Dapo continued to shower affection on Ehis. He arrived earlier than Imade had anticipated for a second visit and told her about his plans. ‘My company is relocating me over to the Lagos branch, so my wife and I will be moving here soon. That’s one of the reasons I came; to settle our accommodation.’
He was so keen to know every minute detail about his son that he asked Imade to take him, the next morning, to Ehis’ daycare. The matron, a portly dark complexioned woman in her mid-fifties, greeted him with a wide smile. Imade left them talking and dashed off to work. For the rest of the week, Ehis took a break from riding in the school bus, to ride with his father. Dapo picked him up in the morning, and after school, took him out for snacks before dropping him off with the nanny at home. Imade was grudgingly impressed with his efforts.
‘I don’t want you over pampering him,’ she cautioned.
Dapo smiled to himself. He had missed out on the first two years of his son’s life. Now, he was much wiser and with only one week to spend before he returned to Port Harcourt, pampering Ehis was exactly what he intended to do.
A stream of complaints had been recurring at Ehis’ crèche; this troublesome boy was throwing tantrums again. His incessant outbursts were becoming a source of worry to his teachers. The other preschoolers were afraid of him; he would habitually pull the little girls’ hair and push the boys against the wall. When any of the teachers tried to stop him, he lashed out at them, thrashing his fists in the air and yelling in protests. Most of the preschoolers kept a safe distance from him.
It was 11a.m when Imade received another message about Ehis’ unruly behavior. His teacher threatened to isolate him in a little room if Imade didn’t come for him immediately. The project meeting had just kicked off at the bank. It was a key account and Imade couldn’t leave. She only recently secured these clients after chasing them for so long; it would be unthinkable to abandon them, now that she had their attention. She pleaded with the teacher to do anything she could to calm Ehis down till she got there. Thankfully, Dapo was still in town. Stepping outside the boardroom briefly, Imade called him to let him know she needed his help.
‘Could you attend to Ehis? I’m stuck at work. I’ll call Auntie Doris to let her know you’re coming.’
Dapo was glad to step in. He arrived at the crèche in a jiffy. Packing his car in the spacious compound, he hurried up the flight of stairs, hoping his little boy was keeping himself out of trouble. Auntie Doris, the teacher on duty, shook her head sternly when he stepped into the reception.
‘We’ll have to do something about your boy!’ she exclaimed, as she led Dapo to the nursery.
Surprisingly, Ehis was fast asleep. He seemed to have exhausted all the energy inside him and now lay spent in his cot, while the other preschoolers played quietly among themselves. Dapo tried to wake him up, but he didn’t stir.
‘I’m glad he’s calmed down,’ he said, as he lifted Ehis and laid him across his chest. ‘He’ll behave better tomorrow, you’ll see.’
The boy snoozed. It wasn’t until they got home that Iye pointed out that something was amiss; Ehis was unusually tired. She studied her grandson carefully, wondering why his snores were so pronounced. Vicky, the nanny prepared his favorite meal of noodles and sausages, but it lay uneaten as he bent over the dining table drowsily while they tried to feed him. He seemed to be in a state of stupor, quite unlike his boisterous self.
‘Call the daycare,’ Iye instructed. ‘They should have an explanation for this strange behavior.’
Dapo did so immediately, putting on the loudspeaker so Iye could participate in the conversation. ‘The Ehis I took home is a very different boy from the one you say was causing commotion this afternoon,’ he began.
Auntie Doris immediately became defensive. ‘I didn’t notice anything unusual. Maybe he’s just worn out after all that activity.’
Dapo was ready to drop the matter and get back to attending to his son, but Iye was not as gullible. ‘Even if he ran a marathon, he wouldn’t be this tired,’ she insisted. ‘You said that you would do your best to calm him down till his father got there, how exactly did you do that?’
Auntie Doris remained adamant. ‘Why not allow him to sleep it off tonight?’ she suggested. ‘I’m sure by tomorrow, he’ll be his bubbly self again.’
Iye grunted in disagreement. ‘We’ll take him to the clinic for a test. But if there’s something you’d like to tell us before we go, now would be a good time to do so.’
Auntie Doris was taken aback when she heard that Ehis might need some medical attention. In a panic, she admitted that his behavior was not normal. She told them how he was especially rowdy that afternoon. The children were trying to have their lunch, but he wouldn’t let them eat in peace as he jumped around and knocked their plates over. Auntie Doris was fagged out; Ehis was working her nerves, so she decided to take some drastic action.
‘I put some tranquilizers into his beverage to curb his excesses,’ she said quietly, confirming Iye’s fears. ‘I hope I didn’t overdo it. I really didn’t mean any harm.’
Dapo was alarmed. Iye tried to calm him down. She had dealt with this kind of issues in the past and her experience told her the situation wasn’t critical.
‘I’ll flush his system with some fluids,’ she said. ‘Then we’ll just allow him to sleep it off.’
At Avery, the project meeting finally wrapped up at 2p.m and Imade was able to tear herself away from the office to attend to the brewing crisis. Dapo was waiting for her when she got home. ‘What’s going on?’ he demanded. ‘Are they trying to poison the boy?’
Imade was just as alarmed as he was. ‘Iye told me what happened,’ she said. ‘I called the owner of the crèche and she assured me the teacher in question will be severely dealt with, but I’m withdrawing Ehis from there immediately.’
‘Is this how you leave him at the mercy of every inexperienced sociopath?’ he continued.
‘I said I’m dealing with it,’ Imade snapped. What right did he have to scold her like this?
Dapo paused for a while. ‘There’s something on my mind,’ he said, more gently. ‘Something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.’
He suddenly looked troubled.
‘What is it?’ Imade asked.
‘Early this year, my wife had to undergo an operation. She was three months pregnant when the doctor noticed an unusual growth, which had to be taken out. Unfortunately, things went wrong and we lost the baby. The doctor said her womb was damaged and she couldn’t have another child.’
‘Oh dear,’ Imade shook her head. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘I love my wife dearly, but the incident has put a strain on our marriage. She’s always depressed. I want to make things right again.’
‘Make things right,’ Imade repeated. ‘What do you mean?’
Dapo looked up at her, his eyes piercing. ‘I want you to give me custody of Ehis, so that we can raise him as our own.’
Imade shrank back, certain that he had lost his mind. She stared at him, mouth agape. Wasn’t this the same Mr. ‘I’m not ready for a baby’, who walked away from her over two years ago? He had never been interested in his son before, even going as far as asking her to get rid of him before he was born. The events of the past month; his sudden appearance at her door and his enthusiastic efforts to get close to Ehis now made sense to her.
‘Did I hear you right? You’re asking me to give up parental rights to my son?’ she asked. ‘Have you gone insane?’
‘I’m not asking you to give up your rights,’ he argued. ‘All I’m asking is for you to let him grow up with me. He’s my son as well.’
‘Yeah? Why not tell your son how you wanted him aborted?’
‘That was in the past. Let’s focus on now!’
She shook her head vigorously. ‘You can’t have Ehis. He’s my life.’
‘Your life?’ Dapo retorted. ‘The boy is throwing tantrums at school because he’s being neglected. All this unruly behavior is his way of clamoring for attention. His teachers have resorted to drugging him just to keep him under control. Your career is your life. You don’t have time for your own son.’
The accusation hit Imade like a thunderbolt. Memories of her nine-month pregnancy, the labor pains that accompanied her son’s birth and the challenges of raising him alone flooded through her mind. Without a word, she picked Ehis from the sofa where he lay and started towards the room, drawing him so sharply that the boy began to whimper. Dapo followed hastily, reaching out to grab her arm before she reached the door.
‘I didn’t want this to turn into a quarrel,’ he said. ‘Imade please consider; I need him more than you do.’
She turned round and eyed him stonily, shaking his hand off with disdain. ‘Goodbye Dapo.’ she said. ‘It’s time for you to go.’
‘How dare he question the way I raise my son,’ Imade fumed. ‘I should have known he was up to something. All that sweetness was so unlike him.’
She sat on the couch in Simi’s living room, randomly flipping through the cable channels. Simi was heavy with her second child. Her two-year old daughter played with Ehis on the rug.
‘Well, if his wife can’t have children,’ she put in. ‘It’s only natural he would want to bond with the one he already has.’
Imade glared at her. ‘How could you defend him?’
‘Calm down dear.’ Simi coaxed. ‘I’m not defending him.’ She thought for a while. ‘Maybe we should pray about this and seek God’s counsel on what to do next.’
Imade hesitated. It hadn’t occurred to her to pray. There was no doubt that she loved Ehis, but ever since he was conceived, she seemed to have lost her connection with God. The nagging thought that she had indiscreetly compromised her faith, kept coming back to her. She was so weighed down by rejection and guilt that prayer had become a struggle. It didn’t help matters that she was always so busy; so these days, she didn’t even bother to try anymore.
Sensing her hesitation, Simi squeezed her hand comfortingly. ‘You can’t carry that burden forever. You need to find your peace with God, and the earlier you do so, the better. How do you expect to train your son up in the Lord, if your own relationship with Him is shaky?’
Imade pondered her friend’s words. The issue of raising Ehis had been on her mind for a long while. Her job at the bank was choking her private life and she was slowly abandoning her son to the mercy of hirelings who would neither recognize nor nurture his worth. Her own childhood hadn’t been that rosy but at least her mother was always there for her. She never really knew her father; he passed away when she was very young and Iye was left to single-handedly raise her three children. But it wasn’t till now that Imade appreciated what a tremendous feat Iye had accomplished and she wanted to do an even better job with Ehis. She could never take the place of the father figure that was missing in her son’s life, but she didn’t want to be an absentee mother either. Most times, she didn’t see her son all week. She left for work very early when the nanny was just waking him up and returned when the nanny had already put him to bed.
Quitting Avery however, was unthinkable; this was her dream career. She was upwardly mobile and her prospects for a promotion that year were high. If she was to drop all that, it would be difficult to find an equally attractive alternative that came at half the stress. She would just have to learn how to strike a balance between her passion for Avery and her responsibilities towards her son. And she would do it without Dapo’s help. The events of the previous day still raged through her mind.
‘That guy!’ she exclaimed. ‘The heavens will fall before he gets near Ehis again.’
She got up and strode into the kitchen for a drink, leaving Simi staring after her, wondering if her advice had hit home.
The movers loaded the last piece of furniture into the truck and Dapo did a final check to make sure nothing had been left behind. As he moved from one room to the other, he sighed heavily, his mind feeling as empty as the rooms he had just inspected. Imade was unrelenting and his latest attempt to persuade her to give Ehis up had ended in a deadlock. He had contemplated suing for joint custody. But his lawyer was skeptical. The odds were not stacked in his favor.
‘From the facts you have laid out, the outcome is predictable,’ the young attorney had said as he peered at Dapo through his dark rimmed glasses. ‘You are not married to the lady in question. You have been out of your son’s life since he was born over two years ago with no contact and no financial support. Now you suddenly show up and want to claim him? You will be lucky to get visitation rights.’ He reclined back into the chair and tugged at his moustache. ‘If you really want to give it a try, there must be a reason for your abandonment; we must bring forward a strong case as to why you have been absent from the boy’s life these past two years. Did your ex disappear without a trace? Did you turn over every stone in your attempt to locate her? Or perhaps you could show that she is incompetent in some way and therefore not capable of raising the child.’
Dapo thought for a while and then shook his head. It was him, not Imade who had disappeared from Ehis’ life. He presented the tranquilizer incident but his lawyer threw it out saying it was the daycare’s carelessness not the mother’s.
‘What are my other alternatives?’ he asked finally.
His lawyer shrugged. ‘I would suggest you talk to the mother of your son,’ he advised. ‘It would be easier for you to reach a consensus out of court. Try and make her see reason. If she didn’t listen to you the first time, try again. She might listen the second time.’
Dapo knew that was hardly an option considering the kind of resistance he was up against. After his last discussion with Imade, she had vowed not to let him see his boy again. Feeling defeated, he had left the lawyer’s office, deeply pensive. This was going to be harder than he thought.
From the front seat of their car, his wife called to him to hurry up, jolting him back to the present. The movers were done and ready to leave. Taking one last look round the yard, he sealed up the house and went to join her.
‘So, will your son be visiting us when we get to Lagos?’ Tara asked as he climbed into the front seat.
Dapo shook his head. ‘Imade won’t hear of it.’
‘Then you should just take him.’ Tara declared
Her statement caught him off guard and he stared at her in surprise.
‘Since when did you need her permission to bring your boy home?’ Tara continued. ‘He’s your son, isn’t he?’
Dapo was startled by her remark. The last time they talked about Ehis, his wife wanted to have nothing to do with him. Now, he wondered at her sudden change of heart. The truck pulled out of the driveway, ready to begin the long interstate trip to their new home. As they drove away, Dapo considered his wife’s words. He was convinced that Imade wasn’t competent to raise his son; he and his wife could do a much better job. Tara certainly made a good point; he shouldn’t give up on his quest so easily. He nodded to himself as he considered his next line of action. Imade had left him with no choice.
It was after-school hours and the children were returning home. Even the scorching heat of the afternoon sun could not hold back these raucous youngsters as they filled the bus with their deafening yells. The driver pulled up at the front gate of Imade’s home and Ehis disembarked with the help of the teacher, waving goodbye as he did so. As usual, the nanny was standing at the gate, waiting to receive him. She took hold of his hand and began leading him to the house when another vehicle drove up beside them. Dapo had been trailing the bus since it left the daycare center. A look of recognition crossed Vicky’s face as he alighted from the car and she greeted him with a quick courtesy.
‘I’m taking my son out,’ he announced casually. ‘We’ll be back later.’
Vicky looked at him questioningly. ‘I no know say you go take him today,’ she replied with distorted English.
‘Oh? Didn’t his mother tell you?’ Dapo asked, feigning surprise.
She shook her head. ‘His mama no tell me anything. We already prepared his food inside.’
‘It’s okay. I’ll bring him back in the evening.’
Vicky hesitated, as she held on firmly to Ehis’ wrist. She looked back towards the house at a loss of what to do.
‘Is his mother inside?’ Dapo asked, as though he didn’t already know.
‘She go to work, but grandma is in the house. I go ask her first.’
Dapo nodded. ‘Okay, go in and confirm from grandma, you can call mummy at the office as well. Ehis and I will wait out here.’
Vicky nodded in consent. She relieved Ehis of his little rucksack and hurried indoors.
‘Take your time.’ Dapo called after her.
Iye was peeling some oranges in the dining room. She looked questioningly at Vicky when she entered. ‘Where is Ehis?’ she asked. ‘Hasn’t the bus arrived yet?’
‘The bus is come.’ Vicky informed her. ‘Ehis wait outside with master.’
Iye frowned. ‘Which master?’
‘Master, his father. He’s outside. He say for me to tell you that he go take Ehis home today.’
‘What?’ Iye exclaimed. The knife slipped from her grip and nicked her on the thumb. She flinched and sucked on the injured spot as she sprang from the seat and hurried outside, Vicky right at her heels. There was no one at the gate; Dapo and Ehis were gone. Iye let out a soft cry.
‘You say his father was here?’ she demanded, turning back to the nanny. ‘How could you let him take Ehis without my permission?’
Deaf to Vicky’s explanations, she hurried to the end of the road as quickly as she could. The area was quiet and Dapo’s car was nowhere in sight. She tried his number, but it was switched off. Frantically, she called Imade.
‘Listen, something has come up. You better come home immediately.’
’Mom, is everything okay?’Imade asked.
‘Come home now!’
The urgency in Iye’s voice scared her. Pushing aside the stack of papers in front of her, Imade scribbled a quick note for her boss, grabbed her handbag and hurried out.