The following is from Namwali Serpell's debut novel The Old Drift. A small nation grows from a former colonial settlement on the banks of the Zambezi River, where the fates of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy become entangled, sparking a generations-long cycle of retributions. Namwali Serpell teaches at UC Berkeley. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award in 2011 and won the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
Over the past year, Thandiwe had developed an internal clock for when the seat-belt sign would go off. As the plane’s steep climb slowly tilted forward and evened out, she counted.
Tick. Tick. DING.
‘Welcome,’ the captain’s voice smacked and crumpled over the intercom. Thandi unclicked her belt and got up from the folding cabin seat, which flipped up with an irritable thunk. She smoothed down her striped skirt, pulled back the edge of the pleated curtains and peeked out at today’s flock. Some passengers had already dozed off from the heat and vibration of lift-off. Two businessmen were laughing—they would want a whisky or a G&T soon. The rest patiently awaited their feeding.
The captain signed off and the other stewardess, Brenda, unclicked herself from her folding seat on the far side of the kitchenette. She stood and picked up the intercom receiver to make the service welcome announcement, her voice sashaying like a teenager’s. As soon as Brenda hung up, she and Thandi began rotating around each other, preparing the meal service. Their movements suggested efficiency—they had been working the HRE–LUN route together for months—but not ease. Rumour had it that Zambia Airways wasn’t doing too well and was starting to fire people. Brenda had been with the airline too long, Thandi not long enough, and it was still unclear whether fresh or seasoned meat was preferable.
The same question could apply to lunch, Thandi thought as she pulled up a corner of the red striped foil over a tiffin of stew and sniffed.
‘Cooked to kill the germs and the taste!’ said Ghostfriend Brenda.
Thandi chuckled. She often had entire conversations with this imagined version of her co-worker—Brenda as she had been before so many years as a stewardess had chewed up her beauty and her patience. Ghostfriend Brenda was lovely and kind and quick to laugh.
‘What’s so facking funny?’ muttered real Brenda as she kicked absently at the brake of the beverage cart and missed. ‘Shit!’ she seethed, rubbing her stubbed toe. Then she cast a sour look at Thandi and disappeared backward through the pleated curtains, pulling the cart after her.
Thandi sighed, then winced as a cramp clenched her stomach. She was on her MP and Brenda was too—their work schedule had synced their bodies, which were apparently indifferent to their mutual dislike. Thandi hated having her period on flights: on her feet for hours, timing her visits to the lav to avoid the rush forty-five minutes after meals (stomachs syncing up just as wombs do), all the while bleeding sporadically into the thick pad, its adhesive ripping her pantyhose or sticking to her pubic hair. Worst of all, even though Brenda was in the same situation, there was no commiseration to be had.
Thandi preferred it when they were not sunk in this animal condition, when they were both cool and mechanical, attaching only as needed, like the metal parts of a seat belt. It felt safer. Last year, a Zambian Air Force plane had crashed in Gabon, killing the entire football team, and Thandi felt more jittery than usual. She looked out of the porthole of the B-737 at the placid blue beyond. In a few hours, she would be in her hotel room, freshly showered, in a soft robe, on her back. She took a breath, undid the brake on the food cart, and pushed it through the curtains.
She rolled it down to First Class, where Brenda was waiting with the beverage cart, her smile as shiny and fixed as her manicure. Once their carts made contact, they caboosed up the aisle again towards the kitchenette, Thandi stepping back, Brenda forward. Their chanted refrains made an overlapping song—‘The chicken or the beef?’ ‘Would you like a drink?’—the stutter of shifting trays adding percussion, the glasses tinkling deliriously.
The passengers were obedient until row 23.
‘The chicken or the beef ?’ Thandi asked a young man in 23C. He paused. ‘Is that all there is?’
‘To life?’ Thandi responded, surprising herself. Something about the way he’d said it—the tone of his voice or his smile—had made his question sound philosophical.
‘To eat,’ he laughed. He was handsome: broad shoulders, dark hair and eyes, a smattering of pimple scars like paw prints on his forehead. ‘It’s not a deep question,’ he said.
The older gentleman sitting in 23D across the aisle broke in. ‘The young lady must have been thinking of the question of the chicken or the egg.’ He smiled stickily at Thandi.
‘Mmm?’ Thandi smiled back, suppressing her impatience.
‘You know,’ 23D adjusted his spectacles, ‘that profound question: which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ His accent was somewhere between English and Zinglish. He nattered on about poultry and embryos, snakes and tails, the problem of origins, the origin of species . . .
‘But what if the first chicken ate the first egg?’ 23C interrupted with a laugh, the diamond stud in his ear flashing as his head tipped back. Brenda leaned forward to look at him over the drink she was pouring for row 22. Her cart bumped Thandi’s cart, which slid towards her. Thandi stopped it with her foot and set the brake.
‘Nice move,’ the young guy murmured.
Thandi smiled grimly. ‘Chicken? Or beef ?’
‘Oh, ya, ya. Beef, please.’
She plunked a red-striped tiffin on his tray and turned to the other side of the aisle.
‘Chicken,’ said the older gentleman in 23D. ‘And what is your name, young lady?’
Nerves tingled in the back of her neck. Name requests often preceded complaints. She pointed at her badge with pursed lips.
He squinted at it. ‘Thandiwe! A good Ndebele name. I am Dr Bernard Phiri.’
She shook the doctor’s hand, then promptly undid the brake and backed the cart. She had a job to do. So she did it, offering chicken or beef to a boy with his hand cocked into a gun; to a fussy woman who wanted fish; to a sleeping man she hesitated to wake up, so beguiling was his slumber. Thandi noticed that, when Brenda reached row 23, she leaned her bosom into the young man’s view, poured him a double shot of whisky, let her hand linger on his wrist. Several rows later, Thandi could still smell his CK One cologne and Dr Phiri’s tobacco breath.
These scents mingled with the gross puffery that came from the lavatory soon after, forming a thick aura in the kitchenette. Thandi and Brenda rotated silently through it, cleaning up, then sat in their separate folding seats.
Ding. A softer bell. Someone had pressed the call button. Still strapped in, Brenda turned to peer through the curtains, then unbuckled and jumped up. ‘I’ll get it!’ she said peppily, her curvy body wobbling rapidly down the aisle. Thandi unbuckled and stood and peeked out, scanning the ceiling for the red nub. 23C. Brenda was already leaning over, smiling and tossing her hair weave. Thandi rolled her eyes. ‘It’s a bit much,’ she snarked to Ghostfriend Brenda. ‘The age difference alone . . .’ Real Brenda glanced at her and Thandi ducked behind the curtain. After a moment she peeped out—damn! Spotted. Brenda beckoned her. They walked towards each other in the aisle, Brenda looking slumped even under her shoulder pads.
‘He wants you, of course,’ Brenda clucked over her shoulder as they turned sideways to pass bum to bum. The ‘of course’ was about skin colour—Thandi and the young man were both coloured. Thandi frowned until she reached 23C. Then she turned and smiled with closed lips.
‘Can I help you, sir?’
‘Yaaa . . .’ he said, staring at Thandi’s breasts as if willing her uniform to split open. His smile faltered as he took in her posture. He cleared his throat. ‘Are you . . . Zimbabwean?’
‘Yes?’ she said, wondering if he was. His tackies looked expensive. ‘I’m just wondering if you’ve had passport problems—’
Thandi sighed. Not this again. Dr Phiri across the aisle caught her eye and shook his head.
‘Sorry, sir,’ Thandi said to the young man. ‘But we cannot advise—’
She saw the kitchenette curtains open at the end of the aisle. Brenda appeared, waving and pointing grumpily at her watch. Time to clear the trays. ‘You can address any questions about your passport at immigration in Lusaka.’
‘Um, actually—’ He motioned her closer. She leaned in cautiously. His whisky breath was sweet and stringent, sugar cubes strung on a line of acid. ‘I just wanted to tune you for a beat. Can I get your digits?’ he whispered.
‘I’m sorry, sir, I—’ She shook her head stiffly.
‘Ya, ya, no warrries,’ he said, exaggerating his accent. ‘It’s cool, it’s cool.’
She smiled with closed lips and stood up straight. Just as she stepped back towards the kitchenette, she felt it—a hand cupping her bum. It could have come from either side of the aisle. Thandi paused, staring at Brenda’s irritable face framed by the pleated curtains. Thandi kept walking. She was used to this sort of incidental touch, the brushes she chose to brush off. She was nineteen years old but she had looked like this from the age of thirteen. She was well trained by now to unsee any look, unfeel any touch if it meant keeping her job.
Thandi had dreamt of becoming a Zambia Airways stewardess ever since she first saw that Flying Chair ad on TV as a girl: the orange Z in the logo that reclined into an airline seat that zipped a contented white man around the world, while a graceful black woman materialised like an apparition and served him a glass of whisky and a plate of fine cuisine. An infectious, optimistic jingle played at the end: Zambia Airways . . . We’re getting better in every way . . . We’re getting better every day. What elegance, young Thandi had thought, what adventure!
As soon as she reached the kitchenette, Brenda started whisper-shouting, accusing her of flirting. Thandi estimated that this was two parts jealousy to one part genuine irritation.
‘Okay,’ she cut Brenda off. ‘Can we clear, please?’
Thandi shoved her empty cart towards the aisle, but it stuck on something. Brenda clucked and squatted, grimacing as she reached her manicured nails under the wheel and pulled a thin white thing off the textured floor with an unsticking sound and held it up to the light. It was brownish in places and twisted, like a dead frangipani petal.
‘It is . . . it is your pantyliner,’ Brenda said with horror.
It was not Thandi’s pantyliner. She could still feel the much thicker sanitary pad between her legs, already sodden with blood from the last half hour—Thandi’s MP was way too heavy for a mere pantyliner. But if it wasn’t hers, then it was Brenda’s and the older woman clearly felt so humiliated that it had slipped and fallen from under her skirt that she was trying to fob it off.
‘That’s not mine,’ Thandi said quietly. ‘It must be a passenger’s.’
‘Oh please,’ Brenda said, her lip curling. ‘Sies, Thandi. There hasn’t even been passengers back here. Why are you denying? You know this thing came from your brookies.’
‘Are you serious?’ Thandi tilted her head.
Ding. A soft one. They glared at each other. Ding. Thandi parted the curtain and together they looked down the aisle. Another ding, and another, a commotion—passengers murmuring, trays clacketing. Thandi’s heart rose up and beat in her throat: was the plane about to crash? A woman around row 20 stood and turned to them, gesticulating.
‘Doctor!’ she shouted. ‘We need a doctor!’
Time split. Later, Thandi would think of it as a series of stills, like the paintings depicting the Stations of the Cross that she had once seen at the British Museum during a stopover in London. Here were legions of eyes watching her race down the aisle. Here was Dr Phiri—apparently not a medical doctor—hands up as if under arrest. Here was a woman stretched out in the aisle, bucking wildly, skirt hitched, petticoat plastered to her thighs, eyes closed, spittle in a lacy pile on her chin. Here was Brenda, mouth wide, lipstick cracking, dogteeth glinting, shouting for everyone to calm down. Here were Thandi’s hands shackled around the woman’s ankles, trying to hold her still.
And there—Thandi looked up—there was the young man from 23C, crouched with his hands cupping the woman’s skull, the crotch of his baggy jeans spread like a skirt, his fancy tackies on either side of her head.
‘She’s having a seizure,’ he said matter-of-factly and time moved smoothly again. The woman jerked and frothed. The young man gently rotated her skull to one side, took his wallet from his pocket and wedged it between her teeth. Thandi made a sound of protest.
‘Trust me,’ he winked (winked!). ‘I’m a doctor.’
As the other passengers crowded around Brenda, a natural mother hen in the storm, Thandi kept her hands on the woman’s ankles.
‘You’re good at this,’ he smiled at her. ‘Steady. What’s your name?’ He reached his hand over the woman’s ailing body, like it was a plate of sadza or a cup of tea. Thandi looked at his hand and giggled, then stopped, shocked at herself. He nodded reassuringly.
‘Thandiwe,’ she said and let go of one of the woman’s ankles to shake his hand.
‘Nice to meet you, Thandiwe,’ he said. ‘I’m Lionel.’
‘Lionel? Like Richie?’
‘Ya,’ he winced, then smiled. ‘But everybody calls me Lee.’
Excerpted from The Old Drift. Used with permission of Hogarth. Copyright © 2019 by Namwali Serpell.