THE BONDS THAT HELD together Jonah’s friendship with George Matongo could at best be described as tenuous, and the unrelenting passage of time only served to further isolate Jonah from his childhood and high school friend. He did not have to look too far to find the reason why he and George had drifted apart; rather it was painfully obvious. George came from a well-off family, and had a stable, highly-paid job at a leading telecommunications company. Jonah, on the other hand was perpetually broke, unemployed and entirely dependent on his overworked and underpaid mother. He believed that in the race that was Life, the depth of your pockets was a crucial determinant in how far you went. George had left Jonah so far behind and they both knew it.
The trouble had all started when Jonah was in Form Three. His father, a long serving and much respected school headmaster had passed away after a short and sudden illness. Just like that, Jonah’s life was turned upside down. His mother, a housewife for nearly twenty years was forced to take menial jobs to make ends meet. Even so, her meagre wages and the even paltrier monthly pay-outs from his father’s pension could not stop his family sliding from comfortable middle class to dire poverty, at times even teetering on the verge of destitution.
The worsening political and economic situation in the country had only turned a bleak situation into a hopeless one for Jonah’s family. Hyper-inflation wiped away his father’s pension into nothing, and ratcheted up the prices of virtually everything from food, rentals, transport to even school fees. Looking back, Jonah was always amazed that they had somehow managed to survive that dark period.
But his family had been more fortunate than most. The house in Mbare they lived in now had belonged to his paternal grandmother, and the old lady had fought tooth and nail to resist Jonah’s uncle and two aunts who had been bent on selling the house and sharing the proceeds. When it had become clear that she was edging closer to her grave, Jonah’s grandmother had thrown out her tenants and invited Jonah’s family to move in with her. She lived long enough thereafter to make sure it was understood that the house now belonged to her eldest son’s widow and had then obligingly passed on.
The small house she left behind was not worth much as a piece of real estate, but it had lifted one massive load of rentals off Jonah’s mother’s shoulders. Chipo Zuva had the good sense to turn that reprieve into a little profit, saving up enough money to start a small restaurant and takeaway establishment with two friends. And so gradually the Zuva family clambered out of the pit of despair and onto the shaky ground of optimism. Their financial situation was still by no means secure, but at least they were managing to break even.
Sacrifices had to be made along the way, and Jonah felt that he had borne the brunt of them. Midway through his Ordinary Level year he had been withdrawn from his beloved but expensive boarding school and dropped into the less inspiring environment of Mbare High School. His academic results had suffered negatively, but more from a misguided rebellion than anything else. He had redeemed himself two years later though when he sailed through Advanced Level, but that was as far as the fairy tale went for him. By that time the Zuvas were well and truly trapped in the clutches of poverty so enrolling at university was never a consideration for Jonah.
To his credit, he had not given up easily. The diploma in Accountancy that he held was a testament to that fact. He had worked night shifts at a packaging factory to pay the college fees, and slaved away in the lecture rooms by day. It had been tough but worth it. Or so it had seemed at the time. Now, Jonah wasn’t so sure. In the four years since he had graduated, he was yet to see any tangible reward of his hard gotten education, and at times, on those dark days when he dared to contemplate his future, a nagging voice inside his head told him that he never might.
Still, the voice inside his head was far less invasive than the critical voice of his elder sister Monica. She had made it clear numerous times that she thought Jonah was toiling needlessly at the polytechnic college, when he could quite easily enlist in the police force or army. Jonah wasn’t sure what would be more enjoyable to him when he would finally get a job; the joy of accomplishing his goal or the fierce satisfaction of proving Monica wrong.
To do that, he needed a job. Jonah resented having to ask George for help getting a job, or anything else for that matter. It was a sign of just how desperate things were becoming when you approached George Matongo for assistance. George was really not the most considerate or helpful person in times of need, and on the rare occasions when he lifted a finger to help someone, he was not very discreet about it. These weren’t great qualities for your best friend to lack, but Jonah had somehow found a way to get around that for the most part. Besides, he had exhausted all other avenues in his search for employment. In his view, grovelling before George was far more palatable than the ignominy of being out of work. He could only hope the grovelling wouldn’t last for too long.
THERE WERE A NUMBER of reasons why Jonah had always refrained from telling Chido how he felt about her. The foremost and in his opinion the least satisfactory reason was that she was George’s younger sister. He couldn’t understand why it bothered him so much, but it did. There seemed something treacherous about being in love with your best friend’s little sister and Jonah just wasn’t brazen enough to ignore it. Many times he tried reversing their roles mentally and imagined how he would feel if it was George carrying on with Martha. And each time, he found his imagined indifference disturbing.
Standing in front of her now, talking to her, Jonah felt very self-conscious. As he had feared, George was nowhere to be found, and from what Chido was telling him Martha’s tardiness was not to blame. George had left home early in the morning and was not expected back until very late, probably. Jonah was disappointed, but hardly surprised. He had never really fancied himself as being a big priority in George’s social plans, anyway. Clearly, that was not about to change.
Already, he was regretting the impulse that had made him decline Chido’s invitation to come inside the house. It had left them in a somewhat awkward situation; Chido standing in the doorway fidgeting with the door handle, and him desperately trying to think of something to talk about.
“You should have phoned him,” Chido said, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “With George, you should always phone him first because he is always going out.”
Jonah nodded absently, thinking of the bus fare he had wasted.
“Maybe you can phone him now. He might be close by, and he has a car now, you know.”
“A car?” Jonah repeated, awe struck.
She nodded and said matter-of-factly, “He bought it just last week.”
Jonah chewed on this information briefly, then shrugged it out of his mind. At this point, he couldn’t even bring himself to feel envious anymore.
“So are you going to phone him?” Chido asked.
Jonah decided against that for two reasons. Firstly because he had already made up his mind that making this trip had been a mistake. George had not invited him here because of a job. That had been wishful thinking, really. If anything, Jonah now strongly suspected that the reason George had wanted him to come was so he could show off his new car. That would be more like the George he knew.
The second reason was, Jonah had no airtime left in his phone to make the call anyway, and no money to buy anymore. The last thing he wanted to do was let Chido know just how broke he was. It was for this same reason that he refused her offer to see him out to the bus stop. He needed to walk back home in order to save money, but it wouldn’t have done for Chido to know that. Even though he was now quite certain that nothing could ever happen between them.
JONAH KNEW EVEN BEFORE he got home that trouble would be waiting there for him. He tried to remember whether Tendai had been badly hurt by his fall. From what he had seen it had been nothing more than just a graze. Not that it would make a difference to Monica, who never passed up an opportunity to start a row with him. Normally he would not have minded, but today he could feel the oppressive weight of guilt at what had happened to the kid. Arguing with Monica was a tiresome exercise on the best of days, and this really wasn’t one of them. He knew he was a beaten man even before he got into the fight, so he made up his mind to save himself a headache and just apologise.
Unfortunately for him, he got off to a bad start. Tendai gave a squeal of delight as soon as Jonah had walked into the room, and had tried to run over to him. But Monica had stopped him almost instantly, and at the same time contrived to give the impression that letting her child go anywhere near Jonah would have threatened his very life. The vivid abrasion on Tendai’s forehead, which was generously smeared with Betadine certainly helped her case. Then the accusations and insults had come thick and fast; first from Monica, then from Martha, and then from both of them, at times in perfect unison. It took every ounce of self-control he had, but Jonah remained silent through it all. Even though his sisters were at times getting dangerously close to crossing the line where his patience ended. Unusually for her, his mother was also quiet, but the grim look of disapproval on her face told him exactly what she thought of it all. Jonah was dismayed. He hadn’t necessarily expected her to take his side, especially where her grandson was involved, but he had hoped she would put a stop to Monica and Martha’s charge.
Feeling cornered, Jonah, not for the first time that day stormed out of the house and stood on the veranda, glancing up and down the street. Seven o’clock in the evening, the stream of traffic had slowed down somewhat. There were now just a handful of people still about. He saw a girl that he recognised passing by, wearing a uniform from the supermarket where she worked. He had seen her many times in the morning, on her way to work. In fact he saw her every day, except for Sundays, which he guessed was her day off. He reflected that she was lucky to have that kind of arrangement. She was probably the church going type, he thought. In which case having Sundays off work was a blessing for her. Certainly she seemed happy about going home now. Maybe already looking forward to church tomorrow. A pretty girl, too. He would have to wait until Monday morning to see her again, and he was a little disappointed about that. Jonah sat down on the veranda steps, and the little voice inside his head told him again that he had been in this poor neighbourhood for too long.
Definitely far too long.
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