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The Solitary Animal

On the road to Nakuru, I kept my ears pricked up for a message from Nazir. I’d sent the money for the spare part along with a thoughtful thank you note which made a tidy conclusion to our brief encounter. Therefore I had no reason to think that he would be writing anything back yet every few hours I compulsively checked my phone, turning my data on and off in case the connection had been lost in a poor network area. 

A polite person would acknowledge receipt, would he not? I thought feverishly. But with every passing hour, hope dwindled and exhaustion began setting in. By the afternoon, I had decided that he was a rude person and that it was probably best that he hadn’t texted. That got me through the two-hour evening game drive at Nakuru National Park after which I dropped off my tour group at their hotel. 

Mark had already arrived to meet me so I cajoled him into pooling his money with me and sprang for a double room with a bathtub. A shower would’ve done well enough washing off the heat and dust of Samburu, but I needed a therapeutic lavender soak to keep my anxiety at bay. 

While I ran the bath, Mark flipped through channels on the TV and landed on the sports channel. The Basketball World Cup was on, a thing that would not have alarmed me had I been with anyone else. With Mark, as with most people, sports go hand in hand with alcohol. This, in and of itself, isn’t a problem. Only, I know him. 

Mark has always been a quiet kid who feels too much of everything. He’s smart too. Maybe too smart for his own good. Hardly anything ever holds his interest. Schedules and routines make him feel like a sailor on dry land. If he has to adhere to one, he wants to jump out of his skin. To preempt these feelings of being constrained, he likes to maintain a certain level of buzz at any given time. 

He does not drink in excess, which I think is the only reason my parents haven’t held an intervention for him. But while he manages to skate by masquerading as a social drinker to everyone else, I know different. I know that he has an unhealthy relationship to alcohol. I know that it has gotten him into trouble multiple times because I’m the one he calls whenever he’s in a bind. And I know that while thus far it has gone unsaid, we all fear that he’s set on whiling his life away with drink. He wouldn’t be the first one in our family to catch that bug. 

“I hope you’re not drinking tonight because you have the first shift tomorrow,” I said. 

“I wouldn’t be a good relief driver if I drank now, would I?” 

“Don’t be charming. I need you sharp tomorrow.” 

“When have I ever not been sharp?” He asked. 

It was rhetorical. The last incident with his drinking had been only a few months before. I was in Naivasha for the World Rally Championship. I remember that trip because Moi South Lake Road was busy with chase cars, camera crews, fire engines, and ambulances. It was dry and dusty and I had to have the cruiser washed, so I was at the carwash when Mark called. 

“I’ve gotten myself into a situation,” he said. Mark often got himself into situations that only I could get him out of. 

“What’s happened?” I asked. 

“I dented the van,” he exhaled.

“You had an accident?” Panic surged up my throat. “Are you hurt?”

“No. I’m okay…Everyone’s okay but… the van is dented.”

“What do you mean?”

When he finished high school, Mark spent the next few months catching up on all the drinking, weed and video games he’d missed. Then a few months turned into a few years and he still hadn’t decided what he wanted to do with his life. He could do anything if he decided to, but he never sees the point in it. Nothing ignites him. 

Dad and I love to travel. We love the outdoors, the open road, campfires in the wilderness and even schmoozing with the tourists. Mom on the other hand doesn’t like anything in particular. She’s from the generation of women that never quite formed an individual identity. She is content to organise everything in the background, making sure everyone else is happy. Her approach to things is just to get on with it; no one can accuse her of lacking purpose or direction. So it is unclear who Mark takes after. 

He is the kind of solitary animal that holes up in the house for days, only coming out at night to hunt. In this case, that means crossing the threshold from his house, a rental in my parents’ backyard, into mom’s kitchen for supper. 

Every few days he and mom went at each other’s throats about the drinking, the weed and the bad company. The bit about the bad company would make Mark snort since the only contact he had with the outside world was a girl in our estate who doubled as his dealer. Mom would accuse him of not taking her seriously – which he wasn’t – and say, “Wait till your father gets home.”

Dad’s way of dealing with it was to issue a stern warning about renting out my brother’s house, forcing him to move back into his mother’s house. Aah. Kenyan parents and the threat of shame. I occasionally got him to come on airport transfers with me during his interludes of sobriety. He even signed up for driving school once he realised that shuttling was a form of solitude that paid. But then, he would soon return to his old ways.

Around this time, we added the cruiser to our fleet and I finally started doing trips on my own. My parents realised that they needed to change tack, so Kilonzo got booted back to airport transfers and Dad started taking Mark on tour with him. It went exactly as you might expect. Dad ordered him around, lectured him when he couldn’t escape the shuttle, and criticised his clothes, hair, and jewellery. The baby locks on Mark’s head and the silver chain he wore were of particular vexation to my dad.

Mark, on the other hand, steered the wheel with one hand, flirted with guests despite my dad’s disapproval, and used his tips to buy booze instead of paying for his share of accommodation. It was mostly harmless, last-born brat, only-son, teenage bosh, but it got my dad’s goat all the same. Two circuits down the line they’d both had enough of each other. 

Dad put him back on airport transfers and to his credit, Mark kept his head down until the weekend the rally came to town. He’d scuffed up the van on one of the pillars in the airport parking lot.

“Were you speeding? Were you late? Did you have guests with you?” I asked. 

“No… I wasn’t speeding, not more than usual anyway. This guy just came out of nowhere and I swerved too hard.”

“How bad is it?”

“Eer… The side mirror is a goner…” I could hear him walking around, assessing the damage. “The whole left side will need a paint job and maybe some bodywork.”

“Some bodywork! Mark.” I shook my head.

“It was an accident. It could’ve happened to anyone. I’m starting to think you’re not the one I should’ve called,” he said accusingly.

I’ve always been a buffer between him and our folks. It’s an unspoken pact we have. I’m good for both of us, so that he doesn’t have to be. 

“Had you been drinking?” Static. “Coz if you’re day drinking, you’re drinking and driving, and you’re doing it while working, it’s getting out of hand. So many things could go wrong.”

“I know.”

“You could’ve hurt someone. You could’ve hurt yourself!”

“I know.” He said in a small voice. He sounded so defeated, almost in tears. Guiltily, I stopped railing at him. 

“Let’s just figure out the van stuff. You have to get it fixed, and you’ll have to do it out of pocket.”

After that conversation, I couldn’t keep my hands from shaking. Mark and I are seven years apart in age, so I worry over him as though he were my own child. I was afraid that he’d come so close to being hurt, and angry that I couldn’t tell anyone. In part, I felt resentful towards my parents for delegating what I felt was their parenting work to me. Their methods only pushed him further into closing himself off. And one of us had to know what was going on with him, which left me holding the bag. 

That whole weekend, my stomach was in knots. I was anxious that the van wouldn’t be fixed on time. That we would all be found out and that my parents would blame me. Moreover, I was afraid that Mark wouldn’t tell me even if he’d hurt himself. Earlier that year, Mundia had lost a friend to a pulmonary embolism after a minor biking mishap. It was sudden, and I hadn’t been able to shake the fear of seemingly small accidents turning fatal since then. 

While I took my hour-long bath, Mark called out through the door. “Who’s Naz?”


“Some guy called Naz keeps blowing up your phone.” I nearly cracked my head open on the side of the sink getting out of the tub. “Should I answer it?” 


Mark being Mark decided to tease me about it. “It sounds urgent. Let me pick up —”

“Don’t you dare!” 

I wrapped myself in a bathrobe, still wet and soapy and threw the bathroom door open. “Give it to me.” I tried to grab the phone from him but he held it out of my reach. “I swear to God Mark!” 

“Who’s Naz?” 

“Aah. Fine. If you want to know so badly, you answer it then.” 

“Oh, missed call.” 

“You made me miss it!” 

“Relax. Don’t be too available. Let him call again.”

He must’ve seen the wounded look on my face because he began apologising immediately and profusely. He meant nothing by it, but he’d still struck a nerve and it had caught me off guard. I was aware that I had lurched onto a mundane interaction with Naz and attempted to assign it more meaning than it held. I was not just eager for the connection; I was starved, desperate even. I was so achingly open to it that the moral ambiguity of it meant nothing to me. When did I become the sort of woman who is disarmed by even the tiniest act of kindness? When had I become so…available?


To be continued…