She is standing at the balcony on a cool, beautiful afternoon, her eyes gazing at the scenery before her as she muses. The blame is mine, she thinks at first, then quickly overrules that thought as someone, somewhere, is the catalyst of her misfortune. The blame, therefore, lies elsewhere. Her grandfather’s favourite saying comes to mind – “He who swallows a complete coconut has absolute confidence in his anus!” Dry laughter escapes her lips at the thought. It is very short-lived, though. Who cares about consequences? The heat from the sun is but a warm, pleasant caress on her skin, the slight draft from the breeze intermittently taking its soft touch away. There is Pain deeply etched on her face, the cause or source an open secret. Cars drive by, honking their horns, but this once, the noise that ordinarily would have irritated her, fails to penetrate her senses. She is there, but really isn’t there. Seyi is inside the sitting room, occupied with a bit of this and that but sending cursory glances her way every now and again. He realises she is not yet herself but decides to give her space all the same. She will come round, he believes. It has, after all, been three months. A gentle wind tugs at the edges of her dress, blowing wisps of hair into her face and mouth as well. She doesn’t feel a thing. Her heart is numb within her, and the numbness threatens to come to the surface. A neighbour, Ramotu, waves from across the street and calls out loudly to her as she takes her dog for a walk, but she doesn’t respond. Sightless eyes continue their gaze into the horizon, her mind millions of miles away. Her lack of response to Ramotu’s greeting is an instant red flag and Seyi stands to go check on her. As if sensing an imminent presence, her body on its own volition tilts dangerously towards the balustrade. Seyi lunges forward but before he can reach out to steady her, she suddenly let herself go into free fall. She is deathly calm as she floats into oblivion. It is a lovely afternoon…. but, let’s tell this story from the beginning.
Seun has just shut down her computer and is reaching to retrieve her handbag from the desk drawer when her phone rings. She freezes mid-action and then picks the phone from the table. Her heart sinks as she realises who the caller is. She has no choice but to answer. ‘Hello, Ma’am?’
‘I want you in my office pronto!’
The line goes dead before she can respond. This sure isn’t the way she planned her work day to end. Taking in a deep breath, she gingerly makes her way in response to the directive. The static in the air is so intense as she walks into the office that the sound of her skirt crackling makes its way to her ears, her heart beating nineteen to the dozen. Once inside, she can hear the clock tick so loudly it is almost as if someone is holding it close to her ears…or is she just hearing things? The lady before her has her lips pressed so firmly together that it looks like a thin ugly scar blotching her well made-up face. And those big round eyes? Glowering at her like they are about to drill holes through her. She wonders how much longer she can endure the constant summons for the minutest of things as she stands there shaking like a leaf while the wax like face with the boring eyes continues its torment. The unwavering gaze is fast becoming intolerable and, as she dares not look straight ahead at the blank cream coloured wall before her, she quickly reverts her eyes to the floor, the tip of her Mary Janes keeping them company. Then, the lady speaks.
‘Fifty million? What in God’s name were you thinking?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t quite understand, Ma’am,’
‘You just made me look like an idiot at management meeting this evening, you stupid, fat, whale of a human being, and you have the nerve to stand before me feigning ignorance!’
Without warning, the lady flings a sheaf of papers at her in fury and she struggles to catch them as they fly in all directions. She feels those eyes on her again as she helplessly stares at the pieces of paper littered all over the floor, all the while wondering where the sudden outburst is coming from and what all the fuss is about. Lifting her gaze to meet that of her tormentor, she silently prays the internal tussle between discernment and confusion is not visible.
‘We lost fifty million Naira last week but your report made it look like it was a gain,’ she spits. ‘What annoys me most is that the fool, Abiodun, had such pleasure pointing out the inconsistency to me. And here I am, thinking I had found a mini me – a protégée.’ Her last sentence is dished out whilst standing close to Seun. Specks of foam play around the corners of her mouth. ‘How could you have done such a dumb thing, Seun?
‘I’m truly sorry for the error, Ma’am.’
Her right hand springs forward so quickly that Seun doesn’t see it coming. She feels its impact with her left cheek and stars suddenly explode in her head. Her eyes instantly smart with tears as the drummers begin a band in her ears.
‘Get out of my office and fix that report immediately or you’re fired!’
Gobsmacked at what just happened, Seun walks out of the office with as much dignity as she can muster, almost blinded by unshed tears as she makes her way to the ladies’ room. There, locked away behind one of the cubicles, she let the floodgates open. Gut wrenching sobs tear through her and she let them. Surely, she has no power to fire her over this small an issue! A query as a first time offender perhaps, but not outright termination. To be physically assaulted in the workplace is totally inappropriate, more so by a superior. To be addressed as stupid, fat and a whale of a human being is utterly insensitive and definitely not called for. Voluptuous, yes, but fat? That mere thought makes the water works flow even the more. The sobs subside after a while and the tears dry out, leaving her face with dark streaks of mascara. She is clueless as to how long she has been tucked away in there. Letting herself out of the cubicle, she moves towards the sink where she splashes cold water from the faucet over her face. She pats her face dry with a paper towel hastily yanked from the holder, flings it in the waste basket underneath the sink and makes her way out of the bathroom.
She advances towards her desk, powers on her computer for the second time in the day and gets down to figuring out where the error was. It takes another three hours to identify and fix the problem, by which time the office is as quiet as a graveyard. She reels out curses under her breath as she emails a soft copy of the corrected report to her boss, prints a hard copy and shuts down her computer once more. She goes over to her boss’s office and raps her knuckles thrice on the door. Not as if she expects her to still be hanging around the office by this time of the night but out of courtesy. On getting no response, she twists the door knob and the door gives way. The heady smell of perfume still clings in the air even long after the office is unoccupied. The room is pitch black so she feels for the light switch near the door and flips it on, instantly bathing the room with bright light. She places the sheets of paper very neatly right in the middle of the desk, kills the light and shuts the door behind her with a thud. Back at her office, she picks up her handbag and car keys and, walking as if in a trance, takes her exit from the building.
Once through the revolving doors, her legs take her down the stairs on their own without any conscious effort on her part and continue the journey till she is outside the gates, her main desire to put as much distance as she can between her and the premises. The guards at the gate greet her as she passes but she fails to acknowledge their greetings. They watch her in bewilderment as it is totally out of character and equally unusual for this particular staff to leave the office by this time of the night. It is so dark and quiet outside that the click clack of her high heels echo round the parking lot and can be heard from a long way off. Consumed with rage at the treatment meted out by her boss earlier on as well as thoughts of whether it is time to throw in the towel, she is grossly unaware of her surroundings. Unlocking her car with the click of a button as she approaches, she is just about to get behind the wheel when some men spring out from nowhere. She quickly gets in but is unable to pull the car door shut before one of them firmly holds it open and drags her out of the car by her left hand.
‘Take the bag but don’t hurt me,’ she pleads.
A heavy smack across the mouth is what she gets for her trouble. She instantly tastes the saltiness of blood through cut inner lips. Next thing she knows, she is forcefully thrown on the hard and damp asphalt. It must have drizzled whilst she was in the office but rain is the least of her problems. Fear kicks in as she realises she is in grave danger. Mustering enough courage despite the precarious situation she finds herself, she screams at the top of her lungs but, unfortunately, her cries are not loud enough to attract any attention in this isolated parking lot. One of the men roughly places a hand over her mouth to prevent further screams while two more hold her down spread-eagled on the ground. Her skirt rides up her thighs in the process and someone rips off her underwear. She struggles but is no match for the men as one of them violates her while the others cheer on. She shudders in revulsion and panics, her lunch finding its way to her mouth and spilling through the space between the fingers over her mouth. The man quickly removes his hand in disgust and she spews all over his face. He hits her angrily and fishes out a handkerchief from his pocket and gags her. She can’t believe what is happening and mutters silent prayers for help. The man atop her stinks of alcohol, the stench so heavy that she retches and almost spills her guts again. His image is burned in her brain though she closes her eyes to block out everything visual. To her dismay, once he is done, he switches places with another, this time one obviously high on weed. He is so rough with her that the skin on her back and buttocks scrapes on the floor. Shakespeare is absolutely correct when he says extreme fear can neither fight nor fly, because the last thing she remembers is a third man coming on before she sinks into oblivion.
Dawn finds her still lying unconscious in the parking lot. It is only by mid-morning when she is discovered, and that, by stroke of luck. A motorist nearly runs into her motionless body as he manoeuvres to park his car. At first, he believes she is dead but discovers the reverse is the case on closer inspection. The victim, though unconscious, is breathing okay, but requires urgent medical attention what with her condition. Just then, another driver pulls up and he beckons for help. Together, they gently pick the victim up and place her at the back seat of his car. It is an effort in futility trying to get her decently covered. Her blouse is torn to shreds and the skirt is undone at the seams. He gives up after a few seconds, pulls off his jacket and drapes it over her, covering the exposed parts of her anatomy. The driver gets behind the wheel while the other car owner joins him in the front passenger seat and they speed off towards the hospital. There is hardly any conversation on the ride. Once there, the medics take over. They wheel her straight to the Emergency Room while her rescuers complete as much paper work as they can. They hardly know anything about her!
A nurse wielding a pair of scissors snips at what is left of her torn clothes and off they come. She replaces them with a clean hospital gown and leaves with the discarded items of clothing. Another nurse comes in with a rape kit and takes the necessary swabs. A blood sample is taken as well, after which she is placed on dextrose saline infusion to which some antibiotics is added. Though still within 72 hours of the incident, any hopes of administering Post Exposure Prophylaxis for HIV is lost. The patient is unconscious. Injectable antiretroviral therapy would have been a better option but sadly, this is not available in-country. She is stable, so all anyone can do is wait. By mid-afternoon, word has filtered to the office and colleagues come calling but are not allowed to see her. Her handbag is retrieved from the scene just beside her car. No wallet. No phone. Not surprising. HR records reveal details of her next of kin – her brother Seyi. He is immediately contacted.
Seyi makes his way to the hospital in no time, all the while thinking, ‘Seun is happy-go-lucky. Doesn’t have any known enemies. Is this, therefore, a targeted attack? It just doesn’t make sense at all.’ A lengthy conversation with the doctor upon arrival assures him all necessary services have been provided. His worries about STIs, her state of mind and the after effect of the incident, however, linger. There is nothing medically preventing her from waking up. The extent of the trauma experience, perhaps, is keeping her under. Then again, the need to keep the awful memory locked away is a contributory factor. The waiting game begins.
Noon of day three sees Seun regain consciousness. She is lying on something very soft and comfortable, her mind dwelling on the delights of being young, carefree and alive. Then it hits her as the memories come flooding back. Her eyes spring open even as huge beads of sweat do a waltz round her face before trickling down her neck and disappearing into the neckline of the hospital gown. The beginnings of anxiety arise. She struggles to quell it. Deep breaths. This, too, will pass! Sadly, it doesn’t. Iron tight fists pummel her lower back, sending silvers of pain down her legs. She manages to stand, face contorted in agony, but crashes to her knees, as her legs can’t seem to bear her weight. The IV catheter in her arm is dislodged in the process. Fear consumes her. On her hands and knees, she crawls towards the door, each movement sending searing fire up her spine and joints. The beads of sweat now turn to rivulets, giving up the waltz for a tango as if sensing the urgency of the moment. She makes it to the door, and, with the last ounce of strength left in her, raises her right hand to the doorknob, turns it and gives a loud scream before collapsing in a heap in the doorway.
Her next conscious moment is in a room as white as it is sterile – both to the eyes and olfactory nerves. One other thing noticeable is the absence of any form of pain and how cool the room is. She blinks thrice and concludes that she must be dead and in heaven. It sure is peaceful and pain free in heaven. She closes her eyes, but someone simply won’t let her be.
‘Stay with me, dear, open your eyes please.’
She opens her eyes, and, leaning close to her is a nurse. Standing right by the foot of her bed is Seyi. The water works softly begin again. She wants to hide her head in shame!
‘Please don’t cry, Sis, I’m here for you.’
She cries harder. ‘I feel dirty, Seyi,’ she says through the tears. ‘My whole body disgusts me and I don’t feel like myself anymore.’
Seyi is lost for words. They don’t teach you how to handle such scenarios in school. In fact, nothing in life prepares you for such a moment! ‘You’ll be alright, Seun, trust me.’ His words sound lame, even to himself.
‘Will I?’ She scoffs. ‘They’ve simply ruined my life – they had no right to do that!’
Seyi has never felt so helpless in his life. It hurt to see his baby sister hurting and not being able to lift a finger about it. The doctor’s words echo in his mind. All forms of sexual assault can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, symptoms of which can range from fear and anger to depression and trust issues. These symptoms may never go away, as such, victims need both short term and long-term psychosocial support. This, at least, is within his purview. Yearning only to look on the bright side rather than dwell on what happened, he calls the nurse aside and gives the green light to administer emergency contraception and Post Exposure Prophylaxis for HIV. Fact, he wasn’t there to prevent the assault, but he has a chance to prevent possible pregnancy or worse still, HIV infection. He will do anything to spare his sister that additional trauma.
She is discharged five days later and Seyi takes her home. He has tried as much as he can to brighten the place up. She walks into the living room without signs that she notices his efforts. He holds his breath. She takes a seat on the sofa directly before the TV and stares straight ahead. The usual mischievous glint in her eyes has faded like the sea on low tide. He is certain of their come back. She wants no visitors. He understands. It is still early days.
Image by Sergio Cerrato – Italia from Pixabay