It all started after I bumped into an old friend who I had schooled with in my good, old primary days. Grace is her name, mildly beautiful, delicate and gracefully tall. We occupied the same desk from Class One to Class Eight, and I swear we would have used the same locker hadn’t she gone to a girls high school. She helped with my mathematics and I did the same with her composition to an extent of her beating me in both subjects.
For the longest time of my development from a baby to a child to a teenager, the only person I spent a lot of time with was her. Besides being a desk mate in school, Grace was my neighbor at home, a stone throw from my mud-and-grass hut to theirs. She called my house a rocket from its shape. We did what small boys and girls do in that rocket house, stole village chickens during free and P.E. lessons in the school timetable, got punished together by my mother or her dad and came out of it together.
And now there we met when she boarded my taxi bound to Westlands. As I drove out of Nairobi, I kept glancing at the rear view mirror as usual to see if my customer was still doing fine, then concentrated on the road before us. I had picked her from The Commercial Bank premises. I did not recognize her at all, though I had a hunch that I knew her from somewhere. I had driven so many people that she seemed like any another customer. It was fifteen years of silence and absence that contributed to lack of recollection.
As she disembarked from the taxi to meet her boyfriend who was waiting afore a gate to a pristine house, I could sense how tense she was from her breath when she handed me cash, then closed the door lightly behind her.
Her boyfriend stood unmoved, hands pocketed, a stare boring at our direction. I wondered why he did not show excitement that she was safely home. Had the man not grabbed her roughly by the collar, I’d have driven away. Normally, a taxi driver is not supposed to delve into personal matters of a client.
Grace was held on tiptoe, gurgling from the rough stance that her boyfriend was giving her. The man did not seem to flinch as he tightened his grip on her throat. For a moment, I thought of revving up the engine and charge away; but changed my mind to see what would happen. I have particular interest in knowing how a person feels when beating a disadvantaged rival, categorically why a man beats his wife after staying together for sometimes. That is for purposes of my endless thought experiments.
Now, I did not like how he was handling her because it would not be a fair fight as long as he held her by throat. I was not sure what to do without earning myself several blows here and there, and after a moment of analyzing possible loopholes that the lady would exploit to win the fight, I found out something else.
I sure knew the lady being roughed up. She had been silent all along but now I could hear her voice as she pleaded for mercy from her boyfriend who couldn’t let her stand on her legs.
“Stop please”, she choked “I…was working la…te! Stop you are hurting me!!”
Then he saw me ogling, car engine still revving without take off.
“Hey, taxi man; get the hell out of here!!” He shouted at me, tightening his grip on Grace’s throat. But suddenly, Grace made a squeal that registered the owner of that larynx to me. It was deja vu; I could now hear her sturdy voice instructing me how Algebra characters never mix, how someone cried ‘Eureka!’ then ran in the street naked, how two trains traveling on different speeds from different directions would not collide as I wishfully thought…how we would bury the bicycle where people would least suspect…how P.E. lessons were banned…It was her, my primary school comrade and neighbor.
I am not sure how I tore out of the car without breaking a leg, but I found myself on the ground with rage size of my head blurring my view.
“Leave Grace alone…!” I shouted unintelligibly that I doubted if it was still me or the crazy preacher on the street who had spoken. He loosened his hold, sending Grace to the ground where she sprawled and clutched her freed throat in pain. I could not take my eyes off her, and she was as amazed as I was for calling her by name.
“So, this is your new lover…?” her boyfriend rumbled. “This is the bastard you’ve been staying late to see and share sweet times with…”
“Hey, tuuliaaa, nobody shared sweet times with Grace…” I tried to correct him, but he was moving towards me bit by bit, a malignant smile carving on his face. He was a werewolf of a man.
“How comes you know her, then? eeh?” He interrogated like he had not heard me tell him that I wasn’t sharing his Grace.
I could not run because I suddenly feared leaving her in trouble. I never walked away from her in trouble or good, and I could not start now especially after a long time of different lives. She needed me like she always did. But standing there like a stupid boy would land me in more trouble with her boyfriend.
But Grace was always the smartest and quickest to think and act. As soon as she recovered her breath, she scurried behind the man into the dark then appeared where the taxi was. I stood upright, trying to draw his boyfriend’s attention and while Grace crawled into the taxi.
“I went to school with her…primary school, she was a classmate”, I continued pleading hoping that he would not turn and find her missing.
“Let me tell you something, taxi driver, you don’t put your nose into other people’s business just because you know a client…” He rattled. His breath was stale as his nose touched mine. I could feel my legs give way in fear and unable to.
She was safely obscured in the car. He was drunk.
“I can kill you and kill her…” He turned, searched for a moment then burst out in rage. Incoherent cusses poured out of his smelly mouth.
“Woman! Where are you, woman!!”
I did not hesitate.
Sprinting is an underestimation to the dash of life I took that night, and for once I celebrate my athletic abilities. Grace, spread across the passenger and driver seats, reached out and unlocked the door. Without a second thought we hit the road, leaving the drunken man hurling insults at her, promising to kill and hang her butt on a stake. He added that there was nothing the taxi driver would do about it.
Out in the road we sped without talking except for glances I stole at her as passing vehicles illuminated her face. I decided to talk.
“I am sorry Grace….” I started but she interrupted by facing me squarely.
“For what…?” She asked, her voice betraying the shame that engulfed her.
“Well, for seeing that…guy doing that to you. I couldn’t leave…” I stopped mid-statement because a silvery tear was meandering down her pale face, developing into a gush.
This was Grace, a long lost friend who the last time I had seen cry was when that GHC teacher had denied her one mark in an examination by mistake. Grace did not cry easily; she never did.
It was painful to see that much had changed. I was on the wheel but my hands felt like holding her close to me and comfort her. It was a genuine sob that she was having, not the usual sob I saw from women who thought they could make me move mountains for them every end of month.
“Drop me here” She said amidst sobs. I did not hear her the first time, and she repeated. I wasn’t sure if I had to drop her or continue driving because besides having saved her from a wolf of a boyfriend, I had also started missing a chat with her over dinner.
“Call me tomorrow. I will be safe, don’t worry, and thank you, Mwangi. I miss you too” She read my mind as she handed me a business card.
She disembarked from the vehicle, and I watched expressionlessly as her beautiful body wiggled out of the car. She carefully stepped on a pavement, shook a little, sighed then pulled out her phone. A nearby gate swung open.
She bent and stared at me deeply through the car then hurriedly disappeared through the gate. Life was full of surprises.
Next week: The ordeal with Grace takes the rascals to court and we learn how justice denied costs Mwas his only job. You cannot miss this episode!