The Three Times My Bladder Failed

Or, Forgiveness Part III

Sefi Atta won the inaugural Wole Soyinka Literature in Africa Prize and is a high school friend. Her latest book is Everything Good Will Come. When we reconnected recently, I learned a few surprising things about her memories of me! In this Forgiveness series, I’ve written about sources of overwhelming stress in my childhood, which I now understand contributed to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. What Sefi wrote about her impressions is reprinted below with her permission. It helped me to understand the stark difference between my inner life and outward appearances, and the value of reconciling the two in order to heal.

The Three Times My Bladder Failed

by Sefi Atta

When I was ten years old I had a piano teacher who hated me – Okay, perhaps she didn’t, but I couldn’t sight read music and this clearly irritated her. She would glare at me as I tried my best to wing it.

I memorized every piano piece she taught me by ear, but this woman had ways to catch me out. On one occasion, after I’d seriously messed up, she refused to allow me to go to the bathroom and made me play Bach’s Minuet in G Major over and over until I wet myself.

Most times she would just ask, “Why can’t you be more like little Bola down the road?” Then she would praise her. Little Bola down the road this and Little Bola down the road that.

I didn’t know this Little Bola down the bloody road, but I, in turn, sort of hated Bola – ish – until I met her as a student at Queen’s College in Lagos. This was in the early seventies and we actually got along. She was only a year or two my junior, but she was a far more talented pianist. In fact, if I remember correctly, she would play for the entire school after morning assembly.

The second time my bladder failed was while I was a student at Queen’s College. I was wearing flip-flops (rubber slippers, as we called them) with my school uniform, which was against school rules and our principal, Mrs. Coker, stopped me. After I greeted her, bent over, in an attempt to hide my prohibited footwear, Mrs. Coker asked, “What do you have on your feet?”

I was terrified of Mrs. Coker. She wasn’t aware I’d wet myself, but she sent me to the vice principal’s office. The vice principal then punished me to kneel on the cement corridor outside her office. I cried so much the vice principal got fed up with the noise I was making and pardoned me.

But back to Bola. She and I often met up later as students in England. I remember seeing her just after she’d had her lovely bob shaved and was sporting a mohican dyed electric blue. I admired her radical hair, but I couldn’t believe she had the nerve. Then we lost contact, as we Nigerians do while continent hopping, then I heard she was in the United States.

I recently found her on Facebook and the first question I asked was, “Is this Little Bola down the road?” She was! And she had been writing! She had just written a short piece and I asked if she would share it with me. Now, I meet a lot of people who say they want to write, but the moment I ask to read their writing, they disappear. Bola sent her short piece to me and I thought I should post it here. It is a blog tribute to her late friend and reminds me very much of my boarding school experiences in England, which I have fictionalized.

Bola spent a a few months in Tours, between school and university. For me, it was a week with my cousin Obi, who lived in Neuilly. Her mother worked for UNESCO. I traveled overnight from Dover to Calais by Hoverspeed (forty-five pounds return) and Obi met me at Gare du Nord, wearing her new biker’s jacket. I was in a short skirt and leg warmers. We thought we were so stylish and we laughed so hard that week, which was why my bladder failed for the third and final time. I peed on a chair in a crêperie.

Thank you Sefi! Next week, in Forgiveness Part IV, past and present come together in surprising ways.

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