August 2013 – Pre-Festival madness. I survive on two hours of sleep every day, regularly waking up in the middle of the night to see 600 new e-mails. I am haunted by visions of a stern Teju Cole scolding me, disappointed at having flown over 30 hours to Nairobi, and I am the only one in the audience. I receive a phone call from a guy (let us call him John) wanting to provide us with a ticketing system. I tell him that now is not a good time. Unless he wants to give us 5 million shillings, he should call back after September.
October 2013 – I have been to 14 funerals in the last two weeks. All of people I know. John calls back. I tell him I am devastated and that now is not a good time.
December 2013 – I am in Mombasa. I have quit my job. Burnt out, my head is in a tangle, my heart still aching. John calls back. I tell him I no longer work there. He tells me he would still like to meet me, find out what my plans are. I tell him now is not a good time. I have an ocean to float in.
February 2014 – We are moving house. My grandparents are in hospital. I spend my days alternating between the hospital and dealing with a cacophony of plumbers/electricians/tilers. John calls me to see if we can meet. I tell him now is not a good time. I have an imbecile Contractor to deal with.
March 2014 – John calls. I feel guilty. I tell him, ok now is a good time. We can meet for coffee. I am entirely unsure why we are meeting. A little voice tells me, Maybe The Universe is sending him to you with your dream gig. I generally don’t like to mess with The Universe. Just in case, you know. I don’t really even know what my dream gig is, but for sure The Universe knows.
So I meet John. We arrange to meet at Java, and as I walk in, I dial his number to see who will pick up the phone. I see a shiny leather coated man answer. I walk over, and say hello, as I sit down. John is about 12 and a half years old. Oh dear. We exchange the customary niceties, and even before I have had the chance to put my handbag down, he pulls out a small plastic bag.
‘I brought you a gift’, he says
What the *&^%&^% ?
I look at him, flabbergasted. A gift? Ha. Sneaky! With nothing more than the contents in that little plastic bag, he has skilfully altered the rules of engagement. Rookie mistake, Aleya. Always establish the purpose of the meeting in advance. A little irritated that I have been duped into a date, I try and make light of the situation.
‘I couldn’t possibly accept. It is far too much!’ I say
He shuffles the bag over to me, and I gingerly open it, a little worried at what I might find, but genuinely curious as to what constitutes an appropriate gift in this situation. I am a little disappointed that the bag is too small to hold a Moleskine Notebook. I may have married him right there and then if it did.
Brightly flowered kitenge hair pins. Two of them. One pink and one green.
‘Pick which one you like’, he says.
I am having a hard time hiding my amusement, keeping my left eyebrow from sliding up. I imagine he has a stock of kitenge hair pins in his backpack, just waiting to be unleashed on unsuspecting girls, successfully imposing dates willy nilly all over Nairobi. Perhaps he has a supplier who thinks John is a real Mandingo, and is touting these kitenge hair pins as the ultimate chick magnet. Oh no, what if this catches on. Or maybe, this is what people do nowadays, give each other thoughtful gifts on first encounters. That cant be such a bad thing can it?
I tell myself to stop being mean, John is just being sweet. I ask The Universe to perhaps speak a little louder, enunciate, as I must have misheard the dream job thing.
The conversation starts off stilted. The usual stuff. He has a sweet smile, but I start getting a little irritated that he is not able to engage in interesting banter. We have now descended into the armpit of conversational desperation. Hobbies. Urgh.
So I turn to the one thing I can talk about for hours. Books. I ask him does he like to read.
‘Oh yes. I love to read’
‘What are you reading now?’ I ask.
‘Oh, I can’t remember the name.’
‘What is it about?’
‘I can’t really remember.’
‘I guess the book isn’t very good if you can’t remember’, I try to make him feel a little more comfortable. ‘What was the last one you read?’ I try not to make it sound like a test, or the Spanish Inquisition. But if I can get a sense of the genre he likes, then I know how to channel the conversation. Readers will get this.
He humms and haws. ‘I can’t really remember. It had a red cover.’
‘You know, it is ok if you don’t read. You don’t have to just say it to please me.’
This is quite unlike me. I hate making other people feel uncomfortable, but at this point I am really quite irritated. Besides, if you are going to have the audacity to try and force a date on a woman a whole decade older than you, at least come armed.
I hold out, hoping for a last ditch witty attempt at coming clean.
He could have said ‘You caught me. I just really wanted to impress you’ – I would found the honesty disarming.
He could have said ‘Ok, I don’t read. But I could be converted…’ with a twinkle and a hint of suggestion in his tone. I am a sucker for the promise of innuendo.
If all else fails, he could have said, ‘How can I think of books when I am drowning in your eyes.’ Even a ridiculously corny line like that would have elicited a smile.
Nothing. He said nothing.
I sighed. In my books, lying about reading is a cardinal sin.
I asked for the bill, and told The Universe it was time for a chat.