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Parselelo  Kantai
Parselelo Kantai

Parselelo Kantai is a Kenyan writer and investigative journalist. An alumnus of Birkbeck’s MACW, he has twice been nominated for the Caine Prize for African Writing and his fiction has been published in numerous anthologies. He is currently the East African editor for the Africa Report and also writes for the FT. The Cock Thief was first published in MIR4. An expanded version was turned into a novella and has recently been published by Kwani Trust Ltd, a Kenyan literary journal.
Cock Thief
The Cock Thief

Parselelo Kantai

John Naiguran woke up suddenly and blinked, adjusting to the dimness inside the bus. There were people around him, strangers, fellow travellers. And the hand on his shoulder had been shaking him for some time.

          ‘Alfred, Alfred, amka. Wake up.’

          It was the student – Janet? – on her way to university in Kampala, she had said. They were on the night bus from Nairobi. She had boarded the bus in Limuru, half an hour into the journey. He had told her he was Alfred, a money-changer on his way to Busia at the border.

          He felt for the bag beneath the chair. It was still there, still heavy. He sank into his seat and sighed.

          ‘Did you know you sleep with your eyes open? You were looking at me as if I stole your grade cow.’

          This girl whose name eluded him. She was skinny and small and probably more than a little high on the miraa bulging in her cheek. She looked very different from her voice, a rough, rousing roar of four in the morning in those dark little hovels by the roadside, the ones run by fat round women called Rhoda and Francisca who serve cheap lethal brews to broken men in oversized jackets. Now she spat suddenly into a polythene bag magically extracted from somewhere in the complicated folds of her clothes. And then she was unwrapping half of a Big G, chewing it, making rude, rhythmic clicks. She seemed to appreciate the sound more than the flavour. She stared at him the whole time, her large liquid eyes shining out of the khanga that covered her head and framed her face; the rest of it disappeared inside a fur-lined jacket, unzipped half-way down to reveal a T-shirt tucked tight into a pair of worn jeans. Limuru, he knew, got very cold. He wondered what she would do with her jacket in the heat of Kampala. But it was the boots with their steel-tipped points that convinced him this was a malaya, going west to seek new flesh markets. There was no money in Kenya. Everybody was leaving, and lying about it.

          ‘And you also talk. You’re a sleep-talker.’

          ‘No, no, no.’ His left arm was dead. He shook it vigorously, felt the blood returning.

          She tried to read the chewing-gum wrapper in the moonlight, holding it up in her tiny hands.

          ‘Ingredients,’ she said, reading. She made it sound like a word in her mother tongue. ‘Sugar, preysurfatifs, fravareng.

          ‘You talktalktalktalk,’ she said, the effects of miraa tripping up her words. Then she turned to him as if she had just remembered something. ‘There is an old man who is disturbing your head.’

          Lights appeared in the large windscreen up front; illuminated the driver, a large battling figure hunched over the steering-wheel; whished past. They were going uphill but Naiguran couldn’t be sure where they were. The driver tried to engage a low gear. The engine protested, seized up, a winded child’s soundless, frantic gulps for air. The sleeping passengers seemed to rise, and for a moment were suspended above their seats, dancing shadows. He remembered once seeing a music video, Michael Jackson, where the dead were resurrected in mist and smoke. Roused from their long sleep, they now walked the earth in silent, terrifying formations. The gears crunched in and the passengers trembled like eggs in a tray. And from deep in the belly of the bus a wail, low and desolate and full of dying machinery, began to organize itself. Then the beast sprang forward and the passengers fell back. Corporal Naiguran held onto the seat in front of him and the bus settled down to a groaning, sedate pace. He used the sleeve of his dead arm to wipe the window. It was misted with sleep-breath. He wanted to open it, but feared the cold. He turned away from the girl and peered into the darkness.

          There was nothing to see outside – a vast emptiness falling away as they climbed up the shoulder of the Rift Valley. But as they came to the crest of the hill, he saw the silhouette of the Mau escarpment on the horizon, like the wall of a giant stadium, the moon a solitary floodlight. He calculated that they were past Kikopey and about half an hour from Nakuru where the bus usually stopped – at the petrol station rumoured to belong to the old man – and people grabbed something to eat at the all-night restaurant.

          This empty stadium. He remembered the first time he came here, with his father and their animals, when he was an uncircumcised boy, a layioni, dressed in nothing but a red shuka. He remembered the sound of cow-bells in the dust. It was during the 1979 drought and the salt and minerals in the soil more than the grass sustained the few animals that survived. His father, tall and straight and pointing with his stick at where they had come from, how in the old days their animals had filled this valley. These were good pasturelands, but Naiguran knew that these days the land was being turned into little plots of maize. There was no room any more for men like his father, roaming with their sons and their cattle. His family had never returned here, had moved up into the Mau. He was seized by the despair of lost things.

          He thought about the old man. It seemed incredible to Naiguran that it was just this morning that he had driven him to the airport. He pressed his foot down on an imaginary brake as the bus lurched over a pothole, remembered the power of the long Mercedes, the deep vibration of the steering-wheel in his hands. The old man, on his way to Khartoum for the presidents’ summit, never once looked up from behind the newspaper, trusted him. He had personally recruited Naiguran when he first heard his name. The Maasai, he had said, were loyal. The old man, even now when things had become difficult, was still respected as a peacemaker. Corporal Naiguran could see him in the rear-view mirror of the Mercedes, could see the top of the balding head, the grey hair at the sides, a semi-circle of matted cottonwool.

          It suddenly struck Naiguran that he had become so accustomed to that image in the rear-view mirror he could not remember the exact moment when the hair began to thin out and grey. But he knew it had been some time during the ’92 election campaign, when everybody feared the old man would lose. At the airport, as he got out of the car, he had spoken directly to Naiguran, his voice grating more and more these days, as if his soul was being dragged through a cement-mixer. But he was in a good mood, and had joked: ‘Naiguran, chunga nchi mpaka nirudi, eh? Take care of the country until I return.’ Naiguran had laughed and nodded. But he had looked down, could not take the intensity of the old man’s gaze, those red eyes, burning, that reached to your very core.

          He knew now that he would not be seeing the old man again, not after this. If he did, if he met the old man face to face again, he would probably be just about to die, badly, with his stink all around him, begging for mercy in words and ways he could not conceive. Words would be dictated to him by fear and they would be useless words, the words that accompanied you to the other side. The old man’s rage would be worse than the fear itself.

          ‘Alfie, why were you crying?’ The girl wanted to talk. She was sitting very close to him, beginning to assume intimacies. He could smell her sweat, and there was something exciting about it. Her long thin braids swung free from her headscarf and brushed against his neck as she leaned into him. He was aroused and shifted in his seat, saying nothing.

          ‘Uko sawa? Are you all right?’ she was asking. She was not his type at all. He faced her and glanced down at her breasts, banana-shaped and rising low in her T-shirt. He realized she was not wearing a bra; her nipples stretched the thin material. She noticed him looking, and slowly zipped up her jacket, her eyes never leaving him. He looked away, angry with himself. There was still nothing to see outside. The window had clouded over again. He found himself comparing the girl – Janey? Njambi? – to Selina, her roundness, yellow face, bouncing breasts, revolving buttocks, things you could hold onto when it mattered. But as he imagined her – his thoughts a kaleidoscope of twisting, thrashing bodies, Selina’s legs tight around his waist, her jerks and yelps – the image that flashed before him was of this girl, naked, her eyes widening in surprise as he pierced her, his thing a wet piston clicking in and out like her chewing gum.

          His erection bulged against his trousers. It was becoming a problem. He reached for the bag. It was heavy but he put it on his lap.

          ‘What do you have in that bag?’ she asked.

          He stared at her, silent, unable to hide his dislike for her.

          She continued as if he had spoken. ‘You kept saying: “Jogoo! Jogoo!¸ in your sleep.’ Then she leaned towards him again and said, in English, ‘Cock! Cock! Do you have a cock in that bag?’ She laughed, a silent, wheezy sound like a car on low battery being cranked.

          ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘A very big one. It’s made of gold.’

          ‘Naweza kuishika? Can I touch it?’ she said suggestively, and he realized she was very high.

          She reached across and began to trace her hand along the bag. He grabbed her thin wrist and squeezed. She moaned theatrically, her eyes wide as if this was all a big joke. ‘He! Ni kubwa! It’s huge!’ she said.

          ‘It belongs to the President,’ he replied without smiling. She thought this was very funny.

          She was still shaking with laughter as the bus slowed down, pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. The cooked smell of the tyres came through unseen cracks and openings. Smoke rose from the beast’s underbelly, betraying its agony; dust particles swam in the headlights. And there were other lights doing a firefly dance in the windscreen. Naiguran peered through the interior gloom. He saw figures in luminous green waving torches – the dancing firefly lights. Behind them the yellow metal spikes and ‘Stop: Accident Ahead’ sign of a roadblock. The police.

          The police usually waved buses on, unless there was a problem – a highway robbery or a radio alert for escaped convicts or suspected thugs. Or a man who had stolen the President’s golden cock.

          The door was pulled open and a policeman clambered in, talking loudly and urgently into his radio.

Since the old man was flying back from Khartoum the next morning, one of them, probably Kipkorir, the security boss, would have sent for him.

          ‘Where is Corporal Naiguran?’

          When he failed to respond to the radio call, somebody – probably Ndambuki, because everybody knew how close he and Ndambuki were – would have been sent to his room at the base. Ndambuki would have found it padlocked from the outside. And he must have stood there staring at that lock and sensing absence – the way you walk into an empty house and feel its uninhabited silences. It would have hit him then – that Naiguran had gone ahead with the plan without him. Enraged, vindictive, he would have broken the lock, marched into the one-roomed house, knocked things around. Then he would have radioed Kipkorir back that afande, sir, both his gun and his radio are missing, sir. Also, afande, sir, most of his clothes and other valuables are missing (a lie, but nobody would bother to double-check until he was broken and pulpy on the floor at Nyati House, being ordered to confess). Afande, it appears that Corporal Naiguran has gone Absent Without Leave.

          It would not take them long to discover that the golden Jogoo, the presidential cock and enduring symbol of the ruling party, was missing from the old man’s bedroom. It would not take them long to put two and two together, to curse – Ndambuki especially – Corporal Naiguran, the quiet one, for having had the balls to go ahead with their collective bar-room fantasy. Can you imagine how much it would fetch when you melted it down? That was Ndambuki, one night months ago in a corner of the mess, drunk and avaricious as the rest of them. In other words, when they came after him, it would be with a large degree of professional jealousy.

          What Naiguran had had on his side was time. He knew how they all let things slide when the old man was away. Assuming that he, Naiguran, was on sentry duty, Ndambuki would be busy in the servants’ quarters, his trousers around his ankles, amazed at how easily Selina had yielded to him after so many years trying. Horny little Mkamba rat. That Ndambuki! He would sell his mother for pussy given half a chance. His Selina. Naiguran tried not to think about it. Kipkorir would be drinking with his Ministry of Lands buddies God knows where, going through registers of available property in Kileleshwa and Kilimani. Occasionally either he or Ndambuki, or maybe one of the other senior officers who had not travelled in the old man’s entourage, would radio the security booth to find out how things were. But it would be a formality and they would hardly bother to listen to the reply. Everybody knew that nothing happened when the old man was away.

          That’s what Corporal Naiguran had been counting on. That he would have enough time to get to the border, cross by boda boda – it cost ten shillings on those taxi-bicycles – and eventually find one of those Indian gold merchants at Jinja.

          Something had gone wrong. They had discovered he was missing earlier than he had planned them to.

‘Fellow Kenyans, do not panic!’ announced the police officer, a tall burly figure. He was smooth and reassuring, had probably attended one of those community-policing courses at the training school in Kiganjo. The barrel of his G3 rifle pointed downwards.

          ‘We are looking for wolves in sheep’s clothing, people who hide among you and want to do our country harm. Help us by producing your ID cards.’ He held the radio close to his ear, but Corporal Naiguran could make out bits and pieces of the conversation over the nationwide police frequency. The radio hissed and farted and went silent. Then, as the officer came down the aisle, it suddenly came back to life.

          ‘Secure all exits . . . border points . . . Over! He is headed for Busia!’

          Even the shrrr-shrrr of radio interference could not hide that shrill voice at the other end. Ndambuki.

          ‘Kitambulisho tafadhali. Your ID card, please.’ The police officer was now standing by their seats, shining his torch in their faces. Naiguran reached into his shirt pocket and handed his across to the officer. The officer examined it under the torch then trained the light on Naiguran’s face.

          ‘Alfred Simiyu, eh?’

          ‘Those are my names, afande.’ His voice was steady but dots of sweat were forming on his brow.

          ‘Very good. And when were you born, sir?’

          Naiguran smiled, expecting the question. He began to reply. Nothing came out. His throat was very dry and he suddenly could not remember what birth date they had finally settled on. Whether the one on the ID was his or Selina’s. He and Selina had been standing in that cramped printing press on Accra Road, standing there and arguing over dates. She had taken him there, said not to worry, it was owned by her cousin, a former finger-printing expert with the CID. He remembered all this clearly, remembered thinking how her voice became a squeal when she was arguing, remembered shuddering at the enormity of what he was going to do – remembered everything but the date they had settled on for his new identity.

          The officer was now very still and had stopped examining the ID. A small thrill coursed through Naiguran, an orgasmic squeeze. It felt like the time during his final exams in high school – maths – when he had ten minutes left and had not even started Section B, and his panic had caused him to ejaculate. His eyes were beginning to roll and everything was liquid and sinking. The deadness in his hand had returned, was spreading through his body. He felt the girl’s hands on his face. They were rough and twisted, and suddenly so familiar to him, calloused village hands of hewing wood and drawing water. He was comforted by the touch, wanted to sleep against her bosom like a child. And she was saying to the officer: ‘The boy is not well, afande . . . malaria . . .’ She sounded like a very old woman. He sensed more than heard the officer moving off. He did not find it strange, as she took her hands off his face, tenderly as if he was a baby falling asleep – he did not find it strange as his head slumped forward and his eyes swam in the sweet afterglow of a fading crisis, that the last things he saw were not her boots but a pair of tiny hooves.

He was seventeen years old again, a fervent tenor in a new white shirt damp with spreading underarm sweat, one of hundreds of students in the massed-choir bussed into the city to sing for the old man at Uhuru Park. It was his first time in Nairobi. They stood in front of the dais, a thousand shining secondary-school students singing for their leader. And right there at the centre of the podium stood a golden cock, a gift from the Queen of England to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the old man’s wise and majestic rule. Her Majesty had sent a special envoy with the cock and, it was rumoured, a private letter of apology for not being able to attend herself. It was, even more than the towering bronze statue of the old man in Central Park (a gift from the Koreans), his most prized possession. Naiguran never stopped looking at the old man that day as they sang, feeling how alike they were, how it was possible to rise and change. Had not the old man once herded goats in the Rift Valley? And now the world knelt at his feet, honoured him with gifts.

          The cock had become even more valued over the next few years when Her Majesty’s government and the donors and diplomats started insisting on ‘democracy’ and ‘multi-parties’ and ‘human rights’, and froze foreign aid. It had become a souvenir of a glorious age that had faded away.

          Everybody had heard of the strange, hypnotic powers the cock possessed, how the old man’s angriest opponents, his most idealistic and intractable critics, would receive invitations to State House and accept them only at their own ideological peril. Strong men who spoke on behalf of the people were known to have left State House speaking a strange new language.

          In their post-coital tangle (usually on the creaking spring bed in her squeezed little room in the State House compound – the smell of soap and eucalyptus leaves even now still stung his nostrils), he and Selina would often discuss how hurt the old man was by his old friends’ betrayal; how the lavish dinners, the bacchanalian feasts, had dried up; how empty the parking area was these days. Selina said she even missed cooking for the Europeans. The old man only liked to eat traditional foods – maize and beans, sour milk and sweet potatoes – which meant she couldn’t do anything with all her Swiss gourmet training. State House was sad these days. Selina once confided to Corporal Naiguran that she had overheard the old man talking directly to the cock in the official bedroom.

Corporal Naiguran awoke to the familiar sounds of a small town at dawn. The tooting horns of boda boda cyclists racing each other, straining with the first of the early-morning passengers. Franco and TPOK Jazz playing Sandoka Sandoka. The music came from a tribe of transistor radios that echoed up and down the dusty thoroughfare. Shopkeepers flung open the wooden shutters of their kiosks. A lone cow mooed by the roadside next to a pile of rubbish. Dogs who had ventured too close to open pots yelped and whimpered, fleeing the slipper or the heel of an irritated mistress. Children were crying. He could hear their mothers’ voices, low and distinct, the sounds alone painting a picture of tea brewing on stoves in smoky wooden kitchens. Outside the window the rising sun stained the grey and smoky clouds with a childish pink-orange. It would rain in the afternoon, he knew from that colour of sky, but it would be a hot morning.

          The bus had stopped and the interior lights were on. Many seats were empty. He turned to the man sitting next to him.

          ‘Where are we?’ he asked.

          ‘Busia,’ said the man. ‘On the Uganda side. The Kenyans have gone to immigration for passport stamping.’

          His face was buried behind a newspaper so that only the white cottony periphery of his crown was visible. It was as if he was again looking at the old man in the rear-view mirror.

          He reached for the bag beneath his feet, weighed it in his hand and felt reassured by its heaviness. And then it hit him: Busia! He stood up, exultant, scrambled past the reading man and strode to the door. He remembered something and turned back.

          ‘By the way, there is somebody sitting there. That seat is taken. A Kenyan student, on her way to Kampala.’

          The man looked at him strangely. ‘My friend, I doubt that very much. There was an old woman seated here, but she said this was where she was alighting. I even helped her get off.’

          Naiguran found this odd and even more odd how much he sounded like the old man. He had obviously slept for longer than he thought. But now he was in a hurry. There was no time to waste. He made effusive noises, full of yeses and OKs and I understands, and walked up the aisle to the door.

          As he stepped down from the bus, bag slung over his shoulder, his eyes were already darting about in search of a boda boda that would transport him into Uganda – Uganda and a new life. He had made it! He stilled the hysterical excitement building within him, swallowed back the urge to let out a whoop. He felt little delicious twitches running up and down his body. At some point, when he was settled and rich, rich and anonymous, he would find out about Selina, what had happened to her. He wondered whether he would send for her, if she had survived. He would have become Mr Alfred Simiyu by then – yes, sir! – a quiet man in a sub-location of Simiyus and Alfreds, where the stubborn modesty of the hillside villages hid the net worth of generous newcomers.

          He saw a long line of boda bodas parked in front of a row of decrepit wooden stalls. Others whizzed past him. The boda bodas with their multicoloured flags and horns and mudflaps with messages and warnings: Malipo ni humu humu! one mudflap declared ominously – your rewards are right here on earth. Men, holding up transistor radios to receptive ears, stood beside stationary bicycles, waiting for morning travellers. For a terrible moment Corporal Naiguran was reminded of the policeman in the bus, the crackling message on his radio. But, in the morning light, he wondered whether all those things had happened – even the girl seemed unreal, part of a long nightmare, bus-sickness. It was over now. He was awake, alive and they did not know where to find him, could not; he, Alfred Simiyu, a new man. He wondered whether they would torture Selina. He felt a little guilty that he had not taken her along with him. After all, she was the one who had walked into the old man’s bedroom, past those guards who smiled with nobody, taken the cock and put it in the trolley with the breakfast dishes.

          He caught the eye of a particularly hefty-looking boda boda driver and gestured to him. The man grabbed the handlebars of his bicycle and started moving towards him, expectant.

          ‘Good morning, chief,’ Naiguran greeted him. ‘Habari ya asubuhi? How much to Uganda?’

          ‘Shilingi hamsini kama kawaida, bwana. Fifty shillings as usual,’ replied the boda boda man.

          ‘Fifty! Since when?’ Corporal Naiguran was about to start haggling and then thought better of it, buttoned up his new suit and patted it down. Rich men did not quibble over little things. ‘OK,’ he said a little imperiously. ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’

          He clambered onto the bicycle behind the man, felt odd about having to hold another man’s waist, so placed his hands on the metal rack under him.

          ‘Let me take your luggage for you, sir,’ said the boda boda man.

          Corporal Naiguran saw no point in protesting and handed the bag over. As he did so, he felt it move. Something stirred inside the bag as if waking up.

          The man smiled as he took the bag. ‘He, hii Jogoo ni kubwa! This cock is huge!’

          This time Corporal Naiguran was going to say something. Then the bag moved again and a cock crowed on hundreds of transistor radios – the signature tune for the National Service news bulletin. As it rose in pitch, the cocks around him began to crow. They stood majestically in scratched-out yards, in the ditch by the road, in their coops in the market. Louder and louder until the radio cocks were drowned out by the living cocks. Their crowing echoed from the no-man’s land where Corporal Naiguran sat on the rear of a fifty-shilling boda boda, swept through the market on the Kenya side and rippled into the blue hills in the distance. But the closest one of them, the nearest cock crow, came from Corporal Naiguran’s bag.

















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