Rhythms of Life
Miss Abosede always came to our house every evening with the fervency of a university student in search of a missing result. My mother, who she always came looking for, had never visited her, not once, at her place.
‘I am always busy, haven’t you noticed?’ she had said when I asked why she hadn’t visited Miss Abosede. One thing Miss Abosede equipped herself with while coming was stories, something she and my mother joked with by calling Latest Happenings. She always narrated every event, without missing a detail like an ancient storyteller, to my mother who would sit on a sofa either preparing a note or marking pile of exams scripts with her face scrunched down in concentration as if Miss Abosede was a mad woman talking to herself. I always felt her embarrassment.
I was four years old then so my mother would allow me stay and listen if I wished, and when Miss Abosede told her that it wasn’t proper that I listen to women’s discussions all the time, she replied, ‘She is just a child, omo kekere ni.’
My mother hardly engaged in the supposed-to-be conversation, she would sometimes say in a high pitched voice, ‘This student is intelligent. Just intelligent’ or ‘This is what I am looking for’ and, as if to get my mother’s attention, Miss Abosede reply in the careful voice of a person afraid to offend and smiling, ‘They have good lecturer.’
I sometimes feel she only made such statement to regain heights since my mother’s comments dwarfed her to unimportance especially as I was seated comfortably with them. She was just so dedicated to their friendship because some evenings she came and left, and all my mother would utter in response to her stories might be ‘Hmm, interesting’ or, like last evening, ‘Incredible!’
One evening Miss Abosede came with a Peculiar Story, I had just turned five that day and my mother didn’t allow me stay in the sitting room.
‘Madam, this one is pass even me o.’ She said in her distorted language that refused to be English or pidgin and the words made my mother lever her head to face Miss Abosede.
After biting her lips for some seconds, she said, ‘Tola, go and read in your room. Miss Abosede and I want to discuss business.’
I left, wondering what business a senior lecturer would be discussing with a cleaner. But my curiosity made me perch at a corner of the house on the edge of a chair close to the sitting room, like a bird high up in the sky looking for grains somewhere on the land. I listened, patiently. ‘Madam, your husband is cheat. I see him yesterday behind a hotel wey I go clean as a contract work. He carry girl. A student sef!’ She made sure to place emphasis on the student as if to make my mother consider the matter seriously. My mother sighed, continued what she was doing before asking, after a few minutes, about her life.
‘Errrmm.. Madam, Kunle ask me out. He say we should meet for BIG JOE FOODS, but I don’t get clothes to wear,’ she said as if picking up from an old conversation.
‘I’ll give you some clothes.’
‘Ah! Madam thank you. God will bless you.’
My father returned home late that night. I thought it’d make my mother believe Miss Abosede more as it was the first time he’d come home come after 10pm. When my mother greeted him, he replied in a tired grunt. I kept switching my eyes, trying to capture both of their expressions in record time. I wanted my father to say more, my mother deserved more. Instead, he made to walk inside his room.
‘Tobi, where are you coming from?’ my mother said without looking at him, her eyes were fixed on the television whose rays made her face shine so bright like a newly decorated masquerade.
I was shocked, it was supposed to be Papa Tola, but my mother called him by his name. Looking back now, I remember it was when things started to fall apart in our house. That evening of my mother calling my father Tobi, which also ended Miss Abosede’s visits.
My father only looked back, his face sweaty with shock and said, ‘Oh, it was traffic. Yes, the traffic.’ He said it in the careless manner of a mother answering a child’s daft question and maybe that was why my mother felt stung by something superior to an insult.
‘How convenient! Traffic? When did your lecture end today that you are now relaxing on the lame excuse of traffic? Answer me, Tobi. Answer!’ my mother said, her voice higher than the television’s volume.
‘What is wrong with you, Beatrice? Just what exactly is your problem this night? I come home after a hectic day and –’
‘Hectic day indeed!’ my mother cut in, hefted the piles of books she had been marking onto her arm and left the sitting room.
‘Good evening, Sir,’ I said after my father saw my small frame squeezed at the corner of the room.
He groaned in a reply then he asked, ‘Have you eaten?’ I nodded.
My mother once told me about love. How blind and wretched one could be when in love, especially with a wrong person. Love is never wrong, she had said that afternoon whose blue sky stood so distant. You can be in love with someone and you both will still be as far apart as the sky is from us.
‘That sky!’ she had said, almost in a yell, when I asked which sky.
‘Oh,’ I had mumbled as if I knew exactly what the distance was, in accurate figures. And the days that followed gave me in crystal-clear view, what my mother had meant that day.
My parents were both lecturers at a University. While my mother was a senior lecturer, my father was a professor of mathematics. ‘He loves numbers, they excite him and make his world colorful,’ my mother said on the evening I turned four when I asked him why my cake was shaped number four and the icing decorated in my date of birth. But when my mother told my father, two days after that incident, she would be coming home by 9 pm, the number didn’t excite him, I could tell because his face lost its glow, sigh by sigh.
When my teacher, Miss Kofo, told him how my grade had dropped from 96% to 76%, the numbers didn’t even make his face colorful. We drove home in silence that day, instead of my normal recitation of poems.
‘What is the problem, Tola?’ my father asked at dinner that night. I could feel his heavy eyes on me, patient eyes that demanded answers to questions.
‘Daddy, I don’t like the way you and mummy are doing these days,’ I said, my voice rough with cheap resentment.
‘And how exactly are we doing these days?’ he asked, making the doing these days sound as childish as I had pronounced it.
‘Mummy doesn’t cook anymore, she doesn’t greet you or kiss you as usual, you both only communicate through the phone. I don’t feel happy daddy. Please do something about it,’ I said, crying.
‘What did I tell you about big girls?’
‘Big girls don’t cry.’
‘That is my princess! See, your mother and I are only experiencing some misunderstanding. We’ll be fine. Wipe your tears and remember your mother is —’ he was saying when my mother cut in, bellowing, ‘Her mother is what?’
A dense silence fell on us. Her mother is so troublesome, I imagined the words oozing out of my mouth like foggy breath.
‘Tobi, I am asking you. Her mother is what?’ she said again and I could see the anger rising from her, like steam worming out of a poorly covered pot.
‘Stop this, Beatrice. Just stop. I was trying to tell her we will be fine and you’re making the situation worse,’ my father said, and was now walking toward her.
My mother retracted like a touched snail when he made to embrace her, snaked her way through him and the table close to him so that their body wouldn’t collide as if he was a leper. My heart swelled of pity for my father who just collapsed onto a sofa, his hand covering his face. I wanted to tell my mother that Miss Abosede could be lying but I knew she rarely lied. She was lousy, but never a liar. But then, my father hadn’t shown any signs of infidelity.
‘… she doesn’t even sleep with me anymore,’ I heard my father saying on phone while I was going to sit in his car. He started taking me to school since my mother’s change in attitude. I wondered who the she was. I greeted him after he hung up and we drove to my school.
My father was fifteen years older than my mother. I once saw their birth certificates, laying side by side, while searching for mine in their room so the day my mother called him a nincompoop, I was shocked to my arteries.
‘Who else would be caught staring at a seventeen year old’s butt by his own wife? No one except a nincompoop. Tobi, you are a nincompoop!’ my mother said that day, moisturizing my father’s face with spittle.
I liked to think my father was the most gentle man I had ever seen until he slapped my mother, even then he still apologized after the act and maybe that was why my mother became fueled with energy to break the only flower vase in our house on his bald head. He fell on the ground like an overripe mango; fast and hard. It was his friend, Prof Bayo, who my mother called to come help her carry my father to the hospital.
Maybe my mother was right because since the day Miss Abosede came to deliver that news, my father began to live in the web of her stares; our stares. I saw my father one afternoon staring at our neighbour, Bisoye as she walked past him. He never saw me even though I was close by. Soye as she was fondly called was exquisite. She was a queen; her walk steps had the accuracy of a model who hadn’t flopped before and as though the world was unmoving and watching her, each step helping her buttocks gyrate about the axis of her waist in a grace of simplicity. My father sat with his now folded newspaper, watching greedily, his mouth held wide open in a grip of attention her ball-like buttocks had on him. Maybe he was doing it again and my mother caught him.
When my father returned from hospital, it was as a changed man. I think things fell and scattered into tiny shards upon his return too, because the first time things started to fall his strong shoulders stood strong as an anchor. The day my mother first talked about marriage, my father had just bought her a car. I was cradled between her laps, her hands on my hair.
‘See, marriage is more than the vows we make in courts or churches. It is the blessings we give to our partners in form of what we say and do to them,’ she had said, her voice was clarion. Miss Abosede sat listening, hands supporting her jaws like a sober student.
My mother continued, ‘So don’t listen to only I love you, watch actions. If Kunle loves you, he’ll show you.’ My mother forgot to say blessings could be in ironic forms, too because the things she said behind my father after Miss Abosede’s last visit, I imagined, were her own blessings to him. Now, I think it was that act of breaking our only flower vase that brought my mother to repentance. She started greeting my father even though he most times ignored her, she prepared breakfast and dinner even though my father’s own remained untouched mostly. Although those things hurt me, I believed my father was in a process of recovery. The doctor said it’d take time to recover.
It was a Saturday morning. I was eating my breakfast of tea and slice bread and butter. My father sat on a sofa close to the exit door, his face covered in The Guardians. My mother finally sat next to him after several back and forth trips across the house. She couldn’t look at him as she kept fiddling with the hem of her gown and drawing circles with her feet on the tiled floor. I didn’t know this shy part of my mother.
‘What is your problem, woman?’ he said in a strangled voice.
My mother took deep breaths before saying, ‘You haven’t touched your food for the past three days, would you like to eat something else?’ Her voice was rough and weighty, the voice of one that has cried all nights. The event that followed stored in my head like water in a coconut. My father jerked to his feet, sent his newspaper flying to the door. It hit the door before falling to the ground like an old tired leaf of a tree branch.
‘You want to force me to eat poison now, you ingrate?’ he said, his voice charged and powerful.
‘Poison? Ingrate? Wait, why would you call me an ingrate, Papa Tola?’ she said as if him calling her ingrate was more important. There was silence. My mother went on, ‘What is your problem, kini?’
It was like hot coals were poured on my father’s bare skin. He moved toward my mother like an angry bull. The leather chair my mother sat on squeaked as he dragged her out of it through her legs, her head hit the floor and produced a sound like the clash of stones. He lifted her off the floor and pushed her down again, this time she lay flat like a corpse. My skin tightened and the hairs on the back of my neck stood like angry weed as I watched in horror. My father bent down, tucked my mother’s legs beneath his spread-out knees and punched her face in fine precisions.
‘Tobi, don’t kill me. Please,’ my mother said in a soft voice that seemed close to death. He stopped, looked around with protruding eyes while cracking his knuckles as if looking for something important but he resumed punching her. The veins on his head became engorged and I feared he would kill her.
My face was pallid when I stood behind him with a knife and shouted, ‘I’ll kill myself if you don’t stop, daddy.’ My voice was soaked in tears. My father sprang to his feet, pleaded I drop the knife. He was gasping and stuttering and mispronouncing words and tremors sat deep in his voice. My mother lay in an odd position like a tormented earthworm and whimpered uncontrollably. I looked and saw her eyes coated in thick blood.
‘Daddy, see what you have done to my mummy,’ I said, my voice shrill as I said my as if she wasn’t his wife.
The school health center was very big with different nurses and doctors running around as if trying to wrestle time. My father’s face was cloaked in grief. He had told me severally, on our way, that he didn’t mean to hit my mother. That it was a mistake. That it was devil. That it was everything bad and more. As he talked, his Adam’s apple rose and dropped like a water droplet undergoing capillarity. My mother had tried to make peace. I once saw her tiptoeing out of the room she and my father shared into the sitting room where she’d slept that night. He must have chased her out.
‘Where is he? Where?! Oh, there you are. You animal!’ a man said, shouting before hitting my father hard with a well-aimed slap. My father staggered. ‘I’ll have you charge for assault,’ he said in a foreign accent before leaving to see my mother in the hospital room.
‘That is Afolayan. Your mother’s brother in America,’ my father said, massaging the chin where the slap had landed. He seemed scared.
When my mother returned from the health center bespectacled, some months later, my father was in jail. Uncle Afolayan had him arrested for assault, I heard. Although I never attended any court session, I came to the conclusion that my father had recovered and become sober because of the way Uncle Afolayan spoke upon each return.
‘That idiot is getting his lawyer to beg for clemency. He’ll rot in jail. Fucking Idiot!’ he had said one day, a cigarette perched between his fingers.
My mother would just smile or sometimes say, ‘I blame myself for agreeing to be his wife’ before shifting her glasses so that they sat on the bridge of her nose. But my father came back a year later; broken and contrite. He lost everything because of the case, the house the school gave him and even his job.
We moved to Crescent Estate where Uncle Afolayan had acquired a flat for us. My mother started working in an oil firm as a secretary. My father became more immersed in his newspaper reading but this time he wasn’t reading for pleasure, he in fact was reading to get a job. My mother provided everything we needed and sometimes she shouted at my father when he ate too much or drank too much because she made those things available with her hard earned money. Once I saw my father wiping the corners of his eyes with the pad of his thumb after she called him shameless. She had caught him trying to take food from the pot after he broke the kitchen’s door.
‘Tobi, you are shameless. A shameless lazy man who wants to eat. Go and work like other men,’ she said on top of her voice that I had to run toward them from my room, petrified.
‘Mummy, I was scared. I thought you were fighting again,’ I said, wiping my sleep-trapped eyes.
‘Your father is trying to steal. See the lot of him.’
‘Tola go to your room, your mother and I will be fine.’
‘Tobi you are leaving my house. Now! I can’t deal with you anymore.’
‘You know I’m now old and my strength doesn’t lie in my bones.’
My mother burst into peals of laughter, one that indicated superiority and left the kitchen. When my mother drove me to school the next morning and back home, my father was gone.
I always prayed for his return but when my mother called in my second year in the University to tell me my father had died on his sleep bed, I knew it was the kind of murder that only took time.
‘He went to sleep and didn’t wake up. Natural cause.’ She had said, her voice hoarse.
Onuchukwu Joseph Chimezie is a short story writer. He has been published on AfricanWriters, TNC and other literary blogs. He loves God, fried plantain and his family, in that order. You can find him on Instagram as Prolifiqmezie. He writes from Lagos.