Night Fires – Chapter 1: opening pages

He had authority, this big Igbo. When he said, ‘Hadissa, you know how it must be’, it was quite clear what he meant. She had always known it was futile, but starved of love and denying her own code of conduct, had resisted the truth of it. Even at their first meeting, crouched together over the torn body in the feverish intensity of the operating theatre, she had yearned for him, profoundly aware of their bloody fingers entwined with each other among the tubes and wires. Beads of sweat on his forehead, his moist, slightly pendulous lower lip trembling with effort. A woman’s life fast ebbing away beneath their hands. His touch on hers, together on the wounded flesh, a necessary, shadowed intimacy, a crux point of life and death. Yet, watching the muscles on his bare, glistening arms and conscious of his warm, vibrant energy, she felt insignificant, out of count. Finally, his hands stilled, he had spoken of his wife. Obliquely, how like her, that woman on the table probably had children waiting at home, unaware. A muffled voice beneath the mask in a hot, windowless room.

Sluicing the blood afterwards, masks discarded, she asked, “Is she in danger, then, your wife? Is that what you meant?” There had been riots, nationwide.

The sun streamed through the dusty windows and the dirty white plaster walls glowed like new decor. Sweat circles under their arms and across their chests. Hubbub outside, but not their business. Their shift was over.

“No, I was talking about that woman. My wife’s safe enough. She’s on my farm in Lagos. I go back whenever I have leave. Check the stock. See my children.”

She hadn’t asked, how many children, or how old. Nebulous, anonymous beings. Yet she was curious about his marriage and still moved by his touch. Yes, she thought. But do you love her? It seemed important to know, and some days later she asked him, in bed with him in the Nurses’ Home. Her hand playing over his wet, hairless chest, she passionately needed to hear from his own mouth how he might justify his infidelity. Craving a denial.

“Do you love her, then, this wife of yours?”

Outside the street erupted. A shot, a scream. A bin crashed to the ground, glass exploded – a window, a flying bottle. The sound of running feet, then silence. Covering his black nakedness with the crumpled regulation sheet, he went to the window and peered out into the pulsating darkness. Turning, his eyes were uneasy, hooded, and secretive. His was an arranged marriage, he said, with animals given in token. “Love” was not a word he recognised. She was his wife, and pre-empting her, added, he would never take another. As a Christian, he had renounced polygamy. It was all she needed to know, he said, except that one day he must go back. In flesh, if not in spirit.

“Go back to live? Make your life there?”

He shrugged. “I mean a job in Lagos.”

That had been months ago. She had stilled her questions, the subject closed between them. Until last night when, with cautious wariness, he had given her his quietus.

“You could have told me before we made love!” Bitterly humiliated, she almost screamed the words. Dragging herself back on the pillow, scrambling with her legs to find purchase on the mattress, feeling she must get up, meet him at his own base level. Shouting at each other in the dark, their faces lit to chiaroscuro by the hurricane lamp. Both conscious that outside people were being maimed and killed. Sirens blared; in the corridor a whisper of feet, muffled exclamations, the front door slamming.

He was sullen, implacable. “You’ve known all this from the beginning.”

Her tears wet on her cheeks, her hair in disarray, she raised her head and looked at him coldly, almost with hate.

“You also have known,” she said quietly. “So why now, suddenly?”

She spoke with dignity; and with his head hanging, he answered her. He was afraid. Someone in authority had found out, taken him aside, told him he had good prospects – if he kept his record clean.
Stung, she threw the words at him. “And what of my record and its cleanliness?”

Guilt in his eyes, he collected his things and left. Unaware of the careful shutting of the door, she knew by the settling stillness of the room that he was gone. If she went now she would find him at the hospital, but instead she lay down as if to sleep, smelling his smell on the sheets and hugging the pillow to her face. Trying to drown out the sounds outside and in her head. For a while, in the accusing emptiness of the Nurses’ Home, she had slept, but woke to misery.
She had felt soiled before, but never like this. Her wantonness, her promiscuity, filled her with shame, but his attraction to her, like the electricity, was spent. She was consumed by anger at his treatment of her. She would wipe his name from her mind as he, with one stroke, had wiped hers from his. She lay with the covers pulled up to her chin, the night sky creating a thin film of light over the pillow, damp with the tears of her dreams. She had woken once, sharply awake, hearing her name, Hadissa, Hadissa.... Now she loathed this room where she had been so happy.

God help me, I’ve got to get away from here!

She was on the bus. Somehow, she had got up, showered, put on her uniform as precisely as ever. The streets were teeming, everyone on their way to work or home from the night shifts. The rising sun was obscured by a red miasma of dust and fumes and smoke from the night fires. An armoured car blocked an entrance to a side road. Litter lined the streets. Outside every shop, scavenging dogs ripped at the black plastic sacks and bulging cartons. Snarling, as they had snarled last night, tearing at the mounds of rubbish.

God help me, I hate Kaduna. But I cannot get away....

She hurried down the corridor towards Casualty. People lay silently hunched against the walls. They might have asked, “Where were you?” but their forgiving, pain-filled eyes slid away, watching the sweating medics. A never-ending stream of patients, the consulting rooms full.

Hadissa loathed the casualty department. She hated the machete wounds, the dangling limbs, the blood, the shock, the desperate, restrained moaning. During a moment’s hiatus the relatives crowded around her, bewildered, asking inarticulate questions. “Where is God in all this?” “Is this in his plan?” She had no answer for them. She was asking the same questions. Were it not for the endless conflict there was so much else that could have been done, small operations to change people’s lives.

She worked all day without a break. Again, she heard her name called in the same crooning voice, Hadissa, Hadissa, and she turned, but it was nothing. As night fell, a girl-child was carried in and laid on her lap, small, unconscious, innocent, her face and her fragile arms lacerated by shrapnel. Hadissa held her close, peering for signs of life in the tired, shattered face, in the empty, unseeing eyes.

Shall I ever, now, have a child? She laid her gently on the trolley, for she was fainting, fainting....

Her head of department stood over her, a patina of red dust on his polished shoes. Unlike the junior medics who covered their feet with green plastic covers and dressed in rough cotton tunics, he always wore western dress. A tall man with a barrel chest, imposing, dignified. She dared not meet his eyes or face his disapproval. His first words seemed to confirm it.

“You must go away, Hadissa,” he said gravely. “Here, drink this.” His voice was deep; the vowels wide in classic fashion, each syllable accentuated. He squatted down in front of her and handed her a plastic cup of water from the blue fountain. Thankfully, she drank, but this surrender of his dignity filled her with unease.

“You’re worn out, Hadissa.” He raised his hand as if to touch her knee. But no, of course he wouldn’t touch her. “It’s obvious to us all. You’ve not been yourself for days. Now get up – slowly, slowly now. That’s right.” He stood up. “Now, Hadissa, you must pack your bags. I want you to go to Kateri. You need a change of scene, so it may as well be you.”
Kateri, her own village. She was horrified, and for the first time her eyes met his. His wide pockmarked face, so familiar from months of working next to him in the crisis atmosphere of the operating theatre, or listening to him in tutorials, now seemed the face of a stranger. Was this an oblique way of dismissing her?

“You are sending me home?”

“Ah, of course, you come from Kateri, don’t you? I’d forgotten that, if indeed I ever knew it. What a coincidence! Yes, but not in disgrace, Hadissa. Why, do you think you have failed us somehow? No, no,” – not waiting for an answer – “it’s where the new clinic is sited. Didn’t you know? When were you last home?”

“A while ago. I heard nothing about a clinic.”

“Well, it’s a new venture. And you have family there?”

“My twin brother. And... my mother.” Ah, what would her mother think of her? “But I hadn’t thought to go back...”

He folded his arms over his stethoscope. “Your training will continue there, Hadissa. Do good work and it will be counted in your favour.”

“Work?”

“Of course. What did you expect, a holiday?” He smiled at her encouragingly. “No, someone has to go, so as I say, it may as well be you. You’re just right for it. Why, you’re a most acceptable part of this team! Everyone knows how dedicated you are. We all think the world of you.”

“Go back...” Her tone was mournful, defeated.

He looked at her sternly. “Hadissa, right now you must go where you’re told. Who knows, the finger of God may be pointing...”

Hadissa put her head down and began to cry openly, her words muffled by her sobs. “You don’t need me. I’m useless. I don’t belong anywhere! I’m all used up, for Christ’s sake!”
He turned from her as if losing patience, affronted by her tears, muttering almost angrily, “Nurse, what better way is there of being used up, than for Christ’s sake?”