Gloria’s head rested against my shoulder. My arm was draped around her waist, and she shuffled a bit against the bench to get more comfortable. We were seated under the tree facing the admin block on campus as we usually were this time of day. Gloria lifted my arm, stroked her fingers along the defined muscle until her finger settled on a thick welt. A scar that was a shade lighter than the rest of my skin, the keloid surface shiny and smooth.
“And this? A war wound? From surviving the streets of Lusaka?” she laughed.
“Something like that.”
“Tell me. I never had brothers, so I missed all the crazy stories of fights, being chased by dogs, sneaking back home at night.”
“I never did any of that. But I did fall out of a tree and break my arm. That’s how I got this.”
She raised my arm, bringing it up to her lips. The most gentle of touches. I linked my fingers in Gloria’s as I told her the story of my fall from youth.
I went to school on an ordinary Tuesday to learn fractions, pronouns, and CTS, and when I came back, everything seemed different. It happened so quickly – one day the house was empty, the next day, there were two kids, parents, and dogs.
From our yard, you could see into the next one on both sides. One side was a house belonging to people who would leave early and come home late, but the other side was their house. There was a wire fence between the houses, not like the brick wall facing the road. Along the wire fence were bushes, creepers and trees with bricks and stones wedging the fence into the ground to make sure it stayed in place. The fence was not very tall, even Mapande at fourteen could put his fingers on the top, but it was too weak and flimsy to climb.
This is how I could see into the yard, how I saw my new friends. At first, they kept to themselves, too busy unpacking things in the house. The boy followed his father and helped him with drilling holes in the walls or running cables through air vents for the DSTV. He was taller than me, so he must have been older than me too but not as old as Mapande. He was skinny and walked slowly most times, but I think it’s because he didn’t really want to help his dad. I could hear his voice clearly because he kept asking questions. Maybe he isn’t very sharp in the head. Daddy says I’m sharp, maybe the boy isn’t.
The girl was smaller than the boy. She hovered around two women in chitenge wrappers as they lifted things out of the truck and car. Everything was too heavy for her, but she liked being asked to bring this, take that there. And she explored. She was the first to come out to look at the big empty swimming pool before the father’s booming voice roared a warning to stay away.
They didn’t see me sitting there under the big flamboyant tree. I sat and watched as the pile of flat, empty boxes became bigger. How many rooms are they filling up from all those boxes? They didn’t see me the first day, but I knew they’d see me the next day. No-one can hide from me. I told Mummy and Mapande about them when we were eating supper. Mapande didn’t seem interested, maybe because Derek from the main house was so rude to him these days. Mummy just ‘MmHmed’ and continued feeding Mabel, but I knew she would tell Daddy when he got home. She tells him everything.
When I was walking out of the gate for school the next day, the house was quiet, but through the lace curtains I could see the television playing. In the next room’s window, I saw another television. Two large screens so close to each other. What is the point? But the pictures on the other screen didn’t move around the same as the first screen. They seemed to be stuck. I tried to watch through the trees and didn’t realise Daddy had stopped washing the cars and moved to watering the garden, until he splashed me with some water from the hose.
“Get to school!”
I zoomed down the driveway and through the gate. I ran almost the whole way to the school. I couldn’t stop thinking about those two screens. How nice to have two TVs in the house, and one that isn’t even used as a proper TV! I hadn’t seen the kids in the house when I was leaving for school but I knew when I got back we’d get to know each other and become good friends.
Two days passed and I still hadn’t met the children next door. I finished my work early every morning and then sat on the doorstep of our small house where I’d be able to see them if they came out of the veranda door. And if I sat in the exact right position between the joint of the two concrete slabs, I could see who was moving around in one of the bedrooms and the dining room. I saw two ladies carrying dustpans, washing windows, hanging things on the line. I saw the father fixing things, instructing the uncle to change the tubes for the security lights, to fix something at the gate. I came back after school and sat in the same spot to keep watching. I saw the mother return home at sundown, but the children were so quiet.
Mummy walloped my head when I was late getting ready for school one morning.
“What does it matter who is next door? Get yourself to school!”
What did it matter? The people who lived there before were old grown-ups and boring. No-one to play with or talk to, especially when Mapande was in those sulky moods. It mattered to have friends now. Friends right here with me.
Derek and Lorraine lived in the main house and were kids, but I wasn’t friends with them. I couldn’t be friends with Lorraine. She was a girl and twelve years old so we couldn’t be proper friends. We would chat, sometimes we’d play with the dogs. When I was in grade one, Mapande and Derek would play together all the time when they came home from school. They chased the soccer ball all through the yard, and were so fast, I couldn’t keep up. They made that tyre swing spin so fast I thought it would take off and fly with them! They made a birdfeeder and used their m’legeni to try and kill the birds that came to eat. They shot many stones all around the birdfeeder, but once, it worked! I don’t know who held the slingshot when they killed a brown and yellow bird, but they buried it quickly before Daddy or Mr Mukuka found out.
They were best friends. I know that some nights when Derek was supposed to be in his house and Mapande was supposed to be in ours doing his homework, they would meet near the bamboos to tell stories. Derek would talk about what action movie he had watched, Mapande liked the comedies.
That’s why it mattered – I wanted a friend like Mapande had with Derek. Why couldn’t I have a friend who lived beside me, who I could play with all afternoons and not have to wait until after the weekend?
One Friday, I was sat in my favourite spot in the yard, under the shady tree. The dog had its head in my lap, and I was stroking it and talking to it so I didn’t notice the boy standing there on his side of the fence. His voice was quiet.
“I like your dog.”
“His name is Rocky. What’s your name? Mine name is Matteu.”
The sister appeared beside him and waited in silence. The children seemed shy. Didn’t they speak to other children at school? Why didn’t their voices come out?
“I’m nine. And I’m Grade 4. I go to school just here. Woodlands B. It’s a big school. Where’s your school?”
“We go to Rhodes Park. It’s far, we have to drive there.”
Derek and Lorraine also drove to school every day. Maybe all children like them went to far-away schools. The boy said he was in Grade 4 like me, and he was nine just like me! The girl waited for her brother to finish, then said she was in Grade 2 and turning seven. Once she said all that, she could not stop talking – she talked about their school, the other house that they had lived in before coming here. She said she wanted her father to fix the pool here so they could swim every day. He agreed with her on the swimming. Where did they learn to swim? Mapande and I couldn’t swim yet.
They told me about the games they played and other things they liked to do. The boy said he was making a small robot. A robot! How can one child make a robot? I was excited, I needed to know more about the robot and the tools he used. And what was he going to do with this robot? How would he teach the robot things? Would the government come to take his robot? That’s what happened in the movies.
When I told Mummy at dinner, she didn’t say much because Mabel was being difficult about eating her okra. Mapande also didn’t say much, except something about kids yaku ma yadi that think they are so special.
I think I dreamt of robots that night.
The next day was Saturday. No school! We could play all day. I finished breakfast quickly and washed the dishes even though it was Mapande’s turn. I was so excited, I forgot. I washed my school uniform and quickly hung it on the line. Just as I was running towards the fence, Mummy called me to take Mabel because she was busy with the cleaning. So, I took Mabel and sat under the flamboyant tree, to wait. Mabel was too small to be patient. I had to walk her up and down the fence. That’s when I saw them sitting in front of the second TV screen. Their hands were busy with something, but their eyes were glued to the screen and it moved, but not smoothly like a normal television. They were talking to one another while they looked at the screen. I wanted to watch, but Mabel wanted to walk and pick flowers and leaves, so I began building her a small, circular mud wall that she could put her flowers and leaves in.
I can’t remember how long I had been doing that for, but suddenly I looked up, and the girl was standing on the other side watching us. She immediately started asking questions about what we were doing. She said she used to build mud people at their old house. She said there were so many flowers at that house. She liked to pick flowers from the hedges for her mother. Mabel became excited with the girl there and kept holding out petals for her, passing them through the holes in the fence. Soon there was a pile of bright petals beside the girl’s feet.
As the boy walked toward the fence, his steps were slow, and he played with something in his hands. When he spoke, his words came out slowly. “Hi Matteu. Hi Mabel.”
I found it funny that he was greeting Mabel as if she would be speaking to him. She was only two! I asked him about the robot and he showed me a small motor that his father had taken out of one of their toys. The motor smaller than my thumb and there were wires coming out of it. He explained that the motor would power his robot, that if he connected these wires to something small, like a light bulb, it would light up.
“He’s telling the truth. He did it last night with our dad,” his sister said proudly.
I wanted to see for myself, so he ran in to get something. Some minutes passed and he came back empty-handed. “Our mother says I shouldn’t bring it out.”
They both shrugged and we all watched Mabel and her flowers for a minute, planning what to do next.
The morning ended with us beside the fence. They got small buckets, filled them with soil, drew water from the tap and started making mud people, which he gave to Mabel to put in her mud structure. We passed the mud people through the fence, careful to make sure the whole body fit in the holes without being caught on the wire. Then the girl ran off, shouting that she wanted to go and play Minecraft. She said she was building something in a new world. I didn’t understand what she meant but it didn’t matter because he stayed and kept telling me about the things he wanted to make. By the time their mother called him in for lunch, our clothes were brown with mud and I knew all about him. His father was a banker. His mother did accounts. He did karate in school. Karate! Like on TV!
At dinner Mapande’s eyes seemed to be dancing as he looked at me. “So, daddy owns this whole yard, eh? And the blue car? Mummy, have you heard?” Mummy looked at him, then me, but I couldn’t look at her. I couldn’t explain why I said what I said.
“Every morning they see him sweeping the yard, but he owns it?” He shook his head and began to laugh; he held his belly as though it was the best comedy ever. He put his hand on my shoulder, steadying himself while his body shook with laughter.
“Matteu, Matteu. Your father works here. He doesn’t own the house.” I pushed my chair out to leave the table, but Mummy’s eyes told me not to move.
“Finish that food. It’s not free.”
I don’t remember what the food tasted like. I just know it finished. And when I was done, I left my plate in the big dish beside the sink, and stepped outside into the dark. I walked past the main house. I could hear their television playing, and went to sit beside the bamboos, just like Mapande would do with his friend. I hated it there; it was scary. The bamboos made horrible tapping sounds as they knocked against each other in the breeze. I think I also heard bats squeaking. But I was angry. Being afraid felt better than being angry. What did it hurt to tell the boy this was Daddy’s house? We live here too! I don’t remember living anywhere else. Why can’t he know that this is my home?
When I went back in, Mummy had put Mabel to sleep and she was waiting for Daddy to come back. It was one of the days he did the caretaking at the office on Buluwe Road. He always came home late those days and it made Mummy nervous. She thought him coming through the gate after 19:00 would disturb the Mukukas. She worried about where we would live if he didn’t work here. She would say this a lot. But Daddy always shook his head and told her not to worry.
I went straight to the bedroom. Mapande was lying on the blankets reading a textbook. He was still in his daytime clothes. Mummy would get cross if she saw him like that, all the dust getting onto his bedding. I changed into my pyjamas and got into bed, ignoring him. As I climbed under the blankets, I saw him take a quick look in my direction. He had this cheeky smile on his face.
“How did you even know I said those things?”
“I heard you when I was walking to the shops.”
I pulled the covers over my head and shut my eyes tight. In my head, I saw myself doing karate kicks and karate chopping blocks like they do in movies, screaming and strong as my arm shattered whatever was in its way. But I also saw Mapande’s silly smile. It made me wonder why he was laughing at me. We are the same, we live here together. What was different for him?
I remember the day I noticed Mapande and Derek were not friends anymore.
Derek and his dad were driving out of the yard, Mapande went to open the gate, but he didn’t wave like usual. He kept his eyes glued to his feet and the stones beneath them. I asked him why he wasn’t talking to Derek. He ignored me but I kept asking and asking until finally, he yelled, “He thinks I’m nothing!”
I heard the pain in his voice. I heard the anger.
That night, I heard him talking to Daddy when he thought I was bed.
“Derek tells me things about himself that even his parents don’t know. But his friend came one day and when they were going to play, the friend asked if Derek should invite me. Derek said no, he’s just a guy I play with when there’s no-one else. I thought we were friends.” I know Daddy tried to comfort him, but it didn’t work. They were never friends again.
On Derek’s birthday, Aunty Brenda invited some friends like she usually did for all the family celebrations. I heard her telling Mummy to make sure we came for lunch because there was too much food. We all went, except Mapande stayed inside for the whole party. Mummy brought him a lunch box of braai meat and salads. And when the party was over, we carried him some cake. I never heard her once ask him why he didn’t want to come to the party.
Derek and Lorraine just come and go as if there are no children right next to them. I wouldn’t throw a friend away like they had.
We kept meeting at the fence, mostly under the large flamboyant tree whose trunk was rooted on our side of the fence, but whose branches reached out into the yard next door, creating a large umbrella we could all enjoy. We tried to swing off the lower branches, but it meant jumping up high to reach them and only Mapande was tall enough to do that. It was still fun trying, though. They talked about their lessons at school. I explained all about the people who came to visit. They showed me their toys, I shared my CrackSnax with them. Sometimes, they climbed the mulberry tree, filled a small bowl with the fruit, and we shared them. The dogs often sat close by and became part of our circle.
I found it funny that I would say things in Nyanja but the children didn’t understand the words, so I had to repeat it or explain in English. They liked to watch Mabel play, they laughed at the way she jumped up and down in her way of dancing. One day, one of my classmates explained what Minecraft was to me. He showed me the game on his tablet and also explained that it was a video game on the PlayStation. That’s what the second TV screen was for. The first thing I wanted to do when I got home that afternoon was to ask the boy if we could play. I had to wait until he got home from karate. He said he would ask his parents about playing Minecraft together.
One Saturday, the mother sat out on the veranda reading a book while we were at the fence playing. I asked him if I could come to their side to play. “Ask your mother.” He took a long look at his mother and then walked to her, in his slow manner.
She took his hand and stroked his fingers as they spoke. She looked at him carefully and I couldn’t remember a time when Mummy spent so long talking to me alone. I could not hear the words only their two voices talking, gentle, slow, calm.
I didn’t understand why she decided that before we play together, she would have to meet Mummy and talk like grown-ups. So, for that day we made swords from bamboo sticks and string that he found in their house, and then we formed armies that were in battle with each other over the fence.
Another morning, I asked Mummy if I could go and play next door. She said something about not wanting to disturb the nice neighbours. How did she know they were nice? She had never spoken to them. Instead, she asked Mapande and I to go the shops to buy some things for the visitors. Mapande put his arm around my neck and pulled me with him, it always annoyed me. I tried to wriggle free, but he held me tight and didn’t want to let go. He pulled me from our house in the back, walked me past the main house to the gate. When we were outside the gate, he let my neck go, but started walking towards the road. To get to the road we would pass their gate on the right. I knew what the yard looked like from the inside, but I wondered what it was like to go through the gate. To be invited in.
“Why doesn’t your friend come to play?”
“He has to ask his mother.”
“All these weeks, he’s still asking his mother?” There was laughter in his voice, the kind of laughter that mocks you. I looked around, wanting to go. We had reached their gate. If I couldn’t go where I wanted, I’d rather be home. But Mapande kept walking.
“You and I will always be here, Matteu. On this side of the gate. And people will always tell us this is where we belong.” He looked at me, raising his eyebrows to make sure I understood. I nodded my head.
“Is that what Derek told you?” Mapande stopped and looked at me for a long time. He didn’t say a word. Then he shrugged his shoulders. “Are you coming?”
That afternoon, I climbed the flamboyant tree. It wasn’t a dare, more like a request. The boy wondered if I could climb to reach the branches on his side, and I was curious about climbing all the way along the other branches. I went up the smooth trunk easily because Mapande and I had done it so many times. As I reached one branch, I had to steady my feet more because it was a branch I hadn’t climbed before. It didn’t have the smoothness from all the times our feet had gone up and down. I inched along, testing the strength of the branch as I moved forward. Then suddenly my hands touched a small nest of moths and with me disturbing them, they flew in every direction. It surprised me. I lost my balance and went down. I had fallen before. Many times. But this time I was stupid. I put my hand out, hoping to cushion the fall. When I lifted my arm again, it pierced with pain and dangled like a sock off my foot.
The boy ran off into the house. Was he afraid he’d get into trouble because I fell into his yard? I heard shouting, and then he came back, his mother following him urgently.
From there, they called Mummy, we went to the clinic, they gave me medicine to sleep while the doctor was fixing my arm. And then I remember Mummy being upset and wondering why this boy had completely taken over my life.
He was a boy just like me, but so different, and Mapande was right. We were walking on our side of the fence. I thought about Daddy. He used a strong voice with Mummy and looked her in the eye. He was strict with us, but he behaved differently with Mr Mukuka, even with Mrs Mukuka and Lorraine. With them, he was quiet, listened more than he spoke and often had his head down. It took me a long time to understand why, but finally I understood. And years later, Mapande and I agreed we’d never be like that.
The broken arm and the new neighbours were the big things that happened that year. One of them left a mark on me that will never go away and through the other, I learned a lesson I’ll never forget.