It was the early eighties, around the time a group of senior army officers overthrew the democratically elected government, when Austrian lace and aso-oke were trendy and church services were fashion shows – an endless, shameless carnival of women in colourful blouses blended with expensive ichafu which they tied in layers and pleats until the scarves were piled atop their heads like large plants, obstructing the view of everyone seated behind them. Everyone looked forward to Sundays, to going to church. Those who could not afford these processions snuck in very early for the children’s service, because that was the graceful thing to do – to worship with children in their simple clothes of cheap blouses over Nigerian wax, and okrika shoes whose heels had worn out and made koi-koi-koi sounds on the tiled floor.
It was on a Monday after one of those Sundays that Ogadinma walked into Barrister Chima’s office for the first time.
The room was empty. The fan whirled, scattering the papers on the cluttered desk. They floated to the floor, slid under the table, under the chair, by the door and by her feet. She wondered if it would be awkward to walk in uninvited and pick them up. She knocked again, louder this time. ‘Hello!’ she called out, her voice echoing. There was a click of heels. A girl emerged from the connecting door, her blue skirt so short she would not be comfortable if she were to bend over to get the papers. The name tag pinned to her white blouse said she was ‘Amara’.
‘What do you want?’ she asked, her gaze piercing.
‘Your papers,’ Ogadinma pointed at the floor, but Amara wrinkled her nose, ignoring the scattered sheets, arching an eyebrow. ‘I am looking for Barrister Chima,’ Ogadinma said, bringing out the business card her father gave her, holding it up for Amara to see.
‘Come in,’ Amara said, waving her into the waiting room, and only after Ogadinma had gone in did Amara crouch carefully – not bend, because she could never bend without exposing her underwear – to pick up the scattered papers.
When her father described the address, Ogadinma had expected a proper workplace, or at least, a hall split into cubicles. She had never been in a barrister’s office and so did not know what the place would look like. But this was anything but an office. It was a typical two- or three-bedroom flat, the same model many houses around the area replicated. Without being told, she knew that the ‘waiting room’ was originally designed to be a parlour, that the connecting door led to Barrister Chima’s office, which most likely had a master toilet. A small TV, half the size of her family’s Philips black-and-white TV, was locked away in a metal cage knocked into the wall. She resisted the urge to laugh, because who on God’s earth would want anything to do with that toy?
Amara returned but headed straight for the barrister’s office. ‘Barrister Chima will see you after he is done attending to the client inside,’ she said when she re-emerged, an exaggerated air of importance about her.
Ogadinma began to say ‘thank you’, but Amara was already koi-koi-ing away. She looked no more than seventeen or eighteen, perhaps a secondary school leaver like Ogadinma, who was passing time as a receptionist while waiting for a university admission letter.
A short bespectacled man walked in and took the seat opposite. Ogadinma greeted him but the man did not respond. Soon other visitors arrived, some wearing long faces, others tapping their feet impatiently after a few minutes. Ogadinma wondered what cases they were battling, or if they had also come to seek Barrister Chima’s help with things like getting an admission into a university. She opened her bag and brought out her JAMB result: 240. Good enough to get her an admission into the state university. But her father wanted her to study in the east, so she had chosen the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. Nsukka was a place they barely knew: plus, often, the number of students that passed the exam exceeded the capacity a school could admit, so it was customary to go through people who knew powerful staff in a university. Why they needed Barrister Chima’s help.
She folded the test result into her handbag. The room had filled to bursting. Visitors were sitting, standing, hanging by the door. A man came out of Barrister Chima’s office, dragging a walking stick. He adjusted his glasses and made for the reception.
Amara went into the office and returned seconds later. ‘Barrister Chima will see you now,’ she told Ogadinma. Her skirt had ridden higher up her thighs.
The barrister was seated behind his desk, his head bent over a sheaf of paper, the room chilled to freezing point, the shelves cluttered with law books.
‘Good morning, sir,’ Ogadinma said, and stood waiting for the invitation to sit. He lifted his head, a man not much older than her father, but with features so striking it was as though his face was chiselled out of fine wood, his skin the colour of roasted groundnut husk. He waved her over to the only chair across from his desk and held her gaze with eyes that made her forget how to speak, how to move. She became conscious of her outfit, the loose skirt that stopped at her ankles, her cornrows that were old and fuzzy. Her heart was scudding hard.
‘Good morning, sir,’ she said again, folding her hands on her lap. She could not hold his gaze, and so she stared at a spot on his chest.
‘How old are you?’ he said.
‘I am seventeen.’
‘You don’t look seventeen at all.’
She waited for him to say how old she looked. He didn’t. Instead he went on to ask questions about her visit: who sent her, who her father was. ‘I have never met him,’ he said, his tone dismissive. ‘I don’t know how he got my card.’
He was speaking too fast. Ogadinma wanted to explain that her father got the contact through a customer who spoke highly of Barrister Chima. But the words were clogged in her throat; he was talking too fast. He was in a haste to send her on her way, or he was orchestrating this to make her miserable. She moved closer to the edge of her chair, her hands held out, and when she spoke, she could barely hear herself.
‘Help me, please. I don’t want to stay at home for one year doing nothing,’ she said, her hands still bunched together. ‘Please, help me, sir.’
He was looking at her, his eyes unblinking. Ogadinma lowered her eyes, dug her fingernails into her palms. There was a knock and then the door opened. Amara looked in, passed a curious glance at her before turning to her boss. ‘Madam Afuecheta is here. I have told her to wait. She is crying,’ she said.
Barrister Chima nodded, and Amara left. When he spoke again, his words were slower. ‘I am going to attend to a desperate client. Will you come back by three, so we can talk about this admission you seek?’
She was bobbing her head even before he was done speaking. ‘Yes, sir, I will come back by three. Thank you so much, sir.’
But he had returned to the sheaf of papers. Her cue to leave. She thanked him again, furiously. When she walked into the hot waiting room, she was so giddy she almost stumbled. She was able to breathe again.
Her father wanted to know how the trip went. ‘I phoned my customer and he said he spoke with Barrister Chima this morning, before you left to see him. He said Barrister Chima was eager to meet you. So, how did it go?’
She swallowed her surprise. ‘He has agreed to help me, Papa,’ she told him. She would not share details of the awkward first meeting. ‘He said I should return by three to start the process.’
Her father was ecstatic. Ogadinma counted the seconds until afternoon came. When she walked into Barrister Chima’s office, the place was empty and Amara had kicked off her heels and was walking around in flip-flops which made slap-slap-slap sounds under her feet. Barrister Chima asked her to wait for a minute and then she waited for thirty. Then he emerged from his office, carrying his bag.
‘Come with me,’ he told her, and she followed. He gave her the bag to hold as they went down the flight of stairs. And she held it, happiness fluttering in her heart. This was progress. He was no longer as stuck-up as before. Everything would work out fine.
Outside, he led the way to a Mercedes parked by the side of the road. ‘I am so hungry. Have you eaten yet?’ he asked as he fished for his key in his pocket.
She had snacked on meat pie and Coca-Cola, so she bobbed her head. ‘Yes sir, I have eaten.’
‘Now you will watch me do as you have done. Get in the car,’ he said, laughter in his voice. It unsettled and tickled her. She got into the car. He folded his long frame into the small compartment, revved the engine and turned to her. ‘Choose the music: hip-hop or R&B?’
He pulled the car off the pavement, his gaze half on the road and half on her face as he worked the stereo. ‘Who is your favourite?’
‘Diana Ross,’ she said.
‘Great! You have passed your first test.’ He looked like a boy when he laughed. Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s voices floated into the car. He sang along to ‘Endless Love’. Ogadinma watched him, cautiously. When he glanced at her, still miming to the music, she offered a small smile.
‘Come on! Sing with me, I thought you loved her.’
Music, laughter: the perfect way to spend an afternoon with someone else, someone like Mary, her childhood friend. Mary was wild and fearless. She would definitely sing along with Barrister Chima. But Barrister Chima made Ogadinma uncomfortable and she did not want to sing with him. And so she imagined she was alone in her room, or with a friend, maybe Emeka from her secondary school. Emeka loved Lionel Richie and Marvin Gaye. Ogadinma had always liked Emeka. Back in school, they trekked home together, had lunch together, were almost boyfriend and girlfriend, until that day when he invited her to his home on Aitken Road and she refused to join him. He had been hurt by that rejection. For many days, he would not speak to her or look at her. She still liked him, still longed for the moments they shared together. She shut her eyes and imagined she was in the car with Emeka. And soon her voice, tiny and melodious, pierced the air.
Barrister Chima drove past her street, and all the way to the quiet, residential area of Nomansland, the street on the fringes of the safe haven Sabon Gari provided during the religious riots. She had only been to Nomansland once in her entire life. Barrister Chima rolled the car to a stop in front of a white bungalow. ‘We are home,’ he said, and headed for the gate. He did not stop to see the confusion on her face.
‘I thought we were going to a restaurant,’ she said.
He whipped around. Frowned. ‘I cook my own food,’ he said.
She wanted to ask why he didn’t tell her that he was bringing her to his house, but she didn’t need to. She only looked at him, at the criss-crossed lines crumpling his forehead, each one thickened with tension, and knew that this was what he wanted and she must either abide by his rules or forget about the university. He unlocked the gate and walked inside the compound, and she hurried behind him. He paused for her to catch up, then he threw a hand over her shoulder.
He unlocked the door, ushered her into the dark room and flipped the light switch. The fluorescent lamp flooded light into the parlour, which was cramped with brown leatherette sofas, a glass centre table and a large TV with two antennae sticking out from behind it. He disappeared into a connecting room. She walked over to stare at the TV and spread her hands to measure its width.
He returned, clutching a bottle of Maltex. ‘Do you want me to switch that on for you?’ He set the drink on a side table.
She sat. ‘Yes. Thank you.’ She refrained from adding ‘sir’.
He was barefoot, and he had untucked his shirt and folded the cuffs to his elbows. His arms rippled with muscles.
He switched on the TV and stood, gazing, as NTA belted out news. The United States had taken sides with the pro-Jumayyil Christian brigades of the Lebanese Army in the Mountain War, killing any hope of reuniting the Lebanese Christians and the Muslims.
‘Have you been following the US involvement in the Lebanese Civil War?’ His gaze was still on the news.
‘The United States is not helping matters at all. They have just shelled the centres populated by the Druze people and the Shia Muslims, proving everyone’s suspicion all along that they didn’t get involved in the war to broker peace, but to side with the Lebanese Christians! This is not good at all.’ He whipped around, his features tense. ‘Do you know what that means, how this will trigger reprisal attacks against the American properties and citizens in Lebanon? How this can even affect Nigeria? You know how our Muslim neighbours think. Ronald Reagan must step aside and stop pouring more fuel on a burning fire!’
Ogadinma glanced at the screen and back at him. Her palms had grown wet. The last thing in the world she needed was to be in Barrister Chima’s house, to be in the house of a man who was not her father. People would find out. Sabon Gari was such a small place; neighbours always bumped into each other on the streets. They would see her leaving Barrister Chima’s house and they would whisper. The rumour would spread in the neighbourhood. To the church. Into her father’s ears. And she would be in trouble. She rubbed her palms on her skirt.
‘Do you follow world news at all?’
She took a deep breath. ‘I watch the news, but not all the time,’ she said.
‘What course do you want to study at university?’
He frowned. ‘Interesting. And how are you going to succeed in commenting on books if you don’t know what is happening in the world? Do you read newspapers?’
She sat straighter, her knees pressed together. Why was he asking all these questions? What had they to do with helping her get admission into the university? ‘I read Punch and Tribune. My father brings them home every day.’
‘And beyond Diana Ross and reading newspapers, what other things do you love to do?’
‘What do you write?’
He arched his brows.
‘I make diary entries. I writes short stories when I am bored. I read a lot of books, too.’
He looked dubious. ‘Who do you read?’
‘Frederick Forsyth. Sydney Sheldon. James Hadley Chase. Chinua Achebe—’
‘Please don’t mention Chinua Achebe. He’s a compulsory read in schools, right? Whether you like him or not.’
‘Yes. But I have read his other books which aren’t on the curriculum. I also read other books, mostly everything in the library on Okonkwo Avenue, all the African Writers Series. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ama Ata Aidoo. Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer.’ She was out of breath. He had made her uncomfortable with his questions, with his gaze, and how he hovered above her. Her heart thudded too fast. She tried to breathe calmly, but she knew he enjoyed making her uncomfortable. It was in the way he smiled, the way he towered over her. He made her feel so small.
‘Does that library still function? The one on Okonkwo Avenue,’ he said.
She swallowed and said, ‘They have closed down now. There are no more libraries around here.’
He regarded her for a minute. ‘I will get you some books when I visit Lagos next week.’
‘Thank you.’ She smiled cautiously.
‘I like the way you smile,’ he said. ‘Come here.’
A pause. He urged her with a lift of his brow.
What was he trying to do? As she went to him, her heart pushing painfully against her chest, she thought of what it was he wanted to do. Hug her? Kiss her? What? She glanced fleetingly at the door; there was a small part of her that told her to race to the door, but she didn’t. She wanted to go to school. When she got that admission, she would never speak to this man again. She would never have to visit him ever again. She stood before him, glanced at his face and lowered her eyes immediately.
‘Are you afraid of me?’ He touched her cheek.
Her hands trembled violently. ‘No.’
‘So why are you staring at your feet?’
‘Sorry,’ she whispered.
He pulled her closer, left his hand to rest against her cheek. ‘Are you afraid of me?’
She nodded. ‘Yes.’
‘You don’t have to be.’ He cupped her face, rubbed the sides of her lips with his fingers. Bent down and pressed his mouth against hers. She steeled herself, pinched her lips shut, but he prodded and they slackened. His erection rubbed against her stomach. She averted her face and he grabbed her buttocks.
‘Come.’ He pulled her through the connecting door. She was walking in a daze. The passageway melted into the room where white light flooded in from the tall windows. She was falling, and he was crushing her on the soft bed, his smell of muted perfume and sweat filling her nose.
‘I have never done this before,’ she said. ‘Please.’
‘Then I promise I will go slowly. I won’t hurt you.’ He started to tug at her underwear, her skirt. ‘You have my word.’
There was a moment when a scream came to her throat, but she clamped her lips shut. She would be going to the university. She would get into the best university. She would study Literature, and all of this would no longer matter. She spoke these words to herself, even when her body stretched and a sharp pain travelled swiftly to her waist. He arched above her, his thrusts feverish, his face contorted into an ugly mask. Dollops of sweat from his face and neck spattered on her chest, her breasts. The room was so bright; outside the window the sun shone with passionate intensity. A lone bird flew past, and she thought how wonderful it would be to wing into the sky and fly away, far away from here.
He made a sound, an animal choking. And then he collapsed on her body and rolled off to his side of the bed.
‘Are you crying?’
She swiped at her face. ‘No.’
She sat up. There was blood on the sheet between her legs. She did not even begin to think where this came from, what this meant. She only concentrated on pacing her breathing and blinking fast to hold back her tears. He was looking at the stain too. He inspected his flaccid penis, confusion and satisfaction on his face at the sight of the blotch of blood on the tip.
He pulled her to his chest, held her for a second, left her. ‘Go to the bathroom and wash. I will change the sheets and make us some spaghetti and fish. You eat spaghetti? That’s my favourite food in the whole world.’
She came to hate spaghetti after she had shat a tapeworm when she was seven or eight. The worm was the length and colour of a cooked spaghetti strand.
In the bathroom, she climbed into the white tub and turned on the tap to fill up the red bucket sitting under it. She scooped water and splashed between her legs, then rust-coloured goo slid down her legs and rushed down the drain.
When she returned, Barrister Chima had changed the sheet, and her dress was folded neatly on the bed. He was whistling a tune in the kitchen, banging pots and spoons. She put on her clothes and returned to the parlour. She looked down at the stool before her, where the sweating bottle of Maltex still sat waiting for her. And she knew that this bottle would always trigger sad memories, that she would never ever drink this brand of malt again. She pushed the stool away, further from her line of sight, and then returned her gaze to the TV. But she could no longer hear what was being said because she was busy pushing the memories of today away from her mind, folding them into careful sizes and chucking them into her mental loft, so that even if she ever looked back, she would never again know the horror she had experienced.
He emerged half an hour later with a bowl of spaghetti and fish. They ate, sitting side by side on the sofa, their eyes fixed on the TV.
‘Do you like it?’ he asked.
‘I cook everything I eat. These restaurants are all dirty. Two years ago at Tropicana Restaurant, I saw a cockroach in the bowl of vegetable soup they served me. And that did it for me.’ He chewed on a piece of fish. ‘Do you cook?’
‘I cook everything we eat.’
‘Your mother doesn’t help?’
She put her plate down. ‘She left us.’
‘Oh, baby. So sorry.’ He touched her shoulder, her cheek. ‘When did she die?’
‘She is not dead!’ she said curtly. ‘My mother is not dead.’ As if repeating the words would mean keeping her mother alive, wherever she was.
Barrister Chima was staring at her, his brows furrowed with what seemed like irritation.
She looked down at the blue ceramic plate with the gold trimming. She was too scared to look up again. She had behaved badly, had shouted at the man that was supposed to help her. She wished she could take her words back. And when he put his hand on her shoulder and rubbed it, she did not resist. All she did was stare at her plate and listen to his heavy breathing as he rubbed her cheek. Then he lifted her chin to meet his gaze.
‘I am sorry I shouted,’ she said.
‘One day you will tell me about her?’
She lowered her eyes, and put the plate on the table.
‘You didn’t finish your food.’
‘I am okay.’
‘I should have asked the quantity you could finish.’ He picked up her plate and headed to the kitchen.
‘Thank you for the food,’ she said, but he had already left. She grabbed her bag and placed it on her lap. When he returned, he looked at the bag and her face.
‘We haven’t talked about your admission yet.’ He stood by the telephone, lifted the handset, stubbed a finger into the wheel and began to dial a number. He cradled the handset by his neck. ‘So, tell me: what’s your JAMB score?’
‘Two hundred and forty.’
‘That’s a good score. And you chose Literature?’
He held a hand over the mouthpiece and said, ‘I am calling my brother at the university. He hasn’t picked up the phone yet.’
Fear jumped in her throat. She sat forward, willed the man at the other end to pick up the phone. But Barrister Chima put the phone down.
‘I will call him again at night.’ He returned to her side, kissed her on the cheek. ‘Everything is going to be all right, just like your name – or don’t you think so?’ He kissed her again. ‘Your name is so apt. Ogadinma. Everything is going to be all right.’
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘You want to watch a movie? I just bought this rare VHS player and some tapes. I have really good movies here.’ His cheeks were dotted with pimples that had begun to ripen, the tips filled with pus.
‘I have to go.’ But she wanted to stay so that if his brother at the university called back she could listen to their conversation, and she would respond to his questions if he needed more details about her. The chair sucked her in. The clock on the wall behind the TV chimed. It was five already; her father would be home in an hour. She stood up. ‘I really have to go home. My father will be home by six.’
‘Oh, my poor baby.’ He pulled her on to his lap, her back to him. He groped her breasts. She tried to slide off his lap but he pinned her with the other hand. She began to count; it was easier this way, counting, because she would not have to remember how she felt. She only had to remember how long she had counted. When he was done, she pulled on her clothes. She did not look at him. She grabbed her bag and headed for the door.
‘Come by the office tomorrow and I will let you know what my brother thinks.’
She nodded, and stepped outside into the sun.
Her father had not yet returned when she got home. In the bathroom, she scrubbed herself vigorously, every inch of skin, everywhere Barrister Chima’s hands had touched.
In her room, she brought out her JAMB result and stared at the part that said: first choice: university of nigeria, nsukka.
Only a year ago, she used to sit hunched in the school library that smelled of rotting wood, studying for her final senior secondary school exams. Afterwards, she would trek to her father’s shop twenty minutes away, where she would have a late lunch. On one such occasion she had just settled into her father’s chair and dug into a plate of jollof rice, while her father sat outside chatting with a neighbour, when they heard cries.
At first she did not understand what was happening, until her father rushed in and yelled Hide under the table! as he drew the metal doors shut. A blanket of darkness fell over them. Her father was crouched beside her, panting. They could hear the scuttle of feet outside, the screech of machete on tarred road, the smash of bottles, the piercing cries and chants of rioters. People ran up and down. Someone slammed a metal club against their doors, again and again. Ogadinma peed on herself. Metal warred with metal. The doors did not yield, and he gave up. The air soon grew hot; things had been set on fire. And she was crippled with fear. Had they set the shop on fire? But then the chaos retreated slowly. The rioters carried their mayhem out of hearing range.
Her father opened the doors an hour later. His Peugeot pickup he had parked by the roadside was on fire. The same devastation was strewn all around Burma Road. Shopfronts were smashed in. The air was thick with the smell of something burning, like the familiar smell that hung heavy during Christmas, when her father slaughtered a goat and roasted off its hair and hooves on a tripod. But this was not the smell of a burning goat. She stepped outside. In the middle of the road were the charred remains of a man.
Later, they would learn that the riot started because their Muslim neighbours were angry with the Christians in nearby Fagge who were reconstructing a church situated too close to a mosque.
If the riot had not happened – if the boys had not burned down properties belonging to Christians, including her father – he would not have insisted that she choose a university in the east. She might just have been admitted in the north because that was much easier.
If she hadn’t chosen the eastern university, they might not have needed Barrister Chima’s help.
Months had passed since she filled out the form, and she wanted to reach back and choose another university. She could have chosen the University of Lagos. She would not have crossed paths with Barrister Chima. Things would have been as they used to be. But she had made that choice, and now she could not imagine retaking JAMB. She could not waste away at home for another year.
And so she returned to Barrister Chima the following day. He spoke with someone who requested her details. After he ended the call, he led her to his car again. They went home again, her heart thumping each time. Though disgust rose from her stomach and stained her tongue bitter, and she returned home to wash and scrub her body, she still went back to him again and again.
January came. It was time for the new academic session and students who had gotten admission letters were leaving home. Ogadinma’s name had yet to appear on the admissions list. She continued to submit to Barrister Chima, and at home, she began to sleep too much.
‘Your name will be on the last list,’ he said one Monday afternoon, when she was so tired to the bones that she rested her head on his desk. ‘Are you feeling ill? You look so dull,’ he said, his voice heavy with concern.
‘I think I have malaria.’ She was dizzy.
He glanced at her dubiously and then he got out his wallet, brought out some cash, much more than she had ever received, and folded the notes into her palm. ‘Here, go and take care of yourself,’ he said.
She did not remember how she got home, but she slept all through the evening and until the next morning. When she opened her eyes again, her father was staring down at her, worry wrinkling his brow.
‘We are going to the hospital,’ he said. ‘You don’t look well at all.’
‘But Papa, I have to go to Barrister Chima. The third list will be out today. My name will be on that list.’
He sank down on the space beside her. ‘Your name is not on the list. Barrister Chima told my friend to tell you.’
She sat up. ‘How, Papa?’
‘You didn’t meet the cut-off mark. The university set it at two hundred and fifty. We will try again next year.’
She opened and closed her mouth, and then a whimper left her lips. She held onto her father and wept until her stomach felt as though everything in it had been dug out. Later, he insisted they were going to the hospital still.
‘I am fine, Papa. I am just tired,’ she said, reassuring him and herself: perhaps if she did it convincingly everything would be all right, as it used to be.
It had always been the two of them since her mother left during the Biafran War, when their town fell. Though her father had never told her about it, how he returned from fighting the enemies, worn out and dried up, to learn that her mother had left. Ogadinma had gathered bits and pieces of the retellings of the story, fitting and stitching them together until she constructed a logical narrative: the war had tired her mother; the burden of caring for a constantly hungry baby tired her, and one morning, the day after their town fell to the Nigerian soldiers, she thrust Ogadinma into her mother-in-law’s arms and walked out of the compound. She did not stop walking, not even when her grandmother gave chase, thrusting Ogadinma back into her hands. She did not hold Ogadinma and she did not stop walking.
If her father minded being unmarried all these years, he hadn’t shown it. He didn’t show it when he brought his sister, Aunty Okwy, from the village to live with them in Kano. He didn’t show it those times his mother begged him to take another wife. He didn’t show it when they travelled for Christmas and the wives of the umunna brought their daughters for him to choose from. Instead, he stripped the flat of her mother’s memories. There were no pictures of her mother lying around, nothing for Ogadinma to hold onto as the years went by.
After her father left for his shop, Ogadinma checked the Michelin calendar hanging on her wall. The date was 18 January. She had been so obsessed with getting admission into the university that she had forgotten to check the dates; a month had passed since she last saw her period. Her knees weakened and she collapsed on the floor. Sweat beaded her forehead. From her position, she could see outside her window. A child was standing on the veranda of the opposite flat. Mary’s flat. Mary was holidaying in Benin. Mary would know what to do with a pregnancy. Mary, who taught her how to roll papers into cigarettes, who dug up bugs and squashed them on their nipples when their breasts had yet to bud. The thought of Mary, of Mary’s wildness and bravery, changed something in her, returned strength to her knees.
She stood and walked into the kitchen, opened the fridge and stared at the contents for a minute, before she reached for the limes in a compartment. She cut four of the limes and squeezed them into a cup, then she picked out the seeds and gulped down the juice in one swig. Her teeth rattled. Her stomach churned. She boiled water and drank it hastily, her mouth burning. Tears leaked out of her eyes.
Afterwards, she stepped onto the veranda and made for the stairs. Then she ran up and down the stairs, pausing only to catch her breath. Up and down, she went – ten, fifteen, twenty times. Her knees buckled and she limped to her room and wept.
‘Is anything wrong with your legs? Why are you walking like that?’ her father asked that evening, after she served him dinner, casting a worried glance at her face. ‘You are walking somehow.’
‘I bumped my foot against a stone, Papa. I am fine now.’
He looked at her, unconvinced. ‘Ndo, go and rest. I will wash the plates later.’
In her room, she squeezed more limes into a cup and drank. Her stomach hurt. She balled her hands into fists, raised and brought them hard against her stomach, again and again, until she buckled under intense pain.
That night, she woke frequently to check her underwear for blood spotting, but only found her clean panty lining staring back. She continued the routine: running up and down the stairs, drinking warm water, drinking lime juice. The torture changed nothing. At the end of the month, vomit began to rise to her throat. Sour-smelling spittle filled her mouth. She hated the smell of fried onions; she developed strong aversions. And she slept too much.
One morning, an idea crept into her mind and grew root: she would go to the hospital, the massive three-storey building one street away from their home. She would take care of herself. Wasn’t that what Barrister Chima told her when he gave her money the other time, take care of yourself? She would go to the hospital and she would give them a fake name and address. She would not speak to anyone except the doctor. She counted the money Barrister Chima had given her and stuffed it into her bag.
When she walked into the hall of the hospital, the receptionist, a pinched-faced woman who threw her a suspicious look, gave her a form to fill. Her hand was steady. She wrote down the name Ijeoma Nnedi and gave an address in faraway Brigade area on the outskirts of her suburb. She did not feel nervous; her heart did not thud frantically. She bristled with such confidence that when she took a seat and waited for her turn to see a doctor, she wondered why she had bowed to fear and hadn’t come earlier.
The doctor, a tall fair man in blue jeans, offered her a seat and asked what ailed her.
She stared at the cluttered desk. ‘My period was supposed to be here two months ago. I want it to come out.’
For a moment she feared the doctor would fly into a rage. ‘Have you told anyone this?’ he asked instead. She said no.
The doctor asked if she had had unprotected sex, and how many times. She returned her gaze to his desk, and responded to each question, her mind partly leaving her body, travelling to Barrister Chima’s office, to that first day she walked in and the fan whirled, scattering the papers on the desk. She should have taken that as a sign that things were going bad, that everything would float out of her control. She began to cry. The doctor watched her cry and after she was done, he asked her to lie on the table by the side of the room. She did as she was told, stared at the ceiling as the doctor felt her stomach, pinched her nipples.
When she got down from the table and returned to sit before him, he told her the cost and she handed him all the money Barrister Chima gave her. He shoved the notes into his drawer without counting, and then scribbled down an address where she must meet him by afternoon.
‘We don’t do that in this facility. It is illegal,’ he said. ‘But I want to help you. You are still young, and you just made a mistake.’
She folded the address slip into her handbag. She could finally breathe well.
The address was on Enugu Road, four streets from their home. An old woman dozed in front of a TV, her cornrows a dusty white, her neck hanging at an awkward angle. Two small girls, no older than four, chased after each other in the flat, both of them wearing plastic tiaras. They ran past Ogadinma, laughing as they made for a connecting door, and long after the doctor had appeared by the door of an adjacent room and summoned her in, she still heard them giggling.
The doctor led her to a bedroom and told her to take off her clothes. ‘Lie on the bed after you are done,’ he said, and then he left. The girls appeared by the door, watching her remove her underwear, both of them huddled together. They were actually twins, alike in every way. They giggled and fled just as the doctor came in with two women. She wanted to ask if the girls were his children, why they were roaming freely, peeking in to watch her undress.
She climbed on the bed and lay on her back. She drew in a breath when the doctor raised her knees and spread her legs open. She shut her eyes when he probed her with his gloved hands. Seconds slowed to forever. Cold metal slithered into her body, into her womb, churning her stomach. Sharp pain travelled down her back, singed her waist, her knees. She was trembling, sweating. Cries came to her throat. The women held her legs in place as the doctor worked metals in her body, swirling objects, and then forcing in a large syringe. Her waist was on fire, her eyes pressed with tears. The doctor and the women did not look at her face.
‘She has a retroverted uterus,’ he said, and the women bent over to peep. Then they carried on with their activities. If they noticed her discomfort, they did not acknowledge it, not even when the first cries slipped from her lips.
She thought of Barrister Chima, mustering all the hate she could. She thought of all the ways she could hurt him if she had the means, and then she wanted to hit herself for being so stupid.
After the doctor was done, she avoided the women’s eyes as they wiped her clean, even when they slid a Comfit pad between her legs and pulled on her underwear. When she climbed out of the bed, the floor shifted under her feet, but she placed one foot after the other, out of the flat, onto the streets. There were moments when she clenched her stomach, when darkness hovered before her. At home, she climbed into bed and shut her eyes. Her waist burned, and her stomach contracted. She shivered in bed, pulled more sheets to her chest. She did not stop shivering, even by evening, when her father came home and found her in bed, sweating. She said she was menstruating, that the pain was too much. She slipped in and out of consciousness, barely remembering what she said. Her father’s face swam above hers, and she was wondering why he looked so worried and devastated when her eyes drew shut.
She opened her eyes and knew she was not in her bed. This one felt hard. A fan whirled above her, the ceiling was painted white, the walls blue, and the room smelled of Izal and drugs. She sat up. Her father was standing by the door. A nurse walked into the room. Her face bore judgement. Ogadinma knew then that they had found out, that her father had found her out. She lay back in bed and shut her eyes, and wished for the floor to cave in and swallow her.
The above is the first chapter of Ukamaka Olisakwe’s Ogadinma, Or, Everything Will Be All Right, which will be published from The Indigo Press on 10 September.