Wendy is in the hallway, touching up her make-up, when the letterbox rattles for her attention. From the corner of her eye, she watches a pale-blue airmail envelope parachute to the mat. Her smile crinkles her lipstick; Efuru's letters never fail to brighten her day.
After the miscarriage and the collapse of the restaurant in Tenerife, Wendy assumed life could get no worse. But when her husband moved in with the waitress, despair threatened to move in with her. She'd come crawling back to a rented flat ten minutes' walk from her sister's, and a nine-to-five job that stretched to eight-to-six.
She wasn't complaining. There's always someone worse off than you, as her mother used to say. Finding herself far worse off than she'd ever imagined had given her the impetus to do something about it. Wendy was saving them both when she decided to sponsor an African child.
She collects the letter franked Zokandu District 10 en route to the car. The thought of it lodged in her handbag will soothe her through the snarls on the ring road and the infantile demands of her boss.
She files Efuru's letters in shoeboxes at the bottom of her wardrobe. Some days, when she's searching for a blouse that won't make her look too frumpy, it's enough to catch sight of those cardboard boxes with the line drawings of size-five slingbacks on the side. On days dogged by if-only – how her marriage and Comida Inglesa might have survived had they appointed a different waitress – she takes out Efuru's letters and spreads them on the bed.
Each is a chapter in a rags-to-riches story: the child in the patched school uniform who becomes head girl; the waif too malnourished to walk three miles to her classroom who's determined to become a nurse. Efuru is an African Cinderella, with Wendy wielding the magic wand. No point breaking into the next instalment until she can give it the attention it deserves.
No time to catch up on the story at work, with her boss dragging her from one mini-crisis to another, while, in her breaks, her colleagues bending her ear about crises of their own. There's a window in the early evening, whilst the teenaged niece she's supposedly babysitting is upstairs interacting with her keyboard, except that her sister's house is so grubby she feels compelled to don a pair of marigolds and scrub the kitchen cupboards instead.
At last, she's home, reclining on her spotless sofa, free of responsibilities. She pours her tea and selects a gingernut from the biscuit tin. She peels open the airmail envelope.
As she extracts the flimsy blue pages, a strange object, no bigger than the nail on her little finger, drops out from between the leaves. It falls -- no, jumps -- onto the cushion beside her. A small bug, fiery orange in colour, with a flat and pointed back. Just as she's getting the measure of it, it hurls itself into the tin, leaping from chocolate digestive to custard cream, as if in training for the shield-bug Olympics. Her heart pounding, Wendy grabs the lid and traps it inside.
What the …? Did it hitch a lift in her handbag from her sister's? Well, the house could do with steam cleaning, but Wendy has never considered it a breeding ground for vermin. Such a peculiar insect, it couldn't possibly be local. She definitely saw it shoot out of the envelope along with Efuru's letter. How could it have survived the journey all the way from Zokandu?
While the answer might be contained within the letter, she can't relax to read it with that creature performing calisthenics among her biscuits. It might be carrying malaria. It might have AIDS. If superbugs can thrive even in English hospitals, with all their disinfectants and antiseptics, what kind of horrors might incubate in an African village?
Her headlights pick out the few cars remaining in the supermarket car park. Wendy drives past them to the recycling dumpsters round the back. There's a green one for green glass, a brown one for brown glass, and a grey container for clear glass. There's a yellow one for plastic and a big blue container for paper (but strictly not for telephone directories or cardboard). Wendy parks at the end of the row beside the dumpster for cast-off clothes and shoes.
It's not that she's got anything against the bug itself, she reasons, as she cradles the biscuit tin in her arms. Just as a weed is merely a misplaced plant, the bug has gone astray and it would be a kindness to send it home.
She positions the tin alongside the slot in the charity container, snaps off the lid and pours the contents inside. Along with the faded T-shirts and pilled knitwear and an assortment of biscuits, she's repatriating the bug to a habitat more suited to its needs.
After a bubble bath, Wendy sits propped against her pillows, to finally savour Efuru's letter.
Dear Wendy Auntie. Wendy has become so fond of this inversion of the usual greeting, she's tried to get her niece to adopt it.
I could not go to school today because my mother is sick and she needed me to go to the field. I have been here since dawn. Now it is noon, it is too hot to work so I am writing you. All is revealed: the family fields must be swarming with creepy crawlies relishing an envelope's shade.
Please do not be cross that I miss school. As soon as my mother is recovered, I will hurry to my lessons. If only her niece had half of Efuru's enthusiasm for her studies.
I thank you for the photograph. Your home must be as beautiful as Queen Elizabeth's palace. At night I dream I come and visit you. We drink tea and sing songs and laugh together. Hard to envisage her niece appreciating such low-tech pleasures.
I am sad that you must work so hard to send money for me to go to school. But also I am very glad that you are so kind … such a contrast to the grunts with which her niece acknowledged that last birthday gift … so that I can pass my exams and nurse all the sick people in my village. Not only grateful for what she's been given herself, but keen to share her good fortune with others.
You are always in my thoughts. Wendy smiles: as you are in mine.
She awakes in the dark, sweat trickling between her breasts. In her dream, her flat had become infested with shield bugs. They leapfrogged along the work surfaces, sprang out of cupboards and drawers. They hid at the bottom of the cereal packets to tumble into her breakfast bowl like novelty giveaways. They stowed away in her shampoo and hijacked her hair when she took a shower. When she opened her wardrobe, her clothes were sequinned with orange.
Turning on the bedside lamp, Wendy reaches for Efuru's letter as once she would have reached for her husband's hand.
Dear Wendy Auntie. Immediately, her heartbeat steadies.
I could not go to school today because my mother needed me to work in the field. Yet the girl ought to have considered the risks of writing a letter out there.
Please do not be cross that I miss school. Yet Wendy is cross: she doesn't sponsor Efuru to provide her parents with cheap labour.
At night I dream I come and visit you. Wendy lets the page fall to the floor as she remembers how the bugs in her dream had the face of a girl with her hair in cornrows.
Three years of letters: it had never crossed her mind that Efuru might expect more from Wendy than her standing order to the charity and the occasional photo. Did the girl genuinely believe she might come and visit? Like the bug in the dream, did Efuru harbour ambitions to go bouncing around her home?
There's always someone worse off than you, but Wendy isn't obliged to redress the balance.
She springs out of bed and pulls on jeans and a sweater. From the wardrobe, she takes out the boxes stuffed with letters from Zokandu. She slips the final instalment into a box with a picture of glittery mules on the side.
There's a pink tinge on the horizon as Wendy drives into the supermarket car park. She pulls up alongside the big blue container designated for wastepaper. They don't accept cardboard boxes, unfortunately, but she can dispose of those in her household rubbish bin when she gets home.