The thought that Tokunbo would get a secret admirer kept me going all afternoon, even up till early evening.
Around 7:36pm, my parents arrived from Ogbomosho with Tayo. They were all exhausted and not very chatty, not even my mother who could talk anyone’s ear off. In spite of his tiredness, my father lamented bitterly about bad roads and heavy traffic.
Then, he carried on regretfully about the timing of their trip to Ogbomosho, something he constantly complained about every term since Tayo started attending FGC Ogbomosho.
“We should’ve picked up this boy on Monday,” he said laying his car keys on the dining table.
“No way!” said my mother in a voice that betrayed her fast waning energy. “My son can’t be the last one to leave. People will think his parents have forgotten him or we’re having problems at home.”
The look on my father’s face said “Those people can pick him up next time!” but the appeal of a warm bath waiting for him, followed by the promise of a hot, steaming meal was far stronger than any desire to contradict his wife’s theory.
For me, Tayo’s arrival at home was bitter-sweet. While I was glad to have someone who would take charge in the absence of my parents, Tayo’s return meant more chores for me. It seemed like whatever horrors he had suffered at the hands of seniors and teachers in boarding school, he tried to make up for it by dumping every possible chore on my shoulders whenever he came home for holidays.
Thankfully, that evening, he was too tired to boss me or Yemi around. He soon fell asleep on the couch in front of the TV, after vowing to make up for lost time by binge-watching as much television as he could manage before school resumed in January. But his body’s desire for rest superseded any promise Tayo had made to himself.
We ate the meal I had cooked that afternoon, after which, each person migrated to various parts of the house. Then, I got busy with planning the all-important event that would take place the following day.
After practicing my speech and contemplating Tokunbo’s reactions and counter-reactions as well as how I would handle further questions, I went to bed with a smile on my face and simply counted down the hours to the moment when my plan would be executed. If everything went as planned, I would never have to worry about Tokunbo again.
If not … well, I didn’t let myself consider failure as an option.
When I woke up the next day, a Sunday, I went with my family to church. Although we all typically attended a Methodist church that was about forty minutes from our house, that Sunday, my parents decided that they did not want to make that drive. Instead, they chose to attend a nearby church.
As there were several churches in our neighborhood that could easily fit the description of “nearby,” I had no reason to suspect that my parents would pick the one church that had a connection to our neighbors. In fact, I did not know the exact church we would attend that day until my father pulled up to the Pentecostal church where, according to our former house help, Rosemary, Mrs. Williams was a member.
This was not part of my plan, but it seemed that fate had taken the reins on this Tokunbo matter and all I could do was sit back and watch.
Throughout the service, my eyes searched frantically all over the church auditorium, scanning faces to see if I could spot the Williams family. In particular, of course, I wanted to know if Tokunbo was in church that morning.
But, it was all in vain.
I felt sure that women like Mrs. Williams were never content to sit at the back of any place and would have pulled strings, made a fuss, or done just about anything to ensure that she and her family got front-row seats.
Although my analysis of her character was spot on, I could not seem to find her or her family anywhere. No matter how hard I searched, it seemed that Mrs. Williams and her children had either decided to sleep at home, or else, they, like us, were visiting another church that Sunday.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just do what I’ve planned anyway,” I thought to myself.
My plan was to go and knock on their gate and ask to speak with Tokunbo. When he emerged, I would tell him he had a secret admirer who had written him a letter, shove it into his hand and take to my heels.
A simple plan, right? Nothing could possibly go wrong.
So I sat through the rest of the service, not allowing myself to worry about the matter any further.
Right after the service, when we had all said “The Grace,” and the service came to an end, I started to gather my belongings. My father had turned around to face the back of the auditorium, offering a fresh perspective.
Without any warning, my father jabbed my mother with his right elbow, and as he pointed ahead with his left hand, he said to her:
“Asake, isn’t that Tokunbo?”
My mother looked in the direction in which he was pointing. I did the same, even though my name wasn’t Asake.
The spot my father had commanded my mother to turn her gaze towards was just two rows behind us. In the rightmost corner of the auditorium, standing close the wall and waiting for the pedestrian traffic to thin down before exiting through the main doors, was a tall, brooding young man wearing a bottle green buba with matching trousers.
It was Tokunbo.
From that distance and judging him purely by the dignified way he looked, I found myself wondering if this was the same boy who had become a trouble-maker in school. He certainly did not look like it. In fact, you would think he was the head boy or even a school prefect.
Yes, he certainly looked like the responsible type.
But with the little I knew about Mrs. Williams, I knew she couldn’t be lying about her son’s problems. I decided to trust what I had heard from her rather than what my own casual observation suggested, because as we all know, things aren’t always what they seem.
Tokunbo’s hair had grown thick, just like my brother Tayo, which made me think that in addition to under-feeding them, judging from how skinny they always appeared on their arrival from school, male boarders were also denied access to skilled barbers.
My father called out to him, after my mother had confirmed that it was indeed Tokunbo standing a few yards away from us. His mother and sister were nowhere in sight.
“T-o-k-u-n-b-o! Come, come!” my father cried excitedly, motioning for him to come to where we stood.
The mountain must come to Mohammed.
In the few seconds it took Tokunbo to arrive at the place where we stood, my mother had hurriedly gathered her things and pretending she had seen someone she knew but hadn’t seen in ages, she walked away from us. My brother, Tayo and Yemi, stood beside my father and said “Hello” in turn to Tokunbo, right after he had semi-prostrated respectfully to my father, who promptly extended a hand towards him for a solid handshake.
“Good Morning, sir,” said Tokunbo, smiling and being careful to display only the minimum amount of white teeth.
“How are you? So you’re back from school ehn? Your mother told me you would be coming back this weekend,” said my father cheerfully.
“Yes, sir. I just got back yesterday.”
“Is that right? Ehn, my wife and I went to pick eh …Tayo–” said my father, reaching out and planting a firm hand on Tayo’s shoulder as if between him and Yemi, anyone could doubt that Tayo was the one in secondary school. But since Yemi was almost as tall as Tayo, just younger-looking, maybe my father was right to make it clear who was who.
“–Yesterday, too. But we didn’t get back until night time. Heavy traffic. It was as if the whole world was heading to Ogbomosho yesterday. But you don’t have that problem. Your school is just in Ijanikin over there,” said my father, throwing his hand casually in the direction of the main entrance of the church, as if one could step out of church and find himself at the gate of FGC Ijanikin, just like that.
Tokunbo smiled politely. I could tell that he did not really care for whatever my father was content to ramble on and on about, but he did not interrupt him for one moment.
Maybe Mrs. Williams was right after all.
Maybe it was my father Tokunbo would really listen to in order to change his ways.
I just stood there, along with my brothers who wandered off after a few minutes, once they spotted one or two people (neighborhood kids) they knew, leaving me to bear silent witness to my father’s conversation with Tokunbo.
I noticed that at no point in this supposedly pointless conversation, did my father even mention the words “mentor” or “mentorship” to Tokunbo, which got me wondering: had it started already?
I got my answer when my father began to round off his conversation by telling Tokunbo to come to our house that afternoon because he had something important to share with him.
A look akin to surprise passed over Tokunbo’s face for a few seconds, but when I looked again, it was gone. It was as if it had never happened. All he told my father was that he would be at our house by 4:00pm.
Before they parted ways, my father asked Tokunbo where his mother and sister were. He explained that his mother had taken an early morning flight to Abuja and his sister had decided to sleep in since no one was there to drag her to church.
I marveled at Tokunbo’s honesty.
Here he had the perfect opportunity to tell a big fabu and paint his sister in a completely innocent light by cooking up a story about her being ill or a similar lie one would expect teenagers could concoct at such short notice.
Instead, he chose to expose the laxness of her spiritual convictions.
I began to consider for the first time the possibility that perhaps, my father’s task was much easier than we had all imagined. That perhaps, Tokunbo’s heart had not been completely corrupted by darkness, beyond the reach of hope or redemption and instead, he was one of those who had just a thin film of darkness covering his eyes, preventing the light of truth from flooding his soul.
I was inclined to lean towards the second, less stringent, less extreme, hope-friendly theory, rather than the other more extreme, bleaker version, the one I and even my mother had been so quick to accept.
Was it too early to tell?
I didn’t know.
Regardless, I began to see that there was hope for Tokunbo.
If I had brought that letter with me to church, I could easily have slipped it into the pocket of his buba and whispered into his ears while he was still reeling from shock:
“From your secret admirer.”
However, since I had foolishly left the letter at home, all I could do was stare at Tokunbo, making him increasingly uncomfortable, while I wondered at his reaction to the news I would have to bring him later that day.
Would he read it immediately, tear it up and yell obscenities at me? Would he break down crying? Was he one of those guys who behaved like women and resorted to giving people the silent treatment while anger burned like an inferno within their hearts?
That afternoon, I would know.
As we were about to leave, Tokunbo said, “Bye Enitan,” to me.
That threw me off.
Of course, I was aware that he knew my name, but to hear Tokunbo say it in that freshly-cracked voice, the one which my Integrated Science teacher with the pre-pubescent voice told us was a definite sign of puberty, made me giddy.
It’s not like he was the first teenage boy to say my name.
But this time, it was different. And I spent the rest of the morning trying to figure out why.
Hormones. That was my conclusion.
Meanwhile, by the time my father and I reached the car where it was parked, my brothers were nowhere to be found.
The first person to arrive hot on our trail was my mother, decked out in her Sunday finery.
Eye-poking, commotion-causing, rear-view blocking, paper-stiff gele… Check!
Envy-inspiring lace sewn into iro and buba … Check!
Matching shoe and bag which complimented her outfit … Check!
Freshly-painted nail polish on fingernails and toe nails, plus matching lipstick in the right shade of Christmas red … Check!
Perfected head-turning peacock strut, with every confident footstep screaming “Dem go take!” … Check!
Looking at my mother as she glided towards us, I knew she could never be the wife of a penny-pinching artisan in some small village with a hard-to-pronounce, jaw-breaking name. She suited my father, just fine.
Ladoja m’oju lo s’oja.
Indeed, my father took his eyes to the market when he married her.
As soon as she reached the car, she asked the same question my father had asked just moments before.
“Where are these boys?”
To which we answered:
This must have been one of those “name it and claim it” opportunities or “you will have what you say” moments, unknown to us, because not quite long after me and my father had declared that my brothers were coming, I spotted two young men walking briskly in our direction, one lagging behind the other. Even in a crowd of people, I could easily have picked them out. They were my brothers: Tayo and Yemi.
After complaining that they had wasted his time, my father climbed into the driver’s seat, followed by my mother, who climbed into the front passenger seat with one hand on her gele to hold it steady, before settling into the cabin of the car.
As for me, I got squished between Tayo and Yemi on the back seat of our sedan, because I couldn’t bear to listen to another round of arguments between them over who would sit beside the only window that could still be wound down. The other window was jammed and had remained in that state for several months.
Once we got home, we ate a sumptuous breakfast, especially since we had attended an 8 o’ clock service and no one had eaten before we left.
There must have been something in the boiled yam and fried eggs with strong sedative properties because after eating, we all promptly fell asleep.
I was roused from my sleep at 3:40pm by a loud knock on the gate.
As I sat up in bed, wondering who it was, it suddenly hit me.
My father had asked him to stop by that afternoon.
Till today, it is not clear to me if it was instinct or just clarity of thought brought on by a sweet Sunday afternoon nap, uninterrupted by NEPA.
Whatever it was, as soon as I got up from my bed, I grabbed Tokunbo’s father’s letter from my closet where I had kept it hidden and immediately stuffed it into the pocket of the long, jeans skirt I thereafter slipped into.
Then, I pulled my freshly relaxed hair into a ponytail behind my head, wore my house slippers and hurried to the gate.
“Forget any useless plan,” I told myself. “I’m giving him this letter now. If he likes, let him rip it apart and chew it like a goat!”
As I correctly calculated, neither of my brothers had stirred from their beds while the visitor knocked at the gate, even though I had heard my father call our names one by one, starting with the youngest.
“Yemi! Enitan! Tayo! Go and see who’s at the gate!”
I had responded with a loud “Yes, sir!” to reassure him that our visitor would not be forced to spend the rest of his existence, locked outside our gate, knocking till kingdom come.
As soon as I emerged from the house, a flood of peace washed over me. There was no rapidly-beating heart, no shaky nerves, no chattering teeth, and no racing pulse.
Na me be dis? How could I be so calm when I knew what was about to happen?
Eventually, I reached the gate and asked the question I already knew the answer to.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me, Tokunbo,” the husky voice behind the gate replied.
Having provided the password, I unlocked the gate from within and let it swing open.
Standing there, no longer clad in his Sunday best, was Tokunbo. He looked more relaxed and more his age in a dark blue pair of jeans and orange polo shirt.
But, his collar was popped up.
I gasped at the up-turned collar, which in my mind, was irrefutable proof of an unserious person. The collar seemed to say,
“I defy you!”
Tokunbo must have figured out that I was judging him based solely on his shirt collar because he quickly smoothed it down with both hands, all the time, chuckling aloud.
“It’s not a crime now,” he began in a defiant tone.
“Not yet … But I’m sure it’ll soon be,” I said cheekily.
I was convinced that as we spoke, Nigerian politicians in Abuja were diligently and tirelessly working on criminalizing the popping of collars. On the day that bill was passed, I was certain that the sagging of trousers would also be a jail able offense.
Tokunbo just laughed at my comment and said:
“Don’t be so up-tight. Live a little!”
“Okay o,” I said rolling my eyes.
“Is your dad around? He said I should come and see him.”
“Yes, he’s expecting you.”
I was about to put the padlock back in its place when Tokunbo gently took it from me and after sliding the metal lock back into place, he hung the unlocked padlock on the lock.
Then, he asked me where to go.
“Follow me,” I said as I led the way to the entrance of our house.
Enitan, it’s now or never!
I heard a voice in my head scream these words, and immediately I turned around to face Tokunbo who was walking a few paces behind me.
“Chill. I need to do this,” I said to him.
He looked uncertainly about him as if he was trying to make sure I was speaking to him.
“Do what?” he finally asked.
Dipping my hand into my jeans pocket, I pulled out the brown envelope that I had folded over three times to get it to fit in my narrow pocket.
I pushed it towards him and said:
“Why? What ‘s inside it?” asked Tokunbo with a distrustful look on his face.
“Why don’t you open it and see for yourself? It’s for you,” I said, pushing the envelope closer to him.
He looked like he didn’t believe me, until he collected the envelope from me and read his name scribbled across its face. Recognition lit up his countenance as soon as his eyes fell on the handwriting. His voice became harder, colder and his features hardened. The next thing he said was:
“Who gave you this?”
“The person who wrote it gave it to me,” I replied, being careful not to identify the writer of the letter to avoid any unpleasantness.
“Does this person have a name? Do I know this person?” asked Tokunbo in a frustrated voice.
“Tokunbo, just read the letter. It will answer all your questions,” I said, refusing to solve the mystery he was at liberty to uncover himself.
He must have had an inkling that I knew the letter was from his father, but he displayed an amazing mastery over his emotions when he simply said “Thank you,” and shoved it into his pocket.
I heaved a heavy sigh of relief that not only had I delivered the letter to Tokunbo, but had also managed to meet the stringent conditions of his father.
Making a mental note to myself to never put myself in such a situation ever again, I led Tokunbo into our sitting room and went to fetch my father. I would have stayed to listen to their discussion, but I had to leave for a hairdresser’s appointment.
When I came back home an hour and thirty minutes later with freshly curled hair, I was shocked to discover that Tokunbo was still there, laughing and talking freely with my father. I was even more shocked to find my mother, the person who had opposed this mentorship program, asking Tokunbo if he would like to join us for dinner, in the sincerest of tones.
What had changed in one hour and thirty minutes?
Tokunbo declined my mother’s invitation to stay for dinner, saying “Maybe some other time, ma” before leaving.
He left about twelve minutes after my return.
I had gone to the backyard to bring in the onions my mother had spread out in the sun, when Tokunbo accosted me.
Blocking my path, he said:
“I read the letter and I need to talk to you about it.”
“Why? Can’t you discuss it with my father? Isn’t that the point of–” I began.
“–Of mentoring me, abi? So you knew about it too?” he asked in a tone that did not suggest that he was even mildly offended, but I couldn’t be sure.
“Yes, I did. What does this letter have to do with me?” I asked.
“I can’t really talk now. Where will you be tomorrow afternoon?”
“Right here at home,” I replied.
“Okay. Can you meet me at the Mallam’s shop by say 2 o’clock tomorrow?”
“Which Mallam?” I asked, wondering if it was wise to agree to meet Tokunbo alone. But then, what could he possibly do to me in broad daylight?
“The one at the junction that leads to Alhaji Gbadamosi Street,” he replied.
“Okay. I’ll be there.”
“I’m leaving. Please come and lock your gate,” he said without giving me a second look. I set down the basket of onions and followed him.
He marched to the gate, opened it and handed the padlock to me, before stepping out.
As I retired indoors, the thought that kept coming to me about the meeting we had scheduled for the following day was this:
I should have said No.