The Screaming and the Darkness
It is a cold harmattan morning. The air is brisk and I do not know how I will endure the icy water but I do not have a choice. I cannot heat water since I’ve run out of kerosene. I wrap my favourite Bugz themed towel above my breasts. I pick up my bathroom things—soap, a sponge, face wash, feminine wash and a bucket of water I’d drawn from the well earlier and head to the outdoor bathroom I share with my neighbours. I climb three rickety steps leading up to a worn, weather beaten door which I shut firmly behind me and drape the towel on a clothesline tied across the door to hide away from prying eyes. I turn my back to the pit latrine and hold my breath in pauses until I get used to the unpleasant smell.
I look around. The walls are cracked and painted green with spirogyra. I peer at each crack and pray that today at least, I will be spared the emergence of long red worms slithering out from the cracks. I think absently that what I should really be praying about is the result of the task I have on hand.
I squat, gingerly I place the bowl I normally use to scoop water under my pelvis and pee. I wonder if what I have is enough. Whatever, it will have to do. I take the packet I have in my hand and study the words written on it in tiny script—home test pregnancy kit. I tear the foil and carefully, I take out the thin stick. It looks like plasticized paper and I wonder if I can believe the verdict of several pieces of paper stuck together, and acknowledge that I am only preparing myself for what I already know, laying the foundation for doubt, doubt that I know my commonsense will override. I dip the stick in the urine, and the wait begins. The instructions say three minutes. As I wait and try to estimate three minutes, I reflect that three minutes can seem like three hours when you are waiting for the doctor, when you are starving and waiting for your microwave dinner. In my present reality, three minutes is an eternity. I glance everywhere but at the interaction between the dubious strip and my urine, partly to reassure myself about the absence of worms, but mostly to avoid tracking the progress of the red line on the strip with my eyes, the line that when it hits and exceeds the black bar, I will know I am in soup.
Finally, I can no longer avoid the moment of truth. I pull the strip out of the urine and study it. I feel faint. The thing about expectation is that it can never measure to the moment it becomes reality, fact. For instance, the fact here and now is that I have a baby growing in my belly and all I feel is a sense of un-realness. I am numb and I think that this is just fine. Better numb than succumb to the emotions clamouring inside and threatening to explode in the only way I think they would, tears. Panicked tears. And fear. Unalloyed fear.
I pull myself together and have a bath. I dress slowly wondering whether or not it is too early to dress pregnant. Should I wear something loose? Perhaps if I wore something really tight, I might choke the little unwanted mass of cells inside me to death. I think how lucky it is to have a miscarriage when you don’t really want a baby, this thought followed closely by another, the horror that a person who has experienced a miscarriage would feel if they could hear me. I realize I am investing too much thought in this matter. This is the last thing I want to do. I want to blank.
I pick up the phone and dial a number. When I hear a cheerful “hey you” from the other end, I say in a quiet voice that will become husky in a minute “Are you home? Can I come?” He says sure and I leave the house. I hail a bike and mount it. Suddenly I suffer a keen awareness of my environment. I see the streets as I have never seen them before, in stark relief. The beggars, the hawkers, minute details like the tear in the right sleeve of a police officer’s uniform and the way he seems uncertain whether or not the fight between two agberos (hoodlums) nearby falls within the scope of his duties. I watch as he shrugs and turns his face away and I wonder if perhaps he has a wife who is about to tell him she is pregnant. But he appears too young to have a wife so I decide it is a girlfriend then. I am cheered by this idea that he might have a girlfriend who will rock his life tonight with the news of an unwanted baby. I like the idea that somebody else in this world will have baby drama on their hands. I am so enchanted by this picture that I giggle and the okada man turns and says “Madam, any problem?” but I ignore him, pretend his voice has been blown away by the wind sailing past our ears. The trash, strewn on the embankment where Mayne Avenue braches off from Goldie Street, gets my full attention. I imagine the person who must have crept here at dawn, furtively glanced left and right and dumped the waste, moving away and disassociating herself from the mess. I realize belatedly that I have assumed it is a woman. I struggle with the image. I prefer the idea that it is a man but somehow, a part of my brain insists that it is a woman and I simply do not have the energy to fight so I let it go, accept the gender stereotype.
As the bike turns into Akin’s street, it occurs to me that I have not thought my tactic through, the exact words I will use to phrase my less-than-welcome announcement. I alight and cross the road to the other side. A woman hawking bread and akara (bean-cake) on a tray smiles at me and I wonder why. Do I already have the famed pregnancy glow? I look at my skin and it looks the same, dull, brown. I shrug and enter the olive green, fenced two-storey building through the pedestrian gate which is swinging half open. I pass by the side of the main building, flattening myself between a white V-Boot Mercedes Benz and the side of the building. I wonder why people park like that and what would happen if one of the neighbours was blessed with generous proportions?
Behind the main house is a little self-contained, also olive green, sort of like an extension of the main house. The front door is also half open and I knock half-heartedly, wondering what the point is. Surely an open door implied that any wandering stranger was welcome. I had spoken to Akin about this but he’d said “Haba, you worry too much. Calabar is safe” then added playfully “one would think you were the Lagosian and I the omo Igbo”. Omo Igbo was said in a playful manner. He was adopting the annoying imprecise assumption of people from the west, who either presumed that everyone from east of the Niger, even as far down as the south-south were Igbos, or simply could not be bothered to make the distinction. It rankled, this offhand and lazy lumping together of a rich variety of, and very diverse people and there was a hint of snobbishness in this. The term also had a derogatory nuance to it that only people from the east and further down bordering the Atlantic were able to detect.
Akin answers my knock from deep inside, the kitchen perhaps, and I bend to unlace and remove my sneakers, open the screen. I step into the room and my feet sink into the rich, red pile rug. I often joke that when Akin leaves after his service year, returns to Lagos, I would keep the rug. He would retort with a pretend hurt expression “you are more interested in keeping the rug than me abi?” To which I would say “you will stay if you want to. You need to be kept?”, bracketing the word kept in quote by holding my hands up, bending them at the elbows and cocking my index fingers in a gesture that mimicked the quotation mark.
Akin meets me halfway into the room and hugs me. He smells fresh, I catch a whiff of Irish spring, icy blast bathing soap and although he is wearing blue jeans, it is obvious he has just emerged from the shower. He is shirtless. His skin is damp and whitish and water droplets chase each other down his back. I hug him back, my arms tighten involuntarily around his shoulders and when I release him, he has a puzzled frown on his face. “Is everything okay?” he asks me and looks so boyish, so innocent and free that I decide to postpone the inevitable a little longer.
The bed is unmade, this narrow queen-sized bed on which we conceived this baby I now carry. Everything takes on a surreal quality. I stare at the bed, the wardrobe spilling over with his clothes, tennis shoes and Timberland boots flung into a corner, by the laundry basket. It all seems so unfamiliar. I feel out of place here, detached. I think that the spider crawling on the wall by the pillow belongs here more than me. Even the memory of our bodies, Akin’s and mine, sweaty, entwined on the bed fails to evoke any recollection.
Akin is expansive, offering me juice, shortbread and ending with “haba, you are not a guest here now? Help yourself.” I think I have made him uncomfortable with my silence, my strained smiles, my furtiveness. He would never offer me a drink otherwise. He would yank me to the bed and tickle me. We would play-fight, we would kiss, our clothes would fall off our bodies of their own volition, we would fuck, a frenzied coupling, sweaty bodies making 'slapslap' sounds, nails raking each other’s backs, choking sobs that started in one mouth and ended in the other, and finally we would calm. A hazy languor. We would pick a movie to watch or a topic to fight over. But Akin would never offer me a drink in formal tones. Not even on that first day, when I came here looking for an apartment to rent and ended up in a stranger’s bed.
I tell him I do not want a drink and as I catch snatches on the TV of the Occupy Nigeria protests in progress in various parts of the country, notably Lagos, I am glad for the distraction. We talk about the fuel subsidy removal and for once we are in perfect agreement—it is an evil.
“Do you believe what they say that there are almost a million people in Ojota?” he asks, pointing the remote at the TV and preparing to change channels.
“Would you believe it if I told you I was pregnant?” I blurt before I even realize what I am saying.
His hand freezes mid-motion, his eyes are still glued to the screen and the silence that hangs in the air is thicker than a coalescing thunder cloud, and it looms as menacingly. The only indication of the turmoil that must be going on inside him is his left eyelid which begins to twitch. After what seems like a lifetime, he blinks, faces me and his expression is unreadable.
“Are you sure?”
I rummage in my bag and produce the test strip. I also hand him the foil to read the instructions so he understands what he is looking at. He does not bother with them. He gathers me in his arms, tucks my head in the crook of his shoulder and says the words I least expect. Of course we will have the baby. He will go ahead and take up the job offer he had turned down, he will stay on here in Calabar and I have to move in with him. Of course his family will be upset but they will understand. His words come in a jumble, running into and over each other, his panic is evident. I feel hot wet on my cheek and realize he is crying. Fat, silent tears that will wash away his dreams, and leave in their wake the harsh glare of reality. I pull away from him and inform him that I am flattered but of course we cannot have the child. You see, Akin and I have a strange relationship.
I fell in love with him almost immediately—his fresh, almost innocent outlook tempered my cynicism, his devil-may-care attitude challenged my meticulousness, he was uninhibited, mercurial and the antithesis of all that I was. To me he was the essence of glamour and I was happy to be swept up and away in the tide of his exuberance. And I was crushed when I realized that although he cared very deeply for me, he admitted that he did not feel what I felt and did not think he ever would. I did not have the strength to walk away so I lived everyday on that precipice, catching every gust of wind, every drop of dew that was being with Akin, and frightened for the day it would all end, when I would crash onto the rocks below and shatter into a hundred broken pieces. Akin was blithe, taking every day as it came; I was tied up in knots, wishing away the inevitable.
Now it was here and as I looked at him, I knew I would not have the heart to destroy all that I loved in this man as making him a father surely would. In the drama unfolding in that part of the brain reserved for fanciful longings, I tried to cast him in the role of husband and father, bringing home the paycheck and kissing the baby and me. My mind had a mind of its own, presenting me the image of a crushed, insipid, defeated and sometimes angry man, with drooping shoulders and a turned down mouth. I also tried, and failed, to imagine the patter of little feet here, toys strewn around these cramped quarters. With a sigh I stand, heave my bag on my shoulder and tell Akin I will have an abortion.
The next three weeks were hell. Akin was having none of it. He had heard that babies brought love into the home where there was none, he was willing to make the effort, true this was not his plan but now he wanted the baby more than anything in the world. When I reminded him that we had no money, none at all, he said his parents would help. I laughed bitterly. I could see it, two aged parents waiting for their pension checks, waiting for their only child who came to them so late in life to deliver them, arriving with a burden of his own. Finally, he told me he had an interview with an oil servicing firm and we agreed that if he got the job and the first hurdle was out of the way, we would explore the possibility. I felt hope sprout in my breast and I allowed myself dream of a life with Akin that I had not allowed myself indulge in. I allowed myself acknowledge the life growing inside me and wondering what it would look like, what sex, who it would resemble.
We waited for another three weeks to hear from the company. We held hands and prayed, we planned, we rented a house in our fantasies, bought a cot and toys, picked names, picked schools, and prayed some more. Surely God knew that it was a bigger crime to bring to the world a child we were completely unprepared for, surely he would help us keep this child.
I was now eight weeks gone and could not wait any longer. I draped a scarf around my head in a dramatic gesture of mourning, and a tighter one around my heart. I shook Akin’s fingers off my wrists, yelling that I grew up poor and I will not condemn my child to such a nightmare, and strode out of his room and took a cab to the clinic. I carefully blocked my head of thoughts as I passed the colonnaded veranda and mounted the steps that led to the waiting area. My legs shook but my hands were firm as I filled out the forms. I donned the green surgical gown which was open at the back.
The doctor, a young man with black framed glasses who looked like he might be doing his housemanship, was the attending physician. He exuded bonhomie and chatted incessantly, placing my feet in the stirrups and brandishing the tools, explaining what dilation and curettage meant, which apparatus would do what until I wanted to scream at him, tell him that as I lay on that bed, I was lying in the grave I had dug, and as my naked buttocks touched the macintosh-draped surface, the chill went beyond to my heart, gripped it in a vice and stayed there and did he not know this!
My phone rang deep in my bag and the doctor looked up from the syringe he was drawing, surprised. I ignored it. Several rings followed, interspersed with beeps indicating receipt of text messages. I finally jumped off the bed, dug out the phone and turned it off. My last thoughts, whirling round and round my head as the anaesthetic hit were I’m sorry, over and over in an unending loop.
I woke up groggy and alone, having no concept of time or place. Everything was unfamiliar. Then in a flash, it came to me slowly and I felt suddenly small, frail and alone. I realized that I should have made plans to get home, should at least have told Akin the name of the hospital. I had hoarded this and the reason was now no longer clear. I just needed to get home. I needed Akin. I switched on the phone, ignored the messages and called him. He answered on the first ring sounding agitated.
“Where did you keep your phone?” and without waiting for a response, “Have you done it?”
“Yes,” I whispered. “Can you come and take me home please?”
“Anie, I got the job.”
The phone drops from my nerveless fingers, the walls close in bringing the darkness. And the screams begin.