Two hours gone, it’s still raining. Here and there, green leaves, pieces of broken-off tree branches, litter the road. Outside her apartment, under an umbrella that still lets in darts of rainwater around her ankles, Juliet is waiting for a taxi. A phone call had come from the hospital; an emergency.
Chilly wind-blasts bring on the shivers. Goose pimples flush onto chocolate-toned skin beneath her blouse. Holding tightly to its handle, she tilts the umbrella a little backwards and looks out into the street, through the pouring rain, over glistening asphalt on which rain sheets relentlessly drum, down the row of houses that have become blurry forms in the haze. A deafening drone issues from rooftops as torrents thrash on them.
Juliet had repaired to bed, had wrapped up in a cozy blanket, her fingers leafing through a new paperback, when the hospital called. Two years now she’s been at the beck and call of emergencies, always racing, as it were, against time. Her burgeoning nursing career is resolving itself into a bittersweet dalliance with emergencies.
She can hear the hum of an automobile engine. Faint lights appear through the haze, and the fuzzy aspects of a taxi come into view. Eagerly, she waves down the taxi. Sorry, not my route, says the driver. Piqued, she steps back to the curb and tries to nudge her mind to something other than an ugly weather and an impetuous ache slowly coursing up her legs. Across the road, a tree’s leafy branches flail in the wind and rain, discharging their bounty. In places, the gutter coverings are displaced. Murky waters ferry rubbish downtown.
Juliet peeks again at her wristwatch; she was phoned forty minutes ago. Just as her shoulders are starting to sag with dejection, another taxi emerges from the haze.
“Enter,” says the driver.
The backseat cushion is welcome relief but she does not savour it; fatigue has arrived with vicious suddenness, bearing down on her shoulders like an overcoat. A slight vertigo swirls around her head, mingled with the musty scent of worn leather. It’s gone, the warm, snugly recuperation she had looked forward to earlier today when she signed out from the night shift. She slouches farther down the backrest, her arms folded across her chest, and trains a listless gaze at the rain outside. Beyond the taxi’s roof, a thunderclap rumbles now and again, punctuating the rain’s muffled music.
Like the blurry images drifting past, her work-life these past months drifts through her semi-consciousness. On her first day in St. Joan, straight from nursing school, she had come to work with a look that turned heads, and a work ethic that boggled minds. “A breathe of fresh air,” the matron had called her after two weeks on the job. Two years on, she is still pretty, still busty, still curvy in that way that never fails to impress. Her commitment to the job still boggles minds. But on a day like today, the nameless sense that all is not so well, that her immersion in work is asphyxiating everything else, works its way under her skin and, however briefly, stays too long for comfort.
He’s in a rosy mood, the taxi-driver. He hums and sings along to a song on the radio, nodding and tapping on the steering wheel until Juliet is roused from her reverie. He has on a woolen knit cap, pulled down over his brow. Time and again, he reaches forward with a barely dry cloth to wipe the moisture off the windshield, which is soon frosted over again. He tries to make conversation but Juliet does not respond. The rain is groaning outside and Juliet thinks she’s met a kindred soul. She is returning to a workplace she left just three hours ago; he is prowling Satelite Town in the rain, hopeful of finding custom.
The taxi parks a few feet from the hospital’s gates. The taxi-driver turns and holds out a hand. Having been fumbling with her purse since when the car turned the last corner, Juliet presses a currency note into the open palms, grabs her umbrella, and climbs out.
The hospital complex is a three-storied L-shaped building and a smattering of one-storied and bungalow blocks – administrative quarters, convenience stores, maintenance places – all set a little farther inwards from the gates and hidden away behind overarching whistling pines whose seeds and stringy leaves adorn the asphalt grounds. The torrents have ceased but the weather is still grey and sombre. Now and again the wind murmurs and blows with some strength, and the trees sway and shed fresh showers. The guard at the entrance-side door of the security booth is a stringy old man who spots bold tribal marks on both cheeks. His eyes dance. His uniform is hidden underneath the bright-yellow raincoat. Juliet acknowledges him with a smile which still makes him chuckle long after she’s out of sight.
“He will join you in a moment,” the Chief Surgeon’s secretary says. As if on cue, Dr. Albert walks in. He is a podgy, middle-aged man.
“You made it,” he says. He looks harried. Juliet shrugs and tries not to stare at his stomach, a generous bulge accentuated by a tucked-in shirt. They both walk into the doctor’s office. He pulls out the patient’s record from a cabinet on the wall and hands it to her. Then he goes around and sits behind the large, varnished desk. Tiny bubbles of sweat have formed on his brow.
“We should be in the operating room in thirty minutes,” he says. His tone is gentle, measured. His eyes implore. Juliet looks up from the file. She keeps her eyebrows raised in mock alarm for another second or two; it’s her job, of course, to prepare the operating room. Dr. Albert starts to thumb through some papers on his desk as Juliet returns her gaze to the file. Then he reaches into a trouser pocket, pulls out a small towel and dabs severally at his brow.
“Ok, doctor,” Juliet says, closing the file. Dr. Albert nods. Juliet rises and steps out of the office. In the corridor, on her way to the dressing room, she looks into the wards through window openings where the curtain is drawn aside. There is an indubitable serenity, a sacredness that has lodged itself between the cold weather, the ambient lights, and the many faces of infirmity. Within her first few days at St. Joan, while staffers strove to unravel the enigmatic new hire, Juliet had encountered the history of St. Joan. Some of it sat within the pages of the employee handbook. Others, she gleaned from the hospital grapevine and, with time, from the mythology of Satelite Town itself. She found that St. Joan had a strong soul from its cradle. A certain Dr. Maduashi had founded the hospital in the early days when Satelite Town was just a vast, noisy humdrum of dust, timber, concrete and helmet-clad construction workers, and pioneering families were just peeping in to see what the government and its contractors were up to.
She has traced St. Joan’s abiding mystery to its founder’s peculiarity. He was an idealist, Dr. Maduashi. A big-hearted if simplistic humanitarian. In his time, his hospital was the only infirmary in town and far beyond, where a poor, luckless family could walk in and receive treatment that was paid for from the proprietor’s own pockets. When age began to nudge him, and his own health began to fail, he still waited a decade for a man he could trust with his vision for the hospital. Despite – or perhaps due to – such eccentricity, Dr. Maduashi picked a good man in Dr. Adamu who, after the old doc died, led the hospital away from its cramped, one-story accommodation to its present five acres of exquisitely landscaped real estate. It was Dr. Adamu who, upon Maduashi’s death, set up a charity in his memory and got leading Satelite Town families to surrender fat contributions to the endowment fund.
For their part, Satelite town citizens have long taken emotional ownership of St. Joan, an ownership that often assumes a pseudo-official visage through the town’s Residents’ Council. Juliet came to understand the attachment when she realized that many Satelite Town families have grown and aged on St. Joan’s medical services, and nearly every St. Joan doctor is co-opted as family physician.
She emerges from the dressing room transformed and bearing a box of medicines and medical kits. The frilled, knee-length skirt and body-hugging blouse have given way to blue medical scrubs that barely tame the ample hips and heaving bosom. There is an intense set to her face as she turns and makes for the operating room.
The Ibrus’ sitting room is a boxy, twelve-feet-square affair. Since after the power outage, Anne Ibru has drawn the curtains aside and opened the two large windows for ventilation. A wide beam of late-morning sunlight pours in, casting the two women on opposite sides of a photon sea.
Anne says that Nosa, her intrepid husband, has cajoled her into the housewife profession. She tells Juliet that nowadays, when the pangs of boredom get too sharp to bear – when her boys are tucked away in school and there is no vacant spot anywhere in the house to cram in another flower pot – she might rearrange furniture, or clean a room the umpteenth time. They’ve been friends for what seems a longer duration than the eighteen months of their acquaintance. When Anne’s first son Andre had cancer and was to have a surgery, it was Juliet who cared for him and answered her many questions and calmed her rattled nerves.
Juliet hasn’t come to the point of naming the disquieting feelings she’s been having of late, so she does not voice the thought that, in a way, she and Anne might be in the same boat. She does not say that her visit today is a kind of escape, or that she cannot tell for certain what she needs to escape from. She tells Anne, truthfully, that she is on the night shift.
“So you people want to expand the hospital, ehn?” Anne prods.
“How did you know about that?” Juliet asks. , a smirk coming to her face.
Anne sidesteps the question. “I hear that the new block will be built behind the second wing of the hospital.”
“And if there are any such plans, I would know, right?”
“Would you confirm or refute it?”
“What I hear are rumours.”
Eyebrows raised, eyes twinkling, Anne’s is an incredulous look.
“Are you aware that the new building is really a mental health facility? A madhouse?” Anne asks.
Juliet blinks large, dreamy eyes, and tries to not give anything away.
“It’s quite a concern to folks around here,” Anne goes on. “The topic came up at the last residents’ council meeting. I mean, the idea of crazies camped so close by– ”
“Something like that actually came up for discussion at the residents’ council?”
“You don’t think it should? I believe the council will lobby to block this project. I really think they should.”
The lights come on; electricity is back. Anne rises to shut the windows, pull back curtains and turn on the air-conditioner. Creases have formed on her white linen trousers, across her buxom backside where the cloth is molded to the shape of a swaying behind. Juliet turns her sights to the bulky, glossy magazine at the far edge of the coffee table. With some effort she makes out the garish lettering across the masthead: Homemaker.
When Anne returns, the room is perceptibly colder. Juliet is peering at the photograph of a young woman from Anne’s album. There is an endearing vivacity in the young woman’s eyes. She tries to guess at her age.
“That is my sister in-law,” Anne says. “She will be here tomorrow. She just graduated and will be with us for her service year.”
Juliet flips the photograph. On the back, someone has scrawled a label: Priscilia, 2006.
Juliet’s newest patient has just been wheeled in from the operating room. Two different IV lines are affixed to his hands. He is cold and shivering. Time was, at the start of her nursing career here at St. Joan, within these whitish walls, when such a sight would get her panicky. But she fought the fear and never let anyone find out just how much her nerves jangled. She still has the dreams though, where she’s helping wheel someone from the operating room, or setting up the drip, or disposing messy, post-surgery waste. Sometimes the patient in the dream becomes her late father, who fought a long, losing battle with cancer, and spent his last days in hospital, under similar circumstances.
The man’s wife enters the room. Her hands are folded across her chest. She looks like she’s been keeping vigils lately.
“Nurse,” the woman calls softly, by way of greeting.
“Welcome, Madam.” Juliet says.
Her feet in the bogus, sterilized, hospital-issued slippers, the woman waddles to her husband’s bedside. He is asleep, and has a vacant expression on his face. She peers down at him. Juliet knows that look. It’s that overwhelming mix of fear, hope, love, and sheer distress. She and her mother had often huddled over her late father just the same way, feeling those same emotions.
“He will be alright,” Juliet says.
The woman nods.
“Nurse Juliet!” someone calls from the door. “There’s an emergency. Please come.”