Seybur was crushing her eight, maybe ninth cigarette into the ashtray when her phone rang. She let it ring. It was the doctor from the fertility clinic. No doubt he was calling to find out why she and Terseer had missed their appointment. She lit another cigarette. Idiot. When the man failed to admit he had a system failure, what was she to do? Toss a rope about his neck and tow him to the clinic? O.K she had her own slipups. A problem with her fallopian tubes the doctor said. And when asked how many abortions, she’d said two. She couldn’t have said the abortions probably totaled ten times that, could she? She flicked the cigarette and watched the ash drizzle into the tray.
The stench of rotting filth from the makeshift Garki market below drifted into her apartment. She looked out the window. The street was paved with shit. The roads, decomposing. 10:20pm and keke napep drivers were still calling out to passengers under dead street lights. A boy in a faded caftan was asleep in an empty keke parked by the road. When would these dumb FCDA people be through with their renovation of the market and move all this rot back where it belonged?
She dragged and puffed and crushed the cigarette butt into the tray. She watched it hiss. The phone rang again. Still the doctor. She continued watching the street below. If only the doctor knew she’d not seen Terseer in two days. They had fought and he left with nothing but his snake- skin briefcase. No call, no text, not even a flash. His number wasn’t connecting. He was probably with her. The woman he said he’d fallen in love with. Damn him anyway. The marriage was over a long time ago. Eight years, four months, and no child. Not even a miscarriage. I should be leaving you, idiot. I am leaving you.
She sat on a sofa and dug into the B&H pack for another cigarette. Two left. She lit one and stretched her legs. Behind her, a bedroom door swung open and she knew it was her deaf-mute sister, Doo, coming out for her usual glass of water before bedtime. Seybur watched the girl go to the fridge and cursed inwardly at her shapely behind as she drank in graceful movements; her hair, a mane of grandeur. So beautiful it took your voice and seared your eardrums. Ha Ha. Beauty for voice and ears.
Doo’s eyes were closed as she drank and Seybur thought her cheeks had taken on a fresh glow – like a ripening mango fruit – full and gleaming. What was that they said about being sixteen and golden? Well, whatever it was… to hell with it. Burn, burn and burn.
She blew a puff of smoke in Doo’s direction. Doo turned and they locked gazes.
“What?” Seybur signed in irritation.
Doo signed back in reply. You smoke too much.
Seybur waved her off. Doo wagged a finger at her in warning, and then signed again. It’s not good for your lungs.
Seybur blew another stream of smoke and Doo jerked back. Her bosom shook. She wasn’t wearing a bra Seybur noticed.
Go to bed, Seybur signed. Doo stood still looking at her. Seybur gave the order again and Doo left. Seybur heard her bedroom door click shut, and the key turn in the lock.
I wonder how I put up with you for six years, Seybur thought. Will be happy to bundle you back to Mama the moment you’re done with school. She stared at Doo’s door till she thought she saw the knob turn again. She couldn’t remember when last she entered that room. Anything to keep the deaf-mute away. You don’t enter my room, I don’t enter yours. Boundary Law 101.
She felt tired and thought she ought to try Terseer’s phone again. If he answered, she would tell him they could try the doctor again. Just once, she wanted to say to him. We could still try. She imagined him at the other end of the line rubbing his forehead and sighing. “Seybur, Seybur,” he would say, “It’s your womb that’s rotting away. I’m as cool as fresh milk, endorsed by my childhood doctor. Didn’t I tell you of that Ghanaian girl who had a miscarriage for me when I was an undergraduate?” Then she imagined him and the Ghanaian girl – dark as coal with floppy buttocks no doubt — making eyes at one another and laughing silently at her. Idiots. Idiiiooots! No, she would certainly not call him. She mashed her cigarette and lit the last one. I shouldn’t be with you, baby… she started singing to her self and the stench from the market felt strangely comforting. I should’ve been gone a long long time …and sorry I won’t be there to watch you cry over me. Dum dum la la la. Her heart swelled and she smoked and sang till the energy ebbed out of her and her muscles went slack. Her eyes started drooping. She drifted off to sleep, sprawled on the sofa and didn’t see the cigarette slip from her fingers to the carpet.
It was the choking fumes that woke her up. It was 2:15 am. The flames were rising from the carpet and licking the sofa’s legs. Fire! She scrambled to a corner of the sitting room, too numb to think. What now? She looked around in frenzy. She had never seen fire this close to her, wild and spreading. She started screaming. I should get some water for the fire, she thought but remembered her certificates, her gold and her champagne flutes from Vienna. She ran to her room, then ran out again as she remembered Doo. She ran to the girl’s door and pounded on it. Then she realized Doo was unable to hear the noise on the door. She remembered a master key in her jewellery box which had not been used in years. She ran to her room to fetch the key then ran out again into the bathroom and started running water into a bucket. As she waited for the bucket to fill, she put her head out the bathroom window and screamed, “Fire! Fire! Somebody help me oh!” The tap spluttered as it forced out water. The bucket filled up and overflowed. Seybur kept screaming till she thought she heard neighbours rousing. Then the tap stopped flowing. It had been shut off. Seybur turned and Doo was there, staring at her.
Fire! Seybur pointed to the sitting room.
It’s only a small fire. Doo signed. I poured water on it.
Seybur lifted the bucket of water and brushed past her to the sitting room. The fire was gone. In its place was a wet smouldering area on the carpet and a mist of gray smoke. Seybur stood and stared. A smile broke out on her face. Then she started laughing. She kept laughing till her legs felt weak. She sat down and laughed some more till she calmed down. The smoke smelt glorious.
You almost shouted down the compound, Doo signed, smiling.
Seybur stretched and looked at the ceiling. She closed her eyes and smiled again. Then she turned to look at Doo. How did you know I was shouting? She signed.
How did you know? Seybur prodded.
Again Doo shrugged.
Seybur looked at her and Doo turned away. Someone told her, Seybur thought. She looked beyond Doo to the closed bedroom door. I thought I saw that door knob turn once. Doo turned to leave. Seybur held her back. They stared at one another.
Is someone with you? Seybur was looking into her eyes.
Doo looked away.
Seybur went to Doo’s door and tried to open it. It was locked from inside.
Doo came up to her and Seybur brushed her off. Seybur knocked again, then tried the door again. It was still locked from inside. She remembered the master key and hurried to her room to get it. By the time she was back with the key, Doo was staring, a slight drool forming at the side of her mouth.
Seybur unlocked the door and entered the room. At once she recognized that scent in the air, distinct from the smoke that breezed in from the sitting room. It wasn’t a sixteen-year-old’s room she had entered, she told her self. A window was open and the curtains were fluttering. Doo’s partner had left the room. She turned back and Doo was not in sight. She heard a few voices at the door and knew it was the neighbours approaching. She turned back to the room and looked into Doo’s wardrobe. Nothing except well…wardrobe stuff. She turned a few things around. Doo’s shoes and books tumbled out.
Then Seybur saw the snake-skin briefcase and froze.
She stared. She picked the briefcase and felt it. It felt and smelt the same.
She didn’t need to be told.
Terseer. He had never left the house.