I am sitting on this lonely stone on a hill with this phone in my hand; trying to figure out where the hell fate has led me. Questioning what I previously expected and what has become of me. I look around the small hill and it is not as green as it used to be. All the life it had has been over the years slowly taken away by the hands of man through emotionless, wanton cutting down of trees. Now it is left lifeless, full of hard stones and dying grass. My life seems just as this small hill, lifeless. Maybe I should have been a little more realistic with my expectations. The fire of hope as if in a movie or folk tale has become the stimulus for my song of regret and betrayal. I watch the sun slowly descend beyond the horizon as I try to hold tears from flooding down my cheeks.
Is it not funny how life seems to be hard and full of calamities until you meet the genuine tribulations that seem to define hell, it is only then you realise how smooth a ride you had. Looking back is always the toughest thing. In the end what will kill are the memories, regrets and thoughts of what ought to be. The world in the blink of an eye becomes a prison cell. Billions of people and you still feel alone. Even the ones you held the closest to the heart meander away like rivers in the great African rift valley. Crying a river hoping it will wash your troubles away but nothing seems to change. Troubles refuse to be altered. Every story that your heart yearns to tell is inspired by pain. Lungs become allergic to laughter and the mouth to real smiles. Is it not frustrating when every smile is faked? At least I know for me it is.
Mwayi was just an innocent twelve-year-old girl, finally happy that she had found not just a house, but also a home to grow up in. Vina, my wife of three years, and I, both cherished her and treated her as if she was our own flesh and blood. Life had been horrible for her living on the cruel streets of Blantyre city since she was barely eight years old — after her mother had succumbed to cancer, and her father eloped with his new found love, or so went the rumours. It was not easy for her having to grow up around people she could not tell were enemies or meant no harm.
“There is no way I am taking that bastard with us. Her father should come and take her with him wherever he ran away to. I’ll leave her here.” These were the last words Mwayi heard from her grandmother telling her grandfather a few days before they left to live with their first born son in Harare. She was left with her abusive aunt who used to use her as a punching bag on a daily basis until one night Mwayi packed a few clothes in her bag, and vowed to herself never to go back. In the central business district of Blantyre city, which was not so far from her township called Machinjiri, she met a fifteen-year-old girl called Suzgo who became her protector and best friend.
They lived from one trash can to another, scavenging for food like homeless cats. Constantly thinking of what will run down their throats next just for mere survival. Living for today’s satisfaction and not tomorrows hopes. They used to stick together and promised each other one day they would find a way to get off the streets. Suzgo had been in the orphanage before but stressed that she would rather die as a street urchin than suffer the abuse in the orphanage. They never left each other’s side for more than a few hours, until the day Suzgo was picked up for shoplifting and sent to the juvenile centre. Mwayi’s world fell apart all over again.
Mwayi had to make it alone until the age of twelve. Every morning, she would sit near the flea market and see people as they got off mini-buses from all the townships and start to fill the city. In the evening she would sit on the same spot and watch people as they cleared up, putting the city to sleep. She liked the evening as it was the best time for people to throw her all the pocket change they had. She cried every night and sometimes wished she could go back home. For three years she hoped her father would return for her and wished she knew her mother, all in vain until a rainy evening when a young woman with a black umbrella approached her and offered her some cover from the rain.
The day Vina walked Mwayi through our door something deep down told me our lives would change forever. Vina gave her water to clean herself and a dress she had bought for her on their way to the house. Mwayi looked puzzled, as if she had never seen a plate of food before in her life. I recall pulling Vina to the bedroom to ask her for more details on what the little homeless girl was doing in our house. She pleaded with me to understand. She said she used to see the little girl every evening when coming from her office in Livingstonia Avenue. Every time Vina saw Mwayi, her heart fell to pieces. So innocent and tender was Mwayi, what did the world ever do to the little girl for her to deserve all that torment? That was a question we both could not answer but were determined to bring a change in her life.
I was a very scared of what we were getting ourselves into. Would we be able to provide her with enough attention with me a medical doctor, and Vina, a very busy fashion designer? We had even held up our own plans of having a child for six years since we got married, because our careers simply could not permit it. Now there we were taking in a child, and we had absolutely no idea about her background and her present state of mind. I asked my wife if we were not going to have problems as far as the law was concerned, what if she had a family that would try to inflict legal blows later. She simply did not care. It was a human soul we were taking in. You do not throw away a precious life expecting it to be in the trash waiting for you to come pick it up again later. She said she was ready for whatever the consequences, and I did nothing but nod to her words and gladly accept the beautiful soul into our lives.
At work I always sat in circles with my friends every chance I got; they enthusiastically listened to all the stories I told them about Mwayi. Among my female workmates, it was proclaimed how angelic it was for us to do such a thing, and they wished that a lot more families would be as accepting to these underprivileged poor children. Most of my male workmates on the other hand, seemed to listen with enthusiasm as well but were not quite sure of our decision to take a kid right from the street into our house. They talked about how the people who were her family in the streets would cause us problems, but I stubbornly told them that that was a chance we were willing to take. They thought it was just an excuse to have child because we could not conceive by ourselves. They bombarded me with questions of why we did not adopt a child from an orphanage or take in one of our relatives. Most of them simply did not understand so I just smiled and let the issue pass.
On Mwayi’s eighteenth birthday, we took time out to celebrate the good life God had blessed us with for the previous six years. For me, it was very emotional although I tried to hide it like most men do. Our daughter was finally coming of age. Seeing the way her life had been transformed from the day she walked into our house was enough pleasure for my heart. I used to smile broadly every time she called me Dad. She now had a two year old little brother, Mphatso. We were not planning on giving her any more siblings any time soon because we felt we would only manage to give a comfortable life to two children, considering the economic encumbrances in the country.
Sitting around the table at the posh restaurant in the middle of Blantyre city, we discussed our plans for the up-coming vacation. Mwayi had told me of how she wanted to visit Likoma Island right in the middle of Lake Malawi, and I thought it was a good idea. We worked hard all the time so we deserved a good vacation. I always loved good vacations where I could relieve my mind of work. I never forgot to remember the words of my uncle Thomas who habitually told me that you miss life when you fail to balance work with pleasure.
So we went for the holiday, and sat on the shore of Likoma Island in the silence of the night looking at a quiet Lake Malawi, sipping on the local brew Thobwa. I smiled at the lake and the lake seemed to be smiling right back. Vina’s little smooth fingers filling the spaces between mine, telling each other stories without saying anything at all, while Mwayi and Mphatso quietly slept in the cottage. Looking at the stars as they shone above us, everything seemed in harmony as if we were holding the remote control to life. Love, I could feel it like the very first time. I turned my head slowly towards my wife and met her smile, and I still saw the girl I fell in love with at college.
We had managed to build a life together; collected treasures that we both cherished. Our whole world had been built around Mwayi and Mphatso. How I wished Mwayi had been conceived inside Vina’s womb. Of course I understood that parenthood is bigger than biology but it just could have been more sacred that way. It could have added more cream to the cake. All in all, we had grown to love her deeply. She was the glue that kept us sticking together even in the toughest of times.
Back home after the fortnight in paradise, once again in our usual routine. I was getting ready in the bedroom while Vina prepared breakfast. The hospital was always a busy place but at least it was more sedate than when I worked in a government hospital. Back then three days without staying at home for more than two hours each day was normal.
The phone rang several times and Vina seemed too busy to get it. As I tried to pick it up from the bedroom receiver, I heard her voice saying, “I’ll get it!”, and I went back to getting ready. The phone still rang and it seemed as if Vina did not want to pick up, so I did. As I was about to speak into it, I heard her say hello, and for some reason I continued to listen.
“Vee, it is Owen, we have to talk.” I heard man’s voice say, and I did not recognise it to my surprise.
“Owen, how dare you call my house,” Vina whispered.
“Look, I don’t want to cause any trouble but this issue is important to me; but if you don’t want to cooperate things will turn out really bad I guarantee you.”
“Ok, look Owen, I can meet you, and we should talk this over.”
“At noon, Blue Savanna restaurant, don’t even think of being late,” he said, and hung up the phone.
I put the receiver back down and grabbed my coat as if nothing had happened. I walked directly to the kitchen, with a confused mind as if it was I who had just been caught in bed with my neighbour. I grabbed her by the waist, pulled her closer to me, and kissed her goodbye. I told her I was late and could not eat the breakfast. All the sudden something was burning in my heart. I completely lost my appetite and did not know what to think.
I called work and told them I had to attend a sudden funeral of my uncle in another town and would not be back until the following morning. I went to see Munya, a good friend. I found him about to leave for his office, but I pulled him back and told him what I had just heard. He could not believe his ears, and was even more perplexed than I was. He also called his work with the same excuse. A mastermind when it comes to these issues; he told me that we had to make sure that by eleven a.m. we were at the restaurant strategically positioned to be uninvited guests of the secret meeting. We left both our cars and opted for a discreet taxi instead.
I could not believe my eyes when I saw my own wife, walk into the restaurant soon after the hour of twelve. She found a place at the far right of the room near the window. I could see her looking around the room like a thief, looking so nervous. She could not stop fidgeting as Munya and I held newspapers just low enough for our eyes to peek over. Munya sat some distance from me and we only spoke to each other non-verbally with our eyes and gestures. Imagine two grown men hiding behind newspapers seeking the truth of what was really going on. To be honest, I was hoping and praying that my mind had jumped to conclusions and I had nothing to worry about. Deep inside my heart, I whispered a prayer that I had not been cheated on and that I had not been blind all that time.
The man walked in, but we did not know it was Owen until he took his seat in front of Vina. A tall guy around our age although he was dressed like a teenager. He was fit and hefty, someone I would not want to mess with in my normal senses.
As soon as he took his seat, Vina leaned forward and started to speak angrily. “Owen, what is this about? Why did you come back from Nairobi? Have you forgotten what you did? What do you want from me?”
We listened with anticipation.
“Don’t you dare try to label me the bad guy in this situation. Have you forgotten what you did all those years ago? I admit, I did something stupid and it has haunted me ever since. I have never been able to find happiness because I felt like I left part of myself in the past. I was desperate Vee, I had to do it. It was not a good decision. I was young and confused,” said Owen, who then diverted his stare to the floor.
“Well, I have a life now. That thing you left behind in your past; I searched for it and it is the thing that has kept me in the happiness bubble all these years. Please don’t be so evil to want to burst my bubble now. Why now Owen? Why don’t you just go away?”
A sequence of thoughts circulated in my head as I tried to make up the meaning of the conversation. I could not see Vina’s face; I could only hear her voice which was close to a whisper. I heard her tell Owen she would not discuss with him further and that he should leave her alone. She grabbed her jacket and swiftly stood up from the chair.
Owen grabbed her by the left arm and stood up with her. “Watch it Vee, I may be tempted to tell your husband.”
Then a wind of defeat seemed to have blown over her face as they both slowly slid back down into their seats.
“All I want is the truth. I want to get a chance too. I want to be there for her, as the father
she never had,” said Owen.
Vina stood up again in fury and took her jacket. “I gave her a new father while you ran away with Stella leaving your child on the streets. Your family abandoned her and I took her in when you denied your responsibility.” Tears now lined her eyes.
“I told you I was young and stupid. You also did not behave like a mother when you came and left her on my doorstep while she was a toddler needing your breast-feeding. I raised her from the most delicate stage until she was seven, I could not take it no more. Now is it too much to ask for just that my daughter knows her father?” Vina turned and started to walk away. He called out her name and held out his hand. “At least let her have this,” he said, and put something on the table.
Vina did not turn back until I dropped my newspaper and ran to grab her by the arm. I pulled her back to where Owen was sitting. Bewilderment, fear, anger, sorrow, shame; I saw it all in both their faces. How perfect a lie it was and how perfectly she managed to lie to me for over ten years. It was so foolish of me I should have seen it somehow; still they say there is no secret under the sun. We stood there staring at each other like strangers. I picked up the paper Owen had placed on the table. An old photo with a young looking Owen and a cute little baby girl in his arms. On the nack of the photo neatly written in blue ink was, ‘12 February 1992, Me and my daughter Janet’. I slowly put it back on the table as I saw a river of tears run down Vina’s cheeks. I hoped I was dreaming but reality was cruel and as bright as daylight. I slowly looked down in disappointment and turned towards the exit, and Munya followed.
Vina seemed to have killed me that day and all the happiness I ever knew. So now here I am sitting on this lonely stone. The life that I built with her over the years, our children and the future we prayed for; I can’t let it all just go to waste like it never mattered. I can find it in my heart to forgive her but God be my witness, I will never ever forget. All Vina does is apologise when I pick up the phone. Mwayi is a reason good enough for me to return home, but Vina seems too sorry to even think of this reason when I ask her to tell me why she wants me to return home. So if I will not do it for her, at least I must find it in my heart to do it for my daughter, and my baby son.
'One Good Reason' was written by Raphael Lali.
Copyright © Raphael Lali 2012.
Rapahel Lali is an Economics student in Warsaw, Poland. He is a member Youthful Malawian writers(YMW) and once served as president of the Writers Club at Zingwangwa secondary school. He was born in Malawi in 1992 and started writing at a very tender age. He graduated from Bedir International High School and later studies Systems Support at the University of Malawi Polytechnic. He blogs at I Voice.