Sometime in October, Digibook Africa made a call for Short Story Submissions. I responded to the call with the following 2,415 word story which made it to the top 25 Shortlist, indeed a huge achievement for me in the Literary world. As a celebration of this achievement, below is the story I submitted that got me this far. Enjoy ❤
Image courtesy of Polar Dental
Musembi had a bad case of halitosis.
It is unfortunate that he was unaware of it.
Every time he opened his mouth to speak, the pong that emanated from it reminded one of rubbish, that had long been ignored by the rubbish collectors. It was something his poor wife had been forced to put up with for the longest time. It did not help matters that Musembi loved to talk. Breaking the news to him that his mouth stunk to the high heavens, was akin to dealing his esteem a cruel blow.
His wife Cecilia, had since taken it upon herself, to ensure that he brushed his teeth twice a day. Knowing his tendency to protest, whenever he sensed that he was being coerced, Cecilia masked these daily reminders with tenderness. She always offered to line the toothbrush with a generous amount of Colgate Triple Action, before calling him sweetly.
With a boyish grin on his handsome face, Musembi would always approach the sink, right outside the bathroom and do his wife’s bidding. But this, Cecilia had since noticed, only offered temporary relief. The next morning, as soon as he mouthed a “Good morning dear” to her, she would be hit smack in the face by the bad breath. By midday, the repugnant smell would be at its worst.
It was like a never ending battle and Cecilia sometimes wondered why nobody else noticed and told him about it. Perhaps the blow to his esteem wouldn’t be as cruel, as when your own wife communicated her displeasure, with your bad breath. On certain occassions, the assumption of a connection to witchcraft crossed her mind. She was however quick to dismiss it as absurd, coming from a christian background.
Musembi was a hardworking, young man running his own hardware business. He was equally, easy on the eye. Perhaps there were some jilted lovers who still held something against him. Even though Cecilia had never been to a witchdoctor before, she knew that there could have been a possibility of this issue with bad breath, being a ploy to draw them apart. What else could explain it? She often questioned herself in frustration.
Two years of marriage. No children yet. Their sex life had indeed suffered significantly as a result. She had since run out of excuses to give whenever her husband tried to get intimate. She just could not stand being kissed by him nor his panting over her with that repulsive breath. It was better that they just avoid the deed altogether.
On a daily basis, Cecilia would board a bus to town where she worked as a shop attendant, in a clothing store. Three days a week, it would be early in the mornings when she was working the morning shift. The rest of the three days, it would be at around noon when she was working the afternoon shift.
In the mornings, the bus was mostly quiet with serious faced, officially dressed individuals going to work. Nobody spoke to the other. It was as if the whole idea of reporting to work every morning did not appeal to them. Everybody chose to mind their own business just as Cecilia liked. Some would be snoozing while others, would be glued to their phones, probably going through their social media activity and catching up on the latest political news or celebrity gossip. It was rare to encounter someone, rudely peeking at your phone messages in the morning hours.
The radio would possibly be tuned to Classic 105, where the two popular breakfast show hosts, would be discussing whatever controversial topic of the day. It was mostly marital issues and many times, Cecilia wondered if she would ever have the guts, to call in and open up about her husband’s terrible breath and how it was affecting their marriage. As a matter of fact, she doubted if she would. Her love for Musembi could not allow her to air their dirty linen in public. Most of these callers did not even sound authentic.
In the afternoons, is when all the action took place. Quite frequently, there would be a preacher in the bus. Possibly a man, though there were some women preachers too, with a hoarse voice, vocal chords possibly damaged by all that frequent yelling, these bus preachers engaged in. The sermon would be on whatever religious topic the Lord had placed in the preacher’s heart that afternoon. Indeed, it was hard to tell whether some of these preachers were called by God or simply cons. Anything was possible in Nairobi.
Many, always tried to convince everyone, that they were not interested in offerings. Ironically, they would often end their fiery sermons with, “but if you feel the urge to give, you can do so.” Alighting commuters would then pass by on their way out, while dropping coins into the preacher’s hand. It was mostly coins, so Cecilia had realized. A number, would instead look out of the window and pretend to be deeply engrossed in their own thoughts. Cecilia was one of those who looked out of the window. She was on a tight budget and focusing on these bus preachers, whom you were not even sure of their spirituality, would only end up guilt tripping her into giving something.
Other times, it would be a sales person in place of the preacher. These ones took advantage of the traffic jam to hop into commuter buses, a small bag in tow, packed with a handful of whatever products they were marketing. Unlike the preachers, they rarely yelled. They would instead deliver their sales pitch in their normal tone of voice or slightly louder for everyone to hear, then proceed to walk down the bus aisle, urging commuters to purchase. It could be a herbal product, deworming tablets, picture books for nursery school going children or a sticker with those funny Swahili and Sheng’ quotes. The ones that matatu drivers and touts loved to stick in the interior of their public service vehicles.
“Madam, this herbal toothpaste is the real deal and it only goes for a hundred.” One such sales person convinced Cecilia, on a random afternoon in the bus.
She had been listening to him a couple of minutes ago, droning on about the benefits of the toothpaste and had particularly paid attention to the part where he mentioned that the herbal toothpaste, got rid of stubborn, bad breath. Musembi had never tried using a completely natural toothpaste before. Perhaps this could help with his halitosis.
“Did you say it gets rid of stubborn bad breath?” Cecilia now asked the sales person.
“Completely!” The man replied emphatically.
“What if I use it and don’t get the desired results?” Cecilia challenged, just to get the man’s reaction.
“Did you save my number?” The sales person immediately countered.
“Yes I did.” Cecilia lied. She had been partly absent minded, while the sales person mentioned his digits, then repeated for emphasis but she did not want to seem dumb.
“Then call me if you have any complaint through that number though I doubt there will be any. None of my customers has ever complained.” The man obviously had a healthy dose of self belief.
Cecilia would end up purchasing the product.
That evening, she called out sweetly to Musembi, the new light greenish in color toothpaste, generously lined on his toothbrush.
“Yes dear.” Musembi answered, approaching the sink. He brushed a hand across her lower back as was his habit, whenever she called him to come and brush his teeth.
“Ah, what do we have here?” He sounded surprised, at the sight of a different colored paste from the usual triple stripes.
“It’s a new herbal toothpaste I bought today from those sales persons in the bus.” Cecilia offered, honestly.
People who had stayed in marriages for a lengthy period, usually said that in a healthy marital union, there was bound to be something unique about your spouse, that endeared you to him or her. Cecilia often wondered if this teeth brushing ritual, had become so repetitive, that it was now that very unique thing, that endeared Musembi to her.
“Herbal products are good.” Was all Musembi said, before dutifully brushing his teeth.
That night, he was surprised that his wife agreed to love making, after a lengthy period of rejecting it. She even let him kiss her unlike those other times when she had gently declined. The next morning though, Cecilia would be instantly disappointed, when her husband turned to her to say “Good morning dear,” and it was like she had not put in any additional effort the previous evening, in ensuring his bad breath was kept at a minimum. It even smelled worse than previous mornings, when he was still using the Colgate Triple Action.
She was thoroughly convinced that she had been duped by the sales person and was not even going to waste her credit calling him to complain about the issue. That morning, Cecilia’s moods were totally dampened. It did not help matters that she had enjoyed wonderful love making the night before with her husband.
A friend noticed her bad moods at work.
“Cecilia, are you really okay?” She questioned.
“Clearly I’m not!” Cecilia retorted. For the first time, she let her frustration with her husband’s breath get the better of her and narrated to her work mate, the struggle she had been having with it and how she had bought a herbal toothpaste, only to end up disappointed that morning.
“When you are getting married, they never prepare you for some of the small issues you will have to put up with.” Her friend murmured sagely, when she was done. “My husband used to have the smelliest of feet. I tried everything from ensuring he wore clean socks to work every day, to airing his shoes outside, to advising him to powder his toes and it never worked. Funnily enough, he never seemed to notice it himself.”
“Then one day, I decided never to let it bother me again. I simply carried on with the routine I had since gotten used to of ensuring his feet hygeine was maintained. Then as if by miracle, the bad smell disappeared. When I asked him eventually what he had done, he told me that he had equally started to pay attention to his feet hygeine. We have never had the issue since.”
At the revelation from her workmate, Cecilia did not know what else to add. Her friend had a valid point, so she realized. Perhaps she had been focusing too much on Musembi’s bad breath, to the point where she had let it affect her marriage. Maybe she just needed to keep on ensuring that her husband brushed his teeth twice a day until by miracle, the problem was solved. But her friend was not done yet.
“I think you should tell him about his bad breath. It might be possible that he does not smell it himself.” She adviced.
“To be honest, I have lacked the right words to break the news to him.” Cecilia confessed.
“Tell him when he is in a good mood. That way, it will be less offensive.” Her friend offered.
The following month, Cecilia missed her period.
She was slightly reluctant to believe that she was indeed pregnant lest it be a false alarm, until the pregnancy test she took confirmed it to be so. She knew that Musembi would feel elated at the news. He had always expressed his desire for a large family with several helping hands. She also suspected that she had conceived that very night, she had brought home the new toothpaste and made love to her husband.
Cecilia had followed her workmate’s advice to be more tolerant of her husband’s breath. She still routinely lined his toothbrush with the herbal toothpaste, twice a day. Somehow, she could tell that there was a slight difference. The breath was not as pungent as it had been before and she was equally not as impatient about it as she had previously been.
The night she disclosed to Musembi that she was pregnant with their first child, he gave her that look of utter surprise then broke into the widest grin she had ever seen on his face.
“I cannot believe that we are finally going to have a baby! We need to start thinking of names!” He gushed and Cecilia decided that now was the best time, to address the issue of his bad breath with him, seeing that he was in such good moods.
“Er, Musembi, there’s something I have been meaning to tell you but always lacked the words to.” She began, uncertainly, still not very sure how her husband would take it.
“Go ahead, I’m all ears.” Her husband was eager and unsuspecting.
“Have you ever wondered why I always made sure you brushed your teeth twice a day?” Cecilia inquired softly. For a moment, Musembi was thoughtful.
“Not really. I have never thought much about it before. I always assumed it was out of love and care.” He finally spoke up. “Or was it because of my bad breath?” He suddenly surprised Cecilia by offering.
“Um_Yes. I just did not know how to tell you without offe…..” Cecilia began to explain but her husband stopped her mid sentence.
“Is it still as bad?” He instead questioned.
“Not as bad as it was before.” Cecilia was honest. “I think the herbal toothpaste I bought helped even though I did not believe it would at first.”
“And never once did you think of leaving me because of my bad breath?” Musembi was still quizzical.
“Of course not! How would I leave my husband for something as trivial as bad breath which can be sorted?!” Cecilia was suddenly offended by Musembi’s question. Leaving him had never crossed her mind even when the frustration from his bad breath got the better of her.
“Then I think we found our love on a toothbrush, as mundane as it seems. This child you are carrying must have been concieved the night you brought home that herbal toothpaste. I can never thank you enough my wife, for being so tolerant of me.” Musembi now murmured, gathering her into his arms.
As Cecilia lay on his chest, listening to his heart beating rythmically, she couldn’t agree with him more.
Sheng’- Kenyan Urban Slang
Matatu-Public Service Vehicles in Kenya