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Of Love and Insects by Muthoni Garland

“Good morning, Mr. Cartwright, I was just coming up to see you,” Doreen said, too loudly, to cue her sister to be on best behaviour.  She pressed the already-lit button for the twelfth floor - the directors’ level.

“Good to have you back Miss. Owino.” He paused. “Terrible news. Absolutely awful. Your brother, wasn’t it?”

Doreen nodded, and closed her eyes, hoping he wouldn’t probe any further. She wanted to project a sorrowful image in order for Mr. Cartwright to agree to her taking more time off, but she didn’t want to talk about death. 

“I trust the funeral arrangements went smoothly.”

She directed a meaningful look at Philo before turning back to Mr. Cartwright.  He lifted his brows in acknowledgement.

Instead of mirrors, framed posters of beautiful girls graced the walls of the lift. Mr. Cartwright gazed at them, and then at Philo, squinting to disguise his interest. Of course, this made it more obvious to Doreen.  

Though of different nationalities, the oval faces, sparkling eyes, bleach-white teeth, and powder-perfect skins of the models on the walls made them appear oddly similar - like looking at the same person through different coloured glasses. The Global look. To Doreen they looked as thin as the images of famine victims broadcast during the latest televised Africa Needs You concert. Yes, as thin as Philo. But they had no blemishes to remind Doreen of bugs, although their very act of lacking made her more aware of an absence. Like the absence of heat and noise in this multinational cocoon rising high above the potholed streets of Nairobi. Like the absence of her father, the headmaster who’d believed education was the route to salvation - a man so certain of what was right and what was wrong that Doreen never thought to question his thinking.  Not until he’d refused to accept that his eldest son, Ambrose, had died of AIDS and that his baby daughter was likely to follow suit. Even now, Doreen didn’t understand her compulsion then to correct him. She’d badgered the old man to admit that he was wrong. He’d died, it seemed, to spite her.

“Mdosi?” The Boss Philo asked, in Swahili, although Mr. Cartwright would have to be a fool not to realise she was talking about him.

Siyo mbaya,” Not bad. Philo added.

Doreen widened her eyes at her. “Philo!”

Sijafa,” I’ve not died yet said Philo, displaying her molars, thus accentuating her too-wide jaw and starkly defined cheekbones. “Hata wewe hujafa”. And neither have you.

Mr. Cartwright certainly didn’t look like an accountant, not in the blue short-sleeved shirt that showed off muscular forearms honed in a gym, and the shiny leather belt emphasising a flat stomach. But the skin on his arms was scaly, and tiny flakes hung onto the curly light-brown hairs growing off them. Dandruff, Doreen wondered, or lice? 

“Me Philo. Dori’s sister.” Philo lifted her chin towards Mr. Cartwright. “You?”

Doreen hoped Mr. Cartwright read Philo’s mock Tarzan-speak as her having fun rather than testing his racial sensitivities.

He stretched out his hand, stiff and formal. “I’m, eh, Bob Cartwright. Pleased to meet you, Philo.”

The overhead lights switched off and back on.

Yawa,” Philo said, “I hate when that happens.”

She held onto Mr. Cartwright’s hand as though acting in the Mexican soap opera on KBC TV in which characters over-dramatised every little scene as if to allow time for the language translation. As he disentangled and tucked his hand into his trouser pocket, a dark red flush moved up from Mr. Cartwright’s throat to his cheeks.


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Per Contra Spring 2007