This piece is a continuation of the piece that was published before, which is posted— confusingly, in blog fashion— underneath it. It is vaguely influenced by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Own’s Own.
And just how much money, dare I ask, is a lot of money? I wonder this first as I get out of bed, dress and rush out the bedroom door, return for my phone and rush out again, and ugh! return again for my purse with the car keys. No, I decide, descending the stairwell. From the basement below, the swimming pool’s engines hum and click — a janitor, a submarine, the murky depth of ancient earth— No: I dare not ask. There was a lot of money in the wallet, he said. Did you get it? he asked. No. The jacket did not hang in a way that suggested weight in its pocket. I was distracted. It was a gesture of love bringing those jackets to be cleaned, was it not? How could I be so stupid to not check the pockets! Anyway, the last we spoke of money there was not a lot of it, so how much, I finally reason, could possibly go missing?
Downstairs, the living room is empty, vast and bright. The cats sprawl across the chairs like exhausted porn stars. Last year we found them living out of rusted garbage cans and sleeping under broken-down cars in the back of our temporary apartment. When we took them across town to our new house I was sure they would scratch our arms, shred the furniture, piss and puke everywhere and rip out our eyes while we slept. But quite the opposite. These days, complete hysterics ring through the house at exactly 5pm if the two old alley cats, ripped ears and blood-stained fur, haven’t been offered their evening portion of liver-flavored pate. I remember now how they sauntered in that first day, appraised the swimming pool and the cool shade under the bougainvillea, how they stretched out on a goose feather duvet and commenced the endless act of preening. As far as I can tell, they have not looked back since.
Some day I will leave Dakar for New York or Lilongwe, Paris or Ouagadougou and I, too, will not look back. Years later I might return to Dakar for a conference or a funeral, and I will feel nothing. I will not weep with nostalgia; I will not yearn nor bleed. Descending the steps from the airplane to the tarmac I might reflect, “It’s still hot here in October.” As we reach the Corniche, I might inwardly cringe and think, “Godforsaken statue. Shame.” Some places simply resist you, I won’t elaborate why.
But I know the opposite too. I know when a place opens itself to my soul; I know the whisper, the lull, the seduction of a city I will never want to leave. And such was Nairobi so many years ago. And such was another Saturday morning much like this one: peaceful, dreamy, expansive. And then, much like this one, not. The aimless mid-morning reverie— reading a little, remembering the funny thing he said, tidying the room on the way to make more coffee… when suddenly the click, click… Click! of my mind (what triggers it? Tidying the room? Arranging the papers, annoyed by the clutter and thinking of the office I will soon have in the garden…?) Yes, suddenly bolting from my reverie: the money?! Oh my God the fucking money! (I once witnessed a dog whose puppies had died all at once run frantically in circles around a house for hours— searching, searching, absolutely insane.) To this husband, this same one with the wallet, I eventually confessed, “It seems I may have accidently—perhaps, one could argue, even foolishly—left the bag of money in the car last night… Yes, the money to build the shack in the garden. Yes, the bag of money. The one you handed it to me as we left for dinner? I know, a lot of money,” I agreed, gritting my teeth. “Yes.”
Ah, the garden in Nairobi—eight years since we left Kenya and it still resides in my heart. White blooms of moonflower trees nodding over the rainy-season streams; massive jacaranda trees carpeting the ground with lilac blossoms. How, after weeks of rain and chill, the sun tenderly made its way out through a yellowish gauze-y sky and how crazy purple agapanthus responded, blooming like mad, their Dr. Seuss flowers floating just above the children’s little heads. Bougainvillea, avocado trees and huge pots of lavender; tortoises, birds and monkeys. One night, I happened to see a rare wild cat slide down the back door’s wrought-iron gate like a bulb of slick petrol while I talked on the phone inside.
How much, dear reader, is a lot of money? A month’s rent, a $3 glass of water? The cost of a flight to New York, a $10 box of Cheerios, a private education? I have seen millions of dollars come and go through people’s lives and what strikes me, always, is simply this: for even the most bankrupt, one breath always follows another; and for even the most destitute, there is always the capacity to love. Haven’t you seen millionaires in Central Park stoop to pick up their dog’s waste without a touch of resentment, even with tenderness. There is money, and there is love. “Mes amis,” I whisper to the cats. “You have survived on sand and garbage. And now you lounge in a sun-drenched villa kneading your claws on Persian carpets. Dites moi,” I whisper into their rough fur, “How much money, would you say, is a lot of money?”
One afternoon, a few days after the money was stolen from the car in Nairobi— after I had filed a police report in a barren police department with a desk without a chair, and a policeman with a fake Rolex, and a window through which I might as well have slipped the report out and watched as it sailed down into an abyss of corruption, injustice, indifference and poverty— one afternoon, a detective arrived at my gate. He was middle-aged, tired, tubby but solidly good with a slightly muted twinkle in his eye. He reminded me of Columbo. He asked; I replied, and soon we were unlikely partners. With my resources (a car, and shillings for tea) the detective had the means to pursue justice for the first time in a career of bribes, setbacks, frustration and manipulation. Within days he became alive. He told me his story. I told him mine. Soon, it wasn’t the money I wished to retrieve so much as this man’s faith in humanity.
The mystery that surrounds a foreigner in Africa is not always ethereal or spiritual. An invisible but real world surrounds your every move too— streams of language you don’t understand, gestures you can’t interpret, glances you never notice. The subtle interactions of an ancient society, you haven’t the slightest idea of its nuance and mechanisms. You think when you go to the market that you are a stranger walking through the market, but you are not. Your maid’s cousin raises his head a half of inch to indicate to his friend she’s that lady who stands on her head (yoga). Everyone knows something. Nothing is as it seems.
And so you can not imagine the details of the story, for I can not imagine them and I was there. They are far too intricate and unbelievable to relate here, but suffice it to say that it was raining the night we caught the thief three weeks later which was, by all accounts, a miracle. It was raining as we drove to the Kibera slum where our night guard lived. I followed the detective down a narrow muddy path bordered by shacks made of debris, tin and mud. Filthy water rushed down the path, faces peered out of the candlelit chambers and retreated. It was dark and, except for the rain against the tin roofs, silent: rare even for a rainy night in a square mile of slum that housed a half million residents and not one building with a second floor.
The guard’s shack was clean and spare inside, a swept dirt floor, a candle. A young woman was sitting on the edge of the only furniture in the room as if she had been waiting for us. It was the careful cleanliness of the room that got me and her simple, apologetic resignation broke my heart. A sister, a girlfriend or perhaps the wife of the guard. An innocent bystander in the story, whose life could soon become unbearable without an income. She and the detective spoke in Swahili and then she stood up on the bed, reached to where the tin roof met the mud wall and retrieved the bag. It was curious to see my familiar bag in this unfamiliar setting. The detective turned to me, his face at peace with rightness.
I was quiet as I drove my partner home through the pouring rain. His apartment was in a complex that would be a tenement in New York City, the new Kenyan middle class. He was jubilant, elated. He slapped the dashboard as he rehashed the story again— the money buried in the yard, the second guard’s betrayal. But this moment of justice, so precious in the bowels of this land of survival and corruption, was tarnished. A higher injustice weighed in on me, that of life or of God or of the world. I don’t know. But I felt it descend as we left the shack with the bag, and it filled my bones to my soul.
We live in Dakar now, where I stand in the living room with the cats and the sun and the thoughts of the past. Waiting for my husband to gather what remains of his things, I recall the detective’s triumph that night, the secluded garden that still resides in my heart and the shack that was built with the bag of money. I feel the curious way time eclipses, becoming again its accordion self. A whole era has passed since we lived in Nairobi. The children have long legs, IQs and secret ambitions now, but I could step over a summer stream and be back in that garden in an instant, my friends laughing and talking, smoking and drinking beneath the fire-lit torches on a crackle-y night, sitting beneath the bony magnificent branches under the infinite sky.
I worked in the shack every day for two years before we left Nairobi. I made money and wrote freely. It was a room of my own, and that— perhaps along with a little bag of money— that, my dear reader, is how women write fiction.
(to be continued.)
illustrated by Georgina van Hasselt. (Click to read.)