Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun

 

“Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun
is the rare sort of book that, from the instant you pick it up, you know that you will be privy to the most intimate secrets. It is as if Dr. Morayo Da Silva is speaking directly into your ear. A real life-force of a character whose honesty, warmth, energy, and bravery in the face of inevitable loss springs forth on the page. Chekhov once said that the ‘Russian loves to recall living, but he does not love living.’ Da Silva manages, in her unique way, to love both, the remembering and life in the present tense. A beautiful, important new novel, and one that will continue to echo in a reader’s mind for a long time after.”

PETER ORNER, author of
Love and Shame and
Love
and
Esther Stories

“In this gorgeous and finely crafted book Sarah Manyika takes a sideways look at the lives of other people, lives that usually pass us and each other by, that when they touch may do so with no more than a glancing blow, but may also connect, as they do in
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun,
tenderly, simply and sweetly. Sarah Manyika’s novel shows ordinary people at their best. Uplifting!”

AMINATTA FORNA, author of
The Memory of Love, Ancestor Stones
and
The Devil that Danced on the Water

“Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun
follows the adventures of the fabulous Dr. Morayo, a woman dancing on the edge of old age. This remarkable story contains multitudes. It is a story of aging; the wry, stately voice of Dr. Morayo gives us a Grand Old Heroine for our times: mischievous, wise, fallible, feisty, and above all, strong. It is a love affair with San Francisco; a contrapuntal variety of voices and perspectives bring the city to eager, brimming life. And it is deeply political: speaking of a Nigerian woman’s awesome sense of power and her simultaneous anguish at the depredations of her boko-haramed hometown. Wise, tender and beautifully voiced,
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun
is a storytelling triumph.”

LAVANYA SANKARAN, author of
The Red Carpet

“A wonderfully constructed novel, always surprising and wrong-footing the reader at every turn and challenging one’s assumptions about the Other.
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun
is a delightful multi-helical reading experience that speaks to our times in insightful and pleasantly understated ways.”

BRIAN CHIKWAVA, author of
Harare North

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun

Sarah Ladipo Manyika

For Us

 

I think we forget things if we have no one to tell them to.
RITESH JOGINDER BATRA
,
The Lunchbox

The place where I live is ancient. ‘Old but sturdy,’ our landlady tells us. 500 Belgrave is so strong, apparently, that it withstood the 1906 earthquake. ‘Didn’t even bust a single crack,’ is what the landlady says. But between you and me, I wouldn’t bet on history repeating itself. It’s the reason why I live on the top floor, for if this building collapses, then at least they won’t have far to dig me out. Of course, I don’t wish any harm to my neighbours, especially not to the gentleman living just beneath me. As for the sullen woman on the ground floor who insists on calling me Mary because she finds Morayo too hard to pronounce, well that’s another story. But I wish even her no harm. I’d like to imagine that when the big one strikes, we’d all be gathered at my place, enjoying a glass of wine, and we’d ride the whole thing out and live to tell the tale. But who knows, when the earth finally decides that it’s tired of fidgeting and needs a proper stretch, I might
be the one walking downstairs; if that’s the case, then the only survivors will be my books – hundreds of them – to keep each other company.

Our building used to be a single family house, but now it’s home to four separate units and I’ve been living in one of these for twenty years. This must be somewhat annoying to my poor landlady, for in this city of rent controls she could charge a new tenant much more than she charges me. Not that the apartment is anything spectacular mind you; it’s just one small bedroom, kitchen, living room and bathroom. But it’s the view that matters in San Francisco. And my view, oh yes, my view is
magnifique
.

When you stand at the kitchen sink you can see all the colourful houses of Haight Ashbury. And beyond these, the eucalyptus and pine forests of the Presidio that stretch across to the bay where, on a clear day, the waters shimmer azure blue. So I have no intention of moving, and the landlady must know that what she loses in rent, she gains by having someone reliable like me keeping a watchful eye on the property. For I, like this building, am ancient. Ancient if you’re going by Nigerian standards, where I’ve outfoxed the female life expectancy by nearly two decades. And because I’ve lived in this building so long, I know all the comings and goings: such that on a morning like this, even before the mailman reaches the third floor, I’ve heard his footsteps. Li Wei is in the habit of taking the stairs two at a time, and when he arrives, I’m waiting for him. I wouldn’t normally open the door in my dressing gown, but Li Wei is no stranger. Besides, this is a city where people walk their dogs and take their children to school in their pyjamas. So here I stand in
my magenta silk dressing gown, barefoot and brushing the tops of my toes (those with toe rings) against the rough sisal of my ‘welcome’ mat.

‘Hello Doctor Morayo, lots of mail for you today,’ says Li Wei, presenting a neatened stack with such finesse that I’m reminded of a samurai bowing before his empress, palms extended, head slightly bent. ‘The box was full,’ he announces, looking puzzled until I smile and then he smiles because we both know there’s nothing surprising about my mailbox being full. That’s the way I leave it these days because I like him stopping by. We enjoy our little chats until it’s time for Li Wei to return to work and he tips his postal hat to bid me good day. And out of respect for his kindness I always spend some minutes, after he’s gone, sorting through the political party mailings, the letters from Amnesty and the Sierra Club. Occasionally, if a colourful postcard or a handwritten envelope falls from the pile, I get excited, thinking it might be from a friend, even though I know its usually just a prettier form of junk. Whatever happened to all those friends who used to send letters and postcards? Now people just zap off emails or no notes at all. And then, of course, so many friends have died. I flick, half-heartedly through
Granta
and
CAR
, and then stop to make myself a cup of tea into which I dip a ginger biscuit. Yes I know I’m procrastinating, and if I don’t pay attention, I might be late with some bills. They don’t give you much time to pay these days, but I don’t let this trouble me. Once upon a time I was diligent, extraordinarily diligent, but life’s too short to fuss over such small things. That at least is what I tell myself until the diligence, never truly lost, reappears, and I return to the post.

Today there’s a letter from the Department of Motor Vehicles with forms attached. I glance at it, mentally checking
no, no,
and
no
to a history of high blood pressure, heart attacks, and diabetes. I presume the letter is routine. But hold on: it’s my birthday soon so maybe that’s what this is all about. Why when one gets to a ‘certain age’ must every reminder of a birthday carry a tinge of gloom? I look at the letter again and notice that the deadline for the reply was last week. Bother! Better call. I dial then cradle the phone between my ear and shoulder while unravelling my night-time cornrows, which I do on occasion to keep my hair tangle free. I don’t mind waiting but the automated message gives me the option of receiving a return call without losing my place in line. How civilized! I leave my name and number, and now hands free, I unravel my last plait while pondering what to wear.

In my wardrobe sit a stack of brightly coloured fabrics. Some were gifts to myself, others presents from friends. Nowadays I enjoy wearing native attire much more than I used to, especially when it’s sunny. Today I select a new Ankara in vibrant shades of pink and blue and then bring it to my nose. When I open the folds of cloth I’m delighted to find the smell of Lagos markets still buried in the cotton – diesel fumes, hot palm oil, burning firewood. The smell evokes the flamboyance and craziness of the megacity that once was mine in between my husband’s diplomatic postings. It was a place of parties and traffic jams, the city of my husband’s people: my many nephews, nieces and godchildren. I’ve often thought of returning to Lagos and sometimes dream that I’ve already moved back to this big crazy city where everyone calls me ‘Auntie’ or ‘Mama’;
the land of constant sunshine and daily theatre. I think of cousins and wonder what it might be like to reconnect with them, to live nearby. I’ve even contemplated living closer to Caesar, not because I miss him, particularly, but because we share memories of people and places that few others now remember. But even as I find myself searching the Internet for homes in Ikoyi, I know that I’m not likely to feel at home in such a crowded city. I remember how it floods during rainy season. I remember the power cuts and the unruly traffic, and I remember how few bookshops there are, how few cafes and museums. Deep down, I know that my desire to return comes more from nostalgia than a genuine longing to return. Those days of being able to deal with the daily headaches of Lagos life are gone. In any case it’s to Jos, the city of my childhood, that I’d most like to return. But this is even more implausible. Jos used to be a place of serenity, of cool, plateau weather, not the anxious city it is today with the constant fears of random acts of violence. And now that my parents are gone and school friends have moved away or died, all that really remains are the memories.

I sigh, putting the original fabric aside and opting for another – this one gold and green, wafting eco-friendly, lavender-scented detergent. I wrap the material around my waist keeping my legs spread hip distance so as not to pull too tightly, then I wrap it again and finish with a secure tuck at the side. I choose a contrasting yellow material to wind around my hair and then check in the bathroom mirror, patting down the top of my Afro. Satisfied, I rub pink gloss on my lips and blot with a tissue. Off come my glasses and then two quick brushes of the eyebrows towards the
temples with a baby toothbrush kept just for this purpose. I remember reading somewhere how this draws people’s attention to the eyes. Eyes, said the apostle Matthew, are the lamp of the body. And if, according to something else I read recently, eyes are the one thing that never age, then this is a good thing. I remove my smudged glasses and clean them with warm soapy water, holding onto the rims as I was taught as a child.

I don’t remember when I first started wearing glasses – it feels like a lifetime, but I do remember Kano Eye Hospital and the drive from Jos, which was a long and bumpy one, across dirt roads. The appointment, always scheduled for the following day, was also an all-day affair – from waiting on the wooden benches outside to sitting in the large optician’s chair. The doctor liked to take his time choosing from drawers filled with rows of silver rimmed spheres, arranged neatly like biscuits in a tin. I used to imagine him having to choose between shortbread and ginger snaps before slotting the wafer thin lens into the bulky steel contraption placed on my nose. ‘Better or worse?’ he would ask, and sometimes it was better, sometimes worse. But always, I remember his breath smelling sweetly of mangos, which was how I came to believe he was poor. Mangos were free in Nigeria – anyone could pluck them off the trees, so much so that father would pay someone, during mango season, to collect the fruit so it wouldn’t fall and rot. I’ve since wondered if the doctor suffered from diabetes. Wasn’t sweet breath a sign of this disease? But perhaps the man just liked his mangos. And when it came time for him to peer into my eyes with his sharp yellow light, I used to find it impossible to do as instructed. Rather than stare
at the bridge of his freckled nose, I preferred to look at my own eyes reflected in his where they appeared shiny and beautiful, like strawberry jam drops. It was always a mystery to me how my vision could be perfect up close, but so poor for distance. Then the phone rings.

‘How can I help you?’ I answer, smiling because the voice on the other end sounds familiar. ‘Sunil?’ I try placing the name.

‘Oh yes, ma’am, this is the DMV and I’m just returning your call.’

‘From the DMV,’ I repeat. ‘DMV, did you say? … Oh, … yes, of course.’ I remember now but I’ve forgotten the good excuse I was intending to use. Now I just have to ask for an extension to the deadline.

‘Well ma’am, give me one moment,’ the man replies, ‘I need to check with my supervisor. Can I place you on hold for one moment?’

‘Of course,’ I smile, picturing the young man sitting in a call centre somewhere in India next to his metal lunch box, layered with aloo paratha and pickles. And while I listen to the gentle jazz that temporarily takes his place, I play the conversation we’ll have when he returns. How surprised he'll be when I disclose that I once lived in his country, when I tell him how I miss all my friends at the spice markets. I’ll tell him that I still keep cardamom and cumin in my cupboard to remind me of those days. I could even tell him where I got the toe rings, or my silk curtains, which also came from Bombay. Mumbai. And
wasn’t it just a few minutes earlier when I was tying my wrappa that I was thinking how easy it was to tie a wrappa in comparison to the multiple folds of cloth needed for a sari. I’d always been useless with saris.

‘Ma’am?’

‘Yes.’

‘Yes, that’s quite fine, ma’am, I can add one more week.’

‘Marvellous! Thank you,’ I say, relieved. ‘So tell me, sir, where are you calling from today? Is it bright and sunny?’

‘Ma’am, I’m calling from Sacramento, ma’am. Yes ma’am I could say it’s quite fine.’

‘Oh,’ I say, deflated. Sacramento was such a disappointing capital city. So lacking in character. No hills or mountains; just flat like a plate. What a shame he wasn’t calling from India. And me, ready to exchange a few greetings in Hindi. Thank God I didn’t embarrass myself. Still, there was something familiar sounding about his voice. I wonder if he’s a former student? I miss my students. But if he was one of mine then why doesn’t he recognize my name or voice?

‘Okay ma’am,’ he says, ‘just to confirm, now your doctor has until the twelfth.’

‘My doctor?’

‘For the physical, ma’am.’

‘Physical?’ I glance again at the letter: the attached forms have to be completed by a doctor. Flipping through them, I see that in addition to the physical and mental-health test, an eye test is also required. ‘Tell me, what’s your name again? Sanjay? Is it customary for the DMV to send out these letters?’

‘Actually, it’s Sunil.’

I detect some impatience, but what does
he
have to be annoyed about?

‘Actually,’ he continues, ‘we don’t actually do this, ma’am. I mean, what I mean is that it comes from head office. So, like all I know is that this happens if someone reports you, for let’s say, like actually careless, or, like reckless driving.’

‘Careless?’ I ask, because it’s his syntax that merits the label ‘careless’ not my driving. ‘Well, I’m sure that sometimes I’ve parked a little too far from the pavement and maybe occasionally too close to the pavement or ‘kerb’ as you may call it, but surely these are just minor mistakes?’ I pause, waiting for him to laugh, and when he doesn’t I continue undeterred. ‘I suppose that once or twice my car might have stalled going up hill, but isn’t that to be expected in San Francisco? You see my car is a manual one. It’s an old manual car. It’s actually a collector’s item.’ But by now I’ve concluded that he won’t know what a 911 is, not to speak of my 993. He’s probably one of those that dreams of owning a Lexus with gold-rimmed hubcaps.

‘Yes ma’am, anything else I can do for you, ma’am?’

‘No, darling,’ I mumble. ‘No,’ I repeat, because now I’m annoyed at having slipped into using this endearment which was a mannerism I’d once vowed never to adopt. I saw how it aged a friend, even more than her smattering of silver hairs and varicose veins that she was so fond of bemoaning. Calling a young man ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’ made you sound old, but now I’d just done it myself, without even thinking.
‘Chouchouter,’
I whisper, failing to find a suitable English word. Belatedly, hearing the dull hum on the telephone line, I realize that my young American darling has hung up. ‘Fuck! Bugger!’ I add, startled by the crassness of my own language. Not as bad as the saccharine I’d used earlier, but still, my father would be appalled if he could hear me now. I wave the letter to the heavens in a gesture of apology before folding it and placing it back on the desk.

‘I’m not careless,’ I mutter to my friends on the shelves. ‘Whoever’s done this nasty thing of reporting me ought to be ashamed.’

My new optician tells me there’s nothing he can do to stop the slow deterioration of my eyesight; and because I’d passed my last driving test without anyone noticing how I’d had to squint or lean forward to read the eye chart, I presumed that I’d be fine. I reckoned I had at least five more years of driving. ‘At
least
five,’ I tell myself firmly, deciding to deal with the letter later and take my walk before the fog rolls in. No point in getting my knickers in a twist over this. I fetch my keys, close the front door and take the stairs down to the lobby. On my way out I glance ruefully at Buttercup, my beloved old Porsche, parked admittedly a little more than eighteen inches from the kerb. But what the hell!

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