Better Half

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I once dated this girl who smoked. Dunhills.  She always smelled of cigarettes and perfume. She lived in a house that had a tree branch that peeked into the balcony. I found it distracting and I offered to cut it down many times, but she’d hear none of that.  “We don’t hurt living things.” She’d mutter, lighting a cigarette with a cheap lighter that had seen better days. “Come on, it’s just a branch,” I’d protest but she’d hear none of it. She’d toss her lighter away to mark the end of that conversation.

She liked gardening but since she lived in an apartment she made a small “garden” on her balcony, pots of Lobelia, Hibiscus, ornamental grasses, and some roses. On a Saturday morning, I’d ring her bell a million times and she’d open the door with a burning cigarette trapped between her full lips, her jumper dirty from the soil, a soil knife in her gloved hand.

“I really need a key,” I’d say, and she’d get on the tips of her toes to kiss me and then say in her raspy and smoky voice, “sure, but you haven’t earned a key yet, sweetie,” then I’d follow her to her balcony where I’d lean against the doorway and watch her work on her plants as she talked non-stop, smoking and pruning and cutting, all the while barefoot, her toes painted blue or green or nude, the delicate bones of her ankle looking like something you’d suck, like a lollipop.

She was an eccentric bird; she talked to her plants, wooed them to full life with tender and urging words. Yeah, she was one of those. One time I found her solemnly staring at a wall, two butts of smoked cigarette in her ashtray. “I’ve suffered a grave loss,” she said, close to tears. “What happened?” I asked, putting my consoling hand on her bare knee. “Lily died.” She mumbled bringing another unlit cigarette to her mouth and not lighting it. I thought to myself, who the f*k is Lily now? But I didn’t want to ask lest it becomes about me not being very interested in her friends or family or whatever. I shook my head and said, “oh crap, I’m sorry,” then fishing for more information on who the hell Lily was, “how did she die?” She lit the cigarette and pouted. “I don’t know. The leaves just started falling off a few days ago….” I switched off. I thought, what the hell? Am I going to sit here and mourn a plant? Flora?

She smoked when she was happy and she smoked when she was furious and when she was bored. She smoked in bed, propped up against the headboard, shirtless, braless, her breasts defying gravity. She looked both vulnerable and outlandish in that pose, squinting as she smoked, laughing loudly at my flaccid jokes. Her house smelled of smoke and of spices when she was cooking up a storm (while smoking). I liked watching her smoke; how she’d rummage through her bag for ages, mumbling, looking for a lighter. She could never find her lighters. How she’d calm down after her first smoke; her face settling into a peaceful surrender. How dark the tip of her tongue was, like the tongue of a herbivorous animal. I liked how she held her cigarette between her uncharacteristically thin fingers (for she was a ‘hippious/assious’ girl) and strong natural nails, absentmindedly, letting it burn. I liked to watch how she’d violently crash a cigarette filter in an ashtray with those brittle fingers, as if she’ll never smoke another again. I liked how she’d leave lipstick-stained filters in wine glasses, an artsy installation of a habit she hated. One time she was soaking in her bathtub with a book and she called out to me from the living room where I was sprawled watching Family Guy, “Do you mind getting my cigarettes from my console?” I didn’t see any cigarettes on the counter so I opened the drawer and found colorful things that looked like sweets. I said loudly, “I found some sweets in your drawer!” She shouted back. “Those are tampons!” I could hear her giggle. Then she added. “Bring them. I will smoke them.” She was mad.

I remembered her recently as I stood, shirtless, a towel around my waist, on the flat roof of a brand new villa in a new development called Pazuri at Vipingo, adjacent to Vipingo Ridge in Kilifi. The sky was starless and a blanket of darkness surrounded me, pressing against me like pressure. I stared out at the dark ocean and thought of how badly I could use a cigarette – a Dunhill – even though I have never smoked in my life. It was a still night, one of those nights where things happened; inexplicable things, things that you narrated to friends in bars as they shook their heads disbelievingly, cackling. I watched the light of a night guard’s torch dance around the compound in one of the unoccupied and unfurnished villas across from mine. The night was humid and stuffy, as Kilifi can be, but a saline, timid breeze that tickled my skin attempted to disperse the stuffiness. Yeah, a perfect night to light up a cigarette and smoke in deep thought like smokers tend to do. With their introspective smoking profile, smokers give the impression that they are on the verge of making a monumental discovery, while in reality, all they are ruminating on is if they will remember to throw away the leftovers in the fridge.

I was standing there on that flat roof thinking about folk who buy holiday homes like this one I was staying at – a Sh 20.9m, 4-bedroom villa. What do these people do? What do they wear? What decisions have they made in their lives that I haven’t, to own a holiday home at Vipingo Ridge? Which God is this that they pray to? Don’t they pee while standing? Doesn’t their burger get messy when they eat it? But even more importantly, I wanted to have a peek at how the sale of a holiday home goes down. So I asked a gentleman called Silvano, an architect at Pazuri at Vipingo, a hard-hat wearing man who sees life in the form of lines, angles, and elevations.

First, a man could walk in alone or he could be with his wife, who, if you are buying a holiday home isn’t your wife but your ‘better half.” If you have been married for under 10 years you have a wife. Anything beyond that is a better half. So this man walks in alone. He’s in his 40s or in his 50s. If he’s in his 50s he’s probably wearing a hat. He gets off a four-wheel drive. When he walks into the sales office he removes his sunglasses and says, ‘habari zenu?” if he’s in his 50s or, “how are you, guys?” if he’s in his 40s. He will be shown the model estate, comprising 105 acres and boasting 350 luxury units. He will hold his hat in his hand and look at the massive model, expressionless. You will notice that his pants – khakis – have a turn-up. He will most likely smell good because he just came from an air-conditioned vehicle. He will lean and point, “what’s this?” he will be told that it is a provision for a helipad. He doesn’t own a helicopter yet but it has crossed his mind.

If he came with his wife (he’s in his 40s), the wife will sit in a chair and not seem to bother too much with the big model and the ambitious talk about their amenities like swimming pools, biking trails, horse riding, and snorkeling. But suddenly she might speak up and ask, “Will there be a spa in the clubhouse?” to which the salesperson will say, “Of course, ma’am.”

She will be on her phone, texting her sisters in their Whatsapp group. Or a work Whatsapp group. She’s probably HR so people from the office don’t send memes to her. Booboo. The tour will begin at the showhouses; the two-bedroom, three-bedroom, and the villa (all ensuite), all flat-roofed. Inside, the husband will fall back during the tour as she leads. At this stage of the marriage, if he is in his 40s, she will refer to him as  “the Hubs” to her friends and “babes” in person. But if he is in his 50s she will simply refer to him as “John” or “Paul” or “Martin” when she has been married to him for over 10 years. No pretenses anymore. Anyway, John will fall back as she walks into rooms and looks around. Generally, women are good at minutiae, I was told, but what they are keen to know about the space is: Is it big enough? If you don’t have a wardrobe big enough for her clothes, forget it, they are no longer interested in the house. They also want a spacious kitchen, and so, as she opens cabinets and looks up the hood in the kitchen the man will be somewhere in the backyard, on his phone, saying, “that shipment number is wrong! I talked to them about it, try and follow up and get back to me….yes, I’m in Kilifi…until Monday.”

The man and woman will view the houses differently. The man is keen to see the house as a place he can chill. So, the flat rooftop ay Pazuri at Vipingo will fascinate him, an aerial man cave. He will picture an umbrella up there, cold beers, and his mates having a tickle, maybe a barbeque going, talking about business and children and cars and women. Not in that order, of course. Women ask the most questions, I was told. Men will generally be silent, touching things, looking at hinges, standing at the massive backyard that gives the owner an opportunity to have a swimming pool or a garden. The wives think big picture, which influences their final decision: what will my social ecosystem think of me and this house? They picture hosting, shuttling from the kitchen in their new hairdo and flowing bareback dress and her friends saying, “Linda, this is such a lovely place. I love your windows and curtains!” They don’t see an empty house, they populate it with feelings and humans. If they can’t see it in their heads they won’t be sold.

I asked if they have ever seen open disagreements between couples. You know, things escalating so much that the man has to walk away and wait in the car to control his breathing and the wife [never the better half, better halves are too tired and too experienced to fight] saying ‘John, please don’t make this an issue.” He told me a story.

Now, the developers – Superior Homes – are also selling parcels of land in that area for those who might want to construct their own houses in their own designs. So this one time this man came in with his better half. The woman wanted the villa. The man wanted to buy a parcel of land. (He was from Kerugoya). They couldn’t agree. They stood in the corner of the bedroom, by the large windows, having what they thought was a whispered conversation but their voices echoed in the empty room loudly enough for the salesperson in the next room to hear them. Finally, they arrived at a decision. The man came back in and announced that they had reached a compromise; he’d buy the plot of land and he’d buy her the villa. Win-win. “Damn, talk about throwing money at a problem!’ I told Silvano.

“But can you immediately tell who has money?” I asked him, “If they walked in here?” He said you can’t.

Chaps who would buy their three-bedroom bungalows for 16.98m will be very unassuming. Nothing flashy. They will most likely not wear shoes that you would remember. There are people who would view a house and disappear for months only to come back and say, ‘okay, I will get the villa. Can I have a pool with it?”

But ultimately, I was told, although men largely hold the purse strings, if the wife or better half isn’t sold, that house is not being sold. It doesn’t matter how bloody big the kitchen is, it doesn’t matter how spacious the master bedroom is, or how large the wardrobes are, if you don’t sell her on the idea, then you are sunk. So the salespeople, I’m told, have to sell to the woman. They have to listen to them. And laugh at their jokes. And nod when they make a point, even a moot one. They say, ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘I’m sure that can be arranged, ma’am.’ And hold doors for her. And get her ice cubes in her soda if you have to chopper it in. In short, most wives buy houses. The husbands just pay for it.

But then there are the sole women walking in, no husbands in tow, no Johns or Pauls, just them, perhaps three of them. Their skin is glowing. They have two phones. They wear simple but expensive-looking sandals. Even though it’s hot they don’t sweat, they perspire lightly, dabbing at their faces with white handkerchiefs. They belong to a Chama or they are just friends, powerhouses in their own rights, running businesses, or sitting at the head of corporate tables. They come out of their cars, holding their dresses in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. They wear matte lipstick. They are not there to mess around. They want a house and they know what type they want. They will ask a million questions and sometimes you will have to answer the same question twice, but you stay focused because when the questions are done, you will know you made a sale because they will say, “I will email you on Monday and keep my lawyer in copy.” And it’s a wrap.

Then there are Chama guys coming in fours or sixes. They are keen to buy for investment purposes. The treasurer is always a guy who wears a sweater and has a pen in his pocket. Then there are people who come to dream, to have this on their vision board. They have hunger in their eyes. But everybody who goes to Pazuri at Vipingo to view the holiday homes are led by ambition and dreams.

I got off the roof and went to bed. I marveled how one day, in this very room, a buyer, the new holiday homeowner, would be in the massive bed, perhaps his curtains open like mine, looking out at the black mass of the ocean. Maybe they’d not be able to sleep because they want another holiday home because ambition is restless and so they’d step out at the bedroom balcony and light a cigarette which they’d smoke silently, squinting in deep thought, at the verge of making a monumental discovery.

 

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Check out Pazuri at Vipingo here. https://www.superiorhomes.co.ke/pazuri-at-vipingo/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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49 Comments
    1. Couldn’t agree more. “..They have to listen to them. And laugh at their jokes. And nod when they make a point, even a moot one…” that got me cracking for real.

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  1. I just want to know why we say things like “better half” this consistently suggests that we are ourselves the opposite?
    but also suggests that as individuals we are not whole / complete…

    I would hazard to suggest that “better half” should be used to describe our lives after the age of 30 when we truly begin to live 🙂

    It was indeed a nice read…

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  2. See that part you ask what people who buy such houses do or are…that is me everytime I drive through Nyaru, through spring valley….anyway i seem to like this past girlfriend of yours, she sounds cool! A good read

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  3. Welcome back Biko…. You sure had a full one…..

    For a moment You almost had me confused whether we were having ‘lights on’ on Dunhills cigar…

    And yes, we don’t hurt living things,…. Si next time you tell us how the breakup was like. I am certain she just told you to your face, ‘we are done’, sprawled herself on the chair, smiled and took another spliff…. No fuss

    Will check out Pazuri to visualise my dreams.

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  4. I received the Pazuri offer brochure 4 days ago. Gives me more reason to fly down and have a look. Bottom line it’s an investment into the future. Your play of words…. just amazing. “Do they pee standing”?

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  5. Nice one, I always live for this articles where you start a captivating storyline then keep the anticipation if you will throw a curve ball of an ad and its like gotcha u!!!

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  6. “Damn talk about throwing money at a problem”
    Money gives one means to a living!

    “””me mourning about about a plant?Flora?”

    This just warmed my auricles and ventricles!

    Thanks Biko,for this Thursday bonus read!

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  7. At the end of the story, I suddenly remembered that it had been about a smoking lass…. Had to do back to the intersection to re-take my bearings!
    Beautiful!

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  8. I didn’t see any cigarettes on the counter so I opened the drawer and found colorful things that looked like sweets. I said loudly, “I found some sweets in your drawer!” She shouted back. “Those are tampons!” I could hear her giggle. Then she added. “Bring them. I will smoke them.” She was mad.”

  9. I would love to see how the rooms look like, the interiors…then I can picture filling them with plants..just because humans are overrated, and holiday homes should be places of refuge from a tumultuous world.

    This lights on post in some uncanny way reminds me of those parents who skip out of town for a couple of weeks, and leave their older teens to ‘hold fort’ only to cut short their trip and return without warning, surprising the teens who are smack in the middle of a party, and have completely trashed the house.

  10. I loove this piece. I couldn’t help but keep smiling and laughing. There are those who come and dream, to have this on their vision board .. Lol.

  11. This is awesome. The copy that sales
    If you want to date a super Jamaican model be that copywriter. With these skills, your ambitions will be restless