PLEASE MARRY ME – GRACE OCHIGBO
My brain is still on static as I ruminate on the most appropriate response to give to Mona’s question but when I notice discomfort filling up his face, I quickly clear my throat.
“Dude, love always knows how to find its way back home.” I say, lowering my head to my feet as if I am reading something there.
I hear Mona chuckle lightly. “I wonder where you get all these your deep words.”
“Age deepens all feelings, Mona. Age deepens love, hate, anger, including grief. I don’t recommend getting older at all. Less people to talk to and more time to go over every regret.”
Mona wears a puzzled look and I force a smile on my lips.
“In the end, hope is all that matters. We all just have to keep hope alive.” I say.
“You still love her that much, don’t you?” Mona breaks in.
I spread my lips into a smile and lock my hands in each other.
“What’s the matter with you, bro?” I try to change the topic immediately.
Mona glances down at himself, probably wondering what I am referring to.
“Why did you ask us to come on this drive?” I ask.
A look of concern sits on Mona’s face. The edge of his lip pushes up, scrunching his one eye up and making the brown appear black. His lips part only a centimeter when he talks.
“I don’t know, Man. Something tells me Ile is not going to marry me after all.”
I burst out in a loud laughter to liven the damp atmosphere in the car but when I see Mona doesn’t join in, I readjust myself in my seat.
“How can you be so pessimistic and still get out of bed in the morning?”
“I am serious.” There’s a warning in Mona’s tone that says to be serious too and I just melt my back onto my seat.
He recounts several instances he’d asked Ile to marry him and she frantically told him to give her some time. The last incidence being about five months ago. One would assume an official marriage proposal will get any lady giggling all over the city in anticipation of her wedding day but no. Not Ile.
“She’s not the hell in the least interested in getting married to me, Ayegba. I can feel it in my guts.” Mona slams his hand on the stirring wheel, startling me.
“Hey man! You have to calm down man already. Yes. Calm the hell down. What’s wrong with you, buddy?” I yell, sounding provoked. “You think you have a problem? Just look at you?” I size him up with my eyes. “You are living our army dream till now. You have a mother and sister who are super super proud of you. You have a girl who, well…” I swallow against a tightening on my chest. “…with a little more push will be walking down the altar with you in no time. What the hell do you still lack in this your goddamn life, Mona?”
I see Mona’s cheeks burn as he suppresses the urge to respond to me. He stays dead silent while I rant on, focusing on the road the entire time. After what looks like eternity, he finally finds his voice.
“I am sorry, man.” He apologizes with a calm tone that melts my heart, making me feel terrible for even feeling provoked.
“I know you won’t understand what I am trying to say but I…”
“No Buts, Mona.” I cut in, shushing him. “You love her, don’t you? Your love can be enough for the both of you. I need you to decide to make your relationship work.”
I don’t know why I am sounding this way but I figure it’s the best thing to do. I’ll die if I have to.
“It’s not that easy, Ayegba.” Mona says, his tone depressed.
With one look, a verdict reads in his eyeballs as I watch the white in there turn pure red.
“I am being transferred to the core north, man. Sokoto. She’s never coming with me. That’s for sure.”
I raise my right hand up, motioning him to slow down enough for my brain to process his words.
“I know sooner or later, a soldier must be transferred but this is sudden if you ask me. Considering the fact that you came to Ibadan when?” I raise my eyebrow demanding a response but continue almost immediately. “Like, there’s no way to defer this? At least until things are a bit sorted around here?”
Mona takes in a deep breath and holds it. “That’s exactly what I am saying, bro. The decision was finalized this morning. The officials didn’t have the courtesy to seek my consent. I was told I have two months to put my house in order here before relocating permanently. Two weeks out of which, I am reporting in Kaduna.”
“What?” I freeze. Unbelievable.
My face falls as Mona looks at me. There’s a tenseness in his eyes he isn’t even trying to mask.
“Guess I saw this coming after all. I knew this day would come and that’s why I was insisting that Ile picks a wedding date early enough. At least, if we’re legally married, she’d be under obligation to relocate with me whether it be convenient for her or not.”
No. No. No. Mona didn’t just say that.
“Oh! You are pressuring her to pick a wedding date just for your own selfish reasons?”
He shrugs. “Well, we all are selfish at a point or the other. Look, Ayegba, if my wanting to settle down with a woman I’ve come to love is seen as selfish then…”
I will my mind from flying into a rage, from yelling.
“So what next?” I mutter almost inaudibly. My voice is so hoarse I could barely hear myself.
“I don’t know.” Mona blows hot air from his mouth. “I will tell her about the transfer plan, although not the whole truth. I will make her believe I can work to revert it.”
“And in the event you’re unable to reverse it?” I ask, sadness travelling through every cell in my body to reach the ground. I hate that he’s even thinking about playing with Vee’s emotions. My Vee for crying out loud.
Mona takes a deep breath and holds it. “I am flying out first thing tomorrow morning. I’ll critically consider all of these during the period I am away.” He taps his fingers on the steering lightly. “I am sorry things are a bit messed up on this long awaited visit of yours. I promise to come to Lagos specially to see you.”
I let out a fake smile. “It’s okay, Mona. I totally understand.”
The rest of the drive back to the house is quiet. Severally I open to my mouth to find that even words have deserted me. My insides shrink as I battle with the desire to spill out the entire truth. Maybe I should try to reach a gentleman’s agreement with Mona.
He’s due to leave southwest Nigeria in two months’ time. Ile is not willing to leave. Perhaps he would let Ile be when he realizes that the possible reason for her disinterest in marrying him has been me the whole time. That she’s the girl I lost everything, including my army dream to go in search of.
The dramatic way Mona kills the engine of the car jerks me back from my thoughts. We step down, my two feet feeling too heavy to move, as though I dipped them in mud earlier.
Vee is already at the entrance door as we open it. I watch her embrace Mona affectionately and my heart breaks but as usual, I don’t let her see it.
“Good night, buddy!” Mona says to me.
I shake hands with him, avoiding Vee’s intense stares and hurry over to my room as fast as I can.
In the room, I let myself drop onto the bed like a sack of potatoes and before the mention of Jack, I see myself in dreamland. I don’t understand any of the dreams but the sleep is so deep and sound that I don’t know when morning arrived, when Mona leaves the house.
A fairly heavy weight hopping on my back wakes me up. I squeeze my eyebrows shut and open them again, the weight on my back making it difficult to turn around as my brain battles to stay awake.
“Uncle Ayegba!!” Attah’s excited voice comes loudly through my ears.
I smile genuinely as he sets himself down from my back, enabling me to turn. He is still in his pajamas and his hair is rumpled. Sleep marks are all over his face. He too must have woken up not so long ago.
“How are you, little man?” I ask, rubbing his chubby cheeks.
“I am great. Mum must have taken Uncle Mona to the airport because none of them is in the house.” He says with his characteristic high pitched tone.
The statement hits in enough to clear the last ounce of drowsiness from my eyes. I sit up on the bed, supporting my back with a pillow.
“Uncle Mona’s colleagues are very nice but they’re always frowning.” Attah continues. “Their meetings are always long, cold and boring.”
I don’t understand what that statement means but I let him continue anyway.
“Uncle Ayegba, I don’t want my mummy to marry a soldier.” He groans.
I place a finger on his lips and draw him closer. “Look man, people don’t marry the profession of their partners. They marry for love and in love their partner’s profession is automatically accommodated. So your mummy will marry Uncle Mona because she loves him not necessarily because he’s a soldier.”
Attah is not satisfied. He furrows his forehead and pouts his lips forward. “But my mummy doesn’t love uncle Mona. She loves her lost soldier.” He says.
My heart skips a million beats at his statement before finally finding a respite. I take in deep calming breaths, determined to correct his notion at all cost.
“Look man, adults are a bit more complicated than ten-year olds, okay?” I pause and continue. “So if your mummy decides to marry Uncle Mona, promise me you’ll love him as much as you love your mummy.”
I raise my left eyebrow and lower the other one, demanding for a response.
“Yes, Uncle.” He says with a less cheerful tone and comes to hug me.
I hold him there, in my firm hands where he rightly belongs, for two whole minutes. I wish he knew I am his father. I wish Vee will let me be a father to my own son. I wish for so many things as I let my thoughts engulf me whilst in the warmest embrace yet.
“I leave in two days, buddy.” I announce quietly, not sure whether now is the right time to say this.
Attah quickly withdraws from the hug enough to see my face. From the way he looks, he’s wishing I’ll start laughing and say I am joking but,
“Got to return to work, buddy. Uncle Ayegba needs to make money for you.” I say, giving him a toothy smile.
“No!” he yells at the top of his lungs. His yell echoes around the whole house, creeping under doors and squeezing through keyholes, traveling through windows like they aren’t even there.
“What?” I ask with confusion colouring my eyes.
“I want you to join mum take me to school on Sunday. Would you do that for me, please?”
Shudders run down my spine in quick succession.
“I would love to but I have to talk with your mum first, you know?” I say, ensuring not to make any promises. Even though he doesn’t know yet, I still don’t want to come off as an irresponsible father who promises what he cannot fulfil.
The rest of the day flies away in a blur. I spend most of it playing with Attah and responding to the numerous calls and messages on my phone. I make it a point of duty to avoid Vee as much as I can. Thankfully, Attah’s presence makes it less awkward.
The next day, Attah doesn’t come to keep me occupied as usual so I have enough time to reminisce over most things. I realize that avoiding Vee isn’t helping us and considering the short time we have left, peace is the answer. With this, I pick myself up and head into the kitchen.
Every single thing in here is sparkling clean and neatly arranged. It feels like my mum’s touch is everywhere around Mona’s kitchen. Obviously, Vee had picked a cue or two from mum unknown to the both of them. I pick one of the five loaves of bread and bottle of jam in the fridge and move over to power the toaster. I intend to make toasts and offer to Vee as a sign of peace. Something that we adopted as a tradition back then.
Halfway done with the second round of toasts, Vee’s voice startles me. Apparently, my clumsiness around the kitchen must have been heard in her room upstairs. I offer her a plate and for the first time since I stormed out of her house in Bodija, I allow myself smile genuinely at her. She thanks me, and apologizes for her awful behaviour before informing me about Attah’s whereabouts.
I stare intently at her like I could penetrate her soul with a little more effort. I am still unable to process her statements from two days ago so I ask about mum again.
“She really didn’t know?” I ask, finding it difficult to believe.
Vee reaffirms that mum didn’t know about her pregnancy and I feel the cords linking chambers in my heart rip off at that instance.
I agree it’s going to require a great deal to appease mum now that I know the truth but I am willing to try. Whatever it takes.
I am still with my thoughts when the door opens abruptly as Attah comes running into my arms. We greet each other in our own way, he says hi to his mum and dashes out of the kitchen the same way he came.
Soonest, Mona’s younger sister walks in. She’s a beautiful young lady, I must confess and the way she teases me every time makes her pretty much endearing to say the least. When she draws near to take a toast from the plate, I glance over at Vee. She doesn’t look comfortable with how the lady and I are acting around each other.
After Anibe leaves, I confront Vee by asking why she’s jealous. She tries to deny but her face keeps betraying her. I know our hearts still speak to each other only that there’s more to life now than it used to be all those years back. She tells me about her hesitation for letting Attah in on the truth and I assure her I’m going nowhere. She doesn’t look convinced and I don’t blame her. Almost immediately, she asked me to follow her into the sitting room where Attah is playing video games and motions the little boy to come sit between us.
In all my previous imaginations of how the truth will be told to Attah, I never envisaged this. Not at this time. Not this way.
“Uncle Ayegba is my lost solder, baby. He is your daddy.” Vee gasps her few words and begins to sob.
My leg slams into the centre table as I get up, rushing to her side. I fall to my knees, pulling her into my arms. Her tears wet my neck, her cries muffled. I know I shouldn’t, but I have to. I kiss the tears just before they pour off her eyes.
“Everything will be alright, Vee. I promise.” I whisper with each kiss. She brings her face up, her eyes wet, red and puffy. My hands cup her face, pulling her closer until we collapse into a tight embrace with not enough space between us for the thinnest air to pass. When she starts to pull away, I want to hang on, but she’s not mine and I shouldn’t be hugging her so dearly.
“I am sorry.” I say in spite of me.
She nods and wipes her face with the back of her hands. I move back to my seat without looking at Attah. He just saw a man kiss tears off his mother’s eyes.
A man she’s not engaged to.
When I finally risk a look at Attah, he’s smiling. I’m not sure why, but he looks like a kid in a candy store.
“I am sorry I didn’t tell you all this while.” Vee says. Her fingers thread through Attah’s hair which seems to relax his jittery leg.
Attah shrugs. “I already knew.”
Vee and I look at each other, stone faced. Our heads both turn slightly as we look at Attah.
“What do you mean you knew?” I ask.
“On arrival at the meeting with Uncle Mona, some man, Idris…” Attah gives me a knowing look and I nod. “…says I look so much like one Ayegba who used to be Mona’s best friend before he dropped out of the army.”
I remember Idris. He was somewhat close to Mona back then and by extension me.
“Uncle Mona later tells me about how close you both were in the army before you had to leave. So I guessed you were mum’s lost soldier. Yesterday night, I sneaked into her box of letters in hope that I might find where she may have mentioned your name anywhere at all. And when I saw your name repeatedly in three different letters, my suspicion was confirmed.”
“You shouldn’t have gone through my letters, AT boy. Thought I told you that before now.” Vee breaks in. There’s frustration in her tone.
“I am sorry, mum.” Attah says calmly.
“You didn’t want to say it to me?” I ask.
“I had been out with aunt Anibe all day.” Attah starts. “Moreso, I didn’t know if you liked me enough to want to be my dad.”
Looking at my son with tears in my eyes, I see me at this age. My tongue was this sharp too. Just about the same way. I reach out, cupping his face with my hand. “Oh God yes I want to be your dad. God, Attah, since the day I saw you.”
Attah looks at Vee who nods in agreement. When he looks back at me, his eyes are like daggers. “What happened?”
“Your mum probably thought my mum will be utterly disappointed in her when she learns about the pregnancy so she ran off without a clue whatsoever. I didn’t know about you until when I met you at the games in your school. Even then, I wasn’t sure. Until you told me your age and I added one and two together. Your mum,” I look up at Vee and smile. “She loves you so much. She’d put in her best just to ensure you’re happy, so don’t be angry at her, okay?”
“Remember when I said I had to go back to work. I am going to stay till Sunday so your mum and I can take you to school. But I’ll be back and you can call me anytime you want to talk or have a question about your games.”
“Can I tell people you’re my dad?”
I look at Vee for approval. She shrugs her shoulders. I don’t know how Mona is going to take this but I also don’t want him to feel like he has to hide me.
“You can, but listen, buddy. Only when it’s necessary, okay?”
“And we need to tell Uncle Mona too.” Vee says as she runs her hand through Attah’s hair.
I knew she hadn’t told him anything by the time we returned from the drive but at least on the way to the airport, she should have, right? I know it shouldn’t really be my business but he’s been raising my son for a few years now. I should respect his feelings.
“Listen to me, Attah. I want you to listen to Uncle Mona and treat him the same because he’s your dad too. You’re just one of those special boys that have an amazing set of parents.”
An alarming sound goes off. I must have forgotten to put the toaster off earlier. Vee gets up and hurries into the kitchen, leaving Attah and I in the sitting room.
“Do you love my mum?”
“Yes.” I reply without hesitation.
“Like really, really loooove her?”
“Where do you learn this stuff?” I don’t remember knowing what love was at nine or ten years old. My only focus was mathematics and how much I can use big words in the English language. Girls weren’t even on my radar at this age.
“What else do they teach you in school these days?”
Attah shrugs. “Do you love her like you did before?”
“Yes.” I say again because it’s the truth.
I never stopped loving her and absence makes the heart grow fonder. I’ve been in love with Victory since I can remember and now I am too late. “But it doesn’t change things. Your mum has moved on and is going to marry Uncle Mona. You and I, though, you’re going to be my handbag.”
“Can I go to Lagos with you?”
Vee enters just as Attah asks. I’m not sure how to answer but I am beyond sure of not telling him no. Vee is watching me out of the corner of her eye, waiting for me to give the wrong answer. She sets a plate of toasts in front of us and takes a seat across from Attah.
“Maybe.” I say as I pick one. “It depends on when your holiday falls. You can’t miss school and you don’t also want to miss your games. Do you play any other sports?”
“I play table tennis because Uncle Mona likes it, but I want to learn photography.”
I chuckle loudly and almost choke on the food in my mouth. “Your mum is one of the best photographers in IB, she will teach you.”
Attah eyeballs Vee coldly. “She says I should face my studies.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.” I say, rubbing his hair and smiling at Vee.
“You will? Awesome.” Attah is giggling.
“Yea. I taught your mum photography. Ask her.” I motion Attah’s attention to Vee who is now smiling broadly.
Soon, it is dinner time. Dinner conversation flows fairly well. We talk about Attah’s teachers and how he can’t wait to be back in school. He tells us that he has a crush on a girl at school but doesn’t want to give us her name. Vee and Attah asks about Lagos and what it is like. I tell them there are a lot of people, the traffic is horrible so I hate leaving my place and that it can be really hot. But we have a lot of fun places; beaches, amusement parks, bars and hangout joints.
Attah asks what business I do and I search my brain to be sure before responding.
“What is real estate?” His curiosity builds up after telling him I run a real estate company.
By the time I am done responding to that, he drills me about houses, asking for the photo of my own house in particular. In no time he’s scrolling through photos on my phone. Thankfully, there’s a kid-lock on it, so he doesn’t have access to all.
The next morning, I beg Vee to let me take Attah shopping. She is reluctant at first but later yields and even agrees to join us. I ensure we buy every single item Attah points at, from game pads, to boots, to hoods, to sweat shirts and pants. The pure joy on his face as he tests those items is enough fulfilment in itself to me.
We move to the automobile session of the supermarket and I pick a sleek camera.
“Vee, do you think it’s okay for Attah to start taking photos of whatever excites him? The way a very skillful photographer started out some years ago.”
Vee smiles but doesn’t look in the least convinced. “I don’t want him to be distracted in school, Ayegba.”
“Mum, I won’t.” Attah calls out, tugging at Vee’s gown. “When I put my studies first and study hard, good things happen, remember, mum?”
I glance at Vee. She’d taught our son mum’s favourite lines. That makes me smile and feel bad at the same time. The older woman didn’t deserve all I put her through in my cheer ignorance. Not after losing her husband to the cold hands of death.
“Okay okay. I’ll make sure, Mr. Solomon, your guardian in school handles it and only gives it to you when need be.” Vee’s tone is stern.
“Thanks mum.” Attah calls out and hurries over to look at an electronic wristwatch on the extreme corner of the store.
I feel blood drain from my face as I hold Vee’s gaze. “Thank you for raising him up so well. I don’t know if my being around would have done much.”
Vee tries to mask her shyness as she eyeballs me coldly, takes her face away and begins to walk out of the store. I motion to Attah to hurry over and we both walk out behind the mummy of the house.
I drag Attah’s bag behind me as we walk hand-in-hand into his dorm arena. His school is massive for lack of a better word. The structures are not so new yet they speak class. Attah falls into my open arms and I lift him up in elation. I am leaving town after here and I won’t be back for who knows how long. This is the first chance to properly say ‘see you soon’ to my son.
“So your mum will tell me the date of your next game early enough and I would be back here to watch you before you know it.”
I see tears clouding Attah’s eyes and I kneel to become his height. “Don’t worry, buddy. Soon, you’ll travel to Lagos with me and stay for a month or two.”
From her position behind me, I feel Vee’s impulse to knock me on the head for saying that but I can’t help it. I can’t even wait to show off my son to everyone at work.
“Bye, dad!!” Attah says and my heart drops to my stomach.
He just called me ‘dad’. My joy knows no bound. I peck him on the cheek, he moves over to hug his mum tightly before disappearing amidst the numerous groups of students heading into the dorm.
I stand there, smiling and waving at him every moment he turns back until we could see each other no more. Taking in deep breaths, I close the gap between Vee and I.
“So please let me know about his next game on time. Please I am begging. I’ll also be calling you from time to time to ask after his welfare.”
Vee simply nods, like she’s unable to find her voice. Like me, she obviously doesn’t want this reunion to end.
“Don’t worry, Vee.” I whisper to her. “In the end, everything will make perfect sense. If it doesn’t make sense yet, then it’s not the end.”
The tip of her upper lip tilts upwards but no words escape it. She just takes in a deep breath and shrugs. Instinctively, I begin to walk towards my car, she following behind me. In a few minutes, I will drop her off at the house and be on my way to Lagos. Once again, I will be leaving my entire heart and life behind, only that this time, I know where they are – in the ancient city of Ibadan.
TO BE CONTINUED.
- Would things take a different turn when Ayegba returns to his normal life in Lagos?
- Describe Attah in your own way?
- About his mum, what should Ayegba do?