December 2, 2009
There were two mysteries about Michael: one, was he called Michael? and two, he came to us through a domestic workers agency which just doesn’t fit with his character.
When we asked him his name he said “Mikow”, which we took to mean “Michael”. Michael , as I am sure you all know means “Who is like God?”.
The thing is this, who decided to put the question mark in?
The liability-shy, culturally-sensitive Editor?
Anyway. I think the question mark should stay in Michael’s case. You see, he was far from perfect and a bit of a puzzle so not very godlike. But then “Who is like God?”
I don’t know how old he was when he came to work for us. He was a hasty replacement for a man who believed himself to be able to rid customers of evil spirits during his lunch break. He would do this by lapsing into an eery wailing sound while the punter looked on in relief. He would sit on the ground rocking to and fro with glassy eyes. At two o’clock his innate sense of timing would kick in, he would pocket his money and come in to wash the lunch dishes.
This seemed to be a profitable sideline for him but proved to be his undoing. On one memorable day when an elderly friends were housesitting, one of the pesky demons decided to stay in situ. Apparently he thought the remedy for this was to go and ask our nervous friends to beat him. Being kindly souls of meek habits they were not up for this. They locked him out and he responded by smashing every window in the house before being carted off for medical attention.
Michael, when he appeared, a quiet old man in carefully pressed clothes seemed just the ticket. He did not know how old he was, he informed us. He had only one date of any importance lodged in his mind and that was 1948. He had walked from Malawi with two friends in 1948. Well folks, I am not sure how familiar you are with African geography so I will tell you how far that is, (Google maps have thrown up their hands on the itinerary front): it is a Very Long Way even as the crow flies. As the crow flies we are talking 615 km give or take an escarpment or dangerous valley or two. There will have been crocodile-infested rivers to cross and hungry animals on the prowl. They would not have had a map and I don’t know what was driving them – Rhodesia in 1948 was hardly a vastly different prospect to Malawi. In fact, from 1953 to 1963 it technically became the same country under the misguided experiment of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, a United States of Underdevelopment and Red Tape. A Sysiphian setback, to have walked all that way to find yourself on home turf. Soon enough the federation quietly separated into Malawi, Zambia and Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe) and Michael and his fellow ramblers settled in what is now Harare.
Michael was slow and deliberate in his movements and set about his tasks with quiet efficiency. He was economical with words too and it dawned on me that he had never really got to grips with anything but his local Chichewa or Chinyanja. The fact that no-one could agree on a single name for the language perhaps points to the origins of Michael’s shaky linguistic skills.
He said “Yes” a lot and nodded though, and seemed to understand.
Michael was a small man with a square body and spindly legs. He had a round face and the milky eyes of untreated cataracts. His hair was kept in a closely-cropped cut like a salt and pepper scouring pad. He was always very clean and took great pride in his appearance.
During the week Michael wore the standard uniform of domestic workers in Zimbabwe – kaki trousers and a shirt. He also had a very old and very well-polished belt which looked suspiciously like a policeman’s belt. I wondered if his band of merry men had set upon a member of the constabulary en route but quickly discounted it. On a Sunday Michael was transformed into a natty dresser. He would set off in the morning wearing a shiny suite, white threadbare shirt and a battered trilby hat. He wore beaten brogues of great quality and to round off the Blues Brothers effect, a pair of black eighties sunglasses repaired on the bridge of his nose with bright pink elastoplast. Given his already murky eyesight, this fashion statement would frequently lead him to bump into things. At least, I thought it was poor vision that did that.
I offered to fix Michael up with a cataract operation thanks to some American visiting surgeons. I explained that they would take the clouds out of his eyes with a simple operation.
He said “Yes” but shook his head and carried on cleaning the windows. When I persevered he continued to shake his head and look at me apologetically.
I didn’t have much clue as to how to run a home and was a very new mother busy with my tiny baby. I walked Michael through a list. I outlined everyday tasks and threw in a few weekly ones, such as cleaning the windows on a Tuesday. He nodded sagely with each instruction and it was only much later I realized that he had committed this all to memory. Michael could not read.
There were no Chichewa speakers in the neighbourhood and Michael found a solution to this. He had conversations with himself. He would shoot the breeze, chuckle to himself and then pause every now and then utter an emphatic “Right!” after he had completed a task to his satisfaction. He would then reach into his pocket and pull out a small piece of animal horn and unplug the piece of bunched up plastic at its end. He would carefully measure a dose of snuff into his small palm and with an impressive snort it would be up his nose. He would then wipe his nose with the back of his hand and continue with the next thing on his list.
Michael was a creature of habit. He never missed a day of work and seemed to enjoy his routine. Weekdays: cleaning, “right!”, snuff and pleasant conversations with self; Sunday, outings with his two walking buddies. Given that they were all dressed up to the nines every week I thought they were going to church. This fitted with the humble, righteous look he had unwittingly cultivated. In fact, he was just minding his own business and wanting everyone else to mind theirs.
He was not going to church though. The three of them were going to check on, and then consume, their illegal brew. Michael liked a good tipple, preferably one that had the odd fermented rodent in it to give it that “je ne sais quoi” quality, and various accelerants to help with the fermenting process. Who wants to wait? Pool chemicals were thought to have magical powers.
Michael was not quiet and contemplative. Michael was catatonic with liquor. This was not swammee Michael, this was someone destroying his brain every Sunday. I banned him from going near the baby, my premature 2.5kg bundle of tiny boy. I had visions of him dropping him or tripping with him. Easier to just leave him alone. I didn’t think this would pose a problem as aside from him announcing my son’s name in clear reverential tones,
“Jonathan Michael Richard”, he seemed to show no interest in him at all. He became just another thing to steer the vacuum cleaner around. I hasten to add that Jonathan’s middle names are after his grandfathers as opposed to our well-travelled friend.
One day I left Jonathan fast asleep on the kitchen counter, secure in his basinette. Lets face it, he was hardly mobile. Or was he? I came back in to see Michael swishing things about in the sink and Jono the other way round. Not only that, he was wriggling and his small fists were jerking up towards his face. Then the sneezing started. I could not believe how much he sneezed, his wobbly infant head barely having time to recover from one sneeze before the next arrived.
I cradled him and tried to comfort him although he was showing no distress. Then I saw it, a light speckling over his pink baby skin. I bent down to have a closer inspection and sneezed.
I looked sideways at Michael.
“Have you been kissing the baby, Michael?” I asked
“Yes”, he said before speaking warm words to himself in a language that was lost on me.
Security was becoming more of a worry and we decided to instal a “panic button”. The smartly dressed representative of the company told me how it would work. We would hand over a fairly large sum of money each month and they would instal a few strategically placed buttons. If we pressed one of these his impressive task force would swing into action. The first step would involve a phone call. They would call and wait to hear the secret word. If the word was not given, even if we told them not to come, come they would and woe-betide anyone who stood in their way. They would save us in return for protection money. There was one caveat though. This well-oiled machine took vast resources and they did not appreciate time-wasters. Any false alarms would have to be paid for. We shook hands on the deal and the buttons were installed.
I wondered how to explain this to Michael, whether I should tell him the secret word, etc, and then the answer appeared to me, beautiful in its simplicity.
“Michael, you see this button here, the one behind this small cupboard? Yes, that one there, the one that is very difficult to reach?”
He peered behind the bedside table with rheumy eyes, looked puzzled and stood up.
“Yes”, he said.
“Well please don’t touch it,” I said.
“Yes”, he said.
A few days later I was in the garden when I heard the phone ringing. My hands were covered in soil and I knew I would never get there in time, so I left it. The next thing I knew there was a screeching of tires outside our fence and a team of enthusiastic men were swarming into the garden. Before I could say anything, Nyasha, our hapless and disabled gardener was flattened against the wall with a baton shoved into his gullet.
“No! No!” I shouted.
I ran into the house to see what was going on. Nothing. Just Michael talking to himself as he dusted our bedroom.
“Did you touch the button Michael?”
“Yes”, he smiled.
“Why?” I asked, wildly glancing out the window as Nyasha was trying to escape from a burly young man’s grasp.
“Wednesday” he said, holding up a middle finger which on anyone else would have looked downright insulting.
Wednesday. Dusting on Wednesday. He had moved a cupboard to dust the button, because it was Wednesday. He looked at me quizzically as if to say,
“Duh, Wednesday, Hello – your instructions”.
I sighed and apologized to the disappointed task force. They had clearly been hoping to see a bit of action.
Nyasha stood behind me shouting as they disappeared out the gate.
“And careful who you mess with next time,” but not loud enough for anyone to notice.
The following week I came back from work to a very sullen Nyasha. He was wearing a woolly hat, unusual given the stifling heat of October. He was standing next to the car and pulled his hat off revealing a pulsating egg on the top of his head.
“Oh no!”, I said, then
“Where is Michael?”
“He is lying on his bed. He has had a very big shock”.
What day was it? Wednesday.
I too had a very big shock when the bill arrived.
The Chinese State circus was visiting and we bought tickets for our family, Nyasha and Michael to go and see this spectacular show. It was quite an event and we had been lucky to get seats. I told Michael about it and he said “Yes” and shook his head.
We were all ready to go and Michael was nowhere to be seen. I found him up a ladder, cleaning the windows.
“Come on, we’re going to be late!”
Michael looked down on me from on high with infinite wisdom in the soft lines of his face. He shook his head and held up his second finger.
After some cajoling he relented and we had to wait for ages while he went to put on his Sunday gear. His glasses remained on his face throughout the performance and aside from some tinkling Chinese music and eruptions of applause I don’t think he registered a thing.
We decided to recruit our own security guard. We had slunk away from our panic button contract and used a local security firm. This contract came to an end when we came back from holiday to find that they had been running a brothel in the staff quarters and providing distribution channels for the Trio’s brew.
Out of courtesy, we asked Nyasha and Michael if they knew anyone who would like the job. Nyasha did not and we were surprised when the usually reticent Michael said he knew of someone and he would go and fetch him immediately. Well, immediately was a relative term because this constituted an Outing and therefore suiting up and polishing of shoes was required.
The next morning, very early, a man of great age stood before me. His hair was completely white and his craggy face was something straight out of National Geographic. He seemed to be suffering from sciatica or some such thing so I hurried him to a chair and gave him a cup of tea. I had prepared some questions – previous experience, references, etc but these could not leave my lips. I saw Nyasha out of the corner of my eye, doubled over with mirth and filling in the neighbor’s gardener on our recruiting skills.
I was wondering how to put the age issue to him diplomatically when he seemed to read my mind and with a glint in his eye, sprang from his chair and streaked across the lawn. To my even greater astonishment he then headed for a large palm tree and shinned straight up it. He came to rest at the top and waved victoriously.
It turned out that the person Michael had had in mind was this man’s son. The son was not at the house and Michael did not want to lose face by returning empty-handed. We employed the son.
It was this same son, Godfrey, who came to inform us of Michael’s death. He had been coming back with one of his friends on Sunday night, weaving his way along a main road and they had been hit by a truck. He had no family. Godfrey’s father was the last remaining part of the triumverate. Funeral arrangements would need to be made. Food would need to be purchased for the mourners.
And so we entered Michael’s Sunday world. We were welcomed into a Malawian quartier in a ramshackle area outside Harare. We handed over bags of maize meal, vegetables and meat. Women started cooking it immediately and people started to gather. All were immaculately dressed and Godfrey’s father had set up a small bench for us to sit on with him. The coffin was laid at our feet, a smallish pine box picked out by his lifelong friend. A line of well-wishers formed and Michael’s friend stood up. He had a regal bearing and spoke at length in Chinyanja. He then turned to us and said,
“Sorry for losing your Michael”, and shook hands with each of us in turn. My children were very young at the time but were subdued into good behaviour by the solemnity of the occasion. The shook hands one by one with the stream of new faces.
Michael did have a family after all. The last of his friends is surely dead by now but he lives on still in these memories. And now you will know him too. Goodbye Michael. Fumbai Zvakanaka. I will never forget you.