It is a bit sunny today, a stark contrast to the rains that have been falling vigorously this past few weeks. On a normal Saturday, the girls would be in class reading or at least pretending to be reading. The more enterprising ones would be at the school nurse, pretending to be sick. Just so they can get a sick leave to go home and have their imaginary ailments treated. Today is different, the mood throughout the school is upbeat. For the form ones, it is the first time they get to see their parents since they came to high school. Most of them are congregated near the school gate. Some of them are seated on the tarmac, the rest are standing. A bunch of uniformed girls, all looking longingly at the gate 10 meters away. This is the closest they can get to it, without the monster of a principal getting an excuse to beat them shitless! You can smell it in the air. The way, every breath is punctuated with expectation. Each of them waiting, hoping, praying that their parents will show up today.
They are still not used to the homesickness, the constant pang of loneliness that eats away at one’s heart. Until this loneliness is transformed into a seething desire for companionship, some will turn to God, others books and a good number boys.Which is why, high school girls are always looking for an excuse to meet boys. Their mothers will no doubt spend the next few years cursing the demons that have invaded their little girls. Blaming it on the teachers who are seemingly incapable of controlling their little angels.
Lunch today would normally be boiled beans and ugali. The cooks might , if they are in a good mood throw in a couple of onions and one tomato. On a plate, this combination looks like the crossbreed between a hyena and a lion, it is unnatural. Plus it tastes like fuel. Probably due to the paraffin the cooks add hoping it will lower the girls’ libido. It does not. Today however, lunch will not be served. Management figured since parents would be coming, now would an amazing time to cut costs. And in a school with 1000 hungry girls, that is a lot of money saved. Yes, girls eat a lot, despite their ability to pretend. Of course, this adds to the desperation for the young ladies whose parents will not come. Especially when the kids from the rich families are visited in style. Their parents coming in with 2 land rovers. One carrying the family, the other carrying food and servants. Minutes after they arrive, a tent is up and there is meat grilling slowly on the barbecue grill. The other girls can only wait, and hope but mostly wait. Hoping that their parents remember them today.
Akinyi however, is waiting for a different reason. this time last term. She would have been waiting for mum. It was always mum who came. As if there was a written agreement with the school. That Akinyi could stay here so long as her mama came to see every time there was an excuse to come. Akinyi remembers the way mama used these visiting days as an excuse to cook. She cooked everything Akinyi loved. She then packed it up in little plastic containers. The containers that a few weeks previously had housed spices, blueband margarine, cooking fat and where these containers were not enough, she was open to using detergent containers. The result was the food almost always had an added aroma. A tinge of whatever the container had housed before it. Akinyi had complained when mama used detergent container. She was swiftly rebuked, and lovingly reminded that the detergent would kill the worms that made her eat so much. Her mum would show up very early on visiting days. They would spend the day deep in conversation. Eagerly gossiping about anything and everything. From who in the estate was newly pregnant, to whose wife was shacking up with whom and what her father had been up to the weeks they had been away from each other. Of course, such conversation were inappropriate for Sandra’s ears. But her mother believed, “mulomo” (gossip) was essential in building any relationship.
She wonders what her father will bring today. Perhaps home cooked food, she thinks not. Her mother always said the only thing he could be trusted to cook was tea. And even then she would have to prepare the ingredients beforehand. If not, the result would be tiny, lonely bits of milk swimming in an ocean of water and tea leaves.
She is seated in her classroom. She has a perfect view of the gate from there. She is in her second year of school. So she is a little bit better in tempering her expectations. She is lonely today, she misses her mother deeply. Her father works hard to plug the void. She knows he will come. He will show up at the last possible minute, the exact opposite of her mother. He differs from her in every possible manner. Whereas she was, loud, abrasive, and aggressive. he is silent, speaking only when he must, gentle and unwillingly to be the aggressor unless it is to the food he is eating. She got her appetite from him. Akinyi remembers the time she asked her mama why she had chosen him. He did not seem, even in her young eyes, the man for her. It is not that she did not love her father. But he was different from her mother, in ways that could not be effectively put to words. Her mother had told her it was because he had loved her, more than she loved him. She said it, in that manner mothers use when handing down life’s secrets to their kids.
Akinyi though did not agree with it; that her father loved her mother more. The only time she had seen her mother silent was when he hugged from behind. In those few, widely spaced moments when he showed emotion. Her mother would just smile like a teenager being kissed for the first time. It was both awkward and beautiful. Especially because they forgot she was there for those few moments.
It is 3:45 PM when she sees him walking in. Exactly an hour before the deadline. He has a paper bag with him. He looks tired. He is still carrying the grief in his heart. You can see it in the way he walks. As if he still carries his wife’s body with him every where he goes. His face stuck in those seconds when he walked in to his home, to find his wife dead from a heart attack. He has aged quickly this 3 months. From the vibrant middle aged man he was. Now his silence feels a little bit deeper and the awkwardness in their conversation a lot more pronounced. He stands there looking as confused as he was when he learnt his wife had died. And with her, their second unborn child. He is clearly out of his element. Akinyi sees him and quickly dumps her books and runs to him. With the eagerness that girls have for their fathers. When he sees her, his face lights up for the first time in 2 months. There is a little bit of her mother in her. She hugs him gratefully, he is the only person she truly has in this world. He hugs her silently, and they hold on to each other for the next few minutes. They do not notice the weird looks the bunch of girls 10 meters from the gate throw them. The mixture of jealous and curious stares they evoke holding on to each other longer than society permits.
It gets worse when she hears him quiver. She lets go of him and for the first time in her life, she sees his tears. She quickly takes hold of him and leads him away to her class room. He is fighting a losing battle, and she desperately wants to protect him. She will fail. In the classroom, his tears fall silently. They carry with them a gratefulness for the life she has and the opportunity to see her today.
For the next few minutes, they sit there, saying nothing. The silence today is a little bit less awkward. Finally she decides to say something. Her mother left him to her after all. She asks him of home. He answers in syllables. The only way he knows how. He is trying. After a few more questions, they consign themselves to silence. She wonders how he gets through the days. He was so used to her mother. The way she would do everything for him. He did little around the house, other than help her mother cook, sometimes. His efforts would however always result in loud complaints from her mother. They eat the food he brought. He paid someone to cook it. He shows her the bruise on his hand he got trying to heat oil for chapatis. They laugh for the first time in a long time. She talks, he listens. He shows her photos of everyone at home. She talks about school, tells him about the rumors about everyone in school. Maybe gossip will strengthen this relationship. He listens intently, speaking only when he has to. And even then it is labored.
Presently, the bell rings. Time for parents to leave and students to go back to their normal studies. They will do little of that tonight. It is a night for telling stories of home and eating the food that remains. It is no wonder that the toilet cleaners will report a sudden surge in the use of toilets this week. The school nurse will also note an increase in the demand for diarrhea medication.
She walks him to the gate, they stand 10 meters away. She looks at him, he looks at her. They stand there, looking at each other, saying nothing. The bunch of girls, with their hopes still intact stand there expectantly. A teacher will come in a few minutes to beat them back to class. For now they watch at the weird father and daughter standing silently.
She hugs him deeply. The sort of hug that envelops your heart and soul. He hugs her back, he is tempted to cry. He does not. They both have everything and nothing to say. He pulls away from her and moves away from her. He heads off to the gate. Just before he bends his head to go through the gate, he looks back at her and waves. Still, words do not come. In silence, she waves back, and now it is her turn to tear up. She thinks of her mother now.
If mama was here, she would have something to say.