Down An Anthole

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The other day I was having a conversation about death with Lady. I’d read an article about a guy who was talking about cremation and she asked me, “Would you consider being cremated?” Her voice echoed loudly because everybody had left town for the Easter Holiday or the Safari rally or the coast. It was like having a conversation in a pot. I said, “Never.” She said, “Let me guess because it’s not African just like wearing shoes, eating with a fork, and taking multivitamins for your bones.” I said, My bones were just fine. It’s my left knee that’s the problem. I also don’t want to get buried in Langata, I added. Or anywhere else that isn’t in my village, next to my mother.

“You realise that in 150 years, where you are buried in your village will be a house or houses. That someone – strangers – will be seated in that house, using a gadget we can’t start fathoming or watching what looks like a TV? Anthropology will keep evolving. ” I said I didn’t care if that person had two heads. Or if they build an abattoir over my grave. I will be at peace in that soil. 

“What about people without villages?” She asked. “People with grandparents who were born in Kaloleni? No shags to go to, to be buried in?”

Then they get buried in Langata, I said. Next to strangers. 

“Yeah, but it won’t matter who they are buried next, going by your two-head argument.” She countered. What matters is where you know you will be buried before you die and if you are at peace with that, I said. On and one it went a conversation about death just before they nailed Jesus to the cross. 

Some people want their ashes scattered in the Indian Ocean. Or in a valley. Or kept in an urn in a pantry. I wouldn’t imagine. I’m a quasi-traditionalist who takes antibiotics. Bite me. 

This is not even about death, this is about rooting. Where are you rooted? I’m aware that some people don’t care where they are rooted. They belong to the universe, they belong to fire, to wind, to sun, to the vastness of the universe. 

Over this holiday, I know a few people who had gone to their villages and I asked them to send me a photo of their village. I like looking at photos of people’s villages to see if I might know them better. I got a photo from Migori; green like you wouldn’t imagine Nyanza to be green. They grow coffee there, did you know? I got a photo from Khwisero, Kakamega. Green also, with terraces. And from Butere; lush with green treetops in the background. A photo from Mau summit; a friend seated with her aged dad against what looked like a wooden kitchen or store. A photo from Narok; dry, blue sky, shrubs. My (not so) little brother sent me photos of our village. I felt warmth seeing familiar trees and patches of grass even though I’m headed there tomorrow with the kids to show them where they belong, where they are rooted. Even if they never go back on their own one day. 

How was the Easter Holiday? Were you in your village or were you having a margarita in a bar in Kilimani? That’s also rooting, by the way. 

Anyway, onto less serious matters. Word came back. The Overnight Stranger sequel isn’t happening. Our subject said the lawyer put a pin on it, something about a case in court that sounded to me like a case of cold feet. A bit disappointing normally when I’ve spent hours writing copy that nobody will ever read, but what to do, everybody owns their story. 

Talking of which; I rummaged through my Icebox and got this story from Gloriah Amondi that I had kept for days like these. 

It’s a story about a couch, but knowing Gloria, the story is never about a couch, it’s about her uhm colorful life in the city. My favourite line from this piece is, “…because pre-owned stuff comes with their own stories from their previous lives. They come with their own lives, and minds of their own.” Yum. 

Gloriah?

***

By Amondi Gloriah

The couch arrived a few months before I received a job termination notice in my mail.

Its arrival- the couch, not the notice- was abrupt.

I had woken up without one, then by the time I was going to bed, half my living room was taken up and I suddenly could not stretch on the woven carpet anymore and do pretend yoga like I used to. The reason for this abrupt acquisition was that the seller who had not been around for a while (and had not anticipated to be back soon) was suddenly back and eager to dispose of it before I changed my mind.

It is beige, the dirty-ish shade of beige that looks like it was dipped in a light mixture of milk and deep brown mud and then left to dry. Its armrests spread out slightly. And because it is secondhand, there’s a glaring scar right on the middle of the cushion which is prominent at the center but then gets lighter at the margins, as if somebody attempted to wipe it off.

I bought it cheaply off an expat’s online market, from an Ivorian expat from Yamoussoukro who has been working in Nairobi for four years, and who in an embarrassed voice said to me on the phone, Glorie, there is a stain, not big, just this size (probably gestured at this point). If you don’t want, tell me, I take it back.

I took it.

Now it sits in my living room. To make space for it, I moved my floor cushions my dead house plants, and some of the books I had left on the carpet, and then it looked settled.

Like it has always been there. Like it belonged there.

Until it landed at my place, I had always considered buying or using stuff from some other people a bit intrusive. Not the underwear or toothbrush kind of intrusive, but like inheriting somebody’s hair kind of intrusive. The long-term intrusion, because pre-owned stuff comes with their own stories from their previous lives. They come with their own lives, and minds of their own. Objective ghosts, of their owner’s subjective past.

Those very first nights I spent on the couch, listening to the quiet of the night- those suspiciously quiet nights with their different kind of silence, the silence of a November night holding its breath- I wondered what its story was.

***

The first person to have me on the couch finds it a little too springy.

It is the night I receive the termination mail, and I’m in (an unexplainable) feisty state, wild even. We are sitting on the couch curled up in its embrace when I see the mail on my phone.

I read it aloud to him:

Dear Gloria (notice, no h)

I hope you’re well.

After careful consideration and a comprehensive review of our existing professional relationship, I regret to inform you that we will terminate your part-time engagement as a language tutor at our institution as of *date*. This is due to a misalignment of the values and priorities between you and the organization. I would like to express my gratitude for your contributions and dedication during your time with us. You have been a great addition to the team.

Best Regards.

“Nothing more?” He asks.

“Nope.”

“Not even a ‘you have five minutes to come pick your stuff’?”

“Nope, not even that. Although I would have appreciated a bit of sarcasm, you know? Something like, ‘We wish you all the best in your future endeavors’.”

“Damn girl, you are out of a job. You can’t afford preferences now. You take what you get,” he laughs.

To which I respond the only way I do when I need to clear my head – straddling!

“Wanna move to the bed?”

His voice is breathy and although he looks like he would still achieve his heights right there, he also seems a little uncomfortably restrained.

No!

He is a TV host, this man with the height of a football flag post and a skin smoothened by years of fame and good money. When his breathing has slowed, noticing the stain for the first time, he looks up with a bewildered expression, like a new murderer wondering if all the blood on the floor is from his recent handiwork.

I chuckle but say nothing. I will not let anybody have me on the couch after that. 

On the night of the man with the height of a flag post and money-smooth skin, he folds himself to fit on the couch to cuddle – me, tired, exhilarated, my mind floating away; generally, in a condition in which it is hard to keep a grip on things.

On the other hand, he is in a chatty mood, seems utterly unfazed, and is talking, now, about childhood: ‘I have been dreaming of my cousin Anthole. I haven’t seen him or thought of him in a long time. Ha Ha. Anthole is not his real name, of course, his name is Jared, but we have called him that since we were kids. It’s a nickname he got from our classmates years ago when during a class reading, he read the English word ‘ant hole’ as a single word, sounding in the end as ‘an-thole’ and sending the entire class into fits of laughter. Since then, we have called him that- Anthole. I haven’t thought of him in a while. I wonder what the dream means. Anyway, sad how nothing worked out for him in life- no job, he never married nor had kids. The last I saw of him; he was drinking heavily.’

It occurs to me as he talks that he is building up to something and I am almost tempted to mention it but in a rare moment of tactfulness, I decide to remain silent.

I don’t have to wait for long. The first cloud is about to appear on the horizon. The man with the height of a flag post and money-smooth skin is speaking important but strange words:

“Come live with me. I have more than enough space. You can save some cash, now that one of your gigs didn’t work out.”

“At your house?” I ask, perplexed.

“Yes. At my house. Let’s make it our home.”

“I can’t,” I say.

Maybe sometime later?

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

***

For a big city, Nairobi can operate remarkably like a small village.

It isn’t long before my neighbours figure out that the man with the height of a flag post and money-smooth skin no longer comes around, and that the gentleman with the UNFP-branded car and strange accent who occasionally drops by is:

  1. My visitor
  2. A generous foreigner, with a soft spot especially for chatty guards

The first time he spends in my house (not our very first one together, it must be said), he spots the couch as he walks in and says, rather accusatory, “You still have it.”

“I like it,” I reply, a little too defensive.

He sits, and I think to myself that his posture is rather stiff. But I let him stick around for a while because his couch is in my house anyway, and some things are meant to exist in spaces together, like two souls, or, in this case, a man and his couch.

But I also like him- not as scarily a lot as (I later realize) I had liked the man with the flag post height and money-smooth skin – but just the right amount of liking. And I like how he pronounces my name with an accented r as if his tongue missed its dock briefly and then clicked back. Glo’r’ie!

I like him because he is an infectiously happy man, and he walks around with an amused smile as if he’s always on the brink of laughter. As if, if you poked him, even lightly, he would burst into a hearty laugh.

And because he loves the music that men older than him love. And it reminds me of my father. Music with some grizzled hair on its chest. Sometimes, I imagine him in old age, sitting with his friends listening to Finny McConnel or Dory Previn, cheerily and noisily croaking along:

‘Beware of young girls

Who come to the door

Wistful and pale of twenty and four

Delivering daisies with delicate hands…’

Finishing the song (the end which will have been unanimously and exaggeratedly prolonged) I imagine him turning to his friend, ‘They don’t make them like that anymore, do they, Jeff?”

Of course, I will tell him all these things on one of those rare nights he will spend at my place. That night when I will get feverish and a little delirious from food poisoning, he will reply, “You’re young, Glorie.”

But deliriums being what they are, i.e., that they make your tongue as loose as a child’s, leaving you with no governors, unable to separate what’s okay to say from what is not, I will tell him what I despise about him (where unsurprisingly, the man with the flag post height and money-smooth skin is the standard, and so, an awfully hurtful and comprehensive list but not at all unexpected considering at the time, I am belatedly and foolishly in love with the named standard).

I will tell him that I am tired of his kind of gruff monosyllabic conversation after sex. I will want him to chatter away like the man with the goalpost height and money-smooth-skin.

I do not tell him how much the silences haunt me, so much so that I have been narrating to him stories the man with the flag post height and money-smooth skin used to tell me, and how often I have stopped myself from screaming at him to wake up when he starts drifting off.

“Listen, I’m telling you something beautiful, you bastard!”

I do not tell him because there’s no need to. The damage is done. He gets me to the bed without a word and covers me.

In the morning, he’s gone before I wake up.

***

Have you not registered for the writing masterclass? Still procrastinating? Maybe next year? Maybe when you hit 30? Or 35? Maybe when you have more money? Maybe when suddenly you are 50? That’s okay then. In the meantime, grab a copy of one of my books HERE

Or just tell me about what new thing you saw in your village this time you went visiting. 

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16 Comments
  1. Couch are even better being bought as second hand, ever bought a mattress as second hand and every night u wonder if only the Mattress could tell stories from it’s previous live?

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  2. Seriously Biko, do you have to feed us with Glorias sex life? Not interested, was hoping thus time would be different, but disappointed at the very beginning and stopped reading. You dont have to go down this gutter route surely. Disappointed kabisa

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  3. Hello Biko, Kindly do a follow up on this https://bikozulu.co.ke/2019/09/10/mike-and-micah/

    Now reading this… 🙂

  4. I have been thirsting for Tuesday read like a new murderer wondering if all the blood on the floor is from his recent handiwork.

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  5. Weeuh…I remember reading that story with disbelief at the man’s calm and calculated moves. Too bad we cant get a full update on that story. @Biko, or could you just tell us if he remarried and how the the girl who isnt his is doing???

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  6. This one must be a bad day in your office.
    And your stories have typo and language errors of late. What’s the issue? It’s like I’m reading someone else, like Chocolate Man’s ghost or something…

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  7. I was about to say I love reading your stories even though there are times I wonder if am not reading several stories all merged into one.
    But I must say that you’ve got talent.
    hahaha! . Keep writing manze.