Men’s reactions to Philo scandalised Doreen. Once, Philo had called Doreen from Mombasa, crying, and going on about a mad sailor. The mad sailor turned out to be an earnest, Arabic-looking clearing agent. In the six hours it took for Doreen to drive from Nairobi to the coast, they’d become engaged. Instead of staying at his flat, Philo had hauled Doreen to the Mamba Village, a disco where drifters, runaways, twilight ladies and their multi-hued customers acted as though happiness were a matter of life or death. There they’d met another besotted man, an older, sharply suited political aspirant whose fingers kept straying to the chain of beads that peeked from Philo’s midriff whenever she reached or stretched. The political aspirant bought Doreen and Philo drinks, and later got into a fist fight with the young man who followed them there. Philo made up with the young man, (although she left him again two days later), and encouraged the political aspirant to direct his attentions to Doreen. Although he kept darting his eyes at Philo, the political aspirant had played along.
Exhausted, out of her depth and unable to deal with the desperate glitter in Philo’s eyes, Doreen had drunk and danced until morning. It was the most fun she’d ever had.
How little she and her sister knew each other. Philo had been little more than a baby when Doreen had gone off to boarding school at fourteen, and later on to university. As they’d driven to Nairobi, Doreen had asked, “What is it about you that they want?”
“I love men,” Philo had said, simply, “and they know it.”
Doreen had never thought about loving men in the plural. A specific man. Once. He’d dumped her for someone else. She’d liked a couple of others since, but not enough to take it anywhere.
It was after that ride from Mombasa that Philo moved in with Doreen, for a month at first, while she looked for a job. Then Ambrose had died. In the course of his funeral arrangements, Philo’s health deteriorated, badly, and she lost what little fleshiness she’d had. Only then had she disclosed her own positive status to the family. Two months later, their father died.
The overhead light flickered.
Doreen gazed up. Behind the Perspex, the fluorescent strip light glowed, uncertainly, like a wobbly cluster of fireflies. It shuddered before sucking the light from the enclosure, and with a limp flash, extinguishing.
The lift jerked. Doreen clutched her stomach. Swallowed. The lift dropped about a metre and juddered to a stop.
Probably due to a blackout, Doreen thought before she remembered the sign.
“Just what I need!” Mr. Cartwright muttered.
“I’ll get the emergency button.” Doreen fumbled, and then placed her mouth near the holes on the panel, careful not to touch them with her lips. The panel probably crawled with bacteria. “Hello. Hello.”
Doreen half expected a voice to respond in the same diffident manner, ‘Well, hello there!’
“AWA!” said Mr. Cartwright, with an exaggerated Kenyan inflection.
Did he really expect them to concur, Doreen wondered, with a foreigner denigrating them?
But Philo laughed. “Africa Wins Again.”
Doreen pressed the button, banged on the doors of the lift. “Help,” she shouted. “Help.”
It sounded too loud in the dark of the enclosure.
“It’s nine,” said Mr. Cartwright, his voice crisp, composed again. “Someone is bound to notice the lift is out of order.”
“Too true,” said Philo. “In fact, we saw the sign...”Her sentence dangled unfinished, growing in weight and recrimination in the silence that followed. Doreen was glad they couldn’t see each other.
Per Contra Spring 2007