Neil Gunn Award Ceremony in Inverness

Working away was the Adult Prose and overall Winner in the 2011 Neil Gunn Writing Competition on the theme of ‘A Wrong Turning’ taken from Neil Gunn’s novel The Serpent – ‘Our river took a wrong turning somewhere, but we haven’t forgotten the source.’

Working Away

The agency man is talking, insistent as a mosquito. “This is how it will be. Where you will go. Very nice people. Very good room. It will be very fine.”
Mmberane pauses, curious only. He notes the dark suit, the crisp, white shirt, and reaches for his own, newly bought handkerchief, shaking it out and raising it to his brow. The feel of the stiff cotton sings to him: Today I have begun.

On the brow of the hill he stops, breathing deeply, and again mops his forehead, the handkerchief already limp. Below him the village slumbers, the contours softened by the heat, the cluster of circular huts mud-brown daubs against the smear of earth and sky. In the corner of his eye he catches a streak of yellow followed by red, a shout, a tumble, high-pitched laughter carried to him in the still air. He lifts his bag, empty now but for the roll of sacking and his money purse, and slings it over his shoulder, his chest swelling at the clink of coins.
Iminza has seen him and comes running, her dress lifting and spinning as she leaps up and wraps her legs and arms around him. Saliku tugs at his trouser leg, poking a stubby finger through the hole at the back of the knee.
“Aaie!” Mmberane shifts Iminza onto one hip, bends and swings Saliku up onto the other, presses them close, tells them, “Daddy has sold everything today.” He bounces them up and down as he strides along the track, so that they squeal and cling tight. It is mid-afternoon, the village quiet, almost deserted. Only the old remain, resting in the shade of their huts, and those of the children either too young or too poor to go to school. He knows the talk: that he will never amount to anything, that Grace made a mistake in marrying him and feels a stab of regret: he should have lingered, come home late when all would see the empty sack, his bulging purse.

He is kneeling by the bed dragging out the carved box that lies beneath as Grace enters. She pauses in the doorway, hesitant. Sensing in her stillness the apprehension that she is too loyal to express, he turns towards her, rocking on his heels and beaming reassurance, holds out the purse.
“I thought…” She weighs it in her hand, her dark eyes damp, and he reaches for her, buries her face in his chest, leans his chin on the tight fuzz of her hair.
“Ninety shillings,” he says, tightening his grip. “This year” he says, “This year we will be very fine.” His finger traces the line of her spine, his hand coming to rest in the small of her back. “I feel it.”

The next day is good also, and the next, and each night as Grace curves into him, welcoming, he responds without reserve. It is three o’clock on Friday when he makes his last sale: to a woman in a mission handout, the pattern faded under the armpits, one of the buttons on the front mismatched. He has six good potatoes left, round and firm, weighing heavy. He is already adding the final ten shillings to the total in his head as she hesitates, puts her hand in her pocket as if counting the coins there, then holds out her string bag,
“Four,” she says, her chin tilting.
He drops them in, asks for seven shillings. As he waits he sees Grace in a similar dress, though her hem never drags. “Here,” he thrusts the remaining two potatoes into the bag, avoids her eyes, fans his face, “Aaie…it is too hot and who would want only two?”
He brushes away her mumbled ‘Asante’, embarrassed by her thanks, and stretches, rolling up the sacking, tucking it under his arm as he drifts around the market stalls. Many things tempt him, yet each time he pauses he jingles the money in his purse, looks, shakes his head in dismissal; passes on. It is a fine thing to be able to choose not to buy. He lingers longest under a sign proclaiming ‘The best batik-maker in Serem’. The stall-holder unfurls the fabric with a practised tug, the colours blending and swirling before him. Stroking the bright cottons he imagines Grace: the pattern cascading from her shoulder, over her breasts, cradling her smooth, slightly rounded stomach, the curve of her thighs. He reaches for his purse, hesitates, blurts out,
“Next month…my wife… it is her birthday – I will come then.”

The agency man is there again, in the corner where the stalls peter out into an open area cluttered with ancient bicycles, rickety ox-carts and the occasional dust-covered, dented van. This time he rests one foot on the runner of a gleaming matatu; his vowels stretched, sinuous.
“Very good hotel. Very good job. It will be very fine.”
A man steps forward and hands over a clutch of notes before swinging his bag onto the minibus roof rack and joining those already seated inside. Watching, Mmberane thinks of how the man will come home only two or three times a year, that his wife, his children will be strangers to him, and is thankful that he has no schooling, no certificate.

Grace is cross-legged on the floor, a dress for Iminza spread on her lap, a handful of pins sticking from her mouth. She is pressing the fabric with her fingers, smoothing out the gathers around the waist, pinning, tucking. It is a pretty dress of turquoise satin, embroidered flowers scattered across the skirt, but Mmberane brushes it aside, gently removes the pins from her lips, cradles her hands, elation in his voice.
“This week, two hundred and eighty shillings. Next month,” he squeezes her fingers, “the beans will be ready and who knows…” He picks up the dress, closes his hand over the label at the neck, hiding the English name in faded ink. “Soon,” he says, “Soon I will buy new.” Grace leans into him and he feels her heartbeat, and lower down another flutter. He steps back, searches her face, sees the hope shining.
“I wasn’t sure. Not till today. But I think we will be blessed again.” For a moment a shadow crosses her face. “If all is well.”
He rests his hand on her stomach, “It will be. It will be very well.”

He carries the beans to market, a swing in his step. His usual pitch is taken, but he finds a space, stretching out his sacking, setting up the scales, lining up the stones as weights. On one side of him an old woman, as scrawny as the three chickens that squawk and peck in a crate at her feet, and on the other, a man with his head bent over a whetstone, feeling for the edge, the knife in his hand sliding and lifting, sliding and lifting in continuous motion.
From the woman Mmberane’s ‘Jambo’ elicits a toothless smile, deepening the creases in her face, while the knife-sharpener tilts his head towards the voice, his eyes opaque as an overcast sky, the SharpenedKnife sign over his head seems to sweat from the heat of the day. Mmberane shifts on his haunches, makes a surreptitious sign of the cross, but stays his ground. Afterwards, walking home as the heat bleeds out of the sun, he dismisses the superstition and instead blames the good harvest, the many other bean-sellers, that a third of his crop lies limp in his bag, that his purse is light.

The next day he leaves before dawn to claim a different pitch, prays his luck will change. But though it is not a bad week, it is not a good one either, and each evening he hurries past the batik stall, head down, reminding himself that there are still two weeks until Grace’s birthday. And at the foot of the market he skirts the perimeter to avoid the stall with the accusing line of girl’s dresses strung out like gaily-coloured flags.
But he cannot avoid the agency man, persuading his clients into the comfort of the matatu, his voice repetitive as a recording. “…Where you will go…What you will do. Very good people…It will be very fine.” Unable to resist Mmberane stops, watches the flash of gold in his mouth, listens. Sees the pictures: summer-bright, many-coloured, like finest batik.

He has almost decided, but has given himself one last day. It is cooler now and though there are people enough, few stop, those who do buying little, haggling hard. He must carry many things away again and when they have paid for the school for Mbone there will be less in the box, not more. Afterwards, when he has signed the papers, he walks home, each turn in the path a private goodbye. Outside their hut Grace is preparing their evening meal: steamed cassava, sweet potatoes, kidney beans. Soon, he thinks, soon she will be able to have chicken also. Inside he drags out the box, unlocking it with the key tied on a string under his shirt. Carefully he counts: the agency man requires 1200 shillings for travel, 600 for uniform, 250 commission. He thinks of the very fine room, the very good job, a salary.

All around him are the sounds of evening: wives cooking, children playing, insects buzzing. He hears the rhythmic slap, stamp, slap as Iminza skips, the frayed rope-ends twisted around her palms. Mbone throws small stones towards a series of circles scratched in the dust and Saliku, squatting beside them, squeals each time one reaches the target. Mmberane thinks of marbles, of a sturdy, rainbow-coloured rope.
And for a moment only, of stifling heat, canned music, hooting horns. There is a pain beneath his breastbone, but he thrusts it away.

The agency man has said the matatu will leave at eight. Mmberane knows it will not; still he will not risk being late. He thinks of the hotel in Mombasa where he will open doors and carry cases, of the fat tips from wealthy tourists, of his first wage. He thinks of a dress for Iminza, the cloth for Grace. He thinks of later, when he has saved enough to bring his family to a fine house: where Grace will cook indoors, where their mattress will not be stuffed with rags. He thinks of school for all his children and of the beach where he will watch them play, curling their toes around the warm sand.

He refuses to think of the stories he has heard.

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  1. jeanne Joss

    I really enjoyed this story. I loved the thoughts and emotions of Mmberane. Food for thought indeed. Thank you. jeanne Joss
    Sorry I was unable to click on ‘like’ I had password trouble.

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