Larry had hated his birthday by the time he was thirteen. He doesn’t care for it. He never gets that rush that hits on the morning of. His steps lack rhythm. It’s like any other day, he says. But it’s not, right? Who wakes up on their birthday and says it’s just a day. I mean, you can tell it to people, especially if you are like me and don’t like people to fuss over you… but there will always be something that makes you feel special about it. That ka-happiness that fills your soul when you open your eyes in the morning. The spring in your step. The rush in your bones. Instead, Larry feels sad on his birthdays.
If he were a woman and was turning 37 without anything to call his own at the time, I would understand. Society has put so much pressure on us to achieve specific things at a certain age, but guys have it easy. They get to cruise through life doing what they want and as they please without eyes judging them from the corners. And Larry is a dude [Duh]. A dude of 24. He is at the peak of his youth. His birthday should be a valid excuse to get shitfaced and sleep in the gutters. He says he wakes up sick.
The year is 2005. The boy wakes up on the morning of his 11th birthday to find nothing. Usually, there would be the sweet smell of his mother’s pancakes. He is immediately alarmed. He calls out to his mother, who on this day wakes him up with a kiss [I presume there is no greater joy to an 11-year-old boy than a forehead kiss and the smell of pancakes in the morning]. There is no answer. He gets out of bed, without the kiss. The atrocity! He walks with no shoes, thinking that maybe it is a surprise party. He had hinted earlier in the year that he would have loved to have one of those. Could this be it? He tiptoes. He wants to surprise the surprisers. To become the master of his ceremony [He-he]. There is no one. He straightens his back in the kitchen. No one.
He remembers being shocked, and then thinking that maybe that is what his parents wanted. His surprise could not be easy after all. They had to make him believe that there was no party to bombshell him.
The boy takes a shower and dresses in the clothes that were bought specifically for this day.
“What were they?” I can’t tell you why I ask this.
“Oh,” he thinks. “A pair of really nice jeans.” His face lights up “G-Unit. That’s it! It was a pair of blue jeans and a matching jacket. I don’t know if you know them, but they were the shit at the time.”
Oh, I know them alright. I still wear my G-Unit jacket today.
The boy leaves his room for the common room, (read sitting room), and finds nothing. Not even a single blue balloon to tell him that at least someone thinks of him. The thought that they forgot his birthday plays at him, but he dismisses it as soon as it floats in. They had been fussing about this day all month. /What do you want for your birthday? //A bicycle//But you already have a bicycle Larry//Yeah, but that bike is for kids. I want a mountain bike//Aah/ Laughter. /So you want a big man’s bicycle now, huh big man? // Smiles. The kinds of smiles that make your cheeks hurt. Smiles that make it impossible to hide your molars. Happy smiles.
The boy hears the gate open and rushes to the door. His father walks in, disheveled, “Like a person who had not slept for a week and only survived on coffee.” This guy watches too many movies. He remembers thinking his father had been up all night making arrangements for his big day. He stands infront of his pops to show him how well the clothes fit. His father looks right through him.
“Did you feel like Taylor Swift in Delicate?”
“What?” he seems puzzled.
His mother had left. On his birthday. She had packed her things and taken off with a man who his father described only as “that bullshitter from the office”. His world turned upside down. The father, who walked in the door with a smile on his face and arms outstretched for a lift to his shoulders, became a shadow of his former self. He stopped drinking only on special occasions and started “living every day to the fullest”. His clothes started getting tears in weird places. He would leave in the morning with a perfectly good shirt and come with it missing a pocket. His trousers started getting looser. Larry was sent to add holes to belts every other month. But he remained strong. He never broke.
On the 24th of May, the next year, he there was a knock on the front door at about 10:30 pm. I like it when a story has a twist like this. A knock at that time of the night can never be a neighbor asking for salt. It is always something else. Something trivial. Something that can only be understood by opening that door and facing the other side of it. He got up from his bed to get it and met with his father on the corridor. “Are you expecting someone?” his father asked him and he only looked at the older man with puzzled eyes. The knock persisted. His father opened the door to find his mother standing there, having lost a couple of pounds herself [I’ve always wanted to say pounds instead of Kgs. Hello milestone] Anyway, his mother walks in, hugs him and says “Happy birthday baby”. Then he remembered it was his birthday. He was asked to go to his room. See what money does? He was asked. In my house, unapewa macho and that’s it [For the sake of my non-existent diaspora peeps, this is loosely translated to ‘you are given eyes’]
The boy heard raised voices then they were hushed. Whispers that did not really whisper because they were of angry and hurt people who still had to remember there was a boy sleeping in the next room. He heard them, in parts, but the parts he heard made sense enough for him to understand. /what are you doing here? //He is my son//why are you here? //it’s his birthday. I had to see him//Okay, you have seen him. Go to your bullshitter//Darling please//DON’T TOUCH me//I have nowhere to go//We were happy, you know. We were getting back on our feet//What did you do for him today? //What do you care? LEAVE//I have nowhere to go/. Silence. Sobbing. /What are you crying for? YOU left. YOU took your things and left us//I know. I’m sorry/. Silence. /Get up. I’ll drive you to a hotel. We’ll talk tomorrow//I love you. I still do/. The door unlocked and closed after the voices. He heard the car engine start.
He hears this last conversation over and over in his head. That is why Larry started drinking. To drown the voices in the bliss of a stupor. When he drinks, all he hears is the car starting, and that is better than the hushed voices of his parents. Alcohol helped him to remain blind to the policeman who came to his door in the morning. He couldn’t see the strange man’s pitying eyes as they told him how much he had lost in that one night. He lived the next couple of days in a daze. He saw aunts and uncles talk without hearing what they said. He floated through the next few years, going to school and doing the bare minimum so he could be expelled… but he finished school and managed to secure a spot in the University of Nairobi.
One day, in his fourth year of campus, he saw a girl. She cleared up in his otherwise blurred vision as if he was meant to see her. “There is a difference between being happy and being distracted by happiness. She made me happy. She showed me that it was okay to laugh again. That my parent’s death did not define who I was.”
“Do you still hear them?
“Every day. I don’t think it is something that can just leave my head. But it used to feel like nightmares in the daytime. Now, it’s a memory. And I like that it is, because at least they were together in the end. I only wish I heard him say he loved her back.”
“Maybe he said it in the car.”
“Yeah. I formed versions of the conversation they may have had in the car. I want them to have made up. To hold hands. I hope they smiled at each other before the end and looked at each other in the eyes like the first time they met. I hope they were happy.”
“Are you going to tell me about your girl?”
“Maybe, but not today. I need to love her more. To hold her hand and look her in the eyes before I tell anyone of how she dug me out of the hole I never knew I could ever survive and how much I miss her face right now. Maybe it’s the way she says my name.”
There’s a difference between ‘I miss you’ and ‘I miss your face.’
[Have a lovely Easter holiday, My Lovelies]
PS. Don’t forget to subscribe
Girls are dangerous beings. They can lie through their teeth and smile at you like you are sunshine on a cloudy day. They can think thoughts so vile that they ferment fresh milk. They move mountains as mothers and break hearts while younger. Girls can be mean. They can destroy a soul so badly its restoration will be in vain. Don’t get me wrong. There are good girls out there. Girls who are roses with fewer thorns. Girls whose sole purpose is not the destruction of humankind. But these girls are a handful compared to the grains of sand with malicious cores. I’ll let you decide what kind of girl Ivy is.
She has a total of 2,354 contacts on her phone. She says she is in touch with each and every one of them. I must be living wrong because even with my 74, I can never seem to remember who some of those people are. Hers is an iPhone of course. She claims she doesn’t know how to use an android. This is a lie. Not because I know her or anything. I’m not one to judge. But for a ’96 kid, at some point in her life, she must have owned a Nokia C10 or an Ideos, to say the least.
Ivy is tall. She has the kinds of legs that people say are for days. She tells everyone she does not eat apples. I think it is because there is already one on her phone. Or maybe she just likes doctors. People enjoy being around her. They like her. She says she attracts crowds. You know… like the moth and the flame. She burns and burns bright. She was the one texting me with the story yet she had me blue-ticked a total of about seventeen times. At least now I know what guys complain so much about. Those blue ticks hold such anxiety, especially when they come under a “what happened next”.
She moves on quick. Says there are no second chances with her. Once is all you get and then you are done. But she does not warn you about this when you face your first chance. She doesn’t tell you that you will have no opportunity to redeem yourself. She lets you believe that you have a lifetime with her until you screw up and ask her something she doesn’t take kindly to. Something like what makes her add sleeping pills to a man’s drink in a club. Something like what her thought process is when she fakes pregnancies to get money from men old enough to be her father.
“Age is just a number,” [so is 1959. But the latter is also a year when Kenya had not yet achieved independence, and the year the man she most recently asked for money was born]
“How many times a week do you tell yourself that?”
It’s frustrating. Talking to Ivy. Usually I just text the first thing that comes to mind, but I don’t know what to text her. I don’t know when to put in a joke or when to feign seriousness. She seems so full of herself that she believes she is a superior being. A god among gods. She behaves as if she is a painting on the wall that can only be brushed ever so delicately by the feathers of a rare pelican. She is Athena. Precious. Priceless. And I hate her. I hate the way she types without vowels. I see her in nursery school disregarding her vowel lessons to take selfies with her paper phone. She is supercilious and snobbish and imperious. She didn’t sit with other kids in school because even at a younger age she was just as condescending.
“Tell me about your friends” I text, for obvious reasons.
Her friends, she says, worship her. They love her. It’s a requirement to be in her circle, that you love her. You have to do as she pleases. Ivy never asks you to jump over a cliff and you ask if there is water of cold hard ground at the end. You take the step because she asked. You never dispute her because, as she says, you chose to be her friend. She never chose you. So you go with her roll. You cough after she does. You cry if she does. You even pee after she has gone to the bathroom first. You are her friend. She isn’t yours.
I was at a dark place filled with hate when she mentioned her “light”. A little girl, Carina. This name reminds me of a soap opera villain with long blonde hair and green eyes that could turn the scales on a snake’s skin. A photo pops up on my phone of a little girl in blonde braids who looks more of the protagonist than the strange talkative little girl that follows the protagonist around in almost every telenovela ever written. She has these big brown eyes that make you fall in love with her instantly.
“Stepdaughter?” I ask, picturing the little girl up a chimney cleaning cinders till 3.36am.
“thts ma bby gal”
I open the picture again. Really? This is a weird combination. Like salt coming from water. Like pineapple on pizza. They look so strange together, but when you give them a chance, you find yourself with the perfect duo. This is Fanta orange and bread right here. “Where’s the father?”
I’m getting tired at all the waiting around because I was already writing this piece in my head. It began with the evil stepmother without a stepdaughter to put to misery and now, there she was, at the end of the opera with the perfect smile and the perfect little girl, standing by a pew singing praises at the top of her lungs. She had me in a twist. She gives these little anecdotes one after the other that are total opposites. One time she tells of an injection that gives false positives on a pregnancy test “in case the dde wnts 2 b thea wen u test” [dde is equal to dude. Who types incase in full then says “dde”?]. Some guys are easier, she explains. They prefer you send them the results on WhatsApp. With these ones, you can send an old picture taken during Carina’s time and all’s well that ends well. Then she will tell you about Carina’s second birthday when she had no money to get a store bought cake so she used pancake mix to fashion one and it actually worked out. She knows how to twist you and turn you until you end up around her little finger, then she keeps you there for when she will need you.
She apologizes for keeping me in blue ticks. It was long overdue anyway. But it is the way she delivers the apology that gets me. She says it like something she has said her whole life. Like it is her and she it. The apology comes as the most natural thing that you may miss it, even though it is there staring you in the face like that one big fly in a latrine. You know the one. “sry 4 kipin u waitn”. Kipin?
“Why Carina? Why not Tracy or Rita or Shirleen?”
She says because Carina was strong. You remember Carina of Storm Over Paradise? Yes, her. She says that Carina had character. She fought for love. “Didn’t the ones on the poster fight for love?” [Please remind me what the names of these protagonists were. I have racked my brain long enough to no avail]. She says they may have, but she didn’t really notice. She saw Carina burn cars and plot murders for the love of her life. “You want your daughter to plot murders?” I ask. She says Carina can do whatever she sets her mind to. That if she will want to raise hellfire then she will not stand in her way. She doesn’t let men do the things they do to her because she likes it. She lets them because it is the one way she can keep a roof over her Carina. Her Carina needs pancakes at breakfast and Kiwi for her school shoes. She will do whatever it takes. Whoever it takes.
She says she has no friends. That the people who follow her around do so for the things she has to offer, be it the men who buy her these things or the exclusive passes into Nairobi’s grand nightclubs. She says that she cannot call any one of them to ask for help when Carina is sick because those girls can talk of her to the grave. “They aren’t reliable” [I want to applaud her for remembering her vowels but I’m not sure if she is one to take kindly to cheesy banter] “They wld abandon mih in a hrtbit. Cnt trst em” Girls are sad. They wear so many masks that you cannot tell which is which. They lie so much that they start to believe the lie. “goin hme nw”
The time by my clock is 3.49am.
[PS. If you have an alcohol-related story that you feel needs telling, I am more than willing to help. Send me an email on email@example.com… And I know, I know. March was terrible. Happy April my lovelies]
Luke’s life changed before he could even understand the meaning behind the word itself. There was no exam. No preparation for what lay ahead. Just a sudden, violent swing that pushed him into a life he had never expected to lead. But that’s the thing about life right? You just never know what happens next.
He remembers being at his grandmother’s place. Luke is one of those kids whose grandparents are a 30bob fare away. Some people have it easy. If I want to see my grandparents, I have to climb up hills, go through a forest of fire, swim through a sea of ice and brave a storm. And that’s only if it doesn’t rain on that Got Agulu hill because that becomes a different story. He was dropped at his grandma’s by a woman whose name he doesn’t remember, but seeing that we are not using his name here, I don’t think this woman’s name has any significance. On him was a backpack with two pairs of trousers, three shirts and a game of monopoly. He does not know how to play monopoly.
Now all grandmothers, no matter how evil a mother-in-law, love their grandkids. His adored him. He was the light to her dimming eyes. Her face lit up any time she laid eyes on him. But she was old and weak. There was no way she was going to take care of an eight-year-old kid by herself. She considered boarding school but he was her grandbaby. He needed to be home, not holed up in some dormitory with random boys just because she could do nothing about it. Then grandma had an idea. It was a risk but it was all she had.
The next day, after breakfast, Luke was given a piece of paper that had instructions on how to get to his uncle’s place and sent on his way. It took him about an hour to get there. He stood by the door for another hour, gathering the courage to knock. The door swung open about two hours after he got there to a man he had never seen before. This man, in pyjamas, at 12:30 pm on a Tuesday, sported an unshaven face and dried up drool running a thick white line from the corner of his mouth to his cheekbone [you felt if your cheek has a bone too right?].
The man looked at him, and him at the man. Droolface asked what he was doing there. Was the little boy lost? He didn’t have any money to give to strays, he said. His uncle spoke to him as if he were a cat that had meowed him from his dreams.
“I am not a stray. My grandmother sent me”
“Well, go back and tell her I don’t know any old people, much less their grandies.”
He explained that his grandmother was Rose, from Roysambu. That she had sent him to live with him for a while, before his parents came back. He said his mother’s name. That seemed to have done the trick. He watched as sleep was cast out from the man’s eyes. They were his mother’s eyes. That was what assured him that he was in the right place.
Saying that the inside of that apartment was a mess will be an understatement. Luke uses the word ‘disarray’. Nobody uses a different word for ‘mess’ to describe a few clothes scattered while looking for an outfit. It is the only out of order word he uses so I know he must have looked it up. He says he did. There was a sufuria with mold at the door. He wondered how his uncle had not stepped in it on his scuffle to the door. Worn clothes hung from the ceiling and in the kitchen sink. There were clean clothes under the bed and he found a spoon in a couch cushion. He didn’t ask, because it was not his house. People don’t take it kindly when you visit them and start by asking what cutlery was doing in the seats. In his head, he was only here for a few days until his parents came to get him. Nobody came.
A month later, schools were opening. His grandma came knocking. She had his uniform and all needed effects to get a class 3 kid to school. She did not come in. She never did. Not for the 4 years he lived with his uncle. Any time he brought up his parents, his uncle, always drunk, would ask him to shut up. He would say he did not know. That parents abandon their children all the time. He was not special compared to these children. He should be thankful to have a roof above his head.
Before sitting for his K.C.P.E. exams, Luke’s teachers asked the class to fill in their details and those of their parents on a form. He asked if he could bring the form home to be filled, because he did not have some of the details. Details like his father’s name. His uncle, in his constant drunken state, always referred to his parents as “my sister and that prick that took her away”. The form did not have enough space for that. At home, he pulled out the form, woke up his uncle from another of his smashed sleep and asked for his father’s real name. The uncle got up and staggered to the wardrobe. He rummaged through the pockets of the one jacket he owned and came back to the couch. He threw folded pieces of paper on the table.
“There. You are old enough to understand this English. I have no answers to any and all questions you may have,” and with that, he slumped back to sleep. Luke picked it up and unfolded it. The first page held the face of a woman with his uncle’s eyes. The second page was the proceedings; from taking the body from the mortuary to the time the body would be lowered to the ground. There was no vigil.
His eyes rested on the eulogy page just as his uncle began snoring. It hit him. The gravity of what he held in his hands became so dense he felt his fingers give way as the pages fell to the floor. His eyes stung. For a minute, he forgot how to breathe. He wanted to run away but there was nowhere to go. He had exams in four days, plates in the sink and his mother’s eulogy on page three.
“She was beautiful, my mother. She had the same eyes as my uncle, but hers held a kindness I have never seen in this world. Hers were not bloodshot like his. Her eyeballs were the white of fresh milk. And you know what the cause of death was?” he lets out a bitter laugh. His laugh has known no mother’s touch. He pulls out his phone and shows me a photo of page three.
‘Cause of Death: Drunk Driving’
“You can call me orange” read the email.
“Like the fruit or the color?”
“I was told this was where to go if I wanted to talk about my mother”
Oh man. Orange must have the wrong email. But then, I thought, that would be pushing it a little far right? That there is a person out here with an email address so close to firstname.lastname@example.org that I was sent the troubles of another?
“Well she drinks. I mean I do too, but she drinks like a whole lot. For breakfast, for brunch, for a midnight snack”
Ah, my kind of trouble. So I gave her my number and when she Whatsapped me, I thought I would call this story “Orange”. I saved it as Orange. I almost color-coded it as well. Almost changed the wordings from black to orange. But I’m also practicing self-control because I have been too impulsive lately and that has bitten me in the arse a few times.
She told me she was not sure if this is the kind of place she would want her story to go. She said she would have wanted a smaller platform [do you feel my head swelling just a little bit?]. Has she seen a psychiatrist? I asked. She said she was “not comfortable doing this face-to-face”. That this was safer. Nobody would know her. Nobody would judge her. So I said “Let’s talk about your mother” because I don’t know if nobody would know her or judge her here. I am not people’s judge-mentality [this is underlined so maybe I should explain that I mean it as an individual’s ability-to-judge. Somebody tell Merriam Webster to document more words]. Also, lightbulb; I’m sitting here thinking how Judge Mentality has a nice ring to it. There should be a series about a beat up judge who gets hit by space rocks and acquires the ability to use his/her brain to make court rulings. We should be able to see the brainwaves swirling trying to come to said ruling. Seth Rogen could play it, or write most of the lines at least, and obviously Idris Elba should be the bailiff and at the beginning of every episode he would say “Order. Court is in session. The Honorable Judge Mentality will be presiding” and Seth Rogen or Rebel Wilson would come in on a wooden horse.
Orange’s dad, who I am tempted to name Peel, supposedly left her mother when she was born. She clings to little anecdotes that her mother blurted out in her late-night drunken stupors when she forgot the existence of Orange in her life. Her dad was fun. That’s what she texts me. I can’t imagine a fun dad. No one spends time with their dad and comes out of it going, ‘Hey dad, that was fun. We should do this again sometime’. It only borders “fun” if at the end of it he reaches for the wallet. So I think it is because she looks at her father with her mother’s eyes. This seems like a falling road to go down. I am afraid she will start texting how hard his abs were and how his laugh made the hairs on her skin rise. I change the subject back to her mother.
Most girls grow up being told they are beautiful and strong and smart, and that anyone would be lucky to have them in their lives. They are the rays of the sun. Their beliefs are affirmed and the ideas they have are the best thing their mothers have ever heard of. Most girls have it good. Orange was never most girls. She never woke up to the smell of pancakes in the mornings. She had to come home fed or she would have to sleep hungry. She learned to cook just last year and up until she was 10, she thought mothers were not obligated to do anything for their kids.
She says she discerned the difference between a house and a home when she spent an afternoon at a friend’s place. She understood that one could laugh loudly in a home without fear of a condescending remark. Mothers touched their children in homes without flinching. Homes did not have the constant stench of liquor and vomit that could not be scrubbed out even if her fingers bled fire. Homes had onions in the kitchen and a welcome mat at the front door. She found out just how much was missing in her house and she began hating her mother for it.
When she told her mother about this, she was told of how ungrateful a daughter she was. “She said I was a thankless no-good daughter who didn’t even appreciate all that she did for me.” It’s hard writing a story in my head without a tangible subject in mind so at this point I went offline. I needed a break and break-time has always meant something to eat, has it not? The first thing I see in the kitchen is this deformed unhealthy looking orange in the fruit basket and my brain screams EUREKA! I pick it up and this has to either be a rock or the hardest orange to have ever walked the planet. It doesn’t help that I can’t remember when oranges were bought last. This is a forgotten orange. A sad orange. An orange that has seen days when the basket was full of his brothers and sisters and shed so much when sibling after sibling was taken away to face the wrath of the knife. I don’t cut it. Not yet. This orange is my muse. You don’t destroy a muse. You study it, from afar. You place it on a pedestal and watch it, lovingly, as it sits there, unmoving, unflinching, while the words come pouring out of your brain as if the orange was the cork. I see the orange for the first time. I mean really see it. I think Orange and this orange must be related in a life before this. Before this orange was on a tree, a seedling, a seed, manure, trash, a human. So I sit there for what seems to have been an hour, staring at an orange until someone knocks on the door and I wake from my reverie.
“I’ve been looking at an orange,” I text Orange.
“Ha-ha, the fruit or the color?”
By the time most girls were celebrating their sweet sixteens, Orange was trying to tape her breasts into her back because her mother said she was developing too quick for her age and that she was abnormal. “I can’t tell you how many times I wrapped my chest in masking tape so that I could feel normal. I was going to school on an Equity Bank scholarship and I was scared that they would pull me off it if they realized I was not like other kids who got the sponsorship.” I ask her what she means by not being like the other kids. “My mom made me believe I was not deserving of anything nice I had. She made me doubt myself. I doubted my walk, the way I talked, even my body. She made me feel inferior to everyone else, even her. She constantly woke me up at 2.00am to tell me I did not deserve the scholarship. That I should have let someone who needed it more to have it.”
The tempo changed when she finished school. The 2.00am wake up calls became questions. Why did she not have a man? What was she doing to get herself a husband? Was she thinking that she would live with her mother till she got old? She remembers one time when she was coming from those computer classes we do after high school like a ritual and found the door locked. She was sure her mother was in, because it was 3 in the afternoon and she usually did not leave until about 5:30 for when the bars had customers who she would nag to buy her one or two. She knocked twice and heard her mother’s groggy voice inside. “She said that if I ever want to get into her house again, I would come with alcohol as my rent.”
And so for the next three years, Orange bought quarters for her rent. She tried to avoid being known to the liquor store keepers. As soon as one knew her name, she changed to a different store. People called her names. They said she was going to end up like her mother. That she was wasting away. Women snickered when she walked past. Everyone she met commented on how bright a future she had had before she destroyed herself with alcohol.
In 2017, at 23, Orange packed up her clothes and left. She did not say goodbye. She says she did not want her last memory of her mother to be as painful as her life with her.
“What do you remember of her?”
“Well,” [she begins most of her texts with ‘well’] “I definitely remember the smell. Sometimes I am in a matatu and a guy brushes past me and I swear my mother must have clung to him. It haunts me. I feel like I have failed her as a daughter, and for real this time. But that house had no color. It was grey and I hated it. I hated that life.”
I ask her if she would like to see her again. To mend things. To try and get her help. “Well I have done all that. I went back for the eighth time last month. I cleaned her up, got her clean clothes and took her to some rehab in Limuru. She stayed three days then ran away. Again. So how do you help someone who does not want your help?” I look at my orange, then get up to get a knife. “I have tried so much. I cry every time I see her. she looks worse on each visit. I tell myself ‘You know what Orange, you escaped this. You are no longer a prisoner to your mother’, but every time, it feels like she holds something over me. The fact that she stayed with me. She didn’t leave like my father [Peel]. I will forever be grateful to her for that.” I cut into my orange.
She will try again in April.
[Do you have an AA worthy story, send me an email on email@example.com and Let’s talk drink.]
She was the kind of girl he was sure he would never get, and not only because he was years older than her. They were from different worlds. Her father had large farms and his mother had twelve children. It was doomed from the first day they saw each other. Of the twelve, he was fifth, and third among the boys, which made him among the middle children. He could get nothing. Could ask for nothing, and unless he was coughing out blood and shitting himself simultaneously, no attention was given to him.
There is this perception that middle children are disregarded. Nobody pays them any mind. They can drag themselves through the mud with their asses bare and nobody would care. He would leave whenever he wanted, be gone for hours on end and when he was back, no one had missed him. No one had even noticed he was away. Once, when the thirteen of them were in the shamba, he detoured with his older brother to relieve themselves in nearby bushes and his mother threw a fit! she scratched and wailed for her first born son claiming somebody had napped the fruit of her loins and she could have none of it. This was the only time he ever felt missed.
When he finished high school, like many of his peers, he did menial jobs. It was during this time that he met the one person who was ever excited to see him. She looked at him, not through him. He felt seen. She missed him. She sneaked him things she thought he needed. He tasted his first strip of bacon with her, sneaked out through the folds of her tunic. He liked the smell of her. She said she used Fa soap, and gave him a bar. He took baths every day for her, then applied Fa soap on his skin because he liked her on his skin [okay, I made that up]. She talked him up to her father and he was promoted to groundskeeper. His mother was proud. A son with a steady job at a rich man’s was a good son. A son to take notice of. He was taken to driving school and given another task. He would pick up the rich man’s daughter from school every day and bring her straight home. “The ride took twelve minutes to the school, a three-minute wait for her to say goodbye to her friends and another twelve minutes back.” That a person needs a whole three minutes to say goodbye to people you see 5 days a week baffles me. He cherished these minutes. Sometimes he drove there in 10 and drove back slower so he could hear about her day. She could talk about anything; how many math problems she was able to solve, which trees were shedding, who pissed her off in class. She could have talked about the weather and he would have loved the weather.
“Theirs was a different kind of love”, says the person telling me this story. “They had nothing in common. Different generations. Different worlds and yet, they managed to sneak past their parents and be together. There is a thin line between love and madness.”
When she got pregnant, she was fifteen. He was twenty-five. He got a note in his quarters at her father’s compound. She wanted to see him and she had news. She never had news. He had resolved to thinking she made up the things they talked about off the top of her head. She was spontaneous. The note scared him a little. “It was his ‘we-need-to-talk’ note,” she says [Dang it! I had wanted to say that] She told him that she had been feeling weird. Her body felt like it had aliens experimenting on it. He knew, before she said it, that she had missed her period and his first thought was to get away. To talk to someone. “So he told her not to worry. That everything would be fine and they would be fine. Then he went home and cried.”
“He told you this? That he cried?” I ask.
“Well, no. He’s my father, he would never tell me that he cried. Do you know nothing about men?”
His brother found him crying. The same one he went peeing with in the bushes. So her uncle was the one who told her about her father “cleaning his eyes”. Are we together now? Good. The brother prodded and poked and pushed until he stopped just long enough to tell him about the knocked up girl. That she wanted to leave school to be with him. She had said she would follow him wherever he went. She even gave the ‘can’t live without you’ speech. The brothers talked and fought and came to a conclusion. Tell their mother.
“My grandma is one tough cookie. She is the strictest woman I have ever met, and that is to me. I can only imagine what she was like with her own children.” My mind is racing. Strictest? Really? “Yeah, she was so strict.”
Did I say that out loud?
“I hear all these stories from my aunts and uncles…” “The Twelve,” I say, because that tag has been playing in my mind since she said her father had as many siblings. This must have been the kind of family that disagreements happen and it is split into two, sometimes even three, and a mother is asked to pick a group, and if she picks one, the other two will pack up and leave or if she picks the other, the rest get to throw a tantrum. Constructing this sentence alone is giving me a headache, I can’t imagine living it. She shows me a picture of The Twelve, with the oldest uncle on one end and the youngest aunt on the other. They look like a staircase. I hope I didn’t say that out loud. None is taller than the other nor fatter than the next. Also, their resemblance is uncanny. They look like the same person in different stages of height. “My father says the first time he tasted alcohol was the day he had to tell his mother that he had impregnated his boss’s 15 year-old. He claims he had never tasted alcohol before and that that is the only reason that justifies his drinking today. He says my mother turned his life upside down, and that even though he loved her, he was mocked by everyone he went past. They called him the destroyer of homes”
“I thought it was only women who were labelled that.” I learn new things every day.
“My father was. People said he had used traditional medicine on my mother because for such a girl to drop out of school for a man like him, juju had to be involved,” she laughs. It’s a sad laugh. A widow’s laugh. “They call him names, to date. My mother was disowned. Her father said she didn’t deserve her inheritance or his name. She was bent on my father, a man 10 years older than her who had no future other than what he would do the next day.” I ask what Grandma Strictest did. “My uncle talked to her on my father’s behalf. It was tough.” She chased him away that night. He went to the girl and married her, then brought her back home as his wife. They were chased away together. His brother sneaked them back into his simba. The newlyweds slept on a worn mat that night with her new brother-in-law snoring on the bed beside them. “She says she didn’t leave him because she loved him.”
“Why do you think she stayed?”
“Because she didn’t have anywhere else to go. Because she was scared. Terrified even, of what her life had sunk to. She didn’t leave because she had nowhere to go. She would be homeless and pregnant with no one to turn to. You know her father hired a watchman?” she asks. I shake my head that I didn’t because I don’t even know her mother past a selfie she showed me, how would I know her grandfather had hired a watchman? “Yah! He hired some guy to sit by the gate and send her away any time she came back. He told her to go to her destroyer of homes and stay there. She had made her choice.” Some fathers can be mean.
There are love stories that begin with one look across a room. Others begin as tragedies. Some begin when some end and others even start in the middle of another. His love story began when his brother took him to one of those raunchy sheds that men go to blow off steam with cloudy frothing glasses. “My father loves the bottle now. The love he had for my mother changed into something else and stirred up another story that he finds every night at the bottom of the bottle. He drinks himself blind. And every evening, he comes home, soaked in his true love’s perfume and tells us the story, word for word, of how he discovered love in 27 minutes and how it changed him so much that he had to seek solace in alcohol. He says he looks for a feeling he had when he was twenty-five, but it’s been twenty years now. If he was to find something, he should have found it by now. He is broken, and in so many pieces that counting is impractical.” She says her mother cries every night the story is told. Whether she cries for him or herself no one can tell, but the girl’s heart breaks for both of them every day.
I ask her if her parents’ story makes her believe in love any less.
“Father says it exists. But that we should wait until we are sure. I mean, they fought for themselves and had my brother. They were strong enough to have three children. I’m sure they loved each other at some point. I just don’t think I have the strength to go through the pain they go through right now.”
As she leaves. She says something that stays with me for a while. She says that she doesn’t wait for her soulmate. That she will love, and love deeply, because she wants something to hold on to twenty years later when he is sad and she is crying and there is alcohol involved. She says that soulmates do not exist, she looks for compatibility, and that falling in love with someone you are compatible with is easy, the hard part is working through it and working for it.
Have a wonderful Valentine’s, my Lovelies.
For Lilly, life was as simple as life came. Eat, breathe, sleep. For her, life was routine. She was an average student. She attended church every Sunday because it was what her family did. She did what was required of her under her parents’ roof and there were no complaints. She had three meals a day and socks on her feet. Life was modest. Life equaled eat, breathe, sleep.
Lilly took her KCPE in 2008, scored a total of 361 marks and got admitted to Kipsigis Girls High School. She found herself in the strange land of mursik drinking girls whose parents pondered when they would leave school to get husbands. Girls who wore what they wished and talked how they pleased. Girls whose windows were hit by small pebbles from boys who wanted to sneak into their rooms when it was dark. She was stunned by the wave of culture shock and she loved it. She could do as she wished here. She was alone, without the stern hand of her father or the unyielding eye of her mother.
The lies came clean from her lips as if she had thought of them all her life. Her father became a lawyer and her mother a nurse. She killed off her younger siblings and remained with an elder sister who was taking her Masters in the United States. She became Lilly, not Lilian Kang’ethe Wanjiku and like the flower, she flourished. The lies filled her with adrenaline and she worshipped the rush. She acquired a steady boyfriend at home, Kevin, who proclaimed his love for her in lengthy flowered and perfumed paper that made girls green-eyed. Everyone wanted to be her. She was the girl with the flawless life and by the time she was in Form Two, she was the impeccable girl with the picture-perfect life.
Issues arose when her mother felt it wrong that she had never seen her daughter in school. Mothers are magical beings. They can smell a running nose in us when the cold is three days away. When she asked, Lilly was quick. Her brain had acquired a year’s experience in thinking on its feet. “I told her I would have loved it if she came, but they don’t let parents see students while in session. I told her that if she came, she would be held up in the staffroom and would only talk to teachers then be asked to leave.” Lilly knew her mother was not interested in her teachers. Her grades were excellent. Why would she want to see her teachers when her grades were off the charts? What her mother really wanted was to see her, in school uniform and in the school she was breaking her back to send her Lilian to. To meet her friends. Mothers always want to know who our friends are, as if we would dare introduce them to the kush reeking blood-eyed fellas [not that I have any, Mom].
2010 was a time way before Matiangi’s crazed up Education designs. We still had food brought to us in school in the guise of Visiting Day. We clung to crippling fear that nobody would come and we miserably hung around the school gates. The relief when you saw a familiar face was eerie. We hid food up ceiling boards when teachers searched us. We took Eno on these days because you had to taste whose chapattis were to die for and whose mother made better chicken.
During such days, Lilly would sit quietly at her desk with a book because she was sure nobody would come. Not that she wanted them to come anyway. Her father was out of the country on lawyer business and her mother was swamped in hospital. Her friends understood this. After all, when you have busy parents, you make your peace with it. Back home, her people knew their Lilian stayed at a friend’s for Half-term break. It was pointless to have her travel all the way home for the few days she could spend studying.
Lilly’s cousin joined the school in 2011. By then, Lilly was in Form Three and had become somewhat a celebrity. Her way was the way. Girls cut their skirts to her length and brushed their teeth when she did. She developed her very own posse. The cousin, then in form one, was told to take care of Lilian, because Lilian was almost a finalist and she needed time to study. “She took it literally. She would come to class when preps were almost over to take my shirt and socks away to wash and leave next day clothes on my bed,” says Lilly.
She felt married. I don’t know what this feeling is because clearly, I have not tasted the fruits of matrimony before. Does that happen overnight or is it one of those feelings that needs nurturing, like an injured puppy? “She did everything for me. She queued for my food then went back for her own plate. She got me hot water to take baths with. We didn’t even have hot water to begin with!” Once, she found toilet paper cut in 6 pieces each and folded in her locker. This girl estimated that her cousin would need 6 pieces of tissue to poop! If that’s marriage, then I don’t want it. I want freedom to be able to close my eyes and run toilet paper out of my hands until my ancestors tell me it is enough. “It was too much, I know, but I felt like a queen. Everyone adored me. I did nothing yet they worshipped my breath. It was all I could ask for.”
It did not seem eccentric to give her a copy of her keys. After all, a wife needs house keys, right? The cousin began organizing. Arranging, folding, pulling this out and putting that there. She did too much, according to Lilly. But nothing ever prepared her for what came during their mock exams.
Everyone has a mock exams story if you ask me. I might tell you mine someday. “You know why they are called “Mock”, right?” I say. “They make a joke of our lives. They mark you, those mocks. They seem easy, but it’s like a rollercoaster, of your emotions, your life, your grades, your life’s choices. It marks an era about to end. It confirms to you that you are almost where you dread and leaves no room for doubt about it.” She stares at me. Maybe I have said too much.
“Anyways…” she begins. You know you screwed up when someone starts a sentence with ‘Anyways’. It’s a slap in the face, that plural anyway. No one ever goes “Anyways.., you guy, you crack me up”. It’s always something that they will go on to tell people about. “That strange girl that writes talks of weird shit, you now?” Anyway, she continues. “My cousin fucked everything I had worked for in so long. She got this notebook I had been writing everything down on. Every lie I ever told, with the truth against it, and she came to me with it. I should have just owned up to it then maybe she would have let it go. But you know what I did? Queen of Kipsigis? I yelled at her. Called her poor and uncultured. I told that poor girl that she had no business in my business and that actually made my business everyone’s business.”
Girls bruise like peaches. We hurt with words and we hurt with sticks. We are contused by thoughts of people about us and by our own thoughts. And when a lioness is injured, she wreaks havoc. The cousin, in her hurt, told the one person who could not keep a secret about the book. Every school has one. In my high school, we were lucky to have the mohaha dealer in our class (mohaha being information that you would not necessarily get hot off the press). She didn’t have to do much, the cousin. She just gave the book to their mohaha dealer and asked her to spread the news like the Gospel. Far and wide.
“How long did it take for the teachers to know?” I ask. You know it is hot mohaha when it gets to the teachers.
“Not long. They knew by the next morning. The whole school knew by supper time.” Blazing.
The saga spread like bushfire. How Lilly is the daughter of a farmer and a stay at home mother who got pregnant at 15. How they lived in a scanty two-roomed house in the interior parts of Central and how she had 7 siblings, not one of them having gone to high school, let alone taking a Master’s Degree. Also, in a shocking turn of events, Kevin did not exist. Kevin was a lie she wrote to herself every two weeks to keep her posse envious.
“Did you honestly think you would get away with all these lies?”
“At the time I did. I thought it would be one little white lie of why my parents couldn’t come to school. But people started asking questions. Why couldn’t they come? What did they do? Where we lived? And I started fabricating all these stories that quickly got away from me.” People talked about her all through the last year of high school. She braved it all. “Girls can be lethal if they want to be. People who worshipped me became better than me. They saw themselves superior.”
Uh-oh. I angered the beast. “Weren’t they superior to you?” Shut up! Shut up! Shut UP! “In the sense that they owned up to their parents, whether they were selling mursik in the streets or picking tea in farms. They were true to themselves. To their lives. They never thought it necessary to tell even the one little white lie to make themselves better than the others.”
Let me tell you a little bit about Lilly. She is 25 years old. But she is one of those 25 year-old women who think they are grown simply because they can go into any night club that exists. She looks at 24 year-olds as children. She looked at me as a child. She has this air about her that tells you she is stronger, or maybe that is just her strong-smelling perfume. Scratch that. She wears cologne because it is manly. Because she is better than smelling like flowers and cotton fields. When Lilly talks to you, she lets you know that she is older than you. She wants you to believe it too. She begins conversations by asking, “And how old are you?” just so she can gauge how to belittle you into the ant that she seen you as. She is condescending and pompous. She says things like “You know I got a job a week after university” because she is Lilly, and she is better than everyone else. She wears this facade perfectly and if you don’t know any better, you will fall into the trap of her loftiness.
She stands to leave and I let her. She wears an expensive watch. But maybe it is these Moi Avenue mendacities as well. I read somewhere that when you lie, you first have to believe the lie. Then you have to have the energy to embrace the lie, to own it. And lastly you have to remember that lie, next week, next month, next year. And the thing with one lie is that it needs another lie to cover it and then another lie to cover that one. You end up in a prison of deception [Okay, you guessed it. I got that from Biko].
Moral of the story? Don’t write down your lies with the truth against it. Wahengas have spoken.
There are people who smell like money. People whose price of cologne alone could feed a small village for two days straight. These people have a spring to their step because they know for a fact that their families will never have to worry financially for generations that don’t even have names yet. People who breathe money. They sit and their bank accounts talk for them. They don’t have to do anything, say anything, because they are loaded beyond one’s own imagination. They can hire people to wipe their butts if they so wish. These are also people you never really see because they are usually behind the lenses. They pull the strings and the puppets dance. They say jump and rulers of nations ask how high. Such a man is Emma’s father.
You must understand that I do not know who he is exactly. When she sent the first email I ignored it for two days. Reason? The email read; -My father is wealthy-. No follow up, no yours sincerely, nothing. I didn’t know if it was a crazy person or a prospect for my hand in marriage. I assumed Kamiti people had upgraded to email services. Two days later I got another one; -Ref: My father. Body: He just left the country. Mother is happy-. I honestly think you have to possess a certain kind of lifestyle to say “Mother”. A Mother-the-swimming-pool-is-dirty rather than a Mother-there-is-no-salt kind of living.
I sent a message asking what the father does for a living and she answered -Things for governments-. Are these “Things” what he has travelled for? She says she can’t tell. I’m not sure whether it is because I am a stranger or she too is bamboozled by the title of the job itself.
Emma met Daniel at her father’s office. He was an intern. He was also her opportunity to get some attention at home. “I remember seeing him and thinking ‘He is so normal. Mom will be so mad’, and so I pursued him”. She started by saying hello. Boys get intrigued when you are nice to them. Maybe there are not enough nice girls out there and it shocks them when they meet one. They were texting into mornings by the end of the week. Danny was smart. No one had made her laugh like he did. No other person had talked to her like he did. He told her what was outside his windows. “Mother’s face when I brought him home for the first time was priceless. I planned it perfectly. She is rarely home so I waited for when she was around all day and asked him to come”. Danny was introduced as a really good friend, with as much innuendo that her mother knew what he really was.
At this point, I’m thinking what would happen if I brought a random guy to my mother’s house. “Hey mom, ssup *wink” this is Blue, my really good friend *wink wink*. He is here to spite you for not giving me attention.” No, wait. I lie. I wouldn’t even get as far as wink number 2 before I lose consciousness.
There are people whose parents have nothing. People who go to bed with their stomachs empty and their hearts full. People who when they laugh, their bodies shake. Who have everything to wish for but want for nothing. There are also people whose parents have everything but are empty. People whose houses are full but they themselves are lacking in all aspects.
Last year, around August, Daniel spent the day then went home. Mother sat her down and asked her not to see him again. She said he was not right for her. “It was like she flicked a switch in me. Danny became irresistible from then on”. She couldn’t stop herself from wanting to see him. They dated for a while, in secret of course. Who knows what Mother could have done if she found out, right? But she did. And there was hell to pay. When Mother found out, she called her father. It was the first time her parents had talked in months, so Emma knew it was bad. It was also the 31st of December. Father came home early that day. It was a night of many firsts.
Her father was sitting at the head of the dining table when Emma walked in. She took the farthest seat from him. Mother sat opposite. You knew it was real bad when father had a glass of brandy outside his study. That day, he came with the classic cut crystal decanter to the dining table. Father refilled his glass till the decanter was empty. A night of many firsts.
Together, Emma’s parents told her about a night in 1996, when they had just come from their honeymoon and found a woman waiting with Emma’s grandparents at that same table. The woman, her father said, had been his secretary and there had been relations, the result to which was a young intern boy at his office. Emma held on to her seat. Her father said more words that she does not remember hearing. The clock struck midnight with the three of them seated there; Father at the head of the table, Emma at the far end and Mother opposite her.
“It’s not your fault darling”, they had said. “The error is on us for not telling you sooner.” Emma feels the error is bigger than her not being told sooner. “The error began when a mother was forced to raise her son in captivity because my father is a ‘Big Man’”. The words roll out of her tongue like she hates them. Like she despises the fact that her father is a man that could leave a child out in the cold because of his reputation. She left home. That night, in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, Emma told her parents that she would rather live with stray dogs than be in the house that 23 years ago, paid a pregnant woman to be quiet for the ‘Big Man’. “The error was that he became a Big Man and lost his soul to his name”.
Some things force you to assume they only happen in movies. Some things are so twisted they sound like someone’s imagination flew too high and got burnt by the sun.
“Have you met his mother?” I ask. That would be an awkward meet. She says she hasn’t. At least not yet. “But I have plans to. I just don’t know if I’m going to go as Danny’s girlfriend or the daughter to the man who paid her off to have his baby away from him because he was too important for her”. She carries a lot of hurt with her. She is lost in a maze that she didn’t agree to get into in the first place and it is sad. “I know what I’m supposed to say. That Danny is my father’s son. That he and I are…you know…kinda related”. The word ‘kinda’ is a lie. It is the 3 kgs we tell ourselves our clothes weigh when we stand on a weighing scale. It is a taste of food at 1.00am when it is dead silent and you can truly see yourself and judge as if there are eyes on you in the dark. It is forbidden love between a princess and the stable boy who happens to also be a prince in a shocking but foreseen twist. It is the Big Man’s lie.
“I’ll tell you what’s funny. Danny’s birthday is 31st of December”. She smiles.
[Also, it is my birthday today. Coincidence? I think not. Have an amazing end of January my lovelies]
At 7, you were probably still riding your bike with the training wheels on. At 7 you hold a grudge for 4 minutes and forget about it. You have a favorite princess dress that you will wear any chance people are going out and at 7, a football was your best friend. At age 7, Julian Wagumba was returned to the gates of Nairobi’s New Life Children Center.
He doesn’t remember much about this specific time other than the cologne of his then ex-foster father, a smell that follows him till today. He remembers a call from a social worker he calls Nancy. He was 8. She had found a family that wanted a boy and she had convinced them to take him. They wanted a younger boy but Nancy had talked him up to them. All she wanted from him was that he behaved this time. No more trouble. Was he trouble? I ask. He says he does not remember. I think he was. He says he was happy. He had a family once again. No more bunk beds or mass cooked food.
Julian recalls the gates. Every time he remembers the gates. How they opened to let him in or closed to keep him out. The Kilonzos had a yellow gate with little white arrows at the top. When it opened, he marveled at the lush green lawn. He vowed to be on his best behavior. He was there for five months then he was back at New Lifes gates. “Nobody wants to adopt an eight year-old. All they want are the young ones. You know?” I nod as if I do. “They say the older kids are trouble. They know too much. They will start asking questions soon and they know who aren’t their parents.” By the time he was 10 years old, Julian had to come to terms with the fact that he would never have a family. He convinced himself that no one would ever love him. That he was not the kind of kid that could call a brother for M-pesa or beat up a boy who messed with his sister. He accepted this. Accepted himself. Then he met Uncle Z.
Julian has eyes that hide more than his words reveal. His eyes never dart away when you look at him. He gazes back and you find yourself in a staring conquest that you know from the word go you could never triumph. He looks at the world like he knows secrets hidden from the government. Like he is in cahoots with some alien species that is soon taking over and he can only tell you with his eyes and not his words.
“Where are they?”
“Who?” he asks
When he talks about Uncle Z, he first makes you feel like he is talking about an old best friend who drifted apart but still hits him up for some nyama choma in Kitengela. He says that the first time he saw Uncle Z was at right after he came from the Kilonzos. That was not the first time Uncle Z saw him.
What was it like? Going back there when he were sure he wouldnt?
“I’ll admit it wasnt pretty. I hated everyone and everything around me. I spent most days feeling shitty and making sure everyone who talked to me felt the same way. It was not easy, you know. Being the only big kid there, especially when all your friends have families that love them and end up forgetting to come see you like they promised they would.”
He remembers Freddy in particular. When Nancy came for Freddy, they made a pact to be brothers for life. Freddy promised to come every Sunday to see him. His brother. He came once then never again. He forgot about him, just like everyone did. Everyone but Uncle Z. He talks about Freddy with venom on his tongue. I asked him how old Freddy was at the time.
“Does it matter?”
“He was 5…or 3.”
Julian met Uncle Z formerly on his way from school when he was 10. He remembers because it was around the time when the sisters at New Life wanted to take him to boarding school. He hated the idea of boarding school, but he loathed the home even more. He remembers a man calling to him. A man who looked familiar and only introduced himself as Uncle Z and who said he was a friend of his parents. Did he know his parents? Yes, a long time ago. Where? When? Uncle Z could not answer. He said that if the home had any idea of the whereabouts of his parents, they would have to give him back. Julian wanted to be given back. Maybe his parents would give him the love that the Kilonzos couldnt.
Uncle Z always had a smell about him that Julian could not place with the naivety of a 10 year-old. It became daily routine that Uncle Z would wait for him at his schools gate and they would walk to New Life together. He longed for those 10 minutes. He lived for them. Soon, he was running errands for Uncle Z and their 10 minute-walk became fifteen, then twenty then an hour. The detours began. Lets take the long way, Uncle Z would say. Pass by a friends. Pick that up, take this there.
Whenever Julian asked about his parents, Uncle Z would brush him off and send him for a pack of cigarettes or a bottle wrapped in newspaper. Most days it was the bottle. Then he asked if Julian was getting any pocket money but the sisters only gave him money enough for his lunch. There was never any need for additional pocket money since he went straight from the home to school and back. The next day Uncle Z was not waiting. Julian stood at the school gates until everyone was out and till it was dark. He cried all the way home. Day after that he saved his lunch money till evening. He got out of class with the bell and waited at the gate. The watchman asked him what the problem was, and, that if he wanted to wait for his father on the bench, instead of standing at the gate, he could. “He’s not my father.” The watchman stared at him in silence.
“Uncle Z is not my father,” he tells me as if I had refuted the claim.
The man said they looked alike. That they had a resemblance only fathers and their sons possess. They even walked the same. Julian says that the walk was because he copied Uncle Zs walk. They did not have the same walk. As he was sitting there, watching his classmates, he spotted Uncle Z and ran to him. Life was good after all.
He told Uncle Z about money as they walked to their after school rendezvous. That he had saved and would keep saving incase Uncle Z was ever in need of money. Uncle Z smiled at him for the very first time. He seemed proud and that made little Julian happy. When the bottle was bought that day, Julian got to sip. Uncle Z said you never buy and not drink. It was an unwritten rule. Julian says he felt his throat melt. He choked on the bottle and almost spilled the contents. He thought he had died. Uncle Z was smiling at him. Who would smile when someone was on their last breath? Youll get better at it. No other word was spoken that evening.
Julian was sure Uncle Z would like it if he could have the bottle and not choke so he began going on solo rehearsal sessions the very next day. He rushed from school during lunch hour and got a wrapped bottle for himself. He felt queasy after a few sips and lay down to rest for a little while. The first thing Julian remembers of waking up after his first real drink is being butt naked. The breeze had made his buttocks numb. It was dark, save for a security light in the distance and he felt he was beginning a new chapter of his life. Your own Garden of Eden, dripping with water of life, I say. I don’t think he gets it.
He ran to the home and told the sisters he had been robbed. He even cried. Those sisters were suckers for tears he says. A little waterworks and they let you go to your room to pray and be on your own. They let him have a lot of alone time and that is what fueled his first few months of drinking. He would come straight from school to the liquor store and to his room. The sisters found empty liquor bottles under his bed when they were cleaning a few months later. He was outside, 11 years old and drunk as a skunk. They prayed for him and he promised to stop. But that is not a promise you make when you are intoxicated. The next time he was busted, he ran away. He went to the Kilonzos but they refused to take him in. They told him that his father was alive and had sent them threats when they had him. “Find your father Julian,” Mr. Kilonzo had said with his hand on his shoulder, like a father would talk to a broken son. The yellow gates closed.
He refuses to talk about who his father is, but I have a feeling I already know.
The streets accepted him at age 16, with the clothes on his back and a jacket that was two sizes too big. He sleeps in pavements and begs from passersby when the sun is out.
“What do you do with the money you get?
He smiles and shows me a bottle wrapped in newspaper.
After their wedding, David’s new father-in-law paid for his Diploma in Management. He left his wife just 2 days into their new lives knowing it would all be worth it. He studied the same way he won her heart. For her. For his angel. He did odd jobs to support himself in school and sent money back home to Sylvia. It is what a man would do, and David was a real man. He said he never looked at any other women when I asked. Sylvia is his soulmate. She saved all the envelops that came to her from Nairobi with little trinkets from a time he was walking down a street or some paper boat he made while thinking of her.
[Hello newbies…the link to the first part is this https://notyetadults.wordpress.com/2018/10/11/davids-angel/]
She travelled often to see him. Nairobi girls can spot a good man from a mile away. She did not want hers taken before she had gotten used to the idea of being his wife. When she got pregnant, she rushed with the news to his classroom and they were thrown out for disrupting the lesson. They didn’t care. They were in love. The perfect duo. The Legend to her Chrissy.
Dave Kalalei was born on a cold July morning in 1996. His father was by his mother’s side the whole time. He changed diapers and got puked on. He loved every single second of it. He held her hand through his brother’s birthday too, two years later. Dave does not recall this day. He was too young to remember his father receiving the call that changed him from the guy who gave piggyback rides to a stern-frowning ever-shouting monster who hit them with belts, threw boots at them and one time, when Dave was 16, his mother’s jiko.
The phone call came with the second most terrifying scream David Kalalei has ever heard. He was driving his wife and newborn son from the hospital when his phone rang with an unknown number. Usually, he never answers numbers he has not saved but he was so happy he had to tell someone. It didn’t matter if it was a wrong number call. His wife wishes he never answered this one call.
“Hello?” he must have said with a smile on his face. The kind of smile that comes with the joy of being a new father to a healthy baby boy.
“Kalalei? David Kalalei?”
“I’m calling about your mother.”
David must have frozen, recalling the last time he had even thought of his mother. When she could barely set her eyes on him. When she made that terrible sound from her throat that caused his heart to shred to bits. She had called to strangers to come take her murderous son who had slain her Goliath.
“I don’t ha…”
“She passed away.”
He must have suddenly hit the brakes and caused his wife and son to be thrust forward (this is for science…inertia and all. See? I paid attention in school too).
As if on cue, some random woman in the background let out a scream after the caller said this. The second worst sound he has ever heard. He felt in his bones the farce that was the scream. The choreographed delusion that clearly elaborated the sham he was. He was one with the scream. Morphed into it. A futile joke that showed his mother’s mistakes. He stopped the car, got out and walked. Sylvia did not know what to do. She followed him, trying to ask what the problem was. He just walked.
I’m starting to think David is a walker.
She went back to the car and found the caller still on the phone. They needed to go back to Baringo to plan the funeral. They were the only family Maria Kalalei had. Nothing could be done without their consent. She tried to look down the road David had taken. Nothing. He was not coming back. Her David was broken once more. She thanked the man and hang up.
When she got home, her husband was not there. He was always home, on the couch by the TV. Not watching it, he never watched TV. He is a radio man, that David. What he liked was watching Dave watch cartoons on the box with pictures. But he was not there. He did not come home that night. There was a knock at dawn. She had not slept. Her hero of a husband was at the door in the morning, reeking of alcohol. He never drank, except for the occasional celebratory wine. But he reeked. She looked at him once and asked if he wanted a shower. No answer. He got into the house and went straight for the bedroom. In the 8 years she had known him, she always got an answer. It didn’t matter if she had angered him or if he was exhausted to death.
The months that followed were wearying for Sylvia. David had helped with Dave. She had counted on him being as supportive with the new baby. A month-old infant and a 2-year-old boy was too much for a girl who had never taken care of any other person other than the man who had decreased himself to a drunken stupor.
Dave Kalalei Jr says he grew up knowing his father as a no-nonsense man. You would get a boot on the arse for anything! Failed grades, spilled milk and even the baby crying. A boot in the arse for any wrongdoing. It didn’t matter who was in the wrong. One time, he recalls, he came home 20 minutes late because he missed the first turn on the school bus while waiting for his report card. His father was always home by 3:00 pm for his before-evening whisky. David had transitioned to drinking at the house and Dave was late in giving him his routine 3 glasses at 3pm before disappearing to bars till midnight. Dave says this was when his father started hitting him. As soon as he was off the bus, a brown boot was on his face. That was his father’s M.O. A boot in the face or on the arse if he had no time to take it off.
Over time, it fluxed to beatings. The same way you would beat a thief by the road, only without the rocks and tyre to burn him. Dave was hit at every excuse. It was the same as the boot-season, only more intense because blows, punches and slaps were factored in.
His younger brothers fought over the remote? Punch-Kick-Slap
His mother left for the market without telling her husband? Kick-Slap-Punch
He sits on the couch doing nothing? Being idle and irresponsible? You know how this goes.
So Dave grew up fearing his father. He was crippled with terror any time his father took a breath. He lost his hearing for a week when he was 14 and cried himself to sleep every night. David Kalalei always told himself he was beating his son’s mistakes and made sure Dave knew this. He wanted his son to grow up tough. Grow up into a man.
But Dave is his father’s son. Soon, his scrawny got biceped. He stopped thinking about his father. About the looming beatings at every turn. An exoskeleton formed and he was as tough as only one who has gone through what he did can become. When he hit back, once, his father was clearly shocked. It was one punch. One punch that knocked David Kalalei back to his senses. He looked at his son for the first time in 17 years, shook his head and went to bed.
Sylvia tells me David slept for 3 days. Nonstop. This man is a Rubik’s cube of his own kind. In the three days, he says he dreamt of his mother. Says she came to him and asked him to forgive her. Well, he says ‘begged’, but I know for a fact that African mothers do not beg their children for anything. You either forgive them or live a life of misery beating your children senseless and ruining your angel’s life in the process. Sylvia says when he woke up, he took a shower, got out and went back in for another shower. He had only taken showers for meetings in 17 years.
Two weeks ago, when Dave Kalalei Jr walked out of Mathare Hospital from his last psychiatric meeting, he felt relieved. He told the story of his father. Of how David Kalalei had been broken by his own mother’s scream and the pretentious wail of a stranger. He told of his mother’s unending love and prayer. The meetings were for his father, for even though David Kalalei now showers every morning, he could not bring himself to walk into a psychiatric doctor’s office.
But he had raised a son with thick skin, and an elastic heart. Dave did not talk of the punch that saved his family’s life in his sessions. This is not the story of the punch he threw.
He also said I should not call this story ‘The Fist of Fire’, which is what I had initially thought of.
Somewhere between the confines of the blue mesh and the white walls of Mathare was where Dave Kalalei Junior learnt to accept his fate. Going in, he had sworn to never let the crazy people doctors anywhere near his head. He was alright. He was of perfect health. In fact, his father was the one who should have walked through those gates.
His father, David Kalalei Sr is one tough cookie. He was raised in Baringo county, where I assume he literally had to cross rivers, fight crocodiles and brave storms just to get to school. He actually raised himself..I don’t know why I claim he was raised. His hands are calloused, of course, because he did construction work for years to win the heart of his angel.
David’s mother, Junior’s grandmother (keep up), was the kind that could not keep a man. Strange men were what he grew up calling father. At one point, he started calling his mother’s boyfriends “Uncle”, because he felt he was misusing the paternal term on people who did not deserve it. His mother loved him. She only did not know how to show it. He brought his report cards home when he scored As, which was always. She lit her fires with them. Don’t blame her. She could not read. She was not like those grandparents who could not read but still sent our parents school because they knew the value of education. No. Maria Kalalei could not understand her son’s success. She sent him to school to keep him away from home. Her boyfriends liked peace and quiet, and David was neither peaceful nor quiet.
Adolescence caught up with him early enough. His voice deepened by the time he was 11. He was taller than his uncles by the time he was 14 and had a chin full of hair by 16. The uncles feared him. But real men do not show fear. Not towards a 16-year old son to the woman you are bedding. So they acted tough. They whipped him for “being disrespectful” and sleeping past sunrise. They threw his homework to the pigs if he left a bull unattended. They tormented him all day when he was home so that he could leave, but he could never leave his mother. He loved her, even in her incapability of finding a man worth her heart.
Then David became stronger. He grew muscles from the hard labor uncle after uncle made him do. He became the best wrestler in his small village. Nobody messed with his mom anymore. For a while, she was single and life was good. It was the two of them against the world. He would have loved for things to remain as such, but his mother had a testosterone weakness.
One evening, he came into the compound from the sty and heard noises he had not heard in a while. He rushed into the house only to find his mother giving herself to his best friend who he has asked to wait for him in the house. David Kalalei lost it. He hit his friend with the club he kept behind the door.
His mother screamed.
David remembers this scream. It was the scream that confirmed his mother’s weakness. The scream that called to the neighbors to save her from him. It was a fear scream. A scream that pierced his soul and shattered him to bits.
His best friend lay motionless on the ground, a pool of his blood soaking the ground.
He tried to talk to his mother, but she was hearing none of it. He wanted them to run. To get out of the house that had memories of uncles who would beat her, uncles who would refuse him food that he had worked so hard to get and uncles who destroyed his faith in paternity. His mother kept screaming to the neighbors. She wanted their help from her monster son. The monster David who had slain her beloved Goliath.
The neighbors took him to the chief and Goliath to the clinic then the district hospital. Goliath survived. He was still breathing when they got to the district hospital and did not have any serious injuries. His gods were alive. He had only lost consciousness from the scare his friend had given him, not from the club blow. And the blood was just an open wound that was salvaged by 4 stitches.
David did not have as much luck as his ex-best friend. The chief gave him an ultimatum.
Apologize to Goliath and pledge to be his cattle boy forever or leave the only place he had ever called home.
He asked to see his mother.
When he got home, his mother could not look him in the eye. She asked him to leave. She said things he can never repeat to his sons. She locked herself in her room until he was long gone.
He left home with nowhere to go. He only walked. One foot in front of the other. He walked until it was too dark to see his own hand and he walked some more. By daybreak, David Kalalei was dehydrated and had blisters all over his feet. Do you know how much you have to walk to have blisters all over your feet? David does. The blisters could not allow his feet to touch the ground. Maybe that was God’s way of telling him he was in Canaan.
The sun may have shone on him for hours and a snake might have slithered past him.
Dave Kalalei Jr tells me his oshago has lots of snakes. They don’t go to his father’s place. He has only taken them to the place their mother found him. He tells them he felt the softest of hands touch him.
“The touch of an angel. My mother is father’s angel,” Dave says with a smile. It is a genuine smile. A smile you get when you have seen an angel.
Sylvia says she found David sprawled on the ground. He was well built and had nothing on him other than his clothes. That is how she describes the first impression she had of her husband. Not handsome. Not tall. Not dark. Just, well built, with nothing other than the clothes on his back. She says she sat with him for hours, looking at his face. David always disputes this. He says he woke up as soon as she was near him. Men and their egos. Sylvia took him home. She did not know what she would tell her father if she came with a well built man who had collapsed in the sun with nothing but his clothes, so they made a deal. Two strangers with no background story struck a deal with the Earth as their only witness. She would walk home ahead of him and after a few minutes, he would follow. He could not miss her father’s homestead. It was the one with the permanent houses.
David’s soon to be father in law was a construction foreman. He had been hospitable to the young man and after a few grilling sessions, he offered the young man a job. That is how David’s hands became calloused. He worked for his Sylvia. He woke up for her, had meals for her and went to sleep for her.
It may have been the love he had for her but soon enough he was better than the builders Sylvia’s father had. He promoted him to assistant foreman after one and a half years.
When he finally had the courage to tell his boss that he wanted his daughter’s hand, the older man told him that he already knew. Perhaps while the two lovers shared stolen looks of longing, the father was watching. He was, after all, the foreman. His job was to watch his workers. He only asked him to be as good to the daughter as the father had been to him. And David keeps his promise.
He adores his angel. He tells everyone that she saved his life.
“Hi, my name is David Kalalei and this is my angel wife, Sylvia Kalalei.”
“Good afternoon, this is my wife and angel, Sylvia. She saved my life.”
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I am David. This is angel here is Sylvia, my wife. She saved my life.”
They got married 5 years to the day Sylvia found him on the ground and lifted him higher than he ever thought he could go. The ceremony, held in her father’s compound, was only attended by the bride’s side. To lessen the absurdity of the strange sight it was, they did not have the traditional 2 tents. Guests had the hot hard ground where everyone sat and witnessed love in all its glory. David joked that the ground represented his family. That their guests sat on it because he was the man and had to lift the bride and her family high. Sylvia knows he was not joking. She knows him well enough to read between his lines.
David Kalalei lost his mother 2 years after he had Dave Kalalei Jr. The news broke him. He thought he was done with her, but that is a story for another time.
Every evening when they are at their maternal grandparents’ home, David calls Dave and his brothers to watch the sunset. He loves the sunset. He watches it facing the direction he came from. The direction that his home for a time still stands. Everything fades away into darkness and he is taken back. He tells his sons to do better. Be better. His sons find this to be true. They want to be better than him, because despite having an angel to call his own, David has demons of his own.