A beautifully familiar peachy golden sky signals the beginning of a brief moment of calmness, before traffic descends upon Helen’s neighborhood. Soon, Toyota Prados, Noahs, Ipsums and BMW’s with tinted windows will bull doze and squish their way through the narrow residential maruum roads, causing her forty year old inherited house to shudder. Young men will gather across the road at the entrance to her two box shaped shops and sit on the old wooden benches bought by her husband. Sara, her most recent hire, a tall skinny S6 vacist from Soroti, will serve the young males some local brew, as they settle into their evening side hustle. The betting machines have brought in a good deal of revenue for Helen. Her sons advised her well. She’s finally saved enough money to mend the water damaged brick wall and install some drainage.
At this particular moment, Helen is not interested in the wall. Her chest is stiff. She is standing at the window in her tie and dye purple kaftan, watching a young woman in her early twenties, called Anna. She is watching this culturally confused millennial walk away from her home, down the crooked maruum road. Helen continues to eagerly peer through the 60’s style circular bars on the windows, her eyes are squinted, as Anna gets further and further away.
A Suzuki pick-up truck with poor suspension bounces down the dusty road. The orange red dirt rising up in protest behind it, leaving the few pedestrians choking and rubbing their eyes. Anna doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t move to the side to give way to the vehicle. She barely seems to notice the truck narrowly missing her. She continues, unshaken, with her red handbag fashionable resting on her elbow. Dressed in a bright pink jumpsuit and black ‘Jackie O’ sunglasses, no one in the neighborhood could guess the trauma Anna has witnessed in the last year.
“How many times have I told that girl it’s not Oxford street! She’s so carefree, bottoms swaying, locked in her little world. Sometimes, I wish the potholes would swallow her up, and give her a good taste of Ugandan reality” Helen mutters under her shallow breath, each word fighting to come out.
Helen’s stubborn ribs refuse to aid all attempts of her body to breath easily. She is having a full blown anxiety attack, brought on by the events of the day. She slaps her thighs, forces her head to shake from side to side.
The worst of Helen’s distress episode is upon her. Her motherly instincts continue to pester her about Anna. They seep through her body, whinging and winning in her veins, hoping to grind away her resistance. She wants to tear through the front door, run down the road and bring Anna back to the house. This is an emotional battle she’s been fighting for twenty three years. It began the day she handed over a swaddled up baby called Anna to her, recently married best friend, Margaret. For nine months she carried the shame of abandonment by her boyfriend. Barely out of her teen years, she couldn’t feed or cloth her child, but her best friend could.
As if she knew she would be given away, Anna was born tiny and pink; Pear shaped Margaret with her pot belly from Andrew’s birth, was able to pass Anna off as a surprise premature baby, and her unfaithful husband, who barely stayed in their marital home remained clueless. Nobody questioned Margaret. Her husband was prone to violent outbursts, so people believed it possible that the baby could quite literally have been beaten out of her. After all, Margaret’s first born son, Andrew, had not made it to full term either. Margaret managed everything quickly, a brief exchange of crisp colored notes ensured that the parents’ names on the birth certificate were altered. Both friends, quietly stored the secret safely away for twenty three years. But now Margaret is dead.
Six months ago, Margaret’s body was removed from Helen’s house at midnight. The body of a dutiful wife, mother and friend, carrying the shame of being unable to die in her own marital home, a lavish mansion built in a prestigious suburban neighbourhood in Kampala.
The shock of her passing still lingers in the walls of Helen’s home, like grey matter etched into the cracks. The ‘Oh nos’ still echo through the corridors from the many mourners who paid a visit. She had no words to clear their confusion because she was never given permission to tell the truth. She did what she was instructed to do. Six months to the day of Margaret’s passing, she called a meeting at her home for the relatives, lawyers and Anna to discuss Margaret’s estate.
To prepare Helen for this meeting, Margaret had often referred to specific members of her family as ‘The Relatives”. A pack of relatives inherited through her marriage, and those from her own birth family, they feasted on everyone else’s sweat and success. Only certain measures of intimidation could keep them at bay. Margaret had provided specific instructions, Helen had been warned not to underestimate them.
Petit, lady-like Helen covered all her bases. After frying three dozen samosas and a tall tower of chapattis, she laid out her best polished mugs and saucers neatly on the table. Margaret’s trusted lawyers were paid before the meeting, so she could focus on the most peculiar of the final touches. Yesterday evening before her husband returned home, she visited the old metal hut police post. With some polite talk and an exchange of a bundle of notes, she borrowed an confiscated AK 47.
Upon reaching the house, her hands still shaking, she took the rifle from the bag and placed it neatly under the sofa which she would sit on in the meeting. She placed it in a way that those who sat across and around her would get a partial glimpse of the item. She had a reputation of being meek among her acquaintances, but Margaret’s idea would hopefully shock The Relatives into obedience.
“Play with their minds, use intimidation.” She nervously reminded herself as she went to open the gate, when the doorbell rang signaling the first arrival for the meeting.
During the meeting she surprised herself. Helen with her chest bulging out like a cow hide covered shield dominated the room. For many nights, she had forfeit her knitting projects, to practice lowering her voice, making it sound less feminine, more logical, more concise. After supper, while her beloved husband watched the 9.00’o clock news, Helen , with her toffee coloured reading glasses resting on her round button nose and sharp cheekbones, sat at their oval dining table, meticulously studying Margaret’s will. Every now and then Helen’s husband would curiously stare at his wife hunched on the dining table. He was quietly surprised that she had changed her evening rituals, but he wasn’t one to pry; he didn’t like to over question his wife’s actions.
Practice made good. Helen verbally fought of all resistance from The Relatives during the meeting. She insisted that Anna’s brother, Andrew would get legal responsibility for the deceased propriety upon his return from his studies aboard. For now, Anna would take control under the lawyers’ guardianship, as outlined in the deceased’s will. She strategically placed Anna directly in her eyes view throughout the meeting, but the poor girl seemed completely aloof from start to finish. Something wasn’t right, but she couldn’t let The Relatives notice it.
As the meeting drew to close, she took several breaths of relief. The Relatives conceded defeat and departed empty handed.
The house is now drenched in silence. The only evidence of meeting are the little crumbs scattered across the maroon floor, and the dirty mugs and saucers from the afternoon tea.
“God must do the rest.” She whispers to no one as her anxiety attack finally subsides.
After a deep breath, she lets the curtain gracefully fall to block her view. Her fingers touch her throat as if to rub out a throbbing emotional lump of tears.
“ I’m going to take care of Anna and Andrew now.” she says.
She removes her wig and casually chucks it across the room, it lands on the big brown couch. She scratches her freed sweaty scalp under her own limp thinning grey black hair. She slowly makes her way to the kitchen, as though she has returned back from a physically exhausting expedition.
“I will return my intimidating friend to the police station tomorrow, so many guns amongst them they won’t miss this one. ” She laughs.
The noisy evening traffic finally descends upon the neighborhood.
****** Anna’s side of the story*****
In the distance I hear someone calling my name “Anna”. But I can’t quite coordinate the right parts of my body to figure out from whom and from where the voice is coming. Maybe it’s one of my relatives seated on the sofa across from me. I know that I am sitting on a big brown couch. My head is facing down. I am studying the uneven maroon floor. I’ve been in this house many times before. It’s my mother’s best friend’s home. It’s Aunty Helen’s house. This house is permanently stuck in the the nineties; every inch plastered in precious childhood memories. Aunty Helen has six dark auburn wooden tables. They sometimes double as stools for the children. Today, because of this meeting, they covered by white clothes with embroidered blue and red flowers in the middle, and matching trim around the edges.
Before the meeting, Aunty Helen purposely placed a stool near me. She put a glass of freshly made passion juice on it. She served me, as though I was still the little girl who used to visit with my mother. I watched her put some extra sugar in my glass. Maybe it will help sweeten the proceedings? But even as the meeting commenced, I knew I had already failed her.
Since this all began, I have been unable to focus. My mind is stuck. It is stuck between the present and the past, getting choked up in memories and emotions. My mind is jumbled up like a garbage dump site, full of everything one can imagine, but nothing anyone needs. I can’t differentiate between my dreams and reality. I am in pieces.
From my childhood, I remember one yellow colored afternoon asleep on my Aunty’s couch, I kept coming in and out of a sickly slumber, a damp face towel on my forehead and my mother reassuringly rubbing my back. I woke to hear the faint whispers of my aunty’s and my mother’s conversation. Andrew and aunty’s sons were outside, playing football. I think maybe more than once I heard a sob from my mother or even my aunty. I instinctively knew to remain still. I learnt long ago the consequences of interrupting adult conversation. I heard their pain clearly. The pain of ‘mistresses’, ‘unclaimed children’, ‘masked bruises’.
Suddenly, G.A.D brings me back into the meeting.
“Look, is that a gun under your Aunty’s chair? ” He gasps
G.A.D is the part of me that always requires convincing. Today he’s struggling to understand the point of Aunty Helen ‘s meeting, even though he’s aware it is important. I am already losing my patience.
“Stop your stupid games!” I snap.
I am grateful, this is an internal conversation. G.A.D lives in my head. I can only assume people in the meeting can’t hear him. Across from me, Aunty Helen is giving us a strange look, like she’s caught me in some terrible mischief; I hope she hasn’t figured us out.
I am not sure when G.A.D came into my life, but I feel as though he has always been there, maybe just appearing in different forms. He wasn’t there that day at the mortuary as the silver drawer was pulled out to reveal my mother’s lifeless body. G.A.D appeared in this current form two weeks after, when I found myself curled up in the fetal position on the floor of my parent’s dressing room. I was covered in my mother’s clothes like an Ethiopian dessert nomad, who’s put up camp for the night on the marble tiled floor. My face was swollen and puffy, I had somehow completely cried my voice into a hoarse crocky whisper. It was G.A.D who told me I’d been lying there for hours. I must have locked myself in the night before. I can’t remember.
Eventually, they broke down the bedroom door and a scuffle enshrewed. I am not a fighter, but G.A.D told me to fight, so I did. He told me to slap my father’s mistress across the face, which I did.
“Pull her cheap plastic weave out!” G.A.D shouted “… Remove your mother’s clothes. We say NO! ”
After an hour, the mistress retreated with pieces of her pulled out light brown weave dangling from her head to her shoulder. The housegirl followed closely behind masking her amusement at my latest antics. The Relatives waiting at the bottom of stairs to pretend-comfort her. G.A.D let out a Braveheart-like battle cry and I continued to lie on the floor, my body now spread out like a star fish basking in my morning triumph, numb to the bruises and cuts on my arms from the mistress’s fake acrylic nails. Sometimes, it actually pays to be crazy.
G.A.D stands for Grief, Anxiety and Depression. I call him G.A.D for short. Imagine those bald goblin statues perched high up on the ledges of those Medieval European churches, that’s what G.A.D looks like. My mother once joked “Africans don’t get sicknesses in their heads, only bazungu do.” I wish I could ask her, “But mom, what is going on in my mind now? Who should I tell? Who should I speak too?”
In today’s meeting G.A.D has placed himself high on the top of my Aunty’s mahogany cabinet, the one that has the valuable ornaments. He is cunningly looking for the opportunity to disrupt everything
“No! We need to focus. F.O.C.U.S. Cooooome on! Use your ears, put the sounds together, what are they saying? ” Get- it Together raises her little hands in frustration. She is bringing my wondering mind back into the meeting. Like G.A.D, no one can hear or see Get-It-together.
Get-it-Together points at the adults in the room. The conversations and their faces pour through me like water in a cheap plastic bag full of pin holes. I have to try. I have to focus. I start by looking up at the wall, at a familiar crack I have seen so many times before, then I let my eyes wonder to where my Aunty is sitting, just for some comfort. Slowly I persuade my body to do what it was supposed to do. I can’t send too many instructions because my body gets easily confused now. So, I try to get my ears to pick anything, any of the voices, any of the sounds. I wait for the sound particles to bounce off my ear drum. Then I wait for my mind to recognize the order and make words. Hopefully we shall be able to make sentences. However, I only manage to get a few words though, “her will”, “Andrew”, two vehicles”, “a block of apartments”. The rest of the sounds lay discarded, broken and unused on floor of my mind. The pieces to a puzzle I have given up trying to put together.
We have these strange members of our family nicknamed The Relatives. When someone dies, they show up at the deceased’s house before the body has even reached the mortuary. They cry with the bereaved, while they eat and drink every morsel of food and drink in the fridge, and the kitchen cupboards. After a while, The Relatives got tired of my tears. They got irritated by my sadness, and they insisted that life had to start to move on. Every morning they would brush and comb my hair after I got dressed, then force me to sit at the dining table and eat. Several weeks after my mother’s death, when I became calmer and less acute to emotional outbursts from G.A.D’s influence, they started to ask me weird questions about my birth certificate, and my mother’s property. Then they started to frequently request our family albums, to compare my brother’s features against mine.
I found myself unable to cope, and that’s when Get-It-Together appeared. She’s a regular little miss perfect. She makes sure we go to work. She makes sure we attend classes. It’s a constant struggle between the three of us, but her job is to keep us focused. With her, we can convince everybody that I’m not falling apart. A flowery scent lingers in air when she around. And you can’t miss her Tiara or her perfectly ironed yellow frilly summer dress. Her hair is flawlessly styled, not a strand out place. It’s a shame no one can see her.
I wonder how my big brother copes, by himself. I wonder whether he has also split himself into three or four to help keep himself afloat. He barely says a word in our phone conversations, keeping his emotions locked up tight inside of him, maybe he thinks The Relatives are eavesdropping.
“Hi Cupcake.” he says when I answer the phone, he is brave for me, even though he is the one who is alone.
And on cue, once again, Get-it-Together starts coaxing me back in to this present moment, back into this very important meeting. I see bodies rising and hands meeting and colliding. Then they start to disappear, some in groups and some one by one. I think I see a briefcase with files of papers being closed and locked. It still seems hazy to me. As usual my stubborn body refused to co-ordinate it’s may parts . I have failed. I have failed my Aunty.