Ceridwen Dovey’s Blood Kin – shortlisted for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize, in the Best First Book: Africa category – is a fable in two parts.
I say “fable” because the author insists: on several occasions she has asserted that Blood Kin isn’t intended as commentary on the politics of the day – in Africa or elsewhere – but contains a more universal exploration of human impulses like vanity, obsession and vengeance.
The structure of the book is quite engaging. The characters bear names that define their relationship with “the President” – His portraitist, His barber’s brother’s fiancee, and so on – who has been newly overthrown by “the Commander”. The three men and three women, separated by gender into the book’s two sections (the men’s voices first, the women’s second) are caught up in the aftermath, and begin precarious attempts to pick their way out of it, with unknown consequences for their actions.
BOOK SA is pleased to bring you this excerpt from Blood Kin:
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6 – His barber
I called my home the glass box. It meant I could never throw stones, just like the proverb warned. I designed containers for everything so that things could be neatly tucked away and not clutter the surfaces. In my bathroom drawer, I had customised compartments for my toothbrush, floss, facewash, deodorant, razor. In my bedroom cupboard I kept my caps and glasses colour-coded and had small hollows for each belt to fit into, once rolled. I’ve never liked lying down on my bed in my street clothes, even with my shoes off (I believe it pollutes my sleep), I always leave a window open at night, no matter how cold it is, and I can’t bear leaving my home for a long trip if there is any dirty linen or clothing in it. If I know I have to go away somewhere for a while, I lay out the clothes I’m going to wear, take off the clothes I’m wearing, put them in the washing machine with my sheets and walk around naked until it’s almost time to leave. That’s why I was naked when they took me: ready for my trip, about to put on my clean travelling clothes, and next thing there was a man in my laundry pointing
a gun at me.
The chef has given me the task of washing a bucketful of mussels; I have to check that each one is firmly shut – if it has opened in the bucket it is dangerous to eat and I’m supposed to throw it out. The portraitist is deboning fish. We are the chef’s kitchen boys for the night and the chef is transformed; he has completely lost himself in the logistics of preparing a meal and is cackling like a smug housewife over a pot of rice. The kitchen is as large as one would expect in a summer residence used primarily to entertain. We were escorted here by two men – armed, but dressed like they had just got back from the office. The chef couldn’t resist telling them the menu for the evening, but they didn’t respond. Somebody had managed to find fresh seafood and every other item on the chef’s ingredient wish list, and it was waiting for us in the kitchen in paper bags. He was like a small child on his birthday, going through the bags gleefully; then he did a quick spot check of the kitchen equipment and found it all to his satisfaction. The two armed men have stayed in the kitchen, perched on kitchen stools with their backs against the wall, watching that we don’t poison the food.
‘I’ve worked here before,’ the chef says, stirring the rice. ‘Many years ago. I came with my wife at the time, and we spent a month living in one of the suites. I experimented on the President – pushed his tastes, fed him wild meats, foreign fruit. He liked that I pushed him. Most people around him wouldn’t dare.’
He takes the knife from the portraitist and fillets a fish effortlessly.
I find three mussels, still in a hoary clump, that have opened in the bucket, and throw them aside. The odour of raw fish reminds me of my brother, of what he would come home stinking of at lunchtime. He was older than me by ten years, and, sitting at the round table in the kitchen with my mother, eating crustless sandwiches and telling her about my morning at school, I would smell him coming before I heard the door slam. He would wash off stray fish scales from his hands at the tap outside and rinse and remove his boots, and come into the kitchen in wet socks. My mother would hover about him like an anxious bee about the queen, ladle out a hot lunch she had cooked, ask about his catch. He left so early in the mornings the gulls weren’t even awake and went out on a borrowed trawler for the nine hours it took to catch enough fish to make a living. If we were lucky he would bring a bunch of small fish for our supper, but my mother never asked him outright, we just waited to see if he would volunteer them from his canvas bag once he had eaten lunch. At school in the afternoon I could still smell him on my pencil case and sometimes on my hands if he had agreed to play aeroplanes.
It broke my mother when he disappeared. I was older then, and not paying anybody but myself much attention. I hadn’t even really registered his absence. It was only when she sat down one lunchtime and put her head on the table and wouldn’t eat anything that I realised he hadn’t eaten meals with us in over two weeks. For a long time we thought he had eloped with his fiancée – she disappeared with him – but I couldn’t understand why none of his crew had come to tell us. They avoided us at the market and at the dock. My mother stopped getting dressed in the mornings.
It was on my birthday that the letter arrived. It was from him, but had been posted almost a year before, and he had written only one sentence: ‘Taken captive political prisoner we’ll be fine.’ That letter lit a fire beneath my mother and she went visiting – old friends, close family, vague family, ex-girlfriends – until she had pieced together a patchwork of possibilities. It turned out he and his fiancée had been active in some kind of underground resistance movement. His fishing crew had never approved, said he was asking for trouble. The second letter arrived two months later. It wasn’t from my brother. The writer, anonymous, told us that my brother’s body had been buried in the mountains. The writer said he – or she – was sorry.
The chef has put on full serving gear that he found in the pantry, even the hat, which makes him look like he has dough rising slowly on his head. My task during the meal is to pour the water and wine for the Commander, but the portraitist refuses to serve him and says he’ll wait in the kitchen. The chef alone will serve the food. He uses his shoulder to bump the swinging doors into the dining room and walks ceremoniously towards the Commander, who is seated at a small, square table in the centre of the room. The long dining table has been moved aside and a single place is set. The Commander smiles at the chef and smirks at me dutifully carrying a bottle of wine in a bucket of ice. The cork is so stubborn I am tempted to put the bottle between my legs and pull on it, but instead I put it under my arm and tug. The chef places a napkin on the Commander’s lap with flair. My job is done; I leave the room.
The portraitist is standing at the kitchen window, staring down into the courtyard. He is in agony: I have never seen an emotion made so manifest.
‘My wife,’ he says. ‘She’s here. She’s being kept here. I saw her in the courtyard.’
I place my hand on his shoulder gently. ‘Is this not a good thing? You know she is being looked after. You know where she is.’
He turns to me and, before I can move away, has put his head against my chest. His grief spreads across my shirt, heating it.
‘I called to her from up here. I opened the window and called down to her. She was alone, sitting on that bench. She looked up at me like a stranger, then she stood and walked away.’
I imagine I know why she did this, something about the pollution thing the chef said to him this morning. I pat his head awkwardly, but I am no good at consoling. When he shifts his head I move away towards the swinging doors to listen to what the Commander is saying to the chef. His fork makes scratchy music against his plate.
‘You have excelled yourself.’
The chef murmurs deferentially. The scraping stops, the plate has been licked clean.
‘And do you have a wife?’ The Commander asks this the way one would speak to a small child, with bored patience and no expectation of a reply.
If the chef is surprised, his voice doesn’t betray him. ‘Ex-wife. Haven’t seen her for months.’ He stops, uncertain how much the Commander is willing to listen to.
‘Ah. Why did you divorce?’
The chef pauses. ‘She went crazy,’ he says, his tone ironic. ‘Became obsessed with energy flow. Made me knock down three walls in our house because she said they were blocking peace lines.’
The Commander laughs loudly.
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