The magic djembe

Angela sat down at the little round table in the cafe and looked out of the glass front into the busy street. She was doing the Christmas shopping for her two children and one husband, in the big City, away from her mountains, her little house with the wild garden … She thought of Heidi, the children’s story, and smiled sarcastically to herself. In the last seventeen years, she had become a villager. Except she didn’t have much of a village life. No ‘strong ties with the community’, as they say in American legal TV shows. She still retained her fierce cosmopolitan individualism from the time when she lived in this very same big City. In truth, she had always been a rare, separate specimen, even when she was a little kid.

She looked around for a waiter or waitress. There were quite a few milling around, since the cafe was as busy as the streets outside, but they all ignored her, it seemed to her, purposefully. They knew she was there and looking at them. She knew this because she’d been a waitress herself when she was very young and needed to pay her college fees. The stares of the customers used to bore on the back of her head and she couldn’t breathe properly until everybody was served and sipping or munching away happily. That’s one of the secrets of being a good waitress: having eyes in the back of your head. Another one is caring.

If she didn’t have her cup of coffee and piece of toast and butter soon, she’d start to get pissed off. The balance was precarious. The fact of going all the way to the City – the one-and-a-half-hour-long journey on the train – to do the dreaded Christmas shopping on her own. She hated any kind of shopping, but heavy-duty shopping in the City was a nightmare. She avoided shopping malls and, specifically, hypermarkets. She had never been in a war zone, but failing that, those places were the closest to hell on Earth she knew. Last time she visited one she ended up crying and having to leave in a hurry because the bastards had moved everything around since her previous visit a year earlier and she couldn’t find anything. 

The only way Angela could survive shopping malls and hypermarkets was by writing down everything she was going to get, recalling in her mind where everything was from last time (she did her best to avoid new shops), carefully scheduling the order of the day, and not straying an inch from the plan. In between shops, every hour or so, there had to be a compulsory stop for coffee and toast, or coffee and cake, or just coffee.

Out of the Metro the first shop had to be the coffee shop. A waitress looked fleetingly her way and Angela shot her arm up. She hurt her shoulder a bit in the process. How pathetic; her joints were rapidly deteriorating, even though she was only 52. My grandmother’s genes, she thought. The waitress, middle-aged herself, walked to Angela with confident strides through the myriad of tables and customers, the way only an experienced waitress can. Black heavy shoes, black stockings, black skirt above the knee, white shirt, black bow tie, hennaed hair in a bun and little notebook in hand. She smiled at Angela.

‘Sorry we made you wait, it’s crazy today,’ she explained.

‘Yes,’ Angela agreed, smiling back. ‘I can see that, don’t worry; the longer I’m here, the longer I postpone the Christmas shopping.’

The waitress laughed.

‘Yes, I’m with you. If you want, you can stay here until after Christmas.’

They both laughed.

‘Wasn’t it nice when Christmas day was only about the sweets and the songs?’

‘And baby Jesus, don’t forget baby Jesus.’

They laughed again.

‘Oh, yes, of course, poor baby Jesus has been totally forgotten, isn’t it ironic?’ 

‘Yes, and sad. Not that I’m a Christian.’

‘No, neither am I,’ Angela quickly concurred. These days saying you were a Christian was almost the equivalent of what it used to mean saying you were gay. But even though she wasn’t a Christian of any denomination, she felt the need to defend Jesus.

‘Some of the things Jesus said are worth remembering and it’s a shame we corrupt his principles, in his name, too!’ Then she immediately felt embarrassed by her own passionate declaration. She had broken the rules of engagement; this was only supposed to be inconsequential, good-humoured chit-chat. But the waitress took it in her stride.

‘I couldn’t agree with you more,’ she declared. ‘This frenzied consumerism is beyond the pale.’

Waitress! Somebody called from one of the tables. That was the cue for the two women to stop their banter.

‘Right,’ the waitress said signalling the calling customer to wait a sec, then looking at Angela. ‘I’m sorry, what would you like to have?’

‘Coffee, of course,’ she replied smiling. ‘A large cup of black americano, please.’

‘How americano do you want it?’ 

Angela caught the reference straight away: how diluted in boiling water did she want her espresso?

‘Fairly americano; this is my third coffee already, and it’s only ten in the morning.’

‘It’s going to be a long day, huh?’

Angela smiled. She wished this woman were a friend of hers. She seemed in tune with her and she didn’t have many friends these days. She thought for a moment. Actually, the question these days was whether she had any at all.

‘Yes, very long.’ She thought of her shopping list.

‘Anything to eat?’

‘Yes, please, some toast and butter. Just butter, no jam.’

‘Homemade bread or crappy sliced supermarket?’

‘If you put it that way, homemade.’

‘Thank you. I’ll be right back.’ She left with a wink and a smile. 

Before she went to the counter with Angela’s order, she stopped to attend the customer that had called her, an impossibly well-groomed older man, impeccably coiffed at the top, blindly shining Oxford shoes at the bottom. A stratospherically expensive attorney or something of the sort. Angela looked away cringing. Not her type, even if she stretched her imagination beyond recognition. If they tortured her, she still wouldn’t go out with a specimen like that. Never had, never would. It was all hypothetical, anyway, because she had a husband she was madly in love with after twenty years together. 

She smiled to herself thinking of Jon, and the familiar heat between her legs travelled upwards to her chest, warming up all her insides. Thinking of Jon was more effective than eating hot porridge. It always had been. She still wanted her coffee though. Coffee had no substitute. Coffee had made her feel at home when she hadn’t had a home. And even though Jon and the children had changed that and she would always have a home now, she still relied on the hope of coffee to get up in the mornings.

Angela’s eyes then fell on a young couple with two small children sitting at one of the tables by the large Christmas tree next to the mirrors; the area in the grand cafe away from the glass front with the extensive view of the streets and the roundabout with the massive nineteenth century fountain in the middle. The children were playing with chocolate Santas, making them fight one another. They made Angela feel sad and guilty that her children and husband were not here with her today, but they couldn’t afford the whole family trip, the return train tickets for the four of them, the metro, the meals, the inevitable treats for the children. Edmond and Kate were old enough to understand they couldn’t have everything they wanted, but their parents would never grow old enough to accept they couldn’t get their children a lot of what they wanted. So, coming to the City had become painful, as well as expensive. It all seemed to be about spending money. Money they didn’t have. And they didn’t want to have. They had always hated the whole business of keeping the system in business; which was one of the reasons they refused to have a car, one of the reasons they refused to have a regular job. And yet, it was difficult when you had children; you couldn’t avoid betraying some of your principles. You betrayed them for love, guilt, convenience and exhaustion. 

She took out the shopping list from her coat pocket and unfolded it with a deep sigh. It wasn’t long, but it was costly. She had just about enough money to buy all the items on it; provided the prices didn’t differ from the ones Jon and she had seen on-line the evening before. If only they had managed to put the money together in time to buy everything on-line … Then she wouldn’t be here now, spending extra money coming and going, missing her family, worrying about not being able to find something, about getting back home late, about getting depressed alone in the City, feeling like she used to feel when she was young and she didn’t have a family; looking at the warm lights behind the windows and longing to be like the people in those houses, wondering if the hole inside her would ever be filled. And now that she was whole, she hated being away from her loved ones, her children and partner. Not that they didn’t drive her insane with their demands, their incessant conversations that often ended in arguments. She liked being, needed to be, alone sometimes. But not this far away.

She heard a clinking noise and looked up from her shopping list. It was the waitress with her round metal tray carrying Angela’s order.

‘A lot to shop then?’ the waitress asked, putting Angela’s cup of coffee down on the table with expert balance, well away from the paper with the shopping list, just in case. 

‘Not so much, but expensive. You know how it is at Christmas.’

‘Yeah, tell me about it.’ The plate with two large pieces of toast landed swiftly but noiselessly on the other side of the table. Professional waitressing. ‘Have you got any children?’

‘Yes,’ Angela nodded. ‘Two. Boy and a girl. Sixteen and eleven.’

‘Uff,’ was the waitress’s reaction. ‘Like me then. Girl and a boy. Seventeen and thirteen. What a pain, eh?’

‘Sheesh. I often wonder what those two have done with my real children.’

‘Ain’t that the truth. It’s like they say: when they’re babies they’re so cute you want to eat them, and when they grow, you so much wish you had.’

Angela laughed even though she’d heard the joke a few times before. This woman had a natural sense of humour, like a good stand-up comedian. 

‘Now my lad wants a drum kit,’ the waitress declared with the air of someone resigned to life imprisonment. She put a saucer with two little bars of butter wrapped in silver paper down on the table. Then a fork and a knife wrapped in a red napkin; the Christmas variation of the everyday white napkin, … how thoughtful.

‘A drum kit.’

‘Yes, my dear, a whole set of drums and cymbals so he can play at home!’

‘That rings a bell,’ Angela said. 

‘Funny,’ the waitress said laughing.

‘No, it really rings a bell. I had a similar thing with my boy a few years back; he also wanted a drum.’

‘I think they all want a drum at some point or other. I don’t know what to do. For a while he borrowed one from the music school where he goes to do his lyrical hip-hop,’ she raised her eyebrows dramatically. 

‘But he had to give it back, thank God! It’s been peaceful for a while. Well, peaceful, you know what I mean, peacefuller, but now he wants a whole kit for Christmas.’ She feigned sobbing. 

‘Lyrical hip-hop?’

‘Don’t ask!’

‘I won’t. I’ll look it up though.’

‘I wouldn’t if I were you. Anyway, what did you do, did you get your son his drum?’

‘Er, yes, we did actually; for Christmas too, as it happens.’



‘Carmen!’ This time it was a workmate calling Angela’s waitress. Time to stop chatting, again.

‘Sorry, lots of work today,’ Carmen said. ‘Enjoy your coffee and toast; let me know if you need anything else.’


Watching Carmen’s back, Angela sipped her coffee. Piping hot, heavenly smell, the right amount of bitterness, not too toasted. Home again. She looked out of the glass front into the streets with the tall old buildings and the light grey sky. Cars honked. She remembered the words of the writer Maruja Torres: life is like coffee; it always smells better than it tastes.

Cafe Comercial, Madrid, Spain – ©alamy stock photo

She turned her attention to her breakfast again and opened the two little parcels of butter to spread the whole lot over the two large pieces of toast. She thought of Edmond and the drum in his room; his djembe.

When Edmond was ten – or was it eleven? – he was into percussion. At the local music school he was learning to play the piano, but that didn’t seem to be enough percussing for him or, rather, not the right kind, and he started tapping his chest like a self-diagnosing doctor who’d missed his vocation as a musician in a jazz band. Then he went on to striking other parts of his body; every part makes a different sound, of course. His thighs were a favourite, especially when he was sitting down. Studying, watching TV, on a bus ride, on a train journey, on the twice-yearly visit to the pizza place, he would suddenly pick up his pastime, and tap-tap-tap he would go for minutes on end, then he would stop to concentrate on a conversation – talking having always been another of his hobbies – or eat, read, disturb his sister, browse or play on his computer, etc. Sometimes they could hear him, locked in the bathroom, tapping his thighs, … while sitting on the toilet, his parents guessed. Angela often wondered if it helped him with his constipation, but she never dared ask. Some things are better left un-asked.

Jon and she would look at each other and smile. They loved it. Their son was very good at it. He had an incredible sense of timing, a wide range of rhythms, and over the months his ability grew and grew until it became noticeable to people other than his over-appreciative parents. Even strangers stopped and held their breath to listen and smile. 

On the bus coming back home, on a rare occasion when the four of them had gone into the City for one exhibition or other, there was a man in his mid-thirties sitting next to Edmond on the other side of the aisle. Their son began tapping his thighs and clicking his fingers to the frenzied rhythm in his head. Angela thought she recognised the beat, related to a certain melody. Her son had a favourite record at that moment, an early Ella Fitzgerald. The man couldn’t take his eyes off Edmond. The drummer went on determinedly with his swing without the rest of the band. A-tisket A-tasket, I lost my yellow basket. 

Suddenly, the stranger started imitating him, or trying too. Whether Edmond welcomed this unexpected accompaniment or not, was unclear. They just knew it didn’t faze him: he simply carried on as if it weren’t happening. Perhaps he was acting as a jazz musician might, assimilating a fellow musician’s improvisation. After a while the man stopped, pressed the yellow button over his head and got off the bus at the next stop, giving Edmond, who continued percussing, a last bewildered, wordless look.

The following weekend the boy was invited to spend some time with his friend Gabriel, the nine-year-old son of Judith, one of Angela’s best friends. She still had time in those days for a couple of friends. She had to make the time, since her children were too young then to have a social life without mama or papa taking them places. Neighbourhoods teeming with children that came in and out of everybody’s houses and played in the streets at all hours was, regretfully, a thing of the past. It’s not that she minded having friends, of course, it’s just that with the money-making, the home-making, the relationship-making and the parenting, there was little I-making time. And it scared her, the idea that she wouldn’t fulfil her own destiny. ‘Don’t die with your music still in you,’ went the self-help guru’s maxim. She really didn’t want to be prostrated on her crummy hospital death bed having to say to herself: ‘Angela, you’re dying with your music still in you, you moron.’

But she was too old these days to be able to lie to herself. She was a moron. She was a weak woman. She used to make herself believe that she was strong, because, in some respects, she had been. She was psychologically, emotionally and physically very stable. She coped with the various problems, some quite substantial, that life threw at her, with aplomb, even energy, be it with a slight lack of pro-activism, as a well-meaning ex-friend once pointed. It used to be very important for her to believe that she was a strong woman. She despised weak women. But now the truth was out. She was weak. 

She shook her head and drank some more coffee. The idea made her instantly depressed, and she couldn’t afford that, not before she’d even started her shopping, for God’s sake!. She was strong according to Marianismo, but not according to Feminismo. So what? Who cared? Fuck the lot of them! She adored her family and did her humble best to keep them safe, fed, clothed (second hand), relatively comfy, sometimes happy. Sue me, one half of her said to her other half. 

She went back in her mind to her son and his djembe. So, Edmond went to spend that late November Saturday at Judith’s house with her son Gabriel. Come to think of it, Angela didn’t go that time; Judith picked Edmond up in her car in the morning and brought him back in the evening. 

Edmond had a good time at Gabriel’s, as usual, but with a special addition, Judith told Angela, because he had discovered her African drum; specifically, a djembe. He’d seen it before, standing in a corner like a trendy piece of African decoration, but he’d never thought of playing it like an actual musical instrument until that day. He’d asked Judith in his polite child manner if it was OK to use it and she, knowing how respectful Edmond was with things, even his own, had said yes.

‘He took to it like a duck to water!’ Judith explained visibly impressed. ‘It’s incredible. I mean, I know he’s very good with the piano, but the guy’s got rhythm, too.’

Angela proudly agreed and explained to her friend Edmond’s percussional efforts in the previous weeks. She then asked Judith about the djembe. She didn’t even know what a djembe was in those days.

‘A djembe is a drum with a shape like a gigantic goblet,’ her friend explained. ‘Mine is a big one like this.’ She left a space of over half a metre between her hands. 

‘The body is made of wood and the drum head is leather – goat skin. It comes from places like Mali, Senegal… Mine is from Senegal…’

‘Did you buy it on-line?’ 

‘Jesus, no! I bought it in the African Quarter in the City, of course! Little Africa they call it.’ She laughed and Angela laughed with her. She couldn’t imagine anything less Sub-Saharan than their City.

That night Angela told Jon what Judith had told her about Edmond and the djembe. That was it, they decided: that was what they were going to get their son for Christmas. They were very excited: at last a proper present! The first since the pen knife when he was five and the macbook when he was seven. 

No more Lego that year; a djembe. And it had to be the real deal from West Africa. They would have to find out more about it and where to get it. Ah, and they would have to find the money. Judith couldn’t remember how much it had cost her all those years ago, the pre-Euro years. Angela and Jon looked it up on the Internet. Basic djembe drums were around 80 euros, unless they bought a smaller, poorer-quality one, ‘for children’. Jesus, Angela thought, where were they going to get €80 from?

‘Ok,’ said Jon with his habitual optimism when it came to money. ‘I’ll get on to it.’

Little Kate was still easier, and cheaper, to please in those days, poor sweetie. She would’ve been five if Edmond was ten. They wouldn’t get her a pen knife until last Christmas, though. Not because she was a girl. No! It was because she was not as careful with things as her brother. She could be slightly cack-handed, despite being a wonderful artist. Very contradictory. Angela couldn’t remember what they got for her daughter the djembe Christmas, but she was sure it wouldn’t have been dolls, because Kate had never been into dolls. Soft toys? … by the truckload, but not dollies. Wilful, beautiful Kate.

Musical instruments are incredibly precise things. Long before anybody touches them, they have to have the inherent potential to play wonderful music. Very much like people. With a djembe, the timber used for its carving has to be the right one. Lenké, mahogany, rosewood and bush mango are favourite hardwoods for African djembes. The wood block is cut out from one single tree trunk and carved out inside by hand from top to bottom. Needless to say, the whole process requires hard work and tremendous skill. The goatskin used for the drumhead has to be uniform in thickness, unblemished and perfectly shaven. The wood is carved and hollowed in a perfect shape and the skin stretched over its top and kept taught with a careful design of strong cordage, the tension strings, so that the drum shell can exhale its wide array of sounds rather than inhaling them. That’s what it’s all about. That and a good, soulful drummer. 

Eighty euros sounded like a lot in Angela and Jon’s ears, and that loud sound deafened another little voice saying it wasn’t enough for such a humongous amount of skilful work. One doesn’t always have the strength or the generosity to listen to the distant little voices of the five-cents-an hour labourers. Would one stop to listen, one would stop buying things, and then what? The economic system of the big voices would collapse. And one wouldn’t want that, would one?

Angela’s mind went back to the cafe. She sipped more coffee. Wouldn’t one, though?

One more time, Jon and she performed the miracle and managed to raise the money for the djembe, as well as the money for Kate’s present and the train fare into the City. One more time, family and friends came to their rescue, and one more time, they would get their money back, eventually. The same way the bank, the vet, the chemist, the dentist, the health food shop, the handy man, would get their money for their goods or services rendered: eventually. Get it they did, mind, or the support system would collapse, and what would Angela and Jon do then? 

They both went into the City to get the presents that year. It was a Friday morning after having seen their children off on the school bus. Monica, another mum, would take them home after school with her children if Angela and Jon weren’t back in time from the City, which they wouldn’t be, they were sure. They would probably have to stretch the money so that they could have a plate of curry somewhere at lunchtime. That would be a nice reward for all the travelling and troubling. 

They enjoyed their time on their own and away from home as if they had only just met; only more so, because they knew each other. They came out of the main underground railway station in the City. It was a sunny day, warm for early December. They walked all the way to the old quarter, which contained the Latin quarter, which in turned contained the area recently christened ‘Little Africa’. Many worlds containing one another, each smaller than the previous one … like Russian dolls, except these worlds looked totally different, each one belonging to a different nation, culture, background, experience. It made the class system look like child’s play.

They both loved walking through those ancient streets, with recent tacky buildings next to nineteenth, eighteenth, sixteenth, fifteenth century buildings, populated by humans from all over the planet. Walking back in time and around the world. Wonderful, to walk holding hands with Jon, that sexual energy running from him into her. For a few hours not worrying much about anything, except finding the damned drum, and perhaps, in a little corner of their minds, the possibility of being held up and mugged in one of those little world streets. 

None of that happened that day and they got to the square that was the heart of Africa in this European City safe and sound, and with their bank notes still in their wallets. Best to bring cash into this part of the world. 

There were clusters of young black men in every corner of the square. Some of them were clothed in African apparel, but most of them wore simple denim trousers and shirts or T-shirts. There was no need for jackets or coats on that warm midday. Some of the men had their backs against the walls of the old buildings around the square, contemplating life, smoking cigarettes and talking to the guy next to them, all at the same time. There were other people in the square, of course, of both sexes, but they were crossing it. They had other places to go, lots of other things to do, at the same time, no doubt.

Angela and Jon had only one thing to do and one place to go, but they didn’t know much about the thing and didn’t know exactly where the place was. They didn’t want to be mistaken for tourists, appear like overgrown children bewildered by the world about them, but they couldn’t help looking around trying to find the street where the African shop with the djembes was supposed to be. 

Even though they didn’t live in the City, they knew that the square had another look and another kind of urbanites during the night. Drug-buying and -selling was a prosperous business in this area, and even their consumption often took place in the square, as well as in the adjacent alleys. Now it was twelve noon and the people that live by day could pretend for the umpteenth time that it had all been a nightmare. The square was clean, the people in it respectable, the boxes of shiny fruit and veg from the grocery shops out on the pavement, the colourful flower pots out on the balconies, canaries were singing away in their cages, little dogs were being taken for a stroll, female cats walked around at leisure, knowing they wouldn’t be raped by tom cats. For another few hours of sun, life was decent, good even.

That’s why Angela and Jon could fearlessly approach a couple of the young black guys. These two were standing in the middle of the pavement rather than holding the wall with their backs, and therefore visibly doing nothing. The last thing Angela and Jon wanted to do was interrupt anybody’s work. It was hard enough for these people to find any kind of work at all.

‘Excuse me,’ Jon said, throwing in a smile. ‘I wonder if you could help us, we’re looking for a shop around here that sells drums…’

‘Djembes,’ Angela specified smiling too. ‘From Mali.’

‘Or Senegal,’ Jon added.

One of the young men looked befuddled, but the other one smiled back and shot his right index up in the air.

‘I come from Senegal! Oh, yes, yes, there is a shop like this right up the street there,’ he pointed with the same finger. ‘Not far.’

‘Aha,’ Angela and Jon said in unison, looking where the man was pointing.

‘I can show you, I can take you if you want.’

Angela and Jon looked at each other briefly, then at him.

‘Ok,’ they said nodding reassuringly. They were also careful to smile again. 

The sun was shining and there were lots of long-standing locals milling around. Nothing could happen, Angela thought. For God’s sake, she reprimanded herself, he looks like such a nice guy. The police officers standing outside their police car in the next square had probably broken the law more times than this poor man.

Sure enough the shop was in the next building up from the square. It wasn’t very big but it made good use of its space. It was packed to the ceiling with African gear, rows of clothes, pots and other utensils, and, yes, drums, including djembes. Angela and Jon could see their characteristic goblet shape. They were all displayed on the top shelf close to the ceiling. The most expensive items well out of reach of grabby hands. 

The guy that had taken them to the shop was shouting cheerfully, presumably in Wolof -the main language in Senegal- to a woman who looked exactly the part: the proverbial big black African woman, wrapped up in yards of a multi-coloured, multi-patterned fabric, the same material piling up on top of her head. Both Angela and Jon had to make a self-conscious effort to look somewhere else. The wide selection of kaftans exhibited on a long row of hangers was a good spot to concentrate their attention on, while their chaperone continued jabbering to the magnificent woman, who didn’t seem at all impressed by what he had to say. 

Angela soon started pulling at Jon’s sleeve with one hand and pointing at the djembes with the other. She was seeing familiar signs in her partner that told her he was hopelessly infatuated with the garments. They didn’t have money to get one of those; they only had the money for a djembe. Today it was about the djembe. They couldn’t go back home without the djembe. Djembe, djembe, djembe; the word drumming in Angela’s head like the instrument itself, or as if her son was doing his recalcitrant leg slapping behind her back. Jon smiled at her; he knew what she was thinking.

‘Yeah, yeah,’ he laughed. ‘I just want to know how much they cost.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ she mocked, laughing too. Next to the djembes, suspended from the ceiling, like an African ghost, she eyed a beautifully embroidered gown with a translucent silk overcoat, all in different shades of green. But she didn’t want it. She didn’t need more clothes. She had been wearing the same clothes for years and they still looked good; she was happy like that. Buying new clothes made her feel like a princess who suddenly grows a conscience. 

‘What djembe you want!’ the African woman shouted behind their backs, making them jump. A black man appeared through a door at the back with a step ladder. He put it up next to the djembe area, climbed it and looked at Jon inquiringly. Jon pointed to one of the djembes and looked at Angela. She nodded. The man picked it up unceremoniously and climbed down the steps backwards with no hands. Unfortunately, they wanted to look at a couple more, so the guy had to repeat his dangerous journey twice. 

They felt bad about that, especially because they ended up choosing the first one, as they were sure was often the case. The guy’s smile seemed to signify that. Mind you, Angela reflected, it is difficult to tell what smiles, looks and other body language means in people from other, very different, cultures. For example, Chinese people at the Chinese shop often seemed unhappy, even angry, and she wondered why. Were they unhappy having to live in the E.U.? Were they unhappy working in a shop? Did they all have problems at home? Were they racist? All of the above?

What about white workers at the supermarket? Some of them were nice, but quite a few of them behaved appallingly. Angela didn’t have to wonder why, though. It was clear to her: they didn’t like their jobs – who could blame them -, they were badly paid and didn’t have enough time to put the goods up on the shelves before opening shop, so customers got in their way. Angela wasn’t particularly good at reading people, but being white, she was a bit better at reading whites.

The shop assistant put the drum on the floor and tapped it loudly with his hands to show the customers that the thing worked. He touched the ropes on the drum. He told them it would need tuning occasionally by tightening the ropes, so that the drum head skin was taught. Angela and Jon nodded. They knew this. They also knew it had to be done by someone who knew what they were doing.

They inquired about the wood.

‘Bush mango,’ the guy said. Angela and Jon nodded. The right answer.

They inquired about the drumhead.


‘Seventy euros,’ the woman said softer, now that she saw the customers were serious about buying.

Angela and Jon looked at each other and nodded.

‘Ok,’ Angela said.

The woman appeared vaguely disappointed. Perhaps she had expected them to barter and now she wished she had asked them for more. But if she had asked for more they would have bartered down to seventy, so the result would’ve been the same. They had eighty euros in Angela’s wallet to spend on the djembe and thirty in Jon’s for their Indian or Moroccan meal. Angela took her four twenty-euro notes out and handed them to the magnificent woman, while the other guy was lovingly folding the djembe into bubble wrap and then a large plastic bag. Their guide remained standing next to them; he had grown quiet. Angela got ten euros change and a calling card, Jon the bag with the djembe. There were thank yous, goodbyes and smiles all around before they went out of the shop into the bright light of the sun. 

Angela and Jon sighed in unison. It was done. She still had the ten euro note in her hand. She showed it to Jon significantly. He nodded. She handed the note to the young man who had eased their dealings that day. He accepted it with a huge smile and a string of thank yous.

Come Christmas day, early morning, the djembe stood conspicuously by the Christmas tree. Edmond’s parents had felt bad about the instrument being wrapped up in such a lifeless thing as puffed-up plastic. They felt it needed to breath, so they re-wrapped it solely in brown paper enhanced with some filigree patterns Angela had drawn on it with a silver pen. 

They had their panettone with thick hot chocolate – their traditional breakfast on Christmas day – and when the children were ready to burst with frustration and trepidation, they let them open the presents. Edmond had been eyeing the strange big parcel since he had come into the living room from his bedroom. His parents made lame jokes about what it might be: a huge wine glass? a huge hour glass? It didn’t have the shape of an hourglass, Edmond astutely pointed out, they’re only thin in the middle. A stool? You could do with a stool in your room Edmond, for your piano, when we finally get you one. I’m not sure yet I want a piano, the boy said, glancing at the brown parcel again. He didn’t smile; he looked concerned, as if he thought he was going to get something he didn’t want. He knew by then that Santa Claus were his parents, and parents can make mistakes. Huge mistakes.

  Kate couldn’t cope anymore. She started picking up presents and dealing them like cards. But they opened them one at a time, as it was their house rule. You had to treat presents, and intrinsically the people who had got them for you – in Kate’s case still Santa – with respect and meaningfulness.

Finally, the moment arrived when Edmond opened the djembe. He smiled at it, but he wasn’t over the moon. His parents had noticed that, in general, he wasn’t the expressive, jumping monkey, merry-go-round child he had been until a year earlier. He could be considered, after all, a pre-teen now. He had always been, anyway, mature for his age. Angela and Jon looked at each other.

‘A djembe.’ The boy said out loud, but somehow it sounded like a whisper.

‘That’s right,’ Angela smiled.

‘Yes, a djembe,’ Jon smiled, too. ‘What do you think?’

Edmond smiled at the drum. He tapped it a few times with alternate hands; far more professionally than the guy in the shop. A-tisket A-tasket. Then he brusquely got up, picking up the instrument, one small hand inside the foot, the other small hand around the head, and walked briskly to his room. Angela and Jon put their heads around the narrow hall to see what he was doing. The boy let the djembe down gently inside his room by the door and came back to the living room, sat down on his chair and signalled his sister to fetch him another present.

He looked at his parents with his sharp sea-green eyes.

‘Cool,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’

Angela’s consciousness came back to the cafe. The place was just as busy. There seemed to be more families with children and shopping bags. Her heartache for her own. The sky outside had cleared a little and some blue could be seen in between shreds of pale grey. She had finished her breakfast and she hadn’t brought a book to read. There were shelves along the walls with second-hand books for customers to pick up and read there. She thought of starting a novel. It was tempting, but she had to do her shopping. The terrible truth was she didn’t have any excuses now to postpone her duties any longer.

She spotted Carmen, the waitress, coming in from the counter area and she put up her hand. Carmen was looking straight her, so she didn’t miss it.

‘Everything all right?’ she asked when she arrived at Angela’s table.

‘Yes, it was very good, thank you.’

‘So, tell me about your son and his drum, although I think I can guess: he played it at all hours and drove you insane, didn’t he?’

‘Well, I thought you would be interested to know: he never played it. He put it in a corner of his room and that was that for six years. I dust it occasionally.’

Carmen looked as if Angela were talking in Wolof.

‘So,’ Angela continued. ‘In our experience, if you don’t want your child to make a racket at home with a makeshift drum all you have to do is buy him a proper one. Preferably an 80-euro Senegalese djembe.’

Angela could see that Carmen was struggling to find some words to say. Something appropriate. Something relevant, meaningful or even inspirational. But, as Angela and her husband knew well, there wasn’t much to say. 

Finally, something came out of Carmen’s open mouth. 

‘But, why? Didn’t you ask him why?’

‘No, we didn’t. He was only ten and he probably didn’t know why. It wasn’t a bad drum, we don’t think, so it wasn’t that. We didn’t want him to feel bad about it. You know, about not playing it. It’s not his fault. You can’t force these things. We thought he might pick it up and start playing it one day, who knows.’

‘Are you going to ask him why … ever?’

Angela thought about this.

‘No,’ was her answer. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘But, why? There must be a reason.’

‘I’m not sure. Some things can’t be explained. I think it’s the djembe, actually. I don’t think it wants to be played.’

‘Right.’ Carmen stared at Angela again as if she were speaking in Wolof.

Angela ignored this. She knew how it sounded. She didn’t care. A sad smile broke on her face.

‘Or perhaps my husband and I are afraid of the answer.’ She took her wallet out to pay for her breakfast. For some reason, or nothing to do with reason, she saw with her mind’s eye the blue African dress she had coveted in the djembe shop all those years ago; it had the colour of her son’s eyes.

‘Oh, I’m sorry, girl. Children, huh?’

‘Yes, children.’

‘They are so … baffling.’

‘Yes, they are so … human.’

‘Ha, ha, yes.’ The waitress picked up the bank note from the saucer with the receipt. ‘Thank you. I’ll get you your change.’

‘No, there’s no need, you can keep the change: to help towards your son’s drums.’

‘Are you kidding? I’m not sure I’m going to get them now, after your story!’

‘I thought you wanted him to stop drumming.’

‘Yeah, but …’ This time Carmen had something to say but chose not to voice it. Instead, she asked:

‘And what are you going to get your son this Christmas then?’

Angela breathed in.

‘A Ukelele.’

Vivi, December 7th 2021.

©Viviana Guinarte 2021