“What’re you going to drink?”
“Probably a wine later?”
“You’re such a bore.”
“Let me tell you a story…”
I was 13 years old and in a bar. Music blared from loud speakers. There was happiness everywhere, like the disco lights spilling on swaying bodies. I was sandwiched between my cousin, Grace and her husband, William. He had come up with the idea of “outing” so that I could see the other side of life in Bweyale.
“What’re you going to drink?”
“Nile special,” Grace said.
I had neither the age nor experience to choose a liquor in a bar so Pilsner Lager was chosen for me “because it’s sweet and mild”.
Grace danced. Fiercely, like the dance floor had feet-tickling powers. Grace danced. Barely stopping, like she wanted to shake off an invisible demon. William danced too, showily, eyes darting about as if to check if his moves were making an impression.
I stood there, taking it all in. Then, a few sips later, my head began to spin but I didn’t put down the bottle. It was sweet after all, and got sweeter with every sip. William bought another one and I continued drinking. I don’t know if I took a Pilsner Lager. But I remember the disco lights. Bright and dim, bright and dim. Colorful. I also remember speaking a lot of English that night.
Two weeks earlier, Daddy had grudgingly allowed me to go spend part of my Primary Seven vacation with my cousin Grace in Bweyale – 110 kilometers from home. It had been years of different relatives begging my parents to allow me go spend some time with them. Mama was the easy one, but Daddy never budged. They accused him of being overprotective and mean with his children, as if we are breakable porcelain.
I was ecstatic when Daddy said yes to my Bweyale trip. I would see Karuma Falls and the baboons at the bridge and a whole lot of things. I would leave Gulu for the first time in my life! Coolness!
Boarding a taxi to Bweyale alone was both scary and exciting. At Karuma Falls, the taxi snail-paced over the bridge as if going fast would make it plunge into the fierce milky waves below. I shivered as I watched the waves slap rocks whose heads protruded above the water.
The chit-chat and laughter that had earlier engulfed the taxi as passengers watched baboons fight over maize cobs and bananas thrown to them through the window, or how little baboons hung from the belly of their mothers – were replaced by a stony silence.
It was only until Karuma was out of sight that someone cleared their throat and said: You see that Karuma, it has a powerful god. In fact, Museveni one day dived into the falls in a well ironed suit and hours later, emerged without a drop of water on him. We listened in disbelief but everyone seemed too scared to interrogate the story. We all settled for the theory that the big man refills his “power bank” from a god who resides on the bed of Karuma Falls.
Once in Bweyale, Grace bought for me new clothes and shoes and took me to the market which had more fish than anything else. I was also amazed at how much Acholi was spoken in this land of Banyoro but I was soon reminded the area is host to LRA refugees from Gulu and other parts of northern Uganda. Bweyale felt like home and not a refugee town.
That morning after the bar spree, Grace came to wake me up, which was a first. My beer-laden head made it a battle to get up. Alinga and I slept in a hut, just next to Grace’s one-bedroomed rented house. Being a 13-year-old, I was ‘too old’ to share such a house with a couple still active in bedroom actions. I may see and hear what I shouldn’t. In any case, their two children, the eldest only about three years old, already occupied most of the space in the sitting room.
Grace entered our “bedroom” and shook me awake. A smirk lingered on her face. She started ranting about the previous night’s rendezvous and how I had rapped to them in English. English was not the big deal though, but rapping was. Everyone knew that you couldn’t get more than five words out of my mouth at any point those days. I was the quiet one, the ‘well-behaved’ girl. Quietness went hand in hand with good behavior, I was told. Even at school, my report card always had “polite pupil” in the comment section and that made me keep my head down the more. I talked even less – especially if elders are watching.
I ignored Grace’s tease and went about my daily chores, pushing my hangover body hard. But by midday, I was getting drunk afresh. Grace noticed the clumsiness in my steps and said, ahaaa, the beer is reworking, to which William recommended another beer.
“The cure of a hangover is taking more alcohol,” he said.
I responded with a firm no, and headed out of the house in protest. I ran into a lanky man at the doorway. He had a camera slung across his chest and a white envelop in his right hand. He held my hand and walked me back inside. He was our photographer at the bar the previous night. It became clear that not all that flashed on my face were disco lights.
He gave the pictures to William and he looked at them, his eyes lingering on a particular one, before he passed it over to Grace. She looked at the photo, looked at William and they burst out laughing.
Then it was my turn to look at the photos. I looked dazed in most of them. Drunk. Then I saw the picture that must have caused the laughter. In the photo, William’s lips had enveloped mine –-like a child learning how to drink from a small-mouthed bottle. My big round eyes were wide open, like I had seen something I shouldn’t have. Grace was standing there, her teeth out in a smile, her cheeks dimpled.
I looked up from the photo to Grace and William, and on my face they must have read the message that I had seen the photo of interest. They started laughing again. The laughter carried the sound of a well done mockery. I still hear it.
William was a builder. He had recently got a contract to build a house near home. He was the foreman. So he would come home as frequently as he chose. He also had money. That meant he drunk more and showered his kids and wife with niceties.
Since my arrival at his home, William acted as though he could see everyone else but me, he gave me a vibe that made me watch my every step. Other than greetings, I only spoke to him when he said something to me, which was rarely. But that changed after the bar incident. He looked at me more intently, spoke nicely to me when Grace was away but became the complete opposite when she was around.
It was one of those days when he had come home at lunch time when he found me seated on the table, my back to the door, as I sorted rice. He slipped his hand inside my blouse and grabbed my breast, tilted my head backwards with the other and kissed me.
I washed my mouth with soap, hoping it would take away the revulsion. It also became clear, that I could no longer blame alcohol for the first bar incident.
The next day, William came home again, when Grace was away in the market. Their daughter was about two years old then. She was the favorite of his two children. He lifted her off the floor, placed her on his laps and kissed her full on the mouth. She pulled away fiercely.
I craved the resistance of that two-year old.
Results of the Primary Leaving Exams were soon out and that meant I had to return to Gulu and prepare to join Senior One. Grace bought me more new clothes and shoes. She also shopped some essentials for me to take to my parents and to thank them for entrusting me with her.
I had been a hardworking and disciplined child, she said. The neighbors agreed.
A day before my journey back home, William came home in the afternoon and went straight to their bedroom. Grace was in the market, as usual, vending foodstuff.
From the verandah, I could hear William call my name. The second time he called, I went inside and stood in the living room. “Come here,” he beckoned, his voice restrained from the bedroom. He was there, lying on his back on the bed. He didn’t get up when I entered the bedroom.
“How are you?”
I didn’t have time to respond. The smallness of that bedroom meant the head of the bed was by the entrance, where I stood. He grabbed my hand, even from that position of his eyes facing the ceiling, and pulled me to a bending position, my head, directly over his. He held me by the back of my head now, and closed the gap between my head and his.
Outside, the sound of Grace’s laughter at the neighbor’s house made him disengage, like my lips had suddenly become embers; my presence unsolicited.
The next day, I boarded a taxi back to Gulu, my bag full of new clothes, shoes, soap, sugar, salt, cooking oil; and my heart heavy with a secret.
“That, J, is the reason I don’t take beer.”