You are currently viewing The Ones Who Don’t Look Away

The Ones Who Don’t Look Away

  • Post author:
  • Post category:Fiction
  • Reading time:12 mins read

I stood outside the trailer with my eyes closed, the sun warming my forehead delightfully. There was no hint of smoke, fumes or odours in the air; it smelled of dried leaves, soil, and wet bark. It smelled like nature thriving. I listened to the birds calling in the trees and tried to identify them in my mind. It was an exercise I often did in my free time – it played well with the bird watching crowd and boosted my credibility with normies. 

There was the constant chirp of weaver birds that nest in impressive numbers on a single acacia tree. Below that I picked out a low cry that could be confused for a goat bleating, likely from a secretary bird living nearby. There was the sharp whistle of a kite and another call that could have either been a hornbill or a monkey – I hadn’t gotten good enough to tell them apart yet.  

“Breakfast is ready,” Naz called out. I joined him on the terrace where he had laid out pots and cutlery. “I would give you jam for the bread,” he said, scooping scrambled eggs onto my plate, “but there is a nest of wasps around here and they love their sugar.” 

“That’s okay, what I really need is caffeine,” I said, pouring myself a cup. 

“You do look like a coffee person.” 

“I have to be, with the hours I drive. Otherwise the road starts blurring into the landscape.” 

“I can imagine,” he said, settling in. 

Once I dug in, we ate in silence for a while. When I looked up, Naz was watching me. 

“Are my eggs that good or do you need your quiet in the morning?” 

“Are you fishing for a compliment?”

He chuckled. “No. Just making conversation.”

“What are you?” I asked. “You’re not all black, are you?” 

“What do you mean? I have darker skin than you do,” he stretched his arm out against mine across the table. “Like, two or three shades darker at least.” 

“Yeah, but your hair tells a different story.” His beret had been hiding a thick muss of shiny, curly hair.

“You mean my nose tells a different story,” he said. 

I chuckled. “No, I meant your hair. But now I know you’re self-conscious about your nose so, I won’t mention it. Unless I’m losing an argument and I’ve got nothing else.”  

“Oh my god!” 

“I’m kidding. I’m kidding!”

“Well, you’re right. I am black and a little bit of this and that.”

“What’s this and that?” 

“My great grandfather came here from India as a labourer for the Imperial British Company. He worked on the Kenya – Uganda railway line. You’re familiar with that history, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

“He came from a village in the North, in Punjab. But after his contract expired he married a Taita woman and never went back home. Then my grandfather married a Swahili woman and settled in Mombasa.”

“Oh, they both married locals.”

“Yes. I never met my grandmother. By the time I was born my father had already moved to Nairobi, but I’ve heard her side of the family still lives in Old Town Mombasa.”

“Really?” 

“Yeah. There might be some Arabic in that lineage. Omani, if I’m not mistaken.” 

“Wait, hold on!” 

“I told you there was a bit of this and that.” 

“Okay, so Hindu -” 

“Not Hindu. Hindu is…something else. My great grandfather’s relatives were actually Punjabi Muslims.” 

“Oh. Sorry. Punjabi,” I counted on my fingers, “African and Arabic?” 

“A little bit of Arabic, yes.” 

Celeste came up on the terrace and rubbed her head against my chair. I felt oddly keen for her to like me so I bribed her with a piece of egg off my plate. Instead of throwing it on the floor, I had her eat it off my palm and then petted her when she was done. She rubbed the length of her body against my legs and then started grooming herself. 

“And then your Dad?” 

“My dad went back to his roots. My mom’s family is, I guess you could say ‘full Indian’.” 

“No mixed lineage on that side?” 

“Not really. I mean my mom’s family came here as traders from South India in the 70s. They don’t have a long history here.”

“Oh wow. So you have relatives in India.”

“I do.” 

“Do you know them? Have you ever been?” 

“Uuhmn…” He hesitated. “No.” 

“Sorry. I’m used to asking my tour guests a lot of questions about themselves. It’s something I learned on the job, and people are mostly happy to talk about themselves.” 

“No, no. It’s okay. I’m just realising, now that you asked, that my family history is a bit winding. Usually when people ask I just tell them I’m Indian and they assume I’m one of the dark ones.”

I was dusting the crumbs of toast off my lap when a haggard man came wandering in. His clothes had clearly seen better days and his hair was unkempt. When he came close enough, I noticed that he was barefoot. He placed a sooty sack that was overflowing with plastic waste against the hedge like a prized possession. 

Celeste, who until then was sunning herself next to me, sat up. As the man came closer, she decided that the danger was too great and ducked under the trailer. Her kittens came bounding up to her, trying to suckle again but she wouldn’t have it. I tensed up and glanced at Nazir. He did not look alarmed but he had fallen into an uneasy silence. 

“That’s Luther,” he said, stretching his legs out. “He’s harmless, don’t mind him.” 

“You know him?” 

“You know that roundabout in town, with the old clock tower?” 

I nodded. 

“He’s usually a fixture there. You’ve probably seen him before. He sleeps out there when he’s in a depression, but he comes out here when he’s in a manic phase.” 

I had seen him before. Nazir’s trailer was a long walk from town and talk of depressive and manic phases could only mean one thing. “He’s bipolar?” 

“That’s what I think. He’s not a danger to anyone. It’s just that sometimes he seems to have this influx of life force that makes him feel invincible. A bouncing-off-the-walls type of energy, like a sugar high, except this goes on for months.”

“Right.”

“And then after he’s burnt himself out he gets so low that he doesn’t even have enough energy to animate his body.” 

“That’s heartbreaking.” 

“These things often are. His family has tried to get him on meds now and then. He’s quite charismatic when he’s in a good place. Anyway, I’m sorry for the intrusion. He just needs to take a shower and then he’ll be on his way soon.” 

“It’s not your fault, don’t apologise.” 

When Luther came within earshot, Naz stood up and said, “I asked you to come alone and unarmed.” 

Luther halted. “Yeah, well, alone I ain’t never gonna do am I?”

They proceeded to have a strange and elaborate salutation that I understood at the very end was a bit from Peaky Blinders, where Naz played Thomas Shelby and Luther played Alfie Solomon.

“Good Sir! And Madam,” Luther bowed to us theatrically. 

I nodded and waved at the same time he stretched his hand out to shake mine. Nazir took his hand instead and clapped him on the shoulder. I felt sick to my stomach with embarrassment. Luther’s hand was greasy but I would’ve shaken it if I had known he would follow the bow with a handshake. 

“Step into my office,” Naz said, ushering him around the trailer. “I’ll be back,” he mouthed to me as they walked away. 

“What will it be this time?” Naz asked. 

“Give me the usual,” Luther said. 

“You don’t want the Frederick Douglas?” 

“You ask me that every time and the answer is always the same.”

“I don’t know man. I think you could pull it off.”

“Ladies don’t like the Frederick Douglas and you know it.” 

Naz laughs. “Ooooh! You are out here trying to get these ladies?” 

“Same as you, brother!” 

That time they both laughed. I gathered from their voices floating on the wind that the Frederick Douglas was a haircut. Naz was shaving Luther’s head. 

I realised then that he was just one of those people. The people we like to think we are or could be, but aren’t. The people who do the hard stuff that no one else wants to do. The ones who don’t look away when someone needs help. I felt awkward sitting there eavesdropping so I went to the cruiser and sat there baking in guilt for treating him with suspicion.

“Are you okay?” Naz asked. I hadn’t heard him come up to the car. He was holding a fresh set of clothes: khakis, undershirts, shirts, sweaters and a winter jacket. “I might be a little while longer,” he said apologetically. 

“That’s okay, I should be heading out anyway,” I said. 

We said our goodbyes and I left without any clarity as to whether we would speak again.