The JRB presents a new short story by Khaddafina Mbabazi.
They were not enemies, but they were not friends either. Pearl had caught sight of Lucille early on in the Christmas term, in the dining hall on a Friday in September: fair and long-limbed, sitting near the entrance in the unbridled morning light, surely burning, surely shedding a layer of skin. But at the New School of Kampala, Pearl and the other year nine girls had already formed an impenetrable battalion of friendship. It did not easily admit others. By the time she was making her way to eight o’clock assembly, she had forgotten about this September sighting. This Lucille. And anyway, she had Laura, to whom she was fused like a conjoined twin. She did not need the distraction of anyone else.
Lucille, the second-last child in a family of nine, was used to being on the margins. She made the rounds with the other cast-offs: two cornrowed twins who were so slow to learn that an entire new set—a fourth—was created for them in English, Maths and Science; a girl the others called ‘Dobby’, because every day she split her hair into two elf-ear parts, and because the name made the girl—a pompous high performer—cry; and an English girl, the daughter of missionaries, who generally preferred her own English company to that of anyone else. This, the girls of year nine took badly, and if they caught the white girl regarding them in the dining hall or on the sports pitch, would yell What are you looking at, coloniser!
The outsiders hadn’t so much taken to Lucille as she’d moored herself to them. It wasn’t that she liked them, she just preferred to have people to sit with in the dining hall at dinner; someone to pair up with in the biology lab for experiments. Not to look like such a leper that even the lepers didn’t want her.
The girls of year nine would vigorously defend the business of residing in a bolted high tower to any teacher that complained. But from time to time they looked out of the tower’s windows to observe the girls outside. During the Christmas term, sightings of Lucille were common—she and Dobby exchanging books, she and the white girl giggling and whispering to each other at Games. This was how, in the minds of the year nines and by some strange osmosis, Lucille came to acquire the individual weirdness of each of the other outsiders. To be regarded not just as a leper, but as the chief of lepers.
During the second month of the Easter term, at the start of the half-term holiday, most of the boarders returned to their homes. The few year nines and tens who remained—those whose parents had travelled, or because the child in question was too difficult a proposition to take on for just a week—were crammed onto a bus set to depart for Jinja.
The trip had been marketed as ‘a Voyage to the Nile’: an exotic thing that had whet the appetite of many a year nine, until they learned that the experience was to be more mundane than advertised. That they were to spend the week doing the things tourists did and locals avoided: camping and birdwatching in Mabira Forest, picking up rubbish strewn too close to the river, volunteering at an orphanage, where they’d clean the children’s rooms and give them fresh coats of paint.
That morning, the morning of the journey, Pearl found herself sitting where no one liked to sit: at the front of the bus, near the teachers. The seats at the back were reserved for the older kids, so they could be far away from the prying eyes of the teachers and children among them, delighting in the luxury of their privacy and autonomy. There were strict rules about who could trespass and for what reasons. Pearl, one of the youngest students in the secondary school, was a favourite of the year tens and elevens—worldly girls, a few of whom had even had abortions; large boys who made teachers tremble. She was endearingly cute (big-eyed, round-faced and dimpled), and was sometimes called ‘darling’ by the older students. But darling-hood did not excuse you from observing the greater hierarchy of the school, where the year elevens were the bourgeoisie and the year nines the proletariat.
Two days before the trip, Pearl had called her father to say that she no longer wanted to go, that Laura and the other year nines had pulled out. But he informed her that his plans to travel were already in motion. She would just have to buck up, he said, to make do with whoever she got.
So it surprised Pearl that the girl who squeezed a travel bag overhead by hers and then sat down next to her was in fact a year nine. Was the great outsider. Lucille.
Lucille sat quietly. Eyes closed. A pair of defensive headphones strapped to her head. Pearl watched her through the first few minutes of the trip, as the bus rumbled out of the school gates, passed the baton-waving guards, and into traffic. How unfazed Lucille seemed by that morning’s madness: the twists and turns of boda bodas, the wails of government cars as urgent as the wails of ambulances. Pearl was transfixed. By the fact of Lucille in such proximity. In the flesh. She was so close, Pearl could count her breaths by the sound, could reach out, if she wanted, and touch the brown spots on her face and neck. And there were so many of them! Pearl thought. The girl was exceedingly flecked—a brown Dalmatian.
Just then, a shred of longing passed through Pearl, whose mother Peggy—now dead—had been similarly marked. (In the photographs that hung on the walls of their home, she stared away from her daughter: almond-eyed, crushingly beautiful, brown and bespeckled.)
Pearl figured that her neighbour, who was still perfectly poised, with her eyes shut, was asleep. But then the fair girl stirred. Turned left. Found herself the subject of big-eyed surveillance. And Pearl, whose face got hot, whose heart began to beat quickly, turned her whole body away, so that her back was now to Lucille. She was so ashamed to have been caught staring that she squeezed her eyes closed and pressed her forehead into the window, in the hope that by dint of this act Lucille would forget.
‘What are you doing?’ Lucille asked.
‘I’m sorry,’ Pearl said. And she was surprised for the second time that morning, this time by the sound of Lucille’s laughter—mocking but unexpectedly safe, like it was coming from the mouth of an amused confidante.
They passed the first hour of the journey in silence, until Pearl realised that she’d left her phone on her desk, in her room at the boarding house. Edith, the kleptomaniac in year 10, had gone home, but who knew who’d be in and out of the house when most of them weren’t there. She’d need to send a text to Fatima, the house prefect, asking her to collect her phone and keep it safe.
Pearl turned to Lucille and tapped her on the shoulder. Lucille took off her headphones and gave Pearl a quizzing look but said nothing.
‘Do you think I could borrow your phone to send a text?’ Pearl began. ‘I’ve just realised that I left mine at school.’ Lucille took her phone out of the left pocket of her jeans and handed it to Pearl. When she was done, Pearl returned it to Lucille, who put her headphones back on so fast that Pearl was sure her quiet ‘Thanks’ had gone unheard.
It was clear now that the two of them were the only girls from year nine on the trip (though there was one year nine boy: Olamide Zaccheus, a Nigerian whose two-term presence at the school was still a source of exotic excitement). As they drove further out of the city and up the long vessel of the Northern Bypass, Pearl found herself grateful for Lucille. She’d looked around when she got on the bus, to see if there was anyone who’d want to share her tent. But she knew that the older girls would refuse and that the Nigerian boy, with whom she was friendly, would be refused by the teachers. Now, the prospect of Lucille as a tent mate was appealing. She hoped Lucille wouldn’t say no.
At half nine, they stopped at a petrol station and the teachers accompanying them—Mr Chege and Miss Hemsworth (science teachers both)—announced that the students had ten minutes to use the loo and buy snacks from the small shop. The great rush to get off the bus was joined by Lucille. Pearl knew that some of the students would return with mere sweets or crisps, while others would stuff Rexes and Dunhills into their bags. She wondered which camp Lucille fell into. Kids were so predictable these days. Even her friends disappointed her: went to Scripture Union on Friday nights, recited the wisdom of Proverbs—the Lord hates people who do evil, but he takes righteous people into his confidence—then forgot that wisdom on Saturdays. Did some scandalous things, she’d heard, like oral sex in the visitor’s bathrooms. She decided she’d be disappointed if Lucille came back with cigarettes. She wouldn’t say anything, of course. It was not her place. But she’d be disappointed.
Lucille returned with two bottles of cold water, some milk chocolate and a massive packet of crisps. She didn’t put on her headphones, and Pearl, who now turned to face Lucille, crossed her legs in the chair, put her back to the window, and saw this as an opening.
‘So how come you’re not at home?’
If Lucille was surprised to have Pearl’s attention, she didn’t show it. She just said, ‘My parents are away.’
‘Aw. Lucky. For what?’
Lucille shrugged. ‘I guess business,’ she said.
‘What kind of business?’ Pearl asked.
‘All kinds. Mainly restaurants.’
‘Really? What restaurants?’
Lucille named two: one that served local cuisine and another that served pan-Asian food. Pearl knew them well.Was delighted by this fact.
‘What about you? How come you’re on this Jinja trip?’
‘My dad went to the village to visit his mum.’
‘And your mum?’ Lucille asked. ‘Where’s she?’
‘She’s dead,’ Pearl said, and seeing Lucille try hard not to twist her face with shock and sympathy added, ‘Don’t worry, it happened a while ago.’ But the moment—the moment they’d begun to have (and it felt this way to Pearl)—vanished.
Lucille nodded, her way of saying sorry without saying sorry, but the space between them vibrated with uncomfortable silence. Pearl regretted bringing her mother up. It always got awkward when she did, even with her friends. Even with Laura (who’d come to the funeral though they weren’t yet best friends, had driven all the way to Pearl’s village for the burial and cried when the casket was lowered into the ground). No matter how hard she tried it was difficult to resurrect the moment before, just a hair’s breadth away, when things were travelling along a smoother road, perhaps even going somewhere nice. Lucille put her headphones back on and Pearl, who hadn’t even brought a book with her, who’d brought her violin but had been asked by Mr Chege not to play it on board, was left to her solitude.
Pearl thought about Laura, whom she imagined would text her furiously later on: Y arent u replying? Stop ignoring me!!!! They’d been friends for a long time—from the age of seven—but had only become best friends a year ago. Laura was short, curvy and beautiful; at the top of every boy’s list. But she’d been spoken for by Majid, a glorious, silk-haired Zanzibari who was supposedly the great-great-grandson of a Sultan. Pearl knew she was on several lists herself, but not nearly as many as Laura. She was cute, but she had not yet undergone the final transfiguration to beautiful.
A year ago, she and Laura had been paired up by Mr Chege in the chemistry lab. Pearl was a better student than Laura—who was famed for turning the gas on and forgetting to connect it to the bunsen burner. The pairing proved beneficial to them both—Laura’s grades improved and more of the boys began noticing Pearl—and they grew closer. Still, it had surprised Pearl when, as they stood together in the dining hall one day, waiting to be served dessert—a soggy rhubarb crumble with a splash of custard—Laura turned to her and announced, ‘You’re my best friend.’ For days after, the words would ring and ring in Pearl’s ears like a dissonant chord. But in that moment, when Laura stared at Pearl and asked, ‘Am I yours?’, Pearl had said ‘Of course you’re mine.’
She’d felt terrible about the lie. But in time, it had undergone its own transfiguration: it had become the truth.
She was committed to Laura now; that was what mattered. A few days after their dining hall coupling, Pearl, who often received Bible verses from Laura via text, had opened her phone to this one: Never let go of loyalty and faithfulness. Tie them around your neck; write them on your heart. If you do this, both God and people will be pleased with you. Proverbs 3:3–4. Pearl took Proverbs, and the rest of the Bible, seriously. One afternoon six months ago during a history lesson in which they’d learned about Sidney Reilly, the Ace of Spies, Laura had passed a note to Pearl that read will u ever betray me? Pearl had assured her no. Written back: I have tied you around my neck.
At eleven, they arrived at Mabira forest, the bus coming to a flatulent stop. Days from now, Pearl would remember stepping off the bus—her foot landing on a bed of damp, friendly ground—and being startled, because Mabira, from the pictures, had looked hostile (a green quarrel of trees, unshaved, unpretty). But for now she was focused on Lucille, who stood twenty metres away under the banner of a large tree, between the thighs of its split, arching trunk. She was waving. Making a come here motion with her hand. Pearl looked behind her to see just who it was Lucille was calling, but she was the last pupil to come off the bus. There was no one behind her. Before she’d even reached Lucille, the girl had begun to say something.
‘What?’ Pearl asked when she got to the tree.
‘Do you want to share a tent? I’ve got a big one.’
‘Yes, I would! Mine’s tiny, anyway.’
From somewhere ahead of them, Mr Chege shouted ‘Girls! Haraka!’
They walked for what, according to Lucille’s phone, was half a kilometre before they found themselves at a clearing. The students were given an hour to pitch their tents.
‘An hour? That’s not enough time,’ Pearl moaned.
Lucille laughed and said, ‘That’s far too much time. Have you been camping before?’
‘Once. At the banks of Lake Laikipia.’
‘Laikipia? Where’s that?’
‘Oh, you went on that Geography trip last year? I heard about it.’
‘It was a nightmare,’ said Pearl.
‘There were no proper showers. Just a makeshift thing. And if you wanted to bathe, you had to use the river water.’
‘The staff at the campsite boiled it for you. When we asked the owner—a white guy—why they didn’t have any proper showers he said he wanted his customers to have a “true African experience”.’
They kissed their teeth and burst into laughter.
‘Anyway,’ Pearl said, ‘the camping was okay. But after a few days I had an allergic reaction to the river water. By the time we came back I had blisters everywhere. They didn’t go away in time for the end-of-year dance.’
When the students were done with the tent-pitching, they joined Mr Chege at the centre of the clearing. They were going on a bird-watching hike, he announced, and whoever could identify just two different bird species would be the winner of ten thousand shillings. Two hours later, no one had identified a single bird, and Mr Chege kept his money.
On the way back to the campsite, the students were joined by a garrison of red-tailed monkeys walking beside them, but they lost interest when the students pulled out their smartphones. Pearl had spent most of the walk by Lucille’s side, suppressing the desire to hold her hand, but had run to the front of the group when the monkeys showed up. She was surprised for the third time that day when Lucille yelled from the back: ‘Mr Chege, I’ve spotted some birds! Two alethes, a turaco and a yellow-billed barbet!’
Pearl, from where she stood, shouted ‘Bravo!’
Later, while washing dishes after dinner, Pearl asked Lucille how she knew about birds.
‘My dad takes me birdwatching,’ Lucille said. ‘I love it.’
‘Who are you?’ said Pearl.
That first night, the two girls lay in sleeping bags on opposite sides of Lucille’s tent, an empty stretch of territory between them. Lucille had fallen asleep soon after nine o’clock, but Pearl was still awake. She lay there—only vaguely aware of certain nocturnal realities: the scent of ash from fire just put out, the whistles of crickets, the patrolling march of Mr Chege—and thought about Laura, of course about Laura, and the rest of the battalion as well. What would they make of this situation? This business of consorting with Lucille? She was thinking of something else, too: just an hour ago her father—whom she’d texted from Lucille’s phone, informing him that hers was at school—had called to enquire after her well-being.
‘Who are you with?’ he’d asked.
‘Just my friend Lucille,’ she’d said.
‘Why have I never heard of this Lucille? You have too many friends. It’s difficult for me to keep up.’
‘She’s a new student. A new friend,’ Pearl said. And Lucille, who was playing a military game on her tablet, paused to look up at Pearl: disbelief, at first. Then joy. Half an hour had passed, and Pearl was lying awake in the dark, contemplating that moment. Not just the new fact it had established in her life, but how this fact—how Lucille’s delight—had made her feel: as though something new had breathed inside of her.
Two days later, the students left the forest for Jinja to set up camp in the garden of a former student’s home. They arrived in the evening, sticky and sweaty, having been stuck in hot traffic for two hours, bodies baking, hair sucking up whatever dust and moisture seeped into the air of the bus. Lucille and Pearl were first to use the bathroom, though Pearl took much longer because her hair had to be shampooed thrice. When she returned to the tent she shared with Lucille—lit up by two bright LED lights—she found her sitting in her pyjamas with her legs spread apart. Next to her: a bunch of hair tools, creams and oils. Pearl sat in between Lucille’s legs and Lucille—whose height was here a great advantage—began to section Pearl’s hair.
‘What do you want me to do with it?’ Lucille asked.
‘Cornrows, probably. That would be easiest.’
‘Just do whatever you want,’ Pearl said.
It took Lucille twenty minutes to prep Pearl’s hair: to oil her scalp with extra virgin olive oil—‘It’s the only one that doesn’t make my scalp itch,’ Pearl had said—and then to put the conditioner and shea butter in. The only other girl Pearl had let touch her hair—soft, deeply black coils for which she was famed and of which she was proud and protective—was Laura. It had ended in embittered silence: both girls looking in the mirror at what Laura had done (swept Pearl’s coils up into a motherly nest). Laura pleased with her work, at first, then angry when she understood that Pearl’s vacant stare was hiding displeasure.
In the tent, Pearl especially wanted to know if Lucille had a boyfriend. Lucille giggled at that. ‘No,’ she said, ‘What about you?’
‘The closest I’ve come to a relationship is hearing about Laura’s.’ They laughed hard at this.
Pearl was dying to tell Lucille about Laura & Majid, a thing she didn’t fully understand. Not out of meanness, or so they could laugh at her, but because in the last two days she’d developed an impulse to want to tell Lucille all sorts of things. Once Lucille swore she wouldn’t open her mouth, Pearl told her about the couple, who’d dated for two years, and the challenges they were having. It seemed to Pearl that they were always having a different version of the same problem, which is something she said to Lucille but had never said to Laura. She knew Laura felt she was superior in these matters and would dismiss Pearl’s instinct as that of a know-nothing.
Pearl also told Lucille about Jim, the boy from a year ago. She heard he’d gone to another school because his parents thought the NSK was a satanic institution corrupting their son’s soul. He’d been top of Pearl’s Maths set (set 2) and was, unlike most boys, committed to God. Pearl had liked this about him, had been drawn to this in him, even though the other girls said he wasn’t very handsome. In the end, Jim had decided that Pearl wouldn’t do because she refused to give up secular music. ‘We’ll be unequally yoked,’ he’d said to her, and when she’d given him a look that said What? he’d become frustrated and stormed off, but not before saying, ‘I’m sure you don’t even know what that means. Proves my point!’
The next day in ICT, she’d typed into Google what is unequally yoked. She was disappointed but not, in the end, surprised by the result. It was how the charge had made her feel: not just worse than him, but bad enough to pull him down to her level. When she thought about the word yoked, she also couldn’t help but think of the bad egg she’d once cracked open in a Food and Nutrition class. The way the horrid stink of it had caused her to recoil. To drop the shell on the floor. The way it had contaminated the whole kitchen as well. She wondered if, to Jim, she was like that egg—a thought that any other day would have made her laugh. But that night in her bed she’d wept, her whole body shivering with the effort to keep her crying a secret.
Lucille said, ‘That’s really sad. I’m sorry.’
Pearl had expected more, had been trained for more by her other friends. She remembered how a few of the other girls had launched into sermons—talked about how important it was for Pearl to guard her heart and not open it up to ugly and useless boys like Jim. Pearl had said to them thanks but really, she’d wanted to say I’d like to be alone now. Lucille’s way felt better.
At nine o’clock, Miss Hemsworth unzipped their tent and said, ‘Come on girls, lights out.’ By then, Pearl was already asleep, the left side of her cheek resting on Lucille’s thigh. Lucille, who was a stickler for rules, turned off the lights and then returned to the last cornrow on Pearl’s head.
The time in Jinja—an old, limping town—moved slowly. When three days had passed, it felt like a whole month had gone by. By mid-week, Pearl and Lucille had become a package deal. They wouldn’t do a single assignment if they weren’t paired up. They had cleaned and painted a room at the orphanage cerulean blue; removed debris from a strip of land somewhere above the broad face of the river; and declined the canoe ride on the last day because the Nile—which both girls had imagined as the kind of river so glossy and clear that you could see to the bottom—was an opaque and muddy disappointment that even history could not redeem.
Instead, on their last evening in Jinja, they played silly swimming pool games, the kinds of games they’d long left behind, like Air Ninja and What Time is it, Mr Fox? After, Pearl took her violin out for the second time that week (the first having been at the orphanage, where she’d delighted the children with her repertoire of well-known songs). She played Telemann’s sixth Sonatina for Lucille, who clapped loudly when it was over and said, ‘That was great!’ And Pearl beamed (even while knowing she still had a long way to go before she could say she’d made anything great of Telemann).
When they returned to school, Pearl spent the first week splitting her attention between Lucille and Laura. Each morning at seven she had breakfast with Lucille. By the time Laura came in, usually forty minutes later, the two girls would already have left the dining room and gone their separate ways. This new thing in Pearl’s life—the breakfast dates unrevealed to Laura—was not the child of a terrible deception, but the practical result of the fact that Pearl and Lucille were both early risers. Unlike most students, who began their days in the pandemonium of seven-forty-five (running into the dining hall, wolfing down a ten-minute breakfast, running back out to get to assembly), they preferred the quiet prudence of seven o’clock. This had always been the case, although their respective roads to breakfast had had no reason to intersect before.
Laura got Pearl in the afternoons and evenings. Once class was over at three, they went down to the football pitch for an hour of practice. Pearl was a reserve for the girls’ team, which meant that once the warm-ups were done, she typically did nothing but sit on the sidelines and talk to the other reserves. Laura was co-captain of the team, though, and so Pearl felt obliged to cheer her on. ‘You should be on the team,’ Laura often said to her. ‘You’re better than half these girls.’ Once practice was over, the two of them would walk, arm in arm, back to their boarding house to shower and change into casual clothes for dinner and then prep.
Only a week ago, Pearl would reliably be seen hunched over the desk in her room at prep time, her phone and other distractions faithfully put away. Lately, however, she’d taken to spending each hour of prep in Lucille’s boarding house. Not to engage in frivolity, but to satisfy the desire to be near each other, with each other.
That Friday, Lucille’s mother came to take her and her new friend Pearl out of school for the weekend. The girls returned on Monday morning with freshly painted toenails (lavender for them both), matching yellow bracelets, and backpacks filled with enough snacks for the rest of the term.
A few days later, Pearl was summoned to Laura’s room via text. Need to talk 2 u. Come to my room after prp. Ten minutes after the bell rang, signalling the end of prep time, Pearl left Lucille’s boarding house, returned to her own room and put her homework away in her drawer. Then she walked the five doors down to Laura’s, who was sitting on her bed when Pearl walked in.
‘What’s wrong?’ Pearl asked.
‘Where have you been?’ Laura said.
‘I mean where do you do prep these days? You’re never in your room at prep time. Where have you been going?’
Pearl wouldn’t lie. But before she could answer, Laura grabbed her wrist.
Until that moment, it had not occurred to Pearl that the act of buying her and Lucille matching bracelets was significant. Heavy with symbolic weight. Now it felt irreversible (a decree absolute).
‘It’s a bracelet,’ Pearl said.
‘I know it’s a bracelet. Why does that girl Lucille have the exact same one?’ Laura asked.
‘I bought one for her as well.’
Laura released Pearl’s hand. ‘But you didn’t buy one for me?’ she said.
Pearl paused. Searched. ‘Next time when I go—’
‘But why didn’t you buy me one this time?’
The answer to this question was a simple one. When she’d purchased the bracelets, Pearl hadn’t been thinking about replacing Laura with Lucille. She hadn’t been thinking about Laura at all. Hadn’t thought of her in days. And that was it, wasn’t it? That was what the bracelet was proof of: where Laura had once made a dwelling in Pearl now lay Lucille.
‘Are you going to answer me?’ Laura asked.
‘No,’ Pearl said.
Laura stood and walked to her desk.
There was a moment—with Laura’s back still turned—when Pearl thought the interrogation was over. That she had, by the grace of God, passed an impossible test. But suddenly Laura grabbed a half-litre bottle of water, spun round, and aimed it at Pearl. She missed and got the door instead. But she hurled another bottle. Then another. A pack of batteries. Pencils. Bobby pins. Chocolate balls. Her body was broiling with anger: cheeks twitching, chest hiccupping, tears pouring out of her now-red eyes, a storm of five feet and two inches. She didn’t even use words. Made a laboured grunt with each throw instead.
Pearl sat on the bed, her arms out in front of her to shield herself from Laura’s attack. She was so taken aback it didn’t occur to her to get up and leave. Finally, when Laura ran out of things to throw, she threw herself onto the bed and cried. Pearl knew this was the moment to say sorry, to reach out and soothe Laura with a caress and the words You’re my best friend, I promise. I was so stupid. Forgive me. No one could ever replace you. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it, to pretend that her life hadn’t changed. Return to the world she had inhabited before, with her and Lucille sealed off from each other.
It was close to ten when Pearl left Laura’s room to return to her own. And as she changed out of her clothes and into pyjamas, her body tingling with the static of the night’s events, she was thinking of how the force of Laura’s anger had surprised her, yes. But that the ultimate surprise was her happiness, and how much she didn’t care what the other girls would do or say. She wondered what she’d say to Lucille about it. Not much, probably. It was done. They were yoked, now, and that was that. She yearned to see Lucille then and to be with her. But it was too late to go. Students weren’t allowed out of their boarding houses past ten. She would have to wait until morning.
- Khaddafina Mbabazi is a musician and writer from Kampala whose work has appeared in VQR and Vox Populi. She is a Henry Hoyns Fellow and an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Virginia. Follow her on Twitter.