Sometimes he looks at his wife lying on the other sofa, legs stretched out, a cup of tea at the foot of the sofa, watching a silly video from her phone with a frozen smile on her face, the TV murmuring in the background, the children playing outside, or opening the fridge in the kitchen. It’s a quiet Sunday and the help is on her day off. Soon, the doorbell will ring and she will get up and he will hear her speak to the delivery guy, receiving whatever takeout she had ordered because she couldn’t be bothered to cook, which is fine anyway because she’s not good at it. Later, the children – three of them – will gather at the table noisily, hungrily reaching for the pizza as she asks them repeatedly if they have washed their hands, plates clinking, the sound of juice pouring into glasses, seats scraping against the wooden floor, her snapping at one of them to put away their tablet and eat, breaking small sibling squabbles at the table with a snappy voice, a glass being knocked over by a restless elbow…, the general buzz of domesticity. She will be – as she always has been – the general of this small domestic army; directing, chiding, urging, threatening, taking cautious bites at their junk food because she’s always been on some weight loss diet or other. He sometimes watches her run this chaotic domestic orchestra and sometimes she catches him watching and asks, “what?” to which he says, “nothing” and goes back to reading the e-newspaper from his tablet. During these moments, he wonders what would happen if he told her after the table has been cleared and the children have long scooted off to play outside.
Sometimes he hears her hum in the bathroom as she showers, one of her long unnecessary showers that completely steam the bathroom. He plays out a scenario where he ambushes her while she – after her shower – is bent over pulling drawers open looking for a garment and he pictures her face when she turns and says, “What’s wrong?”, her face suddenly small and fragile, shrunk by worry and trepidation. This is the moment, he realises, in this scenario, where everything changes irrevocably, like cracked china.
Sometimes during the day, he sees her online on Whatsapp when she’s probably out there at work in an empty Covid-time office, seated at the very corner of the room, the city’s skyline a backdrop through the wall of glass. Maybe she’s chatting with one of the kids or one of her friends or one of her family members in their family group and he wonders what would happen if he forwarded her a picture as an introduction, a preamble, and how she would remain online for a bit, staring at the photo disbelievingly and then going offline, and him waiting for his phone to ring, and she never calls and when she walks in through the door later, she looks older and defeated before they even start the fight.
“Lately I have been having dreams,” he says, “ that she’s standing over me in bed and she’s mad as hell and she wants to harm me with something, a weapon, and I’m trying to wake up but I can’t, I’m paralysed. There are many variations of this dream, most of them with her being the aggressor and me being the helpless victim. I’ve had countless of those, often when I wake up I can’t recall them at all, but there’s a lingering nervousness.”
His youngest – only 5-years old – loves to lie on the couch and place his head on his lap, playing Roblox. He’s a spitting image of him but with that brazen courage of his mother. He’s a peculiar boy who dislikes shoes and prefers going about in his socks. He’s temperamental like him but also quick to reconcile, to extend an olive branch, unlike him. He sometimes looks at him, completely absorbed in the strange world of gaming, and he wonders: “Will he remember these moments, when his father’s dignity had not been eroded by his choices. If he will still look at me with my clay feet and still be able to love me, tainted as I am.”
Just before Covid, he went to see a gastroenterologist and he was diagnosed with gastritis. He’d gradually upped his smoking from half a pack to one pack and when Covid hit he started doing close to two packs a day because of this problem but also the general uncertainty of work. He’d stay outside after dinner, after the children had been tucked in, and he’d leave her already in bed, on her phone, and go outside in the parking lot and smoke for an hour watching the neighbours lights go off one by one until a very still silence descended on the street. His worry had risen gradually over time, gnawing at him slowly from the inside. He was barely able to finish his food; feeling bloated and pained in the abdomen. “It’s probably amoeba,” his wife would say because she, a non-doctor, greatly believed in diagnosing people by just listening to them, then self-medicating them. She is yet to kill someone, but that day is surely coming.
On those nights when he smoked one cigarette after another in the lonesome parking lot, he’d rehearse the conversation over and over in his head, often catastrophizing the scenarios. In one scenario he’d picture her seated on the bed, holding her head in stony silence. In others, she’d be throwing something at him, something heavy with a hit-seeking trajectory, aimed at his face, this face that had betrayed her. In others she’d be hurling out her suitcases from the top drawer, screaming, throwing clothes in those suitcases, his youngest holding his tablet, standing bewildered at the door of the bedroom, close to tears, asking, “Mommy why are you crying?” In others they’d be seated in a kangaroo court in her parents’ living room, a tense and greatly embarrassing occasion with her kith and kin and his kith and kin, afraid to look up into the eyes of his in-laws. In the more gruesome and painful scenarios, she’s just be seated on the bed with hunched shoulders in a curved posture discouraged by orthopedic specialists, chuckling to herself, shaking her head and repeating his name, saying, ‘Felix Felix Felix…Oh, Felix, what a fool you have turned me into.”
“How did you meet?” I asked him to interrupt his solemn reverie.
They met in the rain. Believe it or not. “You watch movies of lovers meeting in the rain, I actually did meet her in the rain,” he said, “maybe that was the first sign.” It was after working hours and he had remained in the office to finish some paperwork as he waited for the rain and traffic to abate. When he walked out of the elevator she was standing at the entrance of the building as the torrential rain came down in thick long drops the size of lipstick. She worked on the fifth floor, he worked on the sixth. He’d seen her around, as she had him, as she later confessed, and a few times he had actually nodded at her when they found themselves waiting for the elevator. She had a small oval face and dark eyes the colour of very dark chocolate. A girl of modest height – she preferred high heels that elevated her height and ass.
He had offered to shelter her under his umbrella while they walked to her car parked at the farthest end of the parking, close to a large tree that never bore any fruit. As they walked to the car, their bodies occasionally bumped into each other under that umbrella. He could smell her. Over the years she always recalled that scent, a sweet illicit scent. As the rain drummed on the umbrella they had stood there briefly by her car and she had thanked him coyly as he stared into the depths of her chocolate eyes, knowing without knowing that he would pursue her.
Two days later he stood at their reception and asked her out on a date. Two weeks later, he was taking a shower in her bathroom, looking at the line of her frilly knickers hanging on a very thin improvised line. A year later, through sheer carelessness, callousness, great miscalculation of dates and cycles and great weakness and foolishness of the flesh, she told him that she was pregnant. “Fuck,” he had blurted out, “my wife is going to kill me.”
She was – still is – a solid Catholic girl so she said, “I can’t abort this baby but if you want no part of it I will not fault you, neither will I make you take care of it if you don’t want to.” They had been talking about their options for a month and they couldn’t agree on the next course of action. He wanted termination, she couldn’t live with the idea of it, she said. “This is your chance for a clean break,” she told him that evening as he wore his shoes by the door, “you can go and never come back. I will raise this child alone. But if you go, this door will never be opened to you again.”
He said he was sorry and he left. He removed the same shoes at a different door, his door, a house where his wife and young family lived. He tossed his three-year-old son up to the ceiling as he squealed and looked at homework for the other two. He became a selective father – the type who turns his back on his other child. And it ate at him. “My conscience wouldn’t let me thrive, man,” he said. “I’d think about what would become of my other child when he was born, without a father, while I raised his half-siblings selfishly, giving them a different life but also an opportunity to enjoy me. That shit ate through me day and night.” Eventually, he went back and knocked on her door and said, “fine, I want to be around.”
“Are you sure?” She asked.
“I am.” He said.
“You are not here because you are feeling sorry for me.”
“No…well, I am feeling sorry for you, but it’s also the right thing to do.”
“I don’t want you to do the right thing,” she had said, “I want you to do what you want in your hearts of hearts, to do.”
“It’s in my heart.”
And just like that, he became a secret father.
“I prayed that the baby would not be born in the middle of the night,” he laughs, “you know those babies who decide to come at 2am?”
“Yeah, most of them have names like Paul or John,” I said.
“Ha-ha, yeah, I mean where would I say I was at 2am?” He asked.
Thankfully the baby came at midday. A baby girl. He named her after his grandmother because she was feisty from the word go, ungovernable, single-minded, riotous, and obviously creative and passionate. He loved her like he did his kids from his marriage. “For years I’d leave work and spend hours with them, then go home at 8 or 9pm and spend time with my other children, or rather the ones who were still awake at that time.” He said. “It’s a great juggle. You are constantly juggling lies and juggling a different child on the side.”
“So is that like having two wives?” I asked.
“No, not really,” he then pauses, “It’s not quite…it’s complicated because we agreed that I would still be the father of my daughter even if we separated.”
They separated when the baby was two years old. They would fight about him not giving enough of his time to his daughter, to them. “I got tired of that shit, man” so he broke it off and for a year they never communicated and he didn’t see his daughter. One day he got a call from her that his daughter was hospitalised; pneumonia. He rushed to the hospital and stayed there daily until she recovered. They then agreed that they’d co-parent. Now the daughter is three years old and next year she will have to get into pre-school.
“I’m exhausted, you guy. This Covid period has exhausted my lie arsenal,” he says. “If I told you the kind of Houdini moves I have had to pull over this Covid period in order to go see my daughter, you would be amazed. I’m always lying or stealing time.”
He has killed people in order to see his daughter. Not literally, but like the uncles to his close friends or their close relatives. He has left the house to go fix fictitious tyres, to go to the garage, to make quick runs to the supermarket that ends up at the doorway of where his daughter lives. “I’ve lied so much this year, I feel like it has changed me as a person. Lying changes you, because you really start believing the lies you present. You start becoming those lies. One day not long ago, my daughter wanted to ride with me in my car. She wanted me to take her for a ride but I had said I was only going for a quick barber dash which takes an hour, unless you are dyeing your hair blonde and piercing your nose. Anyway, I had already been out for over two hours and I had to rush home because it was also getting late and I didn’t want to arouse any suspicion. So I said no, I told my daughter next time and I went home and that shit stayed with me that night and the next day, man. I wondered what kind of life I was living where I’d deny my own daughter a ride. Where she came second, through no fault of her own, but because of my own choices. It didn’t sit well with me.” He made the decision that he would come clean. He would tell his wife about this other child. “Because anyway, it will come out sooner or later, I figured. One day someone will see us together, in a mall or supermarket or whatever. My wife’s pals or my relatives. It’s coming. Also, I thought that perhaps she would be less lenient if she discovered a 12-year-old lie rather than a 4-year-old life. I would look like a complete demon.”
“You already do,” I said jokingly.
“Ha. But I’ve not had the balls to do it.” He says. “There never seems to be the right time to do it. It’s scary as hell. I know it will possibly break this family, I know she will never look at me the same way again and I’m stalling so that I can enjoy this moment where she still thinks highly of me before she discovers what a scumbag I am. Because after this shit comes out, man, all bets are off.”
How this story came about is that this gentleman emailed and said, “Biko, I’d like to know how to tell my wife that I have another child before this child becomes too old to hide. But I want to ask women how to go about it. Set a thief to catch a thief kind of thing…or something around that analogy.”
Or in other words, he wants to know from the female readers what he should say. What are some of the buzzwords? What shouldn’t he say? What facial expression should he wear? Where should he break this news; in the bedroom, in a restaurant? If there is a small chance of reconciliation, what should he do and not do? And if there are any guys out there who have walked this plank, any insights other than keep away all sharp objects in the house?
Last call for next week’s creative writing masterclass, sponsored by Safaricom. To register, email [email protected] Registration closes on Friday.