“It is revealed. So, I know.”
* * *
WEDNESDAY 14 DECEMBER, 2016.
PARENTS’ HOME, UYO. MORNING.
* * *
“We can’t just offer money to a man and take his baby, Uduak.” Ken Dikko-Jack rebuffed the suggestion his wife had just made.
“He doesn’t want the baby.” Uduak gripped his hand as she earnestly insisted. “Ken, I held this baby in my arms, cuddled him against my breasts, and it felt like he was mine. It felt so right holding him and he quietened once he was in my arms.”
“Uduak…” Ken shook his head, confused and worried about the whole idea. “But we are working on adopting our own already. That would be legal and straightforward. Why can’t we be patient and wait for that?”
“This baby is mine, Ken. He is ours. I’ve held him. I can’t again forget him.”
“He’s not ours, Uduak. He has a father… and possibly a mother somewhere.”
“So would the child we are hoping to legally adopt. Yet we’d still adopt him.” Uduak argued. “Ken, I don’t know what this young man would do with that baby. He’s no more than twenty-two at the most and he looked so troubled. He doesn’t want the baby. He wants to get rid of it. Somehow… anyhow.”
“And he asked you for money?”
“No.” Uduak shook her head. “He didn’t actually ask me for money in exchange for the baby. It happened that I walked across him standing outside the church gate with this baby crying piteously in his arms; and touched by the baby’s cries, I offered to help soothe him. Then it just slipped out of me, as I held the baby, that I would pay anything in the world just to have a baby like that.”
“And he grabbed at the chance to demand money in exchange for his own child?” It all seemed too implausible to Ken. “How are you certain the baby is even his? I mean, what manner of man would sell off his own son?”
“One who is confused what to do with him.” Uduak responded. “And like I said, I don’t think he was considering taking money in exchange for the baby. I think the idea only struck him when I sighed aloud my heart’s wish. Besides, it’s easy to tell he fathered the child. Their resemblance is apparent even with the child still so tender.”
Uduak strengthened her hold on his hand. “Ken, he said he wants to be a priest… a Catholic Priest and he has no one to train him in the Seminary. His parents are dead and his relatives cannot afford such an expensive training. They want him to learn a trade and start earning a living.”
“I don’t know, Uduak. It sounds illegal somehow to pay someone money to take their baby.” Ken didn’t know what to do. He hated to refuse her anything, and particularly this. “And what if he later comes back for the baby? What then do we do after we must have grown to love him and to think of him as our own, eh?”
“He wants to become a Catholic Priest, Ken. That’s why he needs the money—to train himself. So he won’t ever be coming for the baby. He won’t. Let us do this, Ken. I know, I can feel it deep in my heart, that that baby is ours. I’ve already started to love him.” Her eyes filled. “Let’s give this young man all we have to pursue his dream, then take the baby and us and move somewhere else to begin a new life. Please, Ken.”
“All right.” Ken finally gave in. “But where are we going to find him now?”
“I told him to wait for me under the tree beside the church this night.”
“You were very certain of your convincing me, I see.”
Uduak shook her head and smiled. “No, I only had faith.”
30+ YEARS AGO.
UNDER A TREE BESIDE A CHURCH BUILDING, ENUGU. LATE NIGHT.
* * *
“I hope you will both believe me when I say that I never planned on selling my own son. I would not even take your money if I had any of my own.” The young man, indeed no more than twenty-two murmured after he’d handed over the baby to Uduak. “But I just don’t know what to do with him. No one in my family will welcome him and I can’t afford to look after a baby now. I can barely look after myself.”
“It’s all right. We understand.” Uduak reassured him.
“I hope God forgives me… and his mother.” Sixtus Ugochukwu’s voice cracked. “I hope he accepts my work in his vineyard as penance for the sin I must be committing for giving up my own child.”
“You are swearing that you won’t ever come looking for him?” Ken asked the one thing that worried him.
“That I promise you. A Catholic priest has no use for a child.” There was sadness in his voice and his gaze was turned on the baby in Uduak’s arms. “Please take the best care of him. I know you will. Thank you for doing this. God bless you both; and him.”
Swiftly turning, he left them under the tree and hurried away.
WEDNESDAY 14 DECEMBER, 2016.
PARENTS’ HOME, UYO. MORNING.
* * *
“And who did he say my… the woman who birthed me was?” Stefan asked when his father stopped speaking.
“He didn’t tell us.” Ken Dikko-Jack replied. “We didn’t ask because we didn’t want to know. All we wanted was the baby—you.”
“I need to find her.” He didn’t know why he wanted or needed to, but Stefan knew he had to. “I need to know who she is.”
“No, you don’t!” His mother objected.
Stefan was beginning to clearly see her again as his mother. And the quiet, compassionate man beside her, as his father. Somehow, knowing the truth was starting to show him the depth of their love and devotion to him.
“We are your parents. I am your mother. I loved and took care of you. I still love you. You don’t need to know any other woman as mother. You don’t!”
“And I love you too, mum. I love you both.” Stefan embraced her, pressing his tear-stained face against the hollow of her neck and soothing her as she softly cried. “I am grateful to you both for the unconditional love and care you’ve bestowed on me all my life.”
“We don’t need your gratitude, Stefan.” His father said. “You are our son. You are ours.”
“I know.” Stefan raised his eyes to meet his father’s steady ones. “I know who I am, dad. But I need to finish this. It’s already started and I cannot pretend that it is not there. I need to know, so I can permanently put it aside, if that’s what I have to do.”
“Let him do this, Uduak.” His father gently interrupted and came over to hold his wife. “The truth is already out. Let him know the whole of it. He has a right to.”
“You will always be my mother, mum. As dad will always be my father.” Stefan promised before he stood up. “I have to go now.”
“Go where, Stefan?” His mother demanded.
“Back to Port Harcourt. I have to see Sixtus Ugochukwu.” At the door, Stefan turned. “Who gave me my name?”
“I did.” His father said. “I always loved that version of the name Stephen.”
“All right.” He nodded and went through the door.
THURSDAY 15 DECEMBER, 2016.
BEST BITE RESTAURANT, GRA, PORT HARCOURT. MID-MORNING.
* * *
Stefan had called the number he’d gotten the messages from the evening before and he’d chosen the restaurant as their meeting locale since it had been initially Sixtus Ugochukwu’s choice.
“I didn’t think you would want to see me again.” Sixtus Ugochukwu said once he slid into the seat opposite him.
“I don’t particularly want to.” Stefan had had enough time to prepare himself to face him calmly. “I only do so because I want to understand why you got in touch with me after thirty years.”
“Like I told you, I am a dying man.”
“What are you dying of, a bad conscience?”
He actually laughed.
A rich and rumbling sound that was almost—and Stefan hated to think it—like his own.
“No, not of a bad conscience. Though I do suffer from that.” He coughed into the handkerchief he held before he went on. “It’s IPF. Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Was diagnosed two years ago. There’s no cure. It will eventually, and possibly sooner than later, kill me. It was the sickness that sent me back home from Zimbabwe where I was working as a missionary priest and it has kept me in and out of hospitals since then.”
“I see.” There was nothing else Stefan could think to say.
“It was the reason, the only one that prompted my trying to find you.” His eyes were direct and his voice steady and simple. “I hired a private investigator. I knew the name of your parents and so, it was easier to begin from there.”
“Why contact me instead of them? Your deal was with them and you were intending to break a promise you made to them, so why not contact them instead of me?”
“I didn’t intend to contact you.” He stated. “It wasn’t clear to me what I wanted when I hired the private investigator. I only thought of finding out where you were. That was a year ago anyway. And after he found the Dikko-Jacks and their only son, I didn’t think I wanted to do anything about the information I had. Then I became really sick months back and thought I was going to die, and that attack of conscience you joked about came into play. Especially after I read those words on the internet.”
He gave a small smile before he went on. “Those words, and my restless conscience, prompted my questioning if God had really accepted my priesthood and service as a missionary as sufficient penance for the sin of letting go of my son…”
“You sold your son.” Stefan corrected. “They gave you money, you gave them your son.”
He was quiet for a brief moment. Then he nodded. “I suppose that was what I did. I didn’t just give you up; I sold you to them.” He paused to cough into his handkerchief.
And it struck Stefan than his lankiness—thinness was a result of the sickness he was suffering from, not just because of his natural build.
“Anyway, I didn’t consider myself forgiven, not as long as the truth remained untold.” Sixtus Ugochukwu went on. “I didn’t know how to tell it. Not to anybody. I am a Catholic Priest, I can’t lay claim to any child as my own. So I thought I’d do something for you. An act that maybe would add value to your life.”
“And so you helped me get this job.” Stefan said.
He lightly moved his shoulders. “A friend, a close parishioner in Zimbabwe, is part owner of Long Haul. It was a good opportunity and all I had to do was ask.”
“I guess I should say thank you then.”
“No thanks needed. You were doing well for yourself at Uyo, in any case.” His smile said he understood the sarcasm. “When you arrived here, I realised that I needed more than doing something trivial for you. I needed to tell you the truth and to ask your forgiveness.”
Stefan stared at him. It was unsettling how alike they were. Yet, he was not his father. Not the father he knew. Not the father he will ever know.
“Would you change anything you did thirty years ago now?” He asked.
“No, I won’t.” Sixtus Ugochukwu answered without hesitation. “The only thing I wanted to be as long as I can remember was a Catholic Priest. Keeping you would have impeded that dream and not taking the money offered by your parents, would have done the same.”
“So you regret nothing?”
“Only that I failed you.”
“You didn’t fail me.” Stefan realised he did him the biggest favour after all. “You gave me to the best parents any child can ever have. For that, if there is need for forgiveness, then I guess I forgive you.”
“Thank you.” He murmured after some silence.
“Who is she?”
“No. The woman who gave birth to me.” Stefan corrected.
“I guess that is all she is. That is all we are.” He murmured after another short silence. Then he inhaled and said. “She is Cornelia Pius-Mbata.”
Sixtus Ugochukwu only inclined his head.
And Stefan’s brows shot upwards as he sat back in his seat.