The text message from Susan Wafula came on a Monday afternoon. After 20 years of no contact, she did not begin with “Hello, how have you been”, or even “I hope this finds you well”, although I never knew people to write that last salutation in text messages. She went straight to the point as though afraid she’d lose me if she lingered on small talk. “Ann, can I add you to the WhatsApp group I created for our primary school reunion?”
I was unsurprised that she’d be the one to bring everyone back together. That was the kind of person she was – she got things done. She was our class teacher’s favourite back in primary school. Mrs Ochola believed a good student ought to be neat, punctual, bright, with a good command of the English language. Susan consistently met all her standards. Mrs Ochola’s favourite words were ‘useless’, ‘gunia’, ‘idiot’, ‘taka taka’, ‘mjinga’, lobbed at whoever irritated her. Never at Susan, seldom at me.
Mrs Ochola gave Susan keys to the cupboard tucked in a corner at the front of the classroom, painted blue to blend in with the walls. Susan took her role of custodian of the teacher’s cupboard with the expected seriousness. She made sure the contents of the cupboard were neatly arranged and that it remained locked at all times when Mrs Ochola was away.
I felt a cramp in my gut whenever I heard Mrs Ochola’s court shoes along the corridor, a feeling shared by my classmates when we sat in scatterings at the playing field for lunch, the only place we could share our true feelings. Not Susan. She hurried to the door every morning as soon as she heard Mrs Ochola’s approaching footsteps. She took her handbag from her before she even asked, locked it in the cupboard and handed it to her in the afternoon when she left for the day.
On days when Mrs Ochola came to class with food wrapped in newspaper, she made one of us wipe chalk dust only she could see off her desk before unwrapping the food with an uncustomary gentleness. She wrapped the folds of her kitenge skirt primly about her before sitting, the way she taught us girls to do before we sat down. She invited Susan to join her. Susan lifted her chair to the opposite side of the desk, not scraping it across the floor like the rest of us gunias would have done.
We stared at our textbooks as the smell of French fries wafted in the air. We didn’t look up because one time she caught someone staring and asked if we people didn’t eat at home. Her reproofs were always directed to all of us as if to save time. Don’t you people have ears? she asked when someone repeated something she had cautioned against. Is that how you people close doors in your homes? she asked when someone shut the door too loudly. Susan surveyed the room when a reproof was issued, looking at us as though you people did not apply to her. If there were any leftovers, she instructed Susan to lock them away and make sure no one stole them, as if we’d ever stolen from her. Even Sammy who we all knew was a thief would never have dared.
Sometimes, when Mrs Ochola was in the staffroom, Susan opened the cupboard without purpose. She lingered at the door, examining the contents inside: chalk in different colours, blackboard erasers, bottled water, Mrs Ochola’s endless supply of roast groundnuts and sweet bananas, exercise books yet to be marked, textbooks, and young tree branches that she used for setting us straight. On the bottom shelf was a green hose pipe which Mrs Ochola lashed us with when we had really tested her, like when we spoke Kiswahili instead of English. After Susan had done enough lingering, she held up the pipe, about 10 inches long, ran her fingers through its length, whipped the air, and regarded us with a satisfied smile.
No one said anything (at least not in class anyway) because if we did, Susan wrote our names on the list of noisemakers. Later, she handed the list to Mrs Ochola, fetched one of the branches without waiting to be told and placed it on Mrs Ochola’s desk. Mrs Ochola caned our palms when she was in a good mood. It hurt less than when she caned the back of our legs or the tips of our fingers. Sometimes she made us remove our shoes and socks and caned the soles of our feet.
“You were a bully,” Pesh now typed in the WhatsApp group chat.
Susan responded with a laughing-crying emoji.
“You think it’s funny now, but it wasn’t so nice then,” Zena said. “Remember what you did to Ian?”
Most of us remembered that second period after lunch. The science teacher, to our delight, had missed the class. Ian had a cold and kept sniffling. The screeching noise he made every time he sneezed made us laugh. Susan warned Ian about the noise, and as soon as she did, another sneeze shot out of him. It sounded like the high-pitched hiss of a pressure cooker, and this made us roar with laughter. Susan glared at him. When Mrs Ochola later came to class, Susan told her that Ian had caused a ruckus. Ruckus, that’s the word she used. It was her favourite word, picked from the headteacher’s vocabulary. Each time we left the assembly, the headteacher told us to leave one by one and not cause any ruckus.
Mrs Ochola ordered Ian to the front of the class.
“Is it true?” Mrs Ochola, who always walked into class looking like she was already annoyed about something, asked Ian.
Ian started crying. Susan, as usual, didn’t wait for instructions. She brought out a branch and Mrs Ochola said, “No. Bring the pipe.” We knew then that Ian was in for it.
He cried out with every lash to the back of his legs. We counted seven lashes, although, now in the group chat, some of us insisted they were 10 while others said they were 15.
Mrs Ochola ordered him up. Ian whimpered on the floor like a wounded puppy, but he did not get up. He did not get up however much Mrs Ochola pushed him with her foot. In the end, she left him alone. She retrieved her handbag from the cupboard herself and left. We turned an accusing gaze to Susan. Her haughty look was gone.
Later at the football pitch we expressed the pity we felt for him, the injustice of it all, but no one defended him at the time. How could we? We were children; we all feared Mrs Ochola’s hose pipe and the welts it left at the back of our legs.
Ian’s mother came to school early the next day. We heard her yell in the staffroom. We heard her tell Mrs Ochola that she would know who she was. She called Mrs Ochola names we only repeated in whispers. We turned our heads from the direction of the staffroom to Susan and back again, hoping she would be next. Susan dipped her head until the yelling stopped. We waited. To our disappointment, Ian’s mother didn’t come to class to confront Susan. Mrs Ochola never touched Ian after that.
Ian didn’t say anything about Susan in the group chat. He was just as quiet in chat as he had always been in class.
“Let us just forgive and forget,” Juliet typed.
“Are we also supposed to forget Mr Nyaga the creep?” Nyambu said. A series of emojis followed – fuming emojis, laughing emojis, sad eye emojis.
Mr Nyaga held us girls close to him by the waist when he marked the answers in our books. He pulled us even closer when he marked them wrong, explaining in our ears why the answer was wrong. We giggled when he did this. He never pulled me to him like he did the other girls. I didn’t tell anyone in the group this, but I felt bad about it at the time. I felt left out. I never understood why he did not caress me by the waist until Zena brought up the P.E. stories. I was the only girl in my class who didn’t have breasts.
For P.E., we changed from our uniforms to trainers, navy blue shorts and polo shirts. Outside, Mrs Ochola was a different person as if whatever grated her in class was only a class ghost and out here in the playing field, she was free. She laughed. She joked. She teased. The first time she saw us out of our green and blue uniform, she exclaimed at how different we were. She exclaimed at the girls’ breasts, bouncing up and down as we did jumping jacks.
“She said mine were the same size as hers. In front of everyone!” Pesh posted in the group chat.
“Remember how she pointed to Ann and said Ann was flat?” Zena said.
The first time we went for P.E. after Mrs Ochola was appointed our class teacher, she had us form a circle and hold hands. She walked inside the circle and sized us up. “I didn’t know you are such grown girls. Some of you have big breasts,” she said with a bemused air. We laughed; the boys laughed the loudest. She asked if there was any girl who didn’t have breasts and my classmates turned their eyes to me.
“Don’t worry, your breasts will grow. They will be bigger than mine even. And at least you have big buttocks,” she said.
At times, 20 years later, I could still hear my classmates’ whooping laughter. I could still feel my self-betrayal when I laughed along with them to show that I could take a joke.
“Guys, let us just laugh at these things now, but if that was my child she had said that to, I wouldn’t threaten to beat her like Ian’s mother did. I’d kill her and happily go to jail,” Zena said.
“I don’t think Mrs Ochola was a fan of human beings,” Johnte, who had been my deskmate, said.
“Especially the little ones,” Zena added.
Some of us had trouble remembering others. Johnte could not recall who Brayo was. When Susan asked for news of Sammy, someone asked who Sammy was.
“He was one of the backbenchers,” Susan offered.
“He used to steal from our lunch boxes,” my friend Mercy typed. Laughing emojis followed.
“I remember the backbenchers who gave Mrs Ochola trouble. I miss them, especially Edu,” Johnte said.
“Who is Edu?” someone wanted to know. And it went on like that. Someone brought up a name and a couple of us asked who that was.
Twenty years was a long time, and so we understood how some of us forgot some names and faces, but I was shocked when Mato said he didn’t remember who I was. Mato who painfully teased me about my flat chest. Even after I sent him a picture my father took one prize-giving day to jog his memory, even after I reminded him of all the nicknames he gave me after Mrs Ochola humiliated me, he said he could not remember.
Zena said no one could forget me, Susan’s fiercest rival in class. We made fun of Mato, said he only remembered the light-skinned girls. And it was true. The only people he had trouble remembering were Sheila, Juliet, Mercy and me. We had been the darkest skinned girls in class.
When there was a lull in the recollection of stories from our primary school days, Susan announced that she created the WhatsApp group because she wanted us to have a reunion. We numbered 25 then, and Susan had made us all group admin because she wanted us to own the group.
I posted a thumbs-up emoji, agreeing with everyone that a reunion was a great idea, even though I knew I would attend no such thing. Our teachers tipped me and Susan, and three other students who performed best in class, to be the most successful in life; but mostly me and Susan because we alternated the top positions between us, never scoring anything lower than 90 per cent in any subject. They called the five of us the Top Five. Our teachers said we were tomorrow’s leaders, that Kenya depended on bright minds like us, that we would one day run the country.
I certainly wasn’t running the country. It didn’t even feel as if I was running my own life. I’d just been laid off from my writing job at a glossy women’s magazine with a print circulation of 5,000. I was wary of anyone finding out how broke I was, how lost and useless I felt.
The WhatsApp group had two doctors, a banker, a fashion designer and an engineer. They were the only ones who revealed what they did for work. The rest of us ignored the question when Susan asked. Of course she would ask. Susan and Stevo were the two doctors in the group.
Marlon, part of the Top Five, was jobless despite his two graduate degrees from American universities. I knew this because Mercy sent me a message in private chat saying that Ali told her so, and Ali got it from Felo, who was still friends with Marlon. If Mercy knew about Marlon, then I suspected someone in the group knew about me. I trusted Mercy, but these things had a way of getting around.
However, I was curious to know which other friendships had endured like my friendship with Mercy. We had kept in touch through letters in high school and phone calls in university and regular coffee dates post-uni. I also wondered which opposite-sex relationships, as the teachers called them, had worked out even though, of course, this was highly unlikely.
Conspicuously missing from the group was Mike, whose love letter to Susan we had once intercepted and eventually got into Mrs Ochola’s hands. He had a friend deliver the letter, but then someone got hold of it before it got to Susan.We passed it from hand to hand, snickering as we read it under our desks during class. Mike had been caned by both Mrs Ochola and the headteacher and warned against trying to corrupt good girls like Susan.
“Why hasn’t Mike been added to the group?” Zena asked, adding a winking face emoji.
“He doesn’t respond to messages on Facebook. He thinks he’s too good for us,” Susan said.
That sounded like Mike alright. Back in school, Mike only spoke English even when there were no teachers around to punish whoever spoke Kiswahili. He never revealed his second name and used his father’s Christian name as his surname. When the teachers called his name out loud, you’d think he was from Britain or America. Michael William. Because he never revealed his middle name, we didn’t know from which people he descended. Was he Luhya? Kalenjin? Some of us guessed he was Luo because he was amongst the tallest boys, and his skin was a black that glowed. He only hung out with the students we considered rich because their parents owned cars. No one wondered what Susan saw in him, for even though Mike had a rotten personality, we girls contended that he was indeed very handsome.
We got to know his second name when we registered for the national exams and had to use our names as they appeared on our birth certificates. His second name was Ouma. How we had laughed. We asked him why he was so embarrassed to be Luo. We asked him if they also spoke English at home. When his parents came to school for prayer day, a week before the exams, we heard them speak Kiswahili in heavy Luo accents. We laughed and laughed when they left. We made fun of their accents. Mike retreated to a furious silence. After that, we were dead to him.
Ian was the first to leave the group. He had not posted anything so we didn’t know why he left, although Susan insisted that he left because we weren’t serious about the reunion.
“We are here to discuss the reunion. Please don’t share memes and other irrelevant things. When should we meet?” Susan said.
Stevo, the other doctor, said free time was hard to come by because aside from being a practising doctor, he was also studying for his PhD. He asked us to decide on a date and said he’d check if it was compatible with his schedule.
Mercy sent me an eye-roll emoji in our private chat.
Zena said she would love to attend the reunion but she had a three-year-old daughter and didn’t have a nanny. Laura and Sam lived in Johannesburg and New York respectively and therefore couldn’t come. When they brought this up, Mercy sent me another eye-roll emoji in our private chat.
Ombok, the fashion designer, formerly known to us as Angela, said she would attend the reunion only if it didn’t fall in June because she would be too busy promoting her winter collection.
Mercy was in my private chat again, this time with a laughing-crying emoji followed by, “Winter in Kenya? They’re calling the cold season winter now?”
“You guys are just mentioning dates that don’t work for you instead of offering suggestions,” Marlon, the other jobless Top Five, said. “Why don’t you suggest a day that suits you and we’ll see how we can accommodate everyone?”
“It is not our fault that we have jobs and don’t have a lot of free time,” Ombok said.
Marlon left the group.
Mercy posted a series of laughing-crying emojis, this time in the main chat.
“Please, let us be respectful,” Susan said.
“I prefer that we meet in Kiambu county. Limuru has lots of good places we can hang out,” Mato said.
“That’s too far. You think we all have cars like you?” Mercy said.
“We can’t meet in the slums where it works for you, Mercy,” Mato said.
“Guys, please. Let’s respect each other,” Susan said.
“Look who is talking about respect,” Sheila, who had been quiet the whole time, typed in all caps.
“One of your victims is finally speaking up,” Zena said.
Susan bullied the quiet ones the most, Sheila being one of them.
“You should have spoken sooner, Sheila. She should have punched you, Susan, in my opinion. You treated her like shit,” Mercy said.
“If you talk to me like that again, I will block you,” Susan warned Mercy.
“And then what, report me to Mrs Ochola? You think this is school where you could get away with being a dictator?”
Mercy left the group immediately after posting her retort. “I wasn’t going to give that shit a chance to block me,” she later texted me.
“I think we should resume planning when tempers have cooled,” Nyambu said.
“Hear, hear,” Zena said.
The next morning, a Sunday, I woke up to 213 group chat notifications. Mato had posted a photo from the previous night. In the photo, he sat in a booth with his left arm around a light-skinned girl in her early or mid-twenties. His right hand was raised high, out of view, perhaps the hand that snapped the picture. They were both smiling. Their table held the wreckage of a meal. Clean bones and chunks of ugali. Four bottles of Tusker. The caption read: My Sato is lit. He asked if anyone could top that and more images followed: a glass coffee table littered with beer bottles (from Felo); a fleece blanket half-falling on a brown sofa, a foot peeking underneath. It was captioned “just chillin” (from Juliet); baby feeding bottles on a marble countertop captioned “mummy duty” (from Zena); a stack of papers on a desk (from Nyambu). Stevo posted an image of himself standing in a bleak hospital corridor, holding what looked like an iPad to his chest.
With every image came comments, with comments came replies, with replies came emojis and GIFs. I showered, and when I checked my phone again I had 50 more notifications. Two people had also left the group.
“Haiya. People are leaving?” Mato said.
“Si you’re the one who started posting non-reunion things,” Zena replied.
A few minutes later, Juliet posted a Bible verse and told everyone to wake up and go to church.
A few hours later. “Guys, please let’s keep the discussions on the reunion. What about town?” Susan said.
“You are speaking as if you don’t know how hard it is to find parking in town,” Mato said.
“Then why don’t you offer a suggestion?”
“I suggested Limuru last time and it brought problems.”
“So everyone else should come all the way to Limuru because of you?” Zena said.
“Zena, why are you even talking? Didn’t you say you won’t come because you are a single mother?” Mato said.
“Don’t think you can shame me for being a single mother. I am proud to be a mum.”
“Let’s not insult each other,” Susan said.
“Now who has insulted anyone?” Mato said.
“I am proud to be a mum,” Zena said.
“We know. You already said that,” Mato said.
“This is not going anywhere,” Felo said. “Zena was the most active member and she has left the group.”
Susan added Zena back to the group a few minutes later. “Let us respect each other from now on,” Susan said. “I think we should meet in town.”
“Fine. But if I am to drive all the way to town, it has to be worth it. Somewhere with strippers,” Mato said.
“Finally! Someone is now talking sense,” Felo said.
“Why do I have to repeat so many times that we need to stick to the topic of the reunion?” Susan said.
“Si we’re looking for a location,” Mato said.
“It’s like dealing with children. Will you please do as I say?” Susan said.
“This is not class. You’re not prefect here. Your reign ended,” Mato said.
“Niiice. You watch Game of Thrones?” Johnte asked Mato, his first post after days of silence.
Someone posted hand-clap emojis. “That’s the only show worth watching.”
“Guys, REUNION PLEASE,” Zena posted.
“So much ruckus, you guys,” Felo said. “Susan, stop the ruckus.”
Susan left the group amid laughing emojis.
The group turned chaotic. Each person challenged the other to remember all the times Susan reported someone for causing a ruckus. Then, the group turned dormant.
Susan giving up on anything was too unusual for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about what else about her had changed. Three weeks after she left the group, I texted her. I said, “Hello, how are you? I hope you’re doing okay” as if I was making up for something, or hiding the fact that other than hello I lacked anything else to say. Her response came some five minutes later. She said, “Hey, fine.” Then another text followed like an afterthought. A suggestion for lunch that Friday at her favourite spot in the city. I presumed she was as curious about my life as I was about hers, but I was apprehensive about meeting her. Susan and I, we kept each other on our toes, but what did I have to show for it?
My parents knew her as the only other person who ever beat me in class. Every time I came second, my father asked, “Susan was number one?” He asked with a tone of respect, as though losing to Susan meant that I had fought a brave fight and lost to a worthy opponent. Perhaps her parents asked her the same whenever I beat her, with the same respect and admiration. I could tell my father wanted us to be friends, the way he always asked, “How come Susan never visits you?” after my friends visited on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. He had never disapproved of any of my friends, but he had never openly approved of them either. They were all girls my age from school and church. But I could tell Susan was the one person he would have openly expressed approval of.
Mercy insisted that I go have lunch with Susan. If not for me then for her. She even offered a list of questions to ask: was she married? Did she have children? Had she ever been dumped? Why? Had she killed any patients? How did she feel when her patients died? Mercy said her answers would reveal whether or not Susan had a soul.
In the end, I agreed.
Susan’s favourite spot in the city turned out to be a boutique hotel in Karen. I felt uneasy as I walked the long driveway to what looked like a sprawling plantation home, and it was not just because I didn’t feel like the elite client I imagined the place was designed for. It was also the feeling I got whenever I ended up in this area where white settlers lived. I had never met any hostility in Karen, not from its white residents, no, but there was always a tension in my bones that I couldn’t shake off. It was almost as if inside me was a gene that could recall the pain and humiliation of the name-calling, the plunder, the bloodshed, and it pulsed every time I walked that land. I could feel it going off like an alarm as I walked through the porte-cochère and into the lobby, a large room with high ceilings, Tuscan columns, a sweeping staircase, granite flooring, and tall wainscoting. I felt small in that room. But where the architectural features intimidated me, the furnishings seemed to invite me to sink in and forget everything. I could see myself stretched out on any of the deep, roll arm sofas and tufted wingback chairs, a cup of tea cooling on the rustic wood table, the flames in the fireplace licking my nerves. Was this what appealed to Susan, the comfort and majesty of the place?
I was ready to make my way to the front desk to ask for directions to the bar when I heard Susan tentatively call my name, as if her tongue had become rusty from years of not saying it. I turned around and there she was. Susan, in a Kitenge shirt dress, a matching belt tied casually around her waist. On her left arm, a delicate watch. On her feet, dangerous high heels. She wore her afro short, in a tapered haircut. Her hair at the crown was in a rod set that forced me to linger on her face – her matte red lip, her glowing cheeks, the gold eyeshadow that picked up the honey tone of the leaf prints on her dress. Susan looked stunning. I wondered where I got it from that doctors lacked an eye for style. Perhaps because the ones I saw always had a white coat on. Then again, this was Susan, and maybe a part of me expected her to show up the way I remembered her, in a crisp green pinafore over a pastel blue blouse and in white socks, the blue, double stripes at the top of her socks below her knees just so.
Did she pick out her outfit the night before, going over each choice with a friend as I had done with Mercy? If so, what did she want to communicate? I could not read any clues on the face that now brightened as she crossed the lobby to meet me. She gave me a tight hug, slightly bending her knees so that our cheeks brushed.
“My God, you have not changed. Still as skinny as you were in primo,” she said.
Susan had grown taller, of course. She was fat, too. It didn’t seem appropriate to point this out so I only smiled and said, “Good to see you.”
We embraced once more and in that empty lobby, the front desk disappearing from my line of sight, it felt as if it was Susan and I again, always Susan and I, unshakeable at the top. It failed to occur to me until then to wonder what Susan knew about me, about my life. Did she know I was unemployed? I still had no idea who had given her my phone number and I had not thought to find out. What did the person who gave her my number know about me and how much information had that person relayed?
For a brief moment, I had the feeling that I was in a game and I was losing. I knew nothing about Susan other than she was trying to organise a reunion with people who despised her, and that she had fulfilled expectations and became a doctor. I knew then that if this was a game, Susan had the upper hand and I might as well quit. Instead of this realisation causing me anguish, it freed me, this knowledge that I didn’t have to pretend anymore.
“Let’s sit outside,” Susan said. She led the way to the terrace, her shoes making the same noise Mrs Ochola’s had made years ago, rousing glances from the tables we passed. I followed her past an elderly white couple who glanced up at us as if surprised to see us there.
It was the kind of day one could say was fit for a postcard: soft afternoon sun in a cloudless blue sky, and the air smelled clean and fresh. I considered making a joke about the air being so fresh because there were no Africans around to make it dirty. I decided against it, unsure if Susan would find that sort of thing funny.
“This is where I come when I want to be alone.” She paused. “If we move to raised ground we’d be able to see the Ngong Hills. They aren’t visible from this spot because of the trees.”
“I don’t know any Kenyans who would find this place relaxing, apart from, well, the middle-class,” I said. I was aware of how mean I sounded, but I made no effort to take it back.
“I used to feel out of place here,” Susan said as if she didn’t hear the jab. “I walked around as silently as I could, being extra courteous as if that way no one would see me as an intruder. Then I got angry, at myself mostly. I mean, I love this place. I like being here, but to not come because someone, imagined or not, does not want me here? I got so mad. What the fuck did we fight for if I can’t even have a drink while staring at the fucking Ngong Hills when I want to?”
I stared at Susan, surprised at her saying fuck. I was familiar with the Susan who asserted herself, but this Susan who swore was new to me, and I found myself warming to her.
“Those are too many fucks,” I said.
“Sometimes that’s all you need,” she said, and we laughed so loudly that some of the patrons looked over at us. “When I come here, I dress up. I wear colour, and I wear high heels. I purposefully draw attention to myself. I dare anyone to try to stop me.”
“You look gorgeous.”
I felt more at ease then, so much so that I asked her the question that had started preoccupying my mind. “Who gave you my number?”
“Ombok,” she said, gazing at the pine trees that edged the property.
Of course. I should have known. I’d interviewed her for the magazine I worked for two or three years before, back when she was still Angela. A quarter-page of Ombok talking about her fashion influences and aspirations.
“She’s doing well for herself. I bought this dress from her,” Susan said as she turned her gaze towards me.
A waiter came for our order. I stared dumbly at the menu. I had gone through the same menu on the hotel website the day before and settled on grilled pork chops. It was not the cheapest item on the menu nor the most expensive. The choice would not have given away that I was broke. Looking at the menu then, pretending that I was perusing it for the first time, I struggled to make a choice. Something had thrown me off. I consulted Susan. “What do you like to eat when you’re here?”
“It depends on my mood. Today I’ll have the poached salmon.”
I asked for the same without checking its price. Susan ordered a glass of white wine and insisted I also have one.
“It’s a nice dress,” I said when the waiter left. “Ombok is so talented.”
“But I can see you want to make fun of something,” she said, amused.
“Me, no. Just giving compliments where they are due.”
“We made fun of people who wore kitenge clothes when we were kids.”
I chuckled. Mrs Ochola was one of the people we considered backward because she wore kitenge skirt suits. I said, “We also made fun of accents and names that were not Christian. We made fun of anything that didn’t have a connection to the colonisers. Remember how Mike never even wanted us to know he was Luo? I don’t think we were any different because I was just as ashamed. Mrs Ochola for whatever reason called me by my Luo name. I hated it.”
“Akoth,” Susan said, remembering.
“Yes. Even now, a small part of me flinched when you said it. I am sure we would have laughed at Ombok calling herself Ombok and not Angela. Good on her for embracing herself.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Susan said. “I think she’s just a smart businesswoman. To a certain clientele, her name Angela doesn’t match the image of someone who describes her creations as tribal chic.”
“Tribal chic? Sounds like a glamorous insult,” I said and we laughed. “Are these chic outfits made out of animal skin and sisal?”
“Just the usual materials from tribal Africa,” Susan said, sitting up straighter and holding out her claw-shaped brass earring while giving me a sultry look.
“I like it. Very primitive.” We were off again, this time attracting disapproving looks from the other tables as if we were flouting an unspoken rule that permitted us to be loud only once.
“People are staring. They’ll kick us out for being loud and uncouth.”
“And send us to tribal hell.”
I had been nervous about the meeting partly because I thought Susan and I would have nothing to talk about. I had imagined an awkward and brief afternoon. I had forgotten how mean we could be. Mocking Ombok’s branding tactics reminded me how Susan and I made fun of other people’s projects during group work in school.
That old good time feeling, and the Chardonnay, so chilled, so perfect, made me think about the humiliation I’d carted around my whole life, made me mould words around it for the first time. After our laughter died down, we leaned back into a silence so gentle it felt like a hug, and I said, “A lot of the things that happened to us were fucked up, like Mrs Ochola humiliating me about my flat chest. For a long time, I was ashamed of that too. I took my late puberty as a personal failure, a sign that something was wrong with me and it was all my fault.”
“I hope you don’t believe that anymore.”
I was uncertain about how much that belief, that I was at fault for my late puberty, had seeped into my blood and infected me. But I told Susan no, I didn’t believe it anymore.
“You know, Ann, I envied your flat chest.”
I blanched at this. I thought she was telling me this to make me feel better, as people do when confronted with a confession that made them uncomfortable, but it just made me mad.
“I hated my body, my breasts specifically,” Susan said, and I stared at her, confused.
“You never noticed how at some point I started hunching? I wanted my breasts to be invisible. Or I wanted to be invisible.”
I tried to remember, but nothing came up. Perhaps because a hunched posture was not unusual among girls who were teased for having big breasts. I started hunching myself when my breasts began to grow for fear that someone would notice and point it out. I never took my sweater off even on days when the heat seemed determined to test my commitment to keeping my secret.
“I don’t remember anyone making fun of you, and I don’t think anyone would have dared do so in your face. Mrs Ochola adored you.”
“This one morning I was in class alone. You had not come in yet. Mr Nyaga came early. He was the teacher on duty, I think. He asked me to fetch him a clean eraser in the storeroom and he followed me there and grabbed my breast. He just walked in, retrieved an eraser himself, turned to me, grabbed my breast and walked out, just like that. So casual. I don’t remember how long I stood there before going back to class. When I got home that day I sneaked to the kitchen. At least it felt like I was sneaking because everything I did that day felt wrong and sinful. I got steel wool by the sink in the kitchen and used it instead of a washcloth to scrub myself. I scrubbed myself raw but I could still feel Mr Nyaga’s handprint on my left breast. I felt it for a long time.”
She delivered this with no visible emotion as though she was a broadcaster simply doing her job. I imagined Susan in that storeroom. Stacks of exercise books lining the wall shelves, boxes of chalk in one section, erasers, one on top of the other. I saw Susan standing in the centre of the room, perhaps wondering if she should pick the red or black or blue or green eraser. Then I saw a shadow fall across the room. In my imagination, Mr Nyaga’s frame filled the doorway even though he had been a short and slender man with a youthful look about him, so short and youthful that he could have passed for one of us had he been in school uniform. I saw Susan turning around then taking a few steps back, aware of a danger she couldn’t quite place.
There was a tightening in my chest that Susan must have sensed because she pressed a smile on me as if I was the one who needed comforting. “Don’t worry. I am fine now, but I was not for a long time. Every time I felt that handprint it acted as a reminder that I was a bad person. I stopped standing next to him when he marked my books. I also started resenting Mrs Ochola. She always said we should keep time and I did that. I went to class early and then this happened, and she never even noticed that something about me had changed. She always said to do as we were told. I did that when Mr Nyaga sent me to the storeroom and this happened, and she did not even ask me why my eyes were so swollen after a crying bout in the bathroom three days later when I couldn’t get rid of that fucking handprint.”
She was visibly upset now as if, finally, the anger that had been lurking around her wounds had found an outlet.
“I made sure I was never in class by myself again. Remember I started waiting for you in the parking lot whenever I came to school before you? I felt safer with you around.”
The memory came to me when she mentioned it. The two of us always came in early, some minutes before seven o’clock while the rest of the class started filing in at half-past seven. Susan would race me to class whenever we reached the gate at the same time so she could be the first one in. One time Susan was racing me to class, the next she was at the parking lot as if waiting for someone, the ground carpeted purple with flowers from the jacaranda trees lining the curb. I remembered that first time she refused to race me and instead walked a few paces behind me to class. I could not remember if I considered this behaviour odd.
“Susan…” I started and stopped. What was there to say?
“I’m fine now.” She sighed and managed a weary smile as if she too, tired of pretending, was relieved she didn’t have to anymore.
“Did you tell anyone?”
“Not until now.”
One trick I’d learnt working as a journalist was to first ask people what they did for fun. You never wanted to start right away about their jobs. You couldn’t know if they loved their jobs, but most people loved their hobbies. You wanted to be the person who brought them some joy by having them talk about things they loved, but since I still believed Susan asked to see me to gloat about being a doctor, I decided to indulge her, if only to make her feel better.
“Do you like being a doctor?” I asked. Yes, I knew what I was doing. It was less about making her feel better and more about making me feel less discomfort from the weight of her confession, hovering over the table between us, taking up all the air. I was doing that which I hated when done to me, attempting to take away Susan’s pain because simply witnessing it and not fixing it made me feel even more useless.
My attempt to snuff Mr Nyaga out of our meeting must have been so obvious and pitiful that Susan laughed, loudly. I joined her, uncertainly.
“Are you recording this conversation?”
“Of course not. Why would I…?” I stopped when I saw her broad smile. She was joking.
“I love it some days. Other days I hate it,” she said.
Her blunt honesty caught me off-guard, and I didn’t ask her why immediately.
“But thank God I work at a teaching hospital because that’s the part I love best, teaching,” Susan went on.
Susan, a teacher. I smiled at the thought of it. Those poor medical students. Susan caught my smile and asked me what was so funny. I saw her stiffen as if readying for the touch of a fist.
“Knowing you,” I said, “I am sure you push them to be nothing but the best. They are lucky to have you.” I was surprised to realise that I meant it.
She relaxed. “I actually thought you’d be a surgeon,” she said. “The way you used to hunt down grasshoppers and cut them up, pretending you were a doctor.”
“I was just a kid. I didn’t know what I wanted. But I later found out I like writing more and went with that.”
“It’s funny how life turns out, isn’t it? Stevo is a doctor.”
“It really is funny.” Stevo wasn’t even part of us, the Top Five
“You were smarter than him,” Susan said.
I got annoyed at the words she left unsaid. Susan, perhaps sensing a change in my mood, said, “I expected you to be…” She stopped and seemed to struggle for the right words.
She took in my comment in a way that confirmed that yes, she’d expected more of me, even though she attempted to deny it.
“You think you have arrived because you’re a doctor?”
“I didn’t say that. I don’t even like it very much. I envy you for doing something that you like. I wish I was more like you. You rebelled and did what you wanted, not what you were told.”
“I was not rebelling,” I said, still annoyed. “What are you talking about? Who told you I was rebelling?”
“It’s just that when you score As everyone tells you what to do, and the only thing to do is medicine. I didn’t want to be a doctor.” Her voice went low. “I still don’t know what I would have wanted without instructions and orders from my parents and teachers.”
Susan was wrong. I hadn’t known what I wanted. When I had just finished my law degree, I answered a call from a media house to join their attachment scheme. It didn’t matter that I had not studied journalism. All they wanted was a passion for writing and I had my blog to prove it. I thought the attachment would be a great way to spend six months after graduation before I figured out what to do next. They offered me a job at the end of the attachment and seven years later, I moved to the women’s magazine, a shiny new outlet by a South African publisher, paying more than the market rate. The newness and better pay were enough to make me decamp. Then came the layoffs and I was still struggling to find what to do next, unsure if I wanted a career in journalism at all.
When we said goodbye later that evening, it was clear the possibility of a friendship hadn’t been stoked, but it hung in the air like a storm cloud, calling on whoever was brave enough to fan it. We walked to the parking lot, to her Toyota Crown. She dropped me at the main stage in Karen and drove off to wherever she lived. I didn’t ask where. A red brick apartment maybe, in a neighbourhood that bore signs that said NO MATATUS BEYOND THIS POINT.
There was no promise of keeping in touch from either of us. But we held each other in her car, the armrest making it impossible for us to deepen the hug like I would have wanted to.
I thought about Susan as I took a matatu to town then another one to Maringo estate, where matatus honked and people thronged pavements. I thought about what I had told her and what she had told me, how much we were both flailing. I was still ashamed about how lost I felt, still afraid of letting her see how far below expectations I had fallen, although something told me she’d understand my predicament in a way Mercy never could or even my parents, who I suspected had not forgiven me for abandoning a law career.
For the next few days, I wondered what I would have become had Susan and I kept in touch over the years. I probably would be working as a lawyer, a great one. Or a journalist who couldn’t get laid off. The competitiveness between us would have always pushed me to put my best foot forward, I was sure of it. I wondered what I would have offered her in exchange. Perhaps my father had known all along that we needed each other.
I found myself scrolling through the WhatsApp group Susan had created. The last activity had been an exchange of Easter messages and a few silly memes. Then, nothing. Without thinking, I started adding back everyone who had left, everyone whose phone numbers I had, starting with Susan.
“We are having this reunion,” I wrote. “Here are the rules: No memes, no marketing, not even recollection of stories. Strictly reunion. If you break the rules, I will block you. Feel free to leave if you think this reunion is a waste of your time.”
I checked my phone after five minutes. No one had left. Mercy posted first. “Finally, someone taking charge.”
Some group members posted hand-clap emojis.
I asked Susan to propose three possible locations for the reunion, and I proposed three dates. When she did, I asked them to start voting. The date and location with the most votes would determine where and when we’d have the reunion. I stared at my phone screen. They started voting.
Caroline Okello is a writer living in Nairobi. Her short story ‘Ayiecho’ was published in drr.