“My dear people of God, I am still struggling to wrap my head around it.” The priest sighed and shook his head as if trying to dislodge something perched on top of it.
She looked across the chapel to where he usually sat with the lecturers, and there he was.
His dark wavy hair glinted in the daylight, dust motes danced above his head, caught in sun beams shooting down from the roof; well oiled hair that she had run her fingers through countless of times. His brow furrowed in concentration as it usually did when something was on his mind; a brow she had stroked and smoothed each time as if to wipe his worries away. His eyebrows were almost perfectly arched, framing brown eyes so watery and deep it felt like she was drowning each time she looked in them. His nose flared gently, and his full lips framed by a well-trimmed moustache and beard. Lips that had said her name firmly with authority, and softly, barely whispering, “Alake”. Lips that had kissed her till she was giddy, kisses that seemed to reach deep inside her soul and touch her someplace between here and forever… A sigh escaped her lips and she quickly lowered her eyes and hid her face behind her hands.
“We read about these things, hear about them daily, but we always distance ourselves from it. Not so much this morning, not when it has happened by our own doorsteps.” Fr. Lawrence peered at the congregation over the rim of his glasses, sweeping his gaze slowly from one end of the church to the other. A relatively young priest, he had been chaplain at the school for less than two years and was much liked by most of the students; he spoke their language and his sermons were neither long-winded nor sombre. Some would call him a ‘hip’ priest. This morning though, he was a different person altogether. He seemed to have aged in the week that had passed. He loved children, and usually spent time with the children of the chaplaincy after mass every Sunday, so it was easy to understand why this matter affected him as it did.
Alake raised her eyes again, her gaze returned to him. He must have felt her eyes because he clenched his jaw, pointedly looking straight ahead. “Damn you Francis!” She muttered. “Damn you to hell and back!”
Nana, sitting next to her, took her left hand and gently gave it a squeeze. It was to reassure her, to make her strong, but instead it breached the dam that was her soul and the tears came crashing down with the memories mixed in.
She had gone to see her Head of Department that Monday morning, and was hurrying out of his office when she collided with another student who was making his way in to see the HoD too.
“You ladies alright?” A voice had asked. She mumbled her apologies to the student, and her thanks to the owner of the concerned voice who turned out to be a youth corper. It was easy to tell because of the NYSC crest on his white t-shirt with the green and white striped arm and neck bands.
She hurried on to class; she did not want to be late for her first lecture of the semester.
When, fifteen minutes later, a shadow darkened the classroom door, Alake looked from her front row seat and gasped. Nana, sitting next to her, looked up then. She gave her a quizzical look and Alake whispered, “that’s him. The corper I told you about this morning? That’s him!” Her excitement was catching.
For the entire lecture, Nana assessed this corper who introduced himself as Francis Egeonu and decided she liked what she saw.
In the class of thirty-five students, it was a matter of time before lecturers knew each student by name, starting with those who participated in classroom exercises. For Alake, it was instant. Francis picked up her name from the moment the students introduced themselves and, though he rarely directly referred to her, he made sure his eyes lingered when he looked her way; it made her flush, made her heart race, and she liked it.
The first time she got invited to his place at the corpers’ lodge, it was his birthday.
She had always gone past the lodge on her way to town but never paid it any attention, so she was not quite sure where it was. Nana was with her, and Nana knew exactly where it was as she was very familiar with the area; her family lived in town.
They arrived at dusk and planned to stay for an hour or two. Music was blaring from one of the flats, and people seemed to be coming and going from it. The brightly lit parlour held about twenty people, all standing. Some were dancing in the centre while others just loitered in the corners, leaning against the walls. All held paper plates of small chops, or red plastic cups of drinks, or both.
Alake recognised four boys from her class and another girl, the others she did not know.
Francis seemed genuinely pleased to see her and only left her side to attend to some new arrivals, he was a gracious host and everybody had a good time. It took several reminders by Nana before Alake could tear herself away from the party. He was reluctant to let her go, and when he looked into her eyes before he hugged her bye-bye, they knew she would be returning.
Their romance was kept a secret because of his position as her lecturer, and she did not mind. He loved her dearly, that much was clear to her, and the first time they made love she thought she was going to die.
She had gone to visit him that Friday evening and they were watching a movie off his laptop computer. Her head nestled in the crook of his arm, her fingers tangled in the hair on his chest. He leaned over and kissed her, slowly at first and then the kiss deepened, and the intensity increased, just the way she enjoyed it. He went from kisses and caresses to heavy petting, making her squirm and thrash. When she felt his hand on her panties, she panicked. She sat up and tried to cover herself up, she was a virgin and planned to keep herself for her husband. Besides, she had heard horror stories of pregnancy and STIs.
He apologised profusely and helped her dress up. He lauded her decision and echoed her fears; he was on her side. She would have left, she should have left, but instead she stayed. He would not touch her, and her body yearned for his touch. She pressed against him, but he gently held her at bay, and when the time came for her departure, she stayed back.
The words were soft, the touches feather light that night, the stab came and the pain was brief, exquisite. Her body was a bundle of contradictions that night, but one sensation stayed with her as she clung to him lest she fall off the cliff: sheer pleasure. When the morning came, the cocoon was broken and in place of the pretty caterpillar, there was a beautiful butterfly. She glowed as if suffused by light, even Nana noticed and warned her about how beautiful flames looked, and how badly fire burned.
Alake listened with half an ear. She was a woman grown now, her Francis was going to take care of her.
“What is wrong with you girl?!” Nana’s concern clear in her voice.
“Ehn?” Alake dropped the towel she was holding onto the bed.
“How far gone are you?”
Alake looked at Nana as if she had sprung an extra head. “What are you talking about?”
“Eele o! You don’t mean to tell me you don’t know you are pregnant!” Nana exclaimed.
She searched Nana’s face for any sign of mirth and found none. “Stop it Nana! You’re scaring me.”
“Your breasts are fuller, do they not feel heavier? Tender? And your skin… There is this thing about your skin… I have older sisters so I know what I am talking about.” Nana had covered the distance between them and gently lowered Alake who was slowly shaking her head onto the bed. They sat there in silence, Alake shaking her head, Nana holding her hands.
“You have to take a test,” Nana told her. “I will go with you. You don’t have to do this alone.”
“But we were so careful,” Alake said, her voice a hoarse whisper.
“These things happen my dear. Condoms break, pills fail…”
“We never used condoms,” Alake said, “he didn’t like how it felt with a rubber. But I took my meds diligently.”
“What pills did you use? And when did you use them?”
“He gave me some ampiclox..”
“Apiol.” Nana corrected her. “Apiol and steel.”
“Huh? Ampiclox, the antibiotics. Which one is Apiol and steel?”
“If this was not such a serious matter, I would slap you right now! What is ampiclox? Can you even hear yourself?! For someone with hair as black as yours, you are sounding pretty blonde right now. Ampiclox? Pah!” Nana had jumped off the bed and was now pacing.
After Francis had caught her washing herself out with soap and water once, he had promised to try the withdrawal method of birth control. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t, and that was when he suggested ampiclox and stout as alternative birth control measures.
She hated the bitter stout, and hated the smell of ampiclox when she peed, but Francis assured her those were signs it was working. She believed him.
Nana had an aunt who worked as a nurse at the medical centre in school. She was close to the girls in age and sometimes hung out with them. It was Ramatu the girls turned to. A urine test confirmed Alake was pregnant, and a history revealed she was already thirteen weeks pregnant.
When she told Francis, he rounded on her and asked how she could have let that happen. He made it clear he could not marry her; his father would not abide his first son marrying a non-Igbo.
The words ofe nmanu and ota akpu were used by his mother when Alake called her, before she was warned never to call that number again.
When she told her father, he summarily threw her out of the house and disowned her. “You will not bring a bastard baby of an omo yibo into my house!” He screamed at her, flecks of spittle flying in her face. His eyes bulged, a vein throbbed in his neck and she feared he might suffer a heart attack. “When you spread your legs yakata for him, what were you thinking? No, don’t answer that. You obviously were not thinking.”
Her mother, a mouse of a woman, gave her some money and told her to get rid of the pregnancy. “I will talk to your father when his anger has come down, s’ogbo?”
With nowhere to go, and fearing her father’s wrath if she involved any other family member in this scandal, she promised her mother she would take care of it, and then returned to school.
By this time she was in her third trimester and did not know what to do. Nana stood by her through it all. She missed classes, ate little, cried a lot and it showed all round.
Her grades suffered and she looked like a ghost. Nana begged her to take proper care of herself if only for the baby’s sake, and when it came to discussions about her plans for when the baby was born, she always had this faraway look in her eyes even as she spoke with a disembodied voice.
Mary Igbekele Egeonu came quietly into this world. She was born in a warm, dimly lit room shared by two girls who had gone from friends to sisters. Ramatu had begged a local midwife to help with the delivery.
She was a crone really, and Alake would have refused under any other circumstances, but from the moment her contractions started, all she wanted to do was get this child out of her! She was sure if she was birthing an axe, it could not be any more painful.
After the baby finally came, there was a calmness about Alake. Everything she did seemed measured and deliberate. Two night later when Nana came back from a reading session, there was no sign of Alake nor the baby. She dialled Alake’s number and she heard the phone ringing in the room. She panicked and was frantically looking through her contacts list for Ramatu’s number when the door creaked open and in walked Alake. Her empty hands were the first thing Nana noticed. The dead calm of Alake’s face kept her from asking any questions. She just sat and watched as Alake boiled and mixed some water before going out to bathe.
“When I was fourteen I took my father’s car for a drive, I only made it as far as the gate before one of the pillars reminded me of why my father only allowed me warm the car. I feared for my life because my father was, and still is, a no nonsense man. I thought of running away, I thought I was better off dead. I had been travelling at about 40km/hr when I crashed the car – our driveway was long and I always liked speed – so the damage was not child’s play. I did not worry about the pain I felt where my chest had hit the steering wheel, neither did I think about the heartache I would cause my mother if I ran or died.
I neither ran away nor committed suicide – don’t ask me why not – and when my father came back, the first thing he saw was his car in intimate embrace with the pillar.
He asked me what happened and I told him, then he asked if I had gone to the hospital and my answer was no. He called a taxi and took me himself to the hospital, he waited while the doctor checked and the nurses poked and prodded me.
“On our way home, sitting in the back of that taxi he said ‘Don’t worry son, everything will be alright. I only hope you have learnt something today.’ I looked up at him, and there he sat smiling down at me. I cried all the way home. Let us just say that day I learnt responsibility, but later in life when I was in the seminary, I realised the real lesson there was love.”
“‘And the greatest of this is love’, Jesus himself said so. It can’t possibly be a lie.”
Fr. Lawrence paused to catch his breath before continuing, “I find that the difference between short-term decisions and long-term decisions is usually a moment of panic. And as long as we have a support group we can count on, these decisions come easier to us. I do not know what the mother of that baby was going through at the time, but I am almost certain that if we really are a community as we claim, there would have been one among us she may have turned to rather than dropping the baby by the river.
“She may not be one of us in this chaplaincy, but she certainly is one of us in this local community, and we owe it to ourselves to be our brothers’ keepers.”
Alake stopped sobbing long enough to whisper to Nana “He did it. Francis did it. I left the baby at his door three nights ago, a baby I had named for bitterness and a resolve to never rely on another human being. He must have taken her down by the river and dumped her there. Francis is an animal, but so too am I. We both did this.”