Editor’s note: This story is inspired by true events from the author’s hometown in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, but is fictitious by nature. It contains mature themes and some strong language. Reader discretion is advised.
On the evening of your wife’s thirtieth birthday, you sit in the dusk, and wonder where you are going to bury your daughter.
You are alone in your car, in the parking lot of the hospital. You’ve been there for almost two hours, carrying your daughter. Or rather, you’ve been carrying the shoebox she’s curled up in. It’s the shoebox for your old Adidas boots, the ones you keep in your car for when you play football on Saturday mornings.
There’s another box in the car, on the back seat – the box with your wife’s cake. The cake is still there, uncut, rich red velvet, her favourite. The cake, which was from you, was meant to be shared with her colleagues at her office. There are also two cards on the back seat, also from you. She had woken to find them by her bedside that morning. She didn’t know about the two more cards you’d planned to surprise her with that day. One card was already on her office desk (the day before, you’d given the card to Ehis, her colleague, to put it in place before she came in); and the other card was already at Baraka, where you’d planned to take her for dinner after work (the card would have been in the menu given to her). Your plan had been to drop her off at work, wait for her to call you when she saw the card, wait for second call when they delivered the small chops, wait for another call later in the day when they delivered the bracelet watch she always wanted, and take her to Baraka after work.
But her water broke that morning. In the middle of rush-hour traffic on Aba Road, worsened by a freak accident involving an overturned trailer sprawled out drunk and cutting the four lanes down to one, you had both sat, squeezed hands and prayed as the wet mark on her seat spread slowly. To escape the gridlock, you had driven gently on the curb, oblivious to the curses of pedestrians.
At the hospital, you were calm when they had told you that they couldn’t find a heartbeat. And when they said, they had to ‘evacuate’ your daughter from her, you’d simply nodded. She’d started crying, softly at first, then in piercing wails that echoed off the hospital’s walls and curdled blood. As you held her, told her that it would be OK, that another baby would come, you realised you were bullshitting.
It had taken five years of marriage and two IVFs to get this first pregnancy (despite doctors reiterating that you were both healthy). She had borne all of the suffering – the probing and poking by doctors, the numerous injections and the painful egg aspirations. All you’d had to do was produce sperm samples (and every time, she’d even helped blow you because you had an inexplicable and ridiculous mental block which made it impossible to wank in the fertility clinic).
Back at the hospital, you’d gone numb for the next few hours – through securing a room, calling her sisters, going back home to pack a bag for her, and the surgery. It was after the surgery, when she was still groggy, being fussed over by her sisters, that one of the doctors tapped you on the shoulder and led you out of the room.
“Sorry to bring this up now. But er…we need your decision on how to dispose…on what to do with…with your daughter. We can take care of her if you prefer, or we can give her to you…”
You took her.
They had brought her out intact. They cleaned her as best as they could before giving her to you. She was twenty-two weeks old: they said she was big, that she looked twenty-four weeks. She was swaddled in a hospital blanket, ashen, eyes closed, fists clenched, a slight but determined scowl as if death had been a minor irritation which she’d overcome. Maybe you were imagining it, but you felt she looked like your wife. Which was preferable since you considered yourself an ugly bastard. But you choose to believe she got something from you – hair. She was sprouting soft and curly wisps, which you’re pleasantly surprised to see.
Taking her was instinctive, like most decisions you make. You’d had a flash of them dumping her from a truck into an ugly landfill dotted with half-buried arms, legs, and eyeballs from other miscarried babies. You’d realised how silly and ignorant that thought was – but your mind was made. If your wife had been handling things, she would have asked them for specific details of their procedures before making an informed decision on what to do. But you are different, impulsive.
So she ended up in the shoebox, in the car, with you. You spent some of that time in silence. You didn’t cry. You really wanted to cry, knowing it would bring some temporary relief from the pain. But try as you did, you couldn’t. You talked to her about it. You told her it reminded you of the time, when you were ten years old, when your father died and you couldn’t cry. You still haven’t cried. You also talked to her about random things – about her clothes which your wife had ordered from the US, and her room which was just painted pink on Saturday. You touched her hair and told her you’d dreamed she’d have your hair, so you could both rock Afros and take selfies. You touched her cold cheeks. You called her name. Adesuwa. You did not pray.
Eventually, you realise you have to bury her. But where? You wanted somewhere close, but not too close. Somewhere you could visit occasionally. Somewhere quiet and intimate. Port Harcourt Cemetery was too run down and too public to be considered. You couldn’t bury her in the compound where you lived – you were a tenant in the left top-floor flat, in a building of six flats. Would you dig her up when you moved out? Besides, the compound’s floor was paved with interlocked stones, the ideal burial spaces were where cars are parked, and it was just too close for your wife.
You pick up your phone. You had thirteen missed calls from your main man, Ekiyor, while you sat in the car. You had put your phone on silent mode and refused to answer. Now you are ready to talk to Ekiyor. He may know what to do.
You call Ekiyor.
Two months after your eighteenth birthday, you, Ekiyor and Comfort are sitting in the living-room of a dingy house hidden somewhere in Woji. It’s the doctor’s house. The doctor is a portly man who can’t seem to keep still – his head bobbles; he tics, scratches, and gnashes gum.
He also can’t stop smiling. He unnerves and irritates you, and you hesitate before giving him the money for the procedure. The money is thirty thousand naira. To raise it, you and Ekiyor had saved; stolen (his mum’s jewelry, his father’s money, your mum’s wrappers); and sold personal stuff (your radio and late father’s watch). Ekiyor explained that it cost that much because Comfort was four months pregnant, and most doctors were scared to do it at that advanced stage (officially, it was illegal at any stage, and that was why it was common for it to be done outside hospitals, like this doctor’s house). This doctor was the only one who was willing to take the risk, but he refused to budge on his price. So you raised the money.
The doctor smiles as you give him the money. He tells you not to worry.
You’ve been worrying for two months, since you found out that Comfort was pregnant, and she wanted to keep it. She didn’t understand why you were so upset, or why you accused her of trying to ruin your life, or why you insisted that she got rid of it. She had expected you to be happy about it, because, as she reminded you, you always said you love her. You remember it differently. Yes you said you love her, but you only said it in the middle of sex, and in your book, that didn’t count. Besides, she was just a house-girl, Ekiyor’s family’s house-girl, definitely not the right person to raise your child. You don’t tell her this, but eventually it sinks in.
Looking back, you’d blame yourself for being naïve and stupid. Unlike Ekiyor, you’d had no game – you’d been tongue-tied around girls and a virgin. Comfort, ditzy but curvaceous, was the only girl who showed any interest in you (which was also strange because she’d rebuffed Ekiyor). Ekiyor had gingered you to go make a move, and even talked you through the words you were to drop. His system was from the lady-killers’ playbook – charm, chop, clean mouth, move on. But you abandoned the System (it just wasn’t you), and actually toasted Comfort, with your own words, in your awkward, bumbling, round-about way. When you told him, Ekiyor shook his head and advised, “Don’t treat an under-g like a girlfriend.”
But at first your burning hormones and Comfort’s ripeness were louder than his words. For a month, you drowned in the girl and the wild pleasures she taught you. Using the pretext of visiting Ekiyor every day (you were best friends from childhood and it was not unusual to stay at his house till late), you’d sneak into Comfort’s room in the BQ, wait till she finished her chores for the day.
Then it started to get boring, not because of the sex – after several embarrassing starts, the sex had grown into something porn stars would be envious of – but because of the vacuity of the girl. Then she had started asking for things you couldn’t give, like evening strolls or going to Mr. Biggs together. Then she began to say she loved you (before, during, and after sex), and drop subtle hints about a future for both of you. Then you remembered Ekiyor’s words.
You would use the resumption of school for second semester as an excuse to stop visiting. You would think you’d escaped. Until she sent a message through Ekiyor that she was pregnant: (luckily for you, Ekiyor’s mum, who would have sniffed out the pregnancy immediately after conception, was in the US for her MBA).
In the doctor’s house, Comfort is slouched in a low chair, legs spread apart. Her long ugly gown which meant to conceal, rests instead on her paunch, highlighting it. She’s crying, softly, and her swollen eyes make her face even puffier. You feel sorry for her, and you try to tell her this with your eyes but she refuses to look at you. It had taken a lot to convince her to do this.
At first you’d been gruff, and she refused. You’d learned to be a premium bastard – visiting her regularly, coaxing her, telling her you loved her – before she finally agreed. Even then you had to come along, to make sure she didn’t change her mind.
You also told her to give the doctor a fake name – Mercy. You’d explained that this was necessary because the procedure was illegal. It was a lie. You were scared that she might die on the operating table, and you didn’t want anything traced to you. You and Ekiyor had given fake names too – Paul and Peter. But you could sense that the doctor knew you were all lying. You could also sense that he didn’t care.
You watch the doctor as he counts the money. And it hits you that apart from the whir of his fingers, he is deathly still. After counting, he smiles his satisfaction that it is complete and rubs his palms briskly, almost joyfully.
“OK. Let’s start.”
That night, you bury Adesuwa in Ekiyor’s parents’ house in Old G.R.A.
It’s a house that had been a second home to you since you were little. The shoebox was the coffin, and before you close it, you take off your bead bracelet and place it in her tiny fists. You bury her in the garden, just under Ekiyor’s mum’s Calla Lilies. You used to help Ekiyor water and weed them when you were younger. You remember they used to be white, the common ones. Ekiyor’s mum must have planted a new, rarer bush blooming yellow and purple. You cut some flowers and place them on the small mound of earth.
On another day, Ekiyor’s mum would have given you an earful for cutting her flowers. Today, she stands behind you and dabs her eyes. Ekiyor’s father pats your shoulder. He had said a prayer when the shoebox was placed in the hole. You had played along out of respect for him, but you hadn’t bowed your head or said amen. You are still trying hard to cry but you’re too screwed up to.
Eventually, you all return to the verandah and sit in the garden chairs. You take your usual seat, which coincidentally faces the Calla Lilies. You stare at them. Ekiyor’s mum asks for the umpteenth time if she should get you something to eat. You shake your head. She follows your gaze, and says, “If you want, I can put a slab there. And maybe a tiny tombstone…”
Ekiyor replies, “Slab, ma. Small one. No tombstone.”
He looks at you for confirmation. You nod. He had read your mind perfectly.
“You should be beside your wife.” Ekiyor’s father says this gently but it is still a command. He says to Ekiyor, Take him back to the hospital.”
You recline the seat as low as it would go and ride in silence. Ekiyor turns from Herbert Macaulay into Nzimiro and rolls down the slight hill. He slows by the supermarket at the bottom of the hill but it’s past 10 p.m., and the supermarket is closed. He sighs, turns right at the Tjunction, heading up another hill into Ogbunabali. He apologises for the detour. “No vex. I wan buy cigar from aboki.”
He spies one and finds a space ahead of it to park. He double-parks, but that’s OK because Ogbunabali Road is the double-parking capital of the world, and it’s night anyway. You feel a sudden need for air so you walk with him to the corner-shack where he buys a pack of cigarettes. As you return to the car, you notice the grandiosely named Hollywood Boulevard Barbing Salon is still open. Pushed by another impulse, you walk in. It’s a tiny wooden shack decorated with crudely photo-shopped pictures of the barber cutting the hair of celebrities, including Obama and Nelly. The barber smiles his welcome and points you to a seat to wait your turn, as there’s a customer on the chair. You tell him you prefer to wait outside.
You join Ekiyor who’s leaning on his car and smoking contemplatively. You reach for his cigarette pack, take one out and light it. If he’s surprised, he doesn’t act it. You had quit months ago when your wife announced she was pregnant. You watch the wisp escape from the corner of your mouth. It tastes unfamiliar, even bitter. Maybe it’s because it’s Benson & Hedges – you were, or are a Dunhill man. You both watch the sparse traffic go by.
“You think this is God punishing me for…that…one with Comfort?”
Ekiyor cocks his head. “Oh yeah? So what’s He punishing your wife for?” When he said “punishing” he had made the air-quote gesture. He pinches the cigarette from his lips and pokes the air with it. “At least, with you, it was just one – Comfort. With me it was how many sef? Five? Six? So instead of punishing me, why did He bless me with two kids after I got married?” Then he sighs, and punches you playfully on your shoulder. “Don’t say ignorant shit just because you’re in pain.”
The barber pokes out his head and signals that he’s ready. As you walk into the barber’s shop, Ekiyor whispers, “You really need to learn how to grieve, Bro.”
And that’s how you cut your Afro.
You finally cry on the day your son is born.
But first, you have a row with the doctor who births him.
You and the doctor had a bit of history. You hadn’t known he was a doctor then. He showed up one day for weekend football at No. Six Field, in Port Harcourt’s Old Township. He wasn’t one of the regulars like you. You ended up in opposing teams in a five-a-side monkeyposts game, and your team immediately discovered that he was a quick, tricky dancer on the ball. Then he scored that goal. He slalomed past three in your team. You were the last man defending, but he turned you easily, twice, nutmegging you both times, sitting your yansh on the ground the latter time, before rolling the ball for the goal. It was a fantastic goal, and you wouldn’t have begrudged him scoring it…if not for how he celebrated, or rather, how he didn’t celebrate. You would have preferred him to smile, laugh, pump a fist, run round screaming. He just popped his collar and did an insouciant half-shrug – almost like Cantona vs. Sunderland in ’96. And you dislike Manchester United, and everyone associated with it.
So, when later, he went on another mazy run, you sliding-tackle him, hard.
There are no written rules for weekend football, but there are certain unspoken understandings. Since it was recreational, played by guys with regular jobs and businesses, it was understood that there was no place for hard tackling. Your tackle would have deserved a straight red card in any official match, but there are no referees in weekend football. Luckily for him, he anticipated it and jumped, so the force had ended up only winding him rather than realigning his ankles. You wanted to apologise immediately, but he got up and pushed you, so you pushed back, and a ruckus ensued, and the game ended, and guy-men got in their cars and went home, and there were no usual post-game beers.
And two months later, when your wife’s contractions start at past 6 p.m., and you take her to the hospital, and she insists on seeing Dr. Tonse, her doctor, (the one who she had repeatedly told you had managed this pregnancy professionally and with great kindness), and you join her in asking for Dr. Tonse, and they call Dr. Tonse who wasn’t meant to be on call that night, and he comes in, and you recognize each other from that day on the football field. And time stops.
You manage to mumble an apology for the tackle, and he arrogantly grunts an indistinct response. Neither of you is satisfied, and the mutual loathing continues. And suddenly, you realise how many times this man has seen your wife vulnerable, and even examined her. And you dislike him even more. So when your wife says she’s feeling intense pain in her back during each contraction and wants to start pushing, and he chuckles and says she’s not ready, you think he’s flippant. And you say so. His riposte is bruising – he ignores you.
Her labour is a brutal fourteen hours. He comes in several times to calm and reassure her, he even makes her laugh. When it’s time to take her into the theatre, he lets you in with her but warns you not to be “disruptive”. You think he’s condescending but you hold yourself from saying so. Things come to a head when you ask him to give her an epidural (you had seen 2 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, you had Google, and so you knew everything). He ignores you again. You repeat your request. He says no. You tell him you’re dissatisfied with his conduct and you want to make a complaint to his superiors. That’s when he calmly tells you to fuck off. It wasn’t just a telling off, it was also an order. They eject you from the theatre. Much later you would learn that he was wary about the epidural because of your wife’s low blood pressure, and that he had no superiors because he partly-owned the hospital.
A few minutes before 8 a.m., he walks out of the theatre to the Waiting Room where you and Ekiyor have spent a sleepless night. You both stand up when you see him. His smile is tired but genuine. “Congratulations…”
And that’s when you start crying.
You’re all surprised by the suddenness and intensity of the tears. Your first thought is that your rep was being damaged because you were crying in front of the doctor. But within a minute, the damage becomes irreparable. Your face is wet, tears and snot flowing in torrents. Ekiyor leads you back to your seat. He and Tonse sit on both sides of you, pat your wracking shoulders occasionally, but don’t say anything. Knowing your story, they assume these are tears of joy and relief. They’re wrong.
It’s your wife who understands why you cry. As you hug her still lying on the bed, she knows you’ve not even acknowledged your son. She knows you are crying for your late father, for Comfort, for the unnamed one, and for Adesuwa.
‘‘It’s going to be OK,” she whispers. “It’s going to be OK.”