By Sheillah Maonga
I was a young man then, sure of myself, the future events lined up neatly like little packages waiting for me to open them. I made firm plans with her. That I would come home every holiday and during recess. That we would marry as soon as we could, which the next holiday seemed the best time to do it. We agreed that we would have two children- a boy and a girl, who we will name after ourselves. And of course, we would live happily ever after.
“You haven’t asked me who I am.” He stated, jolting me awake from my reverie. “I was sent here by my mother, Josephina Epana, I don’t know if you remember her.”
How could I forget Josephina? I was surprised that I could still remember intricate details about her on the day I proposed marriage. She was wearing a red dress, which was her all-time favourite. It had yellow butterflies on it that started at the waist and ran all the way down to the hem. The butterflies looked like they were flying when the gentle breeze blew on her dress. The dress had a hidden zip at the sides that I had helped pull up and down so many times before as we laughed our way in the fields, the farms and sometimes, in my brother’s hut, which lay empty because he had long left the village. It was cinched in at the waist thus flattering her girlish figure. Her hair was cut short and it gave her a cheeky impish look. The hair glistened and shone in the sun. At that moment in time, she looked ethereal and I felt like I could never love another person as much I loved her. I could feel my heart swollen with love for her, to a bursting point.
“I know who you are.” I stated.
“Have we met before?” he said, a light awry smile playing at the corner of his mouth. “My mother says that we haven’t.”
“We haven’t.” I said.
Though I had seen him once. When I went for my mother’s funeral, 10 years ago.
It was a sudden death. Cardiac arrest as she hanged out clothes to dry. I was in shock and deeply engulfed in grief. I was also wrecked with guilt because I hadn’t seen her for a few years and here she was, dead. After the burial, some village woman served me food. She hovered around as I ate, and I had to ask her to leave. She was making me uncomfortable with her steely gaze and I was increasingly getting irritated. She was intruding on my grief and I just could not handle it. It was moments like these that I missed my wife. Koni would have known how to deal with such awkward situations. It was a pity that she wasn’t at the funeral. She was heavily pregnant with the twins and her obstetrician had strongly advised her not to travel all those miles away. I gathered that the staring woman wanted some money- they always did- but because I did not have my wallet on me to give her so that she could leave me in peace, I ushered her away.
It was our old maid that later on asked if I had spoken to her daughter, Josephina. I said I hadn’t seen her, then she pointed to this matronly looking woman in the distance who was tending to a young wiry boy; the same woman that had served me food earlier, the one who had stared at me as I ate; the one I had shooed away. I could not believe it. She had aged beyond her years. The years had not been kind to her at all. Her face looked drawn out and sallow, a shadow of the bubbly young woman that had been a picture of health a few years back. I resolved that I would go and talk to her before I left the village. This time with my wallet on me. She looked like she could do with some financial help.
I had asked her mother if she was married and she had said that no one would marry her because she had borne a child out of wedlock.
I looked at them again and felt my heart tug as Josephina licked her finger and used the same finger to wipe the wiry boy’s eyes. The boy was trying to break free, but the mother’s grasp was stronger. The mother put more spit on her finger and kept on wiping his face with it. He kept resisting, and eventually broke free and ran towards his friends.
That was the only time I had seen him, until today.
“We haven’t met. Though we came close to meeting ten years ago, but something came up last minute.” I said, my voice suddenly becoming a whisper.
I had arranged, through our maid, her mother, to see Josephina that evening with her son. I had to dispense off with funeral formalities first before meeting them.
Just an hour to the meeting, Koni had called me to tell me that she had gone into labour. I dropped everything and left for the city. I needed to be there to welcome my twin daughters to the world.
“I remember that day. It was at a funeral. My grandmother had told my mother that you wanted to see us. My mother had refused. She told off my grandmother for instigating the meeting, saying that you had chased her away earlier and she would not beg you to see her. My grandmother said that she would take me to meet you herself. I had asked who you were, but she wouldn’t disclose to me. She said that you were someone I had to meet and when I was older, she would tell me more about you. I waited for you all night only to be told that you had left in a hurry. It was then that I found out who you were to me. My mother hissed it out at me in anger and frustration. She had never told me before who my father was, regardless of me asking countless times.” He said, his eyes boring into mine. I could hear the vestiges of accusation in his voice. I could see glimpses of hurt in his face. He drew himself to a full height and I could verify that he was indeed a head taller than me. I wanted to tell him that that is how he should always stand, with his shoulders straight and his chest pushed out. It gave him a strong presence.
“I had all intents and purposes of meeting you. It is only that, at the last minute, I received information that my daughters were being born so had to rush back to be present at birth.” I replied, and regretted this as soon as I finished saying it.
“I see.” He said, as he slumped down on his seat, his shoulders hunched again. He gave out a sigh of resignation. I remained standing.
There followed an uncomfortable silence with none of us wanting to break it. We were at an impasse.
I remembered this same silence when his mother came to see me during my first holiday back home after one semester at the university. She had heard through her mother, who still worked for my mother, that I was back.
I was in bed, writing a letter to my campus girlfriend then, when Josephina entered my room. She had free access to it as I had given her the key some years back. I made a mental note of taking the key back before I left for university. Or changing the locks altogether, whichever was the easiest for me.
She looked different. Lighter skinned. Softer and plumper. Older. Motherly. She had changed, and not for the better. Or I had changed, as she later came to claim. To me, she looked like the villager that she was, lacking the beauty and poise of one semester ago. No polish or sophistication to her person. Too simple. Too unintellectual. For me. She could not compete with the girls I met at the university. She certainly could not compete with my current girlfriend.
“Dobi Masha, what happened? You went and never kept in touch with me even once, yet you promised. You just left me high and dry!” she reprimanded me playfully, as I could see the ghost of a smile on her lips. In the years I had known her, she had never shown anything other than a happy face. It was impossible to make her upset. She took everything in her stride. Which somehow irritated me that day. I thought it very bland to have only one emotion all the time.
“I was busy. I am sorry.” I said impatiently. She was interfering with my communication with my girlfriend. I wanted her gone from my midst.
“I have missed you.” She said.
I couldn’t tell her back that I had missed her. I had been too busy with other girls that I had not had time to think of her. She belonged in a different world and at university, there was just no room in my head for her.
“I have something to tell you.“ She said as she took off her jacket.
When I saw her protruding belly, I started clenching and unclenching my hand nervously. I willed it to stop, but the hands had a mind of their own.
“We need to plan that wedding as soon as possible. This baby will be born in a few months’ time.”
I just looked at her in silence.