Maryam, With Love Part 2
Afternoons in Hafsat’s house were a blur.
Daddy would have gone to play golf, or polo, or do something or the other while Mama was always in her garden.
Hafsat would work on her laptop, furiously typing away, and I would remain idle.
The piano looked tempting; I would walk past it, run my fingers along it, admire it, but I was too scared of provoking Daddy so I never sat to play.
It was a month before I left, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, the house empty, the windows open, when I walked into the dining room and found Mama sobbing gently to herself.
I hurried to her side.
She held a brown envelope which she neatly tucked away as I approached.
“Mama,” I said gently, “what is it?”
“Oh its nothing Yusuf, my dear boy, it’s nothing.”
“No Mama,” I said, insistent, “talk to me.”
She looked at me a while, her eyes searching my face, then she presented the envelope to me.
With hurried, shaky fingers I peeled it open.
In a thousand guesses, I would never have guessed the news which it bore.
It was a doctor’s report, apparently Mama suffered from cancer, it had metastasized, and she had barely two months left to live.
“Please don’t tell Daddy,” she said, “we have managed the condition for the past twenty years, but now it seems there is no hope. The news would kill him.”
I looked at the piece of paper in my hand, unseeing, the cancer had evolved so that it was now untreatable.
I placed it neatly, back into its envelope, and then I held Mama in an embrace, a deep wail overtaking me.
Then she told me the tale, making me take a seat opposite her.
It was December 1993, and the marriage between Maryam and Mustapha was five years old.
Mustapha, a young business man at the time, had just made a great load of money, dealing arms with the government.
At the same time, Mustapha was also a gifted singer, who quickly rose to prominence for his magic with the piano.
The first time she saw him was at a ball organized by the famous Fela Kuti.
In those days, his hair was a full afro, black as ink without a speck of grey. He was classy, she said, with his suspenders and his high waist trousers.
But none of that really held any allure for her, till she heard him play.
Never, in her life, had she witnessed anything half as pure, half as effortless.
He played from somewhere deep in his guts, every note a fresh tale that resonated deep in the listener and reverberated off the walls of the auditorium, to arrive again, unsullied.
They all stood in a circle, the first time she watched him play, a spotlight on him, her girl friends swooning.
And she, she knew that he was more man than anyone she had ever met.
A year later, they had gotten married.
Five years later, on the night of their anniversary, as he did every night since their engagement, Mustapha played for Maryam.
They had invited a few friends over to share meat and mead with, and everybody stood in a circle, ensorcelled by the spell of his music.
It was perfect, she said, his face told everything. He was happy to be there, with her and the toddler Maryam tottering about.
Her hair was tied in a bun, diamonds dangling from her ears, her slender neck thick with jewellery.
As Mustapha played, she wrapped her arms about him, and he laughed as she pecked his cheeks.
In that exact moment, a picture was taken, the same picture hanging over the piano, today.
Well, she continued, the night took a sour turn.
She fell, and the music immediately stopped, the last thing she saw was Mustapha rushing to her side.
She woke up to the sound of a cello, and the smell of roses.
She thought it was the wine that had unsteadied her but one look at Mustapha’s distraught face, and she knew there was more; she had been diagnosed with cancer, and it had to be managed henceforth.
Mustapha blamed himself. He would not play the piano again, regardless of how much she demanded it. His reasoning was that if he held out long enough, she might get healthy again.
When the picture came, he nailed it to the walls, and placed a cover over it, making her promise to never look.
Something had died in Mustapha, she knew. He stopped to sing in public, but every night since, he sang for her, and played his cello, at dinner time.
Still, she could never shirk off the feeling that by her ailment, she had wounded Mustapha, deep.
Hafsat knew, she had always known. And when she found out that I knew, that I was also devastated by the news, a part of her wished she could make me forget.
She had made her peace with it, but I had not.
At night, we would sit for hours in the bedroom, smoking cigars, not saying anything, just understanding our quiet. Then Daddy found out about the doctor’s fresh reports. Hafsat told him. Rather, she showed him, and as he wailed, uncontrollably, his body buckling everywhere, she held him to herself.
I was in the sitting room that day, streaks of orange sunlight came in from the open windows and fell on Daddy’s face, his shameless tears had nowhere to hide.
I sat on a cushion opposite them, tears in my eyes, my features scrawny, my hair unkempt, a cigar in my mouth.
Days became nights, the chandeliers went off, the windows closed.
Maryam still visited her gardens, still tried as much as she could to be of much cheer.
But the problem was Daddy, he remained in his room, losing himself everyday.
And when he did come out, he was a shadow of himself.
Where before he would walk gracefully, down those steps, now he ambled down, a mug in his weary grip, his once glorious full head of hair now dirty and disheveled, his hand on the rails.
He never cleaned the piano again which sent me a different kind of message, never peeked at the picture in the covers.
So after ignorantly walking past it for some weeks, peeved, I took a rag and I cleaned it to sheen.
I cleaned it every morning after that.
But the most painful part of Daddy’s transformation was that he completely stopped to play for Maryam.
The dining room became a cold place, despite that everything remained as it had always been, yet there was something breathless about the place now.
So we all ate in our rooms, without the memory of daddy’s singing, and of Maryam’s beautiful laughter.
It was a day before I finally left Hafsat’s house as a new school session was resuming, and I would need to prepare lesson notes for my university students.
I was asleep, with Hafsat’s slender arm across my bare, hairy chest, when deep in my sleep, I heard the sweetest combination of keys.
We woke up together, Hafsat and I, drawn by the music, confusion all over our faces.
When we came out of the room we found Maryam, a night cloak about her, also hurrying to the sound of song.
We all walked down the steps, the music getting louder and louder, its song honey to our souls.
At the bottom of the staircase was where the music was loudest, it came from the hollow in the wall.
We stood, our breaths taken away, as we watched Daddy play the piano.
He looked resplendent with his hair well shaved and in the blue kaftan he wore.
I had never heard anything more beautiful, neither had I ever in my life witnessed anyone seem so passionate about both the music, and its rendering.
It was all on his face; the pain of all the past years, regret, the joy of life, everything showed plain as day.
Apparently, he had stopped playing when Maryam was first diagnosed, so why would he play now? Acceptance maybe?
I always knew the man was spectacularly peculiar.
And then he sang, his face to Maryam when he did, his eyes deep pools of both lust and love,
If death takes me a thousand times
Or I am hung for a million crimes
Every time, I would come again
You I would choose, again and again.
Oh Maryam, sweet Maryam
I would love you with every breath
Oh Maryam, my only Maryam
I would love you, even in death.
There was that smile again which only Maryam could ever smile, its origins deep and true.
We all swayed to the music, hand in hand, as Daddy sang his soul out.
And when he was done, he took her in his arms and he kissed her deep and hard, wordless, but we knew that by his actions, a lot had already been shared.
I at once noticed the picture over the piano was uncovered; a monochrome image of a youthful Daddy laughing hard with an even more youthful Maryam behind him, her arms about his neck.
I left Hafsat’s house the next morning, to the sound of Daddy’s piano, and the magic of Maryam’s laugh, a laugh we would all enjoy for a decade and a half more.
Your Love Doctor
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