My mother-in-law is not a pious woman. You are more likely to find her holding a how-to guide on pleasing your man than the New Testament. At this particular moment though, she is holding a ladle dripping with thick soy sauce. She’s serving Kagwe’s second helping, by the looks of it. Her snug, pinstripe tank top does little in the way of concealing her pot belly as she saunters out of the open plan kitchen, unperturbed. I notice her well-done, burgundy toe nails peeking from under her white, linen pants as she sets her feet on my sofa. She’s made herself at home.
As I shake her hand, I smile and try not to say anything lest my liquor-breath waters her eyes. The smell of the cigarette smoke in my suit I can do nothing about. As Kagwe takes a bite of a soy-glazed chicken drumstick, I swallow at the sight of the meat sliding off the bone. Its savoury aroma is waking my post-drinking munchies.
“Why did you leave your car at the office?” he asks.
I shoot him a look that says, “This can’t wait?”
He certainly saw me staggering as I took my shoes off. Why would he ask me that in her presence? I start making for the stairway.
“Long day. Let me get out of these clothes,” I say.
“Oh no, eat first, before the food gets cold,” he says heading towards me. “Mother cooked.”
He wipes the grease from his thin lips with the back of his palm then rubs it against his paunch.
“Let me help you with that.”
He takes my purse before I find the words to protest and disappears upstairs. He’s left me with no escape from his mother.
“You must be working very hard to be getting home at this time,” she says in rapid Kikuyu. “Men are going to bed hungry these days because their wives are working.”
Well that didn’t take long. Margaret cannot fathom a woman insisting on working when her husband makes boatloads of money. I want to laugh out loud at that statement. I want to ask if she’s looked in the fridge, counted how many dishes of untouched leftovers are in there. I want to tell her, “Your son barely eats in this house anymore.” It is harder now that the alcohol has decimated my filters, but I say, “Thank you for cooking Mother, the food smells great.”
In the kitchen, I take off my coat, hoping it absorbed majority of the cigarette smoke. I toss it over a high stool next to the counter and dilly dally as I serve my food. A muted soap opera is unfolding on the TV, but there’s Rumba playing softly from the home theatre. When Kagwe still hasn’t come back, I microwave the food for the shortest one minute of my life, then I have no alternative but to go back to the living area. As the food is now steaming hot, I have to wait until it cools down and that means filling the silence with conversation.
“How have you been?” I ask.
She tells me the usual things. “Your father is working too much and your sister doesn’t call home anymore, doesn’t pick up my calls either. Have you spoken with her?”
“Ng’endo? No. Perhaps Kagwe has.”
She waves her arm dismissively. They don’t get along – one of those family secrets that the in-laws are not privy to. Even Kagwe dances around the rim of the story when I try to get to the bottom of it. Then she settles on what she enjoys talking about, Kagwe’s elder brother. Kagwe is the son she is most proud of, but Mugo is the son she loves the most. When she talks about him, she is seized by a fervor that lights fireworks in her eyes. Don’t anyone bring up his three failed business ventures, this year alone. Don’t anyone say that his wife, a primary school teacher, is the one who pays his child’s school fees. Don’t anyone say that he drinks too much and freeloads off of his mother. And if they want to keep their heads attached to their necks, don’t anyone dare say, “Margaret siphons money from Kagwe and his father to indulge Mugo’s whims.”
When I have finished dinner, it becomes apparent that Kagwe is not coming back downstairs. I suggest checking on him but Margaret jumps to his defense.
“Let him rest. He probably just fell asleep on the bed. His job is exhausting you know. Today he flew to Maputo and back, did you know that?”
I am his wife. Yes, I did know. I nod.
“Well, let me make up the guest room for you,” I offer.
Getting up, she says, “No need, I fixed it as soon as we got here. I wouldn’t leave those dishes in the sink if I were you though.”
I hate how she does that, takes over everything in my house.
“Hold on, ‘we’? As in you and…?”
“Si your husband. He drove straight from the airport to come home and pick me up. ”
“Oh.” She doesn’t understand why that matters. All along I had assumed that Margaret had made an impromptu visit. I thought that she’d caught Kagwe unawares, that he’d been so occupied he forgot to drop me a warning text. He knows how she condescends me when it comes to my homemaking skills.
“Your husband works too hard to come home to dishes piled in the sink,” she once said of two coffee mugs. “If only you would quit that job of yours…”
He knows that she criticizes me for sport; that I can’t bear to be in her company without someone running interference. I thought up excuses for him and now I find out that he orchestrated this whole thing? Made a calculated move to keep me busy catering to his mother all weekend? By the time I bring up his coming home late, so much else will have happened. It’ll look like I’m digging up old issues. As though I am the difficult one. As though I instigate fights and never allow peace a moment’s breath in our house. And I, gullible Njambi played right into his hand. I even gave him more ammunition by coming home late smelling like a distillery. Goddamn. I’m playing catch up!
I scour the dishes thoroughly, chewing on the epiphany I just had. When I go up to the bedroom, Kagwe is lying on the covers scrolling on his phone.
“You’re already done?”
I glare at him. It’s past midnight. He’s been up there for over an hour.
“Is she asleep?”
“You might know if you’d come back downstairs.”
“I had to reply to some work emails, trying to swap my flight for a later one tomorrow.”
He’s taken a tone, the one he uses when he says, “Take a chill pill.”
I set my alarm for five o’clock, an hour before Margaret wakes up. Fending off her backhanded comments the last thing I want on my plate.
“Yaani you sleep in while your husband makes his own breakfast? Si you have a good life,” she said on her last visit.
I am awakened by Margaret’s shrill laugh cracking across the house. Argh! Too loud. How is she even awake yet, my alarm hasn’t gone off. I rub the sleep from my eyes as I reach for my phone.
What the hell! He not only turned off my alarm, he also left the heavy curtains drawn shut. Kagwe never leaves the curtains drawn shut. I bought a sleeping mask because of that. I drove around town for half an hour that day looking for parking. When I finally found a spot, the parking attendants were nowhere to be found. I dashed out for a minute to pick up the sleeping mask and when I got back, my car was clamped. I had to pay a scruffy guy in yellow overalls two thousand bob to make it go away! Do you know what he said when I told him about it afterwards?
“Ah Njambi you were cheated! Duped! You could’ve paid five hundred bob.”
I can’t tell you how many Saturday mornings were ruined by curtain fights. Suddenly, today he’s Mr. Considerate? Mr. I-thought-I’d-let-you-sleep-in? Mr. I-went-to-City-Market-at-dawn-and-brought-back-pounds-upon-pounds-of-fillet? Mr. I-passed-by-Marikiti-and-bought-baskets-of-veggies-and-fruits? Oh no. No. No. No. The gloves are off.14