Below ground – Ray Mwihaki

It was a weird time in the year and everyone was filled with cheer.  The city filled with annoying, persistent hawkers parading their wares like ladies shaking their minute behinds in a village dance. Disorganized! He sat in the alley just after Odeon where rugged filthy urchins, dead or alive, young or old, lay. Some selling glue, some reefer, others…well, other things. Others in the hole-in-the-wall bars that lined the alley. They dragged tattered blackened sacks, recycling’s own ambassadors! Paul had set on a trip to discover the world. Not as most of Europe’s young do… he wanted to see how it was behind the scenes. Beyond the safaris, the town life, middle class problems…everything that was never on the news. So far he had been to Croatia, India, and many other places I can’t remember.

 

He had sent Kallie a postcard everywhere he went. Asking about the new house, telling her about the places he had been, what he had seen. Explaining his excuse. Smoothing her for his return or otherwise. Truth is, he hadn’t wanted to be tied down…it is hard to grow-up, you see. These women and their idea of growing up! Growing up! Bah! He had said. He had wanted not to be forced to keep a job. No obligations, no pressure. She was a great girl but he wanted to settle down at forty six. He was only thirty two! Fourteen more years to go, baby!  So he had packed his pack and left her in the torn down house at Balaklava Street, London.

 

Here he was, Nairobi, city in the sun! Ah! The place where he discovered the back streets of river road. He had rented a room at Bilmass bar and restaurant. It was right next to tuskys Imara on Tom Mboya St. Its entrance in the middle of a line of untidy exhibition malls partitioned with anything from plywood to cardboard. They all had their sign posts at the front. Screaming. CYBER 50cts, PHOTOCOPY, PRINTING, PHONES and so on. And this chicken and chips place; Imbiss or something. Quite strategic, that place. He could walk round town by day, discover river road by night. He had made friends with the bums of Nairobi. He was Mzungu Gangari.

 

He had heard about an underground club. Very exclusive. Very strict. It was a sort of a member’s club. The bums protected it. It ran underground from the Buruburu matatu stage to Odeon down to river road following the road structure meeting just at the door of Kampala coach. Massive! Partitioned, all under one roof! Its entrance was through an air duct in Tuskys Imara. It was open soon after the supermarket set to close. The bouncers begged on those streets. If you had the code, you gave the ticket and with glue in their mouths, they smiled and showed you in. they were never the same, sometimes it was children calling you “daddy” or middle-age women selling shower caps and wash towels.

 

The tickets were rare, found in fifty and a hundred bob books along Tom Mboya St. Paul had heard of the club from the urchins. Every time he heard about it, he felt excited to prove it a myth. Or discover and enjoy. The bums loved him, so they dropped hints of this and that but never giving enough information. He knew the tickets were in the books but he didn’t know how they looked or in which form. Paul started buying books and befriending the vendors. Looking for even a hint of anything. Reading. Looking for the connection between the books he bought.

 

The books had turned into an obsession. He sat at the restaurant balcony at Bilmass flipping the pages of some book or another as he sipped sachet coffee and stuffed huge hollow mandazi in his mouth. He couldn’t see any pattern but he kept going. Page after page, book after book. He quite disliked reading but with a super club experience at the end of the rainbow, he found it bearable. He had to find this club. If it was as good as the urchins described it, he would find a way to be part of it even if it meant serving drinks. Who wouldn’t want to be part of the last remaining super club?

 

He was on the second chapter of Lookin’ for Luv by Carl Weber.  He thought of how much Kallie would have loved the book. It was a romantic comedy by an African American. Quite well done. On page 16 he found a serviette with doodles and some writing, “thank you so much for listening to my poem, and I hope to answer all responses as soon as possible”. The previous owner must have used it to save the page. He placed it on the plate that had held the fleshless mandazi and asked the waitress to clear the table. He got more ‘coffee’ and went on reading. On page 17, he saw the writing that was on the serviette. Why would anyone copy such a meaningless sentence? He wondered. The thought passed and he went on with the book.

 

On page 24, there was another serviette. This one had a few stick people, and “Kevin and Tyrone walked into Mama Dee’s soul food restaurant at 8:30 Friday night, both dressed to impress.” written on it.  He put it aside and turned the pages of the book to see if there were any more of these serviettes. There were none so he continued reading. Three pages after, he saw the sentence. “Hmmm, interesting.” He thought aloud. He put it in his pocket and made a mental note to put it with the rest of his collections from Kenya.  The serviette that may have travelled thousands of miles, across oceans. He wondered about the person behind the writing as well as the writing. The guy had to have a reason to pick out those sentences. The thought passed and he turned the page. He kept all other notes he found in the books he read over time hoping that one day they would help him tell a story.

 

He didn’t come out to the street till eight in the night.  He liked to come out as the Nairobi whores came to buy their poison from the back alley. He could watch those half covered, round African asses walk past and not worry about being charged per view. They were used to him by now.

“Majungu wa siku hizi ata hawana dough! Yule ata shot ya das anakataa! Pu!” One lady of the night sighed one night.

He didn’t mind the comments or the razor sharp glances that came his way, as long as he could enjoy the view. He sat outside the ‘bar’ at the back alley sharing a Kenya king with Mash, his Swahili teacher. Their lessons always began after he inhaled the comforting stench of human waste and lost dreams that he had become accustomed to. It took him a few minutes to get used to fresh air when he left the alley.

 

Something on someone had caught his eye and had won his attention. Mash didn’t like non responsive students. He nudged Paul in anger, “Buda, niaje kustare! Ni nini!?”

 

“Whoa! Nime-o-na tako very nice…do you jua Yule mrembo?”

 

“Yupi?  Nimecheki sis yangu… ngoja kiasi.” Mash rose from the stone he had perched his ass on and whistled to a girl in a tiny blue dress that barely covered her mammoth behind when she bent.

“Mash, that’s the girl!” Paul said breathlessly as she approached.

“Aah, huyo ni sis! Si I told you about her. (Whispering) ni kuro hua anaziuza”

“No shit! She must be quite costly,”

 

“She is kawaida… if she was, singekua kwa street,” he laughed.

 

“Sasa Mash, kwani umenishikia customer?” To Paul, “hi, am Bernice.”

 

He stretched out his arm to meet hers in slow motion. Exactly how the movies show it, only he had stretched out the arm holding the glass of KK. Of course, he spilled his drink on her lovely long ebony legs.

“Eeer… pole sana. “He took out a serviette and passed it to her. “I am Paul.”

 

“Where did you get this?” Bernice asked, “We, Mash, si hizi ni zile ticko za underground?”

 

“Found it in one of the books… it’s not the only one. I have around thirty!”

 

“Buda, umeipata! Lakini hii sio ya leo… ni ya next week. Kila ticket iko na date na time,”

 

“I have always wanted to go underground. Can I go with you?” Bernice cooed as she squatted next to Paul.

 

Paul was ecstatic. All he could think about was going back to his room and sort out the tickets that he had collected.  All the reading had paid off. He was finally going underground.  It was an hour to opening time. He needed to go through all the serviettes he had. They knocked back the rest of the KK and rushed to his room, taking Bernice along.  They didn’t even think that Mash may not be allowed in.  Paul and Bernice were already a few steps up the stairs when he called out to them, having been stopped by the bouncers at the door. Paul threw a two hundred bob note to the bouncers, “ako na mimi!” 

One of those Tom and Jerry soundtracks would have been a perfect fit for that moment, hustling up the stairs, dropping the keys and finally managing to open the door. Each of them picked a couple of serviettes and page markers sorting them: past and future ones. Mash was a class six drop out so his English wasn’t too bad and he could read. He found the days ticket. It wasn’t a serviette, but a page ripped out of a loose leaf pad. It read: “She had a feeling that she never saw all of it at once, and which of all the eyes could she meet? Merry eyes, wise eyes, ferocious eyes, kitten eyes, dragon eyes, opening and closing, looking at her, looking at Charles Wallace and Calvin and the strange tall man.”

He had written the page and the book where he found the notes behind each of them.  This one was found on page 10 of A Wind In The Door by Madeleine L’Engle.

 

Right outside Bilmass, where young women with babies on their backs sold plastic beaded necklaces for fifty bob, Mash pointed out a bony looking child in a once-yellow jacket and blue shorts. He was the ticket boy for the night. Paul proudly approached him and handed him the page which was immediately crumpled up and shoved in his grimy pocket and out came a blue cloakroom ticket numbered 27. They were led to an air duct just before the luggage check counter at tuskys where an inflatable slide led them to a dim lit reception area. He was in. Finally. In his arm he held a leggy, African bottomed whore who he wasn’t paying for. So tonight, she was just his date but that didn’t matter much to him. He needed to explore The Underground. After a glow-in-the dark impression was stamped on their forearms, they stepped into a strobe-lit red, purple and black room.  A hostess dressed in a short figure hugging dress took his arm and led him further inside…

Bryant from The Water Room by Christopher Fowler

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