Remember the story I wrote about the lady who lost her child in the MALL? A number of you have been asking to hear from her husband. You want to know his version of the story and how that child ended up with that woman. A whole lot of you also wanted to know about the “strange perfume” his wife mentioned fleetingly in the story because you all have a nose for scandal. You want strife. Terrible people. Just terrible. One strange perfume and suddenly it’s a groundswell. Anyway, I asked the wife to ask him if he would want to speak to me and after radio silence that lasted days he said sure.
So we met at Java one late afternoon when the air smelled sweet and was wet with rain and the clouds’ moods gradually darkened. He had on a polo shirt, a cap pulled over his brow and a Covid beard that I estimated to be almost a year old. He sat his leather laptop bag by his side and scratched said beard, looking around the room. He looked to be about my age or slightly older. He said, “You don’t look like I pictured you in my head.”
I said, “Neither do you.”
Chuckle. “How did you picture me?”
“Certainly not as tall as you are, for a start,” I said, “How tall are you anyway, 6’2”?
“6’4”,” he said, “You?”
I told him. “But people from your community are generally tall, aren’t they?”
“Yeah, my brother and my uncles are all over 6’5”” He said.
“Yikes. Those are many big beds.”
He chuckled and scratched his beard.
He told me his wife was a big fan. “She’d be in bed giggling while reading you, telling me, ‘You really should read this guy.’” He rolls his eyes. He isn’t a reader, he said. “I think I read about the boy with cancer [Jadudi] and then the Mercury bar guy [Mwai].” He also read the story I wrote about his wife.
“How do you fill your time if you don’t read?” I asked him as a slender, masked waitress stood over us. He ordered a house coffee. I ordered an Iced Arnold Palmer. “I’m currently looking for a job,” he slumped back in his chair. His long knees grazed mine. “I lost my job mid last year and man, it’s not been easy.” For the next hour we compared notes on our experiences of losing jobs. He talked about how it has affected his life, his self esteem, how he fathers, how he husbands and how he relates to his friends, the world. “It’s like stage four cancer,” I told him, “It eats into every aspect of your life.”
“You know, when you go for a few interviews and hear the kind of salary they propose,” he continued, “You realise just how sheltered, privileged and entitled you were when you had a job. People are being paid so poorly out here and now I’m facing the scary reality that I might join that bandwagon. That I might settle because I’m overqualified, too expensive. Being jobless teaches you humility.”
“And the value of a shilling,” I chimed in.
He extends a long arm and fist bumps me. “You have said it. Value of money!” He says. “Look, there are times when I sit down and wonder where I can get 10K, just 10K but I can’t think of anyone who can give me 10K. Because when your friends know you are jobless they also know you might not pay them back. When I had a job, 10K wasn’t something I thought about, you know. It never crossed my mind that I’d struggle getting 10K. But now…” he shrugs and looks away, “Now, I’m here, man.”
So I liked him even before we started the interview. I liked him because he was vulnerable and thin-skinned. And he was going through a great cold storm in his life, searching for dry land. And he was afraid. I know the fear of men like him because we all share it, it lives in our bones. Fear of not being able to be the man you want to be; the man who provides. Fear of not being able to lead his household. Fear of having to lean on others financially, to go around with an alms bowl. Fear that his woman, if this state he’s in goes on for too long, might start looking at him through a different prism. Fear that, in this process, his voice and any good that he may have done will be drowned by his financial inadequacy. Fear that the good days are over and all that’s left are the blighted days ahead, on a scorched earth where nothing but hopelessness grows.
Fear of man.
“Tell me about that day your daughter went missing,” I said eventually, “What do you remember?”
He remembers that he was in his early 30s. He was doing well. He drove a reconditioned BMW 5 series that smelled of rich leather. He wore nice suits during the week and spent 1,500 bob on a haircut over the weekend. He had a circle of friends who mirrored his climbing fortune, guys in finance or banking or who were running their own businesses. “My marriage was stable, happy,“ he says rubbing his forearm “Especially because I had had very dramatic and eventful relationships before. To mean, I was drawn to very, uhm, passionate women who expressed themselves in ways that others might consider very expressive. Like chasing you with a kitchen knife. Or poking holes in your car seats with a burning cigarette. Or emailing your boss with the allegation that you had abandoned her and a fictitious baby. I deserved all that, all these chicks. Perhaps I even secretly enjoyed it.” He grins. Then the only sane woman he dated he ended up marrying.
They had a baby. A daughter. He named her after his mother who as lore had it once faced off a lion in the village. His father died when he was a toddler, never knew him. He’s never seen a photo of him. He was raised by a phalanx of uncles, six of them, a platoon of 6’5” testosterone. “That particular day I answered a call from my wife’s phone and a man said I needed to go to the mall asap. I was confused. I asked him where my daughter was and he said ‘You need to come over immediately!’”
On his way he imagined the worst; a pillar fell on them at the mall. Or a floor. “I thought my family was under the rubble, dying, or something as bad because why would a manager be calling me? Where the hell was my wife and daughter? Why couldn’t she come to the phone, unless she was unconscious. If she was conscious, I mean, she would have called me herself. All these things played out in my head and I remember telling God, please please, don’t let them die. I can’t be alone in this world.”
When he got in the cafe, the manager led him to his small office where his wife was sprawled on the floor, legs raised under a cushion, a wet towel on her forehead. He looked around for his daughter. The manager said our daughter had disappeared. I was so confused. “Disappeared, how? What do you mean disappeared?” Was she a cow that was not tethered and just wandered out of the restaurant? “The manager said she walked out of the restaurant. I was like, walked out of the restaurant, what are you talking about? Where was her mother when she was walking out of the restaurant?” He was shown the CCTV footage.
“People talk of terrorism as a bunch of fanatics trying to kill you with guns, or abducting you and threatening to behead you,” he shakes his head, “Terror is losing your child. A helpless child. If you would have given me the option between someone killing me or my child being found, I would have taken the first deal without blinking.”
He explains that he has three older brothers. He’s the last born. His three brothers all have seven boys between them. No girls. His daughter was the first girl in that generation. “I don’t know how my wife didn’t mention this part in the interview,” he says, “It’s important to know what was at stake. We finally had a girl in the family tree, now the girl was gone because my wife had left her in a cafe, alone, to go upstairs to pick a dress. A dress, Biko.” He chuckles. He had calculated to have lost about 30 mins between the time the baby had walked out of the restaurant and him arriving at the mall. In 30 mins a lot could happen. The baby could be 40kilometers away, in a strange car, terrified to be with strangers, crying for her mother.
He remembers the fight when they got home from meeting the police. He recalls how close he stood in her face, barking at her because she had hurt their daughter, she had rendered them parentless. He kept telling her to stop making excuses, that no mother in her right mind picks a dress over her child. What kind of mother are you? They were shouting at each other. “It went on and on, this anger and shouting. We were both afraid. Really afraid.” Their next door neighbour knocked on the door at some point. A woman who had three children. He opened the door, eyes red, nostrils flared open like a bull charging at a matador. She asked if everything was okay. “I wanted to tell her if we could borrow a daughter from her, one of her own, then perhaps everything would be slightly okay because we had lost our own.” He wanted to say.
That night he didn’t sleep a wink. “I slept facing away from her,” he says, “Because I couldn’t bear to see her face, or talk to her. I blamed her for this shit we were in. I wouldn’t let the baby out of my sight for a second, she left the baby in a restaurant, alone. Man, I was enraged. I got into bed at around midnight and I stared at the wall the whole night.”
“What was going through your mind?”
“Ugly stuff. I was trying to picture my child being sneaked out of the country, through a dark border with other kids. My daughter liked to eat, she was one of those children who don’t play with food, so I could imagine how hungry and scared she was. I tried to remember her face the last time I saw her. I wondered if I would ever see her again. If I would grow old and be those guys who had that sad look because they had a big mystery in their lives they couldn’t solve. I knew I would be scarred forever.”
When dawn came his whole side was hurting from lying on one side for hours. It felt numb. He woke up and showered then he went and got a bottle of vodka which he dragged to the balcony where he drank, his back to the living room. He sat there drinking as the sun crawled overhead and darkness set. The house was so quiet, he says.
“Describe that quiet,” I told him.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“The stillness of the house, describe it.”
He thought about it and shook his head. “I really can’t, how do you describe quiet, I mean, it’s the absence of sound.”
“Exactly, then describe the sounds then perhaps we can get to understand the silence.”
He laughs, “Yeah, yeah…smart,” he said. “So, I think there are certain sounds you take for granted when you have a child in the house. Like a cup dropping to the floor, them crying, the wife shouting at them to stop climbing over something or not put something in their mouth, or eat their food…maybe them slamming a door. One time my daughter got stuck in a room, she locked herself in,” he laughs, “And I tried to break down the door but I couldn’t. The baby was crying and my wife was crying and it was a complete cockup because it was night and getting a fundi at that time was a nightmare.”
“Speaking of crying, she tells me the day your daughter disappeared you cried a great deal in the bathroom,” I said.
“Please it wasn’t a great deal,” he chuckles, shifting in his seat, “I read what you wrote…[pause]..I didn’t cry. I wept.”
“Like Jesus?” I ask and we both laugh loudly.
“Yeah, yeah, like Jesus. It’s allowed…anyway…yeah…it wasn’t easy.”
“You went drinking and never came back home, what were you running away from?”
He bites his lower lip and thinks about it for a second. “Have you ever lost your child?”
“Yeah, in a mall once, Carrefour, Sarit.”
“Yeah, for exactly one minute,” I said, “ I found him in a different aisle, looking up at a box of cereals.”
He laughs. “He was probably thinking, when I grow up I will buy all the cereals in the world…”
“I will have a spare room just for cereals.”
Getting serious again he says, “When you lose your child and you think you will never see them again it’s like grief, like loss,” he says, “And I had been drinking since we lost her and staying in the house with my wife was making me mad because everytime I looked at her she reminded me that she was the reason our daughter was gone. So I left her space.”
“Where’d you go?”
“Drinking. I went to a bar where I met my friends but then they had to go home to their families but I had only half a family left to go to,” he pauses, “So I sat in the bar, alone, until there were only a few people left. So I went to a different place to drink, it was about 2am.”
“Is that where you picked up the strange perfume your wife mentions” I ask him, “I’m only asking because there are some nosy readers who will ask, ‘Biko, you didn’t ask him about the strange perfume?’ It’s like the smoking gun.”
“I can also just leave it out of this article, really, it won’t be the end of the world, your call.”
He thinks about it.
“There was this place I used to go to when I was a bachelor. It’s like a bar that doesn’t shut down. We would leave the hang and then end up there early in the morning. Totally random place, like a homepub, but very popular. That’s where I ended up, and I discussed this with the wife, so you can put it in your article. It had been a minute since I’d been there but when I went it’s like I had never left. Nothing changes there; the barman was the same and the girls who were there were the same. I needed someone to talk to, someone who wouldn’t judge me or my vulnerability, you understand? Someone I’d tell things and that story would end there. So one of the girls I knew there saw me seated alone, I must have been looking shit, so she came and we talked for long. She had her hand around my shoulder to console me and you know how much perfume those chicks wear. That’s the story of the mysterious perfume.”
“When you went back home, you were spoiling for a fight,” I told him, “Your wife says you tossed your shirt on the floor, was that what the Englishmen call ‘throwing down the gauntlet?’”
“Ha-ha. She exaggerated. I wasn’t looking for a fight. I was drunk and tired and sleepy. I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. I just wanted to sleep and not wake up.”
Anyway, their daughter was found. He describes the moment he saw her at the cop station. He was trembling. His bladder felt full. He felt things in his stomach. He felt joy. He felt fear, that this might happen again. “I wished it wasn’t a dream I’d wake up and she’d still be missing.” When he held her, when he carried her, she felt warm and fragile. He wept. On the drive home, she sat with her mother in the backseat and he adjusted the rear-view mirror and stared at her more than he looked at the road ahead.
That evening he leaned against the bathroom door and watched her mother wash her under the shower. Her clothes were wet. “The following few days after she was found, I couldn’t leave the house. I thought I’d leave and I’d get a call,” he says, “And even now, I mean, she’s all grown now, my heart still leaps a little when I see my wife calling.”
This incident nearly ruined their marriage. “I think I harboured a lot of resentment,” he mumbles, “And I think that fight on the night she was gone, I think I said some very terrible things, hurtful things that I shouldn’t have. Thing is, when you fight and you say things in that moment, it doesn’t go away even after you have made up. It’s like having a very bad surgery and then the surgeon forgets a small instrument inside you. I mean, you are fine, yes, but you have an instrument inside you. It doesn’t go away. It’s always gonna be there.”
“Will you tell me how the child ended up in that woman’s house?”
He shakes his head. “I could but you can’t write about it because my wife doesn’t want to know.”
“It’s been many many years!”
“I know.” He shrugs as if to say, ‘I don’t have clearance for this.’