The call had found him in the toilet on another call, the call of nature. It was the day after Timau, a workmate, had told him the tale of how his phone had fallen down the toilet, and so he had promised himself he would stop carrying his phone to the toilet. Bad luck was sometimes contagious. From his perch on the toilet, he could hear the shrill sound of his Nokia tune ringtone and imagine the violent vibrating of the phone on the table. He was usually a fast picker but his body had other ideas this time, and it was only after three missed calls that he was able to answer the call, just in time to save the phone from an untimely Death by Destruction report. See? Bad luck. Whoever was calling was either very persistent or a really nice person. He would have given up after one missed call.
Hello, said the lady who didn’t sound a day past twelve, you’ve been selected for a writing workshop…blah blah blah. How did men celebrate really good news? It had always been a bit of a conundrum to him. Was it weird that he felt like screaming and jumping up and down and shaking his flat booty in jubilation? In the end he’d said a gruff and very manly Thank You and hung up.
It was hot, the kind of hot that created mirages on tarmac and made him question his decision to spend hundreds of shillings every month buying something ‘guaranteed to stop his sweat in its smelly tracks’. Deodorant, meet Global Warming. The matatu stage was bustling as usual. To his left a lady was selling smokies and boiled eggs. Business was good, judging from the line of people still waiting to be served. Most of them bought the eggs, though if it was because they were cheaper or because of their nutritional value, he couldn’t tell. He just marveled at the fact that someone was willing to walk around with egg breath. Across from him two touts grappled with each other, swaying from side to side as two more stood watching close by, calling out encouragements in Kikuyu. He found it difficult to determine if the fight was serious or not, though he could see that no one seemed to be in a hurry to separate the two. A Nissan matatu hit another car and the driver got out in a hurry, face already turning an unappealing shade of red. He was a big man, and as he talked his neck muscles would bulge and spittle would fly from his mouth, some of it congealing at the sides of his mouth. The other driver chose to keep quiet and let himself suffer through multiple threats to his person and insults to his tribe, ancestors and descendants. There was also talk of dubious parentage. A crowd was gathering as the other cars were forced to stop moving as the issue was sorted out. From where he was standing, he couldn’t see what the big deal was. It was just a scratch, and it wasn’t even one of those high end vehicles either. Really, personal cars owners were so sensitive! A matatu narrowly avoided hitting him as it made an illegal hairpin turn; he leaped out of the way just in time. It then went on its merry way, with nary a form of acknowledgement from the driver or anyone inside. The people had somewhere to be, dammit!
It was the music that called to him, like fingers of mist that stroked his chin and beckoned him closer. He could see others under the same thrall and he just hoped to get there quicker. Only when his hand was holding one of the handlebars at the door and he’d swung his feet up off the ground and into the matatu did he take a full breath. The one space left was at the back, the seat he hated most, right at the center.
It was a feat of acrobatics how he managed to fit himself into a seat clearly designed for a toddler and with slightly bigger than average seatmates. He could clearly see that the lady to his left sat on one and a half seats. She kept giving him the evil eye whenever he shifted to try and give both of his butt cheeks the illusion of sitting. He thought it was a travesty that he’d still have to pay the full fare regardless.
The conductor came to collect and he dug into his pockets and retrieved his 1000shs note.
Conda: (looking at the note like it’s on fire) Brathe, lete pesa kidogo.
Him: Hiyo ndio niko nayo pekee.
Conda: Wacha izo,buda! Utatembeaje bila pesa hii Nairobi? Msupa akikuitisha ka coffee date, utado? Nyi ndio watu wa ati ma dry spell…. *some of the passengers started snickering quietly, while he thought about how true that statement was. Oh no, did it show on his face?*
Conda: (taking the note) Ngojea change.
He was left trying, and failing, to win a supremacy battle between his bony hips and the ‘cradle of mankind’. He couldn’t even change seats because no one had yet alighted. Thankfully, he was almost at his destination.
His sore leg muscles thanked him when he got up to leave the matatu. It was at a busy roundabout and the driver seemed to be in a hurry, starting an impromptu race with the next matatu. ‘Kanyagia!’, was all the conductor said and the matatu was already moving almost before both his feet touched the ground.
It’s probably too early for alcohol, he thought, I should probably get a soda or something kutuliza moyo. There was a man with one of those huge portable coolers nearby so he ambled over there, and after a little haggling over prices during which he privately lamented over the state of the nation, he chose the half litre Coke. The fizz of gases when the bottle top was removed was the best sound he’d heard all day. He took a big sip of the drink almost as if he couldn’t help himself, then put the bottle down to use his hands to fish for money inside his pockets. Right pocket. Nothing. Left pocket. Nothing.
It was the maroon rag at his feet, the same color as the conductor’s jacket, which triggered the memory. It all unfolded in his mind like a movie on loop. He actually took two steps back and started rubbing absently at the pain that had suddenly bloomed in his chest. How could he have forgotten his change like that? What would he do? Where would he go now? He was penniless now.
Panic was a heavily breathing monster inside him, though he tried to look calm on the outside. He looked at the vendor who was looking at him, patiently waiting for his money. He took another sip, and another, and another. He forced himself to set the bottle down after some part of his mind kept urging him to break it and cut something. Or someone.
He looked at the man, in whose eyes impatience lived, and did what came naturally. He ran, going faster the louder the man screamed for help, and praying not to be struck down by lightning for making a lame man chase after him. He ran until the pain at his side could no longer be ignored, then he started stopping strangers and asking for help, always hoping he wouldn’t be ignored like he had done to countless others in the past.