I found this story cleaning out my files today and thought I should put it up. I wrote it about two years ago while I was on holiday. It is unfinished. I can’t remember why I didn’t bother to finish it but reading through just now, I suspect it stemmed from a dislike of the central character. I wonder if I should not just finish it?
Dr Ani was a clown, treated his practice like a joke and his patients like a punch line.
Often they didn’t know they were punch lines so he had to retaliate – in jest of course, he wasn’t really mean, heaven forbid. Like the time when sixteen-year-old Margaret had come in with painful constipation. She had gruffly informed the man who had treated her since she was a baby that ‘he really wasn’t that funny’ as he tried to make light of her condition. Of course he wasn’t hurt, no, no, no, no. That was teenagers for you. But he tried to make her see the error of her ways, what the joke was really about, punctuating each turn of the joke with a forceful, gloved jab into her unyielding rectum as he inserted the suppository that would help her shit. She sounded like she was in pain when she finally said she understood, laughing ‘haw, haw, haw’ like a donkey. ‘Constipation is no laughing matter,’ he informed her gravely, before he burst out, watching her eyes for signs of merriment. She doubled over, hiding her face and clutching her belly. Laughter really was the best medicine.
Yes, he had the good life. Granted some people might have thought that he went down to his hometown in Ukwuda to settle – ‘settle’ being the operative word – but mostly they were people who had had a humour bypass. Dr Ani didn’t bother telling them that the bigwigs in the posh Lagos hospital had realised his potential so much that no sooner than the research on laughter appeared in the Journal of Medicine than he was being given the biggest send forth party to go and practice the medicine he loved as a big man among the grassroots. (It was exactly the same thing he had been preaching for years! Fine, it was all put in fancy language like endorphins and such, but it was essentially the same. He could have written that paper with his eyes closed, if he weren’t so busy with the actual business of healing people, rather than sitting on his backside tickling patients with a palm frond and gauging their reactions. Honestly, the things people got paid to do)
People had cheered his move up the ladder and his fiancée, Nurse Eunice, popularly called ‘EU’ by her friends had wept openly with emotion. She was so overwhelmed by the honour. He had heard her best friend whisper to her during the party ‘It’s not too late, you know’ and knew that his wife was worried about the party running late. He knew her so well. He gave his guest of honour speech, cracked a few jokes and dragged his Eunice away from the party. Her best friend had clung to her until he had separated them, joking to make it less painful “Eh! Gladys, this way you are clinging to my wife, do you want to marry her? So because nobody is asking about your wares you want to turn to woman lover?” His casual reference to her spinster status and taboo lesbianism caused a few gasps. Gladys looked livid, but sure enough the laughter started up almost immediately, led by the Chief of Medicine who seemed to be spurring people on with his hands. Ah, the good old chief was always one of the fastest minds and bravest souls. After all, it was he who recommended Dr Ani for their most remote location, where people were so poor they couldn’t pay and medicine was largely unexplored. People would be more receptive to his style of medicine, not like Lagos where they were so full of themselves and how much money they had that they couldn’t laugh at their ridiculous ailments. It’s not as if it was life and death, most rich people only had imaginary ailments. And so what if it was? Some deaths were funny, especially when people farted or shat themselves as they died.
Anyway, it was their loss. He was much better here. Why, a good percentage of his patients didn’t bother coming back after receiving treatment from him because they learned the secret of laughing. His relative poverty was the price he had to pay for being good at his job.
It was definitely much harder on him, being a widower though. Eunice had provided a lot of his material, so many of their patients had found her antics amusing. She often pretended to hate her position in what she termed the ‘boondocks’ and would scream that he was stifling her and that she missed Gladys and her Lagos life but she perked up when he mimicked her in a high-pitched, mock-lady voice. Fine, she didn’t perk up immediately; she cried. She always cried a little first but then she would laugh when he did the voice over and over and over. She would hold herself like she was cold and laugh in her special way, looking about like she was afraid of the sound struggling to come from her chest or like she was afraid of someone coming to steal it. She laughed, in shallow bursts like she wanted to bite off her tongue.
There was even more material when Eunice got pregnant and grew thin. Imagine that! Eunice, a healthy size 14 with full curves became a stockfish size eight. How was that not funny? Most women got fatter but only his wife was special enough to get thin during pregnancy. She cried a lot longer before she laughed, but Dr Ani knew it was the hormones muddling her reflexes. She called Gladys a lot more too but he didn’t see the need to mention that to his patients. Gladys wasn’t funny, with her sharp face like a cunning rat. That was why she never got married, who wanted to come back from work to that? As for the other thing, that was just speculation. Eunice saw the good in everyone and made Gladys appear almost human. But, anyway, the point was, Eunice looked like she had kwashiorkor and he took to calling her ‘Biafra’ in jest. Oh! How people loved that one.
And then she died when their daughter was born. She disappeared down a dry well, no less. Dr Ani could never understand what she was doing, peering down the disused well by his old father’s compound when he had a lovely borehole in his freshly-painted, new one, but knowing Eunice, it probably had to do with some trapped baby goats or something. She was that kind of person, always worrying about things like that. If their eight-month-old daughter wasn’t bawling her head off when he came back from work, he would have assumed that her mother was taking a nap. The thought never crossed his mind that she had run away though, like some godforsaken members of the search party had suggested. What reason did she have to run away? His food was not prepared and his daughter had not been changed. Eunice would never leave like that, he joked. It was his father’s half-wild mutt that had let them know where she had fallen, her neck at an unnatural angle. At her funeral, the last line of his eulogy (there was a pun there which he made sure everyone recognised) was the bit he was proud of the most. It read “Eunice was a loving mother, a generous friend and a considerate wife. For who else but she would find a ready-made grave in which to bury herself in death?” In the following silence, he really missed the chief. Even Gladys hadn’t come to pay her last respects. After calling him up and spouting rubbish about suicide and how he was intolerable, he had uninvited her. What nonsense! Why on earth would anyone choose to die by throwing themselves down a well? That seemed unnecessarily painful, especially since Eunice was a nurse and surrounded by drugs and medicines in her own home.
But his daughter Nne grew up, strong and beautiful and people put the unfortunate tragedy of her mother behind them. Life went on. People gravitated towards her all her life and more than once he had to treat young men with lovesickness, who only came to take a look at his shapely receptionist. Business boomed for him but mostly people chose to stay in their homes and laugh, as they informed him. Nne was his world, his good fortune; so after she came back from her first trip to Lagos to see her aunt Gladys, he wasn’t surprised that she brought a young doctor with her. He was happy. The young man seemed as smitten by Nne as she was by him and he was happy to let them be. After all, he had put her through university and had done right by her all by himself, without any help. He never remarried. True nobody had shown interest but he put it down to his very heavy workload as the most important regional doctor. And besides he wasn’t interested, so this young man was a welcome development.
At first he was happy that Nne had attracted a doctor fellow like himself. But pretty soon he discovered the young man was as different from himself as ‘eagle’ was from ‘gun’. The young man didn’t laugh at any of his jokes, to begin with. In fact, he didn’t seem to laugh much at anything. How did Nne stand him? Dr Ani also found out that the young man didn’t care much for his style of medicine either. Their working relationship lasted all of two months before the young man went off to open a clinic with one of his two bedrooms. Dr Ani never went in there himself but he had it on good account – a fiercely proud Nne mostly – that the one room was both a consulting and examination room. His fingers itched at the wasted opportunity for good comedy which would have both put his patients at ease and cured them. The situation reminded him of his own funniest moment, when the young wife of one of his elderly Lagos patients, had showed up with an infected bite mark around her surplus, brown nipple. Her houseboy was having an epileptic fit, she said and as she bent to put a spoon between his clenched teeth, he had leapt up and bitten her on her breast. It was filled with pus. “Well, you are certainly full of the milk of human kindness,” he said jiggling one breast. She winced and said nothing, not even cracking a smile. He repeated the statement to her husband later on. It certainly wasn’t his fault that he didn’t have a sense of humour either.
He knew the young man would run back when no patients came to his one-room doom and gloom.