“A Quest for Sobriety” by Dami Ajayi
The quest for Olo’s sobriety begins one Friday night while his wife sits in a creaking armchair in their living room, staring intermittently at the ticking wall clock, waiting impatiently for him to return home to his dog-nose cold dinner.
Amope or Alice, as she likes to be called, is dressed in house clothes, a worn negligee and three yards of an Ankara fabric wrapped around her waist. Her loose clothes obscure her protruding belly. She looks over her shoulder at the dining table laden with food flasks, cutlery and a plastic bowl half-filled with water. She shakes her head and shrugs in time to the gate’s creak. Moments later, she hears a key turn in the door lock and her husband staggers in, reeking of beer.
“What are you doing up at this time of the night,” he asks, bolting the door.
“I should be asking you that question,” she says, still sitting but not sitting still; her legs are vibrating.
Olo mumbles, looks at her, at the wall clock, at the fluorescent light that illuminate the living room, then squints. He begins to say something and then stops.
“Your food, abi?”
“No, I am not hungry.”
“How can you be hungry,” she springs up. “Tell me, how can you be hungry when your stomach is full of all the peppersoups in town? I leave work very early to go to the market to buy vegetables, fish, oil, yam. In spite of my state, I pound yam soft as an ear lobe and you are here saying you are not hungry. You must be hungry. You must summon your hunger from wherever you hid it; this food is not going into any waste bin.”
She removes her wrapper and doubles it over, swings it around her waist and ties it firmly, battle ready; her eyes train on her husband and the white curtains adorning the doorway.
Olo knows he has lost this fight even before it begins. He walks a few paces back and falls into a chair with a sigh. “Oya, go and bring it.”
She bats her eyelids at him for about three seconds then proceeds to the dining table. She mumbles something about unfortunate husbands whose heads have been swiped by the intimate side of other women’s wrappers and heads into the kitchen.
Moments later, she emerges from the kitchen bearing a tray of steaming hot food. As she walks towards her husband, she hears his snores. He has sunk into an armchair, arms splayed, feet shod; the stench of alcohol rends the air.
“Ologunlade,” she says, setting the tray down with a sigh. She rocks his shoulders carefully to nudge him from the alcohol-induced slumber, to no avail.
She shakes her head, her mind churning and churning at the unfortunate downturns of matrimony. This is not exactly what she had in mind when Olo approached her that day at the out-patient clinic sporting a genial smile and an oversize white coat, asking her for her name and age and marital status.
She sighs and disappears behind the white curtains.
Alice’s scheme for her husband’s sobriety hatches in her dreams, for she wakes up the next morning with a start. In less than five minutes, without considering weekend house chores or even the possibility of the mandatory environmental sanitation that is held on the last Saturday of every month, she waltzes out of her room dressed in a blouse, wrapper and head-tie of the same batik fabric.
Still splayed on the chair, lifeless save for his whistling snores, is Olo, her husband of two years. His last night’s dinner still lies on the stool, untouched, probably rancid, but this is the least of her concerns. She hisses as she adjusts her wrapper and steps into the brand new day.
Alice walks a short distance to the junction and flags down a languid taxi. The poor taxi’s chassis cringes as she lowers her weight into the passenger’s seat. She attempts and fails to shut the car door three times. It takes the timely intervention of the frustrated driver, who over-stretches his hand across her gravid belly, to shut the door properly. Door firmly shut, the old Datsun, whose road performance may be attributed to a resilient mechanic’s industry, coughs ashen bellows of smoke as it crawls towards her destination.
It takes Alice three hours of vehicular travel and another long winding walk to arrive at her destination, Pa Ologunlade’s compound at Owena. She is greeted by that rustic smell of village life. A cat using a wooden bench as a runway on the balcony appraises her. She unbolts the small door at the entrance and walks into the living room where she finds her father-in-law’s trophy wife admiring herself in a mirror the size of her palm.
Ayike stops and frowns. She leers at Alice like she would Olo’s mother. Olo’s mother was one of the kept women from Pa Ologunlade’s railway days; heydays when he flung his wild oats between the legs of nubile girls whose villages were along his train’s route. How ironic it is that Pa Ologunlade’s legitimate children have not turned out well; his first son attempted and failed severally to sell his father’s only house to an Agro-allied NGO. His first daughter, a retired tailor and twice a widow, recently moved back to her father’s compound when her late husband’s family flung out the lightest of her personal belongings after a Saturday family meeting. Worse, she’s also barren. This rather confounding turn of events irk Pa Ologunlade’s wives and they regard Olo’s mother with such potent and long-suffering envy that it has invariably been passed down to her daughter-in-law, wife of the illegitimate star son of Pa Ologunlade, the retired railway worker.
With both hands sitting on the upper edge of her wrapper, Alice greets her father-in-law’s latest wife, a mere girl, certainly her younger sister’s mate. Without anticipating any form of response, she proceeds to ask after her father-in-law. Ayike, busy in the mirror, points in the direction of the backyard.
Smoke whorls from Pa Ologunlade’s tobacco pipe, obscuring his lean frame in the reclining wooden chair. The octogenarian indulges in a post-prandial smoke as his daughter-in-law kneels before him. His response nearly goes down the wrong pipe, making him cough and sit up and pat her back while still coughing arduously from a cancerous growth that will eventually rid him of his life.
“Sorry sir, sorry sir,” Alice says with clear-eyed concern. The old man puffs again from his tobacco pipe.
“Amope, my daughter, how are you and your husband? We see you today. I hope there is nothing wrong. Or did your husband send you with the usual,” he smiles the suggestive smile of a corrupt corporal.
“Not at all, Baba, your son is well, everything is fine. For now.”
“Yes Baba, for now. I have come to report your son to you.”
“Has he stopped giving you food money?”
“Did he stop shaking you vigorously in the embrace of night?”
“Ah. Was he rude to our in-laws?”
“No Baba, he wasn’t.”
“I see. He dares not. He knows the kind of father who sired him.”
“So what has he done?”
“Baba, he keeps late nights. He indulges in too much drink. He returns home drunk, stinking of other women.”
Pa Ologunlade bursts into a spasm of laughter that makes him sit up again from his reclining position. Just when Alice thinks he is done, he riles into it again, laughing the knowing laugh of the wise.
“Permit me to thank you for that needful laugh, Amope. You see, I don’t seek to make a mockery of your report or trivialize its importance. But I find it really funny. Let me ask you a question. How many wives do I have?”
“Three, sir,” Alice says, showing three fingers.
“And how many concubines?”
“I say this respectfully, sir but I can’t say.”
“Exactly. There are some things you shouldn’t say as a wife. These women whose smell you perceive on your husband, do they come to harass you at your home?”
“Did they waylay you on your way from the market?”
She shook her head.
“Perhaps they pounced on you at the market and ripped open your blouse.”
“So you see. These women are lesser than you and they know their place as such. Why don’t you also be the Elephant that does not see the…”
“No buts Amope, have I lowered myself to the level of sharing talk time with you?”
“I am sorry, Baba, forgive me.”
“Did you perchance hear about your husband’s grandfather, my father?”
“No I didn’t.”
“He was a warrior, a hunter and fiercely handsome man. Tall and sexy, women loved to kiss the contours of his rippling muscles. He lived well. Married many women, sired many more children and died at a ripe age. On the evening he was to answer the call of the gods, he walked outside to welcome the late evening palm wine tapper. He drank to his fill and died while his wives pounded his yam. A drink was his last meal. Amope, my daughter…”
“Go home to your husband.”
Meet Olo, Alice’s husband, again. He is still lying on an armchair in his living room, snoring away his Saturday. He will wake up soon enough with a splitting headache and a mouthful of sputum and a spell of nausea. He drank too much last night. He drinks too much every night.
He is a medical doctor, by the way. Dr Jacob Abidemi Ologunlade. Ibadan-trained. Illegitimate son of a retired railway worker. Mothered by Ayoola, now an aging woman who used to be a heap of smiles, fawn of breasts and a spread of buttocks. Her smile is notched in its centre by a gap, a gap that comes alive when she smiles and her cheek dimples also show. That smile stirred the loins of a certain railway worker four decades ago; that smile erupted effortlessly when she held a clear bowl of water for him after he had consumed goat-meat dripping with stew that evening at her mother’s palmwine shed.
He smiled his thanks and she grew pitifully shy. She walked away quickly and her buttocks quivered, stirring the railway worker’s loins even harder. The railway worker decided, in the whim of the moment, that he must keep the night in that small village along his train route, damning all consequences: his waiting wife stirring hot Amala in an earthen pot in her kitchen, his colleagues at the railway station in the next town, everything.
Nine months later, while his illegitimate son was being born, he was pounding a train towards Jebba. It would take about another month for him to meet his circumcised son. He had come harmlessly to eat stewed goat-meat and drink a sweaty bottle of beer. He sat down and wiped sweat from his face while his order was being taken. Instead of an order being placed in front of him, a slightly plump Ayoola came in with a crying baby, her mother hovering behind her, their faces ominous and accusing.
The railway worker prostrated for the grandmother of his son and took the baby in his hands, welcoming him to his life with such joy, even though this would be his second son. He promised to be responsible for the child and respectfully rejected her mother, telling Olo’s grandmother that their transaction was nothing short of a moonlight play that had not dragged into daybreak.
Olo had the typical childhood of the son of a kept woman. He had several ‘uncles’ who frequented their house, offering him crisp notes and falling into the embrace of Ayoola behind closed doors. He remembers the repressed sounds he heard while straining his ear to the door. His mother usually begging for mercy; for a long time, he did not understand why she did not call on him for help. More confounding was that she returned from behind the door smiling, at peace with ‘uncle’.
Olo rode through western education on both the back of his uncles and on his own resilience. His first headmaster was an uncle. So was his principal who introduced him and his mother to the then Registrar of University of Ibadan. He still remembers how his mother had asked him to give himself a tour of the campus while she addressed some pressing matters with the Registrar.
His first bottle of beer was an uneventful experience. It was at a house party in medical school; a small can of Becks beer that tasted like piss. He had fought the urge to spit it out.
His second bottle was more interesting; he had gone to visit a buxom postgraduate student who lived at Agbowo. She had been very free with him, wearing flimsy house clothes and touching him lingeringly. She offered him a hot bottle of small stout. After their post-coital pants, she had told him she needed him to last long.
His third bottle was different. He strayed into a bar, lost in thought about his dwindling grades at school. The fourth bottle quickly followed. Olo, the illegitimate only son, had a conversation with himself over a bottle of beer and something, everything in him, changed.
Olo stirs in the chair and throws out his left leg, a meaty stick cue, which hits the stool laden with his dinner and sends everything crashing down.
Alice does not go home to her husband. She stands outside her father-in-law’s house as if it were a crossroad, her thoughts hazarding directions, her options a hodgepodge of impulses, snipped conversations, recurring actions.
A bleating pregnant goat waddles by. Alice looks up, but quickly looks down again, for the sun scorches her face. She begins to walk towards the junction, the corners of her mouth drawn out in deep, deep thoughts.
She wants her husband to become more responsible. She wants him to herself. Okay, well she can’t have him to herself all the time by the nature of his job, but how about most of the time? Can’t he come home on time smelling of pharmaceutical drugs and a whiff of soap, can’t he? Can’t he come home with a rouse in his loins? Can’t he look at me with eyes pregnant with desire once again?
Though she is pregnant, she is culpable of sexual desires, which she is entitled to by virtue of marriage. She remembers how long it took her to conceive. Her husband would return late at night with barely enough energy to eat dinner. Afterwards, he would start to snore and, by morning, he was off to work again.
Alice does not want to be a single mother in the guise of a married woman. Her complaints have risen above the purview of her father-in-law. She decides quickly who she should consult next.
She boards another taxi heading to her mother’s town.
Alice’s ingenious scheme for her husband’s sobriety detours into a visit to her mother.
This is how they met: a plump lady is walking out of the STI Clinic with a cellophane bag as a dapper doctor in an over-sized white coat is walking in.
They meet at the door. At the same instant, they stop for each other. Then they move towards the door together. Then they both step aside. Then they laugh.
He waits. She wriggles out of the door; the door’s diameter is her exact waist size. He watches the sinuous movement of her one-piece brown plaid gown. He looks at her fair face, into her deep brown eyes.
He is lost in thought as to what illness brought her, so that even after she leaves the door vacant for his use, he is still buried in his thoughts.
Something grips him and he changes his footsteps to walk briskly in her direction. He taps her shoulder and smiles again.
“You again,” she says, turning, amused.
“Yes. Me. Again,” he sports a boyish smile even though he looks quite funny in that oversized white coat.
“Are you a doctor?”
“Are you a patient?”
She laughs again. “I came to get my drugs,” she shows off her opaque cellophane bag.
“I am a doctor. I work here. What is your name, how old are you, are you married,” he spews out questions.
She smiles. “Which one do I answer first now? I am actually rushing to keep an appointment.”
“That is too bad. I guess I will run into you again, at a good time.”
He does, later that evening. He is heading to his favourite beer spot when he spots that same brown plaid gown. She is surprised when he taps her shoulder.
“See. I told you,” he smiles cheekily as he cajoles her into accompanying him for a plate of pepper soup.
“Go to the market and prepare his favourite meal,” says her mother.
Those are the exact instructions that Alice intends to carry out to the letter.
She goes to the evening market on her return from her mother’s place. The market is in full swing and the prices that soared high all morning and afternoon have begun their nose-dive.
She stops at the meat section where butchers in dirty singlets sharpen cleavers absent-mindedly. She buys the cartilaginous chunk of a female cow’s back. She moves to the fish stall and buys a huge, smooth-skinned frozen mackerel. She goes to the vegetable section and picks three bundles that she requests to be shredded. Then she walks to the stall of the wrinkled women selling locust beans. She buys dried fish; she hesitates when she sees dried stock-fish, but decides against it; Olo does not have a stomach for them. She picks fresh red peppers and a handful of tomatoes to suck in some of their raw hotness. The vegetables will suck in the rest, she thinks. She buys some grey mushrooms beside the yam stall where she picks a slender tuber of yam. On her way out, she retrieves her shredded vegetables, and just as she steps out of the market, she sees a coiled stretch of brown ponmo, the brittle kind that gives when bitten into. She buys it.
Upon arrival back home, she knocks on the door twice before retrieving her keys from her handbag. She finds her husband watching television.
“What are you doing at home,” she asks as she drops her perishables on the dining table.
“What were you doing outside?” he answers. “Today when I decide to stay at home, you are nowhere to be found.”
“I went to see Bisi. She lost her mother yesterday evening.”
“Eyah. A pity. What happened?”
“She died after her evening meal. She was old enough to go. She had seen her grandchildren and her first great grandchild is on the way. She might as well be on her way back.”
Olo laughs. Alice laughs. And for a moment, it seems all their marital angst dissipates.
“Let me fetch you cold water; you must be tired. Grief saps energy. So do condolences.” He disappears behind the white curtains.
She drinks to her fill and smiles. “If only you can stay this way. Be here every time I need you.”
“If only you can be patient.”
She looks at him admirably. “Even patience runs thin sometimes.”
She leaves her seat and sits on his lap. She begins to toy with his chest hair. He rids her of her headgear. And in very small purposeful actions, their clothes come off.
Alice cooks Olo’s dinner naked save for her batik wrapper draped over her breasts. She boils the meat in a broth spiced with fresh peppers so that the tenderized meat will taste slightly hot. Thoroughly washed and shredded vegetables spend about a minute in boiling water. She cleans the ponmo with the blunt edge of a knife and rids it of the dirty inner transparent layer. She soaks the locust beans in water and breaks the lumps so that the stones will drown under the water. She sets palm-oil in a pot to boil. She adds the gritty blend of onions, pepper, and tomatoes. She pours in dried fish, diced ponmo, locust beans and boiled mackerel to the simmering stew. She pours in the tenderized meat and its broth and covers the pot. She cuts the yam tuber in huge chunks and sets them in a pot to boil.
She pours in the vegetable into the simmering stew. An aroma rends the entire kitchen.
“Add this powder while cooking his vegetable soup,” her mother’s instruction comes to her again.
She looks furtively at the kitchen door and pours in the powder into the vegetable soup. She stirs and stirs until every particle blends with the vegetable soup. She quenches the gas flame and brings out the mortar and pestle.
She pounds the hot yam chunks to a white mass soft like an earlobe. She wipes her sweat with the edge of her wrapper.
She emerges from behind the white curtain carrying a tray full of casseroles, walking on egg shells in the direction of the dining table.
She hears a sudden grunt and becomes physically terrified. She looks back and finds her husband snoring. She sets the tray down on the dining table.
As she looks at her sleeping husband, she is suddenly overwhelmed by affection. She pinches the dining table-cloth hesitantly, then drags it with a sudden burst of energy that sends everything crashing down.
Amid the cacophony of crashing crockery and casseroles, Olo, still groggy, asks, “What is that?”
“Your dinner,” Alice says.
Dami Ajayi’s fiction has appeared in Gambit: Newer African Writing and Songhai 12: New Voices in Nigerian Literature. He has published two books of poetry to both critical and commercial acclaim. He passively works on a novel about contemporary Lagos when he is not editing fiction for Saraba magazine, composing esoteric tweets @ajayidami or listening to Highlife music.
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