It was the third Friday in October, just a week before my holiday ended. I had spent six weeks here in Aba with my mother’s brother, Uncle Joe, and in his munificent act of getting me ready for departure, he had bought me two shoes, two coats and trousers, a rucksack, and textbooks for my present class five. He still promised to buy me more clothes, saying that as a fifteen-year-old student, I should always look fashionable. I knew that Auntie Chi, his wife, would also surprise me with presents. But I was anxious to go home. Repeated phone calls from my parents demanding that I return, and recently from my eighteen-year-old elder sister, Amara, had unnerved me and increasingly gnawed my patience. In fact, Amara was crying two days ago she’d called at night. I was in bed. I shivered when she shouted, “Do you want to be kidnapped in Aba before you come back home, Ugonna? We don’t have money for a ransom.”
“I will come back next—”
“Stop procrastination, Ugonna! All our people there are back home. Don’t you listen to the news? Aren’t you aware of what is going on there? In short, go to Aba Main Park and see happenings there.” She disconnected.
On Monday, four days for me to say goodbye to my uncle, Amara’s phone rant nudged me to the park. My family’s worry about me was justified; the park was full of pandemonium. I could hardly believe that it was a season other than Christmas, the period many people in our country troop to their home towns to celebrate the feast and meet those they have not seen for a long time. Kidnappers had instituted a reign of terror, and so residents felt it was no longer safe to live in Aba, a commercial city in Eastern Nigeria. Travellers outnumbered the available vehicles: women, carrying heavy bags on their heads with nestled babies on their backs; little children trudging behind their laden mothers who intermittently looked back to be sure they were following; men walking as if they were running away from a war zone, as if they would use their legs instead of vehicles to reach home, their bags strapped across their shoulders, some filled-up sacks dangling from their hands. Young boys and old men pushing wheelbarrows hustled in the burning sun with their pumped muscles almost breaking their gleaming bare skins as they hollered at the owner of the load they carried to hurry up so they could unload it and go for more trips. Hawkers hurried about, taking advantage of the situation to smile to demands.
The atmosphere was the same at the Abia Line nearby, a transport company of the State. Because its fare was cheaper, a long line of travellers stretched from the ticket office to the gate and curved back, like the letter U. Bags of rice and beans, tied tubers of yams, cartons of noodles, and many other items lay on the concrete floor. Some buses and cars already taking off were overloaded both in their boots and on their roof racks. It was all a scene of chaos as many passengers wore a dismal and belligerent look.
On my way back, I walked to the local newspaper stand at Asa Road close by. Their captions were horrific: Aba Mass Exodus; Kidnappers Hold Sway in Aba; Pastor Abducted, Wife Raped; Tycoons Flee from Aba; Abduction, the Reigning Business…
I picked one of the papers and read a column about an abducted woman who just wedded a week earlier. The kidnappers had held her for four days before collecting from her husband three hundred thousand naira ransom. I also read about some primary school children in Aba South nabbed on their way back from school. Their whereabouts at the time of the publication were still unknown.
“Woe to a reign of terror!” I blurted.
“Woe, woe to evil, my brother,” another man supported, also perusing the papers. “My brother’s wife was kidnapped last week, and she was… she was raped five times because he could not provide the ransom on time.”
“So terrible,” I said.
“Terrible, terrible, my brother,” the man said. “When the white men were being kidnapped in the riverine regions, we thought everything would stop there.”
“If wild cats don’t see a prey, they begin to kill and eat one another,” another man said, also reading the papers.
I hissed, kept back the paper and left, sadly. I had not realized that such was the enormity of the crime. Uncle Joe had kept dismissing my parents’ fears, telling them that we were safe, and this assurance had blinded me to the reality on ground. But I did not need to worry again. My departure was just a matter of days, not weeks.
On Wednesday in the morning, Uncle Joe came into my room and said I should get ready to accompany him to Victory Hospital. I did not ask him who was sick, or the location of the hospital. I just looked at the wall clock, which said quarter to eight, and did what he had ordered me to do.
At the living room, Auntie Chi was sprawling on the big couch, groaning and squirming and massaging her waist and big stomach. Seeing her so, I became afraid, but Uncle Joe doused my fears by explaining that her pregnancy was due. He added that we would hear the cry of a baby before evening. I rejoiced in my heart. What a good report! I would take the message home on Friday, just two days from now.
As I watched Auntie Chi whimper and move her body to and fro, I extolled all mothers. I thought that they deserved special veneration. I wondered whether it was this same condition that my own mother had gone through before I saw the earth. Maybe hers was different. Or I didn’t give her any trouble. She had not shared that experience with me. I might ask her when I got back to my home town Ugwueme, if I was later convinced of the propriety of such a question.
A few minutes later, Uncle Joe and I guided Auntie Chi onto the back seat of his car in the middle of the compound. He began to instruct his eldest son, Edozie, on what to do at home with Otunna and Little Agnes, Edozie’s younger brother and sister respectively. I used the interval, as if I had just arrived here, and took a special look around the compound, at the flourishing yam leaves in the garden, at the okra plants, at the tomatoes with their red eyes, at the big-headed pumpkins, and finally at the five bedroom bungalow we had just come out of. All these would join us to welcome the new baby into the world.
Getting to the hospital took us almost an hour. Uncle Joe said we would have covered the distance within fifteen minutes. The cratered roads retarded traffic flow. In some places where the water channels were blocked by refuse dumps, a pool of water stretched over a considerable distance on the roads and driving through was a matter of luck, not skill. Drivers badgered one another, shouting and cursing, when another vehicle cut in theirs.
The two wings of the hospital gate were already swung open. Uncle Joe glided the car through and braked to a halt at a corner. Quickly, he opened the driver’s door and ran into the building, an impressive bungalow with smaller neighbouring houses. Within five minutes, he returned with two female nurses, who helped him take Auntie Chi out of the car and then into the building.
I hovered around the vehicle, relishing the light breeze of the sunny morning, many scenes rolling up and down in my mind like screen credits. I imagined Uncle Joe’s house suffocating with his numerous friends, his church members, and his neighbours when the new baby was carried home. A pastor, also a friend of Uncle Joe, who visited us four days ago, had pompously announced that the spirit of the Lord had “ministered” to him that Auntie Chi’s delivery would be miraculous. He had patted Auntie Chi’s belly that day, rubbed his hand on it circularly, and slid the hand downwards in a manner I found obnoxious, as though he were the one that had put the baby there. I was sure now that when he came and saw his prophecy fulfilled, he would ask with airs, “Didn’t I say it would happen so?” He might even blank out the role of the divinity behind his prognostication and emphasise himself instead. Nevertheless, I myself would rejoice and leap to the sky with him should he do so. I already had a name for the baby—Ngozi, a gender-neutral name meaning “Blessing.”
The waiting-room of the hospital was already filling up when I later entered and took a seat. The faces there all wore dismal masks. A sunken-eyed man with unkempt grizzled hair was seated next to me on a long bench. After him was his young sickly son who had an abnormally protruded belly, like a dome, and a neck so scraggy that it appeared as if his head, broader at the top, would make the neck kink. The man, with his dark-brown threadbare clothes, occasionally cleaned off the runny nose of the boy. On a chair at a corner sat a woman crying in a low voice and stamping her feet on the tiled floor, and another woman beside her was consoling her and mopping her tear-smeared face with a handkerchief. But she would not listen.
“When shall I come out of this situation?” she lamented. “Where will I get money to pay for the hospital bill, eh?” She shook her head bitterly and stamped her feet hard on the floor.
“You should thank God that your child operated on is still alive,” the other woman advised her. “Some people have died in the same process. Why shouldn’t you be grateful to God? He will still provide the money for the bill.”
The woman wanted to cry louder but was checked by a nurse who came and pleaded with her to go outside to avoid discomforting others. I thought that the young nurse, in her soft feminine voice, spoke the minds of most of us who had tried in vain to persuade the woman to stop her lamentation.
The room was quiet now, and the nurses were seriously busy, and friendly too. From time to time, one of them came out with smiles from the inner passage and called one or two persons among us, and they followed her back to the passage, which led to different wards. I could not believe the humility of a smiling young white-clad nurse, so beautiful, when she came with a pristine small towel, stooped and mopped the face of the dome-bellied boy, and took him and his father into the passage.
It was now almost an hour since we arrived at the hospital. Uncle Joe was still inside, and I had been waiting to hear from him about Auntie Chi’s situation. As if my thoughts had sent him a message, he emerged from the passage, and within a few seconds hurried into the waiting room. His albino face, wet with perspiration, was scrunched up. I knew instantly that all was not well. Probably, Auntie Chi had had complications. As he walked across the room on his way outside, I sprang to my feet and grabbed him by the left arm. He shook my hand off, perhaps involuntarily, but I held him again until we scooted outside.
“Uncle, is there any problem?” I asked. “Has she been delivered of—?”
He shook his head before I finished and pulled me to a corner near his car.
“I’m lost,” he said, and started shrugging.
“What is the problem?”
He shook his head several times, then lifted his face towards the sky and held his stubbled chin with the middle of his right index finger and the thumb. His skin looked pale.
“What is wrong?” I was getting nervy.
“God…what shall I do?”
“What is the matter, Uncle?”
He put down his face, his hand still on his chin. “The doctor says it is an ectopic pregnancy.”
“Jesus!” I had learnt that a pregnancy designated so was dangerous.
“He explains that the best option is an operation and that her chance of survival is fifty-fifty.”
“How could he have said something like that? How could he have revealed that kind of information to you?” I was no longer in complete control of my tongue.
“He says he is only being frank with me, so that I can go and pray hard. He promises, though, that he will do his best to ensure that the operation is successful. I want to go and buy some things required. I will be back soon. I don’t need to use my car.”
Before I could ask him where he was going to buy those things, he bounded out of the gate. A woman whom he had almost collided with on the road pelted down curses on him. I wished she had understood what was pursuing him.
It was now getting to noon and he had not yet returned. In the waiting room, a nurse who had seen me discussing with him outside came and asked me his whereabouts. I told her.
“For God’s sake, this man should buy those things quickly and come back!” she said.
Fear seized me and I shivered. My heart began to throb. I had sensed overtones of danger in the nurse’s voice. Unable to contain my feelings, I left the room, walked towards the hospital gate and stopped.
There I stood, dithering about going out to look for him and waiting for a while longer, when Uncle Joe darted into the premises with a black sack full of things. His thick, red polo shirt was soaked with sweat; the hair on his hands gummed to his skin; wet patches spread across the waist of his brown trousers. I stretched forth my hand to collect the bag, but he said I should not worry. He hustled into the waiting room and veered left towards the corridor.
I got back into the room and sat down again, expectantly.
After about half an hour, he came out to the room and beckoned to me. We went outside and leaned on his car. He appeared relieved now, for those waves of despondency on his face had been effaced.
“The doctor said I should not worry again,” he said.
“Every necessary arrangement has been made. Any moment from now, she will be operated on.” He asked me to go home and eat as we had been here since morning, but I said I was not hungry. He looked at me understandingly and later gave me money to go and eat at a nearby restaurant. I went.
Almost half an hour later, I was on my way back from the restaurant. Just outside the gate of the hospital, a girl, approximately twenty-five and about five feet tall, was making a phone call. She was dressed in blue jean trousers and a sleeveless purple top, her hair in a ponytail held with red scrunchie, her long artificial fingernails all red.
“Hello,” she said. “Yes, can you hear me now? All right, the doctor is around. Yes, I’m sure… He is about to enter the theatre right now. I’ve just come out of the hospital. You guys should rush down to our agreed venue. Don’t waste time. Yea, this is the best time to get him. Okay. Catch you there right away. Bye.” She started when she turned and saw me standing close by. She pulled dark goggles over her eyes, which had been hanging above her highlighted brows, and hurried out, chewing gum and smacking her thick, red lips, which resembled the case cover of her phone, in the manner of some prostitutes.
I wondered briefly about the snatches of her conversation. Probably she was talking to members of her family who would bring their sick person to the doctor. I had heard that the doctor was renown in Aba, and even beyond. He was an upright man and because of his sincerity with patients, his reputation kept soaring high to the envy of many doctors in Aba.
While I was going back into the waiting room, Uncle Joe came out and told me that Auntie Chi was now in the operating-theatre. The doctor had reassured him that the operation would be successful. He therefore said I should go home with him so he would change his clothes, which had started smelling bad, and get some other things Auntie Chi would need after the operation. But I told him I would remain in the hospital until he came back. Again, he did not argue. He left, still without his car.
I went back to the waiting room. I could observe through the window behind me that the sky, initially bright, was taking on an unfriendly face. Dark layered clouds were spreading across the space steadily, forcing the sun into a sudden retreat, as though there would be rain. A light breeze started blowing, but instead of being refreshing, it was hot. I moved my face away from the window. My mind then dwelt on Auntie Chi, the pain she was going through now. Again, I thought that mothers should be idolized.
Almost an hour after Uncle Joe had gone home, I heard the sound of a car drive into the premises. Within a minute, four gunshots from outside threw five of us in the room into disarray, and we screamed and lost control of our actions. Some rushed outside; some slouched at the corners of the room. I jumped over a woman who had fallen with her etiolated daughter, and dashed into the inner passage. I wanted to enter the room on my right, but decided not to. Straight ahead I ran and bumped into a nurse who had emerged from the extreme corner. The nurse, unaware of what was happening, asked curtly whether I did not realize I was in a hospital and was supposed to be cautious of my movement. I stopped, but before I could explain anything to her, five robust men, each wearing a black mask, dashed into the passage. Seeing the pistols in their hands, I flopped on the floor like a snake falling from a high, cemented wall. The reek of cannabis filled the whole place.
“Where is Dr. Ifeme?” one of them shouted to the nurse.
“I don’t know his whereabouts,” the nurse replied and turned sharply to run back. But another gunshot, which shook the passage, stifled her movement. She squalled. I myself passed hot urine in my trousers.
One of them approached her. “You dey run?” He raised his podgy hand and gave her a sharp slap that reverberated in the passage. “Come on, show us the doctor quickly or I go tear your pants now and pump bullets into your stomach through your vagina.”
I was no longer looking at them. I had rolled over and lain prostrate, my eyes closed. Tightly. I began to wait for their bullets to send me to Heaven or Hell. I was unsure then which of the two planes was my inheritance. One of the men approached me and stamped on my buttocks three times, saying that my head was as big as a clay pot used for sacrifices. I tried very hard and absorbed the sting from the cleats of his boot.
“So you dey lie to us?” another voice asked the nurse. “Arobam, give her a shot on her breast for this sin.”
“I beg, oh!” the nurse shouted. “I go talk true now.”
“Oya, do so quick, quick!” the voice said. “You no no say we sabi where the doctor dey. We just wan make you use your own mouth tell us, but if you lie…”
“He is—he—is—the doctor—he is in the theatre now.”
“Thank your God you no lie. I for send you to the world beyond now. Oya, take us to the theatre quick, quick!”
As their feet shuffled past me, I felt goose bumps all over me, and my body was glued to the cold floor.
Shortly afterwards, I heard several gunfire from the theatre and later the sound of heavy iron hitting the door. I wished I had melted and melded with the floor I lay kissing involuntarily.
Some minutes later, they returned to the passage. They had caught the doctor and were prodding him to their car parked outside. He was pleading that they should allow him to finish the work he had started in the theatre. My mind switched over to Auntie Chi, but it did not linger on her because of the way they were mauling the doctor. The more he pleaded, the more they booted his behind and poked him with their guns. He wailed like a child, pleaded like a beggar until his voice trailed off through the waiting room. Another firing went off outside. Then, their car engine revved and the sound petered out.
Quivering, I lifted my body and hunkered against the wall, wondering whether the incident was a dream. It had to be. I wiped my face with both hands and allowed my eyes to dart around. Yes, it was real, the incident. I was flustered. I thought that these gentlemen should not have used violence at all; it was not necessary since they had no opposition. But who was I to tell them how to operate?
Now a nurse from the theatre ran to the passage, crying and beckoning to other nurses that had come out of their hiding places to come with her to the theatre. I got up and ran after them.
The strong iron door to the theatre had been pierced with bullets and its lock cut with what appeared to be an axe. I went inside, but could not believe the reality of the unsavoury scene. Two female nurses, nose bleeding, lay panting in a pool of blood, their white dresses messed up, their thighs showing. Auntie Chi was lying unconscious on the operating-table. She was completely naked and her belly, cut open, was bleeding profusely as the baby, whose head had already peeked out of the open stomach, wiggled like a maggot jutting its head from a decayed cadaver. Scattered on the floor were the operating-instruments—forceps, needle holders, surgical blades, sutures and so on. Other nurses there were yelling in confusion. I was scandalized by the look. I wanted to hurry forward to Auntie Chi, to touch her, to tell her to wake up so we could go to another hospital straight away. But a young man who had just come in blocked my way. I turned in frustration and ran to the front of the building.
People had now crowded the area—men, women, children. Everybody was expressing shock at the incident, unaware of what had happened inside. Some women said the doctor was a man of probity who would not find trouble with anyone to warrant his abduction. A woman said the kidnappers were six. She saw them clearly from her one-storey building facing the hospital from across the road. She explained that a girl in their company came out of their car during their operation and handed one of them something that looked like a gun and got back in the car afterwards. Her description of the girl fitted perfectly the one I had seen earlier making a phone call. My mind flashed back to the episode in the operation when one of the men confidently told the nurse at the passage that they had been in the hospital before and so she should not lie to them about the doctor’s whereabouts. I wished I had caught the girl when she was making the phone call and throttled her.
Desperately, I forced my way through the crowd to go and call Uncle Joe. But before I reached the gate, he rushed in by my right. He could not see me because of the crowd. I went after him, shoving aside some people in my way, and yet not minding their bitchy remarks, until I grabbed his left hand and called him. Stopping, seeing me, he asked with his darting eyes the cause of the bedlam. With my puckered lips, I pointed at the waiting room. He forced his way into the building, and I followed him.
Immediately he entered the theatre, he rushed to Auntie Chi lying unconscious on the table, and pulled away the sheet now covering her partly. Seeing the horrible situation of his wife, he screamed and slumped backwards. I myself wanted to do so— no—I wanted to crash so that no parts of me would be useful again. But I could not tell what held me up. I walked outside and squatted against the wall beside the door, trembling. My head became giddy and I closed my eyes briefly.
Before four o’clock in the evening, Uncle Joe died, his wife died, her baby died. I willed my own death.
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