The Good Girls and the City: Chapter Two
Updated: Jun 4
Note: © Makena Onjerika. This material is a work in progress and subject to change, small or radical, at any time.
Click to read Chapter 1
Mukeni was glad that she had worn what she considered her armour–a black skirt suit, a fuchsia blouse with straps that tied into a bow at the neck and her three-inch Calvin Kleins. She'd stopped in the ladies' rooms to redo her ponytail and had at her wrist the white leather, Tory Bruch watch she's splurged on during her last trip to the Dubai Shopping Festival. Kimng'etich Sang, Partner, wanting to see her in his office was no small matter.
The corridor echoed her heels despite her best efforts to walk gently, and a flight of sunlight playfully traveled over the glass wall on her left. On her right was a gently curving wall, paneled in dark wood and on which were hang portraits of the consulting firm's past Presidents – none female.
Kimng'etich Sang was pacing his office when she knocked at the door. He waved her in, and she stood before his desk waiting, certain that it would be unwise to invite herself to one of the two chairs in front of his large desk. With every turn behind his desk, he scrutinized her for a moment, then again became involved in his phone call.
His glance was calculating and eager. He wanted something from her. Mukeni wondered just how much it would cost her and what she would gain from it. Whatever it was, she could not refuse him. "The Partner is Always Right," went the firm's informal motto.
But what could he want? Between his position and hers were several Senior Managers and a Director. All competent. Had she received an early promotion? You wish.
As Kimng'etich Sang yessed and no-ed on the phone, Mukeni allowed herself to take in his office. He was an art collector, people said, and this was evident in the strange abstract paintings adorning his walls–lots of disembodied body parts and lurid colours. A West African fertility sculpture stood guard against his desk and his coffee table was the section of a large tree. Around it, plump, black, leather couches congregated like large women about to attack a meal, over an intricate Persian carpet. Mukeni's decor would be modern, minimalist and colourful, but at least he had the sense to keep his large floor to ceiling window unobstructed. Out there lay Nairobi, diminutive and already boiling in the heat of the day.
"I will get back to you as soon as I know," said Kimng'etich Sang.
Mukeni snapped back into attention.They said, people in the office, that is, that he was ruthless. The details were vague. Whatever had given him this reputation had occurred before she’d joined the firm four and a half years prior. He was slightly taller than she was, but radiated a giant kind of confidence–shoulders back, chin raised, eyes shrewd behind rimless glasses.
"Please sit," he said, retracting the buds of his earphones from his rather large ears.
He took his time winding the earphones around a bobbin and dropped them in his top drawer, from which he also brought out a file. Her file, she realized. He flipped through it and stopped on exactly the page she had hoped he would skip.
"You worked under Reuben Macharia on the Afri-Air project, correct?"
Shit always circles back. "Yes. I was an analyst on one of the workstreams."
He flipped the page, gazed at it for almost a minute, then flipped back. "So what would you say was your part in this project’s failure?"
He gave her a piercing glance, meant to impale her with fear. She had been interviewed by several Directors and another one of the Partners at the time and had been found blameless. But Kimng'etich Sang enjoyed intimidating his juniors, pressing down hard on them to see if they would pop juice. What would he think if he found out that she had once sat across a desk from a secondary school headmistress who had expelled her for beating another girl to almost a pulp. Her parents had paid hundreds of thousands of shillings to avoid a court case.
"My analysis was up to par. Reuben looked over it as did senior management. I was not involved in building recommendations."
Kimng'etich Sang nodded, but not in agreement. She could see that he felt he had trapped her. Why would he suddenly be interested in her, after all these years? Mukeni saw again her first cell manager, Reuben, leaving the office with a cardboard box of his things, among them his self-help books, Emotional Intelligence by David Goleman and How to Influence People and Make Friends. He had insisted on keeping and regularly killing succulents by overwatering. The plant he left with was still alive though. He had been fired outright.
"So who was to blame?"
Someone always had to be to blame.
"Reuben delineated the workstreams based solely on the information the client provided. He was not insistent on speaking with middle management to understand their perspective on the issues at Afri-Air."
Kimng’etich Sang sat back in his chair, unimpressed. "That is the best you can do? They said you were smart."
Was he a hyena or a lion? "In that case, may I be frank, sir?" she asked, letting him see the smile she reserved for darkly humorous moments.
He leaned in. His cologne was a bit too heavy and stung her nose. " Humour me," he said, tenting his fingers.
Always the most cliché gestures, though Mukeni. She told him what she really thought. That Reuben had provided a suitable scapegoat to shield senior management from blame when Afri-Air went bankrupt after the consultancy engagement. But that this had been his fault, for painting a target on his own back, through carelessness.
His mouth pressed into a very straight line. Would she have to backtrack and sugarcoat? In the maze of her mind, she could already see the exit to take if he tried to strangle her with her own words. Instead, he relaxed and smiled.
"A Senior Manager in the making," he said.
This was his promise, and now, he would make his demand. The top drawer opened again and out came a manila envelope that he slid across the table to her.
"You will lead the tender bind on this one."
Mukeni applied herself to looking through the documents he had provided to hide her surprise. He was bypassing several Senior Managers working under her line Director and the Director himself.
"Any specific approach you would like to take, Sir?"
"Asking for my help already?"
There was a threat there that she ignored. "It is best not to reinvent the wheel, is it not? Sir."
"I would like to see the proposal in this time next week."
Impossible with her team already knee deep in another project. But no such word was permissible at the firm.
"That's all," he said, turning to the fifteen-inch screen on his desk.
She gathered the documents and replaced them in the envelope. But as she reached for the door knob, he spoke again, his voice down to a baritone.
"You will not disappoint me, Miss Wanyama."
That threatening tone again. What was at stake for him in this project? Who was sitting on his back? She nodded. If she came out of the project alive, she would have her promotion by December, a year ahead of schedule. If she didn't, well, maybe she would call up Reuben and find out what he had made of himself.
The sun now lay in elongated, dreaming rectangles on the corridor. Mukeni needed a cup of coffee, black with three sugar packets. Wakio said she would end up a diabetic.
On the floor below, she considered brewing a cup at the coffee machine, but strange as her new assignment was, it was a good thing and deserved celebration with real coffee. Having safely deposited Kimng'etich Sang's envelope in her locked drawer, checked an Excel model one of the analysts in her cell was working on, she carded out and took the lift to the ground floor. There was a new gourmet coffee house there.
"Caffè Machiatto," she said to the lady behind the counter then stepped back to look at the pastries in the pastry display.
She was not hungry. She was not supposed to be snacking on her diet. But what the hell! She wandered her finger over the glass and settled on a corn muffin.
She had to wait a minute or two for the lift to come up from the building's basement. When it opened, there he was, apparently from a meeting at a client's office. Kabanda Muggaga Gathii Lutola, her tall drink of half-Ugandan coffee, leaning casually on the lift in his three piece suit. He did not smile at the sight of her. Neither did she. She stepped into the lift and hoped no one else would join them. Working the close-doors button furiously, she positioned herself in front of him. He enjoyed looking at her beautiful hills, as he called her buttocks.
"Do you think this camera has a microphone?" he asked.
She really was superficial. That he was tall, dark-skinned, had a tightly packed body and a six pack under his shirt was supremely important to her. She glanced down at his groin to ascertain that her favorite member was sleeping there.
"I am not sure. Is that a problem?" she asked.
"It is if I decide to tell you what I am thinking."
She laughed. His surname meant warrior in Luganda.
"Don't. We separate business and pleasure, remember?" she said.
"So what did Sang want?"
Word travelled fast in the company. She looked over her shoulder at him. He was smiling, but the corners of his eyes were downturned. Aah, she thought, jealousy. He was a senior manager after all, one of the many who had been overlooked for her. It must have stung. But why did he look even more sexy in hidden-rage-mode? Her body was mad. She wanted to cross the meter between them and make him suffer with her tongue.
"Will we now become rivals?" she asked
"Depends. It might be fun."
"It won't happen again, Lutola," she said.
"You are sure?"
At that the lift opened on her floor and she stepped out, leaving him high and dry. She felt devilish. She liked this side of her.
The email arrived at 11:47 a.m., as Akorot was negotiating jargon on a blockchain-related website. She had bitten the end of her pencil beyond recognition and downed three cups of black tea, but the material did not become any clearer. Her only consolation was that her Upwork client paid by the hour and in dollars. Still, she needed to deliver a whitepaper that would convince crypto investors to fund his project, a decentralized currency exchange. Otherwise, he'd leave her an atrocious review on her Upwork account and decimate her 100% client satisfaction rating — after she'd spent three years working up from the down-in-the-gutters rate of $2/1000 words.
Akorot squinted harder at her laptop screen, determined to understand how the soon-to-be-launched EOS blockchain was designed to outperform both Ethereum and Bitcoin. But her mind wandered.
She had the smallest room in the apartment—it fitted her four by six bed, a desk and chest of drawers and none of the accoutrements in Mukeni's room (sofa, potted plants and elliptical machine) nor the space for a yoga mat Wakio had in hers—but it cost her only 20K and came with a window that overlooked an undeveloped, overgrown plot of land. In her imagination, the shrubbery grew into forest. She wandered among the imaginary trees until a flashing banner from Tuko.co.ke led her into the scandalous love life of a Tanzanian celebrity, and out again to a video of policeman Hessi wa Dandora killing a suspected gangster prostrated on the concrete of a Nairobi street, with five bullets to the head, and on and on until Akorot tumbled, exhausted and disoriented, into her Gmail inbox.
She sat up in her swivel chair. Four days after Jasper's, here was an email from Kalamu Bantu. Hovering her mouse over the subject line "Miyale Fiction Workshop" she wondered if he would really write her to just reiterate what he'd said at Jasper's? No, this was most likely the official rejection email. Bummer! But Akorot was a creature given to hope. She battled her urge to delete the email and forget all about Miyale and Bantu.
This is to let you know that you are one of the twenty five writers I have shortlisted for the inaugural class of the Miyale Fiction Workshop.
As you may recall from the informational email you received upon expressing interest in applying for Miyale, admission will only be offered to twelve writers. I, therefore, request that you provide an additional and final sample of your writing, illustrating why you belong in the final twelve, by...
Akorot's chair tipped over as she stood up. Hands over her mouth, she reread the email, feeling herself go liquid with imminent tears. Then almost immediately, she cringed, thinking about her behavior towards Kalamu Bantu and her very dramatic exit.
But he had still shortlisted her. She was not yet out. There was still a chance. She needed to tell someone. Should she call Wakio and Mukeni at work? No, they would be congratulatory, but would not get how big a deal this was. Instead, she went to the kitchen and out to the laundry area balcony and shouted "Yes! Yes! Yes!", pumping her arms.
"That's what she said," came a voice from above, in a faux-American accent.
Akorot ducked down. When she looked up, a light skinned face was peering at her from the balcony to her left. The new neighbour in B12 was Indian?
"Hey. Sorry. I couldn't help it. You set it up so nicely," she said.
Akorot stood up feeling foolish and also a bit annoyed. Why couldn't people just mind their own business?
"You people are really annoying, by the way. Do you need to play your music for everyone in a one kilometer radius?" she snapped.
"Wooh, someone's moody today," said the girl, arching an eyebrow.
Akorot clamped down on a sharp retort and chose instead to openly stare at her. A Kenyan Indian living in this side of town instead of Parklands or Westlands? Or was she an expat, an American? She wore her hair short and red, and had a long, slender nose perfectly situated on her ovoid face. She was beautiful, Akorot acknowledged, and felt satisfied with herself when the girl looked away first.
"I'm Akorot," she said, feeling magnanimous as the winner of their staring match.
"Is that a real name?"
The girl shrugged. "Who is to say what's real and what's not?"
Complicated much. "Are you a freelancer or something?"
"Naah. Today I'm a dancer."
"Your job changes depending on the day?"
"Worse than that. Depending on how I feel on a particular day."
Akorot leaned on the banister, getting comfortable for a story. "Lucky you. So what else do you morph into?"
"Let's see." Indian girl had this curious way of moving her fingers, as if plucking her words from the air. "Teacher. Salesperson. Influencer. Prostitute. Events planner. Farmer. You know how Nairobi is?"
Indian girl laughed. "I knew that one would get you."
She looked away suddenly, towards the interior of her apartment. "Yeah. One sec, I'm coming," she shouted. "Nice to meet you, Akorot. Come visit some time.." She winked and was gone.
Akorot did not know what to think of an Indian girl with a weird name living on the wrong side of Nairobi. But maybe she would take up that invitation and go satisfy her curiosity. There was bound to be a good story there, a necessary story perhaps.
She looked out over the tiled roofs of the older buildings in the neighbourhood and then up at the newer Chinese-built blocks coming up around them. Trees had become antithetical to Nairobi living, cut down to make room for cement, steel and quarry stone. Not a single bird chirped or soared in the air. An ugliness invaded Akorot, but she pushed back at it: the failures of the world were not hers. She was living as hard as she could. And her cursor waited, blinking on Kalamu Bantu's acceptance email. And beneath that, was the ominous page, blank except for the hefty title: "Orion: A Decentralized Cryptocurrency Exchange on the EOS Blockchain".
Bougainvillea was abloom everywhere, red papery bracts, each pinched in a kiss around three diminutive flowers. Wakio stopped to pluck a bunch of flowers off the blanket of foliage draping a perimeter wall on her way, remembering, suddenly, that as a child she and her friends had smashed bougainvillea and made dye out of it.
She was in a silly, happy mood. Tony had promised to make her chicken curry, her favorite, and the only meal he was good at making. And she'd managed to escape the strange looks she had been getting all week at the office by taking advantage of the company's Friday half-day policy, for the first time in ages. She'd simply not returning to the office after a client meeting and instead dropped Dorothy an email. Also, the matatu ride to Tony's had been surprisingly quick for a Friday, when traffic normally snaked for at least ten kilometers on the Thika Super highway.
Tony lived in a two-room house in a quiet neighbourhood behind his former university. He had taken the place five years before, during his and Wakio's last year of their undergraduate studies and had continued living there even after starting his software business.
"I like it," he said."And what is the point of an expensive place?"
He did not approve of Wakio paying 30K a month to share a furnished house in Adam's Arcade.
"You could have your own huge two-bedroom around here, instead," he was always saying.
Thankfully, she was not spending his money. And she could not imagine sitting in traffic for over two hours to get to work and then again on her way back home. Travelling across the city to his place twice a month was not something she would do for anyone else.
There were children playing in the compound when she stepped through the gate. They were jumping into puddles left by the previous night's rain, it seemed. They stopped to stare at her and one, a girl, giggled behind small hands. These were children from the corrugated iron sheet houses near the gate. These stood in two rows behind a barrier of wooden poles and faced each other so that one could watch T.V. in his neighbour's house from the comfort of his own couch. On impulse, Wakio growled at the children and made an ugly face, disbanding the little creatures, with squeals and screams.
"Okay. Let me send someone to unlock it for you," said Tony on the phone when Wakio called him.
Did he have company? Wakio waited outside the locked smaller gate attached to a stone wall demarcating the domain of the stone houses where Tony lived.
There was a pata pata of rubber slippers coming around the corner, then a girl appeared, jiggling wooden bangles at her wrist.
"Wakio?" she asked.She plugged Tony's long key into the lock of the gate.
"He is finishing up some code we are working on," she said.
This then had to be Ngina.
"It's really nice to meet you, finally," she said, engulfing Wakio in a hug before she could slip past.
"I thought he said you wrapped that project up, yesterday?"
Ngina raised her hands in mock resignation. "We deployed and shit went to shit."
She was a nail biter; her nails had never known a manicure or nail gel or stick on nails. Her dressing style was throw-it-on-and-see-what-sticks. Floral print skirt with a floral print blouse of a different design. Her hair was in the most basic of cornrows and somewhat overgrown, but her skin was the kind of flawless Wakio craved.
Tony did not get up to give her a hug. "Hi babe. Nice flowers," he said over his shoulder.
Between their last phone call the previous night and waking this morning, he'd probably forgotten she was coming. Ngina went to sit beside him at the desk and hunched over her own laptop. Wakio put her bag down and assessed the state of his living room, but what she was really doing was trying to read them.
"Line 107," he said, seating back in his chair and folding both arms over his head.
"Maybe," said Ngina, moving her lips left-right on her face.
Tony swivelled in his chair and faced Wakio. "Aki, sorry. I wanted to call and tell you not to come, but it got busy. The client is pissed."
He got up and came across the room to hug her. Tony's hug, against his soft, but not so soft middle, and within the circle of his arms, was an arrival home. He smelt a bit sour, but Wakio did not care. She lifted her head and kissed him gently. His face opened like sunshine. They kissed again, deeper, and Wakio's body awakened with longing.
"Where is my chicken curry?" she asked in her most sulky voice.
"Aki sorry. I will make it up to you. We are almost done."
Wakio had never been able to stay angry at Tony for more than five minutes. She always went tender, especially when he patted his own head, shyness creeping in on him.
While he and Ngina worked all afternoon, passing words between them that made no sense to Wakio, she rescued his place from two weeks worth of neglect, beginning with the dishes in the sink. She swept the carpet beneath his sofa set and wiped down all the surfaces, forcing him and Ngina to lift their laptops when she wiped down the desk. She dusted and organized Tony's books, DVDs and miscellanea that he did not need but would never throw out. In the bedroom she changed his sheets, drew his curtains and threw open the windows. She hunted down the source of a vague smell, but found nothing. The space under his bed was cluttered with old suitcases full of books, and there was no getting to anything down there. She smelt and hung up the clothes he had left in a heap in the laundry basket, and went about picking any socks and boxers on the floor. But it was the bathroom that really got her annoyed. He had left an almost new lozenge of soap disintegrating in a basin of water. And there was mud on the floor. She took up the basin, intending to give him an earful about being wasteful, but Ngina and he were talking in the next room.
"Your girlfriend is so nice. I would never do shit like this for a man. If you want to be dirty, enjoy your pigsty."
Tony laughed. A laugh Wakio knew well. High pitched and exaggerated. One that he used on women, almost exclusively.
"Aki stop your bitterness. I didn't ask her to. She does it because she enjoys cleaning."
Wakio leaned on the bedroom wall, feeling stupefied. Tony had not said anything untrue — she did enjoy cleaning — but his saying it to this girl burned a hot nugget in Wakio's belly. But why did she care what Ngina thought of her? She breathed in deeply and out slowly. She forced herself to get back to the cleaning. Armed with a bucket, soapy water and a rag, she had them lift their feet and wiped the floor under the desk clean.
She was only done at 6pm, but they were still huddled together.
Tony came into the bedroom in search of a notebook he'd left under his pillow and found her stretched out in bed, plucking apart the bracts of the Bougainvillea.
"We are almost done, I promise. We go eat at the mall. My treat. Whatever you want," he said.
He bent down and kissed her. As he pulled away, she drew him back in and kissed him harder. He came up for air looking stunned. Wakio smiled at him suggestively.
"One hour tops, babe," he said.
She stood at the closed bedroom door and listened to them, but could only hear whispers. She considered going to cook up some dinner, but Tony had already said they were going out. She would only make herself look insecure to Ngina who was sure to notice her hovering. No, best to stay in the bedroom like she did not care.
With mothers shouting at their children in the next door corrugated iron-sheet houses, she debated what to say to Tony after Ngina left.
"I don't like you bringing girls here. Why couldn't you work at a public place like the University cafeteria?"
No, no, no. Too strong. He would feel she was trying to control his life.
"I thought you guys were getting space in a techhub."
Better. But what if he missed her point entirely.
"You are not afraid she could jump you? Ha ha ha."
Stupid. Wakio turned over on the bed to lie prostrate. A column of dust danced in the light falling through the window at an angle.
"Are you fucking her, Tony?"
And what if Tony said yes? Wakio's stomach contracted sharply.
She woke up in a tangle of Tony's sheets, in the viscous darkness of his room that was only cut by a line of light under his door. Her own shout echoed around her, but dissolved at the sound of his voice:
"Text me when you get home," he said.
His front door shut with a whine. She heard his footsteps on the carpet. The bedroom door opened, and his shadow stood in a shaft of light. She could not make out his face. It was late, she knew, nine or ten o'clock and Ngina had just left. She knew so much that she did not want to know, and it was eating her belly.
The question was on her lips, about to drop like dung on their stainless relationship. Instead Wakio moaned.
"You made me wait for so long," she whined.
"Aki pole. I didn't know it would take so long." He came to sit beside her on the bed. He was not handsome. His face was a bit too long and his ears too big. He was cute, something Wakio would never say to him. Like a teddy bear or a boyfriend pillow. "Let's go. What do you want to eat? A burger? Biriani?"
"First, do something for me," she said.
She unbuttoned her blouse. "Hold these for me."
He rose the moment she freed her breasts from her bra. No matter how many times they had sex, he always looked shocked at her D-cup breasts. Ngina did not understand just how strong a hold Wakio had on him. They had been together almost ten years. They had survived a lot of shit. And she was not about to lose him.
Tony swallowed visibly as he rolled her nipples between his fingers. He leaned in and she arched her back so that he could suck her babies. Lust shot through her electrically. She reached for his belt. But he stopped her.
"Let's go eat first, babes. I am so hungry."
A reasonable request. Wakio was hungry too. But all she felt, while trying hard to smile and while saying nonsensical sweet nothings over the pepperoni pizza they settled on, was betrayed. She already knew that Tony did not want her anymore
Click here to read Chapter 3