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19/01/2015

Homecoming

Ayobami Adebayo

His widow did not see him come in, but we did.

He wore the same clothes he’d had on when he left for work about five weeks earlier, black suit, white shirt and a slim blue tie. He stood in the doorway for a moment, as though he expected her to look up, smile at him and apologise. She pulled at the ends of her headscarf and turned the page of the newspaper she was reading.

He shut the door and went into the sitting area without removing his shoes. Maybe he thought that would get her to talk to him. They’d argued so many times about the kind of shoes that could be worn on the cream rug that covered the floor. She placed the newspaper on her lap and rubbed her forearms the way she always did whenever she felt cold.

When he removed his jacket, we saw it: the massive blood stain that covered his back from shoulder blades to the point where his shirt disappeared into his trousers. The shirt clung to his back, obviously wet, as if five weeks later, the impact wound that had killed him was still bleeding.

He folded the jacket in two and put it on the arm of a black leather chair, the one he always sat in after they’d had a big fight. She’d never once abandoned the love seat they bought two months after they got married. He was always the one to get up in a huff and go to his black chair. We don’t think he ever told her that it was a gift from Lope, his ex-girlfriend, the girl he’d once thought he’d marry.

He sat in the leather chair and stretched out his legs, waiting. For what? The truth is that throughout the ten months they were married, she was always the first to apologise. Their fights always ended the same way, with her on her knees in front of him, asking for forgiveness, even if he was the one who had been in the wrong. After she apologised, he would play with her hair and say he was sorry too. It was starting to bore us, their predictability. The couple that left before he moved in here four years ago was much more fun.

That night, he waited while she made her way slowly through the newspaper, reading every article the way she had done each night in the two weeks since her mother, his mother and all the other mourners left. Now and then he would clear his throat and give her a sidelong glance. He must have realised eventually that she was not going to get on her knees before him that night. So he did something he had never done before, he spoke to her before she apologised to him.

‘I came home in a taxi,’ he said to her. ‘The driver was really nice, he didn’t take any money from me. Imagine that in this Lagos. My car’— His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘What happened to my car?’

While he shut his eyes and muttered softly about his car, she turned another page and moved closer to the centre of the newspaper, where his obituary lay next to an engine oil advert. He opened his eyes.

‘Maria,’ he said, jabbing a finger in her direction. ‘About this morning. You need to learn to trust me. Yes, I was chatting with Lope last night, but you too shouldn’t have snooped through my phone. You had no right.’ He leaned back after he said this and glared at her.

She looked up briefly, in his direction, in the direction of the chair she’d told her mother she would always keep because it had been his favourite. When she shook her head slowly and returned her gaze to the newspaper, he sighed.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘You had a right to. But, but, okay there is no but. You had every right to look through my phone. And since you did, you must have seen that I was just telling Lope how to move on. Look. Did the convo go on for too long? Maybe it did. But it’s not as if I stayed up just to talk to her. You know I was studying for ACCA. That is why I was up. The convo with her was just on the side.’

She rubbed her eyes with the back of her right hand. Then she looked towards him, her lower lip held between her teeth, her eyes sorrowful.

‘Look,’ he said, leaning forward in his seat. ‘I know you think I still have feelings for Lope but Maria, I married you. You. Listen, after she sent that picture of her boobs last night, I stopped talking to her. You read the chats. You know I didn’t say anything after that. And if you think I just deleted the things I said, why wouldn’t I have deleted the picture too? Maybe I should have told her off when she sent the picture but I thought, I thought silence was better.’

He was telling her the truth. We had seen him shake his head and turn his phone facedown on the glass-topped dining table after the picture came in. He’d gone back to his books after that and the phone had stayed that way until he went into the shower around five a.m. The next person to touch it was Maria. That was how their last fight started while he was still in the bathroom. It lasted through his shower, her shower. Their voices rose as they both dressed up. He dressed up quicker and stuffed the slim blue tie into his pocket instead of putting it on. She’d followed him to the door, her tailored shirt still unbuttoned, shouting questions he refused to answer. He’d slammed the door as he left and she’d leaned against one of us and sighed before stomping back into their room to finish dressing up for work.

Now, she sniffled as she turned another page and though she was not at the centre yet, even though she still had a couple of pages to go before the engine oil advert, tears were already trickling down her cheeks. He stood up and went to sit beside her in their grey loveseat. When he sat down, her body went still, and then it vibrated violently and went still again. She wiped her face with both hands and glanced at the spot where he sat to her right. She must have sensed his presence. Somehow, her body had sensed what her eyes could not perceive. They sat that way for a few moments, looking into each other’s faces with only one seeing the other.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry I hurt you.’

Maria reached out towards him. She let her right hand hover over his side of the loveseat, just a few inches above the knees she could not see. Then she pulled the hand back and put it over her heart. He touched the ends of the black scarf that covered her head, rubbed the fabric between his thumb and forefinger.

‘Come on. Talk to me. Aren’t you even surprised I said sorry first?’ He pulled off the scarf, exposed her shorn head. ‘What the—Maria? Where’s your hair?’

Maria did not shed a single tear as her hair was shaved off the day after it was confirmed that the body road traffic officers pulled out of the wreckage on third mainland bridge was her husband’s. She sat with her back stiff and face dry as one of her sisters in law snipped away with a pair of scissors at her thick brown shoulder length hair. It was Maria’s mother who leaned against one of us, covered her face with both hands and wept. Sitting in the chair her husband had sat in while he chatted with Lope, Maria leafed through the textbooks he had neglected to put away in his hurry to get out of the house. Some of her hair fell on the pages. Her tears came later, after everyone—her mother, his mother, her sisters, his sisters, women who had come to comfort her and make sure she mourned the right way—went back home to their own husbands.

She was now on the obituary page of the newspaper. She lifted it as she always did when she got to this page, shifted to the left so she was closer to a light bulb, as though if enough rays shone on what she was reading, something would change, maybe the words, maybe the picture of the man she had married.

When she raised the newspaper, he stood up and leaned forward so he was looking directly into his own face. The picture had been taken at their traditional wedding. In it, he was decked in brown and gold. Two strings of coral beads hung around his neck, and his mouth was wide open, caught in the middle of a laugh. He shook his head as he stared at the page, at his funeral arrangements, at the list of friends who had signed their names in the bottom right corner.

‘Maria,’ he said. ‘Maria, please stop this nonsense. You can hear me, Maria, you can hear me. I’m alive, Maria. I’m here.’

She covered the face in the newspaper with her palms, bowed her head and sobbed.

‘Come on,’ he yelled, backing away from her. He stood in the middle of the room, watching her weep, shaking his head over and over.

‘I’m alive,’ he said. ‘I’m alive.’

And then, he came to one of us, the closest one to him. Perhaps he thought we would be the measure of what he had become. When he pressed his body against that wall and shut his eyes tightly, every one of us could feel him trying to breach us, trying to get through paint and concrete and steel to the other side. He did not break through, but somewhere in our foundations, we cracked. When he opened his eyes, he looked around and finding himself still in the living room and not in their bedroom, he smiled, went to Maria and knelt before her.

‘Look,’ he said. ‘I’m here, I’m alive. You have to listen to me. Stop crying. Stop. Please.’

Then, he tried to hug her. But his arms disappeared into her body so that he was not holding Maria but had his hands stuck in her. When he pulled them out, she shrieked and cupped her shoulder, the points where his hands had been. His gaze moved back and forth between his hands and her tear- and snot-streaked face.

‘No,’ he said. ‘No way.’

He tried again. This time he tried to hold her at the waist, but his hands got stuck inside her and when he managed to pull them out of her stomach she yelled, clutched her belly and doubled over.

‘Oh God, I’m sorry,’ he said, staring at his hands.

The newspaper had slipped from her lap when she doubled over. The pages were scattered on the floor around her feet. He turned them over one by one until he found the obituary. He traced his right thumb over every letter from ‘Gone Too Soon’ to the last ‘Esquire’ on the page. When he was done, he balled his hands into fists and howled. And the sounds they made, her sobs, his howl, became a single wave that shook the louver blades.

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