The message came late on Friday night. It was extreme in brevity, inconsistent and rushed, like a shopping list mother would write down before dashing to the market. The message read…
I relate to your stories but I do not know in what way. I saved this on a notepad.
Ask me for a story of my life and I will gladly spill everything on the table.
Ps. I am very high right now.
First, I wondered what he had saved on a notepad, then I just shrugged it off and put my phone away. I was reading, ‘The Right Time’ by Danielle Steel. A few days earlier, I sprained my foot doing a morning run and the doc had suggested I stay off my foot for about two weeks. I had no problem staying off my foot, all I needed was a laptop, notebooks, coffee and a good book, then I would stay off my foot all the doc wanted. It was predominantly because of this reason that I did not pay close attention to this strange message.
Somehow, as I kept turning the pages of my book, I knew there was a story behind the message. I unlocked my phone screen again, drew the familiar screen lock pattern and read the first sentence again. He said he related to my stories but did not know in what way. That was enough to raise my antenna from Kiambu to Ngong’ Hills. Maybe, Danielle Steel can wait, maybe, the doc can go to hell, a story is a story and you can never say no to one.
About thirty minutes later I was heavily dressed, looking like a gatekeeper, limping my way across Kiambu under the cover of darkness and a crisp, cold and gloomy weather. In my pockets, I only had a phone and my house keys. I had no intention of carrying a notebook and a pen into someone’s house on a Friday night, particularly, when I knew there was a possibility that he was high as health insurance premiums.
Of course, when I got there, the house was lit like New Year’s Eve, loud music and bright lights. Standing outside the door at that moment in the cold, the message suddenly felt not so much like a cry for help. I had to knock a countless number of times before he staggered to the door to unlock it and when he did, there was a bottle of whisky on the coffee table sitting comfortably like it had contributed half the rent the previous month. The house, the neighbourhood, the furniture, the electronics, nothing to suggest someone struggling financially. I got even more intrigued about this message.
A few pleasantries about this and that. Certainly, about how I earn a living. Everyone I meet always seems interested in how I make money. They find the idea of quitting my job amusing and unreasonable while to me it took all of two minutes to decide I was done and ten more minutes to pick my bag, hit the lobby and leave the building. He offers a whiskey glass and I decline, almost starting to regret leaving my house, my book and my coffee.
He tells me he wrote the message while he was in a certain bar in Nairobi CBD and asks whether I knew it, which I did not. I only know Afya Center, Archives, Tea Room and Commercial in Nairobi. He describes to me where the bar is and I listen intently but get lost when he goes too far from Archives.
I get the sense that he is stalling, but I have no hurry whatsoever. It feels like he wants to free himself and tell me that he is tired of nesting a war within himself but cannot simply put it in words. I get the sense that under his drunken stupor is a sad person and I feel compelled to dig out what it is that he is trying to keep buried. He asks me to turn my recorder on which I immediately do but then he changes his mind again and tells me to turn it off. Which I pretend to but really do not. He is not stupid, he realises I was trying to be smart and asks for my phone and switches off the recorder. I am flying blind, I should have brought a pen and a notebook.
“I started drinking in primary school and I started smoking weed in high school,” he says and I am utterly dismayed. This situation fits perfectly the song that is playing on the background, zero to a hundred by Drake. “All along I have watched friends who drank with me and smoked with me go down the rabbit hole, yet here I stand” he continues. I go from zero to a hundred real quick… Drake is still singing but no one is listening anymore. Nobody cares where Drakes comes from to goes to. That is his business.
“I have done everything the system demands, passed in primary school, did well in high school and joined the university in a School of Computer Science. I did everything stipulated for any young person in terms of education.” He says and it is true, he has. “What the system did not do is prepare me for life” he finishes his statement and now I can totally see where the cry for help had emanated from. He downs his pain in a gulp from his glass and fills another one.
I ask him what he remembers about the period after university and he tells me about his bed. His bed is perhaps the clearest memory he remembers about that period in his life. Light green sheets and pillows cases and a heavy duvet. And then, of course, there is the scent. A scent that makes him shiver slightly with dread. His scent. It was not a very pleasant scent, especially for him. It was the scent of cheap alcohol, droll, loneliness and desperation. He particularly does not fancy this scent because he spent too much time on this bed, more than he should have.
But then he was twenty-three years old with no bearing in life. He had completed his bachelors one year ago and nothing in his life seemed to have any direction. He sent out job applications and immediately, he would get a message on his email that said in bold that only shortlisted candidates would be contacted. He was never contacted meaning that he was never shortlisted. Over and over for months, one year went by and the emails still said the same. The kind ones took two to three weeks to come back with regrettable apologies about him not making the cut. So, yeah, he knew about devastation. He was well acquainted with frustration even when he buried his head under his pillow aware that it was yet another night to spend hungry in a strange city.
Then came the loneliness, you become lonely not because you are alone but because your spirit and your body are in conflict. It is an inside gruesome battle to the bone and its results, just like in any war, is a catastrophe. When we talk about this with him, my memory is as clear as his whisky glasses. A very relatable situation that I can perfectly draw out the edges and colour them with markers.
I remember how important it was for our teachers that we had grade As in our results slips. The corporal punishment that up to this day makes me quiver with apprehension because we failed our end of term examinations. Could it have hurt these teachers to at least tell us that these grades were not the entire measure of future success and happiness? We focused on nothing else but the grades, I know I did, I know he did too, only that on my second year of university I discovered how rubbish all this was and took a detour to write things because I enjoyed it, hell, I was even surprised that I was good at it without any training. For him, he focused solely on the grades. Then there he was with good certificates, good discipline, and sleeping on a hungry stomach one year after hawking his certificates around the country.
Eventually, he got a job, his friend from home reached out and gave him a helping hand just about when he was about to throw in the towel. He now had a job. The good grades did not get him this job, no, it was an old social connection that did that. He was a Network Administrator now full of theoretical knowledge but no apparent skills which came as a struggle for him a little but then adjusted eventually.
The situation now is more desperate than it was when he had no job. He and his workmates drink a lot of alcohol and when they come to the office the next day, they smoke weed to get rid of the hangover. He is afraid that finally after years and years of staying on his toes, he might get dragged into the rabbit hole. Turns out, a job is not the entire solution to any problem. He mentions something about having an older lady at work who apparently likes him and gets his alcohol bills for him, but immediately I raise an eyebrow on that issue he says he does not want to discuss it. And he means it.
There is a single point in the conversation that he just turns to me, eyes red like crimson, serious as death and says, “Mi, I don’t know anything anymore, I just flow with things. I have no direction, preference or standards. I just watch as things unfold before my eyes.” Now, imagine that I have to remember all these quotes in my head because I did not bring a notebook.
“What about leaving the job?” I ask but then who wants to go back to spending endless days in bed sending out applications to people who will never look at them? Who wants to be in an unforgiving city with no rent or food? Who wants to wake up early in the morning and then go back to sleep because there is nothing to do? Certainly not me, or him or any of you guys. But I keep taking my mind back to the good grades. When are they going to swoosh in and save the day? Tomorrow? The day after that? Will they find him in rehab using up all his savings to pay for therapy? Or will they find him in a ditch after being promoted to manager, having driven while drunk and rammed his car into an electricity pole? When exactly to the good grades come to play?
I once engaged this discussion with my father who is an educator and an academic and he said that school is supposed to make you industrious. That you can apply any resources you have to your current predicament and push yourself a step higher than you were before. It sounded so right and dreamy but what of the natural skills endlessly lost in the quest for good grades? How industrious would you have to be to stop seeing a sugar mummy and stop drinking more than you should? Or was this supposed to be taught in church instead of school?
I pull my trench coat closer to me and bury my hands deep in my pockets for warmth. He is blacked out on the couch now, probably will not remember having this conversation with me the next day. I have just finished typing this on my Google Keep and it is 2.47am on Saturday. I pull a blanket over him and switch off the lights before I limp into the darkness again, back to my Danielle Steel’s novels and my black coffee, but mostly, back to my unfinished manuscripts staring at me wondering whether they will ever get to see the light of day.
Maybe, I should have accepted his whisky offer after all.