How you treat others...

Saturday August 11 2018

Counting money

I shut the door, drew the curtains, and counted the money with precision. It came to one hundred and seventy-five thousand shillings. I sat on the bed, my heart brimming with joy. Who would have thought that the tiny pink bag held such treasure. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG 

By PATRICIA ODINDO
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“There are no vacancies,” the secretary spoke in a monotone as soon as I entered the office carrying a brown envelope. I started to say something, but her frosty stare, shut my mouth.

“Shut the door after you,” she added, unceremoniously ushering me out of the office.

This was a rude end to the first half of my day. I had spent the morning dropping off copies of my CV in offices in town and was tired. It was now lunch hour, and office workers swarmed Kimathi Street. The sight of them elicited envy in me; men in impeccable suits, and ladies in heels, weaves and bright lipstick.

Would I ever get to enjoy a life such as these people had?

It had been three years since my graduation from a local university. The degree I received was truly hard-earned. We learned via pamphlets issued by part-time lecturers at the beginning of every semester.

The internet came in handy - never mind that we had to use our phones. And then, three brutal years of job hunting and surviving on dregs followed the graduation. When would this search end? I asked as I walked to the bus stage.

As I stood waiting for the bus home, a man detached himself from the milling crowd. He came and planted himself before me. There were beads of sweat on his forehead, and food stains on his t-shirt.

“God bless you, my brother,” he started, his voice low, tremulous. He had conman written all over him. However, my grandfather Lemuel always said to treat everyone with respect.

“Amen,” I replied.

Encouraged, he smiled.

“God wants to bless you, brother.”

“What do you want?” I asked him.

“Something to eat; I am sick, I am hungry, please.”

He moved closer and I detected the unmistakeable whiff of alcohol on his breath.

His pleas and stubborn refusal to leave got to me. I retrieved my wallet from my coat pocket, and rummaged for a coin. A crumpled fifty-shilling note fell to the pavement. We both bent down to pick it up simultaneously but he was faster. He snatched up the note and melted into the crowds, hurling words of gratitude over his shoulders.

The bus was not long in coming. I got in and took the nearest seat I could get.

I was tired to the bone. Next to me sat a muscular man with bulging biceps, and a torso the size of a small country. He cradled a tiny pink backpack, in his massive hands, one of these cute, little girl bags that have Barbie’s pictures on them.

I felt the laughter bubbling within me at such an incongruous sight: A big strong man carrying such a tiny feminine accessory. He looked at me, and the sadness in his eyes silenced my laughter.

Halfway down Jogoo Road, his phone rang. He answered it, launching into an animated conversation, placing the bag between him and the backrest. After some time, he stood up and alighted from the bus, leaving the little pink bag behind.

“Excuse me, your bag!” I shouted after him but he didn’t hear me. He strode purposefully towards the Buru Buru Institute of Fine Arts.

I prodded the bag gingerly. It looked harmless enough; probably had some crayons and a picture book or two. I picked it up. It was as weightless as a small girl. When we reached Buru Buru shopping centre, I alighted with the bag, promising myself that I would drop it at Buru Buru Institute of Fine Arts the following day.

“Young man, these days you leave early and come back late. Are you avoiding me?” My landlady accosted me outside my bedsitter.

“No ma’ am; I mean, yes ma’am.”

She gave me a hard look.

“Make sure you see me today, eh?”

My heart sank. “Yes ma’am.”

I entered the house and placed the small bag on the floor, then promptly forgot about it. I only noticed it in the morning while I was looking for shoes under the bed. I unzipped it with impatience, expecting nothing much. Inside was a large brown envelope containing money.

They were in different denominations. Some crisp and smelling fresh. Others, old, dirty and held together with cellotape. There were many 20- and 10-shilling coins. I stared at the money, in disbelief. I laughed quietly at my good fortune.

I shut the door, drew the curtains, and counted the money with precision. It came to one hundred and seventy-five thousand shillings. I sat on the bed, my heart brimming with joy. Who would have thought that the tiny pink bag held such treasure. This was my luckiest break so far since college: Money just when I needed it.

I shook the envelope thoroughly, in case there was more. A document dropped out. It was a form used to solicit medical funds from strangers. In this case, a child had a hole in her heart. Her passport photo was pinned to the document.

An oval face framed with black curly braids, that fell to the collar of her lacy white dress. Her gaze was steady and frank. Her lips were pressed against each other with the primness of a little school ma’am, almost as if she did not think much of what I was about to do.

“Be careful how you treat others, it always comes back to you, one way or the other,” my late grandfather Lemuel’s quavering voice echoed in my mind. I told grandpa to shut up and mind his own business.

I would be the greatest fool that ever walked this earth, to return that money. Grandfather Lemuel had been old fashioned, and his silly maxim was outdated. This was my money.

Grandfather Lemuel however, stuck to his guns. His voice played in my mind like a broken record.

This is my money grandpa, finders keepers, period. What about the little girl, don’t you care that she has a hole in her heart? Too bad for the little girl, life was not fair. It wasn’t fair to lose dad at the age of five. I still have the pictures we took at his funeral.

There is a wide grin plastered on my face, and four upper, baby teeth are missing. We wore matching blue and white kitenge outfits. The only thing I remember is the Sprite I drank that day.

Grandfather Lemuel hounded me night and day. Him and the little girl’s disapproving stare.

***

“Thank you, I have been all over soliciting for funds for my daughter. You have no idea how much this means to us as a family,” Kassim gripped my hand tightly in one of his massive ones and covered it with the other. “We owe you.”

“I hope your daughter gets better,” was all I could say in response.

He nodded, was silent for a while, then said: “You know, in these harsh economic times, most people would have spent the money without a second thought. What can I do for you, anything to show my appreciation.”

“Well… I am a trained accountant hunting for a job.”

I wondered silently how a personal trainer would be of help to an accountant.

“Some of my clients are well connected. Drop your CV at my gym tomorrow, I will send feelers out.”

A week later, as I was settling in my new job, a familiar voice echoed in my mind: “Be careful how you treat others…”

I rolled my eyes.

“Yes, grandpa; yes grandpa, it always comes back.”