He should have turned a deaf ear to Rege’s outrageous plan. Now there was no turning back. The wind howled incessantly and the dark clouds gathered.
The old man’s misgivings rang loudly in Irunya’s ear: “This trip won’t end well; the spirits are in a foul mood.” Rege had dismissed him —old men’s tales, he said.
Rege’s flippant ways had always enthralled Irunya for Irunya, himself had a serious outlook on life. He believed in education; believed it to be the key to success. Thus it was no wonder that he was the first in Shagala village to go all the way to the university; a feat that earned him a seat among the elders; a position that made the girls in the village take notice.
Even though he had every intention of marrying his long time fiancé, he had not the money to finance a wedding. He put off such ambitions in the hope that in due time he would land that plump job. This never came. He was turned down on many occasions. Overqualified, they said. Besides, most employers preferred diploma holders as they could pay them less and were perceived to hang around longer.
Hence, two years after graduating, Irunya was still jobless. On the other hand, Rege, his high school buddy, lived up to the appellation of the village drunkard. He could be seen staggering around the shopping centre singing patriotic songs or when he felt pious, old spirituals that his grandmother taught him when he was young. The girls loved him, as did their mothers.
A minute spent with Rege made one forget the myriad problems of Shagala village. Rege’s philosophy was simple: Drink hard, laugh loud. Life is hard enough as it is, why make it harder by being sullen? He seemed to hold it all together. But men spoke ill of him.
It wasn’t right for a man of 30 to be still living on his parents homestead. Rege could care less. He was assured of a hot meal after his drinking sprees. That was all that mattered.
Irunya lived a life of quiet desperation, Rege one of open dissipation. Alcohol became the medium through which they drowned their sorrows.
Mama Pima opened early on that insipid Sunday morning. Inside her thatched hut, strands of soot dangled freely; a solitary window faced away from the rising sun and smoke hung heavily in the air.
Irunya and Rege sat contemplating two tumblers filled halfway with a clear liquid, then quickly knocked back the contents and asked that they be refilled. An old radio on an old cupboard belted out an old sleazy song. Perhaps because it was the Lord’s Day, Rege changed the station to BBC.
Sometimes, Rege liked to view himself as the village intellectual hence once in a while he listened to international news. He also kept a map of the world in his back pocket. This he would fish out to explain certain phenomena about far flung countries to persons who had never stepped outside Shagala village. It was the top of the hour and the day’s news was read in a plummy British accent.
“This is BBC news. Dozens of African migrants are feared to have drowned after a boat they were sailing in capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, 100 kilometres south of the island of Lampedusa, off the Italian coast. The Italian Coast Guard said that around 200 people had been rescued by two commercial vessels operating in the area, but with many other people still missing, there were fears that the death toll “would rise significantly…”
Irunya folded his hands and leaned against the earthen wall in anticipation of Rege’s humorous mimicry of the British reporter.
Instead, all he got was silence. Rege’s eyes were watery and before he could help it, a tear streamed down his left cheek. Irunya was taken aback. He had never seen this pensive side of Rege before. He thought of putting his arm around his shoulder but stopped himself. The look on Rege’s face said it all. He had seen it before. He saw it every morning in his cracked mirror. It was the look of a man whose failures had caught up with him.
Somehow, news of illegal immigrants seeking a fresh start in Europe had removed the blinkers that veiled Rege’s eyes from the harsh realities of life. In that very moment he viewed himself as the village men did — the dregs of Shagala. Nonetheless, this moment of despair was short-lived. In a sudden rush of energy, Rege got down on his knees, fished out his old world map and spread it on the damp earthen floor.
His index finger on Kenya, he traced his way up into South Sudan, Sudan, Libya, paused on its coastline, crossed the Mediterranean Sea and tapped twice on Malta Island: all the while muttering softly. He then lifted his eyes to meet Irunya’s. A loud silence punctuated by joyful noises from a nearby church engulfed Mama Pima’s. It was Rege who spoke first.
“Let’s head out to Italy”
Irunya kept silent. He could not make out clearly whether this was one of many Rege’s shots at Hollywood or he was actually serious. The expression in Rege’s eyes convinced him it was the latter.
“You are mad”
Rege kept silent. A book by Doris Lessing he had read a few years back came to him. He quoted it verbatim.
“But then, what is madness but a refuge, a retreating from the world?”
Irunya was shaken to the core. At that moment, a bond beyond friendship was forged between Irunya and Rege; the kind that is common between friends who have been drinking together a long time and is made stronger by a common thread of desperation.
Land was sold; officials bribed; Passports and visas obtained, and tickets for two to Tripoli booked. Soon, Irunya and Rege stood on the Libyan shores waiting for the boat that would smuggle them into Malta. Azizi, a short, stout man who walked with a limp and had an insatiable greed for money, was their man.
Another old man stood nearby. He alternated between looking up at the skies and casting a far-reaching gaze into the sea, shaking his head in between. This ritual was sustained until Irunya dared to strike up a conversation. In retrospect, he wished he hadn’t.
The old man gave voice to his foreboding. It was this that Irunya recalled while aboard the rickety boat. The dark clouds, fierce winds and the raging sea lent credence to the old man’s warnings. As the boat rocked violently, Irunya eyed Rege for that dose of good humour that he needed so badly. He found none.
Rege gazed at a wave fast gaining momentum. It seemed he had resigned himself to fate and waited for Mother Nature to do her worst. Irunya drew nearer. If this was it, his final journey in this desolate earth, it was to be a noble one. He flung his arm around Rege giving him a brotherly pat. A rueful smile formed on Rege’s lips. It seemed to ask, “What is madness…
NB: This short story was first published in The East African, a newspaper by Nation Media Group which seeks to promote a greater understanding of the member countries in the East African Community. To submit a short story therein send a previously unpublished 1200-word fictional short story to firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Magazine Short Story’ as the subject.