Amina Aboje – The Colonel
He was called the Colonel. That wasn’t his name. It was his standing in Her Majesty’s Army. No one knows for sure, at what point he was endowed with the sobriquet or by whom, we were mostly far from adolescents when the christening took place, not by any external conspiracy. I was ten and our oldest, several months above thirteen.
There was nothing unusual about the name; at least not in the barracks. The barracks kids were notorious for giving nicknames to people especially to those they considered as making their lives unpleasant. These names were usually a perfect fit on the bearers. Though the conferment of the names had no bias for age, gender or rank, the fathers bore the brunt chiefly for their strict ways with the kids. For instance, the father of our friends from three blocks away, a rigid, unsmiling Major who spotted a moustache, had been aptly christened ‘Moustache’. The name stuck like a leech. What’s more, no offence was taken by any kid on account of this renaming of their fathers. Almost every father had his nickname and every kid was free to use it. In most cases, the fathers bore these names for years without the slightest clue. In a way, this was taking vengeance on them, harmless as it was.
The Colonel was irksome in a manner that made you want to disown him when you grow up. The air at home thinned out whenever he was around to the point where it was almost impossible to breathe. All rowdiness sobered up and quietude prevailed. His very presence sucked in all the air, leaving us with just a merciful measure that barely sustained us. Thankfully, he was not the always-at-home kind of man. But even though he took his physical self with him when he went out, his voice, smug and compelling, stuck itself in our heads ─ and sometimes, our hearts ─ droning on about countless rules and regulations. His aura always seemed to hang behind in every room, and around the house, to ensure that we weren’t miring ourselves in any pit of foolishness that would make us rue his return.
Not that we were much deterred by this. Whenever the coast became clear, this was usually between 8A.M. and 1:30P.M. on weekdays, we let loose and bent or broke some rules cutting down on mandatory study time, or foregoing the compulsory siesta ─ to breach the quiet of the neighbourhood in the boisterous manner only kids are capable of. From 2:00 and 2:30P.M., every form of raucousness quietened. The Colonel would be home any minute. On not a few occasions, he had arrived before 2P.M., preferring the use of the back door. The repeated stamping of his well-shined black boots on the veranda to dislodge them of dirt heralded his presence, which always caught us in the middle of sundry misdemeanours. To guard against these unsavoury surprises we took to posting Imabong, our fifth sibling, as sentry to the window directly overlooking the road at least three quarter of an hour before 2P.M. Her warning call of “The Colonel is coming!” provoked quite some scampering as we all hastened to assume various postures of responsible behaviours ─ some studying, some on their beds, fast asleep, some doing the dishes or sprucing up the house with studied diligence. It took the coming of my own brood to make me understand why The Colonel was never fooled by these elaborate efforts at impeccable behaviour.
The Colonel was not one of those men who lovingly neglected their families and languidly supervised the gradual dilapidation and eventual decay of their offspring. He wasn’t one who enjoys hours and hours of slothfulness at home, keeping sealed lips in the face of thriving delinquencies under their roofs; or taking off in obsessive pursuit of livelihood without regular recourse to the well-being of their homes. He was both parents in one. In ’52, soon after the twins were born, mother had answered the call of death. After that, he never cared to let another woman into his heart. Even after she passed on, mother must have occupied every space in his heart that there was none left for another. There were however, the occasional female visitors. No doubt once in a while The Colonel had gotten between the covers with some of them. What man with no regular soft skin to warm his nights wouldn’t? But these affairs must have been conducted outside our home and with such discretion that left us only guessing. Aunt Viola, his only sibling, recently widowed herself, moved in with her three-year-old son. She was the one who nursed the twins to toddler-hood and minded the rest of us. It wasn’t until the twins were two months away from their fourth birthday that Sir Ralph Ekanem, a Knight in Duke-town’s only Catholic Church and a fine gentleman well known to The Colonel, snatched her up to wife. It was at this point that twelve-year-old Josephina, our second, stepped into her shoes. She did a fine job of it. Aunt Viola still dropped by once every so often to check on things though.
Though we missed our friends, we were elated when we said our final goodbyes to the barracks and left Kaduna for Duke-town. But that was short-lived. His military mind-set moved in with us even after his retirement from active service and the regiments of barrack living stole into our home and continued to bear on our existence. Not that we didn’t find ways to breathe occasionally.
So behind his back, he was The Colonel, before his face, he was daddy. Calling him anything else behind his back would not have been apt; he administered his household like a Colonel would his Formation. Though he almost never considered the whip as a corrective resort, his tongue was enough rod to push, pamper, praise and prod us into line. When the tongue needed a rest, his eyes took over. And there was not one among us who was not adept at deciphering these eye messages.
Even after the barracks, he was quite the busy man, going out at sun-up to tend to his farms coming back just before sun-down “you don’t leave the business of the farm entirely in the hands of the farm-hands”, he often said. Not that he had a choice. He had seven mouths to feed; seven different school fees to pay, even if he hardly bothered with the purchase of textbooks. Didn’t the schools come with richly stocked libraries? He always asked in the face of such requisitions.
The pantry seldom saw a dearth of provisions, but clothes and shoes? Well, those were taken care of once every year at Christmas. We wore uniforms at Christmas: same design and style of clothes made by the same tailor from the same floral print fabrics. Only the sizes differed according to age and weight. Gender accounted for a major difference too. Bottom line, every boy wore the same style chosen for the male gender of the Stober clan. Same went for the female brood. Then we were bundled off to Chellarams, an exclusive shoes shop in Kaduna, located on Wilberforce avenue, off Ahmadu Bello way, all seven of us, and any cousins ─ and there was never a scarcity of cousins ─ around. At Chellarams, we were strongly advised and closely monitored to make such choices of footwears that were a size or two bigger than our current sizes. Once that had the ability to serve effectively the dual purpose of adorning our feet for church and school.
A well-arranged roll of tissue paper deftly stuffed in each pair took care of any challenge posed by the size difference and saw to it that they provided premium service to every user for years to come as each pair of feet lengthened and broadened. In the thinking of our unformed minds, there was not a father as exacting, as unloving as he. Perhaps, one of his two most grievous sins was the wee-hour meetings for which we were snatched from the sweet arm of sleep at such times when sleep was the most craved of all things. We assembled, not in the parlour but outside the house where it seemed like the mosquitoes were in active connivance with him to make certain no one dozed off and missed the message, of how much he loved us and how all he did was to be sure we grew up into responsible members of the society. Not one word of this was believed by any soul present. Not at the time. Besides, hardly any words but proverbs left his lips, and we were left wondering most of the time. Quite frustrating it was. It would take years, many, many years for the message to sink in.
The second, and much more atrocious, was the TV rule. Just when the most interesting movie was about to begin, for which we’d, in fidgety silence, endured almost an hour long news cast, The Colonel would bolt from his chair where he’d sat enjoying the news, and switch off the Telly. “Aren’t you all expected in school bright and early tomorrow? Now off to your beds, kiddies,” he’d say in such a jolly tone that left us seething quietly. His words brooked no arguments, so we’d all leave our chairs ─ pained to the bone ─ with frowns that failed to stir his compassion, shuffle into our bedrooms and onto our beds. We’d lie awake for a long time, piling and filing away the bile of bitterness against him for future use.
We could endure, even embrace every rule, but the TV rule forced our hands. So we called our own meeting and, with not one discordant voice, convicted The Colonel. We swore that if he visited us when we grew up, the TV rule would be applied on him. We would, in great patience, explain to him that for his age and health, it would be unwise to spend time in front of such frivolity as the TV. Nathan, our oldest, presided, and Imabong, the only one likely to kiss The Colonel’s ears, was sworn to secrecy.
Not once was the rule applied. As we grew older and started our families, friendship between The Colonel and the brood grew fond and deep and the nocturnal messages began to have meanings profound. In the throes of family banters, sometimes we even worked up the nerve to call him The Colonel to his face, at which he knotted his facial muscles and narrowed his eyes into a semblance of strictness while trying and failingly to suppress laughter. His right forefinger jabbed at the offender in feigned warning, as if to say, “I’m still the Colonel, don’t you forget that.”
My father’s rocker, still left unmoved from his favourite position under the huge orange tree in front of the main building, provided an unobstructed view of the entrance into the compound. I sat on it trying to decide if I was amused or riled by the naked display of duplicity I was witnessing. My heart was at bursting point for the void left by The Colonel’s abrupt exit but at the moment, my eyes refused to yield to the pressing tears, perhaps in subconscious defiance of the theatrics going on before me.
A phone call from a tearful Mrs Udoh, the housekeeper, had woken Imabong up in faraway Lagos and unloaded the dreadful news on her. The Colonel had gone to bed the night before, in doubtless health and cheer, but failed to respond to her repeated rap on his door when she took the usual breakfast up to his room the next morning. It had taken Mr Udoh, summoned up from his chores in the garden, a full fifteen minutes to unlock the door.
The Colonel was just lying there. Gone. Within minutes, the news had travelled to every Stober household via the wire and left every soul aghast and devastated. And within hours, every Stober direct offspring, and some spouses, from far and near had converged at the Stober home in Duke-town. Duke-town hummed and buzzed, then settled into a mournful silence at the news of The Colonel’s passing.
The living room had its main door directly facing the main gate. It made it easy to see immediately whoever came through the gate. At present, it was filled with women, mostly relatives from The Colonel’s maternal and paternal sides of the track. Some of them sat on chairs, some, who could find the space, sprawled themselves out on the floor with both feet stretched out in front of them. The men sat outside and spoke in subdued tones in deference to the dead and the bereaved; they’d assembled, with their children in tow, from near-by towns and other distant places.
They helped themselves to crates of soft drinks and packets of biscuit in the living room You could hear the light-hearted discussions and harmless gossips filtering out from the group, sometimes, when someone said something funny, a wave of hearty laughter erupted from the group. But each time the gate creaked open and someone entered, the noise from the parlour stopped briefly and several necks craned to see who it was that just entered. If the person had been there earlier to pay their respects, the conversations resumed. If it was a new person, the drama began. Almost every woman in the room would start wailing, some rolling on the floor, lamenting the great loss, dabbing tears off their eyes with the corners of their wrappers. If the new arrival was a female, she joined in the melodrama for a brief moment then things quietened and the talking and occasional laughing resumed as they awaited the visit of a new sympathizer. If male, the drama went on until he pleaded, pacified and sympathized with them, saying how awful and, indeed, irreplaceable the loss was to all, and how death was a path one couldn’t help but tread someday.
A soft hand gently placed on my shoulder startled and pulled me back to the present from decades down memory lane; and tore my gaze from the goings-on in the parlour. I looked up to see Imabong’s eyes, red and swollen from weeping. With Imabong there had never been much need for words. Her tender heart always knew how you felt. I rose to my feet, draped my right hand across her shoulder, and drew her close to me. At thirty-five, she was still The Colonel’s little girl and now he was gone. I found myself worrying about her, pushing aside my pain for a moment. I drew her closer as we looked across, in mutual silence, at the rest of the Stober clan ─ with wives, husbands and children, mine and hers with them ─ under a white canopy pitched to the right of the guard house, trying their best at managing the loss that had no doubt created a hole in each life. The Colonel had had a unique relationship with each child. Whether son, daughter, husband, wife or grandchild, each knew they had a special spot in his heart.
For a brief moment, my gaze settled on Nathan, tall and burly with an imposing presence and an austere countenance that was sharply contrasted by two dimples on either side of the cheek when he smiled; a facsimile of The Colonel. Imabong raised her hand to her right shoulder and gave mine a gentle squeeze as if reading my mind. Overall, The Colonel had done remarkably well with his brood. Save thirty-one year-old Eteyen and Nneyen, whose births had seen mother succumb to the lure of death, presently studying for their Master degree, everyone else had a Doctorate degree to their name. And everyone was married with kids but for Eteyen who still thought himself too young to pledge his allegiance to one single woman. Now that The Colonel had finally heeded mother’s call, would we still keep the tradition of our annual Christmas gathering at The Stober home? Would we still sit at the great mahogany dining table, eating, teasing, and revealing each other’s silly exploits of old? I wondered with a pang.
An on-coming noise dragged our focus from our siblings to see six-year-old Lucas, my second, trotting towards us, eyes dancing in excitement. The bliss of childhood, I thought to myself.
“Mark and Umana are headed for the swimming pool. Mum said to check with you first. I can go dip with them, can’t I?” He asked, his voice laden with hope.
“Shouldn’t you be having a nap now? Go take a nap. May be later,” I said.
Lucas’s shoulders slumped. He stood there for a minute, looked into his aunt’s eyes, a silent plea for her intervention, but she said nothing; just shrugged and smiled at him. He turned and stormed off towards the main house, disappointed no doubt.
Imabong looked at the angry, retreating back of Lucas, then turned and caught my eyes. We smiled knowingly through our shared grief. Then, in a fierce tone barely above a whisper, almost as if she was defying death and sending a message by the hand of the wind to the hereafter, she said, “Colonel Ekpenyong Stober is alive; in each of us.”