Niyi dropped Sade off at home because she insisted. They parted ways on her doorstep, his palm on the curve of her left hip as they hugged.
When Sade woke up the following morning to do three dozen sit-ups instead of cooking a full English breakfast, she knew her depressive mood had lifted.
Her new mood pushed her to agree to meet Clara in the town centre that afternoon during her lunch break.
Sade wasn’t angry that Clara told Peju she’d had a relationship with her husband back when they were still students. She’d known the truth would come out one day. This was what she explained to her friend when she met her in the middle of Selfridges.
“So, if you are not angry, why didn’t you tell me you were going out with Niyi then? I didn’t even know he was in town.” Clara said without looking at her friend. Her hands were busy wrapping a scarf she got from the sale’s section around her neck. She pouted and examined herself in the mirror.
“I didn’t go out with him. Not the way you think.” Sade moved out of the way to let a woman through. She didn’t like knowing her friends had turned her life into something they could chew like meat. “I have known Niyi since I was a child so I don’t think of him the way you think of every man you see. He is like my big brother.”
“Niyi is bad news, girl. We all know how he prostituted himself in Portugal.”
“He was a male escort Clara. I’m sure he didn’t sleep with anyone.”
“As if you don’t know escort is just a glorified term.”
Sade followed Clara to the jeans section. The jeans, all shades of different sizes and colour called out to her. But she was no longer in a mood to shop. She wanted to defend Niyi instead. The heat with which he snarled at her bullies in school, beating the tallest one with a twig and earning himself a suspension in the process was not something that could be forgotten. He was always on her side, defending her.
“We all have a past Clara.”
“Did Peju tell you he beat up his fiancée?”
Sade followed her friend to the till. “Yeah, I heard that too.”
“So, what the hell are you doing with him?”
“I’m not doing anything with him. He is practically family. Okay? We are just friends.”
“I hope you remain just friends. I remember how he tried to use style–style to get between your legs when we all went down to Portugal. That my dear, no be brotherly love.”
As they took the lift upstairs, she decided it would be unwise to let slip that Niyi and her had planned to spend the evening in her flat. He had hinted that he missed Mama’s cooking – explaining that no one could get efo riro as spicy and tasty the way Mama did. The only woman that could get that perfect taste was Sade. No one else. “Your mum taught me well.” She had said.
“Last night, Peju served me quorn sausages, butternut squash and something that looks like orange mash,” he had chuckled. “Please feed me something that will remind me of home.”
That was why Sade invited him to her flat. It had seemed a natural thing to do. She had spent her teenage years tending to his needs. The three of them had grown up together, shrouding each other’s secrets from the world but sharing those secrets with each other. When Niyi left Nigeria, the trio had become a duo. And although, Femi and Sade had joined him three years later, the oldest musketeer never truly re-joined the group. A year later he left Manchester to work in a Sao Vicente holiday resort on the Madeira Island. Sade received the odd phone call from him but when he moved to Lisbon, those calls had thinned until they stopped coming.
Peju moaned about the summer heat despite the quiet whirling of the white hands of the pedestal fan in the conservatory. Despite heaping on more deodorant spray this afternoon, her dress had started to feel damp around the bust area.
Clara’s legs were crossed, on the sofa beside her. Peju motioned to the jug of cold orange juice she had placed on the table between them.
Clara shook her head. “Talk to her. I know you are angry with her but she doesn’t know Niyi like you do. She thinks he is still the same Niyi she grew up with.”
Peju glared at the empty cup on the table. Her children’s playful screams were louder than usual because Femi bought them cones of ice cream at the park. He had wanted the four of them to go to the cinema after. Peju refused, feigning tummy aches; encouraging him to go to the bowling alley with Niyi instead.
“Big Bro always gets what he want.” Peju hissed “He is not like my Femi. There is this side to him that gives me the chills.”
“I reminded her that he abused Jennifer.”
“To be fair, the three of them were so close as children. It will be hard to convince her he is bad news. I’m sure his addictions will wake her up soon enough.”
“And what if it doesn’t?” Clara filled her cup up. “Sade is not like me. She wants to settle down soon.”
“Well, when she becomes his wife he will shine her eyes to the truth.”
“What is that supposed to mean? Abeg, your tone dey worry me.”
Peju shifted closer to her friend, whispering the words that followed in Yoruba. The last thing she wanted was her children overhearing their conversation. “Big Bro wants to move back home in a few years. He needs a woman by his side.”
“So? Most Naija men wanna tie the knot. They just don’t wanna eat the same stale stew every night.”
“Well, he only wants to get married to hide the fact that he loves doing it with men.”
“Did you ever miss me?”
Sade heard his question and decided to ignore it. Pretending that the soft humming and hissing of the last Clitheroe train had crushed his whisper on its way to her ears. They were standing on the balcony of her flat. Her eyes were fixed on the tall, octagonal Jubilee Tower barely visible in the distance. This was where she stood every evening when the quietness inside drove her outside. The view was breath-taking this evening because the last light of dusk had descended over the hills. She imagined the locals, in their time, would have utilised a long summer day like this. A chance to walk the moors and climb to the top of the Lancashire tower to appreciate the views of Morecambe Bay, Isle of Man and the striking peaks and valleys of North Wales.
For her, the view was a weapon. A weapon to distract her mind from where it wanted to travel. She wanted him to know what it felt like when he ignored her and chased others.
He didn’t move from where he was beside her. His face was so close to her, she could feel his breath on the back of her neck. He would be gone in a few days. They probably wouldn’t see each other for a few years. No point getting too attached.
“I’m sorry for not ringing you enough.” Niyi told her. He didn’t need to meet her eyes to know she was angry. Could he tell her he was angry also for the way she turned him down in Portugal?
“Which time are you apologising for Big Bro?”
“I’m sorry for every time I let you down.” Niyi hoped she would see how sorry he was. He hoped too that she would stop calling him Big Bro. It always made him feel like a pig, like it was wrong for him to ogle her. “You know how it is, life pins you down with so much stress that you forget everything else.”
Her eyes shone with bewilderment. Surprised that he grouped her with everything else, perhaps. The small things that shouldn’t matter.
Despite the slight anger he noticed in her eyes, she looked stunning. Her hair was down, illuminated by the big silver hoops in her ears. His heart raced faster every time his eyes shifted to her legs – left exposed by the red shorts that hugged her ample rear. He wanted to hold her in his arms and apologise again but he could tell that her heart had already shut its door to him.
“I always found a way to call or write when you moved to Portugal. Even when things were hard for me.” Sade corked her head away from his view again: trying not to think of the surgical procedure that changed her life forever and how her tears flowed when the several calls she made from her hospital bed yielded no result. Femi too, tried to reach his brother. It was during his visits to the hospital that he persuaded her to stop waiting. “Big Bro has changed.” Femi told her in between trying to persuade her to try the grapes he brought.
Back at the university, Femi nursed her until the bond between them grew. They had kissed one evening in their study pod at the library. Convinced that Femi was the brother for her, she had let the new waves of feelings soak her. And it wasn’t until the night that Femi took her innocence that she found out he had fallen for her friend, Peju.
“I should have called more often but I got caught up in something in Lisbon.” Niyi said, pronouncing the last word as Lisboa, the way he always did.
“What happened in Lisbon?”
“Something happened that made you stay there.”
“I can’t tell you.” He told her in exactly the tone he had used when they all came over to Lisbon to see him. Opening up wouldn’t have made much of a difference. She had danced with him at Braga de Bonito, linked hands with him as the fado rang low and turned him down when he asked her to come up to his hotel room.
“I’m sorry for bombarding you with questions. I know how much you’ve done for me. You were the one that pushed me out of mourning all those years ago…”
“Don’t.” Niyi put his hand on the hand nearest to him.
Sade was thirteen when her parents died. Mama, Niyi’s mother had asked her to move in with them but nothing prepared them for how consumed with grief she would be. Femi and Niyi were left with the job of coercing her to drink pap because nothing appealed to her guts. Mama too was as raw as her, sobbing into her wrapper in the evenings. Sade’s mother was her best friend.They became friends when Sade’s father brought his young bride to the city where he lived. Sade’s homesick mother had taken a liking to her neighbour, a native of Osogbo like her. Sade’s grandmother – bereft by the death of her son and wife because a taxi driver had decided to drink too much ogogoro – would have taken her to Osogbo if Mama hadn’t insisted it would affect her education.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come to Jennifer’s funeral. I couldn’t get time off work.”
He let his hand press against hers. “I hoped to see you. Thanks for the calls and cards.”
“Femi told me you and Jennifer were rowing. You were going to go your separate ways.”
“Well…you know me. The women that love me end up despising me.”
They stared at each other for a while. She tensed up. Dazed by the re-emergence of the familiar buzzing in the pit of her belly.
He grabbed her waist and pulled her to himself when she tried to turn from him. She knew what he was about to do and desired him as much. The moment she had waited for since the onset of puberty had arrived but she feared the intensity of it would overwhelm her.
He kissed her. Not with the gentleness she’d always imagined he would taste her, but with the urgency of fervent longing. Niyi pushed at her lips with his tongue until she let herself go. The tongue settled in, teasing her whilst his hands cupped her backside. She purred against his chest when the kiss ended. She had turned her face from him because the torture was getting to her. And partly because, she wasn’t sure they would be able to stop if they had continued.
He backed her against the wall and kissed her again. Softly, this time. A moan escaped her moist lips when his head sank lower.
He lifted his head from her neck as his palm cupped her face. “I want to be with you. I can’t wait anymore.”
“No. We can’t. You are fifteen years too late.”
He opened his mouth to say something. She got there first. “I don’t want to ruin our friendship. You are like a brother to me.” Saying that was better than telling him about her night with his brother.
His shoulders dropped. “Oh. I guess I got it all wrong. My bad. Let’s talk tomorrow.” He backed into the apartment. Seconds later the front door slammed shut.
She didn’t expect him to call her the next day. That was why when he turned up the next morning shortly before she was due to leave for work, surprise muffled her voice. He drove her to work, explaining to her he would like them to be friends again. He would be staying up North for a while as his friend, Andrew wanted his help with his business.
A couple of her patients that day at the surgery remarked about the chirpiness of her greeting. At lunch time, she chatted with Niyi on the phone, refusing to admit to him when he asked her what lunch would be – that it was usually a double whooper cheeseburger with a mountain of fries, chicken nuggets and a chocolate cake dessert.
Today, she chose a banana and strawberry smoothie from the cafe. Seeing him had filled her up.
The mood eased her into the rest of the week. Constant still, when Femi called to invite her to Niyi’s surprise birthday meal at an Indian restaurant.
“I don’t think Peju will like that.” She insisted.
“You have to come.”
“Your wife said she doesn’t want to see me.”
“Big Bro will be disappointed if you don’t come. He will ask why. You know how his brain works.”
She shut her eyes for a few seconds. Femi was right. His brother would find out what they did if they changed towards each other. “Your wife is very angry. You know what happens when she is like this.”
“Leave Peju to me.”
“Okay then. I’ll try to be there.”
Niyi lightened up when she arrived at the restaurant on Friday evening. The evening dress she had on hugged every inch of her. Her hair was tossed back, driving attention to her cleavage. The dress amplified her curves in all the right places. His excitement rushed to his groin even though three seats were between them.
“Our Sade here is always late. Imagine arriving after the celebrant.” Femi addressed his colleague, whose name Niyi couldn’t remember.
“I came straight from work.” Sade said before turning to Clara to ask if she could take a look at the menu.
Niyi noticed the small fleeting looks Peju gave Sade when she joined them. He noticed that Peju didn’t return Sade’s greeting too. He was wondering about this when a text came in from Andrew, his friend.
“I need to pop outside ladies and gents. Andrew is lost. Excuse me.” Niyi got up and hurried outside of the restaurant. He paused on his way to the car park when he heard the clacking of heels behind him. He turned, hoping it was Sade following him.
“Hi, Big Bro,” Clara caught up with him. “I thought I would come out to help you with descriptions of the area.” Her hands were on her hips as if she wanted him to notice them.
“I’m fine. No, thanks”
“Come on, you need me.”
Niyi resisted the urge to tell her the first thing on his mind. Turning away from her, he concentrated on his search.
“You have no reason to be scared of me. We can get a drink or two later to celebrate your birthday.”
“No thanks. I’m very busy.”
“I don’t like sleeping with women my brother has bedded.” He felt obliged when a questioning frown pushed her brows together. “I know you are having an affair with Femi. He admitted it when I confronted him.”
“You don’t know shit…”
He saw Andrew’s Cayman Porsche and waved. Clara had no choice but to go back in as he advanced towards the car.
Back inside, he introduced Andrew to the rest of the group. Their starter came shortly afterwards but the chaat tasted like warmed cabbage in his mouth. Clara’s eyes followed his every move. Peju’s eyes were busy too, following Sade. She was rude every time the latter tried to hold a conversation with her. That was why he asked his sister-in-law to come to the till with him, explaining to everyone he’d decided to order the triple coloured rice with their order.
“Why are you treating your friend like that? Can you not put your differences aside for one evening?” He whispered on their way to the till.
Peju shook her head. “We are not friends, Big Bro.”
“Well, she is mine. Please treat her with respect.”
From where they were, their table was visible. Sade eye’s caught his. He noticed the worried expression on her face.
“Perhaps, I should tell you what my so called friend did to me.” Peju smiled a smile that didn’t light up her eyes.