Woman Driving, Man Sleeping
by Alan McMonagle
'Listen to this,' Cathy says, resting the newspaper on the steering wheel. 'A clerk in the capital has been fired for showing up at work on census day—decreed by government a public holiday. What do you think of that?'
'How can you read a newspaper and drive at the same time?'
'Because I can. Here's another one: Yesterday afternoon a brawl erupted over a toothpick in a café in Jinja. A toothpick!'
'You're going to hit someone.'
'Want to know what I think?'
'You're going to hit someone.'
It's unlikely, though. Cathy has an amazing scream and when she sticks her head out of the driver window and issues her command, the way ahead parts like a miracle sea.
'That's my girl,' Dominic mutters, leaning his head against the passenger window and closing his eyes.
'I'll tell you what I think,' she says, resuming her position behind the wheel of the jeep. 'This place is crazy, loop-the-loop, dooooo-lally!'
They are negotiating their way through the capital’s shanty suburbs, a ramshackle system of huts, shacks and lean-tos, fashioned from slats of wood and corrugated tin. It's early morning, already very warm and there are people everywhere—in various states of motion. They are running, walking, limping, hovering, sitting, kneeling. Some have bicycles. Others move in beaten-up Toyotas, or by boda boda – scooter-like vehicles with the power of a Yamaha – each man, woman and child immersed in a plethora of small routines that takes them from one day to the next.
To the left, a breeze blows in off Lake Victoria. Limbs of tropical trees reach out across the road. Slats of sunlight breach the lakeside canopy and through the trees can be glimpsed fishing boats trawling the waters of the great lake. Flourishing within this lush paradise are shrubs and flowers Cathy and Dominic have never seen, birdcalls they have never heard.
Roadside stalls are flogging water, Mars bars and Coca-Cola. More appealing are quantities of local produce: papayas, watermelons, mangos, pineapples, clusters of bananas; and boxes of Bell beer, fresh off the line from the lakeshore brewery ten minutes back up the road.
Cathy stares at the bananas and smiles. She's thinking of the pot load of matoke Juliet cooked up for them the evening before—a stew of boiled green bananas that doesn’t taste very nice but guarantees – as Dominic has passed the night finding out – you will stay regular. Now, Cathy watches roadside women toss peeled bananas into steaming pots, as a broad grin lights up her face. Younger girls, too, attend makeshift grills, upon which slabs of tilapia and strips of deer meat spit and sizzle. The women wave at flies and shoo away dogs attracted to the smoking meats. The occasional radio blares.
'Do you like the name Lucy?' she asks him. There is no reply. She glances over and sees that his eyes are still closed. She reaches over and elbows his ribs.
'Hey!' he grunts without opening his eyes.
'Do you like the name Lucy?'
'Lucy. The name. Do you like it?'
'Who is Lucy?'
She smiles and slowly shakes her head.
'What about Lorna? Do you like Lorna? It means forsaken.'
'Forsaken,' Dominic repeats groggily, rubbing his eyes.
'Yes, I know, it's a bit gloomy. Sends out the wrong message. What about Melissa?'
'Why are you suddenly interested in girls' names?'
'Do you really need to ask me that?'
'Last time you brought it up you were certain it was a boy.'
'Well, I am changing my mind.'
'Let me guess why—because you can.'
'You catch on fast when you want to. Oh, look!'
She has spotted something more tempting than matoke. She eases the jeep to a halt, and once more sticks her head out of the window and calls to three men occupying a patchy sofa, stuffing their faces with chapati and swilling from flasks of local moonshine. Strewn about them are bed frames, tables, chairs, broken drawers, cracked mirrors, dented pots and pans, bicycle parts and other bits of scrap metal. Whether this rack-and-ruin clutter constitutes the contents of a home or represents a place of business is difficult to tell.
‘Mzungu, how are you?’ they call out as they chew chunks of food and at the same time spit out parts that, for whatever reason, don't appeal.
Cathy indicates the baskets of cornmeal pancakes. Straightaway, the three men are out of their seats and all about her. Each of them takes a turn outlining the merits of his particular pancake over the others. Quickly though, Cathy is forgotten about as one of the men takes issue with something that is said. In turn, the men then proceed to slap each others' pancakes to the ground, rendering Cathy's mission a lost cause. She can still hear them shouting abuse at each other as she pulls away again.
Dominic rests his head against the window and closes his eyes. He wishes he hadn't eaten the matoke last night. It's your own fault, Cathy had been quick to say, unable to suppress her glee. You should never have made it known that bananas are your favourite fruit. The woman, Juliet, had been so excited. She'd kept cooking up the stuff, kept refilling his bowl, kept hovering by his shoulder to deliver her mantra. You are thin. You must eat. If she'd said it once she'd said it a hundred times. And like a fool he had obeyed. Cathy, amused by Juliet's close attention, had joined in. Later, she had slept blissfully through Dominic's numerous toilet trips. Now he feels depleted, without energy, wants to rest during the drive. There is another elbow to his ribs.
'What about Jessica? Jessica is a good name, isn't it? It makes a statement.'
'Hey! You say it very well. Have you been thinking about Jessica and saying nothing?'
'No. Can I go back to sleep?'
'It's from the Hebrew. I think she was a minor biblical character.'
'Please can I go back to sleep?'
'Are you in denial about this?'
'No, my stomach is in bits.'
'I hope Jessica isn't going to be as dozy as you. I'm going to need someone to talk to.'
'You're very sure it's going to be a girl.'
'I can tell. Listen, here's another one...'
She has the newspaper on the steering wheel again. Before she has a chance to read Dominic reaches over and takes the paper from her lap. This morning’s edition is concerned with more than unfortunate clerks and emotive toothpicks. A government accountant is being questioned about twelve million in aid money that has gone missing. Results from a poll conducted in the capital indicate that pregnant women prefer male midwives. To the north, a food convoy has been ambushed by insurgents, and one of the drivers killed. Whatever you do, do not go north, they have been told.
'These gorillas better be worth it,' Dominic says, folding closed the newspaper, and once again rests his head against the passenger window, allows his eyes close.
'Of course they are worth it,' Cathy answers as she swerves so dramatically around a crater in the road that Dominic is thrown sideways in his seat. 'In years to come we will be telling our grandchildren about the time we went in search of the silverback gorillas. Hey! I wonder what their names will be.'
'Our grandchildren, silly. But I suppose the gorillas will have names, too, won't they? Hey! You know what we could do? We could name our...'
Dominic is no longer listening. He has fashioned a headrest from some t-shirts he's grabbed from the back seat and yet again has shifted towards the passenger window, determined, this time, to make up for lost sleep.
They drive south, through the lush central lowlands. Everywhere there are banana trees, coffee bushes growing wild, and deep craters gouged out of the road Cathy refuses to see until the last moment.
'Can you please drive properly,' Dominic says, having been tossed around in his seat for about the fifteenth or twentieth time.
'There, there,' Cathy says, reaching over a placating arm.
They pass over the equator and continue through many villages. For two hundred metres or so, structures of sticks, straw and tin line either side of the road. Women, wrapped in vibrant greens, reds and yellows, move gracefully, freighting head-loads of vegetable baskets and green bananas. Younger girls, as yet not fully skilled in the art, employ the aid of hands. Children flit in and out of dwellings, cross the dust streets and stand in lines. ‘Mzungooos,’ they squeal as the jeep speeds by. Fishermen gut fish taken from nearby lakes. Other men sit in groups of five or six, sometimes surrounding an upturned crate laden with Coke bottles and bottles of Nile Special; or huddle around a transistor cranked to full volume, and strain to catch something through the static. Others again just stand apart and stare in attitudes of muted isolation, ragged clothing hanging off them.
Further on the tropical vegetation thins out and the wildlife appears.
'Oh, look!' Cathy says, one arm pointing and the other nudging the sleeping form beside her. 'And look! And look!' she continues happily.
She sees chimps; warthogs, elands and impalas; troops of zebras cantering. At one point a baboon walks right out in front of the jeep and again she has to be fast with the brakes. Further on she drives past a headless buffalo upon which a band of eagles is feasting.
Eventually the sun begins to fall. Light fades. Temperatures drop a little; twilight colours ignite the sky; animals slink off into the bush. They stop at a lakeside camp. The air is calm and warm.
A camp warden brings some tilapia, fresh from the lake, and he kindles a fire. It provides some light and ever so slightly discourages the mosquitoes. They gather near the flames with their meal.
'Are you not eating?' Cathy asks when she notices Dominic hasn't touched his food. He rubs his stomach by way of reply. Cathy rolls her eyes. ‘Still. It’s good to get out of the city, isn't it?’ she continues. ‘I thought we’d never get through those crowds. I don’t know how we didn’t hit someone.’
‘It's hard to keep your eyes on the road when you're reading a newspaper,’ Dominic says, allowing himself a smile.
'Do you like the name Sophie?'
'I had a teacher called Sophie. She was a nun. I never did my homework for her.'
'The name Sophie means wisdom.'
'That surprises me.'
'What about Lorna? I like Lorna.'
'I once knew a Lorna. She was a basketball player. So tall. I think I fancied her.'
'Did I tell you Lorna means forsaken? Sasha means defender of mankind. Melissa means honey bee.'
'I had a girlfriend called Melissa. She broke my heart.'
'What age were you?'
'The same age as that girl in the bar the other night.'
‘Don't remind me,’ Dominic says and Cathy laughs.
‘You’re lucky to be still with us,’ she says. ‘Juliet told me she's seen those girls eat a man alive. Remind me to take you back when we return to the city.’
'I can't wait.'
Soon the mosquitoes announce themselves. At first it's just the occasional ping here and there, a brief reminder that they are not alone. Then the squadrons arrive and the whirring invasion commences. It's time to hit the tents.
It's already light, Dominic hasn't slept and he is slapping at the solitary mosquito he is convinced has been whirring in his ear all night. Scratching the various body parts that are now itching him makes matters worse. He decides to go in search of coffee.
Cathy is sitting lakeside, watching fishermen haul in their catch. Two boys are trying to help out. They squeeze in among the men and each grab part of the net and pull for all they are worth. Cathy smiles at their efforts, at their eagerness to be part of the labour, to be contributing to the vital task.
Dominic is unable to find coffee. He slaps his ear some more, tugs his shorts front and back, scratches where it itches most. ‘Little bastards,’ he hisses and flicks his head from side to side in fast, jerky movements as though he has invisible demons to contend with. Cathy looks at him with curiosity.
'They won't leave me alone.'
'You're so brave putting up with them. In years to come I am going to tell our grandchildren how courageous you were on our African adventure.'
'There's no coffee.'
'I'll drive,’ Cathy says, making her way to the jeep and climbing in behind the steering wheel.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. You can go asleep, you’re good at that.’
He's happy to let Cathy drive. Late bars. Banana stews. Mosquitoes. He rests his head against the window, closes his eyes.
‘Do you like the name Joshua?’
‘Joshua’s a nice name.’
‘And Emile. What do you think about Emile?’
‘Yes, Emile’s a good name.'
‘What about Adolf?’
‘Adolf’s good too,’ he replies a third time, and she reaches for the map and throws it at him. ‘What’s up?’ he mumbles, barely opening his eyes.
‘Go back to sleep,’ she says.
Dominic closes his eyes, can feel himself start to drift. He doesn’t mind what the baby is called. Joshua. Himmler. Rommel. Autumn-Moon, Facebook, Scratchcard or just plain Sky. As far as he is concerned the baby can have a different name every day until he or she is a grown adult. He doesn't care if it is a boy or a girl, if it is born with two heads, no feet, an upside-down nose.
Not until he gets some sleep.
‘To Kisoro it is one hour and thirty minutes,’ the waiter in Kabale assures them. Then he rubs his chin, steps back inside the café and consults a colleague.
They have stopped further south, at a busy market town. Cathy is looking at her map. Dominic is trying not to look at the platter of matoke the waiter has set down in front of them.
‘Kisoro is right on the border,’ Cathy says. 'And look! Between Kabale and Kisoro there is a jungle mountain to get across. You know, I have a feeling we are going to remember this trip for a long time.'
'Really,' Dominic murmurs, not having heard a thing. He's been distracted by four youths parading an elevated bed frame across the road. Their destination – a half-demolished dwelling – has too narrow an entryway. One of the youths fronting the mission realises the difficulty ahead and abandons his share of the hardwood weight. He just walks away. And with that the bed frame crashes to the ground. There are loud shouts. Men and youths gather to survey the damage. Bicycles pull up. Some beat-up Toyotas. A crowd of men leaps en masse from the back of a large truck. Everyone seems drawn to the bed base. Lots of arm-waving and gesturing ensues. The entire road is quickly blocked, the scene soon resembling that of an unforeseen tragedy.
A boy pauses at their table and nudges Dominic. The boy shoves his arm inside the sack he is carrying and removes a little ebony carving, places it on the table.
'What's your name?' Dominic asks the boy who shrugs his shoulders.
'This is Dominic,' Cathy says. 'He has come all the way to your town to complain of a sore stomach and flies. He is going to be a daddy and he isn't coping very well.'
Again the boy shrugs his shoulders. Cathy fishes inside her bag and presents some coins to the boy. The boy takes the coins, cups them in his hand as though he is weighing what his carving has fetched.
'Don't spend it all today,' Dominic says to the boy and, his appraisal now complete, a broad smile spreads across the boy's face.
'I am the oldest,' he says, then scampers away. Dominic slumps into his seat.
'You have got to wake up.'
'My stomach doesn't feel so good.'
'It's a waste of time travelling with you. '
'And I'm itchy. Everywhere. I've probably got malaria.'
'Oh yes. You've got malaria and yellow fever and Ebola. It's a wonder you managed to impregnate me.'
'Thanks very much.'
'I was thinking—I hope she doesn't have your nose.'
'We are not calling her Melanie.'
'And your ankles. I've never been crazy about your ankles. And I hope Melanie has more flesh than you. I tried to pinch you when you were sleeping and I couldn't get a grip. I wonder whose mouth she'll get?'
'You're very sure it's a girl.'
'Oh, it's a girl. I can tell.'
Their waiter has finished consulting with his colleague.
‘To Kisoro, it is one hour and thirty minutes,’ he tells them.
'I just pray she won't be as dozy as you.'
'I hope it's a boy.'
'Oh you do, do you?'
Out of Kabale the serrated red-earth track quickly climbs through the jungle vegetation, and begins to wind its way around the mountain separating them from their destination.
‘This is going to be fun,’ Cathy says, clinging to the steering wheel, jostling with the gear sticks.
'What are the symptoms of yellow fever?' Dominic says, touching his forehead.
The jeep tyres churn up dusts and red spicules that swirl in front of them and form light coatings on the windscreen of the vehicle. Hairpin turns accumulate steadily below, and more and more gradually reveal themselves from the heights yet above, a great dusk-green lashing of leaves, branches, creepers and trees that is now shutting out any light from the fading sun.
Timber huts and corrugated tin dwellings peak through the vegetation. People flail at the land with hoes and machetes, in places hundreds of feet up, at what looks like right angles to the valley basin. The valley land falls away as far as the eye can see. Punched here and there with buttonhole lakes, it stretches far beyond the reach of the mountain foothills, eventually fading from view. At one point, they make out a pack of diminutive figures chaotically chasing after a soccer ball on a patch of luminous green. Someone reaches the ball, boots it haphazardly onward and the chasing pack alters course accordingly, bobbing in unison like a clutch of balloons tied to a piece of string.
The track continues to rise and coil. The way forward narrows. The gradient is sheer and sucks them further and further up and around the slopes of the looping mountain, all the time baiting them with panoramic views of its hidden valley. Hours pass since their departure. The sun drops down, the valley shades over.
Shortly after dark, the jeep makes a sound like a sneeze. Atchoo, it goes. And again. Atchoo.
‘The jeep is sneezing,’ Dominic says.
Cathy looks at him and frowns. Atchoo, goes the jeep. Then it makes another sound, a sort of displeasured growling.
‘I think we’ve just lost second gear,’ Cathy says, pulling at the gear stick.
‘What does that mean?’ Dominic says.
Cathy rolls her eyes and shoves the gear into third. The jeep roars its disapproval, creaks under the strain, starts to chug. Then it starts to roll back. Cathy switches to first gear. And tries again for second.
‘Ouch,’ Dominic says, as the gear stick screeches.
‘We’ve definitely lost second gear,’ Cathy says, with a little more emphasis.
‘What do you mean we’ve lost second gear? How can we lose second gear?’
Cathy stares at the gear stick, yanks it this way and that. Try as she might she cannot find second gear. And the gradient is too severe for third.
They crawl along in first, creaking their way forward. The jeep labours and the gear stick continually thwarts Cathy’s efforts. A succession of false peaks allows brief shifts into third before the grind upward kicks in again. Remaining in first, the jeep chugs and rattles wearily along, its cumbersome sounds all that are audible now in the jungle dark.
‘How far do you think it is?’ Dominic asks.
‘To Kisoro, it is one hour and thirty minutes,’ Cathy replies, inflecting for effect.
'All this for a bunch of gorillas,' Dominic says, kneading his eyes, straining to see what is left of the mountain to climb, the beam of the jeep's lamps merely capturing funnels of frantic moth activity.
'I think it's exciting.'
'I had a feeling you were going to say that.'
'You know what we should do?'
'I hope you're not going to say what I think you're going to say.'
'And what would that be, lover-man?'
'Not on your life.'
'I'll make it worth your while.'
'In case you hadn't noticed we're halfway up a jungle mountain in the middle of the night. We have a dodgy jeep getting dodgier by the moment. My stomach is in bits. I itch all over. I haven't slept in four nights and you want to...'
'You really are becoming a drama queen. I so hope she doesn't turn out like you.'
'And I hope he doesn't inherit your crazy notions.'
'Ah, you're no fun. I think I'll leave you with the gorillas. Be good for you. Hey! I think we've passed over the top.'
Cathy is right. They are descending. The jeep sighs as the strain on its creaking bulk suddenly relaxes. Quickly, they pick up speed and Cathy slams the gear stick into fourth, then fifth. The ground leans more and more in their favour. And just as the mountain turns had earlier cajoled them along, now they come upon them as though, finally tired of them, the mountain wants to spin them off its fickle slopes.
Cathy is in her element, in turn moving her feet from accelerator to brakes, looking more and more at ease, as though this is a trip she makes every other day. The angle of descent starts to level out. The tropical forest thins. In the distance, a light flickers. Moments later, the mountain is behind them. They look at each other and they laugh.
Dominic eases back his seat and settles into it, closing his eyes. Cathy drives towards the light. Directly ahead of them, the night lamps reveal a smooth stretch of tar road, with markings and a raised barrier. The closer she gets the more she accelerates. She feels liberated, let loose, and she is thinking of the exciting time ahead of them tomorrow, gorilla trekking in the jungle. She is thinking of the boat trip next week at the source of Nile. She thinks of the coming months, of all the preparations for the baby. Her mind is racing now, as though it is trying to match the speed of the accelerating jeep. So caught up is she in her thoughts she doesn't notice the movement onto the road in front of her, has no time to react. The impact stirs Dominic and he sits up.
‘What was that?’
Cathy has stopped the jeep. She leaves one hand resting on the steering wheel, the other she brings to her forehead.
‘What was it, Cathy?’ Dominic asks her again.
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I think it was an animal, a deer. Do you want to go and see?’
Dominic steps out of the jeep, the engine still running. He starts slowly back up the road. The outline of a small form, slumped in a motionless heap, gradually reveals itself. Dominic stops and covers his face with both hands. Then he continues, not stopping until he reaches where the impact has taken place. He kneels down. He reaches out an arm and shakes gently.
'What is it?' he hears Cathy call out. He places two fingers on the neck. 'What is it?' he hears her call out again, and he gets to his feet.
He turns around, sees that Cathy has stepped out of the jeep, her outstretched arms waiting for an answer. He looks over his shoulder and when he turns around again Cathy is walking towards him.
'Wait there,' he says, raising his hand, and one more time, he looks over his shoulder. Then he turns around again to face the way ahead. Cathy is still moving towards him. The light has disappeared.
Alan McMonagle lives in Galway. He has published two collections of stories, Liar Liar, (Wordsonthestreet, 2008) and Psychotic Episodes, (Arlen House, 2013). Earlier this year, his radio play, Oscar Night, was produced and broadcast as part of RTE's Drama on One season. He is currently going out of his mind writing his first novel. www.alanmcmonagle.com
Jason Cameron is a photographer in Utah, USA. View more of his work at Flickr.