I see her still. Her beaded plaits, flashing smile, bubbling laugh. Temilola. She has five other names but this is the one she prefers. Lola for short.
Toronto, Canada 2019 Floating downstairs after a therapy session, I hold the invisible balloon around me, a hot golden bubble of healing light from my osteo-physio. Pain free for now, I exhale, re-enter the city. In this noisy, dirty, street of speeding cars, I mimic a confident pedestrian. I was a workout fanatic once, then a motorcycle-crash survivor, now an impatient patient. Life grinds us down but caffeine helps. I slide into the nearest cafe. A familiar woman beside me struggles with the menu. I hear her accent and use Spanish to help the barista explain. We laugh and the woman says in halting English that she is Thais, a journalist from Brazil. Of course, the only South American country whose language is not Spanish. I pay for her drink, we grin into a selfie and she rushes back to ESL class. I am so happy that I will burst. She is Temilola's look-alike.
Ijebu Ode, Nigeria, 1973 Sweat is sliding down my back, as I stare at the swaying palms, will them to sweep me away. I need cold bottled water, not the swill that made me spew for days because I forgot to boil it four times. Temilola, my best friend, also a young female teacher, nursed me with washcloths, Glucose D and clean water. She laughed at my students. They miss their Oyibo, White One, ę ę. I don’t know why. Just a pretty face with funny clothes. We will go to Mama Eboda. She will sew you up fine.
I wish she were here to whisk me away from this heat, this crowd, this man. She warned me about him. He’s a Yoruba been-to. Went to London, now he’s too good for us, ę ę. She snapped her hand in that distinct way, fingers separated then whipped together in a downward angle. Aieeee. It meant someone difficult, like a student, or hot, like a guy. Sometimes I misunderstood which it was.
My head throbs under my thin scarf. The overly sweet scent of frangipani hangs in the dense air. Clutches of women swathed in brocade with matching turbans laugh and slap hands. The capped men in loose-cotton kaftans share kola nuts, nod as they lean against the stuccoed church wall. That wedding was interminable, incense and chanting. Olu wawa. Welcome Lord. I feel like an imposter. At least I’m not a missionary, Mum joked to still her worry all those months ago, in Montreal’s airport.
Femi puts his arm around me, draws me close. His gold watch flashes in the sun. Oyibo, he murmurs into my ear as I inhale his spicy cologne. I pull at my neckline, shuffle my sandals to create an updraft for my legs, covered in floor-length turquoise swirls, Mama Eboda’s finest.
Ę ę, Femi, big man now! Imnu slaps Femi’s hands, their bracelets jangling. He circles me, dark eyes sweeping up and down. Oyibo, ę ę! He pulls out his instamatic, snaps a photo as my smile melts. Dancing in the open air will continue, juju band sweating, talking drums thumping, till morning.
Femi steers me away from his best friend and the churchyard. We stroll past the oja, market. The mammies cluck and stare, as they pile okra, tomatoes, plantain. They stir black cauldrons steaming with obę pepper stew. I’d settle for cold Star beer to roll across my forehead, calm my jangled nerves. I am the one Oyibo in the sprawling village. Femi inspects cocoa in Lagos. He sniffed me out, I can’t remember how. A friend of a friend. I know I am a status symbol and tell him we are just friends. My boyfriend is in Canada. Femi flashes his ivories, murmurs, Mo wa nibi, I am here.
We are displaced creatures, alone together in a tropical rainforest. The mammies shake their heads as Femi shouts at a bleating goat to move off. We climb into his yellow VW bug and bounce along the dirt road. The car bumps through potholes, spinning stones, stirring up clouds of red dust. Three of my students, senior girls with big smiles, carry pyramids of plantain on their heads, walking barefoot on the road, waving. Eku asan, Oyibo. Good afternoon. They giggle, cover their mouths, curtsey. Later in the market, they will gossip, Oyibo and Femi-Lagos-man. She is nice. What does she see in him?
I want to jump out of the car and link arms with them, listen to their stories, dance to their giggling joy. I am only two years their senior. We can laugh about my limp hair that refuses to braid in traditional plaits. I don’t want to be a white status symbol for Femi. I don’t want to teach Chaucer, Jane Austen, Shakespeare. I came here to study Nigerian literature with my students. It turns out they write British exams and will never learn about Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe or J.P. Clark. Did I know that when they interviewed me? My memory is seeping like juice weeping from an overripe mango.
I want to sit with these girls, sip a cold Fanta, listen to Fela and King Sunny Adé, shuffle in the dust. In class, they marvel at seasons. Spring in Canada means maple sap tapped from trees, then boiled into syrup akin to palm wine; Summer is about swimming in rivers and lakes, as here but only for two months; Autumn is yummy pie from pumpkin mush, as talking drums are carved from gourds; Winter brings sticky snow like fufu or garri, porridge from cassava. I smile as they ponder with wrinkled foreheads then clamber for more imagery, arms sailing, fingers flapping.
Toronto, 2019 I check in at the local swimming pool for my regular lengths swim. It is the only exercise that does not hurt. A pretty student manages the check-in desk and smiles shyly, takes my card. She is Elsie and whispers that she likes it when older women rock short-short hair. I laugh, You've made my day. I'd love to have your hair, so cute with lots of texture.
Elsie is Igbo from Delta State, Nigeria. She is twenty-two, my age in Ijebu Ode. Elsie stares at me in disbelief then giggles like bubbling palm wine. She visits her family each year and asks if she can hear my stories one day. I am so happy to meet another Temilola look-alike.
Prestwick Castle, Scotland, 1974 Staring up through coke-bottle lenses, Maudie smiles at me. Young thing like you wouldn’t know how to blend the whiskey. The feisty cook continues whipping her frothy syllabub in a ceramic bowl, on a wooden table, by the Aga stove, in this drafty kitchen, below-stairs, in this West-Coast-Scotland castle. Maybe one day, she shakes her head, peers into the bowl. Colonials, no stamina. She already dismissed New Zealanders and Australians, now Canadians are off the list.
I watch her whisking with a seasoned flip of her scaphoid. Just like that, Robert whisked me away from Nigeria, teaching and Temilola. When we ran out of money, stayed with friends in England, we met the Earl and Countess of Prestwick. I am their daily maid/butler/cook's helper, while Robert sneds and brashes giant yews, invigorated by the great outdoors. After my fifteen-hour workday, I steam and stew in a hot bath. Robert is poised for food or sex just as I nod off.
Maudie is old and tired, from decades of devoted service in this dungeon. I hang at her elbow, learn how to bake, prove myself worthy, until we have earned enough pounds to leave. Maudie shuffles over to the Aga on her swollen, slippered feet, clutching her back and shaking her head. She thrusts out her arm, pointing towards the mound of potatoes. I scurry over to peel them.
Ijebu Ode, 1973 Temilola shuffles over to me. Flashing eyes and bubbling laugh, beaded plaits flying, she purrs, E ku ikale, Good evening. Her voice is barely audible over the talking drums. She hands me a glass of opę waini, palm wine and caresses my cheek softly. During the day, we teach in hot, airless classrooms. At night, the air buzzes with freedom, our vision fuzzes with wine.
Prestwick Castle, 1974 My head is dizzy. Why did I leave Ijebu Ode and my dear friend? I'm a liberated woman. I lean on the wooden table, close my eyes, count to ten, slowly. Come now, Maudie’s voice is almost purring, as she leans over me. We've no time to waste, lass. Five more for dinner. She caresses my cheek with a gnarly hand, then winks at me. I laugh.
Ijebu Ode, 1973 Temilola winks at me. We tap-tap in our platforms across the dancefloor, holding hands, swinging our long braids, laughing to the beat of the juju band. Femi and Imnu are toasting each other at the bar. The party will vibrate all night, palm wine and Star beer flowing. There’s a rumour that Fela Kuti is in town and may crash here. We are slapping hands, talking excitedly, listening for a car on the dirt road, watching for the King of Afrobeat, Nigeria's son.
Prestwick Castle, 1974 Robert spouts, I am a son of Scotland. We can’t leave. He pulls off his wet work boots, props them next to the fire. We have an agreement with the Earl. He shakes his head.
We have an agreement with each other, I pout on our Princess-and-the-Pea bed, kick off my shoes, rub my feet. To travel. I gave up teaching, I sink back, close my eyes, toe the duvet, and friends.
Your choice. He flings off clothes, wraps himself in a towel. We need the money. I’m in the bath. He marches out, trying to look manly, as the towel slips. I'd laugh but I'm too busy being angry.
Ijebu Ode, 1973 I roll over on the bed, push my feet to the floor, stagger out the door. In the tropical downpour, I laugh, cry, gulp water. Hangover full-blown, my head is throbbing. The rich scent of wet earth permeates the night air, as Temilola wraps me in a towel. She hands me her coke, Colonials, no stamina. Her laugh encircles me in a warm bubble, as I lean into her ease.
Prestwick Castle, 1974 I roll over and sit up. Through the tropical mist in my head, stamina emerges, despite what Maudie says and Mum feared and Temilola joked. I’ll visit the bank, withdraw my pounds, book a bus ticket. Temilola has an aunt in London. But that would just prove Maudie right: no stick-to-it-iveness. Even though I fight against it, every day, I need Mum and Maudie and Temilola. I need their wisdom, sharp wit, no-nonsense attitude. What I don't need are men. I am mesmerized by an image in the mirror. A woman in a power stance, hands on hips, glares at me.
Toronto, 2019 I am mesmerized by her flashing smile, beaded plaits, tight-cotton-swirly dress, as she dances across the stage. Because sitting is too painful, I write at my standing desk, sway to the music of a YouTube video. Sona Jobarteh, first female griot player in The Gambia, pours her caramel voice into the world. In her country, women cannot speak out, so she sings jarabi, love and moosoh, women and kaia, peace. Her fearless anthem brings the audience to its feet, women sing, men whistle, everyone embraces. From halfway around the world, jarabi cascades through the screen onto my keyboard as I type in a blur. She is Temilola too, soothing, restoring me to me.
In a movie reel on fast-forward, years of living-loving-working-travelling-raising-kids spin through my head. In the crash clip, I soar into the blue as the film flaps off its sprocket. My fingers click a google search: Temilola’s five names, again and again. Inside a wave of shimmering screen images, a dazzling smile emerges, then greying plaits that squiggle, silver bangles that glisten, a shift that undulates. Of course. She is a fashion designer in Lagos. My mind is drunk on opę waini, my grin is an oozing mango, my heart is a talking drum.