My Father| Dare Dan

 

 

Coffin lesson number one: “Good coffin is not noted by the designs on its body, but on the strength of the wood at its base. The base, really, is the quality of the coffin.”  The coffin man said. And I checked the floor of the casket; there I saw raw mahogany planks, unpainted, unpolished and heavy as lead. “But I still prefer the colour of its body just white with no black dots,” I said. The coffin man assented with a nod. He’d repaint the casket.

My father just died—or should it be better put that he ruined himself. And something inside me took this very unfair. When his mates were taking life opportunities, he was busy being curious about the woman’s body, frolicking girls, marrying wives and divorcing them, biting hard on more than what he could chew. But who am I to judge another man. I wonder if I’d take another path, if I’d walked in his shoes.

He came across his first wife, my mother, at age twenty-two. She was seventeen. He begot eight of us; three—including me, with my mother and the rest with three other women. We were all males except for one, whom I met when I was in my twenties. I met her when I was twenty-four. She was twenty-eight. If she was a male, too, I might never know how to relate to him—maybe I might never find a place in my heart to forgive my father either. I had lived all my life before meeting her, carrying the pride of being a first-born, and my father never talked about her. But she was a female, and somehow I believed this made it easier to relate to her as family afterwards.

I remember the first time I saw her. I had come to Lagos to visit my father. We met in a fast food joint as my father had planned. There was no doubt she was my father’s daughter; she looked very much like us: her thin nose in a face slightly oblong; her bushy eyebrow lightly meeting at the bridge of the nose; a forehead leaving her hairline an irregular arc; her fuller lower lip; and her bulbous but firm cheek. The experience of meeting her was the most awkward I ever had. She sat directly opposite me on a table of three. There was an intense silence on the table.  A lot was going on in our minds yet no one spoke. In fact, we could hardly breathe. She sat on her chair like wanting to fly. When the waiter brought our orders, we started on the meal. Her spoon went in and out of her mouth mechanically. She used the left hand; the right went around her plate on the table like she was protecting her meal. She picked on her food; she wasn’t hungry—none of us seemed to be.  My father, in his habit, would occasionally clear his throat in a grunt and adjust his sitting either closer to or father from his food. He was supposed to start a discussion, right? But how would a man handle another man and a woman who are his children but also strangers? Though we carried same blood in our veins and had familiar faces, our being at that first meeting was as strange as it could be.

We ate in peace. As we did, I stole glances. She wouldn’t look up. She avoided my face altogether. The silence went on like a plague between us. I learnt before then that she hadn’t further after primary school education. And here was I, just fresh from the university. At the end of the meal, my father suggested we have a photo shoot, smiling wryly at the idea. Just like he had suggested we meet at a fast food joint and it didn’t work, the photo also didn’t work: In it, my father stood in-between us, looking spineless with his children appearing lost.

Father begot her when he was only a teenager. The girl with whom he did, also in her teens, died while giving birth. And Father, leaving the dead girl and the live one, ran away to the North. He would meet the live girl again casually on the street of Lagos one afternoon after almost three decades. What a fate. But while in the North, he worked menial jobs, had an opportunity to work himself into sales and marketing department of a reputable company, lived a stint of a charmed bachelor life before meeting my mother. And then began tumbling from one household to another, calling himself a family man.

I remember one of those fights he had with my mother to have custody of me. He had come from Kano, where he worked, to Kaduna, where I lived with my mother. I was four. He came to Mayan Gobe, a nursery school I attended at the time, picked me into a taxi and took me off, branching first to our house. He still had the keys. He was rummaging the house for my clothes when my mother burst the door open. Words had flown to her in the food canteen where she worked as a cleaner that my father had me. With my younger brother clad behind her, she rushed down to stop my father.  The fight took long harrowing hours with me in the middle of them both, held with both hands in opposite directions, turned by the clothes and wetted by tears and sweats as neighbours broke in and out of the family tangle. My father had me in the long run and took me, not to his newly forming family in Kano, but to his village in Kogi with his father. But I was back to my mother in few months. She came down to the village and took me away to Kwara, her home state. I lived there with my grandmother. I would not see my father in almost ten years. In Kwara, he came visiting once before another long disappearance.

My father died trying. He died trying to send all his sons to school; trying to build a house; trying to buy a car; and trying to retire. He was ten years old at his job where he worked as a clerk in a French-owned shipping company in Lagos. The plaque that was given to him for that feat still hid in the chest of his drawer. With the plaque, he took pictures with his white bosses, beaming in smile and laughter. He had always counted himself lucky to have had the job just about the time he was giving up on life. He always recounted how he came to Lagos at forty-nine, roaming the streets with nothing to sustain himself. He ran into a friend one of those days with whom he shared a room apartment in Apapa. Every day he went to work, waiting on a ship, waiting to be called among other very strong and hefty men, to offload a ship and on-load a trailer. He was a labourer—an old labourer. He grew fatigued on this; he grew older; he grew worn.

Then one day, accidentally, he met a woman of her tribe, who was engaging another man in a dialect outside the company’s gate; a tribe so rare to find around the place. My father trailed her to her office. She happened to be very highly placed in the company. My father met with her, and the language, like a key, like a dream, like magic, opened a low-rank administrative position for my father in the shipping company. He resumed the following week, a clerk. Compared to where he was coming from, this new position was heaven.

As a clerk, he was responsible for transferring files that processed the release of shipped-in goods to appropriate quarters. My father soon took advantage of the bureaucratic process to line his pockets with substantial naira. People who wanted their papers promptly processed tipped him: a thousand, two, and even five thousand naira sometimes, to place their files above others. This was when my father started sending me money in the university. I was in my sophomore at the University of Ile-Ife.

I remember the first time I received his cash, how elated I was not just because I was being sent money—which, at the time, I always needed badly—but because the money was coming from my father. My father never knew how I got into a university. How my mother’s friend, a successful food seller, footed my admission bills. It was tens of thousands of naira—where could he have come by that amount at the time?—and after my admission, sustaining life on campus became almost more important than getting admission itself. Most times I sat in lecture halls forcing my thoughts not to be diverted into thinking what to eat after the lectures or where to get soaps for washing later in the evening or quantifying the remaining gari in the nylon and wondering if it would last me till the end of the week.

But now I could receive my father’s stipends every month. Perhaps my thinking would leave the very crude domestic pattern it had taken since I resumed university, and take a more academic form.

When I got to three-hundred-level in the university, my immediate younger brother got admission to study French. When I got to five-hundred-level, my youngest brother from my mother got admission in a polytechnic to study Engineering. Then my first step-brother got admission to study medicine, and another got admission to study political science, yet another to study English Literature. At the time, we had the very last son on the wait for admission. All these successive academic progressions in the family was a bittersweet development for my father; he was spending more than half a hundred thousand naira as allowances on his sons every month. This, obviously, was lapping his pockets. Now he questioned more, argued often on the telephone, riled and picked up fights with his sons before releasing a dime.

When he saw that as a graduate I hadn’t gotten a good job for almost three years and that I was proposing a Master’s degree, it occurred to him that there might not be a near-end to expending money on his children’s academic pursuits. It was then he started his house project in the village. His money started getting funnelled to his aunt in the village. The aunt was the one supervising the housing project. Many days in a week they will discuss for hours over the phone. Although my immediate younger brother has now graduated, we were still as dependent has ever. My father broke under these weights. He became sick. The war was now on three fronts before him: His health, his family, his house; all three as demanding as newly born babies.

One morning, in a bus on my way to work I got a strange call—strange because it was a wail on the other side; my father’s third wife bellowing in my ears for the first few minutes without a word.

*

I knew my father had been in the hospital. The last time I called his line I was unable to speak with him because he had a pipe ran down his throat. He was said to be in the Intensive Unit of the hospital. He’d been feeding and releasing waste through pipes for the past week. I’d visited him two weeks earlier. He was on his hospital bed bloated and somewhat darker. His face, wilting on the side he said he could barely feel. He was dressed in a milk colour overall which had him wearing nothing underneath. Soon he started to cough—my step-mother had gone out to get something for him to eat. He hadn’t eaten through his mouth in days. He had been on one drib after another. So when he made mention of wanting to drink pap, my step-mother stepped out to find some.—His coughs made deep guttural sounds. I felt them vibrating in him each time he heaved, chest high; face wide; hand too weak to lift to his mouth in time, and then everything seized at that point only for him to come down in a hurricane-like hack, resulting in a phlegm as thick as melted rubber. I had never seen anything like it, almost yellowish a slime. It splattered over his body in a burst; some reaching me where I sat by his feet. He then frailly traced the tissue paper hung just above his head with one hand, which seemed to be working irrespective of the other parts his body. I quickly gunned for the paper and started cleaning up the mush. He pointed me to a waste bin where I dropped the filth. The smell of it coupled with the general smell of the hospital made me sick. I became dizzy. I found a stool. In the waste bin were several other muffled tissue papers smothered with the content as the one I held. I wondered bitterly how many times my father had made this sort of a queer cough.

Then my step-mother came in with a bowl of pap in hands; she had bought some bean balls with. My father started to feel nauseated; he didn’t like the smell of the bean ball. Bean ball used to be one of his best meals when he was in good health. But now he hurried back my step-mother as though she was coming in with a taboo. His hand, the one working by itself, flailed in the air as he complained about the smell of the balls. Step-mother handed me the bowl of pap and quickened her way out. She came back almost immediately only to be permanently banished from the ward for still carrying the smell of bean ball. I tried to feed my father the pap. He held me strongly to sit up in his bed. It was awkward; I had never seen him so dependent. I had never felt such a hold from him, or from anyone. That was when I felt like hugging him.

The first spoon went well. The second smeared his lips. There never was the third; he shook his head in refusal. “I don’t think I want any more of it,” he said. His words were slurry and heavy as though he was weighing them. Picking them like they were words of wisdom dropping from a great grandfather’s mouth. But they were mere words of long lost appetite. He dragged himself to lie back in his bed. And I went out to breath.

*

After a while, my stepmother stopped the bellow over the phone and started to talk within sobs. I couldn’t fathom a thing from what she was saying. That was when the bus I was in started to drop in pace, slowly on a bridge linking Jibowu and Yaba. The bus jerked a couple of times before it gave the last jerk to a trot. The bridge was no more than five miles, and this long bus, stretching its length over it like a reptile, could not come down it. The driver alighted to check the engine. Passengers started to grumble and to agitate; others found their ways down. The man sitting beside me fanned himself with his bare hand. He was in suit and tie. And I was still receiving this call of tears. And the bus had stopped in the middle of nowhere— in middle of a bridge. There was no air—not the much that could be felt.  The driver hopped in again. He tried on the ignition once…twice…. The third brought the engine alive. The driver revved so intensely that the bus emitted a cloud of dark exhumes to the air. I watched the fume found its course, disappearing into the larger ether. The passengers mounted the bus in a surge. It was few minutes to eight in the morning and the sun was already up, heating mildly like it was mid-noon. And I sat there, looking out the window and receiving a call of tears. The bus started to move, still jerking wildly at it. I lowered the phone from my ears. My step-mother hasn’t been audible, or was I, who already knew and now trying to relate the mystery of death to myself; I, who was now attentive to the slightest signs of epiphany, waiting to see if I was been gazed upon by my father’s ghostly eyes; maybe it was I who wasn’t listening.  For my father was dead and gone.

*

I never knew I had a vast knowledge of coffin shops resting in my memory until when it occurred to me we’d be in need of one. Every place I’d ever seen coffin for sale came rolling down my mind. One coffin workshop was situated around an open buka where I usually go to take lunch every day of the working week. The workmen work nonstop, making coffins and carting them away. I always saw their activities as another hustle for an average Nigerian. I never used to relate death to what they do or imagine someone would lie in there, eyes closed, heart still, and lungs stringing no more air; wedged up as aligned as a log. After my father’s death, I saw a dead body in every coffin made. I find a face to place at the head end and a body as rigid as a rock to lie inside.

Coffin lesson number two: “An average person would fit in a regular coffin: 7 feet long, 2.3 feet wide and 2 feet deep. So, there’s no need worrying about the size.” The coffin man said after he noticed I fixed a gaze inside the coffin. Still, I wondered if the space in it would take my father. But I didn’t say this.

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