Why is it, that if a certain amount of time passes when you haven’t spoken to some people, it becomes a battle of who will blink first? It has been five weeks since Mel left. She changed her WhatsApp profile photo to one of her at the airport in Cape Town, so I know that she got there. I figured that I’d have to prod her for details about her flight. She’s the kind that needs a bit of prodding to get into the rhythm of a conversation, but at the very least I thought she would tell me whether she arrived safely. She didn’t, so I decided to give her some time to settle, get the hang of things.
By the weekend, I was sure she would ping me, because it’s always the weekends that are hardest away from home. She’d have to make new friends. Even though she’s a naturally warm and easy person to talk to, and people just gravitate to her, they’re usually the wrong kind of people. Loudmouths who thrive on her listening skills, narcissists who relish her attentiveness, control freaks who mistake her polite disposition for being a pushover. I was sure she would find it all exhausting and miss home.
Instead, she put up a picture of her at Table Mountain looking more cheery than I thought she should be. Am I a bad person for thinking that? If she ever did feel homesick, I wasn’t the one she called. I’m not even sure why I thought it would be me, but that’s the thing about Mel. When she eventually lets you into her world, it can become a kind of home for you, which is nice in theory but is a deceptively vulnerable position. Only when she decides to lock you out do you realize that she was yours, but you were never hers.
Because she has disabled her Last Seen on WhatsApp, I was reduced to checking my phone every now and then on the off chance that she might be online. I became a lurker. A lurker! Three days ago I was assigned a flight to Johannesburg. I was so excited at the prospect of being in the same airspace as her I almost texted her. When I landed in Joburg, I put my phone on data roaming and saw that she was online, so I started to type her a message.
‘You’ll never guess where I am –’
‘Guess where I am right now –’
‘Guess what! I’m in Jo –’
I tried a couple of more times before realizing that there was no way to write that text without sounding whipped. I sat in the cockpit feeling shrunk and weathered down. When I landed in Nairobi, I had already decided I needed a vacation, so I asked Njambi if she was feeling up for an adventure.
We went for a game drive in Nakuru, spent the second day at Elementaita, and the better part of this morning on Lake Naivasha. We woke up late because Njambi hadn’t been sleeping well. She had been mercurial all Friday too. I did ask her what was wrong. She said nothing. I didn’t know whether this was one of those times I was supposed to coax the problem out of her or just leave it alone. Since her mood seemed to lift this morning, I decided to leave it alone.
By the time we finished lunch it was already three in the afternoon. Nonetheless, the sun was still out so we went to Hell’s Gate to kill a little time before the drive back. She wanted to visit one of the flower farms, but I talked her into Hell’s Gate. There was no reason the day had to be so activity-packed, other than me trying to evade the strain of carrying more than my share of the conversation. Besides, I had a lot of tension to break myself and I knew that a little adrenalin would do the trick.
“Can someone tell me what’s going on?”
The three rangers were huddled together talking amongst themselves. Occasionally they glanced back at me but said nothing. The radio came on and Lagat, a lanky fella who appeared to be in charge or at least of higher rank than the other two, answered. I heard nothing but a muffled voice and static. One of the others, a big-eared man with a massive gap between his teeth who said his name was Leshan, turned to me.
“Ati umesema anaitwa nani?”
“Na mmezozania nini?”
I was starting to get irritated. It had been over forty minutes since either of us saw her. Mutua, the shortest of the three who was also our guide, was standing there mute. Big help he was. I wanted to ask him if he cared to jump in and explain what had happened, because there was an air of suspicion and exclusion around me that was getting on my nerves. Did he tell them that the bathroom break was his idea?
He had assured us that the exit out of the ravine wasn’t far off, and that we could take a few more photos if we wanted to while he went off into the bushes to relieve himself. I left Njambi taking selfies on a rock and went to pee in the opposite direction, because that’s just what reasonable people do. They give each other space. When I came back, Mutua was standing there looking puzzled.
“Wapi mama?” he asked.
We stood around for a while, arguing that perhaps she had taken a bathroom break of her own. When she didn’t turn up fifteen minutes later, Mutua suggested that she might’ve joined a new group and exited the gorge. I didn’t want to go, because Njambi wouldn’t just up and leave. There was a better chance that she was still behind a rock somewhere struggling with her zipper, or whatever it is that women are doing when they take so long in the bathroom.
“I’m telling you, she can’t have gone far. She’s my wife. I know her.”
My voice faltered at the end because the words felt strange on my tongue, like a lump that doesn’t belong in the gravy. Do I really know her anymore? Well, her voice isn’t loud, she wouldn’t try to call out. She would stay in the same place until someone found her, but if she got scared, she might try to find her own way back.
I asked Mutua to run up and take a look around. He emerged ten minutes later asking me if she’d turned up. We started to think that she might’ve hitched a lift back to the car, some two kilometres away. There was no reception down in the gorge, so I hiked out and called her. The call wouldn’t go through. Reception was spotty even outside the gorge, so we argued that she might still be out of the gorge, perhaps waiting on us by the car. Twenty minutes later, at the car park, we couldn’t find her. It was now past five o’clock, and most of the cars had started leaving the park. Nobody had seen her.
“Maybe she missed the exit,” Mutua suggested.
Owing to its high walls, the gorge already looked dark and menacing. The sharp, jutting rocks and cold, stream waters didn’t help. We had miscalculated and left the spot where we last saw her. If she came back and didn’t find us, she might’ve kept going. The whole place, to a visitor, would start looking the same. She could’ve gone in any direction. Didn’t the guide say the ravine was 24 kilometers long? How far could she make it in forty minutes? I started to think of her then – cold, alone and confused. It pulled me apart inside.
“Weh, boss, tunangoja nini?” I asked Lagat.
We were standing around doing nothing when we should’ve been down there looking for her. He told me that they were required to notify the main office and call for reinforcements.
“We’ll need men going up and down the gorge, torches and armed officers, Sir.”
“How long is that going to take?” I asked.
“Just a few minutes.”
It took them half an hour. The other workers were washing up and changing out of their work clothes. The sky was deep orange as the sun was setting, and the bushes were vibrant with movement. The animals that had been asleep, hiding away from the sun, were coming out of their slumber. One of the armed guards asked for an update on the situation. I repeated to him what happened for maybe the fifth time and he asked, “Na unasema hamjagombana?”
If one more person asks me that, I will lose my shit!
Then he told me to stay by the car in case she called, so I paced around to keep from feeling useless. When they found her she was muddy, wet and her leg was caught between two rocks. It was scraped, and her ankle was sprained, but nothing was broken. She would tell me later, that she had wandered off taking pictures, and slid off a rock. By the time they lifted her out, she had passed out. She was cold and in shock.
She hadn’t said anything else when they found her, besides asking for her husband. When I heard her asking for me, I felt a rush of warmth inside that I hadn’t felt in over a year.
Finally, the tide was changing.23