By John Barigye
Frank nearly fell over in his chair when the brown mug moved. He was certain he was hallucinating. He was about to try it again when Liz opened the door and dumped another heap of papers onto his desk.
“Mr. Gesa wants these before lunch,” she said without as much as a glance at him.
Well good morning to you too, he thought, irritably.
She walked out and shut the door behind her. Frank pushed the stack of papers to the edge of the table and reverted his attention to the brown clay mug full of steaming tea in front of him. He stared at it again and willed.
This time the movement was unmistakable. The mug moved towards him, dragging itself on the wooden table with a loud grating sound. Frank stared at it in awe before it came to an abrupt halt again.
There was no one in the records room with him but he still looked about him to make sure. He even turned in his chair to look at the metre-high stack of old records and work orders piled behind him just in case someone was standing there. Satisfied that the room was indeed vacant, he stared again at the clay mug, harder this time, and beckoned it towards himself. It tottered slightly, spilling a little tea onto the table, before charging towards him like mini, tea-filled alien spacecraft and this time he was so gobsmacked that he noticed too late the mug running out of table and flying over the edge, mouth first – tea, teabag and all – plummeting to the floor where it shattered on impact, leaving a mess of clay shards and tea at his feet.
The door swung open suddenly as he stared at the pool of ruin beneath him, and Luswata popped his head in.
“Is everything okay in here? I heard a crash,” he said.
“Y…yes,” Frank stuttered, “Everything’s okay. I fumbled with the mug and dropped it by accident.”
“Oh. Okay then. Lunch’s been brought closer today because Gesa wants the canteen painted before tomorrow morning. The South Africans are coming to inspect us. Be in the canteen by half past twelve, okay?”
“Sure thing,” Frank said tensely.
Luswata took one more cursory glance around the room, as if he suspected something else was amiss, before stepping back out and closing the door behind him. Frank looked at the time on the clock on the wall opposite where he sat: 11:48, it read. He got up and went to one of the corners of the room where a mop and broom were kept. He got the mop ,returned to his seat and cleaned up the mess under his desk.
Frank’s mind was in a daze as he lined up for lunch. Liz and Halima were in front of him in the queue, talking about something that made them giggle endlessly. He could hear their words but his mind could not process them; the image of the mug dragging itself towards him – or perhaps being dragged by him, somehow – was causing all sorts of fantastic thoughts to take root in his head. He could suddenly see himself ordering massive boulders to fly about in the hills back in the village, hoisting entire houses off their foundations in case their tenants had ticked him off, or even suspending the insufferable Liz up in the high clouds just to teach her some courtesy.
And the Lord said, “If you had faith like to a grain of mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree: Be thou rooted up, and be thou transplanted into the sea. And it would obey you.” The Bible verse came to him, timely and telling, but he smirked at it and quickly discarded the thought. He was, and always would be, nonchalantly agnostic. Well, agnostic now that he was suddenly telekinetic. He had been purely atheist only two hours ago.
He carried his plate of matooke, rice, a sweet potato, beef and sukumawiki greens in one hand and a plastic cup of water in the other and made his way through the buzz and chatter of eating men and women in the canteen to the extreme end, by the half-wall with a view of the parking lot through the gap above it, where Musa, James and Musoke were seated, already halfway through their meals.
“Aah, Frank!” Musoke began as Frank sat down next to him, “I’m glad you’ve come. First tell Musa here how the country has been in decline since Obote II. He doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with Members of Parliament being exempted from paying tax, when children in the North are still dying from hunger!”
“I didn’t say there was nothing wrong with that,” Musa rebutted as Frank split the sweet potato with his fork. “I merely said that I would rather live in a country where the government is corrupt than in one where the government is blood-thirsty!”
“In the end what difference does it make?” Musoke said. “People are still dying. You just can’t see it because there are no bullets being fired.”
Frank was moving a fork-full of soupy rice and potato to his mouth when Richard arrived at the table, his plate stacked high with food. He fumbled as he set his plate and cup down, and the cup, sitting unsteadily on the edge of the table with half of its base over the precipice tilted over.
It happened so fast and suddenly that Frank didn’t have time to think about what he was doing. His reaction was instinctive. He looked at the cup and willed. The cup froze, completely suspended in mid-air, with the head of the water halfway poured out of its mouth, hanging like an amorphous, crystalline gel frozen in time, with a few stray drops and droplets static next to it, as though caught in some invisible web, and a few sun rays from the open gap above the wall striking the shapeless, liquid prism and being dispersed in brilliant little rainbows.
Realizing what he had done, as though he were awakening from a surreal dream, Frank looked away and the cup, released from its place in space and time, assented to the pull of gravity and clattered to the ground by Richard’s feet. The whole scene couldn’t have lasted more than a second, but Frank was sure everyone at the table had noticed it. As indeed they had.
Richard stood transfixed on his spot, staring down at the toppled cup and the water that was streaming away from him, while the other three men all gazed at up at him, as though they thought he was responsible for the trick of the eye that had been played on them. After what seemed like an eon of awed silence it was James who broke their trance.
“You are such a clumsy fool!” he said. “That’s like the third cup you have dropped this week. I have never seen a bigger klutz in my life.”
That seemed to break their spell, and Richard chuckled apologetically, although there was still a bemused look on his face. Musoke and Musa laughed, and Frank joined them to avoid any suspicion being drawn to himself. Before long the event had been forgotten, as though it had never happened, and Frank was grateful that the skeptical side of modern people was so strong it erased any superstitious notions almost instantly. They probably assumed they had not really seen what they had seen and went on with their lives. Frank chided himself for not being more cautious with his newly-found ability, and for the rest of the meal he participated actively in their talk, if only to help bring normalcy back to the table.
He walked pensively on his way home later that evening. Now that he was truly alone he had time to mull over the bizarre events of the day without Gesa calling him every thirty seconds. Everything seemed suddenly strange around him; he felt unreal, like a character in a movie script apt for Hollywood. A poor records clerk at Cresco Bottling Company suddenly finds himself a god among mortals, he thought to himself, beaming widely. For the first time all month he did not brood about the strife in his household. Images of his wife, Oliver, screaming at him at the top of her voice, and the sickly child crying incessantly, coughing up phlegm and blood, were replaced by images of himself floating over mountain peaks and frothing, azure seas, summoning entire land masses to himself and shifting tectonic plates. He felt alive, a new potency coursing through his arteries. He felt a new bounce in his step, a confident, swaggering gait that had been alien to him before.
A little distance from home he passed by the football field where the grass had long been eroded by the exuberant boots, sneakers and bare feet of the children who played there every evening. The ground was now mostly dirt and dust, with two net-less, rectangular frames of metal pipe at either end of the pitch acting as goals.
A group of fifteen, maybe twenty children, all shirtless and covered in dirt, were kicking a ball around, gleeful and oblivious of the dimming twilight. Frank felt a youthful playfulness swell up in him as he watched the wanton children. One of them lashed at the ball with all his might, sending it cannoning towards the left goal frame, and Frank locked his sight onto the flying crude sphere of polythene and rubber, catching it mid-flight. The ball hung stationary and suspended about five metres above the earth, before falling onto the ground about halfway to the goal and rolling eagerly towards Frank, with the children watching it in rapt, frozen bewilderment.
The younger boys seemed to see some elusive funny side to this bizarre phenomenon and chased after the ball, screaming with naïve delight. The older boys stood back for a while before reluctantly following the lead of their younger counterparts. Whenever the younger boys got close to the ball Frank caused it to roll faster, and this seemed to energize them, and they shouted louder and more excitedly, chasing after it with increased intent, as though stop-that-ball was their new game.
It was when they saw Frank, standing pitch-side in his old brown coat and matching brown trousers, and the ball steadily heading in his direction, that the boys became doubtful, reducing their speed cautiously, finally suspecting that something was not quite right. About ten metres from where Frank stood the boys gave up chasing altogether and stood off, watching Frank with suspicion. The ball gradually reduced its speed before rolling to a halt at Frank’s shoes. The boys stared at him with a mixture of curiosity and fear. Frank stared at them for a while, and then looked down at the ball and willed again. The ball lifted itself off the ground, levitating seamlessly towards Frank’s outstretched hand and nestling in the groove of his downturned palm – like a spherical spacecraft module attaching itself to a mother ship’s appendage. He turned and looked at the children again, and this time he could not help the grin that broke out on his face.
The children looked at him with vacant stares that soon gave way to wide-eyed, terrified looks and the younger ones screamed, one after the other, with the older, taller ones, though muted, being the first ones to turn and take to their heels. Soon the whole gaggle was fleeing from him, all shouting hysterically, with a few turning their heads back as they ran to make sure he was not pursuing them.
“You forgot your ball!” Frank called after them, his body tingling with a juvenile mischief he had rarely felt before. He dropped the ball onto the ground as the last of the children disappeared from sight and proceeded on his way home.
Oliver was sweeping the five or six square-metres of space that they considered “their” compound when he got home. She did not look up when he got to their door, and kept her eyes fixed on the broom and the dirt it was flinging away from their house. She stood up briefly to tighten the knot of her lesu above her bosom and then bent down again to continue with the sweeping.
“How are you?” Frank greeted. She remained silent, hurling some pebbles away from her with one sweep of the broom. Frank took off his shoes and set them neatly behind the door.
“How is the child?” he asked.
“Why don’t you go and check on him yourself?” she answered coldly, without lifting her eyes from the ground.
Frank entered the small house and made his way to their bedroom. The child was lying asleep on their bed, as he often did when they were not in need of it. Frank walked over to him and observed him. He had two rows of dried, crusty mucus above his mouth and he was wheezing slightly in his sleep. Frank gently placed his hand on his belly and the child suddenly began to cough, becoming awake in the process.
“Shhhh…shhhh…” Frank tried to lull him back to sleep but the coughs looked wrenching and painful and eventually the child started to cry. Frank lifted him off the bed and tried to soothe him, gently patting him on his back. The child coughed harder, now wailing loudly in between his bouts.
“What have you done to him?” Oliver’s voice came from the bedroom door. Frank turned to find her glaring at him.
“Nothing. I had barely touched him when he began to cough.”
“I told you we have to take him to the hospital but you never listen.”
“We have no money for a hospital. Have you been putting Panadol in his milk like Nurse Nampiima said?”
Oliver shot him a look that would have killed him on the spot if it could, and she moved quickly to where he was standing and ripped the child from his arms, causing him to wail louder. She patted the boy on the back and whispered soft words into his ear and he calmed down. She then turned and walked towards the door.
“I don’t know why I was cursed with a man who is poor, can’t even buy meat for his family, can’t keep his wife warm in the bed, and watches as his child dies from stupid, poor people’s diseases!” she cursed loudly as she hurried out of the room and the child, riled by the loud, harsh tone in her voice, began to cough and cry again.
“The South Africans are coming to the office!” Luswata said in a panic through the door.
Frank quickly swallowed the tea that was left in his new claymug and placed it under the desk right between his feet. He quickly organized the paper that was scattered on his table and sat leaning forward, trying to appear as dignified as he possibly could.
The door swung open and Gesa walked in, followed by a big, potbellied, moustachioed Indian man in a black suit and red tie. The man was trailed by a smaller, pale-looking white man with an ID collar, and a light-skinned fat woman with a round face and small eyes.
“This is our records office,” Gesa said to the Indian man. “And this is our senior records clerk, Mr. Frank Aguma.”
Frank stood up immediately and extended his hand to Gesa who shook it uninterestedly. Frank then offered his hand to the big man, but this time his gesture was completely ignored.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Patel,” he said, somewhat timidly.
“Derrick, why don’t you get drawers or cupboards for all this paperwork?” the man said to Gesa, as though he had not even perceived Frank’s presence in the room. “This place is a mess, just look at it! I keep telling you all our offices have to be exemplary. Do you know this could be a finding when the external auditors come here next month?”
“Yes, yes, Mr. Patel,” Gesa stuttered, “We will certainly get all this sorted out as soon as possible.”
“All this paper could easily constitute a fire hazard,” the big man continued, “When I return four months from now I want to find all this properly arranged in drawers and appropriately labelled, understood? Cresco doesn’t just excel at making soft drinks, we excel at everything, even simple tidiness!”
“Yes, Mr. Patel,” Gesa said, “I will have it sorted very soon.”
The big man scanned around with one last disapproving look at the stacks of papers that lined the walls before turning back towards the door where his two counterparts parted to give him way as he exited the office. They followed after him with Gesa humbly bringing up the rear and shutting the door behind them without another glance at Frank. Luswata opened the door as Frank was settling back down.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“Better than expected,” Frank replied.
“You’re lucky. They are giving out bonuses today, by the way. Four p.m.”
Frank ate in silence throughout the lunch hour. His customary seat at the back with Musa and the boys had been taken so he had sat next to Liz and Halima about five tables ahead. Oliver’s words from the previous evening were still cutting through him, reaching deep, tugging and ripping like a barbed stick.
A man who can’t keep his wife warm in the bed, the words echoed in his mind. He ate fork after fork of matooke, rice and beans but tasted nothing. It was the first time in their two and a half years of marriage that she had lashed out at his impotence.
“I heard he can’t even get it up.” Halima’s words snapped him into consciousness and he spun his head towards her like an invisible hand had slapped him across the cheek. She was looking away from him, towards Liz, who was listening eagerly.
Liz gasped. “No! You’re lying!” she said incredulously.
“I’m serious,” Halima said.
Frank swallowed. A chunk of matooke fell off his fork and back onto the plate. He did not notice the tiny splash it made in the bean stew, or the little brown speckles of soup that splattered onto his shirt.
“How do you know?” Liz said.
“Diana went home with him after the employees’ dinner. She said he kept mumbling apologies all night,” Halima said and giggled.
“But Gesa, that gu man,” Liz said, “And the way he likes hitting on me, you’d think he has a fully-loaded one down there!”
They both laughed heartily over their food, looking around briefly to make sure they were not laughing too loudly to attract attention. Frank turned quickly back to his food just before they caught him staring at them. His heart released rapid thuds of relief and his hand shook with gratitude as he raised the fork to his mouth. His secret – his curse – was safe with him for now.
The thirty thousand shillings in bonuses that was given to the employees that day was frowned upon by most of the other workers but Frank was thankful for it. As a clerk he earned the least among all the permanent workers in Cresco, so any add-ons were as important to him as butter to a dry crust of bread.
He passed by the butcher’s on his way home to buy some meat for Oliver and the child. His father’s voice came to him as the butcher chopped up the pieces and weighed them on the scales: Frank, the best way to quiet down a nagging wife is to bring home some meat! Followed by the loud, snorting laughter that was his old man’s trademark.
Oliver carefully set the child down on the mat beside their bed. She cushioned him with a folded blanket and covered him with a bedsheet as Frank watched from his vantage on the bed. When she was done she took a can of Vaseline from her purse and began to smear some on her legs and thighs, massaging herself slowly and purposefully.
Frank felt his heart dip. He knew what was coming next. Whenever Oliver oiled herself before bed it always meant she wanted intimacy. Frank wanted to turn and face the wall but he didn’t want to give her any cold vibes. So he shut his eyes and prayed for sleep.
Oliver placed the Vaseline back into her purse and got under the bedsheet next to him. She placed her head on his chest and wrapped her arm around his belly.
“I’m sorry I was harsh to you yesterday,” she said.
“You had every right to be. But I see he isn’t coughing as much today,” he replied.
“Nurse Nampiima came over and gave him some funny herbs, they seem to have worked.”
“I’m glad. I’m so tired, work was endless today!” Frank yawned. Oliver’s arm held him tighter across the belly, and she pushed her face up to his neck so that his nostrils were filled with the scent of Vaseline. She rubbed his torso suggestively and pecked him slightly on his nipple. When he remained still, she moved her hand down to his groin and tenderly held his manhood, finding it as soft as a sock. She tugged at it as gently as she could, and then with a bit more urgency when she felt no response to her advances.
Frank closed his eyes and willed with all his might. He commanded it to rise. He beckoned, entreated and then threatened it. There was not the slightest movement in his loins. Not even the subtlest of twitches. With his eyes still shut, unable to look at Oliver, he heard her sigh with exasperation and detach herself from him, leaving the bed altogether and setting herself on the mat next to the sleeping child. In that moment Frank could not care less whether he had the power to control aeroplanes or shift the moon in its orbit.
“Something is wrong with me,” Frank said.
“What do you mean?” his mother asked. He sat his bony, seventeen-year-old frame opposite her and looked down at his hands.
“I’m not normal,” he said.
“Why do you say that, Frankie?”
“I was with Connie yesterday. In her bedroom.”
“What were you doing in a girl’s bedroom, Frankie?” she asked with a hint of anger.
“Listen mummy!” he snapped. “Connie kissed me. And then she…she touched me. She touched me there.” His mother cleared her throat and shifted uneasily in her chair.
“And?” she asked.
“And…nothing happened. I know what’s supposed to happen, mummy. I’m not a child anymore! What’s wrong with me?”
“Have you always known?”
“Frankie…listen to me.”
“You knew all along. I knew you did!”
“Frank!” she shouted at him. He became mute and stared at her.
“Listen,” she said, “when you were born you had a lump under your manhood. The doctor removed it in a surgical procedure but he said there might be some nerve damage. Some permanent nerve damage. He said we could only be sure after a few years. Yes, I knew. Of course I knew. Every morning I checked to see if there was something, anything. Boys are supposed to get hard in the mornings sometimes. You never did. Not once. Yes, I knew. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell you. How could I? I’m sorry that this had to happen to you. God’s plans are never similar to our own.”
Twelve years later, when his father arranged for him to marry Oliver, he was struck by a terrible fright. Oliver would find out, like Connie had. And then she would spend her entire life despising him for being half a man. No, not half a man. A midget was half a man. A midget was small but he could still keep a woman warm. No, not half a man. Something less, something worse, something more base than the lowest form of man. To him could not be ascribed any form of masculinity. Not in the eyes of a fellow man, at least. And certainly never in the eyes of a woman.
When Oliver got pregnant, he was more relieved than upset. More glad than surprised. He had known for a long time about her clandestine rapports with their neighbour, Kizito. He had once found Kizito and Oliver playfully scuffling in the compound in a way that a man should not scuffle with a married woman. She was giggling, trying to dislodge his veiny, powerful-looking arms from around her waist when Frank appeared, and Kizito had quickly released her and mumbled an embarrassed greeting to Frank.
“At least daddy can now have a grandchild,” he had told his mother after breaking the news to her. “Maybe now he can finally see me as a human being. As a man. And not as some freak of nature.” His mother had been too distraught to answer back. She had just nodded in agreement and then hugged him fiercely, whispering “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry” over and over again.
Oliver’s screams woke him up with a start. He turned to see her kneeling on the mat and cradling the child. Her face was wet and her eyes were white and wild.
“What’s the matter?” he asked in a panic.
“He’s not breathing!” she shouted.
Frank leapt out of the bed and took the child from her. The child’s mouth was making gaping, gasping motions. Frank turned the child onto his face and hit him hard on the back. Once…twice…and then the child made a feeble, coughing sound.
“Put something on,” he said urgently, “We have to get to the hospital now!”
Oliver wrapped her lesu over her nightgown and followed Frank hastily out of the room. It was just becoming light outside, and they hurried past a sleepy-looking Kizito washing his face on his veranda. He gazed worriedly at them as they rushed through the gate.
At the hospital the doctors said the child had a bad case of whooping cough, and though they had brought him in just in time, he was not in good shape at all and had to be immediately admitted into the ICU. They sat Frank and Oliver down by the reception and told them to wait.
About two hours had passed when Frank got up off the seat and decided to walk around, leaving a tired Oliver on the seat, her head resting in her lap – asleep. He walked through the corridor past rows of women with crying infants and men escorting their pregnant spouses, some holding them by the hands, others holding their luggage.
He got to a closed room on his left and looked through the glass visor below the letters “3C”. He saw the child lying on a bed, asleep, surrounded by all sorts of machinery. He opened the door and entered. He walked over to the child’s side and looked down at him. As though sensing his presence, the child opened his eyes and stared up at him. He smiled at the child and waved his hand at the tube running into his arm from the drip.
“Let daddy make you laugh,” he whispered.
The drip line wriggled and twisted over itself like a thin, plastic snake and the child smiled behind his oxygen mask.
“You like that?” he said to the child. “Watch this.”
He looked at the large machine by the child’s bed and the machine moved right, then left, then right again, in dancing, groovy movements and the child’s smile grew wider. Encouraged, Frank looked at the beeping screen above the child’s bed and the beeping sound became more rhythmic, making polyphonic music that Frank nodded his head to. And then he felt himself unleashed, and as the child cooed and giggled he had the bed shifting up and down, dancing to the music of the heart monitor, and the catheter doing waves like a stage prop, and the machines coming alive and dancing with mechanical precision, like an impromptu robot dance crew assembled just for the boy.
Frank was in a frenzy when the door opened and the doctor and nurses rushed in, gazing around them in astonishment. He found himself unable to stop as one nurse shouted at him to get out. The blanket floated off the child’s bed, followed by his oxygen mask, and the needle from the drip slid out from his arm and made for the ceiling, where it turned left and right like a pin-sized dancer. Every object in the room was dancing for the child, and Frank was the conductor, too attentive to get any movement wrong – so attentive that even when the child’s eyes closed shut for all eternity he was still moving the blanket in waves like a small, floating, grey ocean.