Gloria and the Hyena: a Christmas Tale: an original short story by Pettina Gappah

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This short story forms part of our Six Tales of Christmas series. Learn about the authors and find more exclusive fiction here.

As you can see from the trees and lights around us, it is Christmas, the season of giving. My gift to you is a little tour. Do please follow me, we are off to Borrowdale Brooke. Yes, that Brooke, the housing estate with its own golf course. The one in Harare. That’s right, in Zimbabwe.

What do you mean, we have no golf courses in Zimbabwe? Of course we have them. We don’t just do Weimar-style hyperinflation, you know, and murdered lions and Klingon Presidents and our very own extra-special version of the US dollar, we also have the best golf courses in the world. Come now, we have things to do and people to see, don’t just stand there, gawping and gaping.

No, that’s not the house we want. That one is owned by, oh wait, we agreed on no names. We need new names. That’s another smashing success that Zimbabwe produced. It’s a novel by NoViolet Bulawayo; you must buy it this Christmas. In this story we don’t need new names at all, we need no names, ge ge ge.

The house you are staring at, slack-jaw and all, is owned by a gentleman who does not want you to know he is bald, and so sports a small wig of a most peculiar hue of black. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity! Baldilocks and the Three Hairs we shall call him, ge ge ge.

And yes, that is a lift that you see through the transparent windows of Baldilocks’ house. Don’t be silly, how can it possibly be tacky or vulgar to have a lift in a house? What can possibly be wrong with wanting to take your own elevator to the top floor of your own three-storey house? No, Baldilocks is able-bodied, although, come to think of it, he did claim to have suffered 98 per cent disability when he made his claim from the War Veterans Pension Fund. By that calculation, Baldilocks really should only have a functioning toe, and maybe a pinky finger and one nostril, ge ge ge. But there he is, dancing the kongonya to gospel music at the annual congress in December. Yakazvimba Makeyi!

But hey, that is his due, that is his reward. He fought for this country, fought the whites and defeated them too. He and his comrades “died for this country”, to bring back feudalism by cleverly reinventing it.

This is how it works: every election sees Baldilocks and the man we are calling Comrade Hyena and all their comrades drive to villages and outskirts to persuade the poor and pitiful to vote for them. They buy them with promises that mean nothing, electricity will come, roads and schools, fertilisers and solar panels. Then off they go back to their homes in the Brooke, and other enclaves, from where they plunder the nation’s wealth, and spend it on women and whiskey, until the next election.

We are headed to the home of a woman we shall call Gloria, the, to steal a phrase, fragrant wife of Comrade Hyena. The Fragrant Gloria finds herself in what you might call a bit of a pickle. She does not know it, but she is about to be dumped.

I call her a wife, but she is actually the sixth Small House of a gentleman we shall call by his nom-de-guerre, his war name of Comrade Hyena. If you do not know what a small house is, then you definitely do not know this place. Men, particularly wealthy men like Comrade Hyena, give themselves, or, rather, take for themselves, many things: houses and cars, golf courses, Fokker jets to fly to the farm, cows, tobacco barns, John Deere tractors, combine harvesters and women. And why not, after all, it’s a free country, and, to borrow from Biko, we plunder what we like, we steal what we like, we bully whom we like, we collect whom we like. And if the women are happy enough to be collected and to share a man who pays their rent and buys them first class tickets to Dubai, why not? Women are free to choose. That is feminism! And if they choose patriarchy, that is also a choice.

The other Small Houses with whom she shares her Fake Husband all know of each other, although there are about three extra women of whom they do not yet know. But they stay. Oh they stay. Comrade Hyena has a business empire that extends beyond the reaches of this nation. You saw that big story about the missing diamond money? Well some of the diamonds are in Comrade Hyena’s manicured hands, and in this gold and the velvet, gaudily rococified living room that we are admiring.

Comrade Hyena believes in seeing his money in action. He has 14 cars parked in the garages, 17 houses, including this one. Each closet in each home is stuffed with so many Hermès silk ties and Zegna suits and Berluti shoes and Hublot and Rolex watches that he would never be able to wear them all, not if he lived two lifetimes. And still he buys. And buys and buys. No Marie Kondoing for Comrade Hyena, not on your life!

Oh look, there he comes now, seated at the back of Car Number Seven. See how Gloria drops everything as she runs out to greet him? That’s the way all his women greet him, on their knees, and using his totem title. “Maswera seiko Unendoro? Did you have a good day?” Look how she tries to embrace him, and see how he turns away without any warmth.

He is tiring of her, you see. He wants to replace her with a new model. And see how Gloria’s tears glint brighter than the diamonds in her ears. She knows. As the Poet said to the Sailor: you don’t need to be a weather vane to know which way the wind blows.

Comrade Hyena’s thoughts are on a sanctions-busting deal he is putting together with some Americans, and on the Vacheron Constantin watch he wants to buy the next time he goes to visit his bank in Geneva. Of course he is on the sanctions list, but people can change names on passports, can’t they? They need new names! He is particularly thrilled that he will be using his Black American Express card. With all the points he has accumulated, he could fly first class to any city anywhere in the world, for life.

But back to our Comrade. He is ready to dump Gloria, but what he does not know is that his days are numbered. They have been measured out like Balshazar’s on that wall long ago. Berishazari, mambo uyo! Mene mene tekere, ufasini, humambo hwapera. And what he doesn’t know is that Gloria will not be dumped that easily. She has plans for him, oh yes, she does. She has just the right treatment, the love potion that will fix him, and cleave him to her for good.

But that is a tale for another day. Next Christmas perhaps? Shall we meet again here?

Rotten Row by Petina Gappah (£12.99, Faber & Faber) is out now

Illustration: Clym Evernden