Let’s Tell This Story Properly
The Overall Winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize was announced in Kampala, Uganda, on Friday 13 June. In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the winning entry, ‘Let’s Tell This Story Properly’ by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.
If you go inside Nnam’s house right now the smell of paint will choke you but she enjoys it. She enjoys it the way her mother loved the smell of the outside toilet, a pit latrine, when she was pregnant. Her mother would sit a little distance away from the toilet doing her chores, or eating, and disgusting everyone until the baby was born. But Nnam is not pregnant. She enjoys the smell of paint because her husband Kayita died a year ago, but his scent lingered, his image stayed on objects and his voice was absorbed in the bedroom walls: every time Nnam lay down to sleep, the walls played back his voice like a record. This past week, the paint has drowned Kayita’s odour and the bedroom walls have been quiet. Today, Nnam plans to wipe his image off the objects.
A week ago Nnam took a month off work and sent her sons, Lumumba and Sankara, to her parents in Uganda for Kayita’s last funeral rites. That is why she is naked. Being naked, alone with silence in the house, is therapy. Now Nnam understands why when people lose their minds the first impulse is to strip naked. Clothes are constricting but you don’t realize until you have walked naked in your house all day, every day for a week.
Kayita died in the bathroom with his pants down. He was forty-five years old and should have pulled up his pants before he collapsed. The more shame because it was Easter. Who dies naked on Easter?
That morning, he got up and swung his legs out of bed. He stood up but then sat down as if he had been pulled back. Then he put his hand on his chest and listened. Nnam, lying next to the wall, propped her head on her elbow and said,
‘I guess I’ve not woken up yet,’ he yawned,
‘Then come back to bed.’
But Kayita stood up and wrapped a towel around his waist. At the door he turned to Nnam and said,
‘Go back to sleep: I’ll give the children their breakfast.’
Lumumba woke her up. He needed the bathroom but ‘Dad won’t come out.’ Nnam got out of bed cursing the builders who put the bathroom and the toilet in the same room. She knocked and opened the bathroom door saying, ‘It’s only me.’
Kayita lay on the floor with his head near the heater, his stomach on the bathroom mat, one end of the towel inside the toilet bowl, the other on the floor, him totally naked save for the briefs around the ankles.
Nnam did not scream. Perhaps she feared that Lumumba would come in and see his father naked. Perhaps it was because Kayita’s eyes were closed like he had only fainted. She closed the door and calling his name, pulled his briefs up. She took the towel out of the toilet bowl and threw it in the bath tub. Then she shouted,
‘Get me the phone, Lum.’
She held the door closed when Lumumba gave it to her.
‘Get me your father’s gown too,’ she said, dialling.
She closed the door and covered Kayita with his grey gown.
On the phone, the nurse told her what to do while she waited for the ambulance to arrive.
‘Put him in recovery position . . . keep him warm . . . you need to talk to him . . . make sure he can hear you . . .’
When the paramedics arrived, Nnam explained that the only thing she had noticed was Kayita falling back in bed that morning. Tears gathered a bit when she explained to the boys, ‘Daddy is unwell but he’ll be fine.’
She got dressed and rang a friend to come and pick up the boys. When the paramedics emerged from the bathroom, they had put an oxygen mask on Kayita which reassured her. Because the friend had not arrived to take the boys, Nnam did not go with the ambulance. The paramedics would ring to let her know which hospital had admitted Kayita.
When she arrived in Casualty, a receptionist told her to sit and wait. Then a young nurse came and asked,
‘Did you come with someone?’
Nnam shook her head and the nurse disappeared. After a few moments, the same nurse returned and asked,
‘Are you driving?’
She was and the nurse went away again.
Nnam looked up.
‘Come with me.’ It was an African nurse. ‘The doctor working on your husband is ready.’
She led Nnam to a consultation room and told her to sit down.
‘The doctor will be with you shortly,’ and closed the door behind her.
Presently, a youngish doctor wearing blue scrubs came in and introduced himself.
‘Mrs Kayita, I am sorry we could not save your husband; he was dead on arrival.’ His voice was velvety. ‘There was nothing we could do. I am sorry for your loss.’ His hands crossed each other and settled on the chest. Then one hand pinched his lips, ‘Is there anything we can do?’
In Britain grief is private – you know how women throw themselves about howling this, screaming that back home? None of that. You can’t force your grief on other people. When Nnam was overcome she ran to the toilet and held onto the sink. As she washed her face to walk out, she realised that she did not have her handbag. She went back to the consultation room. The African nurse was holding it.
Her name was Lesego. Was there something she could do? Nnam shook her head. Is there someone you need me to call? You cannot drive in this state. Before Nnam said no Lesego said,
‘Give me your phone.’
Nnam passed it to her.
She scrolled down the contacts calling out the names. When Nnam nodded at a name, Lesego rang the number and said, – I am calling from Manchester Royal infirmary . . . I am sorry to inform you that . . . Mrs Kayita is still here . . . yes of course . . . I’ll stay with her until you arrive.
Leaving the hospital was the hardest. You know when you get those two namasasana bananas joined together by the skin and you rip them apart and eat one? That is how Nnam felt.
Nnam starts cleaning in the bathroom. The floor has been replaced by blue mini mosaic vinyl. Rather than the wash basket, she puts the toilet mats in the bin. She goes to the cupboard to get clean ones. Instead she picks up all the toilet mats there are and stuffs them in the bin too: Kayita’s stomach died on one of them. Then she bleaches the bathtub, the sink and the toilet bowl. She unhooks the shower curtain and stuffs it into the bin too. When she opens the cabinet, she finds Kayita’s anti-beard-bumps powder, a shaver and cologne. They go into the bin. Mould has collected on the shelves inside the cabinet. She unhooks the cabinet off the wall and takes it to the front door. She will throw it outside later. When she returns, the bathroom is more spacious and breezy. She ties the bin-liner up and takes that to the front door as well.
Kayita had had two children before he met Nnam. He had left them in Uganda with their mother but his relationship with their mother had ended long before he met Nnam. On several occasions Nnam asked him to bring the children to Britain but he said,
‘Kdt, you don’t know their mother; the children are her cash cow.’
Still Nnam was uneasy about his children being deprived of their father. She insisted that he rang them every weekend: she even bought the phone cards. When he visited, she sent them clothes.
Kayita had adapted well to the changing environment of a Western marriage unlike other Ugandan men, married to women who emigrated before they did. Many such marriages strained when a groom, fresh from home, was ‘culture-shocked’ and began to feel emasculated by a Britain-savvy wife. Kayita had no qualms about assuming a domestic role when he was not working. They could only afford a small wedding, they could only afford two children. At the end of the month they pooled their salaries together: Kayita worked for G4S so his money was considerably smaller but he tried to offset this by doing a lot of overtime. After paying the bills and other households, they deducted monies to send home to his children and sometimes for issues in either family – someone has died, someone is sick, someone is getting married.
Nnam had bought a nine-acre tract of land in rural Kalule before she met Kayita. After decades in Manchester, she dreamt of retiring in rural Uganda. But when Kayita came along, he suggested that they buy land in Kampala and build a city house first.
‘Why build a house we are not going to live in for the next two decades in rural Kalule where no one will rent it? The rent from the city house will be saved to build the house in Kalule.’
It made sense.
They bought a piece of land at Nsangi. But Nnam’s father, who purchased it for them, knew that most of the money came from his daughter. He put the title deed in her name. When Kayita protested that he was being sidelined, Nnam told her father to put everything in Kayita’s name.
Because they could not afford the fare for the whole family to visit, Kayita was the one who flew to Uganda regularly to check on the house. However it was largely built by Nnam’s father, the only person she could trust with their money and who was an engineer. When the house was finished, Kayita found the tenants to rent it. That was in 1990, six years before his death. They had had the same tenants all that time. Nnam had been to see the house and had met the tenants.
Nnam is cleaning the bedroom now. The windowsill is stained. Kayita used to put his wallet, car keys, spectacles and G4S-pass on the windowsill at night. Once he put a form near the window while it was open. It rained and the paper got soaked. The ink melted and the colour spread on the windowsill discolouring it. Nnam sprays Muscle cleaner on the stains but the ink will not budge. She goes for the bleach.
She clears out the old handbags and shoes from the wardrobe’s floor. She had sent Kayita’s clothes to a charity shop soon after the burial, but she finds a belt and a pair of his underwear behind the bags. Perhaps they are the reason his scent has persisted. After cleaning, she drops a scented tablet on the wardrobe floor.
Ugandans rallied around her during that first week of Kayita’s death. The men took over the mortuary issues, the women took care of the home, while Nnam floated between weeping and sleeping. They arranged the funeral service in Manchester and masterminded the fundraising drive saying,
‘We are not burying one of us in snow.’
Throughout that week, women who worked shifts slept at Nnam’s house looking after the children then going to work. People brought food and money in the evening and prayed and sang. Two of her friends took leave and bought tickets to fly back to Uganda with her.
It was when she was buying the tickets that she wondered where the funeral would be held in Uganda as their house had tenants. She rang and asked her father. He said that Kayita’s family was not forthcoming about the arrangements.
‘They are peasants, Nnameya; you knew that when you married him.’
Nnam kept quiet. Her father was like that. He never liked Kayita. Kayita had neither the degrees nor the right background.
‘Bring Kayita home; we’ll see when you get here,’ he said finally.
As soon as she saw Kayita’s family at Entebbe Airport, Nnam knew that something was wrong. They were not the brothers she had met before and they were unfriendly. When she asked her family where Kayita’s real family was they said, ‘That’s the real family.’
Nnam scratched her chin for a long time. There were echoes in her ears.
When the coffin was released from customs, Kayita’s family took it, loaded it on a van they had brought and drove off.
Nnam was mouth-open shocked.
‘Do they think I killed him? I have the post-mortem documents.’
‘Post-mortem, who cares?’
‘Perhaps he was ashamed of his family,’ Nnam was beginning to blame her father’s snobbery. ‘Perhaps they think we’re snobs.’
She got into one of her family’s cars to drive after Kayita’s brothers.
‘No, not snobbery,’ Meya, Nnam’s oldest brother said quietly. Then he turned to Nnam who sat in the back seat and said, ‘I think you need to be strong Nnameya.’
Instead of asking what do you mean, Nnam twisted her mouth and clenched her teeth as if anticipating a blow.
‘Kayita is . . . was married. He has the two older children he told you about, but in the few times he returned, he has had two other children with his wife.’
Nnam did not react. Something stringy was stuck between her lower front teeth. Her tongue, irritated, kept poking at it. Now she picked at it with her thumbnail.
‘We only found out when he died but father said we wait to tell you until you are home with family.’
In the car were three of her brothers, all older than her. Her sisters were in another car behind. Her father and the boys were in another; uncles and aunts were yet in another. Nnam was silent.
‘We need to stop them and ask how far we are going in case we need to fill the tank,’ another brother pointed at the van with the coffin.
Still Nnam remained silent. She was a kiwuduwudu, a dismembered torso – no feelings.
They came to Ndeeba roundabout and the coffin van veered into Masaka Road. In Ndeeba town, near the timber shacks, they overtook the van and flagged it down. Nnam’s brothers jumped out of the car and went to Kayita’s family. Nnam still picked at the irritating something in her teeth. Ndeeba was recognisable by its mouldy smell of half-dry timber and sawdust.
Heavy planks fell on each other and rumbled. Planks being cut sounded like a lawnmower. She looked across the road at the petrol station with a carwash and smiled, You need to be strong Nnameya as if she had an alternative.
‘How far we are going?’ Meya asked Kayita’s brothers. ‘We might need to fill the tank.’
‘Only to Nsangi,’ one of them replied.
‘Don’t try to lose us: we shall call the police.’
The van drove off rudely. When the three brothers returned to their car they informed Nnam.
‘They are taking him to Nsangi, Nnam;I thought your house in Nsangi is rented out?’
Like a dog pricking up its ears, Nnam sat up. Her eyes moved from one brother to another to another, as if the answer was written on their faces.
‘Get me father on the phone,’ she said.
Meya set the phone on speaker. When their father’s voice came Nnam asked,
‘Father, do you have the title deeds for the house in Nsangi?’
‘They are in the safe deposit.’
‘Are they in his name?’
‘Am I stupid?’
Nnam closed her eyes. ‘Thanks father thanks father thanks thank you.’
He did not reply.
‘When was rent last paid?’
‘Three weeks ago. Where are you?’
‘Don’t touch it, father,’ she said. ‘We’re in Ndeeba. We’re not spending any more money on this funeral. His family will bury him: I don’t care whether they stuff him into a hole. They are taking him to Nsangi.’
‘Nsangi? It does not make sense.’
‘Neither to us.’
When Nnam switched off the phone she said to her brothers, ‘The house is safe,’ as if they had not heard. ‘Now they can hold the vigil in a cave if they please.’
The brothers did not respond.
‘When we get there,’ there was life in Nnam’s voice now, ‘You shall find out what is going on; I’ll be in the car. Then you shall take me back to town: I need to go to a good salon and pamper myself. Then I’ll get a good busuuti and dress up. I am not a widow anymore.’
‘There is no need . . .’ Meya began.
‘I said I am going to a salon to do my hair, my nails and my face. But first I’ll have a bath and a good meal. We’ll see about the vigil later.’
Then she laughed as if she was demented.
‘I’ve just remembered,’ she coughed and hit her chest to ease it. ‘When we were young,’ she swallowed hard, ‘remember how people used to say that we Ganda women are property-minded? Apparently, when a husband dies unexpectedly, the first thing you do is to look for the titles of ownership, contracts, car logbook and keys and all such things. You wrap them tight in a cloth and wear them as a sanitary towel. When they are safe between your legs, you let off a rending cry, Bazze wange!’
Her brothers laughed nervously.
‘As soon as I realised that my house was threatened – pshooo,’ she made a gesture of wind whizzing over her head. ‘Grief, pain, shock – gone.’
As the red brick double-storeyed house in Nsangi came into view, Nnam noted with trepidation that the hedge and compound were taken good care of. When the coffin van drove in Kayita’s people, excitable, surrounded it. The women cried their part with clout. Kayita’s wife’s wail stood out: a lament for a husband who had died alone in the cold. The crying was like a soundtrack to Kayita’s coffin being offloaded and carried into the house. But then the noise receded. Nnam had just confirmed that Kayita’s wife had been the tenant all along. She had met her. Kayita had been paying his wife’s rent with Nnam’s money. Nnam held her mouth in disbelief.
‘Kayita was not a thief; he was a murderer.’ She twisted her mouth again.
Even then, the heart is a coward – Nnam was frightened. Travelling was over. The reality of her situation stared straight in her face.
Her sisters too arrived. They came and sat in the car with her. Her father, the boys, her uncles and aunts parked outside the compound. They were advised not to get out of their cars. The situation would not stop staring Nnam in the face.
She did not even see an old man come over. He had bent low and was peering inside the car when she noticed him. He introduced himself as Kayita’s father. He addressed Nnam,
‘I understand you are the woman who has been living with my son in London.’
‘Manchester,’ one of Nnam’s sisters corrected rudely.
‘Manchester, London, New York, they are like flies to me: I can’t tell male from female.’ The old man turned back to Nnam. ‘You realise Kayita had a wife.’ Before Nnam answered he carried on, ‘Can you allow her to have this last moment with her husband with dignity. We do not expect you to advertise your presence. The boys however, we accept. We’ll need to show them to the clan when you’re ready.’
The sisters were speechless. Nnam watched the man walk back to her house.
The two friends from Manchester arrived and came to the car where Nnam sat. At that point, Nnam decided to confront her humiliation. She looked in to the eyes of her friends and explained the details of Kayita’s deception the way a doctor explains the extent of infection to a patient. There was dignity in her explaining it to them herself.
There is nothing much to clean in the kitchen but she pulls out all the movable appliances to clean out the accumulated grime and rubbish. Under the sink, hidden behind the shopping bags, is Kayita’s mug. Nnam bought it on their fifth wedding anniversary – World’s Best Husband. She takes it to the front door and puts it into a bin. On top of the upper cabinets are empty tins of Quality Street that Kayita treated himself to at Christmas. Kayita had a sweet tooth: he loved muffins, ice-cream, ginger nuts and éclairs. He hoarded the tins saying that one day they would need them. Nnam smiles as she takes the tins to the front door – Kayita’s tendency to hoard things now makes sense.
Nnam, her friends and family returned to the funeral at around 11 p.m. Where she sat, she was able to observe Kayita’s wife. The woman looked old enough to be her mother. That observation, rather than give her satisfaction, stung. Neither the pampering nor the expensive busuuti and expensive jewellery and British airs could keep away the pain that Kayita had remained loyal to such a woman. It dented her well choreographed air of indifference. Every time she looked at his wife, it was not jealousy that wrung her heart: it was the whisper of you were not good enough.
Just then, her aunt, the one who prepared her for marriage, came to whisper tradition. She leaned close and said,
‘When a husband dies you must wear a sanitary towel immediately. As he is wrapped for burial, it is placed on his genitals so that he does not return for . . .’
‘Fuck that shit!’
‘I was only . . . ’
‘Fuck it,’ Nnam did not bother in Luganda.
The aunt melted away.
As more of Nnam’s relations arrived so did a gang of middle-aged women. Nnam did not know who invited them. One thing was clear though; they were angry. Apparently, Nnam’s story was common. They had heard about her plight and had come to her aid. The women looked like former, nkuba kyeyo – the broom swinging economic immigrants to the West. They were dressed expensively. They mixed Luganda and English as if the languages were sisters. They wore weaves or wigs. Their makeup was defiant as if someone had dared to tell them off. Some were bleached. They unloaded crates of beer and cartons of Uganda Waragi. They brought them to the tent where Nnam sat with her family and started sharing out. One of them came to her and asked,
‘You are the Nnameya from Manchester?’ She had a raspy voice like she loved her Waragi.
Nnam nodded and the woman leaned closer.
‘If you want to do crying widow thing, go ahead, but leave the rest to us.’
‘Do I look like I am crying?’
The woman laughed triumphantly. It was as if she had been given permission to do whatever she wanted to do. Nnam decided that the gang were business women, perhaps single mothers, wealthy and bored.
Just then a cousin of Nnam arrived. It was clear she carried burning news. She sat next to Nnam and whispered,
‘Yours are the only sons.’
She rubbed her hands as though Nnam had just won the lottery. She turned her head and pointed with her mouth towards Kayita’s widow. ‘Hers are daughters only.’
Nnam smiled. She turned and whispered to her family, ‘Lumumba is the heir. Our friend has no sons,’ and a current of joy rippled through the tent as her family passed on the news.
At first the gang of women mourned quietly, drinking their beer and enquiring about Britain as if they had come to the vigil out of goodness towards Kayita. At around two o’clock when the choir got tired, one of the women, stood up.
‘Fellow mourners,’ she started in a gentle voice as if she was bringing the good tidings of resurrection.
A reverent hush fell over the mourners.
‘Let’s tell this story properly,’ she paused. ‘There is another woman in this story.’
‘There are also two innocent children in the story.’
‘Amiina mwattu.’ The amens from the gang could have been coming from evangelists.
‘But I’ll start with the woman’s story.’
According to her, the story started when Nnam’s parents sent her to Britain to study and better herself. She had worked hard and studied and saved but along came a liar and a thief.
‘She was lied to,’ the woman with a raspy voice interrupted impatiently. She stood up as if the storyteller was ineffectual. ‘He married her – we have the pictures, we have the video. He even lied to her parents – look at that shame!’
‘Come on,’ the interrupted woman protested gently. ‘I was unwrapping the story properly: you are tearing into it.’
‘Sit down: we don’t have all night,’ the raspy woman said.
The gentle woman sat down. The other mourners were still dumbfounded by the women’s audacity.
‘A clever person asks,’ the raspy woman carried on. ‘Where did Kayita get the money to build such a house when he is just broom swinging in Britain? Then you realise that ooooh, he’s married a rich woman, a proper lawyer in Manchester.’
‘How does she know all that?’ Nnam whispered to her cousin.
‘Hmmm, words have legs.’
‘He told her that he was not married but this wife here knew what was going on,’ the woman was saying. ‘Does anyone here know the shock this woman is going through? No, why, because she is one of those women who emigrated? For those who do not know, this is her house built with her money. I am finished.’
There was clapping as she sat down and grabbed her beer. The mourning ambiance of the funeral had now turned to the excitement of a political rally.
‘Death came like a thief,’ a woman with a squeaky voice stood up. ‘It did not knock to alert Kayita. The curtain blew away and what filth!’
‘If this woman had not fought hard to bring Kayita home, the British would have burnt him. They don’t joke. They have no space to waste on unclaimed bodies. But has anyone had the grace to thank her? No. Instead, Kayita’s father tells her to shut up. What a peasant!’
The gang had started throwing words about haphazardly. It could turn into throwing insults. An elder came to calm them down.
‘You have made your point, mothers of the nation, and I add it is a valid point because let’s face it, he lied to her and as you say, there are two innocent children involved.’
‘But first let us see the British wife,’ a woman interrupted him. ‘Her name is Nnameya. Let the world see the woman this peasant family has used like arse wipes.’
Nnam did not want to stand up but she did not want to seem ungrateful to the women’s effort. She stood up head held high.
‘Come,’ a drunk woman grabbed her hand and led her through the mourners into the living room. ‘Look at her,’ she said to Kayita’s family.
The mourners, even those who had been at the back of the house, had come to stare at Nnam. She looked away from the coffin because tears were letting down her ‘hold your head high’ stance.
‘Stealing from me I can live with, but what about my children?’
At that moment the gang’s confrontational attitude fell away and they shook their heads and wiped their eye and sucked their teeth,
‘The children indeed . . . Abaana maama . . .yiyi but men also . . . this lack of choice to whom you’re born to . . . who said men are human . . .’
The vigil had turned in favour of Nnam.
It was then that Nnam’s eyes betrayed her. She glanced at the open coffin. There is no sight more revolting than a corpse caught telling lies.
Nnam is in the lounge. She has finished cleaning. She has taken all the photographs that had been on the walls – wedding, birthdays, school portraits, Christmases – and all the pictures taken before Kayita’s death, whether he is in the picture or not, are separated from the others. She throws them in the bin-bag and ties it. She takes the others to the bedroom. She gets her nightgown and covers her nakedness. Then she takes the bin with the pictures to the front door. She opens the door and the freshness of the air outside hits her. She ferries all the bin-bags, one by one, and places them below the chute’s mouth. She throws down the smaller bin-bags first. They drop as if in a new long drop latrine – the echo is delayed. She breaks the cabinet and drops the bits down. Finally, she stuffs the largest bin-bag, the one with the pictures, down the chute’s throat. The chute chokes. Nnam goes back to the house and brings back a mop. In her mind her father’s recent words are still ringing,
‘We can’t throw them out of the house just like that. There are four innocent children in that house and Lumumba, being Kayita’s eldest son, has inherited all of them. Let’s not heap that guilt on his shoulders’
She uses the handle to dig at the bag. After a while of breaking glass and the frames, the bin-bag falls through. When she comes back to the house, the smell of paint is overwhelming. She takes the mop to the kitchen and washes her hands. Then she opens all the windows and the wind blows the curtains wildly. She takes off the gown and the cool wind blows on her bare skin. She closes her eyes and raises her arms. The sensation of wind on her skin, of being naked, of the silence in a clean house is so overwhelming, but she does not cry. ■
Photograph courtesy of Michael Anderson