer.”
“But … that could mean anything-“
“There was a note inside. I caught a few words before Madame took it away from me.” She leans in closer. “The man of the house is keeping a mistress here in France.”
My eyes grow wide, my jaw drops and she nods proudly, like she has just delivered the most important piece of information ever.
“What did she do?”
“The Madame took him to court. And Monsieur Lafayette handed over ownership of the villa. It’s in her name now.”
An unbalanced book falls off the only bookshelf in the room and we both jump. Guilty as culprits. I sigh.
“Well then, Monsieur Lafayette is definitely leaving. Poor Manon.”
“Worry about us, not her. Monsieur Lafayette hired us all. He requested our services. With him gone, Madame will lay us all off.”
We suddenly hear brisk footsteps getting louder by the second, and Maude positions herself on the two-seater adjacent to me. She straightens out her apron and crosses her legs, leaning back into the seat.
The white door swings open and we see her red heels first.
“Venir. Vite.” Amandine says to the both of us.
Amandine is the Madame’s younger sister and business partner in the little orchard project Madame is running. She comes and goes as she wants.
I think she is more beautiful than Madame Lafayette. Because of her defined facial features, the long hair. Because she’s a whole lot less of what her elder sister is – cold, aloof, unpredictable.
Maude and I hesitate, causing Amandine to frown.
Anna-Marie Lafayette, neé Sohail, the Madame, is as pale as a vampire. Her skin is overly clammy. I accidentally touched her hands once when she’d hurriedly shoved an errand list into mine because Maude wasn’t around to pass them along.
It gets me every time. How horrified she is at the thought, sight, and touch of me. Maude and I make jokes about the possibility of her vampirism, how it could be the reason we hardly see her out of her hole in the day time. How the wedding ring she wears is really just for daylight protection.
‘The hole’ is her office. She practically lives there, if not for the fact that she needs to use the loo. And of course, she’s there when I and Maude walk in, scribbling furiously on a piece of paper.
She looks up. Even as frail and thin as she is, she is as threatening as a giant, in that moment.
Madame Lafayette doesn’t like to be stared at, so I just look at the carpeted floor instead. Amandine looms behind her.
I don’t like the silence that lingers as the Madame is flipping through the file in front of her.
Some people float their way through their daily activities and routines, breezing around with everything under control. Well, not Madame Lafayette. She needs folders for everything. To keep reminders and note cards so she doesn’t forget. She needs to keep it all written down, even the smallest things like, Get milk or Change lightbulb.
At first, I understood. At least, I thought I did. She has always been a very busy woman, running the villa and the monstrosity that is Manon.
Madame Lafayette catches me staring and clears her throat. I take it as my cue to turn away, and so I focus on one of the two bookshelves in the room.
“How was the market?”
She always begins every of our meetings with that question, so I already know what will follow. I will tell her how busy it was, how the supermarket was thrown into a frenzy. Then she will ask what I bought and I will have to list the items alphabetically so that it doesn’t confuse her too much or she will just get a headache. She will then ask, “How is your French coming along?”
I will force myself to smile and say, “Très bien, Madame.” or if I feel like it, add “J’apprends ce que je peux.”
She will sigh and write it all down before finally sending me away. It always goes exactly that way.
But this time is different. She doesn’t send me away immediately after our conversation. She looks back at Amandine, then at me.
“I’ll be traveling again soon.”
“You just got ba-” I begin to say, but I’m interrupted by Amandine.
“I know. But due to some… issues, which I cannot discuss, it’s something I have to do.”
Could it be because of Monsieur Lafayette’s latest shenanigans? I think to myself.
“I will be gone longer than usual, so Amandine will oversee all matters of the villa while I’m gone.”
It’s no problem at all, Madame. The villa barely recognizes your presence, anyway.
Madame Lafayette shuts her file and places it in one of her drawers.
“On to more pressing matters, I have bad news. Not for you, anyway.” She says as she relaxes into her rotating seat, swaying left and right. “It has come to my realisation that I have more staff than I need. And so I’ll have to let go of a few.”
Part of me knows this is all because of what Maude told me. The Lafayettes were separating. Except she doesn’t even have that many staff. We are seven.
Maude clears her throat behind me, and I suddenly remember she has been there the whole time.
“Madame, I’ve been wanting to speak to you about that.”
She steps forward, keeping her hands clasped in front of her.
“What is it, Maude?”
I cringe at the iciness in Amandine’s tone. The thing I fear for Maude most is that one day, her stubbornness will put her into trouble. And maybe that moment is closer than I thought.
“I’ve thought about this long enough. And I think that it is absolutely unnecessary to do what you’re thinking. We have just the right number of staff we need and –”
Amandine cuts her off again. “It’s not your place to –”
“I’m talking to Madame. Are you her?”
“Enough,” Madame Lafayette says, rubbing her temples.
Her headache must be back.
“Maude, I understand how strongly you feel about this. But here’s the thing.” she leans forward, clasping her hands on the mahogany desk. “I’m only letting two people go, and I’m afraid … that you are one of them!”
Maude is beyond furious as she waves the white envelope in front of my face. It almost hits me.
I haven’t read it, but I don’t have to. And Maude doesn’t have to tell me. I’m too stunned to even believe it.
She stops to dab beneath her eyes with a handkerchief and my heart lurches.
“I w-worked for her for ten years. And she just throws it all away!”
She aims all her shouting at the empty hallway, and sure enough, her voice ricochets off the walls until nearly the whole house echoes with it.
I want to rub her shoulder because it’s all I think I can do, but she lifts her palms and backs away.
She whimpers like a wounded puppy. Her ego has been wounded and deflated.
“I’ll go get my things,” she says, at last, when the crying is over. But the sniffling continues.
“Why? She said you don’t have to leave immediately.”
“Like hell I’d let that So-Hell woman tell me what to do.” Oh, poor Maude.
If there was ever any chance of convincing Madame Lafayette to let her stay, she’s just lost it for the person at the kitchen door is Madame Lafayette herself. And surely, she is standing right there. Maude looks at her, laughing maniacally, and then spits in front of her. The Madame cringes and grips the kitchen door knob.
The whole situation suddenly becomes too comical. See, Maude knows Madame has OCD. And well, since the cleaner-slash-cook has just been fired, the Madame will go ballistic.
“Someone needs to clean that up,” Maude says, smiling mischievously over her shoulders as she leaves. She makes sure to wink at me.
Then it’s just me and Madame Lafayette left in the kitchen. She is breaking out in goose bumps, gripping the door knob tighter than she should. Her eyes are fixed on the fridge.
“Clean everything you think she might’ve touched on her way out,” she says.
“Yes, Mada –”
“You know what? Clean the whole house. Get the other girl, what’s-her-name, to join you, if you have to,” she says, stalking away in brisk steps. “Now!”
I wait for her to leave, and the whole house is flung back into the silence.
“Yes, Madame.” I mutter, to no one exactly.
Maude leaves the villa and the reality of it dawns on me. Madame Lafayette shows up outside. We both watch Maude as she waits for Timothe to bring the car around, with her duffel bag clasped to her side.
She arms herself with a stony look on her face, and when Timothe opens the door for her, she practically jumps into the backseat without looking back. Why would she look back, anyway? There is nothing for her here anymore. Nothing left of her.
When the car drives off with her in its possession, Madame Lafayette and I stand in silence on the cobblestone path in front of the house.
Madame Lafayette turns to me and says, “I really feel sorry for her.”
And I think to myself, “Is that a confirmation? Or are you just trying to convince yourself that you do the same way you can just as easily convince yourself that you like a new shirt your mother got you by saying you like it over and over again until it becomes your mantra, “I love this shirt, I’d marry this shirt”.
But I can’t tell her that. Instead, I say, “Yes, Madame. I do too.”
And when she retreats into the house, I follow sluggishly behind, wondering where Maude is going as I climb up to the room we once shared. It is colder and quieter than usual.
As I sink into my bed, I remember the day I first came here, soaking wet from the downpour that night. We had just come from the Airport, Madame Lafayette and I. There was only one umbrella and it wasn’t big enough for both of us. So I let her have it.
For some reason, the gate controls wouldn’t work, and so I had to walk from the gate up to the villa, leaving Timothe and Jon behind to figure out how to get the car into the compound.
It was a long walk and Madame Lafayette sure took her time.
Maude offered me a coat as soon as she saw me, like she had already known what had happened at the gate.
Like a mother, she led me up to the room and sat me down on an ottoman as she gently pushed a cup of hot cocoa in my hands.
“Sorry,” was the first thing she said. And then, “The gate … it … does that sometimes. Do you want anything else? Just ask.”
She was talking at the top of her voice, babbling on and on about how the previous au pair girl lso got stuck outside, except it wasn’t raining.
She suspected it was Manon’s doing. And as the rain poured and poured, all I could think about was her dress, how thin the material was.
How nice of her it was to give me her coat when she was at risk of catching a cold.
It was Maude that first told me that, “We help? We just have to stick together. We shouldn’t leave ourselves at the hands of these stuck up, nose-in-the-clouds marionettes we call our employers.”
Now, Maude… she is going far away to God-knows-where.
I hear a soft thud on the bed, next to me. When I look up, I’m out of my reverie and back to this now-grey world.
“Ma mère dit que je dois vous apprendre le français maintenant.” My mother says I have to teach you French now.
She really doesn’t have to speak French. Manon is very fluent in English. But she would rather do with the satisfaction of watching me try to discern her words.
I look at the book, picking it up slowly. On the cover page in bold, it reads, “The Big Blue Book of French Verbs.”
I immediately understand that Manon cannot be bothered by her mother’s wishes. She couldn’t care less about her mother’s instructions.
This is only punishment because her mother must have caught her smoking. Again!
And so I know she won’t teach me. Honestly? I’m glad she won’t.
While she’s almost out the door, I say, as best as I can, in French, “Avez-vous fait partir Maude?” Did you make Maude leave?
Her hands grip the door knob tightly and I see the resemblance between her and the Madame Lafayette.
Manon looks over her shoulder and I don’t miss the icy look in her hazel eyes as she says, “Occupez-vous de vos affaires, Africaines.” Mind your business, African.
Then she leaves, thick blonde curls bouncing furiously behind her to match her anger, the click-clack of her three-inch heels pounding against the linoleum tiles.
A sudden gust of wind blows in through the window, and the door shuts itself. I look towards the sky outside and I see that it has darkened.
It pours just as much as it first did when I got here. I pick up the book of verbs and all I can do is to flip through the pages, but none of the words sink in. They are what they are – just French words in italics that I barely recognize, except for the beginner basics. Aller, to go. Venir, to come.
I roll the more complex words on my tongue until they gain familiarity in my head. And when I am tired, I toss the book in the clothes hamper next to my bed and I fall asleep while the raindrops tap away at my window pane.
In my dream, Mojisola visits me. Her high cheekbones are contoured by the last rays of a setting sun. She is staring at me from the foot of a hill, not too far away that I cannot call her.
But when I open my mouth to shout her name, nothing comes out.
As I move towards her, the ground splits into two and I fall below. Falling, falling … plummeting until finally, I’m standing in a dark void. Mojisola is standing in front of me now. I can touch her, I can see her. She is real.
Before I say anything, Mojisola has her cold dry palms to my face. Her callused fingers rub against my cheeks. In her eyes is a cold dark place, and my reflection is staring back at me from inside.
Her pupils dilate and she quickly grips both my hands. “Oh, Eniola. The things you would have to face in this strange land.”
Mojisola’s voice drops into a low whisper and she shivers. I come out of my shock and clasp both her hands in mine.
“I thought I’d never see you again. How is this even possible? I know I’m dreaming but how can I feel your presence so deeply?”
Instead of my sister answering me, instead of her hugging me and telling me it’s all real like I would want to hear, that somehow, I’ve made it back home, she grips my ear the way a mother grips a stubborn child and yanks hard.
“Eniola!” she pulls harder, dropping down to the ground until we’re both squatting and I feel anger rising in my chest. Who does she think she is? When did the little girl I watched suckle at our mother’s breast turn into a proud peacock?
“Eniola,” she says. “Eniola, fetí sí mi.” Eniola, listen to me, she says again in Yoruba.
“Let go of my ear and I will listen!” I say through gritted teeth, as I struggle to yank off her hand away from my ear.
“When will you learn? Listen with your mind!” Mojisola screams and the dark void trembles.
We pull apart and fall away from each other. She is huffing and puffing, staring back at me with fear.
“Díẹ̀ díẹ̀ nimú ẹlẹ́dẹ̀ẹ́ fi ń wọgbà,” she says. Little by little is how the pig’s nose enters the yard.
Then I realise that this is not just a dream. It’s a warning. And I wonder what my little sister could have meant. The proverbs are not helping.
“Igi so so o y’a a ghonen ‘ju, a to ke iye e ti ho i,” she says again. The pointed stick that will pierce one in the eye is avoided while it is still far off. “Eniola, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Are the people you are with your blood?”
“Mojisola, what are you going on about? Go straight to the point. How do I understand if you won’t let me?!” I say as we both begin to walk faster, trying to close the distance between us.
“Eniola, they are not your blood. You don’t mix well there. Go back to your land before it’s too late!”
The void trembles again. This time, it warps, bending out of shape, becoming smaller and smaller. Lights pierce into it until slowly, everything starts to burn.
Mojisola melts away like wax, bits and bits of her face drip downwards. I scream and I scream and I scream until it is all over.