I know this man. He is family, even without the blood. He came into the fold in the most correct of ways, his charm. He charmed a rusty, reluctant nail into a piece of brittle wood without bending the iron at all. He could charm a dull hymn into a winner.
For three electric months a long time ago, he lived in God’s house up the gravel road from his home, heeding to the call and raising his hand. He had been to the river too, where he was washed clean in the presence of a crowd of witnesses. I know this man. I could be him.
I caught him early Sunday morning, at the moment he had just finished rolling up his tobacco in a piece of a newspaper torn from the obituary page. He was just about to strike a stick across the gangplank of his matchbox, and cup it against the morning drizzle; a few seconds before he would strike off a year from his allotted ration of 70. Seventy, the Book said, the Book he had carried to church in his pocket those three magical months, is time enough to have tattooed your deeds into remembrance.
He wore his grin as he always had, the long stick of his tobacco hanging off the side of his mouth in the way every seasoned smoker perfects over time — it is the only way to talk and chimney up your roll at the same time.
ROLL OF DEATH
I know this roll, for it had killed his father. He never touched those filtered city lights, the old man, preferring instead the effortless leaves ground to a fine ash. The smoke had charcoaled the old man’s lungs and his final year was a medley of dreadful coughs that shook his bed, the air wheezing into his lungs in painful spurts as he honked into his night handkerchief.
He had died a disappointed man. His son, his firstborn son, the man about to light his own cigarette, had not lived up to the title, to the position that the office of firstborn son demanded. Between us, the matchbox and the unlit roll, was a shared burden. We are first sons — we know and carry things we could never speak out aloud. We knew we had lost more than we had won, but we would win more than we had lost.
All too soon, those three months of hallelujah and cathedral organs and resurrection quieted into the night, and he climbed into his foam-white suit, zipped up his boots — the Travolta, they were called — and walked up the gravel road to another church where the hymns were as loud, but not under the influence of the Spirit — spirits, all kinds of them. When I caught up with him Sunday morning, he carried an empty milk can and a half-bent smile, the one that says there would be money in the bank.
His lactating cow was generous with her milk, which was more than enough for a man living in forced hermitage. The can was money in the bank. We walked down to his home, which sits atop his rolling farm overlooking a temperamental brook. The stream managed to remain tea-coloured all year long.
It is in its waters that my friend had been washed clean that long-ago October day. We sat under the eaves of his two-roomed house talking about life, exploring its longevity and brevity — its twin existences, and also of straying and returning.
Why would anyone care about a stranger? Why would you, the reader, care about this stranger, about this man whose face you won’t see?
To begin with, we are all a kid from somewhere. I say kid in the most respectful of tones. Most likely, you know a man, a person, a friend like my friend. But there is another reason; a selfish one. You see, towards the end of 2018, I turned an age frighteningly north of 35; a magical, over-stretched, deceitful age. The age of no return.
When I took stock on the eve of the anniversary of my birth, I found the top shelf empty, the middle row cobwebby, and it had everything to do with the Eldest-son saga — that hallowed of positions in nearly every civilisation, and never more than in Africa. You walk straight and correctly on the right side of the road, and you whistle your title into the wind.
I am the eldest of four brothers and to the everlasting chagrin of the forbearers of my middle name — and also the surname — there had been too many stubs against stones in the path. The music was broken.
Like my friend, who had served time in jail for some infraction, there were pockmarks of my own doing; my own matchstick zipping across the gangplank of life, cupping the orange flame as it touches the edge of the cigarette.
I too had served time, just not in the cold enclosure of a room owned by the Government of Kenya. It had bothered me, this cold floor and yet the key was always within reach, and when I found it, the echo of the warden’s boots clopping down the hallway was flat.
I could live with a failed marriage; I only had to look in the eyes of my daughter and in there would be an endless pool of life and vindication. I have spent a significant part of the last five years on the road, mostly on work, but also for adventure, and travel writing which is my favourite genre in all of writing.
And in a way, through my friend and his own journeys, and of course mine, this piece is about the experiences gathered, the destinies, the expectations. It is about life on this road, and the bags we carry. And if you’ve happened to read the previous two episodes of this page, you’ve travelled on this journey too.
The drizzle had dissolved and I rose to go. In a week I would pack my bag to begin anew. There was nothing to do but move on. The middle name — that insignia of the position fated to me, chosen for me before I knew such things existed — carried no threat, neither would it determine what I could be as the road curved north of 35. There was no time to serve.