Fiction

Diary of an Octogenarian: Fiction by Olayinka Oyegbile

Image: Bigstock.com

Image: Bigstock.com

At eighty five and at the twilight of my life; as I sit here in a chair and ponder over my life, I feel compelled to write this. It is not for me but for my two lovely children, no, I mean three. Yes, I have children and they are all successful in their own ways. One of them knows the others while the other two don’t know her.

Let me explain: by the time Feyi and Fola would be reading this they surely would be astounded. They never knew they had a sister anywhere in the world. Their mother, Bidemi, now eighty would perhaps be the worse off if she ever got to read this. However, Jane, the mother of my other daughter knew right from the outset that I was married.

I will start from the beginning.

******

Some forty years ago, as a journalist I got a media Fellowship to travel to Boston, Massachusetts in the United States of America. It was a boost to my career and life. Before then I had always dreamt of going to America. In fact, travelling was my first attraction to journalism, because I believed it was the greatest education you could get from life.  I was a senior editor with a leading magazine in my country. That was years before the advent of the Internet.

I had been busy at my desk writing a story when the editor sent for me. I was reluctant to go and see him because I didn’t want my flow of thoughts to be broken. But it all looked so urgent because he was persistent and had called again through the office intercom. As I walked into his office his secretary, a personable and lovely young lady told me, “Oga has been waiting for you since. It seems it’s something urgent.”

“Thanks, I’ve been busy writing.”

She interrupted before I could end my sentence, saying “I think you better go inside fast.” She opened the door and ushered me into the editor’s expansive office.

He had a paper in his hand and he stretched it out to me saying, “Tolu, I want you to sit down here and fill this form immediately because we have to return it to the American Consulate first thing tomorrow morning. It is urgent and important.”

I took the form from him, replying that I would return to the newsroom to fill and get it back to him later.

“No, Tolu, I want you to sit down right here and fill it now.”

This was unusual. He was a stickler to rules and deadlines. How could he have asked me to put the filling of a form ahead of completing a story I was writing to beat a deadline? I wondered.

All my pleas that I should be allowed to go and return the form later fell on deaf ears.

I quickly ran through the five pages and did as I was told. After that I returned it to him and went back to the newsroom to continue the story I was writing.

The form I’d just filled was an application for a fellowship and I never gave a thought to it after that.

******

Three months later, the editor summoned me to his office and gave me a letter. It was from the American Embassy and I was told to appear in another two days with my international passport for an interview before a Consular Officer. I told the editor I didn’t understand what the letter was about.

He looked at me with a tinge of curiosity on his face. “Tolu, I’m sure you can remember that I gave you a form to fill right here in my office some weeks ago.”

“Yes, sir”

“That is the result. You have been offered a nine-month Fellowship in the United States.” He paused for a few seconds, then continued. “Or you’re not interested?”

I replied quickly, “I’m surely interested. It’s just that it came as a surprise. Since I filled the form, I never gave it a second thought. In fact, I did not share the news with any of my colleagues.”

As it was characteristic of the editor, he politely showed me out of his office tapping me on the shoulder, “Now, don’t be consumed by that euphoria. Go back to the newsroom and round off your copy. Good luck as you face the Consular Officer.”

******

One November morning I arrived in Boston. It was a blistering cold morning. I had been warned and advised to “come with warm clothing”. When I got this advice I’d laughed at the phrase “warm clothing”. I’d told a few of my colleagues, “Americans and their sense of humour. What the hell is ‘warm clothing’?” We’d all laughed over this, but as I disembarked from the aircraft, I knew the joke was on me. A very biting cold, unlike what I was ever used to, blew across my face and my nostrils began to emit steam-like vapour. At that moment, I thought I was going to die. Stepping into the arrival hall was relieving, it was warmer. This was to last only a few minutes because as soon as I met my guide who was waiting at the exit, I knew I was in for a long cold.

I saw him carrying a placard with my name inscribed on it. I walked towards him and identified myself.

“Hi, Tooloo. I hope I pronounced your name correctly. My name is Jim Henry. You can call me Jim. I hope you don’t mind my calling you Tee.”

I felt better and murmured under my breath about how Americans are in love with nicknames. I felt it was better to agree that he called me ‘Tee’ instead of that funny one he’d called me. “Yes, Jim you can call me Tee”.

He went on, “I’m sure you thought the director of the programme was joking or exaggerating when you were told to come with warm clothing. This costume of yours is definitely ill-suited for this weather of ours.”

There he goes again. How could he call my cloth a costume? “I’ll be okay”, I managed to murmur again as my teeth began to clatter and sing strange songs. Jim must have noticed my condition and how cold I was becoming.

“Tee, could you please move to that coffee shop over there and buy yourself a cup on me while I wait here? We have another ten or twenty minutes to wait for your African brother from Tanzania. It’s warmer in there.”

I stepped inside the coffee shop and felt an instant relief. I sat at a lonely table at the corner and ordered for coffee. I was in awe. It was my first trip to America and I was determined to enjoy every moment of it. Nine months away from home was a sweet escape from the tyranny of deadlines to submit stories or generate ideas, although I had the directive of my editor to write a weekly column which he had already called “Letter from Boston”. The coffee was succour for my cold throat. It warmed me up. After about two cups, Jim walked in.

He hollered, “Tee, we should be out of this place now. The guy from Tanzania just landed. The cold is blistering and you guys must have underrated the warnings that you should come with warm clothing.” There he goes again I murmured under my breath.

The three of us walked out of the airport lounge. It was only when we boarded the bus that we were able to introduce ourselves. The driver, perhaps sensing how cold we were, put the bus heater at a full blast.

The bus raced into the emerging dawn. Boston on this cold morning was unlike any city I’d ever visited. The simmering lights from tall buildings and the almost perfect line of buildings were the first things I noticed and compared with where I was coming from.

It was Jim’s deep baritone voice that brought my mind back. “Well, gentlemen, I am James Henry. But people call me Jim and I’m happy with that. Tee, please tell our friend your name so that you guys can get to know one another,” he said as he looked in my direction at the back of the bus.

“I am Tolu Olatunde. I work for a news magazine in my country. Our magazine was one of the many that chased the military away from governance. Well, we’ll have time to talk more about that later. You can call me Tee for short. That is my new baptismal name from Jim.” Everyone burst into laughter.

“That’s good. That’s our man from Nigeria. Can we hear from our man from East Africa?”

Clearing his throat as if he was about to address a large crowd, he introduced himself, “My name is James Kariuki. And for your information I am from Kenya, in East Africa!” We suddenly burst into raucous laughter. Jim apparently didn’t get the joke because he looked at both of us and wondered what was so funny.

Then I said, “But before your arrival, Jim had announced to me that you’re from Tanzania.”

Jim interrupted, “I’m sorry, if I misled you.”

“You not only misled him, you missed the whole point. I am from Kenya which is a country in the Eastern part of Africa. Tee is from Nigeria which is in West Africa just as the United States is in North America. Remember you have South America, Central America and…”  We burst into laughter.

It was at this point I knew James was trying to teach our man some bit of geography. Jim must also have got his message because he interjected jokingly, “Well, I’m a bit befuddled in my geography but I guess I know a bit about your country’s literature. I know a famous James who is no longer James but Ngugi wa…something,” he cut the remaining off with a guffaw.

“You must be talking about Ngugi wa Thiong’o,” James said adding, “My former namesake.” He accompanied this with his now usual raucous laughter.

“Yes, that tongue twister.” I chipped in adding that he was one of my favourite writers.

“Then, from Tee’s country I know Soyinka and Achebe.”

“That’s really interesting. It means we are going to have a very good time with you discussing literature because you will have to introduce me to many American writers. You know our countries were colonized by Britain and we know and are more exposed to British writers.” James agreed with me, adding, “We will in turn let you know about other writers from Africa who are doing great jobs of writing. And as I was saying, I am James Kariuki and I work for my country’s leading daily newspaper.”

After the introductions we talked at length about other things and what was expected of us from our sponsors during the Fellowship.

We arrived at the hotel where we were to stay for two weeks before the issue of our accommodation was fixed. After sorting out our lodgings, Jim told us, “Hi guys, let me give you a final briefing. There are eight of you on this Fellowship; three Americans, one each from Pakistan, India, and China and the two of you from Africa. So far, that is the information I have for you. I have the instruction of the director of the programme to allow you guys rest for two days because of the jet lag. That means we’ll meet at the hotel lobby on Wednesday. I hope the jet lag has not made you forget that today is Sunday. You have the remaining part of today, Monday and Tuesday to rest. However, if you need my assistance my cell number is in the folder in your rooms. The other participants arrived earlier today. Cheers and enjoy yourself.”

Before we could respond he had walked briskly toward the exit where the bus driver was waiting for him.

We followed the bellboy who was already wheeling our belongings toward the lift. We must have been so tired that as we were shown into our different rooms we barely bid each other goodbye and walked in.

I crashed into the wide bed and fell asleep immediately without taking a shower.

******

Two weeks after my arrival in Boston, I met Jane and she changed the trajectory of my life completely. Our Fellowship programme was designed in such a way that we had our weekends free. All my colleagues had travelled to see their friends. I was lonely and was still trying to connect with a few friends, most of whom I had lost contacts with for decades. To kill boredom, I decided to go to the nearest park to while away time. I sat on the grass sipping coffee when Jane walked up to me.

“Hi, I hope you don’t mind,” she said as she squatted beside me.

“No, I need the company,” I joked.

“My name is Jane”

“I’m Tolu. But you can call me Tee.”

“Oh, that’s nice. You must be from Africa.”

“I’m from Nigeria, Africa is not a country. It’s a continent.”

“Ni-ge–ria, that’s lovely. I’ve heard so much about the country and the people.”

At this point I grew suspicious and was going to be on the defensive “What have you heard?” I asked.

“A lot about the people, oil and other natural resources.”

I calmed down because I thought she was going to tell me about the negative things many have bandied about Nigeria.

We instantly hit it off and spoke a lot about many issues. I told her about how I arrived two weeks earlier, and how I’d been feeling lonely and nostalgic about home.

“Come on, America is a nice country. You shouldn’t feel lonely. It is the best place in the world to catch fun. If you’re lonely in America then there is nowhere in the world where you can ever feel at home.”

In my mind, I told myself that she was the typical American, who always felt their country was the best in the world.

“That’s because you don’t know anywhere beyond here. How many countries of the world have you visited?”

“Many. I was born in Africa and I’ve travelled through Europe, Asia, Australia, so what next?”

“You were born in Africa? Where specifically? Nigeria or Ghana?”

“No, you’re wrong I was born in Kenya, the land of safari.”

“That’s interesting. You must meet a friend of mine who is from there but he has travelled to Texas for the weekend to see a friend.”

“That would be lovely. However, I don’t remember much of the place again because I left when I was twelve. I’ve been planning to go back there on one of these summer holidays.”

For a very long time we talked about issues and I told her a lot about Nigeria, the little I knew about Kenya during my short trip there. We became friends and ended up at an Italian restaurant for dinner before we parted.

******

Some weeks later, I made my first trip out of Boston with Jane. We travelled by road to New York. It was an exciting trip with her behind the wheels. We lodged at a bed and breakfast for three days. It was to attend one of Jane’s friends’ wedding and she had insisted we go together.

When a pig wants to venture into the bush it first puts forth its snort; the trip to New York was the start of a love affair between us. Before that trip, we had always remained friends and I visited her small apartment and she also visited me a number of times. We had not gone beyond holding hands and pecking; nothing too romantic. However, when we returned from the wedding on that night and got to the room, we were like two strangers. For the first time in my life I was in close contact with a female of another race and background. I was confused.

We had had some drinks and were slightly tipsy. I pulled off my shirt and sat on the bed.

She must have noticed my uneasiness because she burst into a rather sober laughter. I looked in her direction and asked, “Why are you laughing?”

“You of course. Why did you stop?”

“Stopped what?” I asked.

Again the laughter and she walked into the bathroom.

After a while she called from the bathroom to ask what I was still waiting for, “Are you not going to take a bath after the long day?”

I stepped into the bathroom and we showered together.

******

About six months later we travelled to Atlanta. Jane’s parents lived there after their retirement.

They had travelled extensively in Africa in the sixties, according to the rather ebullient father who had told me that they had what he described as “the fantastic taste of Africa”.

He was a very lively old man, who took every slight opportunity to talk about his experience in Africa.

“My last point of duty was Kenya. We had been there at the start of the Mau Mau uprising leading to the war of independence. In fact, it was when it was becoming deadly that the home government had to recall us. We were then young people who had been engaged as American Peace Corps volunteers.”

“We were young and were as idealistic as young people could be. We never wanted to return home because my husband was full of dreams of wanting to be a witness to it all and write a book about it. But he never did till today.”

“I never did because we left at the height of the uprising.”

“Still you could have written about the little you witnessed.”

The argument went on and on until Jane came in to cut them short, “Tee, never mind them. That is how they are always arguing without end about their time in Africa.”

They were never tired of talking about the continent. We visited them more than five times in the nine months I spent on the Fellowship. It was on our second visit that Jane told them about our relationship.

We were at the dining table having a meal of bacon and some mixed beans and oats when Jane said, “Dad and Mum, I have been meaning to tell you all these days, but I didn’t want to break the news to you on phone.”

They both paused and looked up from staring at their bowl of bacon and beans. I sat near her father. He looked at her curiously and waited to hear what his daughter was about to say. In that fleeting moment, I looked at him and felt some lump in my throat. It was as if someone was holding it and trying to strangle me. I didn’t know why I felt that way but it was choking. Jane deliberately held back and continued with her meal, the three of us continued to stare at her, waiting for her to break the news to her parents. At a point they both looked at me as Jane continued to munch her bacon and behaved as if she was not aware we were waiting for her. I quickly averted my gaze.

“Daddy, I’m pregnant,” she said.

“Oh, that’s cute. How many months?” The mother quipped.

It was the least thing I expected.

“I believe Tee is the father.” I was confused. Was it a question or an affirmation? I didn’t know what to say.

“Yes, and we are both happy. However, he would have returned to Africa before the baby is due.”

“Oh, must he go back? Why can’t he wait to see his baby at birth?” The mother asked.

“I told you he doesn’t have the permission of the State Department to stay beyond the period of his visa.”

“We can always work that out. It is important for him to see his baby at delivery.”

I was silent, not knowing what to say because I’d not thought it would be this easy and Jane never told me before that she was going to tell her parents about the pregnancy. We departed Atlanta back to Boston two days later.

******

After the completion of my Fellowship, I returned to Nigeria.

One late night I was in the newsroom getting ready to leave for home when I was called to the telephone room to receive a call. “It’s from America” I heard the receptionist shouting as I raced to pick up the receiver.

“Hello, is that Tee?” I couldn’t have mistaken the booming voice at the other end.

“Yes,” I shouted into the mouth piece. The connection was poor and I could barely hear what he was saying, but I knew it was Jane’s father.

“Good evening, Sir”

“Hey, Tee, I can understand the time difference. It’s just morning here in Boston. I know it is night in your country. But never mind, Jane has just been delivered of a fine baby girl.”

The news hit me like an arrow. I didn’t know whether to shout for joy or just let the news sink in.

“Hello, are you still there?” I could hear Jane’s father asking from the other end. I replied in the affirmative and the connection went off.

******

Feyi was staring at the screen of her father’s old laptop. He had used the same laptop for close to two decades. All her efforts to change it for him since the advent of modern laptops had been vehemently resisted. He had always argued, “Feyi, you know I am not getting younger. I trust this old war horse. I can easily get my way through it. If you buy me a new one I’ll have to learn how to use it and I have some documents here that I don’t want to lose while transferring the files.” All her efforts to convince him that this could be done without losing any files met a brick wall. She decided to leave him alone.

She and her family lived on the other side of the city and on that fateful day when her mother had called her on phone, her tone didn’t betray any emotion. She had always respected her mother for her power of endurance and ability to control her emotions. Her mother asked casually, “Feyi, are you busy?”

“Not quite,” she had replied. “Any problem?”

“No. It’s your father”

“What is it this time?” Her mother had a way of talking about her husband whenever she wanted Feyi to listen to her. She was therefore not alarmed.

“Well, Feyi, if you are not busy can you come this way briefly?”

“Is everything all right? I can stop what I’m doing now and head towards there if you think it is important.”

“Feyi,” she loved the way her mother called her. Always beginning every of her sentence or ending it by calling her name. She cannot remember any time she uttered a sentence without either beginning it with her name or ending with it. “Please, come now if you can. When last did you speak with your brother Fola?”

“Mummy, we are always in touch. We spoke yesterday night and he sent me a ping on my blackberry a while ago.” Fola, a petroleum engineer and his family had moved to Texas years ago. “Ok mum, I’m on the way. I hope all is well?”

“It is.”

She quickly dressed up and headed towards her family house. On getting there she met her mother sitting quietly in the lobby where she and her husband used to sit every morning listening to either old music or news on the radio. After greeting her and asking after her health she asked why her father was not there with her.

“He’s inside the room.”

“Still sleeping?” She asked. There was no answer. She just shook her head and held Feyi by the wrist leading her to the bedroom. Immediately they entered, she felt some awkward silence enveloping the room. The curtains were still slightly down and a shaft of the sun was streaming into the room casting a dark shadow on her father’s face as he lay there on the bed. His eyes were slightly open. He had always been like that. He never slept with his eyes completely shut. Feyi always remembered her father whenever she heard people talked about not sleeping with both eyes closed. Her father never did.

Something told her that what she was seeing was not normal. Her father had always looked different even when sleeping. She looked at her mother. Suddenly her mother burst into tears. It was then she realized there was no need to ask any question. The answer was already before her.

Amid sobs her mother said, “We woke up this morning and after breakfast rather than going to the lobby to sit as was usual with us, he said he wanted to lie down on the bed. He went into the room and after a few minutes he called me and said “Iya Feyi, it seems it’s over. I am going home to rest. Pray for my children and forgive me all my sins.” He looked at me and said I should hold him in my arms and that I should promise him that I would continue to pray and bless his children. I told him not to say anything like that. He clasped my hands in his and breathed his last.” She paused for a brief moment then said in an emotion suffused voice, “Feyi, your father is dead. He has left me.”

Feyi broke down in tears.

“That is not what to do. Move near him and close his eyes as the eldest and the only one nearby. If Fola were here it would have been his lot to do that.”

Feyi immediately called her husband. Shortly after, her father’s body was moved into a mortuary.

Later that day her mother gave her an old diary saying, “He gave this to me years ago that I should give you when he dies and that you will find details of what to do in it.”

It was from this diary that Feyi had been reading about her father in the last three days. The diary contained many details but his email contained more. Her father had written down his email’s password and directed her to read all the exchange of mails between him and his hitherto unknown American daughter.

She stared at the laptop’s screen and was shocked at the revelations confronting her. The world was really full of intrigues and secrets, she told herself. She would have categorized it as a tale if anyone had told her this, but it was her father that had written all these down in his own cursive handwriting in the diary that was handed over to her by her mother. The laptop was also his. No one had been allowed to make use of the computer when he was alive so it could not have been that anyone wrote anything there without his knowledge. All she was reading were surely written by him. For years, her father had always made it a habit to visit America at least once in two years. Reading through his computer notes she had discovered that at a particular time he had travelled to America to attend the funeral of Jane, the American mother of his daughter Roly. She went to the picture folder on the computer and saw how Roly clung to her father’s arm weeping on his shoulder. Tears surged in her eyes. Were the tears surging at the discovery of her father’s indiscretion and unfaithfulness to his family, especially their mother, or in sympathy with a girl who had lost her mother?

The discoveries about her own father that she had made in the last few days since his death had unsettled her. She looked at the note and wondered how he had been able to hide all these from them without anyone suspecting he had a daughter out there? She wondered how their mother had not suspected anything. But why blame her, she asked herself, why didn’t she too? She was in a dilemma. Was she to blame or hate him for hiding such information from them? In the note given to her by her mother, he had also written a short letter addressed to her.

 

My dearest Feyi,

I know what you are going to find out will devastate you. I’m, however, pleading with you to understand. Perhaps when you have read my diary and the notes on my laptop and email you’re going to get a better understanding of the events.

I am pleading with you to handle this wisely. I love you all (your mother, yourself, Fola and Roly) and wish that you share the same feelings. I decided to entrust this task to you because you are the first fruit of my loin. Apart from that you are the most matured and level headed. I believe you will handle this with wisdom.

Tell your mother to be strong. I am sorry if any of you feel hurt or bitter about what you’re going to find out. I believe I’ve been a good husband and a loving father to you all.

Your loving Daddy.

 

She had read the note for more than twenty times in the last few days and the more she read it the more she discovered something new, some new words and meanings. She pondered over every word in the note: “you’re going to get a better understanding of the events.” What better understanding was she supposed to get? She asked herself, that her father had a child outside wedlock, the knowledge of which was hidden from them all despite being a close knit family? She had kept the discovery away from her mother and wanted to tell Fola on phone when she called him but her husband discouraged her. “Keep that to yourself until he arrives for the funeral,” he had advised. He also insisted that her mother should not be let into the secret, at least for the meantime.

Pondering over all the things she had discovered about her father in the last few days, she began to reexamine her life. Her doubts about issues, people and things around her grew. She was suspicious of all things, especially men. Her husband, her brother and then she began to draw new conclusions about what her husband or brother had told her in the past. Were there concealed meanings in their words? Were men created to deal with affairs in double ways? Her faith was shaken. Now, how was she going to resolve this puzzle her father had created? How was she going to break this to Fola? She had been in touch with him and Roly but without telling any of them what she had discovered about their father. Roly had long come to terms that their father didn’t let the others know about her. She had agreed with Feyi to attend the funeral as a last honour to his memory.

******

Two weeks to the funeral, Roly arrived. Her flight had touched down at the airport around six in the evening. Feyi and her husband had been waiting for about thirty minutes. Some one hour after she was cleared by immigration and she walked into their waiting arms.

Feyi’s jealousy instantly disappeared as soon as she saw her. Roly was a vivacious personality that radiated some inner warmth with her broad smiles.

“Hey, Roly, my long lost sister. You’re welcome home,” she found herself saying. It was as if they had known each other for ages. Feyi’s husband was equally surprised to see that his wife who was sulking when they left the house had changed. Blood is surely thicker than water, he said in his mind.

“I’m happy to meet you. Sorry about dad’s death,” Roly said.

Dad’s death, Feyi intoned beneath her breath. It sounded affectionate.

“Meet my husband, John.”

“Oh, so nice to meet you. And thank you for taking care of my sister.”

My sister, Feyi repeated in her mind.

They moved her things into the car and drove home.

Two days later, Fola and his family arrived. Feyi, her husband and Roly went to the airport to pick them up. In the van as they drove home chatting Feyi was quiet. This was the hour she had dreaded so much. How was she going to handle this situation and not bungle it and disappoint her father who had invested so much trust in her ability to manage it? She was confused. Why didn’t he solve this before his death? Why did he leave this hard nut for her to crack? Was he afraid of the backlash? No, she was sure he was not such a man. Her father was a man of courage, but why did that courage fail him and didn’t allow him to confront this before he died? She pondered.

Fola noticed she was no longer saying anything. He said, “Feyi, why the silence? Are you thinking of the responsibility that is now yours after father’s demise?” He teased her.

“No, no. I was just thinking of what next.”

“Don’t worry yourself, things will work out.”

Roly had been introduced as “a friend visiting from America” and Fola had asked where she lived and when told had wanted to continue with the discussion but Feyi’s husband tactically told him they would have time to talk more about that since she was going to be around until after the funeral.

John was at the wheels with Feyi by his side and Roly with Fola and his family sat at the back. John deliberately took charge of the discussion to ensure that Fola did not have the time to ask Roly questions that might reveal her place in the family.

Their destination from the airport was to see their mother to let her know that Fola with his family arrived safely. All this while, Feyi had gone back into her thoughts: how was she going to handle this and not disappoint her father? Then she asked herself why she was so agitated? Was it her fault that her father had another daughter? Why should she feel guilty or remorseful for another person’s misdemeanour, even if that person was her father? Are men not always like that? Double-dealing and sowing wild oats?

As the car approached the gate into the house, she looked back facing her brother, “Fola, when we leave Mama we have an important family affair to look into.”

“That’s why I’m here. What family affair is more important than burying our dad.”

They all burst into laughter.

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