Child Witch Kinshasa is told mostly from the viewpoints of Frank (a journalism trainer), Dudu (a young Congolese boy) and Ruth (Frank's wife). We meet them, for the first time, in chapters 1, 2, and 7...
God, what a racket. Frank Kean rolled over in bed, half asleep, listening to drums and chanting from the streets beyond his hotel. Numb to the bone after a twenty‐hour trip, he fumbled for his watch and squinted in darkness at glowing digits. 01:27. A mosquito buzzed overhead like a helicopter low on fuel. Frank sat up, elbows tucked at his sides, listening. Some novice was cranking chords from an electric guitar down in the neighbourhood. Frank looked towards the sliding glass door. Forgot to shut it? Long net curtains shimmered in the balmy breeze like silver angels come to prophesy. You’ll get malaria. The music reached a climax and stopped. He heard a boy wailing. Pleading for mercy, by the sound of it.
Frank rose naked from tangled sheets, wrapped a towel at his waist and stepped through swirling curtains onto the balcony, its terracotta tiles and steel handrail still warm eight hours after sunset. Balmy equatorial heat dropped like a python from a tree and curled around his ribs, squeezing the breath out of him. The boy’s howls faded. About time, too.
He lit a cigarette and peered into an inky city dotted by pinpricks of yellow light. Hotel Maisha sat among a labyrinth of backstreets; a motorbike puttered by and some dog was barking up the wrong alley. Frank sucked smoke, scanning rooftops with a wry smile, savouring the slow promise of a vast, unknown land. This makes ninety‐nine countries; visit one more and I can join Travelers’ Century Club. Something to write home about? Or maybe not; better just go home, bide my time? He mulled his options, pausing mid‐drag, ear cocked.
The music resumed, quietly at first then louder: drums, choir and tinny guitar, surging like surf up a midnight beach, rushing around his feet and spreading upwards on crashing waves of song. The chanting built to a climax that quickly faded to a simmering silence punctuated by the howls of a boy. The kid sounded delirious. Adrenaline prickled through Frank’s veins triggering a reflex older than time, urging him to do something. Perhaps call the front desk. And say what?
A baritone voice boomed across the rooftops. Someone was addressing a crowd, like a practised politician or stand‐up comic, pausing for yips and whoops from his audience. Frank shifted a few paces to hear better, but thunderous applause for the orator made it pointless trying. He spotted two uni‐ formed guards under a solitary bulb in the car park, nattering the night away, rifles slung across their knees, the toecaps of their black boots shining like aubergines. One guard glanced up at the pale figure on the balcony. Frank gestured towards the noisy neighbourhood. The guard resumed chatting with his colleague. Frank stepped back into his room and slid the glass door shut. Whatever.
From the bed, he aimed the remote at the TV. The screen fizzed into life, revealing an earnest‐looking priest yapping in French, bug‐eyed and bombastic, catastrophe due any minute. Frank flipped channels. CNN offered more of the same, this time from Wall Street. On the next channel, three beefy dudes in oversize bling were smooching bikini babes to a hip‐hop beat. Catchy tune, but not that catchy. Frank poked the red button and they vanished.
He nibbled a sesame biscuit and sipped water, considering the task ahead. His new contract would last several weeks. A tricky one too, potentially. Four cities, fifty people at least. It was becoming a routine but how else to pay the bills back home? The details blurred and swam in his head like tropical fish in a knobbly reef. Get in, get out and move on. Fatigue enveloped him like warm water until he was floating in time and space, fingers twitching. He sank back on his pillow and, finally, he was gone, slack‐jawed and dribbling for England.
His soccer kit was red, white and blue. He ran across a sloping field of patchy grass in blinding sunshine, chasing a misshapen ball that bounced all wrong. Why even bother? Chanting fans packed the terraces and a young African player told him, Mister, we are losing. Frank shrugged. Doing my best.
The ball spun loose and Frank lashed an audacious volley that sent it dipping over the grasping goalie. The net rippled in slow motion and a bank of cheering fans rose, ecstatic, their chants spiralling to a blue sky, pealing like the bells of heaven. Muscle‐bound men pummelled big drums and a burly woman stood twanging a guitar like some vintage blues starlet – Sister Rosetta Tharpe? Frank turned to salute the crowds but they had vanished. Instead, he saw a barefoot boy sitting alone on the grass, sobbing into puny fists. Frank moved towards him but was soon sinking in mud, his boots popping gloop. A mosquito buzzed his ear as the boy’s sobs mutated into howls, louder and louder.
There it is again.
Frank opened an eye and looked towards his balcony, listening to the incessant scratching of a thousand crickets. Welcome to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Night came quickly to the village. Dudu lay on his bamboo bed, listening to a monkey screeching in the bush, not far away. It was caught in a trap, perhaps. Uncle Moses nosed through the ragged curtains, picking at his teeth, face half in shadow. “Goats?”
“Yes, Uncle, done.”
“Did you fetch water?”
“No, Uncle, but first thing tomorrow.”
A shaft of moonlight fell across Moses’ pinched face. He looked like a rat sniffing for scraps. Dudu noticed how his mouth curled a little from a shrapnel scar, as if he would be forever smiling about his lucky escape from the war. Not like Tata, blown to bits by the same landmine. It seems unfair. Dudu turned away, gazing at the ceiling. Moses clicked his teeth.
“First thing, good and early; don’t be late. We must clean up Heroes’ Corner. My bar is dusty, probably why I’m losing clients. Tables and floor need a scrub. What d’you say?”
Dudu lay watching a moth wriggle in a spider’s web. “Yes, Uncle.”
Moses spat a shred of tobacco. “Yes Uncle, no Uncle. Go to sleep, and no peeping.”
The curtain closed and Dudu slipped silently from his bed to watch through the crack. He saw Moses lie down and snuggle into Mama, complaining about something. He seemed skinny compared to her, pawing at her robe now and kissing her face. Mama did not seem to mind. How can she let him do such things; has she forgotten Tata? Uncle Moses turned his head towards the curtain. Dudu shrank away and crept back to bed. He covered his brother with a blanket. Little Emile’s withered leg stuck out like a branch on a small dead tree.
The house smelled of vomit and diarrhoea; worse every day, because of Nana Kima. Dudu wrinkled his nose and watched silver moonlight paint the crusty wall, while questions wriggled like snakes in his head. Will Uncle never take Nana to the clinic? Why does Mama not insist? He stared at the tufts of dried grass that Moses had stuffed in a hole in the roof. They resembled the hair in his stinky armpits. Tata would have fixed that hole with wood.
Dudu watched the moth struggle on. But when you were caught you were caught. The spider darted from darkness, orange and white, fat as a bean, and spun a fine cloak around the moth, pausing briefly to inspect it, perhaps whispering hello, or more likely goodbye.
He heard Mama gasp and give a little yelp, like the time she had stubbed her toe in the yard. Moses groaned as if someone were strangling him; Dudu wished it were true and closed his eyes. How can Mama lie down with Moses, night after night?
“Because she needs security,” Ginelle said, early next day, in her matter-of-fact way. They were walking to the spring and Dudu’s pretty neighbour had all the answers, as usual.
“What’s security?” asked Dudu.
“Something important. That’s what my tata says, anyway.”
Ginelle strode along the muddy path swinging her empty bidon of scuffed yellow plastic. Dudu swung his too, back and forth, trying to keep time. The forest rose in a bank of rippling green to their right. To their left, hills rolled gently to the plain where distant villages lay in a smoky haze. “And Uncle Moses is the best you can hope for,” Ginelle concluded.
Emile was lagging behind again. Dudu turned and hissed at his brother to hurry and Ginelle said, “It’s not Em’s fault. Why are you bossy? You’re not the boss around here.”
She paused to regard him, as though daring him to disagree; her fine neck arched just so. Silhouetted against dazzling sunlight, Ginelle resembled a beautiful statue, like in Dudu’s picture book. A goddess from Ancient Rome. But he did not tell her. Emile shuffled past them and muttered, “Slowcoaches.”
Ginelle pointed towards the bend in the path. “You first, Dudu. Unless you’re scared.”
“Of what?” Dudu pretended to adjust his satchel and Ginelle walked on, smiling as though she knew a thing or two. Around the corner they joined the bigger track with deep ruts and walked in single file to avoid tripping into them.
“How’s your Nana?” said Ginelle.
Dudu shrugged. “Worse. Uncle keeps saying we can’t take her to the clinic because the white nurses will kill her and sell her insides. No one ever gets out alive. Is that true?”
“Moses is a donkey,” Ginelle replied.
Emile giggled, swinging his bidon. “Moses is a donkey.”
Dudu frowned at Ginelle and wagged a finger. “You shouldn’t say things like that.”
“Why not? Listen, neighbour, if people die in the clinic, it’s because they went too late. Here’s something else you don’t know: last night I dreamed I met a handsome warrior.”
“His father was mwami, a chief. They had a big house, water from a brass tap.”
Dudu sighed. “I dreamed of Tata. We went fishing.”
“Not again! Don’t you ever dream of me?” Ginelle scooped up a rock and weighed it in her hand. Dudu wondered how to reply. If he said no, it might hurt her feelings, but if he said yes, she might tease him. So he said nothing. Besides, the dog was coming.
It hurtled up the path, blocking their way, barking and snapping, black fur all clumpy and its torn ear dangling like a dry leaf. As ever, the dog seemed mostly interested in Dudu and circled him with a nasty look, but Ginelle distracted it by pretending to offer food, and when it approached, curious, she threw the rock, bang on target. The dog squealed and ran. Dudu clapped his hands. “Good shot.”
“You owe me.” Ginelle walked on, leading Emile by the hand.
They reached the spring and joined the long queue of children clutching plastic bidons. Most kids wore old clothes like his; some had smart uniforms, ready for the school bus. Dudu watched Ginelle chat to a friend in shoes, not to some scaredy-cat barefoot neighbour like him. The tall twin boys in Adidas caps were looking Ginelle up and down.
Dudu squatted at the back of the line and took his picture book from his satchel. It was soon snatched from his hands; the twins stood over him in white shirts and red ties. One of them was mocking Emile’s wobbly walk and the other pretended to read aloud, turning Dudu’s pages. “Dear Diary: my uncle drinks, Nana stinks and fetching water is girl’s work.”
Dudu stood up and tried to make himself as tall as them. “Can I have it back, please?”
The twin turned pages. “Famous Places. Rome. Paris. Where d’you get this rubbish?”
“From my tata. He got it from school. When he was little.”
“Why don’t you come to school, are you too thick?”
“I help Uncle Moses. Can I have it back, please?” Dudu thrust out his hand.
“Or what?” said the other. The twins even sounded alike.
“Or you’ll get a headache,” said Ginelle, approaching with a rock in each hand.
The book was flung at Dudu and the twins wandered off, working their way down the queue, mocking Emile’s wobbly walk and pushing the smaller kids.
Ginelle dropped the rocks, picked up her empty bidon and walked quickly away. Dudu trotted after her, dragging his little brother by the hand. “Ginelle, where are we going?”
“Somewhere else. And bring Emile.”
They followed Ginelle towards the river and, along the way, she offered free advice.
“You’re twelve, Dudu, and I’m thirteen. So listen carefully: you’ll never amount to much if you can’t stand up for yourself. Agree?”
“I’ll get slapped by Moses if I don’t fill his bidon. We should be at the spring.”
“We’ll go back when there’s no queue or bossy boys.”
“But Moses is waiting. I have to mop Heroes’ Corner, so it’s clean for clients.”
“What clients? My tata says that Moses has none, these days! Let me tell you something else, Dudu. My mama says your Uncle Moses is too bossy to manage a bar. Anyway, donkeys can last a long time without water. So don’t be boring. Come along.”
She led them to the riverbank and climbed the big tree with the sloping trunk, her knickers showing. Dudu watched with interest and Ginelle was soon straddling the fat branch that extended out over the water. She smiled down and said, “Come up, if you dare.”
“What about Emile? He can’t climb.”
“Emile is a brave warrior guarding my boxes of jewels. Isn’t that right, Emile?”
Emile nodded and set the three bidons in a row. Dudu hauled himself up the tree and joined Ginelle, high over the river. He watched her elegant brown fingers trace names that sweethearts had gouged into the bark: Colette & Didier, Jean-Luc & Marie.
“Still carving your funny little animals in the yard, Du?” She spoke quietly now.
He watched the brown river curling away towards the next village. “Sometimes, yes.”
“Do you think someone will carve my name in this tree, one day?”
Dudu wondered what to say. If he offered, she might make fun. “Perhaps, Ginelle.”
She sighed and seemed troubled. “You know your problem, neighbour? You’re not brave. Or romantic. If the beautiful daughter of a chief set you a task, you wouldn’t do it.”
Ginelle picked her nose with a dainty finger. “Jump in the river.”
Dudu looked down. “I’ll get wet.”
“Perhaps I should ask the twins, what do you think? They seem big and strong.”
Dudu peeled off his T-shirt, walked along the branch and jumped. He tucked his knees up and hit the water with a satisfying splash, whooshing down to the reeds, where he held his breath, so Ginelle would think this brave warrior had drowned. Would she weep? Maybe.
He shimmied up to the sunlight, flicking his feet. He broke the surface, shook water from his eyes and heard Ginelle yelling above. She sounded upset and that pleased him, until he spotted the bossy twins on the riverbank, slapping their thighs, laughing and pointing. Emile was sobbing and the three yellow bidons were floating swiftly away downstream.
Ruth Kean was praying in a pew near the back of the silent church, when she heard footsteps clicking towards her. She opened her eyes and smiled up at the grizzled priest in his black soutane. He leaned closer, with a friendly whisper. “Afternoon, Ruth! Thought it was you. How’s your nomad, got there OK?”
“Yes, thank you, Father Lynch. And how are you?”
“Weather like today? I’d rather be back in Africa, but he can’t quote me!” The priest tapped his bulbous nose and walked on. He opened one of two shiny black doors a few metres away and vanished into the tiny confessional beyond, like a ghost through a wall.
Ruth watched a hunched crone in beige stockings shuffle up and enter the adjoining compartment of the confessional to spill her beans. The crucifix shimmered in the stained-glass glow above the marble altar and Ruth felt a phoney. She had been to confession how often, since her conversion? Maybe twice. It’s too… medieval. What were you supposed to confess? Bless me, Father, I nagged Billie about her revision? As if God would care. She made the sign of the cross and closed her eyes. She prayed for Frank to be safe, for their son not to miss him too much and for Billie to do well in her exams. She prayed for her dad not to be lonely in South Wales and for her mother-in-law Betty, likewise, up north. Last of all, she offered a quick prayer for the baby in her womb. She felt a kick inside and waddled from her pew.
She stood outside under fat raindrops from ancient oaks, waiting for the drizzle to ease off. Surely, to confess, you must first feel like a sinner? Did she? No. Just a bit lonely, as usual when Frank went abroad, but it would pass. She checked her watch. Dylan would be waiting at school. She pulled up her collar and walked to her red Mondeo parked by the lichen-covered wall. She drove away listening to The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”.
Ruth arrived outside St Edward’s Primary at 4.25 p.m. and walked along the privet-lined path towards the neon-lit annex, stepping aside for more punctual parents with boisterous offspring coming the other way. Dylan waved from a window of Kids’ Club and came out flapping into his coat like a baby bird trying to fly. Ruth assisted and ruffled his blonde curls. She tried to peck his face but he recoiled, too busy glancing back at a pretty young girl with curly blonde hair watching from the window. She could have been his twin sister. Something in the air. “Who’s she?” asked Ruth.
“New girl, Aubrey Price. Her daddy works in China.”
“She’s pretty. Is she nice?”
“Yes, and posh too. That’s why Baxter makes fun of her voice.”
“But you don’t, I hope. Where does she live?”
“The Lindens. She told me it’s a little street that goes nowhere. By Richmond Park.”
“She means a cul-de-sac, I know the one. Her folks must be rich. You’re moving up, buster.”
They stopped at Mr Singh’s on the way home. The burly newsagent was sitting behind his counter reading A Farewell to Arms, scratching at his bushy silver beard. Ruth cancelled their delivery of The Daily Telegraph. “Because Frank’s gone to Africa for a couple of months and I won’t have time to read it.” She reached for a carton of skimmed milk.
“Not even do the crossword?” said Mr Singh, opening his blue ledger to scribble in a column.
“I’d rather quilt. Ernest Hemingway, that’s who you remind me of. His photo is on the back of your book.”
“Frank told me the same, one time. When will he be back?”
“When he’s shot a few elephants. I’ll take this milk and a French baguette, s’il vous plaît.”
Walking up her garden path five minutes later Ruth pictured ivy crawling up her house, like in those houses in The Lindens. But no, it would look presumptuous. Pretentious? Something like that. Anyway, either you had ivy or you didn’t.
Dylan kicked off his shoes in the hall and Billie appeared on the landing in her grey school uniform, arm over the banister, head cocked like she was in a fashion shoot. She certainly had the looks – caramel-coloured skin and increasingly slender curves. Bordering on skinny, she was. Once, she would have been labelled half-caste but now she was mixed-race. It sounded like an Olympic event. She looked pleased. Weird. Perhaps it was the fluoxetine. Ruth unlaced a shoe.
“Looking chirpy, Billie. Is it the new meds or do you have some good news?”
“It’s a free country. Good day at the orifice?”
“Old jokes, folks. But yeah, not bad thanks, some bridgework and a couple of extractions.”
“How’s Purple Jane, still getting on your tits?”
“Language, please. She wore a red scarf today, can you believe it? And the boss has new a watch.”
“Cost a bomb I bet, knowing Simon.” Billie’s brow kinked. Something else on her mind. “You any good at the subjunctive?”
“I’m better at the subnormal. Why do you ask?”
“Three of ’em in French homework, apparently.”
“Sorry, my French stopped at seventeen. Où est la gare? Why don’t you ask Frank?”
“Because he’s not here, comme d’habitude.”
“I meant by email. You know he likes to help. If you give him a chance.”
Billie scrutinised a cuticle and Dylan said, “Guess what, Billie?”
“No idea. Guess Jeans?” Billie spoke sideways, too busy chewing a fingernail.
“Baxter caught a frog with three legs. It’s at school, in a glass jar.”
“Baxter has three legs?”
“No, the frog. And guess how many times Aubrey has read Harry Potter?”
Billie came down to tickle him. “Who cares. Guess who got invited to Glastonbury?”
Dylan writhed in her grasp, whooping it up. “Stop! Invited where?”
“To a pop festival,” said Billie. “Biggest in Europe, and I’m going.”
“Says who?” said Ruth.
Billie released Dylan and turned, staring. “Mother, I’m eighteen, you can’t stop me.” She shrugged and held the pose, arms out and palms up, got it? The scars on her inner wrists were still visible – translucent bracelets that would take years to fade.
“You’re seventeen, Billie, and actually I could stop you. But, hey, it’s free country, right? Live and learn.”
“This and that.” Ruth tried to sound blasé. Thousands of people went to Glastonbury every year, camping out, listening to bands and chomping exotic food sold by happy hippies. Yes, it was perfectly possible to pass a fun weekend in deepest Somerset and emerge sweaty but relatively unscathed. Not everyone got blasted out of their skulls, shagged their wife’s best mate and spent Sunday weeping in a muddy ditch. Only fools did that, such as her first husband. The memory died hard and so had Max, eventually. Ruth glanced in the hall mirror at her crow’s feet. Time passes, we move on.
“So I can go?” Billie stood alongside, her face unlined, her gaze unwavering.
“Sure,” Ruth replied, “if you can afford it. A pop festival is not cheap. I went to Glastonbury a few times with your dad and it cost us a bit even then. A lot more now, I reckon. Transport and ticket, food and fun. So, who’s inviting?”
“Chloé, actually.” Billie turned away and Ruth knew that her doe-eyed daughter was lying, actually.
“I see. Chloé who hates camping?”
“Uh-huh. She changed her mind.”
Ruth tapped Billie’s arm. “Stop chewing your nails, how many times do I have to tell you?”
“Can I go?” asked Dylan, standing between them.
“And jump in a lake? Yes.” Billie trotted upstairs, bum on her like a Bunny girl.
©Mike Ormsby, 2013
Child Witch KINSHASA (Nicoaro Books)
Photo by Kim Gjerstad