By Sheillah Maonga
I was told that he had been waiting there for me since early morning. It was now almost seven o’clock in the evening. He had been directed to see Koni, the other partner in the firm, who is also my wife; but he was adamant that he wanted to see me only. He refused to say what he wanted me for, but that was not unusual in our line of work and thus, he wasn’t pressured to divulge this information. I was in court all day so I couldn’t hurry back. In any case, he did not seem to be in a hurry, as Koni told me on the phone; so waiting he did.
He did not even give his name insisting that he would only say it to me, which again was not unusual in our line of work. I had instructed Koni to call the security guys to throw him out, but I knew she wouldn’t do that. Koni had so much compassion and guilt in her. She couldn’t throw anyone out unless he posed severe danger to her. And as she said to me, he looked quite harmless. A young hapless boy that appeared so lost and unsure, as if life had beaten itself out of him, she had summed him up. I did not buy this description as Koni could even see great honour and integrity in a thief. I just did not see how a man who refused to give his name, who staunchly waited for me for a whole day would be considered hapless and lost. That was a man who had steely determination.
That said, I was curious to see him.
I arrived at the office and went in through the back door so that I could sneakily look at him on the security cameras before meeting him in person. After one unfortunate incident with a disgruntled client a few years back, I always went in prepared. I subconsciously stroked the smooth scar at the nape of my neck as I opened the back door to the corridor. The physical scar had faded but the mental ones were yet to heal. That disgruntled client still visited me in my nightmares, even though three years had already passed since the attack.
Koni must have heard me come in because I saw her coming down the corridor, bouncing along, as usual. She always walked purposefully and hurriedly, as if she was needed urgently somewhere to save the world. As it was, she was going to save the nanny from the twins. They could prove to be quite a handful, especially at bedtime.
“Darling, I have to rush. Shall we catch up at home? The twins are waiting for me. Mika has a solo piece tomorrow, we need to practise; and Luna has a poem recital the day after, so I have to listen to that too. The young man is at the front. Whatever it is, be gentle with him. He is in a turmoil of sorts. If you are coming through the back so that you can look at the cameras, there is no need for that. He is safe. Maybe, it is actually you that he needs protection against!” Koni said hurriedly. She always spoke one to the dozen.
I wanted to hold her in my arms, if only to quieten her down but I knew she abhorred these public displays of affection in the office. There was no touching between us in the office, whether anyone was there or not; that was the rule she had laid down when we started working together. She had offered a handshake in its stead, but I had declined, citing that no touching was better than a handshake. So, as I had done in the past, I stood there just listening to her talk, willing myself not to drag her into an embrace.
“My day was fine, thank you for asking. How was yours?” I responded when she finished.
“I said we will catch up at home.” She replied as she rushed off.
I walked to my office and put my bag down. I contemplated turning on the cameras to look at him, but then thought I would rather take Koni at her word. It would certainly save me time, positioning those cameras to get the right angle could be a chore at times.
I went out to meet him. He was tall. And thin. Very thin, as if he was suffering from a chronic illness. This was all by looking at his legs, which were stretched out in front of him. His trousers were threadbare. They were clean but very old. And quite like what an old man would wear. His shoes had seen better days. They were old and chipped. Also, in an old man’s style. I couldn’t see his face as he was staring at the floor.
I thought he was dozing. He wasn’t, because he raised his head when he heard my footsteps. I had put on a welcoming, yet formal, smile that I reserve for clients, but when I saw his face, my smile froze on its tracks; so did my footsteps. I just could not believe it.
I should have looked at the cameras, I chided myself. I would have been better prepared for him if I did.
I could see his face was frozen too, staring intently at me. It was as if time stood still. We just stared at each other, no one willing to break the silence. And I knew that he could see in my face an uncanny resemblance to him, just as I saw in his face.
He stood up. He was as tall as I. Maybe taller because his shoulders were hunched while mine weren’t. As if he carried the world’s problems on his shoulders.
“Are you Dobi Masha?” He asked. His voice sounded unsteady, as if he was afraid to speak.
I nodded. I, too, was afraid to speak.
“Can we talk from here? Or shall we go inside the office?” he asked, this time his voice steadier, as if he knew that he had to take charge of the situation. Maybe it was my clenching and unclenching of my fists that made him conclude that he had to steer this conversation. I was annoyed with myself for falling back to this annoying habit. It had taken me years of conscious effort to finally get rid of it. But here I was, fully back to it with no preamble and I couldn’t will myself to stop.
Just like it had been those years back, about two decades ago, when I had stood there, with his mother, wondering what the next course of action was.
So, he must be 20 years old, I thought randomly. Though he looked much younger than that, despite his clothes. Probably he took after me. I was told that I looked way younger for my age.
“How can I help you?” I asked, finally finding my voice.
“Where do I start?” He replied wryly. Clearly, he had taken after his father. This was exactly how I responded to that question; and in my line of work, it was a question one heard on a daily basis.
“Start from the beginning.” I replied, unhelpfully.
“I do not know the beginning. Maybe you could tell me.” He reciprocated unhelpfully too.
“Where was the beginning?” I thought to myself.
Maybe it was when I was a toddler. And I had found a fellow toddler to play with. A girl that belonged to our housemaid and neighbour. She would play with me as her mother did chores in our house.
Maybe it was when I was in the local primary school and we used to walk together to and from school. Our maid’s daughter and I. We would leave at the same time, since we lived in the same compound, albeit in different houses. She lived in the servants’ quarters. I lived in the main house. But, out there walking to school together, we were equal.
Maybe it was in the youth choir in the church. She was the lead soprano, I was the conductor.
We were close, his mother and I. She knew me as much as anyone could ever know me. I remember the day my letter of admission came through the post. I ran all the way to her to share the good news. My mother would not have understood the implications of the letter. My other relatives, even less so. She was the only one that I always ran to whenever I had news- any news. All the time.
She had shed tears of joy. Her happiness for me outshone my own happiness at getting into the only university in the country. She knew how much I prayed for this. How desperately I needed to get out of that village. How much my heart yearned to study law. She got it. She was the only one that got it.
She knew that a secretarial college awaited her. Her mother could not afford university fees, so she never dreamt of going there in the first place. She did not even even bother with making an application to the university. The secretarial college was in the village and her mother was already in talks with the principal.
As the day drew nearer for me to leave, we became even more closer and closer and our friendship, which had been platonic all along, became sexual.
Maybe it was the youthful discoveries we made together, the falling in love and all.
I proposed marriage to her when I kissed her farewell at the bus stop. She said yes. We both were ecstatic. I was nineteen years old. She was eighteen. I proposed because I wanted her to be mine. As much as I was happy to go away to study, I was despondent to leave her behind, and I felt that marriage would make us stay true to each other. I promised to come back during the holidays to start the wedding preparations.