"Can you swim?” the boatman asked.
“No,” I replied, curiously.
“What about your wife? Does she know how to swim?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“Because if you don’t hand over an extra $100, we will throw you overboard,” he threatened.
At this, the boatman who seemed well advanced in years, switched off the engine and languidly smiled at his young assistant. An eerie feeling came over me. I pulled my wife close lest she considered taking her chances with the sharks over the two strangers on the boat.
It had been a difficult year for us. I recalled the time when she called me at the office, all excited and incoherent. I tried to calm her down. She said, “I am pregnant.”
I did not hear anything else she said after that. I jumped from my chair, danced around the conference room, and just fell short of standing on the table.
After years of trying to have a baby, the Good Lord had at last answered our prayers.
The journey to delivery began in earnest; monthly visits to the gynaecologist, taking food supplements, home improvement, and of course, telling all who would listen that we were pregnant!
It was a beautiful time anticipating a child; watching my wife’s belly grow and praying that the one inside was doing the same; being at my wife’s beck and call... whatever she wanted I delivered, no matter the inconvenience.
All went well, and then came labour. I had read all about it, the different stages and the right time to check into hospital. However, all that was forgotten as I watched my wife in pain. She was calmer than I was, and constantly assured me that she was fine. Then another wave of contractions hit her and for a few seconds her agony was palpable.
I held her hand until the wave passed. I called the office informing my boss that I would not be coming in the following day.
I looked at my wife; thin beads of sweat streamed down her face, she breathed as she had been taught in the Lamaze classes; her left hand supported her back and her eyes rolled backwards as if she was about to faint.
I drove as fast as I could to the hospital. At the casualty wing, I left the engine running, the door open and the key still in the ignition as I rushed her to the labour ward. A kind stranger parked the car and brought me the key.
I insisted on accompanying my wife, but the nurses and midwife would have none of it. So, I stayed in the waiting area. Alone, hungry and anxious, my nails received a most unwelcome manicure.
It was the longest wait of my life. A nurse kept coming out to inform me of the progress thus far.
“8cm, it won’t be long now.”
And then there was a long while before any other updates. At last, the midwife came out. I rose quickly to my feet. By the look on her face, all was not well.
“It was a stillbirth,” she said solemnly.
I rushed to my wife’s side. She was inconsolable.
Several months had passed since then. We could not bring ourselves to alter the home improvements. My wife frequented church more than usual, and I drowned myself in work.
I ignored personal phone calls knowing they invariably ended in that hollow encouragement, “We will pray for you.”
The fire that once burned in our bedroom no longer did. All that was left were ashes and memories of happier times.
Perhaps it was these memories that held our marriage together. Perhaps it was my wife’s prayers. Either way, separation or divorce was never mentioned. Life became drudgery; we plodded through the despondency.
Our best couple came to our rescue. They suggested we go on holiday and offered to foot the expenses. Lamu was the destination, and it was here, in the middle of the ocean, that the question of whether my wife and I could swim had been posed.
The boatman continued to smile at his assistant. The smile turned into a grin, a chuckle and finally burst into loud laughter. His assistant chuckled gently and explained the peculiar behaviour.
“Forgive my boss. We had an accident a few years ago, lost all four clients on board that day because they couldn’t swim. Since then, he always asks his clients if they can swim. For those who don’t know how, he offers to give them a few free lessons. It just may save their lives one day.”
The boatman grunted. A glint of pain in his eyes confirmed this to be true. He turned the boat engine on and we continued our trip. As the boat rocked to and fro, my wife felt nauseous. She leaned overboard and vomited into the water below.
The old man smiled, winked at me and said, “Looks like the New Year brings you glad tidings.”
Our hearts were warmed at his remark. We knew we were on our way to healing, and it would begin in Lamu.