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© 2005 - 2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.


I was in a foul mood.  The obvious thing to do was walk across the foyer and give her a piece of my mind. But this, of course, I could not as she was the matron at the hostel. She was Mrs May, a widow, and she was expelling me from the hostel, at precisely the moment that I had thrown in my job.  What was it about these people!  Or was it me, swathed in a miasma malodorous and maleficent that seeped from my pores!  As for giving to people pieces of one‘s mind, wasn't it precisely that effort that led to my expulsion.  I should have known better than to talk back to Mrs May.  It was my fault.  In this way I sought for control. The truth was, I did not wish to leave the young women’s boarding house. Approaching middle age, childless, without any other relationships and jobless, where was I to go?  I was standing in my bra and knickers in front of the mirror, my dressing gown folding open over pocked slabs of adipose ambiguous and nondescript, not copious enough to earn me the Biggy Matofotofo Beauty Queen title but too extensive to enable a fit into the kind of fashionable clothes I craved.  I was neither an African Queen nor a material girl, and I had nowhere to go.


Reflecting on this, my stomach tightened. There was still water in the taps at that time and I had to swill more of it than usual in my mouth to work up a lather.  This accomplished, I straightened up to inspect myself minutely in the ten inch mirror hung on a nail in the wall, to make sure I would not embarrass myself after all this effort with flecks of foam at the corner of my mouth during the interview for accommodation which I was preparing for; and as I began the inspection I noticed the form in the mirror was still bent over.


This apparition that I should have recognised, indeed should have exercised some authority over, wiggled the toothbrush backwards and forwards and round.  Foam dribbled up and down its chin in a most offensive manner.  Disconcerted, I turned the tap to a gush and cupped water up, intending to clean the lower half of my face, but this only resulted in worse confusion concerning the location of the parts that needed attention:  were my mandibles hovering above the basin or were they raised to the level of my shoulders?  It was humiliating to have to consider such an issue.  I breathed faster.  The image smiled, unperturbed.  At this new development I grew angry, tasting a rage that must shatter the mirror, to indulge in the satisfaction of brokenness, but the image slid up and with a distinct click returned my reflection to wholeness.


I moved quickly to the cupboard.  A little later, several outfits lay on the bed, as I pondered which would most effectively for today’s purpose cover my excrescences.  What kind of a woman was she anyway, this Mabs Riley, the woman to whom Mrs May had referred me, to blunt with an undemanding kindness the sharp voice of guilt.  I relished it for a few moments, and felt marginally better, the picture of Mrs May scraped everywhere by a rough, blood-letting, concrete guilt.  As for Mrs Riley, being a mukiwa meant she would have the attributes of such people.  What about beyond that, where the white Rhodesian ended and the person began?  Was this point as mythical as the end of the rainbow? And if not, would Mrs Riley show me?


Degrees of centigrade were oozing in round the loose fittings of the window pane.  The weather was growing more vicious, even though it was just after eight o‘clock.  I licked more deodorant under arm to make sure there would be no odour when I addressed Mrs Riley.  Cross-examining the clothes again without any hint of pleasure, I scratched my head, shocking myself with this, the habit so unacceptable in the company for which I was preparing.  Now breathing deeply again in annoyance at the carelessness, I grabbed my comb to scour away irritation before the meeting.  For how was I to succeed, if I behaved like a woman straight out of the bush?  The comb left my scalp with matter caked between its teeth.  Being out of a job, husbanding my savings, I had not for several weeks visited the hairdresser for a change of extensions.  My heart sank as I flicked the mess over to the bin and observed a dark fleck of it adhere to the glossy white paint on the wardrobe.


I dressed quickly, walking with too much speed, and throwing in the little room as much distance as possible between my back and the looking glass containing whoever was in it, resolving at the same time that I could not forget, not to give what had happened any attention. Footsteps clattered past the door, young and energetic, the other hostel dwellers on their way to and from breakfast.  I mumbled my daily incantations to myself as I paused before walking out.  "Today will be no worse than yesterday!  Praise the Lord!“ I answered myself, "Praise him!"  A church, I remembered as I walked past the foyer, avoiding Mrs May‘s eye, who was tying to call “good morning”, to enquire about the interview and wish me luck.  I had to find a church.  For the company and helping hand.  Perhaps up there in Borrowdale.


In my bag lay crumpled a newspaper clipping from the classified column “accommodation offered”, that Mrs May had cut out for me.  Underlined was an address, 9 Walsh Road in Borrowdale.  There was a telephone number beginning with an 8, not the dreaded 8-6s that already were gaining notoriety for an incapacity to connect, but an 8-5 number that located the address in the much better maintained section of the suburb.  I supposed the telephone number was Mrs Riley’s, but I did not know as I had not developed the nerve to call her.  How foolish I felt for the omission now, as I passed through the swing doors out onto the verandah.  Foolish and helpless.  I was over reacting, I encouraged myself.  It did not matter.  A hostel is not a home. Mrs May was helping me on my way.  I could not expect to live at Twiss House forever; and I whipped up excitement at the prospect of living in a house in a fashionable suburb.


“Good morning,” I nodded at the woman behind the yesterday, today and tomorrow, surprised that she had come there and had spoken first.  She smiled and opened her mouth and filled the hot morning air with the reek of decay, and she kept distance pace for pace, finally disappearing behind the hibiscus hedge that separated the hostel grounds from the Herbert Chitepo Avenue. I blinked, and then there was only the earth below the violent scarlet blobs of bloom amidst the dense branches of the flowering shrub.  A lucky beetle scurried over the ground to bury its bright red torso under a dead leaf, leaving its swollen grey abdomen camouflaged.


I did not look up as I moved along, hugging after this second occurrence, all that was meaningful within me.  Out on the road were street-kids with their oil black clothes, pinched faces emptied at such a youthful age and undisciplined limbs with which they flailed after shiny four by four vehicles imported from other countries.  The former occasioned dull cramps of disgust.  The latter summoned spasms of envy.  There was no refuge here, no higher ground nor middle earth.  You were hard and shiny, like the metal of dashing new vehicles, or you were nothing but tatters and decomposition: at least nothing stable.  Ah, with us it was common knowledge: if you were neither this nor that, you were in process, were becoming voluntarily or not a clear cut quantity, one or the other.






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Through the Looking Glass, from the novel Bira, by Tsitsi Dangarembga