Because you are in form one, you have no clue about saving. You are a spendthrift with your pocket money, and you use your bidhaa carelessly. Bidhaa is what you call goodies in your high school; things like margarine, peanut butter, sugar, tomato sauce etc. Because you are the last born in your family, your parents insist that you attend the same high school as your elder brother, so that he can take care of you. What they do not know is the trouble you have while bathing.
In a school like Maranda High School in 2005 (the provincial school not the national school) you meet form fours who insist on using the water you fetched. They tell you that a mono cannot bathe when a form four hasn’t- because you are shit, and they are the shit. And then to prove to you that you cannot do anything to them, they ask you why you brought your manhood along to high school. They ask you to show them your admission letter in the bathroom, where it is written that you were to report with that thing.
But because you are scared of fighting them, and you know your brother in form two cannot do much either, you let them take your water. It is no big deal; you’d rather lose your water than you lose your teeth. You are a kid, 14 years or so, struggling to make a living in a school in a far flung dry shagz called Nyapietho. God’s attic. Your high school is a detention camp; if it were up to you, you would call it Maranda Detention Camp for Sons of African Gentlemen. Your principal calls it an oasis in the desert. What he means is that it’s the fountain of knowledge in a district in which good education is easy to find as clean water. I am talking 2005 here.
To find water, you are given 40 minutes by the school to run two kilometres under the oppression of a sun that finds delight in sweating you dry; though a rough and stony terrain; upon dark brown sand that turns your nails black; past an old mill chugging like a child overdosing on an asthma attack one minute late; past old women herding skinny goats back home; to a pond. The pond is green, thanks to the chunky deposits of cow dung. This pond is what sustains the livestock and people of Nyapietho. You wrestle a cow to fetch water, scurry off to a nearby thicket and strip. If you are lucky, some form four kleptomaniac won’t make away with your scented soap and Caterpillar briefs while you lather your face.
Only one thing makes this trip all worthwhile. On the other side of the pond, lassies from Nyamira Girls also come to fetch this water. You cannot make out their faces, all you see are blue skirts bending over and leaving. But since you are in an all-boys school, and the paraffin they put in your githeri doesn’t hold its end of the bargain, the blurry blue skirts tickle your debauchery. And that is where the soap finds its other use- the kind they do not advertise on TV.
After bathing, you run back to the school in time for the evening assembly. The prudent ones carry extra water in five litre jerricans. By the time you get back, you are sweating, and dusty. But what matters is that water ran through your body that day. The efficacy of the process is a matter you will have to take up with the school.
On that day when a fourth year took your water, you told your brother. He offered you his- the one he had set aside to wash with. It was clear water, and you were surprised because pond water is green. That is the day you heard about a purifying stone- a white stone that turns green water to clear. Nyapietho magic.
Later on that night you go for your usual brew. This basically cold water, sugar and cocoa concocted into a smooth mixture and served with bread. It is 10.30pm, the last meal you had was at 6.30pm. You have yet to adjust to the school diet routine, so in the meantime, your brother makes you that brew before bed.
As you sweeten the water, your brother tells you to stop wasting sugar. You laugh. The two kilogramme packet is barely halfway through. And you have never in your life been asked to mind how you spend anything. Your father is a tax man, and your mother an administrator at Maseno University. Surely, what can’t they afford? Furthermore, it’s Tuesday. Come Saturday, it will be visiting day- your fist visiting day since you reported. Dad had promised you he would come. Mum wouldn’t miss it for the second coming of Christ- because it will also be your birthday.
You ignore your brother’s warning. He lets you be, but you realize something is off. Deogratias, your brother, looks as if something is bothering him- a thought gnawing through his skull like a rodent. Since you were toddlers, your folks did not teach you the relevance of simple courtesies like saying Good morning, goodnight, please and thank you. You did not grow up asking your brother what’s up when he seemed down in the dumps. Such courtesies were implied. You let people deal with their own issues- when they will be ready to talk about it, they will tell.
So you drink up your brew and retire for bed. If he is worried about the school fees he was sent home for two weeks ago, then he is just being a wuss. Dad will sort it out on Saturday, March 12th 2005, when he visits. Dad is a Lanister- he always pays his debts. He will settle the balance, as soon as Kenyans pay their taxes.
The Deputy Principal, who also happens to be your mum’s cousin, summons you out of your history class. He asks you your full names and admission number. Then he tells you to go to the lobby, you have a visitor.
You are elated. It must be your father. Perhaps he will not be around on the weekend. Maybe work calls- he has to leave early to earn the bacon. Perhaps he has one of those many doctor’s appointments. You understand that he has to go to hospital for his regular check-ups. His kidneys are acting up since a couple of years ago, so these incessant visits to Nairobi have become routine. You imagine that he has come to see you before he leaves. You are excited. You get to the lobby, but there is not sign of him. Your heart sinks.
A familiar voice calls your name. It’s a voice you know because it’s the same one that taught you how to ride a bike, dribble a basketball and manipulate a girl’s vanity for your own sinful ends. It’s your eldest brother Neem. He is supposed to be in campus. You were hoping for your father, but your brother would do just fine. You had missed him too, even though it’s been like four weeks only since you reported.
You exchange fist bumps, because in 2005, man hugs had not been invented. Fist bumps were the thing- the ones you hit and then tap your chest with your fist. Gangster. He says he has come to take you away. That your eldest step brother is graduating from Maseno, and dad insists that everyone has to attend.
“What about Deogratias, is he coming too?” You ask, and as if to answer your question, he shows up from behind. He doesn’t seem too excited about seeing Neem, almost as if he has been expecting him. They exchange cold dry glances, and their fist bumps aren’t as enthusiastic. You imagine it is because he was home two weeks ago.
The bell rings for games, students hurry to the dormitories to change into their game skits, before hitting the road for the pond. You join them, and when they ask why you aren’t changing, you brag to them that today you will be bathing with clean water. That you are going home for your brother’s graduation. You can see their faces grow green with envy, like water from the pond. Faces that look like they could use a little of Deogratias’ purifying stone.
When the three of you get to the gate, you hurry to sign the leave out book, but Neem insists that I take the first boda boda ride to the stage.
“Dee will sign for you,” he says.
The ride to the stage is swift. You feel like a freed jail bird. You sit to wait for the two under a shade paces away from the road. You breathe in the freedom, you shower in it. You open your pores to let it seep in. You hope that the graduation takes long, and that dad will allow you to stay a little longer. You want to stay home for longer. You are tired of bathing in the thickets, where thorns invariably prick your ass. You want to eat proper food in peace; your frail built wasn’t cut out for running and scrambling for beef on Tuesdays and Fridays at the Dining Hall.
That is when it hits you that the said graduation coincides with your birthday. March 12th 2005 was meant to be a special day, you think. It’s like God had put a reminder on his phone, and dedicated it especially to you. It was supposed to be your first visiting day in high school, it was your birthday and now it is also your brother’s graduation day. The coincidences are too fantastic to be true.
Neem and Deogratias share the ride back. Neem comes up to you, but Deogratias crosses the road to the other side. He is still sulky from last night. You have never seen him so bothered over school fees before. He is beginning to get to your last nerves.
“Come on G,” Neem calls.
He wants to catch up on old times, you suppose. You want to tell him about the pond, the blokes who ask for your admission letter in the abolution block, the basketball coach who says you are too short to be in the school team, and the toilets. Especially the toilets. How you have to remove your cardigan before you use them because if you do not, the sewer stench will stick on your clothes. You want to admit to him how you are having difficulties directing stool into the pit latrine. It takes some level of skill and patience that an urban hippie like you falls short of. You want to regale him with tales of students who carry plates to the evening assembly ground every Tuesday and Friday- and the sprint for the highly relished top layer.
But instead of him allowing you to tell your tales, he sits you down and clears his throat. He does so in this composure, the one he used to pull when you had done something wrong, and he was about to mete out punishment for your transgressions.
He doesn’t look at you; he looks towards the direction Deogratias is standing in the sun. He speaks softly. His words break in between sentences, he pauses, not to catch his breath, but to choose his words. He is talking about dad. That two weeks ago, dad went to Nairobi for his regular check-ups, but something came up.
“He was taken to the ICU, and…but…,” he trails off
As he says these words, your mind races back to two weeks ago. Deogratias had gone home for fees, and when he came back, he was all moody. You think about his sudden concern for you to watch your consumption habits, the missing school fees, and why they didn’t allow you to write for yourself the reason for leaving soon.
“I am sorry G…” he is trembling. Neem never trembles. The outlandish fragility of his voice tells you where this conversation is heading.
“We aren’t going to a graduation, are we?” He doesn’t respond, even though he heard you clearly. But you do not prod. You spare him the agony of telling you what is implied. It was expected. You knew it would happen. Everyone did. Even you with your 14 years’ worth of wisdom knew that it was a matter of time before his kidneys finally gave up on him.
But nothing can ever brace you for the death of a father when you are a last born. Even if death gave you a heads up, you can never be ready enough to lose your dad. That is because death is like an exam- no matter how long you are given to get ready for it, when its time finally comes, you will always beg for more time.
You will ask for one more morning to listen to him brush his teeth, and hear his coarse cough when the toothpaste makes him emetic. You will always ask for one more evening walk, to walk around the neighbourhood, clutching onto his index finger, to enjoy an exhausted sun crawl away from the evening sky. You will ask for one more night that never ends.
But since death is a mean lecturer, one who doesn’t give extensions, his timing is final. He doesn’t care if you are 14 years old. It will not hold back because you will not have a father to teach how to discipline your feelings.
Death does not negotiate with deadlines. Death will smile when your neighbour in campus, the one with blaring speakers, chooses to play Luther Vandross’ Dance With My Father around Valentine season. It will grin because you will remember that the last time you saw your father alive was on the Valentines of 2005. Mum was away at work, and he decided to have you as his date. It was the first time you had pizza and milkshake. Death will not care that your first Valentines date was your dad.
Why couldn’t heaven wait?
And nine years later, with Luther Vandross arousing emotions you would rather forget, you will log into Facebook and find your step sister, the one you haven’t seen in three years. Her status update will read something like; Dear dad, i miss u…and am trying… and it will hurt so much that sleep doesn’t come. Misery finds company.
A tear will form in your eyes, as you try to recollect your father’s image, and when you finally find it, you will close your eyes to look at it. You will not realize that you are crying until you taste salt on your lips. You will be 23 years old then; a final year student. And that is when you will understand that growing tall doesn’t hide you from the grief of a dead father. You will be a child again. A fourteen year old- because that is how he left you; an orphan.
If time is a healer, then it must be a quack. It bought its medical licence from River Road. Time doesn’t heal squat. You will reminisce about that Wednesday afternoon when you and Neem waited for the matatu from Usenge to take you home. You will recall asking him; “When is the funeral?” And his response from nine years ago will leave a debilitating ache on your chest, one that doesn’t give you the luxury to of manning the fuck up.
He will swallow his courage then move his lips. “Saturday.” He will say. “This Saturday.”