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RUST-STAINED BEDSHEET

The perimeter of the hospital was around 700m, 800m at most, almost a standard field, but it felt longer. Nwudo started off at a sedate walk, then accelerated to a jog. Now, she was moving at full speed- more accurately, as fast as her joints allowed.

The entrance, through the accident and emergency unit, had some persons trying not to be obvious while staring at her. She spotted some faces at the windows. They were shaking their heads. Aside from that, nobody gave her much attention. The nurse had looked at her, certain she wasn’t a danger to anyone and went back to her station. Perhaps she wasn’t the first person to attempt a mini-marathon at St John’s hospital. The thought saddened her.

*********

She could have told him he was pushing his way to an early grave. Jogging 20 miles every day did the knees no good. She could have told him that popping vitamin pills will not restore his youth despite the assurances of the pimply-faced lady in the pharmacy store. She could have told him that he should be grateful for having just a routine colonoscopy. She could have told him that a wig, no matter how expensive, wasn’t going to obscure his baldness. But she told herself he wouldn’t have listened. And that was the truth.

under the sheets

He listened when his colleagues said he was in great shape. He listened when they said he was the rising star of his company, that his career was off on another trajectory, but not when she said it would put a strain on their finances. It was a near thing, she shipped their children to boarding school. She spared them the agony of watching their father wear skinny jeans to church. Then he passed that phase and took up bodybuilding.

He was one of those men that did things backward. He spent his youth chasing success and then spent his later years trying to recover his youth.

The guests were beginning to arrive and Nwudo had wanted to remind him of the speech he was to give on their behalf. She met him sprawled on the kitchen floor, the blender whirling one of his herbal shakes, and his pupils staring eerily into space. He was wearing her Chelsea jersey, the one she wore on her rare visits to the stadium. The same one he called tackily, and yet stretched its polyester. His fingers curled over a bottle cap, the content of the water bottle pooling on the tiled floor.

The more shame; who died on his wedding anniversary?

*********

She had been running for minutes. Her chest burned, and her thighs groaned at the strain, but her legs wouldn’t stop.

The nurse was back again at the entrance. She was talking with a man in green scrubs and pointing at her. She resisted the urge to give them a jaunty salute as she circled the hospital for the sixth time. The nurse’s red-painted lips were moving at lightspeed. The woman was brief and eloquent when she told Nwudo that her husband was dead. Nwudo had told the nurse to repeat herself. The circuit linking her ears and brain slashed open.

Nwudo had entered the antiseptic-smelling room demarcated by plastic curtains and dropped her purse at her husband’s feet. His skin felt warm and she almost called back the nurse to take a second look. The doctor had long moved on to another patient. She placed her ears on his chest, not believing. If this was another of his tricks, she would give him a good talking to. She held her breath, not wanting to miss the soft thump of his heart. Nothing happened. Then she drew the white sheet over him. It had a rust stain on the side. Her husband would have railed and ordered a VIP room. He would have used words like ‘impetus’ to show his dissatisfaction. But her husband made no sound. He felt alien. And she knew he was truly gone.

Nwudo felt lightheaded and welcomed the sensation. If she ran long enough, they would put her in the same cubicle with him, cover her with a similar rust-stained bed sheet, and then he would be pressed to make a quip about ventilation. That would serve him right. But her legs failed and she drew to a stop. Her chest drummed in miles per second.

She wiped the hot wetness from her cheeks. She wasn’t one of those women who looked pretty when they cried; her eyes swelled and took an unbecoming shade of red.
Nwudo inhaled long and deep, but it didn’t ease the burning below her breasts.

How would she explain to their daughter that her father won’t walk her down the aisle, that he won’t sing “for she is a jolly good fellow” for her in his deep baritone when she completed her doctorate? Will she say it with utmost disbelief? Or will she say it casually, like an afterthought? Perhaps after talking about the last episode of Super story, she would say “Oh, by the way, your father is dead.” Her daughter, Adaugo, was due to visit soon. Should she wait till then? Then she will be able to hug and press close to her daughter. Yes, she decided. That’s what she would do.

Nwudo tried to tell herself that she was lucky- most of her friends were long widowed or divorced- but she couldn’t. Who would slip incongruous notes into her briefcase and tell her bawdy stories over the dinner table? Who would tease her when she had a bad day? Who would tell her she was worrying too much when her son got into one of his scrapes? He was the worst type of bully, a kind one. Who would give her a reason to drink Scotch straight from the bottle?

The nurse was coming towards her.

Nwudo gave what she thought was a reassuring smile.

“Is there someone I can call for you?”

Nwudo shook her head, she was too breathless to speak.

But the nurse held Nwudo’s purse and brought out her phone. She called out some names before Nwudo nodded at one.

Her daughter picked at the first ring. “Hello, Mum.”

Nwudo crumpled and began to cry.

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