The bed sagged after he was done. Mbali lay still, covered in delicious sweat. The only sound in the room was Jakobo’s now-slow breathing beside her, a result from his energetic thrusts. She wanted to joke about the bed, say something tongue-in-cheek about charging him extra if she found it was broken, but the words didn’t come out. Her head was swimming, stuck in the fuzzy clouds of concocted drugs and alcohol, that realm that gave her a luxurious peace it was almost spiritual. She was in the zone, as Jakobo would say. Here, he was a regular, the only man she would do anything for. Sex for free, whatever. But this time he had agreed to pay because she was broke. For the past three weeks business had been slow and she had a nine-year-old daughter to feed.
She knew Nana was awake in their rain-dampened sitting room, silently curled on the cigarette-scorched armchair, sucking a thumb. She had Down syndrome. Whenever Mbali brought clients in, they often attached no importance to her little girl, as though she were invisible, just another piece of furniture to be moved about. Nana herself didn’t help matters because she never spoke, not to her clients anyway. She was a shy and sensitive girl, keenly aware she wasn’t “pretty” and was obsessive about her looks: hair too short to make decent braids, nose flattened into her skull, neck barely there.
One of Mbali’s clients, long ago, had made an unkind comment about the bland nature of Nana’s face, comparing it to a football. Before then, things were in order — she naked and ready, he struggling to wear a condom. She hadn’t cared to know his name. The only detail he had supplied was that he was married and his wife was tired of him because of his high libido. In this business of providing sexual service, names weren’t necessary. But in that moment she was irritated by his dripping laughter; she couldn’t stand the vast, pudgy softness of his body pinning her down. Above all, he had insulted her daughter. She asked for his name.
“Lenka,” he had said, with an absentmindedness that annoyed her, then he made a small sound of triumph when the condom rolled on.
Disgusted, Mbali said “You are an asshole, Lenka” to make the insult stick, to make it personal. Then she excavated herself from under him and pushed him out the room, and out of the house. Jakobo was different. Always kind, always sweet, he made Nana feel special, buying her gifts and school things and helping her with her homework. He was warm and open. Avuncular. Whenever something needed fixing in the house, say, an electrical fault or damage, Jakobo would have it sorted with an effortless charm.
Through her drug-alcohol haze she saw him putting on his clothes. Boxers first, his spine arching out across his back as he bent, crisscrosses of her fingernail scratches from a recent riotous sex all healed. She marvelled at the plane of his thigh as he stood to look for his shirt. She wondered if she should ask him to stay for the night. He had never slept in, and she was surprised it had taken her this long to consider it. It was a wonderful opportunity, she reasoned, to strengthen their bond and maybe they could have breakfast in the morning, with Nana smiling her Jakobo-induced smile and amenable to eating whatever Mbali presented before her.
“Yeah,” Jakobo zipped his jeans.
“Why don’t you stay?” she inched closer to him, bringing her face to his crotch.
“Can’t, interview tomorrow.”
Mbali had forgotten about his interview. It was for a managerial position in a new upscale hotel, and she thought he was well-suited for the job, given his experience in the hospitality business. She had encouraged him, from the days of being an underpaid baker to drifting in and out of chef jobs in small hotels, and hustling up the ranks in a Lebanese-owned restaurant that was closed down after an investigation into claims that they were using expired products to make their food. She wanted to be happy for him, but her ambivalence crippled her, the fear that he would get this job and drift out of their lives, like smoke. Which was why it was convenient to forget about his interview, to pretend it was never mentioned. She thought of Nana again, small and alone in the too-bright space of the sitting room, and her heart was weighed down with sadness.
“I’ll call you,” Jakobo checked his pockets, making sure he wasn’t leaving anything behind.
Idly playing with the vaginal lubricant, Mbali felt her senses sharpen. The feel-good drug trip was diminishing; the dull, numbing oblivion ebbing away. She looked at Jakobo, as though seeing him for the first time. He was ready to leave, all dressed, and a wind of despair whistled through her.
“Good luck,” she hoped she sounded cheerful.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Jakobo smiled. He came forward and kissed her mouth.
“Not this,” Mbali held him back, smiling.
“The cash,” she reminded him.
“I don’t have any cash,”
“Seriously,” Jakobo made an attempt to kiss her again but she stopped him.
“What do you mean you don’t have any cash?”
“Dammit. But that wasn’t what you told me,”
“You can still manage—’’
“But I told you my situation and you agreed,” Mbali kept her voice low. She hated this, arguing with a client over money, especially if Nana could hear them from the next room. But Jakobo wasn’t a client. He wasn’t her lover, either. And that was the problem — the lack of definition to their relationship, the absence of structure.
“You just have to pay,” she stood on the bed, a foot taller than him; the bed creaked and collapsed, sloping, the frame support dismantling apart. Ungainly she stepped off the wrecked bed, “Who will pay for this?”
“Don’t be silly,” Jakobo’s right eye twitched.
“I want my cash,” Mbali said firmly.
Jakobo got busy on his cell phone, “Do you want to search me?”
Mbali reached for his trouser pocket and he slapped it away.
“You are not leaving until you pay me,” she gripped his nearest hand tightly. She knew she was being a little unreasonable. Jakobo could always pay later, but his imminent departure had filled her with a drive to be possessive, to cling to whatever that could come from him, even it was money. It would be a compensation for the yawning loneliness that was about to consume her soul. He looked at where her hand had made contact, his brows furrowing with an emotion she had never seen before. Anger. It was new as it was strange, and it seemed to crackle through his skin, hot and dangerous.
Mbali commanded herself to unclamp her hand, realising her error; her brain delayed, unresponsive. In the process of trying again Jakobo’s tight-fisted hand, so swift and unexpected, jammed hard against her bare chest and bulleted her towards the crowded dressing table. One side of the mirror came off unhinged from its frame. Almost-empty perfume bottles tinkled against each other, and toppled down on the over-vacuumed rug. The chipped fishbowl-sized mug she had drunk mahewu with it that morning was still there, and it fell too, turning itself upside down.
The impact from the blow forced Mbali into a semi-crouch. She couldn’t stand. Her chest ached with a brutal, savage pain. A dry cough erupted from her throat and her ribs didn’t feel like they were made of bones, but of metal, painfully poking sideways as another cough drew out from her. Tears misted her eyes.
“HOW MUCH DO I OWE YOU?” Jakobo roared. He marched over and grabbed a handful of her hair. He peeled her from the dressing table and threw her down carelessly, spreading his legs by her sides to hem her in. She had always found a pillowed, reassuring comfort in his masculinity. Never threatening or imposing. Endearingly capable, even. But now he was weaponising it to terrorise her.
“Are you fucking deaf?” he kicked her right hip repeatedly and Mbali cried out; she held onto the tiny brushed-out hair of the rug. She turned, stomach pressed on the floor, clutching more rug hairs. Jakobo attacked her left hip, the hard sole of his shoe meeting bone. The pain slicingly rippled round her waist, as though she were being cut in half.
“Answer me, bitch!” he yanked up her hair and flung her head down. Her jaw smacked the floor, teeth splitting her lip. Something popped, or cracked, Mbali wasn’t sure. Her bone perhaps. She was dazed. She turned her head slightly, and tried to focus on the man that was assaulting her. The man. How impersonal, and rightfully so. Jakobo had ceased to exist for her, shrivelling into nothingness, years of familiarity between them evaporating. This was the reality she was impelled to accept. Despite the enveloping pain, she mustered strength and pushed herself up one elbow, turned, slithered past Jakobo, grabbed the upturned mug and, knowing he was right behind her, smashed it hard against one side of his lowered head. A light sprinkle of ceramic dust showered on her, shards from the mug falling on her body.
“Bitch!” Jakobo staggered a few steps back, holding his face. He was light-skinned and his blood showed, seeping through the space between his fingers, “I’m going to fucking kill you!”
Mbali believed him. Chilling pictures of her dead body in Cape Town newspapers flashed across her mind, headline reading with a cold sensationalism: MAN STABS SEX WORKER IN HER HOUSE AFTER PATRONISING HER. Wasn’t it last month that a man stabbed his wife to death here in Noordhoek? Mbali refused to be another casualty, reduced to mere ink on paper, news fodder for people to cannibalise on. Then forgotten, erased. She had to live. She had to survive. She had to—
Jakobo kicked her face and her world went dark, as if a voluminous black curtain had wreathed around her. Blood frothed in her mouth. Pain stabbed her cheek, her eye, and sandpapered her nose. She crawled on, determined, then paused at the sound of his belt being unbuckled. Was he going to strangle her? The door was closed. She wouldn’t make it out, not while she continued to crawl. And she couldn’t scream for help because no one would come. Defending herself was out of it; no murderous tool in the room she could grab and wield. Jakobo had wound the belt firmly to his hand, which was raised, ready to whip her into a pulp. She shut her eyes, like someone in an impending car crash. She forgot to breathe. Time slowed and the air turned turgid, viscous with tension. When she opened her eyes, her heart racing, she saw that Jakobo’s belt-strapped hand had frozen in the air; he was having immense difficulty moving it. He tried and tried, grunting as he did so, his expression changing from mild surprise to shock.
Shocked herself Mbali was also. Then she saw Nana standing in the doorway and everything made sense. Nana’s gaze was fastened on Jakobo — it had strength and concentration, power and will. Her little frame was challengingly poised, eyes narrowed into slits. She gave a small shift to her head and Jakobo was thrown towards the window, cannoning against the blinds. The energy from Nana was raw, supreme. Jakobo recovered quickly, slowly rising from the floor. Nana made him levitate. Off the floor he rose, a hovering suspension. He resisted though, half-turning, half-twisting, like an insect caught in a spider’s web. Mbali stayed down, too afraid to move. The dressing mirror shattered and, as the perfume bottles exploded, sending its shards flying everywhere, Nana eased into the room, her steps light. All the shards swept along with her, making scraping, tinkling sounds, rioting in spirals.
Mbali had never known her daughter to be theatrical, the tantrums that characterised children weren’t in her nature. But, as it were, Nana was putting on a show, and she and Jakobo were the audience. She launched the shards into a revolving motion around her, a deadly whirring orbit of shattered glass. So daringly close to her body the shards were that they seemed to clothe her, silhouetting her smallness. The light flickered. Jakobo wrestled to come down, thrashing his legs, begging Nana with eyes tinged with fear. Mbali thought she recognised him somehow, saw in him the good, familiar Jakobo she had known. But it was too late. He knew it too. Nana didn’t waste time. Even Mbali couldn’t have stopped her. Nana raised her hands, as if conducting an orchestra, and the shards looped out of their spin. Shiny, jagged, sharp, she screamed as she directed them at Jakobo, her face contorted with rage. His suspended body was pushed back by the whizzing shards, pegging him to the wall. They sunk deep into his flesh: neck, forehead, stomach, shoulder, thigh, chest. He looked crucified. Nana was still screaming, muttering words that Mbali couldn’t understand. Jakobo’s eyes were oddly alert, a dead stare. He crumpled into a sitting position on the floor. His head hung low. Slants of glass-pierced cuts, two inches at least, pockmarked his shirt from which rivulets of blood seeped.
Relief washed over Mbali. She crawled towards Nana, catching the purpling swell of her right eye in a reflecting mirror fragment on the floor. Her daughter collapsed in her arms, head thrown back, drained. She smelled sweet, soaked in a mingling of perfume, but the most distinctive was the blood orange fragrance Jakobo had brought home to Mbali, on a balmy Sunday afternoon she had serviced three men. He first caught a whiff of the scent from a Senegalese woman who had lodged in the hotel he used to work at. Before leaving in a hurry the following day she had asked to see the chef and, when Jakobo appeared, she complimented him on his jollof rice, saying its tomato redness and firewood-roast smell was like the one prepared in Nigeria. Later, as the laundry guy was changing the sheets in her room, he found she had left her perfume behind. He didn’t know what to do with it and Jakobo was passing by. So he took the shapely bottle from him and it became Mbali’s.
Mbali cradled Nana and burst into tears. The tears were not for Jakobo. They were for her, on her survival, and the precious gift that was her daughter. Nana tiredly blinked up at her, and Mbali held her face close to her cleavage. She squirmed, adjusting herself to indulge in a habit that Mbali had always chided her for. She sucked her thumb.
Bernard Dayo (@) is a speculative fiction writer and a fashion designer. His first novel, The Year of the Space Mission, is yet to be published and he is currently working on his second.
Related country: South Africa
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