The Late Comers
By Nthenya Nzioki (Kenya)
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I moved out of home exactly six months after I got my first job. My parents were not too pleased.
“What kind of single girls your age move out of their parent’s house to stay alone?” my mother had
asked in distress.
“I hope you’re not moving in with some boy who is cheating you in order to get the milk without
paying for the cow,” my father had said with a forbidding voice and a severe scowl on his face.
I had patiently explained to them that I simply wanted to learn how to be self reliant and in the end,
they had let me move, albeit reluctantly.
I had managed to find a nice, one bedroom flat where the rent was cheap and the location was
conveniently close to my place of work. My younger brother and his friends had helped me move
the few household items I had afforded to buy and as I slowly settled into my new life,
I felt proud of myself for having accomplished so much barely a year after leaving the university.
I was lucky, and I knew it, so on the mornings I remembered to do my morning devotion,
I thanked the Lord for his blessings.
I had been living alone for about one year when Vera moved into our small housing complex.
I arrived home one evening to find a truck packed outside the gate. An attractive young woman
was busy directing two sturdy men who were carrying furniture and other household items into
“Hello,” I greeted the woman, “are you a new tenant?”
“Hello to you,” she replied, in that strange way that some people have of responding to “hello”. I found
it rather amusing and could barely hide my smile as I shook her hand which she had extended
with the greeting.
“Yes, I’m moving into flat 2B,” she continued pleasantly, giving me a tentative smile.
“That’s the flat above mine! Welcome to the neighbourhood, I’m sure you’ll like it here. I’m Jackie.”
“Thank you Jackie,” she said warmly with a full smile, “I’m Vera.”
“Nice to meet you, Vera,” I replied, already deciding that I liked her even though I had only just
At that moment, a small boy came running round the corner, “Mommy, mommy!” He
cried excitedly, “Our new house has a balcon.” Vera caught him in her arms and smiled lovingly
down at him, “Its called a balcony, baby.” Then she turned to me with what could only have
been love and pride shinning in her eyes, “This is my son, Jeremy; he’s four. Jeremy, say hello to
Jeremy looked at me with inquisitively shy eyes and said in a sweet little boy voice, “Hello aunty
“Hello Jeremy, nice to meet you,” I replied with my best smile and held out my hand to him.
He gave it a limp shake then turned to his mother again and began chattering away excitedly. I
laughed in amusement and said to Vera, “I think I’ll leave you to finish your unpacking and get
settled. Again, welcome to the neighbourhood. Good bye Jeremy.” I finished with a cheerful
wave and walked to my house.
In the months that followed, Vera and I became good friends. Perhaps it was because we
were more or less the same age, perhaps it was because we were the only two single ladies
living in our building, or maybe we were simply kindred spirits. Whatever the case, we enjoyed
each other’s company and became frequent visitors to each other’s houses. Vera did not talk
much about her personal life, but I learnt that she worked as a guest relations officer at a big
hotel in town and she was a single mother who had never been married. It was evident that she
was struggling with a lot of the financial responsibilities that came with being a single mother
in our society. That explained why she was living in the small one bed roomed flat with her son
and a house help. One only had to look around her simple and sparsely furnished living
room to understand that she was not exactly rolling in money
Yet her house was always neat and clean, she was always cheerful and warm, and, at a time
when single mothers were viewed with raised eyebrows and malicious prejudices by society,
Vera managed to carry herself with a quiet dignity that was admirable. Moreover, her son
Jeremy was a bright, friendly and well behaved child who was obviously his mother’s pride and
joy. Many were the times I watched mother and child interacting and I sensed such a strong bond
between the two that I was sometimes filled with envy and longing for a child of my own.
Sometimes, Vera’s house help would travel to the village to see her people and if Vera had
to work (hotel people have very odd working hours, like doctors or the police) she would ask me
to watch Jeremy for her. I did so with pleasure, because he was such an easy child to be with. We
would spend the time playing games or watching cartoons on television. Other times, Jeremy
would sing or recite to me poems he had learned at the baby school he attended or he would sit
quietly at my table playing with his toys or making a mess of his colouring books.
I grew to love him almost as if he were my own child and I know that he loved me too
in his own childlike way. I remember how I started to buy him treats every now and then on
my way home from work and the warm feeling of pleasure I got to see his chubby little face light
up with joy on receiving the treats. It wasn’t long before he was meeting me at my door with
excited cries of “Aunty Jackie, what have you brought for me today?” He was truly a child after my
“You’re spoiling this boy!” Vera said to me one day, laughing as she watched Jeremy eagerly
unwrap an oily packet of potato chips that I had brought home for him.
“I need someone to spoil, believe me, and who better than Jeremy? At least he’s too young and
innocent to break my heart,” I replied and we had both burst into laughter at the subtle reference
I had made to our single status.
I never judged my friend Vera and her life, but there were many times when I wondered about
Jeremy’s father, where he was, who he was and what had happened between him and Vera. I was
tempted on a few occasions to ask her, but I have never been the nosy type. I hate it when people
pry into my business and so I try not to pry into other’s business either. I never asked Vera about
Jeremy’s father, but I found out anyway.
One cold Saturday morning in July, I was awakened from a deep sleep by a single, piercing
scream that tore into the placid stillness of the dawn like a bullet shot from a gun. I sat up in bed,
still groggy and disoriented with sleep and was just about to dismiss the whole thing as the vivid
effect of some dream when another scream followed, shuttering the silence of the morning and
piercing directly into my brain. The last remnants of sleep dropped from me like a load and the
next instant, I was jumping out of bed and grabbing at my night gown before I even realized what
I was doing.
Again, another scream pealed forth and this time there was no mistaking the anguish and pain
in the sound. I ran to my front door, fumbled with the key at the lock and flung the door open. I
took two shambling steps into the chilly morning air and then stopped short in my tracks, my hands
flying to my mouth as if to catch my jaw as it swung open, before it dropped to the ground.
The horrific scene that assailed my eyes was something right out of a horror movie – the kind
directed by an individual with a morbid imagination combined with a sick sense of humour.
Kneeling there on the concrete veranda, shrouded by a light morning mist, was my friend Vera.
It was she who was screaming, and the reason was cradled clumsily in her arms like a broken,
bloody rag doll. It took me only a moment to take in the entire scene and understand what must
have happened. The bloody puddle around where Vera knelt, clutching her son in her arms, said it all.
Jeremy, sweet kind Jeremy had somehow fallen from the balcony!
I heard a low whining mourn, the sound steadily growing in my ears… It wasn’t until the
strangled sob burst forth from my lips that I realized that I had been making the sound.
Vera must have heard me because she turned an anguished, tear streaked face in my direction. Her
attractive features had been distorted by her grief and in that moment; she looked almost grotesque.
She held out a pleading, blood stained hand at me, “Help me…,” she wailed, “Jackie, please…
Jeremy, he’s hurt… he-he fell… I don’t want him to die… please, I-I- I’d die without my son, please.
SOMEBODY HELP ME!” And she let out another scream that sounded to my ears more like the
howl of a wounded animal than anything human.
I could take it no more. I turned from the gruesome sight of my friend and her wounded son and
with my heart hammering away at a crazy speed in my chest, I ran for the gate to see if I could get a
taxi to take us to a hospital. My thoughts were neither coherent nor conscious, I simply let instincts
and adrenaline take over. All around me, I distantly heard the sounds of doors opening and shutting
as other neighbours came out to witness the morning tragedy.
I brought Vera home from the hospital later that day with a profound sorrow weighing
heavily on my heart. My eyes felt hot and raw from the tears that I had been holding back the
whole day. As the taxi dropped us at the gate to our building, I prayed silently that one of the
neighbours had had the good sense to clean the puddle of Jeremy’s blood from the veranda. My
gods must have heard me, because when we stepped into the veranda it was thankfully clean,
and I was glad that Vera was spared the grief of having to look upon her child’s spilled blood again.
I helped her gently up the stairs to her flat which had been left open in our frantic rush to the
hospital that morning. We were both still in our night clothes and my eyes were constantly
yet unwillingly drawn to the large blood stains that had since dried into an ugly maroon colour on
Vera’s blue night dress. Vera herself was an empty shell of the woman I had come to know and like
all those months. It was as if she was not all there… like a piece of her had retreated in shock to
a dark corner, somewhere inside her and could not or did not, want to find its way back.
“I need to get her out of those bloody clothes,” I thought absently. Then out loud, I asked Vera
gently, “Would you like some tea? I could make some, it will make you feel better and calm your
nerves.” Privately, I had an idea that the only thing that could remotely come close to calming Vera’s
nerves was probably a strong tranquilizer. But since I didn’t have any of those, I went to make the
tea instead, even though Vera had neither answered nor acknowledged my question.
Her house girl had travelled to the village to see her people, so it was only Vera and I in the house.
I carried the steaming mug of brewed tea into the sitting room and placed it on the table in front of
Vera. “Drink up,” I said to her, “It will make you feel better.” I felt like a broken record. Vera
looked at the mug with a vacant expression for a long moment, then with a heavy sigh, she reached
for it. I felt a slight sense of relief as I watched her sip slowly from the mug.
“Do you know he never came to see his child?” It was the first time she had spoken since leaving
the hospital and her voice was low and hoarse. I looked at her silently, not knowing what to say.
“Jeremy’s father, he never came to see him, not once! Never called to find out about him, never
sent any money for support… Nothing! From the day I told him I was pregnant, I never
heard from him again. I tried to contact him, I even went to his home to see him but they wouldn’t
let me in. I later heard that his family had advised him not to have anything to do with me or my
child… something about me not being from the right tribe or the right family. Do you know how
hard and painful it is to deal with something like that? People judge you, like you got into it by
yourself!” She said bitterly and stared fixedly at the mug she held, as if she was reliving the
memory of the past. I did not say a word.
“Can you believe I dated him all through college for three years? Why didn’t he think about my
tribe or family then? He was a cowardly bustard and once I realized that, I cut my losses and decided
that life had to go on anyway. But I kept hoping… I kept hoping that even if he did not want me,
he would at least care enough to want to know his child. But he did not care, and he did not want
to know his child… none of his people did either… nobody bothered. I guess they simply didn’t
care. How could anyone not care about Jeremy, he is the sweetest child!” She finished plaintively
with a sad, puzzled look on her face.
I just sat there quietly. Listening to her monologue and feeling impotently useless in the face of
her misery. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. I looked up with a start, but Vera’s
expression never changed at all. It was as if she was listening to inner voices and had not heard
the knock. I rose from my seat and went to the door, expecting to find one of the neighbours
probably dropping by to ask about Jeremy and console Vera. If so, I intended to firmly but
politely send them away. Vera was in no state to be talking to anyone.
Imagine my surprise when I opened the door to find an elderly couple, accompanied by
a smartly dressed young man standing on the step. They were complete strangers to me and I
automatically assumed that they were Vera’s relatives and respectfully welcomed them in, becoming
aware once again that I was still in my pajamas. It was Vera’s blank expression as she looked up
at the visitors that made me realize that she did not know them either. But since they were already
in the house, I had no alternative but to offer them a seat. They mumbled their thanks as they sat
down together on the three-sitter sofa that was directly opposite Vera.
There was a moment of awkward silence. Then the young man cleared his throat and said, “We’re
looking for Vera Wangechi, I hope we’re in the right place?” Vera only stared at him, so I
answered for her, “Yes, that is Vera. What is this about?” At this point, the elderly woman leaned
forward and spoke up, addressing her words to my friend.
“Vera, we have been looking for you for close to a week now. Some one eventually directed us to
your place of work and there we got your home address.” The woman paused, but all she got from
Vera was a vacant stare. She hurriedly pushed on; “I’m afraid we have come with some bad news
but also some good news… and it is our prayer that in the end, you will find it in you heart to
forgive and let by-gones be by-gones.” Again she paused, and again she got nothing from Vera.
She plunged on valiantly, “We’re Simon’s parents. This is his younger brother,” she pointed to the
young man. I thought I saw a flicker in Vera’s eyes, but I couldn’t be sure. And who on earth was
this Simon the woman was talking about? I was about to find out… but nothing had prepared me for
the information I got in the next moment.
“Misfortune visited our family recently… Simon passed away last week in a tragic car accident,”
the woman said quietly. “He is being buried next Saturday at our rural home. We know that you had
a child with him about four years ago…” She trailed off, looking down at her hands which she had
been wringing on her laps all the while she was talking.
“What do you want?” the chill in Vera’s hoarse voice was cold as ice and I saw the old lady turn
to her husband in uncertainty.
“My daughter,” the old man said in a cajoling tone, “I know things were not right with you
and our son, but in this time of tragedy, can’t we bury the past and start a fresh? The child you had
with Simon is the only legacy he has left behind now… We would like to get to know him. It is
never too late, and also to ask that you let him come to his father’s burial next week. He is our
blood after all.” The old man finished his speech in a self righteously beseeching tone.
I happened to cast a glance at Vera in that very moment and I was suddenly quite afraid. Her face
seemed to be twitching and twisting and contorting, rising and falling almost like the belly of a
woman about to bring forth a child. Her eyes were bulging out of their sockets as she glared viciously
at her unexpected visitors. Then she threw her head back and gave voice to a loud bark of laughter
that was so full of emotion- pain, grief, anger – that for a minute, I was convinced she had gone insane.
“This is when you come?” Vera asked in a shrill cracked voice. “Now you come for my child
because yours is dead? Too late! Too late! You want your blood? Is it blood you come for after all
this time? Here is blood, see the blood he bled!” She held out her hands in front of her night dress
to draw attention to the dry, maroon, blood stains.
“See? It’s red blood, just like your son’s. Now, get out of my house! Go and mourn your son and
leave me to mourn mine… Go! GET OUT!” she screamed vehemently, rising to her feet suddenly
and beating at her chest in anguish.
As I showed the shocked and silent latecomers out, I saw, from the corner of my eye, my friend
sink slowly to the floor and curl up in a fetal position, her body shaking violently. I closed the door
behind the visitors and silently went to where Vera lay in a heap, sobbing brokenly at the senselessness
of what had happened. I gathered her in my arms and tried my best to give comfort to a person who at
that moment, had no reason to hope for any.