From a distance, a bicycle dynamo light blinks on and off. There appear to be two men on it, locals heading home. We hold our breath as they cycle past us, but from the side mirror I see them circle back towards the van. The one in the back is carrying a hoe and a fork wrapped in a tattered sack. Sally and I check our locks.
The two men peer through the window, debating whether there’s anyone inside, but the windows are tinted. They can’t see us but we can see them, and it takes everything we have not to scream. When they try to look through the windshield we duck down. It’s best they don’t know that there’s only two women in the car. They look like farm workers, but their tools could easily serve as weapons. Like possums, we figure if we play dead, they’ll go away.
My assistant Sally and I were taking pictures of a newly opened resort in Naivasha. We stayed late to catch some glowing sunset shots and evening bonfires on the camping ground. The owners offered us complimentary dinner that took longer than we expected. All the same, we set off for Nairobi thinking it would be an hour’s drive, then my Caravan sputtered and stalled. I only managed to veer it to the side of the road some ways before Limuru.
“Is it the clutch?” Sally asked.
“No, I don’t smell anything.”
“It’s not the fuel, the gauge says it’s still half-full. Is it the battery?”
I tried to start the van again. It cranked up with a lot of effort but refused to run.
“It’s not the battery,” I said flicking the lights on and off. “It could be the alternator. I don’t know.”
The engine was running hot, but not hotter than usual. It’s an old van with over two hundred thousand miles on it. I bought it off an auction yard back when I was still seeing Bill. He assured me it was a steal and of course he would know. If anyone could save a bill, it was Bill.
We were on a perilous bend, our rear end sticking out onto the tarmac. We ventured out to place our caution sign and cut twigs from a nearby thicket to place on the road. Nighttime in the country is a far cry from nighttime in the city. It is bitter cold, pitch-dark, and the unobscured sky looms, threatening to unleash the terror of rains that can crack the earth open.
“Can you call Mr. Flight Dispatch?” I asked Sally.
“He’s working night shift this week,” she said.
“What about your brother?”
“He’s all the way in Kitengela. We’ll be here till morning,” she said. “Can you call Jack?”
I shrugged. Jack is my mother’s husband of three years. Her second love, as she calls him. He does as much for Nina and I as a toupee does for a bald patch. We’re better off not kidding ourselves. Jack is not the man I call in the middle of the night for a favor.
“Let’s keep thinking,” I said.
A bus from Western Kenya on the last leg of its journey into the city zoomed past us, sending a shudder up the van. Sally cracked her knuckles then turned to me with raised eyebrows. I knew what she wanted to say.
“Oh no, not him,” I shook my head.
“Why not? Si you said he lives on James Gichuru road. He’s our best option.”
“But Damsels in distress? Already?”
“We’re two women stranded on the highway,” Sally said over the voice of Jaira Burns singing from the portable bluetooth speaker we carry because the van’s stereo is busted. “Between us, there’s about a quarter of a million shillings worth of camera equipment. We are damsels in distress! Call him.”
She was right. We were sitting ducks and it didn’t take long for the van to attract attention. I dialed Harry’s number and explained our situation sheepishly. He was still in the CBD but would come right over. I had hoped he was closer, because when I called my mechanic he was in a place with Kanungo blaring in the background, and it wasn’t his house. It could’ve been worse though.
He could’ve said, “I’m a bit held up right now. Just explore your options,” and then gone radio silent. Instead he called ten minutes later to say he was at ABC Place.
“You should probably stay in the car. The night is dark and full of terrors,” he said over the sound of his BMW devouring the road.
“I’m glad you’re keeping your sense of humor,” I chuckled.
One of the cyclists lights a cigarette and the cheap smell of burnt tobacco works its way into the van. We listen to their footsteps as they inspect it, kicking its wheels and bumping it from side to side. Frogs croak in a nearby swamp. Crickets chirp. A dog barks and howls. Another howls back, then another joins in and soon the night is alive with howling. One of the men starts trying the locks on the van. I consider blaring the horn to scare them away but that will only work for two minutes. What happens when they come back? By my estimation, Harry is still twenty minutes away. Sally and I device a plan to find gunshot sounds on YouTube and play them on the portable stereo on full volume. It’s our last resort and we’ll hang onto it as long as possible.
The men are debating about how much the van is worth. Their guesses are such lowballs I am amused at how snobbish they are for a couple of farm boys on a bicycle. My phone buzzes on my lap, jolting us. When I pick up Harry says to blink my lights and I have never been more grateful to have a Bima guy who knows how to step on it. I know that all other times my knuckles will go stiff from holding on for dear life when Harry is speeding but right now, I am mighty glad!
I see the headlights of his car approaching right as the men start knocking on the windows, asking us to open up. Of course they don’t dare imagine that it’s a couple of city girls inside. When Harry stops, they walk towards him, calling him mkubwa. They concoct a story about some other unsavory characters they had to fight off while guarding his car. They say they haven’t left its side all night even though they’ve only been here the longest ten minutes of my life. He doesn’t spend a minute of patience on them and for this he makes up by paying them off and sending them away. Afterwards I ask him how much he gave them and he says it was a hundred bob.
“They stood in that biting cold for a hundred bob?”
“It was a hundred bob they didn’t have,” Harry says. “Besides, whatever spirits they’re going to buy will warm them up.”
He says he couldn’t find a breakdown but we don’t need one anyway. “I brought rope.”
He gets in the driver’s seat, contemplating starting the van, then he looks at me puzzled.
“You drive a stick?”
He leans back on the seat. “And you’re good with it?”
“Very good,” I say.
I can see Sally shaking her head and rolling her eyes in my peripheral vision. He smiles and rubs his thighs. Then he jumps out.
“I think I can jumpstart it going down this hill but after that you need to tow us. It won’t idle for long,” I say.
“All right then. Let’s get out of here.”
The journey home is onerous. It’s just shy of midnight when we get to my place. Sally has agreed to spend the night and goes ahead of me to leave us talking. Harry observes the van, running his fingers on its chipping paint.
“If you’re interested, I can get you a good deal on a trade-in. You should buy a new van,” he says.
“Now that’s money privilege talking,” I shoot back. “It’s not for lack of wanting. It’s just what I can afford right now.”
“I usually handle the sale of assets for my clients’ estates. I’m sure I can find you a wagon of some kind.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I know, I want to.”
“Yeah, but it’s really not necessary.”
He stops pacing around the van and faces me. “Oh no. You’re one of those girls.”
“Those girls who think letting someone else take care of them is a weakness. God forbid you’re vulnerable. Isn’t that in itself a weakness?”
His voice is even and without hesitation. It’s not an attack but it cuts through me like a boning knife. He is sharp and articulate (no surprise there), and I appreciate his forthright approach, but I see now that it’s a double-edged sword. I don’t enjoy being called out like that.
“Well, I called you, didn’t I? I think that’s enough caretaking for now,” I say. I have the words ‘I don’t need to be coddled’ teetering on the edge of my tongue, but I bite it because what purpose would they serve if not to illustrate his point? Instead I say, “Thank you.”
“All right then. If you change your mind,” he says coming in for a hug, “let me know.”
He sees me off to the door of my house before he leaves. I think of making a nervous joke about the second date not being what he expected, but I am too embarrassed to make light of it. So far, every time I have been around him I have been out of my element.
Despite my thighs burning and my back aching, once I shower, sleep evades me. In the next room where Sally is sleeping, Nina’s bed creaks. I put on some music and my thoughts stray back to the van. I’ve had it for three years now. When I first bought it, I considered it a mark of my business success in photography. It wasn’t mint, but I was able to say yes to a lot more jobs because of it. It took me places. Though I work for Makena now, I always wanted to be a free agent and the van was a big part of that.
Even so, it is now siphoning money out of my pocket and I have never been one for sentimentality. Harry is right. I do need to get rid of the van. It’s time. But I feel an internal resistance to his part in it, by no fault of his. I’m sure he means well. But I’ve met men like him before. Men who like to take charge and take care of things. They’re all I’ve met and they all have one thing in common.
Take Bill for instance. He was the one who helped me bid for the van. That of course, was before I called him with the news that I thought I was late on my period and he said, “We’ll get through this together.” Then before I settled into my relief he added, “We just need to take care of the situation. There are pills for this kind of thing,” and I stood there listening to the wind whipping about on his end of the line, trying to process what he was saying.
Sooner or later, they pull the rug from under you and walk away to the soundtrack of your heart beat going haywire.
Njambi & Kagwe’s World is now available on Kindle! You can find it here (Link) Gift a friend, gift your spouse or just grab a glass of wine, kick your feet up and treat yourself to an enjoyable read this Madaraka Day!
Taste of Mel continues here: Pepper Green12