BITTER PERCEPTIONS: CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Author’s note: Three chapters posted today. Did you read the previous two?

Doris

October 1, 1972—the night Rupert Duru’s fate was forever sealed. The men at the Independence Day ball twirled their elegantly-styled partners to the highlife music spinning from the record player, briefly pausing to sample the scrumptious spread laid out on the buffet table. South London’s Nigerian community had carefully planned this gathering for weeks, and everyone agreed the organiser had outdone himself that year. Clara Osuji, a student nurse from his region back home, stood behind the buffet in a pink apron, serving fried plantain and exchanging pleasantries with other guests. Who is this stunning angel, he wondered?  

      Just as he plucked up enough courage to ask her for the next dance, he overheard two other admirers discussing her excellent qualities. Her kind heart, industriousness, amity, and intellect. And her affluent background. His heart sank as the mention of her privileged upbringing overshadowed her other attributes—what would the well-bred daughter of a wealthy tobacco merchant ever see in a scholarship student whose father made a living as a cook/labourer? Clara could have her pick of any spoilt rich kid, and had already caught the attention of several eager African undergraduates, as well as a few adventurous Englishmen also present. The competition for her heart looked rough. Rupert grabbed his coat, muttered his goodbyes, and stepped into the chilly October air outside where he waited for the No. 249 bus with a heavy heart. Why did Clara have to be out of his league?

     If only he hadn’t jumped to conclusions too quickly. One year later, Mum and Dad said “I do” in front of their closest friends, the reception held in the same church hall where they’d first met, but the odds were stacked against them from the beginning. Dad’s snooty in-laws never hid their disapproval, arguing their daughter could have done better than an impoverished student without two pennies to rub together. They quickly had a change of heart when Dad proved himself as a hard-working accountant with a bright future, gaining employment with Shell Nigeria after he returned home with Mum, Fred, and myself a year after my birth. At Mum and Dad’s 35th wedding anniversary a few decades later, I watched in admiration when Dad took Mum’s hand and lead her to the middle of the room in front of  delighted guests and well-wishers as he twirled her to Wrinkar Experience’s “Fuel For Love” (He’d been too shy to ask for that dance nearly forty years ago, but as he jokingly reminded the audience in the hotel reception hall our family had booked for the occasion, better late than never). Mum and Dad’s friends sang along to the lyrics, trying their hardest not to heckle Dad’s subpar moves, and in a humorous joint speech the twins thanked Mr. Kanu, Dad’s old friend from their London days, for introducing our folks a few days after the Independence ball.  

      Many years later, Fred would twirl his bride to Kenny Lattimore’s “For You”, and I agreed they’d chosen the perfect first dance song, but I couldn’t imagine Andrew doing anything similar. His idea of romance entailed a five-second sloppy kiss before breaking away to ask “Isn’t that enough for you?” His unwillingness to ignite any excitement associated with love had made me question our engagement a few times until I asked myself what romance had to do with longevity. Mum and Dad weren’t exactly PDA advocates, thank God (Imagine walking in on your parents making out in the living room, gross!). And what about Harrison, overly affectionate with his hugs, kisses and freshly-picked hibiscuses before he dumped me after I refused to deliver the goods? Who needed flowers and chocolates anyway? Romance was overrated. I had Andrew, he was my fiancé, and I had convinced myself it was enough, but as I sat at the canteen table polishing off the last of my fried rice, I wonder if his lack of affection served as an early sign I chose to ignore. Nevertheless I breathed a silent prayer, thanking God for delivering me from that bigamous bastard. To think he could have sexually molested me in my own living room while his real family in America waited patiently for his return, leaving me to rot in singledom. Just my luck—everyone around me getting married and having babies. Everyone but me. And despite everything I’d said years ago regarding keeping a safe distance from the opposite sex, single life sucked. 

      I rummaged through my wallet to find some money for the tip jar on the counter, stopping to smile at the faded snapshot of Mum and Dad at Trafalgar Square in the photo section—Dad rocking his short-sleeved safari suit and gravity-defying Afro with a side parting, Mum showing off her shapely legs in a floral shift dress, and balancing her petiteness on dangerously high platform sandals. The epitome of 70’s cool, although Mum’s threaded hairdo stuck out of her head like tree twigs. Thank God no-one wore that style anymore, but at least threads were better than that TCB stench the family put up with when Mum switched to jherri curls in the 80’s. Mum and Dad had persevered through thick and thin (not just in terms of their crowning glory), and were still going strong. In contrast, Andrew had never complimented me even once, shattering every last shred of my confidence by criticising my appearance, questioning my whereabouts, accusing me of flirting with Dr. Chidiebere…

     Andrew had cheated behind my back and laughed unashamedly after I discovered the secret family he’d concealed in another corner of the world. I felt sorry for them, particularly the children, but how was I to know? He swore to me and my parents he’d never married because he’d waited all his life for someone like me. If only I’d guessed his other Facebook page with false information had served as a decoy to conceal his double life. What if I hadn’t bumped into Jasper that fateful afternoon? I’d still be lonely and frustrated while he barked orders down the phone, completely ignoring the wedding date we were yet to fix. And he had the audacity to lie to my parents during our visit to Owerri? Mum had been spot-on with her suspicions—a 40-year-old successful Nigerian businessman based in America who had never married. On what planet? The whole situation could have been avoided if I’d never met the vertically-challenged two-timing piece of crap. Why was I so unlucky in love? Were all men dirty lying swine?

      I stood from my table, and my Hyundai keys fell from my lap. A colleague stooped to pick them from the floor before I could retrieve them myself, and I chatted with him briefly before we parted.. So what if I didn’t have a man? In the five years we’d spent together, I’d never depended on him for financial assistance—I jingled the keys to my own car, I never missed the rent on my own flat (I now made enough money to live on my own without flatmates), and every single penny I made from presenting The Doctors in addition to my salary from Future Hope went into my own account. I’d made something of my own life, but Andrew believed he could escape with a light slap on the wrist after he’d nearly ruined it. Time for him to receive a rude awakening.

     I speed-dialled Fred’s number and waited as the dialling tone vibrated through my ear.

     “Freddie Teddy, how are you…bad time?…no, all is well…listen, I’ve been thinking, maybe you could help me with my latest plan…yes, I am talking about Andrew…no, he hasn’t approached me since…he has to be dealt with, and I need your help…oh, and we need to call the twins…I need their help too…”

***

      Dad’s retirement from Shell Nigeria gave him enough spare time to flick through his vast collection of hard-coverbacks at our newly-built family storey just outside Owerri. Mum wasn’t quite ready to hang up her nurse’s cap, and now practised midwifery in the maternity home she opened with her cousin a few months after we left Shell Camp. Uncle Robin had also retired, but remained in the Garden City with Aunt Bernadette where the latter ran her nursery school, and both were delighted to welcome Christopher and Christian, now final-year students at UniPort, into their empty nest. Fred’s property development firm grew from strength to strength, and fatherhood suited him perfectly.  With the help of her husband, Juliet had already found the perfect location for her café scheduled to open the following year. Anna, who had quit her job with The Guardian shortly after her wedding, was now the proud mother of two adorable angels, Ngozi and Chinwe. Her fashion and lifestyle blog earned her a fortune in advertising and endorsements, and other ventures included collaborating with a popular designer to start her own range of African-themed swimwear. String bikinis, most likely.

      And there was me. Doris Duru, medical doctor/rape crisis volunteer/TV presenter. Full stop.

      Yuletide lingered in the air, and after the Andrew Amadi saga I longed for peace and tranquillity in a different environment. I had ten days off before the New Year; just as well since I’d already spent the last two years working through Christmas, and it would have broken Mum and Dad’s hearts if I failed to show up yet again. Of course, they switched over to BassNet to watch The Doctors every week, but nothing compared to having me at the table for Christmas dinner, and I couldn’t turn down another opportunity to sample Mum’s legendary cooking. 

      I followed to other passengers into the airport. Peace and tranquillity? What a joke. It didn’t take long before an elderly man waiting in arrivals announced “Look, it’s Doris Duru from The Doctors!” Before I could escape after politely shaking his hand, fans waved pens and phones in my face requesting autographs and photos. Oh boy, so much for my quiet holiday, I thought, but what could I do? These were lovely people queuing up to praise their daughter-of-the-soil who represented them nationwide, but I nearly lost it when an obese lady requested medical advice for her asthma without a proper examination. Reminding myself to never leave our family home without some form of disguise, I signed as many autographs as I possibly could until a tap on my shoulder made me turn around. The twins had arrived in Dad’s old Peugeot to rescue me, and I hugged them gratefully. I appreciated my fans, but now was the time to put my feet up and relax for the rest of the holidays surrounded by family.

     “Sorry everyone, but Dr. Doris is in a hurry right now, and we need to leave,” Christopher announced to the ever-growing crowd who groaned with disappointment. “Some other time, perhaps?”

     “Sorry, but thanks for the support, really appreciate it. Merry Christmas!” With these words, I dragged my suitcase behind me, the twins following behind with the demeanour of two overly-attentive bodyguards. It amazed me how they’d metamorphosed from annoying hyperactive brats to level-headed young men looking out for their big sister. Where did time go?  

     I playfully smacked Christopher’s back and giggled. “Cheeky. Who made you my publicist?”

      “You know you can never say ‘no’ to anybody. If I hadn’t said anything, you’d probably be signing stuff all day.” 

      My brother had a point; a little assertiveness wouldn’t have killed anyone, and sooner or later the public would realise I was just an ordinary woman like everyone else, and just because I appeared on their boxes every week didn’t mean I was anything special. Christopher took the suitcase from me, despite my protests. “Here, let me take that, we don’t want our celebrity doc straining herself in front of her multitude of fans, do we?”

      “Don’t be so…” I began, but was cut short when a loud voice from nowhere interrupted my protests.

      “Doris Duru!” My head turned from side to side in search of the person calling my name, no doubt another fan, but couldn’t trace them within the crowd. I was about to give up and continue on my way when Christian patted me and nodded towards a man wearing the airport security uniform. As always, I appreciated the fans’ devotion and support, but this was supposed to be my holiday, my precious moment far away from the pressing crowd. Maybe I could smile sweetly, give an excuse, and flee from his presence before he pestered me for an autograph. I took off my dark glasses to get a better look, and  wondered why he looked so familiar.

      “Hi,” I managed to reply.

      “My supervisor sent me over, he wanted to know why there were so many people crowding arrivals, and now I know why.” He folded his arms as I continued to rack my brains. “You’re Doris Duru from EU. Remember me?”

      “Er, I’m afraid not,” I replied truthfully, even though I still felt sure our paths had crossed at some point.

      “Come on, you should know me, I was in EU with you back in the day, same campus, too.” He paused as I eyed him curiously before he cleared his throat bringing his voice to a near whisper. “Listen Doris, can I speak to you privately for a minute?”

      “Are you flirting with my sister? Shouldn’t you be on duty?” Christopher snapped. When had the twins turned into two mini Freds?

      “I am on duty, and no, I’m not flirting. I just have something to say to Doris,” the security guard replied.

      “All questions and comments to be emailed to thedoctors@basstv.com.” Christopher quoted the voice-over from The Doctors’s closing credits, surely he could have been more original? “Sorry, but we really have to go, okay? We have to…”

      “Wait…wait…I know who you are.” I let go of my suitcase and rested my chilly palms on my hips akimbo-style, realisation suddenly dawning. “I know exactly who you are,” I repeated, studying his hyper-pigmented face. How could I forget the bad old days when he made me an object of ridicule on campus? I couldn’t even have a meal in peace at the school cafeteria, especially with students throwing objects at my head. But hang on, wasn’t Acne Boy a Pharmacy student back then?

      “I remember you,” I finally found the words after the initial shock wore off. “All rumours contain an element of truth, huh?” Why was I even wasting time and oxygen talking to this hater, a former Pharmacy student now working in…security?

      “Okay, I was mean that day, and I’m sorry for everything I said.” Mean? “Surely you could…”

      “Dr. Doris… Dr. Doris…” A shrill voice interrupted me, and I looked down to find a little chubby-cheeked girl no older than eight with hair parted into puffs on either side of her head, tugging at my dress much to her mother’s chagrin.

      “What do you think you’re doing, pulling her dress like that?” the woman scolded. “Don’t be so rude, can’t you see she’s talking?”

      “No, it’s all right, we’re not discussing anything important,” I assured her before stooping down to the little girl’s level, a challenging feat for a six-footer. “Hello, how are you?” I smiled.

      “Fine,” she replied shyly. “Please, please, can I have your signature, and a picture?”

      “Of course!” I’d already rejected those other autograph seekers earlier, but who could resist a tiny slice of cutie pie? “What’s your name, honey?”

      “Adaku.” 

      I scribbled a sweet message and signed my best prescription signature on a notepad, replacing the dot above the ‘I’ with a smiley face, and the full-stop with a heart before posing with both mother and daughter, Christian capturing the image on the woman’s mobile. My former bully observed silently in the background, and I gave a satisfied smirk. Who’s laughing now?

      “There you go, my dear.” I handed the paper to the little girl who stuffed it into her pocket, smiling gladly.

      “So what do you say, Adaku?” her mother reprimanded.

      “Thank you, Dr. Doris,” she shyly whispered.

      “You’re welcome,” I smiled, playfully pulling at one of her cheeks.

      “You’re a hero in our house, we all watch you on BassNet every week,” said her mother. “Two of my children now want to become medical doctors just like you. Thank you for representing us Igbo women very well.” 

     Okay, now I need to get out of here before the mob find me…or before I cry… “Thanks, what a nice thing to say.” I shook hands with the lady and affectionately patted my young admirer’s bunches; she reminded me of the five-year-old me who pestered Dr. Kishore at Mum’s workplace. “That’s good to know, Adaku. It’s not easy becoming a doctor, but if it’s what you really want to do, work hard in school, listen to Mummy, and also…” I shot a quick glance at Acne Boy and raised my voice loud enough for him to hear. “…beware of rotten liars who would do all they can to bring you down. You’ll succeed, they won’t. Must dash, but it was lovely meeting you both. Merry Christmas!” Glancing at my old foe who had heard the indirect dig at his expense, I eyed him with a wry smile. “You’re doing a good job working as a security guard, keep it up!” I turned to my brothers. “Come on boys, Mum and Dad are waiting.”

      Dr. Duru – 1, Acne Security – 0. 

      I stepped outside into the hazy breeze, pressing my handkerchief to my nose to avoid breathing the dust-laden air. I’d always hated harmattan—how did Nigerians make any connection between a merry Christmas and a miserable climate? Noticing my discomfort, Christopher chuckled and opened the door to the back seat.

      “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.” He closed the door before sliding into the driver’s seat, Christian sitting beside him. “By the way, who was that security dude, ever met him before?”

      “We were on the same campus, he was in Pharmacy.” I replied.

      “Pharmacy?” asked Christian. “That’s a lucrative career. Why is he now in airport security, or didn’t he graduate?”

      “Don’t know, don’t care. He was a total idiot then, and I want nothing to do with him now.”

      “Whatever you say, sis.” 

      Indeed. My folks hadn’t raised me to kick my fellow human already down, but after what transpired that afternoon years ago, I had no sympathy. Did he think I’d forget those nasty comments he made in the student canteen that day?

      Mum and Dad were relaxing on their spacious balcony with their grandson and Anna’s daughters when the car pulled into their compound, and both rose to their feet excitedly. It hadn’t been that long since I last saw them, and we spoke on the phone regularly; no need to stand on ceremony like I was some long-lost monarch returning from exile. Did Mum have to squeeze me like a lemon? Fred and Juliet, who had arrived a day earlier with Lucas, rushed outside to greet me, and Anna later popped round half an hour later with Chukwuma to take their girls back to Uncle Robin’s where they were staying for the holidays, promising to return the next day. Some family Christmas this was turning out to be.  Were they still overly sympathetic after the Andrew Amadi-Dikeh palaver? 

       We all sat on the balcony where I filled them in on my work in Lagos, and Mum and Dad listened attentively. It felt great surrounded by my nearest and dearest, and although I missed Shell Camp, I was pleased with our new family home. Dad had saved for years to get the project off the ground, and Fred used his connections in the building industry to hire the best construction firm. Mum, Juliet, and myself chose colour schemes for each room, although we had a battle on our hands when the twins suggested edgy furnishings in place of more classic styles. Compared to this stunningly grand yet homely abode, our old Shell Camp residence resembled a simple bungalow with bits of furniture thrown in at random. We were a team, and as I sipped my lemonade I thanked God for the family I’d been blessed with. Sure, they were overbearing at times, but as long as we had each other’s back, we could weather any storm. 

       Mum served one of her fantastic soups and I eagerly dug in, chatting between each morsel with Juliet who sat opposite me at the dining table, but from the corner of my eye I caught Mum watching as I polished off the last of my vegetables and meat. Was she worried I wasn’t eating properly in Lagos…? Oh wait, I recognised that look. The marriage thing, what else? Single 30-something-year-old doctor, ticking biological clock, no suitor on the horizon. Oh boy

     I carried my plates into the kitchen and washed my hands, praying Mum wouldn’t call me aside for one of those When-Are-You-Going-To-Get-Married talks, and luckily the subject didn’t come up. Not till later anyway.  I was still drying my hands when my mobile buzzed in my pocket, and I answered immediately. 

      “Dr. James, hi!” I greeted. “I must say, this is quite a surprise. How’s it going?”

      “I’m fine, thanks,” he replied in his distinctive baritone. “And I keep telling you, it’s Chidiebere, CHI-die-BE-re,” he emphasised. “Dr. James is my father. Well, he would have been if he’d studied Medicine instead of opting for a career in education.”

     “Okay, my apologies,” I chuckled. “Chidiebere it is, then. Looking forward to Christmas?”

      “Yes, I’m with my family in Umuahia right now,” he answered, and I smiled as I remembered the photograph of his five-year-old son he’d shown his co-presenters; no doubt he’d grow up to be a lady-killer someday, just like his old man. “You wouldn’t believe how I nearly got torn apart at the airport, all those hands over me. Thank God for security…”

      I’m almost certain it was your shirt those crazy women tried ripping off instead, I nearly blurted out, mentally picturing him wearing nothing but that smile in the middle of the terminal, those scarred mahogany biceps glistening in all their sculpted glory, until an alarm bell rang in my head. “Me too!” I replied instead. “I got mobbed at the airport, and it was crazy. When are they finally going to understand I’m just as human?”

      “I know, right?” he agreed. “Even Travis Stork would never put up with that nonsense. I’m actually thinking of leaving the show when this season is over…”

      “What?” I nearly dropped my handset. “But why? Without you on that show, it’s nothing…”

      “The show will do well without me, you’ve become a huge hit with the viewers, but what about my career? People no longer take me seriously. I’m not joking, patients come into my consulting room asking to see a professional because they think the Dr. Chidiebere off the TV isn’t a real surgeon. There’s also this magazine I did an interview with, they asked me to pose topless for them. Something about a celebrity campaign for testicular cancer awareness, but why take your top off when you can simply dip your hand in your pocket? And what’s my chest to do with another man’s balls?”

      “Wow, that really sucks,” I said, trying my hardest not to laugh. “But that’s life—you take the rough with the smooth, and you carry on. You were born to present that show, you’re a natural with the patients we have on set, and those kids we spoke to when we did that appendix episode loved you, you were so nice to them. Just continue to be you, forget the Doubting Thomases,” I advised. “Of course, it’s up to you whether you want to stay or leave, but we’ll all miss you, Olivia will struggle to replace you, and The Doctors will never be the same, trust me.”

      “Hey, thanks.”

      We chatted for a few more minutes before hanging up. I knocked on Fred’s door, asking if I could borrow his laptop, and returned to my room where I sat cross-legged on my bed to check my inbox. Nothing interesting except for a few workplace reminders, and Christmas greetings from Bass Communications and LivMedia. I hadn’t visited my social media in a while, and promptly opened my Facebook. Since my debut on The Doctors, thousands of friend requests rapidly flooded my inbox, although this had recently been regulated. I browsed through the private messages, shaking my head amusingly at a grammatically-challenged marriage proposal from a supposed royal prince in Ontisha with “containers in Germany and the US of A”, asking if I’d make him the luckiest man on earth. No, thanks. I yawned loudly, about to retire for the night when a notification caught my eye, and my heart nearly jumped through my chest. 

      Harrison Fiberesima? The Harrison Fiberesima? Piece of Shit Number One? As if recovering from a controlling absentee ex wasn’t bad enough, I also had to deal with a horrid ex. Harrison… Did he now practice pharmacy? Where did he live? Had he married? Did he have kids…?

Damn, why did I even care! Better yet, what did he want? I stared at the notification – to read…or not to read? Why were these ghosts returning to haunt me? Acne Security pretended to be an old friend at the airport, and I’d emerged champion in that round, signing autographs for fans who watched me on TV while he toiled in security. And now this? Wincing at the thought of Acne Security’s spotty complexion, I clicked on the link and within seconds, the message appeared. 

    Hi Doris. I know we parted on bad terms, and I wouldn’t blame you if you were still angry with me, but I admit I was wrong, I shouldn’t have spoken to you the way I did at the Teaching Hospital that day. I recently bumped into Maduka, the former EU magazine editor, and he confessed to exaggerating those tabloid tales after that Mex Orlando guy went blabbing to him. Mad Dog held a grudge against you because he believed you stole a modelling job from his girlfriend, the one which led to your Enugu Echo interview. I jumped to conclusions without allowing you to explain, and I’m truly sorry. I’ve been watching The Doctors on BassNet, and I’m happy for you. Being a doctor was what you always wanted, and your dreams finally came true. I can’t imagine what you were forced to endure before you qualified, but I’ve been living with guilt ever since the truth came out, and I pray you find it in your heart to forgive me. Harrison

     Some Christmas break this was turning out to be—persistent autograph hounds, parental smothering (Why bother handling me like an egg when I was already broken?), vile exes… Whatever next? 

     I should have known Ese Agofure, Mad Dog’s Theatre Arts girlfriend, had played an integral role in EU’s I Hate Doris Ezinne Duru campaign. What did I ever do to her? The two of us never got along, particularly at ‘go-sees’ and castings, and she even tried sabotaging my chances of securing a spot on Ebonee Jade’s catwalk when she spilled Coke on my white tank top on purpose at a ‘go-see’ held on Chukunyere campus. Ebonee Jade had spotted my potential despite those sticky brown splashes, and booked me straightway since I’d managed to charm her with my wit and personality. Unlike Ese who never made the cut. Her hatred only multiplied after that rejection, but was it my fault the cantankerous puff-puff addict couldn’t fit into Ebonee Jade’s sample sizes? She hadn’t contacted me yet, but I didn’t care if she offered a hundred llamas and danced completely nude at a three-road junction drenched in sacrificial blood. Too little, too late.

      Those haters needed their mental skulls bashed together. Hissing angrily, I tapped at the keyboard, my reply to Harrison short and sweet.

     I don’t care what you think or feel. Leave me alone.

© 2019 Okoro Dedeh, Tami. All rights reserved

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

 

 

 

 

 

 

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