Episode 4: The Man Who Smelt of Leather
By the time my mother returned to the house later that evening, the Tokunbo issue had shifted from the forefront to the back burner of my mind.
However, Tokunbo’s name came up increasingly in conversations in our household over the next couple of weeks. The irony was that we spoke about Tokunbo more times than we spoke to him.
Before Tokunbo’s return from boarding school, and in fact, the day before he was due to come back home, I witnessed something strange happen next door.
My final exams finished early on Friday afternoon. Because of this impromptu change in schedule, I arrived home two hours earlier than usual.
As I approached our house, happily munching on a strawberry wafer, I noticed a man standing outside the Williams’ residence. He was banging on the gate with so much fury that I expected his knuckles to crack open and bleed before I reached our house. Between bouts of frantic pounding, he shouted:
“Open this gate! I said, Open this gate now!”
My shock was on two levels: first, the Williams, as I have already mentioned, had a dedicated gateman, a forty-something year old man whose visible duties included tending to the gate and providing basic security for the house. Mr. Felix, as he was known, was a no-nonsense person, rarely seen away from his duty post. So, where was he while this visitor was making such a loud racket?
Second, as I walked past this man, my nose caught a very strong smell. The first thought that came to mind was “this man is hiding stacks of kpomo under his shirt.” But when I considered that he must have been pounding at that gate for several minutes, I quickly shredded that idea. Any hidden kpomo would have broken free and dropped to the ground by now.
No, that smell of raw cow hide had to be leather. This was the only conclusion that made sense. And my nose agreed with me.
But there was still something my nose could not handle: the intensity of the smell of leather. It was not the typical smell that greeted your nose when you walked past a person wearing apparel and accessories made from genuine leather.
No, this smell was far more intense, as if this person was a leather tanner by profession. Or perhaps, he worked at a leather factory. Whatever it was, I could not tell by looking at him which of these possibilities, if any, was correct.
As I walked past him to the gate of our house, I drank in his appearance with my eyes: tall, too thin, surprisingly clean shaven with shabby clothes that looked like they had not been bought brand new, and had seen too many buckets of soapy water.
He wore brown leather sandals, and even from the distance where I stood, I could see the hand of more than one cobbler, where they had struggled to patch and re-patch these shoes.
But perhaps, the most striking feature from my cursory inspection of this person, was his skin: smooth, dark and glistening with health in spite of his leanness, he had an even complexion from head to toe, a rich shade of dark chocolate that made his white teeth stand out and appear brighter.
Unfortunately, I could also smell fresh sweat mixed in there with the powerful scent of leather.
Nobody came to the gate and there was no answer from inside the house. I knew for a fact that the gateman and house help were indoors. So, why were they ignoring this man?
“They have to be acting on Mrs. Williams’ instructions,” I concluded.
When I got to our gate, I was going to pull out my key and let myself in, until I heard him say:
“Excuse me, do you live here?”
All this while, I had observed him sideways and from behind. But as I whipped around to respond to him, for the first time, I came face-to-face with this man. As soon as my eyes fell on him, a gasp escaped from my mouth. I held a hand over my mouth to hide my surprise, but my eyes betrayed me nonetheless.
My question was a whisper because my hand still covered my mouth. The man laughed as he wiped his brow with the back of his hand, shutting his eyes briefly. For a moment, I caught a glimpse of how he would look asleep. I couldn’t help thinking that this was how Tokunbo would look when he was sleeping. When he opened his eyes again, his lips parted and a soothing voice said:
“People say we look alike, but no, I’m not Tokunbo. I am Mr. Oladipupo Williams, Tokunbo’s father.”
That explained it!
I heaved a sigh of relief, breathing a little easier. Thank God this man spoke because I couldn’t imagine how Tokunbo could’ve aged 30-something years overnight. Granted, Mr. Williams did not have any wrinkles, but his age was written as plain as day on his face.
“So, Tokunbo’s father is back from wherever he travelled to,” I thought.
But the man who stood before me did not look like someone who had travelled and returned. In fact, he looked like a typical Lagosian, and his intonation did not suggest that he had spent a protracted period of time outside Lagos.
What was he doing here on a Friday afternoon? I had no idea, but I certainly wanted to know.
Seeing that my mind had wandered again, Mr. Williams repeated his question.
“Do you live here?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “Isn’t there anyone at home?”
“I was just about to ask you the same question. Don’t they have a meyguard or house help? Why is nobody answering?” he said, before hopping nimbly back to the spot he had occupied for minutes before I arrived. Thankfully, he did not resume his noisy knocking. Instead, using his hand as a shade, he peered into the spacious compound through the narrow space between the concrete fence and the metal gate.
No sign of life.
“I’ve been standing here for almost 20 minutes and nobody has answered. But I can see cars parked inside,” he lamented.
“Don’t you have their phone number, sir? Maybe you can try calling them,” I offered.
“No, I don’t have it. Do you?” he said looking at me hopefully.
“No, sir,” I lied.
Of course, I had the Williams’ house phone number stored in my memory. I had memorized it the day my father asked me to write it down in his address book. That day pre-dated Mrs. Williams’ recent visit to our home.
But, I could foresee getting scolded for giving a complete stranger the phone number of our cantankerous neighbor. And also, I only had it on his word that he was Tokunbo’s father. I still had no proof beyond his testimony and the uncanny physical resemblance that he was indeed the father of my neighbor.
“Okay. I see,” he said, before pulling out a multi-colored stack of sticky notes from the back pocket of his trousers. A pen followed, extracted from the shirt pocket of his faded, cream-colored shirt. Having assembled his writing implements, he quickly scribbled a short note.
I waited, thinking he would hand it over when he had finished. But he didn’t. He just stuck the note which he had written on a bright green sticky note onto the gray gate of the Williams’ residence. I wondered if the wind would snatch it and carry it away, but that did not happen.
After completing this task, he came back quickly to where I stood and pulled out a crumpled brown envelope from the side pocket of his once black trousers. Now, they looked closer to dark gray.
It seemed odd to me that a man who looked like he struggled to eat three square meals a day was gallivanting all over Lagos with his pockets filled with stacks of colorful self-adhesive paper. He even had a pen to go with it, even if it was one of those Eleganza pens that often left ink stains on clothes.
There were no ink stains on Mr. Williams’ person. However, he held that brown envelope so delicately that it seemed like it was really his own heart that was wrapped in paper, tucked away in that envelope.
“You know Tokunbo, don’t you? Tokunbo Williams?” he said, although it sounded less like a question and more like the affirmation of a fact.
“Yes, sir. I do,” I replied. I should have added that I knew Tokunbo’s face and not his person but that would have been irrelevant.
“Can you please give this to him for me? It’s very important,” he said, pushing the envelope towards me.
I stood there, considering his offer, not wanting to get mixed up in what appeared to be a messy family affair. But the sorry state of this man moved me and against my better judgment, I agreed to help him.
As I stretched out my hand to collect the envelope from him, he withdrew his hand and said in a very serious tone:
“Please, this is very important. See to it that only Tokunbo gets it. No one else.”
“But sir,” I protested, “Tokunbo is not back from school. Can’t I just give it to your daughter, Yele, instead?”
He laughed a dry laugh and then said to me:
“So you too think she’s my daughter, abi? No way! Yele is not my daughter, though a lovely girl like that would make any father proud.”
I was confused.
Yele and Tokunbo had different fathers?
So, Yele is not Mr. Williams’ daughter? Is she even Tokunbo’s biological sister? Are they even related?
One thing was certain: the person who knew the answers to these questions was Mrs. Williams.
“Oh, I didn’t know, sir,” I said apologetically. “I just assumed–”
“That’s okay. Most people do. But don’t give this letter to Yele. Only Tokunbo.”
“Please promise me you’ll do it,” he said, grabbing my shoulders. For a moment, he had this wild look in his eyes that utterly terrified me. There was no way I could refuse him.
I nodded vigorously and that was when he released me.
A smile softened his haggard features and for a moment, I saw Tokunbo as a child in his face. I recalled the ball incident and how Tokunbo had told me that his father had traveled.
Was he back for good?
As he turned to leave, he whipped around suddenly and said:
“By the way, what’s your name?”
“Enitan, sir,” I replied.
“What a lovely name! If I had a daughter, I would name her Enitan,” he said, sealing the compliment with a smile.
As he turned to walk away, I called out after him:
“Sir, what if I can’t give it to Tokunbo?”
“Then, you’re free of your promise. I trust you to keep your word.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, as he turned and left.
As he disappeared down the street, I gazed at the letter in my hand. In the man’s firm, impish handwriting were written two words:
And as I looked at it, the burden of the task ahead weighed me down. I had to deliver this letter, which contained Lord-knows-what to a boy I had barely spoken to, from his estranged father.
What on earth had I gotten myself into?
<<READ EPISODE 5>>