Christine was at her usual spot, looking all serious and ready to pick a fight. This I was not going to offer her, I promised myself.
“Hey, so what’s up?” I inquired as I sank down next to her, faking a cheerful disposition.
“Everything.” She shot back, not pretending to be civil for a moment.
“Okay, you can start by telling me how your day has been.”
“Well, it’s been okay. Been lazing away and thinking of all the exciting things am gonna do at home.” She replied, changing her countenance to a more welcoming one.
“Well. It’s a lot to spell out right now. But generally I’ll be seeing long lost relatives. Wedding things nini.”
“How about you?” She inquired, cocking her head to one side amorously.
“uummm…I don’t know. I may not go at all. Or, I’ll travel the last week. I replied.
“Oh, I see. You don’t miss your folks or something?” She inquired, looking surprised.
I told her I do miss them but had to be objective. I needed to make some money in anticipation of January. Of course I didn’t tell her this but January is always a tough month and I knew it would be made tougher by the fact that 2 of my younger siblings were in their final year at high school and the parents had no viable source of income.
From her description, I could figure it out that she came from one huge close-knit family. Social events were a big deal and anniversaries involved the whole extended clan. The same can’t be said of my folks. Each family prefers to keep to themselves, save for one or two members who pretend to care about the rest but immediately backbites them the moment they’re out of sight. The extended family only comes together on momentous occasions like in sickness or a death in the family. And I have grown to like the set up. No family drama and stuff. The only downside is when one needs help, like in fundraising or stuff. Very few bother to chip in, hence few choose to air their problems to the rest because it will be most likely a point of ridicule rather than a rally for help.
I think this has largely impacted my demeanor. I mostly keep to myself and large social gatherings really drain me. Anyways, back to the matter at hand, we had exhausted the small talk and each was engrossed in their own thoughts. I couldn’t keep up this any longer and so asked Christine why the urgent summon.
“We’ve been friends for a better part of the semester, do I need a special reason to say bye to you in person.” She asked matter-of-factly. Making me kind of guilty.
“No, of course not. Sorry, didn’t mean for it to come out that way.”
“Ok, whatever” she said rolling her eye, I hated that.
“Edwin, what are we?” She shot, catching me by surprise.
“What do you mean?”
“C’mon, you know what I mean. Are we just friends, lovers or what? I mean, sometimes we act like lovers and at times we’re total strangers. The thing is, the holiday is long and I want to go with a clear mind. We’re adults now and we need to stop playing this game. I don’t want you to waste my time, neither do I want to waste yours.”
I wanted to tell her there was nothing like love between us anymore, not on my part. The part of me that felt anything for her was long smothered by Sonia’s warm and incredible personality. I didn’t voice these thoughts. Couldn’t find the right words, or didn’t have the guts to do so. I kept quiet for a while, looking for a way to articulate my thoughts so I didn’t come across as hurtful or anything. Christine was the sensitive sort; despite the tough façade she was putting up.
“well?” She startled me.
“Yea, yea. I totally get your point. The thing is, there’s a lot going on my mind right now and I can’t….”
“You can’t what? Make up your mind on who between me and the mhindi chic you should date?” She interjected.
“Christine Listen, you’ve been a good friend to me and I really appreciate that. But then I don’t think I would love you the way you deserve to be loved.”
“There! I knew it! Once that bitch showed up you and I were as good as done. You never even made the effort to make it work.” She was now shouting hysterically, attracting unnecessary attenton from other students in the hall.
“And guess what, you’re not going to consign me to your friendzone, so forget even telling me we can just be good friends!” She shot as she stood up and left in a huff.
I didn’t try to follow her because of the spectacle we were creating. Besides, it was good for both of us that ties were severed with finality. I watched the news for a while but then got up and made for the room. I climbed to my bunk, lay face up and sighed heavily. It’s finally over, I smiled to myself, happy that the storm was over. Now I could focus on Sonia without having to look over my back or fear that she might stumble upon a suggestive text that would blow her fuse. Not that she was the type but you can never be too sure.
I called Sonia but it appeared she was in the middle of something serious because she hastily said she would call back and hang up, I didn’t even get to okay. I jumped down from the bed, unhooked my jacket from behind the door and headed to the pub next door to watch some football match. Swaleh and Rashid had already secured a strategic table in one of the corners. I sauntered over and took an empty seat next to Rashid. “He’s a hater anyway,” I brushed off Rashid when he tried to tell me the seat was Johnny’s. The match, it was between Bayern Munich and my beloved Manchester United by the way, was captivating enough that I thought of nothing else the entire 90+ minutes it lasted. We cheered wildly as Man Utd trashed Bayern despite Sir Fergie starting a makeshift side that provided zero motivation before kickoff. That geezer was a genius and it’ll take long before Man Utd find another like him.
On the final whistle we made our way back to our room, sore-throated but boisterous all the same. Swaleh, being the noisiest after a little imbibing, banged on the open door and slapped the cupboards. Johnny and Jimmy got up, ready to swallow him for interrupting their young sleep.
“We won motherfuckers!” He tried shouting, only for a croak to come out of his throat.
We all laughed and Johnny tried to water down the excitement with the usual antics of a hater. But we outnumbered him and he resignedly pulled covers over his head. Jimmy on the other hand sat still and said nothing for a while. He then shook his head from side to side and made a snide remark. We brushed him off and started reliving the highlights of the match like we were trying to tell someone who didn’t watch the match how it all went down. One by one we drifted off and the room got silent, save for a snore here or a fart there.
The following day we got up early and made it for Fig Tree Ngara, a market place that’s a stone throw away from the hostels. There, Jimmy and Rashid introduced me to the hustle we’d be on for the next two or three days. I helped them get the merchandise, mostly ladies’ sweater tops, and set up base at an unmarked point. Every trader had his or her own spot. There were invisible boundaries mutually known to the rest and no one trespassed onto another’s territory. Jimmy had already started calling out for customers as Rashid taught me how to turn the boxes used to carry the garments into a makeshift table.
“Sweater tops na mia mbili, sweater tops na mia mbili!” Jimmy would blare wherever a potential customer passed near the spot. Soon Rashid joined him and they formed one poor duet but got the job done because soon enough one or two ladies would come over, go through the garments and walk away, or make the purchase. I tried to join in the calling but it felt awkward, somewhat embarrassing at first. This went on for about a week and soon enough I caught up and could also call customers and convince them to make purchases. In the evening we’d carefully fold the remaining garments, pack them in the box and take them to a store nearby. We’d then take the day’s sales to the owner after deducting our pay. After which we’d head over to Mama Karis’ for supper.
I told Sonia of my new hustle, she congratulated me and promised to pass by and ‘promote’ us. And pass by she did, in the company of Raj. We embraced warmly and I shook hands with Raj solidly, like two guys who are trying to be civil to each other would, not like old buddies. We had grown distant with time as soon as Sonia and I became lovebirds. She picked five tops, gave a crisp a thousand bob note and left with her brother, winking and promising to call later on.
Weekends were now more fun, with freedom from classes and the steady flow of income from the hustle. Our relationship had progressed to the extent we no longer felt awkward holding hands in public or teasing each other amid stares from people.
Mom often called to ask when I would travel and that she missed me. Dad on the other hand would ask what I was doing in Nairobi instead of being with the rest of the family. Three weeks into the holidays I decided to travel. Back at homes life was dreary compared to the city’s hustle and bustle. I’d wake up at six but there being nothing to do I would go back to bed, sleepless. During the day my brother and I would walk over to the nearby shopping center to charge phones, watch soccer or just while away time as we caught up with old friends. In some evenings all of us, sometimes dad included, would gather to play cards. Or at times sample music but dad would appear and everyone would scamper to their respective rooms to pretend to be studying. I would be left alone because somehow I was beyond the point of being forced to study. Which was a relief because my high school days were hell. Dad didn’t ever want to see me outside. It so happed that whenever I felt like going out for air or to answer nature’s calls, that was the time he was also coming back from his errands.
“What is wrong with you, do you even sit for a moment?” He would bark. My pleas that I was studying the whole time he was away would fall on deaf ears.
“Ati you were going to the toilet, kwani you go to the toilet every minute? Get back inside, kumbaff!” he would bellow as I deftly dodged a hell of a wack. I would go back inside seething with anger. I would then lock the door, fish out those large novels, 800 pages or so, and pore over them to drown my misery. Dad loved maths and wanted me to make it my favourite subject as well. This actually made me hate it even more. The often need to sink into novels to drown my misery gradually made me love literature. I didn’t discriminate on genres or any basis used to classify it. James Hardley Chase, Wilbur Smith, Okot p’Bitek, John Grisham, Jeffrey Archer, Sam Aryeetey, Elechi Amadi, Peter Abrahams, Ngugi wa Thion’go, etc… They all became my icons, providing an escape from reality into the fictional worlds they penned.
The bitter and harsh maths teacher I had back in Bondeni Primary, Kayole, had already laid a fertile foundation for me to hate it. She was the harshest, most bitter human I have ever encountered. She would hurl ethnic insults at pupils from tribes she had no love for. Her beating was out of this world. The fact that she knew my uncle was the head teacher in that school made it even worse. At times I think she made me a punching bag to massage her ego from whatever bruises she picked from her sour relationship with the head teacher. I only found respite when we relocated upcountry and enrolled in a local school, Keburunga Primary (whoever came up with the names), where everyone knew who was whose kid, et al. Looking back, at times I wonder how such bitter and nasty people are entrusted with the responsibility of nurturing young souls. The psychological trauma suffered on that woman’s hands made me hate women so much at some point. Thankfully that’s all in the past now, but I will never forgive you Mrs. Githwe.
It was terrible. Looking in retrospect I realize dad had the best of intentions as a parent. He wanted his kids to study hard and become successful in life. And one day I hope we’ll be successful and make the old man smile all the way to his sunset.
Sonia used to call every now and then but I kept our relationship a secret. I come from a very reserved family and it wouldn’t have sat well with my dad that I was dating in college. To him that would spell deviation from the main purpose he sent me to school; studies and studies only. The week flew by, schools were reopened and it was time to get back. Just like I knew, finances became a challenge. I stayed one more week after the rest had left to see if my parents would come by any cash, all in vain.
On the second week I left without the cash, dad promising to send something to calm down the administrators as he figured a way out. Guys had already started attending classes though most lecturers were yet to assume duties. So it was mostly private studying for the bookworms and reliving holiday escapades for the rest. It is on one of those easy afternoons that Sonia called and asked me to meet up at the grocery stalls at the Parklands-Ngara intersection. I readily headed over, given that I sorely missed her and there was nothing much to do. I got there, looked around but couldn’t see her at the spot she said I would find her. I called and heard her phone’s ringtone a few steps behind me. She was partly obscured by a lady of Asian descent, probably in her late thirties, who stood behind her as she bent over a fruit rack selecting some mangoes. I hang up and went towards them as she glanced at her phone and looked up scanning the crowd curiously. I waved as I approached and her curious face melted into warm recognition. She hugged me casually then introduced us. The lady turned out to be her aunt. The lady smiled warmly as she extended her arm.
“Pleased to meet you, Sonia talks so fondly of you…I now see why.” She noted smiling coyly.
“Pleasure is all mine.” I responded shaking her hand. I was taken aback by her warm reaction. I expected her to be less forgiving, like her older folks. After the niceties I accompanied them around as they shopped for groceries enough to feed an army. They lived in a colony so no surprises here. A young guy they had probably hired as a porter silently trotted behind them pushing a wheelbarrow laded with the groceries. We got to her aunt’s car and the young man offloaded the fruits into a crate in the trunk. Meanwhile the aunt, can’t remember her tongue twister of a name, fished a paper bag from somewhere and randomly threw this or that fruit into it. Sonia pulled me aside and expressed how much she had missed me yada yada. Before long everything was loaded into the trunk, the aunt paid the porter and stood by the driver’s door impatiently twirling her car keys. We said our byes and I turned to wave to her aunt, who instead beckoned me over.
“Hey, don’t tell me am that intimidating, don’t I receive proper bye from my in-law?” Was I white am sure my face would have turned visibly pink.
“Here, this is for you. Hope to see you more often. Take care now.” She said as she handed me the paper bag, got in the car and closed the door before I could protest or mouth appreciation. Sonia smiled mischievously as she blew me a kiss and got into the car and they left. I turned and made for the hostels where my ever hungry pack descended on the fruits with gusto.
Later that night I tried to call Sonia to express my, rather our, belated gratitude but the call was not going through. Weak network signal maybe, I thought to myself as I tried to call once more in vain. When I finally managed to get to her she sounded hoarse, like someone who had just woken up or was crying.
Heey, what’s up? You don’t sound too good.” I asked concerned.
“Am fine, will tell you more about it later.” She said exhaling audibly.
“No, you’re not fine. What’s the matter dear?” I persisted impatiently.
She didn’t say anything for a while. I only knew she was on the line because I could hear breath.
“Let me call you back in a moment love.” She said and hang up.
I looked at the phone and indeed she had hang up, spinning my mind into a frenzy, trying to figure out what had happened to her. Was she sick, had they lost someone in the family? Hundreds of questions raced through my mind but only she could answer them. I called Raj and asked him if Sonia was alright. He said she was but from the tone of his voice I could tell something serious was up and he wasn’t forthright with me. I wished I could go over to their place but I knew it would be a foolish idea. She said she’d call back so I had so sit back and wait, however arduous it seemed.