IN HEARTS WE DWELL
It was a hot afternoon; so hot Ola could feel the sticky wetness under her arms and the trickle of sweat from her neck, down to her back and between her legs. The sweltering heat and the sticky warmth of the air was not like the icy cold she felt in that hollow pit between her chest and stomach. She walked on shaky legs, conscious of the eyes following her ,climbed the dais and smiled weakly. A thin smile that barely cracked her dry lips apart, hurting her for the brief moment that she did it. She clasped and unclasped her hands, twirled her little finger around the fist of the other palm as she composed herself, praying silently that thetears wouldn’t come. She raised her face to the crowd that stood before her in their dark dresses and darker shades,sniffling and dabbingteary eyes. This crowdof teachers and students, all united in a gloomy auditorium by one phenomenon—death. They stood attentive, seeking comfort in the words that she would deliver, somehow hoping they had not failed Chianakwana.
‘It has been three months since Chianakwanaleft us,’ she began with a tremor. ‘I remember her kindness and I believe that is whatwe have come to celebrate today. I feel very honoured to be here, presenting this speech in memory of her. China, as I called her was kind, passionate and happy. I believe everyone here will agree with me that she was like water, touching and changing everything and everyone she came in contact with’ Steadying her voice, she began to speak.
Ola was staring at the ray of sunshine shining through the jagged crack in the dorm window. She bit her thumbnail and chewed, her eyes moving from the mattress to the door. She was uneasy, painting scenes of fights and curses and screaming with bright colours in her head. Nkiru would be back soon and the thought of it frightened her.
‘I’ve washed the bedclothes and cleaned the mattress.’
‘But they’re not dry yet!’
She paused and bent over the cupboard, removing the near-rusty charcoal iron and began to heat the coal. Once it was ready, she knelt over the mattress, her face shiny with sweat and her features lined with worry as she ran the iron vigorously over the mattress. Her movements were hasty, left, right, right, up, down, and anywhere else that the dark damp mark had spread to. The time gave her no choice, itwas late in the evening and the sun would soon begin its journey home, she thought as she winced, feeling the searing heat from the iron on an errant finger. She was still kneeling, blowing on her finger when she heard footsteps and the tiny tinkling that was Nkiru’s laughter.
She was bringing a friend over!
Quickly, she emptied the iron and covered the almost dry mattress with a new bed sheet. She closed the lid on her laundry basket and sprayed a bit of her perfume;the sickly sweet smell making her nauseous. Sitting on the edge of the mattress, pretending to read a book, she heard the lock click and the door open.
‘Ola, kedu? You’re awake?’ Nkiru asked blandly; more out of routine than the cheery need to know. She dropped her keys on the bedside table and began to undress. She was in only her panties when a dark skinned girl burst in, panting and paused to laugh. Her laughter was from the belly, observed Ola. She was hooting, pointing at Nkiru as she scrambled for her clothes and squeaked, ‘Madame Mischief, you have started again!’
Ola’s eyes followed her, taking in her unruly afro as she collapsed on the bed and exhaled before she spoke. Her voice, deep and smooth, startled Ola as she began to speak, her words rushing into one another so fast she could barely follow. She had been speaking for two minutes before she tapped Ola, ‘Roomie, ngwa tell Nkiru that everybody can’t be waka dupe like her.’
Ola flinched and smiled foolishly, ‘Leave Nkiru please.’
‘Ooh, a conspiracy. I should have known you’d take her side,’ she rose on her elbows and laughed again before offering long fingers to Ola. She took them carefully in hers, too carefully. Her palms felt like a newborn, soft and fragile.
‘I’m Chianakwana, your roomie’s classmate… but… you can call me China,’ she winked.
‘Olachi’, she simpered, her eyes darted to the growing damp spot where China’s elbow and butt were. She swallowed and pleaded with the universe to save her.
Sensing her possible confusion, China smiled and explained: ‘I know, only very light skinned people are called China right?’
Ola nodded without hearing her words. Anything, anything to make her forget the spreading wet spot underneath Chianakwana.
‘Okay, when I was in Primary school, I watched a lot of karate movies and always got into fights trying to prove I’d learnt a lot from them.’
A short pause followed, during which Nkiru turned to stare at her before giggling and then laughing uncontrollably. Her hands, stained with soot from handling the burner of thestove she had been fiddling with,slammed the floor so many times Ola lost count.
‘Egwu dị! Who did you think you were? Bruce Lee?’
Chianakwana crossed her legs and mimicked a British royal, using an imaginary fan, head held high. ‘Of course my dear, and I won almost all my fights.’
They laughedloudly again and began to chat. Theytalked of everything they could think of; from the stinky porter that made passes at the girls on the block to the lecturer with brown teeth that laughed too often; their shrill screams and loud laughter echoing.
There was a long pause, broken only by the scraping sounds from Nkiru’s burner. Checking her wristwatch, China stood and, on impulse, turned her skirt around. There it was, a patch of wet around her bum and her elbows too. The damp spot on the mattress confirmed her suspicions. She sighed and stared at Ola with a small smile.
Ola withered, her eyes began to lose focus as her hands gripped the wooden edges of the bed and she didn’t stop straining till she felt the tendons in her knuckles begin to smart.
‘Hia, why are you both so quiet?’ Nkiru peered at them and turned for a good look. Taking it all in, Ola shuddered inwardly as shenoticed the tightening of lips that signalledNkiru’s anger.
‘So you did it again eh?’
Ola was quiet, silently pleading with her to invent an excuse for the stains, maybe water or anything else.
‘China, have you seen what I have to deal with?’
‘Nkiru calm down. There’s no need for you to shout’China said. ‘It’s just one of…’
‘One of what? What prevents her from holding her bladder at night and in the afternoon too? Is she still a kid?’ Her gesticulations were fierce now, sweat breaking out on her brow as China asked her to calm down.
Ọla cringed and sank deeper into the dark well she had created for moments like this. Her ears throbbed and her eyes hurt as Nkiru continued screaming, her words bouncing around, off the walls and out of the room; through the half-open doorway and reverberate in the empty staircase.
‘At night, and even during the day. Olachi a bụrụ gị ọnụ? Were you cursed?’, Nkiru cried.
Ola was crying now, the tears snaking their way past her cheeks till they rested in the groove of her neck.
‘Oya tomorrow, we are going to the Hall Porter. I can’t keep living in this room with…’
‘Nkiru will you for the sake of God just shut up!’ China screamed. ‘I understand why you have to feel that way but that is never the solution. Your roomie already knows she has a problem and she tried to solve it. See, this isn’t urine,’ she pointed at her elbow. ‘If I’m correct, this is the smell of Dettol and water which she must have used to clean the mattress! Just handle this like the adult you are and be sensible .’ She sighed. ‘I need to change before going out this evening.’
She stormed out, her afro bobbing, her purse clutched over her butt to mask the wet stain.
Ola was still staring at the dusty floor, her lips quivering, eyes brimming.
‘N. k I’m sorry.’, Ola whimpered.
Nkiru hissed in response and turned back to kneel over the erratic burner.
‘Now tell me what we’ll sleep on tonight?’
‘I swear I cleaned it, I even used the iron…’
‘You still don’t get the point so just shut up!’
Ola paused to survey the crowd before her. What met her were eager eyes, each engrossed in this unlikely story that she delivered. Clearing her throat, she continued.
Ọla met China again two weeks later on the classroom hallway. She had just received her last lecture and was hurrying to the hostel when they ran into each other. China screamed gleefully and hugged her tight, almost crushing the breath out of a fidgety Ola.
‘Roomie! Roomie! How you dey nah?’
Ola smiled uneasily as she answered, her throat dry and locked.
‘Oya come, you’re done with lectures for today right?’
Another uneasy nod.
‘Come. I need to talk to you. ’
Ola followed her on leaden feet, allowing herself to be propelled by the sound of her voice and the firm grip on her wrist. They settled in an empty hall and China began to speak.
‘If it’s about what happened the last time we met, don’t worry. I understand what is going on with you. I just need you to be open with me so we can help you. You get?’
‘Now, Enuresis isn’t something only little children experience. Adults too, experience that. Annd, it’s not the fault of the individual. There are so many things that could trigger it. So, be calm, limit your fluid intake and work with me. We’ll find a solution to your challenge. Eeh?’
Ọla smiled weakly and whispered a thank you.
‘You’re always welcome, dear. Give me your number and check out the following websites for info,’ she bent over and scribbled on a sheet of paper which she offered to Ola.
‘China, God bless…’
‘Don’t worry. It’s what sisters do ooh? Now just go home and rest. I see you’re tired… plus… I have another lecture to attend very soon.’ She winked as she walked out, her sandals thumping softly and her steps hurried. Ọla kept watching her till she disappeared in the milling crowd on the hallway. Breathing heavily, she put the sheet in her bag and headed home, her heart feeling light, dreaming of afros and dark-skinned angels.
Ola cleared her throat and continued, wishing that the smarting pain in her chest would subside.
‘China and I met many times and she charted my wet versus dry nights. She became a regular visitor to my room, always smiling, joking and laughing;a human ball of energy. She advised me and countered my roommate. So many times, they fell out. It was until a month later that she directed me to go and visit her family doctor who she said treated her siblings of the same condition. I did so and came back to meet her with the lab results,’ she said and bit her lower lip.
They met again outside the library. It was late evening and the air was fresh with the smell of new rain. The rains came early this year; in March, Ola noted as she surveyed the empty field. The weather was too cold and the field too slippery for a game of football. She had waited for quarter of an hour when she saw China running towards the mango tree under which she stood. She was dressed in a sleeveless shirt and baggy shorts with boots. Clearly, she wasn’t afraid of the cold, Ola noted with a wry smile.
‘Pheww, Ọla you’re here’, she breathed, ‘Sorry I didn’t change, I just returned from lectures.’
Ola felt a bit overdressed in her woolen jacket and long gown that touched her ankles with plastic slippers. She smiled.
‘Why is it that you don’t like talking? Whenever I say something, you just nod or smile. That’s not communication oo,’ China queried.
Ola smiled again, ‘Maybe I just don’t have much to say in your presence.’
‘Ọ dị egwu, it’s people like you that chatter like parrots when you think nobody is watching.’
An abrupt pause.
Ola fumbled in her handbag and handed over the pristine white sheets with crisscrosses of blue and some, green. China took them and motioned her to sit on the metal bench under the mango tree. Her look became serious as her sharp eyes skimmed through it all and heaved a sigh. She looked up at Ola, ‘What did the doctor say?’
‘Uhm… He called it an infection. He said something like U. T. I. andDiabetes too. Do you know what that means?’
Her tone deepened in concentration. ‘The reports seem to disagree.’
She raised her face to meet Ola’s and said, ‘Ola, your journey on this earth is not finished. Ịnụgo?. Just be calm and listen.’
Ola’s eyes snapped open and her chest began to palpitate.
‘Nne, I called him an hour ago. You have a urinary tract infection and he suspects you are in the early stages of diabetes.’
Ola shuddered and her palms turned cold. As cold as they were that morning when Nkiru stood watch over her as she headed to the bathroom to wash the wet mat she now slept on. As cold and wrinkled as they’d been when the Hostel mistress called her up on stage in anger during the last hostel meeting. Nkiru had reported.
Ola felt China’s warm arm go around her shoulders and pull her into a warm hug as her body quivered with renewed sobs.
‘Ozugo oo, it’s enough. Ọ ga-adịcha mma. It shall be well.’
And she stayed that way, snuggled against her, inhaling the musky scent of her perfume.
At this point, Ola sniffled and stopped. She let her eyes rove around the hall, taking in the different shapes and faces watching her intently, entranced by her narration. Clearing her throat, she continued.
‘Chianakwana helped me through it all; the treatment, medication and insisted that I visit a therapist. Luckily, the doctor was wrong about the diabetes. I had a urinary tract infection and she saw me through it all. She made me leave my roommate to stay with her. She wanted to keep an eye on my progress.’ Ola wiped her forehead and sniffled again. This was becoming harder by the second.
‘I owe Chianakwana my enuresis-free status now. She… She… was my support. I am… proud… to say today before you all… that…I am grateful for her presence in my life and how she touched my life. I am thankful for the joy and laughter that she carried everywhere with her till the day she left us without warning, in a motor accident.’
She was sobbing now.‘China, you’ll always be remembered. Rest on.’
Quickly, two female students ran to her side to support her as the master of ceremony announced that the undertakers should take the coffin out for interment.Ola watched it all; the shuffling feet, the moans and screams and cries of anguish. She saw on each face, the most affordable expression of grief; tears, grunts and others dark with the gloom that belonged only to loss.
About the Author
Chideraa Ike-Akaenyi is a storyteller who enjoys reading literary fiction on the complexities of human emotions. . She identifies deeply with the writings of Akwaeke Emezi, Noviolet Bulawayo and Chimamanda Adichie. She believes herself to be a student of the world and spends her time reading and writing fiction or searching for the next historical movie to see.