Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Mother [Fiction]

The mother leaves her house early in the morning, to catch the first ferry. It is cold outside, and the weather is a drowsy gray, still not recovered from sleep.

When she arrives at her destination it is night time, the first stars just out, the car in which she rides kereng-kereng-ing over the potholed road. The serign comes out to welcome her.

Massa chornoh, mbaa sornu lore.

The mother sits on the ground. Two candles light the room, and the serign sits opposite her, the light flickering over his features as he speaks with her.

The curse that holds your son, he tells her, is one of whose origin I have no defense against. I will not lie to you, for I am a man of God. It is a powerful curse, one I have never seen the likes of. If there exists a way to break it I doubt anyone can find it. I am sorry. Though God can do anything.

And so the next morning the mother leaves disappointed. The fifteenth serign since January.

The mother used to hear "hol bu dok", but never knew what it meant. And then the reports began to come in.

"Babucarr more biiral behna mindaan… haleh bu tutti".

"Babucarr fighting and sleeping in gutters…"

"Babucarr running around naked after Tobaski prayers outside the jumaa, holding a bottle of alcohol and singing the national anthem…"

"Paaraa yi took away Babucarr again, after beating him badly - he was throwing paketi biskit yi back at the presidential convoy…"

A different one every day. And the reproachful look in people's eyes, when she met them on the street. And their silent stares blaming her, for her son's problems, for what a bane to society he was. And yet she was not angry, not at him - he was a good boy, he was a sweet boy, if only they knew him as well as she did.

One night in August. The lights are off, have been off for the past few days. The world around them seems to be melting - so hot it is. They sit outdoors, on a basang, under the stars, the mother and Babucarr. And they are looking up at the stars, and Babucarr says

Ham nga neh some of them are satalyte?

And though the mother knows, has heard this before, still there is such a childlike delight in his voice, she says nothing about that, she says

Oh really? I did not know that.

And on an impulse, and without thinking, she puts her hand on his shoulder, and then she leaves it there, unsure what to do with it. And he turns and smiles at her, that cheeky grin with its dimples back from an earlier time, from his boyhood, and the mother scratches his head. The mother is sitting with her legs stretched out and he lays his head down on them, just like when he was a child. And the mother peers down at his face in the dark and pops pimples on his nose, and accuses him of not brushing his teeth enough. And he is indignant, and they laugh, and an hour passes like this. He is sleepy, he falls asleep lying down like this on the mother, and the mother looks down at him where he lies and the mother's breathing is heavy and a weight sits on her heart, and she has to shift to move it. He is disturbed by the movement, in his sleep he moves, his eyes flutter half-open as the mother panickedly tries to soothe him back into sleep. But he settles back, and once more is silent.

And the mother looks at him sleep, and she sees the problem, the true problem: his boy is cursed, that is what has caused all the problems so far, and the mother feels a great resolve enter her heart and she no longer feels helpless and she knows what to do, and she sees hope for her boy, and she sees a life filled with evenings like this one, and the mother smiles.

Serigns in Njoangoan, serigns in Soe-koan. serigns in Dippakunda, serigns in Jahali Pachaa. Serigns from Kaachi-kali, serigns from Kaolack. Once a serign from the Sudan, a black narr, dark as his teeth were white, spoken to through a translator. A serign who did not eat or sleep, a Sheriff from Muritani. Short serigns and tall serigns, thin serigns and portly serigns. And all of them told the mother the same thing: they would not eat her money, the curse that held her boy was just too strong, they could not help her. In fact they did not even wish to talk about it, so strong was the one who had lain it, so could she leave now please? And the night after every serign she would not sleep, and in the morning her pillow would be soaking wet. And she would not eat and she would refuse drink, until once more she heard about a new serign, one who was different from all the rest, and the mad look would once more come into her eyes, and she would put on a fresh malaan and a new musoarr and leave the house.

Babucarr went to prison: for a month, for three months, for three years, for four, for stealing a car, for impersonating an intelligence agent, for patching NAWEC wires to streetlights. He would be on GRTS (she did not watch TV, anymore), and they would match him off in handcuffs. And at the end of every term she would be outside Mile 2 with a taxi, waiting for him, and she would take him to the beach first, to bathe, and then she would take him home, and there would be chuyi kong waiting, and his favorite wonjo (with buye added). And they would sit in silence, and he would eat, though in his silence she would be able to detect what she thought was perhaps gratitude, and she thought, where gratitude steps perhaps change of character may also follow, and she would feel the stirrings of a hope in her heart.

And in a few months he would be back in prison.

By the time she hears about Merr Sidikeh the mention of a new serign no longer has any effect on her, as it once did. She is growing old - her face weathered and worn, her eyes sunken, her hair almost completely gray. Her legs have begun to fail her, and she no longer goes out as much. Occasionally she will hear of a big serign, one who is in town to throw a gamo or siyaareh, and she will limp her way to an audience with him. And the answer that always came from him will be the same one she expected, the one she has been hearing for the past twenty-five years, and she will thank them, and limp her way back home. At the time Babucarr is almost at the end his longest jail term yet, one for seven years, with hard labour. He had been caught selling fake US visas to a Serahule family. And so when the mother hears about Merr Sidibeh she is not at first in any way moved to contact her. But word of her powers spreads. Strange thing that she is, a female serign - still she is well respected by even her fellow serign.

And so one day the mother wakes early, and after she prays the fajarr she leaves her house, a pink shawl draped over her hunched shoulders, and brakes a van.

She is the first to see the female serign that day.

Sidikeh, Sidikeh, she says in greeting.

The merr serign wastes no time. She looks deep into the mother's eyes.

I will not waste your time, she tells the mother, I know why you are here.

The mother waits, expectant. One of the serign's female borka-nayk steps in - on seeing her she retreats once more into the living room. The serign waits until she is gone before she continues to speak.

The only way you can save him, she says to the mother, is a way that I do not know if you are ready yet to take.

What way is it?, the mother asks, and her voice is like a slight breeze under the Sun, so soft, so tired. Though her dentures are in her mouth it still seems caved in, as in one with no teeth.

If he is to become successful, if he is to become the man you want him to be, the merr serign says, you will have to let him go, he will have to become lost to you. That is the simple matter of it.

The mother looks down at the ground. And there is no other way?, she asks.

No, the old woman says, no ways that will persist, that will not wear off.

The smoke from an anda begins to blow in from another room. The mother runs her finger over the carpet in a spiral. She starts on the outward bend and works inward, toward the center. When it is done she looks at it for a moment, gazing deep into the carpet's strands. Then she looks up at the merr serign, and she nods.

When he comes he bangs the front door open without knocking, and she can see immediately that he is drunk.

My own mother, he says, stumbling in, my own mother leaves me in jail to rot! You know how I got here? I walked! No one would give me a lift!

She does not speak, is not yet sufficiently prepared, though all night and all morning she has been readying herself for this moment, steeling her heart. She looks at him, and her eyes glisten, and she looks away again. His eyes burn and do not settle on her, but instead flitter all about the space around her. He gesticulates with his hands as he speaks, yet the alcohol has him under its hold: his movements are disconnected from what he says, sometimes even in silence he waves them, and in speech holds them stiff and motionless.

- Filthy whore! He is screaming now, and there is foam around his mouth, and his voice tapers off into a dry hoarseness. - No wonder your husband left! You tell people you took care of me - you did nothing for me! Nothing! You hear!

And he reaches for her and she closes her eyes and shrinks away, expecting contact, perhaps wanting it, but there is none and when she opens them again he is walking out, banging the door behind him.

That was the last time the mother ever saw her son. She died a year later, two years before he met a toubab on the beach, before he got married and went to Switzerland, before he got himself into a school and cleaned up and made money and came home and became a respected and powerful business man. And he knew many people, and had many friends, and on the manicured lawns of one of his many mansions, when he and his friends sat together and the subject of his mother came up in conversation, he would scowl, and speak in glowing terms about his father, who had left when he was too young because he could not take his mother anymore, and how his mother had almost then ruined his life, doing nothing but spending all their money on serign-tu, dark magic to make her rich and get her a new husband, and he had escaped only by some form of luck, that he did not know, or the favor of God, or at least the protection of some manner of saint or prophet.

The Wang as a Musical instrument (An exercise in Wang Appreciation) [FICTION]

Lately you have been thinking about wangs.

Big wangs and small wangs, toubab wangs and asian wangs. Wangs bulging out and wangs caving in, the wang of an adolescent, still developing as its owner learns to what uses wangs can be put, as she begins to imitate older sisters and aunties, and that Nigerian actress from the movie last night.

You think of the wang as musical instrument, used to perform in public. First you must figure out what beat you want to perform to. That is the most basic part of music - what timing, how often you repeat a theme. The flirtatious wang performance (AKA "the switch", AKA "ndiga bu dama": "nik...nak...nik...nak...", and perhaps a "paddy-wack" at the end, if there's a particularly desirable guy standing around). The dignified wang solo, when you have finished speaking to the group of guys, and are walking away from them, and can feel all their eyes on you (a slow movement, full of belief in its own potential: "yaagadi.... yaagadi.... yaagadi... maang fi di jaagarr jaagari... I know all of you right now desire me..."). The possessive wang display, when you walk beside the man you love (slow also, like the dignified solo, but not inviting (inasmuch as a wang movement can be uninviting): "I am happy where I am", your performance says, "and heavens help the person who would try to dispossess me because THIS wang"...wiggle to the left..."has a hold over THIS man!"...wiggle in the other direction).

Wangs that bark, Wangs that bite. Wangs that do both. Subtle wangs. Wangs without fibre, wangs filled with nothing but.

The wang, you explain to your friends, is much more important in Gambian society than it is here. Men back home worship it. I aint know wachoo talking about, one of your friends says in indignation, I aint from no Gyam-bia but ah sure as heayal like me some "wyaang". Everyone laughs.

Wangs in miniskirts, Wangs in tight jeans, wangs in loose concealing malaans, wangs in tight, all-revealing ones.

I do not like this objectification of women, your friend says, when you tell him about your new fascination with Wang. He is earnest, his major is philosophy and he goes around with a dreamy and mournful look in his eyes, as if he had caught a glimpse of the true world, one ecstatic night, and now spends all his time pining for it, attempting to re-discover it in the books of philosophy he studies. Women should be loved, he says, for their brains, for their speech and what kind of people they are. Women...

A girl passes - she is dressed in gold, and her hair is gold, and her skin the goldenest of all, the sunlight reflecting off it so she seems as if she is illuminated from inside. You are both silent as you watch her walk past. The rhythm of her wang is a simple one ("tadum... to classes I go...tadum tadum taday...Need to do my nails today..."), but she takes this basic movement and repeats it over and over, executing it with such finesse and grace, and when you glance at your friend he is watching her, spellbound.

- You were saying, you ask him. He jumps, then clears his throat, a shifty look coming in his eyes.

- I have to rush to class, he says. Then he leaves you there, and walks off after the girl. You can see them walk into the distance, and he stays behind her the whole way. She does not even know he is there.

Ideas for Gambian movies/books based on old classics: a young woman in Serekunda boasts that her wang is even more full than the Jinays' themselves. A jinay appears and curses her to forever be nothing but wang: this is how the watermelon came into being. Another one: An old Wolof kingdom goes to war because a neighboring (and, it must be said, rather charming) prince from the Mali empire had stolen in, in the dead of night, and stolen out again with the Wang queen of the City (who, to be honest, did not put up much struggle beyond asking that she be allowed to pack her collection of bin-bin). After many battles and much death she is won back by means of a clever ploy involving a wooden statue shaped like a giant wang and left at the gates of the besieged City, a "present" which secretly hides an army.

The Mbahal-Wang, much-used by men. The non-mbahal-Wang, much sought-after.

You wonder what researchers in the Gambia would uncover if they took to serious scientific research of the wang. What interesting correlations, what unforseen cause-effect chains, could be explained by the AWS (Average Wang Size)? Is the AWS tied to economic booms and busts? In times of prosperity does it increase? Or does it in fact decrease, as people eat less cheap, fattening foods? What about in world cup and african nations cup qualifying years? For the years we fail to qualify, was the AWS extra-high or extra-low? How is this linked to the performance of our boys (a proliferation of wangs in their lives, newly minted superstars that they are, perhaps leaving them unable to concentrate on the beautiful game)? During the Loppy juice explosion, what happened to the AWS? The success of women in the workplace in the Gambia, how is this linked to the AWS (in years that AWS is up is there a corresponding hike in the number of women holding powerful positions of office? Or less of those, and just more secretaries)? In times of war and strife - such as the '81 coup - did the AWS increase, as women tended and groomed the only thing keeping the country together, in the midst of the chaos, the thing their men held on to to make it through the fearful days and nights? And when the strife ended, did the AWS go down again, as once more the men went back to their old and arrogant ways, marrying new wives and having affairs? And what of national events? What was the AWS, in '94? What was it when Gambia hosted the Zone 2? Would the AWS, graphed across successive years, form the shape of a bell jar - a cyclic waxing and waning representing gaps between old women dying and young women growing into their wangs - or a more sharply inclined plane, climbing up, up, until Gambian women could barely walk anymore, or get out of bed in the morning? These are the questions you would like answered by science.

You are alone with your friend in his room late at night.

- To understand the wang, he explains, one must first understand its sociolo-political and socio-economic underpinnings.

You think how at night his bullshit gains a fresh smell, as if renewed, and you smile.

- I'm not joking, he says, I thought about this.

- OK, you say. He takes this as a sign that he should continue.

- To observe the Wang merely as a physical product of evolution is to deny the Wang. To understand the Wang fully and completely one must first understand that what we see when a girl walks past us is merely the end-product, the physical and tangible effect, of a system of emotions, attachments, and barely remembered instincts which have, over the years, come to represent everything a Wang is. The Wang has deep roots in our psyche, you see. The search for safety, which is begun when one is born and continues for the rest of one's life - and which some believe to be what at a fundamental level constitutes love, in its many forms - is primarily a physical search.

Your eyes are half-closed, and you lean back in the bed. His eyes are a fiery red, and the bulb behind him frames his face in a halo of orange light - he looks like some mad witch doctor from a bygone age.

- Meaning?, you ask, lazily.

- Meaning that it is ultimately a search in physical space rather than mental or spiritual - we need something to hold on to, as proof of the existence of an external world, because if the person we love, exists and can be held on to, and loves us back, then the external world in which they exist must also of necessity be real. In this way our attempt to find love is at its core an attempt to validate reality, everything that lies outside of our mind, and thereby solve our existential crisis.

You flick ashes lazily off the bed. You pass a lighter between your hands - left, then right, then left again - its movement is hypnotic.

- Why, you say, didn't you walk up to the girl yesterday, and just talk to her?

- What?, he says, looking irritated for a moment, - Hold on - lemme finish. You see when a baby is born, this is when the first attachment to Wang is created. The mother-child bond thus constitutes nothing more than a gradual Pavlovian conditioning - this Wang holds safety, and food, and a warm body that loves you - all you need to do is hold on tight to it. You may think motherly attachment far different from erotic attachment, but are they not in the end both manifestations of a man's need to be babied? Do you think it is a co-incidence that the other body part men desire most are the breasts?

You stand up, and stretch.

- I, you say, am going to sleep. And you, you point at him, - need to get laid. As fast as possible. Horniness rises to the head, after a while, you know.

And laughing at your joke you leave the room.

"Put it on me" wangs (i.e. wangs that you see in music videos with titles like 'put it on me' and lyrics containing the verb "shake", the noun "booty", and a mention of the girl's mother and her role in making all this possible). Men whose wangs look like womens', and vice versa, leading to certain embarrassing moments of misidentification, in the dark, sometimes.

Wangs that are straight and tall, wangs that are short and fat, wangs that are just the right size.

- Maybe you have a chance, you say to your friend, dead serious, - how will you ever find out if you don't try.

He has just come back from winning a debating competition, and he is still flush with his success, filled with stories of his rhetorical maneuverings around wily opponents, how he single-handedly floored them all.

- Really?, he asks, when you say this, and there is a glint of hope in his eyes, - but what would someone like her....

You put your arm around him. - The name of the game, my friend, you say, is confidence.

- OK, he says. He does not sound very convinced.

And when the wang is not being displayed, it serves a more utilitarian - some would argue a more important - role: as the padding on which the body rests, when it grows weary from its travels. And so to the places where the wang is put: the sofa and the taxi seat, the bed, the doorstep, the sand of the beach. And the small bang in front of the kitchen, as you wita kereng kereng and dream about the future.

You met her, you spoke to her, you invited her. You did all the hard work . Though it was not so hard - beneath her goldeness there lay a quiet shyness, leading to a furtiveness even, an attempt at evading... You set her mind at rest with jokes, you soften her with compliments disguised as put-downs. And she says yes, she will come that evening to hang out with you and your friend. And then she turns and she walks away from you and you stand there and admire her wang, and the song it sings, and the warning in its movement ("taram....taram....tarun...You sound like you could be fun... taram...taram....tarall...But I have given up nothing yet at all...").

- Like, coming here?

- Yes - don't panic. Its just a hangout. We sit, we eat, we talk. The look of panic in his eyes, of pure fright. You feel suddenly a great upwelling of brotherly feeling for him. You call his name, and he looks at you, and he looks so lost.

- It's OK, you say, just stay cool - you're fine.

In the evening she comes wearing red baggy tees over a pair of black shorts. She wears sandals that are strapped and reach above her ankles. Her gold is muted - what burnt before is now a gentle fire, that plays across her features and makes her almost seem to be glowing.

- Am I late?, she asks, giggling, when you open the door.

- No no - of course not. Come on in, your friend shouts from the bed. You both look behind you at him, and then go back to looking at each other.

- Yup, you say, with half-a-smile, you gotta go back. She makes to turn - you take her hand in yours - you both laugh. Then you let go of her hand and turn into the room, widening the hole of the door behind you, and she follows you inside. She smells like the insides of new cars, air-freshened and flowery.

- This is Jim, you say, introducing your friend.

- Hey, she says, flashing him a smile. - Nice to meet you.

- Likewise, he replies, - I see word of your beauty was not exaggerated.

You roll your eyes. She laughs nervously and turns to you.

- So, she says, swinging left and right, her purse dangling in her hand - do you in fact offer guests a drink and a seat? Or will I have to serve myself?

Another wang idea: A TV Show based on the reinterpretation of a famous proverb or saying in wang form. Those who live by the wang die by the wang: a show about the inner workings of a neighborhood of girls as they attempted to outdo each other and locate a husband. You can't have your wang and eat it: a dieting show about the constant struggle the modern Gambian housewife faces, as she attempts to balance on one hand the media-propagated dream of a perfect body with no extraneous fat, and on the other the simple and basic and honest-to-goodness need of (a Gambian) husband for his wang, please, and "I don't care if that's considered fat in some circles, IT is my circle dammit and I intend to keep it the same diameter, or perhaps even larger".

- She does not like me, he says to you.

- How do you know - you never even really spoke to her.

- Exactly - she only had time for one person in the room.

You look at him helplessly. - Would you rather I left the room next time she comes?

- No, he says, looking sulky. - It doesn't matter - I wasn't interested anyway. I'll see you after class.

And he walks off, his bag swinging against his knees. A girl passes, scowling, walking fast, smoking a cigarette. Her hair is cut short and she holds a skateboard under one arm - she looks like one of those cool kids from a TV ad, advertising a soda. And at first you cannot read the dance of her wang, it is too wild, does not seem predicated upon or containing any meaningful pattern that you can decipher, no repititions that will let you give it a form. But then you see - it is not that she does not do the wang dance, but that her dance is not in her wang but her ndiga, her waist. While her wang jerks about her ndiga moves with a studied grace, and it is repeating one word over and over again. "Come....come...come...". And as she walks something is shed from her moving form, and when you look closely at it it is a key. You pick it up, and you run after her. When you touch her shoulder she whirls around aggressively.

- You dropped this, you say, smiling and holding it out.

- Oh, she says, breathing hard. Then: - Thank you.

And before she turns away, before she goes back to her frenetic pace, she gives you the tiniest of smiles, her face lighting up, her eyes a piercing blue. And then she turns and leaves.

The Playa [FICTION]

It is the way they laugh, when you talk to them. How they will hang on to your every word, as if it were the most important word ever uttered, as if the very fate of the world depended on it.

What did you do all day?, she asks him, Did you miss me?

And he tries to sound easy, and he laughs and says no.

The way it feels, as you make your way through the day, knowing there is someone out there in the world, in whose imagination you had been recreated, fresh, a hero, a god, capable of everything.

You have other girlfriends, she says. Her tone is more probing than accusatory.

Why, he says, would I cheat on an uurul aini.

He has used the line before, it is corny as hell and he knows it and she knows it but it always makes her smile.

Sore baayut fen, she says, but the way she says fen she clearly likes when he does it.

Hai suma raka, he says, mock-taygaling, my fen in your mouth. And not the only thing, by the time I'm done.

She titters. Chem. Chaga bi leh, she says, and it sounds almost affectionate.

Your flaws all will mean nothing. Do you have a club foot that has made you always walk with a limp, that you have hid in shame? She will run her hand over it as you lie in bed, and call it her sexy leg. Have a nervous stammer that ruins your conversation and makes you sit resolute and wordless in company? She will listen patiently as you speak, and the spaces of silence she gives you to complete your words in will not feel claustrophobic and judged - they will be vast spaces in which you can roam, finding the syllables you need, carefully assembling them, and you will feel so comfortable your stammer will disappear as if by magic.

When you lie with her, and speak to her of your ambitions, they will sound less like spurious dreams than a future reality that awaits you.

You will be Mansa Musa, you will be Lat Dior.

You didn't call me today, she says, as soon as she picks up.

What're you - high?, he laughs. We spoke in the afternoon d.

Only once.

I was busy at work. You know this. He tries to sound reasonable, and secretly he feels proud, feels chuffed that his presence is missed this much, that in his absence she is so alone.

Not too busy to call the people you want to call.

Neneh - lu hew?

Nothing. Never mind.

Come on.

Ah nothing - how was your day?

It was OK. I was taking about you with Bun and them.

What about me?

Everyone had to describe their dream girl. I told them I didn't have to imagine mine anymore. He cannot see her but he can feel her smile. In any case there is a melting away of tension.

Mum asked me for you today. She speaks softly now, the edges of her phrases melt away like honey and there is a relaxedness in her tone, as if she had been sitting up, and now had lain back with a sigh. She said she hadn't heard from you in a long while.

Wawe Merr - tell her dinaa jaar elayk. Your mother is in love with me.

Yabarteh - dore em! Did you miss me today?

He smiles.

You want to be tender to women. You want to be kind and gentle to them. You want to do this, not for sex, not for gratitude, but because when you are kind and tender to a woman it softens her. Not noticeably at first (though if you listen closely you will hear her tone get warmer by almost imperceptible degrees, over many phone calls). But then the first undoubtable signs. The way she gets just a little mad, at night, when you have to hang up (though she denies it the next day when you tease her). The way she will call you everyday, and pick up your calls sometimes you swear before they even ring. The growing surrender in her voice. How impatient she sounds, at your self doubts. How sure she is, that you will prevail. And more than the vain chest poundings, more than the measuring of penises in public, this is what you think defines you as a man. This ability to have women depend on you, abandon themselves to you, believe completely and without doubt in you - your sisters and your mother, your lovers, past and present, that look in their eyes when they look at you, as if they have, after a lifetime of searching, found hope, and it is your form it has taken.

Some guys in the van were talking about you today. They were sitting behind me.

His smile turns sardonical, though she cannot see him. What did they say?

That they do not know what you give all the girls of Gambia, that they are such fools running after you. A beat - he does not speak. Only her breathing crosses the line, the silence between them.

Finally, she changes the topic. So what did you do today?

You fuck around. The wrong verb, you think. Right from the outset - this is what removes them from the race, fills them with frustrated notions of women, violent and wrong notions. So they accuse you - and admire you - for "fucking around", and you do nothing to dispel them of the belief that this is what it's all about, that you would follow your penis anywhere it led. They make crude jokes, and yours are the crudest of all, in their midst, involving sexual positions consisting of bent waists and bent ankles, and farts belchily erupting from open orifices. And they howl with laughter, and sometimes turning around fast enough as you demonstrate you can catch a glimpse of the envy in their eyes. Things you would never say to a woman. Oh you have your dirty jokes with them - they love those too, just like your boys - but the perspective is different, the tone is not denigrating, does not treat them like objects. Graphic descriptions from their wildest sexual fantasies, scenes you narrate late to them at night as their voices gradually turn more and more husky. You have become quite adept at this, this mastering of another person's sexual appetite, this ability to serve her - with a look, with a kiss, with a word, a half-finished threat implying much and specifying little - the exact dish she has been hungering for all these years, across successive relationships and successive men.

You have a philosophy. You know that a woman's face and body are the wrong places to look for a woman's beauty. For these may display a certain beauty but it is not the true beauty: it is fleeting, and of no import or permanence. You think women guard their true beauties like treasures, deep within them, for they are fragile things, and not for just any fool to gaze upon. And a woman's true beauty cannot be described, but only understood, and each woman's own is of a different shape and a different form. And when will you know when you see it? You will have no doubts - it will come, in the middle of the night when she is in bed and you are on the phone, the last person she talks to, the last person on her mind, everything around her in darkness, half-submerged in dreams, your voice her only link back into a fast-fading reality, a link to which she attaches herself, and lets herself be bonded, and lets herself be led. Or it will come as you sit opposite each other at the nice restaurant you have taken her to, as you look up from reading the menu, and her eyes are there waiting, and her gaze is like a cat's, strange and wonderful and encompassing the whole of the known world, with you at its head. Or the way she holds on to your arm, carelessly, automatically, without a thought, as you stand in a group on the beach talking, the wind picking up and the waves crashing. Or in a hundred other situations - but when it comes you will know it, there will be no mistaking it. And no matter what woman it is, and no matter what she looks like on the outside in that moment she will be the most beautiful being in the world, and you her true man, a real man, the chosen one. It is this feeling that you have spent your life tasting, until you have become a connoisseur of it.

The phone rings three times. On the fourth she picks up, and is silent.

Neh...neh...his voice mocking, sing-song, until

Don't call me tha!

He is taken aback, perhaps more than he should be, at the lack of vehemence in her tone, how flat it sounds.

Guess who I saw today?, he ploughs on. An indifferent naïveté - a technique that has worked before, pretending not to notice how upset she is until she finally gives in and begins to talk, saving her complaints for the end of the conversation, when their intensity has decreased and he is able to dispel them with a few compliments, a few apologies. But she is having none of that, not today.

If you choose to go around being a chaga, then at least do it with women who have class.

He sighs. Who is it this time.., he begins...

Don't lie to me!

He falls silent. Her breathing comes hard, and he feels a sudden sadness, that tugs at him and makes him panic.

If some mbahal from Banjul is all you're interested in... But it is all my fault...

He is suddenly tired, and he feels cold. All he wants is to be alone. He is tired of conversation, and tired of words, and tired of his role - tonight he thought perhaps he could be role-less. Half of him wishes she would hang up, and make more sense in the morning. But there is something in her tone that has not been there before, on other such occasions. A grim resignation, the beginnings of a final decision.

Neneh, he tries again, weakly...

I said don't call me that! You know what - I am tired of this shit - sorna naa - from now on do what you want with who you want, get AIDS from some chaga, die if you want.. Don't call me.

And it takes him a few moments to realize that it is not her silence on the line, that she hung up.

Girls like you. You open your mouth and speak to them and they do not want you to ever close it, to ever stop talking to them. And in time they begin to want to possess you, to themselves, they wish to make you their exclusive property. And this creates problems, and the more problems it creates the more your reputation grows. As a womaniser, as a breaker of unguarded hearts. And a new girl hears about you, and she thinks, first what does he have, that so many speak of him like this. And she thinks, second whatever wiles he possesses I will not fall under them, he cannot enchant me. And so when she first meets you you can see the wariness in her eye, the reservedness in her manner, the restraint in her laughter. But you speak to her like a friend, like an equal, not like anything she had heard about you, not like anything she had expected. And there, right there, confounding her expectations, is where the first of the softenings happens.

He called her, once, in the afternoon. She would not pick up. , he texted. Then he went back to work, and tried to put her out of his mind. She would call.

But she did not, not that whole day, and she did not text. This had happened before, with her and other girls - he would wait her out, he was good at waiting. Yet a strange feeling filled him, that he had not felt before. The way he kept putting his hand over his jeans pocket, because he thought he had felt his phone vibrate. How every time he got a text how impatient he was to read it, and how disappointed when it was not her. But she did not call, and she did not text, not that day, or the next. And by the third day he began to get worried, despite himself. In the night after dinner he called her. The phone rang and rang. Every time it paused between rings he thought she had picked up, only to be disappointed by another ring. Finally he hung up. Fine! If that was how she wanted it! Why did he feel so irritated? And why, all of a sudden, did he feel so lonely?

So women come and go. That is another thing you had to learn in the beginning, how to grow very attached (because you cannot fake attachment) and yet be able to move on quickly. Cool as a cucumber, the king of ice. They are many, like bazaars, each filled with her own singular riches, places you can always re-visit. And each one that comes brings with her a whole new world to explore, a delightful chain of Islands containing everyone and everything important in her life: best friends and birthdays, aunts and uncles and her frustrations at the tailor, late with making her juli dress. And they explore your world too - you give them full access: your funny friends, your eclectic taste in music, how you cannot pronounce "Russian" correctly (and how this makes her laugh, like a parent showing off their child's clever trick). And this is what constitutes the difference: when it is time for you to leave her world behind, she is never ready to leave yours. She wishes to stay, to continue to play at njaykay-jabarr with your little sister, to be the one who gets to call you baby, to be the one whose hand is in yours as you walk down a beach road, one April evening.

It takes many arrangings to get an invitation, a chance to speak. It is harder than he ever thought it would be. He sits opposite her in their living room, prim and proper. The evening is on its way out, and the room is bathed in twilight.

Let me first say, she says, that what you are about to say makes no difference. I have made my decision, do not feel you have to defend or justify yourself. Not anger - a flatness in her tone. He hears her mother shouting at the maid in the back. Her little sister runs past where they sit, ignoring him.

I do not know what I did. No, he cannot say that, not with the way she looks, like mother justice, a terrible beauty in her eyes - he cannot look her in the eye and lie.

I am sorry. Not that either. It will make no difference, in this room, he has used it far too much in the past. And in any case she is not angry, does not desire apology.

He stands. She looks up at him, and for a moment he can see past her mask to the pain he has caused her, and he almost cannot bear it. He looks down at the ground.

I am sorry, he says. I know it does not mean much, but I am sorry. And there is no artifice in his voice, and when he says mean it breaks, and he has to repair it with a cough.

He turns and he leaves that room, and though he does not look back he can feel her eyes on him as he walks away, and he wishes he could turn and run back to her, and make a silly joke and have her laughing again, and her little sister running into his arms and laughing with them.

But he does not turn, and he does not look back. He walks out of the room, and he drives home, and he takes a shower, and he turns off his phone, and he goes to bed.