[Short Story] The Old Man, by Ambrose Musiyiwa


He lived two houses up the road from the house I grew up in. He had been there for as long as I could remember. I asked mother about him once and she said he had always been there.

“When we moved into this house we found him there,” she had said.

It seemed no-one in that part of Seke knew how old he was.

Mother didn’t know.

All she knew was that he had always been there: old, cutting, chiselling and hammering away at his planks making cupboards, tables, chairs, beds…

But that didn’t matter.

He was my friend.

I accepted him and he accepted me. There was no need for questions. There was no need for explanations. It was enough that I came to his shed in the morning and sat on one of the benches and leaned against one wall of the shed and watched him work.

I can still remember the smell of that shed. It smelt of planks and turpentine mixed with the sweet scent of burning marijuana. He smoked his marijuana the way some people smoke their cigarettes. I remember he sometimes got into trouble with the law because of this habit.

A policeman or two, usually ones who were new to the area, would be passing by and they would smell the marijuana and they would come into the shed and arrest him.

He would stop whatever he was doing and take the jacket that always hung on a nail on the other side of the shed and close the door of the shed and go out with them.

I was five years old the first time I saw him get arrested.

I was sitting on the bench watching him work when three policemen came and took him away.

I kicked them with my feet. I pummelled them with my fists. I clawed them with my nails. I bit them with my teeth but they were stronger and Sekuru was patting my head and he was telling me to stop and he was telling me to go home and that everything was going to be alright. I ran to mother and told her: “Mama, they are taking Sekuru away.”

Mother was washing clothes under a mango tree, so it must have been a Friday because she always washed all our clothes on Fridays as she still does.

She dried the soap suds off her hands and arms with the piece of cloth she had wrapped round her waist and went out after them.

She was grown for a long time.

I grew tired of waiting for her and I fell asleep on a pile of dirty clothes there under the mango tree.

I woke up screaming.

I had dreamt the old man was being attacked by a pack of wild animals and he was fighting them and I was somewhere in the shed hiding and trembling under a chair or a bench or something.

One of the animals started shaking the chair I was hiding under. I screamed and screamed and woke up to find Mother shaking me, asking: “What’s the matter? … What’s the matter?”

“They… they… they are taking Sekuru away,” I said between sobs.

“Who is taking Sekuru away?” she asked.

“Some… some animals,” I said.

“No-one is taking Sekuru anywhere. He is there in his shed,” mother said.

I jumped up from the pile of clothes I had been sleeping on and ran to Sekuru’s house. And yes, he was there in his shed, talking to his planks, chiselling them, carrying on from where he had left off.

I clung to his leg and sobbed until I grew tired and was convinced they wouldn’t be coming back for him and I let go of his leg and wandered around the shed and sat on a box full of wood shavings and watched him work.

I didn’t understand what had happened. It would be years before I understood most of the things I saw and heard in Sekuru’s shed.

Even now I can’t remember when I started going to Sekuru’s shed.

Mother says I went there the day I started crawling.

As I grew older and started going to school, some of the people I went to school with said Sekuru was strange. They said every room in his house was filled with coffins with dead people in them. They said he was mad because he talked to invisible people.

This worried me. But it didn’t matter.

I had been in all Sekuru’s rooms. For an old man living alone, they were exceptionally tidy, neat and clean, if a little bare. There was no coffin in any of them. In fact, I had never even seen him make a coffin.

I didn’t see anything strange in his talking to himself. As far as I could remember, he had always talked to himself.

I was twelve when we moved from Seke.

Sitting in the back of the car waving to Sekuru who had come to say goodbye, I had a feeling I would never see him again, and the longer the distance between us grew, the more the feeling grew until it became a conviction. I felt I was a plant that had been uprooted from the soil that had nurtured it.

It was going to be six years before I went back to Seke. The place had not changed but I felt it was different. I could not see clearly. Everything was blurry… hazy… different.

A new family was living in the house I had grown up in.

There was a woman washing clothes under the mango tree where mother used to wash all our clothes. A one-year old was taking precarious steps towards the gate which was shut and locked.

I went to the house where the old man lived.

The shed was still there.

There was a faded sign at the gate. It said: COFFINS FOR SALE. It had always been there.

I went in.

The sound of hammering was coming from behind the shed.

I followed the sound.

I was smiling. I was convinced the old man wasn’t going to recognise me. I wanted to see how he would react when he saw me. I wanted to see how he would react when he found out who I was.

A man was hammering a plank into one of the walls of the shed. He was old.

“I am looking for Sekuru,” I said.

“Sekuru?” he asked.

“Yes. The old man who lives here,” I said.

The man stared at me. He had been as puzzled by my smile as I had been to see him instead of Sekuru.

“I grew up two houses down the road,” I added, pointing in the general direction of the house I had lived in.

The man straightened his back.

“He left us two years ago,” he said.

“He’s left? Where did he go? Do you have his address?” I asked.

“He passed away two years ago,” the man said.

 

I still think about the old man.

But I cannot remember what he looked like.

I no longer have a picture of him in my mind.

When I think of him, all I can remember is the smell of planks and turpentine mixed with the sweet scent of burning marijuana and that he was my friend.

(c) Ambrose Musiyiwa, 2008

About the author

Ambrose Musiyiwa has worked as a freelance journalist and a teacher. One of his short stories has been featured in Writing Now (Weaver Press, 2005). Currently he is working on another story.

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Comments
One Response to “[Short Story] The Old Man, by Ambrose Musiyiwa”
  1. That was a really cool story, Ambrose. I especially liked the attention to detail and the way you drew the reader back again and again to your point-of-view as a child.
    Thank you.

    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
    http://courageinpatience.blogspot.com
    http://www.kunati.com/courage-in-patience
    Chapter 1 is online

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