The Picnic

8

They bought a pizza capricciosa at Jungle Pepper, and at precisely 8:30 a.m. they hit the road, heading towards the great mountain in the east. They had been planning this picnic for a long time, from the day they fell in love ten months ago. Today, precisely a week after Maziko bought a car – a Toyota Vitz – the picnic was finally going to happen. Maziko felt great to own a car for the first time ever in his twenty-five years of existence. The way he bought the vehicle was nothing short of a miracle. When he applied for a loan at his place of work, the bastard who answered to the title of Finance Manager did not approve it, citing lack of funds. Then the bastard suddenly fell ill, and his deputy acted in his place. Maziko applied again, and now here he was, driving his gorgeous girlfriend, Mariam, to the mountain for a picnic. Only a few days ago this trip would have seemed impossible: take a minibus to some point, then hitchhike to the picnic place, taking a whole day for a trip that was now going to take a mere two hours or less.

“I always ask myself,” Mariam said, “why me?”

“What do you mean why me?” Maziko asked.

“Of all the women on earth, how could I be the luckiest to have the honour of being called your girlfriend?”

Maziko changed gears and said, “I should be the one asking myself that question. Do I deserve an angel like you?”

She giggled then looked out the window. They let silence reign for a while, as they admired the vast tea fields that lay on either side of the road.

They later talked about other things, she about her mother who was unwell, who was always grateful that she, Mariam, helped to fetch water from the well and to go to the maize mill and to cook for her father. Breast cancer was chipping the older woman’s life away each passing minute, and Mariam was determined to help in whatever way she could. He talked about his younger brother, Charles, his only sibling, to whom he was almost a parent, since both their parents died in a car accident when he, Maziko, was in early secondary school. Charles, who was with the parents in the car on the day of the accident, survived to tell the tale, confined, as it were, to a wheelchair his entire life.

By seventeen minutes past ten Maziko and Mariam arrived at their destination. They parked the car on the roadside, picked their things, locked the car’s doors and went up the mountain.

The picnic place was just as brilliant as the last time he saw it, its grass as neatly manicured as that of a well-tended football pitch. To its north, east and south, less then fifty yards away, the mountain rose in its majesty. To the west, where they had come from, they could see the tea fields like a vast green carpet spreading from the foot of the mountain to as far as the eye could see. Now the clouds were gone, and it was a brilliant September day, with the sun shining so bright it was almost painful to the eye.

“Wow, what a lovely place,” Mariam said, spreading her chitenje cloth as Maziko brought out the pizza, bottles of water, two cans of Coke and a camera. Above Mariam’s voice, birds sang melodiously and branches of the trees that surrounded the place swayed as though they were dancing to country music.

“I first saw this place when our choir came here for prayers,” Maziko said.

“We must come here often,” Mariam said. “It’s so peaceful and quiet.” She sipped from the bottle of water and sat down.

Without warning, Maziko knelt down on one knee, brought out a tiny box from his trouser pocket, took out a ring, held her by the hand and said, “Mariam, will you marry me?”

There were tears in Mariam’s eyes. She threw herself into his arms and said, “Yes!”

They both stood up and embraced each other with passionate intensity. “I want to be with you till death,” each of them kept saying in between the kisses.

“Who are you?” a voice startled them both.

They released each other from their embrace and looked toward the direction the voice came from. There was a man carrying the Holy Bible in his hands, standing on the way they had come from to reach here. Maziko relaxed and turned around. “Hello,” he said. “My name is Maziko and this is my girlfriend, Mariam. And you?” He proffered his hand for a shake. The man did not respond to the gesture, leaving Maziko’s hand hanging in the air just like that.

“And what are you doing here?” the man said.

“We live in the city,” Maziko said. “We came here just to have a picnic with my girlfriend.”

“What did they say they are?” a second man appeared into the clearing and stood next to the first.

“Love birds from the city,” the first man said.

“They all claim to be love birds,” said the second man.

“And what is that thing?” the first man said, pointing at something Mariam had brought out of her handbag.

“Aah, that,” said Maziko. “It’s a power bank.”

“A power what?” asked the first man.

“A power bank.”

The second man laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “Nobody banks power. The president of this country, for instance, has too much power, but I have never heard him say he stores any of it in a bank of any sort, National Bank, Standard Bank, or in a black thing like the one she is carrying.”

“Aah, it’s not that kind of power that gets banked into this thing,” Maziko explained. “This stores electric power.”

“Really?” said the first man. “How so? I’ve visited homes with electricity all my life, and I have never seen the so-called power bank.”

“It is the latest invention,” it was Mariam who spoke. She was now sitting down on the chitenje cloth. “It is essential for a country like ours, where electric power is intermittent. Come, let’s eat the pizza, Maziko. It’s getting cold.”

“What do you use it for?” the second man said.

“Charging the phone,” Maziko said.

The first man dipped his hand into his trouser pocket and brought out a phone, the cheapest of all the cheapest phones on the market, a mose-wa-lero made in China. “OK, charge this.”

Maziko laughed, a brief, mirthless laugh. “No, not this type of phone,” he said.

“You said it is used for charging the phone,” the first man said. “Charge this phone now.” A certain note had crept into his voice, authoritative, perhaps too authoritative.

“I’m sorry,” said Maziko. “I wish I could charge the phone now. But charging phones, as you know, takes hours. My girlfriend and I want to be here only for a short time and go home.”

“We actually want to see you charge this phone to prove that that black thing is indeed a charger,” the second man said.

“In that case,” Maziko said, “I will connect my phone to the charger so you can see.”

“No,” said the first man. “Charge this.”

There were voices of more people from the surrounding bush. Even the mountain now seemed full of people, young and old, gathering stones while chatting among themselves. A group of about six men and five women appeared and stood next to the two men.

“The problem,” said Maziko, “is that you need to have a specific kind of charger to use the power bank for charging. Something like this,” Maziko took out a charger from the small black bag that lay next to Mariam.

“So that is what they use?” a woman said. There was a gasp among the crowd.

“Use for charging the phone, you mean?” Maziko said. “Of course.”

“No, that is what you use for sucking blood,” another man in the crowd said.

That was the most ridiculous thing Maziko had ever heard. “Surely, you must be joking?” he said.

“Joke? Did he say I am joking?” the man said.

“All the villages around here have been having sleepless nights,” the bible-carrying man said. “When they try to sleep in their homes, people carrying strange gadgets appear as though in a dream, and, before anybody realizes what is going on the home owners’ blood is sucked. The vampires mysteriously melt into the darkness. And today you appear on our soil with strange gadgets.”

“We need to go,” Mariam said, standing up. “This does not seem to be a good place for a picnic.”

Maziko connected his phone to a charger, and four bars repeatedly appeared and disappeared on the phone. He held it out to the crowd. “You see? It is charging. This is a power bank we use to charge the phone. It is not an instrument for sucking anybody’s blood.”

As if on cue, the people moved backwards and disappeared into the bush.

Then a rain of stones started falling on Maziko and his girlfriend. Big stones, small stones, some as if shot from a catapult, others sharp-edged, others blunt but brutal.

They tried to run but could only manage a few yards and fell down. Their cries echoed all over the mountain, but somewhere those echoes died and then they were heard no more.

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