I knew what was wrong as soon I got up to throw up in the early hours of the morning. I was pregnant again, and this was going to be my fourth child. I rinsed my mouth, washed my face and sat down on the edge of the bath tub for what seemed like an eternity. How was I going to break the news to my husband? Another mouth to feed was the last thing our family needed. Our fifth floor, two-bedroom council flat was already cramped. My husband’s hours at work had just been cut and everyday I dreaded hearing about more jobs to go at London Underground where I was contracted by my agency as a cleaner. We could not afford to lose any more income and with money already so tight, how would we cope with another child?
I let out a deep sigh, and decided not to tell my husband about this pregnancy for a while. I would not add to his worries just yet. I got up from the bathroom and tiptoed to the bedroom to check the time. It was five o’clock and my household would soon be awake, each of them needing me to get something ready for them before I left for work. I made the children’s breakfast, packed their lunch boxes, ironed my husband’s uniform and then emptied the laundry basket before going to take a shower. I had to catch the bus to Victoria so I left my husband in charge of getting the children to school. I walked down all the flights of stairs holding my breath and dreading another week at work.
The early Monday morning cleaning shifts in Central London were the worst. The underground was always dirtier than usual, after weekend revellers had swept through the carriages, drunk and disorderly. Often there would be vomit, left-over food and discarded drug needles. Sometimes things would get really messy and there would be broken glass and bloodstains, showing evidence of a fight. This morning was particularly bad, as the stench of stale alcohol, urine and rotting food attacked my nostrils, making my nausea worse. I had to stop to take several gulps of air in-between my shift, hoping my supervisor would not notice that something was wrong with me today. I was glad when the first half of my shift was over and I could go to the station concourse to rest for a short while. I watched the smartly dressed office workers and early morning travellers coming and going, each person’s face impassive – engrossed in their own thoughts.
After the morning rush-hour had died down, I went back to the platform for the second half of my shift. This time I had to get rid of the morning newspapers and other litter behind on the trains. I put my apron back on, collected the dust cart from the back office and got ready to pick up the rubbish after the commuters hurried off to their destinations.
I turned around when I heard my name called. It was strange – unfamiliar, but bringing back memories of a different place and time. I saw the tall, attractive young lady who had just got off the train standing in front of me with a questioning stare. The recognition dawned on me and my heart immediately started pounding.
‘Is that you Dupe? Miss Williams?’
‘Yes it is me! Long time Mrs Akande, how are you?’
‘I’m fine, fine thank you.’ I replied. ‘How are you as well?’
There was no need for me to ask really. Dupe Williams was one of my students, when I taught Chemistry at a government secondary school in Lagos. She was one of the rich kids in our school then, whose parents spared no expense in making sure her life was very comfortable. I observed that things still looked pretty good for her, judging by her flawless skin, expensive-looking clothes, perfectly manicured hands and glossy weave. She was carrying a designer handbag and a huge bouquet from Marks & Spencer’s. I must look like trash in comparison, I thought. I tried not to let my jealousy choke me.
‘I’m alright.’ I heard her say. ‘I can’t complain really.’
I’m sure you can’t, I thought to myself. On the outside, I kept a cheery façade and asked, ‘So what are you doing now?’
‘I’ve just graduated from Oxford University and I’m starting a new job next week. How about you? How long have you been in the UK?’
What a question for her to ask, like she didn’t expect to meet her former school teachers in London. I counted in my head.
‘Almost four years.’
‘Wow.’ She said. ‘So you must have left Nigeria shortly after I finished secondary school?’
‘Yes, that is correct.’
My mind flashed back to the day before I left Nigeria for greener pastures. Our house was full of relatives convinced that I was going to a land flowing with milk and honey, every one of them telling me to make sure I send them money and gifts as soon as I arrive in London. If only they knew that life here was not the paradise we thought it would be.
Dupe frowned, looking around us. ‘Uhm, so you work here now?’
‘Yes,’ I said, straightening up a bit and meeting her look of concern. I could be as dignified even if I wasn’t as rich. ‘I work on the underground most days.’
‘Oh.’ She seemed lost for words, but she quickly recovered. ‘How about your family?’
‘We are all doing fine.’
‘Are they here in the UK too?’
‘Yes, my children are in school and my husband works at… an IT company.’ There was no need to tell her he was a security guard. ‘How about your parents?’
‘My dad is fine. My mum is in hospital, and I’m actually on my way to see her now.’
‘Ah, what’s wrong with her?’
‘She has stomach cancer.’
‘Oh I’m so sorry.’ I said, genuinely feeling concerned. ‘How long has she been ill?
‘She has been in hospital for about eight months.’
‘And how is she doing?’
‘Well, she is showing signs of improvement but we can only continue to hope and pray.’
‘I pray she gets better. Please send her my regards.’
‘Thank you, I will. Let me get going now.’
‘Okay my dear. All the best with your mum; and your new job.’
‘Thank you ma.’
I watched her walk away, thinking of how strange life could be sometimes. Here I was worrying about money when I had my health, when some people who had so much wealth could not buy what I had. I put on my cleaning gloves and started pushing the dust cart down to the other end of the platform.
FG (c) 2011