We were immediately drawn into Ope Adedeji’s “The Photograph on the Wall” with its opening line: “My father is a child when he returns to me the second time: blue eyes, red skin and babbles of incoherent words.” Adedeji illuminates something universally human in this story that interrogates whether there’s an expiration date on grief, our New Voices entry for this week.
A fat cloud in my head relaxes. The wall clock above the photo frames of the children and Papa stares at me through sleepy eyes. I count the tiny second lines till I get to twenty-five. All those years have gone and still, my body and mind refuse to stop mourning.
My father is a child when he returns to me the second time: blue eyes, red skin and babbles of incoherent words. It is a cool Wednesday morning, but my thighs and the neckline of my boubou are thick with sweat. “Papa, welcome,” I say to him, pressing my wet hand into his face. He flinches, cupping my fingers in his. He stretches out his hands for me to lift him from the booster seat. I put him on my hips, and hum Oliver de Coque’s “Father Father”. His mother, Mary, looks at me through squinted eyes.
“He seems to like you,” she says, folding napkins into squares on the kitchen countertop.
“Of course he does,” I say, stopping short of telling her that I see my father’s red eyes inside his.
The Smiths are new in the neighbourhood. They moved from a small town in San Francisco because her husband got a job with the government; an advisor or something.
“I’m an engineer,” she said on their first night, explaining that she worked with computers and will be joining a bank’s tech team at the end of the summer. She told me not to call her Mrs. Smith: “Please call me Mary. Everyone calls me Mary, including my baby who’s only a few months old and can’t talk.” I chuckled because I couldn’t say that I found this unusual. “I would love to meet your baby” was all I eventually said, watching as her skin went from pale to burnt orange under the streetlight. We spoke for a few more minutes before she went into their two-storey building by my drooping bungalow.
At dinner, I tell Nkechi and Nnamdi that their grandfather is inside the new neighbour’s little baby. They laugh. Nkechi spills orange juice and bangs the table. “You mean my grandfather who no one has seen since the 90s?” I run a finger over the cracks on my lips, unsure of how to explain this. In the middle of their laughter, Nnamdi starts to choke on his rice. He takes off his small, round glasses, holds his neck and throws his head back. I pour him a glass of water and rub his back.
“Ndo. See why you shouldn’t laugh at your mother,” I say, flicking grains of rice off the table.
Nkechi scoffs. “See why you mustn’t joke like that.” She frowns. “At any rate, it’s not a funny joke.” She packs up her barely-eaten food. The stew sits, unmixed on a mound of rice, next to two pieces of fried beef and too soft plantain.