When Things Fell Apart

She was busy, pouring drinks and serving sandwiches, while measuring out impuphu for the evening’s meal. The other women, seeing that she was alone, helped
her, then left her to it when everyone had been served. It’s not that she was particularly domesticated, but she knew that impressions were important, and she didn’t want to give anyone anything to talk about.

It’s funny how people never talk about anything good. Oh no, do a good job and nobody notices. They’ll pick apart the small flaws though, and never for a single moment see the great effort that went into making sure that the flaws stayed small.

Sibongile served a dinner of isitshwala lombhida olenyama, the expected meal on a weeknight, even here in this strange country where chicken was cheaper than beef, where you had to search high and low for upehlo to make isitshwala properly. She wondered to herself how she would break the news tonight. How would she tell these surly old men, and the gossipy women that made up her family that she was not going to have a memorial service for her mother? They were all here to discuss that, to set a date and work out contributions. Who would offer his cars? Whose daughters would do the cooking? Of food bought by whom? They thought these were the questions they were going to discuss, but they were wrong.

Sibongile, or Sbho, as everyone called her, sighed heavily. It had been hard enough getting them to come in the evening. These things were usually discussed in the afternoon – weekend afternoons with lots of beer flowing, or wine for the more uppity ones. Everyone would have a chance to say something, reminiscing endlessly about who didn’t contribute at the last function, and gossipping about absent family members. The entire day would be lost, and very little would be resolved and another meeting would be called.

Sbho had better things to do with her weekend afternoons. Saturday was for grooming – breakfast with her girlfriends to start off the day, sometimes even a champagne breakast if she was feeling decadent. It was a different group every week, but there was always a breakfast. After breakfast, she would go shopping – usually underwear (she had enough black panties and bras to change daily for 3 months without doing laundry) because when you come from a time when you had to wash your panties at night so you could wear them in the morning it did impact your spending habits.
Sometimes she would buy a top or a dress, and
if it was monthend she would buy a pair of shoes – but there was always at least one pair of panties and a bra. And always black.

After the shopping she would step into the beauty salon. The girls knew her by name, just as she knew all of them. She would walk in without an appointment, because appointments made it all seem so expensive. Without an appointment she could always claim it was unplanned, impulsive. The girls had started making appointments for her, because if she came in and they were busy she would just sit there reading a magazine and calling the juice bar to deliver wheatgrass shots. She wouldnt make a fuss, just sit and watch them work, and leave at closing time, sometimes without getting a chance to have anything done. She came every Saturday, so they would just put her name in the book, and they never asked why she didn’t make her own appointments, and she never asked why there was always someone ready to do what she asked.

Manicure. Pedicure. Eyebrow wax. Underarm wax. Facial. Bikini wax. Always something different, sometimes two procedures and she always tipped well. When she left the beauty salon she would go into the bookstore downstairs and buy herself a book and a movie. They knew her at the bookstore too and thought she was strange – she bought the expensive bestsellers to read, but the movie always came from the sale bin.

They were meeting on a weeknight because Sbho didn’t want to give up her Saturday. Saturdays were for grooming and relaxing with a movie and a book (yes, simultaneously) and she needed a good reason to change that routine. Meeting with the aunts and the uncles and wives of the uncles to talk about her mother’s umbuyiso was not a good reason, especially since she had no intention of holding such a ceremony.

And Sundays? Sundays were for getting her needs met. Sundays were for spending in bed with a man. Once, with a woman. Sbho was that kind of woman who has been called ‘liberated’. She was in full control of her sexuality and managed it like it was a job. She needed that kind of contact, needed the sweaty breathiness of it all, and she made sure she got it. Sometimes her plans fell through unexpectedly and the ‘chosen one’ didn’t show up and she had to make plan b, which was ok because there was always a plan b.

The grownups in the dining room had finished eating, and it was time to face them. She had been so clever getting them to drive to her place on a weeknight, her own resourcefulness made her chuckle a little. She couldn’t go to them because she had no car, and taxis dont run that late. It couldn’t be a weekend because she was working this weekend. Yes, it was a shame, but she could have them for supper and didn’t they think it was time they had this discussion? The year was almost up and did they want people to think her mother had no family? Sbho didnt work weekends, but since nobody knew what she did or where, it was an easy sell. Saturdays are for grooming and relaxing, and Sundays are for getting needs met. Weeknights are negotiable, just book in advance.

She made sure everyone had a drink, and that Gogo MaSibanda, who wasn’t really a gogo at 39 but was called that because she was the love-child of one of the great-grannies, had her box of snuff close by. Nothing could break the seriousness of a discussion faster than someone needing a refill or a pinch of snuff at the wrong moment.
Sbho needed this meeting over and everyone out of her house as soon as possible. So she cleared her throat and dove right in.
“I don’t want umbuyiso. I asked you all to come here so we could agree on erecting a tombstone. There will be no service, no ceremony, no unveiling. I just want to put up a stone to mark her grave, that’s all.”
And then it began. The hubub. They felt disrespected, she was disrespecting her mother. This was not the family way. The ancestors would turn on her. Why was she alone, anyway? Where were her brothers? Why wasn’t her only sister with her?

Couldn’t they see that a knife had been put to the things that used to hold them together, and they had fallen apart? She didnt ask that question out loud, but their blindness amazed her, and silently, she apologised to Chinua Achebe for misquoting him, even if it was only in her head.

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