The bus came to a halt at the traffic lights on Jinja Road. It was the first in line, and I thought the driver had to feel disappointed for having been too slow to beat the red light. We were finally in Kampala. I expressed my excitement by inboxing Lillian.
“On Jinja Road. Will be there in a few minutes.”
She replied immediately: “Can’t wait to meet you!” and added a smiley at the end.
That’s why I liked Lillian. She was always online, and I was assured of never getting bored whenever we chatted on Facebook. Lillian had this infectious smile that drilled dimples in her cheeks, accentuating her beauty. Her large, innocent eyes sparkled in the light and were always happy.
On Jinja Road, the light turned orange, and the driver started the engine again. He turned the key in the ignition, and all the engine did was cough.
He looked at the orange light. Sweat broke out on his forehead.
The engine coughed again. It stopped.
The old, gangly driver, with hands trembling on the steering wheel, turned in his seat, looked directly at me and said, “Banange, get out and help me push the car. It won’t start!”
I averted my gaze from his tired eyes and looked at myself in the rear-view mirror. I was dressed in a new, cream dress shirt. My suit was recently dry-cleaned. I was going for the best date in my life. I hadn’t taken all my time and effort to look impeccable for my girl, travel all the way from Mbale, to get myself dirty just a short walk away from my destination.
“Banange, munnyambe,” the bus driver pleaded with us, glancing at the orange light. Any time from now it would turn green.
I could get out of this bus and walk the rest of the journey. I might be a little late. I might get my new dress shoes dusty. But that was better than getting my suit dirty.
Four men stood up and walked out to help push the bus.
The driver’s hands were shaking so badly they could barely hold the steering wheel. He turned the ignition. The engine started and died almost immediately.
Three policemen were looking at us from across the road. The driver saw them and said, “Those policemen are going to come and fine me!”
The skin on his arms had developed goose pimples. He drew in quick breaths.
He started the engine again as the men pushed. The bus shook, but stayed in the same place.
I stood up, ready to get out. Not to help, but walk to my date. It was getting late. My reputation was hanging on the line right now.
The light turned green.
The driver turned the ignition again and revved up the engine. The cars that had lined up behind us started honking. Loud, angry noise. Two of the policemen started walking towards our bus.
The engine coughed one more time. The car moved a little. The cars behind us honked.
The policemen were now a few feet away from us. The scowls on their faces carried question marks.
The four men outside pushed again. The bus came to life and started moving. It accelerated in speed and the men who were pushing started running after it so they could get back on. The driver smiled as he drove past the bewildered policemen. He increased his speed as soon as all four men were back on board. He had a silly grin on his face that he seemed unaware of as he bobbed his head to the kadongokamu song that was playing on the radio.
I sat back. I had been on the edge of my seat.
I fought the urge to gawk at the buildings on Jinja Road. They were tall and their glass, tile and aluminium surfaces glinted in the evening light. When we reached Uganda House, I said, “Maaso awo.”
The bus stopped and I got off. I checked my phone. It was four-thirty. I refreshed my Facebook inbox and read Lillian’s latest message.
“Where are you?”
“I’ve just arrived at Uganda House,” I replied.
I saw what was to be our meeting point—Cafe Bravo. I entered and was immediately welcomed with the strong, sweet aroma of coffee. I stared at the exquisite wood panelling and the large display of mouth-watering pastries.
I checked my phone. Lillian had replied, “Ok”
I typed, “Where are you?”
“On my way.”
So she wasn’t here yet. That was good. I made a beeline for a table in the corner so I could sit facing the entrance. I wanted to see her as soon as she came in.
A waiter approached my table, gave me the menu and asked, “Would you like anything, sir?”
“Let me go through the menu, then I’ll call you,” I said. He left me.
I opened the menu and started perusing through it. My jaw dropped. My eyes became saucers. The chicken was twenty thousand shillings!
It dawned on me that I was going to leave Kampala broke.
I checked my phone. I didn’t have any new message from Lillian. I almost asked her where she was again, but I thought that I would come off as desperate. I put the phone on the table.
The waiter came back to my table. “Are you ready to order, sir.”
“You see,” I said, “I am waiting for my girlfriend to join me, then we shall order together.”
What I didn’t tell him was that I was afraid if I ordered before Lillian ordered, and she ordered an expensive dish, I might not have enough money to settle my bill.
The waiter left again.
I waited for Lillian.
Just as I picked up my phone to ask her where she was, she entered the cafe. The sunshine entered with her. She scanned the cafe till her eyes landed on me. There was a hint of recognition. I smiled. She didn’t smile back, but her eyes moved from mine and continued scanning the cafe.
I almost stood up and waved my hands to catch her attention. She turned and walked back outside, like she had forgotten something there.
Fidgeting, I grabbed my phone. No new message from her. I frantically typed, “Where are you?”
I looked out at the girl I thought was Lillian. Long, manicured fingernails were tapping away at the screen of a smart phone.
The answer was instant. “Stuck in jam.”