The acrid smell of tobacco, alcoholic beverages of various kinds, days old sweat and clothes that have been perennially exposed to the ravages of mildew permeated the air in the old AVM bus. This sustained assault on his nostrils had become an inevitable theme whenever he boarded the bus. The sweet irony, however, was that these nasty smells were associated with his happiest days. Even the sight of his little girl sitting cross-legged at his feet, playing with his toes and giggling feverishly, couldn’t come close, he would guiltily admit. They were clandestine operations, the journeys. He could as well have been an undercover intelligence agent. On this day the mustiness in the bus was brutal as ever. Fortunately, seated right beside him was the saving grace. The heavyset lady in the ripped black jeans and sky-blue Manchester City shirt was emitting a very sweet fragrance which forced him to turn his head toward her a little too often. It was a welcome change. He always had the misfortune of sitting beside either old women who spent most of the journey smoking their suffocating home-made snuff from their grimy pouches or drunk-to-the-eyeballs middle-aged male teachers and hospital staff who couldn’t stop raving about whatever nonsense their drunken minds could think of. He wondered where the lady was going. Was she a teacher or nurse? Or could she be a visitor? He put her around thirty-two, which meant she could be anything between twenty and forty-five given how poor he was with estimating people’s ages. He couldn’t help himself in that area. The lady was dark with a straight nose and thick lips. Just how he liked them. He immediately laughed at his false pretences. He knew he didn’t have a definite type. He just liked women, that’s all. This “my type” thing sounded juvenile to him. He considered it something teenagers should be occupied with, not grown men and women with families. The lady didn’t appear to be in the mood to talk, which was good because he was also not in the mood to ramble about things he didn’t care about just to entertain an attractive woman. He couldn’t tell if her eyes were naturally lidded or she had been crying. Women loved crying, anyway. His wife always cried over the most trivial of things. He wondered what it was about crying that they thought solved things. He smiled dryly thinking about his wife. He had lied to her again. Such a compulsive liar he had become, or in the words of one of his colleagues, “consummate withholder of truth”. It mildly saddened him that that was the man he was now. He used to be truthful with her as a matter of principle, even when it could get him into trouble. Now truth had become a luxury he couldn’t afford. But this time she somewhat deserved it given how heartless she has been with breaking the news. Granted, she wasn’t obligated to be polite given her relationship with the deceased but she still could have been more benign and respectful. If not for the dead, then for death itself.
He was sitting precariously on the edge on the couch, eyes glued on the Television concentrating on an Arsenal game. It was his default posture while watching his team. It was the only position in which he could have a semblance of control over his nerves. The goal had just gone in — a consolation thirty-yard strike — when his wife came into the lounge running.
“Tawanda, look at this!” she said, visibly struggling to contain her breath
“What is it?” he asked, rather nonchalantly.
He couldn’t believe what she was showing him. There was a strange fire in her eyes. He had to be very careful with his reaction.
His lover was dead and in an uncanny exhibition of the universe’s twisted sense of humour, it had to be his wife who delivered the news. It was a car accident, and according to the Facebook post, she had been burnt beyond recognition. His wife sure didn’t know that the deceased was his lover, but she knew that she used to be his lover. It was a high school rivalry that spilled into Nursing school. His wife, Tendai, was his high school sweetheart. His lover, Nyasha, was his college — nursing school — love. He had almost married Nyasha – even introduced her to his parents—but ended up impregnating Tendai instead. There were fears that Nyasha might think of disrupting the wedding which is the excuse he told Tendai whenever she pestered him about walking down the aisle. Tendai would begrudgingly concede knowing full well that Nyasha wasn’t above such pettiness. So, his chapter with Nyasha got abruptly closed. For a season. Nyasha got posted to a rural hospital which made it almost impossible for Tawanda to see her. He wasn’t really desperate to see her anyway, he was happily married, for the most part. When his daughter was born, he totally forgot about it altogether. His daughter became his whole world. He didn’t care about anything else. It was about three years into marriage that he suddenly got awakened to the fact that his marriage had become stale. Tendai had become content with the banality of marriage, he wasn’t. She still called him by his first name and used some terms of endearment with fair regularity but there was something obligatory about it, something that said “I’m only doing it because I don’t want to sound middle aged.” The truth was their relationship had lost the spark that it once had. He used to watch it in movies and read it in books and now it was happening to him. It was a surreal experience. He tried all he could to spice things up. He brought her flowers. A female colleague had told him that flowers always did the trick. He organized movie nights. He took her for dates. He cooked for her. All this seemed to be helpful for a moment but they all had no lasting impact. Sometimes she would complain about the quality of the flowers, or the scent, or the colour, or even the price. It confused him and filled him with despair. Sometimes she would decline the restaurant dates, claiming she wanted to look after the child or that she was having one of her epic migraines, or just that she didn’t feel like going out. Or she would happily agree to go then just suddenly get into a bad mood mid-way. It was frustrating. Part of him still understood the capriciousness and gloominess. They had been trying for a second child and their efforts had been futile. He knew she loved kids and wanted to have at least four so the failure could have been eating her up. He wondered if she blamed him for it. Or if she laid the blame entirely on herself and if it was internal turmoil, the darkness inside, that led her to behave the way she did. It was probably a strong case of self-pity. One of her friends already had three children in a space of five years and she probably felt left behind. Tawanda didn’t understand why women were so preoccupied with children. He was more than content to have one and wouldn’t have minded if he had none at all. It didn’t mean anything really. It’s something that just happened. It baffled him how ignorant of basic science people were.
With time, he realized that trying to spice up his marriage was for the most part, a fool’s errand. He couldn’t make his wife happy if she didn’t want to be happy. The onus was on her. She held the keys to her own happiness. If she decided to be happy again, then he would fully cooperate. He was game anytime, but in the meantime, he had to let it be. He wasn’t going to manufacture a child for her. All he could do was do his part and let nature do the rest. So, his marriage had become what he feared the most — obligatory. No happiness in sight, no expectation, no active love, nothing. Just a sense of responsibility and a shared bond over the most beautiful girl in the world — their daughter, Tamari. She was his joy. His anchor when the tempestuous billows of life threatened to blow him away. She was the light of the home. Sweet Tamari — four years old and still couldn’t talk clearly. Another thing that worried his wife but which he thought didn’t matter much. Some kids were just slow that’s all. It could be because she didn’t have siblings or because she wasn’t particularly comfortable playing with other kids. Tawanda found it normal. She would be fine. Tendai had suggested they take her to a speech therapist and he had dismissed the suggestion with the contempt it deserved. She would develop on her own.
Then Nyasha popped up again. On Facebook. He didn’t want to use his real account so he had to create another one under a false name. He searched for her name, found her and promptly sent her a message
“Hello, stranger. How are you doing?”
She took a while to respond. He fully expected it because, first of all, the name was not recognizable. She would definitely not waste her time trying to figure out who “Burger Enthusiast” was. Whatever made him settle for such a weird name, only the heavens knew. The profile picture made matters worse: a young David Beckham: arms outstretched, big smile on his face celebrating a goal in the black, red and white England shirt. People generally take long to respond to such accounts.
“Who is this?” The reply came three days later. At least she had replied and had saved him from the humiliation of having to send another message. There was some promise.
He replied almost immediately.
“Grain of Wheat, Master of the Game, The Doomsday Conspiracy, Nervous Conditions, Second Class citizen. Fourth and fifth interchangeable but yeah, that’s my list”
The reply came about six hours later.
“Hahahahaha What the heck? Tawanda! You still remember my Top 5 novels? Mr Photographic memory. I have news for you though, two of those are no longer in my top 5.
How are you nhaiwe?”
He read the message over and over again. What did this mean? Was it an open invitation? Or was she just being polite? Was she genuinely pleased to know that it was him or was she just in a great mood? He tossed the message in his mind from every possible perspective with the conscientious determination of a homicide detective trying to crack a case on which his whole career hinged. If he was in her shoes, how would he reply? Would the reply be longer or shorter? Was the laughter at the beginning genuine or obligatory? Could it just be nothing more than basic social media etiquette? Women are more in tune with these things anyway. Could it be because she was just familiar with him? But then again, why didn’t she just ignore if she knew it was him? With the way things ended between them, that was the most natural thing to do. How did she reply so enthusiastically to the guy who chose her rival over her? And why was she even throwing thinly veiled compliments? No, he couldn’t detect any hint of bitterness in that message. Or wait, was it because she is now so happy that she couldn’t be bothered by what happened ages ago? Could it be that her new lover is giving her so much love that she could afford to be so nice with the man who betrayed her without something inside her getting triggered? Was she… He came to the conclusion that though there was no sufficient information to conclude that he might have a chance there was also insufficient information to conclude that he didn’t have a chance. He had to be careful with what he had to say next. He had to be wary not to be too quick to show his hand.
“Can I hazard a guess?… I think A Thousand Splendid Suns and Half of a Yellow Sun entered the chat hahahaha.
I’m great sha. Well, for the most part at least. And how are you doing yourself?”
She replied within thirty minutes.
“Hahahahaha. Tawanda. Always the sharp guy. You got 50% of that right, which is a pass. Yeah, Khaled Hosseini is my new favourite, but it’s rather the Kite Runner that is in my Top five. A Thousand Splendid Suns makes my top fifteen though. I have also fallen in love with Shimmer Chinodya and Yvonne Vera’s work. Can’t believe I used to not like them.
And also, Sir, why the ghost account? Are you now an intelligence operative?”
So that’s how it started. The conversations became a regular thing and he loved them, to the extent that he would feel physically hurt when she took too long to reply. Then he started to devise a plan to meet her. It wasn’t going to be easy. She stayed in a rather remote place and a convenient excuse would be hard to manufacture. It would take the proverbial stroke of genius to find a way. Then an idea came to him. Yeah, that’s what he had to do.
“Honey, if I tell you who I met in town today, you won’t believe it” he said one day after long hours of pondering and playing out scenarios in his head.
“Who?” she said, without looking at him as she scrubbed the TV stand
“I will give you three guesses”
“Tawanda, I think your guessing games are annoying. Just tell me who it was”
“Okay, I will give you a hint”
“Did you meet that your girlfriend?” she said, still not looking at him
“Oh please, stop that. I met Tafara”
“And I’m supposed to just know who Tafara is?”
“A very close primary school friend of mine. I thought I told you about him before.”
“No, I don’t remember such a name”
“I never did? I thought I did because the things we did with that guy ka. Unbelievable, I tell you” he said, nodding his head wistfully.
“What is he doing now” she asked, her back still turned to him, most of her concentration on the unfortunate TV stand which was getting the scrubbing of its life.
“He is a teacher at Zorogwe now”
“Oh, that’s nice” she said.
First hurdle cleared. The narrative was believable
The truth is there was a guy called Tafara, who was his primary school classmate and was a teacher. But they were far from ever being friends. He had seen the guy’s friendship request on Facebook a couple of months back and had ignored it for a while. He had later accepted it just to declutter his notifications tab which was full of friendship requests he had not dealt with seeing as he had stopped being active on the site years back. The guy had promptly tried to initiate conversation, an endeavour that he strongly resisted by giving very curt responses to his slew of long-winded messages. He had no business talking to the guy. They had nothing in common. But now the guy had come in handy. There was no better placed cover for his escapades. So, he had to rekindle communication and he did.
The second hurdle was convincing his wife to allow him to visit his “friend” once in a while. His wife didn’t give strong objections. She didn’t mind him going. He was glad that the much-vaunted female intuition, though sharp, wasn’t infallible. So that’s how the bus journeys began. Because the place where the guy supposedly taught was in the same route that led to the place where Nyasha worked at. Far enough to not raise suspicion though.
Tawanda knew he would never divorce Tendai but Nyasha made him seriously think of polygamy. He wouldn’t mind having the two of them as sister wives. And though Tendai would definitely cause a scene worthy a slot in a Nollywood movie if that ever happened, Nyasha wouldn’t mind at all. He would see it in her eyes every time he would half-playfully bring up the subject. He marvelled at women’s dedication to the things they love. If a beautiful lady like Nyasha, who could get almost any man she wants, wouldn’t mind being second best then what more could a man ask for?
It was sobering seeing the picture of the macabre scene of his lover’s death. Why did people feel comfortable putting such blood-curdling images on the internet anyway? There was really need for the government to regulate the madness. He realized he was getting a slight headache.
“Oh, she’s dead. Sad” that’s the best he could manage
“Yeah, it’s sad,” his wife replied, her voice laced with an unfamiliar edginess.
“People are dying, shame” he said.
“That’s life. People live and die” she said.
He stared at the Television seeing nothing. He couldn’t even admit that his migraine had returned because it would arouse his wife’s suspicions. He couldn’t lock himself in the bedroom and pretend to sleep while crying quietly because it won’t be able to escape Tendai’s notice this time. He had to brave it, and he did, or at least, attempted to. For three days, he struggled to sleep. He would go to the bathroom and stay there crying quietly until his wife called from the bedroom and he would immediately flush and come back mumbling something about a relentless stomach bug. He struggled with sleep at work and his eyes were scarily bloodshot. He even put eye drops in them so that his wife wouldn’t ask questions but they still remained a vicious red. Surprisingly enough, Tendai didn’t ask. A friend of Nyasha’s texted him the funeral arrangements. She was going to be buried at the cemetery close to the hospital. Tawanda had passed by the place a couple of times on walks with Nyasha. It didn’t have that morbid, depressing feel that hung over most cemeteries like a dark cloud. It had a rather calm air about it and you would see couples sitting under the shade of the trees there. It was however sobering to think that that’s where his lover’s remains were going to be interred. “Remains” the mere thought of the word sent chills right through his being. Life was really worth nothing. He had to be at the burial one way or the other. To give his last respects to the woman whose bosom offered him unconditional warmth when everything else in his life was conspiring to tear him apart. He had to find a plan but how? His wife would see right through any excuse right now. Her senses were at their most keen. Then in a stunning coincidence, the teacher “friend” called. It happened that his wife was the one using the phone when he called. Tawanda milked the moment to the last drop.
“Tawanda, I need some pain numbing tablets, my headaches are back.”
“What’s happening, Tafara? When do you need them?” he asked, his heart galloping. He was on the cusp of victory
“Anytime you can, Boss. Don’t rush yourself though. I–”
“I will bring them over the weekend. Headaches are lethal, Taffman. Don’t underestimate them. You can actually die”
“Thanks, man. I really appreciate it”
Tawanda couldn’t believe his luck. This friend of his was a godsend. His wife didn’t object.
Tawanda looked outside the window and saw the decrepit signpost. Nothing was visible any more except some parts of the letters “T” and “L” They were nearing the hospital and the road got progressively worse from there. The signpost made his heart flutter every time but not today. It filled him with crushing sadness. He felt like just letting loose and start wailing uncontrollably. It would relieve him of the pain he had bottled in for days. Emotions that he however felt guilty to feel let alone release. The screeching sound of the bus grew louder and more unbearable and the chatter suddenly increased, as it always did as they neared the destination. The girl spoke for the first time.
“Are you from here”
“No, I’m from Masvingo,” he replied, a little too eagerly “but I kind of know the place” he added.
“Oh, that’s fine. I’m going to a funeral close to the hospital”
He swallowed hard. It really had happened.
“Oh, I’m sorry” That’s all he could say.
“My sister-in-law died in an accident”
“I’m sorry” he said. He wanted to ask how she was her sister-in-law but she seemed eager to speak so he held his peace.
“The car she was in collided with a haulage truck. Burst into flames” she added, her voice trailing off.
“That’s tragic” he said in a subdued tone
“She loved my brother so much” She said in a voice barely above a whisper as if talking to herself, wistfully looking ahead and nodding slowly
“Young people are dying at an alarming rate” he blurted, without even thinking. The conversation was already starting to suffocate him
“She was so young. I don’t know how her kid will cope” she said, looking straight ahead
Nyasha had a kid? He had so many questions but he couldn’t ask. It didn’t seem appropriate. She never told him that or even hinted on it. He never had reason to suspect it too. When did she have that child? After he married Tendai, Nyasha disappeared. She just totally went off the radar. He didn’t look for her. He was happily married to his wife. Until things started to go stale, then Nyasha miraculously resurfaced. He wondered where the child stayed. Maybe at her parents’ place? Because there was nothing at her house to suggest that a young child stayed there. No toys, no baby clothes. Nothing
“My brother wanted to move to New Zealand with her soon. She had already passed her IELTS”
“So sad” He couldn’t say anything more. He felt a strong tightness in his chest. Was Nyasha married? What was happening? Why was she staying alone at a remote rural hospital if she was married?
“My brother couldn’t come to the funeral. He’s in so much pain. They had just reconciled,” the lady said, her voice choking with tears.
“That’s tough” is all what came out. He wanted to say more but the words just couldn’t come out
“Sorry for bothering you with unnecessary details” she said with a wry smile
He felt bad and desperately felt like apologizing. But there was a huge lump on his throat. If he tried to speak, he would end up crying. He only managed to croak a “No problem” to which she smiled again, nodded and started rubbing her eyes.
The bus screeched to a halt a couple of metres from the hospital gate. The lady rose first and walked briskly out. He followed a few seconds later. The air outside was crisp and sweet. He couldn’t go to the funeral. The conversation had completely put him off. He had to go back home and be with his family. His lover was dead and there was nothing he could do about it. It was good while it lasted. Now it was time for him to stop fooling around and cherish the things that mattered the most. Everything was vanity. Nothing was true in this world. All the most solemn promises and vows were just but rancid lies. The old singer was right, “The best you can hope in this life is to die in your sleep” Or maybe the pleasures of life were hidden in the most mundane things—doing a job that you didn’t really love to get a salary that was just about enough for the basics. And in being an honest husband to a wife who probably blamed you for things you had no control over. He checked the time and realized it was still before mid-day. He had to wait for four hours before he could get the bus back home. He looked around for a place to sit and think about his troubles without distraction. He was glad he didn’t find space to cry at home. He could have wasted his tears. “Bananas, freezits, apples.” A young vendor, who couldn’t be more than eleven shouted while walking a couple of meters from where he stood. He beckoned her to come. She scampered in his direction, her oversized slippers raising a small cloud of red dust. He bought a bunch of bananas and a freezit, a red one and could afford a smile as he thought about the myths that dominated his childhood about the red colour in the freezits being contaminated blood from terminally ill people. He walked toward the dilapidated store. There was some much-needed shade. He looked to his right, into the middle distance and saw kids playing football on a very dry patch of land, unbothered by the sweltering heat.
The innocence and vitality of adolescence. The best days of our lives.
He felt his eyes getting heavy. Then his phone vibrated. His wife. Why?
“Hello, Tawanda. How is the funeral”
He felt his knees giving way. The funeral? How did she know?
“What funeral are you talking about. I’m —”
“No need to lie, my husband. You are at your girlfriend’s funeral”
“You should really think of better strategies. The last one was pathetic. You wanted me to believe that Tafara of yours called at the exact time I was holding the phone? Please, you didn’t marry a fool.”
“I knew about this long before you started visiting your fake friend,” she added
It was over, his life as he knew it.
Image by Hermann Kollinger from Pixabay