The door to a black Land Cruiser Cygnus closed on a Monday morning with as much noise as ash descending on the earth. Sid thought he’d heard something but dismissed it as a figment of his imagination. Only, it was not. Oblivious to Sid in the driver’s seat, a child had just hopped into his vehicle and sought refuge between his seat and those at the back.
The child, dressed in a blue and white chequered school uniform, kissed his crossed pudgy fingers at his good fortune, and crossed them again in the hope that his unwitting saviour would drive off soon without realizing his presence. Curiosity itched at him, prompting him to skew his head around the edge of the driver’s seat to get a better glance at the light-skinned lanky man who was banging on the steering wheel. His alto voice resonated with incredible volume through the car. He reminded the child of a skinny brown Hulk; he was so angry. If fury were a currency, he’d be quite wealthy.
‘ Nyabo!’ he spat in disbelief, ‘ I did not give you that money as your son. Pay the interest before you camp between a rock and a hard place.’
The small shrieking voice leaving Sid’s phone speaker articulated what the woman on the other end thought of the barely veiled threat. It reminded the four-wheel-drive refugee at the back of a rodent being throttled. The thought made the boy giggle sharply, forgetting his current trespass. However, the roar that blasted at his face helped him recall.
‘Who the hell are you!’ the man in the front seat yelled at a decibel level of about ninety-nine.
Thirteen-year-old Grace had never seen outrage so refined and up-close. It was in a language he didn’t understand but, if provided with subtitles, would implore him to scram. Fear plastered him to the leather seat and terror cast a dry spell on his mouth. Six seconds passed without a word exchanged between him and the skinny Hulk. Staring at each other in similar shock, the two were not sure what to do next.
The moment dawned on Sid as ridiculous and he yanked himself out of the trance.
‘How the hell¬ –’ he started again.
A clear film of liquid covered the boy’s eyes.
‘And don’t even think of crying. I haven’t touched you,’ Sid said in disbelief.
Then followed the avalanche of sniffs and hiccups.
‘Where did those even come from?’ Sid asked himself in bewilderment. The water works hadn’t commenced and the brat had already started a grand show. Sid wanted to whack him.
‘I’m sorry… I… I… I didn’t want –’ Grace said with tears streaming down his cheeks.
Sid found himself bored. He got out of the car and went round the four-wheel-drive to kick the rug rat out. Only he when he opened the passenger door, the sight of the tyke battling the Great War of Sniffs took him back a bit. The child looked harmless and vulnerable. Rubbing his neck in surrender, he sent his anger and frustration on a momentary vacation and attempted to smile. He failed and settled on putting the closed sign on his nasty scowl which must have landed him into this messy scene in the first place.
‘Get up from down there,’ he offered his hand and lowered his voice.
‘Sit up here and have a bloody tissue,’ he gestured towards the leather seats. The boy hiked the volume a notch. He tried again.
‘What’s your name?’ Sid asked in a lower tone.
‘Grace,’ the cry baby whispered.
‘I thought you were a boy,’ Sid asked.
‘I am,’ said Grace.
‘It’s a girl’s name,’ Sid groaned into his hands.
‘Maybe that’s why you cry too much,’ offered Sid.
Cowering in shame, Grace inquired after the interrogator’s name, praying he didn’t strike a nerve.
‘It’s a girl’s name,’ Grace dared to point out.
‘Maybe that’s why you are so moody,’ he boldly added.
The familiar scowl did a round on the man’s face.
Grace knew he had pushed his luck and prepared himself to receive a fiery thrashing.
‘Fine, we both have names birds would drop in a heartbeat,’ Sid shrugged.
His Samsung vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it out and looked at the caller ID. A flash of irritation crossed his face.
‘Not this one again,’ he shook his head.
‘Nuutttbbaall,’ he lazily extrapolated the word, or name, or title. Grace wasn’t sure.
‘What!’ he screamed. Grace really couldn’t stop comparing him to a skinny brown hulk when he screamed like that. Why had he thought this was the safest car? He wanted to cry again.
Sid closed the door and rushed to his seat while yelling into his phone. He locked the door and sped off to Nakasero hill. It took him less than twenty minutes to arrive at the hospital despite the snuggled Monday lunchtime traffic. He got a spot under some shade and headed straight for the reception, leaving Grace in the car, finally tear free.
The big fancy useless desk at the front with absent nurses had him grinding his teeth. If he heard another ‘Just a moment sir’ or ‘I’ll be with you soon’ or ‘have a seat’ he would explode.
The embrace that followed caught him off guard.
‘What did they say?’ he wasted no time asking.
‘I’m okay,’ the six foot two girl in his arms said.
‘How are you okay? Three men, robbery, speeding vehicle… How are you okay?’ he pressed. He was starting to trail off when he checked himself
‘Tell me what happened,’ he began his inquisition afresh.
‘I bit a guy,’ she answered.
‘I followed her to the girls’ loos,’ another voice said out of nowhere.
Sid nearly tripped doing a 360-degree turn to see where the second answer had come from. The familiarity of it chilled him.
It was no surprise when his eyes landed on the consenting girl-boy he’d sort of kidnapped earlier.
‘How the hell –’ he begun.
The inquiry seemed stale on his lips for some reason so he stopped himself short. They did not.
‘He tried to steal from me,’ she said
‘She told me I could talk to her, I promise she did.’ The child whined.
‘Stop it!’ he exasperated at the repeated unison, ‘let’s just go home.’
The ride to his upscale flat was one to be remembered for a while.
The two quirky stories he’d just heard were not tales you buried under a carpet, or downed a glass of brandy to forget.
Natalie had indeed bitten not one but two men in a taxi on her way from the bank. The faux passenger seated at the front with her whom she had caught red handed with his hands in her bag and the conductor behind who had tried to distract her. How she manoeuvred to take a chunk out of the latter did not seat well with him.
Grace on the other hand, had been discovered crying—no surprise there when a pretty young thing complete with pigtails which he insisted made her look so cute showed up and offered a shoulder and ears to lean on and listen for some absurd reason. Only he didn’t hear the last part and that’s how he got caught in the girl’s bathroom after he followed her like a blind bat. He’d been held back until his guardians showed up that evening.
Lucky for him, before each had shared their respective epilogues they had arrived at his flat. He pulled back the clutch to park and turned to his co driver.
‘Natalie, that bugger had it coming. His imps did too. I’m still not sure about AIDS transmission through cannibalism but next time phrase your come-pick-me-up with less exaggerated taglines.’
‘Grace. Your name must be your undoing. Suck it up man. All that crying; it’s just going to dehydrate you or something,’ he said reaching towards him and pulling the boy’s nose a little between his index and middle finger.’
Lunch was a pleasant surprise. The soul of a happy chicken had to be floating around pleased with the marinating of its corpse, but then it could be the Himalayan air conditioning saving them from the 27-degree-Celsius heat of the afternoon. He failed to reject his houseguest’s culinary apology. As she laid juicy drumsticks on his plate he knew he could write to a bank about it. Homes were overrated. Speaking of money lending institutions, he remembered he had somewhere he had to be. Aggro befell his face. He had just started to relax for the first time the whole day and the acknowledgement of that feeling fading away rubbed him in a very bad way. He stormed out.
The thirteen-year-old, true to his Black Widow role, saw the transformation and ached to help his new friend but chastised himself to halt the sombre emotion creeping up on him.
‘Suck it up,’ he repeated the skinny brown Hulk’s words in his head.
The psych admonishment however did not freeze Sid in his car. Grace sighed heavily at the turn of events. He cleared the table with Natalie and settled on the couch to watch television.
Natalie had sensed the boy’s fall of excitement and contemplated how to make it better. Her cell-phone buzzed again – a text from her ambassador mother.
‘This behaviour has got to end. Come back home. We can negotiate terms of the marriage.’
She scoffed at the illuminating screen in her palms. It was always negotiations with her.
Funny how her and the child asleep on her laps both ran away from their lives bordering on chaos and madness to Sid of all people, dressed in a scowl at all times like it came with a retainer/weekly pay cheque. But she was grateful. In his own way, he had transplanted some backbone into her. She could speak up, say no, and bite common thieves like a ravenous mutt.
She’d seen how Grace had held back a bout of whining when he’d walked out. She’d felt compelled to go after him, transplant something in him too. She just didn’t know what yet. Swiping furiously at her phone, she smiled and fetched the keys to his Rav4.
Grace woke up to the pain in his ankle. He wondered how that had happened considering he’d drowsed off in a comfortable sofa. Pushing himself up, he scanned his surroundings. He was in a moving car.
‘Natalie?’ he groaned, hoping his day’s adventure did not include kidnap.
‘Oh Grace, I’m sorry. You must have a cramp in your leg by now.’ she cooed.
‘It’s okay. Where are we going?’ asked Grace.
‘To help Sid.’ she replied.
‘Is he in trouble?’ the boy asked again.
‘ No,’ she sighed, ‘Once upon a week … ago. I sat at a swanky café waiting for a fiancé I’d never met. It’s an arranged thing.’
‘Isn’t that against the law?’
‘No, that’s child marriage, sweetheart,’ she assured him, ‘I was making a grand spectacle crying with all those people around me.’
‘Didn’t they have ladies rooms?’ he continued to quiz her.
‘It just happened spontaneously. Grace, you cry every waking moment. Are you always in the john?’
‘Yes, so while I was at it, that skinny guy you’ve had the pleasure of encountering appeared out of nowhere, pulled up the chair across me, and made himself comfortable. I didn’t even notice him until he quietly said, with the gentility of a diplomat, “Please shut up.”’
Grace couldn’t help but laugh.
Natalie assured him, ‘I tell you again, he actually said that. He then told me to stop being a spoilt brat and ruining the nice cafe’s ambiance for everybody after which he promptly stood up and walked away.’
‘Sorry Natalie. Must have been harsh.’
‘Weirdly, it was far from it,’ she said staring through the windscreen recalling the distant memory, ‘it was just nouveau.’
‘So what happened next?’ Grace pressed on about the tale.
‘After Sid left, I got up and followed him.’
‘To his car?’ he offered.
‘To his house,’ she provided , ‘ He was half way out the parking lot when I got outside so I just jumped into my car and tailed him home.’
The idea dawned on her now in all its glorious madness but she refused to scold herself.
‘Long story short; with divine help, Sid agreed to house me for a few weeks.’
The summation of Natalie’s encounter with Sid confused Grace a lot. How the ever screaming skinny brown hulk possessed the trait of kindness was mystifying. Maybe kindness stretched it too far, but one could definitely not ignore the fact that the aforementioned banshee bothered about people who were in a fix.
That definitely counted for something. Maybe Sid volunteered at a school. School teachers did tonnes of screaming. This prompted him to ask.
‘What does Sid do?’
‘He’s a loan shark,’ Natalie shrieked towards the back of the car.
She chuckled. ‘I’ve called him Jaws ever since he told me.’
Grace pondered why he still expected rational answers from her.
Natalie drove onto the side of a white plastered storied building. The sign at the top read Rolinda Associates. She parked at the front of it and popped the locks. She stepped out and helped Grace before holding his hand and climbing the stairs to the reception decorated with five stoic clocks showing time of different cities. The most prominent one with Uganda tagged under it read 4.30 p.m. They entered a door labelled ARBITRATOR, straight into a cross-legged Sid and a woman with a handkerchief stuffed in her mouth, her hands and feet tied.
Natalie guided Grace to a seat in a corner before she locked the door. She tried to figure out why he hadn’t bothered with that.
Sid rushed to where she was standing nearly toppling her over.
‘Don’t yell. We just came to help,’ Natalie said looking to Grace for affirmation.
‘What she said,’ he added, not very helpfully.
The captive lady behind the desk let out what would have otherwise been a cry of jubilation.
‘Not you,’ Grace informed her flatly.
Sid looked to be drowning in a sea of bafflement. He took his seat and rubbed his temples slowly. He couldn’t even hard press a debtor without a tonne of stress balancing sitting on his shoulders.
He let out a resigned groan and contemplated the seductive banality of a regular nine-to-five. Is this how people with kids went through? Kids they knowingly and lovingly sired? A cocktail of migraines?
His resident cannibal chose that precise moment to serve him shot of derangement.
‘I say we slap her around a bit,’ Natalie chirruped, ‘She should spit the money fast enough.’
‘You’re not allowed to beat girls, Natalie,’ Grace put in, ‘How about tickling her? It always works on me.’
Sid stood up and said to the lady who had adamantly refused to pay him his 5 million interest on a loan for six months, ‘I will be in touch.’
He wouldn’t. But he gathered the slaps and tickles had scared her out of her wits.
He mouthed at the two newest occupants in the room, ‘OUT!’
In the reception area, he listened to Natalie drone on about how he was losing his investment by being soft. She assured him they could take a nasty sight and would not judge him for his actions in his occupation. Grace looked on, silently rooting for his new advocate and surprised him by saying something.
‘We are grateful for the timely help you extended to complete strangers. We acknowledge your job is not ordinary and refuse to judge you. We can go back in and torture her to pay you what she owes you … even if she’s a girl,’ he stuttered with feigned courage.
Sid cracked his knuckles in disbelief.
‘I’m not scared and I promise not to cry,’ Grace continued.
Natalie begun to speak but Sid stopped her before she could.
‘I don’t torture people,’ he said noncommittally, ‘I actually found her like that. I was tempted the whole time to take a picture and use it to finally get the cash, but I just sat and let all possible things cross her mind as I thought about today.’
‘Grace, you cry like your life depends on it but I realized vulnerability is not altogether useless,’ Sid started
‘Natalie, you are as unhinged as they come and yet before you were princess who curtsied and smiled at every moving thing just a few weeks ago. The latter made me nauseous though the former has somewhat also got me in the land of the perturbed.’
Natalie did not know how to feel about his comment.
‘Just balance them please,’ Sid concluded
‘Sid,’ the two said in unison.
He turned to them.
‘You’re like a brother,’ Natalie started
‘I was going to say a weirdly nice daddy,’ Grace interrupted her.
Sid gave him his signature scowl.
‘I am no such thing,’ he refuted leading them to the car.
He thought of how he had to return the child to his orphanage and about Natalie who had to leave soon. At thirty seven, he couldn’t remember a day he wanted to remember for the next thirty seven years. A peculiar commercial break of sorts to his arduous life of chasing money and being angry day in and day out. A wifeless, childless, friendless life. One he was comfortable with yesterday and perhaps would be tomorrow. But for now was a recognized daddy-brother. He sighed deep and acknowledged it felt nice.
In one day, he had been a rare kind of brother and daddy.
‘Dother!’ Grace shouted through the window, ‘You can be both; daddy and brother.’
Sid juggled the notion that Grace had just raised his voice to a level humans could hear.
Dother sounded stupid but then again, in the light of the day’s events. Stupid worked.