Winner of The London Magazine Short Story Prize 2018. This piece is taken from The London Magazine‘s June/July 2019 edition. Click here to buy this issue.
‘Your Uncle Kingsley is not well,’ was all my dad told me, his tone nonchalant, detached, as if he weren’t talking about his best friend since childhood. When teenagers, they were the Jagger and Richards of one of Nigeria’s most popular highlife bands. Frustrated by the corrupt politics they wrote and sang about, they traded their instruments for guns, and joined the Biafran army in its unsuccessful fight for independence. Neither expected to survive the bloody civil war. Many hadn’t.
For the first eleven years of my life, my uncle was a larger than life figure around our home. He affectionately teased my mother like a kid sister, indulged us kids like the Disney uncle he aspired to be, and whenever he and Dad were free of my mom’s policing, the two misbehaved. Which was why it made sense that Dad stayed at Uncle Kingsley’s apartment after he and Mom split up just after my eleventh birthday. No longer welcomed in our house, my older brother and I spent a lot of time visiting with our dad there. Uncle Kingsley’s apartment had never seemed like such a bachelor pad until then, with its fully stocked bar, loud funk and soul music, a collection of instruments for the playing, big bright muted television, raucous conversations, and the ubiquitous women hanging around. There were always two.
‘You look just like your father,’ they’d say to me, making me squeamish. Dad would smile, rubbing my head like the compliment was aimed at him, proud of himself, like he’d done good.
I could never bring myself to ask Dad how he and Uncle Kingsley knew the women. Or which woman was with who. I could never tell. They kept things platonic around us, making fun of one another, trading playful licks, acting like my friends and me did. To bother me, my brother joked about all the kissing and touching and doing it that was likely to go down as soon as we left. I didn’t care. Whatever the situation, I knew it was why Mom didn’t let my little sister join us on visits.
Dad eventually settled down two-hundred-and-fifty miles away to start a new phase of his life. He had gotten a new job. It was a career change, with a benefits package that locked him in well into retirement. An immigrant dream come true. I didn’t care enough to ask what he did. He didn’t share those types of things with us kids, things about himself, like what was going on with him, what excited him, his frustrations. I knew he was a dreamer, though. Telling by the time he liked to spend alone, he had to be. I couldn’t control my daydreaming and knew I must’ve gotten it from him. My mother was too reactive to dream, and busy as hell, too. A black working single mother. Plus, she didn’t like to be alone and was hyper- social.
When Dad was in town, I could never tell whether it was for business or pleasure. He stayed in four-star hotels, wore expensive suits, and supposedly had meetings to attend. Whenever I visited in the evening, it felt like the gatherings from Uncle Kingsley’s apartment had relocated to his hotel room.
By this time, I was also in the throes of a new phase of my life: adolescence. Girls were at the centre of my mind, so Dad and Uncle Kingsley’s popularity was something that an insecure, pimple-faced kid like myself found inspiring. The girls they knew didn’t care about them being Nigerian, unlike the girls I knew.
‘Like, where is Nigeria, anyway?’ ‘Africa.’
‘Like, National Geographic?’
Spending time with Uncle and Dad, I figured, if the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, the fruits of their good-time, party-boy camaraderie were mine to inherit.
Then again, my dad was the product of a polygamous family – his father was the husband to six wives, his mother the first wife. There were too many aunts, uncles and cousins to keep track of – every Nigerian I met could have been a blood relation for all I knew. As an immigrant, though, that way of life became a foreign concept in view of the Western aspirations he had for his family. Meaning that for him there was one wife. The others had to wait on the sidelines. As for me, an American citizen, it was simple: college, more college, and a well-paying job with good benefits. There would be time for girls later, when he felt I was ready to be arranged with one.
‘You’re so handsome,’ Uncle Kingsley’s lady-friend flirted.
‘If he wasn’t your son…’ Dad’s anonymous “friend” playfully intimated.
I’d just returned from a swim in the hotel pool, annoyed after my dad lectured me about what to do about my acne. As if I had any control over puberty.
‘Leave my main man alone,’ Uncle Kingsley jokingly defended, putting his arm around me. He then teased Dad, as only a close friend could. ‘If you go slap him-o,’ he proclaimed in pidgin, regarding my Dad’s past skin problems, ‘his face dey go explode-o! Pow!’ The laughter was boisterous and good-natured. It was times like this when I felt privileged to be included into their circle, then at the same time, I resented the circle’s existence.
Things changed my senior year. Dad was back to staying at Uncle Kingsley’s again. He didn’t say why, but hinted that Uncle was depressed. My brother and I couldn’t tell. He seemed as lively as ever, joking and reminiscing with Dad, teasing us about our baggy clothes and nappy hairstyles, making plans for us all to visit Nigeria, know our village. He cooked huge spreads for us. Nostalgic, once he and Dad dusted off a couple of guitars and played some of their old highlife songs, something they had never done. It was like we had always spent time this way. I hardly noticed the absence of their lady friends.
For a while, Dad paid frequent visits to Uncle Kingsley, sometimes coming to town just for the day. Then he stopped cold. I’d ask about Uncle Kingsley, but Dad would only shrug and say, ‘You should go see him.’ I said I would, and I planned to, I wanted to, but ultimately going without Dad put Uncle out of sight, out of my self-centered teenage mind.
I was out of my teens, and on winter break from college when I saw Uncle Kingsley again. I’d heard in passing about his family back in Nigeria, but every seemingly unattached Igbo man supposedly had a family ‘back home’, so it was disorienting when his family met us at the door. There was a son my age and a daughter a few years younger. Both greeted Dad traditionally, like an elder, and were tepid when he hugged them as if they were one of us. We followed suit, respectfully addressing their mom as Auntie, though we’d never met her. She greeted us like celebrities, hugging us, admiring us, going out of her way to make us as comfortable as possible. With Dad, she was civil, like a boxer greeting a longtime former rival, the opponent who left the most significant scar.
Nothing could prepare us for what we saw next. Uncle Kingsley was in a wheel chair, he was in a vegetative state, drooling. Dying. He was hardly fifty-two. My brother and I had asked several times what was the matter with Uncle, but Dad never told us; he said he didn’t know, but we knew he only said that to protect us. Protect Uncle. Protect himself. All we could do was speculate.
I had never seen Dad so shaken. Though he had had an idea of Uncle Kingsley’s deteriorating condition for some time, he never expected such a horrific sight. Fighting back tears, as he held Uncle’s hand, he introduced his new wife. She introduced my half-brother, born three months premature and now a strapping two-years-old. He was Dad’s miracle, his do-over.
Watching Uncle Kingsley’s eyes twitch, his only way of communicating his adoration for his newest nephew, Dad was at a loss for reason. In the same year, he’d lost his mother, the family matriarch since the death of his father twenty years earlier. Still traumatised by all the surgeries it took to keep my baby brother alive, Dad had been overwhelmed by grief, crying incoherently about being an orphan, while listening to Prince Nico Mbarga’s classic tribute to the most cherished treasure, ‘Sweet Mother’, wishing that he would be taken too so he could be with her again. That was until his eldest brother passed away soon after her burial. A broken heart, family believed.
Sitting closely across from Uncle Kingsley, Dad couldn’t take his eyes off him, quietly staring deeply into his eyes, like if by doing so he could snap him out of his state and will him back to health. Make him normal. Because witnessing Uncle suffer such an inexplicable fate was incomprehensible to him, a turn of events that never so much as crossed his mind. Because they were Igbo boys, cut from the same indestructible Nigerian cloth. Turning to a god he and Uncle never feared as much as their tribe, he questioned his own mortality, asked why him, why not me, worrying us kids about his frame of mind.
The instruments once kept laying around like a shrine, and the records that inspired their playing, were nowhere to be found, stored away or disregarded, as was the wet bar, the provocative nude art that titillated my younger imagination, and the scrapbooks filled with pictures of better days. Freer days. Instead, there were pictures of us first-generation kids – some in frames, many simply tacked to the wall – throughout the once-bachelor pad, and an evangelical scolding us through the television.
‘You all have become such men,’ Uncle Kingsley’s wife told my brother and I in Igbo, despite our crying like children. She then consoled our sister who was beside herself with empathic sadness, emotionally weary after years of rejecting our dad as she fought side by side alongside our mom.
It was in fact our mom who insisted she come with us. His illness had softened her, and the passing of time made her sentimental. She sympathised with what Dad had been through, repeating to friends she’d once spoken harshly about him to that she worried for him, ‘he is going through too much.’ She sent a home cooked meal with my sister; Uncle had always loved her cooking, and she’d been bringing his favourite Nigerian dishes to him and his family since their arrival. What he couldn’t eat, she mashed into a puree and fed to him. Auntie and her were from the same village and had grown up together and sat for hours catching up. She always made it a point to include Uncle in their shared memories. They’d had some good years in those early days, all of them.
With all of us incapable of seeing past Uncle Kingsley’s condition, it was Dad’s young wife, a Yoruba, who took his frail, trembling hand and comforted him. His face was too paralysed to physically convey emotion, but his eyes smiled at her. ‘Handsome man,’ she doted, moving Uncle Kingsley to tears. ‘Lovely, handsome man.’
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