Something Nice from London - Continued
It expressed itself in my mother’s finger running across furniture to collect dust, in the fastidious eye that picked out the merest hint of a smear on the windows, in the heart that revelled to discover that this woman was a slattern who could not even clean her windows. Above all, it expressed itself in the competition between their children. We have not achieved Lisa’s material success, having sent no stoves and fridges from Radio Limited home to my mother. But even our modest successes, my soon to be achieved medical degree and Jonathan’s accountancy qualification, are cancelled out by Peter’s failures.
I often think of my aunt as the opposite of that trio of horsemen galloping though the night to bring the good news from Ghent to Aix in my favourite poem as a child. She crosses the city from Mufakose to Greendale, indefatigable in her eagerness to bring us bad news before anyone else can do so. And for all the distance between London and Birmingham, Lisa seems to be remarkably well-informed about Peter’s failures. She passes one Peter story after another to her mother who endures the discomfort and oppressive heat of one commuter omnibus after another as she arrives to sweat out her bad news. Then finally, she brings us the worst news of all. But we were not to worry, she said. Lisa would bring Peter home.
As she boasts of Lisa’s accomplishments, my aunt chooses not to recall that it was my father who said to her, “Sister, your daughter has finished her nursing diploma. Instead of rotting in some rural outpost, why does she not try her fortune where others have gone?” It was my father who gave Lisa the money for her air-ticket. My mother did not speak to my father for a week after his decision to buy Lisa’s ticket, their voices rose in the night, my mother insisting that his first duty was to his own children, Father saying that it was in their children’s interests that others in the family succeeded so that we all shared the family burdens, and my mother coming back with the accusation that he was too weak for his own good, and did not our elders say that if you rear a dog on milk, it would only end up biting your hand?
My father did not live to see Lisa’s success. But he continued to do good for us from beyond his grave. It was his life insurance money that sent Peter to London. I try to avoid the bitter self-pity that says it is not fair, it should have been me, and I would have honoured Father’s memory. Even then, my resentment did not prevent me from seeing the sense of the plan; I had my studies, Jonathan his training. And there was Peter, shiftless and idle. Harare was not the place for a nineteen-year-old boy who was bright and able, but too lazy to achieve the grades to get into the local universities, and who could not get a job but liked to drink. So he had gone to London. He had been more fortunate than those of our countrymen and women who have flooded England to wipe old people’s bottoms for a living. No menial labour for Mother’s last-born son. Father’s money had paid his tuition. But Peter’s ambitions were as broad as the range of courses available to him, he moved from architecture to business studies, from economics to statistics, from quantity surveying to computer science. “This time, I won’t change my mind,” he said each time that he changed his mind.
Wafa wanaka, our elders say. Not only does this mean that death is the ultimate peace, it also means that we are not to speak ill of the dead. Once a person has crossed over to the realm of the spirits, he takes his transgressions with him, and we speak only of the good. So as we mourn Peter, we are to forget how he bled the family dry. It was not enough that my mother paid his fees and provided his accommodation and his food. The phone would ring, shrill and insistent at three in the morning. I would stumble to answer it, banging my foot in the darkness as there was never electricity at night, I would rush for the phone hoping to get to it before my mother picked up the extension in her bedroom, I would grab for it too late, to hear my mother answer as Peter said with no ceremony, “I need money.”
“Nhai Peter,” my mother would plead. “What hour is this to be calling and asking for money? How can you say you need money, what about all the money we have sent?”
“I need money.” He was inexorable in his insistence. This was Peter, who always got his way, who picked out the biggest apple, the brightest-coloured kite. And as she had done all his life, my mother gave in. She bought pounds on the black market and smuggled them to him, risking a jail term under the newly-enacted crime of externalising foreign currency. And we had no jam on our bread, no milk in our tea while Peter drank away our father’s inheritance in London.
Per Contra Fiction - Fall 2006