“Papee, you are growing old,” she said, extending her hands trying to reach my face with her hands that are wide with long fingers, like my brother’s.
“Papee, you will soon be an old man. I will read hard and buy you a walking stick made of gold,” she continued and smiled – a smile that reminded me of how my brother looked when we were small.
“And you are going to grow old and your back will bend and you will have wrinkles like this,” I said, using my hands to fold an ugly face. She laughed an innocent yet long and beautiful laughter that she cut short halfway, suddenly.
“But Papee, you will grow old before me, you know why?”
“I do not know, tell me Tati.”
“The way you cough at night and Ma wakes up to boil water for you. Teacher says that’s how old people cough.”
I get tongue-tied at this moment and I don’t know what to say. Uncomfortable silence follows.
“Papee, teacher says that when we cough like that we should see a doctor,” she continued.
“I will see one soon,” I answer and lift her up and carry her to the school gate.
“Papee, you haven’t bought me the book that teacher asked for.”
“At the end of the month, Papee will get paid and he will buy you that book, okay?”
“Thank you Papee,” she says and hugs me by the neck.
“Papee, I will wait for you. Will you come and pick me up after school?” she asks.
“No Tati, Papee has to do some more work for overtime. Go home earlier and make tea for Papee.”
“Papee, who is overtime?” she asks after pulling her hands off my neck.
“It is homework for grown up people.”
“Papee, then why don’t you take it home?”
“Because it’s done at work.”
She looks away. “Papee, I hate Overtime. Papee, I will wait for you at home then. I will not sleep till you come.”
“Okay Tati. What will you do at school today?”
She hugs me and amid laughter, she says to my ears, “Read hard so that I will become a doctor and buy you a walking stick of gold.”
I laugh and put her down just in time for the school bell.
Isn’t she lovely? And addictive? I walk to work thinking about Tati and her mother, Jessica, and I long for our other child. Will he or she be as cute as Tati? Will he or she be as playful as Jessica? Will he or she also have small ears like my brother’s? What if Tati is all we will ever have? Who will she grow up with? I brush the thought away, “We will have a baby, soon.” Jessica and I have decided that if our next child is a boy, we shall name him Mwanzo- after the town where Jessica and I first met, or Mana if she is a girl- after Jessica’s auntie who courted Jessica for me. But Jessica isn’t pregnant yet and we are not losing hope.
“If only my body would let me, just for one night…” I bite my lower lip. It has been five long years of waiting and waiting and nothing. At first it was bearable because Jessica was patient with me. She kept telling me that soon, either Mwanzo or Mana would come and Tati will not have to play alone anymore. During the first two years, she tried everything to get me to work but nothing. Just a sub-soil worm every time. She even went to her people to ask for a solution and they told her to keep on trying. Never to relent. Never to give up. But after trying and trying and trying and nothing, she gave up- resorting to silence instead- a gnawing kind of silence that spells “USELESS” in her eyes that look past me each morning after another night of failure. That, I understand because it’s what I have become- useless, like an avocado tree that does not bear fruits.
“Soon… maybe sooner… but soon.” I promise myself as I round the final bend to the flower farm where I work. It is a big farm. Except for the rise and fall of the big brown plastic bags that cover the green-houses that have flowers inside- roses, tulips, lavenders and many others- nothing else of the farm is visible from outside. The farm has a tall perimeter wall, which is made even taller by an electric fence erected on it. The concrete wall ends at the gate where a big sign reads:
VINJI SHAH ROSES- KIAMBU FARM
PRIVATE PROPERTY; NO TRESPASS
The letters are big, like the sign board itself, and they are surrounded by many small rose-flowers that form a square around the sign. At the gate, guards in their sharp, well pressed uniform stop me. They stop everyone that comes into the farm. After taking my details they let me pass to the second gate which is between the administration block and the farm- visitors are not allowed past this gate; only workers pass. Here, another guard roughly inspects me and confiscates everything from me (except the food container which he opens for me to scoop a spoon from). The rest they record in their books and keep custody of till evening when they give them back as I sign out of work.
“Morning Joe, looks like a beautiful day to die, huh?” Old Lumbasi, one of my co-workers, says and laughs but his laughter is cut short by a bout of coughing after which he spits a reddish brown spit. I guess it’s the tobacco that he chews or blood or both. I don’t know.
“Morning Lumbasi, yeah, every day is a beautiful day to die.” I say and laugh but my laughter is cut short by a bout of coughing. I am afraid of spitting so I just swallow and go inside the green house and start my work.
By mid-day, I have already sprayed four houses of roses and had it not been for the breaks I took to go outside the green-house to breathe fresh air after my chest became too heavy from the sharp piercing smell of the insecticide, I would have been on the fifth or sixth house. Suddenly, the hooting cry of the siren fills the air. When we started working here, we were told to meet up at the big square just outside the administration office whenever the siren went off. It means that something urgent has happened and every worker has to be there.
For the ten years that I have worked here, the siren has gone off only once- that time when they told us that some of us will not be coming to work the following day.
“The market is really bad in Europe at the moment and we Africans are not very fond of flowers,” the Indian owner of the farm had explained at the time.
I like the way he includes himself when he speaks of Africans. ‘Our Muhindi’ as we call him, also insists that the flower farm is ‘ours’ and we should therefore work harder to make better ‘our farm.’
After explaining that he was sorry that ‘our farm’ had to shed off some of ‘her children’, he went ahead to say that the farm would cut the pay by a small margin for the rest of ‘us’ who will continue working here because ‘our farm’ could sustain only that.
“Remember we are one family and we can only share the little that we get.” He is really nice, our Muhindi is, and I liked him even more when he did not include my name in the list of those who ‘our farm’ was shedding off even though we had to work more to cover for our brothers and sisters who had been laid off.
So when the siren goes off, I am crazy scared. I need this job, for Tati and for Jessica. We gather at the square to find cartons and cartons piled in front of the administration offices. Our Muhindi, who is sweating, paces up this way and down that way with one hand in the pocket and the other on his mouth. I am scared that our Muhindi is scared. He tells us that someone has reported that “our farm” is not following proper procedures.
“I have invited these people to inspect our farm and tell us which procedures we are not following. Yes, I invited them myself.” When the cartons are opened, we are given long white overalls and gumboots and some rounded things that we are supposed to put on our noses when we spray the flowers. Then we are given the afternoon off.
I go back to the greenhouse to pick up the tin which has my lunch. I had left it in the green house that I was working in with old Lumbasi. However, when I enter the greenhouse, I freeze. Old Lumbasi is lying there, his spraying pump clinging tightly on his frail back, his eyes popping out of the sockets, thick blood mixed with phlegm coming from his mouth and his hands tightly holding his neck. I don’t scream, I don’t run to call the others. I just stand there and my heart does not beat fast. I feel empty. I sit down for a while then I rise and walk to our Muhindi.
“Lumbasi is dead,” I say to him, the same way you would tell a stranger “You dropped your handkerchief.” I think that he has not heard me because he slowly pulls his tobacco that is wrapped in a small polythene bag from his pocket and puts some into his mouth. Then he spits on the ground and doesn’t say a word.
“Sir, Old Lumbasi is…”
“I heard you,” He cuts me short and closes his arms at his chest and his eyes narrow and he looks at me briefly before turning his gaze away into the distance. Silence.
“Where is he?” He finally asks and spits his tobacco. I do not answer him, I just walk back into the green house and he follows me. He removes his handkerchief and wipes Lumbasi’s mouth and gives it to me.
“Go throw it in the latrine and don’t show it to anybody,” he says and starts looking for something. Then he stops when he realizes that I am still standing there.
“What are you still waiting for?” He asks, his eyes cursing me.
“I will go now sir.” I start out of the green-house. I am at the door when he stops me.
“Joe,” I do not answer or turn to look at him. I just stop moving and wait.
“No word about this to anyone, okay?” he says and his voice had conspiracy in it. I don’t say yes sir or no sir, I just put the handkerchief into my pocket and continue walking. Later, as I am walking out of the gate, I hear my name being called. I turn.
“Lumbasi committed suicide by drinking herbicide. Is that clear?” It is Our Muhindi.
“Make sure his wife and children understand this. Are we clear?”
“Yes sir.” I say, even though I know that Lumbasi didn’t have a wife or children. Even though I know that he did not drink any herbicide; at least not as in how our Muhindi meant.
“Drunk herbicide, are we clear?” he says. I don’t answer and I just walk on staring blankly at nothing.
I don’t know what that incident makes me feel. But it sure makes me want to rush home. Try to make love to Jessica and maybe make a baby. I walk faster. Jessica Wait for me, I am coming home. Please wait. I remove the handkerchief that my Muhindi used to wipe blood from Lumbasi’s mouth. It is white but with patches of red blood. I pull phlegm from my chest and spit on the handkerchief. Same red as the other patches. I start running. I need to try and make love to my wife and maybe make a baby. I run. I should have known that this is how it will end. I run faster. I need to try and make love to my wife and maybe make a baby. I run and run and run.
The house is locked from inside when I arrive. I knock. No response. I knock again. Who is it? Jessica asks. It’s me. I say. Did something happen? Jessica’s voice is scared. Whispers from inside. No… I don’t know. Open up. I say. Hold on a minute. Whispers. Legs tumbling on things. Silence. Door opens. I enter. Air smells of a strange perfume. Not strange really. My brother wears a perfume that smells of tulips and lavenders and roses and sweat. The house smells of tulips and lavenders and roses and sweat. I need Tati. I rush out. Just about time when school ends.
“Papee,” she says when she sees me.
“Tati,” I say. She runs and hugs me with the long arms that resemble my brother’s. I am happy again.