Photograph via Flickr by Øystein Rød Tveito
They fix passage across the channel for three hundred shillings; Meroe haggles. The motorboats have long since skimmed into the dusk, the passengers smiling and laughing at the platitudes of the Lamuans.
Peter eyes the dhow. Meroe seems tired, too tired to mollify him as she has all the way along the coast. The sailor busies himself with rigging, clambering up the mast to ready the boat. Onboard, Meroe digs in her rucksack for the last few bananas and settles the bag between the boat’s ribs. She leans against the hull with something very like contentment. Peter feels none of it. There’s much ahead yet this night.
It’s a little after six o’clock. Lamu winks weakly from across the water. The evening is cloudy, the setting sun hidden. Without warning, the sail catches a small breeze and eases the dhow away from the jetty. As it gathers speed, the afternoon plane bound for Nairobi takes off; the intervening distance makes it sound like a toy. Peter sits crosswise from Meroe, thirsty, but there’s no water.
The dhow man watches them. Meroe is chewing, her eyes closed. Since morning, Peter’s eaten only bananas and he fears there’ll be nothing else for supper. In the earlier closeness and heat of the taxi bus the scent of overripe fruit brought him nearly to retching. He stares back at the sailor. He finds the man soiled and untrustworthy. The Lamuan’s gaze slides away and settles once more on Meroe but it’s plain the smiling contempt on his lips is for Peter. Meroe leans back, as if daring the men to shove her.
The dhow is entering deep water and Peter feels the tug of currents. On Lamu, new lights are becoming visible, still indistinct, but these offer no comfort. The sailor hums without tune to himself, now and again looking toward the shore. There’s no talk until Meroe wearily says, “Kati ya Shela na Lamu.” The dhow man makes no sign of assent although thin amusement returns to his face. The dhow veers toward an expanse of darkness bracketed by lights. A crude stone pier lies ahead but they cannot reach it; the tides have begun to recede. The boat swings about in the shallows to let them wade ashore. Peter takes up his pack and Meroe’s. She tries to renegotiate what’s already been agreed but the boatman neither understands nor cares about their situation.
The mud underfoot is warm, oily. It yields to Peter’s heel, and he remembers a television documentary in which a venomous fish hid in the sand, tensed, ready to sting unwary feet. From the shoreline, Meroe watches the Lamuan with great effort wheel the dhow about with his pole toward deeper water. Peter is waiting too, but his eye is drawn by the chalky just-visible outline of Manda from where they’ve come.
As if deliberately to break the stillness of night, a man rides a trotting donkey on the path above the jetty, his white kanzu a dim gleam in the last light. He opens his mouth to make a greeting then thinks better of it. Only as he passes are the donkey’s footfalls audible on the stony sand. Meroe and Peter ignore him in return. Without looking at Peter, she tells him, “Let’s go find something to eat.”
They take the opposite direction to the donkey rider. Meroe’s steps quicken and Peter senses her urgency. On the periphery of the village, Shela, a few old men sit very still on a low wall looking out to sea. Peter cannot tell if the men have fallen silent at the arrival of strangers but they respond with incurious courtesy to Meroe’s greeting, “Usiku Njema.” Dogs and donkeys stand or sprawl on the narrow strip of sand between the first small, unlit bungalows and the sea.
In the guesthouses sit a few local men, legs slung over the arms of chairs, talking in the dim, moth-mottled light. Boys are at evening madrassa, their shoes scattered across the mosque steps. Peter glimpses the crowns of taqiyah caps through unglazed windows as they kneel their elbows on the stone floor, tiredly scribbling.
A smooth-skinned old Arab sells them greasy, midday samosas in front of a kikoi stall being shuttered for the night. He’s unable to say if they contain mutton or vegetables. But inside is kingfish. Meroe wolfs four; Peter saves one although he feels unappeased. They wash down the samosas with a shared coke that is almost tepid, gulping at the fizzing burn in their throats. The kikoi vendor finishes closing his stall and the samosa man moves off on his bowed legs.
She flings her pack over a wall, then vaults across, agile in spite of her bulk. Peter hears the grunt of her landing and gapes at the spot where she stood a moment before.
“Ready,” Meroe says. Peter shifts his pack across his shoulders, wishing her eagerness was contagious. She sets off toward the shoreline and he follows a step behind, bumping his toes on the stubbly earth more than once. Meroe skips without warning up a flight of steps that adjoin an ill-lit house. She flings her pack over a wall, then vaults across, agile in spite of her bulk. Peter hears the grunt of her landing and gapes at the spot where she stood a moment before. It’s not fear that freezes him but the need to choose: Follow Meroe, who over the last few days has come to seem smug and irritating, or retreat without a word, re-cross the channel and find his way south to Tiwi. Camped there, not fifty yards from the water’s edge, are companions of a few months, since Malawi.
But he’s come too far to turn back and he lurches into motion. Over-arm, he throws his bag across, half-hoping it will hit Meroe on the other side, and springs over the wall to land on grassy earth without raising the least noise. Damp leaves press against his cheek and he inhales the starchy scent of ripening breadfruit. Meroe stands next to a house constructed so that access to the small orchard in which they are now trespassing is possible only via the interior. She twists and worries at the door handle, her penlight, steeply angled, clenched between her teeth. From beyond the encircling ring of houses comes the distempered bray of a donkey. Peter hurries to help her; she dislikes his offers of assistance. The donkey falls silent and there’s no other sound but the slow panting of the sea. Meroe wiggles her arms and the door gives with a loud scrape. Too noisy, Peter thinks.
Inside she lights with unsteady hands squat candles fished from her bag. The ground chambers are windowless and stacked with broken furniture. The air, trapped here for many weeks, smells brackish. Peter presses his weight against the double doors of the front entrance, which are carved from a dense, pale wood. Outside the chain of a padlock can be heard rattling. Even in the weak light, he can see the doors have begun to turn green with wood rot.
Meroe leads him through the house and upstairs, her penlight darting into the recesses. Beneath their feet is a rough floor of yellowish stone. Many of the rooms—they are small—are intended for leisure, with piles of floor cushions and wooden lounging couches.
Up again one short flight of stairs, they stand on a narrow balcony that serves as an outdoor kitchen. There’s a desk for a countertop and a blackened stove connected to a gas cylinder by rubber hosing. A jacaranda sways in the night, almost within arm’s reach. Meroe points, “There’s the far end of Shela.” In the absence of light there’s little to make out. Peter guesses it will be from the alleys and passages of Shela that their presence might be detected.
“Let’s get on the roof,” Meroe says, breathless with triumph and exertion. They ascend a staircase that doubles back on itself, wetly catching moonlight although there’s been no recent rain.
“You’ve been in this house before?” Peter hates the diffidence in his voice. The view from here is dizzying but there are, he sees, higher houses all about.
“Never. There. I stayed in that house two years ago. With the green roof.” It’s too dark to discern colors but Peter can see the tall villa she means. “Three of us stayed there. That was my first time.” Meroe stares at him a long while and Peter wonders if her words carry another, concealed meaning. “A Finnish guy told me about this house. He said it was easy to get in.”
“You said you’ve done this twice before?” The spite in his tone irks Peter as much as the deference a few moments earlier.
Meroe laughs in relief, her brown face creases. They’ve gotten in but Peter remains wary. “The first time was hell. I don’t really count it. I stayed in Lamu town with an English girl, the place was falling apart. It rained all the time—thank God we had sleeping bags. Plus our stuff never felt safe. It was a weird standoff: The family in the house next door didn’t rat us out to the police, but somehow we knew they were waiting for us to be careless so they could rob us blind.”
He offers no response. He stares at the stars, more lucid here than further south and which emit a vast, heavy chill. Hunger turns his thoughts to food and then to an awareness of the need for sleep. Below stairs he chooses a bed and, for a sheet, flattens his pale blue kikoi across it. He climbs in bed without brushing his teeth. Before he falls asleep, he calls to Meroe. “Do you know who owns this house?” In the newspapers are stories of European aristocrats buying up the island. No answer comes. Perhaps she does not hear or is distracted by writing poetry.
He experiences a lash of hysteria. Meroe’s left in the dead of the night, gone to find solitude in another house, or perhaps quit Lamu altogether.
He wakes at 7:13 and finds the bed opposite his own is unoccupied. Shela is beginning to stir. The wind has fallen. Peter smoothes his kikoi over the filthy mattress and turns over. Then he rises and goes upstairs, searching through the house. No one. At last, he bends over the vacant bed. Half-hidden beneath a coarse blanket is a note. The pink sheet has been hastily ripped from a cheap pad: Snooze you lose! I’ve gone out to wander around. Stay put. Around two (siesta time) it should be quiet enough to leave; otherwise too dangerous. See you later. M
He experiences a lash of hysteria. Meroe’s left in the dead of the night, gone to find solitude in another house, or perhaps quit Lamu altogether. He stares at the note and tries to take stock. A little money remains in his pocket but he refuses to count it. Calm!
The samosa from last evening smells fishy but he removes it from the oily napkin and places it whole in his mouth. He swallows and is thirsty from the grease. He turns the rusting tap in the bathroom and peers uselessly into the sink as water gathers, looking for signs that it is contaminated.
Disbelief falls away sharply and he’s furious. He curses Meroe for leaving him asleep, for the flippant note. He does not spare himself. He, after all, agreed to this mad trip with a woman he knows nothing about. He kicks the wall and falls onto the bed, ignoring the throb of his toes. He remains on his back, his mind racing, pretending sleep is possible before throwing off his kikoi and carrying his sketchpad to the roof. He feels a curious reluctance to leave his rucksack unguarded and brings it too.
For many minutes, he does nothing except glower at Shela. Not far off stand four or five houses in varying stages of construction, which he did not see in the night. Builders with blue-black skin are gathering already in knots, their voices no louder than a murmur. Further off, the postcard effect of dhows on the glittering sea is undeniable, but the sight only dredges up fresh anger.
It is an effort though to keep hold of his rancor. The light and the low witter of Shela coming fully awake quiets him. He sits on the top stair sketching, craving coffee. At ten o’clock he opens the tap once more and drinks, choking and gasping in his haste to swallow, certain the water has stung his throat. It is tepid and tastes only of the sea.
Upstairs, he wakes presently from sudden, twitchy sleep to find he is being watched by a lean cat. She allows him to pet her then, one paw kneading his bag, begins to doze.
He continues to work at his pad but the sun has become fierce. His eyes ache. The cat—Peter has named her Charisse—is nowhere to be seen. The house is unbearably hot but he dares not drink again. In his stomach is a tight feeling. Bitterness clenches through him once more and he goes downstairs and shakes the front door like a jailed man.
The tide has run in, waves are foundering against the walls of houses breasting the shore, and he must resort to the back alleys.
It is not yet one o’clock but he is past caring that he might be caught. Outside in the garden, the air is heavy and humming with moisture and the grumbling song of nearby workmen reaches his ears: three indistinct lines repeated in uneven unison. He clambers over the wall and waits in the alley, hunting for breath, his shirt clinging to his back, before he goes on his way. Laborers wheel unsteady barrows over the sand or stagger beneath hods laden with crumbly stone. A rachitic scaffold of splayed boughs embraces the half-built house and two men squat on a plank, waiting for a bucket of cement to be raised by crude pulley into their hands.
At a restaurant, Bahari, kikoied men clasp their ankles up on the seat of their chairs. They drink from steaming glasses of coffee. With 100 shillings from his pocket, Peter buys a bottle of water and three mandazis. The men, who might be sailors, eye his yellow skin and offer him respectful nods. The weight of their curiosity pins Peter to his chair for several minutes after he’s eaten the last hunk of tasteless, fried dough.
He sees little reason to enter Lamu town; he wants instead to explore Shela. The tide has run in, waves are foundering against the walls of houses breasting the shore, and he must resort to the back alleys. The samosa man from the previous evening sidles past and fails to recognize Peter. On Shela’s periphery stands a whitewashed establishment, a hotel recognizable from a travel brochure, perhaps. Thin-legged white men in brief trunks, their faces sun-reddened, look out from the sun decks. A fat woman with a kikoi hoisted over her breasts stands on the parapet of the sea wall. Peter passes a few feet away and smirks at her, daring the woman to ignore him. She shows a tiny, placatory glimpse of teeth.
Shela beach is immaculate and empty. A wind, coming up, forms long rushing ghosts with sand off the dunes. Peter removes his sandals; the sand is fine-grained and so tightly packed it neither yields nor clings to his soles. He sits but will not sketch; his mood remains bad. A voice at his back hails, “Jambo,” and Peter starts and spins about. The greeting held a jauntiness that makes him wary but the bone-thin stranger continues and does not stop.
Peter longs for someone, anyone, to talk to. Even Meroe will do. Ashamed of his loneliness he pulls off his clothes to his undershorts and throws himself into the sea. The water is too mild for catharsis, tepid in fact, but his skin luxuriates in the soapiness of breaking waves. Wallowing on his back in the shallows, he retraces the last few weeks. The jog of the huge bus from Nairobi, the fitful flicker of its gloomy light, these are dimming recollections. Where’s Tekla now? Has Svein reached Maputo? In his rucksack are email addresses, scribbled phone numbers. Promises have been made, to meet in Angkor Wat, to trek through Peru. Salved by lukewarm water and reminiscence he feels less resentful.
A little later—his underpants are already almost dry—many blond men are lazing at Bahari as he draws near. Their hair is frizzed up, perhaps by cheap bleach, into haloes intended to resemble dreadlocks. Beach boys.
He’s accosted. “Hey, Chinese! You want to ride in a dhow?”
Beach culture is the same everywhere, Peter thinks. Curiosity gets the better of him. “Which people?”
Peter shakes his head, resisting the urge to grin an apology. He asks the waiter for another bottle of water, “The coldest one you’ve got,” and pays out a few more of his shillings. The beach boys stare.
“Hey, c’mon Chinese. I take you to see your people. Good price.” The voice is, despite its insistence, good-humored, with a false Jamaican inflection.
Beach culture is the same everywhere, Peter thinks. Curiosity gets the better of him. “Which people?”
“Chinese people dem.” The speaker twiddles a stiff lock of hair between thumb and forefinger. Three others also watch; in appearance, they might be sons of the same mother, all blond streaked hair and gaunt faces.
“Which Chinese people?”
With his hands, the man makes an idle gesture; details are of no matter.
A beach boy in tight brown shorts slings his calf over the arm of his chair and says, “I’m Zion. Where you from, Chinese? American?”
From a blur of possible responses, some facetious, some flat rude, Peter chooses the truth. “New Zealand.”
“Karibu Lamu,” says a third, as if recalling some rote childhood lesson. Peter smiles at him, resisting the tourist temptation to mispronounce Kiswahili. His command of the language is not equal to Meroe’s.
A young man passes. Unbleached dreadlocks hang past his ears. He glances in, calls a greeting. Peter listens to the rapid exchange in Kiswahili. The newcomer comes in and sits.
The one who has given his name as Zion resumes. “So, New Seeland boy… Where you come from?”
“Kiwi,” Peter calls back.
“Kiwi. That’s what New Zealanders are called.” Unsure why, he adds, “you know, the bird.”
“Look, I don’t want a fight. If I’m in your way, tell me and I’ll go.”
His interlocutor stares, eyes unreadable. Someone else speaks but the words are unintelligible, a blend of languages. A third interjects in pure Kiswahili. There’s silence and then Zion, who’s shorter than the others, appears to decide. “All right Kee wee. So what about that boat ride? To see your people.”
“He say he’s Kee wee not Chinese.”
“Why you look like Chinese, Kee wee?”
“My family originally comes from Taiwan.” Suddenly weary of the talk, Peter wants neither a boat ride nor a discussion about his ancestry. He braces to stand, and Meroe comes, barefoot, around the corner.
She smiles wide. “Hey.” As if nothing is amiss, she comes to sit across the table from Peter, flopping down with the heat. “What have you been up to?”
How like a Yank, Peter thinks. “Hey.” His voice is deliberately dead. “Thanks for leaving me this morning.”
“I didn’t have it in me to wake you.” Meroe says. She asks the waiter to bring her tea. The beach boys are staring at her profile. “You were out cold.”
“So you leave me to lie around for six or seven hours without food or water.”
“I’m sorry. I really am.” She shrugs. “But you’re responsible for yourself, Peter.” Her voice is steady and low. No one watching would know a quarrel is underway.
Peter has been expecting defensiveness or contrition and so he’s struck dumb. In his anger, he wants to spit at Meroe but he tries to match her tone. “It’s my first time doing this, remember? It wouldn’t have killed you last night to tell me, ‘Oh, by the way, we need to be about very early in the morning.’ That’s not too much to fucking ask.”
Meroe stabs a hand into her shorts and throws a hundred shillings on the table. “I’m going for a swim. I’ll see you later.” Her chair almost keels over from the force with which she comes to her feet. Several pairs of eyes follow her backside as she walks away. Peter watches her too. She’s making for Shela beach. He considers giving chase, swinging her about by an arm to demand an apology. Blood floods his face and he takes a sip of water.
When he finds Meroe the sea has lost some of its silty green hue and is turning a slatier blue. Peter bluffs, “Look, I don’t want a fight. If I’m in your way, tell me and I’ll go.”
“You’re not in my way but just do your own thing.” She towels her hair dry with some item of clothing, not meeting his eye. “So long as you’re careful you’ll be fine. I can’t hold your hand. I’m here for a bit of solitude.”
Peter stands there thinking. Meroe tells him, “Look, let’s grab a bite. It’s a bit far to walk but the food’s cheaper in town, it’s less touristy there. I know where we can get a great prawn curry.” He nods. The two of them are inexplicably ready to compromise.
The air reeks of diesel fuel and carries a palpable heat like an enormous, shuddering bomb on the point of detonation.
There’s a lone yell of Kee wee as they near Bahari but it’s a greeting rather than an attempt to get Peter’s attention. Meroe smiles as though she’s in on a joke. So much has happened since their arrival and the intervening day feels more like a week. They pass the mosque and the old men in quiet speech, a journey in reverse. A roar, faint at first, grows and grows until they come up to a generator or, perhaps, a series of generators. Lamu’s power plant. The air reeks of diesel fuel and carries a palpable heat like an enormous, shuddering bomb on the point of detonation.
A low wall above the sea signals the outer limit of Lamu town. The footpath has turned muddy and squalid with donkey feces and Peter and Meroe pick their steps. Among dugouts, boys play in the shallow water; here, the small waves are oil flecked and sluggish with refuse. Rangy men sit by tethered dhows, drawing on their cigarettes. One of them mutters in a deep voice, “Sema, Merow.” Beneath a sun visor, which has been pulled low, little of his face is visible. Meroe tosses her head and does not reply. Peter wonders how the man knows her name.
They wait for food in what is little more than a shack. He draws out his sketchbook, as much to spare himself the stiff silence as to occupy his hands. It’s poor light beneath the corrugated iron roof but he busies himself getting down a sketch of the restaurant’s interior.
“Did you get much done earlier?” Meroe asks.
Peter smiles, pretending to be engrossed in his work, and does not look up. “The light this morning was incredible.” A cat is leaning on his ankle, a thin, half-grown thing; the second one today, he thinks distantly, and rubs its ruff. “I got down a couple of good sketches but I don’t have any paint.”
“I’m sure you’ll bump into an artist some time.”
With a straight face he asks, “Do you know anyone here?”
“Not really.” Meroe doesn’t try to disguise the evasion.
The curry is tasty and plentiful, if not very hot. Peter forces himself to eat slowly. Eyes downcast, he raises forkloads of rice to his mouth. Meroe has finished and lights a cigarette. We resemble an old couple, he thinks. No longer needing to talk and, not having much to say, thankful for it.
He sets aside his dish before asking, “How much money do you have, Meroe?” Using her name, he hopes, will impart a tone that is amiable and yet businesslike. He’s resolved to stay at Shela a few weeks, maybe a month.
“I’m not sure. Close to six thou, maybe. Enough for a good while if I don’t have any more fancy dinners.”
A good while? Peter does not press. In the tight confines of the shack, he frets that their conversation will be overheard even though no one else is there. We must get along, he tells himself. The money in his possession is too small for him to outlast her.
Meroe does not ask how much he has but she grows talkative about her poetry. She talks of Oregon, which is her home state and offers a few anecdotes to show how quirky her family is.
They walk through the town onto marshy salt flats. At their backs, far away, lies Shela, drowsy and fire lit. Peter listens intermittently. Meroe chooses a spot at the high tide mark where the sand turns powdery. All about them, silvery crabs broad as Peter’s palm boss smaller rivals away from morsels of food; if he or Meroe make any sharp moves, the crabs skitter, fleeing underground. Over the ocean hangs a pale, clear tranche of moon. Meroe has assumed the lotus posture, hands tucked in the fleshy folds of her knees. She is silent and Peter too shuts his eyes, allowing only feathery glints of moonlight to infiltrate his lashes.
He stirs to find her gone, once more without warning. It’s not yet late but both land and sea are subsiding. Even the crabs have ceased their scratching. Peter gathers his pack, brushing sand from his clothes. Is Meroe trying to drum home some lesson with her disappearances? Nervousness blurs the edges of his vision but Peter forces himself to take even, calm strides, to go at a normal pace.
He passes Lamu town, with its dying mutter of voices, and then he’s in Shela, the sea’s dirty foam licking his feet. Crossing an overshadowed spot at which jacarandas reach out over the surf, the touch of coarse fur on his arm startles him. The animal—a donkey—remains asleep, insensible. Peter scuffs his foot in irritation at a swatch of rags half sunken in the sand. A square object, darker than shadow, loops up, and tumbles a few meters away.
Peter goes to it and puts his hand on a cowhide billfold. Perusing wallets of the same sort in department stores, he’s often wondered why there’s no place for coins. Beneath the waterlogged leather flap, his fingers brush a wad of paper gummed together by sand and sea water. He steps beyond reach of the light and removes all of the contents. He thrusts the sheets of paper, which have the stiffness of banknotes, in his pocket and scrabbles in search of hidden compartments but there’s nothing more. His heart bucks in his chest as, full-armed, he hurls the wallet out toward deep water.
Inside the squat, beside Peter’s bed, is a half-full bottle of water. He drinks, tasting Meroe’s mouth on the plastic. He finds her on the roof, swaddled in a thin blanket, unmoving, already asleep on her pallet. There’s a prissiness Peter cannot fathom in her refusal to share the room downstairs with him. For a few minutes, he hesitates, looming over her sleeping form. Downstairs, he counts the money he brought from Tiwi. A little more than 4,000 shillings. He falls asleep staring at the ceiling.
His first thought in the morning is of the soggy banknotes in his shorts pocket. Perhaps Meroe has gone and he can spread them out upstairs to dry. But she comes in just now from the roof wearing fresh clothes. “I was just coming to wake you. I’m going but you can wait if you like. It’s Friday. At eleven pretty much everyone will be in the mosque.”
Peter’s yawn is ostentatious. “I’ll hang about here, I think. I want to do some sketching.” Buoyed by his good luck in the night, he’s willing to be generous. “Let’s meet for a swim about two?”
He takes the money to the roof and tries to prise the brick of notes apart but his fingernails make a small tear so he leaves them caked together, held in place beneath his sandal. After an hour of sketching half-made houses, he washes himself in sun-warmed water. The bills are turning paler, almost their right color, but still damp. The ink has run. Peter counts them out loud and it comes to more money than he expected. Twenty one thousand shillings in thousand notes; enough cash for many months in Lamu. He makes a second tally and puts the notes in his wallet.
He takes lunch at a beachside hotel and leaves dissatisfied at the bland, heavy food. Its not technically stealing, what he’s done, but browsing the stalls amid tourists, any of whom may be missing a vast sum, he feels twitchy and fretful.
“Sema, Kee wee.” One of the youths from Bahari lopes past, merely greeting a familiar face. Peter follows at a distance. Six beach boys are playing football on Shela beach in the fierce sun; the hard-packed sand barely shifts beneath their feet. Despite fierce concentration, the beach boys are as languid in motion as at Bahari. One team concedes a goal and the intensity dissipates in laughter and hand claps. Peter recognizes Zion. At the same moment three or four voices call to him. “Kee wee! Come and play.” He kicks his sandals up the sand and tucks his watch away inside his backpack but decides at the last moment not to take his wallet from his pocket. A youth with tawny hair with the consistency of gorse gestures that Peter should remove his shirt. Bare-chested, he is conscious of the paleness of his skin.
The opposing team reacts with caution to being a man down. Peter, as the extra player, resolves to force them into a mistake. More than once, he wins the ball but each time the opposition swarms its own goal mouth, waving away indignant cries in Kiswahili. The sun burns his eyes; its heat leaves an afterimage on his retinas. When his own team controls the ball, he retreats toward his goal. No one asks why he does not participate in attacks and he is content with his narrow role.
A new shout comes and he looks toward the shoreline. Meroe. He returns her wave and turns back but after a few minutes more, the game breaks up. Peter takes up his backpack and leaves his sandals—he doesn’t want to seem mistrustful—and goes to the water’s edge. He’s courteous to Meroe, and she to him, and then there is nothing to say.
He knows nothing of having dozed until a hand shakes him. “We going to Peponi’s for a beer. Tuende!” Peter sits up, swiping drool from the corner of his mouth. Meroe is lying on her back, not quite next to him, watching Zion from beneath the downturned palm of her hand.
“Sawa,” Peter says too brightly, and looks at Meroe, asking if she wants to join them.
Her smile is crooked. “Maybe later.” Peter gathers his belongings and, with Zion, speeds to catch the others. The beach boys are talking in Kiswahili, perhaps reliving moments of the game. A very tall boy offers Peter a rolled cigarette and he sucks on it and hands it to someone else.
Peponi is the name of the hotel he noticed the previous day. Under the noon sun, its white walls sear the eye. Peter enters the gate now with the sense of traversing a boundary. He checks his pocket for the money. Two women, tourists, in bathing suits, sit in the bar, their squat backs facing out. Zion drapes his body over the counter. The other beach boys fall into low chairs in the corner and sling their legs over the armrests in almost flawless sync. Zion is pointing. “You drinking beer, kee wee?” Peter nods. The dark-skinned barman, who doesn’t look like a Lamuan, banters with Zion as if they are agreeing prices. Zion hands Peter a beer and clinks the bottle necks one against the other. The beer is a cold shock against the teeth but Peter downs half of it in a gulp. The marijuana has begun working on him and he feels balloon-headed, warm, although his stomach nurses a delicious thrill from the beer. His limbs have turned to wood.
A tall, thin white man has come into the bar. Zion greets him, “Sema, Sven,” and their fists thump. Sven nods without smiling at Peter. His eyes are as sapped of color as his kikoi. The other beach boys offer Sven lazy chin raises when he looks toward them. Sven speaks to the barman in low, fast Kiswahili before going out onto the wooden deck. Another man and a young woman, also barefoot, are entering. The second man nods at Sven. He’s shirtless, muscled, with shoulder-length dreadlocks and a pretty face. The woman has a Latin complexion, Italian or maybe Spanish, and she’s wearing a long skirt ill-suited to traversing soft sand; she’s attractive, Peter thinks, in a showy way. The plump tourists in the bar spin about at last on their stools, alerted by the creak of wood, and curiosity takes hold of their features. Peter laughs to himself. Plainness confronted by beauty is unable to avert its eyes.
The dreadlocked man acknowledges Zion; knuckles bump once more. He’s in some way apart from the beach boys. Zion speaks English, perhaps for the benefit of the dark-eyed female companion, who hangs back with shyness or incuriosity. The man, Peter hears the name Towfik from Zion’s lips, glances at him with green, disconcerting eyes.
Peter accepts another beer and follows Zion and the newcomers out of doors. The sun is a livid bruise as the bar and restaurant fill with guests, almost all of whom are wearing white to set off their suntans. Towfik is looking at his feet and Zion begins to ask questions of the woman; her name is Francesca. As the level in her second glass of wine falls, she grows talkative. Zion is drawing her out. He flirts with man or woman, neither earnest nor entirely unserious. Towfik remains watchful, with a faint scowl sometimes about his eyes.
Meroe appears in front of Peter and he pulls over a chair for her. “Do you want a beer?” he asks and wonders why he’s being solicitous. Meroe turns to Towfik, and Peter misses what passes between them, but Francesca’s posture stiffens. Her interest in Zion’s questions falls swiftly away and he lowers his eyelashes until he seems to be drowsing, an attempt at coyness. All the while his fingers twist away at his hair. Francesca is straining to overhear what passes between Towfik and Meroe. Peter, tired, drunk, watches the others in the spreading darkness and says nothing. From the dining room comes the sleepy sound of conversation and the muffled clank of metal and porcelain.
Francesca stands sharply and then sways on her feet. She tries to conceal the lapse by turning to Towfik. “Can we go and eat now? I’m really very hungry.” The suddenness of this action startles all of them, as does her accent, which is oddly English. Towfik rises also, smoothly, and as if nothing’s wrong. He’s not much taller than Francesca. His hand goes about her waist, an action that seems proprietary rather than placatory. Meroe looks put out by the interruption and then the bill is quickly settled; it amounts to less than Peter has feared. The couple offers stiff goodbyes—Towfik refuses to meet Zion’s eye—and walk away, their hands not quite touching.
Zion directs Peter and Meroe to a place neither of them knows. There’s no sign to indicate it is a restaurant but the food is even better than the previous night’s meal. Meroe is talkative but evasive about meaningless things, as if to tease Zion. Zion tells them he is the fourth of seven children, many of which are abroad. As for himself, he boasts, he can never leave Lamu.
Indoors he flings himself onto the bed with no thought for cover or sheet. The beer and water fill his bladder and he wakes after a few hours to go to the toilet.
Peter’s belly is full and he’s beginning to fall asleep. He signals Meroe that he’s ready to settle up but she will not look at him. Beneath the table he counts out seven hundred shillings to cover his own and Zion’s food and secures the money beneath his glass. The blood drains from his head as he stands and through the white haze of unsteadiness he catches Meroe’s dismissive little smirk but he takes leave as if he’s seen nothing. In a few weeks, he will tell her, “I’m staying here. I’ve plenty of money,” and watch her face crumple with surprise and envy. In the maze of Shela, he loses his bearings and, sweating, doubles back more than once. Many minutes go by before he spies the familiar wall and stairs.
Indoors he flings himself onto the bed with no thought for cover or sheet. The beer and water fill his bladder and he wakes after a few hours to go to the toilet. It’s 2:15. The pallet upstairs is bare. Dully, he imagines Meroe, her bared back doughy, entwined on some isolated shore with Zion or an unfamiliar sailor, and the words from a nursery rhyme come to him: Jack Sprat could eat no fat… Perhaps this is Lamu’s appeal, he thinks with malice: poetry and sex with beach boys whenever Meroe feels like it.
He falls asleep and is woken by a sharp noise, a scratching. He checks his watch before venturing a look from the window. A form crouches beside the wall, moving raggedly, making no sound. He fetches the flashlight and aims its thin beam down into the garden. Peter hears a sob, like a brief laugh and he’s scarcely aware of being in motion, of leaving the house until he feels moist earth beneath his bare feet as he crouches to gather Meroe into his arms. She sags against him and takes hold of his waist like a child. Peter covers her lips with his palm. Her muddied hair scratches his chin as he tries to calm her. Her clothes are sodden and on them is the smell of fear, sea salt. He must bring her indoors; her slow weeping will rouse sleepers nearby. Through strength and murmurs of encouragement, he tugs and shunts Meroe upstairs and at last they lie side by side on the cool floor; Peter’s thighs ache from the earlier exertion of running on sand but he stands and retrieves the first aid kit from her backpack. He tries, and fails, to keep a grip on Meroe and at the same time clean her wounds. He positions the flashlight on the floor, its beam playing on her face, and sets to work. Meroe’s breath is beery and sour with panic. On her shoulders are nothing more than shallow cuts but her throat has been gashed by some blunt edge; the wound leaks a watery blood. Her knees are flayed and clots of blood mat her scalp. Peter too has begun shivering. Is there, he asks, any bleeding under her shirt. Meroe can only make a mewling noise.
Peter snags her into his arms again and rocks back and forth. Her wounds have been hastily tended to, and by and by, her head falls into his lap. He’s startled and pleased to hear her release a low snore. Hugging her to him, he’s unable to sleep and he passes the night shuddering with a chill that has nothing to do with the climate.
He opens his eyes to find Meroe brushing at his chest. “I can’t stay, Peter,” she says. He’s struck by the smooth calm of her face and forgets discretion for an instant. He blurts, “What happened?”
Someone tried to rape me, she confesses, but it was not Zion. Zion departed when it became obvious Meroe wasn’t interested, and left her alone with Towfik. Towfik demanded more than kisses and did not expect to meet resistance. Meroe spoke softly, explaining and then pleading with him, but he began to torment and bully her, slapping at her face and arms, tugging at her clothes. He dragged Meroe into the sea and pinned her over a sharp rock.
Meroe cannot say how much time passed before she was allowed to come to her feet, to flee. Stumbling away, begging still, she could not shake the feeling someone else, perhaps others, were nearby, watching. Peter tries to hug her again but she refuses; her eyes are dry, anguish mastered for the moment. He experiences a sudden regret over his suspicion that Meroe behaves in a wanton fashion on Lamu.
He stands at the island’s main jetty with Meroe, negotiating with a plump sailor. It’s not yet 7 a.m. Meroe worries at a loose brick with the toe of her sandal, the hood of her sweatshirt conceals her hair. Only when she looks at Peter does any expression enter her eyes.
He reaches in his pocket when the sailor goes into the water, counts out seven thousand shillings and slips the notes to her. “Don’t lose it. This should get you back to Nairobi. Take a train from Mombasa.” He exhales in a rush. What she will do there cannot be his concern. “I’m staying. Send me an email when you arrive.” Meroe leans her weight against him; her arms circle his neck. An onlooker, Peter thinks, would not doubt we are lovers taking leave before a long parting.
Meroe climbs into the dhow but does not remove her rucksack. The boat circles to face Manda. Shame or self-pity or something else entirely causes her to avoid his eyes. Dutiful, he stands watching for many minutes before he starts back, his hand clasped in his pocket. Remaining on Lamu seems a selfish yet apt choice; his staying implies the possibility for a revenge he knows will never come to pass. He’s incapable of any act of vengeance. Yet, the implication may offer Meroe small comfort. Turning once, Peter waves just in case she’s looking back to shore.
Olufemi Terry has published fiction, poetry, and nonfiction in several publications, among them Chimurenga and the Africa Report. His short story “Stickfighting Days” won the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing. He lives in Southwest Germany and is at work on a novel.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy: I loved The Road but Blood Meridian must be McCarthy’s greatest work. McCarthy says he’s not a fan of authors who do not deal with issues of life and death, and apocalypse suffuses much of his writing. In Blood Meridian the reader’s sense of holocaust is ratcheted up by the quasi-biblical language he deploys. I read the book straight through twice and I’ve never encountered a character quite so transgressive as Judge Holden. I wish I’d created him.
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee: A bomb of a book. Disgrace is probably the most frequently alluded-to novel in South Africa even today, and the distaste it evokes is evidence of its power. J.M. Coetzee’s pared-down writing, David Lurie’s amorality, and the bleak vision of that country’s future are wholly persuasive.
Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque: Arch of Triumph, while less well known than All Quiet on the Western Front, struck a chord with me when I read it in the nineteen nineties because of parallels between the protagonist Ravic’s life and my own. It’s a love story (though that cliche doesn’t do the book justice) set in jaded, elegant pre-war Paris, and yet a love story with an ending that’s neither pat nor happy.