The sky was big and open, a vast blue canvas on which a few small clumps of clouds lazily drifted. Thomas stood in the middle of the graduation square and stared at the dais ahead of him. A few moments before, he had received his first class degree from the chancellor.
His performance had earned him a scholarship to study to proceed for graduate studies. In his hand was clasped the letter which he had been given just before the ceremony started. Now he just stared at the dais, marvelling at the twist fate had dealt him.
He was oblivious to the goings-on around him, the droves of people milling all over the square; parents and graduates taking photos to etch the day in memory; continuing students looking on in admiration as they passed by; journalists and camera crews packing up; university workers clearing away furniture and tents.
For Thomas, the feeling of the moment was enough. He was alone, with no one to share in his happiness. So he went on standing there, feeling the happiness coursing through his veins and flooding his system, enough joy for a thousand men being enjoyed by one.
Then the tiny breeze got a boost from nowhere. It became a gust, then a powerful gale. The pieces of paper and plastic bags which littered the square took to the air. Some of them stuck to Thomas’s face and arms, and he had to swat them away. He shaded his eyes against the smaller pieces, and the dust.
A black cloud that had been peeping out of the east spread itself menacingly across the entire sky. People started scattering, and the square was quickly rid of a majority of its occupants. Thomas was among the as to react. But as he was turning to leave the square, the wind pried his letter from his fingers.
It whipped it into the frenzy of litter, paper and plastic that swirled around him. He followed it, and for some time in the beginning was sure he would catch it. But it quickly got mingled with the others. And he couldn’t see it anymore. Panicked, he picked piece of paper after piece of paper, checked the writings on them, and quickly dropped it.
The black cloud continued advancing. The panic inside him rose to a crescendo. Now, instead of dropping each paper that turned out to not be his letter, he ripped it apart in anger and tossed it into the air, then picked the next. But still, his letter was impossible to locate.
Something at the back of his mind reminded him that the letter was not too important, that he could always get another copy after all. But he felt that it was wrong that he should lose it on that day. There was something which felt wrong right about that. This was his day to gain and keep things, not to lose them.
He was bending to pick another sheet of paper when his forehead hit something. He looked up and saw that he had collided with someone, a lady in loose black jeans. A white shawl with a flowery pattern was draped around her head, concealing her hair. But some of the shiny black strands spilled out and hang across her face, whipped by the wind.
She was crouching to pick the same piece of paper that he wanted to pick, and her hand was already on it. The two of them looked at each other without a word, frozen. For the quickest of moments, Thomas thought he saw something familiar in her eyes and felt something rise up to his throat.
Then he remembered that he was supposed to be angry, that his paper was still lost in the confusion of litter that swirled around them like dry leaves in the wind. He decided to let the girl go with the piece of paper they were both grasping.
They rose in tandem. Thomas was now more panicked than ever. The clouds were still advancing menacingly across the sky. The sun was already being concealed. The rain would come down soon, and if by then he hadn’t gotten his letter, it would be peppered by the drops and destroyed completely forever.
He tried to sidestep the girl so he could continue with his search. But she seemed to have the same thought, and they ended up blocking each other’s path again. She was still holding the sheet of paper she had picked. And now, as if she suddenly didn’t have any use for it, she held it out to him.
He pulled it impatiently from her hand and flipped it around. Above them, the last part of the huge cloud shut off the last ray of sunlight, and a flash of lightning tore across the sky. He stared at the sheet of paper and heaved a deep sigh of relief. It was his letter.
A rumble of thunder growled overhead. But Thomas ignored it. He looked up at the girl and smiled, a feeling of unspeakable gratitude washing through his body. The girl blushed back. Then the sky rumbled again, and emptied its watery contents onto them. The girl blushed again, looked up for a second, and then ran off.
The water came down in thick drops. Each felt like a satisfied tick landing on Thomas’s head. He resisted the temptation to shield his head with the letter, and wrapped it inside the black jacket he was wearing over his red shirt. The ground was soggy by the time he jumped onto the veranda of the building at the far end of the grounds, a few steps behind the girl.
From there, they watched the drops coming down in their savage fury, chasing the last people out of the square. They watched the grassy grounds turn into a muddy affair, saw the loose paper and plastic washed away into the storm drains. Thomas thought of where his letter would have gone if he hadn’t found it.
Throughout the period, they exchanged several furtive glances at one another, heads jerking away each time they did it at the same time. When the rain stopped, twenty five minutes later, Thomas’s hand was still inside his jacket, holding tightly onto the letter.
He had a mind to walk away as soon as the last drops had hit the ground, but he paused with one foot on the veranda, turned to the girl. And this time, she did not turn away.
“I didn’t get your name,” he said, taking the letter in his left hand and extending his right. “I am Thomas.”
“You don’t need to introduce yourself, Thomas,” she said, looking down momentarily and then looking back up and fixing him with a shy look. “I’m Leyla.”
He recalled the flash of familiarity when they had bumped heads. Then his mind flashed back twenty years, to the town where he was born, to the girl who played with him in the brown sand behind the row house, the girl who stole chapatis from her mother’s kitchen to give him when he was hungry, when the drunk of an uncle he lived with lay passed out in the living room.
“Leyla?” he said, staggered. “Leyla… It’s you! I can’t believe it.”
And before he knew it, he had his arms around her, squeezing her body in the tightest and longest embrace he had ever given anyone, muttering over and over again the entire time, “It can’t be true.”
When at last he let her go, he held her shoulders and asked how she had known he would be there. She told him she had been going through the published list of graduating students the previous night and had seen his name there, since it was prominently placed.
“I knew I had to be here,” she said, looking down.
She explained that she had been watching him while he stood in the square after the ceremony. She was about to slip away quietly when she saw the sheet of paper snatched by the wind from his hand and his frenzied search for it. She could see it stuck against a brick, and had eventually decided to help him.
They went to a restaurant, talking breathlessly about their childhood on the way. Thomas asked about her family as they drew to the restaurant.
“They are doing alright,” she replied as they stepped through the doors. There was an unoccupied table at the far right corner. Thomas led her to it.
“Your mother?” he asked. If there was a woman Thomas had dreaded as a child, it was Mama Leyla. She was a huge woman with a round chubby face who couldn’t have been more different from Leyla, whose frame was slight frame and face oval.
Leyla’s mother was not too well known for her kindness to the neighbour’s nephew. To make matters worse, her youngest and only daughter couldn’t keep off the rascal, something which made her seethe with fury multiple times each day.
Whenever she found out that Thomas had been fed from her kitchen at the hands of Leyla, she’d storm out of her house, raging like a wounded rhino. She’d charge to his house, stand at the door and push it open, though she kicked it more often.
But she couldn’t go in. Her husband forbade her to be in a house where there was another man without his approval or presence; that wouldn’t be in accordance with good religion. So, after kicking the door open, she would stand in front of the doorway and scream into the house, at the man she knew was sleeping, drunk, inside.
Then, after she had succeeded in creating chaos, and had gathered a significant crowd of curious neighbourhood children and house-helps around her, she’d walk away, her tongue clicking away a million times, pouting like a slighted schoolgirl.
The drunken man in the house would then groan on his ragged sofa, turn around and go on sleeping amid the acrid fumes of from own vomit. The storm having passed, Thomas would crawl out from behind the sofa bed, dust his old clothes and tiptoe out of the house to look for Leyla.
“She died,” Leyla said as she eased herself into the seat Thomas had drawn for her.
“Oh. I’m sorry,” Thomas said. “I never heard.”
“It’s OK,” she brushed it away. “It was long ago. I have come to terms with it several times over.”
“How long ago?” Thomas asked, shifting in his seat before settling in.
That was the same year Thomas had left the town of his childhood. His uncle had died, and was hurriedly buried by relatives in a cemetery nearby. Then his only other uncle, under pressure from his devil of a wife not to take Thomas in, had found a way of getting Thomas into an orphanage run by Catholic nuns, in Nairobi, conveniently far away.
Whatever the intentions of the aunt, Thomas found his true home in the stability of the orphanage. In an explosion of brilliance, he became a darling of the nuns and the smartest boy in his new school.
They ordered their meals. While they waited to be served, they continued conversing about their childhood. They remembered the day Thomas had battered Hassan, Leyla’s brother, who was a year older than him. He had found Hassan hitting Leyla’s head on the wall. She had taken his bicycle and given it to Thomas to ride.
Thomas had fought the older boy with a viciousness he couldn’t understand even then, for Hassan had insulted him, said he was scum that was not worthy to be on the face of the earth, let alone consort with his sister.
Hassan had threatened to get his own back one day, warning him against playing around with his sister. The next week, Thomas’s uncle died, and he disappeared from the town.
“And how is Hassan?” Thomas asked.
“He’s fine,” she said. “He is married now, with two kids.”
Thomas noticed the waiter coming their way.
“Gee,” he said. “That’s nice.”
They ate their food, still conversing about the past. They drove it down with juice drawn from clear glasses through straws with coloured spiral patterns.
“Are you married too?” Thomas asked, and pulled strongly at his straw.
Leyla flinched and seemed to shrink against the seat. For the first time that evening, she didn’t answer promptly. She toyed with her glass, twirled the straw in her fingers. Thomas shifted uncomfortably in his seat, pulled his feet from beneath the table and tucked them under his seat.
“No,” she finally said, looking down.
Thomas didn’t say anything for a long moment. Then he picked up his glass and, seemingly having forgotten about the straw, downed the juice in one gulp.
“What did you expect?” she said when he put the glass down. Her voice was tremulous. “You aren’t..?”
He looked up and found her looking intently at him. He looked into her earnest eyes. And all of a sudden, he was back again in the days of his childhood. He was looking at a girl in a flowery dress. The sun played on her face through gaps in the leaves of the mango tree up which they had scampered to escape the wrath of a beaten Hassan.
Thomas had asked if she could stay there with her. “What kind of question is that, dummy?” she had asked in reply. Thomas had stared back puzzled. “You know I will stay with you forever even if it kills me.”
“Oh Leyla,” he said now as he looked at her across the table.
A waiter was passing by.
“Excuse me,” Thomas said.
The waiter turned to him. “Yes?”
“The bill please,” Thomas said to her. She walked off and returned a minute later with the bill. Thomas settled it promptly, handing her a tip which made her blush. She sauntered off as Thomas picked his letter from the table. He folded it into four, slid it into the inside pocket of his jacket. Then he held out his hand for Leyla, who had watched on in complete silence.
She took his hand, and rose from her chair.
“Let’s go,” he said as he rose. “There is a lot of catching up we need to do.”
“Where are we going?” she asked for the first time as they exited the restaurant onto the street.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Somewhere we can talk more freely. A park perhaps.”
“It’s almost night, Thomas. Where do you stay?”
“Rongai,” he replied.
“My car is parked under that building,” she pointed at the Teleposta Towers. “Can you drive?”
They entered the car and Thomas drove out of the city centre. They were cruising down Magadi Road, deep in conversation, when Thomas noticed that the car in front of him was stopping. He slammed on the breaks. The car skidded to a halt within millimetres of the other car’s bumper.
He opened the door furiously and stepped out. “What the hell …” He didn’t finish his statement. He had heard the screech of breaks as the car behind him also stopped. But he hadn’t noticed a man come quickly out of it with a wooden club. The man slammed the club into the back of his head. As he drifted out consciousness, a process which seemed to take an eternity, he thought he heard Leyla scream and call out his name.
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