I cross over to the Odeon cinema stage to board a route 23 matatu to Kangemi. My mind is as disordered as the people who mill around me. On a normal day I would throw a gracious ten-shilling coin on a mat on which a sick infant lies at the foot of the Odeon cinema building. These sites have of late become the identity markers of our city streets. There is always an immobile child – not to mention adults – at the bend and stretch of every street with Manila paper with writings done in a bad hand announcing their innumerable ailments.
These announcements range from Down Syndrome through to hydrocephalus to inability of the children to ingest solid food among other endlessly described infirmities. Most of them will have a web of tubes heading in and out of their tiny bodies, and the writings announcing their operations delayed due to lack of funds. One wonders if our country has any social welfare program to help these hapless angels, or if the Government really makes a pass through our streets. What of the adults who lay these children on these insanitary streets days on end only to use the collections for an evening meal as the children waste to death? Is it morally prudent to lay your own child on the street, sick, making it an income generating project? Maybe we are all infants lain on streets wasting to our graves.
On this day I am not fazed in the least by this one I pass by without seeing the army of flies doing battle round his sunken eyes and drooling mouth. I seem a replica. It is three in the afternoon; the Nairobi clouds are expectantly so dark I am worried about only one thing: getting to my single roomed house in Kangemi. It is one of those slums that grow next to affluent suburbs. It borders Kileleshwa. How close hell is to heaven! A matatu that required passengers to pay Ksh. 50 has just filled up and is driving off. The next raises the fare to sixty and I am sure if I do not catch this one, the next will move to seventy, the next eighty and the very next a hundred. I am not ready to take the risk.
I clamber in and sit squeezed between two women. Must they be my company today when I need none of them around me? Not now, please. One is so fleshly endowed and the other just as deprived. The former is a tinge too dark-skinned, dressed in black tights, and life seems a bit unkind to her but, against odds, she seems to be swimming along. She wears pink lipstick and enormous dark glasses it is hard to make out her eyes. A look at her feet almost gets me in stitches. I check the impulse in time. She is on high heels, perhaps to give some height to her dwarfed stature. The thin one on my left is barely dressed. She too has dark glasses framed in yellow. They almost cover her entire face. She is in yellow camisoles and a pencil of red cheap jeans. She has a rather slimy lip gloss on rather too thick lips. Yellow sandals complete the spectacle. She is engrossed in a Ken Follet whose title I am afraid to find out because she might think I am staring. Elizabeth sits between them. I marvel at the contrast between the two of the fair sex members, and turn to my Elizabeth.
Elizabeth just boarded a Star bus at Savani’s Bookshop stage where Latema Road greets River Road on her way to Kangemi. She actually walked out on me leaving my jaws parted in plea. On a normal day she would be seated next to me – in the seat occupied by this caricature of Naomi Campbell – holding my hand in loving care and closeness. I would be admiring the well-manicured nails on her shapely thin fingers, caressing them in gentle care, and occasionally giving her left shoulder a possessive squeeze. You would think we have been together since creation. Elizabeth is a woman blessed with what I hear women generally refer to as a good figure; kind of an hour glass. She is what people in the know of beauty would describe as chocolate in milk in balanced proportion that leaves no room for chocolate powders in complexion. I am rather too light for her liking. She would have preferred the dark and tall with just enough flesh to cover supple muscles. I have none of these and I am nearly all bones with just enough clothing to cover the depressions in my neck. Nonetheless, we would be endlessly grinning at one another as we effortlessly move from one topic to another in easy conversation.
Elizabeth is such a good conversationalist, almost in the know of everything I touch. She is an IT instructor in one reputable tertiary institution in Westlands on a pitiable salary for her qualifications. This is Kenya. You go to university, take on a lordly christened degree course and graduate as a professional only to fall in the warm embrace of joblessness. Life then throws just anything but what you are fit for your way, and your employer has a cart blanche to exploit your resource. You can walk away anytime you feel like before they force you to for nagging for better pay. I hear the teachers have been doing it for ages and the doctors and nurses are no exception. The police have tried go-slows with no tangible results. Again, I muse. This is Kenya.
But Elizabeth is a patient girl. She has a beautiful daughter to take care of. She does not want her lain on the streets to complement our identity. The father is not so much in the picture. Maybe this is why she is so informed of the little businesses that the likes of me – the unmarried with a child here and there without the lock – entertain in small talk. She is home with current affairs and has a lot of knowledge on our tempestuous politics and fledgling democracy, and the arts that are my life. She is what I would call my real rib found long after so many mismatches in misconducted implants.
Elizabeth called me this afternoon just a few minutes past noon to join her for lunch in Westlands. It was rather unusual because many are the times I have wanted us to go out for such and more – I am a clubber to death – without much success. I meet her outside the Westlands Cooperative Bank branch on this glorious Saturday under the white-and-grey spotted Nairobi blue sky. She leads me to a café whose name I now forget, and seats me to a meal of chicken drumsticks and ugali and an assortment of traditional vegetables in the company of Daudi, her colleague. He is a nice chap, easy to pick a conversation with. Just about my size but the darker of me and slightly younger. Elizabeth’s age I would say. After the meal she suggests we go back to Kangemi just to cool off, but I insist we go to town.
We catch a Star bus at Westlands and end up at Brighton Hotel on Tom Mboya Street. It is my favorite spot in town; my home actually. I eat and drink on a bill here. The girls greet me in mutual knowledge as I lead Elizabeth to a seat. Kagendo is in the mood for small talk, but I wave her aside. She should be wise enough to know today, unlike all the times I have been here, I am in company. But that is Kagendo for you. Always up to something eye-brow raising. Kagendo has on occasions been so good company especially on chilly Nairobi July nights.
Elizabeth is hard to talk to. I take a Guinness and she insists on plain water – Dasani. The intimate distance between us is enormous. Anyone can read it. The more I convince her to officially take me on, the more she drums it down my head that our road has reached that so inevitable dead end. She even attempts to lecture me on what a mismatch we are – the physical as well as professional attributes, her once attempted and failed cohabitation and my never having tried. Elizabeth wants to get out the soonest. She is through with me even before we begin. I order another Guinness and take it in two swings. I am like that child lain on the street I bothered little about.
The gentleman I am leads her out in spite of myself to the amusement of Kagendo. She has been keeping an eye on us as she served us and savoring every bit of my frustrations. She winks at me even as I try to avoid contact. I have nowhere to hide my face.
Daddy Owen’s sensational top of the charts Mbona is playing as we near Waruku. I join in instinctively and rather too loudly, a number of pairs of eyes turn my way. I realize my folly and shut up, recoiling. If only they knew what I am going through! This song appropriates to my circumstances. Why has Elizabeth so ruined my Saturday; so heartlessly cut short my hopes of a tomorrow with her? My son Eric and her daughter Leticia would have made such brilliant siblings. Maybe an additional brother or sister would have completed their fold. What a family of five we would have made! Eric is ten, Leticia six. Maybe, just maybe, one day they will meet and play our future forestalled.
I hum along Daddy Owen’s Mbona with such feeling that my eyes glaze. I alight at the Kangemi bridge terminus and dash to my house. Elizabeth must have touched base already. I kill the urge to go knock on her door. We live on the same plot. It is unmanly to go pleading with her. I have done so before on the numerous occasions of our misunderstandings, but in the shrouds of the dark night. It is four in the day. I get to my house and play Chidinma’s kedike. It is what Elizabeth makes my heart do.
There must be a few bytes on my Safaricom modem. I must do Elizabeth an email. In my pubescent days I would have written Elizabeth a letter in my best handwriting and sent Freddie, the young man on the plot who gave me her number when I expressed interest, to deliver it now. But I am teenager no more. The villagers of my father’s generation say I am late on marriage. Freddie won’t have a clue I am dumped. I will have to lay claim to the act when he no longer sees me with Elizabeth. I try a nap, but my eyelids won’t just close. I try getting my laptop on to do the mail, but my mind just won’t concentrate. I give up.
The boy I by-passed lying helpless on the street takes shape before me. Why can’t he just leave me alone? Only a detour to Brighton will make light of my head. Glory to the man who invented alcohol. Two days later, with Elizabeth long gone, I inject some energy into my supped mind and muscles and give words to my thoughts on my machine.
“Elizabeth, dear,” I begin.
“It’s only a few days – two to be precise – since you decided not to have me in your life; not to dream, but ahead forge. Not much has passed under the bridge, as they say, yet so monumental an impact has been registered, at least in my constitution. It feels like an aeon already. I feel so empty, like a motherless child, helpless like the sick infants lain on our city streets.
Yet I know on that fateful Saturday, the 17th of June, which might perhaps be forever etched on my mind, we did not set out to break, as it were; we were, if anything, supposed to take on officially. My taking you to town would have crowned the ceremony. The poor reader of the signs that I have been led you to town still. How I wish I could have listened to you, headed to Kangemi. Definitely I would not be caged here, in this confining cell, in this forlorn mood!
Perhaps more unfortunate, for lack of a better word, is the realization that I have been already placed on the black list on your phone. Samsung easily does it, remember, Elizabeth. Kye, kye kye! Poor me! I have been, so to speak, put in my rightful place. You do not go back on your word, do you, Elizabeth?
Well, if my memory serves me right, on Saturday, the day you were to give me a piece of your mind, and not to ‘break with me’, you made it clear that your sister will never get along with me, and you wished we’d work out something to reverse the situation. Well, I took you on face value, little knowing that that was a make or break condition. Now am here crying over spilt milk, by-manner-of-speaking, yet, am still hopeful that all is not lost. Nonetheless, I want to recall your words, “Scot, I find men unattractive; am more attracted to women!” Queer you must be growing, I warned you. With due respect, Liz, I pray you soon grow out of the queerness, return to straightness. (I still shudder at the thought of you snuggling passionately in the arms of another woman!) Why must your sister loathe me so? She is a married woman, isn’t she? I put up in your house, yes, but did I engage you to disturb her sleep? Patrick is ever there, right? “Maybe it’s time I got firm!” Your words, Liz! FIRM on what? You recoiled. Turned the FIRMNESS on poor me, Liz. Why deny Scot; why deny what you feel deep inside just because your kid sister wants you to head a different direction? Elizabeth, you amaze me!
I go on and on, then hindsight tells me I am making a fool of myself. Why am I being myopic! Ha! This cannot be me. I turn to my stereo, and listen in to a tune I imagine is my favorite, naming Elizabeth without mentioning her name. Until now she was my everything.
Words cannot express how much you mean to me.
There must sure be another way to make you see.
If it takes my heart and soul, you know I’ll pay the price;
Everything I own, however little, I’ll gladly sacrifice.
To have you with me. For you to me are EVERYTHING!
You gave me just a taste of love to build my hope upon.
You know you got the power to keep me holding on.
Now you got the best of me…
I sit bended, hold my head in my hands. Am I ranting? I knock at Elizabeth’s door, and her kid sister, Faith, opens. She gives me a no better look than what-the-hell-do-you-want-here? Elizabeth croons with that knowing smile, “Come in Scot.” I shake hands with the two even as Elizabeth slides out to buy groceries. It is six in the evening of one enchanting May Saturday. Her husband, Patrick, a newly graduated recruit in the forces residing in some barracks in Mombasa, is expected this evening, so her telephone conversation informs me.
She has never liked me. She feels I am a distraction to her sister. Elizabeth has been in a relationship with a man called Frank living in the adjacent plot. He drives a fancy pimped up Subaru Legacy and works with a micro-finance firm in town. He occasionally gives Faith lifts – Elizabeth’s dissuasion notwithstanding – on her way to Chiromo campus of the University of Nairobi when in straits. Though Elizabeth and Rick – as he his endearingly referred to by Faith – have been having problems, I am a worse problem to Elizabeth; Faith lets it known to me in her sister’s absence. Elizabeth just quit her unworkable cohabitation with the father to Leticia and Faith cannot bear see her go through another heartache. I am heartache incarnate. I am not convinced, but she seems the wiser of us. I let her know that the decision is entirely Elizabeth’s. I have had occasion to see Frank. A medium built balding middle-aged man who must have a wife if looks are a parameter. He is little lighter than charcoal and walks like he has a bad leg on the left. I doubt he is committed. Elizabeth told me she caught him in bed with another woman. He has an illegitimate child, if that is applicable in Africa, with a woman who resides in Naivasha. She has him in court for child neglect. Well, he is Faith’s choice for Elizabeth. I have a plea to make.
On my phone there is this forward I received via WhatsApp from Elizabeth one night. Guess when things were rosy and the world seemed an oyster. I had earlier received the same from a former student of mine who still keeps links with me, and thinks I remain at the top of the range of instructors he has had occasion to sit before. Elizabeth must have thought she was telling me something new, ingenuously crafted. I had expressed my gratitude for the wisdom and marveled at her ingenuity. I hem it in.
I proof read just in case I have committed an error of grammar – I need to stand myself in good stead in her estimation, you know – insert her email address in the To: space, mine in the BCC: and punch the SEND button with such force the touchpad screams, and begin the uncertain wait for Elizabeth’s response.
My phone is wailing. I grab it. It slips from my grasp. I stare at the pieces scattered on the floor. Freddie is rasping at my door. The boy’s image floats before me. I so feel like him. Guess we all are him.
Image: Pixabay.com remixed