“Did Tony hurt you?” Her uncle asked. His voice faltered as he said hurt.
Tony was waiting outside. Her uncle had asked him to wait outside after those incriminating words came out of her mouth.
“Pastor… Daddy.” Tony’s eyes were on her uncle but after she said what she said, he had glared at her as if she was someone else. Someone dangerous.
“Get out,” her uncle had growled. “Right now, Anthony.”
At that moment, she knew he would throw Tony out if he had to. If Tony didn’t run out. His tone, bearing and clenched fists took her to the evening when her eloquent uncle gabbled on like someone who didn’t know how to form sentences. Like someone whose brain had suddenly decided to stop working.
Several years ago, it happened. He stammered. Swore to kill Uncle Kola with the wood axe from his shed. And then she had broken down, held on to his legs because her auntie and mother were unable to stop him. He had stopped and she wrapped her arms tightly around him. Relieved. Hurting but relieved. Not because she didn’t want Uncle Kola dead. But because she didn’t want to lose the uncle she felt safe with.
He had been her father -tried his best to be- since he moved to the country. But coming once a week to see her, Taye and their mother was not enough.
Even their mother who slept in the same house as them did not see it. She did not see Kenny’s uniform getting too big for her, how she dropped things whenever Uncle Kola looked at her and how her grades dropped.
She did not believe Taye when she told her. Asking Uncle Kola to hurry home from work as their mother would rather believe her daughter had made something like that up to get away from Uncle Kola’s maths lessons.
“Remember, I believed you when you came to me,” her uncle was now holding her hand, squeezing it. His eyes would not stop searching her. Even when she looked away, at the piles of pamphlets on his study table.
The wardrobe was still the same one that Lola and her tried to sneak in once. The weekend before a prom organised by her school. Lola was keen to help her find a free dress they could take in. Luckily, her uncle caught them and paid for a dress for her.
Anyone that knew her auntie would know it housed rolls of elegant wrappers and beautiful dresses that her mother, the younger sister, would never look at.
The pink dressing table showed her auntie’s elegance. Bottles of luxurious perfumes were displayed on its corners. Her auntie’s hugs always came with this. Smelly scents Kenny took home with her when going home became unbearable.
Strange now, how things only fell apart when they all found out. When the police women came to the house and told them they would be fine now. When her mother swore never to let a man in their house again and Taye retreated into herself.
Her uncle and auntie asked if she would like to live with them. And because no matter how much she straightened her beddings and fluffed up her pillows, it had become hard to fall asleep in her bed, she wanted to say yes.
But on one of those rare occasions Taye looked at her, she had informed her she was looking at colleges and universities on the other side of the country. She planned never to come back home as soon as she turned eighteen. Kenny could not hurt their mother. She stayed. Someone had to.
“Did Tony hurt you?” her uncle squeezed his face tight.
“No,” Kenny turned her face to him but she didn’t meet his eyes. “Tony is a kind, gentle man. I don’t deserve him.”
“Go and find him. Apologise.”
“I don’t deserve him. He can find someone better.”
“There is no one better, my girl. If only you can see yourself the way, we all see you. You will be proud of the lovely, hard-working woman you have become.”
After her uncle let go of her hand, she thanked him and hurried after Tony, past the cluster of children at the bottom of the stairs and a slim man she recognised vaguely from church.
He muttered something about seeing a man run out of the house moments ago when she asked about Tony. He didn’t sound sure. Nor did he prise himself off his phone.
She heard her mother’s voice shouting for her from inside the house and that propelled her forward and outside of the house.
He was in front of her car. Arms folded, jaw determinedly set. His expressions were always easy for her to read. Having a strong, square jaw, medium-thick eyebrows and lips that often crinkled made this easy.
“I was gonna head home. I forgot my car is still at the mechanic’s.”
“We can go back in together.”
“So pastor can throw me out?”
“No, he won’t. I have explained things to him.”
“I need to get out of here, babe. Please thank your uncle for me. I will get a taxi.” He fished out his phone from the back pocket of his pants.
“Please, Anthony. Let’s go somewhere. I’m ready to talk.”
The girl’s cheeks were red, hand over her mouth. Her companion, a young man with golden locks like her had an arm around her. They were not sheltered from the wind and it had blown her hair in her face but Kenny couldn’t help wondering if the girl’s eyes were wet. And if she felt the type of pain in her heart that made her climb in bed as soon as she got back from school all those years ago. The type of pain that made her wonder if dying would hurt more.
She would walk past cafes such as this wishing she had money. Walking slowly, sometimes stopping at bus shelters.
“Do you want to go to mine?” Tony asked. His voice was disarming. He stirred his coffee and leaning forward, proceeded to pour milk from the saucer in her tea cup. “We can call it a day too. Whatever you want.”
“I was assaulted when I was thirteen.” She put her hand out as if it was some sort of shield between them. She didn’t want the look she received from her family members. Nor the uncomfortable silences that plagued meetings between her and James. It wouldn’t have mattered so much if James, Lola’s brother wasn’t one of those that talked too much before what happened. “Don’t do the whole sympathy thing. I’m over it.”
Tony came over and hugged her. His hands cupped her face after he let go of her body. “I’m sorry, babe. I’m sorry this happened to you.” He held her hand after sitting back on his chair. Kissed it in between offering advice she had heard before. About not letting it beat her.
“I’m over it,” she didn’t want him to interrupt her. Wanting instead to share how she felt without the resulting after effects. Without the sadness weighing her down doubling. Or, her guilt, the one she wore around like jewellery surfacing. “Uncle Kola was out of our lives as soon as it all came out. The police were unable to catch up with him and we heard he went back to Nigeria. It doesn’t matter, though. He was only a distant relative of our dad so I don’t bank on ever seeing him again.”
“I’m sure your uncle, auntie and mum will make sure that never happens.”
“My mum looks like one of those mothers that stand up for her children, doesn’t she?” Kenny shut her eyes briefly. The girl and her companion were holding hands now.
“What do you mean?”
“Uncle Kola started with me. I tried to say something but he barely left me alone. He threatened and beat me too. He’d tell mum that I refused to study or something like that. I told myself it was okay as long as he didn’t do anything to my sister. Taye was often at our neighbours’ anyway with her friend. And when he attacked her, one evening whilst I was at a school club, she told me about it. She was the lippy, confident one. And she was the one that told mum whilst I sat there trying to get the words out. Mum didn’t believe her. Taye didn’t like Uncle Kola and mum thought she was trying to get him in trouble.”
“Why would any mother doubt her own child? You’d think that any sane mother would not take the side of a sick bastard over their daughter’s.” He seemed to gather himself, reached for her other hand and kissed it. “So, how did she realise?”
“Uncle Kola had moved out by now. But I was still very scared, he was only living two streets away. He had our house keys and he was everywhere we went. Even whenever I came to see my auntie and uncle. They had moved back to the UK. I barely spoke to Lola or her brothers back then. Jackie was too young and Taye…”
“What about Taye?”
He was repeating his question by the time she managed to dislodge the solid form in her throat. The tea looked milky. Drinking it, however, would not help her forget the look on her sister’s face when she blamed her.
Every so often it would come back to her. To traumatise her. Until she would feel as if all air and energy had drained from her.
“Taye kept to herself. She came home rarely during college and when she started university the only time mum heard from her was when she needed money. Things got so bad before then though. On our sixteenth birthday, Taye refused to hold my hand for our birthday photo. That night I told her I understand. She is hurting, I get it. I’m hurting because of you, she said. According to her, Uncle Kola would never have assaulted her if I had spoken up.” She stopped for a moment and swallowed. “Without thinking about it, I took an overdose that night. Mum’s headache tablets. My uncle…Lola’s father was livid. When I came out of hospital, he demanded answers. I told him. It all came out. They were all there at the house. I wasn’t ashamed anymore. And mum had no choice but to believe it. She rang Uncle Kola to rain curses on him, so that’s how he found out there was no way out and he escaped. Out of our lives for good. It took a while but my uncle and Lola helped me, I forgave mum. It wasn’t her fault. She had three jobs back in those days. Taye and I though… we have never been the same again.”
It wasn’t easy to spot. They were there though. Tears in his eyes. She squeezed his hands.
“Cry-baby, I’m good. I promise.”
“Are you really? Talk to me, cutie.”
“I was. Then seeing Taye again after all these years did something to me.”
They were home early that day. Her mother stirring the jolof rice she was cooking every two minutes. Kenny joined her in the kitchen. Too unsettled to pick up Tony’s phone calls. She would later learn he wanted to come over to meet her twin sister.
Taye arrived with Polly, a baby she named after her childhood doll. She was mostly silent, so much so that Kenny was grateful she brought Mat, her fiancé. A PHD student with one tattoo and two earrings. When he went to the toilet, Kenny busied herself with Polly. Perhaps it was the baby’s gurgling sounds or the quickness to her mother’s strides. She found herself telling her sister they could look after Polly one weekend.
“Nah. I wouldn’t trust you with her, Kenny.” Those words would not have hurt her so much if Mat had not come back into the room at that moment.
Lola wanted to stay at her parent’s house. She would have if her husband had not turned up to pick her up. Now as his singing voice rose over the shower’s spurting sound, she wondered if Jackie and her father had started to argue again. If he had asked what she was doing with her life. And if he had started to tell stories of how he fetched water for a living when he was young.
She had been happy in their midst. And even Auntie Kemi’s questions about Kenny who left without a word did not weigh her down. “Have you noticed how she is these days? Do you think it is because of her job? Omolola, I’m worried. Please continue to talk to her. Or else this relationship she has with Anthony will not go anywhere. Jo, my dear.”
She could no longer hear the hum of the shower. He had stopped singing too. The song, Here, I Am Lord was once her favourite.
The first time she saw John staring at her, she was singing that song. Leading the choir. Free spirited. Happy. And when she simply nodded to John when he approached her, it was her mother who reminded her that she had turned thirty-one.
Still, she made John wait. It wasn’t that she thought she was too good for him. Kenny had pointed out she looked too beautiful to be a pastor’s wife.
Examining her face: striking features, pouty lips and small nose as she moisturized it, she wondered if she should have made John wait a bit longer.
He came to bed armed with a pleasant smile. It reminded her of his gentleness during their courtship. How he held her hand and opened doors for her. How he enjoyed the courtship and counselling sessions they attended with her father to prepare them for marriage.
“Osaivbie, are you listening?” Her husband tapped her on her back. “Ivie!”
“Sorry,” she screwed the lid of the moisturiser back on and climbed in bed to join him.
“What were you thinking of? Should I be jealous?”
“One of those doctors at your work?”
“I was thinking of work, if you must know. As in missing work.”
“Missing work?” John shook his head as he laughed. “Come and work at our hospital, on our ward and next time they say take annual leave, you will say thank you sir.”
“I just have too much free time on my hands.”
He pulled her to him so that her head ended on his chest. “I understand. But you can always take on more responsibilities in church. You can help with preparing our engaged couples. You can start with your cousin. Your father and Tony are ready to set a date. It is just your cousin they are waiting for.”
Lola could imagine Kenny’s face. The expletives from her. “I don’t think I’m ready. I’m not even getting it right as a wife yet.”
“If you are talking about our little disagreement last night…” He kissed her forehead, “I should have behaved better. That doesn’t mean you are not a good wife. You are really trying.”
“You are the best, Ivie.”
“If you say so.”
“You are.” He slid one hand underneath her nightie. “Which is why I want us to concentrate on spending time together. No more night shifts when you go back to work. I want us to fulfil God’s wishes in our life. I want you to give me a child.”
Tony’s hand was around her as he opened the door with his right hand.
They walked and talked until their feet ached and there was nothing left to be said. She didn’t want to go home. He didn’t want her too either. So when her uncle called to say her mother was worried, he had simply said, “she is with me.” The missed calls, one from Lola and three from Jackie, he ignored.
“Are you sure you don’t mind me staying here tonight?” She held on to his hand. Her voice was the uncertain one that she used earlier. The unsure one he wasn’t accustomed to. It sometimes made an appearance.
“It is fine.” He knew why she asked. They had always avoided spending the night at the house if his mum was around. “You are my priority, I’m sure mum will have no problem with it. When she gets back to wherever she has gone to, that is.” He kissed her. On her forehead then a lingering one on her cheek. “I will help you get through this, okay?”
“But I can’t marry you. I need to get myself sorted first. What would be the point of marrying you if I can’t give you the things you need.”
“I’m not bothered. I love you, Kehinde. Having you with me will be enough. I promise.”
“No, sweetheart. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. You are going to want what every husband should get. You are going to want children.”
“I’m not bothered about children. I promise.” They heard footsteps from the sitting room. He heard Kenny gasp as the light from the sitting room came on and the door opened. He hoped his mother’s face bore the tell-tale signs of sleep. There were none as she regarded them with a curious glare.
“We didn’t know you were back, ma.” Kenny had never referred to his mum as ma before.
“What were you two saying about children?” His mother asked. But it was on Kenny’s face she focused on.