The morning sun was barely out when Samuel’s maid Rebecca stood before him seeking his audience on a matter of great importance. Sitting behind a giant desk, cluttered with papers, a pencil in his left hand, Samuel at first did not look up. She knew well that he was not to be disturbed at this hour.
“Oga I don’t know what to do. I just don’t know what to do.” Rebecca’s voice faltered. Her mouth crumpled like a soda can. Her eyes glimmered, tears rolling down her face, and away in one flawless motion. A doctor, though no longer in active service, Samuel kicked back his chair and dashed toward her. “What is it? Tell me, what’s the matter?”
Standing beside her, Samuel asked repeatedly what the problem was, but Rebecca kept crying and wouldn’t say. He was a very busy man, bound to lose his patience soon. Already he found himself thinking about the essay he was still writing for the Guardian UK, about certain words he might use in place of others, words that had weight, connotations that could be brought to bear. Why had Rebecca chosen this moment to disturb him? Could she not leave and come back later? Watching her tears, which rather than wane, seemed to flow ever more profusely, he fought the urge to snap at her.
“Calm down,” he said through clenched teeth. He had been in confining situations before, no thanks to his past profession. He knew the winding road of appropriate attitudes, how to restrain himself, breathe, lower his voice, loosen the frown on his brow, pretend. Samuel knew, most of all, that people’s memories were sharpest at those moments when help was denied them. “Calm down.”
When Rebecca began heaving, he leaned toward her. “I can’t know anything unless you speak, do you understand me? You have to speak.” His tone, at once harsh, imploring, placatory, seemed to strive towards physically steering her to some place of calmness. He rejoiced inwardly when Rebecca’s sobs began giving way to sniffles. Sliding down her nose, pausing at the precipice of her upper lip, was a line of snot, like molten glass. Samuel whipped out a silk handkerchief, ready to swipe at it, but it was too late. Rebecca sniffed it back up, wiping what remained with the back of her hand.
“Oga, oga, the thing that men are doing to me, it’s not good oh. Kai, this life.”
Pressing the handkerchief into her hand, Samuel led Rebecca to a sofa beside his bookshelf. He sat next to her, watching with an intense gaze as she dabbed her eyes, and emptied her nose into the handkerchief that she had laundered and perfumed. “What are men doing to you?”
She rambled a little, her voice slightly muffled by the handkerchief. Did he remember her former place, how it was demolished, how she came to live where she did now?
Samuel nodded. He did recall some unfortunate business involving illegal buildings. It was on the news. Unfortunate, but necessary for development.
“Four months, sir, four months now I’ve been living with two sisters. When I needed accommodation they helped me. They’re from my church. So their brother…they have a brother who lives with them…one useless boy …animal…doesn’t want to work or do anything…but would you believe, sir, that this boy waits for me and in the night when I’m sleeping this animal will be…will be… fingering me.” As if to leave no room for doubt, Rebecca held up her index finger, short, thick, crooked at the tip.
She was dressed in a brown skirt and a blue blouse, buttoned up to the top. As of that morning she had worked for Samuel for exactly five months. Twenty weeks of good service, humility, punctuality, cleanliness and most of all respect for his privacy. Unlike the maids before her, she did not invite her lovers into his home and attempt to pass them off as her brothers. Plus, if a situation arose where Samuel needed help locating some item in the house, day or night, in person or on the phone, she was always willing, patient with her description of where the elusive item might be. He’d come to trust her, depend on her. And yet, that morning, hearing her speak with so much detail unnerved him somehow, made him shudder.
“Wait a minute, slow down. What are you saying?”
“Sir, what I’m saying is that in the midnight, this boy will be putting his finger inside.” Again she lifted her index finger.
Samuel frowned at the offending digit. As a boy, he and his friends had played a game the object of which was to determine whose finger could bend the most at that exact joint where the distal phalanx ended and the intermediate began. Okonte Magnus, a devil of a boy, possessed an inhuman ability to bend his to an angle almost perpendicular to the rest of his finger. He could achieve this feat with all his fingers except the pinkie. Okonte Magnus grew to become a kingpin of a notorious gang that terrorised the city for a time. Samuel wondered if his gift had aided him in some way, in the pulling of triggers, perhaps, or scaling of high walls.
Relived from the pressure of speaking, Rebecca’s face fell lax. Her eyes seemed to swell in their sockets as she stared at him, her nostrils flaring in step with her breathing. Her lips became jagged arcs. But it was her eyes that most unsettled Samuel, the naked desire within them, to understand why such a thing should happen to her. A desire to understand it from him.
Samuel scarcely understood it himself. “Wait, are you saying he touched you privately while you were sleeping, or requested something of a private nature?” On his tongue the words were unwieldy, stubborn.
Rebecca simultaneously nodded and shook her head. Then she paused, took a deep breath and told him everything.
She had come into the room at night – because they all slept in that one room, the two sisters, their brother and herself – to find that both sisters were not home. The brother was there. He was lying on the bed sleeping. She went ahead to spread her mat on the floor as she always did, and then lying on it, said her prayers and shut her eyes. Only she wasn’t sleeping—she was waiting. For weeks, she’d been experiencing strange sensations in her dreams; sometimes when she woke in the middle of the night to pee she would feel a soreness she could neither understand nor explain. Something was happening. She didn’t know what it was, but had her suspicions. That night, as she lay waiting, taking heavy, but carefully measured breaths, snoring sometimes to give a varied performance, she pondered what she would do if indeed he came to her. Reach for a bottle, smash it against his head? She didn’t know, which only heightened her terror, for she knew that horrible things often lurked in the shadow of the unknown.
When she heard him rise she almost stopped breathing. She knew it the instant his feet touched the floor, silence broken by the faintest crack in his toes. She could feel his presence, a dark mass, to her mind, crossing the empty space between them, settling down next to her, not touching, but close enough so that her mind supplied the touch. She wanted to scream right there and then, but somehow managed to keep still, continuing to take the difficult breaths in and out, in and out. How long was she to wait? She felt his cold hand on her shoulder. He gave her a shake. He whispered her name twice. When she failed to stir, he withdrew the hand and ever so slowly slid it under her wrapper. He began at her knees, stroking her thighs, gradually working his way up to her crotch, at which point he must have known something had gone terribly wrong, because that night Rebecca was wearing not panties, but shorts, thick, green, fortified shorts. That’s when she screamed.
Uzor leaped from the bed, and made a mad dash for the door. He was fumbling with the keys when she jumped on his back, grabbed him by the neck, scratching his face with her nails. She meant to pluck his eyes out, to take his skin with her. “So this is what you have been doing?” she wanted to say. “To me, Uzor, to me?” She could only cry out his name over and over.
Something in her resisted belief. She was more at peace when it remained a mystery. She calculated that if she killed him things might go back that way.
But to kill Uzor she needed a weapon, or in any case more strength than she possessed. He pried her fingers away from his face quite easily, and pushed her to the ground. Before she could recover, he had escaped into the night. Rebecca let out a cry and chased after him, but a hand appeared out of nowhere and gripped her by the elbow. “What kind of witchcraft has possessed the both of you?”
She looked up and saw that a group of six or seven of her neighbours were gathered outside. She tried to collect herself, to narrate what had happened, what had been happening. She was panting ceaselessly, and seemed to have lost all ability to speak. After several attempts, she managed finally to say that Uzor had been fingering her in her sleep. She was without her wrapper and stood before the neighbours dressed only in green shorts and a sheer top. Her left breast had risen beyond the threshold and was peeping out. One of the women, embarrassed on her behalf, gave a signal and Rebecca shoved it back in place, adjusting the top accordingly.
Just then, shirtless, looking like a human fox, Uzor re-appeared. He was not fingering her, he swore. On his mother’s grave! He was only trying to wake her up to move up to the bed so that he could take the ground instead. At no time was his hand anywhere near her privates. He was willing to submit himself to any shrine, including swearing before an imam or priest. The girl was dreaming. She was infatuated with him once, and he had rejected her advances. Since then she’d had it in her mind to pay him back. “Look,” he said, “just look at her then look at me. Who do you believe?”
Rebecca felt their eyes on her, heard the whispered calculations of their thoughts, saw the sympathy drain out of their faces. All at once, there was murmuring about girls wearing flimsy nightwear to bed yet sleeping recklessly, legs splayed. “End times,” someone remarked. Instinctively Rebecca crossed her arms over chest.
This sharp competition for men, said one of the woman, girls everywhere were becoming aggressive. “Everybody is uselessing themselves up and down, now look what has happened.”
The argument grew heated, with the men lamenting the challenges of being a man in today’s world, the women insisting that it had always been harder for women, only just now were the men starting to catch up. In the middle was Rebecca, staring at the lot, and at a shirtless Uzor, who seemed relaxed in their midst, remarking to someone that this really was just a big misunderstanding. Rebecca charged at him. She threw her hands haphazardly, managing to deliver a flurry of blows before the neighbours intervened. Dragging her away, they scolded her. Why was she taking this too far? Could she not see them here trying to settle the matter? Why was she aggravating things? Typical woman behaviour, one of them shouted. Rebecca was too distressed to speak. She felt a heaviness in the depths of her soul. It weighed her down, dragged her into the deep. But it was this same heaviness that centred her, focused her, drove her.
She crouched, straightened herself, and then crouched again. Her body, engulfed by unseen flames, seemed conflicted between remaining in a foetal position or succumbing to the rage inside that spurred her to rise. Screaming, she rushed at Uzor and again several men stepped in between them. She held on to his left ear, and as they picked her up by her feet and pulled her away, she nearly took the ear with her. This time they carried her, kicking and screaming, to the back of the house. Beside the water tank they held her, two of them standing guard. Rebecca lay down on the ground, later standing up and then crouching. Her mouth hung open, like a large cat poised to spit, releasing sound and air and the fire of intent, but not much more.
She tried to make a run for it once more—but it was in vain. She screamed out her frustration. Why was she the prisoner? Why was she held like an animal?
“Because he is talking like a sensible human being, and you are not!”
She knew they were right. Something had come loose in her mind, something wild, that set out smashing to bits the décor of her usually serene countenance. There were at least two more hours of captivity before dawn came, and they were forced to let her go. Two hours was enough for the madness in her to give way to a semblance of sanity. But in her final hour two things had become clearer than any: one, she would never again sleep in the house; two, no matter what happened Uzor would pay for what he had done.
On her morning trek to work, Rebecca found herself more and more convinced of the first, and less of the second. War was fought by soldiers. Who could she summon at a moment’s notice to wage war for her? Her brother was fourteen, struggling with junior secondary exams, her father was diabetic, a reformed drunk who had lost his leg up to the hip due to wild living. They were both in the village, supported by her mother who had a stall in the market; as far as they all knew she was doing well here. To bring them this news would be to plunge them into unspeakable despair. She could not go to the Police, either. Not without the tips and bribes that ushered justice along. The case could just as soon be thrown out, or turned against her. One of her cousins was arrested for “making false accusations.”
By the time she neared the house, Rebecca was almost going mad again at the thought of Uzor going unpunished.
“That’s when I came to you, sir,” she said, “That’s when I said let me tell Oga Samuel. He knows book, he knows the law, he would… he would be able to do something.” Her voice broke off and Samuel feared that she might cry again. She dabbed the handkerchief over her cheeks, gazing at him with moist, red, expectant eyes.
“Err…” Samuel said, taking a deep breath. He was moved by what he had heard. In all the years he spent in the practice of Medicine, the one thing he’d failed to teach himself was that quality most essential to doctors: the gift of distance – how to disengage, how to view a person with Stage Four Prostatic Carcinoma as simply a case, papers in a file, not a human life inexorably on its way to being over. It was key to the survival of any doctor; he had lacked it, and paid the price, suffering from one casuality to the next. His father’s death was the last swipe that left his link to medicine severed. Emboldened by a hefty inheritance, he relinquished his post, content to spend the bulk of his days in a manner he knew his former colleagues could only comprehend with words like “weak” and “failure.”
He penned political commentary for periodicals. It was easy work. He didn’t need the money. Besides, he spent so much time already observing. The opinions were all in his head, merely awaiting an extraction to paper, and a weekly dispatching to the various editors. His pieces were scathing commentaries on life, politics and religion that more or less arrived at the same conclusion week in week out: life was a cycle; the world was shit; humanity was its own undoing: the day of reckoning was coming.
“First things first, you should have a place to stay for the time being. If you could prepare the guest room for yourself. We will talk again later in the day.”
Holding a hand over her mouth, Rebecca dropped to her knees. After a long pause, she said she hadn’t been expecting this.
It was alright, he told her. Of course, she could stay here.
“Thank you, sir. Thank you.”
Driving through GRA Samuel reflected on all Rebecca had just told him. In his forty plus years he’d been a witness to horrible things that repetition did not make easier. Who was that idiot who had said, The one constant in life was change? It was, of course, evil. It ran all day and all night, and never changed.
He made a turn into King Perekule Street, and immediately came upon a familiar array of Pine trees. He wound down the glass, as he would often do in his teens, and inhaled deeply. After passing the trees, he rolled the windows right back up. His alma mater Emmanuel Secondary school lay several blocks ahead, a congregation of low buildings, the head of which bore a large signboard that said, Emmanuella Hotel. He passed by, averting his eyes, not wishing to face, right now or anytime soon if it were up to him, the mess the present had made of the past.
Soon he was easing into the parking lot of Prime bank, where Belema worked. As soon as he parked, he fell back into his seat. He felt like he had just driven through a city under siege. He shut his eyes for a moment, and running his hands over his face he took a deep breath. Voices, near and distant, fused with the honking of cars to form a drawn out groan, that sounded in that moment like the cry of the city. Eyes closed, Samuel saw an image of Port-Harcourt as it used to be when he was a boy, when flowers lined the highways like soldiers on parade, when Emmanuel Secondary was Emmanuel Secondary, when neighbours wielded garden shears, and beamed with pride at the state of their hedges, when people found security in the thickness of their hedges, Pitanga cherry, but mostly Hibiscus, red and pink, flowers with a distinct call that Samuel and his friends were powerless to, going to them on their way from school, picking their seeds, chewing them. How many stomach aches had they endured eating the seeds of inedible plants? He bore the burden of his memories proudly. He was born here, and had never left. He would pass his days here.
His phone rang. Samuel felt a rush when he saw who it was. With a weary smile, he picked up. “Your spirit is strong. I swear I was just about to call you. I’m outside.”
Every Wednesday he picked Belema from the office and drove down to Mama B for lunch. Samuel had patronised the outdoor Bole and fish joint now for more than decade, and made no secret about his weakness for their spicy fish. On this day, however, despite what Belema called his gluttonous appetite for bole and fish, Samuel appeared uninspired by the plate before him. Belema broke her bole into half, dipped one part in spicy stew, and took a large bite, all the while watching Samuel as he toyed with a crumb, glaring at it suspiciously, before dropping it on his tongue with no more enthusiasm than if it were a pebble. She tore out a strip of fish dripping in stew and attempted to feed it to him, but Samuel leaned back and made a face. There was something infantile about his reaction and just then a look stole across Belema’s face, as if she’d had a vision of herself pulling his ears and force-feeding him. She pressed the fish in her open mouth.
He was her fifth serious boyfriend in five years. And third fiancé, after her first two were killed, one in a ghastly motor accident three years back, the other from complications arising from Sickle Cell Anaemia. On their first date she confided to him that she was bad luck. A part of her still believed this to be true. “What’s wrong?” she asked, chewing slowly, seemingly disinterested. “You didn’t finish the article?”
“Couldn’t,” he said, frowning, “but that’s not it.” He looked her in the eye. “It’s Rebecca.” Observing her blank expression, he added, “My maid.”
“Oh, okay,” Belema said, reaching for another piece fish. Samuel thought he saw her roll her eyes.
He had intended to give no more than a summary, but the moment he began Samuel found himself swept away, revealing to Belema everything, including the parts Rebecca had added later, much calmer and without tears. About Esther, an acquaintance from her church who had lived with the sisters as well, until she’d had to leave after getting pregnant under circumstances deemed peculiar, seeing as the girl herself had no idea who was responsible or when such a conception could even have occurred. Esther was an avowed celibate. A member of the prayer group, she was known widely as a seer of visions. Now that she was pregnant her visions were gone. Many turned against her, spat at her feet, called her vile names, and the few who remained by her side did so either out of love of gossip, or to avoid being called fickle friends. Even then Esther never changed her story. She could often be seen sitting outside the steps of her aunt’s house, weeping, out of shame, and fear, for no one could assure her that what was in her was a blessing and not a curse, a human not a beast.
Thumping her index finger against the table, Rebecca insisted that whatever happened to Esther was the same thing that happened to her. Uzor fathered that baby, she was sure of it, and when the time came – in a couple of weeks, as Esther was close to term – she would prove it. The declaration had brought a gleam to Rebecca’s eyes. Thereafter, a solitary tear ran down her cheek.
“You can’t be serious,” Belema said, both hands over her mouth, when Samuel had finished.
Samuel smiled gravely, and gave his head a solemn shake. “You hear things like this, and it just makes you wish you could relocate to another universe.”
Belema nodded, her eyes screwed, her lips pulled back in a grimace as though she had suddenly become aware of a strong odour. “Something about it doesn’t add up though, does it? It doesn’t make much sense.”
“What do you mean?”
Belema said nothing, her frown still in place.
“I saw her this morning, with own eyes, she was crushed, and I mean devastated, crying, trembling and everything. Totally distraught.”
Belema shook her head, and said not a word.
“Listen, I’m serious,” Samuel said. “I’m telling you, if we were at a hospital, I’d have considered having her sedated.”
At this point, Belema shifted to the edge of her seat. Her movement appeared the result of extreme calculation. She reached for the plate, staring at Samuel, with wide open eyes, so that an errie feeling came over him as though she were studying the shape and movement of his thoughts. “Are you eating this?” She pointed at the last piece of fish on his plate.
Samuel shook his head, and Belema immediately pounced on the fish tail, gripping it as though the fish were alive, squirming in her hands, capable of escape. She cracked the dorsal fins one by one, tossing them aside, and then split the fish, dispensing with the lateral bone, and feeding the soft flesh into her mouth, chewing slowly and with much satisfaction.
“I think that your maid Rebecca is up to something,” she said, licking her fingers. “If you ask me, she’s trying to take advantage of you. She’s worked for you a couple of months. She probably knows about you by now.”
“Knows what about me?” Hearing Rebecca referred to as his maid had irked him. It was redundant. And yet that wasn’t it. Something about Belema’s tone put him on edge, knowing how her attacks and rebuttals always came laced with logic.
This time he saw her clearly roll her eyes. “That you can be sentimental sometimes, you know. How do I put this? You like to save people.”
Samuel’s jaw tightened. “I don’t like to save people.”
“Oh yes, you do. You can’t help it. It’s the doctor in you, maybe even the writer in you. I mean it’s noble, don’t get me wrong, but it’s sort of your weakness. Personally, I feel there’s a healthy amount of distrust a person should have. Call me cynical, but it’s just reality. It keeps the wolves away. This girl, for instance, if she was molested, shouldn’t she know for sure? How old is she?”
“Nineteen, twenty maybe. What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, for one, a twenty year old fingered without her knowledge, how believable is that? What kind of sleep are we talking? Maybe she was drugged?
“Well, she didn’t say anything about drugs.”
“You see, this is what I’m talking about. You’re doing it again!” Belema gave him the sort of look one reserves for sick animals, who can no more help their ailments than they can the urge to poo in the streets and lick said poo with relish. “You hurry to trust people who can only disappoint you. I won’t be surprised if she knew all along. Maybe she was enjoying it, who knows, maybe now she’s fallen out with whatever his name is, she’s running to you for …” She froze, her shoulders tensing, her head tilted up toward the ceiling. “Wait a second.” She snapped her fingers, a habit from childhood that accompanied only her most intense deliberations.
“What now, you think she raped him?”
Belema shot Samuel a look. Her lips were pursed, her eyes dark and piercing. From the earliest time, he had recognised in her a mind totally lacking in objectivity, a mind consumed with its own rightness, a wrecking ball. His weakness, she had said. His weakness. He could swear he heard walls crumbling right now, as she calculated, made deductions, arriving summarily at the most preposterous conclusions. It could only be one thing, she said: Rebecca needed a place to live, rent free, with a rich man to go with it. The ticket was him, Samuel, former doctor, now freelance columnist, the ticket was him.
Samuel broke into a gasping laughter. “You can’t be serious.” He supposed he ought to feel insulted – his sense of reasoning and judgement put to question – yet he couldn’t help feeling flattered somehow. “Let’s be logical for one second, okay, my maid is not after me. She’s…my maid!”
Belema stared at him long and hard, with eyes devoid of faith. “Knowing you, you’ve probably invited her to stay already. Have you?”
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.
Belema left the following morning, with a vague promise to call him. A blessing in disguise, he realised, an hour later when Rebecca came stumbling through the gates, wearing the same attire as the previous day. She sprinted towards him, arms outstretched. “Sir, Sir.” Her approach brought into view distinct splash marks on her blouse. Dots of red. Blood. She launched into his waiting arms, holding on tightly, and then as if immediately recognising her forwardness she withdrew, sinking into silent tears.
No measures could possibly have prepared Samuel for the guilt that lay siege upon his conscience. It came flooding in like a high wave, and like a city overwhelmed, he welcomed it without quarrel, hoping only that no harm had befallen the girl. Her hair was ruffled, the top three buttons of her blouse unhooked. Samuel could see the top of her breasts, expanding and contracting as she panted, glistening with beads of sweat. He had a vision of himself stabbing Uzor in the stomach fifteen times. “Are you alright?”
Her response was hard to decipher. “I can’t,” she said, gesticulating wildly, still trying to catch her breath. “Oohhh, I tried, this morning…oohhh.” Her eyes were unfocused. Her moaning seemed to suggest some kind of pain. An injury? He had to act fast.
“Come inside, come, come.” Samuel ushered her into his study. As per Emergency First Aid protocol, he laid her down on the couch, lifting her legs, easing off her rubber slippers. “Sit here and catch your breath.” He rushed into the kitchen, and when he returned he was holding a glass. Following no known medical stricture, Samuel turned some brandy into the glass and handed it to Rebecca. “Here, drink this.”
In one go, she poured the drink down her throat, wincing and coughing. Ten minutes later, she was steady. Her eyelids hung low, like those of a spiritual medium, possessed by the ghost of some sailor drowned at sea, and Samuel’s, after a shot of his own, were of the widowed wife, looking on with a mixture of anticipation, revulsion, pure terror, all superseded by a naked desire to know what happened.
“I can’t go back,” Rebecca said. “Please, don’t make me go back. I’ll do anything, please just don’t make me go back there.” She was getting hysterical.
“Calm down,” Samuel said, “Calm down. No one is sending you back.”
When a patient died the hardest thing was often not the loss, but having to stand in the direction opposite to it, trained to not feel it, to not accept responsibility. If healing was his to facilitate then how was a failure to heal not his fault? Taking another shot of brandy, Samuel excused himself. He went upstairs into his bedroom, and shut the door behind him. “I’m taking you up on your offer,” he whispered into his phone. “When can she come?”
“What are you talking about? And why are you whispering? Where are you?”
“The maid. I need her to stay over at your place for while. She has this problem, she’s not very stable right now, trust me.”
“Samuel, Samuel, listen to me. I’ll say this once. You’re joking if you think she’s going to stay at my place. The girl’s lying.”
“Oh, not again.”
Belema made Samuel a proposition. “Give her the phone, let me speak to her. If she satisfies me, I will take her to my place, she can stay as long as she likes, no problem. Or fine, you don’t want me scaring the girl, no problem, just keep her there, doing her work or whatever. I’ll come by later and trust me we’ll clear this up once and for all, okay?”
Samuel wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about this plan. There were plusses as there were minuses, and they seemed neck and neck when he weighed them. His instincts told him to refuse, to insist that Rebecca had been through enough already, but before he could say a word, Belema hung up the phone.
“I’m sure you know who I am.”
Trembling, both hands held at her back, Rebecca stared into the face of the figure towering above her. Clad in a navy blue skirt suit, Belema might as well have been wearing military fatigues, for the menacing way she glared. She wasted to time getting to the point. Had Rebecca been fondled improperly?
“Is this really necessary,” Samuel said.
Lowering her eyes, Rebecca stammered and then fell silent. Belema turned to glare at Samuel, and with a slow shake of her head, turned back to face Rebecca. She repeated the question. Had anyone touched, fondled, or raped her?
Afflicted with a light shiver, Rebecca said, “No, ma.”
Samuel felt the earth tremble beneath him. He could not believe his ears. “What do you mean?”
Belema showed no reaction whatsoever. If anything, she seemed ever more determined, pressing Rebecca to go into detail, to be more specific, to leave no room for, as she put it, misinterpretations. “So you come here to someone’s house to tell a lie, is it? Yesterday, today, all lies, right? Let me just warn you now. This is your last chance. If you don’t tell me everything, I’ll call the police immediately.”
Rebecca dropped to her knees. The mention of police seemed to send the fear of God into her. Please, no police, please, she would tell the truth, she said. Trembling, nodding repeatedly, she said yes, she did lie yesterday, and yes she lied today also.
Belema took a step forward, her shoulders rising and falling, her eyes fixed on Rebecca’s head. She seemed to contemplate taking it in one hand, dashing it against a rock. “Why? Tell us, or I’ll call the police.”
Samuel put his hand up. “That’s enough.”
“What did I tell you?” Belema exploded in a shriek of laughter, springing into a weird bounce. “Did I not say she was a liar? We’ve only started, we’ll soon get to the root of the matter.”
“I said enough.”
At that instant Rebecca turned to Samuel, lifting her upturned palms. “Oga, I beg you. Allow me to go, please. I won’t come back again.”
“Nonsense. Stand up. I said stand up!”
“Why in heaven’s name are you protecting her?” Belema asked in amazement. “We need to get to the bottom of this.”
“What you need to do is leave.”
There was silence for the briefest time. Both of them locked eyes, each as shocked as the other. For he had spoken in his doctor’s voice.
“Tell me you didn’t hear what she just said, the game she’s been playing.” Without waiting for a response, Belema froze, her eyes narrowing into slits. Snapping her fingers, shaking her head, she said, “No way! You can’t do this. You won’t dare!”
Samuel stared at her, his expression blank.
“You know what, take her,” Belema said. “Do whatever you want. You two deserve each other.” She turned around and stomped off, shrieking, “It’s not me you’ve shamed, that’s all I know, it’s not me.”
Samuel trailed behind. He was in no great hurry. He could have stopped her at anytime, but instead he watched, as the left heel of her shoe got caught between some stones, and snapped, as she lost her footing and stumbled, as she cursed. Limping to her car, she held the door open and turned back. “Just tell me one thing. Why waste my time? I mean if you knew you were going to…I don’t understand, it’s so beneath you, and I know you know it, at least I want to believe you do, but then again, you were never much of a man, were you, so who knows?”
There you go, Samuel said to himself. There you go.
“Real men know when to act,” she continued. “What do you ever do, tell me, what, besides hide behind that desk of yours, writing those complaint letters you call essays. A lazy, diplomatic …punk is what you are!”
Under his breath, Samuel said, “I’m so sorry I didn’t die.”
For a moment, Belema’s face went completely slack. She held him in her gaze, as though contemplating the actions of not a man, but a grotesque, netherworld creature. Her eyebrows arched high, her face crumpling as she let out a mad shriek that descended into a profanity-laden rant. And as if immediately recognising the futility of words on such an occasion, she stamped her foot, hocked and spat, a thick phlemgy missile that sailed in the air and landed smack on Samuel’s left shoulder. She slammed the car door and screeched away.
Forcing a smile, Samuel turned to go back in. For this was no time for sentiment. This he was doing for principle alone. If the girl was to heal then she needed a place conducive for that healing. He could provide that. Rippling underneath this knowledge, however, was a turbulence of terror. For he had known all his life of the duplicity that often corrupted good intentions, making possible the collapse of great nations, their schools becoming hotels and even brothels, their men laying waste to the very lands they had sworn to protect. Catching sight of Rebecca by the window, he froze.
Rebecca could hear faint voices outside, and deliberated whether or not to push back the curtains and take a peek. The shouting quickened her curiosity, and she scrambled to her feet. Standing by the window, fists clinched around black protector bars, she peered out into the darkness. She couldn’t see much of what was out there, but she heard the dull roar of a departing car, its twin headlights illuminating the dark road ahead. She saw Samuel turn towards the house, and stop, his eyes as wide as if he’d seen a ghost, his face pale. They locked eyes for a time, and only when he resumed his advance did Rebecca fall back, the curtains unravelling.
Zino Asalor is a writer of fiction and poetry, currently based in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. His work has been published in several literary magazines including Sentinel Nigeria, New Literati, Saraba Magazine and Glossolalia Flash. He is currently at work on his first novel.
An excerpt from this story was previously published by New Literati.