We lived briefly in Nairobi's Umoja Estate, my mother, brother and I. Those days I was very small, Standard One or Two. (My Form One pictures depict an incredibly tiny boy, so you don't want to imagine how small I was eight years earlier.)
Our morning routine started with a metallic alarm clock screaming hellishly loudly at the crack of dawn. From here on Mum was the star of the show, her mighty ordeal was to prepare two drowsy boys for school, get some breakfast in them and dash them to the roadside in time to catch the school bus, after which she went to work herself.
The walk to the school bus was typical: mum walked ahead, fast, and called often over her shoulders as we distractedly followed, playing little chasing games or just talking like parrots. There was no shortage of things to talk and laugh about. We believed in our great intelligence. Our brotherly camaraderie could get so gripping that nothing short of pulling by the ears would get us to the roadside in time for the bus. But if mum got angry enough, or had apparently woken up on the wrong side of the bed, we would transform into monuments of discipline and promptly autopilot our way there.
A constant feature in those days was a couple who walked past us about the same time every day. As they rushed to work, we rushed in the opposite direction to school, mum usually some distance ahead. For some reason they were always arguing. The lady would be three paces ahead of the man, arms crossed as she forward-marched, and the man would be following her, chasing after her, pleading love. All he got in reply were short quips that, to my Standard One ears, sounded rude and disrespectful. Other days the man got so fed up he would just say nothing and not even look at his wife, who used the opportunity to sneer in contempt and hoist her noise as high in the atmosphere as her height would allow. Once the man was driven to an angry take-no-hostages tirade with a prominent threat of departure.
Now me, every day we crossed paths with this couple, I would catch fragments of their exchange. Typically the man would be arguing from facts, his statements were hard-edged, grounded in the real world. The lady, whenever she deigned to reply, was haughty, dismissive and vague. All these things sat uncomfortably in my head because their discord was in sharp contrast with the rapport between my brother and I - and they were supposed to be the married ones.
One day one of us told the other "I don't like that woman!" and the other agreed vehemently, "She's bad." Over the next week or so we discussed the couple with our juvenile "intelligence" and eavesdropped on their daily drama routines to refine our postmortem findings.
Thus it was bound to happen, that we ended up interfering with their conversation one fine morning, when I walked up to the wife, and cut her off mid speech: "He's right."
She stopped walking, froze, glared at me. Meanwhile her husband suddenly burst into laughter. "Yes!" he exclaimed. She opened her mouth, no words came out. Boy did she scowl, I could see the fire in her eyes. "WHAT!" she dared me. "You're not a good person," I declared, pointing straight between her eyes. Her mouth fell mutely open again. "He's right!" I repeated. The husband, whose spirits had heightened considerably, patted my back: "You're very clever!" His wife found words at last, but no coherence yet: "Shut up! None of your business!" Artificially encouraged by the man's hand on my shoulder, I pontificated some more, now about how her husband loved her but she was too stubborn/proud. Mr. Man roared with laughter! "Yes! Yes! You're very bright!" Mrs was livid now! The chain of words her mouth released felt like a torrent of assorted violence.
At this point it occurred to my mother to look over her shoulder, and what should she see but that her sons had stopped following her and managed to get into what looked like fracas with a married couple. She swooped like an eagle and snatched us away by our ears. But Mr. Man called out to mum and told her happily, "Don't beat them! They're very bright boys!" Mom would hear none of it. As we were frogmarched away I heard the wife's complaints rising into a crescendo of outrage that combined with my sore ear to leave me wondering "What have I done?" But the man's only response was satisfied laughter that soothed my soul.
Bro and I Were swept to the roadside with hot ears. There was not enough time to explain to mum the full story: if only she would stop telling us how it was bad manners to argue with strangers, we would explain everything to her perfectly, or so we thought. But here came the school bus.
That evening the woman we reprimanded early in the morning was so enraged she tracked down our home to report us to mum and to see to it that we got a good beating. But her husband tailed her to commend mum for bringing up bright sons, while alternately charming his wife's wild temper with smooth words. The two argued in our doorway for a while, mum waiting, but catching neither head nor tail of the imbroglio. At last the couple walked away arm in arm, both rather amused by the whole turn of events, wife soundly defeated. Exasperated that she would have to deal with our version of events, Mum swung on us: "What is happening?"
We told her confidently: we had been overhearing their arguments every morning for many months and had finally decided to tell the lady that her husband was right and she should always listen to him. She wasn't satisfied.
I wonder where that couple is today.