A Smile in the Dark*
As she looked towards the entrance today, there he was, seated at the table with the lone seat by the entrance, his head bowed over a document, his fingers slowly caressing the surface of the paper. She’d never seen him before, and he didn’t look up at her. He barely seemed to notice the ensemble of cheery colours and garish fabric that had earned her a few stares on her way to T’s. When Toundi complemented the experimental cuts and her risk-taking, she laughed a bit loudly, looking past patrons to find the man’s eyes, only to see him still arched over what he was reading, a gentle smile on his lips. She was her own stylist and her style was an expression of the freedom she insisted on exercising in a town like this. This town, eclectic Jos with the arctic harmattans and sultry dry seasons, was a ragbag of paradoxes. They had seen days of peace and unspoken trust, days of conflict and bloodshed too, when war stole in upon people, bringing machete-wielding religious zealots to the doorsteps of families sharing dinner.
She was here in those days when there was no need to worry about losing your soul in the night, when those from the north and south worshipped the same God in different tongues. Those days you were left alone regardless of your faith and choices. Now it was a lot harder to live free. Lei knew. But Lei also knew she could live no other way. Lately, there had been explosions in mosques and churches. The kids entrusted with the shells sauntered in quietly and the houses went up in flames. Innocent kids pregnant with explosives. They strolled in without notice, their big and teary eyes blinking in fear, staring sightlessly at those who would now know their kind of pain. On an ordinary day, pregnant thirteen year olds shopping around for their masters’ favourite foods or going into houses of prayer to quietly ask their Maker when it would be another school day never really got noticed. Shoulder to shoulder with women who would be their mothers in another life, they haggled over fish and leaves and the consort’s cravings, hesitantly holding out the money for their masters’ treats in their sweaty palms, the perspiration obliterating scrawls that read like help and save. They floated around like invincible elves, small, fragile, transparent. Lei always thought of them as broken birds that couldn’t fly.
That was why she chose to move around without a scarf, without strictures, baring as much of her body and soul as her own personal rules allowed her, so everyone could see what she had inscribed on her chest: loving truly and freely is the only true religion. The extremists did some of the dirty work themselves too. Parts of the town had been turned into beds of bonfire, with blasts lighting up cars and market stalls, libraries incinerated into ash, and homes and chattel charred into coal. But Lei had long decided she wasn’t going anywhere.
It was her love for Jos that kept her here even though there was no need to stay. She had grown up here and it was here she learnt cautiously concocted lessons about morality. She had been told by an old acquaintance that she could join a boat and sail away to freedom where she might be offered a refuge, a cradle of aid and aliment, with ample space to curl up in a huddle among other lucky people. But first, for a fee she would have to cling on to brittle railings, a cruel wind in her hair, her body undulating with the riotous drifts of the unmanned vessel across an abysmal stretch of water. But her answer was a question: Was the escape worth it if the terminus was not different from the start?
So, she stayed. She stayed because it was here she learnt to find the small heavenly pleasures that this earthy, mountainous plateau had to offer: T’s Café with its smoky decadent delights, Dresses by Lafferty daringly offering the best in avant-garde fashion, Aisha’s Spot where she washed down spicy fried meat with malicious booze that did things to the mind, and Karimu’s Halal Deli, the place she christened ‘Sandwich Heaven’. While each offered a little taste of paradise, it was at T’s Café she was now seeing a physical manifestation of it, and if she allowed herself, would indeed be able to touch it. It was T’s Café that served shots of reinvented teas, warm peppery soups and, on a silver platter, a man with eyes that looked like water.
He had a potful of some steaming drink. Chai, maybe, she wasn’t sure. Toundi dotted on him, checked on his teapot as if it was a king’s cauldron, and laughed loudly at his jokes. When Toundi moved away to another table, she glanced at the man hunched over his texts hoping for something, anything, maybe an acknowledgement or a smile, directed not at the world but at her. She wanted something more concrete than the smile that glowed in his eyes, the smile he was politely offering to everyone else. But when he did look up, he seemed to look beyond her, his eyes resting instead on what seemed like a distant memory.
Toundi’s patrons greeted him like an old friend. A woman who looked like her own mother, busty and frayed at the edges, reached out and touched his arm. A young girl, full of smiles and curves, whispered into his ears and then they threw their heads back, laughing. When he knocked a cup down, two people rushed towards him, picking up the pieces around his feet. They liked him. People liked him. They reveled in the peaceful aura around him; the deliberateness of his movements, the unhurried, painstaking care with which he reached out and handled the things around him. Those who hovered around him now and again had to be drawn, on top everything else, to the quaintness of his eyes. They were grey, a watery, luminous grey. She imagined she could see his soul through them.
She shuffled out of the room into the loo around the corner. Although she had some difficulty admitting it, Lei was disappointed that he’d made no attempt to acknowledge her glances. It wasn’t enough for him to glance around her in that nonchalant, overly confident manner. He could at least have let his eyes settle on her. She was, after all, in his line of vision. He should have seen this was tough on her, on women, on any self-respecting girl – as mama would say – who wanted a man to see her real self and not her earthly body. As she returned to her seat, she tried hard not to glance at the man to her left. From the corner of her eyes, she saw him raise a hand to his chin and stroke gently. She lost the battle against the urge and looked over quickly, blinking rapidly. But he didn’t look at her. He looked down instead, at those papers, the papers he’d been reading since she first noticed him.
Lei sat down, sipped her drink and looked out the window. A steady stream of people flowed in and out of the square. Buses came into the square hungry and left full. A man on a crutch hobbled to a two-seater stool hewn out of old wood in the heart of the square. As an elderly woman seated on it readjusted her position to give him some space to sit, a light came on in her mind. There was a reason why the man across the room hadn’t looked her way. There is always a reason why things happen the way they do, she thought. All she had to do was break the routine. It was the chair, the twin chair. She ought to have left the chair empty. He wasn’t coming over because there was no space for him to seat. How could she not have known? A man needs a sign from a woman, mama always said. He needed to know he was wanted around. He needed a woman to make room. Her mother was rarely correct. But today she was.
Lei grabbed her purse and placed it on the floor, beside her feet. With the sun coursing in, she edged her seat two steps away from the window and shifted the chair into his view. He’d notice as soon as he took his eyes off that paper that the seat was free. It would make it easier for him to walk over to her to say hi. With that thought, Lei relaxed. And with her legs stretched under the table, she waved at Toundi.
“It’s merciless today,” Toundi said.
“I know. I came in a complete mess,” Lei replied.
“Everyone has come in needing a shirt change.”
“I bring you another Choco?”
While she told him about her palate needing something more, about her craving for the coconut cake behind the glass counter, she trained her eyes towards the table around the entrance, hoping the man at that table would take his eyes off the thing he was studying so intently.
“You like him, don’t you?”
Toundi’s words took the breath out of her. She’d not expected anyone to read her emotions on her face.
“You wear your feelings like loud makeup,” Toundi said.
“Oh – no, T. It’s – it’s just – ”
“But they’re pretty – your feelings. So you don’t look like the devil.”
“It’s okay,” Toundi said with a gentle smile.
“To ogle at a man?”
“To talk to him. You should do so, yarinya. This is all new for him.”
“This – What do you mean?”
“Learning to live like this. Now, let’s don’t waste any more time. You can talk to him.”
“This is Jos. And I’m a girl.”
“And who said we were a bunch of pious zealots?”
He touched her hand gently.
“There’s room for everyone to be.”
She sighed and looked towards the entrance.
“Go. Go over now.”
Toundi turned away as if to leave, but he stopped. Over his shoulder, he whispered: “It’s Zaire. That’s his name.”
A soft smile touched the corners of his eyes as he walked away.
“Thank you,” she said with a smile.
Lei wrung her fingers together and contemplated her drink. In the muggy air, the steam spiraled upwards, a steady, insistent escape from the stiffness. She took her eyes away from it to steal a glance at Zaire. His eyes seemed to meet hers for a half-second, but she couldn’t be sure because they glided over to that spot she called a memory, where his eyes seemed shrouded in thoughts. She sighed, stilled her nerves, and thought of what she’d say to him. This was the kind of thing mama said she couldn’t do. That a girl should never do. But mama never told her feelings did something to you and that sometimes you couldn’t define them. Mama never told her how they gripped you until you shivered. How they made you feel like you were floating, how you tingled, smiled, glowed inside like a bulb.
She rose with her wallet and made her way towards his table. She moved slowly, almost uncertainly, her steps slackened by her nerves and mama’s voice in her head. He was still reading. Those papers. Maybe something new. But though she glanced briefly at his fingers stroking the surface of a paper in measured motions, she didn’t try to see what he was reading. Lei stood before Zaire’s table, wishing the words would come. How was she to begin? She wanted to say ‘hi’. She was supposed to say ‘hi’. But her nerves ate her words. Suddenly, the ordinary sounds of T’s Cafe were unbearable. The clang of china, the whistling of the boiling kettle, the greetings of friends across the room, and the laughter and chatter all became a din assailing her senses. She leaned towards Zaire and then she froze. In a sudden grip of anxiety, she slipped out her business card and placed it on his table. He raised his head and stared at her. She returned his gaze, and in that brief moment, saw that his eyes were more beautiful than she’d thought them to be from the distance.
Lei straightened up and stepped backwards as he rose abruptly and began to pack up his papers. He gathered every one of them and silently shuffled them. He did not touch her card. Neither did he bring his eyes to hers again. Lei began to back away slowly, her feet leaden with embarrassment. But she had barely reached the next table when she heard the gut-wrenching sound. It was a sound she had only ever heard on TV reports about life in faraway lands, about life in other corners of Jos, corners whose names she couldn’t remember, where people wake up to blasts and gunfire. The floor shook violently. The shocks sent her sprawling forward. Someone was yelling Toundi’s name, saying something about blood, about Toundi losing blood. Lei tried to move. She felt a constriction in her chest, as if a cord had been roped around her upper body. There was a spattering of gunfire in the distance. Through the ruckus and wailing, another voice was calling for Zaire and asking him to raise his hand so he could be spotted.
Lei struggled to rise. The compression on her chest seemed immovable. She felt around her. There was nothing she could grab to lift herself from the wreckage. As she tried again to push up into a sitting position, she felt the weight shift and roll onto her thighs. She managed to sit up. When she looked down, the eyes that met hers were of water and light. His head was on her lap, his hands feeling around the rubble of wood, glass and china on the floor. A small gash on his forehead bled out slowly. Instinctively, she cupped his face and looked into his eyes. But as she arched over him to see how she could help him up, two men appeared on either side of her.
They reached down and pulled him. Zaire staggered as they helped him to a standing position.
“There are men firing shots into the crowd around Chanchangi,” one of the men said loudly.
She assumed his words were directed at everyone who might be thinking of heading out into Chanchangi.
“Don’t go into the square,” the other said.
She nodded, taking the message personally. Each holding Zaire by a shoulder, they led him towards the backdoor reserved for Toundi’s staff. She could hear one of them asking if he was okay. Lei rolled over on her knees and began to ruffle through the wreckage for her belongings. She knew she should run, but she had her credit cards in her wallet. It had to be lying somewhere close. She scratched through the pile of rubble, her fingers brushing against the fragmented exhibits of other people’s lives. There were shards of all kinds, metal chips, glass splinters, and wood shavings. But when her fingers touched Zaire’s papers, her heart stopped. She pulled a page out of the debris and ran her fingers over the surface. The surface was grainy. There was something about it. Again, she passed a forefinger over it, stroking in concentric circles. Indeed, the surface was uneven. But the irregularity did not come from being peppered in dust and grit. There was an order to the roughness. An arrangement that was as deliberate as the movement of his fingers had been.
Through the cloud of dust and smoke, she saw the rise and weave of cells, cells in place of words, cells that were words elevated for contact, words formed out of tangible speckles, words reaching for her and powerfully pitching their meanings at her. Toundi had said, ‘This is new for him. Learning to live like this.’ She touched the words, slowly. They were clearly embossed. The last few moments flashed before her eyes: the quality of his gaze, their glide over her like she wasn’t there, their seeming assessment of everything and nothing.
The tears gathering in her eyes, Lei rolled out of the dust and egged her way towards the front door. The second blast would come a little later and with it a windy force, picking up Zaire’s papers, spinning them in the air like leaves sailing in a winter wind called harmattan. And while it did, Lei would join the crowd scurrying away, blinded by the shroud of smoke, blinded by her tears, blinded by the sadness of not having known, led only by the hordes of people running sightlessly everywhere else.
*Originally published by Litro Magazine, UK (September, 2015).
*Photo Credit: Litro Magazine UK, 2015.
Lei Taribo always took the window seat overlooking Chanchangi Square. The rackety, gaudy spectacle of city life in the square was a desirable balance to the relative serenity of T’s Café. She hurried into the café, out of breath from having walked a mile under the unyielding sun. It was Friday. The streets around Chanchangi were like a woody trail on Fridays. The square was a favourite for Friday prayers. She had to weave her way through cornrows of worshippers making their way out of the arena.
Glancing fretfully at the wet patches under her arms, she wiped a film of sweat off her brows. She nodded to Toundi, the café owner, as she took her seat. As she did on every other visit, she placed her cell phone on the left side of the table and pushed her wallet with her business and credit cards in it towards the phone. Then, placing her large purse on the twin chair, she sat partially facing the entrance to the café. Once Toundi served her favourite brew of dark chocolate tinged with a local spice, she would whip out the month’s book club reading, one eye on an unending page, the other towards the entrance.