Njoro was drunk again. She could hear him and his drinking buddies singing very loudly and in the wrong key those old school songs they loved. They were probably in the middle of the street, judging by the car horns she could hear every few minutes. She was a patient woman, though; she could wait for the man to stumble his way home.
She couldn’t believe she had stayed this long with him, couldn’t believe she had let herself stoop this low, waiting for a drunken man to get home. She was tired and done. Maria knew she was young. She had whole years to move up in life. She knew if this fell through, she could do better and find someone else. This ended tonight. She looked around, wondering what had possessed her to stay with him. She knew, of course, that the money was a factor, but he didn’t have the money anymore, didn’t have the status. She had assumed, wrongly, that Njoro’s father would forgive him. Had assumed he would have mercy on their children, his grandchildren, and would allow them back.
Maybe she had been in love those first years. He had romanced her, taken her to exotic trips, paid for the apartment she was staying in, paid for her car. He was sweet, kind, and generous even when he got drunk. She had abhorred the behaviour, even then, but had found the benefits of the relationship worth it.
When he had asked her to marry him, she had immediately said yes. He took her home to meet his parents. She had seen them make conclusions when she said she didn’t have a job. She had seen the disapproval, the suspicion when she told them she had lost her job three months after they met and hadn’t been able to get a new one. When he said they had been together an entire year. They had gotten married regardless. He had not said anything to her, but she knew his father disapproved. His parents had come to the wedding and laughed when Njoro’s then best friend pretended to have lost the rings, given the appropriate speeches, and cried at all the right times. She got herself pregnant at the first opportunity and had given birth to a boy and soon after, a girl.
Once when they still stayed at the family home, Njoro’s father had been called to a police station to pick him up. Njoro hadn’t been home in a week. He had been found in a ditch, his wallet gone, his car gone, his shoes missing. His father had never been a patient man. He had always disapproved of the drinking, but that had been the last straw. He had missed an important meeting that had had to be rescheduled twice, had answered the phone drunk and insulted the head of the company they were trying to work with.
They had been kicked out of the house. Everyone, including the children. They were told they could come back once Njoro learned how to be sober and found out how to take care of the family he had made. It was then she discovered her husband had next to no money saved up. She tried to plead with his father, for the sake of his grandchildren, but got turned away. Her pride would not let her try again. He was bound to take his only son and heir back someday, wasn’t he? And so she sat in this two-roomed tin house in this estate of shanties two years later, waiting for a man to come home. She had done her duty, hadn’t she? She had paid her matrimonial dues. She was done waiting for reconciliation. Her patience with Njoro had reached its limit. She had proven she wasn’t there for the money.
She needed to calm down. There was no need to rush. She could still hear Njoro shouting out the words to the song. He would be in the house in ten minutes. She checked on the kids. They were still asleep. If at the end of this she left with nothing at all, at least he had given her beautiful children. John, their son, had his eyes, while Maya, their daughter, got her dimples. She checked to make sure they were breathing before leaving and closing the door, making sure it was open a bit, just in case. She fixed the curtains that separated the bed she shared with Njoro and the living room space. She made sure the chair coverlets were in place.
She then moved forward to the stove and put the pot of beans to warm. She put the hotpot of rice on the table and the beans beside it when it had warmed. She made sure some of the flame from the stove was still on. The little capsule she had in her bra went into the beans as she heard their gate open. He was home. She opened the door before he could start yet another shouting match and call more attention on them than she needed.
“Ah, my wife,” he said, “How are you?”
His words were mangled like a toddler’s.
“Quiet, the children are asleep.”
He looked at her again, squinting and trying to see if she was serious.
“Aaah, ata waamshe tuongee. I haven’t spoken to them in a while. You go wake them so we talk.”
“They are going to school in the morning and they slept hours ago. If you want to talk with them, come early and sober tomorrow. Umelewa ukasahau kuongea. What do you think you can tell them when you’re that drunk?” she said.
“That is nonsense. Wake them up so we talk,”
“No,” she said as she sat down on the chair
“Where is the food?” he asked her.
She pointed towards the table indicating that he could help himself.
“You won’t even serve your own husband? Women these days have no respect.”
She stared at him, and he looked at her. She knew he knew she had things to say to him, but they could talk while he ate. She waited as he helped himself slowly. His hands were shaking the slightest bit. She waited until he had started on his food.
“Njoro, wapi pesa yangu?”
She saw him pause and try to come up with an excuse. He filled his mouth with food.
“Njoro, I have asked you a question. Where’s my money?” she said.
“You know, my dear, small small things make you so worried. Now why are you angry?” His slurring words and dismissiveness made her angry. She raised her voice.
“That was your children’s school fees, you useless excuse of a man. Did you somehow lose whatever pathetic capacity you had to think?”
She could see him start to get worried, start to shake a little. Even drunk, he knew she was not the type to let anyone mess with her money and get away with it.
“You know, me na vijana, you know the boys?” He said, “The boys wanted to go out and I didn’t have the money. Then I saw some money lying around and took it.”
“You took my money, you took my money and used it to take your boys out? Is that what you’re telling me, Njoro?” she asked. “Do you hear yourself? You took ten thousand, school fees for a whole term for both of the children!” Her voice was raised to the highest at this point. “You took all that money to take your boys out! They are all twenty-five-year old single men! You took money from your family so you could go out to drink with men who’ve barely grown beards!”
She had forgotten how angry she was when she found out he took the money but it was all coming to her now. She knew he saw the anger written on her face.
“Calm down. Why are you mad? Stop yelling at me as if you are my mother,” he said, yelling now. He had never been a brave man, but the alcohol had given him a false sense of bravado.
“I will yell at you as if I was your mother because you are acting like a child. This house doesn’t have any food, rent hasn’t been paid, water hasn’t been bought, and to top it all off, your children will miss at least a week of school because you used their school fees that you took from me to take your boys out to get drunk.”
He looked embarrassed by this.
“I’ll call my dad and ask him for a small loan so I’ll give you back your money. Besides, shule gani inalipisha ten thousand school fees? Which type of school do you think you are sending my children to that asks for ten thousand in fees? My children will not go to any bush school. Do you hear me? Dad will pay for the kids’ school and I will return your money to you, okay? Now can you stop nagging me? I was in a good mood before I came into this house,” he said.
“Kula chakula yako. Eat your food.”
She left the chair and went to sit on the bed. She looked at him as he ate, studied him as his eyes began to droop, watched him as he slumped in his chair. She waited an hour then stood and got to work.
His pulse was completely gone when she checked it, and his body had already started to go cold. Njoro had always been heavy, but the drinking had added some extra weight on him. She managed to drag him off the couch, and over by the stove. Once she had him upright, she let him go. He fell directly over the stove and turned it on its side, the kerosene soaking all over the front of his shirt. She then went and lay down on the bed. She waited until the kerosene caught fire, waited until the fire caught on to Njoro’s clothes already soaked in kerosene. She waited until she heard someone let out a loud scream, then a second one. She made herself stay still and closed her eyes.
“Mum! Mum!” She heard Maya’s shout and her little feet race to her bed. She felt Maya shake her. Maria rose from the bed and pretended to look around. She grabbed her children and screamed as she rushed out of the door.
“Uuuuuui! Uuuuuui! Fire! Moto! Uuuuui! Fire” her screams joined in with those of multiple women. The fire had already started to spread to multiple houses.
There was already a big gathering of people. She recognised some of the neighbours, and others were from the neighbouring compounds. The fire had caught on fully by then. She hugged the kids and shouted for someone to go get Njoro. She nearly smiled at herself when she saw everyone hesitate. The fire was so big at that point, and no one wanted to risk their life for a fully grown and well-known drunk. She sat on the ground, shouting and shaking, and begging anyone to get Njoro. The kids clung onto her, screaming and shouting for their father. She held them and stared at the fire, waiting for the main attraction of the show. It happened not an entire minute later: an explosion followed by screams, hers, the kids and the brave souls who were just about to go in and rescue Njoro. She covered her head from the debris and screamed and screamed. She could have been crowned best actress in that instant. Some of the ladies she was friendly with came over to her. They tried to take the children from her but weren’t able to get them off her. They gestured for her to follow them, held onto her and the children when she stumbled.
The house they were taken to was one of the nicer ones in the area. She took a moment to admire how beautiful the house was. The kids stayed with her on the couch till morning. Someone had found them sweaters and shoes. She said her thanks, and they sat there in the stranger’s chair for a good long time receiving the people who came by to say pole for her loss. Some said she was in shock and that was why she hadn’t been able to cry properly. She saw others whisper amongst themselves and point to her. She imagined that words from their argument last night had gotten around. This was fine. She needed people to know they had argued about money and that she had gone to bed upset. That was exactly what she wanted Njoro’s father to hear when he came by.
She was told a news crew had come around to find out what had happened. They had been sent away when she said she didn’t want to talk to anyone. She didn’t want to be on camera at all with the way she looked. To the neighbours, she gave the story of what happened. Her husband came in drunk, dozed on the sofa, and on his way to bed probably tripped and fell on the stove and maybe hit his head. Then the fire started. The explosion was possibly from the meko they had in the kitchen. No one asked any questions beyond that when she started tearing up. The fires died down early in the morning. It had caught on to several other houses in the area but had burned itself out before it could spread too far.
The kids were trying to sleep when Njoro’s father walked in. He had probably seen the news and decided to track them. He knew where they lived. She remembered he had come to visit those first days. He was an imposing man. Tall and broad with a beer gut that seemed to come with the rich. She could see him listening to everything the woman who brought him in was saying. He approached them on the chair, taking in her looks, and her children’s clothes. He tapped the children and they both went to hug him. This caused a new wave of tears all round. He then approached her for a hug, and she obliged him.
“What happened?” he asked.
One of the women around, sensing a serious conversation, took the children to the kitchen for some food. The room cleared out until it was just the two of them left.
“He was drunk,” Maria told him, “He had been on a drinking binge. He found the money I had hidden away to use for the children and he went away for two days to drink with his friends. He came back home very late and we argued. He was so drunk, and I don’t think he had gotten the point of the argument. I left him eating and went to sleep after taking a sedative. I should have stayed awake. I should have made sure the stove was off, I always do. You see these stories every other day. I was just so upset I forgot to check. I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have left him alone, what had I been thinking?”
Since the previous night, she now found it easier to cry.
“The explosion?” he asked.
“We keep, kept, a meko.” He looked confused. “It’s a small gas burner, for the kid’s breakfast in the morning. Because it’s faster.”
“I am so sorry. I thought I was doing the right thing kicking him out of the house,” his father said, “I shouldn’t have done that. I thought he needed it and now he’s dead and you and the kids don’t have him anymore and I am so sorry.” He was crying and apologising at the same time.
“It’s okay. I don’t blame you for it. I understood why you did it.”
“I’m still sorry you had to put up with it and him for so long, and now he’s dead. Are you okay? How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay, or I’ll be okay. I’m worried about the kids. I’m sorry, I took a sedative. I didn’t hear the first screams. The children came to get me. I was asleep and they had to wake me up. I think they saw… I think they saw Njoro. They haven’t spoken to anyone. Oh God, they saw their father dead, or dying. And I just grabbed them and left him lying there.”
Maria looked at him, readying herself for her closing performance. Closed eyes, tears, voice shaken, action.
“I’m not worried about myself. I’ll be fine. I’m grown. I’m just so worried about the babies. How will they survive without their father? They’ll remember seeing him like that. Their last memory of him will be an argument we had about money. And about the drinking. He was a good father you know, that’s why I stayed with him. He loved them and only wanted the best for them and now, we don’t even have a place to live anymore. How are we going to survive? I’m so worried for them and…”
“No, please don’t worry. The kids are going to be fine. You’re going to be fine,” he said and hugged her again. “You are a part of this family, and we’ll take care of you and the kids, please don’t worry about it.”
“I just wouldn’t want to be a bother or a freeloader or those people who use their families for money,” she wiped her tears, “I’m really very sorry I have to ask for help, it’s just…”
He didn’t let her finish.
“You have, had, lived with my boy here for nearly two years, you put up with him and you stayed with him even after you knew no one would give him any money. No one will accuse you of being a freeloader. Besides, those are my grandchildren, a piece of my family and of my son. I swear the children won’t go hungry. I promise I will take care of them and you. ”
“Thank you so much, I was so worried. Thank you, thank you.” Maria pulled him in for a hug. It had not been as hard as she had thought it would be. She would be just fine.
This story was reprinted with permission in the first edition of the James Currey Anthology, launched on September 3rd, 2022 at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK
is a Kenyan writer. She enjoys reading and research. She enjoys writing about people and their potential.