Previously on THE RETURN
3 Weeks Ago
Cynthia Obiorah waited impatiently, her hand tense around the glass of wine from which she took occasional sips. She picked up her phone, punched in a phone number, and then put down the phone without dialing. Waiting had been easier while she’d been preparing lunch. But now that she was done cooking and had set the table, she found the wait rather unsettling. She fiddled with her phone for a bit, then stood up and began to pace nervously about the living room. She sat, stood and sat again. She smoothed her dress down over her thighs, picked up her glass, took a sip, dropped the glass, stood, paced a bit and sat again.
She felt a plethora of emotions running through her, from apprehension to curiosity to excitement. Her mind was bombarded with questions to which she had no answers. Why was he back? Why did he want to see her? What did he look like? Did he hate her? Was this finally what would fill the void, the emptiness she felt? What did he even sound like? He had refused to talk to her over the phone, preferring instead to interact with her through cryptic text messages.
Irrespective of whatever answers there were to these questions, she realized that her life was about to gain a whole new meaning. Whether this would be good or bad, she was afraid to guess at. But she knew without a shadow of doubt that things were about to become interesting. The thought of all that could go wrong terrified her, but the possible positive outcomes excited her too.
She took in a deep breath, the umpteenth inhalation she was taking to brace herself for the next few hours. She tried to relax, and her thoughts wandered. Her memory traveled as far back as thirty-three years ago, when she and her husband were a newly-wed couple, heads over heels in love with each other. She could have never imagined then that things would progressively turn this bad. She and Dike had been just too happy. And when their first son, Michael, arrived two years after they became man and wife, they felt like a complete family, a complete and happy family. Michael had made their joy almost insurmountable. Dike especially welcomed parenthood with an earnestness that she’d thought was unusual in men. He woke up multiple times at night to check on the baby, even when he wasn’t crying. And she observed the way he made sure to slide into every conversation he had with his friends the fact that being a father had completely changed him, even when these conversations had nothing to do with parenting. He was a proud dad, and she too knew the joy of motherhood. Michael was truly God’s gift to them.
It wasn’t until six years later that they had James. With him, as with Michael, it was love at first sight. Even as baby, it had been obvious that James would grow into looks inherited from her, from his beautiful caramel skin to the thick brows and lashes. Dike had joked then, saying, “This one should have been a girl o. See how he looks like you.”
However, welcome as his birth had been, it would also be the reason everything changed forever in her family, the presentiment that overcast their happiness, the push that set off their irreversible downward slope until they crashed and could no longer be bothered with being a family again.
Cynthia felt her eyes dew with nascent tears as she remembered. If she were given another go at it, she was certain she’d do it all over again. She would fall in love with and get married to Dike, and she would have her four wonderful children. There was nothing in the world she would swap her family for. And yet, she wished that things would be different.
Finally, the anxiously anticipated buzz of the doorbell came. There was a furious pounding behind her ribcage as she moved with small jittery steps to the door. At the door, she stopped to let out a final, heavy gust of breath. Then she opened it to see Sandra’s smiling face on the threshold.
“Hello mum,” Sandra said as she stepped forward into the arms that her mother had automatically opened for her.
They embraced each other.
“How are you, my dear?”
“I’m fine, thanks,” Sandra replied as she walked in. As she moved past her mother, she gave the older woman’s shoulder a gentle pat while saying, “He’s right behind.”
Cynthia nodded her comprehension. A moment later, the figures of James and Joseph turned into the compound. She swallowed hard as she watched them draw closer. Her attention was rapt on the son she hadn’t seen in nine years. Her eyes moved over him with maternal hunger, and she caught herself just in time from acting listless when Joseph stepped ahead of his brother to hug her.
“Hello, mum,” he said.
But her eyes were still on those thickly-lashed eyes that were staring back at her with a veiled expression in them. Joseph walked past his mother, leaving the two of them behind right there at the doorway.
Mother and son stood face to face. The tears had begun to flow freely down Cynthia’s cheeks. James moved closer until he was standing directly in front of her. The expression on his face was difficult to comprehend. Cynthia wiped the tears off her face, but the flow was seemingly uncontrollably, and she struggled to hold back, to maintain her composure.
“Mum,” James husked.
She’d heard that word several times in the past nine years from her other children. And yet, somehow, hearing it from James caused an shift of emotions to crowd her heart, a welcome congestion, and she let out a soft gasp and didn’t even bother with the torrent of tears that had begun to stream down her face.
“James…” she choked out. “My baby boy…”
“Mum…” James repeated.
She pulled him into her arms, and they clung to each other for a full minute, each unwilling to let go of the other.
“Alright, mother and son,” Joe called jocularly from inside, “that’s enough telenovela for the moment. Mum, I’m starving.”
Sandra had drawn up close to them, and placed a hand comfortingly on her mother’s back. “Come on inside, guys.”
Cynthia withdrew from her son. Her discerning gaze washed all over him, as if trying to take in all his physical attributes, to take note of the differences between him and the son she’d lost at sixteen. His face was wet, but with her own tears.
“It’s so good to see you, Jamie.”
He nodded his response. And they moved into the house. Sandra shut the door behind them.
As they approached the dining, James glanced around the spacious living room with its flawlessly-white walls, terracotta-tiled floor, and sofas whose leather covers beckoned. The dining room adjoined the parlour, and was slightly elevated from it by a couple of steps.
They settled down at the table. Sandra sat directly across from James, next to Joseph. Their mother sat on the end of the table which placed her in between James and Sandra. There were several chinks of dishware as bowls of the steaming combination of white rice and stew adorned with various assorted meats were passed around the table and spooned onto plates. They did not pray before eating. Cynthia did not make a big deal of being thankful for their daily bread; she did not cant her head with an austere look of admonishment directed at her kids for daring to dig into their food before acknowledging the Lord. That was years ago. Now, she was simply elated that they were all here together, enjoying what she’d prepared.
For several moments, only the sounds of mastication and cutleries clinking against the plates resonated in the room.
James was the first to speak up. “I must say, mum, even though you haven’t aged one bit and your food remains as delicious as ever, there has been quite some change around here.”
Cynthia placed her palm on his hand. “Change is a constant phenomenon, my darling.” She bestowed a loving smile on him.
“I couldn’t agree more,” James said as he returned to his eating. He was smearing a spoonful of tea over a small mound of rice when he added matter-of-factly, “The only problem is when things change for the worse.”
His siblings looked up to eye him briefly over their meals, while Cynthia kept her smile anchored on her face with some effort. Desperately clinging to the warmth of some moments ago that now appeared threatened, she said conversationally, “So, Jamie, what exactly have you been doing all these years? Did you study? Where? Do you work now and where? Do you have a girlfriend? And when do I get to meet her?”
It was a barrage of questions intended to steer the course of their talk away from the tension she could sense was starting to build up.
“Yeah, that’s true, James,” Joseph interjected enthusiastically. “When are we gonna meet Fran-Ches-Ca?” He said the name with a leering enunciation of each syllable.
“You’re seeing Franchesca?” Sandra queried, her brow dipping into a frown at James.
“Yes,” was James’s terse response.
“And you didn’t think it ok to mention that earlier?”
“Well, you specifically mentioned not being friends with her anymore.”
“So I didn’t think it would matter. More importantly” – he started to grin – “I was scared you’d cut off my head for dating someone you don’t like.”
“And how did you come to the conclusion that I dislike her?”
“Oh come on, Sandy,” Joseph cut in. “We all know you don’t like anyone.”
“You, shut up!” Sandra rounded on him.
“Come and make me!” Joseph retorted, blowing a raspberry at her.
Sandra made a face at him. “Oh Joe, what are you, five?”
Cynthia smiled to herself as the siblings squabbled. This was how a family should be. She was going to ask who Francesca was, but chose to let her children argue with each other instead.
They seem to be getting along just fine, she thought. The fact that they were together once more brought her so much joy, even though Michael wasn’t here.
As though he’d keyed into her thoughts, James turned to her to ask, “Where is Michael by the way?”
“He’s away on a business trip in Kwara State. He’s helping your father oversee a construction project.”
“Ah. The diligent son, as always,” James said with a sardonic smile. “And what’s with Dad? Why isn’t he here, seeing as he’s not in Kwara. Or is he?”
It was suddenly gravely silent in the dining room, and Cynthia found herself the cynosure of all the eyes in the room.
A quick smile flitted across her face as she offered a slightly harried answer to James. “Your father is a man with a very tedious schedule, Jamie –”
“Too tedious to meet his son who has been away for years?”
“No! Of course not!” Cynthia protested. “The thing is, he, uh –”
“Oh, never mind,” James cut across his mother’s words, his interruption terse. “I get it really. Priorities.”
“Jamie,” Sandra called softly, “believe me, it’s got nothing to do with you. Dad is too busy for any of us.”
“Right. You did mention that.”
The atmosphere in the room had taken a nosedive to unseasonable coolness, and undercurrents of tension had begun to tug this way and that. James felt a certain amount of guilt and disappointment for it, disappointment more so because he had promised himself not to let his father or the memories of their strained relationship sour this reunion. He loathed how much of a hold his father seemed to have on him, even now that he wasn’t around, how the man could make him so angry even when he tried not to be.
“So this has been where y’all have been living all these years?” he asked, his tone determinedly conversational.
Shortly after he ran away from home, his father had relocated the entire family from England to Nigeria. The isolation had proven to be a near breaking point for the teenage James.
“No,” Sandra answered. “We lived someplace else until five years ago. Then we moved here. And two years ago, I moved out, when mum wouldn’t stop with the marriage talk.” She rolled her eyes with mock exasperation at their mother.
Cynthia returned her an admonitory hiss. “So, my marriage talk is now what causes you to roll your eyes at your mother, eh Sandra? You this nonsense girl! You think you can just live your life anyhow. Don’t you realize you’re a lady and you’re not getting any younger?”
“See?” Sandra gave James a pointed look. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”
“You two don’t see eye to eye, got it,” James said with a chuckle.
“Mum’s a pro at nagging, trust me on that, bruh,” Joseph interjected. “She complains all the time about missing us, and when we eventually get together, all she’d do is nag, nag, nag.”
“So you two are ganging up against me, abi?” Cynthia wailed with exaggerated affront. She pointed a finger at Joseph. “You, ehn – you can forget your monthly allowance for the next one year.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Joseph protested with a gasp.
“Try me,” his mother shit back.
“It’d be fun to observe you two decking it out day after day under the same roof,” James said with a laugh that Sandra joined in.
“What? I’m never here o!”Joseph objected. “I can’t stand it when mum goes all preachy on me.”
“Keep quiet!” Cynthia fired at him. She turned to face James. “Don’t mind him. Don’t mind Sandra too. All these your siblings are acting like they’ve abandoned me. But I’m not abandoned o. I still have my dear husband.”
“Who’s never around.” The words escaped James’s mouth before he could stop himself.
“James!” Sandra ground out in a chastising tone.
“I’m sorry, did I say something wrong?” He was unrepentant.
“Don’t be like this, James,” Cynthia said. “Your father is a very loving husband.”
“That may be so, but he isn’t exactly going to get any Father of the Year awards, is he?”
He was doing it again, and he was powerless against it. He felt that familiar anger starting to simmer inside of him, causing his blood to boil.
“Things aren’t always as they seem, my son –” Cynthia began pleadingly.
Her voice came to a startled halt when James banged his fist on the table, causing a bottle of water to topple over. Joseph snatched it up before it could spill its content on the table.
“Why do you keep defending him?” James hissed at his mother through gritted teeth. “Why do you keep acting like he’s some kid who needs to be babysat, some invalid who needs to have other people walk on eggshells around? Why? Even after all these years, you just sit in silence as he does whatever he pleases!”
“So, a family reunion, huh?” Joseph interjected then, his tone richly sarcastic.
“Shut your mouth up, you stupid sod!” James rounded on him, his eyes flashing.
“You need to calm down, bruh –”
“I said shut your mouth!” He could feel the lava that was his anger, this all-too familiar emotion bubbling over the top.
“Or what?” Joseph retorted sharply. He was apparently starting to flare up himself.
“Or I’ll shut it up for you.”
“I’d like to see you try –”
“That’s enough! Both of you!” their mother rapped out, seizing control.
In the abrupt silence that followed, James shoved back from the table and to his feet. His breathing was deep and loud. He paced around, punching his left palm with his right fist. His mother and siblings watched him, none of them saying a word, their attitude collectively wary.
James hated being this way. He had been certain that this tidal wave of ugliness that had so much power over him in the past was behind him. He thought he’d stifled it, squashed it, tucked it away somewhere in the deep dark recesses of his being. But his unnecessary outburst just now had proven that he didn’t have the luxury of that confidence. He was suddenly not sure of anything. And as his mind roiled around in its relentless storm, he felt a prick behind his eyes. He blinked rapidly to stave off the angry tears threatening.
He stopped pacing and placed his face in his palms. “I’m sorry,” he finally said in a tone made husky by the struggle he was putting out to quell his tears. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just…” His voice trailed off.
“I think we all just need to calm down,” Sandra said.
James looked up and faced them. “I think I’ll just take my leave.” His expression was flat.
“No, we’re not done here.” His mother’s voice was gentle yet firm in her protest.
He turned to her. “I’m truly sorry, mum.” Dividing a look between Sandra and Joseph, he continued, “I’m sorry. I really am.”
“You don’t have to apologize, Jamie.”
“Yeah. It’s alright, bruh.”
“Come on now, take your seat,” his mother urged. “And tell me all about this Francesca girl.”
And Sandra groaned.
Written by Tobby