It hurt. The tightness in her back and leg muscles, it really hurt. She stopped in a semi-crouch, her knees supporting her hands while she gulped in loads of the cold night air.
Her vision was blurred by sweat, tears and grime. But still, she saw it – the light. Yellow and enchanting, it beckoned on her. Another round of pain tore through her. It streaked through like lightning, setting all her nerves afire. Her hands bunched the material of her gown in an effort to contain the pain. But it was in vain because a wail escaped her lips.
Somebody coughed, and another person laughed out loud. The old woman who sold akara in the stall by the side of the road slowly packed up her utensils. The man in the LASTMA uniform withdrew his foot just in time to avoid losing it to an onrushing taxi. Then he crossed the road, and hopped into the waiting maruwa which zoomed off, a cloud of exhaust smoke in its wake. The short girl angrily waved the smoke away from her face; she yelled expletives at the back of the commercial tricycle and even ran a few feet after it. But the empty tray clutched under her armpit was too heavy, and her skirt too tight; so she stopped and threw a pebble instead.
It was well past 9pm, but the slums of Agege was still milling with people, bustling about different businesses. Nobody noticed her; nobody spared a second glance for the pregnant woman in the dirty gown who slowly drew herself up to a standing position.
Her knees shook with the effort, but she steeled herself. With her eyes set on the light, she clutched the straps of her Kasuma hold-all tighter, and took another step forward.
Kalu reached over for her hand and squeezed it in mute solidarity. She looked at him and smiled. It was better not talked about, the indignities they had undergone in the past hour. The prodding, spreading, jerking and screening; they wouldn’t talk about it, not even when they were alone.
The inner door swung open and their heads snapped up to face him. The doctor took his seat and shuffled the papers in the file he had just walked in with.
Efe felt her heart drop into the gloomy depths of her belly. It was empty still, so there was room. She knew even before he said it, that he hadn’t found anything wrong with them. The doctor was, sadly, a good man. She watched as his finger twitched, then he shifted in his chair, tugged at his tie and cleared his throat. It was the same routine, every time he came back with her pregnancy test results.
Twitch…shift…tug…ahem! “I am very sorry, madam but…”
She didn’t wait to hear it this time. She dragged her hand away and burst out into the hospital hallway. Kalu was yelling for her to stop but she couldn’t. The tears dropped as she ran…
A party was in full swing. Shingles dangled from the roof onto the floor in front of the building, and there were cracks and crevices in the unplastered wall. It looked ready to collapse any minute, but loud music blasted from within it.
The words came to her:
…door, door, borrow borrow tux
Flawa wey I tief plus
A rickety boom box
Boom boom boom baby, boom boom box…
The other houses lining the tiny paved street varied in size, but were just as ramshackle. She walked on.
A bright-colored bungalow to her left had soft lights, and the music was slow. A couple skipped over the narrow gutter in front and walked into the building; the man had his hand on the lady’s bum. A young girl in a yellow gown stood off to a corner puffing on a cigarette. She didn’t seem to care that the strong night air and the sheer material of her gown united to keep her body contours on arrogant display. Another girl in a pink miniskirt was talking to the driver of a blue Volvo through the wound down passenger window. Her skirt had hiked up, the flesh of her thighs and lower buttocks jiggled as she shifted her weight from one heel to the other.
Nobody seemed to notice the pregnant woman who stopped suddenly on the sandy edges of the narrow road. Nobody saw as she dumped her black bag in the dust, and her face contorted into an ugly mask. The pain this time was murderous in its intensity. She tried to stoop again, it hurt too much. She tried to stand, but a sharp pain stopped her mid-move.
She felt wetness, cold and unfeeling between her thighs; she had to keep moving. The light was still up there, closer. She willed her legs to move, to take her there, but they crumbled beneath her. She fell on her belly, bounced once and fell over to her side. Still.
The prostitute in the pink skirt got into the Volvo, and they zoomed off. A brown Peugeot with Federal Government plate numbers rolled up in front of the other one. A motorbike zoomed by.
Mama threw another handful of clothes at her. A belt buckle hit Efe in the jaw but she didn’t feel the stinging pain. She only had eyes for Kalu who stood by and did nothing. Chikaodi appeared at the door, half-dragging half-carrying another of Efe’s suitcases.
“What?” Mama yelled. “Chika, drop it immediately. Kalu, get that bag from her, or do you want to lose your baby?”
Kalu stood like a human statue. His hands were in the pockets of a pair of brown chinos, his back was against the wall and his head was bent. A grieving human statue.
Mama let out a loud hiss and snatched the bag from Chikaodi herself. The girl straightened, and walked over to stand by Kalu. Her gait was sluggish and her left hand moved in slow circles over the mound of her pregnant belly.
The gateman came fast. “M-m-maa?” he answered, his blue beret clutched against the chest of his white uniform shirt.
“Enhen,” Mama puffed, “take these bags, all of them, and throw them outside. Then come and take this woman too.”
“Errr…” Tunde stuttered, “you-you say…”
“Are you deaf? My friend, do as I say before I lose my temper.” Livid with rage, the older woman was scary and Efe couldn’t help feeling a tinge of pity for her loyal gateman. Tunde darted a desperate look at his madam but her eyes were on Kalu. Tunde looked at his oga. Kalu did not move.
“Are you still standing there?” Mama screeched and advanced on him.
“So-so-sorry ma,” Tunde yelled as the first slap connected with his bald head. He grabbed the nearest suitcase and turned it towards the gate.
Efe had seen a lot coming. She had long expected it before Mama came visiting with the shy Chikaodi in tow. Just for the holidays, she had said. Kalu swore the girl was his second cousin but Efe wasn’t stupid; she saw the gowns the child wore, how the tips of her breasts proudly challenged anyone through them, and how her waist shimmied from side to side every time she served her husband’s food. Efe also saw the effect it had on Kalu.
She had long expected it before she came home that night to the sound of banging and moaning in the visitor’s room. She hadn’t had the courage to look. She had also expected it before Kalu began to slip out of their bed in the middle of the night.
She had seen it coming long before Kalu came to her with tears in his eyes, blubbering about infidelity and the child he had lodged in his ‘cousin’s womb. She had no blames in her heart for him, only pain. His betrayal of their vows hurt her deeply, but what she mourned most was her inadequacy to give her husband the one thing they both wanted most. So they agreed to take mother and child in, she had expected that too.
But she hadn’t expected to return from the doctor’s to find she was being thrown out and Kalu standing by while it happened. He didn’t lift a finger, much less say a word. It was the only thing that kept her straining over her shoulders while Tunde led her to the gate.
Her purse wasn’t among the bags thrown outside. It contained her phones, money and the pregnancy test result she had just gotten. It was then Efe remembered that she hadn’t told him, he didn’t know she was pregnant with their child. Finally.
So she had gone back to pound on the gate. She had pounded and yelled until she heard the lock snap back. She was going to push past Tunde and run back in. But it was Kalu who appeared at the gate.
“Hi,” she smiled through her tears at him. Her heart pounded with hope, “I knew you would come…”
No, she hadn’t heard right. “What?” she rasped, “but I’m…”
“Just go, Efe,” Kalu said again. His eyes stared over her shoulder, “go please.”
Then he pushed her.
“Puuuusshhhhh! Come on madam, wake up!”
“Ahn ahn, suffri suffri joor. You wan kill am?”
Efe was numb with pain, all she wanted to do was coil up and go to sleep. But this other lady wouldn’t let her.
Madam Glad, she said her name was, and she ran the brothel. The man with them would have paid any price to be elsewhere. A respectable and well married medical doctor, he had been seeking forbidden pleasures in the wrong place at the right time.
“Calm down, doc,” Madam Glad soothed him. “Na just belle she get, no be kpuruke.”
“Just take her to a hospital for Chrissakes,” he railed. Sweat ran down his face in rivulets, his starched kaftan was soaked through at the armpits.
“Time no dey again nah, you sef talk am,” Madam Glad countered. “Enhen see am,” she pointed, “e don dey show again.”
Doc took a look, and she was right, the baby was crowning even more pronouncedly than the last time. “Shit!”
He rolled up his sleeves and knelt before Efe’s open thighs. He was calling for hot water and more towels when she passed out.
“Girlie oh!” someone was yelling in her face. Efe cringed as a deluge of icy water rained on her face. “E don do!” she heard Madam Glad yell, “she be like fish for your eye?”
Efe opened her eyes. The light from the naked bulb was too bright so she shut them.
“Listen to me, young lady,” the doctor was saying to her, “what is your name?”
She opened her eyes. He was younger than she remembered from before she passed out. His handsome features were ruined by anxiety as he stood over her.
“Splendid!” He swept one folded sleeve across his dripping brows. “Efe, listen to me. You need to work with me on this so we can get you and your baby…” He was interrupted by some commotion at the door.
“Maama,” one of the girls yelled, “see this bros oh!”
“Wetin?” Madam Glad turned from her post beside Efe’s head as a figure burst forward into the room. He stopped just shy of the foot of the bed and Efe gasped sharply.
“You know am?” Madam Glad asked her.
He had lost an awful lot of weight, and his hair was unkempt. But it was him – Kalu – standing in the room. Efe hardly believed it.
Madam Glad asked her again if she knew him and she nodded yes.
He was sobbing like a child, “I’ve been looking, Efe…everywhere…”
Efe didn’t want to hear. In that moment, brimming with their child, nothing else mattered to her. All she wanted was to feel him by her side, the father of her child. She raised her hand towards him, beckoned. Kalu hesitated for a minute, unsure.
“Shuu! Collect the hand ni,” Madam Glad bellowed, “fear dey catch you?”
He grabbed her hand, and held on gingerly. Efe squeezed tight. He was really here, in flesh. Kalu. He raised her hand to his lips and she felt a rush of strength.
The doctor still stood over her, as confused as he was agitated. Efe blinked away the last of the tears from her eyes. Then she pushed.
A very ‘WAW’ Christmas to you
– Chisom Ojukwu