All this month we’re featuring the Wellcome Book Prize 2018 shortlist, celebrating the books that explore breadth and depth of our relationship with health, medicine and illness.
This excerpt is from Stay With Me, the heart-breaking debut by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, and the only novel to make the WBP2018 shortlist. It offers an insight into fertility, family and the devastating effects of sickle-cell disease in 1980s Nigeria.
The winner will be announced on 30 April at Wellcome Collection. Find out more here.
Although lightning did strike the same spot twice, I didn’t think it would leave destruction in its wake the second time around. I took Rotimi in for her genotype test shortly after her first birthday, then had my worst fears confirmed when I picked up the results on my way back from work a couple of days later. But I was calm by the time I got home, was sure my daughter would survive in spite of the red-lettered SS verdict on the result sheet. Still can’t explain where the assurance came from, but it was there, firm as the ground I walked on. Yejide covered her eyes with her hands when I told her the results – other than that she showed no reaction to the news. And when Rotimi had her first sickle-cell crisis, she refused to stay with her in the hospital.
‘Me? I should spend the night with her? Akin, I’m exhausted, totally exhausted,’ Yejide said, just before leaving the ward after Rotimi was admitted. ‘I need to rest.’
I blamed myself for the way she spoke, as though all possibility of joy had been wrung out of her. I watched her trudge out of the ward, wondering if she just needed a good night’s sleep or whether her tiredness had morphed into a permanent weariness.
After about two hours, I was allowed to sit with Rotimi. She looked so small, out of place in the hospital bed. She was hooked up to an IV drip. I wondered if it was enough, if the doctors knew what they were doing, using a single drip to battle something that had already snatched a son from us. I sat in a chair beside her bed, keeping my hands on the edge of the mattress, afraid to touch her.
‘Mama?’ she said after a while, lifting her free hand. ‘Mama mi?’
I cleared my throat and stared at the bedpost. ‘Your mother is tired, she is sleeping.’
I couldn’t look into her big brown eyes while I lied. Even with my eyes glued to the bedpost, the lies felt so wrong, like something I needed forgiveness for, forgiveness from a child whose face was a miniature version of Yejide’s own. So much so that looking at her felt as if I was looking at Yejide through a minimising glass. Every feature on Rotimi’s face belonged to Yejide, except for the nose. Her nose was already flat and wide, exactly like mine. I loved it when people noticed this, when they said This child has taken her father’s nose. Her father’s nose.
Later that evening, a doctor trailed by students carrying notepads came in to check on Rotimi. I’d wanted to be a doctor once when I was a little child, before my right hand was long enough to touch my left ear, before I was old enough to start school. It was at a time when I didn’t even know there were other professions, when I thought it was the only thing that people who went to school could become.
After the others had moved on to another patient, one of the students spoke to me in a hushed tone. ‘I’m carrying out a research, sir. It’s about sickle-cell disease. It will help pre-marital counselling. I would be glad if you could fill –’
I nodded like an agama gone mad, snatched the questionnaire he was holding out to me, eager to get him out of my face. I wondered how many questionnaires Yejide had filled out during the days she’d spent in the hospital with Sesan. The questions were tightly packed on a single page as though the student was trying to save money on photocopying; just trying to read the words gave me a headache.
‘Yes, dear. What?’ I welcomed the distraction and put aside the questionnaire.
‘Mama mi?’ she asked, her voice barely audible. She breathed heavily as though saying that one word had sapped all her strength.
I held her hand, looked into her eyes this time. ‘Your mummy is coming, soon, very soon, but while we wait, let me tell you a story. It’s about Ijapa the tortoise and his wife Iyannibo.’
I repeated the beginning of the story, about the barren couple and the futile attempts to get pregnant. I described Ijapa’s visit to the Babalawo, the pot of stew he couldn’t resist, his shameful return to the Babalawo after he had ruined his only solution with his own hands. Rotimi was still awake when I finished the song, so I continued the tale.
When Ijapa got back to the Babalawo, he begged and begged. He rolled and rolled on the floor, begging for forgiveness, pleading for another chance.
‘No, I cannot help you,’ said the Babalawo.
‘Help me, not for my sake. Think of Iyannibo, my wife. Help me, no, help my poor wife, help her.’
The Babalawo thought of poor Iyannibo. And though Ijapa had done something horrible, had disobeyed instructions, for the sake of poor Iyannibo, the Babalawo had mercy on him. He gave Ijapa a potion to drink. Soon after Ijapa drank it, his stomach was flat again.
The story Moomi told me doesn’t stop there. Apparently the tortoise and his wife couldn’t just stay as Mr and Mrs Tortoise, that wouldn’t be enough. It goes on to tell how the tortoise’s wife has a baby so that everyone can live happily forever and ever. I didn’t bother to tell my daughter that part. It was the lie I’d believed in the beginning. Yejide would have a child and we would be happy forever. The cost didn’t matter. It didn’t matter how many rivers we had to cross. At the end of it all was this stretch of happiness that was supposed to begin only after we had children and not a minute before.
Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ is out now (£8.99, Canongate Books)