‘That my house in Africa,’ she said, directing her question vaguely at Adel. ‘Is it nearly finish?’
The sunlight in the kitchen had shifted so that half of the table was in shade. As a result the shadow that passed over Adel’s face was not visible, but there was a hesitation, a testing in her voice.
‘The house? I don’t know . . .’
This response annoyed Alice. Her eyes flashed. ‘What do you mean? You don’t know? They must do it!’
‘I don’t know what’s happening with it, Mum, you haven’t mentioned it in ages. Why are you asking me? Why am I always the one people are always asking about everything?’
‘Weren’t you the one dealing with it?’ said Carol.
‘Dad was dealing with it.’
‘You had power of attorney.’
‘What’s that?’ Lauren said.
For some years Cornelius had sent money to Alice’s brother to make this dream of hers come true. He loved his wife, even as he did not know her. He wanted to make her happy, to obscure his shortcomings with a lasting gift. He had even pictured himself in this house on the other shore, the crickets singing outside, the great settlement of the evening over the wide and beautiful terrain. He had loved Nigeria also, during the few years he’d lived there, and long afterwards he had missed it and imagined going back there to live one day. It had given him another possibility, a place to be someone else.
The foundations had been laid. Alice remembered, from one of her visits, three rows of bricks and mortar and the beginnings of partitions between rooms, no windows yet, but a solid ground, the green of the field surrounding and the teaching hospital in the distance. She had sat down there in the dust at the opening of a would-be doorway and envisioned it finished, filled with all of her mats and her crockery and her ornaments no longer waiting for a boat. Surely it must now have windows and a roof. Surely they had had enough money to do the walls all the way up.
‘I want you to talk to them at home,’ she said, this time to all three daughters. ‘Ask them. Your daddy give them money for building, since many years. Talk to them. Call their number.’ She scraped the carrot peelings into the bin next to her, mobilised by the castle vision, her faith in it, then she stood, placing the carrots in a pile on the table, their stubs cut off at each end. It was like an offering from the land, a declaration of roots, extracted and displaced, no fine stew or soup to enter.
Aware of the extent of Alice’s upset – she was the closest child, the one who had come after the stillborn boy and there was a special love between them – Carol said lightly, ‘Don’t worry, Mum, we’ll look into it. I’ll ask Clay to help, a little homework project. Do we have any of their numbers?’
‘Use Facebook, it’s quicker. Don’t you know the long-lost aunties, uncles, fathers, brothers and sisters are all accessible on Facebook? Phones will soon be obsolete.’
‘Not my phone,’ said Lauren, clutching it out of her bag in its glittered cover and checking it.
‘I was talking about landlines,’ Melissa clarified.
‘Anyway I gotta go, people, I’m working today.’ Warren was getting up from his stool. He stretched out and yawned, flexing sinew, putting on his shades. He was twenty- seven years old but had a younger face, if tense around the jaw, a symptom of a lingering confusion about his future, a recent girlfriend lost. His mother took in the sight of him, approving of him and inwardly justifying everything necessary she had done to rescue him, while Melissa asked, ‘When you coming to see me? We never see you. Where are you working now?’
‘What!!! It’s a shop, in Lewisham.’
Laughter spread across the room, ‘Are you being serious?’ Carol said.
‘I’m serious. We sell pens, watches, wrapping paper, plates, combs, deckchairs. It’s one of those warehouse shops. Just temporary. I need the money.’
‘Well, maybe I’ll drop in and see you instead some time,’ Melissa replied, ‘seeing as you’re such a stranger. I have to go now as well. Got to pick up Blake.’
‘Wait,’ said Alice, drying her hands on a towel. ‘I going to give you some of that oil from Africa. Michael can mash your back.’ By mash she meant massage. She made to leave the room.
‘Mum, I’m not with Michael anymore, will you please try and remember? It’s been eight years! I don’t know why you can’t just accept it or at least just remember.’