Likaku got up violently from his bed when he realised he had overslept by more than an hour. The wall clock mocked him immensely as it registered 7:30 AM. He feverishly pushed away the curtains and the morning sun gushed in through the window pane. He opened one window, stuck his head out and saw a piece of paper carefully placed under the wiper of his broken car, a black Mercedes Benz E 180 that had stood on the bricks for a year now. His eyes still planted on his car which reminded him of his glorious years when he had everything a modern man could require: a new car, beautiful house, beautiful wife and a well-paid job. And now he had nothing and this car was a relic from his heady days. Almost every day he had washed his car and intoned: ‘one day, this car shall go places, only one day!’ Obsessed with his car, he sometimes ate his food in the car. On Sundays he could open a bonnet, dress himself up in working overalls and fiddled with the engine. This obsession went on and on, and his wife had been asked by many people if indeed her husband was repairing the car. When her denials had reached Likaku, he was a very furious man.
‘What’s wrong with you, just to say, he’s fixing it!’ thundered Likaku irritably one day. So every time his emotions ran high or were in the worst argument he had to run out and sit in his car and drain away his sorrows from his troubled heart. He even sometimes slept in the car.
Likaku, still wondering as to what the message the paper carried, out of curiosity, pulled his shirt from a line that ran across his bed from one wall to another. He checked himself in the mirror for traces of a trail of white marks that always ran from his mouth tips to the ear whenever he woke up every morning. There were no traces of white marks for the first time and he assured himself that he had slept with his mouth shut, because everyday his wife mocked him how comically he looked when he slept and suggested to invite a photographer one day to take a photo of him to prove her assertion. Likaku had always slept with his mouth open.
He caressed his beard, turned his head this way and that, laughed, made a caricature of his face and finally satisfied with his looks, put on his flip-flops and walked out to collect the paper. He had walked out cautiously down the steep steps still in a haze of whirlwind of uncertainty as to what the message the note carried.
He suddenly fell into retrospection as he touched his car shining in the sun. The picture of his glorious days flushed through his mind and saw himself the day he proposed love to the innocent, beautiful, eighteen year old Mnzatilira. He was driving slowly at 40 km/hr through the seedy Kawale Township; the road was very badly ravaged by previous torrential rain. The car bounced and jolted as it pounded over potholes when suddenly he became breathless when he saw young Mnzatilira coming from a distance. She had plaited her hair in big ridges and gathered their ends at the back of her head and tied them stylishly with a red ribbon, her eyes sparkling in the late afternoon sun. Her firm bosom seductively jutted up on her blouse, her face looked innocent and aglow with youthful energy. She was walking briskly home carrying a straw basket in her right hand, few sweet potato tubes stuck out of her basket. Likaku drove his car slowly admiring her beauty; his heart throbbed as he neared her at Kawale Police Station. He stopped slowly and leaned his head out, Mnzatilira saw him and he smiled and stopped.
‘How are you my beautiful angel?’ said Likaku cheerfully, lowering his music.
‘I’m very fine,’ said Mnzatilira smiling shyly, looking down.
‘You look gorgeous in that plait,’ said Likaku.
‘Thank you, Sir,’ said Mnzatilira, about to walk away.
‘Aaa…can…I give you a lift?’
‘Thank you…so…much I don’t stay far,’ she said, walking slowly. Likaku started the car and put it into reverse gear driving slowly.
‘I would like to talk to you,’ said Likaku. Then he saw a car in his rear view mirror coming behind him. He drove the car on the side of the road and stopped. Mnzatilira was few metres away. He ran after her and caught up with her in time.
‘Please, young lady you’re so beautiful, I love you,’ he declared cheerfully.
‘I don’t know you!’
‘That is not a problem, we will know each other,’ he said gasping for breath.
‘I’m not interested.’
She started walking fast. Likaku took out his pen from his breast pocket and a piece of paper and jotted down his phone number and then ran after her. ‘Take this note,’ he said, sweat forming on his forehead. Onlookers just held up their breath at the melodrama in progress.
‘I can’t take it,’ said Mnzatilira, walking fast. Likaku ran after her and threw the note into her basket.
‘Phone me! Don’t forget!’ He screamed as Mnzatilira kept on walking home without turning her head back.
Six months later, Mnzatilira was pregnant, and her father Kachikwanje was very furious and had threatened that he would kill Likaku. He was very angry because Mnzatilira was in her final year of her secondary school education when it happened. He had all hopes on Mnzatilira and was very strict as a true son of Chewa tribe from Nambuma in Dowa district. He had controlled his house with an iron hand. No child was allowed to play in the moonlight as other children did. His children were told to be at home by 5 PM and girls were not allowed the privilege of playing with their friends at their houses but rather ordered them to bring their friends home. So Mnzatilira’s pregnancy was a heavy blow he could not afford to contain: the disgrace and humiliation which had visited his house. One day when he returned from his unsuccessful business trip in Nambuma, he summoned his wife and Mnzatilira to accompany him to Likaku’s house in Area 12, a suburb not very far from the City Centre. It was 5 o’clock in the late afternoon; the sun was setting gradually in the far distant horizon.
‘It is late, Kachikwanje,’ complained his wife, Anachulu placidly.
‘Late! Late! What!’ cried kachikwanje furiously.
‘You know Area 12 is far from here and night is falling already,’ said his wife.
‘Area 12 is not heaven!’ thundered Kachikwanje, ‘how did his semen enter into your stupid daughter if it is far, eh!’
He pushed Mnzatilira and his wife out. He ran back into the house and brought a panga knife with him. ‘Leave that Kachikwanje!’ cried his wife.
‘You cannot tell me what to do! You have failed as a mother to look after your daughter and you have an audacity to tell me what to do!’ he said as he poked them with the butt of the panga knife. They started walking; Mnzatilira covered herself with a wrapper from her shoulders down, leading the way as she was the only one who knew the place.
After a long while, were walking through the forest in the Area 13, birds chirped, and the gentle wind howled by, the moon was out full blazing magnificently.
Likaku was entertaining his friend in the lounge when the security guard stormed in and announced there were people at the gate who demanded to see him.
‘I haven’t heard any sound of the car at the gate, did you perhaps hear Edward?’ asked Likaku. ‘No!’ he said.
‘They are not travelling by car,’ said the security guard.
‘Aren’t these criminals, eh!’ said Likaku as he pushed a curtain aside and looked at the three forms of people standing at the gate under the street light.
‘Who are those people?’ asked Likaku.
‘I don’t know,’ said the security guard.
‘Find out their names and what they want from me!’ cried Likaku.
In a jiffy the security guard returned with startling news.
‘They’re Mnzatilira and her parents,’ announced the security guard. Likaku as though his barefoot had stepped on a red hot charcoal, jumped up violently and walked to and from in a frantic manner.
‘Is there any problem?’ wondered Edward at sudden change of his friend’s mood.
‘Problem, problem,’ he said as he sat down heavily, ‘it is this young girl I told you about.’
‘You mean that girl I warned you about,’ said Edward.
‘Yeah! She’s pregnant,’ he said plaintively.
‘What about Judith?’
‘I really don’t know what to do,’ he said as he got up and looked out through the window.
‘Judith will really kill you my friend. You know she’s in her final year at the university and now she must hear of this nonsense,’ said Edward.
Then there was clanking of the gate, the security guard ran out to the gate and a minute later returned.
‘The man demand to come in and have a word with you, sir,’ said the security guard as he bowed. Silence reigned for a while before Likaku uttered: ‘Alright let them in.’
The security guard raced out to the gate.
A minute later, the family was ushered in and offered a seat. Likaku sat on one seater sofa and the family sat on the three seater sofa facing Likaku whilst Edward sat next to his friend in the next sofa. Kachikwanje surveyed the room for a minute, and marvelled at the splendour of the furniture. The television set was on the huge wall to wall display cabinet. He looked and saw his dirty feet in slippers, displayed carelessly under the coffee table besmirching the beautiful Persian carpet. He looked up and his eyes met the beautiful chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
‘Good evening sir,’ said Likaku, interrupting him from his reverie.
‘Good evening young man,’ said Kachikwanje.
‘Good evening madam,’ said Likaku.
‘Good evening sir,’ said Mnzatilira’s mother.
‘Good evening every one,’ said Edward.
‘Who is Likaku anyway?’ asked Kachikwanje.
‘I am sir,’ said Likaku shyly.
‘Is this your house? Where are your parents?’ asked Kachikwanje, wondering at palatial-like state of the room that could not belong to a twenty-something chap who had not even a single beard.
‘This is my house, and my parents are at home in Mangochi,’ he said softly, twiddling his fingers.
‘Perhaps you know why we’re here at this odd hour,’ said Kachikwanje, his voice rising.
‘I really don’t know,’ said Likaku shaking his head.
‘What you say?’ cried Kachikwanje. His wife had to nudge him in the ribs to behave politely.
‘Do you think we’re mad coming here all the way from Kawale at this hour and of all the houses come to you!’ Likaku shifted in his seat and eyed him straight in the face.
‘But this is a surprise to me, isn’t Edward,’ he said looking at Edward.
‘This got nothing to do with Edward. Do you know this girl?’ asked Kachikwanje furiously, pointing the panga knife at his daughter.
‘Young man, you are in trouble! You have placed yourself in the lion’s mouth!’ he cried, brandishing a panga knife.
“What’s the problem any way?’ asked Likaku.
‘This girl of yours is pregnant! And we’re leaving her here! But…,’ pointing the panga knife at him aggressively. ‘I need all the money I spent on her education now!’
‘But…she…cannot live with me in this house. I have a fiancée who’s studying at the university and comes and lives with me during her holidays. She can’t stay here,’ said Likaku. ‘Hey! Young man, don’t provoke bees in the apiary! We’re leaving her here!
Get up Anachulu!’ cried Kachikwanje. Mnzatilira was weeping, her face buried in her hands. Kachikwanje walked out furiously, pulling his wife. Likaku ran after them. ‘Please come back, I will give you a lift!’ he screamed after them. ‘To hell with your lift!’ The words reverberated in the stillness of the night. Likaku returned back into the house and had word with Mnzatilira. Though Mnzatilira was weeping, Likaku consoled her, and assured her that he would look after her and made sure that she returned to school and wrote her final secondary school exams. So far she had to return home and he would provide for her financially until she had finished school, got work and finally, married her.
Likaku drove Mnzatilira home, on their way he had looked for her parents who had left earlier but saw no one walking on the road. Kachikwanje had taken a short cut route that cut through Area13 forest; they had avoided the long winding tarmac road that ran through the City Centre and then Area 13. By the time Likaku had dropped Mnzatilira at home Kachikwanje and his wife were still walking home. Likaku saw them on his way back home at the Area 13 Market, he had tried to hoot at them but they did not turn their heads.
They arrived home before midnight, tired and thirsty. Kachikwanje had slumped himself into his armchair and dropped his panga knife to the floor, its clanking noise woke up Mnzatilira in her room. ‘Hey!…who’s it!’ screamed Mnzatilira as she violently opened her door and ran to the living room. ‘Hey!’ screamed Kachikwanje, ‘Come Anachulu…who’s it?’ Mnzatilira when she had realized that it was her father, she frightfully returned to her room and locked up her door. Kachikwanje frozen with awe violently got up and banged at her daughter’s door repeatedly.
‘You’re a stupid girl! Open!’ he banged violently, the door frame shook. Anachulu who was in the bedroom making a bed heard her husband screams and ran to him.
‘What’s the matter?’ asked Anachulu, wondering.
‘Mnzatilira is here!’
‘Here! I say in this room!’ he banged the door once more. Mnzatilira stayed mute and was laying awake on her bed.
‘Are you sure? Didn’t we leave Mnzatilira in Area 12?’ asked Anachulu awestruck.
‘Didn’t you hear the screams when I had dropped my panga on the floor!’ asked Kachikwanje. ‘No!’ she said, shaking her head.
‘OK, we’ll see if you will sleep in there forever’ cried Kachikwanje furiously.
‘But how did she come home so quickly?’ asked Anachulu, wondering.
‘You know that imp of hers brought her home by his car,’ said Kachikwanje, walking to the bedroom with slacken paces. He was dog-tired.
‘Tomorrow, we’ll take you back and warn him, if he returns you back, I will go myself to his house and chop off his scabrous head!’ cried Kachikwanje as he pushed his bed room door, Anachulu shaking her head, followed her husband in.
A week later, Likaku rented Mnzatilira a house in Biwi Township, not far from Konkuja Booze House, just opposite the Anglican Church. He employed a maid to help her and look after her during her pregnancy woes. It was a two roomed house, self-contained. He bought her expensive furniture from Supreme Furniture. The house looked sleek, stylish, and a week later he bought her a television set and a home theatre system, completing the entertainment unit. He had sometimes spent his weekends at this house, without his fiancée Judith knowing. Likaku and Mnzatilira kept it a secret for themselves.
A year later, Likaku married Judith and together moved to Area 43, a plushy suburb where diplomats, business tycoons and ambassadors lived.
As he stretched his hand out to lift the wiper and pick up the piece of paper, his conscience returned and he held the note with his finger tips. It was a letter illegibly written in slanting letters and carried no address and the name of the writer at the bottom. Likaku transfixed and his thoughts in shambles flung open the door of his car and lowered himself in. He sat on the driver’s seat, smoothed out the letter and spread it over the stirring wheel. The letter read:
We are just warning you, your wife is always seen in clumsy places with a man. On three occasions we’ve seen her coming out of the filthy rest house with the same man at Chigwiri.
In this neighbourhood we don’t tolerate immoral behaviour. It gives a bad picture to our wives and young girls who look at their mothers as role models.
Please, you must do something before we ask you to leave the neighbourhood.
By sheer caprice or biting words of the letter, the letter slipped from his hands and fell on his lap; he picked it up and feverishly folded it carefully and put it in his pocket. He sat in the car for a while, tears welling up in his eyes.
‘Why do misfortunes fall hard on me!?’ he said, beating the stirring wheel hard like a mad man. ‘I have lost my job, now my wife goes about gallivanting around. My Judith, my wife I love with all my heart, now is seeing another man! This is unbelievable! And I am not going to the clinic!’ he cried, as he got out of the car. Entering his house he sat down and comported himself. He wiped his face with a handkerchief and pondered what to do. ‘This is just a letter, why I am so emotional, it could be other jealous people out there have invented this story so that we quarrel and break up altogether? But…what if the content of the letter speaks for itself? Is it divine that whoever wrote the letter was sent to warn me?’ he pondered deeply. These baffling questions hatched now from the recesses of his mind and handicapped his conscience for a while. After regaining his usual self he got up and went into his bedroom and changed into formal clothes and followed his wife to the clinic. He decided not to ask his wife about the contents of the letter, but to remain his usual self to her until she had discovered herself the letter in his pocket during her washing.
Likaku found Judith sitting on the bench under the tree, breast-feeding Chitsanzo who lay quietly on her lap, sucking the nipple ravenously. He turned his eyes to him when he stood over them. He slipped his mouth off the nipple and cried for him. Likaku took out his handkerchief and wiped beads of sweat on his face. It was very hot; the wind blew gently but was equally hot like heat waves coming from the furnace. He sat down and took Chitsanzo and put him on his lap.
‘Why are you so late?’ asked his wife, eyeing him with irritable face.
‘Sorry I overslept when I had returned from the mosque,’ he sounded so apologetic that Judith understood it quickly. ‘I understand,’ she said.
‘It’s Chitsanzo alright?’ asked Likaku.
‘He’s fine, it was just a fever that made him so hot last night, but he’s fine you can see for yourself,’ she said. Then Chitsanzo uttered: ‘baba…baba…’ was poking his index finger playfully into Likaku’s nose.
‘I think we can leave now,’ suggested Likaku as he took out Chitsanzo’s finger from his nose. They both at once got up, Judith opened out her umbrella and hoisted over him and Chitsanzo. They walked home quietly; they conversed on daily township’s gossips and made sure not to ask her about the letter. Chitsanzo fell asleep in Likaku’s hands.
A week later, Judith found the letter in his pair of trousers when she was doing laundry. Her heart throbbed excitedly thinking it was her husband’s love letter. She smoothed it out but as she read the first paragraph, her countenance suddenly contorted in grimace and threw the letter down at once in anger and picked it up later. ‘This is blackmail! This is really a betrayal! Who could this be?’ she cried out angrily.
Indeed, Judith was seeing a man at her office, the Junior Manager, Tambala Kokoliko. Judith was working as a copywriter for an insurance company, NICO in the City Centre. Meantime, she was the breadwinner of the house. Likaku had lost his job three years back. He was found guilty of fraud and corruption and was arrested. He served three months in jail and was out on bail of three hundred thousand Kwacha. He had lost his money in the protracted legal battle and life for him became so hard, and depended on Judith’s salary to make their ends meet. Mnzatilira, his other secret wife had married a bus driver when Likaku had not set his foot at her house for a year. So Likaku was in a precarious position, he had applied for a job to numerous companies but received no reply; he started to despair and started writing poetry to pour out his sufferings. His most notable poem was titled ‘Battered car’ which was published in the Nation newspaper and he glued it on the wall in the living room. The poem read:
Eyes that sees knows is a battered car
Near or far
Inside and outside is the same
Better than walking is its aim.
BMW and my car uses the same road
To the same garage we go and carry same load
One doctor diagnoses our diseases
Treated, our pain ceases.
As death we sometimes choose
On the road of life we drive and muse
Different fathers with different books
They’re instructional to evade tomorrow’s hooks
Truly, death doesn’t end in the graveyard,
Nor my friend’s scrap yard
But in transit, engine overhauled to heaven or hell
Spared or written off no need to tell.
Tears streamed down her cheeks, her eyes burning with self-hatred. She could not understand why she had reduced herself to Kokoliko’s advances whom she clearly knew was married. ‘Why do women allow ourselves to be used by men with chicken brains? Why did I succumb to his petty desires? Was it love really? A forbidden love! Am I being ungrateful, promiscuous? Likaku would think I’m doing this because he’s not employed, financially insecure – a man who cannot stand firm on his own like a baby that is learning to sit, stand, walk and talk. Indeed a day is coming for him when he would talk! No one suffers eternally in this life. A Malawian proverb says: Who always drinks tea shall drink always provided he don’t break his cup,’ she thought pensively.
When she had finished hanging the laundry on the line she went into the house and sat down on the sofa. She took out the letter from her skirt pocket and spread it on the coffee table. She read it once more, loud enough to stir Chitsanzo, who was enjoying an afternoon nap in his cot.
‘It is a week now since my husband received this letter judging from its date, but has not said anything; instead goes about his life as usual, as though nothing had happened. What’s he thinking?’ Judith was weeping.
‘Likaku is indeed suffering in silence; he cannot receive this letter and forget about it as though nothing had happened. There’s nothing eerie as silence. Boris Pasternak in his book, Dr Zhivago said: ‘Speech is of silver, silence is gold.’ Likaku is at war with himself, I am sure about it. The enemy is me! The cause of the war is me! Why is he so silent and pretends as though everything is okay! Is he scared that if he asks me, I would throw him out of this house! Perhaps! Since I do everything in this house. We moved from Area 43 to this seedy township, Chilinde because my poor salary alone could contain us. I pay rent, water, electricity bills, buy food, his clothes etc! But why? I respect him; he’s my husband, my love, my dear friend, my confidante, dearest! But when I was being tempted by advances of Kokoliko, where was my conscience? Didn’t I know that walls have ears? I am really scared of him; he’s as dangerous as an armed criminal. His heart is his gun and I can see it, it is loaded and aimed at me at close range. Don’t kill me Likaku, can’t you see my hands are behind my head in total surrender! Spare me of my life, I’ve suffered enough. One bullet is as dangerous as fifteen bullets, unload your gun, and let us bury the hatchet!’
Then there was a knock on the door.
‘Open!’ cried Judith in delirium.
Likaku walked silently in, flashing an A4 manila envelope proudly and post office keys chinked in his pocket as he walked over to Judith. Judith’s face was stained with tears, and was looking down sorrowfully. He lifted up her head affectionately with both of his hands as a lover about to kiss his beloved one and uttered: ‘Are you crying?’