I wake in my mosquito net cage. The morning din has begun: disco music blasting from the kiosk across the street, motors roaring, the berserk cries of the fighting cocks my uncle breeds. Light falls through the window slats and marks stripes that stretch like boredom across the bare floor.
I am the last up. Breakfast is laid for me. Rice and vegetables left from yesterday, with extras for my ‘western’ tastes: sweet spongy bread, bright pink jam and instant coffee like puddle water. (In my first week I asked about coffee; they sent a boy to buy a jar of Nescafe which I now feel I must drink each morning).
When I was young my mother told me I had family on the other side of the world. She showed photos of brown-skinned, dark-haired children, faces pale in the camera flash. There was a younger, sepia version of her with eight siblings. I searched their faces for a resemblance to me, with my lighter skin (though not light enough for the neighbourhood kids). When I finished school I came for an extended stay.
“How much was your plane ticket?” they asked. I told the price and their eyes flickered, the curiosity in their faces morphing into something more shocked, furtive. My mother’s contribution for my bed and board could feed ten people each night. They gave me my own room; only later did I discover that four people now slept on mats in the kitchen because of it. I thought I could volunteer in a school. An aunt arranged for me to visit; they put on a special assembly and asked me to sing a song. I looked at the neatly-dressed teachers and wondered whose job I’d hoped to displace.
After breakfast I drift around the compound. On the front steps the men lounge barefoot and smoke Marlboros. The cockerels glower in their cages, feathers splayed like knives. Motor-tricycles loiter, sidecars emblazoned with slogans and pictures of the Virgin Mary. The drivers no longer call out when they see me; they know there’s nowhere I need to go.
In the yard my aunties Perla and Annalyn wash clothes, squatting by the tub, round arms speckled with suds. My grandmother is preparing food with two of my cousins. They stop chattering as I approach. I sense the sharp tang of garlic and something else: blood.
“What are you making Lola?” I ask.
She cackles, showing her single tooth. “Meatballs. Recipe from the television!”
“Can I help?”
They laugh but make room, indulging me as they would a child. I take a handful of raw meat as it falls from the mincer, shape it into patties like they show me. Soon my fingers are clogged with flour and stained a dull red. The heat of the morning expands. My face and shirt become damp with sweat. The birdsong of the women’s gossip passes over me as the meatballs pile up.
I never did tell them I was a vegetarian.
Angelita Bradney is the winner of the 2017 National Memory Day short story contest. Her short fiction has been published by Litro, Retreat West, Stories for Homes, Flash Flood and performed by Liars’ League. She has been shortlisted in various competitions including the Fish short story prize. She lives in London and tweets at @AngelBradn.
Image: Claudia Soraya