By Morak Babajide-Alabi
I ran into an old friend some times last week. He is the type of friend you only see, probably once in a decade. I have known him from way back in primary school. We were best of friends and sometimes, worst enemies. We argued, fought and laughed on basically everything. I guess you will say, this is what makes friendship sweet.
As we grew older, we somewhat drifted apart from each other. This is understandable because we both had to face life’s challenges individually as we chased our destinies and over the years, we occasionally run into each other. With the little times we had together on these “run-ins” we always try to catch up on each other’s stories, as much as we could. My friend is one of the few from my kindergarten days that I still have strong connections with.
Strangely, we bump into each other in odd places. Before last week’s unplanned meeting, the last time we saw was in 2007 at the Edinburgh Airport, and before this, I saw him last in Lagos in 1999. It was a chance meeting in front of Juli Pharmacy at Ikeja. With the advent of the Internet, we did try keeping up with each other via email messages and the trusty “Yahoo messenger”. But at a point, this means of communication dropped off the radar and became obsolete. I guessed we also both dropped off each other’s radar. Yahoo Messenger outlived its usefulness and became an invention from the last century.
You wonder why we do not “meet” on social media. Well, my friend seems to have a big dislike for social media? I had searched online many times for him, with no luck. Neither Facebook nor any of these modern-day online communities is his thing. Although I later found out that he is very much active on Twitter. He tried to justify this to me, without much success, though.
You can, therefore, imagine our excitement when we ran into each other again at the Leeds Train Station. Bless my friend, he is a great talker. Growing up, our friendship was always a means of amusement as we were classed opposite of each other. My friend can talk a dead man back to life. On the other hand, I am the type that believes in sitting back and see events unfold. I do offer one or two comments where necessary. But I always admire people who can talk without any “restraint”, whether they make sense or not. I guess I hung out with my friend most times in my early years just to make up for my shortfall in the “talking department.”
However, one thing I learnt growing up is when you talk too much, you are most likely to say “things” out of context and regret later. Sometimes, you say inappropriate things for the moment. My friend is in this class. He had talked himself into and out of many troubles while growing up. His mouth has always been his greatest weapon as he most times talks himself into whatever position he thinks will benefit him. He might be a “bit” quiet with new people, but with me, he lets down his guard. He must tell me his stories.
When we ran into each other, as usual, he could not hold back. He screamed and did a 100-metres dash in the opposite direction, made a u-turn, charged at me in full speed and got me off my feet. By stature, under normal circumstances, I should not be easily swept off my feet by my 5ft tall friend. But he did. It was a spectacle at the station as the folks passing by thought we were having an African wrestling match (Ijakadi). If not for the smiles on our faces, the policemen on standby at the station would have mistaken us for terrorists about to detonate bombs.
My friend was in the Train Station en route to London after speaking at a Centre for African Studies, University of Leeds-sponsored programme. I was at the station to pick up train tickets for a guest of mine. My friend had mistaken his departure time and came early to the station only to be told he has another fifty minutes to wait. And here I am to fill the “time” for him. I am available and as usual, earful for my friend to keep me updated on what he has been up to in the past years.
“Let’s get somewhere comfy to sit and talk,” he said. When I hear this, my heart skipped a beat as I thought of the impending parking charge. I had left the car at the Short Stay Park, but I was sure this would turn into a Long Stay Park. We headed to the lobby of the nearby Queens Hotel. “Bobo (he calls me this, for no apparent reason) you have shed a lot of weight. The last time I saw you; you were bigger than this.”
“Yes. I know. It’s no longer fashionable to be fat. You are not doing badly, you still retain your stature at your age,” I replied. “Bobo, I could not have put on any weight at all. I have been through a lot in recent times. If I start the story, I won’t finish it till tomorrow. But I thank God I am still standing.”
We finally found a space at the lobby, and it was in here he unloaded all. He told me how life has been very good to him, had been moving from one level to another in his career, travel all over the world on speaking assignments, have properties in some choice cities of the world. I can see his pride. But behind all these, I could also see there was a hurt that he was trying (albeit unprofessionally) to hide.
“Good for you, my friend. You are not doing badly,” I said. By his look and story, I knew he was not doing badly. You know there are some people you see and just conclude they are doing fine in life. Sometimes we judge by their appearances, clothing, and all the superfluous things. We often forget that as human beings we know how to cover up. As a result, it is most times possible for a man or woman to be in real pain and disguise without sharing this with friends or family members.
My friend was not going to cover up. No. I am not that type of friend, he will cover up for.
“Bobo, you know while growing up, we always tease each other on the type of wife we will marry.”
“Please don’t get to that again. You know I sure remember,” I answered him, while I recollected how we “dreamt” as kids.
He continued: “Bobo while growing up I have always had an idea of the type of woman I wanted. I fantasised every day about my type of woman. Back in the days in the classroom, while classes were going on, I was always “weighing” my female classmates against the criteria I had drawn up in my head for my future wife. I had a clear picture of the type of wife I wanted.”
“But you are married now, so what are all these got to do with the present,” I asked him.
He ignored me and continued. “Bobo, growing up I wanted a woman who can read and write. I usually say to myself in my those days that a Primary School graduate will be okay for me, as long as she knows how to cook good food.”
My friend was not going to give me a summary of his life story; rather, he was so relaxed you had thought he was at the end of his journey.
“There is definitely something about you that has not changed,” I cut into his story.
He paused and asked: “What is that?”
“Your love of and for food,” I said.
He looked me straight in the eyes with a smile and waved his hand across his face to let me know my comment on food was made at the most inappropriate time or insignificant to what he has in mind. To be honest, the instant the comment was out of my mouth I needed no telling that it was an awkward comment. One of those moments you wish you had not spoken when you did.
Regardless, my friend was not distracted. He continued: “Bobo, as I was saying before you brought in food” (he could have as well said ‘before you rudely interrupted me’). “While in secondary school, my dream was to marry any girl who has good cooking skills. But who was I kidding?”
He picked up his glass of water, analysed it. Rather than have a sip from it, he placed it back on the table.
“After gaining admission to the university, the standard I set for a wife candidate changed. With a dream of settling down immediately after my youth service, I felt a pretty woman with a WASCE certificate will suit me. This was why I did not bother venturing into any relationship in the university.”
Now, I was becoming very uncomfortable with the story. I was also mindful of the fact that spending too much time around here listening to his seemingly unending story might cost me far more than I budgeted for at the Train Station Car Park and the risk of my friend missing his train. This is usually the dilemma of people in the diaspora who calculate the financial cost of every move.
So to avoid incurring further avoidable costs, I cut into him, once again. “Let us walk back to the station, so you do not miss your train?” Reluctantly my friend said yes, picked up his glass cup and had a sip from it. We moved towards the station.
“Bobo, I absolutely do not know what’s happening to me. I desired a wife who would be comfortable in putting on trousers, miniskirts, apply a few colours on her face and make me a modern husband. I dreamt of a wife modelled after the girls I was on campus with, but whom I could not relate to.
“In my head then I felt if only I could get my degree, I would be able to handpick from a retinue of girls,” he said.
According to him, after graduation, trouser-wearing ladies were top on the list of his “conquests”. “However, this was just the start of my challenges. I did go out with a few of them. You know some of them, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course, I do. I remember that fair-complexioned lady we gave the name ‘Oyinbo Pepper’. We thought she was the one for you. But you changed your mind at the last minute,” I said.
“A few years after graduation my levels changed again. When I started on my career path, I had a rethink of my criteria for a good wife. I discovered it was childish of me to think “ability” to wear trouser was a strong point in a lady,” he said.
He informed me how settling down at work influenced his perception of a good wife. He realised that most of his colleagues who were married or into serious relationships were particular about what roles their partners would play in their lives than merely having them as “trophies”.
He started work in the days when the desktop computer was just making an entry into the workplace in Nigeria. He was lucky to be trained in the use, to perform better at work. This, unfortunately, also changed his criteria for the type of wife he would marry.
“At this stage, I coveted a wife who is a university graduate and can use the computer. I desired a wife who can flow with the technology race.”
“I do not get your drift,” I said. This conversation is somehow bizarre, as the two of us had not dwelt on this subject as deep as this before. In our past meetings, we consistently strove to outshine each other on our knowledge of Nigeria politics. But there is something about this story and my friend that suggests he may be in dire need of assistance. For crying out loud, he is not a “small boy” and by Nigerian (or any) standards, he is expected to have “settled” now.
“This has been the story of my life. I am yet to get married after so many years. I have been changing the criteria all these years. I want a woman who can drive, a woman who can fix her own car when it breaks down. I want a woman who can multi-task. I want a gorgeous woman, a wife who will be all I have constantly dreamt of. I want a woman as exemplified in the scriptures but I have not been able to get one of my dreams.”
“Do you know why you have not succeeded in this area?”
“Hold on and let me finish,” he said.
I heeded his advice.
He continued: “The problem is I have met many ladies with these qualities, but I have been looking for one who combines all the qualities. I want a woman who is caring, educated, beautiful, elegant, fashionable, tech-driven, a good career, compassionate, mother, friend, dependable, can multitask etc”.
I could feel at this stage that my friend seems to need a little help as he was getting really emotional, so I seized the opportunity of the long pause, while with a corner of my eye I looked at the station clock. It was a few more minutes before his train’s arrival.
“Your problem is actually within yourself. You have set too many expectation benchmarks for your wife to be,” I said.
For the first time in this meeting, my friend seemed to agree with me. He nodded, looked away from me and I saw a “ray” of regret flash across his face.
He is not the only one in this situation. Many people have such high standards for themselves in relationships that they end up missing on the ideal wife or husband. While there is nothing bad in having a “high-quality” husband or wife (if there is any), we sometimes do not consider the fact that we can mould our spouse to whatever we want him or her to be. The idea is to get someone you are compatible first.
Many old age bachelors or spinsters, especially in the diaspora, find themselves in this corner because they simply refuse to be ruled by common sense. The irony of it is that they end up lowering the standards to a ridiculous level and enter “any” relationship just to get by. Some have been lucky, while others are consigned to troubled marital lives.
As the train finally came to a stop, and my friend was about walking through the barrier to the platform, I clasped his hands and said “if you keep searching for gold you may be disappointed. But take silver and “polish” it into gold.”
He squeezed my palm. We did a few back slaps and he walked through the barriers. He did not look back. I stood there wondering if I had helped him at all, or had confused him the more. I would call later to find out.
This is the long version of the article published in the Diaspora Matters Column, Sunday Vanguard of 18th August 2019.