by Clive Aaron Gill
Zimbabwe, Africa 2017
Norbert, the manager of The Best Transport Company, came to the capital city of Harare from a rural village where people blamed illnesses on evil spirits. Skinny as a handrail, Norbert limped as a result of being beaten by a policeman when he attended a pro-democracy rally.
‘Lazarus,’ Norbert said to his friend while they stood in the small office of the company’s bus yard, ‘do you want a job?’
‘Do I want a job?’ Lazarus asked in a surprised tone. His pointed countenance looked like the face of a fish. ‘I haven’t worked for three years. The church has no more food or soap. I’m tired of begging for my family.’
Lazarus, age twenty-six, became the head of his household at sixteen when his HIV-positive father was too ill to care for Lazarus’s mother and five younger siblings.
‘Tomorrow,’ Norbert said, ‘you and me, we pick up twenty mental patients at the overcrowded Harare hospital. Then we take them to the Bulawayo Mental Hospital.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Norbert said in a cheerful voice. ‘They’ll be drugged. Your job will be to watch the passengers and bribe the police at the roadblocks.’
When pink morning rays tinged the billowing clouds, Norbert arrived at the Harare Mental Hospital in a rattling, dented bus. Hospital aids escorted twenty barefoot, tranquilized men and women onto the bus.
Norbert drove past the courthouse where rich criminals gave bribes to avoid imprisonment. He steered onto the main road, avoiding potholes. Driving past the edge of the city, Lazarus stared at the shacks made of plywood, corrugated metal, sheets of plastic, and cardboard boxes. Women carried buckets of water on their heads, stepping over human waste that ran across the dirt paths.
Ten years prior, the Minister of National Housing had promised to build apartments with indoor plumbing near the shantytown. When citizens had asked him why the apartments weren’t built, he had said, ‘The money for the project is missing.’
An hour after leaving Harare, Norbert stopped at a police outpost where a beam across the road blocked traffic. Empty bottles, paper and plastic bags littered the area.
‘Norbert,’ Lazarus said, ‘look at that Mercedes ambulance at the side of the police station. Why are those oxen hitched to it?’
‘Because petrol is scarce,’ Norbert said, with an impassive face. ‘The ambulance was a recent gift from a foreign government.’
A policeman wearing a dark blue shirt with a frayed collar and torn boots boarded the bus, a revolver at his hip. His head, as rounded as if shaped on a potter’s wheel, sat on his thick neck. His eyes were bloodshot, and he reeked of beer.
‘Good morning, General,’ Lazarus said.
Lazarus gave the policeman a brown paper bag containing three loaves of soft, white bread. ‘This is for you, sir.’
‘I’m looking for a man with an axe,’ the policeman said. ‘He’s wanted for armed robbery. If I can’t find the suspect, I’ll lock up his brother…or his father until he shows up.’
‘We only have mental patients from the hospital on this bus,’ Lazarus said.
‘Mental patients, eh? Many of them are lazy, good-for-nothings, just pretending to be insane. We must cleanse the country of loafers, and criminal elements and cults.’
‘Yes, General,’ Lazarus said, his stomach knotted.
The policeman walked through the aisle, inspecting the drowsy passengers. Some snored with their heads turned to one side. Others rolled their eyes, their mouths open.
Then the policeman exited the bus. ‘Driver, get going before I throw you all into the cells.’
‘Straight away, sir,’ Norbert said, and he drove past the raised barrier.
When Norbert had driven fifty meters from the roadblock, he said to Lazarus, ‘May the General’s penis shrivel and fall off.’
‘God willing,’ Lazarus said, with a twisted smile.
At each of the next two police roadblocks, Lazarus gave out three loaves of white bread to the policeman who boarded the bus. Then Norbert drove forward with a nod at the guards holding rifles.
When the unrelenting glare of the hot sun made Norbert’s eyes water, he said, ‘I’m thirsty, Lazarus.’ He licked his dry lips. ‘And I need to pee. Let’s stop at that shack in Gweru. The owner doesn’t have a liquor license, but he’ll sell us beer in the back.’
Norbert parked the bus and closed the door.
‘Will the passengers stay on the bus?’ Lazarus asked.
‘Of course,’ Norbert said as he hobbled towards the shack. ‘They’re still sleepy.’
The men purchased two bottles of beer each. Sitting on a bench behind the shack, they took small mouthfuls, savoring the taste. Nearby, gray smoke rose from a pile of stinking rubbish. Flies buzzed around the two men’s faces and crows squawked in the oak trees.
When their bottles stood empty, they ambled towards the bus.
‘Holy Jesus!’ Norbert said.
‘What do you mean?’ Lazarus asked.
‘Look at the bus.’ He squeezed the bus keys in his trembling hand. ‘Do you see anyone inside?’
‘Whoa!’ Lazarus said. ‘Our passengers left the bus. Why would they do that? They get free food and a place to stay.’
‘Those inmates don’t understand about hunger and shelter. They probably scattered like seeds in the wind. They could be murderous. Or in danger.’
‘We’re in big trouble with the hospital authorities,’ Lazarus said, scratching his head of wiry black hair. ‘And no passengers means no money for us.’ He looked sideways, then at Norbert. ‘I have an idea. Drive to the main bus depot.’
‘We’ll offer people free rides to Bulawayo,’ Lazarus said. ‘Then we’ll take the passengers to the mental hospital.’
‘But they don’t want to go to the hospital.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Lazarus said, with a toothy grin. ‘I’ll take care of that.’
At the main bus depot in Gweru, children crowded around the bus, offering fruit and hard-boiled eggs for sale. A shoeless boy led a blind man who held a metal cup for donations.
Lazarus strode to the area where people stood waiting for the Bulawayo bus.
‘Attention everyone,’ he said. ‘We’re going to pick up something in Bulawayo. And we have an empty bus. Anyone want a free ride?’
Eager people rushed forward.
‘Follow me,’ Lazarus said. ‘We only have room for twenty adults.’
He walked to the bus and and counted people as they entered
‘Sorry, no more today. Norbert, close the door.’
The last woman who entered the bus said, ‘God bless you, young man.’
‘Thank you,’ Lazarus said. ‘We love to help.’
Norbert drove the contented passengers towards Bulawayo. They ate sandwiches, drank juice and threw the empty plastic bottles out the windows.
When the bus arrived in Bulawayo, Lazarus said, ‘Norbert, drive to the back of the building.’
Norbert applied the brake at the back door of the rectangular Bulawayo Mental Hospital building where no hospital signs were displayed.
‘All passengers stay seated for a few minutes, please,’ Lazarus said.
He walked with bouncy steps into the building and met the doctor in charge. ‘We are delivering twenty men and women.’
‘I’m expecting the patients,’ the white-coated doctor said. ‘My secretary will give you a check. And my assistants will escort them in.’
‘I must tell you, Doctor,’ Lazarus said, ‘these are the most excitable people I’ve ever seen.’
‘My job is to treat excitable people,’ the doctor said, in an irritated tone.
Lazarus returned to the bus with the check.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he said, ‘thank you for being such good passengers. You’re invited for complimentary tea and sandwiches.’
The passengers cheered and whistled.
‘For safety reasons, please take your belongings with you,’ Lazarus said. ‘Watch your step getting off the bus.’
When all the passengers had entered the building accompanied by hospital aides, Lazarus said, ‘Time to go to the bank, my brother.’
Three days later, the head doctor at the Bulawayo Mental Hospital released the protesting new arrivals.
In Gweru, police searched for the twenty escaped patients for a week. Some were never found.
Clive Aaron Gill’s short stories have appeared in numerous Internet literary magazines and in “People of Few Words Anthology.” “French Perfume and More Short Stories” was published in April 2018. Born in Zimbabwe, Clive has lived and worked in Southern Africa, North America and Europe. He received a degree in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and lives in San Diego.
Learn more at Clive’s website at either: amazon.com/author/cliveaarongill