It was not the chirping of birds, nor the kids, or even his wife who roused him from the farthest end of the dream land, but Efe, his overbearing gardener. The man was really a nerve to reckon with during the weekends though, whenever he was in the country. He has given orders for him to come only in the evening or mid-afternoons, when he knew nobody would be around except his wife on her noisy sewing machine, but the deaf guy keeps on waking him up from sleep whenever Segun made up his mind to report to the office later than usual.
He swore under his breath, and tried to open his eyes but they remained shut. His lids and pupils still ached while hanging on his forehead. He can’t remember the last time he gave orders in the office, and someone tried to resist, the last person got his butt fried on a cooker. Segun turned and lay on his left hand side. He felt the sheet, and noticed that it was a little bit warm; his wife must have left some minutes ago to get breakfast ready, and probably climb on her machine afterwards. It was a mystery how much she was getting attached to the instrument as months went by.
On unlocking his lids, he was surprised that the room was thrown into thick darkness, and he was absolutely all alone in the large sleeping area. For the first time in his thirty years as a career-driven male, Segun felt a solemn silence sweep by and accompanied by an intense feeling of loneliness. It was as though his mind zigzagged all around the room, knocking over each object it came across without even realizing that they were there. It was exactly what he did for thirty years, and counting, Bricks and Layers was into buying over small and big companies, tearing them apart or just shaking them up from the root, and selling them piece by piece. The same goes for the houses they bought, which belonged to people who were unable to meet up with their mortgage, they gave them back their money, and destroyed the house down to the foundation, and rebuilt them to sell way too higher than they were initially priced for. One day, an old lady who they were about to take over her house looked him in the eye and said;
“I can see your soul is already sealed by the devil.”
He didn’t say a word but smiled at her while he gave the orders for the house to be torn down from the root. The old lady drove off in haste, not wanting to witness the destruction of her hard-earned pension.
Segun believed that life was never fair, right the minute his father walked out on them with his mum’s cousin, the government came and took over their cottage, and he had to grow up on the streets of Lagos till a mission took them in, but it was already too late, his soul was already laden with bitterness, drugs, and abuse. At a point, he felt he was the devil himself.
The machine came again, this time, it was as though he had gone over to the backyard, and Segun jumped to his feet, and groped for the dim light. He preferred their room in shadows because after working all day long before a system, it was tough coming home to more exposure to light, it disturbed his vision. Although most times, he was home too late because all the lights were usually out around twelve or thereabout. In all his struggles, his wish was to leave behind a memorable legacy for his, and protect his kid’s future: he didn’t want them ending up on the streets like him, nobody deserved that at all.
Having hit the light in the room, the breeze coming from the air conditioner wrapped around his naked midsection while he slowly strutted towards the window. He specifically made sure that it stood at a strategic point, facing the northern part of the city. It reminded him of where he was plucked from, and how sleeping each night under the gutters felt and smelt. The vile memory also kept him in check of how not to go back to his humble beginning. Unfortunately, twelve years back, when they moved into the house, and to the upper side of town, due to work demand, he has never gotten round to viewing this memorable scenery.
Segun with one swift motion drew the thick golden curtains apart, and the morning sunlight dashed into the room, crisscrossing all around everything in the wide space: the wall-size smart television, the drawers, and then his wedding picture which hung on the wall. He drew back at first due to the effect, but after a second, his senses readjusted to everything around him. His hands went to his eyes and rubbed a bit before his pupils dilated enough to absorb in such a sight which he may not stick around for so long to cherish. His eyes settled on the other side of town; he could see boats ferrying workers to the Island,and also fishermen who threw their nets this way and that. It reminded him of the time after graduation; he had to go on those narrowboats for an hour to get to work each day on the Island. One day, he got home so late to meet the cold remains of his mother. It was as though life started in reverse that moment.
Sweeping through the serene estate, early morning joggers were already making their rounds through the corners while observing the mandated social distancing. The news that circulated at work made it clear that it was too dangerous to be seen outside the confines of one’s home, much more in a crowded place. Segun’s cousin, Femi, would be having his engagement party in a week’s time; he wondered what would become of everything that has been bought in preparation for the ceremony.
“Good Morning, Sir.”
Efe walked by with his tools, avoiding eye contact with him. Segun only nodded in response and drew back, turned and headed for the rest room. He overheard the kids with their mother, and wondered why they never came to check up on him since his car was still packed in the garage. At that instance, cold shivers ran down his spine and he felt a sharp pain on his neck. His heart started to beat very fast,and he found himself staring fixedly at the mirror and grabbing onto the sink with all his might for support. Segun gasped for breath and the room ran around in circles, but he held on tight to the bearded image, not attempting to let go. The image looked extremely startledbut brave. His eyes were bloodshot; his lips were turning a pale, and perspiration clouded his vision and formed a small pool inside the hole that sat in between his neck and chest.After some minutes, a wave of calmness swept through him, and he regained control of his body. He nearly fainted when he experienced it the other day at work.
When the seizure was over; Segun picked up his customized shaving stick from Paris, and brought it to his full beard. He couldn’t believe he decided to shave them off all of a sudden. He felt as though he was uprooting his identity just like he did those companies and houses. Gradually, the edge of the blade grazed his jaws, and bit by bit, black spongy hair fell into the white sparkling sink. At the end, the image that looked back seemed some worth strange, but he didn’t care, these past years have been a form of living in solitude while in confinement. He was actually trying to let go of those things which reminded him of his actual person.
The smart television was tuned to its highest volume, and Tayo, 11, was busy with the latest playstation. Kemi and Temi were head bent over their books on the dining table. They were older than Tayo and Kayode. He could hear someone stacking plates in the kitchen. That must be Kayode. He had been there for more than two minutes and nobody moved an inch to greet their father. They were all engrossed in what they were doing. Something hard struck him. The two girls were already in their late teens, and their mother had to step down as a bank manager to see to the activities of the house when the boys came. Apart from that, they rarely got to see him come back at night or leave the house very early in the morning. He felt like a complete stranger in his house.
Leaving the kids, he made his way to the back of the house, and from an instance, he heard his wife’s voice, giving instructions to her assistance.
He called his wife, moved close to give her a kiss, something he couldn’t remember the last time he did, but she moved her face from his, and turned to look at what she was sketching. Taiwo, her assistant moved back to the house, probably to give them some space while pretending not to see what transpired between the two.
“Are you hungry?”
His wife asked without bothering to lift her eyes away from what was before her. The question was too odd because he rarely ate at home except when he was home during weekends. He allowed a minute to pass by before he asked:
“What is wrong with everyone today?”
“Why are you home? Why didn’t you go to work?”
His wife asked him, as though they didn’t want him around or have just gotten too used to not having him around.
“We were asked to stay back. Don’t I have a right to be with my family?”
He asked, astonished at her cross examination. She didn’t say a word; Laide just took her sketch to the sewing machine, climbed her small form on the chair, and started peddling nosily. She didn’t mind that he was left standing without being attended to. He watched as she sewed her heart out. At that moment, he was able to get a close look at her, and realized how she has grown from being happy to becoming a lonely and unhappy woman. All he wanted was to make life easy for all of them, but everything seemed to have turned around at that moment.
The kids were in boarding school and had come home for the holiday, and he never knew when they arrived until he came back after a long investment trip to China. His employer was determined to invest so much in him, and as a result, he was the person that closed virtually all their deals around the world.
Those on the dinning just turned and smiled, and then went back to their books. Tayo screamed:
It was only Kayode who made a move to get up from the sofa to give him a hug. He felt a sudden surge of air in his lungs.
“I heard you were asked to stay back?”
Some murmured. It was no use; he has lost them. He left them and opened the front door, half way out, he heard:
Gosh! They all got up and hurriedly followed their mum to the kitchen for their breakfast. Segun went to sit in the garden that overlooked his house. He got enough space for his building. It was built with the 20th century style, and was properly detailed to fit in any feature. Everything he did, he did for the love of his family; he knew the kids would need enough space whenever they come home for the holiday. There was no worker around, so he had the entire compound to himself except for the kids whom were busy with their mum. His deep thoughts were cut short when his phone rang, and Uche’s name appeared on the screen.
“Seg,” as he often called him, “how are you hanging in there?”
“Pretty fine, I guess.”
Segun responded with a voice which sounded too unsure to be true.
“What is wrong?”
Uche asked. Segun exhaled loudly, and answered:
“I feel like a stranger in my own house.”
“How do you mean?”
The other man inquired.
“I don’t know, my man. This virus came at a delicate and strategic moment.”
“Does she know yet?”
“Do you think I should tell her?”
“Guy, she has every right to know, or do you have another wife out there?”
Segun pinched himself, during some of his trips, he had kept women, and he knew that his wife knew about them, but she never asked after the first fight.
“Uche, I feel that I have made her an unhappy woman. I feel so bad already. My kids don’t know who I am anymore.”
Segun finally confessed.
“Then, it is in your place to make the change before it becomes too late.”
“Yeah, you are right. Do you know when the lockdown is coming to an end?”
“I can’t tell. Nobody knows. We are all at home. Linda and I are having our anniversary honeymoon at home.”
Uche said with a loud laugh.
Segun could hear his wife calling him in the background.
“Let me leave you to go, man. Later.”
The phone went dead. Segun threw his head back, took a deep breath, and went back to the house.
He went into the house through the kitchen, when he got in, he met them already at breakfast. It looked so normal to have breakfast with an empty chair at the head of the table –his space. There was no plate, which meant that they didn’t expect him to sit with them. They have all grown used to doing stuffs without him. He knew that whatever he was going to do for the next few weeks would really come as a form of surprise to all of them. He went straight to the fridge, pulled out a pack of juice, poured himself some, and then got some pancakes from where they were kept. He moved with his plate to the table, and took a seat. He noticed that their eyes all followed him and were surprised with each move. Immediately he sat down, his wife got up and went to wash the plates, the girls started clearing the kitchen, and the boys still nibbled on their food. It was as though everyone wanted the slightest opportunity to avoid him as though he was a plague.
“Do I smell something?”
Segun asked with a serious look.The room grew cold at that instant.
“How come everyone is acting so abnormal around here? Do you prefer I stay out and work all day without being with my family?”
He asked out of annoyance, although that expression came with a sense of guilt on his part.
“Well, I have news for all of you: no one would be going back to the boarding school after the lockdown. You all would be going from home.”
Segun said angrily. One could hear a pin drop, and then came themurmurs and protest. Infact, a plate fell nosilyinto the sink. His wife turned abruptly to face him for the first time in so many years: it would be her last after the first was as a result of getting one of his secretaries pregnant years ago when he was made partner at the company. Then, it was as though each progress he made came with a burden and she was the one who was made to bear the brunt at each stage.
“Can you just tell me why the sudden change of decision?”
Segun shrugged and said:
“We need to be back to being one happy family. We need to get back to how it used to be.”
His wife laughed hysterically, and said:
“What do you mean? You think you could just walk in here and turn all our lives upside down? You think that after so many years of neglect, you feel that you can always have it your way?”
His wife was literally shaking while she talked, and the kids watched.
“Mind you, I pay the fees, and I dictate how it is going to be.”
“O hell, and so what? Didn’t I pick the bills at some point? So, this is what this is all about? Ha!”
His wife screamed back at him.
“I rather not go to school than live under the same roof with you, dad! What do you care?”
One of the twins screamed and ran to her room followed by her sister.
“Hey! Watch your tongue there, young lady!”
Segun screamed after her, but it was too late, she shut her door with a loud bang that shook the house.
“Whatever you have in mind has failed, and you know it.”
His wife said, and walked back to her shop. The boys who seemed to have lost interest in their food covered them up, and before he knew it, he was left all alone once more. It was as though he was in another world, and definitely in another house which wasn’t his own.
Segun turned off the shower and busily dried himself up. The door opened and shut back quietly. He walked out steaming hot with a white towel tied to his waist. He frowned when he saw her collecting few of her things.
“What are you doing?”
He asked in amazement. His wife busied herself without minding to look his way.
“The season is too demanding, and I need to meet up. I would be moving to the guest room; it is closer to my office rather than take those stairs all the time, and at the end, my knee hurts.
“Are you trying to abandon me? Or avoiding the fact that I might want to make love to you?”
She flinched at the mention of sex, and quickened her pace. Ever since the lockdown, she has avoided him whenever he tried to kiss her, and turned down his sexual advances. He wondered how they got to this level, and how unforgiving she has grown to become.
“We stopped being a family when you felt money was much more important than your household. I didn’t really care that you slept with other women, you are the one who would pay the price at the end.”
Each word she said struck him like a sharp knife on the chest. He moved forward to touch her, but she moved back.
“I can’t even stand your touch. You can have all the room to yourself.”
She opened the door and walked out. He didn’t mind that he was still naked, but he went straight to sit on their bed. Immediately, he felt a tingling sensation in his throat, and all of sudden, he started coughing and looking down on the towel, there were what appeared to be blood stains. His heart started beating faster; he needed to call the doctor.
Each morning, he faced the large mirror with a razor in hand, it has become his routine since the lockdown, and over a period of silence in the room, it turned into a ritual which took him hours to complete. He used the time to reflect on so many things, and how he could work around his family whom seemed not to be ready to have anything to do with him. At times, he hurt himself while shaving, but he didn’t feel a thing; the numbness was spreading so fast. He needed to do something as soon as possible.
Ever since he has been home for days, he has gotten accustomed to the noise of her sewing machine. Infact, it worked all day none stop. He had on one of his polo shorts and top, he loved brown because he was a little bit coffee skin. She has been on the pedal for minutes without knowing that someone watched her every move with keen interest.
Segun said coolly in a voice that pleaded for something. He was not in the mood for a fight or argument, and his kids hated his guts already; they made sure that they avoided him as much as possible.
He said again.
“As you can see, I am busy.”
She spat it out in such an awful way, not minding that Taiwo was there to witness.
“I want to talk to you. Please, spare me some of your time.”
He pleaded again.
She didn’t even make any attempt to stop. She fired on without the slightest notion of stopping at any given time. It was as though nobody stood for that long. He went back to the room, back to the mirror to look at his image once again: he wasn’t exercising, but he was growing leaner with each passing day, there was no need to keep on fighting what has already won the battle, it didn’t take a split second before the cough came in a rage. This time around, it was different, he looked down into the sink and his blood was spattered all over, and even the mirror was not left out, his shirt was soaked, but he couldn’t stop himself even as he washed his face. He didn’t hear the footstep that bounded up the staircase, nor when the door opened:
He turned and came face to face with Laide. She took in the scenario and frowned with fear in her eyes.
“What is wrong with you?”
She asked; she has never seen a man cough out so much blood in her life.
He made to talk, but the cough came back stronger. She left him immediately and went to the stairs.
“Kemi! Kemi! Call the hospital!”
Segun couldn’t get a hold of himself. He held onto the washing cabinet for support. He was already feeling very weak. Laide came behind to support him, but his weight was too much for her to bear.
“Segun! Stay with me!”
With each cough, he sucked in his last breath, trying to hold on to the sink, but his hands started to slip away gradually. He knew he was already far gone even as he struggled just to be able to say his last words to her and the kids; just to tell her how much it hurts that he abandoned them; how much he only wanted to make enough money for them to survive on, and how too late he was diagnosedwith cancer. His lids clasped together, leaving him with a blurred memory of his kids who watched in awe as he took his last breath.
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