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The scent of my childhood

It must have been in her second year at our place that it became apparent to my father that Ms. Morris had no intention of…

It must have been in her second year at our place that it became apparent to my father that Ms. Morris had no intention of leaving our house. I do not know how long her work permit was for but I remember that Daddy began to complain loudly in Igbo about visitors who overstayed their welcome and my mother shushed him up, “Ochiagha, she’s happy here and she’s been of enormous help. If she wants to stay, let her stay.”   The tailors no longer needed her help, my father reminded my mother. “They have become masters in the use of the industrial machines.”  True to form, my mother said she could not throw out a woman who was happy living in her house.  Not quite true to form, my father would not let it rest.

Ms. Morris flitted into our quiet, ordinary lives one innocent day. I can no longer recall what time of day it was when she came in smelling of mothballs and looking like the illustration of an English grandmother in an Enid Blyton book with a round face and thinning hair. Judging from the size of her suitcase, it was as if she had come on a short visit. But once installed in her room, she morphed into one of those fixtures in cheap hotels screwed into the ground to prevent anyone from stealing them. She just would not budge. She sat in the room across the bedroom I shared with my younger sister. Everything that went on in the house (and it was a busy house) bounced off her. I do not remember seeing her at birthday parties. She did not join us for evening prayers or Sunday Mass. She ate alone in her room. She was a quiet, solitary white woman in a house full of noise. She was my mother’s employee.

My mother had officially employed her as a governess (blame it on The Sound of Music which was a hit in Nigeria then) but she had really been employed to set up my mother’s electric sewing machines and to train my mother’s mainly male tailors on how to use them. She used to work in the factory from which my mother bought the second hand machines somewhere in the UK.

She would sit behind a machine surrounded by eager young male tailors.  She would hum. It was also apparent that the only time she really glowed was when young male admirers were around. At other times, she was mostly like the Queen: prim. Proper. Stolidly quiet.

My mother’s sewing shop was on the ground floor of our house; Ms. Morris therefore hardly left the building. When she did leave the house, it was to be driven to the airport when she went for her annual visit to Canada, where her son’s family lived. Once she brought back two brown dolls for my sister and me. They had spiky black hair and had that precious sweet new plastic dolly scent. For a long time, I would only go to bed with my nose pressed into the doll’s hard ebony skin. I used its hair to scratch my chin when it itched. I do not remember how I lost it. I do not remember actually losing it. Like many things in life the doll simply dissipated into nothingness.

“Why do you want her gone? It’s not like she is a strain on the family,” my mother said to my father.

“No,” my father answered. “But she‘s getting old. What happens if she dies here? In my house?”  And she was getting older. Her steps had slowed. Her hands shook when she handled her cup of tea.  It was then that my father’s fear became my mother’s also – Ms. Morris leaving the house became a constant prayer at bedtime.

Ms. Morris, oblivious to the anxieties surrounding her, floated through the house like a ghost: from her bedroom to the kitchen for her regular cuppa. Sometimes she made us fish in batter, the veins at the back of her hand bulging as she shakily dipped the fish in batter.

Weeks came and went. One year rolled into another. Ms. Morris remained. I do not believe that my mother continued to pay her as she was no longer needed but she stayed put, sitting on the balcony to tan a few minutes a day.

 My mother  battered heaven in weary tones (in Igbo) just in case her voice carried to Ms. Morris on its way to heaven and my father grumbled under his breath and sought refuge in our family home in Osumenyi every weekend.

“Is she still here?” That was the first thing he asked every Sunday evening as soon as he walked through the door. He never waited for an answer before shouting for “someone” to go and empty the boot of the car and free it of the most succulent guavas ever in the history of the world.

“Is she still here?” my father returned one day and asked his normal question, not expecting an answer as usual. My mother had to repeat herself for her response to sink in. “She is gone.” Gone. She had cleared her bedroom today and left. There was not a trace of her left in the house. Not the smell of mothballs. Not the teabags soaking in teacups in the kitchen.

In the preceding weeks, Ms. Morris had been playing hostess to a gentleman caller. A young gentleman caller she was all coy about. A young man, fresh faced and all toothy smile who made Ms. Morris giggle as they sat together under the framed  Sacred Heart of Jesus painting in the sitting-room. Nobody knew how they met. There was something about the man spying her on the balcony and coming upstairs or the like. I was not allowed to ask too many questions.  But the man came almost every day to visit Ms. Morris and every few days she left with him in a taxi cab and did not come back until late.  And on a Saturday morning, she told my mother he had asked her to marry him. He was in his twenties. Unemployed. She was white. A grandmother. She was in love.  It was apparent to my mother what he wanted but she did not tell Ms. Morris. Relief pushed her to hug the old woman, to wish her “every success” and as soon as Ms. Morris left, my parents dragged a cousin to take over her room.

Weeks later, Ms. Morris brought back the smell of mothballs but she had changed. She looked like someone who had been ill for a long time. She complained of her unhappiness. She told my parents that that her toy boy was ill treating her. She was not as wealthy as he had thought she was.

I hoped my parents would ask her to move back in. I missed her in a way I could not even describe.  But they did not. Not even when she came outright and asked. “I’m afraid the room is gone,” my father said, not even looking at my mother. He could feel her already feeling guilty, feeling responsible for this woman whom she had brought all the way to Nigeria. My father, apparently to ease that guilt told my mother in Igbo, She can always go back to her country. She doesn’t have to remain here.

I remember watching Ms Morris bend over in her chair and then very slowly get up as if the very act of uncurling herself tortured her. I watched her slowly and painfully walk down the road to catch a taxi, her hand bag clutched under her arm, her belted dress billowing sadly around her knees like a parachute, carrying with her, the scent of my childhood. I don’t believe that we ever heard from her again.

Sometimes now, I wonder about Ms Morris, what became of her and when I do that I also cannot help but wonder what happened to that Nigeria where a middle class family like ours could afford to employ a British woman, fly her into the country and treat her so well she never wanted to leave. So much has changed since those years – unfortunately not for the better- that it is hard to believe that those years of my childhood had not been dreamt up by an imaginative soul.

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