House Girl How does it feel to be waiting?

How does it feel to be you
watching and waiting –

Mongane Wally Serote, When the Lights Go Out

Afterwards, we moved an old mattress into the dining room. Our house girl, Mai Tariro, had coughed out blood and Granny said no way she could go on sleeping in the servant’s quarters outside—a small wooden house with a cracked window and no electricity or running water.

This was in 2000, and we were all over the news that year. Vast tracts of farmlands were being seized by bands of militias across the country and they had shot a white man dead. More bloodshed looked set to follow and in anticipation, dozens of foreign correspondents had camped out at the Meikles.

I was eighteen; an English and religious studies major at a university in the Midlands, and I’d caught a Greyhound back to Harare on Good Friday. And that Monday, after we’d re-arranged all the furniture in the dining room and Maman had swept the floors, Uncle Fidel and I walked Mai Tariro up to the main house.

Later that afternoon, Mai Tariro, said that she was just a house girl. “I don’t want to be anyone’s burden,” she said. She sat upright, encircled by the last of the day’s light, seeping in through the gauze curtains. I’d handed her a cup of black tea with lemon and ginger, and the enamel cup sat cradled in the palm of her hands.

“It’s not a good thing to be a burden,” she said, her voice hoarse and weary.

Our last house girl, Mildred, entangled our family in a neighbourhood scandal involving a married man: an out-of-work geologist with an autistic stepson. Maman had called Mildred a whore when the news leaked out.

“It’s not a difficult thing to find a whore,” Maman said. “If a whore is all I wanted, I could have easily just gone to the Avenues.”

The week ended with Mildred, misty-eyed, carting all her belongings into the backseat of a Mazda 323 driven by a man in a hi-vis vest and blue overalls.

In the days after, Maman put word out that we were looking for a new house girl. A God-fearing house girl, is how she put it. Mai Tariro, a referral from one of Maman’s colleagues at the School Examinations Council, arrived at our house from a small village in Masvingo that winter. Tall, thin, with a shaved head and high cheekbones. She wore a yellow jersey and a maroon dress she’d measured out and sewn with her own hand.

Later, I found out that Mai Tariro was only thirty-three, but you could have sworn that she looked forty or more.

From the outset, Mai Tariro and I didn’t talk much, not that we had much to talk about to begin with. I was in my final year at boarding school and studying for my A-Level exams. Whenever I’d return home on a weekend pass or at the end of term, say, I passed the time going over my study notes. My mind see-sawing between Charles Mungoshi’s Waiting for the Rain and a dense novella about township life during the Rhodesia years, while she busied herself with a myriad of household chores.

There were, however, a few occasions when Mai Tariro broke out of the master-and-servant parts we’d been assigned. “I never finished school,” she said one morning, pausing to gaze up from varnishing the long wooden table in the dining room. “I don’t want the same thing to happen to Tariro,” she said. “She must study hard and get a good job.”

“I’m sure she will,” I said. I didn’t know what else to add so I said, “Tariro can be anything she wants to be.”

Mai Tariro looked at me for a brief moment, then lowered her eyelids and went back to work.

That evening, after we’d read a passage from Isaiah 43 and said our prayers, I was tasked with keeping watch over Mai Tariro through the night. Maman and Uncle Fidel had to go to work the next morning and although Granny had worked as a nurse during the war, she was eighty-six now and hard of hearing. In no condition, in other words, to be attending to night duty.

I stretched myself out on the sofa and wished the night away watching old episodes of Sanford and Son and Frasier on VHS. I could hear Mai Tariro coughing in the next room; the illness in her lungs rising above the canned laughter.

At dawn, I opened the door a crack: Mai Tariro lay sleeping in the hollow of the mattress. I tip-toed into the room and reached for the tin can Granny had placed next to the bed for Mai Tariro to spit out the phlegm gathering in her throat. I inhaled deeply then held the can at a distance, between my thumb and index finger, and made my way out.

***

At noon Granny woke me up and said to call the ambulance. Mai Tariro’s condition had deteriorated somewhat in the short time that I’d been asleep. She had started throwing up and she sat shivering with her back pressed against the wall.

I picked up the receiver and called the emergency number. It took a long time before someone answered. I’d nearly put the phone down when I heard a voice crackling through the static: “Hello. Hello?” I gave the woman at the other end of the line my name and our address and explained the nature of our emergency.

“No,” I said, “she doesn’t have medical aid.”

“In that case,” the dispatcher said, “who is going to be responsible for payment?”

“She’s our house girl,” I said, then proceeded to give her Maman’s details, including a telephone number for her workplace.

I had changed into a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a striped blue-and-white t-shirt by the time Granny and I heard a siren wailing down Nirvana Road.

“That must be them,” Granny said.

***

One of the paramedics—a large man named Gideon—wanted to know how many boys had been in my sixth form class at school. We were on our way now to the government hospital in town. I’d left Granny conversing with the neighbours who’d been drawn to our house by the ambulance.

“How many would you say?”

“Hmm. Maybe sixty.”

“Young man,” Gideon said, “how much do you want to bet that half of you will be dead before you turn thirty?”

“We’re wasting our time running after the living,” Gideon said, casting a glance down at Mai Tariro; hooked up to an oxygen mask and an IV drip. “We should be making coffins.”

“Don’t believe me, look,” he said, drawing the blanket up to the knee caps of Mai Tariro’s legs. He tapped her shin bones with the ballpoint pen which had been clipped to his shirt.

“See? How thin she is? Three months and she’ll be in the ground.”

I simply nodded at Gideon.

“I’m telling you,” Gideon said, a grin on his face. “We should start making coffins.”

***

Mai Tariro disappeared with two attendants down a long enfilade of rooms. I took the elevator to the canteen on the third floor. The Formica table and chairs, and the strong scent of cleaning fluid wafting through the air put me in mind of pre-school. There was one other person seated in the canteen. A man in a dark suit but his face was obscured by the broadsheet newspaper stretched out in his hands. Running beneath the red masthead of the Herald was a photograph of a white man in khaki shorts and a torn shirt. Blood pouring down his face from a head wound.

The man must have sensed my gaze. He shifted in his seat and lowered the paper. “Varungu vakazvipengera,” he said, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. “As long its blacks killing each other no one from the so-called international community cares. But kill one white person, I’m telling you, just one white person and you’ll be in deep, deep shit…”

He got up and left, leaving the paper on the table.

I must have fallen asleep. When I opened my eyes, the canteen was bathed in a yellow light. Some cartoon was playing on the TV mounted to the wall.

I headed back to the general ward.

The nurses at the front desk informed me that Mai Tariro had been quarantined in the pulmonary unit on the fifth floor.

I walked up the concrete staircase. The number of desperate faces crisscrossing the isles had eased by the time I reached the landing and pressed the buzzer to the access-controlled entrance. The nurse who let me in had one hand cradled around a beige telephone receiver and the other twirled round a silver necklace.

“One mi-nu-te,” she said, mouthing the words as I approached the visitor’s desk.

“We’re so understaffed,” the nurse said as soon as she got off the phone.

I told the nurse that that I’d come to check on Mai Tariro and she reached behind the counter and handed me a white surgical mask.

“Here,” she said, “put this on. She’s in E.17.”

Mai Tariro’s room was at the far end of a narrow corridor. Her right arm was still wired up to an IV drip and she was sleeping, inhaling and exhaling in loud raspy breaths through an oxygen mask.

I went and sat by the window sill, craning my neck to gaze down at the street below. It was now 5 PM: rush hour. I sat there listening to the low rumbling of trucks and the blare of car horns, observing the steady stream of people walking along the pavement, homeward bound after a day’s work. After what seemed an inordinately long time I turned to look up at the quickly darkening sky.

In a little while there came a gentle, evenly-paced knock at the door. A broad-shouldered woman in a white coat and black-rimmed spectacles with thick lenses called me over. I crossed the length of the room and closed the door behind me and we stood facing each other in the corridor.

The woman introduced herself as Dr Mutengwa.

“Come,” she said, “let’s go and sit in my office.”

The office overlooked the visitor’s parking lot. On the large mahogany desk sat a grey computer and two plastic letter trays fitted with the signs IN and OUT.

“We ran some tests,” Dr Mutengwa said, peeling open a manila folder.

A rebel army had invaded Mai Tariro’s body and soon she would be on the side of the vanquished. The documents Dr Mutengwa pulled out of her folder—an X-Ray film showing a pair of lungs ravaged with holes, the findings of various other tests scrawled on unlined paper—charted the advancement of the rebel soldiers. Marking the annexed territory, pillaged villages and towns.

“We advise patients all the time,” Dr Mutengwa said, “that they should come to us sooner rather than later.”

She pushed the folder to the side.

“There is nothing we can do. We’ll keep her overnight but she’ll be discharged tomorrow morning.”

“In the meantime, here,” Dr Mutengwa said, tearing off a page along the perforated edge of a prescription pad. “Take this down to the pharmacy on the second floor.”

***

I hadn’t smoked a cigarette since my seventeenth birthday. But as soon as I left the pharmacy, pushing past a couple huddled over a child with a bleeding nose, I felt my chest tightening with that old craving.

I pressed a note into the hands of one of the street vendors outside, drew three cigarettes from a box of Everest and asked for a match. I lit one cigarette after the other, crushing the butts on the asphalt, before hailing a combi.

It was late when I arrived back home. All the neighbourhood shops had closed and music from the jukebox at Anita’s, a tavern down the street, carried in the breeze. Granny had gone to bed but Maman and Uncle Fidel had stayed up waiting for my report from the hospital.

“I don’t understand these villagers,” Maman said afterwards. “Do they want her to die here?”

Uncle Fidel let out a long sigh and shook his head.

Maman explained that she’d spent the morning on a long-distance phone call with Mai Tariro’s grandfather—the family’s patriarch—trying to arrange for her departure. But the old man’s voice had risen sharply at any suggestion of his involvement. Mai Tariro had defied him by going off to the city, the old man said, and, as far as it mattered, her travel plans were no concern of his. Dead or alive, Mai Tariro would have to find her own way back, the old man said, slamming the phone down in Maman’s ear just to make sure she understood.

Maman sank back into the sofa and let her arms fall to the side.

“She has a half-sister out in Ruwa,” Maman said after a short while.

But the sister had sounded non-committal over the phone. She’d said to Maman that she couldn’t in good faith promise anything but she would try shifting her plans around so she could come over the following day.

***

Uncle Fidel’s closest friend, Griza, a mechanic and used car salesman, had set up shop in the backyard of his mother-in-law’s house, two doors down from ours. An arrangement that had put so much strain on their relationship Griza had stopped calling his mother-in-law by name. In conversation with Uncle Fidel he referred to her as That Woman.

We didn’t own a car as neither Maman nor Uncle Fidel could drive. So early the next morning Uncle Fidel asked Griza about driving Granny and I to the hospital. Griza had agreed and he showed up a short while later driving a white Nissan Sentra with missing hubcaps.

“Young man,” Griza said, as the car idled then pulled out of our driveway, the bobble head dog nodding as we turned into Chiremba Road, “if Jesus was to come back today, I will not be on the list of the 144 000. There’s an X next to my name after last night.”

One of Griza’s nephews had returned from fighting in the DRC and the two of them had stayed up at Anita’s, passing around quarts of Black Label until after closing time.

“That nephew of mine lost three fingers,” Griza said, opening and clutching the palm as his left hand on the steering wheel, as if he needed reassurance that his own fingers were still intact.

“He can’t sleep without drinking,” Griza said. “And believe me that boy drinks like he owes the devil something.”

Griza leaned back into his seat and let out a whistle through his teeth.

I rolled down the side window and felt the warm air grating on my arm.

***

Now that Mai Tariro’s illness had been given a name, life seemed to leak out of her. She’d been discharged and we found her sitting alone on a metal bench along the corridor on the fifth floor.

Granny let go of Griza’s arm and sat down on the bench next to Mai Tariro. She took Mai Tariro’s hand in hers and held it with the same tenderness she’d once held mine when I was younger.

“We’ve heard,” is all Granny said in Shona.

Mai Tariro looked up, at Griza and me leaning against the wall, her eyes like tadpoles in a pool of muddy water. “Tariro,” she said, then drew a sharp breath before the sickness in her lungs started up again.

***

Later that Thursday, a woman arrived at our house, carrying a packet of mini frosted doughnuts from Bakers Inn, asking after Mai Tariro. She wore a sleeveless dress which flared down at the knee, a string of plastic pearls, and a floppy sun hat with flowers that she never took off even as she sat across from Granny and me inside our living room.

She introduced herself as Mai Tariro’s half-sister, Rutendo, and admitted that she’d been taken aback by Maman’s phone call.

“Is she not your sister?” Granny asked.

In a manner of speaking, yes they were, Rutendo said, but Mai Tariro was an illegitimate child. The offspring from an affair her father had had many years ago while working at a gold mine in what was then Fort Victoria. And not a word had passed between her and Mai Tariro in the five years since they’d buried their father.

“She didn’t even tell me that she is working as a house girl here in Harare,” Rutendo said. “And if it wasn’t for my mother who said I must come, I wouldn’t be here.”

“So, where is she? I only have fifteen minutes. I must pick my daughter up from crèche.”

I led Rutendo into the next room. Mai Tariro stirred under the blanket when she heard our footsteps. Mai Tariro’s head rose from the pillow, and she smiled weakly, before the rattle in her chest pushed her back down again.

Rutendo laughed. A deep laugh that welled up from the belly, heaving her body back and forth. She steadied herself on the chair next to Mai Tariro’s bed.

“Look at yourself,” I heard Rutendo say before I left the room. “Just look at yourself…”

***

In the dead of night, while they all slept, Mai Tariro called my name.

I pushed the door to the dining room open and hit the light switch. Mai Tariro flinched at the sudden flood of light.

She sat hugging her knees close to her chest, staring into the distance.

“I’m not a bad person,” she said. “I’ve only ever been with two men in life. My first husband, Tariro’s father, used to throw punches at me like he was fighting a man. But it was me, me who looked after him when he had no else. My second husband used to bring other women home. It didn’t matter if I was there or not. But I looked after him, too, when living became a luxury.”

Mai Tariro stopped to gather breath in her lungs.

“Tariro,” she said, her voice quivering.

“Don’t forget”—that’s all Mai Tariro could say before she broke out into another coughing fit.

In the morning, I thought to myself, Griza and Uncle Fidel would make the four-hundred-kilometre drive to Mai Tariro’s home district, and Maman would begin the search for a new house girl. The cycle would begin again. But that was all the future. In the meantime, I sat there listening to all the noises Mai Tariro made. Even afterwards, when the cough subsided and I dimmed the light, and the room went dark, I just sat there. Waiting.

 


Bongani Kona is a Harare-born Zimbabwean writer and a contributing editor at Chimurenga. His writing has appeared in Black Tax; Redemption Song and Other Stories; BBC Radio 4; and in a variety of other publications and anthologies. He was shortlisted for the 2016 Caine Prize. He is the co-editor of Migrations (2017), an anthology of short stories. He lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa.