Njeri

Njeri

Kanja’s phone is buzzing on the side table, its lights flashing in the darkness. A precursor to it breaking out in song;

‘Ninayo hamu kurudi nyumbani

Nyumbani kwetu ambako hatutatengana

hapo nyumbani kwetu hakuna makaburi

Wala hakuna vyandarua maana hakuna maralia’

He turns, careful not to upset Njeri sleeping beside him, grabs the phone and swipes up, silencing the alarm. He slides the phone under the covers and disappears under the duvet again.

Silence. Except for Njeri’s breathing, and the final tat-a-tat, tat-a-tat of last evening’s deluge beating down on the roof.

He slips away, his body grateful for an extra minute of rest.

His phone starts buzzing again, from under his chest, its lights mutedly flashing before the song begins again.

“Ninayo hamu kurudi nyumbani

Nyumbani kwetu ambako hatutatengana”

He pulls it out and swipes down, choosing not to snooze for another 5 minutes.

He sits up, and rubs his eyes, using his finger to dig out the eye boogers. His face is still droopy, and the corner of his mouth crusty from drooling through the night. He reaches over to the table and grabs his spectacles. The room’s features emerge, the walls plastered with renderings of cartoons chasing each other. Except for one wall. It’s painted pink. Solid. Only a single portrait, dead center, breaks the flow of color. The portrait has an image of a woman with a child. The woman’s features are barely discernible. Her face is buried in the baby’s stomach.

As if they were playing a game. Hide and seek. Maybe. With the mother pretending to hide herself on the baby’s stomach and perhaps whispering those words that only make sense to mothers and their babies.

“Saaaaaaasa, saaaaaasa!”

The baby responds to this game with glee. Laughing gloriously. So much so, that tiny specs of saliva are spat out. This is the moment that the photographer captures.

Little Njeri’s face beaming, saliva all over her, and her mother’s face buried in her stomach.

“Njeri, Njeri…amka…” Kanja calls out. Shaking the mounds of duvet and bed sheets beside him.

Njeri, older now, pretends she is still asleep.

He reaches out, pulls off her duvet, and only then does she turn and “dad I am aweeeeeek!” Her little voice trails. Still sleepy.

“Nataka utoke kwa kitanda uende kwa bafu, sawa?”

Njeri nods. Kanja gets off the bed, and heads to his room, to grab a shower before coming back to help the girl prepare for school. Njeri, when she hears the door lock, pulls the duvet over her head, and falls asleep again.

Kanja, now in the kitchen, busies himself. Switching on the electric kettle. Pulling out a frozen meal from the fridge and throwing it into the microwave. He sets the timer, 45 seconds. He clicks on start.

Tiiit, tiiit!  Then it rumbles on.

He heads into his bedroom. Locks the door behind him.

His bed is slightly ruffled from last night, where he’d just made himself comfortable when Njeri came in and insisted that he sleep in her bed.

“Baba naogopa!” She’d declared. Which was a bit alarming for him. Because despite Njeri being a 7-year-old, she is quite independent and can be trusted to do the basic things on her own. Like brushing her teeth or getting into bed alone.

“Unaogopa nini?” She shrugged her shoulders in answer.

“Si tulale hapa kwangu?” Kanja had offered.

His bed was, after all, the bigger bed. But she insisted, and Kanja, unwilling to argue and eat into his sleeping hours, relented and carried his phone, glasses, and water bottle to her room – and slid into her bed with her.

Now, he tugs at his bed’s duvet and smoothly stretches it over the bed. He plumps up the pillow, takes a swig from the water bottle, takes off his clothes, throws them on the floor, and then heads into his bathroom. He turns on the faucet and realizes he has not heard any sound from Njeri’s side.

‘She probably went back to sleep.’

He steps into the shower. Letting the water flow over his head and down his back. He leans on the wall for a long minute letting the water prepare him for the day ahead. And it seems to do the job, because if you look at his shoulders. They loosen. And his face tightens, losing the droopiness.

He pulls his shower gel from the shelf and pours a bit into his hand. Then lathers his armpits and genitals with that. He repeats that again, and again, and again until all his hairy bits are covered in a purplish, lathering goo. He then wets his boxers and uses them to scrub himself until every bit of him is half-white from the lather. He sets aside the pair of boxers, raises his armpit to the shower, and watches as the water eases the soap out from his skin. He does the same with the other armpit and leans back a bit to let the water get to his navel, and his crotch.

The water feels ticklish when it hits his groin. He likes that, and he is tempted to reach for the shower gel again and pour some of the gel onto his groin. Lather it all in there, until everything is – wet. Gushing. Smooth. Slidy even. And he would need only seven minutes to finish it. Five of those would be spent stepping out of the shower and into his bedroom. Finding his phone, typing in Xx into his Google Chrome (incognito mode), and the browser filling in the rest. He would type in black ebony – and click enter. Then back into the bathroom, he’d go. Cup his hand under the still running shower, steal away a bit of water to reinvigorate the quick-drying gel. And then he would rock himself – gently, of course, in an up and down rocking motion, with tenderness. Stopping severally to grapple his balls with the other hand. Then up and down – in a rocking motion until….

“Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad!” Njeri’s voice comes in.

Fuck!  Did he lock the bedroom door? Fuck.

He opens the bathroom door, pulls out his head, and answers, “sema Njeri.”

“Mbona umefunga mlango?”

“Nakuja!” He responds. He washes the lather out quickly. Dries himself, wraps the still wet towel around his midriff and then steps out of the bathroom.

There are splotches of water from when he had stepped out of the shower earlier. He throws a t-shirt on that and drags it across the tiled floor with his foot.

He does a quick scan of the room. Everything is okay. He opens the door.

“What’s wrong?”

“Dad, why have you locked the door? Si you said we should not lock doors from the inside?”

Yes, he did say that. His only option is to take over the conversation.

“Have you picked out your school clothes?”

“Not yet.”

“Have you showered?

“Not yet.”

“What do you want?”

“Daddy, can you pick out my clothes for me?”

“But Njeri, kwani you are becoming a baby? You always pick out your clothes. Ama what is wrong?

She shrugs.

Wanting to avoid an argument with his little spirited human – he yields. “Wacha nivae nitakuja kukutolea.”

With a nod, “Thanks, Dad.” she disappears off to the sitting room.

‘Kwani what is happening with this girl?’ Kanja wonders. This is odd behavior. And they’ve been through some turbulent patches. So this is weird. Or perhaps young girls have a needy phase? But that is still unlike Njeri.

He is wearing a fresh pair of boxers now. A black pair, with 2 vertical stripes to the side. He gives his maroon sweatpants a whiff. They are a little musty – but not too bad. He wears them, throws on a white t-shirt, and steps out.

Njeri is on the sofa. Her legs, dangling over the edge. She has turned on the TV. Logged into YouTube and is currently watching Pepper Pig.

“Njeri – umeoga?”

“Hapanaaaaa”

“Mbona basi unawatch TV na hujaoga?”

“It’s not TV dad, it’s YouTube.”

The girl is smart. Kanja’s patience is thinning. He glances at the wall clock. 6:45 am. He needs to get her moving if they are going to make it to school on time.

“Twende ukaoge!” he orders.

She jumps off the couch. A little awkwardly. She has mastered shooting off the couch and landing on her hands and knees. The carpet softening her fall. A far cry from when she’d land on her head, and he would have to soothe her for half a minute, whispering, “pole mum, pooooole. Hiyo carpet imekuumiza?” And the girl would nod, and he would find his biggest slipper to deliver a beating to the bad, bad carpet which had hurt his little girl. The girl, soothed, would smile gleefully grateful that justice had been delivered. Then she’d remember that she was a big girl, and “big girls don’t cry – si ndio dad?” And he would nod, sweetly.

“Baba are you angry?” Njeri now asks.

Of course, baba is a little angry. Njeri is deliberately wasting his time. But what good is that?

“Twende kwa bafu!” He holds out his hand, she latches on, and he leads her to her bedroom, and into her bathroom.

“Toa nguo Njeri.”

She sheds off her little sweater. An orange beauty – with a photo of Mickey Mouse on it. A gift from school, when she won a spelling competition. The sweater gets stuck on her head. Her hands flail about as she attempts to pull it up and out.

“Stop!” Kanja holds her arms over her head, then gently pulls the sweater over her head.

“Toa dress.”

She grabs the hem of her dress and pulls it over her head, and it, of course, gets stuck as well.

“Stop!” Kanja helps her take off the dress.

“Njeri, you’ve even forgotten how to remove your clothes?”

“Noooo… Dad – I wanted you to help me wash my hair.”

“And you figured this was the way to do it?”

“But you wud have refused if I asked.” She is still struggling a bit with the “L” in would.

“Njeri – can we wash your hair another day. You know today is a school day?”

She violently shakes her head. “I want to wash my hair today!” Her voice rises as she says this.

“No!” He puts his foot down. “We are already late; we will wash your hair later.”

Her face scowls. Her nose pinching itself upwards as if someone blew pepper into the air, and she is struggling not to breathe it in.

“I am sorry Njeri – but we can’t be late again today. I have to get to work mapema.”

She is angry now. “Nitajiosha pekee yangu!” She declares.

“Hutaki nikusaidie?”

“Nitajiosha!”

He knows when he has been dismissed. He steps back and lets her turn on the little faucet – rebuilt to fit her hands. The shower turns on, and the little tyrant steps hair first into the shower.

“Shit!”

She is looking for a fight. And Kanja has been on this road often enough to know – the best approach is not to engage. He retreats into the bedroom, busying himself with choosing the clothes she will wear.

It’s Friday. Parade day. Official uniform day. He pulls out a white shirt with her name embroidered on it, a light blue skirt with dark blue stripes on it. And a blue blazer with the school’s badge on the chest.

“Nikuchagulie panties ama?” He shouts.

Silence.

“Njeri….!”

The sound of the water tapers off. And a still wet Njeri emerges. With her towel draped around her. Her hair with splotches of soap on it. He sees that, ignores it, and asks her again – “nikuchagulie panty?”

She nods.

“Dad, please help me with my hair.”

She’s melting. Perhaps remembering that she is still a child, and there are things she still needs dad to help her with.

Kanja pulls open a drawer, sifts through it, and chooses a dark blue pair of panties. He throws that on the bed, walks Njeri back into the shower, opens the taps, and says, “inama kidogo.”

She bends a bit, and he spends the next 5 minutes washing her hair. Despite his rough, even solid expression, Kanja is melting inside too. Her aunt, nanny really, usually does this with her in the evenings after school. They’ve done this ever since Njeri came home from school and announced that she would no longer allow her father to wash her.

“Mimi ni big girl!” She’d ended her announcement.

He, of course, complied.

But he still depended on her aunty to make sure that all the bits were washed down properly. The girl has an interesting ability to wash every part of herself except her back. She somehow manages to walk out of the bathroom with her back as dry as she walked in.

“Imetoka yote daddy?”

He runs his hands through her hair one last time. They emerge, latherless. Good.

“The hair is good.”

He turns off the shower and guides her out of the bathroom.

He places her sweater on the floor, and orders, “kanyaga hapa.”

The girl steps on it and he says, “Inua mikono!”

She lifts her hands, and he towels her down. She giggles when he attempts to dry her armpits.

“Daddddddddy stooop!”

“Njeri, you want wet armpits?”

“Noooooooo, you are tickling!”

“No, I am not.”

His voice – still gruff. But there’s half a smile in there.

“Hold here,” he motions to his shoulder. And the little girl places both her hands on his shoulder and holds on. He takes her left leg and rubs it with the towel.

“Other leg.” She places the dry leg on the floor and lifts her other leg.

“Daaaaaaaad, will you come to pick me up after school?” His default reaction is no. Because come on – he needs to work, and schools let out at 3 p.m. when he still has another 2 hours of work. Plus her aunt usually takes care of that.

“Why do you want me to come?”

“You remember Chichi?” Her friend, who she has been singing about these past few weeks.

“Mmmhhh.”

“I want you to meet her.”

He places her leg on the floor and looks into her face. She’s intent.

“Nitakuja.”

“You prooooooomise?”

“Does dad break promises?”

She shakes her head vigorously.

“I’ll come.”

That seems to bring the old Njeri back. She springs into the bedroom and wears her uniform by herself. Kanja, to the side, watching to make sure that she does everything correctly. He has been inundated in the past few months with snide comments on her notebook from her teachers, ‘Mr. Kanja, please make sure Njeri always wears her panties, and a silly threat by a new teacher who did not know their situation, to get the police involved. All because Njeri had presented an unladylike appetite for the 10 a.m. tea. and the teacher suspected that she was perhaps not getting fed properly at home. Thankfully, one of the nuns intervened before it got out of hand.

“Dad – my hair is still wet.”

‘Surprise. Surprise. What did you expect when you insisted we wash your hair in the morning?’ Kanja thinks. But he does not say that. Because that would be mean.

“Hebu sit here, we’ll see if we can dry it out a bit more.”

Njeri sits on the floor and Kanja pulls out a dry towel from the cabinet. He is tempted to bring a comb too, but she tends to complain dreadfully about pain whenever he combs her hair out. He prefers to let her aunt deal with that mess. They seem to understand each other’s hair. He sits on the bed and motions for her to come closer. She scoots over, and he wraps the towel around her shoulders. He parts her hair, and runs the towel through that part. Of course, that does little good. But the hair feels a little drier which is what he is aiming for.

Then the doorbell rings.

“Aunty, aunty, aunty!” She shoots off. Leaving Kanja and his now wet towel in the bedroom.

He can hear a deadbolt being pulled back. The stool being dragged over to the door. Njeri clambering on. Then a second bolt. Then keys into the keyhole. Njeri clambers off, drags the stool away from the door, and then the door opens. It screeches, and it reminds him that he needs to follow up with the building’s caretaker about oiling the hinges.

“Aunty, aunty!”

Her nanny is here. She doubles up as the housekeeper. But in his books, she ranks second only to Jesus.

“Sasa Njeri!”

“Poa aunty. Leo umetupataaa asubuhi.”

That tells Kanja, now emerging from the bathroom, that they are really, really late.

“Hi Tess.”

She smiles at him, and responds – “What do you need me to help you with?”

This is why he likes her. She really, really gets how hard this is.

“Her hair is wet, and she hasn’t eaten. I also need to get ready.”

She nods and lifts Njeri up. Njeri happily holds onto her aunty and into the bedroom they go. The door locks behind them, and for the first time since he stepped out of his bathroom. Peace. He goes into his bedroom, opens the closet, and pulls out a dark blue suit. He sets it on the bed, and slips off his t-shirt and sweatpants. He reaches into the socks drawer and pulls out a pair. A beautiful one. Red, with little stripes of blue and white running horizontally. He slips them on. His trousers come on next. Then a white tee, and shirt. The shirt is dazzling. With edge-like creases. He dislikes cufflinks, and thinks they are pretentious. So all his shirts have buttons. He tucks in. Then the belt. He pulls out a pair of black oxfords from the shoe drawers. He slips into them. He’s tying his shoelaces now, when he notices the wet t-shirt on the floor. He picks that up and throws it into the laundry basket.

He finishes tying up his laces then does a quick review of the scene. He always does this when the nanny is around. No point in unnecessarily burdening her by letting her find weird things running around. He walks into the bathroom and notices his wet boxers still on the soap dish shelf. He hangs those on the hook behind the door, then places a towel over them. He’ll clean them up later.

Another quick review and everything checks out.

Now, the mirror. He sees a young-ish man staring back at him. Just north of 36 years, a slight potbelly. Clean-shaven. Skin, a dark brown hue. Still handsome. But his eyes have retreated a bit. From stress? Maybe. But mostly from half a decade of attempting to raise a little girl alone.

The eyes used to have a sparkle. They had the type of deliciousness that might make a woman or two swoon. But that sparkle is long gone. Instead, seriousness replaces it. Like they have places to be and things to do.

“Daaaaaaaaad breakfast,” Njeri calls out. And he comes to.

A quick look over and he recommits to finding time for the gym.

He reaches into the tie drawer and pulls out a burgundy-colored tie. Njeri loves it. In the patterning, there are roses. She’s always pointing at them and asking – “daddy maua zangu?” And he of course nods and agrees, “maua zako Njeri!”

He slips on the tie as well and fastens it with a tie clip. One last look in the mirror, and out he goes. He finds the house – surprisingly in order. A peek into her bedroom, and the bed is made. The cover pulled taut over the bed.

They are at the dining table. Njeri’s chin dripping with juice. Thankfully, her chest is draped under a bib-like cover. She puts what must be a watermelon into her mouth then shouts, “daaaaaaaaaaad aunty made fruits.”

Disgusting. Her father scowls and that quickly corrects her. She closes her mouth.

Aunty points Kanja to a place on the table. There’s a cup of coffee – still warm, with smoky, wisps of steam dancing lazily on top of it. Grateful, Kanja sits and takes a sip. Aunty pushes a bowl of fruit his way. He shakes his head. “Sitaki!”

“You need to eat.” She insists.

“Yes daddy, eeeeeeat!” Njeri joins in.

He grabs a fork and gets into it.

Slices of mango washed down with coffee. An unlikely companionship. But it works. He starts to feel – like himself again.

“Njeri, eat faster we go.”

He shouldn’t have said that. Because she takes up the challenge and shoves a large piece of pineapple into her still full mouth. A gory sight. But aunty is at hand, wiping her mouth, and making sure that none of that fruit ends up on the girl’s shirt.

He glances at the clock on the wall.

7:45 AM.

He stands up and takes a large swig of his coffee.

“We need to go.”

Aunty helps Njeri off her chair, unties her bib, and asks her to say “aaaaaaaaah.” A quick check assures her that she doesn’t have anything on her teeth.

“Drink this,” aunty orders. Handing Njeri a glass of water.

Njeri takes a few sips, before declaring she is full.

“Daddy leo nitakojoa!” She declares.

Kanja and the nanny burst out laughing. He opens the door, and motions that they need to go.

Njeri slips into her shoes and insists that she needs to tie them herself. A curious development. Given she’s insisted on being a complete baby this morning. She takes even longer than necessary to tie them. Kanja has already resigned himself to the reality that they will now be late. He walks out of the door, pressing his car keys as he goes. The door clicks open, and the headlights give a momentary flash.

“Daddy don’t leave me!”

Of course, he is not leaving. He is just starting the car. He opens the car door, slides in, presses the start key – and the engine grunts, coughs a bit – and whispers its ‘good mornings.’

The nanny brings Njeri over, with Njeri wrapped in a shawl. He looks at the nanny who just shrugs – Njeri wanted the shawl. He understands. He opens the back door, and his little princess climbs in and into the car seat.

“Daddy, nifunge seat belt.”

Aunty, sensing that Kanja’s patience is thinning, reaches in and locks the girl in. She then retreats banging the door behind her.

The car starts moving.

Njeri reaches over and lowers her window.

“Aunty byeeeee.” Aunty waves back and keeps waving even as the car drives off. Faster now.

Kanja slows down when he gets to the estate’s gate. Just enough to say a quick hello to Mutiso, a beloved friend of Njeri. Mutiso shouts his hellos to the girl in the back, before rushing to quickly open the gate. Kanja is known for his impatience in the mornings. But he more than makes up for it with tips when he is calmer.

Njeri, however, is a ball of energy.

Shouting, “Sasaaaaaaaaa Tiso! Sasa Tiso!” The “Mu” still eluding her.

The gate, now open, provides a quick escape for Kanja, eager to avoid the normal exchange of pleasantries between the two. He turns left on Mugumo road and guns it.

Njeri, sensing the car’s speed, urges him on.

“Daddy faster, daddy faster.” You would never suspect that this is the same lady, who an hour early couldn’t get a sweater over her head.

Kanja, almost late for his morning round of meetings, keeps at it. Slowing dramatically for bumps within the residential area, then gunning it again.

“Daaaddy yaaaaay! Agen! Agen!”

And on and on they do this until they get to the T-junction, where the estate’s road joins the main road. He slows down here. Carefully checking right, left, then right again. With the exit clear, he eases the car in. Thankfully, there’s little traffic today. And he does not care about getting pulled over. He’ll just ignore the cops and apologize tomorrow. He guns it.

****

Most mornings they listen to the radio. Or whichever song Njeri likes. Last week it was Zuchu and Mbosso’s – For your love. Initially, they sang it together. With him providing the backup vocals as our little star took it away.

Think, a blue forester driving past you, with the 2 passengers singing something that is oddly familiar but sung so poorly that you cannot place your finger on it.

Today, however, Njeri is in the mood for questions. And her questions are never easy. They are deep existential questions. And when she is feeling slightly blue, they veer towards her mother. A sensitive topic on any day. The difficulty compounded with Kanja zooming through Lavington at 80 kilometers an hour, Njeri goes on.

“Daaaaaaaaaaaaaad!”

“Mmmmh…”

Kanja shifts his gears from 3 to 4. And the car lurches forward.

“Did mami like cars?”

There’s a bit of traffic ahead. He shifts gears again. Clutch in, from 4 to 3. Release clutch. The cars ahead are slowing down. Clutch in, 3 to 2. It’s picking up speed. He maintains the 2, and signals left.

“Daaaaad…”

“Sorry Njeri, what did you ask?”

“I asked – did mami like cars?”

“Yes,” He nods. “She loved cars. Did I tell you she always wanted a car like this one? In color blue?”

Njeri leans forward. Eager to hear more of this.

As if in hearing – what, and who her mother was – makes her more real for her.

There’s a turn-off ahead. He slows down for it. Clutch in. From 2 to 1. Clutch out.

“Daaaaaaaaad… Do you think mum misses us?”

A signboard emerges from the trees announcing that there is a ‘Little Angel’s preparatory’ to the left. Kanja indicates, then gently turns the wheel and joins the street. There’s a short line of cars dropping off their kids as well. He checks the time.

8:15 AM

“Daaaaaaaad…”

Clutch in. Brake, brake, brake. He brings the car to a stop behind the last car.

He turns and faces his girl. Her hair is a little ruffled because he forgot to lift her window, and she joyfully did not remind him.

“Of course mama misses you. And she misses me. I am sure she even thinks of us daily. Do you remember where I told you mama always exists?”

She points at her chest. Where her heart is masked under the school badge.

“Yes,” Kanja nods, “in your heart.”

Someone hoots. Kanja turns and notices the cars ahead have moved. He pulls the car forward. He can see Sister Salome ahead, helping the children out of the cars and giving them a quick high five before they walk into school.

“Daaaaaaaad…”

“Mmmmhh…”

“Do you think we will ever see mum again?”

He pulls the car forward. There’s only one car ahead. A silver BMW that must cost a fortune to fuel.

“Njeri, why are you asking these questions?”

She looks at her feet. Pensive.

“Jana usiku niliskia mum akiniita.”

Fuck.

The car ahead pulls away, and the marshal motions him forward. He edges forward, stops the car, then turns to face Njeri. Sister Salome, however, has unlocked the back door and is helping Njeri out of the car.

“Hi Njeri – how have you been?”

“Hi sister Salome, I am fine.”

The girl steps out of the car and onto the pavement. She walks up to the car and gives her father a high five.

“Nitakumiss.” She promises, turns, and walks into school.

The sister walks up to Kanja and says hello.

“She didn’t give me my high five.” She smiles as she says this.

Kanja nods.

“Are you okay Baba Njeri?”

He has a blank look on his face.

“I’m okay, I just had a weird morning and an even weirder conversation with Njeri”

“Want to tell me about it?” He shakes his head. He knows she is only being nice, plus there are a few cars behind him.

“No, I will be okay. I’ll deal with it.”

With that, he drives off. His tires squeal as he takes the turn at the end of the driveway.

Sister Salome watches him drive off. She likes him. A devoted father. There are so few of those. But he worries too much

****

Kanja gets to his office quickly. Without a child in his car, he takes more risks. Pushing the speedometer upwards and upwards. Plus, he has always enjoyed the thrill of speeding past suburban mothers in their SUVs.

The guards at his office building usually hear him before they see him. His car revs, joyfully announcing his pending arrival, and they have the gate open, so he drives right through. Flashing his lights in greeting, he takes the left to the basement parking, slows down for the bump at the edge of the building, then in he goes. Typically, he likes to park near the lifts. It allows him to get in and out of the building quickly. But he is super late today so all the nice spots are taken, and he has to park next to the junior associates.

He opens the door and locks it behind him. He presses his car keys, and a click sound assures him the lock is engaged. Just to be sure, he gives the door handle a quick tug. Good. It holds. He walks to the elevators, giving the guard stationed there a nod. He nods back.

“Leo umechelewa sana mkubwa.” The guard mumbles.

“Traffic ndio mingi.” Kanja replies, and he is saved from further conversation by a hum as the lift’s doors open. He steps in. Presses No. 5, and the >< sign. The doors close, and the lift is pulled upwards. The beauty of arriving late is everyone is already at their desk, so no one stops the lift. Another hum and the doors slide open.

‘Floor number five.’ It announces.

He steps out into the lobby and walks to the hand sanitizer dispenser. He places his hands under it. A whirr sound, then it deposits some sanitizer into his hands. He applies it all through his hands, then presses his thumb onto the sign-in machine.

‘Welcome number one, forty-five.’ His employee number.

The door slides open, and he steps forward into the foyer.

The receptionist beams when she sees him. She always does that. She’s always telling everyone that he is the only responsible man she knows. “Kulea mtoto pekee yako si mchezo,” he once heard her tell the other support staff.

“You’re late!”

“I know, I know.” Kanja responds. “Meeting ilianza kitambo?”

“Hapana, it just started.” She proceeds to fill him in on the general feel of the meeting. The senior leadership doesn’t seem too unhappy. The team must have hit this month’s numbers.

Kanja isn’t too worried. He knows his department did solid work this month.

“Sawa wacha niingie.” He pulls out his phone and hands it to her, “if anyone calls just ignore it, but if they keep calling, let them know I’ll call them later. Sawa?”

She nods.

He walks towards the boardroom.

“Hubebi laptop?”

Shit. That would have been a blunder.

“And you should probably lose the coat, so they think you were around.”

He agrees. She always has good instincts about these things.

He heads into the main working space. Only the junior team is here. Everyone is on their computer working at something. He takes off the coat on his chair, stashes that under the desk, and replaces it with his current coat.

He opens his laptop and presses down on the power key, and it comes alive. He picks it up, still open, and heads into the boardroom.

“You are late Kanja,” Chuni bellows when the door opens. But his voice doesn’t have the usual rage to it. Are the numbers that good?

“Sorry chief. I got distracted and almost forgot about this meeting.” He takes a seat, inputs his password, and asks Kasyoka sitting next to him to give him a quick recap. Kasyoka gives him a high-level overview.

“We haven’t really started the monthly review. It was mostly banter, and the department heads sharing the challenges they are experiencing.”

Kanja nods. Happy that he is not too late.

“Now that we have all the department heads here,” Chuni glances in his direction, but Kanja masterfully stares at his laptop. “I’d like us to start on the monthly review. Since this will be in-depth, I think we only need senior leadership here. Does that make sense?”

All the managers agree, and Chuni asks everyone else to step out. Kasyoka – grateful to be spared what would have been a very boring day, slides his seat backward and carries his laptop out.

When everyone else is out, Chuni steps to the head of the table. “Before we get started, I want to remind you, as always, that everything that is discussed here is strictly confidential. Right?”

Murmurs. A few whispers of “yes, yes – of course.”

Then the conversation begins.

It is a long one. Numbers. A few charts. A slide deck, punctuated with the kitchen staff knocking and coming in with tea and snacks. Some managers step out to use the washrooms, before going back in.

Kanja’s phone, however, remains silent through the morning. The receptionist, Ruth, forgets about it. Until 12:13 pm. It rings. More of a vibration really. With its lights flashing. Ruth, dutifully, presses the silence button and continues with her day. 12:15 pm. It rings again. She silences it again, flipping it over this time. Because the lights are messing with her.

12:17 pm. It rings again. She flips it again, and checks who is calling.

Sister Salome.

Curious. But Ruth figures Kanja can probably call back his sister later.

She steps away from her desk to deliver some parcels that were received that morning to the different departments.

She only takes 10 minutes to walk through the entire office. But when she comes back, she finds the operations manager at her desk, on the landline, talking to someone. When he sees her, he hands the phone to her. “You should not leave your desk unmanned.”

He heads back into the boardroom.

Ruth, her heart beating, takes the phone and announces, “Wanjohi and Wahome associates – Ruth speaking, how can I be of help.”

The voice on the other voice is subdued. As if its taken a beating. Exasperated at the same time. Like there’s a ton of emotions, and her voice – cannot carry them all.

“Hello, does Kanja Mwaura work there?” It asks. s

Ruth, careful not to divulge company information and have the Ops manager dig into her again, responds carefully, “hello, I am sorry I cannot divulge employee information. Who is this?”

Sister Salome identifies herself. She has been trying to reach him desperately. But he is not picking his phone. So they dug up the parents’ records. Found his workplace there, googled it, found the company number, and called. She really, really needs to speak to him.

Ruth picks up Kanja’s phone, clicks on the power button – 7 missed calls. Shit!

“What should I tell him you are calling about?”

“There’s been an accident. We need him to come to the school.”

The line drops. And Ruth is left startled – wondering how to, and why it has to be her job to knock on the door, ask to speak to Kanja, who is likely having the driest of days, and to then, change everything.

She tries to call back. Assuming that it is better to have more information before she knocks on that door. The phone rings… “Hello, Little Angel’s preparatory, how may I help you.”

“Hi, Sister Salome just called me and told me there has been an accident. Could you give me more information?”

The line drops.

She calls again.

This time, it goes straight to voicemail. Which means these people are not picking her calls deliberately.

She stands up. She needs to take control of this. She picks up Kanja’s phone and heads to the boardroom. She stops. Breathe. Her hand is shaking. Breathe. She knocks. Gently. The voices inside continue. Chuni demands an explanation from one of the managers. Breathe. She knocks again. A little harder. Voices – they stop.

“Did someone knock?” Chuni asks. Ruth grabs onto the latch, turns it, and pushes inward.

“Why are you knocking so softly?” Chuni demands. A shaken Ruth – loses her voice, and Chuni interprets this as her wasting his time and almost digs into her.

“I need to speak to Kanja!”

“What for?” Chuni continues. He is unrelenting and would have continued, had Kanja not registered – his phone in her hand, her voice shaky, her hands trembling.

“What happened?” He calls out. Everyone shifts, turns to the other side of the table where Kanja is seated.

“The school called.”

Kanja stands straight.

“What did they say?”

Breathe Ruth. Breathe.

“There’s been an accident.”

It’s all he hears before he walks out of the boardroom, takes his phone from Ruth, then to the reception, and presses a button on the wall. The main door opens. Then to the lobby. All the elevators are on the higher floors, and he knows they take time to come down during this lunchtime period. He takes the stairs – 2 at a time. Fast. Landing at the end of each flight with a thud. The sound reverberates upwards, and downwards. Loud enough, that when he lands in the basement, he finds the guard waiting for him. Wondering who the hell has the gall to run around a corporate building.

Kanja walks straight past him. To his car. Opens the door. Start key. Handbrake down, clutch in, one hand on the left seat. Reverse. Then, he floors it.

The guards at the building’s main gate hear him coming. Uncharacteristic. He does not usually speed within the basement parking. But as usual, they open the gates and wait. The car’s lights are turned on, and he does not slow down for the bump at the parking bay’s entrance. The car hits the bump, jumps, lands, and he continues. Clearing the gate, barely missing a silver Prado that pumped its brakes to miss the mad man driving the forester. Then, it’s on.

***

He arrives at the school in 15 minutes.

The first thing he registers is a trail of police vehicles and an ambulance on the road leading up the school. The road is packed with onlookers curious to catch a glance of what’s happening. An officer attempts to direct him to stop and take a U-turn. He ignores him, stops the car, steps out, and runs flat out towards the school.

Cops. Nothing but cops. And nuns. Lots of nuns.

He goes towards the admin side of the school.

He steps into an office. “Sister Salome, where is sister Salome?”

The man there seems lost.

Kanja steps out, to the next office. It is empty.

He moves out of the admin block. To the classrooms.

‘What was her classroom?’ He wonders.

He sees a nun walking by.

“Sister, sister!”

She stops.

“I need to see my child.”

The nun looks at him, registers who he is, and motions – “let me take you to her.”

She walks him back to the admin block, but this time towards the principal’s offices.

“The classes are not on this side!”

She ignores him, walks on, and he – continues to follow her.

“Sister, where are we going?”

She stops at a door. The nameplate reads – Boardroom. She opens the door, steps in, and announces, “Baba Njeri is here.”

“Come in.” She signals.

Kanja walks in, and the first thing he registers is, his mother on one side of the table, and his nanny, Njeri’s aunty next to her. Sister Salome is on the other side of the table. There’s a bunch of other people seated there including a cop – but he does not register them.

“Baba Njeri – welcome,” Sister Salome offers.

“When I could not reach you – I called them,” signaling towards his mother and nanny.

“What is happening? Where is Njeri?” He bellows.

“Sit down Baba Njeri.” Sister Salome points at a seat.

“Where is Njeri?” He asks again. Looking towards his mama. “Where is Njeri? Nipelekeni kwake!”

His mama, stoic, makes to stand up. And the nanny helps her up.

“Kaa chini Kanja,” she orders.

And out of an automatic conditioning, he obeys. He pulls the seat and sits.

“Where is Njeri?” His voice, now imploring.

“There was an accident.” Sister Salome begins.

“Aaaaaaaaaaand?” Kanja begs.

“They were swimming”

“Swimming? What swimming? Njeri does not swim! She does not like it! What do you mean they were swimming?”

This rapid-fire questioning causes Sister Salome to lose her line of thought. But he is unrelenting.

“Where is Njeri?”

She attempts to say it, but another sound cuts her off – a siren.

From where he is seated, he sees the ambulance backing up towards the building. Two paramedics emerge from the building, a stretcher between them. Carrying, given how easily they walk, a child. A familiar shawl draped over the body. One of them stumbles as they load the body onto the ambulance, and a hand emerges from under the shawl. The fingernails were painted… Pink?

“Kanja,” his mom calls out. Distracting him momentarily from the spectacle outside.

“Njeri is dead!”

He stands up. Opens the door, and bolts.

***

The ambulance crew turns to see a man running towards them. One of them makes to stop him.

“Ngoja, ngoja – huwezi ingia hapo”

Kanja pushes him aside and jumps into the ambulance. The crew would have pulled him out, but a cop gestures at them, and they relent. Everyone stops and watches.

Kanja haltingly takes hold of the shawl. But he is shaking. So slowly – slowly he grabs the edge and starts to pull. From the top downwards. The first thing he sees. The hair – wet. Smelling chlorinated. He continues, pulling downwards, the face emerges.

Njeri.

The man collapses to his knees. Breathless. His baby is lying flat in front of him. Her face, still mischievous, but the life in it – ebbed.

“Njeri, Njeri,” he calls out, shaking his baby all the while. She is probably still sleeping, not wanting to wake up and go to school.

“Njeri, Njeri – amka basi. Hatutaenda shule mum.” He is a little more vigorous with the shaking.

The ambulance crew are tempted to climb in and attempt to calm him. But his mother, now standing next to the ambulance stops them.

“Njeri, Njeri – sitaenda kazi. Tutaenda kwa mall. Si ndio?” He shakes her a little more. Still – nothing.

He stands up, and picks her up. The shawl falling to the ground. He gets out of the ambulance with his girl. But one of the ambulance guys has had it.

“Unaenda?”

But a cop stops him.

Kanja steps out, his Njeri in his hands, and heads over to his car. Somehow, he manages to open the back door. He places her in the car seat, careful not to knock her head as he slides her in. All the while murmuring something “tutaenda kwa nyumba – nitakupikia chips na sausage, si ndio?”

With his girl secure, he gets into the driver’s seat, and presses start. The engine comes alive, and he pulls into traffic, all the while murmuring something inaudible.

Moments later he joins the main road headed to his home. He does not notice a trail of police cars, and the ambulance following him.

All he sees in his internal, rear-view mirror is his little girl, head falling over – asleep in the back of his car.

He smiles.

He promised to pick her up. And daddy kept his promise.

.

.

Picture Credits: Cottonbro – Pexels

Shoutout to my editors: Olave Orawo and Paula Norah, for doing a remarkable job

.

Hi guys,

Happy new year 😊? Thank you for getting to this point.

If you are in Kenya – consider getting my book by clicking here.

15 thoughts on “Njeri

  1. “It’s just a story, I’m okay.”
    “Then why are you crying Turner? Why are you crying?”
    ….. the big hapi, the big smile, then the big cry, the many tias .

    Like

  2. I was not ready for that ending😭😭😭. Njeri said mum had called her.
    Still😭😭😭
    Where does Kanja start from? His baby is sleeping in the back seat ..

    Like

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