I watch my father forget things and realize he’s getting old.
When I was six, my father taught me to tell time. It was with the big, round Quartz clock that hung on the wall right above the faded brown couch. He would bring it down and set it on the centre table, his coffee steaming from the cup in front of him and ask, If the long hand is on 12 and the short hand is on 4, what’s the time?
4 o’clock, I would say.
Good, he would say (it usually sounded like guwd) and sip from his cup.
Then he would adjust the hands with the knob behind so the long hand was on 6 and the short hand was somewhere between 4 and 5. What is the time now?
What is the time now?
Silence. He had taught me a rule about knowing where the time was coming from and where it was going but between standing around in the kitchen, insisting I could grind tomatoes and peppers with the grinding stone and sneaking into my elder brother’s room to steal or hide something, I had always forgotten.
If the time was 4 o’clock then. Now the long hand has moved from 12 to 6, and the short hand is leaving 4 and moving towards 5, what is the time, Aishat?
Four minutes to 5, I would say, remembering that was the same answer I had given the previous day and the day before, hoping that somehow I would be right this time. I usually wasn’t.
My father would then empty his cup of coffee and say painstakingly, Aishat… you have forgotten. How many minutes between each of the numbers?
From 12 to 1?
1 to 2?
Then he would move the long hand back to 12 and begin to move it slowly. So count with me, five plus five?
Plus five. By this time, the long hand would be back on 6.
So how many minutes between 12 and 6?
Guwd! And the short hand is leaving 4 and going where?
So the time is?
Thirty minutes to 5?
Guwd! But it’s also thirty minutes past 4. Not so?
So it’s better to put it that way.
If you like, go and forget again.
With his coffee finished, he would set the time and replace the clock, then head up to his room to wait for the newspaper that was usually bought by my brother. I would sneak off to my brother’s room to forget the time rule again.
It eventually took a whipping to get me to remember.
In November, I went to visit my father and when the day came to leave, he prayed for me. This was usually after about twenty minutes of advice and a reminder that I was not too young for marriage. Ten minutes later, I was at the front door waiting for the driver to bring the car out. He called me back.
“I’ve not prayed for you,” he said.
“You have, Baitullah,” my mother said, the concern in her eyes nearly invisible. The previous day, she had had to remind him three times about my intended trip to Abeokuta.
I smiled, fumbling through my bag, keeping my eyes occupied as I searched for nothing in particular. My eyes weren’t nearly as practiced at hiding things as my mother’s.
I don’t know how to cope with the mortality of my father, how to be on the reverse side of forgetfulness, how to keep my smile while he tells me about being the smallest student in his Teacher Training college, being framed as a Banker in Kano, getting blackmailed as a Customary Court Judge in Benin; knowing that these stories sound too much like gradual goodbyes. I don’t know how to not be the little girl that always presented my report sheet to my father, holding my breath, waiting for his approval.
I don’t know how to prepare for what will come.
Aishat lives in Abuja where she writes and spends too much time and money on shoes. Her short story was published in the Ake Review and she was shortlisted for the Awele Creative Trust Award. Somewhere in the far recesses of her mind, she is the next Beyonce.