Today we tell this story in the first-person voice for a change. Because it’s that kind of story that needs intimacy.
I was just going to dash upstairs to pick something up from the shop. It was one of the many Saturdays when I liked to dress up in a dress short enough to float just above my knees and also make a modest-enough impression on my mother-in-law. I’d then don my Carolina Herrera sunglasses, which between you and me are fake, but what is real anymore?
To complete this ensemble was Bee, my daughter. At five years, she was already devastatingly beautiful, like me, naturally. Of course, she took a bit after her father – mostly his modesty but that’s pretty much it. I’d dress her up to the nines. I’m those extra mothers who insist on tying a ribbon on their child’s head. I didn’t care. And also because I’m a responsible mother, I’d seat her at the back in her own seat, belted back left like the diva she is and we’d have a conversation as we drove to the mall. I’m that girl.
All the pleasures that’ve come my way in life have never been because I was smart or more hardworking or more connected. It’s been because of my confidence. I’m lazy but I’m confident. I’m confidently lazy. Or lazily confident. I never ever admit that I can’t do something. I have never changed the oil in my car but I’m sure I can learn how to do it in a day. I painted our bedroom myself. I learned archery after once watching a period movie that I can’t recall now. I once reversed a massive lorry from a carwash. I walked up to the driver and told him I’d never driven a lorry before; ‘Could I move it for you?’ He said, let me reverse it and then you can drive it to the gate. I said, no, let ME reverse it. And I did. Of course the driver was shitting bricks. I go online for complicated recipes and cook something exotic.
Do you want to know how I met my husband? He was dating my friend and then they broke up because my friend was crazy. No, literally, she used to throw ashtrays at him and chase him with a sword around the house. She once had people remove his rear car wheels at his regular watering hole. Finally, he said, “F*ck it, you are too loco for me,” and canned her. It was way back in 2008, I think. I know because it was after the post-election violence, which fit what transpired after because when my friend heard I was dating her ex, she wanted to gut me like a fish. The reason why I went for him was actually because she wounded my pride. She once said I’d never date a man like him, that I’d be “punching above my weight.” [Yes, she liked violent expressions as well]. So I met him and I dated him then because I’m extra, I married him. Of course, I love him. Nice guy.
Anyway, the mall.
The plan, like I said, was to rush upstairs to a shop and fetch a dress I was having adjusted. It was literally going to be pick up and leave. I told Bee, “Baby, stay here okay? I’m coming back in two minutes.” She was having her ice cream. There were waiters. My shopping from the supermarket was at the foot of my table. I was just going to pick and leave.
When I came back she was not there.
But her ice cream cup was there, so was my shopping bag and the book I had been reading, turned on its belly, was still there. I didn’t even panic. Not yet. But I was about to go batshit crazy. I stood at my table and calmly surveyed the scenery, which now in hindsight was a sign of shock, not even calmness. Then when I was satisfied my baby wasn’t at the table I calmly strode over to the counter and asked the waitress who had served me, “Where is my baby?” She asked, “What baby?” I wanted to slap her across the face. Twice. I said, “Bee, my baby. She has a red ribbon on her head.” She looked dazed for a minute before saying, “Oh, I think it’s her who was serving you,” then she called out to the waitress who was serving me, “Laura, ebu kuja usaidie huyu client wako please.” Laura came over. She had very big lips. I swear I didn’t recall her serving me. She had lips you can’t forget, they are not only on her face, they are on your face, so to speak. Guys, pay attention to the people who serve you.
Laura had a wide smile, which is what you use big lips for. I said, “Where is my baby?”, looking at my table. She turned, following my gaze, and then was silent for a second. She started mumbling things, saying she thought she was with me, and things. I told her, “I left her right there to go upstairs for a minute, where is my baby?” People were staring, the staff were looking at me, and I recall the room getting hot and I couldn’t breathe. I realised that I wasn’t using my normal voice, I was screaming and going completely apeshit, shouting that I wanted my baby right the hell now! Where have you guys taken my baby? I will burn down this whole joint if you don’t produce my baby now! I was also crying. The manager, a stout man with a baby face, came and tried to calm me down. I slapped his hand away from my shoulder. I said I wanted my baby! Where is my baby! I was led to the back office where, huddled around his computer, we studied the CCTV cameras where we saw my baby immediately get off her leather booth and follow me out as soon as I left. I started wailing watching this. I was shouting, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Stop Bee! Stop Bee! DON’T LEAVE! DON’T LEAVE!” As if what we were watching was happening in real-time and she could hear me.
Then I fainted.
Like I said, I can be extra.
That was my first time to faint, by the way. I’d never had a chance to faint in my life even though I had countless opportunities to faint. Like in University when I walked into my boyfriend’s hostel and found him removing a girl’s trousers. That was my perfect opportunity to faint. Instead, I wasted it by saying, “Oops, sorry,” then walked out of the room like a zombie. Good thing I didn’t faint then because it later turned out I was the side chick and not that tramp whose trousers he was removing.
When I came to, I was lying on the floor with a wet cloth over my head, my feet propped up on a cushion. An old fan whirled above me from the ceiling and the manager sat on a chair with another lady, looking at me strangely. Anyway, when I was strong enough to sit down, my husband arrived and I told him that Bee had disappeared. “She just walked out of the restaurant,” I cried, blowing my nose with a very small serviette from a box on the desk. It’s hard to be a lady when you have just lost your daughter and you can’t even find a decent serviette to blow your nose with. My husband was speechless. He’s the type that boils over slowly, like an oven. I’m a bomb.
Anyway, we scoured the mall. We looked at the CCTVs that were working, most weren’t. There were too many blind spots. This was before the crazies blew up things in the name of religion. My daughter vanished just like that. I felt like I was in a horror movie for which I wasn’t going to be nominated for an Oscar. I felt like I was in a nightmare and I begged to open my eyes and walk into my baby’s bedroom and find her asleep there, with her big cheeks and beautiful eyelashes.
When we went back home we had a row. Proper man and wife row. My husband, saying it in many ways, accused me of losing our daughter. “How can you, a right-thinking human being, leave a 5-year old unattended in a restaurant because you want to go pick up your stupid dress from a shop upstairs?” I took particular exception to his usage of the word, “right-thinking”, it was loaded with sarcasm like French fries are loaded with calories. He barked at me long and hard. We shouted at each other. He kept poking at my guilt like you would a dying fire. I was angrier with myself. And scared. Very scared of what could be happening to my Bee.
I kept calling the cops whose numbers I had taken while at the station. I kept calling them at all hours of that night, begging them to look everywhere for my baby, as my husband lay in bed with his back to me, the lights off. Me crying nonstop. Him looking away. His back stiff with rejection and accusation. We didn’t sleep a wink that night. We fought intermittently through the night, at some point I ceded. I couldn’t fight him anymore. He was right. I had been foolish. I made a stupid error in judgement, I left a five-year-old kid in a cafe alone to pick up my stupid dress. As dawn came with its harsh light, I embraced the error of my ways and when I ceded, when I no longer argued, when the anger left my body and the pain set in, pain and guilt and the kind of fear you can’t imagine if you haven’t lost your only child set in, he kept punching me with words, punching holes in my heart, wounding me over and over.
Just before six, when I was exhausted and desperate, he suddenly got out of bed and went into the bathroom to take a bath. It was strange, it being a Sunday. He is the kind of guy who showers in five minutes flat and dresses up in another five minutes and then he’s out of the house, but this morning the shower ran and ran and ran and I thought, ‘Oh God, what if he’s hanged himself in the bathroom? He can’t leave me alone in this world with this pain. If he’s hanged himself, I’m going to cut him down and use the same rope to hang myself.’ So I went and stood outside the bathroom door, listening for movement. Then I heard the sobs. He was crying like a child. I knew I had to go find my baby and bring her to him. I left the house. I drove out.
The roads were empty. I saw a car in a ditch, a casualty of the previous night’s drinking. I looked out for any unattended five-year-old children walking by the side of the road. A girl with a red ribbon. I found myself outside the mall. I parked outside. My car was the only car there. My car and electric poles and some trees. I stared at the closed entrance hoping my baby would be seated on the staircase, waiting for me. I started wailing. Really wailing, like Luos wail at their funerals. A guard with a weathered face came to my door. He had on a hat. I rolled down my window. I was a mess. My nose was running. I had a headache. My eyes were red. My face felt puffy. I must have looked like an old drug addict with the flu. The guard was so concerned. I told him I lost my baby here yesterday. “Umemuona?” I asked. I showed him her pictures from my phone. I kept scrolling through my gallery, showing him her pictures; I went back to pictures of her when she was born. As if he could recognise her when she was an hour old with matted hair. He kept saying, ‘Pole madam, sijamuona. Pole madam, atapatikana’. I gave him my number and made him promise that if he saw her anywhere, on the road, in a matatu, he would call me immediately. She has a red ribbon on her head, I repeated, in case he forgets.
Then I drove back home slowly, scanning the roadside for her. Crying. Praying. I kept negotiating with God. I told Him, take one of my kidneys, in exchange for her safe return. Or take my eyesight. I don’t care if I never see her again, but I want to hold her and never let go of her. I told Him that if he didn’t want to take anything from me then he should put the most horrible disease in me. Something that would bring me excruciating pain. I was sure that nothing would beat the pain I was feeling at that moment. I was negotiating with God.
When I got home my husband was seated on the balcony drinking. At 8am! He never drinks at home unless we are hosting. I’ve never seen him drink alone. He never looked back when I walked through the door. He never asked me where I had been. He sat there the whole morning, just drinking from his bottle of vodka. I stayed in the room, crying and making calls and trying to imagine the things that could be happening to my daughter; rape, organ trade, slavery, torture, mistreatment. I imagined my daughter in a room, her ribbon taken away from her, crying for me, possibly hungry and scared because of what my husband called ‘my stupid dress.’ These thoughts hurt my womb so much, I curled in bed in pain, feeling cold. My sister came over. My husband never said a word to her. He picked his car keys from the kitchen and left. We are those couples who keep all the keys in the kitchen. My sister sat with me, telling me unconvincingly that Bee would be found.
I left the house at 2pm, and – on my insistence – drove back to the mall with my sister. We walked the mall, we searched the ladies’ on each floor. I walked into the men’s room and opened doors, the men in the urinal, their penises in their hands, looking over their shoulders with a mixture of both admiration and surprise. We talked to guards. Nothing. Bee had not been seen. When my sister dropped me off at 6pm, my husband hadn’t come back home. Every time my phone rang I thought it was the police calling and I’d get paralysed with the fear of answering my phone.
My husband never returned that night. I called his closest friends. I called them as late as 2am. I could hear their wives asking sleepily and suspiciously in the background, “Who is that?” Yeah, what did they think this was, a booty call? I don’t have a mother or a father. They are both dead. But I have an aunt in the village who I never talk to much because she’s always asking me for money to save her business. She was the only one I could think of who was very religious. I called her at 3am and it’s almost like she was waiting for my call, how calmly she said, “Maggie, you have called, daughter. I have been thinking about you.” I broke down telling her the story and she listened without interrupting me and finally, when I had composed myself she said, “We put this in the hands of the Lord. He is capable. He is able. He has all our answers. Let us pray.” And we prayed. Rather, she prayed, I cried.
My husband walked into the house at 7am. Dishevelled, drunk, confused. I didn’t dare ask him where he had been. I didn’t want to know. Plus he was spoiling for a fight. I know how he is when he is spoiling for a fight; his energy is wrong, he opens doors forcefully, even though they are not locked, he slams the fridge, he blinks rapidly. I followed him into the bedroom where he was removing his shirt. I stood at the door, watching him. He ignored me. He tossed his shirt on the floor, something he knows I hate. Yes, he was definitely spoiling for a fight and I wasn’t going to hand him one. I was tired. He was the only one who shared my pain. Who could understand the horror we were trapped in.
He sat on the bed and removed his old tennis shoes.
I called his name. Let’s call him, Tim. I said, “Tim.” It seemed to take him all the effort in the world to look at me and when he did, his gaze was full of loathing and vitriol. I said, “I’m sorry. I’m very sorry.” I didn’t know I was crying because I don’t remember not ever crying in the past few hours. Suddenly those words seemed like a bomb that I had lobbed into his hate and loathing because it exploded, and he held his head in his hands and started really crying. He cried like I’ve never seen a man cry. Not even in movies. He kept saying, “What are we going to do about Bee? How are we ever going to live life without her?” I went and sat next to him and held him to me. He smelled of spirit, and a strange perfume.
It being a Monday we sat in the house, in the living room, silent. We couldn’t eat. The TV was off. It was like a funeral. I would go to Bee’s bedroom and stand over her bed. I smelled Piglet, her stuffed panda. Children break your heart, man, they name a panda Piglet. I smelt her baby oils. I opened her drawers and smelled her clothes. I held her shoes close to my heart for them to hear my heartbreak. I cried looking at the animal stickers above her bed. I was going mad.
Then my phone rang.
You know that phone call that changes your life forever? It rings differently. It was one of the policemen I’d been calling. I refused to pick his call. I carried the phone to my husband who was lying on the couch, his hand over his eyes, like he was basking under a bright sun. “It’s the police,” I said. He quickly swung his legs from the couch as I handed him the phone. “It’s the police,” I repeated in a shaky voice. He looked at the phone and said, “Pick it!” I said, “I can’t!” The phone stopped ringing. He placed it on the table. And we stared at it like you would a poisonous snake, wondering if it was dead. I was shaking. I could see how his chest rose and fell with fear. Before we could muster the strength to call back the phone suddenly started ringing and I remember gasping and jumping back in fright. I covered my mouth with both hands and started saying, “God please, God please.”
My husband, hands shaking, picked the phone and very slowly pressed the answer button then slowly brought it to his ear.
“No, it’s the husband,” he whispered, his voice so cracked I could wedge a coin in it. He listened some more. He slowly stood up. He started crying. I slowly backed away, like one would back away from something dangerous that might harm them. Then I started screaming my head out as my husband hung up and said amidst tears, “I think they found her.”
Let me go to bed. I will finish Part Two and post it tomorrow Wednesday. I know, sorry.