A Spectator of a Cherished Intimacy

Uzoma Ihejirika

On the night your father went missing, a friend in whose house you’d been squatting had kicked you out. It was the live-in maid who informed Kamsiyochukwu, your younger brother, who in turn passed the message to you. The maid said she had served your father dinner, tucked him into bed for the night and went to have her bath. When she had finished bathing, she went to check if your father had fallen asleep and found his bed empty. She called out to him, checking the wardrobe, the kitchen, his reading room, and the sitting room, but she did not find him. Then she went out into the chilly night, onto the street buzzing with the roars of generator sets, but your father was nowhere in sight.

You were seated on a bench in front of a locked shop, and after Kamsiyochukwu had begged you to leave everything you’re doing now and go home and you agreed, you buried your face in your rucksack and wept. That night, in the unforgiving bite of the cold, you trekked home.

The following day, you and the maid went to the police station to file a missing-person’s report. The officers behind the counter insisted that you had to endure the 24-hour wait before your father could be declared missing. Bile rose to your tongue.

“We haven’t seen him all through last night to today,” you said. “Isn’t that enough time to conclude that he is missing?”

“You wan teach us our job?” one of the officers snapped.

You left.

When you told Kamsiyochukwu what the police officers said, he called them a set of incompetent buffoons. He promised to do something about the matter. Minutes later, he called and said you should return to the police station; that he had sorted the matter. You asked him what he had done, but he refused to say. “Just go there,” he said.

The police officers’ disposition, on your return, was cheerful and accommodating. “Welcome, sir,” they said, smiling. “Why you no tell us say you sabi our Oga at the top?”

The police officers told the maid to write a statement about the night of your father’s disappearance. You wrote yours too. Days later, your father’s face – grey beard and toothy smile – and name – Mr. Albert Okafor – was spread all over the Internet and newspaper pages and TV screens and on the radio. Accompanying that was an impassioned plea for useful information about his whereabouts and a promise of monetary reward – courtesy of Kamsiyochukwu – for such helpers.

Two days after the announcements, a mechanic in Apapa reached out to the police. She said she had seen your father twice, clad in blue-striped pyjamas, wandering and muttering to himself. You gathered a few concerned persons and rushed to Apapa. After hours of questioning the mechanic and other roadside artisans, you found your father reclined on a cement block, his head resting on the base of a utility pole, burbling.

He jolted awake when you tapped his shoulder and called, “Dad.”

He frowned at you and said, “I’ve looked all over the place for you. Don’t you know we are late for Mass?”

*

You took your father to the hospital owned by his friend, Dr Shehu. Dr Shehu, eight years younger than your father, was a small-boned, dark man with a grey beard and a bald head. When Dr Shehu got up from his seat behind his desk and stretched out his hand to your father for a handshake, his gesture received a snub. Your father stared at Dr Shehu as one would an intruding stranger.

“I saw the news about your father’s disappearance; I’m glad he has been found,” Dr Shehu said when you and your father sat on the seats in front of his desk. “It seems he hasn’t been taking his medications, right?”

You shook your head. “I don’t know. I haven’t been at home in months. The maid my brother employed said she always made sure he took his pills.”

“Doesn’t seem like it,” Dr Shehu said, casting a glance at your father who stared back at him with empty eyes. He shook his head. “You need to watch him closely. His condition is worsening. He needs to be you and your brother’s priority. Understood?”

You nodded. “Yes, doctor.”

Outside Dr Shehu’s hospital, in the noisy Lagos afternoon that was a marriage of generator sets and car horns and loud talking and laughter, you called Kamsiyochukwu and told him all that the doctor had said. For a while, he said nothing – as if your words were morsels of food he needed to swallow and let settle before speaking. Then you heard him sigh, and say, “I have an idea.”

“What is it?”

“I think you should move in with Dad.”

It was your turn to swallow his words. You let your mind nosedive into the past: into what living in the same house with your father and mother used to be, into what drove you away from home, into what leaving had made you become. You shut your eyes, listened to the cacophony of sounds, and drew breath from the air that stank of shit and weed and cigarettes and spices. You swallowed hard, and Kamsiyochukwu’s words landed with a thud in your stomach.

“Did you hear me?”

You opened your eyes and pressed the phone firmly to your ear. “Yes.”

“He’s our father and we are the ones to care for him, you know. What do you think about my idea?”

“What about the maid?”

“She will have to go. Let’s keep this within the family.”

You thought to tell Kamsiyochukwu about your ordeal the night of your father’s disappearance, but decided not to – he didn’t need to know. “I will stay with Dad,” you said.

*

Every morning when your father woke up, you’d follow him to the toilet where he’d take a leak or a dump, bathe him and help him get dressed, feed him and read him stories from his favourite newspapers – The Sun and Guardian. If he liked something you read, he would nod and smile. If he didn’t, he would frown and say, “Idiots” – even if it was just one person you were reading about.

He slept all through the afternoon. You made sure of that, ignoring his “I don’t want sleep, I don’t want sleep,” as you slipped his pills into his glass of lime juice. Minutes after he had grumbled his way into bed, he would fall into a fit of gentle snoring. You’d leave him, making sure to lock the door. Then you would bathe, fix yourself a meal, and, with some of the money Kamsiyochukwu sent, go out to shop for foodstuff and your father’s medications. Before leaving the house, you’d make sure to lock the door, sink the keys deep into your pocket and, for good measure, tap them to be sure they were in there.

In the evening, while cooking dinner, you would slot in a disc of your father’s favourite musicians into the CD player: Oliver de Coque, Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, Oriental Brothers, Gentleman Mike Ejeagha, King Sunny Adé, Fela Kuti, Bob Marley. While the music played, your father would sit in the parlour, nodding and smiling. Sometimes, he would try to sing along but would jumble up the lyrics. Dr Shehu had said music was one of the aids that could lessen the sickness’s hold on your father’s memory. 

One afternoon, feeling no need to go out to shop, you placed a call to Isioma. Isioma was a girl you met at Madam Best’s canteen where she worked as a cook. You had gone to the canteen with Paul, the friend who ejected you from his house. When your order of fufu and egusi soup arrived, you dug into the food and let out an excited cry.

“Wetin be dat?” Paul asked.

“The soup is very different,” you said.

Paul chuckled. “Which kain talk be dat? How the soup take different?”

“You won’t understand,” you said. “This is good – very delicious.”

You finished eating the food in no time. You told Paul who was still eating – he was always a slow eater – to wait, that you wanted to see Madam Best. You strolled to the back of the canteen where the buxom Madam Best held sway behind a plastic table, counting bundles of naira notes.

“Madam Best, the best madam,” you hailed her.

She smiled at you, flashing her chipped tooth. She called your name and said, “How you dey na?”

“Na Jehovah get us,” you said as you sat in one of the plastic chairs.

Madam Best returned to counting her money.

“Madam Best,” you said.

“Eh?” She raised her head to stare at you.

“It’s like another hand has entered your kitchen. The egusi soup scatter my head. Who cook am?”

Madam Best laughed. “Na the new girl wey I employ o.”

You snapped your fingers. “I said it! Please, where is she? I want to greet her.”

“Isioma!” Madam Best called out. “Abeg come out, my customer wan greet you.”

When she emerged from the darkened enclosure of the kitchen, you gasped. She was a beauty: night-dark skin that glowed with sweat, a perfectly chiselled face, and when she fixed her eyes on you, you felt yourself surrendering to the inviting vastness that called from inside her.

“My customer say him enjoy your cooking,” Madam Best said to her.

She turned to you. “Thank you.”

You smiled at her. “The food too sweet.”

“Thank you.”

When she had returned to the kitchen, you turned to Madam Best and said, “She get boyfriend?”

Madam Best laughed. “How I wan take know? Go ask her that one by yourself.”

You went into the blazingly hot kitchen. Isioma was stirring a pot of jollof rice while a man chopped vegetables and two other men took turns pounding the fufu in a mortar. “Please, can I see you outside?” you said to Isioma.

“I’m coming,” she said.

Outside, the air slapped your face with refreshing force. Isioma came to join you.

“I’m sorry for bothering you,” you said. “I’d like us to be friends. Can I have your number?”

She smiled. “What’s your name?”

“Tobenna.”

She called out her phone number and you dialled.

“Thank you,” you said. “I’ll give you a call soon.”

She nodded and returned to the kitchen.

Now, as you listened to her line ring, you wondered if – and hoped – she would pick up. She did.

“Hello?”

“Hey Isioma, it’s me.”

“Who?”

You winced as you told her your name.

“Oh,” was all she said.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call like I promised I would. Some issues came up.”

“Okay.”

“Can we meet?” you asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Great. What do you think of Saturday, this week? At Daddy’s Kitchen?”

“Yeah, that’s fine by me.”

When you end the call, a smile tugged at your lips.

*

Your mother had not planned to get pregnant with you. She and your father were not married yet, and she had a master’s degree she was two months away from securing – if only your father hadn’t finished inside her. Giving birth to you, she told whoever cared to listen, had been hell: the preterm labour; the sweat-filled, energy-exacting pushes that popped out no baby, just air; the doctor’s calm but firm voice as she said, “You have to undergo a C-section, madam,”; the post-surgery days spent in the hospital bed weeping, while you laid in the incubator. Your mother feared your arrival had done irredeemable damage to her chances of childbearing.

People gossiped that the tough birth was punishment for your mother’s fornication. When your mother heard those whispers, they churned her insides.

Two years later, when Kamsiyochukwu arrived, causing no hassle, your mother – now married and sinless – cried tears of gratitude to God and embraced her son as the calm after a storm that he was.

Growing up, your mother never failed to show that she preferred your brother to you. On her insistence, family and friends called her Mummy Kamsi. She made sure your brother had a swell time on his birthdays: food at Mr. Bigg’s, visits to amusement parks and beaches, an expensive and delicious cake, toys and video games. She was always willing to help Kamsiyochukwu with his assignments, no matter how knackered she was from work. Kamsiyochukwu got whatever it was he wanted and more. You, on the other hand, got a whack or a sermon on prudence whenever you demanded something.

Your father tried to fill the hole he noticed your mother had dug in you. On your birthdays, he would take you out to the same places your mother went with Kamsiyochukwu. He would help with your assignments. Play card games with you and your brother on weekends. Cup your face in his hands and call you his most handsome son. But the hole in you never got filled; your mother wasn’t playing her part in the shovelling.

One evening, while the four of you were having dinner, your mother scolded you for asking her to pass the salt shaker which was nearer to her. “Stupid boy, what happened to your own hands?”

Your father reprimanded her: “I don’t appreciate this loathing, Agnes.”

“What loathing? I see you’re the one encouraging his stupidity and laziness.”

“Me?”

“Am I talking to your shadow?”

You watched in silence as your father gripped his fork and knife, his face a ramshackle of annoyance. He set his cutlery down on his plate, pushed back his seat and stood. “I have had my fill,” he said.

Your mother said nothing; she continued eating, ignoring the red-hot glare in your father’s eyes as he left the dinner table.

You kept your gaze down at your food, tears blurring your vision.

At school, your grades suffered. In class, you always zoned out, dreaming up different lives that featured loving parents, a brother, happiness as seats, laughter in place of the TV, and togetherness as windows – to keep out the odour from the trash can-hate outside the home.

At 15, you repeated SSS 1 twice. Your mother mocked you, saying: “I have always known you are a failure.” Your father, too, was disappointed. “You’re better than this,” he said. Your brother, Kamsiyochukwu, was promoted into your class. In school, teachers would say to you, “See your brother coming to meet you in the same class, while some of your mates have gone on to the university. Soon, he’ll leave and you will still be here.”

One time, Ms. Jacob, the English teacher, was teaching synonyms and antonyms and she threw a question at the class: “Who can give me a word and its antonym?”

Oghene, a short-statured and buck-toothed boy said: “The antonym for Kamsiyochukwu is Tobenna.” The class turned into a laugh fest. Oghene laughed at his good joke. Kamsiyochukwu laughed. The teacher laughed. You placed your head on your desk and wept, your body rattling with indignant force. No one came to say sorry. Ms. Jacob resumed her teaching.

When the time for JAMB exams came, your mother sang Kamsiyochukwu’s praise when he told her he planned to study Electrical/Electronic Engineering; she said a course like that guaranteed one’s future. She did not bother to ask for yours. Your father did. “Psychology,” you told him. Your father pulled you and Kamsiyochukwu into his embrace, kissed your foreheads and said, “My boys are becoming men.”

You failed your JAMB exams. Kamsiyochukwu passed his exams and got admitted into the University of Benin. Your mother danced with joy – at your failure and for Kamsiyochukwu’s success. Your father beamed at your brother. To you, he said, “You will make it next time.” In his first year of university, courtesy of the benevolence of a Nigerian telecommunication company, Kamsiyochukwu received a scholarship that oversaw his education until his final year. Your parents were ecstatic. You never congratulated your brother.

*

That Saturday afternoon while your father slept, you left the house to meet Isioma. Daddy’s Kitchen was a restaurant tucked in-between rows of houses on a quiet street. Isioma was seated in a corner when you parted the beaded curtain of the restaurant and entered. She was with a man who leaned into her as he spoke. A grateful smile lit up her face when she looked in your direction.

“Hey,” you said when you reached her table.

The man turned and shot you a questioning glare.

“This is the friend I told you I was waiting for,” Isioma said to the man.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

You pulled out a seat and sat, facing Isioma.

The man rose. “I will leave you two, then.” He dipped his hand into the front pocket of his shirt, brought out three 500-naira notes, and tossed them onto the table. “Drinks on me,” he said. “You, call me later.” He winked at Isioma, shot you a grin and left.

The air around you both soured with the man’s insolence. You shifted in your seat. “He gave you his number?”

“He did,” Isioma said. “He sha didn’t want to stop pestering me.”

You nodded. “So how are you?”

“Angry,” she said.

“Angry?”

“Yes na. Why did you keep me waiting?”

“I had to tidy up some things.”

You watched her slide her stubby fingers across the table and pick the man’s money.

“What are you doing?” you asked.

“It’s free money. What do you want me to do, leave it here?”

You looked away.

A flat-screen television, playing on mute, was showing a music video with laughing women throwing back their hair and grinding their behinds against the groins of men who smacked their lips and threw cash in the air. The television, hung on the wall, was inches close to the space where servers in blue shirts entered and exited carrying trays of food and drinks. With each movement, the beaded curtain in-between would sway and clatter against the screen. You shook your head at the sight.

“What?” Isioma asked.

“Nothing.”

You ordered meals for both of you. While she ate, she told you about herself. She was the last child in a family of six children. Her two brothers and three sisters lived in a scattering of places: Aba, Jos, Owerri and Enugu. She stopped her education after secondary school. She hadn’t progressed into university because her father was among those cast out of the civil service without their gratuity, and her mother’s income as a fish seller was too little to cater for food andeducation. Her brothers and sisters, too, had no university education.

“But I will go back to school one day,” she said. “I’ve been saving. Soon I will start a part-time programme.”

You watched her eat. You found an alluring grace in her simple act of lifting her spoon into her mouth and placing her left hand underneath to stop grains of rice from reaching the table or floor. You felt in her a put-together sureness that shone through. Sureness, you were afraid, you lacked.

“Why are you smiling?” Isioma asked.

“You’re beautiful in every way.”

She laughed and said, “Oya, tell me about yourself.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Everything.”

You laughed an uneasy laugh. “You can’t know everything about a person in one day.”

“I know,” she said. “Start talking.”

You sighed. “I have a brother and parents.” You stared at the TV; the goings-and-comings of the servers still made the curtain clatter against it.

“Is that all?” Isioma asked.

“Yes,” you said.

“Stop, joor,” she said, laughing. “Tell me more.”

You obliged her, choosing to tell some truths, and some lies: your father, whom you took care of, lived with you; you studied psychology at UNN; your brother lived in Abuja with his wife and son; your brother was an engineer and his wife a nurse; now, you worked as a customer care agent in a bank.

“What about your mother?”

You beckoned at the server who had brought your meals. He came and stood beside you, pen and jotter in hand.

“Sir?”

“How much for our food?” you asked.

“4,000 naira, sir.”

You were reaching for your wallet when Isioma handed the server some money. “What are you doing?” you asked her.

“Paying my share,” she said. “It’s the money that man gave me.”

“No, no. Don’t do that,” you said. “Shebi I told you not to take the man’s money?”

A frown shaded her face. “What’s your problem with the money?”

“Why will you pay for our meals with another man’s money?” you said. “Also, it’s wrong and shameful for a woman to pay for a man’s food.”

She gaped at you.

You counted out money from your wallet and gave to the server. “Keep the change,” you said.

“Thank you, sir,” he blurted with a too-bright smile on his face and went away.

“Where were we?” you said to Isioma.

She stood up and picked up her handbag.

“Wha—what is it?”

“I’m going home.”

“Why?”

She slung her handbag across her shoulder. “Why would you say it’s wrong for a woman to pay for a man’s food?”

“But it is,” you said.

She hissed and turned to leave. You held her hand.

“Leave me alone!” she said.

People stopped eating and conversing, and stared. You let go and watched her march toward the exit.

“Isioma! Isioma!”

She didn’t look back or stop.

On the table, beside her plate, lay the three 500-naira notes.

*

You weren’t sure of the exact moment your father’s sickness overwhelmed him but, in hindsight, one incident was glaring.

It was your mother’s 47th birthday celebration and your third time failing JAMB. Your mother was in high spirits. Days before, she had sent out glossy card invitations to relatives, friends, and members of the Catholic Women Organization. She bought new clothes and jewellery. She ignored your father’s plea for prudence and paid an exorbitant fee for an event hall. She recruited the services of a top-notch catering agency for the food and drinks. She even persuaded your brother to miss a test so he wouldn’t miss her party.

On the morning of the party, your mother ordered you to act as a chauffeur for some of her guests who would have a hard time finding the venue. “At least, you should be good for something, instead of lazing about this house,” she said.

“Let me do it instead,” Kamsiyochukwu offered.

“No,” your mother said. “He will do it. You have no idea the sort of idleness your brother is glorying in.”

Kamsiyochukwu said nothing.

Since his arrival from school, Kamsiyochukwu was always engaging you in some mild-mannered conversation – what have you been up to lately? Hope Mum hasn’t been giving you too much trouble? You deflected his questions and chose to ask him about school, mostly borne out of guilt because you hadn’t called him all that while – What’s UNIBEN like? How easy or difficult is university life? Do you have friends? Any girlfriend?

“Yes,” he said, smiling. “Her name is Itohan. She has spoken with Mum. I think Mum likes her already.”

You nodded.

“What about you?” he asked. “Any lover I should know?”

You shook your head. “Mum won’t even let me find peace, talk less of love.”

He made to speak when your mother called his name. “I’m coming,” he said and left your room.

By noon, your mother’s friends started calling to inform her of their locations. She gave you the information and said, “Oya, start going.”

You met your father in the car park, standing beside the car you were to drive. You told him what your mother wanted you to do.

“Let me help you run the errand,” he said.

“But Mum—”

“Never mind,” he said. “Your mother will be too excited to notice.” Before you could protest further, your father got into the car and drove off.

When you returned into the house, your mother said, “Are you done with the errand I sent you on?”

You told her your father had taken over the duties assigned to you.

She shook her head. “That man has always spoiled you.”

You willed the bile in your throat to settle into your stomach, nodded and walked away.

An hour later, while you got prepared to take a bath, your mother yelled your name from the sitting room. You rushed out to meet her.

“What did you say your father went to do?”

“He said he would go to pick up your friends.”

“Where is he, then? None of my friends has seen him!”

Kamsiyochukwu came into the room. “What’s wrong, Mum?”

“It’s your father. He went behind my back to do what I asked your brother to do, and now no one knows his whereabouts.”

Kamsiyochukwu dialled your father’s line. Your father’s phone, trapped in the folds of a settee, started to ring.

“Can you imagine?” your mother said. “He left his phone here. How are we supposed to reach him?”

Kamsiyochukwu and you exchanged worried glances.

“This man wants to ruin my day,” your mother said. “I know he isn’t happy with my preparations but is that why he would want to ruin my day, eh?”

Kamsiyochukwu went to sit beside your mother. He put his arm around her, saying: “There must be an explanation for this, Mum. Dad isn’t unreasonable. There must be an explanation.”

Your mother placed her head on his shoulder and started sobbing.

Watching mother and son, you felt an irrepressible urge press upon your shoulders; you wanted to do to your mother what Kamsiyochukwu was doing to her. You wanted to be her son at this moment, to comfort her by reminding her how good a man your father was – a man who wouldn’t mindlessly hurt her feelings; you wanted her to trust you enough to cry on your shoulders. Instead, you stayed put and watched them – a spectator of a cherished intimacy.

Minutes later, your father returned. The three of you rushed out of the house and stood at the door as his car pulled in. He was smiling when he alighted. He strode to the back seat and took out shopping bags brimming with groceries. “Hey boys, look at what I bought,” he said when he approached the three of you.

“Have you lost your mind?” Your mother scowled.

“What—what do you mean?”

“What do I mean? Did anyone tell you we needed groceries?”

“Has it become a crime to stock up on groceries?”

Your mother went silent. Kamsiyochukwu and you stared at each other. You found in his eyes, like you were sure he saw in yours, shock and fear.

“What’s happening?” your father said. “Why are you all giving me strange looks?”

You mustered up the courage and said, “Dad, what’s going on?”

“I should be the one asking the three of you.”

“You didn’t say you were going shopping.”

“Well, I was just driving around, and I thought I should just pop into a supermarket and get stuff for us.”

“You were just driving around?” your mother said in a loud voice.

“Yes. And I don’t like this interrogation!”

“Dad, you were supposed to pick Mum’s friends,” Kamsiyochukwu said.  

“Your mother’s friends? Why?”

“You’re an idiot!” your mother spat. She spun and ran into the house.

“What’s going on?” your father said, looking from you to Kamsiyochukwu; his eyes shone with the innocence of a child.

“Today is Mum’s birthday,” you said. “You promised to pick her friends.”

“Oh.”

You and Kamsiyochukwu took the shopping bags from your father and returned to the house. He followed you both. You could hear your mother’s wailing from her bedroom. Kamsiyochuwku, without a word, handed his bag to you and went to see her.

You turned to stare at your father. He looked lost and helpless, with his hands flailing by his sides like tired feathers.

His eyes met yours and he said, “Now I remember.”

*

A day after the date-gone-wrong, you texted Isioma: Am sorry about the other day. Let us see again. Please.

She didn’t text back or call.

You waited until the next day before you dialled her line. It rang but she didn’t pick up the call. You tried four more times. She still didn’t answer.

You sent another text: Am really sorry. Forgive me. Please.

She texted back: I will think about it.

*

Over the phone, Kamsiyochukwu told you that Itohan was pregnant with their second child. It was morning and you were making breakfast. “That’s wonderful,” you said. You called out to your father, “Dad, Kamsi has good news.” Your father grunted a response.

“Can I speak with her?” you said to Kamsiyochukwu.

“Yes, of course!”

Itohan came on the line. “Hello?”

“Congratulations, Itohan!”

“Thank you, dear.” You could see the smile in her words; Itohan always wore a smile. “How are you doing? And Dad, too. How’s he?”

“We are good. How Abuja na?”

“We’re alright o.”

“Kamsi told me the other time that my little nephew has joined a children’s choir. That means we have a Wizkid in the making.”

Itohan laughed. “I want a Flavour. That’s the man to whose music your brother and I made our son.”

You heard Kamsiyochukwu’s uproarious laughter in the background.

“Wait, let me give Dad the phone,” you said. You gave the phone to your father. “Dad, it is Itohan.”

“Who?”

“Kamsi’s wife.”

“Oh.” He took the phone from you and put it to his ears. “Hello? Ah. Me? I feel tired sometimes. Yes. He” – your father glanced up at you – “is trying. I’m not well. Yes. I mean it. Kamsi? Yes, give him the phone.”

You asked, “What is it, Dad?”

“Yes, Kamsi. I’m not well. He abandoned me in the house.”

A thumping rose in your chest. “What are you doing, Dad?”

“Yes, he did. Take.” Your father handed over the phone to you, averting your stunned gaze.

You raised the phone to your ear. “Hello.”

“Is it true?” Kamsiyochukwu asked.

“No. I don’t—”

“Why would you do such a thing? How could you be so careless? What if he had hurt himself, eh? That is so daft of you!”

“Kam—”

He ended the call.

You turned your gaze to your father; he looked away.

*

Three months after your mother’s botched birthday party, Dr Shehu diagnosed your father of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Before then, your mother had barely been on talking terms with your father. She carried the hurt of his actions and the embarrassment of calling family and friends to cancel the party. Your father, in an act of apology, insisted that he’d prepare dinner and left the food burning while he strolled into bed to sleep. Kamsiyochukwu, when the news got to him in school, insisted that your father see a doctor. Your mother went with your father to see Dr Shehu.

They returned hours later, sullen.

“What did Dr Shehu say?” you asked.

Your father didn’t answer. Neither did your mother.

“Please tell me what the problem is,” you said.

Your mother cleared her throat and told you the doctor’s diagnosis.

“But—but, how? Dad is just fifty.”

“Dr Shehu told me it is hereditary,” your father said, his head bowed. “My father and his father suffered the same ailment.”

You called Kamsiyochukwu and told him. You heard the shock in his voice as he screamed.

“That can’t be possible,” he said.

“I’m afraid, it is.”

On Dr Shehu’s advice, your father resigned from his role as managing director at an investment bank. He delved into his long-held love for agriculture. He opened a poultry farm, employed a supervisor and some staff. He stayed home with your mother, ate healthily, read, took naps and took the medication Dr Shehu prescribed for him. “I can beat this,” he’d say. “I know I can.”

You noticed that his condition softened your mother. She would dote on him, asking if he needed anything, rushing to get whatever he requested for, rather than yelling at you to go and fetch it. She’d warn for absolute silence in the house so that your father could enjoy his siesta. You wondered if, perhaps, your father’s diagnosis had convinced her that, indeed, your father wasn’t a man to be uncaring to those who mattered to him.

One afternoon, your mother went out to see friends. While you and your father sat in the living room watching television, your father’s phone rang. The call came from your mother’s phone but it was a man’s voice that came through.

“Who’s this?” your father asked.

The man on the other end of the line said a woman was involved in a car crash and a search of her phone revealed your father’s number as her husband’s.

“What! Yes, yes, I’m her husband,” your father said, rising to his feet, injecting fear and suspense into the room.

You and your father rushed to the hospital where your mother was. When your father introduced himself to the doctor in charge, she shook her head and said, “I’m sorry, sir. We lost her already.”

Your father let out a piercing cry.

Your father told you not to tell Kamsiyochukwu about your mother’s demise; he didn’t want her death to distract him in his finals. When Kamsiyochukwu called to complain about your mother not calling him, you held back tears as you conjured up a lie.

“You know Mum,” you said. “She’s busy chasing money.”

You knew how stupid the words were before they left your mouth.

“Too busy chasing money to call, or text, at least?”

One blustery evening, a knock sounded at the door. When you opened it, Kamsiyochukwu’s swollen, bloodshot eyes stared back at you. Uttering no word, you stepped aside and he walked past you.

“Why did you lie to me?” he’d later ask you and your father. “Why did you let me find out about my mother’s death from an outsider?”

“I was trying to protect you,” your father said.

“Protect me? Protect me from a truth I deserve to know? How dare you two lie to me?”

You watched Kamsiyochukwu as he sobbed.

There was a heartbreaking openness in the way he cried, the way he didn’t try to hide his face as snot and tears mixed. He let it all out for you and your father to see, you mused, how much you both had hurt him. Tears rose to the cliff of your eyes. Your brother’s pain was great, but so was yours too. You were mourning the loss of a precious gem you always wished for but never had. You hadn’t expected your mother’s death to hurt, but it did. You had thought you would feel no pain – maybe relief that, finally, your longing was dead like its object of affection – but what longing didn’t wish to be assuaged? At that moment, you and Kamsiyochukwu, you realised, were the same – children deprived of the warmth of a mother’s love.

You sat beside Kamsiyochukwu on the settee. You placed a hand around him and he leaned into you, his head on your shoulder. You wept with him.

*

While your father took his siesta, you decided to take a walk to clear your head – and erase the thought of the lie he told against you, which you knew was a symptom of his sickness.

The streets buzzed with activity: cars and keke napeps and okadas sped by; men and women and children called out to one another, spoke loudly with one another, laughed with one another; sounds of music burst out from several corners. The sun laid a gentle hand on you, caressing you, while the air rushing under and through your clothes left tattoos of coolness on your skin.

You remembered Paul.

You had met Paul at the betting shop where you had gone to place football bets. He had been sitting on a bench close to a socket that powered an extension cord that fed phones and laptops and rechargeable lanterns. When you sat on the bench and muttered, “Good afternoon,” he lifted his face from the long strip of bet slip he was holding, peered at you and said, “Bros, good afternoon.”

You brought out your phone, put on your internet connection, and started scrolling through the match fixtures for the weekend. You wondered if Chelsea had it in them to defeat Liverpool, or if Stoke City could cause an upset at the Emirates Stadium, or if Werder Bremen could avoid a loss to Borussia Dortmund as they did last weekend against Bayern Munich. After your mother’s death, you had turned to football betting as a distraction from the discomfiting silence at home, and as a source of income. It was all you could squeeze out as water from the rock that had become your life.  You were a 27-year-old man who had given up on schooling and cowered at the gloom that surrounded the future.

“Shit. My bet don cut.” Paul hissed.

You turned to him and asked, “How much you stake?”

“2,500 naira,” he said.

“Dat na plenty money.”

“This week I never chop anything,” he said. “E be like say my village people don finally locate me.”

You laughed. You’d come to like how Paul never ran empty of humour. How he always inserted it into every conversation and into whatever mood that pervaded the discussion. His funniness would thaw faces frozen with annoyance and turn an already-cheery situation into a fanfare. You admired that he had built for himself a well of happiness from which he drew and drenched his listeners.

“I fit show you the way,” you said.

Paul peered at you. He was in his twenties but you were sure he was younger than you were. “Bros, show me the way abeg.”

You lent Paul some tricks and tips: never bet on a team you support except if you’re convinced of a win – because your emotions will get in the way of your senses; research is paramount: study analysis, statistics, recent form and injuries, head-to-head information, and team news and selections; never play virtual games – they are a sure-fire way to losses. Paul took your words to heart like a willing student. Both of you would meet at the betting shop and, with the voices of other bettors swirling and crashing against one another in the air, make permutations, discard notions and reach agreements.

Paul’s fortunes improved. You became more than friends – brothers.

Dark clouds were starting to gather, a rumble echoed in the belly of the sky. The cool air had transformed into a strong wind, bending tree leaves and knocking pace into people’s steps. You were four streets away from home. You turned and headed homewards.

A prayer you didn’t know breathed in you was answered when you found out Paul lived alone. The thought pirouetted in your mind for days until you dropped it into Paul’s ears: “Paul, I don tire to dey live with my papa. I wan start my own life. How you see am if I come squat with you before I get my own house?”

Paul’s face brightened with a smile. “Bros, no wahala at all. You fit come stay with me.”

Kamsiyochukwu wasn’t pleased when you told him you were leaving home.

“What are you doing?” he asked over the phone. He had finished his Master’s Degree at University of Leeds and had just moved to Abuja with Itohan. “Why would you think of abandoning Dad?”

“I’m not abandoning him,” you said.

“But that’s what you’re doing.”

“No. I just want to find a good life for myself.” You paused, your chest swelling with emotion. “Just like you have found one for yourself.”

Kamsiyochukwu was silent. Then he said, “You’re going about it the wrong way.”

Your father, ravished daily by the sickness and the grief of losing a wife, didn’t put up a protest when a heavy-set woman who Kamsiyochukwu employed as a maid appeared in the house and began dishing his meals.

On the day you left, you chose not to say goodbye to your father. You didn’t want the guilt sitting in your heart to morph into a monster that would consume you.

It was drizzling. Tiny drops of rainwater that felt like dots on your face. You hastened your stride.

Paul had a girlfriend – a pretty, young thing called Nnenna. She couldn’t be more than 19. Whenever she came around, Paul and you would engage her in small talk while she hurried about trying to whip up a meal. She always refused your help whenever you offered to lend a hand. Paul would laugh and tell you to leave her. “Na she be the madam of the house,” he’d say. After you had all eaten and chatted some more, Paul would put his arm around Nnenna’s shoulders and, with an inflection in his voice that reeked of mischief, say: “I don miss you o.” You’d take the cue and excuse yourself.

When leaving, Nnenna would say goodbye to you with her head lowered, as though she were ashamed of whatever wrong she felt she had done. After Paul returned from seeing her off, he’d flop onto the bed, gather the tousled sheets to his nostrils and inhale deeply. “Damn. Dat girl dey burst my brain,” he’d say.

You’d try to fight off the thought, but it persisted – you wanted what Paul had. You wanted someone who would fall completely in love with you, who would fuck you whenever you wanted it, who would cook you meals whenever you told them hunger was knocking on the door of your stomach. But you were afraid you’d never get it: you were too plain, you believed, too incomplete, even for yourself.

Thoughts of Nnenna stuffed your head like smoke: in your silent moments of boredom, in the last minutes before you fell asleep, while you listened to Paul boast about his sexual conquests with her. You imagined you and Nnenna standing so close to each other your breaths creased your faces. You wondered what it would feel like slipping your hand into hers and kissing her. In the bathroom, while you showered, you masturbated to thoughts of the things you and she would do with your bodies; the raw hunger you imagined would fuel those moments.

Now, the rain was falling hard. It felt like the heavens were pelting you with stones. You ran toward a shop under whose awning a small group of people were taking shelter from the rain. You joined the group.

One afternoon, Nnenna visited in the absence of Paul who had gone out to watch a football match. You hadn’t been feeling well and had refused Paul’s offer to go with him.

“Good afternoon, sir,” Nnenna said when you opened the door, head bowed, her eyes falling to the ground.

“Come in,” you said, smiling. “Paul no dey sha. Him go watch match.”

“Oh.” She halted at the doorway. “Let me go. I will come back later.”

“No need,” you said. “Come in. Why you wan stress yourself? Don’t you see how hot the sun is?”

She came in and sat on a chair. You latched the door shut.

“You go like drink something?” you asked.

She smiled, shook her head.

“Nothing? The sun hot o. See, you dey even sweat.”

“No, thank you,” she said, the polite smile never leaving her face.

You let her be.

She sat stiffly in the chair, with her legs pressed shut and her hands constantly tugging the helm of her pink body-hugging dress to cover her knees. You sat on the bed, watching her, allowing your eyes to settle on her small hill of cleavage. You swallowed hard. She saw you staring and tugged at the helm of her dress, then looked away.

Minutes later, she rose from the chair. “I have to go. I’ll come back later.”

You stood up. “Wait small. The match go soon end.”

“No, thank you.” She made for the door, but you stopped her with an outstretched hand.

“Calm down,” you said. “Are you afraid of me?”

She looked you in the eye and said, “No.” Then she dropped her gaze. “Not really.”

Your eyes fell on her cleavage. “I can be your friend,” you said. “Just relax.”

“Please let me go.” Her voice had turned shaky and on the cusp of tears. “Please. I want to go.”

“I want to be your friend. I want—”

Someone knocked on the door.

“Who is it?” You called out.

“O’boy, na me, Paul.”

Paul’s voice shocked you and you scurried away from Nnenna as if you had been caught stealing. You went and opened the door for Paul.

Paul entered the room and ground to a halt. “Wetin dey happen here?”

Nnenna covered her face with her hands and began sobbing.

Paul turned to you and asked, “Bros, wetin dey happen?”

You put on a stoic look. “Nothing.”

“Nnenna, wetin you dey do here?” Paul asked.

She raised her face from her hands, wiped her tears. “I—I came to see you.”

“Your babe na ashawo.” The words left your mouth before you could rein them back.

“Eh?” Paul stared at you.

An energy bubbling in you took charge and made you want to break things, destroy things. “She dey always come give me fuck when you no dey.”

“That’s a lie!” Nnenna said. “He’s lying.”

“So you dey fuck my friend?” Paul asked Nnenna.

“No, no—”

Paul cut her off with a slap. “Bastard, so you dey fuck my friend?” He dealt her another slap. “So dis na wetin you dey always do for my back?” She shielded her face with both hands, her cries growing to fit into the smallness of the room.

“Bros, you dey sleep with my babe,” Paul said to you, more a statement than a question.

You hissed. “If she give me sugar, why I no go lick?”

Someone behind you coughed. The wind howled and blew in rain at your faces. You remembered the pain you saw in Nnenna’s eyes as Paul ordered her out of the house. That look she gave you lanced your heart. You sighed at the memory.

A thought pricked you like a sharp pain in the chest. Your hands flew to your pockets and tapped; there was no jangle of keys. You ignored the curious stares of others as you pulled out your phone and turned your pockets inside out. No keys. Alarm bells rang off in your head. You entered the rain and dashed off.

*

The front door was open; a pool of rainwater sat on the threshold of the door. You entered the house, slamming the door shut. “Dad,” you called out. “Dad!” You were unsure if you locked the door to his bedroom. The doorknob yielded when you turned it. “Dad!” He was not in his bed. You checked his reading room. Ran to the kitchen to check. Went to the toilet and bathroom to check. You returned to the sitting room. You saw the bunch of keys on the centre table. Your legs turned to jelly and you slumped into a settee. The rain pounded against the windows as if pleading to be let in.

Your phone beeped in your pocket. You brought it out. A text message from Isioma: I’m sorry but I don’t think we will work. Have a good life. Your phone slid from your grasp and crashed to the floor.

The sound of falling rain drowned your thoughts.

Uzoma Ihejirika is a Nigerian creative writer and journalist. He is an editor for the AfroAnthology Series and a copy editor for Minority Africa and is a staff writer for Open Country Mag.

 

*Image by Sam Moqadam on Unsplash