It is almost midnight, and the city is now very quiet. From the balcony where I am sitting, I can see the mild glow of the street lights reflecting off the tarred road. I hear the whoosh of waves beating on the rocks, a sound amplified in the stillness of the night. The children are asleep after the day’s hustle. Though I call them ‘children’, they are all grown up.
Hassan is a strapping young man of twenty-seven and has just started his own business – hard to believe, isn’t it? Walid is nineteen, looks as burly as Hassan and believes he has no more growing up to do. Faiza, your little princess, is twenty-two and it is because of her that we are all here this weekend.
Is it not strange that for the first time in fifteen years, we will be here together again on October 1st? I wonder if this day carries any special significance for Faiza. She was touched much more deeply than anybody else. Hassan went to boarding school shortly afterwards; Walid was young, too young to remember those tumultuous times.
I remember many things, too many things, things I don’t want to remember: Mama and her harsh words, Big Brother and his sudden hostility.
I can see the bedroom again as it was on that morning, many Octobers ago. Faiza barges in, in her customary manner, throwing a greeting as she bounds up to the bed where you are lying.
“Daddy,” she says, “you promised that you would get me the doll today, today.”
I scold her, “Your daddy is resting today. It’s a public holiday.”
Faiza leans against the bed. She traces squiggles on the bed sheet with her finger. Her legs are crossed at the ankles, her lips pushed out in a pout. She peeks at you from beneath her lowered lids. You groan and roll out of bed. “You children will not kill me,” you mumble. You never could say ‘No’ to that face of hers.
“Instead of you to rest, you want to go racing around town hunting for a doll,” I say to you.
“It wouldn’t really be hunting, because I remember the shop where I saw it. It is near your tailor’s place.”
“Really? In that case let me go with you and pick up my dress from the tailor’s.”
Smiling, you say to me, “Look at the person who has been telling me to rest.”
We leave a few minutes later, with Faiza hopping after the car and telling us to hurry. Walid asked for a toy car but I will persuade you not to buy it because he takes them apart as soon as they get into his hands. I have threatened to have the carpenter make him a toy car carved out of wood. He cried the day I told him that.
Though the streets are not busy, there is quite a lot of traffic near the shop because it is very close to a bus stop. I enter the shop with you to make sure you do not buy Walid a toy car he does not need – and I succeed (though you buy coloring books for him and Faiza).
You see a pack of gel pens and you insist on buying one so that you can write “from daddy with love” on the inside cover of the books. While you are paying for the purchases, I go to the tailor’s shop. I find the tailor hemming the dress. He is done in a few minutes. As I emerge from the shop, I hear shouts coming from a group near the bus stop.
One man breaks away from the group and yells something about “monkey dey work, baboon dey chop”. He is followed by a policeman who says, “My friend, stop shouting at me.”
“Wetin? Na by force? I no get money for you, period!” the man says, still shouting.
“Your mouth dey sharp like razor because I have not dealt with you,” says the policeman.
“You can’t do anything!” the man replies, and strides past me.
“Let’s go,” you call to me, unlocking the car.
“These policemen,” I mutter. I get into the car. As I twist around to grasp my seatbelt, there is a loud bang accompanied by the explosion of glass. I scream and shield my head with both hands. Glass falls all over me, stinging my hands. I can hear people shouting. I raise my head. The windshield is gone.
“What was that?” I ask you. You are leaning back on your seat, eyes shut as if thinking of a suitable answer. There is blood on the head rest of your seat. I am looking at your face, thinking you might just turn to look at me and say, “Why is everyone shouting?”
There are people all around the car, all talking really loudly. A hand rests on my shoulder and voices ask me, “Madam, is this your husband?” “Where do you live?” These strangers help me get home; they watch the car until your family gets there. Their kindness contrasts sharply with your family’s attitude towards me.
Your mother and brothers change suddenly. They are bitter that you were killed so carelessly and eager to control the little wealth you and I have put by. They want the bungalow too.
I find myself fighting off my in-laws with the fury of a tigress defending her cubs. When the battle finally ends, every iota of strength I have within me is gone. Each morning, the thought of eating, talking, going to work, taking the children to school and sorting out your affairs simply exhausts me.
I send Hassan to boarding house so he does not have to witness the ugliness. Walid sleeps, eats and plays through it all. Faiza clings to my side, ignoring everyone and everything.
She holds onto the coloring book you bought for her as if your spirit were shut between its pages. She sometimes sits quietly for long moments, deep sadness in her eyes. I try to think of ways to comfort her, but what do I say?
I do not know how much she knows about the incident but she asks at intervals, “Have they arrested the policeman yet?” I say to her, “Soon, they’ll catch him”. That is the only answer I give each time she asks about the policeman.
Finally, I lie. I tell her that he is in prison. I start believing it myself. I add to my fantasy a mad policeman. It makes more sense to your little princess and me that way.
Each year, on September 30th, I sit on this balcony and watch October 1st arrive. Somewhere in my head, I believe that perhaps if I write a letter to you while I wait for sunrise, the next twelve months will be easier to live through.
Your little princess will be married by this time tomorrow. My father will stand as her guardian and give her away (your family cut us off after the battle over inheritance). When I enter her room tonight, I see the coloring book on her bedside table. The pictures inside are as plain as they were the day you bought it. Your writing is still on the inside cover: To Faiza, from daddy with love. I think she will take it with her to her new home. I smile.
Faiza has her coloring book and I have my letters.