The Matatu seat was first mine, then ours, then hers.
Five minutes earlier we had been standing at the bus stop, Simba station-the exact place I had boarded our blue old school van years back. Taller buildings had been erected while I had been away and evidently more business went on in this south western part of the city. The sun was up and shadows fell with a chilling exactitude reminiscent of years past, when I occasionally missed the bus and received a generous share of Mr. Ochar’s best three on my bottom.
I remember seeing her eyes first, the first and last time I was to see them. I only knew them for that split second, when her pen fell and on picking it sought to know whose shadow it was that served a weird complement to hers on the cold tarmac. Eyes of impeccable authority, I had looked away. The morning spoke only of her scent, mine subdued ages before, and with every passing vehicle, her flowery dress was blown till her knees showed. Each time she held the hem tightly to her knees until when no vehicle was oncoming.
Simba bus stage had not experienced a rise in public transport like other stages did. So here we’d wait for no less than ten minutes. Jaj was this very moment enjoying a morning concoction of urinal and faecal odour in Central Police station cells all the way in Kondele. Had called home to let us know he was apprehended the previous night. Claimed it wasn’t another club fight. He had-according to him- left the club very early, at 3 am. An exhausted wallet saw him trek back home in the dead of the night, and that’s when the boys in blue, having intensified night patrols in Milimani area landed on him. This had been in the wake of the Akshay brothers’ shooting in Milimani, and this being the shortest route home from town, that one of us would soon visit police cells for ‘walking suspiciously’ in Milimani was sure. The strong will of a younger brother got me out of bed that early to go bail him out, within I prayed he hadn’t lied about not having fought and probably ripped someone’s chest apart for it wouldn’t have been the first or second time. Jaj was calamity.
A ‘Nyanam Express’ screech made her hold the hem of her dress, only this time it would be the last time. Market women who had been all this while engrossed in steamy conversations scrambled for the back seats and she didn’t seem to mind that the matatu would soon fill up and be off, probably uncaring for her missing a seat. We were the last to board and I went in first. Only one seat remained and like all other good men, I offered to share it with my equally good woman here. So the Matatu seat was first mine, then ours, then hers. The plump woman to her right made it clear through her mass that she had paid for the space of two. I had been gradually but surely pushed to the missing sambaza so that my bottoms hang suspended mid air. I must have been in my best moods that morning, I felt adequately satisfied despite the fact that with every bump ‘Nyanam Express’ overcame I always left my ‘seat’ and flew up only to thud calamitously, and my bottoms sunk a little deeper each time. If this continued- I figured- I would arrive at Central Police Station sitting on the Matatu floor.
Akello’s warm thighs launched scalpel-like attacks onto my circulatory system, I fidgeted just enough to adjust to the changing environment. Her ID card had three names the first of which was the only one my craned neck could make out. I wished the matatu tout could give her change so that by returning to her purse I could see the other two names, and the blurry resigned face that I refused to believe was hers. I felt cheated, surely she couldn’t have fallen victim of the lies our ID’s tell. Her beauty was a life mask, a single flash across one’s face and it lodged there like gravel thrown on fresh black clay. She was not given change, and so she would remain Akello. No one had said a word as of yet, not even a ‘Hi’ that would open up a candor of possibilities.
‘Nyanam Express’ sped away after she alighted at Foamatt and as we approached the next roundabout I sought to have one last glance at her. My hinds comfortable now having taken her vacated seat I turned to watch her walk away and down the stairs of Ukwala supermarket. The old man’s knowing grin at the back seat chastised and brought me back into the matatu, and for the first time I realized that there was music in the vehicle, old gospel music. I knew the song. I remembered how as Form ones in High school we had been orientated into singing nearly all songs in the Golden Bells hymn book. The voice in the song from the matatu stereo was familiar too, Randy Travis no doubt. He sang-
In the sweet
By and by
We shall meet on the beautiful shore
In the sweet..,
Jaj had not mentioned the marijuana part, and I threatened to walk away for fear of parting with a little more cash than I had anticipated. On a normal day Jaj is an arrogant noonday ass, but not today. He begged from within the cells, and swore to pay back in whatever form. The part I liked best. I told him about Akello-who had colonized me to the very edges of my mind- and he affirmed that he would help. ‘’What are brothers for?’’, a cliche I had heard thousand times by now, pervaded my consciousness and I let him out of Central Police Station cells. The marijuana part would remain between us- as long as he held on to his end of the bargain.
Akello had now become selfish, turning everything in my mind into her. In here she had a sharpness of manner, appeared perfect in everything I saw her do. Everything she touched became perfect, it was like she qualified everything with her touch. So she trod, back and forth in my mind, her central deceit being her ever elusive face. I could never make this out.
That evening Jaj dropped two 3-quire counter books on the table and asked me to start combing through. Both were log books, one from the nearby Tom Mboya labor college and the other from J.O secondary school. I wanted to question the essence of all these but he signaled me to shut up and open the books and scroll down the names each page. He always wanted to work with the criminal department one day, and he still had these dreams of being a detective. I once joked that if ever he got close to the Cid department, it would be as a criminal. The jab that landed on my nose that day reminded me that criminals possess the heaviest blows. He left me to the task, and it was my problem anyway. I was surprised at the extent of his ‘help’ but babbled on at how big brothers might certainly be the most important people in one’s life, not the same as lovers though, but definitely needed, and with a brother caught up in marijuana scams, everything is possible.
Akello Ann Awuor was the last name that left the college premises that morning, according to Tom Mboya Labor college log book. I wanted to hug Jaj but he wasn’t around. I wrote Akello’s number down and stacked the two books for Jaj on his desk.
‘‘What took you so long?’’, the other end of the line. She sounded mature.
I almost hung up. This wasn’t what I had planned. This wasn’t how Jaj’s heads up to me stated. I was to be a stranger, a stranger in College seeking to recruit members of the college wildlife club-that had been a long shot though, had never heard of labor colleges having wildlife clubs. And this question she asked when I called made me hang up after a deafening silence as she awaited response from my end.
Maybe she’d mistaken my number for someone she knew. I would call again. This time my lines well rehearsed- ‘’Hi am John, a student in Tom Mboya labor college. I’m seeking to recruit new members for my club and I got your number from a friend. I was thinking maybe…’’. I wouldn’t falter this time, and Jaj was not around to make fun of me.
‘’Hello’’, I began
‘’Did I scare you already? It’s me Akello. I know who you are, and your voice isn’t much different over the phone.’’
I faltered in speech.
All the ‘I am John lines’ vaporated in the thinness of my room.
‘’Hello, are you still there?’’
I had never said a word to her in the matatu that early morning, save for the heated exchange I had with the tout who charged me a whooping fifty shillings from Simba to town. If she had audio-graphed this into her memory, then Akello knew more than just the voice.
Over the phone she was still heavenly, and original. And she dispensed her originality with such finesse of a peculiar kind. Each word that came out of her mouth sparked with sharp edifying sweetness and I felt intellectually challenged. For five minutes we spoke not of wildlife and clubs but of screeching vehicles with booming music and arrogant touts. She giggled when I-belatedly though- offered to hold her dress hem for her.
‘’If gentlemanly has been reduced to that then I bemoan my kind. We might simply fade out in history’s oblivion, perfect and intelligent and unmarried’’
I chuckled at that.
‘’So at what time do the gates of your face open?” I decided to let her know-or of course she already knew- the elusiveness of her face while in the same breath I had asked for a date. Jaj had done a good job. She had left school to go and keep an eye on her aunt’s children while the latter was away for the weekend thus she gladly welcomed me to check on her the following day. Her aunt stayed in Tom Mboya flats in town, not the college.
‘’You know where to alight, don’t you?’’ she asked amid laughter and I felt embarrassed at having stalked her that much. I would alight at Foamatt and she promised to be there. As I lay my phone down everything became Akello. An ant’s labored climb on the wall became an Akello wiggle. The halo on the virgin Mary’s portrait on the wall rotated in slow motion and in Mary’s eyes I saw Akello.
‘’You look like Napoleon and your rumpled moustache makes Hitler stir in his grave with anger. You also smell like burnt tea in the morning, and your belly makes you no different from a fully fed Ethiopian ibex.’’ Jaj’s opinion, when I asked him how I look, the morning before I left to go see Akello.
‘Nyanam Express’ pulled over as soon as I arrived at the Simba stage. Its tout still the same from the previous day. He cast a vile look at me as I boarded the vehicle and off it went. There is a mistaken notion, though ancient but it still remains with us, that an overdose of something, from fornication to food addiction will teach restraint by the very results of its abuse. The tout had so far abused hatred, because I felt immensely hated by him, and its overdose would never see him let a customer shun his Matatu when all he cared for was the extra coin drained out of unsuspecting commuters.
Five minutes off the stage and he poked at me to pay my fare. That is when the heavens realize that they have been too kind on your person and you realize that in your haste to leave home you forgot your wallet. The tout sounded a victorious thump on the sides of the matatu signaling the driver to stop for in here we had a hitchhiker. He had finally gotten back at me.
‘’Some boys think they are too smart for hustlers like us, kula jeuri yako sasa’’
‘Nyanam Express’ sped away and Akello called, probably to ask where I had reached. I did not pick. Before I left home I had called to let her know that I was now leaving. It wouldn’t make sense to pick now, and say that I had been thrown out of a matatu? Hell no, my ego was the size of Zeus and Apollo combined. I walked back home in the hope I would find my wallet safe from Jaj’s itchy fingers. It took me fifteen minutes to get home and Akello called again. I did not pick. That was the last time she would call.
Fifteen minutes later I called her and it was her turn not to pick. Standing at the Foamatt stage I had armed myself with million excuses as to why I never picked up her call. It rang, and rang, and rang. She never picked.
Two newspaper sellers behind argued about how many casualties ‘Nyanam Express’ had caused only three months after it first hit the streets of Kisumu.
‘’This lady is the sixth I tell you, last Wednesday it knocked down a cyclist at Corner Legio’’
‘’No this is the fifth my friend, the cyclist’s passenger survived, only that would have made it six’’
‘’But matatus nowadays, pthoo!! Prying on innocent blood to flourish’’
I called Akello again and she did not pick up. I couldn’t figure out where she’d gone. She had said she would wait at the stage, right where she had alighted the previous day. ‘’You know where to alight, don’t you?’’, her voice rung in my mind and I heard her giggle. Still lost in this, someone pulled me from behind.
‘’Young man, you are standing on blood.’’