You know you have made the wrong decision when you move in and the room smells worse.
Your landlady hovers around. She says to your wrinkled nose, “Yes, Ms. Sigauke, your God is good to you. You are home now, and see what I have done for you!”
A leak in the roof has dripped onto the mattress, causing fungus to grow on the cloth and over the ceiling.
“It is nice and fresh now,” observes the widow expansively, stepping enthusiastically past the clothes rail. She puts out a finger and pulls down the remains of the spider webs.
“There was just a little hole, one like that up there in the roof. Just tiles that had moved like that because of the wind, but as soon as I decided and I knew someone was coming to sleep in this room, you can see I fixed it.
“You know, Miss Sigauke,” she goes on, “I am still looking for a decent girl to help me. There were some things I didn’t do, over there in my cottage, that I wanted to, because I have been saying tomorrow and tomorrow for so long! But that’s my cottage! Here I aired this room and opened the windows every day myself since you stood in this doorway with me. And I came in to close them myself at night, because you know when you have something that is good, all the time people are thinking of robbing!”
Your landlady details removing the satin curtains and washing them herself.
“I did that for you, to make sure you feel at home!” she smiles under her headdress of pink and yellow, and flinging a hand out toward the window.
“You can see, can’t you, everything is much better, is beautiful and ready for you, Miss Sigauke!
“You can take them to the dry cleaners or do them by hand if you want them cleaned henceforth, but if you spoil them, the value will be added to your debit,” she concludes.
Your lack of choices confronts you angrily. But once more you tell yourself on oath you will not succumb to more bad energy than you already have.
You spend most of the time in your new room. You venture out for air in the garden or to sit under the jacaranda by the gate infrequently. You are still against bad energy when you do, so you nod to passers-by, volunteering, “Hello, how has your day been! How is everything, is it all right where you are from!”
This is how you go on. When your housemates go off to catch combis to work after distant cocks from rougher yards have stopped crowing, you cannot sleep anymore. Their preparations wake you up. Your brain is foamy and slippery like sisal thrashed on rocks. You torture it to a gel-like consistency by making lists and plans.
Once a week you go shopping. You walk to the little shopping center down the road. You force yourself to walk jauntily, while you are out. Returning, you look, discouraged, at the bag swinging by your thigh. Mealie meal. Salt. Cooking oil. Candles and matches in case of a blackout.
From this bag, which you keep in a corner of the cupboard below the counter, away from the other residents, you prepare your breakfast, a slush of mealie meal cooked on the stove that neither simmers nor boils dishes properly because of the area’s low but sometimes surging voltages.
Your second meal is the same mealie meal stirred thicker. You need what has gradually come to be called relish. You begin, a few leaves at a time, picking what is necessary from the widow’s neglected garden.
The rest of the time you sit by your window, staring through the drooping and yellowing pink net over your landlady’s brown lawn, and over the slab she and VaManyanga put down to assist the students. You do not think of death, because on the Sunday after your arrival a squat, battered blue Toyota crunches up the drive. With a puff of exhaust, it stops in front of the empty carport in precisely the spot to prevent any other vehicle from entering.
You look up from the magazine you brought with you from the advertising agency. You are reading it for the hundredth time. You see a long, muscular arm snake out of the back passenger window and open the door.
Half a dozen children leap out of the vehicle, hollering, “Mbuya! Mbuya!”
They dance over the earth. They do their utmost to avoid trampling the widow’s vegetable garden. Ridges crumble. Vines snap. Ripe tomatoes explode. You observe the children with a smile that is almost gentle.
“Watch it! Hey, just watch out! Wait until somebody sees that!” the driver puts his head out of the window and yells.
He goes on, “You’ll get the thrashing of your life! If your grandmother doesn’t want to, be sure I will be the one to do it!”
This makes the children giggle and shriek as they charge off to hammer on the widow’s cottage door.
A weight as heavy as lead, as unassailable as poison, pulls you down. You wonder again whether you should be ashamed of anything. You decide you should not, for one man threatening to abuse a carload of children is not your story. Your only disgrace has been to end up in your predicament. But the new lodging is a gift from somewhere. You are moving forward. And now there is also a new gift of gentlemen.
You suck the saliva out of your mouth automatically, as though you have bitten into a lemon, as a woman wades out of the passenger seat.
“I am not staying in this car!” the woman declares. “No, in it, in this one, I am never staying!”
The man the woman throws her resolve and climbs out of the driver’s door. He leans against the vehicle, lighting a cigarette sulkily.
“Today I am going to meet her! Whatever you say, today that is what I am going to do!” insists the woman.
You gather hate and lay it at your breast like a baby. Your disdain is poignant and satisfying. It drains you, milks all your dislike and pours it onto the other woman.
While you are engrossed, someone shouts from the gate. He waves and lets the bolts fall back into earth before jumping once more into his vehicle. He is in a dilapidated Land Cruiser. It judders and clangs toward the house.
The man and woman are taken by surprise, also. Their involvement in their dissatisfactions is as resistant to the world beyond them as yours. The man steps forward and flicks his cigarette. He aims for a crevice the cracked drive provides. The woman steps away, folds her arms, and leans her jeans-clad bottom moodily against the parked vehicle.
“Larky!” the new arrival calls.
He rolls down his window when he draws up behind the first vehicle. He waves again, revealing all his teeth in greeting, but he is nervous.
The new arrival’s limbs are too long. They roll like a conveyor belt, as if his cartilage and ligaments are several sizes too big for his joints. He plants enormous feet on the gravel and leaves his vehicle, gripping badly fitting flip-flops with tense, long toes. He rubs his palms on his wrinkled shirt as though his hands are sweating.
“Ha, Bro!” the newcomer calls. His pointed head inclines toward the blue Cressida, without acknowledging the woman.
“So that’s the thing! A new one, you said, not even driven up from South Africa! Freighted all the way. That’s what you told me! This is the stuff you are trying to close my eyes with!” the second man goes on. “Why do it like that, between brothers, my youngster, boasting for nothing!”
The newcomer grins. Nervousness freezes his face as the other brother strides over and wraps an arm around him. They bump opposite shoulders.
“Praise! How are you, Bro?”
“Sharp, mupfanha!” the newcomer says, stepping on the cigarette butt, which missed the crevice.
“Hey, my young one!” he says, deliberately cheerfully. He lays an arm around the other’s shoulders with a big gesture. “Yes, iwe Larky, how’s it going!”
Larky grins and goes to the heart of the matter immediately.
“This, Bra Praise, it’s only one of the ones I told you I got.”
Larky grips his brother’s fingers again. The tension is controlled and hovering, as though he is beginning a bout of arm wrestling.
“No more Japanese,” Larky brags. “No second rate, no more! I’m now top of the range. Complete best. You know what it is? The real one’s German.”
“My man!” Praise’s voice vibrates through the pink net in a fair imitation of an American accent.
The men make a double fist, which they wave back and forth.
“So what have you got?” Praise asks. He disengages and thumps his younger brother on the back. “Dude! My man, that’s great! BMW or Mercedes? Audi, Beetle or Porsche. You know those Beetles’re also German!”
“You think I’m playing!” Larky says, annoyance setting his features. “They’re there in my garage already. About cars, I don’t joke! I used this one because I was thinking about the children.”
“Sharp, mupfanha! Hey, my young one,” says Praise. Showing all his teeth again, he turns toward the woman.
“Babamukuru! Babamukuru, I have to tell you something!” she begins. She hunches her shoulders. Her fingers clench around the opposite bicep.
“Mbuya, here, here! Me, me!” the children shout again. Their voices wrest your attention from everything else.
“Mwakanaka! Mwakanaka! You are good, King Jesus!” the widow’s voice trickles through the afternoon as she welcomes her grandchildren.
“Mai, don’t let them throw you over! We’re coming!” Larky laughs. He steps forward and dimples dramatically. You forget to breathe. You draw back the curtain and gaze at him.
“You, is that what you do!” your landlady retorts. “What about coming to greet me now, you Praise and Larky. At least these children know how to love their grandmother!”
“We’re coming, we’re coming, Mai,” the men reassure her.
“Now, children, do you know what I have got?” the widow demands of her grandchildren.
“Sausages! Red ones!” the children squeal.
“Which of you wants one?” the widow sings as though she is at praise and worship.
“Me, Mbuya, me! Me!” the grandchildren reassure her.
The noise dies away as the children chomp on their sausages.
“How’s everyone? How is Maiguru?” Larky pays his respects to his brother. In the new near-quiet he goes on, “What about that boy of yours, Praise. Where’s Ignore. Aren’t we going to see him?”
“Fine, and what about with your everybody?” Praise scratches his head. “That boy? You mean our young one? Yes, what’s up with him? Where is he? Didn’t you call him?”
“Asking me!” Larky hitches neon-patterned Bermuda shorts up over his boxer’s belly.
“Anyway, isn’t it that youngster Ignore you should be asking, Praise, not me? Isn’t that right? Why d’you always ask me when you have talk to him?”
Larky takes another menthol out of his pocket.
Praise does not answer. He looks about the decaying property.
“Anyway, what’s Ignore doing that stopped him arriving?” Larky demands after a long suck on his cigarette.
“I said, didn’t you tell him?” repeats Praise, nervously checking his watch and then scratching the top of his head with his forefinger.
Blue coils float up from Larky’s cigarette. They percolate down from his nostrils and through his short moustache.
“African time,” he shrugs. “Maybe we’ll get to see him later.”
“So now you’re behaving! Didn’t I tell you!” he shouts, to show the children he remembers they are there. The children do not answer. They chew contentedly at ersatz Vienna sausages made of soy.
The men draw together to wave and make brave fatherly faces at the brood on the stoep.
Taking advantage of the men’s distraction, the woman slinks away from Larky’s Toyota.
“Just watch me, Larky!” she shrills, when she is far enough. “Yes, you must! This is too much, I don’t care! Today, she will know she has another Mainini. Another daughter-in-law! This afternoon, I’m meeting your mother!”
The youngsters on the doorstep lick their greasy fingers.
“I told you not to come!” Larky turns to the woman. His voice glitters at her like snakeskin.
The woman raises a finger. She lets it sway. Her body takes up the rhythm as she balances on her sky heels.
“You are lying to me, and you know it, Lucky Manyanga. Only I don’t know why you want to do it! Why are you lying like that to me, why, you Larky! When you said next time. But now in front of your brother and in front of your mother and in front of your children, also, you want to make me look stupid!”
“Next time, next time, next time, next time,” she repeats, increasingly ferociously and desperately. “Are you going to lie again and deny it? All the time, that’s what you told me!”
“Mainini, I am glad to see you here. I didn’t see you when I first arrived,” soothes Praise.
He approaches the angry “small house.” When he reaches her, he opens his arms for an embrace.
“Come on,” he goes on. “Is this what you really want? Is it, to be like that? When my young one has done his best and gathered us all here for this meeting!”
“To be like what!” the woman demands, dipping her head like a bull about to charge, but then leashing herself up again with an entreaty. “What are you saying I shouldn’t be like? Am I the one who shouldn’t be like something?”
Praise closes in on the woman with the gait of a man in his father’s kraal. He succeeds in manipulating her into his Land Cruiser. Although the woman lengthens her lower lip as she climbs into it, she allows Praise to hug her in greeting, and once they are in his vehicle, she allows him to pat her back.
“Are you finished! Who wants what I’ve got?” Mai Manyanga calls out to the children. Another packet of Viennas is suspended in one hand, a short kitchen knife is in the other, as Praise trundles Larky’s woman away in his dilapidated vehicle.
“And Larky, what about it! Didn’t you tell Ignore?” your landlady turns from the children, raises her voice, and calls.
Larky does not reply. Your landlady turns back to her grandchildren as though nothing has been said. The children urge her on. The widow stabs the knife into the package and rips the plastic open.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t tell that son of mine!” the widow throws over her shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Mbuya Manyanga! We want to eat all those things, too. As soon as your son you talked about arrives, we’re coming also!” Larky waves jovially.
Praise’s departure is delayed when a tawny-colored, recently panel-beaten if diminutive Mercedes-Benz drifts through the gate. The driver does not bother to close the gate. The engine is in good condition. The noise in the yard doe not change when the car stops, nudging the Land Cruiser’s tow bar.
“Iwe, hey, Ignore! Behave like a person! Not as though you’re simply not a person!” Praise says in quiet annoyance.
“You hear, Ignore! Don’t go on being like when people look at you, there isn’t a person!”
“There’s no problem, Praise! Did I say there’s a problem, Larky or Praise?” the expected third brother says, stepping out of his vehicle.
Ignore nods at his mother’s cottage, but his brothers link arms with him and pull him forward until their foreheads touch.
The children wave their sausages, or try to take bites out of each other’s while they hide their own behind their back.
“I will bring more!” Widow Manyanga promises.
Before she disappears, clutching an empty Zimbabwe Cold Meat pack, she shouts, “And are you still not coming to greet your mother, now that Ignore is here!”
“I am coming! I am coming! These ones are holding me back!” Ignore returns.
Not waiting for their grandmother, the children run into the cottage, demanding fizzy drinks.
The men huddle, nodding their heads.
The woman is shunted from the Land Cruiser into the Mercedes. Ignore climbs back in with jerky movements that erupt sharply, like a log emitting sparks. This is how he shows his displeasure at the woman who wants to be his sister-in-law.
A little later Praise holds the widow’s gate open and waves a hand. The youngest Manyanga rolls up for the second time that afternoon.
“Big Brother,” Ignore mutters as he steps out of his car. “Tell me, which dustbin did you pick that woman out of!”
“Which big brother are you talking to?” snaps Praise.
“Oh, Bro, I know where my biggas go fishing. That came out of Biggas Larky’s pond.”
“So you’ve got a head on your shoulders, after all,” Larky grins. “That’s right. These days the City Council empties the sewage into our rivers.”
“That doesn’t say why you want to go into them.” Ignore shrugs a muscle-shirted shoulder.
“You never know what you’re missing, Ignore.” Larky lights another cigarette and swallows smoke. “You never will see what those other things are, if you don’t go down after them, into those rivers and lakes.” He inhales again. “You have to examine it, where the fish are. That way you taste all the waters.”
“How is she?” Ignore inclines his head toward his mother’s cottage.
“Happy!” observes Larky, flicking away his cigarette. “First she fed her grandchildren. And now you’ve arrived.”
Praise treads on Larky’s cigarette butt with a worried frown. When the end stops smoking, the eldest Manyanga glances at his watch.
Larky walks around to the back of his car. Bottles chink as he drags out a cardboard box. Praise pulls two crates of Coke, Fanta, and Stoney Ginger Beer from his back seat. He waves at Ignore, who hurries over.
The brothers find warm spots on the university students’ slab. They sit looking over the widow’s vegetable garden. Enjoying the golden afternoon, half in the shade and half in the warmth, they gulp down mouthfuls of cool drink and top up their bottles with brandy.
“How are you, Bro!”
Larky cuts them short, asking, “Who’s the lawyer?”
Ignore contemplates Praise, who busies himself pouring another shot of brandy. In the end the young man nods. “Chimuriwo,” he answers.
“Do I know him?”
“How do I know who you know, Biggas Larky?”
“Estate agent?” Larky continues, examining the smoke that swirls from his nostrils.
Ignore shifts edgily, but does not answer.
“That’s the trouble,” breathes Larky. “I told you when VaManyanga died, didn’t I? I said we have to start managing this place, otherwise no one will get anything out of it.”
Larky stands up and nods at the slab, the sinking fence, the unrelenting dilapidation.
“Who helped the old man put in that foolish yellow ochre kitchen?” The middle brother turns back to the other two.
“And that black granite they wanted in the swimming pool. Hey, ridiculous, man! I told them! They couldn’t even swim, and I can’t. Praise can’t, either! Ignore’s the only one who swims. I said, Mai, Baba, start with lessons, not with the pool! Remember when the old man had that accident, where was the money coming from? I’m sick of maintaining this place when she can’t do anything for herself! Then there was that pool again. When it got cracks, who had to fix it!”
“I did my bit with the car repairs,” remarks Praise. “Larky, it’s not right for you to think that. You don’t do everything!”
“I signed all the papers!” snaps Ignore. “I got people I know, and I got them all in. And everyone, including Mai, signed papers. That kept the estate costs down, me asking my own owns for favors.”
“If she doesn’t sign now, what’s the next step?” inquires Praise. His forefinger travels the curve of his collar.
“Don’t worry,” nods Larky. “Like he said, my son here will make things happen. He’s got his owns.”
“Who’s the buyer?” Praise uncoils and stretches.
“When we have the buyer,” says Ignore. “Have you thought? What are you going to do with her?”
The children, who have assembled on the porch once more, finish their cold drinks. They start throwing the cans at a guava tree.
Praise asks again whether a purchaser has been found. Ignore shakes his head.
“We agreed we want one,” Praise goes on, engaging himself once more with unscrewing the brandy bottle. “But maybe we can think again. She’s hired out the little room. The newcomer didn’t want the telephone option, but she’s put down three months’ deposit.”
“Let’s get rid of all the telephones,” Ignore suggests. “I’ll find someone to take them.”
“She’s still talking about the pay phone,” Praise points out, with a frustrated click of his tongue. “She wants to bring a relative over to help her manage a network business.”
“Sell,” repeats Larky firmly. “Otherwise, we’re all going to be in ruins.”
Your breath seeps out of you slowly. Studying the three male forms, you are so lethargic you do not care who buys the house. Now that the woman is done with, the Manyanga sons look as available as they are desirable. Each possesses a vehicle, and as they do not live with their mother anymore, each also possesses a house. The combination tells you each heir possesses a future. Nor is a single wife in sight, which means those women are not valued highly, or they themselves do not value their husbands. It is going to be easier than you thought to challenge that sort of woman. You plot, choosing Larky as your first target because he is the most powerful.