An excerpt from my short story ‘Bass Weejuns on Tiptoes’ published in Kwani 06. Well, I liked the story. About a post-PEV scenario. One day I will re-edit it.
We moved onto Uhuru after coming through Chiromo. Assorted debris carpeted the highway and we maneuvered over this detritus of inner-city war. At points we got off and removed scraps of burnt vehicle shells from the way. This is when I noticed white pages of newspaper sticking out from between the remains of the metallic aftermath.
I picked up the headlines.
26th March 2008: KIBAKI DECLARES STATE OF WAR.
7th APRIL 2008: USS BARRACK OBAMA ARRIVES AT KILINDINI.
“Still nobody knows what’s happening inside those buildings or who’s there,” Tendai Junior said.
“They have people who read books. Mzungu obviously. Kenyans don’t read those kind of books,” I said.
“Clever kind of books.”
3rd June 2008: TENDAI SEALS RIFT VALLEY
11th March 2008: NYANZA DECLARES INDEPENDENCE, RAILA SWORN IN.
5th June 2008: AMERICANS BEGIN CONSTRUCTION.
“I said nobody knows what happens in there. You can’t go into city-center these days.”
“Maybe nobody cares today.”
“Today is a freak day.”
“Who’s in there?”
“I said nobody knows.”
“Parking Boys said Americans.”
“That’s what the rumours said. Nobody knows, I’m telling you.”
“They work for them, they know.”
25th February 2008: ASIANS MUST GO
Sixteen months ago I was on this same highway together with my family. We were on our way to catch one of the forty three Boeing 787’s. The Indian High Commision and Ismaili Jamat had sent out the message: be ready and when the day comes “get into your car, get to the airport and get out – Mumbai, London, Islamabad and Perth…”- piping hot Sukh Sagar pau bhaji along the Marine Lines thoroughfares, job spaces in the cake shops at Wembley, the boo and doo sounds of techno-didgeridoo at DV8 in Northbridge – “these wait for you”.
“A massive traffic jam stretched from the innards of Parklands and Westlands to JKIA.”
Not everyone in the traffic was of Indian or Pakistani origin. This was the surprise. Munyasi from Kilimani was there. Mukabi from South B too. Magana of Kasarani was cuddling little Isabella close to his chest. Langat had put up all the car windows, locked all the doors. Shiko smelled of perfume, she was all made up and pretty with a clean and nice face, she must have had access to a tub of bathwater.
“That was incredible, the access to that kind of resource.”
Taboso in the car at the back needed a haircut.
“We got to the rise next to the railways sprawl and that’s when everyone came out.”
The Boeings crackled with the whoosh-thunder of take off. The thirty ninth went up, got eaten by the grey clouds.
“It was over.”
We stood on the highway and watched the last four go.
Parking Boy in the fresh blue jeans and Olodum T-shirt opened a car door and took out a suitcase. Then another one. And Mayuri’s handbag. Asked for Nguku’s wallet. Took the pen clipped on the shirt. Parking Boy at Haile Selassei junction took the jacket off Magana. Took off the small shoes on little Isabella. Langat found Parking Boy in the black shorts and clean Kenya Army T-shirt fist punch through his driver’s side window and then call out to Parking Boy in the blue jeans and Che Guevara T-Shirt to help carry sixty kilos of his baggage.
“We couldn’t run with our cars. There was nowhere to turn in the gridlock.”
“We knew everyone was not going to make it to the planes.”
“The rumours said some were already at the airport when the rest of us got into our cars.”
“It was easier to have all of you on the road. Less time consuming. You did all the packing and delivered it to us.”
Car doors closed, goodbye Toyota.
James McNiel came from Scotland eight years ago and invested his grandfather’s vintage whiskies into a flower farm at Athi, bought a house in the Karen Cowboys neighbourhood, Black Magic roses flew off to Amsterdam. James applied for a Kenyan passport, got it, but now he carried his Hemingway suitcase on his head and Parking Boy came and took it from him.
The way between cars got stuffed with people so Rohit climbed onto a bonnet, climbed onto a car roof, came down on a booth and jumped onto the next bonnet and again climbed onto a car roof. Arvind saw this and did the same.
Manoj did not like the lonliness of the cold air outside, hated the suffocating humanity of the reverse exodus, so he got back into his car to smell the faux dashboard leather and lean on the warmth of Mayuri’s shoulder. Footsteps above syncopated like deranged tablas.
“Some mathematician in the army calculated the number of cars on the highway. Eighty two thousand. It looks ridiculous but this highway held those many cars. You wonder, four cars along the width of the road, how many along the length? Each car about 3 meters long, how many along the length? The number looks too big but eighty two thousand times four or five came out of their cars and started walking back.”
“Some remained in their cars.”
“They made a mistake.”
Kamljeet had his grandfather’s kirpan snatched by Parking Boy. Parking Boy took off his shoes, peeled off his socks as well, and the tarmac was cold and prickly. Then Kamaljeet told Munyasi the planes were meant only for them, for Mayuri over there and Saif here. Who the hell was Shiko to bring out her car? Those were our planes.
This made Langat lock his knuckles against the cheek of Saif, blood and teeth. Kamaljeet then forced Munyasi’s head underwater at the roundabout fountain, Nguku came running, grabbed Kamaljeet’s long hair and dragged him across to the Kenol where he smashed the nozzle of the pump into the kalasingha’s mouth and let the petrol come gushing in. Parking Boy looked on with a cigarette in his mouth.
Back on the highway, the walk of the return exodus turned into a kick stampede: McNiel’s potbelly could not keep pace with the sprints of panic, he dived into the tarmac and the thunder of hard soles rained on his skull, he stayed down, forever. Inside the Volkswagen, Jagdish felt the fear sweat on his skin, the torrent of the human avalanche rushed past, his hand moved automatically and he put on his seatbelt.
A head inside a near car slumped to the chest.
“You know about the legend of the Great Shot?”
“I saw it.”
Two cars in front another head slumped to the chest.
“Tendai stood about here and fired from a Made in America.”
“The bullet went 3 kilometers straight through the brains of the people in the cars.”
“In a straight line.”
The clap of the Great Shot ricocheted through the atmosphere. Everyone calmed down. Slowed down.
“The other half of the rumour says the bodies rotted in their seats and supposedly the rats and cockroaches came out along with other bigger scavengers, apparently big birds from the national park.”
The skies bled from a darker vein.
The Mahindra reached the University Way roundabout and we saw the awesome thing. The cars abandoned sixteen months ago were all there. Intact. Nobody had moved them away and they stretched on till the end of our sight.
“Stop and kill the engine.”
A drizzle began to pour.
“We wait. The Parking Boy will come.”
“We wait. Parking Boy has already seen us.”
I could make out the skeletons in the cars. A blurred figure in the distance seemed to be talking to one of them.
“My father died in the rain you know.”
Tendai Junior was fighting with his seat, adjusting the position of his marbles inside his tight military pants, taking his hand up to his head and digging fingers into his scalp, forcing his neck into jerk twists, trying to look for something that seemed to move fast.
“He went out on a surprisingly dark and rainy March day in 2008 to buy bread from the only hawker who operated the Westlands streets. He never returned.”
Tendai Junior was groping the buttons of his military jacket, the muscles of his palms were stretched, and he looked like he wanted to rip the buttons off.
“He bought the bread and started walking back home. It began to rain so he started to run. The army guys thought he was running from something. They shot him. He died.”
The drizzle evolved into a downpour. I turned my head up, opened my mouth and drank the rain.
Dog barked and figures appeared from the corner of the roundabout. Tendai Junior jumped out and ran way and I didn’t even shout at him. There was no point.
Parking Boy came closer. The downpour energized into a torrent. The skies turned dark like night.
Parking boy caressed the bundle of 92 remixes.
“Is he really dead?” he asked.
“Yes, he’s really dead.”
“When did he die?”
“You can play something? We have nothing of his with us.”
I pressed play. Dog jumped out of the Mahindra and ran away and faded into the blurred landscape of the rained on city. Glass shattered. One. Two. Three. Jam. The song ended in a thunderstorm.
“You have his shoes.”
Goodbye and handshakes. Parking Boy let me through. Dog came back and jumped in.
I put my hands into the skirt-pocket and there were a few shillings. I unzipped the skirt because the cloth of it looked clean, took it off. I pushed her away to get to the man underneath. His fingers still clutched the bread swarmed over with blue-pink mold.
Maggot came out of the bullet hole on the top of the right shoulder and strolled slow over the chest-expanse of his plain blue shirt. Maggot was half in his nostril and half stretched toward his upper lip. Maggot was there with other maggots on his neck and every one or two seconds Maggot shimmied into a millimeter twitch which expressed the possibilities of after-life in him.
I picked him up and put him down on the road, separate from the others who lived dead in the gutter. I folded my legs and sat beside him. Maggot crawled onto my hand and I squished him and the sluggy mush spread over my palm. A few minutes later I got up, slung the skirt over my shoulder and went home.
I sat on the floor and Mother came in with the morning tea and sat down next to me. She breathed in the rottenness I had been touching. I wanted her to.
“I have boiled some hot water. A piece of soap still remains.”