The Colour of Black Buttons

Rekayi stands tall in his rented room and looks around. It is dusk and yet the watch on his wrist reads 3:17 am or pm. Silence. The scent of tomatoes and onions frying in Cartwright’s curry powder wafts in through the gap under the door. Darkness. The muted scraping of a metal spoon in a pan reaches his room. He fumbles around and curses at the only stump of candle left. He slides open the box of matches next to the candle and strikes one. The head cracks off in a spark and leaves the stick bare. He strikes another one and he’s lucky this time. The smell of the match hits his nostrils as he lights the stump and then walks over to the little radio. Rekayi grabs the radio in his left hand and winds the power lever. The little dynamo inside whirrs and the radio springs to life. Little blue and red lights glow and the tiny speaker crackles sharply. There is a live broadcast squawking through the speaker – The Minister of Water Affairs, Polished Shoes, and Button Colours is declaring Statutory Instrument 45 (2) of 2016, which bans the wearing of blue buttons and makes it mandatory for people from all walks of life to wear clothes with black buttons on Fridays. The Minister further states that this ban supersedes Statutory Instrument 45 (1), declared two days earlier, which allowed blue buttons but banned green buttons. “This Statutory Instrument shall stand for the foreseeable future,” he adds with the confidence of a giraffe on a skateboard.

It is Thursday and there is time to dash to the corner. The airtime vendor sells daily newspapers in the morning and airtime vouchers and buttons throughout the day. If the vendor is out of buttons then the tall man has a problem. Commuter taxis are just about all done for the day. By the time he walks across to the Avondale Centre, the button shop will be closed.

Black is the colour of mourning. An aged yet gallant former freedom fighter has choked to death trying to swallow champagne and goat meat while speaking Mandarin. In revolutionary fashion, the Prime Minister has declared 16 days of mourning accompanied by playing of the national lament on all radio and TV stations, and the usual button protocols. Rekayi knows this but two weeks ago, he pawned off the last four black buttons he had for money to buy candles. The sound from the tiny radio starts to fade away and he winds the dial a bit more. He sits there in the dark room trying to figure out what to pawn or exchange for the four buttons he needs. He hasn’t had a decent meal in days and the smell of food drifting in from the other lodgers’ rooms now makes him nauseous. The airtime vendor might loan him four black buttons. He looks around him and the darkness frowns back. He must find something to trade. If the Compliance Police notice him without black buttons, they will take him away for a few days to teach him the revolutionary importance of black buttons – or they will take a $5 bribe. He mulls over the merits of the possessions in the room: a coat, a pair of worn black boots, a foam rubber mattress, a thin blanket, a metal cup, a metal dinner plate, and two spoons. He picks up the little radio and puts it into his trouser pocket then heads off to the airtime vendors at the corner of his street.

Rekayi gets to the corner and finds Wasu is the only vendor still there. He never asked him his name but he has known him for so long that it would be awkward to ask now.

“Dread ndeipi?” Wasu opens.

Wasu ari sei marunnings? Rekayi replies.

“Ah steady. How far masettings”

“Zvakadhakwa izvi,” Rekayi sighs.

“Zvakadhakwa imi Dread maakutoita matama so!” Wasu mocks.

“Usadaro Wasu. Ko une masinhi amangwana here? Nditori pama one izvozvi”

“Eish mayaz Dread. Ndakabatisa Simba mabutton angu ekupedzisira. Handiti makaibata kuti Simba akabaya?” Wasu looks up at Rekayi.

“Akabaya kupi Simba?”

“Ah Dread…” Wasu exhales and drops his gaze.

“Chii? Taura ka nyaya yako!” Rekayi urges.

“Boys dzakamutora kuDemo last week.”

“Ah…” Rekayi’s jaw drops.

Wasu continues, “Vakamuvharira week rese akabuda asingagone kufamba kana kutaura.”

“Saka how far manje?”

“Mudhara wake akatouya kuzomutora vakaenda naye ku roots.”

“Ah … inga pakaipa.” Rekayi pulls up his jaw.

“Pakaipa Dread.”

“Saka Demo … how far?”

“Vanhu  varikuti ngoma ndiyo ndiyo mangwana.” Wasu’s eyes light up.

“Saka tonaz hamusi kufambika ka mangwana?” Rekayi strokes his chin as he ponders.

“Hapana yekutamba Dread … taneta.”

Rekayi winds the radio again and shuffles back home dejectedly. As he approaches the gate, he hears the Minister of Defence, State Security and Delightful Tenders stating that anyone seen wearing black buttons on Fridays will be charged with treason. The situation has changed. Also, on second thought, during an emergency cabinet meeting 53 seconds ago, the Prime Minister has decided that the gallant former freedom fighter wasn’t really as gallant as he remembered.

*

Sheila is sitting on a cheap floral couch watching Pretty Woman for the fifty-seventh time and imagining herself a classy prostitute. More like the woman on Colquhoun Street than the cheap girls on Third Street between Baines and Fife Avenues. The electricity cuts out abruptly. She sits in silence for a while, too lazy to lift herself off the floral couch. There is no disappointment or anger. Instead, her mind automatically checks the amount of gas left and where the matches and candles are. The neighbours’ generators kick in. Above the humming, approaching boots crunch gravel in the driveway.

The boots step onto the corridor and little bits of gravel scatter off the bottom and skittle across the concrete. The boots don’t bother to grate off the stones lodged in the sole. Four more steps and his key is scratching into the keyhole, finding purchase and turning. Sheila waits a minute or two, so as not to appear too eager, and then gets off the couch and heads to his room. She knocks softly on the door twice and walks in without waiting for a response. He is standing near the window and turns back to see who it is. He knows though. He only ever gets one visitor; only one who would walk in like this.

She walks up to him with her fingers tugging at the knot in her wrap-around. He motions her to the chair. She sits. Her mind is racing. She places both hands between her thighs and crosses her legs. She looks at him in anticipation. The sun has dipped below the trees lining the streets but there is still light. He is silhouetted against the window and her eyes trace his darkness. He just stands there staring silently at her form, trying to control his breathing. The rush of blood has aroused her but the man in front of her is not the man for this. She loudly sucks between her teeth and strides out of the room adjusting her wrap tighter about her.

Sheila fucks Rekayi during the week and lately, also on weekends. Her husband doesn’t know and she knows he’s too arrogant to suspect. She maintains her lie by stroking the back of his neck and telling him sweet bullshit when he’s on top of her. He has developed a roughness. She likes it rough and there is no passion now. There was a time his pores bled passion and she drew circles in the sweat dripping down his back. The passion left and she hates it now. The noise in the city has had him staying away for weeks on end.

He came back one night, marijuana stale on his breath as he also reeked of that nauseating mixture of warm day sweat and violence. He took her against the door and kept his trousers on. He burst in, rifle slung over his shoulder, grabbed her and braced himself against her. She hissed deep in her throat and dug her nails into his shoulders. Rekayi sat in silence, in his room, in the dark, listening, getting hard. Listening.

Augustus had never brought home a rifle. He had a pistol—  a side-arm, which he kept with his uniform—but never a rifle. He took her, and she choked out low guttural groans, and she dug her nails in deeper. The voices in his head egged him on and he rode on their chorus. Wave upon hammering wave and she yielded and loosened her grip. He did not stop. They did not talk about that night. He would find her waiting by the door the next night… and the next… and the next, with Rekayi beating off vigorously with his ear against the wall in the silent darkness of his room next door.

From that night, Sheila and her husband did not bother to turn up the TV volume to mask the noise. Until then, they had been rather quiet and had not needed the TV. Now that they did, they didn’t use it. The third tenant had two little children and she would get flustered and rush her kids out of earshot. That first night took everyone by surprise. The rifle fell off his shoulder as she buckled and landed solidly on its metal butt. It cracked a clay kitchen tile. Augustus did not miss a stroke.

It was worse when the power was out. Then, besides the slow murmur of pots bubbling and simmering over blue gas flames, there was silence throughout the house. The power would cut out abruptly and take the noise from the third tenant’s kids with it. After that, you could hear every footstep: the sandy scraping of the third tenant’s flip-flops against the floor; the petulant stomp-stomping from her two kids’ tiny Bata school shoes; and Rekayi and his thick-soled boots and their irreverent crunching of the gravel in the driveway. Footsteps went by her front door with empty swinging plastic buckets. The same footsteps came past again but slower, heavier and with the splish-splash of water-filled buckets. But mostly it was silent. Until Augustus would push his way through the front door, let the figure of his wife form from the darkness, and exorcise his demons deep inside her.

From that night, he had a wild and vacant look in his eyes. She knew there had been goings-on in town and he looked part of it, but there was nothing about it on the state television news. The news had reported the Prime Minister back in the country for a short visit, run an hour-long special on the Chinese commuter railway programme from the 1980s, and then gone straight to sports news and the weather. There was talk of groups of people demonstrating outside the Ministry of Goats, Green Maize, and the Girl Child. She heard this from the third tenant when she came back from crèche with her two kids in tow. There were also murmurs at the street corner where she went to buy airtime and the airtime guy was jumpy and nervous. He kept starting and looking around. He did not flirt with her as usual. He hurriedly tore off a one-dollar airtime stub, stabbed it at her and sent his eyes darting up and down the street again. There was hastiness to the traffic too. It wasn’t just the big 4x4s that were rumbling through potholes today; even the tiny bug-eyed jalopies were cracking seriously without avoiding the craters. When Augustus came home that night, he expelled it all into his wife.

That was many weeks ago and when it stopped she was left bruised and yearning. It was no longer love they made. They had sex, a crude and primal variant of it, but they needed an anger to get them there. He simply did not come back home one night. She hated him for what he had done to her and what he had abruptly stopped doing. Weeks went by and then the tenant next door knocked on her door and asked her if she wanted to come listen to his radio. That’s how it started and he was gentle, but she told herself it wasn’t all that bad.

She likes Rekayi because he is an artist and different from her husband. He writes. He says he is a writer. He feels. He listens. He has a sheaf of scruffy papers in a corner in his house and he tells her she is his muse. He writes love poems inspired by her. He reads them to her and she pretends to listen. He likes to think that she is filled with the Holy Spirit and he isn’t. The conflict she feels from all this heats her up. The pastor had preached his courtship gospel and laid his holy hands on her and told her she would have a husband. She has now. And yet here she is, with the heathen tenant next door.

*

Friday morning. Rekayi wakes up to soft knocking on his door. The sun is already above the unkempt hedge lining the front of the property. It is threading thin shafts of light through little tears and holes in his thin curtains and sending in a diffuse light and warmth through the windows. It must be about 10 o’clock. He would have a better idea of the time if the clocks in the Republic weren’t stuck at 3:17am or pm. The soft knock sounds again. Four familiar but cautious knocks. He sits up slowly, eyes adjusting to the light in the room, and then gets up, shirtless, in his trousers and nothing else. When he unlocks the door, she pushes it open hurriedly and slips in quickly through the gap. He stands in her way and she grabs his arm and drags him towards his foam mattress.

The sound of their bare soles sliding over the floor breaks the silence. She turns to him and pulls down his zip, undoes the button and then lets his trousers drop. She reaches for him and runs her fingers down his length. She turns her face upwards and gazes into his eyes. He doesn’t need much prompting.

Sheila is wearing her morning waist wrap-around and an oversized golf shirt. She feels for the parting in her wrap and pulls it apart and above her knees then she goes down on to the foam mattress. He follows but when he tries to kiss her, she stops him. She holds her gaze.

Rekayi wakes up in fading daylight. There are noises all around: hooting cars, yelling voices and the third tenant shouting at her kids. Dust and exhaust smoke find their way into his room. Has he slept a whole day? He remembers Sheila coming in and how they had sex. Beyond that, his mind is blank. His day feels like a hollowed-out loaf of bread.  There are no sounds coming from the room next door. The only way to tell if Sheila is in is to go out and knock on her door. He hates the idea of doing that. In fact, he never does. It could be fear of her husband; fear of his violent energy. Maybe his force would repel him; choke him and drive a boot into his gut. The guilt of sleeping with another man’s wife clings to the bottom of his heart. It weighs him down and he feels his liver being drawn into his bowels. His heartbeat quickens whenever he stands outside his door and looks at their door. He stands there briefly, locking or unlocking his door and imagines the policeman beating him and bludgeoning his brains out with truncheon and kicking with his boots. Dull thuds landing on his body and crashing into his skull. But a more intense fear comes from his horrible visions of the policeman crushing his testicles under his heels and grinding them into the gritty concrete landing outside. In this moment, he feels light and emasculated. He knows he would never fight back. The guilt would weaken him, and he would buckle and be smashed into the ground. The third tenant and her two kids would be standing there, and she would have her arms folded across her chest and she would be looking at him with that look that says, “that’s what you get for fucking another man’s wife”, and her kids would be jumping up and down in glee, clapping and singing,

“Amina,
Amina kadeya,
Simoleya,
Amina one sham sa, P O Box, Marandellas, Marandellas,
Dhu pepe,
Dhu pepe,
Amina ju jekiseni!”

He has never understood Sheila, and maybe, that’s the hold she has over him. She has this nonchalance and it sucks him in. They speak right past each other, him in his abstract manner, and her always distracted, always detached. There is a story behind her eyes and it is not imagined. He has a sounding board and she has a fucking board. They are either far beyond emotional intensity, or far below it. He wants to know why she stays married to her husband. How they got married. Why they do not have any children. Where she is from…

She loses herself when he is inside her and he wants to know if she is lost inside him or fighting to stay outside him.

Sheila never gives him a chance. She is dressed before he has caught his breath. She is dry while he is still dripping sweat. The rush afterwards leaves him feeling vulnerable and honest. He wants to tell her things and to share this emotion with her. He wants to know she feels the same way. But she is already tying a knot in her wrap-around, straightening her weave, pulling the curtain aside and checking outside the window or shutting the door behind her. Times like today, he wakes up and she’s long gone.

Rekayi wants to know why she never mentions her husband. It is this thing that is just there between them, in their faces, and they just walk past it. She has a switch and she flips it at the slightest hint on his face that he is about to ask one of his silly questions. She has told him once that “it’s none of your business” and the manner in which she said it concluded matters.

He dresses up. The sun has dropped deeper and the room is now fading into darkness. Muffled sounds come in from the walls. A throttled grunt. A heel squeaks. A dull thud. Silence. He wants to get into town. To the Book Cafe to be precise. There are free performances before the main show. He scribbled a short piece a few days ago and he has been polishing it steadily. He sifts through the sheets on the shelf and finds the page with the revised and latest version. It wouldn’t hurt to take it along and rate it against the fellows on stage tonight. That’s always the problem though, getting a good critical opinion of his work. It was just thoughts jotted down, then it became pieces, and he’s only just started referring to it as “work” and “writing”. Sheila doesn’t care and maybe if he had friends they might … but he doesn’t. Rekayi has a coin. It will get him a commuter taxi into town and then he shall walk back after the performance. It is a clear night and during the week so he should make it back without incident. The demonstrations against the Prime Minister’s mischief have flared up again but they are always over by late afternoon. He shuffles out of the room and throws a quick glance at Sheila’s door as he turns the key in his. It is shut. There is no light peeking under the door. He turns and shuffles his boots down the corridor. As he gets to the corner of the house, he turns sharply to a sound behind him. The corridor is clear. He listens for a moment and then shrugs and steps down onto the gravel driveway.

 *

Streetlights would have come on now, if such things had persisted. Rekayi can still make out each commuter taxi as it approaches in the fading light. He has time to kill, so he waits for one particular taxi. A fellow named Taka drives it and it has the name “Hashtag” sign-written across the front in green. Taka is a decent fellow, as taxi drivers go, and lets him ride for free whenever free seats allow. Taka calls Rekayi “Rasta” which is odd because he doesn’t really have dreadlocks nor does he abide by any tenets pertaining to Ras Tafari. He does crush, clean, roll and smoke the odd joint of marijuana though; and by “odd” one means a great many and often.

“Rasta” comes from the unkempt appearance. The uncombed hair – kinks and all. The leather boots, which are sometimes laced up and never polished. The shirts – tucked in when the weather calls for it, otherwise free to flap about with wild abandon. But for Taka, Rekayi’s “Rasta” is in his conversation and his “consciousness”. It is also in his silence. Always serious, he will sit in the taxi and switch off to all the whining and bitching from the other passengers. The same complaints about “things” and “the situation” and Rekayi is lost deep in his thoughts. Taka will smile at Rasta and change gears and hoot and cut off the cars coming down the road towards him.

In a short while, Hashtag trundles up to the intersection and Taka stops for Rekayi right in the middle of the road. Taka raises his face from his phone, sees his boy Rasta, and beams. The hwindi is this scruffy fellow whose name Rekayi has never bothered with. He is a hwindi, uncouth, unwashed and seldom sober and that’s about all there is to it. The taxi has no passengers so Rekayi hops into the front passenger seat and nods at Taka who nods back and they wait for the hwindi to bang on the door to get them moving again.

Hwindi is doing his thing. He was hanging out of the sliding door window while the taxi was approaching, shouting “Town Yese! Town Yese!” and swung out of the taxi before it had come to a complete stop. He loves flaunting his skills. There must be a place where these stunts get him girls. Now he is pacing up and down the length of the taxi looking up one road, turning round and looking down the other, the whole time whistling, gesturing and gesticulating to any person in sight.  His efforts succeed and an elderly woman hobbles up to the taxi.  The hwindi rushes out and takes her arm to aid her. He folds aside the first collapsible seat and guides granny to her place in the middle row. Granny hobbles and steps and pauses and squeezes, then finally deposits herself in her seat. “Magara ka Gogaz?” the hwindi enquires. The elderly woman doesn’t respond. She is still trying to remember where she is. The hwindi leans back before pulling himself out through the window and shouting “Town Yese! Town Yese!” As the commuter taxi starts pulling away, a figure in a hoodie swings in and slides to the window seat behind the granny. His head stays bowed.

And so the taxi trundles down The Chase, stopping at every intersection and pulling into the traversing road and blocking traffic without a care. It’s such a smooth movement. Well-rehearsed. Taka looks up from his phone at intervals and rides the yellow line – or rather, where the yellow line would be. The hwindi hangs out the window and waves an arm in wide swinging circles. Slowly, on the shoulder of the road. Impeding traffic behind them. The drivers behind are not sure whether to trail lawfully behind this smoking and puttering contraption or to squeeze between Hashtag and oncoming traffic. Hashtag and Taka carry on as traffic builds up behind them and the hwindi shouts and screams and the woeful procession is punctuated by hooters blaring in frustration and impotent anger.

At each intersection, Taka half-pulls into the traversing road and the hwindi does a quick scan up and down that road for passengers. He sends a shrill whistle up the road and shouts, “Town Here!” then fixes his eyes detecting the slightest gesture from any bodies in that road. Taka also does his bit by blasting the horn and looking down the other end of the road and waving an enquiring arm.  The taxi is empty save for Rekayi, the granny, and the hooded figure, so Taka turns into every intersecting road and they try and coax good law-abiding folk to hop on. At times like these, the fifteen-minute trip into town can stretch to half an hour. Rekayi is in no rush and he gets lost in his poetry lines, the gaps in his day, and whether Taka is going to ask him to pay.

The taxi route is quite simply straight down the road – no deviation – but Hashtag continues on his fishbone diversions, unsuccessfully trying to convince pedestrians to get on. After the fourth detour into a side road, a chubby-faced sweating fellow in an ill-fitting polyester suit sticks out a finger and steps into Hashtag.

Taka hasn’t bothered to move off the road. He just stops right there in the road to pick up this perspiring fellow and right on cue the drivers behind him start hooting. He ignores them and pulls off slowly. He easily steers the taxi with a knee braced against the lower part of the steering wheel. One arm floats between changing gears and switching the “hazard lights” on or off. He doesn’t use the indicators. Never. They are too fancy and “suburb”, is what he has to say about it. Taka checks his Facebook status updates and texts back and forth in lively Whatsapp group discussions – all the while knee-driving and hazard light-flashing.

“Ichi chakanyanya ichi!”

Between these applications, he squeezes in a bit of driving; pushes in the clutch and slides into a gear; nudges the steering wheel with an elbow to keep the taxi somewhat on the road; lifts his head up and scans the road ahead before slipping back into his phone.

The sweaty man jumps into the taxi right there in the middle of the road and immediately launches into a tirade about the hooting cars. He rambles on to no one in particular as he looks for takers. No one is interested, but he carries on.

Rekayi’s eyes are glazed. He’s lost deep in thought. Taka is busy typing away with both hands while leaning forward and nudging the steering wheel with his elbows. The hwindi is yelling away, top half of his body hanging out the window near the granny who passed out five minutes ago.

The taxi rumbles on back onto its slow trundle weaving about the road, drifting into the opposite lane, holding up the cars behind it, and just being a nuisance and a bully. It seems Taka enjoys the anger of the motorists. He feeds off the hooting and insults. His pleasure increases when he cuts off or forces an expensive car off the road. They might be driving fancy cars and living in fancy houses in fancy neighbourhoods, but for these brief moments on his taxi route, he owns them; they do his bidding and he is king.
“Mupfanha Rekayi! On this road, everyone listens to Hashtag. Everyone!  Ndikavhara road so ndini! Hapana anopfuura! Hona, hona, they are even getting off the road for me, these Mercedes!” The man beams with pride. The drivers of these fancy cars finally give him wide berth, and he is enjoying the show of patronage by his subjects.
“Rekayi, one day when you are…” a canister of teargas whistles past the windscreen with a jet of fumes shooting out.

Taka gets a sinking feeling. He looks at the cars he is passing. They are all lined up and off the road. He turns back and sees a battalion of geared up riot police bearing down on Hashtag. Young men are running past Hashtag on either side and he can make out a couple of bodies stumbling and writhing on the ground. A second cannister whistles over the taxi. The king melts down into a quivering serf and Hashtag swerves into the gravel on the side of the road, just in time. The fumes drift in and first the eyes sting, and then the tears drip once then flow. The fumes reanimate the granny and she gasps and sputters back to life. Rekayi covers his mouth with the sleeve of his jacket and scans around him. Around them, the youths are picking up rocks and hurling them at the riot police. Bodies are speeding across and ahead in the fading light and bumping blindly into the parked cars. The riot police are smashing their truncheons against parked commuter taxis and dragging out the occupants. Bodies are pinned onto the ground and cuffed. Other bodies lie on the ground … motionless. In all the commotion, Rekayi has quietly slipped out of the taxi.

As Rekayi slips further away from the taxi, he picks out two riot police walking towards Taka’s side of the taxi from across the road. He looks ahead and quickens his pace, rushing to mingle with the crowd that are regrouping at a safe distance from the advancing riot police. When he turns back again, he sees the two police details standing outside the taxi and before them Taka, the hwindi, and the granny all lying face down on the ground. The sweaty loud man has a two-way radio against an ear and is directing swift kicks to Taka’s body. There are cries and shouts and grating sounds of throats trying to clear from the teargas. Bodies are rushing back and forth and Rekayi is pushed this way and that. He stumbles over a man groaning on the pavement and then carefully steps over another young fellow lying face down with his arms spread out in awkward angles.  He turns up his shirt collar, stays close to the walls along the pavement, and strides determinedly towards the Book Cafe. Ten paces behind him and with his hood still drawn low over his face, Augustus keeps his eyes trained on Rekayi. He ignores the bodies bumping into him, flicks open his okapi blade, Sheila’s blood still wet on it, and closes the distance.

About the Writer:

Farai Mudzingwa is a writer based in Harare. His fiction has been published in Weaver Press, Writivism and Kwani? anthologies. He has written articles for This Is Africa, The Africa Report, Harare News, TRT World, Contemporary&, Africa Is A Country and NBO Press.

 

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