I don’t remember how it all started, but all I know is that by the second term in Form One, I was Kakamega High School’s high priest of romance. A word charmer. A paper contortionist of matters sensual. A lovesmith hammering out lines on an anvil.
My task was simple. For a quarter of a boflo, I would weave mundane words into pure poetry. . . sealed with a rose and a kiss, and delivered telepathically straight to your 💖💖 . . . hope this missive perambulates to your desk just before you repose in bed, sweetheart, and that you will dream magnanimous dreams of you and I holding hands and walking into the sunset 🌇🌇. . .I can’t eat or sleep when I think of you, my metabolic system simply fails me, my honey . . . love without sex is like tea without sugar . . .at the comic extreme, you are the only bean in my githeri . . . and on and on.
In hindsight, you probably would be out of your mind to hire someone to craft such nonsensical phrases in the name of attracting a girl you met for the first time at Science Congress. It even baffles why teenage girls didn’t see through the layered recycled lines for the lies that they were. But if you are a lovestruck teenager with testosterone flowing in overdrive, you’d pay to have your thoughts laid down for a girl you wanted to impress. And I presume the girls too did the same at their end. And the icing on the cake? The crap was delivered smelling of real roses. And it made life a tad more interesting, I think.
A Lover’s Handyman
As a professional wordsmith, my job was to help guys who stuttered on the pages to weave their way into the heart of their beloved, offering a valuable service to humanity, helping to get folks hitched, and salvaging broken hearts. I was their middle man; or their mshenga, as Mbaraka Mwinshehe would have it. Had Valentine’s Day been as massively popular and commodified back then as it is now, this would have been my season of reaping bigtime, or eating with a kijiko (spoon) as they say on the street.
My tools of trade. Multi-coloured Bic biros, specifically the ones with a fine nib; the finest writing paper we could source at the local bookstores, specifically the flimsy pastel-coloured ones that came with decorations of flowers and frilly girly things like teddy bears around the edges, or any other fancy illustrations and a spritz of Yolanda perfume (the bees must have followed the mailman around as he delivered these letters). An iron box and flowers also came in useful in composing this meticulously worded missive; a sacrifice to the god of love. Lastly was my trusted Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, which never disappointed whenever I needed to find a fancy new word that no one else in my trade – yes, I had competition – had ever unleashed on a woman’s heart. Add to that a wild, luminous imagination that could charm a snake.
The process. One of the rare instances when science jumps in bed with art. Like a shrink on a couch, I needed to dig into the delicate situation for as much detail as could be mined in order to make the missive as convincing as possible and – more importantly – to make it sound and feel as if it had been written by my client and not by me. You see, while I could lift phrases and words from one client’s letter into another’s in what in law they’d probably categorise as love-plagiarism, I was also sensitive to the fact that eventually, if the stars aligned, my client would meet face to face with his lovebird and the fellow would have to speak for himself without me perching on his shoulder and whispering into his ear what to say.
Much as we were public love-conveyor belts for hire, we were also pragmatic psychoanalysts in a sense; you could only stretch a lie too far. You needed to first peel the onion to see a bit of its core, before you reassembled it and painted it the colours of roses. Like voyeurs peeping in through the keyhole, we needed to be privy to the client’s finer feelings in order to sound convincing in the letter.
And so, my client, after paying the quarter boflo consultancy fee, would sit there on the couch and feed me details, like how he had approached this girl, how the conversation had gone, and what the girl’s body language had been like, and so on. I would listen carefully, sitting there calmly like his mother, soaking it up like a sponge, prodding here and there gently for a juicy detail, making the guy recount the dialogue word-for-word.
Of course, by this stage I would know remotely if the fellow was on a wild goose chase or not, given I was highly experienced in these matters, having sat down a number of them on my couch and followed up on how it unravelled. My third eye always saw clearly where this was headed soon as the guy started talking.
But then, whatever it was I had surmised, the golden rule was never to disclose anything to the client. You were simply his fly on the wall, his minstrel for hire, and not a competitor (must be the same mindset those night sisters switch into when they lie on their back for a client – it is strictly for the money). Well, it was one thing listening to a guy pour out his feelings for what he thought was the most beautiful being to ever walk this earth; and quite another soothing a broken-hearted grown teenager and propping up their man-pride enough to send them back into the hunt with other fisis.
I never wanted to get entangled in that mess. I was not their mother, anyway. Also, the boys were quick to anger back then, and it was easy to stop a jaw-breaker hook in the flash of a second, the flimsy paper shredded and crunched up into a ball and thrown in your stinging face, desks upturned; end of story. Besides, I wanted to earn my pay. The rest would be up to the two to work out as they sniffed at and circled around each other.
Armed with as much detail as I could get, I would then begin the process, figuring the mental peg on which I would hang the flimsy shawl of deceit, figuring out the angle of attack. You would think I was an army general strategizing for an epic battle. It always started with a draft in a notebook page, before the final writing on the fine and expensive paper – I always had a couple or so writing pads on standby, and charged the fellows a quarter a loaf for one leaf, meaning I made close to three or four times what I had bought the pad for at the bookshop. If you wanted a precious diamond, you had to be prepared to dig for it deep where diamonds are found – so I rationalised.
To perfect the craft to the level I had gotten to, you needed both the flair for language and cursive finesse. Meaning your hand should have practised enough to be able to imitate the most flowery fonts ever invented by poets and vintage wine sellers; a master penman with all the flourishes. And when you flicked on your poet’s switch, the combination had to be pure honey oozing out of your pen point, painting a fantasy world of caramel-coated lies and happily-ever-after delusions as the page gradually filled up.
You were both an architect and a builder, sculpting silken roses on that page as you breathed life into the idea and it attained form; chiselling out an ode to a god unknown who reigned over hearts, embellishing every minute detail bit by bit with the fine point of your chisel. In its purest form, our word-merchant ancestors must have perfected the art on a papyrus scroll with a feather-pen dipped into a pot of ink, their sweat dripping on the scroll in their lonesome labour at some candle-lit midnight hour.
It was an artform that came in useful sans the poetry when we wanted to forge other documents for the boys whenever they were in trouble with the school administration; meaning I was fairly acquainted with walking that thin wire rope between the legit and the not-so. But then we won’t go there, since we were talking about love letters here.
And so, as I pulled out my hair and agonised over the opening paragraph, I would occasionally send snippets of it to the client to review, drawing him out into the letter, since it was his heart on the block here and not mine. Given my nose was always tucked into the pages of a dictionary or a novel, the words were not a problem, tossing and painting patterns on the page like the cowries of a shaman on his goatskin when I was in my element, dancing on the dotted line like the skids of a ballerina sliding on ice.
Often, I surprised the client with a new word that they’d never heard of before and, panic-stricken, they’d have to cross check with the dictionary to ensure I was not speaking Greek to their girl.
First, A Draft
It was important for the client to be completely satisfied, because that’s how you won over and retained clients. It was strictly by word of mouth. I would study a client’s face carefully as he pored over what my penmanship had hacked up, reading the changing emotions on their face like a page in a book. Sometimes, they would want a more flowery font, or a specific word that had come to mind as they read, and we would adjust and incorporate that into the masterpiece. Gradually, we would lay it line by line, sanding over the jagged edges, greasing the joints, until it ran like a Lamborghini, and the client was satisfied that he had barred out his soul to the gods completely.
Only then would the final writing on the fine paper begin, the coloured pens coming into effect. At this point I would calmly dismiss the client because I needed to work alone, to focus on the piece. Much as he was paying, I couldn’t deliver the intimacy with him there looking over my shoulder. I don’t wish to praise myself but I am certain I could make the heart of the Queen of England flutter if the royal suitors had hired my services and paid me good pounds! The letters came with complementaries like an illustration of butterflies or bees foraging on flowers at the bottom, beneath the client’s signature – for I was also very good at illustrating. But of course, this would attract an extra charge.
Hot Irons, Flowers And A Kiss
After we were done would come the sealing. As I mentioned earlier, this too was an artform. It needed more than just licking and slapping closed the envelope flap like you do with a bothersome month-end utility bill. Often, we would collect a flower or two from the school flowerbeds and flatten it into a fold of the letter and iron it flat – the old school gardener who tended to those flower beds probably needs to add this line in his resume as among his duties: helping lovestruck schoolboys find love.
Morning glories, poinsettias, fuchsias and other wild African lilies whose names I’ve never found in the dictionary were plentiful around the school compound, and were often put to this use. Why some crazy boy once wanted us to catch a live bee and iron it hovering over a rosebud in his letter! And he was dead serious – and you know where bees are found in plenty in boys’ schools; same place where you would find them in dingy backstreet urban pubs. This one we let ride (I use ‘we’ because I had an assistant who was also a keen apprentice), even for a quarter a loaf.
Thereafter my jealously-guarded canister of Yolanda perfume would come out to spritz up the letter before it was sealed – well – with a literal kiss. The richer kids would spring up Brut, Hugo Boss and other pricier designer scents, all in the name of luring the bee to the flower!
Boflo As Legal Tender
With the task done to the satisfaction of the client would come my final payment; a quarter a loaf of bread. Bread was gold, sovereign in that boarding school. It was our legal tender that was used to buy goods or services, both legal and illegal. If you wanted to share someone’s cigarette behind the Power Mechanics workshops you paid for it with a quarter a loaf. And if you wanted to listen to your latest Tracy Chapman tape on someone’s walkman, you paid for it with loaf.
Likewise, if you wanted to pay for someone to do your homework or till your agriculture practicals plot and plant crops for you, you paid for it with bread. That very same currency, I am told, purchased the lads an opportunity to sharpen their pencil with the hags who were to be found in plenty at the chang’aa and busaa dens across the valley in Murram – but don’t ask me for the details, because I wasn’t there! Our lives in that school revolved around that lump of baked wheat dough in a nylon wrapper.
And then, after the missive had been dispatched in the mailbox, my boy would settle to the lo-o-ong wait for an answering letter – or none; depending on what impression he had made on the girl. But then that was none of my business, I suppose. If anything, another client would already be lining up. And as they say, time – they forgot to add ‘and money’ – waits for no man.
The one thing the fellows who sought my services probably never found out was that it had never worked for me. There was this girl I had been chasing for ages since my primary school days, a Bint el Sudan incarnate in her regal splendour, in whose midnight dark eyes I could see my very future reflected. To this fair beauty I gave probably the finest of my penmanship in successive letters, some of which were intercepted by the strict Catholic nuns at her school.
This girl was punished because of me, sent home to fetch her father because of me, but she never got into my box. I tried and tried again, bent over backwards, till my well of catchy phrases almost ran dry. But all those copious words were wasted on her, flowing off her back like water off a duck’s back. She preferred that the relationship stay in that platonic zone. This is one secret I guarded very closely. Had my clients known that the magic potion I was selling them wasn’t working for me, I would have lost them all in one swoop. It is one of the great mysteries of my life as a love-letter writer for hire, which rubs in that jaded saying about a potter eating his meals out of a pot shard.