Lily by Sylvia Aleso Shavajai
The smell of fried fish, samosas and French fries fills the town centre streets. People throng the narrow pavements, and sometimes, where bustling roadside cafes take up most of the pavement space, people cross the streets without looking out for cars. At the corner of Mosque road, a young woman fishes a mobile phone from her bag and dials a number. After a few short rings, somebody picks up at the other end.
‘Jane, I’ve arrived, I’m at the bus terminus already.’ Pause. ‘Not in the terminus exactly, I’m waiting across the street, outside a shop called Al- …’ The line goes dead. She looks at her phone frowning; she is out of airtime. She takes a sweeping look over the street, settling for the nearest kiosk to her left. A row of phone booths stand to the left of the kiosk. She reaches into her green purse and gets a crisp Fifty-shilling note to buy a scratch card. As she is walking towards the kiosk, her phone rings again.
‘I’m on my way, stay right there. You said Al-Fahim, right?’
‘Yea, are you far?’
‘Relax, I’ll be there in around fifteen minutes.’
‘Alright then, I’ve started drawing a little attention here, but I won’t move an inch.’ The line goes dead again.
This time, her phone has gone off. ‘I knew I should have bought this thing a new battery!’ Lily mutters. She walks back to where she had been standing. The chalky buildings lining the streets remind her of the old Arabian buildings in history books. Her rumbling stomach pushes her towards the closest eatery along the street. A mostly male clientele occupies the round tables. She walks on. A gentle breeze eases the monstrous humidity. Her thoughts drift to the beach. She can’t wait to see the ocean for the first time. She can taste salt on her lips.
The muezzins call to prayer. She looks at her watch. Fifteen minutes have passed. A few men mill past her in the direction of the nearest call. Her growing anxiety leads her to the line of yellow phone booths she had noticed earlier along the street. All except the last one have their handsets missing. The last booth’s handset is hanging on, but only three buttons remain, six, eight and redial. Matatus speed past, some stopping to pick up more passengers. The occasional one drops off a passenger or two. At these times, Lily moves forward to scrutinize the passengers’ faces. A number of hawkers take over the streets now. They set up their makeshift stalls, eager to catch the evening crowd heading home. A young man stacks a number of crates next to Lily, arranging apples wrapped in plastic paper on them. Women covered head to toe in burqas, with only their heavily made up eyes and sandaled feet visible, hurry past dragging little curly haired children along. The hawkers beckon them to their wares. Most ignore them, but a few stop to buy.
‘I hate that I have to do this,’ says Lily to herself, then to an approaching woman, ‘Excuse me Miss, may I borrow your mobile phone?’
The woman stops for a moment, regarding Lily with icy eyes, ‘Sorry?’
‘My phone has died and I need to call someone, may I borrow yours? I’ll…’
The woman waves her off and walks away.
‘…pay,’ she finishes under her breath. ‘So much for Swahili warmth.’
‘Sister, you can use mine,’ the hawker next to Lily says in a quiet voice. Lily turns to look at him, surprised. Before she can respond, someone grabs her from behind.
‘Hey you. I’m sooo sorry I’m a little late.’
‘It’s alright….Am I glad to see you, I had started getting weird stares.’ They hug.
‘Goodness, it’s been long. I missed you so much. You look great! How was the journey?’
‘Fine, fine. I tried calling you several times on the way here,’ says Lily.
‘Oh, I had to meet someone earlier and couldn’t leave my phone on. The meeting took longer than I expected. I’m sorry, I’d forgotten how worked up these little things make you. You’re growing as uptight as your mom,’ teases Jane, leading Lily down the street. Lily laughs, following through the maze of narrow streets.
They board a matatu at the next intersection. The two cannot hear each other above the deafening music. Lily takes to observing her friend. She looks more beautiful than Lily remembers, even with her bony face heavily made up. The figure hugging dress she has on brings out her well rounded curves. The hemline, well above the knees as she sits, exposes her thighs. The men in the vehicle ogle, while the women throw disgusted looks her way. Jane occasionally smiles at some of the men staring. For a moment, Lily feels like one of those women. In this moment, Ben’s image comes to Lily’s mind. It always comes up when she is with Jane.
In this moment, instead of feeling guilt, she delights in the sloppy first kiss that happened one evening, immediately after dropping Jane off at her house. She relishes her first time with him in the dark hotel room she cannot locate now, forgetting his brash hands and how much it hurt. She takes pleasure in the furtive looks they exchanged behind Jane’s back when all three went out, the secret calls, the rendezvous. Jane suddenly turns to her. Lily looks away, ashamed of her thoughts.
They get off at the next stop and walk a few meters of sandy pavement to a large block of apartments. At the gate, a uniformed guard acknowledges Jane with a brief nod. He lets them in and hands her a small bunch of keys on a plastic holder. Jane leads Lily to her flat, on the third floor.
‘Wow! This is sooo nice. How on earth do you afford this?’ asks Lily, scanning the living room. A few picture frames hang on the cream walls. Two brown couches face each other in the middle of the room with a deep cream Persian rug thrown between them on the floor. She takes off her shoes, dropping her bag on a low table beside the door and steps on the cream tiles. Refreshingly cool.
‘Well, I already told you I work part-time and I hustle. I also happen to know the Landlord very well. And this place is not that good, not enough space and no view. Come on now, take a quick shower’ she says, handing Lily a clean towel.
‘Can’t we just stay in tonight?’ Lily protests, ‘I’m so tired and hungry and my phone is off.’
‘We can’t dear. I have to meet someone and you’re coming with me. Don’t worry, it’ll be fun. And it’s time you forget your silly books a little. Loosen up. I have everything planned out. Tomorrow, we’ll go to the beach, it’s only ten minutes from here, okay? I’ll put your phone on charger while you shower.’
Lily quickly gives in. Over time, she has come to learn that it is no use struggling against Jane. She could make you do almost anything she pleased with her charm and gentle persuasion.
‘No one says no to you,’ she says.
‘You’d be surprised at the number that do.’ Jane rolls her eyes.
‘Well, only the stupid ones do, and they don’t know what they are missing.’ Lily changes the topic. She is the only person who knows of Harry, the first man Jane dated here. Jane had met him a few days after moving to the coast. She had let him move in with her on her measly student budget. When she had become pregnant, he had ‘borrowed’ money from her to get it fixed, then disappeared. Lily had not beenable to come down to the coast, but she had called Jane almost three times daily through the months that it took Jane to get over the whole incident. Jane had sworn to Lily then, that she would never cry again, not over a man.
Lily leaves the bathroom door open so that she can continue catching up with Jane, who is rummaging through her wardrobe. The wardrobe is full of dresses, most of them short. Jane shows Lily her favorite one, the bright red with gold trimmings at the edges and a plunging neck line. She says a boyfriend called Ali bought it in Dubai together with a pair of strappy gold shoes.
After freshening up, Lily finds Jane has already chosen and laid out clothes for her on the bed. Lily says she won’t go out dressed like that. Jane says that the shorts were perfectly fine, sexy even. Lily uses an old scar on her leg as a scapegoat, careful not to let on that she feels the shorts are too revealing for her. They finally cede a little ground, with Jane letting Lily put on trousers and Lily agreeing to wear the low cut top Jane picked out.
While Jane fixes her a quick snack, Lily looks through a labeled box of ‘old things’ Jane says she’ll be giving away to a children’s home. Inside it are a few clothes and shoes she doesn’t wear, relatively new books Lily can swear Jane never touched and dog eared magazines and tabloids with lipstick marks on the covers, stuffed animals, unopened maroon boxes of make-up. Lily smiles. ‘The girls will be thrilled’ she says loudly so that Jane can hear her from the kitchenette.
A little metallic box at the bottom catches her eye. She instantly recognizes the blue sky and wooly clouds drawn on it. Her heart lurches as she opens it. She holds the little metallic bracelet in her hand. The tiny moon and star charms tinkle. She remembers her screech of delight when she had opened the box and how badly Jane had wanted it. What a huge sacrifice it had seemed then, giving it to her Jane the very night they heard that Jane’s father had died. Jane must have outgrown it, now. It makes sense but Lily feels a little hurt; she still wears the anklet Jane gave her on her leg ankle.
‘Leeeel, come eat. A cab will be here in five.’
‘Coming..’Lily stands in a hurry, upsetting a vase of bluebells. How silly of me to think that, it’s been almost seven years, we’re twenty now, she thinks. She places the bracelet back into the little box, reading the words on the box again. Mein Bonbon, ich denke immer auf dich. He never sent another birthday gift. She studied German a whole year to learn what those words meant, and still it was useless, she wasn’t his candy, he didn’t think about her anymore.
‘Leeel!’ Jane’s high heels tap furiously on the tiles towards the bedroom.
She turns the box over. Love, Dad. She slips it in her jeans pocket.
The cab pulls up, just as Lily finishes eating her fruit salad. ‘Here we are’ says Jane as they pull into the parking lot of a bustling club. Jane pulls out a two hundred shilling note from her purse and tips the driver. Revelers sit around tables on the terrace and up on the balcony. Probably with a clear view of us, thinks Lily. She instinctively pulls her top higher.
‘Are you sure we’ll get any space in there?’
‘Don’t worry, its settled’
They go up the stairs of the establishment to the more private lounge. The ambience is inviting, the dim lights friendly to the eyes, the plush, green couches comfortable. It feels exclusive. She is hardly new to the club scene, but this is different from the regular joints she frequents. Jane is a few feet ahead, but Lily almost unaware keeps her slow pace, engrossed by the crystal chandeliers and the paintings hanging on the wall. A pretty hostess with a nose piercing smiles at Jane and leads the two to their seat in the middle of the room.
‘Wow, this place looks amazing,’ says Lily.
‘Well, thank me for this. I’m sure you can steal a few ideas from here for that silly project of yours now,’ says Jane, scanning the room.
‘Right. I hadn’t thought of that,’ says Lily. She studies interior design.
‘Well, that’s what friends are for.’
Lily’s gaze follows Jane’s to a table with three men. The shortest man struggles with his lighter before the second man reaches out and lights his cigar. The last man has his back to Lily. She can see a round bald patch in the middle of his head. ‘Stay here, I’ll be back in a minute,’ says Jane. She walks to the table, sits beside the short one. Lily watches them talk for a while, before Jane points to their table. All three men turn to look at Lily for a moment. The bald man summons a waitress and says something to her. She moves to Lily’s table with a menu and asks her to order. Lily says she will wait for her friend. The waitress gives her a mechanical smile and walks away. Jane looks over at Lily, but she avoids Jane’s eyes. She pretends to be going through her phone.
Soon, Jane goes back to her seat. She pulls out a pack of cigarettes.
‘Take one,’ she offers Lily, tilting the pack towards her.
‘No. I don’t smoke, remember? And neither do you.’
‘Relax, I only do it for show, and that’s only once in a while, whenever I go out,’ Lily forces a laugh. Jane is usually in a club most nights Lily calls.
At a booth in a corner, a slim young woman, around their age, is giving an old white man something close to a lap dance. He has pink, hairy arms deep into her skirt. Jane finds Lily watching.
‘A little less sunburn and I would have done him, what do you think?’
Lily looks away. ‘Who are you meeting?’
The waitress comes over again and Jane orders for a beer. Lily asks for a coke.
‘Why didn’t you get anything when she came here first?’ asks Jane, changing the subject.
‘She said that guy sent her over. I don’t accept freebies from strangers,’ says Lily meaningfully gesturing at the bald man with her eyes. ‘Those are the friends you were meeting?’
‘That’s my Landlord, Mike. And the other one is John, his friend. I don’t know the third one.’
‘You met to talk about rent…here, at this time. ’
‘Mike is a nice guy, he helps me out sometimes, and he was busy, so he suggested meeting here. He..’
Lily’s phone beeps. You didn’t inform us if you arrived well. How do you like my hometown? Every1 misses you. God bless n be good, Sara. She smiles and thinks, at least one person thinks of me.
‘My roomie, the church one. She’ll kill me if she finds out I’m here,’ she explains to Jane.
Sara has always been nice to her. She is the closest thing to a friend Lily has in college. Lily considers texting back but decides not to. Her mind is still on the three men. Is Jane really meeting these guys?
She looks at everything but her friend’s face. Her eyes suddenly meet those of a dark, good-looking man on the table to their left. She looks away and smiles shyly, pleased. When she looks again, a girl has joined the men’s table. She is beautiful, with very fair skin. Her facial features seem perfectly symmetrical, with her wide eyes and pretty full lips standing out. The girl flirts with both men, laughing coyly from time to time. Each man seems to be trying too hard to keep her focused on him. ‘Ouch,’ she says under her breath, embarrassed she had imagined he would be interested in her. She turns to Jane, who is busy texting away on her phone as if she has not seen what happened.
Jane speaks first, ‘Let me order you a drink’
‘I sure need one, but nothing bitter, and NO beer.’
Jane smiles and places the order. The waiter clears the table of empty bottles and gets Lily a fresh glass. Soon the fruit wine arrives in an attractive, sassy bottle. At the first sip, Lily smiles. ‘Not very bad, it actually tastes of my favorite cough syrup.’
After three bottles of the sweet drink, Lily tells Jane she has began feeling a little light-headed. She chatters away and gets up to dance, flirting with the men who dance with her. While Lily dances, Jane takes turns speaking to her Landlord and his friends and getting refills for when Lily breaks.
She goes and comes a few times before Jane says, ‘John likes you. He’s cute, go say hello.’ Lily laughs and replies, ‘You serious? Cute? He’s a little too old for me. I like HIM,’ she says, pointing to the next table, oblivious of Jane’s impatience.
‘Come on, let’s go to the restroom.’
‘I don’t feel like going.This is the best ragga song ever, whoever is doing the mixes is just awesome! Can I have another drink after this? I’m tired of the tonic and my head is clearing,’ says Lily, getting up to dance. Jane grips her hand.
‘Grab your purse. Let’s go, let’s go.’
She leads Lily to the restroom and while touching up her deep red lipstick says, ‘Mike wants me to leave. You’ll be okay here for a while, right?’
‘We’ve just been here two hours, you haven’t even danced. I thought you said this was supposed to be fun.’
‘I really have to go. I’ll explain tomorrow. Don’t worry, you’ll be safe, John, will take you home…whenever you want.’
‘I don’t want to go with him. Can’t you just drop me off at your place before you leave?’
‘Lily, please! Just try being considerate at times. I brought you here. John is paying for everything. The least you can do is be a little polite to him. And I need a place to stay; Mike happens to be my Landlord. You always agreed to let Ben drop you off anyway before, what’s the difference.’
‘This isn’t the same. That man could be married …with a zillion children your age,’ Lily cuts in, looking Jane squarely in the eye. Part of an email she stumbled upon the past month comes back to her. He’s having an affair with a woman half his age…even less. She’s 23, Louisa’s age for Pete’s sake. I have taken this for five years but No more. I got a good lawyer, property transfer will be done by May, after the divorce. He doesn’t stand a chance. Let him rot in Germany with his little slut. He always thought he was too good for me and the kids. This whole marriage was a mistake.
‘Divorced. His children are grown up.’
‘That’s what he told you? Still, look at him…you should be sleeping with his son, not him. Don’t you think more of yourself?’
Jane slams her bag on the counter. It’s contents scatter all over the counter, a round tin of lotion rolling over onto the floor. The lid comes off. The thick brown liquid slowly forms a deep brown pool on the cream tiles. ‘That’s enough, not sleeping with anyone doesn’t make you a saint, so don’t you judge me. Besides, there is no difference between Mike, his stupid son, Harry, Ben…At least Mike pays for my flat, and my clothes. That Ben you trusted so much, he was a liar as well. While he took us out and slept with me, his wife was expecting his second child. And you know how I found out? His stupid woman called my mom. Why do you think I moved this far. At least these ones admit to having their flaws…so we can deal.’
‘No, no. I can’t think. It can’t be. Listen to me Jane, let’s just leave. Tell him you’re not feeling well or whatever, then we can go. I can’t do this.’
‘Lily, just stop it right now! I’m your best friend, I know these people. You’ll be fine, let’s go. Just trust me.’
A few ladies get into the restroom, chatting loudly. Lily storms out. John has joined her table. She sits on the opposite corner of the couch. John smiles and fills her glass, passing it to her. She ignores him. Mike gets up when Jane arrives. She offers a weak smile to Lily and mouths, ‘Call me.’ Lily looks away. The pair leaves, with Mike’s fleshy arm around Jane’s waist. John moves towards Lily.
‘You’re not drinking,’ he says, his large face so close to Lily that she smells his beer breath.
‘I’m tired…I just want to go home.’
‘Let’s wait a while then we’ll go. Another drink?’ He holds her hands in his big sweaty ones, ‘So small, they look like my daughter’s.’ He smiles.
She lets him hold her hands for a moment longer than necessary, then pulls away. ‘No, I’m fine, no more drinks.’ She hesitates, smiles then continues, ‘But, if you have loose change, I can buy some air time for my phone.’
‘That’s no problem, I can send one of the waitresses for that.’ He stares at her more openly, her gaze lingering on her exposed chest and arms. She lets his eyes wander, running a hand on his thigh. ‘There’s no need for that, I need to walk a little anyway.’
‘Alright, alright, but I’m told you are new, don’t wander too far, you may get lost. You can get some at the bar at the corner or downstairs. Hurry darling.’ As he reaches for a wad of notes out of his wallet, she slips a small purse out of her bag. In it are her identification card, student I.D and a five hundred shilling note.
John makes a show of handing her the notes, making sure she sees the rest of the money in his wallet. She pretends not to look at the money he hands her. As she stands to leave, he grabs her hand. ‘Stop.’ She turns. ‘Leave your bag here, and get me some too.’ He hands her another note.
Smart man, she thinks smiling sardonically. She pats her purse in the back pocket of her pants and walks out of the lounge.
The crowd outside seems to have grown in size. She hurries towards the establishment’s taxi rank. A young couple gets off a car that has just entered the parking lot. She gets in. Incidentally, it’s the same driver who drove Jane and her to the club.
‘Are you alright, miss?’ he asks. Her haste betrays her urgency.
‘Please drive me to the Coast Bus booking office, fast.’
She closes her eyes and listens to him humming along to the quiet music on the stereo. Her mind wanders back to a memory, still fresh. He walked right into her room. ‘Candy…’ The eyes struck her, even before that cool baritone did. She had always loved his voice. He used to send her recordings on tape when he was away. He was sitting on the sole plastic chair in the room, speaking to Sara when Lily walked in. He had looked almost comical, that big man in that little chair, his knees almost up to the top of the little reading table.
She had stood at the door, stunned. He was the one who had come up to her, held her in his arms. She noticed the graying hair on his temples, the scent of his aftershave, he never changed his aftershave. He had practically dragged her to the car, her legs had felt like rubber. She had sat in the front passenger seat listening to him humming along to German pop tunes. The life size Barbie doll in the back asked, ‘Sie sieht nicht so gut aus. Ist sie krank?’
‘Hilda is worried about you, honey. Thinks you are sick.’ She had looked back, at the little bump on her slender frame. Barbie doll had smiled, her blonde hair in her large blue eyes. She looked no older than Louisa. Lily’s phone had rung then, her mother. ‘Your father has been in town. Don’t let him fool you, he just wants his property back. More than six years and he didn’t call. Don’t listen to him.’
She had listened to him, had stood by him, had willed him not to leave her again, but it only lasted three weeks. After those, he left with Barbie.
Sobs rack Lily’s body. Six years and a day of suppression. The driver steals looks at her from the rearview mirror. He is polite enough to let her clean her face before she gets off. She looks through her purse, seven hundred shillings, not enough to get her home. She would never call her mother. She tries her sister’s number, but it’s turned off too. Sara answers, her sleepy voice quickly sobered by Lily’s strained sobs.
In twenty minutes, a black car pulls up outside the waiting room. Sara’s brother comes in, immediately picking out the little, distraught girl in the small sleepy crowd. Sara’s mother is waiting up for them. She fusses over her, but Lily just wants to sleep. After a quick shower, she prepares for bed. Something jingles in her jeans pocket as she hangs it on a wooden pole on one of the pale blue walls. She opens the blue box and tries the bracelet on her wrist. It fits. She unties her anklet and puts both in the box. She holds the box between her palms for a moment as if weighing it, then tosses it into a blue waste paper basket in a corner of the room.
Sylvia Aleso Shavajai has been writing all her life. Her work draws from everyday experience and observation. She hopes to have her work read world over email@example.com