18 March 2012

Longing for Sarah by Tabitha Mwangi

When the truth finally dawned on Wanjiru Kariuki, she struggled to contain the deep remorse she felt in recalling her encounters with Sarah. The first time they met, Sarah was standing at the entrance of her house with Moses, holding their baby in her arms. As they shook hands, Wanjiru weighed Sarah up. Sarah looked podgy in her flowery blouse and black skirt. She had dark rings around her slightly red eyes and Wanjiru wondered what her husband, Kariuki, had ever seen in her.

Sarah and Moses led them into the living room. A maroon leather sofa set occupied a semi-circle around a coffee table, beyond which was a glass cabinet on which sat a wide television screen. Sarah asked Wanjiru to hold the baby for a little while as she disappeared to the room on the right from which wafted the smell of fried fish and chapatti’s. Sarah popped back almost immediately with cold beers for the men who stood at the large window gazing out into the garden.

Wanjiru remained seated, staring at the baby whose little head popped out of the thick blue blanket he was swaddled in. His skin was peeling and wrinkled, like that of an old man. She had not held a newborn for over a decade and had forgotten that look. The baby yawned, then began to wiggle and make a face as though it was about to cry. Wanjiru was not sure what to do with the baby and looked up to see Moses and Kariuki, beer in hand, laughing at a joke she had not heard. Sarah was busy laying the small dining table, humming softly to herself. Wanjiru turned towards Sarah, trying to catch her eye.

Meanwhile, the gummy, open mouth searched impatiently for its meal and the little face contorted, ready to release its pent-up frustration. Wanjiru felt the panic within rise in proportion to the reddening of the little face. It occurred to her that perhaps Sarah was setting her up. Sarah might have wanted to show Kariuki that Wanjiru would not make a good mother and that he had settled for less. When the baby finally let out the long-suppressed wail, Wanjiru felt her arms weaken. Her fear of dropping the baby was no longer in her imagination.

“I think the baby has colic,” Sarah said, standing over Wanjiru who was startled but quickly handed the child to its mother.

Sarah sat on a comfortable sofa chair and unbuttoned her blouse, revealing an engorged breast, which would have turned Dolly Parton green with envy. The breast stuck out stiff with the tracing of green veins on the light-brown skin, ending in an elongated black nipple that was already spewing jets of milk. The baby's head seemed minuscule in the face of the breast in front of it. Sarah winced as the baby latched on. Wanjiru turned to look at Kariuki. Although Wanjiru was pleased that Kariuki was not drooling with desire, she wondered whether the shocked look was what she would expect when she finally got round to having babies, when her body swelled beyond recognition.

“All I long for is some sleep,” Sarah said to Wanjiru, oblivious to the feelings of those around her.

“Sleep all you can my dear, all you can,” Sarah said. She leaned back against her chair, the baby moving along like a natural extension of her body. Sarah fidgeted with the cushions and Wanjiru rose to help position them neatly behind her back.

“Ah, that's right,” Sarah said with a sigh. “I shall return the favour one day. Speaking of which, have you started trying to have a baby yet or do you want to enjoy the sweetness of life for a bit?” Sarah asked as she smiled, revealing dark gums and a row of short, even teeth.

“I don't know what I want,” Wanjiru said, and felt irritated that such an intimate question arose within minutes of meeting each other.

“We stayed for two years before the baby. An extended honeymoon,” Sarah said, still smiling.

“Tea for the girls,” Moses said.

Wanjiru looked up at Moses, wondering when he had slipped off to make tea for them. Moses had a round baby face with dimples when he smiled, a large frame, broad shoulders. The type of man who gave the impression that with a bit of good eating, he would be barrel-shaped. He was the same height as Kariuki, rather on the short side, but seemed more comfortable with it, he did not walk as though he was trying to stretch himself and laughed easily. A good father, Wanjiru thought.

As they drove back home, Kariuki seemed excited, happy. Wanjiru wondered whether seeing Sarah had made him appreciate Wanjiru more, or perhaps it had aroused in him a longing for Sarah. Wanjiru did not want to put words to her thoughts lest Kariuki think low of her so soon after the honeymoon.

Kariuki had told her about Sarah when they were dating, his old flame who was now married. Wanjiru was then working as a high school teacher in Nyeri and did not get to see Sarah who, like Kariuki, lived in Meru. Wanjiru did all she could to avoid meeting Sarah but once they were married, she relocated to be with Kariuki in Meru and he could not wait to introduce her to Sarah, assuring her that they were bound to be best of friends. Wanjiru did not want anyone insisting that she be friends with someone she did not know, worst of all her husband's ex-lover. It felt wrong to her but she did not want to go against her new husband. Why rock the boat so early in its journey? she thought. But what she had not counted on was Kariuki wanting to spend every Sunday afternoon with Sarah and Moses.

“Premier league football is not something to be watched alone.” Kariuki said when she insisted that he stay at home to watch football. “Do you want me to be like other men and go to the bar and leave you at home? Or do you want to come to the bar with me?”

“It's not that, I mean, aren't there other things to do with life than watch football?”

She did not want Kariuki going to a bar on his own and she certainly did not want to accompany him there. It would be impossible to avoid having a beer at the bar, and not just one. The idea of a drunken Kariuki coming home on Sunday night did not appeal to her.

“I have to watch football, it's the premier league! Those British teams know football. I want to be with other football fans and Moses is fun to watch football with, but they have a new baby. It’s easier for us to go to them. You and I don't want to go to a pub, so what do you want us to do? You don't have to come if you don't want. I just thought you and Sarah may get along,” Kariuki said.

Wanjiru could not bear the thought of Kariuki alone with Sarah. So every Sunday afternoon they packed a few beers and snacks for the football match. ‘What a great home you have,’ Wanjiru once over-heard Kariuki say to Moses, in what sounded like an envious tone. It cut right through her and she fretted over her husband’s every move, wanting to work out if all this 'I have to watch football with Moses' was so that he would spend more time with his lost love. She struggled to put up a contented front as she wrestled with her internal demons, but she was swiftly losing the battle.

Wanjiru begun to detest Sarah with an all-pervading hate that peaked on Sundays like a malignant gangrene, permeated into her every waking minute. She would imagine in her mind's eye various ways in which Sarah could die, but always felt guilty when she remembered the baby. Perhaps just someone pouring acid on her face, or setting her face on fire? Just to disfigure her a bit. Perhaps then, she imagined, Kariuki would not want to spend every Sunday afternoon around her. When Wanjiru put on her make-up each morning, she would stare at her face, wondering to herself what it was that Sarah had that she did not.

She observed the way Sarah dressed — untidy clothes either too tight or too loose. She wished Sarah’s dress would blow up in the wind and reveal tattered panties, shame her in front of a crowd. Sarah’s hair was also getting patchy in places. It’s all the breastfeeding, Sarah had said when she asked. So to hide the patches, Sarah cut if all off. Wanjiru did not attempt to hide her glee when she saw Sarah’s clean shaven head. But Sarah had a good sense of humour and it did not seem to bother her in the least.

To avoid spending too much time alone with Sarah on Sundays, Wanjiru started to watch football in earnest. She forced herself to learn the players names and understand the game more. Sarah had to join in to avoid spending the afternoon alone. But Sarah not only enjoyed the game, she became fanatical about Manchester United. When ‘her’ team was playing, she wore a red shirt and white shorts, madly waving the team’s flag when they scored. Wanjiru was aggrieved. She hated the Manchester United emblem, the red lion devil with a pitchfork. Evil, just like its supporters, Wanjiru thought to herself. Kariuki and Moses seemed to thoroughly enjoy Sarah's enthusiasm and would make sure she was comfortable enough to watch the game, taking turns to watch over the baby. Wanjiru envied and disliked Sarah with equal measure

Returning home from these football sessions, Wanjiru noticed that Kariuki seemed to desire her more. It soon became the only time of the week that Kariuki initiated love-making but there was a disconcerting pattern to it. The lights had to be out, with Wanjiru facing away from him. She resented it, wondered whether he did not want to see her face so that he could imagine he was with Sarah. The pillow was often wet afterwards from her silent weeping. This was not what she had imagined married life to be like. Yet she was afraid to displease Kariuki, unwilling to face the reality that a marriage could grow so cold in so short a time.

One Sunday during a match half-time, Wanjiru and Sarah were seated on the sofa looking out into the garden. Moses and Kariuki had taken the now six-month old baby out into the garden and he could be heard laughing as they swung him between themselves. Sarah started a conversation, trying to cover up the awkward silences and draw out Wanjiru from her monosyllabic responses.

“Kariuki does not seem so restless these days,” Sarah said, looking out in the garden.

“What do you mean?” Wanjiru asked.

“I always felt he wanted something from me that I could not give him but he is very happy with you,” Sarah said, looking at Wanjiru and smiling. However, the pained look on Wanjiru’s face wiped the smile away.

“What do you mean?” Wanjiru asked, feeling defensive and irritated. Wanjiru longed to hear more but was also afraid that Sarah knew something weighty about her husband that she had no clue about. The pent-up frustration was seeping into the fore and Wanjiru could not stop her mouth forming a frown, hands shaking slightly.

“Wanjiru, I was complimenting you, I just said Kariuki seemed happy, what’s wrong with that?” Sarah asked, looking confused.

Afraid that she would say something she would regret Wanjiru hurried towards the toilet. It was on the left side of the small corridor from the living room — a small space that always smelt of urine. The water shortage in their housing estate meant that flushing the toilet at Sarah’s house was only allowed after a big-one. Wanjiru sat on the toilet. What does Sarah know about my Kariuki, she wondered. But the smell emanating from the toilet was too pungent and Wanjiru was finding it hard to breath. She walked back to the dining table wearing a smile that tired her cheek muscles for all the effort it took to fake.

”Look it was nothing, forget it,” Sarah said, later when they were washing dishes in the kitchen.

“It's OK,” Wanjiru said, shrugging.

Sarah sighed, looking disappointed and they did not speak to each other for the rest of the afternoon. When they left, Wanjiru was still livid but unable to comprehend why such a small comment, he always wanted something from me that I could not give him, irked her so much. Never had a comment felt so loaded. Wanjiru wondered whether Kariuki had told Moses that he was unhappy with his wife and the word passed on to Sarah who was now passing the message on to Wanjiru indirectly.

The next evening, just as they were getting into bed, Kariuki's mobile phone rang.

“Oh God, no. We will be on our way immediately!” Kariuki said, placed the phone down, and turned to face Wanjiru. “Get your coat, we are going to hospital right now. Its Sarah.”

Wanjiru refused to move.

“Look, I said get your coat, this is an emergency, she has had an accident,” Kariuki said.

Reluctantly, Wanjiru took her coat and followed Kariuki out through the door.

“I thought you two were friends, what's wrong with you. Your friend might be dying and you are not even bothered?” Kariuki asked.

Wanjiru wanted to scream, she is not my friend, but kept it to herself. It’s not even Sunday and here I am changing out of my nightdress to run after my husband as he chases after Sarah. Die Sarah, stop standing in the way of my happiness, stop consuming my life! Wanjiru thought as she forced back tears of frustration.

When they reached the hospital, Moses met them.

“The baby is fine but Sarah is in a state,” Moses said. His face looked like that of a child, lost in a crowded room, calling out for mother.

Kariuki did not say anything but held Moses in a brief embrace that appeared to leave both men embarrassed. Wanjiru’s pent up tears spilled. Kariuki put an arm over her shoulders as they went down the long corridors to the ward. Moses explained that Sarah had taken a taxi to the mall to shop for some clothes for the baby but they had been involved in an accident. A trailer had smashed into their taxi. Sarah was holding the baby on her lap on the back seat. On impact, the baby had slipped onto the floor under the front seat and was unscathed. Moses’s parents had come to hospital and taken the baby with them to give their son time to cope with his injured wife.

They found Sarah lying in a hospital room alone, unconscious. A pint of blood was hanging on a pole, the transparent plastic tube carrying the blood into her body through a needle stuck into a vein near her wrist. Sarah's face was badly bruised and swollen beyond recognition. It was worse than anything Wanjiru had ever imagined. Wanjiru felt a weakness in her knees and sat on a chair in the corner of the room. Here was Sarah, disfigured just like she had wanted for so long, but there was no joy, just remorse and self-hate. She could not help feeling that she had caused Sarah’s accident with all her negative energy.

Don't die Sarah please, thought Wanjiru. She started planning what she would do when Sarah got better. She would make Sarah soups and visit her every day until she got better. She would hold the baby for her all the time. When she got better, they would go out and do their hair instead of watching football with the boys. She would beg her forgiveness, start all over again. Please God, let her live, Wanjiru prayed.

The next day after work, Sarah and Kariuki went straight to the hospital. Sarah had passed away that afternoon. Moses was inconsolable. Kariuki informed Wanjiru that he would be staying the night at Moses' to keep him company.

Wanjiru did not object. “Do you want me to come?”

“No, we shall be fine. I will get some clothes and then go.”

Wanjiru hardly saw Kariuki as preparations for the funeral progressed. Kariuki took time off work to assist Moses with the funeral arrangements. Kariuki was home late and up early, heading straight for Moses' home. Wanjiru did not raise any protest, believing that in this way she would atone, even a little bit, for the way she had behaved towards Sarah.

After the funeral, all the relatives left Moses' house and he was alone again. His parents continued to take care of their grandchild. Kariuki told Wanjiru that he needed to go and stay with Moses for a few days.

“Maybe he should come and stay with us, get away from that house?” Wanjiru said.

“I have suggested that but he has refused. He wants to pack away some things. Can you imagine him going into Sarah's closet all on his own?” Kariuki asked.

“That would be awful. Perhaps we can offer to do it ourselves,” Wanjiru said.

“He wants to do it himself. I will be there with him, it will be fine,” Kariuki said.

Wanjiru offered to cook meals for the boys but they insisted on eating out instead. When the week came to an end, Wanjiru could barely wait to have Kariuki back, hoping for a new start together. When she heard the knock at the door, she jumped from the sofa and rushed to open it.

Moses and Kariuki stood at the door. She hugged both men before letting them into the house. They sat close to each other on the sofa opposite Wanjiru.

“How is the baby doing?” Wanjiru asked.

“Fine. I think my parents will find it difficult letting go of him. He still asks for his mum every time I see him, poor chap,” Moses said with a sigh.

Kariuki placed an arm over his friend’s shoulder. Sarah was pleased that Moses seemed to draw strength from Kariuki. Then Moses put a hand on Kariuki's thigh. Wanjiru stared at the hand and looked up at Kariuki. His eyes glowed and he did not attempt to remove Moses' hand. Wanjiru could not tear her eyes from the hand that was now caressing Kariuki's thigh. Her mind was unwilling to comprehend what was being implied.

“We can't pretend any more,” Kariuki said putting his hand over Moses'.

Wanjiru stared at him for a long while, then stood and walked to the toilet. The toilet smelt of lavender air freshener, a smell she was used to from her childhood. But it did not bring back those nice memories as she sat on the toilet seat. She felt dizzy, nauseous. She stared at the toilet roll, tore a square off it, crumbled it into a little ball, and threw it into the waste-paper basket under the sink in front of her. She felt betrayed by Kariuki, taken for granted, abused. Then she thought of Sarah and bitter tears streamed down her face. Now it seemed so obvious that Kariuki had never longed for Sarah.

'Longing for Sarah' was written by Tabitha Mwangi.

Copyright © Tabitha Mwangi 2012.

Tabitha Mwangi is a Kenyan freelance science journalist. She studied Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi and later earned a doctorate in Malaria Epidemiology. She took a break from research to raise a family and discovered a love for translating medical research into easy-to-read newspaper feature articles (links to them can be found at her facebook page). ‘Longing for Sarah’ is her first published work of fiction.


George and Computers said...

This got me thinking and sounds like a brilliant abstract for a nice story and real issue that most Kenyan novelists have avoided or not tackled.. I would love to read this novel.

Kate said...

Great piece of work Tabs. Lovely to see you giving time to your natural creativity in writing too. Keep going... such a treat

Anonymous said...

Great work Tabitha; keep them coming.

Abdulghani said...

Mwanzo mwema! as perfect as the writer herself.

tabitha said...

Thank you everyone for all the support - i very much appreciate the comments. George - this is it,just a short story with no plans for a novel at the moment....but thanks for the positive energy

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the story very much; very brilliantly written, quite unpredictable, and what a climatic ending! It’s refreshing to read from an African author bold enough to tackle an issue that is so taboo in our society. I would be very interested in reading the completed novel. Good job, keep it up. Margaret OA

Mumbi Chuma said...

A very interesting read! Well done Tabs. Would never have guessed it would end that way.Keeps the reader anticipating..very, very creative

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