‘Madam’s Sister’ was the regional winner from Africa of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Elina, the maid, is doing her thing of standing in a nice shaded spot on the veranda, while I stew in the heat. I carry on sweeping the paved front yard, sweat trickling down my back. The flagstones are patterned with black oil stains from the cars that park here at day’s end. I pass my straw broom over these patches which refuse to be cleaned, even with water and soap. They make me look bad; lazy.
‘Hey, Cephas…Cephas. Hey, Mr Nyambe, it’s you I’m talking to. Did you hear what I said? Madam’s sister, the one who lives in the UK, she’s coming at the end of the week. You better move your lazy bones and clean this yard, yah? Make sure it shines London style.’
My hand tightens on the broom. One: I’m not lazy. How can I be lazy, me? I’m the gardener. I’m the guard. I’m the car washer. And also the odd-job-man for all four households within the gated cluster of detached houses.
Two: shine London style. I can’t even begin to interpret Elina’s demand. How can an oily forecourt bordered by a threadbare lawn and dusty shrubs shine like London?
‘Did you hear me, Cephas? I said…’
‘Yes, yes. Okay. London style,’ I say, swapping the broom for the hosepipe.
I aim a jet of water at the shrubs to wash the dust off their heat-curled leaves. Elina goes back inside, leaving me to wonder why Madam’s sister is arriving at such short notice, making extra work for some of us. I also wonder what she looks like, for I have never seen her before. Is she dark, plump and pleasant like Madam? I hope so, to the last part, at least.
The sun hammers down on me as midday approaches. I shift to stand under a tree and frown at the purple jacaranda blossoms peppering the lawn around the tree. Another task for me. But not for today. I lean my shoulder against the tree trunk, skin chaffed by the rough bark. Still, I lean against that tree, and close my eyes. Maybe I doze a little, sleeping on my feet as the hosepipe hangs loosely from my fist.
‘Cephas! Cephas, come and help me in here.’
What does Elina want now? She’s worse than all the other maids put together. Always wants help with this and that but never shares her wages. I pretend not to hear her, keep my eyes closed.
The next two days are brutal. I help Elina in the house; washing the curtains, washing the walls and dabbing paint over the worst bits. I often help with odd jobs in Madam’s house. Never has it smelt so clean, of soap and fresh air; never have the floors and windows sparkled quite like this. Madam drops in at lunch time with bags and bags of shopping. She darts out again without a greeting or a smile, which is unlike her. Sweat studs her brow, wet patches spreading in semi-circles where her dark blouse hugs her underarms.
I trot after her, in case there’s more shopping to bring or in case she’d like me to close the gate after her. It’s bad enough I wasn’t at my post, forcing her to open the gate herself. There’s only one more bag, which she hands off to me before hopping into her four-by-four. It’s huge, black and she revs the engine in unspoken impatience.
‘Thank you for helping Elina,’ she takes time to say, before tearing out of the yard.
I blame Madam’s sister for all this upset; all this rush-rush. This VIP treatment. Very important pest, if you ask me.
‘Have you met the sister before?’ I ask Elina back inside, helping her put away the shopping.
‘Yes, ten years ago before she went to London. But not since then. She didn’t even come home for their mother’s funeral. Madam was most upset.’
Well, like I said. Very important pest.
We stuff the fridge and freezer with luxury foods previously only admired on the shelves of Shoprite. Madam is usually a nshima, meat and cabbage type. Here we have cheeses, apples, pears and other exotic fruits, cake, deli meats, all sorts. Saliva floods my mouth. I haven’t had lunch yet. It’s Elina’s week to provide my lunch, but I see nothing happening on the stove.
‘Cephas, can you help me to-’
‘No,’ I say heading for the back door. ‘All this helping you, who’s going to help me?’
Nobody helps finish the chores waiting for me outside. Not even the night security man who arrives at six. He parks himself in the guard hut, radio blaring its tinny disturbance. It’s after seven by the time I’m done; too dark to see if the place is shining London style.
The notes in my pocket are not for wasting on transport. I walk the five miles home, trying to ignore the pebbles slipping into my shoe through a hole in my sole. I’ll have to get a new second-hand pair after payday.
I’m getting close to home. I’d know it even if the street lights weren’t showing me the way. It’s in the thick smell as I leave behind the yards where I work, and approach Mumana, the komboni I’ve lived in since my grandmother took me in. The smell of green water wending through the komboni; carving out islands where houses sit. Infested waterways carrying colourful rubbish around the islands to dump it in the open-air sewage treatment plant on the outskirts of Mumana.
The army cleaned Mumana up during the cholera outbreak last rainy season. A few weeks after the soldiers and cholera left, the green water and rubbish returned. So, yes, the air pollution and the music tell me I’m home. Store fronts lit up with naked lightbulbs. Dusty convenience shops and hair salons and barber shops, with Zhi General Dealers being the biggest and most prominent of these stores. But the ones doing the most trade are the taverns selling both legal and illegal alcohol, and playing frenetic music from the hottest artists. It makes me want to dance, the music, despite my sore foot in its pebble-filled shoe.
I veer away from the taverns. Not enough money for a drink. Not if I want to eat today. I stop at the head of a side street to buy a tomato, an onion, a bunch greens and a small bag of mealie-meal.
‘I’m still waiting for my money for that chicken, Bo Nyambe,’ says the vendor.
‘You’ll have it on payday. Surely you can wait three more days, Auntie.’
‘I’ll be waiting,’ she says, handing me the shopping. She’s included an extra tomato for free.
‘Thank you. Payday, I promise.’
My house is a little farther along the side street. It’s a room attached to a row of six other rooms with shared bathroom and toilet facilities round the back, and a section of green stream behind the bathroom block. Chipo has the brazier going on the veranda of our room, a pot of water boiling on the blazing charcoal. She’s talking to the neighbour across the narrow street, but stops when she sees me, and comes over to take the little bag of shopping.
‘What time is this, Cephas? You’re so late.’
‘Should pay you a bonus when she arrives.’
I’ve been thinking about this very thing over the past two days, all the overtime I’ve worked. ‘I’m sure Madam will put something extra in my pay packet.’
Chipo’s too busy making dinner to reply. We eat out on the veranda like all our neighbours, and douse the charcoal ready to dry in the sun tomorrow for re-use. Only one of the neighbours has a bulb on, having topped up his electric meter. The rest of us call out to each other, chatting in the semi-gloom until the mosquitoes finally drive us inside.
Chipo lights a candle. The dancing flame shows up her tired eyes and drawn face. I’m wise enough not to mention this. Chipo takes a lot of pride in her appearance, especially selling bananas and peanuts at the traffic lights on the big road not far from here. Greater chance of motorists buying from her if she looks presentable, she believes.
‘You changed your hair. It looks nice,’ I say.
She smiles, running a hand over her hair, which is down to her shoulders. ‘This recycled weave? If only it could be Brazilian.’
I’ve heard all about this Brazilian human hair during salon sessions Chipo and her friends have on our veranda every now and then. They’d sit weaving wedges of hair into their cornrows with needle and thread while talking about how so-and-so from behind the market has hundred percent Brazilian swaying down her back, and how she must have found herself some sugar-daddy or how else could she have afforded it? Thousands of kwacha, it costs. Chipo and I would both have to save our wages for three months and not pay rent in order to get Chipo some Brazilian. I’m suddenly exhausted. Or maybe I’m sick of never being able to give my beautiful wife the things she deserves. I lean over and blow out the candle, and taking her hand, navigate around the couch to the back of the room.
‘Let’s go to bed,’ I say.
The mosquitoes whine in the darkness, the bedsprings creak, and my fingers snag in the waxy, synthetic strands of Chipo’s weave.
I drop the rake and spring forward to answer the urgent hooting at the gate. Madam’s huge four-by-four rumbles through hardly waiting for me to get the gate all the way open. I swallow down the swear word burning in my throat, forcing my face into an expression of neutral acceptance. The whole thing makes sense a second later when Madam climbs out of the passenger side. She wasn’t the one driving; she’d never be that rude.
I stand at attention. ‘Good afternoon, Madam.’
From the driver’s side emerges the sister, I presume. She looks like Madam, but is several shades lighter and several centimetres taller. Madam could not squeeze into her sister’s tight jeans and tighter blouse or walk in her high-heeled boots. The sister has a headful of fine hair down to the small of her back. The golden colour of maize silk, her weave is not stiff and waxy like Chipo’s, but moves in the breeze. This must be the famous Brazilian. The sister tosses her head, sending all that silk swinging in the air. She’s a vision, to be sure. With red, pouty lips and thick, long eyelashes and blue eyes. Yes, blue. She’s shining, London style. The oil-stained yard is not worthy of her.
‘Hello? Get my bags, please,’ she says to me.
Mute, I tug open the boot and lift out the first suitcase. She has six big bags in total. Just how long is she staying?
Madam and her sister go inside while I follow behind with two of the bags. Elina shows me where to put the bags in the spare room. The windows are wide open, letting in the sweet smell of honeysuckle from the trellis in the back garden. The vines are a little overgrown. I’ve been meaning to trim them back but the VIP’s arrival got in the way.
‘Cephas! What about the rest of these bags,’ calls Elina.
‘Coming,’ I mutter.
In the living room, the sister is stretched out on the couch fanning her face with a hand. Her nails are painted the same bright red as her lips. She frowns, and groans about the heat and says she had forgotten how hot Lusaka gets in October. It does get hot. A sort of sticky, concentrated heat that makes the asphalt go soft. I ferry the rest of the bags while Madam’s sister fans her face, watching me from the corner of her eye with that cool blue gaze.
I get my pay packet; there’s no bonus in it. I daren’t tell Chipo. Instead, I pay the vendor for the chicken I got on credit, then get another one on credit and allow Chipo to believe I bought it with my bonus. She laughs and jokes with the neighbours as she fries the chicken. Almost all the other neighbours are cooking something tasty in their pots judging from the cooking smells; chicken or beef or pork.
Our opposite neighbour isn’t cooking at all. She’s inside the house, door closed, with her two little grandchildren whose Chinese father went back to China after the smallest one was born. Then soon after the Chinese father left, Ambuya’s daughter said she was going to buy milk for the baby, and I don’t know if she bought the milk or not, but she never came back.
My brother and I were once like those two boys, although our parents didn’t just disappear. They died one after the other, and our grandmother was the only one left to look after us. She did her best, raising us in the room I still rent. There were days when the brazier was empty of coal and the door closed to block out the tantalizing smell of other people’s payday cooking; hunger so deep and gnawing it made you cry in your sleep. Despite all that, my grandmother still managed to put my brother and me through school.
‘Cook extra nshima,’ I now tell Chipo.
She trades the small pot for a bigger one, lips tightening. ‘Cephas,’ she admonishes. ‘We can’t feed the whole of Mumana.’
All the same, when the food is cooked, a good portion of the chicken set aside for tomorrow, Chipo calls out to our opposite neighbour.
‘Ambuya! Ambuya! Come let’s eat. I’ve cooked for you. Please come.’
The door creaks open. ‘Thank you, my child, but I’ve already eaten. Maybe these two little ones, if you don’t mind.’
Her grandchildren run out of the house and cross the street, washing their hands in the bowl of water Chipo holds out. Usual murmur of conversation as we eat, neighbourly banter from all sides. Except this time, only Ambuya’s house is in darkness, all the other rooms on the crowded row lit by naked lightbulbs. Payday electricity.
Madam’s sister stands around on the veranda smoking or talking into her phone, or sometimes both. She charges around in Madam’s car, driving in and out of the gates at least five times a day. After a week of this, Madam climbs into the driver’s seat with determination stamped on her face.
‘I need this car for work,’ she tells her sister, who is glaring at her with narrowed eyes from the edge of the veranda. ‘Take a taxi.’
‘From where? There are no taxis round here.’
‘Out of the gate, turn left, walk to the bottom of the road. Plenty of taxis there.’
‘Wait two seconds, let me just get ready and you can drop me at the taxi place.’
‘Wait? No, sorry. I’m already late for work,’ says Madam. ‘Bye!’
Madam’s sister watches the car go, before turning her glare on me. I close the gate and go round to the back garden, away from the glare. A few hours later, at almost midday, insistent rapping sounds at the gate. Stone against metal, relentless rap-rap-rap. No-one behaves in this way in Madam’s neighbourhood. Certainly, the hawkers know to knock once then wait. I make my way to the front yard, but bite back the rebuke I’d been about to unleash. There’s Madam’s sister, bashing a stone against the gate, leaving little pockmarks on the surface.
‘Open this gate please, guard,’ she says.
It would have been a simple matter for her to open it herself. ‘Sorry, Madam,’ I say, getting it for her. It’s my job after all.
She totters down the road in her boots with the pointy heels, stumbling on the rocks all along the side of the road before taking to the tarmac like every other pedestrian. Except, who wears high, pointy-heeled boots to walk on the melting, hell-hot asphalt? Who does that? Not the other pedestrians, for sure. She gets stuck several times, and has to hop to get unstuck, great mane of blonde Brazilian weave flopping about with her exertions. I’m not the only spectator, and not the only one laughing. I duck behind the gate when she turns around. Soon she’s knocking to be let back in.
‘Can you go get me a taxi?’ she asks me.
Well, will she pay me a tip? Not likely. ‘Sorry, Madam. I’m not allowed to leave my post in case of emergency.’
She narrows her eyes as if to ask: what kind of emergency? But she doesn’t challenge me, and I feel a spike of glee at winning this very minor skirmish.
I don’t see much of Madam’s sister after this…I lie; I do see snatches of her when I go inside to do odd jobs for Elina. She, the sister, will be painting her nails, or stretched on the couch watching TV while smoking and drinking red wine.
One day I’m changing a bulb in the kitchen when Madam’s sister comes in, yelling. She looks wild. Her face is flushed, her lipstick smeared and her clothes rumpled. She has one blue and one brown eye, and she’s shaking a small plastic box at Elina.
‘I told you not to touch my things! Didn’t I tell you not to touch my things? Now you’ve broken my contact lens.’
Elina backs up against a kitchen cabinet, shaking her head, eyes wide. ‘Broken your what?’
‘My contact. Don’t pretend you don’t know. My contact lens. It’s all ruined thanks to you!’
‘It’s not me. It wasn’t me,’ says Elina.
‘Then who?’ asks the sister. She’s puffed up with ire, looks ready to strike. ‘Who, if not you?’
There’s hooting at the gate. Elina helps me for once, running out after me to tow open one side of the gate. Her eyes are shiny with tears. She doesn’t go back inside but leaves right after closing her half of the gate.
Madam, who’d driven in, stares after her with a puzzled frown. ‘What happened? Is Elina alright?’
‘The madam inside lost something, I think.’
Madam draws a deep breath. ‘I see. Thank you, Cephas.’
She goes inside, slamming the door so hard the windows rattle. Next the shouting starts. I hear only Madam’s voice, it seems the sister used up her shouting batteries while attacking Elina. I draw closer to the veranda, the better to hear through the open windows. Madam rants about the smoking and drinking and spoilt brat routine.
‘When are you going to grow up? You’re over thirty, an old woman. Time to act your age. And let me catch you harassing my staff again, you will see my bad side. You will see it,’ says Madam, the next second two packs of cigarettes flying out of the window. ‘Smoke out there before you kill us all, for goodness’ sake!’
Iye. I never knew Madam had such a temper. I leave, before she catches me eavesdropping and shows me her bad side.
Chipo doesn’t have the brazier going when I arrive home today. Her supply of bananas and roasted peanuts are spoiling, she says. We eat the blackened bananas and stale peanuts, slapping at the mosquitoes that needle our arms and legs. Across the road, one of the children is crying and calling to his grandmother.
‘Ambuya, Ambuya. Wake up!’
I glance at Chipo, the food somehow now tasting too spoilt to swallow. Ambuya has seemed a little older of late, a lot more tired. She breaks rocks with a hammer by the side of the road, selling the resulting stones to those people building houses. It’s not easy work for an elderly lady.
‘Someone should check on her,’ says Chipo.
I don’t want to be the one to do it. One of our older neighbours, silently volunteering, goes into Ambuya’s darkened house. The crying stops. Soon, the grandchildren scamper out, coming straight to Chipo. She croons and rocks them, and takes them into our room when the neighbour comes out of Ambuya’s house asking someone to fetch the police.
Our row of houses collects some money. It’s not much, but it will hold things together until Ambuya’s son arrives from the Copperbelt tomorrow. Us neighbours and Ambuya’s friends from church gather at her house: the men on the veranda, the women inside. The grandchildren cling to Chipo, and the green smell clings to all of us. It’s getting worse. It always gets worse just before an outbreak of something deadly. Some of the mourners are whispering that the cholera’s back.
‘That’s how it starts,’ they say, ‘with the old women and the babies.’
At times like this, I’d like a big car like Madam’s so that I could drive away and leave the network of green streams behind forever. Leave the crowded streets and noisy taverns and corner-street vendors and their credit chickens. Leave, like my brother Patrick did. He lives in a yard bigger than Madam’s. A yard with only one house, not a cluster of houses. His guard works only for him, not for three other households.
I huddle closer to the brazier and hold out my hands to the warmth, even though I’m not particularly cold. I got better grades than Patrick; I could’ve gone to university, too. But I wanted money now-now. So I found work as a security guard. Patrick went to university and was broke for four years. He’s not broke now. Patrick doesn’t get chicken on credit and can afford to buy his wife ten Brazilians.
‘Cephas, where have you been for the past two days?’
‘Sorry, Madam. I had a funeral. My grandmother died.’ It’s kind of true. Ambuya was everyone’s grandmother.
‘Oh.’ Madam’s frown dissolves. ‘My condolences. But please next time phone or send word.’
She takes a few notes out of her purse, gives them to me, and for a moment her hand hovers like she’s going to pat my shoulder in some cringe-making gesture of sympathy. Thankfully she reconsiders, and I escape to open the gate. Elina’s been watching the awkward exchange from the veranda. She makes a clicking sound in her throat, mild disapproval, and goes back to applying polish on the veranda floor.
‘What’s your problem, you?’ I ask, keeping a few steps away from the veranda. The polish smells like industrial grade paraffin, makes me queasy.
‘Your grandmother died a long time ago, iwe, Cephas. Lying is a sin, ka. Sinner man.’
‘Yes, keep talking. Keep annoying me. I’ll call the sister to come and shut you up.’
Elina laughs, completely recovered from the drama it seems. ‘Ya, ya, ya. She’s mad that one. Ati contact lens. A blue one for that matter. Do I look like someone who’s got time for blue eyes?’
I’d like to stand around laughing with Elina, but the work has mounted during my two days away. Leaves to rake, lawn to water, trellis to trim. It’s afternoon before I get round to tackling the trellis in the back garden. The heat is like a blanket wrapped around me; humid, suffocating. I’d like a glass of iced water. I’d like a cold shower. What I get, is the sting of sweat in my eyes and sunburn on the back of my neck. I hack at the honeysuckle vicious like I’m stabbing a witch. Quite by accident, my gaze wanders to the window of the room I brought the sister’s bags weeks ago.
I stop hacking.
She’s asleep, her face turned away from the open window. On the pillow beside her is the Brazilian. A wig. Not a weave. The sister’s own hair is done up in intricate cornrows as thin as a needle; nice enough. But the prize, the bonus, is that length of silk three times my wages and Chipo’s combined. Madam’s sister is from London: she’s rich. She can easily buy another wig. A man like me, on the other hand, I’ll never get another chance to give my beautiful Chipo this one thing she desires; a thing she deserves.
I reach through the window.
Madam’s sister keeps sleeping.
I grab the thing and go back to work with it tucked under my shirt. It’s insanely hot work, hacking at a honeysuckle bush with a full head of hair nestled against your chest.
Once again Chipo doesn’t have food going when I get home but instead sits on a little wooden stool next to the lifeless brazier. There’s mealie-meal and kapenta in the house, cooking oil, onions, tomatoes. Why hasn’t she cooked?
‘Why haven’t you cooked?’ I ask, my plan to whip out her present from under my shirt on hold.
Chipo stares at the house across the street. It’s lively again with the noise of a new family moving in. On the veranda, a woman threatens to smack a girl who’s dancing around a blazing brazier with a sizzling pan on it.
‘The Copperbelt uncle took Ambuya’s bed and table,’ says Chipo. ‘He left the boys. They cried and cried.’
This sometimes happens. Children surplus to requirements. I lean back against the wall, scratching an itchy spot on my belly under the wig.
‘Where are they now?’
‘Ambuya’s church friend took them to the school,’ says Chipo.
An orphanage in the community. ‘They’ll be alright there. We can go see them sometime.’
Not looking at all convinced, she stands up and turns her back on the happy family across the street. ‘I’ll prepare you some food.’
Chipo’s voice is dull, her shoulders slumped. I touch her cheek to stop her going inside, and say, ‘It’s okay, we’ll eat at the tavern. Madam gave me some money.’
Interest sparks in her eyes. ‘Really?’
‘Yes, really.’ I pull the wig from its hiding place. ‘She also gave me this. Why don’t you go and bathe, then put it on?’
Chipo clutches the wig, strokes it, laughs high-pitched. ‘Brazilian? Oh, Cephas! Thank you, thank you.’
At the tavern, Chipo tosses her head and runs her fingers through her hair, and makes sure her friends get a feel of it to verify it’s the real thing. I’m content to watch her being so happy. We eat nshima and T-bone steak, and drink all the money Madam gave me, and dance to the latest tunes, Chipo preening like the most beautiful peacock that ever lived.
Late to work, bleary-eyed, head pounding. Madam’s also late for work, I notice. Her car’s still parked in its usual place. I doze while watering the grass under the Jacaranda tree. Purple no more, the tiny flowers on the lawn are brown, sad and withered. Elina leaves the veranda to come and talk to me. I can guess what she’s going to say.
‘Madam’s sister has lost her wig, imagine.’
I try to act surprised. It’s not easy. ‘Lost her wig? But how?’
‘Who knows? She’s always drunk, she could’ve left it anywhere.’ Elina darts a glance at the living room windows, lowers her voice. ‘She hasn’t stopped crying about it. Real tears.’
‘Is that why Madam hasn’t gone to work, because of the crying?’ I ask.
‘Over a silly wig. Some people.’
We both shut our mouths when Madam’s sister storms out onto the veranda. Barefoot, her clothing wine-stained. She lights a cigarette and paces; puffing and pacing. Yelling at Madam through the window in-between puffs. She has recharged her shouting batteries, definitely.
‘Don’t you get it? How thick are you? I can’t go back. I have no papers. What you see on me, and in those suitcases, it’s all I have. It’s everything. It’s ten years of my life. Just a wig?’ She laughs, hysteria in her voice. ‘You have no idea how tough it really is.’
‘What’s she talking about?’ whispers Elina.
I shrug. ‘I don’t know. Some newspapers?’
I do know that Madam’s sister can’t shout forever. Still, I block out her yelling, and water the plants, rake the lawn. Count down the hours till I can go home and rest my pounding head.
Glossary of Terms
Yards – Suburbs.
Mumana – River
Komboni – derived from compound; means township.
Bo, sometimes Ba – used in front of someone’s name to denote respect
Nshima – staple in Zambia, made of maize meal.
Ambuya – Grandmother.
Iye – an exclamation, usually of surprise or dismay.
Iwe – You
Ati – She/he said
Kapenta – small dried fish
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