By Adetokunbo Abiola
She smashed his set of plates against the wall and pushed his television set to the ground. She had flung a pot of soup against the table and the chunks of meat in it lay strewn on the rug. She had turned a plate of rice and beans to the floor and kicked at the trash can, garbage spilling out. All around the room the stink of beans and rice mixed with trash. She also scattered the chairs and tables and stools. The relationship was over with this bout of madness.
Standing in the doorway, Thomas remembered the quarrel of yesterday.
"I've told you I can't marry you," he told her. "I love Patience."
"You jilted her two years ago," Josephine said. "You denied paternity of her baby. Do you think her family will allow both of you to reconcile?"
He'd stormed out, only to return this morning to find her letter and this outrage. It was good she ended the relationship, he thought, he was free to pursue Patience. The chain with which Josephine fettered him for the past year was broken.
He spent hours cleaning up the flat. When he finished, he walked out of his abode to Julius' apartment in the same building. They sat facing each other in Julius' living room.
"I'm going to Patience's house," he told him. "I'm bent on reconciling with her."
"Is that possible?"Julius asked.
"It is. As a matter of fact, she's always wanted it. Her family has been the obstacle."
"In that case I wish you luck," Julius said. "Goodbye."
Moving towards his Volkswagen parked in the garage, Thomas sauntered out of the flat. He entered the car, started the engine, and drove out of the compound. The March sun beat down on the vehicle as it moved into the Benin City street.
Big gates screened Patience's house from where he parked on Oziegbe Street. He remembered that last year when he called the ground in front of the one storey building stretched to the road. Trees and a lawn sprawled round the compound when he left the car and stood by the gate. He noted that previously dirt surrounded the building, rubbish littered the steps. New sheets roofed the building when he walked by the lawn, fresh paint scented into his nostrils when he approached the house. He recalled that last year rusted sheets roofed it and it smelt of cassava, fried eggs, and dust. But the greatest change he found was not the gate, trees and paint: Patience and her family had packed out.
He heard someone chattering around the corner and the breeze blew a whiff of perfume into his nostrils. Following this, the cry of a child reached him. A woman and a child must be around me, he thought.
He marched in the direction of the cry, passed a gate, and emerged at a courtyard. He saw a woman in skirt and blouse with her hair tied in pony tail. She sat on a chair and cuddled a baby. He stood in front of her.
"Where can I find Patience and her family?" he asked.
The girl gave him a cool look, assessed him, and waved her hand in the direction of a bungalow down the courtyard. Thomas frowned at her manner but swaggered towards the steps leading to the building. Reaching a door at the head of the steps of the bungalow, he knocked forcefully at it. It opened and a man came out. He wore a scowl on his face.
"I'm looking for the new home of Patience Aghahowa and her family," Thomas said.
"Must you break down my door to find out?" the man asked and hissed, but he brought out a notebook from his shirt's pocket and stared into it. After a while, he said: "Go to 65 Iyobosa Street. You'll find them there." And the man banged the door against Thomas' face. "Useless man! How arrogant!" Thomas heard him say from behind the door.
He grinned and knew his forcefulness had unsettled the people in the compound. The reason Patience's family detested him. He promised to be less aggressive, but he swept past the girl on his way to his car.
At Iyobosa Street, Henry, Patience's brother, sat in a bar in the building, anger on his face. Unopened bottles of beer and stout stood by his feet. He glared at the glass in his hand and his eyes dropped on the bottles. He cursed and got up to his feet and swiped the counter with his palm, searching at the lockers with his eyes, looking for something. He didn't find it, his face sank, his shoulders drooped. He sat on his seat and scowled at the glass and the bottles. He lifted the glass to his lips and licked the drops of drink from it and stared bleary-eyed at the bottles. He grabbed one of them and held its top against his teeth. He was trying to pull off the bottle cover, trying to get at the drink, but his teeth suddenly let go of the bottle, and he squirmed his face.Straightening himself on his seat so he could put the bottle in his mouth, he looked up and saw Thomas, and he instantly got to his feet. The predator was about to vent his anger on a victim.
"Haven't I told you to leave my sister alone," he said without preambles.
"You've told me, but..." Thomas started.
"I'll tell you again and for the last time," he said. "Leave my sister alone!"
Thomas backed away from him and turned and looked around. He saw two young men dancing under a tree and a girl in a vest clapping and cheering at the top of her voice. She threw back her head and laughed. A girl like this would be more than a cheerleader, Thomas thought. He gestured to her and when she saw him she came over.
"I'm looking for Patience Aghahowa," Thomas told her.
"Tell him where she is and I'll bust your jaw!" Henry, who was watching, shouted at the girl.
The girl stared at him and then at Thomas. She hesitated. She mumbled something under her breath and moved back.
Shrugging, Thomas looked around, but froze when he heard Henry calling him. Thomas looked at him. Henry smiled and beckoned at him. Perhaps he had decided to be sensible, Thomas thought. He walked up to him.
"Come close," Henry said. "Don't be afraid of me. I won't hurt you."
"I know you can't hurt me."
Thomas hesitated, but he moved closer to him. Henry lunged forward and grabbed the pockets of Thomas' trousers. Thomas stumbled and tried to wriggle free, but Henry tugged and shouted at him and rammed his paunch into him. The sound of one pocket tearing cut through the air and a slap and a punch and another slap landed on his face. He staggered, stumbled against the wall of the bar, straightened up and crashed to the ground. He cursed under his breath.
"That'll teach you to stop jilting women!" Henry yelled. "Next time I see you here I'll blow off your head."
Thomas climbed to his feet and felt people gathering near. A sound buzzed about his ears, and he spat out saliva, sand and blood on the ground. As if from afar, he heard people condemning Henry and the latter shouting: "He must leave my sister alone! He must leave my sister alone!"
Thomas staggered to his car and sat in it, staring through the car windshield at the street and the sky. Should he forget this business about Patience? he thought. He remembered his conversation with Julius, and nasty women like Josephine, and he hesitated.
The girl in the vest stood by the car window. She frowned at Henry, hissed, and concentrated on Thomas.
"Patience told me about you," she said.
"Where's she?" he asked
"She's with her mother at 28 Legema Street. Off Lawani Street. Go to Mission Road Market and ask for Lawani. But she also told me she may be traveling out of the country."
Through his pain, Thomas thanked her and drove off.
He found the Mission Road market teeming with men, women and children while behind the stalls traders called in raucuous voices. He saw customers haggling with some of those selling and a man and woman fighting with a small crowd cheering. The smell of tomatoes, pepper and raw meat rose into his nostrils and the blare of giant loudspeakers, honks of car horns and growl of generators deafened him. He felt his spirit lift with the buzz and life around him, and he began to bounce with each step.
He bulled his way through the people in his path and bore down on a man standing idle in front of a music store.
"Where is Lawani Street?" Thomas asked, tapping him on the shoulder.
The man frowned.
"Lawani Street?" he asked. "What's my business with Lawani Street? And must you tap my shoulder?"
"I didn't tap to offend you," Thomas said. "I only wanted you to help me."
"I don't want to help you," the man snapped and turned away. Through the din the man complained: "What an arrogant man!."
"Go down Mission Road," said a man standing nearby. He was elderly and his hair all white. "Lawani is the eighth street to the left."
Thomas nodded and pushed his way through the people around him and went to his car. He sat for several seconds, staring through the car windshield at the street, bunching his face streaked with particles of sand, gritting his teeth white in the afternoon sun and clenching his palms placed on the top of his laps. Now that he was going to the house, he thought, he had to control his arrogance.
Getting to the house at Legema Street, he slid out of the car. He expected a tenement flat, crowded courtyard, music blaring, the smell of dust and dirt and children playing football and table tennis. He thought this was the kind of house that suited Patience's mother's temperament. But when he looked over the fence he saw a bungalow fronted by an empty courtyard, trees, a packed car and he smelt the scent of pop corn and bread wafting from the compound.
Thomas moved towards the house and knocked at the door.
It opened and Patience's mother stood in the doorway.
When he saw her, when he saw the anger and venom in her eyes, he moved back from the doorway, watching her hand clench into a fist. His eyes opened wide, his cheek twitched with fright. Ahead of him, he saw her lips curl with a hint of contempt. A tremor ran through him, but he smelt the scent wafting out of her clothes, heard the pant sounding out of her heart. He saw her eyes run over him as he stood: over his shirt, over his trousers and over his shoes. In the tense atmosphere, he felt like crawling into a hole and burying himself, burrowing into a hole and covering himself. Her stare arrested him as he held his hand to his mouth and coughed. He cleared his throat and tried to speak. The sound of her voice, sharp as a knife, stopped him.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
In a flash, Thomas bent down. He had appeared from nowhere at her door, rousing her from whatever work she was doing in the house. She had come to the door to find the man who jilted her daughter at the threshold, market stink rising from his clothes, to see the man she banned from her house come knocking at her door, anxiety rimming his eyes. She would scream and shout at him, swear and bang the door against his face, unless she heard a penitent voice. He spread out his palms, his eyes pleading, and fell to his knees.
"I'm sorry, mother," he blurted out.
"Sorry for what?" she said. "For jilting my daughter?" The door moved towards him, about to close against his face. .
"I made a mistake," he told her. "I shouldn't have done that. I did because I feared I wouldn't be able to cope with her and the baby.".
"And you came today because you think you can cope now."
"Your repentance comes too late."
He crouched on the floor and rubbed his hands together and raised his head and tears sprang out of his eyes.
"Its not too late," he insisted. He crouched again and said with great feeling, "Forgive me, forgive me. Let me reconcile with them. Let my heart be at peace."
She stared at him, holding onto the door. Thomas saw the struggle within on her face. Finally, she sighed and she swung the door open for Thomas to enter.
He sat down on an armchair in the living room but sensed the approach of impending disaster. Patience wasn't around. The music turntable, usually switched on at Iyobosa Street, was silent. The air hung thick in the flat. As Patience's mother sat opposite him on a sofa, she shook her head sadly.
"You wanted to speak with Patience, isn't it?" she said, shaking her head again. "Unfortunately, she left for the United States yesterday. She took my grandson along with her. She has gone to start a new life. I couldn't stop her. That's all about Patience." She stared at him and her face hardened. "She left because of your behavior. You were arrogant to me and her brother. Humility, the cheapest commodity in the market, you couldn't give. All she got from you was being jilted. And the paternity of her son denied."
Through the stream of her words, Thomas processed only one clause: left for the United States. If he had come for reconciliation, he didn't see how he could get it: he didn't have the money with which to pursue her to the United States . Patience, whom he truly wanted, was now out of reach, perhaps forever. Patience, jilted by him because he didn't have the money then, forced to cry when he denied paternity of the child, denied before her family: he had forced her to flee the country.
"I'll give you a piece of advice," continued Patience's mother. "Show your repentance quickly next time. Then, perhaps, something like this won't happen again."
Stumbling, he moved to the door and opened it and stepped outside. He had bungled everything, he thought. He slid into his car and drove home, entering his flat and collapsing on his bed, falling asleep. When he woke up, he thought about the visit to Patience's house, his child, and the relationship. He beat his hand on the bed and shook his head. He had been wrong to jilt Patience. He had been wrong to deny paternity of the child. He had been wrong not to show humility to the family. He had been wrong about everything. As he lay his head on the pillow, he muttered: "I was wrong. I was wrong"
First published by Flask Review (April 2007)(http://www.freewebs.com/theflaskreview/abiola.htm)