‘A for Abortion’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
I walk into the tiny living room as Nne is asking Madu where his woman is. Seeing me, her expression morphs from casual indifference to righteous anger.
‘This is no woman,’ she says. ‘This is a child!’
This sparks a brief debate between them over my age. While they speak, I stretch and yawn. The ride here had been a troublesome one. Madu’s car is a large black Volkswagen. Its seats are soft and comfortable, and it appears even larger from the inside. It is so spacious that one afternoon while driving me back from the market, Madu had parked on a lonely stretch of road and taken me into the back seat amidst the groceries. I like Madu’s car.
I do not like the Peugeot we drove here in. It is old and small. It overheated at least three times and had some trouble with something Madu called the clutch. Every time he was forced to park to do whatever it was to fix the engine, he forbade me from leaving the small uncomfortable seat until we reached Nne’s place.
The road to Nne’s house was riddled with potholes. The Peugeot’s motions were so violent that when I finally got out, I felt like I had received a beating worse than when I had burnt Aunty Ugochi’s favourite blouse while ironing it. I suspect Madu rented the Peugeot to disguise the true nature of our outing. He does not want one of Aunty Ugochi’s friends to spot his car parked outside Nne’s house. There is only one reason a married man visits Nne.
She is famous for her nursing skills and notorious for the work she does on the side— the termination of unwanted pregnancies. If the rumours are to be believed, there is not a single married man in our local government area who has not brought some mistress to her. The younger men and women, who are not ready for parenthood, run to her door when the results of their lusts begin to show. The scantily clad women who loiter at Obi Junction visit her as regularly as housewives visit the confession stands of Saint John’s. In her little one-room apartment marriages are preserved, jeopardized futures are redeemed and the prostitutes’ livelihoods are secured.
I have often heard my mother and other women say it is all a scam; greedy mistresses use her to extort money from men. The mistresses, they say, tell the men that they are pregnant and demand marriage. They threaten to show up on the men’s doorsteps with their swollen bellies.
The panicked men plead with them to agree to a visit to Nne’s house. They will of course pay Nne’s expensive fee and ‘settle’ with the mistresses for ‘inconveniences.’
At Nne’s place, the men are told to wait outside while she works. And while they pace the verandah and bite their nails, Nne and the mistresses laugh themselves silly at these foolish men. An hour or so later, they split the money and the mistress limps out while Nne shouts: ‘Make sure she rests and eats good food!’
These stories are peddled by married women who dislike Nne and her kind, perhaps to console themselves about their husbands’ infidelities or to discredit Nne. Or both.
Unable to convince Nne that I am an adult, Madu silences her by pulling a bundle of money out of his pocket. He rips off the paper band holding the new notes together and begins counting. They haggle over the price. She insists that my youthfulness makes her work all the more difficult, so he must pay more. In the end he hands over the entire bundle to her.
Nne takes the money, passes a thumb and index finger on her tongue and begins flipping through the notes, her lips moving as she counts.
Satisfied, she shouts, ‘Mary!’
‘Ma!’ The voice that responds sounds exactly like Nne’s.
Footsteps approach, and soon a younger version of Nne appears. She is not much older than I am but does not greet Madu. I make a point of not greeting her as well. She stretches a hand to collect the money from her mother. Like her mother did, her fingers touch her tongue, then flip the notes, her lips moving. Watching her, I feel like I have travelled backwards in time to when Nne was much younger.
While Mary counts, Nne dictates instructions, and Mary nods her understanding. When her mother is finished, she turns and disappears through the door that she emerged from.
‘Be fast,’ Nne calls after her, clapping her hands twice.
Nne turns to me. She seems to be taking me in properly for the first time. Our eyes meet. She looks away. Her eyes roam her living room. It is littered with mismatched furniture of which a single red armchair is the most prominent piece. There are four armless plastic chairs, each one a different colour from the others. They are arranged in a rough semicircle, at the centre of which is a small wooden table. There is a larger, longer table against a wall at one end of the room with a small stool next to it. On the table rests a large box. It must have been white some time before, but it is now a light brown. At its centre is a big bright-red cross. On the floor at one end of the room, a very small television sits on a CD player.
Nne’s gaze settles on Madu briefly before returning to me. She does not look away this time but begins swinging her arms back and forth nervously. I look back at her, wanting to let her know that I do not want to be here. I want to have my child—Madu’s child. If it is a girl, I will name her Oluchi, after my grandmother. If it is a boy, his name will be Madu, and his father will call him Junior. I try to let her know my wishes. But I do not see recognition in her eyes.
‘Mama!’ Mary’s call interrupts my attempts at telepathy. She and her mother share a brief, loud exchange regarding the location of certain items. Perhaps tired of having to yell, Nne retreats to the inner room from where Mary had called, probably glad to be away from my gaze.
Madu produces a clean white handkerchief and dabs the back of his neck. It is then that I realize just how hot the room is. The windows are covered by thick curtains which, while ensuring privacy from prying eyes, also keep out fresh air and light. With the door closed, the only source of light is a small incandescent bulb that throws its yellow light upon the room with an intensity one would expect from a much larger bulb. It is positioned too close to the dust-coated ceiling fan so that each sluggish pass of the blades creates a strobing effect that makes me feel dizzy.
The cleanness of Madu’s handkerchief fills me with pride. I washed it myself, putting that little bit of extra effort I always do when washing Madu’s clothes since the night he told me he loved me, while Aunty Ugochi was away attending her grandmother’s burial. That night was special. Usually, he waits until Aunty Ugochi is fast asleep, then he sneaks out of their bed and comes to my room. But that night, I was the one who made the trip down the hall to his room. It is the only time we have done it on his bed. It was the night I knew I wanted to have his child.
The next time, like every other time before, he had asked me if it was a safe time in my cycle. I lied that it was. When I told him that I had missed my period, he was livid. I claimed I had miscalculated and he calmed down somewhat, but I think he knows of my deception. Either way, we are here in Nne’s house because Aunty Ugochi must never know.
Footsteps approach and I assume it is Nne returning, but then I hear singing. It is an old nursery rhyme. I barely recognize the words, but I remember it well enough to know that the singer is very much off tune and slurring the words. A woman seems to glide into the room. I have never seen her before, but Ruth is exactly as I have heard people describe her.
She is fair in a sickly way and reminds me of a wall gecko. Her face and features are large. Her eyes seem intent on escaping their sockets, but her irises are tiny dots against the white of her eyes. Her body is slouched, but she is obviously very tall. Her red and black checkered dress floats just above her knock knees, exposing pale, scrawny legs.
Women like my mother call Nne shameless. Their hostility towards her often leads to heated exchanges and verbal abuse that threaten to spill over into violence. Nne seldom backs down, but sometimes she ignores them. To get a reaction from her or win an argument with Nne, a spiteful woman would turn on Ruth, Nne’s eldest child. They would say Ruth was an imbecile or moron. My mother would say that God had used Ruth to punish Nne for her occupation. Why then, I wonder, had God given her Mary afterwards despite Nne not changing her ways.
Ruth walks across the room and settles herself on the old armchair, then Nne and Mary join us. Nne and Mary begin to rearrange the living room furniture, and in a matter of moments the room is transformed.
Now, the only thing still in its original position is the armchair with Ruth sitting in it. She is working her way through a list of nursery rhymes that must exist in her head. The plastic chairs are arranged one atop the other and placed against a wall along with the centre table.
Several layers of clothing are placed on top of the long table in the centre of the room, and a worn piece of white tarpaulin is laid over them.
Some effort has been put into cleaning it, but I can still see the blotches of faded blood stains on the tarpaulin. I can easily imagine them as they were—glistening red. Suddenly, my stomach is in knots.
Nne beckons me to the table. My palms begin to sweat, and I find myself hoping desperately for the part where Nne will ask Madu to wait outside, and we can laugh while he paces on the verandah. But my pregnancy is real, not something I made up to extort money from Madu—I would never do that—and I am certain Nne cannot afford the damage to her reputation should a pregnancy she claims to have aborted keep growing.
Still, I let myself imagine a future where I keep my baby. Madu and Aunty Ugochi’s marriage implodes quite spectacularly in my fantasy, and he marries me. The women of our village will be brutal in their criticism. They will call me husband snatcher and home-wrecker, but I will ignore their hostility. It will be irrelevant because I will have Madu. I will be his wife, and we will be happy.
Nne beckons me to approach her. I do not move.
Madu places a gentle hand on the small of my back. ‘Go.’
His whisper is barely audible as he pushes me forward. I look at his face. It is an emotionless wall of handsome features and beautiful brown eyes staring intently from behind his thin-framed spectacles.
Nne calls to me again. My feet remain rooted where they stand. My eyes are fixed on Madu’s face. I do not notice Mary’s approach, but suddenly she’s standing in front of me. She eases herself into the space between Madu and me, so her smile is all I can see. Her arm wraps around my shoulder, and I find myself moving with her towards her mother. Nne has a smile similar to her daughter’s, as she pulls on a pair of blue surgical gloves. The knot in my stomach tightens.
When they are not calling her a scammer, the wives of our community paint a sinister picture of Nne and others in her line of work. Sometimes they talk of the women that die while undergoing the procedure for which I am here now. Hearing their stories, one would think they were describing butchers. If anyone points out the fact that nobody has ever died on Nne’s table, they shift their criticism. They say most of the women end up with their bodies destroyed so they can never have children again. They also claim that the blood of the aborted foetuses is used for moneymaking rituals. Looking at Nne’s poorly decorated living room with its unpainted walls, I doubt that very much. Still, all the cautionary tales run through my mind. Fear stiffens my body even as Nne guides me onto the table and Mary places a pillow beneath my head.
Mary gives me a couple of white tablets which I chase down with a cup of a malt drink. Soon I am lying on the table, my legs spread apart so my bare womanhood is before Nne, who sits on the stool at one end of the table. Ruth finishes her latest nursery rhyme as Nne slides a cold metal into me. I hear her laugh and clap her hands. She begins reciting the ABC song as they taught us in nursery school, but the words are different.
‘A for abortion,’ she begins. ‘B for baby…’
Nne cautions her to stop in an offhanded manner that tells me this is not the first time Ruth is doing this and that Nne does not really expect her to stop. She does not.
‘…F for foetus.’ She sounds giddy, as if spurred on by Nne’s request to stop. ‘G for gamete. H for hymen…’
‘What’s the meaning of this?’ Madu sounds irritated. They ignore him. He stands at a corner of the room with his hands crossed, watching intently as Nne works.
Mary holds one of my hands in hers and caresses my hair softly. When she is not talking with her mother, she is smiling at me. Her smile is almost relaxing. Perhaps if I wanted to be here, if I did not want this baby, I would let her smile put me at ease. I would let myself travel through the portals that are her deep brown eyes. I would let Ruth’s strangely worded song lull me to calmness. But I want to keep my baby.
‘It’s almost over.’ Mary’s words are meant to reassure me. Instead, panic floods my veins, invades my muscles and bones, squeezes drops of sweat out of my pores. I cannot stay here. I cannot let this happen. I cannot let them kill my child.
‘Sorry.’ Nne raises a forearm to her forehead to wipe off sweat. ‘It’s almost over.’
I move to get off the table. Mary realizes my intention too late, and her attempt to pin me down arrives after I have already been halted by the sharp piercing pain inside of me. A short scream escapes my throat that animates the statuesque Madu. In an instant he is standing behind Nne, peering over her shoulder. His face is a mask of worry. Nne and Mary have masks of their own—shock and panic. The piercing pain I had felt when I moved had been replaced by a brief numbness, succeeded now by an enduring pain that draws distressed moans from me.
‘What’s happening?’ Madu taps Nne’s shoulder rapidly. ‘What did you do?!’
Nne brushes his hand away. ‘She moved,’ Mary says, pointing accusingly at me. ‘She tried to get up.’ She sounds like she does not believe her own words.
Madu looks at me accusingly. They all do.
‘I’m keeping it,’ I manage to say between moans. I place both hands on my abdomen. I watch Madu’s eyes widen, and I wonder why is it so hard for him to believe that I want to keep our child? Does he not know that I love him? Does he not love me?
I follow his gaze and realize it is not shock at my words that made his eyes seem to double in size, but horror. He is staring at the dark red liquid flowing freely from between my legs. The blood pools on the table before spilling over the edge. Nne jumps to her feet just as it pours onto her thighs. Standing there with her apron soaked red, she brings to mind again the image of a butcher.
‘Z for zygote.’ Ruth finishes her song and in the same breath begins again. ‘A for abortion.’
I realize I am beginning to feel tired. Now, I so badly want to rest. Nne, Mary and Madu begin a screaming contest. Madu calls Nne a quack, and Mary calls him a useless man. I want to retaliate on his behalf but feel too tired to think up a hurtful rebuttal.
‘Take that back,’ I say. No one hears me. I barely hear myself.
Nne calls for calm. She insists she can still fix it. Madu stops shouting. He crosses his arms and taps a foot on the floor. Nne blurts instructions to Mary so rapidly I am unable to make out a single word. But Mary nods. When Nne is done, Mary bolts out of the room.
‘Be fast!’ Nne yells after her, clapping her hands as before. She picks up the large first aid kit and rifles through it. Suddenly, she stops, and in a manner similar to her daughter—but even quicker—she heads for the front door. She reaches Madu when he is halfway out the door.
‘Where do you think you are going?’ She digs her hands into his trousers below the belt and grabs fistfuls of fabric. I do not make out his response, but he wags a warning finger in her face as she pulls him back into the house. Was he leaving me? I want to ask him, but I have become too tired to even sit upright. I allow my body to fall back onto the table, and as my head sinks into the softness of the pillow, I know I will never raise it again.
Madu is screaming insults and accusations at Nne. Nne is screaming back at him. I can hear them, but all I can see is Nne’s dirty ceiling with the slow turning fan and solitary bulb. I can still hear Ruth singing and Mary’s frantic footsteps as she moves inside the house searching for whatever it was her mother had asked for.
I let them all fade away and imagine my children. Unable to settle on a gender, I decide they are twins—a boy and a girl. They have my skin but their father’s features. I take them both with me as I disappear into the bulb’s bright yellow glow.
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