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Partly inspired by the true-life experience of Jayne Mganga-Mphinga, a Malawian living in France.

He was just a stranger like any other.

Nothing special or unique stood out about him the time he sat next to me on that sluggish bus ride home that weekend. Except he was the talkative type. You know – the type you hope doesn’t sit next to you as they hobble down the aisle, anxiously searching for an empty seat. Someone had sat on his seat and was visibly reluctant about giving it up.

“It’s free seating!” exclaimed the seat-hijacker, without looking up from the black and white pattern of the daily in their hands.

As the stranger hobbled along down the aisle, his head rising above the horizon of the head rest in front of me, I sank my head deeper into an in-transit magazine pretending to be seriously preoccupied with the intricacies of bee-keeping.

“Is this seat taken?” he asked me. I remember wanting to lie. I wanted the seat all to myself so I could stretch my legs to expedite slumber and escape the clasp of an inevitable muscle clamp.

But lo and behold, fate, destiny (or whatever other cosmic force that could be named and blamed) seemed to have vested interest in my misery as the stars, the moon and the sun shifted out of their age-old trajectories to ensure that I became the unfortunate soul to have to endure – nay bear! – this man’s company.

Why not the pretty coloured girl who walked passed me earlier, I queried the conniving universe. Before I got a life-affirming answer, the stranger threw himself into the seat next to me, letting off a sigh of exhilaration as if he had made some grand discovery.

He stretched out his hand in greeting and introduced himself. I don’t remember his name. But I do remember the feeling of his sweaty, but callous grip in my moisturized hand. As we digressed into the triviality of small talk, all I could think of was why I couldn’t have just said:

The seat’s taken!

Or

I don’t want to sit next to you!

Well, maybe the second thought would have been a tad unkind, but at least it would have been honest. But I wish I just lied.

He smelt of sweat and a hint of urine. He kept shifting in his seat letting off sharp breaths like a woman in unwanted labour. His set of yellowing teeth was perforated with gaps where other yellowing teeth used to have residence.

But worst of all (considering the fact that I wanted to be quietly alone), he just couldn’t shut up! Like an actor’s utter oblivion of the audience’s tedium, the stranger couldn’t decipher any of my deliberate signs of disinterest: sighing, silence, coughing, looking out my window while he was talking and wishing I had traded places with any of the vendors outside (Well, maybe except the scruffy gondolosi merchant who looked like something out of the Old Testament). The stranger clearly didn’t fathom the etiquette of conversation – or rather the need for the lack of it in this case. Realising the futility of this strategy, I settled for false modesty and simply listened, smiled and nodded politely as he rambled on. And on. And on.

And on!

During what he referred to as a “commercial break”, he pulled out a pack of salted nuts from his person and dug his fingers into the cellophane packaging. He slung each nut, one by one, into his mouth and chewed with his mouth open, providing a foretaste of the salivated massacre of innocent nuts within. He offered me some, and I turned it down – partly because I felt sorry for the nuts and, mostly, I was nursing an unyielding muscle clamp.

After what felt like eons, he finally slouched back in his seat and slipped into sleep for the remainder of the trip. Sweet, serene and blissful silence!

Thank goodness he didn’t snore!  

The bus slowed to a stop at a bustling bus station. It was the end of his journey.

Thank goodness!

As he disembarked the transport, thanking me for my “company” as he did, I hastily stretched my legs out across the seat and savoured the gradual subjugation of my muscle clamp. I could only rejoice that balance had been restored in my life and I was finally rid of him. He was just stranger like any other, after all – nothing special or unique about him.

____________________

Surprising enough, the stranger was the much-needed colour to my otherwise uninteresting banter as I recounted my weekend to my equally uninteresting work colleagues that first day of the work week.

Of course, I did embellish a little bit (for a little attention, who wouldn’t?). ‘A few gaps in his yellowing teeth’ assumed the new description of ‘gaping holes that spanned the stretch of his toothless Cheshire grin’. The “hint of urine and sweat’ was augmented by the companionship of a thick and juicy fly that had found asylum on the groin region of his trouser.

As I became consumed with my embellishments (with the full intent of embellishing some more), one of my female colleagues rushed into the office, breaking the mood and spoiling my vibe.

“It’s here!” she said, as she hurried back as quickly as she appeared. Like a herd of mindless animals, we all followed her to the lobby, where everyone was hypnotized by something on the news. As we huddled into the small of the lobby to find a back-aching vantage point, someone shushed us to silence as a female anchor appeared on the screen with breaking news.

Then his face – the stranger’s face – appeared on the screen as a photo insert. He was the breaking news for the day.

I couldn’t hear the anchor as she listlessly read the news neither did I pay any mind to my colleagues as they watched with a blend of awe and fear plastered on their faces. Everything was drowned out by three entrancing words on the screen below his photo insert – published in bold capital letters:

MAN!

DEAD!

EBOLA!

 It’s here?!

 IT is HERE!

It couldn’t be him. Maybe they just look alike. It can’t be. Right? Did I touch him? Does that mean……

“Hey!”

One of my work colleagues nudged me out of my stupor. “Are you okay?”

As my mind came back to me, I responded completely by reflex, “I’m fine!”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’ll be fine!” I replied.

I’m fine! I’ll be fine! I’ve got to be fine!

I shouldn’t have lied to my colleague, but I sure as death wished I had lied to that un-special and not-so-unique stranger on that bus ride home that weekend.

As we all swarmed back to our work cubicles, each to their terminal, I felt a small tickle – an insatiable itch – rising from the back of my throat.

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Author: Muthi Nhlema

Muthi Nhlema, a civil engineer by training, is a short story writer living in Blantyre. He has 4 short stories and 1 novella to his repertoire including the First Merchant Bank/MAWU prize winning short story "Free Seating" and the African Speculative Fiction Society's Nommo Awards nominated novella "Ta O'reva". Muthi is also one of the writers featured in Geoff Ryman's award-winning series "100 African Writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy". Muthi is married and has a son.

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