He came off the bus from Tsavo. He was dusty and sunburned and weighed down with a pack and a big black camera that hung from his neck.
For a while he wandered along the main road. He looked bewildered. Then he noticed the motorcycles lined up out front. He crossed the street, his boots kicking up red clouds of dust. He stopped outside the garage to take a photo of the sign. His camera clicked away.
“You need a taxi?” I asked.
He smiled at me. He looked tired.
“No, thank you. I’m looking for Martin.”
Martin. He could only have been here for one thing. I answered straight away.
“Martin isn’t here. Taxi is very cheap. Only one thousand shillings.”
He put up his hand.
“Can I wait for Martin?”
I nodded. He walked into the cool of the garage.
“Would you like some water?” I asked.
I fetched him a bottle of water from the refrigerator. I watched him from the back room. He paced around the garage, looking at the motorcycles. He paused to study the picture of Martin on the wall.
“Here’s the water,” I said.
He nodded gratefully, he drank thirstily. He sat at the desk, Martin’s ledger book open in front of him.
I sat down opposite him. I thought what English words I would use to tell him I could not repay the money. Then air compressor rattled to life.
“I’ve been up at Tsavo,” he said over the noise.
“Have you been there?”
I shook my head.
“Here, I’ll show you,” he said.
He took the big black camera and squinted at the screen on the back of it. He came around the desk and kneeled down beside me. He was sunburned and smelled of sweat.
He passed the heavy camera to me and I held it in my hands. On the screen pictures of Tsavo flicked past. There were beautiful photographs of black rhino and buffalo. There was even a masai lion, staring at the camera like it was ready to pounce.
“They are good,” I said passing back the camera.
He had come a long way, from a place on the other side of the world. I can’t remember its name. He seemed relaxed, patient. But we owed him money and that is what he was here for.
He looked around the garage at the slouching motorcycles.
“You know, I can’t even ride a bike,” he said.
He smiled at my reaction.
“It is true. I tried once, but I didn’t even pass the test. I fell off it!” He said.
Then he told the story in full, acting it out, revving the bike up, losing control of it, teetering over, the instructor screaming at him. He had to pay to fix the borrowed bike he’d dented.
I laughed at him. He chuckled to himself, sitting back down at the desk. A motorcycle spluttered along the road outside and he turned expectantly. He turned back.
“That’s why I invested in Martin,” he said.
“He is doing something here that I never in a million years could.”
I looked up at the picture of Martin. It was taken for the people at the loan company in Nairobi. They put it on the internet, where the man in front of me saw it and sent us the money for Martin to buy two more motorcycles.
“Martin died,” I said.
He looked at me and leaned in silently over Martin’s carefully kept books.
“Three months ago. There was an accident. He was carrying wood on his bike. It was too big. A foolish thing to do.”
I shrugged, drained.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Do you have children?”
“We weren’t blessed” I said.
Then I began to weep. He put out his hand but I got up, knocking the chair over. I went into the back room and covered my face with my hands. I stayed there a long time, tears wetting my palms. I heard him pacing around outside.
Finally I calmed myself. I wiped my face with my dress and turned back to the garage. His chair was pulled back, empty. I walked towards the light and the dusty main road. I glanced down at the desk. There were a pile of notes, crisp red shilling notes, neatly stacked on Martin’s ledger. There was enough money there to survive on for six months, a year maybe for a woman living alone.
Out on the main road, the red dust cloud started to clear. The bus to Nairobi wheezed and strained as it drew away down the road, until there was just the sound of the wind and the familiar hiss of the air compressor.
The starting off point…
Yet another creative writing exercise. We had to write a story choosing one image from a series as the starting point. I chose an image of a black woman looking at her reflection in the wing mirror of a scooter. There was a dusty road behind her. The day I wrote it I had put some more money into Kiva.org, a micro-financing website where you can invest small amounts of money in fledgling entrepreneurs in the developing world. I put $25 into a scooter business run by a man in Kenya. Those were the two elements and The Man Who Couldn’t Ride a Bike is the result.