Nwanneka didn’t like to be inconvenienced. And she was getting inconvenienced right now. She also didn’t like when she had no power to stop an inconvenience from happening to her. And she felt particularly powerless in this situation. One of her father’s cousins, Aunt Chizoba, came into town yesterday for a medical appointment, and Daddy had instructed her to drive the woman to the hospital.
Her! And not her brothers, who conveniently were suddenly too engaged for the errand. Nonso, her older brother by a year, had an aptitude test tomorrow and had chosen this morning to go to Gbagada to borrow his friend’s GMAT textbook. Reginald, her immediate younger brother was sixteen and hadn’t got his driver’s licence yet.
But if it’s to drive over to the supermarket, Nwanneka thought grumpily, mummy will let him drive her Honda.
It wasn’t just about today which she’d planned to spend with her friends seeing a movie at the E-center in Yaba getting ruined – and she was plenty ticked off by that –; it was also about the nature of this assignment. Her aunt was HIV-positive; she’d been diagnosed last month in Enugu, where she lived with her family. Her diagnostician had contacted a doctor in Lagos and fixed it so she’d be getting her antiretroviral medication from the more sophisticated facility here in Yaba. The appointment Nwanneka was going to drive her to would be her second, a furtherance of her treatment.
That meant that she, Nwanneka, would be taking her aunt to a place teeming with people suffering HIV/AIDS. The mere thought made her skin crawl and she shuddered in spite of the fountaining heat of the morning. What were her parents thinking, sending her off to do this? Putting her at such risk? Wasn’t it bad enough that they let Aunt Chizoba stay in their house? Thankfully, Mummy had put her up in the visitors’ room. Nwanneka had been all set to raise hell had Mummy instructed for the two for them to share her bedroom. And thank God they had a maid whose job it would be to wash the linen from the visitors’ room when Aunt Chizoba was gone. She had no intention of getting her hands anywhere near those sheets.
Yes, yes, they say HIV can only be transmitted through blood and sex and saliva – Wait, is saliva on the list? Whatever, she thought dismissively. These scientists don’t know everything abeg. The virus may have become airborne, and they don’t even know it yet.
She had bought an air-freshener the day Aunt Chizoba arrived, and had taken to spritzing her room with it every now and then. Anything to keep Aunt Chizoba’s virus out of her personal space.
Personal space she was now going to have to share with her in the car during the drive to the hospital, Nwanneka realized with some irritability as she watched her aunt step out from the verandah of their house and start for where she stood beside her mother’s car.
She observed the woman as she approached with a small, halting gait. Had she always looked so old? Nwanneka thought, her stare sizing the woman up. Her shoulders appeared slumped, and there were wrinkles on her face, crevices that seemed more pronounced now, sinking deeper into the flesh. The smile she flashed her niece was wan as she stopped on the other side of the car.
“Ngwanu,” she said, “k’anyi gawa.” (Alright, let us go)
That’s another thing with her, Nwanneka thought surlily. She likes to speak Igbo too much. This woman sef…
She sniffed with some disdain and jerked open the door. Inside the car was stifling. The other woman waited until she had depressed the locks before opening her door. Nwanneka fiddled with the AC and the vents. Hot air shot out as she engaged the gear. By the time she pulled out of the street to the closest junction, the heat in the car was broken.
She drove for a few moments in silence before her aunt said, “The hospital anyi na-aga, is it far?” Her voice was slightly guttural as she suddenly began to rummage through her bag.
Nwanneka shot her a quick look and opened her mouth to answer.
Just then, Chizoba squinted her face in that expression that told you a sneeze was on its way. And then, she sneezed, a violent affair that juddered through her body and appeared to rock the car.
Jeeezuz! Nwanneka recoiled in horror, as she envisioned microscopic, virus-laden boogers floating about in the car and stretching their diseased phalanges at her.
Oh my gawd! She gasped inwardly. Daddy has killed me oh! She grappled for the car window winder and vigorously jerked it around, pulling the window on her side down. A rush of warm air surged in, just as cold wisps escaped from the car.
Along with all the HIV, she hoped fervently, unable to quell the look of distaste that was etched on her face.
Her glance fleeted towards her aunt, and she felt some disconcertion when she saw that the woman was looking at her.
“Nne, okwa imana that I am not onye ekpenta, right?” Chizoba’s voice was solemn.
Nwanneka quirked her brows in incomprehension. “What do you mean, aunty?”
“A leper. You do know that I’m not a leper, don’t you?”
“Of course, I do…”
“Then why do you treat me like one?”
Nwanneka’s laugh was brief, forced and embarrassed. “I don’t treat you like a leper, aunty…” she protested feebly.
“Really? You could have fooled me.” For a woman who loved to speak Igbo, Nwanneka was surprised by her impeccable English diction. Daddy had once mentioned she was a secondary school teacher. “Ever since I arrived yesterday,” the woman continued, “I’ve noticed that you’re the only one in the family who has kept her distance from me.”
“Aunty, it’s not…it’s just…that is…” She flailed for an explanation.
“Don’t bother, I understand.” Chizoba turned her head away from her niece. Her features were ironed into somber lines as she looked out at the passing vista on her side of the car. “No matter how advanced the world may claim to be in the enlightenment of this illness, there will always be people who will stick to the credo of ‘we fear what we don’t understand’. Ever since I was diagnosed, I have come to realize something. If the world is full of lonely people, as they say, it means the loneliest” – she turned to face Nwanneka again with a sad smile – “are those who live with HIV.”
Expectedly, Nwanneka did not have any response to her aunt’s monologue. She simply muttered ‘I’m sorry’, and then lapsed into a sulky speechlessness. Silence reigned in the car, a deep hum that thrummed with the awkwardness the two women felt for each other. They didn’t speak another word until they got to the hospital. Nwanneka pulled up in the car-park, and Chizoba opened her door.
“You don’t have to come in with me,” she said as she clambered out of the car.
So you can report to my father that I was irresponsible, abi? Nwanneka thought, before saying somewhat reluctantly, “I don’t mind.”
Truth be told, she would rather not go in. The outside was hot, with the morning sun glaring down with a fury that made you dread how hot the afternoon would be. But surely, enduring this heat was better than the coolness of an inside filled with sick people. She trudged along behind her aunt, her focus on her Blackberry, her fingers flying across the keypad as she groused with the friends she wouldn’t be joining at the E-center.
The reception of the Infectious Diseases wing was filled with people – patients and personnel – and the stale smell of sickness and disinfectants. It was that kind of smell where the odour had seeped into the walls like rodents that ended up dying and rotting.
Nwanneka felt very queasy as she watched Chizoba walk over to the front desk behind which stood a perky nurse still dressed in her street clothes. A few minutes passed while she submitted her patient card, and got registered on the log book, joining the impressive lineup of invalids scheduled to see any of the three doctors on call. She went to sit on one of the long wooden seats, and Nwanneka gingerly got down beside her, making sure to discreetly leave a few inches between their bodies.
“So what’s next?” she said.
“Well, we’ll wait until it’s my turn to see the doctor. All he’ll do is ask me some questions to determine my progress, you know, to see if the drug is doing its job.”
“And after that?”
Chizoba shrugged. “Then I suppose I’ll be sent to the lab so they can take my blood for further examination, and that’ll be it.”
Blood – Oh gawd… Nwanneka stifled a groan as her queasiness ratcheted up a notch. She hated blood. She hated hospitals. She hated being here.
One of the patients coughed. Another sniffled loudly. A toddler wailed lustily against his mother’s bosom. Most of the other people sat, waiting, staring vacantly ahead of them, as though contemplating the long day ahead of them. Nwanneka lanced a peeved look over them. She hated all these people with their HIV and their AIDS. She couldn’t wait to get out of –
Oh! Well, hello there…
Her angry rumination screeched to a halt when her gaze settled on a man standing, leaning against the counter that was the front desk. He was watching her, even as she watched him. Feeling slightly self-conscious, she slid her gaze demurely away for a few seconds. When she returned it, it was to see that he was still watching her.
And why shouldn’t he watch her? She thought, giving her head a little toss. Without being immodest, she knew she was fascinating to look at. At twenty-three, she had the kind of body men loved – rich and generous and full of promise. She was vibrant and attractive. Who wouldn’t watch her? Who wouldn’t want her? In school, all the guys lusted after her. She’d once been asked out six times in one afternoon. Six! But she’d declined all the offers. She couldn’t date any of them. She didn’t have time for small boys.
But this man…ah, yes, this man – he certainly looked like someone worth her attention.
He had that tall, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped frame that made her think of nights of steamy passion spent in his arms. Very male. Very tough. His face was ruggedly handsome. An interesting face. Strong features. Dark eyes. Thick brows. And his dressing… Mehn! That dark suit, white shirt, dark-blue tie down to the spit-shined shoes; it all screamed ‘CLASS’.
In a few microseconds, she was done sizing him up. When she returned her gaze to his face, he inclined his head slightly and smiled, as though he was fully aware of her inventory of him. She smiled coyly back at him. He lifted his hand and wiggled his fingers in a greeting. The gesture looked silly to Nwanneka. Weak. Feminine. She hoped he wasn’t one of those, because if he was, she was ready to nip this burgeoning chemistry between them in the bud.
She had to be sure though. I mean, she thought, he simply cannot take his eyes off me.
She got to her feet.
“Where are you going?”
Her aunt’s voice startled her face around. She’d even forgotten the woman. “I just want to go out for some air,” she answered. Without waiting to hear whatever reply Chizoba had to give, she sauntered to the double doors at the entrance. She paused to look back at the man. She held his eyes fully and smiled. He smiled back. Nwanneka saw no point in being too subtle about these matters. It just wasted time.
She walked out and down the roofed passageway of the hospital ward until she got to a nearby juncture that was considerably secluded by a cluster of shrubbery growing around. Moments later, she heard the creak of the doors as they were swung open. She turned. The man was walking down toward her. He was smiling. She smiled back. Her heart began a faster tattoo.
He stopped before her and said, “You left your friend in there.”
She lost her aplomb for a second, realized who he was talking about and chuckled. “Oh no, that’s not my friend. She’s my aunt. Much too old to be my friend.”
He nodded. “I thought so.”
“Besides,” she said coquettishly, “I like to think I have friends wherever I go.”
“I’ll bet you do.” His answering laugh rumbled attractively. “What’s your name?”
“Nwanneka,” she said.
“Nwanneka,” he repeated, his mouth forming a moue over the word as though testing it for taste. “I like the name. It’s pretty. You’ve got a very lovely name.”
And she believed him. She had never really liked her name. She’d often begrudged her parents for not christening her some exotic English name like Esther or Belinda. It had to be Nwanneka. Such an Igbotic name. But now he had mentioned it, she could see all the loveliness in her name.
“Well, I’m Olutayo Braithwaite. My friends call me Tayo.” He thrust out his hand.
She shook it, finding it strong and hard, but with a surprisingly gentle touch. Much like his voice, which was quiet and gentle, yet had a resonant, distinctly masculine timbre.
Just then, a thought nudged its way through and her eyes widened. “Wait a minute, you’re Tayo Braithwaite,” she husked.
His lips twitched. “I just said so.”
His brow lifted. “Yes.”
He chuckled. “When you say it like that, I take it you’ve heard about my family.”
Are you kidding me? She wanted to scream. If he belonged to the Moshood Braithwaite family, then who hadn’t heard of his family? The Braithwaites were one of the wealthiest Lagos families she knew of. They stank of such old money, that it was hard to imagine them as anything but pampered and rich. The patriarch, Moshood Braithwaite, was right up there in the echelons of Aliko Dangote and Mike Adenuga. He was a multi-millionaire with extensive connections in the business, social and political circles of the country. The women in the family constantly graced the fashion pages of This Day magazine. Why, just the other day, she’d read on Linda Ikeji’s blog the gist that the luxurious 17-bedroom mansion one of the sons owned in Banana Island was worth 7 million US dollars.
Nwanneka suddenly felt giddy with delight. Can you imagine? She thought, exhilarated. One of the Braithwaites is about to chyke me. Bless you, daddy, for sending me out on this errand.
She batted her eyelids and said, “So, is your father Moshood Braithwaite?” She had to be sure.
Tayo ducked his head. “Yes. Yes, he is. I am the last of his sons.”
Wow! A hot flush of pleasure surged through her. Talk about hitting the jackpot.
“And what do you do?” she asked, then quickly added, “Wait, don’t tell me. Let me guess.” She looked upward, feigning thoughtfulness. “Let me see, a doctor, right?”
His smile widened. “And you guessed that because?”
“Well, you have a very…um, doctorly look.” Is that even a word? She wondered fleetingly. “Your appearance – very simple yet elegant. Your clothes, the hospital…” She splayed her hands in an expansive gesture. “Wait, you don’t work here, do you?” Because, in her opinion, a Doctor Braithwaite shouldn’t be working in a government HIV/AIDS clinic in Yaba. He should be in some posh private practice in Victoria Island or Lekki.
He chuckled, and instead of answering her question, asked one of his. “What about you? What do you do?”
“Well, I’m a final year student of history and International Studies in Unilag.” Final-year student, you hear? Not too young to be Mrs. Nwanneka Braithwaite. That has a nice ring to it. She beamed.
“You’re smiling,” he said. “Why are you smiling?”
“Why shouldn’t I smile? It’s a beautiful day. I’m happy. I’m single. And all is right with the world.”
“Yes.” My, he catches on fast.
“How is it a pretty lady like you is single? What, no boyfriend or fiancé?”
“None that can handle this,” she said, sweeping her hands in a downward gesture over her body.
His dark brows arched. “Oh, really? What kind of man can handle you?”
“Well, the kind of man that can express himself to me in ways that are very, very interesting.” She lowered her lids and looked at him through her lashes. “Can you express yourself, Tayo?”
“That depends. Can you take the heat?” His voice was soft, as intimate as a caress.
She chuckled, enjoying the tension that was starting to pulsate between them. “I’m sure I can. You’re not one of those strong, silent types though, are you? You look strong, yes” – she flicked a finger lightly over his clothed forearm – “and I like strength, but not silence. I like to know how a man is feeling. I like some noise.”
“You do, huh?” He laughed again. “You sure you’re grownup enough to know noise in a man?” His smile took away the sting in the words.
“I am.” She drew herself up. “I’m as much woman as you’ll ever get anywhere else.”
“I can see that.” His grin widened. “When I saw you earlier in there, I said to myself, now there’s a very pretty girl – sorry, woman, who is not afraid of a little noise. I’ll bet she’s quite noisy herself. Under the right circumstances.”
“Are you the right circumstances, Tayo?”
“You better believe it.”
Again, she believed.
He looked steadily into her eyes.
She looked steadily back.
The sexual tension tightened.
Her skin prickled and her bosom swelled underneath her clothes. She felt hot, and she was certain it wasn’t as a result of the morning’s heat.
The hospital’s double doors creaked open again, and footsteps shuffled out.
“Olutayo Braithwaite!” hollered a nasal voice. Its volume cut through their tenseness like knife slicing through butter.
Tayo moved one step back from her.
“Olutayo Braithwaite!” the voice called again.
He turned his head. “That’s me,” he answered.
The person who had called his name was an orderly. His uniform hung, white and starched, over his body. “It’s your turn, sir. Doctor Njoku in Consulting Room 2 will see you now.”
Hearing those words, Nwanneka felt the world around her suddenly tilt. “It’s your turn…? What does he mean?” She gave a small, shaky laugh. “You’re seeing the doctor…you’re the doctor, aren’t you?”
Tayo replied in an even tone. “I never said I was a doctor. You assumed that.”
“But…I don’t understand… If you’re not a doctor here, what are you doing here…? And why did that man say it’s your turn…I mean, why…” She faltered to a stop, her head rejecting what her mind was articulating.
“It’s my turn to see the doctor because I am here for my checkup.” He waited a beat before adding, “I’m HIV-positive.”
Her mouth dropped open, forming a nearly perfect ‘O’ and her eyes were big saucers, as if her face had frozen immediately after hearing his words. “You are…? You can’t be… You’re joking, right? You can’t be. You look so handsome and healthy.”
His lips twitched with wry amusement. “As I should be. Because HIV doesn’t kill. AIDS does. But I don’t have AIDS now, do I? With what I have, I am capable of living a long life” – he paused and added pointedly – “long enough to make all sorts of noise.”
Nwanneka caught the innuendo. But she had nothing to sally back at him. Her smile flickered like a dying flame. Like the arrival of a sudden storm, a cloud had swept over her nascent thrill, dousing all the passion she felt for the man before her. She said nothing in response. Such a hunk…what a waste, her mind lamented.
Tayo turned his body, preparing to move back inside. “So, we’ll see again soon?” he asked.
“I…I don’t know…” she replied, with a shake of her head as if shivering off a touch of nausea.
He finally caught on to her new emotion. He smiled thinly, with just a hint of a headshake, and without another word, turned and walked away from her. Nwanneka was left wondering what sort of cruel game the Fates had just played on her.