“Why have you called me here?”
“I need your favour!” Julia said briskly.
Niko chuckled. “My favour?”
He asked, a faint smile sneaking onto his bonny countenance. Julia nodded as her eyes searched for a clue on his lean face. But his mind had taken a walk and he absent-mindedly ran his fingers along the collars of his blue shabby golf tee-shirt that stood on his haggard frame as if it was on a human hanger. His other hand played with the enamel cup on the round table whose hazel Formica top looked like dried honey.
“This sounds funny, I know! But yes … yes … I need your help.”
It sounds crazy, Niko thought. He yawned, rubbed his face with his hand as if to refresh himself and then leaned on the table with his elbow; a smile, wildly inscrutable lighted up his face. Julia wondered if the smile meant her well or if it would end up being the useless light of the midday moon.
“If God was not God … He would be crazy by now!” Niko remarked, chuckling. Julia sipped her coffee and waited. She needed straight answers; not to be put in a maze of puzzles. But she couldn’t push him: she was at his mercy.
“So, what is it?” For the first time, in a very long minute Niko lifted his eyes straight to her. She was reclined on her seat, hands across her bosom and with her head slightly tilted. Her curled hair was framed from her chocolate face by a sharp hairline: the curls looked like dark graceful waves frozen on her head. Around her neck was a dark, glittery neck-piece made of polished sea-shells and it meshed well with the green-top whose low neck-line made no secrets about her generous olive cleavage.
She leaned closer to him but with her hands beneath the table. She then took a deep breath and faced him, smiling. Niko noted that she had put on some weight: her face was now rounder, the corners of her smiles smoother and her fat dimples a little deeper. She had hopped from the svelte blond he had known ten years ago into an exquisite buxom. It wasn’t for nothing she left me for Victor, Niko thought wistfully.
That was in 1999. Julia had returned the engagement ring on that rainy Saturday afternoon. “Niko, hope utani-understand. Sioni …Mimi na wewe tuki-end up together. Itakuwa disaster!”
“What wrong have I done?” Niko asked, goggle-eyed.
“It isn’t anything wrong you’ve done, Niko…” Julia said softly. “I just don’t want to waste your time. I cannot pretend anymore … I’m not being fair to you, here!”
“You’re joking isn’t it?”
“I’m serious, Niko! This is nothing to joke about…” She said sententiously. And Niko knew too well to keep doubting. He just resigned to look at her, crest-fallen. He wanted to remind her about his promise to her parents; that he would marry her in church in a year’s time. His family was also waiting. They had warmed up to Julia as they saw her making their son a happy husband. What about the dreams they shared? No. He decided he won’t remind her. He would face himself. He would get over it and live on and love on and dream on.
“I know this is selfish of me. But …” her voice trailed, “but I just don’t want to fail you later… That would be hard to forgive…”
“Julia … don’t apologize. It took you time to come to this point. And … I won’t ask you to stay. I understand and … I will be fine.” He said nonchalantly. “Loving you doesn’t mean that … you be by my side or even my wife. I’ve come to realize that love is the courage to set free those things we cherish….”
And so it happened that a tempestuous affair that had span for over five years ended on that civil note, but as a devastating shock to Niko. The dramatic way had they met would then become a haunting crack on the mirror of his memory: as a choirmaster, Niko was leading a song in the church during mass when his eyes spotted her winsome happy face nodding to the beats of the drums as her sensuous lips moved with the words of the song. She was in his choir and he had not seen her before.
St. Stephen Catholic Church is in the innards of Uthiru, in a village called Gichagi. Her family had migrated to that neighbourhood and she had decided to join the youth choir. This, Niko knew after that very mass. He approached the twinkling almond eyes and using his authority as the choir master he gleaned this information from her. And about two months later, they were already stirring the cup of their love.
By then she was still a form three student at Ngara Girls High School. Niko was in college too, in the fourth stage of a CPA course. He was working during the day at a law firm as an accountant and taking evening classes at Strathmore University. Their boat swam down the river of love until Julia was also through college. By then Niko had landed a plump accountant job with a multinational communication company. Life was kind to him and marrying Julia would be the icing on his cake. But the devil had his plans!
“I thought it was something else but …” Niko took a breath, “if it’s anything to do with your marriage – No!” He declared.
“Think of what you could do with a quarter a million in your bank…” Julia argued, looking at him pleadingly.
“Keep your money! Heaven knows that I can make such money in no time. But you messed me…and after that you…you! Who do you think I am? Ehee? You left me adding holes to onto my belt and you now here come to buy me to …” He was on top of his voice, attracting the curious ears of other patrons in the cafe. Julia gently took his hand across the table.
“I’m sorry … I didn’t think it still hurt you. I only thought you could help…”
Niko sprang to his feet and glared at her. “Fuck you!” He barked and then stormed out as Julia stared in pity and dismay. She could see for herself that this was not the Niko she had jilted. That Niko was dashing and athletic, beardless like a baby with a smile that could cut glass. That Niko had promise; no wonder she had once fallen for him. He had dreams as strong and high as Times Tower; dreams as glamorous as Taj Mahal and he believed he could fly just by the strength of his volition. Yes, that Niko was Niko. He paid allegiance to sartorial elegance; he always rode at the crest of fashion.
But today he had come to her looking older than his father; in dusty worn out sandals. His breathe reeked of raw tobacco and she could see he was tipsy. What did I take from him? Julia pondered but there were no ready answers. It wasn’t even that important: her hands were already filled with the task of saving her collapsing marriage.
“I changed my mind, Julia,” Niko said, “I realized I was not being fair to you…you left me with dignity and …”
“I understand…” Julia said repeatedly, calming him down. He had called her that morning asking if they could meet: he had changed his mind. He was going to help. After thinking through her predicament Niko had decided that it would be evil to leave her in the lurch. Particularly after she had told him that he was the only man, apart from her husband who knew the map of her body. And Niko thought, “I can draw that map on a paper in a dark room.” And he yearned for her.
“Why did you change your mind?” Julia was cautious.
“Julia, I will be honest with you…” Niko began. He told her how his life had taken a mad turn when she left him; that his alcoholism had estranged him from his family. He no longer lived with them. He was now living at Mukuru kwa Njenga with his distant cousin. There was no need of mentioning his job: all that was now history.
Julia knew all these things: her friends at Uthiru kept her in the know. How else could she have gotten his phone number? But one thing troubled her most.
“Why … why did you choose this life?” She asked bitterly.
What she didn’t know was that Niko had lost his head immediately he learnt that she had left him for a wealthy man. This killed his fragile hope that somehow Julia would just have come back. Then the glamorous wedding that followed sowed in him hatred and rage and hopelessness. Those who attended it came back singing about its grandeur: the scenic garden where it was held, the gold-plated Mercedes motorcade of the bride, the food, the white-creamed cake with tiers like a model sky-scraper, the music and dance – it was a wedding and a wedding!
Niko sought to forget these things and booze became his solace. At Mukuru kwa Njenga, chang’aa became his meal and as misfortune would have it, he lost his life to booze. That day he staggered into the speakeasy to re-charge and found his usual pals seated in the dingy room made of scrap metal, sipping as they talked issues. It was here that he felt at home – where everyone was equal and issues were discussed as if by experts. That evening he took his place after shaking hands and then grabbed a mug of chang’aa. It would be his last because the methanol spiked drink wiped him out alongside some of his pals; those who were lucky found themselves on hospital beds grappling with blindness.
Julia attended his funeral at his parent’s home in Uthiru. If she remembered well, it was three years since she had seen Niko: he had come to the hospital to congratulate her for bringing forth a bouncing baby girl. He had bought the baby some clothes he had picked from some mitumba stall and a card, wishing the baby a beautiful life. She had feared that he would return to blackmail her and ruin her marriage but it never happened.
She now felt tears come as these thoughts flooded her mind. She couldn’t shake off the notion that may be; his life could have ended differently if she had stayed with him. And today, she had seen him in the brown casket, lying still and resigned to his destiny. She had heard murmurs, laden with regret and sorrow, questioning what had happened to such a promising lad with unquestionable talent, which had pushed him into his grave with even no seed to leave behind.
As the casket was rolled into the grave Julia was at the edge of grief; she felt like screaming the truth to the world: the child that had saved her marriage was actually Niko’s daughter. And he had refused the handsome cash gift that Julia had offered him.
“Be ashamed to die without winning some victory for humanity,” Niko had said, “that was Martin Luther Kin’s philosophy. I also feel I’ve won some victory for humanity.”
The red mound formed atop the grave and through misty eyes, Julia thought, there lies a man who won some victory for humanity. And she knew too well that it was now her turn to add holes onto her belt since her husband was already demanding a second child.
©Nyasili Atetwe 2010
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