The ancient taxi pulled up alongside a dusty two-storey building with a sigh of relief. The door opened, and Joshua gingerly unwound himself from the confines of the cab.
“Are you sure this is the place?” he asked the driver, a hint of uncertainty in his voice.
“Na im, now. Shay na Alhaji Jimoh road you say you wan go?”
“Yes, but…” He looked up at the building again; it looked familiar, but yet…
“Oga, dis na di only Alhaji Jimoh road for dis side.” The driver looked at him intently; it was a look that spoke of other fares to be picked up and money to be made, away from this dusty building.
“OK.” Joshua sighed and handed over the fare for the trip. The driver took the money, nodded at him and the taxi belched and rumbled on its way again.
For a long while after the taxi had gone, Joshua stood staring back at the building, willing it to respond back with a flood of memories. Surely, it was the same building; but everything around here looked so different. He walked up to the door and knocked…
“I’m going back.”
Matthew exploded with irritation. “Joshua, you’ve come again with your foolishness. What do you want to go back to that god-forsaken place for? How many times have I told you that there’s nothing for us there! And anyway, this is not the first time you’ve said you are going back – so if you want to go, go and be done with it!”
Joshua looked at his elder brother with a mixture of patience and sadness. He understood Matthew’s annoyance, but he also could not understand how someone could feel comfortable being so many miles away from their hometown.
“Yes, I’ve said this many times before. But this time, I really mean it.”
“I don’t understand how you can even think of returning after what those… those bastards did to us,” Matthew spat out. “If Mama were still alive, it would break her heart to hear you say this.”
Joshua remembered the story that had be told and retold many times about their abrupt departure from their hometown. Their father had been a well to do trader, and had met their mother on one of his many trips. They had married within a few months of meeting – too suspiciously short a time for their father’s relatives, who felt that people from her part of the country were known for their potent charms.
So it was no surprise that when their father died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-nine, the finger of suspicion fell immediately on their mother. Their father’s kinsmen had planned to drive her away from the town and hand both of them to relatives to look after. Fortunately for her, she had got wind of the plan before it could be executed, and she had bundled a few hastily chosen belongings into a suitcase and fled with both of them to her hometown.
At first, it was hard for their mother. She had lost the man she loved, and she had to start life again from scratch. Even though her relatives were sympathetic to her because of her recent bereavement, there were some who could not help saying “I told you so”, as her decision to marry outside her town had never been popular there, either. But the passage of time lessens the pains of all wounds; and eventually, she learned to breathe in life and take pleasure in its scent again. After a few years, they moved to the nearby big town where she set up a provisions store, and she was able to make enough to provide for herself and her two sons.
The passage of time had also had its effects on those two sons. Joshua had only been five when his father died, so he didn’t fully understand what was going on at the time; he could only remember the pleasanter, more idyllic memories of life in his hometown. Matthew had been three or four years older, so not only did he miss the many friends that he had made, but he was also aware of the tension and hostility between his mother and her in-laws, and he blamed them for their sudden flight.
“Nonsense. You’re making untrue assumptions. Mama would never have minded me going back to our hometown. In fact, she was always counselling you not to bear a grudge against our father’s relatives.”
“And that makes you think that she wouldn’t mind? And please, stop referring to that place as ‘our’ hometown – it may be yours, but it is definitely not mine!”
Joshua sighed. “OK, let’s not argue. I just wanted you to know. I’m leaving next week.”
“Are you meeting anyone there?”
“No – you know that Mama cut off all contact with Papa’s relatives after she moved. I only have the address that we used to live at – I’ll go there and see what I can find out.”
Matthew sighed in response. “I still don’t see the point in going, but I guess there are some things that you just have to do. I wish you good luck.”
A middle aged man in a singlet and baggy trousers peered out from behind the door.
“Erm… Hello. My name is Joshua Ibitoye, and I used to live at this address with my father, Abraham Ibitoye over twenty years ago.”
The man frowned in suspicion. “I don’t know anybody of that name here.
“That may be because it was a long time ago. Are you renting this place, or are you the owner?”
Laughter followed, exposing brown teeth. “Do I like look a landlord to you?”
“OK, can I have the landlord’s name and phone number?”
“I don’t have it here… hold on. Mama Ade!… Mama Ade!…” The door closed, and Joshua could make out a muffled conversation going on behind it. Then it opened, and the man thrust out a sheet of paper.
Joshua scanned the paper; the name did not look familiar. “Thanks very much. I’ll call the number.”
The door closed again, and Joshua dialled the number on the paper. A female voice informed him that the number he was trying to reach was disconnected. He tried a couple of times more and got the same response. Frustrated, he decided to wander around the town; perhaps he might run into someone who used to know him.
Walking down the road, he felt a sense of being and not being. It was as though ghosts of memories were flitting through his mind, confusing reality with imagination. Was that the church that they used to worship at? It looked like it; but this was an Overflowing Anointing Church, and his mother told him that they had gone to a Baptist church when they were younger. Or what of that building across the road? Wasn’t that where the local hospital used to be? Except it seemed to have been converted to a block of offices. But he could still remember the fence with its distinctive blue and white motifs from a visit long ago, when his mother had taken him there because he had been feeling feverish.
He stopped at a roundabout (hadn’t this been a simple junction before?) and tried the landlord’s number again. This time, someone picked up.
“Hello? My name is Joshua Ibitoye…” He went on to explain, as before, the circumstances surrounding his visit. The voice at the other end sounded young and sympathetic, but its owner couldn’t help; she just managed affairs for the landlord, who was usually out of town. She thought the name sounded familiar, but she couldn’t be sure. “You can leave your phone number; when he comes back, I will let him know that you called.”
While she was talking, Joshua felt himself sinking a sea of disappointment. He hadn’t known what to expect from his visit, but it wasn’t this. There was nothing – nobody – that he could see that made him feel glad to be home.
“So how was your trip? Was there a grand event of reconciliation?”
Joshua shook his head. “No. I wasn’t able to meet anyone at all. I did leave my number with the landlord of Papa’s former house, but he hasn’t called me back since.”
“In other words, it was a waste of time – just as I had warned you.”
Joshua smiled at his brother. “Not at all. In fact, it was very… productive.”
Matthew stared at him in puzzlement. “How?”
Joshua kept on smiling. “Sometimes, you have to try things out before realising whether you want to continue doing them or not. You could have preached at me from now till eternity not to go back, and it wouldn’t have made a difference; I just had to go myself to see.”
“But you won’t be wasting your time any longer by going back there again, anyway.”
“I didn’t say that.”
Matthew got up and shook an exasperated finger at Joshua. “You are truly a stubborn goat! OK, if you like, waste your money going back there again!” He stomped out of the room in disgust.
Joshua thought about his last visit, and smiled once more. He thought about how he had felt that the hometown of his youth was lost to him forever. But he also thought about that young and sympathetic voice that had consoled him when he confided his feelings to her; the voice that had told him that it just meant he could now experience his hometown in a fresh new way. He thought of the interesting conversations that they had had since, and how he was looking forward to meeting her in the flesh on his next trip…