Seventh Street Alchemy

The following is an excerpt from the short story ‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ by Brian Chikwava. ‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ is one of the 24 short stories in the anthology Writing Still, which was published in 2003 by Weaver Press.

Brian Chikwava
Brian Chikwava

By 5 a.m. most of Harare’s struggling inhabitants are out of their hovels. They are on their varied ways to innumerable places to waylay the dollars they so desperately need to stave hunger off their doorsteps.

Trains and commuter omnibuses burst with exploitable human material. Its excess finds its way onto bicycles, or simply self-propels, tilling earth with bare frost-bitten feet all the way to the city centre or industrial areas.

The modes of transport are diverse, poverty the trendsetter. Like a colony of hungry ants, it crawls over the multitudes of faces scattered along the city roads, ravaging all etches of dignity that only a few years back stood resilient.

Threadbare resignation is concealed underneath threadbare shirts, together with socks and underpants that resemble a ruthless termite job. In spite of poverty’s glorious march into every household, the will to be dignified by underpants and socks remains intact.

Activities in the city centre tend towards the paranormal. A voodoo economy flourishes as daylight dwindles: fruit and vegetable vendors slash their prices by half and still fail to sell. The following morning the same material is carted back onto the streets, selling at higher than the previous day’s peak rates. In some undertakings the enthusiasm to participate is expressed in wads of notes; in some, simple primitive violence – or the threat of its use – is common currency.

As the idea of ensuring that your demands are backed up by violence is fast gaining hold among the city’s prowlers, business carried out in pin-striped suits is fleeing the city centre, ill-equipped to deal with the proliferation of scavenger tactics. Pigeons too have joined the new street entrepreneurs: they relieve themselves on pedestrians when least expected and never alight on the same street corner for more than two days in a row.

Even the supposedly civilised well-to-do section of the population, a pitiful lot typified by their indefatigable amiability, now finds itself anchored down by a State whose methods of governance involve incessant roguery. Instead of facing up to their circumstances with a modicum of honour, they weekly hurl themselves into churches to petition a disinterested God to subvert the laws of the universe in their favour.

At the corner of Samora Machel Avenue and Seventh Street, in a flat whose bedroom is adorned with two newspaper cuttings of the President, lives a fifty-two-year-old quasi-prostitute with thirty-seven teeth and a pair of six-inch heeled perspex platform shoes.

It has been decades since she realised that, armed with a vagina and a will to survive, destitution could never lay claim to her. With these weapons of destruction she has continued to fortify her liberty against poverty and society. Fiso is her name and like a lot of the city’s inhabitants she has conjured that death is mere spin, nobody ever really dies.

On the night a street kid got knocked down by a car it was a tranquil hour. A discerning ear would have been able to hear two flies fornicating several metres away. But to Anna Shava, a civil servant, soaked to the bone with matrimonial distress, the flies would have had to be inside her nose to get her attention.

Her tearful departure from home after another scuffle with her husband set in motion a violent symphony of events. Security guards who scurried off the streets for safety could not have imagined that an exasperated spouse in a car vibrating to the frenzied rhythms of her anguished footwork could beget such upheaval.

Right in the middle of the lane, at the corner of Samora Machel Avenue and Seventh Street, a street kid staggers from left to right, struggling to tear himself out of a stupor acquired by sniffing glue all day. The car devours the tarmac, and in a screech of tyres the corner is gobbled up together with the small figure endeavouring to grasp reality.

Sheet metal grudgingly gives in to a dent, bones snap, glass shatters. The kid never had a chance. His soul’s departure is punctuated by one final baritone fart relinquishing life. Protruding out of the kid’s back pocket is a tube of Z68 glue.

A couple of blocks from the scene, blue lights flashed from a police car while two officers shared the delicate task of trying to convince a grouchy young musician to part with some of his dollars for having gone though red traffic lights.

‘You’ve been having a good time. That’s no problem. But you must understand we also need something to keep us happy while doing our rounds,’ one of the officers said with a well-drilled, venal smile before continuing. ‘Since you are a musician we know you can’t afford much Stix, but if you could just make us happy with a couple of Nando’s takeaways …’

Anna, realising that they were not going to pay her any attention without some effort on her part, marched over to the officers. ‘Will you please come to my help, haven’t you seen what happened?’ she said, donning that look of nefarious servitude that she often inspired on the faces of applicants at the immigration office. She knew better than anybody that being nice to people in authority could render purchasable otherwise priceless rights, and simplify one’s life.

‘We are off duty now, Madam, call Central Police Station,’ one of the officers yodelled over. Returning to her car and periodically glancing over her shoulder in disbelief, she saw the offending driver stick out of his window a clenched handful of notes to pacify the vultures that had taken positions around his throttled freedom. His liberties resuscitated, he sped off in his scarlet ramshackle car.

Two days before, Anna, no less fed up with her errant husband, had followed him to the city’s most popular rhumba club. She had found him leaning against the bar, with men she did not recognise.

They talked at the top of their voices in the dim smudged lighting. Her husband, who had been tapping his foot to the sound of loud Congolese music, recoiled at the sight of her. Befuddled, he grappled with the embarrassment of having been tracked down to a night-club crawling with prostitutes. And then there was the thought of his mates saying that his balls had long been liberated from him and safely deposited in his wife’s bra. His impulse was to thump her thoroughly, but lacking essential practice, he could not lift a finger.

‘What do you want?’ he asked, icily.

‘Buy me a drink too,’ she brushed the question aside.

He stared at Anna as she grinned. Outrage lay not far beneath such grins – experience had schooled him. Reluctantly he turned to the bar to order her a Coke, struggling to affect an air of ascendancy in the eyes of his peers. He tossed a five hundred dollar note at the bartender, as if oblivious to his wife’s presence.

Half an hour later when Anna visited the ladies toilet, transgression would catch up with her husband. There a lady with greying hair, standing with what looked like a couple of prostitutes, cut short her conversation to remark innocently, ‘Be careful with that man. He’s a problem when it comes to paying up. Ask these girls. Make sure he pays you before you do anything or he will make excuses like, “I didn’t think you were that kind of girl.”’

Anna was transfixed, hoping – pretending – that the words were directed at someone else.

‘You could always grab his cell phone, you know,’ the woman added kindly.

That woman was Fiso who at the time Anna ran into a street kid, was engrossed in the common ritual of massaging her dementia. Having spent a whole day struggling to sell vegetables – a relatively new engagement imposed on her by the autumn of her street life, she was exhausted and was not bothered by the screeching tyres down the road. It did not occur to her that what had registered in her ears was an incident precipitated by her well-meaning advice. Beside her, sharing her bed, lay her daughter Sue, a twenty-six-year-old flea-market vendor.

In the midst of her mother’s furious campaign against a pair of rogue mosquitoes, which relentlessly circled their heads before attacking, Sue came to the tired realisation that in spite of all the years on the streets, her mother still had undepleted stocks of a compulsive disorder from her youthful days. In the sooty darkness her mother blindly clapped, hoping to deal one or both of them a fatal blow. Precision however remained in inverse proportion to determination. The mosquitoes circled, mother waited, her desire to snuff out a life inflated.

They would dive, she would clap. Sound and futility reigned supreme. At last, jumping off the bed, Fiso switched on the light. A minute later one of the mosquitoes, squashed by a sandal, was a smudge of blood on the president’s face, but Fiso could not be bothered to make good the insignia of her patriotism. A few months before, she would have wiped the blood away. But the novelty of affecting patriotic sentiment in the hope of dreaming herself out of prostitution to the level of First Lady had long worn off.

About the Author

Brian Chikwava, is a writer from Zimbabwe. His short story Seventh Street Alchemy was awarded the 2004 Caine Prize for African Writing. He has been a Charles Pick fellow at the University of East Anglia, and lives in London. In February 2010 his debut novel, Harare North won the Outstanding First Creative Published Work category in Zimbabwe’s National arts Merit Awards (NAMA). In March 2010 Harare North alongside Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly was among the books selected for the Orwell Prize longlist. Although from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Brian Chikawava spent his formative years in Harare, where at the popular artistes’ venue, The Book Café, he regularly took part in poet evenings, public discussions and music performances. It is here that he started experimenting with different genres of art by collaborating with other young writers and musicians in an attempt to create new ways of presenting the African experience.

Post published in: Arts
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