The JRB presents a new short story by Agatha Zaza.
This will be her husband.
Litiya looks carefully at her prospective fiancé, trying to discern what it is he wants. What is it that makes a perfectly ordinary man seek a wife through her parents in this day and age? Wouldn’t it have been easier to try to chat her up, sidle up to her in a bar and tell her how wonderful she looks that evening? Perhaps he could have sent a friend to ascertain her interest before he swooped in with flowers and explained how he saw her from afar and thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. But he didn’t. Instead he spoke with her father, Litiya has no idea how many times, or if they were brief conversations or long detailed discussions.
It all seems so archaic—marrying at the behest of a parent. She runs her fingers through her neat shoulder-length dreads and says close your eyes and dive under her breath as he closes in on her table.
Her husband-to-be is divorced and a good Catholic. Francis runs five times a week and it shows in his silhouette. He’s at the helm of one of the largest insurers in Zambia. Litiya has been told that he has a master’s from a prestigious university in England, that he will not cheat on her, nor does he want a woman who’ll fritter away her time at kitchen parties and weddings. According to her father he expects intelligent conversation, a woman capable of holding her own in a room filled with corporate elites. Litiya’s father reports that he described her as a composer and music teacher who plays the cello and piano. Francis responded by saying that, in his opinion, these were exceptional pursuits for a woman in a country that has no interest in classical music. Her father gave her a date and time to meet and reminded her that she had few options. Then his face had softened and he’d taken her hand and said nothing.
Litiya only just made it in time, a broken-down truck having turned the Great East Road into a nightmare of irate minibus drivers inching their vehicles into any space that would help them move forward, forward, forward, waving their fists and cursing at everyone and each other. Within minutes the road was a stagnant mass of smoke-belching second-hand imports and street children weaving through gaps, relentlessly tapping on the windows of the marooned cars to beg.
Francis arrives late, but only by minutes, and he apologises. His housekeeper’s husband came down with cholera a few days earlier and her replacement was proving to be slow to adapt, he explains. He was considering sending her on a course to sharpen her skills—her collar ironing was lax and she served his cereal with hot milk.
His excuse makes her giggle. In a country where tardiness is the norm, for a man to offer such an honestly mundane explanation is a relief. Had he wanted to impress her he would have claimed a meeting with a senior government official and complained of their commonly known tendency to arrive late, if they arrive at all.
He asks her if it was easy to get there. When Litiya had finally escaped the stationary traffic, it was a quick trip to this café. Her car had splashed through the water that ran in ugly brown streams alongside the road. A man waded through the filthy water that reached his shins and her tension lessened as she was reminded that there were far worse fates than hers.
She followed the sign to the ladies’ room, where she checked her makeup and straightened the mustard skirt that ends well above her knees and the white sleeveless sweater. If he is a traditionalist, she says to herself, he will not like her outfit and she will not marry him. The knot in her stomach eases as if in the knowledge that she still has some choice in the matter.
As they sit, he tells her that she looks lovely and that her skirt is lovely and that on a dull day like today, colour is always a good idea.
A waitress comes over immediately with an enthusiasm reserved for wealthy male patrons. Litiya guesses the waitress recognises Francis and that he tips generously. The café calls itself a tea house and he orders Five Roses tea, black, and tells her he’d rather drink his own bathwater than a cup of coffee—he’s not a coffee person.
Litiya laughs and waves her teacup in solidarity.
When he asks, Litiya tells Francis that she’s never been here before. She says she likes the look, the ethos, of the place. It was his idea to meet here. Her teacup is black and grey, marked handmade in Zambia. The café is merged with a design studio, and feathers, suede and leather mark what the owners call an afro-goth chic. The previous day she’d been teaching music skills on imported cheap plastic instruments to children who’d probably be filled with terror at the sight of the stuffed owl on the shelf, an animal many believed brought evil.
‘There are cafés on every corner these days,’ he responds. ‘This one works for me. My house is just around the corner and the gym is five minutes away.’ The neighbourhood is one of the older parts of the city, where the houses are large and even the land they sit upon costs a fortune. His tea arrives and he thanks the waitress. The last man Litiya dated would never have conceived of thanking waiting staff.
‘And I’ve bought a couple of their pieces—a suede rug. I all but picked the cows,’ Francis says with a smile.
He is not young, nor is he old. To a twenty-five-year-old, forty seems old, but he doesn’t look it. Her mother called him well preserved.
Litiya has heard stories about marriages of convenience. An arranged marriage is something else, and aside from her friends of Indian origin no one she knows has ever had an arranged marriage. Marriages of convenience are an entirely different concept.
‘To be successful a marriage of convenience must be mutually beneficial, both parties must emerge as winners,’ said her mother soon after her father suggested it. ‘He won’t be beating you up or doing anything weird, he’s made his need for you clear. And he knows about your father, so to him the timing is perfect.’ Her mother glanced at the floor, one of the few silent gestures she’s made revealing any emotion at the impending loss of her husband.
Litiya takes a deep breath, trying to clear the image of her father from her mind. It pains her to see him in the hospital bed, emaciated, his liver defeated by the endless daily assault of whiskies and gin he refused to give up, even when given his prognosis.
‘You don’t have to marry anyone,’ her mother said to her, choosing an inappropriate time, just as Litiya arrived from the gym, her legs unsteady with the exertion of trying to escape the grief she’d been locked in for months now. ‘But things will not be the same when your father’s gone. You’ll be on your own and I don’t particularly want to take care of you. And, well, if you want to take care of yourself—that’s up to you. You can see how far a degree in music will go to sustain your lifestyle.’
Litiya appreciates her mother’s honesty. She hasn’t had the opportunity to fool herself into imagining any mother-daughter solidarity after he’s gone. Her mother’s been married for twenty-six years and at forty-five she’s an elegant woman, not slender but definitely slimmer than her peers. On the one hand, her mother seems determined to appear stoic, sweeping on- and offstage, the epitome of elegance, the residue of her floral perfumes lingering in rooms she’s left as if she were a beast staking claim to its territory. On the other hand, Litiya’s sure she heard her mother sobbing early that morning as she passed through the long corridor that leads past her mother’s bedroom door. Litiya didn’t offer her mother comfort because she’s not sure her mother wants it. She realises she might be wrong, but if she is, what can she do?
Her mother will inherit the house according to her father’s will. But the rest of the estate will be split many ways among his children. Her mother’s always known that once her husband is dead there will be many heirs. A first wife had produced several legitimate heirs and a series of affairs had produced many more.
Litiya knows her mother has squirreled away a lot—that she once entertained the idea of escape. She made her own investments and had only a middling sense of duty to her two grown children.
‘So why haven’t you left the country?’ Francis asks, bringing her attention back to him. ‘Why stay here, why aren’t you playing in an orchestra in London, Brussels, somewhere where classical music matters?’
‘Because I’d rather be here trying to make classical music matter. And yes, I love it here.’ She leans back into her chair. ‘It would be better without the potholes, the generators, the poverty, cholera.’ But her life isn’t about cholera and poverty, her father keeps her from it all. Her world is safe and clean, her lawns are green all year round and her electricity runs twenty-four hours a day. Francis would ensure that this life continues.
What is there to leave? Comfort, joy, the nearness of family and childhood friends? Sometimes she considers escape. Sometimes, when trapped in the city smog, diesel generators whirring and, in the distance, outdoor bars blaring tasteless hits at deafening volumes, she imagines herself in a small cosy flat in Auckland, Melbourne or Vancouver, on her own—the master of her fate.
The only extended period Litiya spent away was university. Aside from that she’s always been near her father. Life was easy with him, chatting, arguing, finding him on Sunday mornings drinking his tea on the veranda, The Economist on his lap. Her minor wanderlust is satisfied by short holidays—Cape Town, New York, London, Zanzibar. She knows the world and has enjoyed it.
But things will change. Her father will die soon. His estate parted, at her last count, seven different ways. She has a house, a gift on her twenty-first birthday. She’s looking for a wealthy renter, hopefully an expatriate, this will be her main regular income. What she makes teaching is, in her world, a pittance. Would she have to find a real job, would she have to sacrifice her composition and practising in order to make money? If she chose to, would her father’s associates honour his memory once her father was no longer a crucial business partner? Would they give her work once her father was no longer alive and their business bonds forever severed?
Francis is gay. Litiya knows that already. If she objected to his sexuality she wouldn’t be here. No one has lied. It’s about discretion, she knows, a facade. Litiya has been told that his last wife had been divorced because she, in drunken speeches, would tell all at kitchen parties and weddings.
How could it be a better arrangement? A sexless marriage, a seamless transition from the daughter of a wealthy family to the wife of an equally wealthy man.
Her father’s imminent death towers over everything. Her brother, normally industrious—a businessman like his father—has become morose, unable to focus on his business dealings and spending less and less time with his friends. He’s been to a church for the first time in years and questions Litiya in a low voice about the value of life and asks if anyone would notice if he is no longer there. He has taken to seeking her out as she practices and sitting on the floor with his eyes shut in meditation. The inventiveness that kept him constantly busy is now barely discernible. Once their father is gone and their mother has absconded, her brother’s manic highs and deepest lows will be hers to manage.
Her mother claims she’s going to London as soon as the funeral is over. The city she loves. She’s never tired of telling her daughter of the year she spent there before she married, when her father was in the diplomatic service. Of course she’s been there many times since, but as a married woman. It was never the same. Once her husband is dead, she will be free. She’s even been on a diet, losing an inch of her waist and claiming to anyone who referred to it that it was the stress of taking care of her husband. Yet when the relations are ushered from the private ward, not knowing her daughter lingers at the door, she stays behind, whispering to her husband’s sleeping figure.
Close your eyes and dive. That’s what her father told his children.
‘There’s nothing wrong with being with a man you don’t love,’ her mother told Litiya, quietly adding, ‘anymore.’ ‘And not everyone is lucky enough to have ever been in love,’ she said too. Litiya sometimes recalls the stories her mother told her of love at first sight, of being swept off her feet at nineteen. She had only touched the world, tasted it with the briefest flick of her tongue, and then found herself comfortable, yet within those boundaries that marriage creates, no matter how modern the marriage is understood to be. Then there are children, in her case two, that were not so much wanted as expected. Then when she meets a stranger’s child that looks far too much like her own for his parentage to be denied, she first prays to die and then finds life again, losing weight, reinventing herself as a glamorous wife, yet with a bedroom suite of her own with her own private garden that faces away from the rest of the house.
Being married to Francis would not be easy. Luckily most people have a way of denying the clearly evident. Anyone who pondered too long about their marriage would realise it was a sham calculated by her father on his deathbed before he lost all influence.
‘Why would you agree to this?’ Francis asks.
After talking of people they knew, prying from each other things they had in common, the question startles her.
It takes a moment before she speaks.
‘Because I’ve never before had to be afraid of the future.’
He mulls over her words, and she sees it in his eyes, he is weighing the likelihood that she is telling the truth. He leans back and massages the side seam of his trousers.
‘This will not be easy—my ex could tell you that—but she’d probably rather rip your hair out.’ A smile flitting briefly across his lips: discomfort. ‘She claims she didn’t know. She did, but her expectations were …’ he pauses, ‘Christian.’
They both shift in their seats and he taps his teaspoon against his cup. The brief tinkle, seemingly innocuous, brings the waitress swiftly to their table.
He is flustered at the waitress’s sudden arrival. He stammers an order for an ice-cream—dairy free, yes, pineapple.
He inhales. ‘I want a woman who understands her position. You’re there to back my claim to heterosexuality.’ He pauses and looks to the ceiling. ‘I made the mistake of playing too hard at being a real husband, in every sense of the role, until we both were exhausted.
‘I’m afraid of the future, but unlike you, I’ve always been afraid of it—since I was fourteen and in my naivety told a boy in my class I loved him. Having a woman on my arm is the one way I found to keep the lynch mobs away.’
Francis needs her. Litiya understands that. He could give her what she wants, her freedom slightly curtailed but her future safe. She can have her own space and bedroom suite without the broken heart and whispers of out-of-wedlock children.
They kiss cheeks as they part. His skin is soft and he gives off a gentle smell of pineapple.
The feel of his skin, cool against her now flustered face, reminds her he’s not looking for love. He’s seeking an arrangement—a shield against the world.
What would happen if she said yes? Could she stand to share the same house, night after night, with a man with whom she’s fallen in love? A man who, when he bids her farewell, both hands over hers, gives her a jolt of excitement unlike any she’s ever felt before? Would she survive the nights he was in bed with his love elsewhere, while she, like her mother, built a secret garden?
- Agatha Zaza is lives in Auckland, New Zealand where she works in communications and non-profits. She also calls Helsinki and Lusaka home. Her debut novel The Pretenders was born in Singapore, where she spent three years both as a trailing spouse and a freelance consultant. Aside from Singapore, Agatha has worked and lived in several countries, among them the then Soviet Union. While in Ireland, she earned a Master’s in Equality Studies from University College Dublin and followed that with a stint in international development in Uganda. Her work can be found in this publication and in a PEN International special edition on African writers. She’s a dedicated slow runner, an occasional composter and has been known to reupholster armchairs on occasion.