The homecoming ritual began as soon as Catherine stepped off of the bus. Stopping by a wall, she set down her bag and fished inside for her gold pocket mirror. She had become quite adept at balancing the mirror in one hand and deftly taking out her nose stud with the other, and once the offending article was stowed away, a few careful dabs of her concealer brush camouflaged the vacant pinhole. The rest of the ritual could be completed as she walked; a vest securely tucked into her waistband and a shrewdly placed watch would conceal tattoos, but the best she could hope for with her hair was that her mother would not notice its new plum tones. Upsetting her mother would unleash a particularly potent dose of emotional blackmail today, on the second anniversary of her father’s death.
No, it was not the day for surprises, revelations, or anything other than the sombre observance of her father’s memory alongside her mother and siblings. Which is why when her boyfriend suggested that today might be the day for him to meet her family, she had stared at him blankly across the chasm of their different upbringings.
“Hear me out, seeing as it’s kind of a formal occasion, there’s no chance for your mum to flip out or anything, right?”
He had said it earnestly, his honey-coloured eyes lighting up the way they did when he thought he was sure of something. Oscar meant well, but he had no idea. The Catherine he met at University was not the same Catherine who was about to cross the threshold of the house of the late, great Adebayo Akintola and his doting and dutiful wife Bisola. In fact, here she was not even Catherine, but Folu – or Folusade when she dropped a plate, or burnt the stew, or that time she was caught gyrating in her room to R&B.
Catherine privately debated if this meant that Oscar did not truly love the ‘real’ her, because he did not know the full extent of her dual existence, but this was not a problem that she was ready to address just yet. For what it was worth, she was fairly certain that she loved him, and even more certain that her parents – Daddy especially – would not.
“A film student! What one man watches for relaxation, another would pay thousands of pounds to study? Nonsense! Film studies, ko?”
Catherine could see her father before her, his girth filling the armchair in the living room, his curled lips trembling in indignation. Physically shaking this image from her mind, she slipped her key into the door and swung it open on her younger sister, Elizabeth, carrying a plate stacked with fist-sized lumps of black amala wrapped tight in cling-film.
“You’re late!” Elizabeth hissed as she scurried hurriedly into the dining room where her brother Matthew and her youngest sister Deborah were already seated silently under the stern gaze of Daddy’s portrait.
The portrait had always lived in dining room, even while he was alive, but posthumously it took on a more impressive role as surrogate watchman to ensure the propriety of his family at meal times. As the second eldest, Catherine took her seat at the left hand of the portrait, while Matthew sat opposite her on its right. Catherine rubbed Deborah’s arm by way of greeting as she sat down next to her and the teenager smiled silently, her face full and bright. Puberty appeared to be treating her very well. As Deborah rose to their mother’s voice calling from the kitchen, Catherine greeted a distracted Matthew, slouched in his chair, his face tight with tiredness.
“How art thou, brother of mine?” Catherine offered playfully.
“I dey…” he began in poor Pidgin English before trailing off.
He would be getting married soon, and even though every time Catherine saw her elder brother he appeared harried and distracted, as far as she was concerned he had passed the parent-test with flying colours. Daddy was always especially proud of him; graduating top of his class, getting a job in a good hospital quickly and now engaged to the right type of woman. Catherine was in awe of his ability to always do and say the right things, to always do the duties expected of him, and in doing so, his ability to make their parents unreservedly proud. He wore his obligations in a dignified manner. They did not choke him, but instead lay across his shoulders like some kind of royal mantel. She had long shed her childish fury and resentment, and settled instead for quiet envy.
Her two sisters soon re-entered with steaming bowls of ogbono soup; her father’s favourite dish, and probably as a direct result of that, Catherine’s least favourite. Her mother followed soon after, her presence exuding a confidence that was in sharp contrast to the sombre shadow she had become after Daddy had passed. She was even wearing jewellery. After regarding Catherine for a few seconds while she wiped her hands in the folds of her skirt, her mother began:
“You’ve lost weight.” A quick raise of the eyebrows.
“Hi, Mum.” More of a grimace than a smile.
“I see you have put colour in your hair as well. I hope you face your books with as much diligence as you give fashion trends.”
Catherine took a measured breath and looked down into the brown soup set before her. Her mother snorted.
“Let us pray.”
The siblings bowed their heads as their mother monotonously delivered her divine petition. She prayed for their schools, their jobs, and their futures. She made sure to mention the sacrifices that she and Daddy had endured to get them to where they were. She thanked God for favour, prosperity, and protection. She thanked God for her dearly departed husband who had laid out such a godly example of success for their children. She thanked God again for protection. And then finally the food.
They ate in relative silence for five minutes before her mother chastised Catherine again, this time for eating with her elbows on the table. Catherine clenched her jaw to stem the response that wanted to leap from of her mouth. She burned with contempt for her mother’s adopted English pretensions, and the irony of English etiquette governing the eating of amala and ogbono soup. Her mother continued.
“–And how will you present yourself to your husband with this lack of manners? As if you have not come from a good home!”
Her mother drew the air through her teeth and Catherine felt the eyes of Elizabeth boring into her skull. Elizabeth knew about Oscar, she knew they were living together, and she knew how much this fact would offend their mother and enrage Daddy, but she did not sympathise with Catherine’s half-truths and withheld facts.
“The sooner you tell her, the sooner she will have to get over it!” Elizabeth had reasoned when she had discovered the secret, and as she waited for her mother’s lecturing to subside, Catherine mourned the fact that she had neither the easy reverence of Matthew, nor the brazen confidence of Elizabeth.
“–See your brother, Matthew. Would he have found a good wife like Temitope if he had presented himself as a houseboy barely out of the bush?” Her mother snorted again. “You have seen a good example, I don’t know why you don’t just follow it!”
Matthew was sure that the concept of “a good wife” was relative. Temitope was good at a lot of things. She was beautiful, educated and came from a good family and Matthew felt that she would make a good wife – in fact, an excellent wife – but for someone else. Amongst his good-natured feelings of fondness he did feel “something” for her, and that was what led him to the conclusion that he should release her to marry someone more suited to her. Perhaps, someone more like his father. He had been acutely aware from a young age that his father thought he had married the wrong person. With the modest power of hindsight it was clear to see how that conclusion had led Daddy to push his son towards someone like Temitope, someone with the kind of ambition and determination that his own wife lacked.
Still, Matthew’s pending marriage to Temitope was just a piece of his overall unhappiness. Having done everything that he was supposed to do – A-class student, good career, and a future apparently lined up in the orderly direction of someone with “purpose” or “drive” – he had discovered that none of this actually belonged to him. Caught in the slipstream of Daddy’s high hopes for his first and only son, and with Temitope’s hunger for status and respectability propelling him from behind, he was realising all too late that this hand was not the one that he would have played if he had ever given thought to his own desires. In fits of high emotion he had considered getting into his car and driving until he was in another place, where he would start afresh as the mysterious and good-looking stranger. But this was not an American TV series and England was too small for such escapades, while the Nigerian community was even smaller. If he ever hankered for the comforting taste of home in a hot dish of eba and efo he would surely stumble into an establishment where a shadowed figure in the back would recognise his father in his face, make a phone call and that would be the end of his run. He had dreamt about it happening so often that he could almost feel the nervous sweat that would appear as his identity was pieced together under the dim spotlights of this anonymous Nigerian restaurant in Leicester, or Liverpool.
The other thing he thought about was sitting through his unhappiness and hoping that the waves of personal mourning would subside once he had a beautiful wife and a few chubby children crawling around his marital home. Maybe that would placate his restlessness and provide balm for the chafing of gruelling days with hypochondriac patients and nurses who spoke like they knew better than him. Daddy did not know the meaning of unhappiness when there was ample money in one’s bank account. How could Matthew be unhappy when he had a well-paid job with higher rankings and pay brackets for the taking? How could he be happier earning significantly less money working as a teacher of English? Why would one debase oneself from the rankings of a whole doctor to wiping the backsides of children? Daddy would thunder that he did not come from Nigeria, work his way through school by cleaning toilets and offices, endure racism and ignorance from lesser men with fairer skin for his first-born son to become a teacher. Nonsense! Insolence! Impudence and absurdity! Daddy would reason that he might as well have stayed in his village for his son to be a teacher, was there not a school there for him to teach in?
Matthew knew the script of this imagined exchange by heart. His imagination now produced daydreams and nightmares with increasing intensity since Daddy had passed, and Matthew could see his father’s cheeks wobbling in anger and his eyes straining from their sockets with indignation. Daddy would thunder, rage and shout until he had out-ranted himself: “OLORUN MAJE!” Then as a thick silence settled like ash after a volcanic eruption, the conversation would calmly switch to the topic of Matthew’s house-purchasing prospects. Daddy might have come a long way from his village but even in the white man’s country title and land was what mattered.
His mother would not be much better, and though Daddy thought she was soft, she had a will edged with flint when the situation suited her. His mother would plead, and fret, and wring her hands, employing dramatics that a Nollywood director could only dream of, to achieve the submission of her son’s will. Temitope’s family were doctors, and lawyers, and bankers and the like, how could he present himself to take their daughter away to be a teacher’s wife? The point was that he did not want to present himself to anyone, but that revelation would be even harder for his mother to stomach.
What he had tried to conclude previously was if it would be easier to break off the engagement and cancel the upcoming nuptials, or to go through with the marriage and change his career later? But if he was completely honest with himself, marrying Temitope was resigning himself to martyrdom. He was stuck between the rock of expectation that came with being the only son of his father, and the hard place of his own happiness and desires. Matthew watched his sister Elizabeth kneading balls of amala absentmindedly with her long fingers. She was lucky. She was still at an age where she could wrestle control of her destiny with Daddy no longer around to exert his will and direction, but as for him, he was too far gone. Martyrdom awaited.
“So, how’s school, Liz?” Catherine asked.
Elizabeth paused, before slurping her ogbono soup sharply.
Elizabeth was going to be expelled this year. She could feel it, but was not afraid. There were many greats who had proven that a flawless academic record was not a necessity for success. Whether it would be her lack of attendance or a particularly volatile encounter with a member of the faculty that would put the final nail in the coffin, she did not know, but a storm was brewing on the horizon and it excited her.
Her drama teacher was the only teacher who inspired an emotion that resembled something other than deeply held disdain, and although he did not exactly sanction her missing school for auditions and castings, he did not explicitly tell her not to do so either. He also allowed her to sit in on A Level Drama classes, despite the fact that she was not enrolled on the A Level programme. Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry were more appropriate options for someone with her scholarly prowess and her father made sure to let her know that before he had passed. Where others may have received an oral exposition of lessons learned in life or how proud their ailing relative was of them, Elizabeth endured an eloquently worded rebuke thinly veiling her father’s disappointments and concerns. The effects from the deathbed sermon had a while, but it was today, fittingly, that she had decided enough was enough. She was going to escape the snobbery and condescension of her private school, escape the politely racist neighbours with their manicured hedges and strained smiles, and go to London proper – leaving the leafy suburbs and its proud mediocrity behind. Elizabeth imagined herself recounting this story in Interview magazine or on The Actor’s Studio, carefully but casually describing the moment everything crystallised for her.
The only threat to her scheme was found in her mother, and if Elizabeth thought too long about her mother’s reaction, she may give up her exit strategy all together. Despite this consideration, there still existed a slice of Elizabeth’s consciousness that despised her mother for consistently living her life through her husband, and now her children. Any suggestion of ambition on her mother’s part was merely a front, a façade embraced as part of the persona of Adebayo Akintola’s wife. Now that her husband had passed she had let her sister take over the catering business she had pretended to fight so hard to keep, and Auntie Yetunde was slowly but surely running it into the ground. The entirety of her mother’s validation now rested on her children and their compliance with the clearly defined standards of success set by her husband. Anything less was failure, and Elizabeth knew that her mother’s greatest fear was giving her father’s family any space for criticism over how she handled his affairs after his death.
Whether it was publicly acknowledged or not, the Akintola offspring were in constant competition with their half-brother and half-sister, a set of glorious twins borne by their father’s second “wife” during a protracted business trip to Nigeria years ago. Deborah had not yet been born and everyone assumed Elizabeth was too young, but she could clearly remember the six months when her father’s presence was a crackling voice on the end of a bad line. Whether at the directive of their father or at their mother’s request, Adebayo’s legitimate children were not allowed to speak of the twins, but their smug spectres hovered over the house during their mother’s bouts of depression and their father’s lectures on how to be better. The unspoken comparison always left his British children with intimidating impressions of these golden children free from the corrupting influences of the West.
“This England has made you too soft!” was often bellowed in the face of their inadequacies before, but these days any sign of underperformance made their mother stoop over her bed in prayer, hushed Yoruba spilling from her lips, fervently pleading with God not to let her be embarrassed or her husband’s family find shame to heap upon her head. It may have been the spiritual energy of these prayers that inspired Elizabeth to hide letters from her school and to persuade teachers not to make contact with her still-grieving mother by phone. She had also managed to convince her head of year that her misconduct was due to the anger part of the grieving process, and while the pop psychology was buying her time, soon everyone’s patience would run out. But Elizabeth’s patience was also coming to an end, and it was simply a choice between hanging around for her letter of expulsion or escaping before she torched the whole grade-listed building to the ground.
Elizabeth looked forward to the day when she would revisit these emotions in preparation for an award-winning performance on stage or screen, because eventually her parents would be proven wrong. It was just the bit in between being a dropout and being a success that would prove painful for her mother, but luckily her mother had Deborah to console her, and the youngest of the Akintola clan had always tempered their mother’s madness. Deborah’s magic would provide comfort while Elizabeth did what she had to do, and there was also the welcome distraction of Matthew’s wedding approaching. Though daunting, it seemed that everything was falling into place. Elizabeth was seventeen-years-old and had never felt more sure of herself.
“See how Deborah is glowing, the African sun does so much good for your skin – next time you must all join me!”
Deborah shrugged out of Mum’s cupped grip around her chin. Though happy to have her sisters and brother around for once, she hated how she was babied in their presence. While Elizabeth still physically lived at home, emotionally and physically she was often absent, and Deborah wished she had the freedom of her older siblings to escape Mum’s suffocating grief. Mum clung desperately to her, often calling Deborah to come and sit with her for no reason. For a while Deborah had even slept next to her in the vacant plot left by Daddy in their bed.
Though Mum was crying less, the loss was still evident in the way she moved through her days, but since their three-month sojourn to Nigeria there had been noticeable improvement. They were there under the pretence of planning Daddy’s memorial service “back home” but Deborah really knew they were there so that Mum could be with “her people”. In the time leading up to their departure Mum had gotten extremely restless and irritable. The overly polite demeanour she adopted as an educated immigrant had cracked publicly on a few occasions; her graceful exterior splintering to unleash a cacophony of vicious, impenetrable insults to strangers in supermarket queues and traffic jams.
“In England we are squatters,” Mum began one grim morning as they sat in stuttering traffic. “They want you to squat like you are bowing to them or vacating your bowels. You must work ten times harder to stand straight – Daddy did that, I did that and you will have to do that too! I would not be able to put up with it any longer if it was not for you, your brother and your sisters. I will endure this country until I can see that you are all standing by yourselves. Then I will return home.”
At first Deborah could not bear Nigeria. The sweltering heat and humidity of the south-west was enough to make her hallucinate, and she hated the way her alien-like entity bristled against this country she was meant to call home. No matter how dense the crowd and how far she shrank into it, someone somewhere could smell the damp winter on her skin and she would be singled out. “London!” was her title, and traders, hawkers and beggars swarmed around her waiting to benefit from her fat British purse. It was now her turn to cling to her mother, or any available “auntie” or “cousin” who could provide a safe buffer between herself and a country she felt, but barely knew.
While in Nigeria she missed Daddy more than ever. Everything about him seemed to make sense once she was standing on the soil that had birthed him, and her memories of him were now too grandiose to imagine that he had ever been contained in the semi-detached house that sat between a thousand others in a dull London suburb. She now thought that he deserved a palace, or at least a house as large as the one they stayed in during their trip, but yes, he deserved it all: a driver, a cook, and a houseboy to sweep the floors and iron his suits. Only he would not be wearing a suit, but instead a long, flowing agbada, intricately embroidered metres of fabric that would have swamped any other man of lesser stature. Nigeria made Deborah understand him a bit more, and love him more fiercely. He could have lived as a king in his own country but went to Britain in the hopes that his children would be greater than him. She daydreamed about the kind of life they could have had if Daddy had stayed. Would she be the same person? Or would she have been bigger, bolder, louder, and more determined, in the way only a country of over 160 million people required you to be.
Deborah filled sweaty afternoons without electricity and ceiling fans thinking through this existential conundrum until Wale appeared, shimmering like the air above the melting highway. He scared her at first, being so much older, but as he pursued her, she became flattered by his advances. He was introduced to her as Auntie Funke’s son and she trod carefully to find out if they were blood cousins, or cousins by way of the infinitely fluid family ties that absorbed orphans, neighbours’ children and friends’ half-siblings. Her findings led her to believe it was perfectly legitimate to be attracted to him, an older boy who made her feel equal when everyone else in world patronised her. They became boyfriend and girlfriend, albeit very, very secretly, and it went from there.
The first time it happened took her by surprise. He was nibbling at her earlobe and whispering about a future marriage and how he was going to speak to her mother tomorrow when she realised that his hands were expertly loosening the belt on her shorts. While she mentally debated her position in all of this, he had already released his own trousers and was pressing himself decidedly between her legs. She began fumbling for words, desperately trying to clamp her legs shut as she pulled away from him. His breath was heavy in her ears as he tried to convince her of this natural progression. Fingers tightened around her wrists drawing her back towards him with promises that it would not hurt, and she should not be scared. Deborah’s voice caught in her throat and she surrendered. He continued and it did hurt. A lot.
After that incident Deborah had avoided Wale but he still came looking, and in eagerness for her daughter to assimilate, her mother ignored her incoherent reluctance and ushered Deborah off one day to visit family with Wale serving as driver. Her palms were sweaty and her throat was dry. He wasted no time, and the whole trauma had stuck with her ever since. She had almost considered telling Mum what had happened, but she knew it would be fruitless. If Daddy was still here he would have known what to do. He would board the next flight to Nigeria unannounced and pound Wale’s face until it was as black and as broken as the road he had taken her down that awful day.
Her body began to feel unpredictable after that. Sometimes her hands would shake uncontrollably, or she would find herself crying silently at nothing at all. She had recently began to vomit watery bile at random hours of the day, but she hoped all this would tide over soon so she would not have to worry her mother about her ill health. Even now, her favourite meal was turning her stomach and she was dissolving tiny balls of amala on the back of her tongue hoping no one noticed that she was not eating the sacred dish properly. She excused herself as hot angry tears began to stab at the back of her eyeballs, and by the time she had made it to the bottom of the stairs her vision was so blurry that she had to feel her way to the bathroom.
As Deborah hung her head over the toilet bowl retching, her brain tightened up and throbbed in her skull in time with her heartbeat. When there was nothing left in her stomach to bring up, she sat on the floor, her back against the locked door, and let the tears course freely down her cheeks. She really needed to get all this crying and retching out of her system. This was her final year in secondary school and her GCSE exams were fast approaching. Daddy was dead, but she still had to do him proud.
Many thanks to Storme, Ziona, David, and Nelson who helped with the original drafting of this story.
Also thanks to Chimamanda Adichie who completely gassed my life when she wrote that she enjoyed reading this story.