It was that masculine scent, you know, the one that is evenly split between a fresh shower and a light workout; the one that tempts you to move in for a warm hug, that drew Dora to Oscar.
Oscar, oh Oscar. All masculine. Muscle where you want it; handy around the house. Great sense of humour.
“I loved him way before I knew it,” Dora started. “We would take those romantic walks late into the night. We’d sit at Uhuru Park for hours on the weekends and always have lunch together,” she continues with a faraway look.
In the seven years I had been coming to Dora’s salon, I had learnt to be patient whenever she launched into a personal tale. These often happened in my favourite cubicle at the not-so-spacious salon, which could sit 15 clients at a go: five in cubicles and 10 in the open.
These personal tales were few and far between. I remember tales about her strict mother, her athletic sister, her restless brother, her happy-go-lucky sister and her talkative daughter.
Today, however, I am in a hurry. I am joining my friends for a hike tomorrow but I haven’t packed. But today, for the first time, she is talking about her husband, Oscar. A rarity in our interactions.
I want to distract Dora, bring her back to my head, literally, and tell that I need to get my hair done because it is getting late. Courage fails me. She seems lost in her world.
“Last night was the proverbial last straw that broke this marriage’s back. I want so much to leave but I am scared of what may happen to my children and my business,” Dora continues while absentmindedly turning and twisting the lock of hair on my head.
I have heard such tales before; tales of wives staying in bad marriages “for the sake of my children.” But not from Dora.
At Persia, a club two estates away from his home, Oscar sits down to a meal with Phanice, who has ordered chicken wings and fries. When the food arrives, Oscar eats with such zeal that Phanice is tempted to ask the last time he had a meal.
He had proposed a meeting somewhere close to his house because he had work to do, he said. He would have been happy meeting at his house, but after their first meeting, Phanice was not sure she wanted that, she needed him to be uncomfortable, wanted him to have his guard on and as such let her see the other side of him.
He wants to talk about his wife and orders a drink after the meal, Phanice’s glass is still untouched.
“You know what keeps a man going, especially one who is interested in a woman? The hope that that woman will notice him...In my head I called her “Mukiri” (the silent one). I love naming the people I meet, it creates a connection between me and them albeit a small one,”
Oscar begins with a smile.
Phanice wants to tell him that she understands that need for a connection, that she also names the people she like, coins a name to make them special but then this was his story not hers.
“I think she is the best thing that has ever happened to me...she scores an A in everything she does. Her salon. The house. He children. That woman smiles like an angel, complete with her eyes...I am scared I might hurt her, scared that the devil might use her to make me mad again...The issue is my anger...I think it is my worst vice.”
Oscar sips his drink, looks at the sticker on the bottle, then tells Phanice how he loves the bittersweet taste it leaves in his mouth.
“Like a bad relationship,” Phanice quips and they both smile knowingly.
“The last time I left he came here and caused mayhem, beating up my workers, breaking things and generally trashing the whole place. I am still paying for that. I am scared of him, he roars like an enraged bear when intoxicated.”
She paused to pick a comb from the miniature basket to the left of the mirror before us. Comb in hand, she untangled part of my unbraided hair. Parted the hair, applied some oil and continued braiding.
She also picked up the thread of her monologue. She spoke as if I were not there.
“I am behind on everything in this life. I moved into a cheaper house to run away from him but in vain. I cannot leave this location. This salon. I have worked tirelessly to get this far, he has no right to do this to me.”
She stops to wipe more tears, stares into nothingness, then continues braiding my hair.
“I had been his wife for three years when he started these drinking escapades. He would be gone for days. Like clockwork, he would disappear to God knows where soon as he got paid. He even lost his job and took up smoking, more drinking and job-seeking.”
Dora stops. She grabs at my hair and pulls harder than is necessary but I am too engrossed to even wince. She releases it as fast as she grabbed it and even pats it.
“He is a professional jobseeker now. Who would employ a man who does not come to work three days in a row after payday? Drinking and smoking is now his full-time employment, you cannot even leave money in the house. If he finds it, he drinks it all, like he once did with the rent.”
She lowers her voice, which is now heavy with emotion and in a whisper continues.
“His family never warned me of this. The first time he disappeared and I rushed to inform his parents, his father told me that he always does that! I was not sure I had heard him right. All along I had blamed myself for his excessive drinking, trying constantly to be better. Little did I know that my three years with him had been a façade.”
More drying of tears; luckily my hair is almost done now, but I do not want to leave yet. She needs a friend. I will be that friend. Everyone else has left. In fact, I am the last client.
“What do you plan to do?” I ask her.
She picks up the makeup kit...
“I, too, want to go into a bar tonight; I want to show him that I can also drink but I choose not to because important things take preference. I have a family to take care of now; he should do so too.. But he won’t do it when in my house. In fact, tonight he is leaving...who needs a Mjengo Man who is no longer into building? My house is no longer in good shape.”
That faraway look...I want to hold her hand and tell her to go home. All will be okay. But I break down instead and together we collapse into tears.
“You know at times I wish I started this relationship on better terms. I have so much to wish for, the biggest issue is I still don’t know how to make things right. I...” Oscar stopped in mid-sentence and went pale.
What now? Phanice muttered to herself.
She turned to see two women walk towards them.
She recognised Oscar’s wife, Dora, before a dull object hit her squarely on the head.
Then darkness descended upon Phanice with a calmness she never felt before.