How all the other passions fleet to air,
As doubtful thoughts, and rash-embraced despair,
And shuddering fear, and green-eyed jealousy! O love,
Be moderate; allay thy ecstasy
– William Shakespeare’s Portia from ‘The Merchant of Venice’
Only the long-lost, the refugee, the prodigal or the returnee exile could gaze with such wonder at such an insignificant landscape as the tarmac that enveloped the aeroplane window through which Tokunbo stared for too long after his flight had taxied to a halt. He sat transfixed, spanning the runway and the field beyond it and the other planes, athletically poised for take-off or still cooling off from arrival. Most of the other fliers were already queuing to get off or else recovering their luggage from the overhead hold Some congratulated friends whom they ran into on the journey as if they had anything to do with its landing unscathed (“A very smooth flight, well done!”), others were speaking into shiny mobiles to loved ones with the calm assurance that follows several hours of long-haul travel anxiety. Tokunbo was not set to disembark just yet. He drank in Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport for the first time in his twenty-five years, enjoying the brazen glare of the sun on the cabin windows. The jabbering sound of genuine Nigerians, his people, bantering on genuine Nigerian soil filled his ears. After many years away from the country of his childhood, it was euphony.
Tokunbo was tired and still “eye popping”; at least that’s how his roommate Jay would have described it, this recoil from the many-smells of economy class, the heat steaming in through the now-open cabin doors, the crush of impatient Nigerians eager to clamber off the aircraft. Ah, Jay and Yale and all things American would have to be put behind him. Med School was over. He had left it all behind with little fuss to return home- few goodbyes, no hunt for souvenirs, he simply dumped America in a box marked “the past”, demonstrating a predilection for leaving things behind that was as instinctive as it was hereditary.
His bag was wedged tightly in a corner behind a bulging holdall as if it had been squashed in by many other pieces of luggage, and Tokunbo knew there had been a few. His Uncle Tunde had played surrogate father in the US, and warned him in his Going to Nigeria pep talk, between cigar puffs, that his people did not like to travel light. The more luggage one had on the way back, the easier to show to the welcoming troupe that one had not gone abroad “to suffer”. And everybody knew that the bringing of gifts was not taken lightly by relatives. Nobody could be forgotten if you did not want to risk imprecation. Uncle Tunde was always funny and extreme like that when he talked about the “people back home”. He had strongly questioned Tokunbo’s unshakable desire to go back to the gaddem mess straight after med school even though he had landed a couple of prestigious internships. Tokunbo laughed and warned his Uncle about lung cancer. Home is where the heart is.
It had been a crowded flight as was normal at this time of the year, full of Nigerians who endure the winter cold of America, then trot home obligingly in the summer months. What a paradox. He cursed not too discreetly, suddenly fighting dizziness as he gingerly slid his bag out from under the holdall. How the f*ck did a bag that large get through customs anyway without being checked in? His knee buckled at that moment, and the holdall came crashing down, its zip sliding open partway to reveal something black and ugly and formless peeking out at the lip. It was there and gone so quickly, like the flicker of a cigarette lighter, that Tokunbo told himself that he had imagined it, the image of a shrunken animal form, and waited for the dizziness to wash over.
“Abi o ti ya were? Are you mad? You have no home training?” The woman addressing him with rhetorical fury led with a slap, bringing all her force to bear on the pudgy right hand she threw at his face. She had hung on to the ‘m’ in ‘mad’ for an extra second as only a livid Yoruba woman can and Tokunbo found it vaguely familiar. The look on her face was an unmistakable thunderclap.
Tokunbo said he was sorry more in surprise that the pain in his cheek could come from a woman so much shorter than he was, than from any real remorse. He observed this thickset woman now wrestling furiously with her bag and zipping it back up with finality. She was swathed in wrappers of an ugly kente print in order to contend with her bulk, and her face was an oily yellow with dark marks around her eyes that suggested she had been ‘bleaching’. Black spots marched like tambolo across the bridge of her nose. Why are Nigerian women so angry all the time?
“Bone thug l’omo” She hissed as she waddled down the aisle and out of the plane, brushing aside a concerned- looking stewardess who was asking Tokunbo if he was alright. He nodded gratefully at her and picked up his own bag to leave, now the last person on board. As he walked past the attendants, plastic smiles fixed permanently and mouthing rehearsed farewells, Tokunbo fingered his dreadlocks, musing on the fact that despite the other insults he had just faced, all he could think about was that the lady had just compared him to the Bone Thugs, a surefire sign that he had been taken for riffraff. Clearly, Nigeria was not so different nine years on. He would have to lose the dreads.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“My son!” Tokunbo’s father’s smile was broad, each tooth a polished pearl. He hugged Tokunbo tightly, clasping nine-year long loneliness onto an embrace that roused emotion in both of them. Tokunbo could sense the slight sense of regret that had made his father hesitate at first when he got out of the taxi and shook out his dreadlocks in the boiling sun like the side-effect of a peculiarly American drug. An old man can only hold on to such things for so long, however, and he abandoned any rebukes to relish this moment he had been looking forward to ever since he tearfully dispatched his son to Ala bekee- the United States.
Tokunbo withdrew from his father’s grip and leaned back to let him survey his features- well-built, fresh- faced and handsome. “ Nnanna, you look more like your mother everyday” He beamed even harder “And now you are growing hair and breasts just like her, God rest her soul” He poked at Tokunbo’s chest playfully as he spoke and whatever tension there had been melted away instantly. Tokunbo smiled softly at the pet name that only his father used. Nnanna. My father’s father; his second name, his Igbo name- Ikenna- had been his grandfather’s. Even mention of his mother who had died shortly after his birth surrounded in mystery, could not spoil the tenderness between father and son as they tried to match the images before them with the memories they had held so dear for nearly a decade.
“You look well, Papa. Maybe tired, but still, well” Tokunbo looked at his father, light- complexioned in the dazzling way that some Igbo men sometimes were, with lovely eyes of a greenish hue that distinguished him in a country of the predominantly brown- eyed. It was how he had earned his nickname Nwamba, while growing up: Cat, because of his green eyes and his way of always landing on his feet, no matter what was thrown at him. He had suffered unpleasant prejudice from a superstitious people who often associated cats and anything uncommonly coloured- a white mouse, a black river, a green eye- with witchcraft. This even from kinfolk. One aunty, his dead father’s sister, tried to poison his food when he was living with her while he studied at the University of Lagos. She blamed him for a series of misfortunes that suddenly befell her family, including a son run mad who, blazing from a marathon session of pot-smoking with his Cultist friends, had come home to report that he had seen Emeka, Tokunbo’s father, in several places at once. He said that everywhere he turned was bright green. She sent him away when the same mad son ate the ill-begotten dish and died. Much earlier, another uncle, his dead mother’s cousin flogged him violently with a horsewhip when he saw a black stray cat washing itself in the darkness of his living room as he stumbled to the refrigerator to fetch himself another beer. Its eyes glowed green.
These experiences were not infrequent and maybe born of the fact that he was an unwelcome orphan moving from home to home, rather than the latent suspicion with which his beautiful eyes were regarded. They would shatter the young Emeka Okorie’s faith in the received wisdoms of his youth. He studied medicine to remove far away from the myth and mistaken beliefs that had made him an easy target of ignorance. That was precisely what he stated in his application to Lagos University Teaching Hospital, coming out of the University of Lagos. I studied medicine to distance myself from the archaic and frankly anachronistic practices that hinder my people A statement heavily dosed with the scabrous arrogance of the young intellectual. Afterwards, he became a General Practitioner and set up a successful practice in Lagos. That was where he met his wife, Abby. She was the daughter of a multimillionaire businessman with political aspirations. It was this multimillionaire who first laughed soundly, the vicious yellow- toothed howl of a man who ate three different kinds of meat in his egusi soup everyday, when his daughter brought the promising but largely unconnected (hence unknown) Emeka home and told him that Emeka had proposed.
“Abby,” Her mother’s brow was as furrowed and stern as her husband’s was undulating with mirth. She looked powerfully into her daughter’s eyes “You have always been stupid.” She said it gently, touching her cheeks lightly. Abby was stung by the words. Her mother had never called her names. She was the last born, the only girl after four boys; the ‘bottom pot’ filled with all the sweetness that had escaped those who came before her. Her father was always carelessly affectionate with her and her mother treated her, in her own words, like a precious stone found amongst worthless shells on the seashore. So to see the look of disdain on her mother’s beautiful face was painful.
“Do you think Prince Kazeem has been coming here just to drink Fanta Lemon?” Her father’s chin was suddenly in the air, dangerous, daring her to counter him. “You better prepare yourself to get married to him once your degree is finished. Shebi you have two more years left or is it one?” he closed his eyes and bounced his right leg furiously as he dismissively cast his mind to several shipments coming in that weekend. Order, in his reasoning, had been restored. Her mother was more attuned to her daughter’s determined streak mostly because she had spent twenty years noticing it and sometimes nurturing it. She realized that Abby would not bend as easily to her father’s iron will as her brothers, whose unbending desire for his money bowed them almost involuntarily- like cattle grazing- to his many whims. She changed tack, her voice became more soothing.
“Do you want to know how you got your name omo eluwa bii?” She glanced quickly at her husband to make sure he was fast asleep and snoring. “I begged for you. I begged. Your father had finished with childbearing but I wanted a daughter, so I begged to have you. That is how I named you Abebi, my daughter. You are my only daughter. My only daughter. Do not do this thing you are trying to do. You, a beautiful Yoruba girl want to marry an Igbo man as if there are no other options. Olorun maje! Those pompous people. Why won’t you just marry this Kazeem? He is rich and he is a Lagos royal. OK, so he is not as handsome as that Okorie but at least he is well-connected and can make sure you are well-set for the rest of your life.” She finished with emphatic stress on the last syllable and her head which had been bobbing throughout the conversation finally came to a rest.
Abby would not be swayed, accustomed as she was to having her own way. She resisted her mother’s frenzied contractions, her squalling, for a protracted twenty-four hour labour session at childbirth that nearly killed her, a story that her mother used frequently when trying to persuade her to change her mind: You tried to kill me before you knew me and now you are at it again. It was an exaggeration not far from the truth. Abby would do everything that was taboo in the eyes of her very conservative mother, making her constantly nervous when Abby was around her friends. She wore trousers everywhere well into her teens when other girls her age were already getting married off in exquisite lace garments. She ran away to play football with her brothers whenever her mother called out to her to help in the kitchen, to the older woman’s chagrin. Eventually, her mother could not bear any more and informed her sourly that she would never attract a husband if her ways did not change, hoping to scare her into becoming a woman. Abby tossed her long, dark hair insouciantly and took to announcing that she would never get married, making sure she said it within earshot of her mother and whomever she had over for company. Why would she want to become a glorified maid like her dear mother, with an invisible chain around her ankle for her husband to pull on when he so much as spilled ewedu on his shirt? Now you begin to understand how often her mother felt she would die of a heart attack.
Unexpectedly, Abby shed this skin, this grubby layer of tomboyish rebelliousness, emerging as a social butterfly in her twenties. Her mother breathed several sighs of relief as the first little jots of grey dappled her full head of hair while she watched Abby sprout overnight, with beauty that was both fiery and enigmatic. Her mother knew she did not stand a chance, but still hoped she could direct her towards the right suitor. But Abby fell helplessly in love with Emeka; was overwhelmed by his convictions in the possibility of a new Nigeria, free of the old school prejudices and backwardness that had blighted him, moving past the nepotism that retarded its progress as a twentieth century giant- a beacon of modernity in Africa. She married Emeka quickly in a Yaba registry and ran away with him to the United States where he had gone to pursue a one- year fellowship as a visiting lecturer while completing his post-doctoral thesis. She turned away from her family wealth and reputation without looking back. It was there that they had their first child- Olatokunbo Ikenna Nwakaego Okorie. The child born abroad. The import.
Sadly, there will always be those who try to pour sand in your gari. This was what people said to Emeka’s face when he returned a year later with his newborn in tow but with his wife frail and very ill. Evil forces were at work. If not why couldn’t the big doctor, with his medicines, cure her? Emeka would touch his offending stethoscope much like his son fingering dreadlocks years later and smile wryly, his green eyes revealing little of his frustration at this, this failure of people to move past muddled traditional thinking. She would be well soon, they should not worry; she would be well very soon.
She died two weeks after they had settled into a new home in a quiet estate in Gbagada. These same people spat disgustedly and whispered behind his back that he had killed her with his eyes. One of Abby’s brothers sent a carful of thugs to Emeka’s house. They were supposed to murder him like one of their father’s political enemies. Luckily, Emeka the Cat o’ Nine Lives had stayed overnight shut up in his office at the hospital drinking himself into a hot misty stupor that cleared out his guts in the morning. The thugs vandalized the house and raped the wet nurse who stayed with the baby. One of them plastered a hard grimy fist open- handed across Tokunbo’s three month-old face to shut him up. He had been bawling uncontrollably. After that day, Tokunbo didn’t cry again only sniffling when he was hungry or screwing his beautiful face up into a tight knot when he got injured.
It was Abby’s mother who rescued Emeka from the chasm of despair he sank into after her death. Emeka had taken Tokunbo to their home on Victoria Island, not aware that it was his brothers-in-law who had tried to kill him. The house was a large, gaudy two storey affair barricaded by barbed wire sitting on ten-foot walls and an unwieldy automatic front gate with her father’s head carved into the centre. It stood just fifteen minutes from the crashing waves of Bar beach. Abby’s father, formidable in his rage, dashed for his hunting rifle immediately he saw Emeka and cursed him in the glorious full-pelt style of dramatic Yoruba that would be surpassed in turn by the choleric spit of his gun. His wife looked on with pity, pungent tears spooled in the corners of her eyes, watching Emeka run like a houseboy or a common thief. So it was that she made a series of clandestine visits to see the baby boy who looked so much like his mother, so much like her flower Abebi, her pretty petal who left without saying goodbye, just died, cut off in full bloom. Emeka, never too sure if he was drunk or sober, could not help thinking how like Nicodemus she looked dressed furtively in a headscarf.
They talked on his front porch in the moonlit dusk (his house being in no fit state to receive visitors) about her heartbreak and the fog of advancing psychosis that was blurring his mind. He asked for her help, wailing at her feet without dignity because her husband had used his influence to run down his infant practice. She did not want to promise much because she had been forbidden to go near him or her grandson, afterall her other children had full litters of children’s children all over Lagos and overseas that she could visit and play Grandma to. But she still had favours she could call in which would go unnoticed by her husband. She got him an underpaid job as a physician at UNILAG teaching hospital which would allow him to live and raise his child. She also sent an eighteen- year old Yoruba girl called Enitan who had just lost her own baby and was still full at the nipple, to look after Tokunbo. Emeka never heard from her again until years later, when she paid the balance of Tokunbo’s med school fees because scholarship funding and Emeka’s own meager contributions were not enough.
Emeka and Enitan got along. She was not as bright as he was, but she had common sense and helped him stay grounded. They found comfort, seeing a reflection of themselves in each other- both victims of a kind of ostracism because they had defied tradition, vessels floating listlessly in a vast stormless sea of loss. Enitan’s parents had forsworn her after she refused to abort her pregnancy and warned her that she would be undesirable once word got out that she had been dumped unceremoniously. Despite all this, and the cancerous loneliness that would lodge itself tumescent in her life, she could not bear to take another life, especially not one she had created. It was taken all the same, stolen away when the one-month old simply stopped breathing one afternoon while she napped. She felt that it was her own life that had slipped out quietly like a thief-in-the-night.
Enitan raised Tokunbo as her own, filling in the endless hours when Emeka was at work by instructing Tokunbo in moral and social decorum, teaching him the easeful open-mouthed Yoruba language, making sure he was domesticated. She raised Emeka as well, taking him in her mouth when he was home, and in her thighs, and in her hands, till she could sense his sorrow as closely as the blood in her veins; his broken heart and her womb, her very core, waste.
Nothing Enitan could do could recover Emeka. She could sense the vast desert of unclaimed territory that separated her from him. He would not let her any closer. Her seductive scent when she splashed on coconut oil to make love to him, could not replicate the irrepressible flame of Abby’s desire nor could her body really bring him to love her the way Abby’s single-tone skin, honey- brown and velveteen, could. She would come to love him and his sonorous voice, his uncomplaining toil at the hospital when he could have been so much more. But she would remain Aunty Enitan to Tokunbo, sleeping alone in the second bedroom in their new flat in Apapa. Not once did Emeka utter a term of endearment to her, not even her nickname Eni.
In the year that Tokunbo finally left for the States, she packed her belongings and kissed Emeka goodbye. He was surprised and a brief twinge of sadness sliced at him. Emeka Okorie was used to abandonment though and did not miss her for too long. It was overtaken like a lorry on the expressway (with ‘slow and steady’ probably painted across its rickety shoulders) by the grief, sharp and sudden and debilitating, that closed around him when his only son left, lost surely now to the world.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Only the long-lost, the refugee, the prodigal or the returnee exile could marvel at such an unexciting skyline as Abuja’s- no skyscrapers unlike Lagos, no mountains like the guardian peaks that shelter Jos, just sky and dust. Tokunbo was glad of these simple delights of homecoming. In the two weeks he had before he was thrust into Youth Service, he reveled in everything Abuja had to offer. His father had moved to Abuja after he went to the U.S. because, without Aunty Enitan, he could not cope with the frenetic pace of Lagos. Abuja was not Tokunbo’s Lagos. It was slower, like an insipid cousin. Much slower. The air was less electric (possibly because of the many less electricity- bearing poles in the metropolis) and the city a lot less crowded. Its indigenes did not have the shiftiness about them that a lot of Lagosians have. As if they are about to spring on you or cheat you at any moment. His father, the cat, had moved there for the peace, tired of having to avoid landing on his back.
“The Hausa man built up Abuja,” his father announced as he gave Tokunbo a set of keys to the second-hand Toyota sitting cool in the driveway of the Garki house. “And the Hausa man will not allow Abuja to fall. The Hausa man has no time for katakata. Everything must be just so.” He laughed chaka chaka chaka, in the chesty way Tokunbo had noticed him laughing since his return. But he was more caught up in the gift his father was handing over and ignored this laugh-cough.
“Papa, are you serious? Why don’t you take this and let me drive the Oh-Five?” he gestured quietly to the Peugeot 505 (‘built for Nigerian roads’) which his father had been driving for years. It was still in excellent condition apart from some scratches and minor dents.
“OK” He took the keys back quickly with a downward lipcurl, and fished around in his pockets for the 505 keys. Tokunbo was immediately contrite. His father had probably been planning this for as long as he had been away, knowing him, and here he was throwing it all back in his face as if he did not know that the Toyota was far superior to his own car.
“No no, don’t do that Papa.” He took the keys back with a placatory smile “Chineke Nna m!” he exclaimed in the Igbo language in a way he knew would please his father although the words that would have come to him more naturally were the roiling Yoruba phrases of Aunty Enitan.
“Foolish boy,” his father said contentedly, slapping him proudly on his broad shoulders “Go ye therefore!” As he swept out his arms, green eyes shut, he echoed the same command he had barked all those years ago while he waited at Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos with his son, waiting to see him fly off to America. Then, like now, he stopped short of telling Tokunbo exactly what it was he was supposed to be going forth to. As always, his father mistook his quietness for self- assurance and did not linger on explanation. Imagine Polonius dispatching Laertes abroad with To thine own self be true and ending there, without the extra sprinkling of Shakespearean wit that imparted all its meaning. Imagine a Sunday stew without chicken and maggi. Tokunbo felt that this was how he had been forced to approach his adulthood- with golden nuggets of fatherly wisdom that, important as they might be, seemed abstracted from his own experiences. He missed Aunty Enitan.
A month later, Tokunbo packed his necessaries and slung them into the boot of his car. The year- long National Youth Service Corps programme, compulsory for all Nigerian graduates, started with a three- week spell that Corpers spent in boot camp. He was strangely apprehensive. Not that he was worried about fitting in, even though he should have been since he had hardly run into any Nigerians as a secluded medic abroad. He grew up on mainland Lagos, in Apapa where class differences that are so pronounced elsewhere in Ikoyi and Victoria Island are largely non- existent, and the memories of young Nigerians were still as fresh as the smell of Agege bread. He was more concerned with whether Nigeria would still be enough for him. America was big and wide and open and full of opportunity .He hoped he wouldn’t feel claustrophobic in this place of ancient customs and bloated tradition.
His father was hard at work at the hospital so Tokunbo drove alone to Bwari on the outskirts of Abuja, listening to a live recording of Fela with Ginger Baker that he had brought back for his father to listen to. He went past street hawkers who tore frantically into the road at the faintest sign that his car was slowing down, offering various wares, some of which he found outrageous. Some ran after the car clutching newspaper- sealed packages of kilishi, others bread or groundnuts. Tokunbo eyed the little boy dangling polythene bags of boiled eggs through the window and the taller boy- probably his brother- who was ready to lob his satchels of ‘pure water’ at him. The only thing pure about that water is the heart of that young boy selling it, Very soon I will help to change that with medical research he thought to himself, not so sure. But he bought something of everything from sheer curiosity whilst his car was stuck briefly in traffic, and hummed ‘Shuffering and Shmiling’ to himself as Fela danced gravely playfully out of the car stereo.
When he got to camp, he had to bribe staff at the gate to let him park his car on the grounds. Nope, Nigeria had not really changed. Tokunbo was able to get people on his side when he needed to. So he worked his charm, drawling in expatriate Americana (“Oga, butchu know I gotchu”), and slipped naira notes over to the men in distressed- looking military fatigues. Nobody had told him that you should get dropped off at camp. Still he was grateful for the ease with which protocol could be circumvented. Driving back to the Garki house would have been a lot of hassle.
Over the next couple of days, he settled in. He did not quite slide into Nigerianisms as easily as he expected. Nine years away from home will leave one’s language threadbare, naturally, and Tokunbo’s slang was outdated, unsuited to the racing impatience of time and tide, a Hippocratic Oath. In the bonhomie that forty-boys-in-a-room generates, he was easily shown up. He glanced confused at his bunkmate Eke who suggested on the first night that they should go off and shayo. What? Eke blinked slowly over his eyes with the rust-redness in their corners and chuckled. “Let’s go and have a drink, Mr. Walter Carrington” he said “Now I know why they called you Tokunbo; you are as imported as that your car”.
The third day, Tokunbo was playing basketball with some of the male Corpers after the morning drill. He had stripped off the obligatory NYSC white t-shirt with its green logo emblazoned across the chest and was only wearing a tight-fitting singlet that showed off his shoulders and taut biceps. He moved very easily and his teammates were keen to put the ball in his hands as he sank in shot after shot. A small crowd had formed at the side of the court he was playing on and, inevitably, the women Corpers had gotten wind of his exploits.
“Go Toks!” One of the women cupped dainty palms over her mouth and cheered. Tokunbo was momentarily distracted. He couldn’t be sure that the cheer was for him. There were five thousand Corpers in the Bwari camp so there was always the possibility that he was not the only Tokunbo around. He couldn’t even remember the names of all the guys he was playing with. But the cheerer’s voice sent a thrill to the base of his spine. He turned around briefly because she hadn’t shrilled out the name like ecstatic American girls, but had just spoken it, with a kind of authority.
She was so beautiful, even at fifteen feet, standing slightly apart from the thronging group watching the game so Tokunbo could scope her out quickly while doing crossovers with the ball. Through his eyes, the sun appeared to slant its rays deliberately over her so that she was framed in a picture of luminescence like in one of those corny movies. Tokunbo, the doctor, could tell the delicate contours of womanly flesh underneath the combat trousers and loose t-shirt. Those three seconds he watched her, he was instantly alive. His face burned sweetly pleasantly and his heartbeat swelled in accelerated staccato. In response, as if she had commanded it, he glided by the two Corpers who had closed in on him hoping to steal the ball away, and jumped as high as he could lift himself off the ground, before dunking the ball with juddering force. He even permitted himself a strangled animal scream that took him by surprise with its violence. The growing audience of bystanders applauded. Eke, the wag, had turned up by now, and cried “Nzobu! Nzobu! Enyimba Enyi!” an Igbo warrior chant that he repeated over and over. Tokunbo dropped down from the ring, shuddering happily like a naked child caught in a downpour, and looked round for the woman who had let loose this burst of aggression. She was gone.
A few hours on, Tokunbo was eating instant noodles at the mammy market, a bubbling spread of stalls and shelters that stocked all the NYSC camp necessaries from parade whites and combat shoes to food and alcohol. Eke sat next to him, already on his third bottle of beer, his toad-like eyes bulging as he told the bored-looking girl at his side how Tokunbo had somehow managed to park his tokunbo car on camp. Neither of them saw the cheerer stride over to their table casually and sit opposite Tokunbo. When he looked up, he missed his mouth with a forkful of noodles. She giggled a little. Her laughter was a sound like running water that showed off straight white teeth.
“You’re not bad out there, on the court. I was watching for a bit.” She said, smiling. Tokunbo just wanted to kiss her and ask her why she had left and if she saw his worship-me-please slam dunk. Up close he could see her even-toned skin, as smooth as a baby’s bottom, his father would say. “Did you play professionally at some point?” She had a small umbrella that she was swinging around. Tokunbo recovered his composure. He was never awkward around women and the strength of his reaction to her was an alien feeling. He found himself at odds with his character, wanting to impress her in a childish, imploring way.
“No, I played at UNC, the University of North Carolina. For four years.” He couldn’t believe himself. He was almost thumping his chest and crowing.
“You’re a Tar Heel? Get outta here.” Her voice was like tinkling bells dropping onto a bed of snow. There was no other way for Tokunbo to describe it. He had stayed with a friend’s family one Christmas in Detroit, and his little sister had taken the teeny decorative bells off the tree one night when they went to stand and sing carols. When she dropped the bells drowsily in the snow, they sounded just like the cheerer’s voice. It was such a pleasant sound, lightly accented with traces of Nigeria’s South South. It had the appeal of foreignness. “So you got a sports scholarship?” she probed him, never looking away.
“First of all, I am blown away that you even knew what I was talking about because…” He was actually trying to figure out how she knew that he had gone to school on a scholarship. Was it that easy to size him up? Was it so obvious that he was not well off?
“Because girls don’t follow sports and there are no Nigerians in North Carolina.” She cut him off with a quizzical expression and cocked her head to the side as she waited for him to cough out an apology. Tokunbo smiled a bit but did not give in. “Don’t worry babe, you’re right on both counts. I spent a year at Columbia in New York and dated a grad student there who had played for the Tar Heels too. His name was Greg. Not sure what his surname was anymore.”
“Greg Garvey? No way! I took his spot as point when I got into the team.” Tokunbo cringed inwardly at this little bit of one-upmanship. He looked to see if she had noticed his embarrassment, but she just sat there serenely, enjoying the diversion her appearance had caused among the people milling around the mammy market. Boys were ignoring their female friends and staring. The female friends were glancing green-eyed darts at her. “I’m Tokini by the way. Everyone calls me Toks too. That’s why I was cheering for you on the court. I don’t know if you heard me.” Tokunbo was sure she knew he had heard her, and still wanted to ask how she had known his name. He decided to swat this line of questioning away though, like the flies hungrily droning over his plate of Indomie, so that he didn’t give away his excitement.
“Omo, I don chop finish. I’m out.” Eke stood up to leave with his lady friend, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and at the same time concealing a sly smile. “Big man! I’ll jam you later” He held on to Tokunbo’s hand a second longer than necessary then turned to Tokini with an exaggerated bow. “Since our tongue-tied friend cannot make proper introductions, fine girl, I am Ekenna and this one is Priscilla. Don’t keep him out too long. Our Commandant is a bully. Toks, Toks” he tipped an imaginary hat to them one after the other, grinning, swaggered off recklessly with his arm around Priscilla’s waist, and left Tokini alone with Tokunbo.
She turned away from Eke’s disappearing form amidst the muddle in the market. Her hair, albeit a weave, cascaded down the sides of her face and accentuated the point of her chin. “My friend told me you’re with the Doctors’ Group right?” She blinked bashfully. Once. Twice. Tokunbo threw back his head and laughed, one thing he had inherited from his father, a heavy braying that rose up on its hind legs in his belly and punched its way through his mouth.
“So that’s what this is about…” He looked up at the evening just as the truth dawned on him, an expressionist splash of cloud, blue-grays and oranges that was splashed across the sky with Jackson Pollock fervour. “You need help sneaking off camp. Don’t worry; you’re not the first to ask.”
“Listen, it’s just that I need to get some stuff from home tonight and I’ve already bribed too many of these people here. I don’t want anybody to start to expect favours. So just bandage up my hand so it looks hurt and sign me off”.
Tokunbo was miffed but his annoyance was submerged deep down, capsized by Tokini’s beauty. What the heck! If that was what it took for her to notice him, then no bother. He would sign some stupid forms. At least, this medicine gig was paying off. The camp had a loose platoon system and assigned Corpers to various roles which suited their professions. So the medically trained joined a group, Mass Communications graduates and other media-related professions ran the radio request station, and Eke suggested sweetly to their Urhobo platoon Commandant , himself not a Corper, that as a graduate of jackshit perhaps he should run the toilets. In Igbo, of course. As a member of the medical group, Tokunbo could provide first aid to injured Corpers, and autograph release forms that would allow them to leave the camp when necessary. This, it would appear, was one of those necessary occasions.
“There’re some bandages in my dorm room. You can come with me if you want.” A shadow crossed her face as she stood up and flicked out her hair. Tokunbo was unsure. “There’ll be three dozen girls in your room though. I’m not so hot on the idea of walking in on them. Will I even be allowed in?” He said, lifting an eyebrow hesitantly. She didn’t reply. She just linked arms with him and walked demurely on. They seemed to walk forever- it was a big camp- but Tokini never let her arm slip out of his. They talked incessantly, their conversation a brush fire, both of them probing demandingly as if looking for common symptoms of life in the West.
Tokini told with off-handedness how she left Port Harcourt for London at eleven with her mother when her father moved to Lagos. She went to a public boarding school (which is actually a private school in Nigerian vernacular) in West Sussex and then on to Cambridge to read law. Tokunbo listened closely but heard none of the underlying melancholy he felt when he spoke about his own time abroad. She said everything so easily and without any reference to the confusion of that painful dislocation. So he asked her why she did not miss home.
“Didn’t even have the time to,” she said, scoffing a little. “You know how it is- back here most hols, at least Christmas and part of summer. And there are so many Nigerians in London, it’s hard to miss it. You can buy Nigerian food everywhere, like there are places that sell all that stuff. You can hear Naija music, and feel like you never left!” They were in front of a boarded- up block. Tokunbo barely registered this, he was more concerned that she took this privilege for granted- being able to shuttle back and forth between Nigeria and one’s adopted home- and took it for granted that he had had the same luxury. “To be honest I only feel, well felt, that I had truly left Nigeria, when I was in school, especially at Cambridge” She smiled a small smile then ta-da as she pushed open the door to her dorm. There were only three beds in the room which was big and airy and spacious, unlike the sweaty, sardine-tin arrangements with unwashed underwear hanging like flags on bedposts in Tokunbo’s dorm. There were bedside cabinets with mounted table lamps (table lamps!) and a huge wardrobe in one corner of the room, leaning against the smeared and faded blue wall. Tokunbo hid his envy and his mouth parted open in amazement only when he saw the bathroom in another corner complete with bathtub and a water closet that almost glittered when Tokunbo remembered the hardened shit that clogged the toilet he had peed in just that morning. Cleaning products lined up to its right.
“I know, I know.” She looked up from the drawer she was rummaging in “It’s clean. I had to call my father to sort out a few of the higher-ups when some of them got stubborn. All those nasty communal thingies are for the plebs” She said it with a cheeky smile that lit up her whole face. Tokunbo did not sense the condescension in her tone when she said plebs. He was trying to focus on not getting a hard-on. Casting his mind to the prison- quality showers that he and his dorm mates and everybody else on camp (well, almost everybody else, who knew how many more of these hotel rooms were hidden from view) put up with helped to stop the on-rushing arousal, gratefully.
He took the roll of crepe bandage from her and set about bandaging her wrist. Taking his time, he rolled it around with the ease of trained practice. He wanted to crack a joke or to say something to make her smile again but was overcome by helplessness. Her hand was soft to the touch, her fingers finishing in perfectly- manicured tips. His big hands closed around her slim wrists made him aware of his masculinity and this realization throbbed him with a desire to grab hold of the rest of her right there and then.
“Say something to me.” She was almost whispering, but not theatrically. He was fastening a safety pin to the bandage, and looked up to see his desire mirrored in her eyes and in the lustful curve of her lips as she moved in closer. “Say something in that American accent”. He lunged at her, weakened by a magnetism she radiated as she kissed him with predatory heat. They were suddenly and inescapably intertwined on the bed in a frantic struggle for closeness in the darkening room, both of them longing to press more tightly into each other, seeking the otherness, feasting on their marked differences and assuming that their physical union could cancel out the defined boundaries that had shaped them. She sighed when he entered her and wound her arms around his back feverishly, keening. If Abby could see, she would say Tokunbo made love just like his father.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
T-Black taking OOVVEERR!
Eke whooped loudly for the new Corper that had started playing on the radio request station. A popular Nigerian artist, DBlock, had just come on and he danced to the centre of the dorm room, eager to demonstrate his mastery of the steps that went hand-in-hand with the song. His narrow hips and shoulders snaked in and out as he improvised, legs a ceaseless flurry of motion.
“This T-Black guy is on POINT!”
“O boy, FORGET!”
Tokunbo smiled to himself as he watched his dorm mates wriggle about in unbridled celebration. It was the third week of camp and he was getting used to the banal expressions of his fellow Corpers. Sometimes it was not so different in cadence from Jay’s rowdy Baltimore lingo. He now understood when he was asked why he was voking when somebody used his things (he had been tight- lipped in annoyance when somebody had used his toothbrush and claimed it was accidental); he guffawed at the fatuous but light-hearted anti- Yoruba and anti- Igbo jokes, happily hybrid; and he did not narrow his eyes in confusion when Eke wanted to know if he was chiking Tokini.
“You know her pops is a big man in telecoms. His name is Idah right, whether George or James Idah or so. Rivers guy. Might even be on the Forbes list or so” His voice was reverent, which was unlike Eke, who jested at everything and everyone. He looked hard at Tokunbo, protuberant eyes turning reddish yellow orange as he flipped the roll of weed he was smoking into an overflowing bin. “Don’t fuck with that babe, my guy. I mean, fuck her by all means but don’t start flying to the moon like an astronaut, like you’ve seen the cosmos or something, inugo, you heard me?” Tokunbo heard him because Eke only peppered his words with Igbo when he was serious, which was not often. “I know her type.” Eke said in response to the questions scrawled across Tokunbo’s forehead in worry-lines and tipped his bottle of beer to his mouth to drink what was left of it. Tokunbo sipped on whisky- med school had brought with it a taste for hard liqueur- and slipped on his shirt. It was a cool July night in Bwari. The temperature was lower than usual and the sky, gathering clouds like a mother drawing in frightened children to her bosom, was dark and ominous. Tokunbo had slept with Tokini everyday since the first day he had helped her bend camp rules. He figured there was something in the water at NYSC camps that made Corpers horny. He preferred Tokini’s word for it- grag. She text it to him at night when her roommates were off on their own trysts and he would sneak into her dorm and bang her like a jackrabbit. She mouthed it to him when her platoon marched past his in the mornings. She whispered it as they ate at the mammy market and she slipped a surreptitiously forked tongue into his ear. I’m grag.
Tokunbo was a medic. He saw certain telltale signs in the body and he diagnosed accordingly. But a woman’s fever cannot really be understood by the mere press of a hand to the face, her fickle spirit does not resolve itself into rash or discoloured skin. It just switches direction, gets up and goes just like that, without any warning detectable by men, with their Y chromosomes and lack of intuition. Tokunbo’s fingers squeezed on Tokini’s nipples, his palms gripped her soft firm buttocks, and his eyes rolled over the delectable bends of her lissome figure, but he could not sense her restlessness, rooting itself deeper in her bones every time his tongue unwittingly curled out throaty Iloveyous against her breasts after yet another joyous sex session.
One afternoon, Tokunbo was walking with Tokini to his car, settling for an arm around her waist because she had shoved her fists into her pockets. He had taken to driving her home when she needed to get off camp. In fact there was little he had not done at her asking. He’d even chopped off his ‘locks- eight years in the making- when she complained that he looked ‘a little like a vagrant’. He had laughed but administered scissors and clippers a few days later.
Her skin was exuberant in the glow of sunlight, arms and legs exposed in a vivid red sundress. Tokunbo opened a door for her and was waiting for her to get in when he heard the sound of clapping. A dark-skinned Corper wearing dark designer sunglasses was standing a few paces away mock-applauding Tokunbo. He was one of those people whose wealth announced itself. His Caesar haircut was so sharp Tokunbo could not doubt that the edges had been finished off with a serrated dagger. Little waves rippled over his scalp in perfect concentric circles.
“And they say chivalry is dead” He was tossing a bunch of keys up and down in his left hand. Tokunbo resented this immediately, but found that he was hypnotically drawn to the rise and drop of those keys. Toss. Fall. Toss. Fall. “I’m Tosin Martins; you guys might know me as T-Black from the radio.” Pause for effect. Achieved. “We’re doing interviews with all the contestants in tomorrow’s Miss NYSC show. Hottie, I know you’re competing and if you are, all bets are off!” He had a curious grin, very self-possessed, it did not stretch much wider than the incisors in front, and its lack of charisma presumed that the watcher was already bowled over by other elements that made charisma redundant. Tokunbo looked at Tokini and conceded that she was, indeed, already charmed. She was smiling very shyly, still perched on the precipice of the passenger door, having never made it into the chivalrously prepared Toyota seat.
“Big man, I know you won’t mind me borrowing this chick for a while. We’re recording in DBlock’s studio in Maitama today and I’m driving there now.” He jerked his head in the direction of a BMW Jeep, headlights on, that was waiting at the camp gates. Tokunbo opened his mouth to say that he could drive Tokini there no problem, no need to tap your watch like I can’t tell the time. He was not aware that she was already drifting towards T-Black even though only last night she called the Miss NYSC show a parade for wannabes thankyouverymuch. She was impelled by forces of attraction that had no basis in physics. None of that magnetic opposites bullshit. This was like-and-like coming together that upturned fundamental scientific theory. She shushed him with a sexy finger on his lips, said that she would be back soon. Then she sashayed towards the rhythmic rise and drop of the BMW keys and left Tokunbo staring at his Toyota, dirty and now very old-looking, not needing to tell him that she was going to fuck T-Black in his car on his leather seats at some point that evening. She would be tossed and dropped just like those keys.
He knew that the stirring demon that twisted its tail around his thudding heart was jealousy. He had felt it before but it wrenched at him now with savagery, it gnawed hungrily at every heartbeat and grabbed hold of his thoughts. He watched her, Delilah, Desdemona, her voice dropping tinkling bells all the way to T-Black’s car, her arm effortlessly linked in his as they walked. He was stunned for a minute, then red mist descended as the trail of dust from the BMW swirled poetically towards him like smoke without fire. As his chest heaved, he remembered the new car he had seen last week at the Garki house, the freshly delivered Mercedes that had been a gift to his father from the hospital for outstanding service. He could see it in his mind’s eye now as he dove into the Toyota, silver and shiny and new. He didn’t even see Eke jump sharply out of the way of the slamming door or hear his muttered expletive (“Don’t be a fucking astronaut!”) as the car, throttled aggressively, barked dust into his face. All he could hear was the self- satisfied voice of T-Black, the rev of the BMW as it drove out of the gates, Tokini’s laugh like a disappearing mirage.
When he got to the house, his father was standing in the driveway with a woman that he was sure he recognized. He stared at her warily, and found himself strangely dizzy again. His ears were full of static, blocked as if he was on a plane. His father’s eyes were somewhat vacant, his fair skin was abnormally translucent like gauze as he observed Tokunbo’s shaved head.
“Nnanna, you have come home.” His voice was rachitic and Tokunbo saw that he had been getting feebler since he came back from the US. “This is Anu, your Aunty Enitan’s sister” he was very solemn, standing very upright. Anu was tying and retying her wrapper and Tokunbo thought back to Aunty Enitan who he had not seen in nine years, her big earnest eyes and warm conciliatory smile, the way she hung on to the ‘m’ in mad when she scolded him. He looked sharply at Anu, and recognized her. She was the same woman who had slapped him on the plane, the expression of knotted bitterness on her face was unchanged, and he wondered if she remembered him too. She nodded and uttered something as she walked past Tokunbo’s car. Neither of the men noticed her smear something black and ugly and formless across the white Toyota. Neither was watching as she muttered again, eyes closed as if in incantation.
“Papa, I need your car. I’ll bring it back this weekend.” He knew that his father would not ask questions. He trusted Tokunbo implicitly especially since he knew that he was never impetuous. His father looked right through him as if he could not see him. There was something definitely wrong with him. But Tokunbo was not paying any attention to his father, if he had looked into the older man’s green eyes he would have seen the flare of jealousy that contorted his own face. He grabbed at the keys that Emeka Okorie proffered for the second time in two months and slid into the Mercedes, the silver beast that sparked to life almost soundlessly like a big cat. All he wanted was to show that T-Black, to really show him. He knew he was being irrational but it did not really matter just then, nothing else did. He would deal with his father this weekend, maybe get him looked at. He did not care that his father was still standing on the same spot in the driveway, not right now, that did not matter, nothing else did.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“I am so so sorry.” Tokunbo’s only living grandmother was still crying, the tears flowed uniquely, down both sides of her face and joining underneath her nose in confluence, like the meeting of Rivers Niger and Benue. It was already a full month after his father’s funeral. She had surfaced again, Nicodemusly, on the doorstep of their Garki house when she heard of his father’s death and had paid for the funeral, attending with the few relatives from his father’s side of the family who bothered to turn up. She wept uncontrollably when Tokunbo explained that his father had gone to his clinic the day after he took his new car and died in a crash with a lorry at Wuse market when the Toyota’s brakes failed. She screamed when he blamed himself and writhed with her head in her hands when he spoke of his guilt, the guilt that stabbed at him countless times as he looked into the green eyes at the morgue and identified his father’s dead body. He had ignored his father’s paleness when he came home and found him conversing with that fat woman. If he had just been more attentive, he could have maybe prevented his father’s death. Maybe it was whatever was afflicting him that had slowed his reflexes. I mean, I’m a doctor for Chrissakes. I should have seen he was in no fit state to be on his own. If he hadn’t taken his fucking car…
She wept. She asked him who the fat woman was. Aunty Enitan’s sister. Then she wept harder. She mopped at her eyes with the edge of her glorious purple wrapper, and chewed on the end of lips that were so similar to Tokunbo’s when she spoke.
“My son. I am so sorry.” She looked into his eyes, Abby’s eyes through and through, little squint lines so small you could barely see the eyelids blink. He looked back at her and saw the carbon copy of the mother he had never known, with long hair though now grey, and single- toned, velveteen skin. There was strained feeling steaming out of her eyes then, condensed into salty tributaries spilling down her face relentlessly. Then she steeled herself and started to speak in that way that people talk when they are forcing out the words through the stiff small tunnel of buried emotion.
“My son, if anybody is to blame, it is me. This is all my fault” Tokunbo was not following. Weeks later, he was still wondering what could have been wrong with his father; he hadn’t found any medicines in his cabinet apart from the usual dietary supplements and pain killers. What was this old woman talking about? “I was very angry Olatokunbo. I was very angry that your father took my Abebi, my only daughter away. I was mad. I was angry. And then she died. Just like that, pa pa pa. Even your dad could not explain it. She just died. We had begged her, warned her, threatened her not to marry him. I did not know his people and they were not Yoruba anyway” She smiled wryly at him here “But most of all, some people had said he had juju, whether he was the son of Amadioha or so. I wanted a reason to hate him so I let myself believe it even though I knew it was not true. Your father would have been the last person to believe in or use that type of thing. When Abby died,” She paused here, shaking with a fresh stream of tears “I sent Enitan to your dad. You see, Enitan was the girlfriend to Kazeem, this boy who wanted to marry Abby. He impregnated her and just left her like that when he came to us for her hand. I did not want to turn to any babalawo, any medicine-man myself. Because inside me I knew that would not be fair. Your father was already suffering enough and my husband had destroyed him so I did not want to be directly responsible for anything. But people said Enitan was a bringer of bad luck. Some said she was born abiku, and little things like that. I, on my own part, knew just one thing, that she was a woman scorned and your dad was a part of the reason why. So I hinted to her to make sure that he paid for it”. She shook her head slowly, as if unable to believe that she could have been so petty. Tokunbo was enthralled, still not sure that this had any bearing on his father’s death but hungry for these little morsels of his early life that he did not know about. The identity that had been kept from him for so long.
“Enitan was no match for your father. The man is irresistible it seems and he lives up to his nicknames. One look from his green eyes and any woman would crumble. And he has a way of surviving everything you throw at him that nobody can explain. She fell in love with your father before she knew it. The cat still had one more life in him. She fell in love with you too, you know. But she soon realized that he did not and could not love her. So she left. And then all this while, all this while later, her sister showed up. You see, Enitan died just before you came back from the US, that’s what Anu went to tell your father. She herself just returned as well from the US. I mean Anu. Enitan died husbandless and unhappy and Anu was angry about it. She blamed your father for it and in the Yoruba way… in that our, what is the word, impulsive way, she wanted him too to suffer like her, as if the poor man had not seen enough. It was Anu who put charms in your car because she wanted you not your dad to die. It was Anu who killed your father. And it was all my fault.”
Tokunbo laughed. He threw his head back just like his father and laughed. He laughed at the irony of this woman telling him that his father, a medical doctor, had died from the charms of a medicine-man, a local spiritualist who made a living by lying to gullible narrow-minded Nigerians. He laughed at himself who had rushed back from the rationality of the West to this nonsense, to watch his only parent die, to chase green-eyed after a girl who could offer him nothing. He laughed for Nigeria, at Nigeria. This backward gaddem mess where old women believed in charms and young women in money. He laughed and laughed and laughed because he had forgotten how to cry when a thug slapped him at three months old.
“Mama, thank you for paying for my trip back to the States. I’m truly grateful. One day I’ll pay you back. Thanks for being there all this while even though I know it’s been hard going for you” Tokunbo was still laughing “I can’t wait till I’m gone”.
His grandmother would be glad too. She looked at the beautiful young boy walking away to his room, the boy who looked like his mother and walked exactly like his father, the boy she almost could not stand to look at. She searched her handbag for her mobile to call her husband and tell him she was on her way home, before he would begin to worry about her. She did not want to be on the receiving end of his temper now she remembered him running after Emeka Okorie and cursing him, saying that his son would laugh while he rotted in his grave. Her hand closed around something black and ugly and formless, something she had pressed into first one sister’s hand then the other’s when the first proved useless, something she had had to part with temporarily for her own peace of mind when she heard that her grandson was coming home, who filled her with grief and with jealousy every time she looked at him because his father could enjoy what he had taken away from her all those years ago- a beloved child. She prayed to Sango for forgiveness for the death of an innocent.
© ‘Namdi Awa-Kalu