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Prologue: The ghosts return
Chapter 1: The beginning of the past
Chapter 2: The home
Chapter 3: A crying girl
Chapter 4: A new best friend
Chapter 5: The father of the man
Chapter 6: Tall clear bottles
Prologue: The ghosts return
My past came back to life on a cold Sunday morning in Nairobi, right in the middle of July. I was standing at the top of the stairs in front of St Paul’s Chapel, chatting with a friend I hadn’t seen in a very long time. The first Mass had ended a few minutes earlier. Most of the congregation had already dispersed.
A few people milled around the tent off to the right, where a student manned a stand selling prayer books, rosaries, crucifixes and other devotional objects. It had rained overnight. Shallow puddles dotted the paved yard and dimly reflected the overcast sky. The grey clouds overhead threatened to dump their wet contents once more. On the other side of the fence, the wheels of cars squelched as they passed by along Uhuru Highway.
My friend and I had a lot to catch up on. But now he was telling me about his upcoming wedding. He had come to Mass with his fiancé because he wanted to introduce her to me. She was still praying inside, and it was for her that we were waiting at the landing. I could see the joy in his eyes as he told me how they had met and why he felt she was the right one.
Then his phone rang. He excused himself, checked the screen, and promptly answered it. I saw his face fall a few seconds into the call. At the same time, my own phone vibrated with a new message. As I wrested the device from the pocket of my tight jeans, my friend dashed into the church without another word. I unlocked my phone and brought it up to my face.
I was interrupted by the sound of a woman’s clacking footsteps inside the church. By their sound, I could tell she was running towards the door. She emerged in a second, going full tilt. I should have stepped aside, had I noticed a moment earlier that she was headed straight for me.
But I didn’t, and she ploughed into me without slowing down. It was as if even she hadn’t seen me. To regain balance, I instinctively threw my hands out. My phone, screen aglow with the unread message, flew towards a potted bush off to the right.
My reaction wasn’t fast enough, and the woman knocked me clean off my feet. We flew over the four steps and landed on the concrete pavement. The back of my head hit the ground and I was dazed for an instant. A sharp pain stung my right elbow as it grazed the concrete. I thought I felt a loose organ shift somewhere deep inside my body.
The woman landed on top of me. The impact made her exhale onto my face, fogging my glasses over. For a moment, she hesitated, confused. Through my clearing glasses, her face emerged, framed by a halo of dancing stars and a curtain of dishevelled hair. Then she rose unsteadily, apologising in a tremulous and distracted voice.
“Are you alright?” my friend called out. The softness in his voice told me he wasn’t speaking to me.
But it didn’t matter, because something much more devastating had happened. I had seen the eyes of the woman as she rose, and they had made my bowels lurch as if in the throes of a powerful earthquake. They had made my memories gush forth like champagne from an uncorked bottle. The heavy smell of burnt sugarcane. School. Fruit trees. A past that had come to a screeching halt.
In the distance, I heard someone grunt and felt a tug on my arm and shoulder. Then I was on my feet. I teetered and staggered as I adjusted to standing by myself again. The bones inside my legs had turned into jelly, and everything was spinning and wobbly. I looked up and saw the woman. She was now sitting on the steps. Sobs rocked her little frame. My friend had his arm around her shoulders.
I stared blankly at the pitiful couple, as worried people stood around, asked what had happened, offered to help. Someone pressed my phone into my hand. I squeezed it, grateful that I finally had something to hold onto, a pillar to buttress me against the weight that had just been dropped onto my battered frame.
In that instant, I knew that my past had finally caught up with me. I had spent my entire life running away from it, constantly glancing over my shoulders to see if my unatoned sins had burst around the corner. Now they had. In a way, I had always known this day would come. It’s just that there had never been a way to prepare for it.
Chapter 1: The beginning of the past
I never really got to know my mother. She died when I was four, in 1992, long before our relationship could move beyond mere dependency. I don’t remember much about her. But I remember the weirdness of growing up without a mother in a world where everyone had one. Having a mother means more to a child than most people think.
You just need to watch how kids readily abandon play to run up to their mothers when they spy them returning from the market, weighed down with treasure-laden baskets. Boys will brag about their fathers, but they definitely threaten one another in the name of their mothers. Even insults referring to one’s mother have a special sting. I never had any of that.
I remember my mother’s face through grainy black and white photos we had in the thick leather-bound family album we had in the living room. I have learnt much of what I know about her from other people. Over the years, by patching up these disparate stories with my own hazy recollections of the time, I have been able to reasonably reconstruct how she died.
She was expecting twins. When she went into labour, just three days after my fourth birthday, and more than a month before she was due, my father drove her to Russia, the biggest hospital in Kisumu. It had another name, but everyone called it Russia because the Soviets had built it to humour Jaramogi Odinga, who would die two years later.
I was in the living room with mum when it all started. I had just returned from the nursery school run by nuns. Reliably, I had lost both my little bag and new book in the playground yet again. She was telling me to deposit my lunchbox in the kitchen when she stopped abruptly, shrieked, reached for her lower abdomen, and fell in a heap. She squirmed on the floor like a giant worm, producing low guttural sounds.
A neighbour sent for my father at work. He came in no time, brakes screeching as he stopped outside the house. As he carried her to the car, an old white Volkswagen Beetle, I held onto the hem of her oversized dress and refused to let go, and he dragged me in behind her. He was too panicked to bother. I am still impressed that he was able to drive at all.
In Kisumu, they transferred my mother onto a trolley and wheeled her into the hospital’s soulless bowels. We followed them to a set of double doors, where a doctor stopped us. I started screaming and ran after them, but my father lifted me off the floor. I kicked, clawed and yelled to be let go. That’s when my mother lifted her head and locked eyes with me.
It lasted just an instant. But it could have been forever. Everything slowed down, like a scene from an epic film. I stopped struggling to break away. That moment, more than any other, is seared in my memory, as though branded by fire. To this day, it remains my most vivid recollection of my mother.
Her dress was bloody from the waist down. She was biting hard on her lower lip and panting ferociously. Beads of sweat sparkled on her forehead under the fluorescent lights. Her hands gripped the wrists of the two nurses on either side of the trolley like vices. But all that paled to the periphery as we looked at one other.
I saw many things in her eyes. Pity and love and care and sorrow and reassurance played on her pupils. But most vividly, I saw fear. Raw, formless, terrible, paralysing fear. I saw it because it sat arrogantly behind all the other emotions. I saw it because it was inside me too, gnawing at the very roots of my being. Then the doors swung closed, and shut her off. Forever.
My father sat with me on a hard wooden bench next to a wall. He didn’t move or say a word for hours. His white shirt had mother’s blood on it. The sleeves were rolled up his arms. His tie hang haggardly from his neck. For most of the time, his chin rested on his knuckles. I held onto his thigh and leaned against his side.
Later that night, around half past ten, a doctor walked out of the double-doors and headed for us. My head, which was in the middle of a sleepy nod, perked up. My father sat up slowly, wrapped his hand around me. The doctor came over, sat down on the other side, touched my father’s shoulder and mumbled something. I heard only the last word. “Sorry.”
My father didn’t say a word in return. He only nodded weakly. The doctor patted me on the head and shambled off. I looked up at my father’s face, saw his jaws clench and unclench, his eyes glaze over. He didn’t look at me. I could tell he was making a mighty effort to stay calm, but I couldn’t tell what it meant. But I remember that the terror I had felt when my mother locked eyes with me returned and washed over me in a dread wave.
It turns out she had died a few minutes before. But the little twins were still alive and were in intensive care. Presently, a nurse walked out the double-doors and beckoned to us. We stood and followed her, hand in hand. She led us down some corridors to a door with a cut-out glass portal. She pointed to it and moved aside.
A regular beeping sound came from inside the room on the other side. But the portal was too high for me to see through. So my father lifted me to his shoulder. I saw the machines and tubes and bright lights. I saw a machine with a jagged green line across the middle that moved with the beeps. And I saw the twins.
They were an incomprehensible jumble of little limbs sticking out from one body. They were conjoined at the head. And as we looked, the beeping sound abruptly became erratic and then turned into a long beep. The jagged green line on the screen flattened. I didn’t know what it meant then, but we had gotten there just in time to see them die, as if in a hurry to join mother, their small interlinked brains blissfully ignorant of the pain they were leaving behind.
Miraculously, my father’s face remained straight. He walked quietly out of the hospital, with me in tow. It was at the parking lot that his pent up agony burst forth like water from a breeched dam. He went berserk, ripped up a young tree and used it to whip a nearby dustbin, crushing both supple wood and plastic to smithereens, all the time screaming his lungs out, yelling crudely at the quiet night sky. I looked on, stunned by a strange mixture of horror and pity. Eventually, some doctors and nurses restrained him and dragged him back inside.
I remember some details of the funeral one week later in the village. I remember the women wailing louder than whistles as the hearse that bore the coffins snaked from the marketplace to our home, sandwiched between loudly hooting vehicles, bicycles with ringing bells and countless people on foot waving twigs torn off roadside trees.
The cloud of dust blanketing the entourage was raised by the best bulls in the village, horns garlanded with fresh green leaves. They leaped frenziedly to the whistles and shouts of young bare-chested men, bells ringing shrilly into the noisy air, frequently bumping into the side of the old Beetle, in which my young uncle drove my father and I.
At home, my father spent most of his time sitting quietly in the reed chair beside the front door. He broke into tears several times, and his tears splattered on the floor. Seeing him in that state tore at my heart. I felt a strong urge to console him. I just didn’t know how to do it. So I shambled around the house aimlessly.
At the wake, the two caskets were placed on tables under a temporary awning in front of the house. Lights of all colours danced on the faces of people as they passed by to view the bodies. Mother was in her wedding dress. The twins shared a widened casket lined with purple velvet. Their grotesque wrinkled little faces looked up innocently through the glass.
That night lasted an eternity. I couldn’t sleep. All the adults fussed over me, and shook their heads in my direction when they thought I could not see them. They said sad things about me and tsked solemnly. When it became too much, I hid behind doors, and crawled under beds.
The next day, the women wailed louder. Some traced looping courses around the homestead as they sang made-up songs praising the beauty and benevolence of my mother. Every now and then, a woman just coming in would start a loud wail at the gate, setting off a fresh cacophony among those who were already there.
Some of them would even run out of the smoky makeshift outdoor kitchen to receive the newcomers in a howling entourage. The older men, on the other hand, broke into more sedate poetic praises of my mother when they arrived. The bulls, in their turn, stomped higher, churning the backyard into a broad patch of slick black mud where before there had been grass.
During the funeral mass, the caskets were placed in front of the temporary altar under a big tent. We sat barely a metre behind them. My father went through the motions of the ceremony like a zombie. For me too, everything passed stiffly. It felt more humid than any other day before or since. It had rained in the night, and the ground was just setting.
They buried the twins first, just after midday. Mother’s casket was lowered into the black earth one hour later. We stood with relatives and other villagers around the open grave as the priest said the response. My father broke down again as the casket descended. He tried walking away when the first clods of soil rained back into the grave, pounding the casket like a drum.
But his cousins, who were standing around us, held his hands and shoulders. They told him he had to be strong. So he watched until the last corner disappeared and concealed the last evidence of my mother’s life. That’s when I also started crying.
I later found my father sitting on a yellow jerrican under a window at the back of the house, staring at the lonely euphorbia tree where the fence turned. His tears had dried up, and his eyes had a dreamy faraway look. I wrapped my hands around his thigh, and leaned my cheek against it. It was felt like a big warm pipe.
He reached out and rubbed the back of my head. I looked up into his eyes and said, “I’m sorry dad.” To this day, those are the only words I remember saying that day.
He hoisted me onto his lap. I sat still, afraid that any movement would make him cry again. He sniffed, and then straightened his face. He looked into my eyes. His pupils seemed blacker, and I am sure I saw them tremble.
“It seems we are the only ones left, eh?” he said after a while, rubbing my back.
I nodded mutely.
“Come,” he said, setting me on the ground and rising. He took my hand and led me back to the right side of the house, where some young men were sticking flowers into the mound of soil that now covered mother. We watched them work in silence. At one point, my father squeezed my tiny hand. I squeezed back as hard as I could, and he looked down and smiled.
With that squeeze, we both knew our lives would never be the same again. In one stroke, we had lost our entire family. I guess that’s what my father meant when he said we were the only ones left. A feeling of sad loneliness that had descended on me as the day wore on reached a painful crescendo. It was an intense sensation, as if my heart was being torn out of my chest by a cold metal hand.
The realisation that I would never see my mother again, that I couldn’t crawl into her bed and snuggle close to her belly to feel one of the babies kick anymore, that I would never run to her in tears after jamming my finger on the door, stung at my heart like a thousand safari ants. My father picked me up and held me to his chest. The stubble on his cheek scratched my face.
Three days later, the homestead was empty again. Fresh shoots of grass peeped through the churned soil of the backyard. Most people had left. Only my mother’s sisters remained. They were leaving that day, after putting everything back in order. “Be strong,” they told my dad as they hugged me goodbye. My father nodded and thanked them.
Then it was just the two of us, standing hand-in-hand at the door, watching their multi-coloured kitenge dresses disappear down the road. Then reality hit like a sledgehammer again and I felt like crying. But something told me, even back then, that I had to be strong. Not so much for myself as for my father. So I dug my face into his trouser leg until I couldn’t breathe.
My mother’s death left us under a shadow for the rest of our lives. In the years that followed, every time I saw dad sad or wistful, memories of that day would automatically spring to my mind and awaken the fear that haunted me as I shambled through the house, looking for a new place to hide. The fear, which matured over time, that my father was irreparably shattered, that he hid his broken heart behind a thin veneer, that he would never really recover.
My own sorrow, unable to show properly in its time, would come over me in painful bursts of agony through the years. But something kept me sane. And it’s as well it did. Because otherwise I would have lost all that remained for me to hold onto, the faith that all was for the best, that we had been left behind for a reason.
I knew it wasn’t much. But I think it was just enough to tide me over into the rest of my life.
Chapter 2: The home
One week after my aunts left, we packed up and returned to Awasi, where we lived. We left the house in the village in the care of its usual occupant, the young uncle who drove us on the day we brought the bodies. He was then in form three. The grass in the backyard had started growing again. But the graves were still fresh wounds in the earth.
We spent much of the drive in silence. I looked out the windows at the trees and electricity poles racing tirelessly backwards, at herdsmen watching their cows drink from roadside pools. We got to Awasi in the sombre grey of dusk. The emptiness of the house, and of our lives, felt even more definite, as if to remind us that even the steady march of time would never fill it.
Our home in Awasi was a four-roomed unit at the end of a three-unit red brick row house, a landi. A wide plastered veranda ran the entire length of the front of the building. When it rained, we kids would slide on our bellies on it. All we needed was a little soap to make it slipperier. Of course there were scratches and bumps and sicknesses and beatings, but only age can overcome the thrill of sliding stark naked in the rain, screaming at the top of your lungs.
A lawn of tough grass extended from the veranda. It turned a dull brown in the dry season, exposing patches of cracked black earth. A barbed wire fence went around the plot. It was quite close behind the house. From the kitchen window with the fancy grill-work, one could reach out and touch the wire.
The narrow space between the fence and the rear walls was a thriving play area. I remember playing kalongolongo there. We would make miniature houses, mould little clay children, and cut fake chapat out of succulent leaves using Coke bottle tops.
A full day could be rendered within thirty minutes, complete with the throaty morning cockcrow and the Kikuyu malimali seller calling hoarsely at seven in the evening while a red bottle-top sun descended into a hole in the ground.
Awasi was a sleepy hamlet on the highway connecting Kisumu to Nairobi. Although it had some natives, most of the people there were tenant workmen, like my father, who lived in its row houses with their families during their work terms and took off to their villages during the holidays. They were jokapango, settlers.
Sugarcane fields, with neat rows of plants in various stages of growth, stretched out on the plains around the town into the horizon. The thick sugary scent of burning harvests was seldom absent from the humid air. For us children, the farms had a dark charm about them, reinforced by adults to keep us from venturing too close.
There were rumours of abducted children being slaughtered for magic inside them by jokachinja, and of little girls being raped and left for dead. There was also the other story claiming the farms were guarded by ng’ielo, the biggest pythons, which would sometimes tire of waiting inside and pluck at unsuspecting passers-by for their evening meal.
But none of these stories diminished the sweetness of the sugarcane roots we pulled out after a field had been cleared, nor of the sticks we drew out of tractor trailers headed for the factory while dirty and rough obanda, sugarcane cutters, perched on the trailers like vultures on a carcass, brandished their sharp machetes and pelted us with obscene insults, which we could only repeat shyly outside adult earshot.
When I turned six, I moved from the nursery school to Awasi Primary. My father took me there in the Beetle throughout the first year, then he stopped. Every morning after that, I would put on my cyan shirt and navy-blue pair of shorts, which extended little lower than my underwear, and walk to school by myself, until I was joined by my best friend, Onyi.
My path went around the compound of the Catholic parish, across the highway, past the grassy field where policemen goose-stepped during national holidays, and along a straight rocky road whose end I never saw. The scariest part was crossing the highway, with its big speeding lorries, but I got used to it fast enough.
The school gate was an opening in the fence on the left side of the rocky road. The fence itself was a neat, carefully tended line of dark green sisal plants. They were so closely grown, a chicken could not pass through the gap between any two.
A wide hundred-metre-long gravel driveway started at the opening in the fence. It was flanked on both sides by rows of old jacaranda trees, on which a million purple flowers bloomed every year. Each morning at the start of the dry season, a velvety purple carpet ushered us into school. Walking on the flowers was one of the finer experiences of school life. Sweeping them off the gravel a few minutes later, a cane-equipped teacher handy by, was one of the worst.
The driveway went straight to the administration unit. It was the middle section of a long building that also contained most of the classrooms. A shorter building sat at the right, forming an inverted L with the main one. It had rooms for the first three classes. The two buildings were separated by a narrow dusty corridor where we hid to eat mandas at break time.
Both buildings were made of red bricks, like most other houses in the town. No other building material was as easily obtainable. I sometimes went to the place where the bricks were made, from soft earth dug out of pits beside the river three kilometres away from our house.
The men there worked bare-chest, digging the soil, wetting it and kneading it with their feet. Sweat erupted on their skins, glistened under the scorching afternoon sun, and dripped onto the wet soil. They would put the kneaded soil into moulds and leave them to cure for days. Away to the right, a balanced pile sat waiting to be fired.
They talked the whole time. I would sit against a tree and throw pebbles into the river as I watched them, fascinated that people could exert themselves so hard and still have energy to talk so much. Their humour was brutally caustic, yet very casual. They had a way of saying and doing the roughest things to one another without anyone taking offence.
Once, one of them came from a nature call in a bush holding dead snake by the tail. He tossed it into a water-filled depression in which one of his colleagues stood, wiping his brow and taking a short rest. Naturally, this second man leaped with a yell. His heels hit the rim of the shallow depression and he fell over backwards.
The others burst out laughing. They could see the snake bobbing in the water, very dead. The fellow got up, visibly embarrassed, and ran after the offender. He didn’t catch him because the others shielded him (and because he didn’t really want to catch him).
In the end, he also started laughing nervously and said he knew where he would catch the other guy. Then he threw the dead snake away and resumed working. Shortly after, a crooked stick was thrown into his wet depression. He didn’t jump.
Every now and then, a lorry came to collect the fired bricks. Then I would watch the men perform a veritable work of art. They would all line up, about three meters apart from one another, and convey the bricks into the lorry by tossing them down the line in one fluid motion. I never once saw any of them miss or drop a brick.
Our school buildings had metal-framed windows with glass panes. It was a major point of pride, since few other schools in the town had such facilities. Most had to make do with open gaps in the walls through which dust and rain and howling winds entered classes, turning learning into a messy affair of coughs and colds and irritated eyes.
To the right of the driveway, in the crook of the L formed by the buildings, there was an esplanade of whitewashed stones set into the ground in concentric semicircles, at the centre of which stood a tall white metal flagpole. It was another pride-worthy fixture, since it was always straight, unlike the crooked wooden poles in the other schools, which had to be replaced often because termites were forever at work.
The esplanade was our assembly ground. Every Monday and Friday morning, we took our places along the lines and gravely sang the national anthem as the flag was raised by scouts. Then the teachers would take over and give us several speeches.
Some were boring to death. Others were so witty they would leave our ribs burning, making the rule that we must stand straight at parade an ironic torture. Others spoke for so long that we would begin the first lesson late. Yet others used big English words, like cantankerous and nincompoop, evidently to clear any doubts we had about the long way we still had to go in our education.
And then there was good old motherly Mrs Oluoch, the senior teacher. She was huge. She lumbered around like a truck and spoke with a lisp. Her hands always swung outwards because they were too fat to point straight down. To whatever she said at parade, she always appended some hygiene advice. Wash your hands to kill germs. Shave your hair to keep out lice. Boil water before drinking it. Don’t sneeze like a goat.
Parade was never complete without some lashes for naughty or unlucky pupils. Several teachers would take turns at them with singing po sticks. Then the head-teacher would take over and warn the rest of us against the iniquities which had landed the unfortunate pupils in the spot. Finally, he dismissed the parade and we scampered off to our classrooms.
The school sat on three hectares of flat land. The football field stretched left of the driveway, starting just a little in from the gate. Ants always built a mound in front of one of the goalposts during the holidays. When we reopened school, the first pupils to commit infractions would dig it up and extract the queen, a big white fatty blob. It was hard, backbreaking work.
Once, when I was in class three, before the mound was cleared, I fought the toughest boy in my class on top of it. His name was Oti. Oti was rough-faced and rough-mannered. Even on his best days, he had a special facility for being quite unlikeable. His home was very close to the school. His father was an old man who walked with a crooked stick and had two wives. He was the last-born of the youngest wife, and it didn’t serve him well.
Unlike many of my classmates, however, I had never had a serious encounter with Oti. I was mostly a loner, so I stayed on the side-lines of classroom politics. That day, I was squatting just inside the football field, adjusting my socks after practising somersaults. Oti was chewing on a roasted cob of maize, walking with his cronies. I don’t know how they came to the topic, but as they passed, Oti turned and told them I was a motherless orphan.
It was, of course, true. But the way he said it kindled a fire at the back of my throat. I think envy also played a part. He had two mothers. I had none. And that was just plain unfair, if anything ever was. Getting away with ridiculing my situation was too much to add to that. So I stood and dared him to repeat he had just said. And he, evidently taking confidence in his reputation and trusty cloud of friends, said it again, adding that twisted-mouth thing kids use to show contempt.
I slapped his maize cob to the ground and rubbed my sole on it. My speed caught him by surprise. Oti was known to have once punched a tooth out of a boy’s mouth and didn’t expect anyone to attack him so carelessly. Furious, he charged. His friends stepped aside and watched with smug grins, sure their hero would pound me to a pulp.
We pushed and punched and kicked and scratched. Moving first certainly favoured me, but I am convinced my anger was the deciding factor. Never since have I mustered the kind of ferocity with which I brought Oti to the ground and tore at him that day. Years of bottled grief and pain came pouring out like a vengeful volcano, and found their consolation in his humiliation.
I don’t remember the details of the fight too vividly. It was a long time ago, and time is a sneaky thief of memories. It steals all the flesh and leaves you gnawing on the worst parts. All I remember is that the tussle ended atop the new anthill, with Oti on his back, his hands flailing like the legs of a trapped spider, and me jumping gleefully on his oversized belly.
The buttons of his shirt had come off somewhere along the trail of destruction and pain we had traced across the field. His freckled skin bore broad white lines drawn by my nails. His pointy belly button squished with my every jump. The gasps that escaped him every time I landed made a morbidly satisfying sound.
At some point, Oti stopped struggling. His hands lay limp on the sides of the anthill. That’s when I stopped jumping, looked down at his pitiful figure and looked up to see his terrified cronies standing around with a few other spectating pupils. Then I ran back to class, terrified by how cruel I could be. I had come in contact with something truly evil inside me.
I spent many waking hours after that wondering how close I had come to killing Oti. Would he have died if I had jumped one more time? And, if I had killed him, would I have been arrested and hanged? But the guilt ebbed with time. Moreover, from that day, the deference that had been Oti’s was reassigned to me. I became top dog of my class without ever wanting to.
At the southern end of the school, there was a grove of willows. Their leaves drooped to the ground, forming a green wall around the broad clearing in the middle. No grass could grow in that clearing. Not only because it was starved of sunlight, but because girls also stomped on it skipping ropes and ducking balls, and boys pockmarked it with holes for playing marbles.
Sometimes a stray ball from the girls would hit one of the boys and touch off a raucous break-time fight. The shrieking girls always won, of course, because winning a fight against girls wasn’t a thing any boy could be proud of. The next day, they would go back to sharing the play area, as if nothing had happened.
The term-closing ceremonies were held in the clearing. The deputy headmaster read out the names of the top pupils in each class, starting with the fifth, and their parents picked up their report forms from the front. I always loved it when he reached my class. By the time he got to the second pupil, smiles, and frowns of derision, were already being directed at my father and me. Because then everyone knew I had topped the class. Again.
There would be speeches too. Advice on how to use time during the holiday, reminders to help at home, warnings to come back with the money to pay for repairs to the staffroom roof or risk being sent back home on the first day. Once, Mrs Oluoch advised us not to put on an item of underwear a second time without first washing it. It was unhealthy, she said, and hardly becoming of future gentlemen.
Then Oti, poor brute, raised his hand to ask a question.
“Madame, what if you have only one?”
It was long before Mrs Oluoch squeezed in a reply between teary chortles.
“Then wash it every night!”
Chapter 3: A crying girl
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.
Chapter 4: A new best friend
When I was in standard one, some men came with barbed wire and fenced off the section of the parish grounds furthest from the highway. Onyi and I tried stealing some of the wire, but the men were too vigilant. Two weeks later, more men came and dug foundations for a long building. Over the next year, they built a dispensary and three houses for the nurses.
The men also dug a well at one end, and constructed an incinerator at the other. We used to sneak there to pilfer used syringes and needles before they were burnt up. We used them to inject slugs with water. The slugs would expand and burst with a soft pop. Since Onyi left though, I had been to the dispensary only once, to get immunised against a disease with a strange name.
I woke up in the dispensary that night. I was the only patient in a ward with four beds. The lights were on. A clear plastic bag halfway full of some liquid hung from a metal stand above my head. A long clear pipe connected it to my right wrist. A thick bandage curled around my left arm, which felt heavy as lead when I tried lifting it.
Two men sat on a low bench against the wall next to the door, chatting in low tones. One of them was my father. I had never seen the other man. His hairy legs stuck out of a baggy pair of shorts with many pockets. Next to him, a little girl sat nibbling at something. On her wrist, the screen of a small white watch glowed a pale green.
She looked up just as I turned to them and her eyes lit up. My father and the other man, whom I immediately assumed to be the girl’s father, must have noticed her sudden stillness. They both looked up, followed her gaze.
“Good Lord! You’re awake,” my father exclaimed.
He came over and hugged me, lifting my head slightly off the bed. He buried my face in his chest, and I heard his racing heartbeat. I didn’t know what to make of it. The last time I had seen him show raw emotion was during my mother’s funeral. When he let my head rest back on the raised pillow, there was a misty look in his eyes.
“How are you feeling?” he asked. His voice, like his hand, now stroking my forehead, trembled.
“I’m sore all over,” I croaked back. My entire lower jaw was in pain.
The other man also walked over, holding the girl’s hand. Standing next to the raised bed, only her head and neck were visible, framed by the rounded white collars of a clean dress. She kept her hand, and whatever she had been nibbling at, out of sight. A short strip of Elastoplast sat above her right eyebrow.
“How did I come here?”
There was a moment’s silence.
Then the girl’s father said, “I brought you.”
He spoke in a smooth baritone that sounded like it came from someone else behind him. He stroked the nascent afro perched on the girl’s head. She smiled shyly and looked down. At her hands. Or maybe at the thing she had been nibbling at.
“We are new here,” he continued, smiling tightly. “We arrived today. I am Esther’s father.” Here, his hand moved to the back of her head. “I have been telling your dad how brave you were to stand up to those boys for her.”
My father smiled awkwardly. I could see that he was flattered and didn’t know how exactly he should react. He shifted his weight on his legs and let his hand reach for the crown of his head.
He cleared his throat and said, “They are our new neighbours.”
My mind rushed back to the echoes bouncing off the walls of Onyi’s house as I called out his name the day they left. To the grass that had started to grow in front of their door. To the dust that settled on their window sills over the weeks. And the mosquitoes that sang inside the house as I read books on their veranda in the twilight. They had been gone a long time. I had started to forget his face.
“Now that you are fine,” Esther’s father said, taking a step back. “I think it’s time for us to leave you to rest. We will see you tomorrow.” He took his daughter’s hand. “Won’t we, Esther?”
She gave a light nod, looked at me one last time, and they turned for the door. My father went back to sitting on the bench. He put his cheeks in his hands, and looked down at his shoes. He was still sitting that way when I drifted back to sleep.
Sometime in the night, the pain in my jaw woke me up. Most of the lights were off. The clear bag above my head was empty. My father was sleeping on the next bed, curled up on top of the sheets. His face was turned the other way. The frayed heels of his socks looked at me like a pair of eyes in the dim light. There was a still silence all around, punctuated only by his regular breathing, which eventually lulled me back to sleep.
I spent three more nights in the dispensary. The first morning, after my father had gone home to freshen up and go to work, Esther came in with her father. The shorts were gone. He was now in a suit. Esther had a bowl of pancakes which she said her mother had made for my father and me. Her father didn’t stay long. He left us alone, telling Esther she could stay as long as she wanted. She left sometime before noon, and came back in the afternoon.
We didn’t talk much. She sat on the bench, hands on her lap, silent as a ghost, as I drifted in and out of sleep. Sometimes the nurses handed her biscuits, which she fiddled with before taking tiny bites. When she did talk, it was to ask a random question.
“Where does your father work?”
“Where is Chemelil?”
“That way.” A tired finger pointing at the wall behind her.
“Where did you get this mark?”
She pointed at a healed scrape on my ankle, which I got when descending from one of Jaduong’ Odu’s fruit trees.
“From a tree.”
On and on it went. She would slip in and out of the room between my naps. On the third day, she was wearing a loose-fitting light blue pair of shorts and a polka-dotted white blouse. She had come in with a bowl of fruit salad, which sat untouched on my bedside table.
She was sitting on the bench, swinging her legs under it. The bench gave a creak with every swing. I was distracted by a fly that flitted across the white ceiling, wandering aimlessly and landing every two seconds. Then the bench stopped creaking.
“Where is your mother?”
She stood up and walked to the bedside, perhaps to check that I was not asleep. Standing on tiptoes, she peered into my face. I think that’s when she noticed the sadness creeping behind my eyes. I saw her face fall. For a moment, she seemed not to know what to do. Then she asked again, this time with a trembling voice.
“What… where is she?”
“She died a long time ago.”
And she, without saying another word, draped a hand around me, and laid her head in the crook of my neck, tickling my cheek with her hair. And as my breathing settled down and synchronised with hers, I noticed her hair smelled of flowers.
I got discharged that afternoon. Esther held my hand on the short walk home. We met her mother outside their house. She was a plump little woman, light-skinned and with short-cropped hair. She had big eyes that blinked rapidly when she spoke. And she had a ready laugh which left a perpetual smile on her face.
In the short period since they had moved in, she had turned Onyi’s house around. Little pots of flowers and young lianas now hung on ropes from the roof above the veranda. The grass in front of the house had been cut and heaped next to the fence across from the house. A new white wicker chair with space for two sat under one of the windows. She sat on it, knitting, when Esther and I arrived.
“So, this is the brave Steve!” she announced, beaming, eyelids on overdrive.
And, bouncing from the chair, she led us by the hand into her house and stuffed us with sweet golden brown mandas, deep-fried dough, and tiny sugary Kisii bananas.
Esther and I did almost everything together after that. We read my books together, sitting on the cold plastered floor of our house, munching on bubble gum we bought with change from our fathers. In the late afternoons, we took walks in the neighbourhood. I even introduced her to some of the halfway houses. We fixed the ones that had started falling apart. We would sit in them and talk for hours on weekends.
We had our meals together, sitting on the wicker chair outside their house, balling up lumps of kuon and beef under the stars. Her mother would come out of the house with bowls and push more food into our plates, saying things about how we needed to eat to make our bones stronger. We were lucky one of the neighbours had a dog.
At some point, Anyango, the woman from the other side of Awasi who came every day to prepare our meals, do our laundry and clean the house, started doing her chores with Esther’s mother. They became the best of friends and spent many afternoons watching Nigerian movies together in Esther’s house.
Esther’s mother was one of the kindest people I have ever met. Ever smiling, she started calling me “my dear” not long after she met me. I remember seeing her angry only once. It happened on the day I took Esther down to the river. It was a bright Saturday morning, about half a year after they moved in.
My father had departed to Kisumu early in the morning for an errand. Esther’s mother left for the market sometime during the morning. And her father had been on a trip to Nairobi the whole week. He worked for the government. Awasi had been designated the headquarters of a new district, made by splitting the older district into two, and he had been transferred over to help set up and run the new government offices.
We were reading and talking on the floor of our house. At some point, Esther said, “There’s a big river where we came from.” She spread out her arms. “Big. Big. Like this.” Her hands fell back. “Dad never let me go there.”
So I told Esther about our river, about the many time I went there with Onyi. I told her I had not gone back there since Onyi had left. And she told me she wanted to see it.
“What will your father say?”
“He doesn’t have to know.” She slammed her her book shut and rose to her feet. “If you take me now.”
We walked down the shaded rough road, past the home of the lady who made pots and chang’aa, a potent traditional spirit. We walked past the house-sized heaps of stone at the quarry. Under the tall electric pylons, the sagging cables strung between them buzzing like a swarm of bees. Down the rocky slopes into the wide valley.
The brick makers weren’t there when we arrived. Piles of unfired bricks lay under shades made of grass. I took Esther along the river to the wide section where the water pooled, where Onyi and I used to swim. She promptly took off her shoes and waded into the water. I sat on a large stone on the bank and watched.
“Get in here!” she called out, turning and throwing a handful of water at me.
“No,” I said, ducking too late. “I don’t feel like swimming today.”
“Fine,” she said. “Suit yourself.”
And she threw herself into the water, arms flailing, legs kicking carelessly. It was clear she didn’t know how to swim. Every now and then, she would stand on the riverbed to wipe her face with her hands, giggling happily. Her wet dress clung to her skin. Her hair, which was now a sizeable afro, was matted into lumps.
She moved further and further into the water. She was halfway across when she stopped and stood to wipe her face again, but slipped and went under before she could get her hands out. When she came back up, she was gurgling. Then she went under again. It occurred to me that she was playing. But when she came back up gurgling and slipped under one more time, a sudden familiar horror swept through me.
I jumped into the water and dragged her out by the collar. I laid her on the bank, as she coughed and spat water onto the sand, breathing deeply but erratically. I stretched myself down beside her, staring blankly at the clear blue sky, unable to make sense of what had just happened. What had just almost happened.
Eventually she spoke.
“You saved me again.”
I didn’t say anything.
When we got back home, her mother had come back from the market. She asked us where we had been. Our clothes were still wet. There was no point in lying. So I told her we had been to the river.
“You don’t know how to swim,” she said, turning to Esther. She wasn’t smiling, and creases lined her forehead. “Your eyes are red.”
Esther looked down at her feet and played with her hands. Her mother turned back to me. Her eyes darted around and blinked more rapidly than usual. I could sense fury struggling to break loose from inside her, engaging her constitutional kindness in a titanic battle of supremacy. I looked down at my soggy shoes.
“I’m sorry, Mama Esther,” I said haltingly. “We won’t do it again.”
“Are you also sorry?” she snapped at Esther.
Esther nodded mutedly.
She didn’t let us change clothes, and locked us up with only tea and mandas in her room till dusk. We never went back to the river after that. And she never spoke about the matter again. Not to us. Not to anyone else.
Esther joined Awasi Primary in standard three in the third term. I saw her walk in on her first day, holding her mother’s hand. She was wearing a crisp new school uniform, the waist ribbons knotted at the small of her back.
Her mother walked out of the staffroom a little later. Then Esther herself came out, walking with Mrs Oluoch to her new classroom. I was sitting next to the window, and they walked right past me, but none of them saw me.
We walked back home together that day. And every day after that.
Chapter 5: The father of the man
I don’t recall exactly when I started addressing my father by his first name. It must have been sometime after 2000 though, because I distinctly remember calling him baba at least once that year. I was in standard seven.
It was a hot August Friday, a week before the start of the third school term. I had spent much of the year pestering him to show me where he worked. When he had finally relented, I asked if Esther could come along, not telling him that it was really for her sake that I had badgered him all along.
And so, that morning, dressed in the lightest clothes we could find, we piled into the back of the old Beetle and rattled along the straight road to Chemelil. The sun had come out strong, and the tarmac was already shimmering in the heat. The road passed through endless sugarcane fields. Tractors drawing trailers, full and empty, lumbered noisily in both directions.
He drove in silence while Esther and I chatted about the asteroid that we had heard was coming to end life on earth. We called it a big rock, and my father didn’t correct us. We also talked about how we had waited for the president at the roadside for half a day the previous term, standing in the sun with other pupils from our school, waving little flags while the teachers kept us in order, only to learn the next day that the president had taken a helicopter.
My father was an engineer. He worked at the sugar factory, which stood smack in the middle of Chemelil, a small, well-planned town east of Awasi. It was a tall and impossibly long hulking structure covered in blue corrugated iron sheets. From inside it came the sound of clanging metal and hissing steam. A constant low sound hummed in the background.
Tractors turned at the entrance. Off to the right, a crane with dangling metal claws lifted sugarcane off their trailers into a giant conveyor belt. Men in stained overalls and brilliant yellow hardhats darted about, fixing things, scribbling on brown clipboards, shouting at one another. Some of them had rolled down the tops of their overalls to their waists, exposing their sweat-soaked vests. The heavy smell of sugar hung in the air.
We drove past the tractors, through a second iron gate, into a parking lot at the other end of the factory. It was much quieter there, the only sound being that of idling lorries receiving bags of sugar from forklifts with flashing lights. We waited on a wooden bench as my father dashed into a changing room. When he came out, his pair of trousers and white shirt were gone. In their place, overalls and a hardhat turned him into someone I had only seen in pictures.
He handed us two small hardhats, strung visitor tags around our necks and walked us through a metal door into the belly of the beast. The first thing that hit me was the heat. The metal hull of the factory combined with the hot machines inside and the humidity to turn the space into a giant oven. It hit us in the face like a warm wet blanket.
My mind instantly brought up a picture of the small church with iron-sheet walls and roof off the marketplace in Awasi. It was always packed full of people on Sundays. Men in suits that had been pressed until they were shiny. Women with sleeping children secured across their backs with lessos, multicoloured shawls. They put their large black speakers outside the door, and the pastor preached so loud we could hear him from our house, a kilometre away. I had always wondered how all those people could spend hours inside that space without fainting.
After the heat of the factory came the noise. It was as if someone had turned up the dial on the clanging metals and hissing steam and low humming sound we had heard from outside. Esther and I had to shout every word across my father’s abdomen. And then shout it again because the response was invariably a loud “Eh?” After multiple rounds of this, we gave up and walked along mutely, holding my father’s hand on either side.
He walked down a number of gangways and up steep stairs. Everything was made of brown metal. It occurred to me that they may have painted it that colour so no one would know when it rusted. Finally, we walked into a room with a giant glass window looking out on the factory floor. A long panel with dials and switches and meters and blinking lights ran along the wall under the window. A number of men sat on high stools, tinkering with the fixtures.
They all looked up when we walked in, pulled down the brilliant yellow earmuffs they had on, and, in an overlapping cascade, said, “Good morning sir.”
The phrase bounced a few times inside my head, then it exploded in a torrent of realisation. In school, you didn’t call your fellow pupils sir. Not even the ones in standard eight, whose smug faces showed they had only a few months of primary school left. No, we only called teachers and visiting government education officers sir. There had to be a substantial difference in status for someone to call another sir.
Yet all those men had just called my father sir. My father, the quiet shy fellow who always seemed unable to tell anyone to do anything. I couldn’t believe it, but only one explanation made sense. My father was the boss here. He called the shots, he told these clever-looking men what to do. I had badgered him to bring me here out of curiosity and a desire to show it to Esther, and now I realised why he had been so reluctant to do it.
I felt pride welling up inside me as I heard my father respond awkwardly to the greeting. My father, the boss of all these men! Who would have known? Esther and I exchanged a knowing glance as he asked one of them, a young man with an innocent smile and the name Simon stuck to his chest on a badge, to show us around.
The tour took an hour, and we would have kept going if we had been able to handle the heat longer. But it was just too much. And so, after walking along the rims of giant vats filled with stinky bubbling liquids and peering into red-hot furnaces that singed the hair on our arms, while Simon said things I would only understand years later in high school chemistry classes, we stumbled back to the room with the large window, sweating like soaked mattresses.
The first thing I asked was, “Baba, can we go outside?”
He gave us each a hundred shillings, and Simon escorted us out into the town. We flapped our clothes to dry off the sweat, fanned our faces with our hands. We bought ice-cream cones at a stall and licked them under a giant cypress in the small park down the road from the factory. Then we strolled aimlessly around the town, Simon a few metres behind us like a chaperone.
“You didn’t tell me your father was a big man,” Esther said at some point.
I puffed out my chest involuntarily. “I meant to surprise you.”
She turned to me. It had been four years since our first meeting. Four years, in the life of a child, is a stark difference in height. But she was still shorter than me, and looking at me meant tilting her head up a little. I liked it when she did that. Because I got to look at her face from above, at the dimples that dug into her cheeks when she smiled, at the smooth nut-brown skin with the little black dot under her left eye, at the thick lower lip that hung just right when she smiled, at the shadow her chin cast on her neck.
Her eyes were large and shiny black, like her mother’s. Her eyelashes had grown thick, and they flapped like dragonfly wings when she blinked. The arch of the brows above them was unbelievably perfect. Her hair was still in an afro, which she got to keep at school because the teachers knew her father worked at the district office. Most of the other girls were clean-shaven.
“No you didn’t.” She dug her knuckles into my ribs, a mischievous look playing in her eyes.
“Yes I did,” I insisted, although I knew this was a lost battle.
“You should have seen your face in the control room. I bet you didn’t know he was the boss either.”
Later that afternoon, on our way back, as we passed over a bridge at the bottom of a steep valley that hid the sun, I asked my father what the river under the bridge was called. “Nyando,” he said. After a short pause, he added, “It’s the same one that passes through Ahero.” Ahero was very far away from that place, and we were impressed a river could be this long. We both knew the Nile was the longest river in the world, but Nyando surely couldn’t be too far behind it.
“Baba,” I said again after some time.
We had summited the valley, and the weak red rays of the giant setting sun streamed into the car. He grunted, didn’t take his eyes off the road.
“Thank you for bringing us along today.”
And he grunted again. Esther placed her hand on top of mine. And we completed the drive in silence. That’s the last time I remember calling my father baba. My next clear memory is of a year later, when I called him John. It was the day my past started to end. But I didn’t know it then, because it took years to fall apart.
Chapter 6: Tall clear bottles
As men came, my father was of average height, neither too tall nor too short. But he was thinner than most men his height, which gave him just enough mass to not be lanky. Which means he didn’t exactly stand out. Nevertheless, if every man was required to stand out in some way, then there was one thing for which he could be said to do so. He was a very quiet man.
There were more times he opened his mouth and closed it without uttering a word than when he actually spoke, when he grunted where a sentence was expected, when he spoke haltingly as if he wasn’t sure his words would be taken for what he meant, when he shifted nervously on his feet as he talked, as if even he didn’t know what he meant. The only person he was comfortable speaking to at length was me, and even then only on the few occasions when we actually spoke.
In itself, his silence wasn’t strange to me. He seemed to be constitutionally predisposed to introversion. I knew because he had that look in his eyes in the black and white photos inside the album we had on the lower deck of the coffee table in the living room. The look of a startled animal seeking a way out, the aloofness of a man who would rather be left alone, intense boredom cloaked in social politeness.
Still, I had the feeling that his withdrawal had been exacerbated by the death of my mother. Because the pictures rarely had him alone. There he was as a younger man, beaming outside the graduation tent with his fellow students. Here he was, squatting at the end of the front row of a group of fellow engineers in overalls. And here he had his arm around his only brother, a playful grin stretching his lips into his cheeks, grandma’s house looming in the background.
And of course, him smiling to the ears as he stands next to my mother on their wedding day, him tack sharp in a suit and tie and mother resplendent in an elegant white dress. There are a few other photos of him like this, like the one where he is holding very little me, wrapped in a white shawl, light-skinned face peeping out, while tired-looking mother stands next to him. Behind them, “Nyanza Provincial Hospital” stretches across a white wall in block letters. Russia.
Then, notable for their absence, there were no pictures of him after the funeral. Because, after the funeral, he rarely went anywhere photos were being taken. When he left work, he would come straight home, and read in the corner of the sitting room until night fell, curled up on the worn brown leather armchair. He once told me that chair was older than me.
“It was the first thing your mother and I bought together,” he said, a twinkle in his eyes.
“When was that?”
“Just after we got married.” He patted the arm of the chair and took a long breath. “It was the only piece of furniture we had here for months.”
I imagined them sitting on the floor, legs crossed, eating out of broad metal plates like the ones grandma had in the village. I saw them using small bowl-shaped lumps of kuon to scoop up red omena soup. I heard the scraping sound of the plates skidding about, bottoms grating against the floor, when the food ran low and each of those small fish had to be chased around.
My father was a prolific reader. He may have read all the books in the world on that armchair, his wire-rimmed glasses perched low on his nose. He read fat books with ridged spines and gold-trimmed titles. Thin books with stiff, fresh, white pages. Leather-bound books that smelled of mildew. Lightweight paperbacks that he devoured in hours. Giant hardbacked encyclopaedias that took him weeks.
He piled the books he had finished with on shelves and in cardboard boxes with labels from the factory. And when they started choking out living space around the house, he packed them into the back of the Beetle and drove them to one of the schools around town, leaving before any of the teachers could organise a parade of bored pupils to thank him with a song.
One day, in my final year of primary school, three weeks before the final, national, examinations, I came home from an extended class and found him slumped on the armchair. His reading glasses sat askew across his wide nose.
The book, a short, fat copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, sprawled face-down on the floor beside the chair, beneath his dangling hand. His little personal transistor radio, sitting next to his socked feet on a low stool, belted out the tunes of Congolese singer Franco Luambo’s “Fabrice Akende Sango” at low volume.
For a moment, I thought he had fallen asleep and dropped the book. But the situation struck me as peculiar. I had never seen him asleep on that chair. I had never seen him do anything on that chair except read. I walked over and called to him in a low voice.
He didn’t respond, didn’t even grunt. I held his knee and called out again, a bit louder. Then I shook his knee and called out a third time. The transistor radio fell to the floor with a clatter and went silent. The audio cassette and batteries popped out. But he didn’t stir.
An eerily familiar horror swept down my spine and settled in my bowels. The last time I had felt it was when Esther almost drowned under my watch and, before that, when I fought Oti until he was limp. But I knew it most from back when they wheeled my bleeding mother through the swinging double doors in Russia
Panicked, I dropped my bag, knelt next to his hand, placed my index finger on his wrist and waited. Nothing. A thousand thoughts flashed through my mind. Images of my mother’s grave. An empty house with gathering shadows in the corners. Wailing women and stomping bulls. My breath quickened. I felt tears stinging the back of my eyes and the back of my throat dried up.
I was about to withdraw my finger when the pulse came. It was a light, almost imperceptible flick. A silent moment, during which I wasn’t sure if it was his pulse or mine, followed. I could hear my own heartbeat resounding in my head.
I said all the prayers I had learnt to recite as a kid, under the watchful eyes of the catechist, sitting on the rim of the concrete water tank outside the parish hall. I said them all in one instant, like tape unspooled out of a falling cassette.
Then another flick came. I sank to the floor in relief, shocked that I had just feared my father was dead. Guilty that I had had the guts to even think that. Confused about what exactly had happened there.
I walked out of the room and went to Esther’s house. Her mother was sitting next to the door, peeling potatoes in the waning daylight. I told her my father was unconscious. Then I followed with her and Esther as two male neighbours carried him on a wooden board to the dispensary.
The nurses there told us he would be alright. Esther and I spent the night on the same wooden bench on which she had waited me out four years before. When she grew drowsy, I let her sleep with her head on my shoulders, and then on my lap, her legs stretched on the benchtop.
The next day, I skipped school and accompanied my father to Russia. The nurses at the dispensary had referred him to a doctor there. They said he was the only hepatologist in the province. After taking him through a battery of tests, this doctor asked me to wait outside his office. When I hesitated, my father squeezed my hand and nodded.
Their conversation didn’t last long. He walked out of the doctor’s office, his checked coat draped across his left arm. He didn’t say anything, and his face was calm. We walked out of the hospital, side by side, and headed for the car. My mind went back to the last time we had been here, the night my mother died. His face had been calm then too.
It was normal for my father to be quiet. I had taken that from him. We could spend hours in silence because none of us was uncomfortable with long quiet stretches. But most of our silences connoted nothing. They weren’t impregnated with content. They were the natural consequences of our personalities, and nothing more.
However, this was a loaded calm, the lull of the eye of a storm, the deep breath before the plunge. Whatever the doctor with the fancy title had told him, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I knew something was terribly wrong.
We had a late lunch – a large ngege, tilapia, sandwiched between two layers of green kales bathed in a thick red tomato soup, on a wide stainless steel tray patterned with small psychedelic patches of concentric circles, and two small plates of tooth-white kuon – at a stall on Lwang’ni Beach, next to Lake Victoria.
It was late afternoon. The sun had begun its descent over the lake, whose rippled surface shimmered like a thousand shards of glass in the slanting sunlight. Across the bay, the giant white grain silos that had long defined the city’s skyline faintly caught the colour of the reddening sky. Most of the stalls in the beach had closed for the day, and the workers at our stall were cleaning up.
We ate in silence, munching away at chunks fish without so much as a word. The silence accompanied us on the drive back, across the table-like plains of Kano, over the Nyando bridge at Ahero. Until my father pulled over on the roadside next to a sugarcane farm just before we rolled into Awasi. Without a word, he got out of the car, closed the door, walked around to my side and sat on the ground against the rear wheel.
I got out and sat next to him, looking at the straight stalks of sugarcane, standing like thin sentinels against the gathering night. His knees were drawn up, and he had his hands on top of them, the palms dangling downwards. I sat with my hands clasped between my outstretched legs. We sat like that a long time, listening to insects chirping and vehicles screaming on the road behind us. I could feel his brain searching for the right words. Eventually, he spoke.
“I have cirrhosis of the liver. It is advanced.”
Against the silence, the words sounded distant. Like the sound of the train honking as it passed on the hillside north of our village home. The horn always sounded hollow as it rounded a rocky corner. If you didn’t know anything about it, you would think it was still far when it was in fact quite close. And in the hollow bounding silence, in the space surrounding his utterance, the phrase bounced around like a red marquee. Cirrhosis of the liver.
I knew about liver cirrhosis. I had learnt about it recently in school. That my father had it could only mean one thing – he had been drinking too much. I knew he drank, and the way he had announced his diagnosis told me he knew I knew. I knew he did it because there were days when the smell of alcohol peeped shyly above the scent of his mouthwash. And mornings when he was groggier than usual, with bags of fatigue under his eyes.
And then there was the tall clear bottle of Smirnoff vodka on his nightstand. I saw it there only three or four times, poking out of a brown paper bag. But one day he sent me to his wardrobe for his shoes and I saw three similar bottles, all full and unopened, huddled in the corner behind the shoe rack. We never spoke about it.
“I’m afraid,” he said after a while.
I guess it was the illogical ring of those words that snapped me back to the present. He was the one man on whom I had a right to stake my own safety, whom I had a right to expect fearlessness from. For my own sake. Because if my father could be afraid, then to whom would I run when I was too? Those words sounded like a hammer to the last wall between me and the world’s many dangers.
In another way, however, they didn’t surprise me. I knew my father, perhaps better than anybody alive, and the possibility that he was irreparably broken by my mother’s death had sat clumsily at the back of my mind since we stood at our door, waving at our departing aunts after the funeral.
I found myself talking, putting in words the fear that had started creeping up my own spine.
“What do you fear, John, death?”
“No,” he said quickly, with a light dismissive snort.
After a brief moment of pensive silence, he said, drawing out his words, as if he was reading from a script, “Death comes for us all, Steve. I want you to know that. It plucks at us. All of us, one by one. Men, animals, trees, even stars. While we live, it goes around us in circles, without ever really touching us, sometimes fooling us into the comfort of thinking that perhaps it isn’t really interested in us. But the day comes when it pounces, whether expected or not. Nothing escapes death. Fearing it is like fearing the sunrise. It’s a waste of time.”
He put his hand around me and rubbed my shoulder, pulled me closer.
“No, I don’t fear death, Steve. I fear that when I die, I will find myself in a great dark void. That I will see and hear nothing, fall into an eternal dreamless sleep. I fear that I won’t find your mother on the other side, her arms open, waiting for me. That I will never see her again. That I won’t be left with even the briefest memories of her smiling face. That’s what I fear, Steve. That death will be the end of it all.”
Then he went silent and let his words sink in.
I still don’t know what I meant by those words, coming as they did from me to my father. I didn’t know what else to say. But they jolted something in him. Slowly, as if it was coming from somewhere deep inside, his body started trembling. Tears pooled up under his eyelids, twinkled in the lights of passing cars.
“I miss her so much,” he said, sniffing, fingers on his lips. Then, after a pause, he said again, resignedly, “I miss her so much.”
His voice cracked, and he heaved as if he was about to cry. He opened his mouth to say something. Closed it. Opened it. Closed it again. I felt his hand tighten around my shoulder. Heard him sniff again.
No one ever said it, but everyone knew men weren’t supposed to cry. It was clear even to babies, because, as toddlers, crying boys were ordered to shut up while crying girls were allowed to crawl onto adult laps.
But it didn’t seem weird to me that I should witness my father break down. It felt strangely natural. I had seen him cry all those years ago as he watched my mother’s body descend into the dark earth. My mother, about whom we rarely spoke, whom he had just mentioned.
It brought back the grief we had buried. The grief he had buried to try and give me a normal childhood, not knowing that wasn’t possible. The grief he had tried to drown with tall clear bottles of Smirnoff in the night while I slept.
It had been buried but not destroyed. It had always been there, lurking, a seething monster under the façade of normalcy that we had built, waiting for the day when it would bare its ugly face and consume him from the inside as world went round.
When I started crying too, he cradled me close to his heaving chest.
“Baas,” he croaked. “Everything will be alright.”
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