But that evening, the call was not for Mr. Ekanem. The breezy female voice on the other end made this clear.
Instead, the phone call was for Mr. Ladoja, and it was from, of all people, Mrs. Williams, our neighbor.
The old handset my father kept in the parlor lacked speakerphone capabilities, so we were forced to listen to the one-sided conversation between Mrs. Williams and my father, hoping that he would fill in the missing details later.
By the time he dropped the receiver about five minutes later, it was clear that my father’s task at the dining table had exponentially increased beyond simply downloading the details of his discussion with Mrs. Williams.
Judging from the look of growing irritation on my mother’s face the minute she heard the name of the caller from Yemi who had initially answered the phone, my father knew that upon his return to the dinner table, his next words had to be uttered with care.
“And what did she want?” said my mother, who had cleared her plate of amala, gbegiri and ewedu with red beef stew, and had started licking the remnants of her meal which clung to each finger, one by one. The rest of us – Yemi and I really – kept quiet and watched.
“Nothing my dear,” said my father, downing the glass of cold water in front of him with such speed that I wondered if he would not get a brain freeze there and then.
Either his brain did not freeze or else it thawed pretty quickly because when my mother re-phrased and re-fired her question by asking “So why did she call?” my father responded with:
“The boy is coming home this weekend, Asake. She said I should greet you.”
He said all this without grabbing his head with both hands and grimacing, the way people do when they experience early stage brain freeze.
“Which boy?” my mother asked, washing her hand in the basin of water I had brought at her request. After wiping her mouth clean and dipping her hand in water for the last time, she told Yemi to go and bring her a toothpick.
Once he had disappeared into the kitchen to run this errand, my father said:
“Asake, Iya Tokunbo is called ‘Iya Tokunbo’ for a reason. Tokunbo is her son, and you know that’s the boy I am referring to.”
“Yes, we all know that,” said my mother, leaning back and wielding the toothpick between her teeth like a pro. “But what did she really want?”
At this point, she put her quest to dislodge stray shreds of meat from between her teeth on pause, and began to suck her teeth instead. Seeing that it was not as effective as the toothpick, she resumed picking her teeth with renewed gusto.
My father who watched her with tired eyes said:
“Yes, I know. You know I’m mentoring this boy. She wants me to start when he gets back.”
My mother didn’t say a word. She simply got up from the table and asked me to join her in the kitchen to cut some pawpaw for dessert.
The look of bewilderment on my father’s face was priceless.
Even without saying a word, I knew what he was thinking. His philosophy was that if a person was angry, it was better for that anger to find expression in spoken words. That way, you could tell what was in that person’s heart, instead of keeping everything bottled inside. But when a person was angry and said nothing, in his words:
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Silent volcanoes, he called them.
But my mother did not fall into this category. She would speak out. Just not then.
I could tell that my father was considering pursuing the matter to try to get her to speak out, but judging from his silence, he thought better of it.
As we sat down to feast on orange slices of pawpaw, it was a wonder that my mother did not erupt when she heard my father’s last sentence on Tokunbo. If there was anything I knew about my mother, it was that her silence was more fearsome that her verbal outbursts.
“They’ll sort themselves out,” I reasoned as I retreated to my room to devour the Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon novels I had borrowed from a classmate, exclusively for the post-exam, pre-report card period.
But the moment I stepped into my room, the same old question came back to haunt me:
How would I deliver this letter to Tokunbo?
Now that I knew that Tokunbo would be coming home that weekend, it was clear to me that I could not postpone this event any further. Surely, I couldn’t hold onto this letter for a year without telling him.
Should I send Yemi?
No, that wouldn’t work. The possibility of Yemi ignoring my strict instructions and handing the letter to the wrong person was very high because he only fully obeyed my parents. To me, he gave “occasional obedience” almost out of pity.
The fear of Yemi giving the letter to the meyguard, who would probably read it and maybe even burn it, deterred me from turning him into an emissary.
I had to find another way to get this letter into Tokunbo’s hands.
By the end of the day, I had come to one conclusion, the one I dreaded and sincerely did not look forward to: I would have to deliver the letter directly to Tokunbo, and it had to be that weekend.
The thought of postponing it appealed to me somewhat, but my desire to procrastinate was overridden by my desire to put this episode behind me. So, I decided that come Sunday afternoon, Tokunbo would get his letter.
On Saturday morning, as I went to buy a loaf of bread from Iya Kafilat’s shop, I was startled to see the gate of the Williams’ residence flung wide open. As I walked by, I saw a car parked behind one of the other two cars in the yard.
But the car was not what held my attention.
It was the person who had just opened the trunk of the car and was pulling out an iron bucket and a traveling bag.
Despite the fact that he had his back turned to me, I knew it was him. I observed for the first time, how he held his shoulders with pride, just like his father.
I was tempted there and then to rush into the compound and thrust the letter in his hand, but I knew that it was the wrong time. With Mr. Williams’ warning still ringing in my ears, combined with the fear of Iya Tokunbo emerging from the house without any warning, I stayed away.
No, this was not the right time.
When exactly was the right time? That was still unclear to me. However, because I had imposed Sunday as the ultimate deadline to deliver the letter, I knew I would not have to wait much longer.
As I continued on my errand, I chuckled to myself as I thought about how much lighter Tokunbo’s end-of-term load was compared to what I had seen him travel to school with at the beginning of the term. I had a fairly good idea as to the fate that had befallen the provisions, goodies and other personal items that accompanied him when he started that term.
They were either stolen, had developed legs and walked away or they had been traded in for more valuable items, mostly contraband, or favors. Why? Because in the absence of money, or sometimes, in spite of money, provisions were the currency with which students got what they wanted in boarding school.
I was quite familiar with these tales, thanks to my older brother, Tayo, who was away at FGC Ogbomosho. Just like Tokunbo, Tayo was due back home that Saturday.
But since Ogbomosho was in Oyo State, which was at least four hours away from us, much farther than Ijanikin, my parents would be arriving back home with Tayo at night, even though they had left early that morning.
Later that afternoon, I had to go and grind pepper. Normally, I could get away with getting this done at Iya Kafilat’s place, being the Jill-of-all-trades that she was.
However, my morning visit to her shop to buy bread had put me on notice that her pepper grinding machine, or ero as we called it, had broken down and was out of service. This forced me to take a longer journey, by foot, to Mama Alero’s shop, which was two streets away.
Now, it was not that we lacked a capable blender at home, powerful enough to pulverize both the flesh and seeds of tomatoes, tatashe known in English as red bell peppers and ata rodo also known in English as scotch bonnet peppers, alongside onions, to form the red pepper base of most of our stews.
Far from it.
The fact was that my father was old-fashioned and picky with his food. He refused to eat any stew or soup that had been made with pepper blended in a blender. Only a mechanical ero would do. And my mother complied.
To her, it was a small price to pay for being the wife of Mr. Ladoja.
Whenever complaints sprang from our lips because of the inconvenience of blending pepper in an ero, my mother was quick to remind us of the man she used to date before she met my father.
This ex-boyfriend always insisted on eating food cooked with pepper ground by hand with a stone mortar and pestle, known in Yoruba as Olo and Omo Olo, respectively.
She often recalled with genuine gratitude how God had saved her from a life of grinding pepper by hand, yoked to a man who swallowed his “H” and slotted it in front of words that started with vowels. In the mouth of this man, ‘apple’ became ‘happle’ or on a good day with his thick accent, it became ‘hample.’
Conversely, when other people said, “Heaven is my home,” this man would say:
“Eaven is my ome.”
So anytime I started my own brand of grumbling, complete with angry foot stamping, when the task of grinding pepper fell upon me, my mother would break into song, belling out sweet notes, with the same lyrics:
You better thank God
You’re not the daughter of Mr. Hample
The lyrics were the same, but the tune changed from time to time. One day, it was an Apala tune, on another day, it was a church benediction.
As I neared Mama Alero’s shop, I chuckled to myself as I remembered my mother’s words, and began to count my blessings that I was not condemned to introduce myself to people as “Henitan.”
Unlike Iya Kafilat who dabbled in the buying and selling of dry goods, with grinding pepper as a side hustle, Mama Alero was more focused and single-minded. She owned several machines, which were dedicated to processing food such as grinding dried yam peels to yam flour, popularly known as elubo. She had about four machines exclusively dedicated to grinding pepper, which ensured that she was always in business.
That afternoon, there were several people milling around Mama Alero’s shop. Those of us who came to grind pepper had formed two neat lines in front of the machines that were in use. The other two machines, although in good working condition, as Mama Alero herself confirmed, stood unused as she was short-staffed that afternoon.
Two of her workers had quit that very morning, and so the typical speed people were accustomed to was absent. Several customers complained about the slow service, but waited in line because they knew Mama Alero was still the most efficient pepper grinder in our neighborhood.