Thinking back, it was a rare moment of clarity to have given Mother Kisembo such insight into Maartje’s character. “You are a muddy sort of sentimentalist,” she’d said. “Whatever you hold, it doesn’t matter so long as you stick tight to it.”
Maartje had thought nothing of it, though she had been a little offended. There was always something so disagreeable about hearing oneself being described, like one was a beetle or an exotic plant. It gave her the feeling of being followed and observed and made her want to hide away for fear they would pluck her from the ground and pin her to a display board.
“Behold,” they would say, “observe the Maartje. Observe her intriguing characteristics, all evidence of her most endearing trait, that of her muddy sentimentality.”
It made her so angry sometimes, she wanted to spit.
Mother Kisembo was a distant figure now, safely ensconced as Superior back in the parish they had both been born and raised, albeit separated by decades. She was the sort of woman who, even when proven wrong, would become more convinced than ever of her innate correctness about the nature of things. Maartje had met many such women since leaving her parish. Perhaps it was the meeting of many similar but much crueller, more stupid, and much uglier women that made her irritation at the memory of Mother Kisembo become a pain of nostalgia.
It was the pain that had driven Maartje to call her Godmother. “Hello,” she’d begun, “it’s me, Mother Kisembo. It’s Maartje.”
But Mother Kisembo had been busy, tending to a new brood of sons and daughters sent to her by parents also too busy ploughing or packing or hewing away to educate their young. “Why hello,” Mother Kisembo had replied, politely, distantly and not unpleased. “Maartje, my dear.”
“How are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine, fine. You keeping well?”
“Yes Mother Kisembo. I am. Things are going well at University.”
“Good good. No husband yet?”
Maartje had laughed at the old joke, clutching the speaker tight in her hands until her brown knuckles turned yellow over the bone even as her eyes prickled with tears. She bitterly missed Mother Kisembo. It was funny in a way, for the old woman had always been simultaneously impossible to impress and yet unworthy of any such effort.
“No, not yet.”
“Ah, well. Well, that’s fine. Focus on your studies. That’s what you’re there for.” There was the distant sound of children and a male adult voice calling. One of the Brothers. Maartje wondered if it was Mugaba-who’d-taken-vows but didn’t. Instead, she mulled, wondering what to say as disappointment welled up inside of her, slooshing around in her belly like thick mead on an empty stomach. I miss you, she wanted to say. Why else would I call? I never call, but I’ve called now because I miss you, you silly ignorant old besom.
Instead she promised to get in touch some other, less busy time to which Mother Kisembo had replied with an almost relieved, “alright then.”
That was why she’d gone down to that rather horrible little town market. No matter how bad, it would be enough to distract her from the miserable feeling growing inside.
The University itself was a fine affair, built in a mode destined never to return to fashion, not in the millenia since it had first been built. The newer colleges and dormitories were all done in a sub-par imitative style, but Maartje had always thought there was something quite noble about the attempt to honour the original architectural vision.
Much like the Abbey-on-the-Moor, the University stood not in the centre of the town, but on the outskirts. You could walk there and back if you so wished, but Maartje wasn’t in the mood. She was afraid of bumping into her fellow students, who she generally found boorish and unpredictable. They liked to shout aloud when they conversed, going into put upon hysterics at the slightest amusing thing.
The only other girl from the Abbey didn’t mind it so much, but Masiko was different. Invincible as her name, she had a cheerily practical disposition, according to Mother Kisembo, quite unlike gloomy old stubborn Maartje, face like a mule and the attitude to match it. Barely into their first term and already Masiko had joined herself to a particular group of friends from her fencing club, to which Maartje dutifully tagged along. She didn’t quite know why as each attempt at participating took an immense toll. Sometimes she would cry herself to sleep after an evening out. She had never realised that not knowing what to do with oneself could be so painful.
That was why she generally preferred to travel on the buses, crowded in with locals travelling to and from work. Their dialect was a puzzle, though they would speak standard English when they conversed with her. Still, she liked to listen to the natives speak a language so close to and yet so twisted from the standard tongue of their country. They had a dark, whimsical sense of humour, these local folk. It could all get very confusing the way friends would exchange curses and swear words, but enemies shook hands and grimaced at each other. They were quite fascinating: Maartje would often make notes of new words and particularly amusing puns.
The town market was a dingy affair. It wasn’t like the parish market, where everything was fresh and bright. Plantains yellow and firm, a cubit and a half in length; sweet potatoes and yams that took two to carry. Bitterleaf, Pepperleaf, Mintleaf would lie in great bundles that reached to the tarpaulin covers. Autumn was the time for squashes and pumpkins, apples and and peppers. Here, there wasn’t much fresh food sold in the town market: one stall sold pickles and jams, another cooked meat pies. Maartje wondered if people grew their vegetables at home instead.
The stalls were mostly filled with old, broken things that for some reason they didn’t want to mend. Jokingly, Maartje thought of them as devotional objects, these old medals and scratch-faced dolls and blotchy primitive pictures coated with bubbling plastic. Sometimes a folk singer would turn up so people could mostly ignore them. Sometimes a preacher – none from the Abbey, Maartje was relieved to note – would occupy the same spot, often to much the same reaction regardless of what creed they proclaimed. Some of it was fairly shocking stuff too, but to no avail. It was hard to tell what moved the natives.
Instead, on grey days like this, Maartje would simply take a walk around the place, through the cobbled streets and narrow alleys, trying to get lost so she might stumble upon something interesting. It was a futile exercise in a town so small and she knew it. Even the locals preferred to visit the big city if they needed entertainment.
This time, she kept going, adopting a steady, merciless march, tamping down the misery feeling that had risen to her gullet. The Sun was bright, bright enough that sometimes she would shield her eyes from the patches of light that flashed across her face. It was still cold though. Even as the morning passed into afternoon, it was still cold. Be grateful, she thought to herself, that there is no rain.
She had gone some way out from the town by now. At least three trams had passed her by on the main road, almost blowing off her hat in their slipstream. She passed a few small clusters of houses, little nodes of habitation branching off the road as it led to the highway. There weren’t many people around – most of them would be at work. It was mostly mothers walking fractious babes after feeding, or younger ones all goose-stepping and clumsy. There were some old folk who she would step aside for but they weren’t old folk like from the Abbey. They didn’t smile or leave a blessing to the young girl with such good manners. They just walked on by, talking their guff about what great effects that last film had had.
Past the small, nameless hamlets, the road curved over a stream. It wasn’t far from the highway junction now, for Maartje could hear the distant rumbling of trams, bustrains and private cars. Soon she would have to turn back and get herself to the the library if she wanted to finish her study in time for the next lecture.
There, up ahead, leaning against the bridge wall was a man. He was fishing, like something from the old days – Maartje had never known you were allowed to fish in public like that. All the meat she had ever eaten was grown, or not real meat at all.
As she approached him, she realised he was young, too. About her age. He wasn’t a local either and his features told of a fatherland equally far away from her own. Maybe he was a student as well.
“Do you catch anything?” She asked.
“Hi,” he replied. She’d been rude, she realised.
“Hello,” she started again. “Sorry. I have not seen anyone fish before.”
“It happens,” he nodded gravely, then scrunched his eyes in a strange sort of double wink. Encouraged, Maartje tried to think of something else to say.
“Do you catch much?” She asked again. “Are there many fish left here?”
“Yes and they’re good to eat, too.”
Oh, she nodded and he nodded with her.
“And it’s allowed,” she said. “You won’t get into trouble?”
He shrugged. “I don’t actually know. I just came out here. It’s what we always did back home…” He frowned. “I don’t like not knowing where my food has come from, I suppose.”
“So you kill your own chickens too?” She tried to tease, but even to her, the words sounded accusatory and suspicious. Thankfully he didn’t seem offended.
“Ha, well,” he grinned. “Well, I don’t eat chicken.”
She watched the line drift a little in the stream. This is what she was studying at University, currents and the movement of matter. In a months’ time, she’d be able to model this little river exactly if she wanted. Wouldn’t that be an idea for a project!
“–just one of those who like to eat what I catch and it tastes better you know,” he was still talking. “You get a lot of perch here.”
What are perch? She wanted to ask, but she didn’t want to look ignorant. “It must hurt the fish though. They drown in air, don’t they?”
There was a pause before the man spoke again. “I guess they do. Yeah, it’s not such a great way to go for a fish, is it?” His half smile was apologetic.
“I don’t think anyway is a good way to go.”
“Ha! I agree,” he laughed. “But we all go don’t we. Entropy.”
“Oh! You study Physics too?”
He laughed again. “No! Too hard for me. I’m a tinkerer.”
“I like to make things also,” she smiled, but oddly enough, it seemed to be in spite of herself. Not, as Mother Kisembo might have suspected, because she didn’t want to smile but because she felt suddenly very shy. How charming, to think that here in this backwards bit of country was a comrade of sorts. A comrade who fished, like a character from an old paper novel.
“Are you here all the time?” She asked.
“Ah, well not all the time,” he joked. He must have been in this country a while, to make such a native sort of joke. “Mostly it’s when I’m bored. Get a fish for my thoughts.” They both laughed, Maartje pleased she could recognise the proverbial play.
“I hope you catch something nice,” she said. “I also hope you don’t catch anything at all.”
“Well. Thanks,” he chuckled. “Sort of. Though I take it back if I don’t get anything.”
She wanted to stay and watch him catch something. Maybe he would show her how he prepared the fish for cooking. She could see he had a proper knife on him that he must use to de-scale and gut the fish. Instead, she comforted herself with the fact that she might bump into him again. Maybe he was often bored.
As she walked back along the road, she turned to look at him again. She turned twice, actually, almost to check he was still there. The last time, he looked back and gave her a funny sort of head shake with that apologetic half-smile.