There was no doubt in my mind that two people existed on this earth who would not be hearing of my encounter with Tokunbo’s father: my own parents. They would thoroughly scold me for accepting to deliver a letter from a man who for all intents and purposes was a complete stranger.
Not only that, but this man had been absent from the life of his son until now.
Why all of a sudden was he trying to contact the son he had all but abandoned all these years? And who was Yele’s father? Was Mrs. Williams really Tokunbo or Yele’s mother?
I didn’t have answers. Just a myriad of questions.
And then there was that more pressing, more urgent issue, the problem Mr. Williams had left me to solve: how to deliver the letter from father to son.
“Oh-oh! Why did I agree to deliver this letter now?” I asked myself over and over again. The longer I stared at the envelope that had been entrusted to me, the more I wished I could physically kick myself for accepting this assignment.
“Na who send me message? Ta lo ran mi nise?”
By nightfall, the question still remained: how would I deliver this letter to Tokunbo, especially without anyone’s knowledge?
At the time, I was unaware that Tokunbo was due back home from school that same weekend. But that evening, fate laid that critical piece of information at my feet.
My mother who was still very touchy on the subject of Iya Tokunbo and Project “Save Tokunbo from Vagabondism” had thankfully decided to let peace reign for the time being.
After all, the said Tokunbo was still in school and everyone knows that it’s hard to mentor a person when you’re not in the same physical space with him.
Later that evening, as we ate dinner, my father startled us with his repeated coughing, possibly twenty-three in number, delivered in poorly-spaced intervals.
The culprit, judging from the many glasses of water he downed, was the rather high level of pepper in his meal. In spite of his discomfort, he refused to swallow my mother’s bait, wrapped in the form of questions such as:
“Is the salt in the stew too much?”
“Was it a bone?”
“Is there too much pepper in your food?”
All of those questions, regardless of how many times my mother asked them, were left hanging in the air. My father, who was quite well-versed in my mother’s cunning ways, knew that her supposedly “concern-ridden” questions were never to be answered.
Experience had taught him that mistakenly answering even one of those innocent-looking inquiries, would set off a chain reaction ending with him sleeping on the couch, or as it had happened on one occasion, sharing a bed with Yemi.
So, he stylishly dodged them, not responding per se, but instead, just demanding more water to be brought to him. After flushing the pepper down with water, he asked Yemi how school had gone that day.
As Yemi began sharing the censored, daddy-approved version of that day’s classroom adventures, the phone rang.
At first, we all ignored it.
Although we owned a landline for which my parents got a bill from NITEL every month, and which they constantly complained about, we rarely used it to make calls. Even more rarely, was the incoming call ever for us.
There happened to be a man called Mr. Ekanem whose number was a near-perfect match for ours, except that instead of an “8” at the end, his phone number ended with a “6.” We knew this simply because that information had been relayed by the people who called our landline asking to speak with Mr. Ekanem.
We also concluded that this Mr. Ekanem had a good number of people who loved him or at least, loved dialing his number, due to the sheer volume of calls that came through our phone for him alone.
Due to this less-than-ideal situation, the phrase “wrong number” was the standard response to most of the telephone calls we received.
But that evening, the call was not for Mr. Ekanem. The breezy female voice on the other end made this clear.
Instead, the phone call was for Mr. Ladoja, and it was from, of all people, Mrs. Williams, our neighbor.
The old handset my father kept in the parlor lacked speakerphone capabilities, so we were forced to listen to the one-sided conversation between Mrs. Williams and my father, hoping that he would fill in the missing details later.
By the time he dropped the receiver about five minutes later, it was clear that my father’s task at the dining table had exponentially increased beyond simply downloading the details of his discussion with Mrs. Williams.
Judging from the look of growing irritation on my mother’s face the minute she heard the name of the caller from Yemi who had initially answered the phone, my father knew that upon his return to the dinner table, his next words had to be uttered with care.
“And what did she want?” said my mother, who had cleared her plate of amala, gbegiri and ewedu with red beef stew, and had started licking the remnants of her meal which clung to each finger, one by one. The rest of us – Yemi and I really – kept quiet and watched.
“Nothing my dear,” said my father, downing the glass of cold water in front of him with such speed that I wondered if he would not get a brain freeze there and then.
Either his brain did not freeze or else it thawed pretty quickly because when my mother re-phrased and re-fired her question by asking “So why did she call?” my father responded with:
“The boy is coming home this weekend, Asake. She said I should greet you.”
He said all this without grabbing his head with both hands and grimacing, the way people do when they experience early stage brain freeze.
“Which boy?” my mother asked, washing her hand in the basin of water I had brought at her request. After wiping her mouth clean and dipping her hand in water for the last time, she told Yemi to go and bring her a toothpick.
Once he had disappeared into the kitchen to run this errand, my father said:
“Asake, Iya Tokunbo is called ‘Iya Tokunbo’ for a reason. Tokunbo is her son, and you know that’s the boy I am referring to.”
“Yes, we all know that,” said my mother, leaning back and wielding the toothpick between her teeth like a pro. “But what did she really want?”
At this point, she put her quest to dislodge stray shreds of meat from between her teeth on pause, and began to suck her teeth instead. Seeing that it was not as effective as the toothpick, she resumed picking her teeth with renewed gusto.
My father who watched her with tired eyes said:
“Yes, I know. You know I’m mentoring this boy. She wants me to start when he gets back.”
My mother didn’t say a word. She simply got up from the table and asked me to join her in the kitchen to cut some pawpaw for dessert.
The look of bewilderment on my father’s face was priceless.
Even without saying a word, I knew what he was thinking. His philosophy was that if a person was angry, it was better for that anger to find expression in spoken words. That way, you could tell what was in that person’s heart, instead of keeping everything bottled inside. But when a person was angry and said nothing, in his words:
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Silent volcanoes, he called them.
But my mother did not fall into this category. She would speak out. Just not then.
I could tell that my father was considering pursuing the matter to try to get her to speak out, but judging from his silence, he thought better of it.
As we sat down to feast on orange slices of pawpaw, it was a wonder that my mother did not erupt when she heard my father’s last sentence on Tokunbo. If there was anything I knew about my mother, it was that her silence was more fearsome that her verbal outbursts.
“They’ll sort themselves out,” I reasoned as I retreated to my room to devour the Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon novels I had borrowed from a classmate, exclusively for the post-exam, pre-report card period.
But the moment I stepped into my room, the same old question came back to haunt me:
How would I deliver this letter to Tokunbo?
Now that I knew that Tokunbo would be coming home that weekend, it was clear to me that I could not postpone this event any further. Surely, I couldn’t hold onto this letter for a year without telling him.
Should I send Yemi?
No, that wouldn’t work. The possibility of Yemi ignoring my strict instructions and handing the letter to the wrong person was very high because he only fully obeyed my parents. To me, he gave “occasional obedience” almost out of pity.
The fear of Yemi giving the letter to the meyguard, who would probably read it and maybe even burn it, deterred me from turning him into an emissary.
I had to find another way to get this letter into Tokunbo’s hands.
By the end of the day, I had come to one conclusion, the one I dreaded and sincerely did not look forward to: I would have to deliver the letter directly to Tokunbo, and it had to be that weekend.
The thought of postponing it appealed to me somewhat, but my desire to procrastinate was overridden by my desire to put this episode behind me. So, I decided that come Sunday afternoon, Tokunbo would get his letter.
On Saturday morning, as I went to buy a loaf of bread from Iya Kafilat’s shop, I was startled to see the gate of the Williams’ residence flung wide open. As I walked by, I saw a car parked behind one of the other two cars in the yard.
But the car was not what held my attention.
It was the person who had just opened the trunk of the car and was pulling out an iron bucket and a traveling bag.
Despite the fact that he had his back turned to me, I knew it was him. I observed for the first time, how he held his shoulders with pride, just like his father.
I was tempted there and then to rush into the compound and thrust the letter in his hand, but I knew that it was the wrong time. With Mr. Williams’ warning still ringing in my ears, combined with the fear of Iya Tokunbo emerging from the house without any warning, I stayed away.
No, this was not the right time.
When exactly was the right time? That was still unclear to me. However, because I had imposed Sunday as the ultimate deadline to deliver the letter, I knew I would not have to wait much longer.
As I continued on my errand, I chuckled to myself as I thought about how much lighter Tokunbo’s end-of-term load was compared to what I had seen him travel to school with at the beginning of the term. I had a fairly good idea as to the fate that had befallen the provisions, goodies and other personal items that accompanied him when he started that term.
They were either stolen, had developed legs and walked away or they had been traded in for more valuable items, mostly contraband, or favors. Why? Because in the absence of money, or sometimes, in spite of money, provisions were the currency with which students got what they wanted in boarding school.
I was quite familiar with these tales, thanks to my older brother, Tayo, who was away at FGC Ogbomosho. Just like Tokunbo, Tayo was due back home that Saturday.
But since Ogbomosho was in Oyo State, which was at least four hours away from us, much farther than Ijanikin, my parents would be arriving back home with Tayo at night, even though they had left early that morning.
Later that afternoon, I had to go and grind pepper. Normally, I could get away with getting this done at Iya Kafilat’s place, being the Jill-of-all-trades that she was.
However, my morning visit to her shop to buy bread had put me on notice that her pepper grinding machine, or ero as we called it, had broken down and was out of service. This forced me to take a longer journey, by foot, to Mama Alero’s shop, which was two streets away.
Now, it was not that we lacked a capable blender at home, powerful enough to pulverize both the flesh and seeds of tomatoes, tatasheknown in English as red bell peppers and ata rodo also known in English as scotch bonnet peppers, alongside onions, to form the red pepper base of most of our stews.
Far from it.
The fact was that my father was old-fashioned and picky with his food. He refused to eat any stew or soup that had been made with pepper blended in a blender. Only a mechanical ero would do. And my mother complied.
To her, it was a small price to pay for being the wife of Mr. Ladoja.
Whenever complaints sprang from our lips because of the inconvenience of blending pepper in an ero, my mother was quick to remind us of the man she used to date before she met my father.
This ex-boyfriend always insisted on eating food cooked with pepper ground by hand with a stone mortar and pestle, known in Yoruba as Olo and Omo Olo, respectively.
She often recalled with genuine gratitude how God had saved her from a life of grinding pepper by hand, yoked to a man who swallowed his “H” and slotted it in front of words that started with vowels. In the mouth of this man, ‘apple’ became ‘happle’ or on a good day with his thick accent, it became ‘hample.’
Conversely, when other people said, “Heaven is my home,” this man would say:
“Eaven is my ome.”
So anytime I started my own brand of grumbling, complete with angry foot stamping, when the task of grinding pepper fell upon me, my mother would break into song, belling out sweet notes, with the same lyrics:
You better thank God
You’re not the daughter of Mr. Hample
The lyrics were the same, but the tune changed from time to time. One day, it was an Apala tune, on another day, it was a church benediction.
As I neared Mama Alero’s shop, I chuckled to myself as I remembered my mother’s words, and began to count my blessings that I was not condemned to introduce myself to people as “Henitan.”
Unlike Iya Kafilat who dabbled in the buying and selling of dry goods, with grinding pepper as a side hustle, Mama Alero was more focused and single-minded. She owned several machines, which were dedicated to processing food such as grinding dried yam peels to yam flour, popularly known as elubo. She had about four machines exclusively dedicated to grinding pepper, which ensured that she was always in business.
That afternoon, there were several people milling around Mama Alero’s shop. Those of us who came to grind pepper had formed two neat lines in front of the machines that were in use. The other two machines, although in good working condition, as Mama Alero herself confirmed, stood unused as she was short-staffed that afternoon.
Two of her workers had quit that very morning, and so the typical speed people were accustomed to was absent. Several customers complained about the slow service, but waited in line because they knew Mama Alero was still the most efficient pepper grinder in our neighborhood.
As I stood in line, waiting for my turn, I heard someone yell:
Without turning around, I had a very good idea who the name yeller was.
She was the only girl in my class who lived in the same neighborhood, about three streets from mine.
Now, Tina was not my friend by any means. In fact, I made a conscious effort to avoid her. My reluctance to talk to her and my general body language should have made it clear to anyone with eyes that befriending Tina was not on my to-do list.
Either Tina had eyes and used them for decoration, or else she deliberately turned a blind eye to all my efforts to discourage her from being friendly towards me because she refused to let me be. She constantly thrust herself into my social circle, and it just baffled me.
Without leaving the queue, to avoid losing my place, I poked my head out of the line and towards the direction of the voice. The person I saw standing about five people behind me confirmed to my eyes what my ears had heard: tall, plain faced with bright, twinkling eyes.
It was indeed Tina, waving enthusiastically at me, as if we were long lost friends.
What happened next was not a figment of my imagination. In fact, it is best narrated in stages.
Stage One was initiated when I made eye contact with Tina. Instead of speaking audibly, Tina held her tongue and decided that it would be best to proceed with non-verbal cues. So, she began to gesticulate wildly, letting her hands do all the talking for her.
The puzzled look on my face was an outward display of the confusing questions that Tina’s actions had triggered in my head. If there was anyone who did not know the meaning of the words, “shy,” “quiet,” or “timid,” it was Tina. So why on earth was she motioning to me like this? Stage Two provided the answer to this very question.
Stage Two commenced with Tina pointing at me, and then later, she switched it up and began pointing at herself and mouthing words that apparently only she understood. After doing this back-and-forth pointing about four times, a miracle happened: the power of speech returned to Tina and she shouted from where she stood.
“You said? I should come abi? Okay, I’m coming!”
As I looked in utter confusion, wondering if perhaps my shadow had just carried on a conversation with Tina without my knowledge, it suddenly dawned on me that Stage Three was already under way.
Stage Three saw Tina walking over briskly to where I stood, clutching a basket with a plastic bowl with a metal handle and lid similar to the one I was holding. I concluded that she had come to grind something. Whether it was pepper or beans, was still a mystery. I did not have to wonder long and in fact, did not have to say anything at all. Tina did the talking for both of us with enviable ease.
“Ah! Enitan! Babe, you just jabborred me that time. It’s not fair o!” she started, rolling her eyes.
I recalled the incident she was complaining about because it had taken place the day before. We were both standing at the bus-top, and she had been talking my ear off about a party she had attended. We were supposed to take the same bus, but I could not endure the thought of sitting through a bus ride with Tina for company, talking about things that did not interest me.
So, the moment a Danfo bus pulled close and I heard the conductor shout the name of our destination, coupled with “One Chance!” I leapt onto the bus with all the strength I could gather and gratefully sank into the last available seat, even though it was so close to the conductor’s armpit, I could count the tangled hairs if he would let me.
Tina was left at the bus-stop, standing there, flabbergasted.
I could tell she had neither forgotten the incident nor forgiven me, but I didn’t care. If I had not left when I did, I would never have made it back home in time to meet Tokunbo’s father and receive his letter.
Even though that meeting had left me with the burden of delivering a letter, there was also a positive effect: I had met Tokunbo’s father who had somehow humanized Tokunbo in my eyes.
Tina did not even wait for me to say anything, but immediately continued at neck breaking speed.
“But I forgive you sha!”
Ah! Forgiveness! Sweet forgiveness from Tina! I was indeed very grateful. So grateful in fact that the expression of aloofness that I wore on my face pre-forgiveness still remained post-forgiveness.
But as I have already mentioned, Tina had a knack for ignoring my facial expressions and proceeded guided by her own internal compass.
Opening her mouth and pouring out unsolicited information into my ears, Tina explained.
“See ehn, my mother just woke up this morning and said, ‘It’s akara and pap we’re going to eat.’ I don’t even know what her problem is. Who even likes akara sef? With pap again? Anyway sha, I told her, ‘Mummy, you know I don’t like akara. Moi-moi is better and we can eat it for our night food.’ Thank God she saw eye-to-eye with me. That’s how we ate yam and egg this morning and she said we will eat moi-moi and garri this night. And you know, Helen that my stupid sister, just used corner-corner to say she’s going to her friend’s house. Next thing, my mother now said, ‘Ehen, Tina. It’s you that will go and grind this beans for me.’ Can you imagine? And I’m the older one,” she finally concluded with a hiss.
I was about to tell Tina that being older meant she had to be the responsible one, but I did not want to give her any opportunity to unduly prolong the conversation.
So, I just shook my head in sympathy and muttered a patronizing “Eia!”
As it turned out, that show of solidarity for Tina’s plight was enough to encourage her to keep talking.
“Abi o. See, I knew you would understand. So, what are you doing here? Are you people also eating moi-moi or akara today?”
I shook my head and gave her a single answer:
“Oh, Pepper abi?” said Tina, letting her eyes fall carelessly on the white plastic bowl, originally containing ice-cream bucket, which I clutched tightly in my hand. I am not sure whether it was the color of the bowl or the piece of paper with someone’s handwriting which drifted past us driven forward by a slight breeze. Whatever it was, it must have triggered Tina’s next statement, which I did not see coming at all.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I almost dropped the bowl in my hand. Where did that come from? And why was this silly girl asking me this question?
Apart from the fact that I particularly did not like discussing personal or sensitive topics in public, I also resented the fact that it was Tina, who was a well-known amebo who I was supposed to be having this discussion with. How was this herbusiness exactly?
It was at this point that my eyes opened and I suddenly noticed what Tina had done. The entire time she was talking, right after she invited herself over to my side of the queue, she had slowly inched her way in, bit by bit, so that now, she was not just part of the queue, but she was ahead of me. Tina had just promoted herself from maybe No. 10 to No. 2.
I wanted to slap her.
So did the people behind me who asked her repeatedly what she thought she was doing when she planted herself in front of me. Tina did not answer them but continued talking to me. She was lucky they were not more boisterous, or like one of them threatened, they would have bundled her out of there and thrown her outside Mama Alero’s compound.
But by then, it did not even matter. The person ahead of us got attended to quickly and then it was Tina’s turn. Because the person ahead of us also came to grind beans, the worker operating the grinding machine did not have to rinse it thoroughly before up-turning Tina’s bowl of white, peeled beans, dried pepper, onions, tatashe and even crayfish into the grinder.
Between pushing this combination into the grinder with a long wooden stick, and Tina constantly yelling over the noise of machine to the attendant to add very little water because it was for moi-moi not akara, the beans were eventually transformed into a creamy paste, and Tina stepped aside.
As the attendant vigorously dismantled the machine and flushed it with water to avoid mixing beans with my own pepper, Tina stood nearby, waiting for me. I was surprised. I had expected her to leave as soon as she was done, but for whatever reason – guilt at having chanced me, perhaps – she waited patiently until my own pepper too had been ground to a red, smooth seedless paste.
Then, we left Mama Alero’s place.
As we walked down the street, Tina told me in no uncertain terms:
“If I wanted a boyfriend, I would tell the boy myself I like him. It doesn’t even matter how I do it: call or write. I wouldn’t wait for him to ask me out.”
I just looked at her, wondering if Tina would grow up to be the sort of woman who proposed to a man, ring in hand and everything. Or maybe she was a traditionalist at heart and this was just a phase. I did not know for sure.
By the time we reached the junction, we parted ways and I kept thinking about what Tina had said.
It was just as I turned into my street that the idea struck me: how I would deliver that letter to Tokunbo on Sunday.
A smile spread across my face.
“Thank you Tina,” I whispered as I completed the last leg of my journey home.
“Tokunbo will have a secret admirer.”