There is something about colourful matatus plying the 125 Route. They are loud, way too loud, but most importantly, they are fast.

When you live in Rongai, getting stuck in traffic is a constant worry. So you will stand at Railways bus stop until you spot one of those colourful matatus, then pray to Dear Father that there will be a vacant seat. How do you know there is one? You listen for the tout’s chants. If the chants are absent, dear friend, you are screwed, the bad kind of screwed. But should you hear “Ronga wire! Ronga wire!” smile a little, but not for too long. Lest a mob makes it to the matatu before you do.

On this particular afternoon, 4.00pm found me standing at Railways waiting for a matatu, I knew it was coming. I could spot a vibrant purple in the parking lot that was Haile Selasie Avenue, so I stood with my water bottle tightly clutched, pressure exerted on my toes; ready for flight. I was going to board that matatu; nothing was going to stop me.

After a few minutes traffic lights changed, the parking lot shifted, the purple hall started, jumped then stopped next to me. Luck hasn’t always been mine, but today she was, for that minute anyway. Before the tout was done screeching “watatu wa haraka” I was in the matatu, chest first followed by a forehead that screened the matatu in half a second and decided to skip two seats next to funny looking dudes with thirsty looking hair. I positioned myself next to this female that was definitely not going to ask for my number… followed by inquiries about my not so smart a phone.

Before I can settle into my seat, the matatu lurches forward, tires squeal, the tout waves to the traffic cop and we are on our way to Rongai. These colourful matatus do not waste time. Neither should I. I take out Andre Dubus’ A House of Sand and Fog, find my bookmark and start feeding my eyes. But they complain. It is too bright. The sun is on its way to Ngong Hills and the window in the Purple hall opens right under it. Sunglasses are called for. Sunglasses are taken out. A head is shifted in attempts to zip the hand bag without disturbing she that sits next to me.

It is then that I notice her.

Her head leans on the glass pane, slightly thrusted forward; wisps of her hair caress her cheeks without moving her. She stares. Into what? I have no idea. You see, the matatu is moving way too fast for her eyes to be fixated on one particular scene, I am convinced that the eye in her mind has conjured a scene, not too beautiful a scene, and refused to let it go. The girl seated next to me holds her face like a fist, staunchly and refuses to let go. Her eyes glimmer, more than anyone’s should. The heat from the afternoon sun doesn’t bother her, yet my sweat glands are busy producing a dam. She sits there with her fist of a face, and stares.

During my days at The Mary Leakey Girls School, someone kept insisting that staring is bad manners, so I quickly throw on my sunglasses and go back to my book before she catches me taking her in. but I cannot concentrate. So I look at her, through the sides of my sunglasses. I watch the anguish in her eyes, the one her face denies and my curiosity is piqued. Do I talk to her? Do I ask her what the time is and distract her from her sorrows? Or do I just sit here and take the sight of her in and use it in a blog post some day? I am torn, really.

 

Before I can make up my mind; her wall breaks. She unclenches the fist of a face and a tear pours. Slowly, like it knows it will be the first of many and will quickly be forgotten in the wake of others. The girl lets it flow until it gets to that point of the cheek where the jaw chisels. Then slowly, as if someone filmed her actions then played them in slow motion, the girl lifts her hand, exposes her naked nails and wipes at her cheek, face still leaning on the glass pane, eyes still looking inside her mind.

I want to offer her some tissue… or just stupid gossip… I want to pretend that if I talk to her, if I feign concern; she will be OK. That she will think of me as a friend that she will speak of her pain, a break up maybe? And I will help her demonize whoever it was that caused it. But I am caught up in my own skin and fighting to mind my own business.

I go back to pretending to read Andre Dubus and let her tears flow without my intrusion until we get to Tuskys Rongai and the purple hall makes a U-Turn, followed by noises of amateur touts screeching “Tao Chwani! Tao Chwani!” Only then does she break her solitude, turn to me and say “aki hii homa”.

I smile at her, a small smile that says we shall pretend it is a cold that caused those tears and the lost eyed look, and then I lift my almost empty water bottle, tilt it towards her a little and say. “Lemon helps.” As if life hasn’t given her enough lemons.

‘When Misery Needs Company’ was first published here, by Aziz Mola.

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