You pinch your eyes, willing your head to stop aching. It doesn’t listen. Neither does the woman at the other end of the call. Can a person end the call on his mother? But you don’t want the news to be ferried across to the village council and be discussed in the next umunna (kindred) meeting. Plus, you don’t want to look bad, even more than you have already been made to be. It will only birth another chain of explanation that won’t make sense to them and won’t change your answer.

“He can’t stay with me, Mama.”
“Where else would you have him stay, eeh Ugonna? I am not asking for too much. Must you make me grovel? This is your brother o. Your own twin brother. The only sibling you have. When I die…” You weren’t going to listen to the same banter you have listened to for the past ten years. You decide you have had enough to take the risk and end the call. She calls again. You let it ring, taking delight in this new tune your wife has chosen. You smile at the thought of her. And frown at the thought of the other.

A message comes in shortly after and you feel the air knocked out of your lungs. In need of a distraction, you ask the brown-eyed man opposite you, “Do you believe in Karma?” Of all your desk partners, Dera has lasted the longest. If he weren’t so loquacious, you suspect both of you would have been best friends. But he is and both of you are not. Even if he weren’t, both of you were being considered for same promotion, a position you thought of yourself as better qualified for. You were too competitive to descend to befriending an enemy-to-be. But he likes to think that both of you are friends.

He gives you a wolfish grin, “It depends. Mostly yes.”
So, you ask him, “Why is it slow? Why does it never catch up with some? Why do many never face repercussions?”
Dera pauses as if in thought. If you didn’t know him, you would have thought he was. But you did, there are few men more dramatic than Dera on earth. “Maybe some are born to make a mess. And others to clean it,” he laughs. It was supposed to be a joke. You laugh too. You think about it as you prepare to head home. You hate to admit that you agree with him. “You are not going for the after-work drinks?” he asks you. Oh! It’s today? Of course, you know it’s today. It’s all you thought about last week. It was an opportunity to ‘show face’ and remind the partners of your promotion. To prove your dedication and ready availability to the company.

“Maybe next time, when I am better prepared.” You can tell he doesn’t believe you.
He looks at you. Through you. It is one of those few times Dera looks serious. “Problem at home?”
Your eyes bulge. No. It’s nothing. Your reply comes out too fast. You swallow. “It has been a long day. I am tired. I want to retire early today.” You feel the metallic taste of blood where you bit your tongue. And that smell. The stench of your lie. His stare lingers. You know he didn’t buy your act. But he doesn’t press. Like every other time, he had chosen to let you go. It makes you want to hold on to him and spill all your secrets. To ask him why those you love most hurt the most. Why love must be such a hurtful thing. Why we crave it regardless.

You resist this temptation. To make it easier, you remind yourself why you are doing it in the first place. Dera is a lot of things, including a comedian. Or so he tells himself. Give Dera a chance and he will turn your small office cubicle into an auditorium with your desk as his stage. Like most comedians, his jokes feed on information. People’s stories contorted into jabs. You used to laugh along. Until you heard your divorce story in its most twisted form. That time you were the one that abandoned your daughter and nemesis caught up with you in a funny way. It elicits a burst of laughter. The deafening sound of waves crashing down. And worlds falling apart. “I didn’t even mention your name,” he said in his defence. “It’s just a joke. You should learn how to take one.” You roar. His words set you off all over again. How could he reduce what you confided in him into a public performance. Your tears into a cacophony of laughter. You see it for what it is: betrayal. It is not first in your life. Like others, it makes you wary. The next time he cracks a joke, you do not laugh.

Since then, you’ve learnt to keep his nose out of your serious business. And to avoid his proddings, you run. Like you are doing now. It is easy to forget. Memories often get submerged in the roaring sea of the present. You hold on to this memory as you clear your desk. You keep it afloat, willing yourself never to forget. You mumble a goodbye as you leave. You feel his stare piercing the denim jacket your first wife bought you for your first anniversary. “To thicken your hide,” she laughed. Looking back now, you didn’t think it was much of a joke.

You still think about Dera’s words as you drive home. And Mamas. Your full conversation with her plays out in your head.
“Your brother is in town.”
“He needs a comfortable place to stay.”
“I gave him your address. He is coming over to your place.”
You thunder, “Mama, you know we have history. How can you give him my address without telling me?”
“History ke, Ugonna? How old is history? Tell me, where was it when both of you suckled my breast? Where was it when both of you shared the same room at home and in the boarding house? And now, suddenly, there is a history. Is this history older than your childhood? Is it thicker than blood? Has it not been over ten years, Ugonna? Why have you chosen to be so callous and unforgiving? Your brother just came into the country and needs a place to stay. Or do you expect him to spend money on hotels when he has a brother in the city? Why can’t family help?”
“He can just stay with you, Mama. His family.”
She snorted. The meaning is not lost on her. “How do you expect a man that has spent most of the past decade in the white man’s land to settle in the village. Tell me, will he draw water with me from the well? Or will he use our latrines with us? How will he adapt?”
“He is an adult, Mama. He can sort himself out if he chooses not to stay with you.”
“Nwam,” she begins. You know that tune. “It is only for a short while. Nwanne bu nwanne.”

You want to tell her that is what led to this mess in the first place. Instead, you let yourself banter with her. Your mistake. You know when you began to lose the fight. It is there in the new shrillness in your voice and the rising hairs behind your neck. How can a son turn down his own mother? Maybe you were born to clean up messes. And he to create them, you think as his message comes in. You hear the what ifs. Your stomach churns. You taste your lunch in your throat.

You find your brother at the foot of your house, still looking very much like you. He has barely changed. Neither have you. How do you greet a twin brother you have not seen in a decade? Especially one you parted with on bad terms. Even particularly, one you have sworn to have nothing to do with. Do you hug? Or will a casual handshake suffice? He spares you of your agitation and greets you like it is the most natural thing in the world. Like nothing is amiss. A wide hug that almost swallows you. “Nwanne m. My brother,” he calls you. He reaches for your hand. For this signature fist bump greeting you did as boys. But you are no longer boys. And everything is amiss. You extricate yourself from his suicidal leash. If he is disappointed, it doesn’t show. He tells you of how eager he was to see you that he arrived early. That he has been knocking ever since but no one opened – even though he could make out presence in the house. He feared you didn’t want him in. He tells you how harsh the sun had been.

You want to tell him you didn’t want him in. That you won’t have but for Mama. Instead, you apologize, “Your presence was too sudden for us to prepare ahead. The childminder was instructed not to open the door for anyone. It is only my wife and I that have the keys.” I am not anyone, he tells you. “They don’t know,” you reply. This shuts him up – for a moment.

The door whines as it opens. It takes all your demons not to apologize. Instead, you ask for his luggage. “There is none,” he says like it is the most casual thing on earth, with a wave of his hand. And a grin. Your hair rises and a wave of déjà vu washes over you.

You usher him in and offer a seat. You feel his eyes roam. You try to take in the sitting room through his eyes. You can almost hear the judgments in his head. The disappointments. Is this the comfort mama promised? He declines to watch the 42-inch plasma TV. You sigh in relief. Who knows if it will work today. How many times you will have to tap the remote. You let him tell you about his travels. The countries he has been to. The ones you may never see in this lifetime. He tells you of their food. Their culture. Their ‘nonesensim,’ he calls it. “How can a person die of depression? Have a panic attack? How can a person be lonely when they are surrounded by many people?”

You swallow. And laugh – loudly – hoping it was a joke. You are learning how to take one. It comes out brittle. All you hear is the scraping sound of glass against concrete. Conscious, you stop as soon as you begin.

He doesn’t notice. He is often like this: lost in his own aura. Driven by his charm. He tells you his stories like you are two lost friends catching up. Like he can recover a decade in an hour. You know he is apologizing. He does most of the talking. You let him. It would take more than a conversation to set things right. You will yourself to remember. To stay steady, less you get carried away in the sea of the present. When you leave to prepare dinner, your son makes an even better company. Giggling and shrieking at the right times, enchanted by the wonder of foreign lands. Your brother has charmed his way to the favorite uncle position without breaking a sweat. No doubt, he still had his magic. You listen to their laughter echo throughout the house. You wonder, does your heart always beat this fast?

He waits for you to put your son to bed before he asks you for a change of clothes. Instead, you ask, “How long are you staying?” You hate the crack in your voice. You do not intend to be rude. But it comes out that way, anyway. He gives no reply. You continue, “My wife will be home tomorrow. You have to go before she comes back.” This is when he bursts into tears. He tells you of how heartless you are to hold on to the past. To neither believe him nor forgive him. To want to throw him to the streets as soon as he arrived. “It’s only for a short while,” he assures you. “I have turned a new leaf.”

But you are no fool. You press, “What happened to your luggage?” He cries even more. “We must have an uncanny resemblance to a notorious criminal because a group of policemen came after me on my way back from work. I was so close to the airport that I ran into it.”
“Let me guess,” you tell him. “You ran into a plane which you didn’t know was heading to Nigeria. By the time, you realize you were home without your luggage.”
He peers at you. “Are you a seer, Brother? That was exactly what I was going to say.”
You sigh, more in tiredness than disbelief. “Surely, you can go back and get them.”
Your sarcasm is lost on him. That is why he chooses this time to tell you, “My visa has expired.”
“Renew it then.”
“It may take a while. Longer than expected,” he adds.
You connect the threads. “Are you doing anything illegal? Are you pushing drugs?”
“Why are you always quick to believe the worst of me, Ugonna?” He shakes his head, as if shaking out the vestiges of hurt. And pride. “I won’t have come if I wasn’t desperate. It will break Mama’s heart to know. Please let me hang around for a while. I will be of good behaviour. You won’t even know I am around. I promise it will be for a short while.

You know better. A while never ends. This won’t be the first time he will break a promise. Or the last. You are determined not to follow. And be enmeshed in the same trap twice. But there is a part of you that is tired of being lost. A part that wants out of this cocoon you have built for yourself. A part that desperately wants to believe in him. To trust again.

It is foolhardy to keep a wolf with ewes. But you have always been a fool. You let this part win. And let your clothes become his. His pictures to hang on the walls of your guest room. You let him hold a spare key to the house. And you, your heart in your hand. It squeezes each time your wife comes home. To his defence.

“At least, he helps watch your son, we can save cost on getting a childminder.” You remember that day, she had just come back from her shift. You were looking for your favorite T-shirt. The one you had neither given him permission to wear nor amongst the clothes you offered him. Yet, you found it amongst his things. With his grin, “What else are brothers for?” You wonder how much more you will have to share. Your head hurts. And your irritation grows. You didn’t dare send him away. Unlike him, you are lacking in courage. You can’t stomach another family wrath. It will break your mother’s heart. Nonetheless, you play with the idea. You broach it to your wife. Nothing prepares you for her reaction. She lashes out, “You meet a brother you have not seen in years. And you want to send him packing. Your twin brother?” You can’t decide which of her words you hate the most. You decide it is her last, the one that makes you come off like your mother had described: callous.

You want to tell her it is just the opposite. That you are just angry. And scared. You want to hold her close and inhale the musky scent of her hair. You know it will smell like her. Like smoke. Instead, you feed on your anger, “We have not seen each other in years. And now, he appears out of nowhere. He could be a thief for all we know.” She stills. Her eyes wide in shock. Disbelief. It reminds you of your mother’s reaction the first time you barred him from entering your house. She tries to take you in. This new person standing before her. You imagine her thinking, maybe I married him too fast.

You try to make amends, “I know he is my twin brother. But he has been away for too long. I can’t vouch for him. Or anybody. What if he is a negative influence on our son?”
“We will watch him closely then”
“What if we watch from afar?”
She shakes her head like you are missing the point. You are. “He is family,” she says. “Family, Ugonna.” She says it like you have a poor understanding of it. A toddler learning alphabets. And to make a clearer meaning, she adds, “Blood.”
“It has only been bad blood between us.”
“Then, it is your shame,” she tells you. It is. It washes over you every morning as you take your bath. It reminds you of your failure. Your faults.

You should have seen this coming. Raised as an only child, your wife had a strong sense of family. It is ironic how what drew you to her in the first place now seemed to repel you. Still healing from your nightmarish experience, you had thought, “this is just what I need, a soothing balm for my nightmares. You indulged yourself.” Except that, right now, you don’t like it that much. Life was playing a dirty trick on you.

Both of you slept apart for the first time that night. The bed stretched before you like a magnetic field. Her back, a solid wall to prevent opposite poles from meeting. You laid awake trying to remember the last time both of you had an argument. Not ever since she took up her cooking job with the navy and has been mostly out of the house than in it. You have been big on making good memories. “Let’s cherish the little time we spend together,” you told her. She agreed.

Have both of you always been this different? Were you that difficult to understand? How much was there in blood? Can you not decide who stayed under your roof? Why did she look at you that way? Like she could not recognize you. Will she recognize your brother?

In your dream, she did. you dreamt of him. And her. He was making love to her. You wake in a pool of your own sweat. Desperate to hold onto something, you reached out to her – fearful and needy.

You made it your duty to help her ‘watch’ your brother closely. You tell her his faults. And failures. He takes too much soup. Too much toothpaste. Does he drink them? Does he know how they cost? He slurps his meals. He leaves the bathroom messy. It is charity work, you tell yourself. He charms so well. How else will she know? You listen for the first lines of defence. Does it sound passionate? When she laughs at his jokes, you wonder, “has her voice always been this high-pitched?” You were going to hold on to this one. It is fine, you tell yourself, “So long as they are never home alone.”

She had just come home for another shift. You were doing her laundry when she apologized. A tedious work of oily hands and charcoal nails. You do it nonetheless, holding on to the material gingerly, lest it tears because you squeezed too hard. You think it will win bonus marks in your favour. Her apology surprises you. “I shouldn’t have forced my thoughts on you,” she says. “Or judged you without knowing what happened. I was just excited to meet another member of your family. A twin you have never spoken about. One that bonded so well with our son. I am mostly in the barracks. Sandwiched between your busy schedule and the childminder’s. It is a relief to see he has family close by.”
“I am not family?”
“You know that is not what I am trying to say, Ugoo. He is picky with minders. You know how difficult it was getting him to adapt. Yet, your brother does it easily.” You know. How he manages to do it so well still surprises you.
You feel your heart beat faster. You feel something else. Fear. “You don’t think I look after him well enough?”
Her eyes squeezed tight. She was finding it more difficult to hide her frustration. “It was difficult for me growing up as an only child. I yearned for a sibling. I feared our son would do the same. I only thought your brother’s presence would help.” You apologize too. For losing your temper.

Both of you settle into a comfortable silence, until she asks, “What happened ten years ago?” You are suddenly in front of your mother. You are trying to explain. She is not listening. You don’t think she wants to. She is telling you to stop overreacting. You are not listening. You are in the office with Dera weighing how much he should know. Your answer is the same. The silence prolongs.
“It broke me,” was all you could manage.
“Does he know?” she asks. “How much he hurt you? He could be living in ignorance of his sins?”
You laugh. It comes out snarky. “He knows,” you tell her. “He only does better at pretending.”
“Or at growing up.” You give her an eyeful. “What if it is just a defence mechanism,” she continues. “Like you shut yourself out and push people away.” You have had enough of this conversation. She can do her laundry herself. You get up to leave. She pushes a card into your hand. You open it to see a scheduled visit to a therapist. You still. “I couldn’t stop thinking about our conversation, so I got it for you on my way home.”
“You think I need help?”
“We all need help, Ugoo.”
You don’t budge, “You think I am irrational?”
“I think you are scared. Whatever that happened ten years ago cannot rob us of our future. You have to stop being suspicious of everyone around you. You have to open up, Ugoo. Maybe not to me, even though I would love it. It can be to a stranger if you think he will judge less.”

You wept that day. It was like growing up all over again. Somehow the story favours him. No matter whose hand was found in the pot of soup. It would be, “Why didn’t you stop your brother?” When both of you went out, you were the one Mama would whisper to, “Look out for your brother.” And when he began to bring girls home, it was “Have you been good? Where else is he learning these things from?” You are living your childhood in your house. Dread creeps up your spine. You recognize this familiar feeling: fear. Your stomach flips. It is so palpable that you taste it in your mouth. You fear this fear. The strain it is putting on your marriage. You are tempted to call your mother. You want to tell her that your air conditioner barely works. That your house is not comfortable. That you are struggling too. That you work round the clock to make ends meet. That the child support is taking a toll on you. That you give her out of your scarcity, not abundance. That is love. Giving, not taking. She should understand. But she will not. She will ask why your love does not extend to your twin. And what happened ten years ago that made you so hard.

You want to tell her that ten years ago, you were a dreamy young man with a new wife. And a baby on the way. Your brother came visiting. He came with his charm. You didn’t know it would make your wife swoon. It was supposed to be for a short while. His ‘while’ never ended. Until you came home and met him on top of your wife. You wondered where you missed the signs. How dumb you had been. You knew you were lacking in many ways. She had been your first try. A very awkward and sloppy attempt. Falling severely short of your brother’s years of experience. Maybe that was why she chose him over you.

Your brother swore she came after him. He would never have done something like this. She swore he came after her. The pregnancy hormones made her succumb. She would never hurt you intentionally. You are unsure of who to believe. You build yourself a cocoon and live with this betrayal. And just in case you ever forget, a ridiculous amount leaves your pocket every month for child support.

You waver under the hazy concern in Dera’s eyes. Your demons haunt you. They must have showed as eyebags because Dera asks you, “Not been getting enough sleep?”
“Your wife is back on a shift, isn’t she? You should sleep more and play less.” You smile. You are learning to take a joke. But when the message comes in, you barely try. All you feel is the hot liquid fear flowing in your veins and the meltings of your insides. You dash out. You read the childminder’s message over and over again, trying to make sense of it. The implications. She had left for an emergency. Your son would be in school. But your wife was home. So was your brother. You panic.

The house is silent when you arrive. And the door locked. Your heart pounds harder. You remind yourself to breathe. You creep in through the window. You heard his laughter first. Then your son’s. You remember today is a public holiday. You don’t need to hear the clatter of pots to know your wife is in the kitchen. You listen for it nonetheless. And take comfort in the aroma of what would be your dinner. You did not know you were holding your breath until now. When you let it go, you slack. And slump.

Dera sends you text. “The partners are calling for you. I told them you had an office errand to run. You owe me one.” The first tear dropped. And then another. So much for your competition. By the time you reached for the card your wife gave you, you were crying. And barely audible.








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