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Hiding in Plain Sight
From an acclaimed African writer, a novel about family, freedom, and loyalty.
When Bella learns of the murder of her beloved half brother by political extremists in Mogadiscio, she’s in Rome. The two had different fathers but shared a Somali mother, from whom Bella’s inherited her freewheeling ways. An internationally known fashion photographer, dazzling but aloof, she comes and goes as she pleases, juggling three lovers. But with her teenage niece and nephew effectively orphaned — their mother abandoned them years ago — she feels an unfamiliar surge of protective feeling. Putting her life on hold, she journeys to Nairobi, where the two are in boarding school, uncertain whether she can — or must — come to their rescue. When their mother resurfaces, reasserting her maternal rights and bringing with her a gale of chaos and confusion that mirror the deepening political instability in the region, Bella has to decide how far she will go to obey the call of sisterly responsibility.
A new departure in theme and setting for “the most important African novelist to emerge in the past twenty-five years” (The New York Review of Books) Hiding in Plain Sight, is a profound exploration of the tensions between freedom and obligation, the ways gender and sexual preference define us, and the unexpected paths by which the political disrupts the personal.
Nuruddin Farah Hiding in Plain Sight
On his desk in the office, Aar has three photographs, one of each of his two teenage children and a third, the photo of a very beautiful woman, which occupies center stage. Unless he tells them who the woman is, nearly everyone assumes she is his wife, the mother of his children. But if they ask and he tells them that she is his sister, their faces turn sad, as if they are sorry that she is not his woman.
In a dream just before dawn, Aar keeps trying to corral a dozen ground squirrels into his apartment. Time and again, he fails miserably. In spite of this, he doesn’t give up, and eventually he rounds up quite a few of them. But just as he attempts to shut the door on the last of the lot, he discerns in the hallway the presence of a familiar figure: Valerie, whom he thinks of as his former wife, although they have never actually divorced. But what on earth is she doing here? And why are the ground squirrels gathering around her, looking eagerly up at her as if she might offer them treats?
Indeed, Valerie is wearing an apron with huge pockets, from which she begins extracting seeds, nuts, dead insects, and other tidbits that she feeds to the rodents. Enraged, he utters a few choice expletives under his breath. Then he resumes his efforts to rally those nearest him, but he feels he hasn’t a chance in hell to lure away the ones that are happily feeding around her. He doubts if he will succeed in doing what he has set out to do.
Aar hasn’t set eyes on Valerie since she disappeared from his life and that of their children’s a decade ago. Why would she make this sudden reappearance here in Mogadiscio, where he is living for only a short while — or, rather, in his dream there? And come to think of it, what have ground squirrels to do with her, or with either of them, for that matter? He watches in bemusement as some of the creatures, having eaten their fill, pirouette for the others, who applaud as squirrels do, rising on their hind legs and touching their palms together. Why is Valerie back in his life at just the point when he no longer misses her?
Aar’s heart expands with great sorrow, yet he won’t admit defeat. He triples his endeavor to pen in as many squirrels as he can, singling out the sated ones, who surrender more easily to his will. But when no more snacks are forthcoming, they look confused, and some manage to give him the slip while others come and go, entering the room at his behest and departing again at Valerie’s insistence. In the ensuing chaos, with neither Valerie nor Aar willing to back down, frenzy sets in, and the poor things begin pushing and shoving one another, looking helpless and lost.
Just then, Aar feels the quiet presence of someone else on the periphery of his vision. A woman, elegantly dressed all in black, is placing a tripod within shooting distance and mounting a compact digital camera on it. Busy attending to the squirrels, Valerie does not take notice of her, but Aar recognizes Bella and wonders how come his sister did not bother to e-mail or phone to alert him to her arrival. How bizarre, and how unlike her! They had last met in Istanbul, when he was on his way to his current posting in Somalia. She had flown in from Brazil and they had spent nearly a week together. But here she is, in her birth city, where she hasn’t set foot since 1991, when the two of them fled the fighting in Mogadiscio with their mother, first to Nairobi and then to Rome.
Silent, he watches Bella as she approaches and adjusts the position of her camera, her shadow lengthening, her face widening in a knowing grin as her eyes encounter Aar’s. He is relaxed, no longer worried. Bella, more than anyone, gives him comfort. And Bella, more than anyone, discomfits Valerie, because if there is anything Valerie hates, it is having her picture taken when she hasn’t prepared for it.
And lo and behold: The minute Valerie’s eyes fix on Bella’s camera and its attendant paraphernalia, she begins to make ponderous, ungainly movements. Hardly has another moment passed before she beats the undignified retreat of a vanquished rival, slinking away without so much as a word of self-justification or apology.
And Aar herds all the squirrels in.
Unsettled, his confidence shaken, Aar waits for his breathing to even out. He rubs his eyes until they are sore. For a moment, he has no idea whether it is night and he is still dreaming, or whether it is daytime and he is coming out of a deep reverie. He looks at the ceiling and studies the walls. Then his eyes focus on his feet, and he notices the jagged edges of his badly trimmed toenails. He looks at them as if for instructions as to what to do, as if they might tell him the answers to his many questions.
Aar has been in Mogadiscio for three months, seconded to the UN office in Somalia as logistics officer, charged with the task of facilitating moving the UN’s Somalia staff back to Mogadiscio for the first time since Somalia collapsed into civil anarchy. In the interim, UN personnel assigned to Somalia have been operating out of Nairobi, flying up in the morning and returning before nightfall once or twice a month. Not surprisingly, it’s been impossible to achieve viable results this way, and yet the staff is resistant to leaving Nairobi, where they and their families feel safe. Even Aar, Somali by birth, is happy to have his children boarding in a school in one of the Nairobi suburbs, and these days he too feels more secure in Nairobi than he does in Mogadiscio.
Yet his home here is a spacious studio apartment with a view of the sea and much of the international airport. At first, Aar lived in a sublet, but when his continued presence became necessary, he rented this apartment in a well-guarded, recently built complex, twenty apartments in all, each with two access points, one serving as a fire exit with steps leading down to a basement shelter in the event of a terrorist attack, the other facing a parking lot. Three-quarters of the occupants of the complex are foreign, and the remainder of them are of Somali descent, albeit with alien passports. A number of the studios accommodate multiple part-time residents who take turns living here. It makes sense to share because the cost of living in a secure place like this comes to an exorbitant two hundred U.S. dollars daily, including breakfast, buffet lunch, and a simple evening meal delivered to one’s room. Residents of the larger apartments pay considerably more. And lately the UN and some of the embassies based in neighboring Kenya have taken to paying heavy retainers so they can have rooms, suites, or apartments of their choice available on short lets, sometimes for only half a day, where they can conduct a meeting and leave and not risk an overnight stay.
Hounded by the memory of his dream, Aar feels disconsolately hot one moment, and in the next, despondently cold, as if a life-threatening chill coursed through his blood. His life unfurls before him like a straw mat curling at the edges. But when he tries to smooth it out, his hands shake, and he hears a thunderclap in his head. Aar is a man a little past his midpoint in life and therefore unable to decide in which direction to move. He knows this is what the dream was about.
He makes an attempt to push his worry aside, walling off the nightmare and sidestepping his disorienting sense of dread. But what emerges instead is a memory from the evening before, when one of the UN drivers passed him a sealed envelope as he got out of the car. He’d thought nothing of it at the time, simply accepting it and stuffing it into the back pocket of his jeans. Undoubtedly it contained a request for a loan or a salary advance, he imagined, this being something of a daily occurrence with the workers. Often they ask Aar, as the only Somali of high rank here, to intercede with the Indian moneyman to facilitate these transactions.
But now he is full of anxiety to know the contents of the envelope. He gets out of bed, totteringly eager to satisfy his troubled curiosity. He finds his jeans on the floor where they have fallen and his shaking hand retrieves the envelope, which he tears open with his forefinger. And before he has given it much thought, he is staring at a single word, and a misspelled one at that: DETH!
He doesn’t know what to make of the lone word. Did its author mean to write DEBT and misspell it? Or is Aar meant to read it as DEATH with a missing A? Aar is no fool. He is fully aware that among the UN’s Somali staff there are Shabaab recruits, hordes of them, who will carry out a threat to kill on behalf of the terrorist organization. They go for soft targets, aiming for a publicity stunt. And nothing works better than killing foreigners — never mind their nationality, so long as they are of the infidel variety — in the name of Islam. On many an occasion, they’ve killed fellow Muslims, but do they care? The UN is a particular magnet for terrorist groups because of the huge international coverage any damage inflicted generates. Aar remembers when, back in 2003, al-Qaeda operatives used a bomb-laden cement truck to target the Canal Hotel in Baghdad where UN Special Representative Sérgio Vieira de Mello was staying, trapping him in the rubble for hours before he lost his life, as did twenty-one members of his staff.
He drops the envelope to the floor and, with his knees knocking, manages to pick up his mobile phone and ring Bella. He needs to speak to someone, not necessarily to discuss the letter and its brief but disturbing contents, but just to touch base, to share a moment of amity, evidence that he is still alive. But Bella does not answer.
Aar knows that further action will have to wait until tomorrow. He wonders if the driver who gave him the envelope will be back on duty then. He may already have reported to one of the terrorist cells to share his reconnoitering with Shabaab intelligence, who would most probably assign him to other duties elsewhere now that this part of the mission has been carried out.
Of course, Aar has expected threats from Shabaab to come his way since the day he arrived in Mogadiscio. And in a way, it annoys him that the menacing missive has come just when he is a couple of days from departing for R&R and a celebration of his son’s birthday in Nairobi. If he manages to leave, he knows he won’t be returning to Mogadiscio soon, maybe ever.
And now that he is deciding what his next step is to be, he feels a surge of further fear. His hands all of a sudden become conscious of each other and the uses to which he can put them. He secures the door and the windows, and he sets the alarm in hope that it will bring help if somebody breaks in. At eight in the morning, he is not sure if he is safer staying at home, where the alarm is now on, or going to work, where there is comfort in knowing that he is not alone. Then the trilling of his mobile phone startles him.
It’s Keith Neville, the UN’s local chief of security, an Englishman, who wants to call on him. Aar doesn’t bother to ask why, and Keith Neville doesn’t volunteer an explanation. Does he know about the letter from the driver? As soon as Aar rings off, he is seized by an urge to phone his children, Dahaba and Salif. He dials their numbers, feeling that it is essential for him to hear their voices, and they his. But, like Bella, they do not answer; and so he leaves them messages, in which he informs them that he is coming home to Nairobi a day earlier than previously arranged. He encounters the same worrying silence when he calls the home of the principal of their school and his wife, two generous souls who have been playing host to Dahaba and Salif in Nairobi. Again he leaves messages, telling Mr. and Mrs. Kariuki of his plan to arrive on the morrow.
In his desperate need to reach someone close to him, Aar rings Gunilla Johansson. Mercifully, she answers and, hearing the worry in his voice, wonders aloud if everything in Mogadiscio is well.
Gunilla is a colleague of Aar’s back in Nairobi, and the two of them have recently become secret lovers, seeing a lot of each other when Aar is home and his children aren’t around. The children have met Gunilla twice, the first time when they camped out together in the Rift Valley and the next on the one time she came to dinner. Undemanding, generous to a fault, Gunilla is the sort who understands Aar’s predicament as the father of two teenagers who are difficult to please, immodestly possessive, and given to asking if there is something going on between him and any woman he greets. Still, he is unsure why he’s kept the true intimacy of his relationship with her a secret, not only from the children but also from Bella, whom he’s often told about his other women. He ascribes this to his general wariness about making a serious commitment after what happened with Valerie.
And yet it was she, not Mahdi or Fatima, his closest Somali friends in Nairobi, whom he took into his confidence on his last visit home, requesting that she store his essential documents, including the notarized photocopies of his passport, his most recent will, and the details of his bank accounts and other assets, in her safe box. She agreed and also insisted that he provide her with Bella’s coordinates, just in case, along with those of Valerie and her lover. Bella’s details he could readily provide, but as for Valerie, the best he could do was to give his former mother-in-law’s e-mail and phone number.
Not only did he do all this, but he also gave her power of attorney over all his assets before he left for Somalia. He did not tell this to either the children or Bella. Perhaps this was because Aar leads a compartmentalized existence, and no one person, not even his sister, has access to the sum of his secrets.
Now Gunilla is asking why he sounds so feverish, on edge. He tells her that his days have been hectic lately and that he’s been returning home exhausted. But he doesn’t tell her about the letter. Nor does he tell her that he’s been so restless that one day last week he woke up to find his feet on his pillow and his head where his feet ought to have been.
She says, “I am glad you’re coming to Nairobi. It will be great to see you and for you to see the children.”
They chat about this and that, and then he rings off to wait for the chief of security with the serenity of a man awaiting a pizza delivery.
The calmness doesn’t last long, however. Keith Neville calls back to advise Aar not to open the door to anyone until he gets another call from Keith, which he should not answer, and then a text message from someone called RatRoute. Aar waits, his heart beating loudly in his ears, especially after the missed call from Keith. He draws gulps of nervous air into his lungs.
When Keith finally arrives, he is accompanied by a man who, like him, is wearing a sky-blue UN uniform and helmet, though the companion has larger feet, which Aar can make out through the peephole. The men carry themselves with a professionalism that sets them apart from the local ragtag soldiery. Aar deliberately keeps them waiting at the door until, growing restless, the other man draws close to Keith to say something. This affords Aar a glimpse of the man’s face.
It’s Cadde, Keith’s deputy, who once served as a bodyguard to a radical religionist who is now a high-ranking Shabaab figure. Not that Cadde will ever admit to having been close to his former boss, now a wanted terrorist. Cadde is advisedly moderate in his ways, never openly condemning the young Somali women who work in the office and move about with their heads uncovered. He is soft-spoken and unusually polite. But Aar won’t be humbugged, no sir.
Keith Neville, on the other hand, is a former bodybuilder gone to fat. When Aar opens the door at last, Keith is the first to enter, with the bearing of a great actor asked to do an uninspiring cameo in a bad movie. Face dotted with liver spots, eyes bulging and as red as beetroot, maybe from illicitly acquired beer and liquor, the Englishman has told Aar that he doesn’t want to be in Somalia. A former marine and subsequently a mercenary with Ian Smith’s Rhodesian army, lately of Blackwater and their ilk, who have employed him in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, he has done all the dirty work that a dirty man can get away with.
Now he says, “May I look around?”
“Go ahead. Please,” says Aar.
The two men move in opposite directions. Keith enters the bedroom and then presumably the bathroom, and Cadde heads for the kitchen and, finding the door to the balcony locked, asks if Aar has a key and can open it for him. Aar is wise to the fact that many a security breach has resulted from an unlocked balcony. In Nairobi, where he has resided for a number of years, balconies often provide access points to burglars. Aar elects to lie, saying that he has no idea where the key is and that he has never opened the balcony door for fear that he might forget to lock it.
Back in the living room, Keith’s wandering gaze falls on the photographs of Bella in various poses, and he stands there, staring at them. It is as if the man suddenly has no memory of the business that has brought him here. Still, Aar refrains from asking why they have come, his self-restraint greater than even his sense of unease. He has no wish to confront his demons now. But when Keith and Cadde join him in the kitchen, at last Aar asks, “Why are you here?”
Keith looks at Aar and then at Cadde and, smiling solicitously, explains, “My office has received intelligence from an unidentified source suggesting that you’ve been singled out as a terrorist target. And because of this, we’ve been asked to call round and talk to you.”
Aar has no way of knowing whether the two of them are fishing for information or know more than they are letting on. He looks at Cadde for a long minute before he responds. “Does your unidentified source say why I’ve been singled out and in what way?”
Cadde turns away, avoiding Aar’s glance, and Aar is struck with a sudden nausea; in fact, he is so panic-stricken that he thinks his knees may give way, forcing him to collapse to the floor. And because he can’t bear the thought of that happening in the presence of these men, he makes his way to the chair closest to him and sits down. There is no point in engaging these men in further talk. He trains his eyes on Cadde, in hope of divining something from the man’s body language, but when he fails to do so, he turns to Keith: “Can you say who your unidentified source is or how you know that I’ve been singled out?”
Keith exchanges a furtive glance with Cadde and then answers that he is not at liberty to share any information. That is the moment when Aar indicates that he wants them to leave. And they do.
Aar telephones his children again, and again each of their phones rings on and on until at last he gets their voice mail. He leaves them each a second message, his worry gaining in intensity. He paces back and forth as though he were in a cage, which in a sense he is, in this barricaded hotel in his native city, with armed guards roaming inside and outside, and stationed at all entrances.
Until a few hours ago, Aar felt safe here, especially being so close to the airport. All he has to do is pack his one suitcase and leave. And although he hates giving the impression that the mere suggestion of danger in the shape of a threatening letter is enough to make him flee, he is inclined to do just that. After all, he has the children to think of, having been a single parent to them since Valerie vanished.
When he thinks of Valerie, he thinks of their relationship as being like a rug: beautiful when first purchased but gone threadbare over time and then utterly disintegrating. He seldom mentions her in the presence of the children anymore, as he does not know what to tell them, how to explain that their mother evidently valued the love she shared with Padmini over the love she had for them.
The last time he heard from her was when Dahaba, at ten, had her first period. Valerie wrote to him from Pondicherry, where she and Padmini were running a hotel and restaurant, to tell him what to do. As if she could give this sort of advice from such a distance! Or had any right to after failing to remember so many of the children’s birthdays with so much as a phone call, let alone a card or a present! When he responded angrily, she wrote back, “As a Muslim man, what do you know about raising a daughter? Your people chop it all off, don’t they, and maybe feed it to a waiting cat?” From then on, Aar cut off all communication with her and relayed information only through the children’s English grandmother, with whom he has remained on good terms and who gives him the latest about her daughter in return.
The years that have passed have dulled the edges of his rancor, and recently he has begun to pity Valerie, sensing that she may be regretting the choices she made. The children have lost interest in what their mother is up to. In fact, one of the things he would like to talk to them about is who will take care of them in the event of his death. Given the choice, he would like Bella to have them. Not that he would stand in the way of Valerie making a new bond with her children. After all, she carried them both in her womb for nine months, breast-fed them, cared for them, loved them — until she left. But it won’t be easy for Valerie to win them over again, especially if Padmini is still in the picture.
That night, Aar books a flight to Nairobi for the following day. In the morning, he calls in sick — a terrible diarrhea, he says. He learns from his secretary, a Kenyan Somali who has little or no understanding of Mogadiscio’s clan-infested politics, that Cadde has not returned to work since he and Keith visited Aar at his apartment, nor has Aar’s driver. He tells her he’s going to organize a taxi so he can quickly pick up a few documents he needs to work at home.
He leaves his suitcase in the taxi and slips into the office. It isn’t files he is after, but a few photos — and not any of Bella’s, surprisingly enough. The photos he feels compelled to have are the ones he himself took during that camping trip in the Rift Valley with Gunilla and his children. He is just on his way back out the door with them when Shabaab strikes.
“Like beads unstrung,” Bella says to Marcella.
“What a terrible thing death is!” says Marcella to Bella.
They hug for a long time, the elderly Italian woman holding the younger woman, each wailing louder than the other — their lamentation a survivor’s threnody expressive of so huge a loss.
The doors of their respective apartments are open. They sob bitterly in the corridor, neither of them battling to hold back their keening. Some of the neighbors come out of their apartments and stand gawking at the women and exchanging questioning glances.
It is Bella’s ill luck that she was one of the last to hear of Aar’s death. When he was killed, she was finishing up a photo assignment in Bahia for the German magazine GEO. She had just cleared customs at Fiumicino when she came upon the headline in the Italian daily La Repubblica. According to witnesses, a suicide bomber blew up a car at the main entrance to the UN compound, then four heavily armed gunmen entered the building and a gun battle lasting more than an hour ensued. In all, twenty people lost their lives, fifteen of them Somalis and five foreigners, Aar among them.
Bella had barely finished the first paragraph when her legs buckled and she collapsed at the feet of a man offering her taxi service. When she came to, a throng of people had crowded around her and a fierce debate had ensued as to what to do with her. The taxi driver, an elderly Sicilian with a broad face sporting at least a week of stubble and a sweet smile showing only a few front teeth, bent down and helped her to sit up. “Signorina, take notice,” he said. “You are in Rome, whose proud citizens frown on public weeping.” He offered her a pile of paper napkins. “Here, dry your tears.”
The taxi driver, a gentleman of rare breeding and charm, led her to his car and they sat together until she came to her senses. Then he drove her home, left his car parked illegally in the street, helped her up the stairway with her luggage, cameras and all, and refused to accept the fare.
On the drive, Bella used her phone to glean further details from the Internet. The attack was remarkable for its ruthlessness, which had attracted intense international attention. The body parts of the dead were found strewn about the outbuildings, so charred and mangled as to be unidentifiable. Aar’s head was found far from where the rest of his body fell, although that was according to some of the unreliable Somali websites, which are given to exaggeration and releasing unverified information. Those body parts that were identifiably Somali were buried in a mass grave, and those of a recognizably paler shade were collected and put in containers to be catalogued later before being passed on to their next of kin.
Now, at the sight of her beloved friend and neighbor, who has been listening for her return, Bella is again undone. Marcella holds her until her sobbing ceases, then they retreat into Bella’s apartment, still clinging tightly to each other.
Marcella makes her sit. “I’ll make you tea with sugar, the way Somalis like it,” Marcella says. Bella stares back at her, as if she doesn’t understand the language or can’t comprehend why anyone would have sugar in her tea. “Please,” she says. Too weak to sit up straight and too jet-lagged to keep her eyes open, too exhausted to sleep and much too disoriented to take in all that has happened, Bella is at the point of losing control over her bodily movements.
Marcella sits down opposite her. The old woman has known Bella literally from birth. She remembers the day in 1981 when Hurdo came to have her second child at Mogadiscio’s Digfer Hospital. It was a Muslim holiday and the hospital was short-staffed; Marcella, as head of obstetrics, was putting in a long shift, and it fell to her to perform the delivery. My lucky day, Hurdo always said. Hurdo and her husband, Digaaleh, were colleagues of Marcella’s husband on the law faculty, and the two couples knew each other well. Hurdo was a much-adored professor of international law, having gained her higher degree from Bologna in the days when a large number of Somalis pursued their professional training in Italy.
There was an additional layer to the intimacy of Marcella’s connection with Bella, in that she was among the few who knew of Hurdo’s affair with Giorgio Fiori, a Dante scholar on the faculty of letters, and she suspected that Bella was Giorgio’s child even before it was confirmed. So she had a certain proprietary feeling about Bella from the beginning, which was rekindled years later, when Marcella and her husband — who had died recently of lymphoma, poor soul — took on the role of surrogate parents to Bella in Rome, helping her to find her apartment opposite their own and watching after it when photography assignments took her far and wide.
Lately, Marcella has been losing more and more of her recall, fading like a cloth losing the brightness of its original dye. Now she is reaching for the memory of the last time she saw Aar, but it is earlier memories that surface. Aar was twelve years old when Bella was born. From the beginning, he had an older brother’s protectiveness and affection for her, buying her toys with his own pocket money and helping with her studies (she was bad at mathematics and science). He’d encouraged her interest in photography; in fact, he bought her first camera and sat for her as she began to master her art. One of Marcella’s great joys was to host brother and sister together, delighting in the way they comforted each other, holding hands and hugging at every opportunity. They had a deeper affection for each other than could exist between even the most intimate husband and wife, Marcella thinks. But still she can’t retrieve the memory of Aar’s last visit.
“When was Aar here last?” she asks.
But the question leads Bella to a dim hall lined with fogged mirrors, where she searches frenziedly for answers and, finding none, weeps some more. Marcella can’t think of anything to say that might help, and so she says only, “Let me make the tea.”
“Actually, I would prefer coffee,” says Bella.
“Black or with milk?”
“A latte if possible.”
Marcella knows how to work Bella’s espresso machine and goes about feeding the grinder with coffee beans, apologizing for the hideous noise. She regrets that since her husband’s death she hasn’t been looking after the young woman’s apartment as before. In the old days, she would often do the tidying herself or hire a Filipino woman to do it, services that Bella would insist on reimbursing with money and favors in return. Now Marcella notices the dishes in the sink; the books lying open, abandoned like orphans; the drawn curtains; the windows unopened for days on end so that the whole apartment emits a musty odor. This is not clean living, she thinks. In an effort to alleviate the dark mood, she parts the curtains to let in the daylight and opens the windows. She sets the coffee to brewing while she begins to clear away the clutter then interrupts herself to froth the milk and pour the latte into a large mug, worried that Bella might spill it in her state of discomposure.
“Here,” she says, handing it to Bella. “This will do you good.”
Bella receives the mug with both hands and murmurs her thanks. But she doesn’t take a sip, not yet; it is too hot. And when she does, she continues to look dazed, her eyes unfocused, her hands trembling as she lifts the mug to her lips and lowers it again, untasted.
Marcella has noticed that the red button of the message machine is blinking. She knows that one of the messages is her own condolence, left earlier in the day, when she was still at work and Bella had not yet returned. But there may be more. She debates whether she should bring the messages to Bella’s attention. After all, one or more may be from Aar, or from his colleagues. But Bella is staring ahead of her, looking at nothing, and Marcella decides not to mention it.
Bella looks up into Marcella’s eyes, finding comfort in their warmth and familiarity. Then, as if remembering something, she tries to stand but nearly loses her balance before she steadies herself with her hands and sits back down, narrowly missing spilling her latte, which she still has not tasted.
“What do you need done? I’ll do it. What?”
Apologetically, Bella says, “Could you please help bring in my camera cases? In my state, I left them outside, in the corridor.”
“Gladly, and you stay put.”
Marcella fetches the bags and asks if she should put them in the spare bedroom, which Bella rightly calls Aar’s room, as it is always ready to receive him — the bed made, clean towels in a neat stack, his pile of reading material (much of it novels bought at airports) at bedside, a spare pair of pajamas and hotel slippers, all of it arranged neatly as he liked things kept. Bella has never allowed anyone else to stay there. So Marcella’s question initially strikes her as almost insensitive, but after a moment of thought, she says, “Yes, in the guest room, please.”
Marcella knows all about homage to the dead. She has only recently finished going through her late husband’s things, getting rid of all but a handful that she left where he last placed them, cautioning the cleaning lady not to shift them. It is the prerogative of survivors to honor their dead and salute them the best way they can, she thinks.
When Marcella has finished moving the camera cases, Bella says, “Come and sit with me, please.” Marcella obliges, settling at the bottom end of the couch where Bella has indicated she should. Soon enough, though, an uneasy silence descends, and with it, a gnawing feeling of despair. Marcella scans the far wall of the living room, which is lined with Bella’s photographs, some of which have made her into one of the fashion industry’s most sought-after photographers. Even so, Marcella’s favorites are the family portraits, of Aar alone and with Valerie and his children at different ages. Bella has the true artist’s knack for showing the ugliness inside those she detests, Marcella thinks, as can be discerned in the photographs she took of Valerie.
In an effort to ease the tension and hardness in Bella, Marcella takes the young woman’s feet in her hands and gently massages them until she feels a kind of calmness taking hold both in her own as well as Bella’s body. Then she blurts out, “Where is Aar’s corpse?”
When Bella does not answer, Marcella persists. “Any idea when and where he will be interred?”
Marcella has always had this tendency to say the unspeakable in public, to ask the unanswerable in private. And before Bella can think what to say, the old woman says, “Will you have time to get there before his burial? I wouldn’t go to that dreadful country if I were you — but I can understand if you choose to do so. But I suppose, knowing them, they will not wait for your arrival.”
Marcella’s questions remind Bella how little even educated Europeans know about Islam, let alone about Somalis and their culture. “He’ll have been buried before dark the same day he died,” she says.
“Already buried — but where, when? Before dark?” Mercifully, Marcella stops herself before she blunders in deeper, and she stares at Bella in confusion. It is obvious that Marcella is upset with herself for asking inappropriate questions at such an inopportune time, but Bella waits to be certain Marcella is done before she says, “Aar was buried the same day he died.”
“What a way to go!” This time not even Bella’s expression of palpable distress is enough to keep Marcella from continuing in this vein. “What a way to end the noble life of a man who served everyone with honor, untainted integrity, and purpose.”
At last, Bella, wincing, takes her first sip of the latte.
“Has anyone been in touch with you officially?”
Bella looks at the blinking answering machine, and Marcella goes to it and presses the button to play back the messages. A woman speaking in perfect English with a Nordic-sounding voice has made several attempts to leave a message. In the most recent, she scarcely gets past Bella’s name before she bursts into tears and hangs up; the second time, she says, “Gunilla here,” and then, “There’s been terrible, terrible news from Mogadiscio—” She breaks off, then attempts to continue, stuttering, stopping, and weeping copiously before she again hangs up. On the third try, she says her piece, as if she were reading from a script: “Aar lost his life in a terrorist suicide bombing. The Somali authorities have ordered that his corpse and the others will all be interred in a mass grave in Mogadiscio.”
Bella utters an Irish curse, wishing the killers hell and worse in the spirit of all the saints of every faith anywhere. This message is followed by several earlier messages from Aar, who sounded desperate to speak with his sister. At the sound of them, Bella breaks down again. Marcella shushes her, tapping her cheeks and then holding her face in her gentle hands until the weeping ends. And for the first time, Marcella allows herself to wonder to whom the responsibility of informing Aar’s children and Valerie will fall.
Aloud she says, “Would you like me to call the children or had you rather do it yourself?”
Of course, Bella insists on being the one to tell her nephew and niece about their father’s death. As for Valerie, Bella will start by calling her mother, who will know how to locate her if anyone can.
Bella remembers that the Hausa way of informing a relation living far away about the loss of a parent, a sibling, or another intimate is to send an emissary to deliver the news in person. The emissary dispatched on such a delicate mission does not share the sad news, however, until they are in close proximity to a place where a wide community of friends and relatives are on hand to provide support. A pity, Bella thinks, that whoever it was who called and left the news of Aar’s death on the answering machine — or whoever turned it into international headline news — did not take a leaf from the Hausa book of etiquette.
Actually, Bella is not certain from whom she learned about this custom. Perhaps it was Marcella, come to think of it. As a former senior obstetrician at a Vatican-run hospital in one of Rome’s poor neighborhoods, she had become deeply familiar with corpses and what becomes of them, depending on the faith of the dead and their relatives. She and Bella had often discussed the Irish and their wakes, the Yoruba and their drawn-out rituals, the Muslims, the Jews, the Zoroastrians, the Hindus, and the Catholics, each in their own way confronting the moment of death with a rationale that is unique to their culture and belief systems. But Bella suspects that it was not Marcella but her Malian lover who told her of the Hausa’s sensitive handling of news of bereavement. And as much as she wishes she could spare Dahaba and Salif the pain of receiving the news in the same boorish way it came to her, she is aware that this is impossible in the age of the Internet and round-the-clock news channels that jabber on and on, forever upsetting one.
But before she can telephone her nephew and niece, she needs to stop Marcella from yammering away. She asks the old lady to go to her own apartment and call the airlines to buy Bella a business-class ticket to Nairobi on the next flight available. “Use my credit card,” she says, offering it.
“Business class at short notice?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It will be prohibitively expensive.”
Bella says, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime purchase. Or at least I hope so.”
With Marcella gone at last, Bella picks up the telephone to dial her nephew. It has barely begun to ring when her weeping and wailing starts anew. This is no good, she thinks, as the phone rings and rings. She hangs up without waiting for voice mail to kick in. To fortify her resolve, she pours herself a strong drink, which she downs in a single gulp. Thus hardened, she calls Wendy, Valerie’s mother. The two women are fond of each other. What is more, Wendy got on very well with Aar and looked upon him with great approval, not only because she saw how devoted a father he was, but also because he gave her as much access to her grandchildren as she wished. For their part, Dahaba and Salif loved their grandmother and looked forward to spending a month a year with her in Leicester when the schools in Kenya closed for the summer.
As soon as she has recognized Bella’s voice, Wendy lets out a long whimper and then stammers weepily, “I’ve been in a state since hearing of it. You know, I loved Aar more than I’ve cared for my own daughter.”
“Where is she?” asks Bella. “Any idea?”
“She is currently in Uganda, with that woman.”
Bella knows that there is no love lost between Wendy and Padmini, whom she blames for Valerie’s decision to walk out on her marriage. But when Wendy offers to call and break the news of Aar’s death to her daughter, Bella is all too glad to accept the offer.
They talk some more, and when Wendy speaks of being overwhelmed by the barbarity of the killings, Bella silently remembers something Hurdo once said after their country collapsed into anarchy and they fled Mogadiscio: “Death in Somalia seldom bothers to announce its arrival. In fact, death calls with the arrogance of a guest confident of receiving a warm welcome at any time, no questions asked.”
The church bells in Trastevere chime, as if in tribute to Aar. Bella pictures death riding a tide of undulant waves of unheralded emotion — and she weeps again, unable to stop shaking, the hour as dark as a cave.
“And what do they say down in Somalia?” Wendy is asking.
Bella, despite herself, recounts some of the gorier details from one of the Somali websites, which reported without giving any evidence that one of the terrorists who entered the UN building after the suicide bombing held a knife to Aar’s throat and then stood by, waiting and watching, until his blood drained like a goat being made halal.
“Shame on the lot of them,” Wendy curses.
Bella knows that these terrorists aren’t true Muslims. Yes, she is a secularist, no more than culturally Muslim. But with a mother born and raised a Muslim and a father born in Italy to Catholic parents and brought up a Christian, she believed she had the undisputed authority to choose her faith. In her youth, growing up in a Muslim country, she embraced her mother’s faith. But she no longer thinks of herself as a true Muslim.
Wendy is saying, “Death is a given, isn’t it?”
“We have no idea of the time of our dying.”
“Nor of the manner of our dying.”
Bella says, “It is only that Aar’s death adds terror to the idea of death, the idea of dying, because he was unprepared for death and did not deserve to die in that infernal manner.”
“He was a good man,” Wendy affirms.
And they say their good-byes.
Unable to reach her niece and nephew on their mobile phones, Bella rings the home of their hosts, the principal of the school and his wife. Surely the attack has been headline news in Kenya as well. Finally, Catherine Kariuki, the wife of the principal, answers the phone. Bella asks if the children have heard the news. Catherine confirms that they have and that they are taking it very badly indeed.
“How do you mean?” asks Bella.
Catherine says that they seem to be traumatized and uncertain how to act. One minute they’re a little weepy, the next minute one or the other of them says, “This was bound to happen, given where Dad was,” and the other one commiserates.
“I would like to talk to them, please.”
Catherine goes to call the children to the phone but soon comes back to say that not only won’t they open the door to Dahaba’s bedroom, where they’ve sequestered themselves, they also won’t even acknowledge her knocking or her calls to them.
So Bella simply tells Catherine that she will be on a flight to Nairobi on the morrow, and the two of them burst into tears and weep and weep and weep until one or the other of them drops the line, and the next thing Bella knows, she is holding a dead phone in her hand and listening to approaching footsteps. Looking up, she realizes that Marcella has come back with the boarding pass for the plane ticket she has booked.
Bella puts the boarding pass in the external pouch of her shoulder bag and immediately sets about packing. She decides to take along with her a couple of camera cases in addition to the ones she has brought back from Bahia — who knows how long she’ll need to stay in Nairobi; perhaps she’ll even set up a studio there. She asks Marcella to bring up a couple more from the basement of the building, where Bella stores them. Bella packs her flash leads, hot-shoe-equipped units, and several other essential items. Often, Bella entrusts this job to a young half-Eritrean woman who serves as her assistant, but there isn’t time for that. So, as Bella does not like surprises, she packs for all eventualities, such as whether the sun will bless her with its presence or fail to show, like a hurt lover. Bella knows of an Italian photographer who lost much of his work — a month’s worth — because he hadn’t prepared for the sudden dust storm that swept in after a gorgeous day in Omdurman, Sudan.
Marcella, bless her soul, keeps bringing sandwiches and drinks and asking questions. She expresses surprise at how much equipment and clothing Bella is packing. “Are you staying away for a long time?” she asks.
“What would you have me do instead?” Bella asks.
“Fetch the kids here.”
“And then what?”
“Let them go to school here or in England with their grandmother, who would be more than willing to have them stay with her,” Marcella says.
“Things seem a lot more complicated than that,” Bella says, “what with a dead father and a delinquent mother who may turn up in hopes of having a say in what happens to them. Not to mention that there is the children’s opinion to consider. Maybe they are happy where they are.”
“So are you relocating back to Africa for good?” Marcella asks. “Is that what you are intending to do, carissima?”
“Aar’s death changes all plans,” Bella replies.
“Including where you’ll live?”
“Everything,” Bella affirms.
“And the apartment, what will you do about it?”
“Aar’s death has changed everything,” Bella says again.
“But you are so young and unfulfilled!” Marcella cries, once again unable to keep from speaking her mind.
Disturbed, Bella sits on the edge of the bed, where the camera cases are still open, and puts her head in her hands. She knows there is no simple way she can explain to Marcella or anyone else what it feels like to lose Aar. And now that death has deprived her of him, how she feels she is answering a call to serve, almost a religious calling. As a young woman, she saw herself as his appendage, breathing the very oxygen he breathed. She has never married, never committed herself loyally and fully to another person, man or woman, always and forever waiting for the summons, duty-bound, steadfast in her dedication to her beloved brother, like a hound to its master. She has never forgotten the assistance and love he provided to her when she was a young girl growing up. Now it is her turn to give him and his children all the devotion they require, setting aside her own needs and desires.
“Forgive me for being selfish,” Marcella says.
Bella asks, “What are you talking about?”
“I was hoping you would be here when I go.”
“Go where? Where will you go?”
“I meant when I die,” Marcella says.
Bella is at a loss for words. After a pause, she says, “At the moment, Dahaba and Salif are my priority. You will always be there in my mind and my heart; and of course, I will rush to return if there is urgent need.”
The truth is, Bella hasn’t thought further than the next blind corner in a life marked by labyrinthine turns, as full of surprises as the paths that lead into and out of a casbah. The idea of travel, insofar as Bella is concerned, is bound up with the loading of cameras — the genesis of renewal via self-expression in everlasting images. But she feels in no condition to share all her inner tumult of worries and half-formed plans with Marcella.
“To me, you are the daughter I never had,” says Marcella.
“You’ve told me that several times.”
“I had a soft spot for Aar too.”
“I’ve always been aware of that.”
“I am bad at gaining control of my emotions.”
“Don’t give that a thought.”
“And because Aar’s death has shaken me to the marrow of my bones, I’m even more inept than usual.”
Weeping once more, they hug.
Through her tears, Bella looks down at her bare feet. She must trim her toenails before she goes to catch her flight, she thinks, soak them in very hot salt water and trim the ugly lot, as hard as a young calf’s hooves and just as dangerous, with their jagged edges. In Rio, where she visited her Brazilian lover, she hadn’t the proper scissors with which to cut them, the airline having confiscated her last pair.
“What about Valerie?” Marcella asks.
“What about her?”
“Why can’t she be with her children?”
How can Bella tell this bumbling, adorable fool that there is a right time and a wrong time and place to bring Valerie into the conversation. But Bella, though miffed, won’t say boo to Marcella or speak ill of Valerie to her.
Marcella continues. “Remember, she is their mother and no one can prevent her from making a legal claim to the children as the only surviving parent.”
Bella doesn’t tell her the plan that is beginning to take shape in her head if such a thing threatens: fight all the way to the courts to stop it from happening. She instead speaks with long-winded caution, saying, “We haven’t communicated, Valerie and I, for a very long time, and I have no idea what her plans will be when she hears of Aar’s death.”
“She is unbearably self-centered.”
Bella wishes she had a quiet moment in which to plumb the depth of her grief alone, to give herself over to an instant of full-blown mourning before she gets a little rest and goes to catch her flight. Then she recalls how Marcella handled the loss of her husband of nearly sixty years: She slept. Bella has never known anyone who slept off her grief, but Marcella fell into a massive depression and slept and slept — not once leaving her bedroom for a whole month, during which time she remained utterly mute. At the end of what a mutual friend would later describe as Marcella’s “mourning hibernation,” the woman reemerged, and she seemed to think that the world around her was good again. And if you mentioned her husband’s name, Marcella would speak of him as though he were out for a brief walk and would be back shortly.
Bella has no such luxury; she doesn’t have a whole month in which to mourn. She has a nephew and niece to look after.
With the aircraft doors closed and the plane ready to depart, Bella half listens to the flight attendant giving instructions she must have heard a million times over the years as she crossed oceans, changed continents, exchanged one time zone for another. It starts to dawn on her now that her body time is nowhere near the one her wristwatch is telling her, nor will it match the time it will be when the plane lands in Nairobi tomorrow. She is in her own time zone, much more jet-lagged than she has ever been, her brain little better equipped for thinking than a cabbage in the process of becoming sauerkraut.
Of course, Aar’s death has been traumatizing, but it also comes on top of months of nearly nonstop travel. She has been putting together a book meant to document the outward migration of Somalis in pictures and words — nearly three million people in the space of a decade making a move from one of the least developed countries in the world to some of the most advanced. To that end, she has been traveling from Rome to several European countries where Somali refugee populations abound, and then to North America, including the cities of Toronto, Ottawa, Minneapolis, Columbus, and San Diego. From there, she was off to Australia and New Zealand, after which she took the Brazil trip for work and to visit with her lover there.
A life of quality merde mixed with quite a bit of weltschmerz.
Although she and Aar were not refugees, they were among the penultimate wave to leave Somalia, the last before the hemorrhage of a million and a half persons of all ages, classes, and educational backgrounds who quit the country and then the continent, and ended up anywhere that would take them. Two decades after the start of this stampede, some clarity is emerging as to which of these expatriate communities is thriving and which have stayed at the lowest rung of development. It has been Bella’s intention to document the successes and the failures alike. Initially, she wanted to go to Somalia, maybe even visit Aar in Mogadiscio. But now Bella thinks she may shelve the entire project or at least postpone it until Dahaba and Salif are both out of school, their lives settled and their futures on an even keel. A pity, because Bella had been funding the project herself from her meager earnings, against the advice of several friends, who suggested that she seek funding from one of the European foundations or even from the UN’s International Labour Organization.
As the plane levels at thirty thousand feet and the flight attendants come around to offer drinks and snacks, Bella reminds herself that Marcella forgot to give back her credit card. She discovered this while waiting in the passenger lounge at the airport, but she realized it was too late to do anything about it. Lucky she has plenty of cash from the unused pile she returned with from Brazil and a couple of other credit cards she always carries with her when she travels, in the event of an emergency.
Instead of worrying needlessly about her credit card, Bella used her time in the lounge to check her messages. Which is how she discovered a strange text informing her that Valerie and Padmini, her Asian-British partner, have spent a night in a lockup in Kampala, Uganda, having been accused of engaging in illicit sex. The sender signed off only as “G,” which Bella suspected stood for Gunilla Johansson, the colleague of her brother’s in Nairobi who left her the message telling her of his death.
Following her hunch, she tried Gunilla’s number and reached her. At the sound of her voice and the mention of Aar’s name, the tears were back, this time with Gunilla’s accompaniment. The two of them were so hopelessly emotional that Bella forgot to ask about Valerie and the mysterious text, and Gunilla did not manage to give her any information worth remembering. Then just before she boarded the flight, Bella telephoned Mahdi and Fatima, who were among Aar’s closest friends in Nairobi and whose children were Dahaba and Salif’s schoolmates. When Mahdi offers to meet her flight, Bella thanks him but declines, worried that she may be in an even worse state when she lands.
The business-class flight attendant gives Bella an elaborate menu printed in several languages; Bella takes it with both hands but doesn’t bother to open or look at it. The idea of ordering food so soon after Aar’s death appalls her. She declines the offer of the meal and closes her eyes, out of a combination of fatigue and the effort to fight the primal urge building up within her to take revenge against those who murdered her brother. When she opens her eyes, she says to the stewardess, her voice faltering, “Actually, I wouldn’t mind having a coffee with some Baileys.” The stewardess hesitates, looking embarrassed, as if deciding whether or not to tell Bella to wait until after the meals have been served. Then she disappears into the galley and returns with the creamy Irish stuff, as if she were serving at a Dublin wake.
Meanwhile, Bella engages her neighbor, a young Alemannic-speaking woman sporting an ostentatious coiffure, which must have cost her quite a bit, dyed in the colors of exotic birds and arranged in terraces. Her dress, by contrast, is scanty, her tank top bursting at the seams under the pressure of a well-developed chest. The shirt bears a slogan across the front promoting love in all forms, in German and English. Bella hopes that the woman is not on her way to Somalia or any other Muslim land, where she would surely be stoned on sight.
“Where are you headed?” Bella asks the woman.
“Nairobi,” the woman replies.
“As a tourist?”
“I am going to marry my lover, who lives there.”
Bella is tempted to know the gender of the young woman’s betrothed — she can’t help thinking of Valerie evidently languishing in Uganda — but then Kenya, next door, is the capital of gay culture in East Africa, an altogether different proposition. At any rate, she knows this is not her business and so choreographs the conversation in another direction.
“And this,” Bella ventures, indicating the elaborate coiffure, “this is for the occasion?” She thinks of all the sacred texts — of Islam, of Judaism, of Sikhism — in which the growing or covering of hair plays an important part, welcoming this distraction from thinking about Aar’s death.
“More or less.”
“And where are you getting married?”
“In a church in the center of Nairobi.”
She will go this far and no further. But when the plane hits a pocket of turbulence and the young woman, looking frightened, opens and closes her mouth without issuing a word, Bella leans forward and says, “It is all right. I am here, we are here.” And then, surprising herself, she takes the woman’s hand in hers, and they settle effortlessly into a place of mutual comfort, each deriving solace from the contact. Bella drops into a well of exhaustion, thinking ahead to her reunion with Dahaba and Salif, and imagining the hard times ahead for which she must prepare. But by the time the flight attendant comes to collect her cup, she is dead to the world, still holding the hand of the scantily dressed, heavy-chested woman with the fantastic hair with the tenderness of a lover. It isn’t until her seatmate reclaims her hand, with the aim of going to the bathroom, that Bella wakes with a start. For a sleepy moment, she doesn’t remember where she is and what on earth she is doing, and then she stays awake for the next few hours, wary and worried.
As much as she dislikes Valerie, Bella can’t help wondering about the circumstances of her alleged arrest. You can’t be cautious enough in a country that legally forbids same-sex lovemaking; you are bound to lay yourself open to blackmail and arrest if you engage in “inappropriate behavior,” which has recently become synonymous with illegal behavior in a growing roster of places. In Dubai, a British heterosexual couple smooching in the lobby of their five-star hotel had been jailed for a year, for example.
In Bella’s mind, freedoms are a package, so the freedoms denied daily to millions of citizens in Africa or the Middle East are bound up with the lack of democracy in these parts of the world. The choices individuals make in their private lives are just as important as the choices they make at the ballot box. Public displays of affection, whether between a man and a woman or two men or two women, are but expressions of democratic behavior. No one, not even the president of a country, should have the power and the authority to define love — including whom to love. So while Bella hasn’t a kind word to say about Valerie, she is nonetheless sad to learn that she has been a victim of such repression. True, she and Padmini — particularly Padmini, being Uganda-born — should have known better than to visit a country where they might easily fall afoul of the law. The cynic in Bella wonders if unconsciously Valerie was trying to steal Aar’s thunder by any means possible. He has been dead less than a week, after all.
And then she thinks, enough of Valerie, at least until she learns more about her situation from Gunilla. It is time she thought about other topics of greater personal relevance. Her niece and nephew are far more important than a foolish woman who gets herself locked up in a Ugandan jail.
At last she lowers her seat into a narrow bed and, turning and tossing in the confined space, wills herself to sleep.
She wakes when the service trolley rolls over the blanket that has been half covering her feet. She opens her eyes and stares at the flight attendant, waiting for the woman to apologize.
But the stewardess only says, “Breakfast?”
“How much more time until we land?” asks Bella.
“Two hours and a bit.”
Bella orders water, juice, and coffee. When she gets back from the bathroom, she notices that the woman across the aisle is filling in the form for immigration into Kenya. She presses the call button above her seat and asks for a form for herself.
Bella has always found Kenya’s entry form to be ill designed and clumsy. It never gives the traveler the needed space to write the answers. In addition, Kenya has lately been a problem country for Somalis, who are harassed from the moment they present their papers to the immigration officials and are asked relentlessly embarrassing questions. She fills in the form with trepidation, holding her pencil in midair as she frets over the best answers to give for “reason for visit” and “length of stay.” She can’t afford to be in a nervous state when she presents her documents and is questioned about them. She hopes that her Italian passport, which boasts multiple entries into and exits out of numerous countries, will help allay anyone’s worries that she may overstay her welcome in Kenya. Even so, her best option is to state that she is a photographer in the country as a tourist. Then the officer is bound to say, “Welcome, madam,” and stamp her in.
The pilot announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have begun our descent,” and all of a sudden the sky, which has been clear, turns leaden and gray, and clouds envelop the plane like curtains being drawn. It begins to rain heavily, each drop, which are as big as one of Bella’s tears, splattering against the windows. What feels like a tropical storm is raging around them, as though the very heavens were angry. Outside the windows, lightning flashes as the plane careens down through the storm. The darkness becomes more intense and there is a loud banging, as if the wings were coming off the plane, and Bella can see nothing except the occasional flash of lightning and the endless gray clouds until suddenly the plane veers left, as if avoiding an oncoming object, then descends again with a lurch, and suddenly the clouds part and the ground is visible below them, very close.
The pilot lands safely despite the weather and taxis to a stop far from the terminal. He counsels calm, urging the passengers to remain seated, but he allows them to use their mobile phones as they wait for assistance.
There is nothing like sharing a near-death experience to bring people closer, even briefly. And later, when they’ve all gone their separate ways, they’ll tell the same stories about it — the story of how the woman with the varicolored hair went berserk, or how another passenger threw off her seatbelt and bounced up and down like a dervish, madly reciting all the while what Bella took to be a Hindu prayer, or how a third was scared so witless that his eyes grew to the size of golf balls, the pupils dilated, and his Adam’s apple went up and down as if he might be choking on his tongue. Amid the adrenalized frenzy, Bella kept calm, even managing to lend a hand to her fellow passengers. Somehow she was certain that this time death would spare her so that she could go care for her nephew and niece.
Now that they are safely on the ground, a general feeling of euphoria sets in, and soon the air is abuzz with the chatter of mobile-phone conversations. Bella can hear some of the passengers repeating the more vivid details of what occurred, and a couple of them are already embellishing the account in preparation for the moment when they will appear on the news.
After a very long wait, airport emergency services show up, and the cabin doors are finally opened. There is terrific chaos when the doors open and the passengers who are closest to the exit collide with the men and women who have been sent to deliver assistance to those in need. With several people shouting for attention at the same time, the mayhem seems likely to sabotage every good effort to provide help until the pilot enters the fray, once more advising restraint. He requests that all passengers not injured in the bumpy descent please sit and remain seated until those who need help receive it. A passenger in business class, accustomed to what he refers to as “the priority for which I paid,” insists that he be the first to exit. It takes the shaming of several fellow passengers and the venomous reprimand of one of the male flight attendants to get him to settle down, but once he does, the mood of the other passengers takes a positive turn. With calmness prevailing, they collaborate in filing out of the aircraft and into the waiting buses in an orderly manner.
Bella, waiting her turn to disembark, negotiates her shoulder bag, heavy with her computer, with a big hard camera case made of shiny metal in her right hand, and a smaller matching case in her left. She is remembering previous, more pleasant visits to these parts, visits that she always looked forward to. Aar used to take her and his children to out-of-town restaurants such as the one in Naivasha, her favorite, which boasted gorgeous vistas, the blueness of the lake complementing a clear sky that extended in every direction. This visit, weighed down by death, will be very different.
Just as she is about to clamber on board the bus to the terminal, hauling her cases, a man approaches her too close for comfort. A tall, thin European, with chiseled features and a tan, is eyeing her as if debating whether to speak to her or not. His brazen stare puts her off and she doesn’t bother to answer him when he says, “Will you have a drink with me if I were to ask you out? I’ll show you a fabulous time, the best you’ve ever had in the company of a man.”
For the first time, Bella wishes that she had allowed her sorrow to express itself, which might have discouraged such advances. Now she tries to cut him down with a look of bitter distaste that makes it obvious she wants nothing to do with him. She gets on the bus, retreating into the rear, where she stands next to the woman with the many-hued hair. The man gets on board as well, but he keeps his distance, contenting himself with glancing in her direction every now and then.
Immigration is a breeze. In fact, she has never seen a friendlier group of immigration officers. Chatty and apologetic for the difficult landing, they are quick to say “Welcome!” to every passenger who approaches. Nor does anyone bother to ask for the supposedly mandatory yellow fever certificate — this in an airport known for holding travelers for hours and extorting bribes from them.
And even though it takes a much longer time than usual for the luggage to be delivered to the cranky carousel, nobody complains. When Bella finally collects her other cases, she realizes that there is no need for her to rush; no one is meeting her. And so she heads toward the exit, dreading only mildly that the man who approached her earlier might make a further nuisance of himself, in which case she has decided to deal with him firmly and, if need be, crudely.
Bella pushes the loaded baggage trolley forward, feeling hot inside her black cotton shift. She walks slowly, her gait unsteady, her cheeks now wet with tears again, her sight blurred. She finds a bench to rest her exhausted bones on, sitting until the waves of nausea start to abate. She feels uncomfortable being so infirm in so public a place, but the familiarity of her surroundings relaxes her a little, even if there is no Aar to meet her or no taxi driver holding up a placard with her name. She lets herself sit and weep, not bothering to wipe away the tears. She asks herself why death, and why now? And why did death deprive her of her adored brother? Why has misfortune chosen to descend on her and her nephew and niece at a time when they are so ill prepared for loss?
A tall man standing nearby, a Masai from the looks of him, approaches. “Madam!” he says repeatedly, until she looks up. Once he has her full attention, he says, “Taxi,” as if this were her name. Gradually other men join them, and one of them takes her by the arm, another grabs hold of her bags, a third insists that she ride in his taxi because he will give her a bargain price. She looks from one to the other, clearly miffed. She focuses her hard stare on the man who is trying to dispossess her of her computer bag and who already has in the grip of his right hand one of the camera cases. She restrains herself from speaking, but her expression and body language indicate clearly that she wants him to give back her bags.
Then the man who approached first, the Masai — she takes in his torn ears and his sharpened teeth — tries to put the others to shame, accusing them of being a disgrace to their profession and their nation. Bella gives her face a quick wipe, as if the word “disgrace” is equally addressed to her. The mood changes, and nearly all of the taxi drivers step back, some of them moving on immediately and others mumbling their dissent and straggling away slowly, unhappy at being shut out. Bella beckons the Masai.
“Hotel 680, please.”
“Yes, madam. Please follow me!”
He pushes the unwieldy trolley with her pile of heavy cases in the direction of the exit, and Bella hurries to keep pace with him to the open-air parking lot. When he opens the back door of the taxi, she indicates that she wants to sit in the front.
Nairobi traffic is atrocious, disorderly, and murderously slow. It’s as if this city has a violent strain running in its veins. It’s an in-between place, with many different tendencies pulling its residents in diverse directions, and it seems fitting to Bella that it started as a railway depot at the turn of the last century. In slapdash fashion, it has grown into a “self-help city,” as an urban anthropologist has put it, in which the Africans must make do while European tourists are drawn by the promise of adventure and safari.
The taxi is Japanese-made and rickety, as if it could easily be pulled apart. It’s hot too, but Bella dares not roll down the window, even a little, on account of the black fumes and white smoke emitted by the malfunctioning trucks ahead of them, which pollute the air as well with venomous bellowing. Bella sits with her computer bag between her knees, pondering the world outside. She is not sure of the name of the poet, but there is a line that she has always appreciated for its balance and alliteration: “It is beautiful, it is mournful, it is monotonous.” To this she adds another line of her own composition: “There is glory in grief.”
With the traffic at a standstill, the driver starts a conversation. “Madam, to what name do you answer? My own name is David.”
Uncomfortable at giving the name by which she is known, Bella says, “Some of my friends call me Barni.”
“What does Barni mean in your language?” he says.
“Something to do with a baby born with a birthmark.”
“You were born bearing a birthmark?”
She improvises. “I was named after an ancestor.”
“What is your country of origin?”
Bella doesn’t fancy giving her life history to this stranger either, so she turns on the radio, which jabbers away in a language she does not comprehend.
David asks, “Do you understand this language?”
Several young men circulate among the cars with things to sell: fruit, combs, cell phone chargers, and shoelaces. People buy from them as they sit in traffic. Bella rolls down the window and prices several items just to engage these young men and women in conversation and avoid a further exchange with David.
“Barni, eh? That is a beautiful name,” David says.
In truth, she is rich in names. Her mother called her Isabella, but only when she was upset with her, lengthening the vowels and rolling her tongue over its syllables. Bella is the name by which she is known outside her immediate circle. Barni is her middle name, which affords those who are most intimate with her the chance to address her as BB.
The question is not what is in a name, but rather how many of them she can answer to. She thinks it is a useful thing to have an array of names, each presenting her with different possibilities. Well aware that people she encounters rarely forget meeting her, even if they did so fleetingly. Yet she sometimes delights in denying having met someone and, if challenged, asks if they remember her name — whereupon she insists that she is called by a different name. Outside the Horn of Africa, she prefers the use of her Somali name; inside the Somali-speaking region, she is Bella.
A blind man with a boy for a guide pushes his way toward the car. He is as determined to get her attention as the street hawkers, it seems. He recites a Muslim prayer, wishing her safe passage, and touches her elbow when she isn’t looking. She shrinks from the physical contact and rolls the window up again. Just then the traffic moves.
Presently, she spots a web in the corner of the floorboards, close to where her foot is resting, a web woven and then forsaken, and then she sees another, this one active, in which a bigger spider has recently trapped a tiny insect, which is now trying to wiggle its way out alive. Bella bends down and frees the insect, which shakes its whole body and then tenses, like a gymnast readying to somersault and hit the ground with his feet wide, balanced and firm. The spider goes in determined pursuit, and both vanish through a gaping hole in the floor of the car.
With nothing better to do, Bella returns her attention to the driver. She volunteers that she has missed Africa, missed the smell of night fires, the mellifluously tonal languages, and the calls of neighbors across a village courtyard after a day’s hard work has left them too exhausted to bother with the formality of coming out of their homes.
The driver asks, “So you were born in Africa?”
“Born and brought up a Somali,” she says.
“Both your parents are Somali, are they?”
Again Bella seizes up, and as the traffic moves a little faster, she revisits the most salient fact about her life, which is that for most of her early years she believed Digaaleh, nicknamed “Arab” on account of his very light skin, to be her biological father and Aar her full brother. She was seven when she first made the acquaintance of Giorgio Fiori in 1988. Fiori was then on a return visit to Mogadiscio in the capacity of leader of an Italian government delegation charged with determining if Italy should continue funding university education in Somalia and for how long.
Bella, as it happened, would meet her father again less than a year and a half later, when she and her mother and Aar fled the anarchy surrounding the collapse of Somalia to the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenya, where they were declared stateless and were made to stay in a refugee camp. Fiori came in person to take them out of the refugee camp and fly them to Nairobi, where he presented them with Italian visas so they could go with him to Rome. It was a couple of months later that Digaaleh, who had remained behind in Mogadiscio, had surgery on his prostate. Half a year later, he would be dead.
Bella remained in Rome with Fiori, who supplied her with the obligatory papers allowing her to remain in Italy and pursue her studies. When she was older, she moved into an adjacent one-bedroom apartment that he paid for so they could be in constant touch, sharing evening meals often and spending a great deal of time together. Still, she led her private life discreetly, never speaking of her Neapolitan lover, a cameraman working in the studios of Cinecittà, the film studios established by Benito Mussolini on the outskirts of Rome in 1937. No one could be more aware of the importance of Cinecittà than Bella, as she had been brought up on Italian cinema, popular during her days in Mogadiscio. Her Neapolitan lover showed her the precise location where Ben-Hur was shot, and they gave her a private tour of Teatro 5, where Federico Fellini made his most famous films.
Aar and Hurdo eventually relocated to Toronto, where they were first granted refugee status and later Canadian citizenship. Within a couple of years, Hurdo learned she had ovarian cancer. Aar cared for her even as he pursued his graduate studies in human migration. After Hurdo died, Aar joined the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization headquartered in Geneva.
It takes the taxi a little more than three hours to get to Bella’s hotel. By the time she arrives, she is too exhausted to evaluate just how terribly the place has aged since her last stay, but she can see that the walls need more than a lick of paint and the chairs are sunken with use. She asks for the room she occupied a decade ago when she was on assignment here and met her Kenyan lover, HandsomeBoy Ngulu, who is no longer in the modeling business and now works for an NGO specializing in the eradication of illiteracy in Africa. But she still remembers him as an exemplary subject, patient, willing to do as many takes as she wanted, always smiling, forever prepared to make her happy.
What a disaster it was, their first lovemaking! But things began to improve with each night they spent together, and Bella still thinks of him as her bell’uomo. Now that Bella is in Nairobi, however, she thinks that she must seek out HandsomeBoy Ngulu to apprise him of her new situation and suggest that they cease being lovers; life now is just too complicated.
In her hotel room, Bella takes a shower. Drying herself, she stands on the tips of her toes, craning her neck as though to see something beyond the scope of the mirror. She is a dark-eyed beauty with a prominent nose, heavier in the chest than she likes because of the attention it draws from men, even though she is overjoyed that she boasts the slimmest of waists for a woman her age and an African’s high buttocks. Drop-dead gorgeous, she also strikes most people as charming, well read, and intelligent.
Which of her names goes with which of her attributes? She is a woman whose disposition is rarely at variance with other people’s assumptions. She only reaches for the unattainable when it comes to photography, where her ambitions soar. And yet, not only as a woman but also as a Somali woman, she has had to defy harsh social conditioning to establish herself as a person equal in all respects to a man.
She puts on a robe and starts to unpack, but she makes very little headway, distracted as she is by several loose photographs of Aar that fall onto the table and floor. He is in different situations and in the company of different people, including his children, the photos having been taken when they met in Istanbul during what would turn out to be his final holiday. She looks at one of the photographs and remembers that somewhere she read that the French philosopher Roland Barthes thought that an interest in photography points to a preoccupation with death because it attests to the past existence of an object, person, or image in a never-ending present, but not necessarily to its continued existence.
Now, as Bella holds Aar’s photograph before her, her mind wanders from where she stands to engage with a distant past, where she interrogates the meaning and quality of a life that Aar had been an essential constituent in. In the photograph, Aar stands before the Hagia Sophia Museum, the sun in his eyes, facing Bella as she takes his picture, the thought of death the furthest thing from their minds. But now, looking at the photograph and studying it with death-inspired intensity, Bella senses that the two of them were in a sense preparing for death. Otherwise, why take a photograph in front of a museum representing a distant era that is no longer part of anyone’s present? That is to say, this photo, taken barely a year ago, now serves as a witness. And she listens to herself saying, as though to another, “Here we were, my brother and I, in Istanbul, marking our existence with this photograph, which now attests to his death.” A question: Can one accept the existence of anything unless one can represent it in some form or image?
Of the many apocryphal tales about Bella, this is the one Hurdo repeated most often: Unlike other babies, she was not born with the residue of birth smeared all over her. Nor did she announce her arrival with the usual primeval cry. Instead, she emerged from the womb with a shock of long jet-black hair and an even-tempered, almost professional expression that put Marcella in mind of a competitive swimmer emerging from a pool after a hard workout.
Digaaleh suspected from the beginning that he was not the father. Indeed, very quickly the rumors circulating gained so much momentum that he couldn’t ignore them. This did not improve his marriage, but to everyone’s surprise, he continued to put on a good show despite his obvious loss of face. He neither spoke ill of Hurdo in public nor accused her in private. He treated Aar and Bella equally as his offspring, and behaved civilly to Giorgio Fiori. Only Fiori’s wife, who had remained in Bologna with their son, found his fling unpardonable. As if to prove that all cats are not gray in the dark, she filed for divorce within a year of his return to Italy.
Hurdo, for her part, believing that a child’s happiness is built on a parent’s small gestures, devoted herself to the newborn, and in return, Bella gave her reasons for joy and a hopeful perspective on not only her daughter’s future but also her own. Aar, now twelve, had longed for a sister, and he too reveled in Bella’s presence. He was highly protective of her, even reprimanding his parents if Bella fussed in her crib and neither of them went to comfort her. When she was awake, he could be found sitting beside her, cooing sweet nothings to her. Once, when Bella took ill, Aar refused to go to school and nothing would make him leave her bedside, where he kept feeling her pulse, taking her temperature, or touching her forehead. When asked how his absence should be explained to his headmaster, he said to write that he was too sick to attend school; he couldn’t be well if Bella wasn’t.
When he had done anything to upset his mother, Aar learned that extra attentiveness to his sister would soften Hurdo toward him. They were a threesome, Hurdo, Aar, and Bella, flourishing together, never allowing anyone to come between them. For the first three years of Bella’s life, they lived just as they pleased, with no boundaries. And Bella appeared to benefit from their unusual closeness. She sat up at five months, had her first teeth at six, crawled at seven, and walked before her ninth month.
Yet Hurdo was aware that life couldn’t go on like this forever, with the three of them continually in one another’s hair, and she knew she would have to put a stop to some of Aar’s boyish mischief. In self-admonishment, she repeated to herself the Somali proverb that a parent must refrain from showing her smiling teeth to her children lest her children start showing their naked bums. Gradually, she began to introduce some order into their lives.
Bella continued to thrive. The world is at my daughter’s service and everyone in it is at her feet, Hurdo would say. Other children seemed to be infatuated with her. They threw tantrums when their parents arrived to fetch them home, crying their hearts out and insisting on staying longer and speaking of their wish to sleep in Bella’s room. Yet the moment Aar came home from school, Bella lost interest in them. Sometimes she would shoo them away disdainfully so that she could follow Aar around, going where he went and sitting where he sat, endlessly telling him things. At five or six, she threatened to kill any girls she imagined as rivals for Aar’s affection. In his absence, she often complained of feeling hunger. Asked what she craved, she would say that she longed for his return. Yet no amount of his indulgence seemed to satisfy her; Hurdo said he had the patience of a saint.
Hurdo spoke of her daughter’s attachment as a form of infatuation, comparing it to an infatuation she remembered from her own childhood. “When I was three,” Hurdo recounted to Marcella, “I felt drawn to a boy my age. My parents and the boy’s parents were amused at first. Then came the time when my parents and the boy’s parents quipped that the boy and I would marry.”
Marcella said, “Still, to experience love as hunger is a brilliant way of dealing with a complicated emotion. How apt! Your daughter is very smart.”
“Among Somalis,” Hurdo explained, “love is looked upon as an affliction, a sickness for which there is no cure. We believe that love is unattainable because true desire is impossible.”
Marcella thought that Bella’s childhood crush on her brother might make her the kind of woman men fell for and women were wary of, even hated by them. And Hurdo too worried that the intensity of Bella’s feelings for her brother were such that she might never allow herself to fall in love with anyone else.
But what was there to do? They would just have to see what would happen. And the bond between Bella and Aar stayed unbroken until Aar fell in love with a girl in Rome, and Bella went ballistic. Hurdo’s every attempt to explain things only made matters worse. Always a bad eater, Bella became anorexic, in the terrifying grip of a hunger that to her was synonymous with pining.
Eventually, her despair abated, when, thanks to a photograph of her that appeared in a fancy Sunday supplement published in Rome, she became a celebrity and began to earn a lot of money as a teen model. Bella had the uncanny ability to make her eyes flame a metallic green, and what with her exceptional looks and captivating smile, several agencies vied to represent her. After consulting Hurdo, Fiori negotiated a very favorable agreement with her with one of the best-known of them. Hurdo was not surprised when Digaaleh rang them from Mogadiscio, raising his objections, disconsolately comparing Bella’s work and the exploitation of her image to prostitution. Hurdo let him fume, seeing his reaction as that of a typical Somali father and knowing he could do nothing to stop Bella from pursuing her heart’s pleasure, while earning good money to boot.
Digaaleh, however, insisted she had misunderstood his intentions. “Essentially, it depends whether one sees Bella as Somali and therefore Muslim — and Muslims don’t go into modeling or exploit their image in exchange for cash — or Italian and therefore free to do as she pleases.” But Hurdo cut him off, saying that Bella was indeed a free person, able to make her own choices in life, and that no one had the right to impose their cultural or religious dictates on her just because she hadn’t yet attained the age of majority.
“I don’t wish Giorgio to decide her fate,” Digaaleh said.
“Well, if it comes to that, he will,” Hurdo retorted, “because he is her father.” Then she was hung up on him — and not long after, word came from Mogadiscio that he had died. And it wasn’t until many years later, at Giorgio Fiori’s funeral, that Bella heard about this heated exchange, from Marcella.
Bella has long been of the belief that there are no people on earth more narrow-minded or chauvinistic than Somalis, for whom appearances — the clothes one wears, the way one moves — matter enormously, especially when it comes to women. She recalls too that when she took up smoking and dressing in jeans, the Somalis she met in Rome, or Toronto whenever she visited, found both habits provocative and offensive in equal measure. (Looking at her fingers now, she can still see them in her memory as they were: stained brown with nicotine, as she held a fresh cigarette between them, lighting it with the butt of the previous one.)
It was Giorgio Fiori who sparked what would become Bella’s true vocation, for it was in his house that she saw the first piece of art that ever took her fancy — the inspiration for making art herself. It was a carving from the Dogon in Mali — a simple figure with a cylindrical body, rods for arms, broken bits of colored glass for eyes, thrown together as if in haste — that she had glimpsed in silhouette at dusk in the house he rented during one of his intermittent teaching stints in Mogadiscio during her childhood. The natural light was fading and the electric lamps had not yet come on. The carving struck her as the most beautiful thing she had ever seen or held in her hand; she was very impressionable.
She did not know then that Fiori was her mother’s secret lover, but as she held the piece, admiring its detail, she admired its owner by extension for choosing a work of such finesse. From that moment she began to adore him and to love her mother all the more for the adoration she sensed in her.
Fiori had other pieces too, which he would show her later. By then she knew that he was her father; speaking in Somali, he told her that he’d kept them hidden away from the prying eyes of the Somalis when he lived there, not knowing what impression the carvings might make on such an unlearned lot. As Muslims, perhaps they’d have accused him of engaging in idol worship. But none of the pieces, much as she admired them, inspired the same reaction as that first piece. She’d wanted to possess it, pure and simple. Of course she could have it, Giorgio said. Hurdo tried to persuade Bella to withdraw her demand, but Bella wouldn’t back down. Hurdo explained that the piece was one of a series and Giorgio’s favorite, and that it would upset the balance if the piece was separated from the rest. Nothing doing: Bella wanted that one and no other. In the end, she accepted a compromise: She could borrow the piece for a month and keep it in her room on her windowsill provided she took good care of it. Bella charged headlong into Giorgio, hugging him and blurting her thanks.
Each night, Bella went to sleep with the piece in her sight, and it was the first thing she looked at when she woke. It made her feel fulfilled, joyful, satisfied with life. She worked harder in school, earned better marks, and became more purposeful and organized. She volunteered to do the dishes when it was her turn without talking back to her mother. Giorgio couldn’t make sense of his daughter’s infatuation and predicted that it would be no more than a passing fad, like several others she’d gone through. But neither her devotion to the piece nor her interest in art nor her newfound sense of purpose and discipline wavered.
It was then that Aar bought her a Polaroid camera. She began to draw too, copying the sculpture in crayon from different angles. And then she began to photograph it with the Polaroid, shooting it again and again, as though possessed. One day, Aar walked in on her when she was at work, unwashed, sweaty, her room a mess. As she worked with unbreakable concentration, she looked like someone in another world. For the first time it occurred to him that with proper support she might become a serious photographer.
Next Aar bought her an inexpensive point-and-shoot, and she began to learn which camera to use to get the effects she was after. When the cost of developing the flood of photos she was taking became more than they could afford, Giorgio introduced her to an Italian colleague who trained her to develop her own negatives and helped her to set up her own darkroom in a closet, with Giorgio covering the outlay for materials as a gift for Bella’s twelfth birthday.
With a view to becoming self-reliant, Bella began to photograph weddings and other occasions. At first she did so free of charge while she mastered the art of taking photos of unruly revelers in crowded circumstances. Next, she learned to take portraits outdoors because she had no studio. She noted that when people posed for portraits a different self came to the fore, a self behind the self they wished to present to others. And Bella discovered that the longer she held off before clicking the shutter, the more this hidden self emerged. She learned to wait for this hidden, this authentic self to emerge, surfacing after a display of nerves and fidgeting.
From childhood, Bella had wanted to free herself from her parents’ constraints and blackmailing maneuvers, and she was determined to make her own way in the world, working hard and doing well in whatever profession she chose. At eighteen, Bella apprenticed herself to a photographer friend of her Neapolitan lover. With Fiori prepared to buy her the expensive cameras she required, she was able to set her mind on pursuing her vocation.
Yet even as she became successful, Bella remained dissatisfied with the companionship on offer. Always a picky eater, who at her heaviest weighed no more than forty-five kilos, she boasted of a waistline so thin that her first boyfriend, the Neapolitan cameraman, told her she looked like a waif who needing a little fattening. This put Bella in mind of a cow being pumped with supplements to make sure it fetched the highest price, and she showed the boyfriend the door — though not before he made a jibe about her incestuous relationship with her brother, whose name she had mentioned at every possible opportunity. She fired back, “And you are nowhere near as good, as lovable, as caring, or even as amusing as he. So be off with you!”
She continued to be romantically sought after, but no man seemed to suffice. Over time, she discovered, first to her disbelief and then to her amusement, that she was not jealous if a man she was with ogled other women or made passes at them in her presence, reasoning that neither the men nor the women they noticed mattered enough to justify her jealousy or disappointment. By the time Aar married Valerie, Bella had evolved her fantasy. She would have three lovers, she decided: one of them very, very handsome; another (with whom she would have at least one child) who was very, very intelligent; and for the third, she would choose a stud — a well-hung partner with whom she would enjoy sex. Little by little, the fantasy became reality.
HandsomeBoy was first. Bella met him on one of her first major freelance assignments, which involved shooting photographs of models and animals in Kenya for clothing businesses with Italian connections. HandsomeBoy had moved from his natal hamlet near the Tanzanian border to study sociology at the University of Nairobi. He worked part-time as a model to pay for his education. If asked, he and Bella wouldn’t agree on which of them fell for the other first, each claiming to be the one to do so, such was their immediate attraction.
Her appreciation for sculpture persisted, and it was at a gallery show that she met Humboldt on a visit to her mother and brother in Toronto. A successful Brazilian sculptor of African descent, Humboldt was based in Rio and traveled the world as Bella did. He became her second lover, and the sex was great. In those days, nothing else mattered much, and neither of them had the desire to enter into a long-term relationship. Since then, they meet as their schedules permit, in hotels in various cities, for a week, for a day.
Five years into this second relationship, on a day when she was in New York, she attended a lecture by Cisse Drahme, a Malian philosopher of note. He was speaking on “The Wonders of Dogon Astronomy,” and after the lecture, she was invited to join a group at a bar, which led to a dinner for two and then a meeting of the minds that has blossomed for more than ten years. And thus Bella fulfilled her fantasy of three lovers.
Within reason, any of them would drop what he is doing and go where she chooses to meet up with her. She has keys to their houses or apartments, and she can come and go as she pleases, while none of them even has her exact address. All they know is that she lives in Rome. The arrangement has served Bella very well. She has had to curb neither her love life nor her professional ambitions. But now?
A journalist for an Italian daily newspaper once asked Bella, “What makes you think that a nervous subject makes a more interesting photo than a calm one?” And Bella replied, “As a child, when I had to get a shot, I feared the jab of the needle, just as I hated the nurse saying not to think about the pain. I mean to wait until the person photographed no longer thinks of what I am doing. That way, I am in charge. And I like being in charge, in total control.”
The journalist asked, “Do you believe that photography is a matter of power, with the photographer lording it over the subject? Is this what you are trying to say?”
That was indeed how Bella felt. “I like to think that my subjects are as powerless as a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.”
“Isn’t that an unhealthy attitude to hold?”
“I am a woman,” Bella explained, “and a Somali one at that.”
“How do you mean?” the journalist asked.
Bella found it difficult to explain, but she tried. She talked about how the colonized Asians, Africans, North American Indians, and Australian aboriginals had been eroticized and trivialized by their colonizers. And just as American photographers produced naked portraits of Native Americans or Africans for the tourist trade, women photographed in the nude were put to similar service. Bella asked, “If that is not power that allows the mighty to lord over the weak, I don’t know what is.”
But lately, the journalist observed, Bella had been photographing children more and more, especially Somali children. Why was that?
Bella pointed out that she had never photographed anyone in the nude or eroticized any of her subjects. “Please note,” she said, “that I make sure they look straight into the camera. I let them laugh and gesticulate naturally instead of shaping their bodies into objects of desire.”
“When does photography become art?” the journalist asked.
The photographer achieved the status of artist by virtue of his lenses, his choice of paper, his mastery of printing and tone, Bella said. And she spoke of her favorite photographers, many of whom were also painters, and the works she regarded as their masterpieces, such as Stieglitz’s The Terminal and the nude portraits he’d made of his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe. For a time, early on in her career, he’d been the only photographer she idolized. But the more Bella developed her own style, the wider the range of photographers she admired. Still, she remained partial to the photo, which reminded her of a painting. She had always believed that photography owes its existence to painting. “I would like my photographs to think of their favorite painters,” she said.
The journalist pointed out that Somalis, whether male or female, are physically reserved. “They are undemonstrative. It is as if they have never heard of sexual freedom, with parents shying away from standing even half nude in front of their children. The body, whether female or male, is in chains.”
Given the opportunity, and unlimited funding, the journalist asks, what photographic project would she be eager to embark on?
Bella smiled and shook her head. “I wonder if there is any point in answering your question, which I take to be nothing but a sort of a trap.”
“Let me ask it in a different way,” said the journalist. “Who would you rather be, a Sebastião Salgado or a Robert Mapplethorpe, given the chance?”
“A Sebastião Salgado any day.”
“Because I would start my own series about the end of women’s manual labor,” Bella replied.
The truth is, Bella did photograph her lovers in the nude before she was intimate with them, but she will never discuss this. She believes this affirms her power over them. As she prepares them to sit for her, she watches them from behind the camera lens, intently waiting and deliberately making them nervous before her finger presses the shutter.
Nor does she share with her interviewer the shock and then the amusement she experienced when, in a hotel in New York where she was staying, she found a Mapplethorpe book of black male portraits in the nude where a Gideon Bible would normally be. Did she like what she saw? Did she think that what she saw was art? She wasn’t sure. Of course, she wouldn’t deny there was novelty in doing what Mapplethorpe did, and she admired the way he’d made his own niche, in both the market and the art of photography. But she wasn’t so sure that what he was doing was any different from the titillating nude photographs so many photographers had taken of so many women.
“Who in your experience is the most difficult subject to photograph?” the journalist had asked.
“The eye of the camera sees what is in front of it, and it records the moment it captures truthfully,” Bella replied. “However, it may have difficulties in fronting impossible situations. My mother hated being photographed despite knowing that there was nothing more pleasing to me than taking her picture. So I would say she was the most impossible subject to photograph.”
“And who is the most delightful subject to photograph?” the journalist asked.
That one was easy. “Aar, my brother, and his children,” Bella had answered.
Bella knows that she is procrastinating, but she does not yet feel up to the enormous responsibilities that await her. She tells herself that until she has a better grip on her emotions she shouldn’t make contact with her niece and nephew. The folly of mourning, and thus confusing love with loss, is so natural in us humans that it can leave us physically and mentally unable to perform any of our usual tasks, let alone look after anyone else.
She pulls her mobile phone out of her shoulder bag to ring Gunilla again. But she has scarcely dialed the long international number when the hotel phone on the bedside table rings, startling her. With her hand shaking and her head spinning with an array of conflicting fantasies — someone is ringing to tell her that Aar is injured but still alive; or it is Gunilla calling to tell her that Valerie has been released and is on a flight bound for Nairobi? — she finally finds the strength and the voice to pick up and say hello.
The hotel receptionist informs her that she is sending up a fax message that has arrived marked VERY URGENT. And because the woman gives neither the sender’s name nor the country of origin, Bella again allows her mind to go wild, imagining all sorts of far-fetched scenarios. Perhaps the fax brings news that her niece and nephew have been in a car accident on their way from their boarding school on the outskirts of Nairobi. Bella sits down, her lips silently unleashing a salvo of Koranic verses she hasn’t recited since childhood. The next minute her optimism is ascendant, the fax bringing a different kind of news about Aar: that his body was found in perfect condition, proof that he did not suffer much pain or trauma. She stands by the entrance to her room, ready to open the door to the bearer of the message. When she hears the lift doors open and then footsteps approach, she gives in to her eagerness and opens the door. But there is no one in the corridor. So she sits tight and waits, accepting her powerlessness to do anything about anything.
Bella tells herself that she has lived for years in a cocoon. With no child of her own and no steady partner, she hasn’t had many worries to bother her. Healthy, young, and blessed with good looks, content with the professional niche she has made for herself, she has had few serious worries, at least until Aar’s transfer two years ago to the UN office in Mogadiscio. From that day on, she paid more attention to the news coming out of Somalia. Even so, she was unmoved by much of what she read, even the suicide bombings and the constant deaths from IEDs planted by the terrorists. As long as the casualties were unknown to her personally, the tragedies felt abstract. Until now! As she said to Marcella — was it yesterday or the day before? — “Aar’s death changes everything.” What she meant was this: From now on, when the telephone rings in the middle of the night, she will imagine a car accident, a bombing in a shopping mall or restaurant in which someone dear to her loses their life. And while she will no longer worry herself to death about Aar, she will dread what might happen to her nephew and niece, the same way many a parent she knows has an ear cocked for a phone call when her teenagers are out at a party after midnight.
Bella is just at the point of wondering if she might have misunderstood the receptionist when she hears a gentle knock on the door. Now she takes her time before answering, searching for a little baksheesh, but she has found only euros when there is a second tapping and then a third. She opens the door and finds herself face-to-face with a handsome young man with big eyes and a fetching smile, in hotel uniform. Extending her right hand to receive the envelope he bears, she sees that it is shaking and stops. But the young man has no eyes for her trembling hand; he is ogling the slight opening where her robe has slipped a little. Suddenly amused, Bella relaxes and, no longer shaking, receives the envelope with both hands and thanks him.
“Why has it taken you so long to come up?” she asks him. “I’d almost given up.”
“The receptionist twice sent me to the wrong room,” he replies, shaking his head and smiling. “Maybe she was confused because your name is hyphenated on the fax, but you registered with only a single name.” But he apologizes and she gives him a couple of euros for his troubles before she gently closes the door.
Her hand is trembling again as she takes a seat, her feet planted on the floor. Bizarrely, she looks left and then right, as if she expects someone else to be with her in the room or as if she were engaged in a conversation. Then she nods her head, as though giving an okay, and tears the envelope open and reads the name of the sender: Helene, in Kampala. But Bella knows no Helene in Kampala. The message is in legalese and brief. Helene introduces herself as an attorney who is writing at the suggestion of Gunilla, who provided her with the name of Bella’s hotel. She continues, “Since the matter I wish to discuss with you is of utmost urgency and its nature delicate and familial, I would appreciate it if you could contact me at your earliest.” Helene provides two office landline numbers and a mobile phone number, each bearing a Kampala area code, and an e-mail address.
This must be an attorney representing Valerie and Padmini, Bella guesses. The thought that such a person exists relaxes her. She will not walk away from her responsibility to her sister-in-law, she knows, but she also knows that, once free, Valerie will carry on as if nothing has happened, except that she will blame the whole thing on anyone but herself.
Bella calls one of the landline numbers she has been given. As she waits for someone to answer it, she tells herself that she won’t ever forgive herself if she does nothing to help Valerie, never mind the nature of the trouble the woman is in. And Uganda being Uganda, she thinks that she will be able to find the right officers to bribe. To get matters moving, Bella decides to insist that Helene not disclose to Valerie who is putting up the bail and paying all other expenses incurred.
Finally, Helene answers. After Bella has introduced herself and then acknowledged receipt of the fax, Helene says, “I’ll tell you enough of what we are up against so you can decide whether you wish to get involved.”
“I can’t help it, I have to be involved.”
Bella can hear papers being shuffled and then Helene says, “I must tell you this at the start. We do not represent Valerie as such.”
“Please explain your meaning.”
“We represent Padmini, her partner, in a property dispute between her and a Ugandan businessman,” Helene says. “And then this.”
“‘And then this’? What’s ‘this’?”
Helene says, “A few days before Padmini and Valerie’s arrest, we had received notice from the courts about a preliminary date when a judge would hear the property dispute.”
“Are you telling me that this is why they are locked up?” says Bella. “Because the Ugandan has played a dirty hand?”
“The Ugandan tycoon hired a private eye to dig deep into the dirt,” Helene says. “He hopes to force Padmini’s hand so that she will flee the country or at least withdraw her case.”
“How much dirt did the private eye dig up?”
“The private eye sneaked in on Valerie and Padmini’s privacy and left his hiding place with a rich harvest of sexually explicit photographs.”
“How careless of them,” Bella says.
“Their lack of awareness would be quite understandable if it weren’t for the fact that Padmini comes from here,” Helene says. “She was born here and her family is well known and well respected too.”
“How do we proceed?”
“We need to get them out of prison. The yellow press is sniffing around, readying to run off with the story. This will do irreparable damage to their reputations. Somalis, as Valerie told me — as if I needed telling — will bay for her blood if it comes out that she is Aar’s widow. We must do something quick, get them out, and put them on a flight to Nairobi.”
“Why a flight to Nairobi?”
“According to Valerie, Nairobi has one of the largest communities of homosexuals, second only to Cape Town in the entire continent, and she says they will feel comfortable there.”
“How can I help?”
“Can you come in person to Kampala?”
“As I said, I do not want her to know that I am her benefactor,” Bella says, this time with great emphasis.
“We need to move fast,” Helene says.
“How much will it take to get them out?”
“A couple of thousand dollars in legal fees, and a couple more to make sure that we grease the right uniformed palms adequately so they will be discreet in their dealings with us and the press,” Helene says.
“What if I can’t come in person?” Bella reminds herself that she is primarily in Africa not to solve Valerie’s problems but to mother her nephew and niece.
“You can choose one of two options.”
“I am listening.”
“You can wire the funds. Or you can find someone residing in Uganda whom you know personally and whom you trust — a Somali, say, as there are hundreds of thousands of your nationals residing in Kampala, many of them very wealthy, and you arrange with them to settle the bill right away and then pay them later. This will be the quickest way of having them released. The money will be delivered to us in cash and we will act forthwith — very efficient!”
Bella doesn’t like either option.
“What if I transfer it electronically?”
“We don’t have that facility at our legal firm, I am embarrassed to say,” Helene says.
Uganda has never figured in Bella’s imagination in any shape or form beyond the revulsion she felt for Idi Amin when he was in power, in addition to being disgusted by the bloodthirsty Lord’s Resistance Army sect led by Joseph Kony. “Let me come back to you shortly,” she says to Helene. Then she requests that Helene supply her with all of the bank details and the address of her chambers just in case.
But she won’t ring off until she understands how it is that a lawyer with her own chambers is in no financial position to have funds transferred electronically from a neighboring country. Maybe there is something not kosher about the deal. She asks Helene to explain.
“Recently, we’ve been victims of hackers,” she says. “We suspect a former client of mine, a Nigerian, now in jail for drug-related crimes, has had a hand in this. Since then, all our accounts are frozen because of the ongoing criminal investigation. But trust me. We are legit.” Helene goes on and then breaks into laughter, adding, “Listen to me trying to convince you to trust me! This is hilarious.”
Whereupon Bella says, “I do trust you.”
Helene says, “You do? How noble of you!”
And then Bella does ring off, promising to get back to her in an hour at most.
Next Bella rings Gunilla on a mission for more information. While she waits, she Googles Ms. Johansson, who is described as heading the forensic department for the UN office in Nairobi and who is charged with determining the disposition of the UN victims’ assets as well as dispersing any additional support for their dependents.
“Gunilla,” she answers, sounding clipped and purposeful.
This time, Bella, who has her wits about her, remembers to ask Gunilla for further details, not about Valerie’s situation but about where Aar’s body was discovered.
Gunilla confirms what the news reports said, that his body was blown apart by the blast of the bomb, unrecognizably mutilated, and that his head was recovered several yards away.
“Where is he buried?” Bella asks.
“At least he has his own grave.”
“Not a mass grave, like the others share?”
In the pause that follows this, Bella joins Gunilla in crying herself sore. Then she remembers her first order of business, as well as the promise she made to Helene. “Where are you now?” she asks Gunilla.
“I am currently in Kampala.”
“The children, where are they?”
“The children know you are expected.”
“But no one is answering their phones.”
Gunilla explains that people in Nairobi do not answer their phones if they do not know the identity of their caller, too many wrong numbers. “Have you sent text messages?” she asks.
“Why didn’t I think of that?” Bella says.
Gunilla says, “I’ll call them.”
Then Bella says, “Speaking of Kampala, Gunilla…”
Assuming that Gunilla is in the know about Valerie and Padmini’s situation, Bella fills her in on what has transpired with Helene. Gunilla then says, “Will you please allow me to act on your instructions and settle the attorney’s fees and all other expenses, and you and I will go over it when we meet in a couple of days?”
The phone line carries Bella’s hesitation all the way from Nairobi to Kampala — and Gunilla can sense it. Bella, in turn, can feel it, even though the two women have never met. But Bella says, “You’ve been of immense help.”
Then Gunilla says, “Tell you what. I’ll call on Valerie and her partner in the police holding cell in person and see if there is anything else we can do for them, including lending them money or taking them a change of clothes.”
“I wouldn’t ask that of you.”
They ring off, agreeing to speak again.
When Gunilla rings back in a couple of hours, neither of them is as emotional as before. She updates Bella on what she has achieved since they last spoke, which is to say a great deal: She has settled the attorney’s fee and oiled enough corrupt police palms that Valerie and Padmini are in the process of gaining their freedom.
“What’s their plan?” Bella asks.
“Helene tells me they are Nairobi-bound.”
“Did you tell them I’m here?”
“Of course not.”
Bella asks whether Gunilla has spoken with the principal of the children’s school or his wife, as she has been unable to reach them or the children.
Their phones must be off, Gunilla thinks, or perhaps they are somewhere where there is no mobile coverage.
Bella hesitates before asking the other question that is on her mind, but she reminds herself of what Somalis say, being a hardy people with a great sense of pragmatism: The shoes of a dead person are more useful to the living than the corpse itself. “And can I get access to Aar’s house and car keys?” she asks.
The children have their own keys to the house, and Gunilla tells Bella where a spare set of car keys is located in Aar’s study. She invites Bella to stay at her house when she returns to Nairobi; she has a spare room with its own bath.
Out of politeness, Bella takes her time in answering, as if she were giving the offer serious thought, even though she knows that she won’t accept it. Finally, she says, “I am okay where I am until I meet up with the children. And then, I think, we will go to Aar’s house. But thanks all the same.”
They say their good-byes, agreeing to talk before the end of the day and keep each other abreast of developments.
Bella telephones Mahdi and Fatima. As with Gunilla, Bella loses hold of her emotions as soon as Fatima lets loose with a bellow of grief. At last she hears Mahdi, the epitome of self-restraint, say to his wife, “Come, come!” From this, Bella gathers the strength to shut off the flow of her tears. And then Mahdi is on the line, saying, “Where are you now?”
She names her hotel.
He says, “Can we fetch you home? We would very much like to see you, hug you, hold you, be with you.”
“Too exhausted,” she says.
“Say the word and we’ll fetch you home.”
But she excuses herself and hangs up, more knackered than before.
Bella can’t sleep. She changes into a pair of pajamas, draws the curtains, turns out the lights, and gets under the covers. But sleep won’t come.
Her phone rings, but when she answers it, no one is there. When this happens several times, she clicks on the log of recent calls and, finding the number to be local, copies it out on the pad by the landline and then dials the same number. Bizarrely, there is a recording, both in English and Swahili, telling her that this number cannot be reached.
She decides to go out for a walk, convincing herself that the fresh air will do her good and that there is no point in staying cooped up, fretting and moping, in her curtained room in the hotel. She dresses again, this time in stylish jeans, as if intending to set herself apart from the large number of Somali women here who wear body tents. She has heard that lately, following terrorist threats linked to Shabaab, the Kenyan authorities have been harassing anyone who looks Somali, especially in Eastleigh, the district with the heaviest concentration of Somalis. She selects one of her favorite DSLR compact cameras to take along, with the intention of capturing Nairobi by daylight.
Going out of her room, she puts the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door. At the reception desk, she purchases Kenyan shillings with euros in case she needs to pay for coffee or something to eat in a café or for a taxi on the way back. As she prepares to step out of the hotel, she hesitates for a moment, uncertain if it is wise to leave her expensive cameras and other equipment in her room. But what the hell! she thinks. Hasn’t she already lost her most precious Aar. Even though the cameras are expensive, they can be replaced. Not so her one and only brother. What a pity she hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell to avenge him, sending every one of his murderers to the lowest place in Gehenna!
Having stayed at this hotel on multiple occasions, Bella is rather familiar with the neighborhood. The city center, she remembers, is at most twenty minutes’ walk, a compact neighborhood not much bigger than the layout imposed on it in the late 1890s when a railway depot was built on Masai-owned land. Photographs from that period show tents pitched and shacks hurriedly erected for the railway workers. And from what she has read, confirmed by what Aar and others who know the city well have told her, Nairobi has never enjoyed much stability; right from the get-go, a concentration of British colonists occupied the best land and the Africans were pushed into the slums to live in shanties knocked together out of sheets of zinc, earning no standing in the colonial scheme as the city became a hub for business and, eventually, international organizations. The instabilities, which are of a piece with an African neocolonial city, have continued till this day, making Nairobi one of the most violent cities in the continent.
There is a greater agility to her stride now as she waves away invitations from a couple of the taxi drivers parked inside the hotel grounds and then walks past the uniformed security to the street. Once outside, she discovers that one half of the street has been totally blocked off to vehicular and human traffic. Presently, she observes that this is because the Israeli embassy sits directly opposite the gate of the hotel, a fact she had not remembered. Keeping to the open half of the street, she takes care to avoid twisting her ankle or falling on account of the many potholes. Eventually, the road widens, and it is lined with red-tiled, timber-framed villas on either side, as she remembers. Then there is an incline that makes her huff and puff, exhausted and out of shape as she is. She half regrets that she didn’t take a taxi, but she soldiers on nonetheless, the camera slung over her shoulder knocking against her ribs as if urging her on and on, the way a jockey spurs his horse.
The road is a lot longer than she remembers, and she hopes she hasn’t made a wrong turn. When it bends to the right, now in a steep incline, she comes upon a mass of unwashed commoners in dirty overalls, men with something scurrilous in their appearance who are gathered in huddles, smoking. They look to her like mechanics on their tea or lunch break, but the low way they speak is worrying. Her heart misses a beat in fright, and she is relieved when the men take no notice of her. Hurrying past without incident, she reminds herself why she is in Nairobi this time and remembers the responsibility awaiting her. When she spots a taxi, she flags it down.
The driver asks her where she is going. “Kimathi Street,” she says, without a second thought. The price he names is far too much, but under the circumstances, she decides not to fuss about it. She gets in, remembering that Kimathi Street was named for a Kenyan warrior whose statue was unveiled there in 2007, the year she met HandsomeBoy Ngulu. She remembers with nostalgia the bar the two of them used to frequent, close to the Stanley Hotel.
Near the city center, the streets are too jammed for the taxi to proceed easily and she gets out. The sidewalks here are narrow and busy, and the shops fronting them appear to be Indian run, their customers nearly all African. She knows that a forest of eyes is trained on her, following her every move, taking in her jeans, her T-shirt, her upmarket sunglasses, her foreignness. She is used to Italian streets throwing up troublesome wet blankets in the shape of men wolf whistling at passing women. Here the local yokels ogle, their ceaseless staring bespeaking their desires. No harm in that, she thinks, only she wouldn’t want to be in their company alone in a room or a dark alley. But as it is daytime and the streets are full of people, Bella allows her sense of mischief to get the better of her.
“May I take a picture of you, please?” she calls to a man undressing her with his eyes.
“On condition we have a photo together,” the Ogler says.
And soon enough a crowd gathers as the Ogler poses. Others volunteer to be photographed. As Bella presses the button, now taking a photo of one person, now of a group, she rejoices in the charm of Africa, even as she knows that such a friendly crowd can just as quickly turn violent. Here one must be on one’s guard at all times, she knows.
When some of the men suggest that she lend them her camera for a minute or so, Bella extricates herself from the engulfing mob. But as she tries to move away, the Ogler insists that she keep her word. She is reluctant to let anyone else handle her camera so as a compromise she suggests that someone else use the Ogler’s iPhone to take a photo of the two of them standing side by side. That way he will have their picture together, she points out to him. And so the Ogler, his right hand mauling her side, poses with her as if he were the happiest man ever.
Finally, Bella decides enough is enough, as a number of other stragglers have gathered around her and are asking to have their photographs taken with her. Quitting the scene as fast as she is able, she enters a shop to buy a local SIM card and a hundred euros’ worth of airtime for the spare mobile phone she brought along from Rome. Another minute or so later, with a train of lollygaggers still in pursuit of her, she hails another taxi, gets in, and says, in the assured tone of a local, “Take me to Village Market, please.”
At the market, she finds a café and sits at a corner table, where she orders a latte and a croissant. While waiting for it, she eavesdrops on a young couple in their early twenties who look to be newly married and Somali — Bella judges this from the woman’s palms, henna decorated the way Somali women do. Debating whether Bella is Somali, Ethiopian, or Eritrean, the man insists that she is Somali and the woman maintains that she isn’t. As if to prove his point, he goes over to Bella’s table and asks in Somali if she would take a photograph of them using his iPhone. Bella obliges and at first takes a series of shots with the iPhone, and then, given their permission — in fact, urged by the woman — takes more with her camera, at one point suggesting that they stand outside with the city’s skyscrapers in the background. When the young woman says “Mahadsanid” in Somali to thank her, Bella answers, “Adaa mudan.”
As they return to their respective tables, the man says to his bride, “My sweet, I’ve won the bet, haven’t I?”
The woman introduces herself to Bella as Canab and her husband as Kaamil, and explains that the two bet on whether Bella was Somali or not. And they invite her to join them.
“But may I continue to take pictures of you?” she asks.
“Of course,” the woman agrees, delighted.
The couple is so excited to pose for her that it isn’t until the waiter brings Bella’s latte and croissant that the man asks what her name is and what has brought her to Nairobi.
She is in no hurry to answer, not yet having decided how much of her story she can bear to tell to total strangers lest she burst into tears in front of them. She takes a sip of her latte and has a bite of her croissant, and just as she is about to speak, a young man comes to their table to offer her a wood carving of no exceptional quality. “Cheap, cheap, cheap,” he says.
Canab, seeing Bella hesitate, says in Somali, “I know where you can get the best of this kind of wood carving, or better still, the best Zimbabwean stone sculptures.”
Bella turns to the young seller of the wood carving and, apologizing, says politely that she isn’t interested in buying his wares. The peddler is suddenly and inexplicably furious, and looks from Bella to Canab and back to Bella and asks, “Where are you from and what language are the three of you speaking? Arabic?”
“We are speaking Somali,” says Bella.
Whereupon the peddler begins to shout, his rage, insofar as Bella is concerned, coming out of nowhere. He says, “Y’know what? My goods are not from a flea pit, where you come from and where you rightly belong. Terrorists, the lot of you, who have no right to be here! Blowing up our malls, terrorizing our nation. Go back where you come from!”
The outburst is so violent that it draws a few uniformed security officers. Meanwhile, Bella and the couple get ready to leave, and gather their things. Canab pays the bill, leaving a generous tip under a saucer for the waiters. Kaamil offers to take Bella to the craft shop, but Bella is too unsettled by the volatile outburst, which makes her uneasy. She says good-bye to the couple, declining to exchange phone numbers and e-mail addresses. She hurries off, catches a taxi at the stand outside the mall, and returns to the hotel.
Back at the hotel, Bella finds a fax waiting for her at the reception desk. “Valerie,” it says, with a telephone number that has a Uganda exchange. Bella puts it in her pocket without reading the rest and walks up the stairs instead of taking the lift to her room. Inside, she starts to set up her local mobile phone by inserting the Kenyan SIM card. She is eager to reach her niece and nephew.
When there is no answer, she checks her e-mail messages and finds one from Catherine Kariuki waiting. The message reads, “Please accept our condolences for the tragic loss of Aar. We feel a deep sorrow. You are in our thoughts and our prayers.” The message explains that the Kariukis have taken the children to a nature reserve out of town, intending to return to Nairobi in time to meet her flight. Bella checks the date. Evidently, there has been some confusion over the timing of her arrival. No matter. She is relieved to learn the reason for her inability to reach the Kariukis or the children.
And now that she can make a call from her newly rejuvenated phone, she dials Salif’s number and then Dahaba’s number. When neither answers, she calls Mrs. Kariuki. Catherine answers on the second ring, and at once the two of them speak of their brutal shock and great loss, for which neither can find adequate words. Then there is a brief pause, when one or the other of them speaks Aar’s name and both are choked up with tears. Then Bella hears a man’s voice — it must be James — offering to pull over and give Salif and Dahaba a chance to speak to their aunt. But Catherine insists on having a word with Bella first.
“We thought we would meet your flight tomorrow.”
“My mistake. I must have confused the dates when I wrote to you,” says Bella. And then she says, “Please let me talk to the children.”
Salif takes the phone first. “This is terrible, Auntie,” he says in Somali. “I can’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it. It is so unfair, so unfair.”
Bella commiserates with him. “I am here now, my sweet.”
There is a pause, and then Bella hears a sound she cannot identify, followed by an expletive from Salif. It sounds as if Dahaba has suddenly snatched the phone away from him. Without missing a beat, Dahaba asks Bella, “Where were you when you heard it?”
Bella tells her how she found out about it in the airport, from the newspaper, and Dahaba says, “How terrible. It’s so unfair.” They weep together, and then they speak again at the same time, exchanging languages and words of commiseration.
Finally, James comes on the line. Bella thanks him and his wife for looking after her niece and nephew and asks how they can arrange for her to come and take the children home to Aar’s house. They offer to pick her up at the hotel and then bring her and the children to Aar’s house, but she insists on going there herself in a taxi. James promises to e-mail her directions to their house the moment they get home and rings off.
It takes Bella a minute to bring herself to unfold the fax from Valerie even though she is aware that there is no way of avoiding coming face-to-face with her. She feels a flush of rage at the thought of having to behave not only civilly but also solicitously toward a woman who, unless she has changed, is not likely to show an ounce of kindness back. Even though it has been years since the two have met, Bella has not till this day forgotten the initial shock and anger she felt when she first learned of Valerie’s sudden disappearance from Aar’s and the children’s lives without an explanation. Because of this, she is determined not to allow Valerie to take advantage of her, especially now that Aar is no longer in the picture. Still, Bella must steel herself for the worst, knowing how exploitative and naturally abusive Valerie can be. A blighter of a woman, Valerie does not know what is off-limits and what is acceptable. Valerie’s loyalty is only to herself, never to any other person.
Bella thinks, what a pretty kettle of fish, cursing the day her brother met and then married this woman; she can’t bring herself to open and read the message, annoyed that she has to do so. The cheek of the woman! Does the fact that she cannot keep her irritation in check mean that Valerie has her completely in her power, Bella wonders. Hurdo, she recalls, would have had no such doubts. She would describe Valerie as some peanut-brained la-de-da with no self-regard. As much as she loved her son, rather than see him as a gentle spirit and saint the way Bella did, Hurdo thought him a weakling and a pathological procrastinator who lacked the balls to square up to Valerie. Hurdo’s words seem prescient now. “Imagine what a nightmare their lives, and everyone’s, would become if something were to happen to him,” she said, adding, “One day, he will regret his indecision.” Now, it seems, such a day has come.
Finally, Bella reads Valerie’s message. It fans the flames of her anger, recalling their previous associations as well as their unspoken acrimonies — unspoken because she had no wish to upset Aar. Even so, Bella knows she must accede to some of her sister-in-law’s demands, including meeting up with her and allowing her to see Salif and Dahaba. She sends a text message to Valerie instead of calling her on the number she has provided, maybe because she doesn’t wish to hear the woman’s voice, which is bound to irritate her no end.
Valerie replies almost instantly, as if she had been waiting for a return message. She informs Bella that she will be in Nairobi tomorrow and looks forward to linking up with her there. She doesn’t mention Padmini, and Bella wonders if Valerie will bring her too. Anyhow, Bella resolves that, escorted or unaccompanied, Valerie will be received with the welcome due a sister-in-law.
Bella is exhausted from all her inner tensions, some to do with Valerie’s arrival, with Padmini and other untellable troubles in tow and others to do with her anxiety over the challenges awaiting her with Salif and Dahaba. Because she is too exhausted to spend more time and thought on Valerie and her doings, Bella concentrates on what needs to be done. And in a moment, she has the clarity of mind to call down to the reception desk and book a limousine to take her to the Kariukis’ house first thing tomorrow morning.
Then she draws the curtains, darkening the room to such an extent that it feels as though it were night. She then prepares to take a well-deserved sleep. At first, she tosses and turns for a long time, apparently too tired, too jet-lagged to achieve her aim. However, when she perseveres in her desire to give to her body what her body needs most— a restorative sleep — Bella ultimately succeeds into dropping into the deepest of slumbers, from which she is awakened by a nightmare.
In the dream, Bella finds herself standing on a cliff, engaged in a heated argument with a woman who is unknown to her. The two exchange unkind words, and then a falling sensation from the cliff’s great height causes Bella to wake up, and she screams in fright.
After her long sleep, albeit one interrupted by the bad dream that was terrifying in the extreme, Bella feels restored enough to plan the day ahead. She gets out of the bed naked and opens the curtains wide to let the morning in. Instantly, she senses there is something open-ended about the African dawn, as if each day were a new offering, each hour a mystery unfolding. She takes a brief moment to watch as a couple of sparrows come to her side of the window, chirping, singing to her, welcoming her, her first dawn in Nairobi, a city that has the potential of becoming one of her favorite cities, except when she thinks worriedly about its violent nature. But that is not what she is thinking about now, the mayhem that is synonymous with this city, the bombings, and the reckless killings. Rather she is thinking about all the things that need doing — and there are legions of them, so many she would lose count were she to list them. Then with a frightening inevitability, she remembers why she is here: Aar’s death in Mogadiscio and her nephew and niece who need looking after. And the ache in her heart, rapidly increasing, dampens her spirits and she moves away from the window, turning her back on the morning and on the birds whose chatter she no longer hears.
Her change of mood leads her to the bathroom, where, in hope of regaining a firmer foothold in the slippery realities that are claiming her attention, she takes a hot shower. The stream of water jets out, hitting her body from all sides as she soaps herself, as she shampoos her hair, as she watches the brownness of her dirt fleeing fast down into the waiting drain under her feet, and this helps her remain a little aloof for the briefest time possible.
Toweled, she emerges from the bathroom and runs a comb through her dripping wet hair, then uses the hotel dryer. She oils her body with moisturizing ointments and then changes into a custom-made power suit her favorite tailor in Rome, a half-Somali living in that city, designed for her. Bella is pleased with the suit, delighted she could afford to pay for it, as it is out of her league. She brought it along to wear on a day such as this.
Finally, she packs a medium-size bag, into which she puts her most expensive cameras, her cash, her passport, and her computer, from which she has downloaded the attachment to Mr. Kariuki’s e-mail giving her the directions to their home and then copied it by hand since she has no printer in her room. But she doesn’t go down to the lobby immediately, because she is caught in midthought, which unsettles her; she is thinking about where she and Valerie will meet when her sister-in-law arrives in Nairobi tomorrow, something for which she must prepare well in advance. And Bella comes to an instant decision: It would be better if she kept her hotel room for one more day. That way, instead of inviting Valerie (and Padmini, if indeed she is coming) to Aar’s home, where she and the children will have been installed, she will have a neutral place to receive her. After all, you can never tell with Valerie.
Before leaving the room, Bella makes certain to secure all the locks on the hard cases and put the DO NOT DISTURB sign back on her door. And when a woman at the reception desk calls to inform her that her limousine is here, she realizes that she does not have ample time to eat breakfast and settles in her mind for a takeaway coffee in a styrofoam cup and some fruit, which she thinks will be sufficient, as she can’t bear the thought of eating anything; she is antsy, her heart beating needlessly faster, as she thinks of all the possible skirmishes that lie ahead. She walks into the breakfast hall and helps herself to the coffee and grabs a banana and an apple and, smiling, waves away the attention of one of the waiters, who is eager to know if he can assist.
At the reception desk, she identifies herself to the concierge, alerting him that she will be ready to join the driver of the limousine soon. Then she cashes more euros, and with the key to her room safely in her bag, she goes out to meet the limousine. The driver turns out to be a very pleasant elderly man from Eldoret. Bella insists that he tell her the route he plans to take to get to the Kariukis’ home before she gets into the vehicle. She compares the options he gives to the directions Mr. Kariuki has sent her, and when she is satisfied that he knows the route, she climbs into the back and settles in for the ride, anticipating the meeting with Salif and Dahaba with equal parts of joy and dread.
Traveling through the city in the back of the limousine, Bella feels almost in her element again. In recent years, her most obvious link to the African continent has been her brother and his children. Yet she is often happiest here. She feels connected to the soul of the continent, even though she knows that, almost to a man or a woman, any African would say that she is not of them. Playing the music of Baaba Maal, Cesária Évora, Toumani Diabaté, or Miriam Makeba calms her nerves and transports her to a world beyond memory, where sadness cannot reach her.
She is most conflicted when it comes to Somalia, her natal country, where bloodthirsty “nativists” claiming ancestral ownership of the land on which the city of Mogadiscio was sited ten thousand years ago have made the city ungovernable. According to what Aar told her when they spoke on the phone or met, the city had lost its charm under the repeated incursions of the clan-based militiamen recruited from communities in south-central Somalia. Then Ethiopia took it, at the behest of the U.S. And then came Shabaab.
It is the emphasis on what passes for clan, ethnic, or religious identity that makes her lose hope for the place. Just because she is a bit light-skinned and has a father from elsewhere is not reason enough to deny her the Somali identity to which she has legal and natal rights. That kind of nativist backward thinking reminds her of the American “birthers” who question Obama’s right to be the president of the United States. For that matter, it reminds her of how some Zambians challenged Kenneth Kaunda’s right to be the country’s first president even after he’d been in power for twenty-six years because he’d been born, they claimed, a kilometer over the border with Malawi.
She hopes that her luck will hold and that she will not find Salif and Dahaba in worse shape than she has been. At the very thought, her eyes fill with tears again, her chest heaving. She pulls out a towelette, the type airlines supply their passengers with before serving meals. She doesn’t want Salif and Dahaba to see her disconsolate. Or at least she doesn’t want to be the one to lead off the wailing.
And then she finds it startling to be staring into the vehicle’s side mirror. Mirrors have always had an immediate impact on her thinking, and seeing her face so unexpectedly reflected in it does not only surprise her but also imposes on her mind a humbling rationale: that she is alive and Aar is not. In an instant, her face, unbidden, runs with buckets of tears making their way down to her cheeks and staining her power suit. And her hand reaches up toward her eyes that are too unhandsome to behold. But when her wandering gaze encounters the driver’s worried look in the rear mirror, a shiver having its origin deep in the seismic tremor that has occurred within her produces a brief muscle spasm. Several seconds go by before the shaking slackens and she is able to wipe away the wetness from her cheeks.
By then, she senses the car slowing down and she assumes that they have arrived at their destination. The driver, discreet as ever, does not delve into the matter in any manner or depth. Nor does he say, “We are here,” even after he has stopped at a manned boom gate, where a uniformed security guard approaches her side and asks her to fill in a form and wait. Bella pulls herself together and does as instructed and gives the clipboard back to the man, who goes into a cubicle and then emerges to tell the driver, “The principal’s house is the biggest bungalow to the left. You can’t miss it.”
A few minutes later, they stop in front of a large bungalow. Bella gathers her thoughts in silence and then tells the driver to wait here, as he will take her and two other people back to Nairobi. But before stepping out of the vehicle, she is suffused with a mixture of anxiety and foreboding, and in a momentary fit of delirium, she wonders if she has the mental strength and physical stamina to maintain her self-control and make sure she won’t lose hold of her emotions and burst into tears the moment she sets eyes on Salif and Dahaba. Eventually, a woman Bella presumes to be Catherine Kariuki opens the door and waits. Bella, unsteady on her feet, somehow makes it out of the car and moves toward the woman holding the door, and her arms open to embrace her.
In spite of herself, however, Bella is sniveling again the instant Catherine says, “Bella, sincere condolences for your loss and ours,” and wraps her massive body around her. Then both women let loose a torrent of damnations aimed at Aar’s murderers, at which point the mention of his name brings forth a salvo of blessings. They stand like that, two grown women, one in flat shoes and a flowery summer frock, the other in a power suit and beautifully designed Italian shoes, each repeatedly pleading with the other to please stop crying, please, neither obliging until soft steps descending the stairs behind them make them go silent.
But it is not the children; it is the dog in playful but silent pursuit of the cat. Then the dog starts to bark and Catherine shushes her, saying, “Quiet, you silly thing. It is Bella.” She fetches a toy for the cat to play with, and the two women pause in their grieving, as if attempting to recast their roles in the tragedy they are reliving. The dog disappears and then reappears, holding a leash in its teeth: She wants to go for a walk. Catherine pays no attention but the dog, as if seriously offended, barks fiercely. The cat then turns its back on the goings-on and strides into the inner part of the house. Bella waits, as if expecting that the cat might come back with something in its mouth too, maybe its bowl, to indicate its owner has forgotten to put food in it. Or maybe it will return with a dead mouse, not so much to feed its hunger but to receive a pat on the head. Meanwhile, Catherine holds the dog by the ears, pulling the leash free of its jaws and hanging it on a hook with the promise of a walk in a minute or so. Catherine says to Bella, “As you can see, I have my work cut out for me.”
Bella is not unhappy that they are talking about ordinary matters. She is glad for anything that will occupy her mind and make her forget her pain. She says, smiling, “Now dogs insist on their rights? Dogs?”
“Normally, my husband takes her out first thing, but he had a family emergency in his village and he drove off as soon as we got back,” Catherine says. “He hopes to be back in time to see you.”
“I hope it’s nothing serious,” Bella says.
“Emergencies are a daily routine in our country,” Catherine says, shaking her head. Bella knows what she’s alluding to. In a place where violence is endemic, sudden death, car accidents, family feuds over land and other matters, witchcraft killings, and other deadly rituals are not uncommon.
Catherine says, “Do you mind if I leave you in the house with Salif and Dahaba while I take this dog for a walk?”
“Where are they?” asks Bella.
“Up in their rooms, both of them,” Catherine says, “probably surfing the Net and catching up on text messaging with their friends.”
“Are they already up?”
“I know Dahaba is. She came down when she heard James getting ready to leave. She thought it might be you. She and I had breakfast together.”
“He said he wanted to wait and eat with you. He acts tough sometimes, but he’s actually very sensitive. Deep down, he has a big soft center — you’ll see.”
“Just like his father,” says Bella.
“Eggs and bacon and tomato ketchup, those are his morning essentials, he can’t live without them. But perhaps he’s gone back to sleep.”
“Good for young people to sleep; that’s how they grow so big these days.”
And just as Catherine gets hold of the dog’s neck to put the leash on her, Dahaba hurtles down the stairs in a precipitous headlong rush and throws herself into Bella’s arms, her head finding familiar comfort in the curve of her aunt’s neck. A tremor as quietly invasive as it is sudden runs through Bella’s body and transmits itself to Dahaba, and suddenly she is crying out in pain. As if she can’t bear the sight, Catherine slips out the door with the dog in tow; her presence now is redundant.
“I know, darling, I do know, I do,” Bella whispers.
“Why should it happen to us?”
Bella thinks, why indeed? But she doesn’t say this aloud.
Dahaba clings to Bella until at last she is calm enough for Bella to release her. But when she looks up into her aunt’s eyes, a fresh sorrow touches off a new round of weeping. Bella kisses her niece on the cheeks. Dahaba says, “We don’t have another parent.”
Bella wants to say, “I know,” but she thinks of Valerie’s impending arrival and simply says, “You have me, darling, for one. I am here, to be with you and look after you.”
“Thanks, Auntie,” says Dahaba. But Bella pushes on.
“For another, you have a living parent, your mother.”
At that, Dahaba pushes Bella away, and for the first time the two of them stand apart, Dahaba staring at Bella with a look of anger that she has insinuated Valerie into their conversation. Bella won’t pursue the topic now; now is not the time. But Dahaba isn’t quite ready to let it drop.
“Remember, Mum went on a walkabout.”
“Regardless of what she did, she is your mum.”
“We don’t wish to see her,” says Dahaba.
“She loves you, in her own way,” Bella insists gently, remembering that Dahaba was especially close to Valerie at the time when she abandoned them.
“She called here last night,” Dahaba says. “But Salif wouldn’t talk to her.”
“What about you? Did you speak to her?”
“He hung up on her before I got the chance.”
“When did she call?”
“Yesterday evening, just after we got here.”
“She called just the one time?” Bella asks.
“She called back again later.”
“And they talked, did they?” Bella says, sensing that this is the case.
“They spoke a long time,” Dahaba says.
“He won’t tell me.”
“And you didn’t speak to her yourself?”
“I didn’t want to. I’m still upset from before.”
None of these goings-on surprise Bella, and she sees that Valerie’s blowing hot and cold conjures a parallel pattern of anger and yearning in her daughter, and no wonder. Yet again, Bella marvels at the woman’s narcissism, which seems to know no limits.
Dahaba dries her cheeks and leads Bella by the hand into the living room. Suddenly, she turns and says, “It’s wonderful, wonderful that you are here.”
“You are my only darlings,” Bella says.
“We love you too, you know that.”
“I do, my sweet!”
“So you are here for a week or something, right?” Dahaba asks, as if afraid to venture more.
“No, darling,” says Bella. “I am here forever.” And at the moment she says it, it dawns on her it is true.
“I am not going back to Europe.”
“And you’ll be our mum?”
“Yes, I’ll be your mum and your dad too.”
This time it is tears of joy that wet Dahaba’s cheeks. She takes hold of Bella’s hands, kissing each of them in turn. Not for the first time, Bella marvels at how easily a child’s mood changes.
“And so we don’t need to go boarding, do we?”
“No, you don’t.”
“Wait until I tell Salif!”
It strikes Bella only now how child rearing requires a sort of unconditional internal commitment to the task. Everything to do with raising children has its own rationale, she thinks, constructed along the lines of a minor and a major premise and a conclusion bizarrely drawn from neither. For every child is in a world of his or her own making, and everyone else remains outside of it until there is need to involve them, to invite them in — and then only provisionally, and for self-serving reasons. She remembers a Somali saying something to the effect that one’s children are not one’s parents. Which means, in effect, that we think far more often about our children than they are likely to think of us. Even if you are sick or having money problems or other troubles, she realizes, you must not expect them to respond to your needs in the way you’ve responded to theirs. You won’t be able to sleep when they are sick, and you’ll do whatever you can to alleviate their pain or allay their fears. But do not expect them to feel anyone else’s pain the same way! Until, of course, they become parents themselves and have their own children.
“Is Salif still in bed?” Bella asks Dahaba.
But it is Salif who answers, “I am awake,” and, turning, they see him: a gangly youth trying his best to grow a beard and not succeeding. His face is pimpled, his pajamas are missing a couple of buttons, and he is barefoot. Bella instantly suspects that while Dahaba will benefit greatly from her presence it is Salif who needs more care, however he might insist that he needs no one and nothing.
“Hello, my darling!” Bella says.
But Salif is not in a pliant mood, and he won’t rise from where he is crouched on the bottom step of the stairway. Nor does he attempt to take the hand she offers to lift him up. At last Dahaba goes to him and whispers in his ear. He is not moved.
At last, he says to Bella, “When did you come?”
Dahaba, intervening, says, “Don’t answer him.”
“Yesterday,” Bella replies.
“And why didn’t you tell us you were coming then? We would not have gone away!”
Bella looks him in the eye, aware that this sort of conversation so soon after her arrival does not bode well. “There was a misunderstanding about the time of my arrival,” she says calmly. “I was exhausted and upset, and I sent the wrong information.”
“Have you spoken to Mum?” asks Salif.
Bella hesitates. “Not yet. But I will.”
“About our future?”
Again Bella pauses, wondering how best to proceed. “Of course. That will need to be discussed.”
“She gave the impression you did,” says Salif.
Bella is fairly certain that the cold shoulder she is getting is the one he intends for Valerie. Or perhaps he is just going through a phase where he needs to assert his positions and know that he is being taken seriously. At any rate, her instinct tells her to let him bully her a little. She senses that Valerie is a presence in nearly every conversation Dahaba and Salif have right now, the children taking out their anger and uncertainty on everyone else. She examines her fingernails, as though examining them for structural weaknesses; lately, they have been cracking. Then she looks out the window and spots shadows and the shapes of birds high up in the trees. But she is too far away to hear their chirping. Dahaba joins her where she is standing and the two lock arms, the little one placing her head once again in the curve of Bella’s neck.
“Would you like your breakfast, Salif?”
Salif’s expression darkens with unspoken outrage that Bella won’t engage with him in conflict. He has always hated it when adults change the topic of conversation to mundane matters, like food or sleep. When he was younger, he would create ugly scenes when that happened. He was notorious for his ill-timed tantrums, especially in public places — airports or the homes of his parents’ friends. He seemed, in fact, to take great delight in embarrassing his father in front of his friends. As a result, Bella knows, Aar seldom brought anyone home, and until Gunilla, he had never brought home his women friends for fear that his children might behave badly or speak spitefully in their presence. Bella wonders if Salif will one day revisit these ugly confrontations with self-loathing. Just now, he is biting hard on his thumb, as if to keep himself from speaking.
Bella says to Dahaba, “Do you cook?”
“I can make spaghetti and sauce.”
“And what can Salif make?”
“Nothing, not even his favorite bacon.”
“At nearly seventeen, he should be able to make something, surely,” says Bella, opening the fridge and bringing out the butter and then going to the cupboards to find a frying pan. She has difficulties turning on the gas, but Dahaba helps. Then Dahaba takes a seat, gazing at her auntie in delight, in contrast to Salif, who stands silently in the kitchen doorway, pretending still to be angry.
Bella says to Dahaba, “Do you eat bacon as well?”
“Yes, I do, Auntie.”
“And yet you claim to be a Muslim?”
Dahaba nods her head and says nothing.
“We do eat it and are proud of it,” Salif says defiantly.
Bella opens the packet of bacon and begins to separate the stringy rashers and lay them in the frying pan.
Salif adds, “Our father always insisted on us being Muslim, culturally speaking, even though he partook of the odd glass of wine at birthdays and other celebrations, and occasionally with his meals.”
“How are Qamar and Zubair?” Bella asks, changing the subject. Qamar and Zubair are Fatima and Mahdi’s daughter and son, who are close in age to Dahaba and Salif and not only go to the same school but also have similar interests. Zubair, like Salif, is into soccer to the point of obsession, and Qamar, like Dahaba, is a budding feminist.
“We haven’t seen them for a couple of days,” Salif says, this time not sulking at the change of topic.
“I spoke to Auntie Fatima and Uncle Mahdi,” Bella tells him.
“Can we arrange to meet them?” Salif asks.
“As soon as you like,” Bella says.
“I can’t see why not,” Bella says.
Bella knows that it is only because Mahdi was away in Somalia at the time of Aar’s death, and Fatima had a medical procedure scheduled, that the children went to stay with James and Catherine rather than with these dear family friends. She also knows that Qamar and Zubair do not eat bacon and that their parents do not touch liquor at all. But they are tolerant enough of their friends’ “un-Islamic” ways.
She also suspects that Valerie would go bonkers if she knew about her children’s closeness to the family, who no doubt encourage them to identify primarily as Somali and Muslim. Valerie harbors an ancient antipathy to Islam, springing from a story about her grandfather being sodomized when he fell into the hands of a local militia in North Africa.
Bella puts a plate before Salif. “Here, done. Come and eat.”
Salif drowns the bacon in huge spurts of ketchup, and despite the knife and fork she has set by his plate, he uses his fingers, mopping his plate with the last rasher.
Then he says to Bella, “About our father?”
“What about him?”
“In his will, did he ask to be cremated?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Bella says. “But I have not yet seen his final will. Why do you ask?”
“Mum talked about cremation yesterday.”
“She mentioned nothing of the sort to me,” Bella says, reminding herself to stay calm.
“Where was he buried?”
Bella takes care not to give any more information than necessary, as it will serve no one’s interest. So she does not disclose all that she has learned of the circumstances of Aar’s death but says only, “In Mogadiscio, soon after he died.”
Dahaba asks, “Why did they bury him so fast?”
“It is part of the Muslim tradition.”
“No,” says Salif, ignoring her and answering Dahaba himself. “They bury the dead within hours because it is very hot up there, being closer to the Equator, and unless the corpse is embalmed quickly, it will begin to deteriorate.” Again that hostile edge!
He turns back to Bella. “Mum thinks it is stated in his will that he wants his body to be cremated.”
For the first time in their presence, Bella feels her temper flare. But before she can speak, Dahaba chimes in, “Mum has no business here.”
“As if she will listen to your advice!” Salif spits.
And just as the two of them face off, about to go at it, Bella clears her throat, making them turn to face her. Regaining her calm, she says, “Next time, please tell your mum to address any questions she may have about your father’s will, his burial, or his estate to me directly.”
But Salif isn’t finished. “Is it legally incumbent on the living to follow to the letter the will of the dead with respect to their wishes for the disposition of their bodies?”
“From whom does this question come?” says Bella, not answering.
“Does it matter?” counters Salif.
“It does,” says Bella. “And I don’t know the answer.”
Bella is more than certain that Valerie, whose nickname in some quarters is “Madam Confusion,” is the source of this line of questioning. Bella has a copy of one version of Aar’s will, and she knows it makes no mention of cremation, but she is not certain it is the most recent one. Still, she suspects that if there was ever such a stipulation it belonged to an earlier period, when Aar was interested in Indian philosophy, and to an earlier draft. A draft when Valerie and he still lived as husband and wife. She says to Salif, “What’s your interest in all this?”
“We should do what his will says.”
“And if it so stipulates, would you like your father’s body exhumed?” Bella asks.
“And what if people — living people — find the idea inconsistent with their beliefs and abhorrent? Do you think this would bring comfort to your father? What would be gained?”
“I want to honor his will.”
“But that is ridiculous,” Dahaba says.
To Bella’s immense relief, at that very moment they hear a key turning in the lock. The dog enters and makes her way right for Dahaba and Salif, jumping boisterously on them. Catherine greets them and excuses herself to go wash her hands. The lucky arrival of the dog has defused a moment of tension. For the time being, the subject is dropped.
At the mention of the move back to their house, Bella offers to help Dahaba and Salif to pack. Dahaba says, “Yes, thank you,” but Salif says, “I can do my own packing.”
And they are ready to leave inside half an hour.
Salif, standing little on formalities, is brief in his farewell, and he takes his leave and carries the suitcases to the waiting limousine. The driver, with his windows down, is half asleep but sufficiently alert to release the button controlling the trunk. Salif puts the cases beside his aunt’s singularly heavy bag there — he can’t help being impressed by what a light traveler Auntie is, if this is all she has come with; but he won’t rush to make a judgment; he will wait and see.
Meanwhile, he hesitates, trying to decide whether to sit by the driver in front, which is his preference, or in one of the roomier rows in the back. If he is unsure where to sit, it is because he thinks that Dahaba is likely to make a hell of a fuss about whatever choice he makes. And for once, he does not wish to engage Dahaba in a squabble about seating. So he stays outside the vehicle, waiting and chatting to the driver, who is polite enough to turn off the radio news, which is in one of the local languages, most likely Kalenjin from the sound of it — Salif has sufficient Swahili and a smattering of Gikuyu. When he assumes he has waited long enough, he returns inside. Dahaba, from the look of it, is in no hurry to leave. As for Bella, she is hanging on out of good breeding, maybe because she is hoping that James will get here in time for them to say a proper good-bye. And so they waffle about something, which, in Salif’s view, is of no consequence, even though he won’t say it. Salif wants to avoid getting caught in Nairobi rush hour traffic. And so, leaving again, he says, “I’ll be in the car, Auntie, waiting.”
The pin dropping, Bella hugs and kisses Catherine, stressing how much she would have liked for the two of them to meet under different circumstances. Though she has no children of her own, Catherine clearly has both the maternal instinct and the disciplined oversight requisite to a boarding-school principal’s wife. And not for the first time Bella is effusive in her praise of Catherine and James and thanks them for providing a safe and comfortable home to Salif and Dahaba in these difficult times. She adds she is sorry not to have met James, but that she looks forward to doing so in the near future and requests that Catherine please give him her kindest regards. “I am sorry he is not here for me to thank him personally and I pray that he meets with good news at his village and that there is nothing to worry either of you.”
Eventually, Bella and Dahaba leave holding hands, and together they sit in the back, speaking today’s language of choice, Somali. When Salif opens the car door to sit by the driver and finds there is a clutter of maps and other paraphernalia on the seat, he hesitates, and this time it is the chauffeur who apologizes and moves his stuff.
Bella says, “Catherine is lovely, isn’t she?”
“Even though she has no children of her own,” says Dahaba, “she treats the children as though they were of her own flesh and blood.”
“I am sorry I haven’t met the principal.”
“There is plenty of time.”
And during a pause, Bella remembers hearing on a past visit Salif’s comparing his experience as a boarder to that of a prison inmate who knows all the ins and outs of the system. She had assumed that he hated being a boarder and was loath to return to it, but he had corrected her, saying, “On the contrary, I often have a different kind of fun when I am a boarder. The rules are clear. Mr. Kariuki is very strict but fair, and Mrs. Kariuki is very caring. What more can you want?” Now, Bella knows that the pair of them, one as the principal, the other as his spouse, have set the bar high. But she feels cut out for this sort of challenge.
And as if to put that confidence to the test, Salif and Dahaba begin to war with each other, as if on cue. He accuses his sister of dillydallying and telling stories of no importance whatsoever. “We are going to run into terrible traffic and will be lucky if we get there before dark.”
“I was just being polite.” Dahaba recruits Auntie Bella’s support, adding, “That was okay, Auntie, wasn’t it, and you were just being polite too, weren’t you?”
Bella says she thinks it is time the two of them have outgrown quarreling, bickering about petty things, and getting on each other’s nerves. “Especially you, Salif. She is your sister and is younger.”
“I hope Salif doesn’t think that by saying what you’ve just said you are taking my side on your first day here,” says Dahaba.
“Listen to her!” Salif says.
Bella says, “Maybe there is much sense in silence if your sister says something provocative. Especially when you are a guest in someone else’s house, someone who has hosted you and taken good care of you.”
But her words have little effect, and the words that emerge from their mouths, as noxious as raw sewage, put an end to the sweet good-byes. Bella decides not to intervene again, reasoning that perhaps this rowing is at least a distraction from thinking about their father’s death. She feels there is no point hassling them about their sibling rivalry, even if it is improper. Let them have their altercations. And in any case, their set-tos are nothing new. Bella remembers witnessing a terrible quarrel when she visited them a few years back. Aar had planned a beautiful day in the countryside near Naivasha, and Bella was packing a lunch for a picnic when the children got into a fight about whose turn it was to sit in the passenger seat. Salif insisted it was his turn first. In effect, Bella was partly responsible for the row, as she interfered with the smooth working of a system they had fine-tuned to a T: Salif or Dahaba would sit in the front seat beside their father on the way there, and the other one would have his or her chance on the way back. Aar, naturally, had suggested that Bella sit in the front for the entire ride, but she had foolishly offered to sit in the back because she wanted to speak privately to Dahaba because Aar suspected Dahaba was having “woman trouble.”
Distressed by the conflict, Bella had asked Aar in Italian to step in. But Aar had explained to her, also in Italian, his belief that as part of growing up children had to acquire for themselves the skill of learning when to fight and when to accommodate. “It is something you can’t teach them,” he said. “They must come to this understanding by themselves.” He quoted the Somali adage that with age children become good adults. Bella wasn’t convinced, but she let go, saying, “Who am I to challenge you on this?” And to make the peace, she got them to toss a coin.
But today there is no one else to intercede or decide if intercession is warranted. They ride in silence, watching the view and each other, apparently living alone in their thoughts. Now there is a ravine to the right, now a clear blue sky as the highway bends to the left, now an eagle descending to catch its prey and taking off again with its victim in the clutches of its talons. But the beastly row has left an ugly feeling in the car, and it is difficult to enjoy these sights. It isn’t until Dahaba begins to cry again, silently, that Salif reaches back and touches her shoulder in silent commiseration.
Then Dahaba asks, in much the same mode as Americans ask where people were when JFK was assassinated — or, for a new generation, where people were when the planes flew into the World Trade Center — where Bella was when their father was killed. This is a different question from the one Bella has been asked before. She did not learn of the death until she landed at Fiumicino, but she has done the math and she knows exactly what she was doing at the moment the bomb went off.
Bella is the first to believe in the therapeutic benefits to be gained from speaking openly about the circumstances around the death of one so close. But she is caught in a trap from which she does not know how to free herself. In truth, at the moment when Aar’s life was ebbing away, Bella was with Humboldt, her Afro-Brazilian lover. They had made love and were taking a breather. Humboldt had already come, and he was just beginning to assist her toward the longer, deeper orgasm they both sensed she had in her when she glanced at the clock and realized she was in danger of missing her plane. She hesitates; Dahaba says, “The question upsets you?”
She is amazed at how many difficult questions there have been to answer from these two in less than twenty-four hours! Concentrating on the scenery, she decides that this is a private matter that she can’t share with them truthfully. Giving Dahaba’s hand what she hopes is a comforting squeeze, she says, “Nothing else matters more than the death itself. It is the saddest thing that has ever happened to me. Or to you.”
Salif says, “But surely…” but Bella presses on.
“For days I have blamed myself for not speaking my mind when he called and said he was going to relocate to Somalia to work on the logistics of moving the UN offices to Mogadiscio.”
She feels the tears filling her eyes and wishes she didn’t have to expose either child to the harsh realities of life; for there is no merit in doing so.
They drive on, having fallen silent, the car engine hardly making any sound, the highway straight. Dahaba’s eyes have closed and her breathing has slowed; she seems to be asleep. Salif is busy with his iPhone.
Bella asks Salif, “And you, my dear. What does your father’s death mean to you, his firstborn?”
Salif says, “Uncle Mahdi told me that the death of a father is the making of a son. Not in quite those words, but something along those lines.”
“And is that what you feel?”
Salif replies, “Yes, I think so. The surviving older offspring has to take on more of a burden of responsibility and offer help to the other immediate family members, especially the younger ones, who are in more need than he.”
“Is that what you will be doing, helping Dahaba?”
She locks gazes with him in the side mirror into which they are staring from their respective positions. Neither looks away, as each holds the other’s gaze. At this, he comprehends her meaning.
“But she is annoying,” he complains.
“You haven’t answered my question. Have you?”
“She is trouble every minute of every day.”
“Still, have you shown her kindness?”
“I doubt it,” he says grudgingly.
“How about you do it? There’s nothing stopping you.”
They are passing through a village now. An accident has occurred here — just a few minutes before, from the looks of it. The street is full of bystanders curiously looking on. Bella thinks of how one accident often leads to another; she has never understood why crowds gather around collisions. Are they there to share the gory details of what has occurred or get their hands on any available loot while everyone is distracted? Salif suggests that they stop to see if they can be of any help, but at Bella’s urging, worried for their safety, the driver pushes on. After all, she has in the trunk of the car her photo equipment as well as her computer, her passport, and quite a lot of cash.
She returns to their earlier conversation. “Being the older sibling, in what way do you feel obligated to care for Dahaba, your younger sibling?”
“It should be a pleasure, not a duty.”
“Do you find the weight of this responsibility — even if it is a pleasure — too heavy to bear at your young age?”
“No,” says Salif thoughtfully. “After all, my father started helping you when he was even younger than I am, and he contributed to your life in some ways more than either of your parents, according to what you’ve both told me.”
“Does it worry you that your father’s death could be the unmaking of you?” Bella asks, and then she pauses before continuing, “You will have more freedom, which, if not wisely used, can be the cause of inescapable failure — yes?”
Salif says, “Dad as a single parent carried the burden of our absent mother. This means I have twice the weight my father carried.”
“Are you man enough to meet the challenge?”
Neither speaks, but Bella observes that a touch of sorrow has entered his eyes. She asks, more gently, “Are you okay?”
“Why are we talking about all this?” he says.
“What do you think?”
“To be sure, I was out of order earlier,” Salif at last acknowledges. “Can I rely on you to guide me and set me right when I go wrong?”
“Of course, darling,” Bella says.
“It is a deal, then.”
They are getting close to Aar’s house — even Bella recognizes the neighborhood now. When they turn into a side street, Salif leans forward.
“Ours is the fourth house on the left,” he says.
They stop in front of a green gate and honk. A man in a uniform — a day guard — opens the gate and they drive in.
Dahaba awakens. Salif gets out of the car but does not retrieve the bags from the trunk. Dahaba is woozy, deeply involved in her sleep or a recent memory of a dream; she sits on the front steps of the door, waiting to be told when they will go in or what they will do.
Meanwhile, Bella asks the driver how much she owes him. He takes a long time working this out and she waits patiently, watching his lips move as he calculates then decides on a sum then shakes his head, probably thinking he has totaled the fare wrongly. Such a sweet man, Bella thinks, and she decides to assist. And to make it all aboveboard, lest he should think that she is cheating him, they do the sum together, so much per hour, so much per kilometer — and then she adds a generous tip. He leaves a happy man, grinning from cheek to jowl and offering to come and get her whenever she needs a ride. In fact, for a moment, she even abandons the thought of driving Aar’s car to the hotel and parking it there — and instead she thinks about requesting that he take her to Hotel 680 now. But she remembers that they have to settle in the house and get something to eat before she returns there.
As the limousine reverses, Bella observes that one of the day guards has come to offer to help carry the bags in. But Salif declines the offer, saying, “Thanks, but we can cope.”
When he sees the question in Bella’s eyes, he whispers, “It is always safer not to let any security personnel know the inside of your house. Then they won’t be able to organize break-ins if you fire them. You learn that by living here.”
They wait for Salif to disarm the alarm. When he has done that, he comes out to help to bring in the bags, one at a time, leaving them on the ground floor for the moment.
“I’ll take them all up later,” he says.
Dahaba, now fully awake, is in her element; she says, “Just because we are women, it doesn’t mean we can’t carry our own bags upstairs ourselves.”
Salif refrains from answering back, and Bella is impressed. Maybe their little talk has made an impression. Salif makes himself busy opening the downstairs windows then turning on the taps until the water runs clear. Not that it is drinkable unless it is boiled, Bella reminds herself.
With Dahaba trailing her every step, Bella gives herself time to take it all in: a big house with two floors and, from what she can so far see, boasting a sizeable kitchen, a lavatory, and plenty of secure windows with mosquito netting fastened between the outer safety glass and the inner blast-proof safety panes. There is a large living room boasting a big flat-screen TV of Japanese manufacture, and Dahaba is pleased to explain the complicated processes of how to turn it on, play video games, and go back to watching TV.
Bella is thinking of other practical considerations. She says to Salif, “Do you still have a maid in your employ?”
“We do,” Salif says hesitantly.
“Dad didn’t think well of her,” Dahaba says.
“Why is that?”
“He used to say she had butterfingers.”
Bella says, “Dropping things, breaking them?”
“We are still paying her though,” Salif says.
Bella is so encouraged by the progress Salif has made in such a brief time that she wonders if she can train the children to help run the house without the services of a maid. For when she looks through the cupboards, she observes other signs of sloppiness or laziness: The forks don’t match; the plates belong to different eras of the household, some going back to the day when Aar and the children lived in England and some from when they were residing in Vienna.
“Let’s not call anyone yet,” Bella suggests. She decides to talk to them about this later.
“Let’s enjoy one another’s company,” Dahaba says.
“All right by me,” Salif says.
Salif and Dahaba are in their element now that they are in their own home. They are more at ease, as if they feel unbound, unchained. Bella knows that their father’s death will hit one or the other of them hard and knock them around. It is one of the challenges awaiting her, the revisiting of sorrows, the emptiness. But just now, they are cheerful.
Bella follows Salif up the stairs, helping with the luggage. As she remembers, there are four bedrooms, three of them en suite, one for each of them, plus a spare room, which served as Aar’s study, the only one that was often locked in Aar’s day.
They stop in the children’s rooms first. Dahaba’s door is painted dark purple and adorned with a couple of photographs of women singers, including Celine Dion. Dahaba says, “Meet my room,” as if she were introducing her aunt to an entire world. Inside, the room is adorned with more posters of female singers. There is a messy unmade bed, and the floor is littered with dirty socks. But there are also books everywhere, and Bella thinks that this is a girl for whom reading will be the best defense against depression.
“Where do you borrow books from,” she asks, “the school library or the public library? Or is there one in Nairobi?”
“She likes her books bought new,” Salif says.
Bella says, “We’ll have to talk about that.”
“The biggest bookshop is in the Yaya Center.”
“Prices are exorbitant, aren’t they?”
“Quite often five times more expensive than a book costs anywhere in the UK or the U.S.,” he says. “When you think of it, there is no way most people can afford to buy books at all here. Nor does Nairobi have any good secondhand bookshops. So many secondhand clothes stores, a number of which are run by the church, but no good secondhand bookstore.”
Dahaba says, “For someone who seldom reads, Salif is making strange comments about the price of books, Auntie.”
Salif still does not allow her comments to upset him. In his room, indeed, the bookcases are almost bare. In fact, there is hardly any clutter in the room at all. Everything seems to be in its right place except for the sports shoes that are arrayed on the lowest shelf of the bookcase. He does not seem eager for any of them to enter any farther. He closes the door to his room and says, “Auntie, let us show you to your room.”
“Who has a key?” she asks.
“We both do,” Dahaba says.
“He was a good dad,” Dahaba says. She begins to weep again, but when Bella and Salif each reach out a hand to comfort her, she regains her composure, and they enter the room.
Dahaba says, “Our dad had no secrets from us.”
“Except when it came to work,” Salif says. Then they retreat to their respective rooms, Bella wanting to shower, Salif turning his computer on, and Dahaba starting to read a much dog-eared sci-fi novel.
Just as Bella is undressing, she receives a text message from Valerie, who has checked into the hotel and wants to know where Bella is and how soon she can visit her children. Before Bella can even think how to respond, Salif calls from his room, saying that he too has received a text message. And then Dahaba receives a message as well.
They meet in the kitchen and read the text messages they’ve received from Valerie, and Salif dictates a message, on which all three agree and which Dahaba is assigned to forward to their mum. “Just got back to Nairobi and we are too knackered to see you. But please come for dinner tomorrow evening at seven p.m., Mum.” And she provides her mother with detailed directions on how to get there and tells her to call if there is need.
“Does that mean we’ll have to cook tonight?” asks Dahaba.
“No, it doesn’t,” says Bella. “You can eat a takeaway of your choice here or I can take you to eat out and then I will drive you back home.”
“What is your plan?”
Bella says to Salif, “Your dad’s car keys first?”
Salif runs up and comes back with the car keys.
“We won’t eat in tonight,” she says.
Salif says, “Cool.”
“I want McDonald’s,” says Dahaba.
“I want sushi,” says Salif.
“Do you know the addresses of the restaurants?”
Dahaba says, “We sure do.”
“Here is the condition,” states Bella.
Dahaba is quick to say, “We won’t fight, promise.”
“Just wait. Do let Auntie tell us the condition.”
“What is the condition?” asks Dahaba.
“Since I need to get back to my hotel to get my remaining suitcases, I will bring you home; drive away; do an errand or two, including perhaps meeting your mum for a drink; and then come home,” says Bella.
Dahaba says, “I want to meet Mum too.”
Salif is of a different opinion. He says, “I think it is best that Auntie meets her alone first. We haven’t seen Mum for a very, very long time and waiting to see her for one more night won’t kill either of us since we’ve invited her for dinner.” Then he says to Dahaba, “What do you think, my little sister?”
“Okay, we’ll meet her tomorrow,” agrees Dahaba. Then she adds, “But I want a Big Mac, one huge tub of ice cream, and a Diet Coke. And I want us to go right away. And let there be no argument.”
Bella goes to the car to get herself reacquainted with it. Dahaba sits in the front by her side, knowing that Salif is unlikely to make a fuss now because he sat by the driver earlier and because Dahaba acceded to Salif’s demand that Auntie Bella meet their mother outside their presence so they could talk about matters of adult concern.
Bella turns the engine on while waiting for Salif to set the alarm. She lets it idle as she gets accustomed to where everything is. She engages the gears, pretending she is changing them, and then lets up on the clutch gently and moves forward half a meter — this startles Dahaba, who seems frightened by the suddenness of the move.
Bella says, “Sorry.”
“It’s okay, I know what you are doing,” says Dahaba.
“I am trying to get a grip on how it works.”
“Please don’t mind about me. Do what you must do.”
“I won’t give you a fright, I promise,” says Bella.
“I won’t take fright now I know what you are doing.”
Then Bella works the brakes, relieved that Dahaba has stopped yattering and promising she won’t take fright. If you asked Bella how she feels right this instant or if she is scared driving back at night from her Nairobi hotel, she will admit that she is a little fearful. The car is new to her, this is the first time she has been behind the wheel here, and the city streets are unfamiliar to her, and from her previous memory, drivers in Nairobi are in the habit of using their full-beam lights and are very likely to blind the drivers in the oncoming vehicles. And you have to look out for pedestrians crossing the roads at any time and there are deadly obstructions on the sides of these narrow roads. You would be mad not to be cautious, very cautious.
Salif joins them in the car, and without the slightest fuss, he sits in the back and presciently says aloud, “Everything is under control,” perhaps meaning that he has set the alarm and all is well. Bella, however, feels it is time she had a paper map and also wonders if either of them knows how to set up the GPS in the car. Salif says, “Do you need to set up a GPS on top of Cawrala?”
“Who is Cawrala?” Bella asks.
Dahaba explains that it is the nickname Somalis have given to the female voice of the GPS, which is beginning to gain currency here, just as it has in North America. And she shows Bella how to use it.
When Bella asks for the address of their favorite McDonald’s drive-thru, Dahaba has no idea because she is bad with addresses and doesn’t know the names of any of the city’s streets, and Salif is about to start teasing her about this.
“Salif, dear, not a word more from you,” says Bella, displaying a moment’s irritability. “Just give me the address of the drive-thru.” And he does so.
“Let us get your food,” says Bella, moving.
And voilà, the GPS makes contact with the satellite, which is now ready to guide her and Cawrala, the woman whose voice she is familiar with, as she has heard it in a variety of cities, in different languages, and in different continents. The voice has a temper of such meanness that it reminds Bella of her first-grade teacher, who was often cross with her. Cawrala tells Bella to turn left and she does so, and then after a couple of hundred meters, Cawrala tells her to turn right. Because Bella is intent on testing Cawrala’s patience, she takes a left turn, contrary to the woman’s instructions. The woman’s bad temper is back, albeit still in control, as she recalculates before coming back with renewed advice on how to set matters right so they can get to the mall where the drive-thru is located. Salif, irritated at Dahaba’s yattering about things to do with GPSs and satellites, offers to lead Bella to their favorite McDonald’s if only Auntie would silence Cawrala and tell Dahaba to “shut her gob too.”
Bella pulls off the road, stops the car, turns to Salif in the back, and says, “I’ll remind you again, my dear, of the promise you made to me earlier today that you would show patience, which you and I know would stand you in better stead in good and bad times.”
“My apologies, Auntie,” says Salif.
Dahaba says, “It’s okay, Auntie, he can’t help it.”
Despite not liking what Dahaba is doing, always speaking in protective defense of Salif whenever she tells him off, Bella makes no comment and gets back on the road, with Cawrala taking a few moments to come back on. A left turn, followed by a right turn and a long silence, leads her to think about her upcoming encounter with Valerie in an hour or so. And Bella discovers that she cannot dislodge a worry about whether she will tell Valerie that she is driving Aar’s car and then give her and Padmini a lift to the restaurant. Bella decides that it is unwise to complicate an uncomplicated situation; she won’t say much about the children at this first encounter, nor will she offer to drive them to the restaurant; let the damn women get to the rendezvous their own way. Bella decides she should be worrying about how she is going to make this thing get her to the hotel and back to where the children are. Having guided them to the drive-thru, Cawrala says, “We’ve arrived at your destination, to your right.”
The service is fast and Salif and Dahaba are happy with their respective orders. On the way back to their home, Bella, with Dahaba’s tutoring and Salif’s insistent encouragement, masters how to make the GPS function, including feeding in the street name of the hotel and Aar’s home address.
When they get back to the house, Bella goes upstairs, and having no other dress to change into, she brushes her hair, borrowing Dahaba’s comb, which she has to clean on account of the girl’s hair that is there from previous use. And before leaving for the hotel, Bella touches base with Dahaba and Salif, who are having their takeaway meal in the kitchen.
“Please remember to call me at the slightest worry.”
“We will, Auntie.”
Dahaba says, “We’ll set the alarm if there is need.”
“We can take care of ourselves,” Salif assures her.
Bella remembers how too much unnecessary fretting takes one to an early grave and how anxious Hurdo always was about her children’s well-being to the extent that she couldn’t sleep when one of them was out of the house. She spoke constantly of her worries, which provided her with the partner she often lacked, what with the doubts about Aar’s father’s companionability and Bella’s dad living far away in Italy. Bella mustn’t be like that.
Then she leaves, saying, “Back in a couple of hours.”
Now that she has made it out of the gate alone for the first time since reuniting with her niece and nephew, Bella is overwhelmed by the sorrow she has given no release to in front of them. Her eyes overflow with tears, her chest heaving, her entire body trembling; she weeps loudly. She realizes, as if for the first time, that the loss is permanent. It isn’t easy to fall back on her Somali hardiness — hardiness being practically the definition of Somaliness, Somalis being a practical people with sufficient backbone to pull through anything. While Bella admits there is no shame in being distraught or even suffering a total breakdown after the death of a loved one, she is aware that it is wiser to adopt a quiet dignity to ennoble Aar’s memory and mourn his death with solemnity. Only then would he feel adequately honored and only then will he be proud of her.
Being back in Aar’s house has reduced the children’s anxiety, she could see instantly. She left them holed up in their respective rooms, Salif playing solitaire, Dahaba reading yet another novel. What follows, however, will not be easy, Bella knows. And she knows too that when she gets back to her hotel, there will be several messages from Valerie already waiting for her under the door, where the DO NOT DISTURB sign still hangs.
Bella gets back on the road, driving with renewed confidence. She takes a few moments to think about what information about the children she is willing to share with Valerie, at least until she figures out what Valerie’s aims are. She is not in the habit of lying, but she knows that there is nothing to gain by telling Valerie the full truth. If possible, she decides, she will be evasive, buying time until she figures out where Valerie’s devious mind is headed.
She knows that she could do with all the help she can get from Gunilla, who knows the legal side of things, and, of course, from Mahdi and Fatima; the former affording Bella a guide through the troubled waters of UN bureaucracy; the latter directly and through their children providing her and the children with the support they require.
Finally, Bella parks the car in a public open-air lot after going through a boom gate and picking up a ticket. Once at the reception desk to inquire if there are messages, she asks the concierge to send a valet to take the car and park it in the section reserved for hotel clients. Then she goes up to her room and, using the hotel phone, calls Valerie’s room.
A woman answers, but she doesn’t sound like how Bella remembers Valerie, so she takes the safe option of asking to speak to Valerie. The voice says, “A moment, please.”
Valerie comes on the line, and the voice is overwhelmingly, unpleasantly familiar and abrasive. “Where are you? Where have you been? I’ve been calling and calling. And where are the children?”
Bella will not be rushed. When answering Valerie’s questions, she takes her time thinking about what to say. One needs to compose and recompose oneself when one is dealing with Valerie. What’s more, Bella wants to prove to herself and her sister-in-law that Valerie cannot exercise power over her. When Aar was alive, he was the focus of Valerie’s maneuvering; now, Bella thinks, it is her and the children’s turn to be the victims of Valerie’s blackmailing ploys. Bella is no pushover; it is time Valerie came to accept this as fact and get accustomed to it.
“Come on, Valerie. You haven’t even said hello or offered condolences.” She asks where Valerie is staying, which turns out to be in one of the upmarket chalet-style accommodations the hotel offers nearby, and Bella ascertains that Padmini is with her. She gives Valerie her room number and floor and warns her to come alone. Then she hangs up.
Not fifteen minutes later, she hears a knocking at the door, but she does not answer immediately. When she judges that she has made Valerie wait long enough, she goes to the door and looks through the peephole. Standing there is a woman she no longer recognizes. Valerie is wearing a cotton hip sari, but her body has spread with the unforgiving weight gain of middle age. Nevertheless, her bulging midriff boasts a jeweled belly button, and her nose rings are further evidence of a taste that has been acquired since they last met.
When Bella opens the door, Valerie smiles up at her, but Bella simply meets her eyes, neither overtly friendly nor openly hostile. She doesn’t immediately show Valerie into the room, but instead looks her up and down, as if measuring her for a coffin. As if Bella’s stare literally undoes her, Valerie’s sari starts to come undone, and in her attempt to pull herself together, she drops her handbag, which spills its contents on the floor — tampons, a packet of condoms, toothpicks, a hairbrush. Bella doesn’t look away; she simply waits, saying nothing, as Valerie gathers her things. Then at long last Bella motions for Valerie to enter and closes the door behind her.
“How was your flight?”
Valerie pulls a face, as if unready to answer the question. Then after a very long pause, she says, “Not too bad, actually, considering it could’ve been a lot worse.”
“I hear you were in Uganda,” Bella says.
Valerie says, “Word travels fast.”
Bella asks, “What’s the story about Uganda?”
“It’s a beautiful country.”
“And they eat mattock every day, don’t they?”
“Mashed plantain with peanut stew.”
“Anything happen there?”
“They said you’d be mean to me,” Valerie says.
Bella does not rise to the bait, does not even stop to wonder who “they” are. But she does wonder yet again what a man as gentle, loving, and generous as Aar found in such a woman and what held them together for so long. She remembers once asking Aar this directly. As he was prone to do, he took refuge in a piece of Somali wisdom, this one a caution against outsiders placing themselves between “the penis and the vagina of a couple.”
Bella pressed him. “Not a good enough answer.”
“Maybe sex holds us together,” Aar said.
And at that, Bella had fallen silent, defeated.
Now Bella tries another tack. “Who gave you the sad news?” she asks.
“My mother did,” says Valerie. She still does not offer her condolences, even when Bella says, by way of apology, “I had no way of reaching you.” Yet Bella knows that she herself has been equally rude — she hasn’t greeted her sister-in-law with any real warmth or grace, nor has she so much as offered her something to drink. Her words sound stilted to her ears. The English phrase that one closes a letter with, “Yours sincerely,” comes to mind — a phrase that is not always meant to represent sincerity.
She watches with annoyance as Valerie looks askance at her, as if she wouldn’t want to be seen in such company. And rather than feel sad at how their mutual hatred has blossomed over the years, Bella gives in to the impulse to be nasty.
“Why were you in Uganda?” she asks.
“What a question to ask!”
Bella is relieved to discover that neither Helene nor Gunilla seems to have shared Bella’s involvement in paying Valerie’s legal fees. “Did you mistake Uganda for Kenya,” she asks, “and go there by mistake?” Valerie’s ignorance of geography is legendary.
“I know better than that,” Valerie says.
“Yes,” says Valerie. “It happens that Padmini was born there.”
“Still, that doesn’t explain why you were there.”
“I went with her — to recover some family property in Nakasero, the center of the city,” Valerie says. “Her family was among the Asians expelled by Idi Amin. Remember those Dukawallahs?”
Bella does. The Dukawallahs were small-business men and shopkeepers hailing principally from the Indian subcontinent. Many had originally come to work on the Ugandan railway. Often they set up general stores in hard-to-reach localities in the African countries where they settled — just as the Somalis in South Africa are doing these days — but as they thrived, they moved to the bigger cities. Idi Amin ejected them from Uganda in 1972, but in Kenya, they still account for ten percent of the population.
“And why are you here?” asks Bella at last, turning to the matter that must be on both of their minds.
But Valerie is evasive. “Here, as in Nairobi here?”
She seems to be stalling, and as Bella waits for an answer, unpleasant memories of their previous encounters surge up in her, crowding out her few pleasant memories of Valerie. Of course, she has little impulse to dwell on pleasant memories anyway, at a time when she is at peace neither with herself nor with the world at large.
“Yes,” she says. “What brings you to Nairobi?”
“My husband’s death,” Valerie says.
“Aar’s death has brought you here?”
“But he didn’t die here.”
“And my children, of course.”
Bella waits, and Valerie continues. “And if I am honest with you, it’s also about the guilt I’ve felt over these years, even though I pushed it back and did not attend to it; this brings me here too. I hope you understand where I am coming from.”
Bella disregards this last — her sister-in-law, she believes, has no understanding of the concept of guilt and its ramifications and attendant responsibilities — and goes for the jugular: “How do you mean, you’re here for your children? You haven’t seen or communicated with them all these many years.”
“I am their only living parent,” Valerie says.
And before Bella knows it, she has lost it despite all her resolve. “Parent, you call yourself a parent? Not to these children you aren’t, and you haven’t been for many years.”
But Valerie isn’t backing down. “Now that their father has been killed and I am still among the living, it falls to me, as their mother, to have them come to me so I can look after them.”
The woman is clearly insane, Bella thinks. Look at her, dressed as though she were on her way to a Bollywood party. Beware of the middle-aged woman who doesn’t behave or think like one! It isn’t going to be easy to do battle with Valerie, Bella thinks.
“When was the last time you spoke to them?” she asks. “The last time you sent them a birthday present or penned a letter or sent an e-mail to congratulate them on their excellent achievements in sports or school. When?”
Valerie pauses. “Still, they are my children from my own blood.”
“Have you been in touch with them since you arrived?” Bella says. She does not divulge the fact that the children are in fact at home, where she left them.
“Mum has given me their numbers,” Valerie says.
“You tried to speak to them, did you?”
“I did speak with them,” says Valerie, not offering more.
Bella lets the half-truth stand. What kind of reception did Valerie expect when her own children haven’t heard from her or set eyes on her for years? This madwoman does not seem to remember that just as infants look like one parent one day and then seemingly overnight change their features, as though at will, so that they look like the other, children aren’t consistent when it comes to which of their parents they love more. And thanks to Valerie’s absence from their lives, Salif and Dahaba have little reason to revert to their earlier intimacy with her. What chance does she have to win back their hearts — not in the courts, surely, having deserted her family, even if she is still technically Aar’s wife — or, rather, his widow? But Bella is no legal expert, and she doesn’t know what a judge in a Kenyan court would make of Valerie’s situation.
“I’ll do the best I can,” Valerie says.
Bella stares at her in disbelief. “And what if they don’t wish to see you?”
“I’ll take my chances.”
The two lock eyes, and for the first time since they began to talk, Bella really looks at her, taking in the face spotted with pimples — or are those mosquito bites? — and what seems to be an atypical paleness. Has she had malaria? Bella wonders. Perhaps it’s not that her skin is pale but that her eyes seem jaundiced.
“How long do you plan to stay in Nairobi?” she asks.
“It depends,” says Valerie.
Valerie looks around, as though others might overhear her, and when she speaks, it is almost in a whisper. “On how things pan out.”
This time Bella doesn’t get an answer. Instead, Valerie asks a question of her own. “Do they know that you are here?”
“They do,” says Bella.
With a touch of sarcasm, Valerie responds, “Lucky you!”
And Bella can’t resist adding, “But then, I’ve invested in them and you haven’t. I never lost touch.” Bella doesn’t like to hear herself speaking vengefully, rubbing more salt in Valerie’s open sore. And so she adds, a little more softly, “Not that anyone can guarantee it will be smooth sailing with teenagers.”
But her sympathy evaporates when Valerie responds, “I can’t wait to see them, my treasures!”
Bella doesn’t tell her what the children have said to her about their mother. She spares her this, not out of kindness, but because there is no point in getting into a scuffle.
Bella gets up, ready to show Valerie out, but just then the phone rings. It is Mahdi. She asks him to wait, then she says to Valerie, “Please see yourself out, if you don’t mind. I must take this call.”
At that, Valerie exits, slamming the door behind her.
After speaking briefly with Mahdi, Bella calls the hotel reception desk to ask that they prepare her bill since she will be checking out of the hotel in an hour or so. One less worry, she thinks, as she goes through the room, making sure she leaves nothing of hers behind. Then she rings the concierge, requesting to please have her car brought to the front and a bellboy sent up to her room to take her luggage to the vehicle.
Valerie walks out of the room and turns left past a fire door. She takes a lift to the ground floor and slips out a side entrance. In the gathering dusk, she makes her way along a tree-lined path until she comes to a low-built two-room chalet. She knocks three times on the door, then, without waiting for an answer, inserts the key and enters.
“It’s me, Pad,” she announces. “I’m back.”
Padmini has just stepped out of the shower, a towel wrapped around her head and another one around her waist. She stands not an inch shorter than six feet and is very proud of her height. At once serene, majestic, and beguiling, Padmini is ordinarily capable of stunning anyone, man or woman. But after two nights in a Kampala lockup being roughed up, humiliated, and bullied by corrupt police officers, she would not remind anyone of the famous actress for whom she is named. As part of their intimidation, the officers shaved her head with a dull razor in the basement of the jail. Then they made her sweep up her hair and take it back to the lockup to show to Valerie. Padmini will remember this mortification for the rest of her days. And it is compounded by the fact that Valerie was not subjected to similar treatment. Padmini knew the police goons had singled her out for this punishment in accordance with the Ugandan stereotype that Indian women take excessive care of their hair. Seemingly to go with her new look, she wears no makeup at all. Still, she is gorgeous—“to die for,” as the phrase has it.
Padmini struts to the standing mirror and examines a reddish spot — maybe a mosquito bite — between her breasts, each the size and shape of a plantain. The spot is sensitive to her touch and turning redder by the second. She is incensed, uncannily angry. She utters muffled curses, damning Africa and its malaria and wishing to get rid of everything to do with the continent. Padmini finds her handbag, fumbles in it, and brings out a tube of antibiotic ointment, which she applies to the spot. Then she swivels her head in Valerie’s direction.
“How have things panned out?”
“Let me see.” Valerie moves toward Padmini.
“Was she hostile?”
“What do you expect?”
Padmini turns to face her. “Surely the children are more yours than hers.”
“She was friendlier than I expected.”
“I wonder why.”
“Maybe she is up to one of her tricks.”
“And what might those be?”
“She knows something I don’t.”
“Something to do with her brother’s will?”
“Bella is no fool.”
“She is very smart. I’ll say that.”
“She hasn’t struck me as devious.”
“But she isn’t as straightforward as Aar.”
Valerie says, “Aar was an angel, the best man any woman could hope to find among the pack. Not an ounce of badness in him. I can’t say that about Bella.”
In the abrupt silence that follows, Padmini starts to turn her interest to another insect bite just below her right buttock. She relaxes her grip on the towel and cranes her neck, but she is unable to catch sight of it. She utters a salvo of damnations aimed at every insect that bites and then curses Africa, which has reared the lot, willing them to torment everyone who visits the damned continent.
She turns angrily on Valerie. “Look at what they’ve done. I tell you that Africa is out to disfigure my body.”
“Come, darling,” Valerie pleads.
“Take a good look. I am done for.”
Valerie parts the towel and sinks to her knees, as if in worship of a temple deity. She touches the swollen red spot and, going still redder herself, kisses it.
But the instant Padmini’s eyes clap on their bodies in the mirror, she snaps, “Don’t you start!”
“What’s with you lately, Pad?” Valerie says.
“I feel as if I’m being watched.”
“I’ll protect you!” cries Valerie. But when she follows Padmini’s gaze, she sees a man with a hose watering a neatly trimmed patch of the garden opposite, and she realizes that he is not so covertly staring at them. Stiffening, Padmini gets up to draw the curtains. They stare at each other, Padmini with a look of reproach and Valerie with a look that says, “So what, who cares? Let them look.” In India, Valerie remembers, it used to be the other way round. She should never have come to Uganda with Padmini, she thinks.
“You are in one of those moods,” Valerie says.
The two of them have been through a lot together, first as classmates at their boarding school in Ely, in East Anglia, then as friends enjoying a secret liaison while each of them was married. The question now is: Will their partnership survive the current challenges? No doubt, Kampala was a disaster. But will Valerie’s attempt to reclaim her children meet with success? It is too early to tell. In the company of those of similar sexual orientations in Europe and North America, Padmini and Valerie delight openly in their union and speak of their partnership as being on a par with marriage. Not so in India or Africa. When Padmini mentioned that she would love to mother Valerie’s teenagers, whom she’s known from birth, she added a caveat: that they move back to Britain, where they can live as a lesbian couple with full rights. Of course, who knows how Dahaba and Salif will react to this proposal.
Now Padmini holds Valerie’s gaze and they look deeply into each other’s eyes, eyes flooded with worry. Padmini’s parents relocated to Britain when she two; she was brought up in a very strict household. Their homes, both in Uganda and England, had a small Hindu shrine off the kitchen, where incense burned day and night. When Padmini was fifteen and still at school, her mother “found” her a husband — a very handsome boy two years her senior, the only son of a family that lived next door in Kampala before the mass expulsion; his father owned a chain that distributed newspapers all over Britain. Padmini became distraught at the thought of marrying a man she barely knew. “You don’t know what I am like,” she sobbed to her parents, “and any man who marries me isn’t going to like me when he gets to know the real me.” No one bothered to ask Padmini what she was really like. If they had, would she have dared to give her love a name? Her parents thought she meant to say that she was not going to be a typical Indian wife. They let that match go, but it never crossed their minds that their daughter was partial to women.
She was an outstanding student and represented her comprehensive school in many interschool competitions. It was in the finals of one such competition that she encountered an equally exceptional student, Valerie Wilkinson. Padmini won first prize, and Valerie took second. They began writing letters to each other, and a friendship grew. Both were accepted to the University of East Anglia, where they roomed together and exchanged stories of their crushes and previous amorous encounters. Valerie was keener on boys, while Padmini already knew that she was only attracted to girls. One summer, they traveled together to France because Valerie was majoring in French and Padmini harbored the ambition of one day running a Michelin-starred restaurant.
After completing their studies, they went their separate ways, but they stayed in touch. Valerie was very surprised when Padmini entered into an arranged marriage. Rajiv was okay, but he and Padmini were nothing alike. Meanwhile, Valerie went from boyfriend to boyfriend until she met Aar, her first long-term affair. He was five years her senior and based in Geneva as an employee of the UN. He traveled a lot, which was part of his appeal for Valerie. He would go to London for weekends, where he would share her room at the hotel where she was a deputy manager, mainly in charge of the bars, the restaurants, and the catering service. She spent a wonderful week with him in Senegal in a beach house he borrowed from a colleague who worked with him in Geneva. Back in England, she brought him along to a party at Padmini’s. That night, Valerie became pregnant. When she informed Aar, he sought Bella’s counsel. Bella was not in favor of her brother’s having a child with Valerie, nor of their marrying. She said, “I have a visceral dislike of the woman and would advise against your marrying her.”
But Aar and Valerie were married anyway, in Mali, at a ceremony where the country’s most famous band led by Salif Keita performed. Several local notables had been invited and everyone had a good time, especially the marrying couple. And during the first few years of their marriage, it was universally agreed they were a happy couple. They had Salif, who was named for the bandleader, and then Dahaba.
After that, things seemed to change. Aar was loyal to her, and Valerie was hospitable to their friends, but at home he took more care of the children than she did; she seemed relaxed only in the company of other adults, especially when she and Aar were giving dinners. Aar felt, Bella remembers, that these gatherings gave Valerie’s life purpose. When they were living in Geneva, she set up a catering business for the foreign embassies, consulates, and UN bodies. But she was always fighting with her employees and firing them.
Padmini remained a frequent visitor, staying away from Rajiv for longer and longer spells. During Aar’s protracted absences from home, Padmini and Valerie slept in the same bed; the children, especially Dahaba, were unsettled by this and complained to Aar about it. But because Valerie seemed happy again and complained less, he stayed quiet. By then, Valerie had abandoned all pretense of running the catering business. It was equally obvious that Padmini’s marriage was doomed, but she hadn’t the heart to bring it to an end, reasoning that in her culture such things were not done.
The first time Aar caught Valerie and Padmini in bed was when Valerie fell asleep in Dahaba’s bed after reading her a bedtime story and instead of joining Aar in the conjugal bed, she went to Padmini’s room, sneaking back to Dahaba’s bed before sunrise. Good breeding forbade Aar to speak of what he saw. But when Bella came for a brief visit, he talked about what was going on. To his surprise, Bella refrained from giving him advice. Perhaps, he thought, she’d decided it was too late to give her opinion on Valerie.
And so Aar bided his time until an opportunity presented itself. There was an opening in the Nairobi office. Padmini was on one of her many visits. He told Valerie he had to go to the New York head office for an interview, and by the time he returned, he would know if he had the job in either Vienna or Nairobi, with a possible secondment to Somalia. When he got back, Padmini was there. He told Valerie he had been offered the position in Vienna. Eventually, he said, he hoped to be transferred to somewhere in Africa, preferably closer to home.
Valerie did not appear to be enthusiastic about moving to Vienna with him. Unlike Aar, who had already acquired Italian in Somalia, English in Canada, and French in Geneva, she was not proficient in languages and had no intention of learning German.
Valerie smiled when her eyes met Padmini’s but frowned when her gaze encountered Aar’s knowing grin. He guessed that Valerie and Padmini needed time alone to talk things through. A furtive glance at his wristwatch supplied him with an excuse to depart. “I’ll pick up the children from afterschool,” he said. “Let us talk later after dinner.”
When he returned home with the children, he found a note from Valerie. The note simply said that she and Padmini had gone to the gym for a workout and were not coming home for supper that night. They did not return until about one o’clock in the morning; a light sleeper, Aar woke to the sound of Valerie’s key in the lock and then their footsteps.
A couple of days later, Padmini left, and things seemed normal between Aar and Valerie, even if she didn’t return to the conjugal bed or accept any of his physical approaches. As he was not the type to force a woman to do his bidding, especially his wife, Aar acceded to her request that they remain physically apart.
Aar was not due to begin the job in Vienna until the fall. With the end of the school year approaching, Salif and Dahaba talked of how eager they were to visit a game park in Africa. Aar said, “What a brilliant idea.” He suggested a family trip to Nairobi in a bid to work on the marriage and mend his rapport with Valerie without the presence of Padmini. All four of them had a wonderful time, above all Valerie, who was equally delighted to see wild game galore and sample some of the sixty-four types of meat served at the restaurant Carnivore, which Salif adored and Dahaba, who was in her vegetarian phase, hated. Taking long walks and long drives, staying up late and rising early to watch wild animals in their habitat, everyone enjoyed the visit to the game park. But as the trip progressed, Valerie began to run a high fever, especially in the evenings, apparently because a tick bit her.
When they were back in Geneva and ready to move to Vienna, Valerie’s fever persisted, but she still refused to see a doctor, until she developed massive headaches as well, whereupon Aar insisted she see someone. She was eventually diagnosed as suffering from the aftereffects of a tick bite. Most of her physical symptoms came under control, but others — the obvious volatility to her behavior in particular — persisted.
Three months later, just at the end of the school year, Valerie was suddenly gone. She left Aar not even a note saying where she had gone or when she would be back. He called her mother, who didn’t know any more than he did. He tried contacting Padmini, but she didn’t answer either his e-mails or his phone calls. When September neared, Aar relocated himself and the children to Vienna, arranging to move their belongings and enroll the children in a new school.
“We were meant for each other,” Valerie now says to Padmini. “That is the long and short of it. And although we failed in Uganda, I am optimistic that we’ll be successful in our effort to reclaim my children. I can’t imagine them not wanting to be with us and staying with Bella instead.”
“Yes,” Padmini says, “Bella doesn’t have the patience to look after teenagers, I reckon. Here one week, Brazil the next, then Mali and back to Rome, the life of a sailor.”
Valerie yawns and looks away, eyes closed. She is thinking about Bella and the appetites she senses in her. Yet Bella is so discreet that in all the years Valerie has known her she never worked out where Bella was with sex. With whom did she do it, if at all? Was she frigid or merely discreet?
Valerie asks Padmini what she thinks. “Of course there are lovers,” Padmini says. “There have to be.”
“Some women who hide in plain sight?” says Valerie.
“You reckon she is in the closet?” says Padmini.
Valerie says that she once asked Aar directly about his sister’s love life. “He looked at me, amused. Then he said, ‘For crying out loud, she is my sister.’” That was Aar, proper in every way. And that was Bella, a mystery. “In all the years I’ve known her,” Valerie says, “I haven’t detected any flicker of an intimation of what excites her.”
Padmini says, “Maybe, being Somali, she doesn’t have it in her. Maybe they chopped hers off, all of it.”
Valerie laughs. “How about if we ask her?”
“At the first opportunity.”
Valerie says, “I wonder what circumcised female genitals look like.” She imagines something like the hollow cheeks of an elderly person, a cavern.
“In Uganda,” Padmini says, “they stretch the labia.”
“Ideal for self-stimulation, I hear,” Valerie jokes. She knows they are having fun at Bella’s expense, but the two of them are roaring with laughter when the phone rings. They fall instantly silent, as if suddenly aware that someone has been listening in on their indiscretions. The ringing goes on and on, but neither dares to answer it. Finally it stops, but then it almost immediately resumes. “Maybe my children,” Valerie says. “Hello!”
It is Bella, inviting them to dinner.
“Give me a sec,” says Valerie. She consults with Padmini, who nods.
They settle on an Indian restaurant called Tandoori House at eight. Bella says she has some things to take care of first and that she will meet them there. She doesn’t elaborate. “The reception desk will tell you where it is,” she says.
After Valerie hangs up, she discovers that a new worry has crept into their conversation now that they are no longer saying terrible things about Bella’s privates. Padmini says, “Why is she inviting both of us?”
“Maybe she wishes to take your measure,” says Valerie. “After all, you’re the one who led me astray, made me into a lesbian.”
“You’re too long in the tooth. She won’t believe that.”
And suddenly there is joy on their faces as they prepare to go out. They resolve to ask Bella about her love life at dinner. They shower together and take their time dressing. Valerie chooses a multicolored silk sari that Padmini suggests. And Padmini, not feeling Indian with her shorn head, puts on a pair of jeans.
Bella, her stomach churning not so much with anger but with anxiety about what Valerie is about, packs the rest of her belongings and checks to make sure that she has her point-and-shoot in her shoulder bag. That camera, she thinks, will be adequate for what she has in mind. Bella has a plan that she thinks will work in her favor and that she hopes will take the edge off her interactions with Valerie. Into the same shoulder bag she also packs a few photographs she has brought along of the children soon after Valerie left — only the children, never ones with Aar or herself. She checks to make sure she has the car keys.
Just before she leaves the room, she grabs the book she is reading — Camus’s Lyrical and Critical Essays—so that she will have something to read if Valerie and Padmini are late. She remembers that Valerie likes to make a point of her importance by a tardy arrival. More than once she has showed up for a flight after the gates had closed. What used to bother Aar was not so much her lateness but the gloating that came after. “Let them wait and let the world be damned,” she would say. For her part, Bella would get her sister-in-law’s monkey up by spelling “Valerie” with a y.
Bella takes the lift down to the lobby, looking as if she has just stepped out of a bandbox.
The drive takes half an hour despite the short distance. The night is starry, the sky cloudless, the streets no longer crowded with peddlers but now teeming with pedestrians on their way home and fifteen-passenger matatus — minibuses that stop wherever they please — being driven at reckless speeds. Bella knows that she is taking a more circuitous route to the restaurant than necessary, but this does not disturb her in the least. In fact, she needs to kill some time. She parks the car and walks around with her Polaroid, taking photos.
The waiter shows her to a table. As she waits for Valerie to arrive, she thinks back to the time when they had their one and only overt row. Bella, visiting the family while Aar was away on business, had gone to a supermarket with Valerie and the children in tow — for some reason the supermarket was a place where the children were especially prone to behaving abominably. At some point, the staff felt it necessary to summon the manager because Salif had turned an entire shelf of the chocolate row into disarray, dropping more than half its contents onto the floor and trampling on some of them. When the youth responsible for stocking the shelves pleaded with Valerie to make her son desist, she just shrugged her shoulders and, acting nonchalant, said, “Just tell me how much destruction he has caused and I’ll pay it as part of my grocery bill.”
Bella had seen quickly what Salif was up to; in the process of creating mayhem, he was deftly removing the wrappings of the chocolate bars in such a way that the scanning machine would not have prices to read. That way he could slip a couple of bars into his satchel and get away with it. He undoubtedly knew Valerie wouldn’t allow anyone to question or search him. And indeed, the young manager of the supermarket chose to let them go rather than call the police, saying, “Just go, madam. These are black kids and I do not wish to give them a bad start in life by accusing them of theft. But I worry what will become of them if you do not do the proper thing by them.”
In the car, Salif had boasted of what he had done, and Valerie had said, “How rascally clever of you!” Rather than blow her top right there and then, Bella had waited until she and Valerie were alone. Then they had an epic fight, in which she tried to insist that Valerie speak to Salif about the consequences of his behavior.
And Valerie went ballistic. Pumped up by rage, she seemed to grow an inch taller in her chair. Her voice took on a hoarse tone, and her gestures went operatic in their movements. “How dare you accuse my son of theft,” she shrieked.
Bella very calmly said, “Salif must know how to distinguish right from wrong. And now is the time to teach him, during these tender years.”
“And you’d call what he did a theft?”
“Is there another name for it?” Bella said.
“An eight-year-old boy having a bit of fun? Where is the harm in that? Just a bit of mischief making, that’s all.”
“Is that what you call it, mischief making?”
“Salif is learning how the world works.”
“The world doesn’t work that way, Valerie.”
Valerie said, “I encourage my children to learn how to get away with things. In my book, that is not theft. You call it theft, I call it being smart!”
Bella said, “There is an ancient wisdom, Italian, I believe, which purports that a mother can teach her child only the good morals by which she abides.”
Valerie said, “I find that offensive.”
“I don’t mean to be offensive.”
“And anally moralistic, if I may say so.”
“I’d do anything for my nephew and niece,” said Bella.
Valerie hit back. “With none of your own, you have no more idea how to deal with children than you know how to live with anyone, man or woman.”
Bella refused to be diverted. “I don’t want my nephew to steal from anyone at any time,” Bella retorted. “Theft is theft, not a bit of fun. Thieving small things is morally wrong because one may develop the habit of stealing bigger things. I won’t condone it and neither would Aar, nor will any sensible person in any society anywhere.”
At the mention of Aar’s name, Valerie cringed. Then she said, “Relax, my dear Bella. Relax.”
“How can I relax?”
“Salif will outgrow this childish habit. It’s like having sex with other boys, something natural and not to be frowned at as long as nobody else finds out.”
Bella, who was brought up in a tradition in which in-laws did not discuss certain taboo topics, told herself that Valerie had no sense of actual shame or privacy. Uncertain how a talk about theft had led to one about sex, however, she said, “I don’t want him to end up in a police station.”
“They are my children,” Valerie said.
“And I am their aunt.”
They faced off, on the brink, and then Bella decided to let things be. She decided not to speak of it to Aar. What would be the point? She wouldn’t want to be accused of creating a rift between man and wife. A few days later, she took Salif for a movie and a treat — Dahaba had gone with Valerie for a swim — and the two of them had a talk, Bella impressing on her nephew the importance of respecting others in the way you would like them to respect you.
She approached the topic in subsequent conversations, coming at it from different angles, until Salif promised never to do such a thing again. “Touch my heart, Auntie,” he said, “you can trust me.” And he seemed to mean it.
Bella makes no comment when Valerie and Padmini arrive forty-five minutes late and don’t apologize. She is used to Valerie’s ways and is certain that it won’t help matters if she fusses about them. There are many other gauntlets to run in the coming days, after all. She’ll save her ammunition for the battles worth fighting.
“Hello,” Valerie says, towering over Bella in her chair.
“Hi,” Bella says, the Camus dropping to the floor as she gets up to give Valerie a hug. “A bonus to see you for the second time in a single day.”
Padmini keeps her physical distance and greets her from the other end of the table, but Bella, out of exaggerated politeness, almost tips over the entire table reaching to shake her hand.
“I am glad you could join us,” Bella says.
“Delighted to be here.”
Even with Bella standing, Padmini towers over her. She is wearing a headscarf in the elegant way Somali women wear theirs, with the knot in the back.
Bella and Padmini have held each other in mistrust ever since they first met years ago on some simultaneous visit to Aar and Valerie’s in Geneva.
“What book are you reading?” Padmini asks now, as Bella bends down to retrieve it, nearly knocking her head against the table in the process. Bella shows her the cover.
“Camus.” Padmini pronounces the s. “I used to love him as a student.”
Bella pushes a bottle of sparkling water toward them. Valerie fills her own glass and then Padmini’s. Then the waiter comes and Valerie orders a gin and tonic, and Padmini orders a bottle of South African red, even though Bella insists she is happy with the fizzy water.
“Please accept my condolences,” says Padmini.
Bella nods and mumbles her thanks.
Padmini looks around, her eyes following the waiters. “I bet there aren’t many Indian restaurants in Italy,” she says.
Valerie asks, “What makes you say that?”
“Indian, Chinese, and even Ethiopian restaurants do well in countries where the cuisines are by their nature less sophisticated,” Padmini says. “In Italy or France, there are sufficient excellent regional varieties of cuisine, and the locals have no time for foreign cuisine.”
“In England, we have regional varieties and we also have plenty of Indian and Chinese restaurants,” Valerie says.
Padmini continues, “It is no wonder too that in Holland, where the cuisine is as awful as it is in England, there are many Indonesian and Malay restaurants.”
Bella contributes to the debate. “It is for the same reason that I doubt there are many Italian or French restaurants in India.”
Valerie is visibly annoyed. “Remember how you used to love fish and chips, Padmini?”
“Because I was young and I had more than I could take of Indian food, cooked by my sister every single day of the week,” Padmini says.
“That’s not how I recall it,” Valerie says.
Bella thinks that Padmini and Valerie are behaving like long-term partners edgily exchanging put-downs, and she stays out of it. She changes the subject. She asks, “Are South African wines readily available for your restaurant?”
Padmini says, “I loved what we sampled in Cape Town when we went there for the Gay Pride parade last March. Loved Cape Town too, for that matter. Everyone who is anyone goes to Cape Town for that event! It is like Sydney’s or San Francisco’s.”
“What do you know?” Bella says neutrally.
The waiter brings Valerie’s drink and the wine bottle. He has difficulty uncorking it, and Padmini takes it from him and uncorks it with professional ease. She pours out glasses for the three of them, and they raise a glass together without uttering a toast. When the waiter returns, they let Padmini do the ordering. When the food arrives, they tuck into it.
“You haven’t aged at all,” Padmini says to Bella.
“Nor have you,” Bella says.
Valerie says that she is not sure she could pick Bella out from a lineup with absolute certainty. She adds, “I am good with voices, not with people’s faces.”
Bella knows that not all women age alike. African women make less of an effort as the years go by. Women elsewhere spend more time and money consciously grooming their bodies, taking pills and applying antiaging creams.
“What was Kampala like?” Bella asks Padmini. It is time to get a little more serious.
“Not likely to return there ever.”
“Why?” Bella asks.
“Obviously, we made a mistake.”
“In what way did you make a mistake?”
“We thought that with Amin dead and gone the new guy would be different. You see, I went to repossess our family property. But once they discovered that we were gay in a country where it is a criminal offense to be gay, the man we were in litigation with hired goons and spies to amass sufficient forensic evidence to have us put behind bars. At first we did not even have the possibility of bail. Fools that we were, we hired a lawyer, who unbeknownst to us was also on a retainer from the very man I was in dispute with.”
Bella pretends she is hearing all this for the first time and asks, “Then what?”
“We spent two nights in a lockup smelling of years-old urine and a rotten history of sodomy and rape.” Valerie steps in to explain. “On the next day, our photographs were in some yellow rag and our story made it onto YouTube. Then our lawyer, without consulting us, came with papers she drew up not as our advocate but as though she were a mediator, playing one side against the other, all the while she was taking our money.”
“How humiliating!” Bella exclaims.
Padmini says, “The deal on the table was that we should sign the legal documents she prepared, giving him all the rights to the property, in exchange for our freedom.”
“Was that what you did?”
Padmini says, “Wouldn’t you?”
The dark rings around Padmini’s eyes have become more prominent, and Valerie holds her head between her hands. Bella decides to withhold judgment until she has the whole story from Gunilla.
They eat in silence. A waiter inquires how they are doing. They nod their heads and, still not speaking, they eat some more.
“And you, Bella, how have you been?”
“I am well, considering. If it wasn’t for what happened to Aar, I would say I am happy in my job, on the road a lot, excellent friends everywhere I go. What else can one ask for?”
Padmini says, “Sex, good sex.”
She says this so loudly they can feel the shock waves hitting the next table, and the waiter, who has moved on, turns and stares.
Bella says, “Who says I don’t have good sex!”
“Do you?” Valerie asks.
Padmini says, “Who gives it to you?”
“What do you mean, who gives it to me?”
“A man or a woman?”
Bella remembers the last time she made love, that day with Humboldt, the day Aar died. She can’t believe she is being asked about this twice in one day. But she only says, “I view sex as a private matter.”
But Valerie has her blood up, and she isn’t done. She says, “Ask her about the other thing.”
The waiter is whispering something to one of the other waiters behind the counter, and the two begin to laugh.
Padmini says, “Do you enjoy sex?”
“What a stupid question to ask,” says Bella.
“Haven’t they chopped yours off?”
Valerie adds, “That genital thing, she means.”
“What are you talking about?” Bella says.
“She means genital mutilation.”
“Or female circumcision,” Valerie says, “which has to do with the removal of the entire clitoris, if I understand it correctly. Is that what you meant, Pad?”
Padmini nods her head and falls silent.
“What is your question?” Bella asks.
“Do they feel anything?”
“I can’t speak about what others feel or not.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Padmini asks.
“Go ahead and ask.”
“Were you circumcised?”
Some people are insensitive to the point of being ridiculous, Bella thinks.
“No,” she says.
Valerie says, “I thought you were.”
“Well,” says Bella, “then you are wrong.”
“I imagined every Somali woman underwent infibulation,” Valerie says.
Bella now remembers what Aar said after Valerie’s sudden and unannounced departure. “You never know what you know until you realize that you’ve known it all along. One day the pin drops, and you see you had the knowledge all along!”
“Were you spared because you were special?”
Bella doesn’t bother to answer the question. She should never have invited them to dinner, she thinks. But she keeps her cool, reminding herself there will be many more skirmishes along the way until they fall on their backsides and receive their just deserts. She now says, “Would either of you like another drink, dessert? Shall we ask the waiter to bring the menu again?”
Padmini says, “No, thank you.”
“Shall we share the bill?” Valerie says.
“You are my guests,” Bella says. “I invited you.”
She motions to the waiter to clear the table and prepare the bill, but Valerie stops him. She wants doggy bags.
As she signs the bill, Bella says to the waiter, “Lovely food. My friends here and I have enjoyed the food and the atmosphere.”
“But where are you from?” he says to Bella.
“I am Somali,” she says.
“I wouldn’t have thought so,” he says.
“And why not?”
He says, “Somalis frequent the restaurants near the main mosque in the center of town or the eateries in Eastleigh. Also…”
“Go on. Also…,” she encourages him.
“Somali women don’t go to restaurants.”
She is not at all surprised that this young Kenyan holds nothing but generalizations about Somalis, who form about six percent of Kenya’s population. After all, Valerie, who was married to a Somali man and gave birth to children who are part Somali, has just demonstrated that she knows next to nothing about Somalis. How she wished they had talked about Aar and not about so much other disillusioning nonsense.
“What are you doing now,” Padmini asks. “We would like to sample the nightlife in Nairobi, go to a jazz joint or something, or to a gay bar.”
Bella declines — she wants to get back to the children, but she doesn’t want to go to Aar’s car until they are gone.
Padmini asks, “You wouldn’t know of any gay bars since you know this city well, would you?”
“No,” says Bella.
Outside, Padmini and Valerie engage in some quick brainstorming and decide to ask a taxi driver where they might find some nightlife. A driver in the queue, overhearing them, waves furiously at them. “Ladies, I am your man, here to take you where you want.” He offers to take them to a dance spot he knows, “where there are plenty of men, big and strong, and you ladies can have a good time.”
Padmini says, “We’re not into men, thank you.”
The driver is unfazed. “Nairobi is a big town, especially at night. I know a couple of places you would like.”
“Now you are talking,” Padmini says.
Valerie turns to Padmini. “But before we go.”
“Yes, dear. Any problem?”
The driver takes a renewed interest in the way they are looking at each other and discreetly touching, and a knowing smile crosses his expressive face.
“Let me have a word with Bella,” says Valerie.
“About tomorrow evening’s dinner with the children.”
“I thought that was done and arranged,” says Padmini.
“You see, I am eager to see them, that is why.”
Bella watches all the goings-on with amusement, especially the expression on the taxi driver’s hatchet face, a lit cigarette dangling from his half-pouting lips as he trains his full attention on Valerie and Padmini.
Valerie, meanwhile, is a foot closer to Bella and says in a half whisper, “We’re all set for tomorrow, are we, the children, you and I, for dinner?”
“We are and they are looking forward to seeing you.”
The sound of jollity wafts across from a group of young men and women in a festive mood after several hours’ drinking; their noises are happy and everyone is in character. In fact, one of them, a young man who is too far gone to know what he is doing, opens the taxi Padmini is now sitting in, waiting for Valerie to join her. Padmini shoos away the young man and tells Valerie, “Time to go and party. Come.”
They go, and Bella feels a terrible sense of relief.
Bella picks up Aar’s car from the parking lot. However, she is aware of the late hour and drives with unprecedented alertness, keeping a keen lookout for any suspicious vehicle following her home. In addition to being concerned about the valuables in the trunk of the car, Bella is worried about driving at this hour in a city that she associates with terrible violence. But since she won’t allow fear to dominate her life, she will trust her luck in hopes that all will be well.
And in fact, everything turns out to be okay. And when she gets home and lets herself in — Salif had the wisdom not to set the house alarm, for she wouldn’t know how to disarm it — she can sense movement in their rooms. She wishes them good night before turning in herself.
Bella wakes with the sun in her eyes. She revels for a moment in the tropical warmth that she always relishes here, the open-ended feeling of the hour. Then the alarm of her iPhone goes off. At first she thinks it is someone else’s, someone with something urgent to attend to. Here, there is no worry that she might oversleep. So what is the hurry? She tries to go back to sleep.
And then she remembers where she is, and why — in the master bedroom of her dead brother’s house, the children in their respective rooms. A line from a poem by Dylan Thomas comes to her, uncalled: “After the first death, there is no other.” Of course, a great deal has happened since her arrival, some of it heartening to her, especially when it comes to her nephew and niece; some a little harrying, particularly when it comes to Valerie and her intentions. She remembers her evening with Padmini and Valerie, and how, ultimately, it disintegrated. Her throat feels tight as she wonders how much of Valerie and Padmini’s life she should share with the children, to whom it will probably be news that there is more to the two women’s partnership than business. She is sure, because he told her more than once, that Aar simply never bothered about telling the children more than they needed to know, especially because there was no way of knowing how they would react if they knew the truth about their mother’s sexuality. He once explained his difficulty dealing with this dilemma, saying, “At times, a child may direct undeserved hate toward the bearer of a message rather than toward the person the content of the message is about.” And because Valerie never communicated directly with Aar or the children, it was erroneously assumed that worrying about what to tell the children about their mother’s sexuality was unnecessary. Now — now it is up to Valerie to deal with it, Bella decides, as she has other matters of grave consequence to worry about. The children are now grown — and they and their mother can sort things out between themselves as articulate adults. Even so, Bella is aware that indiscretions such as last night’s will in no way bring them closer.
She gets out of bed naked and moves about the room soundlessly, as if there were someone else asleep in the room. And now she remembers her dream as well, a dream in which she shared a bed with HandsomeBoy Ngulu and they lay in each other’s embrace, her heart beating furiously, as if it wanted to break out and flee. She walks into the bathroom and stares hard into the mirror, berating herself for having such thoughts so soon after Aar’s passing. What sort of a person is she, giving in to desire when there is so much at stake, when there is a lot to be done?
The sight of her reflection surprises her. Her eyes are swollen and bruised looking, and she wonders if she cried in her sleep. She looks roughed up and sad, off-kilter on a morning when she needs to be efficient and at her faultless best. Despair is not an option. She scolds herself, speaking directly into the mirror, getting closer and closer until she can see a cloud of breath on the mirror’s surface.
She takes a selfie, a habit that dates to long before she had an iPhone. Whenever she was in a fix and unsure of how to proceed, she’d place herself at an angle to a mirror and take a photograph so that she could talk to it. Sometimes she would even tell herself folktales. It’s working, she sees, as she looks at the photo on her iPhone. There’s a little relief in her face, as if she’s starting to have faith in herself again.
Bella slips on a robe. In preparation for Valerie’s visit, Bella puts her belongings all around Aar’s room. She doesn’t want there to be any mistake about who’s in charge here. She puts her clothing in the closet and dresser, pushing aside Aar’s to make room and leaving her suitcases on the floor. She opens every drawer in the room, taking a quick inventory of the contents. Some things she buries away from Valerie’s prying eyes; others she locks away in Aar’s study, the key to which the children have given her and she stashes in one of her camera cases.
It strikes her how flat-footed sudden death catches its victims. Hurdo used to say that a woman must always be prepared for life’s surprises — her toenails trimmed, her hands manicured, her underpants clean, nothing left to chance. She may have had an exaggerated sense of preparedness, but Bella has to agree now that perhaps her mother had a point. She sees Aar’s unpreparedness everywhere — in the open documents in his study, in the packed suitcase he didn’t take with him.
It does not take her long to open the larger suitcase. She is pretty certain that he uses variants on her name, nickname, or date of birth as his secret code for almost all locks, bank accounts, and other such things, just as she uses his. Inside, she finds several shirts, jeans, and underwear, along with his extra Mac, a wallet bursting with cash in dollars and several credit cards, and next to it is a printout of an e-mail addressed to Gunilla and signed “With love.” In the letter, he explains that he is going to be in Mogadiscio for three months and asks Gunilla to please prepare all the legal documentation they’ve been discussing and have it initialed and then sent to him for signing before departure. He also requests that she make two copies of his “important documents,” keeping one set and sending the other to him. Bella can’t follow all the particulars — if anything, the state of affairs mirrors a general sense of lack of urgency — a man behaving as if he had all the time in the world and that he will be around for some time. These signs are what his belongings convey. At the same time, the discovery mirrors a sense Bella’s had since Istanbul that he’d been confiding in someone else. That someone else appears to be Gunilla. Bella has come to Nairobi prepared with all the legal documentation that she might need to prove her identity. On top of all this, she has a signed and notarized document attesting to the fact that she, Aar’s sister, is also his one and only executor. But it is Gunilla who has in her possession the items he deposited with the liaison office in Nairobi, and for those, she must await Gunilla’s return. Bella reminds herself to ring the Swede, who is supposed to be returning tonight, first thing tomorrow morning to arrange a meeting.
When Bella questioned Aar during their time in Istanbul if it made sense to sink all his savings in a house of stone in a volatile country like Kenya and not in Mogadiscio, where, even though things were bad, there was the possibility of peace returning and property starting to appreciate again, Aar told her that he no longer thought of Mogadiscio as home. “Home,” he said, “is where my children are, where they live and go to school and love to be. Besides,” he added, after a thoughtful pause, “I am uncomfortable affiliating myself with a country broken into fiefdoms, where there is no room for someone like you or me.”
They were at the Blue Mosque, where they admired the elegance of construction and the colorful tiles and silk carpets. They continued their talk while visiting the nearby Topkapı Palace. Aar said, “I am not comfortable in a Mogadiscio run by a confederacy of clans that are in cahoots with religious renegades. There is a great ache in my heart every time I drive past the cathedral and the oldest mosque, both of which lie in ruins.”
A knock on the door gives Bella a start. Then she calls, “Come in,” and Dahaba walks in, leaving the door ajar. Bella realizes that she is instinctively blocking her niece’s view of the rest of the room, perhaps because she doesn’t want anyone else to know about the broad sweep of her own intentions.
Dahaba asks, “What are you doing?”
“N-nothing!” Bella stammers.
Dahaba walks farther into the room and looks around, as if checking that everything remains as her father left it — except for a half-open drawer, which she now goes to.
“You looking for something?” Bella asks.
“Do you have any tampons, Auntie?” While Bella rummages for some in her travel case, Dahaba says, “What is the word for tampons in Somali?”
Bella chuckles. “I doubt we have a word for it.” Then she remembers how in her youth, when tampons were not yet available in Somalia, women back home had to make use of strips of cotton, which had to be washed several times a day. In the Mogadiscio of the late eighties, they were again difficult to obtain; in those days, pharmacies would run out of all manner of daily necessities.
“Here,” she says, giving Dahaba several.
Dahaba dashes out of the room, and Bella pushes the door gently shut on the pretext that she will be changing. Then she resumes searching the room, albeit with consummate caution. But she doesn’t lock the door, not wanting either Dahaba or Salif to suspect her of foraging among their dad’s things. Bella is certain that even Aar had secrets somewhere, but this is not something the offspring of a beloved parent find easy to believe.
Another knock on the door puts a stop to Bella’s search.
This time it is Salif. “Would you like me to book a table at a restaurant if Mum and Padmini are joining us?” he says through the door.
Bella opens the door, but he is too timid to look at her because she is not yet decently dressed. What a charming, sweet boy, she thinks, as he stares at his fingernails.
“Which would you rather do, go out or bring in takeaway?” she asks. “For me, either is fine.”
“Let’s eat in,” he says. “There is more privacy here.”
“I see your point,” she says.
“And they may be late.”
She wonders if she should mention that their mother was close to an hour late yesterday evening. But all she says is, “Fair enough. The food can wait if they are late, and we can warm it up in the microwave.”
He says, “You know that whatever we decide either Mom or Dahaba will fuss about it. But you know what?”
“Fuss or not, they always eat the food you place before them.”
Salif suggests sushi and claims to know where to get the best in Nairobi.
After allowing Salif and Dahaba computer and TV time, Bella decides to be a taskmaster for a change. In the sweetest way possible, she reminds them of their mother’s first visit here, and she says that given they haven’t as yet been in touch with the maid and that the corners of the rooms have been gathering dust and fluff wouldn’t it be a good idea for each of them to clean their room? Bella offers she will do her room, two of the four bathrooms, and all the areas that are of common use — today, at least.
They each do their part, Salif playing heavy me