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Of Love and Insects by Muthoni Garland

The buttons flashed. Eight. Four. Five.

“See, someone is working on it.” 

Doreen wondered if Mr. Cartwright felt as calm about it as he sounded.

Six. Three. Eight. Doreen jabbed the eight.

They’d been eight in her family once. Baba used to line them up, eldest to youngest. Ambrose, Caleb, her, Bella who lived in America, and Elizabeth – the one you’d assume would be dead now, Doreen thought, married to a drunken bully in Kisumu, and Philo - the baby born to fetch Mama water in old age. Stamping a beat on the floor, and enacting the words by gesturing at eyes and sky, the eight of them had sung for Baba, ‘Oh be careful little eyes what you see…for the father up above is looking down with love…’ But clearly, when He looked down at Africa, all God saw were self-inflicted wars, genocides and famines. And turned his backside. Farted. So much easier to damn all than weigh individual merit! Ambrose gone, Baba gone, Caleb…

“I should have used the loo,” Philo said.

Serve you right for following me, Doreen thought. She rubbed her forehead. Her cornrows pulled at her temples. Philo had braided them that morning.

Nine. Four. Six.

The flashing stopped. Nothing happened. No movement. Nothing.

“Help!” Doreen jabbed the buttons, and banged the doors of the lift. “Help!”

“Someone is working on it,” Mr. Cartwright repeated. 

Breathing deeply, Doreen struggled to compose herself. She owed Mr. Cartwright. He’d promoted her to head internal audit, and detailed her on a project to trace paper trails - the tangible proof of corruption. 

Philo said. “Don’t know about you guys but I’m going to sit. We might be here awhile.”

They heard her slide against the wall.

“We could play a game?”  Her voice rose up at them, like a child begging Mama and Baba to pay her attention.

“I’m not in the mood for games,” Doreen snapped.

In exactly the same tone their mother used, until you had to give in or escape - kind, reverential, yet loaded with disappointment - Philo said, “Don’t be like that.”

The words reverberated in the enclosure. Don’t be like that. Don’t be like that.

“Your sister’s right. Every trial is an opportunity.” Mr. Cartwright too slid to the floor.  “Philo, what game do you have in mind?”

Doreen imagined the criss-cross of legs on the floor. If only she could relax enough to join them, prove to Mr. Cartwright that she too could cope with this adversity. She didn’t want to be like that. Maybe if they’d used a different carpet in the lift. All those beetles…

“I say we tackle riddles,” Philo said, in a rush of words. “I’ll go first. Give me your hands.”

Doreen felt the fumbling along her skirt, and scratching up her side. It sounded obscene. Trying not to imagine Philo exploring Mr. Cartwright in the same way, Doreen bent one knee, awkwardly, and gripped her hand. It was hot and sweaty. Philo pumped enthusiastically.

“How can you tell if a good swimmer is drowning or just showing off?” Philo asked.

Their father had often tested that one on them. In the living room of their three-bedroom home in Kisumu - the one with the larger garden at the end of a row of identical two-storey maisonettes - the children congregated around the large coffee table. While they rolled balls of maize-meal ugali with their hands to pad the tilapia and kale greens, their mother cautioned them not to mess with the yellow doilies she’d crocheted to protect the arms and the backs of the imitation leather sofa from the liquid paraffin oil the girls applied on their scalps.   


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Per Contra Spring 2007