You know the moment you meet them that they are eccentric. They sit and look around fiercely. They lean back and tell the waiter, ‘If I have hot water with a slice of lemon, will you charge me?’ And if the waiter says it will be a 100 bob, they say, ‘What if you don’t add the slice of lemon, will it still be a 100 bob?’ They grin the grin of troublemakers. They rummage through their purse and unroll their lipgloss which they run over their lips as they look out the window, the story forgotten momentarily and you recognise that they have left the restaurant, left you, left the building and their mind is flying on a magic carpet. They tell their story with colour and sounds and smoke. They occasionally laugh at themselves. They sigh and fold their hands around their belly, hunched over, as if their stomach hurts, when they talk about the abortion they had. They lean over the table and taste your black masala tea without asking but you don’t care because you are transfixed, chained to their story. They shoot up from their seat when they see someone they know and proceed to hug them furiously and call them daaaarling and when they sit down again, removing a strand of weave from their face, they lean in and tell you conspiratorially, “I don’t know who the frk that was.” You roar with laughter.
They stand up mid-sentence, in the damn middle of a riveting story, and they say, “I gotta smoke. Be right back.” And they are scraping their chair back as they stand up, lighter and a packet of cigarettes clutched in one hand. They leave you with their tale, their demons, their pain. And when they come back to the table they start a completely different and unrelated story, and you go ‘wait, wait, wait, you were telling me about the man with OCD…’
“My grandmother ran away with another man. I was only a teenager when that scandalous event transpired. She did the unthinkable, I heard the adults whisper. Brought shame to the family, which is to say she brought shame to the men of the family. She must have been 65 years old. I was about 15 years old when I learnt about that saga.
She was always different, my grandmother Peggy*. She wasn’t your conventional grandmother who had wrinkled hands, who cooked and doted on her grandchildren. She was always doing un-grandmotherly things. I tell my friends that not many people can claim to have seen their grandmother’s knees. I saw more than her knees. I saw her breasts countless times. She’d change in front of me, wearing her petticoats and her laced bras, her breasts merely sacs of old flesh, hanging like old fruits. Her bedroom smelled of perfume and lotions. Grandma Peggy smoked a lot. When I was 13, she started sending me to fetch her cigarettes whenever we visited, and she’d ask me to follow her to the back of the house where she liked to smoke because my grandfather hated the smell of cigarettes, hated when she smoked. At 13 she let me light her cigarettes and take a tiny puff before handing them to her. I felt mature whenever I was in her company.
I also remember my parents and I going to visit my grandparents – in Nyeri – and my grandmother never leaving her room. Growing up there was always an unspoken rule in the family that if my grandmother’s room was closed, nobody would open that door. She’d often stay cocooned there for the length of our visit, not coming out once. It bothered me how the adults remained unbothered by this behaviour, how they went about their business completely acting like everything was peachy. “It’s nothing, she just needs to rest,” my dad would assure me. Rest? How long does someone rest for?
She’d stay in the darkness of her room, curtains drawn. When I was seven or eight I started breaking that rule and seeking her out in her bedroom, curious to see what she was up to. What secrets she kept behind the closed door. I felt that I deserved to know for two reasons; one, I was named after her. Two, she always told me that we were the same person. She adored me as an only child.
First time I went into the room, I pushed the door, careful not to make a peep, and stuck my head around the door shyly. I remember barely making out her shape in bed, she looked like a lump of dirty laundry. I stood there trying to listen for a sound, something, anything. The room was stiff in silence. “Peggy?” I called out in a small scared voice. She always asked me to call her Peggy, not Cucu, but Peggy. I’m called Peggy too. “Peggy?” I called out again. The silence in the room refused to stir. Elsewhere in the house the hubbub of domesticity rose and fell; my dad and my grandfather were having beers and laughing. My mother was in the kitchen with the maid, preparing dinner. A radio played. I stood there, holding the frame of the day with my small hands, staring into Peggy’s darkness.
Finally, she spoke.
She said, “Come in and close the door, dearest.” She always called me dearest. Her voice was like a croak. The voice of someone who hadn’t spoken in days. An alien’s voice.
I went in and cautiously sat at the edge of the bed, ready to bolt. I recall feeling guilty for being scared of her. She adored me, I knew she wouldn’t hurt me. But still. “Come into bed,” she whispered in her raspy voice, “Remove your shoes.” I said I wasn’t wearing shoes. “Then come into bed, you are letting in cold,” she repeated, holding the blanket open for me to get in. She cuddled my tiny body. She held me tight, more like clung onto me, like she was afraid of being swept away by the darkness. She smelled warm and old and vulnerable. We said nothing, just lying there, spooning in silence. It became frequent. Whenever she was in her room with the door closed, I’d go in and cuddle her in bed.
There were moments of rage where she would fly off the handle at some neighbour or at a shopkeeper or a lady at the market. Things irked her and her temper would balloon and poison everything around her. I witnessed all this because whenever we went visiting she’d take me everywhere, holding my small hand in hers, talking incessantly or just silent. Peggy was either talking a lot or not talking at all, mute. I feared her when she got angry; it was like a tornado blowing through walls, uprooting trees. Other times she could be charming and effervescent, funny and sweet, laughing loudly, hugging everyone, hosting, forcing everybody to finish their food and begging them to stay longer. She could literally be buoyant one moment or sink into the ground, deflated like a discarded robe, the next.
We never knew which Peggy we would find when we went to the village: the Peggy who locked herself in her room; the Peggy angrily telling off the shamba-boy for having milked the cows late, or the bright, chirpy and entertaining Peggy bouncing off walls, telling stories and making everybody laugh. She was hilarious and hysterical, a grand entertainer. So she oscillated between these two worlds; the dark and the very light. My mother could never understand her, she’d say, “your grandmother is unstable.” But her son, my dad, thought of her as ‘eccentric.’ Often, my dad would have to drive to Nyeri after he was called by my grandfather because of an incident involving Peggy. I’m not privy to this information but she must have been committed to a mental institution at least once when I was young. Nobody talked about these things those days, it was all hush-hush.
So when she ran away with another man it was a great moment of shame for the family, a waterloo moment, but also something that was so her. There were whispers and quick meetings convened, adults communing to course correct this madness. The hurtful part is that she didn’t run away with a man to some distant town, like Kisumu or Busia, a place where people spoke a different language. Everybody knew where she had moved to in Nyeri. Everybody knew the man she had moved in with, a widower fellow who owned a coffee farm smaller than my grandfather’s. Of course it was the biggest scandal of my childhood, a source of great embarrassment to my uncles and aunts. “Of course, it’s not the first lover she’s had, Dan.” I overheard my mom tell my dad. (Is there a name that is more dad than Dan?)
Everybody thought it was temporary insanity and she would get back to her senses and come back. She never came back. She never came back even when the widower died of diabetes soon after my graduation from University. My dad and I secretly attended the funeral. My mother thought we were insane. “You are as crazy as your mother,” I remember her scolding my dad.
Peggy had balls because even after running away with a man, a thing grandmothers didn’t do, she came to my graduation dinner at Carnivore with all my extended family present. Nobody thought she’d dare come for the graduation, let alone the dinner party, having been gone for many years. I knew she was coming because she and I continued talking even after she left. In fact, I knew more about what was happening in her life than anybody else. She showed up looking quite fetching in a ridiculous shimmering blue dress and an eccentric hat perched on her head like a magician. My grandfather, who had long since taken up another wife, ignored her, never said a word to her. My mom offered her a limp handshake and later watched her warily, shifting uncomfortably in her chair. My dad and she were still in communication. He sat with her like a devoted son. The tension and drama was for TV.
Brandy in hand, she [upon her insistence and because nobody wanted any more drama] gave a hilarious speech but nobody dared laugh because of loyalty to grandfather. I cackled loudly at her jokes. My grandfather, scandalised, looked at his phone the whole time. Later, as we shared a cigarette in the garden, for now I was a woman like her, she told me that the hat belonged to her friend. And that she left because she wanted to seek “adventure of her own.” We smoked while she held my hand. I understood her sense of adventure, understood it like an internal language.
“What about you?” She pointed at me with her chin. She had mischief in her eyes. “Do you have a lover?”
“I have lovers, “ I told her. I told her because she was the only person who would not ask for a further explanation. She just knew. She was a Peggy. “Good.” She nodded appreciatively. I remember her telling me she hadn’t brought me a gift, but that she had brought me something better than a gift.
“What?” I asked, half expecting her to retrieve a rabbit from her bra.
She said, in Kikuyu, something to the effect of I had many gifts but the only true gift I truly possessed was the gift of youth. Don’t squander it by overthinking.
She was always the one I ran to, the only person who understood me during my very troublesome years in high school. I remember being in so much trouble in boarding school because of staying up reading novels after lights out because I just couldn’t sleep like normal people. I’d be lucky if I caught two hours of sleep each night. Dorm prefects couldn’t understand why I just couldn’t sleep. They thought I was starting trouble. I hated authority, I guess like all teenagers. Hated being herded. I got into the wrong group, one that sneaked out of school frequently. In my fourth form I was sent home for kissing a girl. This was way before the whole LGBTQ thing. I wasn’t even gay or anything, I was sure of that, but I just felt I needed to kiss a girl. I think everybody needs to kiss a girl once in their lifetime. My dad refused to bring me back to school after I was sent home. My mom cried in the headmistress’ office. I told her, “Come on mom, stop. I’m not gay. I was just curious.” She cried, “Peggy, why did you have to inherit your grandmother’s demons?” It helped a great deal that I was brilliant in school; I was always in the top five of my class without exerting any effort. I also excelled in sports. I played everything and excelled at it. I belonged to most debate clubs. I was popular, sometimes for the wrong reasons. I was a model student and at the same time a nightmare child. Nobody could place me.
I lost my virginity in my first year of university, the last of my group of friends. I didn’t wait because I was so virtuous or anything, I just couldn’t find a boy who was worthy.
Sex just wasn’t something that intrigued me but once I lost my virginity it became a freefall of sorts. I just couldn’t focus on one boy. I wondered how my friends would stay fixated on one boy, how they’d not leave their rooms when a boy promised to pass by. How they curled into balls sucking their thumbs when boys broke their hearts. I marvelled at the preposterous girliness of it, how they’d wait for a boy to call, not eating properly when he never called. I was the opposite, I hated boys who couldn’t find things to do other than obsess over me. I hated when boys told me they loved me, or walked me to class. It was a turn-off, that level of vulnerability. It was weak. I preferred the emotionally unavailable types, the playboys who had a reputation around campus. I relished breaking their fake macho facade. I loved a good penile challenge.
I smoked and drank and ran off with boys in their daddy’s cars. I slept in on Mondays because I was always hungover. Nothing was ever off the table except for married men. That was the line I never crossed and still don’t. If you are married I was slamming the door in your face.
After university, I got a very decent job but my mental struggles became worse. I was still not sleeping very well on top of being very erratic and emotional. I was working insane hours in the office, mostly alone, only leaving after 11pm because there was never anything to rush home to. I was a workhorse but then I could also crash and not leave the house, not leave my couch for days, barely eating, or showering. My phone off. Once my boss would show up at my house to find my curtains drawn and the house smelling of old pizza and stale coffee. “I can’t get up,” I told her, “I’m incapable of physically getting up. My mind has refused.” She said it was burnout. It felt like a great force was holding me down, on that couch, something with immense weight. And I was powerless before it. “Sleep it off,” she said.
In those days, my mother would often come to my house (she had a key) and tiptoe around, picking pieces of clothes off the floor, cleaning dishes with the kitchen door closed to avoid making noise, cleaning surfaces, opening windows, arranging all the chaos around me while leaving, untouched, the real chaos in me. She had long learnt from high school days to let me be when I was in that state.
The more I excelled at work, the more dysfunctional I seemed to become. I couldn’t sustain a relationship for more than two months. I was impatient with men who I considered idiots – and I considered most men idiots because I felt I was smarter than them. I got bored with the idea of sleeping with one man, so I’d change my men as soon as I got bored. It hurt their feelings, of course. It hurts men’s feelings when you are done with them before they are done with you. I found relationships pointless and tedious, to be answerable to someone, to conform to what a girlfriend should be, to wear makeup for a man and wait to be complimented. To pay heed to their interests and hobbies. It confused me, this rebellious seed in me.
By this time the person who could have offered me answers was Peggy but Peggy was long dead. She died in my first year of university. Diabetes related illness. I spent a lot of time by her deathbed. She’d beg me for a smoke and I’d give her a puff. She was brave and bright right to the end. I remember coming home from the burial and going on a bender daily for two weeks flat, barely sleeping. Then another month of darkness, going back home and barely leaving my bedroom, my mom and dad speaking in worried whispers outside my door.
My first husband was an engineer.
Let’s call him Paul. I was young and my family knew his family and he was patient, unlike me and creative like me. We had a great marriage for two years but then I started getting restless and trouble set in. He was great in bed but he could never satisfy me. The problem wasn’t even him, the problem was me. My sexual drive confused even me. I flung myself at work to avoid stepping out of my marriage because I not only liked him, I loved him and I believed in marriage. I fought and wrestled my urges alone. I prayed for God to take away the selfish needs of my flesh. To cope with all this that was happening, stuff that was unlady like, I resorted to drinking and impulsive spending on things I didn’t need, to cope. One time I bought a new car from a showroom like you would buy a shoe you liked window shopping. I had longed for the car for a long time and so one afternoon I just went and bought it.
The fights came, slowly at first and then faster later. Paul felt that I was irresponsible, selfish and unhinged – all true. I thought he was trying to turn me into something he could control. We had countless family mediation sessions where I sat, eyes downcast the whole time. I felt sorry for him because I knew what he wanted he wouldn’t find in me. I wished I was like the normal wives, my friends, who were not restless, who didn’t want to follow their lights but the lights of their husbands. Often I felt like this indeed was Peggy’s curse.
We got divorced.
I was single for three or so years, in that time I had the freedom to live my life as I wished. Starting out in a new house, with new furniture felt like a clean break. Like a fresh chapter. For those years I dated the men I wanted to date and slept with the ones I wanted to sleep with. I loved the freedom and independence to act on my whims and urges, to do as I pleased, to come and go, to cut my hair and dye it and wear large earrings that made noise when I went down on a man.
At 34 I met Christian* at a seminar at Serena.
He had great eyebrows and a deep baritone that seemed to root me, to anchor me. He had a very commanding presence. A man’s man. I thought, finally someone who I can be a proper wife to. We had a wedding in a small garden with roses and pomegranate. Christian travelled a lot which was perfect because the time we were apart for stretches of time gave me time to exhale. We fought about useless things; he was a clean and organised person while I left things all over the house. So he was always picking up after me. He was a planner, a pragmatic who could not make a move without weighing options. I went with my gut and with The Lord. If we died, we died. It scared him, how spontaneous I was, how careless and dangerous it seemed. Somewhere in that mess, I got pregnant and lost my baby, an ectopic pregnancy, and stayed in bed for a month straight.
When I suffered my first bout of depression while I was with him, he didn’t know what that was. He came from a very functional , very shielded family where people were well centred, where grandmothers didn’t run off with lovers. He’d never experienced someone in depression. Or someone who suffered from alcoholism. Nobody he knew had died by suicide in his wider family. Those were shameful things in his world so he didn’t know how to handle my depression. He called his mother who came to our house and started playing gospel music. I chased her away with a broom. She called my mother who understood Peggy’s madness.
My father-in-law, who was well travelled, a geologist, suggested that I go see his friend from the club who was a psychiatrist. It turned out that I hadn’t inherited “Peggy’s madness’ ‘ after all, as my mom liked to call it, but actually had bipolar disorder and ADHD. Finally, a proper diagnosis; I was mentally ill. My chemical balance was all off. I was blessed with great intellect, an insane work ethic (when I was focused), an electric personality, but also a greatly dysfunctional mind that could eat me like worms from the inside. My mind was often at war with itself. My light was bright but my darkness would come chasing it.
I went through therapy and medication [still do] and my mind started getting clearer and clearer and I started seeing things I had refused to see, acknowledging the bad parts of me, discovering others that I was unaware of. Therapy worked so well that I divorced Christian. I simply moved out one day when he was abroad. When he came back home I explained to him that I was not ready to be his wife. His wife was gone, taken away by medication and therapy. I wanted things that he couldn’t provide. “What?” he cried, “what can I not provide?” He couldn’t get it. He couldn’t get that self-discovery comes with great changes and shifts. I had found myself and lost him in the process.
The divorce was bitter and draining. He was resentful and hurtful. He referred to me as a “mad woman” many times. He told everybody how filthy I was. How I would not shower, how lazy and irresponsible I was, sleeping the whole day. He told my best friend that I was frigid. Frigid. Me! Frigid like an ironing board?! Told anybody who could listen that I was barren because I had done many abortions. (I did once and I told him about it. Don’t tell a man anything!) I never fought back, I was in therapy, but his words hurt me immensely. It took me a while to forgive him, to forget all that he said.
Then I met Robin last year when I was still shaking from the divorce.
He’s divorced himself and carries scars from his earlier marriage. He also suffers from OCD. We will most likely kill each other before the end of our first anniversary. But I love him, he gets me. Because I don’t learn, I told him everything about my life, my struggles with my mind, about Peggy and her demons, and about my dead babies; the one that I killed and the one that my body killed. It took two bottles of wine and a lot of tears. I thought he would run for the hills but he didn’t. So let’s see.
Sometimes I miss the chaos of my old self. I miss the uncertainty of my former life. I find this calm to be beautiful but also suspicious. I go to therapy, I go to work, I go home to Robin, I go to meet my friends. I don’t think Peggy would say I squandered my youth.”
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