The moment before you rang the bell was the last opportunity to imagine your homecoming. You no longer thought it would incorporate the slap-slap of feet cushioned by shabby bathroom slippers and the curious smiles of the oxymoronically happy. You felt uncomfortable thinking about your home that way, like the people who talked about going to build schools in Africa. It made you feel too American. You had also stopped imagining a classroom of excited students waiting on what a recent publication described as your “ethnic but curiously refined brand of storytelling.” You had laughed when you read the description, wondering why it was curious that your ethnic was refined.
Nothing had changed through the ten years that you were last here. The vegetable patch still housed weeds with blades that stopped just beneath the kitchen window, as though there was purpose behind the unkempt. The hole in mosquito net, stuffed with yellowed, flimsy newspaper and held with masking tape, still ran the entire length of the window to the left of the door. Even the doorbell retained the musical ring that had confused your ten-year old self into thinking the ice-cream van was in your palor. Also, the door was unanswered, even after three rings. You turned the handle, it was open.
Not much had changed inside either. The old, multi-tiered stereo stood beside the hunched Television with its grey pregnant screen, surrounded by an assortment of CDs that would remain scattered until someone was instructed, as penance, to arrange them back into the broken, but delicately re-constructed CD-rack. Even the children, especially the children, were the same – underweight in oversized clothes and cropped hair. Your thick, nappy strands that sat, delicately twisted, in your Ankara head wrap were tugging at the guilt strings of your heart.
The assortment of characters seemed unchanged, too. The new Taiye and Sunday, wearing phony football jerseys for teams you could not identify, were in a corner quietly arguing over what you were sure were football statistics. You wondered if, like their fore-runners, they would be good enough to attend football academies and build careers as professional football players. Sitting in the opposite couch would be Zainab and Bisi, flipping through a fashion magazine and pointing at the different pseudo models who were probably unaware that their pictures had made it into any publication. There was even an Ikenna, who was sitting a short distance away, pretending not to be interested in magazine but who would eventually curate a thriving fashion line. You weren’t sure what happened to Zainab but you heard Bisi was married and living in Abuja. The girl slouched on the couch flipping through the Modern Biology textbook would be Tomi; maybe she would also become a doctor with LUTH. Sitting in circular formation in the center of the room, arguing about a TV show was the “Esther-gang”. You could not readily identify the new Esther but you would be surprised if, just like the old, she ended up as a proprietress of a primary school; you had pictured Esther more as a trader than an educator. Onyeka would be in the kitchen with Cook, pretending to assist so that he could have an extra piece of meat tucked under his meal when lunch was served. You wondered if the new Onyeka knew that his predecessor died from an undiagnosed illness, just a week after he resumed as an undergraduate of Linguistics in the Lagos State University.
You would not be here. You would be upstairs, in your room, brooding. You would brood for many more years until you were minded to allow your thoughts guide your fingers on a paper, then across the computer key board, and through the Creative Writing curriculum of several workshops, until you published your first novel.
Homecoming was a standing ovation, somewhat, after the new Esther noticed you watching them. She got up and her crowd mirrored her movement, walking as she walked until you were confronted by a posy of standing, frowning teenage girls.
“Yes? What do you want?” Her cropped hair had a slant part on the right side and you were not surprised to find the style replicated by her clique
“I want to see the house mistress.”
“Why? Is she expecting you? Who are you?”
“Why don’t you tell me where she is and you’ll find out”
“We are not supposed to let strangers into the house.”
“You are also not supposed to leave the front door unlocked.”
“It wasn’t me that went out last. It was_”
Her abrupt denial was so typical of your home that laughter exploded from you, and brought the house mistress out from the study, located left of the sitting room.
“My Goodness! Oluwafimidaraire! You are still so thin. Is there no food to eat in the whole of America?” The house mistress’ outburst caused your laughter to simmer down to an embarrassed giggle.
“Aunty Toke. Good Afternoon ma.” You went down on both knees automatically.
“Eh? Get up, get up. Big writer like you kneeling down for me? No o”
“Aunty Toke I will never be too big to kneel down for you o.” but you stood and accepted the hug.
“Kemi, will you take her bags! This is the august visitor that we have been waiting for. Bolaji will you go and arrange those CDs! Didn’t I tell you people to clear this house? See how you have disgraced yourselves before our visitor! “
The house mistress, greyer but not older, was as militant as you remembered.
New Esther was Kemi; new Ikenna was Bolaji.
“And is this how you were taught to greet eh? You want people to think that we don’t teach you anything here abi? You think you are doing me but you are just doing yourself!”
You mouthed the words along with the children:
“Good Afternoon ma. You are welcome to the Hope Trust Rehabilitation Center where we focus on nurturing the mind of the child. We are interested in integrating the child as a productive member of the larger society. Thank you for choosing to spend time with us. God bless you. Amen.”
“Thank you for having me over. I am sure that we will have an amazing time together.”
You saw Kemi roll her eyes as you completed your sentence.
“Aunty did you bring American chocolates?” one of the younger children asked you.
All the children laughed and the ones close to him nudged him, but they were all staring at your suitcase expectantly. Even aunty Toke seemed to have some expectation.
You were suddenly embarrassed that you had forgotten the reality of life in your home.
“I brought you something better than chocolates. I brought mind food. Books.” The excitement that had buzzed around at your initial declaration fizzled out immediately. You heard someone, you suspected to be Kemi, hiss.
“And what do you say?!” Aunty Toke interrupted your shame.
“Thank you ma. May the Almighty replenish the stock from where the gifts have come.”
This time around you did not recite with them. You did not feel entitled to any blessings.
“Of which. Where is Victoria? That girl never comes out to play with others.” Aunty Toke demanded.
“She is in the Library. With Uncle Tosin.” new- Taiwo offered.
“Ok. John, go and tell Uncle Tosin that Aunty Daraire is here. Let him meet us in the office. And tell Victoria to come downstairs immediately. This is family time!”
You took note that new-Taiwo’s name was John. You also took note that the new you was called Victoria and it pained you to note that she was also close to Uncle Tosin.
“Daraire, let us go.”
You followed Aunty Toke to the back office.
When uncle Tosin asked you to accompany him for a walk, you were surprised at how human he looked, sounded. Over the years, your memories had given him a horn, a pointed tail and a serpentine tongue. You were surprised he still had his lithe frame and twinkling eyes, and his sentences still ended in a smile. You followed him out, to the football field.
“One day we are going to fix nets on those goal posts” he commented after watching you.
“Uncle Tosin I can’t get over how nothing has changed since I left here.”
“Yeah. I guess we decided to use the money for change to bring more kids in.”
“You know you are the first one back?”
“Why are you back?”
“I- I guess- Truth is I don’t know. I had to come back.”
You walked though the field until you were at the boundary wall of the compound.
“When I was here, I remember looking outside the window and wondering what was beyond the boundary.”
“And have you found out?”
“I guess I have. Life has been kind to me.”
“You know there’s someone here who looks outside her window and is probably wondering the same thing you were.”
“I heard you were alone with her in the library earlier today.”
“Yes I was.”
You stopped speaking because you didn’t want to cry. You wanted never to have come. You wanted never to have lived here nor met him.
“Congratulations on your novel Daraire. It deserves all the awards it has gotten.”
“Did you read it?”
He did not answer.
“Uncle Tosin, did you read my book?!”
“Yes. Yes Daraire. I did.”
“You know what a critic said about it? He said it’s a story that has to be told, but could be told only once.”
“Uncle Tosin do you know what that means?”
Again, he did not answer. You hated that your memories were leaking out of your eyes.
“Daraire, what does it mean?”
“It means that another story about a street child, raped and abandoned by her home administrator will not win any fucking awards. It means that she will not be as lucky as I was telling my story to the rest of the world.”
“Daraire. You- I- see-listen to me.”
“No! Uncle Tos_.
“If you will not listen to me, talk to Victoria. She’s writing a book too.”
You did not want to talk to Victoria. But Victoria had come to sit with you in the library so you needed to talk with her.
“Uncle Tosin tells me you are writing a book?”
“When did you start?”
“Do you want to tell me what it is about?”
“N-No. Y-yes. Maybe.”
You smiled, kindly, you hoped.
“Is it about a re-habilitation home?”
“Is it about a girl in the rehabilitation home?
“And a man? An administrator?”
Her answer broke your heart because her reality, you knew, was colored with the thread of your past.
“Victoria, you know I will not judge you, right?”
She seemed to believe you. She continued
“The girl likes the man. But he does not like her back.”
“I see. Why?”
“The man said he made a mistake a long time ago, he fell in love with someone he should have protected and showed love how he shouldn’t have. He does not feel entitled to love again.”
“Yes.” Her whisper mirrored yours.
“And what sort of mistake did the man make”
“He said- he said. I don’t understand it myself ma. But that he learnt in a painful way, that sometimes, love is expressed in the ability to keep from showing the full extent of the love.”
“Victoria is this man Uncle Tosin?”
You were home. Finally.
Photo Credit: The Capricious Reader
Bio: Olaoluwa Oni is a graduate Student at the New York University, School of Law. If you can’t find her on the streets of Manhattan, check the library. She may be reading or writing, or, most likely, doing both. Otherwise, she is tucked away making life-defining choices like: Beer or Red wine, E-books or Paper-print. She typically tweets her final answers on @lalspeaks or blogs about them on www.olaoluwaoni.blogspot.com