Chapter 3

I sense his aura before I can look up. His presence fades the classroom noise into the background. It’s been several days since we first met and I’ve found out he’s a new boy in my class. His desk a few rows down from mine. My eyes roll up his creaseless uniform landing on his babyface. He is masculine yet delicate. He’s pressed against my desk, and I can feel his breath on my skin. He’s standing close. I don’t know whether to lean back or move in. He lifts his hand towards my face. I stare at his smooth hands and manicured nails. He’s in a league of his own, possessing a finesse I’ve never seen before.

In his hand, is a picture. He studies my face suspending my curiosity. He turns the picture round like a magician playing a trick. I stare. It is a woman whose skin is the colour of the belly of a frog. Her hair is the colour of dried maize. She’s wearing a leather jacket and short fl oaty skirt. Her legs are covered in bizarre socks that don’t cover her feet. What’s the point of such socks? The short-sleeved top she’s wearing reveals her long arms weighted with multicoloured bracelets. Her low-cut top reveals the mounds of her breasts. I’ve never seen anyone pose for a picture like that. I wonder what mama would say about the woman in the photo. The washerwomen of the Ministry of Works compound would definitely twist their lips in disdain and call her a prostitute. Her neck is decorated with bright necklaces. Her lips are the colour of a cock’s crown. She’s smiling with one eye half closed. Confused, I gaze at the picture. Am I supposed to know this woman? Then it hits me. He must suspect how I feel. He’s here to warn me of his girlfriend. I am deflated at the thought.

‘Who?’ My throat croaks as if stuffed with dry earth. I pray he doesn’t confirm my suspicion.

‘Is that your girlfriend?’ I ask before he can respond.

What’s wrong with me? I’m a mess. Uncultured and exposed. He laughs and slaps my desk. I’m unable to see the joke.

‘No. This is Madonna, she’s so cool,’ he says.

His American twang detonates my logic. He sounds like the people on TV or radio. I’m thrown off-guard but laugh too. It comes out wrong. We are speaking at cross-purposes. I feel clumsy. Like a shipwrecked sailor, I’m still searching for somewhere to anchor. I don’t know the meaning of this. Instead of speaking about us, he is here to speak about this Madonna.

‘How do you know her?’

My accent is crude.

‘You are cute! Don’t ever change.’

My cheeks burn. My school shirt is damp, magnifying the smell of sweat from my armpit. I’m embarrassed by not knowing what to say, by my clothes, my ugly tyre shoes, the way I speak, and not knowing who the woman in the picture is. I have no clue what this conversation is about. It’s not what I imagined we’d talk about if we ever spoke.

‘She’s the singer of “La Isla Bonita”. Madonna,’ he says, licking his lips.

I’m out of my depth. I am foolish, unable to make a viable contribution to this conversation. I’ve never seen a picture of Madonna, but of course I know who she is. Besides where would I get such a photograph from. They don’t sell such things in the market.

He smiles, his boyish face drawing me in.

‘Please excuse my rudeness, I am Kimathi,’ he says.

‘Kimathi is a Gikuyu name.’ I say, glad to move away from the conversation I know nothing about.

It’s not clear if he heard me, because he says nothing. Or maybe the words never left my mouth.

‘My name is Mukami,’ I say to fill the awkward silence.

He replies solemnly, ‘Mukami is boring. From today onwards, I will call you Madonna.’

My mind buzzes. He wants to change my name to Madonna. It never occurred to me to change it. No one has ever commented on my name, let alone tried to change it. People here don’t change their names because they are boring. But Kimathi thinks mine is and prefers Madonna. I’m already out of my depth with him, and if he thinks it will help then what’s a name change? Who am I to resist? Nothing about him is conventional. He is so refined. I wonder where did he come from? He is different. I’m the opposite, primitive and uncultured. Even my name. Mama says Mukami means the diligent young maiden who milks. But we don’t have cows, so I’ve never milked. I feel his penetrating eyes on me, and I am about to shrug in agreement, when Mr Onacha, the history teacher, walks in and Kimathi disappears.


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Excerpt from RINSING MUKAMI’S SOUL published by Jacaranda Books. Copyright © 2024 by Njambi McGrath.