The water in the pan is boiling. It makes those angry boiling sounds that make Ma annoyed. She usually yells at me and points at the calendar, at the marked date she expects to refill the gas cylinder.
‘Are you trying to finish my gas before it’s due date?’, she asks.
I always never answer, just stand there awkwardly, staring at the ceiling. When she is done telling me how gas has become more expensive than our house rent, I ease the knob and fidget until she leaves the kitchen because it’s hard to cook when she is yelling instructions. The water is now bubbling, lifting the pan’s cover, splashing around the burner like the pan is too hot and it’s trying to escape. I feel like that’s what is going on in my head, all the anger that I feel since Ma left, like its boiling inside me. Making those boiling sounds she detests, but I am the only one who hears them, and I hate that I have to deal with them alone. The blue flame underneath the pan is waving wildly, like an unruly child resisting a beating. I twist the knob and the water stops bubbling. I remove the cover from the pan. The hot steam forms little beads of water on my arm, and for a while, as they roll down onto my palm, my arm looks exactly as it does when I am done taking a bath. I turn and get the cooking stick, and I slowly stir the flour.
I am cooking ugali, again. I’ve cooked it since I was thirteen, and since anger impairs judgement, it’s a good thing that I can’t forget the recipe even if I wanted to. Boil water. Add corn flour. Stir to a thick paste. Let it cook into a hot, edible cake of tastelessness. I hate it, but the handwritten menu behind the kitchen door says we are having it for dinner, and I always obey the menu, always. We had ugali yesterday and the day before that, so today I almost cooked spaghetti instead. Ma doesn’t buy a lot of spaghetti, it’s too expensive, and the blue container that stores it is almost empty. Even with potatoes and cabbages, it still wouldn’t have been enough for us. Ramon, my fourteen year old autistic brother, doesn’t eat much, but spaghetti isn’t filling and I would have had to eat tomorrow morning’s bread tonight. I cover the pan and let the ugali cook. The cellotape that has held the menu together for over four years has gathered dust, and the menu is almost falling off. It’s sooty, and the handwriting is barely legible but I don’t need to look at it though, I know it by heart. Ugali for three days a week, rice on two, chapati and spaghetti for the others. Dinner leftovers for lunch. Ma wrote it when she had a job, and we used to have fruits and cereals for breakfast. Nowadays only Ramon is allowed fruits, and it’s only a banana a day. The menu says a lot about how tough Ma is. She wouldn’t let anyone else write down something as simple as a menu.
About a week ago, Ma left for a job in Tigania. Tigania is a town in Meru, and the people there grow lots of miraa. She got a job as a clerk in the local hospital, asking questions and filling forms. She is hundreds of kilometres away from Nairobi, away from me and Ramon. It’s barely been a week and already, it feels like months since she left. Ramon has cried himself to sleep every night since Ma left, and even when I tell him to stop, I feel him staring into the darkness. I have slept by his side since we were little and I can tell by his breathing if he is staring into the darkness instead of sleeping. He breathes heavily whenever he is restless, and sometimes when he faces me, I can feel his breath on my face, smell the eucalyptus in the toothpaste he uses. Ma says you’ll get plaque and periodontal diseases if you don’t brush well. Don’t do side-ways strokes, they scrape your gum line. Use brief, circular strokes. Brush back and front tooth surfaces, molars, and the tongue. Remember those easy-to-forget areas. Ramon doesn’t disobey Ma so he always has sweet breath. I used to have good, strong teeth like Ramon, but Ma doesn’t change my toothbrush after three months like she does Ramon’s and now, my teeth hurt when I take cold sodas. When he lies awake, I usually whisper and ask if he needs me to walk him to the bathroom. Until last year, Ramon used to wet the bed whenever he was stressed. He still does sometimes, and since it’s rainy season, the sheets won’t dry even when they stay out for days. Most times, when I ask if he is hungry, he doesn’t talk, just keeps staring. I wish Tigania was not 400 kilometres away. In the darkness, with Ramon, I get the feeling I am in a routine power cut. The company representatives usually tell you they’ll have it restored at a certain time, and they keep their word, but the wait, the countdown, it does bad things to your patience. I know things will be okay, but the wait, the countdown, for the anger to go away, is torture. I wish grandma was here, and she would keep coming home with milk every evening like she always did. It’s Ramon’s fault that she left, and it annoys me when he stares at the darkness all night, makes me hear the angry noises inside my head.
It was on a Thursday when Ma left for Tigania. That day, she came home with new sneakers, black ones, with yellow laces. I remember because Ramon kept staring at the shoes. Yellow is his best colour, and he had that rare smile he reserves for me and Ma. I was angry because of the shoes, but I didnt tell Ma, I couldn’t tell her, or she’d have yelled at me and Ramon doesn’t like it when people are aggressive around him. I don’t like it when, instead of paying the rent before the agent comes knocking, she gets expensive things for herself. I ignored my anger and helped her pack. Her inhaler, her clothes, her self-improvement books and her milk of magnesia medicine for her indigestion. I was bitter and almost didn’t pack it, but she would be in real trouble if she didn’t have it. The bag’s faulty zip meant it couldn’t close properly and she had to leave her mud boots. She has to get some boots when she gets paid. Good, strong boots that will not leave their soles in the mud when it gets sticky. When we walked her to the bus stop, Ramon was still smiling at her shoes, an imprint of her lips on his cheek.
The ugali is ready, I smell it threatening to start burning, I get a clean plate and empty the ugali onto it. I soak the pan in water, because if I leave it dry, the ugali crust will harden and it will hurt my nailbeds when I am washing the dishes. I wash the dishes everyday because Ma has a bad back, Grandma comes late, and the few times I tried to get Ramon to help, he just stacked the dishes and stared. Washing dishes makes my hands feel numb, and most times I don’t do a good job. Nobody complains though, so I keep washing, maybe Ma will be able to hire help once she settles.
I miss grandma. I hate it that she had to leave. She always joked with me, called me ‘Tito’, grandpa’s name, and she always brought mashed potatoes and samosas when she made tidy profits at the market. When I broke the old cooking stick last year, I was scared Ma would make me explain why, but grandma went behind the oven and got a new cooking stick. Showed me a stack of them, said she hid them there so that Ma couldn’t beat me when I was younger. That didn’t stop Ma though, she still beat me with slippers until I was almost ten, but I thanked grandma because the sticks would have been worse. I miss grandma, and I can’t wait to go see her as soon as my exams are over.
I take the food to our room, I was especially hungry and I cooked early today. Ramon doesn’t eat until much later, when the ugali will be cold, and the sour milk will have settled, and formed layers. Like that one time in primary five, when we purified muddy water in science class using rocks, pebbles and sand as filters. The top part of the water in the glass looked clean, but the bottom part was cloudy. Regina Mosoti sipped it and Mrs.Mugambi made her go to the school nurse. I put only a little food for myself because Ramon has a small appetite, and I’ll have to finish his portion because Ma doesn’t like it when we waste food. When I was younger, like ten or eleven, Ma would threaten to take me to Turkana and leave me there if I didn’t finish my food. The news had shown the government soldiers supplying relief food, yellow maize and black beans, to the people in Turkana, thin people with coarse hair, whose ribs protruded under their dusty shirts. Yellow maize is not good food for a ten year old, and I always ate up, never wasted food, because I didn’t want to be taken to Turkana. Nowadays, Ma never mentions Turkana, she says not everybody can afford three square meals a day and we should be thankful for what we have. Ramon always asks me why she says square meals, and our plates are round. I don’t know what to say, and I always keep forgetting to ask Ma to explain, so I tell him to eat up and not ask questions.
On Tuesday, late at night, on the week before Ma left, she had a nasty arguement with grandma. Grandma had stayed with us since grandpa died five years ago, and although I should have been used to it by now, I never liked it when they argued. The walls are thin and Ramon always has trouble sleeping when they fight. That night, grandma was talking fast, incoherently, swallowing words, the way people who have finally gotten a chance to open up after a lot of silence talk. At first, I thought it was about money, it always is, then grandma went on and on about prudence and I could hear her mention Ramon’s name. Ma was talking back and it was hard to hear clearly what it was that she had done. It’s always strange hearing Ma talk back, because she smacks me if I do. After some silence, grandma switched to Kikuyu, our mothertongue. I can understand Kikuyu, but being 62, her accent is thicker than mine and she was using metaphors so I couldn’t get all of it. When she was almost done, she said that if one does not heed their mother, one will always be diseased and poor. Then Ma rushed into our room and switched on the lights, and woke Ramon up. I thought she was going to fight grandma and I was scared. I went to their room and stood at the door, I am not strong, but I wouldn’t have let her beat grandma. If Ma became diseased and poor, she would not afford my university tuition, and I could not imagine missing school because she was angry one night, years ago. Ma was talking loudly, like she didn’t care about the neighbours or anyone else listening in. She kept saying that for too long she had stomached disrespect and judgement because she was raising a baby nobody else wanted her to, but she couldn’t take it anymore.
‘Tell them what you told me, here they are!’
She pointed at us. She was talking in Kikuyu, and her voice was tearful.
Grandma didn’t talk, just leaned against the doorframe, in her blue night gown, sniffled, looked down and picked at her nails. She looked embarrassed that we had to see this.
Then Ma hugged Ramon and said that she loves him. He stood awkwardly in her embrace, his eyes telling me he wanted me to go get him, then it got too much for him and he started sobbing.
‘Look what you did to my baby!’, said Ma in Swahili, fat teardrops dancing on her eyelashes.
‘Alice, I will repeat myself, if one does not heed their mother, they’ll always be diseased’, grandma said defiantly in Kikuyu. She looked at Ma, like she was daring her to say anything else.
Ma got a dark look in her eyes, and she told grandma to leave. I tried to stop her, but grandma kept telling me it’s okay, not to worry, that she’ll come see me soon. I felt numb, couldn’t believe she was leaving the whole time she was packing. We waited outside with her, and I didn’t care that I’d be in trouble with Ma. Grandma always let me ask questions that I could never even think of asking Ma, like how old Ma was when she got me, why my father didn’t stay, why we never have money to spend on nice things, why Ma loves Ramon more than me. I still don’t have answers to the questions, but she let me ask them, unlike Ma. I begged Ma not to chase grandma away when the taxi to Aunt Martha’s came, but she said grandma couldn’t stay any longer, because the minibuses only run until ten.
I find Ramon in our room playing with my old calculator. Of late, it annoys me to see him with my things, and I almost grab it away from him, but I stop myself because technically, his mother bought it and he has the right to it. He is punching in numbers slowly, with his lower lip extended outward, deep in thought, he looks like my chemistry teacher Mr.Maina, when he checks the records of a student he believes cheated in an exam. I place his dish next to him on the bed and I hold the milk, he looks at the ugali and gives me a disinterested look. I don’t even try to get him to eat, I sit down and start eating my portion. I play my favourite song on my phone. It’s a rhumba song about a promiscuous lady who cheats on her husband. The singer has a good voice. A voice that makes you sing along, even if you can’t pronounce the words, a voice that sticks in your head long after the song ends. Rhumba songs are long, and in the entire eleven minutes the song plays, Ramon doesn’t look at me even once. I wonder if he knows I am deliberately ignoring him. If he does, he doesn’t seem to care, he keeps punching numbers, doesn’t look up. On happier days, we listen together, and he shakes his head at the beat, but today, this week, hasn’t been happy. The song ends, I put my empty plate away and as school was tiring, I get into bed for a nap. He’ll eat when he feels hungry.
Ma was casual with the way she told me she was leaving. It was evening, on the day that grandma left, we were standing outside the cake shop, and before she went in she told me to take special care of Ramon because she was going away to Meru, to look for money so that Ramon could join me in high school soon. She said a lot of things, but all I could see was her tongue wagging, and her fingers pointing at me, but I didn’t pay attention after she said about Ramon. It’s always about Ramon, everything in our lives. The location of the house, the menu and what we eat ugali with, the programmes we watch, the things we buy and don’t buy, even the colour of Ma’s shoelaces. The patisserie was crowded, so I stood outside until she was done. I was almost leaving when she walked out, I hadn’t carried a sweater so I was cold, and my feet were getting numb. I was irritable and wanted to get home fast, so I nodded yes to everything she said.
‘Pick Ramon from school on your way home everyday’.
‘Don’t let him gnaw at his palm whenever he is irritated’.
‘Don’t ‘Yes Ma’ me!, the kids always tease him, thats why his bitemarks are always fresh, find out who it is, and see to it that they get punished’.
‘What did I just say about Yes Ma?’
I didn’t answer.
She didn’t talk to me anymore, just handed me the farewell cake and said to walk faster.
I sleep for hours because I wake up when the broadcast for the ten o’clock news is on. Ramon isn’t in bed and I imagine he is watching t.v . I go to the kitchen, and Ramon’s ugali and milk are on the counter, untouched. I make a mental note not to cook ugali again this week. I feel hungry and decide to eat his portion. The bulb in the kitchen is faulty and I switch it off. I eat in the dark and it fascinates me that even in darkness, I still know where my mouth is. I wash my hands when I am done, and gargle with salt, my toothpaste is almost over, and I can’t imagine touching Ramon’s. I find him in bed, and I nudge him over, the bed is too small and tonight I won’t let him sleep the way he likes. Doubled over, with his hands between his thighs.
Ever since Ma made grandma leave, everything about her makes me angry. Like how she loosely she spends money. She calls me ungrateful whenever I suggest things that would save us money, like moving to a cheaper house, using charcoal instead of gas, selling the freezer, it’s always empty anyway, going to a cheaper salon. ‘I need to look professional in case I get an interview’, that’s what she always says. I hate that she doesn’t care that being out of a job for a year and a half means that she can’t always get what she wants, when I have missed enough educational trips to know that for a fact.
Ramon doesn’t have trouble sleeping that night. He grunts in his sleep instead. Low, soft grunts, like he is agreeing to a series of questions. Questions that seem to go on throughout the night. I hate the grunts, and I try to reposition his head, but he won’t budge. I am angry because he is disrupting my thoughts about grandma, like how she always took Ramon and I upcountry every Christmas since she moved in with us. Upcountry is fun. We milk grandma’s cows, eat raw sweet potatoes, swim in the river and walk barefeet. One time Ramon got a jigger on his big toe, his big toe is especially big, and he looks funny barefeet, like his toes don’t belong to him. He said the jigger tickled, but he cried when grandma removed it with a hot needle. If grandma stays angry at Ma, I’ll have to stay home this Christmas, all because of Ramon. I know it’s not his fault that therapy costs a lot of money, but he made grandma go away, and she was the only person who made me happy. Ramon rolls over in his sleep, he is sleep talking and yawning. He places his hand on my stomach and I push it away. Everything about him disgusts me nowadays, his scent, his loud breathing, his very existence. I stand up and go to Ma’s room. She said to always sleep with Ramon, because he might have nightmares at night and he needs me to calm him. I know that he is my mother’s son, and I should care for him, but I can’t sleep with him in the same room tonight.
Ramon’s autism is expensive, but Ma doesn’t complain because of the bills, she says it could have been any of us, and we should be supportive. I have always been supportive, doing dishes, cooking, I even stopped going for soccer after school so I could have more time for chores. Special schools are too expensive, and therapy is not available at public hospitals, so Ramon has weekly therapy at a private hospital, for his social, speech and motor skills. I even stopped taking French lessons to free up more money for his classes. Ramon has never had to sacrifice anything for me, I am always the one dropping a class, missing trips and taking up extra chores so that he stays comfortable, and he still made grandma go away. I am 17 in September, and I haven’t kissed a girl yet. All my friends tell me it’s disgusting at first, but it feels good once you get used to the wet lips. Michelle from next door keeps staring whenever we meet in the hallways, and I think I could kiss her if I wanted. I would be in big trouble with Ma though, because being autistic means Ramon is incapable of lying and he’d say I had a girl over. Every time we pass a pregnant girl in the street, Ma glares at me and reminds me that she’d skin me alive if I made her a grandma at thirty seven, so I never even say hi to Michelle.
The alarm wakes me up at six thirty. I am on edge, I don’t like the alarm tone, it reminds me of undone homework, the smell of shoe polish and cold mornings. Ramon is lucky, the primary eight pupils are sitting their mock exams and being in primary seven, he won’t attend school this week. I sit up in Ma’s bed, and sleepily scratch my head until the dandruffs almost blind me. I wake up and shower, then I make millet porridge for breakfast and put lots of margarine on the bread, the tea at school is weak, and I don’t have money for snacks.
I am bent over, polishing my shoes, when I see the rat. It’s scaling the aerial cable to get to the ceiling. I am tall, and even if it tries to go up fast, I manage to smack it off the cable. It lands in a pail of unclean water that I cleaned the house with yesterday. I almost pull it out to kill it, the rats keep eating anything they can find, from uncovered food, newspapers, handkerchiefs and even my school books, then I realise it’s struggling to swim and I decide to let it drown.
I hear a whimper. I turn with the brush in my hand, Ramon is standing there, looking sleepy, with dried drool on his face. He points at the pail and says to free the rat. I glare at him and don’t say a thing. Whenever Ma was around, and I refused to do things for Ramon, he’d start whining, and I’d do whatever he wanted before Ma came charging at me, but Ma is far away, and I don’t care what he does. He sits down on the settee and starts sobbing. I get irritated. I point at him with the brush and I tell him to shut it. He does, but when I look up he is biting his palm. I drop the brush, walk up to him, and I push his hand away from him. He drops his head on my lap and starts wailing. I feel sad for him, everyone he loves is either gone, or angry at him. The guilt overwhelms me, and I sit and let him cry until he makes my trousers wet with tears. The rat in the bucket is almost giving up, and only its red nose is bobbing up and down in the water. Ramon pushes past me and pours the water into the verandah. The rat swims out of the puddle, its fur smooth and shiny. It’s small, and it’s too tired to walk. Ramon stares at it until it recovers and runs into the neighbour’s house. He doesn’t know that rats are bad, he never had to clean their droppings, set traps for them, re-write homework because they destroyed papers. All he knows was that the rat was drowning, and he had to save it. I lock myself in the toilet so that Ramon doesn’t see my tears, I cry for hours, so hard that my shoulders shake and I have trouble breathing. When I come out, I don’t care that my eyes are puffy, I hug Ramon. He doesn’t squirm in my embrace, and I know I don’t have to say anything, he knows I am sorry.
I keep my uniform on, but I don’t go to school. We eat sausages for lunch at a food stand with a yellow umbrella. The sausages are tasty, with coriander, tomatoes and onions tossed raw as a salad, and I let Ramon have three. Later that night, Ma calls, says Tigania is colder than she imagined, regrets leaving her boots, She asks about her other son, I tell her not to worry, I’m taking care of him. There is a brief silence before she hangs up, I almost say it, then I hesitate, and I don’t. I’ll tell her when I’m ready, like I was with my brother. We sit with Ramon in the kitchen, watching the spaghetti and stew cook on the charcoal burner, I don’t put a lid on, we warm our hands on the jiko, and watch the potatoes go from raw to crushed. We sit there in mutual silence, our faces illuminating red from the fire, complete with our own shadows. I know that it’s not his fault, and I don’t know how long I’ll be angry at Ramon for making grandma leave. I ease the imaginary knob in my head, and I am not so angry anymore, and in the silence that follows, all I can hear is the sound of the stew boiling.