The Gloves Are Off
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 Four Gospels. 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 potbelly as she saunters out of the open plan kitchen, unperturbed. I notice her well-done, burgundy toenails 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 wakes 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 and then rubs it against his belly. “Let me help you with that.”
He takes my purse before I can protest and disappears upstairs, leaving me with no escape.
“Must be nice to have no children waiting for you,” she says in rapid Kikuyu. “You can come home at any odd hour.”
Aah. I’m not even two minutes through the door and she’s already flaying me.
“Men are going to bed hungry these days because their wives are working,” she continues. “A husband is not even allowed to call his wife at work but just wait till the bosses call. It’s ‘yes sir’ and ‘no problem, sir’. Never mind the time.”
Margaret cannot fathom a woman’s existence that does not orbit around her man. I want to laugh aloud at that statement. I want to ask who is cooking for her husband this evening although knowing her, she probably left his dinner in a hotpot. I wonder if she’s counted how many dishes of untouched leftovers are in the fridge. I want to tell her how her son barely eats in this house anymore. It is harder now that the alcohol has disabled my filters but instead, I thank her for the food.
In the kitchen, I take off my coat, hoping it absorbed the majority of 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 and Rumba is playing softly from the home theatre. When Kagwe still hasn’t come back, I microwave the food for the shortest minute of my life, and 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 fervour that lights up 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 his mother. And if they want to keep their heads attached to their necks, don’t anyone dare say that she 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 defence.
“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 at least.”
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.”
In through the nose…out through the mouth. Hold on.
“We? Did you say ‘we’?”
“Yes. Your husband drove straight from the airport to come home and pick me up. ”
“Oh.” She doesn’t understand why that is significant. 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 about my homemaking skills. He knows that she criticizes me for sport; that I can’t bear to be in her company without a buffer. 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 played right into his hand. I even gave him more ammunition by coming home late smelling like a distillery. I’m playing catch up! When I go up to the bedroom, Kagwe is lying on the covers scrolling on his phone.
“You’re already done?” he asks. 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.
Oh, it’s like that. All right then. I set my alarm for five o’clock, an hour before Margaret wakes up. Fending off her backhanded comments is 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, but he also left the heavy curtains drawn shut. Kagwe never leaves the curtains drawn shut. I bought a sleeping mask for that reason. 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. And 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-groceries? Oh no. No. No. No. The gloves are off.