By Amran Gaye
In the beginning they all start out the same: the ones who will leave our lives, and the ones who will stay. There is no discernible difference, no mark upon each kind of person, so we can tell them apart at the onset. We love and trust, and are betrayed. Again and again it will happen, each time just as difficult as the times before it, just as hard on the heart, just as hurtful. There are no guarantees that will hold, no softer way. Though we seek reassurance, though we elicit promises and oaths.
And afterwards, after we have been hurt and discarded yet again, after the promises have all been broken like so many eggshells, and our revealed hearts exposed to the scouring winds of abandonment, we will swear that no more, that we will open ourselves up in that way no longer, no matter how charming the person, no matter how close a connection we come to feel with them. But it is all of no consequence, walls of sand before the advancing tide: no matter how carefully we guard our innermost selves there will come a day. When the memory of pain will fade, the lessons learnt from the past all crumbled away. When we will shrug off bitter experience and once more let someone else in, someone new, someone supposedly different. It will begin with a look, or a word, or perhaps even just a shared smile, as your eyes meet theirs across a crowded room, or in a taxi, or at an event, or at the joke a mutual friend has just made. A moment of recognition, as of two souls at play – and just like that once more we will fall under fickle love’s sway…
When he first arrives back in Europe Ous calls every day, his voice the first thing Nabou hears in the morning, the thing that leads her out of her slumber and into the waking world, not the jarring buzz of an alarm clock but a gentle tap on the shoulder, a loving smile waiting to fall on sleep-heavy eyes as they open. On the way to work, driving alone through dense traffic, he puts her on speakerphone, their conversation interrupted only by the necessity to speak to the toll collectors who guard the gateways between the roads on which he drives. All the while as if she is in the car with him, so when they politely wish him a good day they wish it to her too, and when he returns the sentiment it is with her own lips and her own voice too.
She has come to arrange her life around these calls: though she does not work she is first in bed at night, and ready to wake with the approaching njail. She catches up on sleep during the day, while he is busy at work and not allowed to be on his cellphone. Six months, he says – that is how long it will take him to be able to make the trip back, cut from his usual yearly gap between visits, because he cannot wait that long to hold her in his arms once more. After that Nabou’s life becomes a timer, counting down to his arrival, each wake-up call bringing her a day closer to the trip she will make to the airport to pick him up, each goodnight one less day, conquered and thrown into the lonely Past behind her, with its collection of long days filled with anticipation.
Maam Aadama alone knew his soulmate with complete certainty, Maam Hawa alone was sure of the person she would spend her life with, so long ago in the Garden at the beginning of Time. To them only did the Maker grant that privilege, the first humans, their fates intertwined, each the other’s company against the great loneliness into which the breath of Life and the word of Being had woken them.
But for us the children of the Fall there is only doubt, chipping away at the walls we build with the ones we have chosen. Some days we look upon its efforts with amusement, when the walls seem strongest, when our happiness seems complete, when it feels like he is the one, like she will never leave, and we want for nothing and no one else. And then there are the days when we cannot see how the walls could possibly hold, when all we can see are his many flaws, her many faults. These are the times of trial, the true tests of our love.
We look on arranged marriages with disdain, speak of the importance of true love, of meeting a person and choosing them ourselves, as if this makes any difference, as if somehow the choice we make ourselves and alone will fare better against the ravages of Time than the one made by the family, the tribe, the collective. As if infatuation does not wash away, as if the honeymoon period lasts forever. And then what is left, after that?
The unwinding of all that they are to each other begins with a phone call, three months after he has returned. Much later, when Nabou is thinking back on everything, she will play what if. What if she hadn’t decided to call Ous that particular day, what if she had waited as usual for his call. What if she had delayed a mere ten minutes more, until he got out of the bathroom and could receive the call himself. But raychu is bottomless, and never runs out, and Time refuses to take us back, to give us another chance, is deaf to our pleas and mute to our questions.
And so she sends a kid to buy her credit, and enters the PIN, and climbs into bed, and selects his name from her favorites.
– Hello, she begins, a smile already starting on her face, as she thinks she will tease him, wait for him to identify her. But the voice on the other end is a woman’s, a clipped nasal tone.
– Oh sorry this is not Oz-man, the voice is saying, – Who am I speaking to?
Nabou blurts out her name before she has thought it through, and it is only after it is out that she places the voice, realises to whom it belongs, too late – and her heart quickens.
– Ah – his sister, the reply comes back. – I will tell him to ring you back, yeah? How is…
She hangs up before the toubab can finish her sentence, throwing the phone onto the bed away from her, turning to lie on her stomach and bury her face in the pillows. She has known that the toubab does not know that Ous is married – one of the many things he explained about the arrangement before he left. But knowing something and experiencing it are different things – she is shocked at how deep confirming this knowledge cuts into her, so that she trembles where she lies, and it takes a great effort of will to hold back her tears, to not burst out into wailing sobs. She is not aware of falling into a merciful sleep at last, but when she wakes a few hours later there are dried tear trails that run off the pillow and onto the spread, darkening its chocolate into a muddy brown.
The things that happen to us happen in isolation, each event standing alone in time as we experience it. It is only later, with the benefit of hindsight, that we are able to create a narrative, to see how all the individual events were in fact connected, a stack of dominos, each one falling onto the one in front, causing it too to fall… And so on across time, creating our lived experience.
And so it is that next day she runs into Saffie outside Kairaba Shopping Centre, arriving as she’s leaving.
– How’re the dollars? Saffie asks her, and her smile is so paper thin it could slice butter, – I hope they are hitting you.
– Yes, she replies, and her own smile is even thinner, barely leaving an impression on her lips.
– Awww, Saffie says, – And when is he visiting again? You must miss him terribly… Such a long absence from your bed…
Saffie has the knack of saying the most horrible things in the nicest tone of voice, insults disguised as concerned questioning. On a good day she is merely an irritation, one Nabou can ignore and move on, but today, after the afternoon of the call, her words are like a biting wind that throws sharp dust into Nabou’s face.
– Oh I don’t mind at all, she replies, trying to sound as carefree as possible yet knowing that she is failing, – I see him enough. The rest of the time I have other things to occupy me.
– Of course you do, Saffie says, her teeth still showing, – I really admire how you hold yourself together, and how patient you are. I myself could not stand for it. Well I must be going – my husband’s waiting for his dinner – and you know how men get about their food… Otherwise they misbehave in bed later and sulk…
– Of course, Nabou replies, and her own smile is so thin now it could slice ice, and she does not think she possesses the strength to hold it much longer. Mercifully Saffie turns and hails a taxi, half-running to catch it even as the driver throws the car into reverse.
Nabou turns and rushes into Kairaba Shopping Centre, waving away the assistant who attempts to welcome her, rushing to the back and the bathroom, the obstacles before her looming in a blur of tears. By some good fortune it is empty, and she collapses into a stall, banging the door closed behind her. It is only then that she lets the tears come, the sobs that come out of her so violently when she tries to hold them back they produce big hiccups in her chest.
Back in her car, her eyes still red, she calls Jahou.
– What is it jang-ha?! Jahou says as soon she’s heard her voice. – Are you okay?
She opens her mouth to reply, and feels the waterfall about to start gushing out again, so she closes it.
– Unhu, she tries.
– What is it? Jahou says again, – Talk to me! You’re scaring me.
– Nothing Jahou, she finally manages, – I met Saffie outside Kairaba Shopping….
She trails off, unable to continue, but Jahou understands immediately.
– The witch! she says, – Where are you now?
– Outside the shopping centre, she manages.
– OK, Jahou says, – I’m at home. Can you drive down here? Or do you want me to come get you?
– It’s OK, she replies, turning the key to start the car, – I will come.
– You sure? No problem at all to come pick you up.
– Yes, she replies, with a sniffle, now a little calmer.
– OK come down – I just finished cooking lunch – I’ll wait for you and we can eat together.
– OK, she says again, hanging up and pressing her foot down on the pedal.
As she pulls out a merr walks to her window, hands outstretched, trailing girl twins, wearing identical shirts, each of them holding a bowl of uncooked maalo.
– Please, the merr says,- Nothing to eat at home today. Anything you can spare….
She reaches for her purse, still full of money from Western Union earlier that day. She takes out a hundred dalasi note and gives it to the merr, whose eyes light up as she begins to pray for her and thank her for her kindness, setting the bowl she holds down and clasping her hands before her, the money held tight between them. She zips the purse closed, turns to return it to the back seat. Then a thought occurs to her and she cancels her movement, reopens the purse.
Taking all the money in it together in a large bunch she hands it to the merr, who now looks incredulous. For a moment the merr looks like she is going to ask a question, to verify there is no mistake. But at the look on Nabou’s face she quickly ferrets the notes away into a cloth bag she wears at her side, and without a word and grabbing her children she walks away as fast as she can. Nabou throws the empty purse into the back seat, and with a huge sigh of release she turns the car around and gets it back on the highway.