Enter Michael, dishevelled and panting. His movements are hurried, agitated and anxious. The kitchen door creaks on its hinges after his disinterested push. It does not close and it swings ajar behind him. In an instant, Michael has crossed the room as if out of a desire to distance himself from some pursuer, but now he is cornered. He stops, thinks for a moment and, realising the futility of trying to run away, returns to the door. He pauses there and, with his head cocked on one side, listens intently, trying to discern the frantic sounds of a shouted argument taking place outside. The sounds are dulled and muffled by echoes, but he stays where he is, afraid to approach them. There are several voices: at least five are shouting in apparent opposition without any one gaining the ascendancy. Thus all blend to form a single, incoherent and meaningless noise. Trying to listen is pointless and so, with a rueful shake of the head, he advances into the room again, but this time he moves more slowly, with greater resignation, beneath some weight.
He decides to sit but cannot relax. Perched on the very edge of the settee, he leans forward with his head bowed and his hands resting on his knees. He seems poised to act but is powerless. He can do nothing, now. It is too late. Still without success he tries again to make sense of the garbled noise from outside. Although he knows what is being said, he is still curious to hear, to eavesdrop on this mêlée which is surely about him and him alone. He becomes so engrossed in what he thinks he can hear in the waves of sound, that he remains quite oblivious to his own discomfort. He is sweating profusely and his tanned face is flushed red. He remains totally engrossed until a drop of perspiration runs down the side of his nose. It tickles. A facial muscle twitches and his hand involuntarily rises to scratch.
Partly out of tiredness, partly out of frustration, he continues to rub hard at his cheek long after the discomfort has waned and then he wipes his brow. For a moment he studies the beads of sweat which now glisten on his fingers and then, sighing resignedly through pursed lips, he finally removes his camouflage hat and uses it to fan himself. All thoughts of immediate discomfort are dispelled by the sound of an animated crescendo in the argument outside. Again he listens intently, but still only deciphers an odd expected word. Apparently without knowing, he twists his hat into a tight ball and does not let go. He is powerless in his frustration.
Gradually he becomes aware of his tiredness. Sitting back on the settee, he rests his head. For a few brief moments he sifts through his recollections of the day behind closed eyes. As if to confirm this unfortunate reality, he tries to reorder his memories, to analyse them, perhaps understand them, but even the most recent are clouded in doubt and all paths lead inexorably toward the same unfortunate end.
Tension again refuses him any relaxation. His eyes open and glance toward the sideboard beneath the iron-framed window. He stands, impatiently discards his crumpled hat without bothering to look where it lands and crosses the room. From within the sideboard he selects a small dainty glass - a sherry schooner, which happened to be the nearest - and proceeds to examine the labels of the numerous bottles. Just as he had expected, tucked away at the back of the cupboard for safety’s sake, he finds John O’Hara’s private store of poteen. The harsh liquor seems to clear his mind. The act of drinking, itself, seems to demand his total concentration; demands it so completely that he seems to be lost in some judgment of the quality of the brew as he savours every remnant of its taste. For a while he can ignore the complications of the moment as his thoughts follow the inch-by-inch progress of the liquid in his dust-dried throat. Slowly, thoughtfully, he wanders back to the settee, taking the glass and bottle with him, apparently only partly conscious of what he is doing, as if he might just have forgotten to let go of them. He seems to be consciously trying to exclude the here and now. His eyes are blank, as if his thoughts are removed to another time or place. But the voices are impossible to ignore. They will not go away.
This time he is determined to relax, to ignore the noise before it destroys him. Having poured another whiskey and lit a cigarette, he begins to feel at least a little easier through the exhaustion. So, lying spread-eagled across the settee with one foot resting on the Bishop’s coffee table, he begins to doze. Consequently, he does not notice, after only a few moments, that the argument subsides. For him, it merely continues, apparently as it has done already for so long. The oft-repeated words and familiar pictures continue to fill his head and render him oblivious to all else. He is not even conscious that the kitchen door is opening.
Enter John O’Hara, Bishop of Kitui. Like Michael’s, his movements too are hurried, but unlike Michael’s, their impatience is clearly born of great anger. His face too is flushed red, but his expression testifies to the frustration that reels inside him without release. His gaze darts about the room like that of a cornered animal, but then fixes with an intensifying glare on Michael. Carefully, O’Hara moves away from the door and faces the settee, moving silently save for the light rustling of his white nylon robe. Even his usual wheezy breathing is suppressed and inaudible. He stands by the low table staring at Michael for some time and, though he grows visibly more impatient with the passing of every second, he makes no attempt to rouse the priest from his apparent comfort.
Eventually Michael opens his eyes and sees O’Hara standing before him, hands on his hips and face set in condemnation. Michael hurriedly tries to stand but O’Hara’s cold and calculated words pre-empt any movement.
“Oh no, don’t get up, Michael,” he says, sarcastically. “Don’t let me disturb you. Sleep on. Sleep as long as you like. I’ll pick up the pieces.” As Michael stands, O’Hara turns aside offering a dismissive gesture of the hand.
“What happened out there?” Michael’s manner is again nervous and hurried. His face is tense as he looks across to O’Hara who is now staring through the French windows into the garden, with his back squarely offered to the room. A number of near-explosive ripe passion fruit frame the view.
O’Hara does not answer immediately. He is obviously trying hard not to over-react, which under the circumstances would be his normal reaction. But he loses his battle with himself and turns in anger to face Michael. “Didn’t you just look the perfect picture?” O’Hara casts a long and condemnatory stare, but now Michael simply turns away. Both men know they are now following a script, which has been enacted before in less exacting circumstances.
As O’Hara continues, Michael turns his back and slowly walks around the back of the settee. Though he is obviously trying to ignore the criticism, every word bites deep and causes much pain. “You have just murdered some poor wretch out there. You leave me to carry the can and then wander in here, help yourself to my whiskey and calmly go to sleep on the sofa... as if nothing had happened!” O’Hara’s voice begins to break with emotion.
Michael too seems ready to explode with anger. He turns to face O’Hara and, counting out each point on his fingers for added emphasis, shouts his reply. “One: I have murdered no-one. Two: you ordered me in here because you said I was getting in your way. Three: if you had any idea what I have been through recently, and today in particular, you would begrudge me nothing!”
O’Hara displays a complete lack of respect for Michael’s point of view. Shaking his head, he turns away impatiently and says, “Michael, a dozen people or more witnessed what happened. If what they say is true, you’re in deep trouble. Don’t you see that?” O’Hara’s pleading eyes demand that Michael should accept reason.
“And what about my version? Aren’t you interested in that? Don’t you believe me?”
“It’s not a question of what I believe. All I want to know is what happened so I can decide what we ought or ought not to do.” His fists are now clenched in despair. He wants to help, but all Michael’s actions seem to reject every offer. Perhaps he is not worth the trouble. O’Hara cannot begin to understand why his priest seems to resent any help or advice he is offered.
During the strained silence that follows, both men appear to grow calmer. It is possibly fatigue that has silenced them. For an hour or more they have stood in the sun to argue with a shouting and hostile crowd. Pure shock has taxed Michael’s strength. Self-pity, a product of the frustration at being cornered, has sapped most of O’Hara’s strength. He slumps in the chair beside the French windows and buries his face in his hands. Michael stares at him at first. This is perhaps the first time he has ever seen the man admit any limitation. But then, as if through guilt, his gaze drops. He runs his fingers through his hair and bows his head. His hand grasps the back of his neck almost aggressively. He is powerless now.
After some minutes of silence, O’Hara sits up in his chair, takes a deep wheezing breath and then speaks in a changed voice. Clearly he has used the pause to discipline his emotions. “Sit down, Michael. Sit down. Let’s go through the whole story. No-one can interrupt you now.” As Michael returns to his place on the settee, O’Hara lights a cigarette. His voice is suddenly ever so slightly paternalistic and falsely reassuring, which suggests to Michael that his mind is already made up. “Let’s start right from the beginning.” O’Hara leans forward with his palms outstretched, preaching.
Michael vacillates for a moment, but then resignedly decides that whatever the outcome, he is trapped. In the current debacle, O’Hara is his one and only potential ally. He tries to cast his mind back several hours to that morning, but finds it difficult to remember anything with clarity. “My mind’s gone completely blank.” O’Hara watches him reach for the bottle to refill his glass.
“You’ve been drinking far too much of late.”
Michael glances across at him. Conflicting emotions force two instinctive replies to the forefront of his mind. He wants to tell O’Hara in no uncertain terms to mind his own business, to counter threat with threat, but his conscience knows that the Bishop is right. In silence, he continues to fill his glass with whiskey, but his internally acknowledged guilt shows through as attempted defiance.
“I thought you would have realised long ago, Michael, that you have no secrets here. Reports about you have been reaching me for some time now and, as you know, if it has reached me...”
”… Every other muckraker in the district knows already. I seem to have heard that somewhere before,” says Michael with deep and angry sarcasm.
O’Hara is much calmer now and does not accept the obvious invitation to argument. Again he tries to defuse the tension that still threatens to break Michael’s voice. “You’re not doing yourself any good at all, Michael.” The older man’s words seem to be weighted with wisdom. He takes his chance. “We’ve got to start somewhere. Why don’t you start by telling me why you drove into town today?”
Michael barely hesitates here. It is clear that, though there is a gulf between them, he retains an ultimate trust of the Bishop’s intentions. “All right, John -” his voice is suddenly and unpredictably animated, “ - but I’ve explained all this once when I made my statement to that whore of a policeman.” O’Hara remains vigilant. His silence tells Michael not only that this makes no difference to his desire to hear it again, but also that this time there will be more space. Inwardly, Michael is deeply grateful for this.
“All right. First of all, you will remember that about a year ago my Thitani catechist’s wife had a baby?” Michael looks up and sees O’Hara nod. “Well there were complications. It finished up with me rushing the two of them, Boniface and his wife to Muthale. It turned out to be a breach birth and Sister Mary had to do a Caesarean. She needed some blood so I gave it. Anyway the result of it all was both mother and child survived. Now as you will know I have always had a very good relationship with Boniface...”
“Yes I know him. He’s a fine, fine man.” For just a moment, O’Hara is trying to picture Boniface Mutisya. He sieves through recollections of the numerous reports relayed by Michael, which have spoken consistently of the young catechist’s devoted and conscientious work in Thitani.
Michael then continues. “Well the fact that his child would have died without my help - without my blood - has made me in his eyes almost a member of the family.” He pauses for a moment. His frustration begins to return as he realises that all this is nothing more than irrelevant. It is mere background, no more than the mechanics of how he came to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He looks up toward John O’Hara with an expression of almost complete hopelessness.
“Go on Michael. It’s all important.”
With his eyes momentarily closed, he continues, but now more slowly, less impetuously. “I suppose you know that the child has been sick for some time. I was over in Thitani last week and even then the poor thing looked all but finished. I told Boniface that if things were to get any worse he should come to see me straight away and I would take them all to the hospital. Well, he came to me this morning.”
At first John O’Hara nods, but his expression quickly changes to one of confusion. “I’m sorry, Michael,” he says, holding up his hand to enforce a pause in the story, “but why didn’t you go to Muthale? Why come all the way to Kitui?”
An ironic smile spreads across Michael’s face as he stares pensively at the floor by his feet. He shakes his head as he frantically searches for a simple answer to the question. He can see a clear and tangible motive for his decision, but how can he possibly communicate it? Frustration tightens his grip on a handful of his own hair and his face apparently grimaces in pain; but, for all his efforts, all he can muster in reply is “Oh shit, where the hell do I start?” He looks up, apparently in search of help, though quite obviously without expecting to receive any. He is stunned by O’Hara’s calculated prompt.
“It has something to do with Miss Rowlandson, I think?”
With both surprise and contempt, Michael bursts out into a histrionic, sighing laugh. “You really do keep your eyes and ears propped open, don’t you?”
“Eyes, Michael, not ears. I’m not, and never have been, interested in idle gossip, but I know that Miss Rowlandson has been in some kind of trouble. You’ve been expecting a letter from her for some time.”
Sheer astonishment brings an involuntary smile to Michael’s face, but as O’Hara continues it fades to be replaced by an expression closer to hopelessness.
“Whether or not you realise it, you’ve been going around in a dream for weeks. Privately I have been very worried about you.” A slight scoff from Michael causes O’Hara to speak more sternly. “Should I say then that I have felt a lot of sympathy for you. I know what it’s like to be in a position like that...”
“I doubt it.” Michael is mumbling sarcastically.
“Well let me tell you, I do know. And let me tell you something else. Your letter came to my post-box by mistake. I don’t know why it happened, because it was correctly addressed, but you know as well as I do that things often go astray across the road in the post office. Anyway, after I’d put it in the Migwani pigeonhole down at the mission, I came back here to find Pat waiting for me with his parish accounts. I asked him to call in at the mission, pick up the letter and then to drop it in to you on his way up north. He obviously forgot. He left here in a hurry, you see, to collect his messages from Hassan before he closed the shop for siesta. It must just have slipped his mind.”
“Well it did and it didn’t, it seems. He forgot the letter, all right, and then, when he called in on me late last night, he suddenly remembered he’d left it behind. Typical fucking Irishman. ‘Now I remember’, he says. ‘I’ve forgotten your letter. It’s in the mission in your box. I was supposed to bring it’. I almost set off for town there and then, but it was really late and I’d been out on the bike all day. I was just too tired... and Pat and I had finished the whole bottle.” The last phrase was delivered silently.
“All right, Michael, never mind the ifs and buts. So you decided to leave it until this morning. Now carry on...”
“I got up especially early. I just couldn’t wait to get into town. I was ready to set off at seven. It was then that Boniface arrived looking very flustered, the poor sod.”
My dear Michael
I shouldn’t really be trying to write this - I’m in no fit state. If it all sounds a bit strange, then put it down to the Valium. I’ve been on them for a week - but I thought I’d better write to keep you in the picture. I know you’ll be worrying, but really there’s no need.
Funny, I can hardly remember where I got to in the last letter. Oh yes, I need to explain all that first. I tried to finish that letter dozens of times, but I never really succeeded. I kept having to add bits as things developed. It must have given you quite a shock. In all, that letter covered over a month - about five weeks, I think, between the first and the last tests. I really was in a terrible state when I first got those results. I knew I was pregnant all along. That’s why I couldn’t bring myself to believe the negative results of the others. My periods always have been irregular, but somehow I knew it was different this time. But even then, when I’d seen it written down in black and white, I still couldn’t accept it was going to happen. I suppose I wasn’t quite with it anyway. Pete, bless him, got me some Valium, because my nerves were just so on edge. I can remember sitting in front of the doctor’s desk and him handing me a slip of paper with my results on it. I remember that he asked me about Pete and I somehow managed in a few sentences to tell him virtually everything I have ever told you in two year’s worth of letters. God knows how I did it. I can’t remember a word of what I said. Things are just the same, by the way. As usual he has been a godsend as far as helping me to get by is concerned but, again as always, on his own terms. He just refuses to talk about the baby in any way whatsoever. It’s as if it didn’t exist. In fact, you know, you’re the only other person who knows about it apart from him and myself and my doctor. I certainly can’t tell my mother. I just couldn’t face her. I’ve been so stupid. You know I can’t help laughing at times. It’s nearly two years since I saw you but yet I feel I am still closer to you than to any other person on earth.
Now Thursday. Couldn’t write any more last night. I was falling asleep with the pen in my hand and anyway Pete had to get up early this morning so he wanted the light off. I got your letter this morning - but more about that later. I’ve got some important news. I met Pete for lunch today and we had a really good talk. That’s the annoying thing about him. When I want to discuss something with him, I can hardly prise a word out of him. Any other time he won’t shut up. Anyway the result of it all was that I made my mind up. Whatever happens I can’t envisage myself being tied to him in the future. I don’t trust him. We still get on all right, don’t misunderstand me. It’s just that he’s so immature. Anyway as a result of our talk I’ve made my mind up to have an abortion. The stupid thing is that he now seems to want me to have the baby. He won’t marry me. (Which is good because I won’t marry him). He seems to think that we could carry on just as we are now and the presence of a child would make our relationship stronger. See what I mean about being immature? I’d booked to see the doctor this afternoon and by the time I’d got there my mind was made up. So, it seems, was his. Basically, he produced a couple of forms. I signed them and that was it. It didn’t really hit me until I got home. I simply burst into tears and cried for an hour or more. I feel a little bit silly at the moment, a bit like a little girl crying for her mummy. I really don’t want to have an abortion, but it’s the only practical solution. I just don’t trust Pete so if I keep the baby I’ll have to be prepared to bring it up myself, and I don’t feel strong enough to do that. Adoption? If I went through with it and had the baby, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to give it away. So you see it’s the only choice left. Must go. Pete’s home.
Oh shit, Michael. Some hours later. What have I done? Pete was furious when I told him. Suddenly he wants to talk about it. He says he wants to marry me for the sake of the baby. I was so surprised I could hardly answer. What came out, almost without my thinking about it, was that I had written to you saying that I didn’t trust him because he was too immature. And then what does he do? He storms off saying that he’s going off to spend the evening with Jenny. I know we decided from the start that living together didn’t mean owning one another, but to offer to marry me in one breath and then to say you’ve got a date in the next is a bit thick. I’m sure he only does it to convince me how lucky I am that he gives me any attention at all.
I haven’t told you the full story yet. The doctor said he would get me into the clinic some time next week. He’s put me down as an urgent case because he reckons I’m over twelve weeks pregnant. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? He told me it would all be over within twenty-four hours - that I’d only have to stay in one night. I may even be able to get away without having to tell my mother. I’ll write to you as soon as it’s over. Don’t worry.
Later in bed. I must try to finish this. It’s about four o’clock and Pete hasn’t come home yet. I’ve been waiting up for him drinking coffee by the gallon and smoking cigarettes two at a time. He must have stayed the night with Jenny. I’ve decided to carry on writing because I want to be awake when he comes in. He’ll have to come home before he goes to work in the morning because all his stuff is here. I’ve got to do something to stay awake because I’ve taken some more Valium. Now where was I? Oh yes. Your letter. I’ve just read it again. Oh Michael, how could you have written that? I wrote to you before because I just didn’t know what to do next. I wanted advice, not a proposal. I was dallying with the idea of having an abortion even then. I wanted you to give me some support by telling me that I had to do what I thought was best, which at that time was to go through with it and have it adopted. You can imagine the shock I got when I opened your reply and realised you were telling me in one breath to have the baby and then in the next asking to marry me! If only it were possible - what am I saying? You are and always will be the closest of friends, but marriage? I thought you were joking at first, but then I realised just how serious you were. I must admit that it made me get very emotional. But surely you know I could never ever accept. I know how much your work means to you - I know how much you love Africa - and how little is your desire ever to come back here for good. Thinking about you has certainly brought back very sweet memories of my time in Migwani. I’ll never forget it … or you … Oh I don’t know. I’m so mixed up I don’t know what I want. I wish you were here. I’m sure it would all seem so much clearer with you around. Here’s Pete.
Am going to sign off now or I’ll never get this letter sent. Pete asked me if he could read both your letter and this one. He was really upset about what I was writing to you. I think it may have shocked him a little. Maybe he’ll realise now just how little help he’s been of late. By the way, just as an example of how silly he can be, when he read your letter, he just laughed. The fact that you, a priest, were proposing to me for the sake of his baby amused him, but I’m afraid the joke was lost on me. If he finds the idea so silly, then maybe that’s a sign that I should think about it more seriously! Anyway, Michael, please don’t worry about me. I’ll write again as soon as I’ve got anything definite to report.
With a deep sigh, Michael laid the letter aside and leaned back in his chair. He had read it so many times that now he seemed to read almost exclusively between the lines. In his own mind, he had invented so many things that were not said, that they had begun to cloud and obscure those things that were there. Above all other thoughts, however, were those provoked again by the last line, “... as soon as I’ve got anything definite to report...” The letter had been posted almost two months ago. He had heard nothing more from Janet. He himself had written three times asking for more news. At last a letter was waiting for him in his post-box in Kitui.
After drinking the last of his breakfast coffee, he carefully folded the letter and replaced it in its envelope, tucking it into the breast pocket of his shirt. He then went into the kitchen, where he rocked in turn each of three blue gas bottles stowed away beneath the sink. Two were obviously empty, so he carried these, one in each hand, out of the back door of the mission house and set them down on the baked earth of the driveway next to the car. Back inside the house, he picked up his cook’s shopping list from the kitchen windowsill and then returned to the living room. For a moment he simply stared blankly around the room to make sure he had not forgotten anything. There was nothing more to remember. After a visit to the toilet he would be on the road.
On returning to the living room, he again looked around pensively. He was convinced he had forgotten something. It was one of those occasions when senses tell you one thing, but something else, much wiser, seems to know better.
Surveying the confused state of the mission house, he racked his brains for some clue to the source of his indecision. The building site that lay before him offered no help, only more confusion. The place had been in hiatus ever since the fire and, though the debris had all been cleared and even the new roof had been completed, there were still numerous finishing jobs to be done, such as panel fixing, a new ceiling to complete, painting and general decoration. As a result, there were still piles of used paint tins, tools, off-cuts and fixings lying around the edges of the room, some half-covered by dirty sheeting. There was a smell of fresh wood shavings in the air, remarkably strong, even alongside the pungency of paint stripper and putty. The place was in a complete mess, nothing less. The lack of ceiling boards actually also made it rather a noisy place to be, as gusts of Migwani’s incessant dust-laden wind regularly blasted the new and shining sheets of corrugated iron with grit. And even louder, when the metal sheets changed temperature, they would expand or contract and pull against the fixing nails. These were, of course, all so new that the structure had not yet found its own tolerance, and occasionally there would be a sudden and quite immense, unexpected crash when a particular sheet tore a little as its vast internal forces strained against one of the toughened nails. Amidst all this, he was frantically trying to remember some detail he was sure he had forgotten. A minute later he gave up. There was nothing else to remember. It was then that Boniface rushed into the room, panting.
“Boniface. I didn’t expect to see you today. I’m just on my way to town.”
He did not wait for Michael to finish. “Father, it is very serious,” he gasped. “I have rushed here on my bicycle to ask you for a very great favour. Muthuu is much worse since last night. This morning he is still very sick. We are very afraid for him. I have come to ask you if you can take him to hospital?”
Though Boniface was obviously suffering great distress, Michael’s first reaction was one of impatience. This did not seem to cause any surprise. After a quick glance at his watch, he turned to face the young man and said, “Look, I have to get to Kitui this morning. I don’t want to stop on the way.”
“That will be all right, Father,” said Boniface. “We can go with you and go to the government hospital.”
“But you ought to go to Muthale. Sister Mary knows the baby. If you go to Kitui you’ll have to stand in queues all day. I’ll drop you in at Muthale on the way into town.” There was a hint of frustrated resignation about these last words. It caused Boniface to feel very defensive.
“But my wife is in Thitani...” This was a problem. Muthale Hospital would be on the way from Migwani to Kitui, but Thitani was in another direction, and it was near inaccessible by car from Migwani.
“Oh Jaysus,” said Michael, turning aside and waving his arms in a gesture of despair. “All right. Let’s go. You can leave your bike here.”
There was no point driving to Thitani and then back to Muthale. That would take about as long as going straight to Kitui on the main road. Within a couple of minutes they were under way, the car trailing a swirl of red dust from the dirt road. The noise of the road, the bangs of the bottoming suspension in the potholes and the rattling shudder of corrugations precluded any further conversation. Michael’s mind began to wander through the memories of that night, almost a year before, when Boniface and his heavily pregnant wife had arrived at the mission house together. Momentarily, he remembered the two forgotten blue gas bottles that he presumed were still standing by the kitchen door.
Munyasya troubled people little. The less he interfered in their day the better it was for everyone. Nevertheless, he was never ignored. He had become a part of the town, an apparently permanent feature of its life. Wherever he went, all attention was automatically his. His every wish or whim was answered, though usually he demanded nothing, and his every incomprehensible word was heeded and interpreted by anyone who might hear. He was capable of talking continually to himself in a gravelly speech, which, for the most part, was no more than a breathless whisper, a mumble whining from the chest. Hidden beneath the lank strands of saliva-matted hair which formed his full, but straggling moustache and beard, his lips could often hardly be seen to move as he spoke, so his voice seemed more of his body than his mouth. His chest, naked and hairless, possessed the concavity of decrepit old age, his entire body appearing bottom-heavy as if the organs it once held and supported had slipped to the depths of his distended belly, the breath fuelling his words coming more from the gut than the lungs. If he spoke louder, his stomach would heave, swell and contract like a wrinkled balloon, mimicking the rise and fall of his voice.
This was Munyasya, old, weary and weak, his blank, dark eyes clouded red with drink, dressed only in torn shorts and the brown remains of a raincoat; but always all this was proudly topped by an army officer’s hat, with a resplendent shiny black peak. The regular polishing of this, with spit and a vigorous rub with a torn flap of his coat, was his only, but dutifully, if sometimes inaccurately, performed daily chore. As a result, though the peak still shone, the rest of the hat was blotched with stains where wayward gobs had been rubbed into the felt. Thus he sits each day beneath the shade of the broad acacia in the market place, his spidery legs spread like broken twigs from a felled bush that was never quite a tree, until the bottle that he never releases is again empty.
Then he rises to his feet and, with the slow laboured deliberation of the destitute, he begins to hobble, to shuffle short step by short step, his movement so heavy that the dust beneath his feet might be mire. Without his stick he could surely never walk. It seems to take the entire weight of his double-bent body, so that his legs might be released from their burden to edge forward, hindered only by their own weakness. Slowly, deliberately, his bent form crosses the shadeless open ground of the market-place until he reaches the bar, his goal, towards which surely only instinct guides him now, since there can be little sight left in his eyes.
This bar, whose crude, rusty tin roof cracks and creaks in the ever present Migwani wind, whose mud walls melt with each storm; this is Munyasya’s goal. He is known here. This small rectangular hut, windowless yet draughty and cool is his only true home now, the only sanctuary that he himself knows. Inside it is surprisingly light. Walls, which appear from the outside to be featureless and dark, are transformed on entering. In fact they are painted white, though a white which in places has faded badly. Near the earth floor, the walls display brown rivulet stains where liquids of various types have spilled or splashed. Higher up, a grand repeated image contrasts with the stronger, less discoloured white. A gaping wide-eyed hunter is wrestling with a snake that is coiling both its body and its absurdly long tongue about his limbs. Waving above and below this painting is a motto in Kikamba that roughly translated could mean, “One finger alone cannot kill fleas.”
On entering, he says nothing, yet, as always, he appears to speak constantly, thus demanding the attention of all assembled there, but never quite divulging the only part-heard secrets in his voice. Having crossed the room in his methodical, machine-like but stalling step, he habitually slams down his empty bottle onto the plastic-topped counter, always neatly avoiding the wide metal grille which stretches from bar to roof (there is no ceiling) to protect the till from those who, in the past, have been tempted to grab what they can and run (but never very far).
Maluki, the barman, and the latest in a long line of renowned brewers of uki, a home-brew of sugar and water, then fills the bottle from his apparently bottomless jug and places it on the counter. Not a word is said. Sometimes, there is not even a glance of either greeting or acknowledgement for Munyasya. The sooner the job is done, the sooner the old man will go and leave the customers in peace and untroubled.
Two heavy raps of the bottle on the counter is the sign that it is full and then, somehow, the old man’s hands grope and feel their way until they find their prize. And they grasp it. Then, like clockwork he raises the bottle to his lips (to check that it has been filled to the top?) and with a new smile lighting his entire face finally turns to begin his shuffling hobble back to the tree, his shade, his rest.
There he dozes away the long hours of daylight, occasionally drinking his beer, taking no more than a sip each time, until the shivering cold of darkness forces him to cross the square back to the bar once again. There, after another refill of the bottle, he sits in a corner on the bare earth floor and sleeps, untroubled and ignored, still grasping his beer bottle as if he dare not let it go.
When morning comes, he awakens at sunrise when the first warming rays from the east filter through the bar’s holed and unhinged door. He gently pats the rough ground at his side with the palms of his hands until he finds the food which Maluki always provides, unasked. Always ignoring the spoon, which nevertheless the barman never forgets to supply, he eats his daily ration of boiled goat’s liver and bread with his fingers. It is his only meal of the day, indeed of any day, and it is consumed, without enjoyment, but with gratitude and vigour. He knows that this food is expensive and in limited supply, much sought after by all those who over the years have lost their teeth and cannot chew tough meat or grains and pulses. But this gratitude never overflows into expressions of thanks to Maluki. After all, as an old man, destitute perhaps, is it not his right that the young should tend to his needs?
At last, amid grunts of morning stiffness, he empties from his bottle of beer any dregs remaining from the previous night before presenting it again at the bar for another charge. Now ready to begin his day, he again stumbles across the market square to the shade of the acacia, now known by everyone as ‘Munyasya’s tree’, to mumble, drink and doze his way through the hours of daylight, always unhindered and untroubled by those going about their business around him. There he remains, apparently ignored, but yet inevitably the focus of many minds that privately fear him, or, more accurately, what they believe lives within him.
It was not Munyasya the decrepit old man whom people feared. Munyasya, the old, weak and destitute alcoholic, was no more than part of the landscape here. For all people cared about this bone-bag, he could have been just another of the acacia’s spindling roots, as he sat beneath his tree through the heat of the day. Neither was it Munyasya’s seniority in the community that called for respect. He was old, perhaps the oldest man in the town, who could know? But though age alone is worthy of some respect, it is the wisdom which accompanies it which provokes the greater part of peoples’ fear of the old and, in this state, no one could claim wisdom on his behalf. It was another Munyasya, unknown perhaps even to himself, that people feared. He was not seen often, this other Munyasya, but whenever he showed his voice, people would listen, and invariably scoff at what they heard, but they would keep their distance, never contradicting, never intervening.
Once a renowned officer in the King’s African Rifles, he had fallen victim to a purge after his country’s independence from colonial rule. Somewhere within complicated layers of internecine conflict, a number of important strands combined to result in Munyasya and many other senior figures like him being swiftly replaced. It may have been that the dominant Kikuyu power block within the new government saw the mainly Akamba and Luo officer class in the army as a potential threat. It may have been that Munyasya, and others like him, were seen as too imbued with the very essence of British militarism and all that went with it, such as assumptions about class, fitness to rule, worthiness to act. Surely here was a group that would act collectively, itself, in the future, if the nation did not appear to be upholding those values that they themselves held in unquestioning esteem. Or perhaps it was merely that a new nation needed a new beginning in all manifestations of its identity. A new nation cannot be built on old ways of thinking.
Whatever their motive, the new rulers, with a swiftness of action which in later years they would sadly lose, pensioned off many existing army officers and commissioned those of similar minds to their own from the ranks to replace them. Brigadier Munyasya (when he, himself, told the story) or Major Munyasya (when others repeated it, later) was one of those removed after a long and distinguished, if somewhat servile career. He was already long past retirement age, of course, but then no one, not even the man, himself, knew exactly how old he was. He had certainly served at least forty years and probably fifty, because his name - or at least variants of it - could be traced through various identities right back to the East Africa Campaign during World War One, when, as a boy, he had been drafted as a porter to trek after an army which searched valiantly, but found there was no war to fight. He survived the cholera, dysentery, influenza and malaria that killed so many of his fellows and saw the campaign through to its conclusion. Unlike the vast majority of his fellows, however, he was filled with awe and ambition by the experience so, when the Carrier Corps was disbanded and, almost to a man settled new land near Nairobi, thereafter known as Kariokor, Munyasya joined the army proper as a private. His progress at first was slow. He never had an education, could neither read nor write his name, could not even remember, after spending three formative years of his youth trekking the plains of German East Africa, how to plough, tend animals or weed a field of millet. But after the arrival from England of one Major Thomas Cunningham, Munyasya’s combined life and career took an important turn.
Munyasya Maluki became the young officer’s personal valet, a post to which he was admirably suited in the opinion of his Commanding Officer. “Munyasya is a true Mukamba”, the CO told Major Cunningham. “He is happy, polite, well-disciplined and docile. He will serve you loyally and well, but never once let him forget his subordinate status. Treat him as you would treat a child, because too much freedom is not good for these people. They have not yet learned how to handle it or use it.” Major Cunningham never forgot this advice and, over the years, followed it to the letter and hardly a day went by when he was dissatisfied with his servant.
Munyasya was both privately and publicly proud of his position and saw it unquestionably as a privileged promotion. Not only did it release him from much of the inane drudgery of day-to-day army life, but also, in time, afforded him numerous material and preferential privileges which came as reward for his continued, dedicated and faithful service. He gradually began to look upon Cunningham as a kind of substitute father, a replacement for the now shadowy stranger of a stepfather he had left behind in the bush those years ago when he had first enlisted. Major Cunningham was rock-solid in his belief in the universality of Anglican high-church morality. Its culture had moulded his entire life and beliefs, with the persona he presented to the world nothing but its manifestation in miniature. He thus felt privileged to adopt this role of joint commander and guardian of his own Munyasya. After all had he not already had the experience of bringing up his own children to appreciate what was right and wrong? Thus convinced of the absolute truth of his own convictions, Cunningham became a stern but concerned teacher, a rigid but caring father, a demanding but understanding superior. In Munyasya he found a pupil eager to learn, a ward eager to imitate, a subordinate eager to share the rewards of coordinated effort. In some not too distant future, the young man saw what he believed were the inevitable rewards of self-advancement which would flow from his opportunity. After all, it had worked for his master, and it would work for him.
Soon, on the advice of his master, Munyasya was baptized a Christian, taking the name Edward as his reward, naming himself after the English King, whose so memorable photograph had hung on the wall of the District Commissioner’s office he had once visited as a child. He had accompanied his stepfather, who was trying to lodge a claim to a piece of land the family thought they already owned. The boy’s jaw had sagged at the sight of that giant face framed in black on the wall, a face he saw as upside down, with all the hair at the bottom. The step-father, amused at his son’s immediate fright, had bent over to bring his own face to the boy’s level and pointed, encouraging him to say the words, “King Edward.” From that day until his enforced retirement many years later, he himself insisted that he should be called Edward and only Edward. He had also later tried, for decades, to emulate that beard, a style named king’ethwa, King Edward, in his own language of Kikamba, but had managed only a straggly, and now matted and dirty fuzz.
He even insisted on having Maluki, the name he had been told his own father had borne, erased from his papers, replacing it with Nzoka, his proud step-father’s name. Soon, however, an idea came like a revelation, a vision revealed through his contact with his European masters. After all, he had never known his father, or hardly even his stepfather, for that matter, and could see no reason to retain an identity that he had long since left behind. So Private Edward Munyasya, he became, dropping any reference to father or stepfather, thus turning his back on any identity other than his own. And so he stayed, until many years later. Those who ignored his wish, and continued to link him by name to a paternal identity he now wished to deny, he would learn to shun, as unworthy of his friendship. Of course, it was the Europeans in his life who more readily used his Christian name, whereas his fellow Akamba would invariably use the name that more easily rested on their ear. And so Munyasya shunned his original identity and became Private Edward in another world. As years passed, and as those who had known him dispersed or died, new generations knew him only as Edward, but by then his rank had changed and so, therefore, had his name. All those years later, as an old alcoholic, arguably insane and mouthing again the name of a father, he would be heard to deny that any Christian baptism had ever taken place.
Under Major Cunningham’s tuition, Private Edward learned quickly, religiously upheld all the virtues he was taught and, in time, gained not only the confidence but also the friendship of his master. For some years he followed Cunningham from one posting to another throughout East Africa, but never, it must be said, home to England during the periods of leave. It was during these months that Private Edward first mischievously and then at others’ behest, played at being his superior, taking on the airs and graces and even some of the functions of his master, in order to keep the office running. It was during these periods that the now literate Private Edward identified himself for the promotions that soon followed.
Then, suddenly, Private Edward’s life was changed. Harry Thuku’s words aroused a nation and transformed discontent into revolt. Major Cunningham entered active service, commanding a force that was now solely concerned with security, not defence. At his request, Private Edward became his personal assistant, entrusted with an ever-increasing amount of Cunningham’s command, thus releasing his superior to address greater, more pressing deeds. When the immediate problem was solved and disturbances died down, the real troubles began. A nation’s conscience had been aroused, its pride fired, and for the colonial masters, control was the only possible solution, the only way of avoiding continued embarrassment. Thus the future role for Cunningham, Edward and their army was defined, as was the need for more recruits to carry it out.
Impressed by his protégé’s work, Cunningham recommended Edward for training as an officer, which he duly received. It was perhaps not the formal structured training that the graduate of an English university might have received, but it satisfied local requirements, which demanded the promotion of ‘natives’ as both a practical and political necessity. Thus the beliefs that Cunningham had imparted over the years came into their own as Edward strove to become, in his own career, the very image of his master. Edward Munyasya had followed the example faithfully and had thus now received what he judged to be no more than his just rewards.
It was the Second World War that irretrievably transformed Edward Munyasya’s career and his life with it, though perhaps long before career and life had intertwined to the extent that they were no longer discernible as separate entities. He began in the Sudan, on the southern front of the North African Campaign and continued into Abyssinia. Later, he saw service right across North Africa to the Middle East, but not then as a member of the King’s African Rifles, a secondment enabling him to continue his support of Major Cunningham in his campaigns, an arrangement that could not survive his master’s crossing of the Mediterranean to Europe. His efficiency and effectiveness as a soldier were recognised and noted by his superiors, wherever he served. This, added to his proficiency with the English language, which, after Major Cunningham had sown the seed, he made it almost his life’s work to achieve, attracted responsibility. His accent was an image of Cunningham’s, Guildford crossed with Oxford, nasal vowels mixed with a pretension that endowed class, thus marking him as one worthy of command. And so he was promoted again, and repeatedly.
By the time he returned to Kenya, battle-hardened and further estranged from his roots at the end of the war, he was Major Edward Munyasya, Major Edward, as he was invariably known in formal circles. He returned to his homeland ready to assume the proud public role to which he had been assigned. In fact he was eager, if not impatient, to seek out and renew his acquaintance with Major Cunningham, but it was not to be. The man was dead, killed in action in Italy. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Munyasya felt himself alone.
Within a year Major Edward was abroad again, this time in India, again seconded from his own regiment, but this time on his own behalf, in recognition of the fact that he had become an efficient, effective, professional soldier. It was not war which required his services, but civil unrest and for two years he delivered training to local recruits, with those he commanded convinced by accent and action that this man had been trained at Sandhurst. With his job completed, he returned to Kenya, only to be posted again, after a few uneventful years, to Malaya, to a modern conflict that taught him new skills. In the mid-1950s he returned to Kenya again, this time never to leave, not yet quite a stranger to his homeland, to find that the things he had learned could be employed at home and, during the years that preceded independence, the Kikuyu and, on occasions, his own people, became his enemy.
The foe was to be contained, not killed and it was in part Edward Munyasya’s command which effected the policy of resettling whole communities of the Kikuyu people, to scatter them across the still artificial but now institutionalised country. When it became clear that the policy would not have its desired effect, the measures became harsher and their enactment tougher. Kikuyu men folk were to be moved from their home areas and held in camps where they could be ‘protected’ from the potential horrors of the Land Army. Major Edward, after first leading a transport section, was eventually transferred to become the commander of one such internment camp, incurring not only the undiluted wrath of its inmates, but also the unquestioning trust of his Commanding Officer and through him the respect of the administrators who directed him.
And then, as they had left India, the British left Kenya. Though on the surface there was more decorum surrounding the hand-over of power than in India’s chaos, behind the scenes there was nothing less than panic. Major Edward, at the behest of the departing power, was granted the rank of Brigadier. It was little more than a parting gesture, a way of both rewarding friends and also a last ditch effort to demonstrate to an increasingly hostile populace that the changes they demanded, notably independence, Africanisation and equal rights with the settlers, would have been granted in any case, in time. But it was this qualification that was the real bone of contention and the politicians knew it. Expediency ruled the day and the colony became an independent state. The British establishment, after accepting as a condition of American victory in the Second World War that their Empire would have to be dismantled, had convinced itself that it could hold on to at least some large tracts of territory, which as yet made insignificant contributions to the world economy. The status of the Indian sub-continent had to change immediately, but there was just a chance that quite large areas of Africa might be retained. They were wrong.
In the whirlwind of activity which followed KANU’s victory in elections, men like the now Brigadier Edward, those who, in government service, had collaborated with the British and enacted their policies, were ousted quickly and in most cases painlessly by prior agreement with the departing colonial power.
So, having had greatness thrust upon him by one hand, Munyasya was immediately stripped of the same by another. And so it was that the career army officer reluctantly retired to his homeland, which by and large he had never known, accompanied by his relative wealth and the security of his guaranteed lifetime pension to dull the sting of rejection. Amongst his own people, whom he had effectively left decades before, though he had never deserted nor even shunned them during his long years of absence, he immediately but reluctantly adopted a position of great social standing. With almost radiant pride, he continued to wear the uniform of his rank and thus both demanded and received a degree of respect within the community at least commensurate with that afforded to the country’s new administrators.
For some time he remained a public figure, but after unsuccessfully seeking appointment as a chief, he resigned himself to his old age and began to devote himself to farming the large tract of land he had bought and cleared. It became a full-time job. Being now too old himself for physical work and having no family to do it for him, he employed labourers to carry out his plans. He thus assumed the role of a manager, indeed a more fitting position for one of his standing in the community. The farm, however, soon began to run itself. As a farmer he was no more than an ignorant novice, whereas those whom he employed had many years of experience. So, gradually, Edward Munyasya’s role diminished, even became redundant. For the first time in his life, his days were empty. He had time to tell the tales of his life, of other lands and of the ways of the British, which he had come to know so well. But stories must have an audience, and Munyasya had none. Tales of the old are for the ears of the young, but Munyasya had no family. The only place which could offer him a regular and dependable audience in this, his home town, was the bar, so Munyasya, whist his labourers worked unsupervised, began to spend his days drinking in the half-dozen bars which encircled Migwani market.
There he renewed relationships with old friends whom he had previously seen only during his brief periods of leave. Unlike him they had no great stories to tell, having spent the entirety of their lives in their home areas. But, as time went by, their words began to affect him more deeply, to captivate his imagination far more than his fast-fading tales had ever affected them. Over the many years during which Munyasya’s life had been totally governed by the pressures of the present, he had ignored and thus almost forgotten the truths that he had been taught as a child, the same truths that still not only affected but governed the lives of his people. It was as if the unacknowledged and ignored fears of his own childhood had been raised from some neglected backwater of his mind. Common knowledge that he had ignored for decades came flooding back to him and privately he began to find it an increasingly painful process.
He had never married. Who would care for him when he fell ill in his old age? Who would mourn his death and, more importantly, who would continue his father’s name and line in his own memory? These were questions he had not considered for decades and, when his friends in the bar continued to press him for answers, eager to know how he could come to terms with his unenviable position, he began to see perhaps for the first time just how important these considerations had been before he left home to join the Carrier Corps.
Of course, he answered these questions by re-affirming his Christian faith. Publicly it offered a solution to every problem he might be called to face. It rationalised death, gave meaning to life as a progression to something greater, justified all he personally had done in life and, most importantly, excused his failures. But his adopted beliefs had never before been seriously challenged from outside in this way and the self-justification he offered his peers began to ring increasingly hollow in his ears.
He had in fact planned to marry before he left home to join the war effort. Virtually everything had been agreed, but at the time the adolescent Munyasya could not afford to pay the required dowry. He had persuaded his future father-in-law to be patient for a few months to allow himself time to earn the money needed to buy the cows which were being demanded for his future wife’s hand. Munyasya thus left for the war planning to save his earnings during the months he would be away. He would then fulfil his promise and have his wife. It would have been better that way, rather than to marry immediately and spend several years paying off the dowry piecemeal whenever surplus production on his stepfather’s farm allowed. This way would also allow him to pay everything at once, but neither he nor any of the others who had enlisted in the Carrier Corps knew in advance that their work would take them away from home for years rather than months of trekking through German colonial territory.
By the time he returned, his fiancée had married another and borne him a child. It was no consolation to learn that it had been the girl’s father who had insisted on the union, fearing that, as the months passed into years without sign of Munyasya’s return, he might be left with a completely unmarriageable daughter unless he acted quickly. The fact that he had already received several payments towards the dowry, which after all had been his only true desire, had made no difference. Saddened, Munyasya had returned to Nairobi after that short period of leave and enlisted in the army proper, determined to make it his career. As the years passed, even though he unquestionably put the disappointment behind him, it seemed that the opportunity to marry never again presented itself. Thus an old man, who possessed many grandfather’s tales to tell, had no grandchildren to listen.
As his dependence upon the company in the bar and with it his dependence on the beer he drank there both increased, continued reflection and thought prompted by his friends made him feel ever more cheated by his own life. The obvious differences between himself and those around him gave rise to deep private feelings of loneliness and isolation that, unrelieved, bred cynicism. Having had no family of his own and, over the years since independence, having either lost contact with or suffered estrangement from all his surviving relatives - none of whom had been close for over forty years anyway - he was left quite alone in what remained of his life. He began to shun contact with others, to avoid their increasingly painful questions and, for a short while, even toyed with the idea of leaving his farm to live in the city. But he had no friends at all there and he could not bring himself to desert the community, which for some years, had sought his advice, respected his wisdom and gratefully accepted his participation on councils and committees. People here seemed to need him and constantly encouraged him to stay. Loyalty, a quality he had always possessed in good measure, still governed all he did.
Until his accident, he had appeared to be in fine health. When he did not recover, it was assumed that his injuries had been very
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