Celia: I heard. Oh my God! How is Tami taking it? And how are you?
I stare at my screen. I can read the WhatsApp message but somehow I am unable to articulate a response. How am I? The question is a simple one and so is – how is Tami taking it – but for some reason I do not know what to type.
Celia: TOK the stoic. It’s me Celia. You can talk to me. Would you rather I called?
TOK: Oh no. No calls please.
The house is crawling with friends and relatives and neighbours. They have all heard and foregoing church or whatever they do on Sundays have come to ours. I am out on the balcony smoking and just trying to wrap my head around what has befallen us.
How does a single call destroy the foundations of a home?
There has been an accident.
The female voice says and still groggy from sleep, I reach for the bedside lamp.
Who is this?
Sitting up, I lower my voice in order not to rouse Tami.
Where is Teni?
At the school clinic.
The answer I get is a whimper and then I hear a loud wail before the line goes dead.
I throw off the duvet and walk to the closet. I am pulling on my t-shirt when Tami stirs.
Why are you awake?
I pull on my trousers and then come to sit beside her on the bed.
I got a call.
Tami springs up from the bed, her eyes are wide orbs in her beautiful face.
Tom, what happened?
She is standing now and shaking my shoulders.
Tom, what happened to my daughter?
I don’t know. Someone called. A female. She said there was an accident. Then the line cut off.
Tami’s wail is a plangent tugging at the heartstrings.
Tom what has happened to my daughter?
I grab her but she is crying and pounding on my chest.
Call her back. Call her back.
I dial the number but it has been switched off.
I can’t get through.
Tami is now by the closet and scrambling for something to wear. Once she has pulled on a boubou, she says;
Tami it’s 3.45am.
So what, Tom? So what?
I grab the car keys and buzz the gateman. He is standing by the gate and rubbing at his eyes when we open the front door. He is a picture of confusion as he sees us dressed and ready to go.
Morning sir. Good morning madam. Una dey go early morning mass?
We do not speak as we get into the car and drive out the gate.
It is a quiet journey. Tami is mumbling what I suppose are prayers as we drive through the silent Lagos streets. It is quiet all around and there are very few cars on the road at that hour.
We run into a police check point at Jibowu and when I tell them that our daughter has been in an accident, the leader asks one of his men to go with us.
Officer, we are fine.
Oga, I have children too. Let him go with you. Night no good to waka alone with madam.
I thank him and we drive on with the armed policeman at the back.
At the school gate, I thank God we had a policeman in the car because the gatemen wouldn’t open for us otherwise.
As we drive down the tree lined approach, I remember the last time I was there, two months previously when Tami and I had come to drop off Teni. As we drove in she had stuck one of her airpods in my ear so I could hear what she was listening to.
That’s Tems. You say you don’t know her. That’s her break out single, Mr. Rebel.
Who is Tems again? I thought Falana was your fave?
Daddy, you said fave. Old man you are getting hip.
Stop disturbing him and let him drive. Last month it was Odunsi The Engine. Then Ladipo and now it is Tems. That’s musical promiscuity.
Teni clicks her tongue at her mum and I can imagine her rolling her eyes behind me.
Stop acting woke, Mummy. It’s Ladipoe.
Is it my fault if he can’t spell his name?
Mother and daughter are always at it and I never want to be caught in the middle.
We drive the rest of the way in silence and when we get to the hostel, Teni gets down first but instead of going to get her stuff runs to the front of the hostel where she is enfolded in a bear hug by a tall girl with bright red hair.
I step out followed by Tami and together we start pulling her things out of the boot.
You spoil this girl. She should be getting her things out by herself.
I don’t see you sitting in the car, darling.
Teni returns with her friend.
Daddy yo, this is Steph. We will be rooming together.
Good afternoon Teni’s Daddy. Good afternoon Teni’s mummy.
We acknowledge her greeting then Tami asks after her parents as if she knows them.
Steph and Tami make three trips to the hostel before they get it all out and when Teni returns to hug us goodbye Tami puts a foot in it.
This short red hair, hmmm, I hope she is not a lesbian.
Mummy, you didn’t just say that!
What did I say?
Lesbians are people.
Don’t mind your mummy. She needs to get woke.
We hug in unison and Tami says a quick prayer before our hug breaks
Final semester, kiddo. Get that first class
2.1 Dad. Don’t get your hopes up for nothing
She is making faces as she speaks and then we wave and begin the journey home.
Tom you have spoilt that child. She needs to grow up.
Teni is 20 and in final year. She is grown.
You should have listened to me and sent her to Canada.
You said she was immature yet you wanted to send her to Canada because everyone was going to Canada. She will go to Canada for her Masters.
Yes, but sending her abroad would have matured her. But you know once it comes to Teni, when I speak my mouth smells,
Leave my daughter alone, Tami. I have just one.
Ha, and I have two abi?
I park in front of the clinic and as I turn off the ignition I notice that my hands are shaking.
There is a crowd at the clinic and I know that it is not a good sign.
As we walk in I hear someone utter a loud whisper.
Her parents have come.
It is the red head.
Steph, where is Teni?
Tami is standing in front of the girl and I see Steph’s face crumple as she points, her lips quivering with words she cannot speak.
The sea of students part and as we take the first step, a man in a white surgical coat walks out.
I am Doctor Soetan. Please come with me.
He leads us into a ward. There is only one occupied bed. I look up at him. He catches my eye and shakes his head.
I am so sorry. She was taking a selfie and lost her footing.
When I look behind me, Tami is on the floor and hands are reaching out to pick her up.
I approach the bed. I pull down the sheet covering her face. It is my daughter. There is a small speck of blood on her temple and a funny angle to her neck but beyond that she looks as if she is asleep.
I sit by the edge of the bed and cradle her in my arms. She is stiff and her skin is cold to the touch but she is my daughter, the one who finished her exams two days before and told us they were having a celebratory party on Saturday.
No one disturbs the moment. I sit there with my daughter in my arms her short life flashing before my eyes. The day she was born. Her first day at kindergarten; the day she got her Common Entrance results; her joy when she scored 5As in WAEC. Her matriculation and the navy blue gown we had bought for her convocation, the one she will never get to wear.
I hold her until my side begins to hurt from sitting the wrong way. I lay her back on the bed and when I look up, Dr. Soetan is standing there.
Madam has been resuscitated.
What happens now?
Sir, you have to sign the death certificate so we can take her body to the morgue.
I know what those words mean but they make no sense to me.
I must have drifted off because I jump when I feel a hand fall on my shoulder. When I look up, it is Dr. Soetan.
Please come with me, sir.
Tami is sitting up and surrounded by nurses.
Tom, tell me it’s not true.
I sit beside her and pull her to me. Her sobs bring on mine and together in that doctor’s office, we cry for our daughter.
The school will pay for all the mortuary expenses. You just need to sign here and here.
I signed there and there and picked up Tami’s phone which had been put in a ziploc bag. By the time we stepped out of the long corridor, the whole school had gathered and there was a bonfire raging.
So sorry, sir.
So sorry, ma.
The condolences trailed us until we got to the car and it was as I bent to pick up the car keys for the second time that the policeman stepped forward and grabbed them.
Oga sit with madam. I will drive.
Celia: I am back on Saturday. I will come see you guys. Call me if you need to talk.
TOK: Thank you Celia.
Daddy, Pastor Mike is here.
When I look up at our house help I am shocked to realize for a fleeting second that I neither recognize who she is nor who Pastor Mike is. Then recognition dawns and I say thank you.
Tom, Tom, Tom.
Mike is my childhood friend and roommate at Uni. We hug and he taps me on the shoulder as he settles beside me. He does not say a word until I am finally able to articulate mine.
Mikolo, Teni has left me naked.
Tom, Tom, Tom.
Mike intones my name like he has always done, claps me on the shoulder and sits there beside me. The craziest amongst our friends, Mike had gotten born again and gone to pastoral school at 42 after armed robbers rained 23 bullets on his car with none hitting him.
Ten years after, I often teased him that his was battlefield conversion but sitting there quietly beside me and comforting me with his silence, I realised, finally, that something had indeed changed in my friend.
It is almost evening when Mike goes down stairs then returns with some rice and a bottle of juice.
Tom, you need to eat something bro. You need your strength. We need you strong.
I take a few spoons, drink some juice and push the tray away.
By sun down, the stream of sympathisers has thinned out and finally Mike says he has to leave.
Where is Tami?
In Teni’s room.
I sigh and turn to my friend.
I am scared for Tami.
Me too, bro but we just have to pray.
He claps me twice on the shoulder as he rises to leave.
I need to go see Tony. Is that okay? He has to be told. This is already on social media.
He is taking his exams?
And so? It’s first term. He needs to hear it from family. Minimize the shock.
Makes sense. I will go with you. Pick me on your way but first call the school, please.
His son and Tony are in the same school.
I will and here is all I have to say. Cry, man. Ask God why, but don’t lose it. Your family needs you.
We hugged and then he strode off.
Tami is lying in Teni’s bed. I look around the room. It has been a while since I stepped in there. It is all purple and lilac. The pink years are over.
I sit beside her and take her hand but she snatches it out of my grip.
How are you?
My daughter is dead.
Our daughter is dead.
She wouldn’t be if you had listened to me and sent her to Canada.
Don’t Tami me. You should have sent her abroad when I asked you.
As my wife turns her back to me, something breaks inside me.
Celia: The Stoic. How are you keeping up?
TOK: Not going good.
Celia: One day at a time, Tom. One day at a time.
When I woke up that morning, Tami was not in bed and her side of the bed did not look slept in.
I pulled on my pyjamas bottom and t-shirt then walked down stairs. The house help was walking up the stairs with my morning coffee.
Good morning, Daddy.
Good morning, Dupe. Where is mummy?
She pointed. Teni’s room. The door was ajar. I pushed it open and Tami was sitting up in bed, a pile of Teni’s clothes in her hands. I sat beside her.
Did you manage to get any sleep?
How can any normal person sleep with his child lying in the mortuary?
Her sharp rebuke is like a whip crack on bare back and I recoil. Tami turns her face away from me and not wanting to fight, I get up and leave the room.
Taking a dump, after my coffee and first stick of cigarette, I check my phone. Celia has sent me a message on Whatsapp. It is a meme with Gerald Butler in costume. The caption reads – We are Spartans! It makes me smile.
Celia, Mike and I set up our stock broking firm 15 years previously. Course mates and friends from Uni we had pooled our resources together and set up the business. Mike left us when he got the call and we have soldiered on as best as we could and built a successful business that has made us comfortable.
Celia is a single mother and was in Canada to take care of her son who had just had surgery. I knew she would have flown back immediately if Dan wasn’t in the hospital.
Pretty, smart and business savvy, she and Mike are my oldest friends and I am always there to rejoice when a new man comes on the scene and to provide a shoulder to cry on when the inevitable heart break happens.
You have such horrible taste in men. I knew Dan was an idiot from the moment I saw him.
We were having our weekly Wednesday lunch, one of our rituals for touching base outside the grind of work and business. It was her idea and I find it quite useful. That afternoon we were talking about her latest break-up.
The field is pretty barren, my friend. It’s either you go with your contemporaries who are all married or become easy pickings for fuck boys
Fuck boys? What is that?
They are young gigolos targeting older women for their money and all they have to offer is sex and it’s not even good sex.
Have you tried them, Celia?
I have heard things, Tom. I have heard things.
We laugh and wait for the waiter to set down our platter before we continue.
I often wonder why you never got married. You were such a hot and pretty young woman
Meaning I am no longer hot and pretty?
I didn’t say that Celia.
So what are you saying?
I was trying to say that you could have had your pick of men back then.
What if the one I wanted didn’t want to be picked?
Who could have refused you, Celia?
Wait a second let me fetch my mirror.
I watched she rummaged in her bag and then pulled out her vanity case. She popped it open and taking out the mirror propped it on the table in front of me.
Look in the mirror, Tom.
I did. My face with my full beard stared back at me.
What do you see?
My handsome face.
Be serious. What do you see?
I see me.
You see you but you never saw me. How could I find you when you weren’t even willing to be found?
I looked up and Celia was staring at me with a look I hadn’t noticed before.
You fancied me?
What do you think, Tom? All these years what do you think?
Reaching out to take her hand, she snatched it back and picked up the vanity case. She stuffed the mirror back in then transferred it to her bag.
Let’s eat, blind bat.
Celia, you never let on. I always felt I was out of your league. You fancied the fancy boys.
That was because I knew I could never have anything serious with them. Oh, Tom, enough of this. I have spoken too much. Let’s eat.
I had planned to continue the conversation at our next lunch but then Dan took ill and she had to fly out to Canada.
As I settle into the passenger’s seat beside Mike on my way to Tony’s school, my phone buzzes. I check and it is another message from Celia.
Celia: Tony has heard. Dan just showed me a message. “Hey big bro, did you hear anything about my sister? Trying to reach her and hearing stuff I can’t ask my parents about.”
Tony has just finished a paper when we find him. He looks up at me and Mike and he knows his sister is gone. I see a slight stumble as he approaches. I reach him in a few quick steps and we hug, his young body shaking with sobs.
I am sorry, Daddy.
You don’t have to be sorry, Tee?
I know how much you loved Teni.
I love you both, son. I love you both.
My voice breaks and I dig into my pocket to find my handkerchief.
Tom, Tom, Tom.
Mike claps me on the shoulder as he calls my name and I know, it is his way of saying pull yourself together man. Be strong for your son.
I read she was taking a selfie
Yes, Tee, That’s what they said
Selfie girl. I hope it was a kick-ass selfie.
I see the smile light up his face and I know my son will be alright. He will mourn his sister but he will be alright.
Do you want to come home? I am sure the school will sort out your papers.
No daddy. Ten-Ten would love me to finish. And I am home next week anyway. Thanks for coming and take it easy.
We hug. Me, my son and Mike who says a short prayer and then I dissolve in tears as I watch my son walk back to class, his head hanging low, grief weighing down his young shoulders.
Back home, I check in my pigeon hole for the ziploc bag containing her phone. The battery has run down so I plug it to charge. When it’s fully charged, I turn it on. It is pattern pass worded. I try two different combinations then choose the second option. Her birthday and year; her year and Tony’s year; her birthday and Tony’s birthday
Tami, do you know Teni’s password?
What are you doing with her phone, Tom? What do you want to see?
I am standing by the door of Teni’s room. Tami is still lying in bed in the same boubou she put on the morning we got the call. She has not had a bath since Sunday. I look at her. Her beautiful face has aged overnight and there are bags under her eyes.
You are pushing me away, Tami
My daughter is dead, Tom.
Our daughter is dead, Tami.
Yes and she would be alive if you had listened to me.
Tami, Dan almost died in Canada before the surgery. People die everywhere. You can’t blame me for this.
Who do I blame, Tom? Tell me because I need to blame someone for taking my baby away. Tell me, who do I blame?
I am chain smoking on the balcony and downing glass after glass of whiskey and I am at it until midnight when I crawl into bed.
My phone wakes me up early at about 5am. It is buzzing in my pocket. I must have pressed the “End” button because it goes off before I can get it out. I check and it is Tony. I call back.
I had a bad dream about you, Daddy. Are you okay?
I am fine. Just a hangover
Tony laughs then hails me.
That’s me with a hangover.
You didn’t take water and your painkiller before you slept?
Learn from me, Dad. Learn from me.
I will. Do you want to speak to your mum?
She is not in the mood. Stay safe, Daddy.
Stay safe, son.
Whenever I called them in school, I always ended with – “Don’t do anything stupid and stay safe!” Now that simple phrase had become loaded.
I pick out a t-shirt and a loose fitting pair of trousers. I take them downstairs and drop them on the bed beside Tami. She is sleeping, her mouth parted slightly as she snores on the bed. Nature has vanquished her.
My older brother and sister arrive shortly after so we can plan the funeral.
It has to be done quickly. We can’t keep a young person’s corpse for too long in the mortuary
Tony’s exams are over next week. We need him there
Okay, his brother ought to be there. I agree. So let’s schedule it for upper Saturday. There is no merriment in burying a child.
After they leave, I sit upstairs flipping through the tab we bought the year before because Teni said she needed to create a digital album of our memories. Flipping through, I am glad she did but what hits me with every image that pops up is how many of her selfies and self-shot videos I see. Tony was right, Teni liked to take selfies.
My brother’s voice echoes in my head as we make plans. There is no merriment in burying a child but there is a lot to do; buy a spot in the cemetery; plan a vigil and service of songs, send invites to the school and her friends. But it is when I go to buy the casket that the weight of my loss threatens to overwhelm me.
Oga we get different designs. Nigerian and foreign, wooden and metallic. The metallic one dey last well-well.
As I look from one to the other, I become suddenly aware of the booming economy of death; from coffins to caskets, wreaths to floral arrangements, body bags and hand gloves, inane things I had never spared a second look.
Finally I pick one I think that Teni would have approved of and the sentiment makes me smile as I get into my car. Driving away, I realize that even though we have lived near the General Hospital for over 12 years, I had never really noticed that they sold coffins and caskets on that stretch of road.
Tami decides that Teni will be buried in the gown we bought for her convocation and I do not argue. I am happy to have her speak to me but she only decides when. She has not returned to our bed but I am not bothered.
Celia: Everyone mourns a certain way. Let her be. She will come round. See you guys tomorrow
Celia arrives with a flourish, in her long gown and cropped hair dyed a flaming red.
Short red hair. Are you sure you haven’t become a lesbian?
Celia’s mouth hangs in an O of surprise.
Tom, you didn’t just say that.
I am quoting madam.
Celia looks from me to Tami.
Madam, am I hearing his master’s voice?
Tami laughs and flings a throw pillow at her.
Celia, my husband is not a dog and please leave me alone.
Her visit cheers Tami up and when Celia rises to leave Tami says something that makes me wonder.
I have been having these dreams with Teni asking me to take a look at something she is holding in her hands but I never fully figure out what it is. It is as if she is pointing me to something. I tried calling the red haired girl but she won’t pick my calls or respond to my texts. I thought she and Teni were 5 and 6.
These children and their friendships, you can’t hang your clothes on millennial friendship. See us, still friends after 30 years. Their own is summer crush.
We all laugh as we watch her get in her car and drive away. As we walk in I reach for Tami’s hand but she brushes me away.
Not now, Tom, Not now.
Sitting on the balcony with my whiskey, the darkness wrapped around me like a shroud, I make another attempt at unlocking the phone but give up when it sends a warning.
The next day, I drive to Computer Village.
Oga, give am to that boy, dem never make phone wey e no fit open?
We spend almost two hours and at the end of the day the boy is sweating.
Oga I be wan bypass the pattern lock but e no easy. The person wey get this phone na IT person?
As I drop two one thousand naira notes on his table and pick up the phone, I want to tell him that all millenials and GenZs are IT people.
Back home I drop the phone in my bedside drawer making a mental note to ask Tony when he gets home.
Everything goes in a blur. The vigil and service of songs as well as the funeral service and interment and it looks as if the whole school turned up except for Steph, the red haired girl. She really must be torn, I thought.
Tony is home and in the evenings we sit on my balcony while I smoke and drink whiskey and even though we don’t speak a lot, having him there helps assuage the loneliness and languor of grief.
Tami is still downstairs and still not talking to me. Tony and Celia and Mike keep urging me to give her time.
Then one evening, Tony and I are leaving the mall. As we get into the car he pulls out his phone.
Old man, let’s take a selfie with your overgrown beard.
And that is the moment I remember Teni’s phone that I dropped in my bedside drawer.
Tee, can you unlock Teni’s phone
It has a pattern
I know, Daddy. You have it?
Yes, it is at home.
The battery is low when I pull it out of the drawer and hand it to Tony.
Battery is low, Dad.
Just open it.
And he does.
There are about seven selfies from that night. Teni is perched atop the ledge that runs around the roof of the Senate building. It is a familiar locale for her. I have seen so many of her selfies taken there. In these final ones, she is laughing and sticking her tongue out. In three of the shots, the red haired girl is standing beside her and she is also making faces.
But the last file is not a photo. It is a video. Teni is moving. From the angle of the shot, she is walking backwards and trying to fend off someone or something.
Steph, stop. Stop. I could fall
That’s the idea
And with that we hear a cry and the camera is tracking the wall of the building and then there is a loud thud and silence.
My scream is a bomb going off in the quiet evening.