A welcome-home party was thrown for him at Ilaro, in his family home. My brother Wole, Mum and I travelled there to grace the occasion, collecting Baba and Maami on the way. This was my first time in Ilaro since Mum took me away five years earlier.
The party was already in full swing by the time we arrived. It was a typical Yoruba indoor owambe that had overflowed outside, and the house and yard were packed with uncles, aunts, cousins, distant relatives and friends. The women were all rad, clad in their native ashoke, buba and iro, with large damask headgears of varied colours and sizes on their heads. The men were sumptuously adorned in their agbada gowns, and festooned with coral beads, the boys in white agbada and red ashoke abiti-aja hats, and the dun-dun drumming streamed out loudly from the Damian family compound as singers and dancers mounted the stage set up in front of the house.
Despite all this festivity, there was an air of awkwardness on our arrival. Before we – Baba, Maami, Mum, Wole and I – got past the gate, one of the guests saw us and dashed inside the house. Dad emerged almost immediately and fell – head and agbada – to the ground to greet us. Brother Gbenro, Baba’s right-hand man on the family cocoa farm, came out behind him and followed suit. They got to their feet and Dad hugged Baba fully and tightly while Maami rubbed Brother Gbenro’s back – a pseudo hug perhaps. Somehow it seemed odd. Mum and Dad looked at each other. Mum stretched out her hand to shake Dad’s hand, but Dad went in for a hug. Time stopped. Mum did not hug back. I fought an urge to blurt, ‘What did he do? What was so terrible? If it was so terrible, why are we having a party to celebrate his release from jail?’ Other guests watched. Darkness flashed briefly in Brother Gbenro’s eyes as Mum’s eyes met his during the awkward embrace. Brother Gbenro hugged Wole and me together, and whispered, ‘Welcome,’ without looking at us. He felt cold, different from the uncle of my childhood.
We were taken around for introductions in the company of the adults. An awkward moment came when a large man with his back to us turned and Baba jerked and said, ‘Jesu!’ and looked shocked. The man bowed and touched his toes but Baba shook his head slowly in displeasure, refusing to acknowledge him. Maami, however, rubbed his shoulder and broke the moment. When the man straightened up I saw he was a dark giant with a full red lower lip and a full beard.
‘Boys, this is Uncle Ola,’ Dad said. ‘My best friend. He is responsible for organising this wonderful party.’
We bent to touch our toes, but the giant reached out for a handshake. We took a hand each, clasping them tightly between our two palms. ‘Ola, these are my boys.’
‘I need not be told.’ He smiled broadly.
The formal introductions over, we were free to mix with the younger people. At first glance it seemed very much a village affair, with most guests dressing customarily. However, after a while I began to notice there were some men present who did not blend in. They seemed, in fact, to hate the idea of doing so, wearing form-fitting brocade jumpers instead of the agbada that every other male was wearing. I first noticed one of them when he fluttered his fingers at me. I blushed and looked away: they talked and acted so feminine it sent icy shudders racing down my back. They clapped their hands dramatically at the slightest statement. When their hands were not clapping or mounted on their waists, they were thrust out like the legs of a cattle egret. Unfortunately Dad insisted on introducing us to all of them. When one of them touched my head during our introduction, it felt like a hundred soldier ants were pillaging my locks. I slapped his hand off a thousand times in my head.
I was relieved when Wole caught my hand and yanked me outside to join the throng of dancers.
Later, after I had danced myself into a sweaty mop, I returned to the living room to cool off and catch my breath. I sunk into a seat beside Uncle Ola. Dad joined us, oozing alcohol, drenched in sweat, laughing, alive, his locks all over the place.
‘You sure do know how to get your groove on,’ Uncle Ola said.
‘To commot for sanko na beans?’ Dad said, wiping the sweat from his face, panting, sprawling in the chair.
‘Flex my guy,’ Uncle Ola ordered him, and stroked dad’s thigh close to the hip. Dad put his palm over Uncle Ola’s hand and squeezed it, and rested his head on Uncle Ola’s shoulder and closed his eyes. An elderly female guest who passed by us at that moment hissed so loud that Dad opened his eyes. He looked at her and she glared at him, and he took his head off Uncle Ola’s shoulder and settled back into the chair instead. But he kept his hand where it was.
‘Wale, dear,’ Uncle Ola said.
‘Please go ask one of the girls to bring us some food.’
I got up and went over to one of the girls serving and delivered the message. She asked me what exactly they wanted to eat. So I went back to get their proper orders but they were no longer in their chairs. I looked around but did not see them. But I did run into the men with the cattle egret hands. They were quieter now. They were eating, and somehow seemed to be staring a lot. The one with the soldier ant palm called out to me:
I pretended not to hear him above the music.
‘Omo Tolu!’ he screeched again.
Someone tapped me from behind. ‘Boy! He is calling you!’ – another one of them. This one left his hand too long on my shoulder. He ushered me over to their nest, all the while with his hand on my shoulder. I hated it. I hated him.
‘Hello, Omo Tolu. How are you?’ the one who had called me said, making space and motioning me to sit beside him.’
‘Please sir, my name is Olawale and I’m on an errand for my dad.’
‘It’s nice to meet you, Olawale.’ His voice sounding like a strained accordion.
‘We have met before, sir.’
‘Yes, but you can’t recall my name, so it’s necessary we meet again.’
As if this second encounter with this man was not disturbing enough, the other men in jumpers were looking at me, into me, smiling.
‘My name is Biodun,’ he said, ‘and I don’t like being called sir. Sit.’
‘Okay.’ Reluctantly I did so.
‘I use to work for Baba, and was very, very close to Tolu, your dad,’ he said.
The man beside me nudged him sharply and said, ‘Haba Biodun!’
‘What?’ he said to him. ‘Am I lying?’ Then he turned back to me. ‘Even closer than Ola,’ he added, with emphasis.
‘It’s nice to meet you, sir.’
‘The pleasure is mine, darling,’ he said, smiling and crossing his legs. ‘You are a lot like your dad.’ – now squinting his eyes as he looked me over.
‘I only hope you don’t end up like him.’ He said this with a straight face.
‘Kai Biodun! E don do for you abeg!’; ‘It’s okay now, Biodun.’; ‘Omo you too talk!’ the men beside him said, speaking over each other.
I wanted to leave. In my head I had stamped on his feet and plucked out his eyes a hundred times already, and I liked it. But this close I saw that he was more manly than I had earlier thought. His body was skinny but his arms were toned, and thick with soft-looking hair, some of which spread across his chest. His hair was cut low, and he had a neatly trimmed and sharply-outlined moustache. His lips were dark with a dab of pink in the middle and his eyes were feline. And he looked at me like he knew that I understood the crap he was saying. Like he had stripped me naked a thousand times before our first introduction. Like he knew me in a way I was ashamed of being known. I didn’t know how he managed all that, or how I knew that we were more similar to each other than was convenient, though I did know that I hated this similarity to the core of my being. Yet I stayed, because a more decisive part of me wanted to be seen by Biodun, the part that was curious, that wanted to be led, to be surprised.
‘Abeg abeg! Wo! Let me talk o,’ he said, snapping his fingers and waving his palms in the air. When the chatter died down, he faced me again. ‘I’d love us to be good friends.’
‘We have a lot to talk about, when my friends will not interrupt.’
‘Okay, Biodun.’ I said getting to up my feet.
On turning around and walking away I felt stabbed by the eyes of everyone in the room, especially those of Baba and Maami, who were staring at me, at us, at whatever had just happened. For some reason, though I was guiltless, guilt trapped my feet. Baba motioned me to come to him. With difficulty I did so. He asked me whether I was being disturbed. I said no. He then instructed me to keep away from Biodun because he was a bad influence, and that if he ever approached me again, I should report it to him personally. Baba then motioned to Biodun to approach him. When Biodun came Baba ordered him to never approach any member of his family henceforth, ‘Even after I am dead.’ Biodun apologised, excused himself, went out through the door and did not return. His friends drifted away, talking quietly among themselves and casting glances at Baba. I went back to where I had been sitting, dried out, and wishing I could go home. But no: we would be here till the bitter end.
Shortly after, a masquerade dance drew all the guests outside.
I was about to follow them when, pushing his way through the crowd, Wole rushed in with another young man breathlessly in tow. For a moment I didn’t recognise him. Then I did: Seun, my best friend from school, who this party had been making me miss so much. How had Wole known? I didn’t care. It seemed all of a piece with everything that was happening that evening. I hurried into his arms. I held him tight. He squeezed back. The rush.
‘Walemi… This is you,’ he whispered.
‘This is me,’ I agreed, not understanding him.
Wole, perhaps bored with looking at the ceiling and waiting for us to be done hugging, coughed.
‘Oh, my manners,’ I said, breaking off the hug, Wole’s cough becoming convulsive, and pulling Seun to my side, my fingers in his. ‘Wole, this is Seun, my best friend.’
‘He almost strangled me with that same hug outside,’ Wole said.
‘I didn’t know Wale is a twin,’ Seun apologised.
‘Well, he is,’ Wole said, his hand around my neck. ‘And this carbon copy loves him so.’ He pecked me on the cheek.
‘I love you too, darling,’ I said, smiling, shocked for a moment, but looking in Wole’s eyes still.
‘Me jealous now,’ Seun said.
‘Oh don’t be, dear. This is a battle you won’t win,’ Wole said. ‘Meanwhile, your attire is fabulous! What is that, damask?’ – feeling the hem of Seun’s flowing, royal blue kaftan.
‘Yeah. I’m sorry I didn’t know the colour code,’ Seun said.
‘Mmm, see how Wale is glowing like egusi soup,’ Wole teased, winking at me.
‘Egusi ke?’ I said.
‘Abeg, I’m hitting the dance floor again,’ Wole said, ‘Man, those guys are killing me! See ya!’
Seun and I found a corner and sat. We talked and the years seemed to thin away between us. His hair was, as it had been even when he was eleven, snow-studded, but there were now soft strokes of sideburns on his cheeks and a moustache above his upper lip. He still had the delicate look he had the first time we met five years ago as junior pupils of the Ilaro Grammar School. But now he exuded a more adult, more alluring air. The kind that made me want to resume holding him; that made the walls around us fly apart, and my world rave and storm within, even while appearing intact and still outside. Thoughts that would ordinarily shock me and make me fight myself spiralled and splayed out inside me. And in that moment I wanted them to. Fighting was not an option. I liked it!
Suddenly and annoyingly one of Biodun’s friends, who should have quietly passed us, stopped for a second in the doorway. He took a long look at us, hissed, ‘Shelleh!’ and cat-walked away. I instantly made to go to Baba, but Seun caught my hand.
‘Where are you going?’
‘To tell Baba.’
‘Tell Baba what?’
‘That the man is bothering me, of course.’
‘Why will you do that? Are you a kid?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s no big deal, is it?’
I shook my hands away from Seun’s. ‘You were not here earlier when they called me over and were quizzing me.’
‘They?’ he asked. ‘Which they?’
I pointed to where the rest of them were now seated. Biodun had returned.
‘Who?’ Some guests stood in the way: at first he could not see them. ‘Christ!’ he exclaimed when they moved off. ‘Who invited them?’
‘They’re friends with my dad.’
‘Hmm. Well. Okay,’ he said, reclining in his chair.
‘It’s nothing,’ he said, taking my hand again. ‘Besides he was referring to me.’
‘Oh, okay. Your name is Shelleh then?’ I asked.
‘Nope. It’s a slang.’
‘Yeah. You know, like “babe”,’ he said, laughing.
‘You are the babe?’ I asked, tickled as well.
‘Okay, let me lay it out for you. When someone, probably a guy, calls you names like Shelleh or Ti bii it means he thinks you are camp.’
‘Yeah, you know, girly, colourful, stuff like that.’
‘I know, but it also could mean either he finds you sexually attractive or believes that you might find guys sexually attractive.’
‘Ti bii is a Yoruba word and does not have anything to do with sexual attraction,’ I said. ‘So please tell me another lie.’
‘Now you tell me,’ he said, ‘what does ti bii literally mean?’
‘It means, “of that kind”.’
‘Yeah, yeah… you see,’ he said, sitting up. ‘It means “of that kind”; “like that”. The guys who like guys like that. Like those guys with Biodun, and Biodun too.’
‘Like that,’ I echoed.
*** Excerpts from Fimisile Forever, a novel writing by Nnanna Ikpo.
Nnanna Ikpo is a Nigerian lawyer and storyteller with a Master of Laws degree in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa from the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, South Africa. He runs his personal blog, ‘Letters to My Africa’,(www.nnannaikpo.blogspot.com) and is the Communications Officer at the Sexual Orientation Gender Identity and Expression(SOGIE) Unit, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, where he is also a doctoral candidate.