Once upon a time, the house—a white colonial edifice with its green gardens and tall trees— provoked the curiosity of many. Often—in the way that a castle might inspire dreams about its inhabitants, or a lighthouse thoughts of its sole occupant—a passerby would try to imagine what the inside of the house looked like; who the people were who lived there; and, as sometimes happened when their imagination wandered far off, what their inner lives were. An avenue of elm trees, easily seen through the gate, led to the main house. Adjacent to it was the Boys Quarters where the gardener, Akin’s father, lived.
A week after Akin left Lagos, where he schooled, to spend the holidays in Abuja, he, ignoring his father’s warning, climbed, with adolescent self-assuredness, the tree behind their house to pluck a fruit. He stood with one foot on a branch, the other dangling in the air, while his eyes searched for a groove in the trunk in which to place it. The sun, without warning or ceremony, slipped into view, blinding him briefly with its light. The boy and the fruit fell to the ground with a resounding thud, bruising their skins, the former losing a tooth which he quickly located among the leaves on the ground.
The day after his fall, Akin’s father threatened to send him back to Lagos, to the home of his Aunty Moji where he usually spent the holidays. She was a staunch disciplinarian and he hated that during his time there, he had to always watch his step. The day before, Akin had been playing a game of keepy-uppies with a ball in the backyard, when he mistimed a kick, and the ball landed on the bedroom window’s louvres, shattering the glass, and sending shards everywhere.
Presently confined to his room by his father, he watched the main house through the newly repaired blinds, for any sign of life. It had been a week since he arrived and yet there was no one else around except his father. His mother, who worked in the main house as a cook and help, had travelled along with his parents’ employers. In fact, it was his mother who had been first employed by them, before they also decided to hire his father to be a gardener.
He read books from his father’s bookshelf to pass the time but mostly preferred to watch his father work—cutting grass, raking leaves, watering the plants. His father worked with an unusual concentration. Akin was more interested in the snipping sound his trimmers made than reading books, which he typically did in school in order to deliver reports on plot, theme, and setting—things he found no use for, and detested. He crammed for exams. If it was not a sport—table-tennis was a close second to his love for football—or had no element of play in it, he had no interest in it.
When he was a teething baby, he had watched, through the open veranda of their house in Lagos, a black cat staring at him, before sauntering away. In his attempt to follow it, he had crawled for the first time, with nothing of the gait and grace of that feline creature. But the memory of this event was far away from his present fear and hatred of cats. The age-old superstition which his older brothers—all five of them, spread across various states in Nigeria—believed too, was that they were evil, and transmitters of misfortune, especially the black ones. On the night he arrived in Abuja, a day before his fall, he had wanted to see the main house. But when he saw a black cat cross the length of its entrance, he ran back to his room in the Boys Quarters. As he lay on his bed counting sheep, the house became endowed, in his mind, with a foreboding air, as if a malevolent spirit was at its door.
At first he had hated dogs too, threatened by their bark, and, sometimes, snarl. That was until Michael, his best friend at home and school, helped him overcome this fear. The most important thing was to remain calm, Michael said, even when they barked; to never turn back and run. See? They were a boy’s best friend. While away at school, or like now during the holidays in a new place, it was his dog, a Labrador named Jack, that he missed the most. The dog did not belong to him; it belonged to the gate-man of their block of flats who had rescued it as a puppy. But every other resident had taken to calling it theirs.
The world of adolescence was already welcoming boys his age, although they were not attuned to the changes that it wrought, both physically and mentally. So that, on resumption, after the previous holiday, Akin saw, with surprise, that he was now taller than Michael. He also discovered that his likes and dislikes had begun to solidify and were on their way to becoming like the violent preferences of adults. (He had realised one Christmas holiday that he hated eggs).
Boys his age were learning from their textbooks, with its well-drawn diagrams and lengthy labels, about the ordered world of mathematics, where a stray object could be easily reined in with a red pen; and about the invented world of the English language where curmudgeons insisted that one must never place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause. They were learning, too, about the sciences where previously familiar words like “speed”, “light”, and “distance” were given new currency, and where they learnt the import of new but odd words like “inertia.” Light might have once been nothing more to a boy than a bulb; later in class, he learned that it was an electromagnetic wave. They were also learning—from the classroom, football field, dining hall, and church—about the disappointments of life and anxieties of tomorrow, something called destiny, where heaven was, and what it meant to have dreams.
Three times Akin had cried during his first year in boarding school: the first time when his parents had said goodbye to him after dropping him off on his first day and he sobbed during his siesta; the second time when he had gotten a low mark on his mathematics test and got caned in front of his classmates, along with other low scorers; and the third time when a girl he liked and usually sat beside had inexplicably switched seats one morning and never said a word to him again. More importantly than any lesson he learnt in the classroom he had gotten exposed to the knowledge of the defenselessness of the heart that loves.
The morning after his mother arrived from her journey with her employers, the main occupants of the house—almost three weeks since he had arrived—he went to look for her in the main house where she lived. He opened the door to her room, its slow creak piercing the silence that filled the house. He caught, in the mirror’s reflection, his mother’s hands working steadily on braiding a girl’s hair. The girl’s head was bent in dutiful submission to the work of the woman now applying pomade to her hair and parting it with a comb. He could not see the girl’s face.
He saw the finished work later that evening while working with his father in the garden. His eyes lingered on the girl as she passed with her mother. His father called him back to work and chuckled. Akin’s eyes burned with a slight embarrassment. The girl was the only child of her parents, the child of their old age. She was, his father said, the apple of her mother’s eye. She did not live here in Abuja but in London, and only came here for her holidays. On the way back to the Boys’ Quarters, he had seen her in a pinafore dress, searching for butterflies, standing still now to smile at him, before pouncing on a butterfly perched on a flower he could not name, and pinching it, before slipping it into an empty matchbox.
That night, he ran out of his room bare-chested when he saw the flap of white wings on a plant. He caught it, returned to the house, and emptied a matchbox of its sticks before slipping it in.
She was an inch or two taller than he was. When he saw her the next day, he offered the matchbox to her, no words said between them. She smiled, her smile widening as she opened the box. When she saw its content, she laughed because he had caught her a moth instead of a butterfly. At school, he said, he had not yet learned the difference between a moth and a butterfly. He collected the matchbox from her and promised to find her a butterfly. He thought there was something pure in her expression and the simplicity with which she talked that somehow made him think of the word kid. But then, there was that incident which had happened two years ago and which still confused him. The pastor of their church had chastised parents who called their children “kids”. Kids, he said, were young goats. Were their children goats?
The same day he had promised to find her a butterfly, he found one but had not seen her to give it to her; He forgot it in his trouser pocket. The next morning, his mother, while washing his clothes, threw the butterfly away with the wash water.
The house had been designed by and belonged to the architect Wumi Braithwaite Jr. He had bought the land because of its plentiful trees. He intended to incorporate the feel of nature into the final plan of the house. While it was being built, an enclosure surrounded it. This way, when it was finished and its enclosure pulled down, it looked as if the house had simply sprung from the ground.
At the entrance to the Boys’ Quarters, while returning his father’s gardening tools to the house, he saw her, and she smiled at him. And when he smiled too, she removed a leaf from his hair, and they both laughed, before she helped him put away the tools.
That same evening, after spending the hot afternoon searching for butterflies, they lay on the grass in a part of the garden. She thought a scar on his elbow looked like ink. Another one on his thigh was still pink. He had raised his shorts up to his groin for her to inspect it. She said her mother would have caned her if she did a crazy thing like climb a tree. The only scar she had was from a neighbour’s dog’s bite. The dog’s name was Max.
Two weeks before school closed for the semester, he had gone fruit plucking with his friends and had mistimed his jump up a mango tree. His father noticed the wound on his elbow when he went to pick him up from school. The first thing his father did when they arrived at Abuja was warn him not to climb any of the trees in the house. Two days later, his father was working in a different part of the garden when he heard loud rustling from a tree, followed by a resounding thud. His father immediately called out to him, but he had felt too hot and timid to respond. Almost immediately, he saw his father watching him writhe on the ground in pain, with a hint of a smile on his face, in the way of some fathers who, having anticipated their instruction being disobeyed, relished being proven right.
Did he know how to make a kite? In this house with adventures that ended at the front gate (he only left the house on Sundays to attend the church minutes away), boredom was like a second skin. The circumference of the house that covered the main house, the Boys’ Quarters, the garden, the nurseries, and the avenue of trees was the limit of their world. The limit of the known world that holiday seemed to be the front gate, since they were not to leave the premises of the house unaccompanied by an adult. What were they to do next? Maybe they could ride around the house on their bicycles. She quickly went into the main house and retrieved two. Among his friends at school, he was always the odd one out for not being able to do a thing as simple as ride a bicycle. He blamed it on a fear of falling. How could he balance on a thing that was moving? When she returned from the main house with the bicycles, after laughing at him, she tried teaching him how to ride. He had only just descended down a sloppy path before his schoolboy limbs stopped pedalling and he clumsily crashed into the ground bruising his knees.
Inside her father’s study, the reading lamp was switched on all night. While he worked, she loved sitting in the study, reading from the books he had recommended to her. She knew they were books he loved. She would ask him the meaning of each unfamiliar word, and he would tell her. What did protectorate mean again?
The glow of the lamp could be seen from the outside in the lighted window by a passer-by disappearing into the dark.
They took turns talking about events in their short life. They took pride in their different experiences which, in a way they could not yet explain, seemed to them designed.
He talked about his beliefs and superstitions: last semester, his school’s football team had lost their game for the first time, after its captain, on waking up on the morning of the match, saw a black cat walk across his path.
She told him about the first boy she thought she loved. She came to class one day and found her classmates with mischievous smiles on their faces. A letter had been found in the fold of a textbook she had lent to her friend Lola. And now Lola was reading it. Bimpé stretched her hand to retrieve the letter, but it got passed from one girl to another, and then another, each one reading parts of it then passing it along to the next person before Bimpe could catch it. By the time the letter returned to Lola, when they had come to the confession of love at the end, she was exhausted, sweaty, and those three words, which should have left her the happiest girl in the world, now filled her with a slight disgust.
Nettled by the world of adults, they settled into one they had created between them. Here, where it was easy to ignore the solidity of the world, they dreamt dreams that, as adults, they could dismiss as silly but which, to them now, meant everything. She had found and formed with him, in a short space of time, an intimacy and trust as she had with her best friends and playmates at school in London—there was Lola whose long hair was the envy of many, and Titi who wished she was thin-lipped. There was no need for that dance under the auspices of fate that changed an acquaintance into a playmate. Theirs had been instant and felt almost inevitable, like a ripe fruit heavy with juice falling to the ground.
The next time they lay on the grass in the garden, she told him about the curse. Propped on his elbows, he listened to her tell the story. In her father’s family’s history no daughter of a son lived past adolescence; they all died in their sleep on the eve of a birthday. At first, it had seemed a thing too absurd to believe—merely a story passed by word of mouth from generation to generation. Her grandmother had told it to her one day as a bedtime story. Every year since then, she had dreaded her birthday. There had been a fight between her mother and her grandmother when she asked her grandmother if she was going to die on the eve of her next year. But her grandmother had quickly dismissed her suggestion of ill luck and insisted, as always, that it was just a story, one that was in no way tethered to her own sense of reality—a world of trains that ran on time, cars that did as commanded, and kettles that purred until the water they contained reached boiling point.
She put water into her mouth before she cut onions to prevent herself from crying. Her birthday was in three weeks, and she was afraid to die. On the last week of her holiday she stepped out of the main house less. A day before she returned to Nigeria, she had heard her mother talking with her grandmother about the absurdity of that birthday-death story and how, every year, as her daughter’s birthday approached, she couldn’t help having sleepless nights. She felt her daughter’s fear too.
The next time they met, he told her about his stillborn sister. His parents had never spoken of her by her name, as if it was taboo to name a child whose eyes never opened to the world. He had learnt her name in a Yoruba class about the naming of twins within their culture. If he was Taiwo–the first to taste the world–his sister must have been Kehinde, the one who follows. But his name too had changed. And no one in his family called him Taiwo—not one of his five elder brothers, not his mother, and not his father. He only bore that name on his school ID card. It had been relegated to a middle name, whose fullness had been finessed into the abbreviation, T. Now he was called his father’s name—or Junior—which was also among the seven names he had been given at his christening. As a baby, his mother had watched him with wary eyes and a possessiveness she would quickly become popular for in their neighbourhood; as if the fact of his disappearance would be finalised once she looked away. Through kindergarten, nursery school, and primary school she had walked him all the way to the school gate and watched him make his way to his class.
But all that changed after his first year at boarding school when he came back on holiday and she saw the distant look in his eyes. From the time he had learned his name and its meaning, and the absence of its accompanying twin—he had had to think about death.
She lay on the grass outside their house twirling her braids while he told her all these. When he thought of his sister, he tried to imagine what she looked like. He wondered whether she was where humans were supposed to go after death, or whether she roamed looking for her home. He lived with the lingering feeling of being half of a whole.
Her grandmother called her Elizabeth. While her mother worried about her eccentricities, her grandmother delighted in her granddaughter’s imagination. (And it was this that drew many to her, in the way that one always seems to be called by a locked door). She brought the restless energy of toddlers to every task. Brush your teeth, her grandmother would say, don’t rush your teeth. As a child, she believed that an aeroplane was an animal, that heaven was the place where the sky and sand met, and that eating an apple a day could make one immortal. She seemed an anachronism to her grandmother. She seemed to belong to the world of the books she read, what with her pinafores and love for old and odd words and the way her pronunciation of the most trivial words—“bicycle”, for example—recalled a world before she existed. She knew, by heart, the trees of most regions in the world. She knew rivers, the Thames as familiar to her as the Nile. She knew the River Niger which Mungo Park had navigated, the river Benue and the country where they made their confluence. She knew about America from the encyclopaedias in her father’s library. She had digested enough of the encapsulated info that ran from Alaska to Zoroastrianism and shared it with him. She could envision America easily enough now: the snow-peaked mountains, cold Alaska, sunny California, the vast view of the desert in Arizona. Her grandmother had caught her one day sticking out her tongue in the place where hours before was the sun. What was she doing? She wished to lick the moon. She loved its lunar gloss. She thought stars too could be sweet.
Now, he went through the days with the sullen look of a boy abandoned at school by parents who had forgotten his closing time. The thought of returning to school in the next week also wiped the smile off his face. Back to the boredom in four-walled classrooms relieved by the collective sigh of fellow students at the end of a period, at the sound of the school bell. Back to rising early in the day and sleeping late. Back to the world of those who woke up with regularity, as if the world turned for only one purpose: the completion of their assigned tasks. Back to living in the hostels with seniors whose whims they were subject to: you could be having a good day, and, while dancing for joy, step on the shoes of a senior student, and there and then, the music stopped, and you got flogged. To leave this house, exit its shell, he thought, was to be free of its spell. He was watching, through the windows, the arc of the hose, as his father watered the grass. From an angle it appeared his father was urinating, and he laughed to himself until his mother came inside his room and joined him when she saw what he was laughing at.
Her father loved to indulge her curiosity. How was it possible that the earth was constantly turning, revolving around the sun, and we were not knocked off our feet?
There was the magic of inventions, too. A telephone was a time machine. A telegraph, you could see its wires. A town crier, you could see walking around. When she was on the phone and asked “can you hear me?”,it was not a question about clarity of voice from the person on the other end but of her continual surprise that a voice could come through at all from such a distance. She was curious about what made it possible to cover many metres in an instant. Hello? Her grandmother called her father and mother in Abuja and asked them to send her to London on the eve of her birthday. She had insisted on her return. She had heard that her granddaughter was not faring well. She thought her belief in this tall tale was over. Perhaps it was her immediate environment that helped grow her superstition.
On the wall of his room a crack was beginning to show. His father thought it was the damage from the recent heavy rains. In his room for the remaining days of his holiday, he felt strange that he was missing his schoolmates. There was Eze, the track star—fastest 100-metre runner at the school’s last inter-house sports competition. It was Eze who had welcomed him on his first day of school and offered him his seat. He recalled that incident in class when he was mocked for thinking the plural of sheep was sheeps. There was Bolu, the pimpled prankster who was also his bunkmate and confidante; Bolu had been the first friend he made at school. There was also Michael, the most popular boy in the school, who everyone thought could do no wrong.
The next time she came out of the house, she tried again to teach him how to ride a bicycle. He had searched for her before eventually finding her under the shade of a tree. On the ground around her were the peeled rinds of a tangerine. She talked with a mouth full of its juicy flesh. A pulp remained on his tongue after they had kissed.
He admitted to her that his knowledge of flowers was nonexistent, his knowledge of trees dependent on if they possessed sweet fruits. At his request, she named for him in the garden, cared for by his father: the ash tree, the cypress, the aspen, the cherry tree, the chestnut tree, the jacaranda opposite their verandah, in the shade of which they presently paused. For him, until it was named, it did not exist. She named the rose bushes, cherry bushes, the Margosa, the West Indian Jasmine, the marjoram. And she gave names to all the flowers of the field: the rose, the daylilies, the lilacs, the tulip—which she collected often for a vase on her father’s desk—and the wildflowers. The palm tree he already knew; the mango for its fruit, and the tangerine tree too. They paused now to admire the vegetables, tomato, and pepper plants in the nursery bed. Before the gate, she named the elm trees that stood guard, seeming sentinels in the kingdom where they ruled.
She spent the two days before her birthday recalling a song she had been taught to learn the alphabet with. Did he recall it? How did it go again? Well, it was different for every school, though some words remained the same. She had a penchant for inventing games on the spot. There was one she played with Titi and Lola back in London. Telling a story, any story, recalling a past event with a prompt from words. The day before she was to travel, she tried to force him to play, but he was unwilling. Out of all the games they played and songs they sang, he was uneasy about the “Mr Macaroni” song. “Mr Macaroni/riding on a bicycle/Do you want to marry me/Mr Macaroni?” He said it sounded silly.
They put the Christmas tree up in the middle of the sitting room, beside the television. As regular as clockwork, every December 25th, they wore clothes cut from the same material to church, and many times they forgot to get him a birthday card or even say their wishes in words. After the fifth year and there had been no celebration on his birthday, he had cried to his parents and pleaded with his brothers to talk them into changing his birth date.
She travelled in the morning with her mother, and all day he wandered the entire premises of the house, restless. It was the eve of her birthday. The possibility of her dying suddenly seemed too real. It did not make any sense that he would never see her again, except perhaps in his dreams. This loss he would at least have a face for. Their goodbye had been brief. He had to hurry up with putting their bags in the boot of the car. He alternated between laughter and tears—imagine believing in a century old curse. What adults called sadness he could dispel by doing something as simple as playing football or a board game, but here, he thought, was sorrow. X was for Xylophone. Y was for Yacht.
The cool evening air ruffling the trees, the last of sunlight filtering through the leaves, he thought of the origin of the phrase “Boys’ Quarters”, and now he thought it odd. It was usually men who lived there. He recalled now the first time he had learned how to ride a bicycle. One afternoon at school, while drinking from a bucket full of water, after a football match, he thought he had seen a second face in the water—that of a girl. No, G was for Ghost.
On the eve of her birthday, for the first time since those mornings of compulsory morning devotions at school, he got on his knees, and with his palms clasped together, prayed. But his words seemed to him false and dishonest. They did not have the steady clarity he usually heard in the pastor’s prayers or the fire and fervour of those in the congregation. And so he stopped. On his knees, with his hands stretched out on the bed, he fell asleep. When he woke up again, he heard a knock on the window and, afterwards, a figure whose face appeared white in the moonlight, call his name: Akin. Akin!
And because the explanation of a missed flight–the one that was due to take Bimpé to London—had yet not been offered, he screamed loud enough to wake the whole house. He thought he had seen a ghost.
The day he learnt to ride a bicycle, he had likewise screamed. Bimpé! He cried, first in fear after she nudged him telling him to let go of any previous fears. He was soon exhilarated at not falling. In time, not even the surprising speed at which he was riding could save him from the onslaught of emotions that raced after, and threatened to subdue, him. With the onrushing green blur that he knew was the garden; the orange blob behind the trees that he thought was the setting sun; the echo of laughter that he recognized as the voice of the girl he would give his life for if she politely asked; the taste of tangerine, his world was suddenly set into motion.