Mr. Maliki was unusually quiet for today. He had his earphones on and worked from morning without uttering a word. His apprentice was mechanized at long last as he had to watch his movement and hand him any tool from the toolbox. He was to be extra keen today not to mess up anything that would warrant a confrontation. They worked in harmony as Mr. Maliki hummed indistinct words in the name of singing. At first it was funny and the apprentice giggled along but as the day went by and he realized that Mr. Maliki was not stopping soon, he became used to the words and watched as Mr. Maliki worked.
It had been six months of learning from him, the art of making coffins. All through, he had learned which tools were used where and when. He had only managed to make a coffin once as a way to check on his skills. The coffin was a child’s and the end result was devastating. Mr. Maliki made him swear not to make another coffin until he was sure. The one he made was placed at the back of the shop to be a reminder to him that he could do better. After that episode the apprentice, John, became more interested in his work. He learned new tricks, ideas to make the wood move in rhythm to what he was making.
It was almost their tea break but Mr. Maliki was unrelenting, he was more absorbed in making the coffin than in anything surrounding them. He moved with speed and only paused when in need of a tool from John or returning one expecting an exchange. He did not take his eyes off his work. He was running against a clock and today it seemed impossible.
An hour went by after the long awaited break by John. He had learned to always follow Mr. Maliki in doing things no matter how painful the process was. After the hour Mr. Maliki finally took some time off the wood.
“Hey, Son have you ordered our breakfast? It is almost one in the afternoon.”
“No but I can ask the lady to come back.”
“No need, unless you are hungry. I am quite full.”
John looked at Mr. Maliki smiled and went off to look for the ‘Uji’ lady. It was his time off and he was hungry. He moved with speed increasing the number of paces so as to get away from Mr. Maliki. He could not risk a call back. He wanted time away from him.
Mr. Maliki watched as John hurried off. He smiled.
“This one is going to make a great husband to some woman somewhere in the future. He runs away from quarrels. Smooth.”
Mr. Maliki moved around the shed looking for the unfinished coffin. He wanted to attach the top part before 1PM. He was behind the schedule and the client was one of those high paying customers. People that were attracted to the beauty of the coffin rather than the journey of the dead guy or lady. He placed the bottom part of the coffin on a stool and carefully attached the top part. He went through the finishing touches. There it was, works of his hands as beautiful as it appealed.
The coffin stood comfortably on the stool. Purple was its color as it was going to bury one of the prominent persons. By its sides were white laces that overshadowed the body of the coffin. Its handles were gold coated with a pinch of black color. It was ready for the deceased. The final destination was ready in waiting.
Mr. Maliki looked at it carefully absorbing every detail. He had managed to achieve every request of his client even though he had been reluctant. It was ready for the client. He smiled as he removed his earphones ready for the other half of the day.
John took a while before coming back. He combined the tea break with his lunch and came back full. He was ready for the other part of the day. He saw Mr. Maliki seated at the shed’s entrance waiting for him. He was conversing with a client. The buyer of the just finished coffin was there to part with them. They finalized the negotiations as John arrived to help in loading the coffin onto the car.
“Finally you are done with your ‘Uji’, I hope you enjoyed it.”
“I did, I combined it with my lunch. By the way do you ever go to lunch apart from the routinely ‘Uji’ we always have at around eleven?”
“Son, I always leave my home heavily fed. I come out here to perform my duties and do as much as I can. I compensate on any time I would waste on eating.”
“It must be nice being married.”
“Yeah, it is. Do you have a girlfriend, son?”
“Yes, but it is complicated.”
“Your generation makes everything complicated and then complain when it is impossible to bear. How can a relationship be complicated and there are only two of you? Wait until you have kids to talk of complications.”
“You wouldn’t understand old man even if I was to explain. “
“Try me. The game is the same only the players have switched. Some retire, some die and others are born. There is nothing new about this.”
“A lot has changed since you were last involved.”
“I know but don’t look at me and conclude that I don’t keep up with new trends in town.”
“Okay old man, what do you know?”
“Huh, really now. Are you free on Saturday evening?”
“You mean after spending the day bending over under sun here.”
“Yes, let me check my schedule.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes I am.”
John took his phone out and checked under his calendar. There were no events for the coming Saturday.
“I guess I will be free.”
“Okay, I will take you somewhere.”
“Nice. Do we have another client to work on or are we to pray for another?”
“Ha-ha, we have two coffins to complete by Friday, although one can be picked on Saturday.”
“Why do we have to beautify them?”
“The living love flashy things, colorful things. They are not buying the coffins for the dead but to make them feel involved in the burial of the dead. The dead cannot even use the comfort of a cushion in the inside but the living insist on it. Be observant of those who come to purchase these coffins, if in a group then it is more of an obligation but those who come in three or lesser numbers are here for show off. They buy the brightest and the best. “
“Huh, I always thought death is a culmination of life. Working here at the end of the day has an effect on you, you touch things that are going underground as a way to the next phase.”
“Yes, we are all going to die, no escape from that but we have to enjoy while we are at it.”
“Well, let’s get to work then. I don’t want Saturday to be a busy day, we have an upcoming date.”
John said so while smiling in a way to annoy Mr. Maliki. They took pieces of wood and saws in hands. As Mr. Maliki measured, John would cut. Everything was precise and quick as if the process had been mechanized. The first one was a child’s. Once cut, they wood was to be furnished. This was John’s area of expertise. Mr. Maliki was busy measuring and looking for materials to ensure the coffin came out as requested.
John looked at the coffin as it materialized and a tear dropped from his left eye. He was exhausted or maybe he was not sure why a child would die so young. It was already five in the evening. The day was slowly winding down. The sun was kissing the earth goodbye as it descended on the other parts of the world. Animals were slowly retiring into their sleep after a day of fending for themselves as other came alive. The darkness was their playground.
John bid Mr. Maliki goodbye as he left for home. Mr. Maliki closed the shed as he placed his earphones for a song to home.
Saturday came faster than expected. John came in clad in shorts for the day. They worked on the final coffin and closed the shed around eleven. Mr. Maliki agreed that they were to meet at four thirty. He wanted to have ample time for preparation and planning.
He sat by the sitting room as he concentrated on his phone. The text came in.
“We are prepared and ready for you. I hope he is not one of those nincompoops you brought earlier.”
“No, he is one great guy. We are going to have fun tonight.” He replied as fast as he could.
John came by Mr. Maliki’s house at three. He had tried staying calm about everything but his anxiety took over and he came to see how Mr. Maliki was preparing. He was dressed ready for the night’s occasion.
They arrived at the house around seven in the evening. A lady opened the gate as Mr. Maliki negotiated the entry. John hopped out the car as soon as it was parked. Mr. Maliki came out later.
“John, you do as I do. Always.”
Mr. Maliki referred to him as John for the first time. They went through the door and were greeted by a middle aged lady and a young lady of early twenties. The lady hugged both of them and welcomed them in the house.
They took supper around ten in the night as they were getting acquainted with each other. John was still nervous not knowing what he was doing here. As time went by, Mr. Maliki and the young lady started getting relaxed. They kissed and each kiss was longer than the previous.
The middle aged woman approached John as she smiled. She was slowly unbuttoning her blouse. John looked at her frightened. He had never done this. It was all new to him and the concept of having the woman was strange to her. He looked at Mr. Maliki. Their eyes met and Mr. Maliki winked at him while still kissing the young lady. John wished they could exchange. “Why wouldn’t he let him have a lady of his age?”
He remembered Mr. Maliki’s words right before they entered the house, “You do as I do. Always.”
He listened to the words and let go of his worries, he became free of anxiety and sank into what was right in front of him. After all Mr. Maliki was the coffin maker.
They spent their weekend at that home. At some point, they exchange roles and John spent an afternoon with the young lady.
Monday came and they left for their homes. They did not open the shed that day. It was all smooth.
After that weekend, Mr. Maliki organized more weekends for John who seemed to have warmed up to the idea. The weekends were days they released their stress and pressure of the work. Weekends became days when John earned a bonus for working under Mr. Maliki. It was all great for a moment.
Days went by and a year collapsed. John was still going strong even though Mr. Maliki would miss days as he underwent checkups and took care of his ailing body. He was now ready and able to carry on with work even in absence of Mr. Maliki. He did well for himself.
A month went by and Mr. Maliki died. His diagnosis was hidden from friends and even some relatives. John took it up on himself to build a beautiful coffin. His burial was properly conducted and John took over the business.
He disconnected himself from former relationships that had a touch of Mr. Maliki. He tried winning back his girlfriend whom he had forsaken. They worked it out and life started taking shape into its beauty. John kept the orders flowing at the shed as he satisfied the customer’s requests.
Days went by and the girlfriend fell ill. They had to visit a hospital where she was tested and the doctor requested a HIV test after seeing the first results. The results came back positive. John was called in by the doctor.
“Have the both of you taken a HIV test lately?”
“No, not together.”
“Well, we can do that right now.”
The doctor sent then to the psychologist to help them settle in taking the test. After some hours of counselling they went into the lab. The lab technician took their samples and send them off. He did the standard three tests just to make sure. The first one was negative and the last two were positive.
He decided to do a PCR test which turned out positive. The results were laid back to the doctor. He let them understand ways of taking care of themselves.
John was the carrier. His girlfriend tried figuring the way forward but all she saw was darkness. It took her a week before she decided to take her own life. She was buried as John provided the coffin.
Now alone, he reconnected with the old links. Mr. Maliki had created a healthy ground for him to enjoy and so he took it up on himself. The coffin maker went on with his work.