The Queue

Tinotenda arrived just after ten in the morning and took his place in line. He knew right away that going on a bender the previous night had been a big mistake.


The month end used to be fun. Back in the day, when he did his training, they used to look forward to their monthly cheques. There were fewer zeroes then – hell, he wasn’t even a millionaire – but you got more bang for your buck. His head throbbed and he promised God he would never drink that evil Eagle beer again. All God had to do in return was resume supplies of Castle, or even Lion. Was that too much to ask for? The Israelites got manna, Zimbabweans only wanted beer.

‘Is this the one for the post office?’ he asked the fat man in the Hawaiian shirt in front of him. The blue waves, tropical palms and surfboards were rather curious in a landlocked country.

‘I stood in that one for thirty minutes before I realised it was for bread!’ the fat man replied. A whiff of bad breath hit Tinotenda.

‘So this one is for the post office?’ ‘What do you think?’

‘If I knew I wouldn’t be asking you.’ Tinotenda massaged his temples. The fat man turned away in a huff. What was that about? Tinotenda wondered. He studied the cool, hypnotic waves of the shirt and considered whether it was prudent to ask the next man in the queue. It would take some manoeuvring to get around the heap of Hawaiian flesh. A hand tapped his shoulder.

‘Bhudi, is this the queue for the post office?’ a small woman in a georgette dress asked him.

‘I don’t know,’ he replied honestly. ‘It should be. I certainly hope it is.’

The woman raised her eyebrows but she did not say anything. It was not uncommon for people to jump into a queue first and ask questions later. The mid-morning sun pulsed down on them. The tar shimmered under the sun’s oppressive brilliance, creating a mirage like cool water flowing down a stream. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. A prison lorry ambled along slowly on its way to the magistrates’ court. The prisoners were all dressed in white. Their shaved heads glistened and they became a throng of brown mirrors, dazzling and brilliant. The guards stood at the front, FN rifles resting casually at their sides. The lorry jolted as it hit a pothole and rolled on.

‘Hold my place. I will go up front and ask someone,’ the woman said.

He watched her walk past the fat man, studying her bony frame, swaying hips, elegant gait. The fat man was watching too, nodding his head appreciatively. A man dressed in blue overalls joined the queue and Tinotenda told him there was a woman before him. The man wanted to know if this was the queue for the post office. He would have to wait for the woman. The boutique to their left was almost bare. Still, it was open, selling pirated cassettes. Sungura music blared out, distorted by damaged speakers. It was shrill, with a hiss behind the wailing, depressed electric guitar. The song was a popular one:

Oweoo oweoo oweoo

My brother died

My wife left me

My son is a cripple

I have no other children

My father and mother are dead

Now I am dying.

Who will bury me?

Oweoo oweoo oweoo

And so it goes. Tinotenda fought the pangs from his empty stomach, the feeling of bile rising. The woman returned and took her place in the queue.

‘You’re a teacher aren’t you?’ she asked with a smile.

‘Are we in the right queue?’

‘I noticed the chalk dust on your trousers.’ The man in the overalls was craning forward to hear. She held vital information and was keeping everyone waiting. There was an air of suspense. Others, who’d since joined the queue, also waited on her verdict – right queue or nay. Tinotenda reasoned that she wouldn’t have been in this position of power if the fat man hadn’t been a jackass. This was the Information Age, after all.

‘Yes, I am a teacher. Now please answer my question: a) yes, b) no.’

‘Which school?’ she asked.

‘Oh, for the love of Jesus who died for all our sins!’ the man in overalls cried out. ‘Okay, I’m just joking, this is the right queue,’ she said, a smirk on her face.

There was a collective sigh of relief from the crowd that was growing behind them. They moved three steps forward and stopped again. A small victory against crushing inertia was won in that movement. It was progress. Tinotenda recalled a slogan he taught his pupils: forward ever, backward never.

He thought of changing banks. The Post Office and Savings Bank had been his bank since childhood, but it seemed the service only became slower and worse with the years. He’d stuck with them through the ’90s when the government had floated a bizarre proposal to raid savers’ deposits to fund war veterans’ annuities. They’d decided against that in the end. It was easier just to print the money. Tinotenda felt he would be better off with Standard Chartered, Barclays or even CABS. There were queues in those other banks, yes, but they seemed to move faster. The folks who stood in those queues, as a rule, were better dressed, to the extent of even wearing purposeful looks.

The man in overalls verbally calculated whether he could make the bread queue next. A woman behind him said he would have been better off bringing someone else with him so they could have got places in both queues. She went on to explain that that’s what she’d done, and that she also had a child in the bottle-deposits queue at TM. There was a hint of pride in her voice, as if holding places in three queues simultaneously was a triumph in itself.

I wish I’d got a post in Harare, Tinotenda thought. He hated Bindura, its smallness, the old colonial buildings, the slow pace of life, how everyone knew one another. The streetlights seldom worked. ZESA hammered the town with load-shedding but mysteriously maintained power to the mines. That was all there was to the town: a huge gold mine and an even bigger nickel mine. The men in overalls and khakis strutted about the place like they owned it and thumbed their noses at people like him. To them, it seemed being unemployed was a lot more respectable than being a pen-pusher. The little town had one main road that you could walk down, from end to end, in less than a quarter of an hour. Tinotenda wondered how he’d ended up in such a backwater dump.

‘I’m a student you know,’ the woman in the georgette said.

He bowed his head slowly. Even the slightest movement made his brain feel like it was banging against his skull. He was assaulted by Hawaiian blue in front of him, and her dazzling orangey autumn colours from behind.

‘Have you got any Cafemol?’ he asked. She rummaged through her denim handbag and handed him a pack of Anadin.

‘Thanks,’ he said, taking two and handing the pack back.

The queue inched forward, one more small victory – two, if he counted the tablets. That was the only way to take things these days. It was easy to get caught up in a spiral of despair. The woman was looking at him intently, as if waiting for him to say something else.

Tendai Huchu’s short story ‘The Queue’ was one of twelve short stories selected through an international competition for inclusion in the anthology Love on the Road 2015: Twelve More Tales of Love and Travel, which was published in February by Dublin-based Liberties Press.

In the collection, ‘The Queue’ joins stories by writers from Australia, Ireland, Kenya, Malawi, New Zealand and the USA. The authors have won or been nominated for prizes and awards including the Caine Prize for African Writing, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story award, the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Pushcart Prize and Kenya’s National Book Week Literary Award. The stories in Love on the Road 2015 are about the power of love to heal us, give us courage and make us want to be better people.

They are also about its power to harm us, deluding us into submitting to control, deception and abuse. Huchu is the author of The Hairdresser of Harare. His short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in The Manchester Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Gutter, AfroSF, Wasafiri, Warscapes, The Africa Report, The Zimbabwean, Kwani? and numerous other publications. His new novel, The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician, has recently been released in Zimbabwe. He answered questions recently about leaving Zimbabwe and what he does when he’s not writing.

Q: When did you leave Zimbabwe? How has your life changed since then? What are the good and bad things about living abroad?

A: I’ve been in Scotland about a decade. My life has changed in the same way everyone’s life changes over time. I’ve aged, fallen in and out of love, made mistakes, made friends, tried to find a direction for my life.

Q: How do you feel about your country and how does that affect or inspire your writing?

A: I love my country. But unless one is a nationalistic author or working in propaganda, then it’s hard to say how feelings about the superficial boundaries of state shape or inspire the work they do. Humanity in its entirety inspires my writing.

Q. Please tell us about the origin of ‘The Queue’, your story in Love on the Road 2015. Where did the idea come from?

A: ‘The Queue’ is about the possibilities of human interaction in public space. A teacher joins long queue to withdraw money from the POSB and the journey from the back to the counter becomes more important that the reason he joined in the first place. The idea might have come from my own experiences of queuing.

Q: Aside from ‘The Queue’, what is your favourite story in Love on the Road 2015 and why?

A: Catherine McNamara’s story ‘Enfolded’ has a gentle beauty to it, a sort of cadence that makes you linger over the sentences.

Q: Please tell us a little about your newly released book, The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician.

A: It’s the story of three Zimbabwean men trying to find a place for themselves in Britain. It explores love, music, memory, inception, deception, the role of ideas in our lives and the multiple masks we wear from day to day.

Q: What non-book-related things do you like to do?

A: I enjoy live music – genre isn’t that important to me, only the performance. Play a bit of chess. When the weather is kind I do a fair amount of cycling, or running, or walking – whatever takes my fancy.

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