The first time she heard the drums, she was on the train going through Bordeaux. She lifted her head and looked to see where the sounds were coming from. There was just one other person in the carriage and his gray head was dozing away. She listened again and realized it was all in her head. The drums stopped at the next train station as people got on the carriage.
The drums beat faster when Gustav asked her to marry him and she said yes. It was not until a month later that she realized she had failed to tell Baba the news, even though she spoke to him every other week. She put the call on speaker phone so Gustav could say hello to his to-be father in law. The drums beat a little slower when Baba laughed rigorously at Gustav’s ‘E ku ile’.
“Will you come home and get married?” Baba had asked.
“No Baa-mi. Flights are too costly but we will try and show up after the wedding.” She replied. The drums reached a crescendo when her father did not answer and only his sadness echoed through the phone.
She went to see a shrink. One of Gustav’s friends had recommended the psychologist as cheap and no-frills.
“So you hear drums beating?” The shrink had asked her.
“Yes.” Asabe answered.
“Do they give you a head ache?” She asked.
“No, No, they are actually beautiful beats, sometimes sad, sometimes I even want to stop and dance to them, you know.”
The woman had looked at her watch and written a prescription. Asabe trashed it before she even left the building. How Gustav made friends with people that would recommend such a person as help to anyone was beyond her, she thought to herself as she walked to the train station.
That night, as they made love, she heard the drums again. She wanted to stop the rhythm of their love and dance to the rhythm in her head.
Asabe called Baba every weekend. Sometimes the calls didn’t go through and the operator went on about how the number was unreachable. Those were the times when the drums decided to beat out a cacophony. Those were the times she wished she had kept the shrink’s prescription for migraines.
Not too long after the wedding, Asabe got pregnant. She didn’t hear the drums the day the doctor gave her the news and she wondered. She didn’t miss it much as Gustav made enough noise to fill in for the drums. The drums stayed away even when Baba sang her praises over the phone at the news. She laughed and teased him about being more excited about being a grandfather than he probably was about being a father.
Throughout her pregnancy the drums stayed away and she missed them. They resumed a beautiful melody when the labor pains began. The pain sliced through her and the drums were there to beat out a soothing balm. Gustav fainted at the beginning of the ordeal and was pretty useless after that so that the drums were really all she had in those trying times.
They named her Nadine after Gustav’s grandmother. Baba named her Olatilewa. Asabe could hear him crying silently over the phone as the baby cooed in her arms.
“She sounds like she is singing. She must take after your mother. There was always a song in her mouth.” Baba had said. Asabe had smiled and missed her father more in than moment than she had ever done.
Nadine grew strong and healthy. She came to know her Grand-père, the chief drummer of Ilasheland over the phone. He would play the drums for her over the phone and speak to her in her mother tongue. Nadine would giggle and repeat the foreign words back to him. Their phone bill was probably the most expensive investment in their lives.
She was six when she asked her mother why her Grand-père never came to visit. Grand-mère, Gustav’s mother visited every Christmas from her cottage in the North of France. But not Grand-père! Not even once. Why was that, the child wanted to know.
“Because he doesn’t have a visa, Nadine.” Asabe had answered.
“Then why don’t we go and see him then? Don’t we have visa too?” The child had asked both of her parents one fine morning in the summer when Paris was abloom with flowers and tourists.
Asabe looked to Gustav from across the breakfast table and Gustav looked back at her. It was as if they had never considered that option. They talked about nothing else all day and that night Gustav applied for a Nigerian visa for himself and the child over the internet.
It would also be the night Nadine heard the drums for the first time.
“Maman, I can’t sleep. I hear drums in my head.” She told Asabe. She slept in her parent’s room that night while Asabe dreamed with her eyes open of seeing her father.
The trip from France was long and hard on a six year old and it took the better part of a day to make the journey from Lagos to Ilashe. It was the longest journey of their lives but the drums accompanied them every step of the way.
Baba’s house was empty when they finally got there. Even the chickens that were sure to be clucking their way to an early dinner under the baobab tree were missing. There was an eerie quietness that guarded the house.
“Maybe he had to go somewhere quickly.” Gustav said to his wife in way of comfort as she looked around wildly for her father.
“No Gustav. Baba has been waiting for over 10 years for me to come home. He would not leave; not when he knew we were so close to home.”
All kinds of things went through her mind. Maybe he had fallen ill and had to be rushed to the hospital. Maybe he had fallen down those treacherous stairs she had warned him against climbing. Maybe there was an emergency at the palace and her father and his drums were needed. Maybe it was his arthritis again. Whatever it was, it had diluted her home coming and Asabe was almost ready to cry.
“Grand-père promised to play the drums for me when I got here. Don’t worry, Maman, he will be here.’ Nadine said as she came to hold her mother’s hand.
Asabe squeezed the child’s hand and the drums beat louder than she had ever heard them. The beat was like none of the others that had plagued her all these years.
“I hear it too Maman.” Nadine said.
Asabe looked to Gustav. He nodded his curly blond head. She laughed then and started to run.
Baba led the procession; there were other drummers behind him as they made their way from the king’s palace to welcome her but Asabe only had eyes for the tall grey haired man. The sweat poured down his face but no man had ever looked more dignified as Baba beat out a thunderous welcome for his daughter.
He held her to his breast and she heard his heartbeat. It was a familiar sound; reminiscent of the train ride through Bordeaux, the birth pains that accompanied Nadine… It was the sound of homecoming.