“I need you to come and explain something to me,” she whispered into the phone. Her breathing was slightly raspy, but her voice did not reveal any sense of urgency.
“This evening?” I asked trying but failing to hide my impatience.
“Yes,” she responded flatly.
I hesitated and then blurted out without thinking, “It is just that I am a bit busy…” my voice trailed off as I realized my mistake.
Without the slightest hint of belligerence or anger, she said calmly, “Oh, you are busy.” I banged my eyes shut and started to loosen my tie as I anticipated what would come next. “That’s excellent.” The tone of her voice remained uniform as it always did during moments like these. It would always start with an acknowledgment, a confirmation of what I had just said to her and then a congratulatory remark before she made that casual remark to indicate her indignation.
“I am busy too…” she continued softly, “In fact, I remember a day almost twenty-nine years ago when I was busy giving birth to you. Thirteen hours of labor. Your head was so big…”
Without even trying very hard, I had broken the golden rule of the Filial Code of Conduct. I gritted my teeth and held my cell phone tightly as I paused to make sure that she had finished. My mother was the Queen of Passive Aggression. When we were growing up, she had hardly raised a hand to strike my sister or me, but her words would pierce through the core of our soul like the sharp edge of a spear. It was in the simplicity of the way she would convey her emotions. Like the time, when I was sixteen, and I had gone out with friends. We were feeling adventurous and had somehow ended up at a beer parlor. A couple of us had drunk. I had never developed a taste for alcohol, and I politely abstained. That did not stop me from missing my curfew and returning home late. It was the thick stench of cigarette from the smokers at the beer parlor, clinging to my clothes, which had cruelly betrayed me, providing proof of my nocturnal meanderings. “Show me your friends, and I will tell you who you are,” had begun her usual pontification. Confirmation that being in the company of those who had been drinking and smoking was not only an exhibition of poor judgment, but an indication that I would also go down that path. She continued by saying, in case I had forgotten, that she, as a widow, left to care for two children for the last ten years, was trying her best, and what a shame that I was rewarding her so dishonorably.
Even then, I wished she would use koboko to tear out my hide, surely the pain of that would be a lot less than the guilt that burnt through my heart and made me sick from the inside. And now as an adult, her softly spoken words still had that power over me, making me wilt like a flower in the desert. I silently berated myself again for unnecessarily falling into this trap. She was still waiting for my response, and I knew that after having the temerity to suggest that anything I had to do was more important than what my mother wanted me to do, I had to choose my words carefully. So, I picked my words with the assiduity of one who is trying to unravel a large knot. Slowly, I said, “I can come by the house this evening after work.”
She did not respond. Her failure to acknowledge what I had just said, served as an indication that I had not yet strung the right set of words together to fully atone for my gaffe. I continued slowly saying, “Do you want me to bring anything for you when I am coming?”
I could hear the rustling of papers at the other end of the phone, so I knew, we were still connected. Then, she finally said, “I am at Uncle Ayinde’s house in Ikoyi so you can meet me here.”
“Okay!” I responded. I was curious to know what she was doing at Uncle Ayinde’s, but there was no point in asking her. She had said enough. I knew better than to ask her to give me even a hint. Her strong suspicion of cell phones, which she regarded as a necessary evil, useful only for the barest minimum communication, often irked me. She believed that it was possible for a third party to eavesdrop on conversations carried out over cell phones.. Although, if there was someone furtively spying on our conversation, she did not seem to have a problem letting them know, my age, how long it had taken her to bring me into the world and the size of my head.
I chose not to concern myself too much with her mission at Uncle Ayinde’s but saw this as an opportunity to absolve myself of my most recent mistake. I knew that my mother would want to go home to Surulere after we completed whatever it was we were doing at Uncle Ayinde’s. So, with the assured confidence of a well-trained and responsible son, I said “Okay, I can drop you off at home when we finish at Uncle Ayinde’s.
“If you are not too busy,” she responded flatly. I caught a slight hint of amusement in her voice as we ended our conversation and said our goodbyes.
Justice Ayinde Solanke. My grandmother’s youngest brother. My mother’s uncle. He had been the patriarch of my mother’s family until he had died peacefully in his sleep a month before at the age of seventy-five. It was the sort of peaceful exit that many prayed for fervently. His demise had elevated my mother to the position of the matriarch of the family.
It was still hard to believe that Uncle Ayinde was gone.
As I prepared to meet my mother at his home, I walked through the myriad of memories I had of him. He had been a constant fixture in our lives. When we were growing up, if my sister or I, displayed even the slightest hint of troublemaking, my mother would dangle his name before us. The threat of being reported to Uncle Ayinde was the perfect elixir to prevent any potential incendiary behavior. Erudite and scholarly, with his ramrod stature, the sharp gift of observation and trenchantly sarcastic tongue, Uncle Ayinde had been the epitome of moral rectitude. His keen sense of style, especially his penchant for bowties, gave him an admirable aristocratic élan.
One of my earliest memories of him was when, at the age of six, my mother and I had visited him in his home, and he had asked me if I knew what the capital of Upper Volta was. I admitted to not knowing this and was starting to crumble in frustration, when he provided me with the answer and then asked me to spell it. For the rest of my life, I will never forget the agonized look on his face when I proceeded to start to spell Ouagadougou, with a W. From then on, he took a more avid and involved interest in my instruction. As a child, I was in awe of him and cherished the attention that he gave me. Seeking to impress him as much as I could, I read anything that I could set my hands on – books of fiction and non-fiction – with a voracious hunger, so that I could have something to share with him whenever I saw him. Uncle Ayinde and I fell into an easy camaraderie and would chat about anything and everything from the Dickensian novels to the history of the Kingdom of Mali and the city of Timbuktu. There was a brief period during my adolescent years when I found our conversations a little less appealing. Then, I considered him to be too didactic to the point where I felt he was speaking at me rather than with me as the rebellion of a teenager exploded within me. If Uncle Ayinde sensed a change in me, he never mentioned it and seemed to wait patiently until I had exhausted my era of obstreperousness.
I felt a certain amount of guilt as I recalled those years of defiance and eased my car into the tree-lined corner of the street in Ikoyi where Uncle Ayinde had lived. For years, he had lived alone, he had never married and was remarkably self-sufficient. Many considered him to be an eccentric individual, but he was extremely well-respected. This was evident in the weighty eulogies delivered at his funeral. Colorfully composed paeans were made to the dearly departed legal luminary. With many people waxing poetic about how he had shaped the law of the land.
When I entered the house, I found my mother seated on the large sofa in the living room surrounded by shoe boxes and papers. Some boxes were neatly arranged on the coffee table in front of her; others were piled on top of each other on the floor next to the sofa. As I bowed to greet her, she looked up over her glasses, giving me a once over and murmured softly:
“Okanlawon, ba wo ni.”
“Adupe ma” I responded, giving her a peck on the cheek
As I sat in a chair opposite her, she solicitously asked if I had eaten and I replied that I had. There was a moment of silence as she looked over some papers, let out a long sigh and then folded the papers and put them back in a brown envelope.
“You know that I have to take care of Uncle Ayinde’s affairs’. She said this without expecting a response. “But there is something that I need you to explain to me,” she continued, and I sat up.
Her face was inscrutable as she pointed to a small shoe box on the coffee table, and asked me to give it to her. Opening the box slowly, she handed me an envelope, which looked and smelled old. It may have been white once, but now it was a yellowish color. There was a stamp on the top right-hand corner of the envelope, which was fraying at the edges, a younger version of the Queen of England – grave and regal -stood out. From the address on the envelope, the letter had been sent to Uncle Ayinde when he lived in London.
“Read it, please,” my mother said calmly.
I peered into her face hoping to see a sign of what I should expect. The seriousness in her voice made me nervous as I contemplated what I was about to discover.
49 Stewart Street
August 17, 1954
My dearest A.S.,
I know that things are not as they should be. I want to assure you that you are and always will be my one and only true love. The love that we share is beyond anything that words can describe. You understand me. I understand you. The seeds of friendship that were planted when we first met in Croydon have now germinated and blossomed into a love like I have never known. I want you to know that nothing will ever change this. I will love you till the end of my life. I feel stronger and more confident saying this now, given what we shared last week and knowing that it is the beginning of something wonderful. No matter what the world says. We will be together, always
With all my love,
There was something guileless and unguarded about the letter. It was clear that the writer had experienced an emotional renaissance and wanted to lay bare the feelings associated with this rebirth so that the full weight of this love could be understood.
I looked up after reading the letter and saw that my mother was watching me intently. I had read the letter to myself and now cleared my throat and started to say, “It seems like someone wrote this to Uncle Ayinde.” I asked myself why we were intruding in the poor deceased gentleman’s private affairs. Uncle Ayinde had been intensely private and would probably not thank us for what we were doing. Still, I tried to excavate from my memory, who C.S. could be, while simultaneously trying to decipher what my mother needed me to explain to her. She interrupted my thoughts by saying “This was in the envelope when I opened it.” I looked up. She was holding a photograph with both hands, handling it with the delicateness of someone carrying a newborn. I carefully took it from her with both hands as well.
It was a square-shaped black and white photo. Many years old, but so well kept that it could have been from the previous day. The man in the photo was smiling widely; his face pulled together with a sharp grin. A full set of perfect teeth gleaming in bemusement. It was easy to imagine his happy, joyful smile escalating into a hearty laugh. His dark, curly hair fell away from his face. He was wearing a light-colored turtleneck sweater, the collar hugging at his neck just below his chin. His skin was fair and pale, and there were freckles on his cheek. Even though his eyes were piercing, there was a kindness in them. The sort of eyes that scrutinized a person to the point where you felt compelled to divulge your inner-most thoughts. The photograph captured just the top half of his body, yet it was easy to tell that this was a tall person. Instinctively, I turned the photo over.
It had the words –
From C.S. to A.S., With love.
It was written in the same cursive handwriting from the letter I had just read.
I froze. I felt the skin on the back of my neck tighten and my senses become numb, as my pulse raced. My mother’s voice tore into my confusion, “There are other letters, other photographs.” She handed me a pile of letters, again handling them as delicately as she could. They were still in their envelopes, colorful stamps. Some addressed to Uncle Ayinde’s place in the London. Others, which had a cobalt blue ‘By Air Mail – Par Avion’ stamp on them, were addressed to his home in Ikoyi. For the next thirty minutes, I skimmed through the letters. They spanned decades, from the fifties through the sixties, the seventies, eighties, nineties. At least five decades of letters and photographs. I could not read them all, but I read the ones I could read. At times the tone of the letters was stilted, other times it was ponderous, descriptive even flowery. There were recollections of rendezvouses: of a time when they had both attended a conference in Cairo and had gone on a tour of the pyramids. It was in in 1979. In the envelope, there was a photo of Uncle Ayinde and the man called C.S. laughing into the camera. In another photo, taken in 1987, they were at a formal gathering, wearing matching bowties, wine glasses raised. C.S hair was thinning and had wisps of gray around his edges, his smile, an older version of the one in the first photograph. Uncle Ayinde’s smile was sardonic, mocking even. In the letter, which accompanied that photo, C.S. spoke of how they had held hands underneath the table, unbeknownst to everyone around them.
As I went through the letters and the photographs, the reality of what Uncle Ayinde had kept secret began to dawn on me, as did the impact that it was having on my mother. I wondered if this discovery would curdle her memory of him. Uncle Ayinde – whom she had loved, respected and trusted with every fiber in her body. If one were to recount the story of her life, Uncle Ayinde would feature prominently. Starting with the role he had played in her upbringing. Her father had run off with another woman when she was very young, leaving her mother, my grandmother, alone to fend for herself and three little ones. It was Uncle Ayinde who had stepped in and played the role of father for them, helping his older sister in any way that he could. Years later, history would repeat itself, this time rather tragically, when my father had been killed in a car accident, leaving my mother widowed at a young age. My grandmother had already passed away years before, and Uncle Ayinde stepped in during this time of despair as my mother wandered through periods of grief, and confusion. Not once complaining, going above and beyond to ensure that neither my sister nor I, felt the void of not having a paterfamilias. His wise counsel had guided my sister and me through the best schools in Lagos and as we sought to continue our education abroad.
I folded the letters and returned them to their original position. Absorbing the heavy silence in the room, I gathered my thoughts as I understood what it was that my mother wanted me to explain to her. Nothing in the history of my life had made me this uncomfortable. To explain this to my mother: that her dearly beloved, recently departed uncle, had engaged in what seemed like a long-term romantic relationship would have been easy. That the relationship had been with another man, that would be a lot harder. My mother whose Christian faith punctuated every aspect of her life, who began every piece of formal correspondence with the phrase ‘Calvary Greetings.’ It slowly began to dawn on me that she had had more time to absorb this and so she clearly understood what it meant. She did not need an explanation; she needed a confirmation. I moistened my lips with my tongue as I canvassed my brain for the right set of words. “Do you think we need to let this C.S. person know that Uncle Ayinde has passed?”
She shook her head and said, “C.S. himself has passed.”
“How do you know?” I asked, a little stunned.
She searched through the pile of papers and then found the envelope she was looking for and handed it to me. It was a letter from an attorney in Australia, dated about four months before Uncle Ayinde had passed, informing him of the death of Christopher Sutherland at the age of 76.
The finality of it left me tongue-tied and dumb-founded.
When I managed to find my voice, I asked, “Did he ever tell you about this Christopher Sutherland?” I asked
She pursed her lips and shook her head dramatically.
I sighed again. It was a sad, helpless sigh as it occurred to me that Uncle Ayinde could have destroyed these letters and photos. He had not done so because he had wanted someone to discover his secret. All the correspondence and photographs from Christopher Sutherland had been meticulously stored, in what amounted to five shoe boxes. He knew that the person most likely to discover his secret was his niece. It was almost like a whisper from the Great Beyond. A wink and a smile.
“What are you going to do?” I asked. My feeling of helplessness evident in my words
“About what?” my mother asked.
I shrugged and waved my hand over the boxes.
“I am going to put them back where I found them.” She said this with a respectful certainty that I had no choice but to end the conversation and do the same thing. Our unexpected intrusion into the private lives of these two lovers had gone as far as it should go.
We gathered the letters together, taking care to ensure that we put them back in the order we had found them. Then, my mother put them in a cabinet in Uncle Ayinde’s study where she had found them, locked them with a key and put the key in her purse. As I helped my mother lock up Uncle Ayinde’s house, the secret which we were now the guardians of, squealed through the silence of his residence. It was a silence that would accompany us as we drove away from Ikoyi towards my mother’s home in Surulere. For a Friday night, the traffic was rather light, and it was not until we were on Eko Bridge starting the descent to Costain Roundabout that I broke the silence.
“Since tomorrow is Saturday, I will spend the night in Surulere and go home to Lekki tomorrow.”
“Okay,” she whispered in the darkness.
We did not speak again and drove the rest of the way home in silence. My mother liked to turn in early, so I did not expect more conversation. I settled into my old room for the night and planned to call to Eniola to explain why I had canceled our Friday night plans when I heard a soft knock on the door.
“Can I come in?” my mother muttered.
She sat at the edge of the bed and started.
“This Uncle Ayinde issue…”
“Don’t worry, Mummy, and I am not going to tell a soul, not even Rolake.”
We were a very close family so offering to keep the secret from my sister Rolake was an illustration of how seriously I took the situation.
“Okay, but that is not what I wanted to say,” she paused and continued. “I want you to listen to me very carefully…” Her voice was laden with emotion. Another long pause followed. I had interrupted her once already, and I did not want to break into her chain of thoughts, so I remained mute. She looked away from me momentarily before speaking again. This time slowly, her words carefully measured. “What a shame that my uncle and Mr. Sutherland shared this kind of love for so long and had to hide it from the world, kept it a secret.” She shook her head, her lips pursed together tightly. “A real shame, I would have liked to have met Mr. Sutherland but, well, God knows best…I want you to know, that if you love like that, you can come to me and let me know, that you love like that”. She spoke the last words more rapidly than she had started.
There were a certain pureness and sincerity in the way she said the words ‘love like that’, and then she started to weep softly. I had rarely seen my mother cry and it burned a hole in my heart to see her break down like this. I reached out and put a hand on her shoulder and drew her closer to me.
I did not know what to say, and then I blurted out, “I don’t love like that.”
She pulled away from my embrace and looked at me, her face still wet from tears.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, ma,” I said still stupefied that I had to defend my sexuality to my mother. If anyone had told me that this would ever happen, I would have laughed out loud.
“Then, why…?” she said, exasperated.
I looked at her quizzically
“Why have you not shown me your girlfriend since all these days?”
I stumbled over the words. “No reason, I just…I don’t know…I am still looking. I want to find the right girl”.
My mother gave me a slow and steady gaze, exhaled then said, “Let us pray.”
Jola Naibi (@ ) is an eclectic polyglot who spent her early life in Lagos but has lived outside of Nigeria for longer than she thought she would. She carries Lagos within her everywhere she goes and writes short fiction set in her beloved city. In 2014, she published her first book of short stories called Terra Cotta Beauty. As expected, the stories in the collection were set in Lagos, focusing on visceral accounts and poignant anecdotes of the people of Lagos who serve as the essence of the vibrant city. Jola writes as she remembers.