Celebrating East African Writing!
It seemed his faded blue coat was weighing him down because he walked with a stoop. His old leather shoes did not help any bit. He dragged them on the dust like a slave on the long walk to freedom.
The books in his right hand pulled him further down so that his right shoulder leaned lower than the other.
He was a teacher at the Rising Stars Academy. But they had not paid him for four months now.
Miss Rosaline, the proprietor of the school whined about how times were hard, how the parents hadn’t paid any cent since two terms ago, how books and pens and chalks and things had become expensive.
“It must be the global crisis they’re talking about,” she insisted, “but we’ll pay you Karanja. You’re a good teacher. In fact, you’re the best teacher around. We’ll pay you.”
She was good at pulling fronts, this Miss Rosaline. The way she wringed her hands and blinked about her eyes and tried to look pathetic. If it wasn’t the old Volvo and the fury with which she swung it in and out of the compound, Karanja would have believed her.
But then he had no option but to quit. Others had done it. Still, others she had sent home. There were only three of them left. One was a frail retiree, Mrs. Kamotho, who had nowhere else to go. The other was Teacher Stephen the squirrel.
Teacher Stephen was as young as Karanja. They had been employed at the school, within the same month. They both hadn’t been to any Teacher Training College. And both had sworn never to be teachers. But they knew better after three years of chewing tarmac under the soles of their shoes.
Stephen had trained as a pharmacist. Karanja had studied Electrical Engineering. But here there were, teaching kids how to count things and pronounce words. And not getting paid for it.
“Four months!” Karanja gnashed his teeth. “Four bloody months we haven’t been paid a cent!”
He dropped his books on the roadside and fished out a packet of cigarettes from the inner pockets of the coat. It was empty. He was dazed, beginning to wonder where in hell the half-smoked fag he had left in there had disappeared to. He was sure that he had left it somewhere. It was like him to always keep something for a rainy day. He couldn’t have … argh! It was then that he recalled leaving the packet in his locker. The squirrel must have filched it. He was known to nose about people’s things in the staffroom.
“The squirrel. Damn him!” Karanja would settle it out with him the next day. He had gotten away with too much.
Meanwhile, he combed through himself for money, a coin that could buy just one cigarette. He found nothing in his coat pockets. So he harassed his trouser pockets. He probed with his fingers as deeper as deep could be. He hassled out the inner pocket clothes, held the ends like a naughty boy would hold out the ears of a rabbit, and tugged at them with inquisitive fury. Nothing dropped onto the ground.
He gave up and dragged himself into the road to continue his long walk to freedom. His face was hard and brooding. He imagined buggers like him should carry with them hard and brooding faces if they hoped to live the next day.
He stopped in the middle of the road to wonder if he should like to live the next day. But a ramshackle lorry decided it for him. It came hurtling noisily along and he sprang fast out of the way.
“Bastard!” he hollered at the driver who hollered back an even more obscene word. But it got choked in the angry cloud of dust.
“Hey Teacher, what’s the big idea?” It was Stanley the shopkeeper.
Karanja blinked his eyes to clear his vision. Then he lumbered across the road to New Beginning General Shop.
“Listen,” he told Stanley, “I need a cigarette bad.”
Stanley displayed his stubby hands, “where’s the money? I need the money bad.”
Karanja straightened his coat and scratched his unshaved beard for inspiration.
“I don’t have any money right now. But I’ll get it before the sun goes up tomorrow.”
“No money no cigarette.” Then Stanley slid across the counter to serve a customer.
But whatever the customer wanted, Stanley didn’t have it. As she walked away, he stood on the far end, leaning his bulk on the counter, his large eyes in a fat gaze to the world.
Stanley’s was one of the shops that still remained open in Kibutio Shopping Centre. Only a few months ago, the place had been full of life. Now it was desolate and dark. However high in the sky the sun climbed, there was a part of Kibutio that remained forever dark.
“There’s no survival anymore,” Stanley said dreamily. “No survival.”
“All I need is a cigarette,” said Karanja, standing at the other end of the counter. “All I need, man, is a …”
“There’s no survival,” muttered Stanley, “not anymore.” He looked like a perfect dream. Chubby face, large eyes and short fat arms. And dreams have little fading paunches and are clad in stained shopkeeper aprons and worn out safari boots.
There was no survival. The shelves were empty. People came and asked for this or that and Stanley told them he didn’t have it.
It was the global crisis. At first, he only had heard about it. He didn’t care to understand anything about it. It was a distant idea anyway. Far away in distant lands.
Until the monster came home one day. The prices rose. He couldn’t stock the shop to the fill anymore. It had eaten the goods out of the shelves. They yawned starvation at him everyday. They went hungrier with each lucky purchase.
“There’s no survival.”
“I need a cigarette.”
“Not anymore. No survival in this place.”
“I’ll pay tomorrow.”
“I say!” Stanley started yelling, “there’s no survival, you bastard! Do you hear me? Not a chance!”
Karanja shuddered. Then, after a futile attempt at speech, he gathered his books from the grimy counter and walked away. There was no survival.
© Simon Mbuthia 2009
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