It was the week before Christmas when he found out. He’d gone to the supermarket to buy exactly 3kg of chicken breast, a bottle of vinegar and breadcrumbs. Mueni would marinade the chicken in her secret family spice before grilling it in the oven for exactly two hours at one hundred degrees Celsius. He was sweaty and tired after hauling the heavy, boneless mass all the way from the freezers at the far end of the supermarket to the till.
“Gabriel,” he heard the familiar voice shout his name and cringed.
“Nathan, hello,” he called back in a more subdued tone.
Nathan’s long strides covered the distance between them in no time and Gabriel soon found himself backing away. He would have had to crane his neck at the most unnatural of angles to look him in the face had he stood closer. There were other reasons as well, of course. They talked congenially for a few minutes about the weather and what they’d be getting each of their kids for Christmas. Gabriel had promised Murage, his son, a subscription to Popular Mechanics.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you then,” Gabriel said after the socially acceptable period for two (almost) neighbours to chat was over.
“Alright, then. By the way, she looked quite lovely. Tell her I said so. I couldn’t when I saw her on Thursday.”
Gabriel assured him that Mueni had been at a three day conference in Eldoret on Thursday.
“No, I‘m pretty sure it was her. It was at the …now what’s that restaurant called again? Anyway, it was in Karen. She was wearing that purple bluish dress with a brooch. Pretty dress, I’d recognize it anywhere.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure there are plenty of bluish-purple dresses out there,” Gabriel said, a bit forcefully.
“Maybe. Well anyway, see ya!”
He left Gabriel standing there for a few moments, with a great big puddle slowly forming under the great bag of chicken, until a shop attendant walked up and asked him if he was alright.
Perhaps Nathan was pressed for time. Busy, important (or self-important) men, usually are. Maybe, against all odds some inner sensitivity inside him felt the chill in the room from Gabriel’s blood running cold. Whatever the reason, Nathan strode away, his legs taking big mouthfuls of the ground, not pausing to chew. Soon after, Gabriel left the newly formed puddle and walked to his car.
He went home and handed the foodstuffs over to Mueni, who immediately began preparing the meal. She prepared the marinade of vinegar, ginger, garlic, salt and a bit of Tabasco, more than a pinch. Gabriel left her to her work and went to pick up Murage. The two pm traffic was light, so he got there in about fifteen minutes. He had a short wait with the cars of a few other parents in the car park while the students wrapped up their final activities of the year. He saw a Mercedes and a Toyota that he recognized, but he didn’t walk up to greet the waiting drivers. He spent the time consulting Mr. Google instead. Yes, there had indeed been a three day orthopaedic specialists conference in Eldoret from Wednesday to Friday.
She’d been gone from Tuesday to Saturday. But really, what did that prove?
Murage finally came bouncing up to the car, dressed in sports kit and dripping sweat like a leaky faucet. He was overflowing with stories about the day, the sports they’d played and the goals he’d scored. Gabriel let him exhaust himself, then handed him his Christmas present. Popular Mechanics had perhaps never elicited such a shriek of joy from a ten year old.
They house seemed almost transformed by the time they got back. The finely balanced odour of grilled marinated chicken seemed to beautify everything. Mueni had swept the floor and put a new tablecloth and covers on the seats while the chicken inched towards whatever state of perfection all her artistry could bring it to. The fancy silver and china that usually did no more than adorn the cupboard was out and waiting on the chair for father and son to wash and wipe. There was no maid; the Maina family would be hosting the soirée all by themselves, as had been the tradition since before Murage was born.
The first of the guests to arrive was Peter Thuku. He was short and stocky man with a powerful body, the residue of his younger rugby playing days, and a loud, boisterous nature than did little to belie a quiet determination and iron dependability. He had been to every single Maina Christmas dinner and, as far as anyone could remember, he’d always arrived first. He was Mueni’s friend and office-mate, but he and Gabriel were a single soul dwelling in two bodies.
Peter and Gabriel chatted for a few minutes. He helped him set the enormous dining table bought more or less for the purpose of hosting that dinner a few years earlier. There were twelve places at the table. Gabriel would sit at the head of the table, with his wife and son on the left and right respectively. The other nine places were for friends from work, school, church, anywhere and everywhere. While the two worked, Murage leafed through his glorious gift, and Mueni finished touching up dessert.
“There’s something I needed to ask you,” Gabriel asked, in a tone that immediately told Peter that something was wrong.
“Oh, I just wanted some advice about how to deal with-”
And then the cacophony began.
“Ho Ho Ho! Merry Christmas! Lumps of coal for all.”
“Really Jerry, is that any way to-”
“Let him be Marge, he’ll scare away the stray cats at the very least.”
The first party had arrived.
Jerry Otieno was Gabriel’s colleague at the firm. His sense of humour and trickery with torts were his strong points. Marjorie was his better, quieter, more sensible half. Robert, the firm’s designated guide through the murky world of tax law, came alone every year. Alone, but for the flask he always had in his breast pocket.
“Marge it’s so good to see you!”
“Tell me about it-”
“I do, every day, dear.”
“Hello, little man. Gosh you’ve gotten so tall!”
No sooner had the first group been led into the living room from the parlour, the second arrived. It was Collins Simiyu and his wife, who apologized for being late even though they weren’t and announced the impending arrival of a third group, which they’d left hunting for parking outside. Mueni came to the parlor, apron and all, to welcome them. She was beaming. Playing host was the highlight of her year, every year. As she led them to the living room and asked Gabriel to check if the pudding was cold yet. She kissed him on the cheek in thanks and left to tend to her guests before he got the chance to reply.
While he was checking on the newborn pudding, the reply to his text came. Dr. Otiende wished him a Merry Christmas, he and the family were well, no Mueni hadn’t signed up for the conference in Eldoret, why did he ask?
The tears started flowing of their own accord. He turned his back to the door so that no slightly lost guest would stumble on him, and wiped his eyes with the cuffs of his shirt like a little boy. He felt like one, lost and confused. He felt like a man in the midst of a vast ocean whose sturdy ship had suddenly broken in two.
The third party was Mercy, her two children and Jonah, her partner and soon to be husband. They were already seated comfortably in the living room drinking spiced tea and laughing heartily to one of Jerry’s stories when Gabriel walked in. He did his best to smile as he said hello to them before slinking away to the darkest corner of the room. He felt sick inside, like at any moment he’d throw up all over the newly dry-cleaned carpet. None noticed except Peter, who slithered over and asked if he was alright. He wasn’t, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak. For a few hours at least, he would have to play the part of the magnanimous host.
Dinner was served at around eight. The whole Maina family took part in the serving, even Murage who got an ovation from the guests when he carried a whole tray of glasses from the kitchen without dropping a single one. The big tray of chicken went in the middle of the table, the potatoes next to it, the pilau and stew after them. It was a completely democratic meal. Everyone served as much as they wanted, everyone ate at their own pace and spoke to whomever they pleased, even if it meant shouting across the whole length of the table. Murage lead Mercy’s two kids to go eat in the living room and take a look at his impressive collection of play station games.
They finished the chicken and potatoes in what seemed to be one simple fluid motion. The pilau soon met the same fate, like the ugly older sister who takes long to get married, but eventually finds a husband. Most leaned back in their chairs and patted their stomachs appreciatively as the conversation jumped around from person to person and topic to topic. Mueni was at the wheel steering it away from dangerous topics like a skilled captain directing a great ship. Gabriel was usually in awe of her. Today, he just felt sick inside as he went to get the pudding from the kitchen.
The brown, sugary dessert was consumed with as much gusto as everything else. Gabriel asked Murage if he hadn’t eaten a little too much, and the young man said no with his mouth but yes with his eyes and his facial expression. When he was finished he left and lay face up on the sofa in the living room like an invalid who lacked the strength to move. The adults seemed to feel the same, though they were less dramatic about it. Most just sat back in their chairs and contributed every so often to whatever the discussion had evolved. Robert patted the flask his breast pocket once or twice the way you’d pet a cat.
Hardly anyone noticed Gabriel push his chair back and stand. He stood quietly for a second or two, surveying the crowd from the head of the table, till Jerry finally noticed he’d stood and shouted “Hear! Hear!” Jerry was hard to ignore. One by one they ceased their noisy talking and turned their chairs to face Gabriel. He felt like he was under a microscope.
“I would like to thank you all for making it here tonight-”
“So are you chasing us away or something?” Mercy asked, and got a chuckle from most, including Gabriel.
“Not at all. The guest rooms are all ready. Those of you who wish to spend the night are free to do so. The rest of you can leave anytime between now and then.”
“What about long term stays?”
“Shhhh, let him finish.”
Gabriel waited from them to quiet down before continuing, “I think we can all agree that the meal we’ve taken was unparalleled in quality. For that, we all have my beautiful, loving and extremely skilled wife, Mueni, to thank.” The whole table exploded in rapturous applause and Mueni sat and soaked it all in like a sunflower turned to the rays of the sun.
Gabriel watched the light flicker on and off. He wondered why they never fixed it. Surely a Kenol Petrol Station in the richest corner of Kileleshwa would have enough money to change one silly bulb. He tried thinking of as many reasons as he could why they’d never fixed it. Laziness. Sabotaging their boss. Maybe they did put in a new one every night, but they were of such poor quality they never lasted longer than a day. Or perhaps it was winking at him.
He knew he was just trying to distract himself with the whole light bulb story. Thinking of something unimportant was his mind’s way of running away. He’d been running away the whole evening. First he’d run away from his guests. He’d watched his wife and son escort them to their cars from the window of the upstairs study room. Robert had stood at the door just before leaving, taken out the flask and after a good long gulp shouted “Merry Christmas to yah!!!” Jonah had to carry their youngest to the car. He was so deeply asleep that even the frigid night air failed to wake him. Then there was Peter. Gabriel had wanted to share his suspicions with him, but what could he say. What proof did he have, other than a husband’s quiet jealousy? So he’d kept silent and watched his silver Five Series back out of his driveway. Gabriel quickly put on a coat and ran downstairs. It seemed like he planned on following Peter, but no: he wanted to get away from Mueni, if only for a few minutes. He never told her where he was going or when he’d be back. He just got into the car and drove off.
He drove down his usual route to work. The familiarity of it all was somehow comforting to him. He even stopped at the petrol station with the shop where he sometimes bought his breakfast, a croissant and scalding coffee. No croissants that night, though. The shop had long since closed. All he had was a broken light, and the feeling that his crazy suspicion might well have been just that.
After he’d been sufficiently comforted by the solitude, he started the car and began to head back home. The white façade of his home was a more welcome sight on the return trip than it had been on the way out. He got out of the car and stood, enjoying the feeling of the cool, night-time breeze on his skin, before getting into the house.
He opened the door and was dumbstruck. He stood there, for a full ten seconds, then went, sat on the sofa and took off his shoes.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” Peter replied.
“Hi, dear. Peter came back for the key to the office. He apparently locked his inside.”
“I see. And did your car run out of petrol as well?” Gabriel asked.
“No, I just knew you’d be coming back soon, so I parked down the road. I didn’t want getting out to be too complicated.”
“Thank you for your foresight,” he said coolly, and then his gaze turned back to the task of prying the leather off his feet. By the time was done, Peter had vanished, and he could hear Mueni climbing up the stairs.
He would never know. That fact was more real to him than the soft sheets around him and the warmth of Mueni next to him. Only God and herself knew what she had done. Only God. Why didn’t God just tell him? There were so many stories like that in the Bible. He wouldn’t have minded a violent storm, a burning bush, a still small voice, anything. He wrestled with the thought, grappled with it, but he could not bring it into submission. He chased after sleep, but it was too fleet-footed for him.
His mind began to wander stupidly. He thought of that day, how every single person he’d met from loud-mouthed Nathan to Murage to his friends. He thought of his days in school with Peter Thuku, the teams and committees and Bible Studies they’d been in together. He thought of how he met Mueni, all those many years ago. She’d always been beautiful, then and now. He thought of his wedding day, of slipping the ring on her finger and saying “I do.” What exactly had he pledged to do again? To be faithful till death do them part? Yes, that was it.
His mind had bit too hard onto that memory, it just wouldn’t let it go. He’d been so happy then. It was like heaven had come down into his life for one brief instant. He’d had no idea what he’d been promising, absolutely none. But God was still listening. Even a fool’s vow is a vow.
He didn’t hear Mueni’s breathing change. He just heard her call softly in the night, “Are you still awake?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“We need to talk.”
Mwendwa Kiko is a born-again Christian, Kenyan patriot, student, a greater lover of reading and part-time superhero. When not reading or writing fiction, spends his time saving the world from collapsing buildings, bad jokes and rats so large they challenge him to arm wrestling contests.
Related country: Kenya