Christmas After Thirty – One by Adesina Ajala | Shortlist Parousia Christmas Short Story Prize 2022 | PAROUSIA

Christmas After Thirty-One

 

1.

The chilly December wind subsides just about halfway into the month, but to your surprise, it’s sweeping over Akoka-Ijaiye again. The sizzling cold is sending everyone into anything that can keep their bodies warm.

 

The whirlwinds are getting frequent too. Once they start, twirling and turning, rising like a phoenix, they would clatter everything standing in their paths into a frenzy of riot. People would scamper around, avoiding the touch of the whirlwind. They would mutter prayers under bated breaths as they dodge the wind, snapping fingers over their heads and shouting, “Blood of Jesus! Blood of Jesus!”

 

This morning, as you stand by the road side on Fajuyi Junction, you flag down a tricycle. It is Bashir who stops. You inspect his harmattan-made grey hairs and wonder how he would look when old age comes.

 

“Oga, oya enter,” he says to you, “time dey go.”

 

He teases you as you slouch yourself on the seat, “Oga, you no carry your car comot?”

 

You feign a grin wide enough to bury your frustration. “Abeg, I no dey do queue wahala. I don’t know why they’re hoarding fuel again.”

 

“Nah Christmas cause am,” Bashir says and turns to you with a wry smile. He ignites his tricycle and clutches its throttle. The bike whimpers to life, but hushes back into silence immediately. He kicks it again and again. He hisses as he connects some wires dangling around the side of the steering, and ignites it again.

 

It’s twelve days to Christmas, and the mood of the season is beginning to shape Akoka in some fascinating ways. The popular Duro-Bolaji Intersection wears red and green decorations. St. Luke’s Cathedral, that magnificent edifice on Church Road, stands in the glitz that always trails this season with green, white and red ribbons adorning its walls. Christmas songs buzz from speakers on its pinnacle from the Celtic Woman’s “Silent Night” to Bing Crosby’s “12 Days of Christmas”.

 

Bashir slows into the traffic jam when your mind flips back to home, to all of the things adulthood bequeaths to you. It was Towoju first. “Towo” you fondly call him, is your younger brother, and the delay in getting him admission into Architecture in the university worries you again. You think you should talk him into considering Town Planning or Quantity Surveying when you go home for Christmas.

 

Then another thought begins to break into your heart, it’s that constant nagging by the landlord that your parents have been complaining about. Every time your father phones you, he will complain one or two things about the landlord. “He says he will ask us to pack out of the house anytime we forget to turn off the door light again,” your father would say with deep sighs.

 

As if your heart has not borne enough grief of adulthood, you remember that resilient longing your mother’s soul always craves for, that constant thing she bugs you with. Marriage. “Baba ọkọ mi, bring that lady home this Christmas o.” You picture her throat crawling behind her wrinkled neck as she forces those words out.  She worries that even after thirty-one, you’re still single and searching for love. Mother worries, but doesn’t understand your travails, that the hen sweats too it is her feathers that hide it. She doesn’t know that things are a bit complicated about that now, and that you have marriage in mind. If Folake understands that love thrives even in brokenness, you wouldn’t still be single now.

 

“Folakemi,” you whisper her full name again, searching her eyes for a clue, “what about that man holding your hands at Bibi Mall last night?” She doesn’t act as if she hears you. She doesn’t remove her eyes from the paintbrush she is stroking on her toe nails. You snatch the paintbrush from her hand, look into her eyes again and ask, “Don’t I deserve to know him?” She smashes the nail polish on the floor and turns to the wall. “I don’t deserve your kind of love, Seun.”

 

She whimpers and cleans her face with the back of her hand, “I have been sleeping with that man you saw, and I don’t even know how to stop myself.” She turns to you, bites her lips and you sight blood. “I had told him I was done with him, but this morning, I woke up naked in his arms again.” She grabs your shirt and pushes you out of her room, sobbing. “Seun, what sort of thing is this? Why is my heart with you, but my head is somewhere else?”

 

You plead with her to stop the push as she nears the door. You tell her that whatever she has with the man doesn’t mean anything.

 

“I’m miserable, don’t you still get it? I don’t deserve you.”

 

You wait patiently and wish her hand comes on the door to open it, but it never comes. Folakemi’s hand never comes on the door again. You lower your head there in utter pain and just sob.

 

2.

When you get over Folake, you become so fond of Gbemi that you hope to tell your mother about her when you go home for Christmas. You would like to tell her how she loves you in a way that startles you and makes you fantasize about marriage. You can’t wait for Christmas to tell your mother about Gbemi, to let her know that even after thirty-one, beautiful things can happen.

 

You continue in your thoughts as Bashir keeps turning the tricycle anywhere space opens. You remember that your mother would need five chickens for Christmas. Your family’s friends would come around on Boxing Day. It is your parents’ tradition to host them every 26th of December. You remember when you pick a spent layer from Omotolani’s cage, feel its weight and ask for the price, she says without blinking eyes, “Fourteen five.”

 

“Ahh,” you respond with shock, “I’ll pay ten thousand naira.”

 

She surveys your body, hisses, and snatches the chicken from your hand. “Steal it, thief. Barawo.” You do not say anything. You only respect yourself and walk away.

 

You are out of the traffic jam now and Bashir is speeding past the Cathedral. The music wanes too, and the air becomes colder on your skin. You check the goosebumps on your arms and smack your lips. “Small, small, Bashir. Small, small.” You continue to tab his shoulder to ride slowly.

 

3.

You decide to trek a bit as you return from work so you can check some boutiques for clothes to buy and take home for your parents for the yuletide.

 

You enter a boutique, Kike Fabrics, pick a wade of lace— that kind that glitters— when your phone rings.

 

“Mama just had an accident. It’s not serious, but we’re taking her to the hospital.”

 

You drop the lace and just walk out of the mall as if something has broken into the smithereens of joylessness inside you.

 

Towoju calls you again, his voice trembling over the phone, “Doctors say mummy broke her skull.”

 

Your lips begin to jitter. “Is she alive?”

 

Some soft, barely audible words come from Towoju’s end, “No, yes, yes.”

 

“Hello, Towo?”

 

“She’s just here, not responding to anything or anyone. But her chest is moving.”

 

Your phone slips off from your hand. It lands on the floor, and when you pick it up to check its screen, a shattered spot disfigures its centre. This is not a painful thing. The painful thing is this weird news, this news that makes you just stand away by the side of the road, numb to the chatter of the market women.

 

4.

Towoju tells you on phone that doctors say they will drill a hole into your mother’s skull to remove some blood clots and relieve pressure on her brain, and that she’s being moved to the ICU, with oxygen and tiny pipes in her nostrils. He says the seizures have subsided, but she’s yet to start talking or opening her eyes.

 

Towoju reminds you, “I told Baba you’re leaving Akoka-Ijaiye for home tomorrow.”

 

You sigh.

 

“What is it? Have you changed your mind?”

 

“No, Towoju. I’m just not happy.”

 

“The Bible says we should be thankful in all things. She will be fine by God’s grace.”

 

“I understand, brother.”

 

You sigh again.

 

When you arrive at Abeokuta, you come straight to the hospital. Towoju takes you to see mama. The ICU is extremely quiet and sparkling clean. Christmas decorations hang on the side walls. She’s the only patient in the place. Nurse Bidemi’s phone rings. Her phone has the ringing tone of Ebenezer Obey’s “Odun Keresimesi.” She lets it continue to ring as she answers your greetings, “Work is fine. We thank God.”

 

“Mama is not doing bad,” she says next.

 

You nod your head and crack your knuckles as you watch your mother from a distance. You don’t feel like moving close to her.

 

Your mother is not doing fine as far as you know. She doesn’t open her eyes. She doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t move her hands or feet. She just lies there like a doll, like a sculpted thing. You sigh and ask the nurse, “Will she come out of this coma?”

 

The nurse looks into your forlorn face and whispers, “Be positive.”

 

You heave.

 

“Seun,” your mother calls to you in a hushed tone. You look in her direction with shock and awe.

 

You want to run to see her.

 

The nurse stops you. She grabs her phone, her voice shakes as she speaks. “Doctor Bimbo, come, come. Mama just said a word.”

 

She calls you again, “Seun.”

 

You become overwhelm with emotions, gently push the nurse aside and saunter to her bedside.

 

“Maami,” you say with tears and laughter.

 

“Seun, oko mi, s’alaafia ni?” Strands of saliva glisten inside her mouth.

 

You look at the drip bag connected to her hand and rub her wrinkled skin. “Alaafia ni, I’m fine.”

 

“Why am I here?” She asks.

 

“It’s a long story, mother. We’ll talk about that later when you’re much better.”

 

You are the most excited human being on earth tonight.

 

You touch the scar on her forehead as you tuck her into a blanket. It feels soft and tender. “Maami, you’ll be fine. I’m praying for you.”

 

She looks at you.

 

“You’re going for surgery tomorrow. Everything will be okay.”

 

At twelve midnight, Christmas day unfolds in its full pageantry. Fireworks go off into the dark sky from outside of the hospital. Happy Christmas chants echo into the cold air. Now you know, though we have our individual pains and burdens, they are not strong enough to break the collective laughter that this season is. You’re not oblivious of your own aches too in this unusual Christmas. You’re not expecting any guest. Not one chicken would be killed. No plans to attend church service. Your mother does not pester you with her dampening quest for a wife. And, you don’t get the chance to tell her about Gbemi and all your fondness for her.

Biography:

A fellow of Arts in Medicine, Adesina Ajala, sent this entry from Ogbomoso, Nigeria. He’s available on Twitter and Instagram via @adesina_ajala.

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