Dried leaves crumbled under my feet as I paced back and forth in the parking lot. Nazir was some distance away conversing at length with the mechanic, leaving me with nothing to do besides watching slats of sunlight pour through a yellow fever tree. It had taken them twenty minutes to work out that the crankshaft sensor was faulty. Once they had confirmed that with a used spare from the service vehicle store, they drove into town and bought a new one. By the time I got there, the cruiser had not only been fixed, it was also being washed and buffed.
My first instinct to swell with gratitude was thwarted by the uneasiness I felt about taking help from a stranger. Nazir had been helpful. Too helpful in fact, almost to the point of ingratiation. I decided I would find an opportune time to draw the line before I found myself in his debt. When they wrapped up, Nazir started towards me in a brisk walk. At last. I took a deep breath but the morning chill cut through my lungs and made me sniffle.
“Did I keep you too long?” he asked as he reached me.
“No, no. Not at all.”
“He’s just bringing the car around,” he nodded back towards the mechanic. “I think they’ve finished washing it.”
“You’ve gone to so much trouble.”
“Oh it’s no problem. I like to help if I can.”
I could tell by its growl that the cruiser would run smoothly. When the mechanic handed the keys back to me, I let it idle for a while, listening for signs of a sputter.
“Mbele iko sawa,” he said. All that was left to do was fill the fuel tank.
“How much do I owe you?” I seized the moment to even things out. The mechanic deferred to Nazir. While Nazir did not seem like the kind of person who pulls rank, a social hierarchy had clearly been invoked. I didn’t know how, but I got the impression that he had prevailed upon the mechanic to do the work free of charge.
“Here’s the receipt for the spare part,” Nazir said. “I paid for it so you can reimburse me whenever you’re ready.”
“Great, I’ll M-Pesa you by the end of day.”
“Do you mind dropping me off at my place?” he said. “It’s on the way.”
I clapped a 1000 bob note in the mechanic’s palm as we said our goodbyes and told him it’s for chai. He beamed at me like I had handed him the winning odds for a World Cup Final match and all the tension left my body. With him, at least, I had cleared my debt.
As we left the gates, Nazir settled into the front passenger seat. He was still in uniform, his rifle nestled next to his right leg.
“Aren’t you supposed to leave that at the armoury when your shift is over?”
“We are, yes.”
“Is your shift not over?”
“Technically, no. We’re a bit short-staffed at the moment so I’m not on duty, but on call.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means they can ask me to come back at a moment’s notice. So I have a special permit that allows me not to check my weapon into the armoury when I am on call. It’s a response time thing.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.”
“I’m not actually supposed to divulge the inner workings of my unit to a civilian.”
“What? Why did you tell me?”
“A lot of people are uncomfortable around guns. I thought it might put you at ease. Take a right here.”
“Just up ahead.”
I took a turn off the main road onto a barely worn path snaking its way through a field of long grass.
“Is it far?”
“About half a kilometre this way.”
“I can’t see anything. I should be able to see your house from here.”
“It’s… not designed to stand out.”
“That is not at all reassuring.”
“I know. I know, but you’re safe with me,” he said. And then after a moment added, “I realise that’s what a serial killer might say to lure their prey out to a secluded spot —”
“But if you thought I posed any danger you would’ve left me back at the park.”
“I didn’t know that you live out in the middle of nowhere. This is more remote than Coward the cowardly dog’s house!”
That got a laugh out of him — a cute, unguarded laugh. And I could tell that laughter doesn’t come easily to him too, so I got a real kick out of it.
“That was a true Tell-me-how-old-you-are-without-telling-me-how-old-you-are,” he said.
“Yeah.” I shrugged. “If you know, you know.”
His place was nestled on the edge of a grove of whistling thorn and yellow fever trees. He had not fenced it off but the perimeter of the compound was marked by a hedge of tall pampas grass.
“Oh, is this it?”
“Yes, we’re here. Would you like to come in and have breakfast? It’s not going to compare to a hotel buffet, although I have had eggs at Elyon House. That’s where you’re staying right?”
I nodded. Elyon House is a famous budget hotel for tour operators that has stood since Nanyuki was a fledgling town. I heard from Dad that the owner is a retired tour operator. With great rates and ample parking, tour vans, cruisers and trucks congregate there every evening like a herd of wildebeests. So I wasn’t surprised that Nazir knew I’d be staying there.
“I’m sure I can do better.”
My tour guests didn’t have to check out until 10am and even then I still had two hours before my itinerary for the day began. I hadn’t had breakfast or dinner the previous night; I was starving and he seemed keen on the company. I said yes.
The house was a matte green trailer that sat on three steel legs, two in the back and one on the tow hitch. It had a clearance of two feet, with two steps leading up to the door and an L-shaped, wooden veranda attached to its edges. There was a canvas roof over two garden chairs on one side, while a clay chimney and a cast iron grill sat on the other.
As soon as we alighted, a grey, striped tabby with eager, emerald eyes came out to greet him. She meowed and purred and rubbed against his uniform. He squatted and rubbed her back.
“This is Celeste,” he said. “She came to shelter under the trailer one day when it was raining and now she just lives here.”
“Hi Celeste!” I squatted beside them and tried to get her attention but she was bashful. Then I heard little meows coming from under the trailer. “Is she nursing?”
“Yeah. She just had her first litter. I wanted her to have at least one before I took her in for spaying.”
The kittens called out for their mom and tried to approach us. One brave one led the way while the apprehensive ones took tentative hops on a thick patch of yellow sorrel. A few steps in, they got distracted by the small, grass yellows fluttering around and tried to go after them instead. I could tell it was still early days by how they stopped to smell the flowering sow thistle and were frightened by a low flying beetle.
He scooped Celeste up and made for the veranda. The kittens hadn’t warmed to human touch yet and spat at me when I tried to touch them.
“That one has claws like a fish hook. She’ll make you bleed in seconds,” Naz said. I drew my hand back.
I settled on a garden chair while he went inside and came back with a bag of cat food. As he scooped pellets and poured them into a bowl, I went to see what was around the back. There was a clothes line, an old, stained porcelain bathtub that looked abandoned, a roofless bathroom with a steel shower head peeking from the top, and what looked like a tree nursery next to a greenhouse.
“You grow trees?” I called out.
“Yeah, among other things.”
I went down to see the tree nursery while he made breakfast. I heard pots clanking and water running before he swung his head outside the door and asked, “How do you like your eggs?”
“Lightly or well done?”
A sparrow swooped down from a tree onto a wooden bird feeder hanging on the edge of the canvas roof. While it fed, another swooped down and began bathing in the old tub which I realised then was filled with water. I thought it was a shame that he didn’t have a bird bath — I had the perfect one in mind. Mundia had several of them stacked in a warehouse. Many of them were made of worn stone. He’d meant to have them repaired before he put them on the market but had never got round to doing it. There was one made of wrought iron that I had been eyeing for myself. It was old and rusty, but not so much that an acid bath and a metal polish wouldn’t fix it.
Right then I knew I’d be back there with that bird bath, and as if sensing the betrayal clairvoyantly, Mundia called for the first time since I’d left home.
We’d had a fight two nights before and he was giving me the silent treatment. It started with a slip of the tongue. I got home from the Mara that Tuesday to find that he’d caught a cold. As usual, he was sitting on it like a dutiful penguin dad sitting on its egg, instead of getting ahead of it before it hatched into full blown pneumonia. So I went back out and bought ginger and lemon and made him a cup of hot dawa, heavy on the honey, just like he liked it.
Three, maybe four sips in, the concoction started its wizardry and his nose started running like egg white. Had I not been there, he would’ve blown his nose over the sink but I had only just managed to wrestle that habit out of him. Instead, he reached for a box of tissues.
“Those will dry out your nose,” I said. I had learned that if I sounded concerned he couldn’t call me out for nagging without sounding like an asshole. What I was really going for was, “Don’t you have a handkerchief?”
“No,” he said, blowing into a tissue. “I lost mine at the club.”
“I lost mine at the hub.”
“The hub. The last time we were at the hub.”
“When were we last at the Hub?” I asked.
“You know that time…I bought you ice cream? It dripped on your dress and I gave you my handkerchief to clean it?”
“You were wearing that dress…the pink one with the pockets.”
“That dress is peach, and I haven’t worn it since April.”
“Peach…pink…” he said, weighing the colours on his hands. “It’s all the same to me.”
“It’s not the same—”
“It is for me.”
“You’re changing the subject. The ice cream thing was at the Waterfront and I was wearing a black jumpsuit.”
He let out a drawn-out sigh, implying that I was starting something that he was too exhausted to engage in. “Remember there was that screaming child? You complained about the kid being whiny and the mom was just standing there?”
I do complain about spoiled, out-of-control brats in public spaces. That did sound like me. Except, it wasn’t. He knew it and I knew it. But he also knew how to wind me up expertly. I had stained the peach dress over Easter, when he made me give up what would’ve been a lucrative trip to Diani so that we could go visit his mom. As soon as I got there, his mother put me to work peeling bananas and I got a huge patch of sap on it that got worse the more I tried to clean it.
Mundia wanted me to argue this. He knew that if he kept fabricating the story as he went along, I would wear myself out disputing irrelevant details. He knew that it would annoy me, that I would tell him I wouldn’t stand for it. That if he just kept goading me, I would eventually threaten to leave and he would accuse me of blowing little things out of proportion. That would be his licence to shut down. After two or three days, when the silence hurt more than his original transgression, I would relent and make nice. And he would get away with it like he always did.
But this time I didn’t argue. I didn’t try to harpoon him in a pool of his lies. I’d gotten the gist of what had actually happened. There had been a clandestine night at the club, a woman in a pink dress, a spilled drink and a handkerchief offered. Oddly, that was enough.
I said, “Okay. You should probably get another one now.” And then we ate in silence. The next morning he left for the auction house before I woke up and didn’t check in the rest of the day.
I realised, with a jolt, that I hadn’t thought of him in over twelve hours. Normally, his periods of silence killed me. I spent them grinding my teeth and nursing a tension headache, an ulcer or a stress cold. But I hadn’t even thought to call him when the car broke down. He wasn’t usually any help anyway. Even if I had thought to call him I probably wouldn’t have ended up doing it.
I let the call go unanswered.
And the sky didn’t fall out.
To be continued…