Nduka crouched down stealthily near the window of the classroom. Eyeing the tall bearded man intently to make sure he was never in his field of view at any time, he moved painstakingly on and on, inching forward as noiselessly as he could. He could not risk being seen, not at this time of this expedition. Getting caught meant every thing called unfortunate in the world. Yet he could not even convince himself of the actual reason he was here, doing this, of all the wrong things he had been warned not to do before he left home at the beginning of the semester. Balancing his thoughts well with the scope he had on the invigilator, he took a little mind trip around him.
Here he was, snooping around, trying not to get caught, for reasons he could not even tell himself coherently. It was not as if he loved Helen that much to risk his life and future this much. He had strings of other girls, better endowed and more promising in terms of all his expectations that he could fall back on should Helen ever act shady or funny. He was adequate in all regards, a first-class material in his third year of all years, twenty, head-turningly gorgeous, cash at his beck and complain, with the best parents anyone could ever dream of, a promise of the coveted Yale University should he keep up his academic stance, what more did he want? Why was he here of all places, in the recesses of Obinze village on a Saturday morning, instead of the swank party he had been invited to, to herald the freshly admitted students in his Engineering faculty? Supposing he was caught, who could he call? He very well knew his father would have none of it, having made his point on malpractice clear enough, and several enough. His still clear warner had sounded it in his head more than a thousand times since he boarded the taxi this morning: twenty years behind the iron, rusty bars of Owerri prisons, should the ‘God-forbid’ ever happen. Yet that curious little instinct in him that felt happy and satisfied whenever someone had made nine straight ‘A’s or had scored 300 and above in the matriculation examinations on his account, could neither be sated nor pacified. It was a feat, according to him, for the hordes of people he had handed flawless Senior Certificate results as well as matriculation and post-matriculation excellences always held hi m in reverence, no matter how older than him they were. Helen’s was just one speck in the sand of ‘clients’ he was delivering goodness to, and he had even spent the three thousand naira Helen had given him as advance, the night before, footing the bills for their dinner at the Sunics Stomach Affairs eatery. He just had to finish this up, and endure the whipping of his conscience later.
The same wimpy instinct brought his mind travel to halt, and commanded him to concentrate. The hall was pin-drop silent, the only sound occupying space, kingly, being the whirring of the ceiling fans. He could see Helen clearly now, ogling at her blank question paper like she had been poisoned by it, the large of her fine eyeballs receding only when she paused intermittently to stare helplessly at the torn ceiling, which of course had no respite for her predicament. He smirked in his mind as he saw her pen cover when she brought it near her blood-red lips. It was dismembered and pitiable, from so much chewing. His eyes moved to the tall Northern-looking invigilator who looked every inch a cleric from his white flowing robe, and a goatee which was at least three centimetres long. There was a dark large dot on the centre of his forehead, which he suspected was incurred from a regular, soft head-butting of the bare ground. Dodging and crouching at every instant, he searched frantically for a way to draw Helen’s attention, and to get her answer script as quickly as possible. Time was little left, and he was sure she had not done a thing.
Then he caught her eye, and gesticulated to her to pass the thing quickly.
It was not to be a perfectly wise thing to do.
All through the time he had successfully scaled the fence and jumped into the compound, he had wondered why the place had looked so deserted, for he was not the only mercenary who had arrived there before the start of the examinations. He did not know that prior to his scaling the fence, the place had been surrounded by armed plain clothes policemen, drafted to the venue because of people like him. He had even chatted a little ,unknowingly, with the policeman who now gripped the side of his jeans trousers like a vice, so tightly he felt clipped like being attacked by the talons of an eagle. The only reply he got for his profuse begging and entreaties was the furious fumbling of his pockets for the cuffs, and the backhand smack of the invigilator completed the rout, in the full glare and distraction of other candidates.
Nduka was crestfallen.
This could not be happening. What was this? This was not the first time he was doing this, neither was this the first time he would have a close shave with the law. But one thing was sure: he would not go to jail. He would pull through this. He looked backwards as he was being bundled away, and his eyes met the sorry ones of Helen. But why was he this shaken? No. This would pass by quickly, and he had to act fast.
He was surprised that even at this stage, the cuffs had not been slapped on him yet. Could it be he had none? With hind eyes, he ransacked him and got convinced. That was one thing, and something too. Next, he noticed that their sync movement was laboured and slow. He checked the reason and found it was because of his heavy Timbaland boots, the lace of which he had refused to tie, in the newest and hippest style around. He checked his assailant. He had on simple flat moccasin shoes not more than two centimetres thick. That was all he needed.
In a swift movement, he lifted his right foot and brought it down hard on the left foot of the officer, and it coincided with the landing of a vicious elbow hit to his jaw. With a cry of pain, he had to let go of his waist, and Nduka followed up with a heavy kick to his ribs, and two sharp jabs to the same jaw. He thudded on the ground like a tilted sack of grains. All this happened in less than five seconds, and out of the waiting van to which he was being taken, five armed policemen jumped out, and cocked their rifles.
‘Stop, or I shoot!’
Nduka knew better; he knew they could not shoot. Taking to his heels and thankful the next fence was just some metres away, he bounded sharply towards it, and was over and on the other bushy side in moments.
The race was crucial, and urgent. This was not one for jokers, or people who had nothing at stake. It was a do or die thing. Rodney had his pride at stake, charging to retain the number-one spot he had occupied four consecutive times. Bradley was eyeing him murderously on the next lane, looking to see what will stop him from snatching the title from his rival of over five seasons. Each of those seasons had seen Rodney win in a pyrrhic way, always at the expense of Bradley, and with every look he shot Bradley’s way, he wished some laser could propel from his eyes to slash Bradley’s neck, which was his sole weapon that had given him that victory time and again. They would breast the tape at nearly the same time, but that long, crany neck of his would prove to be the last ace with which he would steal the day. No matter how fast he tried to shoot his own neck forward, when it mattered most, it could never match that of Rodney. On lane three, was Piper, tall and lanky with that slim, strong Ethiopian build, but the features on his face spoke of a different nationality: full-blooded African American. His face leaked youthful innocence and gentleness, but the rippling muscles on his biceps and thighs which his tight clothing revealed spoke loudly to counter that impression. He had been recently introduced into the school team and won bronze the last season, looking to up his ante this season. Besides, he had recently lost his father and his academics had suffered greatly, and he really needed this laurel to prove himself to his department, who had been insisting he repeat the year at the behest of a sorry showing in his exams. Nduka was the last of the final four contestants some lanes away, all tall, grown and extremely athletic, with all the right particulars. Rodney was the only obstacle to his clinching the gold this season, as far as he was concerned. Scouts from the United States Athletics Federation were on the prowl, in fact he had sighted one man who looked like one of them, for he had been told his stellar performance on the tracks of Wisconsin Crowther College were under close watch and surveillance. His academic performance was simply breath-taking; it would be a surprise if he did not make the best graduating student at the end of the year which was months away. At an imposing seven feet four, he was also a darling on the basketball courts, and his mettle there would be a matter for another day.
‘On your marks! Set!’
The boom of the gun.
Nduka shot into the lead early, swinging his arms like the crankshaft of a large trailer, gaining speed and lengthening the gap between him and Rodney, and evil competitive determination of Bradley. Piper was pitiably feet behind, yet putting in all he had to level up. It was a hundred-metre sprint, and the winner would be determined in a centisecond. It remained like that till Nduka, with sheer force of will against Rodney’s bearing down on him and shooting forward his bullet of a head, breasted the tape three seconds before he did. Then it happened.
Like some syringe had been inserted into his leg, and mercilessly sucked, he felt a pulling around his calf. The tendon had slackened, and the muscles gave way immediately, and the earth received him, with a loud groan. The medics gathered, and pushed their way past the flashes and cameras.
‘What are you doing, doctor?’
‘Just watch. Isn’t it muscle pull? There is a vein that connects it to the small intestine. I want to suture it. It’s the easiest way to treat it, I read it in one magazine.’
‘Calf muscle to the small intestine? I haven’t heard that before.’
‘There is always a first time. Just watch and see.’
‘Have you sedated him?’
‘I asked Shaw to do it. Or didn’t he?’
The clatter of knives on a surgical tray.
The voices sounded like they were low and dreamy, but when the full lights of the theatre table opened on him, Nduka very much knew it was not a dream. His eyes opened to the blinding light, and two nurses stared at him in bewilderment. Even his primary biology proved what he had heard wrong, and there was no way he could allow them operate him on the stomach for muscle tear. When raising himself became a little difficult, he looked on his abdomen and discovered the first tracing line had been drawn, prior to the cut. He was not perturbed. He was leaving this hospital this minute. The nurses tried to restrain him, but the look in his eyes told them better. He got to the door, and swung it open. Then he saw her.
She was looking fuller and rounder and more desirable now, and looked scholarly and responsible in the shiny lab coat. The rimmed spectacles she had on accentuated the academic look. Recognition dawned on him immediately. Helen.
‘Where are you going, Nduka? I just finished operating on you! You can’t leave in this condition. You need to rest. Who let him out in the first place? Does it mean Shaw did not give him that 500mg penicillin? He shouldn’t be up by now.’ She turned to lead Nduka by the hand back to the ward, but he had dropped unconscious on the floor.
It looked and sounded every inch over, but it wasn’t yet.
The first spoon of fruit juice he swallowed some hours later, gave him a cutting sensation in his stomach, and intensified as he drank on. He thought he could bear it, but gave in near the last spoon, as he relapsed into coma. Just before then, he could hear faint receding voices that said something like:
‘There were five blades I used for this operation, and I can find only two, Nikky. You are supposed to be my assistant!’
‘I don’t know, Helen. You were the one that performed the operation!’
‘And so what? Do you know the level of concentration I am supposed to be having at that crucial point? You re supposed to be looking out for me!’
Some calm appeared over the room, and immediately interrupted the haranguing of the two elegant ladies, and also sending their stares Nduka’s lifeless way. The message was unmistakable.
The gavel sounded.
‘You, Helen Okoronkwo, are sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour for the attempted murder of Nduka Isiguzo, and for professional incompetence. Your medical licence has been hereby withdrawn henceforth. How you became a medical practitioner is still a mystery to this honourable court. I rise.’
The tears streamed down in torrents, as she was led away by the tall policeman, who couldn’t take his eyes off her exquisite features.