FOR THE UMPTEENTH TIME that day, Jonah Zuva looked frantically at the time and wished his sister Martha would hurry up and get home soon. It was already twelve-thirty and Jonah knew that if he didn’t leave the house in the next half hour or so then he would have to scrape his plans altogether. His friend George was not the sort of person you could keep waiting, especially on a Saturday afternoon, and Jonah really needed to see him. He would have liked to phone George and ask him to wait a while longer, but Jonah had used up all his airtime the previous evening when he’d called George to set up today’s meeting and he really could not afford to buy any more. Besides, the only money he had was the couple of dollars he had managed to wring from his mother when she had left for work in the morning, and he needed that for the bus fare to George’s place. If only Martha would hurry up and get home already-
“What is it, Tendai?” Jonah said warily.
“I want to go the toilet.”
Jonah turned around and glared at his nephew with a mixture of annoyance and suspicion.
“You just went to the toilet.”
“I have to go pooh,” Tendai replied sullenly, already trying to pull his short down.
“All right,” Jonah sighed. “Let’s go. But if you are lying to me again...”
He reluctantly followed the boy down the dark and narrow corridor that led to the toilet, opened the door and held it while Tendai shuffled in. Jonah bent down to undo the difficult button on Tendai’s short, lifted and then helped him sit on the toilet seat. As usual, the toddler tried to hold on to Jonah to prevent himself falling into the bowl.
“No, hold onto the sides here Tendai. I said hold onto this. You won’t fall, I promise. All right?”
Tendai nodded uncertainly.
“Good. Call me when you have finished.”
The little boy started to wail noisily when he saw his uncle turn to leave the toilet.
“I am just outside, Tendai. You call me when you are done.”
To reassure him Jonah left the door open and stood in the corridor where Tendai could see him. Satisfied, Tendai started singing loudly while he got on with his business. It was a hymn that he often sang with his grandmother during her evening prayers.
“We don’t sing in the toilet, Tendai.”
The toddler merely laughed at this and continued singing.
In that moment, Jonah suddenly felt guilty, just as if he had slapped his nephew.
“Hurry up,” he said, realizing the inanity of his words even as he said them. He knew he shouldn’t be taking his frustrations out on a two year old kid, but it really wasn’t easy to remain cheerful when you had to babysit your ungrateful sister’s illegitimate child all day.
Jonah hadn’t minded at first, when he had been asked to look after Tendai. It had only been logical that he should be the one to do it since his sister had to go to work. A flea market stall was no place to take a toddler, and as Monica had snidely pointed out, it wasn’t as if Jonah had anything to do besides stay at home all day.
Anyway, Jonah had grudgingly agreed to take care of Tendai, who was a nice kid, intelligent for his age and usually not too troublesome. The truth was, Jonah had never imagined Tendai would be his responsibility for so long. At the time, he had really believed that he would get a job imminently at which point Monica would have had to make other arrangements for her son. But he had been wrong. Jonah had been stuck with wiping that little behind multiple times daily for four months now, and he was thoroughly fed up. Sometimes, he genuinely felt that if he didn’t get a break from this babysitting soon then he was in real danger of strangling the boy.
“I’m done!” Tendai called shrilly.
Minutes later, a still scowling and slightly nauseated Jonah burst out the front door and onto the small veranda of his home. He looked hopefully up and down the street, which as usual was swarming with people. It was difficult to think of any time of day when the streets were ever deserted in Mbare, even in the small hours of the day. But that, along with a host of vices was just part of the high density suburb’s identity, like it was embedded in its DNA. There was always someone on the street; be it children playing, a boy walking a girl, a gang of loafers loitering around looking for trouble (and invariably finding it). Or maybe the almost incessant trickle of vendors carrying their large baskets full of produce, hurrying from the farmers' market to set up their stalls before the competition.
For Jonah, the most disturbing thing about this endless procession of passers-by was how many of them he recognized or knew personally. To him it was a sign that he had been living in this poor neighborhood for too long. Far too long.
He turned to his left where the greeting had come from. It was Rumbidzai, the teenage girl who lived in the house next to his. A classmate of Martha’s at Mbare High School, Rumbidzai was wearing a maroon netball bib similar to the one his sister had worn when she had left home in the morning. Jonah was amused by this little act of vanity by the girls, who clearly wanted to flaunt their sporting prowess to everyone they met on their way to and from school.
“Hello, Rumbi. Where is Martha, have you seen her?”
The girl nodded.
“She was just behind me; I think she must be close by now.”
Jonah grunted his thanks to her, and hurried inside to change his shirt. Late as he was, he had to force himself to take the time to comb his hair. Finally, after checking to make sure he had his bus fare, he pocketed his wallet and sat in the living room with Tendai to wait for Martha.
Ten minutes passed agonizingly, and still his sister had not arrived. And then he heard it: her high-pitched, annoyingly loud laughter coming from somewhere outside and heard clearly through the open window. Furious, Jonah stormed out of the house with little Tendai trailing behind him and hopefully asking if they were going to the shops. His uncle did not reply, neither did he stop nor even turn to look back at him when Tendai slipped on the polished veranda steps and hurtled headlong onto the stony and rough ground below.
As Jonah marched towards the gate, a plan of sorts formed in his mind. Getting her away from her friends first would be a better option to slapping her right there in the middle of the street, he decided. But if she resisted-
It was Tendai’s anguished howls that saved her the embarrassment of being manhandled by her brother in front of her friends. As soon as she heard Tendai, Martha said hurried goodbyes to her friends and rushed towards her home. She reached the gate at the exact same moment as her brother. Behind him, she could see Tendai holding up a tiny hand to his forehead and bawling himself hoarse. Martha was puzzled. Where was Jonah going, and why was Tendai crying? However, when Jonah viciously swung the gate open, grabbed her and yanked her inside Martha instinctively knew she was in trouble.
“Where have you been?” Jonah exploded, gripping Martha’s elbow hard and force marching her towards the house.
“I was playing netball, at school. What happened, Tendai? Why are you crying, baby? Hmm?”
“Hey, I’m talking to you,” Jonah snapped.” You were supposed to come home as soon as your game was finished. Rumbi came home a long time ago, and then I find you standing there in the middle of the road talking to your friends-“
“So what?” Martha said insolently, shrugging herself free from his hold.
“You should have come straight home from school to look after Tendai. Now because of you I’m late for my meeting with George.”
Martha bent down to lift up the sniveling Tendai and carried him on her hip as she gently pushed aside his hand to inspect his forehead.
“Look at this, he’s bleeding! What did you do to him?”
“Don’t be stupid. I didn’t do anything to him, he fell.”
“And you just left him there?”
“He was following me and then he fell on his own,” Jonah replied defensively.
“Sorry, Tindo,” Martha said soothingly to the child, planting a small kiss on his cheek. “We will tell Gogo what Uncle Jonah did to you when she comes back from work, okay?”
Jonah swelled with anger. “This is the last time you go to those stupid netball games of yours,” he told her.
His sister carried Tendai into the house, leaving him standing there alone. Out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed Rumbidzai through the short fence that separated their houses. She was busily scraping the bottom of a pot with a spoon or something, and Jonah realized she must have been standing there for some time. Possibly long enough to overhear and see his row with Martha.
Telling himself that he didn’t care, Jonah checked the time on his cell phone and scowled. He was so far behind his planned schedule that going on with his trip to George’s house was almost not worth it. There was very little chance now of catching George before he left for his weekend jaunt to the nightclubs. Perhaps he would just have to make a phone call to George and explain.
But as he thought about it, Jonah wondered whether he should just take a chance and go to George’s anyway. After all, when someone you had been pestering for weeks to help you find a job invited you to their house; you had to go didn’t you? Besides, the mere thought of spending the rest of the afternoon with Martha and Tendai appalled him. He simply had to find a way out of this domestic drudgery, even if only for a while.
As he walked down the street and towards the bus terminus, Jonah was still seething at his inconsiderate sister. When he had started staying at home with Tendai, it had been on the tacit understanding that he would only do so during the week and that Martha would relieve him on the weekends. That was until the netball season started and Martha suddenly had an excuse to go out on Saturdays. And with her after school netball practice, she was arriving home later on weekdays as well, leaving Jonah with more chores to do on his own. His mind drifted to something his late father had often said to him, about Jonah needing to be careful or the women in their family would emasculate him. Of course, whenever his father had said that it had always been in jest, but now Jonah couldn’t help feeling that the old man had been on to something that Jonah himself had missed. Until now.
Well, all hope was not lost, not yet. All that Jonah had to do was get himself that elusive job and then everything else that he longed for would follow. His own place to live, a vibrant social life, and who knew, maybe even a girlfriend too?
With his newly-found determination spurring him on, Jonah sprinted the remaining ninety or so metres to the bus terminus.