Before our “Kenyan winter” set in, I paid a lady to teach my son how to swim. Anybody who teaches children anything deserves to be paid even if they love it and are passionate about it because children can drive you up the wall. It’s worse if they don’t belong to you. She bent down near the swimming pool and said to him, “Heeey, I’m Maggie! What’s your name?” He just stared at her. I said to him playfully, “Say hi, Kim,” which must have irritated him because I already called his name out loud which, I suspected, he might have wanted to keep a secret from her. He glumly offered a hesitant handshake. I have noticed something weird with him; he trusts thick women more – women with big bosoms. In case you are wondering – he was breastfed enough. He tends to be overly friendly to thick women who he just met when I’m with him – he hugs them without notice. He smiles with them. On the other hand, he’s frosty towards slim women. He regards them with suspicion. He probably thinks, if she’s that slim it probably means she is hungry and if she’s hungry she might eat his hand. Or bite off his cheek. Suffice it to say, he didn’t take to Maggie immediately. Or to floating, to be fair. But Maggie is in the business of patience. I watched them in the pool and I thought, I can’t be a children’s swimming instructor. I’d hold their head under water for a bit if I had to repeat myself over and over again.
The man who taught me how to swim was just a boy himself, a distant cousin. When I was only a boy we’d all get packed to shags every April. Back in those days there was never any debate with children; they did what parents wanted and when they wanted. Thankfully, shags was fun. The highlight was going to swim in the river after lunch. The river was light brown in colour and unlike a swimming pool, it moved. The brownness came from the fact that it came down through Kisii, which has red soil. We’d know how heavily it was raining in Kisii by the colour of the river. It was an angry river in some parts and calm in others. There were places where massive trees at the shore spread their branches over the river, throwing mystery underneath. Some parts were deep and others were shallow. Rivers are like people in that sense.
John, this cousin of mine, wasn’t that much older than us – he was maybe six years older. I learnt swimming by the time I was seven years old. Boys would swim in specific spots in the river and girls would swim in other specific spots as a way of segregation. John’s way of teaching you to swim was to hurl you into the deep, raging waters. You had a choice to drown or swim. He’d stand by the river laughing as you splashed and coughed and your eyes popped open in the final horror of impending death. He’d follow your progress by walking by the river as you were swept along, hands flailing, screaming that you were dying. Just when you were about to die, he’d throw one of those 20 litre plastic jerry cans to you to act as a floater, and you’d best catch it. He would repeat this routine until you learned to swim. I must have learned swimming in two days.
John is also the first and last man I ever watched masturbate. He did it after a swimming session. Lying on a stone as he dried in the sun, he did it casually, like it was the most natural thing to do after a swim. I didn’t know what the hell it was that he was doing, but I was 7 then and curious. John could speak French when very few people were speaking French. And he could speak it so well he represented his school in it as their mascot French student. He could also speak German even before the Berlin Wall came down. He was super-intelligent, a genius if you will. Which means he was the kind who could miss classes and still emerge top of his class. He excelled in academics effortlessly.
My father always talked to him with admiration, praising him, giving him endearing nicknames, joshing with him. I could tell he wished John was his son. It made me jealous and inadequate. So I grew up wanting to be John. I looked up to him. I admired him. My mother loved him but she didn’t speak to him like she wished he was her son. He was always respectful, offering to help whenever he was in our shags.
He played football. He also did well on the tracks. He was built for sports. He had a strong build, sinewy and defined. He had big eyes and thick veins running behind his hands. He had a deep, raspy voice. When I was standing in the doorway of teenage he was my idea of a man . When he was in fourth form he would single-handedly burn bricks in shags for pocket money, but also because he was curious and experimental and there is nothing he couldn’t do because, well, with such a brain you could do damn near anything. He built a small chicken pen for his grandmother with his own hands. He would work in the sun without complaining.
He joined Kenyatta University to study what I now don’t recall. University was a big deal back in the day before parallel programs. And so John was a big deal. He brought it near. I remember that when in uni he built a bathroom behind his simba and found an ingenious way to tap the water from the stream nearby and made it flow as a shower overhead, and all this without a pump. He was intelligent. He would sit with adults and engage them. He spoke great English. He was a charmer of women. They loved him. When I was in high school I introduced him to this girl I liked whose name starts with B. (Look at me being mysterious). B took French as a subject and when I introduced them I happened to foolishly mention that B could also speak French. So they switched to French and it was exactly how you picture a man and a woman speaking French; showy. John’s big eyes always had this thing when he was talking to a girl; they’d grow bigger and fill with laughter. He’d be drinking up the woman with his big eyes and his words. He made B giggle as he made every girl giggle. A few days later, I saw him kissing B in darkness at a corner in the estate. I suspect he was kissing her in French. I was crushed, of course, but technically he stood a better chance than me; my idea of seduction was saying I had a mix video tape with Aaliyah and Jagged Edge. Surely, how many music videos can a girl watch? With laughing eyes he later told me that B was too old for me and that perhaps I needed to go for girls younger than me, that girls my age were just “too mature.” To mean VHS music videos mean shit in the end. I was 15, wet behind the ears. I still admired and adored him even after he pulled the rug from under my feet like that.
John started drinking heavily in the University, like everybody else. The problem is he never quite stopped. It started as a lifestyle thing, a cool guy thing. Going out. Drinking. Cool friends who drank. Stories of late nights in cool clubs. Having a hangover seemed so grown up, so accomplished. His drinking became worse. He started to cut class then he started cutting whole semesters. Then he’d never go back home. His mom would go over to look for him in some slums near KU and find him living in a bleak shack, drunk half the time, looking like a yobo. He started withering. He started looking haggard – the intelligent and charming John with his big eyes filled with laughter. Word went round that John was struggling with alcoholism. Everybody was worried, some celebrated, I’m sure, because that’s how life is. Sometimes they celebrate when your star child is going down, not rising. His mom never stopped fighting for him, never gave up on him. The faith and dedication of mothers is completely baffling. They will keep trying to fill a cracked pot and they never stop. You can wake up one day and shockingly find a massive mountain outside your house and when you call the neighbour and say, “Felix, what the…? Do you see what I see?! There is a mountain that has moved right in the next compound!! And Felix will say, “Oh, that was moved by my mother.”
John was shipped to shags eventually because Nairobi was too toxic. He started drinking the harder local stuff. My father, the academician that he is, would shake his head sadly whenever he spoke of John dropping out of university like he had lost a son. Whenever we would go to shags I would see John, or a paler version of him. He was still charming even when he was drunk, which was all the time. He was still funny and witty and still knew everything in current affairs. His eyes still danced with laughter. He would get 100 bob off you with wit and charm. I never could wrap my head around this new guy. One day his mom went to his simba to check up on him after another night of ruinous drinking and found him foaming at the mouth. John died an hour later, two days before Valentine’s Day in 2004. Alcohol poisoning.
DRUNK, my book is loosely based on John. It’s how I remember him; charming and intelligent and wrecked. Only John is Larry in Drunk. And Larry is charming, intelligent and wrecked just like most people I know who have a problem with alcohol. Not long ago I was drinking with some friends and one of my friends told this chic friend of mine he had just met that he has a problem with alcohol. She asked me if he and I had ever talked about that problem and I said we hadn’t, even though somehow we both – in an unspoken way- have acknowledged it. How have you acknowledged it? She demanded of me. I kept quiet. Why don’t you want to talk about it? What do you men talk about in bars when you can’t talk about something so crucial? She pressed on and I sat there feeling like she was somea-ing me and I don’t like being somewad, not when I’m drinking. I finally said, “It’s difficult to talk about such things….it’s, I don’t know, embarrassing.” She didn’t say anything more, she just looked at me with what I initially I thought was pity, but later realised was disgust.
We all know that guy, charming, intelligent, and great company (before their fourth double). They are great to hang out with. They make you laugh. They have bright ideas. They know everything about anything…any topic at all. You could be arguing about whether Wangari Maathai was part of the 1960 Kennedy Airlift that the late Tom Mboya facilitated with the Americans to take 800 Kenyans for further studies to the States and he will start rattling out the names of some of the more famous beneficiaries which, yes, included Wangari Maathai. When you all consult Google, Google will confirm that yes, Wangari was in that flight. Of course he’s right and the rest of you are not. He keeps dates in his head, dates and numbers, trivia and all these pieces of information that nobody ever needs. He will say weird things like, “The problem with you guys is that you never attended proper schools… wait…hold on…. stop talking, your contribution here is getting more miniscule by the minute and you will only end up embarrassing yourself further and not adding any more intelligence to this conversation….I want to put it to you simply but in relation to physics…which might not be something you fared well in, in high school. Anyway, put simply, the physical laws of matter, energy and the fundamental forces of nature govern the interactions between particles and physical entities such as planets, molecules, atoms and sub-atomic properties….have I lost you? I’m certain I have, but I will plough on, feel free to grab whatever you can…kwanza where is my lighter?…” He’s a genius, of course.
We all laugh at his jokes and his off-the-cuff quips and his clever wordplay- the bristiling double entendre, his rabid riposte – and we watch him pour more drinks even when we know we probably should place a firm hand over his and say that he has had enough. But he’s interesting when he drinks, isn’t he? And we leave him in these bars knowing that he drove there and he will have to drive back home in that inebriated state with physical laws of matter floating in their broth of fetid booze. We leave him in those bars knowing that he is a father. We do this every other weekend and we never have that important conversation. The elephant in the room becomes part of the furniture.
Because it’s embarrassing. We don’t want to borach it because we don’t want to come off as judgemental. Or righteous. We don’t want to be the ones who upset the applecart. In the meantime his life unravels in the background. Back at home his wife tells him, those people you drink with, they don’t mean well, and he fights her viciously. He says she’s controlling and nagging and doesn’t he pay the rent in this damn house? Does he not educate her little brother? “Who is paying for your car? What more do you want from me? Why are you controlling me? Why can’t I have a drink with my friends without you busting my balls?” And she says, “Sweetheart, those guys are not your friends.” And he throws his hands up in resignation because there is no use talking to a woman like this, when she’s on this senseless warpath, it’s a waste of time and space. So he says, “Oh fuck this, I won’t be judged and made to feel like a child in my own house. I’m out, see you later.” His car engine, like him, revs off in anger. And we meet him in the bar, we friends who are embarrassed to tell him that he’s slipping and that he needs to get help. We drink with him, laugh at his jokes, we feed off his mind and lean into his hilarious tales. He’s after-work entertainment. We continue to egg him on in this path of destruction because we are embarrassed.
On a hot Saturday morning, before our winter sets in, we stand at the edge of a swimming pool watching a lady we paid to teach our son to swim. The proverbial monkey of irony clings on our backs because here we are raising a boy while we are perfectly okay watching another man, who considers us his friend, fall.
These stories don’t end very well. They end like Larry ended in my book. They end after men have raised their fists at women and relas, and friends have sat around kangaroo courts, and hurtful words have been hissed through teeth, words that will now never be taken back. They end up when doors have been banged angrily and children wounded irredeemably. They end up in ditches by unremarkable roadsides. They end up in cars fatally driven under stationary trucks amidst the sound of twisted steel and the feeble sound of the dying, blood dripping on the cold dawn tarmac like engine oil. They end with heartbroken mothers.
They end with dreams that die at the big feet of talent.
And when they end, nobody wins. Now that is worse than embarrassing.
Ps: The 16th Bikozulu Writing Masterclass is now open. Dates: 5th- 7th Sept. To register please email firstname.lastname@example.org To buy my book, Drunk, please see the banner above for details.