From My Mother’s Kitchen Part 1 – A Short Story

Waking up to routine

“Did the power people miraculous reconnect the electricity or did dad finally manage to get some batteries for his radio?” he thought to himself as he stretched on the screeching rusty metallic spring bed.

Sounds of bubbling water and the hissing sound of the kerosene stove could be heard from the other side of the room as his mother prepared to make tea for him and his brother before they set off for school. She did this for them every morning despite having more than two more hours to before her office duties come calling.

Waweru dreaded this chilly morning moment but he had now learnt to adopt it as a routine for as long he could remember. His father who he referred to as Dad was still snoring off in bed and cared less on what was happening outside his comfort. He had slept for an hour and still had another two hours to sleep before thinking of going to work.

He jumped from bed and searched for his shorts and shirt through the dark and now already smoky room due to the kerosene stove that his mother was using. His mother was using the only available kerosene lamp, made of an old rusty cooking oil tin, in the kitchen, which was a foot from the “sitting” room. He put on his only patched short but it was still dump… the socks, which had clearly seen sunnier days, were also as dump.

“It is better clean and wet than dirty and warm,” Waweru muttered to himself as he made his way to the “sitting” room.

In the process, he stepped hard on the bed-sheet dividing the sitting room from the bedroom exposing his bare-chested father stretched on the bed. His mother signalled to leave it on the floor.

“Run to the shop and get half a loaf. You will have to do with that for the day. In the evening I will make you some ugali and cabbage early enough before you are through with your homework,” his mother told him with sadness in her eyes.

The one-room house was stuffy and smelling of booze. This was nothing new and the open door and window could not make the air fresher. Waweru’s father had turned into a drunk and they only saw him in daylight on Sundays though for only a few hours as he would spend most of the day sleeping off his hangover.

“But dad said he was going to pay for us lunch at school. Why don’t you wake him up and tell him that we cannot spend another hungry day at school. Maina keeps crying and I never know what to tell the teachers when they ask,” he told his mother as he reached for the faded green wooden door to go to the shop and get what could be their only meal for the day.

“Don’t worry my sons. Mum will try get something for you as she comes home this evening,” his mother said as four teary eyes gazed at her.

Waweru got to the shop and after making his purchase, Kimotho, the shopkeeper, reminded him to tell his parent to pay their debts. He sagged his head as he walked back to the house and got his slice of bread and sugarless black tea.

But as he and his brother reached for their shoes, Waweru realized that there was no polish. It is inspection day at school and everyone has to be neat. The two pairs of black shoes were brown after an evening of football with the other boys the previous day.

“Think fast,” he told himself as he tried to figure out the time since the only source, dad’s radio, had gone dead. The batteries had recharged themselves as the radio lay dead for the past week and were now dead.

He moved to the corner of the room and got some charcoal. He sat outside the door, crashed some in the last polish tin, and added some water and some petroleum jelly. After wiping the dust off the shoes, he smeared the “polish” and brushed them hard with the few remaining twigs of the shoe brush.

“Maina, here… let’s go now. I do not want to be beaten by Mr Kiarie for coming to school late again,” he told his brother has he tied the laces to make sure that the shoes fit well without exposing his torn socks.

“Bye mum… see you in the evening,” the two boys said in unison as their mother put her hot bath water in a cracked red basin.

Hand in hand, the two boys walked and 20 minutes later, they got to the school gate just before Mr Kiarie in his mean demeanor and cane in hand got to the gate.

Waweru adjusted his brother’s shirt and made sure that he has entered his class two room. Before rushing to his class five room on the other end of the block, he warned some chubby boy with an unbuckled short not to dire touch his brother.

Waweru got to class only to find everyone busy doing their homework and cheekily smiled knowing that he had been lucky to get home before dark and clear with his.

The missing books

Waweru sat pretty gazing at his classmates who were busy trying to finish their homework. May be he could just borrow a copy of “Neighbours” and read one more story before class begins since there was nobody to chat with. The thought turned into a tap on his deskmate, Kariuki’s shoulder, who hurriedly shoved the book at him making it clear that he was a nag.

“I just wish my parent could buy me this book,” Waweru thought to himself.

Waweru had grown up to be content that he was hailed from a humble background and he could not get as much as his friends would.

But the more he closely looked at his family, he kept telling himself that things would be better. If dad came home early, Waweru thanked heavens for it and prayed that it would last at least another day. Only for things to go back to normal the next day and his father would be back to his drinking habits in a town where everyone knew everyone.

Shopkeepers in their neighbourhood had become hostile to his family as they owed each and every one of them. Dad would get things on credit from one shop and mum would get from a different one. They avoided owing any of the shopkeepers a lot of money but it made no difference when it came to the total debt.

His parents were always an embarrassment since neighbours three houses away could clearly hear them fight and housewives would discuss the unfortunate state of the Muchiris as they gathered at the communal water tap. Slaps on his mother’s face were no secret as the only thing that separated his bed and that of his parents was an old white bed-sheet.

As he read the book, his mind suddenly wandered as he daydreamed of a future that he would have. He imagined himself as an important member of the society – a rich man who was the envy of the entire town.

He had a beautiful family, a palatial house in a big well-kept compound and a sleek car. Everyone loved him and he was always out to help those who did not have.

“Good morning class,” Waweru’s daydreaming was cut short by Mrs Kamau’s screechy voice.

The whole class rose to the greeting as Mrs Kamau asked them to place their homework on the desks. Mrs Kamau was a teacher who was dreaded by all students and even some of her colleagues who had passed through her hands years before. She had been a teacher for the last 40 years and everyone in the town talked about her.

Mrs Kamau started walking around the class with a cane in hand, as she checked her students’ work. On the other end of the class, Waweru was shaking hard that his classmates, two desks away, could notice.

“What is it?” Kariuki asked him

“I can’t find my book. I think I left it in my mother’s kitchen,” he whispered.

Waweru had to think fast or Mrs Kamau’s cane would be landing on his behind mercilessly any minute from now. He immediately shot up his arm and with tears in his eyes shouted “excuse me teacher, my stomach is really aching”.

Mrs Kamau instructed Kariuki to help Waweru out of class so that he could get some medicine from the first aid box in the deputy headmaster’s office. The two boys rushed out as Waweru squashed his stomach in ‘pain’.

The two boys had played with Mrs Kamau’s head but they were the best students in her class anyway. She continued inspecting the other students’ homework and assumed that Waweru and Kariuki had done theirs.

During break-time, Waweru sat under a tree in deception and still squashing his stomach. He wished he were playing soccer with the other boys but the teachers would see him from the staffroom and know he was faking his “illness”.

But things were just about to get worse when Mrs Kamau sent a class two boy to summon Waweru to the staffroom. Most teachers spent their break at the crowded staffroom with paint-pealed walls as the children played in the fields.

 

Where is your lunch

On reaching the staffroom, Waweru found his brother Maina seated next to his class teacher as we sobbed heavily. Waweru was taken aback since his brother was not the type to cause trouble that would have him caned to cry that intensely.

“Waweru, when was the last time that your brother had something to eat?” with eyes popping out Mrs Kamau asked.

“We… we… had bread and tea in the morning,” Waweru answered as his eyes turned teary.

But he remembered what dad always told him; “It is unmanly to cry in public”. And so he knew he had to struggle and keep those tears away. Mrs Kamau was not convinced and asked; “and last night what did you have for supper? And have you carried lunch today?”

“Yes,” Waweru said with his face turned to the ground.

“Yes, what?” Mrs Kamau impatiently asked as the other teachers quietly listened to the conversation.

“We ate ugali and… and cabbage! Mum and dad could not afford to give us money for lunch today. But mum promised we will have a better supper tonight,” Waweru, with his face still downcast, explained.

While Waweru’s mother was known to be the friendly woman working at one of the government offices in the town, his father was known to be the friendly drunkard who was ready to buy anyone alcohol on credit at any of the low cost bars at the shopping centre.

Waweru’s father could drink until late and would ask the barman to make sure all the people he knew had drinks. While most men in the dirty little town were known to do that, Waweru’s father never had the money and when he had it had to clear his earlier bills.

Mrs Kamau asked the two boys to go back to class and come back to the staffroom at 12.45 when the school breaks for lunch. She organized that they get the day’s lunch at the school’s kitchen under the school feeding programme that their parents could not afford.

That evening, an embarrassed Waweru picked an envelope from his teacher, walked out with his brother, and went straight home. That evening, the two did not join the other boys in all the games they could play while going to home.

That evening there was no counting of vehicles on the road, no competing who would kick the largest stone furthest and definitely today there would be no visit to Baba Ali’s shop to ask for the broken sweets.

Waweru wished that the ground would swallow him. “Why did the teachers have to embarrass me like that? Why can’t my parent be rich enough? Why is it that no one cares?” he thought to himself.

“Waweru don’t be sad… one day we will afford all that we have wished for. Our parents may have not done it but we will do it for ourselves!” Maina interrupted his big brother’s thoughts.

But the two boys had even something more pressing to think about now.

“What do you think Mrs Kamau wrote on that note? And why did she only address it to mum?” Maina asked his brother as they approached their wooden house.

“I don’t know… do you think we should open it?,” Waweru answered.

 

They took your letter!

The two boys stood staring blankly but vividly in thought at the now soiled envelope in Waweru’s hand.

“I have two shillings… we can open it, read and put it back in a new envelope. Mum will ever know what we did,” Maina said to the surprise of his brother.

Waweru thought his brother’s idea was brilliant and tore open the envelope. They sat down on a stone besides a large tree just next to the footpath leading to their house. And in a pose that could only be mistaken for an exam revision session the two went the short letter.

“Dear Mrs Muchiri,

Receive greetings from me.

It has been long since we sat down and had a session about your boys.

As you may have noticed they have remained on top of their classes but their overall marks have kept dropping. May be it has to do with the entire school but I think your boys can do better. We need to discuss a few things. I propose that you pass by the school tomorrow afternoon. Please see me without fail in order for us to discuss ways in which we can help the boys improve on their performance. I believe there is a lot you can share that can assist me in ensuring that they get the best education.

Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.

Yours,

Mrs Kamau”

 

The two boys continued gazing at the letter. “What had they done to have Mrs Kamau summon their mother?” they thought, “Does it really have to do with our performance?”

It was getting dark and they had to get another envelope. They walked on and just a few minutes they got to Simba’s shop. Simba was the area’s only shopkeeper who sold anything other than the basic commodities that were needed by his shoppers on a daily basis. Simba was feared by most of the villagers since he could shout out for someone to pay their debts as they passed outside his iron-sheet walled shop.

And before even the two boys got to the ‘kiosk’ Simba shouted; “You rascals, can you run home and tell your mother and father to come clear their debt or I come for those thin goats scavenging around your house!”

Maina and Waweru froze before taking off towards their home forgetting about the envelope. Panting their souls out, they got to their gate only to find their mother holding a mwiko (cooking stick) outside the door.

“Mum, there is big dog chasing us!” Maina shouted to the amazement of his elder brother. Waweru could never get over some of the tricks that his younger brother came up with at every moment. But their mother was not buying it and asked them why it had taken them so long to get from school.

And Maina was at it again and with a straight face; “Mrs Kamau gave us a letter to bring to you and some boys took it away from us and we had to struggle getting it back.”

“Look!” grabbing it from Waweru’s hand, “they even opened it and even took the envelope!”

“Maina, saves the day!” Waweru thought to himself. But the thought was wiped off when his mother grabbed him and hit him twice with the mwiko and the same to his brother.

They got into the house as their mother read Mrs Kamau’s letter wondering why she was needed in school.

“What could it be this time? Could she have noticed? I don’t think so…” her thought trail was interrupted by the voice of her drunken husband singing circumcision songs from the gate to the poorly planned residence.

The Fire!

On hearing their father’s voice, Waweru and Maina ran to their bed and pretended to be asleep just in case they were asked what they were doing up beyond 7pm. Muchiri believed that his sons should always be in bed before he gets into the house failure to which they or their mother would have to be punished for it.

“Wambui… my dear Wambui… where are the boys. I have some good news!” a drunken Muchiri shouted as he got into the house turning it as stuffy as it was in the morning from his bad booze breath and stinking socks. “Waweru, Maina…. can you bring your stupid heads here I show you what I got for you today”.

The two boys scrambled from their aged rusty metallic spring bed that was left making all sorts of melodies. They rushed and found their father who was visibly drunk reaching for the inner pocket of his patched brown coat that had evident signs of long use.

“What could it be this time?” their mother thought to herself given her husband’s history of empty promises. In her heart, she knew nothing good was coming from this latest promise but decided to give her husband another chance.

“Now you don’t have to borrow sharpeners in class to sharpen you pencils. I have a razor blade for each of you,” Muchiri said to the amazement of his two sons.

The two boys took the blades and retreated to their bed chatting in small voices. An angry Wambui decided to confront her husband and soon both were talking at the top of their voice.

“I don’t understand what kind of man you are. Bringing razor blades to your sons like they do not need anything else,” Wambui said.

But in response, Muchiri slapped her scaring the two boys whose bed could be heard screeching as they shook in fear of what would happen next. They were never getting used to the fights and could only watch from a distance as their father beat up their mother.

“Just appreciate… did you not see that the boys were happy! They will sleep well tonight. Now, give me food!” Muchiri shouted.

Wambui who was now sitting on the floor from the impact of the slap replied; “Take the razors from the boys and convert them into food! What’s the use of the so-called presents that you have given them if they are going to sleep hungry?”

The comment infuriated Muchiri who staggered towards his wife and started beating her up. Wambui fought back making high-pitched scream with the two now rolling on the only portion of the floor that was left in the crowded room.

At the other end of the room the two boys held on to each other. They were used to this but today the fight seemed to move on for a longer period than usual. For them they could do nothing but helplessly listen to what was going on to the other side of the bedsheet separating the sitting area and the ‘bedroom’.

What they did not know is that in the midst of all this a tragedy was to hit their family.

As Muchiri and Wambui rolled on the floor punching each other mercilessly, they hit one of the stools on which the kerosene lamp had been placed. All of a sudden the house turned dark and shortly a fire started building.

The lamp had lit the kerosene stove as it fell and went off. In shock, the two adults got their selves up and as the confusion raged, the fire started razing the kitchen side of their one-room house.

On the other side of the room, two shocked boys sat quietly, shivering not knowing what to do. The fire was spreading and the house was now engulfed in thick smoke.

The dark room was now choking with thick smoke as the fire scorched every item on its way. It was spreading fast.

Waweru and Maina huddled at the corner of the room coughing as they choked as the smoke engulfed their “bedroom”. On the other side of the room, their parents lay on the floor in confusion.

“What would they do?” they thought.

A large flame was now separating them with their sons as it became evident that there were minimal chances that they could save them.

A now sober Muchiri stood up calling out his boys’ names. Waweru and Maina were now in tears as they struggled to breathe and think of what to do next.

“How will we get out? Are we going to die?” Maina asked his brother.

“Dad, mum (cough)… save us… help!” Waweru shouted.

A small crowd of onlookers had started to gather outside the house. Water was a scarce resource in this neighbourhood and so none of them had carried any.

Large pockets of smoke bellowed out of the house as confusion raged inside. Muchiri and his wife did not know what to do and stood helplessly as the fire spread towards where Waweru and Maina were.

“Bring your hand,” Waweru told his brother as they jumped out of bed towards the other side of the room where their parents were.

Waweru managed to get past the flames of fire but his brother tripped and fell hitting his head on one of the stools. Muchiri rushed to pick up his son as Wambui yelled in sharp tones; “God please, don’t let my son die.”

As the confusion raged, bare footed Waweru rushed out of the house asking their neighbours to help them. No one was moving as they shivered in the cold night wondering whether Muchiri, Wambui and Maina could make it out of the burning house.

“There they come out,” one person shouted as the three staggered out of the house whose roof was now collapsing.

Wambui was coughing hard as Muchiri carried his unconscious son in his arms. Their faces, clothes and bare feet were black with soot as they struggled to move farther from the collapsing house.

Sirens could be heard from a distance as the town’s only fire engine tried to make its way to the scene.

But for Muchiri the greatest concern was his unconscious son and how he would get him to the health centre. None of his neighbours had a car and the only available bicycle belonging to a vet had a flat tire.

To be continued…

© Oliver Mathenge, 2010

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