Chapter 1 Part 1, 1992 Àkúrẹ́, Òndó State, Nigeria
Ernest’s daily arrival at home from his bookstore was unmistakeable. Grace could always hear the tin-like sounds of the Ìjàpá before it then emerged in a billow of smoke, with Ernest folded in behind the wheel. His friend, Simon, had nicknamed it Ìjàpá because of the Volkswagen Beetle’s distinct tortoise shape, partly to make fun of Ernest, but it had been so funny that Ernest had not been offended and the nickname had stuck. Plus it made the children laugh to think they were being carted around in a tortoise shell.
As Ernest pulled in to the driveway, Démì and Ìní rushed out to meet him as always. Grace smiled to herself as she watched this daily routine; she sat back in the living room and watched through the window their display of adoration for their dad. It was always the same: first, they took his briefcase, and then they searched inside, Démì looking for snacks and Ìní for books. Today, Ernest had neither.
Ernest walked into the house with Ìní and Démì trailing behind him, Grace enjoyed the contrast of how little they were next to him.
Ernest was very tall, and he left most people in his wake by taking giant strides ahead of them. It was his humble but confident stride that first attracted her to him, although his once glorious Afro had now given way to a bald patch. With her, over the years, he’d learned to match her hurried but nimble pace, as she hurried through life to make up for her short legs.
Ernest kissed Grace hello, she was now sitting in her favourite corner on the sofa. He studied her quietly. She had small almond-shaped eyes that narrowed even further whenever she smiled, showing off her high cheek bones and dimpled cheeks. He loved watching her laugh. She had thin limbs that narrowed into elegant wrists and long narrow fingers. She was endlessly elegant.
When he’d first met her, she wore her hair in a Jheri curl and carried her activator gel everywhere. At one point, in their early days of dating, she had left her activator gel on the sink in his bathroom and he thought it was deliberate so she could come back. It had turned out it was an accident. Instead of mentioning it, he waited. He didn’t want to seem too eager.
When she found out he had had it all along, she was annoyed with him, he’d never been more terrified or excited, she was beautiful when angry – her eyes dramatically widening to show their full almond shape. He’d come to learn this outburst was a rare occurrence, Grace communicated economically, quietly making her point and only saying what she needed to.
At dinner that evening, sitting opposite him at the other end of their dining table, she smiled exposing her dimples as she watched Démì quietly and diligently pick out the fish bones in his meal.
Ìní complained about the bones and refused to eat, “You’ll eat what we have. Some people have nothing to eat!” Ernest and Grace chastised, almost in unison, a well practised verse in their home.
After dinner, they discussed their next move, and whom they could approach to buy the bookstore.
Grace, a laconic woman of great intelligence had been a government scientist in the early 1970s, defying the odds of not being educated by her father. “You’re just a girl,” he would say. “When you marry I will lose all the money I have spent on you to your husband’s house.” Thus, he had refused to educate her, spending all his money on her brothers.
Grace’s mother, a short but renegade woman, also of great intellect, had used her own money from selling tomatoes in the market to educate Grace in secret. Seeing Grace’s potential early on, her mind quick in solving household quarrels or when helping with their budgetary needs, she had enrolled Grace in the local village primary school, which took place on a bench in Auntie Winifred’s backyard with six other girls with equally renegade mothers. That was how Grace got her primary school education.
Her natural abilities had led her to attend secondary school via a scholarship, where subsequent scholarships meant that her mother no longer needed to keep petty cash aside to privately educate her in Auntie Winifred’s backyard.
Grace had fond memories of Auntie Winifred’s makeshift school, but most vividly, she remembered being covered in white dust from Auntie Winnie’s enthused and frequent wiping of the chalkboard.
Meeting Ernest in the late 70s had been a revelation for Grace. She had never met anyone who loved education like her. Theirs was a natural and still evolving love. Ernest, the avid reader, and Grace the quiet observer. Her sharp mind, although taciturn in its nature, was a good contrast to Ernest’s verbose one. It was a contrast that would carry them through many years of good and bad.
Grace now worked as a nurse for the Ministry of Health in Àkúrẹ́ (a government department known for being corrupt and opaque in a sea of impenetrable bureaucracy), her hardworking and fastidious nature surpassed only by her notoriety as a former scientist at the prestigious University College Hospital “UCH” in Ibadan.
After the lab got defunded, equipment repairs tailed off and hospital payments became few and far between, if at all. The lab had closed, to Grace’s disheartenment. Ever a survivor, Grace parlayed this into a nursing career.
Things were tough on the family now but Grace had figured out a way to economise. Her salary was swallowed up by their biggest expense, rent. On weekdays, they had one meal a day at dinner time and the kids ate lunch at school.
They shared communal meals from one pot, although at special times of the year (and when they could afford more), the children got their own plates, which they didn’t seem to like as much as they loved sharing.
A surprise expense — like if the Ìjàpá broke down — may mean that they would have garri for a few days, but Grace used this a last resort as she thought there was very little nutritional value in processed cassava.
As they planned their next move, and in case she got the visa, Grace started a list for Ernest. A list of the things she did that he didn’t see.
In contrast to the heaving streets of Lagos, the atmosphere at the embassy was intimidating and pristine. There was a palpable but muted energy, a mixture of the intimidating self-importance of the embassy staff and the fermenting sweat of the nervous visa-seekers as they filed in from the heat into the cool air inside.
They both felt nervous and tired, which compelled Ernest and Grace to speak in hushed tones. They had already sold the Ìjàpá to pay for their visa fees, getting up before the sun to take the six-hour bus ride to the embassy.
Now Grace was fussing with a stain on her blouse, I must’ve sustained it from the bus ride, she thought. Public transport could be unpredictable, if it wasn’t the rich-red dust forming shapes on your well pressed clothes, it was the jagged edges from panel-beaten cars ripping holes in them.
Finally, it was their turn. A young man in police uniform called them in, Grace felt like her heart stood up within her chest and started racing. Ernest wiped down the sweat running down from his bald spot down his neck. They filed into the embassy official’s room.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Good morning, Mr and Mrs Aleyjo.”
Correcting the British officer, Ernest said, “It’s Àlejò,” emphasising the musical monophthong doh-ray-doh sounds.
“I’m sorry for the mispronunciation,” the official said but he did not attempt to mimic Ernest’s pronunciation. “My name is Mr Rawlings, I am in charge of your visa application. Thank you for coming in for this interview. Mrs Aleyjo, what is your purpose for wanting to visit the UK?”
The air conditioning was making Grace’s sweat-drenched limbs turn into icy tentacles, she sat on her hands to warm herself. “For study, Mr Rawlings… to study,” Grace stuttered back.
“I see from your application you have two small children?”
“Yes, they are five and seven, sir.”
He flipped through the file in front of him, the hum of the air conditioner now the loudest thing in the room.
Afterwards he looked up, “So why do you want to come to the UK when you have two small children?”
“To advance my career opportunities. There is a letter from the Minister for Health in there to say which courses I am going to do.”
“Yes, I see it here,” he replied, pulling out a typewritten piece of paper and running his eye over it, mouthing the words on the page. “You see, I just don’t believe it. I’m afraid we have to reject your visa application. I’m sorry, Mrs Aleyjo.”