Henry was waiting in the car park as promised when Achi walked out of the training camp. Henry hooted when he saw a familiar figure but he was taken aback at how much weight Achi had lost, and how dark he had become. He was wearing a cap but Henry could still make out his friend's physique.
They bumped fists. Henry in disbelief at the change in Achi.
"You're all bones man," Henry laughed.
Achi laughed too, feeling his chest at ease. "Let's get out of here," he said. "I need good food and a bath."
"They don't feed you?" Henry joked.
Achi just laughed and turned on the stereo, he wanted to listen to good music, he searched Henry's collection and found what he was looking for.
Country music filled the car and he felt nostalgic, today he had the whole day outside the camp, mere hours to stretch his legs and see his family. A much-needed break that came after 9 months of strenuous training.
He also had a call to make. he hoped that maybe today he could call Lindi and talk.
He rolled down the window and let the air in, trying to figure out what he was going to say. He asked to use Henry's phone since his own was at home. They were not allowed phones in Camp, the only time he used the instructor's phone was the night before to ask Henry to come and get him. Henry passed him the phone. Achi held it for a long time, not knowing what to say. Lindilani's number was carved into his brain but after punching in the digits his fingers hovered over the call button.
"Do you see Lindi?" he asked.
"I haven't seen her lately, but I heard she's up," Henry relaid. "Rumour on campus was that she was knocked up, and she's trying to save face and stuff," he said.
Henry had not seen her but he figured it was true.
"Pregnant?" Achi repeated the word, she had moved on so quickly. The disappointment slammed into him and very slowly he erased the numbers he had typed onto Henry's phone. He masked his feelings and tuned his mind to think of something else.
Surprisingly Henry was quiet the rest of the drive, even as they turned at the Makeni roundabout and headed towards Achi's family's place they were both quiet.
Things were really over, Achi thought sadly. The little flair of hope that had kept him going throughout the last nine months died. She was not waiting for him, she had moved on. He recalled the numerous times he had tried to open up about the Voluntary Military Service and what he hoped to achieve for his career, but he had failed to explain it to her. he regretted not opening up, but he thought she would not welcome the idea, and she didnt.
"Achi, I am sorry man," Henry tried.
"It's good mate, it's all good."
He would just have to move on too.
Seeing the place where he grew up after being away for so long filled him with nostalgia. The chaos of emotions that enveloped him was stifling. He remembered the Sunday Lindi escorted him home because he was sick. That was the first day she met his parents.
His parents were waiting in the driveway. When he stepped out of the car, he removed his cap, his bold head was shining in the sunlight, and he heard his mother sob.
"You have lost so much weight Achi, you have become so dark, darling you can't send him back!" she exclaimed.
Achi stood straight and saluted his father. a rare smile crept onto the older man's face. He pulled his son into a warm embrace.
"It's good to have you home son," he said patting him on the back. Henry greeted Achi's parents before he left to run an errand.
Achi's father was a retired Lieutenant Colonel, but he still served as a Defense Advisor. Achi was an only child, his mom smouldered him with affection but his father always wanted him to become independent.
After a long bath, Achi found his mom in the kitchen. She was baking his favourite chicken pies and there were cookies in the jar on the table.
"Lunch is in the oven, I hope you're hungry," she smiled.
"As long as it's not nshima," he said. "I am tired of nshima."
It was not nshima.
Achi helped himself to a huge helping of homemade lasagne, the aroma was so inviting. He was going to have to take some of this back with him.
His mother watched how quickly he ate, taking in the fact that her son had changed so much, she had raised a picky eater but the man at her table was different in every sense of the word. She tried her best to hide her tears, and eventually, she walked out of the kitchen and went to her bedroom.
How had she allowed her husband to send their only son into the military? Oh the sight of him, she sobbed quietly until her husband found her.
"Bana Achi, you will get sick," he warned. "Stop crying."
"Have you seen him?" she cried. "You can't let him go back. Why would you entertain his childish ideas? you should have let him finish university."
"Right now Achi needs our support Francine, he needs us to support him. I did not ask him to go for this training, he chose it himself. I have been in the military and I know when things are bad, Achi is fine, he has adapted, he is in good health and he has come home. Support him."
"You don't understand," she wept.
He felt his patience thinning, his wife could be so emotional at times.
"I need to tell him that girl is pregnant," she said wiping her tears. Her husband blocked her path.
"You will do no such thing," he thundered.
"Darling," she begged.
"They have not approached us to take responsibility, you cannot tell Achi about it if there is nothing conclusive. It will affect his training. You want to mess that boy up?"
She sagged her shoulders in defeat. "But you and I both know ...."
"Francine don't, please."
"I won't tell him, but he deserves to know."
"All we have been hearing are speculations from your church group. If the Lunga girl is really pregnant her parents will come here and we will have a talk. We will not act on gossip and hearsay."
His word was final and no matter what Francine said, she could never go against her husband.
Achi spent the rest of his day sleeping, his father and Henry drove him back to camp late in the evening.