Fiction and Drama
A Broken Window
In preparation for the visitors the house was being cleaned from top to bottom. Everybody was miserable.
The professor was miserable because it was impossible to concentrate as mattresses were carted onto the patio, beaten with sticks, and abandoned in the sunshine. Since the operation his attention had not fully returned.
After scanning the Lancet in preparation for court—the government was trying to deny his vaccine a clinical trial—his gaze wandered to the front of the house. There was glass on the tiled section of the driveway. Estella had managed to break a window while moving the mattresses onto the veranda.
Estella, the maid, was miserable because of Nafisa, her employer. If one was unhappy then so was the other. In this one way Estella and Nafisa were, people said, like mother and daughter.
Nafisa was miserable because her son Shakeer was about to arrive from San Francisco. He was taking the photographs at his father’s retirement party. It seemed that an entire generation was stepping down.
Nafisa was sensitive to her son’s opinion. Shakeer was her only child. She didn’t want him to arrive when the house was in disorder, even if he did not know the difference. There was only this one morning to straighten up. But neither Estella nor her husband were disposed to cooperate. They were obstacles!
The situation was bad within the four walls of the house. Beyond them it was worse. For some reason her authority had never extended across the property to the garage. Nafisa didn’t understand what happened in the garage. People without names had dumped things in there ever since they moved to the Westville house. Nor could Estella be persuaded to give it a thorough cleaning.
Nafisa was panicky. Her hands shook. It seemed that her hold on circumstances, which had been unsteady in recent years, had been revealed as such. She thought she would fall down.
Normally the state of the garage made no difference. The dog slept in a basket between the cars. Nobody much else went in. But Arif’s retirement party was going to be large, as raucous as such an evening could be. Some of the guests, in search of privacy, were sure to find their way up.
The contrast between the bright morning and the cool inside the door blinded Nafisa at first. She tripped on something. It was the tool bench cluttered with wrenches and spanners. She needed glasses. Shakeer, with his father’s agreement, had been telling her so for five years.
From beneath the bench Nafisa picked up a bicycle chain. It belonged to a bicycle of which she had no recollection. The oil coating the links came off black on her hands. She dropped the chain as if it had scalded her.
But it was hopeless! Nafisa retreated to the door. Things had been allowed to ride for too long. They were out of her control. The house was hopeless!
From the steps she spied further disorder on the veranda. After breaking the window Estella had brought out the beds to air. Something in the spectacle of the four Posturepedic mattresses, piled on the wall to reveal their discolored undersides, made Nafisa’s eyes fill with tears.
The odd thing was that she could not recall crying as a young woman. Other people had a different impression. On her wedding day her husband’s friend Jadwat, Dr. Jadwat, had mentioned her particular expression of sunshine and rain.
Jadwat was unreliable. It hadn’t been true then. There had been no rain at her wedding.
Today there was no sunshine. The reservoir of these tears had accumulated in the course of a difficult year. If she was distracted while driving, or couldn’t add two numbers together, or misplaced the key to her surgery, the tears found their way to the surface. They embarrassed her.
Nafisa believed that her ready tears were the prediction of some circumstance of which she had no knowledge. Since her husband’s operation she had sensed some catastrophe waiting to show itself. Of course it was such thinking, magical thinking, which Arif criticized in the country. So she had been unable to confess this sensation to him.
She put a hand across her forehead to conceal her condition from nobody in particular. Just as she did this Estella emerged from the house. Nafisa closed the door to the garage and hurried down the steps.
“Just where are you off to?”
Estella said, “As you can see I have put out the last mattress. They need some time to air. I will be back in the house just now, Nafisa, and sweep up the glass. I am going to collect my telephone from the room.”
“And why is that? Explain it to me.”
“I know you don’t like me to use the house telephone for personal use.” Estella paused, and saw that she needed to give a better reason. It was a tricky matter, to use her employer’s own words against her. “I must ask my neighbor, Peter Dlamini, to keep a check on my daughter this afternoon. As I told you, Nafisa, she had another fit in the night. Somebody has to be there.”
Nafisa wasn’t sympathetic. She had trained herself to be suspicious where Estella was concerned, especially when a long explanation was provided. Estella borrowed her words and her way of speaking. It angered her to be studied in this way. Yet the problem was real. She had Estella’s daughter under observation. The epilepsy was serious.
“Do you want to know what I think? I think it’s got nothing to do with your daughter. I believe it’s some new boyfriend you need to call on the dot every hour. And at a time like this! People will be here soon. Shakeer, for one, will be here this afternoon. So please don’t make a fool of me, Estella. I know precisely how you act when a new man appears. You’ve been wearing perfume.”
“I haven’t . . .”
“Look, your private life is your own business. All I ask is that you do the job. Since we are on the subject . . . you cannot be too careful as an African woman in this country. You have to be tested and have your boyfriends tested before you sleep together without a condom. This is the one thing which will lead to your comeuppance. You’re crazy for men.”
“Not at all, Nafisa. From the time I had my daughter men don’t interest me. I have learned my lesson.”
Nafisa searched in the other woman’s face for a measure of self-consciousness regarding this untruth. She didn’t find it.
There wasn’t a lot to trust in this face. Its faults were on the surface. One couldn’t deny that Estella was gorgeous. Her complexion was copper, almost like a copper pot. Her nose and cheekbones were so cleanly pressed that to look at them Nafisa was reminded of origami.
Beauty changed with the times. Unlike the African women of the previous generation, products of farms and villages, Estella had grown up in a nearby township. She took care of her looks. They were her capital. Her hair was firmly braided, beaded, and scolded into a bun.
Nafisa could guess at the effort channeled into this enterprise. It was a chore to be beautiful. She knew about the pair of high-heeled Cuthberts’ shoes, rolled in a sheet of rose-pattern gift wrap, and stored on the concrete shelf beside Estella’s bed. She had seen them transported onto the bus in Estella’s handbag. They represented a fortnight’s wages. For some reason these red shoes stayed in Nafisa’s mind. They summarized some fact about Estella.
Driving back from work Nafisa found her worker waiting at the municipal bus stop on Forester Avenue. She sometimes stopped to ask Estella something about the house. She could swear that, through the window, she detected the scent of her Lacoste perfume which should have been locked in the bathroom cabinet. She couldn’t imagine how Estella had located the key, if that was indeed how she had found her way into the perfume.
Nafisa had informed her husband of her discovery of the theft. He laughed about it. Arif’s reactions were unpredictable. He refused to take her side. He claimed to be objective. Yet there was an element of mockery in Arif’s attitude and it was directed against her. She smelled its presence as surely as the diluted Lacoste.
Remembering this incident Nafisa was irritated and dismissed Estella to her room. She sensed that the girl had eluded her. Once upon a time the shoe—that red-throated Cuthberts’ shoe—would have been on the other foot.
The first of the guests to arrive was her husband’s oldest friend in the world. Jadwat was a day early for the celebration because he was a divorcée and had time to burn. He planned to sleep over at their house in Durban as he generally did on a long weekend or public holiday.
This Jadwat was universally known by his surname. He seemed to have lost his first name in the course of the years. He was the former deputy mayor of the town of Richmond, one hour’s drive inland from the suburbs of Durban.
Recently Jadwat had made known he was done with day-to-day politics. Liberation had been unkind to his ideals. His fellow councilors in Richmond had been taking money from the agricultural companies in exchange for favorable treatment. They were bankrolled by the big industries in the province: sugar, maize, factory chickens. It was difficult to ignore the Jaguars and Land Rovers hovering like dragonflies at the council offices. The men who got into them were former socialists and Communists. Indeed, as often as not, they remained due-paying members of the Party.
Jadwat consoled himself by studying volumes of Trotsky printed in Golders Green—“The Zimmerwald Manifesto,” “Platform of the Joint Opposition,” and The Revolution Betrayed. Several such books lay on the passenger seat of his car, a Mercedes. If somebody was riding with him he moved his books to the back.
Perhaps the companionship of his books recalled Jadwat’s student years in Bombay when he moonlighted as an extra on a movie with Nargis and read Leon Trotsky on set. He had tried to enroll Nafisa in his socialist philosophy but with next to no success. She made it three paragraphs into the cyclostyled text of “Platform of the Joint Opposition” before giving up. She had never enjoyed reading.
Jadwat’s other consolation was his affairs. It provoked laughter in Nafisa to think that stocky, short-legged Jadwat, captaining the helm of his orange Mercedes, fancied himself a Casanova. He was entirely bald, bespectacled, ridiculous. She compared the purple of his thin and wormy lips to an eggplant.
Nafisa’s laughter had a cause deeper than the absurdity of her husband’s oldest friend. She was furious because he behaved so badly. She was complicit in his bad behavior. Over the years Jadwat had painstakingly courted a series of women to whom she had introduced him.
It seemed that a proposal was about to be made. Fever broke out in Jadwat’s camp. He dieted, didn’t sleep, bought new suits from Rex Trueform. He flirted, paid compliments, talked up the target of his affections to Nafisa over the unsteady telephone line from Richmond.
Yet Jadwat never in fact proposed to anyone. It embarrassed Nafisa in so far as she considered herself his sponsor. She had vouched for his good intentions to the unlucky lady. She continued to help Jadwat long after she knew what was going on. She learned nothing from the failure of her good offices. In future she would act differently.
There was a macabre dimension to Jadwat’s romances. When he heard of a husband passing away he started visiting the unlucky household. He went far afield to meet the widow, driving as far as Athlone in Cape Town and even to Nafisa’s place of birth, Botswana’s capital Gaborone, when he had the report of a man’s death. He brought flowers, videos, qawali tapes, earrings, yellow roses. He left behind cash in an electricity company envelope.
If flowers and money were well received, he pestered the widow into seashore dinners and Bombay-style musicals at the Durban Playhouse. He went to every length. Then, nothing. It was as if his short legs froze in mid-stride. Six weeks, six months into the adventure, and Jadwat severed contact with his intended.
Afterwards he never apologized, accounted for his actions, or referred to any of his discarded women sympathetically.
Nafisa tried to understand his thinking. It seemed that Jadwat took pride in having a past, a past with women, and in enlarging that past one widow at a time. The idea that she had helped him make a conquest, and might help him in the future, filled her with horror.
To make it worse, the man didn’t learn. In the absence of shame, Nafisa thought, experience had nothing to teach. So Jadwat would listen closely whenever the report of a man’s death came up in conversation, parking his big musky brown head at an angle, plucking the skin on his neck as he waited for mention of a surviving wife.
Today it was happening again. As he drove her to town Nafisa recognized the schoolboy disposition of his features.
Jadwat stretched out his short legs under the steering wheel. He turned easily in her direction while stopping for the light on the corner of Brickfield Road. Nafisa knew what was coming. This time she wasn’t going to yield.
“So, Nafisa. Nafisa, my dear, I heard the bad news about your cousin Goolam . . .”
He opened the car window and stowed his elbow on the door to relieve the pressure on his shoulder. It was already hot.
“About two weeks ago, I must have heard. I was distressed by the news. I distinctly remember meeting him and his wife at Shakeer’s wedding reception. Goolam was your second cousin, wasn’t he? And a man approaching the prime of his life. Ah, it seems we have had
more than our share of bad news recently.” He ran his hand along his crook shoulder. Nafisa had been giving him injections to suppress the inflammation.
“Goolam’s family must be devastated.”
“That’s a safe assumption.”
“Of course. My heart goes out to them. But perhaps I might convey my regards.”
The suggestion hung in the air. The robot turned green. Eventually Nafisa said, “Jadwat, could you concentrate on the road, if you
The catering for her husband’s retirement party was being done by a restaurant near the old city center where Greenacres used to be. Pakistanis ran the place, Karachi Delights, as well as a great number of cafés and fast food joints. They had taken over many of these nearby shops because they were willing to work in parts of town where Durban’s better-off Indians, not to say the whites, didn’t set foot.
The Pakistanis were tough new characters, recent arrivals from the subcontinent. Nafisa knew they were usually in the country without papers. She had only really registered their presence in the past year.
Since the advent of the new government nobody enforced the rules on immigration. Unending blocks of Johannesburg were dominated by the Nigerians who moved heroin and morphine from Lagos to Los Angeles. The Senegalese and Congolese were established in Cape Town. Then there were groups of Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, others from the Horn of Africa who had served in infantry battalions in Eritrea. But the Pathan Pakistanis were reputedly the toughest.
Nafisa admired them for their severity. They were quite unlike local Indians, having earned a reputation as fierce fighters. They carried short knives under their jackets which she had seen them take out when they felt threatened.
The Pakistanis went everywhere, did everything they wished, and in this way were the freest inhabitants of the country.
It astonished Nafisa, driving by on Marine Parade, to see them playing cricket late on the grounds behind the youth hostel. The water lay black in the harbour and amongst the docks. The roads were otherwise deserted. Anyone who could afford it was locked behind bars and gates. The players in threadbare white jerseys were like gnats in the evening. Cricket, of course, was a Pakistani religion.
Besides cricket the Pakistanis were superb cooks. Arif was devoted to them for their preservation of the old ways. Indian cooking, in its supreme incarnation, according to her husband, was very much a masculine affair. The Pakistanis used sumptuous quantities of ghee in their degchi, capacious iron pots smoldering on coals in the alley behind
“Stay inside, Jadwat,” she told him. “Keep the air conditioner on. Otherwise this will be cooked twice over by the time we arrive. There may be not enough time to unpack before I take off for the airport. I can’t leave Estella to do the unpacking because she is keeping me company. I cannot ask her to do two things at once.”
“Arif’s not planning to greet Shakeer at the airport?”
“He wants to, you know, but he has an important call with the Americans, some legal centre in Baltimore, to prepare for the case. I can hardly get him out of the house anyway. To tell the truth, Jadwat, his spirits have been down recently, more so than at any time since the operation. He feels that his work isolating the virus has been completely squandered by the government. You can imagine how he feels about being forced out of the university. He doesn’t show you the whole truth.”
Jadwat said, “You must push him out of the house, Nafisa. Push him out. Otherwise depression is bound to settle in. How many times have we dealt with this from the other side, as doctors? After such a serious surgery . . .”
“What can I do, Jadwat? I am at my wit’s end. I am at my wit’s end. At least we got Karachi Delights to cater for the party, on your recommendation. It’s the one thing which truly lifts his spirit. Sometimes I believe that you are the only one of us who understands Arif.”
Nafisa sensed the sweetness of coal smoke while standing by the car and supervising the loading of the food. From the degs the waiters scooped rice and lentils, fried potatoes, and mutton into light green tupperware which they brought out to the car. Jadwat had cleaned out the boot.
Nafisa noticed that he hadn’t mentioned her cousin Goolam again. Maybe, on that particular topic, he would keep his mouth shut. Maybe he would see that other people had other problems and these other problems were deeper and more profound than his own. Even human beings could change.
Even as Nafisa considered the possibility she saw she would be disappointed if he didn’t repeat his question about Goolam’s widow. For years she had been looking forward to having it out with Jadwat. She wasn’t ready for him to change his stripes. She wasn’t ready for anything.
Nafisa knew that change discomforted her, whether it was for better or worse. Noticing some alteration, even in so indifferent a thing as the tiles missing in the roof of a house on the route she took to work, caused her stomach to contract. She was in poor shape. She was unable to be kind.
Her fears had multiplied. Just this morning she had been unable to get out of bed for ten minutes. Only the need to set the house to rights got her up and moving while Arif continued to sleep. But he slept lightly, so that if the door creaked when she went out he would sit bolt upright and call her back. He didn’t like to be alone in the bed.
After everything was packed in the trunk Nafisa went inside to pay the bill. Karachi Delights was dark. One bulb burned at the end of a string. They must be economizing on electricity. Trust the Pakistanis to economize on electrons. No wonder they did well in Africa.
Above the counter the owner had posted a calendar covered in what she recognized, by its flourishes, as Urdu script. A bin stood open in the corner showing piles of onion skins. It was so dark she could hardly make out the manager seated behind the massive iron register. A thrill ran up her spine.
“Tell me. It’s okay to pay in cash?”
The manager, Mohammed, looked sadly at her out of black eyes. He didn’t stand up.
He was young, she saw, not much older than his teenage staff, and his skull was prominent in his forehead. He had come to her once for treatment. She hadn’t charged him because, like most people in his situation, he didn’t belong to a medical aid scheme. It wasn’t unusual. Her rates weren’t high compared with the younger doctors. Yet, depending on the economy, one in ten of her patients didn’t have the means to pay.
Her secretary worried about the stacks of accounts in default. But she and Arif lived well; they had money. There was no need to get blood from a stone.
Before he answered the question Mohammed wrote his calculations in the margins of a Karachi newspaper, writing quickly with his pencil. He let her read them.
“Yes, cash is king. We prefer not to declare, isn’t it?”
Nafisa took the newspaper and checked the sums. “You won’t give me a better discount on the total? My husband, who’s at the university, or used to be until today, is a great admirer of your cooking, he and Dr. Jadwat. There will be a lot of business now that we have discovered Karachi Delights. I mentioned your place to the Indian Consul.”
“Very sorry. Twelve and half percent is the best I can do.”
They soon agreed on the round figure of twenty, which involved Mohammed redoing the sums in the margins of another newspaper page. Nafisa counted out the notes from a Barclays Bank packet. As she did so she noticed the bank logo, an eagle stenciled in blue beneath the seal, had been almost rubbed away. Barclays had left South Africa during the period of sanctions and had never returned under the old name.
Seeing the speed at which that world receded brought Nafisa’s heart to a halt. So much of their lives, so much life and energy, had gone into opposing the old government. Nafisa experienced the strangest tug of fellowship when she saw ministers from the defunct National Party mentioned in the newspapers. After a while old enemies were almost like old friends.
She was struck by their obituaries. It was odd that you could regret the passing of an old enemy. In retrospect, compared with what had followed, the old government had been too obvious, too inexpert, to disguise its malignity.
Whatever the character of the government certain economic facts remained in place. The Barclays packet she brought to Karachi Delights was one of several in the upstairs bathroom, besides the cartons of perfume and unopened stockings. Altogether there were tens of thousands of rand in there, perhaps a hundred thousand. She didn’t keep good track. It was off-the-books money, what Indians from Cape Town to Calcutta called ooplung, black money.
There was a more substantial sum in an undeclared account in London which Nafisa had set up twenty-five years ago. Everybody did it who could afford it, although it was not legal. If the same thing happened here as in a dozen countries to the north then the money in London would secure them a start, a precious few months of breathing room in Vancouver, or Sydney. Unlike the Indians of Uganda,
or the farmers driven out of Zimbabwe, they would have a roof over their heads.
Nafisa tried to keep her husband out of these matters. Yet a few months ago, after he had come home from the operation, Arif had opened a statement from overseas and found out about the London account. He had been furious with her. His temper wasn’t good. He didn’t like to take risks.
But there was more to it than a difference in temperament. Nafisa suspected that the difference in their attitudes was determined by origin. Unlike her husband she had been born into a poor family in Botswana. They had almost nothing when they were growing up. Schoolbooks and uniforms for her brother Nawaz and herself had been hand-me-downs from their cousins around Gaborone. Her father had begged his relatives for school fees. When she had an appendectomy in Standard Four the hospital had sent a bill collector to the door.
In consequence Nafisa had fears she couldn’t convey to Arif. To communicate something properly, she had decided, the other person had to know what you meant before you began to speak.
She put Arif’s anger out of mind. He had not entirely recovered to this day. Govin Mackey, who had operated on Arif, had warned her that post-operative depression could persist for six months. What Govin said made sense. He was a good doctor and he knew Arif well, having once been his student. She was patient for this reason.
Jadwat was arranging the tubs and pots in the boot, dutifully separating them with newspaper so they wouldn’t knock against each other. Then he tipped the workers with change from the ashtray in his Mercedes. The sight, as she was coming out of the restaurant, softened Nafisa’s grievances against Jadwat. Shame!
The man wasn’t as black as she had painted him. Unlike her husband Jadwat was good at practicalities. Yes, he was an operator. But he was also a fixer and a jack-of-all-trades. He knew as much as a trained advocate about bank fees, estate duties, conveyance charges.
So what if he was stingy? It just meant he was afraid to die. When a plug had to be rewired, when the tuner in her Sanyo television was on the blink and showed only a bar of electronic color, Jadwat was happy to take on the problem. And he kept at it until the thing was fixed even if he had to get a part from the dealer in Johannesburg.
It was nothing out of the ordinary to find tiny Jadwat in the hall of the house, balancing on one chair which was itself balanced on another, replacing a dead bulb on Estella’s request. If he was in town he accompanied her to the Old Fort Road Hypermarket or, as today, to Karachi Delights.
Nor did Jadwat complain about the demands on his time. He had a single man’s surplus of time and energy. Maybe he hung around with widows and divorcées because they needed him the most.
Nafisa knew, about herself, that it was difficult to be happy without being needed. The men in her family were disconcertingly independent. She had never quite adjusted to her son’s independence. She had brought him up incorrectly.
And her husband was almost as bad. Her brother, Nawaz, was in his own world of religion. They were absorbed in themselves; they were men. To be unnecessary to all three of them disappointed Nafisa. So she couldn’t blame somebody like Jadwat for wishing to be wanted.
Jadwat’s motivation could be as guiltless as all that. What sentence did he like to quote from Trotsky? Was it Lenin? From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
Jadwat finished packing the trunk and tied string across the top to secure the contents. He rubbed his hands together.
“So, you fixed it up with the Pakistanis?”
“We can go. Chaalo. I paid up.”
“With ooplung, I suppose, from an old Barclays packet?” He observed her expression. “People never change.”
“No, they don’t.”
Jadwat opened the door for Nafisa and closed it behind her. He came around and got in himself, smiling.
“You still keep it under Sharky’s old mattress? I made a mental note to talk to you on that subject.” They clattered off the pavement onto the road. Jadwat rolled up his window. “The order has come through from Pretoria for the Receiver of Revenue really to crack down. I have it on good authority from my contact on the Richmond council. The days when we could rely on our friends in the movement are long gone. Today it’s every man for himself. The worst part is they don’t have to catch you red-handed.”
She was irritated again. “Nobody’s going to catch me red-handed, Jadwat.”
“No, but by the new code they don’t have to catch you. They simply have to show a discrepancy between the level of income you report and your standard of living. They send people out to take photographs of your house, your car, anything to show that something is happening under the table. They’ve already caught many of the doctors in Richmond, Greytown, Newcastle, all over the country. And big fines. You wouldn’t believe the fines. Where they catch you, Nafisa, is on the compound interest on the tax you owe. They’re brilliant men, and women, I suppose.”
“Oh, I am sure they are the most brilliant of the lot.”
“Nafisa, I will never steer you wrong. I made you put money overseas in the first place, you remember. Since he found out about my role in it Arif has never forgiven me. But I am telling you that we have to tread carefully. In the past, when it comes down to it, this was not our country. It belonged to the Europeans and the multinationals. In the future it is not likely to be our country either.”
Nafisa made no answer. During the drive back to Westville she was lost in her thoughts. She couldn’t calculate how much to admit. Jadwat didn’t know that a demand from the Receiver for information had been forwarded to her accountant. It was a carbon copy of the original and she was carrying it around in the bottom of her handbag.
On the way home Jadwat took the road to Tollgate where, stopped in traffic at the top of the hill, she observed the sunshine slanting over the slope of red-roofed houses and flats, the platforms of container ships out on the ocean, and the high-wire sides of the tennis courts at Westridge Stadium.
Some of the apartment buildings along the motorway were in a state of disrepair. She saw the many unpainted walls and doors and wondered what the city was coming to.
Yet the smudged format of the form, safe in her handbag, was more vivid to Nafisa than anything around her. She had read it the first time with trouble, with tears, because, like her son Shakeer, she suffered from a mild form of dyslexia. When she was emotional it was twice as hard to read.
The investigator included photographs of her car, her husband’s car, details of their overseas travels and other expenditures, and of the latest round of renovations to the Westville house alongside a local builder’s estimate of the cost.
It was the letter she had feared for twenty years. Only complications could ensue. Kader, her accountant, had given the name of a reliable tax lawyer. Yet to dial the man’s number cost a fortune.
How to proceed? Nafisa couldn’t bring herself to tell her husband. He would be appalled at the idea of a court proceeding. They had both given the better part of their lives to the movement.
Jadwat was correct. This new country they had helped to create was more treacherous than one might have anticipated. That was why it was important to have something overseas. Yet Arif had been angry enough when he found out about the London account. Admitting the situation to Jadwat, after their conversation, was out of the question.
For two weeks this letter had lain at the bottom of her consciousness from morning until night, even in her dreams, glittering in her mind like a coin in a wishing well. Was this letter, with its bar-coded permit stamped in the corner, the news she had been fearing? She didn’t believe so. There was something else. She couldn’t yet admit this unidentified piece into her thoughts.
Jadwat revived the conversation as he and Estella emptied the trunk of the car, ferrying the pots to the top of the stairs. Jadwat talked in front of Estella without reservation although Nafisa often asked him not to. There were some subjects servants didn’t need to know about. But once he was started Jadwat would not keep quiet.
“Keep my words in mind, Nafisa. They say this new direction comes from the very top. I don’t have to tell you how the big chiefs feel about your family. The last straw for them was when, on CNN, Arif criticized the Premier.” This was the Premier who had claimed he could cure people by the touch of his hand. “The way this country works, they don’t fear losing an election. They don’t mind three hundred thousand deaths per year. Their one sensitivity is to how they are portrayed in the international press. That’s Africa. They will go a long way to punish their former friends. That’s Africa too.”
Estella went down with the pots. Jadwat parked his car in the driveway so that others could enter and leave without difficulty. The dog ran up the stairs and followed them down to the door. He was not a beautiful animal but his big shoulders made you feel as if you had a bodyguard trotting beside you.
It wasn’t clear if Arif was awake. Since the last round of surgery, especially with the regimen of immunosuppressive drugs, he was likely to fall asleep in the afternoon.
Jadwat added, “With the new dispensation they’re even putting people in jail . . . Doctors!”
“Okay, Jadwat. That’s enough. You’ve convinced me to go straight.” Nafisa forced herself to smile. “I would have thought, as a socialist, you fully supported the government to lock up the entire productive class in this country. As you have told me a hundred times, aren’t we the exploiters? Shouldn’t all of us be locked in prison, including yourself?”
Jadwat stood outside the door and seemed to ponder the issue as if for the first time. “I can’t side with them against my own people, certainly not against my oldest friends in the world. I have known Arif since day one of medical school. While I am an admirer of Trotsky, I owe too much to you also. Think of the trouble you’ve gone through, over the years, to find me someone to share my happiness and unhappiness with.”
It must have been his roundabout way of apologizing. Jadwat waited for Estella to unlock the security gate. He put his battered corduroy suitcase inside the house.
He went on. “Apart from all that, since they choose to perpetuate a system based on individual selfishness, since they have decided to forget everything we learned about socialism in the old days, then what do they expect?” He patted his suitcase, which had brown masking tape run along the handle. “Tell me, my dear, where I should put my things. It just struck me that, for once tonight, Sharky will actually be occupying his own room. That’s how you always call it, you know.”
Jadwat was correct. Nafisa smiled to be reminded of the discrepancy. She had no mysteries. Even Jadwat, Jadwat the fool, knew who she was. The large room on the ground floor had belonged to her son almost twenty years ago, a span of time so great that surely it could not apply to her own existence.
Nafisa felt she must have slept through these twenty years. Her understanding had not caught up with them. Her son’s long absence, his experiences in San Francisco and around the world, were facts she hadn’t accommodated. She was slow, she knew, to work out what happened around her. Others were rapid.
We will put you down in Shakeer’s room, Nafisa frequently said to a guest. It was all she could do not to add, He won’t mind. He wasn’t around to mind. Her son travelled a good deal, to take photographs for National Geographic and other magazines.
Shakeer had aspirations to be a photographer in his own right but his choice of subjects was curious, and even outdated. When she visited him in California he had an exhibition in a Santa Monica gallery comprised of portraits of holy men in Benares, Varanasi. She had seen something similar in a gallery in Knightsbridge when Harold Wilson was still in office.
But you really could never tell with Shakeer. Nafisa sometimes identified something irrelevant in his character. It caused her pain to see it, to see anything imperfect in her son or husband or brother. Shakeer had been talking about writing a novel for years. Yet, like her, he couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time without developing a headache. To the best of her knowledge he had never actually set down a word of his proposed novel on an actual piece of paper . . .
Nafisa’s mind contained several casements. One looked out on her husband, another upon her brother Nawaz, one on Shakeer. Whatever else was occupying her attention on the outside she continued to watch them in her imagination. Indeed it was a defining fact of her consciousness. This glow, this subtle stony light from magic windows, pervaded her experience.
On certain nights Nafisa woke to recall that, in her dream, she had been gazing at her son. It wasn’t necessary to speak a word to him. Nor was it necessary, in the dream, that he acknowledge her presence. Weeks went by without her chatting to Sharky, particularly when he was on assignment in places like Papua New Guinea and Antananarivo, but she was as close to him as if he was sleeping downstairs in his room.
So it didn’t make that great a difference if Sharky was physically present in the house. He had never really been gone. Nothing was lost. Nothing had changed.
As Nafisa was preparing to leave for the airport the professor came up from the house and through the garage.
He was still in his dressing gown although his hair was perfectly combed. He opened the passenger door and leaned across Estella. Without saying anything Arif rootled around in the cubby of the car. He was smiling, as he always did when he interrupted you. It produced a thrill in Nafisa—some odd kind of a thrill—to see that she was married to an old man. How had it happened? His hair had turned completely white.
“You don’t want Jadwat to come along to the airport? He offered to accompany you if you want Estella to keep working. If you don’t take him he will insist that I play cards with him until he pushes off to see one or another of his women. When it comes to playing tunny he is insatiable. You know he has devised a two-handed version. Oh, he won’t let me sleep a wink if he’s in the house. On top of it I have a conference call to deal with and then the court case. Take him, Nafisa.”
“You keep him. It’s good for you to talk, to share your feelings. Estella is more than enough company for me. And the highway is safe at this time of day, so long as we don’t have to stop at that bad . . .” She started. “Arif, what on earth are you doing?”
“This. As Jadwat was dealing the cards I remembered that, the last time I drove to the university, I used your car. Mine was in for service on Monday. And you know, since the operation, I haven’t wanted to
go back to a manual if there is the alternative. Afterwards I left this behind. I would have left it until tomorrow except I know you can’t stand to have it around.”
With care Arif lifted the pistol out of the cubby. It was a heavy Smith and Wesson, ridged along the handle, and coal black rather than metal black, as if the colour would rub off when you touched it. Everybody in Durban, except Nafisa, carried something.
People were stupid. They didn’t know how to use them. The same people tried to talk you into the feeling that you needed one as well. However Nafisa had a horror of guns. She made a gesture of displeasure.
Her husband didn’t show that he noticed her reaction.
He went on, “Jadwat has some mysterious appointment later today. I assume it’s with a lady friend.”
Arif and Jadwat talked about each other sarcastically although they were never directly critical. It was a habit left over from their student days. They were still students. They were still trying to understand the universe and had gotten nowhere.
Still leaning in the window, the revolver lodged incongruously in his striped red dressing gown, Arif said, “Our friend is up to his old tricks. He just asked me about that cousin of yours, Goolam, who passed away. I didn’t give anything away. I agree with you wholeheartedly that Jadwat cannot tool around and victimize widows all his life. So what do you suggest I tell him?”
“Tell him I lost the number.”
“So he’ll look it up in the directory.”
Nafisa said, “Then it won’t be my fault and my responsibility.” She clapped. “I have washed my hands of Jadwat, Arif. He is your friend from medical school and that famous first-year anatomy class. I have my own friends, my own set. You make sure he conducts himself with dignity. Now, if you please, allow Estella and me to set off.”
Past the esplanade the road to the airport ran between hills that were terraced with baked brick buildings descending almost to the tarmac. The city was succeeded by poorer suburbs, schools and workers’ hostels, then gray pairs of grain silos and sugar warehouses behind high cement fences.
Nafisa drove slowly in the far left lane. Overloaded trucks and vans skidded past the car, presenting their rusted bumpers until they too vanished around a bend. They were as distant, she imagined, as if they were visitors from a different time. They were spectral trucks. She couldn’t hold onto their reality.
Instead, while Nafisa tried to focus on the road, she began to see her reflection in the windshield. She noted her smile, a fixed expression, which covered her entire countenance. It reminded her of an alligator. She had learned the habit, which she disliked, from her husband. She couldn’t help smiling when it was necessary to bring up an embarrassing subject. There was no way around it. She had to have a word with Estella.
“Do me a favor?”
“Whatever you ask.”
“Do you mind that while Shakeer is here . . .” Nafisa ran out of words and restarted her sentence. “Estella, I will let you into something. In the past year Shakeer has not had an easy time of it. You remember that he separated from Ginger? That could have been predicted. Now, I grant you, it is one thing or another with Shakeer. That is my son. In some ways, he is a ridiculous person.” Nafisa wasn’t sure why she was explaining at such length. She said, “He has never learned to be serious about life. But that is beside the point. Could you try not to complain to him about me?”
“I don’t know what you mean, Nafisa.”
Nafisa sharpened her tone. “I mean, Estella, don’t go to him behind my back because he’s a soft touch. If something worries you, have a word with me, as you would do ordinarily. I beg you, don’t take money from Shakeer. At the end of the month I will give you an extra four hundred rands. I acknowledge that you’ve been working many more hours because of Arif’s retirement. Please don’t exploit my son.”
Estella didn’t reply. Nafisa realized she had finally provoked her to anger, after trying all day to do it. That clean copper face tightened at the edges as if someone had sharpened the folds. Nafisa didn’t mind angering Estella. In fact she was relieved at having done so. She wasn’t a saint.
Indeed Nafisa didn’t want to be perfect. Her benevolence was erratic at best and, if only because of her job and family, it seemed that she was spread out in too many directions. She often forgot, or seemed to forget, a promise, whether it was to visit a friend in hospital, pay school fees for her nephew, or the like, only to remember after a fortnight and deal with the issue. She shelved things in her mind until it was convenient to dispose of them. But in the long run she was unable to let people down or to leave a thing unfinished.
The two women parked without saying another word and walked down to the terminal building. The airport was dull, comparatively busy, hazy in smoke from the power plant, untidy and surrounded by untidy hills on the opposite side of the apron.
Inside the smaller coffee shop did a brisk business. The waitress, in a green bib, had opened a packet of Choc-Kits and was arranging them two on a saucer. Next to the shop Nafisa found two spaces on the bench where she and Estella sat uncomfortably together, facing an advertisement for a cell phone company.
Again, and for the fourth time in so many hours, Nafisa’s state of mind turned upside down. Her feelings were so unsteady. She didn’t like to quarrel with her worker. It was her own fault. Nor was it a product of her volatility. Her feelings about Estella were irrationally intense, as if the two of them were unhappily married.
There were mornings Nafisa couldn’t stand to hear the younger woman’s voice outside the garage. She would leave for work early in order not to look at the girl and risk revealing her emotion.
Simultaneously she very much wanted to reveal her feelings. She wished to fly at Estella and beat her around the head, to fling Estella with her red shoes into the street, laughing and crying, and be rid of her lorryload of troubles.
Yet there were other occasions—this minute in the airport when Estella studiously avoided her gaze—Nafisa felt something nearby to love starting up . . . When she overheard Estella singing unselfconsciously in the scullery, when she observed the corner of a red heel in her denim handbag, or when she got home exhausted from the clinic and was struck by the idea that on the planet Estella was the individual who needed her, Nafisa, the most. To each according to his need . . .
Besides Estella everybody else, Nafisa believed, had outgrown her. Her son had outgrown her. So had her husband. Since Arif had uncovered the existence of the London account he had become more withdrawn. But he had been different with her even before that.
In general, since the transplant and the endless weeks of suffering in the checkerboard hospital room with tubes in every part of his body, her husband seemed to have acquired some piece of wisdom which was inaccessible to her. Only Estella, in all the universe, had remained on her level.
Now it was all Nafisa could do not to touch this other woman on the cheek, in the middle of the airport building, and inhale the Pears shampoo in Estella’s plaited black-brown hair. Most of all Nafisa wanted to suspend her own need to think. She had such a fear of what report the day was bringing to her.
Just as she was about to apologize, to try to apologize, Estella laughed.
“Madam, you’re not in a good mood this afternoon. You are not. I don’t blame you for it. I understand the feeling you have, as a mother, because I feel something similar with my daughter. The professor says, whenever Sharky is about to arrive, you go on a rampage.”
Nafisa didn’t smile. “Rampage? I really can’t imagine my husband used such a term to describe me.”
“No, that’s the exact word. Ram-page. I remember it because I asked him the meaning.”
Nafisa laughed out loud for the first time that day. “My husband . . . my husband will never get tired of teaching the wrong things to the wrong people. Ah, Estella. My son, my husband, they always know better than everyone else. They read books and they think that books, and a large vocabulary, and whatever understanding you can find in a book, are a substitute for experience. But I have to say, I don’t believe in books so much. They are no substitute.”
Nafisa wanted to pursue this argument. She wasn’t usually critical of Sharky or of Arif. Yet the more she thought about her husband and her son the more dissatisfied she discovered she was. They had no compunction about placing her in the most difficult of situations. Their views and attitudes about life were set in steel. They never imagined that she had her own point of view. She was alone in her family.
Nafisa was about to say something about this to Estella when the disembarking passengers were upon them. The flight had landed without announcement. The passengers advanced into the reception area one by one. The doors which opened to the bag carousels opened and shut as each person came out.
Nafisa got up to read the arrivals board. She noticed that the mechanical letters which chattered as flight information changed had been replaced by an electronic display.
“It looks like they’re here. In fact they’ve been on the ground for fifteen minutes. It doesn’t happen everyday that a flight arrives quicker than you’re expecting. With the airports in the state they’re in . . .”
“Yes, Nafisa. Should I go and look for Sharky?”
“No, don’t worry. They will come this way.”
Nafisa stood up. She unhurriedly examined the passengers. A group of them met at the taxi stand. A girl was whisked into the back seat of a car by her mother. This went on for a while.
Estella said nothing further. They had arrived at equilibrium. After a few minutes Nafisa saw a man who must be in his forties. This man was far older than her son. She knew that America had taken Sharky and made him fat, thick, uncomfortable. America had swallowed up her son. Only she, as a mother, could calculate how much beauty had been lost . . .
His experience in San Francisco had stolen years from her son, had removed his expectation of happiness, but had it made him unrecognizable? Could Shakeer be so old? No, it was impossible. Nafisa looked away and then back again.
The man was wearing a brown track suit with piping on the shoulder, similar to something she had bought for her son at a men’s shop in Musgrave. He was pushing a cart loaded with luggage. From nowhere Nafisa remembered the suitcases, and the roped-up black sleeves which protected lenses, cameras, tripods, flash batteries.
From the age of 19 her son had been encumbered by all this equipment. Nafisa herself had grown up almost without possessions. She had moved into her husband’s family’s house after her wedding with a twenty-inch valise which remained at the back of her cupboard to this day.
Her son, by contrast, moved in a convoy of objects. Everything had a price and everything was disposable. Her son had become American amongst his possessions. He moved. He made a life. He tore it up and moved again. But what was this person that she had created?
“What’s the matter, Nafisa?” Sharky asked. He sometimes called his mother by her first name when he wanted to make a point. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” He brushed off the shoulders of his track suit. “And how are you doing, Estella? Both of you look miserable! I hope the preparations for the party are going well. I’m looking forward to seeing everybody.”
They drove from the airport and power plant past the factories and domed sugar terminals on Malvern Hill. This industrial side of the city was even hotter than elsewhere, crowded with buildings and power lines, a concrete barrier fencing in the highway. It hurt Nafisa’s mind to think about the concentration of people and buildings.
At the same time there was a sensation of warmth flowing in her arms and up her neck. It always started when Shakeer was physically present, when her son and husband were in the same place, and it went up into the back of her head.
Eventually they got to the Westville ramp. The suburb was situated a few hundred feet above town. Fifty years ago it had been considered beyond the city limits. It was spacious. The streets were much wider than in town. In Westville whites and Indians with some money had lived side by side since before the laws officially changed.
Sharky said, “I think, after all these years, I am finally tired of travelling. All I have been thinking about, since eight this morning over Cameroon or whichever country it was, is a hot bath.”
“You can have one the moment we get home,” Nafisa said. “There’s no one to disturb you.”
“First I have to unpack some of my equipment. You know it’s finicky. Unless everything is working I won’t be able to take the photographs of the party tomorrow.”
“So we’ll do that first.”
Shakeer said almost nothing else, worn out by the twenty-hour flight from San Francisco, and later, when Nafisa thought back to the car journey, she imagined her son somehow enclosed inside himself. So had Estella been.
They were, she would recall having thought at the time, like three mourners. She would never forget the sense of some great event rushing towards them in the afternoon. However fast she drove, they had seemed to be motionless.
The car glided through the still strong sunshine into the driveway where glass from the window Estella had broken was scattered on the tiles like grains of bridal rice. The gate and the front door were unlocked.
The dog, whose name she couldn’t recall at this very moment, was barking at the back of the house. He couldn’t come to the front because of the gate at the corner.
Nafisa immediately went up to the bedroom, where Arif was lying face down on the bed. His white hair was disordered. That was the first thing she saw. Then she noticed how the dressing gown clung wetly, the material thick and black, to his body. The gun was lying on the bed beside him.
Afterwards Nafisa recalled that at the very moment she entered the bedroom she recognized the scene just as if she was remembering it from the day before. There was nothing in the room to surprise her. She could understand exactly what had happened. She had known about this in the morning. She had known about it the day before, the month before, and in fact since the moment of her birth. She had been born in Botswana. Suddenly the idea struck her as absurd.