He stood there, looking up at the friend who came to visit him. The forced smile on his lips was crooked, like his yellowing teeth. Standing beside his caller, he looked like a small boy standing beside a gigantic father. These visits had become frequent since word of his ailment went around. Kimani enjoyed the amount of attention he had been receiving since he was diagnosed with the dreaded cancer. It was more attention than he had gotten in his fifty-five years. Rumour had it that his disease was deadlier than AIDs, and either out of pity or curiosity, people wanted to see its effects firsthand.
This particular caller was a former classmate. A man he had shared youthful dreams with, and religiously teased for his squinted eye on their four-kilometer barefooted walk to school. Now the man drove the newest Range Rover and had a pretty lady on his arm. The lady wore four-inch heels and occasionally lost her balance as she walked the muddy path toward Kimani’s small house. Kimani stood at the door observing them. Noticing how his friend tightened the grip on the lady’s arm each time she stumbled. He waved them closer, all the while maintaining a wide smile that now made the edge of his mouth ache. The lady looked young, maybe too young.
His classmate finally standing beside him, Kimani felt every ounce of energy leave his body. He felt small. He literally was small. The loss of appetite from his medications and the constant body aches had left him with little desire for food, and when he was really hungry and tried to eat, his gums hurt. But the smallness he felt had nothing to do with body size but rather his position in society. Kimani was not what people considered rich or even middle class. He had no money or any other kind of significant wealth to his name. Now, he could not even boast of good health when he found himself defensive about his financial status. He had no property other than the small iron sheet house with a thatched roof he had built in his young adult years, and even that had no toilet. He had to borrow toilet from the neighbors. His small piece of land was only enough to grow about thirty head of kale and maize, enough to feed him only. But even that looked unhealthy from the lack of fertilizer and manure. Men his age had large pieces of land, and those who had small pieces at least had fertile pieces. Men his age had stable sources of income from employment or entrepreneurship. Most importantly, men his age had children, a wife, and maybe a girlfriend. His unmarried status was the great thorn to his side on a day too many now. This, above everything else, made him feel even smaller.
But his lack of a wife to order around and children to claim did not always make Kimani feel small. He had for a long time grown into his singleness. He enjoyed his senior bachelor’s existence and the freedoms he saw married people only dream of. But on days like this, when he met his childhood friends and men his age, especially those with a sharp tongue and a boastful ego to accompany ignorant questions, he felt his marital status was magnified.
That night as he lay on his squeaky bed, Kimani pondered over his choice not to marry. It was a decision he made in his late twenties. But if he was being honest with himself, he had made a subconscious decision not to marry in his teen years. His decision was not influenced by any of the reasons people often whispered about, like his purported lack of libido or the popular claims of impotence, and certainly not a preference for men as some people would have it. The subject of a man sexually entertaining another man was taboo in his culture. It was something that was rarely talked about, and when it was, mostly among the younger generations, it was discussed in hushed tones. Kimani was baffled by the naivety of these people who considered themselves to be modern and educated. A week before, he had read an article about how the United States government had passed a Bill that protected the LGBTQ community from discrimination. The thought of the amount of upheaval such a bill would cause in his country made him grin, an evil grin that craved the discomfort the legal tolerance for the LGBTQ would arouse in his community. But Kimani’s decision to remain unmarried had nothing to do with any of the said externalities. It was a personal decision that he could not explain in any satisfactory way to nagging relatives or the ever eager rumor mongers. He was simply among the very small percentage of men who, for no tangible reason, had no interest in ever marrying.
Kimani was not alone in the senior bachelor boat. His friend Mark, albeit five years younger, received similar scrutiny and speculation over his bachelorhood. Mark was a commendable hustler who worked too hard but drank too much muratina and cheap liquor, the kind that could, on a bad day make you lose your eyesight. He took great pride in caring for his aged mother, a role he embraced as his life’s sole purpose. The house he was bound to inherit after his mother passed on was fancier than Kimani’s, with stone walls and tiled floors. His land was also bigger, and he enjoyed fresh milk from his mother’s Zebu cow. The ten chickens roaming the compound, only stopping to bury their beaks in the grass in search of worms, were more than most people could wish for. Still, Mark was unmarried. Kimani remembered something Mark had once mentioned to him in passing, something about how parents can mess up their children. This was after the village witnessed the chief beat up his wife, resulting in a broken leg, and no one dared report him at the police station. After all, matters between people who covered themselves with the same blanket were none of their business. They would work out their issues behind closed doors. Moreover, the chief signed their children’s bursary papers. A chief with a wounded ego meant no signature on the bursary papers, which meant the children would be sent home for school fees, so no one dared anger the chief.
On that particular day, women famed for their closeness to the chief’s wife stood the furthest from the watching crowd. They murmured amongst themselves, their kangas tied hastily around fat waists, only stopping their chatter when their friend screamed from a fresh kick to the ribs or the stomach. One woman was overheard asking rather ignorantly, “Why does she stay when he beats her like a dog?”
In all the ensuing commotion, the heart-wrenching sight was the chief’s children frantically hovering around their mother. The older siblings trying to pull their father away, to no avail, while the younger ones watched in bewilderment at the man they were expected to respect.
“See, now this stupid man has really messed up the children,” Mark had said in anger, his fists clutched. “Violence is imprinted in their young minds, and the grisly picture of their father beating their mother will never leave them. They are messed up.”
Mark was now staring straight into Kimani’s eyes, his blank face revealing no emotion, the anger that previously overcame him now long gone.
“Kim,” Mark started to say something but suddenly stopped, like someone cautiously picking out his next words, “This is why I will never marry,” he finally stated.
A part of Kimani understood Mark, but he wanted to be sure.
“So you will never marry because the chief beat up his wife?” he asked avoiding Mark’s eyes.
Mark was silent. Maybe, he had not heard the question. His eyes were fixed on the youngest of the chief’s children. A young girl now seated at the front door to the house she called home, unbothered. Her calmness exuded a sense of normalcy, like everything that just happened did not actually happen. Her eyes darted between the people helping lift her mother from the ground and the dispersing crowd. She caught a glimpse of her father disappearing behind the house and her eyes began to water.
“Mark, did you hear me?”
“I heard you the first time, Kim,” his voice was hoarse, “Men beat up their wives, and children watch. Everyone watches. And no one does anything about it. That is why I will never marry,” Mark was now walking away from the scene.
“But you are not this man, Mark.”
Kimani wanted to keep this conversation going. He, like everyone else, wanted to understand the psychology of unmarried men. Maybe he could better understand himself.
“But I am my father’s son,” Mark retorted impatiently, “And you know what they say about the apple and the tree.”
“What has your father got to do with anything? He was a good man. God rest his soul.”
“Sure, God rest his soul, somewhere deep in hell, with his fellow ‘good’ men.”
The air quotes at the mention of “good” were accompanied by a wobbling head, ogling eyes, and a tongue sticking out. The way children did it when teasing an adult while hiding behind their mothers’ skirts.
“You see that limp on my mother’s left leg? She got that while running away from my father. The man was chasing her with an axe, mama fell and sprained her ankle, and it never healed.” Mark was now walking faster. Like someone hoping that his brisk pace would somehow leave this memory of violence behind.
“Kim, all these people with their perfect marriages are hypocrites. You should witness the monstrosities that happen behind closed doors. Do not let the smiles of these women and their chubby babies fool you. Marriage is a den of lions, and by God, I am not jumping into that trap with my eyes open.”
“But Mark, you can choose to be different.”
“Or I can be exactly the same, maybe worse. I am not about to find out.” Mark suddenly stopped, “What about you? What’s your excuse?” he was staring at Kimani with those piercing eyes.
“My reason will never be as convincing as yours. I simply do not want a wife, children, or anything to do with the institution of marriage for that matter.”
Kimani was now walking away, taking long steps in the direction of his house. Mark did not ask any further. The men walked home, trying to comprehend the reasoning of their unmarried fellow man.
It was half-past ten. Kimani had stayed up too late. He needed to be well-rested when he took his cancer medicine in the morning. Sometimes he forgot how he was required to take the pills. Those pills confused him. Which pills did he take before meals, and which ones were after meals? Which tablets made him nauseous that he had to lick sugar after, and which pill made him feel drowsy? The drowsy pill was particularly important because he could only take it after lunch and at night, but never in the morning. At that point in his life, maybe a wife and children would be good. They would help with the pills.
That woman in four-inch heels he had seen earlier crossed his mind. She had bothered him, and suddenly he knew why. She was the unmarried woman from a nearby town who the village women had begun to talk about. The lady was almost in her thirties with nothing noteworthy to show for her advancing age other than her two university degrees. Not even a child, leave alone a husband of her own. Kimani knew the women would devour gossip over her visit for a long time to come. Had she no shame parading with a married man like that? But Kimani wondered who was at fault. Was it the married man who took an oath or the woman suffocating under society’s expectations? No, marriage was not for him. Kimani slowly closed his eyes and wished for a sunny day come morning. Today had been cold.
Linda Thotho is an aspiring writer living in Nairobi, Kenya. She writes fiction borrowed from true stories of her life. Linda enjoys reading African stories by African authors. She holds a degree in Natural Resources Management from Egerton University, Kenya. She can be found on twitter at https://twitter.com/thotho_linda and on instagram at https://www.instagram.com/linda_tho_tho/