The noisy overloaded matatu pulled up at the side of the road to pick up a large lady in a red flowery dress. There were two big suitcases, a mattress and a small chicken cage by her side. Thomas took this chance to squeeze through the minibus and stepped off. The matatu with the new passenger and luggage duly loaded roared off in a cloud of smoke and dust. Thomas straightened his crumpled suit cursing softly. He realised that he had left his unread copy of the Nation with a fellow passenger. There was a small parade of shops just across the road. He needed some cold water after that dusty ride. From here one could see the four-storey building that housed the offices of Mali & Fumi accountants where he worked.
He stepped into a little shop which was surprisingly bright and airy. There were hardly any customers in the store. The cold beers at the refrigerated section looked particularly tempting but it was nine o’clock on a Monday morning. He picked up a large frosty bottle of water, found the newspapers and went up to the checkout. The young lady at the desk was looking at some paperwork. She put it down and turned to him and smiled. She said, ‘Hi, nice day today, isn’t it?’ Thomas nodded, smiling. She scanned his purchases quickly and put them in a bag. Thomas paid and took his change. He wished the lady a good day and walked out into the street.
Thomas worked through the day, not even stopping for lunch. With clients to see, phone-calls to make and heavy files to look at this took all day. He enjoyed all these aspects of his work. He considered himself very fortunate to be doing something that he truly loved. He knew he could easily be digging in some mine deep in the ground. He had been acting in a temporary position ever since the senior partner, Abdul Fumi had gone off on sick leave.
At three-thirty, Mandy his secretary, came in with some letters for signing. She reminded him that he was using public transport and should start making a move if he wanted to avoid the evening crush – hour. Thomas picked up the phone and called Shira, the mechanic. The call was answered after a long while by a lady. It sounded as though she was at the horse races.. After a while Shira came to the phone. He apologised to Thomas and explained that he had come to see a customer whose car had broken down at Ngong. He assured Thomas that his car would be ready by the weekend. Another four days on the unpleasant matatus, thought Thomas.
At four o’clock Thomas pushed open the door to the little shop. He went to the cold section and picked up four beers. He knew he could easily have bought these closer to home. He glanced at the checkouts. There were three staff members working quickly to deal with the evening shoppers. There was a small office at the front of the shop. As Thomas waited in his queue the office door opened and lady from the morning emerged carrying a till tray. She opened a new checkout and Thomas moved quickly and was the second in her queue. She smiled at him as she scanned the bottles. ‘So have you just finished work?’ she asked him.
‘Yes. I am off home now. What time do you finish?’ Asked Thomas. He was aware of the people behind him in the queue and felt slightly embarrassed.
‘We close at nine o’clock. Here’s your change and see you again soon.’ She replied flashing Thomas her enigmatic smile once again. Thomas felt a warm glow in his heart as he left the shop.
Thomas’s wife opened the front door and relieved him of his shopping bag. As Thomas removed his shoes at the door she said, ‘That drunkard of a mechanic just called. Says you can pick up the car tomorrow afternoon.’
‘Oh but that is excellent news! Shira is a good man. Those matatus are a nightmare, bless them. Each journey to work is a struggle. Sometimes you meet the most amazing people, though.’ Thomas said.
Thomas was in a good mood when they later sat down to supper with his wife. The chef had prepared a lovely dish of Oxtail soup served with a soft, warm ugali and fresh leaf salad. They had fruit and ice-cream for dessert. After coffee they went into the living room and watched the evening news. An hour later Thomas watched as his beautiful wife sat at the dressing table applying moisturiser to her face and hands before she joined him in bed. He took her hands in his and said, ‘ I am truly a lucky man. His wife smiled and took a book from under her pillow.
Next morning Thomas stepped off the Matatu and crossed the road. He entered the shop and picked up a newspaper, an A4 writing pad, a bottle of water and a small jar of proper coffee. The stuff they served in the office tasted most unpleasant. The lady was alone at the checkouts looking at some paperwork. ‘Hello again, old friend’, she said, smiling in her unique way.
‘Hello, I bet you call everyone old friend.’ said Thomas as he placed his purchases on the band. ‘So what time do you open the store?’
“Seven o’clock, every morning sir.’ She said sweetly. ‘Do you work nearby?’
Thomas and the lady chatted for a while in the quiet shop but after about fifteen minutes or so morning shoppers started streaming in. Thomas took his leave and walked to the office with a spring in his step.
Thomas had been working in the office for about an hour when Mandy walked in followed by the lady from the shop. Thomas had not even noticed that he had left his shopping behind. He offered the lady a cup of decent coffee and she accepted. They had two coffees and all the time chatting about this and that. She took her leave and went back to the shop.
At two-thirty pm Mandy called the mechanic to confirm that the car was ready. They assured her that it was all ready for collection. When Thomas got to the garage he found that Shira had been true to his word. The car was purring beautifully and the mechanic had got his boys to give the car a complete valeting. He paid Shira and left a generous tip for the boys and went home. Supper that night was a delicate grilled Tilapia served on a bed of Coconut Rice the chef had made a steamed pudding with home-made custard. The evening went well and as Thomas and his wife retired to the bedroom. They talked of their forthcoming weekend trip to the upcountry farm
‘Daddy would like us to leave very early Friday morning. It is a six-hour drive, as you know.’ His wife said. ‘I am sure we will have a great time.’
Thomas was also looking forward to the trip. His father-in-law was a good man. He was the founder of Mali & Fumi accountants and had the most amazing analytical mind that Thomas had come across. Thomas expected to spend time discussing interesting accountancy ideas with this man whom he greatly admired and he said so to his wife.
Next morning Thomas drove himself to work. He stopped by the shop and picked up a newspaper and a bottle of water. The lady was not at the counter today. He asked the man who served him about this is a casual way but the man had no idea where the lady was. Perhaps it was her day off, he ventured. Thomas went on to the office. He noticed that Wendy had looked at his bottle of water with some interest. He got into his work but after going at it for an hour or so he realised that he was not making any progress. He called Mandy and explained that he was popping out for an hour.
At the shop there was no sign of the lady. The checkout girl who served him asked if he knew her name. He said he did not. She was genuinely apologetic that she could not help him. He learned that there were eleven girls who worked at the tills doing different shifts throughout the week. Thomas could not bear going back to work so he went home. He resolved to come back first thing in the morning. At home and idea came to his head. As the lady had come out of the office to open a new checkout he had noticed a huge poster on the office wall. There were photos of all the staff and management. He would ask about it tomorrow. That evening he could not eat. The beer tasted foul and the whiskey smelled like medicine. When his wife asked what the matter was he said they were fast approaching a deadline set by the Revenue Authority and it placed everyone under tremendous stress.
Morning could not come soon enough for Thomas. He showered and shaved and then sowed the seeds of a fresh domestic scandal by making his own tea. He drove to the shop getting there half an hour before opening time. As he sat in the car, waiting and watching he paused to consider his ridiculous situation. Here he was, married and successful. What business did he have stalking a a shop staff member who he had only met a couple of days before. This was utter madness. He started the car and drove down to the office. He worked right through until five.
It was Friday morning. Thomas picked up his paper at the stand and got a bottle of water from the cold section. There was no sign of the lady at the till. As he was collecting his change the young man who had served him previously emerged from the office. ‘The manager asked me to give you this.’ He said handing Thomas a white envelope.
‘Thanks’. Thomas said, pocketing the envelope. He went straight to his office and shut the door. The envelope contained a single sheet of paper.
‘Dear Mr Mwoga,
I hope that all is well with you. As you read this I am no longer in Nairobi. I hoped to see you on Thursday but when you did not come into the shop I assumed that you were away. You had mentioned something about travelling upcountry with your family. I was working as a temporary relief manager at the store near your office. It took them a long time to find a suitable person but a new manager is now in place and I have come home to Taveta to be with my grand mother who is not very well. It was nice meeting you and I hope that someday I may repay your kind compliment of a decent cup of coffee. Stay well.
Your ‘old friend’