FEB 2, 2023
This was the misery of paradise. The stupefying ritual of cloud spotting had inundated the now despairing islanders. For the pale and curious tourists that had successfully escaped the bitterly cold northern grey skies, the perceived worship of craning necks that tilted eyeballs upwards to the heavens in search of their deferred respite seemed awkward. Occasionally, the gods played tricks and dispatched a short stream of puffy clouds, that eventually dissipated, but at the end of the day, the rain just never came. Dusk was the only dependable mercy that briefly ended the torture over the island, as the evenings became pleasantly cooler. That is when the island went into high gear. A ceaseless torrent of activity thronged the narrow winding roads and streets that were caked in a fine brown layer of Saharan dust that had failed to make the sea crossing to feed the Amazon and the sandy coral Caribbean islands.
Along the rows of blackened shiny aluminium bicycle frames, Mzee Tembo's small transistor tinnily echoed the soulful voice of his beloved Siti Binti Saad backed by her band in a mournful Muhogo wa Jangombe, the strings tugging at one of the few connections he had to his heritage. Una at the back voraciously perused the carefully indexed glossy colourful catalogues that Mzee Tembo had assembled in the few years he had operated the bicycle shop. For her, running the shop alongside her husband had granted her a highly coveted status among her peers; few who owned a business and many that remained in monotonous domestic servitude. Keen to develop a near-anatomical vocabulary of the wares they paraded and traded, she had absorbed practically every single new word she had discovered. When Mapacha had trained the new junior assembler, an eager and affable mechanical trainee from the Josephine Trade School, she had brought a notebook to the lessons, and gone through the process, watching as João, under Mapacha's strict tutelage practised the art of perfect bicycle assembly and repair in limited time, and then japan the completed units into a desirable product that any discerning customer would ogle and desire.
Mapacha, now an 'Assembly Manager', a role he failed to understand, found himself suddenly freed of the invariant mechanical routine, and instead would inspect João's handiwork and correct what he deemed faulty. The new-found freedom and financial security endowed him the latitude to seek a better association with Gwafa and oddly, encouraged by Mzee Tembo, to pursue his new interest in aviation, with the odd run as a 'co-pilot in training' to Praia or Dakar. Eventually, at night, Mapacha passionately regaled an astonished Abril with his new experiences. She found abundance in the conversations that had previously never extended beyond grunts and choices.
In the dull but highly desirable community of Barra, a corner of Josephine reserved for the well-heeled, Banou set about cleaning her newly bought house. A hospitable old-fashioned colonial that had sat on the market for far too long, due to its dated looks and questionable owner, a former seconded Portuguese Empire functionary who had since left the backwater that was Ilha de Florença for his beloved Iberian Peninsula and was glad to be rid of it for a quick song. Unbothered by its sinister reputation, she supervised a well-needed renovation and turned it into a fashionable three-bedroom residence, complete with a garden.
The next day, she now counted herself as the fourteenth passenger in the back of the stuffy battered red Volkswagen Type 2 Kombi as it crowned the pedestal hill that overlooked Josephine and raced over the thin, narrow snake of a road that curved its way through to St. Michel. As the van bounced on the uneven road, the crumpled and weary passengers weaved in unison to the motion. This was her first trip to the city since the unforgiving thrashing of the Englishman, and now, she was here for what she trusted would be the last time. As the warm breeze freely flowed through the wide open windows, her eyes, concealed by her dark Manhattans brimmed with dread at the idea of being openly associated with St. Michel.
At the customary police roadblock, they were hastily inspected before they were granted access to the city. When she saw those pristine immaculate boulevards and palatial buildings, she felt completely disconnected. It felt gaudy and drab at the same time. The gleaming glass of the tall buildings had lost its allure. This, to her, was where the devil vacated. The van ultimately arrived at Central bus station and she stepped out into the muggy humidity. Round her, the chaos that came with the station was as unrelenting as she remembered. The mass of people in various stages of travel was surrounded by the porters who traded their ability to ferry luggage out to the local taxis or away from the station. Hawkers pedalled everything from freshly squeezed juice to small broas served with hot tea that damned tourists but were desired by the locals. Before anyone could recognise her, she impatiently strode across the city, over the streets that were congested by bewildered tomato-reddened tourists and uninterested islanders. All this felt foreign to her.
Her calculated ten-minute walk led her to the steps of a miserable-looking four-storey grey tenement. A handful of excited sunburnt children in near tatters roved and screamed in play on the brown sandy yard that had a few patches of dried brown grass. She thrust the old wooden door inwards and walked up the decayed stairs to the second floor and then to the end of the corridor. The faded white particle board door that had a dark mouldy stain on the bottom still stood guard. She pulled out a bunch of keys from her handbag and with hesitation slipped one into the lock. Slowly, she turned the lock, then the door handle pushed on the rotting wood and it noisily creaked open. The musty aura of the room welcomed her as she tiptoed in. She closed the door quietly behind herself and stared into the deplorable state of the room she had previously called home.
A fine coat of dust had laminated every single surface. Deep regret filled her and the loathsomeness of the room bubbled from within. Her humiliation lay here, but she understood that her time to regret had drawn to its end. Suddenly, feeling sullied by her mere presence in the room, she pulled down her cheap black patent leather suitcase, opened it and then opened the small wooden wardrobe. She picked her favourite outfits, folded them and laid them into the suitcase. Those she deemed tawdry she cast to the floor. Then came the perfumes as she cast away the ones that reeked of cheapness. There they were. The footsteps. They approached the room and she could hear the cyclic wheeze that accompanied them. As expected, there was a soft knock on the door. Banou opened it and faced an old diminutive short-haired sourfaced stubby woman attired in a hideous threadbare faded orange liputa. Her face crabbed further as she sneered and coughed out her words.
"Ola vaca! Where have you been?" A wicked and unnecessary insult but she had expected that too. "You thought you could skip out on the rent huh?"
Banou's defences rose and instantly shielded her. For a moment, her claws stuck out, a mud sling in the air, but she thought better and anchored her tongue. A sweet reply would suffice.
"No. I was away, I had something that forced me to leave town for a few weeks."
"Oh, you managed to hook a rich one this time?"
A jeer flapped all over her scowl with unrestrained bitterness.
"Anyway, I don't care about your stupid stories. You can't remove anything till you pay me the back rent. Plus a fine for being late.
"Banou's temper bubbled and she struggled to tussle it back down. She detested her landlady and the brazen audacity of belittlement, especially given that Banou had turned a new leaf.
"What do you want you, you. . . cara de pau?"
"Ha! It is you who is shameless, puta, walking around here like the Queen of Sheba. I know you Banou. We all know you. Pay what you own, park your rubbish and get out. I don't want to see your trampy face around here again."
Banou's face relaxed.
She turned her back to the old lady, opened her handbag, and extracted a large wad of bills, that she quickly counted and shoved into the wrinkled sun-spotted hands.
The landlady licked her fingers and revealed a thrush-laden white layered tongue, and then thumbed through the money, once, then verified it with a second count. Spurred by greed, she licked her lips and took the opportunity to gouge her a bit more.
"What about the utilities? Eh? You owe me for that too. Add another ten pounds."
"But I was not here. How could I pay for something I did not use?"
"Hey vaca, you want to tell me how to run my business? Pay up!"
For the first time, she was glad she had left her gun in Josephine. With slitted eyes, she pulled out a ten-pound note and handed it over.
"Here. I hope it makes you feel richer."
"Eh! Stop with the noise, now pack your trash and get out!"
Her words rebounded on the particle board as Banou turned and closed the battered door. With her toiletries and kitchenware stuffed in boxes, she left the room and locked the door behind herself. It was a quick dash down the two flights, out into the yard and she speed walked back towards the bus station in search of transport. Parked among the numerous pickups and vans, she picked a beige Datsun 320 that displayed a transport sign on the windscreen. The driver, a young tough with unkempt hair and a shaggy beard snored loudly as his bare feet stuck out of the driver's side window.
He jolted from his sleep and sceptically scrutinised her. A customer and an attractive one at that. He gathered himself, dragged his feet in, opened the door and stood out. Banou lowered her sunglasses and stared at his broad scrawny chest. He felt embarrassed as he quickly buttoned up his shirt. She did not need to see the sparse popcorn hairs that paraded prominently. He went for his killer move, a tiny slow nod with a flicked eyebrow, a smile on his crooked lips to charm, and a flash of his large diastema between his magnificent pearl incisors.
"Ola sister. What can I do for you?"
"I am moving, and I need you to help move my things."
"Where to sister?"
Jackpot! A trip across the island.
"What do you need to transport?"
"Just a bed, a suitcase and a few boxes."
He consulted his non-existent mental calculator, admired her fine hips and then got back to the matter at hand.
She gasped exasperatedly.
"Two hundred? To Josephine? No."
"But sister, you need to understand, the economy. Times are hard. Petrol is expensive."
It was, but not two hundred pounds expensive. The truth of the matter was simple. He wanted a trip to Josephine anyway. There, he knew he could pick up a few gigs, buy a woman for a night or two, and also it was unlikely the return trip would be an empty one. So desperate were the girls in Josephine, that many were desperately saving to cross the chasm of the midlands eager to come and pursue a richer risque life with tourists in St. Michel. The small bag stuffed at the back of the foldable bench seat that had a fresh pair of clothes was there explicitly for this purpose. Banou, however, was not keen on what she felt was highway robbery and slowly casually haggled the price down to 165.
"Bank," he told himself.
With faux irritation, he pointed to the passenger door.
"Alright. Get in. Let's go."
She walked around and entered the cabin. Her back and shoulders were stung by the furnace the patent leather car seat cover had become from the heat of the sun. The driver lifted the fake fur leopard print dashboard cover and picked up the single key that he slotted into the ignition switch. He dropped the gear into second, and with the clutch depressed, he released the handbrake and the pickup slowly inched forward, propelled by gravity. Five seconds later, he released the clutch and the engine coughed, then roared to life. The exhaust gushed out a thick dark black plume of smoke. He smiled at her, proud of the Japanese stallion that only he could operate, and he headed to the exit of the station.
She directed him and in less than five minutes, the pickup parked outside the tenement. Even before he switched off the engine, Banou was already out, eager to leave this evil building. Her watch and the faint rumble in her belly reminded her that lunchtime had passed, but all that would have to wait till she got back to Josephine. She spotted a group of neighbourhood kids and flashed two fingers up. Two of the older lads dressed in khaki shorts and white vests came running.
"Ola," she greeted them.
"Want to help me move?"
They smiled at her. Easy gig.
She wasn't about to argue.
It took less than a quarter of an hour to manhandle the bed and other things down to the pickup. The driver harnessed everything down with ropes he stashed underneath the bench seat. With everything she needed out and a pile of unwanted clothes and perfumes on the floor, she reflected one last time in the squalid room. She removed the key from the ring, threw it on the floor and walked out. The landlady's heavy feet shuffled on the staircase as she tried to rush down. By the time she got to the second floor, the young guys had push-started the pickup. Banou paid them, and they drove off, with a thick dark cloud of diesel smoke after them.
The first stop was the Total petrol station where the driver fueled, had the pickup's radiator topped up, as well as the jerrican underneath the seat. A few minutes later, they were in the queue at the roadblock. One of the policemen who manned it recognised the pickup and the driver and he pulled them aside. He marched over, with a smart khaki-green uniform that portrayed the self-obtained authority it granted him. He leaned down into the open window and stared inside at the driver and then Banou.
As the driver fumbled for the license, the officer walked round the pickup. He tagged the weave of ropes to make sure everything was properly secured. The driver stuffed 5 pounds into the green license booklet and held it out for the officer. He took it, inspected it and returned it back to the driver, as he pocketed the money.
"On your way!" he ordered, with a loud slap to the body of the pickup.
The driver chuckled and dropped into low. The officer who proudly stood at the back, next to the exhaust pipe was drenched by the dark cloud of diesel smoke it belched. The Datsun gathered speed and weaved its way through the various towns and villages, and left behind the satin city of sin. She lit a Gitane and set the dark Manhattans onto the bridge of her nose. At that moment, she felt the dark side of her life fade away along the noxious fumes that the pickup produced. Her freedom had come.