“Old House” By Lena Anyuolo
On sweltering January afternoons, Nairobi stretches listlessly in the heat. Her towering skyscrapers like fingers splayed, unmoving, seeking respite from the unrelenting sun but receiving none. The inexorable patter of footsteps courses through her veins, alleys feeding into drives that feed into streets that carry this patter of footsteps and vehicles through her and away from her. The activity never balks, simply slowing in rhythm for when she needs repose, for even hearts need their rest, albeit momentarily, only for the rhythm to resume, incrementally, like the thump thump thump of a runner’s pulse as he ascends a hill.
That is how I found Nairobi on the day I am released. Frigid and languorous on a January afternoon.
Ambrosia wore a black dress with a pink paisley scarf swaddled around her neck; ironical in the January heat. We drove in silence to Old House, letting David’s ghost sit between us.
In the house, everyone was waiting for me. The dining table had been moved to one end of the room, on the east wall. On the table, a couple of used paper cups and plates were stacked on top of each other. A pot of chicken and rice remained open. A small portable stove simmered a broth languidly. My mother was the first to receive me. Her thinning afro braided into cornrows, creating an intricate quilt of black and grey hair. As I embraced her, I felt her saggy skin and an overwhelming guilt coursed through me. I bit my lower lip to stop myself from crying.
“How are you?”
“I am fine.”
“Welcome back Ray,” she said as she embraced me again.
What followed was a series of awkward hugs from family and friends. Half of them had no idea what the homecoming party was for or what exactly it is I was returning from. The half that knew were embarrassed. Where I was from was not a place that was easily explained or understood.
Ma’ pulled me to the dining table. “You must be hungry. Lord knows what they fed you in there.”
“No, Ma, we ate on our way here,” I replied.
“Nonsense, come now, have something to eat.”
The weeks before it happened were a blur, the days would fold into each other until I could no longer tell them apart. I slept till noon on most days, and only left our room when I knew he had left the house. I would pour myself a glass of wine, light a cigarette, take a long drag and tilting my head backwards, blow out thin wisps of smoke that unfurled one after the other as they disappeared into the air.
Sometimes I would watch reruns of Friends on Comedy Central in my pajamas. Most of the time, I sat on the bar stools by the kitchen counter and drank glass after glass of wine and smoke an entire pack of cigarettes.
On good days, I would go outside and watch the sunlight filter through the trees as I smoked.
He often arrived at 7pm. By then, I would already be in bed, having knocked myself out with Diazepam, Seroquel and a glass of wine.
I knew my behaviour puzzled him. We lived in the same house but hadn’t seen each other for weeks. On some mornings, I could feel him run his fingers along my thigh and eventually under my night dress, grabbing my ass cheek as he kissed my neck, trying to rouse me from sleep.
I would feel myself get aroused, for the desire was still there, but something in me had died. Killed off so suddenly that I would shudder when I faced this visitor, this cold hatred that had settled in his place.
Still, I grieved him. I grieved him for months, during the entirety of my trial and my prison sentence.
The first days with Grief were the hardest. She would nudge me constantly with mementos of what he had left, deceiving me until I would find myself wandering with her into his study. And amidst rows of laughter, and shelves of afternoons, I felt along the spines of each conversation. And Grief would push me further, and I would wander on, feeling through the pages, thick with words and song, and forget that this was ephemeral, a mere memory that would wear with age. And then Grief, satisfied with her visit, would bid me farewell and the pages would become thinner and thinner, until, diaphanous, they would granulate and dissolve into the air and I would be left feeling sadder than I was before.
Eventually I learnt to expect Grief’s visit, even miss it, her made-up face and bright lipstick and her penchant for vagueness, her love of the in-between. We stopped wandering into the library and began to explore other rooms and places, like the kitchen and the kitchen floor, where David and I first made love. He loved this memory, he often talked about it on his visits. I never knew why him and Grief loved it so much, it was such an awkward day for me. His pubic hair felt coarse on my pelvis and his kiss foreign. The face he made when he came was hilarious but I knew better than to laugh at how his lips parted making a wide ‘O’ and his eyes half closed as he made his final thrusts.
There is a rap on my door to my room. I stand up, pry it open and Ambrosia walks in, my little darling. Petite in her black dress and pink paisley scarf. As solid in her existence as the walls around us, far from the tiny mass of cells that once occupied my womb.
“Mum, you can take a bath if you want to, everyone is gone now, it just me and khukhu.”
“Before you go, would you stay a while with me?”
“I’d rather not,” she replies.
I sense she is desperate to leave but I insist either way.
“Please Ambrosia. Please sit with me.”
“Mum, please, I have to go help khuku clear the kitchen.”
“Will you be sleeping over?”
“I don’t think so. Can I go please?” she asks impatiently.
“Sure, but come say bye before you leave.”
We are sitting by the bay window overlooking the trees that form the perimeter of our property. Between us, two bowls of groundnuts, a cup of tea for me and a cold beer for him. Ondi plays in the background.
“I like her voice, who is that?” David asks as he take a sip of his beer.
“Ondi. Ambrosia introduced me to her. She says music might help me get over the trauma of prison.”
We sit in silence before he asks,
“Why did you kill me?”
“Is that what you came for? To find out why I killed you?”
“No, I came to see you. Can’t a man see his wife after not seeing her for ten years?”
“’David, don’t bullshit me please, we are too old for that.” I reply angrily.
“Okay, that is why I came, I came to find out why you killed me. That’s the main thing. But I also came to see you”’
“It’s because I had to David.”
“Why? Was it because of the affair?”
“No it wasn’t about the affair. I forgave you for that.”
“Then what Ray?”
I get up from my seat and head towards the radio. I fumble with the dial, letting the mumble of changing frequencies occupy the silence. Finding nothing satisfactory, I go into his library and come out with a Gary BB Coleman cassette.
“I already told you that I had to, I don’t know what else you want to hear,” I reply irritably.
“You’re being abstruse Ray.”
“I’d rather not talk about it David.”
He sighs and then leaning over, kisses my forehead and bids me goodbye, his bowl of groundnuts untouched.
I light a cigarette and close my eyes.
Old House was stunning. I remembered when I started working there, being mesmerized by the prominent gables that stretched their tips to the sky. The facade was divided into three bays, separated by beautiful pink columns. Pink became my favourite colour. On the porch, the wind chimes sang sweet songs as they swayed in the morning wind. That was when the house was its most glorious, juxtaposed against the orange light of dawn, it looked like a giant dollhouse.
Inside, the madam dressed the walls with her own paintings which were mostly brightly coloured brush strokes on white canvas or portraits of Yaya, her first born. The furniture was deciduous, often changing with her mood which was tempestuous. Sometimes she would lock herself in the master bedroom for days, never emerging even to eat. It’s because of her poor eating habits that she took on a gaunt appearance, looking quite aged even though she was 30. I knew she was 30 because she never missed an opportunity to mention it.
She would always say, ‘Ray, usione hivi, I’m very young, just 30 years old.’ and my reply was always, ‘Ukweli aunty, ata mtu hawezi jua, unaweza ata rudi university,’ and we’d both laugh. Her, that someone had validated her youthfulness, I, for the absurdity of it all.
In the seven years I worked at Old house, I never knew her name. Just aunty. David was the one who hired me.
David was a strange man. He wore kanzus all the time. It was odd because he wasn’t Muslim. He liked to sit in the backyard, amongst the flowering fruit trees, with the French doors open. That used to annoy me so much because it made me do double work of clearing up the leaves that went into the house and dusting the furniture even though I had done it in the morning.
When madam was in one of her moods, David would move into the guest house which looked like a square block of concrete in which three holes for a door and two windows had been carved out. He was insistent that I never go there, he would cook and clean for himself and only came to the main house to bring his dirty laundry to be washed. Yaya lived in the guest house with him for the duration of madam’s moods, but in the fourth year, when madam went completely crazy and tried to drown herself in the bathtub, Yaya was taken to live with David’s grandmother and madam was moved to the guest house.
After that, a man in his late fifties would visit every month. Sometimes he came with a very big suitcase which David would help him carry to the guest house. One day, when I was cleaning up after the doctor had seen madam, I peeped into the suitcase and saw a rectangular box with two prongs, a small screen and dial. It was on later on, after David and I got married, that I learnt it was an electroconvulsive therapy machine, because we used it on Yaya too. She inherited her mood swings from her mother. That’s what David said.
Things got really bad in the seventh year, the year madam died. She would scream and bang things all day and night and pour paint on herself or finish a painting only to break it in half. None of us could stand the noise and her erratic behaviour. I think David gave up. He was never in the house. I only saw him on Sundays when he would come home with a blithe young lady called Mira who would spend the night and leave with him in the morning.
I started taking madam’s pills. Diazepam and Seroquel. They would knock me out for hours so that I didn’t have to deal with her loud banging and screams.
Then in September, I don’t remember the date, I found her dead. She had killed herself no doubt, but we never got to know how because David didn’t want an autopsy and her body was cremated the following day. He then moved into Old house with Mira and burnt down the guest house. Yaya continued to live with her grandmother.
I fell in love with David’s hands. They were the softest hands I’d ever touched. After we’d made love, I would take his palms and trace the lines and pretend to read his future. He was the first man I had ever been with. Furthermore, I had grown up in that house. I started working for them when I was sixteen so it was only natural for me to say yes when he asked me to marry him. That was four years after madam’s death and a year after his divorce with Mira.
It was so strange sleeping in the master bedroom, on the same bed where he’d made love to madam and Mira and now me. It made me so uncomfortable. I decided to remodel the whole room, replacing the colonial style furniture with more modern pieces. It was only then that it felt truly mine. I left the rest of the house exactly the way it was.
I named our daughter Ambrosia, after the substance Cupid gave to Psyche to make her immortal. When Ambrosia was two years old, Yaya moved back to the house and David went back to work as a law professor at University of Nairobi.
I am getting increasingly worn by this city. It’s filthy streets, the smells of exhaust, chips and sweat, perfume and despair. Blunted by its ugliness which has become an endless hum of white noise that paces my movements.
I am driving to my mother’s house. It’s been a year since I was released. Ambrosia refuses to live with me so I have to shuttle back and forth from Old house in Karen to Athi River to see her. My mother told me to give her time to get over it.
“It was rough for her Ray. It was such a public scandal. That story follows her everywhere she goes.”
I find Ambrosia studying in dining room. She took after David. Her lithe movements giving a regality that betrays my humble background. Her father was a voracious reader and lover of the arts, a trait that she inherited; such that on the rare times that she visits Old House, she cocoons herself in the study.
Ambrosia was ten years old when I killed David. She wasn’t in the house when it happened. She was close to her father and his death came as a shock to her. The fact that the public had their eyes trained on my trial and my family members, herself included, did not help the situation. She knew from long ago that I was responsible for David’s death and that was the genesis of her resentment towards me.
We speak for a very short time. Her responses are curt. She asks if I have found a job or if I intend to live off of her father’s inheritance. I tell her work in Nairobi is hard to come by, especially for a form two drop out who is also an ex-convict. Her disdain for me is so clear it hurts. I don’t understand why baby won’t forgive me.
Grief pays me a visit today, we are sitting on camping chairs in the ridiculous gazebo that David built. We decide to talk about why I killed him.
I never went into David’s study. It was his shrine and it felt blasphemous to even touch the door handle. That was until I found out about his affair with Alice, a precocious 23-year-old who volunteered at the private mental facility where Yaya stayed as she received treatment for bipolar disorder.
When I confronted him, he made snide remarks about my mental aptitude and taunted me with the fact that I was a maid before I was anything else and that if it wasn’t for my big rump and breasts, I would still be cleaning window sills. Later on, he’d come and apologize by taking Ambrosia and I on a holiday abroad or buying me a new car or expensive jewellery.
Then one day he announced that Alice was pregnant. The amusing thing about all this was how open he was about the affair: “Ati Alice was coming to live with us because she was pregnant. Hmmmh. Men aki.”
Anyway, I didn’t argue with him. Instead, I cleaned up Yaya’s old room for her. She moved in the following week.She spent her days in David’s study. That made me jealous because he was very categorical about the fact that no one was allowed in there. Even madam never went there. But here was Alice, walking in and out of that room like she owned it. I decided to find out what was in there that he never wanted the rest of us to see.
I chose a Sunday afternoon when they were both out of house. I retrieved the key from the bedside drawer. The study was just as I had imagined it. Tall shelves filled with books lined the walls. The parquetry was coloured a dark brown to match the chair and table. In the alcove was a piano and behind it a fresco of the Oath of the Horatii. After that day, I started spending my Sunday afternoons in there reading whatever interested me. I even humored myself by playing the piano.
Eight months after Alice’s daughter was born, I discovered madam’s file. It was then that I learnt her name was Rose Mwiti. The file contained notes from David’s conversations with her doctor and a list of her prescription drugs. There was a smaller folder that contained details of hospital visits for numerous fractures and two miscarriages and a police report filed by Rose dated December 14th 1984. I continued to rummage through the drawer and found her diary. I read an entry dated June 6th 1986, a month before her first suicide attempt.
“I cannot take this anymore. I don’t know this man. I have lost two children in his hands and now he regulates how much time I spend with Yaya. My own child. I don’t know where my mother is anymore. Dear God, maybe she thinks I abandoned her for this mzungu. How will I leave this place? I simply can’t take this anymore. He is poison. Did my love mean so little to him? Did I somehow seem insincere with my feelings? Why is he so careless with it? Everyday beating me, beating me, blowing hot cold. Mara I am the most beautiful woman he ever met, the next thing, I am a smelly bat who can’t even carry a child. But if I go, who will I leave Yaya with? Should I take her with me? But it won’t be fair, she is too young. But which is better? Leave her with this insane man or to take her with me when I go away? I have already lost two children in his hands. I cannot leave my baby with him. I will take her with me.”
I spent months with Rose. She would visit me on Sunday afternoons in the study and tell and retell her pain.
“Ray, you think I wanted to lock myself in there? Which idiot would want to do that? Locked away for months away from her child. He told me my mind was faulty. But he made me sick Ray! I was never like this, swinging from high to low like a monkey. I was twenty when he married me and brought me to Old House. A house haunted by ghosts of the women before me. Do you know what happened to Mira? Of course you don’t. He hurt her too. He beat her up so bad. Poor girl. Of course you didn’t notice the scars. He hit her back and the inside of her thighs. Poor girl, she left here so disillusioned and dead inside. Probably made her sick too.
“He has a type you know, young with nubile breasts. That’s what he told me when I asked him why he pushed me to my death. That my breasts were hanging like chapatis and I was a broken woman who couldn’t even carry a child. The younger they are, the easier they are to break. Malleable little things is what he calls them. Samaki mkunje angali mbichi. Insane man with his broken Kiswahili..
“Ray, you have to help Alice. Help her get out. Her abuse is just about start. Just like yours started when you gave birth to Ambrosia. You have to help me get justice too. I will show you what to do.”
Alice didn’t stay for long. She was more empowered than all of us because she had a paying job and was educated up to university level. Unlike the rest of us, she didn’t need David’s money.
“Listen Ray. This is what we will do,” said Rose when I went to see her three weeks before David died.
“He is going to beat you up three weeks from now. He’ll beat you up very badly and you will have a swollen eye and a broken rib. But don’t worry, you will survive. You will go away for a while because you killed a mzungu. The law in this country likes wazungus. They have money and even from the grave they have influence. Underneath the parquetry in the alcove, there is a false bottom to the right of the piano. That’s where he keeps his gun. Take it with you to the bedroom. Put it in your drawer. He will be so drunk on that day and won’t have very good balance. You will shoot and kill him. Okay? No, don’t be scared. Do it for me Ray, and for yourself and Mira. Don’t be scared.”
The trial was a blur. I was charged with the murder of David Schwartz. Ten years later, I appealed and was exonerated after new evidence revealed the extent of the abuse of Rose Mwiti Schwartz, Mira Schwartz and I.
David stopped visiting after two years because I refused to tell him why I killed him. Sometimes I miss him, other times I shudder with anger when I think about what he did. I live as a recluse in Old House now, with Grief as my only visitor.
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