Year: 2021

20 Years CRASSH

2021 Primadonna Prize

No Time To Sleep: A Theatrical Experience

Queen Victoria In The Basement, shortlisted

Shortlisted for CWFA

A Safe Place

Langata Prison, Nairobi, December 2008

Kay slept on a thin mattress with a torn blanket to cover her. In the corner of her cell was a steel bucket and a brown sponge for wiping both her body and the rough walls finished with gloss grey. The bulb hanging from the corrugated iron roof was never turned on. The only light coming in was through the barbed wire in the narrow ventilation gap between the roof and walls. Her cell, at the end of a long, wide corridor, had a small internal window with bars which overlooked the passageway lined with other cells on either side. These were shared by five or six women. Once a day, before they were marched out to the fields, they ate together in the passage seated on low stools. Kay slept and ate on her own.

‘Oi,’ she shouted, ‘there’s a cockroach in here.’

‘What is it this time, Mchawi?’ the warden said, standing outside the door of Kay’s cell.

‘My name’s not Mchawi, you know that.’

‘We can call you what we like, witch. In here you’re Mchawi.’

The warden pushed a Bible between the bars. ‘Read this.’

‘Vermin are everywhere. Don’t you see them?’ Kay said. ‘Even God can’t help.’

‘What are you talking about? Jesus forgives everyone, even sinners like you.’

‘I’m not a sinner. I’m the same as you.’

‘You’re a witch; internally displaced.’ The warden adjusted the brass buckle on her green and brown trousers and rolled up the sleeves of her khaki sweater. ‘We are not the same.’

‘I keep telling you, I’m not a witch.’

‘I know what I’ve been told, and why you’re in solitary confinement. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll shut up. Here are your supplies.’ Six boiled sweets, a box of Nice biscuits and a packet of sanitary towels landed on the cell floor.

‘Look at this,’ Kay said picking up the pads. ‘Clin & Cleer. Made in China. Fully absorbent. We need Clean and Clear in Kenya.’

‘Mchawi don’t be smart with me.’

Through the small barred window she could see in the corner of the corridor, a black and white television encased in a steel cage suspended from the roof.

‘Can you turn that blasted screen this way?’ she shouted. ‘I want to know what’s going on outside.’

‘Wewe, Mchawi, nyamaza,’ the warden said. ‘Keep quiet and read the Bible. This isn’t your husband’s house.’

#

It had all started on her last birthday. She didn’t know how long ago that was. She and El were living in the UK then, and they’d arranged a special dinner together, but at the last minute he’d called to say he had an urgent meeting. Kay spent the evening on her own and when El returned, he told her he must go back to Kenya to organise some important projects. He asked her to go with him. After their return home, she’d been preoccupied with settling down in their new house and starting work at the school close by and it had taken her awhile to notice that El was always in his study with the door shut. She’d asked him what the big secret was, and he always replied, ‘Is that coffee I smell?’ He would hug her and she would forget to pursue her question.

#

Hearing the clanging of gates in the corridor, Kay got up from the mattress and went to the window. A shaft of sunlight fell across the floor. Two dozen women in blue and white uniforms like her own, trudged past, back from their planting.

‘Hello,’ she shouted. She picked up one of the sweets and flung it through the bars. It hit one of the women, who turned and snapped.

‘You bitch, Mchawi? What’s your problem?’

Kay picked up the Bible and hurled it through the window, just missing the woman’s shoulder. Five women gathered around the door.

‘Mchawi, nobody loves you,’ one said.

‘Not true,’ she said. ‘My husband loves me. He’s coming to take me home tomorrow.’

‘He doesn’t love you,’ the woman taunted. ‘If he did, he wouldn’t have brought you here.’

The warden appeared. ‘What’s going on?’ She picked up the Bible. ‘Mchawi is a curse on everyone. Outside and in here.’ She tapped the woman on the shoulder with her baton. ‘Get back into your cell,’ she ordered, and turned to Kay. ‘Who do you talk to all the time, Mchawi, walking up and down and waving your hands like this and like that?’

‘Right now I’m talking to you,’ she said. ‘And when you’re not here, I talk to my children. Do you have children?’

‘I do, but what’s it to you?’

‘I did too. See, I’m just like you.’

The inmates were still in the corridor staring at Kay.

‘What are you gawping at?’ she shouted.

‘Get back to your cells,’ the warden said. ‘I’ve told you before, no one’s allowed to talk to Mchawi.’

She lay down on the mattress and hugged her blanket against the cold and damp. She shut her eyes blocking out the grey. What did these stupid women understand about love? She turned onto her side. El had promised to come and see her and bring whatever she needed. She stared at the cement floor, its crevices filled with crumbs of rotting food and filth. A cockroach almost the size of her forefinger darted out of the corner and stopped at the edge of the mattress, near her feet, its feelers moving up and down. She watched as it advanced slowly on to the mattress and up the blanket towards her arm, stopping by her wrist. She opened her palm. The insect climbed on to her hand and ran up her left arm. She brought her right palm down sharply, but the roach jumped onto the blanker and scuttled off. She chased after it, but there was no trace. She shook the blanket and lay down again.

#

That morning they’d been late for school. When they reached the gates, Kay saw billows of black smoke surrounding the main academic block. She shouted to El to phone for help. Dozens of villagers gathered around with buckets of water. From the building came the screams of children. An hour went by and no one came to the rescue.

‘Who could have done such a thing?’ she asked, later. ‘And to the children?’ ‘Don’t ask too many questions,’ El said.

‘I’ll ask until I get answers.’

‘Your stubbornness will cost us.’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘This is about my loyalty to The Party. They are my people. They have looked after me, paid for my education abroad, gave me money and now I have a place in the new government. I owe them. Try and understand.’

‘It’s you who must understand, El,’ she said. ‘You belong to me and I belong with you.’

‘Stop right there Kay,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard enough of your childish, romantic nonsense.’

And after that he refused to speak to her until the following morning when he said,‘Kay, it’s been decided it’s not safe for you here anymore. It’s best you go away, best for the campaign, best for us, for everyone.’

#

Kay kicked off the blanket and propped herself on her elbow. She scratched her arm, then her head and peered at the cracks in the floor. El said his friends would take her to a safe place. There’d been a mistake. He didn’t know where she was, that’s why he hadn’t come to see her. She gazed at the gaps and fractures. Where was the damn thing hiding?

The silence was broken by shouting in the corridor. She got up and looked through the window. The inmates were arguing in different languages. The Luos didn’t want to use the same wash buckets as the Kikuyus or Kalenjins, and the Kikuyus refused to sleep in the same cell as anyone from a different tribe.

‘Who wants to share with me?’ she shouted. ‘I don’t mind.’

‘Shut up, you witch,’ the warden intervened. ‘No one was talking to you.’ She threatened to lock the women together for a week with no planting, no extra-curricular activities, no gifts and no visitors. They swore as they were herded into their cells.

‘What’s your problem, Mchawi?’ the warden said, coming over to Kay’s door. ‘Why do you incite the women?’

‘Look how my scalp flakes and my skin itches. See how dry it is.’ Kay scratched the word BASTARD on her arm with her nails. ‘I need body lotion, I can’t meet my husband like this. He loves my soft skin.’

The warden opened the door and placed a plate on the floor.

‘I’m not hungry,’ she said.

‘Shut up and eat, I don’t want problems from you.’ The warden locked the door behind her and stayed by the window.

Kay sat on the mattress with the plate on her lap. She crumbled the usual white mound of ugali in her fingers. She tasted a clump, choked on the unsalted, powdery chunk and spat it out. Taking some more, she rolled it into a ball and placed it on the floor. She repeated this until she’d finished all the dough. Then she arranged the balls in a circle putting the sukuma between them. Wiping her hands on her uniform, she surveyed her design. White ball, green leaf, white ball, green leaf. El loved ugali, she’d make it for him every week and after dinner, they’d talk until the early hours of the morning, eating mandazi’s and drinking tea. Every day at noon, he’d phone her.

‘My coffee reminds me of you, Kay.’

‘Why?’ she’d ask, knowing the answer.

‘It’s strong, dark and sweet.’

What did El think of now when he smelt coffee? Of course he missed her. Tomorrow she’d go home and everything would be all right. She picked up the balls and crushed them. Then scooping up the crumbs, she scattered them around the room. He’d been looking for her all this time, and now at last he’d found her and was coming to take her home. She went on her knees, inspected a crack and filled it with scraps of ugali.

She lay on the mattress and gazed up at the bulb.

The next morning, Kay folded the blanket and shook out the mattress. As she arranged them in the corner, something black scurried out and disappeared again. She knelt and examined the fissures.

There was a rap on the door. ‘Wewe, Mchawi, what are you looking for?’

She got up. ‘Vermin.’

The warden threw in four pairs of knickers; red nylon, white cotton, frilly pink and black lace. ‘Because your husband is coming,’ she said. ‘The NGO brought them yesterday.’

She held a pair to her waist and stretched them. ‘But they’re too small. I wear large.’

‘Be grateful for what you get, Mchawi.’

She raised the knickers to her face, rubbing them against her nose and cheeks. Two inmates were watching at the window.

‘Mchawi, what are you doing?’ one said.

She waved the knickers. ‘My husband’s coming today. I’m going home.’

‘Which ones will you wear?’

She lifted her uniform and without taking her eyes off the women, put on the red pair, then the black, then the white. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘I’m wearing the colours of our flag.’

The women giggled. ‘You’re missing green.’

‘Take these and give me green,’ Kay said, throwing the pink knickers at the window. A skinny hand shot through the bars and caught them.

‘You’re Mchawi,’ one woman said. ‘You weren’t loyal to your husband or your country; you don’t deserve to wear our flag.’

‘I was,’ she said. ‘And I do. I’m just like you.’

The women stared and turned away.

She sat on the floor. The tight elastic of the knickers bit into her skin, around her upper thighs and waist. She pulled off the white pair and then the red. El liked black lace.

She lay down on the mattress and tucked the knickers under her cheek, humming By the Rivers of Babylon. El loved Boney M. He’d grab a wooden spoon from the kitchen drawer and use it as a mic. Together, they’d sing their guts out, ‘Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song, in a strange land? Yeah, yeah, yeah.’

Tears fell onto the silky fabric. ‘Ye-ah, we wept.’

The warden unlocked the door. ‘Your visitor, your Bwana is here. Dadika kumi, ten minutes and no more.’ She stepped aside and El entered.

‘Hello Kay.’ He looked around the cell, adjusted his tie and put his hands in his pockets. His cheeks were chubbier and a paunch showed under the grey pinstriped suit. A hint of familiar aftershave filled the stale air.

Kay got up. ‘How kind of you to find the time to come and see me.’

He held out a white box. ‘These are for you.’

Kay grabbed it and flung it at the wall. ‘Where the hell have you been?’

‘Wewe, Mchawi,’ the warden shouted through the window. ‘Chunga. Don’t make trouble.’

‘You shut up, this is my husband and I’ll say what I like to him.’ She turned to El. ‘I’ve been waiting six fucking months.’

He took a tissue from his pocket and wiped his forehead. ‘Kay, I can explain.’

‘You said you were sending me to a safe place.’

‘I didn’t have a choice.’

‘Why did they bring me here?’

‘Try to understand. It’s not so simple.’

‘Why did they burn my school down? And what about my students?’

‘Your memory is confused, I’ve explained it all before.’

She clutched at his lapels. ‘Explain it to me again, at home.’

He took her hands, pushed her back gently and smoothed down his jacket. ‘Your problem Kay, is you’ve never understood. If you had, we wouldn’t be in this mess. The Party saw you as a threat with all your questions, and said you’re not our kabila. I couldn’t risk losing their trust.’

‘So, this is your idea of a safe place?’ She went over to the window and gripped the bars. ‘Let us out,’ she yelled. ‘We’re going home.’

The warden rapped on the door with her baton. ‘Do you need help, Mzee?’

‘Yes,’ Kay said. ‘Open the door.’ She turned to El. ‘Tell her to let us out.’

El wiped his forehead with his sleeve. ‘Kay, try to understand.’

‘What’s going on?’ She seized his jacket and shook him. ‘I understand everything. Just take me home.’

‘You don’t get it, do you Kay?’

‘What?’

‘It’s not safe for you out there.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I owe them. The Party.’

‘What are you talking about? I don’t care about The Party. Just get me out of here.’

‘I can’t allow it; you’re not one of us.’

She fell on her knees and grabbed his leg. ‘I’m your wife.’

He staggered back. ‘Let go of me.’

She clutched his trousers. ‘Take me home.’

The warden knocked on the bars. ‘Saa ame fika. Time’s up.’ She opened the door, pulled Kay away from El and slapped her face. ‘Oi, Mchawi! Leave him alone.’

‘Don’t touch me.’ Kay rubbed her cheek. ‘You’re a jerk El. Why are you here, then?’

He took a brown envelope from his jacket. ‘I need you to sign these.’

‘What are they?’

‘Our divorce would prove my total allegiance to The Party.’ He held out a pen. ‘I have to stick with their agenda.’

She opened the cover and took out the papers. ‘I deserted you, did I?’ she said, slowly, turning the pages.

‘You did Kay. You weren’t loyal to The Party.’

You abandoned me.’

‘There’s no point in arguing.’

She moved nearer to him and looked directly into his eyes. ‘So you need my help now, do you?’ She brought her face very close to his and smelt his aftershave and sweat. ‘Why should I sign?’

He jerked his head back. ‘You’ve damaged The Party enough. It’s the least you could do.’

She waved the papers in his face. ‘Get me out of here and I’ll sign.’

‘The Party order is clear. It must be a clean break.’

‘You hear that?’ Kay yelled to the warden. ‘Clean and clear in Kenya.’ She tore up the papers and threw them at him.

‘I’ll be back until you give in.’

‘Get out.’ She began to laugh. ‘I’ll never sign.’

‘We’ll see.’ He bent to pick up the papers. ‘The Party comes first.’

‘Fuck The Party.’

El took a wad of notes from his pocket and gave them to the warden. ‘Give her shampoo, soap and a towel; it smells like a sick dog in here.’

‘You’re the sick dog,’ Kay said.

‘Think about the papers,’ he said.

The warden thumbed the notes. ‘She was complaining her skin is too dry.’

‘And no visitors,’ El said. ‘She’s unstable and we don’t want to upset her.’

‘Sawa, sawa. No visitors. No problem.’ The warden put the money in her pocket. ‘She walks up and down, singing and talking to herself. Sometimes she sleeps. But she doesn’t eat. She likes to be alone; ni mchawi.

El walked towards the door. ‘Poor Kay,’ he said, ‘you’ve always had issues.’

‘Mchawi,’ the warden said. ‘Do you hear that? Even your husband says you have issues.’ She tucked her baton under her arm. ‘You see how she refuses to cooperate, Mzee. Anya kataa kila kitu. And she provokes the other inmates. She’s a witch.’

‘Usi jali,’ El said. ‘Don’t worry, she’s safe in here.’ He turned to Kay. ‘Bye Kay, try and be good.’ The warden escorted him out and locked the door.

Kay picked up the red and white knickers and hurled them at the door. ‘I’ll never sign,’ she shouted. She sank to the floor and scratched BASTARD into her arm until it bled.

Several hours later, hearing music, Kay got up and went to the window. The warden was rounding up the inmates.

‘The children are here,’ she said. ‘Remember, no fighting. Let’s try and have a peaceful Christmas party.’

‘Can I come?’ Kay said.

‘You don’t qualify. This is for women in here, who have children out there. The kids have come to visit. You don’t have children, Mchawi.’

‘Those students were my children.’

‘Read your Bible, maybe the Lord will inspire you today.’ The warden marched the women in a single file towards the exit and pushed open the door, letting the sunlight fall across the floor. They trooped out and the warden locked the door. All was quiet and dark.

Kay sat down on the mattress and flipped through the Bible without reading, then began to tear out each page, one by one. She shredded the leaves into small pieces and arranged them in a mound, singing softly.

‘Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange place?’ She blew on the pile sending the bits of paper scattering. She stared at the litter and large cracks in the floor, listening to the sound of children cheering in the distance. Then she went down on her hands and knees and began to scrape the filth out of each crack with her nails, peering into the crevices. The white box from El was on the floor by the door, and she ripped it open. Inside were twelve triangular doughnuts, mandazis, her favourite. She laughed as she arranged them in a circle around her.

‘Brown girl in the ring tra la la la, la,’ she sang, rocking herself. ‘She looks like a sugar in a plum, plum, plum.’

She sat waiting.

Poached Eggs

‘Marry me Nuru,’ Jaffer said in his precise, measured tone, ‘and together we’ll build our future in this new independent Republic.’

He was standing opposite Nurbanu’s typewriter and she was sitting at her desk at the Chambers where she worked. She’d met him several months earlier when he’d come in to meet one of the lawyers and they’d struck up a friendship. Nuru had a Pitman’s Secretarial Diploma and a driver’s licence from the first Ladies Driving School in Nairobi. She felt with her natural beauty and qualifications she deserved the care of a man who would cherish her. Jaffer was a self-made, successful business man. He was short, dark and stocky and less educated than Nuru, but she accepted his proposal because he was someone who appreciated her; why else would he speak about her and Kenyan politics in the same sentence?

The night they returned to Nairobi from their honeymoon in Mombasa, Nuru lay next to Jaffer in their new double bed. He, in striped grey and white pyjamas and she, in a floral nightie. She touched his shoulder, his back was to her. ‘Jaffer?’

‘Good night Nuru,’ he said. ‘I’m meeting key officials in government tomorrow. I need my sleep.’ He switched off the bedside lamp, and pulled the bed clothes over his head.

Nuru thought of her new garden; the red hibiscus, pink bougainvillea and purple jacaranda were in full bloom. Tomorrow she’d lie under the jacaranda and look up at the sky through the leaves and branches. Unlimited possibilities lay ahead. She fell asleep listening to Jaffer’s snores, dreaming she was driving a white Morris around Nairobi. Her arm was resting on the open window, and she was wearing fashionable dark glasses and an elegant scarf.

*

Jaffer employed Maria and Jacob to help Nuru with the household chores and the garden. ‘I’d like to go back to working at Mr Seth’s Chambers,’ Nuru said, after a couple of days.

‘You can’t do that Nuru,’ Jaffer said, standing at the front door, his hand on the door knob. ‘People will say I can’t afford to take care of you.’

‘But Mr Seth’s ringing me today to confirm my start date.’

‘Then tell him I said the wives of prosperous men don’t work.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I’m late Nuru; there are important people waiting to see me.’

She proffered her cheek, but he ran down the steps, and drove off without a wave.

Nuru opened her wardrobe. She put on the clothes she used to wear to work; her court shoes, navy blue skirt and white blouse. She went from room to room feeling the different textures of the furniture; smooth, rough, coarse, and grainy. Jaffer had arranged for the fixtures to come before she’d moved in; beds, chairs, tables, stools, sofas and armchairs. Every bedroom had its own colour scheme; pink and green, lime and yellow, blue and grey. She, too, was an object chosen by him. She fitted into the design and layout. Their bedroom window overlooked the garden; trim hedges, an even lawn and bushes pruned into geometric shapes. Jacob was sweeping the fallen flowers from under the jacaranda.

‘Please let them be,’ she called out. ‘I like the purple carpet.’

‘No, Mama,’ Jacob said. ‘Bwana Kubwa, our master, doesn’t like anything out of its place.’

When Jaffer got home, Nuru was lying on the bed with a migraine. He took off his jacket and hung it on a chair. ‘Today I accomplished everything I intended ahead of time,’ he said, loosening his braces. ‘It’s all about proper management.’ He pulled off the metal shirt sleeve holders. ‘What about you, Nuru, what did you do today?’ he said, removing his tie.

‘The usual.’

‘You have a headache, Nuru, because you’re not organised.’ He took a stack of papers from his briefcase. ‘So, I’ve made a list-.’ He pointed to the first page. ‘Prepare Jaffer’s breakfast. Supervise Maria and Jacob. Take siesta. Make dinner. Talk to Jaffer. Sleep.’

‘I see,’ Nuru said, turning the page. .

‘10 carrots. 4 onions. 10 tomatoes. 4 loaves of sliced white bread. 1 chicken. 2 pieces tilapia fish. 6 cartons of milk. 7 apples. 14 eggs.’

‘What if we need other things?’

‘You’ll tell me, and I’ll prepare an additional list.’

‘How can you be sure we’ll need only fourteen eggs?’

‘I’ll have two every morning, and you won’t be eating any Nuru, because they give women health problems.’

‘I didn’t know that.’

‘This is your budget for the week,’ Jaffer said. ‘Two hundred shillings for vegetables, two hundred for fruit, two hundred for the bakers, two hundred for the butchers, two hundred for groceries.’

‘But these things don’t all cost the same.’

‘True, but you’ll bargain in the market. Every shilling counts.’

She looked at the next page. ‘A menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner?’

‘Yes. For breakfast on Mondays I’ll have an omelette, scrambled eggs on Tuesday, boiled on Wednesdays, poached on Thursdays, and fried on Fridays. At the weekend I’ll tell you the previous night for spontaneity.’ He took the papers from her and smoothed out the creases. Then he showed her a red binder with a neat label; Nuru’s Duties.

‘These are important reference documents,’ he said, arranging the contents inside. ‘Keep them safe.’ He put the file on the bureau. ‘Ring my mother and get the recipes of my favourite foods. Follow exactly what she says and put her instructions in the file. And here’s a calendar for you, too.’

‘What’s this for?’ she said.

‘On the days marked with a red cross you won’t be sleeping here with me, you’ll be in the pink and green room. I don’t like it when you’re unclean.’ He unhooked his braces, put them on the dresser, then sat down on the arm chair near the wardrobe. He pulled off his socks, rolled them in a ball and put them in the laundry basket. Then he took off his shirt, folded it neatly and placed it in the hamper. He removed his wallet from his trouser pocket and pulled out some notes. After counting, squaring and smoothing them down, he put them back. He undid his trousers, shook them out, doubled them and put them in the basket. ‘Nuru,’ he said, ‘make sure Maria irons my clothes properly.’

He came and stood near the bed, wearing only his shorts and a white, ribbed cotton vest, and smiled down at Nuru. He’d grown a belly in recent weeks, and his shoulders were beginning to curve. He’d have a stoop when he was older, and a big paunch, overhanging those skinny, hairless legs.

‘You’re a lucky woman, Nuru.’ He tucked his vest into his shorts and pulled them higher around his waist. ‘I’m always one step ahead.’

‘You’ve forgotten nothing,’ she said, getting out of bed. They were the same height, and she looked him straight in the eye. He was greying at the temples and his hairline was receding.

‘There’s one more rule,’ he said. ‘A final, important, unwritten one. It’s quite simple; I like the same thing no matter which day of the week.’ He pushed her gently, back onto the bed.

She imagined the mauve jacarandas falling on her; she’d heard it brought good luck.

*

Nuru turned the pages of the newspaper Jaffer had given her.

‘You can read The Daily Nation once a week,’ he said. ‘But treat it with respect; I have to return it to the office.’

 Nuru studied the paper. ‘It says all voters should be registered. When can we do that?’

‘I’ll keep you informed,’ he said. ‘Please be gentler when you turn the pages, you’re bending the edges.’

‘There’s excitement about the elections, I’d like to vote.’

‘You don’t need to worry about it, Nuru,’ he said, taking the paper from her. ‘We’re one and the same, you and I.’

‘You can’t say that, we’re different people.’

‘Not anymore, you’re part of me.’

‘But it’s one person one vote.’

‘Never mind what it says; you’re my wife, we’re one unit.’ He folded the paper under his arm. ‘And I’ve been thinking, from now on, no more English.’

‘I don’t understand,’ she said. ‘Do you mean in Kenya?’

‘No, in this house. English is the language of our oppressors and we’re an independent nation now.’

‘What are we to speak then?’

‘Gujrati, and only that.

‘But I think in English.’

‘You can think in whatever language you like, Nuru. But you and I will speak in Gujrati. You’ll just have to get used to it.’

‘What purpose will that serve?’

‘Speaking in our mother tongue will make our bond stronger,’ he said. ‘And whenever I get some spare time I’ll teach you new Gujrati words. Our language is full of nuances; take the word ‘you’ for instance, it can be used respectfully or informally. So in future, always use the respectful version when addressing me.’

‘Could you buy me a car?’ Nuru said one evening while they were eating dinner. She’d spoken in English, Jaffer pretended not to hear and carried on eating. She put her driver’s licence on the table next to him. ‘I paid for the lessons myself,’ she said in Gujrati.

‘I’ll take you wherever you need to go.’ He mashed the rice, potatoes and curry on his plate with his fingers. ‘Nothing beats my mother’s cooking. You ought to learn from her.’

Nuru moved the rice around her plate with her fork. News Hour was on the radio. After a round up of the day’s events, the newscaster reminded listeners that Kenya would soon be having its first election as an independent nation.

‘KANU’s going to win,’ Jaffer said.

‘You can’t be so certain, opposition parties like KADU also have support.’

‘No, Mzee Jomo is not about to let any minority group challenge his party. We’re a one party state and Kenyatta has the ruling mandate. The elections are just a confirmation of his power.’ He swiped the edge of his plate with his chubby forefinger, and licked it. ‘Like me, Kenyatta believes in centralised authority to keep people in line.’

Nuru went to the kitchen and scraped her dinner into the bin.

‘Is that my mother’s cooking you’re wasting?’ Jaffer said, coming to stand next to her.

‘I’ve lost my appetite.’

‘You’re beginning to look thin Nuru, and people will say you’re unhappy. Make an effort to eat a little extra at every meal and if it’s my mother’s cooking, finish every grain.’ He belched. ‘Can you fetch me something for indigestion? I think I’ve overeaten.’

*

‘My friend, Dr Stockley, was giving these away because he’s returning to Britain,’ Jaffer said, placing several thick volumes and booklets on the coffee table; Radiant Health, Encyclopaedia of Diseases, Reader’s Digests and a book of Kenyan road maps. ‘He remembered meeting you at our wedding and you saying you enjoyed reading.’

‘Yes, I recall that conversation.’

‘I told him married life keeps you busy, and you don’t have time to read now, but he insisted. There are more in the car.’

Nuru went through the books and arranged them in piles dividing them by subject.

‘Don’t waste your time Nuru,’ Jaffer said, ‘just display them on the shelf according to height, that’s how they look best. And don’t leave them lying around the house.’

Aside from the ones relating to health, and Kenyan geography, there was a Bible and several novels. In the afternoons she’d spend a few hours reading and then she would lie under the muslin net draped over the bed and watch the ceiling fan whirring. Sometimes a mosquito landed on the mesh and scratched at the fabric trying to get in. She would watch it until it flew off, and feel suffocated.

*

Nuru watched Jaffer spoon the egg into his mouth and wipe the dribble from his lips.

‘This is a few seconds too soft, Nuru.’ The newscaster on the radio was talking about the elections. Jaffer turned it off. ‘You aren’t listening to me.’

‘Sorry, what did you say?’

‘My eggs should be boiled for three minutes fifteen seconds.’

‘Who was at the Free Masons meeting last night?’

‘I’ve taken an oath so I can’t tell you. They’re men of my calibre and tastes.’

‘What are they saying about the elections?’ she said in English. Jaffer did not respond, so she repeated herself in Gujrati.

‘Nothing you’d understand, Nuru.’

‘I was up half the night waiting for you. Where were you?’

‘There are important new opportunities I’m exploring.’

‘What are they?’

‘For God’s sake Nuru, I wish you wouldn’t bother me with your questions, I know what I’m doing. And it’s high time you did too. No more English and make sure my eggs are done exactly right tomorrow. ’

Nuru found the newspaper Jaffer had forgotten to take to work lying on the kitchen counter. She turned to the Letters section, and copied down the PO Box Number at the bottom of the page.

To The Editor,

Daily Nation, Nairobi

27th March 1963

Dear Editor,

On the eve of Kenya’s first elections as an independent state, when women have an equal right to vote for the first time, it is important that women in the new Republic know their limits in Kenyan society. I wonder if the Daily Nation would be interested in publishing a guide on how they should behave.

If you think this is something that would appeal to your readership, I could send you a rule a week, to include recipes and home remedies for common ailments, such as indigestion, which afflict men. I am enclosing a sample for your consideration.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours faithfully,

Mrs Nurbanu Muljiani

Encl.

Women Know Your Place

  1. If your husband tells a witty story, be sure to laugh; his jokes are always funny. Be fragile and sweet, these qualities will make you delightful and desirable.
  2. Never question your husband; he knows best. Be quick to admit you know less than him. In your thoughts be plain and simple; let your natural sweetness shine through.
  3. Before your husband arrives home in the evening, make a hot or cool drink, arrange a comfortable pillow in his armchair and wipe the tables. Change your dress, apply lipstick and dab on perfume. Soothe him with your delicate demeanour.
  4. Allow your husband to talk first; what he has to say is much more important than anything you can offer. Listen attentively and reassure him with a pleasing voice.
  5. Never discuss politics with your husband; your foolish and dangerous thoughts will embarrass him and arouse his contempt. Appearing over- educated, and expressing opinions will lead to stress and premature aging.
  6. Mix one teaspoonful of Eno’s Fruit Salts in half a glass of water if your husband has acidity or heart burn. His overindulgence is a measure of your prowess as a cook.

When she’d finished writing, she put the letter and article in an envelope and asked Maria to take it to the post office.

*

The next morning Nuru was in the kitchen preparing Jaffer’s breakfast. The window looked out on to the garden, and she had a sudden longing to see unpruned bougainvillaea bushes in deep orange and red, and sprawling morning glory creepers in white and purple. She took the tray of eggs from the fridge, stood staring at it, then picked up an egg and rolled it from one palm to the other, feeling its smooth, curved surface. She broke it into a cup, then did the same with a second egg, and with a fork, whisked the yellow and white into a foam. Slowly, she raised the frothy mixture, tipped it into her mouth and swallowed. She wiped her lips with a tissue, went into the dining room and poured herself some tea.

‘Where are my poached eggs?’ Jaffer said, sitting down at the head of the table. ‘It’s Thursday.’ He tucked a starched napkin under his chin.

‘They slipped from my hands.’

He banged his fist on the table. ‘Don’t let it happen again.’

‘I’ll try not to,’ she said. ‘If you like I can use tomorrow’s eggs and prepare them for you right away.’

‘You’ll do no such thing,’ he said flinging off his napkin. ‘There are two eggs for each day, so leave it at that. Next time treat them with care; they’re very fragile.’

*

‘I’d like to meet my friends sometime,’ Nuru said at breakfast a few days later.

‘Friends?’ Jaffer said. He slathered his toast with butter.

‘Yes and my family. You’re always meeting yours.’

‘You don’t need them Nuru, they’ll only gossip about us. My friends are different, they discuss important issues.’

‘Such as?’

‘The future of our country.’

‘I’ve been thinking about that too.’

‘Kenya needs active citizens and I think the time is right for us to make our contribution.’

‘I couldn’t agree more,’ she said. ‘Today’s the day we’ll vote.’

‘Don’t be stupid, Nuru, I’m talking about having children.’ He left the room and came back with the calendar. ‘I’ll do my duty on the days marked with black stars, and at the end of the month we’ll tally the score, and record the number in the corner. That way we’ll monitor our progress.’ He sat down, putting the calendar next to her plate. ‘Now Nuru, where are my eggs?’

‘What about voting?’

‘You know how to ruin a man’s mood in the morning, don’t you, Nuru? If you have nothing of interest to say, don’t say it.’ He left the dining room, slamming the door behind him and she watched from the window as he drove off in his blue Anglia.

Maria came in to clear the table. ‘Where’s the nearest polling station, Maria?’

‘At the primary school in the market, Mama.’

Nuru walked with Maria to the market through the gullies of kiosks selling fruits and vegetables. A stray dog blocked their path, and Maria shooed it away. A goat stood grazing on a clump of dry grass and chickens scuttled around.

‘KANU special,’ a vendor called out holding up a bunch of blemished bananas.

‘Not today,’ Nuru said.

They stopped to watch an old woman with a khanga tied around her head, sitting on a low stool in front of a stove. She spooned boiled maize and beans from the pot onto a tin plate and served it to a man standing there.

‘Our great nation has space for only one party,’ he said in Kiswahili, taking the food from her. ‘And one man.’

‘You’re wrong,’ the woman said. ‘We need women in government, like Makumbi in Uganda and Lameck in Tanzania.’

‘Those are just rumours by wakorofi, troublemakers.’

‘I heard it on the radio.’

‘Don’t believe everything you hear; women should stick to gardening, cooking and bearing children; shamba,chakula na watoto. Leave the business of running the country to us men.’

‘It’s only a matter of time; one day the women of Maendeleo ya Wanawake will have power.’ The woman gathered up her things into her sisal basket, and swung it over her back. ‘A flag blows in the direction of the wind,’ she said. ‘And the winds of change have begun.’

*

The following day, Nuru was in the dining room pouring Jaffer’s tea. He came in and stood behind his chair. ‘Jam, butter, toast and tea,’ he said, enunciating each word. ‘But no eggs. What’s going on, Nuru?’

‘They were overcooked. I’ve thrown them in the bin.’

Jaffer thumped the back of the chair.

‘Maria,’ he yelled.

She appeared at the door.

‘You’re paid to help my wife in the kitchen. Can you explain this?’

‘Mimi sijui, Mzee,’ Maria said. ‘Me, I don’t know.’

‘I’m surrounded by ignorant and incompetent women.’

‘Mistakes happen sometimes,’ Nuru said.

‘Not in my house they don’t.’ He walked out of the room banging the door and Nuru helped Maria as she began clearing the table.

A few minutes later, Jaffer was back. ‘Nuru, Jacob’s just told me you went to the market yesterday. Why did you go? It wasn’t market day according to my schedule.’

‘To vote.’

‘Nuru,’ he shouted. ‘Stop your meddling. Our country’s politics are a delicate business. Don’t interfere, do you understand?’

That night after Jaffer got into bed, Nuru went around tucking the mosquito net under the mattress.

‘I don’t like being defied Nuru,’ he said from behind the mesh. ‘It doesn’t bode well for our future.’ He placed the Daily Nation on her pillow. ‘Even Kenyatta faces no opposition now because KADU has dissolved itself and merged with KANU.’

Nuru lifted the net on her side and settled down next to him. She turned the pages of the paper until she came to the advertisement for a Morris. ‘That’s the car I want, the two door model.’

‘Let me see that,’ he said. ‘More Mini-magic, what nonsense. You can’t even handle eggs without an accident, never mind a steering wheel.’

*

Nuru sat on the sofa reading one of Dr Stockley’s books. She looked up when Jaffer came in. ‘You’re home early?’

‘You’re the talk of the town, Nuru.’ Jaffer flung the newspaper down next to her.

She picked it up.

‘Picture my humiliation,’ he said, ‘when John mentioned his wife had been praising your column in The Daily Nation.’

‘I wanted it to be a surprise.’

‘It was a bombshell. I had no idea what he was talking about.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He congratulated me for being the perfect husband. I didn’t know what to say, so I told him I always did my best.’ He paused. ‘When I got back to the office I read your piece and I’ll tell you what really annoyed me.’

‘Yes?’

‘The title should be: ‘Know Your Place According to Jaffer.’

‘I’ll have a word with the Editor tomorrow,’ she said. ‘By the way, there’ll be no eggs for the rest of the week.’

‘Nuru, are my ears deceiving me?’

‘I was preparing the dinner,’ she said. ‘A recipe from your mother. I had to remove the eggs from the fridge to reach something behind them. And I’m afraid I dropped the entire tray.’

The Tabla Player

Saam – The First Clap

I whistle raag Bhairavi and rap both tablas, and check the tautness of the rough leather straps, and tap the tablas once and twice, and listen to their tone and echo, separately and together, and using a small hammer I strike the straps and edges of each drum, one at a time, rotating and knocking at the pegs until every stroke gives off an even tone, and with  the heel of my hand I apply pressure to the drums in a rapping, sliding motion so that the pitch changes and matches that of the tanpura humming in the background, and I adjust the wooden block between the drum and the leather strips and move it up and down and along the side to regulate the tension of the drums; she is sitting next to me on the carpet in my living room and I tell her I was attracted to her from the first time I heard her sing and I knew in an instant we were the ideal combination for music and love, and she takes a brochure from her bag, The Remedial Voice, and turns the pages and tells me I can be healed psychologically, emotionally and spiritually and all I have to do is chant mantras with her and together we’d experience musical nirvana, and she shakes her head and her dark hair brushes against her cheek and she pushes its velvety sheen back from her face and asks me to sing with her and I say yes because I’m thinking I’ll do anything if only she’ll let me kiss her, and she says Chant; this moment now is devoid of everything except musical joy, and I do and she asks me to play raag Bhairavi in a fast tempo and repeat the mantra Aum, and it’s already dusk so I flick on the floor lamp and it catches the auburn highlights in her hair and the gold flecks in her brown eyes and I nearly reach out and touch her as she begins to sing the: Saptak, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa.

Taali – The Second Clap

I hit the drums in short, rapid beats and sing Dha Dhin Dhin Dha, Dha Dhin Dhin Dha, Na, Tin Tin, Na,Ta, Dhin Dhin Dha and she shuts her eyes and begins to sway and click her fingers and she’s in a trance, absorbed in me and my music, and I stop drumming and lean towards her and she’s breathing fast and in the background the tanpura is whirring and I want to kiss her lips and caress her silky hair and as she moves her leg it brushes against mine and a thrill goes through me and any minute now she’ll come closer  and kiss me or she’ll put her head on my shoulder and I’m wondering if she can hear my heart pounding to the beat of Bhairavi, and she smiles and lets the beige shawl round her shoulders fall away and as she comes nearer her floral perfume makes me dizzy and she turns her head and gives me a coy, sideways glance and her earrings sparkle and I can see the bones at the base of her neck and she brings her face close to mine and her warm, sweet breath is on my face and my mind drifts and I’m counting the cycle of beats thumping in my brain and she whispers the raag is teen taal, sixteen beats, divided into four cycles of four, and it heightens the mood for love through the minute vibrations of the Saptak, and she says, Play it again, this time in madhya laya, medium tempo two seconds per beat.

Khaali – The Wave 

I reach for the tablas, the smaller one is by my right knee, facing away at thirty-five degrees as it should, and the larger baylan is near my left knee, positioned straight, and I move them so that they almost touch me, and I adjust the pegs to increase the tension and play a taal in bhand bol and khula bol, and tap the drums in madhya laya, and sing a tarana, vocalising, enunciating, repeating, mimicking each beat, consonant and vowel and the sequence of their arrangement, to represent the sounds of the tablas, Dhaa Ga Ge Gi Ka Ke Dhi Dhin, and Tin Tun Tit Ti Te Ta Tr Naa Ne Re Khat Taa Dhaage Ti Ta Tiriki Ta, and swipe my fingertips from the top of the drums to the side and all the way to the bottom, so the floor vibrates, the air pulses, and my voice mirrors and echoes the drumming; I hit the tablas more rapidly, and in the background the tanpura is humming and my fingers and palms are thwacking and thumping and I’m lost in the dhoon, in musical ecstasy, and I tap harder and faster till I finish the bandish, the sixteen-beat rhythm cycle of Bhairavi, and I pull back the strokes to a more restrained pace until I’m tapping lightly, and the melody comes to a close, and she looks directly into my eyes and says, Once more, in a slower beat.

Last Taali – The Final clap

I play the raag in a softer, more even rhythm, and her eyes are on my hands as I thump, rap, thwack, stroke, and tap the drums to show my desire, sixteen beats, teen taal, four cycles of kiss me kiss me kiss me kiss me, and the floor quivers and the air jumps as the beats reverberate in the room and I’m waiting for her to acquiesce to the raag and she sits cross- legged and stares straight at me and as I bring the melody to an end she says, softly, Repeat Aum with me and I say all I want is to kiss you and she leans closer, and I’m about to touch her lips with mine, but she pulls away and says No, I can’t do this, I have to go, I can’t stay a minute longer, and I beg her not to leave and to sit next to me on the rug and listen to the raag and I’ll repeat anything she wants as long as she doesn’t go, and I reach out and grab her hand and pull her to me, and she pushes me away and cries No, no, it’s impossible, leave me alone  and she gets up and dashes to the door and doesn’t look back, even though I’m shouting Wait, let me show you what Bhairavi can do, and I hear her feet running down the steps outside and there is silence till I strike the tablas and sing Dhaa Dhaa Ga Ge Gi Ka Ke Dhi Dhin and Tin Tun Tit Ti Te Ta Tra Naa Ne Re Khat Taa Dhaage Ti Ta Tiriki Ta and play Bhairavi, for yearning, loss, loneliness, and the finale, but the tempo, the laya is wrong, so I stop and hammer and knock the pegs and rotate the drums to adjust the tension and rap the drums again and again, trying to get the beat right and then I see her cashmere shawl lying near my foot and I pick it up and hold it to my face.

This One’s Not For Us

I rolled down my window and watched the street vendors stroll between the stationary cars, tankers, matatus and buses. I had a strange impulse to drive straight into the car in front, just for the satisfaction of knowing I’d made an impact for once. I gripped the steering wheel.

Dilip and I were stuck on Mombasa Road driving to the city center of Nairobi from our offices near the Jomo Kenyatta Airport. We’d just passed the golf course on our left and the old East African railway station on our right. I fiddled with the knobs for the indicator lights and switched off the engine.

A street seller sidled up to the car carrying Kenyan flags of all sizes, the black, red and white fabric flapping around his face. 

“Madam, do you need flags, sunglasses or a photo of the president?” he asked.

I shook my head and avoided his gaze to focus on the traffic ahead. He stooped to look into the car. I moved in my seat to block his view.

“What’s in the news?” I asked Dilip.

“Independence Day celebrations, Mandela’s funeral.” He turned the page. “Women activists angry about something or the other.”

I glanced at my watch. “I wish the traffic police would do their job. The shops will close soon.”

“No point in getting irritated, Resh.” He pulled off his shoes, loosened his tie, and covered his face with the paper.

The air was muggy and dense with diesel and petroleum vapors from the industrial neighborhood beyond the railway station and the four wheelers around us. My seatbelt pressed into my middle and cut into my shoulder. I unbuckled it and turned in my seat.

“Be my customer,” the seller said. He put on a pair of glasses and positioned the photograph of the president at arm’s length. “Life will be better with glasses.”

Dilip uncovered his face, yawned, folded the newspaper and laughed. “Here, kijana, have a soda.” He leaned across and handed him a note.

The man took the money through the window, “Asante, Mzee.”

Dilip adjusted his seat to lean back and shut his eyes. “I need a nap.”

“Madam, buy miwani.”  The seller held out a pair of dark glasses with a fake Armani logo. “Life will be better. No problem, hakuna matata.”

“Oh fine, whatever.” I paid him and stuffed the glasses in my handbag.

Sharp police whistles; the vendor swore and, weaving in and out of the cars, disappeared into the bushes. A tout, from the matatu with blaring music parked next to us, leered. I closed my window and turned on the air conditioning.

The lights changed from amber to green. Nothing moved. I took the newspaper from Dilip’s lap; he didn’t stir. Activists were outraged, I read, at the amendments to the proposed Marriage Bill. I thought of the hire purchase loan Dilip had for the car and the mortgage on our house. If he died or I ever left him I’d be responsible for both.

At the roundabout a few meters ahead, a policeman walked over to a black Toyota and tapped on the window. He said something to the driver, who handed him what I assumed was a license. The policeman pocketed it and walked around the car, his fimbo under his arm, kicking each wheel. He stopped by the left front door, opened it, and climbed in. 

“Oh my God.”

“What’s going on?” Dilip sat up and rubbed his eyes.

The driver, a woman in a mustard burqa, jumped out. She stood by her car, hands on hips, her dress billowing around her. The lights changed, cars honked, and those ahead of her started to move. I turned on the ignition, changed lanes, and as we crawled up beside the black Toyota I rolled down my window.  “Do you need help?”

“He wants kitu kidogo, some small chaifor Christmas. He said he’s charging me for wrongful overtaking.”

“Let’s go,” Dilip muttered.

“He’s impounded my license,” the woman said.

“Oh no,” I said.

“Don’t get involved,” Dilip said. “Drive on.”

I moved the car forward and navigated the rest of the way in silence.

# # #

At the entrance to the boutique, I turned to Dilip. A shaft of sunlight shone on his clean-shaven head and on the green and blue snake tattoo that ran from his right ear to his shoulder. He patted the jacket pocket where he kept his wallet, phone and glasses.

“I know the dress I want,” I said.

“Sure.” He buttoned his tight-fitting jacket and, taking a tissue from his pocket, wiped the perspiration off his forehead and the back of his neck.

The boutique, designed like an African hut, had a thatched roof and small windows. On the walls were oddly shaped mirrors and watercolors of flamenco dancers. The clothing was displayed on wrought iron railings suspended from the ceiling by thick chains.

“Is this it?” he said. “It’s not what I expected.”

“I’ve seen something here that I like.”

He turned to the sales assistant. “My wife needs something appropriate for the Independence Ball.” 

She looked me up and down. “I’ll bring you a selection.”

“And the black dress that was in the window last week,” I said.

She nodded. Dilip yawned and looked at his watch. 

I went into the changing room and fumbled with the buttons on my blouse. The mirror accentuated the lines on my forehead and the traces of grey showing through my short, spiky dark hair. The assistant knocked on the door and handed me several gowns. At the top of the pile was the one I’d set my heart on. It was an off-the-shoulder in black chiffon, with tiny, sparkly, diamanté embellishment. I put it on, and the soft thin material fell smoothly over my hips and caressed my ankles. I stepped out into the shop.

“What do you think?” I asked Dilip, with a self-conscious twirl.

He did a double take and gave a low whistle. “Wow. You look, well, different.”

I laughed and swirled again.   

He shook his head. “No good.”

I stopped. “What? Why?”

“This dress isn’t us.” He folded his arms.  

“It is. This is me.”

“It’s definitely not.”

The assistant looked up from folding scarves. “Is there anything else in particular you’d like to try on?” she asked me.

“Don’t ask her,” he said. “I’ll decide, that’s why I’m here.”

I retreated into the fitting room and unzipped the black dress. I pulled on a red satin bubble one with long sleeves, a high neck, a belted waist and an elaborate bow on the left shoulder.       

“I need a dress,” said a female voice.

I peered through the keyhole and saw a woman in a mustard burqa. I emerged from the changing room.

Dilip nodded. “That’s more like it.”

“This is annoying me,” I said, pulling at the bow.

“You’ll get used to it,” he said.

“Hello there! Fancy meeting again,” the woman in the burqa said.

I turned to face her. “Hello. Did you sort things out with the policeman?” I patted the bow, trying to smooth it down.

“He refused to leave my car,” she said, “until I showed him my wallet. Then he took everything from it.”

“Oh no! How terrible,” I said.

She took off her sunglasses and scrutinized me. “That’s a nice dress,” she said. “It suits you.”

“I think so too,” Dilip said, glancing at her. “Doesn’t she look perfect?”

“I don’t like it,” I said.

The woman looked at me. “Well then, get what you like.”

“I like this one. It’s just the dress for you,” Dilip said, staring straight at me.

I went back to the changing room and took off the red dress. The assistant tapped on the door. “I’ll take whatever you’ve tried on,” she said.

I handed her the black and red dresses and put on a minty green one with a cowl neck and butterfly sleeves.

“Well, what about this one?” I walked toward Dilip.

He stroked his chin. “Nope, never. That’s not for us.”

“What’s wrong with it? Surely it’s more flattering than the red one?”

His gaze shifted and I followed it. I wouldn’t have recognized her without her burqa. She was as petite and slim as me, but in her early thirties. Her complexion was clear, and her hair, which was curly and long, had auburn highlights.

“That’s my black dress,” I said. “I’ve just tried it on.”

“Have you? Isn’t it beautiful? I love the diamanté.”

“That’s my dress, that’s the dress I want,” I said to Dilip. But he was staring at her and did not respond. I waited for a moment and then rushed to the changing room and slammed the door. I sat on the small stool and covered my face. Tears stung my eyes; I brushed them away. This time I wouldn’t cry.  

I heard voices. I peered through the keyhole: the woman was adjusting the black dress under her arms, looking at her reflection in the mirror. She pouted and twisted to look at her behind. Dilip was watching her. I went down on my knees to see more clearly, but she moved, and only Dilip was in my view.

“That dress looks very nice on you,” he said.

She gave a throaty laugh. “Why, thank you. I think so too.”

Dilip loosened his tie and ran a finger around the back of his collar. The woman was near him again, still preening. She tossed back her hair and smiled at Dilip. He smiled back.

“Do you think I should get it?” she asked.

A man entered the shop and walked over to her. He was wearing a white baseball cap, faded blue jogging pants and a baggy red T-shirt. Clapped to his ear was a mobile phone. Without interrupting his conversation, he pointed at her, then at his watch and went to the far side of the shop. She looked at Dilip and smoothed the dress over her hips. I got up and changed back into my jeans and blouse. When I exited the fitting room, Dilip was paying the assistant. The woman was standing by the till, still wearing my dress. “Are you going to buy it?” I said to her.

“I haven’t decided.” She headed to the changing room.  

The assistant handed Dilip the dress wrapped in tissue. “Enjoy the party.” 

Dilip’s mobile rang and he answered it, walking toward the door with the shopping bag. He nodded at me to follow.  The changing room opened and the woman came out in her mustard burqa. She placed the black dress on the counter and pulled her veil over her head as she tucked away her straying curls.

“I’ve decided,” she said to the assistant. “I’ll go and speak to my husband.” She walked over to the man in the cap, tapped him on the shoulder and held out an empty palm. Without breaking his conversation, he pulled out his wallet and gave it to her. She brought it to the till.

“Excuse me,” I said. “If you wouldn’t mind, could I please have that dress?” 

“I don’t understand?” she said. “You already have the one your husband likes.”

“I know, but I want this one. I tried it on first, before you.”

The woman was quiet for a moment. “No. I’m sorry, I’m taking it.”

I looked at the assistant who was concentrating on wrapping the dress. The man in the cap came over. “Did you get what you wanted?” he asked the woman.    

“I did.” She tilted her head in my direction. “But she didn’t.” 

# # #

      In the parking lot, I noticed a black Toyota parked right behind us. Dilip was leaning against our car, chatting on the phone. I rummaged in my handbag for the keys and noticed the sunglasses from the vendor on Mombasa Road. I put them on and looked around to check for the couple. They were still inside the boutique.

We got in the car and I turned on the ignition. Dilip was laughing at something his caller said. I began to reverse and the car beeped. In the rear-view mirror, I could see the front bumper of the Toyota. I pressed my foot on the accelerator. There was a resounding crunch and a splintering of headlights.

Dilip dropped his phone and yanked the hand brake. “What the hell are you doing?” 

“Serves her right. She was badly parked.”

Thin Air

According to reported figures (February 2019), at least 180,000 people in the UK are reported missing every year: one every 90 seconds. One in 200 children, one in 500 adults. The majority are girls and women. As many as 7 in 10 children are not reported missing. (missingpeople.org.uk).

Thin Air

by Farah Ahamed

Where are all the women? Where are the girls?

You ask, we ask.

You tell us; go look for them, find them, bring them back.

We do as we’re told: probe, investigate, enquire, collect data, conduct interviews, tweet, write poems, draw, paint, tell stories, make documentaries.

Still no girls.

You threaten to send troops, declare war.

Still no women.

You offer to sign agreements, and make promises of a peaceful negotiation. You say you are feminist, humanist and mention other kinds of ‘ists’.

But still no sign of those women. And still no sign of those girls.

But there are more missing. More and more of them. By the second. Every ninety seconds.

You host an international conference and raise the stakes of the debate, even mention it in parliament, in international arenas. You talk about colour. And politics. And race. And religion. And gender. And violence. And rape. And caste. And terrorism. And every other ‘ism’.

But still no women.

Still no girls.

In fact, while you’ve been discussing them even more are missing.

And more.

But now you’re talking about them less and less; it’s old news and you can’t keep up with the figures. You tell us, they’ve disappeared into Thin Air.

Thin Air.

We ask: How can they have disappeared just like that into Thin Air?

You say, Thin Air. That’s what it is

So we reflect.

We ask; what is Thin Air? Where is Thin Air?

We ask the world’s best scientists, tell us about Thin Air.

Where is it? And what is it? What is its particular quality which takes our girls and women and makes them invisible?

The scientists say, research takes time, we need to investigate, collect data, triangulate; why are you so sure Thin Air exists?

We don’t see this thing called Thin Air.

But we know it is swallowing our girls and women.

We can hear them breathe, when we breathe, hear them sigh, when we sleep, hear them cry when we laugh.

We know they are there, alive. Because if they weren’t, we’d all be dead.

We know Thin Air is there because we breathe it, even though it has swallowed up our girls and women.

And sometimes, at a particular time of day, we catch a whiff of their fragrance, hear their bangles tinkle, and see them as if they were dancing, just beyond, their hair blowing in the wind.

But it’s just a trick of the mind.

There’s no sign of them.

Where are they?

Where is she? That woman? That girl? What’s her name?

Listen; can’t you almost hear her breathing?