February 5, 2014
“There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
– Carl C. Jung
The old man sitting on the brown wicker chair beyond the verandah, in the garden where Ixora’s and bees speak a subtle language- he rocked back and forth, occasionally lifting his foot in the air. It was a calming rhythm-the rocking. It sounded like a ticking clock . Every tick is a back stretch, every tock is a settle. He occasionally waves his hands, drawing signs and symbols, painting unspoken mysteries.. His, was an aging life, bound to a wicker chair pointedly fixed on this verandah everyday at 6’o clock . Now, at the onset of a family dinner, the smell of fried plantains, chicken and tomato stew spirals around the house, and the domestic staff fix candles on the wooden table on the Verandah .. He’s been out there for hours, she thought, wringing the dish rag and wiping the last of the place mats. I’ll have to let him know that they’ll soon be here or he’ll fall asleep. So she walks slowly, thin legs in rubber slippers , slapping across dusty concrete.
Papa! Tunde and his wife will soon be here, you need to get ready. She calls from behind him, watching as the chair rocks back and forth. The old man turned his head, stared at her, his wrinkled mouth frothing with saliva and continued rocking, a small smile on his face. He probably heard her. Or maybe he didn’t. Either way, he rarely spoke, so she didnt know.
Well I tried she thought, stepping back to stare at the carefully orchestrated dinner she had been planning since he had called three months ago. What did you give to someone who no longer really needed you? She wasn’t sure she knew who he was. There were of course pieces, the here and there’s sewn together from a series of short phone conversations over the years. The first few years after he left, she found herself going through a slow grieving process. Grieving for someone who was not dead, but absent. These days they meant the same thing. It was true, the roles were reversed now. The guardian was now ward, caregiver now receiver. Her life matched against his, was a pile of Western Union money transfer receipts, collected, stamped and stapled to each other underneath a small box in her bedroom. Tangible symbols of a relationship that had inverted and collapsed on itself. She thanked God for his return. Muttering prayers as she washes her hair under running water, as she fits the bed sheets in his old room, as she lights candles on behalf of his deceased father. Their son was returning home.
Have you received the money I sent ?
Yes, it’s here you don’t have to send any more for now.
Yet, the cheques came in on the first day of every month, and when she woke up at , her foot lined with dark blue varicose veins as she dragged herself to her father’s room across the hall, head peeking in to make sure he was still breathing, she wondered if his absence and the cheques that filled the hole it had created, was just a fear he masked, a refusal to return to a home that was not always providing, a life that was always turbulent, a mother who was worked to the bone and a country he did not trust. But It did not matter anymore. He would be coming home now. Back in the present, she checks her face in the bathroom mirror, long frail fingers tracing and gliding over skin that seemed to be aging every day. She scowls at her reflection . This was not an aging that was natural, but one induced by a financially disenfranchised life in Nigeria.
Mum I met someone, I didn’t think that I would, but it has been amazing and I can not wait for you both to meet this christmas. He said, his voice on the other end of the line sounding cackled. Terrible reception, she thought, holding tightly to the phone, as if doing so would bring his voice close, or maybe him. But he said This Christmas…. this christmas!. He had been away from home for five years, occasionally sending in money, furniture, cars back to Lagos. She was no longer sure of what he did for a living, but they were not hungry, the house staff had their salaries paid, and her father, the old man who smiled on the brown wicker chair, made hospital visits for his illness. Such a frustrating country she thought, as the line cut off, his voice disappearing . At least he was coming home, and this time with a wife. It had not been easy for them. She imagined that he looked like a younger version of his father now, and perhaps this girl he was bringing back, would be good for him. We can be a proper family now she thought, moving the silverware around for the third time.. A proper family.
She? Mother. I never spoke to you about a woman… I have always told you my position on that…
They held hands. On the flight from LaGuardia International Airport in New York, in the airport lounge in Schipol Airport, and for finalities on the final flight from Amsterdam to Murtala International Airport in Lagos. Here, under the sweltering equatorial sun , in the peripheral vision of greedy immigration officers asking for Dollas! , in their struggle beside the elderly women with more than necessary hand luggage, here, they clenched their fists. They waited awkwardly for their luggage to show up at baggage claim, sometimes making eye contact, withdrawing from a love they had expressed freely in New York. The heat. You can always smell Nigeria from the plane he thought, smiling to himself. He spotted Mr Abayomi, the family driver. He was smaller now. It was shocking to see him like that. Having been carried to and from school as a toddler till he was a teenager. Flecks of white and gray hair now lined his jaw. The man had not changed a day, from the way he smiled, to the way he collected their luggage occasionally eyeing them both through the rearview mirror.
In the car, they hold hands again. This time, sweaty palms slide against each other. It is not the heat, but the unwavering sense of restlessness that has been building since he decided to come home. Why now? He didn’t know. There were a lot of things he did not know. He did not know what to say about the long absence. A pause drawn out so long that he was sure a hole with all the words, feelings and sentences that could not fit into their short phone conversations would fail to fit the gape. He did not know what to say about who he had become, the source of all the money he had provided. He does not look at Lagos with a curiosity or newness. As someone who had been away for so long, his interest here had waned a long time ago. Nigeria was not safe for him, for them. New buildings, infrastructure, cleaner streets and the occasional Oga! things are changing from Mr Abayomi also did not stir him. He was only here to see his mother.
The car pulls into the driveway, and she watches from the window. Mr Abayomi’s rickety parking, God bless his soul but He’s really starting to lose his eyesight, she thought, wondering how she would let him go after his 15 year service to the family. Two figures huddled in the back. Tunde stepped out of the car first. Her stomach tightened. The second figure.. where was the girl as promised? Who?.. Who is that? she wondered. Varicose veined feet finds thinning slippers underneath bed,.She wraps her hair in a thin silk scarf, feet hurrying on stairs, jumping two by two, rough hands occasionally scraping the bannister.
There are two men, she thought her hand holding on the bannister. Two men! She ran. She could not remember the last time she ran on these stairs, but she was running now to the living room. The bemused domestic staff, already privy to the spectacle outside, huddle by the verandah sliding doors watching the scene.
Mother! He cried, his arms stretched in front of him I have missed you so much mama, it is so good to see you. But her arms are nimble, weak, unmoving and they lay at her sides while her eyes survey the living room and the person standing before her .
Some of life’s disappointments are hardest to contain, especially if they are latched around the sharp blade of a broken promise. For there in that living room, in that colonial style house hidden behind whispering almond trees in Ikoyi, stood another man. A tall, lean, brown man with a golden band on his finger, sporting a shirt that read New York University. He did not stretch his arms out. He did not fake a smile. He stood there, wiping equatorial induced sweat from his brow and muttered It’s nice to meet you Mrs Akinyemi. He said the word Akinyemi as AHH KEEENE YUMMY. In her mouth , is the form of crippling distaste. It is the taste of bitterness and hatred of the other, curdled into a bitter bile that she could have spat out there on the living room floor.
Where is she? She asked, swallowing bitter bile, forgetting all decency, and refusing to harp on welcomes and pleasantries until this was clear.
Where is who mama?
Your Fiancee`, the one you told me about on the phone, where is she Tunde?
She? Mother. I never spoke to you about a woman… I have always told you my position on that…
Who is this man? She asks pointing at him. She asks because they both know. But this is a confirmation she must hear from the horse’s mouth. This is the final truth that must seal the gape, that hole, filled with the years of short telephone conversations made with thin telephone cards with the seventeen to twenty digit calling codes. This was unacceptable.
This is Kenneth Mama. He is my fiance. We are … we are legally married in the state of New York. He stammered. Kenneth walks up to him, takes his hand and squeezes it.
One of the domestic staff, falls dramatically to the floor, writhing like an earthworm. Mr Abayomi walks to the car and sits in the passenger seat.. crying.
I waited for you… I waited for you for FIVE YEARS! and you have gone and married a man. A man! What will your father have said about this? she said , tears streaming from her eyes as she glares at Kenneth standing beside him, as though he alone was the sole cause of their problems.
Mother, Kenneth and I have been together since the day we met. This is who I am, who I have been even when I was here. Why do you think I have not returned home in 5 years? Why do you think I have not spoken about anyone to you in 5 years? I knew you would be like this..
Don’t give me that American wonder nonsense! You have been gone for five whole years, to become a gay! a gay! I want you out of my house..
Mother!… He cries out in disbelief.
I WANT YOU OUT!! TUNDE.. YOU AND YOUR GAY.. OUT!
What ensues after that, is a quick departure. He leaves, unshaken in belief, identity forged without her criticism in the past 5 years. With his hand in Kenneth’s , he says to her, I will be at the Hilton, you have my phone number you can call me and we can talk about it. It seemed now, that the day was no different from a short telephone call, except that the gaping hole had finally swallowed all of them. There they were, swimming around in the dark abysmal hole of hate, misunderstanding and abandonment. The table is cleared, the staff eat an early dinner, whispering to each other about the prodigal son returned as a gay and make their way to an early bed eventually.
But there on the wicker chair, in the garden beyond the verandah where Ixora and bees spoke a subtle language; a loud laugh could be heard echoing. It bounces off the arranged dinner tables, beyond the walls of a mother, son and deceased father portrait that had aged as much as her face, and it glides on the air wafting in from outside. Into the night, remnants of that laugh, marbles with the cries of a woman with thinning varicosed veined feet , as she slips off her rubber slippers and weaves beneath the blankets, breathing in the scent of five years of loneliness.
Perhaps absence was better.