‘What happens in this house stays in this house. Do you understand?’
Eyes closed, I lay in bed, waiting for a horrendous lump in my throat to dissipate. Stella probably thought I had fallen asleep. But then I sneezed, and in that moment I feared the pills I’d swallowed would pop out of my mouth.
I knew it would only be a moment before she engaged me in a conversation. I couldn’t blame her though. The boredom in the air had enough intensity to sicken the heart of an average person.
“So, you’re sick with fever, headache and catarrh?” Stella’s voice cut through the silence.
Did she need me to answer that? Obviously not, for she went on, “Fever isn’t necessarily a bad guy. It is your body’s natural reaction to the real bad guys. It is your body’s response to an untreated sickness or a hidden infection. This could be anything from a urinary tract infection to tuberculosis.”
“Mine is just malaria,” I said.
“Care to tell me which doctor gave you that diagnosis, Victoria know it all?”
I looked away sheepishly. “I’m sorry, I just thought—”
“Do you know how dangerous what you’ve just done is?” she asked.
My thoughts hovered over her choice of words. Dangerous? When did it become life threatening to look away from someone when offering an apology?
Knitting my brows in concentration, I tried to put two and two together. And then it occurred to me she hadn’t questioned my diverting my gaze, but my self-diagnosis. I knew self-diagnosis didn’t count as a good idea. I knew the risks involved. But what could I do?
Mistaking my silence for ignorance, she lectured, “It has led many down the wrong path. By self-diagnosing, you would be wrongly assuming you are well informed about your current health condition. What if a more intense sickness masquerades as a trivial one, or a trivial one as a more intense one? What would happen?
“You would be misdirecting any clinician who attends to you into prescribing drugs that don’t see your situation as a whole. Even worse, he could administer drugs that are way too high for what you’re experiencing. Side effects are always around the corner, waiting to strike. Is this what you want for yourself?”
I sighed. “No.”
“Good,” she said. “Now that’s a start. Goodness! I should get Sir Amadi to let me address you students about this issue. I really should. Anyway, once school is over, go see a doctor to get a blood test done ASAP. You should find out the root cause before you start taking treatment. Do you understand me?”
If she awaited an answer, she would never get one. Her lecture had just erupted painful memories. Embracing myself, I turned to lay on my side. Hot tears blistered my eyes. I knew it would only be a moment before they spilled onto my cheeks.
If I had a mother, she would always be there for me. My health and happiness would be her priority, and I would never have any reason to cry.
But I never had a chance to meet my mum. Dad told me she’d suffered from amniotic-fluid embolism and died two days after my birth. If I hadn’t been born, perhaps she would still be alive.
As much as dad had always told me never to think like this, I could not stop nursing these thoughts. For me to exist, mum had to go. I wished this tragedy had never struck. My life would have been different if I had her with me. Although we had never met, I missed her. The tears I tried to fight spilled out of my eyes and plopped onto the bed.
I missed my dad. He had always been there for me, trying hard to bridge the gap of not having a mum. And he had been exceptionally good at it. I would only have to cough to find myself at a hospital. Several tests would be run to detect any hidden sicknesses. And each time, I would try to resist. I would cry and try to talk him out of it because I feared needles. But he never succumbed. He would hold me through the tests and afterward he would take me shopping to make up for the discomfort he had caused me.
Now I would give anything to feel the sting of a syringe. I wanted things to go back to the way they used to be. I wanted my dad. But some prayers could never be answered. And I just had to deal with reality.
My thoughts settled on how Stella had mistaken my silence for ignorance. I wished I could tell her how much she had hurt me with her little lecture. I knew the health implications of self-diagnosis. But what could I do?
At home, they didn’t care if I existed or not. Nobody paid more attention to me than they would a stray dog roaming the streets. While dad still lived, they had treated me as their own. Or so I’d thought. But in the blink of an eye, it all came crashing down. I watched them toss the very essence of my existence into the gutter. How could I have known they would change dramatically?
A few weeks after dad’s death, my deteriorating health had knocked me off my feet. Shivering with fever, I had approached my stepmother with the news. I could remember vividly the words she told me.
‘You have fever. You have cough. You have catarrh. So what should I do? I should throw myself in front of a train abi?’
She had also said, ‘It seems you’re forgetting your place in this house. You are no child of mine. So why should you worry me with your problems? Even the Bible says each one will carry his own load. Look here my dear, your well-being is no responsibility of mine. It was solely your parents’ duty, and since they have decided to leave you, well, there’s nothing left for you.’
Although she had said those words four years ago, it still stung when I reflected on them. My stepmother’s cruelty remained a mystery I could never decipher.
My dad. Why did he have to leave me? He had been more than a father to me. He had been my mother, my best friend, the glue holding my side of the family and my stepmother’s side together. He had assured me he would always be there for me. But life never gave him a chance to keep his promise.
Why me? Why did all the bad things happen to me? Had my birth been a crime? Why then had I been born in the first place? Why should anyone be born to suffer like this? First, my mum left without even knowing me. She had only been allowed to cradle me for a few hours, after which death snatched her away.
But no, mum alone could not satisfy its hellish blood thirst. It had to take dad as well. Why did it end there? Why hadn’t it taken me along?
Why should some people be happy and satisfied with life, and others miserable, having despair where joy should be? Maybe life was a game and the privileged used a cheat the rest of the world didn’t know of.
Each morning I would awaken with a sigh because my suffering continued. Living compared to a race and I didn’t know how to hit the finish line. I did not even know the direction of the finish line to start with. No, I wouldn’t call this living, but survival.
Years ago, I had plenty to eat and drink. I would stay cuddled in dad’s arms and fall asleep watching TV. Twice a year I would visit the orphanage, giving help to the less privileged. And most importantly, I had dad, my reason for joy. But now I’d been stripped of everything I ever had. Now I had close to nothing.
My thoughts rested on the stillborn children who never had a chance to see the world and all its depravity. They had left this cruel world for somewhere safe, somewhere peaceful. They had faded into nothingness, where no one could ever hurt them or make them feel worthless. They would never have to gulp down the spicy dish of cruelty the world had to offer. Why hadn’t I shared with them in their fate?
I peered toward the future, aiming to catch a glimpse of my life a few years from now, but the darkness of my present, a mass of black smoke, filled my vision. Could there be any truth to my stepmother’s words that nothing good could ever come out of me?
If I didn’t live to see the next day, would anyone notice? Would anyone even remember a girl like me existed? Surely their lives would go on as though nothing happened. They would look to where I used to be, and would barely even remember my name. Only Amarachi would grieve.
As much as I wanted death to put me out of my misery, I didn’t want to give my haters the satisfaction of driving me to my grave. For them I would be strong. For them I would cut off my ears to spite my face. I would survive.
“Victoria,” Stella’s voice severed my thoughts.
I lowered my head and wiped my tears with the back of my palms. She couldn’t see me cry.
“Take care of yourself,” she said. “I’m out to get recharge card. Will be back in five.”
Letting down my guard, I raised my face and watched her advance to the door. And when I least expected, she turned around, her eyes catching the glister in mine.
She dashed to my side, her eyes searching mine. “Are you alright?”
“Yes.” If I said more, my voice would wobble, giving me away more than my puffy eyes already had.
Stella sat beside me, the additional weight causing the bed to groan. “What’s wrong? Do you feel worse?”
“It’s not…the fever.” And like I feared, my voice betrayed me. It sounded too brittle, I almost didn’t recognize it.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. Her eyes told me she cared. The softness of her gaze assured me I could trust her. “How am I to help you when you won’t even speak about it? When you told me about your headache, did I not give you pills to subdue both the headache and the fever?”
“It’s not about my health,” I said.
“So what’s wrong?” she pressed on.
I stared at her, conflicted about what to do. How could I tell her about my despair? Where would I start from? Would I not be betraying my family by speaking to an outsider about our problems?
“Do you want me to call your sister?” she asked. Wounded by her suggestion, I shook my head with a questionable vigor.
Silence lingered in the air. But it only lasted as long as I let it. “Have you ever lost a loved one?”
I had thought by asking that question I would chase the silence. But no. More silence ensued and I realized I had chosen the wrong start for our conversation.
With a voice as tiny as a mice’s, Stella spoke, “Yes.”
“Who was it?” Raising myself to sit, I leaned against the bed’s backrest.
“Someone special,” she said. I waited for more details, but they never came.
Someone special. A reply as simple as that, but weighing so much that it knocked her emotionally off balance. Her rue-cheerlessness mirrored mine. Whoever had died must have meant a lot to her. At this point I had no idea what to do or say to make up for awakening memories she had put to sleep. Guilt clawed at me for transferring my broken spirit to her.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s fine,” she said. A little white lie. It would never be fine. Deep down, she knew. Just as I hadn’t been able to get over my dad’s death, she hadn’t been able to get over hers either. Silence stretched between us, so thick that if I reached out to touch it I just might find something tangible.
“You were going to get recharge card?” My voice sliced through the silence I had brought upon the room, sounding weirdly thin amidst the awkwardness between Stella and I.
“Actually, that can wait. There’s plenty of time to do that. Now is story time.” She punctuated her statement with a wiggle of her fingers.
Wearing a serious look, she said, “Have you ever heard of Miriam Adewale?”
Of course. I had heard that name more times than I could remember. But where?
I gave up on trying to remember. “It rings a bell.”
“Of course,” she said.
“Who is she?” I asked.
“Was,” she corrected.
Was. That only meant she no longer existed. I put the facts together. Miriam Adewale. Dead. And suddenly, I remembered. I had read an article of her in one of our school yearbooks. She’d been among the first set of students to study in Western High. She died on the 24th of May 1996.
A shocking realization dawned on me. “She was your sister.”
How had this never occurred to me? Other than sharing the same surname, they possessed similar facial features. I regarded Stella with my empathetic eye. It must have been hard watching her sister’s health deteriorate, and even harder accepting her powerlessness in saving her sister’s life. It must be hard confining herself to a place brimming with bitter memories. During idle times, would she not be tempted to relive painful experiences? Didn’t she feel smothered by those memories? Did they not fight to steal the air from her lungs?
“I’m sorry about your sister,” I said.
“That was her junior year,” Stella said. “I was two classes behind her. We lived in Ondo state, so we had to stay in the dormitory. Schooling so far away from home gave me the creeps. I wanted to be close to home. But I didn’t stand a chance. All Mimi’s friends were going to this school, and she wanted to be in the same school with them. At that time, Western High was the newest and most popular school in Nigeria.
“From our childhood, Mimi and I schooled together, so it was totally expected I was sent to the same school as her. Things were going great. I loved the school. My new friends. The atmosphere. The infrastructure. The teachers. And then I was proud to actually be a student of this school. Students of Western High were recognized as one of the best students nationwide. And till date, this hasn’t changed.
“One evening, Mimi had a very high fever. Her friends and I rushed her to the sickbay. And the nurse…she was eating.” Her face contorted grotesquely as she mentioned the nurse. Narrowing her eyes to slits, she clenched her teeth. “She whined on and on about how she’d been extra busy all day and was in no mood to attend to anyone. She said she’d been attending to others at the expense of her own stomach. She asked us to leave with Mimi and return in the morning, but we didn’t. We placed Mimi on a bed and I assured her she would be fine. My sister lay in one of these beds.”
She pointed to the bed adjacent ours. Sadness clouded her features as she stared at the bed and through it, reliving the moment she had just described. In my mind’s eye, I could see a picture of what that day possibly looked like. Thinking back to the photo of Miriam in the school archives, I conjured an image of a sick version of her lying in that bed, hoping the nurse attended to her.
“It was all too late when the nurse attended to my sister. All she gave her was a lazy dose of Paracetamol. There was more she could have done. But she didn’t. My sister lay there for six whole hours before receiving proper treatment. Couldn’t a test have been carried out during that period to know the underlying cause of the fever? But no. The only thing she did was force three stupid Paracetamol tablets down my sister’s throat! That woman did close to nothing to save my sister’s life. She barely even paid her any attention. Instead she said she was only pretending so she wouldn’t have to participate in the inter-house sports.”
“God!” I gasped, shaking my head in horror. How could someone think that?
“Horrible, right? That’s what you get when you hire staff who don’t have the right motive. Her motive for being a nurse was purely financial. Totally wrong. A nurse is someone who must make saving lives a priority. Money making and any other thing must only come after it. Not before. For two days, my sister lay in this bed, getting worse by the second, dying slowly. When the news reached our parents, they hit the road at once. My sister was transferred to St. Martin’s hospital. That was the last time I ever saw her again.”
It broke my heart to hear her voice become a lifeless monotone. If I could I would take away her sorrow and mine. But wanting to do something was one thing, and having the power to do it another.
“I’m sorry.” I had just said sorry for the third time. It served to comfort, but did it? In my case, I would be a liar if I answered in the affirmative. No amount of sorry could make me feel better over my father’s death.
Apparently, Stella shared my feeling toward the word ‘sorry’, for she said, “Sorry is an empty word, Victoria. It does nothing but make us feel sorry for ourselves over and over again. Have you not already realized that for yourself?”
“Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to—”
“You’re always sorry. Don’t you ever get tired of being sorry over nothing?” Mimicking my voice, and failing dreadfully at it, she said, “Sorry. Please. Forgive me. Are those the only words you know?”
Driven by a sudden urge to share my story with her, I said, “Those are the only words they make me say.”
“Who?” Her wide, eager eyes made me flinch. By telling her the story of my life, would I not be making a mistake? “Holding back now, are you? Hey, I told you my story, did I not? It’s not a story I share with random people. But I told you because you seemed genuinely interested in why I chose to be a nurse instead of being like you said, an English teacher.”
“You did it for your sister.” Now I saw why she cared so much about my health.
Simpering, she nodded. “She wanted to be a nurse. And besides, I don’t want what happened twenty-one years ago to happen ever again in this school. This is a great school, and the people who work here need to have the right motive. I don’t see anyone else more qualified to be the school nurse.”
With a rather forced giggle, she went on, “And about the English thing you mentioned, I have always had an interest in English and Literature. I have even published two books. The first is a collection of poems. Most nights, when I can’t sleep, I get up and light a candle. And yes, I light a candle for real, even if there is NEPA light. Writing by candlelight has become my own personal ritual. For this reason I named it ‘By Candlelight’. Whatever is in my head at that moment finds itself as another beautiful work of literature in my collection of poems.
“And the second book is a novel called A Robber’s Heart. It’s about a thief who jumps over a fence to steal, but his landing is pathetic and he ends up with a broken leg. He is taken in by a teenage girl who hides him in her room, and a father-daughter bond blossoms between them. A bond that not even her mother can sever.”
“Wow!” I said, mesmerized by her delight in Literature. I also had a thing for Literature, but had never reached the point of developing a story. Maybe sometime I could give it a try. I could write the story of my life.
“Can I see your books sometime?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said. “But first, tell me what I need to know. Why were you crying, and who is bent on making your life miserable?”
“Miserable?” Of course I lived a miserable life and two people engineered this misery. But when had I mentioned this to Stella?
“You mentioned that please, sorry and forgive me were the only words they made you say,” she clarified. “In other words, some people are trying to make your life miserable. So who are they?”
More than once I opened my mouth to speak, but I could not find the words. If I replied her strategic question, I would directly be telling her my stepmother and Cynthia were making my life miserable.
I could not say that. No, not now. What if they found out somehow that I had spoken about them? I would be dead in a split-second.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But when you put it like that, I don’t know how to answer.”
Stella rolled her eyes. “There you go again with being sorry.”
“Sorry.” The moment the word left my lips, I realized I had done it again. “Just pay no mind to how pathetic I am.”
“So you were going to say something?” she asked.
“I wasn’t crying because of my sickness,” I said. “Well, not directly.”
“But it had something to do with it, yes?”
“You asked if I didn’t care at all about my health.”
“Yes. And I’ll ask you again. You’ve been sick for how long, two weeks and you just do nothing about it? Who does that?”
“Actually, it’s been four years.”
“You have been sick for four years?” she half-shrieked. “But why? I don’t get it. You’ve been sick for four years and you don’t do anything about it? Your mum and your sister, do they not know this?”
“To understand the whole thing, you need to know the story of my life.” I knew my answers would lead me to tell the story I had tried so hard to escape.
I led my mind away from frightening thoughts and told myself I could do this. I would tell Stella the story she craved to hear. Perhaps after I did, I would feel the weight of the world fall off my shoulders.
“I have time,” she said.
I squinted at my wristwatch. 11:18. Two minutes into the forty-minute recess. I had spent my entire morning in the sickbay and had missed all four periods.
Shoving off these thoughts like unwanted clothing, I willed my mind to focus on the story I had to tell. “I never knew my mum. She died a few hours after giving birth to me. My father hired a nursing mother to care for me. In no time, he saw the need to marry her so she would legally be my mother. And then they were wed.”
“I’ve always supported your father’s wise decision,” Stella said. “This way, you won’t know what it feels like not to have a mother. It’s a horrible feeling.”
If only she knew. Soon enough, though, she would.
“Four years ago, my life took a turn I hadn’t seen coming,” I said. “The very day my father resumed duties after his recovery from an accident, the bank was robbed. And he was shot to death.”
I could remember vividly. Cynthia and I had only just returned from school to find two policemen at our door, delivering the cold news of father’s death. I could still remember my stepmother holding Cynthia and I comfortingly in her arms while we all wept.
“It only took a few days for the people I held dear to show their true colors. Everything changed dramatically. When someone shows you their true colors, don’t try to repaint them, or you’ll be stabbing yourself all over with many pains. Back then, I was naïve, too innocent and inexperienced to know that. I thought there was a mistake, and that my family needed time to grieve, after which the gap between us would bridge. But I was wrong. Dead wrong.”
“I don’t understand,” Stella said.
“My stepmother and her daughter make the whole world believe they love me,” I said. “But they don’t. Cynthia has always seen me as her biggest rival. I tried to make her realize the loopholes in her reasoning, but my efforts only filled her with untamed aggression. But still, I believed her childish jealousy would fade as she grew. I believed she would grow into a reasonable person and her love for me as a sister would supersede all. But time laid my flawed reasoning before me. In horror, I watched my sister’s jealousy grow along with her. Her love for me—or at least something close to it—completely faded, replaced with an intense hate I could not fathom. She regards me no more than she would a maid.
“They have turned me into a servant in my father’s own house. They make me do all the work in the house all by myself. Every day I wake up by 4:30 in the morning, but they overwhelm me with chores and I always end up late for school. And they make me do all of these on an empty stomach. I could go a whole day without food and no one would care. They find fault in everything I do. And even when there are none, they fabricate faults and abuse me.”
At this point, relying on mere words to tell the story would be a grave mistake. I undid the buttons on my jacket and did the same to my white shirt.
“What are you doing?” Stella asked.
“Allowing my scars tell a part of the story,” I said. “They will speak to you and tell you more than words ever could.”
Taking off my shirt, I let Stella’s unbelieving eyes explore the length of my torso. My body had become an art gallery on which different work of arts were displayed. Some of which were recent, stinging me when I showered. Baring myself to her brought an uneasy sensation to my stomach, but I didn’t dwell on this.
“Oh my God!” she cried. “Such evil! Oh heavens, no!”
I remained in position, giving her an undisturbed view of my back, letting her drink in the details of my abuse.
“I can’t believe your stepmother did this to you!” The sympathy in her voice wounded me. Once again, I burst into tears.
“She should be a mother to you! How could she do this to you? You are like a child to her! She should love you like her own!” My grief intensified with every word she said. Snuffling, I reached for my handkerchief and brought it to my nose.
“That woman is evil!” Stella’s straightforward remark startled me. Evil, perhaps, but that woman remained my mother.
Speaking about our broken relationship to another person brought a cloud of guilt resting upon me. In a way, I felt like a traitor. Negative emotions fought to overcome me. And to an extent, they won, sagging my heart into dense darkness. Weren’t family issues meant to remain in the family? My stepmother had even said so herself.
‘What happens in this house stays in this house. Do you understand?’ She had pulled my ears so hard I feared I would lose them. And I had never dreamt of disclosing her wrongdoings to anyone but Amarachi. If mother learnt about this, I would not live to see the next day.
Stella placed a comforting hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry about the things they make you pass through. I thought these things only happened in Nollywood. Oh heavens! Whatever happened to humanity? My God!”
I picked up my uniform and clothed myself. “After my dad’s death, they made me stay home. They told me to forget school. They said school was not for everyone. And whenever I told them I wanted to continue my education, they would abuse me and tell me I was cursed. They told me I was an evil child, and for that reason my parents died.”
Stella’s brows furrowed. “They made you leave school? I thought…but…I heard…” She shook her head. “This is just evil. Pure evil. During that period, news spread that you quit school because you could not face the world after your loss.”
“They made everyone believe I quit on my own because I was too weak to get over my father’s death. For almost a whole term I stayed home, doing chores 24/7. And then one day, Cynthia returned from school, talking about an annual scholarship exam. It would cover a student’s school fees till graduation. To pick up the registration form and the study materials, I needed to pay an application fee. With tears in my eyes I approached my stepmother. I begged her to pick up the scholarship form and study materials for me. I understood she didn’t want to spend money on me, and with the scholarship, it could be achieved. I believed in myself. I knew I could pass the scholarship exams. But she laughed at me. She and her daughter.
“I snuck to school the next day to tell Sir Amadi I wanted to sit for the exam. I wanted him to help with the fee. But to my surprise, he called my stepmother and told her about my intention. Although he had good intentions, that was the worst step ever. I returned home only to receive the beating of my life. Most of the scars you saw, they came from that day.”
“So how did you register for the exams?” Stella asked.
“I confided in Amarachi. I am forever indebted to her. If God hadn’t intervened through her, I would have been a school drop-out. Do you see all the things I pass through every day? They treat me like snot. They always remind me I don’t belong in their family. They tell me I’m an outcast, and make me pass through unimaginable pain.”
“This won’t go on like this, my dear.” Stella rose to her feet, a fierce determination written all over her face. And although I knew she had my best intentions at heart, it frightened me to watch her roam the room with that look on her face. “It certainly won’t go on.”
“What can be done?” I asked.
“You are going to have a blood test done, as soon as today,” she said. “And your stepmother will have to pay for the expenses. I will make sure of this.”
“That’s not possible. She’d rather die than take responsibility for me.”
Stella smirked. And I knew she had a sinister plan. But what?