On this February night, I find myself standing by our master bedroom window watching the quiet rustling of dried palm leaves dancing in a mild breeze. Heat hangs in the air like an unannounced guest on a Saturday morning. I let the strap on my satin nightdress slip off my shoulder, welcoming the coolness of the off-white wall against which I am leaning. The sky is dark and blue, littered with white twinkling lights and the occasional red winks of a Boeing bird in flight. Faint sounds of Rumba float across our cosy cul-de-sac from Ochi’s battery radio at the security office.
They remind me of simpler times, back in the tiny servants’ quarters in South C where Kagwe and I started big-eyed and eager for life. I was working a shady sales job for a Mhindi on Tom Mboya Street right after college. Kagwe spent most days at a cyber café hunched over his laptop, going through his training sheets. The days were long, drudgery, and the nights all too short. I remember the evenings we spent together most fondly. We lived off my weekly wages before Kagwe landed his job, and we were content.
On the rare occasions when the Mhindi hadn’t docked my pay for one alleged indiscretion or other, we would buy gizzard from the local butchery and break out the fine china – which only meant actual matching plates in those days. While the food simmered, we would open our windows to keep them from sweating and in poured the smooth voices of Franco, Tabu Ley, Papa Wemba…It was not our chosen genre of music but having no radio of our own, our fate was resigned to the landlord’s mood and stereo. Luckily, he was consistently a Rhumba man and we both soon grew to love it – Kagwe more than me. It reminded him of his old man. Ten years later, I’m in our five-bedroom maisonette, restless. It is neither the dry heat nor the nostalgia keeping me from sleep.
The whirring of my husband’s Land Cruiser draws me from my thoughts. The rays of its headlights pour through the sheers as he pulls into the driveway. I glance at the time on a brown, leather watch resting on my bedside table – a gift from Kagwe for my promotion to Senior Marketing Executive at the digital agency where I work.
I step back into the shadows and watch him through a narrow parting in the curtains. He closes the heavy, steel gate in the red glow of the V8’s taillights then walks back to his beloved and kills the engine. He slides back onto the driver’s seat and turns off the lights. Then, he sits in the quiet, toying with his stubble. What does he possibly have to think about at four o’clock in the morning? Why does he just sit there, as if the thought of coming in, coming home to me, fills him with dread?
The screen of his iPhone comes alive on the dashboard. He reaches for it and holds it to his ear. He visibly relaxes and leans back into his seat. After the call ends, he slips out and quietly shuts the door. The double chirp of his car alarm is my cue to creep back into bed. I cock my ears like Daisy – our two-year-old German shepherd – but all I hear is the thudding of my own heart and the irregular rhythm of my breathing. As the bedroom door creaks open, I shut my eyes and lie still. I try to calm myself as beads of sweat start collecting on the tip of my nose.
His keys ring against some coins in a ceramic key bowl on his dresser. I can tell that he is trying not to wake me, but the way he collapses on the bed gives him away. As usual, he reeks of whiskey and tobacco; he’s been smoking cigars again. And what’s that? Cherry? That’s new.
“Thirsty Thursday,” he said when I brought it up last week.
“Since when do you do Thirsty Thursdays?” I snorted.
“I don’t remember you giving me notice when you started doing Whiskey Wednesday with kina Nancy and Magdalene,” he said.
“Don’t you have a flight tomorrow?”
“Eh Njambi, leave my work schedule to me,” he sighed, propping himself up on his Lazy Boy chair. “Pass the remote. There’s a match on.” With that, he closed the subject.
He sits quietly for a while. I can feel his eyes on me. The knot in my stomach loosens and I feel the urge to exhale so I pretend to stir from sleep and turn towards him. His phone buzzes but he waits until my breathing evens out before he reaches for it. With my eyes-half closed, I catch a glimpse of a portion of a text message that reads ‘home’.
When he is satisfied that I have fallen back to sleep, he places the phone on his bedside table and proceeds to undress. As he takes off his sweater, I catch a whiff of that cherry scent again. It’s not as sharp as a cherry lip balm, nor is it as sweet and airy as a bath gel. It’s muted, dry; almost sour. What is that? I wait for the hum of the rainforest shower in our bathroom before reaching for his phone and scrolling through his texts. The last message is from Mwai, his best bud and a constant thorn in my side.
Mwai: Ay chief, open parking spot below the balcony. Where you at? 6:56 PM
Kagwe: Stuck at Nyayo, traffic. 6:57 PM
That can’t be right. We both heard the text come in. If it were from Mwai, contentious as he is in our marriage, Kagwe would have no reason to delete it. I mean I have made it clear that it’s not the man himself that I dislike. It is the unencumbered lifestyle he worships and strives to impose on my husband with poorly veiled jabs about hen-pecked men and their toxic women. I have always felt that he resents me for all the times Kagwe cancels a night out with him or has left the party too early. Of course, he and I have excruciatingly varied opinions on what time is too early to leave a party.
How long until Kagwe’s inner caveman yearns for the supposedly fulfilled yet unburdened life of a bachelor in his prime that Mwai purports to live? What will it take? One beer too many? One second of infirm judgement? One sniff of that god-awful cherry scent?
I remember the slight smile on his face as he spoke on the phone down in his car. I recognize that look on him – amusement. She amuses him. I can’t imagine how, if she believes a cherry fragrance to be appealing. It can be a pleasant scent but when applied copiously – as I am sure she did since I can now smell it on him – it turns nauseating. She is obviously trying too hard. Yet, here I am losing my beauty sleep and ageing with worry agonizing about it. Tsk.
The sound of the faucet squeaking as it closes brings me back. I close the texting app, hit the power button and put the phone back. When he walks back into the room, I have already turned on my side to face away from him. This time I am unable to shut my eyes. The mattress dips under his weight as he climbs in. He tosses and turns for a few minutes before settling in a spooning position behind me, his heavy hand resting over my hip.
The distant sound of my alarm chiming and buzzing draws me from sleep. As I prise my eyelids open – now sealed with eye crust – remnant images from a dream I have just forgotten meld together and fade from my mind. I groan silently as I wriggle out of Kagwe’s embrace and hit the snooze button on my iPhone. When the second alarm goes off I am still sitting on the edge of the bed. I bury my face in my hands, drunk with sleep.
Sigh. It’s going to be one of those mornings. I stagger to the shower and shock myself awake with a cold stream. By the time I hit the road, traffic to the central business district has already built up.
I am just rounding the corner on the Forest Road underpass when Nancy calls. Nancy is a childhood friend. She’s one of those people who can drift out of your life and back in, and you pick up right where you left off no matter how much time has passed. Her husband, Martin, is a civil engineer and works out of town almost all year round. They have two children, which means that Nancy has to play supermom.
“I’ve just dropped off the kids at school. How’s the traffic?” She asks.
“Terrible. I think you should try the service lane today, the express lane is backed up,” I say.
“I thought you’d be in Westlands by now.”
“You don’t know the night I’ve had. Listen, I have fifteen minutes to get to work and that means I have to speed up. I’ll check in with you later. Tumia service lane,” I say hanging up.
I speed up just as a text from Ben comes in informing me about an unscheduled morning meeting. Half past eight finds me seated in a draughty conference room listening to a pitch for a new client’s Facebook ad campaign. I stare blankly at the slide show of graphic designs Ivan is presenting, his annoying, chirpy voice drowned out by my brain chatter. My manicured thumb lingers over the screen of my phone. The word that is the subject of my fixation stares back at me enigmatically.
Home. Home. Did you get home safe? Do you have someone waiting for you at home? Why couldn’t I come home with you? Did she ask why you’re home late? Could she smell my cherry perfume on you? No? Is she anosmic or is she just stupid?
I shake the thought out of my head. Think. What did that damn text say? He didn’t text a reply, so it must not have been a question.
I’m home safe. I’m glad you’re home safe. Thanks for driving me home. I wish you were coming home to me.
“Do you not agree with that?” the voice of a man seated across from me intrudes on my thoughts. It’s Ben, the head of my department and my direct supervisor. “Njambi?”
“Huh? I mean…yes. Yes, I agree with Ivan’s uh…assessment.”
“You shook your head for a second there,” Ben says. Everyone around the table stares at me, eager for a response. “There’s something not quite right with the colour scheme and I think that’s what Njambi just caught. Look at the blue on the logo; it’s more turquoise than sky blue. Isn’t that so, Njambi?”
The heat of embarrassment creeps up my cheeks. He has not only caught me absent-minded, but now he is offering me an out to save face in front of my subordinates.
“Yes, that’s it,” I take the out grudgingly. My little blunder has put me in his debt and I know exactly how he will want to collect. “Ivan will get in touch with the client and get the specific hex code.”
“Good.” Ben chimes in, stacking up the papers in front of him, signaling the end of the meeting. “Njambi, come by my office when you have a moment.”