When I alighted from the bus, I wasn’t prepared for any shock. I wasn’t ready for anything other than certainties. It was a Friday. The banking hall would be cold and close to empty. It won’t have the crowd, the air of mixed odors and the officious busyness of other weekdays.
I knew I would receive the set greetings the bank staffers are mandated to spew out. The guards would say, ‘’ you are welcome to Access Bank’’. I knew the cashiers would dress down. Looking a little freer and different from the bodies that have to be properly contained in the suit code, Monday to Friday. I knew that when it comes my turn on the queue, the cashier would call out, “next customer!’’ And when the transaction is over, they will say, ‘’thank you for banking with us’’. All the words and feints, stilted. Humans imitating the programmed predictability of the robot.
The greetings spoken out of trained reflex and obligation almost always come out absentmindedly. It defeats the purpose of its invention. It doesn’t achieve what greetings should achieve. It is artificial compliance to officialdom, not a spark for human to human connection. And the practice diminishes the people who are under compulsion to maintain it. They are made to appear incapable of investing creativity or variety in the simple act of salutation. Someone didn’t trust they could greet right. The uniform template was to help them greet satisfactorily.
But I knew one person who seemed to be in the bank but not of the bank. She was overly fair. She was perpetually composed, as impossible to be unruffled as she was defiantly peaceful. She still said those compulsory greetings. But she made it sound authentically humane. She said her greetings as if they were offerings of volition, from her being to yours.
She paused to look into your eyes. And she quickly averted her eyes. She was audaciously shy. She smiled at you. She smiled in a way that told you her eyes and her glistening white teeth were in conspiracy to radiate warmth. Her smile didn’t disappear quickly. It always lingered for a few more seconds before fading into her unstirred demeanor.
We became friends the first day it was the lot of her desk to attend to me. I joked about our shared name. Her name tag read Uchenna. She smiled. I noticed that she smiled reverentially. The act of smiling wasn’t vain for her. It was holy. A sacred thing.
We had a small chat as she processed my transaction; her eyes panning from her computer screen to me and back. She studied the backside of my withdrawal slip. She said I had a weird signature. I laughed. I counted the bills and pocketed them. I thanked her and walked away. I liked her. She had stamped the impress of her authenticity and congeniality on me.
So this Friday, my umpteenth visit, I presumed I would see her. She would be seated behind her desk. I took it for a given. She would be in her normal place. A computer before her face. Her lips, coated with a gloss of hibiscus red.
I planned to squeeze a petty talk inside one minute and wish her a great weekend. I was mulling my mental script. I wondered whether I had seriously considered that I might have a crush on her. Uchenna.
And so I approached the gate of the bank. I was in a hurry. I had to make this withdrawal, hand it to my kid brother for an urgent purchase, run to an agro-chemical shop to buy a pack of tomato seeds, race to my nursery, ready myself for a trip to Enugu.
But there was an Obituary poster conspicuously plastered on the gate! Banks don’t paste bills on their premises. Why was this poster made to confront whoever would walk through the gate?
I walked closer. And who’s that tall fair lady wearing a smile, a white T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans? It was her! Uchenna! Her names were written in full.
My heart skipped a beat. Then it resumed beating – faster, faster; as if I was running. And wasn’t I running from this tasteless reality? My concentration scattered. I panicked. Uchenna. That beautiful girl, a seemingly good marriageable choice, DEAD!
Nothing else mattered. All my priorities for the day took flight, like a confused echelon of bats out of a ceiling. I had more questions than grief. I couldn’t cry. I just wanted answers. I had a driving urge to ask questions.
Why did she die? What did she do to deserve this early nipping? What killed her? Oh so she’s no more alive? She would be tucked into a coffin, lowered deep into earth, covered? And forgotten?
I had managed to convince myself that if someone could tell me what happened to her, I would be reasonably lulled.
I asked the security guard. He said she had died in her house. The poster said that too: ‘’which sad event occurred in her residence’’. I asked him how death invaded her house. He said it was a domestic accident. The lady had her traditional wedding last month and was billed to walk down the aisle next month. That’s all he knew. I couldn’t probe further.
I was incensed by the injustice of it all. The harvest of the unripe fruit wasn’t fair. Uchenna had not voyaged into womanhood. She was young, couldn’t have been older than mid-thirty. She departed too early. She came, surveyed the world and left. As if she found the earth too boring to abide.
I walked inside the banking hall and asked the lady who sat in her stead. She sighed. She said she was told Uchenna was killed in her home but didn’t know beyond that. And to fill the hollow part of the story, she leaned towards a philosophical summary. Life is short. We should always be prepared to be surprised. Nobody knows their own appointed time.
From the two vague accounts of the guard and the cashier, and their unmistakable reluctance to divulge the nature of the ‘’domestic accident’’ that wasted Uchenna, I could surmise that she was most likely killed by a blow of violence inflicted on her by her partner. Cause of death is not fodder for hide and seek gaming unless it is ugly and potentially capable of implicating someone.
She was felled by an intemperate macho, desperate to assert his strength and dominion. And that’s a messy tale nobody would want to freely rehearse. Nobody wants to be quoted. The tragic silence is predicated on the fear of being referenced as a source. ‘’I don’t want anybody to say that I said…’’
It is exactly this dread of bearing witness, the cowardly avoidance of any burden that may arise from calling a case of murder or manslaughter by its real name, that helps perpetuate the cycle of domestic violence and churns out victim after victim. This is the reason there is no red line. Violence against women is a crime that the society believes is better tolerated and endured than challenged.
Now, you naturally expect that the dead lady’s colleagues and the bank she served to be interested in understanding the context of her death. You expect them to invest some seriousness in affirming that the loss of their employee meant something. But they would restrict themselves to regretting her death. The lady is dead. No need to cry over spilt milk. She has been replaced. The branch’s business has to move on.
The honor the bank feels it owes her would be to write a nice oration, attend her burial and present her bereaved family a cheque. And they would have mourned Uchenna enough.
Uchenna’s own family is likely to respond in no more dramatic terms. In this part of the world, death is considered a matter of destiny. When people die and how they die is decided by fate. If you are destined to live long, you would survive all life-threatening challenges and grow into a Methuselah. If you are destined to die young, some trivial argument could instigate someone to club you to death.
A culture that is regulated by fatalism accepts these needless tragedies as ineluctable. It makes people nimble at burying. The funeral is quickly conducted so that everybody can forgive the culprit and forget the casualty as soon as possible. This worldview says people are pawns of chance. They are not responsible for the harm they do. Some men are born without any sense of restraint: we have to suffer the disaster their brawn can cause.
It’s going to be hard to forget her. It’s going to be hard not to remember Uchenna.
From now, each time I walk into that bank branch, I would have to struggle not to scan for a face that has expired. I would have to try not to reach back into my memory and compare her personality and service with her replacement. I would have to try to forget that a lady of promise was extinguished when a brute male force collided with a weakly feminine frame.