Photo by JOHN VATER
NNEKA WENT to work in spite of what happened the previous day. Yesterday, she arrived at work and stared blankly at the Finacle software after she tried to log in for the fourth time. The veracity of the whispers she heard had suddenly dawned on her—the whispers of people being sacked, whispers of banks being shut down and sold to investors, whispers of senior staff summoned to Lagos for voluntary but compulsory retirement.
The following morning, a gust of cold air hit her face as she stepped into the bank’s entrance hall. She felt like a stranger to the pristine orderliness around her—the potted flowers in ceramic vases, the marble stamped with the bank’s insignia, the marbled pillars which stood in neat rows like sentries. She looked up and saw Julia, the secretary, who looked at her funny, as if she was not supposed to be at work.
“Have you been able to log in yet?” Julia asked, walking up to her.
The cold gust had spread to her innards; she could feel them turn frosty. She walked briskly to her desk, switched on her desktop computer and bit her nails as it creaked into life, booting. Julia came to sit beside her, muttering something about termination letters to be distributed to some staff that evening, and how Doris, the Cash Manager, had been crying that she was probably affected.
Nneka tapped the Enter key on her keyboard; the damn computer was taking ages to boot. The Windows Prompt finally appeared. She typed in her username and password, clicked Enter, shrank back into her seat, her heart thudding and her lips quivering as it attempted to log her in. Julia was still talking and talking. Nneka wanted to shut her up, perhaps shove a clenched fist into her mouth.
Then the computer displayed “Welcome.”
Julia said, “Oh, okay”, then left.
Nneka stared, mouth agape, as if she hadn’t expected to be logged in. And when her Microsoft Outlook loaded up with her mails, she lowered her head to her table and began to cry.
They said it was spiritual attack. That uncle Emeka had attacked Mama with juju because of a land dispute between him and Papa. On that evening in June when she returned from tilling the land, she did not respond to my greeting. Instead she stared curiously like I was a stranger.
“Mama? What is it?” I asked, picking up the bag she had dropped on the floor. I tried to hold her hand, but she slapped my hands off.
“Rapum! Leave me alone!” She shoved her way into the sitting room, untying and tying her wrapper. “Leave me alone!”
“Mama, what is it?”
She ran into the room she shared with Papa. I chased after her, held her hand but she shoved me away with a force that slammed me into the wall. The floor shifted under my feet, strength whooshed out of me, buckling my knees. Then her face became sullen, like she wanted to cry. She opened her mouth, as if to speak, but a scream tore out of her instead. Then she fell. Her head hit the bedpost.
It all happened in minutes. The neighbours pushed the door open. Some of them pried my hands from Mama’s body. Others grabbed Mama, carrying her up. I wrestled with the person who held me. She held me tightly, pleading that I stop crying, that I stop fighting. And then the ground seemed to cave in and I was falling into that same maw that had taken Mama. Only the admonishing voices of the neighbours held me back.
Mama died that night. She was buried the following week, and after we returned from the ceremony, Papa went into their room and could not get up from the bed by himself.
Work became a routine. Every day she woke up with little memory of the day before. She only looked forward to the next day, when she would be able to log into her computer. Fear got her pregnant, and it kicked each time she walked into the office, each time she switched on her computer.
It went on until the following weekend when Edward Olaloye, the new branch manager, came. Edward waltzed into the banking hall, all perfect—black suit, sky blue shirt, deep red tie, polished shoes, sparkling teeth and glasses. He walked from table to table, neck craned high, back board-straight, a smile plastered on his face as he shook hands, nodded in greeting, introduced himself as “your brother from Ogun State.”
Nneka felt her fear shrink to the size of a peanut. He came, carrying hope in his hands, and confidence tucked neatly under his belt. She smiled, not because there was need to smile, or that it would restrain the bank’s management from dismissing more staff. But it felt good to smile again, to have the weight lifted off her chest, making her lighter until she heard herself laugh. She realized then that it had been weeks since she last laughed.
He said things she did not expect. “This town is brain dead. I haven’t been here one minute and I see it already. The bad roads. The sad faces. The washed-out girls. The foul-mouthed drivers.” He whirled on his feet, hands in pockets, as if to catch everyone’s attention. “And I got stuck in the traffic for four hours. It wasn’t the bloody soldiers collecting money from the buses this time, but a huge gully that sat in the middle of the expressway. A truck had fallen in it! Jesus, guys, don’t you even have a governor? Oh, don’t answer that. I saw his grinning poster on a billboard straddling a waste-bin.”
That evening, after he had settled into his office, he walked up to her. “Hey, Pretty. What are you again?”
“The CSO, sir.” Nneka got up from her desk, patted down her navy blue dress, tucked in her hair behind her ears, and smiled.
“Customer Service Officer, sir.”
“I just wanted you to say it properly. It sounds prestigious when you say it properly.” He smiled. She crossed her arms over her chest, and dropped them again to her sides. He stared at her. She stared at his shoulder, at his chest, at his hands. He was still watching. She stared at the spot between his brows. “How long have you been here?”
“Three years…Three years, sir.”
He nodded, and left. She sat down. Exhaled. He reminded her so much of her father, of who he used to be. His eyes. His voice. They reminded her of her father.
Sudden sadness enveloped her, sucking away the moment’s brightness.
Edward called her Pretty. It wasn’t offensive. It wasn’t glaring. Just comfortable, like a name her father could call her. He praised her weekly reports, gave her a ride to her junction at close of business in the evenings, and applauded her service improvement recommendations each morning. By the second week, he paid for her lunch at the canteen, until her colleagues noticed. Until he began to join her at the canteen each time she was there. Two of them, sitting side by side. Chatting over a meal. Talking work. Books. Politics. He had studied at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, back when graduates could still write proper formal letters. He got his Masters from Harvard and realised that there were no schools in Nigeria, just pretend-institutions milking their students. He worked with Savannah Bank until Nigerian politics crippled it. He worshipped Fela, Rex Lawson, Ebenezer Obey and Osita Osadebe. Those were the true musicians. He used to like Onyeka Onwenu, until she began to sing for every fucker that had enough money to spray. And how is she now any different from Oliver de Coque? He was an Awoist. She was a Biafran Loyalist. They never fought over it. And soon, she could look him in the eyes. And he smiled each time she did. She still called him Sir. He still called her Pretty.
One afternoon, while she ate chicken and chips, he walked in, stopped by the door and said, “I am so hungry, but work won’t let me.” He had his phones in one hand and a file in the other hand. “You mind?” He asked, bending over, his mouth drawing closer. “Just a piece of the potato chips?” He had sincere eyes. His mouth hung open, waiting. She took a piece of the potato, dipped it in ketchup and slid it into his waiting mouth. Her fingers brushed his lips. He blinked. She drew back her hand. He pulled back, chewing slowly, eyes glazed over with something she could not give a name. After he left, she realized that she was still rubbing her fingers together, the ones that had touched his lips.
That evening, after the close of business, he came down from his office, stood in the middle of the hall and said, “We should always celebrate TGIF. We should make it a tradition.” He groped in his pocket, brought out his wallet. “Suya and drinks, on me!”
Staff members hooted in excitement, clapping and coming forward to shake his hands. And as everyone gathered around him, he held her eyes, smiled, and then winked.
Her hands stiffened. She stopped smiling.
She sat back on her chair and could not hold his eyes again. And when he climbed up to his office again, she picked up her bag and left the office.
“You are home early. Is everything all right?” Papa asked. He stood by the door.
“You are up, Papa!” I hugged him. “I told them I wasn’t feeling too well.”
“You don’t have to lie because of me. I am doing fine, better even.” He pulled away. “You shouldn’t lie next time, okay?”
“Papa, let’s go in.”
I held his hand. He placed one foot gingerly in front of the other, panting as we walked. His hands trembled, his forehead creased in strain. Five minutes later, we finally got to the sitting room. I wanted to ask how he had made it to the door and how long he had been standing there before I unlocked the door. But he held unto the edge of his chair, moaning as he lowered himself into the chair.
“How is it, Papa?”
“You are not my mother!” He said. “You are my child. Stop fussing!”
He shut his eyes, brows crumpled in concentration. A pulse throbbed on the side of his neck and his lips were a thin line. There was no need for words, for what would it matter when he would never admit that it got worse each day. After he opened his eyes, he reached forward and held my cheek with one scaly palm. His eyes said he was sorry for his terse comment. I held that hand in place on my cheek.
“You have taken your afternoon drugs?” I asked.
“No. It makes me sleep too much. I don’t want to be asleep and not hear you knock.”
“But I have my own key, Papa. You need your drugs.”
“I don’t.” He took a deep breath, chest rising and falling. His shirt’s armpit was sweat-stained. “I don’t want to take them anymore,” he said. “It doesn’t lessen the pain, Nneka.”
I got up and went into the bedroom to undress. The room was warm and had the same smell that clung to Papa’s skin. It was not sweat. It was not the drugs. It was a strange smell, like a mixture of both. I opened up the windows and stood beside it as cool air rushed into the room, chasing the strange smell away, chasing my pensiveness away.
There had been no power for weeks and we had to rely on the lamp I charged each day at the office.
I opened the back door for better ventilation. The generator stood by the door, and for a minute I wondered if Papa had stumbled into it. The plug lay afar from the engine, as if it had been kicked away. I returned to the room, and switched on the lamp. Papa opened his eyes.
“Is that NEPA?”
“No, Papa.” I laughed. “You ask that every day.”
“Do I?” His eyes went vacant, and then he laughed, a weak, parched cackle that flopped around the room.
“You have caught a cold. I will get you cough syrup this evening.”
“It will go away, this child. I have told you to stop treating me like a child.”
“Yes sir. I will begin treating you like an old man.”
“I am not old!”
“I know. You are just thirty-four years old. I forgot.”
“Thirty-two actually. And not a day older.”
I looked at him. His eyes were brighter and the lines on his forehead had smoothened to a leathery gleam. “Yeah, right. You graduated from the university in 1979, this is 2010, and you are still thirty-two years old.”
“Me? 1979? This child will not kill me! Are you calling me old?”
“No, Papa. I was referring to the neighbour.”
“The one who fathered Nneka. The one who loves Nneka so much!”
“Lies! I am Nneka’s father. And I love Nneka very much.”
“But I am thirty-four years old.”
“No longer thirty-two?”
“Slip of teeth!”
He was laughing. Hands spread at his sides, chest straining against his shirt, face stretched thin as though it would rip apart if he laughed harder. His hands and legs had become spindly, like dry sticks. I looked at his picture that hung from the wall; he had been almost as big as Edward.
“You will be better, Papa,” I said. “You will be better.”
“I like you, Nneka. I admire you so much. I don’t even know what I’m doing.” Edward stood by his desk, his smile was unwavering, his eyes pleading. Nneka lounged by the door, her weekly report in her hands. “Are you offended by this?”
“No, sir.” She shifted her weight from one leg to the other. “Not at all, sir.”
“Please call me Edward.” He smiled.
“Nneka, are you all right? I sense you are moody. Please tell me what it is, my child.”
“I am fine, Papa. Just stress. Work-related stress.”
“Then come and sit with me. Tell me about it.”
She went to submit her weekly report. Edward did not shake her hands when she greeted. He grabbed her from the back and pulled her, telling her how beautiful she was, how he had missed her. She stood stiffly before him, perplexed. She looked at the hands grasping her; the baby-soft skin, long slim fingers, nails clipped short. She felt the warmth from his groin against her buttocks.
“I missed you,” he whispered. “Did you miss me at all?”
She nodded, perhaps that would make him stop. But his arms went upwards until they grazed under her breasts instead. She pulled his hands away, turned around and pushed the file toward him.
“That is the weekly report, sir,” she choked the words out.
“I will attend to that later. Come here.” He held her hands. “Are you afraid of me?”
“No, sir.” She pulled her hands from his. “Please may I go now? Customers are waiting.” She began to walk backwards to the door.
“Don’t leave me this way, Nneka.” Something flickered in his eyes. She froze.
“I will come back later, sir.”
“You are sure?”
“Yes, sir. I will come back later.”
“Okay, Pretty. You know you make me happy. You know that, right?”
She nodded and quickly stepped out of the door. She stood by the staircase, batting her eyelids, to free the tears that glazed her eyes.
I stared at the ceiling. Papa was finally asleep. I found him huddled by the door of his room when I returned from work, a pool of urine between his spread legs. The wrapper wound round his waist was soaked wet and his head rested on the wall. He did not look up when I touched him. He said, “I am sorry. I am sorry”, like a prayer.
“The pain is much, Papa?” I asked.
He nodded, then sat straighter but turned away from me. I left him and returned with a rag. It occurred to me, the strange smell that the air in the room always carried. It was urine and sweat and drugs. I raised his legs and he threw his head back, a moan escaping his lips. And after I had wiped off most of the urine, he said, “Just get me a change of cloth. I can take care of myself from here.”
“No you can’t, Papa.”
I brought him another wrapper and then went to stand behind the door. His stifled cries came. His heavy breathing followed. Thirty minutes later, he whispered, “I am done. Did you call the doctor?”
“Yes, Papa.” I pulled open the curtain. He sat there, head resting on the wall and legs stretched out before him. “He will be here soon with a car. You will have to stay in the hospital this time until you are better, Papa.”
“You are getting rid of me so quickly? At least do it with grace. I am still your father.”
A sob set my stomach quivering. It rose to my throat, threatening to burst out and rage until the roof fell. Instead I drew my fingers into a fist, left the room and returned with a bucket of water sprinkled generously with Dettol and detergent. Papa did not look at me again as I scrubbed the floor. But after I was done and had drawn up the curtains, he said:
“Come and sit with your father.”
I sat beside him. Something wet seeped into my dress. He brought my head to rest on his shoulder and his arms enfolded me in a hug.
“Your breakfast is still untouched, Papa.”
“I wasn’t hungry. The damned morning drugs were making me queasy.”
“I have waited on God to heal me. It seems He is asleep.”
“You will stay put in the hospital this time. I won’t let you stay at home alone again.”
He was quiet. The window frame rattled as the wind howled outside our window. I wondered if he had ever longed to sit outside the room, to watch the sun or listen as the wind raged. He had never gone out of the room, except when we visited the hospital for his routine drugs. And he refused a live-in maid. I swallowed. I was comfortable with it, that he stayed indoors, away from prying eyes. That he didn’t have to crawl all over the compound in pain. I was ashamed of him.
I was ashamed of him.
My face burned until my eyes swelled with tears.
“The cost of my treatment is so high you can’t even pay for it,” he was saying.
“I will take a top-up loan.” I wiped the tears with the back of my hand. “I will take another loan.”
“You are yet to pay back the last one. How much are you even paid? Sixty thousand naira, right?
How much is left after they had taken the monthly charges for the running loan, and you want to take another?”
“Papa, we will be fine.”
“You are not fine. You won’t be so long as I am alive.”
I jumped up. “Stop! Don’t say that again! Don’t ever say that again, or I will never forgive you!”
“Nneka, I speak the truth. Look at you, drying up like a fish left in the sun. You can’t even keep a man because of me.”
“Shut up, Papa!”
He stared at me.
I sank to my knees. “I am sorry.”
He drew me in a hug, his shoulder blades dug into my chest. The fluorescent light suddenly came on, bright, like a miracle. I gazed at the light. The room looked different—the deep brown chairs, the cream tiles and wall, the gold framed pictures of Papa and Mama that hung from the wall. “I love you, Papa. Don’t ever scare me this way again. Please.”
He held me tightly, trembling, until the knock came from the door.
“The doctor is here, Papa.”
Edward stood before her. He did not smile. He did not respond to her greeting.
“You did not take my calls last night,” he said.
“Sir, my father is hospitalized. I could not take calls.”
“You don’t have to lie to me, Nneka. I am not a child. You do not have to use your father as an excuse not to take my calls.”
“Sir, my father is in the hospital as we speak–”
“I am not a child, Nneka. Do I repulse you so much?” He smiled, shaking his head.
“I do not lie!” She banged the desk.
He jumped back. Then she realised her folly, in bits—the watching customers, the slackened jaws of her colleagues, the disapproving gleam in the eyes of her direct supervisor, Kunle, the sudden quiet in the hall, except for the tick-tock of the wall clock. Edward said, “I need my report in ten minutes.”
Nneka sat back on her chair. She felt the urge to run out of the banking hall, to keep running, until her feet hurt, until the pain in her chest abated. But she took the file and went up to his office.
He bellowed “Come in!” after her first knock and she found herself stumbling into his office, standing before him and stuttering something about being sorry for the way she had spoken to him.
“You embarrassed me today.”
“I am so sorry, sir.”
He sat back and removed his glasses. “Do you know how insulted I was by that single act?” He did not wait for her response. “And here I am, compiling the names of staff to be disengaged next week.”
Nneka weaved on her feet, swaying from side to side. She thought of her father, of his bills. She dropped to her knees. “I am so sorry, sir. Please forgive me sir. Please.”
“Stand up, Nneka. Stop this.” He came over, pulled her up. “You are safe with me, Pretty. I am really sorry about your father. No harm will come to you. I promise.”
He kissed her on both cheeks. “Please put a smile on your face. Have you had anything to eat today?”
She shook her head.
He rummaged in his pocket, brought out his wallet and gave her ten pieces of one thousand naira notes. “Go and have a good meal. Then take the afternoon off and go visit your father.” He touched her face. “I will give you a call by evening.”
She walked out, almost falling on her face as she made her way down the stairs.
I expected to be filled with disgust when I walked into his room. But after he opened the door and drew me in an embrace, I felt pity instead. Heartrending pity, so melancholic I was stifling a cry as he groped my breasts, tugged at my panties and grinded his groin against mine. My dress was discarded in minutes and his pants and shirt were off in a breath. We stumbled onto the bed. He wanted me on top. I tried to slip underneath, to stare at the ceiling while he did his business. But he pled, voice hoarse, as he carried me onto his stomach, his waist thrusting upwards, his hands gripping my waist and his penis seeking entrance. He exhaled. I shut my eyes and started to count to one hundred. He jerked in frenzy. His hands were everywhere, his waist thrusting and wriggling. I stared at the bedpost, willing my mind to concentrate on counting. Instead, Papa’s lean face hovered before me. He was in pain. He was crying. He was Edward. I began to cry. Edward mistook it for pleasure; he bucked, tightening his grip on my waist, his eyes shut so tight. And then it was over.
I got off him and ran to the toilet.
I stood before the mirror and for the first time in months I scrutinized my eyes. They looked as though they had been shoved deep into their sockets. My shoulder blades stood out, like saws, and my neck, which Papa used to call ‘long but graceful’ suddenly looked like that of a plucked fowl. I turned away and stepped into the shower. Moments later, when I flipped on my phone I saw missed calls, all from Papa. My heartbeat quickened. I redialed his number; his phone was switched off. I dressed up hastily and left the room while Edward snored.
Papa sat on his bed. He was smiling.
“Nneka!” He stretched out his hands. I ran into them. He was not trembling. He did not wince. I could not speak, appropriate words would not come.
“I think I am better this morning, Nneka. I think I am better.” His voice quivered. I held him tighter. I held him until the doctor pulled me away from him. “Let your father rest now. You have been holding him for an hour.”
I couldn’t concentrate at work. Papa had called to say he walked unaided from his room to the reception. I was still smiling when he dropped the phone. Kunle, my supervisor, summoned me that evening and handed me an envelope. I stared at it briefly and then laughed, just like Papa would.
“SERVICES NO LONGER REQUIRED”
I laughed until I was shaking. Kunle sat at the edge of his desk, perhaps expecting me to slump, like Edet, or to scream and scream, like Nkem, like Ebuka, like Akeem, like Diobu, like Helen, like Joshua, like Ahmed—all of the people who lost their jobs in our branch the first time. Like Edward Olaloye, who also lost his job this time, who had wept like a baby when he got that call from Lagos. Kunle’s eyes were wide, curious, waiting, and his hands spread about him, as though waiting for me to explode so he would grab me.
“My father is walking again,” I said instead. The tears rolled down freely. I did not wipe them. “My father is walking again, and I am going to see him.”
I picked up my handbag and left the banking hall, without looking around for the last time.
Appeared earlier in Saraba Magazine on August 23, 2013