Her knees were cement sacks and each step she took needed a prayer. Her heart stood thick in her throat, the very reason she had to make her way to the bar not so long after the morning birds had sung their early song. The heat was so ill-behaved, it felt as though the devil had couriered it specially to burn the life out of her. But what kind of person have I become? She kept asking herself on the way. Her thoughts were burdened with both fear and relief, leaving her jumping from one emotion to another.
The pub wasn’t yet open for business and only the workers were busying around with beer crates, wet mops and buckets and the clinking of glasses being washed at the back. Lulu was not exactly an employee but she occasionally helped out with the cleaning and so the owner let her come in the morning to wet her ashy throat. It wasn’t just her dry throat that drove her to the place so early but life itself had a way of navigating her throat, bladder and liver to that one place where she could intoxicate her senses.
“So you are alive? Ha! After the way you left last night without telling us you were retiring, I thought something terrible had happened to you,” spoke one of the regulars who was also an early attendee of the bar. Her tone was not that of concern, merely wanting to lead the conversation to finding where exactly Lulu had disappeared to, for the sake of gossip. This Balbina woman had thighs that could swallow a man and never let him out. She wore tights that showed the heavy sack of cellulite in all its dimpled formation. Her bosom was a set of two mountains that could baptise a nation of infants with milk. Her behind could not be mentioned as there was not much but a flat plank that connected waist to legs in a linear form. Her face was patches of blemishes and scars from fights with angry girlfriends and wives, and jealous boyfriends.
Lulu didn’t answer her but went to order a drink, returning with a cheap bottle of brandy and two beers.
Seeing the brandy, which was far better than the two weak bottles of cider that sat at her feet, Balbina’s mouth watered, “Friend of mine, my friend. You bring us the good stuff. You must have scored a pair of golden nuts last night.”
“Nah. This is my last bit of money but if I don’t spend it on this medicine of ours how will I be able to deal with this virus called life?” she said with hunched shoulders and a weary voice.
When Lulu sat down her bottom burned as if she sat on hot coals, it burned all the way through her rectal passage. Two days ago her boyfriend, Stanley had gone all out on his beating and had finished her off with endless kicks to her backside, sometimes his sharp pointed shoe landing right at the exit in the middle of her buttocks. Lulu had somehow found a way to accept the beatings but on that day he had shown her hell. The disgust and hatred that gathered inside her, in concentrated form and intensity had led her to where she was now. While Balbina was busy relating the events of her night and who she had lain with this time, Lulu’s thoughts travelled back to her childhood and how she had ended up sitting at the bar in the morning with a flaming backside and a heart clothed in sharp needles.
Anna had beauty that was known to everyone in the neighbourhood and in the surrounding neighbourhoods. She was popular for the face that arrested its beholder at first sight and the rest about her became unnecessary to know about her. Her dream was to be known all over the world, she wanted her beauty to take her places – television, billboards and posters everywhere. She wanted to win all pageants and be a successful model somewhere in lands she had never seen where she heard people were rich and happy. Her sister Suzie, on the other hand, had been robbed of such a gift and had the face of a creature that lived under a rock. With all the attention given to her sister and the constant reminder in the mirror that she was far from being noticed or paid any compliment, her bitterness grew to tremendous heights.
Anna may have been an ambitious and determined girl but her one weakness was not separating her beauty from the value between her legs. She used her beauty to lure men and the cave between her spread legs was one of the most popular destinations all around. One of her lovers left her pregnant and disappeared into thin air, leaving her to give birth to a girl as beautiful as her, Lulu. Even through the burden of being a single parent, having to leave high school and work at a supermarket she never let go of her dreams. Sadly, at those times AIDS was such a taboo that if people were to find out she would have seen the wrath of prejudice, and so she let it consume her in silence and her death was quick. Her parents later followed her to the grave and Lulu was left in the hands of Suzie who was going to make sure that all the accumulated hatred would rain down on the child.
From the age of ten, Lulu was to learn how being showered with love and affection all her life could instantly turn to being kicked like the dirt on the ground. She was her aunt’s slave and at times she would overwork her and leave her to starve for a day. If any of their relatives were to visit, Suzie would make sure that she had warned Lulu of the consequences that she’d face if she so much as let her tongue slip about the way they lived.
“Listen here, you animal that has neither mother nor father. If you dare complain to anyone I will make sure that you go live with your parents in the land of the dead,” she warned her. Lulu had experienced the brutality of her aunt’s flogging that she did not want to provoke her in any way.
To them she was a happy child whose selfless aunt had taken her and was raising her as her own with love and no complaint. However, neighbours were not blind to what was happening but not wanting to add any more burdens to what they already had on their plates, they pretended not to see or hear anything. All they did was occasionally offer the child morsels of food when the aunt was not around. Lulu’s school performance was dismal and before she even got to high school, she quit. Her aunt couldn’t have been happier because it meant the child, without an education, would be at her mercy.
“You are nothing and you’ll always be that way, just like your mother. Just because you have her looks does not mean the world will kiss your feet.”
Unlike her mother, Lulu had always been oblivious to the power of her looks. She was told by many but she had so much darkness in her that it blinded her from seeing her own beauty. She did odd jobs here and there, cleaning and washing people’s clothes and all the chores at home were hers. All her aunt did was go to work, return and demand food and bring her ex-convict boyfriend home. Eventually the man moved in and that coincided with Lulu meeting Stanley who praised her beauty in a way that she found comfort in. She left home and they moved into a rented shack in a close neighbourhood. Suzie never bothered to look for her niece – good riddance it was.
Their shack needed all powers of some deity to balance it; the structure was as weak as her influence in the household. Whatever Stanley said went for he was the provider and his power over her rose with each reminder that he was all she had. Cockroaches and rats felt more at home than she did. Stanley kept her on her toes and reminded her that he could kick her out if he wanted to, and so she was at his mercy. The beatings were regular and whenever she ran into a corner and covered her face, waiting for him to finish she would repeat in her head that it was better than being in the streets. She had left one hell for another but to her it was better to be treated this way by an outsider than family.
The day that sent her to the pub with a heavy heart came when Paul wanted to go out but had nothing in his pockets. He had been working like a donkey at the factory and had run out of money before month-end, and had the loan shark making threats. It only took an act of offering him water to set him off. The glass had landed on her back after she had placed it on the small table in front of him, then the slaps had melted on her, he kicked and punched and threw things at her. That was the moment she knew she had to find a way out of that hell.
“Balbina, your voice can be nauseating at times, can’t you just shut up and drink?” Lulu stood up and limped off to the toilet. She was trying hard to contain the physical pain that burned all over her. The guilt and fear in her mind throbbed her head and everything spun uncontrollably. She made it just in time to throw up in the right place. When she returned, Balbina had drunk most of the booze and it infuriated Lulu even more but as much as she felt like pouncing on her, her body wouldn’t allow it. Balbina would sit on her and that was all it would take to finish her off.
“If you ever speak to me like that I will show you your mother’s inner thighs, you hear me?” threatened Balbina. Lulu waved her off.
It didn’t take long for Balbina to resume her gossip and didn’t care if she had an audience or not. Lulu’s hands were trembling and her eyes stung. She was just hoping that everything would go according to plan and that as soon as the next day she would finally have her freedom. The owner came and placed her thick hand on Lulu’s shoulder, “I am sorry to hear about your aunt. You know, I cannot believe that that little boy she lived with for so long just left her like that. Ha! Men, when you have something to give they stick around but as soon as you’re useless to them they disappear. Anyway, so are you going to look after her?” she carried on without paying attention to Lulu’s confusion. “Lulu I know she treated you badly but now that she had a stroke and has no one, you’re her only hope, and it’s not like she can abuse you in her state, now at least you can have a decent home and not have to put up with that man.”
She didn’t bother to go to Stanley’s place for her things, she went straight to the taxi stop and she was on her way to her aunt’s house. Suzie was as good as a vegetable that not even a beggar would eat. She lay on the bed with a contorted face, a shrunken figure in a room that reeked of a decaying soul. Two women from church were busy trying to feed her soup when Lulu came in and on realising that someone had come to take the duties of care off their hands they were on their way.
“She needs you, child. Leave the past to God and focus on doing what’s right. You hear me?” the thin one with a stale breath whispered to her.
Lulu saw them out and went back to the room to find Suzie lying face up, choking. She rolled her to her side and watched as the yellow oozed from the corner of her mouth onto the sticky pillow that needed to see the garbage bin. She went straight to work, fed her, changed the bedding and gave her a bath and gave her meds. While her aunt slept, Lulu needed time to think through how things would proceed from then on.
Over the week her aunt’s condition worsened and less people came to visit. When they asked if she didn’t need to see the doctor, Lulu would let them know that the doctor’s instructions were that she finish her course of medicine first to give them time to work on her.
“You know how these things take time, but with prayer they will work miracles, I know that for sure.” With that, they left her at peace.
Sunday afternoon, and the few church ladies that were used to coming had just left after only less than half an hour of asking the same questions, repeating the same prayer of healing for the sick and strength for the selfless child who carried the load on her young shoulders. In the evening a knock on the door startled her as she was not expecting anyone at all. As she looked out the window the police van almost sent urine down her legs.
Once they had sat down she offered tea but after taking a look at the piled up dishes, the stained walls, the dead bugs near the fridge and the grime stained tiles, they declined and went straight to business.
“When was the last time you saw Stanley? We understand that you were living with him for a while,” asked one police officer who was raining sweat underneath his unbearably tight shirt. The chair he sat on prayed for mercy.
“I…uh, I can’t remember. It must have been a few weeks ago. He disappeared after beating me up and…I don’t know, he just left and didn’t say where he was going. Why? Is there something wrong? Is he looking for me? Is there…”
“Okay, so when you left he wasn’t at home?”
She shook her head and worry filled her expressions. The questions continues, about their lifestyle, if they were having domestic problems, why she never reported the beatings, if he was the only one bringing the bacon home, if there was anything she wanted to add and so on.
Stanley had been found dead in his shack, he must have been dead for a week or more. They said he had taken poison and were suspecting suicide, considering the cup of tea next to the bed and the bottle of rat poison next to it. There was powder on his fingers and on the floor beside the bed.
After the police left, Lulu sat there fighting the storm that shook inside her. There were too many what ifs playing in her mind but after however long she had sat there, a feeling of relief took over her and she could feel freedom sewing wings on her back. What she didn’t know was that in that time while she sat in the kitchen with the police, digesting it all after their departure, the person lying in bed in the next room and had breathed her last. The pills had worked faster than she had expected.
The Drinking Sin
When Lana visited I would hide the alcohol and make sure that the room’s window was wide open to let any residual of cigarette smoke out, not that it helped as the smoke clung to everything in my room. A day came when she just rocked up unannounced and found me hungover with a stale breath of tobacco and my room looking like a tornado had just passed through it. That was the day that she decided to invite Jesus to the table.
“You’re going to have to change into something more decent,” said Lana, walking into my room without even knocking.
“Hello to you too, I’m very well, thank you for asking. It’s that simple, you know?” It was my day off work and all I wanted was to be alone.
“Hi. If you don’t hurry we’re going to be late for church,” she said.
“Uh…we? I’m sorry but they never sent me a formal invitation and I’m not one to gate-crash, I think it is bad manners. You can go alone, I’m cool.” I threw my head back on the pillow. I was in only a vest and knickers. Sleeping around was starting to make me less conscious of my body.
She went through my closet dismissing what I had just said and started going on about burning in hell for blasphemy. “You’ve been putting off going to church for more than two months and today I will not take no for an answer,” she ordered.
“I can’t leave without showering. I thought they said ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ sooo…”
She pushed and nagged until I found myself at church and was not happy to be there at all. “Stop looking like I have just forced you to clean public toilets; you ought to be grateful because I’m helping you,” she said.
We were just in time and she chose seats that were right at the front row. Her reason for sitting there was that she wanted to be closer to the Lord and receive more blessings. If that was the logic then I felt bad for the people right at the back, they would only get a whiff of these blessings. As soon as the pastor walked onto the pulpit the choir blasted into a loud and powerful hymn. By the time the song came down and everyone had settled down, he had already said ‘Hallelujah in Jesus’ name’ about twenty times. I was counting.
He opened the sermon with ‘change’. He preached on how we had the ability to change and ought to do so to please Him who had created us in His own image. I zoned off for a bit and my attention was brought back to life when I heard him read from the Bible about how we cannot ‘pour new wine in old skins.’ Now that’s what I wanted to hear; I guess church wasn’t as bad as I thought. I didn’t really have a problem with churches and I let other religions be as long as they didn’t be around me. As a Catholic child, born and raised but not exactly in practice, it was difficult to blend in with other religions and that was the main reason I had been refusing to accompany Lana to her non-Catholic church, amongst other reasons.
It finally came to an end and just when I was relieved at the thought of going home for a drink Lana had other plans. “Come on, you’re coming with me,” she commanded and at my reluctance asked more politely, “Will you kindly escort me to see someone just for a few minutes? I promise we’ll be done before you know it.”
“Yeah sure, I’ll be your escort. I’ve been told I’d make a great one.”
We met with Pastor James and the first thing I noticed at close view was how young and handsome he was. He was an attractive man who I strongly felt was wasting a lot of his yumminess.
“I asked Pastor if he could pray for you and your problem and…”
“What problem?” I quickly asked, surprised by my own offended reaction.
“Sister Lana here tells me that you have a drinking problem and I believe with the goodness of my heart and the power vested in me by God, that you have come to the right place,” said Pastor James.
“I didn’t come, I was dragged. Sorry we wasted your time Father, Reverend, Pastor; whatever the title,” I said angrily. I could not believe that she dragged me to her church where she knew I was uncomfortable and then went behind my back to tell some stranger about my “drinking” problem. I pulled her to leave but she remained stubborn and braked on her heels, “Bontle, it’s for your own good,” she said.
I could see in her eyes that she meant well and of all people, she knew me best and wanted what was best for me. I stood there and finally said, “Okay, call Jesus then and let’s do this.”
He laughed, as if he had seen my type before and then told me that God could penetrate even the most stubborn of souls. He asked me if I had been born again and I responded that I wasn’t sure if my mother could repeat the same process, given my age, body size and weight and not forgetting the impracticality of her aging body to carry out such a miraculous task.
“Yes we do have more than a minute Pastor,” Lana jumped in.
I could have just slapped her big, shiny forehead. I could have been using that time to drink. I hated their sympathetic faces and the tone in their voices that said they knew what was best and could take care of my problems.
“May I ask you something Sister Bontle?” he asked. I nodded.
“Why is it difficult for you to stop drinking?”
“It’s not difficult for me to stop drinking. That’s where everyone is getting it wrong, hence the misconception of me being an alcoholic. I can stop, I just don’t want to. It’s that simple. I do not feel the need to quit because I don’t have a problem. Don’t get me wrong, I do have problems like everyone else but it’s certainly not what I put down my throat,” I answered him. I was hoping he had caught the pun but his facial expressions remained the same – concerned.
He nodded. I was beginning to feel irritated by this total stranger who thought he was some hand of God that could heal us who were weaker than him. Suddenly the cuteness I had seen faded and all there was before me was a self-righteous joke who probably robbed people of offerings by claiming to have some healing powers.
“Let us pray,” he said. He asked that I kneel in front of him and amused by the way it would look, I certainly obeyed.
I raised my left eyebrow and pouted questioningly and she gave me an encouraging look. Well, why not get it over and done with? I didn’t mind the whole praying thing but his hands pressing hard on my braids was not something I could work with. I had just braided my hair the day before and they were still stiff and painful at a slight touch. I pushed them off slowly and he said, “Bless my hand to fight the demons that are fighting inside this child’s soul.”
He carried on praying in some language that I couldn’t understand, I assumed maybe that’s what they called speaking in tongues. He was now pushing and pulling my head violently. Not only did it bother me that he was hurting me but I felt that the whole picture did not look pretty, and I couldn’t understand why the two of them didn’t see anything wrong with it. I was kneeling in front of him and he had his hands on my head, pushing it back and forth. She was busy saying Amen and Hallelujah while he continued speaking in his strange language. It took longer than I expected; my head and neck hurt, my knees hurt and I was starting to feel drowsy from all the head pushing and whirling. I just shouted Amen, hoping that it would speed up the process. He finally switched back to English and said, “Jesus, you have heard my prayer and I believe your child has been healed. I drive out the demons in your name, Amen.” He pushed me so hard on the forehead, I fell backwards and balanced myself on my elbows in order to avoid landing on my head. I lay still on the floor for a while and waited for him to cease panting as though he had been running a marathon. He said to her; “She has been cured and she will never touch a drop of alcohol again.” I stood up silently and looked at both of them.
“How are you feeling?” he asked me, “How amazing is the power of our Lord Jesus? My sister, He who died on the cross for our sins, He who was baptised by John the Baptist, He who healed many and continues to heal you and I has placed his hand upon you.”
My head was pounding and I was tired. I needed to get home.
“The Lord Jesus has spoken to you,” he continued. “Jesus, who resisted the Devil’s temptation, has touched you and you shall walk in his shoes and resist the Devil’s temptation,” he continued louder this time. I was getting tired of the man’s circus show. Although my head was still aching, my neck was recovering from the sudden thrust with his ‘demon-driving’ performance.
“Jesus was the one…” he was about to say when I interrupted him.
“Yes, Jesus who turned water into wine, hallelujah for that, Lana let’s go.”
Lana refused to speak to me for a week until I agreed to apologise to the pastor. I lied to him that I hadn’t touched a single drop and thanked him. The pastor was pleased, Lana was pleased and I was pleased to be able to go home and wash down my sins with a bottle of whiskey. Amen.
Short Story: A Lonely Foreigner
Jessica first ignored the light tap on the door but after three persistent knocks that were intent on waking her, she told the person at the door to come in.
“It’s past twelve, Madam, and you haven’t eaten anything. Should I make something for you?” asked Brenda, the grumpy, forty-something year old maid who looked after Jessica and her flatmate, Mercy.
She didn’t have much of an appetite and after spending most of the night wiping away tears and missing out and a few good hours of sleep, she felt slightly sick. Her boyfriend had picked up the phone but the conversation had been fruitless with all the noise in the background, clear to her that he was having more fun wherever he was and wasn’t planning on ditching his friends for some quiet, quality time with her.
“I’ll have something later, Brenda. I just need to rest a bit, please, if you don’t mind?” she pleaded, her eyes darting over to the open door.
Aware of the message, Brenda shuffled out of the room, mumbling something in Swahili. She was worried about the girl and was irritated by her failure to help her. Jessica had been unwell for a while and she was convinced that if she didn’t have to go to work she would lock herself up in her room all day and night, like a prisoner. She had tried to convince Mercy to get her out more often but both their efforts had failed.
The large bedroom was open and simply furnished; a large queen-sized bed posed in the middle with a cushioned headboard and a small wooden table on the left side where a plain, wooden lamp sat and Wangari Maathai’s The Challenge for Africa sat. A flat screen television was placed on a small, metal stand and she apathetically flipped through the channels, until she gave up and left it on some reality show that followed the lives of dramatic housewives who had too much money and time on their hands.
A framed A5-sized paper with her favourite quote, words that propelled her to doing her job were inscribed on it in Monotype Corsiva font – “…Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome …” by Nelson Mandela. It was the only effort she had made to give the room an aesthetic touch. She was all about simplicity and both her passion and the ghosts of her job that haunted her made her reluctant to spend money on décor.
The phone under her pillow rang and she quickly sat up, removing it from where she had placed it, with the belief that if she had left it anywhere further than that she’d have missed David’s call, but he had neither called nor sent a simple text after their first called had failed. She looked at the screen and it was Mercy, checking up on her for the second time that day. She had hoped it would be David or work asking her to come in even though they had forced her to take the day off.
“I’m still alive, Mercy,” she said unconvincingly.
“Are you sure? You sound like you’re from the belly of a grave. What are you planning to do with your day off? And please do not tell me you’re going to stay in bed the whole day waiting for that rectal deposit to call you,” snorted Mercy at the last sentence. David was not one of her favourite people on the planet and she made no sweat to conceal her abhorrence.
Jessica ignored the remark and lied, “Of course not, I’ve just taken a shower and planning on going out for some fresh air, maybe coffee or something.”
“No, you haven’t. You’re in bed, drowning yourself in your own tears and sunjis (an informal word that their Zambian friends had said meant vaginal juices), feeling sorry for yourself and hiding from Al-Shabaab. Come now, go to the mall or the market or something,” she urged. Jessica knew that Mercy and Brenda had discussed her refusal to eat or get out of bed, and she was sure Brenda had seasoned the story with her own exaggerated details. She finally told her she would go to the market to look for something. She had never been to Kenyatta Market but she assured her worried flatmate that it would be good for her to explore and interact with the local folk.
Her bloodshot eyes stared back at her in the mirror as she brushed her teeth. Her eye-bags had grown a disturbing size too big and their dark colour had deepened. Her braids had gone past the acceptable period of being kept and were starting to look like unkempt dreadlocks, with the white dirt vulgarly sticking out where the hairpiece was tied to her hair. She had high cheekbones, small thin lips and her dark-brown penetrating eyes were under an umbrella of thick, long lashes. Her small protruding forehead, long thin face and tall and slim figure gave her an exotic look, she inwardly enjoyed being mistaken for an Ethiopian as she believed they were Africa’s most gorgeous creations. Looking at the mirror she appeared more Ethiopian in a starved-children-in-Africa way that was mostly portrayed by the Western world. The head ached and the tension in her neck and shoulders were unbearable. Her joints made her feel like an arthritic, old aged woman whose back was bent and fingers deformed by the disease that she was close to self-diagnosing.
The first dress that she held out was a navy, vintage number that she placed under favourites but she remembered the many times that Brenda had reminded her how conservative Kenyans were and a black woman dressing in short skirts and dresses was a muzungu (white person) culture therefore outside the perimeters of black traditions. The long coral one now hanged on her like a tent and exposed the hipbones that sharply stuck out. She finally went for her usual look, the one that she was most comfortable in, a pair of black faded jeans and a loose black top. The jeans were slightly loose but didn’t make her look as skeletal as most of her clothes now did.
Jessica hadn’t told Mercy that her organisation was still looking for a replacement driver as her previous one, along with a few of his buddies had been fired for theft. The organisation had a warehouse where they kept aid in stock, to deliver to the places where they conducted their anti-poverty missions. About four staff drivers had colluded with two of the aid truck drivers and had been collecting a generous quantity to sell. Jessica was to wait for a free driver from work and as she was off-duty she was second priority to the person currently using the car for work purposes. She decided to take a matatu to Kenyatta Market. She wasn’t planning on staying there for long or going on a shopping spree, two or three items would do.
“Madame, you must make sure you change that ka posh accent of yours or else they will rip you off with muzungu prices. Once they hear that you are not Kenyan they will feast on you and take all your money,” warned Brenda. Jessica nodded, took a small, modest sling bag, placed five thousand shillings, debated over taking her smart phone and finally opted for her old cheap one, lip balm, tissue and hand sanitizer.
She could feel Brenda’s eye on her and turned to face her, “Okay, what else?” There was clearly some more travel advice that she had to take from the woman.
“Do you have coins? You can’t give a thousand in a matatu and separate your money because when you take it out at the market they will notice that you are made of money. You rich people also…” she muttered the last part. She gave her instructions on asking the conductor about the fares before mounting the matatu and getting slapped in the face with a ridiculous amount. The fares were not as she was used to, not fixed, for example, the fares went up when it rained and when it was peak hours and at night when people were desperate to get home. “Why when it rains?” Brenda laughed, “We Kenyans melt in the rain so we run.” The woman’s small frame vibrated as she laughed off.
The conductor was shouting at the top of his lungs, hanging on the door of the beaten fourteen-seat Nissan. The matatu was a shabby piece of graffiti with “God bless our journey” and what she assumed were Swahili words that she was not familiar with. Her Swahili was enough to greet, say thanks and goodbye. She and a number of people were hastily escorted into the matatu by the conductor and as it rattled on its way he ran after it, a dirty sack of money tightly gripped in his hand and he jumped onto it as it was already moving off the bus stop. Instead of taking a seat inside he continued hanging dramatically on the open door, the rusty door squeaking and weakly hanging onto the hinges with its last breath. The matatu made stops wherever the driver spotted a passenger and it didn’t matter to him if he had to jump in front of other vehicles, taking them by surprise and causing them to quickly press onto their brakes so as to not bump into him.
Jessica had the window seat at the back. There were only three seats but four people were squeezed in. As more people were hurriedly shoved in the conductor encouraged, “Room for one more, room for one more” and passengers were squashed inside the vehicle like sardines in a can. The window was shut and something was broken as she could not open it to let fresh air in. The aggressive heat of the sun made its way into the matatu and the rays set straight into her face through the window, she had to cap her eyes with her hand. The faster it went the more dust it coughed up from its floor and the rattling metal competed with the blaring music. Jessica wasn’t sure if it was the noise itself that wanted to make her break down in tears or the bad quality song of a Kenyan rapper clearly emulating Drake, to a point of using most of the rapper’s lyrics.
The guy next to her must have been in his early twenties, skinny, beautifully dark skinned like oil, and his thin face told Jessica that he was one of those boys who went out to hustle to make ends meet. He was clad in a faux-leather jacket, a cap worn backward and had a fake gold watch on his left wrist. A black bag rested on his lap and he unconsciously caressed it with the affection that one displayed when a pet sat on their lap.
“Madame, do you like movies?” he sprang the question to her so unexpectedly that at first she thought he was talking to someone else. He was leaning close to her ear but not facing her straight. “Madame?” he finally rested his eyes on her face. The way the backseat was squashed having his face in hers and his stale breath penetrating her nostrils was beyond intrusive. She looked out the window and noticed how despite the bridge above people didn’t bother with it and preferred risking crossing the highway where cars came flying. “Madame?” She finally turned to face him. “I say, do you like movies? DVDs and such?”
Jessica gave him a puzzled look and finally raised her hand, “Thank you very much but I’ll pass.” She thought the guy was asking her out or trying his luck hitting on her. He persisted, “You know, I sell movies for a very cheap price.” It dawned on her when he said that and he tapped his bag. “I am not interested, thank you.”
“Listen,” he whispered, “I can do you a favour and give you five for two-thousand shillings.” She pulled her face away from the window and stared pointedly at him, she could not believe the clear scam that was being thrown at her. She merely shook her head and looked away. “Okay, okay, maybe that’s too much. What if you gave me a deposit of a thousand, take my number and when you have five hundred bob you can collect them from me?” She raised her eyebrows and asked, “And you want me to believe that you won’t disappear with my money?” He shook his head and chuckled, “Madame, I would never do that. Me, I’m a Christian, why would I do such?” She laughed at the irony of it. “I see, no thank you. I don’t like movies.” He finally gave up and looked away. He fetched a set of earphones that were connected to his phone from an outer pocket of his bag, made a selection of music and played on. Jessica wondered how well his earphones could outdo the loud music inside the matatu. When the conductor finally closed the door, satisfied that all the seats were occupied, overly so, he started collecting. He had told her that it was fifty bob and that’s what she took out when he collected from the back.
Scores of people were hurrying about. Men and women in cheap suits, formal dresses and high heels, casual jeans and loose jeans, woollen tops and jerseys in the fierce heat, tattered shirts and fading pants that were carefully pressed – people of all kinds walked the streets on a mission to get somewhere. She noticed the deserted matatu stage (taxi rank) along the opposite lane on the right and all the matatus lined up on the road to pick up people where it was against the law. They clearly found the stage a waste of the time, they picked up and dropped off anywhere on the road, adding to the traffic. The traffic lights at the roundabout were ignored and vehicles from all directions jumped in and one had to boldly force their way through. The driving was quite aggressive. Each driver drove with a sense of entitlement to getting way. It was something she had learned about Kenyan driving the first day she had arrived in the country.
As they passed high buildings owned by major companies her thoughts shifted to something else. She had read the words on the building, ‘PriceWaterhouseCooper’ with a sense of nostalgia. David had started off there after graduating from the University of Cape Town, where they had met. A sudden wave of emotion swept through her body and she wished she could see him or at least hear his voice over the phone. The phone hadn’t rung but she consoled herself by believing that he had probably tried her other phone. She wanted to save a boat that was sinking but she didn’t know how when its occupant didn’t seem to mind sinking with it. Maybe he had spotted a bank where he’d swim to once she had sunk to the bottom with her boat. She brushed off the thought and tried to think about something else.
She noticed an elderly lady under the shade of one of the trees that dotted the separating part between the two roads. About four children of about the age group of two to five played close to her. While the matatu came to a halt because of the slow-moving traffic she couldn’t take her eyes off them; rags clinging on to their emaciated figures. A small figure was wrapped in ragged sheets on the grass and she saw the rise and fall of its chest, a small head resting on a smaller made-up pillow. She bit back the tears. Can we really fix it? She wondered. Jessica was the project manager at her anti-poverty organisation and each day comprised of efforts to save the lives of the people like the ones she was looking at through the dusty window. The more poverty-stricken places they visited the more she felt like a failure because what they were fighting seemed to double or triple each time she thought they had achieved something and eliminated a bit of the scum of poverty. It always seemed to grow back on the skins of the unfortunate population and no matter how many times they did their best to scrub it off, it was like a chronic disease, something of a recurring nature.
Cars started moving and the children were out of her sight but their image lingered in her thoughts for a while. New buildings were erected everywhere she looked, money was being invested in the things that should have been of second priority, she thought to herself. The city centre was an ant’s field, people were hurrying in all directions. Cars were braking a breath away from each other’s noses, everyone forcing to squeeze their way through. Road courtesy was only offered by a very few. Toyota was definitely making pots of gold in the country, she figured. Then Subaru and all the others. The ones with full pockets, a small class of the population drove the Mercs, the Beemers and the Range Rovers. Middle class was not quite popular in the country, the rest were left with toes sticking out of their worn-out shoes, lived in indecent dwellings and spent their lives trekking and filling matatus to cheese-land to look after the rich.
She got off at the matatu GPO stage in town where she asked one of the touts to show here where she could find one to Kenyatta Market. She tried her best to put on a Kenyan accent but she could feel the words betraying her as they slipped out on a posh red carpet on her tongue. The tout was clad in jeans that had seen life in its naked form, there were oily stains at the bottom where the hem appeared to have been devoured by rats. His t-shirt had old mud stains that had become part of the design. His reeking armpits, alcohol breath and the fetid smell of dried urine needed more than water and soap – they needed to be exorcised or something on that level. He escorted her to number thirty three and just when she was about to join the queue he tapped her on the shoulder, “Madame?” He stood with a dirty and calloused hand stretched out. She tossed a few coins into his palm, carefully avoiding any contact with his flesh. Jessica had the urge to offer her hand sanitizer but as the people in the queue were quickly herded into the matatu she quickly left him and joined them.
The roundabout on Uhuru Highway was controlled by a police officer who stood leisurely in the sun, a walkie-talkie in his hand and a gun dangling from his shoulder. Jessica was uneasy when a truck driving next to the matatu indicated to hop into their lane and instead of waiting for way to be cleared it suddenly swerved in front of them, its behind swinging behind it and leaving them to thrust forward by the abrupt braking of the matatu. As she cursed under her breath she realised how unbothered the rest of the passengers were.
This matatu was not as loud as the first one, and she was grateful. She was also glad that she hadn’t been forced to sit next to the heavy lady who occupied two seats with her ample flesh and the mountain of plastic bags that sat on her lap. She could see the Kenyatta National Hospital in the near distance, she shivered when she remembered Brenda’s stories of how terrible the service was, so bad that people died in queues waiting to be attended to. The KMTC, Kenya Medical Training Centre was a beaten building with a myriad of clothes hanging out of windows to dry.
Brenda had told her to get off opposite the Mbagathi District Hospital and she would see the market right in front of her. The stalls outside the market had an assortment of second-hand clothes, belts hanging like dead snakes, stands of fake leather handbags and shoes of all makes and names. Other stalls had bras and panties suspended in no matching order as they would in a lingerie shop. She walked through the entrance and before she could make a few more steps in, three ladies were holding multi-coloured hair fabrics inviting her to braid her hair. In Joburg she usually walked confidently that she wouldn’t be bothered if she had braids because they usually followed you around if your hair was all natural and idle, inviting hands to tug at it and interweave fake hair to it. The hairdressers were aggressive, all in her face that at one point she couldn’t move because they surrounded her, hands gripping her. She could not understand the Swahili words but it was obvious that they were asking to undo her hair and then plait anew. A man in a white coat stained with red marks and heavy Wellington boots came to her rescue, said something in their language and they immediately moved away. It turned out the man only did that to harass her into going over his stall for nyama choma (grilled meat). “No, I’m fine thank you…er…but thanks for your help with…them” she said awkwardly as she walked away.
She wasn’t sure which way to go but kept on walking. The market was a labyrinth of passage connecting passage, small stalls everywhere she turned. It was exhausting to have to walk past all the people inviting her in, some shouting after her to try this and that. Hairdressers were planted all over the market, along with tailors and other stalls that sold shukas, lessos, Safari shirts, floral dresses, kikoys and many other things. She randomly picked a stall where shukas were hanging outside the door and walked in. There were only three old women and the small room was cool. “Habari zenu (How are you?)” she greeted them. “Nzuri sana” they responded. She looked around for something that she could buy, her eye fixed on the price tags that were visible on some so that she wouldn’t have to ask how much they were and open a window to being ripped off. She touched a green shuka hanging in front of her, as she felt the fabric she flipped its corners, searching for a price tag. Her eyes landed on a small sticker written seven hundred shillings and she was relieved.
“Nikusaidie nini?” one of the women asked. She turned out to be the owner of the stall. Jessica knew saidia had something to do with help and she replied, “This shuka” she pointed at the green one she had been holding. The lady asked her something in Swahili. The question threw her off her Swahili confidence platform and she frowned at the lady in confusion, “Sorry?” The lady, aware that Jessica was not a local asked again in English, “What else?” She asked for the shuka in red, just like the Maasai people, she emphasised.
One of the ladies bluntly laughed, “You are not from here, are you? The way you foreigners are obsessed with the Maasai heh? As if some of our tribe don’t existed.” She shook her head, the bitterness on her face apparent. Jessica decided to ignore the remark. The woman was probably Kikuyu, the biggest tribe and the one that the president and his father, Jomo Kenyatta belonged to. A lot of non-Kikuyus expressed their aversion to the tribe that thought it ruled the nation. The lady fetched a red shuka from behind a curtain at the back, Jessica picked a white lesso that had sunflowers on it. The woman smiled, “Yes, you wrap this around your waist while working in the house or cooking for your man, or even wear it when it’s hot and you don’t feel like wearing clothes.” A floral dress that she was swayed to buy because it would sit nicely on her small figure was picked and a green and orange kikoy. “Three thousand, five hundred,” the lady said after punching numbers on a calculator. Jessica tried to protest and ask for a discount but failed. She paid and left.
Catching her face in a mirror in one of the salons she was tempted to sort out her hair, besides, she was off and had nothing else to do. One of the ladies, either reading her thoughts or driven by the opportunity of a woman with frowzy hair staring in the mirror, invited her to sit down. Mercy did her braids at the same market and claimed they were much cheaper than the fancy salons at the malls. She settled on the low plastic chair and two hands were already working on untangling the knots and removing her old braids. The hair was washed and she did her best to ignore the stale smelling towel that had clearly been used on someone else. She didn’t want to come off as a snob and so she grit her teeth and convinced herself that the heat from the hairdryer would kill the germs. Three hands were on her head. They had introduced themselves but she could only remember the name Constance but not sure which one it was. One of the women was loud and had the most to say to everything that was said. The chewing gum between her teeth was in utter torture, she wished she could bail it out with a fifty bob. Jessica was disturbed by the girl’s hand occasionally scratching her crotch and returning it to her head. She said a silent prayer asking for the absence of pubic lice or whatever kind of bug that would be donated to her.
She called the travel desk at work and asked for a pickup from the Kenyatta Market in an hour. The ladies would be done in about two hours but she was taking traffic into consideration. She didn’t want to have to wait at the market with nothing to do while the driver was sitting in traffic for an hour or more. Unfortunately the driver had to drop off someone else before her and would only be able to fetch her in two hours. She wasn’t up for the matatu ride and so she could only hope that the driver would be the sooner that she had been told. One of the girls left to buy food and later came back with three black plastic bags. She removed the contents onto three plastic plates that she had fetched from a cupboard on the side. Greasy chips, nyama (meat) and ugali (pap). The girls invited her to dig in as they did the same. They would pick some food, throw it into their mouths, and wipe their hands on their thighs while holding on to her hair with another hand. They were really good at their task, braiding and eating at the same time. She was invited to dig in and she finally decided to have a little so as to not offend them. The goat meat was delicious. They were really good at their task, braiding and eating at the same time. She was invited to dig in and she finally decided to have a little so as to not offend them. The goat meat was delicious. She had had nyama choma from Max Land, down the road from where she lived and she loved it. This meat was just as good and she carried on eating. When they were finally done she was charged double what Mercy said she was usually charged. They had caught the foreign accent and had seen a gold mine, she thought.
After walking around some more, picking out some oranges and bananas, the driver finally arrived and they were on their way home. Stuck in traffic she tried to get hold of David and just when she was about to give up on her third attempt he picked up.
“Hey babe,” he said cheerfully.
A current of electricity shot threw her veins and settled in her stomach, producing a festivity of butterflies. A smile immediately replaced the grim look she had had on a few seconds before he answered. “Hi baby, oh I’m so glad you finally picked up.” She was relived. He told her he had tried her on her other line and was waiting for her to call him back. She would discover when getting at home that ‘trying her’ meant one call and giving up after that, unlike her million and one calls that usually went unanswered and unreturned. They were to have dinner at eight at The Palanka, African Cuisine and she was looking forward to it. She was glad that she had done her hair and on the way home all she could think about was what to wear and how the night would go. She needed to put in more effort into her relationship if she wanted it to work. She had to. If only she knew that dinner meant discovering that he was getting married to a high school sweetheart, despite the fact that she had asked for the Kenyan post just to be with him.
Short Story: Playing Records
The cow was late and Uncle Solly had to wait; some said he was still at the morgue and others said the hearse carrying him was somewhere on the side of the road. I kept on asking when he would arrive and was repeatedly corrected, “Stop asking when he’s coming like he’ll walk through that door, just ask when he will be brought.”
People framed the sides of the road up until the bend down our street. It was the cow that was first delivered and a gap of time was given to allow it to be tied to the apricot tree next to the storage shack. There was fear in its eyes as though it could sense that the end was near. The sight of the hearse crawling towards the gate gave me both relief and a sting of apprehension. He was here. I knew he was here but instead of the tall, bald and dark-skinned man with twinkling eyes, a coffin lay inside the hearse and inside was what I was not ready to accept.
I left my post and waited in the stuffy room where his wife, Ous Ouma was lying on the new mattress on the floor. The chief mourner who appeared to be leisurely resting more than mourning. We were oil and water.
“Is he here?” she asked. I pretended not to hear and walked past without looking at her. She was a pile of indescribable enormity, rolls of flesh sitting in a heap that left one with the inability to tell where the parts of her body started or where they ended.
“I said, is the corpse finally here?” she stressed the words.
“No, he decided to cancel on us,” I retorted. Uncle Solly would have been livid with this sort of behaviour but there was a spiralling hurricane of anger inside me when it came to his wife. There was something about her that said if one ever needed to sample hell all they needed to do was spend a few seconds with her. She was hell standing on two feet. That would later be proven right when she left the day after the funeral and never to be heard from again. I would later learn that she hadn’t been a legal wife but a mere girlfriend who had been hoping to get a ring out of my uncle, followed by money and the house.
She had no time to respond as the group of men carrying the coffin into the house, led by the priest, proceeded into the house singing a miserable dirge that drilled holes in my stomach. A curtain was placed in the corner of the room where the bier stood, I hadn’t noticed the funeral parlour employees walk into the house to set them up. Perhaps their swift and unnoticeable movements came with the repetition of the task.
Night’s blanket dressed the sky and drie-voet pots started boiling over the outside fire, tables were surrounded by women with towels and blankets tied around their waists and some with babies strapped on their backs. Prayer came and went. They prattled on about funerals, the hard life in the township and stories that circulated the corners of the streets. The loss was felt by different people in different ways and for different reasons.
“Eish, Bra Sols was always spoiling me with two beers whenever he came to the shebeen. Now I’m left with these stingy bastards who just want me as a mattress,” lamented the well-known township bicycle.
“Ja ne, that man was a good man. Straight. If only he had picked the right woman, shame,” said a woman with a baby sucking on her sagging breast, with a hint of how she could have made the perfect wife to my uncle.
The aroma of Royco and different kinds of spices filled the night air. There were people who enjoyed these night vigils. Most were genuinely there to pay last their respects to a friend and filled the emptiness left by the loss with an unremitting drive to work and make sure all logistics of the funeral were in top shape. The night died and before the stars could blink, morning was reborn.
The family tent was suffocating; a blend of smelly feet and foul body odour. The stench was unbearably intrusive to the nose. There were faces I had never seen before and only a few of my uncle’s side of the family, which was my mother’s side of the family. My mother had died two days after giving birth and my absent father had was as good as dead.
The skinny woman next to me whose name escaped me competed with the choir. She was off-key and had no singing voice at all.
“It is weeeeeeellllll, with my ssssooooooouuullll,” she croaked. I suspected that the farts I smelled came from her and thought how not so well it was her soul. There was the usual that took place – the mad person springing out of nowhere and wailing, the pastor going on and on for eternity and the young people who whispered among themselves forgetting where they were.
I felt guilty for not being able to weep and throw myself to the ground or wail my heart out like some people did. I wanted to suck in other people’s tears and let them fill my heart to the brim until they’d overflow and gush out of my eyes. There was nothing, my eyes were dry wells. After they left I briefly stood near the covered grave by myself and whispered, “Where are you?”
Just like that the funeral passed, Uncle Solly was buried and the next day brought another new day. This simplicity of life burdened me with sadness – no matter who died, the stars continued to shine, the sun shone and the earth continued to spin. It was a grey morning and the clouds were wet curtains with drips of rain. It was drizzling when I woke. I went out to the front and on the red stoep lay the heap of clothes that my aunt was sprinkling with water from a bucket. I asked what the water was for and she told me that it was just water with a piece of aloe plant to cleanse the clothes.
“You will also have to be cleansed in the same water and have your head shaved,” said one of Ouma’s relatives, a sister or something.
“Not if you paid me,” I said and walked back into the house.
Picking from his belongings meant I’d be collecting memories and it was all too quick for me. Memories were for things in the past and he was not in the past. I wanted my uncle back not his clothes, not things to remind me of him.
My aunt warned, “And listen, you must wear the clothes within three months or else bad luck will follow you.” I wanted to ask what could be worse than losing the only person whose existence had been the reason for my existence. She would’ve smacked the grief out of me.
“Where’s my uncle’s music?” I turned to Ous Ouma.
“I don’t know, the trunk must be around somewhere. There was a lot of work to be done and things were shifted around…” she stuttered.
“Where is my uncle’s music?”
My aunt spotted it being loaded and into a van and rescued it.
“I just wanted to remember him with that music,” said Ous Ouma.
“You can use the memories of when he swiped his bank card for you,” I said.
A choir of disapproving voices rained on me.
I spent the evening trying to negotiate with death and asking if perhaps there had been an error in admin. I wasn’t ready and I refused to accept that Uncle Solly had been ready. They all did their best with repeated words of consolation and tales of him being in a better place. What they didn’t get was that a better place was with me. What was a thirteen year old going to do with loss in her hands and her heart missing from her chest? I didn’t win in my negotiations and I had to accept that death had walked out with my uncle in tow. The things that adults told me didn’t make any sense to me.
“He went like a king.” How do kings go?
“He is in a better place.” Have you been?
Each day, cracks formed on the earth beneath my feet and a river of pain bled towards me. It gushed forward with determination and no intention to stop. It burned. The river. It burned me. I stayed there and waited for it to drown me but it didn’t. Instead, it licked me with its flames and I waited until the day I would become a pile of ashes but it didn’t get there. Broken. Hollow. Haemophilic wounds wouldn’t stop bleeding.
“Are you okay, nana?”
I lied and said I was fine and hanging in there. I was not ready to hang in there so I lied. I made excuses for my pain. They sympathized for a very short time and then they sought what’s normal. I felt that people could only bear so much of a sad face and catch so many tears until they grew tired and all of my grief soon became a burden. I had to be a child and quickly forget because children aren’t meant to understand these things.
I had to repeat after them, about places and the next world of peace. I had to say I had found tranquillity in the arms of deities. I had to tell them I had moved on. I had to tell them that I was only left with scars and that I would find joy in happy memories. I had to lie. I didn’t tell them that each night, after they left and the world left me alone I stared at the door hoping Uncle Solly would return.
“My day was good.” Lie.
“I’m just thankful for the time he was here on earth with me.” Lie.
“I celebrate the great moments we shared while he was still alive.” Another lie.
I refused to go play with my friends or go anywhere except school and church. I wanted to be at home. I wanted to be in the same space that he had dwelled, breathe in the same air that had filled his lungs until the day his lungs decided not to take in any of it anymore. I wanted to look for him and feel him so that I could accept his absence and learn how to be without him. I wanted to feel the vibrations of his beautiful heart on the ground he had danced on.
I wanted to sit on the chair that he used to sit on when we ate in the living room, hold the spoon on my left hand just as he had done even though I was right handed, and chew like him, taste the food he used to enjoy and wash them down with a glass of ice-cold water the way he used to. I wanted to look for my Uncle Solly in the natural spaces he had occupied for so many years. I wished I could see him in the eyes of the people who last saw him and think of him through the way they spoke about him and the way he had made them feel.
The tears that had been locked inside my ribcage refusing to leave and free me of misery dripped out the day I gathered the courage to open the trunk and play the records. We used to sit in his room for hours, with the only words coming out of our mouths being the lyrics. Tea would sit until it got cold and no one would interrupt.
I found my Uncle Solly in his records, in the music he had loved and in the depth of their lyrics and the peace in their rhythm. I was reviving his heartbeat through the melody of the songs, hearing his laughter in the songs and learning to find happiness in the happiness that I would remember to once feeling when I would sit in that same room and sing along to words I barely understood. He was right there in the music.
They never told me how or why he had died and I lost all interest in knowing. The knowledge would not bring his physical presence back to me. For a long time I thought I knew loneliness and the emptiness of not having parents but with losing Uncle Solly I felt its reality. I had to keep on playing his records to never feel alone.
I swayed my head side to side as I sang along, at the top of my voice, to Stevie Wonder as he delivered the poetic lyrics of Free. I hoped that before Uncle Solly passed away he had danced in his heart and that he had truly felt “freer than a smile in a baby’s sleeping eyes.”
They all came to my rescue in the worst of times; Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Louis Armstrong, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Anita Baker, Donna Summer, Marvin Gaye and all of the occupants of the trunk. I cried at most of them but I also laughed at some of the reminiscences they painted. I remembered how I would sing along to Barry with as deep of a voice a little girl could muster and say his lyrics without any understanding of their meaning, “Hey babe, your foreplay just blows my mind.” Uncle Solly would laugh and say that one day I would be too shy to sing the song around any adult.
I slept in the comforting embrace of the sounds of Ashford & Simpson, I grieved to the stabbing closeness of Soul to Soul by The Temptations. There was so much that the songs managed to say in a way that I failed to deliver. I wanted to speak what was in my heart but my infantile heart didn’t know how and all I could do was hear myself in the songs, all my thoughts spinning with the records.
I remembered how we would both attempt to pull the long note with Billy Withers when he sang Lovely Day and both fail dismally. We would laugh so hard, his roaring laughter overpowering my soft giggles. With each trying day, I hoped that it was true what they said about him being in heaven. If that was where he was I only prayed that God would look after him as my uncle had looked after me and love him as he had loved me, and that would be enough for me.
Short Story: A Way Out
Only Pastor Moloto knows the culprit that put Jackson, the former shopkeeper in a wheelchair. He watches the poor man wheel himself into the church every Sunday, the first to arrive and his pride beams on his face. Jackson makes sure he gets there before the whole congregation so that he can have a private session of soul-cleansing prayer with the pastor. Jackson still cannot believe how easily the pastor has forgiven him for what he did to him years ago, when he still had his legs, his booming business and his ruthless charm.
“Do you agree to rid yourself of evil?” asks Pastor Moloto.
“Yes, I place my sins in your hands, I rid myself of all evil and I ask the Lord to take this burden from me,” responds Jackson. His head hangs so low the weight could pull all his body off the wheelchair altogether. His glum face fails to meet the pastor’s and his frail voice drags itself from his mouth. Pastor Moloto does not see the eyes that are flooded with tears but he knows they will start falling any minute, he can hear it in the man’s quavering voice.
“Well, then it is the duty that God has given me and I shall carry it with all my strength even when it breaks my back. Give not to me your burden but to the Lord,” he says as he points to the brown sack that sits at the corner of the room.
Jackson fumbles with his hands and the coins chink in his pockets, the pastor turns away and waits for him to finish. He always reminds his congregation that they must not remove money in his sight as he must not lay his eyes on their evils, all he is tasked with is to collect the sack once it’s filled and go do the work of the Lord by disposing of it. Many believe that he throws it away and they do not question him at all. They dare not question his actions as he is a man sent by God to save them despite his ever growing paunch, the Mercedes and the double-story house that he recently built. All these he calls the Lord’s miracles and promises his flock that if they submit to the Almighty as he has, they too shall receive the same gifts.
As Jackson wheels across the old, dusty carpet to the sack and empties the few coins he has, Pastor Moloto takes the small jar where he stores cheap cooking oil that he uses to smear on his members’ foreheads. The oil that absorbs their sorrows. He mumbles a few words and turns to the man who firmly believes he is in the process of absolution and journeying to getting his legs back. Pastor Moloto promised that he would walk again.
Members of Lerumo La Moya – Spear of the Spirit Christian Church pour into the small shack of worship, clad in their Sunday best and their pockets filled with what their leader calls the ‘symbol of evil.’ Children’s faces are smeared with Vaseline, women’s heads are roofed with cheap synthetic hair that imitates misleading beauty standards, and men’s best shoes are polished to give a shine that hides the ageing material as best as possible.
“And banabeso, the Bible says in Ephesians, chapter six, verse eleven that ‘Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes’ he pauses to let the words sink in and once he has taken in enough nods, yeses and a choir of Amen the train gains speed.
“The Lord, our merciful God does not want us to fall into the trip of the devil and he warns us time and time again to take off the robes of the material world, for it is this material world that blinds us from seeing what is good and what is bad, what is holy and what is evil,” his voice ricochets against the feeble, corrugated iron walls. Saliva showers those sitting at the front and his eyes widen with drama. The theatrical performance gains momentum with each sentence, hands fly, fingers pierce the air and sweat cascades down his chubby face. By the end of the service his garment will be drenched in sweat.
Hands clap, hands are raised in the air, eyes are shut, heads nod vigorously and feet raise the dust from the musty floor. The old chairs squashed against each other to fashion pews creak and threaten to give into gravity. A mass of people stands at the back, latecomers remain on their feet throughout the whole services of three hours and an even bigger crowd outside strains to hear the words of Pastor Moloto. They accept this discomfort for hearing Pastor Moloto’s words is more important than anything else.
“It is therefore imperative that we acquit ourselves of these preposterous doings of the devil.” Whenever Pastor Moloto wants to impress his flock as a leader that they believe him to be he uses big English words and the response he gets makes him feel like a god. After this energetic and enthusiastic sermon he invites the worshippers to rid of their sins as he kneels in a corner with his back to them. They pour their hard-earned bits into the devil’s sack which he will later claim to be his cross to carry and rid of it. After the service he is seen helping Jackson into the Mercedes, loading the wheelchair into the boot and driving him home.
They find his wife already home, preparing Sunday meals. Tryphina always returns earlier from a different church. Considering how they came to be married and later on have a child, no one raises the issue of her not attending Pastor Moloto’s church. The ineffable remains buried. She greets the pastor but their eyes never meet. He masks his emotions, the anger and hatred that he holds towards the couple and puts on a glowing smile. Even his eyes have finally learned to smile with the lips, whereas before no matter how much he pretended to be friendly his eyes would be cold. Practice has perfected this role he plays. Their child runs in and sits on his lap, a boy of five whose cheerful eyes fail to warm his heart. He takes out a bag of sweets and with a weak pat on the head he sends him off to play. He cannot bear to stare at what could have been his. Tryphina places tea on the dancing table that was once an expensive piece, with stale scones, a cracked bowl of sugar and the last box of milk they have. There’s an energy between them that only they know, perhaps Jackson sees it but chooses not to show it. She knows his gestures, she feels the intensity that surrounds him, the depth of his aura and all through effort she avoids finishing his sentences out loud. He knows her just as well, he feels her inside himself as if all that dwells within her also lives in him and he carries her with him at all times. Jackson is absorbed in pleasing Pastor Moloto – he must have his tea and enjoy the scones.
“Banabeso I cannot stay long, thank you for the tea but as you know, the Lord’s work never stops. God bless you,” he rushes through his words and exists the house.
These visits are the ones that have his flock at his feet ready to follow his every word, to live by it and to breathe it. How can a man be so merciful to a man who had lured the love his life with money and material things? The event that led to his obsession with money. More money, he tells himself.
“If I had had money she would have stayed. That son would have been mine,” he mutters as he enters his car. Suddenly all the things that money has bought seem worthless and all he still wants is to go back in time and do things differently. They were going to get married, he and his high school sweetheart, Tryphina. She had been everything that mattered to him and all that he had done was to please her. He had wanted to give her the life she deserved but with money being tight and the job not taking any step forward to improvement she had rushed into the hands of Mr Money, Jackson. That had been his end. Six years ago but the crack was still open.
Things were different, Tryphina was no longer the same. She no longer shared his dreams and was always impatient with him.
“All the other women are getting married and I am being treated like a teenage girl who stands at the street corner at night with her boyfriend. Are you going to be a man or not?” she asked.
Aubrey Moloto was having difficulty putting money together. His girlfriend wanted a big wedding, she wanted all the expensive things that Aubrey’s tattered pockets could not live up to. One morning, he came home early from his night shift and the lingering kiss in the shopkeeper’s red BMW, the rush into the house, the smudged make-up and the tousled hair spoke deafening words. The offending stench of things that happened between man and woman stuck to her like cheap perfume that refused to come off clothes after washing. Nothing needed to be said and the hands on the hips, the smirk on her face and the way her eyes dared him to ask so that she could openly admit, said it all. In a month a big wedding was attended by all except Aubrey Moloto.
“Poor Aubrey, bathong, such a good man,” the sympathy.
He could be seen dragging his crippled ego around without much aim in life. It was almost as if sanity had taken leave and all that had made sense before ceased to have any worth to him. As if the universe couldn’t defecate any further on his plate, he lost his job too.
That night, he didn’t know what it was he was going to say to them but things needed to be said to close the gap that had been left widening. He was on his way to Jackson’s house when the car came behind him. It was the same one he had watched Tryphina throw her luggage into without looking back. The curved lines drawn by the wheels signalled a driver too inebriated for his own good but he did steadily manage to park in front of the gate. He watched from a few metres away as Jackson oozed out of the driver’s seat onto the ground. Cursing. There was something about the bloody remote control and that whore probably being asleep and not coming to open for him. Gravitational force took effect three times more and he lay on his stomach for long.
“Should I help him?” Aubrey asked himself.
There was an inferno inside of him, a fire that Aubrey never thought his bones could spark. He was a good man, everyone knew that. He knew it too but something was conceived from the feelings he had left for unknown powers to take care of. The betrayal, the disappointment, the humiliation, all the feelings she had left him to swallow with a dry throat surfaced and in front of him was an opportunity to release them. Justice had to be done.
Jackson had gone too far, Tryphina had gone too far and perhaps he was also allowed his own share to go too far. Why not? Grappling with decisions between right and wrong, good and evil. How does a man whose right and good intentions were slaughtered by wrong and evil, still choose to do good? Was he to turn the other cheek? Was he to be the bigger man and walk away?
“If I walk away, I will be heading back to a battered dignity and a life without direction. Perhaps this is a way to even things out…” he wrestles with his thoughts.
Jackson’s voice was never heard by anyone and a passer-by found him lying there, damaged and the rock that had landed on his spine next to him, as though it was still inspecting its own work. Aubrey Moloto could not sleep with the demons singing under his bed or live with them following on his trail from sunrise to set. He felt indebted to his good nature to make amends with the man whose life he had destroyed although at moments of darkness he would feel justified to have committed the crime. Those were rare moments but in being honest with himself he wished to undo the damage.
The constant state of inebriation only served to fuel the fire of guilt and he would sit at the shebeen with his head in his hands collecting the flood that gushed from the wells of his eyes.
“Forget about her, my autie. One day she’ll see what a good man she lost plus now that her man has no legs, no waist and obviously no action, she’ll come crawling back to you,” a friend advised.
“Is waar! And when she comes, give her the boot my autie, straight back to that vegetable of hers,” they said.
There had to be a way out of what he felt. If only he could find alleviation to his fault and peace. Maybe he could move to a different township or find another woman to start a new life with but that thought was quickly done away with as he thought of his financial woes and how he didn’t need another woman to flee from his poverty.
They sympathised with him and when seeing his pardoning spirit take him to the same household where all his pains came from, to call after Jackson and run a few errands for him they held him in high regard. No man would have the liver to do what he did. Soon his new image earned the respect and reputation he planned to benefit from. Lerumo La Moya Christian Church did not take long to grow, it was on everyone’s lips and in Pastor Moloto they had seen a worthy figure. Surely the man had some godliness in him to bear to see the woman stolen from him with another man and still put his suffering aside to make sure that all was well with them.
These deeds were able to mute the grumpy sounds of the devils that haunted him, if only for a while. The money gave him a new confidence that made him feel much bigger than the couple, they were now beneath him and with that he could convince himself that his heart was healed. The church was the only way he knew how to take leave from responsibility of Jackson’s shattered life.
He cannot sleep, the image of the child hovers over his conscience. Jackson will never walk again. Tryphina can never go back to the woman he had fallen in love with. Things could not be the way he wished them to be. Troubled thoughts keep him awake as if each time his lids attempt to close the demons poke him in the eyes and remind him of what was and what is. He drives to the church in the middle of the night. A prescription to his ailment. He sits in the cold in silence and begs the four walls to absorb all the darkness out of him.
The sun rises and he can leave to face the day with mechanic courage.
“Pastor, I don’t know how you do it. The commitment you show to the house of the Lord is admirable in deed,” they say.
These are the compliments he feeds on. With these words he colours himself with goodness and there is no need to carry responsibility of things in the past. He has done more than enough for reparation, he must believe it. He has to. As he parks outside Jackson’s house he is unaware of the other person exhausted from spending the night awake, reliving the moment she saw the rock land on her husband’s back and the flames in Aubrey’s eyes.
His feet moved like they had engines installed in them, they carried him through the city’s concrete web like a cheetah. Despite the biting chills of the freezing weather he wore no shoes. It wasn’t that he didn’t need them but because the ones he had gaped at the front and he would never be able to make it five steps running without his chaser catching up with him. The only ones he had would give gravity too much allowance and he’d find himself tripping and kissing the hard ground.
He raced around the large puddle of water that would have swallowed his tiny feet and legs had he not paid heed. The thumping boots chasing behind him splashed in the water and their owner cursed out loud enough for Piki to hear, “Chicken shit!” Unlike Piki’s electric and light steps the boots behind were heavy and slow. The owner was panting like an animal on a hot summer’s day without water nearby. A little far behind the slow running man was a pair of heels, worn by a petite woman with a red pencil dress and a leather jacket on top, a scarf was blowing in the wind and she had on large sunglasses even though the sun was hiding behind the ashen clouds.
“Catch that scoundrel! Catch that little devil!” she shouted. She gave up running and decided to wait for the security guard to hopefully return with her stolen purse.
It took Piki quick turns around two corners and down the underground stairs leading to the inside of the train station, to lose the security guard. He felt triumphant, weary, but triumphant. He was swallowed by the myriad of people rushing through the train station; making their way to the trains, getting off and rushing to bus stops and taxi ranks.
It was nearing lunch time and as he ducked and dove past people his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t had a meal in more than twenty-four hours. The last bit he had had before that was half a piece of chicken pie and less than a handful of chips that he had found in a garbage bin. He had been lucky to find them just after he had spotted a young man throwing them away and he had not hesitated. Finding fresh food in the dustbin was a fortunate thing.
He exited the station on the opposite side that led to the bridge where he would find the other two waiting for him. He could find his way around the area with his eyes closed; he had navigated many roads in the dark and always making sure that he was out of anyone’s way who would take the wrong interest in a homeless twelve-year-old boy. He slowed down as he approached the bridge and ran his small hands under his shirt, around the waist of his tattered corduroy pants and felt the purse safely tucked away.
He found Dust and Suzie waiting for him with eagerness. They were waiting to present their offerings so that they would contribute something for lunch. That was how they worked, they were a little family and had to look out for each other. Dust, a lanky boy of seventeen with short dirty dreadlocks that crawled with lice, drooping eyes and foam on the corners of his mouth, walked towards Piki and hurriedly pulled him by the hand to where they had been waiting for him. He was the glue hustler, he also did small jobs for a few drug dealers who gave him very little after risking his life and threatened to eliminate him if he dared told anyone. But whom did they think he would tell, the police?
He took out three plastic bottles of glue and handed one to each. At least they had medicine for the coming night. Nights were usually the cruellest; when it became cold and lonely they were always reminded of who and what they were and the glue helped keep the sorrow and the hunger at bay.
Dust had lost his parents to an illness that he did not understand but later discovered when the harshness of his stigmatised community reminded him. That was when he had left home and never returned, leaving behind seven siblings and an ailing grandmother who was their sole provider. To him the streets were better than having to go to bed without a smell of tea or bread and having to try to block out the rumbles of his belly along with those of his siblings – a choir of complaining guts.
“What do you have, Suzie my sexy lady?” he asked the tall, stick-thin fourteen year old girl in tight shiny pants, cheap thigh-high boots and a faded denim jacket that failed to hide the skimpy top underneath. She shivered as she paced back and forth in an attempt to warm herself. She had found herself on the streets after her mother was beaten to death by her step-father who then raped her. She produced three ten-rand notes from her bra and handed them to Dust. He was not pleased. Dust traded protection for sex. He was a horny little teenage boy who lived out his fantasies through her body. The arrangement was a conditional one though – he would fight the boys his age who dared come close to her but when it came to the johns in their cars and few cents at night asking for a good time, it was pure business.
They turned to Piki to see what he had brought. Dust called the boy their lucky charm for he was the one who often brought the most. He was a proficient pickpocket. Piki was nervous as he handed the red leather purse to Dust. He hadn’t had time to check its contents and was afraid that the chase would have been futile. While Dust opened it he grabbed his shoes that were open at the front and torn all over. His small feet were freezing and he was starting to get restless. The hunger was not making things any easier.
The purse produced two two-hundred notes and two fifties. They gasped. Piki let out a breath of relief and asked, “So this means you’re going to buy me a pair of boots?”
Dust said, “Yes, yes, of course we’ll get your stupid boots. Now let’s go eat, today we are having a feast.”
“But we must save some for the next few days, Dust,” came the soft of voice of Suzie.
“And who the fuck made you the financial advisor, slut?” he asked.
He greedily shoved the money into the pockets of his greasy and mud-stained jeans. He patted Piki’s cob-web laced, tangled hair for a job well done and led them to the street filled with hawkers where they would buy food from one of the ladies who served fish and chips. Piki and Suzie were too afraid to express that they didn’t want fish and chips but rather something like a bowl of steaming soup or hot samp and meat to warm them but once Dust had made a decision it became the written word.
They walked up to the stall owned by the dark-skinned foreign woman who sold bread, fish and chips, magwinya, atchaar, white liver and juice. Her five year old son was placed inside a box at her feet, digging snort with his tiny fingers. The mother bent down to wipe his nose with her hand and wiped off the snort with her skirt. He turned to look at the three shabby customers before her and spoke, “I don’t have any leftovers today. You stinky lot think I am your mother just because I feel sorry for you sometimes, heh?”
“We would like a large packet of fish and chips and three loaves of bread, add atchaar and some white liver while you are at it. And make everything large, you hear?” demanded Dust.
“And where’s the money? This is not a feeding scheme, you piece of shit,” she warned.
Dust took out the two hundred rands and waved the note in the woman’s face, he even went as far as brushing it against her nose and asking her to smell it. She snatched the money, flipped it a few times and held it up to examine if it was genuine. When she was satisfied she stuffed it into her bra and started packing the ordered food.
She didn’t bother to ask where they had gotten such an amount of money as she already knew and did not approve. She had been selling on that street long enough to know how the street kids hustled for money and she had also learned to ignore the guilt of accepting dirty money. Piki watched impatiently at the large pieces of fish as she wrapped them with newspaper and stuff them into a plastic bag. The large packet of chips was in another plastic bag and they were each handed a loaf of bread. The plastic bags would later come in handy for him. The woman did not hide the disgust on her face as she thought of the poor person who was now two hundred rands short but business was business and the snort-digging child at her feet had to eat. After serving them she told them there was no change.
“That’s kak, give us our change right now or you’ll regret it” threatened Suzie.
Dust pushed her back and said to the woman, “We are rich, we could buy you and your little stall, and that brat over there. In fact, give us three bottles of juice and keep the change. We’re not beggars, us, we are people with money,” he bragged. That was Dust, always feeling like a billionaire whenever they had a little bit of money.
They didn’t mind that the fish was dry, the chips were old and nauseatingly greasy, and the bread was stale or that the atchaar was a little off. It was a feast. Food was food and on that day they only saw a king’s meal, delicious and in a generous quantity. They found a spot where they could hide from other homeless children who would jump at them like hyenas and start a war. It was a jungle in the streets, no one ate in peace; one’s food was everyone’s food and they fought each other over the smallest of crumbs.
They devoured the food like a troop of wolves after days of unsuccessful hunting and tormenting hunger. They licked the newspapers that had wrapped the fish and chips, they licked their dirty fingers and quickly washed it all down with the juice. It was a good day indeed. Piki reminded Dust of the boots and asked that he give him a bit of money so that he could go with Suzie to get a pair before it was late. The nights were icy and he wanted to be able to sleep that night. “Relax, small boy, I will take care of it,” said Dust.
As soon as they were done Dust got up and told them he had a few errands to run. He promised to return with the boots and a pair of socks. Looking at the lanky frame disappear down the road they were left dejected. They knew they wouldn’t see him for weeks and that when they did he would be hungry, beaten up and without a cent on him. It was going to be rough – Suzie would be pestered and most likely raped by few of the boys. Piki was going to have to bite the cold with the open shoes until he could get lucky again and go buy the pair of boots or steal them from one of the hawkers. The latter was the most difficult task to do as there were too many people who would jump at him once the seller made noise about the thief.
At night Piki wrapped the plastic bags around his small feet and wore his sneakers. He used a large refuse bag to wrap his tiny body in place of a blanket. He had stolen a mink blanket before and the same night a group of older boys had taken it without even asking. He was alone that night and would be so for the next days or weeks while Dust was away. Suzie had to be at her spot on time before someone else scored a good customer. The veterans usually had their regulars and they bullied younger girls like Suzie out of greed.
She made very little that night from only one customer. Twenty bucks was all she got for lying under a sweaty, grunting old man who showered her with sweat at the backseat of his car and left her sticky and smelling of rotten onions.
The next day the weather felt like the eve of Armageddon. The sky was gloomy, grey swollen clouds were ready to give birth to rain any minute and the wind carried sharp icy needles with it. Piki’s old frayed coat did not help to block the cold and the plastic socks he was still wearing were not retaining as much heat from his feet as he would have liked. The skin on his chubby cheeks was dry and felt like sandpaper when he touched them. He was tired from not having had enough sleep and it was though his stomach knew that it was time for breakfast. The waste bins had nothing for him and he walked around trying to come up with a plan for boots and food.
He made his way past the busy train station and wished he could hop onto one of them and go somewhere in the world where children didn’t starve, where they didn’t have to spend night after night fending for themselves and dodging the dangers of the night at every corner and where they could just be loved. He knew that his biological mother had given him up for adoption; he knew that because all his memories where filled with images and callous words from the old hags who ran the shelter he had found himself in, who always reminded all the children that they were unwanted and so should behave before they found themselves on the streets. Piki had fled the place, the physical abuse had been too much for a boy his age and that’s when he’d met Suzie and later, Dust.
He made his way to the porcelain streets of the upper class part of town where he had been the previous day. He first searched for any sign of a security guard and on seeing none he took a chance and started begging for money at the street lights. Most drivers ignored him and pretended to be busy with something in the car, some shooed him away and only a few rolled down their windows and threw coins at him. The begging only lasted less than half an hour before a man clad in black uniform and black leather boots came marching towards him with his one hand clutching his baton and the other raised, wagging in warning. It was time to go. He ran off and made his way to another side of the town where he would try his luck again, As soon as it was clear he counted the coins he had stuffed in his pockets and although he was far from making enough for boots at least he could buy a little something to lull the hunger.
He walked up and down the clean streets with expensive cars dotting the sides, lush trees standing elegantly over fences, tall buildings staring down at him as if about to question what someone like him was doing on that side of town, and men and women walking about in neatly pressed formal clothes. Some didn’t seem to notice him but he was used to the invisibility. Others stared down at him and waved their hands to shoo him off, spitting as though he were dirt that would pollute their air or the mere presence of him so close to them would jump off and stain their clean, fresh smelling clothes.
As he looked across the road at the coffee shop that he knew he would not be allowed to enter, let alone stop outside just to salivate at the goodies they sold, he spotted the woman from the previous day. He remembered the look on her face after he had snatched her wallet and how she had called the security guard watching over the cars that were parked outside the tall building of offices. She had called him all sorts of things that should neither be said to a child nor around them.
While he was staring at her beautiful face, the red lips and the sparkling earrings dangling from her ears he didn’t hear the heavy boots behind him. It was too late to run. It was the security guard from the day before, “Aha! Bloody bastard, did you think I wouldn’t find you?” he said as he grabbed him by the neck. Piki tried to free himself but the man’s hands were too strong. He hurled the little boy’s body to the ground and stood over him with his one foot heavily placed on Piki’s ankle, restraining him from moving. There was no escape.
Inside the coffee shop, the lady sat down with a man at a table that looked out into the street straight in Piki’s direction. While the man buried his head in the menu studying its contents the woman stared at the little boy cowering under the security guards intimidating frame. The boy was staring right at her and there was just something about him that’s he couldn’t shake off. If she hadn’t spoken to her mother the previous night she would have been happy to see the boy being punished. The conversation she had had with her mother had been about the son she had been forced to give up for adoption. The conversation had reminded her that her son could be anywhere…anywhere.
For a moment, the same big, brown eyes stared at each other. Mother and child – unaware.
Eyes on the Door
Without much effort, you break the door. I had it shut and locked so you wouldn’t enter but you found a way. Collector, here to take what you claim you own. You saunter through the broken door and move with ease and composure, so calmly that it looks like your legs are moving to the rhythm of the singing hinges. The knock of your heels on the ground are in sync with the ticking arms of the clock. It’s time…it’s time…it’s time…but I am not ready.
I have heard about you and I have only seen you from a distance. We’ve never really had the opportunity to be acquainted until now. I’m not ready to know you. Not now.
They say you’re here to take what’s yours but you see, it’s mine. You are taking what belongs to me. This is the centre of my universe, where all the reasons for my existence exist. This is where I know why I am here and what I am here to do. You are taking my treasures. I have compiled all my breaths in here, in this very chest that you’re snatching from my weak hands. The anthology of all my heartbeats, the collection of all my smiles, the compilation of all my laughs and all my cries.
You take it anyway, no questions asked. You don’t negotiate and you don’t wait to hear my side of the story. You are here and you will leave with a part of me. I look behind you, at the broken door and try to plot a way to lock you in, maybe we can stay in here until I am ready. Whenever that time comes. It’s not now though – I am not ready. Perhaps a little more time. Time to look into that treasure, one more time and breathe in its scent and lock it in my lungs so that it can live as close to my heart as possible, even after you’re long gone. You don’t listen. You hear me but you don’t listen. You didn’t come here to listen.
With your collections in tow, you walk out the door, leaving it broken, rusty hinges and cracked wood. Dilapidated frame and paint fading from its walls. Cracks form on the floor and a river bleeds into my room. It gushes forward with determination and no intentions to stop. It burns, the river, it burns me. I stay there and wait for it to drown me but it doesn’t. Instead, it licks me with its flames and I wait until I’ll become a pile of ashes but it doesn’t get there. It’s in its moment – it enjoys licking my skin, my insides, my breath, my soul, and everything. You’re long gone but I wait.
Broken. Ashes. Hollow. Haemophilic wounds won’t stop bleeding. You! You loyal servant to existence, living by the code: Beginning to End. You live by it.
They’ll walk through that door and ask if I’m okay. I’ll lie and say I’m fine. I’m hanging in there. I won’t hang in there. I’ll hang on the last thread of my saneness. I’ll lie. I’ll make excuses for my pain. They’ll sympathize for a very short time then they’ll seek what’s normal. They’ll want the sea to calm so I’ll lie. I will tell them the sea is at rest, lying on its bed and sleeping to a lullaby.
I will repeat after them, about places and the next world of peace. I’ll say I have found tranquillity in the arms of deities. I’ll tell them I have moved on. I will tell them that I’m only left with scars and that I have found joy in happy memories. I’ll lie. I won’t tell them that each night, after they leave and the world leaves me alone I stare at the broken door hoping you’d return. I’ll lie to them but I won’t lie to you.
I’ll stare at the door. If you don’t come back please take care of my treasure. Take care of him. Love him as he had loved me. Care for him as he had done for me. Once you know what it’s like, I’ll understand why you won’t bring him back.
The Communal Bicycle
The dusty roads form a network, a maze that can easily lose a foreign traveller but those who live there know how to navigate its spreading veins with their eyes closed. Those who live there can easily spot the tracks left behind by the village bicycle. The tracks print themselves on the road and when the wind raises the earth and erases them, the wheels will return once more and reprint themselves. They never stay too long but they always return to make a fresh mark.
The village is a close-knit community where sugar bowls jump fences and are swapped with small tins of snuff or paraffin. It’s where doors are open to neighbours, so open that once a visitor sits down we already know how much milk she likes in her tea and whether she likes scones or biscuits. In this village, stories are passed on from one corner in their freshness until they reach the end of another corner in a stale and twisted condition, left to simmer for a few weeks, recycled and retold.
The bicycle’s owner has given up on keeping it to himself and lets it run to its own affairs, whoever decides to come and borrow may do so as they please. There it goes, riding down the sunset, faulty brakes but it still moves with zest and youthful heedlessness. What can he do? It is already known to be a generous transporter of all kinds of folk.
The tyres are a bit rough, a little worn on the edges but it’s still a charmer. It’s still shiny in the right places and when it is returned with mud and filth a thorough wash can still invigorate it and perk up its slowly-dying looks.
It was once a beauty, I tell you. When it was first bought it gleamed with splendour, it had strength that could carry one up the mountains, down bumpy roads and could slice through pools of muds and collected rain pools. It had a strong built frame, an intimidating appearance of power but it was also graceful in its movement and painfully striking to the eye.
No one knows how it lost control or when it lost direction. No one knows when it started navigating to all the wrong places, when it started slipping through grimes and deteriorating at every turn. It became the most talked about subject in the village, the most borrowed and the least respected. It twists along dangerous paths but even when its tyres are re-pumped to give it a fresh start or when given caution to the road it leads, it still goes back to the thorny roads and the ungrateful passengers.
There are those who commute back and forth to their own means and return it without so much as a word of gratitude. The village bicycle is now owned by all, not owned in a way that makes it in safe possession of a user who cares but owned in a sense that it’s a free-for-all arrangement. It’s only praised and showered with worships and the most pleasant words when it’s needed for a quick ride but once the passenger alights at his stop the words echo into the distance until they fade into nothingness.
It keeps going. No matter how many labels are attached to its wheels it still keeps spinning. “How long will you keep this up?” asks the initial owner.
“Do not judge me when you have also had your share, you are no different from the rest of them,” it says defensively.
When left outside in the cold with its loose chains on the ground, its tyres lose air and hopelessness bends its once strong frame. It sits there against the cold wall, covered in dust and spits of guilt and self-loathing. There are nights when it makes a vow to the gleaming moon and before the starry witnesses in the sky, that the next day would be the beginning of change. These are repeated songs of almost every night but when the sun rises and when the roads beckon it leaves another trail in another street, around another hazardous bend.
The mouths of the elders hang in disbelief, their eyes widen with shock and their tongues click with disapproval at the rides that the village bicycle takes. The young women laugh with scorn and self-satisfaction that makes them feel better about themselves because they are not village bicycles. The young men are always looking forward to a lift and they queue at the stop and hitch rides at day-time when the village is awake and bustling with people so that all can see that they too have been there. This earns them the been-there medals and invites others to have a go at it. The sly old men are too careful to ride at any other time than at nocturnal hours. They arrange clandestine meetings and ride to ever-changing rendezvous so that no trace can lead back to them, and avoid having their soiled laundry discovered by their wives.
It was one of the ordinary days, as ordinary as changing passengers can be and on that day it had to return to its parking spot earlier than usual. For days, the village bicycle was unable to move, it exhaled squeaky sounds that signalled a mechanical problem and there were leaks and unpleasant odours that emanated from it. It could not be to anyone’s use and everyone who had ever been offered its service was quick to frown upon it. At the end, through loyalty of having been the first to have seen it through its early days and to have known it when no one had the faintest idea of what a marvellous creation it was, the original owner took if for inspection. It was then that a discovery of a dreadful malady was made.
With monitoring and more delicate use it could be saved from obsoleteness. Its chains could be revived, the tyres could be replaced with new ones and a few other touch-ups could be given to its image to enliven it. Of course, it could not be given a cure but it could be well-taken care of. With the help of the original owner, it was indeed given a re-lift and re-energised and no one could point out the true faults and malfunctions that dwelled within. It would have to be taken to the mechanic to be able to confirm any of its setbacks and so with this in mind and the new air breathed into it, it returned to the dusty roads of the village. Once again it served its communal duties and it was keener than ever to have its saddle gyrated and pounded.
It was now determined to go through each lane, tour every avenue and spin its wheels on every pavement. They let it. Oh! They sure let it do as it pleased. Who cared where it went and whom it went with? It could journey through a million spikes and as long as it didn’t remain in anyone’s yard, they were all too happy to press their weights on its saddle and lean on its handlebars to their hearts’ enjoyment.
It pushes too hard and goes beyond its limits and those who mount it regardless of its fading state find themselves falling off, tripping on large stones, losing balance and control and are left with wounds that need more than bandaging. It no longer leaves a simple trail of its tyres around the network of the village roads but drops of blood follow its trail. You will know whom it had transported with the clots that are too stubborn to melt into the soil, portraying the evidence of shame wherever it has passed.
There it rides, the village bicycle, spending its last days picking up strangers unaware of its shortcomings and the usual ones whose disgraced blood is already in public sight. They have nothing else to lose. Its tyres are in tatters, it drowns in the smallest of pools, slips and falls in the easiest-to-manoeuvre of muds and finds itself lonelier than it ever. On its last sunset it is discarded and left to rust.