You think you know someone until you see them around their wife. Then you don’t know them at all. They speak like they are in church. The weight with which they enter rooms changes. Even their laughter is dense, like a flute filled with sand. Which made him wonder if it’s him who didn’t know his cousin or it’s the wife who didn’t. “I hope you don’t bang doors or talk loudly on the phone,” his cousin told him in a near whisper as they huddled in the spare bedroom that would become his new home . “She hates it, and so, you know, try and not be too loud.” He looked around the room. “You won’t be coming home late, I hope?”
He had just finished university and was looking for a job with a degree in mining and mineral processing engineering. “I knew I wasn’t going to stay there for long,” he said. “I mean, my cousin looked like he was also just being roomed by his wife as well. Him who I have always known to be very lionic in person but who, next to his wife, turned into a mouse. Timid and almost scared of her.”
I noted the word ‘Lionic,” and promised myself to look it up later, to see if it’s a real word. (It’s not). I love when people just say, screw it, I will make up my own word and use it. If panga can be an English word, why can’t a word like Lionic be a word? Who said lions can’t have their own adjectives?
The plan was to stay with his cousin for a few months while his uncle, an important man in the ministry of petroleum and mining, hooked him up with a job. Him studying the degree in university was a decision purely made on the strength of his uncle’s position in the government, not passion or dreams but the security of a job. Of course you know how these things go. The plan was for him to get into the government machinery as an intern and with a foot in, finally get employed. The internship “which was supposed to be a quick thing” took ages. His uncle kept saying he was “working on it.”
“Meanwhile the living conditions were getting trickier and trickier because my cousin’s wife seemed to be getting colder and colder with each passing day. She was constantly in a bad mood when I was around. Or maybe she was just a person who hated to smile or laugh.” The energy in the house was taut like a Nyatiti string. It soon occurred to him that he was going to have to make a move. You know, take a plunge into the nothingness of life out there.
Two months after he had moved in he moved out of his cousin’s Nyayo estate apartment to Kitengela. “A friend in university was living there in a doomed apartment building.”
“No, doomed.” He said. “As in it was not fit to live in. It looked like the leaning tower of Pisa. In fact, that’s what we called it, The Leaning Tower. Nobody wanted to live in it – it was marked for demolition – because it was dangerous but the landlord figured he’d make some final rent from those who were brave enough to live there. Rent was dirt cheap – I think something like 10k for a two bedroom – whenever the landlord would bother to follow us up for rent. It didn’t seem dangerous then, but it was in hindsight – nothing is dangerous when you are in your early 20s. When you went to bed you didn’t know if it would all come down over your head and kill you in your sleep.”
The other option was to move back to his parents in Antuanduru (yes, that’s in Kenya). Which meant he had no options. No way he was going back to shags. To raise 5K of his rent money as he waited for his uncle in government to come through, he helped his friend run his father’s butchery. You know, sharpening knives, off-loading meat from the truck, hosing down the butchery, the usual. “At first, of course you are thinking, I’m a graduate, I shouldn’t be wearing an apron with blood and gumboots like some illiterate fellow, working in a butchery in Kitengela to make 5K for rent. You start off thinking you deserve better but then you realise you deserve nothing. That nobody owes you anything so you get on with it. Some people take time before they come to this realisation. The lucky ones get there fast and move on with it.”
He worked in the butchery until a knife accident. He cut his forefinger, rather, the knife did. It sliced his forefinger clean, like it was butter. Half of his finger fell on the chopping board. “There isn’t any pain immediately, you just stand there looking at your finger, half your finger, wondering, is that my finger and why is it not on my hand? It happens so fast, those knives are so sharp. You ride in the numbness of shock for a minute or so, your body holds back the blood. When the pain comes it makes you stagger. So yes, this happened.” He held up his forefinger, missing half of it. “It could have been worse,” I said, “at least it’s not your middle finger.”
He laughed, still holding up his finger for some reason, turning it around as if inspecting the handiwork of that knife. Like a court specimen.
“Do people ask you a lot about what happened to your finger? Are people generally nosy?”
“No, but children do.”
“Yeah, children are a nuisance,” I said. “And insensitive. Because they know they will get away with it.”
I’m not unlike a child, myself. If, say, I went to do some banking, and the teller had one eye, you know those people who have one good eye and the other is glassy and dead? They are looking at you but they are not? Now, most people would want to ignore the elephant, or eye, in the room. You know, assuming that perhaps the person hates to be drawn towards that eye. I find it very difficult to do that. I will try the first minute or so but it will eat at me furiously. I will take it upon myself to rationalise this situation and assume that surely, if they were so shy or uncomfortable about their glass eye, they’d wear some sort of tinted spectacles or an eye patch. So I will ask them, “do you find it rude or intrusive when people ask you about what happened to your eye?” You will be surprised at how much most people don’t mind telling you about what happened to their eye, leg, tooth, finger or forehead. So he went on about this finger, of course I egged him on with rubbish questions like, ‘is it true that sometimes you feel the tip of your missing finger itch? Or has this affected your balance in any way at all?’ (It hasn’t, which goes to show that we really don’t need half of our fingers. It’s excessive.)
The finger thing scarred him, so after recovering he never went back to the butchery. His uncle had since stopped talking about the internship, let alone the job so he figured he was on his own. “I took up some internship at an NGO but I got bored and restless sitting in the office, writing reports and proposals and visiting villages and talking to Maasai women.” That lasted for a year or so before he quit. “I then worked for a transport logistics company learning about their automated tracking system, dealing with drivers. They were paying me 25K a month and working me seven days a week. I quit after two years.”
This time he had moved out of the Leaning Tower and into another one bedroom in Syokimau. ‘Syokimau was just getting busier, everybody was building.’ One of his friends from university told him that his uncle ran a massive hardware store in Syokimau and he needed help because the workers were stealing from him. “I told him I could help him. What did I know about hardware? Exactly nothing. But I’m a guy who likes to learn.”
Next door to his flat lived a man and his girlfriend. The lady was the most attractive woman he had ever seen. “No, I mean it when I say this. She was simply stunning! One of those coastal-looking girls. Polite, respectful…” First time they spoke was at the rooftop where he had gone to unhang his clothes from the clothesline. She was hanging her wash. She was wearing a wet Dera. They didn’t speak much, rather she didn’t. “I said hello and tried small talk but she wasn’t too chatty so I moved on because the boyfriend had crazy eyes. I didn’t want him knocking on my door asking why I was talking to his girlfriend.”
“What are crazy eyes?”
“He looked like a psycho, those tu small dark evil looking eyes.”
“Were they close?”
“She and the boyfriend?”
“No, the eyes.”
Because eyes can be dark and can even be described as beautiful and that’s fine but if they are close together, oh then that’s evil.
His overall impression of her was that she seemed unhappy. She hardly left the house. Hardly talked to neighbours. “I’d run into her occasionally at the stairway or rooftop and say hello and try to make small talk as a neighbour but she always looked skittish, scared, like a dog that people keep throwing things at.”
But he liked her even though how that worked confused him. “I just did. I was attracted to her.”
Meanwhile his gig at the hardware was taking off fast. He had discovered how the rats at work were stealing money and plugged the hole, sending the culprits scampering. The owner trusted him. He was making some decent money for the store and learning, always learning. “I’d interact with a lot of contractors and we’d chat, I’d ask them questions. One particular one stood out to me. He was a light-skinned Maasai fellow called Legishon. He drove a black Toyota V8, wore those wide hats with Maasai beads and only wore very white short-sleeved shirts. He taught me a lot about real estate and the business of building. Leggy, that’s what people called him, would ask me what I was doing working in a hardware shop with my brains. You should go out there and make your own money. Of course I was scared. When you work for people you get comfortable and the longer you stay in employment the more you believe that you can’t be anything more than an employee.”
Leggy eventually convinced him to join him as a ‘partner.’ “He was involved in projects in Syokimau, Ngong, Machakos and Athi River. He wanted someone like me, someone trustworthy, hungry and a fast learner. So I joined him and I realised that I actually loved construction and I was good at project planning.” Things started rolling there well.
One weekend a woman who was spending the night shook him awake at around midnight. There was a knock on the door, she said. Groggily, he padded barefoot in darkness to the door. “Standing there was the neighbour girl. I was surprised of course.” She was wearing nothing but some sort of a night shirt or long pyjama-like t-shirt. She was cold. She said her man had kicked her out of the house and she was wondering if she could sleep on the couch. “Of course, I let her in. I mean where else would she go? The next morning, when I went to the living room she had left.” A day later he found a thank you note slipped under his door. It was signed, Glo. Glo would now stop and speak to him whenever they ran into each other, sometimes even flirt with him. Or that’s what he imagined.
At work the money started coming in slowly and then it started coming in fast. He bought his first car, a Toyota double cabin, a beast of a machine that climbed trees and swam in lakes. He moved houses, to a flat in Kilimani with a balcony the size of a shoebox. Work increased considerably, eventually he and his partner split amicably and he started his own company which thrived. “I was doing really well. I had connected with some Chinese contractors who had roped me in to handle certain aspects of their real estate business because they needed a local person with landscape knowledge.”
One day he received a WhatsApp from a strange number. “It was Glo. This was about five years after I had moved out. Five years. The message said something like, ‘hello it’s your former neighbour, Glo. How are you?’ It was her. We met and caught up. She said she had gotten my number from the caretaker soon as I moved out to check up on me but had never used it. She was no longer with her crazy boyfriend, she said. She was still beautiful, man. We went on a few dates. She said she always liked me, that her ex was controlling and she was scared. I was seeing someone at that time, so I broke up with them and started dating Glo.” Things were peachy. She was industrious on top of being beautiful. “She said she had just quit her job, so I asked her if she could join me and help me run things, admin, mostly. She agreed.” She was good with money. She was good with clients. She saw around blind spots. They eventually moved in together and started talking of starting a family.
“It was such a great team, me and her. I bought her a car because sometimes I would send her to pick packages from the Chinese who paid in cash. Lots of cash that one shouldn’t carry in taxis.” Glo did all the banking and managing payrolls and HR issues for the few employees he had. She was a central part of his business. “My person, you know.”
In 2013 he travelled abroad for work. “There was a package that I needed to be picked up from some of my associates. It was a lot of money, 25 million, money that belonged to a third party we were doing business with. Because I was away, I sent her to pick it up from my associates. She did these kinds of money things all the time. After she picked it up from Gallery mall, she called me on Whatsapp and said she had the money and it was in our safe at home as I had instructed. I told her that when I got back, I would disburse the money.”
They spoke many times during the day for the next three days as they usually did. “She was to pick me up from the airport but she said she had to go and babysit her friend’s child who was taken ill at the hospital.” He said, “I told her I had landed and would head home straight. I was dying for a shower and a meal. She said she had prepared something for me to eat, all I had to do was warm it. She’d see me home later.”
At home he had a long hot shower then changed into his shorts and vest and had a meal while watching TV. Later, he fell asleep on the couch. “When I woke up it was coming to 10pm in the night. She wasn’t home. Concerned, I called her. Her phone was off. I called her friend and asked her how she was feeling and she laughed and said she was feeling great. How are you feeling? She asked me, laughing. I asked her what took her to the hospital, you know, small talk. What hospital? She asked. She said she had not been to the hospital in ages. Where is Glo? I asked, getting a terrible feeling about this. She said she had not seen Glo in over two months. They had had a falling out. I immediately went to the safe and opened it. It was empty. Even when I started turning the house upside down looking for the package I knew. I just knew that something terrible had happened.”
He then sat on the edge of the couch and thought, ‘impossible.’ That’s normally what one thinks when one finds themselves sitting on the edge of the couch. There must be some explanation; maybe she decided to keep the money somewhere else, maybe she forgot the combination to the safe, maybe…and in a move that is reminiscent of finding your car stolen from a parking lot and looking for it under other cars, he called her friend back and asked, “wasn’t she babysitting your child today?” and she paused for so long he thought she had hung up. “I don’t have a child.” She said gently, like one would speak to someone who is losing their mind. Or has lost it completely and is dangerous to themselves and to others.
He looked for her even when he already knew it was futile. Even when he arrived at the startling realisation that she had never quite introduced him to her friends; and of the couple he knew, he didn’t have their numbers or know where to start looking. He went to the police who asked basic questions he couldn’t answer. Answers that would have made him look naive. They logged it in their big tattered Occurrence Book, the tome where a great deal of crimes go to get buried in, and promised to open an investigation. One cop told him to “don’t be hard on yourself. There is nothing you could have done. Anyone who has stolen your heart will steal anything from you.”
Eventually what hurt was not even the money, I mean he demonstrated that he could work anywhere for money, that he could make it, what hurt was the deception of the heart. The dedicated art of her trickery. He wondered how far back it had started. If it had started far back. “You start thinking how stupid you are, but then you start thinking of what you could have done to avert this, you can’t think of one thing. For weeks I was confused, literally. Forgetting to switch off the gas cooker, or lock my car door, or driving in the wrong direction or forgetting simple conversations. I was also very hurt, like a heartbreak on steroids because not only had she stolen from me, she had deceived me.”
Of course, the owners of the money wanted their money. They didn’t want to hear a long tale about Glo. These are guys who know nasty people with very thick necks. “Nobody has 25 million lying around, so I started desperately selling off the assets I had, mostly at great loss, to raise the balance; pieces of land, an apartment, a bit of his savings….eventually I raised the money through blood and tears,” he said. “It completely set me back financially, so much so that I had to sell the car I was driving then, a Range Rover. Now I drive that small Toyota you saw me coming out of.”
She still hasn’t been found. “Almost like she never existed. Like she never stayed in my house or lay next to me in bed. She liked going to church on Sundays, sometimes for the whole day. Who knows where she would go? Maybe she hadn’t even broken up with that fellow with the small eyes? Who knows? Maybe she’s a genie.”
The shock of being taken to the cleaners has numbed, the disappointment petered out into fascination. He moved on with his life, started building his life again but the sense of betrayal doesn’t go away competently, it permeates everything you touch. “It completely changed my interaction with women,” he said. “But also my interaction with everybody else, really. I don’t trust anyone. I’m always waiting to be disappointed, I constantly question good deeds. I’m always verifying things before I make a move and that can cripple you. Takes a toll on you.”
He still unconsciously looks out for her in traffic, in bars, in restaurants, everywhere. He still thinks one day he will see her walking by the roadside and he will stop the damn car in the middle of the road and run to her, grab her and stick his half finger in her mouth and shout, “I found you, you raggedy-ass thief!”
Register HERE for the last Creative Writing Masterclass this year. It’s happening on 28th to 30th November. It will be in a hotel. It’s a whole day’s affair. There will be homework which will be peer reviews. Those who don’t do their homework shall be made to sit in a corner, facing a wall. And denied the 10 O’clock tea. So, good fun, in short.