I tried my hand at a story writing contest for a national short story contest…Kwani eat your heart out!
“Loneliness,” he replied with a disaffected shrug; as much dis-affectation as a fifty-one-year old priest could manage. But it was too simplistic, true but simplistic. It was loneliness unlike any other he had read of before. It was more than haunting, worse than abject
He hated Nairobi in April. It was everything a city should be, perhaps more so. Cold, impersonal like a rich man’s handshake. He sat shuffling a few photos in his large hands his mind wondering on and off to the morning call. He hated mobile phones; any and all gadgetry that was awash in the market nowadays and he’d only got one at the volunteer Matron, Edna’s insistence. For emergencies. But almost out of insolence it rang incessantly, extravagantly and hysterically.
The weather made him pensive. He hated that too.
Pacing the narrow space spared by the cheap sparce furnishing of his meager office, he could imagine the man to whom the voice over the telephone belonged. It was sonorous and clinical. It doled out de riguer wishes of good health and congratulations on his well merited award without the slightest inclination to sincerity. It wasn’t distinctive, except it made suggestions in the peremptory tone of a thirty five-ish over-achiever pumped with ambition strong coffee and yesterday’s liquor.
He’d heard intermittent shuffling and the monotonous buzz of a slow news day over unsettling silence which the voice tried to fill with short hollow laughs that he resolutely refused to join.
There was something superior about it, about the way it sounded out that word, “sir” as to leave no doubt if its European inflicted education. About the slightly condescending way it put the word “well” before “sir”.
“My name is Albert. Albert Duma. It started and paused momentarily. I write for the daily express.” It paused again this time well-meaningfully for his benefit. Waiting for a friendly quip from him about having read one of his articles. It was a curious thing to him; the human propensity for lying and the commensurate need to be lied to.
“I don’t read the gossip pages,” he replied.
“I’m a journalist,” the voice sounded martyred.
“Well sir, I suppose,” it conceded with a resigned laugh: quicker than he’d anticipated.
Albert Duma had called to warn him of their interview, alert him on the possible questions. He didn’t believe in “spontaneous eloquence”; he crisply informed him.
It was Sunday and the outside was lending itself to a precarious and gloomy grayness that saw many reluctant to leave the warmth of each other to hazard any potential precipitation. It made him long for a sunset he had seen on a bus out of Limuru, once. It made him wonder about the voice and his reticence towards it. It made him accept the other man’s suggested meeting date with gruff friendliness.
“My earliest memory is of shearing sheep as a young boy in my grandfather’s mountain farm. I was born in a farming village in Vent, Tyrol-“
The older man laughed indulgently, “You read up on me?”
“You’d be insulted if I hadn’t”
He regarded him a bit and after what seemed like mental note taking he retrieved an old Bible from one of the two shelves peopled with books on philosophy and theology and bibles, variedly sized and colored. He took out four photographs and spread them out on a mahogany table decadently out of place in the frugal office. A donation no doubt from a penitent well-to-do West side city dweller looking for bloodless redemption.
“You want the truth I suppose, not a story.”
“I am a journalist” the bespectacled Albert Duma restated, he was thirty four.
The musty smell of age that he loved so much spread from the old bible across the room. He opened his arms expressing, partly in resignation and partly to gesture him to pick up a photo.
Two were monochromes, two in colour. The oldest, older than himself was the only thing that had come to him in the old Bible was his family heirloom. It and the other black and white picture which was fairly recent; this of himself on a July 7th protest march in the 1990s evoqued wistful nostalgia in him. The protest photo was a courtesy of the photojournalist who had taken it. It was signed and dated at back.
The two colored ones were of equal and immensurable importance. One, a scenic vista was his own effort and the other a gift at his request from the unusually lovely and intent doe-eyed girl who was its only subject. By far the most visually rewarding. She must have been twenty three in the photo but with hair held back and her face devoid of make-up yet lit magnificently, she didn’t look a day over eighteen.
With calculating discretion and restrained curiosity, he chose the older monochrome. It was dog – eared. The adolescent wisdom to preserve it had come too late. It was of a young man, badly out of focus. It must have been shot by a giggling girl or a nervous young woman lying on the grass that made the back: either way his mother. The young man of the photo had jet black hair cut even tastelessly at shoulder length. His hands supporting him from the back as he sat were cut out midlength as was his lower body.
It was the closest he had ever been to him.
“They died soon after his picture was taken.” It had been handed to him at twelve by his steel faced grand father and effusive grandmother. They are with God now …and so was but he had never been with them. He’d spent most of his life pouring over it; trying to decipher some subliminal message or discover a forgotten memory. With childish reverence at first, then adolescent resentment, youthful disaffectation and now wistful sentimentalism.
At twenty six, he had been the spitting image of the photo despite colorful efforts on his part to thwart a genetically foregone conclusion. At times he felt a nostalgia for something familiar and unknown. At times it was a warm emptiness. He’d often wondered about the other darkness where his father was and such musing developed unusual precocities in him as a child. Mysticism and religious ardour.
“Is that why you became a priest?”
“Yes and No”
Vent was really as rural and insufferable as it sounded. Its somnolent charms did little for him. There had been no still, small voice in the mountains but a consuming desire for meaning. But he took a rather lofty view to his occupation. He’d wanted to change the world and back then he had a flair for the dramatic. He envisioned himself a custodian of humanity’s humanity. He had had hopelessly rudimentary conception of evil, perhaps he still did. It was to him something insidious; an entity with physical manifestation. He thought of borders like geographical semantics, and at twenty he considered himself a citizen of the world. So why not Africa? Why not Kenya? Why not Kibera, Nairobi Kenya?
In this way, to his cost, he couldn’t argue to be any better than the many back packing, demin-sporting. “Friends of Africa” Yet white guilt was lost on him. He could claim to be different on that regard. He had come in search of adventure and as Kafka had once eloquently echoed in him a “concern” for “higher things” A feeling that he was at the front for something, and in that way, yes, unwittingly championing the white man’s burden.
He had been born in the compunctious shadow of the third Reich but his motives were also self serving. And that was the extent of his heroism, if there had been any at all. He’d set up a health clinic, for which he sourced funds and workers. He’d also set up a church done good deeds for which he was slated to receive a presidential award.
“Yet all this wasn’t enough. You engaged in politics…”
“Engaged is too committal a word,” he protested highly.
“You are an activist.”
He had been the golden white boy of the tumultuous late 80s and 90s that the opposition dressed in African regalia and neatly presented to the West, to solicit funds, and no move. He got up to gaze disinterestedly out the window.
“You believed -”
“It was easy to believe back then …in everything. Anything.” He began and ended with a good natured laugh. He thought of politics much like a Salvationism; the religion of the poor, only politics was a false religion.
They had all blindly wanted change back then, and they hadn’t been specific.
“Do you feel betrayed by them, the politicos?”
‘Yes, if you can forgive the paradox.” After a silence he started abruptly, and quietly, more to himself. “You know I was there at Saba Saba, there in ’92 and before…there in ’07. They chopped off a boy’s ear right in front of me.” Maybe to show that they weren’t afraid of his skin. Angry, poor, poisoned machete-wielding youth. He covered his eyes with his hands as if trying to relieve himself of the memory, and not.
“These people are no better.’ Albert said in idle commentary but it was the superior voice he heard.
‘They’re no worse. Either.’ He didn’t think poverty and inhumanity to the synonymous nor was poverty an excuse to be inhumane. No, there was tenderness here but it was fated to die a quick death from a familiarity with the course landscape, like excess harvest that rots away in the granary.
“You’d been summoned to State House once by Moi…’ At the very height of the reformed chatter. He had wild fantasies of martyrdom in a darkly lit, unswept corner of a chamber at Nyayo house but his fears had flattered him greatly then.
“You know the old man is everything they say he is.” There was a hushed smile in his voice and grudging respect that betrayed themselves, and him.
“They say a lot of things.” The young man replied blandly, wishing to leave no doubt as to his unconflicting loyalties where tyrants were concerned.
“He’s a lot of things.”
“So there was a girl…” he begun brightly and conversationally, trying not to look too curious, too scandalized, too blazé all at once and failing. He was somewhat mollified that she was a girl, not a boy. And he didn’t like what that said about his morality. It could be bought. And he could see it gazing into the old priests face, the same liquid eyes and soft face that ended expectedly in a double chin. Distant echoes of the old photo. His body too that had increased somewhat in girth had the same lean and slender build.
“Unofficially… yes.” He was gruff and somber and inwardly he wondered at the ease with which a sinner’s sin rolled off his tongue. Still he didn’t feel repentant. He felt old and he blamed her for that.
“Why?” Albert asked a bit stupidly.
“Loneliness,” he replied with a disaffected shrug; as much dis-affectation as a fifty-one-year old priest could manage. But it was too simplistic, true but simplistic. It was loneliness unlike any other he had read of before. It was more than haunting, worse than abject. It martyred him every night. It was a crippling eternal hunger or disease. It made him lie in a foetal position motionless in bed stuck within himself; stuck outside. Or prostrate on the cold cement floor blinking into the darkness to discern the strange and hostile forms that the heavy blackness gave to his chair, his lamp, his table and his life. On other nights he walked streets that were as empty as himself, looking into windows and catching the limp eyes of mannequins through the displays. Looking at the distant, unchanging horizon and the low, inconstant moon. Or sitting up alert at daybreak listening to the light play of footfalls form the rain’s innumerable feet over his iron roofs.
He was alone…not lonely, wasn’t that how irrationalized his life? Cost to self; the essence of sacrifice…and he suffered. On some days he dismissed strangers at the start of the impersonal handshakes, on others, often on others; he made it his business to be in the middle of the crowd so that he brush shoulders with them or touch a hem and be healed.
No, it had not been the manly desire for a woman. He was seeking something slightly lower than God; turbulence, a conditional love or a mortality of soul, fever or a scent lingering on the sheets. His vocation allowed him curious opportunities to thrust himself into the lives of others. But it was such hygienic contact…and they always left. Maybe it was a need to be more than the habitual detached observer. A desire not just to be admired as a hero but loved as a man. A selfish need to win a heart, chain it to himself and yes…to be worshipped.
It was then that she had arrived. At that age when he was old enough to know that it wouldn’t last and older still as to want to believe that it could.
He was forty two then and even then he had been too young for him. Kasanza. She came back to him now like a distant memory of madness. She was beautiful. It was still the greatest thing a woman could be. And having possessed her, he knew intimately about the other worlds he’d abjured. You couldn’t tell from the picture how long her hair was, held back in a tight bun it was. And sitting up on his sofa, perusing one of his thick philosophy books, her thick hair down …she looked ridiculously young.
He caught whiffs of her from hushed whispers in the wind, the Kenyan love for gossip being what it was. She’d married or eloped with a young accountant and relocated to Mombasa or Voi. Somewhere remote and unreachable.
“Do you regret your vows?”
“Old men shouldn’t hope for love; chaste affection at best or tolerance, not love.” For a while he was vacant.
“Do you feel Kenyan?”
“I don’t know, what are the symptoms?” It was his first half-hearted attempt at humour and he was rewarded with a serious, gummy smile for his troubles. He had been in Nairobi over a couple of decades, he still couldn’t claim it. The city. He hated the cruelty relentless pace of life, the night sound still as foreign to him as at arrival. Distant sirens, distant music, distant gunshots …like hazy memories of a bad cinema production. Nevertheless something started in him here. He felt himself in Nairobi a part of the four million souls circling each other, looking for connection, money, meaning. In some respect it had changed. The sky line was under the constant attack of Babel-minded constructors, fresh paint over old signs, rushed recarpeting of pot-holes which the rain merrily washed off. Yet in some respects, it hadn’t. The rhythm was perennial. But he was an anachronist and he saw everything as it was; as he was. He could feel the burgeoning of hope, good in the city as in himself. “This is Nairobi.”
He pointed towards the shot of a panoramic view. Albert nodded agreeably, unconvinced.
He had stumbled on woods on one of those moist, uneventful Tuesdays of January. A happy accident on a whimsical detour ten years ago. They were still untouched, still untamed, still made him nostalgic for the little forest near his maternal old father’s country house in the mountain region, which seemed to him now, a middle aged man, a magical childhood fantasy. He remembered running through the little forest of his youth laced with heavy, ethereal mist, through closely spaced conifers his happy feet cutting through pretty weeds and undergrowth. Fluttering, curious and happy. Full lungs and sweaty palms; it was the only conception of freedom his little mind could understand then and even now, feeling older than his fifty one years he found himself no wiser.
They were about sixty kilometers west of the city. To get there he had to get off the highway, travel up a dusty murram road and climb up a gentle incline carpeted with Napier grass and dotted with lemon green shrubs like an artistic after thought of nature. The woods broke abruptly reveal a clearing, circular and with a Mugumo tree at the center. He panted more getting to then than he had the first time. He never allowed himself fatalistic moments that he could feel the sunset of days, of years…of life.
The clearing was covered with a prefusion of wild flowers like a dust of European spring spread out. There were the usual creatures of small forest; lizards moving in fast paced semi leaps over rocks, ants in single files to crimson anthills. The Columbus monkeys that patronize his little paradise refused to scurry in panic at his surprise arrivals perhaps out of reticence on familiarity. He fed them macadamia nuts from petrol station en route. He often went there when he wanted to be a boy. And he was determined with that intractability of age, even through the melodrama of it, to die there.
“I am this mud.” He was part of the muck and the mafia, the stagnant sewage and flying toilets. Life was hard but bearable. He paid protection money to the local gang Siafu or Mungiki for the clinic; they were gentle to an old priest but persuasive. He was part of the narrative. An everyday man. He wasn’t black or born here but that didn’t weigh heavily on him. The lion’s story should be taken with as much pinch of salt as the hunter’s, he thought.
“Are you seeking absolution through public plagellation?”
Redemption. If he believed and hoped it for others he could believe it for himself. He subconsciously rubbed the beads of his crucifix.
“Do you accept the president’s award?”
He had finished reading a glowing tribute to tirelessly dedicated friend of Africa by Albert Duma in the Daily express. Albert Duma had defended the phrasing as honest but admitted to its less than good taste. The voice over the phone was still superior, still clinical, still sonorous but familiar.
“You didn’t write the truth?”
“The public doesn’t need to be entertained as much as you think. God knows the country doesn’t need another scandal”
“Was that all?”
He paused for a while. “A feel good story is what the public needs”
“You don’t sound like a gossip writer.”
The journalist laughed and the old .priest felt compelled to join in.