By Amran Gaye
The night he picks up the woman, the Taxi Driver is on his way back from dropping off a fare in Lamin. Coming in to West Field, he is almost past her when he catches a glimpse of her in the mirror. He slows, reverses to where she stands at the side of the road, half hidden under tree branches.
– Headed where?, he asks her through the back window, her face in shadow still so he can make out its form but not its features.
– Banjul, comes the reply, and as she speaks to him she bends a little, leans through the window and for the first time the Taxi Driver can see her face. A flash of even white teeth, her skin a Peul fairness, draped about her body a charcoal-black abaaya dotted at the neck with sequins that glitter, her hair dark and falling to her shoulders, framing her face and providing a pretty contrast to its color.
– Alright get in, the Taxi Driver says with a nod at the back seat. – But I charge extra for Peuls. Just so we’re clear.
– That will not come between us, she says, opening the door and settling into the back seat with a laugh, – I am not Peul – I only look like one.
Once the car has started up again the Taxi Driver switches his attention back to the road, settles back into his own seat, its leather old and worn and riddled with spongy holes. In this way they coast past West Field, almost empty now, at its center a lit square, strewn about it the rubbish and detritus of the day: oranges sucked dry and empty plastic water bags, cigarette butts and discarded Cafe Touba cups, scratched-off SIM cards. Once past the lit area they drive into a column of darkness, the street lights back to their old flicker, the beam of the car’s headlights a powerful hand parting the dark before them now and letting it fall back into place in the wake of the taxi. It is only then that the Taxi Driver speaks again, his eyes still on the road, his tone relaxed.
– You live in Banjul?, he asks her.
– Yes – I am originally from Bathurst, she replies, and the Taxi Driver wonders for a moment why she would use the old colonial name for the city.
– Born and raised there?
– Yes, she replies. – And you as well?
The Taxi Driver nods in reply. This is how their conversation starts. He has always been perfectly happy to listen more than he speaks, and so he leads her on with questions, responds to the occasional one from her.
They are past Cooperative now, ahead of them Julbrew, swathed in darkness, all the places of entry shut and padlocked.
– I do, the Taxi Driver is saying, in response to a question, a single hand resting on the wheel now, the car cruising along sedately, no place or person waiting to rush to, – Two of them, my only siblings: Sohna and Ida. One in London, the other in Dakar, gone off to live with her husband, after we had all grown up. But they visit sometimes. Sohna got me this car we are in, to start my own business.
– You are close?, she presses.
– I don’t know if I’d call it that, he replies, after some thought, – But we are never far apart. Each of us would be there for the others, if it ever came to that, let me put it that way.
– You grew up together?
– Yes. They shared the room next to mine, each in a little bed of her own.
– Did they ever fight?
The Taxi Driver puts a hand on his chin and smiles as he remembers.
– Yes, once. We heard the tumult and ran in… And there they were, each in her sleeping headwrap, glaring at each other like two quarreling cats.
She laughs at the image that this conjures. The Taxi Driver yawns, and for a moment the only sound is that of the revving engine, outside the dark undisturbed and silent.
– Growing up as a girl is different, she says, after a while, and now her voice sounds a lot more relaxed. When the Taxi Driver steals a glance at her in the mirror she is leaning back now, her head set against the seathead, her hands at her sides.
– Hmmm, the Taxi Driver replies, – Yes I suppose you do more house work.
– More?, she asks with a laugh. – Try all. Did you ever sweep the whole compound every single morning, bird droppings and people’s garbage, dust that mocks you and comes back while you sleep? Or wash up the dishes after everyone ate, every single meal, every single day, whether you’re in the mood to or not? Or scour the saal floor and have it dirtied by careless muddy shoes and accidental spills, and have to do it all over again?
The Taxi Driver chuckles.
– Yes you do have a point. But childhood was such a long time ago. I grew out of that. There are men who leave their homes and move straight into marriage, a woman to take care of the house even as their mothers did. But some of us are not so lucky, or maybe we are the luckier ones… I don’t even know… we move out but live on our own. There are things you can only learn alone, far from the warm embrace of a mother or a wife, setting the house and cleaning up after you…
Now they are driving past Jimpex, all the sounds of the day – the cries of the street hawkers, the call of the minivan aparanti, the sounds of hardware and cement being bargained over and loaded into the backs of pickup trucks to be taken to other places of construction – replaced now by an eerie silence, this stretch of road darker than West Field. It is only as they approach the mosque that the headlights of the car are weakened by new streetlights, these ones perhaps recently installed: they do not flicker, and their light is a harsher yellow than the others.
– And you?, he finally asks her, – What is your story? What were you doing at West Field this late, when you know how far Banjul is, and how difficult it is to get a car?
– Well, she says, her tone lightly teasing – Perhaps God put us in each other’s paths, so that I might tell YOU a story.
-Really?, the driver says, his head cocked to one side. Then he reaches forward and turns the radio off. – Alright – I’m all ears then.
There is a wind coming in through the windows, and the Taxi Driver winches the front ones up halfway. She moves from the right side of the car where she had sat leaning before, scooting over into the center, where she sits up and bends toward him in the front, her words almost-whispers meant only for his own ears.
It begins with a girl, (she begins her story) one who is born towards the end of the British occupation, late enough to have missed the trade in bodies and the great war, too early to be called yet a citizen of the new country that this land will become, bearing the name of the river which is its center and its captive, defining it and dividing it both…
Her name is Isata, and she lives in Bathurst with her family: her father a respected trader at the docks; her mother a seller of fish fresh off the fishermen’s boats – kobo and thiof, smoked kong and taapandarr; her sister Jaaraai – a year older than her – shouldering most of the responsibility of keeping the house. Jaarai is practical, Jaarai is dependable. When what is required is someone responsible it is to Jaarai people turn.
Which suits Isata well enough – she is the dreamy one, the contents of her mind always more interesting to her than whatever the World lays before her feet.
She dreams of leaving her house, of days not filled with the monotony of housework, insomniac nights not spent listening to Jaaraai’s body make its nightly noises, home become another building, a new set of rooms each filled with new places of solace, new places of warmth, new switches and handles whose eccentricities need to be learnt by use, new furniture that will come to develop and retain the memory of the house’s new inhabitants: the curve of their backs, the weight of their wangs when they sit or lie. ..
She dreams of learning to read, her mind unlocked to the meaning of the patterns scrawled on the pages she sees more and more of all over this place, bound or unbound, sometimes handwritten and sometimes printed, but always unintelligible to her.
But above all she dreams of leaving Bathurst, of the journey itself, pure and unattached to any particular destination, conveyed not on the boats that ply their trade upriver, traveling deeper into this snaky land, but across the Ocean, a journey that will take months instead of mere hours, a whole crew needed to tender to the boat and give it direction, beneath her always the undulating waters, gentler this far out from the land and near their source, so different from the violent waves they will become later, crashing again and again upon the shores of the beach near her house, where young people go to gather after taakusaan.
Sometimes, when her father’s friends come to visit, the topic of conversation will become what so and so foreigner has done, what another has said about their home land, nuggets gathered by the few who understand the toubab’s language, translated for eager ears, adding to the lore of the toubab that is slowly being built, the culture’s attempt to reach an understanding of these strange people who travel so far to come to a land in which they cannot stand to live, whose food and weather they hate…
These are her favorite times – she will sit on the floor beside her father’s chair, lapping up every word, saving every little morsel, so she can circle back to this moment later, in bed, her eyes closed, imagining snow, and a cold that can make skin fall off and stop hearts beating.
This is what draws her to him, in the beginning, when they first meet – not so much the assured bragging and tales about his prowess and those he has bested, nor even his quick wit – though that doesn’t hurt his efforts – but the stories he tells, sometimes, when he is completely relaxed and himself. Accounts of places and events that have been described to him by the people he meets in his job at the ports, a clerk recording the loading and unloading of ships, in this capacity coming into contact with people from all the corners of the Earth, his command of English a relief to ears irritated by foreign sounds that they cannot decipher.
To be continued…..