By a strange instinct of self-preservation, Taona arrived late at Patel’s Restaurant. This feeling was new. Usually, she was the type of girl that took in all sorts of nonsense with a smile. She forgave and forgot, always finding excuses for people’s shortfalls, always lashing at herself for her frequent misfortunes.
But this strange rebellious voice that told her to stop at Shoprite and buy herself a bar of Crunchie chocolate before meeting him amazed her. Her calm manners, as she aimlessly strolled around the consumer haven, would have stupefied anyone including her own mother. Her slow pace as she walked towards the Kebab and Pizza joint infused her with a strong sense of joy, of belonging, of power. Her unaffected style radiated with freedom. She was going against his wishes and for the first time in her life, she took pleasure in breaking the rules.
Patel’s was packed that evening. Wednesday, six o’clock, the wall clock read. Silently. The usual crowd was there: a majority of white-skinned foreigners and smartly-dressed black men and boys who could afford to spend 2,000 Kwacha on fast food, and survive a beer-less meal. Alinane could be one of them but he was not there. His creamy chocolate skin and casual boutique clothes would have stood out anyway. And he was aware of this. Of this charm and unhampered confidence that gave him the continuous assurance of loyalty from his official and unofficial girlfriends. Of his ability to do whatever he wanted without any consequences, as long as he said he was sorry, with a wide smile and a small present, was she willing to forgive and forget?
And she did, without any further exhortation. After no begging, no pleading. Just clear forgiveness that was imprinted in her mellowed voice and her ever cheerful face. He had no need to fight for her love. It was brought to him on a wide, golden platter. It wasn’t just his good looks, BMW or five-figure salary that had moulded her character into his. Or the way he treated her. If he had to be judged on that, then he would get a six out of hundred. It was his belief in whatever he did. His fingers were long rods of cash; his words spoke perennial success and his breath left a long trail of delicious power. She followed him whenever she could, and bore with him whatever his mood. This was what she was doing again on this day at Patel’s Restaurant. Following him.
There was a long queue near the counter where hungry patrons were placing their orders and parting with some of their cash, hard-earned or not. Taona spotted a plastic white chair nearby and grabbed it gratefully, glad that she could finally remove her pair of dusty pointed high-heeled shoes. A recent purchase. All in preparation for this day. He was going to propose, she had been so sure about that, and of her response. But as she darted her eyes around the room, not daring to look at people in a way that would enable her to take in their full appearance, she thought of what she was going to tell him. If he decided to show up anyway.
A visibly nervous mother with a sweaty listless child in her arms strode past her. Taona wondered what was wrong with the baby. It was the lingering October heat. Or the spicy kitchen fumes. Or both. Or something else she couldn’t put her finger on. The husband followed closely, holding a neat brown bag that must have contained the baby’s milk or disposable nappies. He talked softly all the time, his sneakers’ soles squeaking on the littered floor.
Taona appraised the room again. She had never noticed the plasticity. And the whiteness. Or what was left of it. It made her think of Alinane and his loads of broken promises. It made her sad. The way initial beauty was transformed into stark ugliness. Perhaps marriage with him would be just like that. The idea itself was great. She toyed with it every night, pushing her sister’s straying hand as she snored. Wishing it was his hand reaching out for her instead, caressing her back to sleep. Then waking up to a breakfast tray prepared by him, in line with what he always whispered into her ear after their sessions of stolen lovemaking. In his car, or at Dzuka Resthouse when he could spare his precious time as a busy banker. “I wish you could stay with me forever.” His hoarse voice, heavy with the musk of their short quick unions, would sound like the promise of Eden to her ears. The ears that believed in whatever he said like the Holy Bible itself. Those honey-coated words would ring in her head afterwards, especially when she awoke to the harsh realities of her present life.
A spinster’s life is never easy, but it is worse when you live in the dirtiest part of Kawale sharing a tiny bedroom with five sisters. And if that was not worse enough, she had to spend eight hours of her day, working as a secretary for a greedy employer whose erratic behaviour entitled him to pay her once every three months. And the only excuse she got for this bad treatment was a shifty apology that had nothing to do with his moral values. You see, endless demands were placed on him from his twelve children and three wives. Well, one was a real spouse and the others were concubines. You know, legitimacy or not, he had to look after everyone. Yes, Taona could understand, couldn’t she? Especially if she put herself in his several pairs of shoes. She had a rich boyfriend; he could look after her. A man with a car like an Asian’s could only shower her with Kwachas; she was very lucky.
Talking about luck. Taona had to admit that the gods hadn’t been so harsh with her. Not every MSCE school leaver with a two-year diploma form Lilongwe Technical College could boast such an educated young man as Alinane. The other women, those weak rivals, would fall off his jacket as soon as they realised that it was on her finger that his ring would ultimately rest. In her reveries, this choice had sounded so obvious, pushing away all the ‘buts’ that would rush into her head when she imagined what it would really be like to live with a selfish man.
Mrs. Gama. She so wanted to be called Mrs. Gama, whatever the cost, whatever the outcome. She was still looking for the miracle solution that would keep him in her safe arms, desperately pining for the mchape that would cleanse him of his promiscuous habits for good.
Her elder cousin Gift had suggested radical remedies. The sort of cures that involved his gang of friends, the forceful removing of underwear, some screaming from the too insistent girls who refused to leave Alinane alone. Or a sound beating for him. A definite thrashing that would leave visible reminders on his body. Then he would hesitate before hurting her again. Hurting her, that’s right, because that was what he did when he lost all his respect in exploring the petticoats of too many women, young or old. That could work, Gift always said with a malevolent grin. “You’re too nice with him Khaze. Let him have a taste of his own medicine.”
God, she would never do that. Get angry at him. Or at the other girls. It wasn’t their fault anyway if Alinane could never keep his treasured furniture in his trousers. That was what she had believed in then. It was not difficult. Her meek and polite behaviour would do it all. Her mother was right. If she preserved herself well, there was no reason why he would not propose. And imagine how successful she would be, living in Area 9, among all those azungus. Even sending her own children to Lilongwe Private or Bishop Mackenzie. Patience. Her mother reminded her every day. Men are like boys. They need to grow up to become real men. It takes a long time but he will finally come round. Then it will be your day to celebrate.
Taona’s wandering eye now caught the clock’s shorter hand. 6. Six thirty. She was thirsty. She decided to buy some Sprite and still wait for him. Grasping her cellular phone in her clammy hands and still yearning for its sweet vibration that would release her from her anxiety, she walked towards the group of waiting customers. She found herself enjoying it all. Fishing her fake-leather wallet out of her Vuitton imitation handbag, edging closer to the counter, leafing through the Kwacha bills that would validate her separate existence, no longer salivating for luxury goods that she had previously planned to buy after the proposal. When Alinane’s money became her own.
She admonished herself for ignoring her sister’s warning about Alinane’s responsibility in her poor health. Everything is linked, Khama often said, especially after being confronted to the worried look and fearful wrinkles that had established permanent residence on Taona’s face. Khama, her oldest sister. She would scream outwardly at Alinane if she learned that he had kept her waiting again like a Lilongwe Hotel prostitute. Among all those strangers.
Taona admired Khama’s bravery. This was a girl that said what she thought. She always went straight to the point about things that mattered. That is why she felt secure around her. Khama would not understand why she cried herself raw when she had received yet another bruising report about Alinane’s infidelities. “Dump him or kick him,” she would tell her, “pretty sister, don’t waste your body fluids on such a bastard. I would embarrass him forever if you only let me.” No, Taona would never do that. “Being ‘class’ never helped anyone in this world,” Khama would continue. “You’re too well-behaved. That’s why he takes advantage of you. He knows that you’d never make him feel uneasy. Classy sister indeed! Wake up!”
Khama. Her boyfriend walked in her tracks. How sweet he looked when he kissed and held her hands in public, not in the least bothered by people’s stares. How he listened to each and every word that flew out of her sister’s mouth. How he bought her less presents but saw her every day. How he had shown her to his parents barely a week after meeting Khama. That was a pair. And whenever she thought about her sister’s relationship, the inconsistencies in her own glared at her like the sharp glow of a cat’s malicious eyes. She could no longer avoid those pricks. Nothing would ever change. Never. Alinane would always treat her like a handkerchief, useful when needed, but not indispensable at all. Like a dish towel, she would wipe away his shortcomings, dutifully sponging all excesses, transferring all the ill effects he carefully avoided to her own body and mind.
To her own body and mind. Freely. No one forced her to do that except her own will. That insistent voice that told her to stay with him even though the strong stench of unhappiness floated above her seven-year old relationship. He had not asked her to be his wife for seven years. The promise of marriage had been the bait above her nose. Like the tantalising smell of a juicy piece of grilled chicken, it had lured her into wishful thinking. But now she knew that being Mrs. Alinane Gama was a far cry from participating in a perennial South African braai. Living with Alinane would rather resemble a slow descent into the scorching pit of hell’s flames. She would be scalded alive by his selfishness; she would never survive it all. It was time she bolted for her life, go against herself, become her real self. He wouldn’t entice her back into their delusional love affair. She would live without him. She could do it.
When it was her turn to order, Taona took out her purse and pulled out a wad of 100 Kwacha bills that Alinane had given her the previous week. She called that ‘the money of forgiveness’. It was typical of his behaviour. He thought that everything could be bought, even her own conscience. Was 4,000 Kwacha enough to clear her misgivings about him?
“Margherita pizza and Sprite please.” She heard her own voice and felt surprised at its powerfulness. It was as if somebody had finally turned on the taps of her self-assurance. She could feel the energy rush through her, engulfing her, almost springing out of her as she waited for her food.
“Is that all you need?” the young Pakistani or Lebanese young woman asked her with respect. Taona almost made herself believe that the mwenye woman was not addressing her at all. Alinane had always been her voice, the authority that couldn’t be questioned, the person to whom people talked and asked questions. She had been his insignificant other half, just like a flower pot is for a house. A decorative object, not more than that.
“I’ll have some chocolate ice-cream too, please.”
It seemed so easy. She didn’t have to ask her boyfriend if another flavour would be better. She could almost hear him “No Taona, take vanilla. It’s tastier.”
Why had life been so complicated before?
“Just a moment.” The young mwenye smiled at Taona, while giving clear sharp orders to a black man standing next to her. The latter disappeared into a backroom, only to return a few seconds later without all the requested items.
“Oh Dickson, you should be quicker next time. Go and fetch the chocolate ice-cream.”
“Yes madam,” the shamed man now mumbled. God, he could have been her own father, Taona thought uneasily.
The mwenye smiled back at her and then shouted: “Don’t stop to chat with the cook!” as a Dickson (for Taona would never allow herself to remove the ‘a’ that clearly defined the boundary between who had to be respected or not), as a Dickson run to execute madam’s order.
Alinane had used ‘aTaona’ for other purposes other than dignifying her. “ATaona inu, when will you grow up? ATaona inu, start trusting me. Whom do you think I am? How can I go out with such a girl? ATaona inu, start speaking English. Why are you always afraid of the language of azungu? It is as if you have never been to school. ATaona inu, start wearing trousers. You should be civilised for once.”
“Ah, these men. They can never do two things at once. That will be 3,500 Kwacha. I’m sorry the Sprite is not very cold. We apologise for that.” The mwenye lady was back again, her tone as biting as before.
Taona giggled conspiratorially, even though she knew that she was committing a cultural crime. To hell, she said to herself. Who knew how aDickson behaved at home with his own wife? Perhaps he was even worse than Alinane. She could picture his wife. A villager, a standard two school-leaver, encumbered with six children waiting to be fed by the Patels, a born sufferer. She would be the illustration of the concept of ‘Banjankupilira.’ Marriage is about persevering. Why couldn’t it be ‘Marriage is about solving problems together’? Or ‘marriage is about living well.” Not about suffering, for God’s sake!
Alinane must have been training her for nights of sheer pain and desolation. If you didn’t know how to cry over an adulterous affair then maybe you were headed for the worst. It is a common occurrence that when a man’s pride is badly hurt, it is in the graveyard that he will find solace by taking away his own life. Not many women commit suicide. Is it because they have been trained well at the art of being wronged and humiliated? And yet aDickson was still alive even though that young mwenye took obvious pleasure in bossing him around. It was certainly her ‘mzungu’ status that made her scathing attacks a sweeter pill to swallow for the old man. Alinane would never put himself in his position. His head was too swollen to bow down to anyone, even to the person he professed unending love.
After she had paid, Taona walked back to her seat, lost in a swirl of emotions that threatened to overwhelm her with their potency. She had been stupid in fact, she raged as she pulled the plastic chair away from the dirty table noisily. Why had she accepted all his nonsense? Here she was, waiting for him, instead of going back home. What was she doing there like a brainless girl if he couldn’t even call her to apologise for being late? She didn’t want to hurt him. What about him? Did he care about her feelings? Did he think that her heart was made of a metal bucket, ready to bear the onslaught of fire several times each day, without crying foul!
There had to be an end to this. She was the one to stop it all. Not him.
He would kill himself, he had warned. He couldn’t live without her. He would drink himself to death. Could she live with her conscience after that?
He knew that he didn’t treat her well and never made any conscious effort to change. She had tolerated his sarcasm, blaming herself for being raw, for being uneducated, for not being good enough for him. He surely deserved someone else.
Why hadn’t he picked someone befitting his high standards then? Was it because he wanted to be the better person, the most handsomely dressed man, the richest bachelor? In short, the prize to get and fight for?
And she had taken the bait, hook, line and sinker.
Thinking of it, it wouldn’t have been difficult for him to secure a partner who was a Polytechnic or Chancellor College graduate, or one of those girls who could now drive new cars bought with their own money. Had it been a deliberate choice for him to pick someone like Taona, a girl who wasn’t world-wise so that she would never give him any trouble?
Alinane wanted to have fun. He would never allow bad feelings to settle into his heart. What a comely sight to be a witness to other’s people’s anger but not his own. It had been normal for him to see her cry or sulk after yet another disappointing act from him. The only time she had seen him blow his fuse was when she threatened to leave. That was the only time when he would go down on his knees, shed a few tears here and there, promising to castrate himself if she ever caught him again in between another woman’s legs. Wide promises, wild emotions, raw pain.
She didn’t have to go through all that suffering.
“Can I sit with you?”
Alinane at last. When she turned around, the radiant smile on the young man’s face was interpreted as an insult. Taona strove to recollect herself.
“I already have a partner,” she answered courteously, suddenly remembering her mother’s advice on how to deal with strays.
“A respectable lady doesn’t sit alone in such places. Come on, don’t play tough to get.” The unknown young man inched closer. Taona could smell his cheap perfume on his creased kaunjika suit. The cheek! Had she fallen so low as to attract such rubbish?
“And a respectable man doesn’t smile at women he doesn’t know, offering them company as if they were cheap prostitutes. Respect yourself, son of your mother.” Taona burst out in anger. She made sure not to hide her voice. She had finally found it and no one would take it away from her. Let alone that despicable stranger who thought he could talk down to an isolated prey.
Loud laughter broke in the room. Some teenage boys near her started hissing “Frus....Frus...”, before being joined by a group of other boys who didn’t even bother to show any pity “oh, God, that kick in the heart hurt. What are you waiting for man? Find another trick or the lady will slip through your fingers in broad daylight.”
Those who had missed out on the fun started doing their investigations. Who had talked to the other in the first place? Who had been rebuffed? The young man. Ooh. Good for him. Did he think that Patel’s was Lilongwe Hotel in disguise? Some men had to grow up really. Didn’t they know that so many people were dying because of this type of behaviour?
Mr Unknown rose, dusted the front of his jacket, took out a 100 Kwacha bill and placed it in front of Taona.
“For your services.” Taona gasped.
He swaggered to the door, looking left and right as if he owned not only the restaurant but the whole world in general.
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” The laughter was louder than before. “Some people can never lose. I know your wife Mr Kaira. I’ll make sure that she doesn’t stay in the dark. What a shame!”
Identifying Mr Unknown seemed to have done the trick. The door was reached in such haste and panic that no one would have believed that this was the same man who had acted as if he wasn’t accountable to anyone at all, even to God.
One of the boys took the 100 Kwacha bill and ran after him. He shoved it into one of his back trousers’ pocket. This final gesture was accompanied by a ripple of applause that rang in the room, suddenly elevating the young boy to the status of a hero, a real man.
It was in this atmosphere that Alinane made his entrance.
“I’m sorry Taona,” he muttered as he went to sit beside her.
“Is he back?” a woman asked. “Some people never learn. Young man, why do you like bothering our young ladies? If I had a knife, I would remove those two onions of yours. But thank your God that I don’t.”
Taona gave a weak smile and tried to forward an explanation. She no longer knew what to do.
“What is this Taona? Have you been fooling around in my absence?” Alinane screamed, his anger pouring out as if the offence that was to be revealed equalled to somebody murdering his own mother.
A fifty-year old something man with a thick beard walked towards them.
“What’s this all about?” Alinane asked, loosening his tie and starting to remove his jacket.
“This one doesn’t lose time. He wants to do it right here in front of everyone!” An unidentified voice boomed.
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
“Look here young boy.” The middle-aged man paused, looking straight into Alinane’s eyes. “This young lady has had enough. She doesn’t want to be bothered by losers like you.”
“But I haven’t done anything wrong...”
“Shut up breastfeeding young boy. This lady here,” he pointed at Taona, “what’s your name mother?”
“Our mother here has had enough of your stupidity. You should respect her. You’re better looking than the scoundrel who was here a few minutes ago, I mean physically, but your manners are worse. You are the woman beating type.”
“What is this fool talking about?” Alinane searched for support from Taona with real offended eyes.
Hooooo, the room chorused
“I knew that he was trying to hide his bad heart in his immaculate suit. But as my grandmother always says: beautiful clothes do not make a better man.” The courageous boy who had shown his mettle a few minutes before spoke his mind.
“Yes, you are right man.” Somebody encouraged him.
The muscular middle-aged man charged again. “Listen to me young man, do you know who they call me? Knobkerrie. Knobkerrie, that’s my nickname. If you want to know what it is, I can show you...”
“Taona...” Alinane started pleading.
“He isn’t a man after all. A man never whines when he’s in trouble,” a woman shouted.
The young Indian or Pakistani or Lebanese or whatever lady stood at the counter, not daring to interfere. There was an amused glow in her eyes.
“Why is he calling your name? Does he know you? Listen to me mother; you shouldn’t let these snotty boys make your life miserable. Do you know this good for nothing boy?”
“Taona...please. I’ll change. I promise you. I’ll go down on my knees.”
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
“You know I have a daughter and a wife and I don’t want them to be troubled by men like you.”
“I’m not just another man. I’m a graduate, I’ve got...”
He! He! He! He!
“Do you know him? You don’t have to feel sorry for him because he doesn’t feel sorry for you at all. Should I show him who the boss is?”
“Taona, please. I beg you.”
“No, what Taona? Don’t do this to me. Taona, have you forgotten all that I did for you? The money, the food...”
Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!
“Shut up young man. You talk too much.”
Taona stood up, grabbed her handbag and finally smoothed her skirt with a swift stroke of her hand. Then she took a hard look at Alinane and memories of their past life rushed into her head, blinding her for a moment as she fought with contradictory emotions. Alinane. How that name had sounded so sweet when they first met. He is with me. The meaning of his name had appeared like a good portent. Alinane. He is with me. He will be with me forever. What nonsense!
“No. I don’t know him.”
Taona turned and headed towards the already opened door amid deafening applause. She could just make out a ‘you see’ from Knobkerrie as he got ready to take care of Alinane. He was with him all right.
Taona: We have seen Alinane: He is with me Azungus: White people Mchape: Cleansing traditional medicine Mwenye: Indian Mzungu: A white person Kaunjika: Second-hand clothes