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Kissing Teeth

written by: Nick Gerrard

 

Mandala walked home along the shore, his bare feet tickling the lap of the gentle waves. The sun still stood above the lake on the horizon, but would soon lazily lie down for the night.
Beep! Beep, beep!
Text
‘Gt lil butr n sum oranges 4 a treat. X’
- I wish she would stop that text talk.
He traipsed back 400 yards or so, and left the lakeshore, crossed the crocodile river by way of the rope bridge and followed the dirt tracks that wound round baked clay and straw huts, and dodged kids chasing and chickens running for their lives.
He came to Tom’s shack.
-Ah Mandala, a shot of powers? Or maybe a Kachasu?
-No, I am on the way home and I need butter.
-No butter only margarine. And a powers also, no?
He looks at him, then away, kissing his teeth.
He shoots.
-And one from the house.
The store owner pours. Mandala sips this time.
-Why are you being so generous?
-Can a man not treat his brother?
Suck
-A man yes, but you?
Tom smiles and nods his head.
-You joke my friend, I know you joke.
Mandala looks at him, sucks again, and takes a sip. He leans with his back on the wobbly counter and looks out from the open front over the only tarmac road in the district, at the ragged boys kicking a rubber football in the dust around the abandoned market stalls.
-So, what’s new Tom, my old friend.
-Business is bad my brother, business is bad.
-For you business is always bad, I’ve never heard you say it’s good.
-And always that is true.
-Yeah, so bad! You live in that palace, with bricks and a generator and your fat children.
-Only from the will of god my friend, only from the will of god, never from the pockets of my friends.
Mandala sniffs and sips again.
-And how is the fishing village.
-Hard and thankless.
-At least you have work my brother, you are one of the lucky ones.
-That why you're being nice to me? Lucky? I’m not so sure, I don’t think having the fishing village has been lucky for us. The fish are getting fewer and fewer my brother, those big cats from the city are draining the life out of this lake, and where does it all go? Shall I tell you? To the city my friend.
-Business is business my friend.
-Business is business. I’ll tell you this, things were simpler when we just fished this lake for ourselves. We had our wakos and nets and ate what we caught, and sold and swapped, simple.
-Poor times, I think you forget. Look now you have money to buy things, nice things.
-Yeah, nice things, my woman wants nice things we don’t really need.
Tom nods his head…Click!
Mandala shrugs his shoulders and with his bottom lip fully over his top, shakes his head.
-Huh, nice things. Give me a Kasacha.
Tom uncorks and pours an extra-long one.
-So, did you hear? There were people at the lodge.
-People, what people?
-Muzungus, in 4-b-4s, and white shirts and ties, Important. They stayed at the government Inn for a few days. Many meetings.
-Really? Has anyone met them, talked to them? Why they here?
-Some of the old boys from Maya met them, along with the chief of course.
-Why didn’t you say?
He slaps some Kwacha on the counter and leaves.
-Anytime my brother, always a welcome for you.
Mandala passes a few women pounding cassava in huge mortars with large wooden pestles, and enters into the middle of four closely knit huts. A group of men are sat down on logs chugging from white cartons; in-between swigs and laughter they shake shake.
-Mandala, sit and shake brother.
Huge laughter all round.
He is handed a carton, shakes it and grimacing takes a long hit.
He wipes his mouth with his shirt.
-So, what’s the story with the Mzungus at Maya, Green?
-Yes, I met them. Good fellows, big ideas and big bucks!
He toasts
-Mzungus!
All the men raise their cartons.
-Mzungus!
They take big sups and then fall about.
-And?
-And, some guys have bought Maya, and are going to open up a volunteer, charity place, or something.
-And jobs?
-Yes, they are hiring and there will be cash for other things too.
-So, no lodge, no customers?
-No, big business, serious people.
-Shit, I need to check it out.
-Mandala!
They all slug and Mandala leaves to screaming laughter.
He gets his margarine, and buys some small oranges off some old man by the side of the road. He has a brown beer at the cola store, to extinguish the last of his thirst, searching as always, for more e-way mail.
E-way mail: You send a message that-way, a guy would meet your guy on-the-way, they send a message on-its-way; that-way the message comes your-way…E-way-mail.
He makes his way back through the bush and continues his journey along the shore. Feeling relaxed now and a little excited. He hums to himself.
Back home he sits outside his baking mud hut, taking globs of Nsima in his fingers, dipping into the tomato relish, cracking a little dried fish, mashing all together before placing it in his mouth, as an orange stands nearby on a smooth rock, proudly.
He watches the lake closing down and listens to his treasured Roberts short wave radio; the world service, the BBC brings news of Africa today.

***

Turned out they needed all the old workers at the old Maya beach lodge, despite the history, the allegations. Even Aron, the python killer was given a job, and he had been caught, stealing paraffin.
All twenty old workers were hired, and more. Hired to guide, to plant, to mend, to sew, to fix and to build. And more villagers were hired; the football team were hired to bring trees from the forest, huge trees carried by 11 men on their heads, unless one was ill, or drunk and then his wife took his place. People were paid; for food, grown or picked, charcoal makers, firewood collectors, and reed gatherers.
Brand new huts were build; trucks bought toilets and sinks from the big city. Latrines were constructed, new kitchens were knocked up, and new decking laid on the rocks.
The whole place was spruced up.
The workers had never had a toilet to use before, they went in the bush.
And equipment, new lamps, new nets, working clothes; and best of all a mess room, with hooks and a locker each.
This was no mzungu holiday trip, this was a better place.

There is a meeting in the bar, the bosses of the volunteer centre and the original Maya workers.
-But how will we make money with no guests?
-We will have volunteers, and they pay a great deal more money to come here to work on their projects.
The group swapped skeptical scowls.
Mandala spoke again.
-They pay to come and work?
-Yes, they each are specialists in their field and we will vet, check, every project before they come to see if it is workable.
-These projects, what are we talking about?
-Projects to help the community.
-And we will get paid Bwana?
-Yes you will get paid as employees of Maya, and other local tradesmen and villagers will get paid for any service they provide, but we will need your families, your friends to help work with these projects.
-And these people will be paid, our friends and family?
-No, I’m afraid not, but they will be working on projects to benefit themselves.
-But they will not be paid?
-No, but they will work on projects to help the community.
Mandala, stretched back on the bench and sipped his Fanta, and shook his head.
-People will not work for free Bwana, people want work for money.
-I understand, and eventually we hope that people will get paid work, will better their life, from what comes out of the projects. We hope to build schools, provide education, maybe a health clinic, we can train health workers, and gardeners trained in new methods can provide food, which saves families money, so in effect they are earning.
Mandala was a little angry.
-Nice ideas Bwana, but I see many problems, and the biggest is this…the chief will never agree to develop the villages.
-We thought he would welcome the chance for his people to develop, the chance for the people to have a better life.
Everyone looked sheepishly at each other, and lastly at Mandala to say what they all thought.
-Pay him off.
-What?
-I cannot speak badly of our chief, but I know this, he will not give up his power lightly. But money will soften him.
-We will see.
Mandala, smirked and drank the dregs from his can.
-Remember what I said to you today Bwana, it may help you later on.
The meeting went on for another hour or so, and the workers left eventually, rabbiting on about all the new ideas and plans as they shuffled along the lake clasping the fresh banana bread close to their chests. And chatted with their wives in the dark, by the sparkle of the lake, as the chickens slept.

***

-You cannot buy off my villagers anymore, I won’t allow it!
Manny, the volunteer, looked at the Chief puzzled.
-But I want the money to go back into the village, this village.
-No, the children steal my reeds, if they know they cannot get money for them they won’t steal them.
-But I can buy them off you?
-Of course.
-But aren’t the reeds everyone’s, they are available for everyone.
-Not here, I am the chief of all this lake, they can cut from the places I say, but those little thieves stole mine. They know which ones are mine.
Manny looked at him ‘’the best ones are yours you mean.’’
-No more, no sales to my people.
He turned and hobbled off with his staff with his grannies around him.
Manny turned, shaking his head, looked at the line of women with kids around their feet, shrugged his shoulders and held out his arms. The women mumbled, put the bundles of reeds back on their heads and dragged the kids back up the sand paths.
Madala had been watching of course, he watched everything. He grabbed a couple of ruffians and sent e-way mail to friends in the other three villages.
They met in the football team's training camp. Basically a few falling down huts where the team met, got stoned and drank shake shake.
-It’s easy, our women cut the reeds and your wives carry them to Mwaya.
-And we get paid.
-We share the money.
-If our women cut it too, they get all the money.
-Look, This way, we can cut and carry at twice the speed, so we get good money, and the job is done quicker, everyone wins, everyone happy, even the chief, we keep him happy.
-Let’s hope he doesn’t catch on.
-He won’t, he is too interested in watching that his reeds are not sold.
All agreed and passed the joint around to seal the deal.

***

The place got done up even more. The kitchen was modernized with running taps, gas bottle stoves, sinks, sealed store rooms, and a cold cellar sunk.
A new bar and eating area on the rocks. The traditional African huts were replaced by proper wooden chalets, on stilts, and proper thatching; mozzie nets bought, old ones given away, sheets and proper beds added.
Volunteers came, with projects.
The first school building was built.
A basic health clinic started, supplied with first aid medicines and equipment and knowledge, for local women. Children were treated, inoculated, de-wormed and cleaned up generally.
Doctors came, builders came, scientists and even gardeners.
Things started to get done. Things started to be learnt, work started to be useful. Ideas became useful. Skills taught that made sense, projects started that mattered.
Organic gardening was introduced, because it made sense. Permaculture introduced because there was no alternative.
Ideas, that out of Africa are alternatives, were introduced because they were a way of bettering people’s lives. In fact they were the only way; cheap, logical, do-able and effective. Everything made sense if it was put into the proper perspective.

***

-But, we catch more.
-Yeah, but the nets are too fine, too many smaller fish are getting caught.
-Yeah, but we have enough fish.
-That’s the problem right there. If you keep on catching the smaller ones eventually, the supply of fish will run out.
-But, there are lots of big ones now.
-I know, now but…
A fishery adviser volunteer was starting to lose patience.
-Listen! What I am saying is…

***

People’s lives got better.
New fishing methods were introduced, the small ones not trapped in the mosquito nets, so after a while the fish got bigger and there were more of them.
People worked on the community gardens, so people got healthier. And there was plenty of food. People’s diets got more varied, so people got stronger.

But along with this people were also working, getting paid for bits of work. So people wanted to buy stuff, any old stuff.
-He wants what?
Madala was translating for Yona, a good footballer, sometime thief and full time hard worker.
-He wants to have a sub of his wages to buy a clock. A Mickey Mouse clock.
-A Mickey Mouse clock, are you kidding? Now, if he wanted to invest in some boots I would understand it but a clock?
-It’s what he wants Bwana.
-But wouldn’t it be better to buy something useful, for the kids, some books, some food even.
-He wants a clock boss.

Some of the women took classes from the visiting health workers.
Their natural instincts for survival techniques were enhanced with proper, basic care, and healthy techniques, cleanliness, child care. And basic first aid was taught and learned eagerly.
-Why is he outside?
-He has a fever, maybe turbolo.
-Then we need to keep him cool not buried under blankets in the sun.
-Not sweat it out of him?
-No.
Latrines and dry toilets were built and dug, away from dwellings, away from water.
Grazed knees were treated with soap and water and a tube of germaline, a small thing but a very important one.
And schools were filled with a few basic things, blackboards instead of sticks in the sand.
Tables to sit at, books to be read and pencils to write with. And teachers to teach, local and from abroad, and methods were swapped and lessons learnt, and pupils came every day, gladly.
But the chief felt his power weaken. His people were getting stronger and more knowledgeable and worst of all they were organizing and demanding things, things to change.

***

Thud, thud, the sound of running feet. Skuffle, thud.
The watchmen were disabled; the men went into the Muzungu’s huts.
-Up everyone!
One guy reached for a machete.
A cool guy sat on the corner of a wonky table and pointed a pistol at him.
-My friend I wouldn’t if I were you.
The men were tied up and restrained with machetes or rifles at their temples or throats. The women pleaded and were pepper sprayed. The men, about ten in all, ransacked the place. Packing everything of value into sacks and bags. Satisfied, the cool guy took a look around.
-You will stay here and not move, we have scouts posted nearby and if someone comes out or tries to raise the alarm we will be back.
He turns, sheaths his knife and walks calmly out. After a few hours some people got free and gingerly went to help the wounded, but luckily still alive, watchmen. They sent a runner to the chief so he could contact the army road block a few kilometers away. But no one came.
It was morning when the police and the chief and villagers descended on Maya. There was chaos and the watchmen told tall tales of their heroics. The police took statements of such but it all seemed to fade away as the sun came down and the people drifted off.

***

In Chinchete market a shout went up.
A man was trying to sell an expensive camera.
-He is a thief, a thief from Maya.
People pushed him and punched him. He was grabbed and he pleaded, and named others, denying his involvement. Then the crowd got angrier and started beating him with their fists; as he went down they kicked him and then threw rocks on him, until the life went out of him.

The guns went off as people ran from their plots into their huts. Three men were running and firing backwards. The Police advanced. Eventually behind a hut a policeman shot one man through the head. Another was injured in the leg in the dunes near the lakeside. The third man ran out of bullets and surrendered and was kicked and slapped back to the station but protected by the Police chief; he was the son of the chief.

Nick Gerrard

Nick Gerrard

Nick Gerrard is originally from Birmingham but now living in Olomouc where he writes, proof-reads and edits, and in between looking after his son Joe, edits and designs Jotters United Lit-zine. Nick has been at one time or another a Chef, activist, union organiser, punk rocker, teacher, traveller and Eco-lodge owner in Malawi and Czech. Short stories, flash and poetry have appeared in various magazines in print and online including Etherbooks, Roadside fiction, The Siren, Minor Literature and Bluehour magazine. Nick has three books published available on Amazon. His latest Punk Novelette is all about a group of friends growing up with punk in 70s in the UK and the effect the movement had on their lives.
Nick Gerrard

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