Episode 2: One Ball, One Girl, One Boy
I did not know, however, that life does not ask for your permission before thrusting people into your life.
And that is what happened.
Everywhere I turned, Tokunbo was there. It did not matter where. Whether I went down the road to buy bread for my mother, or to the Mallam on our street to buy sweets, he was there. It happened so many times in just one week that I was convinced that Olorinla was following me.
Yes, Olorinla. That was the nickname I gave Tokunbo, without his knowledge, of course. My younger brother, Yemi, called him “Head of State,” and my older brother, Temitayo called him Olori Ebi, meaning “Head of the family.”
All these aliases and nicknames for a boy we saw but never spoke to.
Until one day.
I was in our yard, one afternoon during the holidays, playing with a skipping rope when I heard a persistent and irritating noise.
Gbao! Gbao! Gbao!
It was so frequent that I knew it was deliberate and well-timed. To my ears, it sounded like a ball was being bounced against the wall, over and over again, and it came from my next-door neighbor, Tokunbo’s house.
My suspicions were confirmed when an object hit my head suddenly, and then landed on the floor, bouncing until it rolled all the way to the gate.
It was a football, one of those black and white, rubber, professional-looking footballs that kids play with when they graduate from soft, rubber balls.
“Yeeee! My head!” I screamed, my hands automatically reaching for my head.
As I massaged the point of impact, I scowled at the fence, and then decided to confiscate the ball. Once it was in my possession, I shouted back across the fence where everything was now quiet:
“Who threw this ball?”
“So a ghost did it, ehn? If you don’t talk now, I will burst it.”
At the word, “burst,” I heard the shuffling of feet, and the sound of something being dragged across a short distance. Mild grunting coupled with heavy breathing came next, and then a large head appeared above the top of the fence.
It was Tokunbo.
“Give me back my ball!” he yelled at me, and even stretched out a hand towards me as if he was preparing to receive it.
I ignored the outstretched hand, and instead clutched the ball even more tightly, cradling it under my armpit. I was about to say something to him when a head poked out from a side door. It was my brother, Tayo.
He must have heard me scream when the ball hit my head, and he had come to find out what was going on. My parents had left him in charge of myself and Yemi, my younger brother, who was fast asleep.
“Everything okay?” he queried in a less-than-concerned voice.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I replied.
And then, he caught sight of Tokunbo’s head sticking out over the fence. In a startled voice, he shouted:
“What are you doing there? Get down now!”
Tokunbo did not move or obey Tayo. He simply shouted back:
“She took my ball.”
Suddenly, as if he had just remembered what he was doing indoors, Tayo left me to sort myself out. Clearly, he had no interest in getting involved in this “war” between the neighbor and his little sister.
As soon as he left, Tokunbo shouted again:
“Give me my ball!”
This time, I replied firmly:
“No! You hit me on my head with your stupid ball!”
That was when it clicked in Tokunbo’s head, the thing he had to do to get what he wanted. In a sulky tone, he said:
“Okay, sorry. I didn’t know. Now, give me my ball.”
I relaxed a bit, but still stood my ground.
“Please?” he pleaded.
I finally agreed and told him I would throw it back over the fence. As I was about to do so, I asked him:
“Why are you playing by yourself?”
“But you’re also playing by yourself,” he replied, without answering my question.
“Yes, but that’s because my small brother, Yemi is sleeping. He is the one that normally plays with me.”
After a little hesitation, Tokunbo finally spoke up.
“My daddy used to play ball with me too, but he’s not here. He … he travelled.”
“I don’t know,” replied Tokunbo shrugging his shoulders. But that’s what my mummy told me.”
“When is he coming back?”
“I don’t know.” This answer was accompanied with the same nonchalant shrug that had come with the first “I don’t know.”
“Will be bring you sweets?”
“Give me back my ball now!”
“You better answer!”
“Okay … I think so.”
“Make sure you bring me some or else I will come and take your ball away!” I said before throwing the football back over the fence. I heard it land on the ground in the yard next door, and almost immediately, Tokunbo jumped down from whatever it was he had been standing on, and pushed it back into place.
That was the first time I met a child my age, whose father was never at home. The answers Tokunbo gave to my questions were less than satisfactory. I found myself wondering how his father could have travelled without telling his own son where he was going or when he would be back.
So, I took my worries to the one person in the house who would have answers to my questions: my father.
I was certain he could never do what Tokunbo’s father had done.
I waited for my father to get back from work, take his bath, eat and then settle down to watch the 7 o’ clock news. After news time, the sacred hour when no one dared disturb him, not even Yemi who was two years younger than myself, I went to meet my father. He was wearing these gray fleece trousers and a blue sports jersey.
Even though the floor of our sitting room was heavily carpeted from wall to wall, he still wore his house slippers, something my mother hated and constantly complained about. I crept up to him, got down on my knees and pulled off his slippers. He saw what I was doing and smiled. Then he continued watching TV.
My mother who was sitting at the dining table mending a hole in an old blouse she had refused to give away, thanked me with her eyes. She looked at me approvingly when she saw me take the slippers and put them in a corner of the carpetless dining room.
Then, I went back to my father’s side.
When I was much smaller, I would climb into his lap and talk to him, play with his face, until I fell asleep. But as I grew older, and in his words, became a big girl, I saw those things as childish and left them for the likes of Yemi who was at that moment occupied with lego bricks in the room he shared with Tayo.
I sat down on the floor beside my father’s feet and tugged at his trousers to gain his attention.
“Yes, Enitan? What is it?” he asked, tearing his eyes away from the television screen where a commercial was playing.
“Daddy, I have a question,” I began, wringing my hands together, the way I did whenever I was anxious.
Sensing that my question would take longer than one minute, and deciding that the TV held no further interest for him since the news was over, he got up and turned off the television. Then, he resumed his former position on the single seater sofa.
“Oya, what was your question, Enitan?”
“Daddy, how long should a person travel before they come back?”
“Ahn ahn, Eni, where is this coming from?”
“The boy that lives in that house,” I began, pointing in the direction of our neighbor’s house, “he said his father travelled and hasn’t come back.”
“Why were you talking to him? Ehn? Did you go out without my permission?”
And without waiting for my response, he yelled:
“T-a-y-o! Tayo! Come here now!”
Turning to face my mother, he said:
“You see now, Asake, you see why I don’t like leaving these children alone in this house?”
“E jo, Baba Tayo, don’t drag my name into this matter o! They’re not babies, ke! And wasn’t Tayo supposed to be keeping an eye on them?” She too, called out:
The sound of hurried feet filled the brief silence after my elder brother’s name left my mother’s lips. Then, Tayo showed up, shirtless.
“Sir? Ma?” he asked turning first to my father and then, my mother.
My father spoke first.
“Why are you not wearing a shirt? What have I said about walking about my house without a shirt?”
“Sorry, sir,” replied Tayo, biting his lower lip. “I was feeling hot. The fan in our room–”
My mother butted in.
“We’ve called the electrician. He’ll come and fix it tomorrow.”
Easing off Tayo’s shirtlessness for the time being, my father cooled off a bit and said to him:
“Weren’t you supposed to look after your younger ones this afternoon? Where were you?”
With surprise written in bold letters all over his face, Tayo replied:
“But I did, sir. I’ve been at home since morning.”
“Then, why was your sister talking to the boy next door?”
“I saw him over the fence! You can ask Enitan, Daddy. Abi am I lying?” he said throwing the ball back in my court.
“Over the fence ke?” my mother cried in alarm. “How did he climb? Where was he going? His mother nko? See, Baba Tayo, you see this is what I don’t like. I’ve been telling you that we should put barbed wire on this fence, but oti o, you will say my mouth is smelling! What if armed robbers had jumped the fence and entered our house?”
“Asake, will you calm down?! Nobody is jumping any fence. This is a safe neighborhood.”
“Safe ke? Nibo? Haven’t you been hearing gunshots? Sometimes even during the day gan-an …. Pa-pa-pa-pa! They will just be shooting as if they’re dashing them bullets in the market. Or will you say you haven’t heard them?”
“Yes,” my father admitted reluctantly, “but it was from other people’s streets, not our own.”
My mother took to mumbling something else, and eventually took her partly mended blouse to her bedroom to finish her sewing there.
Meanwhile, my father dismissed Tayo and once again, we were alone in the sitting room. I then ventured to explain what had really happened that afternoon in my own words.
“Why didn’t you say so since?! You just kept quiet while I was busy blaming your brother? Don’t do that again, Enitan. It’s not good. Silence is just as bad as opening your mouth to tell lies when the truth needs to be spoken.”
I apologized to my father, and he accepted my apology.
“What was it you wanted to ask me again?” he asked as he settled into his favorite chair.
“Daddy, that boy next door, he told me that his father has travelled and he doesn’t know when he is coming back. Why?”
My father sighed deeply. It was the sort of sigh that was a speech in itself, pregnant with meaning.
“I’m sure that’s what his mother told him. But she knows where he is. She does.”
“So why did she tell him that?”
“Because sometimes the truth is bitter. Too bitter. When that boy gets older, he will know the truth. And you know what?”
“He may actually prefer the lie to the truth.”
That last sentence threw me into further confusion. How could a person prefer a lie to the truth?
Unfortunately for me, my father had reached his question-and-answer quota for the day. He said so in plain terms when I tried to initiate another round of questions.
“That’s enough for today, Enitan. I’m going to my room. Good night.”
I decided to file that question under “Things Mummy and Daddy Cannot Tell Me,” and retired to my room too. As I walked past their bedroom, I heard my parents talking about how Rosemary the househelp had to leave because she had robbed my mother of her jewelry. They resolved never to hire another househelp again.
That day was the first time I spoke to Tokunbo. Or was it the first time he spoke to me?
I continued to run into him on our street, running errands for his mother. But on these occasions, just like before, he never spoke to me. Likewise, I pretended not to know him.
A few months later, I heard from my parents that Tokunbo had been accepted at Federal Government College, Ijanikin, right there in Lagos.
The day he left for Ijanikin, I saw him through the window of one of the bedrooms upstairs. I saw him and the gateman load a bucket, broom, hoe, cutlass, portmanteau and a few other curious-looking items into his mother’s Pajero. With all the farming implements that followed him to school, I imagined Ijanikin was a breeding ground for farmers.
Regardless of what I thought, I will never forget the bereft look on Tokunbo’s face as he dragged his feet into the back seat of his mother’s car.
Just before he got in, I saw his sister, Yele wearing a pink dress with blue roses, crying and hanging onto her mother’s expensive-looking lace wrapper, and saying:
“I don’t want him to go! Who will play with me? When will I see him again?”
“Don’t worry. Mummy will bring you for visiting day. Stop crying, you hear?” said Tokunbo, rubbing her head in a soothing manner.
Then, he got into the car, and was gone.
That was not the last time I would see Tokunbo Williams.
I saw him on and off over the next few years, whenever he was home for the holidays. It seemed like every time I laid eyes on him, he had grown a few inches taller and his head kept shrinking until it did not seem so disproportionate to the rest of his body.
Even my parents who saw him would comment on how they didn’t know what Tokunbo was eating because he just kept growing tall like an Iroko tree.
What else could they compare him to? As tall as a mango tree? No. It had to be the Iroko.
Unlike the other times before he went to boarding school, he started to say “Hello,” and sometimes, “Hi,” to me whenever we passed each other on our street. Every now and then, he would even throw in a smile with his brief greeting.
But sighting Tokunbo was so rare in the first place that these chance meetings did not seem important.
But one day, everything changed.
On a Sunday afternoon, someone came knocking at our gate.
Unlike Tokunbo’s mum who had a full-time gateman on duty at her house, the duties of answering the gate were shared between me and Yemi, my younger brother, since Tayo had gone to boarding school at Federal Government College, Ogbomosho.
I was attending a secondary school in Lagos as a day student, and Yemi was just finishing up primary school.
That day, I answered the gate and was shocked to see who was standing in front of me. It was Mrs. Williams, Tokunbo’s mother.