‘Who am I?’ Those three words plagued my existence. Simple, yet crucial. And no matter how much I fled, I kept bumping into those. And trust, I did try. At this point, almost any answer as far as was logical will do, and help navigate through these crossroads to a new path; one which led to a new life unencumbered with the past and loads of opportunity, the other, an old unfamiliar route that merged both the past and the present. But both I have since understood, were as important as the other, leaving me the opportunity to decide as Dr. Halima explained. I could opt for the former, but will that leave me satisfied and help quench the thirst for the past? For in truth no matter whatever path I decide, the past will always creep up, maybe not now but eventually.
A beep from the bedside clock caught my attention. It was noon already, and I expect Kamiye’s return anytime from now. In some way, I was growing attached to the woman, as she and Tobi were fast becoming my anchor to reality. Stealthily I drank from their well of knowledge and understanding of me, and it seemed to work as I have begun to experience sporadic splashes from the past, however hazy. But Dr. Halima had promised they would make sense with time. For both our sakes, I hope she was right.
A knock at the door alerts me of a presence and I turn expectedly to it. It must be Kamiye, I was certain but not quite disappointed when Tobi appeared instead. I offered him a big smile which he returned as he limped in. Gently, he lowered himself to my side and winced as he sat. The bed dipped slightly from his weight.
“How do you feel today?” His eyes flashed with love, concern and a flash of something else, perhaps uncertainty.
I shrugged but soon warmed by his gesture as he lightly took my palm in comfort. In that psychic way of his, Tobi seemed to always know my true thoughts, feelings, and fears, and also how to allay them. I wonder what sort of relationship we had in the past. But deep within, I could tell it was good.
He asked again if I was comfortable this time his gaze not quite meeting mine as he focused on my cast for an unnecessarily long period. Instantly I sensed there was something wrong.
“Father is here to see you.”
The way he looked at me this time like he was expecting some reaction, except his words held no impact. Or should it have? I wondered. “That’s fine.”
“Are you sure?” Tobi’s brows creased in a frown now piquing my curiosity and suspicion as I closely watched him.
“Shouldn’t I be?”
“No.” He shrugged and started to rise with an indifference I would have believed, if not for a quick shadow that crossed his face, and hit me with the strongest sense of hysteria. “Tobi?!”
He looked down at me with a hooded gaze I could never see-through no matter how I tried.
“Is something wrong, is there a reason why I should not want to see him?” I questioned, baring to him my trust and reverence for him and his next answer.
For a second, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully, then he shook his head but not before I had seen the brief waver in his look. I suddenly felt stabbed a million places as my instincts screamed deceit. For the first time, I had reasons to doubt Tobi’s words and probably every other thing he’d told me. What if all I had ever been fed with were fabrications, polished and painted to seem like the truth? But then, there was only one way to find out, and that would be by seeing the man.
Tobi left, promising his return, all the while barely meeting my eyes, his action in itself further confirming my speculation and distrust. With conscious effort, I shook it off and pressed for positivity instead. Perhaps, I was only over-thinking it all.
A few moments passed, but soon, the door cracked open again, and on reflex my gaze flew to it, anxiously scanning the company behind Tobi. Firstly. I recognized the doctor whose visits were seldom. The other under close scrutiny was inarguably unfamiliar, leaving out the last man with his face concealed as he shut the door with his back towards me. This was him, I knew, even before the man in matching oversized navy blue shorts and shirt turned, I felt it with every fibre of my being.
And then he turned. Slowly and gently, he did, Stilling my world…Time froze, as I stared into a face exactly like Tobi’s. At this moment, nothing else mattered or held such great significance as this man who sparked little or no familiarity. With great effort, I searched my blank mind for anything like he and the world waited in anticipation, with their firm gazes on me. But there were no memories, and this he figured as he finally moved towards me with a low smile.
I was starting to warm up to him with a smile of my own when an unexpected wave came crashing, sending chills of fear down my spine. I must have frowned, for he stopped, suddenly as agitated as I was. I swallowed trying to grasp the fleeting pass in my mind, the sudden cause for my jagged breath.
Finally, I saw it!
Beneath his tough exterior like Tobi’s, ominous darkness emitted and permeated whatever invisible walls stood between us. Fear clawed within me, and with concentrated effort, I peeled my gaze from him and diverted to Tobi’s, which also held some degree of nervousness.
I turned again to father, staring long and hard at him, while I held my breath, as I somehow recognized this was my worst nightmare. But why? I desperately tried to conjure, until his familiarity slowly started to sink in.
“Father?” I whispered, recognizing the heavily bearded face. The same one who had tended my football wounds…had gifted me a giant teddy on my eighth birthday. I remember our piggyback ride, our trip to the London museum…
“Father!” I whispered dizzy with relief.
He was lost and motionless, seeming as though he was ready to bolt out the door at any second, only held together by a thin thread, that might snap depending on my reaction. Tobi was equally stricken, and I am sure I was missing something. Curiously, I pushed my thoughts, tried for more, but nothing yielded.
“Come, Father, I remember you!” Brushing off my doubts, I waved him over with crazed enthusiasm from my earliest memories.
He seemed nervous, as he started with slow, baby steps, tentatively accepting my wide-armed embrace. The hug was stiff and emotionless. I ignored it and watched as he stepped back, gently lowering himself to the bed at the side where Tobi had previously occupied. A little smile formed on his face proving some progress.
With Father now so close, I got a better view of him, and the twin vertical scarification marks on both sides of his cheeks.
“What’s this?”I reached out to touch a cheek, trailing a finger down the thin lines.
“And what does it signify?” I prodded, still mindlessly trailing across it, ignorant of his quiet flinch and discomfit.
“It’s a cultural mark of beauty and identification for a group of people. In the past, missing kids can be returned to their families by just a glance at his marks. Father always wanted us to feel as close to home as he could, so he marked us all.”
“Did it hurt?”
“I don’t know.” He gave an earnest shrug. “I was a baby during the scarification. But I guess it must have.”
Instinctively, I touched my fingers to my face and stopped on father’s soft laughter.
“You do not have one.”
“Why? I questioned, realizing I was yet to even see my face, (a matter I promised to take care of later), and neither did Tobi.
“Your mother refused it.” Femi blurted, blinking rapidly as he caught himself.
“I heard she is dead.”
Femi nodded, his eyes suddenly as large as saucers.
“And what caused her death?”
“It was an accident.” He answered with his gaze fixed on a spot behind my head.
I knew that. I had heard it. What I didn’t know was the full detail. But the pain in Father’s eyes was just as apparent as that in Tobi’s, stopping me from asking further questions about her. Clearly, discussion about mother was yet a soft spot and neither seemed to have moved on. The last thing I wanted was opening up old wounds for anyone, I inclusive. Truthfully, for now, I don’t even think I am ready to go down that lane, in spite of the deep yearning that pleaded for it. Whatever little knowledge I had was enough, for now, I decided.
“I hid your walkman when you were returning to boarding school.” I grinned at Tobi.
Tobi glared at me speechless. And the way his lips broke into a full smile as his eyes glistened with unshed tears, a memory I’ll forever cherish. “My God, your memories are returning.” This was probably the closest I had ever seen Tobi get emotional. He crossed the room as fast as his legs and sticks would carry and sank into the chair father pushed his way. Pain crossed his face, but it was short-lived as he broke into a small laugh.
“You didn’t hide it, it was more like you stole it.” He teased.
Unfortunately, I could not defend that since I remembered nothing more. And then to Father. “ I also remember a couple of things about you. Like how you spoilt me silly, the surprise birthday party at ten, the gifts…that’s all I remember.”
The slight hint of unease I thought I had caught in Father’s eyes faded with an exhale as I continued. “Thank you for being a good father.”
He seemed hugely surprised by the compliment.
“Thank you.” He choked on emotion. “This is great. I couldn’t be more excited that your memories are returning.” He piped, allowing excitement into his voice and a hint of fear, perhaps nothing more than my imagination.
“Are you okay?” I asked. Truthfully, I really didn’t know who the question was directed at, as both father and Tobi seemed distant and somewhat tensed in spite of their assurance, awakening some gnawing feeling about them I could not shake off.
“Why haven’t you come to see me since?”
Father blinked once, then twice, obviously caught unaware by my query. “I…I was unavailable.” He stuttered, turning to Tobi for support. There again was that tension. And in an obvious attempt to fill the uncomfortable silence, Tobi started a conversation about childhood adventures and escapades that seemed alien to my ears. As little words about mother sprung up, I couldn’t help but notice father stiffen, only relaxing when conversations changed. He obviously had loved her greatly. Perchance, he still did.
And just when I was beginning to get acquainted with the family, father arose with the excuse that he had some major things to attend to. Tobi’s face immediately took up a slight change and a fearful look as father bent to kiss my forehead. To everyone’s surprise, I let him and shut my eyes to better absorb his gentle kiss. The simple action brought a flitting thought of a younger me and him at another time, another place but in the same manner. Father seemed to be my key, afterall, I realized, my gateway to my thoughts.
On departure, father finally introduced his friend and the gynaecologist.
Strangely, I felt a tug on my heart as I watched him go, wishing he could stay a bit longer. He promised he’d be back to see me. And I believed him and all that he represented, but why do his eyes hold great guilt and regret as he departed?