Laura woke with a start. She instinctively picked the small alarm clock on the bedside table and brought it close to her eyes. The thick red lines spelled out 8.30 am. She looked lazily around the room. The heavy green curtains were still drawn across the French doors that opened to the balcony. The little light that managed to filter through couldn’t give her a hint of how bright it was outside.
He stood on the grass, near the boundary wall, facing the building he had left just a minute earlier. He looked into the sky beyond the house. Dark clouds were moving in fast and menacingly from the west. Intermittent flashes of lightning tore across the horizon and the subsequent prolonged rumbles of thunder shook the very ground. Why he had come out here at this time of the night, he had no idea. He had just felt the urge to do it.
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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.