They went to the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in a convoy of three cars. Bishop Obuh was chauffeured in a Peugeot 407, Mrs Obuh drove her Toyota Camry while Chinedu, Catherine and Donald rode in the Cherokee.
When the female voice behind the microphone announced that passengers for the Lagos-Heathrow flight should start boarding, they bid Chinedu an emotional farewell.
“Remember what I’ve always told you,” Bishop Obuh started. “Never forget where you’re from.”
Chinedu nodded. “Yes dad.”
“I hope you didn’t forget your bible,” Mrs Obuh added.
“I didn’t mom,” he replied. “Even if I did I’ve got another in my apartment.”
“Mom don’t start,” Chinedu groaned. “I didn’t forget anything. I’ll be fine. I’ll be a good boy. I’ll pray without ceasing. I’ll … can you just wish me au revoir?
She gazed at him with tear-filled eyes and clasped him in a tight embrace – as she had been doing once every year for the past three years. “Don’t forget to send pictures,” she said as the tear finally trickled down her face.
“I won’t mom,” he said and kissed her cheek. He turned to Catherine.
“Happy to miss you,” they both said simultaneously, giggling. They embraced. “Say hello to Annabel for me,” she whispered.
Annabel, his girlfriend for the past two years was a well kept secret. Well, everybody knew her, except the Bishop and his wife. Or did they know? You never could tell with the Man of God.
“I will,” he whispered back. “Be a good girl alright?”
“Your wish is my command,” she said, bowing. “I’ll miss you bro,” she added as her eyes welled up.
“If you don’t miss me, who will?” he chuckled. His eyes welled up too as he added “I’ll miss you too sis.”
He turned to Donald who had been watching the proceedings awkwardly. The Horsfalls were close no doubt but emotions like these were never displayed. When he was leaving PH for Lagos nobody even saw him off to the park. That morning, all his family did was pray and commit his journey into God’s hands. The goodbyes were quick, and direct. No hugs. Kisses? Dream on. In all his adult years he had never given or received a peck from any member of his family. He made a mental note to give his ma one when he returned to PH. Or … never mind, he thought. I should practice with Miriam and Christina first.
“I wish you had come earlier, we’d have gotten really acquainted,” Chinedu said as he shook Donald’s hand. “Hopefully we’ll get to know each other better next time I’m around, yeah?”
“Yeap,” Donald nodded. “I’ll keep in touch.”
“So…” he gestured towards Catherine, “take care of my little … big angel for me. You’re her big brother now you know?”
Donald glanced at Catherine, smiled and nodded. “Yes boss.”
Chinedu’s eyes were filled with tears when he said the last goodbye to all of them. Without a backward glance he left the departure lounge.
Outside the airport, Bishop Obuh, who was also the Secretary General of CAN – Christian Association of Nigeria- Lagos chapter hurriedly left for one of their executive meetings. Mrs Obuh went on a supervisory visit to Grace College, a secondary school belonging to the church.
Catherine gave Donald the Cherokee key and walked to the passenger side.
“Um … err …” Donald stuttered. How could he tell her he didn’t know how to drive at his age? “… I don’t have a driver’s license,” he finally said.
“Oh …” She collected the keys, went in and started the Jeep. When he joined her she added; “you don’t have a license or you don’t know how to drive?”
“Well, all of the above,” he sheepishly replied.
“I guessed so,” she muttered, just loud enough for him to hear. “Fasten your seatbelt.”
He obeyed. “So Chinedu asked me to take care of you. The problem is you don’t look like you need to be taken care of.”
“Of cause everybody needs care.”
“Okay, I can relate,” he nodded. “But how do I go about it?” There was a mischievous glint in his eye.
“Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out.”
As she masterfully maneuvered the big car through the ever busy Ikeja traffic, Donald studied her, furtively. She looked soft and vulnerable. But in his 21 years on earth he also knew that looks were very deceptive, very misleading.
“You drive real good,” he commented.
“Thanks,” she smiled, overtaking one of those annoying yellow and black painted Lagos taxis.
“It’s not a compliment. It’s like saying…”
“…I’m putting on a red shirt,” she concluded for him.
He chuckled. “I was actually going to say you’re wearing pink lipstick. And it’s … alluring.”
She smiled. “Do you want to have an accident?”
“Keep saying things like that and I’ll lose control and…well, we’ll be needing an ambulance to send us to the hospital…or…the mor…”
“Alright, alright,” Donald put his hands up in mock surrender. “I’ll stop. But honestly, I’ll give an arm to be able to drive like you.”
“Have you ever seen a one-handed person driving?” The glint in her eyes was unmistakable.
He chuckled. Smart, he thought; very smart. “I meant it idiomatically.”
“I know,” she grinned. “So, why don’t you know how to drive? You never tried learning?”
He smiled faintly. “I’ve actually tried learning before and the end result wasn’t funny.”
“What happened?” she pressed
“You sure you wanna hear this?”
“Yeap,” she nodded.
“Okay,” he started; “’twas three years ago, sometime in 2002. The church had just given my pa a new car – this beautiful Toyota Corolla. Before then he’d been driving a Peugeot 504 station wagon that we spent more time pushing than riding in. That car showed us something though…” Donald paused, reminiscing. “Anyways; when this ‘tear-rubber’ wheels arrived, it was gold. I think my Pa unconsciously made an idol out of it. Considering the fact that he was always hammering on vanity and how unimportant our earthly possessions were, it was a shock that he actually loved something that much.
“I used to warm the 504 every morning while cleaning it. I was going to turn 18 years soon and the plan was that I’d learn how to drive and get a license when I did. But when the Toyota came, the only thing I did was wash it. Whenever I had to clean the interior, pa would unlock it by himself, just to make sure I wasn’t tempted to even put the key in the ignition. My 18th birthday came and passed and nothing was said about driving lessons. I was mentioning it to him one time when he gave me this look that said ‘are you nuts’? I lost all hope … until he went for the annual Shepherds Conference in Abuja, with my ma.
“As soon as I knew they were too high up in the clouds to come back if they had forgotten anything, I took the keys. Actually, it was my younger brother Tammy who went into their room and brought it for me. Off we went to the car, feeling fly…” he paused as she chuckled.
“I’d seen my pa drive the car,” he continued. “I knew the clutch was under my left leg, the throttle on my right, while the brake was in the middle. I also knew that to change gears or brake for whatever reason, you had to step on the clutch first. Kate, my confidence was on the high side.
“The church manse hadn’t been completed then so we lived in a block of four flats owned by an Ikwerre man. You know Ikwerre people are very miserly with land so the space in front of the house was very narrow. All the cars in the compound were parked in one straight line such that if a car was parked at the back of yours, the owner had to move it out before you could move yours. You understand?” She nodded and he continued.
“A Mercedes V-boot was parked in front of ours but the owner almost never drove it. There was none behind.
“I fastened my seatbelt, put the key in the ignition and started it. The car jerked forward so I quickly turned it off. Tammy asked if I was really sure I knew how to drive as I claimed. I assured him I knew what I was doing and tried again. This time it almost hit the Mercedes in front. Luckily – or should I say unluckily – one of my neighbors, while passing, looked in, saw my predicament, and told me to put the gear in neutral before starting it.”
“Oh, the car was in gear and you didn’t step on the clutch before starting it,” she laughed.
“Yessoo,” he replied, laughing. “My dad used to put the gear in neutral after parking the 504 so all the time I warmed it I never experienced that jerk. Anyways, I shifted to neutral, turned the ignition, revved it a couple times and stepped on the clutch. I shifted to reverse gear and asked Tammy to go and check if the back light was on so I’d be sure it was really in reverse. He affirmed and came back in. I stepped on the throttle and released the clutch…”
“Oh my God!!!” she exclaimed, her eyes widening.
He chuckled. “I believe you can guess what happened. The car suddenly lurched backwards. I didn’t even know how to control the steering. In my confused state I didn’t know where the brake was. It wasn’t until the right back side hit the wall that I remembered and pulled up the handbrake…”
Still laughing, Catherine said; “the handbrake wouldn’t even have stopped it.”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “I guess it was the wall that stopped it. The most surprising thing was that Tammy was in the car with me all that while, but when I regained my senses, he was nowhere to be found.”
Catherine threw her head back, laughing. The Cherokee was moving at 70kph, and gradually drifting to the other lane. An oncoming kerosene tanker was flashing them, horns blaring. Donald yelled at her to watch out just as they almost hit it. She swerved to the edge of the road, narrowly missing the tanker and all the expletives the furious driver was screaming. She steadied the jeep, drove a short distance, cleared and parked.
“So what happened?” she asked, as if they hadn’t just had a close shave with death.
He stared at her in amazement and continued. “I came out to see how bad I had damaged the car. The right tail-light was shattered. The side just short of the back door was dented. Kate, I could feel the hot tears welling up. I didn’t want to risk driving it again so I went inside the house to look for Tammy. Guess where he was…”
Catherine’s eyes were watering as she shook her head. “I can’t….”
“He was hiding in the toilet. I asked him to come and help me push it back into position. He refused. He said he didn’t want to be a part of it. I had to swear I’d take full responsibility for everything before he came out sweating and shivering like someone with malaria fever.
“When my parents came back the next week, I’d lost like 15pounds. I looked so sick that when my pa saw me, I guess he knew I’d suffered enough. He just went into his room and let my conscience punish me more. But my ma…? She made sure I knew how she felt. Just think of any derogatory adjective, I was named it. Stupid, worthless, irresponsible, I bore them all. But the most disturbing was my pa’s quietness. Till today he’s never talked about it. For more than a month I lived with the fear that one midnight, while I was sleeping, he’d pounce on me and beat all the evil spirits in me away. He never did.
“I’ve not touched a gear stick ever since then. I’m vehi-phobic; whatever that means.”
“You don’t want a déjà vu,” she laughed, wiping her eyes.
“You could say that,” he nodded
She started the jeep and rejoined traffic. “Driving isn’t really difficult though. You just have to do away with the fear. The next thing is concentration. In a week you’ll be doing 100 on the freeway.” She glanced at him. “Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.”
“I’ll crash your car…”
“You won’t. We’ll go to the stadium, or bar beach. There’s plenty of space there.
“Alright,” he nodded.