Jabali’s eyes flicker open with painful uncertainty. The full glare of the sun lands on his face, but he can make out the shape of a man sitting in front of him. He takes a moment to figure out where he is and what is around him, only to realize that he has been stripped bare. His hands are cuffed to a railing above him, from which he dangles the way chunks of meat do at a butchery stall. His feet barely touch the ground. His big toe lingers above it, sometimes touching it. His face is volcanic with scarlet sores. With every drop that trickles from his fresh wounds, Jabali feels as if he is winking out, like the smouldering end of a cigarette.
He was once easy on the eyes. But now, with his bludgeoned bulk hanging from the iron rail, dancing to the tuneless rhythm of this Saturday afternoon, he is a blood-soaked tampon after a prolonged cycle. He is not dead, but he wishes that he was. The series of unfortunate events that led to his present situation start trickling piecemeal into his memory.
“Chief, huyu fala ameamka. He is awake,” someone says. The voice comes from his side.
The man who wears daylight as an incandescent halo looks up.
“Ni…niko…w…waa…wapi? Where am I?” Jabali’s voice is trembling. His insides must have caught a cold.
“Again,” the man on the chair says.
One man holds a towel over Jabali’s face and tilts his head so that he is facing the roof, while the other inserts a hose pipe into his mouth. Cold water floods his face, his eyes, his mouth and some leaks into his ear.
“Enough!” the almighty voice orders. The water stops, and the towel disappears. Jabali coughs out mouthfuls of water, gagging urgently for air. Fresh air has never tasted so good.
Hazy images of a night at the club flash in his head. There is music, very loud music, and there are many pieces of broken glass. He tries to make out a few faces, but the more he tries, the more his head aches. The man rises from his seat and walks up to Jabali. He leaves the sunlight behind with every step he takes forward. He is a portly man in a burgundy velvet jacket and a black Stetson hat that occupies too much space. He is wearing the hell out of that jacket, Jabali gives him that. A gold chain coils itself around his neck, it glints every time a ray leans on it. Jabali does not know who this guy is, but one thing is for sure; he looks like he has done this before, like he is comfortable here. Jabali must have fucked up royally.
“Njambari, your name is Njambari, yes?” His accent is overlaid with a heavy Central Kenya influence. The interior Central kind that is spoken with phlegm and imagines l and r are interchangeable. Jabali does not answer. He tries to, but his jaws cannot move to say a word. A faint nod is all he manages.
“Werr, kijana, my name is Mukundi. And I am going to make this vely easy my fred. You are a corege student, so you must be vely crever. What do you know of the human anatomy?”
Jabali says nothing. He is still stuck at the point where he called him friend. This jamaa must be a lawyer, he thinks, lawyers are the ones who call each other ‘learned friends’ even when they are neither learned, or friends. A sucker punch lands on his right cheek, followed closely by a thousand nails stabbing his jaw, and a spit of blood leaving in a hurry.
“I am talking to you kijana. Seems rike my two boys forgot to famiriarize you with the rurs of engagement here. So remi terrro you. The next time you don’t to answer I wirro personary take the initiative to break your fingers one after another until you beg me to put a knife through your chest, umesikia? Mimi sio mama yako! I am not your mother. Sawa!?” he barks.
“Sambamba. Very good. So nitakuuriza tena, what do you know of the human anatomy?”
“Noo…no…nothing.” Words trip out of Jabali’s mouth.
“In that case, with your permission, pris arau me to teach you one or two things about your mbody.”
He turns to his two hounds and gestures with his head. Jabali looks up, the damp towel covers his face, and the flood of water comes back. It covers his mouth and his nose such that he cannot breathe. He drinks and drinks and drinks some more, until he can feel his stomach swell and water fills up his gut all the way to his mouth. He wants to spit the rest out, but the goon’s grip is too tight.
Spices Lounge is the club where Masomo University law students go to irrigate their throats every weekend. It stands on the other side of Electric Avenue in Nairobi’s Westlands burbs. During the day, it is a normal busy street, bustling with business activity, but as soon as the earth shuts its eye in the evening, Electric Avenue infects Westlands with a form of septic moral disease. It is not a big deal to catch a boy with his trousers dropped to his ankles, a hooker sucking the life out of his dick in an alley. An alley that exhales the smell of a concentrated cocktail of booze piss.
Masomo University college students live to narrate tales from Spices Lounge on Saturday mornings as they hunt down Panadol and Red Bull. Panadol for the headaches and Red Bull for the beastly hangovers. You need those after a rave, especially after mixing bitter Jameson shots, bottles of Tusker and tasteless sex with the pretty young thing you are dancing with when the DJ scratches his last.
For Jabali and company, there is no imagining what stories will be told this Saturday. It is the last day of school, and the idea is simple. To burn their livers with alcohol until they feel its smoke clogging their insides.
The kawaida crew of four shows up at the entrance of Spices Lounge a little after ten. That is the time when the club begins to happen. As usual, Jabali leads the pack and as the sonko of the evening he rides shotgun in the taxi. As if by some unwritten ordinance, he sits in front with the driver while the rest of the guys squeeze themselves at the back. A little comfort for the man who pays the fare is not too much to ask.
At the back, Chris sits between Amy and Fridah. He became Jabali’s best friend out of an extended symbiotic relationship they had, which basically involved Chris signing the class attendance sheet for Jabali when the latter was either watching movies in his room or shooting pool at the campus bar. That and the fact that Chris lets Jabali crane his neck during exams to copy from his work. Degree ni harambee, they say. Cultivating the culture of ubuntu indiscriminately. In return Jabali makes Chris’ life on campus worthwhile. When money is released from the Students Union kitty, Jabali gives him a cut. Everyone is happy.
Amy is the foreign student from Nigeria. Her real name is Amarachukwu, but she hates it. Call her Amarachukwu when she is in a bad mood, and you will suffer the wrath of a scorned Naija woman. What she has never known is that Kenyans love listening to authentic pidgin, so sometimes they poke at her just to listen to her rant; “You dey crase? Who be Amarachukwu? Se Amarachukwu na your mother? My name na Amy and I bin don dey tell you this teh teh. Or your mama drop you for floor when you be pikin?”
This is Amy’s last day in Kenya, and she has sworn to Amadioha that she would make her last night a memorable one. So far she is doing just fine in a black, bare-back sequin mini-dress; it only covers the bottom half of her dress, and then proceeds to end as soon as it passes her ass. The sequins on her dress glitter in the dark, making her glow.
Then there is Fridah. Oh Fridah. Jabali’s Fridah. Well, she does not exactly belong to Jabali even though they both wish she did. Ever since first year, she has always been the embodiment of every fantasy Jabali has ever known. She keeps her hair short, and wears her skin without makeup, just the way God intended. Yet he has let her go so many times to other campus jamaas, a bunch of hypocritical windbags, who have seen nothing in her other than her pretty face and wet hole. Every time one of those jamaas ended up cheating on her, Jabali was the first one she ran to.
There was always time. There was always an opportunity when she was in between men. Moments when he could have simply told her the truth, but he did not. This was quite unlike anything Jabali was known for. He was good with women, and they were good with him, but not so with Fridah. Every time he wanted to say something, his manhood would diminish, and she would be left hanging onto the hope that someday he would grow a pair of balls for her. Nyasaye knows he had done it for others. So why not her?
What Fridah does not know is that today, as Jabali sits next to the driver, he is thinking of the one million ways to tell her the truth. Today he is finally going to ask her out. But first he needs to get drunk. Truth lies at the bottom of a Jameson bottle. He intends on wearing her down bit by bit, to tame her with alcohol and compliments first.
All this was Chris’ idea. To tell Fridah, that is. He is the one who planted that seed in Jabali’s head. If she says no, you can always play it cool later and blame the alcohol, Chris had prodded. In any case, what is the harm in trying?
They step out of the cab and head for the entrance. Chris takes Amy by the waist and leaves Fridah for Jabali.
“Aaaah Jabali!” the crowd of guys cheers when they get to the entrance of the club. Turns out the bouncers have frozen them at the entrance. No entry without two beers each. “Jakom bwana…” That is what they call him at Spices Lounge, it is euphemism for ‘buy me a bottle.’ That is what he signed up for when he ran for student leadership and won, and became Jakom, Mr. Chairman, of the Masomo University Law Students Union. Failure to part with a few coins is sacrilege. He reaches for his wallet.
Spice Lounge is a restaurant by day but moonlights as a night club when darkness draws its black veil. If you visit it while the sun still reigns the skies, you can make out the red, black and white décor. The thing about restaurants that adopt such bright colors is that they are always hiding something.
Spice is alive with campus leavers. And in this moment of falsehood, before the sweat from the dance floor washes away their made up faces, the girls are gorgeous.
Jabali and company find space just next to the DJ. Drinks follow their order. Inebriation creeps up on them. Chris and Amy make for the dance floor. Jabali and Fridah are abandoned to their awkwardness. He is not drunk enough to pour his sentiments out. But he is getting there. He can feel his balls swell. Soon he will be brave enough. A few other shots of whiskey follow— they are chased down with beer and a slice of lemon. The turntable beside him scratches, and Diamond’s voice brings his guts to life. He stands and extends his open palm to her.
“May I have this dance?”
A warm smile asks why the hell not?
You are my number one. My sweety sweety, my baby oh, Roho yangu mama…
It’s a common group ritual to gobble down boiled eggs at the stand outside Spices when the reveling spirals to an end. “It helps with the hangover,” Jabali had once convinced his crew, “I read it from that Beershara website.” He’d lied.
Beershara is a legit website for drunkards alright, but it was quiet on the matter of boiled kachumbari eggs and alcohol. Our guy here simply loves the taste of boiled eggs garnished with kachumbari on a beer-drenched tongue.
“Chonga mbili mbili buda,” he told the egg man, “two for everyone here”.
By this time, as people are streaming out of the clubs in Westlands, dawn is breaking. Chris and Jabali are the only ones left standing. The ladies are totaled. Amy is emptying the mayhem from her stomach into the streets. No eggs for her. She will have many of those in Nigeria. For her sake, they have to wait for her to retch before they get a cab – or else they will have to pay for the car wash too.
Fridah, well, is still swooning from the dance with Jabali.
None of these musketeers is bothered about the brief altercation between Jabali and Mukundi Jr. No one even remembers how MJ had tried to interrupt Jabali’s dance with Fridah. How he came up to them and tried to slice Jabali, and how our boy told him to back off, how drunk MJ punched Jabali on the cheek, and how humiliated Jabali had drummed MJ’s head a good one with a bottle of Tusker. The night would have ended early for them, but Jabali had bribed the bouncers at the entrance. His friends and the ones he bought beer for earlier had come to his aid, saying that MJ was to blame.
“No bana. We cannot allow! MJ ndio alianza upuzi.” Chris shouted.
“Zi bana. Si poa. Jabali is not to blame.” They’d all come to their Jakom’s defense.
But the person who had the final say was Amy. “Heeeee Ooooh! Make somebody teach am say Tusker no be Egusi soup!” She said as she approached the bouncers, snapping her fingers over her head. Chris held her back, but not her resolve. “Abeg make una leave Jabali leave alone, him no do anything na? Na that hyena come here with fire for him trousers to touch someone’s woman. Heeee! Tufiakwa! Person wey no fit handle him alcohol should not touch women abeg.”
All that drama was later drowned in more alcohol and revelry.
None of them thinks about it now. Definitely not Fridah as she wraps her hand around Jabali’s arms, and definitely not Jabali as he hails a cab to come fetch them, all the while remembering that moment when she kissed him. The way her lips tasted like December. Kumbe this is what he has been missing.
It is the same kiss that he still thinks about this Saturday afternoon when he walks out of his room, The White House, to get something for Fridah. She is still asleep, but she will need to clear the fog in her head when she wakes up. They are supposed to clear out of the hostels by tomorrow. There will be enough time to pack. He lets her sleep.
The campus tuck-shop is run by a staunch Adventist, so he has to go outside campus to get his routine fix. The sun overhead makes his head ache even more. If it were not for Fridah, he would still be in bed. His eyes are at half-mast and his sandals drag on the tarmac as he walks. He has no idea what is around him.
“Is how Jakom…” the watchman offers him a greeting as he opens the gate, but Jabali says nothing. He thinks the alcohol in his system is talking to him.
The only thing that brings him back to his senses is the sound of a shiny black SUV screeching to a halt in front of him. Even before he can curse the stupid driver’s mother, two masked macho men, jump out. The watchman blows a whistle but is suddenly silenced by the sound of a gun going off.
Jabali turns to run back into the campus, but he is too slow. They grab him. He throws a punch at one of his captor’s faces. It does nothing. It is feeble. The two men throw him to the back of the SUV and then they begin beating him, as the car comes to life and speeds off. They rain blows on him. On his face. On his ribs. On his stomach. On his balls. It a dispassionate depravation of life beating. Then there is darkness.
When he comes to, he is hanging from an iron rail, and there is this Mukundi guy, hell-bent on giving him a practical lesson on human anatomy.
“There is this organ called a spreen. When the stomach sweros from say food or water, it pushed up against the skin. From the amount of water you have consumed, your rittu spreen must be ripe by now. If a hard object is to hit you on your side berry, it wirro raruka. And you wirro die in minutes. That’s what I intend to do. But if you terro me why you are here this afternoon, I wirro ret you go. You have two minutes, mũriũ.”
“I told you tayari. I don’t know.” Jabali says.
Jabali racks his brain but comes up short. Clearly, this mzee is a mobster. And Jabali does not have such enemies. Not even in school. The students he has squabbled with are merely little scoundrels. The chain on his wrist begins to hurt. It is eating into his skin.
Mukundi takes off his hat first, and then his sheds off his jacket ever so gently. One of his men puts them away as he rolls up his sleeves to expose a pair of calloused hands. He looks at his watch and reminds Jakom that he is running out of time.
One of the meatheads hands him a rungu; a thick slab of wood that tapers down into his willing hands.
“Your time is up.” Mukundi says.
Jabali parts his lips slowly as if to say something, but Mukundi places his index finger on his lips. “Shhhhh.”
He can feel death stealing up his torso.
“You mean you did not even know his name?” Mukundi says, raising the rungu over his head.
At that instant, just as Mukundi’s muscles flex and veins begin to show on his arms, Jabali’s mind takes him back to Fridah. He closes his eyes so that he can see her face properly. He remembers their dance, their kiss and the way the soft contours of her body pressed against him when they slept. Then he remembers that idiot who ruined his first moment with her, and resentment consumes his thoughts. Even in his last moments, just before death’s cold embrace, the chap still does not let him spend his last thoughts with his beloved Fridah in peace.
“MJ” he mutters to himself angrily.
“What did you say?” Mukundi asks
“Nothing,” he says. He looks up.
Mukundi lowers his hands. “No. His name was Mukundi Junior. He onry wanted to dance with her—and you cracked his skull.”
Jabali notices the way this mzee speaks of MJ in the past tense. That is when he realizes what this is all about. For the first time, regret leaks from his eyes and rolls down his cheeks to his torn lips. It burns.
“I didn’t mean to. I was defending my girlfriend’s honor.” He says amidst sobs.
“This girl of yours, you love her?”
“Yes, very much.”
“You stupid boy.” he chuckles mockingly, “She is just another vagina you wanted to fuck.”
“She is my girlfriend!” he shouts, ignoring the pain.
“And Junior was my son!”
Silence trails the rich timbre of his booming voice.
His wrists hurt. The chain must be cutting into his flesh. If Mukundi doesn’t bludgeon him with that rungu, he will probably bleed out anyway. Fridah comes to his mind. She must be awake by now, wondering where he is. Truth is MJ had it coming. You do not just touch another man’s woman in his presence and expect anything less. However, nothing misleads people like the truth.
“Cheki, boss, I cannot bring back your son.” Jabali says. “But we had a deal, remember? Five minutes.”
“Yes, we did.” Mukundi says. “But your time was up.”