“Never mind that you didn’t see it fit to let me know, shemeji. Just tell me why our darling is in a coma. Jupiter and Apollo, what happened?”
He had come to pick her up from Geneva International Airport which served Montreux too, she had learnt from the Swissair booking office. Like Bonn and Cologne sharing an airport. Before boarding her flight last night, Joyce had called to ask to be picked up. Erik had not been available but she had talked to Patricia. The children had already been in bed, Patricia told her, and Erik was off somewhere for some business dinner. The man never stopped working come what may. Today was Friday, August 18th, and she had spent most of the nine or so hours’ flight time sleeping. Now she felt refreshed.
What had surprised her again was that Erik came alone to pick her up. She’d never seen the man behind the wheel, he was always chauffeured all over the place by uniformed drivers. He’d hugged her like she was a tree he was about to uproot. As he lugged her suitcase to the car she’d joked: So you Europeans play lords in Africa but up here you’re porters, shemeji? A five-hundred-year-old top secret, my girl, he’d said. Twelve, thirteen years on and he still called her my girl despite her being a thirty-one-year-old wife and mother of four children.
Calling her my girl now reminded Joyce of the Sunday he fell into the swimming pool, completely dressed. It was the Sunday following Khira’s revelation of The Kiss – when Erik had taken Khira for a tour of the mansion prior to dinner with him and his mistress, the British actress Frances Farlows. He had kissed Khira in his bedroom before rushing her out of there as if the room was on fire, as Khira reported to Joyce later. Khira was already living in the bungalow at the estate, courtesy of Big Daddy who was planning to adopt her. She had however never been further than the hall in the mansion.
The Kiss. Khira told her about it on a Saturday as they played tennis at the estate. Those were the days of Khira’s mighty campaign to get rid of her hymen, be a sophisticated city girl at last, not a traditionally raised jungle child.
After playing tennis for half an hour Khira suddenly said, "Guess what, Candy? The Viking kissed me on Tuesday night!" Khira had just turned sixteen.
Khira nodded. "French-style. And in his bedroom, my nectar."
"Jupiter and Apollo!" She forgot the game and leapt to the net. "Tell us!"
So Khira told her about The Kiss concluding, "He then suddenly diseased stopped and rushed me out of the bedroom. I’d’ve liked to kick his shin for it. He wanted to as well as I did, I know it. But he was too decent to tamper with his precious princess. During dinner he was his gallant old self again, as if nothing so intimate had happened between us only minutes before. Honestly!"
"I think it's because we don't know how to seduceEuropeans."
Khira had then avoided the man all week, embarrassed no end. On this Sunday, a day after the tennis match, they swam and read Confidential Confessions under a sun umbrella at the pool. Khira felt Erik’s approach before she saw him. She flew to the pool, pinched her nose after taking a deep breath and jumped in, hoping, Khira told her later, that maybe if she could stay under long enough...
She, Joyce, had sat up and said, Good afternoon, sir, as he went past her. Afternoon, my girl. Nice to see you again, he said strutting to the edge of the pool without a pause. He squatted, chuckling as he watched Khira under the water. Khira finally had to come up for air and was about to dive back in again when he reached out and caught her. That upset his balance and the next thing, the two of them were at the bottom of the pool, Erik fully clothed. They’d scrambled to the surface together. Khira wrung her hands looking at her feet and managed, I'm desperately sorry, sir. "Sir? Some special friend you are. C'm'ere, you look frightened to death. I promise not to bite you," he’d held her, his wet clothes dripping and stuck on his body. "I only came to ask whether you girls would like to go and see an Elvis Presley film matinee in about say forty-five minutes..."
It later turned out he’d wanted to send the girls away so that he could concentrate on his piles of files in the study instead of Khira’s fetching bikini which he’d been watching through the French doors.
Now here she was, the passenger driven by Erik on the A9 motorway towards Lausanne. It was about fifty-eight miles from Geneva to Montreux. She swivelled her head to look at him, remind him that she’d asked a question. He turned to her at the same time and gave her the crooked smile she knew so well.
“How’s Mzee doing back home?” He meant Kenyatta, Kenya’s President.
“Dying in instalments, as he’s been doing for the last several years. Now, what on earth happened to your dusky Valkyrie, Erik? Comas are caused by…”
She stopped herself, shrinking from the look he’d instantly purchased.
“Me!” He hit the steering wheel so savagely the car swerved dangerously. Joyce, like Khira, only called him by his name when she was angry or disapproving. Joyce always called him shemeji – in-law. Khira called him a thousand names, most of them enigmatic body language, not vocal. Joyce was too close too soon. It was Khira’s shadow without her even being there. Joyce was a blessing, yet way too much of one because of what Joyce was to Khira, to him, to the children. Simply too close altogether under the circumstances. He could even sob in Joyce’s company like a little boy, for God’s sake.
“Me!” This time the horn complained appropriately.
“Pardon?” Holy Family Cathedral, he was not taking the piss.
He struggled to bring the car under control and manoeuvred it to a lay-by and parked. Still shaking badly, he managed, “I hit her, Joyce.” He was hitting the steering wheel, then tried wrestling it off, then dropped his head on it, sobbing. “I hit her so hard she cracked her head on the wall…” He extended the last word to a croaked eternity in his blurted out sobs.
Joyce shook her head as if to clear it. I slept well in first class, she told herself. I have landed. We’re driving to Montreux. Or is this some jetlag thing?
“Come again, Erik.” She felt as if he was holding a gun to her head because she was ready to kill him with her bare hands. But that wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fare, wasn’t even, when only one party had the gun to point. Or do more.
But he only sobbed harder, more vociferously. This annoyed Joyce.
“Who’re you crying for, yourself? What the bloody hell did you think you were doing hitting your own wife? The mother of your children? Stop buggering about and answer me, Erik!”
He didn’t stop buggering about but he answered her. “I thought she was responsible for killing Loyana—I mean I thought Loyana was dead when…”
“Erik, pull yourself together and tell me what on earth you’re going on…”
“Last Friday, she had Loyana initiated, Joyce. I thought my child was…
Joyce jerked back physically. “What?” Then she talked more or less to herself. “The silly sweet, she asked my opinion on it and I told her to leave Loyana in peace,” she screamed holding her head and rocking back and forth.
Erik felt a stab in his heart. He stopped sobbing as if it had a switch he only needed to turn off. “She told you?” She told her but she didn’t tell me.
It was in his voice. Joyce whipped her head around and looked at him.
“Of course she told me, Erik.” His fingers were strangling the steering wheel, his eyes blazing, whole wet face contorted. “Am I your next coma patient? Right. Never would have thought you had it in you. So stop the silly buggers bit and tell me exactly what happened. Grow up. Catch your own shadow. Whatever. Jesus.”
Right. Of course she would tell Joyce. They were more than just childhood girlfriends, and the whole initiation thing was all about some feminine occultism in Luoland anyway. “And you told her not to take Loyana to the farm to be…?”
“I did.” Stubborn, impatient. “Want to hear about it? Okay.”
Joyce now recalled the day back in Mombasa. They’d gone to the north beach with the children – Khira’s twins, and her own older three. Joyce was pregnant with her fourth child, Liz, who was born weeks later. More than a year and half since that day. Khira began, Candy my darlingest, what do you think about my having Loyana initiated - like her mother before her? It's good for her, I think. Don’t you agree? And she’d said, Jupiter and Apollo, sweetie! Lo is a Swede even if her hair is not flaxen! Darling, when will you begin to live in the present age instead of remaining the same old Luo female of epochs long since wiped out a priori by Albion? Khira, our staunch traditionalist Khira. The in statu quo Luo, forever faithful to the in statu pupillari Luo tutelage. Holy Family Cathedral.
Khira had laughed at Joyce's fond vehemence then said, Was all that Greek or what, love of my girlhood? To which she’d replied, My husband is a lawyer, Bushgirl, and I attended The Duchess. You were busy being a proper Luo maiden of good breeding, failure of my tenderness.
She’d believed Khira had seen reason when Khira said, “All right, all right, chocolate. I only solicited your friendly opinion.”
“And got it, sober and friendly, sweetie. Cut that blighting Luo traditionalist umbilical cord, it's rotting away and stinks.”
“I did, Erik. And I truly believed she’d listened to me. What happened?”
Erik was not sure whether Joyce still wanted to know what he’d done to his wife or, instead, what had happened to his daughter at the initiation. Or both. He let out a sigh so long Joyce thought he would deflate. He wiped his face and nose with a crispy white handkerchief.
Then he started the car and manoeuvred it back on to the motorway.
He began to tell Joyce about Loyana’s initiation and how it led to his turning into a vicious fisticuffs husband.
He concluded, “During the initiation they gave her some boiled herbs or roots or whatever. Some of it had the poison of a flowering plant genus, the doctors said. That’s what nearly killed Lo. Anyway, Khira never mentioned a word to me. Not before, not after, not even during Lo’s suffering at the lodges. She arranged for the weekend safari, saying we had to celebrate Loyana’s… entry into womanhood, I think she called it. She explained that she’d just discovered Loyana had her first monthly whatsits. You know. Odin in Valhalla, my baby is not even twelve yet, Joyce. That alone had me going to the moon, you know?”
“I know. Man and father. It’s the same with us ladies when our sons display bristles on their chins and upper lips overnight. Suddenly your little man is striding off in the direction of another woman’s love, and she’ll never be good enough for your marvel of a man child. Yet, nature never knocks at the door and wait for you to say come in. And you can’t throw it out once it’s in.”
This Swiss morning was as sunny as any other in Kenya without the long and short rains. Over to the left she could glimpse Aunt Nyowuor’s famous blue-and-white mountains while Lake Geneva glittered to their right. The motorway was like a scrubbed clean black linoleum surface, cars like they were straight out of the production line. As if everybody sauntered over to the car manufacturer then stepped into the next hot car off the line. It wasn’t Joyce’s first time in Switzerland, but all this always awed her. The discipline, the consideration of everybody – drivers, pedestrians, bureaucrats – the lot. And they say Europe is an elbow-wielding society? Drivers were so sane here it was pure madness – the slower drivers flowed smoothly to the right lane, the faster ones zipped past on the left like gliding spaceships. Everybody driving on the wrong side of the motorway. But there again, Kenyans drove British. Eleven-ish Switzerland now, one-ish Kenyan. Time. The slow in it weren’t the fastest in technology. She turned to look at Erik. He had something mercilessly complicated on his wrist. She leaned in discreetly and read: TagHeuer. Did anybody need this just to tell the time?
Erik inflated and deflated himself again. Confused guilt and anger were his dominant facial characters. Whenever he tried to be rational in the last week, he came up with the one guilty party: himself. And he was mad at the wretched bastard. “She didn’t tell me because I wouldn’t have allowed it, my girl. I never would have. Know what I’m expressing?”
Joyce knew. Traditionalist Khira would never have gone against her husband’s wishes. So she’d decided to go clandestine. Have her cake and eat it.
“Erik,” she began and hesitated to consider whether she’d really caught his drift. “Erik, what if she had told you, made you understand why it was so important for her, made you accept that it’s her Faith, her religious belief.”
“What’s the point of all the ifs now?”
“I’m trying to make you understand that the initiation is a fundamental part of our sweet silly, Erik. It’s engineered in her. Part of her composite whole.”
If, if, if, if. “You mean she had no room for manoeuvre?”
“She had no room, full stop. Biological destiny. God and genetics.”
He deflated about a dozen times once more, starting off with rapid puffs of air through his closed lips, cheeks two heartbeating oranges on his face, finishing with a last protracted puff. He side-stepped. “Norska – my mother, that is…”
“I know. Norska for female Norwegian. Khira and I share our families.”
Right. Like you shared your pubescent passions. Thor and Odin, it was all too bloody close. “She gave me a right royal Norwegian bollocking sharper than a razor last evening. Put words in my mouth when I attempted to explain, took some out again. All explanations suffocated with frankness and unrelenting love. My father has disowned…”
“Erik. Another time for the tabula rasa. Let’s get back to Khira, shall we?”
Right again, my girl. Keep my feet on the bloody ground, don’t you now? Boot’s on the other foot, Erik bloody Lindqvist, if you haven’t noticed.
Joyce, the most distinct echo of his Gudinna except that Gudinna would be so subtle in rebukes you were never certain you’d heard it correctly, yet have not the slightest courage to ask her to repeat herself. And where Gudinna got explicit, it was with a four-word phrase: Son of your father. From her tone of voice and body language, however daintily it came out of her mouth, like a Belgian lace doily placed on a bone china cake stand, you’d know exactly whether she meant I LOVE YOU WITH ALL MY LIFE or YOU’RE A FUCKING SON OF A BITCH. He’d taken one look at Joyce in the airport lounge, her tawny hues, the braided hair with coins and cowries (which were distinctly Joyce’s personal signature), the preying mantis type of figure, all long limbs and tiny body although Joyce was fuller around the hips, waist and chest, almond eyes the colour of brown velvet – and he’d squeezed Joyce to himself as if to weld her into him.
My girl, my girl… you should have let me know you were coming. I’d have sent someone to pick you up and fly you over here, you know? I know. Typical. Like sending a taxi around the corner to pick me up. But that’s not the point. Point is, why did it have to be Auntie to tell me?
He now told her how his anger exploded that evening last Saturday.