By Fredrick kang'ethe Iraki (Kenya)
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Where to from here?
There was no denying it: The old woman always got drunk on her usual stuff. She liked it hot and with maximum alcohol content. Whenever she filled her glass with the potent stuff, a smile traversed her shrivelled lips and her gnarled hand lifted the drink toward her mouth. The small finger was always standing far apart from the other fingers holding the glass as if to deny any guilt with regard to rendering herself senseless with drink. She loved her drink. And flowing dresses. Ever since I knew her, she always wore blue or dull coloured long dresses flowing down to her ankles. She kept her hair short and her bloodshot eyes were glazed and absent-minded. Her tongue was as vile as a viper’s. I cannot remember a single kind word from her. She spewed forth spite and hatred. Every inch of her tall frame seemed filled with venom and she sprayed it on people like a king cobra. How could a person accumulate so much vileness and bile in one single lifetime?
Take today, for instance. I just came back from feeding the turkeys. I really hate these birds because they eat copious amounts of cabbage; cabbage that I have to scavenge from open dustbins in the affluent neighbourhoods of Nairobi. Anyway, do you know what I found? Another turkey had been slaughtered in the afternoon and my grandma had kept a bowl of cold soup for me. Soup! Soup for the person who single-handedly fed the turkeys? From all the parts of such a big bird they could only spare a miserable looking bowl of soup for the caretaker? Good God! Does this woman have a heart? In protest, I decided not to touch the soup. Not even with a barge pole! And hell broke loose.
“Why aren’t you taking the soup, eh?”
I look at her and see the fiery eyes. They now appear a bit larger and even redder. I can see she is very drunk. I ignore her and make to collect the empty buckets in which I stock the turkey food. She energetically snatches the bucket from me and hisses.
“Is this some kind of rebellion against me? Is your mother behind all this?”
This was a common line that she always used to get at my mum. The point is that she was rich and my mum poor. That’s why I was a slave there feeding her birds and goats and in return I got food and some money for my education. It’s forever lost to me what she did to land in big money. It is said that my grandma left for the City in the 1930s, at the height of British rule. She came to Nairobi and worked as a house-help. Some rich employer fell in love with her and kicked his wife out for her. She rose to become a rich personality. Her husband was then involved in the Second World War and lost his life in Burma. So although she was left with great fortune, she was devastated by this sudden bereavement. She took to drinking as a way of consoling herself. Actually, she was drinking herself to death.
But things might have worked differently if she had had the humility to confide in her own daughter, my mum. Instead, grandma not only despised her but also kept her out of most of her secrets. She never wanted her to benefit from all the savvy that she had gathered as a rich land owner in Nairobi. As a result, my mother had to fend for herself in a world that was very harsh, especially for illiterate people. By the time I was born, a miserable number 8 in the family, we were literally penniless. And my grandma was on the verge of dying from liver cirrhosis.
So today’s incident is no exception. I work. Others benefit. I hear that my grandma had a huge lunch with friends from all over. She loves visitors so that she can impress them. Impress. Impress. Impress. She loves impressing people, especially strangers. Show people that you are kind. Show them that you are generous. Show them this. Show them that. And she lives for that. It therefore comes as no surprise that she could let them eat all the turkey and leave only some soup for me. She needs to impress. People should think she’s generous, even to the extent of forgetting her own! And the visitors too know how to get into her favours:
Cucu, you are so generous! How come other people do not emulate your good example? Cucu, do you know you are unique?
Cucu, surely, you are not eating yourself!
Cucu, you are a saint!
Cucu, let’s leave some for the small boy.
“No, he eats turkey all the time, he’s bored.” is the answer. To tell you the truth, I’ve never tasted turkey. Only the soup!
“Will you eat the soup or not?” she hisses.
God! She is now grabbing my hand and staring at my face. The foul smell from her mouth could knock down an elephant. I move my nostrils sideways to avoid instant death, then she lands a weak slap on my nose. Blood begins to gush out. So although I’m in no pain I’m bleeding profusely. I pinch my nose and sit on the floor.
“Why don’t you die, you dog?”, grandma asks me.
She staggers towards me and attempts to hurl the bowl of soup in my face. She misses and falls face first on me. At least, I’ve broken her fall, it could have been worse. I push her over and clutch my nose again. I do not feel threatened by an old frail drunken woman but her words sting me like a wasp.
“Why don’t you all die, you have been milking me dry. Why can’t your mother sell herself to feed you, bastards! Why do you come here to eat my food? You scum! I hate you so! Get out of my house! Get lost! Go die in a ditch!”
How is this possible? How can your own despise you so much? I’ve never been despised so much, not even by a stranger. I have met strangers who took me in when it was raining. Some total strangers who gave me a piece of bread to eat and water to drink. Total strangers! But how can the one who bore my mum hate me so? God, what’s in this world?
I slowly pick myself up and look at her in total disbelief.
“Go, you dog! Go away! Go away!” She screams.
I think about all my siblings. Njoki, the first born, was long dead. She died in childbirth. Kim, the second born is in jail. Murder. Sam went to the US with a white woman he met at Mombasa. His body came back in a black bag. So much for the great American Dream. Njeri is in active employment as a commercial sex worker in Nairobi. But on a day like today, she would be in Mombasa. The marines have landed! Kevo was luckier. A catholic priest got him into the seminary and now he’s studying in Rome. The bastard is too holy to send me even a coin! Ted is nice when the effects of marijuana wear off. He’s good at seducing women and invariably some rich ones take him on for even months. Then they get fed up and kick him into the streets, butt first! Finally, Joe is at peace with the world. He picks up any small pieces of paper in the street and deposits it in the dustbin. He cleans the neighbourhood. No violence, just cleanliness. People like him. But he’s oblivious of their magnanimity. He just smiles, eats rubbish and keeps the place clean. He’s completely bananas.
“What are thinking about, you dog! I said go away! All your siblings are dogs too! Why don’t you follow your sister to Mombasa and get laid?”
This is too much. The woman is insane. My nose has stopped bleeding. I move toward my room to pick up my stuff but she blocks my way.
“Don’t take anything! You came here with nothing! Nothing small bastard! Just go away!”
There’s no way, I’m going to leave my belongings. I hold her two hands and push her aside but she falls badly on her back and starts screaming. I grab a plastic bag and throw in my two trousers and three tee-shirts. That’s all I have, anyway.
“Help! Help! He wants to sleep with me! Help! He has thrown me down already! Help! He wants to sleep with me in broad daylight!”
I realize this is becoming nastier by the minute. Villagers could lynch me for raping my grandma. I jump over the low fence of the compound and beat it. In no time, I’m out of sight. Where to go now? I can still hear her faint screaming. She’s completely nuts. But why so much hatred? Is it the alcohol only? Does she take something else? Me to rape my own grandma? I decide to check on my mum.
She stays in a single room and I know what she does now. She had kept it from me all the time. But as I grew up it was not difficult to guess what all these men came to do in her room. I would wait outside and play with other children when I was much younger. But when bigger, I moved away further to give her time. She was always kind and gave me the help she could. But it was too little. That’s why she dumped me at my grandma’s. I now could go to school and have a meal per day. But my grandma is the devil incarnate.
I always knew the code. First listen at the door. If there are movements or murmurs just go away. If it is quiet, then knock. It means she’s either out or asleep. So, I listen. No sound. So, I knock. No response. I turn and walk to the neighbour’s house. I call her auntie and she does the same thing as my mum. I listen first. There are some cries inside. So, I wait further away. After half an hour a sweaty man emerges from the room. He’s cleaning his forehead with a handkerchief. He clears his throat and spits out heavily into the gutter. He then looks at me as if to say now you can go in young man. You always challenge older cocks! I give auntie time to clean herself up. I have been told it’s normally quick. A warm wet towel between the legs and then in the armpits, wash the face, and then spray some perfume into those areas again and the whole system is as good as new. I shudder to imagine my mother doing this all the time she receives her guests, as she calls them.
Now, I think, I can move in. I knock and call out.
I give her more time to rearrange her dress. Normally, when a man knocks, she would open her legs to show what she had on offer, and if he likes it, he would come in. Otherwise, he would knock on other doors, maybe my mother’s. Then, I show my face and find a decent woman in a shawl from waist to the ankles. I know without doubt that this woman is as naked as a worm underneath.
“Hallo Auntie, have you seen mum this morning?”
“Hi Kadonye. Actually, I think she’s unwell. Try knocking harder.”
“You’ve become very handsome!”
No matter the age, these women are real sharks. If I wanted to, Auntie would organize “something” for a small fee. Money, even from a child, is good money. I walk back to my mum’s room with her. She’s also anxious. I notice a foul smell is coming from the room. Maybe she forgot some uncooked meat in the cupboard? Now, I see some flies coming from under the door. Green flies. And it’s all clear. Dead.