Le Jet d'Eau
By Fredrick Kang'ethe Iraki (Kenya)
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Riaki, some called him Feak, felt a sudden rush of cold on the skin of his exposed hands and he dug them deep into his winter jacket. It had been some time since it was announced that winter was over and spring was on. But it was still chilly and the sky gloomy. Riaki had walked mechanically from his hotel room to the shores of Lac Leman or Lake Geneva. Automatic walks always tired him but they were eventually cathartic to his mind. A walk solves problems, he often philosophised.
The sea gulls flew low and landed on the water like tiny jetliners. He always wondered how huge airliners took off and landed. Do they study birds to design planes? Maybe. Now the geese in the lake formed a white flotilla lining the concrete walk to eat what some noisy Japanese tourists were throwing at them. Are they Japanese, Chinese or Philippines? No matter, they make too much noise while filming the entire show with tiny digital cameras. Oh oh! Here comes one of them.
“Please, press here.”
“No problem”, he volunteered.
Riaki clicked, the gizmo produced a small flash, and the young lady was happy. She thanked him not any more than she would have thrown a used Coca cola can into a rubbish bin; so mechanically. The smile on her face had appeared and disappeared just like the camera flash. Smiles in the so-called civilized societies assume another meaning. It’s a surface manifestation; emptiness of the soul. Soul-lessness. It’s like an oak tree without roots. Because of this superficiality anybody can learn this type of smile. Riaki was no exception. He smiled on and off to the Japanese lady and turned his look back to the geese.
These creatures always fascinated his imagination. How could they float with so much ease? Ducks and geese appeared to spend no effort to remain afloat. Riaki remembered reading a caption that said, “Be like a duck: Look cool on the surface but move your feet like hell under!”
He looked under the clear water and saw that the ducks were moving their webbed feet feverishly albeit imperceptibly. Where do people get such truths? Do they spend time observing animal and plant behaviour?
The cold tinge is due to the cool breeze blowing over the lake and down the river. Riaki remembered walking down the river from the Lake. Before long, the river was joined by yet another river, the Rhone from the mountains. The latter branch came in with muddy waters, uprooted trees and dirty flotsam. The river from the Lake was clear and transparent. Riaki loved seeing the point at which the two mixed, irrevocably in turmoil. Evil meets Goodness. Cain and Abel. Black and White. Heaven and Earth. God and Devil. Life and Death. Man and…
The private boats moored to the side of the bank buoyed up and down on the shallow water. A speed boat was approaching very fast on the placid water. Riaki looked up and squinted to look at the tiny boat increasing in size as it approached. He had never liked water or water games. First, he had discovered that he could not float on water. How do heavy objects like steamers do it? Well, I’m not a ship or steamer anyway. If my Maker had intended me to be aquatic then He would have created me with fins or webbed feet, he often justified.
The boat got to the shore and a young blonde woman disembarked aided by a man whom Riaki could hardly see since his back was turned to him. Riaki wanted to sit on the bench but discovered that it was wet, probably with dew or some dog had pissed there. He could not understand why people kept dogs in houses or in big cities where there is no space for them to shit or pee in peace. The oppressed creatures pee on lamp posts, benches, lawns, etc.; where are dogs’ rights? Riaki smiled.
Suddenly, the water jet on Lake Geneva came on! The jet shot vertically as high as forty meters. The effect on Riaki was immediate. He loved le jet d’eau. He quickened his steps toward this magnificent stream of water. A light plane was flying low and Riaki could see it through the water jet. How beautiful! He reached into his jacket and pulled out a disposable camera. He always made poor shots. He made yet another hopeless shot of the jet d’eau and thought of how he was going to send it to his two boys in Kenya. A stone parapet was beckoning to be sat on. He obliged, turning his back to the motor boat and feasting his eyes on the majestic symbol of Geneva; le jet d’eau. Who came up with such a good idea? The boys would love it. Let me try another shot. He fumbled in his jacket again and pulled out the camera but unfortunately it slipped and fell into the water with a plop sound. Damn!
He turned round and was met with a smile, this time a warm smile. It was the blonde woman. She was about twenty five, five feet tall and great teeth. Riaki thought that she was too thin but returned the smile with a superficial one and turned to the jet d’eau. Not worth it. He had had white women before and knew they were no good for him. Too many cultural differences? Different expectations? Whatever!
As a young man studying law in Vienna, Riaki had had more than his fare share of women. Black, coloured or white; he could not recall any differences between them in bed nor their names. The racial difference seemed to create inexplicable attraction and later dejection. How can something that attracts you so much revolt you as much, if not more, later? When asked why they loved him, women said it was because he was black, a real nigger. And when later asked why they hated him they gave the same reason: black, a real nigger. After graduating with top colours, Riaki slithered out of Vienna and took the first plane to Arusha, his native town, and left the women behind. Or so he thought.
But fate, like an ocean tide, hurled him to Toronto to undertake graduate studies. The Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, once wrote that whenever Misfortune knocks on your door and you say you have no stool for him, He responds saying He has come with his own. What to do? Riaki was too cautious about relations with women but before he knew it his mind was blown away by an Arab woman. An Arab woman in Toronto, Ontario! Wonders never cease. How would he deal with a Mohammedan woman, like they called them in Arusha? Never mind.
When Riaki left Toronto with Fatma he had a Masters degree in law, constitutional law. And two coloured boys. Fatma had succumbed to a strange bout of tuberculosis. She had never been strong anyway. Riaki quickly found a good job and in five years had his own practice. The boys were now six and four and under the watchful eye of Riaki’s mother. Riaki had relative affluence in Arusha with a block of executive flats, a country house and a good bank account.
“You should hang your camera around your neck. It’s safer.”
He realized the young woman was still there.
“Thanks. I never take good shots anyway.”
She was actually looking at him. He looked back.
“Your dad?” He asked nodding in the direction of the old man.
“Uncle. I’m new here. I’ve come to do my doctorate in linguistics. And you?”
She spoke with a slavic accent and Riaki thought she was Russian. Nikita! Elton John. No wonder she was so talkative. Girls around here do not talk at all. She must drown a bottle of vodka like water, this one.
“I dunno. I live here…well, almost”
Riaki knew the scheme all too well. He had met many girls before and knew where this would lead. So he decided to be economical with the truth. Do not say more than is necessary. It was now too chilly for him. He rose to go and wished her luck in her PhD programme without asking at which campus she was studying. She smiled and thanked him. She now moved toward the jet d’eau.
He thrust his hands in his pockets and walked to a café near Placette for coffee. The way that woman smiled was something, he thought. He never understood why each woman he met was so unique. It could be the hair, the eyes, the mouth, the teeth, anything. But they were all different. Like the one serving him coffee has a nice figure. But now at his age, inner beauty, like he called it, was more important. He loved charming but not beautiful women. Charm, he argued, was deeper and longer-lasting, but beauty was superficial and evanescent. The coffee was great. Actually produced in Tanzania! He wondered why the African countries were so poor and yet exported like crazy to the West. Someone had said Africans are the only people who produce what they do not consume and consume what they do not produce. Maybe it’s true. Why produce coffee when your people do not need it? Why not grow maize or cassava instead?
It was now midday and still gloomy. Riaki left the lobby and grabbed a tram back to the university. The walk had done him lots of good. His thesis was now clearer in his mind. The public defence of his doctorate lasted two hours. The jury awarded him a congratulatory note for such a well-researched dissertation on legal implications of facial transplant techniques. Moments like these always left Riaki brooding. Is that all? Now that I’ve become Dr. Riaki what does it mean? Am I smarter than I was before?
In the doorway, the enchanting smile met him again. And something gave way in his heart. She had heard about this crazy student who was investigating the new technique of facial transplants. From facial shall we now move to head transplants? When she came to the examination room she was delighted to recognize the face of the presenter: The guy she met at the jet d’eau!
He met her again. Coffee, walk. coffee, walk, beer. Long walk, lunch, beer, shy kiss on cheek. No walk, no dinner, wine and bed. Criticism, no wine, bed. Criticism, no bed. No criticism, no bed. Au revoir, femme magique.
As the Jumbo 767 lifted off the Geneva International Airport en route to Arusha, it was more of a getaway than a take off for Riaki. No woman, no cry, he remembered Bob Marley’s song. As the lights of the city faded in the distance he could not help thinking; If a fish should fall in love with a bird, where, pray, would they build a home? The wisdom of the movie Piper on the Roof invaded his mind like a gush of ocean tide.