“My darling friend kept something from me.” Peju turned her face away from Niyi. Her head whirled as if someone was tapping it with a wooden spoon. She felt woozy. Yelling out the truth would stop her pain but she’d decided that it wasn’t her place to ruin whatever Niyi and Sade had. Knowing Niyi the same way she knew the creases on each palm, the relationship would perish before flowering. He would harm it himself.
“It is finished now Big Bro. Don’t worry about it.”
“She kept something from you?” Niyi had to ask. He wondered if Sade had discovered the truth about Clara and his brother and decided to keep their secret. But how did Peju find out?
From the way Peju kept looking at everything in the restaurant apart from him, he knew their conversation had ended. His sister-in-law’s stubbornness was the quiet, unyielding one that wouldn’t budge for no one.
“Okay. Ma binu.” Niyi said. “Or would you like me to prostrate on this floor right now.
To his relief, a fleeting smile appeared on her face. He placed their order and led her back to their table.
Although the three women had gone to the ladies’ room together in the restaurant, somehow Peju had finished reapplying her lipstick before Sade and Clara could wash their hands. She left the room without a word.
“She hates me.” Sade said.
“Maybe she is just uncomfortable with the way you carry on with Niyi. He is her brother-in-law after all.” Clara fished out her small make-up bag from her Chanel handbag. She set about heaping on more colours on her face.
Sade glared at her. Niyi was more of her family than Peju’s.
“I want to go back home to sort some things this December.” Clara glanced at her before returning to concentrate on her reflection. “Maybe you could come if that would stop you from letting Niyi toy with you.”
“Are you going to see your son?” Sade asked, desperate to change the conversation. “I really miss him. I know it is hard for you not having him with you.”
“Why? His grandma dey do fine job joor. He calls her mummy, they are happy together. I’m going Naija to chill. This cold weather and the boring men here are killing me.”
Sade watched her friend for a while before moving closer to her. “Niyi kissed me on Saturday night. I think I still want him.”
“Don’t do it babe. Get over this teenage crush. You are not fifteen anymore.” She raised a brow. “Has this man put something in your drink? Or maybe you tasted his thing when you were living with his family?”
“I really like him. That’s all”
“Well. I heard he likes men, Sade.”
“What?” Sade couldn’t resist laughing. “That is ridiculous. He definitely likes women.” She said, remembering the way he kissed her. The way his palms cupped her face when he claimed her lips again.
“I don’t doubt that he likes women. What I don hear is that he likes to do men too. Can you live with that?”
As Niyi held her front door open for her later that night, she would think of the way he chatted with Andrew animatedly before they left the restaurant. She would think of the Portuguese words they spoke with the delicate lilt in Andrew pronunciations and the way his well-defined face lit up every time Niyi turned to him and she would wish for someone to give her a new heart so she wouldn’t love him anymore.
“You need to…go,” she told him when they got in her flat.
“You are drunk. I can’t leave you like this.” Niyi announced. “I wouldn’t have bought you a beer if I knew you still don’t drink.”
He led her to the armchair and helped her sit as if she had forgotten how to use her limbs. Her head felt fluffy but it didn’t prevent her from noticing the firmness of his legs as he walked away to the kitchen.
Moments later, he came back with a cup of coffee for her. She took it, mouthing her thanks. The coffee tasted strong. Unsweetened.
People like him didn’t end up with a body like that by downing their coffee with tons of sugar the way she was wont to do.
He grabbed the remote control and switched on the TV, flicking from one channel to the other. After settling on MTV Base, he spent some time fluffing up and arranging the cushions on her sofa. She was still sitting, observing him and drinking her coffee quietly when he returned to her side.
“How are you feeling babe?” He placed her half-filled cup on the side table and then knelt beside her.
“What are you doing?”
He was so close to her, she smelt his aftershave like it had being dabbed on her own body.
“I am going to help you take off your shoes. Then we will go in your room and I will help you get ready for bed.”
She stared at his mouth as he spoke. His lips were kissable. His tone, manly. Clara was wrong. She had to be.
Sade craned her neck away from him despite wanting him to touch her. She wanted his lips on hers and her body brought back to life in his hands.
“I can get myself ready for bed. Goodnight.” She got up and raced to her bedroom so that the intense heat ravaging her body wouldn’t change her mind for her.
Once there, she let her anger rip. Taking her bracelet and earrings off, she flung them on the dressing table. He would bring nothing but complications into her life if she encouraged him. Yet, like an inexperienced school girl, staring at him melted her insides and left her with this euphoric feeling she hadn’t experienced for a while.
She decided to have a long shower to clear her head. She would get the tub of chocolate ice cream from the freezer after dressing. Food would block these feelings. It always worked.
Whilst donning on her dressing gown after moisturising, she heard music from the lounge and concluded Niyi had left in annoyance, leaving the TV on.
This was why she didn’t expect to find him in her lounge, spread flat on her sofa, the remote control in one hand.
“What are you doing here?” Sade demanded, trying to shift her eyes from his unclothed upper body.
“I like going to bed unrestricted and comfortable.” He pointed to his shirt, neatly folded on her armchair.
He had taken his belt off as well so that his jeans did not cling to his lower half anymore. She wanted to ask how he kept his abdomen, washboard-trim. She didn’t.
“Peji would not appreciate me coming back to the house this late. It is nearly morning. So, I guess I have to stay with my home girl.
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you going to throw me out now you are a big madam?” He was laughing now. “Who was it that paid for your WAEC? Or was it not me that used to dash you and Risikat five naira to buy groundnuts and kunlikunli for your garri before you became a babe.”
“Enh en. No more horror stories. You can stay.”
As soon as they settled down to watch a Nollywood film, their conversation concentrated on her and her choices. She had moaned about her weight when he asked her why she barely touched her meal at the restaurant.
“I like you the way you look. Trust me. Most men appreciate curves on women anyway, so I don’t understand why you would want to look skeletal like Peju.”
“I remember all the girls that you messed around with back home. Adaeze, Kemi and the dark skinned one. They were all slim girls.” She slapped his chest. It was a soft slap that didn’t mirror the look that she felt creep into her eyes. “You slept with our very slim housegirl too. I remember now. You are a dog, Mr.”
“Are you sure you didn’t dream that?”
“I saw you and her together in your bedroom. I came back from school early and your bedroom door was slightly open. Don’t worry, no lasting damage done.”
“What are you talking about? Maybe she lost an earring and I was helping her look for it.” He grinned. “I’m not like that anymore Sade.”
She didn’t respond. Her eyes were on her nails.
“I wanted you. Even then.” He placed his right palm in hers.
She held his gaze. It felt right to do so. “So, why were you messing around with all the girls on our street then?”
“You were fourteen. I was nineteen. I think if I had tried anything then…it would have gone sour. Mama would never have given her blessing. And, I didn’t want to take advantage of you.”
Perhaps because her head was still fuzzy because of the alcohol coursing through her bloodstream, her words – which had been tied down by her lack of confidence – left her mouth. “So, am I still too young to be taken advantage of now?”
He pulled her towards him and kissed her. All the layering shielding her feelings disappeared that instant. Her nails dugs into his back as he kissed her again. His chest pressed against hers, his hands kneading her. She pulled him closer and tugged at his jeans.
It cooled as soon as it had begun. He pulled away.
Clara was right. Her heart sank lower than she thought possible. The time was right for them but he wasn’t right for her anymore.
“Do you like men?” She had to ask.
“What did you just say?” Niyi asked. “What makes you think I am gay?”
Sade clasped her arms around her. “I…want to know if you like men. Don’t get me wrong… I’m not homophobic. I just don’t want to be with a man that…prefers men.”
Niyi sat up straight. “Look at me Sade. Do I not look turned on enough?”
She turned to him and saw the evidence that the tautness of his jeans failed to hide. She looked away and shrugged.
Clara didn’t say he didn’t like women. The inclusion of men too on the menu was what bothered her. The conversation had to change. Continuing on that current path would lead to him asking who her source was. Sade didn’t want Peju getting in trouble with him.
Niyi grabbed one of her hands. He moved closer to her so that he was nearly skin to skin with her. “I am really into you. I would like to spend the night with you but I want it to be special. I know you want me…”
“Hey, I’m not that easy.”
“I know,” he grinned and then wrapped his arms around her waist.
“I believe this thing between us is going to happen and it will be for keeps. We will be together in twenty years with half a dozen children. If you let us, we can leave our past behind and forge a new future.”
Sade sighed. Her teenage dreams where she saw them walking hand in hand were becoming a reality. His muscled body was hard against her satin dressing gown and his top half, bare. In his eyes she saw something other than lust. Something stronger. So why did she feel this looming dread hanging over her like a duffle.
Why didn’t he tell her how he felt all those years ago before desperation and depression drove her into the arms of his brother?
Would he be able to forgive that his brother had made her a woman?
She knew the truth had to come out and that it wouldn’t be easily stomached.
She started rehearsing her speech in her head. Moulding words together that would ease his anger.
“What is it lover?” Niyi held her tighter. “I know Femi has probably told you some of the things that happened between me and Jennifer.”
“Why do you think she killed herself?” Sade asked before she could stop herself. Although she felt him halt against her, an apology didn’t leave her mouth. It hadn’t made sense when she found out.
“I don’t think she wanted to kill herself. All she wanted was a fix.”
His tone was curt but she couldn’t stop there.
“Did Jennifer know she was pregnant? It is just that a mother will do anything to protect their child. I have never heard of expectant mothers overdosing on heroine before…”
He pulled away from her and placed his back on the sofa.
“Sorry. I…just want to understand.”
“You will never understand what it feels like to crave something Sade. Jennifer tried to quit dope. She tried.”
“What about you Niyi? Are you still sober?”
“I haven’t had a drink in eleven months.” He sat up and moved closer. “I am no saint but I have cleaned up. Do you think we can make it work?”
“There is something you need to know.” She knew it was better to tell him now about her night with his brother.
Doubtful he would be willing to forgive easily, the words got stuck in her throat. Her heartbeat raced until all her rehearsed phrases muddled into the sort of gibberish nonsense expected from her older patients.
“I can’t have kids.” She said instead, taking her time to explain how a laparoscopy procedure to laser endometriosis led to major surgery. Her throat hurt as she spoke but what hurt most was his silence. “The surgeon told me when I came round. Now you know, I don’t expect you to stay.”
He rubbed his face. When he returned his gaze to her, he seemed tired. Exhausted. “You had those surgeries when I was in Lisbon, didn’t you? When you couldn’t reach me?”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. I’m here now and I’m not going anywhere.” He hugged her and she started to cry.
Not for the children she couldn’t have but for how dreadful those quiet days and nights were for her. Aching for him and hurting from her diagnosis, she never thought her recovery would be this: his acceptance.
The next few days were easier. Happier too. He travelled all the way back to East Lancashire after a project review meeting on Thursday in Scotland to spend the evening with her. And it was whilst they were culled up on her settee that he wondered what he would do when his annual leave ran out. London didn’t appeal to him anymore the same way that the streets of Lisbon had bored him to near death five years ago.
“Stay here tonight.” Sade sat up and kissed his nape. “I hate it when you leave.”
“It is too soon, babe. I know you can’t wait to ravish me but I’m a good guy.” He bit his lower lip to stop himself from laughing.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “You will be staying on the sofa like the last time.”
“Are you sure you will be able to resist me?”
She slapped his legs and heaved herself off the sofa. “You got me there.”
“Forgive me. I like teasing you.”
“Let me get you a blanket and pillow.”
He held a hand out to her. She took it, giggled as he pulled her right on top of his front. “Are we good?”
“Yeah, we are.”
She didn’t say anything after this. Her smile, a radiant beam that lit up her eyes spoke for her. He was content just staring at her stunning face and stroking her hand.
Andrew offered him a permanent job the following day. An unexpected email had come from his boss earlier that morning, making Andrew’s offer of a job even more tempting.
Both men were at a restaurant, waiting for their lunch when his phone vibrated. He knew it was his boss ringing him. He let the phone ring, concentrating on stirring his tea.
“Como voce esta?” Andrew asked.
“Fine Andy.” Niyi sighed.
“Don’t mess up that gorgeous face with worry lines.” Andrew winked and raised his wine glass to his mouth.
“Whoever is sending me those dodgy text messages is trying to take me down Andy.”
“Did you get another message?”
“No.” Niyi stretched as if stretching would untangle the lifelike worry that gripped him from the insides. “The person sending those texts is trying to go for my job now.”
“Apparently the Director received an external complaint from my old practice in Essex. The complainants are claiming when I was their doctor, I treated their daughter whilst under the influence of alcohol. The partners at my old practice decided to pass the complaint to my new boss.”
“That’s messed up mate. But you are not practising as a doctor currently, so you have nothing to worry about.|”
Niyi gulped some of his tea. “I’m a department manager. I can’t work with the NHS anymore if my license is taken off me. Even if they don’t sack me, this can still ruin my career.”
“Do you think the same man sending those text messages has done this? Why would someone go through all that trouble to wind you up?”
Andrew kept talking but Niyi had stopped listening. He knew who could go through all that trouble and perhaps some more to spite him: it was the same man that loved Jennifer more than he could.
Akpan; his former friend and colleague at Essex Health Centre.
Sade’s happiness took a nosedive – a few days after Niyi left for London – when Clara rang her and poured out warnings that seemed to have come out of Peju’s mouth. Warnings about Niyi’s violent streak. About the purple bruises on Jennifer’s body.
It was her day off, so she promptly got dressed and paid Peju a visit at home, announcing her arrival with knocks that could have woken a corpse.
Although her friend seemed surprised to see her, Sade didn’t give her a chance to offer a greeting.
“This has to stop Peju. That man worked his butt off for several years to pay for your husband’s education. It is thanks to him that Femi is the man he is today because I swear if it wasn’t for Niyi, your husband would be slumming it in Gbogan or Ogbere working as a brick layer…”
“I guess Clara told you to be careful with Big Bro.”
“Stop spreading lies about him. I know Femi doesn’t put his foot down with you but Niyi is your brother-in-law and you are supposed to respect him.”
“I told Clara what I saw when we stayed with Big Bro in London.” Peju moved out of the doorway, towards Sade on the porch. Her voice did not rise like Sade’s but her face was as angry. “I hate to tell you this but I saw serious bruising on Jennifer’s back when we stayed with them…”
Sade shook her head and huffed.
“I walked in on her in the bathroom. When I asked her, she didn’t deny he did it to her. I know you like him but I can’t watch you get in a relationship with him. There are things you don’t know about him. Terrible things.”
“Things that are too big for my mouth. And me, I don’t intend to risk my marriage for nobody.”
“Peju, I have known him all my life. All my life!”
“You and he barely spoke for years ore mi. I don’t even understand how you are not suspicious about the way his fiancée died.”
Sade was sure her age had caught up with her. Aging her eardrums to match the rest of her body. “What is wrong with you Peju?”
She didn’t wait for Peju to answer her, turning on her heels and walking as fast as she could away from the house.
Perhaps because sleep failed to come that night, she booked herself a standard class ticket on a Virgin Train to London the next day. She needed him. His strength. She kept telling herself that tiny doubts had started manifesting in her head because her enemies –who masqueraded also as her friends – planted them there.
Sleep came early that morning. She welcomed the calmness, telling herself she would ring him the minute she woke up.
Sade didn’t wake up until the afternoon. She raced to the bathroom after hurling her things into a small weekend bag that Clara bought her last Christmas. She promised herself she would ring him on the way.
She didn’t. ‘I hope he likes surprises’, she muttered when the train arrived in Euston, Central London. To calm her nerves, she travelled to Grays via the London Underground, changing to C2C Trains at Fenchurch. A black cab ferried her to his house from the station.
She found his house with ease – having been there once with Femi, when the three of them attended a wedding in Essex. A polite knock brought footsteps to the door quicker than expected.
Sade smoothed her face with a smile, hoping he would be happy to see her.
The door opened and the smile disappeared.
Niyi was at the door. A blonde woman in a black dress was standing a few feet behind him. The woman moved towards him as he stared at Sade. It took a while before he opened his mouth.
“What… are you doing here?”
Sade noticed the roundness of the woman’s belly. She noticed the wedding ring that shown the way her blue eyes gleamed.
“Andrea, this is Sade.” Niyi turned to the woman. “She is my sister.”