Tade has been looking forward to this day for a while, and now he is glad it is finally here, although it felt yesterday like today would never come. But here it is, the day has broken.
The alarm sounds, and he reaches to put it off. He shouldn’t have set it in the first place, but he was scared he would sleep off and awake late. He doesn’t trust himself when it comes to sleep, especially during this harmattan period where one could sleep on and on for hours without having to concern oneself with NEPA supplying power or not.
Last week, he had awoken late for an interview scheduled for 9 AM. It was stated that applicants should arrive an hour earlier. Tade, however, awoke some minutes past 7. Before he could hurry to the bathroom to brush his teeth, wash, relieve himself, dry and moisturize his body, comb his hair through and put on his clothes, it was almost 8. When he got to the main road and saw the traffic that morning, he knew it was baseless going further. There was no magic he could use that would make him arrive before 9. Today’s interview is scheduled for 1 PM: these guys sure understand the situation in Lagos well enough not to have slated the interview for 8, 9 or 10 AM like many offices do, and heavens bless them for that. Yet, he has learnt his lessons and won’t repeat such mistakes. Once beaten, twice shy.
So, in angst that he would awake late, he set his alarm for 6 this morning. Eventually, the alarm was redundant as it turned out to be a long night for him. His anxiety was at its peak as if he had never attended an interview before. Well, such a reaction was to be expected. There is this opening for the post of an accountant in a big firm, the pay is huge, and the position comes with several benefits. He cannot afford not getting the job; not after he has fantasized about how he will confidently tender his resignation letter to Mrs. Benson, the principal, soon. The woman is always demanding sex from him. Is it a crime to be good looking? He knows that her lust after him is why she grants many of his requests; perhaps she is of the opinion that he will succumb eventually if she continues to be nice to him.
Tade didn’t take permission to be absent from school today because the second term break started last week. He is thankful he still has three more weeks before the break comes to an end, thus giving him enough time to search for jobs and attend several interviews. He is tired of earning a meagre salary every month, tired of teaching accounting as a subject in a low-budget secondary school. He wants to do accounts, not teach about them, all more reason why he jumped for joy when he received the invitation for this interview. The opportunity is worth his angst.
As early as 6 AM, Tade puts on his chargeable lamp and unlocks the door to his small room. He fetched water from the well outside last night. He walks out of his room into the passage, and heads towards the bathroom with his bucket of water in hand. At the bathroom, he sees a light, and there is no need to doubt it is Mr. Ade, the clerk, taking his bath. Tade cannot wait till he is done, so he moves to the other bathroom, which generally has been abandoned by the tenants and even the landlord. He starts his bath, even though he detests the foul smell emanating from the facility.
If he is fast enough, he might talk Mr. Ade into giving him a ride on his bike, but only to the junction.
“Good morning, Tade, do you have an appointment today?”
“Well, yes. Good morning, Mr. Ade.”
“Alright, all the best!”
Tade is pouring water over his head, so he does not hear the rest of what Mr. Ade says. When he is all finished, he heads back to his room, where he applies lotion to his skin and massages, then starts to comb his hair while remaining unclad. He walks to a corner where he stores a few foodstuffs, reaches for two sachets of noodles, and starts preparing them. Within a twinkle, his noodles are ready, and he begins to devour the hot meal. He craves after chicken sauce, but knows wishes are not horses. Even if he had the money for chicken sauce at the moment, he would spend it on something else. In his present condition, what matters is to eat, not whether he enjoys the meal or not. Eat to survive, that’s his motto right now. But when he finally gets this job, he will rejoice and dance for joy; then he can buy whatever he wants and eat whatever meal pleases him. He will satisfy his cravings – if only he gets this job.
Having finished breakfast, he spreads out his well-ironed clothes on his bed. He has ironed them to the last layers, so that if any sharp object pierces through them, they could easily get torn. He wears his trousers first and is about to put on his belt when he feels his balls dangling underneath. He has forgotten to wear boxers. Well, one can’t blame him, for what do you expect from a man who goes to bed unclad and who roams about the room naked when alone? He rummages through his ghanamustgo, and brings out a pair of striped boxers. He draws down his trousers, and places the boxers underneath before he zips up and uses his belt. He wears his shirt, tucks it into the trousers, and tightens his belt against his waist. He again combs his hair through and brushes his beard, sprays his body, and arranges his files into a clear bag. He moves towards his wardrobe and brings out another clear bag, from which he retrieves some documents and puts them into the former, which he now places into a larger bag. He zips the outer bag and looks at his watch, almost 7 AM. He wants to tarry a little, but decides to start heading off after remembering how congested Lagos traffic can be, especially on Monday mornings.
The cloud seems to have completely broken loose from the darkness that hugs it. The atmosphere is clearer than when he went to the bathroom. The morning cold is intense; typical during harmattan. Tade touches his lips and feels the chapped surface against his palms. He forgot to apply lip balm, but that is not of utmost relevance right now.
He wants to take the BRT, and spends a few moments at the bus stop at Berger before he remembers that it was announced in the news yesterday that BRTs would not be working today. So he decides to take molue to Obalende instead, and then enter a cab from Obalende to Ikoyi afterwards. He shouldn’t spend much that way, it will only be stressful. He flags down the first molue that drives by.
“Obalende, CMS, wole pelu changi! (Obalende, CMS, enter with your change!)” the bus conductor shouts as the bus partially comes to a halt. Tade knows the ritual already: run towards the bus while it is in motion, and as swiftly as possible, because it will not accept everyone waiting in the crowd. But such maneuvers may not be necessary this morning because there are only about five people at the bus stop, and there should be enough space to accommodate all of them. On the other hand, some effort will be necessary because the passengers inside the bus are already impatient, and so is the driver. No one can fault them with how the situation is in Lagos, always congested, especially in the mornings when people are going to work and at night when they are returning. Many worry more about being late for work than about getting home late, which is inevitable. In order to get to work on time, many leave their homes as early as 5 or 6 AM. So, why delay them more than strictly necessary?
Tade enters the bus. Molues are usually not well-ventilated, which often infuriates him. He would rather take one of the well-ventilated BRTs instead, but today he doesn’t mind because the trapped air is a therapy against the harmattan.
He doesn’t take note of the people around him. No one cares about him either, every man for himself, a typical way of minding your business. But somehow, the woman with two twin boys sitting beside him catches his attention. The kids look so adorable and take a great semblance after their mother, especially their round lips. He has never seen their father, though, and hence can’t tell if he’s misjudging and they actually look more like their dad. The kids stand in front of their mother, playing with her clothed thighs. Tade likes them. He loves kids, would love to have one as soon as possible – no, when he gets this job. Without a good job, he cannot keep a woman. Having a woman comes with a lot of responsibilities. She will request money for braids, money for data subscription, money for her nails and lashes, money for makeup, even money for going to the toilet. Everything a woman knows is money; so to keep one, you must be well-equipped like the World Bank.
Having kids comes with additional responsibilities: money for diapers, for food, for checkups and much more. He can’t have any right now, he needs to be financially buoyant first. He can’t afford to make innocent souls wallow in poverty, a mistake his father made when he married his mother and made her conceive ten children for him, six of whom died before the age of five due to one illness or another. His mother kept shouting that the witches of her husband’s household were to blame. Tade believed it, too, until he reached school and was taught reproduction, nutrition and malnutrition, diseases that affect children, epidemics and the likes in science class. Out of the surviving four, only he managed to attend university after working various jobs to save up money for school. It took him two years to do so. While in school, he also worked part-time at odd jobs. His parents had mentioned that secondary school was the peak of what they could afford; so after his two elder brothers finished secondary school, Tolu, the eldest, became a driver, while Timi became a bricklayer. Tade is the third; he made up his mind to attend school, get a degree, and become successful at all cost. Tanwa, the youngest child and only girl, has two years left in secondary school. Their father says Tanwa’s issue is the easiest because as a woman, she will get married and depend on her husband to sustain life; educating her is baseless even if the parents can afford it. Tanwa does not like this mentality; she wants to become a journalist. She often reminds Tade of that, and he promises that her wish will be granted – she will be thoroughly educated once he has money.
After he graduated, he would get a well-paying job; that was how easy he thought it would be, a vision corrected by almost two years of futile job hunting. His father called as late as last week to ask how he was doing. He could sense the “didn’t I tell you?” expression in his father’s voice, but Tade is determined to keep on trying. He can’t afford to fail now, he cannot afford to let his family mock him for choosing a separate path. Now, he quietly prays that today will be productive.
One of the boys touches his lap, and he smiles down at him. An adorable kid. Soon, his twin joins him in smiling. They leave their mother, and start playing around Tade’s lap. Their mother persuades them away from him, but he tells her not to worry. He even lifts one of them up and places the boy on his lap while playing with the other boy’s cheeks. He is enjoying himself.
The bus slows down briefly due to traffic, but speeds up again within a twinkle. The boy sitting on his lap sneezes, and the mucus escaping from his nose flies directly onto Tade’s chest. Tade cannot believe this: a sky-blue shirt ruined early in the morning.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” the mother apologizes as she hands Tade a napkin. He wipes his shirt, but traces remain. Tade wishes he had seated the other twin instead. How is he supposed to cope with the uneasiness of having mucus on his chest during the interview? He is not wearing a blazer because he didn’t want to appear too formal.
“It’s fine,” Tade says.
His bag falls to the ground, and the clear bag in it falls out. The other boy picks it up for him. As he does so, he turns it upside down, and the files inside escape onto the floor. Tade immediately drops the boy sitting on his lap, and starts gathering his things as he mutters an inaudible disgust.
“Oya, come here!” the mother screams at the boys. She then starts to help Tade pack some of his files.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’m done.”
Tade packs everything and starts rearranging them inside the clear bag, examining each document in the process. He picks up the last document and looks at it very well, which is when he realizes that he has picked the wrong bag.
“Shit! Driver, abeg, I wanna come down!” he shouts.
“Na mainland we still dey o, alaye. You no sabi where you dey go ni?” the conductor replies.
“Mo ni mo fe boole, I want to alight!” he screams. The driver pulls the bus over to the side of the road.
“Uncle, is everything alright?” the woman asks.
“Yes ma, it is.”
Tade pays the driver and walks away from the bus. He can predict what will happen inside the bus in a few moments. The conductor will talk bad about him, and the rest of the passengers will start to gossip him, which is how it goes in Lagos. He crosses over to the other side of the road, and begins to flag down buses going towards Berger. It doesn’t take long before he gets one, but he wants to beat himself for making such a grave mistake. How could he pick a random letter instead of his CV? Incredibly, he has been preparing several days for today just to fuck up again. The road is gradually getting congested, and the driver maneuvers through it. When Tade alights, he looks at his wristwatch. It is almost 8 AM; he should still be able to meet up.
He finally reaches home, only to find the main entrance locked. It wasn’t locked before he left this morning, and it is usually unlocked in the mornings, so what is happening? He hears the voices of his neighbors.
“Mummy Funke, please. Bear with me till I return.”
“You won’t leave this house until you drop money for food.”
Tade is annoyed, and bangs hard at the wooden door with all his strength. What insolence! How can one couple deny all other occupants admission just because of their stupid family affairs? They are lucky the landlord has travelled with his family to Ondo for a church convention; he wouldn’t have condoned this nonsense in his house.
“Please, open this door, I implore you!” Tade screams. Moments later, the door opens, and Mummy Funke apologizes to Tade. He doesn’t mind her, but walks straight to his room and unlocks his door. Hurriedly, he picks the other clear bag, which he left behind on the bed earlier. He opens the bag and peeps through it. Sure enough, his CV is in there along with other essential documents. He opens his outer bag and replaces the clear bag with the other one. He wants to change his shirt, but realizes it would take his time as he would have to start ironing from the scratch. He could have done that since there is light, but time is what he doesn’t have, so he pulls down his one and only black blazer and wears it over his shirt. He feels pressed, his gut is full and he should relieve himself, but a glance at his watch tells him it is well past 8 AM, so he decides to hold it until after his interview. If worse comes to worst, he must use the toilet at the company, they shouldn’t disqualify him for that. He closes his door and begins to dash out.
Outside, he encounters Mr. Ade who is starting his bike.
“In which direction are you headed, Tade? Let me see if I can give you a ride.”
“Don’t worry, sir. I’m going to the Island, Ikoyi.”
“And you tell me not to worry? I’m going to Ikoyi, too. To the secretariat, where I have an official assignment this morning.”
“Oh!” Tade mutters as he secretly thanks his lucky star for bringing Mr. Ade his way at this time, although he is unsure whether he should let this man bring him to the island. He has ridden with him before and knows him to be quite slow, so would it not cause him to be late? He could ride with him to the bus stop and see how fast he is today; if Mr. Ade rides slowly, he could alight at the bus stop and enter molue, lie that he needs to branch at the printer’s place.
Tade climbs onto the bike, and Mr. Ade kicks several times, but no response, which begins to worry Tade. He is about to alight when the bike finally starts and rides away. The pace at which Mr. Ade rides is only a bit faster than that of a snail, as if he is scared the wind would blow him off the bike should he ride faster. The only consolation Tade finds is the realization that Mr. Ade’s bike is faster than his own feet, so there’s no point in him alighting to trek.
When they reach the bus stop, Tade initiates his plan, which goes easier than expected. Tade waits among the crowd awaiting the arrival of the next molue. The day is brighter and busier, and about ten people are standing at the bus stop. He knows he will have to be extremely violent if he wants to go on the next bus. He looks at himself, buttons his blazer and feels his feet in his shoes, which are firm. He drops the handle of his bag off his shoulder, and wraps it round the bag before he hooks it under his armpit. From afar, he sees the next molue coming, as it announces “Obalende, CMS.” There is a woman directly in front of him, and he elbows her by the waist, making her stagger in her feet. No more obstructions, Tade worms his way inside and keeps a straight face. He doesn’t look at others who are struggling to get in, not even at the injured woman lest he feels guilty. The bus starts, the chauffeur driving at full speed. Tade silently prays that there won’t be much traffic. How feasible is such a prayer in Lagos on a Monday morning? Hahaha!
He keeps looking at his wristwatch from time to time, his patience wearing out. They’ve been stuck in this holdup for a while. Maybe if he had gone with Mr. Ade, he would have left this spot by now, since it’s easier for bikes to maneuver through holdups than for vehicles. When the bus moves, it does so at a very slow pace. When they finally leave the holdup and proceed with their journey, he heaves a sigh of relief. As he alights at Obalende, he checks his watch again: almost 12 PM. About four hours in traffic. Lagos traffic na your mate?
He enters a cab. Luckily, he is the last man to enter, so it takes off immediately. The driver maneuvers his way round Obalende towards Falomo, heading for Ikoyi. Tade keeps looking around in the hopes of locating his interview venue. Not that he is clueless about the place. Based upon the description given by mail, he probably understands how to get there, but he has never actually been there, never seen the building before, so he doesn’t know what the place looks like from outside. He will have to rely upon his intuition, which is why he refuses to take his eyes off the streets.
The street light turns red at Falomo roundabout, the driver stops. Everyone including Tade stares as the light counts down from 30 to 0. At 3, the red light changes to yellow; and at 0, it changes to green. The driver kicks the vehicle to a start, but it refuses to heed. He tries several times, but it doesn’t work. Behind them, Tade hears the sound of other vehicles honking. When they realize that Tade’s cab won’t leave the spot, they begin overtaking it.
“Driver, what is wrong?” Tade asks, restlessly.
“I don’t know, but I’ll look into it,” the driver says as he alights from the vehicle. Tade mutters in irritation as he follows suit. Other passengers also express displeasure, but Tade does not concern himself with them. What is most important to him right now is that the car works well so that he can proceed to wherever he is going.
He looks at his watch, it is now 12:30 PM. He is extremely restless. The interview is scheduled for 13:00, but it was clearly stated in the mail that interviewees should arrive at least one hour before. He should have been there since noon, but his village people – so he thinks – are determined to have him fucked up again today. As always. What if there will be no serious interview? What if the basis of selection is punctuality? He prays it won’t be the case, or he has lost already.
“Driver have you fixed it yet?” a voice asks. It could be any of the passengers seated inside the cab.
“E remain small,” the driver says.
Tade cannot take this any longer. He rummages through his pocket and brings out a rumpled naira note, which he hands over to the driver. He doesn’t look back as he walks away. He stands by the roadside to flag down vehicles, but it isn’t as easy as he thought. No one stops, not even any of the poor-figured mini buses.
At exactly 12:45 PM, Tade hears a distant sound like an explosion. Almost immediately, he hears his name being called out. As he looks up and sees Mr. Ade, he tries to hide his astonishment.
“We meet again. Are you done with your appointment yet?” Mr. Ade asks.
“Done ke? I haven’t even reached the place. There was a holdup on the mainland, and the cab I entered broke down.”
“Yes, that holdup was mad. That trailer that fell across the road made things worse.”
“I know, right.”
“Well, maybe that’s why God sent me here; to help you. Come on, climb on, let me take you.”
“Thank you, sir,” he says as he takes a seat. Mr. Ade really is a Godsend. Had he only known how crazy things would become, he would have ridden with Mr. Ade directly and avoided all the wasteful spending.
As they enter Ikoyi, he keeps looking around for a building with a description matching what has been given to him in the mail, but he is yet to see any.
“What building are you going to exactly?” Mr. Ade asks.
Tade tells him he doesn’t know the name, then describes the building. Mr. Ade keeps nodding, assuring Tade that he knows the place. Tade secretly thanks his lucky star for bringing this man his way today, and is further happy that he is riding faster than usual.
“Oh my God!” they both exclaim simultaneously at the sight before them: a vast heap consisting of bricks made of sand, water and cement, planks that have been destroyed, wires, metals, and roofing sheets that have lost their magic; everything that once made up a house or even a mansion is spread out before them in a heap like a volcano, a heap as tall as a four-story building. The bricks rest on each other like logs of wood. And it looks as if a bulldozer has carried out the operation, but when Tade looks around, he sees nothing like that. What he sees instead is smoke erupting from the heap like dust. For a while, he is unable to see through it from where he stands; but when he finally does, he brings his hands to his head in pity of the victims of the collapse He sees body parts detached as if by the angry knife of a merciless butcher: a rigid right arm with blue band that belongs to a man, a lean left hand with a diamond ring on the fourth finger that belongs to a woman, feet bleeding through long trousers, eyeglasses whose owner he is certain must be dead by now or be among the surviving few whose wails he cannot hear. He sees all of these things from where he is standing at a foot of the heap.
He cannot move even if he wants to, his feet have suddenly become numb and unable to walk. He hears screams from among the crowd whose presence he hasn’t noticed earlier, wails, especially from women whose relationship with the victims he questions. Yet, he can relate because even he feels a deep remorse; he is just too dumbfounded to express it. The wails grow louder, and he forces himself to look at the women screaming; many of them have taken off their corporate shoes and stand barefooted while slapping their thighs twice a second as if it causes them no pain. Some of them are seated on the bare floor and grabbing hard at their hair, which makes Tade ask himself: if total strangers can feel this way towards the victims, then how must their families not feel when they finally receive the news?
“A whole twenty-one story!” one of the women sitting on the floor screams, and Tade forces himself to look in her direction, a lot rushing through his mind. Twenty-one stories means several people working, possibly hundreds of lives lost. Oh God!
Tade is so engrossed with the expression of the wailing women that he doesn’t notice the long line of cars that have started to queue. Then it dawns on him that the building has collapsed on the road, thereby blocking the free flow of traffic. It will take days, if not weeks before this road gets motorable again. But it seems like many of the drivers who are stuck are in no hurry to get wherever it is they are going, as majority of them alight to feed their eyes. Curious eyes everywhere: poor and rich, young and old, men and women, all watching in pity at the scene without knowing how to help. Tade hopes the rescue teams will arrive on time. That is one of the reasons why he likes America: if something like this had happened over there, help would have arrived on time – based upon what he has seen in their movies. He soon hears sirens sounding from afar; at least one rescue team is almost here, maybe the police.
Tade finally finds the strength to move his feet, moving further away from where the diamond ring on that fine finger keeps catching his attention. God rest the soul of whoever that woman is! He moves to the opposite end, which is where he sights things that baffle him the most, things that will forever become his nightmare: the bodies! Not simply bodies, but vital body parts. While he sees some bodies that appear to be asleep with their parts still intact, he sights others where some of their parts have left them: bodies without arms, without legs. Some heads have been cut off from their hosts as if by a sword. One head in particular catches his attention; despite all of the misfortune, the head’s eyebrows remain intact; red lipstick is still evident on her lips, even though it has been soiled by dust. Such a beautiful face. Tade feels a connection between this head and the hand with the diamond ring. He hopes he is wrong. Beside that particular head, he sees another, this time the head of a man without a neck, a pen penetrating through one side of his ears, and he can see blood still gushing out slowly through the ear. The sight scares Tade, who doesn’t know when he screams.
No one hears him or pays attention to him because there is a lot to be worried about right now. His stomach rumbles, and he can feel his breakfast slowly creeping its way up, not knowing when he starts to throw up. He empties his whole stomach of the noodles he had for breakfast, and is still heaving to bring out things he ate days prior. No one holds him as he is not of the utmost priority just now.
He feels discomfort in his head after he has finished throwing up. He stands upright and looks again towards the heap. The discomfort intensifies, but he gets the reason now: the weary wails of the living still trapped in the heap. How come he never heard that? Perhaps he transiently lost his sense of hearing. The sound is disturbing, resembling the sound of houseflies on feces. Tade wishes them death; that is what everyone must wish for them because death is definitely better than their current predicament.
“I was supposed to have an interview here, what just happened?” Tade finally asks no one in particular as he stares blankly at the site, still unable to believe his eyes.
“Well, it is what it is: a building collapse,” Mr. Ade says as he walks up to him.
Tade stares on in disbelief, trying to fathom what he is seeing and what could have been. Could he have been one of those trapped inside? He ponders on what has transpired over the course of the day. Even when the police arrives, even when the fire brigade and other rescue teams finally get here, even when Mr. Ade pats him on the back and tells him to calm down, he pays little attention. When the thought of his family comes to him, when he contemplates giving a better life to Tanwa, when he thinks of getting married and having kids, when a lot of things cross his mind, he doesn’t budge or flinch. All he does is thank God for life. Even though his days of poverty have further increased by perhaps a day or two or three – who knows? – he still won’t budge. After all, where there is life there is hope, isn’t there? That is what matters, and this is how he consoles himself.
About the author
Joseph Jegede hails from Ondo state in Nigeria. He is currently pursuing a degree in Foreign Languages at Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria. He is also an alumnus of Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich, Germany, where he attended the summer school after he was awarded a scholarship by the DAAD in 2021.
As a thinker and interested observer of social affairs and human nature, Joseph Jegede expresses himself by writing fictional stories. His works have appeared in a number of publications, including “Mummy O!” in the Culds Anthology and “The Bond That Binds” in Ogu & Other Stories, both available from OkadaBooks. He is currently working on his novel manuscript. When he isn’t writing or reading, he is doing something in German or French.
Lubega is sitting singly on a settee in one corner of Club Ambience, a half-filled paper cup in his hand. Three bottles of Smirnoff, one obviously half full, are huddled together on the glass table before him as if frightened of the beams that keep swooping on the floor and sweeping up the walls. Young pleasure seekers are dancing, drinking, smoking shisha and making out in the party fog, something clubs never had in Lubega’s time. Back then, most of the music played was from Congo and South Africa. Nowadays, home musicians dominate playlists, though once in a while the DJ slots in works recorded in typical West African pidgin and Jamaican patois.
The MC keeps reminding the revellers, who he fondly refers to as “child-of-my-mother,” that life is short, and encourages them to “enjoy it to the maximum.” Where is the lie? It seems like only yesterday that Lubega and others were the flowers of Kampala. Today, he cannot tell where all the bubbly girls he partied with in the 80s disappeared to. It is as though Dionysus called time on bell-bottoms and miniskirts, and sent them off the pitch of revelry saying, “Go y’all and prepare for frequent doctor’s visits.” Little wonder Lubega has already caught too many faces giving him more than a glance and exchanging surprised looks. Anyone would find it hard to understand what a man in his sixties, wearing a pinstriped suit and a necktie the size of Zwangendaba’s panga, is looking for in a typical youth nightclub.
At what point does one start to eschew trends and snub calls to happenings? At what age does one stop cherishing ‘less cloth, more skin’ and become a judge of morality? Ha! Life is short indeed. For Lubega, he never returned to nightlife after losing his first child. He and Christine resorted to soul-searching. By the time Lwanga was born, three years before Violet followed, nightlife was long forgotten.
It is now past midnight. The club is literally on fire, with everyone on their feet except this old man refreshing his paper cup. Christine would be surprised to find him drinking and staring – she would call it that – at girls grinding their bottoms against boys’ groins, others being spanked and loving it. Lubega hates to think Violet and Bridget, who are 25 and 23 respectively, dance like this too. Though he admits they did some really crazy things in his time, girls didn’t wrap their legs around men’s waists by way of dance.
Now check out these two girls grinding on each other. When Lubega’s eyes meet those of the smaller girl, she smiles at him, revealing a gap between her teeth. He smiles back, unwilling to give away his dejection. The girl whispers something to her friend, and gives Lubega the glad eye. He frowns and returns dismissively to thoughts of his son, who he left in hospital three hours earlier.
Lwanga just made 30 today. His wife rang up Christine four days prior to ask her and Lubega to turn up for the birthday party. Lubega was lounging on the balcony, reading the People & Power pullout in Sunday Monitor, when Christine came lamenting, “I cannot believe I no longer own my own son.” Though she seemed to be speaking to herself, Lubega knew she was seeking his attention. He cocked his head to the side, and shot her this look that asks: What do you mean you no longer own your own son? “I have been thinking of throwing a surprise party for Jonah on his birthday...” Not that Lubega remembered their son’s exact date of birth. “Sharon has pulled the plug on me, she’s asking us to join her in surprising him on Friday.” Lubega appeared to slowly return to the newspaper, but not to the thoughts of Bobi Wine’s magical rise in Ugandan politics and its implications. “Hubby?” He was absentminded. “Hubby, are you fine?”
“Oh, we will go,” he said, suddenly grabbing at the pullout. He picked it up and returned to his previous posture, pretending to Christine that nothing was wrong. “We will go. I am very fine.”
“Well, I’ll leave you to do your things. We’ll talk about it later.”
“But I have just said we will go.”
“I mean talking about whatever is bothering you now.”
In bed after supper, Christine tried to drag the reason for the sad, thoughtful demeanor out of her husband, but all her efforts matched the description of milking a rock. Lubega insisted he had a mild headache which wouldn’t continue into the next day. But his spirits remained low on the morrow, much to Christine’s disgust. By evening, however, Lubega had accepted that worrying, just like not worrying, might not abate his worst fears now that Lwanga was turning 30.
He’s considering starting on the second bottle when the girl who winked at him moments ago appears before him. She stands positioned like a fashion model posing for pictures on the catwalk. Her short translucent dress, high heels, and long legs force an embarrassingly ample view of her thighs on Lubega. But thanks to the thoughts about his family, he will not easily give in to the enticement of a girl his daughters’ age.
Her next move is to amble around the table and sit right beside her prey with her right leg crossed over the left. It goes without saying that her dress has slid up by two inches. She even has the temerity to refresh the paper cup and down it in two deuced gulps before casting her prey a hungry look. Her eyes are glittering like a serpent’s. Poor old Lubega is simply out of ideas; yet his tormentor is still full of moves. She undoes the crossed legs, and shifts so tactically on the couch that she nudges him with her hip. If he doesn't react, positively that is, she will go a notch higher. These girls are, as per Ganda parlance, no food.
With one knee on the couch and the other leg attempting to wedge Lubega’s legs open, she loosens his necktie, knowing her boobies are almost popping out of the dress – on purpose. Zwangendaba’s panga defied, and now a look of incredulity on Lubega’s face, she proceeds to the coat. To Lubega’s own disappointment, he obeys. He would have resisted her straddling him if he had predicted it. The heat introduced to the area of contact is actually less startling than the rocking that follows.
When the DJ fades in a Jamaican song, the rocking turns into aggressive grinding, and his reaction threatens to equal her action. She has awakened something that has long been in slumber. Lubega feels helpless with embarrassment, not that his tormentor cares. Her vodka-smelling lips keep spewing hot air around his neck. She’s soon getting what she came for.
It’s really miraculous that Lubega feels her crooked hand sliding into his trouser. As she reaches her head to push Lubega’s phone into the band in her hair, the old man grabs hold of her hand. So much for her cunning.
In the afternoon, precisely eleven hours back, Lubega and Christine first drove to a gift shop on Entebbe Road and bought a Rolex watch and, by Christine’s insistence, a pair of brogues and a canister of Hugo Boss perfume. They always give their children the best things they can afford. But now the premonition was getting the better of Lubega, so much that he complained, “Waste of money.” Christine stopped and gazed at her husband as though he had uttered a swear word in public. Then she turned and carried the items to the counter.
Outside the shop, she threw a tantrum. “I will repay the money. It will be back on the account by close of the day.”
“I didn't mean that,” said Lubega, entering the car to avoid causing a scene.
“Then what did you mean?” Christine demanded, occupying the passenger seat.
Lubega improvised, “All Sharon expects of us is our presence.”
“What about Jonah?” asked Christine. “What are his expectations?” No other word was uttered until they arrived at Lwanga’s home in Buziga.
Buziga is a quiet high-class neighbourhood on the fringes of Kampala. Lwanga’s house, like all the rest in the estate, is a sturdy two-storey bungalow with grey roofing tiles, white walls and light blue reflective glass panes. When Sharon received them, they acted as if they were on the best talking terms ever.
“How is everything?” asked Christine with a sweeping gesture. Their granddaughter Claire was laughing from being tickled by Lubega.
“Very good,” said Sharon. “Three of his friends and our neighbours across the street are already here. Claire has promised she will not give anything away, though she insists on welcoming him back home as she always does.”
“Won’t this car give Dad a clue?” asked Claire with a note of concern in her voice. “It should be parked behind the house like all the rest.”
“Goodness! Those are my genes,” said Christine proudly.
“Let me have the keys, I will park it behind,” offered Sharon.
Lubega thought his daughter-in-law was doing so much to please her man that she might regret before long. Even Lwanga’s friends and neighbours were to him unnecessarily excited when they joined them in the living room. He had attended two or three funerals where a mourner cried, “We were with him a few days ago. I can't believe he’s gone.”
“Dad, is anything the matter?” asked Sharon, seeing that Lubega was not looking fine; in fact, he was not even involved in looking at Lwanga’s pictures taken over the years. He straightened the involuntary frown. “Can I give you some food?” continued Sharon, solicitously, knowing that her quite conservative father-in-law wouldn’t openly ask her for food if he felt hungry. “My pans are not yet holed, Sharon.” Christine played spokesperson. “He ate before coming here.”
“I am sorry, Mum.”
“Only jesting, my dear,” said Christine before turning to whisper in Lubega’s ear. “Let’s forget about the little quarrel, big boy.” She was mistaken about what weighed on his mind.
Claire took her grandparents through the birthday songs, putting them on a par with the other guests, and Sharon briefed them on delivering a little speech each. “We’ll then count down from thirty to zero, and Jonah will cut the cake.” Lubega wanted to raise an objection to the idea of counting down, but it clogged up in his throat before coming out as a benign grunt. In some way, Sharon’s idea made him imagine Lwanga would be living on borrowed time from that day onwards.
When Claire heard the honk of her dad’s car, she ran out to receive him. Lubega didn't like the way everyone else ran up the stairs to the corridor that led to the master bedroom. He took his time climbing up, much to the anxiety of the rest. Sharon handed each of them a candle, and lit them one by one. They could now hear Lwanga and Claire coming up the stairs. Lubega alone didn’t hold his breath. Hardly had Lwanga stepped onto the landing when the surprise singing of “Happy birthday...” threw him off balance. He reflexively yanked Claire’s hand, and together they avalanched back down the stairs.
Claire gave one cry and nothing more. When the shocked choir ran down the stairs, they found Lwanga bleeding from the nose and mouth. Christine feverishly picked up two of her granddaughter’s teeth as though she might replace them. Lubega was looking on, utterly astounded. The candle wax was dripping onto his fingers but, like a leper, he seemed not to notice it.
Clubs and bars have maintained the culture of not fixing clocks to their walls. They don’t want to warn customers that they are running late. Whenever Lubega wants to know what time it is, he has to consult his phone because his wristwatch isn’t bright enough to be read under the moving coloured beams.
It's 2:32 AM. Luckily, he has not received any calls from Sharon, Christine, or any of Lwanga’s friends. For the first time, he appreciates the logic in the English saying ‘No news is good news,’ but there is a growing feeling of regret in one half of his heart. He feels he could have prevented the accident if only he had opened up about his premonition. The other half stands up for him, arguing he would have been ignored nonetheless. Or Lwanga would still have choked on a piece of cake. By the time Lubega left Case Hospital, he didn't know how the odds stood. Only Sharon and Christine had been permitted into the ICU rooms, each attending to her child. However, a doctor in the emergency unit had specified who needed more prayers between Lwanga and Claire despite the fact that Lwanga had bled profusely. Perhaps there was a chance of survival for him, even when Claire’s death would imply the jinx no longer spared females.
Lubega left Lwanga’s friends in the waiting lounge of the ICU, all of them tearful. When he wondered which place to drive to, he remembered the venue of Christine’s last birthday, a restaurant near the club. But he had no appetite, and a restaurant would not allow him to wait inside till morning.
3 AM. The revellers are still so full of energy you might think it’s only 10 PM. It’s clear they have no son or granddaughter on life support. Lubega is praying for time to stop moving because once dawn breaks and the club closes, he will have no option but to return to hospital. That is, if there is still no news by then. His stomach grumbles, and he decides to go to the washroom, only to find himself rooted to the floor without the smallest urge to use the facility.
He’s coming out when a club muscleman stops him. “We don't encourage anyone to leave their drinks unattended, Mzee,” he booms close to Lubega’s ear. “And no man is allowed to use the ladies'.” Lubega turns to look where the man’s finger is pointing, and sees the female sign emblazoned on a plaque above the door. “I am sorry,” he says, fiddling with his phone, which just vibrated. Luckily, it is a useless message from the telecom company. “Is anything the matter, Mzee?” asks the bouncer. “You won’t understand,” Lubega replies after a momentary hesitation. Even if he chooses to confide, he knows he will not go beyond the accident to talk about the mystery known only to him and his late grandmother.
Lubega became orphaned at eleven months. His father was gunned down at the Uganda-Kenya border, apparently for smuggling salt into Uganda. Two Ugandan soldiers had ordered Lubega’s father to eat his sandals, which he refused to do. Feeling disrespected, they roped him to the back of their pickup and dragged him six times around the compound of their station. Save a few scratches on his back and the chafed wrists, Lubega was not that injured. That was even more disrespectful to the soldiers. “Let’s see how a bullet might do,” they said, according to his friend, who had accepted to eat his own shoes. Perhaps one bullet wouldn't have killed Lubega’s father; but the soldiers fired over eight rounds at him. All for smuggling Kenyan salt into the country. The incident was never investigated since the victim was a nobody.
Two months after his father’s burial, Lubega’s nineteen-year-old mother dumped him at her paternal grandmother’s house in Masaka. When John, Lubega’s cousin, opened the door in the morning, he was surprised to find a baby sitting in the doorway, nibbling at a slice of bread, a sisal bag beside him. Perhaps Lubega’s mother had said to him in baby talk, “Wait here, my child, I will not be long!” The front of Lubega’s overalls was decorated with crumbs. Among the contents of the sisal bag was a note which Lubega’s grandmother asked the village chairman to read to her and the gathering of neighbours.
Maama, I have found a white man. I am going with him to Bungereza. Bungereza is Luganda for England. The bad thing is that I was dishonest with him about my motherhood, so he does not expect a stepchild. I love my child so much I will not pass up this chance to give him a good future. Please take care of your grandson.
It was after the chairman had read the last sentence that Lubega’s grandmother bent down and frowned a gaze at Lubega’s face. Now she recognized the baby she had seen at her son’s funeral two months earlier. She burst into tears.
It is 3:46 AM.
Perhaps Lubega’s grandmother wouldn’t have been so hurt if her daughter-in-law had remarried after thereabouts four years. Then Lubega would be old enough to join his cousins in doing some chores. She decided to write her off, and told herself she was Lubega’s mother and father although, as Lubega grew up, she called him mwami (husband). Lubega was the heir of his father and therefore the heir of his grandmother’s husband, who had been survived by three daughters and one son, Lubega’s father.
Lubega enjoyed special treatment from his grandmother to such an extent that whenever a food item of any kind was too small to be shared among all the grandchildren, she said the fair thing to do was to leave it for Lubega. One day, Jajja Daphne – grandmother of Daphne, for whom the boy would later form a deep liking – sent Lubega’s grandmother a basket of sweet potatoes from her garden. One of them became orangeish once peeled. All the grandchildren desired it, wondering what it would taste like once cooked. But when the food was ready and placed on the lujjuliro – the traditional dining table, which is not really a table but an arrangement where boys sit and girls kneel down around a heap of food – their grandmother cut the coveted potato into two pieces, took one, and gave the other to Lubega, who always sat right by her side at meals.
Be that as it may, Lubega received the most serious beatings for wrongdoing where his cousins mostly went unpunished. When John started escaping from school to go and catch fish at the lake, their grandmother turned a blind eye, but when Lubega stayed out playing with Daphne, he was beaten like a snake.
By the time Lubega started going to school, having cleared the test of passing a hand over his head to touch the other ear, only his uncle, Jackson, had visited him from his mother’s side. Four times. He came riding a Raleigh bicycle, the cuffs of his trousers tucked into the socks to prevent the chain from catching them as he rode. Lubega’s grandmother became uneasy whenever Jackson said Lubega resembled his mother.
“Do you hear from her?” she would inquire. Each time, Jackson said they had not heard from her, but she would come back someday. “That is unnecessary,” Lubega’s grandmother once replied.
For Lubega, it was amazing to imagine he even had a mother, a black woman who lived among the whites. He often wondered what she looked like. He once broke his grandmother’s mirror while looking at his face to visualize what his mother looked like, and received the worst beating of his life.
It was Daphne who reached out to him on one side of the house and consoled him. From that moment on, he was more fond of her than of any one of his cousins. Daphne was not the only girl in the neighbourhood, but the only one whose hair was not kinky, but rather alluring like wet cat fur. She was also the only girl who made his heart leap when she smiled, mesmerizing him as he watched her skip the banana-fibre rope. Such was Lubega’s attraction that whenever family make-believe was to be played, he wanted to act the role of father with Daphne as mother. Playmates often took issue, and assigned him the part of child on the grounds that he was about two years younger than Daphne.
It is 4 AM. Lubega has so far seen two revellers throwing up on the floor. The cleaners quickly swept up the mess, and bouncers pushed the offenders out. Now his mind wanders back to the past.
He was in primary two when Jackson came one Saturday to tell his grandmother that Sarah had returned from Bungereza. Jackson broke the news so happily. Lubega was excited, but his grandmother’s reply nipped his expectations in the bud. “So what?” she asked, unpacking bread and sugar from the package Jackson had brought her. “She wants to have her son back,” replied Jackson. The old woman paused for some moments, replaced the things in the satchel, and pushed it toward Jackson. “Go call the neighbours,” she told John. The village chairman, a bad-tempered man who beat children for playing at the well, was the first to respond.
Everyone wondered about the audacity of Lubega’s mother. “I think she left all her manners in Bungereza,” said Lubega’s grandmother.
“Is it wrong for a woman to ask for her child?” asked Jackson.
“Do you see that door?” retorted Lubega’s grandmother, pointing at the front door of her house. “Go and pick whichever child you find sitting there, and take them to her.”
The chairman asked Jackson, “How do we know she’s the mother of the boy? And how sure is she that this is her child? How sure is she that the child was not stolen from the door where she left him?”
“But I have been coming here many times to see the child,” Jackson said, puzzled.
The chairman replied, “That doesn’t mean the child you’ve been seeing is your sister’s.”
Jackson stood up and kicked the stand of his bicycle with the heel.
“Lindako ssebo! Take your things with you,” said Lubega's grandmother, referring to the bread and sugar. “Go and give them to your mother.”
Jackson was moved to tears. He and Sarah had neither mother nor father, and Lubega’s grandmother knew it.
A few weeks later, Lubega was attending a social studies class when the deputy head teacher came in, a policeman in tow, and called his name. “Come out,” he said.
“Alright. Let’s go, young boy,” the policeman said to Lubega, who was nearly peeing on himself. The officer led him to a car parked at the road. Lubega had never sat in a car, and the only such car he had seen was the District Education Officer’s when he guested at the speech day the previous year. As he looked behind, tears streaming down his cheeks, the deputy headteacher and almost all the regular teachers were watching from the veranda, looking on unhelpfully. His fellow learners were peering through the windows. Why him among all the pupils? His cousins were in the windows too, he imagined. “Don’t look back again,” said the policeman, his voice making Lubega shudder. The policeman opened the backdoor and told him to get inside. Had it not been an order, he would have hesitated because his feet and lower half of the legs were dusty. But when he laid eyes on the face of the woman in the back, it took only moments before he knew she was his mother. He felt it too.
Despite all his dirtiness, his mother grabbed him into her embrace. Lubega found himself crying afresh when he saw the tears in her eyes. The policeman, now driving, would say nothing throughout the journey.
Lubega’s mother gave him a cupcake and juice in a plastic bottle. She observed him encouragingly as he ate, her eyes still bloodshot. Moments after another cupcake had been devoured, she replaced Lubega’s uniform with a new T-shirt and a pair of shorts. She cast the uniform out through the window. She had new shoes for him as well, but decided against getting them out.
Nothing interested the village boy more than seeing trees race backwards, along with cars and buildings he had never thought existed.
When they arrived at his mother’s home, the policeman was given his pay and drove away.
4:25 AM. Lubega sits alone at his table, nothing new in that, but he finds himself checking the time more frequently. The nightclub is nearly half-empty, and less noisy. At the table across from his sits a lean man, who appears to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He speaks only in whispers, and his face is covered in a deep, unshed sob. From what Lubega can gather, he is not crying because of the music or the people, but because he has spent all his money. I could offer to buy him a couple of drinks, Lubega thinks to himself mockingly, in exchange for some sympathy.
There was an even bigger car parked in the compound. Two small girls, who looked like those whites who came to Lubega’s school and the pupils danced for them, answered the door. They wanted to hug their mother, but stepped back as if they had seen a ghost standing beside her. Then came the home help. Her skin was slightly lighter than that of Lubega’s mother; it looked like Daphne’s.
The trio glared at Lubega’s feet, and the girls said things he couldn't understand. But the surprise on their faces was so clear that he was fast feeling out of place. Their mother told them to get out of the way and, holding Lubega’s hand, led him into the house. “Prepare something good for my child,” she said to the help and carried Lubega to her bedroom, the way you would a baby.
Lubega reappeared at supper time in a pair of trousers and shirt, his feet now cleaner than he had ever seen them. He smelled so fresh he could barely believe he was the same person. The girls still eyed him as though he had two heads. “This is Willy, your brother,” said their mother. “You mean stepbrother?” asked the taller of the girls. Their mother said nothing, but the help nudged the young girl's shoulder. The girl was Esther, but Lubega was to call her Essie. The other was Sandra, alias Sunny. The help was Aunt Stella, and their mother was Mummy.
For the first three nights, Lubega slept in Mummy’s bed because that was what she wanted. It was on one of those nights that Lubega was told about the circumstances which had forced Mummy to leave Uganda. “I didn't know what to do after your father's death,” she said. “So when the opportunity appeared, I took it up immediately.” This country had seemed like a dead end, so when an exit appeared out of the blue, she immediately took it. She had abandoned him, true, but only because she had no other choice. “If I had consulted your grandmother, she would have objected to the idea. Still, I might have been arrested and charged with child neglect had I not dropped you at the door. Forgive me, Willy,” she said contritely. “I did all that so you would have a good life. Which I am sure you’ve started living now.” Lubega understood. He asked one thing: that Mummy took him to see his grandmother every once in a while.
Essie and Sunny were driven to school every morning after the 6:30 breakfast. Lubega stayed at home with Aunt Stella, as Mummy kept a boutique in Kampala and returned home in the evening with the girls.
Lubega now had lots of good clothes and shoes, and a magnificent bedroom with a real bed, all to himself. His dressing mirror was so big he wondered what his grandmother would have done to him if that were the one he had broken while trying to imagine what his mother looked like. Watching people in a box was more fascinating than hearing them speak inside his grandmother’s radio. Eating meat on a random weekday was normal here. Even when Mummy didn’t rear any hens, the icebox never ran out of chicken, and everyone ate to their belly’s satisfaction. Instead of the small tin known as tadooba, which operates on paraffin and has to be relit whenever the breeze or a mere stream of air from someone exhaling puts it out, bright bulbs hung down from the ceiling to light the whole house. Instead of the lujjuliro, they sat comfortably in chairs around the dining table for meals. Moreover, Sunny and Essie were not punished for talking during meals. They didn’t have to go to the well; their water flowed out from pipes. Aunt Stella didn’t use wood for making fire; therefore the walls of the kitchen were not covered in soot.
All the children of the neighbourhood enjoyed far more freedom than Lubega had ever imagined possible. Some of them looked like Essie and Sunny, they were children of white settlers. Essie and Sunny often joined them in playing. Intimidated by their fluency in English, Lubega just watched them. Every day after supper, Mummy taught him how to pronounce English words correctly. Lubega was shocked to discover that his village teachers had taught him all the wrong pronunciations. After thereabouts three weeks, he found himself able to understand most of the things Essie and Sunny said, although he was still afraid of engaging in their conversations. Understanding a language is one thing, speaking it well quite another.
Try as much as he could, Lubega still missed his grandmother, cousins and school friends deeply. He missed climbing guava trees and playing hopscotch. He missed Daphne and wondered whether she felt the same way.
Lubega passed the interview at his sisters’ school, which was an institution for the children of big people – ministers, members of Parliament, rich whites and Indians. He was clearly the oldest pupil in his class, even when many of his classmates were bigger in size as a result of feeding well all their lives.
Although Mummy was not as rich as the ministers, she was satisfied with herself. Plus, she spoke excellent English, and knew England better than the whites who had spent decades in Uganda, communicating home by mail.
Essie and Sunny received mail from their father regularly. Mummy picked up the mail from Posta. Most times, there were photographs enclosed. Mummy, in turn, called a photographer to take pictures of the girls, and would then send them to Liverpool. She often took pictures herself, but never sent one to her white husband. She didn’t want him anymore. In fact, some big black man used to come around and spend weekends with her. The children called him Uncle Bob. One night when Lubega had left his homework book in the living room, he stumbled over Mummy and Uncle Bob kissing, an act he had never seen in his life. Mummy came to his bedroom moments later and apologized to him. He never saw Uncle Bob again; but when Mummy caught Essie and Sunny kissing in their bedroom, she pulled their ears and scolded them.
After one year, Lubega was pestering Mummy to take him to his grandmother’s. She finally gave in, but told him to wait until December. One evening, a week before Christmas, she took him to the barbershop, and told him as they drove back home that they would be traveling to Masaka the next morning. “What of Essie and Sunny?” Lubega asked. “They will stay home with Aunt Stella, I don’t think they would like the village.” She was right; the girls wanted their TV that much. “Aren’t we taking any things for Jajja?” he asked. “We’ll do some shopping for her in the morning, but you should know I will leave you with her and pick you up a day after.” Lubega remonstrated. “You said you wanted to see her; is it me who wants to see her?” Mummy's voice was rising with anger. “Who told you she wants to see me?” Nobody, of course.
Before they left Kampala the next day, they bought sugar, bread, butter, cooking oil and other things, although Mummy said she knew Lubega’s grandmother would reject them.
Lubega’s grandmother was on all fours, gathering peanuts. It was just 3 PM, but the sky was cloudy with prospects of rain. The old woman raised her head and gazed at the car as it came down into her compound. Lubega knew she couldn’t guess he was the passenger. He wanted to jump out even before the vehicle could stop, wanted to shout, “Jajja, I'm back!” Mummy just ignored him when he scampered out excitedly and hugged the old woman very tightly. Lubega’s grandmother was taken by surprise. When he released her, she cocked her head back and looked into his eyes. “You left me here!” she said, “I thought I would never see you again. I thought you had gone to live among the Bazungu. We looked for you everywhere... until we gave up.” Tears ran down her face, but Lubega understood they were tears of joy. “Mummy is here,” he said, pointing to the car. His mother was still inside, looking at them. The old woman stared back at her, and the barrier between them became evident. “Aren’t you going to come out and greet me?” Lubega’s grandmother called out. “Can she hear me inside there?” Lubega replied, “She can hear you.” Mummy opened the door on her side with her face crumpled up. She was fighting back the tears, the way she had done when explaining to her son why she had left him behind.
Fresh tears ran down the old woman’s cheeks; it was becoming a very emotional moment. Lubega looked away before he found himself picking a peanut and cracking it open, something his grandmother would have beaten him for in the past. He popped the seeds into his mouth. When he realized he couldn’t stop his ears from capturing the exchange of questions and answers between the two women, he called over his cousins, who were watching from the front of the house, then proceeded to open the boot. They carried their grandmother’s stuff into the house, and started their own conversation. John was not around. He still went to the lake and sometimes reappeared after four or more days. According to these cousins of Lubega's, even the village chairman, for all his toughness on young people, had washed his hands his hands of John.
Lubega’s grandmother and cousins were unable to stop talking about how different, and how rich, he looked. When he spoke in English to Mummy, they all kept quiet to listen. For lunch, Lubega and Mummy ate the katogo, a combination of beans and triangular cassava pieces, which had been prepared before their arrival. But as they ate, matooke and chicken were being cooked; that’s the appropriate meal for visitors. Lubega joined his cousins when they picked up cans to go and fetch water from the well. He took the smallest can because his grandmother refused him the bigger ones. Even so, he could remember her saying, over one year ago, “You are now a big man; stop carrying the small cans.” Other village children they found at the well couldn’t hide their admiration for Lubega; once one of them, now looking like a prince.
Daphne came around before dusk, but she didn’t say a word to Lubega. She greeted Mummy, however. After picking some red charcoal from the kitchen, she disappeared into the path to her grandmother’s house. Lubega felt disappointed. Had Daphne possibly transferred her affection to someone else? Did he look too young for her, or did she find his appearance intimidating? Could she have taken it badly when he left the village, even though it didn't happen by choice? Lubega couldn't help wondering. But as he parted from his cousins, he handed one of them a bill to give to her.
He returned to the village once a year before he joined university, but never got to talk to Daphne any of those times. In fact, by the time he started highschool, two of his cousins had left the village to face the world.
When Mummy succumbed to a stroke, Lubega was in his second year at university. Essie and Sunny returned to England, where they now stay with Bridget and Violet.
After graduation, it took Lubega time to settle down because he had too many girlfriends. He had a nurse who was not ready for commitment; a commissioner's wife, who gave him freedom to date other girls; a teacher, who seemed to want to rush him to the altar and was a menace to his pockets; and Christine, who had a tendency to be very jealous.
Lubega next went to see his grandmother after two-and-a-half years when she summoned him through one of the Kampala-Masaka bus drivers. Amidst work and love pursuits, he seemed to have forgotten about her, though he still sent her things on the Masaka-bound buses.
His grandmother was evidently older than he had left her. The skin at her throat appeared so thin you could nearly see the saliva when she swallowed. Her back was slightly hunched; she could no longer stand straight. Her lower eyelids appeared baggy. The village too had changed profoundly. It had new houses, and the government had brought them electricity. Most people were not connected to the grid, which they feared they couldn't manage using. When Lubega suggested connecting his grandmother's house to the grid, she objected, saying the electric lights would kill her eyes. The big mango tree from which John had once nearly fallen had been cut to allow passage for the installations.
The young woman cooking food in the kitchen happened to be John’s wife. She stayed with the old woman when her husband traveled to the lake to catch fish. From the veranda at the back of the house, Lubega could see her roasting maize cobs by the fire. Another set of cooking stones had a soot-blackened kettle on it. Lubega's grandmother reminded her for the second time not to roast for her cobs with hard kernels. “For me, they are the ones I like,” said Lubega. His grandmother shrugged her shoulders and said, “You still have your teeth, but look!” She opened her mouth to show him. “You can count them on your fingers.”
John’s wife brought the kettle out to the veranda, its spout spewing steam. She poured them a cup each, and added sugar from a glass bowl and fresh mint leaves picked from the banana garden. Knowing the rims of metallic cups to burn, Lubega started with the maize as the tea cooled off. His grandmother, on the other hand, was blowing steam off the surface and slurping off the tea. While Lubega picked off the kernels with his fingers and popped them into his mouth, his grandmother would use her two front teeth, leaving the coats of the young kernels on her cob.
She told Lubega how people he couldn’t remember had died, married or committed the sin of changing their religion. As if to hurt his feelings, she even mentioned that Daphne now had three kids. A long silence followed.
When lunch was ready, John’s wife carried the round metallic container of meat to the veranda, and returned to the kitchen to slice food onto the plates. Their grandmother lamented that village people no longer sat at the lujjuliro. “They cut food onto plates and scatter. Some eat while standing, others from their beds. That’s why the banana gardens are no longer very productive these days.”
Lubega’s food came on a special earthenware plate, and a similar plate was put on the side for his sauce. Hands washed, never mind they hadn’t washed them before eating the maize, Lubega’s grandmother opened the hot container without insulating her hands with cooked banana leaves as John’s wife had done. She didn't even wince. The old village meat aroma assailed Lubega’s nose. His grandmother waded her serving spoon through the sauce, looking for the best pieces of meat for her grandson, her husband. She scooped out the first, and placed it on his sauce plate with a smile of a great discoverer. Then the second, third and fourth pieces. She explored further, and brought up a very fatty piece. “Do you still like fat?” she asked, but was already placing the piece on Lubega’s sauce plate. He gave a laugh and said yes. “You should eat it while it’s still hot. Or cover it inside a slice of matooke. That way, you can be sure to find it hot when you are ready to eat it.” Without caring about size or quality, she served herself and John’s quiet wife.
After the meal, the old woman took a siesta, and Lubega had a light conversation with John’s wife. The young woman said she didn’t trust men, that she knew John had someone who kept him company when he went to the lake. “Don’t worry about John. By the time he returns, we’ll have made strides,” Lubega joked. “I heard you,” said their grandmother as if talking in her sleep. With that, she rose off the mat and stretched. “Why don't you accompany me into the banana garden?” she asked Lubega.
The garden still had a number of big bunches despite the fact that people no longer ate at lujjuliro. It was mulched with a type of grass that grew in the swamp. Lubega's grandmother said she gave some young village couple food, and they did the work for her in return. “If you had a wife, you would take that bunch to her,” she said, pointing to a bulky bunch, the type called kibuzi in Luganda. Lubega didn’t look up. A childhood spirit had come over him; he was uprooting a sugarcane. His grandmother didn't comment. She wouldn't prevent those who had their teeth from enjoying the sugarcane.
“I called you because I had an important matter to speak to you about,” she finally broke the silence as they reached a jambula (black plum) tree heavy with green fruits.
“About what matter, Jajja?” Lubega asked.
She took her time to respond, first bending to reorganize some mulches where a hen had scratched. “You went quiet; you no longer come to see me. If I were a bad wife, I would get other men.” There was a note of jest in her voice.
“But most young men have gone to Kampala,” Lubega returned the joke.
“One or two still roam aimlessly around the village,” said the old woman before complaining about Jajja Daphne’s goats, which had eaten the leaves off a number of her sweet potato mounds. “The point is that I want you to get married,” she picked up where she had left. “The Bible says it in the Beginning: it is not good for a man to be alone. All your cousins have married. Will you first develop a spur to accept you’re old enough?”
Lubega laughed mid-chew and spat out the sugarcane pulp.
“These days, it's hard for young men to get marriageable girls. I don't blame them. Very many girls these days are bayaaye (unscrupulous). Your young eyes cannot detect a good wife. I got John his wife.”
Lubega almost choked on the cane juice as he laughed again. “How did you pick her out from others?” he asked.
“I can tell a well-mannered girl when I look at her. She’s also very beautiful. I know you educated men think it’s old-fashioned...” They were returning to the house. “I will not get you a wife, but take it upon yourself to get one and impregnate her without delay.” Lubega could barely believe his ears. “I hope you’re listening to me.”
“I will find one at the right time,” said Lubega. “The Bible also says there is a time for everything.”
“That is right,” agreed his grandmother. She called John’s wife, and asked her to bring her the basket containing the mat she was weaving. She sat down and stretched out her legs. The mat had white and purple palm leaves. Lubega quietly wondered why she used only two colours; yet these days, mats had numerous colours in them. “Why I am concerned is...” His grandmother trailed off after shaking him out of his thoughts.
“Am I getting too old? I am only 29.”
“That’s why I am worried.”
Lubega could have sworn there was a note of frank fear in her voice. She made two loud snivels.
“Your father died at 30. Your grandfather died at 30; a buffalo gored him badly when he was hunting. And your great grandfather was about the same age when he drowned in the lake, according to what my late mother-in-law told me.” Lubega’s heart started pounding. “When you look at it, my husband was the heir of his father, just like you're the heir of your father, who was my husband's heir. I worry for you, mwami. Get a woman, and waste no time.”
Shortly after Lubega had returned to Kampala, Christine came to his workplace to confront him. “Why did you lie and say you didn't come inside me?” she asked, looking as though she might swallow him up. Lubega knew the basic repercussions of impregnating a clergyman’s daughter without first marrying her. “You held me inside you, what did you expect me to do?” sounded his question, as if that had been a good reason to lie. They looked at each other like two sick dogs. “Then you’ll start living with me,” Lubega said finally. “Oh, I see... So this is how you planned to have me move in with you?” Christine asked incredulously. “The baby is not your parents’ responsibility,” he responded. “You cannot continue staying with your parents.”
Their wedding was hastened, and Christine’s labour pains came five months afterward. Lubega drove her to Mulago Hospital, where he had a friend in the obstetrics department. When the doctor listened to the baby’s heart, his hands dropped limp.
Lubega still believes the baby died in his place.
After two years of asking God countless questions, Christine conceived again. Despite her staunch Christian background, she desperately accepted to use the herbs Lubega’s grandmother sent her. Then Lwanga was born. Lubega's grandmother died three weeks after naming the baby after its grandfather.
Now, Lubega is wondering if Claire might die in her father’s place. The only sure way of breaking the jinx, he knows, is by losing his son. And hopefully, Sharon is not pregnant with a boy.
5:32 AM. The club is still active when the phone rings. Lubega’s innards plummet down. It is Sharon calling. Lubega doesn’t remember when his daughter-in-law last rang him up. He’s too afraid to pick up. He’s starting to think his granddaughter is dead when another call comes, from Christine. He squeezes out of the club. Finally out, he walks toward his car. He takes a deep breath and returns Christine’s call. The moment she picks up, he asks, “Lwanga or Claire?”
About the author
Zeddekia Ssekyonda, fondly called Zed, is a Ugandan fiction writer and activist for democracy and ethnic/tribal tolerance. He was born on 16th September, 1997, in Masaka, Buganda Kingdom. Most of his stories are centered on gender, African traditional beliefs, challenges of youth and political crime.
Zed is a student of Medicine and Surgery at Uganda Christian University.
In late February, 2022, Ssekyonda Zeddekia submitted an unpublished short story to Novelty Fiction. The manuscript was accepted for publication after an intense period of consultations.
NOVELTY FICTION – Your story evolves around an accident with tragic repercussions. What made you decide to approach a serious topic humorously?
SSEKYONDA ZEDDEKIA – Accidents are not always entirely dull events. There are often bits that confer a humorous touch to the most unfortunate happenings. Sometimes, the humour is in the words people say in the face of the accident; other times, it is in the nonverbal reactions. That is what I intended to demonstrate. Perhaps what makes Waiting on Fate particularly humorous is how the said accident occurs and the fact that the main character, reminded of the possibility of a generational streak of bad luck, finds himself going to a place unexpected for his age.
NOVELTY FICTION – Waiting on Fate allows the reader to experience the sharp contrast between a modern, materialistic city lifestyle versus traditional rural life. Some characters in your story have never used electricity or traveled, but they have something else of value to offer. In a nutshell, what is this cultural treasure?
SSEKYONDA ZEDDEKIA – In Uganda, and, I think, other parts of Africa, people in rural areas are the custodians of traditions and cultural lifestyle. Rural areas are slow to adopt foreign lifestyles. As such, they form the reference point for our cultural heritage and traditions. Whereas African urbanites tend to conduct themselves with an extreme hauteur around villagers, the latter embody the truer spirit of Africa.
NOVELTY FICTION – You characterize yourself as a “Ugandan fiction writer and activist for democracy and ethnic/tribal tolerance.” Therefore, you seem to be concerned about ethnic/tribal intolerance in your country. Please elaborate.
SSEKYONDA ZEDDEKIA – Uganda is composed of many ethnic groups and even more tribes. A history of fighting, discrimination and bickering along ethnic/tribal lines has been perpetuated in social and political spaces, ever raising the spectre of deadly repercussions. South West of this land is Rwanda, one country where incessant tribal friction led to a genocide. Yet Ugandans seem to have learnt nothing from it. Socially, there are people who take pleasure in very distasteful stereotypes about other tribes. In fact, some comedians are obsessed with such stereotypical notions. And in the political realm, some tribal groups feel sidelined and can’t wait for their ‘turn’. I don't think when their ‘turn’ comes, they will act any differently given that they are holding serious grudges. It’s in view of such situations that I seek to use literature and my voice to mitigate ethnic/ tribal sentiment, stereotypes, and discrimination.
NOVELTY FICTION – Did writing Waiting on Fate enrich you in some ways, for example by leading to new discoveries about yourself or other people?
SSEKYONDA ZEDDEKIA – Yes, without exaggeration, it did. In three ways. It made me reflect more about the altruistic steps women take for the good of their children. I was also glad to realize my childhood memories of rural life are still intact. Thirdly, I have appreciated more that people harbour serious unvoiced troubles.
NOVELTY FICTION – The title Waiting on Fate may imply that you believe in such concepts. Do you think there may come a time in a person's life where he or she must confront their fate or destiny?
SSEKYONDA ZEDDEKIA – Whereas I will not call myself a fatalist, I think any attempt to confront one's fate is what fallen Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe would describe as wrestling one’s chi. You cannot win. In any case, I don't think there is a proven record of anyone who has ever defeated their fate. Fatalists would still argue that wherever your journey leads you, no matter whether you think you've defied fate, was always meant to be your destiny.
NOVELTY FICTION – You are a thinker, but your narrative tone tends to be crisp and light. Is this style a reflection of your own temperament and personality, or simply a writing technique?
SSEKYONDA ZEDDEKIA – When it comes to fiction, I am a sucker for simplicity. As a reader, I am turned off by stories with extraneous elements. The more I have written, the more I have appreciated the value of interacting concisely with the reader. A good writer, to me, is one who whittles a complex idea into a light and easily comprehensible form, communicates a lot with less words, and enables the reader to clearly visualize what they read as though they were watching it in HD. That's my style, essentially. I must admit developing it did not come easy. But whether it is a reflection of my personality is a question better left to my friends, siblings and people who have interacted long enough with me.
NOVELTY FICTION – Your story contains some passages and expressions written in a language other than English. What language did you use? Is Uganda divided by a language barrier?
SSEKYONDA ZEDDEKIA – The language is Luganda, arguably the simplest language in Uganda. Most people in the country can somehow express themselves in Luganda. I wouldn't say Uganda suffers from a language barrier; there are several sets of related languages. For example, whereas I cannot speak Runyankore, Rutooro, and Lusoga (properly), I cannot get lost when any of those languages is spoken. Where communication through native languages is not possible, English, being the official language, is used. It's also widely spoken, with varying levels of proficiency. Kiswahili is the other language. Though not native, it's spoken by people in military circles, cross-border traders and people living in some districts bordering Kenya, Tanzania and DRC.
NOVELTY FICTION – Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
SSEKYONDA ZEDDEKIA – I want to encourage readers to look out for more fictional stories from Africa. Writers are encouraged by the knowledge that there are people consuming their work. Nevertheless, I must mention that literary activity in Africa is still wanting. I therefore encourage more people to pick up the pen and tell the African story.
Waiting on Fate will be published online by Novelty Fiction Gazette on June 15, 2022, and will be made available as an e-book shortly thereafter.
© 2022 by Novelty Fiction. All rights reserved.
A 21-story building of luxury apartments under construction in Lagos, Nigeria, collapsed on November 1, 2021, killing dozens and injuring others. On March 8, 2022, Joseph Jegede submitted an unpublished short story to Novelty Fiction, explaining that it was inspired by the Ikoyi building collapse.
NOVELTY FICTION – How did you learn about this tragic incident, and what was your reaction?
JOSEPH JEGEDE – It was on the news some hours after the building collapsed, and honestly it broke my heart.
NOVELTY FICTION – You submitted Arinfesesi on March 8, 2022, about 4 months after the incident. That is pretty quick for a work of fiction. What prompted you to write such a story, and how soon after the incident did you start working on it?
JOSEPH JEGEDE – I have always been eager to write works that image life experiences; so after I learnt of the Ikoyi building collapse, I thought to myself that this would make a good story, but I didn't write this piece until February, 2022. I had insomnia for seven days consecutively, so I went to my computer each day and started to bring to life some of the ideas in my head. I wrote a piece for each day, and Arinfesesi turned out to be one of them.
NOVELTY FICTION – According to some media reports and official statements, the building collapse happened because of negligence. Safety standards and procedures had not been complied with. You have visited Lagos. Would you say that systemic problems within society make life unsafe for many people?
JOSEPH JEGEDE – Yes, I would say so. This is not the first time we have been hearing of a building collapsing in Lagos and Nigeria as a whole. Some years back, there was the case of the SCOAN, even that of Yaba in Lagos. I am of the opinion that this boils down to building contractors. They should consider the "What if" scenario. What if we don't use enough cement and it leads to something else, what if we use 2-by-2 planks instead of 2-by-4 and the roof gets destroyed. Human lives should be considered over selfish interests.
NOVELTY FICTION – Has working on Arinfesesi made you reflect upon aspects of the Ikoyi building collapse you might otherwise have missed?
JOSEPH JEGEDE – It really has. The fact is, there were people who had appointments, tasks etc. on that particular day, but due to one reason or the other couldn't avail themselves. Usually, they would think of it as bad luck; but after learning of the collapse, they would realize it had turned out to be good luck. This is the perspective from which I drew my story.
NOVELTY FICTION – Has the writing process brought you “closer” to the victims of the incident, maybe even forcing you out of your comfort zone?
JOSEPH JEGEDE – When I write, I am in my character's head. In some way, I feel what they go through. While I don't know any of the victims or even their family members, I nonetheless felt so close to them while I wrote this piece. It was a difficult thing for me to describe such brutality. I remember my editor telling me to revise some of the things I wrote and pay detailed attention to them. It wasn't easy at all.
NOVELTY FICTION – Do you expect that the fallout from this incident will help prevent future tragedies in your country?
JOSEPH JEGEDE – Like I mentioned earlier, this is not the first time something like this is happening, but as usual, life goes on before one is born and even after one is dead. This situation is almost forgotten, everyone has returned to their normal lives. There are several houses in Lagos, especially on the Island, that are wrongly built. (Wrongly built in the sense of poor foundation, poor/wrong layout etc.) So I don't pray, but I'm scared such an occurrence could still happen if care is not taken.
NOVELTY FICTION – Please explain the title of your story.
JOSEPH JEGEDE – Arinfesesi: I have tried to get the right translation but the closest I could come up with is "Misfortune or to be a victim of circumstances." In Yoruba, we often say a prayer that sounds “Olorun maje ka r'arin f'ese si.” It's a powerful prayer to us. For example, a character is off to a place that would end his life. In the event that he did not get there, the fact that he did not get to walk into his own death, we say “ko r'arinfesesi” (he didn't encounter misfortunes). If he had gotten there, we would say “o r'arinfesesi” (he encountered misfortunes). I can't think of a better way to explain.
NOVELTY FICTION – Arinfesesi ultimately sends a positive signal in the context of tragedy. What message would you like to send?
JOSEPH JEGEDE – I believe in things happening for their reasons. When we face some downs in life, we often blame ourselves or our environments. However, some things, despite how unfortunate they might seem, happen for our own good. When you finally read this story, you will realize that hope is made of a whole 30 yards, as long as there is life. And isn't that what matters?
NOVELTY FICTION – Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
JOSEPH JEGEDE – This has been one of my prayers since I wrote this piece, because it means a lot to me even now.
Ki Olorun maje k'a rin arinfesesi.
May we not encounter misfortunes/May we not become victims of circumstances.
Arinfesesi will be published online by Novelty Fiction Gazette on June 15, 2022, and will be made available as an e-book shortly thereafter.
© 2022 by Novelty Fiction. All rights reserved.
I love him, I love him, I love him! I don’t know how many times I have repeated this to myself alone, whether in the silence of our den while he is away or in the stillness of the evening when returning from the bar. I sing these words like the British do during war memorial services: I vow to thee my country. Expressing myself like this is not founded on doubt, for I do not have any inkling of doubt, no inclination to question my feelings for Shaun. It is more like a reminder of the greatness of our communion. A profound sense of attachment has always pulled us together, dragging us from our naïve corners of self-assuredness and a romantic aloofness too coy for anyone being in love. There, we tell ourselves nonsensical ideas about falling in love.
The way we love each other was never like this when we started. Shaun treated me with indifference when we were together during those distant afternoons, uninterested in showing how much he cared, how much he was in love. I, for one, was a dilettante at love, and was guilty of setting a low standard when it came to not expressing our feelings. For almost two years, we loitered around the parameters of intimacy, having casual conjugal moments. We had sex most of the time, conversations being mere politeness.
Somehow, my internality brewed up a struggle with my externality; I bore the brunt of the brutal war between my feelings and what I thought ought to have been the state of our relationship. It was in the trenches of my conscience that I realised how much I needed to be with him beyond lovemaking; I wanted our souls to be in sync. One evening, I found my face pressed against a car window gazing over the city as the vehicle drove into the nonchalant city from the hamlet outside, deep in thought and gallivanting in the land of imagination, the road so hilly it held me up like Simba in The Lion King, to see the city, which gloriously worshiped my procession with its colourful lights peeping occasionally. The dusk light cast itself over the trees and houses flooding the place with its last beauty before it too retired. While all this was playing out, my body hardened from the thoughts I had of Shaun. We had agreed I would spend the night at his house, and my expectations were high.
I love him, I love him, I love him!
The early evening was already playing cacophonous noises that blended into the emptiness of the atmosphere that implored us to partake in our own invented pleasures.
Looking at his eyes, there was no more denying that he too was falling in love, because they gleamed with passion. Our passionate love was left smoldering under the shy glances and pointless questions we threw at each other. He placed his whiskey glass aside and shambled into the house, leaving me looking around the garden shyly. One of his neighbours started playing Shekinah’s Suited, and from where I sat, I could make out the singer’s voice possessing cadence and a certain level of inspirational touch when articulating the gay lyrics. The tune and the singer’s voice took off from the dark beyond the durawall and hedge, levitating in circles, casting a glow over the trees, rising higher with every second and exploding during the climax of the song over the navy bluish sky. Down they fell, beautifully sliding down over tree branches and leaves, so touching.
I saw his silhouette standing at the door, blocking the floodlight from inside. I knew right away what this meant, so I walked over to him soon enough to make out a smile that stayed briefly on his face.
“The room is ready, babe.”
“Oh no, I’m sleeping on the couch, Mr. Ncube!” I rejoined with laughter, and he laughed as well. His hand clasped the nape of my neck, pulling me closer, and we kissed. He lifted me off the ground, carried me away to his bedroom.
A little smile, a slight stroke of the other’s cheek, a grabbing of napes, then a tremendous flood of passion, love, yearning and the unexplainable terror of not being able to satisfy the other washed over us and pressed us into one. We yielded ourselves to a force so powerful it commanded the silence of heaven and earth. In that process of heavenly enjoyment, our souls departed from our conscious bodies and rose up to the highest heavens, imploring and daring the citizens of heaven to behold and drool over the tasteful forbidden fruit. I found myself crying from the sweet pain and pleasure I was enduring. Deeper and deeper, he thrust himself into me, and for the first time we were making love. For the first time, it was not fun but an experience of real love, one so real and passionate that when my eyes dilated from the goodness of his thrusts, I was transported to another country. He was sweating all over, his eyes beckoning and pleading with me as we exploded into each other.
This was the point of no return in our relationship. His look was one of surrender and acceptance of my victory over his stubbornly indifferent love. I saw how vulnerable he was through those eyes, now I knew him and understood how capable he was of loving deeply. In that moment, when looking into his eyes, I time traveled back to our first encounter. The door of possibilities had been thrust open, and I kept on seeing his ability to be in love in his terrified eyes.
Those eyes, yes those eyes. Those damn eyes, I love him, I love him, I love him!
I remembered his eyes from the time I first saw them at the upmarket sports bar. A young woman stood next to him then, she was the sanguine of the group judged by the loudness of her voice, which defied the background music moderating the conversations between guests.
It was a lonely and yet happy evening for me. I had not found anyone to be in a relationship with, not even a casual one. What mattered to me was the sense of adventure. All the men who had attempted to charm me had been simple so far, but I craved sophistication, someone to discover anew at all times. And there he was, in the midst of a crowd.
Satisfaction and pleasure waltzed betwixt the revelers, nudging them to enjoy themselves, spurring them on to a state of momentary high sensuality. I watched the loudmouth as she let her hand slightly touch Shaun’s shoulder, and that spark in her eyes made me hate her. But there was something else more interesting about Shaun, whose name I did not know then. He seemed to tolerate her flirtatious intentions while harbouring some debasing intentions himself.
Up until that point, I had not seen his face clearly; and so when he actually did turn towards the bar counter, I descended into terror. There was an unexplainable excitement and trembling, terror stirred up because of what I was looking at. The baby-smooth chocolate brown skin shone under the glare of florescent lights, and in that moment the non-existent gaffer beamed on him only; according to my imagination. The face was uninterested and disengaged from whatever was happening, signifying that its possessor knew how handsome he was and needed not try to exert himself to impress. His eyes made every effort to complement the face; they look tired and drunk with lust.
“He is an interesting fellow,” the bartender Thabo said before he shuffled away to a table close by. “On rocks or plain?… Sho sho.” He was returning, and I feigned not having heard him.
“Huh?” His response was to raise his left side eyebrow and furrow his forehead as a way of communicating that he knew I heard him the first time. I wasn’t winning this battle, so I asked, “Which fellow?” I tried hard to pretend I was lost by squinting my eyes questioningly.
He nodded to where Shaun stood. “Him…,” he poured me another glass of vodka. “On me! I saw how you were looking at him.” I watched as two ice cubes were tossed into the glass, watched as the liquid danced around the walls of the glass, and imagined love like that, thinking of it as something beautified by sacrifice of one's self and contained by our temperaments. I don’t know why I thought this way, having no idea who I was going to love wildly, although obviously I did think of him slightly.
Shaun pranced over to the counter and took up a chair two seats away from me. I saw him closer now, and the trembling and excitement increased in velocity. What I saw was a man with terrifying attractiveness. You wouldn’t know why, but you were immediately drawn to him and feared not to appreciate how wonderfully made he was. He was neither delicately handsome nor ugly, but there was that interesting in-between good looking feel about him, a sure specimen of heavenly beauty so peculiar only to him. How he would glance around the room, the look enchanting, and the reluctant smile bewitched you to instantly like him.
“You are listening to this cunt? Don’t listen to him, he doesn’t know what he is talking about. He is crazy, this one, will narrate things that don’t exist. Thabo is a dreamer. But as for me, you can trust me, I’m an honest guy, I don’t talk dreams, I know what I want.”
I wry smiled and sighed to signal I was listening to him. He and Thabo snapped fingers for a greeting. Shaun clasped the nape of Thabo’s neck, slapping him on the back. When he laughed, he bared his smile freely, and toasted to the rugby match playing on the television screen hanging above the liquor display cabinet.
“You are awfully quiet, I have never seen you around here before. Are you new this side?”
If he had only known I was trying to hold back myself from expressing how excited I was to finally have someone like him flirt with me. He never would have understood that in that moment, hope to see him again fermented inside and threatened to bust out. I never bothered with replying, perhaps because I thought he was speaking to Thabo, but intuition said otherwise. When your life is a secret, you know what is what without anyone saying it out loud, and you know intuitively how to react to situations that might drag you out of the closet. The two men spoke in hushed whispers leaning over the bar counter. Somehow, I was jealous and fearful of him withdrawing his gaze from me, retreating from the apostasy we indulged in without knowing it. When he looked back at me, I noticed he was suppressing a look of being bewildered and intensely liking someone. In some way, he managed to look into me and also speak to me without uttering a word. We did eventually chat at the bar that evening and made it out barely sober; then we went to his house, where we began our journey down the road that only promised to obliterate our hearts if we did not surrender to the truth.
I love him, I love him, I love him!
Our lovemaking had transformed him into a helpless stranger. It dragged him up from the chasm of fear and fright of being committed, and thrust him to reality. I knew he was scared of being in love because I myself did have that innate fear that becomes an apparition which hovers around the corridors of your mind. Fear of committing to such a forbidden sacred communion.
Shaun pulled up his pants, strode to the chair by the wardrobe, and affixed himself there. I got dressed, went over to him and sat on his lap, facing him. He caressed my face, pulling it close to his, his lips playing around my chin being brushed by his beard, and finally led his tongue to voluntarily wallow into my mouth and do a ballroom dance with mine. He closed his eyes to take in the pleasure.
I clasped my hands around his neck and looked into his eyes. There was a shadow of bewilderment and terror. A shadow of doubt, which transformed him into a vulnerable creature, glazed his eyes. In them, I saw fear, doubt, fright, hope, exhaustion from thought, and desire – all compounding a need to know and be certain that we were permanent. He breathed deeply, as if trying to relieve himself of a burden only he could understand and cope with.
“I’m scared, Farai.”
“Why? You know you can talk to me, baby?” I rejoined, trying not to sound alarmed, which was untrue because I was scared, too. I had seen his face during our passionate love making, that terror of the inescapable journey to a point of no return, a perpetual terror from knowing there is no room for pretense anymore.
“When I leave next week, come with me, please, will you? I don’t think I can live without you any longer. We have to be honest with ourselves, nobody else cares. Come with me to Mutare, where we can live together.” His tone was hurried and pleading.
“ I can’t just pack up and leave. My life is here; I mean all of it – my home, my job and everyone I care about.”
“You mean those who will abandon you anytime. Think about it, you will be with me, and we will depend on each other; and yes, I know you believe in independence, but we are at a state of belonging together. Farai, you can always get a new job, even a better one; we can make a home together over there, where no one knows us. Please baby, don’t think about it, say yes! It will kill me to go on living without you.”
“I love you.” I kissed his forehead. “I don’t know why you worry so much about us, we will be okay.”
“It’s not that I worry a lot, I just didn’t expect we would be anything serious, but now we have to quit pretending we are just friends.” His tone was sadly regretful; perhaps he regretted allowing us to go this far, beyond the point of no return.
“What does that mean? So I was a toy to be played with, then tossed aside someday?” There was anger in my words, but I made an effort to conceal it and remain calm and understanding. I jumped off him and shambled into the living room, where I started playing Langa Mavuso’s All of Me.
I hadn’t realised he was following me into the living room until he spoke. “I didn't mean it that way, what I meant was that I have been scared I was never going to be sufficient for you. But today, I’m sure about us, Farai. I love you, babe, and I don’t want to lose you. Every time you make love to me, you give to me a bit of you and take a bit of me. Bit by bit, I lose myself and gain you. To be with you is to be with me, I’m incomplete without us.”
“Say no more, baby, I dig you. If that’s what you want, let’s talk about it later, maybe early in the morning after glory hour.” I planted my lips on his. I had not forgiven him but found it pointless to let him continue. Nevertheless, the idea of moving with him to a new place was tempting.
We did move eventually, and now I’m waiting for him to walk through the door any second. His car just pulled into the garage.
I shall sing of my love for him till the angels yonder descend in bewilderment and curiosity, and come down to behold such humanly sacredness expressed through love.
About the author
Rabhelani Mguni is a Zimbabwean writer and essayist. His works address identity, love, sexuality, gender, social status and politics. Some of his works have appeared in publications such as Kalahari Review, Odd Magazine and Olongo Africa. Twitter: @RabhelaniM – Instagram: @rabhelanimguni