I am eighty, sick and laying on the laps of death, its seductive hands slowly snatching me away from this world. I am ready to go, but not without sharing her story.
The first day I saw her was like any other. I was playing tennis with my friend Kunle at the country club when she passed by with an infant in her arms. I had stopped and stared until she walked into the club restaurant. A ball whizzed past my head and I turned to find Kunle at the other side of the court with a quizzical look on his face. “Huh?” I asked absentmindedly and walked to retrieve the ball Kunle had carelessly thrown.
“Who were you looking at, Mr Man?” I could hear the humour in his voice, “Don’t you have a girlfriend, Chibuzor?” I ignored him and took my stance, ready to serve the ball.
“Besides, she’s married,” Kunle paused, trying to gauge my reaction to his news, “to that soldier guy… Uche.”
“That’s too bad, then.” I replied with a shrug in a bid to hide my disappointment.
The second time I saw her was unlike any other day. It was two years later, late 1966, on the last train to Onitsha. I had been on my way from Makurdi to Oturkpo on my bicycle, earlier that day, when the disaster broke out. A blue Ford roughly stopped in front of my bicycle while I was riding past the famous Market junction. Kunle jumped out of the car and exclaimed, “Chi-boy what are you still doing here?! They are killing Igbos and throwing their bodies into The Benue! You need to get out of here now.” I let my bicycle fall to the ground as I absorbed the news.
“Godspeed my friend! See you soon.” Kunle said, once we were safely at the chaotic station. That was the last time I saw him. I dragged my feet towards the only train left at the platform. It was a cream locomotive with a chain of four cars which didn’t look safe enough to travel in but people didn’t care. Injured men, forlorn women and confused children scurried and squeezed themselves inside. No one wanted to die. I made my way towards the chaos but not before two men held onto my rumpled black shirt. “You be Igbo abi?” They attacked so fluidly in Pidgin English. Not dignifying their question with a response, I shrugged them off and continued to the train. One of the men hit my head with a large stick. I recovered quickly and kicked him in the groin. The other man came at me and I delivered a blow to his chin. I ignored the disconcerting sound of cracking bones as I struck him with the discarded stick and darted towards the train.
“Your head is bleeding.” She had said as soon as I stepped on the train.
Surprised, I turned to see her staring at my head, arm-in-arm with her two-year-old. I felt like I was watching a scripted play.
“Oh, I hadn’t noticed.” I said as she sighed in resignation.
The place smelt of thick sweat, stale urine and of course, blood.
“I know you,” I suddenly burst out, “From the club. Where’s your husband?” I immediately wished I hadn’t asked that particular question when her face suddenly fell.
“They killed him.” She said simply and turned back to stare through the window.
The silence that ensued was both conforming and uncomfortable and I racked my brain for something to say to this new widow. “Where are you going?” I asked, trying to swat away flies that were tired of perching on a man’s wounded leg and were now circling my head.
“I don’t know,” She said.
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t know.” She glanced at me, “I’m not from the East. I’m from Benue. I just can’t stay there anymore.”
“I see.” Her little girl looked at me with wide eyes and I smiled at her. The child returned my smile with a wide-toothed grin. “I’m Chibuzor.” I declared.
“Beatrice.” She said, looking up from her daughter to look me squarely in the eyes. There was just something about her eyes, that seemed like they could see through my cool demeanour and expose how scared I really was. We didn’t say much to each other, since the circumstances around us left us sombre enough.
I insisted on helping Beatrice with her accommodation problem, simply because I wanted to know more about the woman. We found our way from Onitsha to my family house at Ndiowu in Anambra state where my elder brother lived with his wife and children. I had no choice but to share a room with Beatrice and her daughter, Precious. It didn’t matter that we barely knew each other because we were already in desperate and unsettling times. In the middle of the night, Beatrice cried so hard I thought she was going to faint from fatigue. Unsure of what to do, I rolled over to her and placed unsteady arms around her. She immediately held on to me and sobbed some more. “Uche and I had a complicated marriage… I don’t know whether I’m happy or mourning.” She had whispered when her sobs quelled. I stared at the broken woman in my arms and before I could gather coherent words of comfort for her, she said, “I don’t know how to thank you.” We stayed that way till Precious yawned awake.
The first time I kissed Beatrice was in 1967 in new Biafra, when the disasters of war did nothing to quench our hopes. “Win the war!” was all we said those days. We built bunkers but had little use for it since our village was pretty much in the bush.
“I keep thinking about our soldiers…” She had said while we were idly plucking German mangoes from the front yard. I didn’t miss her use of ‘our’. “I wonder who’s taking care of them?” she asked, picking out the mangoes that had been eaten up by birds from the bowl.
“I guess there are people…” I trailed off and then tried to change the topic, “I think I should climb and get more mangoes.”
“I want to be a nurse… there’s a woman that says that the military are short on doctors and…”
“With what qualification?” I interrupt her, giving her an incredulous stare while I awaited her response.
Her lips turned up in a sad smile and she walked closer to me. “No one cares anymore, Chibuzor,” She paused, “I’ll learn.”
I looked at her stubborn beautiful eyes and knew I was in love with her. I closed the distance between us with one quick move. It was one of those kisses that graduated into something more; slow and sensual at first, then hurriedly like we couldn’t get enough. My hands moved to her waist and backed her against the mango tree. Her trembling hands found their way to my neck and she pulled me harder against her. Soon we were tumbling and laughing our way into our small room and trying not to wake Precious from her nap.
The second time we made love was the very next day and it was when we first discussed our future. I had whispered to her, “I love you… and I love your daughter.”
She tilted her head to look at me. “Let’s get married,” she said slowly.
“We’re in the middle of a war, Beatrice.” The impact of her words hit me harder than I could imagine.
She giggled. “I love the way you say my name…” she said, her hands trailing down my stomach. I clenched my muscles as I felt blood rush south creating a delicious throbbing ache, yet again. “Let’s get married.” She repeated.
Our first big fight was two days after our wedding in 1968. The hunger was getting to us and the smell of death left us feeling weak and morose. The woman who had been teaching a few girls and Beatrice about nursing wounds and tending drugs arrived at our house to say that more nurses were needed at a camp in the new capital.
“I won’t let you go, Beatrice! We just got married for Christ’s sake. What if something happens to you? What will happen to Precious?” I said, as soon as the words escaped Beatrice’s lips.
“You’re being selfish Chibuzor. This is not about me or Precious. You are the one that doesn’t want me to go! You want all your loved ones to hide out in this…in this bush and be uninvolved! You won’t even let your brother’s son be recruited even though he is willing and capable. Where is your hope?! People are dying and our soldiers need help!” She said, yelling and crying at the same time.
“They are not your soldiers! You are not even Igbo!” I shouted back. We stared at each other, the tension was palpable and our heavy breathing was the only sound that could be heard in the small room. My heart broke when I saw new tears brimming in her eyes. I was just about to regret my words when little Precious rushed into the room, crying from a fall. Soon, the three of us were enclosed in a tight embrace, weeping profusely. We wept for the hope of a nation and the dearth of it that was soon to come.
We made love that night, like it would be the last time. Everything seemed different and I held her tight long after our breathing settled.
“You need to wash the condom… we don’t have any other one.” She had whispered to me while we snuggled against each other. When I shifted my head so I could look at her, she began to laugh. She had once been the wife of an esteemed soldier in the Nigerian army and I had once belonged to a country club. Now, we were rationing our salt and pouring powder in washed condoms to remove the stickiness. We laughed and laughed, like insane people, at the silliness of our poverty but with a strange contentment in our hearts.
“Don’t you think I should have an Igbo name, since I’m married to an Igbo man again.” She joked. I looked at her oval face and realized she could actually pass for Igbo. She had golden skin and a gap between her two top incisors that was hidden by gorgeous plump lips.
“Nnenna…” I said, my heart bursting with love for this woman. “It suits you.”
“I like it!” She laughed and asked, “What about for Precious?”
“Hmmm…” I thought about the daily deaths because of the meaningless war; painful to those who felt it but collateral damage to those far away from it. “Chimuanya. God is awake.” She began to laugh again at the length of it.
The last time I saw Beatrice was late November, 1969. Numbness had taken over our souls and when we said ‘Win the war’, it sounded like a mockery. I had taken Precious to the camp to see Beatrice where she was the head nurse.
Her eyes lit up when she saw me and she declared almost immediately, “I’m pregnant!”
I had mixed feelings about this news because I felt our world was not ready for new life but, joy overtook my uncertainty and I hugged the woman I loved. We lay in bed and talked about potential names and the house we would live in once the war was over. It was like a new hope was born in us that night.
Then, we heard a round of gunshots outside.
Next thing we knew, the Hausa soldiers were bundling us out and lining us up on our knees. There was no time to unravel the mystery of how they got in our camp because they were already shooting people in the head. They let the white reporters go, except for the ones they had identified as the mercenaries.
“What’s your name?” they would ask before shooting. I didn’t understand why they even bothered, since everyone present was supposedly an easterner; well, except Beatrice.
She was kneeling beside the nurses while I was a line away from her. All I wanted to do was hold her hand. I remember thinking; this is the day we die.
A woman pleaded with one of the soldiers, “You can kill me but please spare my child.” The soldier looking remorseful, asked in Pidgin, “Where your child dey?” the woman, despite her tears, pointed at where her two-year-old son was crouched. The man walked up to the child and shot him in the head before walking back to the line.
I thought my heart would stop when Beatrice shouted, “You monster!”
They all looked at her without emotion. “Wetin dey do this one? What is your name?” Their leader asked.
My heart was beating wildly in my chest. All the blood in my body had rushed down to my feet. Hot, painful tears pushed at my eyes and I closed them and held on to Precious who was beside me. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. All I could do was shield Precious from watching.
Then, I heard her stubborn voice calmly say, “Nnenna.”
The loud gunshot still resonates in my head. Sometimes I don’t even want to believe that I am still here, but sadly, I am.
Adaobi Onyeakagbu (@) is an 18 year old engineering student studying somewhere in Nigeria. She has been featured on various platforms and won the challenge me contest 2016 of naijastories.com. When she isn’t writing, she dabbles in modelling.
Related country: Nigeria