THE BABY AND THE HOUSE FULL OF STRANGERS
The living room was quiet. Gentle breeze parted the white chiffon curtains and they floated glibly, unaware of the deathly stillness of the room they decorated. The living room was painted white. The patterned area rug on the floor was a mix of black and white and provided a sharp contrast against the black wood panelling of the floor. Black leather sofas with their contoured arm rests were arranged around the area rug, creating a path along the perimeter of the room A winding staircase made of solid black wood like that of the floor stood at the east end of the room close to the white kitchen door with its gold handle. A glass dining table surrounded by black dining chairs also sat a few inches away from the kitchen door. Despite the daylight streaming through the curtains, the room was lit by powerful recessed lights in the ceiling. The three adults looked everywhere but at each other. The baby slept harnessed in a small blue swinger with toy bars beside Marlene, and the soft melodies from the swinger that sent him to sleep lifted into the room like a slow dirge. His nanny, a middle aged woman with small scars cutting deeply into the soft skin of her cheeks, sat on one of the chairs of the dining table and tapped her fingers lightly on the table, thoughtfulness in her eyes. Dressed in a big red shirt and loose black pants that swallowed her portly frame, she wore long braids held back by a ruffle at the base of her neck while a few others fell across one side of her face as she bent over the table. At the early hours of that morning when she resumed her duties from the two bedroom boys’ quarters separated from the main house by a fence, the cook had called her aside and told her about the situation in the big house in hushed tones. Now, she could see for herself that Marlene was indeed a different person. When she had gone to the nursery to check on the baby thirty minutes earlier, she met an unusually quiet Marlene sitting in the rocking chair, the baby sleeping in her arms. She handed the baby over for his bath without a word, and the nanny was surprised not to hear the usual barrage of instructions she was baptized with every morning. At that time she had found it odd that Marlene was having trouble maintaining eye contact with her as she told her that the baby was running out of diapers. The woman looked at Marlene every now and then to confirm that her mind was not playing tricks on her. She recalled how Marlene had appeared a little dazed the previous evening when she met her at the door at the close of the day’s duties. But she answered my greeting last night and even sat with the baby just where she is sitting now! She gave a small firm nod, finally convinced that the morning was indeed turning out strange. Marlene sat at the edge of the black leather sofa, feeling odd and out of sorts. She could feel the curious stare of the nanny who was trying hard to be less obvious. She sighed inwardly, wondering how much of curious stares like the one she was getting she could put up with. She looked sideways at the baby and watched him in awe. He is so perfect! His head was covered with a warm woollen cap, his mouth opened slightly in sleep, and his fists curled tightly by his side. She looked up. The man she woke up with that morning was staring at her strangely. Looking away, she focused on the baby again, sighing unhappily and dreading the possibility of living with a family and staff she could not remember. “I called the family doctor. He will be here soon,” the man said, and Marlene looked up again at him. Femi! Femi! She chanted his name over and over in her mind, trying to get used to it. Two minutes ago, she had asked for his name the third time that morning. She was determined not to forget it again. “Ok,” she murmured quietly, fingering the hem of the toffee brown dress she wore with nervous fingers. She had chosen it from hundreds of others that spread out in elegance in the walk in closet of the dressing room. She did not know why the dress with its high neckline and cream satin ruffles running down from the neckline and tapering at the midriff area was her preferred choice for that strange morning. Suddenly, she had a squeezing feeling of claustrophobia. “I need to take a walk outside,” she said to no one in particular. Femi made to leave his seat. “Alone,” she insisted with a set jaw, and he sank back into the chair with a resigned look. She strode out of the room with her head held high, feeling anything but confident. Soft whispers of the early morning breeze caressed her face when she pulled the door open and stepped into the wide patio of the house. She closed her eyes momentarily, pulling in a lungful of fresh air. Opening them again, she took tentative steps down the stone steps of the house, her eyes on the well-trimmed shrubbery flanking the cobbled driveway. Four cars parked to her right in an outdoor garage, and she looked at them briefly without stopping. I am married to a rich man, she thought without any feeling of excitement. Soon she stopped at one of the shrubs to touch a lone leaf that stood apart from the levelled shrub. Tiny leaves clung to her palm when she lifted the palm, and she studied her hand with a frown, her mind drifting. On instinct, she looked back at the house. Femi stood at the window of the living room watching her. She turned away and walked quickly down the driveway. Hurrying further, she followed the path as it curved to the left and found herself at the back of the house. She stopped in her tracks at the sight of a swimming pool, a small garden with a bench, swing, and a slide sitting side by side a surprisingly large expanse of land. A barbed wire fence demarcated this area from the rest of the compound but there was a small gate between the end of the barb wire fence and the walled fence of the compound. A Mimosa tree stood near the small garden, spreading out its branches upwards like hands making a petition. The path before it branched out in a long Y, one path leading round the back of the house and the other to the gate of the poolside. She followed the one to poolside and passed an open shed with a barbecue stand and plastic chairs piled high on top of each other. She pushed the gate open. It made a quiet squeaking sound but opened easily. Three loungers were beside the pool, their bright strips of colours clashing wonderfully with the setting. She walked a few steps and sat on one of the loungers. Bringing her legs up to the lounger, she hugged them to her chest. The pool water reflected the sky above, and was almost still, except for a few ripples caused by a few flying insects and the constantly moving breeze. She watched the water as she began to replay the events of a few hours ago when she woke up to find out that she had a family and life she could not remember. “Assuming I have not been kidnapped by this family, and the husband and baby belong to me. Then what happened?” she asked herself, twisting the wedding band on her finger. She looked down at the ring, and then held it up against the late morning sun. It shone brightly, its yellow so vivid that she dropped her hand back into her lap. Hugging her knees again, she began to rock back and forth in desolation. What am I going to do? She asked herself, agonising over her predicament. Feeling no respite despite the beautiful scenery before her, she stood up and left the pool area. Back at the point where the other lane snaked behind the house, she stopped in contemplation over her decision to go back to the house as she remembered the curious eyes of the nanny and Femi’s own intense looks. With a shake of her head she decided against it and walked on the path ahead, her eyes on the garden. Coming to an abrupt stop where the path opened into the driveway, she saw the shrub she touched when she started her journey. Impulsively, she looked upwards. She froze at the sight of two men at the window directly above her. They watched her calmly as she searched her brain in panic for their identities. She soon recognized the handsome compelling face of Femi, but the bald middle aged man with glasses that gave him an owlish appearance was a stranger she had never seen before. She hurried away from the path, turning to the front of the house. Free from the piercing eyes of the men, she leaned on the wall of the house, one hand over her heart as it beat erratically. Who was that man with Femi? She wiped away the sweat that formed on her forehead from the effort of searching her memory. Going back to the house was out of question now, and there was no way she could make it to the pool without passing under the scrutiny of the men who watched her from the window a few minutes ago. With a deep sigh, she walked back past the front of the house again. As she rounded past the front of the house, she saw a man come out of the small building by the big black gate of the compound. She looked down, quickening her steps till she was standing in front of the gate of the pool. It was when she sat back again in the same lounger she vacated a few minutes ago that she felt her heart rate decelerate considerably. Everywhere she turned it was as if people were sprouting all over the place. An hour later, the rumble in her stomach forced her to find her way back to the house. As she climbed the steps, she noticed that only two cars remained in the garage. In the living room, the nanny sat at the glass dining table reading what appeared to be a magazine. She sat straighter at Marlene’s entry. “Welcome back ma.” “Thank you,” Marlene said, feeling awkward at being called madam. She looked at the woman briefly again, trying to memorize her face and her role in the house. She was having a hard time trying to keep up with people’s names and faces. “I took the baby to his room,” the nanny said as if she read her mind. “Oh…,” Marlene said, feeling relieved at the woman’s intervention. She is the baby’s nanny! She sat down rigidly on the sofa beside the swinger and watched the television that had been turned on to CNN. The screen was lit with the image of a news correspondent reporting and pointing behind her to a background of twisted broken buildings with equally twisted iron rods. Burnt entrails of cars were strewn across a street, and a crowd of turbaned men talking and gesticulating wildly stood with wailing women wringing their hands at the camera. She barely registered what she was seeing as her mind constantly drifted aimlessly away from the present. “Your husband has gone to work. He will be back in the evening” the nanny said, suddenly appearing beside her. She felt strange at the reminder that she shared a bond with a man she didn’t know. She pulled herself away from her thoughts and twisted in her seat to face the woman. “Is there anyone else living in this house?” The woman shook her head vigorously, sending her braids flying in her face. “Nobody else lives in the house apart from you, your husband, and Auntie Carol,” she said, counting on her fingers. “Auntie Carol is the cook, and she stays downstairs in that room,” she added helpfully, pointing to a door under the staircase. Marlene faced the television again. “Thank you,” she told the woman. Her stomach gave a loud growl and she winced. Coming back into the house with its unwelcome realities had made her forget the gnawing hunger in her stomach. The nanny’s voice cut into her consciousness again. “Should I tell the cook to bring you breakfast?” Marlene sighed unhappily. She still had to eat no matter how unreal her life seemed that morning. Tearing her eyes reluctantly from the television screen, she fixed them on the woman standing beside her like a statute. “Yes,” she said, suddenly yearning for some privacy. Standing up slowly, she started towards the staircase to the privacy of her bedroom. “Should Aunty Carol bring the food upstairs?” the nanny asked as she walked away. “Yes, thank you.” Marlene ate the small meal of steaming white rice, sweet corn and fish stew delivered by the cook, a plain looking woman with bowed shoulders. A warm maternal smile shone on the woman’s face when the eyes that seemed glued to her feet half of the time lifted to regard Marlene in surprise when she thanked her for the food. She asked with an anxious smile if the nanny could bring the baby upstairs to her, and Marlene nodded automatically with little thought to the woman’s words. Evening came swiftly. With a knock on the bedroom door, the nanny arrived to take Dare for his evening bath. With the baby gone and nothing else to distract her, Marlene spent ten minutes walking around the room like a zombie. Just as she was throwing herself on the bed in frustration at the loneliness that preyed on her sanity, she saw the book on the ivory table for the second time since her amnesia. Standing up from the bed again, she picked up the weighty book and took it back to the bed. It was a hardcover novel with a picture of a pensive looking white man in uniform wearing a beret. Shake hands with the devil, the title said with chilling resonance. She opened the page to where the book divider was and stared at it like a magic object. This was the last page I read before today she thought, running her fingers across at the page as if it could bring back her memories. She was putting the book aside three hours later when the bedroom door opened to admit a tired looking Femi, “Hi,” he said, sitting on the bed. Marlene swallowed, feeling tongue tied and self conscious as she looked at him with unsure eyes. Unaffected by her lack of response, he shrugged his suit jacket off. “I need to take a shower,” he said casually, standing up and strolling into the bathroom. Marlene stared mindlessly at the dark, silent television on the wall, trying not to listen to the sounds of him in the bathroom. He came back into the room with a towel on his waist not long after and Marlene looked away, reluctant to encourage further attraction to a man she barely knew. He moved between the bedroom and the dressing room as he transferred freshly laundered towels back to the bathroom. Finally the bed dipped and she bravely lifted her head to look at him. She lowered it quickly at the sight of his nudity. Not again! She thought dismally, shrinking away to safety. He looked over at her. “Goodnight.” “Goodnight,” she said stiffly, pushing her weight off the bed and walking to the bathroom. She closed the bathroom door and leaned on it, her mind still on the overpowering presence of the man on the other side of the door. Curling her toes, she looked around the bathroom as the coolness of the marble floor seeped into her bones. There was a shower stall to her right side while a huge bathtub was built closer to the end of the bathroom. The toilet with its seat cover in soft pastel colours sat across the bathtub. An abundance of fluffy white and pink towels hung on a row of towel bars beside her while two soft shower rugs matching the pastel of the toilet seat were placed beside the shower stall and the bathtub. With slumped shoulders, she approached the vanity sink. Standing before it, she placed her hands on the marble counter top of the sink and looked into the mirror above it. On each side of the sink, two shallow bowls held aromatic candles and small bottles of oil. A good number of soaps, both liquid and in bar form, body lotions, hand lotions, deodorants, bath salts, facial wipes, and hygiene related products were displayed meticulously on the countertop. She picked up the toothbrush she used that morning from the plastic tooth brush holder and squeezed white toothpaste on it. Finished with brushing her teeth minutes later, she stared at herself in the mirror, trying to imagine how a whole portion of her life could be erased without any explanation. She wondered if it was safe to trust Femi, and yet she knew that her options were limited. She tried to imagine living with a blank memory for the rest of her life and shuddered. I wish I can wake up and find out that I was in a bad dream! She realized that her nightmare was real when her feet began to ache from standing, and she left the solitude of the bathroom for bed. Femi’s arm was flung carelessly across his eyes when she tiptoed back into the room. Thankfully, this time the covers were secured around his body. She climbed into bed, eyeing him warily. She was not sure what to expect from him. Dragging the rest of the covers up to her chin, she closed her eyes and waited for sleep. She tensed every time she felt a small movement from the other side of the bed, her quivering eyelids betraying her wakefulness. Only when she heard Femi snoring softly did she feel herself relax. Free from the threat of his alertness, she tried to rake up some memory in the darkness of the room for any clue of the life that was her own, but the walls around her mind simply refused to budge. Eventually, she walked into the familiar arms of sleep, spent and disillusioned from her exercise.