If I had to pick the day I decided to let people believe my father was still alive, I would choose the day before his funeral.
I was at our pastor's house in Ilesa, Nigeria, playing in front of the parsonage with his two daughters. The radio was on inside the house, and we could hear the broadcast as we played a game of tag. Although I'd been spending a lot of time with them since my father passed away, my playmates didn't talk about my father or what had just happened to him. We played games, chatted about what we wanted for our next birthdays – my sixth birthday was a few months away – the pastor's wife plied me with snacks whenever I seemed subdued, and it was easy to pretend that my world hadn't recently been upended.
Then, that evening, the local radio station ran my father's obituary. The game of tag stopped as soon as my father's name was mentioned.
The pastor's wife plied me with snacks whenever I seemed subdued, and it was easy to pretend that my world hasn't recently been upended.
My playmates stared at me as the voice on the radio reeled out the raw facts of my father's life: date of birth, date of death, funeral arrangements, and survivors, of whom I was one. Whatever the pastor had told his daughters about tact hadn't prepared them for this moment.
After what felt like a million years, the obituary, which was sponsored by a charity my father had presided over, ended. But the girls continued to stare, as though a third eye had appeared on the bridge of my nose.
About a year later, my family moved to another town, I started attending a new school and my classmates presumed that, like them, I still had a father. When they talked about their fathers' idiosyncrasies, I would talk about my father, too, always in present tense. When older people greeted me by asking, 'How is your dad?' I simply said, 'Fine.' I deflected direct questions by reaching for stories about him and framing them as though the events had happened just the day before.
I deflected direct questions by reaching for stories about him and framing them as though the events had happened just the day before.
I knew I was lying when I talked about him as though he still took me to watch him play table tennis on Saturdays, but the deception was comforting and no one looked at me as though I had a third eye.
It wasn't long before I began to wonder: what if? What if when I said he was fine, he actually was? What if the lies I told by omission and prevarication were true, and what I had believed to be reality – that my father had died in a road traffic accident – was the lie? What if he had been alive all along?
I stopped talking about my father altogether. When a discussion turned to fathers among my classmates, I would tune out or excuse myself. But in my mind, he came alive. I spent hours thinking about where he was and what he was doing, how in that moment he was trying to find his way back home, back to me. I reimagined the road traffic accident that killed him, piecing together all I knew about the event and adding a different ending to it, one where he emerged from the wreckage alive.
I reimagined the road traffic accident, piecing together all that I knew about the event and adding a different ending to it, one where he emerged from the wreckage alive.
I realised during this phase that in order to build a plot that is compelling enough to compete with reality, the details are crucial. That's where the delusion lies. In my favourite scene, set in a future time when my father came home again, it wasn't convincing if I imagined that he was wearing a suit. If he was wearing a dark-blue suit, a white shirt and a red tie, things came into focus. If all the clothes were frayed because they were second-hand, then it could all be true.
After all, his certificates were still at home, so he couldn't have been able to get a job and would have had to depend on charity until he found his way back home…
'My father is dead.' The first person I said those words to was a friend whose father lived abroad. We'd known each other for four years, and she thought that my father, who had now been dead for nearly a decade, was still alive. We were in secondary school, we'd just finished exams and would soon be going on holidays. She was talking about how excited she was to see her father during the holidays when I blurted out, 'My father is dead.' She stared at me for a while, then reached out and held my hand. There was no going back to thinking my father might still be alive after that day.
Something strange happened during the holidays: I opened a blank notebook and, before the break was over, filled it with short stories. Why did I suddenly turn to fiction when all I'd written until then was poetry? Perhaps it was just time, or I was bored.
It could be that I'd finally admitted the truth and, as painful as it was, it had set me free from the single story that had consumed my imagination until then.
Ayobami is the author of Stay With Me (Canongate) which has been shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize For Fiction.
This feature originally appeared in the March issue of ELLE UK