Saturday afternoon, when I pull up to my driveway, Daisy doesn’t meet me out-front. I am met instead by a pair of red, velvet, peep-toe, ankle boots. They look so chic that I am compelled to put my scuffed flats further down the porch. Maybe behind that potted plant. When I walk through the front door, it doesn’t smell like home. The air is heavy with an overpowering mix of men’s perfume and cigarette smoke. I can tell they are Marlboros because they’re the ones Nancy smokes. Kagwe is strictly a cigar man and he knows how my blood boils when he smokes in the house.
“Look who turned up,” Kagwe says, getting up to take the grocery bags out of my hands. He gives me a quick peck on the cheek. When he got home after the night flight, I was asleep. When I left for the mall at midday, he was asleep. Such are our days.
“Njambi, you’re back!” Ng’endo rushes to hug me. She throws her arms around me and doesn’t let go. She examines me, her palms on my cheeks, turning me this way and that way. Then she holds my hand, takes a step back, and bombards me with a flurry of compliments.
“Look at that hair, so healthy, so natural. Oh and those earrings! Where did you buy those? Lovely, just lovely,” she says, and then she hugs me again for good measure.
You know those people who look like they stepped out of a woodcarving – chiseled cheekbones; pouty lips; contours from the shoulders to the arches of the feet; that’s Ng’endo, Kagwe’s younger sister. Her skin speaks of veggie salads, beauty sleep and tons of cucumber water. She is the baby of the family, and a bit of a loose cannon. Every time we see her, she’s picked up a strange bedfellow. The last time it was a fifty-year-old, Swedish tourist who promised to fly her to the Alps once he ‘got back and settled’, and then went radio silent. And now this punk she’s brought along.
He is splayed out on the sofa unperturbed, legs crossed ankle-to-knee. He’s wearing sunglasses indoors and has one of those sharp, edgy haircuts that look like the barber used Vernier calipers to make the cut. Also making an appearance, are these maroon loafers he has on without socks – on the carpet. On the carpet! At least someone had the mind to give him an ashtray, but he hasn’t put out his cigarette. The butt is just sitting there smoldering, and soaking smoke into the couches. And I just hoovered!
When he says hello, his fingers are over his mouth rubbing an inexistent moustache, as if nobody told him that’s bad manners. He says his name is Nick, short for Dominic not Nicholas. Between the chain glinting under his red sweater and the loosely fitting gold watch on his wrist, I am blinded. I have to bend over the coffee table to shake his clammy hand. His dead fish handshake is about as impressive as Polycarp Igathe’s stint in office. Both Ng’endo and Kagwe stood up to greet me but he couldn’t be bothered to stir himself? I already want him out of my house.
“Ng’endo, I need help with something in the kitchen,” I say.
She says, “What?” I frown at her. Don’t be obtuse.
“Just come with me.”
She grabs a bunch of Kagwe’s travel magazines and hoists herself on the counter. It’s an open plan kitchen, which forces us to huddle around her and whisper.
“Who is this clown?” I ask, “And why is he smoking in my living room? Kagwe, you know I hate it when people smoke in the house.”
“This is not on me,” he raises his arms. “I was asleep when they came over.”
We both turn to her and she says sheepishly, “He’s my boyfriend.”
“That guy?” we say at the same time. She gives us a what-about-him look.
“Look at him,” Kagwe says. We all turn in his direction. He is flipping her car keys round his finger, watching TV or maybe looking at the family pictures. Nobody can tell. “Why is he hiding behind those sunglasses? That guy is a poser.”
“Yes. He’s giving me a strong groupie vibe, a hanger-on,” I say. “What does he even do?”
“He hires out sound systems. He’s doing the sound for my graduation party.”
“What graduation party?” I ask. Up until this point Kagwe was with me, but I sense that I am alone in this when he thrusts his hands into his pockets. “Hun?”
Her graduation is in two weeks, he tells me, and she wants to hold a party at our house. I know that the battle was lost the moment she conceived the notion in her mind. She always gets her way, coming from a family of older brothers and a doting father. Kagwe hardly ever says no to her, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.
“Why here? Why can’t you do it at Mother’s house?”
“You know why!” Ng’endo says. Actually, I don’t. I only know that she doesn’t get along with Margaret and nobody will tell me why. “Besides, your yard is way bigger. We can just put the food out on the gazebo and pitch a tent – ”
“A tent! Kwani how many people are you bringing to this thing?”
“Just me and Nick, but si you know Mother and her church friends? And Daddy’s lecturing buddies?”
“Nick? Are you low key trying to introduce this dude to the family?” She shushes me. “Kagwe, care to weigh in on this?”
“We’ll get catering, you won’t have to cook,” he says. “But Ng’endo, if you want to have this party here, you can’t bring him or any other strays. We don’t need ‘sound’,” he makes air quotes, “for a party of thirty people.”
“Thirty! Thirty people and you’re springing this up on me! Do you know how much cleaning and shopping that will involve? And you know you won’t be here when the tent people come to set up,” I moan.
“Write a shopping list, I’ll do the shopping,” he says.
“Yes, but…” I sigh. I know the emotional labour that goes into playing host, and it’s worlds apart from snickering about too much soup in the chicken at somebody else’s house. But I can tell that they’ve already moved on from my thing, so I give up. “Fine.”
Ng’endo squeals when she comes to a full-page spread of the picture that Kagwe and I posed for at the industry dinner months ago. “Oh my gosh! Kagwe, you have to get me this photographer! Look at this! Stunning, just stunning. I want him!”
“It’s a her,” I say.
He takes the magazine from her and mumbles that they probably only do corporate gigs. He flips through to the list of contributors in the back. His hand instinctively goes to the side of his chin and he begins toying with his stubble. I know that look. He has the same look when he’s sitting out in the driveway in the middle of the night. An unsettling feeling starts to snake its way up my stomach but I slam it down pat.
He flips it shut, tosses it onto the counter and says, “I’ll look into it. Oh, and you better not bring Karen. Mwai will be here with his new girlfriend.”
“He has a new girlfriend?” she perks up.
“Yes, and don’t go telling her.”
Hurricane Karen. Where to begin? I suppose I should tell you that Mwai has always liked them young, pretty, and a tad bit crazy. I cannot – for the life of me – tell you why. There’s just men who like bad women, all right? If Karen was a movie character, she’d be a milder Amy Dunne from Gone Girl. Milder in the sense that there were no murders… that we knew of. There was that time she wrecked Mwai’s car and nobody ever found out where the blood on the bumper came from. Nobody wanted to.
There was the time she drunkenly knocked over a whole table of drinks at some dive bar in Langata. Then she had the sauce to tell those guys, “Do you know who my *expletive* boyfriend is? He’ll *expletive* you up you * insert a whole bunch of expletives here*”. That story ended with a bottle being broken over Mwai’s head.
There was the time she laced his drink with sedatives because he wouldn’t call in sick and play hooky with her. That one ended with him missing his flight and earning a permanent strike on his record.
Then there was the time he got home tired and wouldn’t take her out. She took out his cigars and broke them all up! Of all the offenses, I think this is the one Mwai secretly resents the most. He repaired and sold the car she wrecked. Now he drives a new one. The strike on his record didn’t cost him the job. To his credit, he’s a hell of a pilot – I’m told. But the cigars, premium Arturo Fuentes, limited editions! That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the camel broke off his engagement to the cigar breaker. You just don’t mess with a man’s cigars.4