by Stanley Onjezani Kenani
Your head feels like it will soon split in two. You have done your best for it to mend, but it seems even your best is not effective enough. Any slight noise that, on normal days, you barely notice, now annoys you. Someone upstairs, for instance, is walking about at a constant pace on what seems to be a wooden floor, and the noise, gentle as you have always considered it to be on normal days, is now like a tinsmith’s hammer pounding unceasingly on your mind.
You try to take some very hot sugarless tea. Somebody once told you taking tea is good when you have a headache. But an hour after taking the tea you feel no change. The headache started not because you have lost your job or you’re failing to buy food. In any case, it’s been a long time since you last roamed the Cornavin train station looking for food in the dustbins of cafés there. You also have not started worrying about accommodation yet. Mr Manyama, the Tanzanian owner of Umoja Pub where you work as barman, has, in exchange for cheap labour, generously allowed you to sleep in the storeroom at the back of the bar, where there is space for a small mattress that can accommodate one slender person like you. Still, compared to those dark days of Rosarno, where you slept in a shack without electricity and water, where you wondered whether you had indeed landed in the Europe that had for many years resided in your head, the place you now sleep, here among the crates of Heineken and Feldschlösschen, is like a five-star hotel. No, the headache has nothing to do with all that.
It started a few days ago when your sister Mayamiko – or Maya, as you and everyone in your family back home call her – told you on Facebook that she is coming to Geneva for a week-long seminar a few weeks from now.
“Can I stay with you at your house to save my subsistence allowance?” she wrote.
Without thinking twice, you wrote back, “Why not?” and now you regret it.
Where will she sleep?
Not that you blame her for asking; the fault is entirely yours. Since you linked up with her on Facebook, you have rarely satisfied her curiosity with the truth. You prefer half-truths or full-blown lies.
“Do you love Switzerland?” Maya once asked you during a chat.
“Of course,” you responded. “It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. When travelling from one part of the country to another, especially on a train, it’s like you’re watching a slide-show of beautiful images.” That, of course, is true. But, as though bewitched to tell lies endlessly, you went on to add, “And Switzerland loves me back. Everyone is so welcoming here. The people invite me to their homes, where we eat fondue and drink wine together.” You failed to mention that unlike the people of Rosarno who left you in no doubt that you were not welcome, the people here give you the impression that they are just indifferent; to them, you seem neither welcome nor unwelcome. They have never harmed you or insulted you, to be clear. They just leave you alone. Perhaps this is the so-called individualism that is said to be prevalent in the west? If so, individualism is a lonely thing. In all the years you have been here, you have made friends with not a single Swiss person. On the buses and on the trams, you are met with silence, and eyes avoid each other like bulls that do not want to square up for a fight. This silent treatment is not directed at you alone; it is just the way life is here. On the tram or in buses it is very quiet, except the occasional cry of a baby. People can share seats and behave as though they have not seen each other, without acknowledging each other’s presence whatsoever, as if the person sitting next to you is invisible. The only friend you can count on is your phone, which is why you see almost everyone glued to the glowing screens of their phones, smiling, shaking their heads, or scrolling with their thumbs. Occasionally, two or three lively men enter the tram with a guitar and sing something off-key, and after that they walk up and down the tram with a cup in their hands, asking well-wishers to drop a coin or two. You know not whether they do this for charity, but the parallel with beggars of Malangalanga Road in your home capital is striking. You never thought it possible that in the heart of Europe somebody could ask for a coin from you. But such occasional glimpses into Swiss poverty, if that is what it is, are few and far between, and always sudden, like winds. And yet on the buses of home, it is possible to sit with a total stranger and chat as though you have known each other your entire lives. All these experiences of Switzerland you have kept to yourself like some of those terrible life secrets noone but yourself must ever know. This is why you found it easy to give a superficial answer to your sister, who sounded genuinely delighted to hear that the Swiss love you back.
“I read somewhere that it’s expensive there,” Maya continued asking. “How much do you pay for accommodation?”
“2,000 francs a month.”
“In US dollars?”
“I guess so.”
“My God. But how big is such a house? Here in Lilongwe, not even the mansions of Area 10 cost that much.”
“I know. But here that’s two small bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room and a bathroom.”
“My God. Do you eat? Sounds like the whole salary goes to accommodation.”
That was the lie that has now landed you in this trouble. Through Umoja Pub’s window, you can see that it is a brilliant summer day, and in some of the streets and squares of Geneva there is la fête de la musique going on. Although it’s only eleven in the morning, the cars have already filled the streets, belching the fumes of their frustration as drivers try to be among the first to reach their favourite musical events. You had planned to watch Youssou N’Dour whose poster you saw pasted to a lamp post in Rue de Berne. Now you no longer think you’re up to the task because of the headache.
You open your Facebook and start typing a message to your sister: Sorry, sister. Let me tell you the truth: I sleep in a pub in Rue de Monthoux, sandwiched between the crates of Heineken and Feldschlösschen, every night when the bar closes at 2 a.m.. It feels like a cook sleeping in his kitchen, or perhaps as an undertaker in the cemetery. But I have no choice. I have been saving as much as I can since Mr Manyama gave me this job. The last few years have been a nightmare for me. I am trying to rebuild my life strand after strand, you see? In the earliest days of my stay here in Geneva, I used to sleep in a shrub opposite the mosque in Petit Saconnex, or sometimes at Gare Cornavin. I don’t want to sleep rough again; it’s the most dehumanising experience. I want to be normal, like everyone else. So I’m keeping my savings for a rainy day. If this job comes to an abrupt end, I’ve got to have somewhere nice to sleep, while looking for new opportunities. For now, I don’t mind sleeping in the pub’s storeroom. I’ll forever be grateful to Mr Manyama for allowing me to sleep there. I intend to continue sleeping there for as long as I am in this job. My current job is, of course, something temporary to keep me going. I’m always looking for a better job, you see? They must have a job for someone with a humanities degree here. Do you think all those years I spent in the university were a waste of time? Class after class deconstructing paragraphs of Derrida like mining gold, was that for nothing? Just to be a barman eleven thousand kilometres away from home? I don’t think so, but I am supremely confident that I will find a good job, a job befitting one who spent years studying at a university of good repute. Until I find such a stable job, I am not prepared to be spending a fortune on rent. So, when you come, stay in a hostel or something. There is a hostel in Avenue Sainte-Clotide, which costs only 33 francs a night. Surely you can afford that? Permanent secretaries who come here for conferences stay in those hostels if they want to save money. You too could stay there, why not?
Then you delete the entire message and go for another cup of tea.
Every day you have been surfing on anibis.ch, trying to find good deals for an apartment you could rent for a week. You have learnt from the customers of Umoja that some people in this city like to sub-let their apartments when they go on leave. It’s great that your sister will be coming in summer, when a lot of people tend to go to the beaches of Italy and other interesting places of the world to enjoy themselves. And yet, despite your efforts, apartments are proving hard to find. There was one in Meyrin, available for nine days. You emailed the owner a couple of days ago, but he is yet to respond. At sixty francs per day, it’s a bit on the higher side, with two extra days you do not need. You are confident, however, that you will find something that exactly meets your needs, available only for seven days and for not more than fifty francs per day. Even at fifty francs the sub-let will leave a yawning chasm in your finances, but that is a matter you will worry about later.
A part of you wants to do away with this game of make-believe. Why don’t you just be honest and tell Maya that you sleep in a pub’s storeroom every night at 2 a.m. when the bar closes? That way, you could avoid the need to spend your savings on an apartment and let her sleep here in the pub too. Or tell her you’re sorry you cannot host her, as you’re not sure Mr Manyama could approve that your sister stays in the bar with you. You once tried to let a Nigerian girl you were seeing stay for the night, and Mr Manyama nearly threw you out when he discovered. You don’t want that to happen again.
But even if Mr Manyama were to permit you, you don’t want your sister to go back home and tell people that you sleep in a beer storeroom. Your parents would certainly be heartbroken. You have not forgotten how they were unalterably opposed to your emigrating to Europe. They begged you to stay, to be a little more patient, even when you had failed to find a job four years after obtaining your humanities degree. Your parents were even more shocked when they learnt that you had sold your kidney to raise money for your journey to Europe. You insisted that you had “donated” it, though the mere fact that you accepted from the recipient half a million kwacha in return meant it was indeed a commercial transaction. You said you were tired of asking your parents for pocket money, like a schoolboy. You were certain that one day the parents would find merit in the actions you had taken. Europe was the solution. Soon they would see you live in a decent house and enjoy life like your peers who had good jobs and drove nice cars. It would thus be too much for them to hear that you sold your kidney to come this far away from home only to sleep among crates of Heineken and Feldschlösschen.
To your credit, you have succeeded in ducking some of your sister’s probing questions on Facebook.
“Tell me how you travelled when you left home?” she wrote the first day you reconnected.
“I can’t say it was easy,” you said, “though it was not too rough either.”
You did not tell her how you crossed borders while hiding in the belly of an empty fuel tanker truck once, or that you crossed the desert on the back of a camel to enter Libya, assisted by people-smugglers, of course, or that your boat’s engine died in the middle of the Mediterranean where you floated for two days until the Guardia costiera rescued you and the sixty-nine other passengers you were with.
“And jobs?” Maya asked, “did you struggle to find them?”
“Not at all,” you replied, without elaborating that Italian authorities took you to Rosarno, where you picked mandarins in orchards for twenty-five euro per day, where you were obliged to give five of those hard-earned euros to a ‘Ndràngheta man for your own safety.
“How did you find yourself in Switzerland?” she asked.
“Well, Europe has open borders, so it was easy; I just took a train from Milan,” though the truth is that when you and your colleagues were fed up by the appalling conditions of Rosarno, especially when some of the locals started shooting at you immigrants for no reason, you went on rampage, setting fire to two cars, smashing shop windows and throwing stones at the police. During the mayhem you ran to your ramshackle, picked the few possessions you had and caught a bus out of town. That was how you turned your back on Rosarno. You slept rough for close to a year at the Milan central train station. Because of something called the Dublin Regulation, you could stay only in Italy, job or no job, until, one day, activists pushing other European countries to accept more immigrants took you and many other immigrants in Milan on a train ride across the Swiss border to Chiasso, where the Swiss reluctantly let you stay.
“Since there is no war here,” she wrote, “how did you convince them to let you stay? Did you just say, ‘Hey, I’ve been failing to find a job in my country, yet I’ve a humanities degree’?”
“You’re right: they did say that there is no war in my country, that we have always been a peaceful nation. But I argued that the absence of war does not necessarily mean the presence of peace,” you wrote back, careful not to reveal that you lied to the authorities that you are gay, and since your country’s discrimination against gays was well documented at the time in some of the world’s most respected newspapers, including the Corriere della Sera in which they quoted a famous politician urging your countrymen to kill gays, they let you in.
No, you derive no pleasure from telling lies, only that you find the truth too thorny to share. You tried it once. You told your family the truth about how, when you sneaked to South Africa to donate the kidney, the doctor first removed one of your ribs, like a spoke of a bicycle wheel, to reach for your left kidney. After harvesting the spare kidney, in quite the same way one picks a ripe mango from a tree, he put the rib back, of course. Thanks to the wonders of anaesthesia, you felt no pain. In line with their strict transparency policy, hospital officials made sure to explain the entire process to you before undergoing the operation. Your mother fainted on hearing that. So you would rather not tell the truth about your current situation to avoid raising the blood pressure of your folks back home. But you’re sure things will change. One day, you will have a good job in an international organization, of which the city of Geneva has plenty. You have heard stories, of course, of some well-qualified people here in a situation similar to yours, who tried for many years applying for the same jobs you hope for, until their Maker called them to His glory, but you do not want to be discouraged by the misfortunes of others.
So far the lies have raised your profile back home, if what Maya posts on her Facebook is anything to go by. The other day she posted a photo of you standing in the snow, boots, gloves, scarf and all, with the words, “I can’t wait to see my brother in Switzerland.” The photo attracted seventy likes and the comments beneath it blew you away.
“Your brother is in Switzerland now?” one person commented. “Wow.”
“Your family is lucky,” another person remarked. “Both children with university degrees! And now the elder one working in Europe!”
Even a lady who had ignored your advances during those four post-college years of joblessness suddenly sent you a friend request on Facebook, accompanied with a cheerful message: “Hi! Long time. How have you been?”
A certain warmth coursed through your being.
But you’re now afraid that if your sister comes she might very well discover the truth herself, and this is what you’re determined to prevent.
Maya flashes you on your mobile number at 2:30 a.m. Your heart leaps. Is there an emergency? Why is she trying to reach you at what, to her, is obviously an ungodly hour? You hope that the number was dialled in error, so you ignore it. But within seconds she calls again. You call her back.
“Brother,” she says, her voice a bit more high-pitched than usual, “I hope I have not disrupted your sleep. But I’m so stressed right now. I have something I wanted to share with you.”
“No, you haven’t disturbed my sleep at all, sis,” you say. “Tell me: what is the cause of your stress?
“The trip is about to fail,” she says.
“Oh, really?” you say, trying hard not to sound happy. “Why? What has happened?”
“Our deputy chief executive is trying to block me. You know, this was going to be my first ever time to go abroad, but now he’s sitting on my travel request.”
“Oh no!” you say. “That’s sad. Why would anyone do that?”
“It’s tit-for-tat. I turned down his sexual advances, so he’s punishing me. But they’re playing with fire. I’ll fight them to the gates of hell. . .”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” you say, hoping you sound truly sad, and you indeed are sad to hear of the sexual harassment allegations, though if the trip fails you stand to benefit, as all your problems will come to an end. You continue, “Certainly, the guy will not succeed with his plans. Why don’t you complain to someone above him? The chief executive, for instance. Or even the chairman of the board of directors. ”
“I have already complained to the chief,” she says, “but they’re buddies. They drink and play golf together all the time. I’ll wait for two days. If he does nothing, or if he upholds his deputy’s decision, I’ll take the matter higher. Please, pray for me, brother.”
“I certainly will,” you say, smiling broadly.
“Thank you, brother.”
God works in mysterious ways, you say to yourself.
Before cutting the line, Maya says, as an afterthought, “It’s true what they say that a problem shared is half-solved. Imagine, I was having a headache because of this. But now that I’ve spoken to you, the headache is gone.”
That makes the two of us with headaches gone, you say to yourself.
The owner of the apartment in Meyrin writes back: “Monsieur,” he says, “you can take the apartment. You can pass by the apartment at noon on Thursday to pay. Be prepared to sign a contract when you come.”
You write back at once, “Sir: I thank you most sincerely for the offer, but I’m afraid to advise that I am no longer in need of the apartment.”
About an hour after sending the email, Maya calls you on Whatsapp. “Brother,” she says, “there is indeed a God in heaven.”
“Is there some good news, sis?” you ask.
“Yes! The trip is on; can you believe it? I am so happy right now.”
“Wow, congratulations,” you say, hoping it does not sound half-hearted. “Did the chairman of the board intervene?”
“I didn’t even take the matter to the board. I mentioned it to our director of programmes. She walked over to the office of the chief, and they shouted at each other. We heard it all over the corridors. Shortly after that, my trip was approved. Isn’t God great?”
“Yes, sis,” you say, “God is great.”
You’re lucky – a couple that lives on Chemin des Marais in Grand Saconnex is going away for eight days, and would like to sub-let their place for fifty francs per day. Although you would have loved to get something for exactly seven days, you admit that it may be hard to get something so precise, but eight days is not too bad. When you go to pay the money, you’re delighted to find that it, in fact, is a house, not an apartment, and is surrounded by a well-trimmed hedge and a brilliantly manicured lawn. Your sister, whom you now expect to arrive in a week’s time, will no doubt love it.
The family is friendly. The husband, Mr Santiago García, is Spanish and the wife, Madame Li Bingbing, according to the name panel on the door, is Chinese. The wife gives you the Wi-Fi password. The man spells out conditions: the four hundred francs you pay is non-refundable. The place must be kept clean at all times. Mr Santiago García also shows you the artwork of clay – pots, human figures, animals – that must not be touched or moved from where they are, much less broken. You assure him that nothing of the sort will happen.
You think of parts of the city you really want your sister to see. You also consider a boat ride to the resort town of Montreux in case Maya, a jazz fan, intends to attend the jazz festival there, but you abandon the idea when you find that the cheapest jazz show ticket costs sixty francs per person. Instead, you plan to buy tickets for the bus tour around Geneva, which, at twenty francs apiece, are more affordable.
The rest of the week you make sure to spend as little as possible on lunch and dinner. You go to the supermarket on Rue de Lausanne to buy snack bites that cost no more than two francs per box. The food is very little, of course, maybe a chicken leg or a piece of pizza, but you supplement with some of the peanuts meant to be served gratis to your customers in the bar. It is essential that you save as much as you can to minimize the impact of Maya’s visit.
At night, when the lights are out and you lie on your mattress in the storeroom, you pray that your sister does not cancel the trip, because the loss you shall have incurred would be too big for nothing. When you wake up in the morning you have tears, but you do not know why you cried in your sleep.
Maya lands on a Saturday morning at eleven o’clock, and you’re there to welcome her. In the arrival hall, you hug and laugh and cry.
She says: “Brother, it is God that has arranged that we meet again.”
“Yes,” you agree. “It is God.”
She takes off her coat. “Gosh, it’s hot. Had I known, I wouldn’t have put this on. I thought it’s always very cold here.”
“Their summers are sometimes hotter than ours,” you say.
You take a bus that goes into the city, and within half an hour of her arrival you walk into the yard of your rented place.
“Is this where you stay?” she asks, astonishment evident in her voice.
“Yes, yes,” you say.
She gives you her phone. “Please, take a pic of me.”
She stands on the lawn, with the house in the background. “Capture some of the hedge as well,” she says.
One click. Two. Then Maya’s eyes seem to look at something behind you. Already she is walking towards the road that runs in front of the house. “Sir,” she is saying to the man who is passing there. “Can you please take a photo of us?” You want to tell her, “Maya, this is Europe. You don’t stop people just like that.” You remember how you nearly landed yourself in trouble once, in Rosarno. You had just learnt the Italian greeting, and, eager to practise it, you said “Buon giorno” to a young lady when passing each other in the street, and she complained to the authorities that she found your greeting intrusive. But it’s too late to say all that because the man is here and has agreed to take the photo.
One, two, three clicks. “Smile,” he says. “Good.” Another click.
You thank him as he leaves.
Not long after your sister says, “Look, I have already posted on Facebook.”
You read the caption at the top of the photo, “With my brother in front of his house in Switzerland.” Somebody has already commented, “This looks like heaven.”
She has brought you maize flour, dry chambo and kapenta fish and Nali chilli, delicacies of home. Your parents have also sent you a letter. They are very happy to hear news of your success. “When do you plan to visit us?” they ask.
Maya walks to the bookshelf and picks a big red book, with the black-and-white photo of a smiling Chairman Mao on its front cover, his forehead broad, delicate and hairless. “What language is this?” she asks. “Japanese?”
“No, Chinese,” you say.
“You’ve learnt to speak Chinese?”
“The books belong to a friend.”
She is a bit careless when putting the book back because a clay lion begins to fall. You dive like a goalkeeper and catch it mid-air, grateful that it did not land on the cement floor.
“Sister,” you say, sternly, “we have to be careful. Under no circumstances are the clay artworks here to be broken.”
She looks stunned for a couple of seconds then breaks into a laugh. “Brother,” she says, “you have really become a European. Since when did you begin to love clay lions like this?”
“Sometimes, in a place like this,” you say, “clay lions are the only closest friends you can have.”
She shrugs indifferently and says, “Clay is clay.”
When she finishes unpacking her things, Maya says, “I see a woman’s clothes. You live with someone?”
“A friend asked me to keep her things,” you say.
There is doubt on her face. “Brother,” she says, “I hope you have not had to ask someone to go away to accommodate me. I can go to a hotel.”
“No, sister,” you say. “You’re more than welcome in this house; feel free. I haven’t displaced anyone at all.”
After she has taken a shower, she joins you in the living room, where you are watching television. “Wow,” she says, “everything is first class here. I love your furniture. Gorgeous.” Then, thoughtfully, she adds, “God has his own way of doing things. When you left, everybody thought you were insane; but now look at this.” She spreads her hands about.
“Yes,” you say, “there is nothing that is impossible with God.”
She goes to the kitchen, and, before long, she calls you.
“Is this a dishwasher?” she asks.
“Yes, that is a dishwasher,” you say.
“You see, I told you you have become a mzungu. You even need a machine to wash plates.” She laughs. You laugh along, happy that the great deception is working so well.
“Can you please show me how you operate it?” she says.
“Unfortunately, it’s broken down,” you say. “I haven’t used it for a month now.”
You take a pot to prepare nsima for lunch.
“No, brother,” she says. “I’ll cook for you. When I’ve gone back you’ll have plenty of time to cook for yourself.”
The smell of the boiling kapenta stirs in you an intense longing for the home you left. You crave for all its foods and drinks that you can find nowhere else on earth. You are grateful for this arrival of your sister, who has brought with her a slice of home.
As you sit at the small table in the kitchen to eat, Maya says, “It’s too quiet here. Don’t you miss the noise of home?”
“Sometimes,” you say, then pause to chew a salty portion of kapenta. “But,” you continue, “with time you get used to the silence.” The truth, which you have chosen not to say, is that you are often consumed by a terrible loneliness, especially at 2 a.m. when the lights are off, when you lie alone in the dark among the crates of Heineken and Feldschlösschen. At that hour, the silence ceases to be golden, as your mind wanders to those two dreadful days when you floated at sea, when you concluded that the sea is blue and beautiful only on postcards, but on a boat whose engine has died it is dark and menacing. For reasons entirely unclear, in those two days you were even more afraid of dying at night, in the dark. All these thoughts are catalysed by silence, and you’re always grateful when sleep rescues you from it.
Maya fills you in with news of home, of old marriages that have broken down and of new ones that have started, of people who have died and of babies who have come to delight the lives of new couples, of friendships that have gone sour and enmities that have melted into meaningful friendships. “And you,” she says, “when you did not make contact for three years, people thought you had died. But such a thought never crossed my mind for once. Maybe because in my dreams I always saw you smiling.”
On Sunday she wakes up early. You can hear her go about washing plates while humming to herself a familiar song of home. Yesterday, you made it clear to her that you will be going to work every day from 3 p.m., and that you won’t be returning until early morning hours, which means sleeping until much later in the morning. Of your work place you have chosen to be vague, as you do not find it necessary to tell her that, with your degree, you work as a barman. Thankfully, she has not pushed you to be more elaborate.
When you wake up at ten, you find that she has fried some eggs. You sit at the table as she tells you more stories of home, of how the president you left suddenly fell down and died. You read the details on the internet, of course, but you make a show of listening attentively because it’s just nice to hear your sister talk. The idea that the two of you, from the same womb, can be together eleven thousand kilometres away from home, is something that you just can’t quite believe yet, and you will forever cherish this experience.
You venture into the city at noon. Your sister says she is not interested in doing the bus tour; instead, she wants the two of you to just go about in the city. You take her to Pâquis, where you are careful to avoid the red light district sandwiched between Rue Pellegrino-Rossi and Rue Charles-Cusin, together with the streets crossing them, Rue Sismondi and Rue Docteur-Alfred-Vincent, where girls in only skimpy underwear stand behind window glasses in broad daylight waiting for customers. Instead, you walk along Rue de Monthoux, stopping along the way to buy Maya a sim card, and not long after you reach the lake at the end of the street.
Maya loves pictures. She wants you to photograph her with the jet of water that is in the middle of the lake in the background, it’s more than hundred-metre height captured in full. She wants another photo showing her standing next to the mausoleum of the Duke of Brunswick, and is stunned when you tell her the story of the man who lies inside the monument, who bequeathed to the city of Geneva a modern day equivalent of twenty-two billion francs.
“Didn’t he have children?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” you say. “I only heard the story from someone, so I’m not sure.”
“I have heard that in some parts of the world, rich people leave their fortune to their pet dogs,” she says. “At least this one bequeathed it to a city.”
On three occasions, Maya tries to ask someone to take a photo of the two of you, but they all refuse. She opts for selfies instead, one of which comes off well with tiny black birds flying in formation above the water in the background.
The week passes fast. Your sister wakes up early and goes to her human rights workshop at the Palais des Nations. By the time she comes back, you are already at your work place. Her schedule is so hectic that there isn’t even time for a quick lunch together. Sometimes, when you’re not too sleepy, you walk out of your room to just wish her a good day as she leaves for her conference.
But on Friday the workshop ends at noon. She comes home, cooks, and you eat together. Apparently during the week she has had a chance to do some window-shopping and cannot believe that everything in this city costs a fortune.
“Is there anything here that costs less than one franc?” she says. “Even a mango costs two francs fifty centimes. That’s eight hundred and twenty-five kwacha! Back home, that would buy you a fifty-kilogramme bag of mangoes.”
“Sis,” you say, “here, if you translated every price into the kwacha, you would buy nothing.” You made a similar mistake yourself in the early days of your arrival in Europe, until you realized that there was no point of thinking in kwacha terms.
She tells you that the seminar has gone on well, and her non-governmental organization’s efforts to curb early marriages back home were highly commended by all speakers. She really enjoyed herself at the conference and looks forward to coming again. She shows you a photo of hers speaking behind a lectern, with two blond men and one dark-haired woman wearing headphones sitting behind her. She comes across as a powerful orator, and you’re very proud that your sister can hold her own on the international stage.
She tells you that she will be leaving tomorrow evening at five, and would like to be at the airport at least two hours before the flight.
You feel great that all has so far gone according to plan. Your prayer is that she does not suddenly fall ill and extend her stay by several days. You cannot imagine the shame of moving her out of that rented house to the tiny mattress sandwiched among the crates of Heineken and Feldschlösschen.
You take a shower and leave for work, looking forward to seeing your sister again tomorrow morning. On the bus, you think of the gifts to buy your parents. You recall that a couple of days ago at the Balexert shopping mall, you saw a black suit which, you think, could fit your father well. You will let Maya choose your mother’s dress, as you are not quite sure of her size. You will be careful, of course, to buy everything in the C&A clothing store, where prices are affordable. You’re excited because these will be the first gifts you have ever bought your parents.
When you reach the pub, you first clean the place, check whether there is enough ice to last the evening and are about to open it to the public when your phone rings. It’s Maya.
“Brother,” she says, “can you please come? It’s very urgent.”
“Is anything the matter?” you say, your heart thumping.
“Just come.” She cuts the phone.
You leave the pub in a run. The twenty minutes of the bus ride back home are pure murder. Did she fall in the bathtub and has injured her arm? Or has she broken one of the clay artworks? Or perhaps she just started vomiting and needs to be rushed to hospital?
From the bus stop you run all the way to the house and are panting when you arrive. You find her sitting on the veranda, looking distraught. Speaking in Chichewa, she says, “Brother, what’s going on? They’re saying we must leave right now . . .”
Just at that moment, a man emerges from inside. It’s Mr Santiago García! Madame Li Bingbing is following closely behind him.
“Did you read the email I sent you yesterday morning?” he says.
My bad, you think. You haven’t checked your email for three days! You don’t expect emails from anyone, so you check only once in a while.
“I did explain that we have cut our holiday by two days due to an emergency,” Mr Santiago García continues. “Once again our apologies. We have to refund you the remaining two days you paid for.” He fishes out a hundred-franc note from the pocket. “Here we go.”
You get the money with your hand trembling. At that moment, if it were possible for the earth to open up and swallow you, you would be most grateful. The man is thanking you for keeping the place clean, and for ensuring that none of his clay artworks is broken. He asks: “By the way, where
is the name panel that was here on the front door?”
At a loss as to what to do next, you have brought your sister to the pub where you work. You have shown her the mattress where you suggest she should sleep, among the crates of Heineken and Feldschlösschen.
She says, “Isn’t that a hotel across the road?” She is pointing at the Hotel At Home.
The two of you walk there, but the man at the reception says their rooms are full. You walk to Hotel Savoy, Hotel Bernina, Hotel Suisse, their rooms are full. You walk to Hotel Warwick and Hotel Auteuil, their rooms are full. “You should have booked in advance,” the receptionists keep saying.
Then Maya says, “Not far from the monument of the rich man, I saw a hotel.” She is talking of the Grand Hotel Kempinski.
“Do you have a room?” you ask the receptionist when you reach there.
“Sure,” she says cheerfully. “We have one classic room overlooking the lake, very beautiful view. Do you want to take it?”
“Five hundred and eighty francs, Monsieur.”
Your heart sinks. You turn to your sister. She shrugs and says, “I’ll take it.”
She counts the cash, one, two, three, four, five hundred plus four red twenty-franc notes. For one night. A man comes to carry Maya’s things. Maya and you take a lift to her room. Splendid room, fit for royalty. The bed is so vast you could roll on it three or four times and still not fall. The chairs, the mirrors, top class.
You wish her a good night and return to the pub.
At twelve the following day you come to the hotel reception. You ask for your sister. The receptionist checks on her computer and shakes her head.
“She has checked out,” she says.
You call her number, but it’s not reachable. It has not been working from the time you started trying two hours ago. Even the Whatsapp text messages you sent her, you can see they have not been read.
You walk around the lobby, hopping to see her somewhere, but there is no sign of her.
You have been checking Facebook frequently for twenty-four hours; still there is no word from Maya. But finally, at around two in the afternoon, you receive a Facebook message:
Brother, thank you very much for everything! I misplaced my phone charger, so my battery drained out. I thought we had forgotten the charger at those people’s place, but was glad to find it among my things after unpacking on arrival here. It was the most memorable trip I have ever had. Thank you once again.
About the Author:
Stanley Onjezani Kenani is a Malawian writer who lives and works in The Netherlands.