by Tendai Huchu
aPhiri was a man who liked to live a simple life. He did not enjoy strife, and had arranged everything around him so that his life would be as easy and as peaceful as possible. This he did in certain practical ways; his wife, amaPhiri, went to work while he stayed behind to look after the home. They had no children because even the issue of his loins could not be arsed to swim very far. This, of course, meant he did not have to expend energy in rearing his progeny like some of his less fortunate friends. aPhiri did very little around the house, preferring his wife, who could not stand a mess, to do it instead.
In many ways the Phiri household was happy and comfortable. On Sundays, aPhiri would relax at home, where he had the full Sky Sports package, and wait for his friends to visit. This particular Sunday, being a Ford Super Sunday, Nato was in very early with a case of their favourite beer, Stella Artois.
‘I’m telling you Chelsea have a problem on the central left,’ Nato said.
‘What does that even mean?’ aPhiri replied.
‘They have to cover runs from the right wing and keep it tight in defensive mid to free up their central left which feeds the winger.’ Nato thrived on regurgitating commentary he couldn’t understand from the various tabloids he bought, especially the Daily Sport. ‘Abramovich must strengthen the squad and fire the coach…’
Nato went on and on, while aPhiri was content to sip on his beer and filter out his voice as background noise. This is what he did when a subject did not agree with him — in this case, it was Nato’s call to fire the coach.
amaPhiri came in through the front door. She was tired and her weave was dishevelled. She’d just commuted from Basingstoke, back to Reading, as she often did in her work as an agency carer, drifting between various nursing homes.
‘How was work, my sweetie, my lovie, my pretty,’ said aPhiri, tilting his head so she could kiss his cheek.
‘That nursing home is terrible,’ she whined. ‘Is there any breakfast?’
‘I have cereal in the cupboard, water in the kettle, and milk in the fridge.’
She said hello to Nato and went to eat before she retired. Theirs was a happy marriage, the partnership of the rider and the horse, each contributing what they could of the gifts God had given them. From her salary, which paid their bills, aPhiri had a little allowance each month which he used on football and the horses. Sometimes he won and they were flush, most times he lost, so you could say he was a professional gambler of sorts.
There was a knock on the door, and Madzibaba who made up the last member of their little trio came in. He wore his red Man U jersey, and the green and yellow scarf that was all the rage those days.
‘Two-nil and two-one, that’s what you wanted, right?’ he said, handing aPhiri betting slips from Ladbrokes.
‘Did you also get my lottery ticket?’
‘I met a bloke in the shop who asked me where I was from. I told him Zimbabwe, and he starts telling that he’d been to Kenya on safari twenty years ago. I had to listen to this guy go on and on, like, why the hell should I care about Kenya? What’s the relevance?’
‘Did you get my lottery ticket?’ aPhiri repeated.
‘Imagine I met an Englishman and started going on and on about how I’d been to Croatia, and I loved the culture, the people, the architecture there, and all sorts of bollocks. How does that work?’
‘Yes, and three scratchcards.’
aPhiri inspected his numbers, while Madzibaba helped himself to a pint. When he was satisfied the numbers were correct, aPhiri began to work on the scratchcards. It Could Be Ewe yielded nothing, and he moved on to Money Spinner which had a grand prize of £8000, with odds of 1 in 4.90. He stood to win any amount between £1, £2, £5, £10, £20, £40, £100, £500. Alas, he lost and he set about working on Pigs Might Fly which had the slightly better odds of 1 in 4.78.
A film of silver dust fell as he worked his lucky 2p coin on the scratchcard. The first row revealed numbers £2 £40 £5000. He took a deep breath and began working on the next row £250 £5000 £2 it was looking good, there was a chance to hit the jackpot £40 £2 £250 and when the last row was revealed, he let out a loud whoop and shouted, ‘I’ve won.’
‘How much?’ Nato asked, rising from his seat and crossing the room.
‘Two pounds,’ replied aPhiri, grinning from ear to ear. Nato took the card, inspected it and confirmed the win. ‘This is a sign today is going to be a good day, praise the Lord.’
They drank their beers, full of good cheer, their spirits raised by aPhiri’s good fortune. The winnings meant he could invest in the mid-week lottery. You have to be in it to win it, and aPhiri was in it. Madzibaba wondered out loud whether they had enough beers to last them from morning until the second match. Once they were settled, they didn’t like interruptions, and having to go to the corner shop on Oxford Road would have counted as a major interruption. Nato answered they were well stocked and could dip into aPhiri’s emergency stash of whisky, if push came to shove.
‘I hope it won’t come to that,’ aPhiri mumbled under his moustache. There was a knock on the door that startled him. He looked to his friends to see if any of them was expecting someone else. Debt collectors never operated on a Sunday, and so aPhiri called out, ‘Come in,’ avoiding the effort of rising from his chair.
A skinny, old white man with a pale face came in, walking slowly. He wore a sombre, black Herringbone tailcoat, striped trousers, black shoes and a black top hat which he doffed as he crossed the threshold.
‘Can I help you?’ aPhiri said.
‘Yes, yes you can,’ the old man replied, his voice wispy with the crackly quality of a dying wood fire. He paused and did not say any more. He looked round the room, very deliberately, taking in the worn carpet, flowery wallpaper and mismatched faux leather sofas.
‘You’ve got the wrong number,’ said aPhiri.
‘This is the right place.’ The old man spoke slowly. ‘Ere’s the story. I’ve got one of your lads in me freezer. He’s got no family or nothing, and your embassy won’t do anything about repatriating him.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘The stiff that’s in me freezer.’
‘What’s a stiff?’
‘Look, I’ve had him for two months now, that’s not right, is it? That’s storage, mate. We don’t come to your country and leave dead bodies all over the place, do we?’ The old man held up his hand to stop aPhiri talking. ‘It’s not right. We don’t have to take this sort of thing anymore. I’ve got a colleague in Luton who’s been sitting on one of yours for fourteen months now. Who’s gonna pay for that? You ain’t doing it to me, I can tell you that. We’ve been in the business for three generations and never had anyone pull a fast one on us.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘This,’ the old man reached into his breast pocket and threw a picture on the table. Madzibaba took it, looked at it and passed it on to Nato, who did the same and passed it on to aPhiri.
‘That, my friend, is the stiff, and it’s going to be up to you to make sure he gets a decent send-off.’
‘This is a white guy. I don’t know any white people.’
‘Says on his passport he’s Zimbabwean, and since your embassy won’t help, I’ve decided it’s got to be up to you guys.’
aPhiri looked at Nato to see if he could make any sense of it all. The old man reached down and took the silver pocket watch that was dangling from his right breast pocket. He flicked the cover open, checked the time, and replaced it.
‘It’s a little after ten. I’ll come back ere at five and you better have a grand, wonga, or coconuts, whatever you people call it, that’s gonna cover me expenses. If you don’t have the money, I’m dumping the stiff here.’
‘But it’s a white guy,’ aPhiri raised his voice, something he seldom did.
‘You’re Zimbabwean?’ the old man said, unperturbed.
‘Then I’m making it your problem. Five o’clock – one grand or corpse. The choice is yours. Comprende?’
The old man put on his hat, bowed slightly, and turned round stiffly. He left with the same deliberate pace he’d entered with, and closed the door gently behind him. Nato stood up, scratched his head, and walked over to the window where he watched the old man get into a hearse and drive off.
‘Mashura chaiwo. Screw it, it’s Super Sunday,’ said Madzibaba.
‘What do you mean screw it? You’re not the one who’s getting a corpse dumped at his house.’
‘Look, you have to draw a line in the sand. Where will it stop if you have to accept responsibility for every dead white person in this city? No way, aPhiri,’ Madzibaba spoke with conviction, a sense of righteous indignation pouring out. ‘We’ll watch our football. Don’t worry about that idiot.’
‘No one’s watching any football until we get this sorted.’ aPhiri turned the TV off.
‘We could always bury it in your back garden,’ Nato mused.
‘Why don’t we bury it in yours!’
‘His wife wouldn’t approve, she’s just planted new fuchsias,’ Madzibaba said.
Nato shrugged and looked up at the ceiling. aPhiri drank his beer in sullen silence. Anything that breached his peace resulted in the onset of an immediate depression. He had achieved near-perfect homeostasis in his life, and lived in such a way that he did no harm to others, so was it too much to ask others to do the same in return. Where would he get a grand from? He looked at his Pigs Might Fly and calculated he was nine hundred and ninety eight quid short. There was no one he could call, because he already owed money all over town. Nato and Madzibaba yakking on about Chelsea’s problems with their new, fifty million pound striker didn’t help either.
He asked Nato to get some whisky from his emergency stash. A shot or two would help clear his head. He drank it, straight, whipped out his mobile and called Chikot, the one guy he didn’t owe money in Reading, this being because Chikot never had any money. He described his problem in great detail and besieged him to come and help. Chikot was one of those clever, university types, and if anyone knew what to do, it would be him.
Madzibaba looked up from his mobile and said, ‘Pompo is coming over, his wife threw him out.’
‘This is not a good day,’ replied aPhiri.
‘She went through his phone and discovered texts from his girlfriend.’
‘He’s stupid for cheating.’
‘No, he’s stupid for not deleting. Now he’s going to stay at my house until she takes him back. She always does.’ Madzibaba sent a text back.
There was a knock on the door. Chikot came in with a blonde girl by his side. He greeted aPhiri and the others, and introduced the girl as Chloe, his new girlfriend. aPhiri gave them a beer each, and found himself worrying about his supply of alcohol. If Pompo was coming round as well, then there was going to be even less to go round. This was a dreadful state of affairs. He slyly hid an unopened bottle behind his sofa.
‘I called Banda on my way here. Your case is a very complex one,’ said Chikot, sipping aPhiri’s precious beer. ‘It’s a manifest violation of your human rights.’
‘Human rights,’ aPhiri echoed, impressed by this new legal, ethical dimension.
‘This is an example of everything that’s wrong with this country. They are happy to spend money, deporting living, breathing human beings, but they won’t spend a penny to flush out a dead guy.’
‘His ancestors were probably from here anyway and they want me to deal with it.’
‘It’s the Big Society which Cameron has been pushing around for months now. Everything’s going to be privatised. They don’t even respect the dead anymore. Didn’t I tell you, Chloe, that the Tories are only for the rich?’
aPhiri was impressed by the depth of his friend’s knowledge of politics and the law. The phrase, ‘manifest violation of your human rights’, played in his head. With Chikot here, he was sure, his human rights would be protected. He felt a slight pressure in his bladder, but it was not yet time to break the seal. He’d hold it in for as long as he could.
There was another knock on the door. Pompo and Banda, who’d met up in the street, came in together. aPhiri was relieved to see Banda, who was steaming, carrying a paper bag with a twelve pack. Pompo looked miserable, carrying a black bin liner that contained all his worldly possessions. aPhiri had no respect for cheaters. It was too much hard work. The lying and sneaking about was a waste of time and effort. He wondered whether he should tell Pompo about his philosophy on how to live an easy life.
‘I’m sorry to – hic – about what – hic – ppened,’ Banda said, shaking his hand.
aPhiri could smell the alcohol on Banda’s breath. ‘It’s terrible.’
‘I just – hic – want you to know – hic – that I am here for – hic. I told my sister, and we will support you through this difficult ti – hic.’
aPhiri felt his spirits rise when he knew others were being told about his dilemma. Everything was going to be okay. Madzibaba turned the TV on, in time for the kick off for the first game. Liverpool took the initiative and pressed the attack, only for Chelsea to concede an early corner. He took a look at his betting slip and kept his fingers crossed. The room came alive with the sound of voices talking over one another about the game. Madzibaba kept trying to steer the conversation to his beloved Man U, arguing that all the other teams were inferior bridesmaids, whose only role was to escort Man U to glorious victory. Pompo sat sullenly in the corner, nursing the beer from which he took intermittent sips.
Around half-time, there was a knock on the door, and Samero walked in. aPhiri was alarmed because he owed him money, and for him to come at a time like this was socially awkward. Samero brushed past Nato, solemnly, and went to aPhiri, shook his hand, mumbled something unintelligible, gripped his shoulder and looked into his eyes for a few seconds before going to sit beside Madzibaba. aPhiri, a little confused, asked Nato to give Samero a beer. He hoped that their noise wouldn’t wake amaPhiri up, especially since she was off to another nightshift later on.
The football on TV ping-ponged back and forth, with the commentators all awhile keeping up the impression that somehow this was an impressive display of tactics on both sides, and that the nil-nil score at the final whistle was evidence of an epic battle. aPhiri crumpled one of his betting slips and threw it on the floor. His hope now lay in the next match which would be on shortly. He was content to sit back and watch his guests chatting energetically about the game. It had been a long time since he’d had so many people in his house. Perhaps he could start a little shebeen and make something extra on the side. amaPhiri wouldn’t approve though, so the idea was quickly shelved, as he did so often with his schemes.
The second game had kicked off when they heard voices singing a familiar verse from outside:
Mamutora, mamutorawo, mamutora nhai Baba,
Mamutora, mamutora nhai Baba…
aPhiri looked outside his window and saw a group, led by a man in a suit, holding a thick book, coming towards his house. The group was let in by Banda who sat closest to the door. They continued singing the mournful, repetitive dirge for a good few minutes, drowning out the TV. aPhiri recognised some of them: Pastor Bere of the God’s Guided Missiles Church, amaSorobhi, amaManjengwa, amaMandaza, Elder Mandaza, Elder Zvasiya, amaZvasiya, amaNetsai, amaTasara, Petros, Cecilia, Brian, Kuda, and three other youths he didn’t know.
Pastor Bere held out his hands high in the air, to signal that the singing stop. aPhiri remained stunned in his chair. He was not into the whole church business and, to be fair, they were ruining his Super Sunday as it was. Pastor Bere began to speak in a booming voice:
‘Switch off that TV,’ he commanded, before launching into an exhortation. ‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in Reading on a sad, sad occasion. Life in the diaspora is hard, because we are like the Israelites in Egypt. I said, “We are like the Israelites in Egypt!” Only Jehovah God can lead us back to Canaan, hallelujah. We must keep faith in the Lord, especially in these trying times, because Jehovah is faithful, Jehovah is powerful, He alone is worthy. Death is not the end, no! We are called to the kingdom to receive our due after toiling in the vineyard of the Lord. aPhiri’s brother did not die in vain…’
Banda hiccupped. aPhiri tried to intervene, but the pastor was in full flow. The pastor shook and quivered with fervour, the veins on his neck bulging, his hands waving in the air.
aPhiri sank back in his chair and covered his face. The game was still on. Super Sunday had been hijacked by the fundamentalists. They cried out in tongues, made exclamations of affirmation which must have woken amaPhiri up, because she appeared in the doorway wearing her sleeping gown, a pair of pulling stockings on her head. The pastor lowered his tempo and strode through the crowded room towards her and put his hand on her head.
‘Death is not the end, sister. Jesus said to his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” Amen. This death in your family-’
‘Oh my God,’ amaPhiri cried out and threw herself on the ground, for her father was old and infirm. ‘Father, father, why have you left me an orphan?’
The small living room was hot with the press of bodies and people praying. aPhiri held onto his bottle, unsure whether he could sip it or not with his wife crying and the pastor speaking in tongues.
‘It’s gonna get expensive with all these deaths going on,’ Nato whispered.
‘You have to stop them,’ Madzibaba replied.
‘I’m enjoying this too much.’
‘We’re missing the game, man.’
‘You’re right!’ Nato sprang into action, he cleared his throat loud enough to be heard above the din. ‘There has been a big, big, misunderstanding. No one is dead. Well, someone is dead, but-’
‘He’s confused,’ said someone.
‘He’s right,’ aPhiri found his voice at last. ‘No one is dead, but someone is dead. Well, it’s not someone we know, so it’s no one.’ He went on to explain the events of that morning loudly for everyone to hear.
It turned out that in a case of Chinese whispers – he had told Chikot, who told Banda, who told his sister, who told baSorobhi, who told amaSorobhi, and so on – the message had altered ever so slightly with each iteration, and spun round until, in its final incarnation, it ended up as the death of amaPhiri’s father.
There was all round relief, a little embarrassment, and a lot of mirth over how the day had played out. aPhiri played round with the remote in his right hand, unable to decide whether it was safe to turn the TV back on or not. At least the Pentecostals didn’t drink, and so despite having this large group in his house, it would have no impact on his standard of living.
Just then, there was a knock on the door, a firm knock. Banda opened it, and stood back to let the undertaker in. The old man walked in, unperturbed by the mass of people in the house. He walked right up to aPhiri.
‘Time’s up, my friend. What’s it gonna be?’ His voice carried a hint of menace.
‘So this is the Satanist,’ Pastor Bere took a quick opening to re-establish his authority and remove some of the egg on his face, ‘the man who would threaten a member of God’s Guided Flock?’
‘Who is this guy?’ The old man looked at aPhiri and pointed his thumb at the pastor.
The pastor waved his hand as though willing the old man to vanish. This didn’t work, and so he resorted to more conventional methods: ‘I am the one who will stop you from abusing this poor child. Look at you there in your black satanic clothing. I command you by the power of the Spirit to depart.’ He puffed up his chest and continued, ‘Remember we are many, old man, and there is nothing you can do to the army of God’s Guided Missiles.’
‘Is that so?’ The old man turned to aPhiri. ‘So I take it you won’t cough up. Alright then.’ He went to the window and signalled.
A minute later, a big man, more Neanderthal than human, walked in, muscles bulging from under his tank top.
‘We have a problem here, boss?’ asked the big man.
‘I don’t know, do we?’ The old man turned round the room and found there were no objections, before he turned back to the big man. ‘Bring in the package.’
There was a loud gasp from the crowd when the big man, helped by a second Neanderthal of similar stature, came in with the corpse, wrapped in a white shroud, and dumped it on the little coffee table that sat in the middle of the room. amaMandaza fainted. aPhiri took a swig of his beer and crossed himself.
The old man smiled revealing yellowy-brown teeth, ‘I told you and I warned you. It’s your problem now.’
He turned to leave with his two goons in tow. aPhiri’s head began to spin. He gripped his Pigs Might Fly as though it were some kind of sacred relic to ward off evil. He would have swooned had he not been in his favourite chair. There were voices talking at once in every corner:
‘Mashura chaiwo.’ ‘Kutinakurira nyoka mhenyu, so.’
‘Baba vangu shava.’
‘I need to get out of here.’ ‘Lord help us!’ ‘Mashura chaiwo.’ ‘Hezvo?’ ‘Ah.’
‘The world is coming to an end.’
‘Signs and wonders!’
Pastor Bere called for calm amidst the chaos. He begged the old man to wait, dipped into his wallet and fished out a twenty pound note, saying to the people around, ‘Who will multiply my money? Come on, show us a miracle.’ Nato fished into his wallet and gave him a few notes and coins. Banda gave him fifty pounds. A few of the congregation asked to leave for the cash machine on Oxford Road, since they’d already emptied their wallets for Him at church. The old man and his goons looked on as the spontaneous whip around gathered steam.
When everyone had given something, each according to his ability, Pastor Bere, counted the money, blessed it, and begrudgingly gave it to the old man. It amounted to nine hundred and ninety eight pounds, plus a Pigs Might Fly scratchcard.
‘See what you people can achieve with a little common sense,’ said the old man.
‘Just take it and go,’ aPhiri replied. He suddenly felt more in control of the situation.
‘Steady on, mate, we know what to do. Come on, lads, let’s lift him up – gently does it now. We’ll see to it that he gets a decent sending off, don’t you worry about it.’ The undertaker put on his hat with a wolfish grin.
After the undertaker and his goons had left with the dead white guy, aPhiri gave his profound thanks to the group. He did not touch his alcohol until the last Pentecostal left. Later that night, when everyone was gone, and he was drinking with Nato and Madzibaba, he felt the betting slip in his pocket, and complained that they had missed the Man U – Arsenal match.
About the Author:
Tendai Huchu’s first novel The Hairdresser of Harare was released in 2010 to critical acclaim, and has been translated into several languages. Between projects, he translates fiction between the Shona and English languages. His new novel is The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician. Find him on www.tendaihuchu.com.