He is on his sixth menthol since I came into the room to find him under a white linen sheet on the couch watching Al Jazeera. The humidity somehow makes the peppermint welcome, especially after the all night sweat of the kange and burst pipes past Bamburi. His body is splayed on the couch with abandon, some kind of black viscous jelly, bobbing and tragic, the pose of a wounded man who has been at war with the world for so long that in his resignation he finds he has forgotten how to do even that without worrying. There is a blood-stained Sun N Sand towel next to him. The after-smell of sex masked in lemony toilet freshener lingers. I look at him as I’m sure one day someone will look at a version of my detached older self. Always projecting, I don’t know if this scares me or if the realisation is somehow a consolation. A part of me does not want to end up this way although, as a child, I hoped I would not end up the kind of person I am today. I’ve had fantasies about middle age and my death – they look very much as he does now under the linen, cigarette buts overflowing in the ashtray next to him. The ashtray is a gift I got from a small antique shop in Stone Town. At first, he insisted on displaying it like an ornament but then a guest had started using it without his knowledge. He’s not yet fifty but he looks ten years older. All his hair is gone. Years of drinking and chain smoking have done this to him. He hasn’t shaved his beard for days maybe, which also means he has not been to work. His skin hangs loose over his bones like it wants to shed off. He lights another cigarette and lets out smoke, his face towards the ceiling fan. His tongue comes into view and ducks back into the black cave of his mouth, a pale and pink cold-blooded animal that must not stay in the sun for too long. His teeth are unusually white for someone who smokes so much. I fear I will end up like him. Fatigue is arranged in his being like a lost alphabet, so that the suppleness of youth will forever be lost to him. It is a living thing attached to his skin and in his manner of speaking. It is there in the shine of his balding scalp, the many lives he has subscribed to. Fatigue is the price he has to pay. And in all the fantasies of death I entertain, this is the most common. Someday I will be him. Beyond all this, he still maintains a supple vigour in his face, his body commands respect, and when he talks he has that kind of music you do not understand but have to dance to, something like Toumani Diabate, so that it is no longer possible to tell the tongue from the strings, his voice a sharp contrast to the big-bodied man he is.
On my way in I met the boy coming out of the house. Some shade of dark brown, an acquired taste, bitter chocolate, like wet loquats seeds, curly hair, long shy face, the kind that has not known any trouble in its lifetime. He didn’t look up after I offered a vipi mtu wangu.
“Did you at least offer him breakfast?” I ask. “Ama umemfukuza hii ngware yote?”
He doesn’t reply. I fidget with the embroidery of the couch.
“Unadai food? Kuna salad kwa fridge,” he says after a while.
Faint, the boy’s odour is still in the air, there is no doubt it is him. Something cheap and pungent that’s designed to last very long in small doses, something from Section 3. That and the smell of unwashed bodies that have stayed indoors for too long in the dark. And sex. Some young Mijikenda boy. Mid twenties. I figure the arrangement is that he’ll be back after I have left. What he tells me though is that the boy has a morning class he cannot afford to miss and had to leave in a hurry.
Whatever we have left of shame is masked so thinly I wonder why we go through the trouble of lying in the first place. Is it a courtesy?
I pick up a cigarette, roll it around my fingers. I lower the TV volume so that the whirling of the fan and the screams of the neighbour’s children outside are audible. We sit in silence. There has never been much to say between us while we are sober.
In the mat, past the boredom of the sisal of Rea Vipingo farms, I got so worried because he wouldn’t explain on the phone why I had to show up today of all days, in the middle of the week when he knew I’d be at work. I had woken up to six missed calls. In the past when I didn’t pick up on the first ring he didn’t care to call back again. Weeks, months would pass. So six was a big number. There had been no time for breakfast. At the highway I took a nduthi to town and was lucky to be the second last passenger before our mat’s departure.
“You could have told me this on the phone.” I tell him.
He has been given a notice at work; they want him in their Nairobi clinic ASAP.
“Would you have come?” he asks.
Of course I would have, I lie. Truth is it always takes some convincing for me. And while he’s a medical doctor and I a research scientist, apart from fiction and poetry we have very little in common. But I guess when you have that much else is insignificant. It can get tiring though and rather than take the two-hour trip sometimes I just want to spend all my time in the lab in complete silence, say for the humming and beeping of the fans and centrifuges.
“So, you’re leaving?” A statement more than a question. Other than the shock of the abruptness of it all I’m not sure how to react.
“Looks like it,” he replies.
“So niaje?” I ask.
He stays silent.
Of course he’s not happy. He’s told me before that he didn’t want to move again, not after he’d spent all his earlier years moving from town to town, on occasions crossing the border, to Kigali and Kilimanjaro, that this was supposed to be the last town he’d stop at before his exit.
Exit. That’s the word he used.
“Things are crazy at work,” he offers. “Si unajua wadosi.”
He has told me about the bosses before. Their suspicions. The family get togethers he never gets invited to, the trip to Kisite-Mpunguti he’s sure they left him out of because he was on call that weekend? He says he cannot stand them but I suspect he’s hurt; I don’t know how to read him, or anyone for that matter. In a town like this, it’s impossible to keep certain things hidden for long. Soon enough the neighbor who’ve been bringing you Ramadhan pilau and mahamris catches a whiff of that smell that lingers and stops knocking on your door, their kids who’ve been coming to watch Nickelodeon stop visiting.
“So, this is it. You’re leaving.”
“You’re welcome to visit,” he jokes and laughs, the kind of resigned laughter that guards against the cruel realities we are afraid to reckon with.
He tells me if I help him with the move he’ll leave me whatever I want. He knows how much I love his collection of books and records. So many records. More than a thousand. Inherited from his father. The truth is that he wants me to stay with him for the week as he recovers and packs. He will not say it but he wants me here with him, this is not just goodbye. Hostage taking. A part of me pities this late in life loneliness, it’s unlike the kind I’ve seen in other people, and although it might be similar to mine in some ways, its edges are far blurrier, ever expanding, getting darker, if such a thing even exists outside absolute darkness. Many times I’ve worried what he might do to himself, alone in this darkness. So when he asks me to stay I agree. Out of duty, but also because I feel at home here, more than I do at my own place. Then there’s the question of the books and records. I’d need a pickup to move them to my place.
For years now, he has been diagnosing himself with all manners of mood disorders, a habit picked up after years of living on the edge and having to put up with the disappointed finger of his mother. Something incurable killed the father but his mother has hinted otherwise. He has lived alone all his adult life, and for the time I’ve known him he’s always entertaining a guest or other but never allowing anyone to stay longer than a fortnight. Those visits have been few and far apart since I started visiting. Whenever I come around there are often the usual signs of someone having been living there: shoes and clothes too small for him, combs (he’s bald), bottles of sweet wine, ciders, cans of Smirnoff, drinks he swears he’s never touched. These are episodes when he has been under medication, when his moods are much improved.
Whenever I drop by we take a drive to Nyali, buy as much alcohol and cigarettes and food as we can and waste away on his terrace, watching bodies on the beach, sometimes eating dinner out there. But then he goes off his medication, or I assume he does, and sometimes I will not see or hear from him for months, then out of nowhere he’ll call, like he did last night, and the old cycle will continue, old friends that we are, only this particular visit feels different, with him on the couch, wounded, being cryptic.
He sits up, lights another menthol, pulls the linen further up his torso. The smell of the freshener has dissipated to give way to the underlying smell of stale and new cigarette smoke, clotting blood, damp clothes and humid air. I lean over to pick a cigarette and stumble into that close to the body space where it is possible to smell what feels like his essence, fading cologne and days old sweat. I play with the cigarette in my hands. It’s much easier to keep myself from smoking if the cigarette is in my hands as opposed to it being in the packet, a trick I taught myself when I quit smoking. For a while we remain silent, eyes trained on the TV although none of us is watching the news. Al Jazeera. Saudis have launched an offensive in Yemen across the same sea where his flat stands, a war that means absolutely nothing to either of us.
The ornamentation of the Kikambala house is sparse but expensive: an old, miniature Yuan dynasty ship of impressive detail sails the color of blue moon wisterias; a set of colourful vases with intricate etchings; thick black and white rags on the floor that make me feel like I’m walking on fluffy rabbits; a delicate orange blown-glass swan on the table next to the packet of cigarettes and ashtray. There are two record players on either side of the TV stand; one from his dad, a restored Linn Sondek, only played on special occasions, the other a new model bought off Ebay. Not forgetting the towel that’s been left on the floor as an afterthought, an installation piece out of place in the middle of the gallery designed to shock. A counter narrative.
“Will you stay?” he asks, as if sensing my focus on the towel. “I promise to be good.”
“Umeumia?” I ask him. “Will you be OK?”
In addition to all the nice things, he has tried to lighten up the mood of the house by alternating red and orange shades on the walls so that it looks like the kind of house one always dreams of living in, a house unsuitable for children, but something stays trapped between the walls, a loneliness that cannot be painted or glossed over, no matter the smoothness of the vinyl silk paint and the perfect arrangement of credenzas and consoles. The same loneliness that made him call me a couple of years back. At the time we were not much of friends but we still talked from time to time on the phone. We had been introduced by a mutual friend who thought our shared interest in medicine was a good starting point. He was keener when he learnt I was writing and publishing at the time. Soon after we met a couple of times for beers whenever he was in town, always at Tavern Inn, always in the same corner on the first-floor balcony. We spent long hours together, talked about Dangaremba and Abani, how it was fitting that Marechera and K Sello Duiker die young. We talked about what we were reading, the place of poetry in the world, the state of African writing. All these things are useless to me. He found me naïve and fascinating. I thought he was condescending. But it was all good cheer.
It was odd at first when he started calling me. Uko busy? Just wanted to talk. A foreign and suspicious concept among men, especially men generations apart. After a while the calls did not bother me. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Did not question the calls, did not find it strange at all that we would spend close to an hour talking. I think a flawed part of me has always been happy not knowing certain truths about people. So when at some point in early February, months after our first meeting, he called for the umpteenth time, it seemed like the kawaida thing to pick up, although why he wanted to talk to me in particular still remained a puzzle.
“Boss, vipi!” I answered.
At the time I was working in a lab I did not like. A medical lab. Also, things were slow so I had all the time in the world. I’d been applying for jobs in research labs and it happened that he knew someone at the Trust who could help me find a job there, exactly the kind of job I wanted, something in genetics. So when he called I picked. When he didn’t answer, I left the line open, listening to that unmistakable static hum in open calls, waiting.
When he finally talked it was strange; he asked me about the harlequin ghost pipefish. He went on and on about his life on the reef, the probabilities of seeing it, that he was in Msambweni when it happened. This was new for both of us. He’d never mentioned diving, I didn’t know he had an interest in snorkeling. Towards the end he asked if I’d ever seen a pipefish, a seahorse perhaps. I remained silent for a while. He went on and on about pipefish. When I finally found the right words, or simply just words; I told him I had always been afraid of large bodies of water, that I’d drowned as a child in a quarry, that both being under water and being in a dark room were the same thing to me. It was the first time our conversations had become both so abstract and personal. He said he had tried to come to terms with a lot of things in his life and concluded that I, after insisting on the fear of water, so inexperienced at the time and more than ten years his junior, might be a perfect companion for diving. I listened to him, patiently and without interruptions, the way a priest listens to a confession. Our friends ignore our fears, they think they are looking out for us; we must be missing out on the world. It’s so easy, just float in the water. Let yourself go, float in the water, the sea water is kinder.
I agreed to everything. We were both drunk. After he told me all this I joked he find someone for the night, someone clean, someone he can at least have a conversation with. “I don’t pay for the conversation,” he’d replied. He puffed on his cigarette and let out long whorls of smoke, at least I imagined this is what he did during those long interludes. He added: “I think I get my loneliness from them. I pay them and they leave me with their tragedies.” I understood him and I wanted to be there for him the way he had been there for me when I had needed a room far from home. He hanged up and thanked me.
Months after that call I was working down at the coast, Mnarani, a two-hour drive from his place, content in this sudden seclusion and still spending too many of my weekends at his flat, listening to him go on and on about what it meant to practice medicine in his own town, to dive searching for pipefish, resident and tourist costs of living, watching him finish pack after pack of menthols. Sometimes he’d come to the Trust to drop blood samples, something I’m sure he’d have found a junior at the hospital to do. The MDs were always happy to see him; somehow the entire town came alive when he came knocking. After a tuk tuk trip to the end of Bofa Road, we’d come back to town and have lunch at the local; spicy lemon garlic shrimp, chicken biryani, beef samosas. The man could eat. Lunch would drift into late afternoon drinks and at midnight we’d get into his car, he’d drop me home, then speed down back south to his place, drunk and happy, covering the two hour drive in forty minutes.
Some of that loneliness he had spoken of during that long phone call, the same one in the house right now, is the kind that comes to me when I go on long bus journeys to Kampala and Kigali and Mwanza. It is peculiar in the way it is usually so defined when I am in motion. It’s all very disturbing, being in his house. I’ve entered into his domain, stripped bare, and we are looking each other in the eyes. My still body.
“I should’ve offered you something,” he says.
“I’m not hungry.” I attempt a smile.
He coughs repeatedly, holds his massive chest every time he does so, as if he is worried he might expunge his charred lungs out on to the clean rags and cold floor. The linen has slid down his body so that his entire torso is now visible, a thick prairie of hair covering it.
I’m not quite sure why I have this preoccupation with his death. Not that I’m willing it. I just wonder how long he has left to live. Maybe he has contracted something incurable and fatal. His hand now rests on his abdomen. Maybe he’s not moving, maybe he’s dying.
I escape to the kitchen to fix some cheap instant coffee and bring it to him steaming hot. Instead of returning to my couch, I sit next to him, his feet almost in contact with me, and ask if there is anything else I can get him, if he is OK. He doesn’t say a thing in reply. In the time it has taken me to fix the coffee he has slipped away into one of his obscure and dreamy states. His eyes are transfixed on the moving images of the TV but I can tell they register nothing. In his rigidness and inaccessibility he is like a sculpture. These far off places he disappears into are the reasons I both fear and like him. I pick up the remote control to lower the volume again and he takes my hand.
“Don’t.” He says. “I’m listening to that.”
At least he is not dead.
There are four vases on the coffee table, next to medical journals, a copy of Msafiri and old copies of the New Yorker. There are dead carnations in one of the vases. I take it to the kitchen, dump the carnations in the dustbin, where there’s fruitflies, a sweet stench of mangoes and a used condom, and pluck some fresh ones from the loggia on the terrace. I soak them in tap water. There is not much of a difference in change of mood when I take them back to the sitting room, not that I was expecting the room to suddenly light up. The flowers simply sit there and wait to be looked at, like sad children forced to smile in front of a camera.
“Sit down, I want to talk to you.” His voice is low and heavy and sounds like it has travelled a great distance to reach me, like we are on a phone call. He slowly sits up and finds a comfortable way to set his body so that he does not have to turn his head when he talks to me. He moans in pain. I look him right in the eyes, surprised by my indifference.
This must be the point where he tells me the cyanide is in one of the kitchen cabinets, next to the rat-n-rat and the lemon fresh scouring powder.
But instead he coughs and holds his chest. He spits the phlegm into a small bucket I hadn’t noticed since I came in, that also contains ash and Black Currant bottle tops with the inner rubber lining chewed off. Must be what the boy likes to drink. He stands, takes one more puff from his cigarette and staggers when he tries to move forward. I can tell it takes summoning all his might to keep steady.
He wants one last chat with what he calls the fullness of the ocean in a place where there are no people. I understand the fullness of the ocean to mean that mutual thing we have both failed at grasping in our lives, the unspoken things we’ve shared in our time together down here, next to the ocean, far from the homes we’ve been running away from all our lives. Apart from that long phone call, we haven’t really talked about personal things again. And whenever we do, in spite of the hours and hours of conversation, nothing ever feels quite as strong as that first call when he asked me about loneliness. Now, he wants the ocean again.
I know today, being a weekday, is perfect for being at the beach. There’s little chance of running into people, maybe just the odd vacationing couple. Known only to him and I, at least that’s what I like to tell myself, is a stretch of beach so pristine it feels like a different world. We’d discovered it by chance on one of our outings after we had spent days cooped up and needed a reprieve.
After half an hour in the bathroom and bedroom, he slowly walks back in linen pants and a Lacoste T-shirt and throws the keys to the car on the coffee table. He looks much better, smells expensive, with hints of camphor. He’s humming something I cannot decode, like he’s just learnt some secret about the meaning of life. I imagine he has shed the sickly skin in the bathroom and found a new polished one somewhere in a closet. I pick up the keys and make my way to the parking lot.
On the way he asks me to park outside Nakumatt Nyali. The boy has been waiting for us at the parking lot. He’s carrying a large paperbag.
“I thought we’d make a picnic out of it.” He smiles. Sly bastard. Even when barely able to stand he’s still as charming as ever.
“Hi, sasa,” This boy offers his hand as he slides into the back seat behind me. I turn back and shake his hand.
“Marlboro. Habari ya asubuhi?”
At first he seems confused.
“Huyu ndio beshte yangu, ule scientist nilikua na kuambia. Marl.”
The boy smiles. The spaces between his teeth somehow make him seem even prettier. Everything about his face seems to be under the spell of some fundamental and irrevocable law and entropy beyond which the world would simply come undone and there’d be no reason for living. I see why the doctor likes him. But his is a kind of beauty that hurts morerather than comforts.
“We’ endesha gari acha story mingi,” The doctor interjects.
No names, no identities. That’s how it works. There’s always been a limit when it came to sharing the material, more tangible things in our lives. He doesn’t know, for instance, of the affair at my lab, of the warning letters from HR, of the husband who’s come banging at my door at seven a.m. with a pistol asking me to come outside if I think I’m man enough. And on my part, although I suspect it, he will not tell me why he is being transferred. Instead we talk about the state of African fiction.
After navigating the carts and bikes and tuk tuks and the traffic towards Likoni, we finally get onto the ferry. As we drive down the road I offer both of them a joint. We take long puffs, all in a hurry to get high. His movements are now quick. His mood is slowly lifting, he’s smiling a lot. The boy in the back seat does not say much. I cannot clearly see him in the rear-view mirror. The road to Diani is straight, a good thing because the alcohol is starting to make me feel light. We are all quiet. Him with his smile, the boy lost somewhere far off, Diana Kraal in the stereo. The time in the car feels like those lazy Sunday moments after a weekend of sex and alcohol when there is nothing else to look forward to and life is at a standstill. We are the last people on earth. Msambweni. As far south as possible has always been the plan until we found that little stretch. Outside, the palm and coconut trees and passing bodies and cars don’t care if we exist. We don’t care if they exist. I take all this in, this suicidal abandon, like a happy drug. When the doctor laughs the whiteness of his teeth startles me.
We come across a watchman we’ve met on an earlier visit, a guard at a nearby hotel, who also happens to come from my village, a Kiuk from Karatina who is dismayed to learn I cannot speak any Kiuk, a man with bad teeth and a quick tongue. The hotel management sees it fit to suit him up in a Maasai shoal and club for the tourists. Once, as a way of small talk, he told me they won’t even allow him boxers. He said it gets really chilly at night and his balls shrivel up so much he worries they will permanently disappear into his body. I give him a two sok and we are on our way.
Finally, at the beach, I take his hand and lead him toward a nice spot near an old wreck of a fishing dhow. We walk slowly, in silence, the boy leading a step ahead. I have to keep reminding myself he is weak, although I don’t know why. He will not tell me. Did he get into a fight? Was he attacked for not being subtle? There is no one in sight when we reach the wreck, no dhows out in the water or fishermen or tankers in the horizon or screaming and somersaulting school children, no telescoping and schizo crabs ducking into their holes in the sand at the speed of light. Somewhere up north Yemen is burning and if there’s smoke it will never be visible here. We have entered another realm. Everything manmade stands behind us, outside us. The whiteness of the sand is almost pure, blinding, a whiteness shaped by nature, impossible to replicate, the mica flakes sparkling in the sun. I want to cry from the Godlike remoteness and aloofness of it all. It feels as if we are violating the sand when we leave our footsteps in it. There are two bodies next to me but I feel so alone, so at peace. I have to tilt my head and stand parallel to the line of the moving winds because its whiz is deafening.
I sit down and go about laying down the shukas and food. He and the boy walk ahead. They wander towards the edge of the water, stand there watching the ocean and the distant cuticles of waves, listening to the many things the ocean has to say. Knowing that he might sense my eyes on the back of his head, I pour myself a tumbler of wine stroll off to where I might also be alone, give them their privacy.
For half an hour I walk to where I the sea does not rise above my thighs, hoping to see harlequins but coming back with blurry memories of seaweed and algae.
I cannot shake the feeling that he is slowly dying, rotting away like the carnations in those vases that he’s said he will be leaving me with, standing like a sculpture of string, ready to come tumbling down at the slightest tug. I sense that he has called me down here to sayas a last goodbye.
On the ride home we stop at one of the nightclubs in Diani. I pay for a game of snookers and teach the boy how to play. He learns fast enough to beat me in the next game. Meanwhile a few young girls watch us from the corners of their heavily lashed eyes. Two senile white men in khaki shorts sit nearby drinking beer and watching the girls, not talking to each other, predators. The place is quite big but there are only a handful of people present, owing to it being a weekday, which heightens the silence and creepiness of the watchful patrons.
The boy beats me at another game. Other than uuuhs and aaahs when balls make contact and sink into holes, we don’t talk much.
My friend sits at a distance looking in our direction, not really watching the balls on the baize, lost in a trance. I know he has slipped back into one of his moods again. His right hand rests on the wound in his abdomen. He has not touched his beer since we came in. I put down my cue and walk to the table. His skin has grown pale under the light of the nightclub. He is cold when I touch his wrist, the skin soft like leather.
I scream and turn around to see the girls sitting with the patrons at the patio, all of them silent. I don’t know what it is I am screaming, who I’m screaming at, the depths of my screaming. I am standing outside my body trying to make sense of it all and the words coming out of my mouth don’t make any sense, what I see is a lot of nonsense, I am screaming and standing next to a non-moving man on whose bald head the strobe lights of the place are reflected, some deep memorial blue undertaking, I can see the upside down harlequins under his baldness, white matter as silk sand, swimming under strobe lights. There is still that detachment in the upward movement of the black of the eyes, and his lips stretch upwards into a smile, the same one in the car on our Msambweni drive, but his chest is still, some underwater cave, the ocean in him has stopped moving. It is low tide and you can barely see where the water starts. The boy is standing next to the pool table, an annoyed expression on his face, this face of coffee beans in the sun, wondering when we might continue with our game now that he’s become the master.