The walk from campus to the university flats had been especially long that afternoon, a dry Lusaka heat chafing at their almost-embrace, a stop to buy talk time and chewing gum,  cheerful greetings to people he had told her were a problem. “That guy is a ka problem” he had said of Mwansa, the boy who would always ask a question in class and then answer it with “if you think about it”. As if nobody else in the world had thought of anything. But that day he had greeted Mwansa with a disturbing zeal, and avoided her with another greeting to another stranger when she asked about his new friends.

“Cancer,” he admitted as they approached the entrance to his mother’s place.

Thick patches of grass had grown along the path leading up to the house; a meandering trail smoothened by her old Camry over the years. Crisp packets and plastic bags and old mangos were scattered everywhere. The mangos had been sucked dry until all that was left were slithers of flesh which stood up like spikey rock star hair. It had amused her since she was a child the way that happened, and usually she made sure that she sucked the mango until the end to just that effect. At the foot of the wide veranda stood a big, white pot of roses. Their brown petals had been cast away by the dry September wind, leaving them bare. The garden chairs, which overlooked the yard, were in complete disrepair.

“She has cancer,” he said again, as if to apologise for the mess.

“So is that why you’ve been so quiet?”  It erupted from somewhere unknown to her, from the same place she had buried her love, and she regretted it almost immediately when she saw the look on his face. Something like disgust maybe, or shock or both. She wasn’t really sure. She knew she should have said how sad she was to hear, or promised it would be okay. Now, sitting in the mess of her selfishness, she wanted to reach out to him and touch him even though she knew it was too late. She enjoyed pushing him, refusing his consolation and then drawing him closer to the point of frustration. Usually, she could bring him back but now something rotten had been planted, something she could not undo or repair.

Amake Kahilu appeared on the veranda like a ghost. She was adorned in a red silk scarf which was rolled around her head like a crown, small gold hoop earrings and a grey sweat suite with the letters USC emblazoned on the leg and chest.  Her face was bare and soft-looking, tinged with slight exhaustion. Her eyes were misty from pain. Ilukanji had always thought she had a quiet, gentle beauty about her. It was a beauty comfortable in its own skin, one which enveloped you in its kindness until you would feel comfortable too. And she had always admired that tenderness. But, she had also always thought her strong with her solid frame, and sturdy speech, and unwavering air. Ilu liked that she knew who she was and that she didn’t seem to care what other people thought of her knowing herself.

“My daughter!”  Amake Kahilu threw her arms open and gasped.

Her son took off his shoes and laid them out at the edge of the brown doormat. He was deliberately slow and ceremonious. He wanted Ilu to feel the wedge between them. She would enter the house without him. It would be them together and him following behind, watching from the outside. This way he could blame his aching on being set aside by them. He had started to look for ways to hurt himself these days. He needed a reason other than his mother dying to feel the hurt that he felt.

Ilu, barely noticing his distance or perhaps refusing to, took no such elaborate measures. She was too excited to see her Aunty and as she held onto Amake Kahilu, she was filled with relief. There was no sign of fading. She was almost the exact same shape, still filled in her chest and back and around her waist. It wasn’t too bad; surely she would soon be better. She had almost convinced herself when suddenly, she felt how weak Amake Kahilu had grown, how she could no longer carry herself.

“Sorry,” Amake Kahilu whispered as they parted gently from their embrace.

Ilu’s throat prickled with tears at the apology, at the disregard she had for her own suffering, at the guilt she felt for things beyond her control.


 Inside the house, Amake Kahilu herded them into the kitchen, avoiding the clamminess of the loungue, thick with the smell of books, ink and medicine, and a blanket which had been slept in the whole day.Ilu imagined her reading from one of those books-maybe the first edition of Changes Amake Kahilu had thrust into her hands the first time she came to visit. Or the collection of poems by Soyinka which Kahilu had said he “could at least stand”-the words he often used when he would try, and fail, to mask his adoration for things she disliked.

“I haven’t been too well and Godson just disappeared last week –imagine?”   Amake Kahilu blurted. I haven’t been too well. The words were flimsy, too flimsy for what she felt. And tears began to well in her eyes as she laboured to deny the weight of her life, the nearness of death.

 “Tea,” Ilu whispered to herself before they could set themselves at the kitchen table. It was not so much an offer but a solution. It was what they had always done. She would come and visit. The three of them would drink tea and eat buns, bought from Aunty E’s stall at Stage One market in Kaunda Square. Then the two of them-Ilu and his mother would tease Kahilu. When the teasing petered into whispers between the children, Amake Kahilu would complain about an article she had to work on or a paper she had to mark, and leave them in their heat. She knew for certain what they only had an idea of. Tea would fix things. Tea would bring them together and help them vaguely know again.

“It’s fine.” Kahilu gripped Ilu’s arm before she could get up to the sink .He was losing control. He could see now that he had no control.

“Everything is fine.”  His voice had turned into a rasp, masking his rage, his loneliness, his pain.

And as Ilu watched him at the counter, an orange sunset spilling through the kitchen window with dust and the sound of children laughing, and market-women shouting, and mini-bus drivers hooting-the world grew further away. He grew further away. She could see then that she would lose him too and that things were changing. Maybe it was for selfish reasons, or maybe it was because of love but she coveted the way they were.