Read time: 18 mins

A Matter of Time

by Kabubu Mutua
23 May 2022

On the morning when I spritzed a Dove spray on the nape of my neck and dabbed it lightly on my wrists, Kyalo said to me, ‘You smell like a woman.  Are you bent?’ and I said no; it was just a perfume. But I did not tell him that I had stolen the spray from my mother’s purse during the holidays; that one afternoon, as she plucked a chicken for supper under the awning, I had secretly searched through her leather purse and taken out the elegant bottle with Dove printed on its label, listening for her footsteps in the background; that the next day, she had said to me, ‘The girl in my shop has started stealing from me now. Can you imagine? I can’t find my perfume.’

And so, to Kyalo, I said no. It was a sin to even think of such a thing, though, in the back of my mind I wished, with a suppressed longing, that I had said yes, that I dreamed of him in certain ways. Later, in the school assembly, after the chorister led the school in singing Trust and Obey, I thought I saw Kyalo stare back at me.

Something in him had always made me imagine windy afternoons in Makutano, Sunday afternoons steeped in birdsong and rice cooked with excess ginger, the utter recklessness of sitting under the shade of lemon trees, with Brenda Fassie’s cracking voice muffled in the radio.

I had always hungered for him secretly since I got the scholarship to study at Our Lady of Consolata in Machakos. I knew the square roots of big numbers from memory, and the scholarship letter had said my math skills would greatly improve at Our Lady. The day after the letter arrived, my mother had said to her church friends when they came for tangawizi chai, ‘We thank God for his mercies.’

Kyalo was a debater in the school club. I would watch as his hands clasped the edges of the lectern, light falling across the deft lines of his face; there would be something, too, in the way he looked at the weaker debate teams from other schools and with a strong point, bring a resounding win to Our Lady.

Our Lady was a private Catholic boys’ boarding school, and I had always known that my secret was better inside me. There had been a boy, a boy with the same hunger as mine, a boy who let his secret out, and he read a confession before the morning assembly. Afterward, students began to avoid him in the hallways, filled his locker with dirty newspapers pulled from garbage bins, and in the toilets scribbled his name: John is a gofa. These kinds of things, the principal had said, were white men’s ways and if not clipped early in life, usually sucked from men the desire for women. There would be rumours of boys caught doing it in the showers, rumours I listened to with concealed attention, often sneaking into the crowds of gossipers, discovering within me a heightened sense of melancholy, and there, I wondered if one day the students would ever find out about me and scrawl my name on toilet walls, if in coming days they would stand with books held to their chests and say, ‘I knew about him the whole time.’

I folded myself slowly, grew new skin, transformed into a being dependent on this layering.

I bumped into him near the library and said hello and saw that he looked at me with a kind yearning. I asked him how he would spend his holidays; he shrugged and said Antwerp.

‘Antwerp?’ I asked. His father, who had an art exhibition organized by UNESCO, would be taking them along, he said.

‘What a delight,’ I said.

He said he resented the place, and did I know it became so cold towards the end of the year, your breath turned into fog before your very eyes? That it snowed so much that airplanes were grounded for days? Cancun was a much better place with all the sun and places to see, he added. He said the words as a person travelling to the next town would, with the ease of people used to international travel. I had never seen snow, only read about it in second-hand Enid Blyton novels, and I had always pictured it as a delicate substance like the icing my mother scrolled on my birthday cakes every November—a thing with a similar consistency.

‘What is it like, travelling in an airplane?’ I said. He laughed, not in the unkind manner that would signify pity for ignorance, not in the tone used by older students who bullied junior students, but in a way that seemed to drive me into his space. A sacred space inside him capable of healing me, of sealing the tears where my skin had begun to yield new skin.

‘Close your eyes, and imagine you were riding a bus.’ I closed my eyes, and a flutter of ecstasy rose from my chest to my throat.

‘Imagine you were riding a bus, but remove the constant bumps and potholes.’ He went on to speak of longer journeys interspersed with drinks and food served from trolleys, toilet breaks several altitudes above the earth.

Could we walk to the library, he wanted to know? And there, in the IT room, on the blinking screens of the computers, he showed me the intricacies of flying, the whole process: tickets, the prestigious airlines of the world, DB Cooper and his bag of money. And here, in the room where we sat, my love for airplanes began. I learned that letting the air fill you up, flying in sharp angles gave your body a streamlined position, capable of cutting through balls of turbulence and fierce eddies; that in order to swoop onto earth, a flying body would need to slow its velocity upon descent, tumbling smoothly through altitudes to the spread of the earth. And little things like watching blue starlings and pigeons take flight near the school chapel fascinated me; there was a beauty which became superimposed upon my eyes when I saw them fly against the greyness of the chapel walls—their images remained transfixed in my head for days to come. Little by little, I came to know all the aircraft manufacturers without ever setting foot on one:  Boeing, Embraer, and the extinct Concorde. I knew the protocols observed on take-off and touchdown. In long periods spent in the southern wing of the library, the honey-gold shades of evening found me there at that desk by the window, imagining, scrolling on my notebook the requirements one needed to enrol at the flying school in Nairobi.

He was a prefect; he wore sleek blazers, freshly ironed so they seemed to wrap around him as though sewn onto his shoulders. And he knew how to speak in ways I did not; his voice was always straight, unyielding when he made a strong point, his English unbroken. Mine was a tremble when I spoke—I was afraid other students would know from the cadences of my voice, so I kept prisoner the sounds underneath my chest and walked upright. Lying in my dormitory bed, I recalled the echoes of his voice as he recited poetry for Madam Ngina’s class.

The second time he approached me, he asked if I cared for a cup of cocoa. I had been finishing up on a calculus assignment; the light-green graph papers filled with pencil curves were strewn on my desk. And still I said yes although the paper was due the next day. I stayed in his cubicle until late into the night, listening to him talk.

‘Do you know Tupac; Aaliyah?’ he asked, and I said no; from then on, he introduced me to American artists whose names I had seen vaguely on posters pasted on matatus. From his drawer, he pulled a collection of CDs wrapped in pink nylon which he slid into a Sony player and thereafter leaned back in his chair, arms folded behind his head, as if to observe if I liked the music. And I did. The clipped rhythms, the wavering melodies etched into his tongue so I would retrieve the lyrics from the recesses of my mind the next morning. These musicians, he said, were people whose descendants had been cast away from home, creating music in their troubles, and in this constant search for home in a place where they had been forever consigned to servitude, found the little holes which let in the light, the music they had created all those ages ago now evolving to these very sounds we listened to. I laughed, and said he was too serious and that yes, I knew about the history of blues although I didn’t. I had only read about this as a passing reference in history class stories about slavery and music sung while slaves harvested cotton in the American South, the yearning for liberation signified in those compositions, the sense of fraternity as if poured from their minds onto their tongues. I had grown up with Papa Wemba on Saturdays and Catholic choirs on Sundays and sometimes, Oliver Mtukudzi. Afterwards, he was dancing in front of me, an orange glow on his face, and I knew he was the one in the whole world. I stared at the veins running along his forearms, and I pictured other parts too where such beautiful things took form. He asked me what was wrong, and smiling, I said it was nothing.

He stopped dancing but Aaliyah still played, and he wanted to know why I had stared in that way, and I stifled a giggle, covering my mouth with my palm, and then I looked up and, from where I was seated, realized his hands were trembling and a silence had slipped between the two of us.

He turned the knob of the cassette player off, and please could I leave, as it was late? And I thought I sensed a tone in him.

The entire week, we avoided each other. I saw him next at a basketball game; he was cheering the players, and he stopped when our eyes met. I thought he would turn away, but he waved, a slight movement of his palm. And then, a doubt like coldness crept into me—I wondered if he thought about me the way I thought about him.

I found him in his cubicle, reading Purple Hibiscus, and his door had been left open. It was as if he knew I would come. I asked if he hated me. He shot from his bed, closed the door, breathed into my face, said no, and what did I mean?

‘You know what I mean,’ I said, and his hands were trembling.

‘This is dangerous,’ he said. I touched his upper arm. He was breathing fast, and I walked out the door.

On Sundays, when a new preacher visited the school chapel and asked who wanted to be saved, he always raised his hand. Every Sunday. I wondered what sins he carried that he needed saving so often. I only ever loved the hymns, reading from hymnals so worn out that they crackled under the pale morning light, singing on cue to the Steinway piano at the altar and loving the cadences and melodies more than I ever did the act of worshipping.

The entire term, he avoided me, but on the last day approached me as I walked to the bus stop for my ride back home.

Did I mind a trip to the city, he wanted to know?

I stood there, angry at him for acting as if he had not ghosted me for those long weeks, delighted that he wanted my company.

I said yes, I wouldn’t mind. The bus was late anyway, so I would take the evening bus. In his father’s car, we both sat in the back, and I later discovered that the man driving was a family driver, that he was called Musa and, every Hajj, he received a pilgrimage ticket to Mecca courtesy of his employers. He told me this as we alighted at Khoja, after he said to the driver, ‘Boss, I will be back. We are only going away for some minutes.’ And so, wandering through the city, admiring beige and bright clothes draped around pale mannequins, we headed towards the Kenya National Museum where a sign said, ‘DON’T TAKE PICTURES.’ These brief snatches of time with him were enough for me, I came to realize.

We bought samosas sprinkled with lemon sauce near Uhuru Park, and in front of the Freedom Fighter’s Gallery, he explained the course of the Mau Mau rebellions, and as we stood before the glass screens, I was not listening. Rather, I was gazing at his lips—the smooth skin, the sheer pink. Then I asked if he minded going to the washrooms, and there, in the smell of a citrus detergent, guarded by the shell-white walls, I kissed him. He seemed repulsed in the first few seconds, but he slipped into rhythm and kissed me more strongly than I had done. This was bravery.

When we parted, he asked could he see me again, and I laughed and said no, my town was kilometres and kilometres away, that he would never be able to find me. But he did; in the week before Christmas he boarded a bus to Makutano, before his trip to Antwerp. I wanted to cry and say no, this was a dream. He had found no trouble in locating me, he said. And in his eyes was this mischievous look, as if he wanted me to know the struggles he had undergone to find me.

I took him around the bazaars, where I helped my mother sell fabric during the holidays, and when people asked who he was, I said he was a friend from school. Surely, no one would stop and wonder. These things never happened in Kenya. I showed him the dried-up ponds near the valley where I caught tadpoles as a child, the old trees where I set up swings, and in the open market, we bought roast maize cobs sprinkled with red lime.

My mother served him rice and stew cooked in thyme and bay leaves, and she laughed and said he reminded her of a long-gone friend, and could he tell her from which part of Kambaland his parents came from?

Makueni, he said.

She said she knew people from that place, that they loved their tea with a lot of ginger; they both laughed. I watched them—this compact portrait of people I adored and wished their laughter wasn’t draped in so much secrecy, so much taboo. That night, my mother said he could sleep on the sofa as it was getting late; he shouldn’t leave at that hour because ritualists abounded in these parts. He said yes, he wouldn’t mind, and she gave him the tartan bedsheet with the criss-cross patterns to cover himself with. Later in the night, I heard him slip into my bedroom, and my head was turned away from him, facing the wall. I had left it open in case he came. And he removed his clothes, and me, mine.

And we slipped into each other, our skins trembling. Afterwards, I tried to giggle, and he covered my mouth with his hand. And later, sated, I turned the radio on at that hour of the night when the cockerel at our neighbour Nzwili’s compound crowed. Oliver Mtukudzi was playing softly in pastel tones from XFM. The cotton curtains were parted, so a smooth breeze came in. Rain began to fall, and I looked at him; as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I saw he was awake. Soon, the rain let up, and the sun poured in golden circles through the window. After breakfast, my mother plucked mangoes from the tree in the backyard, wrapped them in polythene and said to him, ‘Take this to your parents.’ It pained me that my life was this submerged thing, that the person she knew as her son was a half-being transformed, a traveller in a journey of morphing. It pained me that in this very space where I existed, she was a stranger.

As I escorted Kyalo to board his bus home, he asked about my father, why he had not seen him, and there, in the mauve pink of sunset, a melancholy filled me. To know that my sadness would be cast into him troubled me, yet I told him. I thought he would say everything happened for a reason, just as all those relatives had said to me and my mother when my father fell from the roof of our house while repairing it and broke his neck all those years ago. But he held my hand firmly, interlocked his fingers into mine and kissed me again behind the Nandi flame tree, and a petal fell on our faces.

When the schools opened, I walked to his cubicle.  He was tying his tie, the blue and gold stripes around his fingers. I wanted to ask about his trip to Antwerp, what airline he had flown on. I said hello and he turned to me and what did I want?

I was surprised by his rushed tone, by his avoidance. What do I want, I wanted to know? He said if it was about the last holiday break, I should forget everything—it had been a phase, and after all, was I not a Christian? Didn’t my religion forbid me to pursue this very thing?

Phase was what he called the time we spent in our home when he fondled into my trousers, feeling me, peeling my clothes away. Phase was what he called the sweet groans he let out when I took him in my mouth. Phase was how he described the periods of solitude I had spent with him the previous term, periods consumed like food, a kind of nourishment taken by a person with the knowledge that soon they may go without. Phase was the wrecking ball striking the sturdy shrine I had built for the two of us. Tears filled my eyes as I slammed the door behind me and walked away. In the hallway, a fellow student asked me, ‘Why are you crying?’

Later, my legs began to tremble when I saw him speak before the school assembly; he was saying students should meet for the debate club meeting. Our eyes met as he spoke; he paused and stammered and said everyone should take care of themselves. I wondered if he was communicating, if from his distant place where he had sequestered himself from me he was sending snatches of himself. I enjoyed this thought, adored it even, that he was a person who lacked, a person in need of completion.

At the debate club meeting, the theme was the place we call home. I wanted to tell him he was my second home; I clapped hard when he made his first motion, stomped my feet with the rest of the hall. The term was coming to an end, the National Examinations closer. Then one day, in the library, he pulled a chair next to me.

‘I’m moving to America. Next year, for university…’

I had not cleared the fog that had existed between the two of us; everything was still unresolved. And yet with that statement, a solidness formed, creating a wall—it was as if his impending departure was now morphing from vague outlines in my mind to a kind of physicality which I tried to climb over to find him but stumbled because my heels had been strapped to blocks of cement. Are you joking, I wanted to know? The library was silent, and I realized I had spoken too loudly and that my voice echoed. My throat was tightening, and a warm sensation was rising from my stomach—I could taste bile on my tongue. The walls were closing in while he was touching my hands and saying, ‘It’s just a matter of time, no?’

I pushed him away, walked into the bathroom, locked myself in a toilet cubicle and cried. The whole time, he stood outside the door, knocking, and please could I come out and say something?

When the Examinations ended, I visited the museum on my own. The lady at the counter asked if I was well and if I had been crying. I wiped my tears and walked into the African Artefacts section. It was in this section where we had started, where I had planted a kiss on his mouth. And yet now, it seemed in my solitude as though it had been a fantasy, a wild journey. The teak sculptures of the dreadlocked men with guns strapped across their shoulders in the movement of muted light stared at me through the glass. And then I thought that perhaps this art was the only constant, an existence forever placed on the peripheries of humanity—no breath, no feeling, no lovers. Unimpeded by the fluctuations of longing. And I remembered how his face lit up as he walked through the softly lit gallery, his school shirt folded up to his arms. And there, in the cold humming hallway, I stopped and leaned against the glass screen, my head dizzy. What was happiness if not an experience at its peak, hoisted on the lows of everything?

Months later, I received a letter wrapped in a cream airmail envelope, and I knew right away it came from him, and there in a note was written my name in his florid handwriting; I pressed it into my nostrils and smelled a lavender scent.

Dear Sisi,

Greetings from the land of the free. It has been a long time, and I thought I should say something. Being apart from home has cast me into so much sadness, and to think that people flee home for this blankness upsets me. I hope you’ve forgiven me, and it is okay if you have not. But what are we, those of us tied to our parents from the day we are born? It is as if we are encumbered with their dreams, folded into them, so that we can’t set upon our paths until we become like them: parents with our own children, and only then do they set us free, when they know we are caged as they were when they had us. What is that if not the purest form of sacrifice?

The food is so bad here, and do you remember the mahindi choma we had when I visited your hometown? It stung my tongue for days so I couldn’t touch anything hot!

I miss the dust, the sounds of the city. Outside, the leaves are golden, and you would imagine the weather was as fair. They say we are approaching winter. I moved into my aunt Hilda’s house in Providence, and last week I went to see my school. It was built in the Abolitionist era, and there are pigeons everywhere. Anyway, I have to go; I miss you. I don’t know if you do. Please write back to this same address.

Forever and always,

K.

A part of me wanted to write to him to say I would begin my aviation training in January, that I had grown a stubble, that I had found a girl. She wore floral dresses, combed her hair backwards with Limara pomade and sang in the church choir. Her name was Nduku, and she impressed my mother because she knew how to cook chapattis in scarce oil, because she had wide hips, and soon, maybe she would grant her a grandchild.

But I held the note, folded it and stared at my mother as she starched curtains in the backyard, and she smiled back at me.

That week, I scoured through the browser in the single computer at the market cybercafé, searched for Providence, and there before me was a city placed in wide open spaces. And I imagined him walking through those same tree-lined streets with light dappled in yellow-golden points.

I wondered, as the cybercafé owner said, ‘Your time is finished,’ if there would be others like me.

About the Author

Kabubu Mutua

Kabubu Mutua (b. 2000) grew up in Machakos county, Kenya. His short story, ‘Small Mercies‘, was longlisted for the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize. It was later published in The Hope, The Prayer, The Anthem anthology. His second short story, ‘An Act of Prayer‘, appears in A Long House: Origins issue.

Related