“This girl, Margaret…when I met her she was cleaning toilets at a public library. She was at the edge of poverty. And now she has the audacity to even consider writing books about me? I am revolted!”
Thabo quickly realised that this rant required more than the sweet lubricant of an almost warm beer. He needed an audience. For the first time since he arrived, Thabo lifted his gaze from the beer before him and the empty bottles that stood abandoned beside it. He turned his head to search the bar for someone lucky enough to be an audience to his wisdom-building sorrow. What he found instead was a barroom filled with men whose eyes were glued to the screen before them. They were definitely far too interested in the English Premier League game to be torn away from it by even the frothiest promise of beer. Thabo turned his attention back to the bartender.
“Sipho! Sipho!” he motioned to the bartender to come to him. ‘Sipho’ was not his name, but the bartender came anyway. Thabo did not seem the sort of man one corrected. Though Thabo had only been in Piggs Peak for two weeks, he had built himself a reputation as a trouble-maker. It was not quite as respectable a fear as his reputation in Manzini had provoked, but Thabo was grateful for the small moments of power it afforded him.
Like now as Sipho The Bartender said, “Nkosi,” and fastened a stiff smile onto his face.
“Yes. I was saying about my ungrateful wife—or shall I say, ‘ex-wife’? I know such a thing does not exist in your culture but I’m sure you can imagine what I mean.”
Sipho The Bartender’s expression remained unchanged, even as he began to collect the empty beers at Thabo’s side and throw them in a nearby bin.
“What I am saying is this…people have such short memories. You do something for them and they forget as soon as they get the chance!” he said the last sentence loudly; simultaneously proud of his great wisdom and disappointed that the only audience he’d have for it was an uninterested barkeep whose English proficiency he was unsure of. He continued anyway.
“Before me, Sipho, she was nothing. Nothing, I tell you! She could barely speak English when I met her—and now she thinks she’s too good for a man of my calibre? Matlakala!”
Thabo had lived in Swaziland for almost three years but still peppered his sentences with seTswana when he became impassioned. This was particularly unavoidable when he became drunk. Not that he cared to avoid it.
“If you expect me to be ashamed of my language you are about to get the shock of your life!” he once said to Margaret on a particularly lubricated night.
After all, he considered himself a man of great principle.
That morning, Thabo had gotten a phone call from some soft-voiced man that claimed to be a journalist from a South African paper. The man, whose name Thabo forgot as soon as he heard it, claimed to be calling to interview him about something called ‘The African Bull.’
“Yes?” Thabo had said, making sure to sound as annoyed as he was. There was nothing Thabo hated more than being called on his phone before noon. Everyone knew not to call him before his first drink, and normally he kept his cell-phone off until well into his second glass of whiskey, but ever since Margaret had left him he’d begun keeping his phone on all hours in the hope that she would come back to her senses and call to take him back.
So far the decision had brought nothing but trouble—debt-collectors, jilted lovers and drunks he met at bars, blew up his phone like it was a police station line and he had seriously considered selling the damn thing just the day before. So, I’m sure you can imagine that our comrade was in no mood for Soft Voice.
“What do you want?” he grumbled angrily as he searched the trousers nearest to his feet for a pack of cigarettes.
“Yes, sir. I’d like to hear what you think about the book”
“What book, sisi? Did someone foolishly tell you I review books? Don’t waste my damn time…” Finding a pack of almost crushed Marlboro’s in his front pocket, Thabo had straightened up to begin his search for a lighter.
Unoffended by being referred to as ‘sister’, Soft Voice had soldiered on flatly, “Are you not Thabo Sediba, former husband of Neo Mosigi?”
“Who?!” Thabo was now more confused than angered. “My man, what are you on about?”
“Neo Mosigi has written a book about being married to a Thabo Sedibi from Botswana. You are the only Thabo Sedibi in Swaziland, correct?”
Thabo mumbled an affirmation, but his mind was focused on trying to overcome his customary weekday hangover for long enough to sift through all this information for sense. ‘Neo Mosigi’? It came to him like lightening to a bewitched man.
“Are you talking about Margaret Sediba?” he said, now slightly calmer. Mosigi had been Margaret’s surname before they got married. And Neo was her middle name. When had she changed it?
Soft Voice cleared his throat before saying, “I’m not sure…did she write a book called ‘Being Married to the African Bull’?”
Thabo promptly vomited in the rubbish bin next to his desk. The desk where he had finally found his lighter. It had been cushioned beneath his leather-bound notebook and the Swazi Telecommunications phone directory.
That’s when he allowed his phone to slip from his sweaty palm almost immediately and landed into the bin along with his liquid dinner.
And that was the end of Thabo’s hope.
“Sipho. I’ll tell you when it all went wrong. It was that damn neighbour of ours. That fat Nigerian woman made a habit of filling my wife’s head with nonsense. Don’t let your wife befriend unemployed women, my friend. Those women have nothing to do but spread destruction. Especially if they are married to white men!” He paused to take down more than half of his drink in one swift albeit inelegant movement. He wiped the remnants of the beer from his mouth.
“You can’t trust women married to white men. It’s the first law of Physics. They will do anything to convince your wife she is married to a baboon. Just imagine!”
It was then that Thabo realized his voice was louder than usual. When he looked around he found that the bar was empty except for he, a young man playing pool, and Sipho The Bartender who was now wiping down the bar counter with a visibly dirty rag. Even the television set had been turned off.
He ordered another beer and drank it in silence. And without an audience to entertain, he began to really wonder when it had all gone wrong.
Thabo had been a literary giant in his country by age twenty-five. But “it is easy to be a giant in a country full of ants,” as he had been known to say while drunk at award ceremony after-parties in Gaborone. Eventually he said it to the wrong person—a woman whose large breasts had distracted him from the ‘PRESS’ tag on her shirt—and the quote had ended up in the paper the next day. The raucous around that statement had been small by all standards, but it was enough to get him snubbed by the writing community in the city.
When he met Margaret he had already been planning to leave the country for what he called “greener, more sophisticated pastures.” She was a small woman from Mochudi, with large eyes and a large behind. Not the most well-read woman of all, but he found her great interest in his work both endearing and satisfactory. In any case, he had been looking for a wife for quite some time. It was after his second book was published, that he decided that he should work at getting a child that would one day enjoy the sweet fruits of his legacy.
And it certainly did not hurt that her poor family didn’t expect a particularly large bogadi. Her uncles had been content with five cows and a case of whiskey. The wedding day had been small and unmemorable. Except for the framed pictures of Thabo and Margaret she hung around the house and polished every Wednesday, he remembered almost nothing of it.
How Thabo ended up in Swaziland, he cannot particularly recall. It had never been his plan to live in a country whose literary community was even more dismal than the one he left. But truth be told, he had never been able to keep up with the fast and ruthless Johannesburg scene that he had once loved so deeply. They had lived there long before he’d become known as the legendary Tswana Bull; before he’d developed the habit of ending intellectual bar debates with bloody fights in the streets.
This man had once been great, described by South African papers, perhaps unoriginally, as a ‘gem’ that would one day shine as bright as Botswana diamonds. But somewhere along the line it all went downhill—and it happened so fast that before he knew it, he was running off to Manzini with a pregnant wife in one hand and a bag full of incomplete manuscripts in the other, with nothing to show for his career but a tattered letter of recommendation from an old editor-friend in Botswana.
“It’s witch-craft, I tell you!” Thabo’s mother had said on the phone.
This was another phone call that had interrupted his ceremonious Saturday afternoon nap. This had been in the days following Margaret’s departure.
“First, you got chased out of Joburg by those hooligans. Then your wife lost your first son. Then you lost your job. And now your wife left you!”
Thabo could imagine her counting each gross injustice on her chubby, soup-covered fingers, and clucking angrily to herself.
He had sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes too roughly. And before he could say something, his mother continued, “Someone doesn’t want you to prosper, my son. I don’t want to scare you, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was your father’s sister! Sometimes I think I can see something in her face that becomes happy when I tell her of your misfortunes. I always knew that woman was evil!”
“Now, now, mme. You know I don’t believe in those things. Sometimes bad things happen. And in any case, Margaret will be back very soon. She’s just having her moments of craziness. She knows she can’t survive without me. I am her husband after all.”
Thabo’s mother clucked indignantly on the phone. He willed his mind not to give in to his natural instinct to absorb her hopelessness.
“Mama, I’ll call you later. I have some work to do.”
“Yes, Thabo. But just remember to pray tonight, my son. I’ll be praying that the Lord brings that sinful wife of yours to her senses and then sends her home.”
“It is fine,” he found himself hanging up before waiting for her to return his traditional ‘goodbye.’
The book he was now working on was a fictional account of a young boy growing up in the reservation camps around the Kgalagadi desert. He had been working on it for years –almost ever since he’d left Botswana. His editor at the time was an old white man of Greek descent, who’d been working at the large South African publishing house that Thabo had signed a contract with, for nearly twenty years. And still, Thabo thought, in that way that only White people can do—he possessed a youthful enthusiasm about literature.
Andreas was his name, and he’d been the man that convinced Thabo that Joburg was the place for him. Perhaps not directly, but it was the editor’s enthusiasm about his book proposal that had been the final factor in Thabo’s decision to move a six-month-old marriage to the bright lights of the City of Gold.
Now, in a smelly motel in rainy Swaziland, he stood at his desk staring blankly at the mass of sheets that represented what he stubbornly referred to as his ‘life’s work.’ Although his phone was still in the rubbish bin, he found himself pitying the hotel cleaning lady that had had to empty it of his vomit, and clean the rest of his room too, while he sat at a bar shouting at illiterate bartenders, about the wife he had once had.
The time was midnight when he returned to the room, drunk and silent—a combination that was becoming all too familiar for him. With a wife at home, he had always had an audience to whom he could shout as he crashed drunkenly into the house at god-forsaken hours. Now, she was gone, and he for the first time in years, was alone and silent.
He did not even have a mistress to entertain him anymore. There was no-one to keep his bed warm during Margaret’s absence, like in the old days. When Margaret would go back to Botswana to visit his family first, then her own (he stopped accompanying her, three years prior. His failure had begun to weigh heavily on his soul when he encountered old, enquiring friends) he would always have someone he could call to “keep him company” on those lonely nights.
But not anymore. Even his last mistress, Joan, a middle-aged American that worked with the Peace Corps in Swaziland, had ultimately kicked him out of her house after just three months of letting him board with her. He still could not believe how things had disintegrated so quickly between them. One moment she was warmly opening her pale, freckled arms to him after he lost the house that he and Margaret had stayed in, and the very next, she was tearfully begging him to leave her alone and give her “time to think.”
What she needed time to think about, she did not have to specify. That had been the third instance in which Thabo spent more than a whole week away from her flat, with his phone off. It was certain now to Joan, that the picture he had painted of himself being the perfect husband to a philandering wife, and needing the warm, mature love of a “more learned” woman was completely untrue. Thabo had packed his bags in silence while she hurled insults at him, and accused him of being “no different from these Swazi snakes.”
And that was the end of that.
Thabo continued to stare at the pile of papers on his desk—the book that could have been. The book that was supposed to be his greatest gift to the world, stared back at him, and if it had had eyes, Thabo was sure they would be un-amused. It was then that he wondered if somehow the stark remembrance of his loneliness had sobered him up.
He began feeling within his jacket for a beer-bottle. He always remembered to carry one home, when he drank at bars alone. And today was no different. He opened the bottle with his teeth and inhaled its contents in one huge breath. After letting out a loud burp, he lit a cigarette and stood still while the warm feeling of intoxication rushed up to his brain, and began to numb his mind. He smiled as he blew out a stream of smoke, and the world darkened.
“uBaba! uBaba!” a woman was shouting in a faraway corner of the pitch-blackness in his mind. He thought of opening his eyes but decided against it. If it was a dream of Margaret, he would let it manifest itself in his mind. He’d always been able to consciously witness his dreams, and the ability had served him very well since his wife’s absence. He stopped trying to open his eyes, and focused on the dream.
But the shouting continued, and Thabo soon realized that the voice could not belong to Margaret. It was too high-pitched—too young, and speaking entirely too much siSwati. His dreams were always in his native seTswana, except for those that involved animals—for they always spoke in English.
He began to panic. He realized that he could not open his eyes. And even worse, he could not move his body parts.
The shouting became banging. Many fists were banging on what sounded like a door. It became louder and louder, until Thabo realized that it was not his mind producing the sound, but the outside world—the conscious world. He tried harder to move. This was not normal sleep paralysis—no, Sebeteledi was not trying to stifle his spirit. He realized that he may very well be unconscious in some way.
Suddenly a loud clap rushed into his ears and the ties that tethered him to this world snapped.
He was assaulted by the stench of anaesthetic when he finally woke up. Through a dense fog that filled his mind, he realized that he was in a hospital. Beside him sat a crying girl. The fog lifted slightly, and he recognized her as the small receptionist from the inn he had been staying at the past few days.
When he moved the fingers of the hand closest to her, she abruptly stopped her silent sobbing. She fixed her gaze on his face for the briefest of moments before she jumped up and scurried out of the door. Soon she returned with a tall man in a too-short lab coat.
“Mr. Sediba? No, don’t try to speak. I am Dr. Marima. You were in a fire, sir.”
Thabo, as stubborn as ever, continued to clear his throat with the ferocity of an elder planning to speak at a Kgotla meeting.
“Mr. Sediba. It is best if you do not try to speak. You’ve inhaled a lot of smoke. It seems like a cigarette started a fire in your room. You were found on the floor by this lady—,“ he pointed at the receptionist who had now shrunk into a corner of the room.
As the doctor continued to speak, and his strong Zimbabwean accent filled the room on the waves of his booming voice, Thabo felt himself drifting away. He did not even care to ask if he had experienced burns or any other kind of injury. He simply allowed himself to retreat into the dream world he had always found so much comfort in.
He was dreaming of Margaret again when he heard her voice. In his dream, she was the small, innocent village girl he had grown to adore so much in his twenties. She was standing over the stove again, frantically stirring the thick phaletshe that bubbled in one of their few pots—a set of five that had been a gift from his own rakgadi. Her hips jerked around slightly, and it seemed that she was stirring the pot with every muscle in her body. He smiled at the sight—her petite figure was always an adorable sight for him. Again he heard her voice. But it sounded like she was on the telephone., scratchy with the sound of static.
She was saying, “Yes, Thabo had always been a great inspiration to me…”, another voice—a woman’s voice—said, “So tell the audience Miss Mosigi, was it difficult to write this book?”
It was then that Thabo awoke abruptly. For a moment he was sure she had come to see him! Perhaps news of his near-death had made its way to her, and she had come over in a rush. His eyes darted around the room frantically, hoping to land on the shiny brown skin of her forehead. But she was not there. Instead, he set his eyes on the small TV that hung at an odd angle in the furthest corner of the room.
Squinting, he was able to make out, through the static, the face of his long lost wife. It was Margaret! He rose out of bed abruptly—too abruptly, and a wave of pain crashed into his back. He let out a whisper of a groan, but continued to inch his body closer to the screen. Modima waka, it is Margaret! He wanted to cry.
But he willed his mind to stay quiet—he needed to hear what was being said. He turned his ear in the direction of the television and focused on the sound. But it was the other woman’s turn to speak, “If you are just tuning in, we have Neo Mosigi here today, to tell us about her award-winning book about her former husband. The African Bull—“ here, Thabo saw the woman lift a blurry red rectangle to the screen. That must have been the book! He felt a hint of the nausea he had experienced in the inn, but fought it back. He had to be strong. T
he woman continued, “…was written in a record time of three months, by a woman that only made it to grade 9! Let this be an inspiration to all you women out there that…”
He stopped being able to hear the woman’s voice. He stopped being able to hear anything. His body went cold, and the feeling in his stomach that had been so strong only a moment ago, disappeared. His legs folded beneath him and he crashed into the ground. As he lay there, his eyes painfully open, the florescent lights of the hospital burning into his skull, the only sensation he could feel, he found himself wishing a wish that only men weaker than he would wish. Thabo found himself wishing he would die.