Whose side were you always on
When papa’s cane made thumping sounds
When whispered echoes drowned my muffled cries
When anxiety made me groan
Whose side were you always on
When I looked at you for reassurance
Wet eyes, bruised lips, seeking pity
When I peaked for warmth or a soothing piety
Whose side were you always on.
I asked for love you gave me some
I asked for more, I called you mum
Whose side were you always on
And why couldn’t you love me more.
Leah trailed her fingers over the spines of the minty new books crammed together on the bookshelf. The new-book smell was heavy in the area. The light brown shelves, mahogany table, soft, blue paint, even the certificates on the wall appeared new and staged, like the occupant had just moved in and had yet to begin making messes.
Leah’s manicured fingernails clicked from book to book, adding a sound to the low music the middle aged woman had playing in the background. It was designed to soothe them, she knew, but it had the opposite effect of grating on her nerves, digging under her skin like an insect.
Still she kept the small smile stationed on her face as she moved gracefully from one shelf to the next to the third.
“Do you like books?” Dr. Sulo asked, watching Leah move from a plush leather arm chair. A notebook was balanced delicately on her thighs as she twirled a pen between her fingers. She was a pretty woman in her late thirties, but her drab, oversized clothes and unflattering hair made her look older than she was.
Leah wondered what her actions told the woman. If the fact that she hadn’t sat since she came in for her session said something to Dr. Sulo or if she thought it was just another session passed in silence or idle chatter.
“Do you like books?” Dr. Sulo asked again.
Leah nodded. “I do.”
“Any in particular?”
“Why? So if I say I like romance novels you’ll say that I want to live in my fantasies and if I say I like horror you’ll say that I enjoy pain?”
Dr Sulo laughed hard. “I’m just curious.”
“I don’t have to respond to your curiosity,” Leah said dryly.
“You’re right,” Dr Sulo conceded. “You don’t. Do you want to talk about anything else?”
“Hmm.” Leah said, making a show of giving it some thought. “No, I don’t. Do you want to talk about anything?”
Dr. Sulo didn’t rise to her bait. She remained silent letting Leah fill it once more, singing the chorus of a slow song she liked.
“You do have a nice voice,” Dr. Sulo observed, when she finished.
“Yes,” Leah said, absently. “I’m the only one in my family who does.”
Leah stopped moving and turned to face Dr. Sulo. The sight of her always made Leah tense. Dr. Sulo had always been perfectly pleasant to her and she possessed a voice that was low and mellow, inviting people to confide in her, but something about her made Leah angry, ready for a fight.
“Would you like to sit?” Dr Sulo asked. “You seem restless today.”
“I’m fine,” Leah replied, but moved towards the chair opposite the doctor and took a seat, crossing her legs delicately.
“Leah, you’ve been here for three weeks and you’re still exactly where you started. You understand that I’m trying to help you, don’t you?”
Leah glanced around, anywhere but at the woman, a sardonic smile appearing on her face. “I do. What does Sulo mean?”
“Chosen,” Dr Sulo replied and pressed on. “Are you upset that your time here was involuntary? You grandfather insisted on it and you came to appease him. Do you think that might be holding you back from receiving the best of this place?”
Leah stared directly at her. “I love my grandfather. It was an easy choice to make for his sake.”
Dr. Sulo nodded. “You seem to have a very positive, healthy relationship with him.”
Leah smiled at that. “What exactly is a healthy relationship?”
“You tell me.”
Leah rolled her eyes. “My grandfather is great.”
“And you understand why he insisted you come?”
“But you don’t agree?”
“Do you think I don’t agree?” Leah asked, mimicking her tone. Dr Sulo remained expressionless which made Leah laugh before continuing.
“I perfectly agree with my grandfather. A wiser man has never lived. I know why he wanted me to come. The last few months have been difficult.”
“Would you like to talk about them?”
“No,” Leah said firmly.
Dr. Sulo flipped open the file on her thighs and smoothed down the white papers inside. “Do you know what he said about you when he had you admitted? He said you have been becoming increasingly aggressive. He said you had a fight with your father and it became physical. You attacked him very badly.”
Leah stilled. “It was nothing,” she said in monotone. “Families fight. My father and I have never been close. I don’t know him well. He tried to tell me what to do with my life. I disagreed.”
“So you attacked him.”
“I was angry.”
“He’s your father.”
“I don’t care.”
“Like I said, I don’t know him. My parents divorced when I was five. I’ve barely seen him since then.”
After the divorce Leah’s mother had moved her and her brother Stephen into their Grandfather’s house. One of her earliest memories was walking into the place for the first time. It had seemed enormous to her five year old self. She’d stared up at the twinkling chandeliers, the spiral staircase, mesmerised.
Her grandfather had examined them, his face stern. He and her mother hadn’t spoken since her mother had defied his wishes and married her father. She remembered her Grandfather shouting and her mother begging. Eventually, his face had crumbled like it was disintegrating into dust as the fight left him, and he drew them all to him, hugging them. She remembered his tobacco scent. It still made her feel safe.
“How do you not like someone you don’t know?” Dr. Sulo asked, returning her to the present.
Leah snorted derisively.
Dr. Sulo let it go. “Okay, let’s talk about what you disagreed about. Work, isn’t it? You don’t think that’s important?”
Leah shrugged. “Finding a job has never been my problem. I just find too many. I don’t see why that’s a problem though. I might not stay in one for long but I always get another and I’m always good at them. The problem isn’t with me but with everyone else trying to force me to be like them. What’s so special about having one job? Why can’t we do what we want and learn as much as we want for as long as we can? I enjoy the freedom of moving and I take care of myself.”
Dr Sulo wrote something in her notebook. “Do you think instead of freedom, you’re running from responsibility?”
Leah bit into her lip to keep from lashing out at her. “I just said I take care of myself.”
Dr. Sulo nodded. “Maybe not responsibility then. You know they want you to be more stable. Maybe you’re doing it to punish them?”
Leah’s eyes narrowed. “Is that a question?”
“Then I will not answer.”
“I don’t want to.”
Dr. Sulo leaned forward in her seat. “Leah,” she began but a knock on the door interrupted her. A young woman in a white attendants’ uniform stuck her head in and raised an index finger.
“Dr Sulo,” the woman called.
Dr. Sulo nodded at her and rose. “Wait for me, I’ll be right back,” she told Leah.
Leah waited just long enough for her to leave the room, before rising and following her out. That was enough therapy for one day.
Leah peered into the open door between her room and Mamita’s after lights out. Mamita lay on her bed with her earphones in, her eyes shut. Leah inched forward and pulled one of them out, screaming in her ear.
Mamita shrieked and shot out of the bed. “What the hell?” she said, her hand clutching her chest.
“Sorry,” Leah said, laughing. “You didn’t hear me.”
Mamita shook her head, a smile beginning to form. She pulled out the other ear of the white earphones and dropped them on the table.
“It’s cool. This is the first time you’ve been in my room? Do you like my superior interior decorating?”
Leah looked around. It was completely stark, except for Mamita’s clothes hanging on every surface. “The two of us are hopeless.”
“Hian! Please, don’t compare me with you,” Mamita said, smiling.
“How are you enjoying prison so far?” Leah asked.
Mamita shrugged. “I can’t wait to go home. The view is nice sha. Plenty cute boys.”
Leah smiled. “There are? I haven’t seen.”
Mamita eyed her. “You’re lying. That your friend Ter is fine na.”
Leah shrugged. She hadn’t thought about him that way.
“J.J. too,” Mamita continued.
“I guess,” Leah said.
Mamita shoved a pile of clothes off a chair and took the seat. “It always makes me uncomfortable standing next to him.”
“Why?” Leah asked incredulously.
“He’s too fine. It makes me self-conscious.”
“Have you seen yourself? He should be the one uncomfortable with you.”
Mamita didn’t look convinced. For the first time Leah noticed how much make up Mamita wore. She was messy, her room was a disaster, but outside she was always impeccable as though she was trying to hide her insecurities under layers and layers of perfection.
Leah was silent for a moment. “Are you okay?”
She wasn’t going to mention it, but now that she was here it slipped out. “I heard you crying yesterday.”
Mamita looked away. “I hate nights. They make me sad.”
Leah understood that, especially in this place. “Anything I can do?”
Mamita gave her a smile. “There’s nothing anyone can do.”
Leah shared a striking resemblance to her fraternal twin brother Stephen. They both had the same complexion, the same smile, the same nose and eyebrows. Standing side by side it was impossible to miss that they were related.
The two of them had always been very close. As children they had stuck together as much as possible and even after they had grown up and Stephen had moved out of their Grandfather’s house leaving Leah behind, they still saw each other multiple times a week.
“It’s just now you come to see me?” Leah demanded, hugging him.
She sat in one of the wicker chairs facing an open window in the guest area and he followed suit. “I thought you liked me more,” she complained.
Stephen offered her a small smile. “Life gets busy nau. Football. Girls. Football. Girls…”
“Did any of them share womb space with you?”
“They better not have, because that would be disgusting.”
He pushed a small travelling bag towards her with his leg. “I brought you clothes, books and some things Ma sent you. I’m sure she wanted to come by herself but you know how she is.”
Leah looked out the window. The carpet grass was a dewy green. “Tell her not to come,” she said quietly. “I won’t be here long anyway.”
“How many months is this thing?” he asked.
“Two and a half.”
Stephen shook his head. “Do you want me to talk to the old man? Even if he doesn’t agree you can crash with me.”
Leah declined firmly. “No. Let me just finish it and leave. It will make him happy.”
“You’re always too good,” Stephen said. You should be like me. I no send.”
Leah laughed. For all his jokes she knew him well. She knew the real reason he hadn’t come to see her was because he didn’t want to see her here. He hadn’t even been able to look her fully in the face since he arrived.
“Stephen,” she said.
“When you leave, just focus on football and girls. I’ll soon come home.”
He stared at her soberly. His eyes misted and he blinked the tears away rapidly. “I still have time for you.”
“I know,” she said. “Still, just don’t come back.”
He leaned towards her. “Are you okay, Lee lee?”
She truly hated that name. “I’m fine, Stephen.”
Or at least she hoped she would be.
After he left, Leah headed to rec room which was booming with people. It was everyone’s favourite place and time of day. The room was huge, containing a football table, a pool table, a table tennis board, board games and a sofa and TV in one corner. It led out to the field where people played volleyball and football each day.
Leah scanned the room. She spotted Ter watching TV on the sofa with one leg propped up on the center table in front of him. She walked over to him, tapping him on the shoulder from behind and circling the chair to collapse next to him.
“What are we watching?” She asked, nodding towards the screen.
“Soap operas,” Ter said dramatically. “The shady millionaire just seduced his daughter in law and now she is racked with guilt.
“Poor girl,” Leah said.
“Poor guy,” he returned. “He thought she could handle it. It’s not his fault she has no stomach for betrayal.”
“But just think, how is she going to face her husband now?”
“With drugs and counselling?” Ter suggested.
Leah smiled. “She should have come here.” She took the remote from him and began searching through the channels.
“You’re not happy with such an excellent show?” Ter asked. “Shame.”
“You shouldn’t be watching things with romance and betrayal,” Leah told him. “You’re already messed up enough.”
Ter laughed hard.
“And why do you think, you’re the only one sitting here?” she continued.
“Because you’re the only one who likes me?” he asked.
“It’s true,” he insisted.
A table tennis ball flew over their heads, knocking into the TV screen. A hefty man jogged up and picked it up. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
Leah followed him as he jogged back to the table. Emeka, his opponent smiled and waved at her with his bat. “Leah,” he called. “Come and play with us.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know how to play.”
“I’ll teach you,” he insisted.
She considered it. “Tomorrow,” she shouted to him.
“Emeks,” J.J. called to him, appearing through the door. Emeka turned and nodded to him, handing over his bat to a waiting player and headed towards him.
J.J. glanced briefly at her and Ter on the sofa, his eyes going over them. He smiled mockingly at them. She frowned back, turning her attention back to the TV.
“There’s something annoying about him,” she told Ter.
Before she could respond, Mamita appeared by her side. “Hi,” she said to them.
“Hi,” Leah said with a big smile.
“What are you guys doing?”
“Watching the best show ever. Come and sit,” she said, making room for her on the couch.
Leah sat in the back row of the chapel, listening to Ita sing. She had the voice of an angel. It was powerful and possessed a purity that Leah could only envy. Once Ita began singing an unconscious grace seized her as though she was firmly in her element.
All the patients listened to her in silence, captivated by the words and the melody. Some people were on their knees, some had their hands up. Leah’s eyes were closed, her head swayed back and forth to Ita’s voice.
Faith time was a voluntary item on the schedule. They were encouraged to join in but not forced. At seven each evening, the patients split into their different beliefs- Muslims and Christians. Patients who practised neither religion or were not interested returned to the dormitories for the hour.
Mostly, Leah noticed that people chose to be involved in faith time even if the numbers didn’t remain set; they contracted and expanded from day to day. She herself came because it made her feel part of something. She felt wrapped up in a community, and found it safe and comforting.
“Are you still coming?” Ter whispered. He sat beside her on the wooden bench.
Her eyes flipped open. She hesitated, not sure she wanted to cross this line with him.
She turned to him and saw the absolute lack of ulterior motives on his face. His eyes shone with sincerity.
Her heart expanded with gratitude towards him. “Thank you, Ter,” she whispered back, meaning it. “I think I will.”
“Why are you whispering?” Brima asked, in a mock whisper of his own on the other side of her.
“None of your business,” she replied in the same manner.
“Is it a private conversation?” he said suggestively.
“Yes,” Leah and Ter said immediately in unison.
“Shhh,” someone reproached from the front and they all fell silent like chastised children.
Leah closed her eyes again. Ita’s voice climbed, reaching a glorious high, enveloping her in the sound. Consumed by it, everyone else faded into the background. It was perfect until her mind flit unwillingly to things she would rather forget. Suddenly she could hear the voice calling to her.
“Lee lee. Lee lee. Lee lee. Lee lee .”