Johnson stood facing the wooden door waiting for someone to open it from within. His dark eyes darted as sixteen young feet ran after a ball in the large compound. Their excitement interrupted the serenity of the compound. The sight reminded him of his childhood days when he would steal time to play football whenever his father had gone to the office or church. His father didn’t subscribe to the quote, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Johnson was expected to read his books and write many assignments, robbing him of sleep on most nights.
He didn’t grow up to see his mother, for he heard she passed on few minutes after she bore down with her last strength. When his father remarried five years later, his step mother created an unbearable life for him. He ran errands at odd hours while his step brother and sister idled away. His father didn’t intervene. He called it being responsible. He called it being a man.
One afternoon, he had returned from school to hear his step mother’s voice rising above the roof. Thinking all was not well, he ran as fast as his legs could carry him. He feared something had happened to his beloved father. Even though he felt cheated by his actions, he still wanted him alive.
Bode and Damilola stood around their mother pushing the pot of stew in their small eyes and noses. “Who touched this pot? Who touched my pot?” Her eyes were stern. “Tell me the truth you two, else I’ll lay hands on you with that koboko.”
The children ran their eyes over the two mouthed horsewhip lying on the sink close to the nude basket filled with unwashed plates. They stood straight, unafraid of their mother’s look or threat. This wasn’t the first time she raised her voice or made threats. They always got away with whatever they did, while Johnson became the sacrificial lamb. He was insulted for their errors. He was beaten for their misconducts. He was blamed for their insensitivities. This moment, they wished Johnson came into the house to bear the weight of this intensely, on his fourteen year shoulders.
“I left five pieces of pomo and four pieces of meat in this pot of stew. You know your father loves to eat at least two pieces of meat. “Bode, Dami,” her eyes went sideway and back. “What happened to two pomos and a piece of meat?”
Bode stood cemented in his place looking unconcerned. Dami’s heart began to pound. Her cheeks were on fire and her stomach was doing back flips. She could feel trickles of urine seep down her pant. Her mother looked furious and felt she wouldn’t hesitate using the rod on them, this time. How long did she have to spill the truth before Johnson showed up? When she spoke, she said she saw Johnson giving a plate of food to the maid in the next compound.
Shade narrowed her eyes and clenched her teeth as she held Damilola’s gaze. Muscles jerked in her jaws as she returned the pot to the table in the kitchen. Johnson entered the kitchen as Shade turned away from the table. Unexpectedly, blinding slaps welcomed him.
Wanting to run out, he realized the door opening to the backyard was locked. The key was in Damilola’s hand. She was smiling, her hands set on her small waist. He cried out as Shade lashed him with the horsewhip again and again. She didn’t stop until his skin tore in different places. She accused him of sleeping with her neighbour’s maid and using her food as bait. To worsen matters, Damilola said Johnson tried to pull her pants two nights before. Unable to defend himself, Johnson received another beating until his lower lip bled.
“You stink. You’d better clear this kitchen before I return else I’ll serve you another dish with the wire lying in your father’s cupboard,” Shade said in disgust and walked out, her children giggling behind her.
Johnson sat on the floor rubbing his arms slowly, not knowing whether he glared at the horsewhip or the floor stained with his blood. A week later, he laid dry eyed on his little bed facing the ceiling. That Tuesday evening, Shade, Bode and Damilola lost their lives in an accident involving their car and a truck on a highway during their trip to Akure.
His father wore down with depression. Johnson filled with hatred for what Shade did to him, seemed happy he was free from her torment. But his heart ached for his mother. Three months later, his father announced his plans of remarrying.
The creaking of the door brought him back to earth. He looked into the eyes of the slender woman standing before him. “Good afternoon, Ma.” He smiled.
“Good afternoon, Sir. How may I help you?”
Imebong stood at the doorway and examined Johnson closely. His handsome face made her heart fail. His cologne filled her nose with the sweetness of a man she hadn’t known in weeks. The police had failed in finding her husband. All she held on to was hope that he’ll return soon. But this man didn’t look bad.
“I came to see Uwem. Is he around?”
Johnson felt uncomfortable with the way Imebong perused him. Maybe, he had told her about the money. But he didn’t see a hint of displeasure on her lively face.
“Yes, he is. Come in.” She created room for him to come in.
Johnson walked in through the open door, and lowered himself into an old black sofa Imebong pointed to him. Sitting in an upright position, his eyes peeled around the living room. He could see dimly the boys pursue the ball through the gleaming glass, as a man pursued a woman. The center table was free of dust. The 32inch television hung on the wall, but no one turned it on, let alone watched it. No family pictures on the wall. Just plain yellow walls with few patches.
His mind wandered at what Uwem’s reaction would be when they met. He had refused to call Uwem before visiting because he feared he may not respond. Guilt took a hold of him, and he wondered if anyone held forgiveness for him before he proceeded with his suicidal attempt. He had hurt too many people and couldn’t bear the bundle of shame that came with it. Mfon, who was carrying his child, was nowhere to be found. Nkoyo fell silent on him after seeing him enjoying pleasure with Mfon. He held his head in regrets as he thought of what had become of her. He knew he had hurt both of them, having promised each, marriage.
What on earth was he thinking? Did it really matter? Tonight, after baring his mind to Uwem, he would end it once and for all. No one would cry for him, as he didn’t weep for his father when he died. Even when his remains were lowered into mother earth, he stood still, dry eyed as earth was poured onto the casket. He watched his father die miserably, having been diagnosed of food poisoning. He complained of severe abdominal cramps.
After frequent episodes of vomiting, Johnson took him to the Hospital where he closed his eyes in death after a long struggle with an unseen force. Till date, no one confessed to being responsible. His grieved wife packed her things and left. She didn’t even attend the burial. He thought about his unborn child coming into this world without a father to call her own. How did he know the child in Mfon’s womb was a girl? Mfon was tough. She’ll groom their child well with or without his presence in their lives. But first, he had to make things with Uwem right.
Johnson heard footsteps. A short, wide lipped man with short dark hair emerged through a lace draped door leading to an inner room. His heart beat regulated for fear he would be thrown out of the house in a couple of minutes. He hoisted himself willing in his mind not to let his legs wobble.
“How may I help you, Johnson Nduka? Please have your seat.”
Johnson trembled at the voice behind him and took his former position. He felt relaxed. Uwem walked towards him, shook his hand before taking his place on his chair. Johnson noticed Uwem hadn’t grown any taller? How can a man be so brief? If I was a lady, I wouldn’t dare date him. “I came to see you.” The aroma of cooked food came into his nostrils and his stomach growled.
Both of them smiled.
“My wife is preparing lunch. When it’s ready, you’ll be served.” Uwem spoke cheerfully.
Johnson searched his face to descry any hint of dissatisfaction. Finding none, he cleared his throat. “Lately, I’ve been deep in thought. I apologize for coming here without informing you.” Looking away, he heard himself apologise for not depositing the money as was expected of him.
Uwem sighed. It’s been four months since that incident. It’s gone like the wind.”
“You can’t say that. I cheated you, and now I have to pay back my debt.”
Sarah came into the kitchen and greeted Johnson warmly. She announced she had beans in the kitchen and asked whether he would prefer garri or pap. Johnson smiled and said he would have neither for he feared being poisoned as his father was.
Uwem insisted but Johnson stood his ground. When Sarah returned to the kitchen, he said he came to ask for forgiveness and not to eat food.
“Johnson, frankly speaking, I was disappointed in you. I expected more. Well, it’s all in the past. Of course, my trust in you has been shattered but you are forgiven. I hold nothing against you. By the way, your debt was paid for by the bank. Can we talk about something else? So, how have you been?”
Johnson pitched his thoughts on different stakes. What was this about forgiveness? How could Uwem flush everything under the umbrella of forgiveness when his niece died because he failed to pay the money for a cesarean section? Guilt flared in him as he thought about the dead child. He was responsible for the death of the child. Why should he have the privilege of being a father soon? He covered his face with his hands and fought against the emotions beginning to overwhelm him.
Uwem straightened and sat beside Johnson. “You don’t have to feel bad. The past is past. And there’s no future in the past, just a trail of regrets. I have my own list of failures. If God has forgiven me freely, I owe it to Him to forgive my offenders as well.” He placed a hand on Johnson’s back. “How’s your walk with God?”
Johnson flinched. God? Where was God when his mother died during childbirth? Where was God when his step mother maltreated him? Where was God when his father exited this world? Where was God when he lost his job?
Uwen looked concerned at his silence. He took his hand off Johnson’s shoulder and laid it on his laps. “The young lions lack and suffer hunger, but those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing.”
Leaning back on the chair, Johnson let out a short deep breath as he pondered on this psalm he knew so well. The pastor had preached from this verse the last time he attended church. He was the choir master, then. God had proven to be unworthy of his trust. So, he put the God he knew aside.
“The father loves you as he loves Jesus, His Son. Think about the nails that pierced his hands and feet. Consider the scourging and the crown of thorns on His head for your sin and the sin of the whole world. He died for you even before you thought about seeking the Father. Johnson, the Father loves you. And I love you too.”
Johnson drew his gaze back to Uwem. Did he really mean those words? Unlike him, he said those words only when he wanted to grind a lady. This was the first time in his thirty years of existence he heard a man affirm love for him. And it sounded true. What if God truly loves me?
“At some point I struggled with the love of God for me. I preoccupied my mind with my failures and neglected the abundant grace of God. That plunged me into depression until I harnessed my thoughts. Life is too short to be founded on regrets. You may die before your time and when you die, can you afford to spend eternity in thick darkness away from God?”
A ray of hope shone in Johnson’s heart. He considered the option of discarding the thought of committing suicide so he could experience the love of Christ. Perhaps he could right his wrongs. The abode of Satan and his angels below and fire and fumes were best explained in church, and not a place to visit for a second. He held on to the thought that God loved him in spite of his mess. Even Uwem spotted a tiny smile on his face. When Johnson demanded for a cup of water, he rose to get it.
“Can I pray with you?” Uwem asked when he returned with a bottle and a glass cup.
Johnson pinned his knees to the ground before Uwem prayed for him.
When Johnson returned to his residence, he said a short prayer, fell to his bed and slept. His dream was filled with echoes of Uwem’s voice. God loves you and I love you too.
PS: This is the end of SMEARED on this blogging space.
You may be wondering what happened to Mfon, Aniebiet and Nkoyo. The truth is, SMEARED is incomplete. You’ll find the answers you seek when you purchase the novel in 2020, after it has been published, by God’s grace.
I’m sorry to break your heart.