One day, when Mrs. K was walking past the church where they’d been so happy, she heard a carful of boys drive behind her. They were screaming lewd things. Anatomy that they would like to suck. Vistas they would like to explore. What they’d like to do to her ass. But then they got closer, saw her face, and off they fled, suggestions. Mrs. K glinted at their fleeing car for a moment and walked on. Behind her, someone screamed her name.
Mrs. K turned. The face, familiar, yet hidden beyond the morass of memory. Ten years ago, she would have known who it was, or, at the very least, racked her mind in desperation, trying to remember who the caller was, to whom the face belonged. Now she found herself unwilling to care. The face moved closer, its smile one of unbridled joy.
“Mrs. K,“ the face said, beads of sweat glistening with violence on its forehead. “It’s so good to see you. Here, in Kisumu, again.”
Mrs K. smiled wishing she could remember who she was talking to. But then maybe it wasn’t important. Sometimes, Mrs. K had long decided, not knowing was better than knowing because the things one didn’t know could not damage one, and this face, if she had known who it belonged to, perhaps some of the old anger would come back.
The face spoke again. “Mrs. K, you look so…” It faltered.
“Old?” Mrs. K had expected this. It was true that she had aged in the years since, but it still hurt whenever someone pointed it out to her.
“No, not old,” the face said. “More…you look so…angry.”
Ah, an angry old woman, was she? A beholder of anger a la Hera upon receiving news of her husband’s many conquests with creatures beneath her. Beneath them, was she? The evil stepmother in the story, out to ruin the young maiden’s innocent happiness, was she? An angry old woman, was she?
She smiled at the face. I have to get going, she announced, as if she had to explain herself to this young girl in front of her, beg for permission. She turned and started walking again. The face shouted something to her back. Another Mrs. K might have turned to catch what that was, but this one didn’t. Not this new Mrs. K with all her anger. Later, she would remember who the girl was: Dinah, her daughter’s friend, Pastor Tiberius’s daughter, Dinah from the Tabernacle. But by then Mrs K. didn’t care who she was, and neither had she when the face had told her she looked so angry.
But as she had walked away, she had whispered to herself. “Angry, why not? What’s the point of hiding it anymore? Mbona kujificha?”
Still, Mrs. K will remember. [We all will]. It would come to her decades later when everyone else was gone, and all the people who knew her name were gone. When Mrs. K had long ceased being Mrs. K and become herself. Sitting there in her porcelain tub, the-woman-who-used-to-be-Mrs. K would reflect, remember, and realize that she was indeed a stereotype, and with that acceptance came the question, why had she been fighting it, the ascent into being herself, into being a stereotype? She would take a sip of her white, lift her left leg into the air, and remember. That evening, on the very day when Mrs. K had had a premonition that something bad was about to happen, Bayo had burst into the house, a crescendo of fury and tears, and had swept up to her room without a word to her mother, or her father, asleep in his little room by the door [an unimportant character, forget him] .
Switch now, to Bayo, the owner of the furies and tears, fleeing into the darkness of her room. She will never speak to anybody else again, and she does not know she has made this decision, because she didn’t make this decision for herself, not quite. Yet, the decision has been made, and the well of conversation has dried up. Instead, Bayo will turn inwards, become a husk. Nothing her parents [her mother] will do will unhusk her from herself, for they know not what has happened, what Misore has done, nor will they ever know. The only person who could tell them now that Bayo has husked herself is, at this point, almost being rendered incapable of speech.
When she was children-bring-me-water-to-wash-my-hands-years-old, Bayo’s best friend, the semi-famous pakruok singer M. Misore, semi-famous at least in certain Nairobi drinking dens, left her.
He went away in a white ambulance without sirens. Well, not him, but the cold meat of him.
Still, to understand what happens, to understand what happens to Bayo and Mrs. K, we must decide that we don’t know this yet, not for an hour at least, and that we are in Bayo’s room, Bayo with her furies and tears. Hello, Bayo. When she runs to her room, she enters the bathroom immediately and barricades herself inside. She is silent, but we know that she sits on the toilet seat, hands in her face, rivulets running down her visage. Presently, she removes herself and heads to her bed. Look at her, flinging herself into her bed, not even bothering to wash the harsh dust of this Kisumu December off her feet, flinging herself beneath her yellow sheet. Perhaps she tells herself that the yellow will hide the brown of the dust. We don’t know. It isn’t important. What is important is that Bayo cries, weeps, shakes, and we stand there and look at her. Her tears are scarier for her anger, and her shirt has a tear along the collar, not a big one, but one we would never ever see on any child of Mrs. K’s, and we clutch our hearts at the sight of what that horrible boy has done to our Bayo.
Ooh child, things are going to get easier, that old song goes, and we want to repeat these words to Bayo, but we dare not because we have the benefit of knowing that no, child, things are not going to get easier. Instead, we watch, and desist from reaching out our fingers to wipe away her tears, because we can not interfere. Our story remains stubbornly polyphonic, that is the rule. That our narrator does not interfere nor intercede in the character’s lives. Therefore, there we are with Bayo as she cries, unaware of the thrombus that is even now breaking away from its host. Moving slowly up his vein and, in a minute or two, will block a passageway in Misore’s heart. Bayo weeps, moans for the self she was, the self so cruelly stolen from her, even as the villain of the grand larceny feels his heart picking speed, grabs hold of a stool as he struggles to breathe, and for whom each subsequent intake of breathe brings in less air than the last, less and less and less, until he falls to the flow, where he will be discovered by his father, only now arriving from work, eager to see that child of his who had been discovering himself in Nairobi.
Does he hug him, his oldest child? Hug him in death? Hold him and declare his love for him? Or is Baba Misore a man of action, immediately calling an ambulance instead of descending into useless displays of sentimentality? We know not. It is not important. Of importance to us right now is Bayo, and how she cries.
Mrs. K will receive the call, and wonder how to tell the child, but then think and remember that Bayo had come in crying and so she will wonder how the child knows, what witchcraft is this?, she might ask herself, this woman in the community humanizing.
This night, Bayo will cry and cry and cry, and not remove herself from her room. Mrs. K will understand, or think that she does, that the child mourns the loss of her friend. She does, but not the loss that her mother understands her mourning. In fact, Bayo will not know that Misore is dead until five days after the fact, but by then she will have exhausted her tears already and there will be no time for mourning, nor any space for mourning, for, by then, Kisumu would have gotten angry at how the great theft is being done, at how their son’s rightful victory is slipping away, and Mrs. K will be too occupied with thoughts of to whom the phrase those people applies to, to whom it doesn’t, and in which camp she and daughter belong.
Years later, when she has the time to sit back, reflect and consider things in retrospect, Mrs. K will wonder whether this is when she lost her daughter.
Once, when Bayo was eight, she walked to her mother and announced that she had made a new outside friend. [Mrs. K is certain that she was eight, since that is the age Bayo started to talk to her grandmother in her dreams]. Mrs. K and her husband [his character earns a temporary importance for this sentence] waited.
“I have made a new outside friend,” Bayo says, and her mother waits. Outside, the cans cloister in their culverts, and the council conceals their eyes from the sight of the cans cloistering in the city’s culverts.
Always bright, even from an early age, her Bayo, taking the time to explain to her parents the simple sociological concepts their minds somehow failed to grasp. Inside friendships and outside friendships. Mrs. K remembers the joy in Bayo’s eyes as she explained; not an innocent joy, but the type of joy that came from a child realizing that they knew something their parents did; a greedy joy. Her eyes sparkled and her mouth smirked as she explained. Outside friendships: Friends who were friends outside; friends for playing with outside, and for frolicking with and for enjoying the outside with. Inside friendships: Friends who were friends inside; friends for playing with inside, and for frolicking with and for enjoying the inside with.
[So snobbish, our Bayo, snobbish and delightfully arrogant with her classifications of friendships].
“His name is Misore. You’ll see him when we play outside.”
Mrs. K knew who Misore was. Or, rather, knew his parents, and wasn’t that enough to decide that she did, indeed, know who he was? Misore was an outside friend, and outside friends were friends a parent encountered only when they went outside to call their child inside. Misore would soon become an inside friend, a friend encountered by a parent whenever their child was inside the house. Soon. But not on this day that Mrs. K learns about Misore, the inside friend. First, she must understand how a friend becomes outside. The things that are learnt first are learnt first and the things that are learnt later are learnt later.
When Bayo was born, her father had announced his wish to name her after his mother. His mother, dead from his childhood, a figure whose absence was never remembered, but when he had voiced this desire, Mrs. K couldn’t find it in her to deny her husband his wish. Her baby was thus named Bayo, after her grandmother. Mrs. K had thought that was it, but then when she was three, the little girl started having dreams. Odd dreams where a woman would talk to her and ask her how her boy was, whether her boy was eating well, whose job it was to make sure that her boy was eating well. Bayo would wake up in a fit and run screaming to her mother that the woman of the night was in her dreams again. Mrs. K would bid her to get into her bed, and the two of them [three of them] would sleep together, and in the morning, Bayo would have forgotten whatever the woman of the night had been telling her. Years later, when Bayo was a teenager, when asked by her mother whether she could remember her conversations with the woman of the night, Bayo could not remember her conversations with her dead grandmother, or ever having a grandmother.
The things we remember. The things we choose to remember. The things that make themselves possible to be remembered. Mrs. K remembers having a daughter, having Bayo, before that evening when Bayo came running into the house, crying, and Mrs. K received the call about Misore’s death. Now, in the safety of retrospection, Mrs. K knows that Bayo’s tears were unrelated to Misore’s death, but not unrelated to Misore, even though she is still unable to decipher why Bayo came running into the house that December evening. Now, Mrs. K wonders about the Kisumu of ten years ago, the Kisumu when everything was possible, the Kisumu before her daughter came running into the house, crying; the Kisumu before The Engineer had the thing that was rightfully his stolen away by those people; the Kisumu before the things that were lost by Mrs. K were lost; the Kisumu before all the possibilities in Mrs. K’s heart were lost to her.
Now, Mrs. K sifts through the memories in her head, the one from which the knowledge of who the person who declared that she looked angry is missing.
Now, Mrs. K thinks about her childhood, about her adulthood, about the years in-between and the years after, and wonders what Bayo’s in-betweens are. Whether they involve metaphysical deliberations on inside friendships vis-à-vis outside friendships.
Now, the things one does in one’s house before one falls asleep: the prayer; the dusting off the parts of her house Kisumu’s dust has seeped into; the boiling water to make strungi for herself; the wondering whether the sweet potatoes she bought at Kibuye last week are still there; the discovery that they are; the eating the sweet potatoes with her strungi outside on her little balcony [in her head, she calls it her patio]; looking at the city in the shimmering haze of its sunset, the green of the city, and how flat the city is and the two buildings she can distinctly recognize from this distance [the Maseno University tower and the Provincial headquarters], and the other buildings she would know any other time, bland architectural edifices with this fading light, and the Sondu-Miriu power plant in the hill in the far distance, and is that a plane taking off from the airport, its reflection visible, even from this distance, on the surface of the lake?
Another memory. Bayo is fifteen, and Misore has refused to go to university, worrying his parents, and Mrs. K even more as she fears her daughter too will cease her education at eighteen. Bayo and Misore are in Bayo’s room, and Mrs. K hovers outside the door, needing to ask her daughter something [she forgets what, all these years later], knowing that she can go in, that she should go in, but also having the fear she could end up seeing something that she ought not to, something that would end the identity of blissful innocence Bayo occupies in her head. She extends her hand to the door-knob, and there it pauses, awaiting Mrs. K to make a decision, Mrs. K whose mind is frozen in trepidation. The silence from Bayo’s room jars Mrs. K’s senses, and then, almost as if it never existed, it is broken by a voice on the stereo: Suzanna singing the song of Kisumu, the song about Kisumu and Kondele and Kibuye and all the places in-between, and the ngware taking her around Kisumu and Kondele and Kibuye and all the places in-between, a voice joins in, and Mrs. K is surprised by how good and powerful the inside friend’s voice is, by how much it reminds her of listening to certain Motown musicians wanting to know what’s going on, by the vividness of the image of her father that comes to her head as Misore sings, by the salient awareness that she will never forget this image, and years later, when both Misore and Bayo are gone from her, she will remember freezing on that doorknob and the wonderful haze that the voice singing along to Suzanna brought to her.
Suzanna sings on the stereo, and Mrs. K lives her dreams in stereo. She reads an article foretelling the destruction of the world. Climate change. In a matatu to Mamboleo, she hears two young people, a boy and a girl declaring to each other that it would be a moral sin to bring a child into the planet when there might not even be a planet for it to grow in. Mrs. K thinks that she might say something, but then it’s her stop and she has to get off, and what would she have said anything? She knows she would have stayed quiet, stayed away like she has been doing these last ten years. Instead, she goes home, boils water for her evening tea, and listens to Suzanna on the stereo. These fears about the fate of the planet are nothing new, she reminds herself, and she remembers campus, all the conversations about the H-bomb. Later, in her house, she will wonder whether Bayo thinks about climate change, wherever she is.