It is the school holidays. I have just written my entrance exams to go to grade eight. It takes months for the papers to be marked and allocations made for a new secondary school. The exam had not been that hard and I knew I was going to do well. But knowing that you had done well was not the same thing as getting the marks you wanted. so, I was as nervous as every other kid waiting for these results.
I had imagined that I would spend the next few months at home. Playing rounders, learning to ride that bike from next door and going for excursions in the National Resources Development College, which we called the NRDC. The NRDC, had a huge field and it bordered our back yard. On weekends, we spend a lot of time exploring the vast bush, sometimes if you are lucky you can find a nice cool stream that has not dried up yet. That’s how I planned on spending my holidays. Playing and exploring.
However, my father told me last night that he must go away for business and that means I must go away too. He is sending me to go and live with Brenda. Brenda is dad’s new girlfriend, she has visited us several times, but I have never been to her house. I wondered why I could not go and stay with my mother instead. But my father insists on Brenda. Well I do not mind so much; a change of scenery would not be so bad. She seems nice Brenda.
I packed my bags last night and I am now waiting for my father to take me to Brenda’s. She lives in a block of flats in the outskirts of town. In the car, we do not speak much. But he does remind me to mind Brenda and do what she tells me. When we arrive at the complex, Brenda is waiting for us at her door. She is all smiles and gives me a welcome hug.
Brenda is a beautiful woman. She is light skinned and has long black braids. She is slender and petite. we are the same height. She is wearing a yellow dress and has bright red lipstick on today. She looks very beautiful. She is very glamourous and I cannot wait to check out her wardrobe and maybe she would lend me some clothes we are the same size I would imagine.
My father talks to her in the living room. She has three single seaters and they have blue chair clothes. The curtains are also blue. The living room is much smaller than ours but it is adorned better. Brenda shows me the room I will be sleeping in. it’s a small room and there are two mattresses on the floor. There is a single cupboard in the corner and the walls are bare. I wondered whom I would be spending my nights with. I wish there was a bed, but I suppose I could not ask for that.
I put my bag down on the floor and sit on the mattress. I look around the room and I suddenly feel very home sick. I wish I could go and stay with my mother at least. I try to hold back tears and not cry. I sit there for what seems like an hour until my father calls me in the living room to say goodbye.
“Mind Brenda. You will stay here for a month and I will call you some time to see how you are getting on.”
He does not hug me or anything. We do not hug. He just taps me on the shoulder and gives it a squeeze. He smiles at me and Brenda and then leaves. I stand there waiting and all I want to do is run to him and say, “come back, I do not want to stay here.” I say nothing and hold back tears.
“Come on princess. You are not going to cry, are you?” she laughs loudly and I can see some rotten teeth at the back of her mouth.
“We are going to have a great time Ka? You can help me with the restaurant and getting ready. Speaking of getting ready, we must start preparing the dishes for tonight’s meal. Ifimbombo.”
“Yes Ba Brenda. What do you want me to do?”
“I am glad you asked. Now every morning I need you to wash the dishes and clean the house. I also need you to bring me plates you have washed to the restaurant. Marjorie will show you what to do. It is not far just a few minutes from here, oh! and you have to pick up my daughter from school. I will show you the way this afternoon and then you can do it on your own.” As she said all this, she led me into the kitchen and I was shocked.
There were plates to wash all right. But it was not just a few supper dishes. It was piles and piles of dirty dishes all over the kitchen floor and huge pots with congealed fat and oil in them.
“Yes, I know it looks like a lot but you are a strong girl and you will have the whole morning to do this. Take your time. My sister Marjorie cannot help you because she is needed at the restaurant. But she will come with you to bring all these dishes through to me in the late afternoon.”
I had no idea Brenda had a sister or a daughter for that matter. I had never met any of them. But that was not the worry on my mind, it was this pile of dishes. I could not believe that I would be spending my mornings scrubbing and washing. I thought about all my friends at home and how much fun they would be having. This time tears really started falling.
“Hey! look you cannot start crying on me. Your father said you will be a great help and I need an extra pair of hands. I am a busy woman and I do not have time to babysit you. Do you understand me? Look at me and wipe those tears. For heaven’s sake, you would think that this was prison or something. Get to work, I do not have all day.”
I wiped my tears and felt a huge lump in my throat.
“let me go and change so I can get to work.”
I went into the dingy bedroom and changed into a chitenge and loose t-shirt. I was upset and sad but I realised that there was nothing I could do. There was a knock on the door, I came out of the bedroom and went to answer the door. Brenda was rushing to open up.
“Where are you going? Look at you? I do not want my visitors seeing you like that. Go to the kitchen and start.”
I walked in the kitchen and I could not imagine where I was going to start. The pile seemed bigger every time I looked at it. I started on pots first.
Later that evening, Brenda’s daughter Kembo, had gone to the restaurant and I was waiting for her sister Marjorie to arrive so that we could transport the dishes. She arrived all bubbly and welcoming.
“Hi” I said.
“Hi. Welcome. You must be the one Brenda calls princess. Good to have you here, I mean that. Are you done? We need to get going. Brenda is in a bad mood and we need to get these plates there in time.”
“Yes I am done.”
“Ok grab whatever you can, we have a car waiting outside.”
We loaded all the dishes in the Toyota corolla which was being driven by a man who had blood shot eyes and smelled of beer.
“Did it take you long to wash everything? It always takes me long.”
“Yes all morning, do you have to do this every day?”
“Yes we do. You should see the dishes on Sunday morning. You can cry. But with your dad and Brenda, maybe she will give it up when they are married”
“Why does she not have servants to do this for her at the restaurant.”
“She does not have money to waste she says.” She laughed “and dear it is not a restaurant, it is a shebeen. We just sell ifimbobo to the drinking customers.”
The car arrived at a house. It had a big yard front yard filled with tables. There were men sitting down drinking. Some tables had women, and they all looked like Brenda, dressed to the nines and wearing bright lipstick. There was a lot of talking and laughing going on. Loud music came from somewhere inside the house. Margorie touched my shoulder and said loudly in my ear, “you will get used to this. You have never been to a shabeen have you princess?”
“No” was all I could say. I closed my mouth and we made our way inside. It was dingy and dark and it took me a while to adjust to the light. There were more men inside drinking and smoking. A cloud of smoke seemed to hoover just above the ceiling. It was louder inside and I just wanted to get out of there. In a corner, was a radio playing rumba. A few people were dancing. I spotted Brenda in the far corner. She was seated on a man’s lap and was laughing. She bent down and whispered something to the man’s ears as she looked up at me. She gave me a strange smile, got up and walked towards us.
“Good you are here. What took you so long? People are starving and we need to set up. Margorie how did you let this girl come here looking like this? People will talk. Get the plates in, find my daughter and go home.”
I was relieved that I did not have to stay. The smoke made my eyes water as we walked to and from the kitchen. When I had got everything in Marjorie said, “You are lucky that you do not have to stay here all night believe me. You are too young and things can get rowdy in here.” She gave me a smile. I believed her.
“You did good. Now find kembo and take her home. You know how to get back don’t you? Otherwise kembo will show you. Go and get some rest. You will need it.”
I walked out into the yard and looked for kembo. Brenda was gliding around outside speaking to her customers. I found kembo playing with a doll close to the fence in the yard.
“kembo let us go. Your aunt says you need to go home.”
“Oh, but it is so lively here. Please let’s stay for a little while”
“Kembo. Go home. Now!” Brenda shouted from behind her.
We set off home and Kembo had to show me the way. I was tired and wanted to just pass out. This was going to be a long month for me. I wondered if my father had known how I would be spending my holiday. But I instinctively knew that to survive here, I would have to keep my mouth shut and do what I was told. At least Marjorie was nice.