The day Dad left, I was in school. There was a quiz competition and I was representing my school. I was in Primary 5. Buses belonging to the competing schools were parked in the school car park, emblazoned with names like Apex Comprehensive School, Fountain of Knowledge Comprehensive Nursery and Primary School, Excellence Nursery and Primary School… names like that.
At the final stage, it was me and one other child. I can no longer remember if it was a girl or boy. I just know that the child had on huge glasses and looked like a genius. We had gone ten rounds, and facts and trivia I had learned for the quiz was almost exhausted. I was almost shivering in trepidation. Not this child though. This child still had a confident, almost smug grin on its face.
Until the child got a question wrong. The grin was replaced with sweaty apprehension.
“Jolade”, the quizmaster had said in that rich baritone that quiz masters seem to always have, “if you answer this question correctly, you will win this competition and you will go home with the first prize. Are you ready?”
I nodded, swallowing. My palms were sweaty and I wiped them on the voluminous skirt of my school uniform.
“Question”, he began, “Who came up with the theory of relativity? You have a minute”.
1) I didn’t know what the theory of relativity was.
2) I didn’t know what the theory of relativity was.
“You have 30 seconds left”.
I was panicking, my breath coming out in short, shallow bursts.
Uncle Joel, when he was in school and still stayed with us, always used to spout some science things that sounded unintelligible to me and call them ‘scientific laws’, and immediately he would always add, in a superficial pseudo-British voice, “Jolly, before something can become a law in science, it is first a theory”. “You don’t understand, abi?”, he always continued when I blinked blankly, “Later, you will be dragging food with me”.
Theory, I thought. Something in science. The only scientist I knew was Albert Einstein.
“10 seconds”, the quizmaster boomed.
It didn’t hurt to try. If I was wrong, all was not lost. There would be a next round.
“Albert Einstein”, I said, with an inflection at the end of the second word that made it sound more like Albert Einstein?
“Congratulations Jolade. You win the…”
The voice of the quizmaster faded into the background. My ears were buzzing. Pupils in our school were whooping and hollering loudly. Teachers came around to congratulate me. Nice Mrs. Nkiru. Tall Mr. Ope. Pregnant Aunty Joy. Even wicked Mrs. Adeokin. “Congratulations Jolade, you’ve made us proud”, she said in her high nasal voice.
I later went to collect the 1st prize – a trophy which was almost too heavy to carry, some gift-wrapped books and a handshake from some dignitary.
If you had seen the photographs, you would see me in oversized uniform, forehead gleaming and teeth shining, the books clutched to my body, looking like I was on top of the world. I felt that way too.
I wouldn’t feel that way for a very long time afterwards.
Mom came to pick me after school.
I ran and plowed into her, and she hugged me a little bit tighter than usual.
“Mummy, I won the quiz…”
The words tumbled over themselves as I gave her a blow-by-blow account of my earlier exploit.
I remember now that normally, she would have asked me playful questions and made encouraging noises and thanked God for giving her such a brilliant child. She always did whenever I told her how school went. She did not do any of those things that day.
Then, though, I didn’t notice the taut smile that stretched her lips into a severe line, or the surreptitious sniffing of her nose, or the tears that brimmed in her eyes and threatened to spill over. I kept talking.
“…quizmaster now said ‘Correct!’ and I won!”
“Really? That’s wonderful Jolly. I’m proud of you. I’ll make you sweet fried rice when we get home and we’ll celebrate”.
“No I want to eat jollof rice”.
“Okay. I’ll cook jollof then. You’re my little Jolly, I’ll do anything you want”, she said and hugged me very tight again. Did her voice quiver?
Huh, I thought. Mom is acting weird today. Maybe it’s because I won the quiz.
“I can’t wait to tell Daddy!”
A strange, strangled sound escaped from Mom’s throat.
“Okay”, she said, patting my head as we walked home together.
When we got home, Mom told me that Dad travelled for work that day, and would not be back for a long time.
“So, I cannot tell him about the quiz today?” I was disappointed. I wanted to narrate the quiz to him and show him the books I won.
“But I want to show him the books they gave me”.
“You can’t, Jolly. Don’t disturb me. Allow me to cook. Go to the parlour”, Mom retorted, her voice shriller than usual.
“But, can I talk to him with your phone?”
“No, Jolly!”, she snapped, “Leave me alone and go to the parlour!”
I ran away to the parlour. Her voice was scary, and now every trace of the joy I felt from winning the quiz had evaporated.
I did not enjoy the jollof rice that day, or the bigger-than-normal meat on top of it.
The day I discovered Dad had left was the next Saturday. The power was out. I had been watching a movie on Mom’s laptop and Mom had stood up and gone to her and Dad’s room.
I needed to pee. I paused the movie and was running to the bathroom, until I suddenly halted.
“What will I tell Jolly?” Mom was talking about me in the room. She sounded like she was crying.
I walked up to the door of the room. Mom’s voice was lower now. She was crying.
“I told her Dami travelled for work…”
Pause. I couldn’t hear what the other person was saying. I was only hearing her part of the conversation.
“I can’t tell her, I don’t know how she will react…”
“Things are getting tough, I’ve been trying to find a job and it has not worked out. Nothing is…”
Pause. She sniffled and wiped her nose with her handkerchief.
“Why are you talking like that, Maami?… How could I have known he didn’t want to be married anymore? I only got to know that afternoon when I found his note…”
“Amen. Jolly will hear…”
I backed away from the door, and stumbled back to the parlour confused, the urge to pee forgotten.
Dad had left?
Mom trundled out of the room some minutes later.
“Jolly, how are you? Have you done your homework?”
“Mummy, where is Daddy?”
Her eyes flew open briefly, and she started to stutter.
“Didn’t I… didn’t I tell you that… that he travelled for work?”
“I heard you in the room. You were saying Daddy left. That you didn’t know that…”
I stopped because the tears started to roll down her face.
“Jolly, come here”, she sniffed, pulling me closer and hugging me tighter than ever.
“That day you won the quiz, your Daddy left. He told me he didn’t want to be with us anymore and that he was going away”.
Mom’s voice started to catch in her throat, and she started to heave, like you would do when you were having hiccups.
“So he’s not coming back?”
She didn’t answer.
“Mummy!”, I shook her as forcefully as my 10-year old strength would allow. I was crying now, not because of Dad. Not yet. That would come later. I was crying because Mom was crying.
She shook her head, slowly, as if the entire situation just dawned on her.
“No. No, he’s not coming back”.
It was hell from then on. At night, I had nightmares of Dad leaving me in a pitch-dark place and going away with the light every night and my sleep was always cut short, and in the day, it was one quarrel after the other with Mom.
I wanted ice-cream, she said I couldn’t get ice-cream because we didn’t have money. I insisted that I wanted ice-cream. She snapped, screaming that she didn’t have money, and asking if I wanted her to pluck money from a tree. We argued. I cried.
There was the time when I had to change my preferred secondary school to a cheaper one because, money. I didn’t want to and I told her. She said I had to. There was no choice. I snapped. We argued. We both cried.
Or the time we had to leave our house because of rent. Neither of us wanted to. “Why can’t we stay then if you don’t want to leave?” “No money, Jolly. There’s no money”. We cried, even more than usual. It was the only house I knew.
I cursed Dad every night before I slept, and then after I had been jolted out of sleep by the nightmares I would feel bad for cursing him and I would start wishing he could come home.
Food gradually became smaller. Mom slowly became more short-tempered. I didn’t mind sometimes though because I knew she always cried and cursed Dad too.
It was particularly painful when I spoke with Uncle Joel about a month after Dad left.
“Jolly, Jolly, how are you na?”, he said, a teasing lilt in his voice.
“Is something wrong?”, he asked, his voice serious now. “The way you’re answering me is somehow. Hope you’re not sick?”
“No. I’m not sick. Daddy left. He’s not coming back”.
“Hello? Hello, Uncle Joel can you hear me?”
“Yes, Jolly. When did this happen? Mummy did not tell me”.
“Uncle Joel, can you come and stay with us? I know you have to go to school but can you go to school here? It’s only Mummy and me all the time now”.
Deep, long, drawn-out sigh.
“Sorry, Jolly, but I can’t. Mummy didn’t tell you? I’m in America. I’m going to school here now”.
“So, you can’t come?”
“No, Jolly. I’ll tell Mummy to get you your own phone so I can be speaking to you everyday. It’ll be like I’m there, you hear?”
“Yes”, I said, my head bobbing vigorously. This was badly needed good news.
“Okay. Take care. Oya, give the phone to Mummy”.
I smiled and gave Mom the phone.
Long story short, I didn’t get the phone. Mom said there was no money. I was able to speak to Uncle Joel only a few times a month. In a way, this was the saddest thing to me.
About three years later, Mom got a job. A good one. We moved to a better neighbourhood. I started attending a better school. Now Mom was never around. I learnt how to burn food, then learnt how to cook. Mom got a washing machine. It made washing easier. I watched a lot of TV and had no bedtime. On Saturday, Mom would sleep in, and I would clean the house. Although I had a phone now, I didn’t call Uncle Joel to speak to him. It no longer occured to me. I only spoke to him through Mom’s phone. The quarrels between me and Mom did not stop, although we clashed for different reasons now.
The time a teacher in school called her and said I had not done homework throughout the term. She got home by 11pm and confronted me, angrily asking why. I said I always forgot I had homework. She snapped, and I got angry and screamed back. At the end, we both flounced to our rooms.
There was the time I didn’t wash plates and I slept off. Mom came home and woke me up, asking me why I didn’t wash plates. I said I was busy. “Go and wash those plates my friend!” (She didn’t call me Jolly nowadays, only ‘my friend’). I angrily washed them.
Or the time results came out and I didn’t do well. As a matter of fact, I performed particularly badly. When Mom saw it, she flew into a rage, telling me I was wasting the money she worked so long and late for. I screamed things back to her. It was one of the most intense spats we had, all quivering noses, bulging veins in the throat and clenched fists. We didn’t talk to each other for weeks.
Though we got angry at each other almost constantly now, one thing was sure. We were not crying anymore. We were way past it.
15 Years After Dad Left
I’m sprawled out on my sofa, a bucket of popcorn on my belly and cold water at my side, watching a movie. The air is cool and the rain that fell is barely drizzling now. The earth has that edible smell that it always has when rain comes after a long time. My relaxation is total.
The doorbell softly dings. I pause the movie and get up slowly, stretching lazily. The doorbell dings again.
“Coming!”, I answer as I half-shuffle, half-run to the door.
“Jolade. It’s me. Open the door”, a deep voice says. There is a hint of an underlying squeak, as though the voice is cracking from disuse. It is unfamiliar, and yet I feel I have known that voice my whole life.
I swing open the door.
It’s him. Dad. He looks smaller, shrunken. Wrinkles have joined the laugh lines that were always around his eyes. They criss-cross his face in irregular patterns. Those laughing eyes I remember look sad. Are they fearful too?
Anger slowly boils inside me.
“You. What do you want?”, I say, icily, blocking his path.
“At least let me come in first. It’s very cold outside here”, he replies, flashing a wry smile at me. His eyes dart around, avoiding my face.
I shift to the side and allow him in, then I shut the door and turn around slowly.
“Why are you here?”, I repeat in the same cold, measured tone.
“Jolade”, he says, his voice pleading. His eyes are still settling everywhere apart from my face. When times were good, he never called me Jolly like every other person. It was always Jolade, and it always sounded regal and important whenever he said it.
“I came to apologize for…”, he begins, but he doesn’t finish. A volcano has erupted inside me, and I interrupt, angrily.
“After all these years? You didn’t even tell me you were leaving. You just left. I came back home that day excited. I wanted to tell you of the quiz I won and show you the books they gave me. I wanted to show you I was making you proud. Do you know that?”
“Jolade, please. I have always been proud of you. I wanted to…”, he says, but I cut him off again.
“You just left. I always thought you were coming back, but you never did. Do you know I cried and cursed you every night for a long time after that? Mom too. Do you know that?”, I’m breathing fast now. My face feels hot and my fists are clenched by my side. His eyes are still darting around. Inspite of the cool weather, beads of sweat have formed on his forehead and he wipes it with his arm.
“Jolade, I was wrong”, he says, his voice careful, conciliatory. “I shouldn’t have left. I was foolish. I’m here to apologize and I hope to be part of your lives again”.
The rage grows hotter, and my fists start to clench and unclench rapidly.
“No. Never. Not a chance. Why now? Were you there when I first bled all over the floor and it felt like someone was digging out my stomach with a shovel and Mummy wasn’t there because you left? She had to work. Were you there when I first injected myself with heroin?” His eyes stop darting around and focus on me, sliding wide open. “Were you there the day I felt the world didn’t make sense anymore and I slashed my wrists? Were you there when I was going to visit a friend and I almost died from falling off the bike?!”
“No, you weren’t. Only Mom. She was the only one. She donated blood. She sat in the hospital many times waiting for me to open my eyes”, the boiling anger is suddenly replaced with ice-cold rage.
“Get. Out”. My voice is strange, even to me.
“Get. Out”, I repeat, adding “Now!”
His head sinks dejectedly to his chest, and he shuffles out the door, slowly.
I slam the door behind him. The tears have started falling, for the first time in a long time.
I turn to go back to the movie, and notice a slightly big scrap of paper on the floor. I pick it up. Dad’s familiar, elegant scrawl covers the paper, and it reads ‘Jolade, I’m sorry. For everything. Please forgive me. Dad’. There’s a phone number written at overleaf.
I resist the urge to shred it, and stash it between some paperbacks.
Then I rush to the bathroom and turn on the shower to cover the sound of me sobbing loudly.
“Dad came yesterday”, I say to Mom the next day, after the pleasantries and niceties. The statement is almost flippant, and Mom says “Okay” before doing a double take, and exclaiming “What?”
“I said Dad came to see me yesterday”. My voice is calm, masking the roiling torrent of emotions churning inside me.
“What? Dami? Came to see you? When? Why?”, Mom asks, rapid-fire.
“Mom, calm down”, I say, soothingly. “He came yesterday in the evening after the rain”. I’m looking at her, watching her reaction.
She’s first hesitant, then she asks, voice small, “What did he say?”
“He said that he wanted to apologise and ask for forgiveness. And that he wants to be part of our lives again. I told him to leave”. I’m feeling angry again, but it’s not like yesterday when the anger was all I could feel. Now, it’s mainly just blank emptiness.
Mom sighs heavily and lowers herself to a chair. Neither of us speaks for a while, until she says “You know he left a note? Before he left?”
“Yes. I heard you telling Grandma on the phone one time. That’s how I knew he had left”.
“I never destroyed that note. I kept it away, but I never looked at it again. Do you want to see it?”
I’m curious now. I never knew why he left. Maybe the note says why. “Yes”, I reply.
She reaches into the big family Bible we used for morning devotion all those years ago before he left. Neither Mom nor me prayed much after that. She brings out a leaf of paper folded in half and unfolds it very slowly, hands shivering the whole time. Then she lays it out on the table and smoothes out the creases with her palm.
I lean forward and begin to read the note. It’s covered in that same scrawl that was on the paper yesterday.
‘Dear Tinu,’ the note reads, ‘I’m so heartbroken to tell you this way. I’ve left. We both know it was only a matter of time before this happened.
I’ve had so many unforgettable moments with you, like how angelic you looked on our wedding day, or that day you were sick and you told me that you felt better the moment I came back home, or that day we danced at the gala. And most of all, the day we had Jolade, that angel.
But now I’ve met someone I want to be with forever. She’s Danish, and she’s leaving Nigeria soon, and so I’m leaving with her because if I don’t, I will be a horrible husband to you and a horrible father to Jolade. I will always blame you and Jolade for making me miss this opportunity, and I don’t want it to be that way.
I’m very sorry. I hope that you can forgive me and move on with your life. You’re still young and still very beautiful. It’s not your fault, it’s mine.
P.S: I left the ATM Card and the account details to our account. I know it’s not much but it’s the best I can do. Take care of yourself and tell Jolade I’m sorry.’
I read it again and again. Mom is still, eyes far away and unfocused, staring at the wall.
After what seems like a long time, I ask, “Mom, what did he mean when he said ‘We both know it was only a matter of time before this happened’?”
Mom’s eyes come back into focus, and she looks at me. After a while, she answers.
“His parents were worried that he had not gotten married and they felt he was getting too old. He was 38 then. So, they agreed with my parents to get us married to each other. I was 26”.
Really? The marriage was arranged? It didn’t look that way. They seemed made for each other. The marriage seemed so peaceful.
“It didn’t seem that way. I never heard you both fight or quarrel”, I say out loud, confused.
“Your father was an amazing man. As I got to know him, I began to love him. Soon, I was completely head-over-heels and I had no problems with the marriage. In fact, I was thrilled”.
“So, he never wanted to be with you, even after you got married?”, my voice is soft, and, like multiple times before, I remember everything that happened since Dad left.
“No. I was very happy when you came. I thought that meant he would stay forever. He really loved you. But he did not. He left. I still had you though, and it was what kept me going during that period”.
All is silent for a while. It seems there are no birds singing, no vehicles zooming past, nobody in the world except me and Mom. The flashbacks keep coming thick and fast. The hurtful words, the screamed-out spats, the silent treatments. The cocaine, the heroin. The slashing my wrists with the kitchen knife.
Then the words flow out of my mouth, thick and fast. “I’m sorry, Mom. For everything. All the trouble and quarrel. I’m sorry for nearly killing myself and not doing well in school and for taking drugs and…”. I stop when her hands cover mine. She has a small, soft smile on her face.
“It’s okay, Jolly. Don’t worry”. I smile back, the grin widening until I feel it stretching my face tight. I feel light now. Giddy with relief. Maybe I always felt empty all those times, but now, it’s as though a heavy load has been lifted off my neck. Soon, we’re both laughing.
“So, what did you say to him when he came yesterday?”, Mom asks after a while of giggling.
“I told him to leave. He left”.
“Alright”, she replies, and then tears the note on the table into tiny pieces. It feels like closure.
“He dropped his number when I wasn’t looking though. It’s here”. I rummage through my bag until I find it. Then I drop it on the table, where the note was some seconds ago.
“Do you want to call him?”, I ask.
She closes her eyes for a while, then she takes a deep breath.
“Yes”, she says.