a radio play
by Africa Ukoh
Reporter and Mourners
SCENE 1: INT. THE IRABORS’ HOUSE. NIGHT.
SFX: The first audible sounds are of metal cutlery clanging against ceramic plates. This is all we hear for some seconds, except the occasional sniff of a nose, clearing of a throat, sip of water. The Irabors are having another quiet dinner.
BENSON (coughs and moans slightly): Pass me the salt, please. (Pause.) The salt, please. (Pause.) Catherine!
CATHERINE: Hmm! What? Did you say something?
BENSON: The salt, please.
BENSON: Where did you drift off too?
CATHERINE: I was just thinking.
BENSON: So deeply. Hum! I hope you are alright?
(SFX: a salt shaker.)
BENSON: You’ve been so quiet today.
CATHERINE: Hmm? Oh!
BENSON: I said you have been-
CATHERINE: I heard you.
BENSON: Well if something is wrong don’t-
CATHERINE: Nothing is wrong Benson, it’s just a quiet day. A woman must not talk all the time.
BENSON: Ha! If only that were true, this world would be a more peaceful place. You women are
incapable of keeping shut your chatter boxes.
BENSON: How was your day?
CATHERINE (mechanically): Quiet.
BENSON: Yes, today was a normal day for me too. A boring day even. The most exciting thing that happened to me was getting a haircut. (Chuckles.) Those boys that work for Francis in his salon, they don’t know how to use a clipper. One of them nearly skinned me alive today. I’m thinking of finding a new place, a new salon, or getting home-service-haircuts from now on.
CATHERINE (mechanically): That’s nice.
BENSON: These young ones nowadays, if you see the kinds of so-called hairstyles they nest on their heads… There is this one they call, er, more-hawk. (Laughs.) What, please tell me, does a hawk have to do with hair?
CATHERINE: It’s mohawk not more-hawk.
BENSON: Ah! Mohawk. Still doesn’t make any sense.
CATHERINE: That is the name.
BENSON: Hmm… But well, who am I to quarrel the young for reveling in youth? During our time we too were crazy in our own ways. I remember when badges were the fashion, aaah! And we would stick them all over our jackets. You remember how it used to-
(SFX: the sound of a chair grating against the floor as Catherine rises, cutting Benson off.)
BENSON (somewhat offended): Where are you going?
CATHERINE: Why are you asking?
BENSON: I was telling you about-
CATHERINE (going off mic): I want to get more water to drink.
BENSON: Oh. Please get some for me too. My stomach is so full… even hurts a little bit. I think I overate. Ok Benson! Time to relax and watch some television! (Going off mic.) I thought you said you were going to cook soup.
CATHERINE (off mic): What?
BENSON (louder, a bit irritated): I thought you said you were going to cook soup? I had prepared my apetite for eba.
(SFX: he sinks into a sofa. A television is switched on.)
CATHERINE (coming on mic): Rice was the fastest thing I could prepare after I came back from the hospital. Your water.
BENSON: You went to the hospital?
CATHERINE: Erm… Sort of.
BENSON: How can you sort of go to the hospital? Today is your day off, you were not supposed to go to work.
CATHERINE: I didn’t go to work.
BENSON: Then why did you go to hospital? Are you sick?
CATHERINE: Only as sick as the whole world.
BENSON (agitatedly): What kind of reply is that? Catherine, what is wrong? You have been acting strangely today. (He coughs and groans.)
CATHERINE: Have I said anything is wrong, Benson?
BENSON: My dear wife, after all these years I should at least know when… know when… when something… God, what is this? I hope I haven’t fallen ill.
(SFX: the sound of shuffling feet and uneasy movement on the sofa.)
BENSON: I don’t feel too fine.
BENSON: My body… it suddenly… hurts all over. And…
CATHERINE (eagerly): And? How exactly are you feeling? Describe it to me.
BENSON: Water… Water, please.
CATHERINE: I need you to tell me precisely how you feel.
BENSON: Water, quick! (SFX: water being poured in a glass. He gulps.) Again! Pour!
CATHERINE: How does it feel? Where do you sense the discomfort?
BENSON: What is this? God, what is this?
CATHERINE: Is it in your neck? Your limbs? Do you feel a strange stiffness?
BENSON: I don’t know… I just feel… strange, yes.
CATHERINE: Where? How?
BENSON (breathing uneasily): My neck… stiffness, yes. My muscles, my arms and legs… argh!
(Note: from here onwards Benson continually groans and moans as the pain and discomfort steadily increase. His breathing also progressively becomes more and more strenuous. By the end of the scene he is wheezing heavily for breath and the pain climaxes in all forms.)
CATHERINE: A sort of squeezing feeling? A tightness in your throat? As if the ghost-hand of nemesis is wrapped around your neck, choking the very life out of you? Does it feel like your limbs are being weighed down by anchors of death, dragging you to your grave?
BENSON: Kate, what are you talking about? Water! Give me more water.
CATHERINE: Water will not help you, Benson.
BENSON: Ungh! God! It hurts all over. What is wrong with me?
CATHERINE (as if talking to herself): I don’t know. Perhaps it is the poison I put inside your food and drink.
BENSON: Wh… What? Catherine… what did you say?
CATHERINE: Hmm? Oh, I said perhaps it is the poison I put inside your food and drink.
BENSON: What is that supposed to mean?
CATHERINE: You know the thing with poison is, if one understands how it works – especially if one is, let’s say, a nurse, and so has experience dealing with poison – then one can be very effective in using it. One could even mix it inside a meal and mix it in with a drink and make sure it won’t be tasted.
BENSON: Catherine, what have you… ? Is that suppose to be a joke? Woman, you better answer me!
(SFX: a thud as he falls to the ground. He groans.)
CATHERINE: You better relax and try to reserve your energy. You will start to feel weak very soon and your body will go into spasm.
BENSON: You poisoned me?
CATHERINE: When the spasms begin try to stay as calm as possible or else you could damage your kidney and liver… Are you listening to me?
BENSON (roars): You poisoned me? Are you mad? Has the devil taken possession of your mind?
CATHERINE: Keep your voice down. And I am serious when I say try to reserve your energy, we have a deadly matter to discuss.
BENSON: Ok. Ok, Katie. Whatever it is, let us settle it, ehn? My dear wife! Please, whatever I did or have done, I am sorry. Please, whatever you have done to me…
CATHERINE: What I have done? (Scoffs.) Please get up from the floor and sit on the chair. I want you to be comfortable enough to concentrate.
BENSON: Ok. Ok. Help me up… Help me rise to the sofa.
CATHERINE: You can stand up by yourself, Benson. It’s not that bad yet.
(SFX: pulling himself up to the sofa.)
BENSON: You want to kill me. Catherine, you want to kill me?
CATHERINE: I do not want to kill you. I want to ask you some questions and I need to make sure you will answer honestly.
BENSON: What kind of questions require a man to be poisoned?
CATHERINE: Once you give me the answers I am looking for I will treat you, here and now. If you want me to administer treatment before it is too late then please, answer me honestly.
BENSON: Look here woman, if you do not-
CATHERINE (with a wild tearful shriek): Benson, you better shut up and listen to me if you want to come out of this alive! Just shut up and listen!
BENSON: Ok. Ok. Ok, Katie. I am seated. And I am listening. I am listening.
(SFX: the television is switched off.)
CATHERINE: You asked me why I went to the hospital today, let me show you. (Footsteps go off-mic. Benson pants. Footsteps come back on mic with the sound of a bag being zipped opened and rifled through.) We have been married for ten years, Benson. Ten years. And I have never, not even once, come close to giving myself to another man. I have never been unfaithful.
BENSON: Unfaithful? My God! Catherine, is that what this is? Have we not left that damn matter in the past? How can you… I made a mistake. I made up for it and you said you forgave me. It has been years for God’s sake!
CATHERINE: You made up for your mistake. You made up for your mistake? I went to the hospital today to collect my test results.
BENSON: What test results?
CATHERINE: Here, read it for yourself, Benson. I am HIV positive.
BENSON: What? How?
CATHERINE (another tearful outburst): Don’t ask me that idiotic question! What do you mean how?
BENSON: Katie… Katie, listen, these tests, they can be wrong at times. Everybody knows that. You have to take more than-
CATHERINE: I have taken the test four times. Would you like a fifth just to convince you?
BENSON: I don’t… This is… Oh God!
CATHERINE: When last did you take a HIV test?
BENSON: Woman don’t ask me that! Don’t you ask me that! I do not have HIV.
CATHERINE: How do you know? You haven’t been tested.
BENSON: I feel fine. I am fine. Perfectly fine!
CATHERINE: I feel perfectly fine too, yet is it not my death warrant you are holding in your hand? Signed and stamped!
BENSON: I do not have HIV, that is all I know.
CATHERINE: Why not? You are not aware of your status. And never in my life, since we have been married – and if I lie let God strike me dead as I stand here – never have I spread my legs open for another man. So how else?
BENSON: There are other ways to-
CATHERINE: Don’t even try to use that excuse with me. I don’t share anything with anybody – not clothing, not a spoon, not a knife, not property, nothing! We have no children, no house-help, no relative living with us… It is you and I alone in this house, Benson – us two alone.
BENSON: Catherine you have to calm down. You are jumping to conclusions here, dangerous conclusions. I do not have HIV.
CATHERINE: Stop saying that! Who gave it to you, Benson?
BENSON: Who gave me-
CATHERINE: This… curse! What prostitute infected you with it and sent you back here to afflict me as well.
BENSON: Catherine, you need to-
CATHERINE: Was it her?
CATHERINE: It was her, wasn’t it? You went back to her again, didn’t you? That whore of a woman!
CATHERINE: And now see what she has done to you – to me!
BENSON: Catherine that was five years ago! Good God, five years! We moved past that, or at least I thought we did. I begged you, you forgave me.
CATHERINE: And you promised- no, you swore you would never do such a thing again.
BENSON: And I didn’t. I haven’t.
CATHERINE: Ben, just tell me the truth. Please! If it was her just say it. She herself may not even know the death she carries in her blood.
BENSON: I have never had anything to do with her ever since-
CATHERINE: Don’t lie to me Benson! Don’t lie to me! She was in town a few months back. She was in town for some weeks. You think I didn’t know?
CATHERINE: And you went to see her.
BENSON: Now, hold on, you don’t understand-
CATHERINE: You left me, your wife, and-
BENSON: You have no idea why-
CATHERINE: And went to be with that whore once more.
BENSON: No! No! I… I went to see her, yes, but-
CATHERINE: So you admit it.
BENSON: But not for the reason you think. Not for that. (He groans heavily; gasps for air.) When she came into town she kept on calling me and texting me; calling me, texting; calling me, texting me! I tried to avoid her, as God is my witness I-
CATHERINE: The name of God should not come out of your mouth.
BENSON: It will! It will! Because my conscience is clear. My heart is clean. Katie, don’t you remember the two times I changed my phone number, why do you think that was? Her! I was trying to avoid her. But somehow she kept on getting my phone number. So I decided to go and see her; see her and set things straight once and for all. Yes… Yes… Here! Look at my cell phone… Read the last three messages I sent her. Read them.
CATHERINE: I don’t want to read your filthy disgusting, adulterous messages! (SFX: a cell phone smashes against a wall.) If you only wanted to set things straight once and for all, why did you need to see her twice?
CATHERINE: You went to see her a second time. Why?
BENSON: Were you following me?
CATHEREINE: You went to see her a second time. Why?
BENSON: Did you hire someone to follow me?
CATHERINE: You went to see her a second time. Why?
(SFX: Benson struggling to stand, then the sound of heavy legs grating against the floor.)
BENSON: My conscience is clear. God knows the truth.
CATHERINE (laughs): Oh, your conscience. I didn’t know you two were still familiar. Where are you going? (SFX: sound of drawers and cupboards being opened as Benson, fighting for breath, hastily searches through them.) You better sit down, moving will only make the pain worse and your legs will soon go numb. (SFX: Benson searching another area, items fall to the floor, some breaking.) What do you even think you are looking for?
BENSON: There… there… must be some… some remedy or antidote… somewhere.
CATHERINE: If you want the pain to go away then confess. (SFX: a thud as Benson slumps to the floor.) Your legs can’t carry you far. Can’t you see they are heavy? Heavy with the burden of lies.
BENSON: If you choose not to believe me… if you choose to jump to foolish conclusions and so doing kill me, kill your husband, then go ahead. Go ahead, Catherine!
CATHERINE: You have killed me, Benson. Can’t you see that? In more ways than one, you have killed me. A childless wife of ten years with HIV! Do you know the sorts of things they will say about me?
BENSON: Will taking my life change that?
CATHERINE: The truth at least will soothe as much as it can.
BENSON: I am your husband, Catherine. Your husband.
CATHERINE: Yet for almost ten years I have lived alone. Despite us being married; despite living in the same house; despite sharing the same bed, have we not, for the past ten years, lived alone? But at the very least I have tried to be a good wife. And as thanks you have placed upon me this unchaste stain. Infected me with this devil’s blood!
BENSON: I did not do this to you. If I am to die here, I will not let you heap false accusations on my head before I leave this world.
CATHERINE: Why? Why do you continue to deny it?
BENSON: Agh! This pain, all over me. Maybe if I…
(SFX: a choking sound and then he vomits violently.)
CATHERINE: What about the guilt in your blood? Are you going to try and puke that out too? Oh Ben, your pride and denial are even more lethal than the poison in your veins.
BENSON: So I should lie? Confess to something I did not do? “Yes, Catherine, I had an affair. I was infected with HIV and I passed it on to you”. I should dishonour myself just to satisfy your own pride? I would rather die. Let me die instead! But know that I will be avenged. Somebody, somehow, will discover what you did. This will be traced back to you.
CATHERINE: I don’t care. I am already dead. Oh God! All those nights you came home late, Benson, so late into the night; sometimes you didn’t even return at all till the next morning. What would you have me believe that you were doing? Working? For years you have spent practically every weekend away from this house, away from me; only returning in the dead of the night, slumping to sleep with barely any useful words exchanging between us. I am no fool. You are a man, if your wife is not warming your bed, another woman is.
BENSON: That is not true!
CATHERINE: Then why have you stayed away from me for so-
BENSON: Because I don’t love you! (Pause. He groans. The pain is unbearable. His breathing heavier.) You can’t tell me you didn’t sense it? You said it yourself, we have been living alone for years. We may have pretended but we both know love no longer exists between us. But since we are married, since we are husband and wife, I thought – alright Benson, accept your position and try to cope with it; be just a husband.
CATHERINE (restraining herself from bursting to tears): Ben… I still… I am a woman. Even as bad as things have been we could… I still… (Pause. Then with a shriek.) If you no longer loved me you should have left me! You should have left!
BENSON: Would you have let me?
CATHERINE: You should have left! Instead of staying only to give me this curse.
BENSON: I gave you nothing! Oh, God! My body… angh!
CATHERINE (crying): Why are you fighting for a lie, Ben? It’s just a few earnest words. The poison is spreading faster. I will treat you but the truth must be spoken.
BENSON (writhing in pain): Not me… Not me…
CATHERINE: Say it! I have to hear you say it.
BENSON: I will say nothing.
CATHERINE: All those nights you spent away from me… Even if it wasn’t her, still, hanging around bars and all kinds of places. You are a man – if your wife isn’t warming your bed then another woman is.
BENSON: I may not have loved you but I was never unfaithful.
BENSON: Never again! Not after… Damn it, you know what I mean!
CATHERINE: What I know is what I want to hear you say.
BENSON: Cat… Cat… Catherine.
CATHERINE: What you must say.
BENSON: Catherine, please, stop this.
CATHERINE: Then say it!
BENSON: Stop this… before… before…
CATHERINE: Say it!
CATHERINE: Speak the truth.
BENSON: Argh! This pain!
BENSON: Catherine… Kate… Katie…
SCENE 2: INT. A STUDIO
SFX: microphone feedback.
REPORTER (clears throat): Obituary. We regret to announce the passing away of Mr Benson Osas Irabor, dedicated husband and son, who passed away on the first of december, two thousand and eleven, due to sudden and unexpected health complications. He is survived by…
(Her voice trails off.)
SCENE 3: INT. THE IRABORS’ HOUSE. MORNING
SFX: Soft sounds of a quiet sunday.
Fade in to:
MOURNER: … and though the road may be arduous, for your protection, o Lord, we remain forever thankful. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord we pray.
(SFX: sound of numerous feet shuffling.)
MOURNER: Our sister, let us be on our way, ehn?. We would have liked to stay longer but…
CATHERINE: Of course. Of course. I understand.
MOURNER: But I will come back later in the day.
CATHERINE: Thank you so much.
MOURNER: Take heart, ehn? The Lord is your strength.
(Various words of condolence from the other mourners: “Take heart, sister” “God knows best” “He is resting with Jesus” etc)
CATHERINE: Thank you. Thank you all so much. I am very grateful.
(SFX: numerous voices go off mic as they exit. A brief pause. From afar we hear a voice calling.)
NEIGHBOUR: (off mic) Sister Kate! Sister Katie, oh! How are you?
CATHERINE (to herself): Oh, God! Mama Godwin again! I’ll just stand here by the door and talk with her until she goes. (Loudly.) Mama Godwin! How are you?
NEIGHBOUR (coming on mic; a bit out of breath): Hmm! My sister, I am fine oh! I saw brother Paul and some of the others from church.
CATHERINE: Yes. They were here for a long while.
NEIGHBOUR: Ok. That’s good. (With exaggerated sympathy.) So, how are you?
CATHERINE: I am-
NEIGHBOUR: How are you coping?
CATHERINE: God is in-
NEIGHBOUR: I hope sympathizers are not distrubing you too much oh?
CATHERINE: It is alright.
NEIGHBOUR: Oh, this life! It is such a temporal thing.
CATHERINE: Yes. Well, I just have to accept the fact for what it is.
NEIGHBOUR: Oh! Brother Benson. May his soul rest in perfect peace oh. (Deep sigh. She hisses.) I don’t know why death and tragedy have decided to attack so many of us on this street.
CATHERINE: How do you mean?
NEIGHBOUR: But God is alive. The devil will not triumph.
CATHERINE: Did someone else die?
NEIGHBOUR: Ahn-ahn! Don’t tell me you haven’t heard?
CATHERINE: Haven’t heard what?
NEIGHBOUR: Hey! Where have you… Oh, well, you have been… occupied. If not I know you would have heard by now.
CATHERINE: Heard what?
NEIGHBOUR: Hmm! My sister! You will not believe what- Wait, sister Katie let us go inside and sit down, some things should not be discussed where the wind is listening.
(SFX: the door shuts)
CATHERINE: Well, what is it, Mama Godwin?
NEIGHBOUR: Hmmm! This thing that I am about to tell you, you didn’t hear it from me oh!
NEIGHBOUR: You know Francis? Francis that owns the barbing salon down the street? Good! Yesterday he was arrested.
CATHERINE (pause): So?
NEIGHBOUR: Wait! You know who arrested him? Mr Johnson. Not Uncle Johnson oh, that is sister Emily’s brother. Mr Johnson, that is Aunty Clara’s husband.
CATHERINE: Yes. Yes.
NEIGHBOUR: Do you know why he arrested him? Francis, with that his so called barbing salon, he infected Mr Johnson with HIV.
NEIGHBOUR: And not just Mr Johnson oh, I heard that he infected many more men on this our street with HIV.
CATHERINE (to herself): My God! Benson!
NEIGHBOUR: You know that is where they mostly go to cut their hair – even though some of them are now denying they ever went there.
CATHERINE (to herself): That was where Benson used to go. Is that where… No!
NEIGHBOUR: Papa Enahoro; Uncle Festus, that drives that white car; Mr Yusuf, that used to work in government; even Brother Amaechi, that has not lived in this street for more than one year, poor man that was planning on getting married, now see – HIV. Because of one careless nonsense human being that cannot run his business properly.
CATHERINE (to herself): Is it possible? No! Oh God, no! It can’t be!
NEIGHBOUR: But it is not from me you are hearing it oh!
CATHERINE: Wait! No… No, it can’t be!
NEIGHBOUR: I am telling you something! Ah! That barbing salon, I have always said it was a hemlock on this street. Very unclean! The owner himself a rascal! When I was saying it people thought I was doing bad belle for that Francis man. Why will I do bad belle for him? I don’t know him from anywhere. Just that if I see something that is not good happening on my street, I will talk. People refused to listen, now see!
CATHERINE: But how… ? How? How did-
NEIGHBOUR: Mr Johnson is the one that found out. You know he works with the health ministry? As soon as he discovered he was HIV positive he started investigating. Before you will say Jack Robinson he traced the source of the infection back to that dreadful salon. Ha! This one is even half gist, if you meet his wife she will give you the full story.
CATHERINE (to herself): Oh God, what have I done? I couldn’t have… This is not happening.
NEIGHBOUR: What I am even saying is, how do we know that Francis man did not do this thing on purpose? Because you know some people, their minds are just wicked.
CATHERINE (to herself): What have I done? Did I… But.. No! No!
NEIGHBOUR: And your dear husband, God rest his soul, you know he always used to cut his hair there.
CATHERINE: Mama Godwin!
NEIGHBOUR: I am not suggesting anything oh, my sister. Not at all! I just thought I should tell you because I know people will soon start talking; so that you will be aware. You know how it is with HIV. But don’t worry, it is clear your husband’s case was completely different, God rest his soul. At least you will not be stained with all this tragedy – what you are carrying already is enough. I just said I should let you know so that if anybody should ever try to tell you any rubbish, you won’t hesitate to tell them to shut up!
CATHERINE: Mama Godwin, please I… I need to be alone. Suddenly I’m not feeling too fine. Thank you for coming.
NEIGHBOUR: You are welcome, sister. Let me be on my way oh…
(She chatters on and her voice trails off replaced by Catherine’s trembling inner voice – “what have I done? What have I done? What have I done?”.)