Fiction
Fiction

There You Are

Lynn Bey


 

So there you are, arrived. There, in a country with sky that African blue, that spread of a childhood beneath it. It’s a wedding—his wedding—you’ve come back for, back to where home used to be. Already you feel the press of not being used to it, the heat. As though the sop of a January London could have prepared you for the swelter that is this valley in midsummer. Beneath the thatch that cathedrals this hotel lobby, air bloats against the hanging fans, holding them almost still.

 

“But, Madam, it is not the right day.”

 

You smile, try to. Are prickled by afternoon heat rashing your skin.

 

“The wedding’s on Saturday, I know. But it was a discount ticket. I know why now—six hours in what Nairobi calls an airport should be discounted, though it did prepare me for this city's.  Then my taxi broke down, and if the shuttle hadn’t been late, I’d have missed it. But you weren’t expecting me anyway, not today...” You’re tired now, rambling.

 

“In the book it says you come tomorrow.”

 

The confusion is minor. Your armpits bloom with sweat.

 

“Where’s Grace? I rang her last week about this. Look, just fetch her, okay?”

 

The receptionist nods, disappears behind the door marked Staff.

 

Listen to yourself! How has it come back so fully, your old bossiness, the impatience and presumption that once belonged to whites only, that may still? Perhaps no time away is enough. Perhaps home is that place where you become who you don’t want to be so fast that you might as well have stayed.

 

Grace arrives, is all smiles. “You will like the Sunbird,” she soothes. “It is the rondaavel outside.” You follow her out the lobby. Behind you, unasked, the porter brings your suitcase.

 

“It is unpleasant, the roads to here,” Grace says at the door to the cottage. “But for the country to get better, we rely upon the tourists.”

 

Chastened, you mention the miles of bush you saw. “Nothing that wild in England. England is chopped into pieces. They call it countryside.” You don’t say what it is not, that in a dozen years you have not once seen the goats, sheep, dogs, hens, bicycles, and children of these roads, the listing, top-heavy, crammed-full cars, the sudden, white-eyed pulling over for shrieking motorcades. Nor did you stare into the windows of so many German cars, feel so push-pulled by this brash, multi-color wealth. But now is too soon to sort through it all, the blight and the extravagant, in so much black and also white.

 

“Here we are,” says Grace, beaming. Inside, the Sunbird is as whitewash pretty as it is outside. The thatch is pale with newness, the room perfectly round except for the jut of the bathroom. Grace lays the key on the brown-red wood of the coffee table, a wood you used to know by its native name.

 

“Excellent! This is excellent, thank you!” You sound stupid with too much gratitude now that the arms-length ways of London are shaken loose.

 

“Must I lock,” you ask Grace, “when I go outside?”

 

Tsotsis are very bad nowdays,” she says, her head tilted in sorrow. “They make mischief all the time. But here it is safe, praise God.”

 

You strip, shower, and with your eyes closed against the pummeling water, you see again the jumble of this continent’s airport-bazaars with their buckled trolleys and chipped, avocado walls. You see too how jagged are the outskirts of this now-strange city, how the sign-posts have been stripped for their metal, the way the culverts gag on curdled, oozing muck. Buildings whose walls once held up roofs and encased windows, doors—whole lives—are instead hillocks of broken bricks. Across your eyelids spool the footpaths that ribbon the roads, the people that steadily walk them, backs slung with dozing babies, necks and heads stiff beneath tall loads, faces smiling or grim as rags.

 

Clean, you dress and begin to unpack.

 

“Madam!” A young voice from outside. “Grace sends some cake and sandwiches for your tea. You can have it on the verandah or inside there?”

 

The verandah is fine, you call out, and find your sunglasses. As you open the door you catch the sour-sweet scent of mealie fields at harvest-time. All this you’ve forgotten you remember. And you’re forgetting already if this was what you expected, this scrambled, overturned mess of everything different but not altogether changed.

 

Perhaps the cake you’ve been brought is granadilla.

 

***

 

The next morning there’s a knock. Grace. Make-up bright and skillful, pearls fatter than her earlobes, nails an unabashed pink. On her tray a bulbous pot of tea, a plate of rusks. Rusks—you’d forgotten those too. In London you avoid the side streets crammed with ethnic shops selling foods from distant homes. Those are the places for immigrants who can’t choke off their pasts.

 

“Madam, sorry to bring a problem but Master Byford telephoned just now.”

 

“Has something happened? Is it Benjamin’s dad?” Mornings are not you at your best. You should have asked for a ten-o’clock wake-up, given yourself another hour to absorb the sleepless flight. You try but can’t take in the Madam and the MasterMaster! For as long as you’ve been gone, these are terms you’ve kept stuffed inside your old trunk, that hulk of green metal you’d emigrated with and then used to store what you’d grown up hearing and saying without thinking but that had become out of place—unsuitable, in fact. You’ve hung onto it though, have shoved it under this or that bed with every move, never getting around to lugging it to the charity shop. To emigrate is to box up your past and keep it out of sight: how else to integrate, find a job, a tiny bedsit, a better job, a one-bedroom, then boyfriend, husband, ex?

 

“Master Byford says his sister is coming but we are fully booked.”

 

You still don’t understand, can’t penetrate the sludge fogging your thoughts.

 

“A folding bed can fit inside here. He says I must ask nicely can she share with you. When he is finished at the airport, he will telephone for your answer.”

 

“Benjamin? You mean Benjamin!”

 

“Master Byford, yes. He says he will be very happy for this favor.”

 

Happy. What he hadn’t been, or not enough, with you. What place is it of yours to care now about his happiness?

 

“Fine, yes. When Mas—when you speak to Benjamin, tell him the extra bed is fine. Now he absolutely is the world’s happiest man. You can tell him that too.”

 

You’re being unfair to Grace, and now Benjamin will think you’re who you were when you left, which you’re not. Or not often.

 

Grace smiles, says breakfast is being served. You pour a cup of tea and get back into bed. When you knew him, Benjamin had no sister, only two older brothers. Years after your parents moved to Durbs, you’d heard via someone who’d heard via someone else that the Byfords had split, the father wasting no time in marrying a gold-digger, someone, unsurprisingly, much younger.

 

Instead of dressing for breakfast, you contemplate a sister and finish the last rusk. If Grace were here, you’d tell her she’s made a mistake.

 

***

 

“Not much room in here, is there? Just as well I don’t have a dead cat to swing around.”

 

The temporary roommate. Not bothering to knock, never mind that you could be asleep or trying to revive your hair.

 

“Judy, by the way.”

 

Who else? You give your name, can’t look away from her. She’s blonde. As blonde as she is confidant, with long bare limbs, hazel-toned skin, fashionable short shorts, a cleavaged tank-top. Mostly there’s her mouth, lips redder than bougainvillea, teeth a glare of white. Once, twice, a third time, that mouth declares how she’s desperate, desperate!, for a drink. “And I don’t mean tea. Trust me, getting to Sunday morning will take booze. Nothing as tiring as two people parading their love. Why’s a fly been let in?”

 

You open your mouth to say find another room but instead ask what happens on Sunday morning.

 

“Booze cruise,” she says, swinging her zebra-print hold-all onto your bed. “A week on a houseboat, everything included—only reason I’m here, that’s for sure.”

 

She walks over to where you’re sitting and leans across the table to jerk wide the half-closed curtains.

 

“Can’t stand it dark. We’ll close them if the lovebirds head this way.”

 

You feel the blow of his being in love, know that your throat is shutting closed.

 

“Fine,” you manage. “That’ll be fine.”

 

“I see,” Judy says, “you’re one of them, a—” she crooks two fingers on each hand at you “—friend. Why’re all you exes still around? Actually, never mind. We don’t have time to know each other, so let’s not.”

 

She sits on the edge of the bed and begins loosening the straps of her sandals. “What’s your view of lemons? In terms of liquid refreshment, I mean.”

 

Soon you’re squeezing half a dozen of them into a pitcher, then stirring in the teacup of sugar she ordered from room service. Next you add the tumbler of ice, roughly crushed, and then the vodka, its label the color of something Arctic. She tells you not to start without her, she’s going to shower.

 

You’ve known Judys before and steered clear. They’re always the same, commanding others to do things for them, unnecessary things, and their gratitude is short-lived and shallow. And yet here you are, a pitcher on your lap with your arm wrapped around it as you stir, the spoon making an irregular clink-clinkety against the glass and ice. The sound reminds you of something, a beetle, the msasa seeds on a bracelet.

 

“And don’t hold back!” Another instruction, this one bellowed from within the bathroom’s damp. You add more vodka, not measuring.

 

When she returns, flushed and barely dried, you hand her a glass, take another sip from yours. She settles in the white wicker chair opposite yours, knees bent to one side, her heels pressing against her buttocks. It’s the position of someone used to stretching out an arm to have a glass refilled or a plate taken from her; someone is always headed to where she wants a thing taken.

 

“Might as well give you the scuttle,” she’s saying now. “Three years ago, the mother of yours truly sweet-talked Benjie’s philandering father down the aisle. No surprise that a year into it the sex got ordinary but not the fights. Long story short, splitsville. Mum went overboard about the alimony at first, but finally my finger-wagging about birds in hands got through. Old Man Byford’s so grateful, he still invites me to the family shindigs. Cheers!”

 

She’s already deep in a sip when you raise your glass. “What about Benjamin’s mother? Did she remarry?”

 

“To the Old Man himself, five, six months ago now. Proves my theory that weddings are contagious as mono.” Her laugh launches her perfume toward you, a bouquet you can’t toss back. “Call him Benjie, by the way. Amazing how that pisses him off.”

 

It furs in your throat, Judy’s perfume, its odor thick and heavy like the juice of a guava. You watch her as though there’s nothing else to look at. She’s still rolled inside the navy bath-towel, and when she gets up from the chair she doesn’t mind that it stays behind like a handcuff unlocked. There’s no trying to cover herself up. It’s a good body, you see, compact but not sinewed by exercise.

 

“Stupendously dull,” she says over her shoulder. “That’s what scratches my head—ha, seems I am drunk. Why d’you all still like him? There’re shoes I’d rather talk to.” She pulls the bedspread aside, then lies on top of the exposed sheet. “Two hours,” she says, “then make me get up. Rehearsal dinner’s tonight. Pity you can’t go in my place. Too much soap-shiny for me.”

 

When the snoring starts you go outside to the verandah. Its curve is a half-moon of slate flecked with shimmies of mica. Underfoot it’s rough, exactly as you remember from around the swimming pools of your childhood, the wide paths to tennis courts and narrower ones to the servants’ area. Dragonflies pivot from shade to sun to shade; a pair of black-and-orange butterflies hovers, dips, darts off as though choreographed. To your right and straight ahead, toward the hotel parking lot, are crisscrossing uniforms. A bustle of navy-with-gold-trim in perspiring obedience. Past them you see the billow of dust on the access road: guests just arrived. From the car come two khakied men with floppy hats, sunglasses hanging around their necks. Then the wives from the back seat, their voices bright and laughing, their hips soon jogging a child. The navy-and-golds lope toward them. You watch the gestures that are instructions to unload the car’s roof-rack and boot, and then the guests go inside to waiting lagers and double shandies. The suitcases—four from the roof, two more from the boot and also a cooler—are hoisted with grunts. Then out comes a pair of tennis shoes, no laces, followed by full brown calves. The yellow of a skirt—no, a dress—on the thick body of a woman in a matching cap. The nanny. Of course, a nanny for the children! As plump as yours had been, and awkward in her heft as she rocks herself forward out of the car. The staff and she are formal with their cupped hands clapping in greeting, a custom you grew up watching. They heave the luggage and lumber inside.

 

The dragonflies are gone, perhaps to the sprinkler across the lawn. The hot, still quiet of a valley afternoon, the baking heat of stupor. How unchanged it sometimes looks, things that could have been untangled, tangled still. As though you could have done anything but run from it, this country you almost can’t believe.

 

But here comes a waiter with a tea tray.

 

***

 

Then, while everyone’s lingering over breakfast, you go and save a kid’s life. Through the tall dining-room windows, the parents see you plonking their kid on the lip of the pool and race over, aghast, slack-jawed. The weeping, pregnant-again mother is hysterical from hormones. The father offers to get you anything, whatever you need, anything. A crowd circles them, eases them back inside as though the pool might try another snatch.

 

But even as you’d watched the toddler trundle across the unattended veranda toward the pool’s shallow end and known what would unfold, you didn’t prepare yourself for the attention, the pats to your shoulders, the half-hugs. You almost dive back into the pool, hoping they’ll understand that you’re the kind who lays low on the morning of a wedding, who stores up all she hears and sees from some ways off. How if you’re forced to be part of something instead of observing it, you might struggle later, in your London life, to parse all of this, to keep separate the then and the now in the way of the historian whose insights into her subject are so keen because she once lived among those she now studies.

 

“Nicky! Nics!”

 

His voice cutting through the guests to come to you.

 

“Fantastic, what you just did! We can’t say enough thank you’s, really, we can’t.”

 

His arms are fierce, gruff, around you. You don’t remember him being this much taller than you, with a chest this broad. He’s more intense, too, than you remember, heartfelt. His neck, the pair of small freckles below his right ear: those you remember. Possibly you saw gray in his hair, you’re not sure. You’d planned to take him in slowly, the two of you somewhere quiet, unhurried, where he wouldn’t have spoiled it so soon. Where he wouldn’t have said we, twice, for emphasis.

 

You feel the others watching and listening, refusing you your distance. You see what they see: you, with Benjamin, amidst them all. It will be impossible, later, to transform something so public into anything private. A memory made useless by others.

 

His hands grip your forearms, trapping water between you. “He’s Kerry’s—our—godson. Blake. Such a lovely boy, you’d enjoy him, everybody does, a super, super kid.”

 

Had he prattled before, been so well-stocked with weightless words? Startling, to find something off-putting, to hear him hold nothing back the way he used to. Love had had its effect.

 

“Anyone would’ve jumped in, not just me.”

 

“Kerry’s checking on Blakey but she wants to thank you herself, genuinely thank you. You’ll see—she’s a-hundred-percent sincerity.”

 

Then sincerity was what he wanted? You could have shown him sincerity squared—quintupled! Except you’d not known you needed to. Incredible, what turns out to be a blindside.

 

“Thanks for Judith also. When she goes too far, tell her where to get off. Say I said so. You’re coming on the houseboats, I hope. They’re instead of a honeymoon, so everyone can carry on enjoying themselves. Come, Nics; you’ll love it.” He looks behind him, turns round again. “I’ll go fetch Kerry now; just give me a sec.”

 

You laugh, try to. “I want to get changed first. Then I’ll come find you, both of you.”

 

“You’ll really like her.”

 

“She’s American?”

 

“Born in Boston. Left at eighteen to go study in Zurich, then Lisbon. We met in Mexico City. She does consultancy to nonprofits. And now she’s come here.”

 

“Where else?”

 

“Not everyone,” he says, his charming, lazy smile starting up, “has written this place off. Hell, some are coming back! We miss the likes of you. People should always go back home; it’s where they belong.”

 

You can’t help yourself, in part because water is dripping off your hair into your eyes, your left ear. In larger part because we again, we miss the likes of you. So you say it.

 

“Does that include Boston, as a home a person should go back to?”

 

The flicker in his eyes that you remember. The way soft brown shifts into shadow. Like syrup into—but never mind. You backtrack into gentleness, aware how even now, with him, you want to seem pleasant. “And why would she choose Boston when here is where you are?”

 

He smiles, agrees to be mollified. Proof, you realize, that he really is happy.

 

“Hey, Roommate!” Judy, from behind Benjamin, approaching with a wave. He winces, steps back from you. “Didn’t think you were the drowning-sorrows kind! Very Hollywood, actually, the hotel pool.”

 

“Go away, Judith.”

 

She ignores him, grins. “If I’d been awake, Roomie, I’d’ve spared you the embarrassment.”

 

“It’s not…” you try, stop, try again. “It’s got nothing to do...”

 

Judy eye-rolls her disbelief, then gives you a wink. “Benjie’s not as—”

 

“Will you shut up?” Benjamin says. “Don’t be an idiot for once.”

 

There’s dislike in her face you hadn’t expected to run so deep, but whatever’s in her mouth she doesn’t let spill. When she looks at you again, she’s back to good fun. “Come find me later. I’ll be where there’s champagne.”

 

She goes but you can’t say anything because you’ve ground to a halt. Ben relaxes his mouth, says he’s sorry for that. You don’t want to hear it, his condescension, or to taste the bitter, quinine-like sharpness it always left behind.

 

“As soon as you’re dressed, come find us, okay?”

 

You hurry back to the Sunbird wiping water off your nose with the back of your hand. A motion that sends the sting of chlorine to your eyes.

 

***

 

“Why’d you have to be a hero—that kid’s a brat.”

 

Judy, barging in again. You don’t look up from your book.

 

“Now they’re all ganning on about any tragedy they can think of: the dead Betsakis twins, this or that kid hit by a car, land mines still blowing off legs. Who wants to hear that?”

 

She sits, waits for you to say something.

 

 “Fine, you mope. I’m going for a ride.”

 

You don’t look up but your eyes aren’t reading.

 

“You’re not waiting for him to come find you, are you?”

 

She jams her feet into a pair of lime-colored tackies, shoes you’d call plimsolls if you weren’t in this country.

 

“Horse?” you say, “or bike?”

 

She holds out a pair of yellow and red slip-slops, Bata’s Everyman shoe. “Let’s get a move-on, okay?”

 

You stand up, slide your feet into the slops. The rubber is softer than you remember, doesn’t dig at the skin between your toes. Judy walks quickly and your slops make loud slapping sounds against the paving-stone pathway. The parking lot has filled with cars the size of young elephants, and beyond that is a footpath that’s overgrown with rough bush grass that jabs at your calves and knees. Straight ahead is the back of a low cement building with a flat, patched-up corrugated roof. When you round the corner, you see two horses being tied to a rail as skinny as a msasa branch.

 

“Take the bay,” Judy says. “That’s the brown one, Ms. London.”

 

The stirrup’s the right length to mount and ride with. You thank the groom, who’s waiting off to the side. Under his drooping cotton hat his face has that sad look of people who think they know what’s coming. You tell him not to worry, and although you use the respectful madala, he turns and walks off.

 

Judy’s already past the buildings heading for the vlei. It’s early afternoon, too hot for good game-viewing, but soon you see her pointing in silence to a tall pile of smooth, sun-faded rocks up ahead. You’re almost level with the balancing rocks when you see them, a half-dozen warthogs lying in the shade. They don’t move as you ride past. Because of the horses, all the animals you pass—duiker clumped in the freckled shade of an acacia, the gray-brown rump of what you guess is a kudu browsing on dense, thorny shrubs, more warthogs trotting single-file into the grass, a graying, heavy-necked giraffe littered with tickbirds—show no alarm, are barely interested. It’s hours that you’re gone, and when the groom silently takes the reins from you, the lines on his face make you wonder if he’s sick.

 

Back in the Sunbird, Judy asks how much forex you can spare. You’re at the beginning of your fortnight holiday so not much, you explain, then ask what it’s for.

 

“The groom’s tip,” she says. “That wasn’t any horse he let you ride.”

 

You hand her a twenty-pound note and she snorts in a way that says you’re exactly what she expected.

 

“What, you're Scottish now? In this country, beating the bride to her surprise wedding gift goes for double that.”

 

She grabs her own wallet and storms off. Slowly you undress for the shower, reluctant now to wash off the dust, the sweat that nets along your cooling skin.

 

***

 

Weddings are a group play. Everybody has their role; if the script is properly followed, the production is labeled a success, the applause for the two protagonists erupts when it should, and the audience—we bit players—know we’ll soon be given food and good drink. Weddings: all tension and no drama.

 

Even so, this wedding, this production, is a thing of beauty. An amphitheatre of tall mahogany chairs with huge lilac bows at their backs encircle the flower-draped dais. The backdrop of the lake has a splendor to it that was never captured in the school-lesson boast that it’s the world’s largest manmade lake. As for the timing, how could the sun not set on cue, at the moment of the kiss? You watch with everyone else, marvel at how no one lets on that they see through it, this rearranging of the real so it appears as magical.

 

A relief, then, Blakey’s disregard for the on-fire sky, the birdsong arias that lightly dance above the susurrating leaf-rustle of an onshore breeze. His fat hands snatch rose petals from the bridesmaids’ startled baskets, then fling them above his big head instead of along the grassy aisle, where, slowly, the beaming, shining couple are making their way. It is inspired, this small ad-lib, and in your lungs again is air. You look around; nowhere do you see the expression you imagine is yours, of impatience with all this perfection.

 

With the others you move toward the long, white-linen table where waiters wearing purple cummerbunds pour champagne. The string lights are turned on. They hang low and looping between the trees, each tiny light a jacaranda flower. Startling, the way each ridged tube neck and flared-skirt opening enhances what you remember, makes you stare when no real bloom ever did.

 

“To us,” Judy says, suddenly beside you. Her glass is drained, and where her lips drank is a smudge of muddy red. “Don’t you want yours?”

 

You swig it down, not tasting.

 

“Look, he doesn’t have to know,” she says. “Benjie’s surprise is still a surprise.”

 

“You should have told me whose horse it was. I thought you were being nice.”

 

“You thought wrong,” she says, then grins. “Look, it’s me he’ll lecture, not you, so no harm done. Anyway, I’ve rejiggered things so we’re at the same table. Me sparing you from an evening with Blake’s parents, that’s nice.”

 

The table Judy leads you to is farthest from the head table and already in dusk’s shadow. Children skit and dart like water beetles; mothers pretend not to notice as they settle against the tall chair backs; men break free of jackets, begin digging into shirt pockets for cigarettes. As the sky empties of light, the purple-bandaged waiters hurry to light the three candles on each table.

 

“Brandy and Coke,” Judy orders. “One for her too.” She leans towards the table’s center, blows. Only the tallest candle stays lit.

 

“Thought so,” she says, lifting one of the holders. “Boda. Nothing like a Swedish designer for an American bride who’s been wooed to backward Africa.”

 

Soon everyone is smearing crisped bread with goose paté and ordering refills of drinks. The hors d’oeuvres are a boast of color, Mozambique prawns atop spears of asparagus and a sweet, stewed fruit, the plates’ edges doodled prettily with mulberry sauce. Wine is poured, a South African white that goes to your head. You choose the sole over rib-eye and the tiny chops of lamb that somehow stand upright. You think you might be enjoying yourself, the way the talk finds its rhythm and doesn’t overreach: shortages in the shops; petrol prices through the bloody roof; how fantastic tonight’s band is; why watching hippos from this very lake can’t be beat.

 

“Want to hear the latest about my ex?” It’s not clear who Judy’s talking to and no one answers. “He’s gapped it. Sweden, apparently. Scared of the flak he might get here for shacking up with Minister Goldman Phiri’s youngest. Makes sense, Sweden; they love the blacks more than the blacks do.” She tips back her chair, rocking it slightly. “Still, I didn’t turn him homo.”

 

People snicker, then laugh. Across the table, a man going bald above a broad, leather-brown face gives a nod. “Careful, hey. Ben’s in-laws are practically Swedes. Big NGO supporters, third-world charities, the works.”

 

“Rich as New York, too,” someone else says, another man. “What’s the bet their best friends are illiterate coolie poofters?”

 

The woman to his right slaps his arm, says shush, Derek, there’re children around. “I met the in-laws this afternoon,” the woman says. “They’re nice enough. A bit know-it-all.”

 

“That’s Americans for you,” says the bald man, “always so sure their way works, never mind what’s really happening.”

 

“I thought things had changed,” you hear yourself say. “I thought the old attitudes were gone, that at least the rules applied equally now.”

 

“Tell that to the Government,” another man says. He takes the baby potato that’s rolled off his plate and puts it into his mouth.

 

 “Look,” the man called Derek says, “the point is we’ve got as much right to be here as the next person, especially after what we’ve been through: sanctions, the war, land seizures. Every day we put up with that shit.” Blood leaks from the steak where he punctured it with his fork.

 

“Plus,” Judy says, waving at a waiter to take her plate, “we like it here. Face it, where else is the lifestyle half this good?”

 

Derek, still chewing, says she’s talking bollocks. “We work bloody hard for what we have. Just like our parents, their parents as well. Not on your life am I saying sorry for what I have.”

 

The woman—his wife, you think—looks over to you, half-smiles. “Don’t you find they whine a lot, the English?”

 

You’re about to say you’d whine too in all that rain but you’re too slow.

 

“She’d choose them over us any day; they’re not racists!” The drink in Judy’s voice makes it sound like a punchline. “I’m the exception, though,” she goes on, mock-toasting herself. “Look, whenever someone goes overseas they come back thinking their blacks are the same as ours. They’re not. For one thing, theirs sound white.”

 

“Admitting there’re differences,” the potato-man says, “means you’ve got the guts to tell the truth.”

 

Derek wipes his hand across his chin, says the country—hell, the whole of Africa—would be a wasteland if it wasn’t for the whites that stayed. “If the so-called First World wasn’t so bloody spineless, it would admit we saved this place, not them. We’re the ones who built it up to what it is now.”

 

He glares at you across the candle, dares you to notice he’s using the tablecloth as a napkin.

 

“A toast to us,” Judy says, “and our spines!” No one joins her but she drinks anyway. “Fine, let’s talk about sex then. You first, Nicky-Nics; you’re practically a foreigner now, and foreigners love sex with us locals. What’s Kerry got waiting for her tonight?”

 

The table laughs, lets go the tension. You stand up but your cardigan won’t come loose from the chair. The bow—you’ve grabbed the stupid bow by mistake. You untangle it from your sleeve with everyone watching, but by the time you walk off, Judy’s saying take it from her mother, nothing’s more boring than knowing you can’t do it with anyone else ever again. Someone shrieks, says bit late to tell her that now.

 

You’re halfway up the stairs to the hotel’s patio when you hear him call out. “Good, you found me.”

 

Surprised, you tell him congratulations, open your mouth to say more. Something about him, though, the way he stays one stair above you keeps you quiet. It’s the first chance you’ve had with him alone but you’re not sure you want it. The lights along the stairs smudge his features. Something about it all, this whole evening, makes you feel old. It’s as though the world is suddenly old, and that everything in it is what you already know.

 

“I had no idea you’re still angry,” he says. “The old Nics wouldn’t have done that. It’s such a waste, being angry.”

 

You keep trying to focus him but the way you have to tilt your neck jabs a long, thin pain down your back.

 

“I didn’t know,” you say. “I didn’t even suspect”

 

He slits his eyes and you recognize what he’s doing, know that he’s deciding if you’re worth caring about.

 

“I was angry,” you say, giving in, “but I’m not now. The way you ended it—of course I was angry. As it turns out, you were right; you belong in this place and I don’t.

You’re not daunted by how broken it is, how it’s milk that’s rationed but not Godiva chocolates or Stilton or booze for everyone’s parties. The people here suit you. You’re their kind.”

 

“Not all of them suit me, just the ones who’re worth something.”

 

You should stop but can’t. “She’s honest, at least. Derek, those others—”

 

“Ask Judith what she did to get the clinic in Silekwe up and running. Ask how much it cost her to build a school on her farm. It’s what people like Derek get done despite what’s happening that matters.”

 

He’s coming toward you and you almost don’t hear it, the clink of a fork against crystal, the summons to a new husband to give voice to his new, better life.

 

“How was I supposed to know the horse was yours?”

 

“Not mine, Kerry’s,” he says in a voice sharp as wire. “The problem is when people think they know better but they’ve forgotten there’re consequences. They’ve forgotten what those have to look like here.”

 

He’s past you now, hurrying toward the clinking fork. You half-shout after him that the surprise doesn’t have to be spoiled, but even to you, your voice sounds off. There’s a seriousness to it, sure, but leaping out from behind each word are little bits of mockery, bits that rise and hang, suspended beyond your reach.

 

The dinner plates are being cleared. People laugh more loudly, and even from these stairs you smell the spicy-sweet drift of cigars. Back at the Sunbird, you change your clothes, turn off the lights, and go sit on the verandah. You keep seeing it, the silver-white flash of Ben’s tie over his shoulder as he dashes down the stairs to give his speech.

 

                                                  ***                                                 

 

In the morning, you greet Grace in the lobby when she comes on duty. She’s wearing different earrings—thin silver hoops that bump her neck when she moves her head—and a tan scarf that knots crookedly at her throat. You explain what you want and she says she will send someone to where the driver is getting the bus ready so he knows to stop here. She puts your suitcase behind the counter and suggests you sit by the pool to have your tea. When she brings it, you can’t help yourself, you ask for a plate of rusks. It’s because of how long she stares that you tease.

 

“What—have I depleted the hotel’s stash?”

 

“I will send the waiter with your order.”

 

One corner of her mouth is missing its lipstick. The bare skin is like something left unsaid.

 

“The groom,” you say, “is that the matter?”

 

Grace blinks, stares, then looks at her clasped hands.

 

“Has he…? Did Master Byford say he must be fired?”

 

Grace does not move. She doesn’t believe your incredulity, doesn’t care that the smash into your chest reminds you of those two long-distance phone calls from long ago, one your mother about your father’s stroke, the other an aunt about your mother.

 

“But it was my fault! I’ll talk to him, Grace. He’ll change his mind, don’t worry.”

 

 Suddenly Grace’s eyes are raised to yours. “The madala went already to his eldest daughter. He was paid three months wages. That is the rule nowdays.”

 

You say nothing, stunned, and Grace goes back inside. When the shuttle arrives, the porter brings your suitcase to the bus while you give your ticket to the driver. The lurching this time is worse, the roads already more ruined. Fat, green-bodied flies travel between you and the driver, are shooed away and shooed again. You picture Grace collecting your tray and seeing the bulk of forex beneath the sugar bowl. It’s what your kind do. You give money to fix the messes you make, at a loss for how else to help. Through the open windows comes the smell of dust on rising heat, the sense that time passes even as it is bided.

 


 

Read Next: What Happens Next by Roy Kesey

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Lynn Bey has had flash fiction published in Birmingham Arts Journal, Rhapsodia, Conquista & Rebellion, Broken Pencil, and a few other magazines that are sadly now defunct. This is her first full-length short story publication. She is working on her second novel because the first still refuses to come out and play.

 

This story was originally published in Issue 8 of The Literarian