I can hear them breathing. Panting like hunting dogs. Each of them. Dusty air rushing through tensed tracheas. Blood pumping through strained jugulars. Feet pounding the pavement. Startled passers-by turning to locate the source of the commotion.
James stepped onto the aisle and flashed his instinctive smile, looking at no one in particular. He briefly scanned the interior of the minibus and smiled again when he noticed the empty seat beside the aisle on the second row from the back.
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As men came, my father was of average height, neither too tall nor too short. But he was thinner than most men his height, which gave him just enough mass to not be lanky. Which means he didn’t exactly stand out. Nevertheless, if every man was required to stand out in some way, then there was one thing for which he could be said to do so. He was a very quiet man.
I don’t recall exactly when I started addressing my father by his first name. It must have been sometime after 2000 though, because I distinctly remember calling him baba at least once that year. I was in standard seven.
When I was in standard one, some men came with barbed wire and fenced off the section of the parish grounds furthest from the highway. Onyi and I tried stealing some of the wire, but the men were too vigilant. Two weeks later, more men came and dug foundations for a long building. Over the next year, they built a dispensary and three houses for the nurses.
Onyi was my best friend. He was a year behind me in school. His father, a stout man with pudgy hands and a neat moustache whose bellowing laugh was rarely out of earshot, was a primary school teacher. Ayucha, where he taught, was on the other side of town. Onyi’s mother sold sneakers on market days. His three older sisters also went to school at Awasi Primary. They stayed in the unit at the other end of our row-house, our landi.
Three days later, the compound was empty again. Fresh shoots of grass peeped through the churned soil of the backyard. Most people had left. Only my mother’s sisters remained. They were leaving that day, having put everything back in order. “Be strong,” they told my dad as they hugged me goodbye. My father nodded and thanked them.
I never really got to know my mother. She died when I was four, in 1992. Over the years, by patching up disparate stories from my father and other relatives together with my own hazy recollections of the event, I have come to reconstruct how it happened, and to appreciate why it shattered my father the way it did.
Earlier this week, as I sat at my table, engaged in a staring match with my computer’s screen, not knowing who would blink first, I wondered aloud what I would write for my blog this week. Nothing on my Evernote list of possible topics seemed apposite for both the moment and my mood. And trust, me, that list has grown quite long lately.