By Mildred Apenyo, Uganda:
Half of Atim's body is already out of the taxi when she snags her sandal on a piece of metal jutting out of its floor. She throws her hands out for balance, or luck, and yelps as her foot meets the dusty ground.
It takes a while for her eyes to adjust to the white glare of the petrol station's fluorescent bulbs, but this doesn't stop her from moving. She would rather sprain her ankle while stumbling to safety than risk being swept off the murram[T1] by an impatient driver.
Satisfied that she's reached a spot where no vehicle will take her bones by surprise, Atim turns towards the shed where boda boda cyclists usually congregate. She's chewing on the inside of her cheek in a way that gives her mouth a pouty, lopsided look and for a minute her eyes remain fixed on the chipping varnish of her toenails.
Atim jerks her head up and stares into the shed. It's empty. She jeers long and loud, even though she didn't expect any rider to be there. They've taken to leaving for home earlier and earlier, as if boda work is just a pastime for them.
She considers hailing one of the random cyclists zipping past. Briefly. Not much time has passed since the incident with the running men:
Two men had run past her and Kakuru – her regular boda-man – shouting that there were thieves on the road ahead. Kakuru slowed the motorcycle down and they hesitated at the mouth of the route that led to Atim's home. She was terrified and had decided to make him ride back to the main road when he revved the engine and tore down the road they had just been warned against. Trust is essential between oneself and one's boda-man. Trust is what quelled the fit of suspicion that had made Atim consider plunging a Bic pen into Kakuru's neck.
So even after three motorcycles have circled her, with their riders assuring her how well they know “ewa Mzee,” she waits for a familiar face, or tries to. The third man senses her desperation and remains within earshot, calling out details that are supposed to convince her that he's the man for the job.
“Your Mzee know me from stage up there.”
“You buy breakfast from my business at stage sometimes!”
“I take your sister and brother to Nakasero Primary!”
The kids haven’t studied at Nakasero for a year now, but Atim glances at her watch and decides that if he’s a thief, he's done his research and deserves some sort of chance. She runs over, pulls the back of her skirt between her legs and straddles the motorcycle.
The man doesn't stop trying to impress her with the scope of his knowledge about her family, not even when they’re moving. “I know everyone in dat home. Your father your mother, only your mother, she get lost,” he says.
That’s one way to put it, alright. She got lost.
“You come home very late from work…”
Atim's eyes narrow. Heavy words gather on her tongue like rain clouds.
“So, why do you come late? Is there a problem you have?”
Irritation spreads across her mind like goose pimples. He wouldn't be asking such questions if it were her 17 year old brother on his motorcycle. She doesn't answer, instead concentrating on the line of ragged plants that frame the road.
After a short silence, he says, “I’m not see her, your mother for long, by the way. Is she the one who died last year here? I know somebody died around here because that was the time my wife got pregnant.”
Atim isn't prepared for the indignation that slams into her chest and she shifts roughly, making the motorcycle veer towards a small tree. She is flattened by how casually he marks the death of her mother with the occasion of his slime finding a home in some womb.
Her resolve to remain calm blows straight out of her ears and into the wind. She tells him to “Shut up! Do your job!” and finding herself unable to remain so close to him, orders him to kill the engine. She slaps two thousand shillings on the seat of the motorcycle and stomps away.
Who knows, this idiot might deliver me head first into a wall and mark my death with some other event related to his loins.
Atim takes one, two, three deep breaths and tries to forget her irritation but it is stubborn and refuses to fade. It's starting to fray, the frame of mind that she's been constructing all day to help her survive the next minutes of emotional diarrhoea. It's starting to split like the inner seams of too tight jeans.
As always, when she hasn't spent a night at home, in the house, with her remaining people, Atim has to fight through tangles of guilt. She can never shake the feeling that she's betraying her mother and the baby. The baby. Her baby. Mum's baby?
The diarrhoea notices a weak point and licks at it, eventually bursting through and completely covering her mind. Atim's mind becomes a blur of voices, a podium that all her anxieties gleefully clamber onto and mock her from. The red gate to her father's home is within sight now and every step she makes is tortured. She pulls her phone out and is about to dial the maid's number when she notices a message from Michael: “Think about it.”
Atim leans against the gate and weeps until she starts to feel foolish, like a person pretending to be in a movie. Their last moments were awkward. It's not that she wasn't into it, into him. The burden of lateness had tainted everything. Michael had been moving on top of her for so long that she'd begun to resent him. She was about to push him off her body when he gasped, started to thrust faster and contorted his face into that series of expressions that always made her laugh.
Michael has been talking about that yawning expanse called the “future” a lot lately. Atim finds herself unable to articulate the kaleidoscope of feelings that flood her, especially whenever he begs for her to move into the tiny apartment that he shares with his cousin. She's terrified he'll stop asking. She's irritated when he does.
She dials the maid's number. “Christine! Yab dogola!” The maid arrives quickly, too quickly, which annoys Atim. She was hoping to gain ground, make the woman timid by snapping about sluggishness. The maid looks her up and down and says, “Oh. So you’re back?” Atim makes a show of slamming the door when she enters the house.
I hope dad is asleep.
The living room is messy. A bowl of congealed porridge sits abandoned on a sofa and newspapers carpet the floor. The house seems dead. Atim imagines for a terrible moment that the maid has poisoned everyone until she hears squeals coming from the direction of the baby's room.
Can this kid smell me?
She kicks her shoes off and walks towards the noise. Wrinkling her nose at the oversweet smell of milk and powder, she scoops the chubby child into her arms and wiggles her eyebrows. A stream of giggles tumbles out of his mouth.
Atim settles carefully on a loveseat and bounces him on her lap, giggling back at him with an excitement that grows and grows until it's real.
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