BY JIMMY APIU
‘WARD FOUR B’ TYPED IN TYPICAL BOLD ITALIC, with his name inscribed unceremoniously under it, stared back at him and he rolled his bald head in the opposite direction.
Did the nurse purposely leave the clipboard near him to remind and formally welcome him to this dreaded place? This was his first impression when he arrived here a month ago.
Zukuma, aka Zuks, readjusted his head and focused on the old ceiling fan above him, which clattered like a used type writer, as it slowly rewound his memory to the day he was assigned to cover an article about the descendants of the famous Kukukukus, who ruled the plateaus of Menyamya.
The local news editor caught a whiff of the descendant’s plan to reclaim their ancestors’ ritual ground, right in the centre of a mission station and thought it would make an interesting read.
Fresh from university, the graduate journalist was thrilled when he was assigned his first duty travel. The idea of mingling with the Kukukukus intrigued him.
On arrival at the outstation, Zuks booked into one of the two guest houses closest to the market place, to rest and prepare for the long trip the next day.
After a quick shower, followed by two hot cans of SP Lager, he sat on a chair and fished his cigarette lighter from his shirt pocket and flicked the flame to the cigarette dangling precariously at the edge of his lips, sucking the nicotine as he shifted his bare legs with athleticism on the verandah porch and took in the scenery, scratching his three days growth while contemplating how one introduced himself to the wild; or for that matter, explain his visit.
Concealed in the crowd, a few metres away, a young woman who frequented the guest house observed Zukuma for a while and told herself he would do for tonight. Putting on her killer smile, she cat-walked toward Zuks. Her beauty was breathtaking and the tight jeans her bum clung to mesmerized him.
Believing the delusion that outstations and villages exempted themselves from outside influence, he took the bait for a one night stand.
In the dead of night, way past midnight, the young woman slowly untangled herself and slithered over Zuks’s exhausted body like a serpent and disappeared into the dark wilderness.
A cough brought Zuks back to the ward and he gnashed his teeth. “What was I thinking? Why did I do it?” he fumed, as he forced his feeble fingers to wring the blanket underneath him, while tears swelled in his eyes. His feet which attached themselves to two skeletal legs blurred in his vision and the thought of dying exploded in his mind for the umpteenth time.
“God!” he screamed, and sobbed convulsively, igniting a torrid stream of obscenities under the nurse’s breath.
Propped up with three pillows under his neck, with one on each side of his ribs, the familiar face of Luther, glared at Zuks.
The ex-Pastor’s eyes were pulled into their socket as if some spring were attached at their end and the veins on his forehead throbbed each time he blinked his eyes. Some said he left his spouse of twenty five years for a Gay at the outskirts of big ‘H’, while others insisted the ex fire and brimstone preacher was in fact a conniving artist under the guise of a Sheppard.
Turning his back side which resembled a scrawny child, he slowly got off the bed and rummaged in his bag for his pocket bible. After locating and caressing it in his palm, he cast a furtive glance at his back; then closed his eyes he muttered a prayer and let his right pointer finger manipulate the pages at will until it nervously rested on one.
Hoping for comfort and divine intervention, Luther took a deep breath and squinted. The Book of Mathew Chapter 18; Verse 6, in the King James Version greeted him. “But whosoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone was hanged about his neck and that he was drowned at the depth of the sea”. He was repeatedly warned this could happen in his line of work.
One of the widows he ‘visited’ on the pretext of pastoral duties had it and God knows how many he infected. How could I jump on unsuspecting widows, let alone the little ones? he lamented, as he conjured up a vision of Hell and quacked.
Adjacent to the nurse’s lookout, Giri, the 53 year old politician lay on his side, oblivious of his surroundings, one could hardly recognise him, except for the obnoxious interludes he sarcastically hurled at the nurses.
As if a projector was displaying movies on the wall, he saw himself vividly on the fringes of town in a discreet venue; two witch doctors took turns performing uncanny rituals on him as their dialects rose to a crescendo.
After a month of dysentery he had sought the services of the “bastards”. Money was etched in their eyes while he was squatted and crouched on; one on his knees and the other smack on his chest as he desperately gasped for air.
Eight razor blades, a rusty drill bit and a used condom full of lime were ‘plucked’ from his groin. They assured him of a speedy recovery and gave him a hint that did it as he drove away less three hundred kina.
Giri turned his gaze onto the intravenous needle which was inserted in his left hand. His immediate thought settled in a small room facing a doctor, aghast at the fact his sixth wife’s promiscuous activities before and during their marriage had produced the test results before him.
She was a free agent who lived on instinct; whose love for bizarre tattoos matched her taste for men. Her body was on the market for the highest bidder before Giri’s exorbitant bride price tamed her. Barely a year had passed when she resumed her illicit trade, and came up with some cock and bull story each time Giri confronted her.
Three weeks later, her decapitated body was found on the spot the rituals took place with a carving knife embedded in the tattoos.
The politician rolled his gaze back to the wall.
A sniff, which culminated to wailing, instantly jolted Zukuma out of his doldrums. Luther and Giri did likewise.
Susie, a lawyer by profession, whose character was the epitome of foul mouth, had passed on. Was it stigma? Was it arrogance? Or both? Everyone was bewildered and enigmatic.
Her prowess at winning cases and her globetrotting itinerary were well documented, especially her frequent trips between the Antipodes, but the sad thing that stood out most in the eerie atmosphere was the way she died; a very lonely woman.
A chill went up their spine as each realised they could be next as they stared at the trolley that carried Susie’s lifeless body with her sibling beside it refusing to let go, as it was steered out the corridors of Four B for the last time.
This wasn’t the life he had envisioned for himself and it was not happening, Zuks assured himself as a familiar song disturbed his thoughts, with the lyrics: “I’ve travelled round the world from year to year. And each one found me aimless, one more year the worse for wear”. Yes, he thought, she had travelled and they would soon.
Decked with the famous red ribbon, many stood on tiptoe while the rest sat in a packed stadium, their mouths agape with awestruck silence.
The stormy events of the months gone by had provided the backdrop of Zukuma’s speech as he continued with the microphone on the podium.
“I wish my two friends were here today to tell their story.” he paused as a tear streaked down his cheek.
A few mothers dabbed their eyes with tissues and handkerchiefs.
“I have lived with the dying and the dead and have witnessed corpses by the hundreds, an eloquent reminder of what they died through” he straightened his throat.
“We cannot eradicate AIDS, but we can control it, through ATTITUDE!” he spelt it to the crowd.
“I met AIDS through ignorance but tamed her through medication, prayer and right attitude, to the scorn of many who have passed on through other causes, unfortunately, while some have ‘caught up’ with me.” He smiled.
The crowd cheered.
“Life is not about AIDS; it’s about you, how you think, walk and play and how you interact with each other.” He continued.
“If your behaviour resembles the characters in my story, or closer, I beg you to seek help.” he pleaded. “Remember!” he emphasised, “who, where or what you are, is irrelevant to AIDS, but I bet you, you can put a boot up its backside if you get tested!’’ he concluded and strutted down the podium toward the aisle.
Jimmy Apiu (51) was born in Lae and works as a Telikom technician in Port Moresby. This is the first time he has entered a literary competition.