Harmattan Dust by Chukwuebuka Ibeh

 

 

 

 

 

 

      The doctor left one morning and did not return again. His wife would later remember how she had woken up to the sound of swift breeze brushing past her ears and the voice of the maid shouting at the children that came to pluck mangoes in the compound, and how dusty the day had been, such that the doctor’s windscreen was coated with dust, an elegant shade of dull brown. The maid had said earlier, excitedly, that it seemed harmattan was on its way, and she hoped it would come quickly because harmattan usually killed her pimples.

The Doctor’s wife was having breakfast with their daughter -she looked unusually calm today, it had to be the dry chill in the air- when the phone rang. A call from the hospital. The woman on the phone had been swift, too swift. She was talking loudly, incoherently. The doctor’s wife had difficulties understanding.

“Hello?” The doctor’s wife held the phone to her ears to hear well.

The woman over the phone line paused. “Hello?”

“This is Doctor Ifeanyi Chikezie’s residence. My husband is not yet up. He’ll be with you soon, I suppose”.

The woman paused for too long. There was a rowdy background noise and the vague sound of people discussing too quickly. Finally, the woman was back on the line. “Who am I speaking with, please?”

“Adaobi Ckikezie”

“Dr Ifeanyi Chikezie’s wife?”

“Yes”

“How come you said your husband is not up?” The woman’s voice was high, lined with confusion.

“He is asleep” The doctor’s wife said, mildly irritated with the briskness of this strange caller.

“But… Madam, your husband is here with us”.

She pressed the phone tighter. “What?”

“Actually, we just got a call from another hospital that he was involved in an accident and is currently unconscious….” The voice trailed off.

“Hello?” She tightened her grip on dinning chair, felt a desperate need to hold onto something solid. Her legs were growing weak, her head stuffed with wet cotton wool, and words no longer made sense. The woman’s voice had suddenly become too high-pitched so that they hurt her ears and made her head throb. She placed the phone on the table. The woman was still talking, her ‘Hello? Hello? Are you there?’ resounding too loudly. She got up and moved towards the room, aware that her daughter was trailing behind her. When she got into the doctor’s room, she shut her daughter out.

 

The doctor’s bed was vacant, his nightwear strewn around the room. He had left in a hurry. She checked the bathroom. He had not taken a bath. His diary was gone, as was his stethoscope and telephone, She turned impulsively to face the mirror, and she gazed at her own figure for long, trying and yet failing to preserve this moment in her memory, this impassive expression on her face, and then she stared at the bed again. Vacant.

 

She sat on the bed and closed her eyes and tried to remember how gentle and firm he had been on top of her the night before and how tired he had been afterwards. She thought of his face that morning when she woke up to make breakfast, the seraphic tenderness in the rise and fall of his bare chest. She had left him here like that, only an hour ago, sleeping peacefully.

 

 

 

She would repeat the same story to sympathizers and well-wishers when they trooped in in their numbers, all teary-eyed and effusively emotional. The doctor had returned from the previous night shift, tired, really tired. He had been at work all day. He fell asleep on top of her. That morning, she had left him….. She would pause at this precise moment to gather her breath, to remember details, and she would wrestle feebly with this sensation of drowning. She had left his side that morning to make breakfast downstairs. She did not wake him, did not want to. He had barely slept for three hours and she needed him to rest after yesterday’s stress. She received a call an hour later to be informed that her husband, a man whom she kissed just an hour ago, was dead. She was going to wake him to have breakfast, and he was dead. She would pause again to gather more air.

 

They watched her closely, these sympathizers, long scrutinizing stares, as though searching for something that was supposed to be there but was not. It would be alright, they said. The doctor was a good man and she needed not to worry. A particular woman would push her thin baby -with hair so sparse with a sickly brown color – forward, almost shoving him in the face of the doctor’s wife.

“Your husband helped me have this Child! He helped me! Onyelum aka!!” She would shout, so loud, the doctor’s wife felt a light throbbing. She watched the woman, not entirely certain what she was talking about.

“I did not have a kobo when I had this baby through caesarean section”. The woman would explain afterwards, when she was calm again. “I underwent a major operation and I had no money to pay. Your husband paid for me. He signed an agreement with the hospital to let me go and take the money from his salary. Onyelum aka!”

 

The doctor’s wife stared at her calmly. She could not remember her husband telling her something like this, could not remember him coming home without his salary at the end of the month. But then she could not remember anything now, could not remember how the doctor had looked in his bed only a few hours ago, could not remember how pleasant harmattan dust had been when it coated the wind screen of the doctor’s car.

 

 

More sympathizers would troop in, in the days that followed, broken on her behalf, agitated at the carelessness of the truck driver, offering unsolicited emotional assistance and advise. They would stress on what a good man the Doctor was, a man that was ready to give his life for the people, a man that never turned his back on them. They would tell her stories, these people. A man with weak crutches said the Doctor visited him often after he was discharged from the hospital and gave him drugs for free of charge. A young slender girl threw herself on the floor, raining curses on the truck driver. The doctor had been so good to her, to her family. She cried, loud croaky sounds that made the doctor’s wife worry she would choke, and she went on and on, lamenting on what a Saint the doctor was, how nothing would ever be the same again. The doctor’s wife watched her silently, supporting her chin with her palm. The other sympathizers held her, crying themselves, pausing once in a while to throw brief glances at the doctor’s wife.

 

They would talk later, these sympathizers. They would discuss within themselves how strange and absurd it was to watch the Doctor’s wife stare at them, dried-eyed, as though they were the ones that had lost a husband and needed consoling. They would say she did not love him- This woman from the city. It was there in her expression; in the way she seemed to brush aside their condolences wordlessly, staring at them with such a blank expression as though holding herself back from saying something that would incriminate her. Why didn’t she even bother to hide the fact that she was grateful he was dead? How could she be so comfortably placid in this situation?
And nobody would know how slackened she felt, she was. No one would feel the desolation that overwhelmed her when she got into their wide bed alone. Nobody would ever know, in the days that would follow, how hollow her footsteps sounded on the marble floor, how desperately hopeful she was that she would walk into her room to meet her Ifeanyi sitting on his study desk, bent over a file, biting the cover of his ball point pen as he always did whenever he was confused or worried. They would never understand, these teary-eyed sympathizers, how difficult it was to explain to their five year old daughter why daddy was no longer coming back home to buy shortbread biscuit for her, why mummy took so long to answer a greeting. Why the house seemed so empty, and why the weather seemed too cold and dusty.

 

The hospital officials would come later, after the burial, desperately remorseful and hoping to make it up to her. He had died while striving to do his duty. He was a good man, this Doctor Ifeanyi. He had been invited by a hospital in Owerri to assist a Professor from Nsukka University in performing a major surgery. They were so sorry this took his life. His family would sure get their compensation. They would talk at the same time, so many of them in white coats, she did not even know who to listen to, did not even bother to listen to any. She just stared at them, visibly shaken and blank, momentarily struck by the betrayal. Her husband had not told her he was leaving for Owerri. He had neatly folded her and placed her beneath his life. He had acted like a stranger, and not at all like the Ifeanyi she knew all these years.

The Doctor in charge would lead her to his office and explain the details of the compensation when she visited the hospital days later, and she wondered what he would say if she told him she did not really want his compensation. She would look at him from across the table, pondering on how strikingly familiar this seemed and then she would remember. Ifeanyi.

Years ago, when she had come to have an abortion because her boyfriend Yemi had said it was against his family’s norms to have a child outside wedlock. Ifeanyi, fresh from the university, had stared at her in horror as though she were a ghost, and had said, in measured tone -sitting opposite her like this doctor was-, that the baby would never forgive her if she ended its life like this. She had stared back at him, taken aback by his boldness, and the firm, endearing light in his eyes, and she knew, at that moment, that things would work out fine after all. Everything else had happened in a hurry. Her quitting with Yemi, getting married to Ifeanyi and giving birth to her baby months later. It seemed all was well until Ifeanyi came home one day, excited and restless, to say he had gotten a government job in a village hospital, where the pay was better than his present pay, but they had to leave right away. She had not known what that entirely meant, what was involved. But he was so excited that she was left with little choice but to feel happy for him. ‘That’ was supposed to be good news.

She would later wish, as they drove into the village that Thursday evening, she had not succumbed so easily to his idea. She was startled by the bad roads and the unsafe water, and the deplorable state of the community primary school where she was going to teach and their daughter would attend. But she told herself that the village had a serene solitude that was endearing, and the bungalow assigned to them had a delicate beauty attached to its smallness. She would come to love this place- for Ifeanyi’s sake, at least.

In the years that followed, she would worry. She had known earlier this new job would be time-consuming, considering the large population of the village and the few hospitals to go round. But she had not quite anticipated she would grow to see so less and less of her husband. Sometimes he left very early and did not arrive till he next morning, visibly worn out and yet preparing to go out again. Often, she worried he would simply snap into two one day and fade into nothingness.

They loved him, these villagers. They said he was a Messiah. His colleagues said without him, the hospital would close down. She took their words in silence. Of course, she knew better.

 

“Madam?” The doctor called. He was staring at her, his eyes moist with obvious empathy. “When was the last time you saw the doctor?”

She reclined on the seat, felt that light throbbing in her head again. She could not remember, would not remember. Later, she would realize how epic that moment had been for her; the realization, so stark and so blindingly visible. The doctor had now become something referred to in past tenses. Later, she would drive by the hospital and see two nurses wheeling a patient down the neatly swept corridor and she would wonder how much longer before the hospital was officially shut down following the demise of the kind, hardworking doctor without whom the hospital could never function, without whom the hospital would be closed down. And afterwards, she would sit in front of the mirror and hold her palms in between her thighs and tell herself that this thing she felt was not anger; that this need to slash and burn and shoot all the bastards in the hospital was not borne out of a need for vengeance of sorts, of a self-centered retribution.

But for now, she adjusted herself on the seat and looked at the over-dressed man sitting opposite her and she thought how very strange it felt to be asked that. When was the last time she saw the Doctor?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chukwuebuka Ibeh was born in Nigeria. A student of history at the Federal University in Otuoke, his short fiction has appeared in New England Review of Books, Clarion Review and Dwartonline. He lives  in -and writes from- Port Harcourt.

 

1 Comment

  • Chinedu Vincent Okoro January 3, 2018 at 2:46 pm

    What an interesting short piece! Chukwuemeka, I bet you, you are going places. More power to your elbow!!!

    Reply

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