Mama had not yet returned from work, and I had already been to Mama Peju’s shop. She did not have the house keys. That meant that I would have to wait outside the door until Mama came back. Today, that option was not-so-palatable. Waiting at Mama Peju’s shop was out of the question. I have already mentioned my displeasure at her ‘business practices.’ Besides, she was constantly asking me if I had heard any news from Papa. In case you were wondering, selling bread was just a front for her real talent: gossiping.
Her shop was the original gossip headquarters in our neighborhood, and I did not want her asking me questions about Papa. Not that I could not say ‘No’ to her, but she possessed some sort of power over people, an unnatural ability to extract information from people under the guise of being genuinely interested in their lives. Remember I told you I can read people. Maybe that’s why Mama trusted her enough to leave the house keys with her every weekday. Or perhaps Mama reasoned that if there was ever a break-in, she would know who to accuse. So, Mama Peju’s shop was out of the question. That left the rest of the neighborhood.
Normally, I would have stayed with one of the neighbors in our compound, but on this day I decided against it. I wanted to visit this neighbor to satisfy my curiosity. I wanted to see the inside of his house, and most of all, play that piano. Finally, I would get to play a piano I did not have to share with another child my age.
I don’t know how he knew I was coming to his house. Perhaps it’s the same way one can smell rain in the air before it falls to the ground. You just know it is about to rain. Maybe I had a peculiar scent that this man could perceive in the air. Or maybe, just maybe, I was destined to meet him that afternoon.
As I approached him, I got a good look at him for the very first time: he was a tall, skinny man with long limbs who seemed to be stuck in the ‘60s. I only say that because he wore flared leg trousers and a floral print shirt. This was 1997, and no one dressed like that anymore. Actually, I had never seen a live person dressed like that. The pictures I had seen at my maternal grandparents’ home were the closest I had been to anyone dressed in this manner.
He had short, cropped hair that looked like it had been dyed every week since he could recite his A, B, Cs. He was clean-shaven, however, which was a contrast to his bushy chest hair. I wondered if he had run out of shaving sticks before he could attack the chest hair. It was as if whatever he lacked in facial hair, he made up for in chest hair. I tried to remember if Papa ever had any chest hair when he lived with us. His face was becoming a blur in my mind. But perhaps, the most curious part of this neighbor’s face was his eyes: they were light brown and deep set, and seemed to have aged faster than the rest of his body because he kept squinting. Or was it the sun getting into his eyes? It was around 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon after all, so the sun was still high in the sky.
The first thing he said to me when I finally walked up to him was “How old are you?”
To which I replied: “Ten, sir.”
“I don’t want any children running around my house. If you come in, sit down and keep quiet. Does your mother know you are here?” Thankfully, he didn’t ask after my father.
He nodded, opened the front door and led the way into the house.
Nothing prepared me for the chaos that was the inside of this man’s house. He clearly loved to read, or at least collect books. There were books of different shapes and sizes scattered all over the sitting room, which was the room he led me into. Books were strewn on the floors, on the lone sofa and on a small wooden desk beside the window. In fact, there was no single bare surface in the whole room.
Pointing to the sofa, he watched me as I cleared a few books off a small part of it, and sat down there. As soon as I sat down, I saw it: a grand, black piano sitting quietly in an adjoining room. At least, I saw part of the piano. The door leading to the room housing the piano was almost completely shut, but it was cracked open enough to display a hint of the black instrument. The room was clearly a bedroom which had been converted into a music room. With no other tenants, he could use any of the rooms as he pleased. I itched to go and run my fingers on the keys, even if it was just a few minutes. Meanwhile, my 60s-clothing-clad neighbor had been watching me the whole time. He pretended not to notice that my eyes were drawn to the piano in the other room. Pulling the chair beside the desk to face the couch, he sat down looking at me. This man was strange.
“Do you read any books?”
I reeled off the names of books I had read, but he was not impressed.
“Those are school textbooks. Do you read for pleasure?”
What sort of question was that to ask a JSS2 boy? This man clearly did not interact with children regularly, if ever.
“I read comic books, sir, like Archie, Batma–”
“Comic books! You won’t learn anything if you read those. You need to read books without pictures in them.”
I was glad this man was not my Papa or uncle. What a killjoy! Books without pictures indeed. Even textbooks had pictures, especially those integrated science books that had all those weird drawings with labeled body parts. I wondered if this man could draw and label the parts of the human eye. Kenneth, that boy in my class, could do it with his eyes closed. I had seen him do it.
Leaning back in his chair, the neighbor did not speak for about 5 minutes. I took that time to look around to see if I could find any pictures of family members, like the ones people usually displayed on the walls of their sitting rooms. None whatsoever. Did this man fall out of the sky?
After the five minutes had lapsed, he leaned forward again. I still did not know this man’s name or what he did for a living. But I wanted to play that piano.
“My name is Alexander,” he said suddenly. “What is your name?”
The question came as a surprise to me. I don’t know why, but I expected this man to know my name. He was my next door neighbor after all. I was so startled I almost forgot what my name was.
“Biyi, sir. My name is Biyi, sir.”
“Biyi starts with a B.”
I wanted to tell him that ‘Biyi was not my full name, and that Adebiyi, which was my full name, started with the letter ‘A.’ But I suspected that he did not care to know. So, here is what I said instead, smiling as if there was a special prize for smiling when saying a person’s name:
“And Alex starts with an A, sir.”
Did I look like a boy who could not spell? I knew my ABCs alright. In English and Yoruba. Mama made sure of that. I wanted to ask him if he knew what letter the name ‘Sola’ started with. Would he pick the English ‘S’ or the other ‘S,’ the one with the dot under it, which the Yoruba teacher pronounced ‘Sh’? I wondered if he would say it with the same amount of effort the teacher used to bark “Shut up” to the rowdy students.
“You can call me Uncle. Uncle Alexander. Never ever call me Alex, okay?”
“Yes, sir. I mean – Yes, Uncle Alexander.”
“What is your favorite subject in school?”
I saw this as my opportunity and took it.
“Music, sir. I am learning to play the piano, too,” I said, sitting up on the sofa and nodding in the direction of the instrument that bore that name.
“Is that so?” he asked with an air of disinterestedness. I might as well have said that my only ambition in life was to be a garbage collector by day and a Fuji singer by night, and he would have had the same reaction. Annoyingly passive. Then, without warning, he switched gears from passive to active.
He got up and walked over to the desk where he picked up a red book. It looked like the same sort of book my music teacher, Mr. David, used to ask us to write down musical notes and notations on. As he flipped through the pages, I saw that he had filled the pages with music he had written – music notes and lyrics. He finally got to a section, looked up and asked me if I knew the story of Oluronbi. I nodded affirmatively. He went further to ask if I knew the song that came with the folklore, to which I also responded in the affirmative. My primary school music teacher had all but drummed it into our heads. I knew the words and music by heart.