Welcome. I will be the one taking you around. Don’t stretch out your hand to shake anybody’s again. If you shake hands, or attempt to, it will be noted in your file. My name is Joel. You are to call me “Sir,” like you will call all male people here. All female people are to be referred to as “Madam.” If you want to be specific, you will have to use their tag numbers. My tag number is eleven. You may call me Sir Eleven. It will take you some time to get used to the tag numbers.
You have only one week to learn at least twenty tag numbers. If you need help on that, you may talk to Sir Fifteen. He sits by the window at the far end of the western wing. He has all the faces and their respective tag numbers on his computer. He may offer to print the names and their tag numbers for you; do not accept his offer. If you accept the offer, it will be noted in your file. Printing out the numbers and faces means using paper. If you leave with a piece of paper with names and numbers on it, it can be used against the company. If it is used against the company, you’ll have put us at risk.
You shall be searched every time you come into or leave the company premises. It will not be intrusive. You may not even notice it, but please remember that you will be searched every time. Sometimes, you will leave with papers given to you by the company. Most of them will be delivery notes. If you leave with delivery notes, please have them signed by the client. If they are not signed by the client, please don’t come back again. You shall continue to draw a salary for a period not exceeding six months, after which all contacts with the company shall be terminated. If you ever take this choice, by your own volition or otherwise, please note that it will be noted in your file.
Did I tell you my name? I lied. That is the one printed on the job ID card. You shall be issued with a job ID card. You shall go to Madam Twenty-nine for that. She sits at the corner room just after the reception. She will also issue you with a new national ID card. Those two, your job ID card and the new national ID card, shall be kept in a new wallet. Madam Twenty-nine shall give you the wallet. You shall use these cards only when dealing with clients. For your bank transactions or any other official business, please use your original national ID card. If you use your new national ID card, we shall know, and it will be noted in your file.
The lady at the entrance is Madam Eighteen. You may look into her eyes. If she looks back at you while smiling, do not smile back at her. If you do that, do not say you weren’t warned. You may ask her to open the door for you. She will only do that for your first two weeks here. Within that period, ask Sir Nine to add to you the system. The process is not as painful as you may have heard. What was painful was the old way of doing it. The new one is much better. He will simply insert a small chip into your forehead. That will be your key into the premises.
Please note that it is not a camera. If you look into the lens, it will be reading your forehead chip. If it reads your forehead chip, the door will be opened for you. The door is opened only twice in a day for each person except Madam Eighteen. If you need to come back to the office more than twice in a day, please email Madam Eighteen in advance. If she does not reply to your email, then note that it is okay. If she replies, however, please read the email and take note of what she says. If you do not take note, it shall be noted in your file.
The door in front of you leads to the washrooms. The door right after this one leads to the kitchen. You may take a cup of tea from the kitchen. There is also a microwave in there. You can heat up your food, if you’ve carried any. You shall not carry smelly food into the premises. If you do, Madam Eighteen shall let us know.
The door to your right is the Madams’ washrooms. You shall not use the Madams’ washrooms for reasons we know best. The one to your left is the Sirs’ washrooms. You may use the Sirs’ washrooms. If you do, please ensure that you clean up your mess.
Now, back to this corridor. The seats by that table are for general use. You may take your cup of tea over there. You may also make notes and read from that table. You may also watch TV as you relax, but only for a period not exceeding fifteen minutes. You may surpass this time only during the lunch hour when you have a one hour break. You’re however encouraged to get back to your station immediately after. If you watch TV all through the lunch hour, it shall be noted in your file.
On the right part of this corridor is the directors’ office. You shall call them Sir One and Sir One A. You have some latitude here. If you call Sir One Sir A, he will understand that it is an honest mistake. Madam Eighty should however not catch you mixing up the names of Sir One and Sir One A. If she does, it shall definitely be noted in your file. She sits on the other side of the premises. She is the head of operations. You shall report to her at all times. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask her. She will also give you all the details with regards to your responsibilities.
The place on your left is occupied by four people. Two of them are the company designers. You don’t need to know their tag numbers. If you need to talk to them, you shall have to ask Madam Eighty to do that for you. If she authorises you to go ahead, she will also give you their tag numbers. You will not be required to remember them. If you forget them, it will be totally understandable.
On the other side here are Madam Twenty Nine and Madam Twenty. Madam Twenty-nine will give you your new national ID cards and job ID cards. Madam Twenty is the legal officer. If you think you may have done anything that is against the law, please feel free to speak to her. If you break a law while working for the company, please ensure that you inform her as soon as you can. If you fail to do this, you’ll have put the company at risk.
That room on your right is the training room. It is also where you shall have your forehead chip implanted. Sir Nine sits there. He will tell you what rooms you are allowed to access and what rooms you aren’t allowed into. The implant process? That is a good question. Sir Nine uses a device that looks like a gun. The bullet is the chip that goes into your forehead. He will point it at your head and pull the trigger. You should not close your eyes when he does this. If you, however, close them, it will be totally understandable. You will not have been the first one to feel terrified. Madam Twenty-nine passed out when her chip was being implanted. If you pass out, you shall be quickly rushed to hospital.
You shall be issued with a hospital insurance card by Madam Twenty. Please note that you’re the only one in your family covered by the company scheme. The company shall not be responsible for any of your family members. Should you pass away during working hours, your family shall be fully compensated. Your next of kin will receive all the money, as stipulated in the agreement which you will sign and return to Madam Twenty. Should you get injured and become disabled, you shall continue to receive full salary up to the period of your death. Do not worry about dying or getting disabled during working hours. Only one person has done that in the entire history of the company. He was epileptic. He had not notified the company that he was epileptic. Please do notify Madam Twenty about any health complications that you might have. If you don’t, it will be difficult for us to help you. Your cover will not be dependent on this disclosure. If you however get a health complication during work, please note that it will be noted in your file.
Sir Nine also works as the company trainer. He will teach you some of the things you’ll need to do the job. Feel free to ask him any questions, as long as it is not private. His colleague, Sir Eight, also does the same job. You may not, however, speak to Sir Eight unless he first speaks to you. There is no reason for this. It is just company tradition.
This is where all the technicians sit. As a technician, you will spend very few hours in the office. You do not, as a result, hold a permanent office desk. You may share desks with other technicians. If you arrive first, you may have that seat until it is time to leave.
This is the company workshop. There are two people in charge of the workshop. You are not allowed to stay in the workshop if the madam is around. You are not required to remember her tag number. If the Sir is around, you may stick around for casual conversation as long as you are out of the way.
The last office there is the marketing department. You are not required to interact with the marketing department. You may, however, go ahead and do so. You have to be aware that the company will not be held responsible for any of the consequences from these interactions.
That door just after the marketing department is the fire exit. In case of fire, please press the handle on that door and go down using the stairs. Walk quickly but avoid running during fire evacuation. There has not been a fire since the beginning of the company. There are smoke and fire detectors on the ceiling of this building. Note that they may fail, as all man made things do. If you notice a fire, please attack it using a fire extinguisher. Take this step only when you’re sure it is safe.
This here is the balcony. You may come here for a breath of fresh air. You are not allowed to smoke on this balcony. If you smoke anywhere in the premises, it will be noted in your file and you may get a warning letter. If you get two warning letters, you will have to be let go.
You are also not allowed to jump over the balustrade on this balcony. There have been numerous attempts at suicide by way of jumping over the balustrade here. If you commit suicide, your family will not be compensated for your death. Now, let’s go to the other side. Or maybe better, can we continue after you’ve had your cup of tea? Karibu. And remember, if you attempt to shake hands with anyone, it shall be noted in your file.
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.
I’ve never been one of those bright-eyed and bushy tailed people early in the morning, but there’s something about coming round to a completely white room that will wake you the heck up. It’s difficult to describe the place I found myself in, room is the best I can do… If a room could be kilometers long and completely featureless.
I was standing in the middle of the white expanse – not lying down or seated – nothing to show that I had previously been asleep. Yet, I was still in the same thick and unconventional clothes I normally wear to bed, and I remember going to sleep in my messy bedroom – turning off the lights and fading away as images of that hunky new guy at work played about in my head. Coming to in such a manner gave me the unsettling feeling that I might have been wandering around aimlessly, without even realizing it, for what could have been hours. My eyes kept trying to fixate on something, anything; a door perhaps, or a clear distinction between the firm white ground I was walking on and the white horizon before me, but there was nothing.
What if I was dead? If I was dead, good Lord, they’d find my body in my messy room, wearing those old makeshift pajamas and no knickers! What about the pile of dirty dishes in the sink? They’d know, know that I was not tidy and proper. Would Mr. HunkyWorkGuy find out what a sloth I’d been while I was alive? What about the debts I’d never paid off? Would my parents inherit them? But if I was already dead and that’s how I ended up in the expanse, then there was no reason why I would be worried about death. Perhaps I was waiting to be ushered into heaven.
I was a mess and the ridiculous thoughts racing through my mind were not helping. However, I recalled an article about lucid dreaming and how the dreamscape can sometimes be completely featureless unless the dreamer makes it otherwise. The “otherwise” part would need prolonged training, they’d said, and so I didn’t strain myself trying to imagine trees and hills around me.
Perhaps I was going mad and my brain was stuck on the last moment I remembered as a sane person? If I were trapped in a white cell somewhere in a psychiatric unit, it would make sense that I would dream of white, featureless expanses. Besides, it was much more comforting fixating on the idea that I was dreaming rather than that I might be trapped in some experimentation lab with my brain hooked up to some machines.
Yeah, when I panic, I really go to town.
With that, I set off… er… “exploring.” At first, I was running, and then walking after I got tired, and finally trudging along. I found no walls, no doors, not even a raised bit of ground that I could stumble on. It was hard to tell how much time had passed; as I trudged along I felt a weariness start to seep into my very being, like what I imagine my soul being sucked out slowly would feel. I was too frustrated and preoccupied with my thoughts to notice anything changing around me. When a voice sounded behind me, I promptly screamed in fear…to my endless shame.
I whipped around as fast as I could and found myself looking at a petite woman wearing a yellow sundress and sunhat, her face rather impassive except for one raised eyebrow that gave her dark eyes a rather irritated glint. The yellow stood out brilliantly against the bland background and I found that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her form.
“Did you hear what I said?”
Her voice was warm as honey, even though her eyes were narrowed slightly in exasperation with me, and I realized that she’d asked a question that I was yet to answer. I felt embarrassment flood my system and I opened my mouth to respond but my tongue suddenly felt like I was made from lead.
“Y-yeah. Um, s-sorry, what did you say?” I hadn’t stuttered since I was a child.
This was all quite bizarre; I mean, how do you respond to a stranger walking up behind you in a featureless, white room? Had she even walked up to me; I couldn’t tell. She might as well have just materialized out of thin air.
Her eyes locked onto mine as she sighed and I knew, I just knew that she had seen my thoughts. I didn’t think the situation could get any freakier.
“Look, I mean you no harm but considering how paranoid you can sometimes become, Justine, I’ll leave the decision-making to you. You can either co-operate and find out why you’re here, or I could just leave you to go back to your ridiculous panicking: your choice.”
Her warm voice did not match the irritation that was clear in her words and I opened my mouth to speak, only to be startled silent as another figure appeared before us. I staggered back in surprise as my heart started pounding in my chest.
No poofs, or smoke, or dramatic sounds; one second there was the white endless horizon and the next, a man stood before my eyes. He wasn’t what you’d call a looker – but not ugly either – with dark skin, brown eyes, flat nose, and an unremarkable physique. He was wearing black slacks and a blue button-down shirt that hung loose on his frame, with regular-issue black shoes. Average in all aspects except for the fact that, much like the woman who had appeared earlier, the colors of his clothes stood out richly and brilliantly against the bland white I’d grown used to and his eyes held a knowing look that made me shift uncomfortably.
“Oh good, you’re finally here,” the woman spoke, her eyes still locked on my face.
She hadn’t even flinched or looked away from me for a second; it’s like she knew he was going to appear exactly when he did.
“Okay, what’s going on?”
My voice didn’t come out in the strong tone I wanted it to and instead I sounded breathy and scared. They glanced at each other before turning to look back at me.
“I guess we better start with it then,” the man said with a sigh and a wave of his hand.
There was a flicker and suddenly I was standing in a boardroom, just like that, complete with a long imposing table and a bunch of chairs. Large windows at one end let in sunlight and a rather impressive view of Kampala city. The change was sudden and I felt nausea begin to build up in my system; I looked down, trying to take in deep, steadying breaths.
“Always so formal, Jonathan. Try something a little more calming,” I heard the woman say in her honeyed voice.
Another flicker and I found myself looking at a field of grass as a cool breeze wafted around me and the sounds of birds chirping and trees swaying drifted to me. My body’s response was almost immediate: the nausea began to subside as I breathed in the fresh air. I hadn’t realized it before, but there had been no currents of air, or natural sounds, in the white expanse; perhaps that’s why I’d felt so trapped.
“See? Sometimes a woman knows,” the honeyed tone came again.
“You’re as much a woman as I am a man, Doreen,” the man…er, Jonathan said before I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Come, Justine, sit down.”
With the change in scenery, I felt almost euphoric and so I let Jonathan lead me to some garden chairs arranged around a marble table, with a jug of juice and some glasses on it. A giggle escaped me at the absurdity of the situation and I saw Jonathan look at the woman, exchanging a knowing look with her. Ignoring them, I sat down and took a deep steadying breath before I began my barrage of questions.
Jonathan, however, beat me to it.
“I’m sorry about this, Justine,” he began, eyes locked with mine, his expression sympathetic as he pulled a chair for himself opposite me. “I know you must be feeling overwhelmed.”
He paused, as if uncertain of how to continue.
“Perhaps before we begin, we should introduce ourselves. I am Jonathan,” he said with a small smile.
“I’m Doreen,” the woman said as she settled in a chair next to him. “We’ve been watching you for a while, my dear.”
“OK, that’s creepy,” I spoke, finally. My mind has a way of being inappropriate whenever I’m feeling uncomfortable. “Who are you and what do you want with me?”
They stared at me for a few seconds before exchanging another look. This was really beginning to irk me.
“We’re… celestial entities put in place to enforce specific, predetermined sequences,” Doreen said, smiling as if that was explanation enough.
“So, like aliens then,” I said, my voice surprisingly steady and flat.
I knew it!
“Goodness no,” she responded with a tinkling laugh, her teeth white and perfect. “Nothing like that; though I know that’s what you’ve been imagining since you got here.”
“We exist outside your universe and its laws,” Jonathan started before pausing. He looked around with a small frown on his face as if searching for inspiration before he continued. “We simply are, Justine. Birth and death don’t apply to us. Those are experiences tied to your reality, which is what we monitor. When I say ‘your’, I don’t mean you specifically, mind you, just the world… er… universe… reality which you come from.”
“So… not aliens, but like higher dimensional beings?” I suggested.
“Yes!” Jonathan said in excitement, clapping and grinning before he caught himself, and forced his face back to being impassive. “Not quite like that, but you’re getting the idea.”
“Well, if it’s not like that, then what is it like?” I asked irritably.
“Look, let’s not get hung up on the specifics otherwise we’ll be here for a while,” Doreen spoke up. “Like last time,” she added with a glance at Jonathan.
“Last time?” I asked, perking up.
“Right, we’ll get to that in a bit,” Jonathan said. “Let’s just say that we’re here to help you get your life back on track, Justine.”
“Excuse me? There’s nothing wrong with my life!” I couldn’t help the indignation in my tone.
The very nerve! I am a physiotherapist at a private hospital in Kampala and a damn good one at that. My work is often fulfilling and I enjoy it so where does this-
“He didn’t mean it like that, Justine,” Doreen spoke up, her warm voice interrupting my thoughts. “It’s just that you’ve been through a lot in the past few years and it has changed your outlook on life… changed what should have been and many people are going to suffer for that.”
Her words felt like a spear going through my chest. This was quickly turning into the kind of talk I didn’t want to be a part of.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” My voice was back to betraying me again, coming out weakly.
“You’ve become more nihilistic and uncaring… Cold,” Jonathan spoke up.
“That’s… That’s ridiculous. Where do you come off saying something like that?” I asked in indignation. “Even if that were the case – which it isn’t – my attitude affects only me. No one else suffers from it.”
“Except that’s not the case at all,” he responded, voice resolute and irking me further. “It has never been the case with anyone. Who you choose to be and what you do affects everyone around you and this is doubly the case with you.”
The discomfort within me was rising to a crescendo.
“I don’t think so.”
Yes, well, you’re wrong,” Jonathan said, not giving me a chance to utter anything else. “And you know that you are wrong. People look up to you, your fellow workmates value you highly, and your friends are always eager for your opinion. You’re a leader amongst your peers, Justine. Surely you know that.”
The rising discomfort coupled with the tone Jonathan was using, as if he was speaking with a petulant child, made me want to throw out a few curse words at him in anger. He hadn’t said anything antagonizing, not really anyway, yet there I was, wanting to punch him in his sympathetic face. Doreen took my right hand in both of hers, refusing to let it go when I tried to yank it back.
“We know this isn’t easy for you, Justine, but please, hear us out,” she cooed with an encouraging smile. “Your outlook on life has far-reaching consequences and that’s what we’d like to show you today.”
I forcefully extricated my hand from hers and glared at both of them.
“Fine, say what you want to say. It’s not like I have a choice anyway.”
They exchanged another look and I tried my best to not let it incense me further. I failed.
“You’ve grown up smart and talented… logical. That’s why you chose physiotherapy instead of going into math, because of the stability and versatility it granted you in Kampala, right?” Jonathan asked, looking at me with raised eyebrows like he expected an answer even though I could tell that he knew what I was going to say.
“Yeah. I didn’t want to become a teacher and I wanted time to work on my music,” I grumbled.
“Exactly, and that’s fine but I think that’s where the problem started – if I’m not wrong.” He hesitated. “Help me out here, Doreen.”
“Yes, you’re right, Jonathan. That’s where the problem began: With the idea that you couldn’t get all you wanted in life, that you had to compromise your deepest desires so that you could be happy.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I sputtered in shock. “It was the logical choice to make and look where I am, I like my work and I’m good at it. I’ve also had enough time to compose some songs I really like. There’s no problem with that!”
“The problem isn’t that you chose the medical route but rather, why you chose it, Justine,” Doreen continued, her voice as warm and honeyed as ever. “It was a simple idea at the time but you fed it and it grew into this ugly notion you have that you can’t have anything nice unless you sacrifice something important to you.”
“But that’s the way life works. There’s no guarantee that-”
“There are guarantees, sweetie, we make sure of that. Just like we’re here today trying to make sure that thousands of people don’t suffer simply because you don’t believe in yourself!” Doreen interrupted her tone sharper than it had been before. Her words burned a hole in my heart.
“You’re selling yourself piece by piece and allowing the hopeful, helpful, and human part of yourself to freeze into stone,” Jonathan said, his voice quiet.
“Look at the fiasco of a relationship you had with Bernard,” Doreen continued.
That got my attention.
“What do you mean ‘fiasco’? He is a nice guy and I pushed him away. Of course he had no choice but to break up with me and-”
“That relationship was never meant to happen,” Doreen said; her voice sharp again. “You had several unserious relationships and by the time Bernard came around, you just wanted to be loved. But there was something off. You could feel it and yet you ignored it – believing that you could never deserve more than him. Now look – look at how that relationship damaged you.”
Her words were tearing into me. All my secret thoughts spoken out loud and thrown back at me until I felt like my heart was bursting with the pain.
“You realize it now, don’t you? That he never really loved you? That he couldn’t love you the way you deserved to be, even if he tried. But he didn’t try, did he? Did he?!”
She was yelling at that point and my body responded the way it always did when these thoughts confronted me. I burst into tears.
“He did; HE DID!” I screamed; wanting to block her voice out. “He tried but I just wasn’t good enough… I just didn’t love him back enough! I’m just not good enough…”
I broke off sobbing. All the memories I’d tried to bury in the past eight months coming back fresh, tearing their way out of the boxes I’d packaged them in.
“He beat you!”
Flashes of him kicking me until I got a bruised spleen.
He was just frustrated with work and I had no right to deny him that night, no matter how tired I was. Also, he apologized for months after that and never hit me again.
“He stole from you!”
Flashes of the ATM telling me my funds aren’t sufficient.
He apologized and said he wanted the investment to be a surprise; that made sense.
“He manipulated you, Justine, for how long are you going to deny the truth?!”
At that point and I could barely see through the tears blurring my vision, but I heard Jonathan speak.
“Doreen, you’re taking it too far,” he admonished.
“Not far enough, Jonathan!” she snapped. “How many times do you want to steal her away at night as we try to convince her of the same thing over and over again? It’s time to try a new tactic!”
I saw Doreen’s form getting up and Jonathan yelled in warning, startling me for a second before I felt a hand close around my eyes as a sharp pain pierced into my head. I was sure I screamed in agony but I heard no sound and the pain disappeared as suddenly as it came. That’s when the images started flashing.
Hundreds of thousands of people with connections to each other and all of them leading back to me. People suffering because of actions I assumed were innocuous, all of which had their roots planted in my low self-esteem, or my inability to hope for the best. Life after life, flashing by me; some cut short before their time and others yanked from the paths they would have otherwise taken because I ignited some sort of self-destructive chain reaction.
Me refusing to apply for the promotion I knew was meant for me and someone without the right experience was promoted instead. Several clients suffered and the hospital got sued twice, as a result. Sheila, the nursing assistant in the surgical OPD. I’d had lunch with her almost every day, but didn’t think it was my place to comment on her depression until she attempted suicide but miscalculated the wrong dosage, and after having to live with severe kidney damage for a few months, died anyway. Natasha. She had been dealing with years worth of molestation as a child and alcohol had been her go-to pain relief. All the sexual jokes she kept making weren’t jokes at all but an attempt to depersonalize her fears. Oh God, and I’d practically yelled at her over her standoffish and unprofessional attitude at work. We’d even exchanged some unsavory words.
It was too much and it didn’t let up for a long while. I was not surprised that when the hand was finally lifted from my face, my cheeks were wet with tears and snot was freely running from my nose.
Jonathan cleared his throat and produced a handkerchief out of nowhere, handing it to me as he glared at Doreen. She, in turn, just walked back to her seat as if she hadn’t just completely devastated me. I worked at gulping in large breaths of air while Jonathan handed me a glass of juice which I took gratefully. They looked at me as I drank the juice, watching as tears occasionally slid down my face, and refusing to glance away. By the time the glass was empty, my nerves were frayed.
“What do I need to do?” I asked, my voice low and shaky.
“For starters, patch things over with Natasha. It’s important,” Doreen said, her tone back to being warm.
“She won’t resist, trust us,” Jonathan added with a small smile.
I nodded silently as another tear slid down my cheek.
“And be open to George.”
“Who?” I asked, frowning slightly at Doreen.
“You know who I’m talking about. You’ve seen him.” The image of hunky work guy entered my head.
“We just want you to be happy,” Jonathan said.
“I… I don’t think I can do that,” I began, my voice gaining some strength. “I understand what you’re saying but… I can be happy without a man, and you suggesting otherwise seems like the very opposite of everything you’ve just said to me.”
“He didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that there are certain paths that you ought to take, and well, George is one of them.”
It was hard to believe that the warm woman before me was the very same one who’d just devastated my world.
“No, thank you. What’s the worst that could possibly happen if I refuse him?”
I could feel irritation starting to rise again and Jonathan’s quiet chuckles weren’t helping at all.
“I’d really like to see you try and reject him. He was made for you and you were made for him,” he said.
“Actually, it’s not,” Doreen said, looking at me thoughtfully. “Situations like that are few but it’s true, you two were made for each other. He’s got massive game where you’re concerned.”
They were both grinning at that point and I felt a little unsettled. They couldn’t possibly be right.
“This is the most agreeable you’ve been all month,” Jonathan remarked after a short silence.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“We’ve been at this for almost a month now, trying to convince you that you needed to change certain aspects of your life and now… Well… Thanks to Doreen’s unconventional methods, you seem more agreeable.”
“But I don’t recall any of that,” I spoke up in confusion.
“Yes, well, our aim is to affect the convictions you have deep within, not change your mind for you. So we never really leave you with the memories of these discussions,” he responded.
“Then I won’t remember this when I wake up?”
“No…but if we’ve succeeded, you’ll instinctively know what to do,” Doreen said. “I’m feeling good about our chances this time though…”
She faded off and I frowned, wondering if I was going deaf. Perhaps I am passing out, I thought, as my vision began to darken and I felt like I was falling into an abyss.
I jerked awake at the sound of my alarm clock and quickly turned it off. Oh God, it was 6 a.m. already? Damn! I scrambled out of bed; I had about 40 minutes before the city’s traffic jammed up and made me late for work. I’d had another one of those strange dreams that I couldn’t remember. But where I would normally wrack my brain trying to remember even a single scene from the dreams, I now found that it didn’t bother me much anymore. Plus, I really wanted to talk to Natasha, and I wanted to send her a text before I chickened out again.
Moving quickly, I grabbed my phone from the nightstand and found the email icon flashing. I looked at my notifications and opened the one from work, quickly reading the body about the meeting we were having that day. There would be a short discussion about the new patient registration system the hospital had just installed, led by its creator, George…
My heart started pounding. The email barely registered as apprehension took a hold of me and I started feeling uneasy. Perhaps… perhaps I could call in sick for the day.
Twenty-five-year-old Ngentsa looked at her parents straight in eyes and said:
― I am in love with Nidji!
― Nidjiiiiiii? Are you sure? Her mother, Oula, asked.
― But… He is a robot! Exclaimed her father, Amasingue. Ngentsa, have you gone crazy? Oula, you see? You see? I told you to watch your daughter. Now, note for yourself; she’s in love with a robot!
Her mother began screaming and clapping her hands. Soon, she added frantic bouncing and shaking.
― Have we not been able to teach her the right way? God, please, come and help us! Oula shouted.
― I love him, papa. Ngentsa whispered. I love him, this is all I know.
― Ngentsa, Amasingue said. What people call love is a question of life and death, not a game. There are so many handsome, smart and kind human men in this country and you did not find one to become your husband, only this Nidji? You cannot even have kids. Think of what the entire family will say about your mother and me when they will hear about that…
― Is Nidji different from all these other men, papa?
― He is… He is–You know what I mean!
Her father lowered his face and stared guiltily at the handmade Tunisian carpet.
― A machine! This is what you think, isn’t it? Oh God, my father is a machinist! Is that how you see me also?
When she was a young girl Ngentsa lost control of her flying bicycle, hit a tree and fell headfirst to the ground from a height of six feet. Her parents were wealthy; they could afford to pay for cybernetic organ replacements, and Ngentsa survived. She now had an artificial eye, liver and right leg.
Her father looked at her with loving eyes.
― You know that it’s not the same thing. He is totally artificial, he has no soul…
― Dad! Please, stop! I don’t want to listen to any more.
Ngentsa left the house angrily. She needed some fresh air. She thought that her parents would understand. Her father was an intellectual, the scientist who had found the vaccine for the Hepatitis L Virus (HLV) which had affected a large part of the worldwide population, while her mother was a university professor of literature. But they reacted in totally the opposite way.
What was wrong with her choice? Ngentsa wondered. Suddenly her inner phone device tickled her ear. It was a call from Nidji.
― Hullo! She said faking a happy voice.
― Hi, my sweet! How are you? Nidji asked.
― I am fine, thanks. She feigned a little laugh, but actually tears were flowing silently down her cheeks.
― Have you told your parents about us?
― Not yet.
― I am so excited. Your parents are so understanding.
― Nidji, don’t be so enthusiastic, my parents are not perfect.
Her tears stained her blue shirt.
― Ok, I don’t have much phone credit. I will call you back. I love you.
― I love you too.
Ngentsa looked at the moon. It was shining brilliantly, full of peace like an angel. Only its soft light could soothe her pain now.
It might have been a day like any of those that preceded it, except I decided not to wear a bra. This was not a radical choice – just a small change. Yet I have come to believe it completely altered the tenor of that week, and with this, the history of my entire planet. What might have led to that seemingly trivial wardrobe choice? Perhaps it was the heat. And, if anyone had asked, I would have told them I only cared to carry breasts on Sunday afternoons. All my nice bras were unwashed. I wore a sweater to work on Tuesdays. The breasts themselves are rather negligible. There are certainly multiple maybes, perhaps, and if-this-then-thats we might attach to the version of me that did not wear a bra and altered history.
The only maybe of significance is this one: I woke up before the sun rose on Tuesday and the dark was a shimmering one, a dark that can only confer grandeur. And it was behind the lashes of this voluptuous dark that my daffodil revealed itself to me as the most expansive thing on the planet – so generous was it with its magnificence that I mounted my window sill and nearly fell out the open window inhaling its splendour. The daffodil in question was so flattered that it preened in response, which charmed me even more so I leaned in closer, and it plumed prettily, and I was even further bewitched, and Daffodil responded, as did I and on and on we continued, my flower and I.
Our delicate ballet was eventually interrupted by the national call to attention. Shaken out of my reverie, I ran out of my room and stood outside the door, waiting for the daily duties to be called out by the spokesperson of our section. My allotment for that Tuesday was delivering rations to each room for the single meal we ate each week. I couldn’t be bothered to list the benefits of a streamlined diet that day as I did my task; everything reached me through the veil of daffodil’s clean wonder. The very universe itself opened up before me, and its secrets lingered on my tongue long after the initial shock of understanding.
It became clear to me that womanhood is not a vocation to which I am called. Initially, I was not particularly sure how to put this insight to use. Of course, I would have to report to the Ministry of Genitals, stop by the local chapter of the National Wardrobe Committee, and change my gender details at the Statistics & Surveillance Bureau. This was all fairly straightforward, but really, I hadn’t inhaled enough of Daffodil to decide which gender captured all the versions of myself that I bore within me. And what does one do, when one finds oneself in the wrong body? I imagined one should take a lover maybe and, if necessary, take up arms because that’s what people did in the history files. Beyond that, I wasn’t certain.
I decided to seek counsel at the National Confusion Centre.
“Welcome to the National Confusion Centre. Sponsored by the Allied Lands of Africa – we think so you don’t have to.”
“I’m not a woman.”
“Which of the genders are you?”
“That’s the confusion.”
“You have none?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“We have a chart.”
“But you can’t-”
“And a scientific test.”
“There’s no such -”
“We can also fix you into one, if you’re determined.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“Well, for registration and tax purposes, you must have one.”
“Daffodil wouldn’t agree.”
“Isn’t your number 59013? What is Daffodil?”
“Nothing. Can I just leave?”
“Actually, I need to update the records. So, please pick one.”
“Won’t it take a few years to change?”
“No, we’re efficient. Allied Lands of Africa – we move at the speed of light!”
I tried to tell the automated counsellor about my encounter with Daffodil, about the secrets of the universe which were revealed to me. That, no, I didn’t need to move at the speed of light, just to bloom, gently and quietly like Daffodil. At the speed of life, if possible. It was this dangerous turn in my overall temper that marked the beginning of it all.
“59013? 59013! Are you malfunctioning?”
“Yes, yes. I mean, no, no.”
“Good. The Patrollers are overworked this time of day.”
“I think I’ll leave now.”
“That will not be possible. I suggest you take on animorphous.”
“It’s a crowd favourite. Really.”
“Like I said, no.”
“Thank you, then.”
“Actually, 59013! Where are you going? No. Do stop. Please? 59013!”
They would send the Patrollers after me, of course, but I wouldn’t look back. And so I ran, genderless, my nipples nearly boring through my sweater with all the tension. It might have been the sight of my nipples, those impertinent little things, or the desperation with which I called for Daffodil that drove a crowd to form behind me, repeating, like a chant in monotone: Daffodil. Daffodil. Daffodil.
“For God’s sake, whatever you do, do-not-marry-that-woman!”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“I am your future self. You remember that idea you had for a time machine? Well, it worked, it’s going to work – gotta get my tenses right – and I’m here to tell you… to tell me, not to marry that woman.”
“You look more like my dad.”
“I was also going to say lay off the beers a bit and count your damn calories. And while you’re at it, a bit of exercise every now and again wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if you can be arsed.”
“No way you’re me, hombre.”
“Do you want me to show you the mole on my left butt cheek, or maybe we can discuss your rather disgusting habit of jerking off to Chantal Biya pictures?”
“I’m talking quickly because we’ve only got four minutes before I’m sucked back through the vortex to my own timeline, and, because of the parallax-duplicity problem, I can never come back to this exact moment again. Are you going to do as I say and leave that woman?”
“Because she’s no good for you. She’ll bring you untold misery and grief. Spare yourself, spare me, by cutting off all links with that woman. I can’t explain everything, but you have to trust me, trust us. Think of me as the gut instinct you never had, moron. It will hurt now, but – trust me – it will save you from so much pain, grief and anguish in the future, like an injection. Consider this a prophylaxis, a pre-emptive strike of the Gulf War II kind. Please, I am begging you from the bottom of our sclerotic heart.”
“Okay, I’ll do it.”
(Five minutes later)
“I need to talk to you urgently. This is a matter of the utmost importance.”
“What happened to your teeth?”
“We went through this five minutes ago, remember?”
“Ha? I’ve only just gotten here. Look, I’ve come to save you, my boy. There’s no time, you just have to trust me on this. I need you to get over whatever’s been bugging you and marry her. Forget these second thoughts you’re having.”
“You absolutely must propose tonight! Do you have any idea what I’ve gone through in order to come back here – across the fourth dimension – to save you from yourself? If you have any regard for what’s holy, then you absolutely must marry her.”
“But you said—”
“Life without her is cold and bleak and… It’s unlife. Four billion women on the planet and she’s the only one for you. She completes you, she completes us. I’ve searched everywhere, you’ve searched; we’ve spent the last thirty years of our life searching, and no one can replace her. That feeling called love, it’s in your heart right now, and you will never feel it again if you don’t marry her. Instead all you’ll have is bitterness, envy and loneliness. You will go through the rest of your life alone, comrade. At your age, you’re thinking bollocks, but trust me, there’s nothing worse in the whole, entire universe. Imagine the pain of having your teeth and fingernails pulled out over and over and over and over again. Please, I beg you…”
“Okay, I’ll do it. I’ll marry her. Fuck.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you. Now listen, a few days after I’m gone, you will not remember having seen me, but the decision you’ve made right now will linger in your subconscious and take effect. Trust that instinct.”
(Five minutes later)
“Thank God you’re here. You may not know me, but I absolutely must speak with you.”
“You again? What happened to your nose?”
“I’ve only just gotten here. Anyway, there’s no time. It’s about that woman! Listen to me very carefully. Whatever you do, you-must-not—”
“Are you kidding me? The only thing I’m not going to do is build that bloody time machine. You hear me? No. More. Time…”
I am staring at you, all these tubes running in and out of your body like wires dangling off a piece of electronic equipment, and I desperately want to love you. Why don’t you want to love me too?
It is two days ago and I’m looking at you looking at me. You’re several metres away, but even though I can’t see the way your nutmeg-coloured cheeks push your purple eyes upwards, I know you’re wearing that smile that makes me go weak at the knees.
You alight from your race car. You saunter my way, your boots raising red dust with every step. You look like a god walking amidst the clouds. An indescribable sound escapes me, but I hold myself; I can’t let anyone know.
You’re in front of me now. You smile that toothy smile, and I want to kiss you. I swear by Esu, I want to kiss you. But I hold myself. You tell me this is for me. I tell you to fuck off, I’m only your mechanic and that is all I’ll ever be. Joking, you grab your chest and ask why I enjoy hurting you; I hiss and say no one is invested in your safety as much as I am. You say you’re not talking about your stupid car, and I ask why you would call it stupid. You laugh. By Esu, you laugh. Your breath smells like petrichor; I bury myself in it.
They call the Ife anti-gravity racers to the tracks. You wink, your eyelashes fluttering like butterfly wings. You run back to the tracks: one two, one two, your steps like a gazelle making away. If I had known then what I know now, I’d have screamed for you and held you close. But I let you go, shaking my head and smiling ever so slightly.
You’re in your race car now and you wave at me before you seal the doors. I sigh. The race is on, and the 20 of you take off. The first lap is over and you’re fourth place, but I know you’ll win.
It’s the fourth lap, and you’re second place. You reach the dangerous bend three where people have already yielded to. You’ve passed it three times before, and you pass it again. The racer close behind doesn’t. Her race car hits yours as it somersaults. I hear a screech as I snap my eyes shut, I can’t watch this. They tell me later that your car spun 43 times in the air before landing on the dusty steel racetrack. I pray to Esu that you are fine, but the sound of your crashing tells me that my hope is futile. I retch.
Now you’re on the hospital bed, you’ve lost one leg and both arms, so you’ve asked to be turned into a robot. You know robots don’t feel, yet you’ve made the decision. I ask you if I will ever find a guy like you again, and you smile that smile and say a good guy like me will always find someone else. My tears flow freely as I leave your hospital room. I pray to Esu to make you change your mind, but I know it is futile.
I should have let myself love you when we both had a chance.
The kente-clad performers sang aloud, mixing lyrics of Akan traditional folk music with electronically-generated sounds coming from small speakers embedded in the pendants of their bulky faux gold chains. The group parted and a young man in the centre did several back flips on the spot in time with the beat and their clapping. Their procession moved forward after a few minutes, giving way for an all-female dancing group dressed as wives of the Asantehene.
“So you’re here.”
Aniekan turned at the familiar voice. The grinning face of his friend, Joshua, showed none of the discomfort evident on the sweaty faces of the other onlookers. Aniekan could only imagine how scorching the midday sun was. He had seen someone being resuscitated for heat stroke.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I took a break from studying.”
“Weird, me too.”
“You’re also writing exams?”
“Nah,” Joshua said, turning to look at the dancers gyrating a few feet away. “I’m over all that school madness. I have an interview with some firm in India. I’ve been brushing up on my answers all morning. Hey, check that out!”
The object of interest was a large fire-breathing robot masquerade, controlled by fittingly-dressed ‘native doctors’. Aniekan selected the camera icon, set his viewfinder for a good shot and clicked the button.
Sorry, this feature is only available on Premium.
He hissed at the words flashing across his field of vision. Joshua looked at him.
“Can’t take a bloody picture.”
Joshua chuckled. “You’ve still not upgraded?”
“You’re laughing, and you’ve been wearing the same clothes for almost a year.”
“Only jobless people bother with changing clothes. Besides, if I really wanted to, I know a guy who can crack the system and upload a shuffle wardrobe for free.”
“Careful. You know everything we say ends up on their servers.”
“You’re always so paranoid.”
There was a shrill beeping sound from Joshua.
“Alarm,” he said. “Time difference in India means I’ll be up around 2am for the interview. See you later?”
“Sure. Good luck, by the way.”
Joshua smiled and his face froze, then his entire body flickered and went off. Hovering in the space where his head had occupied was a round drone with a central camera which rose over the audience, evading obstacles as it flew into a large blue booth. The booth was marked with a globally-recognised symbol consisting of an eye where the iris and pupil were replaced with a small letter ‘a’. He heard a chuckle and looked down to see a small boy poking a finger through his chest, causing his image to waver.
“Stop doing that.”
The boy giggled mischievously and skipped away. Aniekan sighed and reached for the eye icon located at the top right corner of his visual feed which produced a drop-down menu. He’d wasted enough time here anyway.
The scene of the street-side festivities dimmed into dark blue and the words “Signing Out” slowly blinked. He felt for his nightstand and dropped his navigation console before reaching under his chin to unstrap the virtual reality headset. As if on cue, there was a bang on the door. He pushed a unlock button on the wall and his older brother, Emmanuel, barged in, his eyes sweeping the room in search of something.
“What?” Aniekan muttered with irritation.
“I’ve been knocking for almost five minutes. I need to borrow your VR, mine is having some sort of error.”
“Well done,” Aniekan said snidely. “You’ve finally spoiled it with those useless beta plug-ins.”
“And you were online when you have exams tomorrow,” Emmanuel retorted, grabbing the helmet-shaped device and ejecting his brother’s identity chip. “Where were you anyway?”
“Chale Wote Street Festival.”
“Lame. Premier League is on. And I need to log in before all the ports are used up.”
“I hope you guys lose.”
The door closed with a bang. Aniekan snickered as he moved to his study table and waved his hand over the PC sensor, turning on the holographic screen. He swept the reader windows of his books aside and selected the eye-shaped icon which opened a dark blue window with a title sequence.
Astral: Now, You’re There.
The words faded away.
Welcome Back, Aniekan.
He fingered through the tabs and checked his Uptime balance. He sighed. He barely had enough for any visits outside the sub-Saharan countries – that is, the few which had Astral hotspots. The service was still new to Nigeria, after all. He authenticated the transfer of extra credits from his bank account. A progress bar came up and he began to wonder how he’d become so invested in this virtual existence.
Astral had started in Japan as a therapeutic program to help the hikikomori, or shut-ins, but it had rapidly spiralled into some sort of travel/networking/laziness device, inadvertently causing what it had set out to cure. People around the world now used Astral for virtually everything – from tours in other countries, to attending events from the comfort of their bedrooms. He’d even read that new headsets which could transmit sensations like smell, taste and touch directly to the user’s brain were being developed to make things more immersive. He’d logged into their service barely a month ago, and though his social life – whatever was left of it – had suffered, at least he could say he’d seen the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Coliseum in Rome, the Tomb of King Tut, and several live matches at Camp Nou.
The words “Upgrade to Premium” glowed white on the sidebar once the transfer was complete and he’d bought sufficient credits. His reached for it and stopped short. Social media apps were already eating up most of his time. If he did this, he knew it would be equivalent to signing off all contact with the outside world. He considered his pros and cons for a moment…
Thank you for choosing our Premium Service. Check out our new and improved features…
The two of us gathered about Feria and stared at her wrist with shiny eyes.
“Waow,” Indo said and ran her stubby fingers over the rubber band of the brand-new device on Feria’s wrist. “It’s so cute it could orgasm me.”
“It is,” Feria replied with a casual flick of said wrist. “It’s like, everything I’ll ever need.” She twisted her slender light-skinned arm like this and that, showing off the inscriptions written in reflective black on the thick, pink band: Beat the Habit and Nothing is Impossible.
“Nice,” I said. This wasn’t just something, it was the something. “How much?”
Feria shrugged. “Sammy, he got it for me.”
Uzzi sauntered into class then, the usual over-eager smile plastered on his face. We sat in a corner at the back as usual, away from the light of the Teaching Screen that undergraduate classes in Pan-Atlantic Uni, Lagos, now employed. Uzzi wove between rows of buzzing Biz-Admin students dressed in their Friday jeans and tight everythings. He took the empty seat beside me.
“Hey girls!” Uzzi always smelt of too much perfume and hair gel and today, like every other day, he wore derbies under jeans and a tucked-in shirt.
“Feria bought a HaBeat,” Indo announced.
Uzzi’s eyes widened and Feria gave a modest smile that, because I know Feria, was not really modest at all.
“Sammy.” She smiled again. “He says I spend too much time online, so he got it to help.”
“Do you spend too much time online?” Indo asked. Indo was that one person amongst your friends who said or asked things no one dared to say or ask.
Feria shrugged. “Never really thought about it. I guess it’s the HaBeat’s job to tell me now.”
Uzzi leaned in across me, excitement written on his face. “Show us.”
To be fair, it resembled nothing more than a plain rubber wearable. Mummy once referred to it as stinky overpriced rubber because, well yes, it did cost close to the latest Keyless Mac. But she was just a school principal, she couldn’t understand.
Feria pointed to a curved bulging rectangle in the middle of the band, about the size of a small flash drive. “I heard the main thing is like a sort of tiny computer here.”
“Chip,” I corrected. I knew more about tech stuff than all of them put together.
“Chip, yes. Right, Yeji.”
We nodded. And when Feria stared at us like: that’s all there is to it, I offered.
“When it touches your skin, the chip tracks everything. Activity, sleep, behavioural triggers –whatnot. It’s paired by wireless to this HaBeat app that syncs around everything, even your car system. With it, you set goals and milestones for breaking or forming particular habits from, let’s say trying not to spend so much time online, to quitting smoking or keeping your bad driving in check.”
“How na?” Indo said. “How will it know?”
“Oh, it knows,” Feria said. “It’ll tell you once you’re doing it wrong.”
“So, with what, like alarms or something?” Uzzi inquired.
“Well…yeah, for some people,” Feria said and lowered her head. “Mine’s a bit different. It, uhm, it deducts a specific amount from my bank account.”
Mild gasps went around. Uzzi threw his head back and laughed.
“That’s some real shit,” he said. “Debit alerts ‘cause you live on the net?”
“Why would you want to do that?” Indo asked. “What if you like, have a relapse and the thing makes you go bankrupt?”
“I didn’t set it. Sammy did. He says it’s the only way to keep me loyal to the cause.”
“That’s… huh,” I said, at a loss for words. The others, too, creased their brows.
Feria shrugged again. “There are other ways, though. Some people get mild electric shocks, some use alarms, though the alarms are really loud and weird and embarrassing. Some others get rotten messages posted to their socialverse accounts.”
“Waow,” Indo said.
“That’s so… draconian,” I said.
“Englisher,” Indo hissed. “Me, I like it. It’s exactly what I need for my weight.”
I did buy the idea of a habit-breaking wearable, though I didn’t dig shocks or debits. But I knew immediately that Indo was right, and I too, needed the damn thing. If only to save me from my one unbreakable habit.
The HaBeat’s half-price offer on DealDey stood at one-ninety-nine-k before it sold out. I lay in my small bed in my small room in the small Island apartment my parents could barely afford (even with just one child) and stared at my old Xperia screen, trying to convince myself I didn’t need this thing that bad. Besides, what yarn was I going to spin to Daddy about getting me that money, anyway? But my fantasies of the device refused to be quenched, fuelled by both stellar reviews I saw on vidblogs and the #MyHaBeatAndI selfies piling up on the socialverse.
And it didn’t help any when Indo buzzed me:
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: Babe
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: I gorrit o
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)> has sent you a photo.
<Yejide>: The yellow one! \O/ Balling!
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: Balling ke? It’s my elder bro in UK I obtained sef.
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: He’s been promising me the new Keyless, but I just asked him for a HaBeat instead. :-$
<Yejide>: Nice. 🙂
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: I set mine to electric shock. I think that will work best for me.
<Yejide>: Won’t it be painful?
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: Not really. It has shocked me twice already. It’s not that bad.
<Yejide>: Oh? What did you do?
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: I set Early Rising, Workout and Light Breakfast goals.
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: I woke up late and got shocked
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: Then I paused during workout and got shocked again, until I continued.
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: So, when are you getting one?
<Yejide>: Lmao! Getting one indeed. You go buy?
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: Everyone needs one na. Uzzi got one last week. You know he’s trying to quit his impulse shopping.
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: You’re the only one left.
I paused and stared at that last message, thinking how I did need it, more than anybody in the world knew, but for reasons I couldn’t quite tell her. So I stared at my phone screen some more and typed nothing.
Phones quickly lost the perpetual blue-and-white screens of instant messaging and microblogging apps, quietly replaced by the black-and-grey interface of the HaBeat Social. Complete with charts and dials and instant messaging, this was where HaBeat owners could team up with friends and push the zap button when one of them missed a milestone, making achieving goals more likely.
At Pan-At, everyone had one. They giggled to one another and discussed nothing but milestones and goals for hours, with both real friends and virtual ones. They were joyous, like they had this renewed zeal to achieve, like their lives had just kickstarted.
Not me, of course.
If you know my parents, then you’d know it was moot even trying to explain the HaBeat’s importance to them. It had taken three years of convincing just to get Daddy to see that buying me an eBike made more sense than handing down his old 2016 Cerato. I mean, who got held up in Lagos jams any more when you could go a steady 20 mph on the free bike lanes?
Mummy had even shut off the SmartKitchen program and its accompanying appliances that came with our apartment. I usually turned it on while cooking to surf recipes on the projector, or to run the dishwasher and cooker with gestures. One day, I forgot to turn it off and minutes later Mummy was fuming at the SmartAssistant.
“I said I’ll boil the potatoes as long as I want!”
I giggled, and she turned on me.
“I’ve told you, Yejide: If machines wash your rice, peel your yam and tell you how much pepper to add, what is your role in the cooking? Why not just allow them to also think for you?”
I laughed. “Mummy, it’s not that serious now.”
“Quiet! When you get your own house, let technology do everything there – that’s your business. But if you touch my kitchen again, I’ll slice your fingers.”
How did they say it: you can’t put new wine in old skins? I had to use Plan B.
I had to. I didn’t want to hurt anybody anymore.
The only corridor in our house runs from the living down to the back door. The master bedroom takes up one whole side of the wall and its door is at the end of the corridor – a long way off from my room, which is near the beginning. At night, it gets quite dark down here, as there are no windows and the lights are kept turned off, because they’d filter into everyone’s rooms.
It was in this darkness that I tiptoed, wearing stockings to muffle my footfalls, past the kitchen, past the living, to door of the master bedroom. Soundless. Nothing new. I had done this so many times, it was second nature now. Besides, Daddy was the light sleeper in the house and he was away for work. I knew not to come here when he was around.
The door was open a crack, and I nudged it further and went past the king bed to the wardrobe. The wardrobe door used to creak, until I finally stuffed the hinges with tissue paper. It didn’t creak now as I opened it.
Ancient soul that he was, Daddy still stored cash at home, in a fanny pack on the third-level shelf. Disarranged, so I knew he didn’t count it. I pulled out two five-thousand-naira notes, stuffed the remaining back, and completed my exit as I had entered.
Just a little at a time, I told myself as I walked back to my room. He won’t notice. Just a few more times, then it’ll all be over for good.
My father is a smallish man, all thick and hairy arms weathered by the many different breezes in the many different countries he has visited on business. Some days he reminds me of a small grizzly. When I was little, I used to rub my face in his bushy arms, shrieking in delight when he would chase me about the house and threaten to get me lost in them.
On a hot Saturday afternoon a few days after his return, we went out for the family time out we took whenever he came back from a long trip. It was usually us three but Mummy was absent this time. Only after we parked outside a Yellow Chilli outlet in Victoria Island did I realize this was by design.
I could tell he was distracted, even though he smiled all through the banter on the way over. Daddy always smiled, so that meant nothing. It was his eyes; they were weighed down by a certain kind of sadness.
Our order was delivered, and halfway through my baked yams and grilled fish, he blurted it out.
“I know you’ve been taking my money.”
The fish on my fork jumped back to the plate, splattering onion sauce on my pastel blue blouse. I looked down at it and kept my eyes there, too ashamed to bring them back up to face him.
“I’ve known for a while that pinches go missing every then and now. There’re only three of us in the house, and of course it wasn’t your mother. I just didn’t want to believe it was you.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but only the smell of onions and shame came out. A ball formed in my throat and a lone tear jiggled down my left cheek.
Daddy saw it and reached across the table for my hand. I flinched, then slowly withdrew it and folded my arms. I didn’t want him to touch me; I was too dirty.
“I don’t love you any less, Yeji. You’re still my one cherished thing in this life. I’ll not stop loving you because of a few thousand naira.” He shook his head. “But this kind of habit, it can get you in big trouble. If you get caught by someone else…”
He dropped off, leaving me to imagine the consequences. As if I hadn’t imagined them a million times over myself. I had never stolen from anyone else besides him, but I couldn’t even find the voice to tell him that. I just stared down at the circles of oil widening on my blouse and let the lone tear run.
My father came around the table to my side and wrapped his small grizzly arms about my neck. I couldn’t say a word, fighting back tears. He held me the way he had when I was little, his prickly arm hair tickling my cheeks and the insides of my neck, so that I felt like his little girl once again.
“Just ask me for anything,” he said, rubbing my shoulder. “Anything. If you really need it, I’ll give you. But please, please, I beg you. Please don’t steal from me – or anyone – again. Ever.”
It was too much. I began to cry.
I cried for a long time and he held me, rocking me gently and giving reassuring smiles to onlookers in the restaurant. When I had exhausted all my tears, he took me by the hand and we went home.
I had never felt lighter than I did leaving Yellow Chilli that Saturday evening, and with that came the understanding that I never needed a HaBeat for anything in the first place.
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: Where’re you?
<Yejide>: Parking my bike. The others?
<:-* Indo-Nesia B-)>: Yuhp. They here.
Feria and Uzzi were seated with Indo at an outdoor Johnny Rockets stand when I got into Royals, the little mall on the only major intersection in our neighbourhood, far east off Lekki-Epe. They chatted in quick speech, and as I came closer, I realized they were talking about milestones and goals – as usual. They all had their HaBeats on: Indo’s yellow, Feria’s pink and Uzzi’s ankara all standing out on their African skin. Funny how it made them blend in more than stand out, seeing as almost everyone else in the mall was wearing one. It was I, whose wrist was adorned by a locally-made Asante bracelet, who stood out like a rose in a desert.
Uzzi saw me first and shrieked as usual. I smiled and shrugged as I sat at the table. Indo stared at my wrist with a quizzical look, then leaned in towards me. The diner chair creaked as she did. She seemed to have gotten bigger since the last time I saw her.
“Thought you said you were going to, ehm, ‘buy’ it somehow?” She whispered.
I smiled. “Nah.”
She lifted her eyebrows, and Uzzi saw.
“What?” he asked, looking from Indo to me and back.
“Yeji says she doesn’t need a HaBeat,” Indo said.
Remind me to kill Indo one day for her leaking mouth?
Uzzi adopted the same quizzical look. “How na? It’s like WiFi. Everybody needs it.”
I shook my head. “It’s my problem. I’ll fix it.”
“What d’you mean?” This was one of the rare times Uzzi grew serious. “Babe, the days of relying on our human selves to fix things are gone. This is a computer. It’s a hundred percent assurance that you’re becoming a better person.”
I smiled and said nothing.
Uzzi tapped Feria like: Look, you’re missing loads of crazy. Feria, who hadn’t so much as glanced up from the phone she was furiously tap-tap-tapping on, didn’t even flinch. There might as well have been a hurricane and at she wouldn’t have looked up.
“But don’t you feel…odd?” Indo asked.
I shrugged. “Why?”
Uzzi and Indo glanced at one another, then looked back at me the way you would look at someone who didn’t know they were stupid.
“Okay o,” Uzzi said and rose. “Na you know. Me, I’m hungry. Let’s do KFC. Feria’s paying.”
He bent and picked up – I counted two, three, four – Paul Smith bags stuffed with shirts, shoes and collectibles, and he went in the direction of the swing doors. Indo rose and went too, huffing and puffing with each step, beckoning to me to come along. Feria followed, her head downward, eyes fixed on her phone and fingers doing spider combos on its screen.
I lingered for a beat, watching the three of them go into the crowd of HaBeats. Then I stood and followed, smiling to myself all over again.