He was talking as he walked through the door. ‘Is this the last one, Seke?’ He waved the file he was holding in the air. ‘Can I take a bit of a break then?’ He walked towards the counter she stood behind. ‘I’m a bit peckish.’
The two ladies at the counter both looked at him; Seke , the lady he addressed, was the older one of the two – a middle-aged, matronly woman – looked up from her scribbling on a pad while the other lady, the much younger one standing by it, turned slowly to look at him as well.
Momentarily, there was a halt in his tracks, then he continued. When he spoke again a smile could be heard in his voice. ‘Well, hello there.’ The timbre of his voice dropped noticeably. His smile came naturally, effortlessly, expanding his fleshy, friendly facial features.
The lady didn’t return the smile. The bland expression she had on her face, while watching Seke write a while ago, was still intact. She regarded him with cool, brown eyes. ‘Hello Osawe.’ Her voice matched her eyes – cool, very low – toned and husky.
‘It has been ages.’ He turned and addressed Seke again. ‘Is she the last one?’ He wanted to know as he reached the counter and placed the file on it.
‘For now, yes, but she…,’ Seke began but the other woman cut her short.
‘I was postponing my appointment,’ she informed him.
He put both his hands in the pockets of his dark trousers. ‘Why? Are you in a hurry?’ His gaze was fixed on her. His big, dark frame loomed over her petite one. The difference in their statures sharply obvious: the huge dark man and the little, light – skinned lady.
His slightly – hooded dark eyes raked over her. ‘You look healthy enough. I’m sure this won’t take long.’
‘But I…,’ she began.
He wasn’t listening to her. ‘Do you have her file, Seke?’
She preceded him into the room and he shut the door behind him.
He was the first to speak immediately they were alone. ‘You didn’t want me to attend to you, did you?’ His voice came from directly behind her.
She stiffened ever so slightly. ‘No, I didn’t.’ Her back to him.
‘Why not?’ He demanded as he walked around her motionless form to stand in front of her. He didn’t wait for her to answer. ‘You must have seen me before I saw you.’ He paused, and perched on the table right in front of her, fingering the stethoscope around his neck. ‘No, you must have heard my voice before you even set eyes on me. That’s why you wanted to move your appointment, wasn’t it?’
She nodded. ‘Yes.’ And she stared right back at him.
He sighed, and gestured towards the door. ‘Don’t let me keep you, Assa. I will not attend to you against your will.’
She turned and was already walking away from him even before the words were halfway out of his mouth.
‘I was never good enough for you.’ His voice reached her before she reached the door.
She spun around, her high heels clicking on the smooth tiled floor. ‘That’s not true!’ Her voice rising noticeably.
He removed the stethoscope from around his neck and placed it on the table. ‘You want to prove it?’ Slightly – hooded eyes held her brown ones in a steady gaze until she looked away.
He pushed his weight off the table and began to walk around it. ‘It was nice seeing you again, Assa, after so long,’ he told her, not sparing her another glance as he reached the swivel chair behind the desk.
‘Congratulations on your success as a doctor.’ Her tone was less cool, huskier. She began to walk back towards him.
A flicker of surprise lit his eyes when they looked up before it disappeared. His smile came naturally, effortlessly. ‘Thanks. Please be seated and tell me what the matter is.’
The chair directly opposite the desk seemed to swallow up her small form as she occupied it. ‘I do a complete medical check – up quarterly.’ She sat upright as she spoke. ‘Going by that, I’m not due until the next quarter. But I can’t help but feel there might be something wrong with me.’
He was scanning her file in front of him now. ‘Such as?’ He wanted to know.
She was silent, then. ‘A very close cousin of mine just had an operation on her left bust. Her mother’s displaying similar symptoms already. She’s my mum’s younger sister.’
‘A lump in her bust or breast cancer?’
‘Hmm. Then there is a propensity that you could be in danger. However, it’s only a propensity. Have you tried self-examination? Y’know, the step by step process that helps you find out?’
She nodded. ‘I did it three days ago.’
‘I could have sworn I felt something somewhere.’
Without another thought, he got to his feet. He took hold of the stethoscope which lay on the table and pointed with it at a miniature bed standing in a corner in the room. ‘Let’s check you out then.’ He slipped the instrument on. He paused briefly by her chair before walking in the direction of the bed. ‘At your last check – up, were there any problems?’ He asked, his long strides eating up ground space and taking him to the bed in no time.
‘Yes. A chest condition.’
‘Ah…yes. You’re mildly asthmatic, if I remember correctly.’ He turned to look at her. ‘Difficulty in breathing?’ She nodded. ‘A whistling breath?’ She nodded again. ‘But very mild compared to an asthmatic condition?’ She nodded once again. ‘How was treatment administered – through a bag of drip or aminophiline tablets?’
‘The first time, it was…’
‘You’ve had it twice?’ He cut in.
She nodded. ‘Yes.’
‘Within a period of …?’
‘That’s not good. You had been exposed to cold weather? Dust? Smoke?’
‘Cold weather and dust in the line of duty.
‘Hmm. That was how long ago?’
‘About a month back.’
‘And since then?’
‘I’ve been the pink of health.’
‘Have precautions been taken to ensure that such unhealthy exposure in the “line of duty” does not reoccur?’
She nodded again. ‘Yes, they have.’
It was only then Osawe realized that she was still sitting in the chair, and he was standing alone by the bed. He resisted the urge to smile as he gestured her towards the bed. ‘I’ll be as clinically detached and as impersonal as I was trained to be.’
She still didn’t move from her sitting position. Her attractive oval face a study in indecision.
Once again, he resisted the urge to smile. ‘If you like, you could do a self- examination and relate to me what you feel or don’t feel.’
She heaved a sigh. ‘Then there would have been no need to see a doctor.’ She let her small frame out of the chair. ‘Do I have to undress?’ Gone were the cool, confident husky tones now. In their stead were uncertain, unwavering pitches.
He nodded. ‘From waist up.’ He tried to catch her eye as she walked towards him but she looked everywhere else save in his direction. This was not going to be easy for her, he thought.
It was a tense, almost embarrassed, silence that followed her movements to partially disrobe. And because he had wanted her for a while, had liked her and probably still did, and had wondered endlessly for a while what her body would look like, Osawe didn’t take his eyes off her as she did so.
Her skin, when it began to come into view, was no disappointment at all. Inch by creamy inch, the red chiffon top she had on slowly revealed smooth, even – toned skin that swelled more than considerably into two moulds of flesh [encased in a black, well –fitting bra which came off as well] and flattened out into a washboard stomach, whose end disappeared into the blue pair of jeans which consisted her outfit.
Osawe closed his eyes and wiped his forehead of imaginary beads of sweat. The heat he felt came from within. His office was as cool as a refrigerator. Get a grip of yourself, man! He told himself.
He opened his eyes to find her staring straight at him. ‘I’m done.’ Her voice was barely a whisper and he would have sworn he felt the heat rise in her face when she watched his gaze drop to her half- nude upper body.
She flinched when his fingers came in contact with her skin. Her body went all rigid and remained tensed as the doctor in him took over and went to work with the business end of the stethoscope and his hands. But he needed her relaxed. It would help his diagnosis and prescriptions, if any were needed.
‘How long have you been in town for?’ He asked by way of conversation and distraction.
‘A week,’ she breathed out.
‘And how much longer are you staying for?’ His stethoscope and fingers moved slightly upwards. Her heartbeat went into overdrive. He smiled briefly.
‘Two more weeks,’ she rushed out. She went silent, then. ‘I’m on vacation.’
‘And a well – deserved one, I suppose.’ Her breathing became slightly irregular. Was that an anomaly he could detect in her breathing? A whistle perhaps? The signs of a chest problem? ‘You’re doing great with those girls you coach.’
He felt her body gradually relax. She smiled a thin smile. ‘Thank you. I try my very best.’
Her heartbeat was becoming steady. Good, but there was still something he could hear in it that prevented the smooth air passage through her lungs. ‘You’ve put a new twist to the beauty pageants in the country. Time was when my friends and I thought nothing of them but now, our opinions have changed.’
Her body relaxed even more. ‘I believe women should be perceived as more than just pretty faces or decorative trophies, especially those who appear at beauty pageants.’
‘You made that abundantly clear when you were crowned a queen in the university. I just didn’t think you’d make a national issue out of it.’
She laughed for the first time. A rather pleasant, ringing sound that shook the upper part of her body. Her laughter was just what he needed to ascertain if what he felt underneath her left bust was a harmless lump or a potentially damaging one.
He didn’t realize his forehead furrowed until her laughter stopped abruptly and cool tones, now cautious, cut sharply into his concentration. ‘What is the matter?’ She inquired.
Instantly, he cleared the worry lines and forced a smile, as his fingers dropped from her torso. ‘Nothing.’ He didn’t meet her eyes. She might have to do some tests, he thought as his mind raced. Did he really feel a lump? Or was his vividly imaginative mind being distracted by her soft and warm skin?
‘Did you feel something?’ She probed, as he sensed an alert stillness come over her.
He was silent. ‘Probably.’ He lost both hands in his pockets as he regarded her, not failing to see a trace of fear jump into her once cool eyes. ‘But then, that’s for the tests to confirm,’ he rushed on, trying to calm down whatever might be building up inside of her.
‘Tests? I’m going for tests?’
He nodded. ‘Like I said, it’s maybe, perhaps, probably.’ He tried to further calm her down. ‘Assa, I bet it’s nothing but I wouldn’t want you walking out of here with uncertainty. The test is just routine and could result in nothing but a clean bill of health for you.’
‘Are you sure?’
He smiled. ‘No, I’m not. But I’d rather be safe than sorry.’ His gaze bounced off her left hand. It was unadorned. ‘Are you seeing any one right now?’ He digressed smoothly.
Momentarily, she was flustered. ‘That’s personal.’
His gaze rested in appreciative appraisal on the gentle rise and fall of her heaving, half- nude torso. ‘How much more personal can we get than this?’ He asked in very, very low tones.
He felt her flinch before he saw her turn slightly crimson. Then he realized his mistake. ‘I’m sorry, Assa. That was rude.’ His apology came out quietly, laced with shame.
By now, her red chiffon blouse covered her torso half – way as she hurriedly tried to put it on. ‘I’m sorry too, Osawe. For stepping a foot in here’ Her tones were very cool, very low. ‘Impersonal? Doctor – like detachment, Osawe?’ She snorted suddenly, looking up at him. Then she slid off the bed. ‘I was actually going to commend you for medical expertise but now, heaven alone knows what exactly you were up to while you were at it!’ Her cool tones had a sharp edge to them but hadn’t risen an inch.
He frowned. ‘I’m sorry, Assa, for what just occurred but I can assure you, I was a doctor through and through while examining you.’
Her pointed and petite nose in the air, Assa marched to the seat she had earlier occupied, and plucked a miniature black bag from it. ‘I came to this hospital ‘cos I heard the services were second to none.’ She turned towards him.
‘And they are.’ He protected his business. ‘I’m sorry I managed to give you the wrong impression. Will you still go through with the tests? If you like, one of my partners can take it from here.’
‘I’d appreciate it.’
‘And I’m sorry, Assa. I truly am. I guess I got carried away.’ He clenched and unclenched his fists. ‘Seke can show you directions to the laboratory and whatever questions you have, you can ask her.’ He scribbled something in her file before handing it to her.
She took it and made for the door.
‘Is there any chance of taking you out to dinner some time?’ He ventured.
She didn’t turn around or halt in her movements. ‘No.’
‘Of spending some of your vacation time with you, perhaps?’ He tried again.
‘Your contact info, maybe?’
He rubbed his forehead. ‘I’m truly sorry, Assa.’
She had reached the door now. She turned briefly to acknowledge him. ‘I’m sure you are, Osawe. I’m sure you are.’ And she slammed the door behind her.
He slapped his forehead angrily. He ripped the instrument off his neck and slammed it hard on the table. He had bungled it! He had bungled perhaps the only chance he had with the girl he had wanted as his in the university. The one chance he had, he had single-handedly blown it. Good work, Osawe. Well done, doc!
What had come over him for goodness’ sake? Was it seeing her again after all these years? And realizing he still liked her a lot? Or the fact that she had been literally half – dressed in front of him? What was wrong with him? He saw half – dressed, even completely nude, women constantly, and not once had he displayed any attitude but the detached one he had been trained with. So why had he lost it with Assa’s? Oh, he knew why. He knew Assa. And he’d always liked her a bit too much.
He collapsed into the chair behind his desk and swiveled it. Assa! There was no quantifying his adoration for her back in the university but she had never given him a chance. It had always been something or the other. He had either been too late [some other guy had beaten him to it]. Or she had been in limbo, and not dating any one at the moment. Or she had been buried deep in her studies and dating wasn’t on her to-do list. Whatever it had been, four years had gone by and he had allowed her slip through his fingers.
And in a space of how many minutes, he had done the very same thing! A whole decade later! One would have thought he would have grown up at least!
Stupid, stupid Osawe! He slapped his forehead again.
He swiveled the chair again, and his stomach groaned as if to complete a symphony the chair played. He was heaving himself out of it as he glanced down at his wristwatch.
If he were lucky, he could still catch her on her way out of the laboratory. If he were lucky, he could once again ask her out on a date. And if he were extremely lucky, he could be forgiven for his unethical conduct and receive a positive answer to his request.
He yanked open the door and was talking as he walked through it. ‘Seke, the last patient I saw, has she left the premises?’
The desk nurse nodded, as she replaced the receiver of telephone. She had been answering a call. ‘Yes, she has.’ And she tapped a file on the counter. It was Assa’s.
Osawe managed, somehow, not to let his disappointment show. ‘When will her test results be ready?’
‘Tomorrow at 11am.’ She informed him. ‘She said she’d send someone to pick them up.’
His disappointment level plummeted. Assa had no wish to see him again. ‘Ok. Thanks.’ His voice was low. ‘Is there anyone around to get me something to eat?’
Seke shuffled on her feet. ‘Let me see.’ She began to walk around the counter, as he turned to go back into his office.
‘Doctor?’ Her voice stopped him.
‘I think there’s something in her file for you.’ And she walked away before he could ask her what she meant.
Sheer curiousity moved his feet to the counter. He flipped open the green file. The first thing that caught his eye was a glossy, flame – coloured card. His heart raced as he picked it up, not certain what it was but praying that it would be what he thought it was. His heart raced even more when he saw her name, designation, address and every possible number he could reach her on.
He flipped the card over. Written on its plain white background in girlish scrawl were three words:
“Call me – Assa”
His smile came naturally, effortlessly.