By Cuba Ukoh
Some stories can’t afford a once upon a time, they just spring from the middle of things. My relationship with Grace began, or rather, awakened as such; a gentle ensuing attachment, its repercussions–amorous, as helpless as the certainty of an echo in an empty hall. I liked to notice the littlest things about her, silly things; like how when she slept deep she seemed to inhale twice before exhaling, and then her nostrils flared. It wasn’t feminine–the flaring, but all the woman did was beautiful.
I’d run out of excuses to my little daughter and my wife, so I had driven down to Town hall one Friday, exhausted from work. The place was as stunning as the commercials but thirsty for a crowd compared to the inauguration events we’d watched at home. I submitted the form and stopped by the pin-board. The hallway still smelt of fresh paint.
“That’s the workers attendance you’re signing.”
My drowsy eyes reassessed the board, and I chuckled to myself. “And when can I return for the ID card?” I asked without looking up.
“I don’t work here.”
I turned to see this woman with low-cut hair; her sideburn tuffs, slick and almost grey. It was a Harmattan evening; she wore a long sleeved cardigan underneath her bubu. It made her pretentiously chubby.
“Thank you, my daughter says she must learn how to swim. All her friends have registered here.”
“Eyaah, that’s nice.”
For the sake of cordiality I was about to ask what she had come there for, but I saw her little smile, sincere and alive with sadness. I recognized it; her masked timidity, because it reflected a part of myself. I too had driven there for the same reason, not that particular day, but once before. It was a selfish pleasure, the idleness of it–embarrassing. Nigerians were people on the move, not imitators of western society who sprawled on couches to lament over life, as if there weren’t people who had it worse. Therapy, it had the weight of an ungrateful thing.
“Dr. Suzie is organizing a spelling bee for registered children. It’s also free.” She pointed at the list where I could sign up.
I was impressed. “There’s a doctor here too?”
“Not medical,” she hesitated a second then surprised me with her honesty. “She’s, our therapist.”
I nodded. Memory flashed to the flyers that circulated my office building the first time I learnt of Town hall. Let’s Talk! FREE Therapy every weekday was highlighted in green.
The next time I saw Grace, I found her on the waiting bench outside the therapist’s office. We sat, patient, conversation flowing through and into silence as though we had always come there to do this. She looked formal sitting upright with her bag firm on her thighs as if she were awaiting a job interview. But when she laughed there was little inhibition.
Like me she had lived in Jos most of her life. We were products of Missionary Secondary schools. She was a graduate of St. Louis’ Girls; I had attended the all boys St. Murumba. She told me two of her three sons had graduated from there. It was nostalgic, twenty eight years on, to see the schools still existed. I figured she was about forty-seven too. She looked it, except for this fragility in her eyes, and then when she laughed … when she laughed.
It became a habit to meet her there though I only saw her about twice a week. She came more often than I did, usually very early in the mornings. I only came in the evenings on my way home from work. An hour or so there, then I raced home to meet up with dinner. Margret assumed I was fixing more rotten teeth at work.
I only talked about my little brother with the therapist; tales of our childhood adventures before we settled in Jos. Due to my father’s erratic postings we had toured Nigeria by the time I was fourteen. I speak six languages. The therapist was enthralled by the stories Margret had become tired of.
She picked a different State each time and I would tell her about when we lived there, what it was like. She had a curious mouth. I didn’t think it was very ethical for her to be that chatty, but she was smart. Sometimes I drifted, imagining what would happen if a bee pursued her. She always had one distracting flower tucked in her hair.
“You should have studied Contemporary African history.” I told her one day.
“I know,” she sighed.
“So Bako, could we talk about why you have never been to visit your brother’s grave.”
“Clearly you loved him, love him.”
I chuckled, embarrassed. Then I scoffed, insulted. Soon my shoulders slumped from shame.
“Things had always been down for me … financially. I used to actually pray to God, to help me with work, something to save, for Margret, and Lisa, she’s only eight.”
“Well, he took Philip away and gave me all his money. What does one say to that?”
“Philip left you his money?”
“Then I say his will was his will.”
My eyes were smoke stained wet as I smiled away the feeling of tears.
“If Phil left all his money for you Bako, don’t you think he wished it to be so? He wanted you to have it if anything ever–”
“I didn’t ask him for it!”
“It was his choice.”
She said Phill as if she even knew him. I smirked, “Did Phill wish to die at thirty-nine, Doctor?”
“I didn’t speak to my brother for three months before his death. We argued sometimes. Three months! Now I have to live with that. That’s just how I am. I never went ahead to study engineering. I still live with that.”
“I am sure there are many great achievements you overlook in your life Bako.”
I actually did stop to think for a moment. “None Doctor … except that I am a rich man now, aren’t I?”
Grace was the first to discover the news. She always branched to Town hall after her morning rounds of designated sanitation at Ahmadu Bellow way in that calm part of early morning that smelt of dew and fresh starts ferried by the banter of waking birds.
What she met that Monday morning was a cardboard paper notice in blue marker that read, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS DEPRESSION. WE ARE NIGERIANS. SEEK COUNSEL IN THE LORD AND YOU ARE FREE, TODAY! Signed Management was misspelled.
It was almost nine and she was late for her other job at the post office. Deserting her Plateau State sanitation broom and facemask, she took the cardboard paper she had ripped off the door down to Halima’s house. Halima was her son’s childhood friend and a fervent visitor of Town hall. The young lady had more than enough problems to share; still unemployed three years post graduation, borderline diabetic–the doctor had revealed a month before, engaged to a man she didn’t so much like, then her facebook boyfriend had not replied her last message for a month even though he had liked two photo’s of different girls during this period. But Doctor Suzie didn’t need to hear that last problem which though seeming puerile, bothered Halima the most. By evening, an enraged Halima was banging on Pastor Fred’s gate.
His thick brows caved into affection till they kissed at the top of his nose bridge. “Halima, calm down.” He smiled letting her in.
She was seated on the floor, legs spread to a constricted frustration by her long skirt, gele fallen off her head to wrap around her shoulders. Despite her teenage migration to Christianity she’d kept the veil out of habit. It was something odd to see long black hair turn oval the usual round protrusion of her plump face.
“Halima, what can I say?” Pastor Fred pursed his lips at the now crumpled cardboard sheet. He didn’t exactly agree with the insensitive conduct their lawyer had chosen to relay the message but in his opinion the man still did have a point where he’d written, seek counsel in the Lord.
How credible was this psychologist that had come into the picture anyway? When he’d supported the Town hall project, he wasn’t lobbying for a whining ground. It was becoming a distraction, this therapy thing.
“Pastor, you have to do something.” Halima sobbed into her veil.
He hadn’t seen her as often since she switched to a different church but they had remained friendly despite the betrayal. “I will try,” he smiled. He was fond of the converts.
It had been the Miner family’s idea to start up an NGO … eventually. So over a period of two years, surplus funds were diverted into land acquisition and building the skeleton of their eventual NGO. Gabe Miner was a teenager when the project was first conceived; a young adult when it was deserted. Carefree exuberance in the Miner household had begun to sober with the certainty of change. The world was a more demanding place again; investments were calling, a few debts had gathered here and there, the UK University scholarship for Gabe and his sister hadn’t come through as expected, they would have to dip into family funds to cover tuition and travel costs. With each new demand from life, the NGO project reclined further into the background.
When Gabe returned to Jos six years later, it seemed affectionate and highly strategic to make a generous donation to an old friend of the family–the Commissioner, at a time when Jos was craving positive image reconstruction following the embarrassing splash of its religious and political troubles from local to international media. Commissioner of Trust as he was nicknamed by tabloids, and his friend the influential Pastor Fred would have several talks about public reforms until one fine noon at his daughter’s wedding reception, over drinks and diluted critical thinking, the idea of Town hall was born. The arrangements that followed were fleeting, he already had that half completed building the Miner’s had donated in support of his tenure.
Town hall was commissioned on the news channels, complete with ribbon cutting events by potbellied philanthropists. It seemed a new section of the Town hall Centre of Excellence was launched every other week–anything to emphasize normalcy as promoted by Commissioner of Trust was back for good. When the media coverage of launch events started becoming as common as toothpaste commercials, excitement began to wither, especially since the centre’s equipments were yet to surface three months after the general inauguration.
But then along came news of Dr. Suzie’s forthcoming, and it managed to garner refreshed buzz over the change promised to reinvigorate Tin-city in what the media had tagged: The Town hall Experience. Still, most people appeared indifferent to the need for a therapeutic arm at the center. Granted, the woman was a specialist from abroad, but therapy? It was a hilarious thing. Didn’t it smell elitist already?
The anticipation down at Town hall however was almost feverish amongst its workers. It was far too impressive a detail to overlook that one of their new bosses was American. So in the week preceding Dr. Suzie’s arrival, enthusiasm busied the grounds of the centre. It was no longer going to be only the shuffling of cleaners, security men and grumpy civil servants conducting free registration for sloth paced empowerment projects.
On the day of her arrival, the workers went about in refreshed optimism and unusually peppered accents though no one would openly acknowledge the embellished decorum pumping the morning.
A chubby woman pranced in just before noon. Her glistening ebony was as dark a shade as the hands of the women who sold domestic charcoal at Kasuwan Gowayi down Tafawa Balewa road. She carried in her hair an actual flower whose stem clung behind her ear and furled into bloom above her eyebrow. It matched the plush red of her painted lips.
It wasn’t until she greeted that it hit them. This was the American therapist! A black woman; blacker than most of them, and almost annoyingly polite, as though she weren’t at all a big Madam. She spoke in a soft nasal voice and her words all gathered to pitch into a questioning tone at the end of each sentence. She converted every e and r with an effortless curling swiftness. Anyone who wasn’t staring at her skin would think a real Oyinbo was in the building. She was a black flower watered white. Her ringing laughter echoed maternal warmth through the halls already. She brought with her aura an instant likability, but there was still a unanimous disappointment in the unexpected turn of things.
An impish quip in Hausa starting form one of the security guards travelled quick through Town hall; Commissioner of Trust could not afford a white Oyinbo so he had hired a black Oyinbo. The sniggers stalled once Emily, one of the center’s managers arrived. Emily was in fact a freckle faced Oyinbo with startling aquamarine eyes, and hair blonde as any Brothers Grimm tale could spin. But she had grown up in Jos–a child of a Barkin-Ladi based Doctor and a granddaughter to Anglican missionaries. Like most foreign settlers in Jos, she had attended the mostly white-man private schools–an unintended segregation not by racism, but American curricula over the existing British system … and high priced school fees.
For all those who knew Emily, she was not consciously considered white beyond her looks. She spoke as any urban Nigerian would but with a tint of an American accent sustained by the influence of daily family life and American cultured schools. Still, she used Hausa-English phrases like yes mana to emphasize the affirmative.
She said typical Nigerian stuff like, ah-ah, sha, and bah. The fresh arrival of an Oyinbo ripe from America who would always say things like, Nope and uh-huh was more exotic to the workers though Emily’s long-inhabited adaptation to Jos granted her a degree of special attention. So it was no wonder that the office staff looked to her for an explanation the sporadic afternoon the therapy section came to be shut down.
“I am sorry to have to announce the indefinite suspension of this place.” The lawyer had declared, with a partial smirk. “A notice will be posted on Monday informing the clientele.”
Doctor Suzie’s chair grated the tiles as she sprung up.
“Ah-ah, is this because Ugo’s been away? His father passed for goodness sake.”
“Emily, I do not doubt Mr. Ugo’s skills as a co-manager, and I have texted him my condolences. But this particular office, it’s become a hub of .…”
“Hub of what?”
“It’s just not working out.”
“Excuse me?” Doctor Suzie cried, “We pride ourselves in our great work here! Did you know we just installed a library programme? Imagine a township sweeper, quoting Guy De Maupassant!”
He laughed a short snort. “You don’t realize the complaints that have flooded my office table Mama.”
“I would just go over the most pressing, to spare us long–”
“The most pressing being?” Dr. Suzie folded her arms.
Emily’s gasp came out as a bewildered chuckle. “Pornography?”
“That thing you have hung on your wall.” He pointed at Dr. Suzie’s fondest part of her office, a framed painting, very much reminiscent of an Octavio Ocampo. It was a contoured lily-like flower which emerged as a nude woman on closer inspection.
“We don’t do that over here Mama. It’s not moral.”
“This lawyer must be joking Emily.”
“One of your patient’s is a pregnant teenager Mama. Her Father sent her here to have a fellow woman to open up to because her Mother is a late.” He thinned his voice to disappointed fragility, “what is that picture actually telling her?”
“Oh, you’re serious. Emily, he’s serious! You can’t, he can’t just do this.” Her Friday hibiscus slithered to the floor escaping her notice.
“I can’t, but the board has. Women just gather here to complain every day. Well, I’m only relaying a message Mama.”
“Now you better stop calling me that! Yeah, and you know what? You can go tell your Owga’s that there will be more art coming to my walls! Ridiculous!”
“Mr. Kayode, what’s all this really about?” Emily said after the door had slammed.
“I apologize,only doing my job Ma.”
Emily repeated the same question two days later after booking lunch at La Cuisine for herself and Gabe Miner. They were childhood friends from Hill Crest School. They had won Prom king and Queen. When Gabe left for Birmingham, and she touched down in Nairobi for her Degree course, their relationship disintegrated into a somewhat platonic fondness.
“How’s the therapist taking it?” He chuckled a mean sound gulping down his shrimp.
She smacked him with her napkin. “It’s not funny! She’s still furious, and I as well.”
“Millie I had nothing to do with it.”
“When you offered me the job you should have told me about your short term plans.”
“It isn’t, it wasn’t, this is a board decision. I don’t own the place.”
“But it’s your building.”
“It was my parents’ building. Listen, I don’t want the program to stop either. But funding is tricky, and maybe someone is sitting on her salary, I don’t know. But right now therapy is the least of our worries for that place.”
“What are you saying?”
“Six months post inauguration, six! and only one third of the facilities ordered have arrived. Investors are asking questions.”
“Let’s be real, there’s no life in that place.”
“The swimming lessons just started last week! There’s even going to be a Mathematics contest for the kids. And an African Drama Night of entertainment. We were looking forward to that-”
“That’s all very sweet, but investors couldn’t care less and frankly, those are side attractions. Town hall was set up to develop grass-root projects.”
“I know but–”
“Where are the market women looking for someone to replace their burnt down stalls?”
She shook her head.
“The youth development programs? Emily people are tired of registering for dreams on paper. The sole purpose of this was financial empowerment, job re-creation, not a country club. How do you think my family is going to look in this mess if everything collapses? I didn’t sign up to be tagged corrupt Nigerian man crap.”
“So then you scrap off the one efficient program that is working?”
“Toh, where is the money to continue pampering your doctor? Have you taken a moment to ask your dear charitable friend what she charges us, per month? Eh?” He gushed a dry laugh. “Funds are being redirected to hasten supply and installation of equipments. Investors need to see something going on there, fast! Would you prefer the whole place shut down?”
“But there were so many pledges and donations on the news, all that money.”
“As for the pledges that did come through, I know for sure there’s a ware house stuffed with sewing machines, sport sets and catering equipments waiting to be signed off. And I’m monitoring that like a hawk. But we’re still waiting on the big stuff people really want to see, lab equipments for the science program for example, computers–”
“Who’s on the board with you?”
Gabe leaned into his chair. “Me, Pastor Fred, Commissioner of Trust, a few bad men …”
“Waiter,” Emily called tipping her glass up, “more wine please.”
She called it her Nigerian name; Damilola. When I asked why she’d chosen Yoruba, she winked, “Everyone says I could pass for a Yoruba woman with my high cheekbones.”
Doctor Suzie was a funny person even when she didn’t intend to be, a very colourful woman too. When I told her my problems she always started by saying, “Grace, I know I shouldn’t be talking about myself, but I can relate. Much like you, I was searching for identity, in my case–my African roots.”
She was very dramatic with her hands, wringing them in the air but not in a worrisome way. She took me back to my Theatre Arts days in Ibadan. “Sister, I’ll tell you something deep!” She would squeal, and the words to follow matched the preamble, most times.
I preferred to lie on the couch than sit, until I slept off once. I always left her office feeling lighter, and more … Nigerian, I think. Green white green littered the place. Above the couch she even had a framed photo that read, My Home is Nigeria. She made notes in an ankara embroidered journal and kept her pens in a tiny calabash. There were two African masks hanging on opposite ends of her walls. She still made it clear where she had come from with that American flag in her car, on her desk, and even in the background of a gold framed photo. It was taken in America. She said the two women beside her where her adopted daughters, she had never married. She didn’t seem to care, but often her eyes seemed lonely.
She was a good person to talk to. She knew what I was feeling, usually, but not always what I was thinking, even though she concluded she always did, but I don’t like to argue. She listened a lot, and made me think and rethink. She reminded me of a version of myself that no one had met, a version that was just an acquaintance to me.
When I told her the crazy things I wanted from life, she would say, “It sure ain’t my place to judge honey.” That was what everyone else in the world had forgotten.
I bumped into Halima once at the waiting room, my son’s friend. She’s a Hausa girl, waif-thin with broad shoulders and knees that tenderly knock each other. She’s got all the unconventional traits to ward off the usual idea of beauty, but there’s something so attractive about her, besides her youth. I don’t know what such a young girl was doing therapy for. She still has enough time to fix things.
“And do you know my pelvis will be too small during labour … no! … I checked google!” From the hallway I heard Halima crying this the day we discovered each other there. Poor Doctor Suzie and the things she had to sit and hear.
Halima didn’t reveal our incident to my son, but I took precaution to only go in the mornings from then on. It was as embarrassing as my other secret–no one knew I had taken a job sweeping streets except Dr. Suzie. She didn’t flinch when I told her. And somehow, I didn’t flinch when I revealed it. I would come into a third secret later that month.
The first time I met him, it was such a punctual morning that I met the gates locked. I sat on a bench shaded by this tree that looked like an overgrown flower bed. My body jolted when he slammed his car door. He noticed me no more than one would notice an apparition. When he realized the gate was locked he shook his head laughing this furious unhappy sound. I watched him light a cigarette and then the most amusing thing transpired. He sucked with a wincing desperation then exhaled impatient pain. But whenever he dusted the cigarette with his middle finger, even in his apparent rage, he made sure to direct the ashes into the trash bin as not to litter, each time.
He muttered things to himself when he walked past my existence again, still possessed with sadness; his hands in his pocket, face heavy. I’d always hated smokers, but I found I was smiling at him, this tidy man. The next time I saw him, he was in the hallway signing the worker’s sheet instead of the registration paper. He had come for his daughter who wanted to learn to swim. He returned a week later, for therapy. I wasn’t really surprised. He had looked lonely, like I was, he just had a different way of showing his. We became lonely together, and it was beautiful.
Town hall days are long gone now. It’s been almost seven months. The place is still running. The therapist’s office is now a store room from all I’ve heard. Most programmes have taken off. They involve more work and less talking so I think people are happier with this. Registration is no longer free, and there are monthly fees for training classes. People complain that for a grass-root project centre, taxing is pricey. But on the news Commissioner of Trust insisted all fees are subsidized. I think people are okay with it because the place is most popular now. I try not to pay attention to much of what goes on there anymore. The memories are now too much on the bitter side of nostalgia. I smile at them–the memories, then I hurt, inside.
I got a letter from Doctor Suzie last week that got me thinking of Town hall again. She sent it to my house address instead of my work address, and because I was at work my husband received it. And because he is nosy, he opened it. And because I was furious I told him I how much I wanted a divorce.
“Do you even know I had an affair?” I screamed. No one had ever found out, not even Doctor Suzie. But I remember she noticed something had changed. “Look at you, glowing, I told you all you had to do was talk to your husband! And what do we take from this experience?” I said what she expected me to say, “Dialogue is key.” I didn’t want to disappoint the woman. Besides she was half right. I was happier than I’d ever been. She just had the wrong name.
After screaming at my husband I slept at a motel that night, and we don’t have that kind of money right now. But our family friends are his friends so I had little options. I waited for the analgesic to sink in before I began to read Dr. Suzie’s letter. She said she was very sorry for leaving without a proper goodbye. She swore the suspension of the therapy centre had come as a surprise to her as well. But she offered no explanation for why she relocated to Ghana so damn quick. It took only two weeks for her to give up. “You should have waited!” I cautioned my voice, the lock on my room door was as secure as a plastic button. I hissed and tossed her letter, but I picked it up again when I lay down later. I couldn’t give her all the blame, even if she didn’t fight for us.
Paragraphs flowed in and out of her talking about how she missed us, how her daughters missed her. She said they still didn’t understand why she’d left America. She revealed she was contemplating branching out into a consultancy business in Ghana soon, and maybe she could come visit Nigeria by then … set up a sister branch? I stared at the question mark, who was she asking? I hissed and rolled my eyes. Best wishes Grace, ended her letter. She never called me Mama Alake. She said I was my own person, besides being someone’s mother.
She signed the letter, Doctor Suzie Ashanti–apparently her adopted Ghanaian name. Whatever happened to Damilola? I laughed at this, I laughed and laughed, and then when I slept off I dreamt of Bako and his school boy smile. In this dream, we had not gone our separate ways. We were even at a swimming class with Lisa over at Hill Station. I have never met Lisa. In this dream she looked like a mix of the two of us. We laughed at everything. I had on my ring finger this emerald ring Doctor Suzie liked to wear. It didn’t consume Bako anymore–his brother’s death. He didn’t say this to me but I was omniscient, as we often are in dreams.
I checked out the next morning and drove back to reality.
“Mama Alake,” My husband embraced me before I could walk in the front door. “Ha! you scared me, it’s okay, I am sorry.”
I don’t really know what he was sorry for but I replied, “Thank you Baba Alake.”
The man thinks I am too timid to have an affair.