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Counting Down the Hours

By Blessing Musariri



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Vuso’s soft belly is pressing against my back. His face in sleep is ugly to me. His quiet snoring is a soft tune that keeps me company in the long hours that challenge my sanity at night.

What would Marita say if she knew? Probably, “Don’t let me down. I know you’ll do the right thing.” Marita knows nothing. She’s in the UK working as a nurse – left home when it was still free and easy to go that route. Now you have to pay to do the course and getting a visa is no walk in the park. Then there’s Tawona. As big brothers go, I sometimes think he’s a figment of my imagination. He left when the money started coming in and mama and baba could proudly send their son off to college in the States full tuition paid. It’s been three years and they don’t even know that he dropped out of college to pursue his hip-hop dream. He calls himself Z3, “Coz that’s what I’m fina buy when I strike gold baby girl, coz Z stands for my country in the motherland, gotta keep it real ya kno’.”
He says it’s a shame that no one speaks his mother-tongue over there because, “I done forgot my words,” he says, “Can’t speak that shit no mo’.”

It’s only been four years since he left but he’s managed to completely disappear into the echoes of rap lyrics. I never asked him what the significance was of ‘three’.

A dog barks outside and I think of Buster, at home. Did mukoma Givie remember to feed him? One day that dog will die of neglect. Sisi Marian doesn’t seem to care. These are people who were left to look after me but their indifference to life in general has made them dependent on me. If I’m not there, nothing gets done. I’m too young for all that responsibility and I’m tired of it. Perhaps I won’t go back. Ever. That house that swallows me up with its silences.

I was eating ice-cream as I walked back home from the shops when Vuso stopped the car. He thought I needed a ride. I let him think it. I’d met him several times before. He’s married to mama’s friend Virginia so it was okay to catch a ride with him. Even if I hadn’t known him, I might have got in anyway. I invited him in for a drink – it was hot outside and he stayed a bit and talked. As he walked back to his car I stared at the roll of flesh at the back of his head and I wanted to take it between my fingers and pinch it. The thought made me giggle and he turned back and looked at me with a question. I just smiled at him with my secret thought glinting from my eyes.
“So, what are doing over half-term? Are you going to the farm to see your old man?”
I shook my head.
“Is your mother coming home from Namibia?”
She couldn’t get away from work, there was a big conference going on so there
wouldn’t be any point in my going over.
Again I shook my head. He seemed to hesitate, then making up his mind he took a step closer.
“Well, I’m driving down to South Africa if you want to catch a ride and do some shopping.”
The “s” in seventeen doesn’t stand for stupid. I looked at his dark sweating face, his big belly and baggy trousers. Nothing to see there, but as I thought about it for a minute and before I could speak, my separate self jumped into my mouth and said, “Okay.”

Vuso stirs and turns over in his sleep. This means I can change sides too. In the semi- darkness I can see that roll of flesh at the back of his head and I want to grab it and pull hard. Again, I feel the urge to laugh. He is so ridiculous.

If I was at home I would get out of bed and walk naked through the house. Moving slowly through rooms full of mama’s precious furniture but empty all the same. My body’s just a thing, like the cherry-wood coffee tables from Dubai – another ornament found on special offer in a foreign mall. It was on one of these nocturnal wanderings when I felt it; like separating the yolk of an egg from the white I felt my inner self separate from my outward self with a fluid tearing and rest in my body, together but separate. My egg yolk self curled up and went to sleep, tired of the endless journeys and my egg white self continued un-phased. I can’t walk naked through this house, it’s not empty like ours. I can feel Virginia’s presence here and it castigates me even when I only think the thought.

It’s only midnight. I’ve been gone from home for four whole days. Sisi Marian – a distant cousin who doubles as our maid, must be frantic but she will never tell on me because she will be found wanting as a guardian. She doesn’t know that I’ve made it a point to call baba everyday and assure him that everything is fine. I even called him from Vuso’s cell–phone while I was in Jo’burg. It’s tobacco planting season – there’ll be no surprise visits from him for a while. Marian will tell mama some lie or the other if she calls so I don’t worry about that. To give them some credit, they did try and get me into boarding school when baba decided he needed to be on the farm full time and mama was promoted to regional head of communications – my egg yolk self knows the details. This was about six years ago. For a time they made an effort for one of them to always be at home, but I guess it was a strain on their jobs. It was only after Tawona left for college that I realized I’d been effectively left alone. Mukoma Givie had long been tasked to drive me to and from school so I didn’t really feel the absences until the night I woke up in a silent house and couldn’t get back to sleep again. I wasn’t afraid but the darkness was a heavy thing that covered me as I lay and suddenly I was stifling in my bed, gasping for air and sweating as if I’d been running away from something. I tore the covers off, I was crying, tears mingling with perspiration and my breath catching in loud sobs, but once free, it wasn’t enough, I tore off my pyjamas too and ran to the door. Wrenching it open I stood there and called for my mother. I heard only the echo of my own voice fading into the night. I could feel the darkness around me breathing and shifting as it embraced me, filling in the spaces I had torn through as I struggled with myself.

Sisi Marian dies every night when she lays her head on her pillow and closes her eyes. Nothing wakes her until it is time for her to un-die. I couldn’t go back to my bed, I couldn’t sit down and so I began to wander around the house, stopping sometimes to stare out at lights in the distance. The darkness stroked my skin, soothed and caressed me and convinced me she meant me no harm. I haven’t slept at night since.

Vuso really likes the weave I have in my hair. I bought the extensions in South Africa and had it sewn in yesterday. It’s deep black (almost blue) with a straight fringe almost down to my eyebrows and so long at the back it almost reaches my waist. It makes me look like a black Barbie doll. My egg white self grins every time she looks in the mirror and I toss my head to please her. It’s almost fun. I bought some killer boots too, from Nine West and lots of things I didn’t need and don’t really care about. Vuso’s made a lot of money selling fuel since the shortages began, selling a lot of things that are scarce, including foreign currency. He spends his money almost as fast as he makes it – on stupid things.

My best friend Violet thinks I’ve gone too far.
“You’ve done some mad things but really! This takes the cup. What can you be thinking?”
I couldn’t even begin to tell her and so I just laughed.
“No really!! Do you realize you’re putting yourself at risk of Aids and other horrible diseases?”
“And what will you do when his wife comes back?”
“I’m not planning to live here forever Violet, just chill. I’ve got a whole big house of my own to go back to.”
Violet just wouldn’t quit. Kept talking about morals and things like that and reminding me all the crap they tell us at school about your body being God’s temple and self worth and stuff. I stopped listening, then I said I had to go because Vuso had come in, but he was nowhere in sight. I had felt something deep inside me and for a moment while I was listening to Violet I wanted to cry.

Unlike sisi Marian, my egg yolk self hears sounds in her sleep and stirs, but egg white self steps up quickly and reminds me that it’s just a body. I don’t even really want to be in it.

Whenever Vuso tries to say no to anything, I make everything inside me very still and quiet and I pretend that he’s simply disappeared. He doesn’t’ like that. He wanted to start the drive to the border but I wanted to go out to a club, so we went. I met a girl there, in the ladies, young like me, but only on the outside. Even with her bright red lipstick I could tell that the real colour of her smile had faded long ago. I smiled back at her and she offered me a cigarette.
“Who’s the constipated hippo you were dancing with?”
When I realized she meant Vuso, I laughed until I cried. I decided to make her my friend. A lot of people just aren’t funny, even when they are trying.
“Darling,” I said, “he’s a magic hippo, he shits money.”
She knew the game – played it every night. I didn’t even need to say the words.

I danced with my new friend but after a while she told me that fun was a luxury she couldn’t afford. She left and I danced alone in the middle of everyone else. Vuso watched, sipping his drink, smoking his cigar and sometimes chatting to people who stopped by. I danced, and danced in my new boots until Vuso came and took me from the dance floor. I could have danced all night.

The soft leather cushioned my weary body and I watched through the window as the darkness swallowed us. I didn’t remember the name of the girl I’d been with. Had she even told me? I had so much more but it somehow seemed that both of us had nothing. I floated into the blackness and sighed. If only we could keep driving into the night, continuing into that distance with only the sound of quiet music and tyres on tarmac. Would we grow old traveling or would we stay forever as we were – frozen but in continuous motion? I would forget about sleep, untrue friend that she is, I would laugh in her face. But journeys always come to an end.

It’s three a.m. Vuso has turned around and I realize that I’ve been lost in thought, staring at his face. It’s a full moon outside and there’s chink in the curtain that’s letting in some light. I can see his features quite clearly. His eyelids are rounded over slightly protruding eyeballs, his nose broad and grooved. His pores are large in his skin – I can’t see that in this light but I know from the harsh showcase of day. His lips are the best thing about his face – not thick or too thin. His mouth is wide and his lips are perfectly stretched across it with an attractive firmness. He’s got a nice smile. That’s all I like about him otherwise he’s just another person who has no clue about anything. He thinks I’m impressed by his spending power. I won’t disabuse him. With his face relaxed in sleep, he looks like nobody I know, not even himself. Maybe I’m mistaken and it’s not him. I’m lying here looking at a stranger and suddenly I’m afraid. I close my eyes and turn over, my heart beating like a village drum in the night. My mouth is dry and hundreds of tiny pins prick my tongue. What am I doing here?

I close my eyes and for a minute I don’t think of anything. I just focus on breathing – I might start screaming otherwise. I want to get out of this bed and walk away from myself but this is not my house and my body refuses to move. I’m afraid Vuso will wake up and start touching me again. He says older men are more experienced and can give a woman more pleasure. That just goes to show how much he knows – I’m just a girl pretending to be a woman. How come he doesn’t see that? Some experience is good for nothing.

It’s quarter to four. A line from a song comes into my head, “ … you’re just a crazy fucked up man.” I think of Zuva. I went all the way with him – let him take my virginity. Two months ago he told me he needed a time out because things were getting too intense and he needed to concentrate on school. Violet says she sees him all the time with a girl called Fungisai from Girls High. He can just fuck off with his ‘concentrating on school.’ I hate it when people lie to me. He should have just told me that he didn’t want to be with me anymore because he wanted to be with someone else. There’s no truth in people, that’s why nobody loves anybody. We’re all in it together, mixing our lies, to ourselves and to each other; making egg white omelette’s – to be had with a pinch of salt.

I think mama and baba really believe that they’re still married. They share children and property – where neither of them resides, and little else but in their heads they are fully convinced of their union. I was a late baby. I don’t think they meant to have me, however, I came along anyway – serves me right. I think they do love me, just not in the present. If their love for me were a tree or a plant, it would be a branchless, leafless, flowerless stem that is still alive only because the root hasn’t died. I used to pretend Marita was my mother, followed her from room to room after school telling her all my childish imaginings. At night, I would curl my small hand around her side and fall asleep to the rhythm of her heart – the words to this lullaby – “sleep tight little sis, sleep tight.”

I was angry when she tried to hug me goodbye. I stood stiff and unyielding, staring down at the speckled tiles of the airport floor. She didn’t just leave. She left me.

Tawona packed his bags and left for a world of his own even before he got onto the plane to America. In this world there was only him and his god – music. I don’t know how he passed his O’Levels, it seemed the only words he knew were beats, rhythm, lyrics, bass line, vocals, sample, then beats, rhythm, lyrics, bass line, vocals and so it went on. Sometimes he would look and see me, as if for the first time in a long while and I could see that he went through a process to recognize me.
“Hey!” he’d say, “what’s up little lady? Listen to this jamming beat.” Then he would put his headphones over my ears for a time and I would listen to jamming beats while he smiled benevolently and nodded his head in time to a tune that remained with him even after it left his ears. I don’t know where he picked up that phrase, ‘little lady.’ I hated it.

He left early one morning and no one woke me up to say goodbye. Of course I had known he was leaving but I never really felt his presence until he was gone.

It’s ten to five and the light outside is changing. I’m dozing now, slipping into vivid conversations with people who aren’t here, little broken adventures, and out again. Sleep is somewhere nearby. I can hear the early birds and my very last coherent thought is that eggs are altogether too easy to break.

I’m falling down a steep cliff and my weave catches on something and pulls and pulls. It won’t save me, the tracks are ripping from the neat corn-rows, pulling hair out at the roots and my scalp is burning. I land in an ungainly heap on the ground. How is it I’m not dead? My breath is coming so fast it’s all I can do to catch it. Someone is yelling in very high tones and at the same time a palm connects smartly with my cheek, I realize that I’m not dead because I’m awake. Someone has pulled me out of the bed by my hair and is raining abuse on me. I sit up awkwardly, one hand raised to cool my burning cheek and look through the strands of hair across my face.
She’s marching to the dressing room. Dazed, I can’t move. Sleep, so prolonged, is making me heavy.

At the first stinging lash across my shoulders I am released from my lethargy and I wince. There is no time though to feel the harsh lick of the last blow before the next one follows, and the next and the next. My breath is catching in my throat in dry gasps and I am whining like a stray dog tormented by cruel children. I curl up into a naked ball of burning flesh on the rough mat alongside the bed. I am powerless. Perhaps I did walk away from myself during the night and left my body empty and defenceless against such an attack. Perhaps I’m dreaming and will soon wake up. Why doesn’t Vuso wake me? Can’t he feel me twitching and gasping in my sleep?
“Sit up let me see you, you little tramp!”
I am in a land of giants. Her voice comes from so high up that it takes an age to reach me. Perhaps I’ve shrunk.
“I said sit up!” So close now as she reaches down and pulls my limp hair.

I’m sitting up and I can feel myself coming back, coming to. I hear Virginia’s laboured breathing above me and I struggle to my feet but my body feels weak. I’m trembling but egg white steps up. I toss my head back and look Virginia directly in the eye. What land of giants?
My shoulders start to shake. I’m not sure what’s coming next but I’m not surprised when the laughter comes. I hold my belly, head bent and laugh until tears come streaming down my face. I earn myself another slap for my hilarity and something inside me snaps. I take off past Virginia at a sudden sprint. It’s not a scream, but some high and winding note has caught in my throat and I’m letting it out in a loud sustained cry as I run. In the narrow hallway I let my hand run along the wall knocking down, picture frames, ornaments, anything that’s in my way. This house that wouldn’t let me walk through it because of the absence of its owner. Now that she is here, I can run through and tear it down.

In the living room, I overturn glass-topped coffee tables and swipe at anything that stands on a surface so that it crashes to the floor and breaks or splinters. Then I take hold of one end of the long scalloped drape and wrap it around my self, falling into it so that it tears free from its rings and embraces me until I am half sitting, leaning against the exposed French Door. The sunlight hurts my eyes and I look away from the garden, back into the room I have destroyed. Virginia stands just inside the doorway, face disbelieving. I think for a minute she believes it’s just a nightmare. We can’t both be dreaming, we are trapped together in this hideous reality.

I am out of steam.

I look at Virginia and Virginia looks at me, uncomprehending.

I see the very second that recognition opens the door to her thoughts. Her face crumbles into a mask of horror and tears gather in her eyes. Her hand across her mouth holds back her gasp of shock. My body feels like it has been dragged over rocky ground and left raw. It’s a battered and bruised thing, and even though the pain is on the outside, I feel it from the inside. From the very center of my being, spreading its sticky wetness through every part of me until I am nothing but pain.

“Rumbidzai?” she says, “Is that you?”

I begin to cry. Finally, it is.

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