He saw me coming. After all, I was walking towards him. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking though. How does a 10-year old boy read the mind of a 40-something year old man? Some people have that gift, you know. But not me. I think he could read my mind. Did I already mention that he saw me coming? Oh, yes. He never took his eyes off me, like he was waiting for me, or something. I shouldn’t have gone to his house, but Mama had left me no choice. Or so I told myself.
She had forgotten to leave the house keys with Mama Peju, the woman who sold bread across the street. Till today, I cannot explain why Mama always left the house keys with a woman who sold stale bread. In my mind, a woman who sold fresh bread was trustworthy, but one who sold stale bread was a shameless crook. I mean, sometimes, the bread had mold on it. “You have to trust someone,” Mama was always saying. I knew very little about trust, and even the little I knew was on the verge of extinction. To me, trust was something adults talked about, but did not truly understand. Why else was Papa not at home? He had promised to come back within a few weeks, from his trip to London. Mama trusted him. Who could doubt a man who said “I promise” at the beginning of his sentence? No one.
We waited for weeks to hear from him after he was supposed to have arrived in London. Mama tried to call him several times. As it turned out, the number he had given us was fake. The man with the funny accent on the other end of the phone said no one with Papa’s name lived there. Then, she tried writing to him at his London address. I wrote my letters too, telling Papa all the things that happened in school, at church, and even about my friends who lived in our compound. I also reminded him of the toy car he promised to buy for me. But, he never wrote back. And the toy car never arrived.
Mama was worried but she kept assuring me that he would come back one day and live with us again. So every night before I went to sleep, I would tell God to bring Papa home and to remind Papa to buy my toy car too. You see, I trusted God too. It only made sense that I would ask the One who everyone referred to as “Our Father” to bring Papa back home. But slowly, the weeks turned to months, and months turned to years, and long lines of worry came to visit Mama’s face. She smiled less, and the lines stayed. They never left. And then one day, it happened.
Aunty Tolu brought back the news. Mama thought I couldn’t hear what Aunty Tolu was saying. I was supposed to be fast asleep on the couch, but I heard everything. Papa had travelled to London alright, but not for business. Well, not the kind of business we had imagined. He had married another woman – she was white – who helped him get a British passport. Mama did not say a word. She did not even make sound. Maybe she was too shocked to voice any surprise. However, when Aunty Tolu got to the part where Papa’s oyinbo wife had given birth to triplets – all boys – Mama began to cry. I had never heard her cry before. It was her crying that roused me from the couch. Although I was just a child, I knew she was in pain. From the day forward, I would remember Papa as the man who made Mama cry. And he was never coming back home.
That was two years ago. I was in primary school then, but even now as a secondary school boy in JSS2, the pain was still fresh. My uncles were supportive, but none of them could replace Papa. They were not supposed to, even though they tried. One of them paid my school fees, another one paid for after-school music lessons. According to the ‘music-lessons-paying’ uncle, a well-rounded education included music practice of some sort. I was surprised a third uncle did not volunteer to pay for football lessons. That, to me, would have made me even more well-rounded. Just like a football.
Mr. David, the music teacher decided what instrument I would learn, and he chose the piano. Not that I would have chosen any other instrument, of course. I often wondered what it would be like to play the piano at home, or at least closer to home. Mr. David’s music lessons were held in the school premises after classes. The piano was in the same room with desks, chairs and all the other stuff we associate with school. It was impersonal, and I wanted to play a piano I could make personal, something I did not have to share with all the other boys. Unfortunately, no one in the Kilo area of Surulere, where I lived, owned a piano. That is, no one I had actually visited. But then, there was our next door neighbor. I did not even know his name, and had never spoken to him, but like everyone in our neighborhood, I knew he owned a piano.
The thought of owning such a grand instrument in that residential area was ridiculous. For one thing, most people could barely afford their children’s school fees. And unlike Mama, they had more than one child. Owning a piano would have been a luxury. That was probably why it was such a well-known and established fact. Our neighbor was always playing the piano in that house. The same house he had inherited from his father. At least, that’s what people said. He could have given music lessons if he chose to, but he didn’t. Just like he could have rented the top apartment of the house, but he didn’t. It remained vacant, while just about every other house in the same neighborhood had tenants living in the top apartment. Typically, the bottom half was converted into a store, selling household conveniences like soap, milk, sugar, etc. But there was no buying and selling in that house. The man just spent hours playing the piano. And he was that good at it. This man seemed to prefer his own company to anything else. And yet, it was to this same man’s house that I went that day.
(to be continued)
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