There were no ink stains on Mr. Williams’ person. However, he held that brown envelope so delicately that it seemed like it was really his own heart that was wrapped in paper, tucked away in that envelope.
“You know Tokunbo, don’t you? Tokunbo Williams?” he said, although it sounded less like a question and more like the affirmation of a fact.
“Yes, sir. I do,” I replied. I should have added that I knew Tokunbo’s face and not his person but that would have been irrelevant.
“Can you please give this to him for me? It’s very important,” he said, pushing the envelope towards me.
I stood there, considering his offer, not wanting to get mixed up in what appeared to be a messy family affair. But the sorry state of this man moved me and against my better judgment, I agreed to help him.
As I stretched out my hand to collect the envelope from him, he withdrew his hand and said in a very serious tone:
“Please, this is very important. See to it that only Tokunbo gets it. No one else.”
“But sir,” I protested, “Tokunbo is not back from school. Can’t I just give it to your daughter, Yele, instead?”
He laughed a dry laugh and then said to me:
“So you too think she’s my daughter, abi? No way! Yele is not my daughter, though a lovely girl like that would make any father proud.”
I was confused.
Yele and Tokunbo had different fathers?
So, Yele is not Mr. Williams’ daughter? Is she even Tokunbo’s biological sister? Are they even related?
One thing was certain: the person who knew the answers to these questions was Mrs. Williams.
“Oh, I didn’t know, sir,” I said apologetically. “I just assumed–”
“That’s okay. Most people do. But don’t give this letter to Yele. Only Tokunbo.”
“Please promise me you’ll do it,” he said, grabbing my shoulders. For a moment, he had this wild look in his eyes that utterly terrified me. There was no way I could refuse him.
I nodded vigorously and that was when he released me.
A smile softened his haggard features and for a moment, I saw Tokunbo as a child in his face. I recalled the ball incident and how Tokunbo had told me that his father had traveled.
Was he back for good?
As he turned to leave, he whipped around suddenly and said:
“By the way, what’s your name?”
“Enitan, sir,” I replied.
“What a lovely name! If I had a daughter, I would name her Enitan,” he said, sealing the compliment with a smile.
As he turned to walk away, I called out after him:
“Sir, what if I can’t give it to Tokunbo?”
“Then, you’re free of your promise. I trust you to keep your word.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, as he turned and left.
As he disappeared down the street, I gazed at the letter in my hand. In the man’s firm, impish handwriting were written two words:
And as I looked at it, the burden of the task ahead weighed me down. I had to deliver this letter, which contained Lord-knows-what to a boy I had barely spoken to, from his estranged father.
What on earth had I gotten myself into?
There was no doubt in my mind that two people existed on this earth who would not be hearing of my encounter with Tokunbo’s father: my own parents. They would thoroughly scold me for accepting to deliver a letter from a man who for all intents and purposes was a complete stranger.
Not only that, but this man had been absent from the life of his son until now.
Why all of a sudden was he trying to contact the son he had all but abandoned all these years? And who was Yele’s father? Was Mrs. Williams really Tokunbo or Yele’s mother?
I didn’t have answers. Just a myriad of questions.
And then there was that more pressing, more urgent issue, the problem Mr. Williams had left me to solve: how to deliver the letter from father to son.
“Oh-oh! Why did I agree to deliver this letter now?” I asked myself over and over again. The longer I stared at the envelope that had been entrusted to me, the more I wished I could physically kick myself for accepting this assignment.
“Na who send me message? Ta lo ran mi nise?”
By nightfall, the question still remained: how would I deliver this letter to Tokunbo, especially without anyone’s knowledge?
At the time, I was unaware that Tokunbo was due back home from school that same weekend. But that evening, fate laid that critical piece of information at my feet.
My mother who was still very touchy on the subject of Iya Tokunbo and Project “Save Tokunbo from Vagabondism” had thankfully decided to let peace reign for the time being.
After all, the said Tokunbo was still in school and everyone knows that it’s hard to mentor a person when you’re not in the same physical space with him.
Later that evening, as we ate dinner, my father startled us with his repeated coughing, possibly twenty-three in number, delivered in poorly-spaced intervals.
The culprit, judging from the many glasses of water he downed, was the rather high level of pepper in his meal. In spite of his discomfort, he refused to swallow my mother’s bait, wrapped in the form of questions such as:
“Is the salt in the stew too much?”
“Was it a bone?”
“Is there too much pepper in your food?”
All of those questions, regardless of how many times my mother asked them, were left hanging in the air. My father, who was quite well-versed in my mother’s cunning ways, knew that her supposedly “concern-ridden” questions were never to be answered.
Experience had taught him that mistakenly answering even one of those innocent-looking inquiries, would set off a chain reaction ending with him sleeping on the couch, or as it had happened on one occasion, sharing a bed with Yemi.
So, he stylishly dodged them, not responding per se, but instead, just demanding more water to be brought to him. After flushing the pepper down with water, he asked Yemi how school had gone that day.
As Yemi began sharing the censored, daddy-approved version of that day’s classroom adventures, the phone rang.
At first, we all ignored it.
Although we owned a landline for which my parents got a bill from NITEL every month, and which they constantly complained about, we rarely used it to make calls. Even more rarely, was the incoming call ever for us.
There happened to be a man called Mr. Ekanem whose number was a near-perfect match for ours, except that instead of an “8” at the end, his phone number ended with a “6.” We knew this simply because that information had been relayed by the people who called our landline asking to speak with Mr. Ekanem.
We also concluded that this Mr. Ekanem had a good number of people who loved him or at least, loved dialing his number, due to the sheer volume of calls that came through our phone for him alone.
Due to this less-than-ideal situation, the phrase “wrong number” was the standard response to most of the telephone calls we received.
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