I was at Dunga Hill Camp in Kisumu, seated by the lake, with two heavily drinking doctors. It was a few days shy of Jesus’ birth in the famed manger so most people were either drinking or getting drunk in His honour. These two doctors, however, were hammered. They’d been drinking for the past two days straight, someone said proudly.
The first doctor was the silent type. He wore a drunken smile on his droopy face, head occasionally lolling on his neck in that sad, annoying way typical of someone who should have long left the table and gone home. We had been introduced but I couldn’t remember his name, but I remember thinking, what a brilliant chap with a gaping hole in him. A hole so big, I could wedge my fist through it. When he spoke he surprised you with how articulate (if not slurry) he was and you could tell he was one of those guys who always topped his class and everybody hated him because he always reminded the teacher not to forget to give homework. He was in his late 30s at most. Seated next to him was his girlfriend and as these ironies of life go, men like these tend to date up. Anyone would have described her as being “easy on the eyes.” She sat next to him dutifully, looking irritated and stoic at the same time.
The second doctor was the loud type.
He’s an extremely cerebral fellow, an old friend of my brother. They met in university where they used to cause a ruckus, riding loud motorbikes and living as close to the edge as they could. When my mom died, he had pitched up in my village on the day of the funeral, dragging, behind him, a leg on a cast. His leg. He had broken it by falling in a ditch or something like that, most likely on one of his wild night outs on the tiles. That was the first time I was meeting him and his broken leg and even in the pitch darkness of grief, I found him quite the amusing caricature. He was inebriated or hungover and had gone to great pains to get into a matatu (I’ve never seen him drive as long as I’ve known him) and find his way to our boma to help bury my mother. I was impressed with his level of compassion and duty towards his friend, my brother. It spoke to what kind of a man he was; a man who ignores a broken leg to stand by a friend. People are friends until it’s time to show up, then most don’t. If you aren’t going to be there for someone when they lose their mother, when else are you going to show up for them? I don’t need you when I break my leg. I need you when I break my heart.
At the funeral, I heard him tell my brother, “I think I lost my spectacles in your toilet.” (We had a drop toilet in the corner of the boma.) “It fell in the toilet.” I found that hilarious. How do you lose your spectacles down a toilet? What shit are you looking at down the hole? So for the rest of the day, he stumbled about like a blind man, tapping on his walking stick and dragging his broken leg but never missing a beat to tell a story or test a theory. He was hilarious and smart and could be charming when he wanted. He can be verbose, though, and pesky, especially after a tipple, drawing out not only a discussion but a conversation longer than it should go. And as with very intelligent people, he always thinks he’s right. I like him and his brand of chaos but I can never hang out with him for too long. He can drive you up the wall, the trick is to find that sweet spot when you leave him, a minute longer and you want to garrote him.
Back in Kisumu.
I mentioned we were seated by the lake. The day was grinding to a dramatic end as days tend to end by water bodies; with a big evening sun plunging in the water on the horizon in a splash of orange. The boys barely paid any mind to this Instagramable spectacle as they worked their way through a second bottle of whisky. The second doctor’s woman sat next to him also looking irritated. There were other people at the table because men like him, generous men who love a jolly time, always have people around them like lint on polyester; hangers-on, yes-men, rubbernecks to a trainwreck. I like this guy, he always makes me laugh and stimulates me with his ludicrous insights on things, but I also feel sorry for him because of this obvious slavery to the bottle. How, in his early 40s, he seems to be wasting his beautiful brain and mind, his life ebbing at a table drinking and hollering.
They were doing this strange thing where they mixed their whisky with vitamin C supplements. Wild! “You don’t get tired or hungover,” he explained to me, “you can drink for as long as you can.” Why? I cried. He put his hand on my shoulder like he’d had enough of my piousness and said gravely, “It’s Christmas, why don’t you relax a little, ey?” (It wasn’t Christmas. Yet.)
On brand, he was involved in a big argument with people around the table regarding one of his friends who was not present at the table. He felt that this friend had not been there for him when he was down on his luck, a friend he always treated, bought drinks. His woman – the only person who was courageous enough to stand up to him – felt, pointedly, that the problem was him, not his friend. ‘Are you serious? Nobody owes you anything,’ she kept telling him while not looking at him. He tried to recruit allies around the table and he kept saying, “Biko, what do you think, I’m within my rights to feel disappointed, right? Would you not?” What I knew, without a doubt, was that his question tags were on point. I also knew that his woman was right but these things are delicate. You can’t side with her and make him lose face before his woman, because are we not egos before we are men? But he kept insisting and so I told him as delicately as I could, without upsetting this apple cart by the lake, that perhaps he needed to adjust his expectations of those he thinks are friends. That what you imagine is a friendship might just be a convenience for the other party. He almost shoved me into the lake. “You are as useless as the rest of them,” he dismissed me, with a royal wave of his hand. “No more alcohol for you.” (I was coming out of a one-month drinking break, so I was not exactly drinking, just taking small delicate sips like a precious bride.)
Their drinking was sustained. The table became more raucous and more people joined. The breeze blowing in from the lake became more bitter, sending needles through clothes. I stared yonder at the black lake now darkened with mystery and at the small spots of light across from the shores, houses with families making dinner and preparing to lay down their weary bones. There is a sinisterness that falls upon the lake when the sun has set, like it wants to hurt you if you come close to it. The lake belongs to itself after dark, you can’t claim it or blame it for what it might do.
At one point I heard the first doctor call up his girlfriend who had slipped out to go freshen up in the Airbnb. He was slurring sweet nothings on the phone, telling her “Baby, if you don’t come back right away I will jump and drown myself in the lake. Do you want that, baby?” he moaned, “Do you?” Well, Baby didn’t want that so she came back looking fresh and supple, smelling like fresh fruits with beads of water on them. She commandeered his phone because the table now had many people and he looked like he was going to lose the phone before the night ended. No hippos came by, in case you’re wondering if this story ends with hippos coming ashore and people taking off helter-skelter with their bottles stuck under their arms.
They were shacking up in what was a fancy Airbnb in Milimani estate, at the very top floor, with a great view of Kisumu’s vista. The talk was the party would move to one of their residences (the second doctor’s exact words, which gives away his tribe) because he claimed he had the best view. There was more alcohol, he announced, and certainly more Vitamin C supplements to last until Judas kissed Jesus on the cheek.
“You are coming with us,” the Second Doctor announced. I wasn’t. I had been planning my Irish Exit which I executed quickly, and flawlessly, and went back to my Airbnb (that didn’t have a view of the city) where I called my brother and told him his friend needed help to which he said, “what help has he not gotten? The only person who can help him now is himself.”
Made me sad. The doctor always makes me sad because he carries such a brilliant brain but he soaks it in whisky.
All the brilliant ones are wasting their lives away. Isn’t that the irony, that the truly gifted are drinking their lives away? That their lives revolve around alcohol and hedonism? That there is great glory in counting the bottles of whisky you had last night? That drinking for two days is something worth announcing as if it’s an admirable feat at a certain age. Does nobody know how to walk away from the table anymore? Is moderation a mere suggestion, not a rule? That we swirl around bars causing this whirlwind that sucks us all in? Even as the death knell is sounded we continue to drink because we don’t know what else to do. Can we not go walking in a forest? Or find a hobby. Or read a book. Or start cycling, discover running. Or build something with our hands. Or go on a road trip and discover the wonder of the open road and the unending skies? Won’t we one day all wake up and look around and not be able to recognise where we have ended up or who we have become? And won’t it be a little too late?
The Airbnb I was staying at is run by an acquaintance and I thought I’d support their business, maybe even plug it here, but it was truly a dump. It was in a detached servants’ quarter of a very large old house in a massive compound in Milimani estate, if you know those old massive muhindi houses in Milimani. Big old trees milled around the slightly overgrown compound, murmuring to themselves the way old people do. The space was meagre but it smelled slightly of something old and disused. The bathroom in the common area was shared with the second unit, which thankfully was unoccupied.
At night the large empty house loomed ominous over me when I parted the curtain and looked out the window. I wasn’t scared (of course I wasn’t) but I thought what would happen if a band of seven monkeys showed up? I’ve never fought off more than five monkeys before. I lie; I’ve never fought off monkeys before. The main door was light, they’d simply kick it down with their small monkey feet and then I’d have to face them…and negotiate my safe passage.
Anyway, I lay in the room thinking about these doctors and wondering if I should write about them and what that would mean if they read this story. Then I wondered why I was attracted to writing only about people of a certain type; dysfunctional people, people going through tough times, people who have lost something or are losing, anarchy and bedlam, pain and strife. Why is my writing attracted to doom and friction? Was it a character flaw on my part? Oh my God, was I broken? I thought, sitting up in bed like I had been electrocuted.
Funnily enough, aren’t the stories like this that make for great reading if we are honest? If it bleeds it leads, they say. Who wants to read about happy people? Boooring! We like to gaze into festering wounds. To look down at people who fell over cliffs; did they make it? Will they climb back up dragging a broken leg? That’s why we all slow down to ogle at an accident. I’m not so broken after all. I’m like you. Only you pretend, sitting there sniffing at this.
As the night wore on in my Airbnb, the silence became total and the seclusion palpable and I thought about all the people I have interviewed, especially those in the Marriage Series and the 40’s series. It’s coming up on five years now. Where are they now? Are they happy? Did they turn the corner? Did they pick yoga or nudism? Did they become vegetarians? How are their children doing? Do they walk barefoot to connect with the earth?
Wouldn’t it be nice if I looked for them and found out where they are in life and how things panned out for them? You know, to have closure. We need closure, don’t we?
I write many stories, some I don’t remember. If there is a story you read here that you haven’t forgotten, please drop me a comment, even with the story’s link and I will find those characters and do another catch-up interview. And if I interviewed you before for the marriage series or 40s series, and you want to catch up, please drop me an email at [email protected] and I will be much obliged to revisit our conversation.
Eventually, the monkeys never came. Because they knew I wasn’t in the mood to f*k around with some low-level primates.
Happy New Year, Gang.
Shall we hold this year by its cajones, then?
I don’t know if you heard but I wrote another book. I think it’s a decent book. I think you should get it for yourself and your office husband or office wife if you have already bought one for your real wife or husband. Buy it HERE and I will autograph it.
Oh, and happy birthday to my beloved Tamms who is turning 16 on Friday, 11th.
Sixteen! Bloody hell!