Samuel blinked, faced with a question to which there was no correct answer. Finally, he threw up his hands and mumbled, “It’s only for a short while. What else was I supposed to tell her?”
“Jesus Christ!” Belema pressed a hand against her forehead. “How could you be so gullible? Whatever happened to taking time out to think things through? Sometimes, I must tell you the truth, sometimes you behave like a child, a clueless child. I can’t believe you’ve invited her into your home, your private space, Sam? You couldn’t lodge her in a hotel somewhere in town?”
Samuel’s mouth hung open. A hotel, he wanted to say. And if she heard that he’d done that, wouldn’t she be suspicious right now? He let her go on her tirade.
He should have called her! “Yes! Whatever happened to calling your girlfriend? Rebecca could have stayed at my place.”
“This is crazy.” Samuel turned away. He couldn’t begin to put into words how ridiculous this was. “Not to mention, it’s all after the fact.”
Belema began to say something, but Samuel kept going. “You know what? Let’s take it this way. Let’s agree, if my maid gets raped next time, I’ll call you and she’ll stay at your place.”
“Fine! But now what do we do about her being in your house?”
How had she put it? His private space. As far as Samuel was concerned Rebecca had been in his private space almost every day now for the past several months, cleaning, keeping things in order. What harm could possibly come of her living there a few additional days, or weeks? He met Belema’s gaze, determined as ever not to yield. Her face was as impassive as a brick wall; her eyes twin flames, burning bright. “And what,” he said, “do you suggest?”
Belema shook her head. “That she leaves. Think about it. She can’t be there, Sam. Mmm mmm. She needs go back to where she lives. Fine, I get it, she wants to live at your place. She may be in some kind of trouble with her boyfriend or whatever. But to lie and have her way? That’s taking advantage. And I say no way, Sam. Ask her to leave. Ask her to leave now.”
Samuel’s key motivation to becoming a doctor sprang from a genuine need – foolish, he thinks in retrospect – to heal. To facilitate it, to be associated with it. But this was before he discovered the truth that most doctors were silent about – that doctoring had just as much to do with loss of healing as the sustaining of it. The simple fact was that certain things just could not be healed. He lacked fortitude to accept this, and ultimately failed to see how cutting up one part of the body, while studying for years only to rise up one rung and be qualified to cut up another part, could be rightly called ambition. What he desired was true difference, not one at a time, but in leaps and bounds. Or maybe he was weak and a failure, as his colleagues had said.
Opportunity came by sheer chance in November of ’99 when a dozen policemen were murdered near Odi, a small community in Bayelsa. In swift retaliation, the village was sacked by a horde of angry soldiers; indigenes, innocent or otherwise, man, woman and child, were cut down. Every building was razed to the ground with the exception of a bank, a health centre and the local Anglican Church. The death toll came to thousands. For their transgression, Odi was chastised by the Federal government—the proverbial hand that fed them, ill-content to simply withdraw, had lashed out at the mouth.
Samuel immediately went to work, penning a hurried and somewhat sentimental essay, describing those remaining three buildings as “the last threads in the fabric of a nation’s humanity.” The piece introduced him as a daring new voice “who spared no one in his quest to unclothe the truth.”
He could be sentimental, yet in the same breath a ruthless cynic; an idealist with little patience for impractical dreams; he was anti-colonialism, anti-racism, a devout Pan-African, but there were moments, depending on location and company, when Samuel would employ an accent not authentically his — to better blend in, is how he justified it. “Nothing wrong with pronouncing words well.” But it was more than that, and he knew it. In school he’d been a skilled debater, able to argue for or against at a moment’s notice, and with equal fervour. Like prostitutes at the front pew at mass, he could see to both sides of an argument, and ultimately chose one, but often, in the depths of his mind, juggled both opinions. He could relate to anything. Therein lay his underlying problem with Medicine: that it failed to prevent him from being a patient as well, an educated one, ever at odds with the transience of healing. Sickness was a scam, and doctors were in on it, had lived fat off it for years. The deductions, the trial-and-error, the cover-ups. Samuel’s problem was that unlike others he could not keep his mouth shut and simply pretend to be a darling who saved lives.
Being open was its own curse. He knew that Rebecca was telling him the truth, just as he knew, at the back of his mind, that he would ask her to leave, in the event that she wasn’t. They were in his head already, the words reserved for that purpose, echoes he could not now unhear. There seemed nothing at stake, except his reputation, the fact that he could be the fool in all this, the fact that he could be thought weak, and a failure, and that to Samuel was a risk he would not take.
When he broke the news, Rebecca didn’t seem at all surprised. For a second there passed over her face an expression of contained shock that was almost bravery, almost as if she had known all along that having come too easily his kindness could not be genuine, that time would see it set to its proper limits. In despair, Rebecca looked even more attractive. Observing her departure through the living room window, Samuel wrestled the urge to call her back, to hold her and rub himself against her, repenting of his words.
He marvelled at her strength, her resolve to face headlong whatever fate lay in wait for her. She did not even look back.
For the rest of the day, Samuel was useless. He drifted about the house in a daze. He cringed from mirrors in fright, unable to bear to sight of his face. In defiance, he sat behind his desk and attempted to write, but the words had masked themselves like stars in daylight. He knew they were there, and would shine as before when he was forgiven. Samuel remained in that room, like a penitent lover, awaiting a sign. As an act of self-abasement he read newspapers and watched local TV, and then he sat in silence, transfixed by the multitude of books in his shelf, a sight that sent him laughing in the dark, understanding at last a certain Asa lyric that until then had not made much sense.
…Cos you’re a prisoner too, Mister Jailer…
Later that evening, Belema arrived, clutching an overnight bag. It was clear to Samuel that her intention was to check up on him. She thought him weak, incapable of doing what needed to be done. A warm pride filled his chest at having not disappointed. And for the pride, he felt regret and instant shame.
That night their lovemaking was clumsy. There seemed too much to prove. Belema took charge, throwing him on the bed, mounting him immediately, but what was he feeling, was this…was this pain? Why on earth was she staring him in the eye like a witch hunter? Did her motions need to be so aggressive? Was he losing his masculinity? Samuel himself was acting strange. Though in actuality he wasn’t anything other than his usual self, however, robbed of spontaneity his usual self was clunky and dangerous. Once he lunged at her playfully, to tickle her, but at that instant Belema bent over to scratch her foot and his finger had ended up in her eye. “What are you doing?” she cried, her left hand clamped over the eye.
“I’m sorry! I was just trying to play with you!”
“Play? You call blinding me play? Please, I beg you, don’t play with me again. Jesus!”
Samuel plopped down on the bed and turned way. He listened for a while to her grumbling, and afterwards, to the raspy rhythms of her breathing. Later he went downstairs to work on his laptop. He managed to finish the article, and then became bored, and found himself on the Internet, browsing not for news or anything heavy, but superficial things his mind could absorb without strain, things far removed from his reality: Lady Gaga, Kardashians, Rihanna. Alas, there was nothing to be found, not even a minor scandal.