The peppery bile, usually from indigestion but now repulsion storms up Felicity’s chest and rests there. She hates undressing grown men to inject their asses. She hates being alone with a patient who is going to die. Her mouth is still sick with puke residue. He was exactly like him. She collapses onto the sofa, allowing the glorious manufactured wind seeping through the sheet metal ductwork to blast her body. She likes it like that, cold and unforgiving. If the wind were a person, they would be kindred spirits. The air conditioner is one of those things they never had growing up but now, she feels she cannot live without it, offering a first-class upgrade from those useless rickety ceiling fans inside the hospital. She is in that state of drifting off to sleep when the mind is between a half conscious and half unconscious limbo, the one that bothers her when a sedative is not working fast enough on a patient, when Anita places the tray, “kwa!” on the coffee table, snapping her mind back to full consciousness.
“Hey!” she says. What now?”
“Soda for you Madam,” Anita says, unscrewing the cap. An entangled network of thin blue veins bulges on the surface of her pink skin, aged quickly by the constant immersion of her hands in soapy water. She pours the cola into the fat square glass half filled with chunky ice cubes. Felicity accepts it, letting out a cool “ah” as it stings her throat.
Anita refuses to go away, studying the clock even though she insists that up to now, she does not know how to tell the time in English. Several years ago, the clock in the kitchen was adjusted to tell the time in opposite so that she could know when to do what.
“Coat for washing, Madam,” she says, avoiding eye contact. Since they became women, she has been avoiding their eyes as a sign of respect just like she had done with their parents. Felicity takes off the coat and rubs the brown handprint stain near the collar. It looks like one of those handprint paintings they used to make in baby class by dipping their hands in paint and placing them on white sheets of paper. They were always fidgety and distracted so the handprints were not clear enough. Still, you can make out that it is a bloody handprint, a dry and stale one and Anita frowns as she receives the garment.
“Money for Omo, Madam,” she says. “Or Jik bleach.”
Felicity grabs a crisp twenty from her purse and gives it to Anita. She suspects the price of detergent will be hiked as usual so that Anita can send some money to the village. Anita puts the money in her bra and goes back to her chores. Later, she will ask Felicity for some Hydrocortisone cream to rub on her itchy tit. Felicity can smell rice and beef pilaf. She knows the rice was made with extremely darkened onions so it is brown like a cockroach. The food will be served with extra mayonnaise for her. Ketchup for her sister, Jackie.
There was an article in the newspaper yesterday saying why house girls should not be kept in the home for more than five months. Keep them inside more than that, it said, and they become pigheaded. Felicity can remember some of the things on the list. Burning your clothes with the flat iron and staining white ones by mixing them with coloured ones, stealing sugar and cooking oil for their boda boda boyfriends, falling on the floor and rolling, pretending to be possessed by the spirits of their ancestors whenever you complain and injecting little children with syringes full of God knows what. It was endless. As far as she was concerned, Anita was only guilty of stealing petty coins left on purpose in the pockets of her clothes. At first, she had left them to test her loyalty, later they became small gifts. In fact the only real problem with Anita is her overuse of the word Madam. Newly in the third decade of her life, Felicity does not like the way in which the word seems to magically age whoever it is bestowed upon. Also, Anita is more than a mere house girl. When their mother, originally Constance, later Nalongo after she became mother of twins, had to leave early for work, it is between Anita’s legs they sat to get their hair oiled and braided for school. On weekends, they feasted on the mandazis she fried, dipping them in as much powdered sugar as they wanted. Even on the first day Felicity had got her period, it was Anita who had been there when she came back home from school, red eyed because she was the first person in the class to menstruate. It was Anita who had run to the shop to buy sanitary towels with wings and when she came back, she had taught Felicity how to stick them on her panty and dispose them off in the dust bin, in a tightly closed small black polythene bag. They had inherited her when Nalongo went to live in Kenya after deciding that her older relatives were better suited to look after a widow.
There is no sound in Jackie’s room. Felicity decides to knock one last time. Her sister is too old to be checked on in this manner, but it is difficult to break old habits. She is the first-born twin, just older than Jackie by a minute but it could as well be seven years in everybody else’s eyes. Since the beginning of time, a Babirye must take care of a Nakato. She calls her mobile and TLC start singing, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls…” Typical Jackie. Every time she enters a relationship with someone or breaks up with him, she gets a new caller tune. Five months ago, Jackie started seeing a man, Mukwaya, who was in the process of getting a divorce. Judging by the song choice, Mukwaya has chosen to stay with his wife. Her sister does not pick up. At five in the morning, Felicity hears Jackie going into her bedroom, delivering a high-pitched version of their father’s favourite drunken anthem, “Nobody knows the trouble I have seen…” She hears a thud, then it is total silence.
The patient who left a handprint on her coat is dead. She sighs with gratitude that it happened after her shift had ended because it was her colleague, Pinto who had taken the honour of delivering the bad news to his family who are in the corridor. His two sons are holding the wife to keep her from collapsing. She points at Felicity.
“You could have saved him,” she says. Her eyes are filled with a concoction of sorrow and rage. Nothing new. She wags her finger at Felicity. “You know it.”
She walks back to her office, careful not to slip.
“Looking smart Doctor,” someone says from behind. She turns and sees a cleaner sizing up her shoes. “One can only wish.”
“Inshallah, Ramla,” she says, gifting Ramla with her best smile and exposing the gap between her front teeth. “Inshallah.”
Ramla opens her mouth. She has been on the job for one month and no doctor has ever said her name, let alone bothered about her religion. The scoundrels are always ordering fried pork and chips for lunch. Felicity is aware of Ramla’s disappointment because she heard her gossiping with the tea lady the other day about the mistreatment of the petty workers in the hospital. She cleans everyone’s shit and shit is shit no matter how beautiful the owners are or how fancy the food they ate was, but she can’t even get a hello. Don’t even get her started on the pathogens lurking in the blood. Actually, she did not say pathogens or lurking but Felicity got the message. She sympathises with how Ramla feels. For the patients, she understands that some of them might not have the energy to defecate inside the toilet or flush it afterwards but for the doctors, nurses and visitors, there isn’t any excuse. She thinks of Nalongo and says a silent thank you for instilling good manners in them. From a very young age, they knew your shit was yours alone to look at. Once she is inside, she takes off the Manolos and rubs the swollen soles of her feet on the cool floor.
Felicity can hear the television on from the compound. Jackie’s home. Unlike many house girls, Anita has never switched on the television. The stench of waragi hits her as she enters the front door. One of the things she did not inherit from their father was his disorder. Sometimes, he got so wasted that he pissed on himself, drenching his trousers. During those times, it did not matter that he was their mother’s husband or their father or head doctor. Then, he was just a common drunkard who beat up his wife and ignored their cries of “Stop it daddy! Stop it!” looking at them like they were little Intruders in his home. He was a classic example of fix your own problems before you help others. A whole doctor who had killed his liver.
Felicity switches off the television so that Jackie can sleep without noise, that is if she can even hear. Right now, her sister is in another world, snoring loudly. Her thick waist length Senegalese twists are in her face and her legs are spread apart on the sofa. “What a total cunt,” she curses freely. The worst thing about having an identical twin sister is seeing yourself do the things which you are not doing. The bottle of Uganda Waragi on the table is empty and next to it is a plate with uneven slices of lemon. There must have been a fight if Jackie had cut the lemons herself. Knowing Anita, she must have refused to cut them, aware that they were to accompany the alcohol. Knowing Jackie, she had threatened to send her back to the village and if she is lying here, in this state and not in bed, then clearly, Anita had not heeded to the warning this time. Everyone who knew them knew that they did not joke. If Jackie really wanted to send Anita back to the village, she would have found a way even if it was late and there were no taxis going in that direction. She pictures Anita moving in the darkness with her small luggage, a multi coloured square bag made out of sisal with a blurry picture of the Eiffel Tower, filled with one busuuti, a few skirts and blouses plus a pocket Bible in Luganda. She must be wiping her eyes. It is hard to move out of a place you have called home for half of your life, it does not matter if you belonged there or not. Most likely Anita would go to sleep in her son Apollo’s muzigo, the size of a bathroom, in Kibuli.
At ten in the morning, Jackie storms into her room, holding a bottle of mineral water. Her braids have been piled on top of her head in a tight bun and her dress is short and flowery. Nobody would guess right now that she is an alcoholic. Anita looks at her through squinted eyes. She spent the night on the phone. She had called Nalongo and their mother was upset, saying Anita was too old to be out on the street at night. Also, who had given them permission to fire her? After the conversation with their mother, she had called both Anita and Apollo relentlessly but none of them had picked up.
“It feels like there is a hammer hitting my brain,” Jackie says. “I need Panadol. ASAP.”
Felicity points at the bottom drawer on the cabinet beside her bed. Jackie attacks it, pulls out an empty Panadol box and a peeled Rough Rider wrapper and frowns.
“We’re out,” she says, leaving the drawer open and dropping the items on the floor. The Rough Rider wrapper is a conversation to be had another time.
She does not look like she remembers what happened last night. If that is the case, then Felicity can relax, knowing that her sister’s humility is still intact.
“I tried apologising to Anita,” she says. “She refused to pick up.”
Jackie pulls one twist out of the bun and twirls it around her finger. “You, my sister…my identical twin… would go against me?” Clearly, Jackie has been watching too much ki Nigeria on Africa Magic.
Felicity studies her sister’s expression and sees herself, basking in the glory of her power.
“Anita has been with us forever,” she says. “Where are we going to get a new house girl anyway?”
“Oh, for Yahweh’s sake. There are so many agencies for house girls nowadays, just call one.”
Yahweh? Jackie does not even go to church. Not that anyone notices. Every Sunday at All Saints, Felicity has to contend with, “Are you Nakato or Babirye?” Never mind that. Felicity does not understand why she has been tasked to look for a new house girl when Jackie is the one who fired the old one. Like every other thing, Jackie wants her to sort out a problem she caused. How many times have wives stopped her in the street, warning her to stay away from their husbands? How many times has she punched and kicked them and abused them things which made them cry on her sister’s behalf? Just like Jackie has a powerful effect on her, she knows she has a powerful effect on Jackie, one that she does not use too often. Without letting go of Jackie’s gaze, she crawls out of bed and kneels before her sister. “Can we just get her back,” she says, trying her best to sound chirpy. Jackie hates emotional people. “Pretty please?”
Jackie pats her head. “Your hair needs some retouch.”
“Do whatever you want. I just need some Panadol.” She stops by Felicity’s shoe collection on the six-foot-long custom rack in the corner and removes a pair of zebra striped stilettos.
As soon as she leaves, Felicity calls Apollo. A long time ago, the three of them were friends, pulling out teeth, climbing the mango tree in the compound and watching Pingu in the sitting room during the school holidays. He was also the first boy to kiss them, behind a sack of charcoal, in the storeroom. The last time they saw him was at their father’s funeral, an adolescent on the verge of manhood with sparse beards along his jawline, perhaps more sorrowful than them. His eyes had lingered over the open coffin and he would not leave until the pallbearers shut it. His father had abandoned Anita a long time ago and their father was the one who paid his school fees. After his death, Apollo had dropped out of the cheap boys only boarding school which he was attending, to join a vocational institute. Now, he is a cobbler sharing his muzigo with his wife and two babies. The phone rings but again, there is no answer. She tries Anita’s but it is the same thing.
The wife of her and Doctor Pinto’s patient has filed a complaint against the hospital for negligence. How? Her father had treated people even when he was inebriated yet he never had to deal with anything like this. She struts noisily across the wet floor, preparing what to say to the woman in her mind. Ramla moves the bucket out of the way and whistles like one of those pick pockets along Kampala road who harass any type of woman. Young or old. Short or tall. Thin or fat.
“You have done it again, Doc!”
Since when can she call her Doc? Felicity turns her anger on Ramla. “Can’t you see what your bucket almost did to me?”
Ramla opens her mouth, this time it is in disgust.
The three of them have to sit in the same stuffy room. The head of staff, the man’s widow and Felicity. Of course, Pinto is absent. Is it because he is male and she is female? Is she easier to accuse? Someone like Doctor Kaggwa churns out a dead patient each week yet he has never been summoned to this office. “You killed my husband,” the woman says, searching for answers in Felicity’s big eyes. “Because of you, my Tony is dead.”
“Mrs…” she begins. No, too respectful. “Madam.” No, the woman looks a bit young. “Nyabo,” she decides, “We, nurse and I, struggled to find a vein in which to insert the catheter.”
“You…what? You are a doctor…you could insert it in his head if you wanted to. How about in his foot?”
“I was running late. It was Pinto’s shift. I told Nurse Sheba to look for him.”
The woman cranes her neck. “Is that what you do? You leave a patient to die because your minutes are up?”
“Hours, nyabo, I had been on duty for hours.”
“He was young…vibrant…”
“He was sick. Very sick.”
“What are you trying to imply?”
Andrew adjusts his tie and clears his throat. “Nyabo, we tried our best.”
“We…were you there?”
“No!” Andrew quickly clears his name. “I am just saying, Doctor Babirye here…” He takes a moment to choose his next words. “She is a skilled…Doctor. Top class.”
The woman blows her nose wildly into her wet handkerchief. There is a new rosary around her neck. This one has larger beads. “I have two boys,” she says. “We have no money.”
Felicity scrunches her nose like she is smelling something rotten. Of course, the woman has no money. That is why she is making noise, so that the hospital can sign a huge paycheck to keep her quiet. The problem is that she admitted her husband into the wrong one. This one was founded by her father; she and Jackie receive a chunky percentage of the hospital’s earnings each month and no one is handing out money to poor widows. She takes a deep breath like she always does after she has cured a patient.
“Nyabo,” she says, not in the least bit remorseful. “When my father built this hospital twenty years ago, his motto was every life belongs to God, we do our best. Your husband is in God’s hands now.”
“My God, my God,” the woman says, beating her chest. Her stance has changed. She is talking to the founder’s daughter now. “Tony loved God.”
“Which church did he go to?”
“I will make a small donation in his name.”
Before the woman leaves, they hug. Andrew winks at Felicity as the woman is facing the door. His wife watches them, in the photo on his desk. The woman leaves them and he locks the door.
“Why don’t you just give the small money to her?”
“Over my dead body,” she says.
“No, stay alive,” he says, looking eagerly at her legs, elongated by purple Louboutins. He lifts her onto his table and she thinks of kicking his wife’s photo off. No, let her watch.
Nalongo calls in the afternoon.
“How did it go, my girl?”
“Who does that ka woman think she is anyway?” she asks. Felicity pictures her rolling her eyes. “People die every day.”
Just a few months ago, her mother was almost falling into the hole her father was going to be buried in. Now, she is ridiculing another woman’s loss.
“They do, Mama.”
“Is Anita back?”
“Look for her right away.”
It is getting dark when she calls Anita again. Still, there is no answer. Perhaps the old woman is in the village now, where there is poor network. Each time Anita wants to communicate properly from there, she first walks to the trading centre. As for Apollo, maybe he is refusing to pick up because they shamed his mother after her years of selfless service. She stops calling. She does not have time for this. Today was a victory. The man who died resembled her father. He was a younger carbon copy. The skin on his face, where his spectacles rested was lumpy and he was bald only in the middle of his head. She had always hated her father’s hairstyle, how he kept all the other hair long despite that bald spot in the centre. She can hear Jackie singing in the bathroom. “It must have been love…” There are two bottles of liquor on the coffee table. One Malibu and one Smirnoff. She grabs the Smirnoff and sniffs it. When they were children, they thought vodka was a type of water so one day, when the drinking water was still hot, they had stolen their father’s leftovers and mixed the liquor with Pepsi, just like they had seen him do. In Nalongo’s absence, Anita was allowed to beat them for a very good reason, so she had exercised this right to the fullest capacity, beating them with her sapatu. Felicity had accepted Anita’s punishment but it seems like Jackie is still angry at her which Felicity respects. Their mother never said beat until there were welts all over the skin. A few months after the incident, a pink patch appeared on Anita’s hand. According to local myth, if you upset twins, they have the power to make pink marks on your skin, similar to the result of getting scalded with hot water, without touching you. If people saw you, they would say in Luganda, “Abalongo bamwokya.” Anyway, their father being a doctor had seen the skin condition before and noted it was Vitiligo, which had nothing to do with local superstition about twins. She hears the bathroom door opening and puts the Smirnoff bottle back in its spot. She closes her eyes and reminisces about her campus days. No, getting wasted in college does not make you an alcoholic because it is just what everybody does. Neither does fucking your lecturer for extra credit make you a whore.
On Sunday, she skips the church service because there is no electricity to iron her dress. If Anita was around, this would not have happened. The old woman would have found a way. Maybe she would have used the charcoal iron only she knew how to use. At this point, calling again is out of the question. The only other thing left to do is to make her way to Apollo’s place and apologise. She pictures it. She could drive there in her brand-new Toyota Kluger and park it on the side of the road. No, that would not work. It would be missing a side mirror or both when she got back. She could bribe the guard at the petrol station and leave it there but then she would have to walk there in her high heels. Since it is in a slum, the ground is stony and uneven, and she might step in sewerage and other ungodly things. She decides to call an agency.
Felicity shakes her head at the current state of unemployment in the capital city. The new house girl, Angela, has a degree in Business Administration. She is beautiful and her natural hair is loose and flowing down her back. No sensible woman with a man in the house would employ her. She came early and Felicity had not had time to cover the pink patch of skin on her right foot. It is still small but it keeps getting bigger. After watching a video on YouTube about how to hide hypopigmentation, she has been covering it masterfully with concealer and foundation and even Jackie does not know about it. Each time it is bare, she remembers when she was alone with her father just before he became unconscious. There was a cocktail of heavy drugs flowing in his blood stream so it was understandable that he was out of his mind. Of all things, he was fighting to talk to her about vitiligo. “Jahnatc,” he said, attempting unsuccessfully, to grab her wrist. Being a doctor, she had understood. It was genetic.
Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash (modified)