As told by Njambi
The Friday before Ng’endo’s graduation, Margaret’s call comes in before my alarm.
“Did I wake you?” she asks.
For heaven’s sake Margaret, it’s only six freaking AM! “No Mother, I’m awake,” I lie.
She says that Mugo is taking her to a goat market in Kitengela and that we don’t have to buy beef for the stew.
“What’s on the menu?”
“There’s chapo, pilau and mukimo for the main dishes, chicken, njahi and I’ll make the salads myself.”
“Why don’t you add some turmeric rice for those who don’t eat spicy food? And of course some minji and carrot soup, you know,” she says, and I can hear her curving her lips over the phone, “so the food isn’t dry.”
“Is the turmeric rice really necessary? Coz there’s chapo and mukimo…”
“The alternative is to have some roast potatoes instead. Talk it over with the caterer. Actually, this is – do you have a pen? This is what I want you to tell the caterer.”
She comes up with a list of instructions longer than a manifesto, ignoring any concerns I have about the bill swelling.
“Isn’t this too much food for thirty people?”
She lets out a long, uninhibited laugh. “Aaah Njambi, you have made me laugh.”
Then she hangs up. What the hell?
I call Ng’endo, who doesn’t pick up the first time, but I call again because it’s her graduation and if I’m awake at this time, she’s waking up too.
“Exactly how many people are coming to this thing?”
“Eer…like thirty five?” she says yawning. “But plan for fifty just in case.”
“Fifty? And no one thought to tell me this before?” I want to throw something.
“Chill out. Jeez! I said just in case. Actually, now that I have you here, has Kagwe locked down the photographer?”
“I’m not sure. But if you’re really keen on it you better do it yourself.”
“Si you – ”
“No. I can’t do it for you. The tent people are coming to set up today and I’m expecting the cleaner at nine. Unless you want to talk Mother out of these menu changes she’s making, then I’ll be happy to find you your photographer.”
“Ha! Good luck with that. I’ll find her myself.”
“What’s the deal with you and Mother anyway? What is this thing you two have?”
“You have met mother, right?”
I chuckle. “Well, yes. But you know what I mean.”
There is shuffling on the other end of the line. She weighs the words on her tongue and decides that they don’t fit.
“We’re going to need a lot of wine for that,” she says. “Maybe one day.”
I call Ben and tell him I have to take the day off. We’re only two weeks away from Christmas break, but I manage to talk him into it since I landed him Duke’s big commission. I call the caterer, a cheery, stout woman with a silver tongue, who fleeces you with a disarming smile. We go back and forth over the pricing until the only option left is to cook some of the menu items myself. I drop Nancy and Magdalene a text to ask if they’ll help. They do not disappoint.
At 8:30, Kagwe stirs from sleep. He saunters around the house whistling, humming, and being annoyingly joyous.
“I’ve had to take the day off from work,” I say, placing his breakfast before him.
“Oh good, can you do the shopping then?”
“You said you would do it.”
“Yeah, but now you have the day off.”
“And what will you be doing instead?”
“I’ll pick up wine for the party after my flight.”
He assures me he’s going to look into the photographer, and if I wasn’t his wife, I might’ve bought it. It’s Friday, the last day of his rotation, and he has a short flight? Humph. Fat chance of that happening.
The sun blooms early in the morning and remains that way until late in the afternoon. The workers set up the tents, tables and chairs. Philomena moves through the rooms dusting shelves, fluffing up pillows, scrubbing floors and wiping windows. She applies herself to her work, speaking no more than is necessary. I am impressed with both her work and her demeanor.
In the afternoon, I put on my bargainer’s hat, dust off my Kuyo accent and head to the market. The soles of my feet are on fire, my throat is sore from talking all day, and I feel a headache coming on. On my way back home, Kagwe calls.
“I’m thinking about catching a drink with Mwai,” he says. “Do you want to come?”
“Psssh! Since when do you invite me to drinks with Mwai?”
“I invite you to drinks all the time.”
“No you don’t. Anyway, you know I can’t today. You’ve stuck me with this party and I’ll be damned if Mother scoffs at my efforts.”
“You realize if it’s perfect she’ll always want to host there, right?”
I chuckle. My head throbs. “Are you suggesting that I botch it?”
“Strategically, if you think about it…”
“Ha-ha! You give terrible advice,” I say. “I’m on the road now though, so I have to go. What time will you be home?”
“I won’t stay long.”
At night, sleep eludes me. There’s too much room on the bed, too much silence. At 1:32 AM Kagwe still hasn’t come home. So much for ‘I won’t stay long’. I check my phone to see if he left a message. Nothing. Sigh. I lug myself to the kitchen and put on a fresh kettle of water for some chamomile tea. As it heats up, I busy myself perusing through the magazine with the picture of us from the industry dinner. It was months ago, and I remember Kagwe being weird and rigid on that day. Well, we had been fighting all evening about something I don’t remember now.
It occurs to me that he knew I would be swamped with errands when he asked me out, and was counting on me saying no. Hell, he even passed some of his errands on to me. So now, I have little right to ask him about staying out late without sounding overbearing. Besides, he’ll just retort that he extended an invitation and I declined.
At half past three, he clangs the gate open. I watch the headlights light up the sitting room through the drapes. He lets the engine keep running until anger starts to surge up my throat. If I were asleep, it would’ve woken me up. I mean, I’m not, but I could be. He doesn’t know. How drunk is he?
He doesn’t come in for a while after he turns off the engine. I don’t bother spying on him because I know exactly what he’s doing. Texting whoever he was with that he’s home and waiting for them to reply.
I contemplate giving him an earful about it but I know how that would go. On the morning before his sister’s graduation party?
“Ah Njambi, why can’t you just be mellow? Why are you never happy for me?”
“I am happy for you, but I am also exhausted and you’re not helping!”
“You know you wouldn’t be so tired if you weren’t juggling work too.”
“Ha! How dare you! Why should I have to sacrifice my career to become you and your family’s errand mule –”
“Yes! Errand mule! And you get to have the dream job flying all over the continent to places I might never go.”
“Oh this again?” he would throw his hands in the air. “I take you places when I can. We were just on vacation. What do you want from me?”
“This is not what I signed up for.”
“Oh but it is. This is what family is about.”
“No, this is what your family is about,” I would point at him, which he would find infuriating. “You never have to deal with anything like this from my side of the family.”
“Sure, but that’s because all they ever want from me is money!”
“Oh my gosh! That was one time and it wasn’t even that much money!”
“Oho! Says the person who was not chucking the money!”
“Don’t raise your voice at me. Why are you yelling?”
“I’m not yelling.”
“Do you not know what yelling is?”
He would rub his temples and make a frustrated grunt and then he’d say, “This is not productive,” in a low, calm tone, implying that I was the unreasonable one. The fight would have escalated so far we’d have forgotten what we were fighting about in the first place. We’d both feel miserable, but him less than I did because I’d be the surly harpy who picked a fight, again, as usual. And he’d get to walk around with his nose up in the air, basking on his high horse, trotting on a fictitious high road.
Ohoo. Ohohoo! All right. “Well played.”
I lie back breathing hard, my heart palpitating in my ears. Kagwe has splayed himself out on the bed snoring, so now there’s too little room and too much noise. To be fair, the more disturbing noise is in my own head, carrying out an argument I will never start. I turn on my side, away from the overpowering smell of liquor on his breath. After a while, I realize that I’m just lying there clenching my jaw, and it’s going to bring back my headache, so I get up.
I go to a bedroom across the hall that overlooks the backyard, and look outside the window. I watch a wispy cloud fly across the moon and its craters. I listen to the tents flapping in the wind. A dove flutters away from the neighbor’s chimney. Daisy, having heard the movement, comes upstairs and nuzzles her nose into my hand. Then she sits and looks at me with her soulful eyes. Under that sweet stare, my tension thaws. As the sky grows lighter, my eyelids grow heavier and I fall asleep on the window seat.
The party itself passes in a blur of cooking, setting tables, giving directions to my house, seating guests, making polite talk with the in-laws, threatening children with my slippers, running into overly familiar cousins in my bedroom, hiding my perfume collection, emergency re-dos of chipped nail polish, hiding Kagwe’s miniature whisky collection, locking doors, losing keys, finding keys – chaos. It’s all chaos, but a few moments stand out from the rest and grab my attention.
First, when Margaret said she was going to the goat market, I thought she meant she was bringing meat. It goes without saying, right? Not to Margaret. Hell if we wake the neighbors with the yawps of a dying goat. Hell if nobody knows what to do with the hide and the hooves. Hell if we can’t get the smell of blood out of the lawn for days. Margaret plays by her own rules. She calls the tune, we all dance and Kagwe is no exception.
The whole thing makes him sick, as I knew it would. My hangover cure does nothing for him because he doesn’t keep it down. Man, does he retch! His eyes tear up; he is unable to sit still. He feels hot, and then he feels cold. When he stands, he gets light-headed. We start to think that he might have alcohol poisoning but he says it’s just the sight of blood – and the gin and cognac. Let’s not forget the gin and cognac. I say nothing because my feelings about it are on a pendulum, swinging between empathy and apathy.
Second, the photographer is just as I remembered her. At the dinner, she was jovial and friendly. She talked about my dress, and the lighting of the room complimenting my skin tone. I talked about her natural hairdo with the French braid on the side. We compared notes on hair products. I liked her. I loved her work.
Kagwe gets all nonplussed around her. He tries to be nonchalant but I can feel his aura change when he’s around her. I can feel myself being expelled from his force field, standing on the edge of it and knowing that there’s a portal opened exclusively to her that I am not a part of. The tension is so thick between them, things just fall and break. I guess he likes her too.
In the evening, they sit by the fire with Mwai and Olivia, drinking wine and talking. There are other people there too, but it’s clear to see they’re in a world of their own. I’m not the only one who sees it either. Nancy finds me in the kitchen and asks me who she is.
“You might want to snuff out that flame right now,” Nancy says in her usual candor.
“But I don’t even know what’s going on.”
“Oh don’t be naïve Njambi. If it’s in your house, it’s gone too far,” she says. “You better do something about it, sooner rather than later.”
We’re still standing there when she gets up abruptly and starts heading our way. We duck away from the window and try to look busy in the kitchen. She places her wine glass next to many other dirty ones on the kitchen counter before announcing that she’s leaving. Without thinking about it too much, I offer to walk her out. I lag behind her, my mind churning. The gate is open. She starts the van and right when she’s about to back away, an idea comes to mind.
“Actually, could you hold on a minute?” I say.
She kills the engine. All right Njambi, here goes nothing.