It’s very pretty outside. The gently rolling hills, the green vegetation with sprinkles of bright flowers here and there. I have always loved the drive along this road, the scenery is so comforting. But I don’t see it today. I am overcome with a feeling of dread so strong it’s almost blinding, and it gets stronger the closer we get to our destination.
“We” is me and my darling girl, Talandira. She’s 6 going on 7, and quite a bright girl too. So full of charm and happiness it’s quite contagious. She’s asleep in my arms right now, tired from the excitement of her first bus ride to Grandma’s.
The thought of her Grandmother, my mother, brings a frown to my face. I subconsciously pull Tala closer as though to protect her, and the action plunges me into another wave of dread.
I look out the window again and it is as though I’m travelling back in time, to another bus ride just like this one. With just as much dread and anxiety. The memory pulls me into its depths…
5 minutes away but it feels like forever. I keep turning to check in the rear window to see if anyone is following. But there’s no motorcar racing after us, no exhaust fumes trailing behind. But then how could there be? I doubt anyone has noticed yet. But still…
My hand rises to rub my extremely round tummy. 8 months, what a journey. I remember the day I found out, I was overjoyed, and so was he. The fire in his eyes burned brighter as he looked down at me. And then they dimmed.
I remember thinking it was the lighting at the time. That he was just as happy as I was. Ha!
He became withdrawn with each passing day, grunting in response to everything. He would stay out late at night, sometimes all night. That’s when the drinking began. I confronted him about it once, that was the first and last time. The words that came out of his mouth put an end to all the confrontation I had left in me. I was properly shocked.
And then when my tummy started showing, he became aggressive. It started small at first; shoving me aside when he’d normally force an “excuse me”, shaking me really hard when he’d shout at me for doing something wrong. You know, minor stuff. One day his mother came to visit and they sat out in the sitting room. I prepared food and was taking it out to them when I tripped on his shoes. The food fell to the ground and he became furious. He shouted and shouted, and then he slapped me.
The disbelief I felt as I put my hand to my cheek was jarring, tears running down my face. I looked at his mother for help and she looked away. He stormed off to the bedroom and I sank to the floor, too shocked to make a sound. His mother just sat there looking away as I stared at the broken plates and spilt food. We stayed like that for a while then I heard the door open and realised she had left. She never came back to visit.
Things were a little strained after that. I think he felt bad because he started being more attentive and caring, even hired a maid to help around the house. I accepted it at face value, I could still feel the sting of that slap from days ago. But it got so good I got comfortable and forgot how bad things could be. Until two nights ago.
He had gone on another one of his drinking sprees and I was tossing and turning in bed thinking of baby names and shawls. 2:00 am and I heard banging and cursing at the door, he was finally back. 10 minutes pass and then he starts calling my name. He normally had his own key but I guess he’d forgotten it. I was tempted to let him stew for a bit but I had to pee anyway so I got up and went to the bathroom first. He was in a drunken rage by the time I opened the door.
“Sumandimva nthawi yonse ija?! Umatani! What kind of wife are you who can’t even open the door for her husband?!”
“Ben, calm down. I went to pee first. Talowani.”
“To pee?! Ungamandidikilitse panja pano kuti ukakodze kaye?! Mutu wako umagwira?! Mphepoyi ndithu sumaiona? Iwe Gladys!”
At this point, I had started walking away. It was too early in the morning to be dealing with a drunk, but then I turned back to him.
“Ben, I’m sorry, koma ndatopa. Can we talk about this later?”
I didn’t see it coming. One second I was standing and the next I was crashing through the coffee table. It was raining punishment and I couldn’t move out of his range, my night clothes were caught in the mess of broken wood. I don’t remember screaming but I do remember having a sore throat the next day, and a petrified Nambewe almost choking on tears of joy when she noticed my eyes fluttering open. She thought I was dead. Apparently, Ben had beaten me to the point of unconsciousness and ran away when he noticed. He thought I was dead too. He didn’t bother to close the door and that’s why Nambewe was so scared, it looked like a crime scene. Well it was, he had beaten his very pregnant wife to a pulp and left her for dead in their matrimonial home.
I refused to go to the hospital that day and the next. I was too scared to lose my baby. I wasn’t ready for it.
Nambewe had stayed over for two nights since Ben was nowhere to be seen, probably hiding out somewhere ducking the police. He did show up this morning to change his clothes. He must have come in through the back door because Nambewe was cleaning the sitting room and didn’t notice his arrival. He found me reclining in bed and almost jumped out of his skin like he’d seen a ghost. He stood there and stammered for a bit till he gave up and just collected his clothes to change in the bathroom. He came back into the room and sat next to me, picked up my hand, opened his mouth and…nothing. No words came out of his mouth. He tried a couple more times and still nothing. I guess he gave up again because he left and walked out of the house, past an indignant Nambewe who was screaming abuse at him. The whole time I had my hand on my tummy, tears streaming down my face.
I told Nambewe to go home for the day and that I was going to the police. She packed a bag for me and insisted on escorting me to the depot first before she went home. She wouldn’t leave until I was in a taxi. I waited 5 minutes, got off the taxi and let my feet lead the way. After seeing him unable to even apologize, I realised that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be with him anymore and now … now I was standing pregnant, beaten, and quite defeated in the depot of my hometown, a 10-minute bike ride away from my mother’s house.
Fast forward 7 years and I’m here again, in the depot of my hometown, a 10-minute bike ride away from my mother’s house.
Tala is pulling and tugging on my hand, anxious to be off. I’d promised her she could ride a bike to the house all on her own since she was such a big girl now. I let her lead the way as I struggle with her luggage. I’d only packed a small overnight bag for myself, I couldn’t stay long.
We manage to find a suitable bike for Tala to get on after a thorough inspection of tires, seats and “honkers”. The cyclists by the rank are amused by the show she puts on and her “driver” of choice offers her a piece of his roasted corn cob. She graciously accepts and hands it to mummy to keep, she knows better than to eat food from strangers.
10 minutes later we’re at Mothers house. We find her in her vegetable garden in the backyard. She’s surprised to see us, but she hides it well.
“Tala my darling girl! Look how big you’ve grown! Come give Gogo a hug.”
“Are you surprised Gogo? Did we surprise you? Mummy look Gogo must be surprised to see us!”
“Me? Never. Gogo knows everything, in fact, there are some cakes in the oven with your name on them. Come let’s go inside. Don’t loiter in my garden Gladys, you’re blocking the sun. Come on.”
We go inside for some afternoon tea. After, Tala is excited enough to help with cleaning up before she goes to collect mulberries for dessert. It’s just me and Mother now.
“Are you staying long?”
“Just stopping by?”
“Why are you here Gladys? Ndi chani?”
“Ah ah, nanga sukulu? How long will she stay?”
“As long as it takes.”
We have a staring competition for a few seconds and then she breaks eye contact. She goes out into the garden to help Tala and I start on supper.
After supper is done and Tala has been put to bed, Mother puts out the wine glasses. She whisks out her special brew from its hiding place, pours a good amount into each glass and takes a seat at the table. I remain standing by the sink.
“What happened Gladys? Why are you bringing Tala here?”
“She can’t stay there anymore. Not with him around.”
“He’s your husband-“
“Yes and he almost killed us both 7 years ago.”
“That was 7 years ago and he only hit you once. He’s been good to you ever since. The clothes on your back say so and I believe he’s more than made up for it.”
“By providing for his family the way he ought to? Mum, do you hear yourself?”
“Do you? Do you hear yourself justifying uprooting a little girl from the only home she’s ever known because of something that happened 7 years ago? What did he do that’s so bad? What aren’t you telling me?”
I turn away to look out the window, taking deep breaths to keep me calm.
“Ayi.. no.. he didn’t hit me. Actually, he hasn’t touched me since Tala was born. I’m grateful honestly… I don’t think I could have managed it.”
“Then what happened?”
“In the 7 years he hasn’t touched me, he has been jumping in and out of affairs. I was angry when I first found out, almost confronted him too. But I’d learnt my lesson about such, so I swallowed the bitter pill. It took me some time to see how advantageous the situation was for me because I could no longer stand his touch. I don’t think he could stand to touch me either. Anyway, he has been cheating throughout.”
“Yes and what does that have to do with Talandira?”
Now I turn to her so she can see the tears streaking my face. So she can see the pain I’ve been living with for so long.
“You remember what you used to tell me about Uncle? Whenever he-“
“Gladys ayi. Stop. We don’t talk about that man.”
“No Ma! You stop. Stop pretending it didn’t happen. Stop acting like I didn’t have to go through that time and time again. I remember and I know you remember too. I definitely remember what you’d tell me every time he left my room when you’d sneak in with towels and warm water.”
“He’s long gone now. It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s in the past.”
“‘Sometimes he’s a good man and sometimes he’s not’, that’s what you’d say right? That’s exactly what you said when Ben hit me 7 years ago and I came to you for help. You sent me back to that man. You sent Tala back to that man!”
“Gladys calm down. Come and sit-“
“I will not! I am tired of sitting back and letting you convince me to do the ‘right’ thing. It almost broke me as a child and it almost broke me 7 years ago. But not now. Because guess what? Ben has developed a taste for ‘fresh meat’. His recent girlfriends have all been underage schoolgirls barely out of their training bras. His browser history would make you cry but I guess you’re used to that.”
“Eh eh kukwiya sindekuti muzizandipangila mwano pakhomo panga pano. You can take your attitude and leave.”
“Fine! I’ll leave but I’m not taking Tala with me. Ma, the look in his eyes the other day. I’ve seen that look before in another man’s eyes and I was just a child. I won’t have it Ma, I won’t. He won’t lay a finger on her as long as I’m alive and breathing. If you won’t take her in, I’ll find someone who will. I won’t have her go through what I did. I may have made my bed but she doesn’t have to lay in it with me. She’s only 6…ndi mwana…”
At this point I’m crying uncontrollably. Mother comes to hug me and we end up crying together. She’s whispering apologies into my hair as she tries to comfort me. This is the first time I’ve ever opened up with her like this. We stay like this for a while, the full wine glasses completely forgotten.
My overnight bag is at my feet next to Tala, Mother is standing behind her in case she decides to run and she’s looking up at me confused as to why I can’t stay and why she can’t come with me. I get down to my knees so I can look at her directly.
“Mummy where are you going? Why can’t I come? When will you come back?”
“I’m going back home to Daddy right now baby. You can come for holidays with Gogo and we’ll definitely come to see you as much as we can, okay?”
“But why can’t I come with you now? Why can’t I stay with Daddy too?”
I look at Mother for a second and my eyes tear up.
“I promise you I’ll tell you when you’re much older and can understand, but for now I just want you to know that sometimes, sometimes Daddy can be a good man and sometimes he’s not.”