A 2 part short story on Love.
A young Kenyan musician fights for the love of his life against cultural prejudice.
“Life’s just a bunch of accidents, connected by one perfect end.”
I turned 30 on October 10th filled with anxieties of what little I had achieved in my 20s. How uncertain the future looked. I was a musician, not particularly gifted, not exactly hardworking, hardly someone you would associate with success. My only redeeming quality was the loyalty I had cultivated as a competent member of the So-n-So band that I formed with 3 friends while in university.
I was a freelance graphic designer and computer programmer during the day (mostly nights) and I played the drums as the fourth act in a small struggling Afro-jazz band. I walked in the shadows of my creative self, deliberately shying away from the attention I so desperately craved while I spent restless nights anticipating our big break.
One week after my uneventful birthday, I fell in love, with the wrong woman.
She appeared in my life like a silent storm. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was at the back of the stage, drumming away as we did another cover piece that I was tired of playing. All four of us, small Joe the Geek on the guitar, Kiptoo on the keyboard with his large girth and bad jokes and the petite and pretty Sally doing the vocals were bored out of our minds but we had to give the clients what they wanted. The beer garden restaurant was empty save for a few loyal fans, seated at the bar and at the front tables who showed up to cheer us every Saturday afternoon. The restaurant got busier after 8 pm, when a DJ, something-Skillz, with a set took over to cater for the young exuberant crowd who did not care for live music. We were stuck in the club circuit, playing cover pieces because that is what paid the bills.
Our fans were mostly middle-aged couples, nursing romantic hangovers from early years of dating bliss. We got inundated with requests for the same 90s ballads requests week after week. I was hoping one of the regulars would not make a request for Michael Bolton. Not today! I was very getting very close snapping!
I noticed her when she sauntered in, in the company of Halima and another slender chap with long hair. She was beautiful. I thought, “Who is she?” Halima, was high-spirited, whistling loudly like a matatu tout and jamming her two thumbs in the air. She was so shady in a refreshing way but she was also a super fan and we could do no wrong. I liked that she was comfortable in her own skin and Kiptoo had often said that I should hook up with her.
“She is your type, Odhis?”
I had developed a reputation for dating exotic women and Halima with her half Muhindi, half African mix was right up my street of prospects. Her father was an Indian raised in Meru and her mother was from Embu. I found her really amusing whenever she spoke fluent kiMeru. Her arresting feature was her ample bosom, a little too heavy for my tastes. She was also flirty and had a short-lived feisty affair with Joe once. I preferred to do the chasing and tried not screw around with my friends’ exes. It never ended well.
The new girl kept staring at me. Kiptoo noticed too. She had a pure smile enhanced by deep dimples. Every time I looked up, I found that beautiful face staring back. She could not have been more than 18 as far as I could tell.
I hope she did not have me confused for one of those nice types. Such innocence.
I am no good for you sweetheart. I am a bad, bad boy. But those penetrating eyes again were trained on me in a way that left me unsettled, like a CIA drone hovering my head. Who was this kid?
When Sally called for our first break, I rushed off the stage for a cigarette to calm my nerves because I was getting overwhelmed by a sense of excitement. Kiptoo caught up with me for a puff at the back in the smoking zone.
“Odhis, that muhindi chick is feeling you, tings”.
Kiptoo was a chubby guy with a skewed sense of humour. He always spoke to me in code and acted as a voluntary go-between doubling up as some self-appointed ‘horniness translator”.
“Hmm! Chemistry, mbaya, mbovu”.
We grew up together in Eldoret, lived in the same neighbourhood of Kapsoya, before ending up in Nairobi Uni together. Kiptoo knew me well. Normally, I would waste no time nailing a prospect but I adhered to one standing rule for one night stands. Only out of town venues, preferably with a woman I would probably never meet again. I preferred to travel through life light, with no romantic baggage.
Halima was seated at a table not too far behind us and when we turned, we found them staring at us. She beckoned us over with a wave. Kiptoo whispered into my ear “Team mafisi!”
Halima was her usual exuberant self and launched into a full body hug squashing me with her ample bosom. Maybe one day in July, I would take up Kiptoo’s advice. She quickly untangled herself, tingling in delight and said,
“Let me introduce you to my cousin Benny and her brother Sameer”.
Benny held out her hand and gave me a firm grip, maintaining a respectful arm’s length. She was curvaceous, with sprawling hips tapering off into a narrow waist and I could not get over her eyes. She was looking right through me. Sameer gave me a limp handshake and did not make eye contact. I thought what a wimp. How is he supposed to protect his sister?
Benny! Strange name for a girl.
“Benny is the long version for Benish because Ben was not going to cut it”.
She laughed at her own joke and I found that thoroughly funny. Not the joke. The way she laughed. She was unrestrained. Kiptoo gave me a double take because this was very out of my aloof character.
“Where is the name from?”
“My family is originally from Pakistan but we are third generation Kenyans. Never been to Pakistan”.
Halima jumped in,
“She loves the way you play the drums”.
“Your drumming style, reminds me of Punjabi Dhol beats, you must have Pakistani blood” and she laughed again and she swept me again in that wave of laughter. What was wrong with me today?
“Would you like to hear some Dhol beats?”
“Are you taking me Lahore?”
“Don’t be silly, come and sit here and I will show you”.
Sameer rose from his position next to his sister without the slightest hesitation and she tapped the spot where he was seated moments ago.
She pulled out a cheap smart phone and went to Youtube. As she leaned over, flipping the screen to the wide view, our shoulders brushed and lingered. Little did I know, that in those few seconds of contact we slipped into an intimacy that I would never recover from.
The video loaded quickly.
A bunch of guys in ill-fitted white kanzus had formed a semi-circle around a single man with a large drum that fell to his thighs held up by a thick leather strap that went over his shoulders. He was beating the hell out of those drums and the men went into in a frenzy. One man in the audience was so taken, he held up an AK-47 and left off a few bursts into the air.
That was my default style when we were free-styling. This was the first genuine compliment I heard in a long time. Such a far cry from the empty compliments common with our so called fans who felt they were obligated to say, “You guys were awesome”.
She told me about Punjabi Dhol drumming and I listened intently to what turned into fascinating historical lesson into Pakistani tradition.
I had to ask.
“Where did you grow up?”
“ Mi ni dem wa Nairobi West, pale Nyayo, born and raised”.
She spoke sheng? It was a wrap. I liked this girl. Benny was connecting with me deeply as though we were kindred spirits, awakening part of me that I thought I could no longer feel.
The 30 minute break went off in flash and I literally frowned at Kiptoo when he indicated we had to get back on stage.
Back on stage, I went off script and started freestyling on the drums. It started as a joke and then the spirit moved me. It threw Sally off on the vocals, but she quickly recovered when she saw the reaction of the crowd. I was possessed like the Dhol drummer in the YouTube video jamming, playing just for her. I do not think I have ever wanted so badly to impress a girl with my skills. The crowd loved it. Folks seated at the bar who normally spared nothing more than a passing glance were mesmerised. I was lost in the zone and rest of the band followed my cue. We were back to the beginning, making music, from the heart and expressing ourselves freely. We had not played like this in such a long time.
When I looked up, she was gone.
Halima told me that Benny had to leave. Her parents were very strict and she had to be home before 7 pm. She has only been out of high school for two years. But she left a note. “For you”.
It was a drinks receipt folded into a small cube. I unwrapped it delicately and was struck by how beautiful her handwriting was. She must have one hell of a signature.
“Thank you, my Dhol brother”.
Under the message was her number.
I could not hide my delight.
Next morning I woke up with a start and panicked when I remembered that I had thrown my jeans into the laundry pile. My regular house-help Immaculate, came calling today and was already washing my clothes. It was too late. The number was lost in thick foam. In my excitement, I had forgotten to remove the receipt from my pocket and now I had to rely on Halima for a connection. I hated go-betweens. Maybe this was a sign. We were not meant to be together. She was too young. Yet, I could not get her out of my mind the whole week, resisting the urge to call Halima for the number.
The next Saturday, I immediately perked up when she walked into the restaurant and Kiptoo teased me about it. At the interlude, I made a beeline straight for their table.
“Hey Dhol brother”
And we laughed.
It was very easy to talk to her. I could be real and open. Finding a mental and physical connection with a fan was a rare occurrence in my line of work. I had to see more of her.
“What are you doing later tonight?”
“Sorry, I cannot do nights. My family is very conservative”.
“I cannot leave the house for an outing without the company of a male relative. Lucky Sameer my kid bro is a good sport”.
She was not playing hard to get. She was just stating a fact. She hailed from a family where women were not allowed room for manoeuvre.
For the two months, we would meet one hour before the band started playing. Sameer maintained his role as the chaperone, content with drinking Coke, chain smoking and watching premier league football. I could only see her on Saturdays, the rest of the week, she worked at her uncles’ garment store on River Road. We used Whatsapp a lot, hardly voice calls.
One day, I went to the school uniform store where she worked and posed as a customer. She manned the till as her male cousins and uncles, hovered all over the place with hands behind their back trying to profile the customers and keeping an eye on the employees. She was a great actress completely deadpan and she behaved as though she had never seen me in her life. Not a trace of emotion. What was I courting here? I had never had to work this hard on a relationship.
Yet, the more I got know her, the more attractive she became. She was very open-minded and well-read for her age and could keep a conversation going in a wide range of subjects. This is despite the fact that Benish lived in a cultural bubble and her world revolved around family. Her life was pre-arranged. In one year she would go to college overseas and then off to marriage soon after, to give birth and raise children.
By the third month, I was surprised that I had not found the need to rush her to bed. Strangely, I needed to know that she was ready. For the first time in my life, sex was not a top priority. Kiptoo just laughed.
“A guy! You have cracked! Kwisha wewe!”
….to be continued