The sun had finished setting slowly, and started setting quickly. It wasn’t the most colourful of sunsets. The guava pink and golden turquoise hadn’t returned to the evening sky. In their place were hues of grey and blue that didn’t stay long enough to leave a lasting impression.
Christmas would be here soon.
Njora was sitting at the top of the beach, where drift wood and water-worn coconut shells speckled the hourglass-dry sand with dark brown. It slipped through his fingers as he sifted through it. The deeper he dug, the colder the sand.
When the ocean started reflecting shadows, he knew it was time to get home, Mama would be leaving for work soon. He wiggled his toes into the depressions his feet had made in his oversized flip flops and set off. He ran through the public access road, over light orange coral dust, which became browner and browner as it mingled with the inland soil. He swung his hands through the evening breeze, sending tiny pine seeds rolling away from his footprints or merely pressing them a little deeper into the ground.
He could smell crab in the air as he passed high walls and thick bougainvillea fences, it smelt divine. As he got into the gate, he almost rammed into Baba Kavi, who pushed him out of the way, angrily muttering “Look where you’re going boy.” clicking as he went. He walked the rest of the way, past Kavi’s door and into his own; the sky had taken on a royal jellyfish blue behind him.
“Njora, eat quickly, so you can bathe, and sleep,” Mama half shouted from the only other room in the house. He could smell her Sunlight-clean scent, so clearly she was getting dressed to leave. Njora sat obediently and started on his ugali and mchicha1. Mama’s cooking was so good, he was done in a jiffy. He quickly went out to have a bucket bath. When he came back into the house, Mama was walking out of the bedroom, putting a light blue sweater over her white blouse and brown uniform skirt; he knew she would have her leopard print waistcoat in her handbag. “Are you sure you’re clean?” She asked. He answered an enthusiastic “yes”, as he went over to give her a goodnight hug. “Ok, get into bed. Do you have everything ready for school?.” He nodded and skipped off to his side of the bed.
The next morning happened upon him without his realizing he had fallen asleep. Mama was talking to him, “You’ll be late for school if you don’t get out of bed and get ready now.” Njora dutifully did as bid. When he was ready, and out the house, he found Kavi outside, waiting for him, so they could walk to school together. School was half an hour away if they took the main road, and forty five minutes if they walked along the beach. Kavi wasn’t being herself today. They would usually race to see who could touch the leafy giant baobab tree that stood guard at the entrance to the public beach access path. Today, she was kicking the little pine seeds out of her way, raising ghostly plumes of dust around her feet as she did so. Njora warned her that she would get in trouble for her dusty shoes in assembly, so she should stop it.
“I’ll just wipe them when I get there! ” she retorted, but she stopped anyway. On the beach, the wind howled so hard at the coconut trees that they retorted in harsh voices. It wasn’t cold, but the wind was picking up all the sand it could, and throwing it at their faces. “We should have gone the other way” Kavi complained, still sulking heavily.
“I don’t want to tell her. And I am not going to tell you. Just leave me alone.”
Njora stopped walking, Kavi continued. She muttered under her breath as she went.
” You’ll be beaten if you’re late for school.” Njora caught up with her, and kept her now much quicker pace. He was burning with curiosity, but Kavi was in such a bad mood that he didn’t speak the rest of the way.
Later, as he sat in class, waiting for their class teacher, he drew little sketches of palm trees and fish in the exercise book his Mum had got him, for that purpose. He’d gotten in trouble for drawing too much in his other school books. He ignored his class mates, two of whom were teasing him. “Njora thinks he’s an artist, Njora thinks he’s an artist…” Just as the gang of four at the back right burst out hysterically at the jokes about him, their teacher walked in. Everyone stood to deliver morning greetings, that were received and reciprocated, along with an instruction to sit down.
“Those students whose names I am about to call, I want you to come to my desk.” Njora Stevens was the second name on his list.
He rose and walked towards the desk. In total there were four students called up and handed letters. Njora’s was the only one addressed to Ms, not Mr and Mrs.
“Take these to your parents now. Tell them you can come back to school when they have followed what’s in these letters. ”
As he walked away from the classroom, he could hear the beginning of a maths class. He liked Maths. He didn’t rush to get home, he had seen other students get called up like that and they didn’t always come back. Mama would not be happy if he could not go back to school. He was not looking forward to giving her that letter.
He walked down the beach with the letter feeling as heavy as a sand ball in his pocket. To his left was the sea, to his right was a stretch of gigantic hotels, towering over the shore, with countless miniature verandas. The makuti2 sun shades were devoid of their holiday sun beds and cushions. When December and July came, there would be dozens of bikini and speedo-clad pot bellies, each with their own book and drink, lying there, moving only in slow motion, they would remind him of the crocodiles he had seen at Mamba Village. Today, the hotels were boring, so he didn’t give them much thought. Next in line were a series of private plots. They were not allowed to wall out the beach, so they used trees as curtains: the houses sat out of sight. These were also failed to catch his interest, except sometimes, when the occupants would come out with their dogs and play catch or run along with them.
Mostly, Njora watched the sand in front of him, trying to leave full footprints with his shiny shoes. When the sun was hotter, he couldn’t look down, the reflection from the sand was blinding. As he glanced at the sea, something caught his eye, something dark, large and near the shore. The shape of it was remarkably human-like.
With realization that smacked him like a crashing wave he saw it was a person. With the kind of speed that only comes with practice, he threw off his bag and shoes, and ran into the shallow edge of the water. The person was a grown up, b
ut a young one. He pulled him out of the water in which he was lying facing up. To Njora’s relief, the young man was still breathing shallow, steady breaths. Njora shook the young man repeatedly. When that didn’t work, he used his now-soaked socks to squeeze some water over his forehead. The young man’s body jolted, and burst into a violent coughing fit, rolling onto his side in the process. Njora slapped his back to try to help. The coughing got worse, and the beached individual vomited profusely, producing a shade of green that made Njora think of a glass Sprite bottle. It smelt strange and disgusting. Thankfully, after the hurl, the coughing stopped and slow laboured breaths began.
The first thing out of the youths chapped lips was “Waderr”. Njora had no idea what that meant, but he knew he could take him to Mama: she would know what to do, and she could speak many languages.
He answered by holding one of the grown up’s hands and saying “Come.”
The first attempt to stand up failed. The adult groaned and repeated “Waderr”. Njora put his socks into his shoes, and tied their laces to each other, so he could carry them around his neck. Then he used all his strength and all his weight, to lift the man to a standing position.
They were not far from the beach access road that lead to his house, so he pointed to it and lead the way. Every few steps, he would have to stop and wait for the grown up, whose swimming trunks looked more like underwear. Njora decided to call him ‘Waderr ‘ and would shout back, ” Waderr, this way”. Waderr was having a very difficult time walking. He would stumble, one step too far to the left, the next too far to the right, his strides uneven and once in a while, even backwards.. As they approached the baobab tree, he Waderr was getting steadier, and they were soon at their gate.
Now, all of Njora’s nerves came back to him, he fanned the half soaked letter in his hands in a last minute attempt to dry it.The courtyard was empty, and covered in drying clothes on the lines, and bushes, from the eight households that shared the compound.
His front door was shut, so he signaled to Waderr to wait. Waderr did not wait, he beelined for the courtyard tap and drank straight from it. As Njora approached the door he could hear Mama’s voice, ” But what was he doing in her room at that time? At least he’s not coming back.” He walked in, ” Njora! Why aren’t you in school?” He explained what the teacher had said and outstretched a shaky hand to give her the letter. Before she could complain about the state of it, he burst out.
“Mama, I found a man in the sea! He’s outside. I think he wanted to die.” Mama rose to her feet, frowning, to go see what he was talking about. It was only then that Njora noticed Mama Kavi, sitting in ghostly silence, staring at the floor. Half of a tear mark shined down her left cheek, taking a sharp right angle turn to the left at its end. Her eyes were puffy, and she was holding onto a very soggy, tightly folded handkerchief. She hadn’t looked up since he walked in. He tried to offer a greeting, but just at that moment…
“Njora!!” Mamas voice came from outside, so he ran out. “Where is this man of yours?”
To his horror, he was nowhere to be seen. He ran to the gate to look left, and right, but there was no one, anywhere in sight. Mama stood, hands on her hips. She looked so furious, she could have thrown something at him, instead she ordered him to get clean, clean his shoes and get dressed in a clean set of uniform. “You’re lucky your other uniform is dry.”
The next time he saw Mama Kavi she was staring straight at the wall, he didn’t try to speak to her this time. He just got ready, for the second time today, for school. The clock on the wall told him that it was break time already. Only three hours left to the end of school. When he was finished, Mama handed him another envelope. This one was thick, and felt like it had money in it. “If I find out you’ve gone swimming with genies again, neither of us is going to be happy! We have enough problems, we don’t need to imagine new ones. When you get to school, go straight to the reception and give that to Stacey. Then get back to class as soon as possible.”
This time, Njora took the main road route. He ran, only walking where he had to pass by more adults or by the milky puddles that looked like Sunday’s hot chocolate. He made it to school in twenty minutes according to the clock in the reception, just as class was starting. To his relief, once the envelope was opened and inspected, he was told to go back to class and come back after school, before going home.
Art class was after break, and he didn’t miss any of it. He badly wanted to know what marks he had got in last week’s homework: he had drawn his Mama. He hadn’t shown her yet, when she had wanted to have a look, he had told her it was a surprise. He was expecting high marks. He was right, he had gotten ten out of ten. He beamed, at least something good had happened that day.
When school was over, he waited for Kavi at their usual meeting point, just outside the school but she didn’t arrive. He went back in to look for her, gratefully remembering that he was supposed to go back to the reception. He picked up a small envelope that fitted into his shirt pocket and wandered around looking for signs of Kavi. When he finally found her, she was in the strangest place. She was sitting, knees folded up to her chest under her dress, behind the tree, at the furthest corner of the playground. He couldn’t believe she was still sulking!
“Kavi let’s go! I can’t delay today.”
“I’m not going!”
“What do you mean?!”
“I’m not going home.”
Njora remembered how upset her mum was when he’d seen her. “Are you scared because your mum is upset? What did you do?”
“No. Nothing. Did you hear her shouting yesterday?” She looked up for the first time.
“No, I had to go home. I saw her today.”
Kavi was looking at him suspiciously. “The other children who went home, didn’t come back… what else did she say?”
“She didn’t say anything. Why was she shouting yesterday?”
“I’m not going to tell you! How do you sleep through all that noise anyway? Can’t you hear anything?”
“How can I hear when I’m asleep? Are you scared to see your dad?” Kavi did not respond. “Well, if you’re scared to see your dad, he won’t be there. I heard Mama say he’s not coming back.”
At that, she looked up, a strange mixture of relief, shock and pain lingering in her gaze, as if to confirm he had said what she heard. She looked forward and closed her eyes as though for a short prayer. A moment later, she took a deep breath and lifted herself heavily up from the ground. Stiff yellow mango leaves crunched and turned over under their footsteps.
Bicycles creaked past them, sometimes spraying tiny specks of chocolate mud on their clothes as they solemnly walked home. No one said a word, and every ten steps Njora would have to slow his pace to let Kavi catch up. On a normal day, Kavi would not have liked to feel beaten in speed. She was even carrying her satchel in her hand instead of over her shoulder. She was managing to make it look very heavy. Njora hesitated at first, but then reached out to offer to help carry it. He was surprised when she consented, today was not a normal day at all.
At home, he tried to show Mama his drawing but she was busy talking to Mama Kavi, who was sitting, rocking Kavi backwards and forwards in her lap. He decided to leave it inside a magazine he knew she would look through when she was more relaxed. He had his lunch and did his homework, before attempting to talk to anyone again.
When all was done, he wanted to go and play with his football on the beach. Mama said that was fine as long as he didn’t go swimming. Kavi and her mum were leaving, he overheard, for the hospital. He was glad, he didn’t think Mama had had a chance to sleep at all, and it was soon time to leave for work again.
He didn’t know what was going on with the grown ups, but that was normal. What bothered him was that Kavi didn’t want to tell him what was wrong either. As he played with his football, kicking it into the air as many times as he could without letting it touch the ground, his worries left him and the rest of the evening passed as though all was well with the world.
The next morning, Kavi seemed much better, though not quite her usual self. When he tried to ask her what was wrong, she brushed him off so he dropped the subject.
School was normal, the bullies teased him, he had class, and he drew at every chance he got. On the way back, the sun was too hot, so they took the road route to spare their eyes. Loud four by four cars sped past them, slowing only for the sporadic bumps on the road.
Outside their gate, they found an enormous glossy Range Rover, posing as though for a photoshoot on their dusty coral road. They glanced at each other, but neither of them had any answers, so they carried on, assuming one of their neighbours had a visitor. When he got into the house however, he found Waderr sitting, talking to Mama. He didn’t look much like Waderr anymore though. He was wearing all white linen, and a big shiny earring on one side. To Njora, he looked like the paintings of angels at the church.
“There he is!” Waderr jumped out of his seat as soon as Njora walked in. “My saviour! Young man, do you know you saved my life?” Turning to Mama, he continued “ I told my dad something like this would happen if he kept pushing me so hard. He didn’t listen. He never listens. Anyway, I have something for your hero of a son, Ms Kinyanjui, may we all step outside for a minute?”
As they walked, he kept talking. “I had an argument with my dad over the phone, and I got so angry I had to hang up and downed my bottle and decided to go out to the beach and cool down. Thats the last thing I remember until Njora was patting my back. Do you know we are neighbours, my house is the one with the stone wall, just before the beach there.”
He walked round to the boot of his shining car and opened it. Out came a spanking new, metallic green mountain bike. It had a bell, and a carrier on the back that was big enough to put a small person on. It looked like it had jumped straight out of a movie. Njora was fixated by the machine, and Waderr just kept talking. He was glowing at the expression on Njora’s face.
“Do you know how to ride son?” Njora nodded slowly “ Do you know how to change gears?” Njora shook his head.
“Njora, talk. Have you forgotten how to speak?” Mama didn’t look like she thought much of Waderr, but she seemed very proud of Njora, so he spoke up.
“I don’t know what a gear is.”
Waderr didn’t seem to have heard heard him, and continued. “What were you doing out of school at that time anyway?”
“I was bringing for my Mum a letter.”
A gust of wind swept down the road, sending the pink and orange bougainvillea flowers into a feverish shiver. Mama put her hands behind her back and looked very tired all of a sudden. Waderr seemed to notice, his tone of voice became softer.
“Do you know, I really don’t know how to thank you enough. May I invite you over for dinner? Musa is an incredible cook. Or, if you prefer, we could go out for dinner? Just to say thank you properly.”
“Mr. Makau, we are very grateful for your gesture, my Njora is a good boy. He did what any one of us would have done. You are very generous to give him this bicycle, but anything more is really not necessary or possible. I am very busy.”
“Please, please, call me Dale. Ok, ok, I understand. At least let me teach him how to ride this bike, its a little complicated at first. Tomorrow? After school, after homework or whatever time is best? How is three thirty? Then the sun won’t be too hot. I have to fly back to Nairobi in two days anyway.”
Njora looked up from the ground to Mama, silently imploring her. She caught his expression and holding back a smile, she answered. “Yes, that’s ok, but for now he has homework to do and its getting late. Njora say thank you to Mr Makau.”
“Thank you Mr. Makau…”
“Dale, please call me Dale.”
“Thank you so much Mr. Dale. The bicycle is so nice! Where should I find you tomorrow?
“At the beach, right at the bottom of this road” he put the handlebars of the bicycle into Njora’s hands. “Have a good day, see you tomorrow.”
They bid him goodbye and walked back in the house. As the huge engine roared away, Mama burst out into happy laughter, “So your genie was real? Did you wish for a bike? That’s good Njora, you did a good thing yesterday.”
Njora grinned sheepishly as he pushed his perfect bicycle towards the house. Later, as Njora went about his homework, he heard Mama exclaim loudly from the bedroom. “Wow, did you draw this at school?” She came out glowing, with his drawing in her hand to give him a giant hug. “Make sure you do well like this in all your subjects, ok?” She looked like she would never stop smiling. The drawing was pinned up on their bedroom wall the next morning.
The next afternoon took forever to arrive, but after a hot, cloudless day, school was finally over. He had been told to go to the reception again after school. There, he collected a small envelope like the one he had picked up the day before, and a big envelope, made of hard rough white paper that seemed to shine when he held it at a certain angle.
Kavi was really excited, she had gotten a hundred percent in an English test and very pleased with herself. She carried her bag properly, and Njora didn’t offer to help her with it. He got home, gave Mama the letters and got straight to doing his homework. Just as he was finished, Mama came out of the bedroom with an unreadable expression on her face. “Njora…” she paused to sit down. “Do you know, that Mr. Makau has paid your school fees? All of them. Until you finish. This letter is from him.” She held in her hand a hand written letter and the big envelope he had brought from school.
Mama walked him down to the beach, when the time came. She wanted to thank Mr Makau for the help. To Njora’s delight, Mr Makau had a dog, a little Jack Russel, who stayed at the house when Dale wasn’t around.
“You can come and play with him anytime you like, I know he’ll love to have someone to play with too.”
Njora understood how the gears worked very quickly, making his own wind as he increased speed. He was sure, this would be the best week of his life.