If you ever come looking for me, you’ll find me sitting in my car at the Kisementi car park, listening to Radio One. Kisementi is a shopping centre on Number 12 Bukoto Street, in Kololo, a suburb of Kampala. Opposite me are the Fat Boyz pub and Payless Supermarket. On my left are a local handicraft shop, The Banana Boat and The Crocodile restaurant, and on my right, the Christian Bookshop. From my car, I enjoy watching the congestion of boda bodas, special hires, taxis, matatus and private cars. I do this every day for a few minutes or a few hours. It all depends.
A few months ago, Inayat and I were at a dinner party.
‘I hope you’re getting ready for your job at Radio One?’ Nicole said, patting her chic bob and smoothing down her pale pink dress. Next to her with unruly curls and in black chiffon, I felt like a witch with secrets. Before I could answer, Inayat said to Marc, ‘Let’s get a drink and I’ll tell you about our trip to Thailand.’ They walked across the garden towards the bar.
‘Thailand?’ Nicole said.
‘It’s the first I’m hearing of it,’ I said. ‘These days Inayat’s living in his own world. He doesn’t pay any attention to me.’
She laughed. ‘Men have short attention spans when it comes to their wives.’
The fairy lights in the tree twinkled and music from the bar drifted across the lawn.
On our way home, Inayat drove past Kisementi. I turned in my seat to look at the car park. It was dark aside from the orange and green flashing neon sign, Fat Boyz: Warm Beers and Soggy Burgers.
‘What’s the matter?’ Inayat said.
‘So we’re all booked for Thailand, for the week after next.’
‘But I’ve got my interview with Radio One.’
He replied by pressing his foot on the accelerator and we swerved around a blind corner.
I spent the next day at my desk. I was in-between jobs waiting for the interview with Radio One. The role was for script editing. Looking out beyond the balcony, I felt the old listlessness coming. I ran down to the garden, went down on my knees, and started digging up the flowerbed. The soil was damp and warm in my hands, and my spirits revived. After I’d finished uprooting all the plants, I lay back on the grass and watched the sky. It was almost dusk. Nothing was permanent; you could only rely on change.
I heard Inayat’s car honking. He drove up, parked and I waved. He raised his hand and entered the house.
I stayed outside. The sky turned golden yellow with streaks of pink and red. A low flying creature flapped past. The night watchman whistled, switching on the garden lamps. Clouds moved across the sky, around me trees cast dark shadows on the lawn. Something brushed against my face, crickets whistled in the grass and a dog barked. I picked up a plant I’d dug up and went back to the house.
Inayat was in the study watching television. My hands were covered in soil and fingernails were filled with mud. The back of my shirt was damp and my forehead clammy. I pushed my fingers through my hair and pulled out bits of grass.
‘About time,’ he said, and turned his attention back to the television. I lifted my arm and aimed the plant at him, hoping its thin, straggly roots would land in the middle of his face. But he ducked and it landed on the rug.
‘What the hell’s wrong with you?’ he said.
The next morning at breakfast I said to Inayat, ‘Could you pass me the sugar, please?’ From behind his newspaper, he handed me the butter dish. As usual, he hadn’t been listening. I took a teaspoonful of butter and stirred it in my tea. Oil globules floated to the surface.
Inayat folded his newspaper and stood up. ‘I’ll be late tonight.’
Butter and tea don’t mix.
Back in the study, the plant was still lying on the rug, wasting. I felt a familiar lethargy coming over me. I had to shake it off. I began rearranging the bookshelves. Some of the tomes were my childhood favourites. I’d brought them across to Kampala from Nairobi when I’d moved. I turned the pages, trying to reconnect with who I’d been and who I was now. Each book had a different smell, musty, grassy, acidic and one even had a hint of vanilla. A bookmark fell out of one; an old birthday card from Inayat. When had those gestures meant something?
At dusk, I stood on the balcony. Dozens of Kaloli marabou storks circled the sky. One by one, they descended onto the trees in the garden, their black cloak-like wings opening and closing around their skinny, white legs and then swooped down and stalked the spot of grass where I’d lain the previous evening. They moved silently, scavenging, necks with pink throat sacs hanging like amulets, retracting and stretching. The night watchman put on the lamps, and the birds took flight, leaving their spirits lurking in the garden.
My phone beeped. A message from Inayat: Don’t wait up. I’ll be late.
I parked in my usual spot opposite Fat Boyz and listened to Jazz Hour on Radio One. Kisementi was packed with cars, shoppers and street sellers. Outside the kiosk in the middle of the car park, a man was roasting gonja on a makeshift stove. As usual, for Friday nights, the Christian bookshop had been converted into a bar and barbecue joint. Outside on the pavement revellers feasted on mchomo and waragi. I switched off the radio, reclined the seat and shut my eyes.
When I woke some time later, Payless and The Crocodile were closed but near the entrance to Fat Boyz, merrymakers were still sitting around chimezas with their bottles. For a moment I thought I saw Inayat, but of course it couldn’t have been. He never came to Kisementi.
It began to rain. It drizzled, then hard drops hit against the windscreen and the bonnet. I turned on the wipers and switched on the headlights. Everyone rushed inside Fat Boyz, overturning the chimezas and chairs. The wipers swished back and forth, the windows steamed up.
It was after midnight when I drove back to the house.
I stood in the study watching the nsenenes hopping around in the balcony. Winged termites clustered around the light bulb. In the garden, the watchman had tied a plastic bag over his head and was waving a fishing net around the lamps.
The rain stopped. Drowned insects floated in the pools of water on the balcony floor. The watchman pulled out a low stool, and sat down with an open newspaper on his lap.
I went down to the car and drove to the gate. The watchman tapped on my window.
‘Nyabo, a gift for you.’ He offered me a damp, rolled up newspaper. Inside was a clump of dead nsenenes.
‘Why are you giving me these?’ I said.
‘No wings, no legs, and ready to eat. Just fry in butter. Please try Madam, once you start, you won’t stop.’
I pushed the newspaper back into his hands.
At Kisementi I parked near Fat Boyz and ate the half-eaten bar of chocolate I found in the glove-box. My phone rang.
‘Where are you?’ Inayat said. ‘I’ve had enough of your stupid hide and seek games.’
‘You mean yours?’
‘What nonsense.’ He hung up.
I waited till the neon sign at Fat Boyz had been switched off, and then drove back to the house. The watchman was packing his things to go off duty. A cock crowed, and in the hazy light of daybreak the garden appeared dreamlike. The study light was on; Inayat was waiting for me. As I turned the key in the door, the light in the study went out. I left the key and returned to my car.
At the Sheraton I took a shower and tried to sleep but the pillow and bed clothes smelt musty. I lay in bed listening to voices from the corridor, someone was saying, ‘Paralysis, paralysis.’ I sat up and realised they were calling, ‘Room service, room service.’
The next day I telephoned Nicole and told her what had happened.
‘You’re overreacting,’ she said. ‘That’s how all men are. More importantly, don’t forget your interview’s on the fifteenth.’
At the end of the week I left the hotel and rented a furnished flat. I sent Inayat a text message saying I needed my clothes and books. He replied saying he’d leave them outside the front door and I could send someone to pick them.
I arranged a taxi and the driver came back with a broken box full of wet books and clothes. He said he’d found the box dumped at the bottom of the garden and complained that his freshly polished shoes had become muddy when he’d rescued some of the books from the flower bed. The box had given way when he’d lifted it. He said the watch man had asked where I was.
‘I told him I don’t know anything, I’m just a taxi driver.’
I wiped each book at a time and dried the pages with a hair dryer, but they were ruined forever.
In the evening I parked across from Fat Boyz and sat listening to the traffic updates on Drive Time. I noticed a familiar car reversing into a parking space. A man got out and walked to the alley between The Crocodile and Banana Boat. He stopped at the stall selling pirated DVDs and fake mobile phones. My view was blocked by two passing cars and the next thing I knew, the man was standing beside my car, knocking on my window. I rolled it down.
‘What a lovely surprise seeing you here,’ Inayat said. ‘How have you been?’ and then, ‘I’ve missed you.’
‘You spoilt my books,’ I said.
He looked the same, clean shaven, hair combed neatly to one side, shirt starched and pressed. Nothing had changed. Why should it have? I’d left him a few days, weeks or months ago? I’d lost track. Life had continued.
‘The past’s the past,’ he said. ‘Let’s start again. We can still make it to Thailand. It’ll help you recover.’
‘What do you mean recover?’ I said. ‘Recover from what?’
Before he could answer, a boy sidled up to the car, his arms filled with flowers; pink lilies, white tuber roses and yellow carnations. ‘Ki kati, Ssebo, why not give flowers to your beautiful Nyabo?’ he said.
‘Good idea,’ Inayat said, ‘I’ll buy them all.’
The boy looked at me and smiled. ‘Ssebo loves his Madam, she is lucky.’
Inayat paid the boy, took the flowers, opened the back door and placed them on the seat. The car was filled with the cloying scent of lilies. I looked straight ahead, a woman in a black dress with a dog was entering Payless.
‘See you soon,’ Inayat said. ‘I’ll be waiting for you. At home.’ He bent to look at me through the window, but I did not turn my head and when I did not answer he straightened and tapped the roof of my car. ‘Don’t be late,’ he said and walked back to his car parked near the Christian bookshop.
I stayed at Kisementi listening to Radio One, until the music at Fat Boyz had faded, and the neon sign Warm Beers, Soggy Burgers had been switched off, and the car park was empty.