New short fiction: ‘The Man at the Bridge’ by Kiprop Kimutai, commended by the 2018 Gerald Kraak Award

The JRB is proud to present a new short story by Kiprop Kimutai, ‘The Man at the Bridge’, which was recently named a commended entry by the 2018 Gerald Kraak Award judges.

The prize judges called ‘The Man at the Bridge’: ‘An exquisitely rendered short story about a man trying to juggle his homosexual desire with his married life; one that eschews easy judgement but rather dissects the compromises that its protagonist is forced to make.’

The Gerald Kraak Award was launched in 2016 by the Jacana Literary Foundation and the Other Foundation to honour the legacy of social justice and anti-apartheid activist Gerald Kraak (1956–2014). Pwaangulongii Dauod won this year’s award for his essay ‘Africa’s future has no space for stupid black men’, originally published in Granta 136: Legacies of Love in July 2016.

The twenty-two shortlisted entries are collected in an anthology, this year titled As You like It.

The Man at the Bridge

Just after Riaku Bridge, a place where trees congregated at night, Kwambai saw the glint in a man’s eyes and stopped his car. Stepping out, he peered into the dark. It was late so most men had gone, leaving behind only the most determined. The man was leaning on the rails of the bridge, his hands tucked in his tight jeans as if he possessed the night. Kwambai walked up to him, close enough to smell his dusty jacket.

It was the man who kissed first. He was cold and rough, yet Kwambai felt as if he was being fed hot mercury. He became eager too, and grasped the man’s shoulders, as his tongue swivelled down to the man’s chin and neck. The man grabbed Kwambai by the waist and drew him in, pulling their bellies together. And Kwambai, in that most unholy moment, remembered Chela that morning. ‘These days you have a belly! You don’t fear getting fat like that?’ Her face was absent then, just an opaque, oval shape.

Kwambai stepped back to look at the man’s face. He resembled Bob Marley—strong cheekbones, narrow chin, a long nose. Wind rustled and Kwambai moved closer, this time feeding on the man’s liquid brown eyes. The man reached over and stroked his lips.

‘You are a polite man. I love those ones like you. Take me to your house. I hold you well.’

Kwambai’s hand twitched. The man smiled and looked aside. Kwambai followed his gaze. There was nothing to see. Just silhouettes of eucalyptus trees in the dark.

‘What is your name?’

The man bent and took out a roll of marijuana from his socks. He placed it in his mouth, lit it and inhaled. Men at the bridge never said their names. They hardly even looked at each other. Everyone came here for a quick release. But Kwambai pressed on.

‘Tell me please.’

‘Do you feel like ngwai?’

Even before Kwambai could shake his head, the man placed the marijuana in his mouth. He tried to inhale but couldn’t. The man laughed.

‘You are not a person of ngwai.’

That irritated Kwambai. He sucked strongly now with his eyes closed. The smoke went straight to his lungs and he coughed until the world blurred. The man held him by the waist until he calmed down.

‘Suck again, beautiful. But let it cool in your mouth first.’

Kwambai tried again, holding his breath as the man stroked his nipple.

‘You can call me Franco. So, are we going to your place?’

Kwambai opened his mouth but no sound came out. The man leant in. There were lines on his face. His teeth were tiny and brown.

‘Stop playing these games, beautiful. You mean you will leave me here alone? And with all this hunger? And the way I have loved you already?’

‘Franco, give me your number please?’

‘Now, you are asking for phone numbers surely and the way my phone never has charge! How will you find me?’

Nevertheless, he keyed in his number when Kwambai held up his phone.

‘I am feeling cold now,’ he said when finished. ‘Especially now that you are just going to leave me standing here.’

Kwambai tried to kiss him, but he walked away.

* * *

When Kwambai drove into his compound and stepped out of his car, he felt as if he had dissolved. He had to touch himself to affirm he was still there. Even then his house, with its walls of rough stone, intimidated him with its glow. He walked through the foyer, which had a tall archway of coloured brick, and took off his shoes. Once inside the house, he went straight to the living room. His food was waiting on the dining room table—a bowl with two palm-sized lumps of brown ugali and another bowl with chepkarta stew on which pieces of teliat had been sprinkled. He walked to the fridge, which was in the kitchen on the right side of the room, and poured himself a glass of mursik.

That was when he heard someone breathe close by. He turned and saw Chela in a corner of the living room. She was dressed in an orange gown. It looked pasted on her like an extra layer of makeup.

‘These days you just come in silently to the house, like a rat, like a thief.’

Kwambai walked to the table and sat down. The ugali was warm and soft. The chepkarta took him back to his childhood joys. Chela cooked well.

‘I am just tired, Chela. There is too much work.’

‘A person does not get tired of his people,’ she said, as she sat opposite him on the table. She placed her arms on the table. The underside of her arms were much lighter. The left one had a slightly raised scar which he loved to touch at night as she slept, imagining how she burnt herself as a child, when she tried to bake a cake in her mother’s kitchen without permission.

‘One day I will just leave you this house.’

He looked up at her. She had bent her head and tilted it to the side. ‘It won’t be my work to wait for you each evening. Even me I should go out there and search for what I can call my own.’

He kept eating. The idea that this house was as uncomfortable to her as it was to him was overwhelming. She always seemed to possess it. The kitchen and the garden outside were her provinces.

‘Let us just keep working hard, Chela. Life is not easy.’

He reached over to cup her hands. Her palms were rubbery. Made him feel like a boy.

‘You can plant the roses tomorrow, Chela. I know you will love that.’

‘You mind over the garden. I won’t suffer anymore. Tomorrow won’t find me here. Especially now that the children are with cũcũ.’

He loved those children. Kimaiyo, who was already seven, would smile so hard to show his missing teeth, making Kwambai afraid that his skin would fail to reset when he stopped. Chebet was just three. Few of words. Going about the house saying ‘baba, baba’.

‘Maybe come upstairs we talk a bit?’ Chela asked, as her eyes watered. ‘I shall make some masala tea.’

He kept quiet for a long time, until she withdrew her hand from his hold. Her breathing turned loud.

‘If there is someone else, Kwambai, just tell me,’ she said, as she stood and folded her arms. Her cheeks were trembling. Her orange gown was no longer pasted to her skin. It had billowed and taken on a shape that was independent of her contours.

‘Let us not start this fight again, Chela. It is too late at night.’ She closed her eyes and clamped a hand on her forehead.

‘Ngai, I have never seen a man like you. I don’t even know what I am doing here in the first place.’

She lifted an edge of her dress to wipe her eyes. He turned and looked at his food. He had not started on the second ball of ugali. But he had cleared the teliat and mursik. He stood up and began to walk away.

‘Let me go and sleep.’

‘You scare me, Kwambai,’ she said. ‘You are one of those quiet men who wake up one day and kill their whole family. But you won’t try that on with me.’

She clapped her hands in fury when he began to ascend the stairs.

‘And wash your hands before you sleep. What kind of person are you? Will you enter bed just like that?’

He walked obediently to the sink and washed. That night in bed, he curled in a corner and thought of Franco’s eyes. He thought about how Franco had pressed against him, how the rustle of the trees had urged them on.

* * *

He called Franco the next morning at ten. Chela had left 15 minutes before and he was all alone at the patio, which faced the garden, relishing the sunlight that played on his feet. His voice shook when the call went through.

‘How is it, Franco?’

There was static at first, then a voice rippled through. ‘I am well, beautiful.’

‘I saw it well to greet you.’

For a moment, Kwambai was afraid the call would disconnect. For a moment, all the shrubs and flowers in the garden turned into a mishmash of green, red and yellow.

‘That is good, man. It is good to greet one another. I also ask that you mind about me. This hustling life is hard.’

‘I have a little work.’ ‘Which one now?’

‘Small, small things for the garden.’

He gave him directions to his house. Two hours later, the gate bell rang. Kwambai opened and saw Franco. He was a bit hunched and his trousers were too big for him. He was wearing dusty safari boots and his eyes kept darting about like that of a person who had seen too much.

‘It is good that you have come.’

Franco reared his head and smiled.

‘No one can refuse work.’

They walked to the patio, where Kwambai served him litchi juice. Franco gulped it down and Kwambai had to serve him more.

‘Are you enjoying yourself?’

‘Si, you called me for work?’

He was no longer the man in tight jeans, leaning against the bridge rails in the dark. This Franco was a man whose mouth was tight and whose eyes looked far away—at something only he could see.

‘This is where I stay.’ ‘You have a good place.’

‘Let me show you around.’

They stepped into the garden and Kwambai felt as if he was on new land. The spread of purple hearts and baby sunroses fascinated. Even the crimson flower spikes, on the tips of the branches of the bottlebrush trees, seemed to sway more pleasantly as he walked next to Franco, who smelt of cigarettes. They stopped at a patch of collard greens, just behind an enormous mugumo tree. There, as Kwambai spoke on the kind of digging that needed to be done, Franco reached over and squeezed his balls. His words petered out when Franco knelt and unzipped his fly.

They dropped to the ground and began to writhe like earthworms as they took off each other’s clothes. Kwambai clawed the air as if it was a mattress he could dig his fingers into when Franco entered him. Franco tore a vegetable out of the soil and squeezed it hard until it dripped green fluid, all the while breathing desperately like a dying cat. He would press Kwambai’s face onto the soil, forcing him to smell sodden leaves, while lifting his bare leg high to bite. The pain was searing but Kwambai would ask for more and Franco would give generously. Later, when they were done, they lay on the bare earth, shielded by the long shadows of the mugumo tree and the high stems of the greens. Neither of them wanted to stand. They had sunk into a mundane world.

‘I enjoy spending time with you,’ said Franco.

‘Where do you live, by the way?’ asked Kwambai.

‘In Gachororo. Just here.’

He pointed and Kwambai blew into his ears, before gently licking inside.

‘Who taught you these things, beautiful? You are so good. I should have you in my bed every day.’

Kwambai didn’t reply. He could feel bits of twigs and leaves on the wet soil pressing into his skin.

‘What were you doing at the bridge?’

‘I had just finished work at Pato’s. And you know the way I was itching. I had to get someone. You know those itches man, when they come, they come. What will you do? So I went down there at the bridge but guys had already left. But I couldn’t leave. I leave and go where with all that hunger? Then I saw you driving. I knew, from your speed, that you too were hungry and looking. You make me so hungry, beautiful.’

Franco pressed himself against Kwambai and began to nibble his neck. Kwambai looked past the collard leaves and the lawn, to the edges of the house that could be seen. He closed his eyes and returned Franco’s kiss. They went for a second round.

* * *

‘Are you happy, Chela?’ Kwambai asked.

They were sitting in the living room, where he was pretending to read a newspaper. Chela had just walked in from the kitchen, where she had been busy cutting and washing.

‘What are you saying, Kwambai?’

‘Wuot!’ he said as he threw his hands up. ‘We even call each other by our names. Where did sweetheart disappear to? Is there anything here really?’

Chela’s eyes narrowed, as she stood before him and placed her feet so close together that she seemed about to topple. Kwambai licked his lips. He had laid down in the garden with Franco. He had smelt the earth. He couldn’t wish it away.

‘Is that where we have now reached?’ she asked. ‘I need to finish cooking. I was making your favourite—peas with fried sausages.’

Kwambai looked at the coffee table in front of him. It had been wiped clean. But somehow red stains were visible through its glossy veneer.

When he looked up at her, she was smiling.

‘Talk to me, sweetie. Don’t keep quiet that way. This is your house.’

She moved to the other side of the couch and began kneading his shoulders. It was tempting to lean back and let those skilled hands soften his tense muscles. But he smelt her hairspray and his eyes watered.

When he saw an ant crawl across the table, he sprang up.

‘I am tired of all these—this—this—this—I never wanted all these things Chela.’

He picked up his glass of water and hurled it at the wall. It broke into shards and the pieces flew across the room. Chela kept still, her hands around her neck. Then, without warning, she let out a long, painful wail.

‘Don’t kill me, Kwambai. Woooiiii! I have children jameni. Have mercy on me. Woooiiii!’

He tried to reach for her, but she staggered back. She tripped on one of the sofa legs and fell to the floor. There, she screamed again and the air turned thick with panic.

The security guard from the adjacent house called out and knocked desperately on the door. When Kwambai opened, the man inquired as to what was going on. ‘You know no one ever hears any sound from this place,’ he said, ‘so when I heard Mama screaming, I had to jump over the fence.’ But before Kwambai could even answer, Chela appeared at the door and pulled him inside.

‘Omondi, I cannot stay here anymore. This one has scared me today. Even with all this wealth, I can go. After all, it is not like I was starving before I came here.’

‘Calm down Mama, calm down,’ the guard kept saying.

‘Look, Omondi. Look at that the broken glass. I won’t stay here and wait to be killed.’

Kwambai snorted and held his hands up.

‘You are overreacting.’

Chela didn’t listen. She ran through the narrow corridor and up the stairs to their bedroom. Kwambai and the guard were left giving each other awkward stares. She appeared less than ten minutes later, dragging two heavy suitcases, tears streaming down her face.

‘Now you will know what a home is like without a woman. You will understand how cold this house can be.’

She moved closer to Kwambai. Her yellow top was already sweat-drenched.

‘I have done work for you for real. This house stands because of my back. Children I have given you. But when they are done staying with cũcũ, they are not stepping inside this house.’

‘Did you plan this all along, Chela?’

‘Plan what? Do you think you are the kind of person who can ask me how to plan?’

Kwambai wanted to answer but felt Omondi’s hand squeeze his shoulder.

‘These things,’ said Omondi. ‘Just talk about them slowly. Let me go back to work.’

Chela grabbed Omondi’s hand.

‘In fact, you are the one to help me carry this luggage to the car.’

Omondi heaved a suitcase onto his back, took another one in his hand and followed Chela out of the house.

Kwambai stood still and listened to the crunch on the gravel as the Mercedes drove out of the gate. He kept standing until Omondi peeped through the door and said, ‘Everything is okay now mzee. I will close the gate.’

He kept standing until evening came and the living room turned dark. That was when he lay on the sofa and slept.

* * *

When he paid Franco to move in two days later, Kwambai drew all the curtains in the house. They didn’t leave the house except to collect deliveries of Hawaiian pizza and chicken burgers at the gate. Well-fed, they fucked until they were raw.

Kwambai would go to the toilet and be surprised that he was not bleeding, then go back to bed to find Franco eager again, his eyes enlarged as he streamed Next Door Ebony on a laptop.

When satiated, Franco would walk around the house in his boxers, touching the walls as though they were about to vanish. On the third day, the house began to stink and it became impossible not to yearn for freshly ironed laundry and clean bed sheets.

‘I need to make this house alive,’ said Kwambai. ‘There is too much shadow.’

They were on the sofa, Franco resting his head on his lap, his uncombed hair too rough to stroke.

‘Are you worried, beautiful?’ he asked, sitting up straight. He had a way of looking at Kwambai. A mixture of mockery and affection.

Kwambai felt his shoulders relax. He looked at the china figurines above the fireplace—a whale, a ballerina and a soldier. Chela had bought them from a roadside hawker when they were on honeymoon in Thailand.

‘This woman will make you grow old so quick,’ said Franco. ‘And you know you have not paid me for my gardening?’

He stood before Kwambai, his skin looking as smooth as soft clay. ‘You will also have to pay me for the work I did today.’

He held his arms akimbo. His belly protruded a bit, but his shoulders were fine, with strong muscles shaped like buns. Kwambai reached for his wallet in his back pocket and took out a thousand-shilling note. He held the note’s edge and it waved in the air. Franco snatched it and leapt back on the sofa, to lay his head on Kwambai’s lap once more.

‘Enjoy me while I am here. You married men are complicated. You don’t know how to relax and enjoy. And the way you love banana. My big, black banana.’

He began stroking himself.

‘Maybe this is all I have ever wanted,’ said Kwambai. ‘I don’t want this to end.’

Franco stood up and laughed.

‘You married men just want everything to be yours. You want everything to carry your name. Even these walls. Even my flesh.’

Kwambai stood and kissed him. In the dark, Franco’s lips were fuller, with a hint of red where they joined. Kwambai tried to part them with his tongue but Franco pushed him back.

‘We need to clean this house. It is filled with rubbish.’

Franco opened the curtains to the living room. Sunlight streamed in and Kwambai, feeling exposed, hid behind the sofa. Franco, on the other hand, sat on the window ledge. He was a man who loved his body, who seemed at peace with the light that played on muscled arms. He turned to look at his lover. ‘If you want me to stay in this house longer, you will have to clean it. And you will have to add my pay. This body is not built with wood.’

‘Sawa, let us start by washing the utensils basi.’

In the kitchen, Kwambai realised the joy it was to dip his fingers in sudsy water. How easy it was to giggle when Franco touched his waist with cold fingertips. How easy it was to turn and take off what was necessary, so that their bodies could join and shut out the world. They made love all over the house, till they finally settled on a favourite spot, a tiny guest bathroom. There, Franco seemed smaller. Just a man who smiled shyly when Kwambai lifted his chin with a finger.

‘How long will you keep me here?’ he asked.

‘I love you,’ was all Kwambai could say.

* * *

It was the next Saturday that Kwambai saw his wife’s Mercedes drive in. He kissed Franco on the forehead and told him to go and wait upstairs. When he opened the door, it was his mother Grace who walked in. Grace was dressed in white pants and a jersey with tropical prints, both of which had been bought by Chela on a trip to London.

She walked slowly to the sofa and sat down. Her eyes had sagged since they last met.

‘Chamgei lekwenyu.’

He greeted her back and smiled more than it was necessary.

‘I hear she ran away, lekwenyu?’

‘Who?’

‘Your wife. She called me. She said that you were very angry.’

‘There are things Mama. Things about me, which I believe you should know.’

Grace reclined on the sofa like a woman who had nothing more to offer to life but sagacity.

‘I know, Kwambai. I know who you are. I saw you before you saw yourself.’

Her eyes lingered over him until her pupils began to dissolve.

‘But you are my son. You must do what is right so that you can live in this land. You must do what is necessary, so that when you are old, you have your people. Those two children she has taken to her people are your children. At such times, you have to look at everything and decide whether life has to be like this. Look at this house. It stinks.’

More light came into the room. Clouds had shifted and released the sun. He had done his best to clean the house. But now, even the table seemed oddly askance. Each dark corner threatened to reveal hints of his sweat, his cum, his shit.

‘You are my only son, Kwambai. I need you to carry your father’s bloodline. I am just a vessel and so is Chela. We are here in this world to lean against our men and to give them children. That is why our people say respect is holy, it resembles a man. You are a man, Kwambai.’

Kwambai fiddled his fingers. He remembered the smoothness of his Italian tuxedo at his wedding. He remembered how he shook when the priest opened the Bible and asked him to swear on it. He remembered other things; how as a child he had walked inside a forest and wandered for long, until he found a stream of cool water to drink; how he sat by that stream all day until it was dark.

‘I have told Chela to wait for me in the car, lekwenyu. You decide if she should come in or if she should go back to her people.’

Kwambai pressed the nail on his left finger until it turned pink. He thought of mursik and teliat, how they would melt in the mouth when combined with ugali and chepkarta. He thought of those hot evenings when they would leave the windows open and Chela would sit at the dining table as he scrolled through WhatsApp. He thought how easy it would be, to drive to the bridge each Friday evening, and stop for just 20 minutes.

  • Kiprop Kimutai is a writer and an editor with Jalada Africa. His fiction has been published by Kwani? Trust, Jalada, Painted Bride Quarterly, No Tokens, Acre Books, The Caine Prize and Farafina. He is currently working on his debut novel, The Bantam Chicken Project. Follow him on Twitter.
Author image: Kiprop Kimutai/Composite: The JRB

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