“Are you trying to burn my tongue?” she would ask. Any attempt to reply would earn him another slap.
If he did not apply enough pressure while giving her a foot rub, wham! A slap would land on his face. Or back. The slaps came without any warning and were delivered according to a unit of measurement that was known only to Jocelyn. Her mantra was “this is your fault.” After sometime, Mr. Gbadegesin began to believe her. He deserved to be punished for making her angry.
Mr. Gbadegesin remained passive and accepted Jocelyn just as she was. No one was perfect, he thought. So, one weekend, he married the imperfect woman he could not bear to live without. Two years later, Jokotola, their daughter, was born.
Joko was the answer to Mr. Gbadegesin’s silent prayers. She had inherited her father’s capacity for love, but none of her mother’s cunning ways or temper. She had seen her parents quarrel, even fight, but it seemed to have no effect on her. But Baba Joko knew very well that watching her parents fight, and particularly, seeing her mother assault her father regularly, would affect her, even if the signs were hidden from him. He knew that children are like sponges, soaking up everything in their environment, whether good or bad. So, when his wife announced that she was sending Joko off to boarding school in JS1, he was relieved. At least, his daughter would get a chance to have the semblance of a normal childhood, one that was not poisoned by her parents’ toxic relationship.
With Joko in school, Mr. Gbadegesin’s thoughts shifted from worrying about his daughter to worrying about himself. He had tried to leave his wife many times, but because he wanted his child to grow up with both parents together, he had stayed. Eight different times he had tried to leave, and eight times he had failed, returning to what was familiar and comfortable. That is, until he met Agnes.
Agnes was the reason why Baba Joko was punctual at the bookstore. The bookstore itself was Mama Joko’s idea. After she married him, she had convinced him to leave his job as a driver, and he had tried his hands at several business ventures. The bookstore was the only one that passed the two year mark.
Initially, the bookstore had started out selling strictly textbooks to students. As time progressed, novels joined the textbooks. Demand increased and novels outnumbered the textbooks. Eventually, romance novels joined the others since they appealed to a more diverse audience. Men, women, boys, girls and the general novel-reading public patronized Baba Joko’s bookstore.
One day, a certain customer came to buy Harlequin romances. Slightly heavy-set and with a stocky build, she looked nothing like the women on the covers of these books. But, that did not stop Baba Joko from taking a keen interest in her. The reason was simple: instead of just picking a book from the shelf like most customers did, she asked Baba Joko to recommend a few books for her. He liked that; a woman giving him the power to choose for her. His interest was piqued and he started asking her questions. She answered willingly.
Her name was Agnes and she was a 40-something year old primary school teacher who had never been married. Within the span of two weeks, Agnes visited the bookstore almost 20 times. With each visit and each conversation, a real friendship blossomed between her and Mr. Gbadegesin. Miraculously, Mama Joko who was now a full-time housewife, and was notorious for paying unannounced visits to the bookstore, never met Agnes during one of their lengthy conversations. Meanwhile, Agnes and Mr. Gbadegesin continued bonding.
Agnes was the first person he confided in about his wife and her ways. It was Agnes who first suggested the idea of leaving his wife. The one thing she consistently told him was this:
“Life is too short and too precious to be spent living in misery. If that woman kills you one day, she will find another man to marry and her own life will continue.”
That last part seemed very real to him. He could picture his wife mourning him for a very short period of time, maybe less than a month, and then looking for another man. Maybe she was already looking for his replacement. What if that was her plan: to get rid of him and find another man? That woman was capable of anything. Agnes was right. For the first time in his life, he began to see that his own life, not just that of his daughter, Joko, was precious.
My life is precious.
That singular idea began to pervade Baba Joko’s thoughts. It came to his mind at odd hours: when he was washing his car, shopping for groceries or clipping Jocelyn’s toe nails. All these tasks he did not mind doing. But this thought that had grabbed hold of him was particularly strong in the aftermath of Jocelyn’s outburst of rage.
My life too is precious.
Slowly but surely, his heart began to believe that thought, and it fueled other thoughts, including a plan to escape. Again. But like all human beings, Baba Joko quickly discovered that conceiving a plan was easy. Execution was completely different and certainly not easy. After carefully considering the logistics of leaving his wife, he convinced himself that it could not be accomplished in one day. For starters, he did not know where he would go. He did not for one second think of kicking his wife out of the house. He was too weak-willed for that. He knew that he would be the one to leave. But where would he go? Back to Ijebu-Remo, his hometown? Who would take care of the bookstore? What about Agnes? What would he do for a living?
The day he presented Agnes with these questions, she dismissed them with a wave of her hand and said the words that changed his life forever:
“You can come and live with me.”
Half of the battle was won! When he asked her if she was worried about what people would say, she being a spinster, and he being a married man, she replied:
“Who cares? No matter what you do in this life, people will talk. They have said all sorts of callous things about my being unmarried at this age. I might as well give them something to talk about.”
But Mr. Gbadegesin needed more than Agnes’ sincere words to make such a life-changing decision. He was still reluctant to leave his wife.
“I love this woman. My love will change her. I just need to try harder,” he said to himself every time he wanted to leave. And he did. He tried to be the dutiful husband, jumping to his wife’s beck and call, no questions asked. He had somehow convinced himself that she would change if only he did not upset her. But no matter what he changed, Mama Joko continued to pummel him with her fists for any reason under the sun. She did not change.
That afternoon, as he stood looking at the coffee table, a woman selling boiled corn passed by, announcing her wares:
“Langbe jina o!”
That voice. It had a ring to it that forcefully dug up a memory. A happier time. He was ten again, watching a black and white television in a neighbor’s house. There were five other children in the sparsely furnished room, and they were all sitting on the floor. The woman of the house entered the room and placed a bowl full of boiled corn in front of the children. Turning to her son, Rufai, she said in a gentle voice:
“Make sure everybody eats.”
As the ten-year old Abayomi Gbadegesin – for that was Baba Joko’s full name – tried to reach into the bowl for his share, Rufai, who was the biggest boy in the group, slapped his hand away, and yelled:
“Short boys don’t eat corn! They eat beans!”
Abayomi was the smallest and shortest boy in the group, even though he was older than Rufai and the other children. Rufai had beaten and bullied him for months. With each attack, Abayomi’s reaction was the same: he ran away consumed by fear and thoroughly humiliated. But that day, Abayomi who had been secretly watching local wrestling matches in his neighborhood had had enough.
– to be continued –