James stepped onto the aisle and flashed his instinctive smile, looking at no one in particular. He briefly scanned the interior of the minibus and smiled again when he noticed the empty seat beside the aisle on the second row from the back.
He carefully made his way towards the seat, side-stepping the many pieces of luggage that clogged the aisle. The harvest must have been good upcountry, he mused as he felt the powerful engine tugging the vehicle from a stop.
The movement of the bus made it harder for him to manoeuvre through the clutter. The lurch at each gear change made him stumble backwards, watching his feet not to step on a sack of maize or a tray of eggs or any of the items arrayed on the aisle. Each time he had steadied himself and started making for the seat again, the bus driver changed gears and he stumbled back once more.
Eventually, he plopped down on the seat and heaved a long sigh of relief. He looked at his neighbour and smiled. The young lady rolled her eyes and turned to the window. Girls these days, James mused. He smiled again. Times change. People change.
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead, beaded with sweat from the labour of navigating the aisle. Just then, he noticed the conductor making his way towards him, shouting, “Fare! Fare!”
James automatically reached for his back pocket to retrieve his wallet. He knew he had two hundred shillings there. The last of the money his son had sent him the previous week. He was looking forward to receiving another instalment the next day. His heart warmed at the thought. He loved this son. His lastborn. All the others had abandoned him.
A second after his hand went into his back pocket, it flew to the other pocket. Then both hands reached into the two side pockets, just as the conductor leaned against the opposite seat and extended his hand, dirty currency notes draped across the fingers.
James’s wallet wasn’t in any of the pockets he had hoped to find it in. He looked up at the young man and his heart sunk. He looked down in embarrassment. He tried to make up a plausible excuse and quickly realised that, apart from the obvious fact that the conductor wouldn’t accept any, he couldn’t make up one.
This had never happened to him before. Never. But even if that hadn’t been the case, he considered himself too old to lie. He looked at the young man’s bloodshot eyes again and opened his mouth to say something, his hands scouring the bottoms of his pockets, hopelessly hoping the wallet was somehow still hidden inside, just a little out of his reach.
“I’m sor-,” he began.
“Money, old man,” the words came out with a sprayed mixture of half-chewed fibres and droplets of saliva. They landed on every part of James’s wrinkled face. The caked lips parted to reveal teeth stained yellow with years of chewing khat.
“Please-,” James tried again.
“Get off if you don’t have money,” the conductor interrupted him again.
James sighed, inwardly this time. That was exactly what he wanted to do. That was what he wanted to tell this young man. He knew he couldn’t ride without paying. It was wrong. And he was too old do such things. He would get off at the next stop and figure out another way to continue his journey. He leaned back against his seat and closed his eyes, relieved that the situation had been resolved.
“Get off!” the conductor barked. James’s eyes flew open. He found the young man had not moved an inch. He was still looking intently at him, eyes glazed over like those of a predatory animal.
James sat up again, not understanding what the conductor meant. “But the vehicle is still-,” he started. He wanted to say the vehicle was still moving and therefore he couldn’t get off, that he would get off at the next stop. That he didn’t want to bother them. But he was cut off with a shouted, “Get off now!”
The young man grabbed his arm and jerked him roughly from the seat. He felt the eyes of everyone in the bus instantly swivel towards him. A hush fell over the entire vehicle. He looked pleadingly at everyone his eyes latched onto, willing them to help him.
No one responded. Not even the young lady he had sat next to. She had stopped looking out the window and was now staring at the scuffle between him and the conductor with a mild curiosity. The last thing James noticed before she was hidden from him was that she was chewing on something.
His feet stumbled over the items in the aisle as the conductor dragged him towards the front. He cursed himself a hundred times over for spoiling such fine property. From one of the seats, someone yelled, “Watch out mzee, you just broke my eggs!” James couldn’t tell if the voice belonged to a man or a woman.
The conductor dragged him on, ignoring the spilling maize and breaking eggs and cackling chicken with string-bound legs. When they got to the open door, James cringed at the sight of the road flashing by outside. He saw that two other young men with equally red eyes framed the door. The conductor pulled him down onto the middle step.
“Please ask the driver to stop the vehicle,” James said, looking at the conductor. The young man didn’t seem to hear him. Instead, he gave him a one-handed push. James resisted by holding onto a bar. He looked pleadingly at the other two young men. Not a flicker of understanding.
He tried to turn around to speak to the driver. The push came again. He resisted again. He looked with the begging eyes at the conductor. Dread washed over him in a powerful wave. A third push came, much stronger this time.
His hands slipped from the bar. He felt himself stumble. He felt two more hands push him, rough pads against his ribs. He heard someone shout, “Wait!” But he couldn’t wait. He was airborne.
He felt the rush of the air on his bald head, his face, his body, his legs. A shoe slipped off and cool air pushed through the small hole in his sock. He had noticed the hole that morning after putting on the sock, and he had told himself he would discard it in the evening. He was too old to move about with torn socks.
Presently, his eyes snapped back to the road whizzing past below him. He braced himself for impact. He knew he would break all the bones in his body. Strangely, he didn’t think of how long he would have to spend in hospital for them to heal. He prayed as scenes from his fifty-five years flashed through his mind. The road got closer and closer.
The contact was confusing. He rolled several times, and the world spun on every axis. One moment, he was looking up at the clear blue sky. The next, his eyes were staring at the little black stones in the tarmac from a millimetre away. He also saw the trees on the roadside, two men dragging a mkokoteni, and vehicles flying up and down both sides of the road.
He felt each crack in his bones, each bruise on his face, and each thump on his flesh as the asphalt met and rubbed against his body with a brutal fury. After what felt like an eternity, he came to a stop, resting on his back. As he tried to raise his head, he felt the pain crawl from somewhere deep inside him. He waited for it to knock him out.
That’s when he heard it. The screech of breaks and the blazing of a horn. And then the loud thonk. He realised in a millisecond that it was the sound of hard plastic against his skull. But he didn’t have time to process it, because he felt rubber pressing against his torso. Pain shot through his body in a savage explosion.
Then, as suddenly as it came, it stopped. In its place, silence and darkness came.
Inside the minibus, a man fished a wallet from under a cackling chicken. He spread it open and held it aloft. The black-and-white picture of a man on an identity card stared out at the passengers from behind its little plastic window. Everyone stared back in silence.
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