‘The Breadwinner’

The following is an excerpt from the short story ‘The Breadwinner’ by Ethel I. Kabwato. It is one of the 28 short stories in the anthology Writing Now, which was published in 2005 by Weaver Press.

Ethel Irene Kabwato
Ethel Irene Kabwato

For hours he lay on his back. He did not know whether he was awake or asleep. It was all the same being in a deep troubled sleep or being awake and listening to her talking in her dreams. He wondered if she’d been the Public Speaking Captain at school, and chuckled.

‘Ted!’ she called out, ‘Can’t you sleep quietly?’ The man suppressed an urge to laugh. There is, at least, freedom in humour, he told himself. He had never found out why Rudo could rarely sleep peacefully. She was either talking to herself or shouting at him. Ted sighed.

‘For God’s sake, Ted,’ she began.

‘I’m sorry, Rudo,’ he responded.

‘Can’t you sleep?’ she asked.

‘No. I can’t,’ was what he wanted to say. Maybe if we didn’t share the same bed I’d sleep. If you just let me be by myself I’d sleep. If only you’d let me go, I’d sleep.

He wondered why she had kept him for so long after he’d lost his job. For close to three years, Ted had endured the silence that followed her rather casual ‘goodnights’ as she turned her face to the wall. At first the nights had seemed long but now he felt comforted by them as they allowed his thoughts to drift. Dawn usually brought with it the pain of reality. He suffered in silence.

‘Ted! This meal is awful. Ted, you did not change the sheets. Ted, where is my book? Ted, why aren’t you man enough to put your undies in your own locker and not in mine. Right?’ He imagined her arched brows and two red lips. Power make-up.

‘You have to keep up appearances, Ted. Just because you’ve lost your job doesn’t mean that you have to hide in the house.’ Rudo had bought everything they possessed. His clothes came off her Edgars account.

‘You’ve got to look smart, Ted. Otherwise, you know, they’ll laugh at you.’

She had also paid Ted’s membership fee at the local sports club. During weekends he would sit out the long gossip session that Rudo enjoyed with her friends – most of whom were young women who had been widowed at early age, who now drove their late husbands’ posh cars. Did she want him to learn to play a game – golf, for example – or did she need him as an escort, the man she hadn’t thrown out, though he contributed nothing.

Her voice haunted him long after she’d left for work. Nagging was just part of the course. Ted felt the tears in his eyes. She owned him: he felt she had the power to draw his last breath. How had he allowed this to happen?

Soon after he lost his job, Rudo began carrying a book to bed. She would slip between the sheets and flip through the pages, mocking Ted, shutting him out. Ted had never been a bookworm. He was practical.

He could fix anything, any gadget. But he couldn’t fix his wife. Five years. No children. No sex. That is why he felt he hated her now.

‘Oh God,’ he muttered, turning himself over again.

‘Ted!’ Her voice cut through the darkness.

He wondered if Fungayi had been dropping a hint when he’d remarked that women were now so Westernised that bearing children never even crossed their minds. Jim had raised an eyebrow and nobody had said anything more. On that occasion, Ted had envied Steve Makoni when he was carried away by the magic of the night. He had watched Fungayi, as if caught in a trance, rhythmically stamping his foot to the nostalgic tune, ‘Handiendi’. He seemed to remain outside everything these days.

Whenever they went out, Rudo always insisted that she drive the 323, which was, or had been, Ted’s car. The only thing in life he could call his own. She always parked it in the VIP car park.

Meantime, every Monday to Friday, he dusted the lounge suite, the one she had bought, and prepared supper. When he went out drinking with friends, she would be curled up on the sofa, watching television. He drifted off to sleep.

‘You see this bridge, Ted?’ his father asked.

‘No, Father,’ Ted replied.

‘Are you a woman, Ted?’ his father asked, as the waters rolled gently towards them. Ted clung to his father. He could not swim and his father was trying to put a log on the river.

‘If you’re a man, you can cross this river,’ his father insisted.

Ted shook his head. ‘I can’t,’ he said.

‘It’s getting late and we must reach the village. You have to be strong, sonny,’ his father said.

Ted remembered the story the Sunday-school teacher had told them. The story of Peter walking on the waters of Galilee and Peter nearly drowning.

‘Ted!’ his father called out.

‘Father!’ he shouted back.

‘If you fail to cross this one you will never …’

‘Right, Father. I’m coming after you,’ he said nervously.

‘Come on Ted,’ the man urged him.

One. Two. Three. Four. F…

The bridge gave way.


‘Shut up, Ted!’ Rudo hissed angrily.

‘I saw him, Rudo,’ Ted said. He was sweating.

‘For God’s sake don’t …’ she began.

‘I saw my father,’ he said.

‘Are you mad? You don’t know your father,’ she said.

‘He was in my dream,’ Ted said, burying his face in his pillow.

‘So what? So you see a face in a dream and decide to wake up the neighbourhood! Should we brew for your father’s spirits?’ she taunted him, pulling the blankets over her head. Ted was disturbed.

He knew it was time to look for the father he had never known. He had seen the face, now all he wanted was a name. Then perhaps his problems would end. It was also about time he left Rudo. And found a job. How often had he thought these things?

A few hours later, Rudo woke up, swung herself out of bed and went to the bathroom. Five seconds later she demanded to know why he’d bought Jade soap rather than Lux. ‘You know I don’t like it!’ Ted said nothing. He turned to face the wall and pulled the blanket over his head. His wife slammed the bathroom door. An hour later he heard the 323 pull out of the driveway.

About the Author

Ethel Irene Kabwato is a mother, teacher and writer. Her short stories have been published in Writing Now and Writing Free. Her poetry has been published on the Poetry International website and she has read her poetry at the Hay Festival, UK. She was also a guest of ‘Cinema without Borders’ at the Amnesty International Film Festival, Amsterdam in 2008. Currently, she is working in a project called Slum Cinema, a voluntary initiative that seeks to empower disadvantaged communities through multi-media work. Her inspiration is derived from her two daughters, Nadia and Wynona.

Post published in: Arts
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