To launch an arrow, you must first draw it back on the bowstrings before you release it. It’s just a temporary drawback before it launches into the air and hits the bull’s eye. That’s what I’m telling myself as I eavesdrop on Kagwe and his mother cackling in the living room. He is telling her about the last time I attempted to panfry some fish fillet he brought home.
“So the top layer was burnt black,” he says amid hysterics, “but the inside was completely raw. It took us three days to get the smell of smoke out of the house.”
“Good morning,” I say, cutting short their laughter.
“Good morning Dear,” Kagwe says.
Margaret just nods, a judgy curve on her lips. There are bowls on the kitchen counter, a pan soaked in the sink, and eggshells in the trash can.
“I see you’ve already had breakfast,” I say.
“And been to the market,” Margaret says even though she had no part in it. “One more hour and we would have made lunch.”
I start on the dishes, clanging the pan and bowls in agitation. Kagwe, adding his mug to the pile, asks what my plans for the day are.
“I’m going to get my car from the office,” I say. And make nice with the dragon queen. I have to do something for her, something nice enough to placate her but not so nice that it dissolves our boundaries. I like being able to say no to her guilt-free. I won’t be able to do that anymore if we actually become friends. Maybe I’ll finally take her to Eastleigh for curtain shopping. Might even offer to pay for them, see how much she likes my job then.
He offers to drop me off on his way to the airport, out of guilt more than generosity. He knows how sound echoes in the stairway in our house. He must’ve realized that I’d heard them making fun of me. I opt to make myself black coffee and pour it into a travel flask. In the car, I stare out the window contemplating my grand plan. So far, I only have one move.
“So how did it go yesterday?” he asks. That’s Kagwe-speak for, “Where were you, with whom, and why were you out late?”
The memory of Ben’s grabby hands on my knee sours my mood. It sucked, but I’m not about to admit it.
“It was okay. I had a few drinks with Ben and his friend after work, lost track of time.”
“Your boss, Ben? Was it a work thing?”
“Mmh… Not really.”
He moves from steering with one hand at the bottom of the wheel to gripping it with both hands.
“I don’t like that guy.”
“No?” I ask.
He doesn’t say anymore, partly because he doesn’t want to open the floor to discuss his own indiscretions, but more because he knows I understand that I am not to gallivant with the likes of Ben anymore.
“What time do you land today?”
“Why do you ask?”
If I’m going to spend the whole day with your mother, I need to know what time you will be home.
“Just wondering what to make for dinner. Certainly not fillet since you hated it so much…”
He fidgets in his seat. Somewhere in the darker parts of my brain, a light bulb flicks on.
“Si we eat out, today? They’re playing live Country Music at Greenwich. Mother might like that.”
Greenwich Bar & Grill is a chill spot for oldies where Kagwe occasionally hangs out with his dad when he is not with Mwai. The décor is African, with paintings and masks hanging from the walls and traditional lanterns for ambiance. The soft, yellow glow of the lamps blends beautifully with the rustic high stools and repurposed wooden barrels now serving as tables. The food is great too, but that’s not why I’m fielding the idea. I hold my breath, waiting for him to go for it.
“You know how she always complains that your dad doesn’t bring her along. It’s age appropriate, isn’t it?”
He mulls over it for too long. My stomach starts to hurt from the anticipation. Finally, he shrugs. “Strictly dinner. I’ll land at seven, so I’ll pick you up at around 8.”
Later that evening at Greenwich, the smell of mbuzi fry meets us at the door accompanied by a loud burst of laughter from a party playing pool in one corner. On the disco-lit dance floor, a man with a full head of white hair is twirling his partner around with stunning agility. A waitress whose nametag reads ‘Agnes’, flashes Kagwe her dimpled smile. For a moment, we are invisible to her as she motions towards a table with a central view of the stage.
“Rafiki yako ashaa fika,” she says.
“Ah Captain! You’ve landed.” Mwai’s voice is unmistakable, even over the band’s performance of Kenny Rogers’s The Gambler.
He starts to say something else but I catch Kagwe discreetly drawing his attention to Margaret and me. There’s a sharp breeze sweeping through the space, swaying the decorative ferns suspended in makuti baskets from the wooden beams in the roof. Kagwe explains to Agnes that he will need a separate table. Now aware of our presence, she ushers us to a table not too far away from Mwai’s and we have no choice but to pass by and say hello.
Snuggled next to him is this thick-thighed hen with hair the colour of the Amarula she’s sipping. Her skin is caramel and her lips chocolate brown. She is dressed in a black, lace peplum dress that would’ve passed for decent if not for the plunging neckline. She might even have been forgiven if she was an A-cup but she is a D-cup minimum. Her cleavage is her best feature and she’s not about to bury the lead. She knows exactly what to break out to loosen a man’s purse strings. She fits right in with Mwai’s type – the kind that knows how to spend his money.
Mwai is halfway through his bottle of Jack Daniels and he’s getting chatty. When they start talking about flight schedules, Margaret and I take our cue to leave. On our way to the table she leans over and asks, “Ũcio nũũ?”
“Mwai,” I say. She doesn’t recognize him. “Kagwe’s friend from flying school.”
She nods. “Ũcio ní mũtumia wake?”
I stifle a smile.
“No Mother, that is not his wife.” Wary of being accused of besmirching Kagwe’s friend, I opt instead to ask, “Does he look like the marrying type?”
She looks over at their table and scoffs, but holds back a jibe when Kagwe starts heading over. As soon as he takes his seat, Agnes breezes over and whispers in his ear. As if taking our order is a matter of national security. They consult for a bit, then he whispers back something I am sure I would find humourless and without intellect. She laughs aloud and slaps him on the shoulder playfully.
“Mzee anakuja leo ama?” she asks.
Margaret perks up. “Hapa ndio huwa mnakuja?”
Kagwe explains that they play Rumba on Wednesday nights. “You know the only thing Mzee enjoys more than his White Cap, is Rumba and his White Cap.”
The waitresses at Greenwich are required to wear these strapless white uniforms with a slit in the back. Agnes is not the regulars’ favourite waitress for nothing. She carries the entire establishment on her backside. Her uniform, a hideously, elastic fabric, strains over her bottom so severely you can see her cellulite. The slit in the back – if one can even call it that – looks like somebody ripped off material for a handkerchief and left her thighs precariously exposed.
Margaret does not bother hiding her disdain. When it comes to her man, she is hawk-eyed. She believes in tending to his every need, which can be stifling at times. I suppose that’s why Mzee is keen on taking these timeouts with Kagwe; they are the only kind allowed under Margaret’s reign. I can tell that this new revelation has left a bad taste in her mouth.
Good. The wheels are now in motion.
“Mother says she doesn’t remember Mwai,” I say.
“Aih Mother, you don’t remember the best man at our wedding?”
“Oh, is that him?” she asks. “The one who showed up to your ruracio drunk and bumped somebody’s car, who was it –”
“It was my uncle’s car,” I say.
“Yes, that’s right!” she says. “Your family fined us heftily, do you know that Njambi?”
I chuckle. “Hey, did Mwai ever pay back that cash you lent him?”
Kagwe shoots me a warning look but I pretend not to understand.
“He failed an Alcoblow test last December,” I continue. “Had his car impounded and Kagwe was kind enough to bail him out.”
“He looks like the type,” Margaret says. “I don’t know how you get along.”
Changing the topic, Kagwe asks how we spent the day, unwittingly playing right into my hand.
“Njambi took me curtain shopping,” Margaret says. “And afterwards she bought me lunch in town.” He is surprised to see her beaming as she relates to him how I drove a hard bargain with the vendor. I can tell that he’s gotten an inkling that the odds are slipping out of his favour. “So just when we were about to leave, the woman peeks from her hijab and says, ‘Maitu ndugatige kindu kiega!’”
“She was a kuyo?”
“From Ndumberi, no less!” I chime in.
We all have a good laugh about it. The conversation meanders a bit but when the opportunity presents itself, I steer it back in the direction I am aiming for.
“Mother was telling me about Mugo’s new venture. He’s getting into the nutrition business.”
Kagwe shakes his head. He already knows where it’s going and he doesn’t have the patience for it.
“Nutrition, as in supplements?”
“Yes,” Margaret says. “I have already started using some of the vitamins and my skin feels great. Look, look at how smooth it is.”
“Of course you have,” he mutters.
She doesn’t seem to hear him as she continues.
“I think it could really work this time. He just needs seventy six thousand to upgrade his account. That way he can get the premium products that sell.”
“Mother, aren’t there five boxes of supplements left from the last time he tried this with – what was it Njambi? World Global something?”
“This one is different Kagwe,” Margaret says, drawing on the table with her finger. “They have cleaning products in the premium account. I can help him sell them at the chama, I know the girls will like them.”
He is quiet for a while and then he says, “Of the two of us, Njambi is the MBA. I just fly planes. Ask her if she thinks it’s viable.”
Usually, this is the point at which I would shut down Margaret’s idea with two parts love and one part reasoning, but this time I refuse to do it.
“I don’t know Kagwe. Mother seems pretty confident… and they have cleaning products.”
He cocks his head to the side, realization washing over his face. He’s finally caught up but it’s too late in the game to pull off a hat trick. I have flipped the tables.
“What’s seventy thousand when your brother needs it?”
“Mother, it’s not seventy thousand, it’s seventy six thousand! Didn’t I just wire him two hundred thousand last month? Where is that money now?”
“You know he bought an incubator with that money.”
“If he’s not going to stick with rearing chicks because apparently it’s ‘too much work’, let him sell the incubator. Then he’ll have his seventy six thousand.”
“That’s what’s wrong with this young generation. You put so much faith in your friends and forget your family. You would rather bail out your drinking buddies than help your own brother,” Margaret says getting up in a huff.
As soon as she rounds the corner to the ladies room, Kagwe turns to me. “Goddamn! Okay Njambi, please make this stop.”
“Come on, you know she won’t stop until she gets it. You would rather see my hard-earned money go to waste?”
“You know, I have dirt on you too.”
Aww that’s cute. He thinks he is still in control.
He sighs and mumbles something.
Curling my palm over my ear, I say, “What was that? I didn’t quite catch that.”
“I said okay; now ask for what you want because I know that’s what all this is about.”
Okay Njambi, it’s show time. You’ve got one shot at this so you’ve got to play it smart. What’s it going to be?15