They’ll Soon Be Home is the title of a story loosely based on Tomorrow I Will Be Twenty by Alain Mabanckou.
Africa Writes and Afreada challenged writers to build a story with its first few sentences.
The story is told from the perspective of a child living somewhere in Africa and starts off with the same 48 words in Alain Mabanckou’s book.
It can be a mix of emotions to submit stories for competitions that will be judged along understandably subjective parameters. Still, I wrote. To get a grip of Alain Mabanckou’s pen and complete his words was the goal.
I recall being shocked at the 2016 Ake Arts and Book Festival when he mentioned in conversation that he writes all his books longhand. This means instead of letting the story flow from fingers to keyboard, Mabanckou uses pen and paper. Of course, he is not the first writer to do this. Ngugi said something to the effect of selling his handwritten drafts at a high price and Mabanckou joked about doing the same later.
We would later sit for a chat in French at the Park Inn by Radisson’s lobby. I, the inquisitive interviewer asking questions about his exile, personal stylist, and work as a professor. Mabanckou, the guest, gracious to grant a last-minute discussion a few hours before heading to Lagos to catch a flight back to California.
My spin-off of the opening lines to Alain Mabanckou’s Tomorrow I Will Be Twenty was read and edited by several eyes. That process too was a collage of emotions as I changed the ending a couple of times.
These are the words that stayed true:
In this country, a boss should always be bald and have a big belly. My uncle isn’t bald, he hasn’t got a big belly, and you don’t realise, the first time you see him, that he’s the actual boss of a big office in the centre of town.
He is slim with an afro, wears faded jeans like a boy, and speaks softly just as the girls in my class do. He walks from his house to his office or gets on the bus during rainy season.
“Why don’t you let people see you for who you are, Didier? We were raised better than this.” This is not the first time my mother is annoyed with Uncle. She dislikes her younger brother mixing with the common people.
“Sisi, but this is who I am. Acting differently will be a lie” is Uncle’s usual reply with a chuckle.
Maybe that is why Uncle does not look like a boss.
He laughs more than my mother does. When I visit his house, he laughs with Aunty. I often think of my own home at times like this.
I see Baba’s raised palm, a triumphant gesture at the empty bottles spread under it. While my mother’s face reddens and swells from the force of his hand.
When her cries ring loud, I change the track to the sing-song tunes of Uncle’s laughter.
This is why I was surprised on the day we got the phone call.
Uncle who did not slap up the dripping juices of catfish pepper soup at the big men clubs.
Uncle who did not ride in the backseat of an SUV with glasses tinted so dark, not even the shadow of who was riding in comfort could be seen.
This same Uncle had been kidnapped.
I stood, shielded by the curtain dividing the sitting room from the entrance into Uncle’s house. Mother had summoned the driver immediately after the phone call
“Didier! Didier!” Mother shouted as she pounded down the door.
In this house where laughter never runs out like the chewing gum I pull from my mouth and split for my friends to share, Aunty sat on the carpet, crying.
“I don’t know where they have taken him. Someone tell me why they have taken him. Who could have taken him? Oh! Lord Jesus take control.”
I have seen my mother go from calm to crazy in less than a minute, but never the other way around.
She did not tell Aunty to get up and gather herself. Or ask Baba to call his friend, the Inspector General of Police.
Backing out of the sitting room, towards where I had wrapped my fears in wads of silk, mother did not stop.
She walked out the door and past the car, disappearing into the crowds of our bustling town.
The next time I saw her was from the window of my school bus, a week later.
She was wearing tattered clothes and spoke to herself.
She was not Uncle.