The loud voices coming from the living room stirred me; I had been sleeping peacefully. I swung my feet down from the bed and walked towards the voices.
Pushing aside the curtains at the end of the corridor, I peeped in to see my mum in what seemed like an argument with a man seated with his back to me.
“I still don’t know why you came over. Why are you here?” Mum asked.
“Temi, don’t be this way; the boy needs his father,” replied the stranger.
“Dimeji, you got the woman you wanted, didn’t you? The only reason you pretend to care so much is because he’s a boy. When you did…”
“Don’t say it, Temi. Don’t! I made my mistakes and I have apologized for them. We need not drag this issue for too long.” I could sense the stranger was upset. After a few minutes of tense silence he asked, “Where is he?”
“Asleep!” My mum’s reply was curt.
“May I speak with him?”
“NO!” Mum glared in anger. “I have agreed to bring him to you; just give me time to talk to him,” she finished in a milder tone.
“Thanks,” the man said and rose to leave. His long legs reminded me of myself. At barely sixteen I was over six feet, much taller than my mother.
“Thank you too…” Mum said. She pushed off the wall she had been leaning against and stopped him in mid-stride. “Thank you for giving me the unpleasant task of having to tell my son that his dead father is alive after all.”
“He’s my father?” I gasped, surprising them both.
“Gbenro!” Mum shouted, but the man, who I now guessed was my dad, broke into a broad grin and walked towards my hiding spot. He stopped in front of me and stretched out his arms, still smiling as his eyes sparkled with unshed tears.
“Are you my father?” I asked, my voice breaking in excitement.
“Yes,” he mumbled, choking on the words as he hugged me. Mum simply stood there, the shock plain on her face.
Waiting for my mother in her office, I slapped the paper in my hand against my thigh as I paced the floor, anger bubbling like a geyser within me. That scene from two years ago played in a loop through my mind. The experience had stayed with me even as my affection for my mother had waned. After having met my dad under such shocking circumstances, I would not give my mother a chance to explain. The strained atmosphere at home was only lifted when, soon afterwards, I got admission into a university to study geology and moved into student accommodations on campus.
Sometimes I was only angry at my mother, sometimes I hated her, and other times I wasn’t so sure. All I know was I didn’t have a dad before, and all of a sudden, I did. It galled me that she had tried to rob me of my father’s love, and if he had not insisted, she most likely would have kept on lying to me. She had lied to me for seventeen years, ever since I was born. And now, she was doing it again, trying to fool me, and maybe to separate me from my father. Or was it to make him pay?
I now knew my father to be simple, strong, gentle and kind; the best dad anybody could ask for. Since our first meeting, we had spent more time together. He came to visit me in school sometimes, and I would also go to his Civil Engineering office or to a construction site when he had a building contract to execute. Our talk was filled with technical jargon which I loved, and he allowed me to don the hard hat and work alongside his employees. My standing with my peers rocketed each time I showed them pictures from such excursions, and it didn’t hurt that my father was very generous in giving me pocket money too.
So why did Mum have to go and spoil everything? I had been trying to remind myself of the good times we’d had before my father came back into the picture. She had always been an ardent lover of children, and I had been the primary beneficiary of that love. She had a thriving business, managing a couple of supermarkets from which I had had my choice of provisions while in secondary school. But with her current actions, I was growing to resent her.
After I met my father, mother had insisted that I did not move in with him and his new family. He had a wife and three daughters. She had also insisted that she would continue taking care of me, including my fees and upkeep. Yet, for the past three months, she had sent only a letter in response to my requests for money. Instead of the expected funds, her letters said she couldn’t afford paying for my textbooks and handouts. As I fumed along the length of her office again, I squeezed the paper in my palm and studied my surroundings more closely. Nothing seemed to have changed; the fittings were clean and well taken care of, and the curtains actually looked new. So why was she starving me of money? Was this her way of getting back at me, and at my father?
Ironically, Dad cared for her! It was obvious in the way he talked about her; his voice was always respectful when he asked after her. I had heard him on the phone trying to ask for her friendship, but she remained aloof. I felt for Dad. Nothing hurt as much as unrequited love, yet he protected her; fighting her battles with me.
I also hated the way she controlled him, as she did on the only other occasion the three of us had been together. That weekend, my father had come to pick me up from the house. I had been ignoring my mother, refusing to acknowledge her, and he had started to scold me, but with an almost imperceptible shake of her head at him, she had stopped him. I wanted to scream and remind him that she was the same woman who convinced me for years that he was dead.
“Gbenro, so you finally come to see your mother?” Her soft tread as she walked to sit behind her desk snapped me back to the present.
“This is the third time now, Mother. What is the meaning of this letter?” I jumped in without mincing words.
“Just what it says,” my mother sighed, “Things have been difficult lately and I can’t afford anything more than your school fees. Maybe it’s time to have another meeting with your dad so he can take up that part of your expenses.”
“This is what you’ve always wanted, right? You want to make him pay for leaving you, but I won’t be your bargaining chip.”
“Gbenro, watch what you’re saying,” she replied wearily.
“Or what?” I snapped, ignoring the tremor in her voice. If she thought she could play on my emotions, I would not rise to that bait.
“Maybe you’ve not been paying attention,” I continued, “but I’m no longer the gullible boy you were deceiving all along. I’m an adult now, and I know my father is not dead.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I can survive without you, mother. That’s what it means. I’m not going to grovel. If you can’t afford to keep taking care of me, then I’ll move to my father’s place entirely. You’ve been keeping us from each other, but not anymore.”
My mother stood up, “You’ve got it wrong! Listen to me, Gbenro. I know we’ve not been close since you left for university…”
“It’s not about school, and you know it.” I interrupted. “It’s about lying to me about my father, making me dependent on you.”
“I’m sorry, Gbenro, but you have to listen to me.”
“It’s too late, mother. Your apologies mean nothing to me. And they won’t change my mind about allowing you to milk my father of money through me.”
“Goodbye, Mother.” As I turned away, I thought I saw her lean on her desk with trembling arms, but I must have been mistaken. When I turned back at the door, she was sitting down, face bent. I went out and shut the door.
I called my father on my way back to school and he insisted I come to see him as soon as I could. The next day was Saturday so I took public transport to his construction site. He was silent as we walked over the sand and gravel along the perimeter of the fenced property. I told him about my quarrel with mother, my intentions to spend the coming holidays in school and my desire to get to know him and his family better. Maybe I could stay with them for some time until I got my own place after graduation?
After a long pause, my father sighed and clapped me on the shoulder. “You’ve got it all wrong, my son.” He sighed again.
“I will not be an honest man, Gbenro, if I refrain from telling you the truth. I was horrible and wicked to your mother and to you too. The first year of my marriage to your mother was rosy and loving. Trouble began when I developed a roving eye. I courted pretty young girls and neglected being a husband to the woman I had married. I soon met a girl who demanded more and more of my attention.
“Meanwhile, your mum, sensing my withdrawal from her, tried to reach out to me. She would call me at work and leave messages, but I never acknowledged any of them. Then I did the unbelievable; I brought my mistress home.
“By then, we had been married for three years and I was angry that your mother was not pregnant yet. That night, your mother was waiting up for me as usual, with dinner ready. I sniggered when I walked in, my mistress behind me.
“We walked in and were making for the guest bedroom when she stopped us. She refused to step aside, asking the other lady, Josephine, to leave her home. I held on to Josephine and then she began to beg, asking me to remember our love and to tell her what she had done wrong. She was willing to change, she said. I told her I wasn’t about to stay with an infertile woman; I wanted her to leave my house as she was barren. She visibly recoiled at the word. She argued that she wasn’t barren, saying that all things happen in God’s time. I pushed her roughly out of my way, mocking her fruitless religiosity. After that, a scuffle ensued as she tried to block our entrance to the bedroom and I slapped her.
“That certainly stopped your mother. I had never hit her before. She walked into our bedroom without another word. As I giggled with Josephine in the other room, I could hear her packing. She left the same night and filed for divorce. I didn’t think twice before signing the papers.
“When she told me some months later that she was pregnant, I accused her of all sorts of things and told her to never get in touch with me again. My exact words to her were “I am dead to you, Temi.” So if she told you I was dead, she only did as I asked. I only contacted her when some mutual friends couldn’t stop talking about how much like me you looked as you got older. I saw you from a distance at Chief Agada’s party and even I couldn’t deny that you were mine. I spoke to her after that and she agreed that you should get to know about me but she needed time to break the news to you. It was because I was impatient that I showed up at your house that fateful day.
“I’m really sorry to hear that my presence in your life is stealing her love from your heart. While I have hurt you, she has done you no wrong. That was why I accepted all the terms she set for us. If she says she can’t afford your fees, it is probably true. Believe me; she could’ve milked me for money at any time if she wanted. I didn’t tell you all this before because she asked me not to, and I agreed for fear that you would hate me, but now I can’t keep it to myself any more. Truly, if there’s a parent to hate, it’s me.”
I was numb at his confession. Dad looked so downcast that I know it must be true. How come none of them had told me this? My mother must have been protecting me, even after I had lashed out at her two days ago. My heart suddenly yearned for her. I needed to see her and talk to her.
I asked Dad to call her for me. I had switched off my phone since the night of the confrontation. My mother had tried to call me and I had dropped the phone without a word. After switching it off, I had buried it under the clothes in my travelling bag. Now I regretted my stubborn actions as my father dialed and dialed again.
“No one is picking her phone,” he said.
“Let me try her office,” I replied, taking the phone from him. My heart thudded with each ring. When the call finally went through, the voice I heard, though feminine, was not my mum’s. I sensed impatience in the lady’s voice, so I hurriedly introduced myself and asked to speak with my mother.
“I’m sorry but I cannot attend to you right now. Madam slumped in her office some minutes ago and the driver is about to take her to the hospital.”
It took all of two seconds for her words to register. I screamed and grabbed at my head where a sudden pain was banging at my temples. Hot tears coursed down my face as I handed the phone back to my father after getting the address of the hospital. I saw shock replace the confusion in his eyes as I told him the news, and then we both ran for his car.
Mother died of cancer, a disease she had been battling for six months. The doctor had apologized as he told me and my father this news and my heart broke all over again. It was obvious then where her money had been going, and I wished – oh, how I wished – I could take back all the hurtful words I had flung at her.
As I stood during the funeral, watching her coffin being lowered into the earth, tears streamed down my face, and I knew then that I had never stopped loving my mother; I had just been blinded for a while. Now it was too late to tell her, but I hoped that wherever she was, she could see it in my heart.