Staring at his fiancée’s damp face, he realised what had woken him. He shifted towards her and held her close. Kenny quivered in his arms.
“Was it another nightmare?”
She nodded and shut her eyes.
“What happened this time?”
“Something happened,” Tony said. “Your nightie is damp and you won’t stop shaking. It was no ordinary dream.”
“Go back to sleep.” She turned her back to him and curled up like a baby in its mother’s womb.
His hand was on her waist. No longer around it, holding her. She had expertly squirmed away without him noticing.
“I only want you to confide in me.” He was tired of asking questions that resulted in more questions in his head. He knew it was a man haunting her dreams. A relative. She said his name once in her sleep. One Friday night.
Her tone held terror. Unmistakable terror that made the milk in his tea taste sour that morning.
When he tried to question her about it, she had jumped up from her seat and started cleaning the kitchen. The fryer that his mother said needed throwing away soon became brand new. The oven gloves turned a colour he had never seen them in before, and even the dishwasher groaned and squelched under her cleaning hands.
Her cleaning mission finished in the evening, with his boxers’ drawer. Arsenal had put him in a bad mood by then, so he took the kiss she gave him as her apology. He reasoned that she would tell him about her nightmares one day.
She would have to.
He didn’t need a therapist to tell him her nightmares and her uneasiness in bed were related. Although she didn’t shy away from discussing that aspect of their relationship. She often said she would try not to tense-up in bed.
Kenny sighed and started to climb off the bed. Anthony’s eyes were on her back as she moved; on the baggy pyjamas that did nothing to hide her shapely form. She despised her body. Blamed her mother’s cooking for ruining what she referred to as her once upon a time bony body.
On their first date he had been transfixed by that body. By the big swells and rises hidden under her jeans and that purple long sleeved top. It had taken a whole lot of distraction techniques for him not to kiss her at the cinema. She would have slapped him. For under the guise of the occasional crinkling at the corners of her lips, lay enough evidence that she would rather not be there with him at that Stratford cinema. After all, she had been forced by her uncle to go on that first date with him.
“I’m going to get some water from the fridge.” She scratched her chin. She tended to do this, scratching around the small, black birthmark on the tip of her chin whenever something weighed heavy on her mind. “Do you want something? Hot chocolate drink or orange juice?”
“No, thanks.” He patted the spot next to him on the bed. “I want you to come back to bed so we can talk.”
“About what Anthony?”
“You know what it’s about.”
“I don’t have time for this.”
“People whisper things.” He sat up, dragging the duvet cover with him. She didn’t like seeing him uncovered. Past experience had taught him well. “I have never tried to listen to anything they say about you…”
“I would rather hear it from you.”
“There is nothing to tell.”
“There is nothing to tell,” she repeated, screaming the words at him.
He couldn’t tell if she was crying because she had turned away from him. “I’m sorry.”
One hand was buried in her wavy curls. He thought her hair suited her caramel-brown skin tone better when she came back from Peckham – where the new shop of her Caribbean hairdresser was – with longer, curlier hair last week. She usually wore her hair short. The hairdresser had added layers of reddish brown to her fringe.
That evening she wore a tight-fitting, red dress that held him captive whilst they wined at the exclusive Bennets jazz club in the middle of London Soho. He hoped that meant that she had begun to leave her past behind.
He was wrong.
On Monday, his messages and calls went unanswered. Her mother said she was at work, and the husky-sounding woman who picked up the phone at her workplace insisted she had left before lunch. On Tuesday morning she turned up minutes before he left for work. Hair tied back, jacket completely buttoned up. She told him the new case at work had rattled her. She counselled girls who had been sexually abused, so he knew better than to ask her about it. When he tried to kiss her that morning, she turned her face sideways.
“I don’t know what to do if you won’t talk to me.” He straightened. “Right now, I want to come over and hug you. But I know you wouldn’t let me.”
“It is work,” she headed for the door. “If you don’t mind, I need to get a drink.” She slammed the door after her.
He didn’t let himself feel anything too strong at the beginning. Having known she didn’t like him, his expectations didn’t exceed friendship. He definitely didn’t expect to kiss her on their third date. Kenny sat on his lap, telling him how much his lean physique and trendy haircut thrilled her. “You are slim yet your arms are like… waoh. How is that even possible, Anthony?”
“Your uncle will kill me if he finds out I brought you back to my house on our third date. I hope you tell him you caused it.” He had been unable to control his desire. The powerful thing the contact of her skin did to his body and mind. The way she brought his brain to a standstill. Even when all her thighs did was rest on his lap.
He liked her before their date. Her dry humour. The way she tended to pout whenever she caught him staring in church. Her gentleness towards younger people. Her eyes – they were mesmerizing even then. They reeled him in. Wide, alert eyes that never looked tired, even when she had just woken up. The black of her eyes were a rich black that made the whites seem even whiter than any pair he had seen before.
Dating her revealed that he liked her a lot more than he thought. He realised skinny girls that frequented the gym like him were not the only type of girls he liked.
She was neither fat nor thin. Slim waist, big curves. A healthy body. What his friend, Dare, called a tempting hourglass. As he had come to expect, that body was covered with extra layers when Kenny came to pick him up from football practice that Saturday. That didn’t prevent Dare from staring, unrestrained.
That day he realised why Kenny avoided him for years in church. Why she didn’t have any male friends. She had dived back in the car to wait for him and stuttered when Dare asked her intrusive questions.
Despite knowing she felt uncomfortable with men she wasn’t familiar with, he wanted to marry her from that Saturday. Watching her cook whilst he marked his students’ essays did not do this. It was when she thanked him for being so understanding. For not trying to change her.
She seemed besotted with him for a while. Until the night of his birthday when he demanded too much from her. She didn’t slap his hand away. Nor did she say no. This was why he didn’t expect her to start sobbing halfway through it. He had stopped thrusting, hurried off her and reassured her that they didn’t have to do it again. Not until she was ready. If only his body and mind worked together. If only she didn’t sometimes touch him for too long and let her kisses linger.
She would tease him. Whisper into one of his ears. Then, like one who didn’t think her actions had ignited enough fire in him, she would trail kisses from his neck to his chest. He would try to think of mundane things – car washes, doing his laundry, even Pastor Osayuwamen’s preaching – anything to keep his hands from flying upwards. But they always did, and then she would hurry away from him, accuse him of being unable to control himself. He would try to get away to attend to his students’ markings but she would smile apologetically and promise to try harder. “Give me time, Tony. More time and I will be fine.”
He woke up to her hands, demanding and exploring. The lights were off. It was still dark outside but not as intensely black as when she had left the room. Dawn had started to set in.
He had waited for her and then decided to go after her. Tired after a day of hopping on trains and the London Underground, thanks to his unreliable car, he had fallen back asleep. Now as she straddled him, he was glad that he didn’t go after her.
“I’m going to let you in, Anthony. I’m going to show you what you mean to me, big man.”
“We don’t have to.” He made a feeble attempt to stop her but she had pulled her nightie over her head and started to move on top of him. “I’m crazy for you, cutie,” he gasped. “I love you too much. Trust me.”
“I trust you.”
“Relax. For me.”
“A bit more, lovey.” He decided to help her. Help himself actually. With one hand around her, one on the bed, he rolled her over and settled on top of her. “I can’t wait to have you here every day. Every day, boo.” He held one of her hands, pinned it above her head and searched for the other as he moved against her.
“Babe. This is bliss.”
“Let go. Let go of me. Right now!” She slapped him as he scrambled off her. “Why did you have to hold me down?”
His fiancée had fallen asleep after sobbing and apologising before Anthony dared to move from the corner of his room where he wedged himself. He was surprised to see his mother coming out of the downstairs toilet. She had been in Coventry visiting her friend. She did not greet him with her smile, the one that usually made her eyes gleam.
“Mum, welcome. I didn’t know you were back.”
“You were sleeping when I came back.” She shuffled towards her room. The medium-sized room underneath the landing.
He had urged her to move into the flamboyantly decorated guest room after he bought his house. “That big room will be for my grandchildren,” she had insisted.
“Mum, did something happen in Coventry?”
They were alike. Physically with their slightness and fair skin. They were also both intuitive. Able to tell if the other was upset with barely any clues. His mother had heard Kenny and him, he knew.
“I’m disappointed,” his mother said. “I brought up a son that doesn’t seem to understand the word, no.”
“It isn’t like that. You know me, Mum. I wouldn’t…”
“Pastor loves you, Anthony. How do you think he will feel knowing you are pressurizing his niece?”
“I’m not pressurizing her.”
“We will talk in the morning, sonny. Goodnight.”
As he settled on the settee, he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep.
Lola had barely shut her eyes before her husband started what she described to Kenny as his ‘acrobatics’. Stretching. Rolling. Raising limbs up as if he was about to compete in the Olympics.
On a normal night, she would have asked, “Darling, hope no problem?”
Tonight was different though. She wanted to sleep. In fact, sleep for three nights, snoring like she had heard him snore. She reasoned she deserved this, and more, after a very hectic church anniversary and the committee meeting. By the time the service finished, she could hardly remember her own name. She had been left with no option but to hide in the coat cupboard for ten minutes when her heels started pinching.
Kenny, her cousin and her sister, Jackie, laughed when they caught her in there. “Lola, pele. It is not easy to be a pastor’s wife as well as a senior pastor’s daughter.” Kenny was quickly at her side, offering her a cup of coffee, some biscuits and a bar of chocolate, whilst Jackie took out her phone and took photos she tagged, ‘funny family pics’.
The coffee helped, partially. She smiled beside her husband as her father and the other church committee members arrived at their house for the monthly meeting. A few hours after the hectic church anniversary.
By one in the morning, she could barely walk as she cleared up after the men. She wondered how her mother entertained at these monthly meetings, acting as unofficial church accountant, as well as running their home efficiently.
“Are you the first pastor’s wife?” she heard John ask, and remained as still as a dead body, knowing his plan was to catch her out. He would say, “Baby you can’t be asleep. If you were asleep, you wouldn’t be speaking.”
“Baby, you know I can’t sleep without this thing. I need to calm down. You can’t work all day in church and ignore your master in the house.”
But Lola knew he used that word to get her to abandon her pretence.
One night without the thing will not kill you.
She forced her words underneath her tongue, knowing what happened the last time she uttered those words.
Pretending to be angry, citing time of the month, had all failed to earn her that night off.
A night off was a luxury he doled out when work and church stress tired him out; the rare nights he fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. Even then, she had seen him rubbing his face, trying to fight sleep.
“Okay, baby. Let me give you a relaxing massage.” He descended on her with those big hands. Hands that were created to cause pain. Made worse by the fact that tonight, nerves that aided any form of pleasure had long gone to sleep.
“I am sleeping, darling.” She didn’t turn to face him.
“If you were sleeping, you wouldn’t have answered me.” His hands were already squeezing her breasts. “Let me get between those sexy legs. Or all my wahala today no deserve small reward.”
One palm stayed on her breasts whilst the other hand crept up her legs.
“What is wrong with you, sef? Have I not heard you teaching those women in church to submit to their husbands?”
Warnings with the intense loudness of church bells rang in her head. He wasn’t in a bargaining mood anymore.
He had managed to pull her nightwear to her belly and she knew she didn’t want a repeat of what he did to her seven months ago. Not again.
She had forced her eyes shut not long afterwards. Staying up and thinking would have made her decide he did do something wrong.
And with the entrance of the morning’s brightness, she told herself he didn’t do anything wrong. She promised herself to be more giving.
But even in the darkness of the room, she could tell anger had crept into his eyes again.
“You are my wife,” he said as he parted her legs. “You are supposed to give me what I want.”
It was different from last time when shock and horror doused the pain. This time it was disappointment that gripped her afterwards. A rising, crippling feeling that the man that was not just her husband, but also the man who nursed her so tenderly when flu tied her down last winter, had done this to her, again.
“Can a man rape his wife?” Lola did not mean to voice her question. It came out and hung like stale air.
She was in her parents’ recently spruced-up garden with Kenny, waiting on the others to arrive for the barbecue – her father’s idea. The weather had started to turn. It had been gloriously sunny earlier. Now, they had been forced to huddle closer on the wooden bench they were sitting on.
“Say that again.” Her cousin sat upright.
Lola followed the bench’s leg to the Jesus is Lord inscribed on it, to its foot digging softly into the artificial lawn. John did not stay silent during breakfast this morning. He ignored his morning papers and chatted animatedly. He reminded her to apologise to her father for not being able to come to the barbecue. Perhaps next bank holiday. The hospital would have more doctors on shift then. He took their bowls, plates and cutlery to the sink and washed them. And when she curled up on the settee, he held her hand and kissed it as if to apologise for what he did to her last night. He had fetched her two painkillers instead of the apology. Two big, foul-tasting tablets that did not help her forget.
“Osaivbie!” Kenny narrowed her eyes.
There was a sternness to the way her cousin questioned people at times. She had sometimes wondered how the young girls she counselled opened up to her. She knew also that under Kenny’s toughness lay vulnerability that only Lola and her father knew about. Vulnerability constantly resisted by Kenny.
“It was one of the wives in church,” Lola lied. “Her husband gets a bit rough with her.” She looked up and held her cousin’s gaze. She was scrutinizing her. Watching her like a counsellor would. “She asked me if what her husband is doing to her is wrong.”
“Does she say no and he goes ahead to have his way?”
“Then you should tell her she needs to pack her bags.”
“Oh, Kenny, let’s not get carried away here. I know we are in the UK but we are Nigerians governed by certain expectations.”
“Expectations, my foot. You sound like our mums. We are not in the fucking dark ages anymore. If that woman came to you because it was bothering her so much, then I bet it was a lot more than rough foreplay. I bet she also minimised his actions. Victims of domestic violence tend to do this, Osaivbie.”
Calling her Osaivbie twice indicated her cousin’s state of mind. Although stamping her foot on the lawn and raising her voice had already confirmed to her that her cousin couldn’t help her with this.
Despite being daughters of close sisters, they had been raised differently. Lola grew up in Nigeria. Fed and nurtured on religion and culture. Kenny was raised in a single-parent household in Greenwich, a southeast London borough.
“How long before things get worse?” Her cousin did not shout this time. She tucked one of her legs under her thighs and shook her head. “I wish I could pull this woman out of that place. Staying with someone who is all about control is a bad idea…”
“What if it is just sex? Men want it more than women do. Not so?” She remembered the urgency with which her husband took off her dress on their wedding night. The way his hands shook. His apologies when he woke her up two hours after she fell asleep. “I will want this thing every night.”
“It is still wrong. Deep down you know it. You have been snappy all day because you are worried about this woman. What does that tell you?”
“Some men don’t have it easy. Imagine how it must be for Tony.” Her cousin frowned and folded her arms but Lola wasn’t done yet. “Tony wants it, you don’t want it. Okay, Tony is wrong for asking, knowing our Christian principles.”
“What has my relationship with Anthony got to do with this? Tony and I decided to do things differently, pastor’s daughter. Nothing wrong with our decision. We ain’t all gonna marry as virgins.”
“Nothing wrong with your decision? Is that why you rushed to the house crying the night he tried to have his wicked way with you?” She regretted this comment immediately. She had gone too far with her teasing, and watching her cousin stare at the new plant pots by the door, she wanted to pull her close and hug her.
Her father often referred to Tony, her cousin’s fiancé, as son. Her father liked Tony. Not as much as he loved his niece though. Lola realised why her father liked him when Kenny told her how Tony apologised that night. How he restrained himself and held her. How he volunteered to drive her to Lola’s because he didn’t want her to be on her own.
When Tony and Kenny arrived earlier they did not walk in together. Tony did not ask her to come with him when he left to go to the supermarket. And the way he offered to go and pick up the last bit of shopping for the barbecue – as if he didn’t want to be with his fiancée – had worried her.
“Don’t let the past win,” Lola said. “Tony is a good man. I’ve heard the church committee want to reward him with a position in church. That’s really good for someone who only followed his mother to church to check out the babes three years ago.”
They were laughing as Jackie came into the garden. Her orange, frilly dress made her seem larger. Unlike Lola and Kenny, her waist was not slim. The shortest in the family, with a plump body that had been made to undergo unsuccessful extreme diets.
She hugged them and started to moan to Lola. Their father had picked her up from the shopping mall and ruined her day by enquiring how her job search was going.
“Why are you complaining to your sister who has a job?” Lola’s father came out of the house carrying a bag of charcoal.
Lola muttered, “Welcome, Daddy,” whilst Kenny rushed over and took the bag from him.
He took Kenny’s former position on the bench and wiped sweat from his forehead. “Both of you should listen to this. Your sister thinks she is going to find a job at the shopping mall. She is there every day. Why didn’t she apply for a job there instead of going to the university? Why waste her time studying stonology for three years.”
“Zoology, Daddy,” Jackie interrupted. “I studied zoology.”
“What is the difference? Enh, tell me.”
“Zoology is the study of animals, Daddy. And I quite enjoyed my course.”
“Says the girl who is scared of dogs.”
Lola tried not to laugh. She knew how sensitive Jackie could be. She didn’t have to hold it in for long as Tony came back from the supermarket and announced that her brothers and their families had arrived.
Tony shut the door behind them. Jackie’s bedroom bore the appearance of a teenager’s room with its pink decor and cream wallpapers. He didn’t regret the twenty pound note he slipped in her hand. Anything for his relationship with her cousin.
“I’d rather we leave the door open,” Kenny said.
“No,” he snapped.
She was sitting on the edge of Jackie’s bed. One hand across her thighs. The other under her chin. Her dress, long and white, was beautiful. He thought of apologising for snapping but relented when he thought of his mother. She left the house for work this morning without seeing him. He knew how much she hated this. “What if that’s the last time you will see me?” she asked him one day during his college years. “Never leave without saying goodbye, son.”
Kenny had gone too before he woke up. When he went over to her house, she stuck to her mother’s side as if they had suddenly become close. When her mother left for her shop, she started rushing about, one hand flattening her hair, her eyes on the clock. She insisted on getting to her uncle’s house early, interrupting him every time he tried to say something.
“I want us to set a date,” Tony rambled on quickly. “Sooner than we planned. This year. Two months’ time. ASAP.”
“What?! I’m definitely not ready. I thought we agreed to wait a while.”
“Listen for one moment, Kehinde. I love you. We are not kids anymore. You have problems I can’t help you with properly outside of marriage, so I think it makes sense that we do it as soon as we can. That way I can be there for you whichever way you decide to go. Counselling at church or with a professional. Whatever helps us achieve normalcy in our relationship. Whatever helps us… in that area.”
“So you can have sex? You want us to get married so you can have sex? You are such a rat!”
“Deep down I know you don’t mean that.”
“No.” He remembered his mother’s disapproving looks when he tried to get Kenny to talk to him at the beginning. This was shortly after her uncle suggested the date. “I’m not interested,” Kenny yelled. “I will be polite because of Uncle. One date. Don’t expect anything else.” Everyone at the car park heard. His mother tutted when she joined him in the car, and perhaps because the age gap between them was only a decade and a half, her advice for him to toughen up worked. The next time he saw Kenny and her family, he greeted them all cordially. As he complimented Jackie’s new hairstyle and her auntie and mother’s sparkly headpieces, he saw Kenny cower.
That afternoon, she was waiting by his car. She didn’t apologise. Hand playing with her hair, she suggested films they could watch on their date.
“I want us to tackle this problem we have, Kehinde. We can safely do it under one roof, so why not.” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what I say though, your mind is made up. You’d rather lose me than admit you have issues.”
“I don’t have issues.”
“End of story then. Have a nice life.” He didn’t mean it. And as he made his way out of the room, he thought she knew that. He hated his tactics but he loved her selfishly. More love than he had ever felt for anyone before. More than he thought he could.
What if she let him go?
He was nearly out of the house before he turned around. His mother was right about him.
How could he be tough with her when acting this tough, this crazy, could wedge the small window she left open, shut. He ignored the women in the sitting room asking about his mother and sped back to Jackie’s room.
She wasn’t there.
He heard someone sobbing in the room he believed was her uncle’s. The one with the brown door in the middle of the hallway.
The door was open. Pastor Osayuwamen was holding his niece. He looked up without letting go of Kenny.
“What is going on, son?”
Kenny withdrew from her uncle and fixed Tony a look he hadn’t received from her before.
“Are you not going to tell me too?” He gestured for him to come in. “Let’s pray and then we can talk.”
“No,” Kenny shook her head. “We can’t fix this. Anthony is a pervert who is only interested in what I can give him. He wants to walk because I don’t want to give him what he wants.”