You cannot remember a lot of things from your childhood, and sometimes when you do the memories fuse into each other like a mixture of oil and water so that you remember Boma, your friend from primary two, as a classmate from primary three. You call Mrs. Uju, the woman whose round glasses framed her face, your French teacher even though she taught Computer Science. Still, there is one memory that pokes out with clarity.
Mr. Koffi’s round stomach takes form in that memory; his voice, like a blown balloon held at the tip, air gradually being let out. He’s telling the class to open their Composition textbooks to page 15, where four words sit on the page: “Write About Your Father”.
Before that day, the absence of your father was a presence you ignored, maybe because your mother’s life and essence seeped into whatever crevices the man was supposed to occupy. The sweet smell from her baking whenever you hugged her and the way she called you “Unam ikot” whenever you disobeyed her. She was around whenever the question came, so you looked up at her, waiting for her answer that shielded you from the curious adults. As you grew older, she gave you the answers to shield you: “He’s not around,” “He’s living in Uyo,” “He went for work.”
You were faced with more than just “where is your father?” that day. The question on the page demanded an assessment of self you had never done. It asked you to question why your mother was the one who came for PTA meetings, to ask why you were quiet when Pastor Tony said everyone should pray that God should provide for their fathers, to examine again why the Sunday School teachers said you needed to stay close to God because your mother couldn’t do it all on her own.
Mr. Koffi towered over the class, his slender brown cane jumping off the backs of your classmates, an attempt – that failed – to correct their mistakes. You walked to meet him at the front of the class, making yourself smaller and smaller until you got to his front and said, “I… don’t know my father, sir.”
Your eyes did not meet his, so you did not see the confusion on his face that quickly turned into anger, but you did feel the twinge of the cane on your shoulders and heard him say, “How is that my business? Eh? You cannot write anything?”
His words came between strokes of the cane on every part of your body. The stares of your classmates made your eyes wet. The class prefect returned the books after the class and you opened yours to meet a score of zero out of ten.
You did not tell your mother what happened. She did not notice the red bumps on your fair skin or how you winced when you took off your shirt.
And you thought: maybe she truly cannot do it all.
Ini-Abasi Jeffrey is a student of dentistry who resides between Calabar and Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. His nonfiction is published in BellaNaija, Film Cred and The Lagos Review, and his fiction is published mostly on his laptop. If he’s not studying for a test, you can find him complaining about not writing and defending the em dash on Twitter.