Professor Nsikanabasi E. Ubong KSM. JP. was a creature of habit. Every morning, his alarm would go off at exactly 5:30am, after which he would kneel beside his bed for his morning prayers, have his bath, and drive off to the University Chapel for morning mass by 6:30. Forty-three years of marriage had granted Professor Mrs. Emem Ubong some reprieve from this daily ritual, allowing instead for an extra hour of sleep; or more accurately, semi-conscious drowsing. Being a light sleeper, she could hardly sleep through the shrill ringing of the alarm clock, the low rumbling that was all she heard of her husband’s prayers, or the shuffling, banging and splashing that accompanied his morning toilet. On a good day he would even hum to himself.
The real extra minutes of sleep came in those quiet moments after he left the house. She would hear the car rev into life, followed by the muted scrunching of tyres rolling over the gravel driveway and unto the cracked and dusty tarmac of Wadie Martins, and then: silence. She had grown so accustomed to this progression of sounds that sometimes, with her eyes closed, she could play them over in her head; so it was no surprise that on that particular morning, she heard them without hearing them, a fact she only realized when Mercy, their girl from the village, knocked on her door.
“Mummy, mesiere. Good morning. Please come, it’s Daddy.”
It’s Daddy. What could be wrong with her husband? He was probably turning into the church compound already. The girl only waited for a few seconds before:
“Mesiere Mercy. I heard you. K’en di. I am coming.”
She rolled out of bed and grabbed a wrapper to tie around herself. She took a few seconds to adjust her hairnet before opening the door to find the girl with one ear pushed close against the rectangle of air that now stood where the closed door had been.
“What is it Mercy? It’s too early for all this mbok.”
“Mummy, it’s Daddy. He’s in the car. Brother Tayo is with him. He said –”
In the car? That was when she realized that she had never actually heard the car start, or the scrunching of gravel.
Tayo was standing in the front yard, close to the car, which was still parked in its usual position. The windows were all down, and even from the veranda she could see her husband sitting in the driver’s seat, clutching the steering wheel and staring blankly into space. There was fear, and uncertainty even, as she walked over the uneven concrete floor of the veranda, past the wire mesh frame that held back the verdant hedges of ixora, and unto the gravel that covered the driveway, leaving Mercy hovering in the doorway of the main entrance.
“Tayo, what is it?” Not a stroke, please God.
“Good morning Ma,” he said, bending at the waist in that way that Yoruba boys had. “I was going to jog when I saw Prof sitting in the car. I know he usually goes to church at this time, so I came to see if everything was alright, but he refused to answer me, he just sat in the car. So, I asked Mercy to call you Ma.”
The thin fluorescent stripes on his running shorts gleamed softly in the early morning light. It was bright already, too bright for past six; she must have been asleep for longer than she thought. She was close enough now to hear two things; first, the tinny, distorted music blaring from the headphones wrapped around the boy’s neck, and then the barely audible mutters coming from her husband. Looking in through the car window, she could see his leg jiggling furiously.
“Nsikan . . . Nsikan, what is it? Nso – what is wrong?”
He ignored her at first, staring straight ahead until she reached into the car and shook his shoulder, “Nsikan, nso k’edi. What is it?”
He turned to look at her with eyes that were cloudy, unfocused, “Wha . . . Emem? Emem. My wife.”
“Yes, Emem your wife. Why are you still here? No mass today?” She had to keep him talking.
“Mass . . . yes, church. I . . . can’t remember. I was . . . I can’t remember.”
She pulled the door open, reached across him to unfasten the seatbelt, “Tayo, come, please. Help me let’s take him inside.”
I can’t remember.
It wasn’t a stroke, thankfully. Although sometimes, during the long days that came after the incident in the car, Professor Mrs Ubong found herself wondering if perhaps, a stroke would not have been better.
It was a forgetting.
It was stopping in the middle of a call with his grandchildren, unable to remember their names; or pausing mid-stride, unable to remember where he was, or where he was going to. It was slow – the wiping away of words on a blackboard – and steady – water leaking out of a cracked bucket.
In her sixty-one years she had known loss, but something about this slow wasting away of a person she knew and loved almost better than she did herself frightened and exhausted her in equal measure, more than anything she had experienced. Yes, she had seen it before; a script that had been acted out almost too many times to count, the macabre final act of the long play that was life, but to see it hit so close to home, hit someone of such intellect? It was almost too much to bear.
At first, he refused to acknowledge it, he had always been a little forgetful, and he was growing older; these things happened. And so, everyone turned a blind eye to the sentences that stopped halfway – Emem had always been able to complete his sentences anyway – the misplaced words, the mood swings. She took to writing down his appointments in a small notebook to help him remember, and when he began to misplace the book, on small pieces of paper that she tucked into his pockets. Tayo showed her how to set up reminders on his mobile phone, so she did that as well. After a series of short arguments, she was able to convince him to stop driving and get a driver, even if she had to give in and start attending daily masses with him. Mercy on her own part, took to the changes with a commendable level of stoicism, answering the same questions over and over again and recovering misplaced items – sometimes the same item misplaced several times. She didn’t tell the children – what would they do about it anyway?
Things went well, for a time, until the day he misplaced his wallet.
He had misplaced a lot of things up to this point, even misplaced the same wallet previously, but something about this loss seemed to irk him more than usual – perhaps the final realization of what he had lost and would still lose.
Emem was bent over a pile of scripts – it was exam season. Her head was pounding from poring over pages of crabbed handwriting and half-formed equations, and she was wondering, not for the first time, if this wasn’t the right time to start handing over the chore of marking scripts to one of those graduate assistants in the department. She was toiling over one particularly vexing submission – Is this what I taught this child? – when her husband walked into the room.
“Emem, I’ve told you several times, stop moving my things around.”
There was a quiet click as Mercy closed the kitchen door. Emem took off her reading glasses and set them down on top of the pile of scripts before turning to answer him.
“What do you mean Nsikan?”
“I’ve told you before. Where is my wallet?” His eyebrows were drawn close in a forbidding frown, above the bulky frame of the eyeglasses that shielded eyes that glinted in anger.
“I didn’t take your wallet Nsikan. Did you check the bedside table? I –” She had been turning back to face the scripts while talking, so she didn’t see him reach forward to grab her upper arm.
“DON’T TURN AWAY WHEN I AM TALKING TO YOU EMEM! I KNOW YOU TOOK MY WALLET. I’VE TOLD YOU BEFORE!”
His hand was shaking with barely suppressed rage. Emem on her part, was stunned into silence.
“Nsikan, ima mi – my love, what are you doing?” Her quiet words struck him like blows, and he let her go, visibly deflating as he did so. The kitchen door was still closed.
“Emem, I . . . I need my wallet. I can’t find it. Stop moving things around.”
That was when anger swept over her, a few seconds too late.
“What do you mean Nsikan? What do you mean ehn? Moving your things around? Are you a child? Why would I move your wallet?!”
When they were young, and newly married, Nsikan had been possessed of a terrible temper that saw him smash things when they quarrelled. He had never hit her, and the passing of the years had cooled the flame of his anger considerably, but now, she could see a hint, a shadow of that anger in the rigid cast of his stance, hands balled into fists at his sides and chest heaving. He was a big man, and now he towered over her in a way that she hadn’t seen in a long while.
“Me, a child? Give me my wallet Emem. Don’t annoy me.”
“Are you calling me a liar? I didn’t take the wallet. When was the last time you saw it? Maybe Mercy moved it while sweeping this morning. I –”
His palm came down on the table in a slap so hard that it made some of the scripts jump.
“What sort of disrespect is this? Everybody just moves things around in this house anyhow they like. I have told you to stop moving my things Emem, I’ve told you.”
He was still grumbling as he turned to head back upstairs, Emem was surprised to discover that she was shaking. The anger was gone, replaced instead by a bone deep weariness. She was still sitting there when, minutes later, her husband barged down the stairs and stormed out of the house. She didn’t ask if he had the wallet, and frankly she didn’t exactly care.
Three hours later, while driving all over the campus looking for her husband, Emem began to wonder if perhaps, she could have handled the situation a bit better. She had spent the first hour after the quarrel grading scripts, furiously circling errors and crossing out entire sections of text. Mercy wisely kept to the kitchen, leaving her with her thoughts. It was only after she was done with the last script that she decided to be the bigger person – After all she had done for the man! – and call first. There was no answer. His car was still parked in the yard, so he couldn’t have gone far. She waited another thirty minutes before trying again, still no answer. She switched tack and called Tayo, he would know if her husband was in the faculty. Her husband wasn’t in the faculty.
And that was how Emem found herself driving in circles round campus. She had been to the houses of all his friends, starting with their neighbours. She had even gone to the Senior Staff Club on Amina Way. He wasn’t in any of those places.
Wale – a family friend who was a surgeon in UCH – had warned her that this could happen. Try not to leave him alone for long, he could go out and get lost, or forget his way home.
Dementia. Her husband, a Professor of Organic Chemistry, celebrated far and wide for his intellect, was suffering from dementia.
She was approaching the University Chapel, Seat of Wisdom, wondering if she should check there, when her phone rang; it was Tayo.
“Hello, hello Tayo?”
“Ma, I’ve found him,” Thank God, “We are on Sankore Avenue, close to the Botanical Gardens.”
“Oh, Abasi mbok, thank God. I’m coming now,” she drove past the entrance to the church compound, turning left at the roundabout onto Benue Road.
“Tayo, can I speak to him please?”
“Yes Ma, hold on. Prof Sir, Mummy –”
Her husband’s voice was the next thing she heard,
“Hello? Emem, I’m sorry.”
“I know Nsikan, I’m sorry too. What happened? Where is your phone?”
“I left it. I wanted to clear my head. I went out for a walk and then I . . . and I –”
“You what, ima mi? You did what?”
“I forgot. I forgot the way home”
Over the phone, she heard him break down in tears, I forgot the way home.
Tomorrow she would call the children and tell them.
Somtochukwu Okoroafor works in a bank by day and is an aspiring writer by night. His work has appeared in two editions of the Uites Write October Stories anthology, on the WTA website and in the Premium Times newspaper. When he isn’t lamenting about the many woes of adulthood, he likes to read, argue and listen to classical music.
He currently lives in Lagos.
Photo by Khadeeja Yasser on Unsplash