It had been the hottest day of the hottest month of the year and Acen was feeling every single degree scorching her skin. Trudging home in a residual afternoon heat that seemed to stifle what little cool evening air it could find, Acen crossed the dusty road hurriedly, barely missing the beaten down minivan taxi that sped by with its conductor sticking his upper torso out the side window. His voice was as raspy as the minivan tires crunching against the rocky murram roads from screaming all day for customers.
"Kalerwe-Wandegeya-Kampala! Nkumi-biri Kampala, lukumi Wandegeya. Tugende! Sister ogenda?"
As the conductor's screams faded into the distance the tumult grew louder. Horns blared everywhere. Drivers of salon cars honked at taxis, taxi drivers honked at bodabodas and, adding to the pandemonium that is Ugandan traffic, dust rose from bodaboda motorists flying past like wasps, minding only their destination and cursing foolish pedestrians who chose the wrong moment to cross the road.
Acen could feel her temper wearing thin as she picked up her pace home. Her head started to throb with a dull pain that was more irritating than debilitating, and it grew louder with the noise. The dust mixed with the sweat that rolled down her face to form a thick, dense layer of grime. And the heat... God, the heat just kept rising!
To keep herself calm, Acen thought of the cold glass of water waiting for her at home. She could almost feel the wet coolness gliding down her throat as she threw off her heels and sunk into the couch, the fan blowing cool air her way. But this only made her throat drier and the glass of water suddenly felt too far.
She checked her handbag for a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from her face and noticed the medicine was not in her bag. The medicine her mother had sent her for was. She stopped with an abruptness that caused the man walking behind her to run into her, checked her bag frantically, ad swelling with panic at the notion that she might have dropped the medicine, she saw the white kaveera with the pharmacy's name emblazoned on it, tucked deep inside the folds of the handbag. A surge of relief ran through her. She pulled it out and clutched it firmly in her hand.
A sudden horn blared right behind her, startling her out of her thirst-ridden thoughts. She turned back sharply and her eyes met with Edna Kabiisa. Dear God, Acen prayed, not her.
Edna smiled eagerly and beckoned her to the car. Acen's shoulders slumped. She walked slowly towards the bright-red Rav4 hoping the car and its occupant would somehow disappear before she got to it. Unfortunately that didn't happen. She reached the window at the passenger's seat and leaned in. Edna still had that eager smile on her. She leaned across the gearbox, towards Acen, her trendy green top giving a teasing glimpse of perfume-scented cleavage. Her red lips, shimmering as if in competition with her bright red glasses, her red tipped thumbs drumming a random beat on the wheel, all made Acen suddenly self-conscious. She tugged at her second hand dress and patted hair that hadn't seen the inside of a salon in a month, feeling like an ugly mixed-breed mutt looking at a prize-winning pure-breed poodle.
"Kyoka you girl! Where have you been?" Edna asked with saccharine excitement, "I heard you were outside countries?"
Acen felt her lips pull into a grimace that might have been mistaken for a smile, and replied with strain, "Munange I came back! I have even been around for-"
A passing taxi conductor yelling for customers drowned out the rest of her words.
"Why don't you enter? Where are you going? I can drop you and we catch up ko."
Acen bit her lips and took a step back, clutching her handbag and kaveera closer to her body, "Eh, it's OK. It's nearby. Why don't I give you my number and-"
"No-no-no-no-no," Edna cut in, moving her handbag from the passenger seat to the back seat, "I can take you. Come on Acen, it has been sooo long since we last saw each other, let's catch up ko ka-little"
Acen looked at Edna's eager smile and was surprised at her willingness to help her. Edna was an old schoolmate. She had been charming, sweet-mannered, and mean. It seemed she had kept the first two and abandoned the third. Acen considered the offer. It is so hot, why not accept the help? She opened the passenger door and slid into the car.
"Thank you so much."
As Acen sunk into seats that seemed like a cloud of softness in the air-conditioned car, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, her headache receding as the windows rolled up, shutting out the noise from the traffic. The car had a new-car-smell that mixed well with Edna's floral perfume. 'DKNY' Acen thought to herself. She remembered smelling a sample in one of the Cosmopolitan magazines she snuck away from her mother's room. Her own downtown perfume had faded hours ago and, as Edna started the car, Acen discreetly raised her arm to smell her armpit. Her deodorant had faded as well. She drew her arms closer to her body on instinct, as if that could keep her sweat-filled scent from spreading throughout the car. As Edna pulled into the traffic, she leaned over to reduce the volume on the car radio.
"Where do I drop you?"
"I stay just opposite Hotel Garden in Bwaise."
"I'm not sure where that is," her face twisted in puzzlement.
"I will tell you where to turn," Acen smiled tiredly, "no worries."
Edna smiled back at her and turned back to the traffic, inching forward when the SHELL fuel truck in front of them shifted an abysmal inch forward.
"So when did you come back? I thought you had left the country for good," she asked Acen with eager curiosity. Her sickly sweet voice practically vibrated with it.
"About three years ago. I was there for about a year and a half."
"Yes, actually. Botswana. It was a good place. I experienced a lot but I missed home; I thought I would accomplish more here so I came back." She had rehearsed and recited that answer when she came back: it was vague in explanation but discouraged further questioning at the same time. She usually followed this response by quickly turning the attention back to the other conversant, which she started to do now, but Edna jumped in quickly.
"I heard it was because you had not graduated and the campus was going to discontinue you."
Acen tensed up. Shit, shit, shit. How did she know? We didn't even study at the same university. Her mind raced for what to say, a way to divert the conversation off one of the biggest regrets of her life.
"Well you see..."
As if sensing that Acen was gearing up for another vague explanation, Edna turned to meet her eyes and probed at the wound harder. "I never saw graduation pictures on your timeline so I assumed you didn't graduate with us. You were failing right?"
Acen saw the smug glee dancing just beneath Edna's mask of concern. Edna had not changed after all.
She swallowed and turned to face the traffic. "No, I didn't graduate with you guys. I failed some of my courses and I had to retake them, so I graduated late," Acen said quietly.
"Bambi," said Edna, her sugar sweet voice brimming over with sympathy, "your parents must have been so disappointed."
"They were..." she answered, her jaw tight.
"But at least you finished, right?" she pushed, eager to spread this new development in Acen's life to her old classmates and friends.
"Yes." She turned to her, lying through smiling teeth. As if I can to tell her everything going on in my life. "And you? What's new with you? You really look good."
"I know right?" she laughed at her own immodest response. "I am good. God has been kind to me. I have been working at the Ministry of Finance as a Junior Accountant. I even have a side business - a little boutique in Equatorial Mall. You should come there sometime."
She looked Acen up and down, taking in her white and black dress whose bottom lace was frayed with age. Her faded chequered jacket was too tight on her; her arms looked obscenely squeezed into the sleeves, and her black shoes were scuffed and peeling from age and walking the streets of Kampala. Her outfit screamed second-hand, and her hair - God her hair was dry and lifeless - pulled back to show a face free of makeup, and a skin that was dull and filled with strain and weariness.
"But Acen you never change," she laughed, "you look so shabby!! You still don't care what people think of you, eh? Do you still over sleep?"
"No, I have a job now. I can't be how I was 10 years ago." The traffic had started to move and Acen murmured with relief, "turn left here."
"Where do you work now?" Edna pressed, switching on the indicators as she turned the car wheel.
"I'm working as a data collector for Bureau of Statistics."
"Eh, only?" she exclaimed, before turning to Acen with a falsely sheepish smile. "Sorry dear, what I meant is, we expected that you would be an economist or engineer; or something big, nanti you were so clever."
"Well it didn't happen, did it?" she turned to Edna, with an icy look.
"No, it didn't," she responded, clearly enjoying the slight flinch when Acen emphasized 'didn't'. Edna reached over and tapped her shoulder in sympathy. "Life is strange you know, you end up where you least expect: look at me for example, I didn't expect to be a business woman when I was-"
"Turn right here," Acen cut in. She rubbed the sides of her temple. Her headache was coming back and it was more intense than before she entered this godforsaken car.
"Oh, ok. Anyway I am just saying I never expected to be a businesswoman when I was younger, now I'm just thankful because it has really helped me take good care of myself. I can even travel on my own money...go to a good clinic..."
Acen tuned her out as she continued to list all the ways her life was better than hers: her new land, her boyfriend who she could swear was about to propose, her plans for an MBA at a top university in America- all the things Acen had wished for herself years ago but had never worked hard for. Not until now. Acen had enjoyed her campus life; the freedom from her mother's unrealistic constrictions and restrictions. She had slept when she wanted to sleep, partied wherever there was a party - exams and tests be damned - and missed classes when she didn't feel like going. As a result, her books had suffered greatly, something she regretted everyday of her life. Her head was pounding and, even with the cool air blowing through the air conditioning, she felt hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable. She blinked relief when she saw that they were approaching her gate. The torture would soon be over.
"The gate is coming up. You can just drop me here. I can walk from here." Her voice carried none of the initial friendliness or false cheeriness she had started with.
"Don't be silly, let me drop you home." Edna insisted. She pulled up to the gate and hooted.
"So, are you renting a place here?"
Acen gritted her teeth. "No, this is my parents' home."
"Eh, I remember how tough your mum was." And for the first time Acen heard a trace of genuine sympathy in Edna's voice. "Sorry, it must be very difficult."
Acen didn't answer. She was focused on getting out of the car. Sounds came from the gate indicating that the maid was opening it. When it finally opened, Edna drove her car into a small compound bounded by a beautiful garden blooming with roses, daisies, and calla lilies. There was a stone way leading to the right of the compound, up to a balcony with a dark-brown doorway into the small red-roofed bungalow.
"You have a beautiful home", Edna said in admiration.
"Thank you," Acen said tensely, gathering her handbag and reaching for the car door.
"Anytime dear. Naye I don't have your number," she replied, reaching for her phone, "give it to me so we can do coffee soon, maybe Java's?"
Acen marvelled at Edna's audacity. They both knew she couldn't afford a coffee at Java's. This drive home had been all but torture for Acen. She would rather chew her own foot than go through it again, but obviously, she assumed, gratitude for the lift and social etiquette would force her to give Edna the number, knowing that the only reason she would call is so that she could feel better about herself.
Edna reared back in shock, "No?!"
"No. Thank you for the lift."
Acen smiled at her, opened her car door and shut it behind her. She stepped back as Edna glared at her and started the car. Acen had ruined her fun.
"Bye Edna," She called out to her as the car drove out the gate.
Acen walked up the stone way chuckling at the look she had seen on Edna's face when she had said no to her. She hadn't felt that good about herself in such a long time. The little rebellion against social etiquette had revived her spirit. By the time she reached the balcony her mood had lightened. Then the day's heat suddenly hit her. She remembered the cold glass of water she had been aching for earlier and, now that she was finally home, couldn't wait to take her damn bra off. The thought of removing it made her start tagging at the bra.
When she arrived at the front door, she halted, braced herself, and slowly crossed the threshold. She noticed the feet first, small fat feet that seemed more swollen than usual this evening; the toes were round and puffy, the nails darkened with age. The sight of these feet had struck fear in her heart since she was a child. She had had to kneel at them every time she was going to be punished for whatever rule she had broken, and there was a new one every day. Acen's eyes came up to the woman who looked so much like the feet she was connected to: short, fat, puffy, and darkened with age. Of course she's home early today!
"Good evening mummy. How was your day?"
Acen's mother was seated on a long, green, leather couch that had long since passed its use-by date - patches of soft filling spilled out of it. In front of her was a stool with a pressure machine and a glass of beer on top; three empty bottles lay on the carpeted floor, and soft music played from the radio in the right hand corner of the sitting room. She had a red and blue scarf wrapped around her head, her heavy breasts pushed through a green spaghetti top, and she wore the long brown kanga she normally used around the house. The windows were wide open to cool the intense heat, even though mosquitoes had started to enter the house.
"It was a long day - very stressful. Even my pressure is up; look how swollen my feet are." She raised her feet for Acen to inspect.
"Sorry mummy." Her voice resonated sympathy, but her stomach was clenched with nerves. She suddenly wanted to go to the bathroom. Her mother had had a rough day and she was already three bottles into her mission to forget the day; anything could set her off. Acen started to run through the week in her mind. Had she done anything to annoy her lately? Had she sent any messages she hadn't seen? Had she...
"Who was that who dropped you?" her mother asked.
"That was Edna. She is an old school friend. She gave me a lift home."
"Eh? That was nice."
"Yes, it was nice of her." She smiled at her mother and started to go towards the corridor, to her room.
"What does she do?" Acen closed her eyes and ground her teeth. How she hated this part.
She turned to her mother. "She works at Ministry of Finance. She is a Junior Accountant."
"Her parents must be so proud." A wistful look crossed her face, probably from imagining what it would be like to have a successful daughter.
"Yeah," Acen agreed softly, looking down at the carpet. She turned back towards the corridor, praying she could get to her room before her mother asked her another question about Edna and her lucky parents.
"Did you get the medicine for the maid?"
Acen looked down at her empty hand and her heart stopped. Her mind raced back through the events in Edna's car, entering the car, placing the kaveera next to the gearbox, and exiting the car in righteous triumph with only her handbag in tow. Her heart started racing so fast she was sure it was about to give, and she began to tremble. A cold hard knot in the pit of her stomach made its presence known and she could barely swallow, her mouth was dry.
'Oh no. No, no, no....the medicine....it was in Edna's car! Shit, shit, shit!' she thought. Her mind filled with terror.
"Y...es," her voice broke when it came out, its pitch unnaturally high, so she cleared her voice and tried again. "Yes I did. Let me go change then I will take it to the maid."
Her mother studied her closely for a few tense seconds. "Ok dear."
Acen's heart started to race but she forced herself not to run. She walked sedately to her room and threw off her shoes as she rummaged through the handbag for her phone; then, remembering that she had refused to exchange numbers with Edna, panic erupted. Oh God, help me. Her hands began to shake as she tried to think past the fear - past the panic - but all could she think about, all she could see, were those feet.
"Oh God," she breathed, sitting on the bed to steady herself, "oh God."
Then, like an answer from Him, she remembered Facebook. She unlocked her phone quickly and rushed to the Facebook site.
She waited impatiently for the page to load - it seemed like minutes, instead of the actual seconds it took, before the page loaded. When the signature Facebook logo finally appeared on the screen, she logged into her account and hurried to Edna's profile; and right there, with great thankfulness for God's listening ear, she found the phone number. She dialled it up and listened nervously to the dial tone.
Acen closed her eyes in relief. She had never been this happy to hear that sugar sweet voice.
"Hullo Edna, its Acen."
There was silence for a few heartbeats, the chaos of Bwaise traffic coming through instead.
"Acen?" her voice was filled with surprise. "How did you get my number?"
"Look Edna, I'm sorry about the way I acted. It was rude and completely uncalled for after you had gone out of your way to help me. You didn't deserve that."
"My gosh Acen, I can't believe you did that! Kale you can be such a bitch you girl, you are so ungrateful. Even in school you were like that, thinking you were better than the rest of us. Why the hell should I even forgive you?"
Because I need that freaking medicine. I need it before my mother realises it's not here.
"Because I know I was wrong and am apologising," Acen said, padding her fury with an entreating penitence, "that's partly why I called. Please...I'm sorry."
There was silence as Edna contemplated this apology.
"Hmm, ok. Fine. I'll talk to you later-"
"No wait!" Acen cried out frantically.
"What is it?"
"When you dropped me home, I think I left my medicine in the car..."
"Kale Acen you are unbelievable! Is that why you called?" Her voice vibrated with fury.
"No. Of course not."
"No wait, please. I need that medicine... my mother sent me for it... please Edna, I'm begging you, help me bring it back. I'll pay for your fuel. Please..."
Silence again. Acen chewed at her lips.
"Ok, I will come back. I'll hoot when I'm there."
"No no no - you don't need to come all the way here. Just call me when you are at the last turn, I'll meet you there. Ok?"
"Hmm, ok." Edna hung up and Acen fell back onto her bed. She felt relieved.
The clock on her phone said it was 6.15pm; Edna would be there in about 15 minutes. She tried to sound busy, moving back and forth between rooms without daring to go anywhere near the sitting room until it was 6.30pm. When the alarm she had set went off, she came out of her room, and was heading out through the back exit in the kitchen when her mother stopped her.
"Acen! Get me a beer from the fridge...and a clean mug; the one from Denmark." A fond smile crossed her face.
Acen shuddered. She was at that stage of tipsiness when she remembered the good times of her youth; the days when she travelled the world and felt she could accomplish anything, before she very inconveniently got pregnant with her.
She went to the kitchen and picked the mug from the cupboard above the sink. It was a white, thickly built mug with a grey metal square etched with the image of Copenhagen city. She rinsed the mug, dried it, placed it on a saucer, and carried it to the dining table. She got the beer from the fridge and took both the mug and the beer to the sitting room. As she arranged them on the stool in front of her, her mother handed her the old glass and beers.
"Naye Acen you really don't respect me. You can't even bring a tray? Now see, you have to come back and get the rest."
"Ah-ah, I can't keep reminding you of these things even when you are 30. Will I keep telling you these things as if you have not grown?"
Acen straightened up, clutching the empty bottles and glass to her chest. "No mummy."
"Then why am I saying them now? Anyway, you just have no respect for me." She waved her off with a resigned hand that said 'You should go about your business out of my presence'. As she reached the kitchen, the long hoot of a car horn froze her in her tracks. No, it can't be...I told her not to...
"Banange now who is that?" asked her mother, peering through the half-open front door.
"Let me go and check."
"It's okay, you come and arrange the sitting room quickly. It might be a relative."
Her mother got up, tightened the kanga around her waist and walked out of the house. Acen dumped the bottles in the sink and ran back to the sitting room just as her mother was opening the gate. A red Rav4 drove into the compound. It was Edna. Acen couldn't believe it. Had Edna forgotten what I told her? Did she fail to remember which turn they were supposed to meet up? She could have called if that were the case.
It felt like she was wading through water as she walked out of the house. Blood was rushing through her ears and her heart was beating so fast she doubted an EKG would pick up a beat. Her mother had closed the gate and was heading towards the car with a large smile to welcome her daughter's successful friend. Edna came out of the car smiling with such exaggerated cheer that all Acen wanted to do was throw up.
"You ka girl!" she shook her head at Acen with fond exasperation. "Good evening Ms. Atim."
Acen's mother beamed at the well put together young lady. "Hullo dear, how are you?"
"I am well, thank you. Just fighting through Kampala traffic," she answered ruefully, that damn sweet smile still plastered to her face.
"I understand. It's even getting late, did you need anything from Acen?" she asked with concern.
"Actually no," Edna reached into her car and returned with a white paper bag, the pharmacy's name emblazoned on it. "Acen called me. She had left this in the car so I had to drive all the way back to bring it to her."
Her mother's smile faltered as she turned to look at Acen. "Really? Thank you so much for bringing it."
Acen tried to swallow but her mouth was dry. She reached for the bag. "Thank you for bringing it Edna."
"It's alright. That's what friends are for, right?" Acen could see she was enjoying the awkward drama unfolding before her. "But Acen you never change. You're still as careless as ever," she said, then laughed as if it was harmless banter.
Acen realised with a vicious fury that Edna knew what she was doing. She had guessed that the real reason she hadn't wanted her to enter the gate because her mother was home. She simply couldn't resist poking the hornet's nest to see what happened. But she was in for surprise: Acen's mother had seen it too, and she hated scenes above all else. Edna's craving would go for unfulfilled.
"Thank you again...Edna, is it?"
"Yes," she aimed her smile at Acen's mother. There was an awkward silence as she stood there waiting for something to happen.
"Well, as I said, it is late. I think it's time you head home. You don't want to reach when it's dark. It's not safe nowadays."
"Of course Ms. Atim," she said with slight disappointment, "it was nice to see you again."
Her mother nodded, and with a strained smile turned to go open the gate. Edna entered the car. "Acen, I'll call you and we plan our coffee date properly," she said.
"I'll be waiting," she replied coolly, rage boiling under the surface.
She backed away from the car and didn't bother waving goodbye as Edna drove through the open gate. It seemed that her capacity for cruelty had never changed. As Acen waited for her mother to close the gate and join her on the stone way, her anger gave away to resignation; she was in for it now. And when her mother finally joined her, the look of disgust on her face kept Acen from saying anything. She simply looked away and followed her into the house, a tense silence filling the space between them.
"Take the medicine to that girl and make sure you show her how to use it. Afterwards you bring the receipts and give them to me, do you understand?"
"Yes mummy," she mumbled. A strange numbness swept over her as she walked past her mother into the kitchen. She stepped out through the back door and found the maid lighting a sigiri at the boys-quarters' veranda. She sat down next to her and quietly looked up at the creeping dusk, studying the beauty of the clear sky which displayed different orange palettes that could only be seen at sunset. She marvelled at how the heat persisted; the air was so still that the only way the leaves or grasses could be ruffled was if an animal or insect disturbed them. Finally she turned to the maid and caught her glancing at her with pity. The maid quickly averted her eyes to the sigiri.
She laughed to herself. It seems Prissy heard everything. She pities me.
Acen broke called the maid's name to get her attention. She handed her the medicine and rapidly explained how to take it, emphasizing the importance of following the dosage religiously. Leaving the maid to finish lighting the sigiri on which supper and the dogs' meal would be cooked, she walked back to the house. Not once did she consider how a 16 year old malaria-ridden girl would mingle that amount of posho; her mind was preoccupied with the oncoming confrontation.
She carried the pharmacy paper bag into the kitchen, retrieved the receipts from it, and left the bag on the sink for the maid to take care of. She grabbed a glass and walked back into the dining room towards the fridge, glad that she would finally get the glass of water she had pictured on her way home. She filled the glass with cold water, returned the jug into the fridge, and had just closed the door when her mother called out to her.
"Bring me another beer Acen."
"Yes mummy." She opened the fridge again and pulled out a cold bottle of Bell lager, walked up to her mother, opened the beer, and poured it into the mug - just as she had been taught when she was five.
"Slant the mug and pour the beer on the tilted side Acen; that way the foam does not fill the glass." She could still hear the slurred words from her mother's tipsy lips as she poured her one after many glasses of beer. Acen picked up the empty bottle she had brought a few minutes ago and turned to leave.
"Acen, sit down."
She turned back to find her mother pointing at a spot on the carpeted floor by her feet. Her grip on the bottle tightened. She sat down next to her, head downcast. Just then, the song Happy, by Pharrell Williams, started to play on the radio. Acen nearly laughed at the cosmic joke. Life has a strange sense of humour.
Her mother began, "Acen, I try. I try so hard. Even when you let me down over and over again; even when people are laughing at me because my daughter is not a graduate, I try to give you what you want. I feed you, I clothe you... I even got you a job and yet you still do not respect me."
Acen remained quiet and kept looking down. Her mother's feet filled her vision.
"Do you know what hell you have put me through? I must have done a terrible thing to have such a daughter. I could have been a great person. I could have done great things... instead I had you, and this is how you treat me?"
Acen's eyes remained glue to the floor.
"Look at me Acen!!" Her mother's voice rose with a tincture of anger and bitterness; her life's disappointments and regrets, her lost dreams and longings, all seemed to stare her back in her daughter's vacant face. It became too much to contain - as it usually did when she took to the bottle to forget - and she struck her daughter across the face: once, twice, thrice, purging all the poison that was inside her onto Acen, her flabby arms shaking vigorously with each blow.
When she stopped a strange sense of relief swept through her, as if a great tension within her had been released. She looked at Acen, panting from the exertion of the strikes; the vacant expression was still there. She remembered a time when that face had shown sorrow, then pain, fear, defiance, and finally resignation, every time she was disciplined. Now... now it showed nothing; as if her mind had left the room the moment she had told her to sit.
"Do you know that that friend of yours, the one you are so proud to call your good friend, thinks you are joke? That we are a joke? Your friends are driving, they have jobs, they have boyfriends, they have husbands....even children. But you, you just sit in this house doing nothing. You are nothing. Which man would even want you, a complete failure; an A-level finisher....maybe you will marry the shop keeper at the taxi stage." She laughed bitterly.
Acen remained quiet and waited for the rant to end. She had tuned her mother out of her mind and was thinking about how hot it was; how their house was built in a way that kept the heat in - small windows and low ceiling. She wondered how she could fix the problem without having to tear the house down. Maybe she would tear the wall between the garage and the dining to enlarge the room. Her head was pounding again - furiously. The strikes had made it worse.
"I can see you are even ignoring me."
"I am listening to you mummy," came the automated response in a vacant voice.
"Do you know that if it weren't for God I would have killed you myself? All you have put me through Acen, you don't even care! There is something wrong with your heart young girl. It is so hard like a criminal's that you can even lie to me... you take me for a fool, eh? Eh???"
Her fury had risen to the surface once more. She struck Acen again: once, twice, and on the third strike Acen's head exploded in a blinding, white-hot pain.
For a moment Acen thought she was going to die right then. She gripped her head and cried out a shrill, manic cry.
Her mother pulled back, panting, satisfied with the show of pain she had drawn from her daughter.
"Do you think I enjoy this? Do you think I enjoy causing you pain?"
Acen was rocking back and forth, gripping her head while her mind cried out for her mother to shut up. Can't you see I'm dying?
Her head pounded harder. She tightened her grip. The heat felt like she was standing in the centre of an incinerator. Her bra, still constricting the movement of her breasts, made it hard for her to breathe. She couldn't swallow; her throat was so dry she feared it would get damaged if anything solid touched it.
Water, her mind screamed. She wanted water badly. All she needed was that cold glass of water she had left on the table. She felt was going to die. She was sure of it. But her mother just kept talking. She wouldn't shut up. Why can't she see that I need a glass of ice-cold water? I'm dying!
"Acen, you are my daughter and I want what's best for you," her mother was ranting, "whether you like it or not, it is your duty to honour your mother; it is one of the commandments. It is in the bible. It is..."
Irritated, she turned to see what her daughter's eyes were gluing to. "Acen, what are you looking at?" she asked. All she could see was a glass of water on the dining table. She grabbed at her chin impatiently and forcefully turned her face towards her. "Look at me when I am talking to you young girl."
All of a sudden Acen pulled her face away and sprung up to her feet, the empty beer bottle still clenched in her hand. Her mother demanded to know what she was doing, where she thought she was going. She talked and talked, and the more she spoke the harder her head pounded; the drier her throat became.
If only she could shut the hell up for a second, just one damn second, maybe the headache would stop. She tried to think clearly but couldn't - the pain got in the way. All she felt was heat, and a mighty craving for cold water. Absent-minded, she began to move towards the table but her mother grabbed her roughly by wrist. She was yelling at her. Acen badly wanted her to shut up, just for a second, but she kept shouting and shouting. Something gave.
For a brief moment there was a mixture of shock and dread on her mother's face: the empty bottle in her daughter's hand rose slowly above her head, and then suddenly bound into the air. She ducked in time for it to miss her head, but the loud bang that followed when it smashed against the wall made her dive for cover, shoving Acen away in the process. Her hands had buried her head on instinct.
A smirk cut across Acen's face. Finally... blessed silence! The only sound in the room was the soft music playing on the radio in the corner.
Her mother stared at her in shocked silence, her mouth wide open. Acen had never seen her so speechless before.
Quietly, she rose to her feet and walked to the dining table. Her head was still pounding when she reached for the glass, but the sense of relief that came over her when the first drop touched her dry tongue was overwhelming. As the water glided down her throat, wetting her mouth and soothing the heat, tears began to form in her eyes. Slowly, she bent her head and rubbed the cold glass against her temples. The headache was receding.
"Acen, how...how..." her mother stammered, "how dare you? How dare you??? My God you are a criminal. You have such bad in heart you. God just saved me, how dare you-"
Acen looked straight into her face and what she saw in her daughter's eyes stopped her cold. Acen's eyes, though glistening with tears, burned with bone-deep rage; the kind that festered and simmered for years, like lava in a volcano, and waited centuries to show its true destructive power. She knew that anger. She had seen it in her own eyes every morning - the deep fury at where she had ended up in life - and seeing it in her daughter's eyes terrified her, for she now knew that the wall hadn't been the intended target.
Mother and daughter stared at each other in silence for a while, until the daughter visibly drew her fury back in, tucking it deep inside instead of unleashing it. Acen did not want to like her mother, and when she felt controlled enough, she pulled a chair from the dining table, sat down, and addressed her mother.
"You are a miserable woman."
Her mother gave her look that said 'How dare you?'
"Yes, how dare I? I do. I am not insulting you. I am telling you a fact. You are a miserable woman and your misery is an infection."
Acen's mother swallowed audibly. The calm in her daughter's voice was a stark contradiction with the eruption she had just witnessed.
"Your infection is soul-eating... you get so much joy from making me feel bitter... I did not ask to be born, and neither did you ask to bear me. We are cursed with each other, but you are all I have, and I am all you have - we are responsible for each other. I need you to survive; to have a roof over my head and food in my belly until I can manage on my own, and I will. No matter how much you want to imprint in my head how my future is doomed because of my mistakes, you are my mother and I need you, but I will not become you."
Acen's mother shrunk with each strike her daughter's cold words dealt her.
"You need me too mummy. You need to feel superior to someone to feel strong for doing what comes naturally to other mothers. But mostly, you truly need me because you know that at the end, in your cold bitter bed, when whatever virulence inside you that makes you live to old age runss dry, you will not want to be alone. You will want me there, even if it's only out of fear."
A shiver ran through Acen's mother. An icy grip had clutched her heart as her daughter voiced her greatest fears, making her feel like she was naked and back in the cold winters of Denmark. Acen rose to her feet and slowly walked up to her mother with a confidence she had never felt in her life. She stopped right in front of her, planted her palms on her hips, and looked deep into her eyes.
"I respect you mummy. I respect you because it is my duty, but make sure your misery doesn't eat away what is left of what I feel for you." And with a triumphant turn she walked away, saying "Goodnight," as she left the room. Her shoulders were no longer drooping; her back was straight and her head faced forward.
Strands of music from Radio One's Slow Drive show filled the vacuum after she left. Her mother quietly returned to the sofa but had lost the taste for beer. She felt drained. Her tight control over her daughter was suddenly over, and now that she was relegated to a cheap section in the theatre of Acen's life, she did not know what to make of it. All she knew was that she was now powerless.
As Acen closed her bedroom door, she unbuttoned her blouse and released the confining bra; her breasts swung free with sweet relief. The stifling heat seemed to dissipate as her clothes came off, and the headache was now gone - as if it had merely been a figment of her imagination. She picked up her towel and walked into the bathroom.
The cold water from the showerhead felt refreshing as it ran down her body. Acen found herself humming the Pharrell Williams song from earlier and chuckled at how the tune had stuck to her head. Turning her face toward the showerhead, she opened her mouth and let the water fall onto her tongue; a calming coolness washed over her as the water rolled down her breasts, all the way to her feet - the gentle fall of water drops was soothing. She reached for the lavender-scented shower gel and began to wash off Kampala's dirt and sweat. She could not remember a time when she had experienced a peace like this. She was a new woman.