Celebrating East African Writing!
Life is a journey; a voyage riddled with crossroads – defining moments – at which you are offered the occasion to self determine the entire course of your future with simple everyday decisions.
Our protagonist ‘awakes’ to find himself in one such state; he finds himself at masculine crossroads- the crossroad between the threshold of youth and the dawn of man.
Will he sense the crossroad? Will he accept its challenge? Will he cross over?
(I) Cathedral Chimes
(II) Chateau D Hood
(IV) Clique Craze
(VI) Carnal Trinity of Change
(I) Cathedral Chimes
It’s hard to connect the dots looking forward; to connect the dots you have to look back.
Slowly the morning sun gathered yester-nights mist; slowly the light of day paled the lull of night, slowly the glory of dawn flowered eclipsing the gloom of dusk.
It was Saturday; laze day, my kind of day. A distant chiming awoke me- my phones new ring tone, no doubt.
‘Who’s awake at this time of the day- on Saturday?’ I grumbled reaching out blindly to the left side of my bed to mute it … and suddenly, fell off – and awoke … on coarse, night dew moist blades of green grass, besides a park bench.
At a distance the dingdong echoed on and on and on. Sensibly now, I discerned that it wasn’t my phone chiming. My phone wasn’t on my side; my shoes weren’t on my feet, my watch wasn’t on my wrist, my coat wasn’t on my back, my wallet wasn’t in my back pocket..
‘Where am I; why am I … Lord, what am I?’ I muttered in jittery stutters.
My tongue was sore; my face swollen, my sight surging. My senses were woozy; my attempted walk windy, my countenance undoubtedly a worry- yet oddly, my inner voice was bouncy. Though I couldn’t clearly recall who exactly I was, or why I was where I was, I somehow had a bouncy sense of expectation for sunrise. And somehow I was drawn to the cathedrals chimes.
From a safe distance I could see crowds begin to form outside the cathedral as car after car streamed into the parking lot. From the penguin-like garb sprinkles of them had on, I could tell a wedding was in offing. From the varied carnations on the cars, it was easy to deduce that there would be two or three weddings back to back.
I didn’t get weddings; some sorry chap spending a lifetime’s savings on a days fete, yet a few years on he still can’t muscle enough bread to take out a mortgage. That would never be me; I instinctively could tell.
Self-consciously I walked away from this farce before somebody I knew from somewhere recognized me in my gory state. A distance off, a convoy of cars raced in. Off Sellassie Avenue and into cathedral road they skidded. Like race cars they stormed past me in a huff, and then suddenly all skid to a screeching halt.
‘Mozé!’ someone shouted, his head pocking off an open car door.
With enough melees on my plate, I walked on, not caring much about this unfolding drama. Behind me the shout echoed on. A minute or two later a second then third and fourth voice choired in ‘Mozé!’ echoing down my path. Half concerned now, I curiously peeked over my shoulder only to spot Tony and Mickey sprinting my way. I’d known these guys since row row your boat; since bah bah black sheep, since I was knee high. I was beyond relieved to see them. It stilled me somehow to sense that I remembered something; someone. It pleased me that I remembered them without so much of a sweat; yet, it worried me a tad bit that I couldn’t remember my own name. Minutes latter I was being ushered into one of two cars and off we sped.
Maybe I should have asked why they were all dressed up; even better who’d caved in … but, my tongue was sore, my face was swollen, my sight surging. Lawry drove the car Tony was in; Davie the one Mickey and I were in. I could read a million questions in their faces; a million answers in their fidgets.
‘What’d happened to me; what was happening to me?’ I pondered as we raced off in a wipe wipe, dust dust, sponge sponge, pin-drop silence.
I hadn’t had the displeasure of looking into a mirror since daybreak, yet I could tell from the unsettling silence, the sneak peeks and the worry painted all over their faces that I for sure looked grim. I could see rhetorical questions in their accusing eyes. I could tell that I had somehow let them down- again. I had broken a trust; clearly. If I could I would have made enquiry; but my tongue was sore, my body battered, my memory shaky… the apology would have to wait. More pressing to me was…
‘Can I get a shower; can I get a change of clothes … who is tying the knot?’
As best as my shaky brain could recollect, Lawry and Davie had long since left the bachelors club, so it had to be either senior bachelor Tony or Mickey. The suits they had on though were no help; all the same pinstriped ashy blue shade… but since it was Saturday I had all day to figure it out, so I eased back- tried to reflect back.
We were all concrete jungle raised, so getting green fingers was fundamentally sacrilegious. It somewhat concerned me to observe us in eerie silence cruise past the skyscrapers, past the leafy suburbs, past the shanties and into the red soiled open country-side. As we were speeding off somewhere, I let the scenery calm me; calm us ... and mysteriously it somehow did. It was odd to imagine any of the boyz living out of town; what would make a sane city chap embrace countryside living? It though amused me to experience how relieving, how refreshing, how calming simply escaping the mean city and its worries was.
As we came to a halt outside a modest looking homestead overlooking an otherwise dusty countryside neighborhood, I smiled. This was acceptable! My smile quickly melted as we easily weaved our way past it and soon stood outside a run of the mill version of the modest home.
‘Keys? ’ I heard somebody ask and everyone looked at me.
‘Try looking under the door rug.’ Someone suggested.
That caught me off guard. Was someone suggesting that I was living out here; out of town? Had I become a country-bumpkin? What’d happened to me? Had I lost my eight to five?
An hour latter I had freshened up, clad up, mulled over the dingy wall-mat hung up high that proclaimed ‘our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in always rising’, and now we calmly raced up the windy country rough road; up the shanties, up the leafy suburbs, through the skyscrapers and up cathedral road.
As we sped on still in eerie silence, and the numerous incoming calls received the same ‘he’s okay, he’s okay’ muffled refrain, in my tormented mind many questioned went unanswered…
‘Who was getting married? Did I have to attend? Could I somehow skip this one?’
I could sense the mixed signs of relief and apprehension as the cars at last cut the corner past freedom corner and into cathedral road where my cursed day had seeded. As we drove into the cathedral I pleasantly spotted my buddy George- magic George; the smoothest brotha this side of the Sahara. A minute latter I saw young George, my bro’s son; what was he doing here? Before I could connect the dots I a distance off spotted an old green concours d’elegance wannabe Toyota stout truck stately packed at the V.I.P. reserved, lot. No two people on the continent had this antique; my father, Sir George senior himself was in the building. And just like that, my mind went into overdrive; no coincidence could assemble this cast as divergent as east from west.
‘What was going on? … Lord what had I done…?’
Suddenly the dots begun to connect; a cold chill ran down my spine. Miraculously my sore tongue rediscovered speech, and quickly I turned to Mickey, who was now fumbling a ring case and muttered nervously,
‘Eh … who is getting married?’
‘Hell no; HELL NO!’
…And so it was- as the glory of day flowered on, cruel fate crippled me with another low blow. I’d mysteriously blacked out free, on a park bench - at freedom corner - only to awake entrapped, in broad daylight; outside a cathedral.
I wanted to scream; I wanted to fight, I wanted to escape, but … my tongue was sore, my face swollen, my sight surging.
(II) Chateau D’ Hood
Stormy seas season sailors.
Standing outside the cathedrals ancient doors was nostalgic. There was this Déjà vu feel about starring at those imposing century old west doors, located smack at the heart of the north and south towers. They had that judgment day feel; - you know - where good and evil get paid in equal measure.
As if contemplating the long walk down the aisle wasn’t torture enough, it ostensibly occurred to me that the chump who walked back up would be a significantly different man - a not single man; a not free to do whatever man, a locked down forever man.
‘Could these be my last steps, last breaths, and last thoughts in freedom?’ I agonized.
Now my nonchalance had to take leave. There might have been countless familiar voices all around me purportedly all here at my invite, but none of that mattered now. At this moment in time, in this kind of life decision, only one voice mattered- my inner voice.
‘Am I ready for this; have I been coerced into this, is there an escape from this?’ I pondered.
I could have worried on and on had those wide primeval doors not come ajar so unveiling the longest pew, the widest podium, the curviest pulpit I’d ever seen ... and just like that the curious boy in me took over. For no reason I could put my finger on, I all of a sudden had this warm fuzzy feeling about taking a casual stroll in. Maybe it was my adventurous nature beckoning me on; or maybe just, my senses knew what my memory had blocked out. Whatever the reason, I had a bubbly compelling inside to sample that long aisle. Standing there marveling at this grandeur of modern faith, my thoughts impulsively raced back to my easier days; my happier days, my knee high days.
I grew up on the grime side; a great neighborhood on the crime side of town. My hood was like a palm tree; an oasis in the heart of a desert of crime. It had estates full of sinless, white washed, picket fenced, well manicured bungalows, at the heart of crime central. There was a secure cop station here, and a humble church there, a good school here and there- more aptly put, a rose in a bed of thorns; a château in the hood.
I should have grown up right – I might have turned uptight; my sights pegged only on neon lights – but instead my folks blighted me, by enrolling me in a nightmare government school at the heart of the crime side of this eastern end of town.
Here might was right. Turning your lights out was a right of passage; a flight into manhood. Here the schoolyard taught more poignant lessons than the classroom; the strength in numbers, the value of friendships, the dash for cash. At barely seven, I had been mugged enough times to peak my hood sense…
‘Never walk alone, never!’ my conscience would scream, ‘Always have cash, always; never in your pocket, never…’
Topping the class here was a breeze; getting extra credits down the schoolyard though, was the challenge. Luckily I quite early sensed that the very reason behind my parents enrolling me in this dump was their desire to see me develop into an all round student; above average both in and out of class. Someway somehow, through hard work and dedication I evolved into that dream student- a teacher’s nightmare- receiving generous mention in both the academic record books as well as the much schoolyard revered, discipline master’s black book listing.
As my neighbors back home in their well endowed private schools picked up book after book, I learnt how to pick lock after lock. As they in their school assemblies were opened up to every element of eminence, I in our informal assemblage was exposed to every element of vice. As they got book smart, I got street smart. By graduation I was institutionally a folk legend, nationally an academic dwarf; locally an indiscernible social misfit. And just like that, the leg up my parents had worked so tirelessly to provide, by way of us living on the good side of the crime side of town went down the drain. My school environment had molded me- for life.
But I wasn’t the lone lost soul here; all around my neighborhood I observed the wheat and tare intertwine and thrive. One day you picked up the dailies and there was yet another neighborhood lads rags to riches, ‘had work pays’ story. The next day you flipped the same dailies and there was yet another hood lad, slain in yet another get rich quick scheme. If you had any sense, the fore news story would’ve appealed to you; but us lost souls were allergic to hard work, indifferent to its regiment, addicted to the hustle mode.
‘What!’ our refrain went, ‘spend three years in college to secure a government job that barely fills your pocket. What a joke!’
Calmly studying the sparsely crowded church as I gingerly strolled in, I could hardly see anybody with whom I once echoed this refrain. Possibly they were late; could be they would appear at the reception – for budget friendly food and drinks, or maybe- maybe just- they’d departed from amongst us. Scores of schoolyard legends of my youth had relocated six feet under, way before their time. I wasn’t quite sure how I had made it this far; but as sure as the noose around my neck, the twinge in my jaw, the throb in my head … I had.
…Come to think of it, so had Davie, Lawry, Tony and Mickey; somehow we had made it together… walking together. In a vice-full neighborhood, we’d matured into château’s of virtue; château’s in d’ hood? And our childhood pact, our rule of thumb still lived on
‘Never walk alone, never!’
In the jungle, straight trees get axed; crooked ones…
Bureaucracy is a beautiful word. It amused me to spot the very countenance of it huddled around the cathedrals first pillar up the north aisle. Observing this pious assembly fully clad like investment bankers, muttering in hush tones, you’d imagine them Paul the apostles’ devotees. Waving politely I apprehensively strolled past them half tempted to dive into whatever scheme they had simmering; but my tongue was sore, my face swollen, my sight surging.
Halfway down the northern aisle I got it - the large antique bible encased next to the first pillar … I remembered mentioning it to someone- George. In a blink I could guess what they were muttering about; clearly not some deep theological doctrine on good and evil, but the downtown river road value of the large bible handed to the All Saints Cathedral by King George VI back in 48 via the Cathedral of Canterbury…I knew George; I knew this crew, I knew our ways.
As I walked on, it amused if not consoled me to note how clear my memory of magic George and crew still was. If to observe this porous bureaucrat obsess over a bible wasn’t an oxymoron then the idea of observing this lover of the fast life fixate over the book of life was. When nothing added up in the ordinary (the rule went) it had to, somewhere in the unordinary mind of a downtown river road aficionado.
We’d coincidentally grown up in the same hood, attended the same school, and somehow found ourselves working for the same employer. Strangely though, we’d somehow never rubbed shoulders before securing employment; maybe our considerable age difference was to blame. After we had become better acquainted though, it became clear to me that we shared more than just a neighborhood, a school or an employer; our environment had fashioned our perception of life, our restlessness with mediocrity, our passion for cream.
Growing up where we had was tricky; cash ruled everything around us. Though folks in this neck of the hood were far from poor, they were hardly rich. Ever so often some family was either moving on up, or dropping off the radar. Keeping up with the Joneses was a mind boggling everyday preoccupation; One weekend you awoke and the neighbor on the left was moving out west; a new job, a ‘hush-hush opportunity’, a bright future. Come next week, the neighbor to your right was moving out too- into the real eastside; he’d been axed, his property attached, his family’s future at best … bleak.
These social tides afflicted us with incurable status anxiety. The fear of falling off the Joneses radar instilled into us a desperate sense of urgency for a here and now breakthrough. Such fear had a double-edged thrust; it could just as easily energize you into greatness as entrench you into crime.
As I walked on down the aisle I could as clearly as day recall the very first day I met George. I was barely eighteen and there I sat inside the head of departments’ office still unsure about this government job I’d somehow been coerced into accepting.
A week before this I remembered studying my mums face as she handed me the appointment letter she’d somehow hustled from my dad a week or so back. I was torn in between excitement and anxiety. In many ways I was grateful that I didn’t have to tarmac for a job; for some reason though I was anxious about the need to find my self first before committing my life to an employer. As the relieved expression on my mums face didn’t live room for me to renege on the job offer, a week or so on I sat across the head of departments’ desk, counting sheep.
‘Remember,’ the head of department concluded by saying ‘this is a tempting office; avoid anyone who entices you into offering extra services to select clients. Nothing good can come from bending the rules in anybody’s favor’.
And with those concluding, well meaning yet insightful last words, my hood beak got wet; I caught the vapor. I was at once awake to this jobs potential for cream. Intuitively I could sense that ‘extra service’ meant ‘extra money’- the down the block kind. All I had to know now was ‘who ran the block’. Out of his office and into the main hall he ushered me, and soon I sat next to this heavy older woman, eagerly waiting to be further briefed on how ‘not to be enticed’. By tea break it became clear that we someway somehow had to part ways; she was not only a few cans off a six pack, but as cranky as a constipated bear. Maybe it was the judo baby, kicking her belly that made her so cranky; or maybe just the fact that –as she openly mentioned- I reminded her of the fool that got her pregnant.
In between her numbing induction, I through the corner of my eye assessed the client traffic and noticed that hordes of executive looking ones went one way. Curios to unravel the grounds or maybe simply escape my cranky tutor, I tailed the informal trail, snaked behind this flashy looking chap behind the never ending corporate queue and introduced myself- impishly enquiring if I could somehow help lighten his load … And just like that, my camaraderie with George seeded.
Weeks later, we were like age old friends. It was easy for us to relate; we talked with the same slang, laughed at the same jokes, walked with similar bounce. I was like a peppier version of him. Unwittingly, as days turned into weeks, and week’s months, he became my counsel. Seasons on, office colleagues mysteriously come to deem us kin. Of significance to me was George’s eye opening revelation on the beauty of bureaucracy- and the cream close association to it portended. In Georges words,
‘Bureaucracy is a beautiful word; it pays to play its ploys.’
As our friendship cemented, somehow the head of department got the wind of it and promptly summoned me into his office.
‘Son, you are who you associate with.’ he blurted out the minute I got comfy, ‘Sooner or later you will become what your friends are; their ways become your ways, their success your success, their failure your failure, their weaknesses you weaknesses’.
An hour of ear lashing latter I walked out of the office with knots in my tummy. As plainly expressed to me, I had a choice to make.
‘Avoid George and in a year or two you might be considered for a promotion; stick around him and within a year you might be jobless.
The ‘never walk alone- always have cash,’ creed, engraved into my DNA since row row your boat might have been part of the reason I paid him no mind; more accurately George was family- families part neither at schoolyards, nor woulda coulda barnyards, but at graveyards. Considering that I had no plans of being a civil servant that long, the alternative was simple; make as much money as I could as fast as I could then move on before I got the boot. Observing that my supervisors were in near tatters as George wallowed in semi opulence, it was clear to me that he knew something they didn’t; he was where I wanted to go. His was the promotion I sought.
To many George was trouble. Always around him lurked those clean-cut downtown chaps; those briefcase carrying, no office having, blue collar hustle chaps. As office legend had it, he once lured two money hungry, airhead colleagues into a partnership. He’d sighted an opportunity in the desperation of corporate wannabes to incorporate. The trio offered these future corporate entities that were flush with cash yet short on time, side consultancy on how to cut red tape here and there. How to register a business in a day: tax papers, trade licenses, work permits all in record time- all on the straight and narrow.
Though the government lost no revenue whiles the corporate entities lost no time to bureaucratic red tape, this win win win arrangement ruffled a handful office busy bodies who quickly reported it to the head of department. Though the venture was perfectly ‘legal’, it contravened some archaic employment code of conduct. And just like that the trio got suspended - indefinitely… or so the office thought.
Two days into his ‘indefinite suspension’ George drove back to the office and it was business as usual. A month or so later his partners resumed; their prior bravado dented, their partnership, their friendship, their camaraderie severed.
Though the office built myths around his being well connected; about his ‘influential’ maternal uncle, his wealthy grandmother, my time around him demystified these myths. All I could tell was that the people he served had saved him. To paraphrase him,
‘Bureaucracy is a beautiful word; it pays to play its ploys.’
No sooner had I walked into the office than I stepped into an easy partnership. No sooner was it rumored that he and I might be kin than I inherited both his hustle and his hate. No sooner had I been initiated into his wallet, women, wine and dine ways than I got addicted.
From get go it surprised me how easy being George was. Though an introvert by nature he appealed to all. He had a magical charm that easily appealed to both stiff necked blue bloods as well as hardcore briefcase carrying hoodlums. While the average civil servant mastered the art of bureaucracy and consistently hovered a few shillings above the poverty line, he’d mastered the art of cutting red tape and soared to an investment or two off blowing up.
He never really had to chase after opportunities, word of mouth down the streets kept him busy. All he had to do was deliver on his word. To do this he had to progressively report in early and leave late. As his juggling work load, both official and private increased, inevitably to maintain efficiency I began running more and more of his side errands. For some reason I couldn’t quite pin down, I always got his dodgier downtown river road assignments. I didn’t mind this though for it both paid in stacks as well as introduced me to the downtown backstreets life I’d heard legends of back in my schoolyard days.
A season off it amazed me how many dodgy chaps knew me by name. A season on it amazed me just how keen I was at my job. A season removed it amazed me how so like the streets I’d got. To dress like investment bankers was your camouflage here- your get in; to think on your feet was your armor- your get out. A season or so off in jest an office ‘hater’ inquired aloud to a caller,
‘Which George do you want- the gray one or the green one?’
Though the remark was meant to offend, to me it was complimentary. To be likened to George had been my drive, and I now was. What it implied was that I now knew the ropes so much so that complete strangers, dodgy or straight, felt comfortable seeking my counsel. I knew what was expected of me by my employer, by the market and by the street. I knew my employer wanted my desk empty in bureaucratic order; I knew the market wanted it done in a flash, I new the streets simply wanted a piece of my desk- either way.
As I walked on down the northern isle it surprised me that I still worked for the government. Wasn’t I supposed to work for a season or two only? A decade on I was neither as the head of department predicted –jobless- nor was I planning on moving on. The government office had become my jungle; and in these woods, apparently, straight trees got axed before crooked ones.
(IV) Clique Craze
A bee fertilizes the flower it robs.
One would be tempted to at face value assume that the relentless pursuit of the finer things in life can only lead to ruin. Sometimes though- in life’s warped way- in the pursuit of the good life, one can stumble into the sudden consciousness of the existence of an even grander plot in life; a simpler life philosophy.
Now half way down the northern aisle, it dawned on me that I had been here before. A year or two back, it seems, I’d sat somewhere behind one of the boyz, counting sheep…
The gloom of night was gone; the glory of day was on. The pews were hushed; the podium packed, the provost – impeccably dressed in a sinless white robe- there on, raging on, his voice riveting from the pulpit to the pious faces from pillar to pillar.
Fffffinally Magic George was tying the knot. It was a bitter sweet pill to swallow; like the end of an era, the death of a dynasty. I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t know what to ask. Who would comprehend my loss?
Every boy needs a gal; and in truth he’d struck gold in marriage- materializing a queen from the blues- and all of a sudden he was out of the hustle game. He wanted to do right by her; his spirit was exorcised from the allure of downtown river road backstreets.
Away from him I tried to bury myself in work, but that in itself was a joke, so, off I went hitting the pubs. The pubs soberly were not as much fun either; they had that unfamiliar looming emptiness about them.
It came to my realization that most of the pub regulars were taking unsanctioned leaves; blasphemous! It though never really struck home until Mickey connected the dots. Lowry had just settled down; Davie was a wedding day notice off settling down. Charley, Ishmael, Martin, even Dick had crossed over. Quick arithmetic’s confirmed the implausible- the improbable; bachelors were an officially minority in our clique … hell had frozen over!
This was like a quiet invasion- an infestation; a marry-fest fever outbreak. The generational fear of aging alone was working wonders; causing even the most rugged of hustle brothers to be spotted in odd corners, a bouquet in hand, a rehearsed poem in memory, a cold sweat in brow. Though most were consensus weddings, a handful- I diagnosed- were shotgun weddings; the, I’m pregnant, it’s yours, we must get married- type. Being as street as I was, I knew the latter would never be me … or so I thought…
I met her in a coffee house, and in hindsight should have left her there … but she was a dazzling beauty, and I ain’t no saint. The minute our eyes met, to all others I became blind. In a blink, I was ushered into a blue heaven- she dancing in on a pink cloud. She’d swarmed my heart like a moonbeam. We had that boisterous instant chemistry that I willfully had to sample. I loved her ebony skin tone; her full exotic looking lips, her out of this world hip. Her body was to me a wonderland; the kind that inspired you to want to do tricks- like pulling a rabbit off a hat…
So one minute I was whiling through life with nothing but a hustle and a smile on my mind and the next, I was singing the blues. One minute I was spending time hatching hustle plot after plot, the next I was neck deep studying the classics; crafting comparative heart warming poem after poem.
In a flash I’d sissified; lost the passion for the streets, got on first name basis with florist, bakers, and bookshop attendants. George and the boys teased, but I could sense they were pleased. The office grapevine grilled me on and on but since I could tell their intensions were good, I leaked out a line here, a line there… then sat at the heart of this odyssey and exhaled.
And then it happened…out of the blues a call came in,
‘Congrats bro; Sylvia’s heavy … I hear,’
I didn’t get the rest of that jabbering … I didn’t have to, the baby wasn’t mine; I’d rubber’d up.
In a blink the grapevine got wind of these soap opera insinuations, and like a virus outbreak leaked word to the busybodies in the office and in their numbers they charged at me; some probing, most patting, while a handful publicly rebuking.
‘You have a job; you have a house, you need to make it a home.’ The men advised.
‘You do right by her or its half your pay!’ the women threatened.
But my conscience was clear; yes I’d messed up, but I’d seen too many brothers go six-feet-under in my time not to remember to protect myself. If that was my crime I was willing to do my time, but the baby wasn’t mine; I’d rubber’d up.
As days turned to agonizing weeks and impatiently into months, I held my ground. In the fullness of time, in their numbers they flocked her maternity ward in a bid to get the first word out, but in a twist of fate came out with a different line of words.
‘Is there Indian in his blood?’ the airhead ones still enquired.
But clearly the baby wasn’t mine, I’d rubber’d up. Life, cruel life had grazed me…
The marry-fest-bug though must’ve bit cause standing here reflecting on the joys, the pain, and the chaos of that time I desperately wished it was her I was settling down with. A joyous sadness though swarmed me a moment later when I noticed her, wistfully smiling my way from the near toe of the pews. By her side was her daughter dressed in peculiar attire. A while latter similar dresses caught my eye and I quickly deduced she was a flower girl. Her smile told me that though she and I were water under the bridge, we would always have history. Life had robbed me off a lover but bequeathed me a lifelong friend.
In the bigger picture, I wondered about this fear of aging. A white man had set foot on the yellow moon; a black man had moved into the white house, man had successfully guided a man-less craft to mars, yet, our greatest compelling into marriage was the fear of aging? This baffled me.
‘Marry while still young son; while still strong enough to provide for your family’.
‘Marry the woman of your youth,’ the Christian ones would chip in, ‘and God will be your providence’.
Though everyone seemed a marriage counselor on why, when, where and with whom I should settle down, it surprised me that no one cared to explain how I could better provide for them. It became apparent that if I settled down on account of them, without getting answers as to how I would provide better for the seeds of my loins, then in the fullness of time I would, at best, be a different shade of them; the bar-hopping dads too afraid of get home early, to avoid those accusing eyes from their kids- kids unhappy of living from hand to mouth. That would never be me … or so I thought …
Only when it’s dark enough, do you clearly see stars.
Standing at the head of the northern aisle, starring past the nave, past the transept and onto the striking pulpit was spooky. For some reason, it’s ‘me up here – you down there’, air struck an edgy chord; it for no reason I could put my finger on reminded me of my dad- a devout Christian, a dedicated parent, a disciplinarian without bounds …a dreary doomsday Martian…
Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees; it’s hard to see the good in evil. My father boxed me; my father broke me, my father built me. He had a serpent’s hiss, a boxer’s hook, a hangman’s humor. He drove me to the edge; drove me to pray endlessly for the day I’d break off his shadow, off his mould, off his universe, and into the real world- the bare knuckled hard knocks life.
Come eighteen, I feared for him – I no longer feared him. His militancy had scar’d me for life, infecting me with brute. I had these mad vibes that sooner rather than latter I would even our scores. I had to escape … before I broke mums heart.
And somehow she got the wind of it; she’d observed the storm gather in my eyes each time he and I crossed paths. Naively, it somehow occurred to her that maybe she could patch a lifetime of brute by bearing his trinkets.
‘Read that,’ she whispered the minute she got me to her own, ‘your father has got you a job; a good job, a government job.’
I smiled. I was happy. Ecstatic! Not because finally dad had gone out of his way to make my day, but because he’d paradoxically funded my exodus from him; and that was a good thing- for us both.
A father ought to be a lads lighthouse; a lads compass, to help him sail safely through the stormy waters of masculinity. Mine was like that pious pulpit; bark, bite, growl – no commune. Away from him- I acknowledged- perils of shipwreck were a ‘when’ not ‘if’ issue; Life’s wolves and ravens would pave my paths.
Away from him, I had hits and misses. Both shaped ‘me’ into ‘me’. A drastically different me than I would, had I drowned in his shadow.
A man wiser than me once said that ‘to him who you give your ear, you give your life.’ Anyone you give your ear to plants words in your head that alter your thinking; soon your thoughts are reinforced into emotions that result in the positive or negative habits that constitute your character. Words you idly listened to could build as fast as they could blow.
I had embraced these truths very early in my teens; it’d become apparent that if I ingested his truths at best I would be a dapper version of him- a civil service time bomb.
When you earnestly search for answers, they said, you find. In the oddest of joints I found my saving grace; men who talked to you, not pulpit like at you. Men, man enough to chide your shortcoming as well as applauded your accomplishments. Men who lifted you when you fell yet were secure enough to urge you on – beyond their glass ceilings. These men didn’t come in pinstriped bourgeois corporate suits; they were what they were- men tasted by time. Off the crowds of men and mice I’d encountered, Rasta stuck out like a sore thumb.
Rasta was your around the corner, roast maize stand man. Nobody knew much about him; nobody cared enough to want to know him. He had long unkempt dreadlocks; a seeming allergy for personal hygiene yet a remarkably contrasting charm ... Though you’d never lock eyes with him on the streets on account of his exterior, pockets of clueless folk would mill around him on account of his insightful opinions; and he had buckets full of those – on politics, life, religion … anything.
I don’t know how he and I got glued, but it must have had sparked when out of the blues one day in between negotiating a stub of roast maize off his slight maize stand he remarked,
‘You are … different; has anybody else told you that?’
Not knowing how to respond to this kind of comment I held my peace, bit into my roast maize cob and awaited the punch line. To answer such a comment, I’d learnt, would evoke more adult talk. I handled it like I had when my dad, off character, once rhetorically mentioned,
‘When you look at the mirror, do you really see a failure?’
A third bite into my maize cob and on he went,
‘When dark clouds gather I can tell it’s going to rain; when it blows from the east I know its light rain- I stay on, when it blows from the west I close up early- it’ll be a storm. You are a western wind’ he finished and moved off to serve a client that’d walked in.
They chatted idly, and I could tell he was forestalling my rebuttal. The longer he stood there avoiding me the more impatient I grew. Finally I walked over to where he stood and cleared my throat,
‘Eh, is that a good thing or a bad thing?’
‘Storms carry rain water; is that a good thing or a bad thing?’
‘It depends’ the lady client he was chatting with noting my hesitation offered, ‘the same rain that feeds crops in the fields, feeds rivers causing floods.’
‘Exactly,’ he quickly added, ‘you’re a west wind; you’ll either become a great success or a great failure.’
On and on and on he and I went; week in week out, month in month out. On account of him I outgrew teenage hood; on account of him I couldn’t wait to tempt my fate, on account of him I got the light of my fathers rhetorical question. On account of him I came to accept that I may not be a thoroughbred but I’d been conditioned to succeed; from my schoolyard; to my hoods backyard, to the graveyard of my conscience- downtown river road.
…Years later I discovered that he’d hooked my baby brother too with that same, ‘you’re different,’ line. Maybe it was a sales ploy- a long con; maybe he knew enough to tell that everyone needs to feel unique, maybe he was our family angel sent down to give us that extra push we needed to fly. But by the time I got the wind of his con, it was too late to turn back; everything inside me was geared towards pursuing my line of greatness. I didn’t know what I would be great in, all I knew was that I would west wind through it.
I knew that just as my father, my grand father, my great grandfather had found their purpose and laid their legend, I would mine. Each generation had its worry; and there in, each generation had its glory, hence its story. It needed not be something grand by the joneses standards, but it would be my legend. I didn’t want to imagine that I’d dropped the ball; to years on look down my sons’ innocent face and imagine that my mediocrity had curtailed his launch into life.
My great grandfather had in his prime journeyed from one end of our country to the other; his encounters on this exodus in those uncertain pre-colonial years become his legend. My grand father started out working as a farmhand in those colonial years and ended up, by the sweat of his brow, owning the very land he once slaved on; his enterprise hence became his legend. My father book wormed throughout his teens graduating from the finest regional institutions and so easily landing the jobs and senior government positions he’d held; with a lot of life still left in him his legend was far from complete.
Starring at the empty pulpit I could only but imagine how far up in life I would have been had my father had a bit of Rasta in him. Had my Martian father been more down to earth maybe my journey into life would have been shaped more by the warmth of his words rather than the wrath of his wrist.
‘There’s no future in the past.’ I’d remember Rasta chiding.’ Live the past in the past.’
Sometimes though, lonely and confused on life crossroads I’d miss that simple place in time; I’d miss my siblings chuckles, I’d miss x-mass eve, I’d miss my mums tall tales. I would miss yesterday. Then memories of my dad’s bare knuckles, his chocking presence, and his growl would come flooding in, and again I had to thank God that I didn’t have to bare that yoke anymore… With or without him, I someway somehow would have to get my footnote in life’s story; I had to find my purpose, my edge, my legend.
(VI) Carnal Trinity of Change
A bird can’t fly with one wing.
Between the north and the south aisle was the nave. Beyond the nave lay the transept, stretched between the pillars of the north and south tower. Beyond the nave; beyond the transept, was the chancel that housed the large cross. Above the large cross, against the east wall, was an intricate rose stained glass-window.
I loved the very imagery of the cross; a place to lighten life’s yoke, a place to start again, a place to find peace at last. I loved the artistic paradox of a simple cross contrasting an intricately stained glass-window backdrop. It somehow seemed that the intent was for the rose stained glass-window to draw attention to the large cross.
Standing between the pulpit and the organ console, at the edge of the transept, absorbing this elegance of nineteenth century gothic architecture, it occurred to me that my simple life too had intricate contrasts. Upon further reflection I realized that in my life there had been an intricate rose stained glass-window that’d drawn me to life’s cross. I couldn’t immediately remember her name, but I remembered how we met…
All my life I’d been alive; alive to life, alive to death. I was never really the life of life’s party, just the sum of its parts; the first on the counter- the last off count, the first on the floor- the last to get floored, the first through those doors- the last back indoors. I’d wined and dinned in the finest restaurants, rubbing shoulders with high society, and I’d chewed Kurt in downtown street alleys among the retched of the earth. I’d hustled hard- got the streets nod; I’d emptied pints- earning my bum stripes, I’d chased skirts- caught up with a decent few. I’d lived; I’d lived, I’d lived.
Then one morning I staggered home in the wee hours of the morning, to find my flat flat. I’d been wiped out; completely wiped out. It was sobering to sit there and absorb the fact that close to a decade of hustle loot had been wiped out in one swoop. Even more daunting was the idea that I could hustle hard, buy new furniture, buy new appliances, buy new clad and risk being wiped out again.
The only drive behind hustling so hard for so long was to acquire things; the kind that kept you in sync with the joneses. Without this, the motivation; the thrill, the drive to hustle was gone. Nothing excited me anymore; not the hustling, not the pints, not the skirts that flocked around this environment. All I seemed to want was change; a new deal, a new high.
And change came to me disguised. An ‘acquaintance’ of mine was running a new hustle downtown; a phone racket. He was making bundles. Crowds of foreigners in droves flocked into his establishment to make budget friendly international calls. I knew where his office was; I knew the concept behind his venture, I knew also the risk it entailed so kept off it. I knew all this because he’d ‘consulted’ George on the opportunity ‘in my presence’.
Immigrant Indians, bag packing Europeans and internationally connected locals routinely flocked his premise ‘after hours’. Considering his tariffs, it was clear to all that he wasn’t exactly paying the phone company. One lose evening just as his after hours clients were beginning to flock, in burst a contingent of cops. Being as street as street could get, in a flash he and his help sneaked into an inner room, bolted it shut and by the time the cops cut through its grills, they’d leapt off its second floor back window and were somewhere uptown, breaking bread.
Though back at the ranch the story humored more than it impressed, somehow my ‘blemishes name’ got mentioned somewhere and before I could compose myself I’d been transferred from HQ to a rundown two desks, branch office. Under other circumstances, I would have bought my way back to HQ; back to where the action was, but I relished this change.
The minute I arrived at my new duty station two things caught my eye. One- it was at the heart of an international conference center- you rubbed shoulders with greatness routinely; two- I had a smiley faced motherly boss.
I didn’t know what to think about my new boss. I was not used to people in her position befriending me. I wasn’t sure whether she was being sincere or simply studying me. I didn’t know whether to ‘shock’ her a bit or just play along.
Months down I realized she was what she was; the real deal, that rare nice person. Her warmth was so infectious it almost made me self-conscious when the real me showed up.
…Out of the blues one day, just as we were closing shop she enquired almost rhetorically,
‘So, is this you?’
‘This what?’ I enquired uncomfortable with the question,
‘Is this your life? Is being a government clerk all that you can be?’
‘What else can I be? I’m not qualified for anything else.’
‘How about getting your degree in something?’
‘A degree?’ I laughed ‘I can hardly afford a smile- a degree?’
And with that I assumed the story was over; a fortnight latter just as we were closing shop again she enquired,
‘About campus; supposing you could afford it, would you go?’
‘Yeah!’ I answered without giving it the slightest thought.
Unknown to me she had enquired about student loans from a local bank and I qualified for one.
‘Read that, and then sign here, here and here.’ She mentioned with a glint in her eye and off she left for the day.
I could sense that I had been long conned; I had been boxed in, but this was a win win situation so I played along. A month later the loan had been processed and approved, my campus registration accepted, and just like that … my world flipped.
University education had never been anywhere in the radar of my ambitions, yet here I was with this student card, this student loan and suddenly, life again re-found bounce. Suddenly again I had dreams of prominence; the desire to leave my own legacy blend, ambitions of becoming a west wind.
To keep up with this new academic life- and its financial realities- inevitably I was forced to shift. I considered numerous addresses but with a ‘students budget’ I soon found myself settled out of town; past the skyscrapers, past the leafy suburbs, past the shanties and into the red soiled countryside.
For a city lad like me it was almost sacrilegious to abandon big city living. Even harder was the attempt to absorb countryside ways; to blend in with countryside folk, to adapt to countryside stillness.
Though work by day, campus by night was taxing, even more pressing was the knowledge that I could not afford not to succeed. I had this ‘second chance’ in life feel; and I didn’t think I would get a third. I was loving life again; loving the thrill of living on the edge of a breakthrough. My passion for life was back; my motivation was back, my drive was back. You could see it in the bounce in my walk; in the smile on my face, in the confidence in my speech, in the firm of my grip, in the glint in my eye.
Exposed too young to the ills of downtown river road, I came pretty close to the threshold of hustle and the dawn of crime. Exposed at this conference center to young executives with an entirely different focus from the hustlers of my formative years, their way became my way; their paths, their dreams- mine.
As I looked on and pondered about how far I’d come a soft voice echoed my name from the back pews. I turned around, and there she was; my intricate stained glass-window. I wanted to walk over, to shake her hand, to say thanks, but … my tongue was sore, my face swollen, my sight surging. The cathedral too was beginning to pack with faces that were strangely familiar; so I smiled back, waved politely and found my sit knowing I would see her before this long day came to a close.
How could a chance meeting with a simple motherly woman have changed my life so; how could a simple year close to one person have set new sails to my life’s philosophy so. It made no sense. All I could conclude was that, it wasn’t a chance meet; life had ‘planted’ her to seed my salvation.
In war, there is no substitute for victory…
The church was now brimming, the organist beaming. Maestro fingers sampled the keys so bringing the lofty 1500 organ pipes to life; and there the irony of his famed repertoire awestruck me. It was amazing how in a stroke he could paint both life’s sweet and sour notes, in similar back and white keys. It was amazing how pain and joy could so co-exist.
Outside the cathedral, car horns approached. Evidently the bridal party was here. This was it; the end of me, the beginning of us. As I looked around and noticed the unprecedented number of smiley faced motherly women inside, I couldn’t help but reminisce about my mum…
My mama spoilt me; my mama schooled me, my mama stretched me. She was my crutch, my counsel, my Christmas … and then, just like that, a fortnight before New Year, the phone rung, and she was gone; my curse with dawn phone calls would forever, here seed.
The preacher man tried in vain to sum it up by concluding his eulogical summon saying,
‘Life is a season; it comes and goes. Death is a turn; a generational turn. One generation paving way for another.’
And in time I bought it; cruel death had in succession robbed Mickey, robbed Davie, and grazed Lawry and Tony. It was almost pre-emptive. A season latter, the phone rang- again; and just like that, my ailing baby brother was gone.
His had been a life long weighed down by the yoke of ill health. He had never blacked out: never broke hearts, never beat up the block, and by my books- never really lived. Yet the preacher man again surmised,
‘It was enough that he’d found Christ. He had neither willed his birth nor his death, yet the one thing that he could will, was enough to deem his a life of worth’.
I couldn’t argue with that.
Yet still I was torn between sadness and joy; between relief and sorrow. I had an egoistic sense of relief that I didn’t have to watch him endure it anymore; an altruistic sense of sorrow that life hadn’t let his essence peak. My only lift was in the knowledge that he didn’t have to carry life’s cruel yoke anymore; he was in a better place, he’d found peace at last.
Our fondest dreams and our worst fears are seldom realized, they say, yet sitting in that brimming cathedral I begged to differ; I had lost a mother, lost a brother, and as it appeared, found a lover. You never really appreciated life until you embraced death. This came close; I was feeling life.
As I sat on looking yonder across, Wagner’s masterpiece– here comes the bride -began playing; and we all got to our feet. Suddenly that eerie feeling consumed me again,
‘Who was I marrying?’
Panic set in. Faces raced past. History incriminated me. Had I succumbed to threats? I needed help; I tried nudging my best man Mickey but he was grinning like payday. I looked at Davie, at Lawry, at Tony, and they were all smiling from ear to ear. Knowing how vocal the boyz were this seemingly smiling consensus was a good sign.
As the bridal party gracefully matched in, as prompted by the amazingly melodic organist, the corner of my eye noticed a chubby looking usher hand a note to Tony. A quick peek and a smile latter the note almost grudgingly found its way past a grinning Lawry, past a beaming Davie and into a now concerned looking Mickey’s hands, so immediately cracking a smile across his baby face. Intrigued, I one eye here one there, snatched the note off his mischievous hands sneaked a peek, and smiled.
The note had a business card attached to it. The business card bore my name. A quick look at the title below my name and I was alarmed; it read Account Manager. Was this some kind of a joke, some hustle, some prank or some sales angle I had uncharacteristically not covered my tracks on. I was no accountant; I was a ‘sell fire in hell’ type salesman- an overrated hustler. Submissively I smiled my boyz way, only to notice them motion me to read the note attached.
At the back was scribbled in fine penmanship,
‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in always rising.
Your loving bride.
If at worst the card was a hustle, I could at the core of me sense that the sentiments scribbled on the note were real. I might have lost chapters of memory, but my sixth sense that’d served me loyally, from my childhood days, through my experimental teenage hood and into my hoodlum youth was still with me. Just as the poignant message inscribed on the wall mat had consoled me this morning this note assured me that whoever it was that was behind that veil coming my way knew me; and complex as I was, that was sigh of relief.
As the bridal party came to a halt a foot off me and the organist brought his funky rendition to a note, she gracefully glided my way. As she drew closer and closer and into my eager arms, I was overcome by a comforting sense of dejavu; I knew that easy swagger, I loved that ebony skin tone, I liked that confident aura, I recognized those size sevens. As my memory at the touch of her skin, the scent of her fragrance, the sight of her double dimples got into overdrive, a podium off a budding poet’s spoken word captured a ‘close caption’ moment in time; and strangely my every sense could relate …
Maybe I’m a dreamer; maybe I’m a fool,
Maybe my cup overflows with fantasy; empty on sips of reality.
Maybe it’s a mirage; a delusion, an illusion, an apparition,
But last may, I met an angel; as sweet as a cookie.
By now we may have been a cute couple in love,
Snuggling under the dusk of May.
Come next May, I may have crowned us,
Popped that question under the yellow moon of May.
And maybe she would have said, ‘yes’,
And I may have there and then rock’d her finger with 12 carats,
And that may have made her tear; so drawing me near,
So I may stroke her cheeks,
So I may drown in her eyes,
So I may melt into her lips.
Maybe I’m a dreamer; maybe I’m a fool,
Maybe I’m emptying mental space; maybe sowing cupid seeds.
Maybe I’m star struck; maybe just, moon tide sprung,
Maybe I write too much; say too little.
Maybe I dream too much; live too little.
Cause, look, my flower of May is gone; my mayflower capsizes on.
The warmth of May is gone; the chills of June are on.
May’s daydreams of love are gone; June’s lonesome nightmares are home.
But I refuse to let May go; I’ll go down with this ship.
I may not claim to read stars; but I can sixth sense her vibes.
Last May I saw her eyes light up,
Last May I heard her voice quiver,
Last May I felt her body tingle.
So, someway somehow, I must rekindle sips of May,
Someway somehow I must dare life’s if’s and maybe’s,
Someway somehow I must reclaim us; reclaim daydreams of May,
So we may forever glorify God for the sweet month of MAY…
And just like that, my dots begun connecting. Just like that, my conscience that had since the crack of dawn convicted me, now consoled me.
Though I could sense that I wasn’t out of the woods yet, I could tell that I’d found my true north; my way home. Though I could add up that I clearly was no saint, I could intuitively discern that my faith was growing; my finances bulking, my family life seeding. I’d dropped my beer mug; shred my play tag, cropped that hustle hustle bug.
Though the war was far from over I could tell that I’d won a few battles here and there. I was at life’s crossroads no more; I was at masculine crossroads no more. I was a boy no more; I had crossed over – I was now a man.
© Chege Muchai 2009