We continued the journey in silence.
Miss Agbo lived in Ikate, a neighborhood in Surulere. It was far from my school, which was all the way in Apapa, so on our way, we ran into traffic. With all the grunting and complaining that came from my mother, I began to hope that she would cancel this impromptu visit.
Perhaps, I did not wish hard enough because the words, “We are not going again,” never came out of her mouth.
Instead, the spotlight fell on me in an unexpected way.
My mother who knew me very well, believed I would be hungry since it was now close to 3:00pm. By this time, I ought to have been pestering her for food. But, because I was so consumed with guilt and worry, I just sat still on the back seat.
That roused my mother’s suspicion even more, and she was even more shocked when I turned down her offer to buy me a cold Ribena and a pack of plantain chips. The Ribena, like many other cold drinks, was sold by young, energetic men, carrying these pouches of sugar-infused drinks, packed with large chunks of ice, in large transparent plastic bags.
She ignored me and bought extra snacks for me. Her exact words were:
“Later now, you’ll come and start telling me you’re hungry. Now that you see food, you’re not eating.”
As the car inched forward in the bumper-to-fender traffic, my mother adjusted her rear view mirror, not to observe the cars behind her, but rather, to get a good look at the face of her only passenger: me.
Then, as she crunched on one long, extra crispy, yellow plantain chip, she cooed:
“Oh oh! What’s wrong with my baby?”
This was a trap.
Like a cornered rat which can see the tell-tale satchet of otapiapia not far from the tantalizing piece of food placed deliberately on the trap, I considered my next move.
I decided to feign ignorance.
“Ezekiel sweetheart, what’s the matter? Why so quiet?” she asked, this time, taking a sip from what had been my own pouch of Ribena. She had drained hers moments before.
“Are you sure?”
I nodded. Then, she changed her strategy.
“Do you like your new teacher, Mr. Adelaja?”
“He’s not our new teacher, Mummy. He’s just filling in for Miss Agbo.”
“Oh, I see. But, do you like him? Or do you prefer Miss Agbo?”
She was looking at me now, with full concentration, lips hovering over the straw punched into the Ribena pouch. What could I possibly say?
Just then, a window of opportunity came and I grabbed it with both hands.
Pointing ahead, I shouted:
“Mummy, Mummy! They’re moving!”
She hurriedly abandoned her Q & A session and hit the accelerator before someone would come and chance her. My mother hated people cutting in front of her in traffic. It was one of her pet peeves.
As the car sailed along the road, we finally understood the cause of the go-slow: a broken-down trailer had blocked one lane, forcing people to maneuver their vehicles around this obstruction. This had dramatically slowed down traffic, until they were able to move the trailer to the side of the road.
As we emerged from a near standstill to free-flowing traffic, and just before my mother resumed her questions, I saw a familiar face beside the road, and shouted:
My mother was startled and shouted back:
“There, Mummy!” I said excitedly, pointing to the right side of the road where a young man stood among a group of people waiting for a bus. It seemed like the bus had been caught in the same go-slow we had just emerged from.
The man I had referred to as “Uncle Henry” was quite tall. He wore a purple shirt with a neat, check pattern paired with grey trousers. He was also carrying a black leather briefcase, which seemed odd because he was standing at a crowded bus stop.
As soon as my mother also spotted him, she slowed down the engine and steered the car to the road side. Then, she leaned towards the front passenger side, wound down the window on that side completely, before yelling:
Upon hearing his name, Uncle Henry turned in the direction of the voice, and I stuck my head and hands out of the window of the back seat, and began waving vigorously at him. I saw his lips move, but could not quite make out what he was saying.
What did happen though, was that he came running towards our car, which stood a little distance away from the bus stop.
As soon as he reached our car, he greeted my mother, and grasping my hands, he said:
“Ezekiel, my boy! How are you?”
While I was responding to his greeting, he took a few steps to the front passenger window and greeted my mother again very warmly.
Uncle Henry was my father’s immediate younger brother, and he was in his early 30s. He had lived with us for about 5 years when the company he worked for had its office closer to our house. At that time, he was not earning enough money to rent his own place.
Eventually, fortune smiled on Uncle Henry.
He got a new job, bought himself a car, and later moved into his own flat.
That was about six months ago.
Since he left, we barely saw him even though his new address was barely an hour from us.
I remembered him as a very friendly, adventurous person, quite popular with the ladies. Of course, Nnamdi who was older than me had spent more time with Uncle Henry, and had a sharper recollection of him than I did, since Uncle Henry came to live with us when I was just one.
Uncle Henry’s new job was supposed to be well-paying, so we were surprised to see him standing at a bus stop. For starters, his car was a lot better and even newer than my parents’ Peugeots.
I did not doubt that an explanation was forthcoming, and it was my mother who would draw it out of Uncle Henry.
“Sister Chioma, Good afternoon o,” he began, slightly waving to my mother, as he leaned forward, resting his hands on the bottom frame of the wound-down window.
“Ahn, ahn, Henry. Is this your face? Good afternoon to you too. We are doing fine, by God’s grace.”
“Oh, thank God, sister. How about Brother Charles and the family?”
“Everybody is fine o, but you would know if you visited us more now,” said my mother with an accusing look.
Uncle Henry smiled. Whenever he did, the resemblance between him and my father was uncanny. The same thick eyebrows, large round eyes which never seemed to miss a thing, separated by a slightly pointed nose and finally, the surprisingly full lips.
“Sister, it’s not like that o,” he began, scratching his head as his lips formed a suitable explanation for his long absence from our house. “It’s just that I’ve been busy with work, and I haven’t really had the time to–”
“Ta! Don’t even use that excuse with me. It’s me o. Sister Chioma. You know you can’t fool me. In fact, no more stories. Just come and visit. These boys have been asking for you.”
And here, since I was one of the “boys” mentioned in this conversation, I butted in.
“Yes, Uncle Henry, me and Nnamdi, we miss you.”
“Oh really?” You want me to come so you can beat me at football again, ehn? Or have you forgotten the last time?”
I giggled as I recalled the 4-man football match we played in our compound.
It was just me and my father on one team while Nnamdi and Uncle Henry formed another team.
But we beat them fair and square. Although we did not have a shiny gold championship cup to display as proof of victory, we carried the memories in our hearts. And that was enough.
I definitely missed Uncle Henry, his jokes, his pranks, and all those stories he used to tell us.
“Don’t worry, Sister Chioma. I will come by this weekend. I promise.”
“We’ll be expecting you. But wait o, what are you doing here? What happened to your car?”
“It broke down not too far from here. I was on my way back to the office. In fact, I just left it with one mechanic down there,” he said, pointing to an invisible point farther down the road, around the area we had just left.
“Eia! Sorry to hear that. Did they tell you what the problem was?”
“Fan belt o. I need to buy a new one. Hopefully, they won’t tell me there’s something wrong with the carburetor or engine when I go back. You know how these mechanics are.”
My mother nodded in agreement. She certainly had had her fair share of mechanics and their schemes.
“Are you still going back to the office? At this time?”
“Honestly, Sister, I think I should just be going home. In this traffic, by the time I reach the office, everybody would have gone home.”
“In that case, if it’s home you’re headed, I can drop you off.”
“How come? You people stay in Gbagada. Or have you moved?”
“No, we’re on our way to visit Ezekiel’s teacher. She’s not feeling fine, and she’s been so kind to this boy. Her house is around Ikate.”
“Oh okay … That’s not far from my place,” said Uncle Henry opening the door and sinking gratefully into the front passenger seat.
Throughout the rest of the journey, they chatted about the weather, my mother complained about the skyrocketing price of food in the market, and Uncle Henry relayed tales of the quirks of his new boss.
They seemed to have forgotten completely about me until we reached the house where Miss Agbo lived.
The house was two stories tall, and the top floor had a balcony from where you could see the entire street. Up to a point.
As we alighted from the car, we saw an old man standing in the balcony leaning on the bannisters. We all greeted him, and my mother asked him for Miss Agbo. He pointed towards the bottom flat. We walked up to a gray door covered with all sorts of stickers, the sort that usually grace the bumpers, windows, sides and other non-moving parts of commercial vehicles in Lagos.
The most prominent of these stickers was yellow with words in red and white imprinted on its face, proclaiming, “1993: My Year of Divine Turnaround.” An appropriate bible verse was also included, and in a corner, the sticker bore the name and logo of a popular Pentecostal church.
My mother knocked on the door, but there was no response. Then, she knocked harder, more urgently, calling out, “Miss Agbo, it’s me.”
This time, we heard a faint, “Yes?”
My mother repeated her knocking and eventually, we heard the dragging of slippers-clad feet on a carpet-less floor. Then, a sleepy voice asked:
“Who is it?”
“Mrs. Ezekobe, Ezekiel’s mother.”
We could hear her whispering my mother’s response to herself sounding puzzled, before the door was unbolted and swung open.
Standing in a tiny hallway, wearing an adire boubou, and looking less glamorous than usual was my class teacher, Miss Agbo. She looked less radiant, tired and very sad. A pathetic-looking satin scarf covered her hair.
“Ah, Mrs. Ezekobe? What a surprise! How did you … Oh, and Ezekiel too! Wow! I wasn’t expecting you.”
She ushered us into the sitting room, and added to Uncle Henry, the last of us to enter, “Good afternoon.” He returned her greeting with a smile.
My mother asked her if she lived alone, and she replied that she lived with her sister and her husband who were both still at work. But the look of surprise did not fade from her face while she spoke. So, my mother took matters into her own hands.
“I went to his class, and they told me you were not well. So, I said let me come and make sure you’re okay.”
Miss Agbo coughed a little, and smiled weakly before thanking my mother.
“You know, nobody from work has come to see me. But, maybe it’s better that way.”
“Why? Hope it’s nothing serious? The new teacher, Mr. Adelaja, said you had stomach ache and I was afraid … Maybe it was the party food I cooked.”
“Oh no!” said Miss Agbo, chuckling. “Far from it.”
“So you don’t have stomach ache?”
Miss Agbo shook her head.
I had been sitting on pins and needles the whole time, wondering who would descend on me first when the truth finally came out: my mother or Miss Agbo? Would Uncle Henry be the referee or stand back and let them tear me to pieces?
All sorts of thoughts ran through my mind, until Miss Agbo confirmed that she was not suffering from stomach ache.
What was really going on?
I felt slightly relieved, but there was still a nagging feeling that I was still in trouble. So, I just kept quiet and listened.
Miss Agbo, it seemed, had only just become aware of Uncle Henry’s presence and kept looking at him while she spoke to my mother. My mother noticed her discomfort at Uncle Henry overhearing their conversation, and immediately set her mind at rest.
“Don’t worry. He’s not a stranger. That’s my in-law, Ezekiel’s uncle.”
Miss Agbo smiled. Uncle Henry pretended not to have heard anything, and asked if it was okay for him and me to watch TV while the ladies chatted. She agreed. But while the television was on, and Uncle Henry’s eyes seemed glued to it at first, I caught his eyes wandering to her face. And it happened more than once.
Meanwhile, she began to tell my mother what had really happened.
After leaving school the Thursday of my birthday, Miss Agbo had stopped over at the market to pick up some vegetables and crayfish. The bus she took had a flat tire about five minutes from her bus stop, forcing her to trek the rest of the way home.
She took a different route home, a “shortcut” as she put it.
When she was two streets away from her home, she spotted someone she thought she knew emerging from a house. As she looked harder, she recognized this person to be none other than Titus, her boyfriend.
“Mrs. Ezekobe, I was about to call him o, but something just held my tongue.”
“Ehn ehn! Is that so?” said my mother in wonder.
“I’m telling you. That’s how I just said let me just keep watching. Next thing, one girl just ran out of the gate holding a tie. I think he left it at her place. Madam, if you see the belle wey dis girl carry for front … Big like football!”
“Please don’t tell me she’s–”
“Oh you too guessed, abi? I didn’t want to believe it but I said let me at least confirm. You know, it’s better to know the truth than to continue accepting lies.”
My mother nodded in agreement.
“So, I waited for him to leave. Then, I went to the house, and asked one woman I saw … I think she’s one of the tenants in that compound. I asked her about the pregnant lady, and she told me the girl’s name is Charity. She’s a nurse. But as she don get belle, she no dey go work again.”
“So how does she support herself?”
“Yes, I asked the lady and she said that one man comes to take care of her, brings her food, and all sorts of nice things, and everybody knows that this man is her fiancé. In fact, everybody know say na dat man give am belle.”
“Ha!” my mother exclaimed. “People are wicked. So Titus don give another person belle? And he didn’t tell you?”
Miss Agbo just shrugged and continued.
“Madam, if not for the grace of God, I wouldn’t even have known. And the woman’s house is not far from here.”
My mother shook her head sadly.
“I don’t even know how I got home that day, whether I walked or floated. But I was running a fever. My body was just hot. So I sent a message to school that I was sick and needed at least one week to sort myself out. Mrs. Aderinto must have told them it was stomach ache just to help me.”
“Did you confront him? I mean, have you confirmed if things are as you say they are?” my mother asked.
“Yes, I called him that same day. He has a landline in his house. But, he denied it. He said he doesn’t know any Charity.”
“What a liar!”
“Madam, if I didn’t see it myself, I might have believed him. But I know what I saw. In short, it’s over. And you know what? This same Titus was supposed to come and see my parents in December to ask for my hand in marriage. That was our agreement. But, it looks like Charity is the one he wants, so–”
“Don’t worry. It’s the one that is good that God will do for you. Let him go.”
“I pray so o, because we’ve been together for two years. Two whole years. And now this …”
My mother let out a deep sigh. She could feel Miss Agbo’s sadness, but other than encourage her with words, what else could she do?
“Madam, let me not keep you. I’ll be going back to work next week. But, thank you for visiting. My regards to Oga.”
“Oh, he will hear,” said my mother as she and Uncle Henry rose to their feet to leave. I followed suit.
As we walked to the door, Miss Agbo suddenly remembered something.
“Madam, what type of meat did you cook for Ezekiel’s birthday?”
My mother smiled and replied, “It was beef o. But this boy–” she began, glancing briefly at me, “–said he wanted rabbit meat.”
Miss Agbo’s eyes widened in surprise.
I began to inch slowly towards the door. But Uncle Henry blocked my exit. Miss Agbo spoke.
“I think … Maybe I ate the rabbit meat by mistake.”
She said the words “by mistake” with so much emphasis that we all looked at her with furrowed brows.
“Yes, because I know Ezekiel can’t do such a thing on purpose, especially when he knows we don’t eat rabbit meat in our village.”
Now, my mother took a deep breath and faced me with one question:
“Did you give Miss Agbo your food?”
I kept quiet. But Miss Agbo did not.
“You know I jokingly told these children it was a taboo to eat rabbit meat in my village. And they believed me. So, I know it must have been a mistake. Right, Ezekiel?”
This time, with both my mother and Miss Agbo’s combined laser gaze transfixed on me, I couldn’t help it anymore. I broke down crying.
“Mummy, I didn’t mean to … Miss Agbo, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again,” I wailed in between tears and snort.
“So you did it on purpose ehn?” my mother shouted. “When we get home you’ll see what I will do to you!”
“No, no, Madam, take it easy. He’s just a little boy. He has said he’s sorry.”
“That’s not enough. I will deal with him at home.”
My mother refused Miss Agbo’s pleas for mercy on my behalf. Her mind was made up.
When she saw that my mother would not listen, Miss Agbo asked her to please wait in the car while she had a few words with me. My mother agreed and left. But to my surprise, Uncle Henry did not accompany my mother to the car. Instead, he waited outside the door.
As soon as my mother left, Miss Agbo pulled me closer to her and said:
“Why did you do it? I know you’re not a naughty boy.”
Sniffling and a bit hesitant, I finally told her about the picture alphabet chart, which triggered nightmares, what Funto did to annoy me on my birthday and how I felt she as my teacher had betrayed me by siding with Funto instead of punishing her.
After pouring out my heart to Miss Agbo, I felt lighter. She apologized for not believing me explaining that nobody was perfect, and that sometimes, adults also made mistakes. Then, she told me that she forgave me and would remove the object of horror from the chart for my sake. That alone restored Miss Agbo’s name in my good books.
I returned to the car with mixed feelings. While I dreaded my mother’s punishment, I was happy because whether or not I desired it, the truth finally came out, and my conscience was clear.
But, Uncle Henry stayed and chatted with Miss Agbo for about two minutes after I left. What exactly they discussed, or what they could possibly have had to say to each other, was beyond me, but Uncle Henry seemed extra bubbly when he joined us in the car.
That night, my mother certainly punished me, but it was not in the way I had expected. Instead of flogging me, she made me write the following words on sheets of paper, 100 times:
I WILL NEVER DECEIVE MY TEACHER AGAIN
It did not even matter at that point. I just took it like a pro.
The following week, Miss Agbo returned to work, looking more cheerful than she did when we visited her at home.
I thought no more of the whole episode until a few weeks later when at the close of school, Miss Agbo got a visit from an unexpected visitor.
It was Uncle Henry.
– to be continued –
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