I could not hide my surprise, and almost forgot my manners.
“Goo-Good Afternoon, ma,” I said to Mrs. Williams with a slight curtsy. If her presence at our gate was not enough shock for me, Mrs. Williams a.k.a Mama Tokunbo, shocked me even further when she returned my greeting with an exuberant,
“Ah, how are you my dear?” and actually tried to hug me. I took two steps backwards in fright.
Where on earth was the real Mrs. Williams and who was this impostor?
Two questions I would apparently never get answers to just gawking at her by the gate.
You see, Mrs. Williams was the selectively snobbish type. If you greeted her on an exceptionally good day, she might wave at you, manage a smile and go about her business.
On most days, she simply ignored my greeting altogether and pretended to be suffering from a temporary loss of hearing.
I had complained about Mrs. Williams’ bad habit to both parents on several occasions and the advice each parent gave me was unquestionable proof of the profound difference in their personalities.
My mother advised me to stop greeting her because respect was reciprocal and in her words, “it is not by force to greet people.”
Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, my mother had suffered the same rubbish treatment from Mrs. Williams and had stopped greeting her. Her decision would be revised if and only if Mrs. Williams happened to greet her first.
That life-changing event was yet to happen.
But my father took a different approach.
“Just continue greeting her. It’s the way we raised you. You don’t want to get used to being disrespectful to your elders.”
“But Daddy, respect is reciprocal,” I protested. “Why should I bother greeting a woman who has no intention of returning my greeting? I might as well greet the broom, the dustpan and the rake in the yard!”
“No, Enitan you can’t do that. She’s older than you. Greeting an elder is not a suggestion. It’s a requirement. Remember you will also grow to be her age one day and you won’t like it if young people withhold their greeting from you.”
I did not argue with my father on the issue anymore, but my prevailing thought at the time was:
“Well, I won’t be a bitter 40-something year old who is too big to open her mouth and respond to the greeting that’s being offered to her.”
Without telling either parent, I took a decision and picked my mother’s advice. I resolved to greet Mrs. Williams, if and only if she greeted me first.
Or at least, until she snapped out of her selective deafness.
I had gotten used to this “Greet today, No answer tomorrow” relationship with this woman, with her lack of response to my greetings forming the majority of my experience.
But that Sunday afternoon was different.
This woman wanted something.
She did not fool me for even one second.
What that something was that had forced her to start acting all familiar, I was determined to find out by hook or crook.
“Mummy and Daddy nko? Are they around?” Mrs. Williams asked in a voice that suggested that like a good detective, she had made sure that whoever she was coming to see was at home and not out visiting or running errands.
But since she asked, I had to answer.
“Yes, ma. They’re both at home.”
“Oh, that’s great! I need to speak with them,” she said, stepping into our compound, and waiting for me to lock the gate before leading her indoors.
From the gate to the sitting room, Mrs. Williams fired questions at me, the kind of questions that adults seem to carry everywhere with them and reserve for anyone they categorize as a child who ought to be in school.
“How is school?”
“Your teachers nko?”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Are you facing your books?”
The last question was uttered in a tone that suggested that while a young girl was in school, she had only one option: face book, or face belle.
In case I doubted her, she made herself clear when she explicitly stated, just before we set foot on the threshold of the house:
“Don’t listen to all these small small boys. Face your books. Girls who don’t face their books will end up pregnant.”
I wondered if Mrs. Williams had offered the same unsolicited piece of advice to her own daughter who as young as she was, had started getting considerable male attention, mostly from the same pre-teen guys in her age group.
To all her questions, I gave her the briefest answers possible, speaking in monotones when I could help it. But nothing could dampen her mood.
Oh, Mrs. Williams was certainly on a mission. A small fry like me was not going to stand in her way.
As soon as I took her to the sitting room, I ran upstairs to inform my parents who were relaxing in their bedroom, that they had a visitor.
My father immediately sprung to action, getting up and wearing his leather slippers as he prepared to go downstairs. My mother, however, who until then had been gisting excitedly with my father, said in a crumpled tone:
“I’m not coming. Baba Yemi, you can go and talk to her.”
“Ahn ahn, Asake, don’t do that! Let’s go together. Whatever she has to say must be very important for her to come and see us like this,” said my father.
“Too bad. That woman doesn’t deserve the courtesy of my presence. She won’t greet or answer my greeting as if they have glued her lips together, but now, she knows how to carry her wogo wogo legs into my house when she needs something, abi? Baba Yemi, please attend to her. I’m not coming,” said my mother firmly.
“Okay. So … so what do I tell her? She knows you’re at home. I’m sure she will ask for you.”
“Tell her I’m sleeping, or don’t people sleep in their houses again?” said my mother, grabbing a magazine and propping herself up on a pillow as she flipped it open.
My father sighed and shook his head sadly before leaving the room.
He went to the sitting room and greeted Mrs. Williams who unsurprisingly returned his greeting. She refused all offers of drinks or any kind of refreshments, saying that she had something important to discuss with him.
While they were exchanging pleasantries, I had slipped out of the house and made my way quietly to the side of the house close to the window of the sitting room. I had brought a single companion with me: an apoti.
It was the same wooden stool my mother always sat on when she was plucking tete and soko. For some odd reason, she always plucked gburestanding on her feet.
With my apoti positioned strategically under the window, I sat on it and listened.
Mrs. Williams cleared her throat and said:
“What about Madam? Isn’t she around?”
“Oh, she’s sleeping,” said my father.
A brief silence followed and then, she went straight to the point.
“It’s Tokunbo I’ve come to see you about, Mr. Ladoja.”
Although I had had no idea why on earth Mrs. Williams would want to pay my parents such an unexpected visit, I was still very shocked when I heard the subject of her discussion with my father: Tokunbo.
What did he have to do with us?
I listened closely knowing the answer was forthcoming.
“Mr. Ladoja, it’s Tokunbo o,” she began in response to my father’s question, “What is it?” As she let out the third deep sigh in a row, I could imagine the strong scent of her perfume – a musky scent – filling our antiquated, yet comfortable sitting room.
As I listened, I heard my father in a low tone encouraging her to speak.
As if she needed any convincing!
However, she took his words to heart and spoke up.
“You know Tokunbo’s father and I are no longer together,” she began in Yoruba. In fact, the entire conversation was rendered mostly in Yoruba, with English playing a minor role.
“Oh, sorry to hear that, Madam. I didn’t know.”
“Ah, it’s okay,” continued Mrs. Williams, in a mournful tone, as if the man had just left her that very afternoon, when in fact, they had been divorced even before she and her children moved to our neighborhood.
I could almost have hissed from where I sat.
But I didn’t.
“And I’ve been managing all these years with these children. I’m not complaining o, after all, they’re my own children. God gave them to me.”
“Right …” said my father, who had taken a seat opposite her, an observation I had made before taking my seat on the apoti.
“But you know Tokunbo is growing up … he’s growing fast and he’s a boy. He needs someone to … someone to look up to,” said Mrs. Williams, slowing down a bit, and choosing her words with added care. “He doesn’t have a father, but … You see, I thought of you–”
“How do you mean?” said my father, a ring of alarm in his voice.
I could have asked the same question. What was this woman driving at? What did my father have to do with Tokunbo’s upbringing?
“Yes, sir. I mean … When he came home for mid-term, Yele … She’s my daughter … She went with him to Iya Kafilat’s place and told me … I hope you don’t mind, sir–”
“No, no. Go on.”
“Okay, she told me that she saw you advising Tokunbo to stay away from the bad boys, those delinquents in this neighborhood. You know them, sir,” said Mrs. Williams, making as if she was about to start reeling off their names and vital statistics one by one.
But my father stopped her and said he remembered the day.
I had no idea of this meeting between my father and Tokunbo, but I made a mental note to somehow extract more details from him in a way that would not expose the fact that I had even overheard this conversation.
Meanwhile, my father took over the discussion briefly and re-capped exactly what he had told Tokunbo that day.
“Iya Tokunbo, you see, I was just strolling down the street that evening just to, you know, get some fresh air, when I saw a group of those boys, smoking and drinking at Iya Kafilat’s shop.”
Iya Kafilat was the owner of the convenience store which was closest to us. Hers was not the only one on our street or in our neighborhood. Not by any means.
But it was her shop that was closest to our own end of the street. In short, she put the “C” in convenience, at least for those who valued it and had no intention of traveling over any long distance to buy regular household commodities like soap, bread, sugar and toilet paper. Apart from these items, Iya Kafilat also sold soft drinks.
However, against the wishes of a few people in the neighborhood, she also sold beer and other “hot drinks”, which according to these dissenters, attracted the wrong crowd of people, mostly men, to our street.
When she started her business, she put a single bench outside her store for occasional patrons who wanted to relax and enjoy their beverage of choice. But as business picked up, Iya Kafilat’s shop got a face lift as she expanded. She rented the empty plot of land beside her shop, got the owner to cement a portion, which was better than his original plan to just add gravel to the lot. Then, she bought several white plastic chairs and tables, along with complimentary yellow umbrellas. These improvements essentially transformed her shop from a mere convenience store to a local hangout.
Eventually, when she started selling beer and hot drinks for the sake of extra profits, there was a steady trickle of shady-looking people, drop-outs and ruffians, the sort of people who parents usually warned impressionable young people to stay away from.
It was one these shady characters who was calling Tokunbo by name, the day my father happened to be passing by.
“I called him when I saw him going towards them,” my father continued, “and pulled him aside. I know you raised Tokunbo well because he greeted me so-o-o well. He almost prostrated for me and I said to myself, that boy has good home training.”
“Ah, Daddy, e se o,” said Mrs. Williams in a cheery tone. I imagined she was smiling as she thanked my father. “I’m really trying my best,” she said.
“But I told him that those boys are glorified criminals, awon omo jaku jaku, and he should never answer them again, no matter what they ask him to do. Iya Tokunbo, can you believe he did not even interrupt me? All he kept saying anytime I paused was “Yes sir, yes sir.” Oh, Tokunbo is such a good boy!”
I noticed that while my father was praising Tokunbo this time around, his mother was unusually quiet.
Something was wrong, and the next words that sprung from her lips confirmed my suspicion.
“Hmm … Daddy, wahala wa o!” said Mrs. Williams bringing my father’s praise train to a grinding halt. “The Tokunbo you met that day is no longer the same Tokunbo o.”
“Ehn? What do you mean? Between mid-term and now, you’re telling me he has changed?” said my father, disbelief coloring his voice.
“He has been that way since the beginning of this term. I don’t know why. He won’t tell me anything. Mr. Ladoja, Tokunbo’s grades have dropped, he has been fighting in school and has gotten into so much trouble I’m afraid the school will soon ask him to withdraw.”
“O ti o! It can’t be!” my father shouted. “Which Tokunbo? The same Tokunbo who was so respectful? No, it cannot be.”
“Daddy, it’s true o. You don’t know the children of nowadays. They can be very cunning. I am scared, Daddy … I am so scared for this boy. That is why I have come to see you, sir. Please don’t let this boy spoil in my care–”
And here, I heard some movement. I could not tell what was going on, until I heard my father vehemently insisting in loud tones:
“No, no, no! Please get up! Get up! You don’t have to do that, ke. E dide! What is so terrible that you have to do that?”
I knew I could picture what was going on, but curiosity got the better of me. Risking getting caught, I rose to my feet and peeped through the window into the sitting room.
What I saw was exactly what I had imagined.
Mrs. Williams was on her knees, both hands fiercely latched onto my father’s ankles, shaking with sobs, begging him to help her.
Over and over again, she pleaded:
“Daddy …. e jo o! E ran mi lowo. He’s my only son. Please, Daddy! I don’t know who else to turn to.”
I couldn’t believe it.
This was the same Mrs. Williams who, it seemed, drank a potent brew of pride, liberally mixed with snobbery, every day, and yet here she was in our sitting room, begging my father for help with her troubled and apparently, wayward son.
On her knees too!
Wonders shall never end.
Eventually, my father succeeded in convincing her to take her seat and calm down.
A white handkerchief mysteriously appeared from somewhere on Mrs. Williams’ person, and she began to dab furiously at her eyes. Then, she decided that maybe she should resume begging, but my father foresaw it and leaping to his feet, told her to stay seated.
At that point, I could tell my father was conflicted.
He would have wanted my mother to be there to support him, but she had already stated her position with respect to Mrs. Williams. This raw display of vulnerability and helplessness by Mrs. Williams completely disarmed my father, but it might not have had the same effect on my mother who was tougher to deal with than my father.
So, Mrs. Williams sat down and awaited my father’s verdict.
But not in silence. No.
She kept talking in spurts.
“Tokunbo … He has no father. I mean, his father left us. His uncles don’t care. They never liked me before I married their brother, Tokunbo’s father. And Tokunbo too … He doesn’t listen. Even if … e jo … Daddy, e ran mi lowo, sir! Look at your own sons. They listen to you.”
“Madam, it is by God’s special grace alone that me and my wife have raised these children. It’s not our doing.”
“Yes, sir. But you can help. Please don’t let my son lose his way. Don’t let this boy become a vagabond.”
Seeing that these words were the likely precursor to a fresh round of pleading coupled with heavy sobbing, my father preempted the emotional landslide by holding up his hands and telling her to calm down before saying:
“Alright, Madam. So, how do I help?”
That was all she had been waiting for. Her tearful voice suddenly became sharp and even retained some of the grit we had come to associate with Mrs. Williams.
“Yes, sir … I was wondering if maybe you could … could mentor him, sir.”
“Mentor? How? We’re not even related and how are you sure that’s all he needs?”
“He listens to you sir. Right now, that is plenty. And you live right next door to us.”
“But isn’t Tokunbo in Ijanikin? How will I mentor or advise him from here?”
“Emmm … You see, sir, this will be Tokunbo’s last term at Ijanikin. I have made arrangements to transfer him to a private school nearby.”
“Oh, so he won’t be in boarding house again?”
“No, sir. He’ll be a day student, going to school from home so that at least, I can keep an eye on him.”
“I see …. I see,” said my father. I could tell that he was weighing the options and processing what Mrs. Williams had just told him.
A long silence followed, punctuated every now and then with Mrs. Williams’ dry sniffles. Even if she was still dabbing at her eyes with that handkerchief, there were no more tears now.
“Okay, Madam. Here’s what we’ll do. I will need to discuss this with my wife–”
“O-Okay, sir,” said Mrs. Williams. I could hear more than a hint of glee in her voice.
“–And we’ll let you know our decision. I know it’s me you have asked to help, but I’m sure you know I can’t take this decision without my wife’s support. So, don’t worry,” said my father, exhaling as he rose to his feet. I suppose she took the hint and did the same, as she thanked my father profusely, showering blessings on him and my mother.
“No problem, Madam. Ma a ranse si yin. I’ll let you know before the middle of the week. Set your mind at ease, okay?”
“Daddy, e se gan-an o. God will continue to empower you and strengthen you, sir. You won’t use your eyes to shed tears over your children. God will continue to give you more and more wisdom, sir,” Mrs. Williams chirped sweetly. My father responded with “Amin,” at the end of each prayer.
As he walked her to the gate, he inquired after her daughter, Yele.
I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but I heard her say,
“–You know girls are easier. She tells me everything.”
And even then, I knew that couldn’t be true. No girl tells her mother everything especially girls of her age.
Still, Yele had gone through a lot of trouble to give her mother that impression.
However, I wasn’t concerned with Yele.
Tokunbo and the troubling news his mother had brought to us were foremost on my mind that afternoon.
Who would’ve thought? Quiet, supposedly shy Tokunbo was a terror in school.
“Looks can be deceiving,” I concluded.
After Mrs. Williams left, my father returned to his room, and the minute I heard the air-conditioner in their room come on, I knew he had started giving my mother the load-down of the Tokunbo-inspired gist.
Turning on the A/C was something my parents did whenever they wanted to have a truly private discussion in their room. The hum of the 2nd hand, Tokunbo A/C was usually effective at drowning their voices, especially since they had to shut the windows of their room for the cool air to circulate.
It did not occur to me to listen to my parents’ conversation. I knew what my father was going to tell my mother, anyway.
I sat downstairs, pretending to read a novel, waiting patiently for my mother’s reaction.
It came swiftly.
“Ki le wi?! Mentor tani? Nibo? Not in this house! Baba Yemi, I said not in this house!” she thundered.
I could hear my mother’s voice firing angry words at my father, blaming him, scolding him for even giving that woman audience.
“You should’ve driven her away with a stick! That’s how people drive away wild animals!”
“But Asake, aren’t you a mother? How can you talk like that?”
“Baba Yemi, yes, I am a mother. Abiyamo ni mi. But this woman is up to something. This is just a cover up for something else. Don’t you see it?”
“See what? You’re over-reacting, blowing things wayyy out of proportion, as usual. Thank God you stayed here.”
“What does that mean? Ehn, Baba Yemi? Or are you in cohorts with her? Are you planning to take a second wife? Abi, is that your plan? Like father, like son.”
“Asake, I’m not going to argue with you over this. I am tired of telling you that I’m nothing like my father.”
“So what is in this for you? Why don’t you just let her be? Doesn’t she have relatives who can mentor her own son? Don’t tell me she doesn’t have brothers or uncles or cousins or even pastors who can help her. Anyone else but you. Why must it be you, her neighbor?”
“There’s nothing in this for me. I have the opportunity to help re-direct and reform the life of a troubled young man and I will do it. You know me well, Asake. I will do it.”
“E pele o, Mr. Reform and Re-direct! Have you finished training your own sons?”
“Wo, Asake, leave this matter. I’m hungry. What are we going to eat this afternoon?”
“Food? With the matter on ground you still want to eat? See this man! Go and meet Mama Tokunbo to feed you, se gbo mi?” said my mother.
I heard the jingle of keys and the stomp of angry feet.
“Where are you going?” my father demanded.
“Oh, don’t you know? I’m going to the market, of course! I will go and buy a B-I-G sign board that says “Boys’ Reformatory Home” ehn … Then on my way back, I will call Rasaki, that useless carpenter who is a disgrace to his profession, to come and … Gbo! Gbo! Gbo!” said my mother imitating the sound of a hammer hitting a nail on wood, “–place the sign above our gate. And in a few days, that sign post will collapse like that rickety dining table Rasaki made for us. May it fall on your head and Iya Tokunbo’s head! Nonsense! E ka re o! Baba Reformatory.”
Then, she hissed and walked out.
As she neared the bottom of the stairs, she called my name and I responded. Glaring at me, she said:
“Oya you, come and open the gate for me. Do quick!”
I obeyed and watched her car disappear down the street in a fury of screeching wheels.
“E-n-i-t-a-n!” my father called.
“Sir!” I replied.
“Put water for eba on the fire for me. That efo your mother made three days ago, is it still remaining?” he called out from the top of the stairs.
“Warm it up for me, kia kia. Nobody will starve me in my own house.”
As I hurried to the kitchen to put my father’s meal together, there was only one person on my mind: Tokunbo.
<<READ EPISODE 4>>