Somewhere down a damp, patchy-grassed, walled corridor separating two blocks of houses in a South B estate, a man bangs on a metallic gate in the shadows cast by the early morning sun. It’s 7:25am, a cat basking on top of the wall reluctantly rouses from her reverie and lazily looks down at that man who has interrupted her quiet Sunday in the sun. She’s bemused. So is the man, come to think of it. The cat is one of those nameless and cynical estate cats that have never experienced love. She has never had her own feeding bowl or belonged to a family. Nobody has ever been worried about her welfare when they leave town. Nobody has ever carried her in the crook of their arm to the kitchen to check if the stew is ready. She has never felt the love of “ooing and aahing” and “she’s-so-sweet” of visitors who lovingly rub her fur. This cat doesn’t even have a name other than “cat”. Which is sad. It’s like being called “man.” Even if you are a woman.
The man banging on the gate is in a hat that’s sunken at its center. Nobody would be surprised if they learnt that early that morning he had shooed away a hen that had spent the night on that hat. Hat by day, nest by night.
Inside the small compound, in a crampy bed-sit smelling of overnight wine and cheap spirit and slumber, a lady is roused from her sleep on a small bed and listens to what she thinks is some banging. It is indeed banging, she confirms, and it seems to be coming from the gate outside. It’s the hot season so she’s naked. She’s a big, curvy girl with small breasts. She has a small golden stud in one earlobe.
She turns and looks at the guy who is fetally curled with his back to her, the sheets gathered around his waist like a deflated swimming floater. She stares at his back, the musical arrangement of his vertebrae. They look like the keys of some medieval wooden musical instrument. She wants to touch them with the tip of her finger as she counts them. They might produce a low, woody tune. They met three weeks ago, through her friend. To be clear, she’s not the girlfriend of this man with the sexy medieval vertebrae. This man with the sexy medieval vertebrae doesn’t have a girlfriend. He hasn’t had a girlfriend for a few years now. But this girl in his bed? Oh, that’s what luck looks like in these modern times.
“Timothy?… Timothy?” She shakes him gently. He’s a heavy sleeper, Tim. “There is someone at the gate!” He grunts and turns on his back, staring at the ceiling, taking a moment to come back to earth and to his 27-year old body. It occurs to him that nobody calls him Timothy anymore. But that’s not as bad as being called by his childhood name, Baba. He hears the banging. It’s his gate.
“It’s not your girlfriend, is it?” the girl asks.
He sighs. His breath could float a hot air balloon.
“What girlfriend? I told you I don’t have one,” he mumbles turning on his side to reach for his phone from the floor. He holds it up to get a better look at the time. His head pounds. Hangover.
“Are you not going to check who’s at your gate?” the girl insists. You know how a chick can say something innocent but it has an accusatory undertone? That’s how she asks that question.
“Okay, mother,” he mumbles swinging his legs from the bed and sitting for a moment, as if he might faint if he stands up immediately. He stares at the floor, at the paraphernalia of strewn clothes that tell a story of how hastily they were discarded the previous night. He gets up painfully and walks naked to the small toilet that also doubles as a bathroom. The lady looks at his ass as he walks away. It’s a very black ass. If sin was an ass it would be Tim’s ass. From the bed she watches him pee, listening to the strong stream of urine. The loo flushes. He coughs. He picks his jeans from the floor, slips into them without underwear. They are those annoying jeans with buttons instead of zippers. As he buttons them up he looks at her lying there holding the duvet to her neck.
“Do I have to dress up?” she asks.
“No,” he says opening the door. “I will be right back.” Then he steps outside, shirtless and barefoot, squinting in the bright light.
His bicycle – an old, blue mountain bike – is propped against one of the walls in his small square. The small gate leading to the main house was blocked permanently by the tenants in the main house. On the corner of his square is a big, black dustbin and some old bottles of vodka gathered in a crowd next to it. Two mismatched dumbbells. Very old Nike basketball shoes. A broom, propped up. A dead plant in a brown pot. He stoops under the looping network of washing lines to get to the gate.
“Tim, sasa?” the man says nonchalantly, when he opens the gate.
“Ahh, sasa Meshack,” Tim says, not too thrilled to see him either. (You know it’s not going to be a great morning if the first person you speak to is called Meshack.)
“Mzuri,” the man says, “I have been trying to call you.”
“Aaargh, yeah,” Tim says ruffling his long, thick hair. “Pole, my phone keeps acting up. It keeps hanging.”
“So, now?” the man asks impatiently. “You owe me two months’ rent. End of this month will be the third month and we can’t have it anymore.”
“I’m sorry, but there is a client who is supposed to pay this week,” Tim says stepping outside so that the girl in the house doesn’t hear this embarrassing conversation. “I will sort you out as soon as I get that cheque.”
“I don’t want to know about another client and another cheque, Tim. I want money. When you were moving in here I told you that I don’t want to follow you around for the rent. Now this is all I do. You are making me come here on a Sunday to ask for my money!” He sighs. “And I was told not to rent out this house to young people like you; you guys are just trouble. You want to be followed for rent. Why can’t you just be responsible and pay when you are meant to pay?”
Tim wonders who else would stay in that hole if not for “young people.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” he says, “it has been a bit tough – ”
“It’s tough for everyone, but this is a business,” the man barks. “I really need you to pay that money. I don’t want to come here with auctioneers.”
Tim grimaces. Auctioneers? What are they going to take? My hand-me-down bed from my cousin? Who would buy that old creaky bed? My old TV that isn’t even that smart, with a remote control that doesn’t even work. Are they going to take my one duvet and two bedsheets and my meko and Harpic and three sufurias and a handful of plates and glasses and shoes and socks and a dozen pairs of underwear and toothpicks? I have nothing.
“I will sort you out, just give me, like two weeks, I will have the money,” Tim says.
“I want that money in one week’s time, not two weeks. I will expect an Mpesa of 30K and not less,” the man says, walking away. Then he stops and takes a step towards Tim. “I have been patient enough with you but this is a business. If you can’t afford the rent here, just move out, let’s not skumana over rent.” Tim hugs and rubs his bare shoulders as he watches him walk down the corridor and turn out of sight.
The cat watching this scene unfolding from her front row seat lays her head down and purrs as if to say, ‘Boy, am I glad I don’t pay rent!” She knows Tim. She sees Tim come and go. Sometimes on his bicycle, other times on foot, a laptop bag slung behind his back. She never bothers with his garbage because Tim never really leaves left-overs and if he does, it’s three-day old chips and the occasional bones of chicken. Who wants to eat old chips? Not this cat, for sure. She might be homeless but she’s not desperate. His garbage is always egg shells and used tissue, pieces of used paper, onion peels, stalks of vegetables, meat wrappers, occasional used condoms, empty cans of beer and often discarded dreams. Tim is almost always home. She knows by the music from his laptop or when he’s on the phone, sometimes shouting, “I have told you a million times, I have started and restarted my router a million times and I still don’t have wifi.” Most times he’s alone. An occasional friend will visit on the weekend with a bottle of vodka or something cheaper. Sometimes there is the smell of weed, but it could be from the dodgy promoter in the main house. Tim listens to a lot of hiphop. You hardly ever see a girl in his house and when there is one it’s always a chubby one. He likes them chubby. The chubby ones laugh the loudest, she has learnt.
“Who was it?” the girl on the bed puts down her phone as he closes the door behind him.
“Oh, just a friend,” he says stepping into the bathroom. He looks irritated or glum. He comes out brushing his teeth and draws the curtain and opens the window above the bed. Light falls on the bed. The trapped smell of passion and moans and dishonest words escape the room. The curtains flutter happily in the breeze.
“Kwani what did they want?” she asks. (She’s the type who wants to know everything).
“Noffuing,” Tim says with a frothy mouth full of toothpaste. He closes the bathroom door. The loud sound of the instant shower starts. She gets off the bed and fetches her dress from the top of a suitcase on the small table at the foot of the bed and dresses in silence. When Tim walks out from the bathroom he finds only her black hairband on the dresser. He holds it between his fingers, studying it, then he brings it to his nose and smells her.
Tim draws. He’s an illustrator. He has always drawn. He started drawing landscapes in primary school: the sun and acacia trees and Maasai’s standing on one leg. Then that got tiresome, because how long can you keep a Maasai on one leg? In high school he studied art and design and discovered the human form, especially the human face. He obsessed about the human-face. He liked to get close to the human face, so close he could count the strands of hair in a nose. He’s the guy who would tell girls on school outings; “Your face curves beautifully against your facial bones.” Some found him creepy. He noticed lines and grooves and how some cheeks puffed out and how some skin came with unique texture. Tim observed faces like you would observe a fruit in a grocery. He knew which faces absorbed light better than others.
Although he joined the university to study Economics, he spent more time than he could remember reading up on the forefathers of art; Rembrandt, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Van Gogh. In his room a massive black and white picture of Pablo Picasso took up one wall. In his final year he was introduced to animation and he went on Youtube and spent many hours learning tips and tricks in animation. He brought down the picture of Pablo Picasso and replaced it with a smaller (and grainy) one of Hayao Miyazaki. He started drawing animations and loved it. He realised that as a firstborn he was socialised to show “seriousness” at all times, to always hold the hands of his two younger siblings, and be “mature” and so when he discovered cartoons as an adult, the child in him came out through them. It was the only time he could be silly and free and feel unjudged. He’d draw into the middle of the night when he was supposed to be studying Public Finance and Fiscal Policy. He slept through History of Economic Thought. He barely graduated. During graduation, under his graduation hat, sitting in the middle of the throng of the newly educated, the sun beating down on them he thought, “No way in hell am I going to use my economics degree.”
His mom fought him. His father thought he was taking drugs. That’s how folks explain children who don’t want to be doctors or engineers. It must be the weed. His mother – an accountant – told him that drawing (she refused to call it illustration) was something boys who failed did. “Nobody eats art in Kenya. Here, call this person and go see them.” So he called this person and this person told him to go see him and he went and met him in his office that had a desk globe. He was a healthcare analytics specialist or something suit-y like that. On the strength of his relationship with his mother, he gave Tim a job as a junior policy analyst and Tim took it to get his mom off his back. The job was as exciting as drinking oatmeal porridge through a straw. His days in the office were long and dreary. The people he worked with spoke in acronyms. They gathered around the water dispenser saying things like EPSDT, instead of just saying early and periodic screening diagnostic and treatment services…because they will get boils if they say it in full.
He couldn’t wait for the end of the day to go home and draw. He started getting side jobs. Small jobs that paid 5K here and 4K there. Funnily enough, being paid those peanuts was better than being paid the 45K he was making in salary.
One day his mother came home in the evening and said, “I’m told you have not reported to work in three days!” He said, “Yes. I quit.” She said, “Why?” He said, “Because that job is not for me, mother. Office jobs aren’t my thing.” (There are those strange families where children call their mom, “mother.” It’s like that cat of ours called “cat.”)
Mother was furious.
“Office jobs are not your thing?! You think feeding a grown man who wants to draw cartoons is my thing?”
He stared at the floor. (He’s Presbyterian, they stare at the floor when being addressed.)
“If you don’t go back to work tomorrow, you will find your own house and do your thing.”
So he quit in protest or what his former colleagues would have said “QIP”) and moved in with an old friend.
A couple of months later he moved to that small house in South B, joining that estate cat that runs shit from her wall. He eats chips, mostly. He also eats eggs. He doesn’t care for meat anyway, so he never misses it. Sometimes he eats in a kibanda. Sometimes he drinks tea and bread. He illustrates all day. He draws at night. He loves it. He’s good at it. He keeps getting better at it. He gets odd illustration gigs that keep him afloat. His mom came to visit him four months after he moved out. She stood at his door, looking inside with such sorrow, like his house was a funeral home. “I don’t understand why would you choose this life,” she muttered.
She doesn’t understand, of course. Nobody does.
Most months he works for rent and wifi and food and, if lucky, a night out or two at a happy hour bar with his mates. He keeps his expenses low. He will wear his yellow helmet and cycle somewhere and save on the fare. He hasn’t been on a date for months, some girl is going to order bolognese and “a glass of rosé.”
This is the same guy that will be found online by some chaps who have a fancy-ish office. They will look at his work and call him over to their office. He will take two matatus to get to them. He will wait at the reception, holding his baby, his life, the keeper of his dreams; his laptop bag. He will think that perhaps this particular job will be the job that finally pushes him out of the basement of life. The one that takes care of all the bills and all the debts with one wave of a magic wand. He thinks this because it’s a big company and their reception has a big important look and feel, like they do important things and their receptionist is called Melany or Marjory and she wears brogues on her feet and an accent on her lips. He thinks this because when he sits there he sees employees who pass through chattering, looking like they want to work nowhere but there. They have lanyards around their necks. He hears their laughter in the corridors. The phone won’t stop ringing, which means that they are doing good business.
He’s led into a boardroom. He asks for water and sits back with his hands on the table. He remembers his phone is on ringer and quickly puts it on silent. The glass doors opens and two guys spill in carrying notepads and a laptop. He jumps to his feet. Handshakes. They say they checked out his work and they admire it. They love it, the other gentleman says. He’s the Yang. He’s a great artist. Great illustrations. He knows this, of course, but for these important looking guys with their nice shirts and expensive-looking watches to say it? Wow.
“Well, the reason why we called you,” they start and they pitch a project they are doing. It’s not a big project, they say, but it feels like a big project otherwise only one of them should have come to meet little him. Actually we are not making much from it, Yin says. They are wondering if he is interested in being a part of the team of illustrators. Well, technically he’s the team. Ho-ho-ho. They all laugh. His heart is beating faster. Of course he’s interested, he says. Sure, let’s do it. “Perfect,” they say with beans. Yin then clears his throat and looks like he swallowed a TV remote. “Unfortunately we don’t have a budget for this particular project so we will not be able to pay this time round,” he says but then adds quickly, “but we have many more projects lined up and those come with some budget. This is only a start. I think it will be good to show the bosses what you can do. Is this okay with you?”
Two matatus later it all boils down to this. He has to prove himself even though they loved his work. “This work can catapult you out there,” Yang says, using that word ‘catapult’, a word full of flatulence. They are offering exposure. That’s their currency.
But what’s a starving man to do? Besides, everybody has to do their time in the trenches, right? Everybody has to make their bones. So he takes two matatus again and he comes to your office twice a week for a month working on the project. He stays up late, drawing and scribbling. He sends them concepts after concepts. Good shit. They ask for a tweak here and a tweak there. Finally it’s approved. The project kicks off. Maybe they make money off it. Maybe they don’t. Maybe the guys who roped this man in get patted on the back by the suits upstairs. They never call him for the bigger projects they promised. The ones with a budget. It was a gambit. It’s a story you tell to keep your overheads low. Besides, it’s just drawing right? Why should they spend money on someone who draws when they can promise him that he will be seen by the world?
But he’s used to that. Used to being offered promises and exposure and a free lunch which somehow his landlord won’t accept. Men with hats with a depression in the middle don’t eat free lunch for rent.
Maybe he will one day hit pay dirt. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he will keep getting shagged over by more smarty pants who won’t pay. And people like him are many; boys and girls who carry guitars on their backs, playing for free month after month. Writers. Designers. Photographers. Singers. Painters. Dancers. Interior decorators. Comedians. Acrobats. A whole legion of them, starting out, trying to make it with their art, with their hands, with their hearts and getting paid with promises of never-coming cheques, of exposure, of barter that landlords refuse to take.
If you refuse to pay Tim. If you lie to him that if he “does just this one for free, more will come that will pay” , when you refuse to reward his talent, his time, his passion, you are breaking his art. And you are breaking him. Because you are not only challenging his art but his confidence because to create, and to create well, you have to dig into your confidence as an artist. Creating is much about confidence as it is about belief. Many men and women, men with weaker resolve, will succumb to this wretchedness of the market and get a desk job. And their hearts will wither and fall off like leaves in winter. The stronger ones, like Tim, will stay this rough course.
Sometimes when the lights are out and Tim is lying in his bed, unable to sleep, listening to the dogs of the night bark and nameless cats rummage through the trash for love, in this occasional moment of weakness, of desperation, he wonders for a fleeting second, if it’s all worth it. If, perhaps, mother was right. If, maybe, his life would have been better in an office with white walls, using acronyms with the rest of men and women in the cotton farms. But he turns his back to that option and curls those beautiful vertebrae to sleep in a fetal position because he’s an artist, he creates from his heart, and that position of sleep instinctively protects his heart.
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