“You can take the bowl.” Brenda bent down and picked up the sudsy bowl from the floor. Emmanuel stuck his chewing stick in his mouth to get rid of some of the oxtail strands between his teeth. By the end of the week the meat in the hot pepper soup would be much more tender. On that same Friday night Brenda would go without the dinner for she’d already counted out the meat portions. Her husband would enjoy sucking on the bones. He’d made a racket sucking and scrunching on the two bones tonight. Anyway he was satisfied so that made all the difference. Brenda tipped the hand-wash water over the two plates in the bed-sit sink. She made sure the water filled the ground rice saucepan and wooden spoon so that in the morning they would be easy to scour. The ITN news was on. She’s noticed that Emmanuel hadn’t lit the paraffin stove . The paraffin was low and thankfully it was still warm in the two rooms because the gas stove had been on. The pepper in the soup had been fiery too so that would keep them both warm for an hour.
Emmanuel looked up as Brenda opened the curtain which served as a screen between the dismally lit lounge and the back room which housed a single bed, a small dressing table with a mirror, a big brown wardrobe and the Belfast sink. In front of the wardrobe was a 1940s brown table. Brenda’s grandmother had one very similar when she had lived in Crouch End. On that table were Emmanuel’s student files, catalogues of office supplies, old socks, folded shirts all too small, his Afro comb, the pot of Vaseline, and between all this could be seen the old plastic tablecloth. The day had yet to come when Brenda would perhaps tidy and interfere with the piles of his former life. She’d already peeped into the drawer of the dressing table and seen a woman’s brush and a pair of “American Tan” panty hose. There would be a day for exploring.
“You know what? You need to get clothes that fit you, to show your shape!” Brenda ignored the statement from her live-in-sin boyfriend. He often said the same and over the five months he had never bought her even a pair of tights for work let alone something costing over ten shillings. It may have been a prelude to making love, a trick to make her coy and approachable but at this time she knew his belly was battling with the swallowed whole balls of ground rice. Just in conversation she answered knowing it would lead to nothing:_ “Yeah, Christine’s dress was nice the other night. Did you see the way the pleats swung open and the white showed through? Panels I think they were, not pleats.”
“It’s all fashion. What was the post today?”
Brenda reached behind the clock on the old marble mantelpiece. Just this one and a leaflet from Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Emmanuel clicked his fingers and Brenda gave him the airletter. He opened it, read it, laughed and put it under his armchair.
“Do you want some Guiness?” Brenda went towards the gramaphone cabinet.
Emmanuel carried on looking at the TV. “We can share one bottle.”
“How do they size you in the shop?”
“Oh. I’m a size 14/16. Depends on the material. I’ll get a glass for me”, and she went through the curtain to the draining board.
Friday came after a week of wind and rain. Brenda went straight home with her £11 pay packet. She knew Emmanuel picked up his civil service salary cheque today as well and that in the evening he’d probably join up with his bachelor friends in Walthamstow to play cards until the next morning. She would arrange to have her weekly bath in the flat downstairs. If the woman were out, she’d read a book, wash her body at the sink, and go to bed about ten.
Emmanuel came in, put a brown paper parcel on the settee, watched the 6 o’clock news and waited for his dinner . Brenda brought out two steaming dishes: one with a perfect dome of ground rice, eniough for one, and the other plate with the last of the oxtail soup. She placed them on the pouffe and returned to the kitchen to bring in the bowl of water for hand washing. “Are you not eating?” Emmanuel asked as he shook off the warm water from his right hand. “Oh no. I had some chips earlier.” He began to roll a clump of ground rice in his hand. Brenda sat next to him in silence.
The meal was over and Emmanuel signalled to the brown package on the settee. Brenda had quite forgotten it was there. “Heh, heh! Try on that for size”. Brenda picked up the package and opened it. “Oh!” She saw the green dress, the nice bottle green she had always preferred. “Shall I try it?” Without waiting for an answer full of chewing stick, Brenda went behind the curtain, took off her nightdress which she always wore indoors to keep her work clothes clean and put on the heavy dress over her bra-less and knicker-less body. She went to parade in front of Emmanuel.
“Look at your breasts swinging around. You should have on a bra!”
“I know. it will look better when I’ve got my bra on. It fits though. Look at the pleats. They open and show the white.”
“Heh, heh. Take it off and wrap it well”.
Brenda did just that and never wondered at all as to why it needeed wrapping again. She did as she was told. She could sense an irritation in her man’s voice. Best to keep quiet.
At about eight Emmanuel had on his best jumper. “Remember I don’t have my keys.”
Brenda looked at him from her chair. He was handsome and the dusky pink of the jumper she’d bought him last Christmas went well against his dark chocolate- coloured skin. She thought of Soyinka’s poem “Telephone Conversation” in which the poet described black skin in terms of chocolate. She knew never to read it to Emmanuel: he would dismiss it all as rubbish. The door slammed shut and he was gone into the gambling night.
Brenda knew the woman downstairs was out with her baby son. She had many sisters so perhaps she had gone visiting. The hallway smelt of her “Havoc” perfume so she must have left a little after Emmanuel. As she came back into the room she locked the door and placed the toilet roll on the armchair. The brown package was gone. She took up the ash tray and emptied it into the bin under the sink. The pouffe was askew and as she bent to put it aside she saw the airletter sticking out from under the chair. Brenda sat down heavily on Emmanuel’s chair and slid out the airletter.
“My darling Chukwu,
It has been a long time. You will come and we will marry. You promised me a dress, my sweetheart. I am the same size as that English lady you live with in London. I saw the photo. When you come bring the dress and my sisters need handbags. How is your studies? You will graduate this year. My parents send their regards to their son-in-law. Don’t forget my dress, o!
With my love, your fiancee, Josephine Ngozi Emeaka of Owerri .x x x x x xx x x xxx”
Brenda folded the airletter exectly as she had found it and popped it back under his chair. She had no energy to search for the package. Perhaps it was in the wardrobe.
1973 The Biafran war had been over for a long time yet Emmanuel’s relatives still showed her all the tanks on the runway and the tanks in the bush, all grown over with grass and weeds. One of the village women was sitting next to Brenda, stroking her arms and looking at her fingers. She must have been a little younger than Brenda. “Heh, heh, my sister. Thank you for helping Chukwu buy me a nice dress. I know you tried it on for me. We are the same size. You know I am to be married to him. Keep him well, O!” And as she laughed Brenda saw her gappy teeth. She said not one word.