by Olumide Abimbola
Fola stood before her father’s sickbed, staring at him with what seemed like rapt attention but she wasn’t seeing anything. As she stood staring, her feelings traversed the fields of sympathy, pity, disgust, and anger. These feelings were so deep that the images they called-up in her mind were so overwhelming she felt they would choke her if she didn’t run out of the hospital ward. Now, the nurse, with forceps in her hand moved closer to her father and made to start peeling off the pieces of gauze that lay on his thigh. Fola winced and clenched her teeth, she knew the measure of shout the pain would draw from his throat and she was afraid that some cord that bound her mind to her body would snap and she would not die but become mad and run about the streets naked. With the anticipation of the pain criss-crossed on his face like spider’s web in the corner of a room her father motioned with his hand to her to come and hold his hand so that he would have something to help him through the pain. Quickly, her vision that had doubled because of lack of concentration but intense staring merged into one, and her father’s gesture made some meaning to her. She drew closer to him.
She looked at her hand, not understanding what he meant.
‘Let me hold it.’
She ground her teeth inaudibly and stuck out her arm.
After a long, low-sounding scream during which Fola stiffened her arm, and the Sorry which one would expect from the sympathiser didn’t come from her, her father, noticing her stiffness took it for disgust, left her arm and told her, under the pain, to leave the ward. She had prayed for it but when it came, she hated it.
Outside, Fola sat on the steps that led into the ward, her elbows rested on her thighs, and her palms, lying on her cheeks and temples, supported her head. Inside the ward the nurse lifted the last gauze from the large expanse of raw flesh and the man gave a long, wheezing sound through clenched teeth. Fola whose mind was unsettled because she knew her father had sent her out because he thought she was unfeeling, and whose nerve endings were now raw gritted her teeth. She shifted her palms forward so that her index fingers could reach her ears when she heard the sharp intakes of breath, sighs and groans that she knew meant that the nurse was cleaning the burns site.
The relative quiet afforded her some feeling of solitude, then peace, which she herself identified as false. She thought about the patients in the ward: The one who had something wrong with his lungs so that whenever he coughed it sounded like the sound of saw on wood, another one whose leg was cut-off during an earlier accident but who was currently in the hospital because his belly was swollen…. She remembered the other ones but the thoughts refused to take any definite form, all she could see was the misery and pain that managed, despite the efforts of the hospital staff, to remain floating around her sub-conscious whenever she entered the ward.
She released her ears and raised her head up. As she did so she saw a dark- skinned boy rush into the opposite ward. Somehow, he reminded her of Stephen and she almost stood up to call him but she checked and reminded herself that it could not be Stephen. Stephen, the boy in the next class, S.S.2A, who had been disturbing her – if that was the right word – for some time. She liked him but she was afraid of what her friends would say if they knew she was going with him.
Stephen was a somewhat rough boy who had been getting close to her, giving her things and attention. Although he had not said anything, she knew what he wanted. And she knew he liked her. Just today he had brought a can of Coca cola to school and given it to her. She definitely…. She almost jumped when she realised what she was doing, there was her father lying on a hospital bed in pains and she was thinking of a boy she liked.
‘What are you doing here?’ her mother who had just got to the entrance of the ward cut into her thoughts. She was carrying a basket with her left hand and with her right, she proceeded to touch the low-cut-haired head of her daughter.
Fola was surprised at the sound of her mother’s voice but she managed to reply.
‘He sent me out.’
‘Why?’ she asked, ruffling Fola’s hair.
‘I don’t know.’ She stood up and relieved her mother of the basket. She couldn’t look at her mother in the face because of the shame she had just been feeling. They went into the ward together.
While going through the ward she looked straight ahead so that she would not have to look at any of the patients but she still saw one whose face was grim as if in death. She shivered, riveted her face on the opposite end of the ward and walked on.
The nurse had already finished when they got to him and he was lying on the bed resting, his head on the pillow, breathing heavily. Fola went and dropped the basket on the bedside drawer and then stood, her hands by her side, staring at the ground before her feet.
‘How is it now?’
‘She said the covering dirt has been cleaned off.’
The woman took out the things in the basket and at the same time told him of the people who said they would come in an hour, during the visiting hour.
Then a long pause.
‘Why did you ask Fola to leave?’
‘Nothing,’ and he turned to face the other side.
Immediately, his wife understood. Fola must have shown some disgust at the sight of the raw flesh. She glanced at the fifteen-year old girl who was still staring at the floor and looked away. She knew that if their other children who were in boarding schools were around they would be better company for their father.
‘James and the twins will come home during the weekend,’ she said, an addendum to her thought
As Fola heard her mother she felt a deep and frustrating fury. Did she mean that her brothers and sister were the ones who were good and she bad? She felt like screaming and crying, and telling them that it wasn’t so, that she had compassion for her father and even felt his pain with all the nerves in her body.
Olumide is a Berlin-based Nigerian anthropologist. He is also a NigeriansTalk coordinator.