A Change of Hem

Fiction by Keith Kinambuga

Older style cellphones with keypads lined up in a row to create a repeating pattern.

Nea’s night shift ended over an hour late. Her serpentine boss had insisted that she remake the beds of the unoccupied hotel rooms. His forked tongue dripped during each second she tucked sheet corners and spread duvets. He nitpicked her cream and white uniform. Her cream was not creamy enough, her white, not bright enough. It  did not conform to the staff uniform standards. Her body was never the right fit for the cut. It was all a cover for his poisoned fangs that lusted for a bite. His promises to  promote her if she complied were a million and one. Her answer was – not even in a  million and two years. She thought of landing a swift kick to his groin once, twice, then a third time for good measure. 

The outsourced taxi service that the hotel employees were meant to use was not available after her shift. That was the price of a wasted hour in the peeking dawn of Nairobi city. Most of the drivers rushed off to the real money, early airport arrivals.  She was forced to do a twenty-minute walk of shame to the matatu minibus stop in  the wee hours.  

Riding a matatu was a multi-flavoured acquired taste to Nea but her purse provided no option. It only harboured dreams of holding cash. 

The gloomy grey buildings at the stop were no home for chirping birds. The rest of humanity had their fun on Friday night and the yawning Saturday morning was the desolate aftermath. A haunting chill crept in like the angel of death. She scrambled for her woolen cap in her handbag. She fought through a broken comb,  wrinkly chewing gum wrapper, dented water bottle, flaky used handkerchief and  crumbling slice of bread to reach the cap. She promised herself to de-clutter. That is if she, for the umpteenth time, did not fall straight to her squeaky bed upon reaching  home.  

She pulled the cap from the mini garbage pack she called a handbag. After straightening, she pulled it over her head. The warmth was comforting. She turned to  the shop window to check her reflection just to make sure that she did not look like a  disheveled street hawker. She did. 

Her image on the window was not something that would grace a fashion magazine cover but if it were, she would make a few adjustments. A body hugging  crocheted coat would protect her from the elements. A few necks would break as  admirers made an effort to follow her sway and step. She would also, of course, be the queen of the world with her royal eyes covered under the stylish shield of designer shades.  

A vision of a glistening deep brown cake distracted her from her Queendom. It beckoned her wetting taste buds from behind the shop window. Time passed effortlessly as her eyes glistened back. The thought of chocolate melting in her moist tongue took her to a caramel coloured paradise, where the African drums rumbled  silently as she fell into the arms of a chocolate prince.  

A swift shadow movement on her right plucked her from paradise. She instinctively fetched her cell phone from her handbag to check the time. Where was the matatu? She heard a patter of feet and her hand was emptied. She only saw the  heel of a dirty sneaker disappear past a corner to her left. 

Her mouth withered in a keystroke. Her body trembled. Her eyes oscillated  from point to point. Fight, flight or freeze. Her feet dropped an anchor into the uneven  concrete pavement. Her arms turned to logs. Freeze.  

It did not make sense. She had not seen anyone, just a vanishing sneaker. Then  as she turned her eyes back to the corner, she saw a hand pushing her cell phone back  into her frame of view.  

“This gadget is shameful! Even if we gave it away free, the buyer would still  bargain,” said a rusty ear-piercing voice. It came from above. Definitely not a  heavenly entity but… 

“Jesus!” Nea gasped. 

“No. Not Jesus! We own this street.” 

“I didn’t mean…” 

“Shut up woman! And go take your relic.” 

Cackles rent the air. 

“Go. Now!” More cackles from the mystery thugs.  

Creeping sunrays revealed the grit of the street. Each golden beam grew legs  and made its way through the dust-covered buildings. It was not a great spot for a matatu stop when you were alone. 

The boys who owned the street were perched on a high floor of one of the buildings. Most of the buildings were spray painted a red X, marked for demolition by  the Nairobi County Authority because they encroached on a road reserve. 

She slowly walked towards her cell phone. Although it was an old keypad artefact compared to the modern day touch-screens and eye-scrolls, it served the  purpose of basic communication.  

She held on tightly to her handbag as she bent over to pick the phone. Her  internal radar was up searching for any movement around. That was when she noticed  her bust was bulging out of her blouse. The top button was undone. It happened when  the phone was snatched from her. After quickly bagging her phone, she stood up to  close it. 

“Those are droopy twins!” A voice stung. Her heart sunk. At only twenty three, Nea was plump, not fat and had managed to maintain a reasonable figure. Or  maybe ‘reasonable’ was the problem with her figure? Could they see the cellulite?  Not really. Did they want Rihanna in the flesh? That only happened through social  media filters. These were not real men. ‘Droopy twins’ was unfair! 

An aging plain coloured matatu drew her attention. It approached the stop with  a melodious hoot. Bamboo legs balanced and flipped against the door. The legs were  attached to the twig torso of a man. He was dressed in a maroon coloured trouser and  shirt, the government approved matatu tout uniform. He however had added a few  things that he thought the government couture designer might have missed. His shirt  yokes had army insignia embroidered on them. His trouser cuffs had Maasai print  material sown on them. He matched this with the hems of his short-sleeved shirt. The  ensemble was his middle finger to control and formality.  

He saw Nea, smiled and alighted while the matatu came to a stop. “Woah! We’ve a lady in the cold here,” he said to the driver with his eyes on  her. He had a sunset baritone, soothing yet energetic.

The boys who owned the street shrieked, “Maasai is here!” They scampered  into obscurity.  

Maasai dipped his head slightly. “I’m Sankale. I hope those kids haven’t done  anything to you.”  

“Not really,” Nea replied, slightly uncomfortable. Sankale cast a shadow on  her. He looked around him then at the driver, who signalled that they should go with a  nonchalant wave of his hand. “Seems that you’ll be our only passenger.” 

Her feet stuck to the concrete. Sankale moved aside and extended his hand  towards the matatu. “They’re kids but they can cause a lot of trouble.” Nea asked, “Do you know them?” 

“Look at my shoulders,” he pointed at the army insignia, smiling. “I run my  own legit matatu army. You’re in the hands of a Moran general.”  Corny as it was, it was most comforting thing that she had heard in the last  few hours. She considered him for a while and pictured her home. The latter was  worth it so she walked into the matatu, leaving Sankale with his hand out. “Let’s ride!” Sankale ran after the accelerating vehicle then sleekly grabbed  the side railings of the door. The right foot was first off the ground. It landed squarely  on the doorway’s inside platform. His left foot lagged behind. The shoe sole lightly  skated the tarmac. To him, this was as normal as brushing teeth. 

Nea held her breath. When Sankale finally had his whole body in the matatu,  she exhaled. He turned to face her and caught her eyes just before she looked away.  She wondered how this pencil-thin tower of a grown man performed such  maneuvers. From the corner of her eye, she saw him approaching. She half expected  him to start bragging or flirting.

“You must be tired. This ride ni sare (is free),” he said in a low voice then  went away towards the driver before she could sum up a response. When she woke up, houses were flying past them. Sankale was standing a  distance away, his deep-set eyes lost in thought. She studied his pointy chin. His  chocolate brown complexion shimmered in the shifting dawn.  

The landscape unfurled. A familiar sun-scorched football field and several box  shaped houses beyond it emerged. It looked like a congested city of stacked shipping  containers. She was less than five minutes away from the place that she called home.  When she looked back in, Sankale was smiling at her. His eyes sparkled. 

“Don’t worry. We’re going to make sure you get home,” he assured her. She  just nodded back. 

“Do you like my shirt?” he asked. 

Nea wondered about the Maasai print on the hem. She found herself staring.  Sankale pointed at it. “Oh! I did this myself.” 

Nea smiled back. What was he up to? Conscious of her top button, she  pretended to check something in her handbag and discretely made sure that it was  closed. 

“No, please. I said this is free of charge,” he said, thinking that she wanted to  pay the fare.  

“Thank you.” She played along. 

“You should be using a taxi when you leave the hotel. These days, that stop  isn’t too safe. Those boys become big-headed when our stop managers aren’t there.” How did he know she worked in the hotel? She then remembered that she was  still in uniform. The five-star hotel she toiled in was famous for hosting international  dignitaries. 

She watched as he chatted with the driver and wondered how he had managed  to board the moving matatu so easily. It was like watching juggling pins in expert  hands. When he turned back she was still gazing. She adjusted her woolen cap and  looked away. Damn it! 

“We’ve arrived, me lady!” Sankale announced.  

The sun shone confidently. She looked out and saw her studio apartment  tucked amid the maze of several other storied buildings. It was one of the things in her  life that brought her comfort, a cosy bedsitter with only the basic amenities. Unlike  most of the surrounding apartments, she managed to keep her balcony free of any  junk. The only items visible were a stand and framed canvas. She had done a painting  of the neighbourhood from that vantage point. 

The apartment’s view was one of the reasons why she had waited for months  to get it. It was a rare luxury in the big city. 

Sankale approached her while she tucked her handbag under her arm. He  extended his hand. She held on to it and stood as the matatu came to a stop. Sankale  smiled. She smiled back. What was she up to? It felt weird. Maybe the chocolate  prince was an expert at boarding moving vehicles. 

As they both alighted, she realized something was off. She turned back, “How  did you know where I live?” 

Just then, a number of people jostled past them in order to get a window seat  back to Nairobi’s central business district. There was no need for him to call out for  passengers. The nine-to-fives were anxious to beat the morning rush hour.  

Sankale pulled her out of their way. “I see you sometimes in a taxi.”

“Really?” Nea acted surprised but failed miserably. 

“That uniform is hard to miss,” he added.

Nea decided to do what she had never done before. She pointed at his  shirtsleeve. “Can you put some of that print on my uniform?” 

“Your uniform! Are you sure?” he asked. 

“Sure as the sunrise.” She chuckled. 

“Of course. You can call me…” 

“Don’t worry. I’ll find you.”  

Sankale laughed, “I’ll make sure I don’t change my route.” 

“I’ll make sure I don’t change my view!” Nea quipped. 

She walked away, looking forward to a new view of the neighbourhood.

Keith Kinambuga is an African writer, born and living in Kenya. He has self-published four novels. One of them, How I Did Not Become An Uber Driver, topped its sub-category on Amazon during its opening week in 2020. In the same year, he won Kenya’s National Scriptwriting Competition for his feature film concept based on his novel, The Rebirth of Syokimau. He consequently got a screenplay development scholarship to the prestigious Sam Spiegel International Film Minilab 2021. He is a FIYAH Writers Grant 2022 recipient and founder of the Kenya Scriptwriters Guild. His short story titled The Great Defeat earned a Special Mention in South Africa’s All About Writing Courses March/April Writing Challenge 2017.  

He has garnered storylining/writing credits for Africa Magic Viewers Choice Award winning TV series, aired in over 50 countries. His short film, The Ghost Letter, earned him a Best Scriptwriter nomination in the Riverwood Academy Awards 2015. He works as a creative consultant and is currently in the funding stage of his first feature film. He loves music, combat sports and anything involving sustainable tiny house living.

Photo by Mingwei Lim on Unsplash

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