Manyosi cursed the male nurse who had come to check on him. The nurse recoiled at the insult, throwing his head back, as if ducking a stone flying at his face.
‘This is my seat, and I paid for it with hard-earned money,’ Manyosi continued, attempting to rise from the rickety hospital bed.
The nurse stared at him with eyes burning with fury, just the way a bus conductor would at someone who was five-cents short of the standard fare.
‘This old man is mad,’ he said in a voice as icy as the North Pole, perfunctorily rearranging the papers he was carrying under one shoulder. Not that they were disordered, it was just a way of calming his nerves. Then he glanced over both his shoulders, at the gold-studded epaulettes over his white shirt, as if to remind himself who he was in this hospital: Assistant Superior General, the youngest since 1968…to be abused with such a volley of insults by this old rag.
‘Who are you calling mad you bastard? You uneducated money-changing bastard.’
The nurse’s eyes dilated. Uneducated: he ruminated over the word. It was so foreign to what he was that he felt a sharp pain in his heart, as he considered the meaning of Manyosi’s words. He; B.Sc. Nursing Sciences, he; M.Sc., and a string of other on-the-job certificates too many to mention… Uneducated? He advanced two steps towards Manyosi and then stopped abruptly. ‘This old man is not worth it,’ he said at last to no one in particular.
Then a strange smile began to form on the corners of the nurse’s thick lips. ‘Don’t you know that your life is in my hands?’ he said leeringly. ‘Keep on like that and you’ll wake up on the other side. On Abraham’s bushy bosom.’
‘Well if you drive the damned bus into a ditch we are all dead, you crazy son-a-f-a-bitch. Ha! ha! And there’s no debate as to where you’ll end up, you usurious Judas Iscariot.’
The nurse gave Manyosi a long and cold stare, and then walked away. The heels of his shiny black Watson loafers clicked like a horse’s gallop on the shiny red floor of the ward. Manyosi broke out into a wild laugh, the kind that Puritans would call ungodly and sinful. It was high-pitched, rough and uncontrolled, and shook his skeletal frame under the blue hospital gown he wore. He flung his arms wildly, and tugging dangerously at the IV drip pipe attached to his left arm. But he didn’t seem to be mindful of any danger in that.
He was in some kind of delirium, and was mistaking the hospital for a bus. The nurse who was now on the receiving end of his frenzied verbal abuse had come there to check on Manyosi for the first time since he had arrived the previous night, in a bad state.
The nurse had disrupted Manyosi from an interesting dream…
He was a successful businessman, owning Pick ‘n Pay, not a struggling spaza shop in the village. Having shed the rags of overalls he wore most of the time, he now wore a translucent sky-blue suit, tight as a scuba-diving suit. Everyone looked at him, and he liked it. They greeted him and groveled. He had made it. The faces of the people were blurred, and so only by some kind of mind power was he able to tell who they were and what they said.
Someone next to him launched into the air in one leap, and Manyosi following him with his eyes, realized that, levitating with the jumper, were many others floating like kites. In fact, some floated backward and forward happily, defying all the laws of gravity which had disrupted Newton’s nap under the apple tree when its fruit had suddenly hit him hard on the face. At least that had finally forced the scientist to consider the ways of the universe. Others of the jumpers bounced up and down the ground like balls. It was like some kind of circus. Manyosi, like most normal people, had always wanted to fly, and so he gave it a try. A modest jump took him up high, and once there, he just navigated the airspace as if he’d been born a bird. The whole thing seemed normal and was exhilarating. With the bird’s eye view he began to admire the world below him; the ugly tops of buildings, the tarred roads of the city looking like one giant black snake with neither beginning nor end, and the trees looking like tufts of grass on the concrete jungle. His contemplation of things from aloft was interrupted by none other than Ndlovu, his rival from youth, who flew past him without so much as a hello. Ndlovu was in his trademark African attire shirt, with patterns of elephants, and it had regained the luster it had had when he bought it five years ago.
This annoyed Manyosi greatly. Yes, he and Ndlovu were not on good terms. But it was a business rivalry—they both were businessmen in the same area—and that did not preclude courtesy. Manyosi turned towards Ndlovu, and with a red light flowing from his eyes, he disabled his flying capacity.
Ndlovu fell at great speed, tossing and turning, and screaming like a baby, and calling on his ancestors to come to his rescue. When Manyosi was just about to see his enemy crash to Kingdom Come, he woke up and found himself in the bus…
It was a rather spacious bus, he thought, with the world’s most insolent—though admittedly well dressed—bus conductor. He never understood why bus conductors had to be so arrogant. Maybe it was because bus conductors carried money around, in soiled white moneybags, which made them feel important. But they were the least educated of people, and even an old timer like him was better educated. He had Standard 6 of the old British colonial education, the equivalence of which, in today’s systems, no one could figure out: which proved his point that it was damned superior to anything that was taught today.
It’s easy to see why Manyosi had figured himself to be in a bus. His bed was at the furthest corner of the ward, next to a great window through which came abundant sunlight. It overlooked a deserted patch of bramble and wild grass, green from the summer rains. And, because he lay on the bed face up, the vertically rising frames from the corners of the bed and the horizontally lying ones connecting them above, looked to him like handrails of a bus. The sustained buzz of voices had also confirmed to his disturbed mind the ambiance of a bus.
‘And it’s a sh**ty kind of bus, this,’ he shouted after the nurse had left. He managed to lift himself upright on the bed. ‘What’s this? Those pig-nosed buses going to the bundu? Or is it some kind of kaka-coach bus—with all these curtains?’ He waved at the window. Some of those who heard him looked at him in annoyance. Others were amused. ‘He’s not okay up there,’ someone said. ‘Obviously, the wiring of the brain is short-circuiting, causing mental disruption,’ a young man wearing a patchy beard and fat marijuana blackened lips noted wryly. There was laughter. ‘His place is not here,’ another noted. ‘He must go to Manzini Psychiatric Clinic, maybe the great Doctor Malepe, doctor of mind disconnections, will help him.’ Laughter.
‘Father,’ said a woman standing adjacent to Manyosi’s bed, ‘this is not a bus. It is a hospital’.
Manyosi turned and looked at the woman carefully; studying her, almost. He would have told her to mind her own business, had it not been for what she’d just said.
‘Eh? A hospi-what?’ he said finally.
‘Hospital. Gavament Hospital.’
The word “hospital” shook him up. If there was one place he avoided more than any other, in his life, it was a hospital. Why, the word itself was taboo for him, and the place itself as good as the mortuary. Worse than a prison. True, both prison and the hospital gave free food, but you had greater chances of making it out alive from the former. He’d seen people going into hospital fat and coming out in body bags, and he’d seen skinny, hungry and dangerous thieves entering correctional facilities and come out years later thick, slick and shiny, like fattened beef cattle.
And now he began to inspect his surroundings with a newly gained realism. Yes, it was a hos—he couldn’t bring himself to complete the word. It was it.
Slowly, he began to feel the heaviness inside his head, as if someone had replaced his brains with rocks. With his left hand he touched the thick bandage wrapped around it—mummy style. Next to him, he saw a man with both his legs plastered in white cast. The cast was now brownish from dust, and it had been scribbled on in ink; interminable games of hangman had been lost and won on it, phone numbers, and all kinds of emojis many of which Manyosi had never seen before. The cast now looked like the face of a cave littered with hieroglyphics. He couldn’t see the man’s face, because a small crowd gathered around him. All he could hear was a low drone coming from him, like a distant engine.
Meanwhile, a female nurse glided into the room, in the self-assured I-may-not-be-a-doctor-but-I-know-about-medicine way that most nurses have about them; an inferiority complex which manifests itself in veritable arrogance upon encountering those deemed by them to be inferior. It is not a complex limited to nurses. Secretaries of big companies have it also, because they are convinced that they should be the CEOs, or CFOs; but the universe, somehow, cheated them of the chance. Legal clerks too; because, well, they organized everything for those big-shot lawyers, and then they fall into a deep abyss of oblivion, as the big-shots take all the shine, as they present the cases to spell-bound audiences. The list is interminable.
Opposite Manyosi, a man was being pinned to his bed by security guards, because he was refusing to be injected.
‘I am a member of the Twelve Redeemed Disciples of Truth of the Church of God demedi!’ he screamed. ‘Medicine is evil, and I know that you want to steal my blood.’
‘You never were a member of the Twelve Redeemed— People of God, or anything like that,’ one of his relatives shot back. ‘So, shut up and show your black buttocks to the nurse. It’s for your own good, Mfan’uzodlani.’ The man continued to struggle and scream.
‘Who brought me here? Eh?’ Manyosi thundered. ‘Someone brought me here against my will. Nurse…! Nurse…!’
The floating lady-nurse, who now attended the Twelve Redeemed member, turned a brief and disinterested look at Manyosi, and again fixed all her attention on her patient. Her eyes said, I’ve been told about you, you crazy old man, and I will just ignore you. Having finally injected the conscientious objector with medicine, she moved on to check on other patients, scribbling now and again in her notepad, never again looking at Manyosi.
‘You were brought in last night by two men,’ the woman close to Manyosi’s bed, with a son with cast-bound legs, offered. ‘They said they found you lying unconscious on the pavement, at the corner of West and Best streets. And your head was bruised and bleeding.’
‘What? Me? Those bastards probably stole my money. Where’s my money? Where are my clothes? I must leave immediately.’
‘Calm down,’ said the woman. ‘You are lucky to be alive. Be thankful for that.’
‘Alive…? Thankful? I’ll be thankful when I get back the 900 rand which was in my trouser pocket.’ He tried to get off the bed, but a sharp pain which shot through his ribs checked him. He lay on his bed, breathing hard, trying to remember recent events.
‘You were drunk,’ resumed the woman dolorously. There was nothing particular about her. She had an unmemorable flat face, common eyes, and wore the most common headscarf, and a dress dull from too much washing. ‘Men drink,’ she said reflectively, then stopped abruptly as if considering how to complete the statement. ‘Men and alcohol. When will they learn that this thing is not good for them? My husband had the same problem, and he died. And now it’s my son,’ she pointed at the cast-bound legs. ‘He has the same demon, and it wants to take him also from me.’
‘This woman!’ Manyosi burst out. ‘Are you saying that I’ve a demon? Listen, I’m neither your husband nor your son, you hear? And…stop talking too much. No wonder your husband drank too much, and also this son of yours. You are like the sound of a cricket close to the ear. Yerr!’
The woman winced. ‘I hope they arrest you and throw away the key! They are coming.’
The woman did not respond.
‘Police!’ Manyosi exclaimed. ‘Why are they coming here? I did nothing wrong!’
The woman’s countenance now adorned a halo of victory. She was almost smiling, and had sort of retreated gracefully into herself, pleased that Manyosi was afraid. ‘Well, how would you know what you did or did not do? You could hardly say anything sensible last night. Anyway, I heard the nurse say you had drunk some kind of alcohol. The illegal kind. They found some of it in your jacket, in a small glass bottle. The police asked the hospital authorities to notify them, should anyone come to the hospital drunk from it. And you were. And also had it on you.’ She looked at Manyosi in the eyes, content to see that he was sh*t-scared. A man’s fear. She liked that so much.
‘The police want answers you know,’ she continued, ‘They’ve been trying to close down all the shebeens selling this devil’s drink. And now that you are here, maybe they’ll take you with them to question you very nicely.’
Now the events of the past night came back to Manyosi in bits and pieces, which he first easily connected. He’d spent most the night drinking a new kind of moonshine at Betty’s. They called it White Ghost. Clear like water, hot as hell; got you drunk until you fell. Just the way he liked his booze. It was a new kind that was doing the rounds in the township. It was distilled by fat women who’d never gone to school, but obviously knew a lot about chemistry, in home-made distilleries. The ingredients of this home-made alcohol were largely secret, and guarded jealously by the shebeen queens and their enforcers. Once, some cops in a sting raid, found battery acid and some other industrial chemicals in one the shebeens. People had been shocked, but not those who drank it. For them this kind of alcohol was the best. After six months of drinking it, they ended up with skeletal frames, distended bellies, burnt lips and a happiness that this world could not give them, since they were poor.
Manyosi liked to have a swig at it every now and again. He now recalled he had made a bet with some worthless man he’d found at Betty’s, that he could drink White Ghost and still keep his dignity as a man. That he could drink three half-jacks of it, and still walk back home with the stride of a marching soldier. Now he wasn’t sure whether he’d left the place marching with pride. Probably not. Events after the bet were flashes of vague memories, like dry leaves swept away by a gust of wind. He remembered that at some point he’d sung. That he’d moonwalked.
Manyosi looked at the drip pipe shooting out of the vein on his arm. No. He wouldn’t be able to make a run for it, he thought to himself. It was too risky. Besides, the police would think he was guilty of something. Something more serious than just enjoying White Ghost . His breathing strained, and his heart beat fast. He tried to calm himself, but the quizzical eye of the woman made him uneasy. She enjoyed his disquiet.
‘You know,’ she began, ‘maybe if you hadn’t insulted that male nurse, calling him a bastard bus boy, he would have helped you. But you have ruined your chances. What’s your name anyway? They’ve been trying to find that out, but you had no identification on you. When they asked you, you said you were King Solomon, and lived in Jerusalem; then you said you were King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II. Lastly you said you were Shaka Zulu, the instigator of the Mfecane wars and inventor of the short spear. After that, the nurse was fed up with you, old mad man.’
Manyosi did not answer her. Of course, he couldn’t remember all that stuff—that he’d said any of it.
Suddenly, a plan began to form in his head. It clawed its way past the thick and dark clouds of hang-over and pain and fear in his mind. It was not as definite and rigorous as a military strategy, but malleable as a cooking recipe.
He would make a run for it. The window next to his bed would be his exit. Then he would have to figure the rest out like he always did.
Featured image | Zambian Eye
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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