The JRB presents a new short story by Agatha Zaza.
The Grass Beneath Us
‘Let’s start with the heat,’ said Lindi.
I was the only person in Singapore who knew that her name was really Lindiwe, chosen by her parents as a proud declaration of their black Zambian heritage which, so visible in their caramel-brown skin and Afro hair, was lost in her long straight locks and light tan hue.
I chuckled, because I really didn’t want to talk about the heat—it was the most often spoken about topic among the few people I knew. In Singapore, the heat was an unrelenting aspect of our existence. As usual, the air was sodden with humidity. Sweat trickled down my spine to my coccyx and my underarms were unpleasantly damp.
Still, we sat outdoors on the grass at Esplanade Park, trying to ignore the hot gusts of wind that signalled an impending thunderstorm. It hadn’t rained for weeks, and though it remained apparently lush, upon a closer look the grass in the park was browning. It was the month of the Hungry Ghosts. The city pavements were dotted with red candles and melted wax, empty takeaway parcels and festering fruit. Furnaces from small to large exhaled the grey particulate smoke of joss paper and shrines for the dead beckoned, demanding my inspection. I resisted, my apathy overwhelming my curiosity.
From where we sat with our takeaway Starbucks cups we could see the Merlion and the river, sights to which, after a year in Singapore, I’d become inured. Behind us were the Victoria Theatre and the Asian Civilisations Museum, a stark visual reminder of the colonial history that our own country, Zambia, shared with this. In front of us lay modern Singapore, a reminder of its affluent present and the extent to which the two countries’ histories diverged.
‘No, let’s skip that and go to men,’ Lindi continued, with a sly look. She flipped her waves of brown-black hair over her shoulder and looked upwards. The sky seemed to fascinate her today. As she spoke her eyes flitted upwards and when she paused she would, like now, stare at the grey-blotched blue.
I glanced up to where, as a child, I’d been told heaven was, and thought, Please, Lindi, don’t die.
It was a weekday, and Lindi had called to find out if I wanted to meet at lunchtime. She knew I could be found in the city, aimlessly wandering, going between libraries or reading in museum cafés, my house clean but not through my own labour: the quintessential expat housewife. Until recently this had been enough for me.
Lindi coughed. I’d seen her only a few days ago, but since then her skin had taken on a greyish pallor. I knew she was ill and now she looked it.
‘Or, shall we say, to one man in particular?’ she said, clearing her throat.
I smiled but looked away, staring down at the lush grassy carpet of Esplanade.
‘What’s he done, Sanana?’ she said. She leaned back on the grass, her slender legs covered in black ankle-length jeans. In seven months I’d not seen her in anything less revealing. In a city where bare legs were the norm, I wondered if it was her skin she was hiding or her bones. ‘I can see it all over you. Is the rumour true?’
I saw before me pale milky fingers languid upon Simon’s arm. I saw blue eyes glaring at me as I entered a room. But I turned to Lindi with a smile.
‘Look at all these rumours, surrounding me every day,’ I sang. A ridiculous song by a forgettable band that no one of my era could have missed.
‘That takes me back a bit,’ she said. Lindi was good at this—empathy. It was something I could recall from our youth. She knew when to speak and when to listen, when to push and when, like today, to allow her interlocutor to be evasive to the point of sullen. Her empathy had helped her get to where she was: a successful expat businesswoman and a striking olive-skinned white woman.
The night I’d spotted Lindi on a rooftop on Boat Quay, it had felt as if the decades had rolled back. Lindi had been on a high wood and iron stool among a clutch of men and women who at first glance seemed much older than her, but at second glance were not. Simon’s arm had been hooked around my waist, our marriage still felicitous for us both. I saw her and at once I was a skinny teenager again, with a high round bum that the other girls teased me about—until a new girl came along. Lindi.
She’d been a little darker back then, darker than the Jewish and Greek girls but still fairer than the other Coloured girls. We all—yes, me included—decided on her name, Lindiwe, as a target for our restrained bullying, teasing that was never too cruel and never went too far. It was done to every girl: blonde, redhead, fat or thin. Lindi’s name, we decided, was too much at odds with her appearance—a black name on a nearly-white girl. Some of the other girls were picked on purely for the long distances to the farms they lived on, or our inability to find the tiny towns they called home on a map. Our school was where the whites who had remained in Zambia and who would not or could not send their children out of the country sent their daughters. The rest of us, in various hues, filled in the empty seats, learning to speak English with an accent that was not quite British, which marked us even today as we sat in a park thousands of miles away.
Lindi and I had been friends, but there was nothing distinctive or exclusive about our friendship. My best friend had been a plump, red-faced blonde named Louisa. We spent weekends at each other’s homes and went on holiday together to Kariba and to game lodges. Our parents had drinks standing over braais and my mother had hosted their farewell party when, faced with the impending costs of university in Southern Africa, they’d fled to England. Louisa and I never lost touch, meeting every few years, except the years when it really mattered. We hadn’t met the year we’d both lost a parent, our descriptions of how they died brief and guarded.
I remember Lindi’s mother: tall, the brown of almonds, with long Afro hair in a single braid down her back that I envied. I must have spoken to her on visiting days. I’d probably have shrieked, ‘Hi, Mrs Heights!’ as I dashed between my parents and Louisa’s. I don’t recall her parents ever speaking to mine and when her father died she’d left school for the rest of the term, returning for the next and never mentioning it, I suppose because it wasn’t what teenage girls talked about.
‘Remember how songs would be considered new for at least a couple of years when we were young?’ she reminisced.
‘I taped it from the radio,’ I said. ‘I must have been nine, maybe?’
‘I’d say I was eight when it came out,’ she said. ‘I had a cousin, Georgie, who loved it, played it over and over again. My gran would shake her head and say, “These kids, like a war didn’t just end? As if there’s food in the shops? All they can think of is music.”’ Lindi smiled. I envied her, despite everything. She was lithe, with an angular face, but not unpleasantly so. It gave her the profile of a model, an effortless elegance. ‘War. I don’t remember it.’
‘We’d have been too young. My grandmother would never have called it a war,’ I said. ‘She’d never even have talked about it, anyway. All she talked about was how cool Zambia had been, that they’d had writers’ clubs and public libraries and ate eggs every morning for breakfast.’
Lindi looked at the ground and plucked a blade of grass, examining its deep green. ‘Georgie would sing that song in our faces—he was something like twenty-six, but he acted like a teenager. He’d come up to us, almost spitting in our faces and shouting, “Look at all these rumours!” I remember he’d jab my shoulder as if I had something to do with it.’
I scratched my forearm where something, perhaps an ant or some exotic tropical plant, had irritated my skin.
‘I remember my gran saying it was something that only black people got,’ she brushed the blade of grass against her chin.
I sniffed, but said nothing.
‘Oh, come on, I’m sure you heard the same?’
‘No, I didn’t. Honestly, I was oblivious to everything that was happening,’ I articulated carefully.
‘All I knew was that people just kept dying, lots of them. Whole families that we knew were erased. My parents kept me away from any rumours or discussion. I wasn’t allowed to go to weddings or funerals, anywhere where people talked. It’s why they sent me to boarding school, to put me in a place where I’d be cut off from reality. And it worked, we went on about boy bands and hockey. You remember what school was like.’
‘You’re lucky,’ she said, a hint of surprise in her voice. ‘When Georgie came to die, I think he was the fourth or fifth out of my close family. I saw him shrivel, shrink.’ She closed her hands into fists, the blade of grass falling to the ground. ‘I swore I wouldn’t die like that. He was much darker than me, almost like you, but with pale grey eyes. I remember them staring out of their sockets, his skin like old leather.’
I instinctively took her hand. We rarely talked about what she was going through. Our frequent chats centred around the intricacies of steering through a place and culture so unlike what we knew. We talked of new culinary discoveries: sparkling flavoured crisps or fried fallopian tubes, and mundane trivialities: how could any country have so much Milo!?
‘That’s when they sent me to St Peter’s—like a refugee. I still don’t want to die like that, Sanana.’ She kept hold of my hand.
I didn’t say you won’t, because I couldn’t guarantee that. I could see she was struggling today, maybe she was in pain. Some people were lucky and the medication always worked. Lindi had explained to me that she was constantly on a rollercoaster; she could be fine for years and then she would plummet without warning.
No one else knew about Lindi’s health. Singaporean work and residence permits are still withheld from those deemed a threat to public health—but more than that the ever-shifting population that called itself ‘expat’ was capricious. Who could say what the aftereffects of sharing such personal information would be? The couple who’d seen Simon with a woman that clearly wasn’t me could have been more discreet, but they weren’t, dropping hints in conversations at parties and at coffee mornings, until the story, like the scent of burning joss paper on a breeze, drifted my way.
Lindi had told me one evening, when Simon had been away. We were on her balcony, which overlooked a busy street in the North East. She lived in a renovated flat. It was the home of someone who had come to Singapore to stay. A large studio, her bedroom took up the back half while the front half formed a kitchen and sitting room. She’d painted it a deep blue-grey and furnished it with eclectic yet stylish décor, from stripped, bleached goat skulls to exquisite antique Japanese fans. It belonged in an edition of Living Etc. and was a stark contrast to the bare white walls and grey marble floors of the condo that Simon and I shared—contemporary and minimalist, as we preferred.
‘You know,’ she came out onto the balcony, handing me a second gin and tonic, ‘some days I just can’t deal with all of it.’
‘All of what?’ I asked. We’d been discussing nothing of significance, perhaps Trump or #MeToo, in the way that friends can without conflict.
‘This morning some old woman comes up to me and looks me right in the eye and says “Indian”. I couldn’t even tell if it was a question or statement.’ She settled in an outdoor lounger.
‘But that’s not really a problem here, is it?’ I sipped my drink, shrinking at the strength of the gin.
‘It’s not that …’ she leaned back, looking out across the city street, the old buildings mixed with new, the lights, the noise, the everyday alienness of the city we lived in. ‘Honestly, here no one ever asks if I’m anything exotic, I’m just white to them.’ She crossed her legs, as always clad in black jeans. ‘The way this woman looked in my eyes, I don’t want to get all Eastern mystic or anything … I mean, she was Indian too, maybe she was lost and just wanted to ask something.’
Lindi was flustered. I had a premonition that she was about to tell me something profound and that perhaps I didn’t want to hear it.
‘It’s like she could see that I had a secret, that she sensed it—the way she looked … my eyes.’
‘Well, it’s not a deliberate secret …’
‘Not my colour, Sanana,’ she cut me off, which was unlike her. ‘I’m not hiding that, I never do. How people respond to me is just a constant reminder of how superficial … shallow … people can be. I’ve known people who say, “Oh you are so beautiful, oh so beautiful.” And then they ask, “Are you Italian?” And I say “No, I’m black”, and then they never call me beautiful again.’
I didn’t reply.
‘That’s why I never tell them.’ Lindi turned to me, planting her feet on the floor and sitting upright. ‘You remember Sasha, Sasha with the green eyes? Everyone was absolutely crazy about him in sixth form.’
I remembered him, tall, his milk chocolate skin punctured by startling green eyes. An ego, constantly referring to what he saw as his prestigious European ancestry.
He died. I’d heard.
‘We started dating after we finished school. You must have heard? I went to uni in Zim and he came down too. I was so in love, I barely finished my degree.’
I let her talk uninterrupted. She told me little anecdotes about how he bought her gifts with his meagre income as a mechanic, how he talked about how beautiful their kids would be and how much his sisters envied her colour. She told me how he made her feel as if she, the poorest kid in class, the white one with the black name, the skinniest and least endowed girl in her family, was a princess.
She stood up.
‘Another one?’ Lindi held out her hand for my glass.
I gave her the glass and our eyes met. She knew I’d realised how the story ended, or rather, how it continued. She didn’t have to tell me what happened next. No matter how well my parents had shielded me, I had to face the reality of the times I lived in eventually. Around me I absorbed the stories, the experiences of women, including my mother’s. There would have been philandering—a lot of it—arguments, perhaps violence, maybe a sick child that stood no chance. Sasha would have left her for another woman, desperately in denial of the consequences of his infidelity, desperate to prove to the world that he was in fact healthy, strong—a man. He might have died quickly, within months, or perhaps his system would have taken a few years to completely breakdown. At the time how much money one had was still a deciding factor.
I must have been twenty-three or four when I heard he’d died, still young enough for the fates of the boys we’d once admired to interest me. A friend had mentioned it, we’d joked about it. He’d been all but irrelevant to us.
I hadn’t known Sasha had been with Lindi.
Simon didn’t know about Lindi. I hadn’t told him. Now my internal battle was justified. I’d debated if I should tell him, the weight of what I knew bearing down on me. I had chosen to keep it from him, even as he grew to like her and told me how relieved he was that I’d found a real friend. I’m neither suspicious or religious, but I have imagined a few times that suggestions of Simon’s infidelity are some form of supernatural retribution for keeping something as momentous as this away from him.
‘I’ll make you a deal,’ Lindi said, sipping her Starbucks coffee. ‘I have my condo—it’s paid for, don’t ask how. You can have it and everything in it when I die. As long as you do one thing.’
‘You’re not going to die,’ I cut her off.
‘Yes, I am. I’ve had enough. Usually it’s my body that gets sick, but this time it’s my mind.’ She leaned back and propped herself up on her elbow. ‘I’m forgetting things. I wake up in the middle of the night and don’t know where I am.’
‘I think that’s called hitting forty, that happens to me too,’ I said, fighting to make light of it. Lindi was the kind of woman who came to Singapore and made herself wealthy, made the world forget that we’d once been little girls in dull, English-style school uniforms posing for a school photo, mine the one black face in a sea of white, she the skinny, gap-toothed Coloured whose family could barely scrape together the fees. She could overcome anything.
‘Maybe, but forty to me means I’ve spent one third of my life sick—well, that I know of. Which brings us neatly back to you.’
She sat up abruptly and crossed her legs with ease. ‘You’re afraid. Not just afraid of losing him—you’re afraid of losing everything. Again, aren’t you?’
My chest grew tense. I didn’t answer.
‘I know what happened when your dad died,’ Lindi continued. Of course she’d have heard. Everything we’d owned had been spent in pursuit of every treatment available, real or imagined. Had he only held on for a few more years, a new generation of medication, the kind that kept Lindi going, would have been cheap and accessible.
‘I also know that you love Simon,’ she continued, her gaze so intense I looked away. ‘But, look at me, I know what happens when you hold on for too long and too hard.’
‘He’s never done anything like this before. I’m not sure if he has done anything at all,’ I replied with a quiver in my voice.
‘You’re sure enough to be completely miserable. If I’d listened to my misery …’ She trailed off. ‘The fact is, we all have one life and one life exactly,’ she said. ‘I’ll be dead soon and I’m leaving you everything I own. All I ask in return is that you leave him.’
My spirits lifted. I shook my head and sipped my tea, now nearly cold. Lindi’s offer was moot. She would get better. Ultimatums were always a good sign. Lindi wouldn’t die.
- Mwila Agatha Zaza is a Zambian and Finn at present living in Auckland, New Zealand. Her writing is a departure from her career as a fundraising and editorial specialist. She’s worked and lived in Ireland, Finland, Uganda, Singapore and the then-Soviet Union. Zaza has been published in Whispers and Shouts (a now defunct literary magazine) and in a PEN International special edition on African writers. She has also published three short books on Amazon, including The Promise of Sex. Her first novel The Truth, Edited will be published by Agora Books, a digital-first imprint of the Peters Fraser + Dunlop literary agency, London, UK.