Story excerpts

Sweet Dreams on Sugar Highway

Zeke leapt from the truck, engine still running, and closed the lumberyard gates. As the padlock snapped shut he whispered a prayer, “Bless you, Benny Ochieng, for hiding my truck.” Then he swung back into the cab, threw off the brake and drove – looking south in the mirror with one eye, heading north with the other. At close to midnight the road was empty. He’d prayed for this too.

So here he was, fleeing his Kenya homeland for Uganda. It was a big step. The biggest yet. He’d thought of nothing else all day, sweating out the hot tropic hours under Benny’s big mango tree, sipping sweet sodas and considering his options. But now the waiting was over. It was time to run with his beating heart and not stop for a thing. Not even for Musa.

The shuttered vegetable kiosks of Mombasa’s suburbs passed by in a dream – Streetlight flickering. Palm trees turned to giant flowers. Locked gates in high white walls. Razor wire glinting like Christmas tinsel. His truck too loud in the quiet streets.

As Zeke roared over the causeway that tethered Mombasa Island to great mother Africa, he thought of Musa. Where was that boy when he needed him most?

For yes, driving this road at night, and alone, could be a death sentence too. But then he’d rather put his faith in the truck and make a break for Uganda than face the shadow-men back in Mombasa. For one thing eight years of trucking had taught him – with this death-trap highway you just never knew.  Sometimes it could let you through, sweet as a dream. Others it could crush you with a washed out bridge or a pothole big enough to bury the truck. Going in the dark just made things tougher. Going without Musa made them tougher still. But then Zeke had no choice in that either. It was go now or have all choices cancelled. Just like Musa.

Poor Musa. He missed him already. A turnboy-wonder with a nganga’s soul. For like his famous grandfather, Musa was a true seer, especially after he’d chewed a few sticks of khat. That inner eye of his had spotted a thousand hazards before they happened – which was a truck driver’s gift. Though one that secretly made Zeke’s blood run cold (because he really didn’t want to believe in all that nganga stuff). Still, it had its funny side too. Musa’s uncanny vision could always be relied on to locate the prettiest girl in all the wayside bars they washed up in – no matter how well she was disguising herself. From Mombasa to Kampala, Musa was the man – the prince of sugar daddies. He and Zeke used to joke about it, especially after they began hauling sugar consignments for Raj Hassan. Yes indeed. Two pounds of the sweet white stuff could buy a lot of affection on sugar highway.

The trouble was, though, he’d left Musa behind. Yes, good old Zeke was leaving his best partner to die amongst strangers – instead of taking him home to the Taita Hills; instead of laying the boy in his grandfather’s arms for his spirit to be welcomed home. And just maybe that wise old man could see Zeke now  – running from darkness into darkness, running from the shadow-men and leaving Musa behind.

Zeke put his foot down as he cleared the causeway, urged the truck on up the long slow hill. C’mon crate. But it only lumbered to a painful crawl, cab filling with an oily stench, tyres bucking on rucks of tarmac where the road had run like treacle in the heat. The sweat ran in streams down Zeke’s head and neck. Mother Africa was making things tough. He felt like he had the whole twenty-tons of Brazilian sugar on his own back.

In the broken wing-mirror, the island lights dropped away, then snuffed out as the road veered west-north-west-north up to the plateau. Now Zeke checked the mirrors for signs of a tail.  (The shadow-men sending their cops to get him?) But no, there was no one behind – not unless they were going lightless as he was – which only a fool would try on this death-trap road. 

Towards the top of the hill the truck picked up speed and Zeke began to hope. Maybe he would make it after all. Back in the lumberyard where he’d sat reckoning his chances, he’d decided that twenty-four hours was the most he could hope for; thirty-six max before the shadow-men caught on. Because with any luck their goons would be staking out all the secret sugar depots on Mombasa’s south coast. They wouldn’t expect Zeke to go north with the legal paperwork. It was a stunt worthy of the emperor of cheeky stunts – his own boss, Raj Hassan.

On the hill’s last bend Zeke flicked on his lights. He could risk them now. There wasn’t any tail. The road was empty – ahead and behind. The wayside shacks and little farms were shut up and dark. Everyone sleeping. Now all he had to watch for was the road. In the yellow beam it ran out forever – a black ragged thread through the bush. The question now was – would it stay sweet and let him through? A lot could happen in seven hundred miles.

Copyright 2012 Tish Farrell



The Tale of Princess Laughing Dove

Once there was a man, neither young nor old, and his name was Wainaina. He lived alone on his farm at the forest edge, in the house he had built himself. The house was small but that did not matter, for whenever Wainaina opened his door, or drew back his curtain he could see the blue peaks of Mount Kenya. Up they rose like church spires and whenever Wainaina saw them, his spirits soared too – high in the blue.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” he’d say. But then he would sigh, “If only I had a wife to share this with.”

A wife indeed. So why couldn’t Wainaina find himself a good woman when the countryside was alive with good women? And why, when a village girl caught his eye, did she walk straight on by, before he’d said hello? This was what he asked himself, day in day out, as he sowed and hoed and tended his crops.

“Perhaps,” said Wainaina. “I haven’t the heart for it.”

But that wasn’t it. The truth was this. Wainaina was not a handsome man, nor even plain. He had grown up downright ugly. And he did not know – because the little shard of mirror that he used when shaving only showed his chin. Nor did his village fellows say, not wanting to hurt the good man’s feelings. Poor Wainaina. And though he tried not to make a tragedy out of being wifeless, sometimes his spirits hardly soared at all when he saw the great mountain.

“Life has its ups and downs,” he said.

Then one morning as he was dressing for work, he heard a tap tapping at his window. When he pulled back he curtain there was a laughing dove sitting on the sill, cooing and bobbing at its reflection in the glass.

“Ah,” said Wainaina gently. “You think you’ve found a mate. Poor bird.”

At the sound of his voice the bird flew off, but for the rest of the day Wainaina thought of it.

“So,” he said. “I am not the only one without a love.”

Later, when Wainaina was stretching his back from a day’s hard digging, an idea crept into his mind:

“You’ve earned a rest Wainaina. Why not walk down to the stream?”

And why not indeed? It was a bosky place with mossy roots and green arches. Clear mountain water gurgled by smooth rocks where blue dragonflies danced.

“Mmmmm,” said Wainaina when he came to the water. “It is so peaceful here.”

But not for long. Suddenly from the overhanging branch of a mugumo tree came the oh-cook cook-oo-oo of a laughing dove. Wainaina looked up: was it the one he’d seen earlier. The bird bobbed and cooed and seemed to catch his eye. Then it flew off down the path and perched in a flame tree. Oh-cook cook-oo-oo.

Wainaina followed – which was when he heard the tumble of laughter that out-sang any dove. He pushed through the reeds to the water’s edge: who could be making those sweet, sweet sounds?

© 2010 P M Farrell

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