“They Can’t Talk Back But They Are Always Listening.”

A week or two ago, at around 3.00 am, I found myself having a conversation with the attendant of the ladies’ loo in the Parque dos Continuadores. She was probably in her mid-twenties and had been asleep on the bench when I had come in. She woke as I was washing my hands and we exchanged the usual pleasantries.

“Tudo bem?”

“Tudo, gracas a deus. E consigo?”

She told me her name was Sara, and I told her mine. She asked how long I’d been in Maputo, what I was doing here, whether I liked it and I told her. I asked her whether she was from here.

There was a surprising openness about her and a genuine curiosity to her questions, which made me sit down on the bench next to her. After all, conversations with complete strangers do not happen everyday in cities like Maputo.

She slapped a mosquito on her arm and I offered her some repellent.

She then proceeded to tell me about her life. How she works two jobs, as a maid in the house of some Portuguese and also as a lavatory attendant at night at the weekend. How she wanted to spend more time with her children who were growing up too quickly. How she had been forced to leave her home in Gaza and come to Maputo to live with cousins after her father had died of an illness and her mother had been killed by Renamo militia. How much she missed her village. How she missed her parents.

There were probably only a few years between us in age, and I  was hit by a sense of both the enormous contrast between her life and mine, and yet also the familiarity of her fears and desires. I then thought of Henning Mankell’s book and of Nelio as he is forced to flee as a refugee, walking miles through the bush to escape the militia who have razed his village. Then I felt embarrassed for having to turn to fiction to even begin to conceive of the suffering this woman now sitting calmly in this bathroom next to me had experienced.

I told her how my grandmother had died and she let out a sigh, clucking her tongue,

“Was she ill?” She asked. I explained she had dementia and that she was over ninety when she died and Sara was amazed.

“She had a good life, a long life.” She said. “But it doesn’t make it any easier. She is your flesh and blood. You came from her.”

We fell silent then and I stared at the trail of ants making their way in single file across the cracked, cement floor.

“I like to think she is still here. That she is listening.” I said slowly, articulating the thought for the first time.

“Eeeeh! Of course she is listening.” said Sara, “They are always listening. They can’t talk back, which is hard for us, but they are always listening.”

We fell silent again.

Then someone stuck their head round the door. Somebody was leaving, I needed to go and say goodbye.

I stood up and turned to Sara. We looked at each other and hugged, a long, firm embrace of the sort that only comes from having shared something private. It was a gesture which said everything our clumsy words could not. As she pulled away I saw she was crying and I realized I was too.

“See you again, amiga (friend).” She said.

“You too, amiga.” I said and left her sat on the bench, a far away expression on her face as she watched the flickering shadows the moths cast on the wall.

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