The commander greets me at the door with a kiss on the cheek and a rub of the shoulder before ushering me to the lounge. I smile cautiously, waiting for the something commanding to rip through his tidal of warmth.
“Ah Bwana,” he called playfully. “Some tea for the comrade,” he continued. A sturdy young man appears from the passage, grinning as though tea or comrade was code for something else.
“No water you know so it might take some time. The new government.” He lowers his glasses at me, waiting for me to express my disapproval at the new government.
“Yes no water I heard- for three days. Terrible,” I recite firmly, still standing in front of a mint coloured, 70’s-style sofa. While everyone was clamouring for the bigness of the world outside, the commander-maybe seeking comfort in the familiar, maybe too lazy to go to the new Game store on Great East- had insisted on the past, even if it was wobbly and disjointed and noisy.
“Take a seat, take a seat comrade. You’re welcome here,” he blurts awkwardly, the conversation not moving as he had planned. He reaches to my side and fixes a pillow behind me before crouching into his own wobbly arm chair.
“So your mother tells me you’re doing some sort of project?”
“Yes, well, My PhD.” I fumble through my bag for a pen, paper and Dictaphone.
“Your father would be proud-we were good friends. He was a very good man-he would be very proud.” Because good men were proud and proud men were good.
I wince and turn my face away, still uncertain of what or whether to feel after all these years. In my memories he is still someone else’s father. It is still someone else’s loss.
Waiting for my gaze to return to his, the commander takes of his glasses and stuffs them in the front pocket of his Nyerere shirt. And I am struck by his beauty; deep brown skin adorned with wrinkles only where it will give him an air of wisdom; eyes perfectly slanted to match the slope of his cheeks; a full set of pearly white teeth. Then I imagine him, this beautiful man, this man who kisses on the cheek and drinks tea, with a bag over his head. I imagine water filling his lungs as he chokes on defiant words. The things he must have seen, the things he must have done and which were done to him.
“Intelligence.” He smiles. A closed lipped, elegant smile accustomed to keeping secrets, to knowing things.
“Sorry?” I say, clicking my pen.
“Everyone hears armed wing and they think Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, or what they think Che Guevara and Fidel Castro did. But we weren’t just running around like cartoons-uncivilized, they called us.” He furrows his brow, angry at them.
“It was-I was Intelligence. And in any case we also weren’t all communists either. Well, not all of us.” He laughs. A booming laugh which shakes his firm body, and tickles mine.
I-N-T-E-L-L-I-G-E-N-C-E. I scribble in my note-pad, snorting giddily as I do.
He straightens his back as if prompted by my writing. And I stop snorting, preparing for an important revelation.
“Tea is here.”
The sturdy young man sets the tray down gently on the table and they exchange glances. Now I wonder if they are conspiring to poison me. Trying to make sense of something that may not need making sense of, I part my lips to ask how he had come to know the commander, where he was from-already imagining a sprawling life for him but I only manage a polite “thank you” through their stoic silence .Then the young man disappears again into a dim passage way, leaving a discomfiting torrent of questions in his wake, questions I wanted to ask for reasons I should not have, given the circumstances.
“So just to begin. I mean just as background before we get into the main thing. You can tell me some things, maybe about your life. You know where you were born, your family, and your wife. Your children?” I still want to know things I shouldn’t want to know.
“There was never a woman, never a child.” He glides coolly over my dubious motives. There would be no manoeuvring with the commander; he had his training and his experience, his quiet way of making sure things remained in line, exactly as he wanted them to be. So, instead he tells me about his childhood as the son of teachers; his mischievous high school years in a catholic mission school; a short stint at the University of the Good Hope where he was supposed to have studied medicine. He ebbs and flows between a childlike reverie for these glory days, and a cautious criticism of what he refers to only as “the conditions at the time”. He is careful not to give way to pain or suffering or longing, to show the wounds still there. The scars you could be proud of but the things you lost, the wounds, those you had to hide.
“And you? A child? A man? Tell me about your life?” He leans forward and clasps his hands.
“Oh me?” I point at myself as if there were anybody else in the room, and then I cross and uncross my legs, as a quiet panic assails me. It is happening again, that thing of forgetting who I am and where I am and even my own name. For a while now it as if my body belongs to someone else and I am living someone else’s life.
“I’m just teasing. Don’t take me so serious.”
He taps a hand on his knee and smiles an almost-smile, almost relishing my terror and the power he had to induce it.
“Oh no! I’m fine.” I feign a light hearted laugh as if it did not matter to me that he now knew things about me. He knew things. About grief; about its loneliness, its uncertainty, its insecurity. He knew how it could rip you from your own body until you forgot yourself.
In the evening the commander insists on taking me back to my hotel.
“No cabs for you, not at this time!” he announces.
Clement drives- the sturdy young man whose name I learn when he answers a call from another boss, mocking him with false sycophancy-“yes boss”, “of course boss”, “you’re the boss”. And as we make our way through the city I try to make sense of it all. I try to make sense, of the chunky government buildings next to scrawny crumbling stalls, Coca-Cola logos forged meticulously onto their concrete walls. I try to make sense of the small men selling newspapers to big men in muddied four by fours, and of the women adorned in straight wigs and bright coloured wrappers, who nobody ever noticed. I try to make sense of this struggling-to-be-sprawling-city. It belonged someplace else.
“Ma-dame? Muli che?” Clement asks.
“Yes.” The commander replies on my behalf. “This comrade just likes to think a lot.” He puts a finger to his temple then to Clements’s, who pushes it away, shyly.
“I can’t disagree. I like to think a lot but it’s my job isn’t it commander? And you made me think a lot today commander,” I say.
“I don’t know. You just made me think a lot.”
“I think we should call this one Professor. She knows too much.” He adjusts the rear view mirror slightly, as if searching for my thoughts in the narrowing road behind us. He was lost for once, unable to crack codes and break and enter. Sitting beside someone he loved-whichever way he loved them, however much he told himself he had a choice in which way that was-he was no longer Intelligence. Here, I could see what he could see and feel what he could feel. And as I turn to face the broken world outside with a crooked smile, half triumphant at the small victory of unbundling this truth and half defeated that it would never give me what he had- I see that I had never been scared. I am jealous of intelligence.
Bio: Mwinji is a Zambian-South African graduate based at the University of Cape Town. Her writing has appeared in Brittle Paper, and Munyori Literary Journal. She writes on different topics but truly loves writing about people, and finds us humans to be difficult, dark at times, but always beautiful and interesting.