The Lie of the First Family was somewhat inspired by a 19th century legend featuring the Lie, the Truth, and the World. In 1896, French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme did a painting titled, Truth Getting Out of Her Well – which could be attributed to a saying by Democritus, the ancient Greek philosopher.
“Of truth we know nothing, for truth lies at the bottom of a well.”
Simon, a writer whose mind I had long time ago infected with coffee addiction, lived in a one-bedroom house he liked to call Room Six. The house was on the first floor of a three-storey flat in Jitegemee Court at the upper side of Jubilee Estate—Kahawa West. Simon’s new landlady lived with her family in a gated mansion divided from the main building by a stone wall.
The landlady was a seemingly middle-aged woman, whom Simon would come to baptize Mama Ercy. Simon had gone to view the house on a fine Sunday afternoon. Mama Ercy, in a blue Catholic Women Association (CWA) dress and a white kitambaa shielding her head from the devil, had opened the gate for Simon. The first thing he noticed was her matronly look. She was the perfect color of chocolate, with a generous body.
“Simon, your name sounds Christian. Perhaps Catholic. Where do you worship? Do you pray the rosary?” Mama Ercy had asked him.
Simon could have easily lied to the good woman, told her that he had even been an altar boy once upon a time, that he still took the holy bread and drank the blood of Jesus. Walking upstairs, Simon told Mama Ercy going to church every Sunday never guarantees one the ticket to heaven.
Simon was surprised how easily he could talk with this woman he barely knew. Before long, they arrived at a blue door on the second floor. Without saying a word, Mama Ercy inserted her hand into the key lock and opened the door. Simon immediately noticed the spaciousness of the sitting room, the generous balcony, and the fluorescent lights on either side of the walls.
Simon noticed a slight change in Mama Ercy. She was probably in love with him, a young man with the face of Van Vicker. As far as he knew, Simon has never had any encounter which could lay bare his sexuality.
Simon moved into the new house a few days later. He had developed a new sense of respect for his new landlady. She had put on a lovely smile and told him, “Son, you can move in anytime you want and pay rent for February—don’t worry about the extra days. The rent is thirteen thousand shillings, but because you could be my son, I will deduct three thousand from that amount.”
Simon was a professional worrier. Would stay up all night as late as three hundred hours, his thoughts assaulting him. Why is this landlady being so good to me? He found himself going over and over the same train of worry. The manuscript of his forthcoming debut novel had won him some advance. Then Simon had quit his newspaper job to write full time. That was around a year ago. He could be shocked to see people still buying his book. Only his aching back reminded him of the madness of writing and editing the novel. He had moved here to create new memories. I, the Lie, would make him create memories he would never have wished for, but a writer’s mind is as unpredictable as the sea.
With time, I had baptized Simon into a master of deception. In March, when it was reported that a simple feast in China had sparked a deadly virus all over the world, a new person entered Simon’s life. The lover of solitude, he was admiring his huge copy of The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvilli, when a knock sounded on the door. At first, he thought it was the peck of a bird. When the knock sounded again, Simon placed the novel on the low table beside the bookshelf stretching from the eastern side of the wall to the west and sprung to his feet.
Who could be knocking at twenty-one hundred hours? When Simon flung the door open, he wasn’t expecting to see such a visitor. Felt a pair of eyes looking down at his naked feet and rise slow to comb through his oversized pair of shorts and a red T-shirt shouting, I’M JUST HERE TO ANNOY YOU. He felt his heart thunder and a tingling sensation snake around his crotch.
When I restored his power of speech, Simon stammered, “Excuse me, but I think you have knocked on the wrong door.” The girl, whose slim figure Simon had noticed, flashed a familiar smile.
As if this black beauty had noticed the questions struggling for freedom in Simon’s system, she said, “Symo, my name is Mercy. Mum sent me. Here.” She handed over to Simon a red bag. Simon murmured, “Thank you, Mercy give my gratitude to your mother.” The girl left. Simon unpacked the chicken thighs and chapatti in the dishes.
When Mercy visited next time, Simon blessed her with a copy of his published novel. She flashed that seductive smile, and said, “Oh Jesus Christ of Nazareth! You’re a writer! I can’t believe I’m standing so very close to a real-life legend.”
Simon noticed she wriggled her fingers like an excited teenager. He gathered enough courage to say, “Hey, would you like to use my phone number? It’s in the book, at the back.”
He could not believe his landlady had a daughter. He knew she would never have told him, anyway. When Mercy visited again on a Friday afternoon, Simon was rather glad to discover her mother had left to see a friend. He motioned her to the long couch sitting on the northern side of the house.
“Can I serve you a drink?”
The two toasted over a shot of Best.
“So, Mercy, what do you do?”
“I am a student at Meru University, School of Nursing.”
The whiskey warmed up Simon’s system. Maybe he had been living in his world for far too long, for he would never think that the daughter of a CWA faithful could drink with the devil.
Mercy seemed to be in some kind of dry spell. With time, she became bold enough to ask Simon on text message whether he liked to fuck while drunk or sober. Simon took Mercy’s steamy texts as another reason to drown some more shots down his system. The more he drank, the more I put stupid ideas in his mind.
Two months later, Simon barely received royalties for his book. The organizations which could give him interesting gigs seemed to have run into unexplainable financial difficulties or simply closed down all together. He could barely take care of his own bills, but was glad for the regular food packages coming from his landlady.
I convinced Simon to find a way of belonging a little bit more. For the very first time in his twenty-six years on earth, Simon felt that he needed to have a family which would give him some sort of emotional anchorage. On a Wednesday evening, when Mercy visited Room Six, she got so high on Best she kissed Simon smack on the lips. Simon at first thought of pulling away, but he convinced his lips—as if they were a mere extension of him—to kiss back. Simon and Mercy were soon rolling along the carpeted floor.
Simon had never cared for that elastic product of human invention called a condom. He could have run up to Quickmart or Naivas to get a condom, but neither he nor Mercy could overcome the urgency of the moment. The evening Simon and Mercy had their little adventure, the smart nursing student was on a safe day.
With time, their lovemaking became so regular they barely thought of protection. While breaking the bread at the rooftop, Mercy said nurses get pregnant only when they want. That had even emboldened Simon to thrust further into Mercy at the presence of the stars. I find it interesting that the two lovers never committed to each other. Just having fun, an agreement previously sealed by the word of mouth.
On a Monday, Simon decided to throw Ercy a modest birthday party. The day before, Simon had taken the pleasure of asking for permission from Mama Ercy. He told her he had already ordered a custom-made cake from Quickmart. Her happiness sneaked into Simon’s phone through a laughing emoji. “Son, I appreciate that you care for my daughter. I will provide the meal and drinks for the party.”
The party was lots of music and dancing and kissing and playing cards. The only other person who had been invited was Ercy’s younger brother, Nene. The master of deceit that I am, I never flinched whenever I witnessed Nene, a form two child born the year of grace 2004, gulp down shots of Best while dancing around the table hand-in-hand with an imaginary girlfriend. Before cutting the cake, Mercy had chipped the “M” off her name, and from that day, she became Ercy to Simon. The night Mercy became Ercy was the night a life took root in the stomach of a nurse. She never noticed, after all she wasn’t so smart. Maybe she had fooled Simon, but I had fooled both of them!
One Sunday, Simon was sitting in Room Six, trying to sketch a novel manuscript about the powers of deception. The door flung open. Ercy, eyes red as if she had been smoking a joint. Simon must have been so lost in his obsession he had forgotten to lock the door. Ercy flew straight into Simon’s arms with so much energy he felt her tiny breasts on his chest. She began weeping like a teenager. She said, “Symo, I’m pregnant.”
I deliberately chose a man to carry my talent of deception, because Simon never shook. He hushed Ercy like a baby. She only cooled down after a long drag of weed and three generous shots of Best. I wonder how you would still complicate your system with drugs when you, your own mother’s only daughter, have fallen pregnant out of wedlock.
Ercy sat on the southern sofa sitting at the narrower wall. Simon looked at her, unable to express the joy swimming in his heart. The bastard seemed victorious, while I had been behind everything.
“Symo, when Mum discovers what I have done she will kill me.”
Simon downed a shot, shook his head, and hummed in his throat to send the whiskey the right way.
“Your mother won’t harm you.”
“How sure are you?”
“We are family now.”
She stared daggers at him.
“You are mad! I would love to carry your baby, but nurses like me don’t get pregnant against their will. I’m also trying to preserve my family’s dignity. I don’t want to disappoint Mum.”
When she momentarily paused for another drag of weed, Simon stood up with a spring in his step. Ercy stared at him again. Simon expected Mama Ercy to welcome him to the family with a feast. Hadn’t she always referred to him as “son”? It was time for her to own up. A part of Simon was scared his nurse would abort the baby.
While Ercy carried the baby to term, I probably wanted to play the devil’s advocate. To bring together the prestigious First Family, while at the same time tearing it apart from the center. How sweet to compete against oneself!
Simon would never have believed he would be the very same person to give his little secret away. The Friday he stared at a blank MS Word page and the words to start off his new manuscript wouldn’t come, I convinced him to seek comfort in alcohol. Six shots of Best persuaded him to go for a walk. Around that time, he met Mama Ercy in her parked car just outside the entrance of PCEA. Mama Ercy lowered the driver’s window and called out. Simon staggered towards his landlady.
After greeting Simon for the second time, she looked straight at him, and asked, “Simon, did you sleep with my daughter?”
If Simon were sober, he would have given a different answer. Reeling backwards in a drunken laughter, unpunctuated words sprung forth from his mouth.
Yes Mum more times than I can remember only that your daughter has whore vibes written all over her I won’t want to be serious with her you might find such a wife with a man on top of her and so I am going for a walk and you’re invited Mum also I was thinking we could maybe be a family.
Mama Ercy was of course disgusted, but I can tell you she was a different kind of mother. She had just smiled at Simon and wished him well and drove off. Though I created deception myself, I sometimes find it interesting how alcohol could make Simon completely hang himself.
The consequences came the following Sunday in the form of invitation for dinner. Simon had even managed a smile from the heart. His plans to integrate into a new family were very much on course. He hastily put on a ripped pair of trousers and an oversized white T-shirt and raced down the stairs. Walking through the small blue gate separating the landlady’s mansion and the tenants’ apartments, he knocked on the door. Nene opened and beckoned the writer in with a smile.
Simon sat on the northern wall on a comfortable sofa. Ercy soon walked into the sitting room, balancing two red dishes on the flatness of her palms. Placing them on the table, she walked back to the kitchen and brought two aluminum plates.
I think this scene was planned. Mama Ercy soon joined the young people around the glass table and sat on one of the two smaller sofas sitting at the eastern wall. Simon never seemed to care Mama Ercy’s black outfit resembled one of those expensive costumes rich actresses wear in films during mourning scenes. To him, everything was equal. Though he saw Ercy’s slightly protruding belly, he never really thought about it. Never thought the pregnancy could have been his responsibility.
Simon could have given everything to be this close to The First Family. The family closed their eyes, made the sign of the cross, said a prayer and began eating in silence. Then Mama Ercy broke the silence.
“Simon, I know my daughter is carrying your baby.”
Just that one sentence was enough to erase the smiles off everyone’s face. Ercy stared at the floor, possibly wondering why her mother had tonight gone for a red carpet of all colors. Simon’s hand stopped in motion, and the food he had spooned fell on the shiny table. He couldn’t understand how Mama Ercy had discovered his little secret. Simon should have known Mama Ercy had discovered her daughter’s pregnancy weeks ago. Should have been aware that Mama Ercy already knew enough.
I think Mama Ercy was scared about something else. To distract himself from the present, Simon looked up at the walls. Pictures of the Virgin Mary and her son covered the entire living room. He momentarily fixed his gaze at a taciturn portrait of St. Augustine before concentrating back to the table. You would have expected Mama Ercy to shout at the top of her voice and call Simon all manner of evil things. She maintained her composure. Nene had left to watch La Casa de Papel in his room.
Mama Ercy confirmed my suspicion.
“Simon, it’s not the pregnancy I fear, but what people will say. I discovered Mercy’s pregnancy sometimes back. I’m of course addressing you and Mercy, because you’re in this together. I’m a respected church elder. My daughter’s pregnancy will only strike me down from the cross of grace.”
When Mama Ercy paused momentarily to make sign of the cross and take a spoon of her already-cold food, Simon felt something rise in him. He waved his hand, and with his typical shyness, said, “That’s the kind of pretense I hate with church-going people. They seem to only care about what other people will say.”
Mama Ercy never took offense. Said that after her husband’s death years ago, she had become her children’s mother and father. She had the responsibility of bringing up her children at the feet of Jesus Christ. She won’t advise Ercy to abort the baby—that would go against the sixth pillar of the church.
I had no intentions of leaving Mama Ercy alone. Hadn’t I engineered her daughter’s pregnancy? Days later, Simon was in Room Six, seated on the sofa while reading The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell. Mama Ercy entered through the half-opened door. Simon loved that she never knocked—wasn’t she now his own mother? He waved her to the northern sofa.
When she requested a drink, Simon served her a glass of juice. Here is my moment, Simon thought. Inserting a bookmark to the page he had read up to and placing the novel on the wooden table, he momentarily eyed Mama Ercy. I would like to confirm your evil thoughts that Simon was thinking of beauty. I’ve come to see beauty as the only thing which can deceive a human being.
Simon smiled at Mama Ercy.
“Now that Ercy is pregnant, I’m happy to take her as my partner. I don’t want to be distracted from my writing, so she is free to visit from time to time. I would love our baby to fall in love with books like myself. That way, I won’t need to pay rent.”
I would have expected Mama Ercy to act surprised, but she kept her cool.
“Simon, you’re a good man, and a very good-looking man at that. I’m not afraid to openly compliment beauty. Tell me, the things you sometime back told me at PCEA, are they true?”
I jogged Simon’s mind. He said that he had been under the control of alcohol. That day Simon officially became part of the First Family. I would bet on it that Mama Ercy envied her daughter. With time, Simon was convinced that he wasn’t responsible for either Mama Ercy’s or her daughter’s feelings. Ercy nowadays barely left her room.
Simon no longer paid rent. These days he was fed by the First Family. Nene would bring Simon a dish of food every day. Simon would never have guessed that deception would make him break the bread with a woman old enough to be his own mother. Maybe Simon had given his soul to the devil. To me, writing could be the perfect devil. Maybe the mugs of coffee Simon took every day like religion had darkened his heart.
I detested how peacefully Simon’s life proceeded. I have always believed my deception should amount to some action, that people who might have loved each other to death should hate each other from time to time. How you handle your human hatred is none of my business! Let’s just say I only enjoy when a daughter is shouting at her mother, when a son is yelling at his sister that she should have kept her legs closed.
When Ercy discovered her mother’s little game, Simon could never have believed the slim girl would be capable of all that drama. One Sunday evening, at around twenty-three hours, Ercy through the window saw Simon planting a little kiss on her mother’s left cheek. Simon never seemed to care they were on the balcony, just near his door. Never cared the security bulb in the balcony was focused on spoiling the party.
Simon and Mama Ercy were so lost in their little adventure they never saw Ercy creep up behind them. When Simon saw the uninvited guest, like an Indian movie, he slowly disengaged from Mama Ercy and slightly stepped aside to lean on the balcony’s blue railing. Mother and daughter now faced each other.
Simon barely noticed the cloud of shame dancing all over Mama Ercy’s face and the disappointment in her daughter’s voice. Ercy, whose stomach now bulged so heavily you would think she carried a country, shouted that her mother should be ashamed. What kind of a mother breaks the bread with her own son? The obvious streak of luck was it was now past midnight. I commanded the blanket of silence to keep the voices down. Simon was impressed Ercy had endorsed him to her mother as “son”.
Mama Ercy’s silence disappointed me. Maybe I would have been happier if everyone in the entire neighborhood came out with sleepy eyes and dressed in nightclothes to witness my ultimate victory.
After deceiving you to cheat your way to something good, you might not enjoy the peace for a long time. Simon thought he could now relax and swim in a lake of bliss. He felt the universe had erased the memory of his mother and given him a caring family. Simon had so far written six chapters of his new book. The deeper he got into the manuscript, the more lost he felt.
When mother and daughter visited Simon, he showed them the novel’s progress on the computer. Simon might have expected them to bash him for writing their story in a negative way (for lack of a better expression), but they congratulated him. I would like to say that rich people have a thing for continuity.
For the first time since that little drama at the glare of the balcony lights, Simon was happy to see Mama Ercy and her daughter smiling. He was unable to hold the happiness bubbling in his system.
“Mum, sis. I am so happy to belong to the First Family. It’s like the universe had sent me here for a reason. You should have invited Nene.”
Mama Ercy and her daughter exchanged glances. Something is not right, Simon thought.
Simon’s emotions caught up with him soon when he got to Chapter Sixteen of his book. So far, he had been writing as an outsider. But he realized that the story he was writing could be his own, that he might have been breaking a happy family while trying to belong. Angry and dejected, Simon abandoned the manuscript and moved into his own world. He would lock himself in Room Six for days, deliberately starving himself but somehow energetic enough to read one more chapter of Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Simon felt like a selfish person who only cared about his own peace. He believed he could only make up for everything by sacrificing something.
What did Simon have worth sacrificing? His heart already blackened by coffee? His head already infected with overthinking? He would have loved to donate his body for scientific research, but he knew he no longer had that privilege. Sometimes Simon’s thoughts made me think. Is the human body connected with the soul? Maybe yes—at which Simon would have willingly donated his soul for spiritual research. I knew as much as Simon did that his soul was already lost beyond redemption. Perhaps if he had thought of donating the soul in his writing, he would have been happier. My only role is to confuse human beings!
Simon was not sure if Ercy had already given birth. He no longer allowed her mother into Room Six. Maybe Simon had begun falling into a deep hole. Before deciding to forever barricade himself in Room Six, he had once invited Ercy over. When her mother visited later, Simon was disgusted she knew everything he and Ercy had spoken about. Although Simon loved the idea of belonging to a family, he valued his privacy.
Six days later, lack of privacy plus emotional insecurity drove Simon to the bathtub in search of peace. That Sunday at exactly three hundred hours, Simon put on his Adam’s suit and stepped into the red bathtub he had filled with water. He had decided cold water would do the deal. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if only he had thought how lucky he had been to finally belong somewhere. Would he have considered that Mama Ercy had personally installed the bathtub in Room Six so that he would be dipping himself into the tub after a long day of writing?
Simon had better stuff to think about. Not the note he had left on the desk with instructions for his body to be cremated. Not the sixteen chapters of his book on his laptop. Neither the hundreds of orphaned novels on the shelf.
When Simon presently lowered himself in the bathtub just beside the toilet seat, he felt the water hug his body. Like Jesus Christ on the cross, he spread out his arms, which lay on the sides of the bathtub. Instead of shaving his legs or his pubic hair or his armpits with the razor blade, he closed his eyes and started working on his wrists. He changed to the other hand. Sensing the blood flowing out of his system and the distant beginnings of pain, he dipped both of his arms into the water and closed his eyes.