Beach Boy

Afterwards, we take a stroll on the beach while sipping our madafu and thinking of what to say to each other, but our words are the things we swallow and forget to spit. The sun is slinking down the horizon, half submerged in the ocean, and the water looks as if a fiery liquid has spilled on the surface, replacing the calming blue with a deep shade of orange. Seagulls fly in a circle then break away into a V-shape and back again into a circle. Their squawking sounds fill the air, and the wind blows eastwards, distorting their song. We walk on in silence, consumed by the sounds around us and the unsaid words trapped in our throats. The water slaps gently on the shore and our feet part the coarse sand rudely. He turns to me – his right eye slanting to look at me – and he asks, ‘Do you still love me?’

I take a long sip from my straw and swallow hard, the sudden gulp of the liquid almost making me choke. I cough lightly and breathe in the salty air that smells of dead fish. I let out a loud sigh. My answer is formed in my head but not yet ready to leap out. I speak. The sound of the world drowns my response, and when I turn to face him, his figure is a silhouette floating, gliding down towards the bend where the palms trees sway and hug each other as if in fervent prayer. I want to shout and ask him, ‘If I say yes, will I see you again?’

Something about the way he leaves tells me this is another story that has no ending.

I throw the green coconut shell to the ground and the ocean swallows it alongside the straw. Left to myself, I think about heading back to my hotel room, but the silence in my hotel room makes me think of death and sex as if the two are the same thing. And now that Theo is not coming back to me – I know, I know – there is no point rushing back. I know I am bound to find messages from him when I get back about how I always call him when I am at the Coast just to use him for his body. I know he will curse me and call me selfish, but as always, I will remind him that I never force him to come to me. Furthermore, I will remind him that he is the one who keeps texting me asking when I am coming down to Mombasa to see him.

I play out the confrontation in my head and decide to take a walk along the beach, further down towards where the dhows can be seen waiting for the tourists who want to catch the late sunset.

The cool wind licks my scalp and the nape of my neck. I rub my hand on my shaved head to shield it, but the gentle assault continues. I walk on. A black polythene bag swims in the water, and a heron dives to catch it before realising its folly and trying to spit it back into the ocean. A herd of quacking birds circle the heron as it gets even more entangled with the polythene bag. The wind changes direction and blows southwards. I shield my face against it, my eyes still trained on the heron struggling to set itself free from its snare. I think it serves the bird right for trying to grab some fish from the shoal, but then I imagine that I was the heron and suddenly I am filled with pity and immense sadness and my chest tightens because of the bad feeling that’s washing all over my body. I wish I could fly so I could help it, but instead I stand at the shore, the water teasing my feet, and I feel helpless.

From the corner of my eye – to my left side – I see the figure of a young man slightly taller than I am and with a chest the size of a boulder walking towards me. His hair is locked in thick tufts that have formed into dreadlocks not from styling but neglect. His faded denim trousers are rolled at his knees, and he walks with an exaggerated sense of swagger in the shallow part of the ocean where the froth rises, the water cleaning his feet and the sand making it dirty at the same time. He stops beside me and follows my gaze upwards where I have turned back to watch the heron falling lower and flapping its wings with less energy and determination than before. He points to the heron and asks me if that is what I am staring at. I nod, without looking at him, and he says in a sombre voice that the heron is going to die. What he actually says in his sing-song Swahili is that the heron is dead already. I remember my straw floating in the water, and my throat constricts, and my limbs feel weak with so much pain, for I too have contributed to this. I ask him how he knows for sure the heron will not survive. He tells me, ‘The ocean is dying and everything with it.’

I click my tongue, sigh and turn to face him even though my eyes are at the level of his chin. I notice the hair on his chest that looks like an aerial view of the Congo forest. He has a rugged, borderline-attractive look that I preferred early on when I was in my forties – before I met Theo. I try to make a conversation and ask him what he does, and he laughs in a way that sounds like a dry cough.

‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ he asks.

‘No, I’m visiting. I’m from Nairobi.’

‘Ah, nilijua tu! We ni wale wa Bara.’ He teases and switches his accent into something I have never heard before in my life, but I know it is how people from the Coast imagine that the people from the capital like me speak.

I look at the sky just in time to see the heron drop down into the water like a comet. The sound is brief and distant but my body clenches when I hear it. The ripples on the surface of the water tell me this stranger’s prediction has come to pass. The wind is still. There is so much silence around; it is as if the world has died alongside the heron.

‘Watafuta nini huku?’

His voice reminds me that he is still here, still standing a few inches away from me with his skin that smells of the salt that remains when the water from the sweat has evaporated. The childlike squeak of his voice makes me think of the first time I bumped into Theo at a club in Lavington and spilled the drinks on his all-white linen attire, and he told me I was a clumsy piece of shit. I stared at him in silence as he hurled insults at me, then in a strange turn caught himself mid-sentence and apologised right afterwards. I offered to replace his drinks and take him shopping for a new set of clothes the following day. That was almost ten years ago and Theo was no longer the impatient young boy, but the one person who knew and understood how to love me. He would never hurt me, not intentionally, not even the day he announced that he was moving out of Nairobi.

‘Huku hakukaliki,’ he said – when he meant, ‘This city does not sit well with my spirit.’

I turn to the stranger next to me and tell him that I am looking for nothing at all. He shrugs and tells me, ‘Sawa. But I know everyone who comes down here is looking for something.’

He looks like he has been around these shores longer than I give him credit for. I smile and ask him how old he is. He forks his fingers through his matted jet-black hair and he tells me, ‘Is that what you need to know? You can ask for weed, cocaine, women to fuck until your dick hangs limp, anything really and you choose to ask for my age? Kaka, una mchezo sana!’

He laughs and this time it sounds different, like it is emanating from a different person, as if he has been replaced by a younger version of Theo. I want to scoop his laughter as soon as it leaves his mouth, cup it in my hands and keep it with me for a long time. He keeps laughing as if he knows his laughter is pleasant to hear. The water too is silent.

‘I am not into women really,’ I tell him, and I hang my head low as if weighed down by my confession. I do not wish to see how his face has changed so I choose to look away, into the water, which has turned black as if poisoned by death.

‘Ha, ungesema hivyo – you should have said,’ he says, ‘I can get you a beach boy for a commission.’

I want to walk away before I make a mistake, but I stand and listen to his proposition.

‘Unapenda the slim ones ama you like the ones with muscles?’ he asks.

One could think he is describing an animal, something that merely exists for its flesh.

‘Kama tu wewe,’ I tease. Just like him.

‘Ah kaka, una hela ngapi?’

I think of a random amount, something that I can give easily if at all he is serious with this. ‘Twenty thousand,’ I say. It is only after I have said it that I realise what a huge amount it is, but money has never meant much to me; I have always had it from my father who toiled all his life to make sure I had the best. Also, I spent all those years working in the ministry of finance so I could afford whatever I wanted. I have always thought that life is too short and you have to enjoy your hard-earned cash. Especially now that I feel old and things don’t come to me so easily.

‘Wallahi!’ he exclaims as if to verify my offer and also to express disbelief.

‘Yes.’

‘Kaka, mimi nitakufira ukitaka. Maana mimi si shoga lakini hela ni hela.’ I am not gay but money is money – his words ring in my head. I watch him and wonder why I could not have just agreed to move to the Coast with Theo. Why I insist on cradling loneliness in Nairobi when I have my Theo, always patient with me, always loving me. I listen to the lulling sound of the ocean. To the distant songs of the seagulls. To the silence of the heron inside the water.

I must tell Theo: The ocean is dying and everything with it.

I walk fast towards my hotel. The sound of the man’s feet behind me is the only thing I can hear.