As unusual as it was, Akua stayed in the room that whole day. As long as she was in the room, no one talked much. No one even coughed with comfort. It was only when Benedicta entered the room that the heaviness that seemed to hang in the room shifted, receded, and even so, only slightly. Shortly after Benedicta had left the room, that heaviness returned, and this time with a grimmer edge which was as bone cold and ancient as it was intimidating, yet all too familiar. With humans, especially.
The heaviness left with Akua, when she finally went out a little before dusk.
The following is the second and last part of the story, Not Without Okro. Read the full Part 1 here if you haven’t already.
* * *
It was only after Akua was away when Naa told Mina about how she had used Akua’s sanitary towels the day before. Mina meant to rebuke Naa for not telling Akua earlier in the morning, but Mina’s words and voice dripped with plea and angry fear. It was Dora who, albeit odd of her, had added, ‘Who is she, by the way? Why must anyone enjoy being dreaded like the way she carries herself about? Are we not supposed to be roommates?’
‘I don’t know which one of us here dreads Akua. I don’t know… I just don’t know. All I’m saying is that Naa should have asked Akua for the pads. Or she should have told Akua that she had used her pads the last time. Akua is female too. She will need the pads soon. Soon or now. Who knows? Only for her to find that…,’ Mina worried.
‘How often does she stay in this room? If there is no such thing as roommate, then why did she ask me for one?’ Dora flared up again, this time, too forced and quite unnecessarily.
‘Dora, don’t pretend you don’t to know why I’m concerned. I’m not in my menses. Akua is, I suspect. And she was in the room the last time I was asking for a pad. On behalf of Naa. Now, you both know that for reasons best known to her, I am the last person Akua should suspect took her pads,’ Mina strained to hold back the lump of pain clogging her throat.
In a flash, Dora remembered the look on Akua’s face and the glares which Akua had cast at Mina that morning. As the pictures of the faces flipped past her gaping gaze, Dora shivered. She quickly tore herself from the ‘trance’. She shrugged, jerked her head and with a twitched mouth, squealed ‘She can go to hell.’ No one was amused. Not even Dora herself.
A taut silence ensued. It loomed large in the room. Dora, Mina, Naa, looked helplessly lost, felt weighed-down, empty-spirited, too afraid. Of the silence. Of all that had happened those few days. Of Akua. And of everything. Even Mina had to admit, for once, to herself, that she dreaded Akua. And Mina could not explain why she sorely missed Benedicta. All of a sudden…
Suddenly, ‘E-heeh, Mina, tell me about the second movie,’ Dora started, and in so doing, undid that silence, but only some.
Mina began, dryly, ‘It was about three sisters who always quarreled over nothing. One day, one of them decided she had had enough. She could not tolerate the other two anymore. She just did not want to continue staying with them. So…’
The door went knock, knock, knock.
‘Male or female?’ Naa asked, indifferently.
‘Female,’ replied the sheer baritone of a voice.
‘A-a-a-a-h. Eric. Please wait,’ laughed Naa.
Naa quickly wrapped her naked body in a towel. She snatched a panty and for the first time, asked Dora for something – a sanitary pad. Dora pretended she was only surprised at the request in itself. Naa rushed out to the bathhouse. The next two minutes, she was talking to Eric on the verandah. The next minute, she was in the room, to dress up, to go out with Eric.
When she returned in about three hours’ time, Naa came with the oddest collection of items: more-than-generous helpings of banku with really slimy okro stew which contained assorted, animal protein items; six colourful strips of kente; five rare-shaped, different-colour shades of sea shells; four fancy, lacy hair bands; two tired fireflies trapped in one random transparent polythene bag; a leather-bound, customized diary for the just-around-the-corner next year; a terabyte computer hard drive; one cute promissory ring. And three packets of sanitary pads.
Around 10p.m., Benedicta came to meet Mina, Dora and Naa sprawled on the floor, devouring a feast. Benedicta did not wait to be invited.
For the mere love of the food and the crisp cheer of the moment, Mina, wet with sweat, suddenly lifted her head from the food. Amidst short, quick gasps for breath, Mina vainly fanned herself with her left hand. Finally, she managed to say, still between the gasps, ‘Naa, now I understand you. Provided you will always give me some, you can always eat banku with anything okro. I will nurse you when the cramps come.’
Benedicta and Dora had to hold their sides with laughter, at Mina’s words.
Naa nearly choked with eating, laughing and replying Mina: ‘Foolish girl. What I love will kill you. Too. First.’
Everyone knew Mina was not that shallow to have meant what she told Naa, but Mina did not look like she was joking. Maybe the food had some not-exactly-funny effect on Mina, in particular.
Suddenly, it was raining. Thunder ripped the solid black sky into shreds. Dora, Mina and Benedicta could feel the rain drumming on their skulls. Their feet turned wobbly with the tremor of the concrete floor.
At first, Benedicta thought to start tellingly her roommates to repent. Surely, this must the second coming. To her roommates she must preach Jesus the Christ. Once more. This one last time. Just when Benedicta remembered that Akua had not been in the room all this while, and that she was still not in the room, even that late in the night, something bit Benedicta hard in the stomach. She flew to the washroom.
Two minutes later, Dora followed. To the washroom. Then Mina. By the time Naa was tugging at a toilet roll, everyone knew the reason why nature had decided to call them in turns at such a doubly dark hour.
And Naa was the only one who did not return from the loo in one piece. On her way back to the room, Naa slipped and fell hard on the verandah. One lady who was enjoying a free-night call on the verandah said she heard the crack of something like harmattan-dried coconut and the crumbling of a sun-caked mud house, when the fall occurred. Dora was the one who said no one should pay attention to what the lady had said about Naa’s fall. Amidst the pangs in her bowels, Dora explained, ‘That girl. She is in a Creative Writing class. At the Department of English. Together with that guy I have a crush on. Those students are like that. Big English, big describing for simple small things.’
Naa laid, pale, limp, and still, on her bed. She screamed pain at the slightest touch. She stared unblinkingly at her roommates’ worried, hovering faces around, above her. Dora, Mina and Benedicta took turns keeping wake by Naa and using the washroom.
With everyone not knowing what to do to help each other, especially to help Naa, Benedicta decided to grind two tablets of Paracetamol and some other coloured tablets, on a mock saucer, using the back of a long teaspoon. After, she stirred the near-powdered drug into a plastic tumbler of cold water. With one eye screwed shut, Benedicta watched the cold namelessly coloured concoction twirl and climb up and down the sheer narrow length of the transparent tumbler.
Dora teased Benedicta: ‘Shi-e-e-e-e, the Maame Nurse. Or is it Doctor?’
This turned out to be a lame joke in a grave time. As grave and lame as Naa. That, everyone knew too well.
Bit by teeny little, the three squeezed the liquid down Naa’s throat. It was Mina who carefully saved every drop that frayed off Naa’s lips, and gently forced it back into Naa’s mouth, as if Naa’s life depended on that very drop, and that alone.
The next morning, Dora, Benedicta and Mina woke up with itchy blood-shot eyes. None of them knew better than to blame the woes of the previous night only on the food they had eaten. And none could readily think of what else to blame. Worse still, none of the three remembered having slept at all during the night. And even though they would all agree that she needed it (for a reason they might never know), the three let Naa sleep…
That morning, the birds were not heard singing. Their songs were drowned in some distant unhappy droning. One of the cleaners was slumped at one far end of the floor’s verandah. She was crowing a lone long wail. The wail. It woke up most students on the floor, and the block. For those who were too deeply asleep to be roused by the wail, it seeped into the dregs of their nightly dreams. Out of both curiosity and irritation, many students poured out of their various rooms onto the floor. Some ventured towards where the cleaner sat. A few asked her what the matter was. The cleaner answered to no one in particular.
‘She is gone o-o-o-h! She is gone. Dead. Gone. Just like that!’
The cleaner, a woman, paused to swallow on the choking of her mixing talk with weeping. Then she hurriedly felt for, and fetched one end of her faded threadbare cover cloth. She meant to wipe her tears and fill the end of the cloth with a generous goblet of mucus from her nose, but she ended up smudging her right cheek – almost to her right ear – with the last of the streak of mucus. And the cleaner, she was too sad to care that she had spited her face. She heaved. Heavily. She sighed. With fresh grief. Then, the cleaner continued, again, to no one in particular:
‘How can a candle burn a woman and her son to ashes in one night? Within a short, small time. And in the midst of heavy heavy rains? Hmmm!’
Without any warning of any kind, the cleaner sprawled on the cold concrete floor and exclaimed so hard that her vocal cords, on their own accord, screeched into a hiss, then to a clean stop. Some of the students tried not to laugh. Even the Psychology students did not know what to make of all these.
Then suddenly, she sat up, wiped her tears with the back of her right hand, and rather calmly, said, ‘I told her not to take the money. The way that young lady had insulted her, it was not good. Not good at all. But if Prince Maame had not taken the money she had seen in the pad wrapper which the young lady had swept unto the mobbed verandah, maybe, just maybe, this too would not have happened.’
Having heard these last words of the cleaner, Dora covered her opened mouth with both hands. She hardly muffled the scream. Without thinking and willing it, she turned round, running back into the room. Just then, she saw Akua, and more of her, Akua.
Akua looked drunk, ruffled, tossed and was covered in a thin film of dust. As one cool morning breeze heaved past the block, two bird breastbone feathers shifted and waved from the cleavage of Akua’s breasts.
Mina shot past Akua and Dora, into the room, all the while, beating her bust. Then screaming all the life out of her lungs, Dora soon sped after Mina. All attention on the verandah turned on the two. The crowd swooped after Mina and Dora, towards the two’s room.
The crowd saw Benedicta’s head buried in Naa’s bosom, on the bed. The crowd could not tell whether Benedicta had cried, because her eyes, just like Dora and Mina’s looked like they had been reddened and swollen for long – throughout the night before, possibly. Bereft of tears and voices, Dora and Mina hissed, groaned and hissed some more.
Meanwhile, Akua stood frozen and transfixed in the room’s doorway. All around Akua’s frame, the crowd continued to stretch and lower their necks, all eyes peeking and peeping their way into the room.
An earlier version of this story, titled Life on the Wrong Side of Okro, was first published in two installments (Friday 20th & 27th July, 2012) in Citi 97.3 FM‘s The Weekend Globe, a lifestyle news magazine.