Onyi was my best friend. He was a year behind me in school. His father, a stout man with pudgy hands and a neat moustache whose bellowing laugh was rarely out of earshot, was a primary school teacher. Ayucha, where he taught, was on the other side of town. Onyi’s mother sold sneakers on market days. His three older sisters also went to school at Awasi Primary. They stayed in the unit at the other end of our row-house, our landi.
Onyi and I were the most dogged tormenters of Jaduong’ Odu, the gruff old man who lived next to the church. He lived alone, his wife and children having abandoned him long before we were born. His homestead was one large orchard. Guavas, mangoes, passion fruit and chwa, tamarind, weighed down his trees. And rotted on the ground under them. But he was stingy. Hobbling around with a crooked staff, he chased away anyone who so much as touched the trees.
After a many close calls, Onyi and I perfected a tactic for getting around him. Onyi would go to the farthest tree from the one we wanted and draw away Jaduong’ Odu by making a show of plucking fruit. Then I, being the faster climber, would dash up the target tree quick as lightning, pluck as much fruit as my pockets could hold, and run away using another route.
We would then meet up at one of our many “halfway houses.” These were little dens we built with broken bricks and twigs in many bushes around town. Our plan never failed. Not once did the old man suspect what was going on. We got more convinced that he was just stingy, and thus placated our consciences, by the fact that he never noticed the missing fruits.
It was with Onyi that I tore apart the barbed wire fence of the church. We extracted the twisted barbs and used the wire to make toy cars, tying them together using strips of rubber tyre liners we got from Amolo the bicycle mechanic, with wheels cut out of old slippers. We would crouch behind the priest’s house and use rocks to rip out stretches of wire between the wooden fence posts.
The priest was an old white man from England who spoke Dholuo so well, one would think he was a Luo if he heard him speak without seeing him. He had been in Awasi so long, he had baptised half of the adults when they were still infants. He was always red because of the sun. His name was Fr Peter.
Sometimes he would come out to check the source of the noise we made with our rocks. Then we would hide and keep silent. We were both altar boys, and couldn’t risk being seen. He would go back into the house after a while and we would resume hammering away. Other times however, it was a nun that came out. Then we would run.
Onyi and I were always up to some mischief around town. We stoned girls balancing pots of water on their heads. Tripped old men delivering milk on bicycles by tying a rope across the road and lifting it just in time. Pulled sugarcane from tractors. Scared younger children playing in the twilight with hideous masks inspired by black-and-white horror movies. Then on Sunday we clasped our hands together and helped Fr Peter say Mass, the very picture of innocence.
One day Onyi told me he had overheard his father telling his mother that he was being transferred. He had been made deputy headmaster at a school in Migori, a town far to the south.
“Will you go with him?” I asked Onyi.
We were in one of our halfway houses. Through the low door, past a meadow dotted with trees, beyond church fence, we had a clear view of the back of Fr Peter’s house. The sun filtered through gaps in the walls and played on Onyi’s round face. He was munching on a ripe red guava we had just pilfered from Jaduong’ Odu.
“And leave you here? No,” Onyi answered earnestly. He stopped chewing and leaned his cheek against his free hand, as if he was in deep thought.
Then he said, “You know what? If I have to go, I will ask my father to bring you along.”
“And what about my father?”
And we swore to the deal by tying knots on two fat strands of modhno grass outside the house and swallowing a little black stone each.
A month later, on a Wednesday, Onyi and his sisters and his mother and his father left anyway. None of them came to school that day. I got back in the evening to peep into an empty house and call out his name to hollow echoes through a window that had been left open, expecting his cheeky round face to emerge from one of the gathering shadows. The tracks of a lorry scarred the ground in front of the house.
I was in class four.
At first, I counted the weeks since their departure. Then I lost count. I slowly got used to the empty house. I destroyed some of our halfway houses. Others got overrun by shrubs because I took forever to visit. I lost interest in making friends and wound up alone most of the time. I stopped serving Mass with Fr Peter, started sitting at the back of the church with my father. I started flipping through his books, got used to reading them on the veranda for hours after school.
Then we woke up to new neighbours. I was still asleep on a Friday morning when a lorry lumbered into the plot. I turned in my bed, smacked my lips, angry that I had been woken up. Then reality hit and I dashed into the living room to catch a glimpse of the new neighbours through the window.
There was no one in sight. They must have alighted and gone into the house to look around. The lorry just sat there, its engine idling, the white smoke coming out of the exhaust pipe fluorescing in the weak morning sun.
A green tarpaulin cover was draped over the ribbed roof of the cargo hold. Part of the rear had been lifted. Through the opening, I caught glimpses of random household items. Sofas and stacked coloured basins and buckets and the broken up components of beds. And a small box with a hole through which the brilliant red comb of a cock peeped.
I heard some movement behind me and turned to find my father leaning in to part the curtains wider so he could also look out. He hadn’t finished putting on his belt, and he held his trouser on with his other hand.
“New neighbours, huh?” he said quietly, more to himself than to me.
He let the curtain fall back in place.
“Come on. It’s time to get ready for school.”
I walked home alone that afternoon. I had adjusted to this new routine since Onyi left. I crossed the highway and took the narrow path that went around the church. On one side was the church fence and, on the other, Jaduong’ Odu’s thick hedge. He had gained a lengthy peace since the departure of my partner in crime. Eyes on the ground and a dry twig in hand, I shuffled my feet and kicked random pebbles off the path.
Then I suddenly sensed movement ahead and looked up, dropping the twig. There was a little girl on the ground, propped against a large tree at the last corner in the path. She was struggling to free her hands from two boys who were kneeling on both sides of her. One of them pinned her knees to the ground with one hand.
The boys looked so alike, even from the side, it was almost impossible to tell them apart. But I recognised them from school. They were Oti’s twin brothers, Greg and Geoff. And I had made it a point to steer clear of them ever since I knocked Oti off his perch atop the bad boy ranks. Greg and Geoff were very big and very dark and very rough. They were both in class six, but looked like they belonged in high school.
Oti was known to use their more chilling reputation to terrify his adversaries when the advantage was slipping from him in a fight. Stories had been told about the two scoundrels, scary stories, like that of the boy who refused to share his answers in an exam and had his fingers stuck into a posho mill later for his trouble.
They were the last people I wanted to meet anywhere. In school I could count on the protection of the teachers, and on the fact that they rarely came there anyway. Yet here I was. On a sliver of a path, with them at one end. Without Onyi to help me cook up a mischievous escape plan. My bladder threatened to give way.
I had to hide, quick. The only problem was that there was no place to hide. The church fence had been redone recently and overlaid with a narrow gauge chicken wire mesh. The only opening in it was the new small gate beyond the boys, who, mercifully, were so intent on harassing the girl that they hadn’t looked up yet.
The old man was easy to run from with the help of an accomplice, but I wasn’t ready to try him alone. My only way out seemed to be to back up along the path. Then I would walk alongside the highway down to the market, from where I could take more crowded paths home. I held my breath and started stepping gingerly backwards, poised to turn and run for dear life as soon as I had some distance.
I was taking my fourth step back when I stepped on the dry twig I had dropped. In fear, I had not turned around, preferring to have my eyes on the boys. The twig broke with a loud crack. I froze. For a second, nothing seemed to happen. The possibility that they hadn’t noticed the sound danced to a hollow tune in my head.
Then Greg looked up. I knew it was him because he was the one with the dark mark on his cheek, the healed scar of a wound he had collected in one of their many fights. A sneer plastered itself on his dirty face.
“Geoff,” he called to his brother. “This is our lucky day. Look who’s handed himself over.”
Geoff rose slowly, an identical sneer spreading itself on his face. They left the girl and ominously made for me, taking both sides of the path, like crows bearing down on prey. I couldn’t move. Something had riveted my feet to the ground and immobilised my muscles.
Geoff got to me first. I knew it was futile, but I still tried to resist as he grabbed my arm and roughly pulled me forward. That’s when Greg savagely kicked the back of my knee and I crumbled. Then Geoff violently dragged me along the ground before I could get up. My heels left two jagged lines in the dirt.
They took me to the tree against which the girl was still slumped, and pushed me to the ground next to her. She instinctively held out her hand to break my fall, but I was too heavy and she was too weak to soften my fall in any meaningful way. I hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. The zip of my bag gave and the books came spilling out.
I turned and looked at the girl for a quick second. Her eyes lit up momentarily when they met mine, and I thought there was something familiar about her. Or was it just the look of hope? Her face was contorted in pain and red in spots. Blood came out of her nose. It stained her rose pink dress, which was crumbled and tattered in many places.
She was crying, the tears rolling freely down her cheeks. Her hands were bruised and one of her socks lay on the ground beside her bare foot. I couldn’t see the shoe. She looked about a year or so younger than me.
“Geoff,” Greg called. The two of them were now standing, leering over us, arms crossed on their broad chests. “Whom should we finish with first?”
“I think the girl should go first,” Geoff replied, not taking his eyes off the girl’s wrist, on which a small, new-looking, white watch was strapped. I pondered the prospect of facing the two barbarians by myself.
Geoff bent and loosened the watch. It was a fancy little gadget. Probably not worth too much. And the girl let him unstrap it without resistance. But watching him brought back my muted feelings. I felt a surge of bile rising inside me. There was something revolting about the way he looked at the watch, about the light that danced in his eyes.
“Give that back,” I heard myself say.
The calmness of my voice surprised me. I was on my feet, looking up at Geoff, who seemed as tall as a tree.
The twins sniggered and I immediately felt stupid. Not only were they much bigger than me, but they also had a pretty good reason already to beat me up. What chance did I have against them? But now that I had started, I felt it impossible to stand down. The little man in me had an ego to protect. I launched myself at Geoff, knowing full well there would be no victory.
I still caught him by surprise and we fell onto the dust. The watch flew out of his hand. I raised my fist to hit his face, but Greg caught my hand mid-air and twisted it. His hand felt like hard steel. A sharp pain stung my shoulder. He threw me aside like a piece of paper. The girl screamed. I realised it was the first time she had uttered a sound. I landed near the watch and grabbed it firmly with the fist of my unhurt hand.
Then the boys descended on me in a frenzy of violence. Pain exploded all over my body like a thousand pinpricks. My face felt like it had been inserted into an overworking oven. Their punches sounded like the beats of a wet drum.
I saw blood flying across my eyes, felt it warm on my forehead and nose. Somewhere in the distance, the girl went on screaming, her voice steadily rising in pitch. The boys said things and panted as they pummelled me. Things that sounded really mean. But I couldn’t tell because I was dazed by the pain.
At some point they propped me up against the tree and the rain of punches was joined by a torrent of kicks. I remember thinking the torture wouldn’t end, wondering if this was how I would die. My grip on the watch grew tighter till my palm became numb.
Then, as if someone had flipped a switch, they stopped and scampered off, jumping over the church fence. I slumped weakly onto the ground against the tree. Through misty eyes, I saw the vague outline of a man running towards us and the girl running up to him, her hands in the air.
Then everything went black.
This is the third chapter of a new novel I’m writing. Read the other chapters here.
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