Madam had a new spring in her steps. It started after she had gone to a wedding at Monsoon Hotel. I remember that day because that was the first time she complimented my spaghetti. Madam never complimented my spaghetti, it was either too bland, half-cooked or had too little pepper. Madam complimented my jollof rice and egusi soup, but she never complimented my spaghetti.
“Hmm! Very good,” she had nodded her head in delight as she chewed. She had downed the spaghetti with a bottle of small stout, her legs resting on the small stool in the parlor. I was surprised, Oga had been surprised too. Since Madam had gone on a diet, pasting a time-table filled with healthy meals on the kitchen door, replacing most of the alcohol in the fridge with healthy fruit juice that she squeezed by herself during the weekends, she didn’t take alcohol that late, minutes before she retired to her room.
She also started wearing jeans again. Years earlier, she had given me all her jeans. Most of them had been too big for me so I had given them to Nkechi from the compound adjoining ours. She wore the tight ones and the rugged ones, pairing them with matching chiffon tops. She wore heels that she bought from her friend who imported them from Italy and Dubai. Sometimes they were too high that I felt she would slip and fall from the stairs, sometimes she wore what her daughter, Anita had called ‘Kitten heels’.
“Mummy, you look hot,” Anita had commented one day. Madam had come out dressed in fancy tracksuits, on her feet were a pair of blue and white converse. When she had given me the converse to wash, I had worn them and let Guam, the gate-man take snapshots of me in different clothes. Madam had laughed loudly at her daughter’s comment and turned around while Anita ranted praises on her figure and how the clothes fit snugly against her shape. “Ma hot momma,” she told her friends when they came to visit days later.
Madam cut her hair two weeks after the wedding. Oga had been surprised, and very angry. “Why will you cut your hair?” he had asked numerous times following angry Igbo words that I knew were not ear-friendly. Even days after their quarrel over her hair, he kept on pouting his lips whenever she came into his line of sight. I imagined the sight of Madam’s short, spiky hair sparking off an explosion in his head. That day, I had to serve their meals separately. When I had taken Madam’s food to her room resting on the stainless tray, I heard her on the phone “…the man is useless. How dare he tell me what to do with my own hair?”
But Madam’s hair was good. It made her look young, like the actresses on Instagram. It made her look less angry too, and it was less trouble, she said. She no longer had to spend hours in the hair salon braiding her hair. She wore wigs more often now, beautiful wigs that fitted snugly around her head. I tried some of the wigs when I cleaned her room. My favorite was the curly one, that fell in waves around her shoulders. They made me look more sophisticated.
Madam stopped wearing glasses soon after she cut her hair. She wore them before because they made her look like a professor, even though she had dropped out of the university. She became better at wearing make-up. I had always felt that she looked so much nicer without putting on make-up. She now seemed to understand that the eye-shadow didn’t need to cover the whole of her eye-lids or that her lips didn’t need a glaring red lipstick to complement her red gele. She bought a new make-up kit, giving me all her old ones, most of which I had thrown away because they were past their expiry dates. Of recent, Madam looked good. She had traded most of her Sunday wrappers, mostly the ones Anita had said made her look like a grandma, for tight-fitting imported gowns.
One of her friends came to visit one Sunday, her eyes followed Madam as she went about showing her the small farm behind the house. “Ah, Rachel, so you just cut your hair like that? That long hair, why na?” She sounded as though Madam had eaten her cake without permission. Her tone annoyed me. Madam’s hair is fine, better than that thing on your head, I had wanted to say. I bit back the words at Madam’s loud laughter. I lingered around while they talked, but Madam didn’t tell her friend the reason why she suddenly cut her hair which as her friend said, she had treated like a baby since they graduated from secondary school.
I liked the new madam. She was friendlier than the old madam. She let me have the excess change from buying things in the market. She let me have her remaining relaxer after she relaxed her hair. She visited the kitchen more often when I cooked, and it wasn’t to tell me to add an extra cup of rice or prepare a side-dish to go with the ukwa. When she came, she would rummage the fridge for bread or oranges, she would lean against the fridge and ask me about my family. I worked for Madam for four years, but Madam kept forgetting that I was from her village and that during her traditional marriage, I had been among the children that clapped and sang as she and Oga drove away from her village compound in a blue Mercedez. Madam spoke with genuine curiosity, apology laced around her words as she kept asking me questions until she got to the root of our family ties.
This new change made it difficult to reconcile the new madam with the one I knew. But the old madam was still there picking out onions from her salad after earlier telling me to add an extra bulb, she was there adding spoonful after spoonful of sugar into her coffee and throwing chocolate sweets into her mouth. She still complained about too little pepper in the Sunday stew, and somehow, it comforted me. Madam had changed, but not for the worse.
It was two months since the wedding, and the difference in Madam was glaring. I was curious, and once when I was preparing dinner, Anita came to the kitchen to drop off the remnants of her lunch. She was almost to the door when I blurted out, “What happened to Madam?”
Anita was surprised by my question. I rarely spoke to her except when it was necessary—to ask if she wanted to have the same meal as her parents for dinner or if she had any dirty clothes or needed her room cleaned. It became absolutely necessary to ask these questions after she complained to her mother that I intruded on her privacy by going into her room to take out dirty clothes or clean her room without her permission.
“What is wrong with her?” Her voice was sharp and carried with it a tinge of warning.
“No, nothing. Sorry, ma,” I hurried to say. At that moment, I could feel an arrow made of ice flying in my direction at a rapid pace.
I was glad when she continued walking out of the kitchen. She was almost out when she turned and asked suddenly, “Do you have sex with my father?”
I was stunned for a moment before I said, my voice shaky, “No, no. I’ve never—”
“What of Guam? I heard him the other day with a woman. Was it you?”
I shook my head vigorously as I suddenly lost my voice.
“Okay.” She walked out of the kitchen as though she had just asked me which brand of noodles I had used to prepare breakfast.
The day I moved into the house, with a medium-sized Echolac box, Madam called me to her room to tell me the details of what I would be doing. “I installed security cameras around the house. If you try playing bunnies with my husband, I will cut those things on your chest,” she added after she finished talking about what my work was.
I didn’t what understand ‘playing bunnies’ meant, but I understood what she meant. Guam told me that the last two maids had been sent packing when Madam found Oga atop them. The threat laced in her words were real. I wasn’t sure if there were security cameras around the house, but the little balloons on my chest were too precious to dare the efficiency of the threats. I had taken to wearing gaudy gowns within the first months of my arrival. My hair would last for weeks before I made it, into simple all-back or thread. But even with the unfashionable dressy and untidy hair, Oga still came to knock on my door in the middle of the night. I told him that I didn’t want him to ‘take care’ of my needs, that I had a husband, but it didn’t halt his advances. After consulting my elder sister, who was also married with three kids, I had resorted to what she called the ‘ogbanje method’, making sure that he caught me dressed in a white wrapper singing what was a traditional Efik wedding song, and bowing to a very ordinary mirror in the backyard. It was extreme but had proved efficient, though I had to follow Madam for a three-day vigil until she was sure that I was not an agent of the marine world.
I kept my speculations about Madam to myself, but I was still curious about the change. I shared my concern with my elder sister. After hearing everything I had said, she had busted out excitedly, “It’s a man.”
She saw my stunned silence as a cue to explain. “Only a man will make someone like your madam change. Did you say she now dyes her hair? I bet you it’s a man.”
“It’s a lie. Oga doesn’t even like her hair, why should she do it for him?” My voice was defensive. I knew what she meant, but I hated it when she just relegated Madam’s change to a man, it was too flippant, too undeserving of Madam. Madam was too wise to do something because of a man.
“Not your oga, another man. Is she still using that perfume, the one that you said made your oga sneeze?”
I frowned and replied slowly. “No. She changed them. The ones she uses now are softer, but they smell nice.”
“Trust me, Uyi. Its a man.”
I didn’t believe her, but it also made me more observant of other things about Madam that I missed. She stayed longer at her Saturday lunches that she usually ate with her friends. She brought suya when she came back in the evenings from her shop. Oga didn’t eat suya, he didn’t trust the dark Hausa men that sold them at the entrance to the estate. She had also switched churches too, preferring to attend the Catholic Church that was almost on the other side of town. Oga had asked why she started attending the Catholic Church, and her reply had been that it was shorter than the service at the church we worshiped.
“There are closer churches, see the one near Access Bank, you don’t have to go all the way to Rayfield to attend Catholic Church,” Oga had said, but Madam paid him deaf ears returning her attention to her phone.
There were other things, like the new recipe she had given me—it was a Hausa dish, and I had put in too much dawa. She made me keep on trying it until I had gotten it right. Oga had complained when I had served the new meal but had grudgingly admitted that it was nice after tasting it. The next day, she had made me pack it for her in a lunch box and she had taken it with her when she went to the shop. There were other recipes, the masa, and tuwo which she gave up on because I never got it right.
I observed more, but I kept these things to myself. I couldn’t as well put on dark glasses and follow Madam around, a camera hanging around my neck (could be substituted with my Infinix phone) ,trying to prove my sister wrong or right.
New Hausa dishes made their way onto the time-table on the door, in fact, they had begun competing with the Igbo dishes that had graced the dining table for years. Oga had finally given up on trying to get his favorite, egusi back to its position as the head of the time-table.
It continued for four months, and we had all adjusted to the new Madam and the new timetable. I had even taught my sister some of the recipes. And suddenly, on a Saturday, Madam returned home. She held her heels in one hand with her wig as she came down from the car.
“Don’t cook that miyan whatever. Just make egusi today,” she had said as I took the bags in the car. She had already bought the things for the soup.
“Okay, ma.” It was an unenthusiastic reply. I had already finished preparing the pumpkin and even blended the groundnuts.
I was making the eba later that evening when she came to the kitchen. She had just taken her bath, a wrapper hung loosely around her chest. The smell of relaxer followed her into the kitchen. She bit into buttered bread, watching me turn the yellow grains into a basin of hot water.
“Make it soft,” she said. I stilled my actions. Madam didn’t like soft eba, she preferred it a little strong. And I always made it strong, the way she had told me when I had started working. “Make it soft,” she repeated again. “My husband likes it soft.” Her voice sounded tentative when she said it. It was the first time she called him ‘my husband’, it was either ‘Ejie’ or ‘Nnam’ but never as ‘my husband’.
I made the eba soft. I left it in a flask because Oga was not yet back.
“His daughter found us today, we were in his office. He was kissing me,” she said suddenly. I turned to look at her immediately, I could hardly conceal the blame and shock, I was sure she could read the expressions on my face. She continued calmly, “He said I could follow him to Dubai during the holidays. He is very wealthy.”
“Oga also has money,” I blurted. “Oga can take you to Dubai too.”
Madam shook her head. “I know, but Oga doesn’t like my hair or my trousers.” I didn’t like it when she called him ‘Oga’, it put them on different levels as though they were not husband and wife.
“He does. The other day, his friends were talking about you and he had a pleased smile on his face,” I said. It was partly true, Oga’s friends spoke of Madam, but I didn’t know if he had a pleased smile on his face.
“Really?” she said. I nodded. The sound of Oga’s car driving into the compound halted what she wanted to say. I began serving dinner. “Do you think I should grow my hair?” she asked just before Oga came down for dinner from taking his bath.
“No, madam. Your hair is finer this way. And the clothes, don’t stop wearing them. You look good in them,” I said, and was surprised at how honest my words were.
From the kitchen, I listened as Oga openly commented on the choice of soup, he had missed it. I listened as Madam asked Oga how business had gone. It had been in a tentative tone, but it was better than the silence interrupted only by the clink of ceramic against glass or the crunch of chicken bones that had taken reign of the dining table for the past few months.
That night Madam slept in Oga’s room.