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© 2005 - 2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.

 

So in an increasingly foul frame of mind, in the damning spirit of either or and shielding myself from painful effects by not looking, I came to my destination, the curb at Seventh Street where the combis to Borrowdale run.

 

They were standing there, not the same ones but a similar variety, the young girls stepping back into the shade of scarlet blossoming flame trees planted by an early generation of colonials, a different species of traveller, and fanning the expanses of flesh exposed by boob tubes and spaghetti straps with long slender, languid hands ending in long pointed nails painted black and gold and crimson.  The first combi ripped by, lights flashing in warning, shrouding us in exhaust fumes.  The conductor gripped the chassis hard with one hand, hanging out in such a style as to prevent the bodies of two little school-children from falling onto the tarmac, instilling into his charges the notions they would carry with them for many a year of reasonable risk and safety.  He smiled and waved at us merrily.

 

“Tss!” one of the girls sucked her teeth, the one dressed in chocolate pin stripe trousers and a ruched cream boob tube.  “Tss!” she hissed again in lazy contempt. “Those conductors!”  Her disapproval coiled out in slow, unfocused whirls, “Vana hwindi!” as though no-one had taught her, or she had refused to learn, the advantages of direction and energy.

 

The girl’s chocolate and cream mellowness, sticky and cloying as a marshmallow, was infuriating; or it could have been the passage of the combi which did not augur well for the vehicles to come: for some time they would be packed with bodies and Mabs Riley might begin her weekend tasks: visiting other widows like herself, holding book sales for the Rotary Club, or shopping.  In any case the various anxieties I was suffering without the capacity to acknowledge pressed at me unpleasantly and pushed out my bottom lip in disapprobation of the slim young woman. At the same time I looked as far as was possible in scorn down my nose.  It was all executed quietly and stealthily, relief intended to be stolen from a little inconspicuous steam-letting; but the girl in chocolate pin stripes turned back to search down the street for more combis, so that she quickly and mercilessly observed what I was up to, at which, with a raucous, all at once energetic giggle she nudged the nucleus of young women about her.  How outrageous this immediately was!  Of course, I could not endure the silly under-clad youngsters enjoying the notion I was sufficiently desperate to envy them.  So, with little creativity, not being able to think of a more eloquent action, I made my otherness from them very obvious by smoothing the skirt to my suit down as far as it went.  The nucleus of young women burst out laughing.

 

This in turn drew attention to them.  A general ripple of merriment danced through the gaggle of human beings on the curb.

 

"But women!" Now it was a young man chuckling. “What is it with these women!  Some of them just walk just like that!  With everything in the open!"  Some age mates of his standing nearby grinned.  They slitted their eyes in speculation and let their observation, like a single gaze, meander over the young women.   "Ah, they want to inflame us!"  The speaker sighed, and continued with amused indignation.  "Now, isn’t it known that when it’s like that it can’t be stopped!  So what if we don't want to begin and be inflamed!  And get a gaol sentence?  We don't want!  Now these hussies want to put us in gaol!  People, isn’t that why!  Isn't that what makes people stone them!

 

"But then there’s this other question here of overdoing things?"  With this he began laughing openly, employing the curl of the nostrils people affect when they speak of matters in which they have agreed upon they are superior. And my own nostril curled too, with a sad and precious little relief at the ravaging the girls were receiving.

 

"Just see how much some others cover up," he shook his head wittily.  “Even the things noone wants to see, that wouldn‘t be looked at even if they were out in the open!  Now, this sort, is there anything for them! They might as well start forgetting!"

 

Now, of course, I had brought this upon myself, but I did not have time to reflect on this, what I had done, why, what, if anything, might be done differently with more propitious results, since I was dying of embarrassment.  The speaker was younger than me, if older than the gang of gigglers.  I grasped on the former fact to keep my dignity, simmering all the while in hostility at the girls who, practically naked as they were, were rolling their eyes and clicking their tongues at me in a demeaning manner, unashamed of anything: and as I watched them they increased, in their own collective scorn, undulation of everything that curved out from their waistlines - bottoms, hips, busts and even chins instinctively in automatic seduction. Examining me with sidelong glances, they reacted with more half hidden giggles, and, with imperceptible turns in the young men's direction.

 

We were interrupted by a push and shove from every side.  A combi, belched down, birds flapping away from billowing exhaust fumes.  Up it hurtled past the speed limit towards us from the rank after engorging a load of workers.  We all swept back, afraid for indispensable body parts, if not life itself.  Next the driver applied the brakes which wailed more acutely than a bereaved family, and even though the vehicle had only slowed without coming to a stop, at that small concession, everybody heaved forward, like starving people toward a sack of grain, so eager were we to get where we were going.

 

Finally it was stationary and we surged up.  In the vehicle, I took out a ten-dollar note for fare.  The conductor was youthful too and ignored me, looking down over the girl in the chocolate pinstripes, who, having managed to scramble up the step, looked round, eyes peering from under his armpit, so that I fell faint, imagining the lack of deodorant.

    

"Are you going, or aren't you," the conductor rasped.  "Because if you don't," he did not give her time to answer.  "If you don't know what you want, and we move you might just end up falling!"  His fist balled, stretched past the girl's ear into the morning and thudded a couple of times on the combi roof.  It was the sign for the vehicle to move, and we, who were seated, turned our heads to the young man with the onset of horror.  No one dared say anything. People were dying for answering transport touts and combi conductors without sufficient respect.  Everyone knew it, and the rate was increasing.  A reckless word could have the conductor banging on the roof in a frenzy, with the driver stepping on the petrol even while a passenger had a foot on the curb; and by the time the passenger was pulled free from the combi by the potholes and stones in the road, he or she was past recognition.  Meanwhile the combi driver drove on to his rank, passengers alighted fearfully as soon as they were let out, and colleagues at the rank swore when questioned that business was slow: how could the driver have perpetrated such an act if he had been at the rank all morning. 

    

So we feared for the girl in a silence made passive by other fears: and we equally silently prayed we would not be driven past our destinations, as being late for anything would make our lives more complicated than they already were.  Fortunately, the conductor relented when the young woman smiled in impeccable Shona, "Would I fail to go, brother-in-law, if there was space.  But as you see there are many of us.  So tell your driver to stop a while.  Won't you say it!  Isn't it so, it's only when you speak that this car stops!  You have to say it so the driver can listen!"

    

"Who-o!" the driver opened his palm to the blue sky.  Thud!  Thud!  it descended on the combi roof.  The driver took his foot off the accelerator.

    

The young woman, her mind now focussed on her safety, scrambled down.  On the curb again, she bunched up with her companions.  We all leant back in our seats in relief.  Another young man beside me opened his newspaper, so that his elbow dug obliviously into my ribs, but he could not concentrate for long. 

    

"Now look at them!" the young man from the curb resumed in an incisive tone that cut into everything.  I leant forward to attract the conductor's attention and to take my mind from more male talk. The conductor continued to serve people in the front seats directly behind the driver and to ignore me.  A woman of about my age, whom I had noticed out of the corner of my eye as we stood in the queue together, smiled.

    

 

"Ko, imi, what are you smiling at?" I snapped roughly, still flapping the bank note and hoping it would soon serve its purpose.  "Is there anything that's just happened, heh, that could make anybody do that!"  

 

"Ah, I just said this is the stuff of BP,” she said more or less graciously.  “And I didn‘t know that‘s forbidden too now!  I hadn't heard it said that now in Zimbabwe you can be arrested for smiling!"

 

Fortunately also, the conductor stretched a hand back for my note. The woman passed it to him. I said thank you in order not to be too unconciliatory, and sank back into ignoring everything as the combi shuddered up Borrowdale Road.

 

Note: A bira is a ceremony to communicate with ancestors for a given purpose.

 

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Through the Looking Glass, from the novel Bira, by Tsitsi Dangarembga