HAPPY NEW YEAR LITERATURE STUDENTS AND THOSE WHO READ IT TO ENJOY IT. WE BEGIN THE YEAR 2012 BY CONTINUING WITH SHIMMER CHINODYA'S SHORT STORY, "QUEUES" TAKEN FROM AN 'A' LEVEL LITERATURE SET BOOK, " WRITING STILL" EDITED BY IRENE STAUNTON.
Rudo did not have much money. She had only seemed to have much money. She did not worship money, really. She was a civil servant, a poor struggling servant, a widow in her early forties, but she was content with what she had. She wanted something more than money, something she could not define, or was not prepared to define. She wanted to share her time, her miseries, herself with somebody else. She did not want my money, really. She wanted something else from me. Or so I thought. But we sometimes talked about money.
Money, money, money. Like when I could not buy Tariro a jumbo-size pizza because the price had doubled overnight. Like when she showed me her latest salary slip with nothing on it but deductions. Like when she showed me her monthly medical-aid bills. Like when she told me she had to see three specialists every month. Like when she told me, out of the blue, out of the very, very blue, out of the bluest of blues, that she was chronic manic- depressive.
Like when she told me she had taken herself off medication because it was too expensive, and addictive. Like when she told me she had turned to yoga and meditation to get to sleep. Like when she told me she had a brain tumour for which she would have to be operated on outside the country. Like when she told me her Mazda needed a complete overhaul. Like when she showed me papers from the Salary Service Bureau detailing the paltry amounts she would get if she took an early retirement package for health reasons. Like her plan to buy a stand, or rent a stall at a flea market, or even purchase a hammer mill to grind maize if she got that precious package. Like when she asked me if we could take Jean out to comfort her after her miscarriage.
I did not know how to help her. I was impotent before her wishes. If she had asked to borrow money I could have considered helping her, very much against my better instincts, I suppose, but she never asked. Not directly any way. Perhaps the word 'borrow' did not exist in her vocabulary, or had once existed, and long ago expired. Perhaps she had already borrowed the word borrow.
Last Wednesday I was in the petrol queue all day. I phoned the garage and they told me they might have something that day and when I rushed out there I found a kilometer-long stretch of cars waiting. It was six in the morning.
I was hungry and unwashed and hastily dressed. The queue snaked round the three street corners and at the mouth of the garage it split into four columns of cars. The diesel queue, the trucks and kombis and buses and lorries, wound in from the opposite direction. They had camped for two days in the queue, waiting. There was pandemonium at the garage. The road was blocked. The garage attendant and security men were battling with a rush of blaring cars.
A policeman was negotiating with a ring of enraged drivers. This garage usually received petrol every day but for the past few days it had had nothing. Petrol,no diesel; diesel, no petrol. It was always like that. Alternating. If you had one then you didn't have the other. I made a U -turn and parked behind the last car in the queue. The queue was not moving. I did not go to work. It was no use going to work when you did not know if you could get there and how you would come back. Somebody in our lift club had taken my children to school and I just had to find the fuel to go and pick them up and bring them back.
I got out of the car and talked to other men under the trees. We talked about garages that sold petrol to selected customers at night. We talked about backstreet boys who sold the stuff at ten times the official price. We talked about cars or households that had gone up in flames when unwary hoarders lit up cigarettes or candles in makeshift store rooms. We talked about ailing wives; about children who go to fancy schools and talk with funny accents and refuse to cook for their daddies; about newly elevated company directors who stashed away billions. We talked about mushrooming churches that made fortunes from unsuspecting millions.
We talked about the drought. We talked about new farmers who won prizes growing wheat and winter maize. We talked about others who stole irrigation pipes and fencing wire and tried to sell them off. We talked about price freezes. We talked about hoarding. We talked about houses in the townships where one could buy, at five or six times the normal price, unlimited supplies of bread, sugar, maize, maize-meal, salt and cooking oil without having to join the queue. We talked about queues at the banks, in the supermarkets, in the pubs, at the bus-stops, at the mortuaries, at the cemeteries.
We talked about people stumbling like zombies, waking up at three in the morning to get to work and getting home at midnight. People turning into alcoholics to survive each and every day. We talked about catastrophes on the highways, of smashed up designer cars, of busloads of students burnt to ashes on the roads, of overturned trucks and mangled trains; the foul breath of unappeased departed souls prowling the air. We talked about men who now deserted their wives for days and slept with their girlfriends on the pretext that they were in the petrol queue. We talked about crime and divorce. We talked about AIDS.
We argued about elections."Our case is beyond politics," said one resident drunk, "We need some kind of supernatural intervention."The woman in the twin-cab behind me heard us and smiled and vaguely nodded us on. She threw her head back over the seat and tried to sleep. It was hot. I bought two pink freezits from a vendor and offered her one and she said "Thank you" and sucked on it and tried to go back to sleep. I wanted to talk to her, but I don't think she had had breakfast. There were cases of cosmetics in the cab. I wondered if she was a shop owner or a sales lady. Or a border jumper.
- Morris Mtisi is a private consultant in the teaching and learning of English language and literature and president of CROSSROADS AFRICA TRUST. You can contact him on cell number 0773 883 293 for questions and comment. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.