I was 15 when I next saw her. I was a young teenager with at least three prominent pimples on his skinny face at any one time. A mass of hormones and confusion. She came to visit on a cold Saturday morning, typical of the month of June in the Kijabe escarpment; a time when the weather seems largely undecided.
The wind gushes through at day break, sometimes from the top side of the long panoramic hills, and sometimes from the side. If you are only a few kilos heavier than a bag of cement, like yours truly, that gust will move you. You will have to walk at angle to adjust your center of gravity, to fight the wind standing between you and breakfast. Then it gets warm for about an hour or so, and that’s when it is best to jump into the shower and do a quick clean-up. At 7 am the fog starts to crawl down the hill from further away in the dark, gorgeous forests of Kinale.
The fog rolls down the hill, consuming the entire forested landscape. It is not just picturesque, it is magical. Like the poetic feel of flour mixture being placed on a pan to make pancakes. Delicate, almost deliberate. If you stood outside my dormitory at that time and looked at the hills, you could almost feel the chill coming upon you. The warmth would promptly scatter and be replaced by the biting cold would rule the day, taking turns with a few rays of sunset and escalating gusts of wind. Threatening to freeze you, set you ablaze, and blow your mind away.
It was chilly when she came, and it was sunny at the same time.
I was in Form Two and going through a serious case of the teenage. My most recent fascination was Reggae music, not the Rastafarian culture like my would-be roommate in two years whom we nicknamed ‘DJ Once-Again’ but the music, the beats, the personalities. I donned the colours too, sometimes a bangle, sometimes the shady colourful scarf. I was wearing both that day, and carrying a back pack and for some odd reason I cannot remember, carrying a long crooked stick in my right hand. Like a prophet. Or a wizard. A wizard with three big pimples and several smaller ones standing guard.
I was walking from the school hall when the watchman called at me. Ngima, the watchman, was an old man with a rather prominent ass. He looked a century old, and the myth was that he had served generations of students for almost four decades at the time. I never got to know why they called him ‘Ngima’, which means ‘ugali’ in the first place but that was the name he answered to. It could have been his name, and now he was calling out to me.
I walked towards him.
“Wewe si uko Formu Two?” He asked in that funny accent that made conversing with him hard to maintain without hiding a laugh.
“Unajua studenti anaitwo Brian…”
There were at least two guys in my year called Brian and one was my friend and the future Dining Hall Captain. The other I cannot quite remember.
“Hiyo jina ingine?” I asked.
He peeked inside his office at the gate to ask and almost at the same time, she peeked outside and looked at me directly in the face. Our eyes met for the first time in 13 years, and before she said it I knew what she was going to say “That is actually him, that’s who I am looking for…”
You see, my first name is Brian, and this was the woman who gave me that name. She ingrained it there to mean ‘Brother of Ian’, Ian being my elder brother. I never used the name, not for the longest time anyway, and the only person who ever used it was one of my sisters. But here I was now, standing, dressed like a misplaced Rastafarian and holding a long crooked stick, with pimples ruling the expanse of my forehead, answering to a name that had been mine since birth. That I had not used for thirteen years.
They were awkward, those few first minutes. We walked towards each other. She wanted to hug me but the stick was in the way. So I dropped it awkwardly and hugged her back. I felt nothing, nothing except nothing. It bugged me for years, that nothingness.
I had last seen her when I was two, or two and a half. I never bothered to ask how or where. But in my head I remember the last time I saw her. I am seated on the bar in what seems like an empty place in the wee hours of the morning. I am laughing, for some odd reason, that childish innocent laugh. In front of me is a woman slumped on the bar table, with a bottle of Guinness before her. There is shit between me and the surface of the bar table, and I am craving something. Food I think. I think I made the scene up as I grew up, from bits and pieces of foggy memories.
Fast forward thirteen years later and her I am, in high school and chasing (away) girls with my long crooked stick and reggae colours. Meeting my mother. She is shaking, I can tell as much. We are walking along the Physics lab, and I have grabbed two seats. She offered to help, I declined. She smiled.
I am not sure why she is shaking. I have a shiver too, but I tell myself it’s just the cold. We sit. She talks. I listen, I answer questions. She offers me a bar of chocolate which I grab and gobble down. She has many, many bars of Fudge and chocolate. It hits me later that this might a month or so after she left rehab and chocolate helps with the cravings. She is trying to make up for lost time, she says as much. I feel nothing, I do not hate her-which surprises her. I know a lot about her, and she is impressed.
She asks about school. About my sisters. My father, my other mother. She asks whether they have treated me well. I smile, but in my head I laugh. Thirteen years woman, thirteen years and you ask that? But now when I think of it, I would ask the same question too.
I should have made that first time easier for her. I should have cried, or been angry at her. I should have accused her of abandoning me, or ruining my childhood. Of drinking while she was pregnant with me. I should have shown some human emotion. Anger at her mistakes when she was pregnant with me, which had made me a sickly child tied to psychiatric drugs for four years. She expected it. She seemed ready for it, almost surprised that there were no flashes of anger or remorse.
I never showed that I was tense but I was. I had been since she first wrote to me, and her letter landed in my hands with three others. Two from girlfriends and one from a pen pal. Hers stood out for the mature, almost careless handwriting, and the name of the person to whom it was addressed. My baptismal name was missing, which was an interesting omission. I deduced it was her, the woman who had only been a name herself my entire life, even before I tore through the envelope and read it. It was only to her that my baptismal name would have no meaning, because I had been baptised years after she last left me, and her brother took me back to my father.
I lost that letter two or so years later. I have a copy of her next letter, although I replaced the original too. Me, who has success cards from primary school and kept notes from my first girlfriend until I was in Form Three, lost the most important letter I ever received. The letter that was the missing piece. The three pages, torn from a notebook, and the steady, sometimes shaky handwriting that told the story of my birth and the beginning of my life. Signed, Cathy. I lost that letter somewhere, or maybe bundled it up with trash. Accidentally. Maybe it dropped from my bag as I hassled my way home. Or someone found it and kept it. Or it fell in a pit. Whenever I go through my archives, I find myself instinctively looking for that letter. Hoping to have missed it when I first went through the aging papers. Looking for a letter that is most likely ash now. Looking for her.
She told me, in the letter, why she had stayed away. She stopped short of apologising, but I could read her pain and anxiety as I read through. I wrote back. I told her I knew about her. I knew most of what she was telling me. Except one thing, my birth date. It didn’t match, I pointed out, as the date she told me was eleven days earlier than the birthday I had celebrated my entire life. I learnt later that although she was high when she brought me to this world, she was right about the date. It was my old man who, in the wisdom of men and dates, had given me an arbitrary date of birth. It was him who had given me two mothers too, which I guess added up, in a skewed way.
Two more letters and here we were, seated between the Physics Lab and the Metal Workshop, with the Chemistry Lab a further distance and Wood Workshop next to it. Connecting our lives. Making friends. Making amends. Trying to locate the bond that had once flown through a cord. We sat in a small depression, hidden from the unforgiving winds of Kijabe and its biting cold. Exposed to our raw emotions and our common DNA.
The conversation must have lasted two hours. Or three. Time seemed surreal. I had found my missing piece and now here, seated across her, with her hand sometimes instinctively placed on mine, I was dumbfounded. She made sly comments about my Reggae regalia and my long crooked stick. She tried not to sound too much like a mother, perhaps in the hope that I would not hate her for it. I blushed, ashamed at disappointing her by not being smartly dressed. She had made the journey through the murkiness of the Khoja Mosque stage, through the traffic jams of Westlands. She had sat in that matatu for more than forty minutes as it covered the miles along Nairobi-Nakuru highway.
At Gichiengo, the turnoff on the highway that heads down to Kijabe, her heart must have pounded like crazy. Whenever one takes that turnoff you think the school is only a kilometre away. But the snaking road that cuts through the forest goes on for six kilometres. There is nothing to see except trees and glimpses of the Rift Valley when the road is steep enough. Nothing to feel except gravity fighting against the brakes of the old rickety matatu. I doubt she experienced any of that nothingness. For her this was a journey of redemption. Her second-born son, now a teenager with a big disfigured head and a prominent forehead, was on the other end of this journey. What would he think of me? Can he possibly love me? Does he hate me?
Meanwhile, I was walking around the school ignoring the fact that this was the appointed day. I had chosen it, from a list of days she had suggested. I had chosen it arbitrarily, perhaps thinking the day would never come. So I distracted myself with girls playing badminton and table tennis in the school hall. I smiled at their short suggestive dresses and made lewd comments that made them smile and ask about my long crooked stick. I avoided the school deputy, a tyrant who had suspended me the term before for incitement. I was fresh from another punishment, the week before, for a hastily constituted crime. But I was in Form Two and such was life.
I told her about the suspension but not the punishment. She admonished me. Like a mother. I sat there and took flak from a woman I had not seen for thirteen years. I looked down and genuinely felt embarrassed, for the umpteenth time during our short time together. I tried to defend it, but she would have none of it. But she relaxed, almost pulled back from that line. I could tell she was trying, trying hard to fight the urge of being a mother and winning my love.
We met again many times, although that was the only time she ever visited me in high school. I lost my long crooked stick and the reggae regalia with time, and grew up. We became friends, texting, meeting up for lunch, talking about nothing and everything. Sometimes I avoided her for months, during those dips, and sometimes I sought her out. In the four years I knew her, nothing ever stood out like that first meeting. In those four years, I learnt to love her for who she was.
I learnt that I was part of her redemption, her second chance at life. Her chance at making up for the more than two and a half decades she had lost to the bottle and debauchery. My brother’s accident two years earlier had startled her, she told me, and watching him lying on a hospital bed unresponsive for three weeks had sent her on a mission to find herself. And to find me.
In four years she would be gone, robbed by a bloody clot that started in her lungs and coursed to her heart. In four years, on a cold July morning, she became a memory. In nine years I would be sitting on my bed, transcribing a long post I drafted verbally into my phone’s voice recorder as I drove into the sunset on the Eastern Bypass the day before. Trying to ignore the fact that it is only a week to the fifth anniversary of her sunset. I would be struggling to remember her face. Fighting to recall the feel of her hands. Her shrill of a laugh. Her temperamental switches from a friend to a mother in flash. The warmth of her hug. To make her feel that it had been my second chance too.