Accessory or Accomplice?

October 26, 2009

I am not sure which I have been.  The distinction is blurred.  The degree of badness goes from off white to bruised gray/black.  Each time I have been an accomplice – I prefer that, sounds more proactive and less decorative, I have been aware that I am breaking the law.  I trained as a lawyer after all and know that we are either standing firmly on one side of the barbed wire or the other.  But what if we are straddling it when the spotlight finds us and we are able to come up with a plausible story to divert attention while shadows squeeze themselves under the fence?  What if I had a right to walk through the gate but was climbing over the fence anyway?

Is it a compliment or an indictment to be a law unto yourself?

I am lying on my bed, a narrow wooden bed representing my recently divorced status in a narrow bedroom.  A bedroom that resembles Van Gogh’s when he was down on his luck.  A chair, a chest of drawers, a narrow bed. My children are asleep downstairs.  I am curled up in my place of safety watching the bowl of African sky through my curtainless window in my rented cottage.

Bats swoop with a suddenness I always find startling and the parliament of owls that have made my tin roof their meeting place scrape their claws as if along a blackboard.  I am alive with tingling senses.  I am alone with my children on the farm, a good distance away from the workers’ village.

The regular percussion of the tom toms is punctuated every now and then by a shrill festive cry, and I can picture the fireside scene I will never be a part of.  I envy the inclusiveness of it, the ritual and ability to let go at the end of a gruelling day.

The birds in the acacia near the cottage lift up in a whoosh of indignation.  They make no sound, just leave as one as they do when a snake is present.  But snakes are asleep now.  Something has disturbed them.

I hear a shuffling and a cough and a low moaning.  Metal on metal right below my window.  I am upstairs and the children downstairs.  I pick up a baseball bat and tiptoe downstairs just as there is a strident knocking on my door.  It must be past midnight.

I peer though the window and see Fainos, one of the farm guards outside.  I recognize him by the balaclava he wears every night and his army boots.  I am so relieved to see it is someone I know, someone with an explanation.

I open the door and see another form crouched in the corner.

He keens and moans.  He is hunched into himself and rocking.  He is barefoot and wears an old overcoat against the African cold.  I smell fear.

The keening gets louder and Fainos walks up to him and kicks him viciously in the ribs.

“Nyarara,” he says “Shut up!”

He shines his torch into the mans face and I am shocked to see his eye is swollen shut and his clothing covered with blood.  He has been spattered with blood, some is own but mostly somebody else’s.

“I am sorry to disturb you” says Fainos before I have thought of a single thing to say.

“I am needing you to take this accused to the police station tomorrow morning, he has stabbed his friend with a broken bottle and now he is late.  I have attached him to your house.  Thank you very much.”  With that he is swallowed up by the darkness, the only evidence of his presence a receding blob of yellow light.

I flip on the outside light and find that the man has indeed been attached to my house, he is handcuffed to the down pipe.

He is a picture of misery.  His hair is standing up in tufts and he has a growing lump on his head as a result of Fainos’s overzealous attempts to subdue him.  He is drunk in the poisoned way of kichasu, the local brew which destroys the brain at best and can be fatal at worst.  He is cold and has wet his trousers.  He smells of urine, sweat and fear.  He is shaking and rocking.  He is attached to my house for the night.

I go inside and do what my grandmother would have done.  I make a cup of tea.  One for him and one for me.  He cannot hold it so I let it cool down then spoon it into him.  I fetch a blanket and wrap it around him.  I tell myself, this man has taken another man’s life.  He is a murderer.

But I know he is not really a murderer.  This falls into the ninety-five percent of murders in Zimbabwe we were told about in our first criminal law lecture.  This was a “friendly” murder.  “Tell that to the victim and his family” I hear you say.  But there is more than one victim.  This was a kichasu-fuelled altercation that got out of hand within reach of a deadly weapon, a broken bottle.  He will be sorry in the morning.  He is sorry now, on a cellular level.  I can feel the horror seeping into him as the alcohol is leached out of him by the cold, by the beating, by the hot tea, by this strange white woman in a dressing gown with her hair standing up.

My children have slept through this.  I check on them, make sure this unnamed man is as comfortable as he can be and I go upstairs to lie in my bed again.  For a sleepless night.  It must be at around 3 in the morning he starts to bang the handcuffs against the pipe.

Clang! Clang! Clang! clangclangclang clang Clang!

“It is better to kill me!”

“It is better to kill me!

He is as aware as I am no doubt that Zimbabwean courts still hand down the death sentence for cases of murder without extenuating circumstances.  That is not the worst of it though, it is the festering overpopulated prisons which are the hell before the hell of a trial in understaffed courts.  The overflowing bucket in a cell made for six and inhabited by thirty.  The dysentery.  The rape.  The interminable wait.  Years.  The lost files and loss of interest.  The Loss.

“It is better to Kill me”.

The down pipe is not happy.  It was not designed to stand up to the shackles of a desperate man.  The children are awake now, and afraid.

“I go outside and ask him not to do that, he is frightening the children, we will talk about everything in the morning.”

But his eyes go dead at the word “children”.

“My children! My children! My children!” he sobs.

He speaks in a low Shona, a lamentation my basic grasp of the language cannot untangle.    A world divides us.  He is poor and desperate and condemned.  I have a good job, healthy children and possibilities beyond his wildest imaginings. I wear warm, clean pajamas, Pajamas!  What does he know about such a useless piece of clothing!  He wears urine-soaked, blood-spattered cast-offs.

What to do?

He is drunk, he is seeking escape and who can blame him?  His mind is impaired by contemporary arsenic.  He is not trying to improve his complexion, he is trying to get the hell out of his life.  And his life is headed for a place where even the blessed relief of inebriation is beyond his grasp.

What wretchedness.

Dawn sees us all bleary-eyed and silent.

Fainos whistles his way up to the house.  He shouts obscenities at his prisoner, I stand between them, remembering the attack from last night and noting the slight swagger and dangerous glint of a small amount of authority he is keen to exercise to the full.

He unlocks the handcuffs at my request.  He wants to come with us in the car, on the school run with his prisoner still handcuffed.  I tell him I will take this man to the police station myself and am sure he has more important things to do.  He agrees with me that he is a man of some importance.

I load up the car with my wary children and give the man who’s name I do not want to know a change of clothing.  A track suit given out to athletes as a pr drive by the company I work for.  I wonder what they would think of their new ambassador?

I drive the children to school.  The car smells of breathed out kichasu.  They squirm on the back seat and I fix them with a steely glare.

I drive to work.

My companion is silent.

I park the car and walk round and open the door for him.  He is almost catatonic.  I take him to the park opposite my office.  The flower sellers are out.  He doesn’t see them.  The winter sun is filtering through the jacarandas in a purple-hued haze.  He is oblivious.  I buy him some food and a cocacola from a vendor with a sign that says “Coke Adds Life!”.  I tell him I will be back when I finish work and he can tell me what he wants to do.

He does not move for the whole day but he does eat his food.

I finish work and hope that he will have taken the problem that is himself off my hands.  He is waiting on the same bench.

“Shall we go home” I say?

He nods.

I tell him to tell Fainos he has been released on bail and is awaiting a court date.  He is on remand.  Three words that had previously not existed in his vocabulary.  Three words to convince the invincible Fainos that his work has continued along an official and important track.

I am an accessory.  I am an accomplice.  I have diverted the course of justice.  I have withheld information about one of the most serious of crimes.  I am an officer of the court and have done everything in my power to keep a self-confessed murderer out of it.

A week later I see the Man with No Name working at the sawmill on the farm.  He is standing atop a pile of logs.  He is wielding another dangerous weapon, an axe.  He watches me walk by from his lofty perch.  I wave, hesitantly.  He smiles, takes his hat off and waves back.

As good as a handshake.


12 Responses to “Accessory or Accomplice?”

  1. What a brilliant piece of writing. I am speechless and unable to type much else.

    • Thank you thank you as always. I wrote this today. As with everything I write it is true. I was nervous about putting it out there. I have often wondered if I made the right decision but feel that nothing would have been gained by another breadwinner being removed from another family already living on the edge.

  2. You really are wonderful. What a story. Thank you for reading my stuff. Oddly I’ve started an exercise for myself where I come up with a descriptive sentence to capture a glimpse of your stories. Your entry before this one compelled me to write…”A middle-aged, confused and callous Prostitute with a heart of blood and tissue.” Sort of a play on “Hooker with a heart of gold”. Anyway you have inspired me.

  3. Stacey said

    Wow. You really know how to tell a story. I am truly impressed by your writing. You really inspire me to not just write, but to tell a story and to involve the reader. I love your descriptions. Truly amazing.

    • Thanks for the compliment! My aim is to increase the number of blogs until I am doing one a day. I would be honored if you continue to read them and give me feedback. I will do the same for you of course!

  4. charlene said

    i love the way you write. it has such a way to grab my attention and make me want to call you and ask more questions.
    That is one hard question….Accessory or Accomplice.
    I think there are times to swim against the current, to not do the normal and there are times to follow the rules no matter what. Did you know if he has not killed before? You may have been the angel that gave him a second chance at life and he will forever be changed for the better for it. Your one action may have changed his life and that could in return change other lives for the good.
    I hope it is not the opposite.

  5. rosie said

    I bet everyone who reads this wonders what they would have done … he puts his trust in you, waits on that park bench, and you make your decision. A frightening dilemma, a courageous decision, a fascinating story. Wow.

  6. Bear Brand said

    A parliament of owls on a tin roof. What a hoot (pun intended).

    I support your action, as it was manslaughter not murder. There was no pre-meditation. I’ve had a few of these to investigate myself.

    Sadly, where the Government is unlawful, the example is set and the standards and values of society fall.

    I remember the cottage and love the skilful way you told the story. I’m very proud of you, you soppy thing.

  7. David Wheeler said

    Memories of Hobby House.
    I slept in that bed myself.
    There were peacocks in the gumtrees in those days to add to the cacophany.
    D xx
    P.S. In my opinion your decision was right. Justice is good, but if we do not show mercy, we cannot expect to receive it. A triumph of heart over head.

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