Emily forces herself into normalcy.

She stops speaking in poetry and quotations. She puts aside Marx and Engels. Inside herself, she recites The Jabberwock and Macavity. ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe. His brow is deeply lined in thought, his head is highly domed. You would know him if you saw him for his eyes are sunken in.’ Inside herself, she conducts two-voiced arguments of insidious intent. How many Dispirin does it take to kill yourself, she asks. She calculates just how many would be required, four boxes, five boxes, maybe even ten boxes. She will drink them with vodka, drink them with Mazoe mixed with club soda. She does a comparative evaluation, Norolon versus Dispirin. On a balance of probabilities, on the evidence of Norolon-induced abortions that end up killing both foetus and mother, Norolon would be more effective.

Outside herself, she helps to distribute the toast and tea in the mornings. Outside herself, she stares outside the window in the afternoon, careful not to sit there for too long. In her journal, she writes bright entries, with exclamation marks about her future outside the Annexe.  ‘I am going to Oxford!’ she writes, ‘I am going be a Rhodes Scholar!’ The evening pills empty her thoughts.

In the evening, she does the Annexe shuffle.


And then, like that, Dr. Chikara says she can go back to her life. She and Ezekiel sing Father Abraham one more time, three more times, seven more times. Estelle joins in. Emilia conducts them, insisting that they stand in a choir formation. Sonia applauds. MockingNurseMatilda shakes her head when she sees them. ‘The choir of the mad,’ she says to the orderlies, but there is no malice in her voice.

Emily walks out of the door that has no handle on the inside. The last thing she sees is Ezekiel saying ‘Abraham, Abraham’ while Emilia hits him on the head. She stands on Second Street Extension, and waits for the little green bus. She re-enters the walls of the halls of academe to nudges and whispered comments. She is the subject of clever jokes, lawyer jokes.

‘She is not a fit and proper person’, says one.

‘She is not a competent witness,’ says another.

‘She qualifies under the Mental Health Act,’ says a third.

So concentrated is she on being normal that thoughts of Dispirin versus Norolon recede to that part of her mind that is most active in fantasy. Her exam results are stellar; she achieves seven firsts in one year. She receives the University Book Prize three years in a row. Her essay on the presidential pardon and the rule of law is published in the Legal Forum. But for the rest of her three years at the university, she is known as Emily from Law who tried to kill herself when her boyfriend, Gwinyai from Engines, dumped her for Lydia, the tall, skinny girl from Sociology. Even first years that were not there pass on the story, which grows with each telling and retelling. 

‘She climbed a tree, that tree opposite the Student’s Union.’

‘She swallowed 40 tablets.’

‘She was found unconscious on the floor.’


‘She threw herself in front of her boyfriend’s car.’

‘Not her boyfriend’s car, it was the Dean of Students’ car.’

‘He took her to hospital.’

‘Hospital, chii, they put her in a car, on a bus, on a train, on a plane, to Ingutsheni.’

The pinnacle of absurdity is reached in Emily’s third year when a first year girl, seeing Emily, and not knowing who she is, asks her, ‘Is it true that that Emma girl from Law tried to kill herself in my room?’

It is true; FirstYearGirl sleeps in Emily’s old room on P.

‘Don’t listen to everything you hear,’ Emily says. ‘It happened on Q corridor.’ She says this to be kind, but the next time that FirstYearGirl sees Emily, it is with knowledge in her eyes. The Emma Girl from Law of legend has become the in the flesh Emily walking towards her. She moves to the other side and walks past Emily without meeting her eyes.

Among the whispers and the pointing, Emily moves as the incarnation of the walking mad. Though she relearns how to be normal, there is incontrovertible evidence that the true lesson of her experience is lost on her: she falls in love again, just as carelessly, almost as excessively, this time, with a rugby-playing Economics student known to everyone but his mother as Tuggs. ‘I like you babes, I really do,’ Tuggs says after five weeks of unchained sex in his narrow bed in Manfred Hodson, ‘but this can’t go on, you know that.  What if you go all crazy on me like you did with that guy from Engines?’ This rejection is the first of many post-Gwinyai heart-breaks; but she learns this: no heartbreak will ever again be sharp enough to send her over the edge and over to the Annexe.

Each heart-break is a little death, all the same.


Up and down she goes in the little green bus, always sitting on the right so that she looks out at the golf course and not at the Annexe opposite. In her drawer with her diary and fevered poems, she keeps Ezekiel’s picture of the Taj Mahal. In her final year at University, she is three quarters of the way from the Annexe and a quarter of the distance from Oxford. There is nothing to do but celebrate the end of exams, the approach of Christmas, going home, the unwritten future.

It is Friday evening, and she is with Fadz and Sihle and Kenny and Lindy buying mushroom burgers at Chicken Inn. They will tumble into Fadz’s battered Beetle and go on to a night of clubbing at Circus. They have been drinking vodka, and they laugh at the smallest thing. She comes out onto Inez Terrace, in mid-laugh, and there, holding a box of fried chicken is Ezekiel. His smile is wide as he moves towards her. He says something, a greeting, but all she hears is ‘Abraham, Abraham’ as up and down goes the little green bus. She turns away. He sees her pretending and she sees him seeing. She pretends not to see the shadow that falls across his face.














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Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

The Annexe Shuffle by Petina Gappah

Page 3