Uncle was in his chair, facing the window and drapes, gripping the edge of the desk with his fingertips. From your vantage behind him across the room in the doorway you could barely see Ruby between his knees. She was kneeling there neatly, skinny legs folded beneath her, her hands on his knees, heart-shaped face in his lap. The sound she made reminded you of cloth sloshing in buckets, as rhythmic and functional, almost mindless, and wet. Uncle whimpered bizarrely, like the dogs before beatings. For whatever reason, you stood there transfixed by the books.

It was Ruby who saw you but Uncle who cried out, as if sustaining some cruel, unseen wound. Now you saw the trousers in a puddle around his ankles. Now he saw you, mute, at the door. He grabbed Ruby’s head and pulled it away from his lap. She crumpled to the rug like a doll.

‘Stupid girl!’ he spat. ‘Get out! Get out!’ Whether to you or to her, you weren’t sure.

Ruby scrambled to her feet; you stumbled back out the door. She wore only her lappa and a tattered lace bra. She looked at you quickly as you pushed the door shut. Her almond eyes glittered with hatred.

You recognized the expression. You’d seen it once before, in the morning in Lagos with your mother and Sinclair. You’d been loitering in the kitchen waiting for the cooks to finish breakfast. Just as Francis does with Iago, they’d slip you anything spoiled: collapsed soufflé, browning fruit, crispy bacon, burned toast. The trick had been to show up after Sinclair made his rounds, shouting complaints then disappearing until dinner. The spoils that morning had been unusually abundant: enough fruit for a week, pancakes, over-boiled eggs. A younger cook had set the food on a metal rolling cart and sent you up to your room in the freight elevator.

The rest you remember not as a series of events but as a single expression. A postcard. You must have inserted the keycard in the door, which would have beeped open, blinking green, making noise. But they must not have heard you. So you wheeled in the cart and just stood there, frozen, mute at the door.

That expression.

Your mother on the floor, Sinclair kneeling behind her, their moaning an inelegant music, the sweat. Her eyes open wide as she looked up and saw you, surprise that you’d returned from the kitchen so soon. And the hatred. Bright knives in the dark of her irises. Unmistakable. You’d left the cart, running.

From the study to your room.

Slamming the door, leaning against it. The sound – sloshing cloth, buckets of soap – in your ears. Your bright blue walls trembled, or seemed to, in that moment, like a suspended tsunami about to crash in. The image (not yet a memory) – of Uncle in his desk chair; of Ruby folded prayerfully on her knees between his – flashed on the backs of your eyelids like a movie whose meaning you didn’t quite understand. But you saw. In that moment, as you stood there, with your back to the door and the lump in your throat and your pulse in your ears, you saw that it was you who was wrong and not they. You were wrong to have pitied her. Ruby. That she could make Uncle start whimpering like the dogs before beatings meant something was possible under this roof, in this house; something different from – and you wondered, was it better than? preferable to? – the thing you lived out every day. You envied Ruby something, though you didn’t know what. You stood at your door trembling jealously.

Someone approached.

You heard the steps (small ones) on the other side of your door, followed by the faint sound of feet on the stairs, going down. You waited for a second then cracked the door open. No one was there. You looked down. Someone had stacked Comfort’s paperback books on the threshold. Like a fetish offering. You glanced down the hall to the study; the door was open. The drapes had been drawn back to richly bright light. You picked up the books and you walked down the stairs. The meaning – whether Uncle’s or Ruby’s – was clear.

So you went to the garden as you would have done otherwise, had you not seen what you saw in the study just then. You said nothing to Francis who was just starting the chin-chin, nor to Iago who was making centrepieces of torch gingers as you appeared. You didn’t so much as gasp when you found Comfort by the pool on her back on a towel in a bikini.

You stopped, staring down at her. She shifted, squinting up at you.

‘I see you got the books,’ she said.

You nodded. Quietly: ‘Thank you.’

‘You’re welcome.’ She smiled. Then closed her eyes. Without opening them: ‘You’re in my sun.’

Caterers swarmed the garden, unfolding round wooden tables, festooning lights along the walls, ignoring Comfort by the pool. The garden half done like a woman getting ready, standing naked at the mirror in her necklace and shoes. The thick buzz of flies and the sweet smell of chin-chin. Not for the first time you thought about running. They were consumed with their preparations, all of the houseboys and caterers, Comfort sunning in her bikini, Iago working by the pool. You could get up now, unnoticed, leave your books, walk away. There was the door at the edge of the garden.

You’d always wondered where it led to; it was always closed and no one used it. You considered it, suddenly hopeful, not one hundred yards away. Perhaps it pushed out to some Neverland? To Nigeria? Or simply to some route to the road through the brush? You were considering the distance from the tree to the door when the thought seized you suddenly: but what if she’s gone? What if they were right, and she’d run off to Abuja, with no thanks to Uncle and no thought of you? Now the breath left your chest and your heart began racing. To almost precisely the same beat, someone’s hammer: THWAP! THWAP! Two carpenters installing the dance floor, banging nails: THWAP! THWAP! while your chest refused air.

And there was Auntie.

She was standing across the garden at the door into the living room in big bug-eye sunglasses, shouting your name. The way she scanned the garden made it clear she couldn’t see you where you crouched behind the veil of tree leaves, silent, trying to breathe. She was starting to go in when she saw Comfort by the pool. ‘For God’s sake, daughter. What are you doing?’

Comfort lifted her head, shading her eyes with her hand, the flesh at her mid-section folding over. ‘I’m sunbathing, Mother. It’s good for my skin.’

‘You’re going to get darker.’

‘Yes, likely.’

‘Don’t be smart. Your husband is coming this afternoon. You need to get dressed.’

‘My fiancé.’ Comfort lay back down, adjusting her position on the towel. Auntie glanced at the caterers, who were observing this exchange. ‘What are you looking at?’ Nobody answered. Auntie snapped, ‘Where is that girl?’

An inhalation at last. ‘I’m here, Madame,’ you called hoarsely, stumbling out from the leaves. She glanced at you casually, as if you’d always been standing there. Then looked down at Comfort, sucked her teeth, turned away. ‘Kwabena is coming. You had better be decent.’ Over her shoulder, to you, ‘Ehn, let’s go.’