(Kivila): The truth everyone knows but agrees not to talk about.
When I was growing up I had, and still have, an aunt, Mum’s namesake and first cousin, I greatly admired. She was to me the epitome of feminine beauty, she was what a woman looked and acted like. She ran a hair salon that was located on the mezzanine floor of Kenya-Re Towers. This was back when the fountains there still worked, the air was still clean and crisp and Nairobi was a city you could take a stroll in on a lazy Saturday afternoon. I always looked forward to seeing her. Whenever there was a wedding or a funeral, Mum would pack and ship with us and her salon was always the first stop. She was ever ready for my sister and I, with tight hugs and kisses on our dusty cheeks. I may not have known it then but I was madly infatuated by her. A swirl of sweet-smelling expensive perfume followed her wherever she went and she left traces of it on our clothes after her hellos. She favoured short well-fitting skirts that showed off her curvy caramel thighs and was never afraid to share her opinions, or sit with her feet up and her legs crossed, with a glass of water in her hand. I could never figure out why she enjoyed drinking water so much. More about that later. Vivacious and full of laughter, she was an instant pick-up after the tiring journey. Back then, the roads were horrid and any significantly long drive always presented something of a moral dilemma and called for some celebration after. This was mine, seeing her, being in her presence.
It was customary to have a lunch of chips and sausages on arrival. We had chips and sausages where we had come from, Nakuru, but the chips and sausages from Nairobi tasted exquisite! Being surrounded by the beautiful women and the various interesting sounds and smells and the energy in the salon was to me what heaven must be a bit like. It was a place where beauty was brought out, and if there was none to bring out, made. I sat on the floor mesmerized by the blur of combs and fingers and containers of hair-care products. Even today, salons have always had a strange allure for me. She would hustle us away lovingly into her office to wait while further travel arrangements were made. Even since then, Nairobi has always had the feel of a short stop-over point in our journeys. This is not a place you place roots. It is a place to take a break from savouring the slowness of life, from enjoying long silences and stretching days that seamlessly merge into one another.
Her father, one of my grandfathers, owned a farm in Nakuru. Her brother managed it with his wife. When my aunt visited, she would spend the days in shorts and carry a clear glass bottle with a red label full of water, from which she would regularly sip. She was the unspoken designated minder of us children when we had come together as families in close geographical locales are wont to. She knew just what to say and just what to do. My first experience driving a car was with her. We, the sundry gathered offspring of our mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, took turns sitting on her lap, controlling the steering wheel while she changed the gears and accelerated and slowed down as required. She was cool, she was fresh, with her sunglasses and her water, poised regally, chin turned up defiantly. Her demeanour was an endearing and continuous fuck you. I wanted to be like her when I grew up, and drink water and wear sunglasses. And I did grow up, never having worked my way to the shades, but I did drink water, only no one ever told me it was water. It was neat Smirnoff vodka. My aunt had, has, a small problem with water. It took me a long time to notice how her hands shook and how fidgety she always seemed.
One day, I realized we no longer stopped at her shop whenever we were passing through. Mum never did tell me why. Beneath the veneer of smiles and swirls of designer fragrances and dresses things were crumbling. The façades were giving way, revealing tears and heartbreak and disappointment. An empire had been ruined. From the inside out, like all empires. No one talks about how she was her father’s favourite, how spoiled she was, always getting her way. I am not privy to the specifics but I would wager that her lifestyle had something to do with it. All those, what I later learned were, designer dresses and perfumes and jewellery. No one ever mentions it, how much more she could have done with her life, what a lucrative investment the salon she had, in the middle of the city and with the references she got from her connections, was. It is one of the so-called open secrets.
I look at her now and the flashes of that young carefree joyous woman jump at me. She is still one of my favourites. Her humour and wit cut razor precise and she never fails to remind me that I owe her a lunch date now that I am working. She always asks me whether I “have a friend” and reminds me that since she is getting older she would like to see more weddings. Every one has a story. It may not be a necessarily interesting or poignant one. Very few people get to live that kind of life, the kind with a good story. My aunt’s story seems like a good one and I would love to get her side of it, before she gives the world the final fuck you. Her hair is heavily streaked silver and she moves a tad slower than she used to, not like the sprite of years gone. It has the requisite elements: glory, shame, and redemption. She still runs a farm, one of her, you guessed it, father’s. She did train to become an agricultural extension officer, and from what little I can glean, she would have made an exceptional farmer, had she set her mind to it. And she still drinks water, watered down now, and is still fidgety and restless, bubbling with a quietly excited energy. One day, maybe, we will have a water together, and she will tell me the tales of a life lived to the hilt. One day.