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Prodigal Chronicles is a column and cartoon feature by African creative, Agosto. The cartoon will do, if you have only fifteen seconds, but the short story will repay your five minutes.

Agosto is a pen name.


Coming Home
Throughout that flight his thoughts were frozen on one subject. He lay back in ultimate class, in an expensive new suit sure to impress the locals. His hair, more grey than black, was in deep recession. His face had the bold and heavy features that one either loved or detested - and his trademark frown suggested that, over his sixty-five years, he hadn‘t much cared, one way or the other.

It had been too long since he left, howbeit he was going home now. He had left at twenty-five, a qualified medical doctor. As he always told people, he wasn’t one of those economic émigrés who had no future back home. He’d left a good job. And a fiancée, Gogo. He never talked about that fiancée, but she had been instrumental to his emigration. Six years his elder, she had taken over his school fees when his father died, sparing him the life-redefining experience of dropping out of medical school. Their affair had spanned the five years between medical school and internship.

The Boeing droned on, eight hours into the twelve-hour transatlantic flight. A red-liveried flight crew flitted to and fro, dispensing genial luxuries. He locked his fingers in a sullen clasp, insulated from the servitors by the shock of the meeting that was sending him home at last.

At seventeen, he had grappled with an armed robber who broke into the family home. At twenty he had fought a village burial committee to keep the balance of his father’s substance from being interred with him. Yet, at twenty-five, there was a specie of spunk that he utterly lacked: the guts to tell Gogo that he could not, after all, marry her.

At thirty-one, she was distinctly handsome - in a matronly sort of way. In her presence, all those possibilities of life that he was addicted to abbreviated themselves into a good, filling meal and a domestic conversation before a television. It was a vision he could not abide. He spent every day out of medical school trying to precipitate a quarrel with Gogo, but she was a living candidate for sainthood. Their engagement and traditional marriage came and went with the same logic with which laughter trailed jokes. A formal marriage and wedding loomed. He saw his life, his possibilities, unravelling relentlessly. Finally, in desperation, he flew the emigration kite. Again, she bought in, accepting to close her business and play housewife to his successful medical doctor, anywhere in the world he chose to practice.

It would take a few years at the earliest, he had warned, he would first have to fake a marriage, pass the residency and the medical conversion exams and get a divorce before sending for her. She shrugged and bought the ticket. A visa was procured and within weeks he wound up his old life. He would never forget the send-off at the airport. Next year, he had promised; with his lips.

The Boeing flew into a turbulence and began to climb. Thirty thousand feet below, in the murkiness of the Mediterranean Sea, pateras made set to sail for the regular night crossing into Spain. His own crossing had been rather smoother. It was the staying away that was the trial. Because she was there, he had had to die to his country; and that was no easy thing. There was his father’s house. As the only son, he had responsibilities that he enjoyed, that he aspired to discharge, and ultimately, shirked. (When his mother died, he had sent a large cheque.) At twenty-five, his tastes had set; his idea of culinary paradise was bound up with the smells and textures of home cooking. It took his taste buds a decade to compromise. With every Minnesota winter, his bouts of nostalgia became more severe, manifesting as debilitating migraines - which he assuaged with weekends in Barbados.

Yet, he was going home now.

The effervescent Chanelle had accompanied him on those early weekends to Barbados. The deal they made in the suite of the backstreet lawyer who handled his immigration made it clear that their marriage was a sham; but he was a young, naïve medical doctor, where Chanelle’s street age verged on fifty. Before he finished his conversion exams, he was already paying maintenance for a two-year-old daughter whom he saw maybe five or six times over the next seventeen years, the last time, through the bars of a police detention cell.

It did not help that Gogo had a child in his name. The boy had been born a little under nine months from the day he flew abroad. There was nothing in their relationship that remotely hinted at the possibility that the child was another‘s, but the monstrosity of his abandonment needed something - anything - and this son would have to do. This son that perched on the lip of impropriety, on the ninth month, on the very precipice of technical infidelity. In his mind, he nudged the child over and that was that. He wrote his Letter of Disappointment and Revocation of the Engagement, and did not open the desperate envelopes that arrived thereafter, with wrenching regularity, until he moved house.

He moved again and again throughout his exile, sometimes twice in a year. It rarely took her two months to discover his latest home. He had made a resounding success of his life, and it was hard to stay anonymous. Yet, he came to associate a peculiar tightening of his stomach with his morning walk to the porch to get his mail. He turned to study to anaesthetize his guilt and racked up a cascade of diplomas, which filled a wall of his office. He taught at three universities, was presented the keys to two cities and mentored hundreds of youths… but there was always that young face that he dreaded to see… and for all the doors that opened to him, all over the world, there was one: Gogo’s, that tormented him in his regular nightmares.

He often wondered what she found to write, decades after The Jilting; and concluded that she continued the campaign as a vicious form of psychic blackmail. Although he never opened her letters (one distress he consistently saved himself), as emotional torture, the very sight of her envelopes worked the penance, for he was on first name terms with the best cardiologists up and down the land. And he never destroyed the letters. They filled a chest, every sealed monthly mailing of his last four decades.

Still, he was going home now.

He had lived in dread of the day she would arrive at his door in place of her letters. Mercifully she never did. He had come instead, most unexpectedly. The new Santa Fe restaurant had just opened. On the strength of a telephone booking by his secretary, he had arrived to find a long, cheerful queue for tables; it was the season of the celebrity chef and gourmands thought nothing of an hour‘s wait for gossip-quality fare. He had sent his card on to the manager; that usually shortened his wait. In no time at all the duty waiter had called his name, but when he stepped forward, out of the gaggle of patient diners at the bar, the waiter was already talking to… his son. There was no sense denying it any longer. It was not just the name that he answered, it was the sheer himness of the other person. The very hue of the swarthiness, the signature of the hairline, the hang of the shoulder… plus, he could see the knowledge pass between them, without words. Then the Younger backed away, not even wanting to take so much as a restaurant table from the delinquent Elder… which was when he felt the floor accelerate towards him.

That was the accidental meeting that was sending him home at last. How crazy he had been! The shock of standing face-to-face with his son had popped the bung that had sealed up his mind for forty hears. Now, he simply had to see Gogo’s face again. In all the scenarios he had imagined, throughout the nightmares of his long exile, he had never thought the confrontation with his son would have been such an embarrassing non-event, such a medical anticlimax. If it was the last thing he did, he had to see her face again, whose saintly disposition had raised so non-judgemental a son.

Homecoming came with a thump and a judder, and the speeding Boeing shuddered to a halt. There was not long to wait now. Already it was harder and harder, just to stay focused. Vents and doors opened with articulated whirs and orchestrated hums. He heard every groan and sigh of machinery magnified, every throb and beep.

He was home. They began to debark, the hoi polloi. Bare Economy, Economy, Premium Economy, Club Class… they strutted down in their pecking order of deprivation. He waited patiently. Finally they were ready for the Ultimate Class. An awed hush attended his own debarkation. They stood in double file and he passed silently though. He recognised no one. It had been too long... a moment of panic... would he recognise her? The moment passed. There she was!

And he knew instantly, the missing ingredient of his successful life; it had been there all along, in the filling meal, in the spurned domesticity of the 'abbreviated life'. It was there in his son's carriage and it suffused her now, a serenity that blanched fevers, whether of fury or pain, leaving that small, multipurpose smile. The trolley stopped before her. They drew the lid aside for her and he longed for a spit, a scream, a curse... a redemptive flash of anything really, but she placed his ring in his coffin, on his expensive new suit, and walked away.

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