‘The Dawning’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Mr Atta has long been buried. The paid and unpaid mourners have all returned to their homes but the shrine remains in clear sight of anyone who dares walk into the living room. It stands between a polished mahogany étagère bearing plaques and citations from the West African Textiles Association, and a full-sized bookshelf. The shrine itself is an old coffee table covered in scalloped Chantilly lace. On the table sits a thirty by twenty-four inch portrait of Mr Atta wearing his usual pensive expression. He is flanked by a vase of fresh flowers and a brass holder filled with incense sticks. The shrine is Mansa’s handiwork, a befitting memorial for a good man. She had purchased the expensive lace tablecloth from Gilda’s Exclusive Lace Shop with a portion of her savings, and hand-hemmed the ends to keep them from fraying.
Mansa wakes up each morning before the young maid who lies snoring in the room next to hers, and the gardener — passed out on the veranda from his habitual drinking sprees. She replenishes the vase with fresh flowers then proceeds to light the incense sticks. The lazy smoke infuses the velvet curtains and nylon upholstery, leaving the house smelling of sandalwood and grief.
Once the incense sticks are lit, she kneels in front of the shrine, rosary in hand, whispering a prayer that her master’s departed soul may find well-deserved rest; then she says another prayer for the fading soul of her madam who lies upstairs.
Her madam has not left the house since the memorial service at St. Stephen’s, conducted by Bishop Aheto himself. During the entire proceedings, she had shown no emotion.
It must be the lingering shock of being woken up a little after 6 a.m. and told by your housekeeper that she has found your husband unresponsive in his bed. What must have made it worse was the fact that the night before, Mr and Mrs Atta had played several rounds of Ludo on the balcony after dinner, accompanied by soft jazz music from Mr Atta’s antique gramophone. Mansa had heard the thock-thock of the thrown die and their happy laughter wafting down from the balcony to the servants’ quarters where she sat reading her Bible after serving dinner.
The rest of the house though, seems to have recovered from the shock. The flowers have lifted up their heads again, now that the gardener has returned to tending them. The family Dachshund, Skippy, has resumed chasing lizards across the yard. Even the young maid whistles upbeat tunes now and again while she goes about her chores — a habit that irritates Mansa.
Mansa’s prayers at the shrine are always brief. With no husband or child to commit into God’s hands, and no longer needing to pray for Mr Atta’s arthritis or hypertension, she is able to round up in ten minutes or less. To pray for herself seems self-serving for she has learnt not to dwell on what-ifs and should-haves. Sure, as a young woman, she’d had dreams of marrying a God-fearing man and bearing two or three children, but after a sermon she had once heard during Sunday mass about some being called to a life of solitude, she has moved on to more pragmatic aspirations.
She is content with the simplicity of her life: a decent place to lay her head at night, three square meals a day and enough to cover her trotro fare to church twice a week. Running this household, making it sparkle and thrive at her touch, keeping the other house staff in check — these things are her calling. Few things — apart from the smell of freshly polished floors and the sound of compliments from well-fed guests — warm her heart.
When she does pray for herself, she asks God to give her the wisdom and strength to perform her duties in this house. Mansa makes the sign of the cross and rises to inspect the furniture. She had instructed the maid to dust and mop the night before but she has very little faith in the girl’s eye for detail.
The maid had been Mrs Atta’s idea, insisting that there were certain things Mansa was getting too old to do, like bending over to sweep the vast yard and braving the thick market crowds twice a week. Mansa had resisted — diplomatically of course — but Mr Atta had supported his wife on the matter, and that was that.
In Mansa’s opinion, the sixteen-year-old girl is too young and easily distracted. She rushes through her chores so she can exchange gossip with the maids next door, and finds every opportunity to doze off in discreet corners. Mansa knows that when she inspects the crockery cupboard later in the day, the hand-painted china and silverware will all be covered with evidence of the girl’s immaturity.
Before Mr Atta’s death, there had been no chance for the furniture or crockery to collect dust. The Rotary Club held its weekly meetings at the house over platters of grilled meats, bread rolls and roasted vegetables. Mrs Atta always sat next to her husband at the head of the dining table, covered with one of his vibrant textiles, nodding absentmindedly at all the political and business chatter.
Mansa spent those Sunday mornings marinating the meats and chilling drinks before heading off to early Mass. On her return, she would finish setting up the dining room herself, forbidding the clumsy maid from going anywhere near the delicate china and crystal water glasses. Before its redecoration, the dining room had been Mansa’s favourite place in the house. The plain olive walls had been the perfect backdrop for the matching floral china set which she’d encouraged Mr Atta to invest in, years ago.
Now, the walls are covered with the whimsical paintings that Mrs Atta refers to as abstract art. A tasselled chandelier now hangs from the low ceiling and the gardener had been ordered to replace the “lacklustre” bougainvillea bushes with tulips and damask roses once Mrs Atta moved in.
These days, Mrs Atta can barely muster enough will to sit up in bed. Out of routine, Mansa prepares a light breakfast for her madam: a pot of tea, a thin slice of buttered toast, knowing very well that most of it will go untouched. On a good day, she goes back to find tiny bites along the toast that she leaves at her madam’s bedside, the pot of tea still full and cold.
Mansa makes her way up the stairs with the breakfast tray, wrapping her fingers tightly around the wooden handles. The maid had pointed out a few months ago, much to her annoyance, that her grip had grown unsteady.
“Nonsense,” Mansa had retorted. “You’re imagining things.”
The ceramic teapot clinks against the teacup and drops of hot liquid spill out of the spout and onto her chequered uniform. She mutters a curse because she has taken great pains to starch and iron her uniform this morning, and the spill is bound to leave a stain. She is not one to look sloppy on the job. Every morning, she tucks her curly hair underneath a scarf and spritzes the back of her ears with perfume. The perfume, with its refreshing scent of pine trees, had been given to her by Mr Atta after one of his business trips abroad. She keeps it on her dressing table, along with all the other gifts from her late boss over the years.
She stops briefly outside Mr Atta’s room, listening through the door, unsure of what she expects to hear. This is the room in which she had found a lifeless Mr Atta that morning, when she had come up to bring him his morning tea and the daily paper. She had expected to find him sitting up in his bed, his lanky frame wrapped in an old-fashioned dressing gown, his greeting terse but reassuring. She had handled the discovery with more composure than Mrs Atta, who had shrieked and thrown herself over her husband’s cold body.
Mansa has ordered the young maid to cover everything up in Mr Atta’s room with large polythene sheets, and to open the windows daily to prevent mould.
“Don’t touch anything in there,” she’s warned the maid, aware of the girl’s inquisitiveness. “I’ll know if you do.”
Mansa enters her madam’s bedroom, tray in hand, to find the curtains just as they have been for the last month: closed and tucked at the sides. She walks over to the landscape window to draw the curtains and, with one hand, slides the pane across to let some fresh air into the stuffy room. Mansa is filled with pity for this woman whose life seems to have ended before it has even had a chance to take off.
In a way, she identifies with Mrs Atta’s agony. The calm and dreadful realization that you are truly alone first catches you by surprise; and then over time, it reveals itself in odd little reminders. For Mansa, that sense of aloneness rises in the morning with the pigeons outside her bedroom window, which travel in pairs. It lingers at night when the maid and the gardener flirt disrespectfully behind the servants’ quarters. It is there on dark, stormy nights, when the thunderous claps and abrupt flashes leave her wishing she had some company in bed.
“Go away!” A groggy voice emerges from the lump underneath the covers as she enters the room. Even in her sorrow, Mrs Atta’s speech remains refined.
Mansa ignores the order and sets the food tray on the bedside table. Before, she would have knocked, waiting to be told to enter. Mrs Atta left her no choice these days.
“Surely, Madam,” she says to the body curled up on the bed, while pouring a cup of tea, “you must eat something. There’ll be nothing left of you at this rate.”
There is no movement from underneath the covers, just a jarring stillness. If this woman had a mother, Mansa would have called her to come in and shake her daughter out of this sorry state, but orphanage is another thing they have in common.
There are days when Mansa contemplates serving a pep talk along with her meals, to let her madam know that she is still beautiful and still in her prime. She has seen the way other men look at her, the way their eyes travel from her pedicured feet to her expertly coiffed hair. The way they nod mechanically at her eloquence.
This woman, now curled up and defeated, used to stand tall, her peculiar throaty laughter always opening doors and drawing attention. Yes, any new relationships would be tinged with the colours of this tragedy, but at least she can be assured of companionship. Mansa would like to say all these things to her, but she knows her authority is confined to the servants’ quarters.
As she lets herself out of this prison of a bedroom, Mrs Atta’s raspy voice calls out after her, “Curtains!”
She obliges, thrusting the room once again into darkness.
Mansa drifts in and out of daydreams while performing her chores: pounding palm nuts, stirring a pot of soup, peeling a tuber of yam…
Despite her madam’s lack of appetite, she must still cook for herself, the young maid, the gardener and the driver. She keeps the meals for the house staff modest: boiled plantains, yams, beans, spinach. It is her job to ensure that the other staff stay within their boundaries; that the maid leaves her shoes at the door before entering the house; that the gardener keeps the volume on his wireless at a reasonable level.
She remembers her first time meeting Mr Atta thirty-one years ago — led into the city by her ailing grandmother who could no longer afford to take care of her.
Her grandmother had displayed her like a trophy to Mr Atta. “I have taught her to cook a good soup, sweep a compound and mend clothes. She is hardworking — this granddaughter of mine. Look at her strong arms.”
The stern-faced gentleman had said very little during that first encounter, choosing instead to scrutinize the young girl who stood before him, his eyebrows creased. He had intimidated her with his contemplativeness, the severity in his top lip, but she was determined not to return with her grandmother to the one-room thatched house they shared.
“How old is she?” Mr Atta had asked, pointing to Mansa with his pen.
Her grandmother had lied, but with her early bloom, she could even have passed for twenty-one.
“And her parents?”
Mansa had moved into the house a week later — just herself and Mr Atta’s long-time driver, Ako — occupying the servants’ quarters. She had found the furniture in the main house coated in a film of dust, the fridge teeming with decayed food and Mr Atta subsisting on a diet of Cream Crackers and tea. The previous housekeeper, she was told by the driver, had left to marry her childhood sweetheart.
“And his wife?” she had asked the driver.
She had worked tirelessly those first few days, scrubbing and dusting, transforming the house into a home suitable for someone of Mr Atta’s standing. It was she who had encouraged him to buy the velvet fabric, which she had carefully hand-sewn into curtains for the bare windows. She could tell he was gradually taking pride in his house by the increasing frequency with which he hosted business lunches at home.
She recollects those early days when it was just the two of them, how she would coax him out of his shell with small talk. How had his day been at work? Were the factory hands shaping up?
He would share with her, details of pending contracts with Chinese investors and ask her for tips on how to keep his factory employees from stealing raw materials. She kept him company while he ate his dinner, hovering around the dining table, refilling his water glass, topping up his plate when necessary. It was during dinner one day that he told her about the young woman he had met at one of the textile shows — a recent university graduate in her mid-twenties with whom he had struck up a conversation. He had sounded unsure of whether or not it was appropriate for him to pursue a relationship with a woman twenty-five years his junior. Mansa had waited in vain for him to seek her opinion on the matter.
She dares not dream of Mr Atta at night, for it seems inappropriate to do so while clad in a flimsy cotton nightgown and no brassiere. He was always a man of great principle and she would prefer to respect his memory accordingly. He was also a man of great compassion, having willed a significant portion of his wealth to the Corpus Christi Children’s Home. The majority of course went to his wife.
It was Ako, the driver, who had given her details of how much had been left to Mrs Atta in the will. Mansa knew about the factory in Adenta and the cocoa plantation in Sunyani, but she had been completely unaware of the house in Abelenkpe which, according to Ako, was being rented out to some Norwegian diplomats. Ako reckons the rent from that house alone is enough to sustain Mrs Atta for the rest of her life.
Mansa thinks of her own assets — the humble savings incubating at the local Credit Union, drawn from only on necessity. The driver has tried, unsuccessfully, to talk her into various susu and investment schemes.
“You’ll need something to fall back on when you leave this job,” he insists.
She has never given much thought to life after this job. She thinks of cloistered Mrs Atta, of the maid and her shoddy housework, and she sees no reason why she should entertain such thoughts.
Weeks after Mr Atta’s death, Mansa still turns away well-wishers, cooking up excuses for her madam when they show up to the house with flowers and fruit baskets.
“She’s still down with malaria, I’m afraid,” she tells them while receiving their gifts.
The driver wanders around the compound bored, polishing and re-polishing the green Volvo, helping the gardener with the lawn mowing. The gardener has begun to take matters into his own hands recently, making the decision to convert a bed of wilting hydrangeas into a tomato patch.
One Saturday morning, as Mansa enters Mrs Atta’s room with the usual breakfast tray, she is hit with the smell of an unwashed body. Holding back the urge to gag, she sets the tray in its usual spot by the bed and seats herself on the side of the bed. After a slight hesitation, she caresses the mound wrapped in several layers of bedding.
“Leave me alone,” Mrs Atta moans, stirring underneath the peach covers.
Mansa remains unmoved, breaking the buttered toast into tiny morsels.
“Here you go,” she offers, raising a piece towards the mound. “A little something for energy.”
A limp hand suddenly emerges from underneath the covers and knocks over the breakfast tray, sending the china tumbling and hot tea dripping onto the wool carpet. While Mansa bends over to pick up the pieces of bread, a heat stirs inside her, surging from her gut all the way up into her arms.
In one swift motion, she peels off the covers to reveal Mrs Atta’s youthful face, halfway buried in a pillow. Even without the makeup and elaborate hairdos, the face is still stunning. Curly black hair, uncombed in over a month, sticks to her forehead in an impossible tangle.
Two puffy eyes pop open in disbelief and Mansa stiffens at the possible repercussions of her action, but the young woman simply closes her eyes again.
“Even if you refuse to eat, the least you can do is take a shower.”
Mansa winces at the sternness in her own voice.
She slips her hands under Mrs Atta’s armpits and lifts her frail body off the bed and takes her to the bathroom. She expects resistance but gets none. With a damp washcloth and a bar of black soap, she begins to clean the young woman’s slumped shoulders, working her way down in a steady circular motion. When Mansa reaches the firm breasts, she hesitates briefly, before continuing down to the taut belly and the crease between her thighs.
What a waste, she thinks to herself as she washes the youthful body.
There is no protest from her madam, just an occasional flinch when Mansa applies too much pressure with the washcloth. Afterwards, she helps Mrs Atta into a boubou and begins to painstakingly comb out the knots in her hair. Clumps of hair tumble down the young woman’s slender neck and onto the carpet, a few lodging themselves between the wide teeth of the comb.
“I know you miss him,” Mansa says, cracking the musty silence surrounding them. “But he would want us all to be strong. It is what he would want.”
Mrs Atta stares straight ahead, breaking her trance only to blink.
“I will carry you out to the garden now for fresh air,” Mansa informs her, after what is left of her hair has been pulled back into a neat ponytail.
In the garden, seated among the rose bushes, the sunlight hits Mrs Atta’s slimmed-down face at a breath-taking angle, further highlighting its anguish.
Mansa takes a seat opposite her and whips out the pocket-sized New Testament Bible she carries around in her uniform.
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away,” she reads from the Book of Revelation.
She has read these words to herself many times, in the middle of the night when her grief, tucked away somewhere between her heart and the walls of her chest, decides to unearth itself. The grief is an inconvenience during the day, an impediment to carrying out her duties, a cloudiness in her judgment. She waits until nighttime to allow the tears to drop onto the pages of her Bible, where her favourite verses are highlighted in blue ink.
She continues to share a verse every day with Mrs Atta, who to the best of Mansa’s knowledge, is not particularly religious. Some days she thinks she sees glossiness in Mrs Atta’s eyes as she is read to — as if the words are nudging and mending her. Other days, the holy words are greeted with blankness.
Mansa is no longer met with protests as she draws the curtains in Madam’s bedroom every morning, and slides open the windows for fresh air. Mrs Atta accepts Mansa’s wardrobe choices for her — indifferent to the dim shades of black, brown and maroon that have come to be her norm.
After her morning bath, she follows Mansa down to the garden, where she gingerly munches on her breakfast. She has graduated from toast to the bean cakes Mansa prepares for the rest of the house.
The two women do not say much to each other. Mansa has gotten good at gauging when Mrs Atta needs a drink of water, when it’s time for an afternoon snack and when she just needs to be left alone in the dark confines of her bedroom.
She watches proudly as the suppleness returns to the young woman’s skin, her cheeks slowly filling back to their old shape. Her eyes have grown expectant, though still not fully present, and Mansa concludes that such beauty comes at the cost of inner strength.
She does not, however, anticipate the Monday morning when she hears the light patter of feet from the room above the kitchen where she is preparing breakfast. She is dropping clumps of bean batter into sizzling oil when she hears feet thudding softly across Mr Atta’s bedroom floor. Momentarily, Mansa entertains the idea of ghosts, before chiding herself for indulging in such superstition.
She pictures Mrs Atta in her late husband’s bedroom, pressing one of his linen shirts to her nose, reacquainting herself with his scent, crawling into the king-sized bed, allowing herself to be comforted by years’ worth of intimate memories. She can picture this because she too has done so several times since the funeral, making sure to lock the door behind her in case the young maid comes looking around for her. This is what has helped compress her grief into the size of a matchbox — the right size for her to carry around without it getting in the way of her daily activities.
Mansa abandons the browning bean cakes and marches into the living room, right to the shrine where fresh incense is burning, where she has filled the vase with just-cut calla lilies. Mr Atta’s portrait looks right through her.
She removes the large frame and props it on the ground, turning Mr Atta’s face towards the wall. Next, she blows out the incense sticks and throws out the vase of calla lilies. Without hesitation, Mansa bundles up the Chantilly lace tablecloth and stuffs it into a low cupboard along with other old linen. The shrine is back to being a plain beechwood coffee table on which she should be serving tea and beer and red wine to guests. In a day or two, the incense will wear off the curtains and the furniture and the living room will regain its light-hearted disposition.
It is on her, after all, to make sure that nothing ever gets in the way of the smooth running of this very respectable household.
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