BITTER PERCEPTIONS: CHAPTER THIRTY

Jide

My once immaculate D&G loafers—one of the few vanities I’d packed into my suitcase the day I left Shirley’s—hid the painful blisters acquired from walking around Surulere for three days. Neighbours cast suspicious glances at the haggard wanderer in the black shirt with sweaty armpit patches, ordering me to stop patrolling their environment and leave. I turned a deaf ear; as long as I didn’t harm anyone, those people could mind their own business. The sun blazed down on me without mercy, and I contemplated grabbing a third Coke from a roadside stall—the drink, not the drug—but settled for ‘pure water’ instead. That so-called budget hotel had burned a great hole in my wallet, and I still hadn’t found a permanent address. My goal to break away from Bass and become a successful businessman in my own right with the champagne lifestyle to which I’d grown accustomed had failed. No more luxury mansions and air-conditioned vehicles, instead I’d adjusted to travelling like the common man and gulping ‘pure water’ in the middle of Nowheresville when I couldn’t even afford deodorant.

      I cooled off under a withering mango tree and sipped slowly, watching the cars and buses zoom past, and few traders taking down Christmas tinsel outside their stalls. Did Isaac miss me as much as I missed him? Had that pretentious Bassey family poisoned his mind against me? What if I never saw him again? Bullshit legal system, it wouldn’t have surprised me if the Basseys had used their wealth to sway the court’s decision in their favour, and my heart bled to watch a ten-year-old kid pushed around like a pawn in their dirty game. And that DNA test… Mama had always pointed out my strong resemblance to Waste of Flesh. No-one ever noticed any similar features in the boy I’d raised as my son. And now the truth had come out. My late wife must have screwed other people before picking me as her unfortunate husband after screwing me at the same time. Why me? I’d loved Isaac with all my heart, promising nothing would ever separate us, vowing I’d always have his back. Even from beyond the grave, Shirley B still had to have the last laugh.

      I caught sight of a small storey building near an alleyway, the lower floor painted bright pink. How had I missed that, I wondered, walking towards the building with renewed hope. Only a hairstylist would cover their walls and sliding windows with countless Nicki Minaj and L’il Mama posters, and a faint smell of hair products hit my nostrils before I read the sign above—NIKKY ROSE HAIR AND BEAUTY. This looked promising. Without further ado, I walked inside the cheerfully-furnished salon, memories of the fictional Nigerian Hairways springing to mind. Four hairstylists—three young girls and a young man with bleach blonde dreadlocks and bulging pecs—attended to their clients, taking orders from the buxom woman in a pink blouse and black jeans. She had her back turned to me, bending over another client at the sink, humming to the latest Wizkid tune on the CD player, wiggling her curvy figure to the infectious rhythm. That figure, with the derriere I’d playfully slapped in the staff room behind the other teachers’ backs… That voice, with the pleasant feminine tones that mesmerised a whole audience when I assisted with the school’s Debate Society… She could never get enough of pink (Hell, those fuchsia undies turned me on like no man’s business the first time we did it). A true girly girl through and through, making a living out of looking good. An odd choice for a girl who had dreamed of joining the corporate sector. And I knew who was to blame.

      “Nkiru.”

      She let out an ear-splitting yelp at my reflection in her hairdresser’s mirror, the comb in her hand dropping to the lino-covered floor, her brain working twice as hard to process the scenario playing out in front of her. Could this be real—the runaway father finally returning after seventeen years? The customers and assistants sensed trouble brewing, pricking up their ears for juicy details, but I ignored their prying and tried communicating with the woman whose heart I’d broken, and whose family I’d dishonoured.

      “What are you doing here?” she coldly demanded. “What do you want?”

      “I am sorry. I am sorry for what I did, running away like that when I should have been a man. It was selfish, and it was wrong, but I want to see my son, and…”

      A mighty shove sent me crashing into a salon trolley, rollers and pins strewing across the lino. Several kicks and blows to my stomach and groin followed until the other stylists and a few clients restrained her. My timid ex-conquest throwing a mean punch? Not that her reaction wasn’t justified. Not very long ago, Doris left a permanent reminder of her eternal hatred on my face in front of her stunned co-presenters. Now it was Nkiru’s turn. Did the Jideofor Okoroafor Haters Army hold secret meetings where ‘Attack Before Listening’ formed the only agenda? 

     “Who is your son?” Nkiru’s shriek sent my heart pounding madly. “I say who is your son? Call him that again, and the only way you’ll leave my salon is in a coffin!”

     “Michael’s father…” I could hear the curious whispers circulating. “That’s Michael’s father?”

     “He finally showed up?”

     “He looks familiar…”

     “I just want a word,” I persisted. “You don’t even know what it’s about…

     “I don’t care, after nearly twenty years, you want a word? I’ll give you two—get out!” 

     “You can’t speak to me like that…” I replied stiffly.

     “Like you didn’t say worse when you were in Alvan? You’re a liar, and I hate you. Get out, and never come back.” 

     “Nkiru…Nkiru…” A middle-aged lady with a head full of rollers grabbed her enraged stylist by the shoulders and tried to calm her. “What is all this, eh? Why are you overreacting, and why deny Michael the chance to meet his father? No matter what he’s done, he’s still his blood…”

      “Are you joking?” replied Nkiru. “He disappeared right after he promised to meet my parents, then he dodged his graduation ceremony at Alvan to dodge me. ‘Oh, I just need to collect some important documents from my mother’s house, or they won’t give me the NCE’, he said. He swore he was coming back, but that was a lie. Before all that, he called me selfish and accused me of trying to ruin his life when I told him I was pregnant. He said it belonged to another man, but he knew I’d never been with anyone else before, and I had no other boyfriend when we were together. Who’s the selfish one now?”

      “He ran away after he promised to meet your parents?” the woman inquired, and Nkiru nodded mournfully. “Mr. Man, what gives you the right to upset Nkiru, disturbing her with your presence after all these years?”

      “Madam, that was then, but I’m not the same person I was back then. I’ve changed, and I realise I was the selfish one…”

      “I won’t argue with that, that’s for sure!” hissed Nkiru, scrubbing away her tears with her apron. “I’ve raised Michael alone nearly sixteen years, and I never heard from you. You knew my parent’s address, don’t lie. And now you spring from nowhere, demanding to speak to me?”

“I’m sorry,” I uttered. “I’m sorry. What I did was cruel and heartless, and I hope you’ll find it in my heart to…”

“Cruel and heartless?” Nkiru echoed. “Cruel and heartless doesn’t even begin to cover it! Do you know what I went through after you ran away? Both my parents nearly disowned me, and they still haven’t truly forgiven me for bringing shame to the family. You’re lucky my brothers didn’t find you when they went looking for the guy who gave their sister bele. Do you know I wasn’t allowed to write my WAEC exams with the other students? The principal refused to listen to anyone; as far as she was concerned, I’d made my bed and had to lie on it before I corrupted the other girls. Do you know I had dreams of becoming a lawyer? I had a future, and you took everything away, everything.” Nkiru’s customer shook her head sympathetically as a new stream rolled down her stylist’s cheeks, her voice cracking with emotion. “The only good thing to have come out of this is my son, my son. The same boy you wanted me to abort, and when I refused, you called me selfish and accused me of trying to ruin your life…”

     “Nkiru, I said I’m sorry,” I replied with genuine remorse. “I was wrong, but you’ve got to understand it wasn’t exactly a bed of roses for me either. I hardly had any money, I couldn’t have provided for Michael back in the day…”

     “Stop lying!” yelled Nkiru. “Don’t lie to me, you had money, you had a job with Bass TV. One of my friends from school thought she recognised your voice on some radio show, and she suspected it was you until she discovered the person’s name was Titus. Turns out Titus was you. I saw your picture in Ovation a few years ago at some rich people’s party, you and your wife were drinking champagne and mixing with high society without a single thought for the kid you rejected. Did you ever question his whereabouts? You knew where my family lived…” 

    “Nkiru, please let me make it up to you…”

    “How?” she snorted. “How are you going to make it up to me? Michael has his grandparents, his stepfather, his uncles… We don’t need you. My father saw that copy of Ovation and said “If he wants to come and see his son, he knows where we are. If not, then Michael is better off without a father like him.” And he was right. Maybe you’ve finally shown your face because I have my own business, and you’re trying to play me for a fool like you did your late wife; by just looking at you, I can tell you’re facing hard times. Or maybe you’re desperate for a son because that Shirley woman couldn’t keep her legs closed when you first got together. Yes, I’ve heard rumours, her son is not yours. And you called me a selfish whore when I told you I was pregnant—look at what you ended up with, serves you right! Why don’t you fight out your palaver in court instead of bothering the witnesses, and maybe…”

     Rumours? Witnesses? How did she know about the court case? I could think of one person responsible. 

    “Etim Bassey spoke to you, didn’t he?” Not that I needed a reply. “So that’s why you refuse to let me see Michael, because he paid you a huge sum to testify against me in court…”

     “Do you think everyone is like you?” she charged back. “I didn’t receive a single kobo, and I wasn’t threatened, but yes, someone from Bass came here asking if I knew a Jide Okoroafor. He took one look at Michael, and it didn’t take him long to figure it out.”

      “Nkiru, please, I love Isaac, and he’s the only thing I have left…”

      “‘The only thing I have left…’ See what I mean? You don’t care about Michael, you only care about a kid you’re not sure is yours because he’s your meal ticket…”

      “No, I didn’t mean it like that…”

      “Shut up! Save those pictures you saw on Facebook because that’s the closest you’ll get to meeting my son, the son you’ll never see in the flesh as long as I live. Michael is a bright kid, very focused, and I don’t want your selfishness interfering with his progress. He’s starting university next year, and he’ll go on to do great things by the grace of God. You ruined my life, but I won’t let you do the same with his, we’ll both go to jail first.” She lifted a curling barrel from her worktop and advanced menacingly towards me as if a rabid stray dog had invaded her salon. “Go now, or I’ll brand your rapist nyash for life, and I’m not joking.” 

     “Don’t pretend you had it all bad—you must be doing pretty well for yourself if you own a place like this…”

     “Shut your mouth, you don’t know what you’re talking about!” she fired back. “Do you know how difficult it was, raising money to buy this place from the original owner? Do you know how bad it felt when my parents refused to send me to university after I dropped out of secondary school? Have you any idea how tough it is learning a trade when you have a baby attached to your hip?” She waved the smoking-hot tool in my face. “Go, and buy some Sure roll-on, you stink!” Kick a man while he’s already down, why don’t you?

      “Oga, better do as she says. Take your ‘smell-smell’ ass out of here before I drag you out myself.” The bleached dreadlocks hair stylist yanked off his apron and trudged forward dangerously, and I took a step backwards. What chance did I have against this Wrestlemania wannabe when I hadn’t eaten much all day?

      “Back off Blonde Marley, don’t you even think of touching me. This isn’t the last you’ve seen of me, Nkiru. I’ll be back,” I threatened. “You can’t deny Michael the right to know his father, and I deserve to know my son.” I slid the doors open and walked out of the salon, unaware Nkiru still had plenty fighting words left inside of her. She poked her head outside and roared loud enough to bring every nook and cranny of Surulere to a standstill.

      “Rights my ass! Are you thinking of going to court? Shameless man, go ahead, I’m ready to fight you. You can’t just show up at my doorstep demanding to see the kid you abandoned years ago. You lost those rights the day you ran away, and you’ll never get them back. Do you think any sane judge would allow you any rights after what you did to your wife? Shameless man, you are already out of our lives, so stay out. Everything you touch turns to shit, and I won’t allow my son to spend any time in your presence. And I’ll tell the truth if the Basseys call me to testify—you abandoned Michael, but accepted the other kid, because his mother was rich? Shameless man, go to hell…”

I heard several female voices trying to calm her down, and her ferocious curses faded into the Lagos traffic as I scurried along. She did have a point though. Was I in any position to show up at Nkiru’s salon years after I took her virginity and got her pregnant? At least she lived a life more secure than mine, and could sufficiently provide for her son. Our son. Unlike me.

      History had repeated itself once again. Everyone had everything. I didn’t own shit.

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