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Sunday Times Books LIVE

John Eppel

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A very short story.

THE REACTIONARY

 

He was not sorry when his wife left him (not at first).  Wasn’t it Kierkegaard who said that if you marry, you will regret it?  Yes, but he also said, if you don’t marry, you will regret it.  How’s that for an existential dilemma?  You have to resolve it, said his friend and colleague, Sipho Ncube, by taking risks.  All very well for Sipho – he’s got the looks, and the charm.  The women on our staff say that he is dangerous!

‘Sorry, Anele… you were saying?

‘No, I’m a bit confused, Sir.  How can she talk of Lucia’s “escape” when Lucia behaves like a whore?’

‘I don’t follow you.’

‘I mean, how can prostitution be an escape?’

‘Listen, we’ve talked about the double bind of black women in Zimbabwe during colonial times.  Tanaka?’

‘They were oppressed not only by colonialism but by their own patriarchal cultures.’

‘Go on.’

‘Well, the system of roora or lobola ensures that the wife becomes and remains the property of the husband and the husband’s family.  She has no rights.’

‘Thank you.  One way, Anele, for a woman to escape this bind is not to marry.  Patriarchal societies, however, attach stigmas to unmarried women.  They are accused of being prostitutes, or worse, of being witches.’

‘But she sleeps around.’

‘Does that make her a whore?  Because she does what men boast about doing, why should she be stigmatised?  By choosing her partners she maintains control of her body, and this is one way she manages to escape entrapment.’

For a while they tried what is termed an ‘open’ marriage.  Nothing opened for him but she was soon spending nights and then weekends away from their cosy two-bedroom house in Malindela.  ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ she had offered.

‘Spare me the details.’  He had some idea who the man was.  Not a local; a geologist with a Canadian firm whose own family lived somewhere in the Northern Cape: mole rat country.   It wasn’t too bad at first, probably because he expected, any moment, a similar situation, with a woman of his fantasies.  The longer that didn’t happen, the more his fantasies became poisoned with what his wife and her lover were doing to each other, while he lay in their nuptial bed with the cat on his chest and the crickets chirping outside the window. He imagined the geologist fingering her down there, gently circling her clitoris with his thumb before going down on her with a lapping tongue until she was sodden. Then she would open her legs wide for him to mount her… the slowly accelerating rhythmic thrusts perfectly in tune with her needs, as her breathing quickened into pants, gasps, moans, cries… and then the shuddering simultaneous orgasm.  He imagined her, after some moments of post coital bliss, making her way to the bathroom, his sperm trickling down the insides of her thighs, to rinse away possibilities of bladder infection, and pregnancy.

He was being consumed by jealousy, and there was nothing he could do about it. It seemed beyond reason, a hard-wired emotion unsusceptible to intellectual mitigation.  Only time – a long period of time – would resolve it into a feeling of something more resigned than the green-eyed monster – sadness, perhaps, ‘the still, sad music of humanity’.  Is that what Wordsworth meant, walking the beaches of Calais with his first love?

‘Sir.’

‘Yes, Ndaba.’

‘So is that what the title means, like, entrapment?’

‘“Nervous Conditions”? I don’t think so-’

‘No ways, man-’

‘Put your hand up, Tanaka!’

‘Sorry, Sir, but-’

‘Go on, then.  You two at the back – stop talking!  Where are your manners?  Go on, Tanaka.’

‘As I understand it, Sir, a ‘nervous condition’ describes the way colonialism deprived the blacks of an identity, of a sense of self-worth-’

‘Deracinated them.  Anybody know what that means?  No? It means to tear up by the roots; from the Latin, “radix.”  Remember The Pardoner’s Tale: “radix malorum est cupiditas”… Thomas?’

‘“Greed is the root of all evil”.’

‘Colonialism was motivated by greed.  But the point Sartre makes in his introduction to Franz Fanon’s definitive book, The Wretched of the Earth… the point he makes… Kizito, put your maths homework away!  What’s the matter with you?  The… er… point Sartre makes is that the colonised “native” found himself – I use the masculine gender because I believe it damaged the men more than the women – indeed many women, strangely, benefited from a slightly less patriarchal system.  Don’t you think Babamkuru’s “condition” is somewhat more “nervous” than, say, his wife’s and his daughter’s?’

‘His condition isn’t nervous, Sir; he’s a bully.  Look what he does to his daughter…’

‘Prince, turn to page 204, towards the bottom.  Read aloud from where Nyasha says “They’ve done it to me…”.  Can you find it?’

‘Er… yes, Sir.’

‘Go ahead then.’

‘“They’ve done it to me,” she accused, whispering still.  “Really they have.”  And then she became stern.  “It’s not their fault.  They did it to them too.  You know they did,” she whispered.  “To both of them, but especially to him.  They put him through it all.  But it’s not his fault, he’s good.” Her voice took on a Rhodesian accent.  “He’s a good boy, a good munt.  A bloody good k-” Sir, I can’t be saying that word.’

‘Leave it out, then.’

‘-she informed in sneering sarcastic tones.”  Shall I go on, Sir?’

‘Go on a little longer.’

‘“Then she was whispering again. “Why do they do it, Tambu,” she hissed bitterly, her voice contorting with rage, “to me and to you and to him?  Do you see what they’ve done?  They’ve taken us away.  Lucia.  Takesure.  All of us.  They’ve deprived you of you, him of him, ourselves of each other.  We’re grovelling.  Lucia for a job, Jeremiah for money.  Daddy grovels to them.  We-”’

‘Thank you, Prince; that will do.  See, it’s his daughter who perceives Babamkuru’s nervous condition, and she blames it squarely on colonialism.’

‘Sir?’

‘Yes, Thabo?’

‘He’s a coconut.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘He acts white.’

‘Then we’re all coconuts at this school.’

‘What about you, Sir?’

‘What about me?’

‘Being white.  Living in Africa.  Being –’

‘I didn’t ask to be born in Africa.  I didn’t ask to be born white.  I didn’t ask to be born male…’

‘And you didn’t ask to be born left-handed.’

‘No, but nobody seems to mind about that anymore.’

When he finally swallowed his pride and asked her to come back, it was too late.  He bumped into her once, walking her new pet, a golden Labrador, at the Hillside Dams. She was wearing a man’s shirt and a pair of tight black jeans. They exchanged awkward greetings, and stalled together long enough for him to notice a number of bruises on her neck and shoulders.

‘Is he rough with you?’

‘A little, but I like it that way.’

‘Um… was I too gentle?’

‘You can never be too gentle, but…’

‘So…’

‘Can we not…’

‘Of course.  Bye.’

‘Bye.’

And that was that.  He watched her stride away from him, her dog tugging at its leash, lifting its leg against every second bush or tree.  With each stride a diamond-shaped blink of light, progressively fading, at the place where her thighs joined her buttocks, revealed itself to his straining eyes.

A siren signalled the end of the lesson. He released his class after giving them an assignment for homework: “To what extent can Nyasha be regarded as Tambudzai’s alter ego?’ He reminded them to refer closely to the text, supporting every point they made with a relevant quotation.  His next class was already gathering noisily outside his door.  He was going to teach them all about the comma splice.

 

 

 

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