When my father was about to die he told me about a ghost he had seen.
My father was a good man in a general sense, but he was restless and knew nothing about parenting. Long stretches of time would pass when he would not see me and my mother. Months. Once, it was two years before he turned up.
My father and I, we lacked a proper relationship. We didn’t talk much, and when we did we could not agree on anything. Once he was so angry that he stopped the family car and ordered me out in the middle of Adeola Odeku in Lagos. I had to walk home. I was ten years old.
On his deathbed he said: ‘My son, listen.’
He stank of urine, faeces, suppuration and death. I kept a distance of one foot between us.
‘Do you believe in God?’’
‘The Devil? Satan?’
‘Not really,’ I said.
He laughed and this segued into a coughing fit. He spat a glob of green phlegm into a gourd beside him. It was almost dawn and a Judas cock crowed.
He shook his head, this skeleton who used to be full of life.
He said: ‘You think you can pick and choose. Don’t you realise that the existence of one necessitates the other? Where would light be without darkness?’
The lamp beside his head flickered. He could not tolerate the brightness of electric light anymore. Gaslight was what he demanded.
‘I never told you why I named you “Ikukoyi”, did I?’
‘It means “rejected by death”.’
‘I know you know. When you get to my age you like to say things just to remind yourself of them.’
I got up to leave, but he raised a weak arm. ‘Sit down, boy.’
He hadn’t called me boy in thirty-two years.
It hadn’t been easy to find my father. He liked his drink and he had never made a lot of money so I searched in cheap bars, beer parlours and palm wine joints in Lagos. I looked in Oshodi, Maroko, Mushin and Agege. I found him drinking ogogoro on the side of a road in Alakpere.
He was in his cups and did not recognise me. A thug tried to prevent me, said my father owed him money. Large guy, bald. He had what passed for muscles in Alakprere. That and a beer belly.
I had muscles forged from carrying luggage at Ojota motor park in the 1970s. We had a brief conversation.
The thug saw things my way.
My father said: ‘Your mother would only eat sardines when she was pregnant with you.’
‘Why are you telling me this?’
He wheezed. ‘You were born three weeks early.’
‘Yes, at Igbobi Hospital. I was jaundiced and I was in an incubator. I know this; my mother told me about it and that you were not there.’
‘As a matter of fact I was.’
This surprised me. The only names my mother had for my father were alakori and oloriburuku, essentially calling him a man of poor destiny. I had heard those words or variants of them throughout my childhood.
‘I don’t believe you,’ I said, but even I could tell that my voice held no conviction.
‘Listen: I was drunk that night. Drunker than usual. I woke that day and my hands shook with a fierceness that made it difficult to even bring out the money to pay for the ogogoro. I spilled the coins on the road a number of times. Shaky hands are nothing most of the time. You wake up, you shake, you drink, you stop shaking. That’s how it works. But on the day you were born, no amount of drink, no gin, no pami, no nothing could stop the tremors.’
I moved closer to him. I broke my one foot barrier because his voice was fainter. Outside there was movement as people started getting ready for the Lagos rat race.
‘The shakes became more violent and I dropped the shot glass I was holding. The last thing I remember is that small glass rolling into the gutter, leaving a trail of wetness where the ogogoro spilled out in a line. I woke up in Igbobi with an IV line coming out of my arm and into a bottle of fluid. I wished it was alcohol. They told me I had a convulsion. I had cracked my skull open when I hit the ground.’
I had heard this story before, stories of his drunkenness and debauchery, and I told him so.
‘Be patient. You’ve never heard this.’
A congregation of coughs interrupted him and I got him water, then sat even closer. If there was a smell I do not remember being aware of it.
‘I was lying on a hospital bed when a woman walked up to the edge and stared down at me. She did not wear the uniform of a nurse or the white coat of a doctor. I think she wore an iro and buba but no gele. To be honest it is difficult to remember what she was wearing, but her face, her eyes, her stringy matted hair…she looked like a mad woman, churning with anger and inner tension.
‘She said, “I wasn’t expecting to see you here. Have you come to see your son?”
“What? Who are you? I have no son.”
“Come with me,” she said. Without warning, but with a few economical movements she removed the IVs and I got out of bed. Blood trickled down my arms from the puncture sites. She turned and rolled her hips in front of me and I followed.’
‘I don’t want to hear about the hips, father,’ I said, slightly disgusted.
‘Your mother had fantastic hips,’ he said.
‘All right, all right. It was just a compliment.’
‘Perhaps you should have told her that before you left us.’ I wasn’t feeling charitable.
Before he left for the final time my father had a massive argument with my mother. I have no idea what it was about. I hid in the kitchen. When the shouting ended I thought it was safe to emerge. I heard deep breathing and some wordless grunting. I crept to the sitting room door and peeped inside. My father punched my mother with a continuous, methodical and calm rhythm. My mother was crouched on the floor and her head jerked back with the impact of each blow, but she did not cry out.
I was twelve and smaller than my father, but I was old enough to know one thing about fighting: For enemies larger than you, find a weapon.
I ran back to the kitchen, got a can of Raid and sprayed it in my father’s face, screaming at him to get away from my mother. Nothing like insecticide in the eyes to stop a wife-beating. He staggered about, hit the door before finding his way out, cursing me as he went.
‘Ko ni da fun e, omo olori buruku! Wa sise! Won a wa e, won o ni ri e! Omo iya e!’
My mother and I, we heard the water come on from the bathroom, and then his foot falls as he stomped out. The door slammed, and that was the last we heard of him.
‘The mad woman took me to newborn special care where you, my freshly-minted son, were bathed in light to get rid of jaundice. She pointed you out and we observed you through glass. You twitched a bit, but otherwise were still. I had an impression of my wife being heavily pregnant, but I didn’t think she would go into labour so soon. I wasn’t ready to be a father.
“I’m not ready to be a father,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You won’t have to be.”
“What do you mean?”
“It has been decided that the boy has no future. He will not survive the night.”’
It was bright outside. Dawn. Car tyres swished and horns blared, a young girl advertised plantain, and people conversed, all brought in through the window.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘She was wrong, father, because here I sit decades later, very much alive. You were right: she was a madwoman.’
‘It’s not that simple. When she said it she ripped my heart to shreds. I was afraid. I started begging her. I did not know what power or authority she had over your life or who “decided” you had no future, but I appealed to her.’ He wheezed, hawked and spat. ‘She just looked straight into my eyes, as if she was ignoring my supplication. She raised a hand to silence me.
“Why?” She asked. “Why should this boy live? Tell me. Give me a reason. What is his future?”
I said everything I could think of. I would love him, I would make sure he became a doctor to save other people’s lives. He would become Head-of-State and end the civil war. He would help Nigeria manage the oil resources. I deserved a son because I had fought in Burma. I did not deserve a son, but my wife did because of her long-suffering nature. I lied. I told the truth. I invoked God. I spoke of evolution. Then I was quiet because someone came in, a nurse leading a woman to an incubator cot. I looked at the woman-a mother of one of the other premature babies. When I looked back to the madwoman she was gone.’
‘What do you mean “gone”?’
‘I could not find her. I ran out, down the corridor in both directions, but she was nowhere. While I was looking the nurses found me. I struggled with them, but my head wound started bleeding again and I blacked out. By the time I came to I was back on the bed with IVs and two days had passed. You and your mother had been discharged home. You survived.’
I scoffed. ‘And you did not keep any of your promises.’
‘I tried my best.’
I snorted and got up. ‘Your best. Right. Father, you imagined the whole thing. You had a guilty conscience or you were still drunk. You already said you hit your head.’
‘She was a ghost, son. Oku orun. There is no doubt in my mind.’
‘Your mind is not exactly reliable. It hasn’t been for a long time.’
He shook his head from side to side, but said nothing. He closed his eyes.
‘I’m leaving the country,’ I said.
‘Tonight. I’m going to Brussels first, then I’ll try to make my way to London. Maybe I’ll end up in Houston.’
‘How are you paying for it?’
‘I saved up money. I’m only here because my mother, your wife, said I should see you before leaving. She said it was the right thing to do. She made me promise. I’ve seen you now, fulfilled my promise. Goodbye, Father.’
In response he turned to the wall, kept his eyes closed. I left the filthy flat.
I never saw my father again.
I did, however, see the madwoman of Igbobi Hospital.
It was on the plane to Belgium. I went to the toilet, closed the door. When I looked in the mirror, there was a woman squeezed into the small cubicle with me, staring with intensity into the glass.
‘He was not dreaming,’ she said. Then she opened her mouth and I saw teeth filed to sharp points. She was about to bite my shoulder…
I screamed and turned around but she was gone.
The flight attendants (we called them stewardesses back then) led me to my seat, thought I was on drugs or fell asleep and had a nightmare.
Me, I don’t know. I still don’t believe in ghosts, but I saw what I saw. Part of me even thinks I felt her hot breath on the back of my neck. Maybe it was in my mind. Guilt over leaving my father ill, no matter what kind of oloriburuku he was.