PLEASE MARRY ME – GRACE OCHIGBO
I wake as if it’s an emergency, as if sleeping this long has become a dangerous thing. My heart beats faster, there is a buzzing in my brain and together, they are as panic on sneakers. Only now my brain is as a flat battery, the exertions of yesterday coursing through my spine. I never realized the degree of my exertion until my back hit the sheets last night.
Waking up can be really harsh, especially now that my dreams are better than reality. The cold washes over my face and I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to move at all. And in that moment, it takes all the strength I have to make a good choice, to pull my phone from its position on the side drawers.
Three missed calls from mum.
Another five from two different clients and tones of text and WhatsApp messages.
One of the messages catches my attention, making the aches slowly building up in my head increase.
I groan as I push myself up. Apparently, I had been too tired to switch off my mobile data last night. Confused as to what to do, I scout the room for something I am not even sure about. Just then, there’s a beep on my iPhone 11 Pro Max that startles me. Bringing it to my face, I notice the charge on it is red. Strange. My phone’s charge never runs out. Taking a deep breath, I scan the room again. Right there… to the right corner, is a socket on the wall. I pull my bag pack closer and grab the phone’s charger before heading in the direction of the socket.
As I plug and leave the phone, making a mental note to call mum as soon as the haze clears from my head, my eyes catch something. I take in deep calming breaths and allow my legs helplessly lead me like a sheep to the slaughter until I pick up the photo album lying neatly on the DSTV player. The cover is pure black, the colour of charcoal and it feels really heavy to hold. Mona must have kept it here for the viewing pleasure of his guests. Well, guess I am one.
On the first page is a little boy. His skin is the colour of peanut butter and there’s a dimple on his left cheek as he smiles with so much excitement filling up his eyes. He is wearing green shorts and yellow polo on which the word ‘Attah’ is inscribed. The boy looks so adorable I could swear on my last name he had not the slightest worries in this life.
I take a few steps backwards without turning and let myself drop onto the bed whilst still holding onto the album. The pages afterwards bear pictures of what I will call ‘the beauty of nature’. One photo looks like a beautiful rose garden trapped in a thick forest of bamboo trees, another like a landscape view from the tallest building in Ibadan, because it shows the characteristic brown and rusty roofs on almost all the houses in this ancient city.
I admit these photos are pretty amazing as I make to open the next page but a sudden knock on my door interrupts me.
“Yes, come in.”
The door flips open in a second, presenting Mona.
“Hey Dude!” I say as we clamp shoulders excitedly as though we’re just seeing again for the first time.
“Was wondering when you’re ever going to wake up this morning.” Mona jeers, tapping my cheek.
I smile. “I was tired, man! And I think I overfed my tummy too.”
And as though I just repeated one of Basket Mouth’s funniest jokes, Mona burst into a loud unbelievable trail of laughter. His entire body shakes down to his legs and he doesn’t stop until he sees the confusion in my eyes.
“Look man. I am sorry for laughing like that.” He pulls himself together now. “Just that I am wondering whether your stomach shrunk after leaving the army.” He laughs on and I chuckle.
I used to be a glutton back in the army. My platoon knows Mona and I are never satisfied with whatever our meal was. We would always head over to town to get ‘some snacks’. Snacks bigger than someone’s two course servings. Moreso, money wasn’t really the issue.
“Oh! You found our album already?” Mona asks, turning another leaf of the photo album.
He draws his head towards my nose, trying to view the picture clearer and I draw back a little. Too early for a broken nose.
“This was Obudu cattle ranch.” His first finger points at the photo on the right. “You see that little thing…” He motions my eyes to where his finger is. “Farmers say it’s been there for over five decades.” He says.
“You don’t mean it?” Shock spills from my mouth before I could stop myself.
Mona grins from ear to ear. He begins to explain so many things with such a rapid speed that makes my head spin. I try to concentrate but I am unable to do that any better than I am concentrating on the credit note below the picture. Soon enough, Mona realizes I am distracted.
“What’s up?” He asks, curious, but need not wait for a response when he notices my firm gaze. “Oh! That?” he points to the credit note at the lower left corner of the photo. “Well, yeah! You’re right. She shot them.”
“All of them?” I raise my left eyebrow and lower the other one. My hand turns the leaves of the album back to the second photo. “Including this?”
Mona nods proudly. “Yeah. My girl is really good at what she does.”
Wow. I am flabbergasted to say the list. I flip the pages again, noting the consistency in the photo credits, ILEANWA PHOTOGRAPHY.
The realization transports me back in time to a certain evening. I was in my second year in the university and had returned home unannounced because I wanted to surprise mum and dad. The school year had been pretty hectic for me being the kind of child that grew up ‘in the house’. Literally. My parents never allowed me go to a boarding school as much as I desired to. They always used the phrase,
“We don’t have more than you, Ayegba. Please, consider us and don’t kill us before our time.”
I consented to attending the model secondary school of our church which was not so far away from the house, yet mum drove me to school every morning and was right there at the gate at close of school every evening. So my joy knew no bound when I got admission into University of Benin. If for nothing, I was going far away from home for the first time in my life. But that joy didn’t last long. I became homesick a few months after resumption. I urged myself to stay through till end of session break before finally going home to my folks.
In my second year, I was unable to sustain that much level of self-control. After our first set of continuous assessments in school, I packed a little bag and boarded the next available bus to Ankpa, damning whatever consequences the attendance sheets may pose.
On arrival, the gateman told me my folks were not yet back from church. I didn’t expect them to be. Wednesdays were for midweek services. For me, arriving before them was a good thing. I had some time to settle in properly before their arrival. My excitement, however, turned sour when I pushed the giant entrance door into our big house open.
“You’re welcome sir.” a voice greeted me. Like the person had been stationed at the door, manning it, or ‘girling’ it as the case may be.
“Uh!” I didn’t hide the shock on my face. To be honest, she’d startled me. I never expected anyone to be in the house and Daud, our gateman, didn’t mention it. I hid the shock as fast as possible and looked up straighter. Man must never be caught unawares.
“Ehm… Thanks. Uh. Yea. Who? Who are you?” I asked
She fixed her gaze on her plaid midi-length dress as though the answers to my questions were written there.
“My guy!” Mona’s tap jerks me so much so that the photo album slips off my hands.
Reflexively, I catch it shortly before it falls.
“So are you up for it?” Mona asks.
“Uhm? Uh?” I know I look stupid right now but I must admit I heard nothing Mona said, if at all he said anything.
“Are you going with me?” He asks, smiling in a convincing manner.
I want to ask him where he wants me to go with him, but decides against it. He tapped me yesterday so as to get back my attention at his fiancée’s house. I am not going to give him the impression that I have suddenly developed an unresolvable inability to concentrate. Instead of making him repeat all he’d said, I decide to simply nod my head in the affirmative.
“Okay. Of course. Of course, I would love to.” A chit-eating grin is sitting on my eyes as I croak out like a frog.
Mona looks pleased. “We gotta run, buddy. It’s almost time.” He drags my eyes to the clock on the wall, 01;20pm. I woke up in the afternoon? “The traffic on that part of town is mad. If we must make it there in time, we got to hit the road now.” Mona adds, rising to his feet.
‘Make it there? Where?’ my brain is screaming but I only nod outwardly.
As Mona heads over to the door, I catch myself letting out a deep breath and when he turns back abruptly, my own air almost chokes me.
“Do you have something… ehm… something… mmmm… like a baseball cap?”
“Baseball cap?” A scream escapes my mouth.
His winks. “Never mind. Join me in the sitting room in five, please.” He says as he shuts the door quietly behind him.
We hit the road in few minutes and true to Mona’s speculation, the entire road is locked down. Heavy traffic sits on the long stretch of road before us like a pregnant python. Drivers are blaring their honks loudly, as though daring anyone to stop them. Some are out of their cars now and walking a few miles to the front to see what’s going on. Outside the windows on both sides, hawkers are about to break into this car anytime from now with the way they are scrambling over each other in a bid to sell their goods. Some are carrying heavy transparent containers of soft drinks while others are carrying a large box on their heads with plantain chips neatly arranged on it. I love these chips a lot and usually buy more than ten packs before arriving at my destination whenever I am stuck in Lagos traffic. Everyone dreads the heavy traffic in Lagos but I doubt if persons are aware that Ibadan can also have so much traffic.
Mona is hysteric, like he’s about to lose his mind if this traffic doesn’t move anytime soon. He glances at his wristwatch for the umpteenth time and presses hard on the honk, scaring a hawker from the front of his car.
“God damn it.” He barks.
I turn to look at him, unsure of what to say. We are wearing red polos, pairs of black chinos trousers on sneakers and of course, baseball caps. Mine is navy blue while his is black. He’d given it to me back in the house as soon as I entered the sitting room. I expected to see his fiancée there too, but guess she already left. Without saying hi to me.
“What’s all these for crying out loud.” Mona yells at no one in particular.
“You have to calm down, dude. Otherwise, you may as well fly.” I say, a little pissed.
I turn to look out the window on my side and my eyes meet a little boy. He is just over eight years old, if I am correct, and running in between cars, desperately seeking to sell off the sachets of cold water on his head. I blink as the thought of calling him over and giving him enough money so he could go back home for the day hits me.
“I don’t know how children hawk so much in this country. Is this not child labour?” I ask, loud enough for Mona to hear.
Deafening silence greets me.
I wait another second. No response. Then I turn to Mona. I see he’s more interested in getting away from this place than talking to me. With that, I adjust my sunglasses underneath the baseball cap on my head, slide in gently until my back comes to rest against the backrest of the car seat and close my eyes shut.
Afar off, on top speed, Mona heaves a sigh of relief on sighting a school. INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL IBADAN, I read out loud as we drive in through the heavily secured giant gate. The security men don’t stop us because of the army sticker on Mona’s vehicle maybe but they hail him knowingly until he stops, winds down the window and hands over some thousand naira notes to them.
“Baba o.” they hail on as we drive off.
We drive in silence through the beautiful floral lawn from the school gate, towards the administrative block. This school is wide, I must confess. I hear renowned Nigerians like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as well as other prominent foreigners finished from here. We drive through massive buildings until we find a parking lot. Mona kills the engine and hurries out, perhaps forgetting for a moment that I came with him.
I double my steps, trying to keep up with Mona’s pace.
“Attah will be mad at me again. See what I have to face to be a great lover and father?” He turns to seek confirmation on my face. “Attah, my son.” He adds.
“Your son!” I exclaim.
Mona slows down before chuckling loudly. “Oh! You didn’t hear anything I told you in the room? No wonder you didn’t ask any questions. I was shocked.”
I shrug in defense but he continues almost immediately.
“Anyway, it’s a long story that I cannot begin to say now. We are here because he wants me to watch his game today. His mum has been doing that before now but when he insisted, I had no choice. I couldn’t make it for his last game and promised heaven and earth I would make this one.” He puffs air out of his mouth. “I just hope the game is not over now.”
As he picks back his speed, I shut my wavering mind out so as to catch up with him. Mona has never mentioned having a son.
The crowd is in a fuss when we walk into the stadium. Long fleets of concrete steps stretch out in front of us in a descending manner. Smuggling ourselves between persons, we make for the front pew where so many persons are jumping and throwing their hands up in the air. I see Mona jump up in excitement too.
“Attah boy! That’s my boy!” His voice comes loudly through my ears. I trail his pointed finger to the pitch. There is a boy who looks really familiar and I wonder whether I know him from somewhere or I am just hallucinating.
Less than five minutes later, a loud whistle blows and the crowd erupts in another deafening round of cheers. Mona keeps shouting at the top of his lungs, as if to make the boy notice him at all cost.
“He must not know we are just arriving.” He nudges me on the shoulder and I fake a smile.
The boy sees us shortly after shaking hands with his teammates and an older guy that must be their coach. He holds tightly unto his bottle of water and runs over to meet us.
“You made it this time, Uncle Mona.” Pure excitement spills from the boy’s voice as he climbs into Mona’s open arms.
“Anything for you, Attah boy.” Mona says, picking him up until his feet can no longer touch the ground. “Nice game right there.”
“Thank you, Uncle Mona.”
Uncle? Son? I am lost.
“Mum didn’t come with you?” the boy asks, his eyes darting from side to side in search of his mum. Observing him closely, I recall where I’d seen his face. The photo album.
Suddenly, like a realization dawns on him too, he notices me standing a negligible distance from them.
“Who is this, Uncle Mona?” curiosity builds up in his eyes as he keeps his gaze on me.
“Oh!” Mona says, dropping the boy. “This is Ayegba, my very good friend. He came visiting yesterday.”
The moment feels awkward so I try to leave the smile on my face. To my greatest amazement, the little boy closes the distance between us and stretches his right hand towards me. I take it with pleasure.
“Nice to meet you, Ayegba. My name is Attah. It means ‘father’ in Igala language. My mum thinks I was brought into the world by her late father. Even though I don’t know how possible that is. Perhaps some belief system where she’s from. I know it has no scientific basis though. Mum is Igala by tribe and so is Uncle Mona here.”
I struggle to catch my breath as the boy reels on. The African part of me wants to squeeze his big mouth for calling me by my first name but I resist the urge, leaving just a smile on my face while my head nods up and down like an agama lizard. My name is my name anyway, called out with a prefix or not.
“What’s the meaning of your own name?” The boy’s sonorous voice asks, not dimming an eyeball.
“Well… ehm…” I clear my throat, unsure where to start.
“Let the gentleman be, Attah boy.” Mona comes in to save the situation. The boy’s question takes me unawares and every fibre in my brain seem to have gone on static. “Your mid-term break is in three days. Ayegba will still be around till then…” he glance at me to get a confirmation and I shrug. “…we will come get you and once in the house, you can ask him all your unending questions, alright? Right now, let me go get you your favourite juice drink from the shop over there.”
Attah doesn’t look convinced but as with every child, the desire for food quickly overshadows his curiosity.
“You two wait up here. I’ll be right back.” Mona says and disappears behind the crowd already leaving the stadium.
Attah walks over to the slightly elevated concrete floor, takes his seat and urges me to join him. After a minute of long silence that looks like eternity, he finally speaks up.
“How was my game, Ayegba?”
“Uh?” My eyeballs widen as I stare back at him dumbly. I am still uncomfortable with the little boy calling me by my first name.
“The game. The game we just finished. Did I do well? Mum thinks I am super talented at basketball. Calls me a natural.”
“uhm! Yeah…” I sit up squarely, remembering Mona’s earlier warning. “Yeah. You were really superb. Your mum was right.” I manage to say.
A wide smile appears on Attah’s face and I feel relief flushing over me.
“Are you a soldier like Uncle Mona?” he asks.
Unsure of what to say, I take my face away from his piercing glare. “Ehm! No. I am a business man.”
Attah holds onto the lace of his sneakers, twisting them between his fingers. “I want to be a soldier too. Mum says soldiers are the most selfless persons on earth, risking their lives and sometimes losing it for the love of their country.”
He pauses to look more intensely at me before continuing.
“She lost a soldier too. Mum, I mean. She has not gotten over it. And even though she tries to hide it from me, I have read some of the letters she writes but never gets to post them to him. He must have been very dear to mum because all the times I’ve caught her writing, she was in tears.”
I swallow against a large ball in my throat, letting my jaw drop to the concrete floor as the boy’s words cut deep through my spine.
Attah is not done yet. “And on my birthdays, she makes me write to her soldier friend too.”
At this point, a thick blanket of fear engulfs my entire being and I suddenly want to disappear into the ground. There is a question pushing up my throat while Attah is speaking but it is not making it to my mouth just yet. I take in deep calming breaths as I turn to face Attah squarely.
“How old are you, Attah boy?” I ask with the last pint of courage left in me.
He rolls his eyes, probably wondering where the awkward question is stemming out from. Leaving off the lace of his shoes, he throws his hands in the air as he responds to me.
“I turned ten last month.” He says with excitement in his voice.
To be continued.
- CREATE TODAY’S POP YOURSELF BY JUST REFLECTING ON THE STORY FROM CHAPTER ONE TILL NOW.
- TRY TO PREDICT WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN AFTER NOW WITH THE NEWEST DEVELOPMENT.
Have a beautiful weekend ahead, friends.